Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Post Christmas Dickens

A friend sent me this and I just saw it today -- back to work, alas... Another great NYT op-ed article by Harriet McBryde Johnson:

December 25, 2006
Op-Ed Contributor

Alas for Tiny Tim, He Became a Christmas Cliché

Charleston, S.C.

DECEMBER at the Crippled Children’s School got tedious. Our schedule was packed with holiday parties, some of which made the newspaper. Whether the holiday benefactors were medical students, faculty wives, organized Baptists or Navy men, the drill was the same. We drank their punch, ate their food, acted nice and said thank you, never forgetting that some of these people might be back with serious money. There were some real needs.

Capping off the month was the unvarying Nativity play. We once considered doing the story of Scrooge. But who would be Tiny Tim? In that department, we had an embarrassment of riches: any of us could do his shtick and better. “Alas for Tiny Tim,” Dickens wrote, “he bore a little crutch, and had his limbs supported by an iron frame!”

Alas! A little crutch! An iron frame! In our world, the crutch-and-brace kids were the athletic elite. They picked up the stuff we hard-core crips dropped.

If Tiny Tim got more fuss than he deserved, we didn’t blame Dickens. We figured Tiny Tim had Dickens snowed. He even had his parents snowed. Look at what his father says when his mother asks how Tiny Tim behaved in church:

“As good as gold, and better,” says Bob. “He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.”

Tiny Tim knew how to give an audience what it wanted. He was ancestor to all telethon poster children and the perfect model for our holiday-party behavior. He joins in festive singing — plaintively. He cries hurrah — feebly. He says, “God bless us every one!”

Tiny Tim, like some of us, was ostensibly doomed. “A Christmas Carol” teaches that no one, not even a real scrooge like Scrooge, can resist the appeal of an ostensibly doomed child.

People ate it up and still do. As heart-melting poster children come and go, Tiny Tim lives on. When a theater company in my neighborhood recently announced yet another production of “A Christmas Carol,” I decided it was time to reread the story.

I approached the book in the spirit of know-thine-enemy. In fact, I found an awful lot to like. “A Christmas Carol” swings between warm and cold, soft and harsh, sensual and spooky. It panders to our prurient fascination with food. It also gives us dancing, singing, and the giddy exhilaration of sudden redemption.

Those crowd-pleasing trappings I remembered. What surprised me went a bit deeper: the story bristles with condemnation of wealth’s arrogance in the face of poverty. As the tale begins, Scrooge is not merely stingy and mean. He is a Social Darwinist. He believes in workhouses and prisons to meet the needs of the poor and in starvation to reduce the surplus population. While disability may make Tiny Tim’s life precarious, the story hints that privation is what would seal his doom.

As the ghosts show Scrooge the consequences of his actions, they also impeach him with his own philosophy. When Scrooge asks if Tiny Tim will live, the first part of the spirit’s response has become part of popular culture: “I see a ... crutch without an owner, carefully preserved ... if these shadows remain unaltered ....”

But the ghost goes on: “What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. ... Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child. Oh God! to hear the insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!”

The ghost’s point is still worth making in our time, when some of the people who consume most of the world’s resources hold disabled lives cheap and begrudge the “too much” of the poor. Through the ghost, Dickens cries for justice for millions.

But he lets that cry be overshadowed by the sweet melodrama of one ostensibly doomed child. In the end, the story’s overriding directive, cherished in today’s holiday hullabaloo, is to take time off work and celebrate with family, and from our abundance to toss some holiday merriment at the less fortunate.

The genius of most successful propaganda is to know what the audience wants and how far it will go. Perhaps, marked by his own family’s experience of the poorhouse, Dickens hoped Tiny Tim would inveigle holiday benefactors into making feel-good gestures and then returning to address the real needs. Perhaps Dickens hoped charity might prove a catalyst for something beyond charity.

But then and now, the season of giving is about the feel-good gesture. Holding a party at the Crippled Children’s School is so easy, so immediately satisfying. It is much harder, the prospect of reward often so remote, to seek justice for our sisters and brothers in the dust.

Harriet McBryde Johnson is the author of the memoir “Too Late to Die Young” and the novel “Accidents of Nature.”