For years I have enjoyed watching classic Christmas films during the holiday season. Among my favorite holiday films are “Scrooge” (the musical) and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” One day it hit me that these two classics were condemning greedy, conservative businessmen as villains. I find it more than ironic that modern conservatives claim Christmas as their own, and believe that there is a “war on Christmas” (however ubiquitous it might be!), yet the villains of so many Christmas films are greedy businessmen whose harshest lines sound strikingly like today’s Republican Party. Conservatives need to learn from these films. They both have powerful themes about self-awareness, making a difference by giving to others, and valuing people.
(I want to be clear that my comparison is not to say that business people are bad, that wealth is bad, or even that conservatives are bad; it is greed and anti-social behavior that are bad for society.)
In Scrooge, you have pre-conversion Ebenezer Scrooge, who cares about nothing but his own money. He has come to hate people, and would rather see the poor dead than help them. In “It’s a Wonderful Life, you have Mr. Potter, the greedy banker who cares only about accumulating more wealth, even at the expense of ordinary people. I think these two characters both personify modern conservatism. (Yes, I was tempted to add the Grinch.)
Why are Christmas villains so often conservative businessmen? I suppose nothing could be a better contrast to the message that Christ preached than someone who thinks only of their own needs. For a person who not only fails to consider the needs of others, but whose greed causes them to harm others for their own benefit, this is the ultimate antagonist to the message of giving that we celebrate at Christmas. These villains illustrate a powerful contrast to New Testament messages to loving your neighbor, give to the poor, the love of money is the root of all evil, don’t judge others, etc.
For roughly 70 years, there was a consensus about the role of government in the United States. From the Gilded Age to the Progressive Era and the Great Depression, our values about government intervention were recalibrated to embrace a balanced approach to the free market and the welfare state. While we embraced the power of markets, it was also widely recognized that there are winners and losers in the free market system, and we wanted a system that cared for those unable to care for themselves and minimized suffering. With the implementation of the New Deal and the Great Society programs, government was able to prevent millions of seniors, children, veterans, and the disabled and mentally ill from slipping into poverty.
But over the past 30 years, conservatives have united around several ideas that have destroyed the previous consensus about the role of government. First, conservatives have pushed the idea that welfare is evil, that it creates dependency, and requires hardworking people to pay into a system that redistributes their property to less deserving people. Second, they have made business their sole constituency. Virtually every policy they promote is in the service of the business community, which is sometimes counter to the interests of ordinary people (e.g., deregulation in finance, environmental protection, etc.). Third, they are anti-democratic. They obstruct legislation even when there is a clear majority vote; they realign election boundaries to their own benefit; and they change election rules to make it harder for people to vote—especially people that may not be voting for their party. As Republicans and their media outlet (Fox News) have used fear and anger to lead their followers into supportting their message, they have been allowed to dismantle important aspects of the 70-year consensus about the social safety net and the broader role of government. This has led to a number of negative outcomes that affect all of us, including massive inequality (to the level of some of the worst in the 3rd World), a Great Recession, crippling political polarization, and big business abuses of people and the environment.
Today’s conservatives need to spend some time this season thinking about the villains of Christmas. They need to look inward at how they have been led to believe things that are uncaring and insensitive, and have supported representatives who are steering our Nation in a direction that harms the most vulnerable in our society. Here are my favorite examples of Christmas villains.
From the film Scrooge: Trying to collect Christmas donations
Here’s the version from the book:
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”
“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.
“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.
“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”
“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”
“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.
“Both very busy, sir.”
“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”
“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the gentleman, “a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”
“Nothing!” replied Scrooge.
“You wish to be anonymous?”
“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas, and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned: they cost enough: and those who are badly off must go there.”
“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”
“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. … It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!”
Mr. Potter from “It’s a Wonderful Life”
Mr. Potter: Have you put any real pressure on these people of yours to pay those mortgages?
Mr. Bailey: Times are bad, Mr. Potter. A lot of these people are out of work.
Mr. Potter: Then foreclose!
Mr. Bailey: I can’t do that. These families have children.
Mr. Potter: They’re not my children.
Mr. Bailey: But they’re somebody’s children, Mr. Potter
Mr. Potter: Are you running a business or a charity ward?