Saturday, December 28, 2013

Ebenezer Scrooge Among America's Modern Plutocracy

I saw ACT's performance of "A Christmas Carol" last night.  This is a long-standing habit in my holiday repertoire and the holidays aren't over for me until I've witnessed my usual circuit of performing arts events.  The performers tended to stay in character for the curtain call, typical of those live performances intended for family audiences.  Most children aren't mature enough to understand that actors are allowed to acknowledge the audience in their true identities after a show.  Retaining their guise as characters makes a morality tale just a little bit more real for the youngsters.

Ebenezer Scrooge is the focus of the show's moral lesson.  We are all supposed to surrender greed and selfishness once we see their dire consequences.  Morality tales are a form of cultural programming.  The programs run while the programmers remain as invisible to the audience as the stage director and producer for "Carol."  Charles Dickens wrote the original story with his audience and patrons in mind.

Cultural programming exists to instruct the masses on pro-social behavior.  A mass audience is attuned to emotional cues that signify behavioral turning points.  Lighting, special effects, an actor's raised voice or pained expression, and dramatic music all show us what we should believe.  Hollywood and Madison Avenue learned the lessons of drama honed over thousands of years of live theater.  These lessons program mass behavior.  Most cultural elites are resistant to these lessons.  After all, they are sufficiently cognizant of these techniques that they can recognize when they're being played.  Carroll Quigley described the plutocrats' institutional structure, Leo Strauss defined their ideology, and Edward Bernays updated their control techniques.

Thomas Malthus' opinions on demography would have been known in Charles Dickens' time when he wrote A Christmas Carol.  He ensures the Scrooge character hears his complaint about "surplus population" thrown back in his face by one of his haunting spirits.  A mass audience is gratified at this illusion.  An elite audience in America today would just chuckle that such a conversion would resonate with the powerless.  Lesson transmitted, emotions triggered, agitation neutralized, revolution prevented, mission accomplished.  We fooled the proles once again into thinking they don't need a regime change as long as we demonstrate a change of heart.  Jeeves, another glass of cognac, please, while we carry this sales pitch's tie-in through the new year.

Let me tell you about the very rich, said F. Scott Fitzgerald in "The Rich Boy," because they are very different from you and me.  Readers in the middle and lower classes get to watch a plutocrat transform into a benefactor in Dickens' Carol.  The real world isn't so fanciful.  Today's American plutocrats are more likely to exhibit brazen ethical deficiencies than other classes.  The lack of criminal punishment for Wall Street's financial crimes in the 2008 crisis has not gone unnoticed.  We all see this behavior and the cultural programming begins to lose its instructive power in the face of obvious injustice.  Even the unschooled experience cognitive dissonance.  Our country's lower classes are now addicted to EBT cards and unemployment benefits because our plutocracy fears their unrest.  The wealthy watch YouTube like the rest of us.  Videos of EBT cardholders ransacking Wal-Mart and low-income shoppers rioting over athletic shoes make our ruling class ponder alterations to the message.

Changing the message won't suffice this time.  Information technology has empowered the lower classes with real-time intelligence on the ruling class's actions.  The Occupy movement, despite its obviously contrived origins, figured this out and that's why its revival in another economic crisis can get out of hand.  The revolution won't just be televised, it will be webcast and Tweeted.  "Anonymous" hackers aren't all government plants; some of them mean business and can penetrate proprietary systems.  The tinder box of class warfare awaits its lit fuse.  Any macroeconomic Black Swan - a market crash, an EBT payment failure, an oil supply shock, a sovereign default, a hyperinflationary neat idea from "Calamity Jane" Yellen at the Fed - will send our system farther south than it traveled in late 2008 and early 2009.  The plutocracy risks being unable to stabilize the system in time to prevent social unrest.  I don't think they want to witness a Dickensian nightmare come true.

Dickens' story is very much in the tradition of noblesse oblige that cemented the ruling class to other classes in Anglo-American culture.  It should be more than a meme useful in elite-sponsored programming.  Generosity is good in and of itself.  Warren Buffett and Bill Gates made The Giving Pledge widely known.  High-profile giving is of course another form of programming.  Recipients steer business to donors because, as some say on Wall Street, money never sleeps.  The Wall Street Journal admits that today's grasping, vicious ruling class is far less talented in governance than the WASPs of yesteryear.  The revival of noblesse oblige by the meritocrats behind The Giving Pledge may be some hope for social stability in an America no longer governed by hereditary WASPs.

My readers know that I believe military service is a worthwhile rite of passage for a civilization's leadership cadre.  Our post-WASP plutocrats no longer endorse this sentiment.  They need to wake the heck up.  Civilizations have looked to military leaders for salvation throughout history because nothing is more determinant of a nation's fate than success or failure in war.  Veterans embody the spirit of generosity that Dickens celebrated in Carol.  Writing a blank check to Uncle Sam, payable with one's life, is a donation even Scrooge couldn't manage.

The conventional view of Charles Dickens' writing emphasizes his sympathy for the poor and his skepticism of class privilege in capitalism.  There's nothing wrong with the message of Carol at all.  There is something wrong with a ruling class that doesn't practice its own preaching.  Only America's plutocrats can make this right.  If they elect not to make a course correction, they are welcome to enjoy the sad fate that Scrooge avoided in Carol.