The Morning Call sleeps in

The Morning Call sleeps in

The following is a reprint of today's edition of our flagship publication, Politics, Et Cetera, which is generally proprietary to clients.  Because we are not writing The Morning Call this week and because we know that some of you on this list are not clients but could be, we thought we'd share this here today.

Those of you who are on both mailing lists may ignore this (or ignore the PEC e-mail, whichever you prefer).    

“I have no learning, and you have much,” said Milly; “I am not used to think, and you are always thinking. May I tell you why it seems to me a good thing for us, to remember wrong that has been done us?”

“Yes.”

“That we may forgive it.”

Charles Dickens, The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain, 1848.

We're Soooooo Scrooged

So, last week, we participated in what has become something of a family Christmas ritual.  It’s not officially a “tradition” because it’s of too recent a vintage and because we don’t do it every year.  Nevertheless, we perform this ritual occasionally and sometimes even complete it.

Anyway, one evening last week, we watched Disney’s 2009 “motion-capture animation” version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  It’s not a great film, but the animation is visually stunning, and it does co-star Gary Oldman, who is, quite probably, the greatest actor of his generation.

The following evening, we watched the 1992 film, “A Muppet Christmas Carol,” which is the lovely and talented Mrs. Soukup’s favorite Christmas movie.  And while it too may not be the greatest movie ever made, it’s fun.  More to the point, it is far superior to the Disney version for at least two reasons (even if you don’t happen to be a fan of the Muppets).  First, it stars, as Scrooge, the inimitable Michael Caine, quite probably the greatest actor of his generation.  And second, because it stars Caine as Scrooge, it doesn’t star Jim Carey, perhaps the least talented and creepiest actor of any generation.

Finally, over the weekend, we watched “Scrooged,” which is not just the greatest big-screen rendition of Dickens’ classic, but is also one of the best movies of all time.  For starters, there’s Bill Murray.  Then there’s Bobcat Goldthwait.  And David Johansen.  And Carol Kane.  And if that’s not enough, there’s also Karen Allen, who is all but forgotten to history, despite playing the female lead/love interest in two of the greatest movies ever made.

If you haven’t guessed by now, we like A Christmas Carol (and Dickens, generally), which is rightly one of the best known and most influential pieces in English literature.  It is also, we think, one of the most misunderstood.

We’ll admit that we didn’t always feel this way.  In fact, for a long time, we didn’t care for the story.  One key plot-point rubbed us the wrong way.  In brief, we didn’t understand what made Ebenezer Scrooge so special.  Why, we wondered, should he get the second chance that Abraham denied to the brothers of the Rich Man (i.e. Dives) in the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man from the Gospel of Luke. 

“There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day.

And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. Dogs even used to come and lick his sores.

When the poor man died, he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried, and from the netherworld, where he was in torment, he raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side.

And he cried out, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am suffering torment in these flames.’

Abraham replied, ‘My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented.

Moreover, between us and you a great chasm is established to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go from our side to yours or from your side to ours.’

He said, ‘Then I beg you, father, send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they too come to this place of torment.’

But Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.’

He said, ‘Oh no, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’

Then Abraham said, ‘If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.’”

If the Rich Man’s brothers have Moses and the prophets, then Scrooge has them too, plus Jesus himself and the entirety of Christian history.  And if those brothers were unworthy to be warned by Lazarus, then how and why should Scrooge have earned the warning of his dead business partner Jacob Marley?

"I wear the chain I forged in life," replied the Ghost. "I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it….

"I am here to-night to warn you, that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate.  A chance and hope of my procuring, Ebenezer."…

"Without their visits," said the Ghost, "you cannot hope to shun the path I tread….”

The chains and Marley’s description of them are a big part of the dramatic presentations of A Christmas Carol, which only makes sense, since they are, well, dramatic.  They make for good theater, in other words.

At the same time, the chains are a distraction as well, an element of the tale that causes viewers to focus their attention on motives and consequences that were not necessarily met to attract that much attention.

