Thoughts out of season: On Santa Claus

What if the purpose of Santa Claus is to get children used to the idea of complicity with a lie? Children who discover Santa Claus’s non-existence are normally exhorted to keep that truth from younger children. If they obey, they gain the satisfaction of joining the adult world in some small way. If they disobey, they will risk the guilt of depriving someone of enjoyment — truth hurts. Either way, the gap between the “official position” and private opinions opens up, and a whole lot of ideological effort is expended to remind us how important it is to make sure the “official position” can still function. Indeed, many Christmas movies even model a kind of “second naïveté” about the Santa Claus myth, when they’re not presenting it as openly true (and hence implicitly calling into question the origins and motivations of the debunking stance). Why embrace the truth? Isn’t it more magical and special to hang on to the implausible lie? Shouldn’t we admire and imitate the naive trust of children, instead of being so caught up with what’s “true” or “real”?

In short, Santa Claus is not merely ideology at its very purest — it’s about ideology at its very purest. Its purpose is to induct children into the very order of ideology.

The dilemma of Christmas

The Girlfriend and I are not planning on having children, ever. Indeed, as you may be able to tell from her internet moniker, we are not married and do not plan to do that unless it becomes necessary for some urgent practical reason. We are very happy with our vaguely non-traditional lifestyle 99.5% of the time, but when the holiday season comes around, it becomes problematic. This is because Christmas is for kids and people who have kids.

Now, to be fair, no one harrasses us about when the grandchildren will come along, etc., but the gap is nonetheless there. It marks everything with ambiguity. When you have kids, it’s obvious why you would keep up with your parents and extended family — but how are we to understand the relationship between parents and childless adult children? Neither of us have some unspeakable trauma in our past that would justify cutting off our parents altogether, so opting out of holiday obligations seems gratuitous and ungenerous. But every year, the question lingers: why are we doing precisely this? Does it make any of us happy? Does it bring us closer? Does it remind us of why our relationship is so valuable?

For me, it’s a no straight across the board. Yet I don’t know what else to do. If I pushed for major changes in the holidy routine, that would mean investing more deeply in the holidays, which I clearly don’t want to do. If I just refused to participate, it would send an excessive and cruel message that I don’t want to send. Is there a way out of this vortex? Do I just have to devote a couple days of my life each year to an empty gesture? (I’m famous for being in favor of empty gestures, of course, but this particular one seems excessively lengthy.)

I realize I complain about this situation in some form or another basically every year. This time around it felt particularly bad because we had such a nice Thanksgiving to ourselves and because Christmas came right in the midst of our preparations for The Girlfriend’s big move to Minneapolis — so we vividly remembered that a better holidy was possible and felt the loss of these couple days particularly acutely. But it’s every year. It fills me with dread every year.

Surely someone has found a better solution. Please share it.

All I want for Christmas is for everything to just stop

Every year, the arrival of Christmas music season is equally jarring and unwelcome for me. While I’ve heard the songs over and over for decades at this point, I am somehow unable to allow them to fall into the background. Instead, every word and every note functions somewhere along the spectrum ranging from “object of bemused overanalysis” to “personal insult.” This is especially the case for the newer Christmas songs, which are not only much more inane on average but also grow increasingly insistent on a rather puzzling Christmas theme: romance.

If we look back at the Christmas story, there does not seem to be much room for romantic love. Certainly there is a family theme to be discerned, but the entire point of Mary and Joseph’s relationship is that they are not romantically involved. And the most successful Christian contemporary songs of recent decades — Mark Lowry’s “Mary Did You Know” and Amy Grant’s “Breath of Heaven” — actually have the virtue of highlighting the strangeness of Mary’s situation.

By contrast, new secular hits — above all Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” but also the various also-rans that can be represented by “Last Christmas I Gave You My Heart” or whatever it’s called — completely ignore that aspect and go straight for the jugular. Indeed, there is one canonical Christmas song that actually renders Christmas a site of transgressive sexuality for the mother figure, namely “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” (The song is particularly poignant in the Jackson Five’s rendition, which has Michael plaintively testifying to sexual misconduct as the rest of his family mocks and dismisses him.) And let’s not even talk about the abomination that is “Santa Baby” — much less the creepy scenario of “Baby It’s Cold Outside.”

What is going on here? Is this an attempt to shore up the ideology of family by guilting people for being single? Did romantic love simply get drawn into the general miasma of cloying sentimentality that surrounds the holiday? Is a significant other the ultimate Black Friday deal?

