Saturday, March 04, 2017

DC Spy Novel Roundup: March 4 Edition

Do you ever feel like John Le Carre's writing a novel called "American Politics?" Because U.S. politics are looking seriously Le-Carre-ified right now. Let's try to catch up on the story so far, leading up to the President's Saturday-morning tweetstorm accusing Obama of illegally wiretapping Trump Tower. (Boy, does Jared Kushner have a surprise coming when he gets back on line tonight.) Okay, let's walk through the last few weeks of front-page counterespionage. 

1) Michael Flynn ousted as Nation Security Adviser after lying about meetings with Russian ambassador.

What's interesting about this is the way Flynn got caught in the lie. He got on the phone with the Russian ambassador, multiple times, and started talking about Russia sanctions. Why Flynn, who used to head the Defense Intelligence Agency, did not stop to think that US intelligence routinely records all of the Russian ambassador's calls is a mystery. I mean, of course they do.

The Russian ambassador to the United States is presumably involved in espionage against the United States, and American intelligence would be negligent not to presume that. So if American intelligence were not watching and listening to the Russian ambassador (just as Russian intelligence surveills our ambassador to Russia) it would be a dereliction of duty.

What interested me at the time, if Flynn was acting on Trump's orders, was how Trump would replace that line of communication to Russia.  Flynn got caught not because he was being watched, but because Kislyak was. The FBI caught the message boy because they were watching the mailbox. So anyone else Trump sent would also just get caught immediately. I did not realize that POTUS already had another problem:

2. Jeff Sessions gets caught lying about meeting Russian ambassador. Then Jared Kushner also turns out to have met with Flynn and Kislyak.

It turned out, of course, that more of Trump's inner circle had already met with Kislyak. And so when Flynn was burned, those people also had to know they were burned, for the same reason. US intelligence always watches the Russian ambassador. If he takes steps to avoid observation, they only get more interested. So US intelligence had seen everyone else from the Trump camp who'd met with the ambassador.

Jeff Sessions knew that American intelligence knew he'd met with Kislyak. And he knew he'd lied to Congress about those meetings. But he did not come clean. He waited for the story to hit the newspapers. Jared Kushner did basically the same thing. The not-coming-clean-when-you-know-they-have-you is interesting, and not fully explained yet.

What is clearer to me is why POTUS was so angry about "leaks" and so eager to denounce them around this time. He knew, by this point, that US intelligence had at least some information on his inner circle that it hadn't released yet. He wasn't worrying about what investigators might find out, or not just about that. He was worried about information that investigators already knew, but had not released yet.

3. How about that Jeff Sessions lie?

The strangest thing about Jeff Sessions's, errr, inaccurate testimony is, as others have mentioned, that he volunteered a dishonest response to a question he had not been asked. Al Franken asked what he would do if it turned out Trump campaign people had met with the Russian government, Sessions volunteered that he was part of the Trump campaign and had not met with anyone from the Russian government. No one had asked about him, actually.

What Sessions did is the equivalent of being asked, "If we make you sheriff, what will you do about the stalled investigation into Laura Palmer's murder?" and answering, "I want to make clear that I was absolutely not with Laura Palmer on the night she died." Not what you were asked, but potentially pretty illuminating, especially if proven inaccurate.

I can't explain Sessions's weird error and maybe no one, including Sessions, can. But one hypothetical way to read it is as a tell: Sessions may have been so anxious to fend off certain lines of questioning that he jumped to parry an attack that hadn't been made. It's strange.

4. Trump apparently gets angry over Sessions's recusal

Sessions recusing himself from any election-related investigation is obviously the absolute minimum concession required to call off the hounds, which even Republicans were calling for, and it's not clear that it will be enough. But it evidently, it was too much for Trump, who had publicly said that Sessions need not recuse himself a few hours before it happened, and who allegedly lost his temper at his own White House counsel yesterday over Sessions's decision.

