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SCROOGE: A Profile of Courage
scrooge1.jpg (7044 bytes)Every year it repeats over and over again. Like a bad re-run in prime time television, it’s the yearly Christmas media blitz. Just about the time we give thanks for butchered turkeys, we’re served a whole new meat of cannibalistic CON-sumerism. My favorite seasonal symbolism at this time of year is the man and the myth of Sir Ebenezer SCROOGE. In response to my own nomination, I have knighted him as an un-sung hero of our time.

History plays a cruel joke on the conquered peoples of the past. The punch-line is that the victorious always seem to write history. The same is true with our constant reiteration of various tales from antiquity. Stories loose something in the translation of time. In the case of SCROOGE from A Christmas Carol our CON-sumer society has translated him from a hero into a villain. Scrooge, however, was always supposed to be the everyman hero. The story was always of religious conversion. scrooge2.gif (3719 bytes)

Instead of reading, watching and listening to the re-treads of an old story, let me lead you to the source. Below is my favorite passage from the original story. This scene describes two door-to-door salesmen who are speaking with Scrooge.

..."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.

"And union workhouses?" demanded Scrooge. "Are they still in operation?"

"They are. Still," returned the gentleman, I wish I could say they were not."

"The treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, 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 endeavouring 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. "It's enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people's. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!"

This passage, at the beginning of the story, portrays Scrooge as not very understanding. Or is he? He certainly speaks his mind. Yet, if there was ever a man who was ahead of his time, it has to be Scrooge.

This passage shows what a masterful expert at repartee, Scrooge really is. Today, repartee is almost a virtue, in the movies, on stage, and while testifying. To have the right answer, at the right time, and in the right way is what we all strive for. Perhaps this is why we have a surplus of attorneys today. Isn’t it true that we all want to have the right answer in the most embarrassing situations. Scrooge’s reply is spirited and incisive. What was your answer the last time a "religious witnesses" knocked on your door or the local charity intruded on your private domicile?

Most people today don’t really want to be hassled with anything. They don’t want to take a stand or make a stand. Some time ago there was an election in California regarding a proposition to eliminate services for those who are illegal aliens. The proposition passed with a large margin, but when I asked people if they voted for the proposition, I could only find one person who voted for it. Now either people lied to me or there was horrible voter fraud in California. My bet is that most people said, "Forget about the illegal aliens, just let me pay less in taxes". And the truth is there is nothing wrong with having an informed opinion. It even makes sense for you to say you’re not going to pay for freeloaders! But it’s not a politically caring or correct thing to openly say. The feeling today is that you’re expected to be a hypocrite, but you’re stupid if you admit it. I happen to admire the truthfulness of Scrooge. He admits his frank opinion and explains it without embarrassment.

scrooge3.gif (9623 bytes)Tell me. How would you reply to the apparently "ignorant and foolish" gentlemen that are practically begging at his doorstep, groaning on and on, with the usual endless emotional plea to help save the homeless? Don’t you get just a little bit tired of the endless streams of bums that beg you for coins but would never give an ounce to help themselves? Of course you know that the people who really need your help aren’t outside begging. The proliferation of parasitism is everywhere. On the 24 hour cable network, knocking door to door, shaking a bell in front of Macys's. I mean, really. Are we supposed to feel warm & fuzzy about dropping a quarter in a can? Or do we just do that as a sideshow in the event someone is watching.

Scrooge has business flair and "power-talk" discipline. Scrooge is the kind of guy that's read One Minute Manager. The comment about excess population is great! Here's a decisive guy, whose made up his mind about "pro-choice" and the "right-to-die" issue... And he’s not afraid to admit it! Scrooge is actually ahead of his time. In deed, when I read Ebenezer’s comments, I just have to agree. I know I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I work for a living. And I help to support the Federal, State, County, City, Special Districts and all the wonderful programs that they support. Those programs cost enough, and if people need help, they can go there. If they don’t want to go there, then they can get the he## out of Dodge City. Besides, it’s not up to me to interfere with other people’s business, anyway. I voted in the last election. I did my civic duty. I say live and let live. I’m a nice person, I’m a good guy. That’s the essence of Scrooge. I really think he is not unlike most people. And that’s the point.

