It’s funny, the disconnect between the things that we say we value, and the people that we treat as valuable.
All of the bad things in society are ultimately the responsibility of the most respectable people. The respectable people, by definition, are the people who control things. The icons of mainstream respectability in America are people who wield some level of social or cultural or financial or political power. The mayor and the dentist and the pastor and the banker. Many respectable people are fine people. Many of them are us. But if you want to be structural about it, you have to recognize that all of the atrocities and outrages of the world we live in—mass incarceration, poverty, inequality, racism, sexism, the entire rainbow of oppression visited upon people who are vulnerable—is built atop a platform that consists of the social arrangements that all of the respectable people have decided to implicitly or explicitly approve. All the bad things that happen—not the acts of god, or the shocking sensational incidents, but the normal, everyday bad things that are built in to the functioning of our country—happen because people have decided that they must happen in order for the whole system to work. The people who decided that in the first place, and the people who have agreed to it, are the respectable people. Continuing to agree to it all is one of the entry prices of mainstream respectability.
To holler and shout about the way things are is the surest way to not be taken seriously. It is a way to have people roll their eyes at you. It is a way to be labeled a kook, a bore, a wacko, a hopeless partisan. It is to be an extremist. To constantly focus on what is wrong with our world is to invite disdain and to be disinvited from all the good parties. It is not a path to popularity. Or even a path to influence. It is not what the mayor and the dentist want to hear.
I am not a religious person. But I do know what Christmas is about: giving. Christmas is a time when you pull your head out of the muck for a short while and think about other people. That is why we like Christmas—because it makes us be better people than we usually are, for at least one day.
Jesus was an extremist. That guy didn’t play. He walked right in and told rich people to give all their money to the poor. Love your neighbor as much as you love yourself? That is some wild shit. Certainly not a modest proposal for polite society. The respectable people of Jesus’ time reacted to his constant moralizing by torturing and murdering him. Yet here we are, two thousand years later, celebrating his birthday.
How are you spending New Year’s eve? In New York City, a group of people will spend their New Year’s eve gathered outside the jail in Brooklyn, making noise that the prisoners can hear, to let them know that they are remembered. I know some people who participate in things like this. They are better people than me. They are, often, young people who are motivated by nothing more than a very strong sense of justice. That’s it. They see horrible things in the world, and they want to make it right. Being locked in a cage in Brooklyn on Christmas and New Year’s eve is a horrible thing. Hearing someone’s voice, and knowing that they are there thinking about you even while you feel like the most forgotten person on earth, is a celebration of humanity. The people who resolutely go to protests that are ignored, the people who sleep in a tent across from the White House for years to beg for peace, the people who still write letters seeking to free political prisoners long after all of their friends have moved onto other hobbies; these people are more deserving respect than all of the important people who are celebrated at the end of every year for their notable achievements. Acts like this do not come with any monetary reward. They do not increase your social status, or help you accrue power, or advance your position in a political hierarchy. They are just examples of people pushing back against what is wrong. The more people push back, the louder they shout, the more extremist they are, and the more they are dismissed by the group of respectable people who have agreed that certain things must persist in order for everything to function.
With respectability and power comes a certain resignation to the world as it is. Extremists are the people who have the courage to match their reaction to the scale of the injustice. On Christmas, we are all supposed to be celebrating one of history’s greatest moral extremists of all. So Merry Christmas to all the extremists out there. It doesn’t matter if you hate Santa, or Christians, or church. You are the only ones who seem to understand what the season is for.