Two Cheers for White History Month

First, my congratulations to you for having gotten beyond the title. If your political sensitivities are at all like mine, you are not at all likely to read a column with a title that means what you think that one means. But, it this case, that’s not what it means and we can go on to have a conversation.

At some point in my career as a teacher of undergraduates, a part of the Student Union was set aside for the exclusive use of black students. It was called “the Black Student Union.” Predictably, there was a demand for a “White Student Union,” according to the logic described above. This demand wound up on the desk of the administrator whose brief included student affairs and he took the protesters on a quick tour of “the” student union. “Do you see any black students?” he asked, according the the account of it that came to me. They didn’t, of course, because there weren’t very many black students and it would have been unusual to see some at a time chosen at random.

It is stories like that that form the background of things like “White History Month.” Nevertheless, I would like to have it favorably considered, for several reasons. One is that once the distinguishing white from black almost inevitably asks the question of why other races ought not be so distinguished. I know there are complications in that direction, but there are some fairly lighthearted solutions as well. You could say that we will have to stop at 12 because the number of months is fixed. You could say that we could use the breakdown the National Bureau of the Census uses. If you go down into the subcategories, you can get to twelve, no problem.

But that reason has whimsy laced through it and it doesn’t sound serious. Here’s a better one. When you start naming population groups by particular names, national (Korean) or regional (East African) you leave everybody else uncharacterized. White history month would deal with that.

The easy—and true—counterargument is that the whiteness of our history is taken for granted. That’s true. On the other hand, what truths do you learn about what you take it for granted? When you say that blacks have particular traits, you sound racist. But wouldn’t it be a great advantage to say that whites have particular traits? It would be challenging, sure, but look at the alternative. Each of the ethnic or racial minorities have “traits;” but the white majority do not.

Stop and think for minute. It’s going to be hard to agree to that statement because it sounds wrong. But after you have thought, a minute ought to do it, it should be clear that you do not describe traits that you have taken for granted. You don’t want to argue that people who come from parts of the globe where other racial groups are common do have traits, but that people who come from predominantly white parts of the world do not have traits. At least you don’t want to say it is public. If you said it in public, there would be someone who would say, “So…there is something about the white race that prevents identifiable traits from being formed?”

And now you are talking about why white people don’t have “traits” like everybody else. You don’t want to do that.

“White History Month” isn’t a complete solution, of course, but it solves the problem we have when whiteness is taken for granted. What do we learn about whiteness if we keep presupposing it? Nothing. There are “normal, regular people” and then there are ethnic and racial minorities. Some races are treated focally and others are ignored. I am treating “presupposed” as the same as “ignored” from an analytical point of view.

Once we start focusing, we are going to see things we will wish we had not seen. That’s inevitable, but it’s not serious. What’s serious is treating whiteness as the standpoint from which “races” are evaluated. Having a White History Month would move the standpoint to racial heritage and it is not “races” but “all the races” that are evaluated.

I heard a lecture on racism some years ago by an academic who was black himself. He brought the room to life when he declared that the slaves from Africa did not become black until they got to America. If he had written that instead of saying it, he would have said that they did not become “black” until they reached America. Everyone would have caught the quotes and wondered why they were there. He followed by saying that before they arrived here, they were Igbo or Hausa or Yoruba. Here, they were only “black.”

The analytical problem of whiteness is like that. Except, of course, much worse. It would take a pretty sophisticated course in American racial studies to talk in a meaningful way about the continuation of Yoruba-like traits among American blacks. If the course in racial studies included the white race, the problem would be bigger, but not different in kind. We would have to confront “Polish-like traits” or “Norwegian-like traits” as kinds of answers to the question of white people are like.

“White History Month” is a modest step—only two cheers—in that direction.

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Dominant Cultures

As a common practice, “dominant cultures” and “majority cultures” are used interchangeably. When I argue that easily misused expressions like “dominant” should be used very carefully, I am told that it really doesn’t make a difference.

And that may be correct. What, after all, is lost in the current (mistaken) expression “pin their ears back?” The old expression “put their ears back” referred to something dogs do. It indicates something about the dog, possibly a reaction of fear or timidity. On the other hand, “pin their ears back” indicates something that would be done, metaphorically, to the dog. It connotes [1] an aggressive action toward the dog, a scolding perhaps. The common choice of football commentators is that on third and long, when a pass is more likely than a run, the defense “pins their ears back” and comes after the quarterback. Obviously, that is not what they meant to say. “Put” has been transformed to “pin” and nobody cares.