In truth, you see, Marley’s chains are irrelevant.  And so, for that matter, is Marley’s warning about the afterlife.  The afterlife has NOTHING whatsoever to do with the ghosts’ visits or with the trajectory of Scrooge’s rehabilitation.  The centrality of the chains and the afterlife is a cinematic creation, out of place with the literary tone of the tale.

Once we came to grips with this and with the fact that the whole “Christian resurrection allegory” analysis of the story is largely mistaken, then we were able to understand and appreciate the story for what it actually is: a parable about the importance of mercy and forgiveness.

It was not our intention today to write a defense of Ebenezer Scrooge, one of the most reviled characters in English literature.  And yet, Scrooge does deserve a defense of sorts.  It is not at all difficult to understand why the man is so callous and hates Christmas so profoundly.

In contemporary adaptations of A Christmas Carol, the Ghost of Christmas Present, who is fun and gregarious, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, who is horrifying and traumatizing, generally garner most of the attention.  But in the original telling, the Ghost of Christmas Past is, quite clearly, the key to understanding Scrooge and understanding the virtues necessary to enable his transformation.  Dickens writes:

They walked along the road, Scrooge recognising every gate, and post, and tree; until a little market-town appeared in the distance, with its bridge, its church, and winding river. Some shaggy ponies now were seen trotting towards them with boys upon their backs, who called to other boys in country gigs and carts, driven by farmers. All these boys were in great spirits, and shouted to each other, until the broad fields were so full of merry music, that the crisp air laughed to hear it….

The jocund travellers came on; and as they came, Scrooge knew and named them every one. Why was he rejoiced beyond all bounds to see them. Why did his cold eye glisten, and his heart leap up as they went past? Why was he filled with gladness when he heard them give each other Merry Christmas, as they parted at cross-roads and-bye ways, for their several homes? What was merry Christmas to Scrooge? Out upon merry Christmas! What good had it ever done to him?

"The school is not quite deserted," said the Ghost. "A solitary child, neglected by his friends, is left there still."

Scrooge said he knew it. And he sobbed….

They went, the Ghost and Scrooge, across the hall, to a door at the back of the house. It opened before them, and disclosed a long, bare, melancholy room, made barer still by lines of plain deal forms and desks. At one of these a lonely boy was reading near a feeble fire; and Scrooge sat down upon a form, and wept to see his poor forgotten self as he used to be.

Not a latent echo in the house, not a squeak and scuffle from the mice behind the paneling, not a drip from the half-thawed water-spout in the dull yard behind, not a sigh among the leafless boughs of one despondent poplar, not the idle swinging of an empty store-house door, no, not a clicking in the fire, but fell upon the heart of Scrooge with a softening influence, and gave a freer passage to his tears.

Scrooge is alone, every year, abandoned and “neglected by his friends.”  Scrooge’s friends know that he is alone, that he has nowhere to go, that he has been cast out by his family, and that he will spend the entire Christmas break at the school, with nothing and no one to keep him company, save the characters in the books he reads.  But not one of them ever does a thing about it.  Not one of them ever offers him a gift or meal or a chance to spend the holiday away from the school.  Not one of them ever shows him any kindness at Christmas at all.  “What,” indeed, “was Merry Christmas to Scrooge?”

And as we learn from Dickens in the next few passages, Scrooge’s friends are not the only ones who neglect him.  He is not, like Harry Potter, an orphan forced to stay at school for lack of anywhere else to go.  Instead, as we said, he has been cast out by his family.  He has been abandoned at the school by his father, who is as cold and cruel as Ebenezer was or ever would be.

We learn this, of course, from Scrooge’s beloved kid sister Fan, who shows up one Christmas to fetch her brother and bring him home:

Scrooge's former self grew larger at the words, and the room became a little darker and more dirty. The panels shrunk, the windows cracked; fragments of plaster fell out of the ceiling, and the naked laths were shown instead; but how all this was brought about, Scrooge knew no more than you do. He only knew that it was quite correct; that everything had happened so; that there he was, alone again, when all the other boys had gone home for the jolly holidays.

