My favorite 19th century social critic of industrial capitalism,
Charles Dickens, once wrote, "like you, I hope for better things. I
will pray for them, and believe that they will arrive." (Florence to
Walter as he leaves. Dombey and Son, 1846. Dombey and Son is a story
about the destruction of the family cause by greed and industrialization. )
Many Americans, as well as many around the world, believe that the
better things they've been hoping for have arrived. A new president
has inspired hope for some and fear for others. Which reminds me of
another Dickens's tale, and another analogy. As Christmas is just
around the corner, I think about "A Christmas Carol" and how the
Spirit of Christmas Present warns Scrooge to beware of the children,
Ignorance and Want.
"'Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask,' said Scrooge,
looking intently at the Spirit's robe,' but I see something strange,
and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts. Is it a
foot or a claw.'
'It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it,' was the Spirit's
sorrowful reply. 'Look here.'
From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched,
abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet,
and clung upon the outside of its garment.
'Oh, Man. look here. Look, look, down here.' exclaimed the Ghost.
They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish;
but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should
have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest
tints, a stale and shriveled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and
twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat
enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no
degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the
mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.
Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way,
he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked
themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.
'Spirit, are they yours.' Scrooge could say no more.
'They are Man's,' said the Spirit, looking down upon them. 'And they
cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This
girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of
all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom,
unless the writing be erased. Deny it.' cried the Spirit, stretching
out its hand towards the city. 'Slander those who tell it ye. Admit it
for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And abide the end.'
'Have they no refuge or resource.' cried Scrooge.
'Are there no prisons?' said the Spirit, turning on him for the last
time with his own words. Are there no workhouses?' "
- A Christmas Carol, 1843
These orphans are yours and mine as they belong to Man. When Dickens
spoke of Want he was probably referring to the poverty at that time of
industrialized London. And although we still have problems with
poverty in this country I feel that "want" has also come to symbolize
greed. Our children have left the workhouses for the shopping malls.
How often do we see kids fill these malls with desire for the latest
fad? How often do we see kids who have never worked a day in their
lives driving cars? And they don't want a cheap, sensible car, but an
expensive luxury car. No, prudence is no longer a virtue. We have
become so wealthy we no longer understand the difference between want
and need. It is this lust for vogue that propels the wars we detest
and behind them poverty rates are increasing, including the wealthiest
countries in the world.
Then there is Ignorance, the child Scrooge is warned to be especially
wary of. Ignorance, or the voluntary lack of education, has become a
complete resistance to learning. Ignorance is the cause of intolerance
and the foundation of repression. We have become so sophisticated that
we no longer value literacy, science, or the arts. Our children attend
school but basic test scores are dropping. To a great extent this has
happened because there is one thing Ignorance is capable of doing
without instruction; produce more ignorance.
I remember after Sept. 11th there was the question circulating the
media, "Why does the rest of the world hate us?" The "rest of the
world" replied that it was due to our greed and ignorance. And not
just that we are greedy and ignorant, but that we were arrogant about it.
The answers will be found in how you and I see the world, our
environment and our fellow inhabitants. Lets take advantage of this
new hope and seek out those opportunities that will allow us to take
responsibility for our actions. As the New Year begins let us begin to
make others and ourselves conscious of our charity, mercy,
forbearance, and benevolence.
Good luck, happy holidays and have a great year.