The Political Lessons Of A Christmas Carol

I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round, as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.

-- A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens

I know it's fashionable to hate the holidays. I think I even heard my neighbor (the one with the dogs who bark at me every morning) mutter “Bah Humbug,” as he passed by in the hallway today.

I refuse, however, to be robbed of my Christmas spirit.  Merry Christmas, I say. And a Happy New Year!

That is why, every year, I sit with my children in the living room (we can’t sit around the hearth because we don’t have hearth) to read A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. We take turns reading the various parts aloud – Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, Jacob Marley, Tiny Time and of course Scrooge.

[[Editor's Note: Want to see some WNYC stars perform A Christmas Carol? Of course you do.]]

I don't know how long this will last. My daughter is almost a teenager and will no doubt soon be too cool for such corny family traditions as this; but, for now, the age-old tale helps to remind them that Christmas is about generosity of spirit, kindness and love – not gift-getting.

But wait. What’s all that nonsense? Isn’t this supposed to be a political website? Why all the prattling on about kindness and love?

Well, hang onto your antlers. Don’t get your jingle bells in a bunch. This is a political post.  Dickens was a political writer, and A Christmas Carol is a political story.

During his time spent in the US, in the 1840s, Dickens advocated for the abolition of slavery and for copyright laws. Upon returning to London, in the late 1840s and 50s, he was so appalled by the poverty he saw that he felt the need to use his work, which was serialized in newspapers, to open the eyes of the upper class.

Dickens had experienced poverty first-hand; his spendthrift father was briefly imprisoned for debt and Charles himself was forced to labor in a workhouse for eight months when he was eleven-years-old, an experience that evidently scarred him for life. Ultimately, A Christmas Carol is intended as a morality tale about ignoring poverty and turning a blind eye to people's problems when you have money to spare.

What impresses me most about Dickens’ work is how relevant it is to our own times. Scrooge would fit in quite nicely with fiscal conservatives here in the recessionary United States of 2010. Scrooge was a man of business, plain and simple. He was not dishonest. He did not cheat to make his fortune. Scrooge didn’t drink, fornicate, or have any other of the vices of note. He was a pinnacle of the American dream, in a way.

When asked to share some of his considerable wealth with the poor, however, Scrooge wonders aloud about the “Union Workhouses” and prisons. When told that many poor people would rather die than go there, Scrooge suggests they get on with their demise and “decrease the surplus population.”

Like former Governor Mike Huckabee, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and others conservatives with whom I’ve debated – on Fox News and elsewhere – about the need for shared sacrifice in difficult times, Scrooge begrudged sharing any of the wealth he’d accumulated, suggesting that the poor are that way because they haven’t worked hard enough. Some go so far as to suggest the poor remain poor because they enjoy the amenities of their poverty!

I say to them all what the Ghost of Christmas Present said to old Scrooge:

'Man,' said the Ghost, 'if man you be in heart, … , forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man's child.

The child, of course, was Tiny Tim, the boy who famously declares “God bless us, every one.”

We never learn, of course, if Scrooge’s Christmas Eve adventure is reality, or the guilty nightmarish fantasy of an old man.

We do know, however, that come 2011, the cold hard reality of 10% percent unemployment, a 1.3 trillion dollar deficit and a budget deal, good only through March 2011, will require real compromise in Washington.  For that, lawmakers – every one -- on both sides of the aisle will need Tiny Tim’s blessing, indeed!

Jami Floyd is a broadcast journalist and legal analyst for cable and network news, and is a frequent contributor to WNYC Radio. She is former advisor in the Clinton administration and served as a surrogate for the Obama campaign on legal and domestic policy issues.