Jim Kershner: Scrooge would feel right at home today
Have we become the Bah Humbug Nation?
I’m convinced of it, having just reacquainted myself with the mean and selfish stylings of Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” (and its current stage adaptation at the Spokane Civic Theatre).
Scrooge’s shriveled heart, in his pre-ghost, pre-conversion lifetime, reminded me, somehow, of a large swath of America.
Here’s the way two charity solicitors appealed to Scrooge’s nonexistent “liberality” on the day before Christmas:
“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”
“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.
Taken aback, the charity solicitors allowed that, yes there were plenty of prisons, but …
“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”
The “Union workhouses” were prison-like state poorhouses where orphans, widows and other destitutes were confined and forced to work. The two gentlemen told Scrooge they wished they “could say they were not .”
“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigor, then?” said Scrooge.
“Both very busy, sir.”
“Oh, I was afraid from what you said at first that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”
The gentlemen forged ahead, asking how much he wanted to contribute.
“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.
“You wish to be anonymous?”
“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned – they cost enough, and those who are badly off must go there.”
“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”
“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it and decrease the surplus population.”
I remember a time, not long ago, when I could read this passage and feel that civilization had advanced. We did not put the poor to work powering treadmills. We did not put people in jail for the crime of being poor. We did not suggest that they might as well die.
We were beyond that. We believed in lifting the downtrodden, not grinding them into the sidewalk.
Here’s a passage from a recent Republican debate, sponsored by the Tea Party Express:
Wolf Blitzer: “What do you tell a guy who is sick, goes into a coma and doesn’t have health insurance? Who pays for his coverage? … Are you saying society should just let him die?”
Several members of the audience: “Yeah!” (Cheers).
Candidate Ron Paul, to whom the question was directed, did not endorse that mean-spirited view, nor did the other candidates. Yet it was still a chilling reminder that there are plenty of people in America who do endorse it, and loudly.
In my gloomiest moments, I’m afraid an entire swath of Americans are out-Scrooging even Scrooge. Some, in their anti-government zeal, probably would consider even a workhouse a government handout. Why not let the poor suffer and die on the streets, where it won’t cost any tax dollars?
Scrooge is the 1840s equivalent of a 1-percenter, with no interest in sharing his good fortune with the 99-percenters.
“What right do you have to be merry?” Scrooge snarls at his nephew. “What reason have you to be merry? You’re poor enough.”
The nephew comes back with: “What reason have you to be dismal? What reason have you to be morose? You’re rich enough.”
Scrooge eventually sums it all up with this pronouncement: “It’s not my business. It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s.”
And there you have it, narcissism and laissez-faire economics summed up quite neatly.
Scrooge, like America, is quite smug about this. Until …
The ghosts show up. Talk about an eye-opener. How many “ghosts” will have to visit us before we come to our senses?
Jim Kershner can be reached at (509) 459-5493 or firstname.lastname@example.org.