Wednesday, April 1, 2009

"A Christmas for Shacktown"

If you're going to attempt some sort of Marxist hermeneutics of Uncle Scrooge--AND YOU ARE! DON'T TRY TO DENY IT!--"A Christmas for Shacktown" is going to have to be pretty well at the center of your analysis. How is it that Scrooge can mostly be a more-or-less sympathetic character? Only because his massive wealth is, in point of fact, divorced from any real-world socioeconomic significance. He might as well be an especially avid stamp collector. This is the way it has to be, because if he were, let's say, surrounded by children dying of easily treatable diseases that he REFUSED to help because MONEY MONEY MONEY MINE MINE MINE, he would just be a monster. Even a modern-day Flintheart Glomgold (who is South African, dontcha know) would be unable to recognize the AIDS epidemic because, as villainous as he is (I should have a LOT more to say about ol' Flinty at a later date, incidentally), there's no way he could be portrayed as being THAT evil.

By no means am I saying this is a flaw--I love Scrooge and company, and even if I AM being radicalized by all this subversive postmodern, Marxist theory I'm reading, I ain't gonna stop. It's just how it is. If anything, it seems to me that you could read Scrooge's example as a critique of prevailing economic systems--ie, the only way this kind of laissez faire, transnational capitalism can function in an ethical manner is in a fantasy world. You certainly don't HAVE to see it that way. But you COULD.

Be that as it may, "Christmas for Shacktown" is striking in large part because it comes face-to-face with this issue, resulting in an odd kind of dissonance. I'm not sure whether it's a bug or a feature; whether Barks actually consciously saw what he was doing--but it certainly clarifies the above-mentioned issues.

Mind you, that's not the ONLY thing worth noting about this story; it's one of Barks' best Christmas tales. The plot, in brief: there is Shacktown, viz:

Grinding, Dickensian poverty is not something you see every day in Barks stories--in fact, I'm not sure you see it ANY day but this one. Everyone--Donald, Daisy, HDL--wants to help the Shacktowners have a merry Christmas. They need fifty dollars--fifty lousy dollars!--to buy a turkey and a train set. Everyone's very compassionate and helpful (it IS a Christmas story, right?), but not in an overly saccharine way. Even the normally intolerable Gladstone helps out. But Scrooge? Well, that's another story, and that's the crux of it. He VERY grudgingly agrees to pay half of the needed sum of money, but only once the more socially engaged members of the family manage to scrape together the rest of it. Hijinks ensue, the money is earned, Merry Christmas!

Obviously, the story wouldn't work if Scrooge just GAVE them the money without a struggle, but there's something more than a little bit grotesque about this:

...when juxtaposed with THIS:

CRIPPLED CHILDREN, FOR GOD'S SAKE! Scrooge could EASILY drag the entirety of Shacktown above the poverty line without suffering any perceptible monetary loss--but it's damn near impossible to pry a tiny amount of cash away from him to momentarily alleviate their suffering. And if you think he experiences an Ebenezer Scrooge-like change of heart at the end, you have another think coming. He more or less accidentally ends up giving way more money than he'd meant to, but he suffers all the way through, and The Spirit of Christmas™ never touches his blackened heart. It's interesting stuff. You wouldn't want it to be anything other than the exception that proves the rule, however, the "rule" being that, for all his avarice, he'll do the right thing when it comes down to it, regardless of the cost (see, eg, "A Cold Bargain," "Back to the Klondike," "Pipeline to Danger").

A right-wing type--the kind who doesn't mind looking like an asshole in the name of principle (the principle being: "I'm a dickhead!") would object: "He EARNED that money! Why should he have to give any of it away? Theft! Coercion! Communism!"). I really don't feel that there's any need to engage with such a morally bankrupt attitude, but I'm enough of a socialist that I'll just go ahead and say, no, he bloody well SHOULDN'T get to keep it all! Human beings are more important than money! If there were a hell, Ayn Rand would be rotting in it right now! Fortunately, this isn't really an issue, since he generally doesn't live in a world in which he's surrounded by human suffering on a massive scale. And as long as this is the case, we can root for him and enjoy watching him swimming in massive seas of cash. Let's just remember to separate fantasy from reality, all right?

(Objectivist Duck comics--there's a horrific thought for you.)



Anonymous Elaine said...

I might have liked "Shacktown" if I had encountered it as a child, but it doesn't quite work for me as an adult. I love the engineers' diagram and the vindication of the "silly, useless" toy train, but the sentimentalized portrayal of the poor children, the contrast of their poverty with Scrooge’s wealth, and the idea that one blow-out party is a happy ending for kids living in a ghetto all disturb me. I’m not saying it’s not a great story or that it wouldn’t work for kids, but I can’t purely enjoy it as an adult who knows more about poverty. Better to keep Scrooge in a world where some people have trouble paying their bills, but no one is grindingly poor.

August 1, 2011 at 12:12 AM  
Blogger Pan Miluś said...

I finally got the "Christmas for Sacktown" Phantagraphic book yesterday (The only one I didn't have yet)

As much you spnet this arcticle writing about Scrooge... You know? One think I very like about the story is portrail of Glafstone. While in most stories up to this point Barks presented him as unplesant jerk In this one his not only helpfull but there is some interesting dynamic in seeing him and Donald working together to acomplish something, even if it's just for few pages. They don't talk like rivals, they talk like friends. I wish Barks would play a bit more with this dynamic.

