In the past couple of weeks, I've been following the local Occupy Wall Street movements that have sprouted up in the area. About fifty miles to the north, Occupy San Francisco and Occupy Oakland have been causing big news with their clashes with the police and their large scale protests. I've been participating with protests closer to home, donating food to the Occupy San Jose encampment, and joining rallies in Occupy Palo Alto and Occupy Mountain View. I've been a fervent follower of the Occupy Wall Street protests because I share their fears about the growing economic inequalities in this country and agree with their criticisms of the financial institutions. As the holiday season gets underway, a perenniel Christmas chestnut is playing across the nation's playhouses and schools and it shares the same criticisms of economic injustice as the Occupy Wall Street protests. Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol" shares with the Occupy Wall Street protests an indignation of economic injustice and asks us to help relieve the plight of the victims of our economic system.
Karen D'Souza wrote in a review of A Christmas Carol for the San Jose Mercury News:
Aghast at the ever-widening gulf between rich and poor in Victorian England, Charles Dickens wrote a haunting tale of greed and redemption in just six weeks. Since its debut in 1843, "A Christmas Carol" has touched a nerve because the holidays are truly a time "when want is keenly felt." But now, as the economy continues to batter the little guy and the safety net frays into oblivion, Dickens' indictment of unchained capitalism hits home hard. From "Oliver Twist" to "Nicholas Nickleby," Dickens built his canon on the fervent belief that a culture beset by social injustice was a culture destined for ruin.
His interest in the matter was far from academic. Stung by poverty as a boy, he never forgot the curse of hunger and hardship. The dark side of the Industrial Revolution gives the play its bite and, alas, its timelessness.
Dickens had been exploring the themes of selfishness in the novel he wrote previously, "Martin Chuzzlewit", and he returned to that theme in "A Christmas Carol". According to the book The Annotated Christmas Carol Dickens was preoccupied with the problems of child labor that were highlighted in a report that he read in 1842 on the Commission for Inquiring into the Employment and Condition of Children in Mines and Manufactureers. During 1843, he visited several free institutions for the education of the poor called the Ragged Schools in the Field Lane, Holborn area and spoke at many fundraisers for the Athenaeum, a charitable institution that served the Manchester poor. Wanting to create a story that dealt with Want and Ignorance, he conceived the plot of "A Christmas Carol" and began to write.
I read "A Christmas Carol" for the first time this past month and it's a wonderful read. I thought that I would have trouble keeping interest in the book, as I've seen countless movie and cartoon versions of the story, but I really enjoyed following Ebenezar's journey as he is visited by the 3 spirits and learns to empathize with others. Ebenezar Scrooge is a strangely appealing character. I like how Dickens sought to reform him by reminding him of the importance of the people around him. For Dickens, community is important. All members of society are important to each other, and the wealthy and the poor are interconnected in ways that are not readily apparent to either group. As Scrooge grows more alienated from the affairs of the people around him, he loses a sense of empathy and feeling, and he grows more isolated and bitter.
In what I've observed in my own life, I've seen how the alienation between groups often creates conflicts and unneeded suffering. Among the people that I've encountered who have the least empathy towards the poor and the marginalized are those who don't have any sort of social connections towards those groups that they disdain. They do not have any friends or family members who are poor or are part of an oppressed group, so they tend to view those groups through the lens of stereotypes or preconceived notions. Since there are always a few individuals who will fit those stereotypes, they assume that everyone in that group is the same and it gives them the excuse not to do the hard work of getting to know the people in a disdained group as individuals.
At various times, we've all been guilty of this, as I think this fault is a fault of human nature. I know I've been guilty sometimes prejudging all Republicans as being a certain way, sometimes forgetting that the people I disagree with have their own joys and losses and their own human journeys. Many of the people who have criticized me for supporting the Occupy Wall Street because of preconceptions that they have that the protesters are all young anarchist hippy types, when the people I've met in the local Occupy movements have been very diverse. I think Scrooge's journeys with the three ghosts of Christmas forces Scrooge to look at the people he disdains apart from the settings he's used to seeing them in. Scrooge sees the warmth and feelings of these people when they're with the people they love, and it contrasts to the loneliness that he feels. I think that is why Dickens tries so hard to reconnect Scrooge to the community around him. In creating empathy in Scrooge's heart, it lights a fire in Scrooge to do good works for the people around him who need the help. Dickens has an obvious empathy for Ebenezar Scrooge, and I respect his desire to save both the oppressor and well as the oppressed.
The empathy that Charles Dickens shows for the poor has won him many admirers on the left. Karl Marx, George Bernard Shaw, George Orwell, Dorothy Day, and Howard Zinn have all expressed fondness for the books of Charles Dickens. While Karl Marx was a revolutionary, though, Charles Dickens wrote from a moralist point of view. Jane Smiley wrote in her book on Charles Dickens:
The philosophy and psychology of A Christmas Carol are so familiar to us now that we forget that in Dickens's own day, his views competed with much less sophisticated notions of the origins and effects of states of mind. Indeed, this idea- that shifts in objective conditions, such as wealth, social relationships, and class disparities, begin within the individual and are then manifested outwardly in material changes- runs counter to notions of materialism and determinism that were beginning to take hold among such political thinkers as Bentham, Marx, and Engels, who were at work in the same period. Karl Marx, in fact, seems to have been quite a fan of Dickens. But Dickens's Christmas stories (A Christmas Carol, The Chimes, and The Haunted Man in particular) are increasingly specific and pointed about where necessary social change must come from. It is not enough to seize power or to change where in society power lies. With power must come an inner sense of connection to others that, in Dickens life and work, comes from the model of Jesus Christ as benevolent Savior. The truth of A Christmas Carol that Dickens understood perfectly and bodied forth successfully is that life is transformed by an inner shift that is then acted upon, not by a change in circumstances.
