Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Wassailing the Wealthy

The Christmas season is traditionally the one time of year that we're permitted, even encouraged, to burst forth from our hovels to guilt-trip the rich while spreading  joy and fellowship throughout the land.

Key word: traditionally. Because according to government studies, the charity coffers are dwindling and fewer of us are reaching out to our fellow human beings in these hard times. In sixteen out of the twenty categories measured, the levels of social engagement by Americans have plummeted this year. People are either too busy working multiple minimum wage jobs, or too depressed about their worklessness, to be able to extend themselves. Volunteerism, as well as average household wealth, has dropped precipitously since the Great Meltdown of '08. An estimated two million fewer Americans volunteered last year than they did in 2012.

Besides the actual cost of volunteering (say, reliable transportation) are the increasingly erratic work schedules foisted upon the Precariat by the owner class during this New Abnormal Era. People working insecure crazy hours at Walmart or McDonalds, for example, are less likely to commit to helping and socializing because they never know, from one week to the next, what hours they'll be assigned to work. Increasingly, people no longer feel like they own their own time.

The professional philanthropy/donor class, meanwhile, is becoming ever more selective in its own generosity. The extremely rich are wont to "invest" in places rather than in causes and people, and insist that their charity be tax-deductible. They tend to give to the arts, to medical research (the rich get sick too) and elite institutions of higher learning. Living, breathing human beings  not part of one's dynasty are not tax deductible  -- they are, however, eminently disposable. Charities such as the Salvation Army and United Way, that give aid more or less directly to the poor, are really hurting this year.

Says former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, "The favored charities of the wealthy are gaining in share of the philanthropic economy. The total amount of the money given away by the very wealthy is going up, not because they're giving away a greater share of their income, but because their total wealth itself has grown."

And that brings us to the lost tradition of wassailing: directly accosting and assailing the uber-rich for a share of the pie. The modern substitute of representative democracy, in which the politicians we elect to represent us are supposed to tax the rich in order to even the playing field is yet one more tradition now relegated to the scrap heap of the public good.

The custom of orphans and beggars going door to door and serenading the ruling class right where they live dates at least as far back as the third century. The landowners and nobility would  briefly open their homes to provide a little warmth, food, and mystery liquid from the Wassail Bowl. The wassail songs themselves were but gentle, good-natured reminders to the rich that 'tis the season for noblesse-obliging.

During times of plague and famine, however, the wassailing tradition would often devolve into armed home invasions, leading to the siege mentality so common among our sensitive ruling elites today. Not that wassailing ever really caught on in Exceptional America anyway, founded as it was on a shiny, right-leaning hill. As a matter of fact, the Pilgrims actually banned the whole celebration of Christmas!  Those Puritans we honor at Thanksgiving were the original Bah-Humbugs.

Let's face it: fast forward, almost 400 years, and anybody daring to go on a Wassail Jaunt through the Blackwater-guarded gated communities of the Forbes 400 is really taking his life in his hands.

In early 19th century New York City, the rich and the prominent were very upset when the rabble rabbled during Yule. Gunfire, bread riots, lots of sex and drunkenness and vice sent the privileged behind locked doors, where they've remained ever since. The evolution of Christmas in income-disparate America into insular closed-door gatherings was a direct result of elite paranoia.

In the mid-19th century, just as unfettered capitalism and the Industrial Revolution were gearing up with a vengeance, an Englishman named William Henry Husk departed from the bland God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen feel-goodism and repurposed the traditional Wassail carol to fit those particular hard times. He might have titled it "Soaking the Rich at Christmas." It was during this same magical era that Karl Marx was stirring things up with his revelations of the capitalist war on labor, and when Charles Dickens was sticking it to the greedy rich in his popular novels. The Scrooge-like forbears of the oligarchs of Kochtopia and Walmartistan were just as annoying then as they are now.

Here's what greeted Ebenezer Robber Baron back in the day:

We are not daily beggars
That beg from door to door.
But we are neighbours' children
Whom you have seen before.

Tell that to Congress and the plutocrats who own the government. Our rulers have once again evoked the Ayn Rand Who Stole Christmas in order to fill the begging bowls of the too-rich by draining those of the less fortunate. The coal in last year's stocking consisted of food stamp cuts and ending long-term unemployment insurance. The latest lumps for the Lumpen are pension cuts and transforming what's left of our savings into gambling chips for Wall Street casinos.

We have got a little purse
Of stretching leather skin
We want a little of your money
To line it well within.

We asked Santa for a tax on high speed trades. This relatively modest surcharge and some relatively modest affordable tax increases on the richest .01% would fund health care, highway improvements and public education. Helping those less fortunate -- now commonly known as the refugees of the middle class -- would help the rich, too. A rising tide lifts all yachts. Time for some trickle-up. We ordinary people have been stretched and squeezed enough.

So let's get on with the sarcasm, shall we?

Bring us out a table
And spread it with a cloth
Bring us out a mouldy cheese
And some of your Christmas loaf.

It's not prime rib we want, but it would be nice if a few banksters went to jail for that subprime mortgage fraud. Just a slab of tainted cheese and some of that rock-hard fruitcake from last year to keep a little flesh on our ribs. A living wage of at least $15 to start would be nice, too. That thin Yule Gruel of platitudes and bootstrap-boosting Randian rhetoric just doesn't do it for us any more.

And while we're waiting for the inevitable revolution, here's one last rich-shaming stanza to tide you over:

Good master and good mistress
While you're sitting by the fire
Pray think of us poor children
Who are wandering in the mire.

Needless to say, this mildly socialistic version of the Wassail Song is probably not being piped through to plutocratic office parties. The various recorded versions still around are heavily bowdlerized. The mouldy cheese is transformed into "tasty" cheese in one rendition. In other version, the money for our purses is reduced to "a few coins." Nor is it likely to be heard on the automated loops of easy listening holiday tunes coming from a corporatized FM radio station studio devoid of any actual human wage-earning DJ. The Christmas music will be cut off precisely at the stroke of midnight on December 26th. That's when the annual mad stampede for the post-holiday sales and binge of gift returns will get underway.

This is not to say that actual Christmas caroling is not still around. You just have to know where to look for it. And look no further than the great American cultural center-cum-New Abnormal town square: the shopping mall. (or Galleria, if you prefer to be elite.) The voices are singing and the bells are ringing to get shoppers in the mood to spend and consume till they drop.

You can even find a modern version of the Wassail Bowl. It's over at the food court, and it's called a self-serve soda machine. And it'll cost you.

Cheers and happy holidays to Sardonickists everywhere!


Leo Noel said...

first time commenter here, have followed your blog for the last two years or so--many thanks for your vigilance and razor wit, quite certain you'll dig this subversive send-up of the old xmas classic:


leo in n.o.

Denis Neville said...

MSM Christmas Eve headlines: “Santa Rally” - the gift of profits - on Wall Street as Dow sets record and ends above 18,000 for first time!!!

The money train is too big to fail and will run forever!!!

Just more accounting tricks.

But it’s Christmas for Wall Street.

Christmas gifts of the rich are in a category of their own. Money doesn’t matter when it comes to buying just-right gifts in Richistan. And they don’t have to do the gift buying themselves. While us hoi polloi scrounge for coupons, go to deal websites and wait for sales, the Richie Riches get discounts by working with personal shoppers who have connections with merchants who serve the upper crust.

43 million condemned to living on food stamps and the number of children living in poverty this Christmas being at a record high…

However, take heart.

“The nation’s poor get to experience true Christmas spirit, while the wealthy, burdened by shopping and party obligations, are left out in the cold.” – The Onion


"People who don't have money don't understand the stress." - financial planner for the wealthy

During this time of holiday cheer, why do so many still treat others so poorly?

“Why have political leaders opted to put their populations through hell? My answer is that the people who have the money it takes to finance elections, and also who control much of the media, are not bothered by the current situation. After all, the stock market has rebounded, their banks have been saved. They’re doing just fine, even if the average French, Italian, or American worker is still faring badly.” – Dean Baker

I always remember the orphaned boy lost on a cold Christmas Eve in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Heavenly Christmas Tree.” He is the victim of the heartlessness of the world around him.


Richard Ohio said...

Merry Christmas
This is my favorite editorial blog of all time. Thanks for consistent effort and razor wit

Pearl said...

Let’s abandon the Democrats: Stop blaming Fox News and stop hoping Elizabeth Warren will save us http://www.salon.com/2014/12/23/lets_abandon_loser_democrats_stop_blaming_fox_news_and_hoping_elizabeth_warren_saves_us/ via @Salon

Karen Garcia said...

Leo Noel,
Thanks for the cute video. Nice to know I have a reader named Leo Noel at Christmas-time! Thanks too to Richard Ohio as well as Pearl and Denis and Kat and Will and all the rest for being such consistently great contributors to this blog.

Merry Christmas, Hannukah, Festivus, Saturnalia, etc. to all.