This is really odd, because after the met-with-Kislyak shoe dropped, Sessions's recusal was basically the only play. Keeping him officially in charge of an investigation where he was now implicated would have brought worlds of hurt. That Trump has not grasped this suggests that he either has absolutely no sense of strategy or tactics here or that he feels that he's in serious jeopardy himself. It could be both. It's hard to tell.

That brings us to this morning, before breakfast:

5. President Trump tweets accusations that President Obama illegally wiretapped Trump Tower.

So much going on here. First of all, this play carries two major risks. One, it risks making the President of the United States look crazy and paranoid if it turns out no such wiretap existed. (That may sound like we've hit the proving-a-negative problem, but if there is no wiretap, there are actual people who do know that. They are called the FBI and the NSA.)

Second, and worse, it calls attention to the possibility that there may actually have been a legal "wiretap" approved by a FISA court based on real probable cause. That is basically the first thing Twitter thought of this morning, on the assumption that the President of the United States knew what he was talking about when he mentioned a wiretap. And Trump does not need people thinking about the kind of evidence that would convince a FISA judge, appointed by Chief Justice Roberts, that there was probable cause to treat Trump Tower as a threat to national security. Wow. Why would you bring that up, ever?

Now it turns out that the President did not learn about this alleged wiretap from sources inside the federal government, who report to him and actually know whether or not this happened, but from a highly speculative Breitbart News story. And here I'd like to pause to marvel at President Trump's relationship to the news media. Not his attacks on it, which is another story. What's odd is his attempt to use the news media as a source of news when he actually has better access to information than journalists do. The President of the United States doesn't watch CNN to find out what the FBI has been doing. He can just ask the FBI. Other Presidents watch the news to see how the coverage is being slanted, and to gauge exactly what reporters have or haven't learned. But on most things, the President is in the position of knowing more about the subject being covered than the reporters do. Taylor Swift doesn't read the tabloids to find out who she's dating. She knows. That a sitting president would look to a speculative Breitbart story as a source of information about secret government surveillance programs is very strange.

Now, the strategy here may simply be to go on the offensive. If Trump has accepted that the Russia story is going to keep coming, he may have decided that his best or only play is to try to turn the accusations around so that the investigation into his behavior itself is somehow the criminal act. That isn't going to persuade anyone in the corridors of DC power, but it gives his faithful a storyline to grab on to and maybe muddies the water for a bunch of low-information swing voters.

But Trump's decision also does something odd to any investigations into his Russia ties. Those investigations are mostly about pressuring smaller fish and flipping them into cooperating witnesses. And here's the weird part. There may never have been a wiretap. Maybe no FISA warrant was ever approved. Maybe, if one was approved, it had nothing to do with phones. (It may have been a warrant for information on ... wait for it ... an internet server in Trump Tower that communicated with two servers at a Russian bank.)

But even if there was no tap on the Trump Tower phones, Donald Trump just told everyone who might be questioned in the investigation that there WAS. If you get questioned by the FBI next week about the Trump/Russia thing, Trump just basically told you that the FBI already has you on tape. The feds don't even have to bluff anymore. Potential witnesses will come in the door pre-bluffed. I can't imagine that this is going to work out well for Trump.

But then, none of this is working out well for any of us.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Take Action on the Muslim Ban: Stop Sessions

The Administration has handcuffed legal American residents and detained them without charges as part of the President's pointless, lawless Muslim ban. It's a great moment to protest, an even better moment to donate to the ACLU and CAIR. But also be sure to call both your senators on Monday and demand that they make Jeff Sessions explain his position on this. If the President will not follow the Constitution or the law then we need an Attorney General who will.