Does it make a difference? Not much. It removes an expression from the context that once gave it meaning. It becomes a rote expression. It is not meaningless because hearers understand what it means. It is the relationship between the original context and the expression that is lost. If anyone new to the expression were to say, “Why do they say that? we would not know how to answer.

That’s the loss. It doesn’t seem, like much, does it?

But “dominant cultures” is more serious. Dominant cultures dominate. Presumably this is not received well by the people who are being dominated. It is commonly said that that “men dominate” in this profession and that “women dominate” in that one. That means that in the first profession, there are more men than women and in the second, more women than men.

That means that majority describes what is literally the case; “dominant” is an implicit accusation. Unless, of course, you hold that one group of people really ought to be dominated by another group of people.

Is it worth fixing? I think so. It is not that great damage is done, but rather than the point is made by the kind of comparison that is used, not by any truth about the relationship. No data are relevant to the question of whether one sex is “the dominant sex” in the field of accounting, let’s say. Yes they are, you say, offering sex-based employment records; No they aren’t I say, asking for any evidence of domination. It is worth being clear about such questions because of how easily they slide over into blaming.

It is an argument based on the choice of one metaphor rather than another. It is not based on evidence of any kind at all. And, in fact, no evidence could be offered that bore on the question. That is not how one chooses metaphors.

Obviously, you cannot resolve an “argument” that is based on the choice of metaphor. I think we are better served by arguments that can be supported by facts and logic, as these cannot.

We don’t lose much when people say “hang up the phone” when they have never seen a cradle onto which a phone (a “receiver”) could be hung or to say “throw out the baby with the bath,” when they have never seen a bathtub that could be emptied by throwing out the water. Cultures change and the words once based in them remain. It can be charming. It can’t be dangerous.

“Dominant cultures” can be dangerous.

[1] As “the Grammarian” says, “to have one’s ears pinned back and to pin one’s ears back are two phrases that are extremely similar but have very different meanings. We will examine the difference in meaning between these two phrases and where they are most often used, as well as some examples of their use in sentences.”

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But do your own research

This phrase has become more common recently at the end of a sentence, the first part of which contains some outrageous and controversial assertion. It gives the speaker all the room they need to say whatever they want to say, but blurs the consequences of what they said. Benjamin Franklin used to end a sentence that contained an assertion with “…or so it appears to me at the moment.” Very genteel, certainly, but it has the same function—exculpation—that DYOR has.

But what does “own research” mean? I have asserted a function, but I have not yet considered a meaning. Part of the problem is the word “research.” Back when research was done by researchers, it was taken for granted that the researchers had the tools necessary for a particular kind of research. But what does DYOR mean if no tools are available?

I say that all the affairs on earth are and have always been controlled by the intentions of a Gyrzyt, a lizard-like creature on the planet Tyzryg. That’s what I say, but DYOR. DYOR is meaningless in such a context, I would say.

One of Garrison Keillor’s funniest skits was about a protest by the parents of Lake Woebegone that their children were being taught things in their French class that they ought not be taught. And after all, how could the parents know for sure? DYOR actually means something in this scenario. First you find a Francophile you trust and ask them what is being taught. Alternatively, you can learn French and DYOR. Both those could be cumbersome but the meaning of DYOR is clear.

I. F. Stone made a substantial reputation by doing his own research. He used public documents, as a rule; information that was “available” to everyone. But he read with such a rich background of understanding and he read so carefully that he came up with truths—statements everyone agreed, afterward, had been true from the beginning—that were new to everyone except the perpetrators when he published them. Stone actually Did His Own Research.

The principal meaning of the phrase today is to imply that you, who have just read some outlandish allegations, can confirm them to your own satisfaction by going online and finding other people who also assert that it is true. “Finding Other True Believers” (FOTB) is really not DYOR. The use of the word “research” borrows all the connotations of careful study by knowledgeable people who are prepared by careful study to confirm or disconfirm an allegation.

One of the things about this new usage that makes me angry is that it trashes the word “research” which is a very important word to me. It is a word that makes a contribution to the careful use of English and ought to be important to us all for that reason.