He was not reading now, but walking up and down despairingly. Scrooge looked at the Ghost, and with a mournful shaking of his head, glanced anxiously towards the door.

It opened; and a little girl, much younger than the boy, came darting in, and putting her arms about his neck, and often kissing him, addressed him as her "Dear, dear brother."

"I have come to bring you home, dear brother!" said the child, clapping her tiny hands, and bending down to laugh. "To bring you home, home, home!"

"Home, little Fan?" returned the boy.

"Yes!" said the child, brimful of glee. "Home, for good and all. Home, for ever and ever. Father is so much kinder than he used to be, that home's like Heaven! He spoke so gently to me one dear night when I was going to bed, that I was not afraid to ask him once more if you might come home; and he said Yes, you should; and sent me in a coach to bring you. And you're to be a man!" said the child, opening her eyes, "and are never to come back here; but first, we're to be together all the Christmas long, and have the merriest time in all the world."

"You are quite a woman, little Fan!" exclaimed the boy.

She clapped her hands and laughed, and tried to touch his head; but being too little, laughed again, and stood on tiptoe to embrace him. Then she began to drag him, in her childish eagerness, towards the door; and he, nothing loth to go, accompanied her.

Fan’s words teach us much.  Ebenezer’s father was cruel (“Father is so much kinder than he used to be…”).  In his cruelty, the elder Scrooge alone had decided to abandon his son at the decrepit boarding school.  Fan had asked their father before about bringing Ebenezer home, only for her pleas to be rejected and rejected harshly (“I was not afraid to ask him once more if you might come home…”).  We also learn that Ebenezer’s mother is either dead or too afraid to stand up to her husband, and that Ebenezer is NOT going home “for ever and ever,” (despite Fan’s insistence) but only for the holidays, before he is to be apprenticed, presumably to Fezziwig (“And you're to be a man!” said the child, opening her eyes, “and are never to come back here; but first, we're to be together all the Christmas long…).

We also learn from our travels with the Ghost of Christmas Past that Scrooge’s troubled childhood contributed pointedly to his obsessive early adulthood.  Fan, the only person Scrooge loved and who loved him back, died as a young woman, presumably while giving birth to her one child, Scrooge’s nephew Fred, whom Ebenezer therefore detests.

Additionally, like his creator (Dickens, not God), Scrooge lived in constant fear of poverty, perpetual worry that his earnings would not be enough to keep him and his family alive and well.  Dickens’ own father, John, was sent to debtors’ prison when Charles was only twelve.  Charles – the oldest of the Dickens boys (two years younger than his beloved sister, Fanny) – was given the tasks of begging friends and family for financial help and of taking his family’s possessions to be sold at the nearby pawnbroker (thereby setting the imagery for Joe’s scavenger shop, which Scrooge visits with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come: “Far in this den of infamous resort, there was a low-browed, beetling shop, below a pent-house roof, where iron, old rags, bottles, bones, and greasy offal, were bought. Upon the floor within, were piled up heaps of rusty keys, nails, chains, hinges, files, scales, weights, and refuse iron of all kinds. Secrets that few would like to scrutinise were bred and hidden in mountains of unseemly rags, masses of corrupted fat, and sepulchres of bones.”)

The point here is that Dickens knew what poverty was and he knew that it could be soul-crushing.  Although he writes Scrooge’s nephew Fred as a sympathetic character, there is little doubt that Dickens himself likely felt a greater kinship with Scrooge than with the nephew.  Scrooge rightly feared poverty in Victorian London as a cruel and repugnant fate, while Fred did not fear it enough.

