It wouldn’t be particularly novel or interesting for me to assail the crass commercialism of the holiday season. Most of us do it this time each year.
And yet the pattern of insane consumption continues. Why? Because most folks who decry Christmas materialism nevertheless continue to feed the economic machine by participating in the purchase and exchange of generally useless gifts.
Yoo-Mi and I never exchange purchased ceremonial gifts — not at Christmas (we are not Christians and admit to more-than-a-little resentment of Christian cultural hegemony) and not on birthdays. We find the practice wasteful, and a bit unethical given the sad state of global ecology. Not that we disparage generosity. It’s just that we believe that the trained-seal munificence of ritual giving does not meaningfully teach or propagate the principle.
There is also value in having less stuff. I am hardly a poster-child for the voluntary simplicity movement, but those folks make a lot of sense.
At last there is a champion for Scrooge-like people like me. Economist Steven Landsburg has written a wonderful article celebrating the unassuming beneficence of the famous miser and his ilk. In A Christmas Carol, Dickens’s ghostly character, Jacob Marley, upbraids Scrooge for his socially disengaged life and offers himself as the John-Donne-esque (or perhaps, Bob-Marley-esque) counter-example:
Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!
We can all agree: Marley was a wonderful guy, if a bit self-righteous, and his point is spot-on. But did Ebenezer really deserve this Freddy-Kruger-like comeuppance? Not according to Professor Landsburg:
In this whole world, there is nobody more generous than the miser — the man who could deplete the world’s resources but chooses not to. The only difference between miserliness and philanthropy is that the philanthropist serves a favored few while the miser spreads his largess far and wide.
OK, Scrooge loses karmic bonus points for being a bit weak on intention. But let’s save a kind thought this season for the misers whose hearts really are in the right place.