However.

Sometimes confirmation is difficult. One of my favorite stories is about a patient meeting with his psychiatrist. The patient’s core belief is that he is dead. They have had many conversations about this over the years. Suddenly, it occurs to the psychiatrist that empirical evidence might in this instance, be brought to bear. “Dead people don’t bleed, do they?” asked the psychiatrist. “No, certainly not,” replied the patient.

The psychiatrist picks up a letter opener and sticks the tip of it in the patient’s forearm. Blood well up out of the wound. “Well?” asks the psychiatrist.
“Well I’ll be damned,” responds the patient. They Do bleed.”

DYOR

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The Count of Monte Cristo as a Plot Device

I’ve been paying a lot of attention to Alexander Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo recently. He’s not an easy character to write. He needs to stretch the limits of our believability by what he knows and what he can do and I think that works as long as we attach to the plot primarily. That is how the book is supposed to work and I know I am crossing some important boundary when I look at the Count himself. It’s like watching a magician perform a trick over and over until finally you see how he does it.

Now you know. But now you don’t get to enjoy the trick anymore.

The Count speaks fluently all the languages that the plot requires. Dumas takes the trouble to note, in the case of European languages, that he speaks them naturally; either with no accent at all or with just the accent his character requires. When you look at the Count himself, rather than at the plot, some account needs to be given for how he does that. It is not said that he is particularly apt or that he has studied long and hard. Everything is swallowed up in that time between his acquisition of his fellow prisoner’s treasure and his appearance as an avenging angel.

Sometimes Dumas goes too far. In an early portrayal of Lord Wilmore, one of the Count’s many aliases, he seems British. Really British. And Dumas makes a point of commenting that the way Lord Wilmore (the Count) walks is unmistakably and naturally British.

That was too far for me. If Dumas wants the reader to keep his eye on the plot and the relationships in which it primarily consists, he needs to be careful not to flaunt a skill that the Count could not plausibly have mastered. After all, Dumas himself has a notion of what the required abilities of each character—both the permanent ones and the temporary ones—have to be. A character like the banker Danglars, would know certain things and be ignorant of others. An invented character, like Abbe Busoni, similarly, would know certain things and be ignorant of others. That really has to be true of the Count, too, no matter how many things he knows how to do (like how to poison people or to fend off a poison).

But I felt that how each character walked or gestured would be outside Dumas’ range of required abilities. Calling attention to them, as Dumas calls attention to the way Lord Wilmore walks, is, in some obscure way, a violation of the rules. He ought not to have called my attention to it.

OK, now I’ve “seen the trick.” I will never drink in the person of Monte Cristo again, as I have so many times before.

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Peace on earth to…somebody

Here is the way Luke puts it.

“And all at once with the angel there was a great throng of the hosts of heaven, praising God with the words: Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace for those he favors.”

All kinds of new issues began to show up at my door when I shifted over from trying to understand biblical texts from one mode to another. The one I learned first required that I read the texts as if they were accounts of events by eyewitnesses. I have taken to calling this mode “the journalistic fallacy.” The mode I favor now, when I can remember to use it, I call “narrative focus.” It emphasizes the questions:“who is saying what to whom and why?” It treats these texts as literary forms, each element of which is there to represent something important to the author or to the author’s community. A common question would be, “Why did Luke say that?”

I am satisfied with the approach to Bible study that this makes possible, but it does raise new questions about what to do with religious texts that have been taken over lock, stock, and barrel by a culture that has its own notions of what God has done or what God should do.

God would not, we are sure, say anything like, “Peace on earth to those who enjoy my favor.” If he really understood what He was doing, He would say, “Good will to men,” or possibly “Peace to men of good will.” If He really understood the importance of being inclusive.

This is the time of year when we sing Christmas carols. We sing them in both sacred and secular settings. In neither setting do we sing “Peace to those God favors.” There are some good reasons for this and also some bad reasons. One of the good reasons is that it is hard to formulate the best understanding of what the verse says (Luke 2:14) into a line that is easy to sing. One of the bad reasons is that Christmas is the time when we like to pretend there is a civic religion. It is a degerminated and safely secular form of Christianity.