Call both of your senators' offices. Speak briefly and politely. Ask that the Senator not vote to confirm Sessions as Attorney General until Sessions tells Congress whether or not the ban is legal. If you have time, add that you are concerned that Sessions's long-time aide, Stephen Miller, helped write this ban. The committee vote on Sessions is Tuesday; make sure to call before then,

Attorney General is THE key position for any administration that wants to dismantle our democracy, or to keep it from being dismantled. After World War II, when many future Iron Curtain countries in Europe had coalition governments combining Communists and non-Communists, the Communists always made sure that they got the position comparable to Attorney General: the Interior Minister, who controlled the internal police and security functions. Then the pro-Soviet Communists used their control of the police and the counterintelligence services to take control of the country, so there were no more coalition governments. In Czechoslovakia, the Communists took the Interior Ministry and the leader of the democratic mainstream party took the more prestigious role of Foreign Minister. Then the Communists threw the Foreign Minister out a high window and the security police ruled it suicide. The Secretary of State can't start a coup, or stop one. The Attorney General could do both.

The Attorney General controls the FBI, oversees voting rights, prosecutes all federal crimes, supervises our efforts to catch foreign spies. The Attorney General could lay off prosecuting spies from particular foreign governments. The Attorney General can simply choose not to prosecute crimes committed on the Administration's behalf. It's an extremely dangerous position in the wrong hands.

On the positive side, a principled Attorney General helped bring Richard Nixon down. A good Attorney General can save our country.

Stopping Jeff Sessions is one of the most important things we can do. If he gets confirmed anyway, but has to publicly repudiate one of Trump's policies to do it, that could also be very valuable, because Trump will be angry and we want their working relationship to be as damaged as it can be. An Attorney General who won't do Trump's dirty work for him is what we need.

Call both of your senators, please. Trump has made it clear that he intends to govern lawlessly and unconstitutionally. But he has made a mistake by moving too obviously, too soon, before he had his Attorney General and Supreme Court pick in place. Let's make him pay for that mistake, now, before he can solidify unlawful power.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog


Monday, January 16, 2017

Barack Obama: American Stoic

If the Founding Fathers had a chance to meet Barack Obama, they would of course be shocked. Even the most enlightened of them were not prepared to imagine an African-American President. And what they would think about his policies is anyone's guess: the Founders' political philosophies were shaped by their political environments, and they wouldn't fit easily into today's debates. But I'm pretty confident that they would be impressed with President Obama's personal bearing, which sometimes seems to have more in common with their ideas of deportment and decorum than with our generation's ideas. The Founders would never have expected Obama, but they would have understood him. It's not just that Washington, Jefferson, and Adams would have been able to smell what Obama is cooking. It's that Obama is cooking from the Founders' favorite menu.

Barack Obama behaves in many ways like a Stoic. By that, I don't just mean someone quiet and uncomplaining, the way we use the word "stoic" today. I mean that Obama acts very much like a follower of the Stoic philosophy followed by many classical Greeks and Romans. The Stoics taught that you should master your emotions through reason and self-discipline and focus on living a virtuous life. They also taught that virtue, reason, and discipline could free you, psychologically, from the impermanence and unpredictability of the world around us. The Stoic definition of virtue was both personal and civic, and the test of virtue was your actions, not your feelings. The point was not to feel righteous or spiritually exalted, but to live a good and just life day to day. By definition, that meant being a virtuous citizen of your community.

I have never seen or heard Obama using the specific language of Stoicism, but he certainly acts like one, and for the real Stoics that's the test. (Someone who "believes in" Stoicism but lives corruptly, or in thrall to intemperate emotions, is not a Stoic. Someone who has never heard of Stoicism but walks the walk meets the most important standard.) Obama's behavior since the election has been one very illuminating example: being Obama, he has put his personal feelings aside and focused doing what seemed best for the country, and at certain moments his behavior seems at odds with what he's presumably feeling. If "what seems best" has varied over the last few weeks, it has been because of new information or changing events, not because of Obama's mood. It is not about his mood; "No-Drama" Obama considers his own mood the lowest priority, and would see it as a serious moral failure if he let his mood interfere with his duty.

