Our Business

From an American perspective, it may seem like Scrooge is wealthy.

But in England, the wealthy were born into their wealth. It had been a relatively recent development that the middle class had become significant, that someone made his own money and could be proud of it and use it as he saw fit.While aristocrats “gave” to their people because they were so kind, and God had made them be born wealthy, they were never giving away money they had earned or needed, just money they had. It kept the peasants from murdering them (sometimes).

In “A Christmas Carol,” Dickens is (somewhat consciously) setting up what secular Christmas will be. (Along with Victoria and Albert, who were not as hot as the couple appears in the TV show “Victoria,” which I recommend.) Secular Christmas will be about being generous because community feels good and generosity feels good and it makes people like you.I felt much more sympathy for Scrooge this time.

In a society where there is no unemployment, health insurance, social security, not much of a safety net except a workhouse that might be worse than death, he wants to hold onto his money. The fear people had of poverty in that time, in that place, especially for urban people, was well founded.

Money makes Scrooge feel safe. He doesn’t have an inheritance or a trust fund. And when his girl is like, you’ve changed, he could be like, yeah, bitch, I changed because we can’t get married unless I can afford to feed me and you and kids that follow. (Dickens’ father could not afford his kids, and Dickens barely could afford his.)

1859

From age nine to twelve, Dickens was sent to work in a factory because of his father’s debt. If your father went to debtor’s prison, the children went to work.

Today in the United States, about 5.7 million children have a parent incarcerated during their childhood.

At twelve, he was able to return to school for an additional two years.

Dickens was one of our earliest professional writers. Before that time, writers were rich, or friends of the rich. They did not make their money from their books, because books were too expensive for most people to afford, and literacy was not great. Industrialization meant that paper got cheap. Instead of being made of linen, it was made of grass and wood pulp, by machines. Most people could suddenly afford magazines and paperback books.

The virtues of this Christmas have little to do with the Christian story, and much more to do with civic values (“mankind was my business”) and how they are not supported by capitalism, but can be upheld by individuals.

Which is basically the way Americans have structured our care for people who are poor, except we also make sure they are “deserving,” because nothing’s worse than Tiny Tim being all, uh, how about you make society more equitable so I would have gotten enough vitamin D to not have rickets and not be able to hold up my own damn weight?

Should we rely on every American thinking that charity feels good, or rely on a system that helps balance the unfairness and selfishness in human nature? (I’m a liberal, so the answer is B.)

19th century homeless shelter

Something that always stands out to me in Dickens’ work is that people who are poor are likely to be sweet and kind and loving as anyone else. And are definitely likely to be more generous. Another thing Dickens gets right is how generous people are more fun to party with, and people who go all out even though they are of humble means are awesome. I always wish I could go to a party at Fezziwig’s. Sounds like A RAGER. No doubt Dickens had thrown and attended many amazing parties.

circa 1834

Dickens clearly also believed in the other model, reforming laws and civic institutions to make them work better for people who are poor: he worked on homelessness, workhouses, schools, the British military, and the death penalty. “Christmas Carol” happens to not deal with that part of his activism, but it makes sense to me that he might figure just thinking of poor people as human, as deserving of safety and joy, was as far as many of his readers were ready to go.

I’m interested in how British people now respond to the story. In many respects, Europeans (and Brits) feel the ethical thing is to make the government care for people through taxes, rather than have people care for people out of the goodness of their hearts/out of a desire to seem like a good person to their friends.

I’ve seen a lot of how the latter can go wrong, especially in myself. I have loved times of contributing and helping, but I’ve also seen how thinking that enough good deeds will make you happy, or make you loved, or make you safe, doesn’t work.

You have to do good because of your personal ethics. Personal ethics and love of people.

Homeless children Children of the street, 1914, Rights: © The Children’s Society

Watching all the special charity at this time of year, I don’t want to Scrooge you, but I want to suggest that helping 45 million Americans in poverty by ensuring they all have access to health care, regardless of income. I want to suggest that ensuring our schools are funded by federal dollars rather than local dollars could mean that schools are just a tiny bit more equal, because kids who grow up poor need MORE than other kids, not less.

Kids in Victorian England.

I suggest that offering a minimum basic income is better than running a soup kitchen. That making retailers tell shift workers when their shifts are so they can know if they will be able to pay their bills is better than buying Christmas presents for poor kids.

Investing in local transportation so that getting to work on the bus doesn’t take up all the time someone could spend with their kids is better than donating to a day care center for families in poverty. Closing payday loan businesses can help more families than sending someone to Disney World.

Passing gun laws and funding programs for kids after school is more important than giving a house to a family who lost someone to gun violence.

I’ll add that for every family in the media acting super deserving, there are millions of other families that don’t look deserving. And sometimes it’s because they are exhausted from work, or mentally broken from a lack of work, or crushed by grief because they’ve lost loved ones, especially our neighbors who are Black or Latinx or American Indian. They are TWO TO THREE TIMES AS LIKELY TO DIE OF COVID and that isn’t an accident. It’s a direct result of policies that Americans have voted and lobbied to enact.

I suggest that we can do better than Dickens could imagine in 1843.

That was 177 years ago.

We can do better.

You don’t need to see one person looking thrilled and grateful and humble. That helps you a lot more than it helps our fellow citizens who are struggling. You get to hold onto the idea that you are a good, kind person who shares. They have to hold onto the idea that their lives are in someone else’s fickle hands.

Dickens worked on homelessness, workhouses, schools, the British military, and the death penalty. Visiting Dickens’ house in London and seeing his door knocker, and learning more about the vast extent of his social activism was one of the most awesome things I have ever done. “The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all my business.”

Don’t be a Scrooge. Be a Dickens.

This charity is one of those founded by Dickens and still exists today.

These people work on expanding Medicaid in Kansas.

These people are trying to ensure that if people have jobs, they can afford to live without begging others for help.

These people are working to stop companies from charging people 239% interest on loans.

These people are working on stopping our neighbors from being killed by guns.

A few notes on Dickens I feel compelled to add:

Scrooge made his money in a way that would set off alarm bells for Anti-Semites: he was a lender. Indeed, Dickens was callout out for his anti-Semitism after writing “Oliver Twist” with Fagin as an anti-Semitic stereotype. He took that seriously, and removed mentions of Fagin being Jewish from future print editions. He had been doing readings where he used Jewish stereotypes of voice and posturing, and he stopped doing that, as well. Finally, he created a character who was super awesome and Jewish in “Our Mutual Friend.”

Dickens traveled to the United States to try to convince Americans that slavery was wrong. That one really gets me.

However, certainly Dickens is not a perfect liberal hero. He thought Englishmen were better than “primitive people,” and believed in “civilizing” others.

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