Christmas has come a long way from the three wise men on camels visiting the Baby Jesus in a manger in a Middle Eastern desert or from the anti-capitalist-greed morality tale of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Now we have a holiday cartoon blockbuster called Arthur Christmas that looks like The Invasion of Normandy starring The Muppets as told by Tom Clancy and delivered by Fed Ex.
In this version, the ranking Santa Claus sports a red military uniform with golden epaulets and medals on his chest (presumably for past Christmas campaigns) while his vast army of elves dressed in camouflage military uniforms march around the North Pole in formation harassing endangered polar bears.
The premise of the movie is that the Claus family has a super-secret base in The North Pole and operates its modern delivery juggernaut from a massive “mission control” not unlike the war room in Doctor Strangelove, except this vast room featuring thousands of computer terminals and giant video screens is not constructed out of harsh, film-noir light and shadow but of cotton-candy and ginger bread.
Here’s the movie’s synopsis according to its publicity blitzkrieg:
“This Christmas movie highlights the technological advances of operations at the North Pole, revealing how Santa and his vast army of highly trained elves produce gifts and distribute them around the world in one night. However, every operation has a margin of error. When one of 600 million children to receive a gift from Santa on Christmas Eve is missed, it is deemed ‘acceptable’ to all but one, Arthur. Arthur Claus is Santa’s misfit son who executes an unauthorized rookie mission to get the last present half way around the globe before dawn on Christmas morning.”
I’m a critic of capitalist greed and the worship of profit and the “free” market as a secular religion. Since the Reagan Presidency, this religion has burrowed itself deep into the culture. It’s why in our current condition wealth tends to breed more wealth as the wealthy gravitate to gated communities to protect themselves from the equally compounding miseries of poverty, which are relegated to their own ghettos.
Along with this disastrous increase in the wealth gap, we’ve also seen a rise in the militarization of everything from local police departments to schools to fashion to entertainment.
In societies like Guatemala and Egypt this militarization is more blatant, to the point the military as an institution actually owns and runs much of those economies. In the United States we’re not that crass and obvious. Here, the military is a state of mind imposed on a public in which fear is kept at a constant low simmer. There’s fear of others in the world angry at us for a host of reasons. There’s fear of losing the good things we’ve come to take for granted vis-à-vis the rest of the world. And deeper down there’s the psychological fear of the future manifested as a gnawing doubt that the exceptionalism our leaders assure us we represent may be nothing but sham based on arrogance.
I submit it’s a bit Scrooge-like of me to be so negative about a cheerful holiday movie like Arthur Christmas. But this sort of spoon-fed, happy-face militarist propaganda directed at children (and their parents) seems particularly un-Christ-like and about as far from the notion of Peace, Love and Joy To The World as one can get.
But, then, everybody should know that Christmas isn’t really about the birth of Jesus. Obviously, no one is able to say what modern month he was born in. So what we’re really celebrating is the Winter Solstice, a pagan holiday that honors the Fall harvest in temperate climates when people feel a natural urge to celebrate with friends and relatives before they hunker down for the long harsh Winter months ahead.
Stan Freberg was even more accurate about the holiday when he pointed out what we really celebrate on Christmas is the birth of the gross national product — which is exactly what the regimented gift delivery system up in that secret North Pole base in Arthur Christmas is also celebrating. We have indeed arrived at a place in evolution where we’re really good at distributing crap from one place to another using computer and internet record-keeping. Add a tremendous, looming Santa space ship right out of Star Wars and you have a holiday movie Freberg would wink at.
But is this kind of celebration of hugeness what we should be propagandizing — oh, I’m sorry, entertaining — our kids with? Or at this juncture in economic history should we be wising them up about the excesses of wasteful, centralized bigness and, instead, encouraging responsible, local sustainability? Should we be glorifying the co-option of everything under the cloak of militarism? And are we at the point it’s actually subversive to stress the idea that the lives and problems of ordinary working people in local communities really matter?
It would be immensely beneficial to show kids that small really is beautiful — that E.F. Schumacher’s humble notion of “enoughness” is a good idea for our times. In this sense, the last thing we need is a slick, big budget entertainment that turns Santa Claus into Norman Schwarzkopf and the act of giving into a massive military operation.