I admit that is is a spectacular image of what the shepherds saw, but it does distinguish, as many pictures do not, between the one angel who explained what was going on and the reserves he called on to deliver the cantata which contains all the problematic words.

As a public property, its theological underpinnings need to be in line with the people doing the singing—or at least not so out of line with those underpinnings that they will notice. And people who have a different view of God (Christians, for instance) or of the best understanding of what the text says (scholars, for instance) are faced with a dilemma. Should they say “That song is ours and you can’t have it?” or should they say “It too—that understanding of what Christmas is about—is worthy and as a citizen and a participant in the general culture, I will join you in celebrating it.”

I actually like both versions. Singing the “peace to all” version adapts the message of the angels to the message we so desperately need today. All it costs is cutting the umbilical cord that connects it to a vital and meaningful home. Singing the “peace to those whom He favors” version keeps Luke’s understanding of what was said front and center at the risk of alienating your fellow citizens, who are all about inclusiveness. When I sing either version in the right spirit, I find it positive and engaging. When I make one primary and criticize the other for its deficiencies (see above) it goes a little flat on me. [1]

What to do? Recognize the benefits of each version in the context where it belongs—the civil religion version here, the religious doctrine version there—and enjoy each one for what it offers.

I am not entirely sure I am capable of that, but I think it is the right answer.

[1] And since “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” which has that text, is written in four flats already, that may be a cost my singing cannot afford.

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Agreeing about Marriage

The more I think about political discourse, the more I am reminded that the meaning of the most important terms is absolutely dependent on what the participants think they are talking about. From Heather Cox Richardson’s recent column (Letters from an American), I find three references to laws about marriage. I’m going to deal with them in historical order.

In 1924, the Commonwealth of Virginia passed The Racial Integrity Act. Anybody here against “integrity?” Before “integrity” became an all-purpose good word, it had a meaning of its own. It meant, “having the characteristics or quality of an integer.” And an“integer” is a whole number, rather than a fraction. This is not a moral critique of fractions, of course, but while the first meanings of “integer,” are “intact, whole, complete,” we moved quickly to symbolic meanings like “untainted” and “upright.” [1]

Framing the question of whether marriage ought to be “fractured” or to have “integrity” is very helpful to the people who have the ability to define what “marriage” is. It asserts what marriage is and asks whether we want it to be whole and healthy. Sure. We want it to be healthy. In Virginia at the time, “healthy” required that the marriage partners be of the same race.

In 1996, the Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act. “Marriage” was, apparently, under attack and because we value marriage, it is crucial that we defend it. The attack was gay marriage: men “marrying” men; women “marrying” women. [2] There were policy implications, of course, including a direct attack on the “full faith and credit” provisions of federalism in the Constitution, but we are considering only the language itself here.

“Marriage” is good, but it is good only as we define it. When we “defend” marriage, it is that definition of marriage we are defending. It could have been called the Defense of Heterosexual Marriage Act, but only a complete idiot would have done that. That title offers a choice of what the issue is. Are we talking about marriage or are we talking about homosexuality? That choice is not what you want to offer to potential opponents in the title of the bill.

Finally, we have the Respect for Marriage Act. I, myself, would have preferred the Respect of Marriage Act, which is really not as good a title, but it would give us ROMA and we could have had ROMA/DOMA controversies. I think I would have liked that.

Again, the question is just what is to be respected. “Marriage” is to be respected and in this context it is clear that both homosexual and heterosexual marriages are “marriage.” The “marriage,” that is to be respected, in other words, is not at all the same as the “marriage” that is to be defended by DOMA and that is not at all clear in either title.

So what might look to the casual observed like a great and broad agreement among Americans is, in fact, a debate. It is not that “marriage” should have integrity and it should be defended and respected. I suppose that is a proposition that would be assented to by large majorities of Americans if the question were put without a context. But, as we have seen, each of these measures has in mind defining marriage so that includes some ideas about it and excludes others. It is not a great concurrence. It is a debate.

[1] These come from etymonline.com, one of the best and most accessible sources for etymology.
[2] All of the debates that made up the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) presupposed that “men” and “women” were intact categories–that the categories, in other words, had “integrity.”. In today’s context of “gender fluidity” the presupposition of men and womenas the necessary categories sounds almost quaint.

