Silent Night or a New Christmas Carol from Greta Thunberg?

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I especially enjoy visiting the Austrian side of my family around Salzkammergut during Christmas. The highlight is Little Christmas, or the Feast of the Epiphany, on January 6th best witnessed in the home town of my relatives in Ebensee, under the watchful gaze of the Traunsee mountains, which provide a perfect backdrop to the procession of children’s kites.

Christmas there is suffused with the ubiquitous Salzburgian carol ‘Silent Night,’ first performed in 1819 in the small town of Oberndorf Bei Salzburg. The song is about Christmas and indeed children. It promises stillness and peace, both of which are now in increasingly short supply.

Ebensee, Austria

The great British actor Charles Laughton made one foray, during an illustrious career, into direction. Though a commercial flop, in my view it was his greatest achievement. ‘Night of the Hunters’ from 1955 is one of the greatest films ever made about children.

The film is deeply disturbing with its focus on a mentally deranged, sociopathic killing machine – also a religious maniac – played impeccably by Robert Mitchum. It is the entrancing dream sequence at the beginning that sets much of the tone, and resonates over time.

The face of the great silent movie actress Lillian Gish – persuaded out of retirement for this film – fronts ends the film with bright stars and children’s faces floating and twinkling all around her; she issues a stern biblical warning about the good and evil of the world for children. It is they who are pursued and victimised. Beware of false prophets she warns.

Her message is inspired by Christianity, yet contains a warning against religious mania, and the abuses it fosters, fused with dollops of sociopathic behaviour.

Pity the little children

It begs the question as to what dangers we should warn our children against in today’s day and age, and what is best left unsaid.

First off, it has become all too fashionable to listen to children without a critical filter. There is a growth industry of exploitation propagated by often nefarious family lawyers and social workers. This is often motivated by religious mania, or sexual hysteria, where highly toxic and opportunistic prosecutors engage in latter day witch hunts, in both Ireland and America, conniving with deeply corrupt and extremist states, tottering on the brink of fascism.

This has led to the framing, as they perceive it, of whistle-blowers and Enemies of the People for child sex abuse. Witness Garda McCabe and others in Ireland. Foreign or non-national or mixed nationalities are targeted in particular. And of course ‘little people’ are children too. Garda Maurice McCabe was treated like a child, or rather a lamb to the slaughter.

In the process the lives of others, and children, are damaged and even destroyed by people who are truly beneath contempt.

Chomsky, among others, has pointed out the toxic relationship between neo-liberal Republicanism, religious mania, and philosophical relativism: a school of thought permitting Creationism to be put on the same curriculum as the Theory of Evolution.

Brave New World

More insidiously states[i] now facilitate and implicitly promote an idea of children ‘getting in touch’ with their transgender sides. The effect is to generate a confusion that renders our young into docile adults, disengaged from political activity – beyond identity politics at least – leading to confused and undirected lives.

Advertising and consumerism generate a soma-induced soporific state redolent of Aldous Huxley’s dystopian 1929 novel Brave New World. The aspiration is to create a conformist and pliant workforce – Margaret Atwood’s Handmaids Tale (1985) and The Testaments (2019) writ large.

I believe children benefit from rigour and discipline, not over-indulgence, in their education in order to realise their potentials as human beings. Instead we have the snowflake phenomenon, wherein sensitivities cannot be upset, and sentiments are imparted in a non-structured way, as a substitute for rational argument. The soporific softness of soma leads to over compliance and undue deference.

Furthermore, attention is increasingly being diverted to solipsistic social media conversations that achieve nothing – the Doomsday Machines that provide for these platforms are a slow train to economic and environmental destruction.

The harsh realities of the challenge confronting us are obscured from most children. Trickle down is trickling out for most of the planet and much about human existence is unsustainable. The light is dying. It is a much worse scenario than any dystopian novel – a juggernaut gaining speed.

A lack of statesmanship and sound judgment, clouded by partisanship and compromise, is laying waste to the world. The controlling corporatocracy of the military industrial complex believes in the young solely for exploitation and cheap labour. The rumbling preceding the avalanche recalls Raymond Briggs’s 1982 graphic novel The Snowman in which a boy is carried on the back of a flying snowman, but when the boy wakes in the morning, he finds his snowman has melted.

Birds of a Feather

So what can the Baby Boomers or Gen X, to which I belong, teach the young?

Like the snowman we all melt away into the abyss of time, but the transfer of real knowledge, the utilisation of talent and intelligence, against the forces of ignorance, endure. We are birds of passage in that respect.