In turn, this suggests that the conventional interpretation of the collapse of Scrooge’s love life may be somewhat different from what Dickens intended.  The Ghost of Christmas Past, recall, also shows Scrooge the moment (at Christmas, natch) when “Belle” ends her engagement to Ebenezer, telling him that she knows that he has “displaced” her with “another idol,” a “golden one.”  Given Belle’s words and her rebuke of Scrooge’s fixation on business, the standard interpretation is that Scrooge’s avarice is the sole cause of Belle’s pain and of the end of their relationship.  And while there is no question that Scrooge has grown obsessed with “Gain,” there is also the question of Belle’s character.

Dickens goes out of his way to point out that Belle arrived for her meeting with Scrooge in a “mourning-dress,” which is an odd and oft-overlooked detail.  In Victorian England, a mourning-dress would have been an expensive non-necessity, which seems contrary to the popular perception of Belle’s character and her insistence that money didn’t matter at all to her.  Additionally, the dress would have indicated the recent of a close family member, which is a plot point that goes entirely unexplained.

Dickens also makes a point of having the Ghost take Scrooge to Belle’s home many years later, to “a room, not very large or handsome, but full of comfort.”  There, Belle and her husband have a good laugh – at Scrooge and his loneliness:

"Belle," said the husband, turning to his wife with a smile, "I saw an old friend of yours this afternoon."

"Who was it?"

"Guess!"

"How can I? Tut, don't I know," she added in the same breath, laughing as he laughed. "Mr. Scrooge."

"Mr. Scrooge it was. I passed his office window; and as it was not shut up, and he had a candle inside, I could scarcely help seeing him. His partner lies upon the point of death, I hear; and there he sat alone. Quite alone in the world, I do believe."

Does any of this justify Scrooge’s behavior or his detestation of Christmas?  No, clearly it does not.  But when taken together, it all explains his behavior.  Scrooge was “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner,” but he was, nevertheless, a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner who had every reason to hate Christmas-time and to resent others’ happiness during the season.  His father was a cruel man who shipped him off to boarding school and let him rot there alone over Christmas, EVERY Christmas.  The only member of his family who cared about him was his sister, who rescued him one Christmas but died not long thereafter.  And the only other person who ever said she loved him also dumped him at Christmas, insisting that his concerns about avoiding poverty were unfounded, although for reasons that are not especially clear.

To be honest, we kinda get it.  In Scrooge’s position, we might hate Christmas too.

And yet…

Despite his obvious pretexts, Scrooge yields to the ghosts and finds the strength to “get over it” – ALL of it.  Or to put it another way, Scrooge yields to the power of mercy; he grants forgiveness to those who wronged him and to the conditions that clearly deformed his perceptions of Christmas, of humanity, of business, and of the relationship between industry and life.  He forgives his father, who, presumably, had his own revelation and offered his own forgiveness.  He forgives Fred, who did nothing wrong and professes confusion at his uncle’s dislike of him.  He forgives God for taking Fan from him.  And he even forgives Belle, who, unlike the others, is not entirely blameless and does not seek forgiveness.  Scrooge makes his peace with all the wrongs done to him and promises to make good on all the wrongs he has done to others.  As he seeks out the charity collectors, he tells them that his donation this year includes a “great many back-payments” as well.  He awakens from his dream, telling himself that he “will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future!” which is to say that he will always remember what he has done and what has been done to him, in order to remember the mercy shown to him and the mercy he must show to others.

As it turns out, then, Jacob Marley’s appearance in Scrooge’s room was a vital part of the story, not because of his chains or his expressed desire to save Ebenezer from Hell, but because of his description to his old partner of what the focus of his business truly is and should be:

"But you were always a good man of business, Jacob," faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.

"Business!" cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again.  "Mankind was my business.  The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business.  The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!"

The common welfare, charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence are each man’s personal business, each man’s responsibility, each man’s duty, each man’s salvation.

THIS is the lesson of A Christmas Carol.  THIS is what Marley and the other ghosts endeavored to tell Scrooge.  THIS is what makes for a joyous Christmas and a happy life.  THIS is what Aristotle would have called eudaimonia.

So…why should you care?