The Founders would recognize and applaud this immediately. It's almost exactly the way they conceived of virtue. The other Founders loved and admired Washington because they saw him as a man who had been born with strong natural passions (not least his naturally ferocious temper), who subordinated those passions under iron self-control. (When Washington's mastery of his temper did slip, as it sometimes did during the setbacks of the Revolutionary War, the results could be volcanic.) Washington exemplified the reason-over-emotion approach that his era held up as the ideal.

And Washington's favorite work of literature, bar none, was Joseph Addison's play Cato, a historical tragedy about a Roman statesman and his Stoic civic virtue. Washington actually put on a production of Cato at Valley Forge, because it was a good example of how to put moral virtue and duty over merely physical problems like hunger, cold, and fear. In fact, Cato was a huge favorite among many of the Founders; Washington and Franklin are always quoting it, although we no longer recognize those lines as quotes. Nathan Hale's famous line, "My only regret is that I have but one life to give for my country," is straight out of Cato.

It is not a surprise that someone like Obama, who reads widely in history, philosophy, and literature, would absorb some Stoic ideas. Those ideas have been steadily passed down. The Renaissance saw a huge revival of interest in Stoicism, and the 17th and18th centuries, with their love of reason and order, borrowed freely from Stoic thought. (Joseph Addison didn't write a play about Cato for no reason.) Stoic ideas have found their way into our wider tradition. And the Obama's Stoicism-without-the-name has clear antecedents in the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King Jr.'s approach to civil disobedience. That non-violent civil disobedience is, in practical terms, straight Stoicism: the protestors used their intellect and self-discipline to overcome danger, fear, and anger, so that violence, fear, and anger could not be used to control them. John Lewis sacrificing his body on the bridge at Selma, willingly allowing himself to be beaten rather submit to wrongful authority, is practical Stoicism of the highest order. Stoicism understands self-discipline as a synonym for freedom. If you can master yourself, you are free from other masters.

But Stoic self-control has so far out of fashion that we have trouble understanding it, trouble even calling it by its proper name. When most of us hear about someone subordinating their emotions to their reason, we tend to think of terms like "repressed" or "inhibited," terms that suggest that the person doesn't have full access to his or her feelings, or is too fearful to express them. We usually think that such a person needs to loosen up and become less inhibited, to express their emotions more. This started with the Romantic movement in the early 1800s, which prioritized emotional intensity above all, and was consolidated by psychoanalysis's attempts to free patients from genuine repression. At this point, a huge chunk of our popular culture is built around the proposition that everybody would be happier with less impulse control. We love stories about maverick-y cops and maverick-y fighter pilots and maverick-y scientists (all professions where mavericks can be genuinely dangerous). We watch reality TV, which deliberately showcases people who respond irrationally and hysterically to the most trivial challenges. We imagine a character like Mr. Spock, whose project superficially resembles the Stoics', as unable to feel, unable to name his feelings. When we have a Broadway hit about one of the Founders, we choose Hamilton, the one who was most volatile and out of control. (I love that show, but it only has a second act because Hamilton self-destructed.) And Key and Peele joke, hilariously, about President Obama's need for an "Anger Translator," who speaks the truths that Obama is imagined as unable to speak or to recognize.

All of this badly misunderstands Stoicism. Mastering your passions with reason and discipline does not mean being passionless. (George Washington did not need any Anger Translator. George spoke anger very fluently, and could release a poetic torrent of rage if he liked.) It does not mean lacking emotions, or lacking access to emotions. In fact, real self-control usually demands some serious self-knowledge. You cannot master your feelings if you do not know them. The difference between Stoicism and repression is that a repressed person cannot choose to express an emotion, even if they would like to, while an accomplished Stoic chooses whether and how to express something. From the Stoic perspective, a repressed man and a hysterical "maverick" are two sides of one debased coin: one cannot choose to express a feeling and the other who cannot keep himself from expressing it, but neither has any real control over their emotions. Obama's public performance over the last decade testifies both to his self-control and to his self-knowledge. He has more self-control than we are used to seeing in politicians, but also brings a sense of emotional authenticity, or genuineness, that few other politicians can match.