Let us warn people and children in particular through parables, public intellectualism and real journalism – vindicating George Orwell’s stance that ‘Journalism is printing what someone else does not want published; everything else is public relations’ – about the false prophets. We should instill true values upholding innocence; protecting the little people against the gathering storm. This will involve the preservation of the literary canon against the forces of post-modern barbarism, and empowering children with critical lenses.

Alas, in our over-worked and siloed professions we are afforded little time, let alone incentive, to confront the Gorgon’s head. Thus suffer the little children who need protecting. Now more than ever we need real answers and remedies not more fakery and false promises.

So let us not bid ‘Au Revoir Les Enfants’, in the words of the 1982 Louis Malle film by that name, and instead inspire them through human rights organisations, which are truth-seeking and truth-telling, with the will to fight back.

Scrooged

I recently came across a glittering old edition of Charles Dickens’s classic A Christmas Carol from 1847, where Ebenezer Scrooge emerges as the archetypal dishonest businessman, dedicated to the pursuit of profit at the expense of others. He is the type of corporate monster I have had the misfortune to encounter and even serve.

Scrooge is of course visited by the ghosts of the past, in the shape of his ex-partner Marley who he drove to an early death, and the future of the Cratchett family including poor Tiny Tim. This allows him to recognise the perversity and error of his ways and repent – it is a wonderful fiction!

Dickens was the great chronicler of the instabilities and social malaise of Victorian society to which I believe our present woe-begotten age is returning, and above all else of unchecked capitalism and the huge inequalities it generates.

Now, if the people, like Oliver Twist (1837), arrive with a bowl of porridge to ask for ‘more’ the authorities of the modern day workhouses go berserk: ‘Are you not happy with your existing pile of gruel? ‘Are you not Mr. Tsipras?’

‘Well no not really. We need you to extend us more credit to maintain a decent standard of living. Or are we to starve?’

It is also apparent that a death by a thousand cuts to government services, however necessary these may be in certain instances, leads to a precipitate decline in standards of care and professionalism.

The growing dominance of a neo-liberal cost benefit approach to the provision of government services suggest there is little reason to celebrate, and much to reflect on. Like Scrooge, we can mend the error of our ways, and reflect on how incompetence, ideology, short-termism, greed and delusion are laying waste to the social fabric.

If we have any sense of individual or collective decency let us all embark on an Ebenezer Scrooge voyage-of-purification and help the Bob Cratchetts of this world to survive Christmas. And let us also note how such greed grips the legal community.

But perhaps the most crucial text for our time is Dean Jonathan Swift’s 1729 masterpiece ‘A Modest Proposal’, in which he suggests that babies might be sold as a delicacy to the rich, thereby solving the geometric demographic increments of Malthusian Capitalism – an Early Modern precursor to our present neo-liberal status quo.

Greta                                  

This brings us to Greta Thunberg, our only child public intellectual. Still only sixteen, yet Time Magazine has seen to fit to make her its person of the year. She became famous for not attending school to demonstrate against her government’s inaction over climate change, leading to a spate of copycat demonstrations.

Her recent short text, available in any decent book store for £2.99, No One is too Small to Make a Difference (2019), provides a summary of her speeches. She questions, given an imminent mass extinction, whether attending school is a terribly worthwhile idea, and identifies a cathedral solution. This is a great analogy as what is needed is deep structural and integrative thinking, and the leadership of the just and the wise. She might also have noted that serfs and slaves built the cathedrals, just as wage-slaves constructed those great cathedrals of capitalism: the skyscrapers.

Greta Thunberg sees the world through black and white lenses. Good and evil. This is a refreshing clarity, demanding action is taken now, or her generation will have no future. She is right insofar as the overwhelming majority of scientists are to be believed. But notwithstanding this shining light, a little bit of grey and complexity should be introduced.

Her appeal is to an older generation who are responsible for the mess. Though of course not all of us, just the neo-liberal corporate ascendancy, such as Donald Trump, who of course derides her, or perhaps presciently regard her as a threat. You are acting like spoiled, irresponsible teenager she is told. Fortunately, she is Swedish and retains a comparative freedom to speak her mind. The writ of neo-liberal justice does not extend to that Nordic country just yet.

Interestingly from my point of view, Greta has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, as I have been myself. This leads us to speak the unvarnished truth, identifying the inappropriate adults in the room. In my case, this largely occurs in the criminal courts. I see Greta as our modern day female Oscar banging the modern day Tin Drum – the idiot savant with a clear view of the righteous path.

So let us listen to Greta, rather than the siren poetry of Genesis or the right-wing triumphalism of Bannon and Johnson, or indeed even, the fatalism of Silent Night. We do not need false reassurances and false gods at Christmas. Instead we require decent housing, healthcare, and environmental protection.

[i] Robbie Meredith, ‘School transgender support guidelines published,’ October 17th, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-50076038

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