Human existence has ALWAYS been torn between the virtues of justice and mercy.  In the Western theological and natural law traditions, however, this conflict is viewed as superficial.  TRUE justice is impossible without mercy.  Justice MUST be tempered by mercy in order to reflect the natural order or the face of the just and merciful Creator.  This is, in fact, the very foundational principle of Christianity.  “For the wages of sin is death,” we are told, “but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  Because we sin, we should, justly, be condemned.  But instead, God, in His mercy, gave his Son to die to sin on our behalf.  Justice, tempered by mercy is, as we say, THE fundamental Christian idea, the entire point of the faith.

Of course, like most fundamental Christian ideas, this one was the culmination of some two-thousand-plus years of growth and maturation in the fertile sands surrounding the Mediterranean.  It may be a little simplistic to suggest that this unification of justice with mercy is what distinguished the early Hellenic and Jewish cultures from their contemporaries and what continues to distinguish the Roman and Christian traditions from other cultural histories – but only a little.  Justice tempered by mercy is one of the enduring themes of Western antiquity, one of the recurring ideas that united the nations of the region into one, enduring moral and cultural tradition.

Consider, for example, Sophocles’ “Antigone.” The point of the play is that purely man-made justice, rendered without mercy, without even consideration of the possibility of forgiveness is not justice at all.  It is, rather, an abomination, a perversion of justice that produces nothing but tragedy. 

Yea, for these laws were not ordained of Zeus,

And she who sits enthroned with gods below,

Justice, enacted not these human laws.

Nor did I deem that thou, a mortal man,

Could'st by a breath annul and override

The immutable unwritten laws of Heaven.

They were not born today nor yesterday;

They die not; and none knoweth whence they sprang.

In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge appears, at least superficially, to be justified in his hatred of Christmas, in his dislike of the nephew who took his beloved sister from him, in his hard-heartedness toward those who celebrate the love and joy of the season that, for so long and in so many ways, made him so miserable.  But Scrooge’s justice is like Creon’s, justice that is rendered only by man, only on man’s terms, and without the application of mercy and forgiveness.  And the spirits teach Scrooge what Antigone and the fates taught Creon, that such pseudo-justice leads only to tragedy and death – Scrooge’s, Marley’s, Tiny Tim’s, Antigone’s, Haemon’s, Eurydice’s, and so on.

Do you know who Jimmy Galligan is?  If you don’t, that’s OK.  He’s not important.  He’s just the Scrooge du jour.  There are, literally millions like him.  And when we’ve forgotten him and those upon whom he delivered “justice,” there will be other Scrooges to take his place.

Anyway, Galligan is an 18-year-old kid from Leesburg, Virginia, a town just outside of Washington, DC, best known for its outlet mall.  Galligan is also very much an heir to Scrooge’s righteous justice and Creon’s self-absorbed justice, as the New York Times noted last week:

Jimmy Galligan was in history class last school year when his phone buzzed with a message. Once he clicked on it, he found a three-second video of a white classmate looking into the camera and uttering an anti-Black racial slur.

The slur, he said, was regularly hurled in classrooms and hallways throughout his years in the Loudoun County school district. He had brought the issue up to teachers and administrators but, much to his anger and frustration, his complaints had gone nowhere.

So he held on to the video, which was sent to him by a friend, and made a decision that would ricochet across Leesburg, Va., a town named for an ancestor of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee and whose school system had fought an order to desegregate for more than a decade after the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling.

“I wanted to get her where she would understand the severity of that word,” Mr. Galligan, 18, whose mother is Black and father is white, said of the classmate who uttered the slur, Mimi Groves. He tucked the video away, deciding to post it publicly when the time was right….

Mr. Galligan had not seen the video before receiving it last school year, when he and Ms. Groves were seniors. By then, she was a varsity cheer captain who dreamed of attending the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, whose cheer team was the reigning national champion. When she made the team in May, her parents celebrated with a cake and orange balloons, the university’s official color.