Obama's successor, of course, lacks anything like Obama's discipline. He seems to have given himself over entirely to uncontrolled passions. From a Stoic point of view, he is (as Hamlet puts it) "passion's slave." Because the President-Elect has no -- and apparently seeks no -- mastery of his own emotions, he is mastered by them, in the thrall of every momentary impulse or upheaval. On a profound level, he is not free. He is unable to govern his own emotional responses or his own behavior. He is the subject of a tyrant, and his response is to try to exert tyrannical control over those around him. But, tyrant that he may be, he is also exceptionally vulnerable to control and manipulation by others. Certainly, some of his advisers play on his emotional weaknesses. And although it is startling for the President-Elect of the world's most powerful nation to be under the thumb of a lesser foreign power's leader, this President-Elect's inability to govern his emotional life renders him, as the Stoics would expect, naturally servile.

The Founders, like the Roman Stoics before them, believed that only individual self-control, the ability of citizens to discipline their own passions and impulses, could make self-governing republics possible. Self-government is only possible through self-government, and when the citizens can no longer rule themselves through their reason and self-control, they will lose their collective ability to govern the republic or, worse, give that power away. It is the nature of the unmastered soul to seek a master elsewhere.  

This President-Elect is also a product of our wider culture, which has come to misunderstand "authenticity" as self-expression unfettered by decorum or reason. Only that fundamental misunderstanding allows the President-Elect to be misunderstood, by part of the public, as a person capable of leadership. The question for America, and for us as Americans, is whether we can regain the personal and civic discipline to keep our Republic free.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Your Public Domain Update for 2017

Happy New Year all! As every year, I'm writing a blog post for Public Domain Day, listing all of the old books, movies, pieces of music, and works of art that are leaving copyright to join the public domain today. And, as every year in the United States, that list contains nothing at all. Public Domain Day is for people in other countries. Instead, we get Congress repeatedly extending the copyright terms to keep lobbyists for big media companies happy, so that virtually nothing has entered the public domain in the United States since January 1, 1978. So, as every year, I have to write a post about what would be entering public domain today.

Copyright in this country originally had a 28-year maximum, which gradually got doubled to 56 years (originally it was 14 years, renewable for a second 14, and then 28 renewable for 28 more). In the 1970s, Congress extended the term of copyright, freezing the public-domain clock so that nothing created after 1922 would become public for decades. That clock has never been restarted: just before the newer, longer copyrights could expire at the end of the 1990s, Congress extended them again with the Millennium Copyright Act, sometimes called the Sonny Bono act for one of its sponsors. The Constitution specifically forbids perpetual copyright; it only gives Congress the power to grant patents and copyrights for a "limited time." But Congress has gotten around this by simply granting one "limited" extension after another, so that Mickey Mouse (for example), stays in private ownership forever.

So, what are we missing?


If Not for the Millennium Copyright Act:

Citizen Kane would enter the public domain today. Let's just leave that one there for a minute: Citizen Kane

Also in the movies, we would get public rights to Dumbo, The Maltese Falcon, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Babes on Broadway, Charlie Chan in Rio, Abbot and Costello classics Buck Privates and Hold That Ghost!, The Devil and Daniel Webster, The Devil and Miss Jones (the Devil got a lot of work in 1941, and not just in Hollywood), Hellzapoppin', High Sierra, The Lady Eve, The Little Foxes, Major Barbara, Meet John Doe (which is feeling pretty topical right now), Moon Over Miami, Pimpernel Smith with Leslie Jones as the fearless Scarlet Pimpernel, The Road to Zanzibar with Hope and Crosby, Sergeant York, The Sea Wolf, The Shadow of the Thin Man, Sullivan's Travels, Hitchcock's original version of Spellbound, Tarzan's Secret Treasure, Tobacco Road, and The Wolf Man. Oh, and lest we forget, 1941's Oscar winner for Best Picture, How Green Was My Valley. (Better luck next time, Orson! Maybe your cinematography should have been more innovative!)

