There is something painfully fitting about the fact that the race for the GOP presidential nomination is hitting its peak during the Christmastide. The open disdain for the least among us, for the toilers in the vineyards, for strangers that has been expressed by Newt “End Child Labor Laws” Gingrich, Mitt “Corporations Are People Too” Romney and their immigrant-bashing, union-hating compatriots has given the 2012 race a distinct 1843 character.
In her exceptional new biography of Charles Dickens, Claire Tomalin explains that the novelist’s tale of that latter year, A Christmas Carol, was “Dickens’ response to the condition of the working class.” And she is right, up to a point. But A Christmas Carol is, as well, Dickens’s response to those who would blame the conditions imposed by economic inequality on children who have not taught themselves how to “rise.”
In seeking to awaken a spirit of charity in his countrymen, Dickens called attention to those who callously dismissed the poor as a burden and the unemployed as a lazy lot best forced to grab at bootstraps and pull themselves upward.
Dickens was, to be sure, more subtle than Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and the other conservative dead-enders who on the cusp of this Christmas season were so ardently advocating against compassion. But he captured the essence of their sentiments in an imagining of a visit by two gentlemen, “liberals” we will call them, to a certain conservative businessman. Wrote Dickens:
“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” began one of 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 vigor, 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 endeavoring 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?”