I’m joking in part, but when I was a young adult, the flood of messages mandating romantic attachments for the holidays was actually very difficult to deal with in a season that already made me feel isolated and depressed. Being called upon to summon up “spontaneous” emotions of gratitude and familial warmth was difficult enough, and the implicit requirement to have a romantic partner just felt exhorbitant. Perhaps this is my own personal neurosis, but I doubt I’m the only one who has felt that way during the holidays.

What about you, readers? Did you see mommy kissing Santa Claus?

The inside is the outside: Family paranoia in America

The white middle class family in America has grown ever more paranoid over the course of my lifetime. Children once roamed free after school, but now it’s virtually a crime to leave a child unattended in public. It’s not clear to me that there has been an epidemic of child abduction or molestation by strangers. In reality, the person most likely to molest a child is that child’s own father, followed by trusted adults such as uncles or priests. The people most likely to abduct a child are their own mother and father, in the midst of a contentious divorce.

Perhaps not unrelatedly, leaving children any unstructured free time is a sure way to thwart their chances of moving up the meritocratic ladder and build a life for themselves. Strangely, though, the meritocratic lifestyle seems to be a perfect way to keep the child from growing up at all, thwarting their life chances in an entirely different way.

In both cases, an outside threat is hallucinated in order to cover up the fact that, in the precise area where the nuclear family is supposed to be protecting the children, the nuclear family itself is the true danger. How can we account for this strange phenomenon?

By the late 1960s, it was already clear to many observers that the nuclear family thing wasn’t working. Feminism was producing major changes in its practical economic structure, young people were making different demands on potential partners, and queer communities were beginning to resist their marginalization. In response to these attacks on the nuclear family, we suddenly learned that the outside world was an incomprehensibly scary place, full of men in vans and transition lenses and competitors with much better college applications, and many came to view the nuclear family as a kind of nuclear bunker. In reality, though, it remains what the Baby Boomers, for all their many faults and failings, initially perceived it to be: a prison.

The inertia of the suburbs

The Girlfriend and I have been watching The Wonder Years lately, and it’s striking how generic the setting is — if not for references to news events in the late 1960s, it could be any time period from 1965 to the late 1990s (and I only posit that cut-off point because of the advent of the internet). The suburban model that was built out starting in the immediate postwar era has proven to be remarkably resilient, and even now it has a kind of self-evidence as the “mainstream” American approach to family and community life.

In the immediate postwar years, it seems as though there was a level of “buy-in” across the population, as the prospect of one’s own house, a car, etc., seemed like wonderful luxuries. By now, however, the suburban model has shown itself to be costly, environmentally destructive, and in many cases isolating and community-destroying. Further, the concentration of good schools in the suburbs perpetuates an ongoing vicious cycle of “white flight” that reinforces the systemic racism of our society. And as the financial crisis revealed, the aspiration to suburban middle class status increasingly carries the risk of financial ruin.

More and more people are realizing all of this and don’t want to buy into the suburban model — yet except for the very wealthy, there seems to be no real choice for middle class people if you want to have children. And the reason for this surprising persistence of a model that no one really wants anymore is the power of state planning. Even if the population could be initially convinced to want suburban-style development, the decisive factor was a concentrated effort on all levels of government to create all the necessary conditions for that lifestyle, through physical and legal infrastructure and often through explicit subsidies (such as the mortgage interest tax deducation, which seems to be invulnerable). All of the stuff they created in that heroic era of American urban planning is still in place. The roads and schools have been built, and the legal structures for expanding suburban development if needed are already in place and ready to go. All the incentives for middle-class families still point outward into the suburbs.

While reading about the ongoing disaster of education “reform,” I once thought: “What if cities stopped trying to attract tourists and started trying to gain permanent residents by creating awesome schools?” As I thought about what that would entail, however, it became clear that no one city has the resources to fully reverse the trend — to really work, it would have to entail a complete reshaping of the school funding structures, a build-out of public transportation infrastructure to support the expanded population, etc., etc. In other words, it would take forceful state planning on the model of what created the suburbs in the first place.

Unfortunately, it appears that the U.S. only had one relatively brief window for such forceful state planning, extending from FDR to Nixon (only 40 years out of the 200+ of the Republic’s existence) — and it wasted it on the suburbs. Barring a new FDR, we’re probably stuck with it. The bright side, I guess, is that The Wonder Years will remain legible and relatable for generations to come.