The next month, as protests were sweeping the nation after the police killing of George Floyd, Ms. Groves, in a public Instagram post, urged people to “protest, donate, sign a petition, rally, do something” in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“You have the audacity to post this, after saying the N-word,” responded someone whom Ms. Groves said she did not know.

Her alarm at the stranger’s comment turned to panic as friends began calling, directing her to the source of a brewing social media furor. Mr. Galligan, who had waited until Ms. Groves had chosen a college, had publicly posted the video that afternoon. Within hours, it had been shared to Snapchat, TikTok and Twitter, where furious calls mounted for the University of Tennessee to revoke its admission offer….

The consequences were swift. Over the next two days, Ms. Groves was removed from the university’s cheer team. She then withdrew from the school under pressure from admissions officials, who told her they had received hundreds of emails and phone calls from outraged alumni, students and the public….

And, of course, the pièce de résistance:

For his role, Mr. Galligan said he had no regrets. “If I never posted that video, nothing would have ever happened,” he said. And because the internet never forgets, the clip will always be available to watch.

“I’m going to remind myself, you started something,” he said with satisfaction. “You taught someone a lesson.”

It is abundantly clear that Jimmy Galligan believes that he has served the cause of justice, meting out a punishment that perfectly fits the crime.  It is also abundantly clear that the New York Times agrees that justice was served.  After all, Leesburg is named for an ancestor of Robert E. Lee’s and didn’t desegregate its schools until 1968, which obviously means that this girl, who has no known blood ties to Lee and whose parents may not have been born in 1968, deserves to get her ass handed to her, good and hard.

This is what passes for “justice” today.

Was 15-year-old Ms. Groves an idiot?  Sure.  But what 15-year-old isn’t?  Was she callous and unkind?  Probably.  But again…let he who was without sin at 15 cast the first stone (a phrase uttered, fittingly enough, in support of mercy and forgiveness).

“Cancel culture,” as it’s called, is the rejection of mercy.  It is the pursuit of superficial justice, absent the temperance of self-reflection and forgiveness.  It is the overt and unashamed embrace of the pre-Ghost Scroogian ethic.  And as such, it is also the clear and intentional rejection of the foundational principle of Western Civilization and everything associated with it.

In his essay on the Galligan-Groves story, Rod Dreher calls Galligan a “moral monster.”  That is, we suppose, not an entirely inapt description.  At the same time, however, Galligan is not exactly an outlier here.  He is the practitioner of the moral code with which he and millions of others have been indoctrinated their entire lives.  This moral code professes to seek “social justice,” and, in pursuit thereof, deliberately rejects mercy as a mere canard, a tool utilized by the dominant classes to maintain their political, social, and cultural hegemony.  The virtue that, more or less, created the West is roundly reviled by the devotees of social justice, who increasingly dominate ALL of our cultural institutions and much of our politics.  Mercy and forgiveness are nowhere to be found in our contemporary morality, and so they are nowhere to be found in our contemporary politics. 

In a tweet sent the day after Christmas, President-elect Joe Biden wrote “After a year of pain and loss, it’s time to unite, heal, and build.”  In response, the very Left-leaning comedian David Cross, tweeted (without the asterisks), “F**k that. I want blood.”

As Cross noted in several subsequent tweets, he was, obviously, joking.  Except that he wasn’t.  Not really.  If Cross were the king of the world and could mete out justice as he saw fit, he would indeed want blood, albeit of a metaphorical variety.  He would, as they say, show no mercy.  Because that’s what our society has come to believe about justice, that it is the OPPOSITE of mercy.

We’ll be honest with you: we don’t really expend a whole lot of energy worrying about how to get people like David Cross and Jimmy Galligan to repent and thereby to save their souls.  Like Jacob Marley, we’re more concerned about getting them to understand the criticality of mercy and forgiveness.  But there is no Antigone today.  And nor is there “a strange figure -- like a child: yet not so like a child as like an old man, viewed through some supernatural medium, which gave him the appearance of having receded from the view, and being diminished to a child's proportions.”

If there were, we’d all probably see considerably less tragedy and destruction over the coming years.

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