Advent Calendar Day 11: The Liberation of Ebenezer Scrooge

Advent Calendar Day 11: The Liberation of Ebenezer Scrooge December 11, 2018

This is from about seven years ago. America was still reeling and just barely beginning to recover from the Wall-Street-created Great Recession, but uber-class bankster Jamie Dimon decided that the week before Christmas was the perfect time for him to sound off about how fed up he was with everybody hating bankers and hating on rich people.

That was an odd thing for Dimon to say, given that his life is structured so that his few encounters with any non-rich people are guaranteed not to expose him to any such criticism. In any case, the stupidity of Dimon’s poor-envied-rich-boy routine was especially dumb at this time of year, when re-runs of some variation of A Christmas Carol are never more than a click away.

The original post goes on a bit longer, but I’ll end this re-run by leaving the final question hanging in the air. (The answer, I suppose, involves something about camels and needles.)

The Consumerist brings us the latest in a wave of recent stories about a mystery benefactor bringing holiday cheer to strangers in need.

Call it holiday cheer or call it the best bandwagon we’ve ever seen, but yet another kind-hearted consumer has plunked down cash to make the season a bit brighter for his fellow humans. A man in Laguna Beach, Calif., shelled out almost $16,000 of his own money to pay for layaway items of 1,000 Kmart shoppers.

[The donor] called up the store last week and asked if they would kindly tally up the items on lawayay that cost less than $100, reports L.A.’s local CBS news. He proceeded to send a check to the store for $15,916.61 to pay for all of the gifts on that layaway list.

The store manager had the fun job of calling up customers over the course of four days and revealing that their item was on layaway no more, thanks to the generosity of a stranger.

Even more strangers joined in the giving, donating an additional $8,000 to the Kmart to pay for more layway items.

This rash of generosity really is wonderful to see. An anonymous woman in Iowa City paid overdue water bills for 17 families. A mystery donor gave a cancer patient $10,000 to continue her treatments. And anonymous benefactors have been paying off layaway accounts at discount stores from coast to coast. This has been happening so much lately that the trend has even gotten a name: “layaway angels” or “layaway Santas.” (I like what Shane Claiborne calls it — “holy mischief.”)

This is a beautiful thing.

But then you don’t need me to tell you that this is a beautiful thing. You don’t need anyone to persuade you to admire these generous acts, or to explain to you why they are admirable, delightful and good. We all agree on that.

We love these stories. They remind us of another story we love, a story we tell and retell year after year: the story of Ebenezer Scrooge.

At the beginning of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Scrooge is the archetypal Dickens villain: a grasping, greedy rich man and a cruel, miserly employer. By the end of the story, Scrooge has become the archetypal Dickens hero: a joyful, generous rich man and a kindly, benevolent employer. A great many of Dickens’ stories begin the way this one does, with the heartless rich man spreading all sorts of misery. And a great many of his stories end the way this one does, with the good-hearted rich man swooping in as a deus ex machina to make everything right again. The magical thing about A Christmas Carol is that in this story, they’re the same person.

Old Ebenezer’s contagious, uncontrollable joy at his own transformation — his redemption and liberation — wins us over year after year.

What does it say about us that we love stories like this? They all have one thing in common. The hero of all these layaway-angel, secret-Santa, holy-mischief and Christmas-Carol stories is a good-hearted rich person.

We like good-hearted rich people. We like them very much.

We tend to like rich people when they secretly pay off lay-away debts or otherwise use their wealth to help other people. But we don’t like rich people when they think the whole world revolves around them and their money and act like nothing but a scurvy little spider.

So when Jamie Dimon, “the highest-paid chief executive officer among the heads of the six biggest U.S. banks,” babbles about our supposed hatred of the super-wealthy, he’s clearly misreading and misunderstanding the public. Bloomberg’s Max Abelson reports on Dimon and other super-rich men like him fighting back against this perceived hatred:

“Acting like everyone who’s been successful is bad and because you’re rich you’re bad, I don’t understand it,” the JPMorgan Chase & Co. CEO told an audience member who asked about hostility toward bankers. “Sometimes there’s a bad apple, yet we denigrate the whole.”

Dimon, 55, whose 2010 compensation was $23 million, joined billionaires including hedge-fund manager John Paulson and Home Depot Inc. co-founder Bernard Marcus in using speeches, open letters and television appearances to defend themselves and the richest 1 percent of the population.

Poor confused, self-pitying Jamie Dimon is only looking at one end of the story — probably because that’s the only part of the story he’s familiar with.

It’s certainly true that we don’t like Ebenezer Scrooge at the beginning of A Christmas Carol, but that dislike has nothing to do with the fact that he’s rich or that he’s “been successful.” We hate the Scrooge we meet at the beginning of the story not because he’s rich, but because he’s a cruel, selfish, greedy miser enriching himself from the toil of the employees he mistreats.

And you know who else really hates Ebenezer Scrooge at the beginning of the story? Ebenezer Scrooge. He’s one of the most miserable, joyless, wretchedly unhappy figures in all of literature.

Scrooge tries to comfort himself by telling himself that he’s just a cool-headed rationalist who sees the logic of greed. He tries to make himself feel better about his abuse of poor Cratchit by thinking of himself as a “job creator.” It doesn’t work. It can’t work. He’s miserly and, therefore, miserable.

That’s why I call this a story about the liberation of Ebenezer Scrooge. He is the one constant victim of his own heartless greed. But in the end he is set free.

Can someone like Jamie Dimon also be set free from his selfishness and self-pity?

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