Marriage and modernity

Yesterday I finished Wael Hallaq’s Introduction to Islamic Law, which not only does a great job of explaining the classical structures of Shari’a legal reasoning but also mounts an argument that the imposition of modern state structures fundamentally transformed Shari’a law into something that would have been unrecognizable to pre-modern Muslims. This was most striking in his account of the aspect of Shari’a that superficially seems to have escaped unscathed from these changes — namely, family law. The implicit question underlying his argument is why precisely this was what the colonizers and indigenous modernizers “left alone,” and the answer is that maintaining implicit continuity with traditional Shari’a in this area served as cover for an agenda that replaced extended families with the modern nuclear family in Muslim countries.

This got me thinking: why would the modern state have a stake in the nuclear family? And I think the answer is that it is the absolute minimum level of solidarity — a reluctant concession to biological necessity in a society that otherwise wants to turn everyone into an individual monad. If the state endorsed or even tolerated other, more wide-ranging forms of solidarity, then a significant center of loyalty other than the state may arise, potentially undermining the state’s efforts to discipline and control the population and, in particular, opening up the possibility of economic relations not predicated on individualism and competition. Enshrining monogamous marriage and the nuclear family in law has the additional bonus that this minimal concession to community and solidarity owes its existence directly to the state, and so any discussion of how to change this arrangement must necessary be routed through the state.

I wonder if an analogy can be drawn with the rise of gay marriage. Why precisely this form of recognition for gay relationships? As we know, in periods when LGBT people were more marginal, communities structured more like “extended families” arose, which proved particularly important in caring for AIDS patients. Why not formalize the varied forms of relationships that were indigenous to the LGBT community, as opposed to a nuclear family model that few had the resources or inclination to imitate?

If we look at Hallaq’s account of the imposition of the nuclear family on Islamic countries, the reason is clear — gay marriage was a perfect opportunity to undermine the alternative forms of solidarity that had grown up in the LGBT community and a way to incorporate previously recalcitrant populations into the nuclear family model. And for those who are opposed to gay marriage, the struggle against it only serves to emphasize the state’s role in recognizing and supporting their relationships — giving them prestige which is watered down by the inclusion of more people into the system.

Hence I’d say that liberals who claim that gay marriage actually strengthens all marriage are correct, though that’s perhaps not as good a thing as they believe.

“My power is made perfect in weakness”: On institutional breakdown

One point from Hardt and Negri’s Empire has always stood out to me: namely, that institutions typically become more powerful as they break down. The most familiar example is the university, which has in many ways squandered its cultural credibility and has even actively victimized some of its key constituencies (student loans, adjunctification, pervasive rape on campus). Yet the demands we make on the university are ever-increasing. It’s as though the very breakdown of the university highlights the fact that we need “something like” the credentialing role it performs to make modern society manageable — and so we settle for “something like” the university (i.e., the actual-existing university).

One can see the same dynamic at work with contemporary capitalism. Clearly the economy is not working, yet the very injustice and discontent it breeds highlights the benefits of having an apparently impersonal mechanism for distributing economic rewards, lest we degenerate into a post-apocalyptic hellscape of survivalist anarchy. During the government shutdown, I started a series of tweets jokingly predicting absolute social breakdown if the U.S. defaulted, and many of my readers seemed to be deeply disturbed by them — it felt a little too realistic that the social bond in a highly individualistic nation with a lot of guns lying around may turn out to be more fragile than we’d ever imagine. The same holds for the U.S. Constitution. It is widely acknowledged to be highly irrational in its design, and yet the idea of “rebooting” seems unthinkable to most Americans.

If institutions make their demands more strongly felt precisely when they’re failing to deliver on their promises, it seems that the reverse would also hold: we are more able to reform our institutions when their hold feels less urgent. I imagine that much of the strong regulation of capitalism during the Cold War era came from the existence of a living, breathing alternative to the free market — even if the Soviet model did not seem desirable compared to the US model, everyone could tell that the USSR was not a post-apocalyptic hellscape. During the financial crisis, by contrast, it was commonplace to hear people say that if a key financial apparatus broke down, we simply “wouldn’t have an economy anymore.”

Similarly, as I was saying yesterday, in a world where every area of life is increasingly saturated with cutthroat competition, there doesn’t seem to be any alternative to the traditional family as a space of meaningful relationships — and hence people persist in propping up the model and even want to expand it to previously excluded populations, even though it winds up being a costly and painful situation for increasing numbers of people.

Since I can’t figure out how to wrap this post up: “hence the need for full communism is all the more urgent.”


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