Thanks to countless film adaptations, there are few people not familiar with Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, even if they’ve never actually read it. The name “Scrooge” entered the lexicon as a synonym for “miser,” just as Dickens’ own name morphed into an adjective denoting extreme poverty. The injustices and outright cruelties of the Industrial Revolution against which he railed throughout his work find their mirror in our own time, when the positively sickening income disparity between rich and poor is at its highest in at least 80 years. That we are encouraged to buy and consume far beyond our means during this, the holiday season, by corporations who share the blame for many of our economic woes (yes, that means you, behemoth retailer whose name starts with “W” and ends with “Mart”) would have Dickens rolling in his grave.
One of Dickens’ great talents is manipulating his readers’ sympathies. Who doesn’t feel sorry for poor, crippled Tiny Tim, fated to die as a result of the poverty inflicted by Scrooge upon the Cratchits unless that wretched old man changes his ways? Who doesn’t want to kick Scrooge in the balls for being such a greedy, insufferable jerk? Let’s be honest, if Scrooge were transplanted to modern-day America, he’d be running the Tea Party, excoriating the poor for their laziness while holding down wages so that climbing out of the poverty pit is virtually impossible, thus ensuring a permanent underclass for the wealthy to stomp on. Scrooge’s relevance to America’s current predicament makes this book more timely than it’s been probably since its publication. The most frightening development since Dickens’ time is that so many of the poor have been been convinced that they, not the tax-dodging millionaires and mega-corporations, are the real problem. They listen to the people with the money tell them that they are lazy, stupid, worthless, and they believe it. Worse, they cling to the “bootstraps” delusion pontificated by any number of conservative blowhards; they aren’t like those “other” poor people–they work hard, damn it, and someday it’s going to pay off. Those who turn to social safety nets obviously have a character flaw. Fostered by a heinous hard-right political shift during the previous decade (“compassionate conservatism” is an oxymoron if there ever was one), the poor have been turned against each other.
When we reached that point, the wealthy had already won.
At this stage of my life, dangling over the precipice of middle age, the holiday season is to me nothing more than a nausea-inducing orgy of greed and consumerism. The religious aspect of the holiday lost its meaning long before I became an atheist. Today I see people ungrateful for the things they’re given; I see an appalling sense of entitlement from people who don’t have to scrape money together for this ritualistic approval-seeking from their loved ones; I see people being trampled, beaten, and pepper-sprayed over cheap plastic crap. And for what? For this: to maintain the illusion that they have more in common with their wealthy corporate and political masters than with those icky poor people. Poor people can’t afford flat-screen TVs and video game consoles. Never mind the debt slavery–hey, look over there! It’s on sale! And so we happily hand over what little we have to those who control us, convinced that one day we’ll be just like them. That we’ll be anything except poor, whom we are told to despise.
There may no longer be debtors’ prisons and workhouses, but–in this country, at least–bigotry and outright hatred of the poor has reached unprecedented levels. Scrooge had a change of heart, but only for the most cynical and self-serving of reasons–he didn’t want to die hated and alone. Did he genuinely care about the poor after the spirits’ visits? The text is ambiguous on that account. Dickens, great social commentator and critic that he was, would doubtless be skeptical; rather, Scrooge’s conversion reads more like wishful thinking from a man who knows altruism amongst the wealthy to be a miracle indeed.