Emotional Health

Scrooged: The Spirit of Christmas Future


Last night I watched one of the earliest of many filmed versions of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Everyone is familiar with the timeless story that recounts how the miserly, greedy Ebenezer Scrooge is visited on Christmas Eve by three ghosts, who show him the error of his ways. He awakens the next morning a changed man, full of the spirit of generosity and Christmas cheer.

Dickensian London was a nightmare of inequality. Urchins roamed the streets (immortalized in his novel Oliver Twist), and their only refuge was children’s workhouses, whose deplorable conditions made them a dubious sanctuary. The state offered few options for the poor and needy, and wealthy private donors were solicited to help them to make up some of the vast difference between the two groups.

Early on in the story Scrooge is asked to make such a donation. He asks, mockingly, why he should give money when there are workhouses, which he already supports in part through his taxes, to take care of the riffraff. He is of the mind that the poor are suffering through their own faults, like laziness. He, Scrooge, deserves to keep his money, which he has earned.

In a month in which we have seen the government let the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) expire while it has just doubled the baseline exemption for the Estate Tax, thus allowing the super-rich to keep it all in the family, it’s hard not to see parallels to the 19th century. We have been regressing towards inequality for years, and the new spirit of “what’s mine is mine” is a manifestation of this descent. In our most prosperous cities, homeless people abound. I remember going to a memorial service on Fifth Avenue, seeing from a bus a withered old lady on the ground in front of Bulgari, a stratospherically luxurious jeweler. It was pouring rain. When I left 90 minutes later, she was still there, people stepping around her.

The most compelling character in Dickens’s story is Tiny Tim, the crippled son of Scrooge’s clerk, Bob Cratchit. The boy embodies the spirit of children who suffer through no fault of their own, and his wide-eyed innocence and courage are what move Scrooge the most, especially when the Spirit of Christmas Future tells him that if things don’t change, the small boy won’t live until the next year.

When people don’t have health insurance, they are less likely to go to the doctor. More people, including children, die. While our government is acting as if passing tax cuts for the wealthy is a huge emergency, they are stalling about refunding CHIP. It’s not hard to imagine the “Tiny Tims” who might not make it until next Christmas without more help.

One difference between then and now is that in the story of Scrooge, the miser is presented as being out of step with his community. His nephew, Fred, is full of love and holiday cheer despite being too poor to marry his beloved fiancée. Scrooge’s wealthy colleagues go around collecting money for the poor, and Bob’s family toasts him, despite his selfishness and mistreatment of his clerk.

Today, Scrooge would fit in nicely. Despite the fact that there are a greater number of superrich families than ever—people who could hardly spend all they have, even if they tried—they want more. Charitable giving is spurred by tax breaks, and avoiding taxes is a huge concern (our President declared that paying as little as possible was “the American way”). Earning more and paying less is the goal.

Now the wealthy are being giving a nice present. Just in time for Christmas. The vast majority is getting a lump of coal. And far from being an embarrassment and outcast, as Scrooge was, his modern equivalent is being congratulated. Ebenezer Scrooge is truly a man of our time.

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