It seems that in every attack Dickens makes upon society he is always pointing to a change of spirit rather than a change of structure. It is hopeless to try and pin him down to any definite remedy, still more to any political doctrine. His approach is always along the moral plane, and his attitude is sufficiently summed up in that remark about Strong's school being as different from Creakle's ‘as good is from evil’. Two things can be very much alike and yet abysmally different. Heaven and Hell are in the same place. Useless to change institutions without a ‘change of heart’ — that, essentially, is what he is always saying.
If that were all, he might be no more than a cheer-up writer, a reactionary humbug. A ‘change of heart’ is in fact the alibi of people who do not wish to endanger the status quo. But Dickens is not a humbug, except in minor matters, and the strongest single impression one carries away from his books is that of a hatred of tyranny. I said earlier that Dickens is not in the accepted sense a revolutionary writer. But it is not at all certain that a merely moral criticism of society may not be just as ‘revolutionary’ — and revolution, after all, means turning things upside down as the politico-economic criticism which is fashionable at this moment. Blake was not a politician, but there is more understanding of the nature of capitalist society in a poem like ‘I wander through each charted street’ than in three-quarters of Socialist literature. Progress is not an illusion, it happens, but it is slow and invariably disappointing. There is always a new tyrant waiting to take over from the old — generally not quite so bad, but still a tyrant. Consequently two viewpoints are always tenable. The one, how can you improve human nature until you have changed the system? The other, what is the use of changing the system before you have improved human nature? They appeal to different individuals, and they probably show a tendency to alternate in point of time. The moralist and the revolutionary are constantly undermining one another. Marx exploded a hundred tons of dynamite beneath the moralist position, and we are still living in the echo of that tremendous crash. But already, somewhere or other, the sappers are at work and fresh dynamite is being tamped in place to blow Marx at the moon. Then Marx, or somebody like him, will come back with yet more dynamite, and so the process continues, to an end we cannot yet foresee. The central problem — how to prevent power from being abused — remains unsolved. Dickens, who had not the vision to see that private property is an obstructive nuisance, had the vision to see that ‘If men would behave decently the world would be decent’ is not such a platitude as it sounds.
In this tug of war between the moralist and the revolutionary, I've fluctuated from one side to the other. On the one hand, I believe that the capitalist system has great benefits, but also great flaws that do great harm to the poor and the working class. On the other hand, I also believe that a lot of the injustices in the world are the result of our own weak human nature, on our own vulnerability to corrupting influence of power and money. I've thought of Orwell's essay a lot, and I think that both the moralist and revolutionary critiques of the capitalist system are interrelated, that it is not necessarily an either/or argument. The flaws of the capitalist system are just a magnification of the flaws of human nature. This economic system is based on individuals pursuing their own self interest, and a system of self interest will always be vulnerable to selfishness and greed.
I believe that Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol" has special relevance to the Occupy Wall Street protests. Ebenezar Scrooge, after all, is the very embodiment of the 1 percent of the wealthy that the protesters are fighting against. Like Dickens though, most of the Occupy protesters that I have met do not want the wealthy to be demonized or to fall to ruin. At a time when so many people are suffering due to structural changes that our economy has been going through for the past couple of decades, we just want the wealthy to reconnect to their community and do their part to help those in need. Those who have benefitted from this economic system have talents and expertise that would be of great use to charities, advocacy groups and government agencies that help the poor and struggling middle class. It's in all of our interests, rich, middle class, and poor, to fight for a fairer economic system that benefits everyone and not just a few.
I end this blog with an excerpt of The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits by Les Standiford. He wrote:
Dickens believed that a reasonable capitalistic society could be made to recognize its responsibility to all its citizens, and that it was the duty of those most fortunate to share a portion of their gain with those whose grasp had slipped while pulling at their bootstraps.
He opposed violent confrontations to achieve these means, of course; but he well understood why desperate men would be driven to crime and violence. And he was severely critical of individuals and moneyed interests who sought to shirk their responsibilities to the poor. Legislation that oppressed the unfortunate (such as the Corn Laws and the imprisonment of debtors and the failure to properly regulate labor practices) were particular targets of his wrath- as were bureaucratic incompetency, the scarcity of public works and sanitation, and personal greed, gluttony, and indifference.
But Dickens was not a humorless reformer. The end he sought in all his zeal was a society in which the pleasures of life could be enjoyed by everyone: culture, entertainment, good food and drink, convivial fellowship, and a happy family. Were he alive to hear a man named Rodney King call out, "Why can't we all just get along?" the comment would have surely brought an approving nod and the Cockney-inflected phrase that Dickens was fond of using: "Oh, law, yes"
A youtube video of the 1951 British film Scrooge starring Alastair Sim
Youtube videos of the Occupy Wall Street fight against foreclosures