Wonder Woman should be leaving copyright today, free for anyone to write and draw. (So that someone, for example, could create a version of the world's mightiest woman who was not dressed like a streetwalker.) So would a host of Golden Age comic heroes, including Blackhawk, Plastic Man, Green Arrow, Aquaman, and lesser-known heroes such as Starman and Dr. Mid-Nite. (If you don't know who those are, well, my brother would never let me hear the end of it if I left them out.) Bad guy the Penguin would join Batman, Catwoman, and the Joker, who would already be in the public domain, so someone writing public-domain Batman would be able to add a Penguin storyline.

Beloved children's books Curious George and Make Way for Ducklings would become public domain today. So would Mother Courage and Her Children, Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon, The Screwtape Letters, Evil Under the Sun, Between The Acts, My Theodosia, and What Makes Sammy Run? So would two personal favorites of mine: Borges's The Garden of Forking Paths and Nabokov's first novel in English, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight.

In music, we would hit another motherlode of American standards: "Blues in the Night," "Baby Mine," "Chattanooga Choo-choo" and "The Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy," "All That Meat and No Potatoes," "God Bless the Child," "Deep in the Heart of Texas," "I Could Write a Book," "I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)," "Knock Me a Kiss," "Introduction to a Waltz," "Let's Get Away from It All," "So Near and Yet So Far," "Winter Weather," and, of course, the song that I believe should be our national anthem, "Take the 'A' Train." And for classical music fans, works by Bartok, Barber, Britten, Copland, Messiaen, Rachmaninoff and Schumann would all become free for public use.

But clearly, Congress has decided that works created in 1941 just haven't been under copyright long enough. Has anybody made any money off "Take the 'A' Train" yet? Or off Wonder Woman? We're just going to have to wait another twenty years for these intellectual properties to become public properties, or to have Congress pass another law keeping them private. The smart money is on the extension.

If not for the 1976 Copyright Act:

Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird would enter public domain today under the laws that governed its initial publication. So would Updike's Run, Rabbit and Dr. Seuss's Green Eggs and Ham. Likewise The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O'Connor, The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth, Graham Greene's A Burnt-Out Case, Sylvia Plath's Colossus and Other Poems, and Walter M. Miller's science fiction classic A Canticle for Leibowitz. It would be a banner year for public-domain drama: Rhinoceros, A Man for All Seasons, Pinter's The Caretaker, Albee's The Sandbox, and the stage version of Orson Welles's Chimes at Midnight. 

But it would be an even bigger year for classic movies: Spartacus, Psycho, The Apartment, La Dolce Vita, BUtterfield 8 and The Magnificent Seven would all enter public domain. So would Inherit the Wind, The Alamo, the original Ocean's 11, Exodus, The Bad Sleep Well, Elmer Gantry, Please Don't Eat the Daisies, Hell Bent for Leather, the Vincent Price House of Usher and Roger Corman Little Shop of Horrors, The Swiss Family Robinson, Where the Boys Are, and The Unforgiven.

Plenty of Broadway musicals would enter public domain this year, too: Camelot, Oliver!, Bye-Bye Birdie, The Fantasticks, Flower Drum Song, and The Unsinkable Molly Brown. (That, Lin-Manuel, is what a Tony awards night with some suspense looks like.)

A huge number of pop hits would also become public domain today, exactly as they were expected to when they debuted. Crooner favorite "Ain't That a Kick in the Head" would leave copyright along with "Chain Gang," "Apache," "Calendar Girl," "Cathy's Clown," "I Gotta Know," "I'll Be There," "It's Now or Never," "Money (That's What I Want)," "Only the Lonely," "Spanish Harlem," "You're Sixteen," "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?," "When Will I Be Loved," "The Twist," and "Save the Last Dance for Me." Pretty good jukebox. Also the novelty songs "Alley-Oop," and "Itsy-Bitsy-Teeny-Weeny Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini," for anyone still interested in them. There would also be a good deal of interesting classical music, maybe most importantly Shostakovich's string quartets 7 and 8 and Messiaen's Chronochromie.

