Dickens Redux In America

Watching a Chicago Bulls game a couple of weeks ago on TV, my thoughts naturally drifted off toward Charles Dickens. Of course, it's hard not to think about Dickens at this time of year, with civic groups and retailers telling us it's time to revive the old Scrooge myth and hang the holly and roast the goose, and shop 'til you drop (which wasn't actually part of A Christmas Carol, as I recall, but which has taken an honored place in the festive traditions of this great country of ours). Now Dickens wrote in a rather different time, of course. In England in 1843, there were no covered shopping malls, and no home shopping channels; there were no professional sports, and surely no Dennis Rodman, and no one had even dreamed yet of Beavis and Butt-head or MTV. In fact, England in the 1840s was a pretty rough place, in which women and children (some as young as six) worked fourteen- and sixteen-hour days, six days a week, in factories and mines in which their lives were threatened by poisonous air and ripping machines. It was a time when, in some factory towns, the average life expectancy of a working-class kid at birth was eighteen; and where, in the entire country, only one child in three ever attended school for any time at all. It was a time when practical factory owners, in public, Parliamentary testimony, resisted efforts to provide their employees with educational opportunities. Learning to read might cause workers to "disrelish their work," they said, which makes you think Dickens kind of sugar-coated things when he created Scrooge. And it wasn't just England that Dickens had on his mind when he blazed through the creation of the Carol in six short weeks. He'd made a recent visit to the United States (in 1842), and what he'd found here had only confirmed his fear that Greed would be the death of us all, if left unrestrained, which is what the Carol was all about. He addressed the issue in Martin Chuzzlewit, his sixth novel, which appeared at the same time as the Carol, and he angered many Americans with his satiric portrayals of our sick obsession with money and profit. "Whatever the chance contributions that fell into the slow cauldron of their talk," he said of American businessmen and politicians, "they made the gruel thick and slab with dollars. Men were weighed by their dollars. . . life was auctioneered, appraised, put up, and knocked down for its dollars. . . . Make commerce one huge lie and mighty theft. Deface the banner of the nation for an idle rag; pollute it star by star; cut out stripe by stripe as from the arm of a degraded soldier. Do anything for dollars!" And, of course, given our history since, Dickens hadn't seen anything yet. If he'd just seen the front page of one day's recent New York Times, for example, he might have gloated at how true his fears had turned out to be. Or, more likely, wept, at how little we'd learned in 150 years.He'd have seen an article on an outfit called National Medical Care, for example, and the slimy doctors who do its bidding for huge profits. He'd have learned that National Medical Care was paying certain doctors in San Diego more than $250,000 a year (plus car insurance and credit card payments) for a few hours of work each week in National's clinics. All the doctors had to do was make sure they referred their patients to National's kidney dialysis clinic for treatments. And all National had to do was pay off enough doctors to corner the market on dialysis treatment in the San Diego area, and collect the payments, 80 percent of which are made by the government. And you thought Scrooge was a bad guy for only giving Bob Cratchit one day off for Christmas.On that same front page, Dickens would have read a story about how in Orange County, California, bankrupt because a local official tried to make a quick financial killing that went sour, it's the poor people who will bear the brunt of the mistake. Thanks to middle-class voters' rejection of a tax increase, the county's roster of new food stamp recipients has risen from 137 per month to 216. Sixteen hundred county jobs disappeared; outreach programs for 12,000 homeless people were abandoned; and a local mission served 19,000 Thanksgiving meals, five times more than last year. And you thought Scrooge was being cranky when he turned away a gentlemen who came asking for a donation toward a "slight provision" for the hundreds and thousands of poor and homeless in the 1840s. "Are there no prisons?" snaps Scrooge. "No Treadmills? No Workhouses (like the kinds in Oliver Twist)?" Sounds rather like the Republican welfare program today. Lower on the page, Dickens would have read about how the logging industry had managed to gain the rights to begin bulldozing 200-year-old trees again in Oregon, thanks in large part to Western Republican legislators and their conservative Congressional allies. He'd have learned that the clear-cutting planned by the loggers could damage rivers and streams and destroy some runs of Chinook salmon, which just goes to show you that Dickens was right when he assessed Americans as willing to "Make commerce one huge lie and mighty theft," and warned us about "Defac[ing] the banner of the nation for an idle rag." And still on that same front page, Dickens would have read about how Bob Dole, the razor-voiced senator from Kansas, is actually sympathetic to at least one cause. He's running around the country talking about all kinds of things that a presidential wannabe must deal with, like budgets and Bosnia; but he often finds time to throw in a pitch for bananas, especially if they're American ones, produced by Chiquita Brands International, which happens to be owned by Carl Lindner, a Cincinnati multi-millionaire. Dole wants to include bananas in the budget bill, in fact, to protect Chiquita from competition with those nasty Costa Rican and Colombian growers, and his spokespeople say his advocacy for good ol' U.S. bananas has nothing to do with the fact that Carl Lindner lets Dole fly around in his private airplanes and makes humongous contributions to Republican Party coffers. Think what Dickens would have made of a deal like that as an example of "Doing anything for dollars!"? And that's why the Bulls' game made me think of Dickens. At first I thought my TV was broken. Here were the Bulls, on the road, wearing some kind of strange black outfit instead of those bright red jerseys that half the kids in America seem to own. And then the light-bulb went on. If half the kids in America already had the Bulls' red jersey, they wouldn't be shopping for another one. But if the Bulls' travel jerseys were now black, that same half the kids plus half the other ones would need to get the new one, if they wanted to be cool. At, say, $40 a pop, you'd only have to sell half a million of them to make $20 million, which would be a nice little stocking stuffer for the Bulls, the NBA, and Michael Jordan. And right before Christmas, too. Well, as Tiny Tim said, so famously, "God Bless us every one!" We're going to need it. This is a dickens of a time.

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