The news media always paints him as some tyrant, but I don't think so. Personally, I can see Clint Eastwood playing him in the next Dirty Harry movie; Instead of, "Go ahead & make my day!", we'll be walking out of the theaters, saying "Bah-hum-bug", with just the whisper of a voice, the way Clint does it. Ebenezer Scrooge is really a modern English folk hero, that we should celebrate as a Saint. We could even celebrate his birthday, like, say, Scrooge Day. Think of his heroic, TV movie of the week qualities: TONIGHT ON CBS: SCROOGE. He’s concise, direct, honest, courageous, tough, and self contained. He has a strong work ethic. He’s a small business owner, a taxpayer, and a determined, icy leader. YES, It’s SCROOGE, A man whose time has come. That is the essence of Scrooge, and I think it’s a good plot that works in today’s hectic world. It’s time. SCROOGE: THE SERIES. (starring 9 to 5 movie fame Dabney Coleman)

Today’s adaptations, screen plays, re-writes, and translations of Scrooge have created a monster, and stripped the entire meaning from this tale by Charles Dickens. No longer are we to understand or relate to Scrooge or his society in any way. In truth, Scrooge has now ceased to be a member of the human condition. He is not a neighbor, he is not a friend, he is not a brother, he is nothing like you. The memory of his characterization doesn’t even need to affect your life, just so long as you aren’t stingy. Don’t worry. you’re nothing like Scrooge if you buy gifts at Christmas and give them to your own friends and family. And that’s exactly the way today’s advertisers want you to think about Scrooge, because Scrooge is now the Anti-Claus. He is the exact opposite of the warm and fuzzy Santa Claus created by the media.

Scrooge has become the advertiser’s Miracle on 34th Street. Years ago, when Harper’s Bazaar and the Coca-Cola Company developed what we now know as the western version of Santa Claus, they forgot one thing. While they were successful in increasing sales, they forgot that a large portion of people are more successfully motivated by fear. Love, joy, fear, and pain are all universal languages. These are the languages that motivate people, a dialect of our advertisers, marketers, and media manipulators.

santa1.gif (3015 bytes)Santa Claus was developed to represent love and joy. The image that most of us all remember of Santa Claus was actually the true likeness of an illustrator who sketched himself while looking into a mirror. His advertisement was created for Coca-Cola and was published by Harper’s Bazaar magazine. The illustration was so successful, that it became a template for advertisers from that day on. As advertisers and media manipulators have become giants of expertise, characters such as Scrooge have been warped and adapted to relieve social fear and pain. Scrooge has become a convenient clown; An Archie Bunker Icon; The guilt-by-association cartoon character we all love to hate. If Santa is the carrot, then Scrooge has become the stick.

I’m not wrong. Advertisers manipulate various human emotions to develop sales for a specific market or product. But not everyone responds the same way to every sales pitch. Different emotions manipulate different people. Advertisers vary their sales strategies to increase a product’s market share. Market share is why Scrooge is vital to our advertising society.

I learned the lesson of market share over twenty years ago as a sales clerk in a grocery store. Our store sold three brands of sugar, one was an expensive and leading brand name, one was the store brand name and one was a generic bargain brand. After watching various people consistently choose the various different brands, I later learned that the same sugar manufacturer, packager, and distributor produced all the sugar sold at my store. I stupidly asked the manager why we sold three brands. The explanation was simple. The sole manufacturer was able to capture three different markets that would not have been available to him as one brand. By doing that he got the entire market for sugar. Why? Because some people would only buy the trustworthy, well advertised, fancy name brand, while others might take a chance at the lower priced store-backed brand, while the remaining consumers would only buy the lowest priced, no frills brand. This was my first lesson in the conditioning of people. The sugar was the same stuff, packaged in the same place, it was just that some people felt better paying more money if they believed they would get a perceived value, even if that value was only really the colorful packaging of a bag.