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“Theology in Narrative Form”

Biblical scholar M. Eugene Boring is reflecting on the cataclysmic events surrounding the death of Jesus. There are eclipses, earthquakes, the opening of tombs, the reappearance of saints long dead, the tearing of the curtain in the Temple. Boring’s comment in that context of spectacle seems almost wry:“That we have theology in narrative form, and not bare historical reporting, is clear.”

In several Bible study groups I get to meet with, I have begun using the pejorative expression “the journalistic fallacy.” I mean by that expression that reading the highly symbolic accounts of scripture as if you were reading a reliable newspaper. That’s why it is “journalism” and it is why I call it a fallacy. I think that is what Boring has in mind in the much more elegant expression “bare historical reporting.”

I was surprised to learn yesterday that the last time I taught an Adult Ed class at our church (pre-COVID) I gave the whole first session over to a scene in Steven Spielberg’s movie, The Terminal, in which an Indian janitor named Gupta Rajan, tells the story of an encounter which he himself had not seen. It is an ideal introduction to a study of biblical narratives because we, the viewers, have seen the encounter he is describing. We are thus in a position the Jesus Seminar would love to be in: knowing what happened and measuring the account we have against that knowledge.

I show the event, then I show Gupta’s account of the event. Then I try to peel the two layers apart. Is it “correct?” No. Is it “true?” I say it is, but that moves immediately into the question of what “true” means, apart from “factual,” or, we may translate it as “empirically verifiable.”

I want to ask these questions of the Birth Narrative according to Matthew, but let me give an instance of Gupta’s account first. “Immigration’s gun was drawn,” he says, referring to the event he has been told about. [1] We can go back and look at the scene; we can look at every holster and see that each gun is in its holster. The guns are therefore, not “drawn.”

We can ask then, what does “guns were drawn” imply. They imply a situation of imminent violence. What is actually about to happen, we learn from watching the scene, is that a Russian named Milodragovich is going to have his medicines taken away. He came to our part of the world to get these medicines, without which his father will die. The father will be as dead as he would be had one of the guns been drawn and fired into his chest. It is in the sense that violence is just about to be committed—which we know is true—that the expression “immigration’s gun was drawn” may be understood.

That brings us back to Boring’s phrasing about “bare historical reporting” and “theology in narrative form.’ Not real “theology” in the movie version, of course, but more abstract and symbolic truths. It is on those grounds that I hold the position that Gupta’s account is “true” even if it is not “correct.”

As a rule, I lose those arguments and we move on the the several accounts of the trial, conviction, and execution of Jesus all of which sound like “bare historical reporting,” and none of which are.

Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus

At this point, we have to go to the hard version of the dilemma. It is hard because, unlike the situation the movie gives us, we have not seen the event for ourselves. We have only Matthew’s account to go on. [2] Matthew relies on divine guidance in the form of dreams. Joseph has dreams and responds immediately by doing what the dream told him to do. Because of that, he takes Mary, his pregnant fiancee, [3] into his home, which he would otherwise not have done; he leaves his home in Bethlehem in the middle of the night, thus saving the life of Jesus, his little boy; he never goes home to Bethlehem, moving instead to Nazareth where the political situation is less hostile.

What do we know independently of these movements? Nothing. How shall we understand their meaning. It is clear what they mean to Matthew. God is overseeing these events in the conception, birth, and childhood of Jesus so as to allow him to survive into manhood. The means God uses, in Matthew’s account, is that “the angel of the Lord” appears in Joseph’s dreams and tells him what to do.

Christians don’t have any trouble believing in “providence” as a general matter. Whether a specific event was providential or not is always a discussion waiting to happen, the God’s oversight of human history as a general matter is likely to be accepted at least for discussion. So the point of Matthew’s account is simply God’s oversight of the early days of Jesus so as to ensure his survival. Following the Gupta Rule we may say that “Joseph had revelatory dreams” is only the specific version of “God’s providence protected the life of the boy, Jesus.”

Gupta’s “Immigration’s gun was drawn” is paralleled by Matthew’s “the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream.” The imminent violence that Gupta’s account points to is paralleled by the imminent violence directed at the little boy by King Herod.

So does it matter? For me, that is the challenge of Advent. The events of the Birth Narrative as Matthew makes them available may or may not serve as “theology in narrative form.” I can, if I come at it right, find my contact with the theology refreshed and made vivid without relying on the mechanism Matthew uses.