The Obsession With Greed and Security
Alan Watts, the writer who popularized Buddhism in the sixties and seventies, isn’t fashionable these days. But he hit on a profound idea in a little 1951 book titled The Wisdom of Insecurity. He likes to play with paradoxes, and in the introduction he sums up the thesis of his book this way: “insecurity is the result of trying to be secure” and “there is a contradiction in wanting to be perfectly secure in a universe whose very nature is momentariness and fluidity.”
This is how security becomes equated to consuming and obtaining things — why George Bush tells Americans to fight Terror by Consuming more. “In other words,” Watts says, “the more security I can get, the more I shall want.” This naturally leads to the demonization of others as threatening and, as we have seen, to shock and awe invasions, expensive military occupations and hundreds of thousands of dead and maimed. And, ultimately, Watts would say, it all leads to more fear and the impulse toward greater centralized militarization.
“The principle thing is to understand that there is no safety or security,” Watts preached in 1951. “The notion of security is based on the feeling that there is something within us which is permanent.” This, of course, is the eternal, tragic fallacy of all repressive governments. Après moi le déluge.
In an age of Darwinian politics and endless wars and kids’ movies like Arthur Christmas, Alan Watts’ simple Buddhist warning about the trap of security is as pertinent to our current culture as it is tragically dismissed in most quarters as the mutterings of a Cassandra. As a culture struggling with needed change, we’re frozen in the middle of a roadway by bright headlights barreling toward us. What we don’t realize is those headlights, in some kind of twisted Stephen King reversal, are our own obsessions with security and consumption closing in on us.
In the movie Arthur Christmas there’s a slightly subversive sub-plot where the skinny, feckless misfit second son Arthur and his toothless, out-to-pasture grandfather Santa employ a traditional sleigh and reindeer to deliver a toy to the one kid out of 600 million missed by the ruling General Claus’ Christmas juggernaut. We might say the 1:600,000,000 ratio is the operation’s rate of acceptable collateral damage. As human and endearing as the misfit Arthur’s subplot may be, it only emphasizes the immensity of the centrally-controlled, secret system that dominates the movie — and our culture. Arthur might as well be a peace activist or a local subsistence activist.
So what do we do instead of subjecting our kids to noxious entertainments like Arthur Christmas? A well-designed curriculum in Critical Thinking is a good place to start. It would begin in First Grade and go to the Twelfth Grade. It would teach kids to be media savvy and how to critically and analytically engage with the marketing they’re battered with constantly from the moment they come into awareness out of the infantile fog.
Critical thinking would give kids (and, more important, adults!) better tools to understand the powerful propaganda forces working their minds from all directions. Americans would better understand how powerful symbols and themes are used to get their money and votes for products and political candidates working against their long-term interests. If it worked as planned, over time it would mean better government.
In the Netherlands where things like marijuana and prostitution are legal kids are weaned at an early age on critical thinking. The Dutch mother, a psychologist in Amsterdam once told me, tells her kids they’re the masters of their own fate, that they are personally responsible for fending off temptation. He called it the formation of an “internal locus of control” – something not encouraged here in our marketing/consumer culture. More and more, in fact, we seem to rely on “outer loci of control” like police, courts and prisons.
I know it’s coming — the sequel to Arthur Christmas. If it was up to me, I’d call it Occupy North Pole. Instead of a benign general, I’d make Santa a decadent vampire warlord, and the plot would focus on a subversive army of disgruntled elves led (sort of) by a muscled anarchist named Joe Spartacus in black with festive holiday piercings in his nose and eyebrows.
I can see it now on the big screen: The film opens with a fly-over of the North Pole base and the various global distribution connections, ending in a giant parking lot around a mall of big box stores. It’s Black Friday. The lot is jammed as far as we can see with thousands of angry elves, indebted, impoverished students, out-of-step free-thinkers and disempowered minorities of all sorts. Menacing Apache helicopters swoop around in the air and the local protectors of the status-quo are wearing fashionable black SWAT wear and carrying the latest Smith & Wesson Super-Soakers filled with chipotle pepper spray. Then we hear a spirited young voice cry out:
“Mic check! Mic check!”