But all of those works will stay firmly in the hands of Sony, Disney, Time Warner, etc., until at least 2056. Someone needs another 39 years of royalties from Camelot, evidently, which would clearly be more productive than just letting people do Camelot, or even alter Camelot.

The good news is that the public domain clock, which has not ticked since January 1, 1979, is set to start ticking again two years from today, on January 1, 2019. On that day, if Congress does not intervene again, works published in 1923 will become free to the public. (Whose woods these are I think I know: They'll likely keep them private, though). Expect a bill to be before Congress before 2018 is over, and write to your representative and senators to tell them that sometimes, art has been in private hands long enough.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Monday, December 12, 2016

In Defense of Ebeneezer Scrooge

Oh, joy. The War on the War on Christmas is back. People are hollering that now that Trump has been elected, everyone is going to have to say "Merry Christmas" all the time and have "Merry Christmas" said to them all the time, whether they like it or not, and they don't like it, screw them anyway. What better way to express the meaning of Christmas? It's so very far from the spirit of Christian humility and love that I find myself, against all odds, ready to mount a defense of Ebeneezer Scrooge.

As we all know, Scrooge's response when wished a "Merry Christmas" is to say "Bah! Humbug!" We all know that, from early in childhood, as Scrooge's tag line. And we don't worry about what it means, exactly. It's an old-timey phrase that Scrooge says, and we get that it's negative. We learn the phrase much too early for the word "humbug" to be in our vocabulary for other reasons. So we don't think about it. But Scrooge is saying something very specific. The word "humbug" means fraud. Scrooge is saying that the holiday of Christmas is a fraud and an imposture. And, as Dickens's original readers all knew, Scrooge is saying that for well-established religious reasons.

Scrooge is expressing a religious objection to Christmas. A Christian religious objection to Christmas. Although Scrooge isn't shown as especially pious (because the whole story is set up to make him lose his argument), he is speaking for a long English Protestant tradition that viewed Christmas as a bunch of non-Biblical paganish nonsense. Those Puritanical Protestants had a strong  theological point here, in that the December 25th date is sooooo totally not Biblical.

(I'm not going to walk you through the details, but think about the Gospels' reference to the shepherds tending their flocks by night. What kind of shepherds tend their flocks outdoors at night near the end of December? Terrible, terrible shepherds who are letting all of their sheep die of painful exposure to the cold. What is wrong with these shepherds? Why don't they bring the flocks in for the winter like everyone else does? Do they hate sheep? But I digress. The answer is, it's not actually winter in the Gospel story.)

Anyway that have-you-heard-this-before rap your atheist office-mate annual lays on you across the cubicle divider about how Christmas is really this pagan holiday that Christians took over blah blah etc. etc., turns out to be basically accurate. But your atheist explainer friend has unwittingly borrowed that argument from a group of hard-core Christian fanatics from earlier centuries, who were absolutely determined, on the grounds of their faith, not to celebrate any Papist idolatrous nonsense like Christmas.

Ebeneezer Scrooge is recognizably descended from those Christian hard-liners, which is why his first name is Ebeneezer. Giving your children names from the Old Testament, rather than the name of a later Christian saint, is a Puritan practice, and into the 19th century that combination of Jewish first name and English last name is a sign of Puritan family history, the same way having a first name like "Rainwater" suggests that your parents were hippies. (If you see an early American named Ezekiel, Abraham, or Nathaniel, you can be 95% certain they have New England Puritans in their family tree.) Ebeneezer Scrooge is actually named after a rock (no, really) from the first book of Samuel. He's got a stony heart, right? But notice that his hard-firsted partner, Jacob Marley, also has an Old Testament/Puritan name. The nice guys in A Christmas Carol don't get those Old Testament names. They're named Bob and Fred.