A number of sharp-eyed people read this blog and they will have noticed that I chose “coming at it right” as a method; achieving vividness and the refreshment is the hoped for outcome. They will also have noticed that I have said nothing at all about what “coming at it right” would involve for me.

Workin’ on it.

[1] The situation with the young Russian with the medicine has nothing at all to do with immigration, but the audience hearing Gupta’s account is very likely full of people who are in the U. S. without proper documentation and placing the agents as “immigration” catches their attention very quickly.
[2] Next year, we will have only Luke’s account.
[3] Using the word “fiancee” to describe a relationship the Israelites would have called “marriage” is only a convenience. On the other hand, it clearly derives from the French verb fiere, meaning “to trust” and I like that.

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How to solve your writing problems

I got a pop-up ad on my screen while I was writing an essay. The headline said, “Study smarter, not harder.”

I’m sure no one would object to the idea of studying smarter. There is, of course, the question of just what that means.

The headline introduces Bartelby Essays. Bartelby Essays are commercially available, as I understand it. A cynical person might conclude that the purchased essay would be submitted as the student’s own work. This certainly would, as the ad suggests, deal with the problem of “hours flailing away on your writing assignment.”

Stuck on an essay? We can help. Why spend hours flailing away on your writing assignment when a Bartleby Essay can give you the inspiration you need to succeed?

Here (above) is the ad in full, accompanied by the picture they provide. The picture (below) offers you a vision of what you could be doing if you did not have to spend your time flailing away on your writing assignment

It is the effect of the essay, as described, that puzzles me. I buy the essay. Presumably I read the essay. Then I am so inspired by what the author has done that it inspires me to succeed by writing an essay of my own Really? It is the inspiration that keeps me from writing in the “flailing away” mode.

Note that this ad is placed within the world of an undergraduate who thinks their problem is complying with the assignment schedule. Nothing in this ad suggests that learning how to write would be a good solution to “flailing away.” It also suggests that being inspired is the solution to the flailing away problem. Presumably, all you can do is to wait to be inspired. Or, of course, you could buy a Bartelby essay and hand it in.

I don’t want to seem insensitive to undergraduate dilemmas. I understand the effect good language can have on the mysterious process by which your own good language becomes available to you, as if by analogy. When I encountered some difficulty getting started on a day’s work on my dissertation in grad school, I would reach over and open one of the John Kenneth Galbraith books I had handy. It didn’t matter which one and it didn’t matter where I opened it. There was just something about the way Galbraith chose words and the way he connected ideas that greased the track for my own ideas. I would read Galbraith for a little while, then turn to my typewriter and start working.

So I get the idea. But Bartleby isn’t that. I’m opposed to cheating, of course, but it is the way the problem is set up that really bothers me here. The student’s attention is drawn to the fact that he is “flailing.” Flailing is a repeated action, please note. No consideration is given to why the student is flailing. Poor choice of topics? Inability to focus? Don’t know how to write? It’s all a matter of “inspiration,” which you can buy on line.

I don’t buy it.

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The Real Santa

The remake I watch of Miracle on 34th Street is the 1994 remake of a much remade Christmas story. Valentine Davies, who wrote the 1947 version says that he got the idea while he was waiting in line at a big department store during the Christmas season. The write-up of the novella he wrote says that the story is “about a disillusioned woman, her skeptical daughter, and a mysterious man who believes he is the real Santa Claus.”

In my version (1994) the woman is truly disillusioned. She says that she was not unhappy when, at the age her daughter is now, she believed in Santa Claus, but that when she grew up and found out it was all false, then she was unhappy. The daughter in this version is not disillusioned. She wants to believe in Santa Claus as much as she can get away with. My favorite line of hers is the plaintive question she asks her mother one night, “Do I have to not believe in Santa Claus all at once?”

The intriguing thing about this presentation for me is that the real Santa Claus is spending some of his (otherwise uncommitted) time before Christmas as a department store Santa Claus. The store in the version is called Coles. He isn’t one or the other. He is both, simultaneously.

