(Optional Musical Accompaniment To This Post) Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude. “Spirit! are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more. “They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.” — A Christmas Carol, Stave III The Congress of the United States left town this week very proud of itself. It had reached an accommodation by which the Republicans agreed that they would allow the government to function in a minimal capacity over the next two years and the Democrats agreed that they would be grateful to the Republicans for doing that. And then they all wished themselves well and went home, many of them, the ones proclaiming themselves most loudly to be the followers of the Jesus Christ of the Gospels, looking forward to being able to say “Merry Christmas” freely again, free from the liberals who have placed imaginary shackles upon their fictional freedom to keep the day in their own way. And tonight, many of the members of that Congress once again will go to the church of their choice, as the old public-service ads would have it. There will be candles and singing and fellowship and, afterwards, people will come to the house and there will be more candles and more singing and much more fellowship and nobody will be hungry in those places. When my father was the assistant principal in what was then called an inner-city high school in Massachusetts, he occasionally would be confronted with a student who had been dismissed from an English class for having fallen asleep, or from a math class for having been inattentive, or from a gym class for general lassitude. In almost every case, the student turned out to have had no breakfast that morning. Often, my father would give them a couple of dollars and send them to the diner down the street. He would then have to placate the teacher, who usually wanted the student punished. (Gym teachers were the most implacable, for reasons he never understood.) He would come home at night and tell these stories to my mother and me. You cannot teach a hungry child, he would say. My father was a deeply conservative man. It was he who introduced me to None Dare Call It Treason, the ur-text of the Goldwater campaign, one rainy summer weekend. But he also was the child of the Depression who knew what he knew, and the son of immigrants, and he knew what he knew about that, too. He knew the boy enough to fear him. He also knew another thing about the urchins, Ignorance and Want. He knew they were twins. ***
“If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race,” returned the Ghost, “will find him here. What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” Scrooge hung his head to hear his own words quoted by the Spirit, and was overcome with penitence and grief. “Man,” said the Ghost, “if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. 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!”
Before leaving town this week, the House Of Representatives proposed further cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which is the long bureaucratic name for the food stamp program. (A temporary expansion of the program had expired in November and had not been renewed.) The new bill not only would cut benefits further, but it also would require that recipients comply with new work requirements, and be drug tested regularly. Earlier this month, Congressman Jack Kingston, widely considered the “moderate” choice in the Republican senatorial primary in Georgia, proposed that poor children be put to work as custodians in training in return for the free school lunches with which they are provided. In this, Kingston was not being original; Newt Gingrich proposed something similar in 2012, and he was running for president of the United States as part of an extended book tour. And, most memorably, a few months back, when they were debating how much to cut the food-stamp program, a Republican congressman from Tennessee named Steve Fincher, whose family had received millions of dollars in farm subsidies down through the years, cited II Thessalonians admonition of he who will not work will not eat as an excuse for eviscerating the benefit program.
Appearing this past weekend at a gathering at a Memphis Holiday Inn, Fincher explained his position on food stamps by stating, “The role of citizens, of Christians, of humanity is to take care of each other, but not for Washington to steal from those in the country and give to others in the country.”
Millions in subsidies, from the same program that until this year was tied to the food-stamp program for sound political reasons, which is the way we take care of each other in a political commonwealth. But poor children, if they do not work, shall not eat. Not all the big clanging brass ones hang in bell towers this season. But this is the argument in season over these holidays. That the poor must suffer in order to be redeemed. That hunger is a moral test to be endured. That only through pain can we hope. What doesn’t destroy you, etc. Santa Nietzsche is coming to town. The idea that we should — hell, that we must — act out of charity for each other through the institutions of self-government is lost in the din of a frontal system of moral thunderation aimed at everyone except the person who is out there thunderatin’ on behalf of personal-trainer Jesus, who wants us to work, work, work on that core. That was the way that government operated once before; the specific institutions that Scrooge mentions, and with which the Spirit eventually reproaches him in his own words – the prisons, the union workhouses, the treadmill, and the Poor Laws – were all government institutions based on the same basic philosophy that drives the debate over the food stamp program today.(We even seem to be going back to debtor’s prisons.) We have speeches on self-reliance given by government employees to people who increasingly have only themselves on whom to rely, day after grinding day. It is a way to keep the poor from having a voice in their own self-government. It is a way to keep the wrath of the boy at bay. There will be a reckoning, one way or another. But it can be staved off by platitudes, and by verses from Scripture wrenched from the obvious context of the Gospels. The sepulchers brighten whitely while the bones inside grow increasingly corrupt. This is what this Congress believes, as it goes home proud of itself and its members dress themselves to sing the midnight carols with no conscience sounding in counterpoint, and this is Christmas in America, and it is the year of our Lord, 2013.
All right then we are two nations. — John Dos Passos