Also notice that, partly because of stubborn religious objections, Christmas was not actually a legal holiday in Dickens's England. As in, no one had to close their store. That little exchange near the beginning where Bob Cratchit asks for Christmas off (or, and this is worth noticing, Scrooge prompts Cratchit to ask for Christmas off: "You'll be wanting the whole day off tomorrow?") makes no sense to us today. Why does Bob have to ask for the holiday off? Everybody gets the holiday off. Actually, they don't, because it's not actually a holiday. So give Ebeneezer Scrooge his propers: even at the beginning of the story, he gives Cratchit Christmas Day off when he doesn't have to. He closes shop on a day he could have done business and he pays Cratchit a full day's pay for a bogus fake holiday, a fraudulent humbug that Scrooge probably thinks of as un-Christian. He even goes out of his way to make sure to that Cratchit asks, which means that however much Scrooge huffs and grumbles he has actually decided to give Cratchit the paid day off before Cratchit asks. So don't be so hard on the guy.

Now, my boy Charles Dickens is very intent on promoting Christmas, for lots of reasons. Part of it is about a larger High-Church Anglican movement bent on reviving traditional holidays. And part of it, famously, is commercial, because Dickens wanted to promote Christmas gift-giving. (He published a lot of work in once-a-year annuals designed to be given as Christmas presents; A Christmas Carol was first published in one of these Christmas-gift-ready compilations.) He wants to make the strongest case for Christmas he can. And therefore, by and large, he leaves Jesus out of it.

A Christmas Carol always works from the premise that Christmas itself is not religiously defensible. The Ghosts make every conceivable argument for the Christmas holiday EXCEPT the argument about Jesus's birth. They never go to the Bethlehem story, never even get close. Because there's no way to con Scrooge, or frankly to con the readers, into accepting that this is actually Jesus's birthday. Dickens knows better than to make an argument he can't win.

So Dickens makes a case for a non-sectarian, ultimately secularized Christmas, based on recognizably but not exclusively Christian values, such as generosity, and a generally small-c conservative emphasis on the pleasures of tradition. (Dickens is working the tradition angle from the first few sentences of the story, in ways that work all the better because they don't call full attention to themselves.) And in there Dickens slyly folds in his message that the best way to celebrate Christmas is to buy things.

Now, I love A Christmas Carol. It tells its story very well. But then, I'm a superstitious Papist. What do I know? But I want to point out that one of the things A Christmas Carol is doing is taking Christ out of Christmas. And it does that in 1843. So don't tell me it's some modern liberal conspiracy. Charles Dickens did it, long before any of our grandparents were born. And he invented the holiday we all know today: a commercial and secular holiday that's about vague, feel-good sentiments and about tradition for tradition's sake, rather than about any actual religious content per se. Dickens made Christmas for everyone, because if it were actually about Jesus most Christians would not have accepted it.

Ebeneezer Scrooge doesn't accept Christmas because of Jesus. Ebeneezer Scrooge doesn't accept that Christmas has anything to do with Jesus. And no one in the story who comes from the Afterlife tries to tell him any different. What turns Ebeneezer Scrooge around is a general set of positive values, loosely tied to Christianity but by no means tied to any specific sectarian identity: kindness and generosity, warmth and affection, values that you'll tend to find among believers of nearly every religion. Scrooge likes to hear the Christmas bells, but you'll notice he doesn't actually attend any church. He's not observing a religious holiday. He's just in it for the peace on earth and goodwill to men.

So, however you celebrate these winter holidays, let's keep Dickens and Scrooge (reformed version) in our hearts this winter: a warmth and generosity that extends itself to all without exclusion, without getting hung up on the details of doctrine or on membership in any specific sect or tribe. Wish people well this holiday season with no strings attached, without being stingy of your good will. And God bless us, every one.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog