Christmas Day 2016: A [subversive] Charlie Brown Christmas—a (gentle) ethics of commitment and politics of resistance

Charlie Brown & Linus with the real Christmas Tree
READINGS—A précis of "A Charlie Brown Christmas" including a passage from the Gospel of Luke (2:8-14). However,  you might prefer to watch the short twenty-five minute film instead at the Youtube link below. It would be much more fun . . .

Christmastime is here, and Charlie Brown knows that he should be happy, but he isn't. He also knows that commercialism is the problem — expressing itself even within his own family as seen by his dog Snoopy entering a Christmas decorating contest with a cash prize and by his much younger sister Sally's Christmas letter to Santa which reads:

“Dear Santa Claus, how have you been? Did you have a nice summer? How is your wife? I have been extra good this year, so I have a long list of presents that I want. Please note the size and colour of each item, and send as many as possible. If it seems too complicated, make it easy on yourself: just send money. How about tens and twenties?”

Charlie Brown is horrified by all this but the problem is he simply doesn't know what to do about it. Eventually his friend Lucy suggests that he direct the Christmas play saying to him:

“You need involvement. You need to get involved in some real Christmas project. . . . We need a director, you need involvement.”

Charlie Brown agrees because he hopes that this may indeed help him to find the true meaning of Christmas. Alas, during the chaotic rehearsals this hope seems to move ever further away from him. In a last ditch attempt to improve things the cast decide they need to get a Christmas tree to act as a centrepiece for the stage and they send Charlie Brown and his friend Linus out to buy a tree. As they set off Lucy says,

“Get the biggest aluminium tree you can find, Charlie Brown. Maybe painted pink.”

They find an Christmas Tree emporium with dozens of brightly coloured aluminium trees but there, in the middle of them all, Charlie Brown comes across a small, very sickly looking real tree. On seeing it Linus says,

“Gee, do they still make wooden Christmas trees?” 

Charlie Brown feels that it seems to need a home but Linus reminds him what Lucy said and adds that this little tree “doesn't seem to fit the modern spirit.” 

Charlie Brown replies that he doesn’t care and that with a little bit of decoration and love and attention it will be just right for their play and adding, “Besides, I think it needs me.”

On returning to the auditorium the tree is initially received by all as a disaster and Charlie Brown is forced to utter out loud,

“I shouldn't have picked this little tree. Everything I do turns into a disaster. I guess I really don't know what Christmas is all about. Isn't there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” 

Linus looks up at him and says, “Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about.” Linus then walks out onto the stage, says, “Lights, please” and, as the stage lights dim, Linus begins to recite these words from Luke 2:8-14.

“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them: ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring unto you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David, a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: you shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel, a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace, good will toward men.’” 

Charlie Brown realises that Linus is right and that this reading does express what Christmas is all about and he proudly and bravely proclaims,

“I won't let all this commercialism ruin my Christmas. I'll take this little tree and I'll decorate it. And I'll show'em it really will work in our play.”

At last the children, inspired by the message of the nativity, finally begin to pull together and to show the little tree, and each other, some real tender, loving care and the film ends with all the children congratulating Charlie Brown for getting such a lovely tree and singing around it “Hark! the herald angels sing.”



Vince Guaraldi's soundtrack
“A Charlie Brown Christmas” has, in the USA at least, become an national institution being shown on TV, coast to coast, every year since it was made in 1965. Here in the UK it has, instead, taken on the status of a cult classic. It’s worth noting that its soundtrack — a jazz score by the pianist Vince Guaraldi — has become one of the most popular jazz albums of all-time and for countless numbers of jazz musicians like me, Guaraldi’s score was an early important introduction to the music. [You can hear that on Youtube by clicking this link.]

Now, I’m not absolutely sure why I went back to the film this year but, on reflection, it feels like a necessary response to my felt need to immerse myself, if only for a while, in something simple and life-affirming at the end of what has been by any measure a bad, bad year.

Watching it again after many, many years I was once again charmed and uplifted but in an utterly different way to the way I was whilst growing up in the late-1960s and 1970s. I’m not sure what I saw back then but this time round I saw it as being a gentle, low-key expression of what the British philosopher Simon Critchley calls an ethics of commitment and a politics of resistance. Let’s start with the ethics of commitment.

For many liberals, it has become increasingly difficult loyally to commit to any political or religious position in a sustained and effective way. In short we have increasingly become religiously and politically demotivated. However, it is important to realize that, initially, this demotivation had its some of its roots in something very positive, namely our becoming aware of the multifarious nature of world and the sheer variety of beliefs and practices it necessarily contains. This, in turn, helped us develop a much needed tolerance towards cultures, views and practices other than our own. But this important development has simultaneously had the increasingly bad result of stopping many of us from confidently and appropriately affirming our loyalty to, and the upholding of, key aspects of our own cultures, views and practices, to the point where many of us are no longer motivated strongly to commit religiously or politically to anything at all. Not surprisingly we find ourselves increasingly pushed and pulled every which way. I cannot tell you how many conversations I have had over the years in my study with liberals desperate to find something, anything, to which they could commit with full pathos and a clean heart.

As I watched “A Charlie Brown Christmas” this month it stuck me that in it we see something of this tension, between openness to the other on the one hand and the need to commit to some ethical viewpoint of our own on the other, played out and kept in delicate balance. The characters in the film are clearly all very different in character; one is fancy, another is pompous, one vain, another angry, depressed, dirty, honest, innocent, deceptive, mendacious, greedy and so on (one is also a dog and one a tree—there's ecological diversity here too!), and they all find themselves in various forms of conflict with each other throughout the film. But despite this, during their rehearsal for the nativity play it becomes apparent that what holds them together in their difference is something the French philosopher Alain Badiou calls a “fidelity to an event.” The event is, of course, the mythical one of the birth of Jesus which forms, to borrow a phrase from the poet Wallace Stevens, the supreme fiction towards which they and I hope we, too, can still be loyal.

By the end of the film each of the children eventually commits, with fidelity, to this event, this concrete situation and singular occurrence and it is this which delivers up to them the motivation further to commit to the ethical demand found in the supreme fiction of the nativity, namely, that we should express “Glory to God in the highest” and on earth to show peace and good will towards the other.

You may argue that committing loyally to what we can clearly call a Christian singular and concrete event is, however, still problematically relative because we know only too well that a faithful Muslim, a Buddhist, Jew, New-Atheist etc., simply cannot loyally commit to it. But this is to miss something important about what’s seems to me to be going on here for those of us who can so commit.

Alain Badiou wants to call this kind of thing, and so do I, a situated universalism because true loyalty to such a concrete (even if mythical or fictional in origin) event can only be justified if it is somehow addressed to all, and only if a person’s commitment to that event and situation is then able powerfully to motivate them to ethical actions whose justifications always exceeds that local situation and can be used to bring about its transformation and betterment (Simon Critchley, Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance, Verso Books, 2007, p. 49).

The passing of fifty-one years helps us observe this transformation and betterment at work because the film’s central address and call enables us see that the culture of 1960s America still needed to enlarge itself to include, visibly and proudly (for example) Black, Asian, Hispanic and LGBT faces and voices. The film’s situated universalism cannot but help to critique it’s own failure to be as inclusive as it really should have been. We can feel the film’s message to be right (and worthy of our own loyalty and commitment) precisely because the film doesn’t, itself, manage fully to live up to it. And, because it doesn’t live up to it, the ethical demand to try again and to try better that the film contains shines as brightly as the Christmas Star itself.

All in all the film powerfully reminds me that neither I, nor you, can have any hope of properly helping anyone else in the world unless we, too, can find ways to commit fully and loyally to some supreme fiction found in our own local situations and cultures. As Lucy says to the depressed Charlie Brown, “You need involvement. You need to get involved in some real Christmas project. . . . We need a director, you need involvement” and this is something we must re-learn along with Charlie Brown.

We can now move to our second topic today, namely, that the film is an expression of an effective and gentle politics of resistance.

As you heard earlier in the précis, throughout it is a wonderful and humorous expression of both the value and need to show resistance against the way our hyper-connected, commercialized, neoliberal world has been able to level everything so that it has become harder and harder for people to see any meaningful difference between what’s important and what’s not important, between what’s trivial and what’s crucial, between what’s relevant and what is irrelevant. It’s one of the lasting subversive ironies of the film that it was commissioned by a key player in the neoliberal commercialization of our world — Coca-Cola! Consequently we can see the film is a subversive, delightful and humorous case study of how resist this tendency and to see that Christmas Day is special, that it’s not like other days and that we must never ever let it become like them. To celebrate Christmas, properly to celebrate Christmas à la Charlie Brown and friends is, therefore, to engage in an act of political resistance.

In their own politics of resistance the children depicted in the film seem to me to be like a little group of Occupy activists who, for a time, succeed in creating what can be called a “temporary autonomous zone”, a zone temporarily free from the crushing pressures of the commercialized and financialized neoliberal world. By taking over, i.e. occupying, a school auditorium (and our imaginations and hearts) they find a place and a time freely to work out for themselves (and, therefore, also for us) that Christmas is not about aluminium trees, presents, money, over-the-top decorations and real estate but is, instead, about gathering together around a Christmas tree to proclaim loyalty to the event of the nativity and come what may to proclaim themselves “Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace, good will toward men”.

I find it quietly affirming of the potential effectiveness of the film’s politics of resistance that one of the little known consequences of the film is that it successfully put out of business the aluminium Christmas Tree industry which, between 1958 and 1965, had become incredibly profitable. By 1967, just two years after the Christmas Special first aired, they were no longer being mass-manufactured. Bravo, Charlie Brown and Co.

So to conclude, in sum, I think the film helps us see that through loyalty to the event that is the supreme fiction of the nativity we still have the wherewithal and power, not only to put out of business aluminium Christmas Tree firms, but also to resist all those firms, global corporations, eastern syndicates, political ideologies and theologies that are currently destroying peace in our time and seeking to financialize every hour of our lives to the detriment of both our souls and our beautiful planet.

But, in the end, the film is not simply about resisting something negative, it’s about creating something powerfully real, positive and joyous. It helps us see that when and wherever we are able freely and loyally to commit to the ethical demand contained in the supreme fiction of the nativity, then there we are also able to bring joyously into being something that we used to call the kingdom of God itself, a veritable theological or philosophical temporary autonomous zone. I would argue that this was the wonderful and joyous act of political resistance that Charlie Brown and his friends expressed in the film and which we, gathering here, are expressing again today.

So, Happy Christmas brothers and sisters, comrades one and all!



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