At this time of year we are tugged this way and that. The coldest season demands the warmest heart we can muster. The darkest time of year we confront with the brightest lights. The body assailed with flus and colds, we ask the spirit to rise to the occasion.
This year the contradictions are especially strong. The talk in this austere late fall season, since the election, is all of fiscal austerity—belt tightening, cuts to services. Government to be no more Mr. Nice Guy.
This paper runs front page stories everyday to support the Needy Fund: stories of people who without the generosity of donors would not have been able to pay medical bills, save the house from foreclosure, afford to get out from under an abusive spouse.
These stories are heartwarming and inspiring. But also poignant (in its root meaning of painful). The heartfulness of some is an indictment of the relative heartlessness of a way of life that creates so much neediness.
A key text of the season is that of the transformation of Scrooge. Every year, like the miser who sees the light, we are urged to undergo a transformation, to transcend the business- as- usual, bottomline orientation and tap into something deeper, warmer, more human.
Call it a spiritual revolution in which the capitalist in us ( our inner Wall Street) gets overthrown by a better order.
It’s wonderful for donors, this yearly revolution. The morning after, Scrooge feels great. (“Light as a feather”, he says.) ‘Tis more blessed to give than receive, as we know. But what about the recipients of the charity, who don’t get a shot at the blessing of being able to give? Let’s face it, there are always a lot more in need than those from whom charitable contributions can reasonably be expected. And in these times of widespread economic dysfunction many more millions than usual are living on the edge.
Charity is certainly better than nothing. It’s better to have wealth shared by individuals opening their hearts and pocketbooks to give to the less fortunate, than not shared at all. But warm impulses are no substitute for a compassionate society.
Charity is poignant unless your explanation for life’s miseries that there will always be those with genes for losing who depend on noblesse oblige on the part of the natural, deserving winners.
Charity is poignant if (as would seem to be an unavoidable conclusion since 2008) you see those miseries being systematically produced by our economic system.
One Christmas story this year: Republicans forcing the president to allow Scrooge to get even richer or else they will cut off unemployment benefits to create yet more misery for more millions? Not really in the spirit of the Dickens story.
Some people see governmental services–social security, medicare, unemployment benefits, etc.– all as charity, “government handouts.” All very well for charities to help out the needy, but government can’t afford the soft heart of the reformed Scrooge. But that’s backwards.
The whole logic of democratic government is that it is just us, we the people, organized to give to ourselves. To provide benefits such as roads and trash collection and police p rotection, and other amenities of civilization. And to protect ourselves from the dysfunctions, and heartlessness endemic in our economic system.
The whole logic of government requires that it act like the redeemed, morning-after Scrooge and protect us, among other things, from the unreformed Scrooge which as we know is so often the character of our economic system.
While it’s commendable and exemplary for those who can afford it to undergo the Scrooge revolution, what we really need is to reject the “austerity” rhetoric we’re getting from high places and, with a heart for ourselves as well as each other, insist on a government that fulfills its only logical function of acting only and always in behalf of Bob Cratchits, economically marginal but jolly nephews, and Tiny Tims everywhere.
Government bless us, every one.