A Christmas Carol

David Daniel, center, is shown as Ebenezer Scrooge in the Children's Theater of Madison's annual production of "A Christmas Carol." PHOTO BY TOM KLINGELE

PHOTO BY TOM KLINGELE

Charles Dickens, if he were writing today, would have no trouble crafting a contemporary character every bit as ominous and unsettling as Ebenezer Scrooge.

An astute social commentator who wrote with an eye toward exposing the cruel and unusual men of his times, Dickens would update his protagonist: make him younger and more conniving, put him in a crisp suit, give him better hair, perhaps make him speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Charles Dickens wrote in 1843.

But surely he would recognize the Dickensian character of December 2017, when Speaker Paul Ryan and his compatriots have abandoned any impulse to address the human condition with charity and compassion as they rush to enact a tax bill that redistributes wealth upward. Their greed is so cruel in its character, so rigid in its application, that they have willingly set the stage for the impoverishment of future generations with massive debt that is certain to tear at the safety net of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Ryan's cabal simply does not care what damage is done, so long as their comforts are maintained.

Dickens anticipated the morally bankrupt calculations of today's Republicans more than a century and a half ago, with his imagining of a visit by two gentlemen, "liberals" we will call them, to a certain conservative businessman:

"Scrooge and Marley's, I believe," said one of the gentlemen, referring to his list. "Have I the pleasure of addressing Mr. Scrooge, or Mr. Marley?"

"Mr. Marley has been dead these seven years," Scrooge replied. "He died seven years ago, this very night."

"We have no doubt his liberality is well-represented by his surviving partner," said the gentleman, presenting his credentials. It certainly was; for they had been two kindred spirits. At the ominous word "liberality," Scrooge frowned, and shook his head, and handed the credentials back.

"At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge," said 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 ...

"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?"

"Nothing!" Scrooge replied.

"You wish to be anonymous?"

"I wish to be left alone," said Scrooge. "Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don't make merry myself at Christmas and I can't afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned — they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there."

"Many can't go there; and many would rather die."

"If they would rather die," said Scrooge, "they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides — excuse me — I don't know that."

"But you might know it," observed the gentleman.

"It's not my business," Scrooge returned.

So Dickens began "A Christmas Carol," a book very much in keeping with the radical tenor of a time when the world was coming to recognize the truth that poverty and desolation need not be accepted by civil society — or civilized people. The language employed by Scrooge was not a Dickensian creation. Rather, Dickens had Scrooge speak the language of the corrupt men of commerce and politics, who opposed the revolutionary movements that were sweeping Europe as the author composed his ghost tale.

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Dickens imagined that spirited prodding from the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future would change Scrooge — just as there are those today who imagine that a bit more enlightenment might cause even a Paul Ryan to reconsider his disdain for the unemployed, the underemployed and the never employed.

In Scrooge's case, a little otherworldly pressure did the trick.

After his unsettling Christmas Eve, the formerly conservative businessman hastened into the streets of London and came upon one of the two liberals:

"Mr. Scrooge?"

"Yes," said Scrooge. "That is my name, and I fear it may not be pleasant to you. Allow me to ask your pardon. And will you have the goodness" — here Scrooge whispered in his ear.

"Lord bless me!" cried the gentleman, as if his breath were taken away. "My dear Mr. Scrooge, are you serious?"

"If you please," said Scrooge. "Not a farthing less. A great many back-payments are included in it, I assure you. Will you do me that favor?"

Scrooge was frightened into such humanity that he now thanked the gentleman who asked him to open his wallet in order to "make idle people merry."

The poor were suddenly the miser's business.

"He became," Dickens wrote, "as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world."

So it is in this season, as it was in the winter of 1843. The debate goes on, in much the same language Dickens heard more than a century and a half ago. The poor are still with us, as are the Scrooges. We'd best bless them all, with hopes that one day we will, all of us, keep Christmas well.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising

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Associate Editor of the Cap Times