Market share is the story of Scrooge. A convenient way to motivate the fearful. Scrooge is oldie and moldy. He is unattractive. Some people claim his name was even supposed to sound racially Jewish. Scrooge is supposed to be utterly stingy and unattractive. Of course no one wants to be associated with Scrooge, no one wants to be Scrooge, and no one is Scrooge. And unless you want to be compared with him, you had better become a generous spendthrift. That’s the advertiser’s lesson forced on the consumer year, after year, after year. It’s no surprise the modern over-the-top Scrooge character is replayed every Christmas season.

Death is also a great motivator.   There is no greater fear, than to face death.  Yet you never face an atheist in a foxhole. In the classic modern versions of the Scrooge story, death is always used to it’s greatest advantage. At the end of the story and the beginning of Scrooge’s conversion, Scrooge is shown the various possibilities of his life by various ghosts, the last of which always bears a resemblance to the grim reaper. In a classic "Turn or Burn" plot, Scrooge repents of his evil ways and then usually goes on a spending spree to absolve him of his crimes of stinginess. But does that make sense? Is that really the lesson of this story? Read for yourself.

The Spirit stood among the graves, and pointed down to One. He advanced towards it trembling. The Phantom was exactly as it had been, but he dreaded that he saw new meaning in its solemn shape.

"Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point," said Scrooge, "answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they the shadows of things that May be, only?"

Still the Ghost pointed downward to the grave by which it stood.

"Men's courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead," said Scrooge. "But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!"

The Spirit was immovable as ever.

Scrooge crept towards it, trembling as he went; and following the finger, read upon the stone of the neglected grave his own name, EBENEZER SCROOGE.

"Am I that man who lay upon the bed?" he cried, upon his knees.

The figure pointed from the grave to him, and back again.

"No Spirit! Oh no, no!"

The finger still was there.

"Spirit!" he cried, tight clutching at it's robe, "hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope!"

For the first time the hand appeared to shake.

"Good Spirit," he pursued, as down upon the ground he fell before it: "Your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life!"

The kind hand trembled.

"I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The spirits of all three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!"

In his agony, he caught the spectral hand. It sought to free itself, but he was strong in his entreaty, and detained it. The Spirit, stronger yet, repulsed him. Holding up his hands in one last prayer to have his fate reversed, he saw an altercation in the Phantom's hood and dress., It shrank, collapsed, and swindled down into a bedpost.

scrooge5.gif (8281 bytes)The real secret of this story is a two sentence lesson: "I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future." Somewhere among the years, the message has become garbled. Ebenezer doesn’t suffer some kind of a brain hemorrhage and go on a spending spree, like so often seems to be portrayed. He becomes saintly, thoughtful and reflective of others. He becomes generous of heart. He takes care of Tiny Tim. He goes back to his neighborhood and family. Yes, he does become warm and elated, but not because of a spending spree, but because of his new found priorities. The truth of Scrooge is that an ugly man, who looks a whole lot like us, becomes beautiful because of his new priorities. He chooses life & love.

Today’s Scrooge is a good marketing study. Don’t let marketers manipulate you into becoming a spendthrift, simply out of fear of being smeared as a tightwad, a cheapskate, or a frugal nut. That should be your badge of courage. Instead, honor Christmas in your heart and try to keep it all the year, not on one seasonal spending frenzy. When was the last time you gave a gift for no reason? When was the last time you made a gift? When was the last time you gave a gift to celebrate your conversion to Christ? This Christmas season, remember to live in the past, present, and the future. Because eternity is the absence time, and when that happens, only love will remain.

Commentary by Richard James, Copyright Imagex Associates 1999
Illustrations by Gilbert Wilkinson, in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, Odhams Press Limited, London W.C.2 Published 19??

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