Susan Walker, the daughter, is urged to join the Santa Claus line by her mother’s boyfriend, Bryan Bedford. They have a little chit-chat before Susan tells Santa confidentially, “I know how all this works. You are an employee of Coles.” Santa pauses a little, clearly gauging the effect of various correct answers and finally says, “That….is true.”

The question the movie raises is how to deal with the fact that one—only one—of the department store Santas, is also the real Santa. Always the presupposition of the film is that he is one or the other. He is the real Santa or he is Coles’ department store Santa.

They do some fancy stepping at several points, the fanciest is by the judge who is declaring the failure of the effort to commit Santa to an asylum, says that “Santa Claus exists and he exists in the person of Kris Kringle (gesturing at the defendant).” The first “Santa Claus” in that sentence refers to the mythical being who delivers toys to little children on a global scale in one night. The second refers to the man in the courtroom. The mythical Santa, the judge says, “exists in the person of” this actual Santa.

Pretty fancy, right? The ineffable exists in the person of a physically present person. And Santa the person plays with the persona too. He recalls a truth about “believing parents” and their children that he learned from Easter Bunny”who winters in Australia as you know.” This defendant Santa asks the prosecutor whether he has remembered to take down the old TV antenna because he remembers that he ripped his pants on it last year. It was the mythical Santa who ripped his pants; it is the physically present Santa who asks the question of the prosecutor.

Once Santa leaves the scene on Christmas eve, the fun is over. All kinds of miraculous things happen after that, but they aren’t really any fun anymore. The fun is this “imposter Santa Claus”—at a department store, they all have to be imposters, right—who speaks Russian and Swahili and who comforts a deaf girl in sign language, and who wears a suit rich with actual gold.

And throughout the whole film, no one ever uses the word “Incarnation.”

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George Fairbairn, Turtle Master

I have recently taken a shine to a character in Russell Hoban’s old (1975) novel, Turtle Diary. George Fairbairn is the keeper of the turtles at the Aquarium in London and potentially the antagonist of Naeara H and William G, who want to steal the turtles and set them free in the ocean. He is not an antagonist at all, it turns out, and helps them in every way he can.

Then, when they come back, he helps them a good deal more. George is comfortable with his life and with the person he is. “I don’t mind being alive,” is the way he expresses it and both Naeara and William refer to that expression, neither one capturing it quite the way George has.

His relationship with Naeara becomes romantic in time, but it is the revitalization of both of them that most caught my eye this time around. William, for instance, lives in a boarding house where one of the other residents, an East European who is considerably larger than William, keeps on fouling up the common kitchen area. William tries to launch a new life based on his successful theft of the turtles, but it doesn’t seem to change anything and eventually he gets into a fight with the East European.

He is lamenting his fate to George Fairbairn and in what seems like a moment of honesty—-not easy for William to come by—he says, “You can’t do it with turtles.” Having solved the challenges of that one project doesn’t solve even the most fundamental challenges of daily life. “Launching the turtles,” he says, “didn’t launch me. “

George’s response is, “You can’t do it with turtles, but with people, you never know straightaway what does what. Maybe launching them did launch you but you don’t know it yet.” I liked that. William is in a bleak and existential mood. George is saying very sensibly that although you always know right away whether the turtles are launched, you can’t be so sure about humans. About a given project, we must say maybe it did and maybe it didn’t. And we must keep paying attention.

Naeara went to the Zoo to see him afterwards to see if he had heard anything about the turtles. Sitting there on the duckboard behind the fish tanks, Naeara began to cry. “Don’t hold back,” said the keeper, “These are saltwater tanks.” That’s the first thing I really liked about George.

We learn nothing else about the developing relationship, if there was one, but Naeara wakes up the next morning in George’ apartment. “He had a clean look and a clean feel about him,” is Naeara’s early assessment, “nothing muddy. There was about him the smell or maybe just the idea of dry grass, warm in the sun.”

Several days later, Naeara looked around her apartment and assessed it this way. “I didn’t know how lonely I’d been until my loneliness stopped. Now when I looked at my flat, it seemed to have been criss-crossed in patterns of pain that had been there for years.”

She sees that as the effect George has had on her and you have to admit, it is a powerful effect. I wish her well.

It’s almost impossible not to like George Fairbairn, once yon notice him. It has taken me about forty years, but I really like him now. And I admire people who can have the kind of effect of people that George had on William and Naeara.

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