November 29, 2011
Occupy the Holidays?by Ron Simon
The Adbusters campaign to occupy the holiday season has received very little traction. Unlike Occupy Wall Street, this movement was conceptual, asking consumers to think about where their holiday money is going. But the minds of most shoppers have proven to be one track. Black Friday, now an extreme sport in need of rules and referees, generated record profits, becoming a media show that will only get bigger and crazier. Professional wrestling seems pale in comparison. But what we are missing is the contemporary counterbalance to this commercial frenzy. The holiday season has always been a celebration, as well as some search for deeper meaning as the year ends. Occupation comes with the holiday territory.
This week marks the annual return of the animated classics from the sixties that have symbolized a quest for a December truth. I have written before about how Charlie Brown, The Grinch, and Rudolph reflect the values and aspirations of the Great Society (read Ron's Holiday 2008 post), foregrounding the well being of the community over personal bliss. But these cartoons are also profound protests about how money has corrupted the season. Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) did not want to sound like a “second hand preacher,” avoiding religious references. But the message was clear in How the Grinch Stole Christmas with the ultimate revelation to his anti-hero: the holiday spirit “doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas . . . perhaps . . . means a little bit more!” You will see in this clip that our everyman, the depressed Charlie Brown, is also searching for something more and vows: “I won’t let all this commercialization ruin my Christmas.”
Another iconic adolescent, Holden Caulfield, also had his troubles with the mercenary underpinnings of Christmas a decade earlier. The Catcher in the Rye is an anguished cry for some authenticity amid all the forced festivities of the holidays. One of his most penetrating quotes questions the pleasure of any transaction: “Goddam money. It always ends up making you blue as hell.” I know several people who read Salinger’s Catcher every December for some relief against the overpowering consumerism.
No doubt, the touchstone for philosophic rumination during the holidays is A Christmas Carol, by the author who practically invented both seasonal sentimentality and soul searching. Dickens prevents us from seeing the holidays as private blessings. As professor of art history Karal Ann Marling illuminates in her scholarly and engaging analysis of the season, Merry Christmas!, Dickens insisted “on the need for a new spirit of benevolence in the face of class divisions and widespread poverty.”
Certainly anyone sympathetic to the 99 percent movement is searching for that new spirit today amid our own economic chaos. But we need something more visionary than slogans, which no one has captured yet. White-suited Reverend Billy and his Church of Stopping Shopping is great street theater. But the documentary on his tour across the country against holiday over-consumption made little impact. Perhaps, instead of attacking materialism, we need an algorithm to define what good will to men and women actually is. Please let me know if any new works should be added to the holiday canon of reflection. Till then, I think of the wrapping words of the Waitresses: “doing Christmas right this time.” If we can only figure out what that means.
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Curator, Television and Radio
Ron Simon has been a curator at The Paley Center for Media since the early 1980s. He is also an adjunct associate professor at Columbia University, New York University, and Hunter College, where he teaches courses on the history of media. Simon has written for many publications, including The Encyclopedia of Television and Thinking Outside of the Box, as well as serving as host and creative consultant of the CD-ROM Total Television. A member of the editorial board of Television Quarterly, and a judge on the George Foster Peabody committee, Simon has lectured at museums and educational institutions throughout the world. Among the numerous exhibitions he has curated are The Television of Dennis Potter; Witness to History; Jack Benny: The Television and Radio Work; and Worlds Without End: The Art and History of the Soap Opera. He also discovered such lost programs as the live Honeymooners and the only video performance of the Rat Pack.Interests:
Anybody and everything that can be transformed into a pixel.
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