In fact the next few Gladstone stories ("Gladstone's Usual very good year" and "Gladstone Terrible Secret") are among few Barks storie where I felt to be more on Gladstone side. He dosen't do anything mean spirted. The guy is just minding his own buissnes. It's Donald and the boys who keep stalking him jalous of his good fortune eaither trying to out-shine him ("Usual very good year") or invade his privacy ("Terrible Secret") Heck, Donald act like total asshole at the end of "Terrible sceret" strangling Gladstone and forcing him to reviel something shamefull from his past. If Barks wanted to make his character more human and relatable he sure one me over...

February 6, 2014 at 10:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've read this comic only once, and although it's less realistic and more over-the-top than the pictures of poverty presented in Dickens' Christmas morality play, it's still nice (although, like you say, it would lose all impact if it weren't "the exception that proves the rule" - you couldn't have this happening to Scrooge every issue).

Objectivist Duck comics--there's a horrific thought for you.

Hate to break it to you, but Uncle Scrooge comics are the most Objectivist fictional media product ever created in the history of mankind, outranking Ghostbusters and House. In fact, a description of one character in Rand's infamous novel is practically plagiarism of Barks: "Yet no penny of his wealth had been made by force or fraud. He was guilty of nothing except that he earned his own fortune and never forgot that it was his." Theoretically, Scrooge is supposed to be guilty of extreme Greed but never of Dishonesty. (Do all writers adhere to this? No. Do all those who do always succeed in giving this impression? No, but his first use of his catch phrase in "Only A Poor Old Man" suggests they're supposed to.)

Objectivism is, at its root, the worship of honesty. The values system of Ayn Rand's 1,000+ pg. long Barks comic is nothing more than "People who earn a fortune by being tougher than the toughies and smarter than the smarties and make it square deserve to keep their wealth, and everyone is better off as a result." It's literally nothing more than "A Financial Fable" padded to over 100 times its original length and populated by a world of Scrooge McDuck clones.

Actually, I lied. There's one other message of Rand's doorstopper: the government has no right to seize privately, honestly earned wealth for the greater good, but millionaires are more than welcome to share it of their own volition. The ending of "The Golden River" is as Objectivist as it gets: Scrooge decides to make a donation purely to make the family he loves happy because he cares about *them.* An important scene starts with the heroine catching a bum sleeping on her train, stopping her employee from throwing him off, giving him a free dinner, and then a job, so she and her fellow Randian heroes would certainly approve of sharing their wealth as long as no one's deceiving or forcing them into it.

You are 100% right that someone like Scrooge could never function in the real world... because real billionaires don't store their funds as gold coins in a 12-story-tall piggy bank so they can swim through it. They use it to run businesses, produce products, and pay workers. The Money Bin and Scrooge's use thereof is the fantasy element. To my knowledge, no real billionaire has ever needed to shovel overflowing piles of coins back into a room full of nothing but coins and bills. Sure, people save money, but real people in the real world acquire it to spend on stuff, not to keep forever like, as your analogy so accurately says, like a stamp collector. This is the only way Scrooge differs from Rand's heroes - they pay high wages and don't question high prices when buying stuff they need. They do what they preach - they don't try to pay their employees or those they deal with less than they deserve and would consider it dishonorable if they did. Scrooge would actually be far less Greedy if he followed Rand's rules!

In Objectivism, acquiring wealth through "force, fraud, or coercion" is wrong. Acquiring wealth through your own hard work is good. Who in all of fiction embodies the latter sentiment better than Scrooge McDuck?

February 22, 2016 at 4:37 PM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...


All I'll say is that if objectivism means "you voluntarily help people you love," the word has been defined down so far that it's lost all meaning.

February 22, 2016 at 9:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

(I'm posting this at the library and think I somehow accidentally posted it under the name of someone who was logged in earlier. If so, please delete the previous submission. If not, please delete this.)

More broadly, "help only things you value." The way Donald, Gladstone, and the kids try to alleviate suffering they don't believe the victims deserve? Yep, Objectivism! (Someone trying to force them to do the same? Anti-Objectivist!)

Which word? "Help"? Or "Objectivism"? If the latter, and if "lost all meaning" means "has no point to exist," no argument -- there's NOTHING original about a philosophy that is pro-capitalism, pro-honesty, pro-freedom, anti-use of force or coercion, anti-envy, anti-sloth, and anti-government *forcing* people to be compassionate and kind. Even if it was a new philosophy, it was invented by Carl Barks in "A Financial Fable," "Back to the Klondike," "The Golden River," "The Mysterious Stone Ray," and "Some Heir Over the Rainbow." And only taking 10-20 pages to make his case each time instead of over a thousand makes him the unquestionably superior writer and philosopher.

February 23, 2016 at 5:50 PM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

The way Donald, Gladstone, and the kids try to alleviate suffering they don't believe the victims deserve? Yep, Objectivism!

The way the characters in The Grapes of Wrath try to help their loved ones and generally alleviate suffering they don't believe the victims deserve? Yep, Objectivism! Brought to you by Communist sympathizer John Steinbeck! Whoda thunk it?

Seriously, this is just silly.

February 23, 2016 at 6:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've never read that - what methods do they use to do it? The key aspect is choice vs. force (choosing to help others yourself vs. trying to force others to help you or someone else against their will). I don't remember how they get the donation in this comic, but I love how in "The Golden River," Donald and the kids get karmic retribution for trying to trick someone out of his money and thus learn a lesson at the same time Scrooge learns a better sense of value.

February 24, 2016 at 2:44 PM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

Let me ask you something: based entirely on the text of "A Christmas for Shacktown," do you think it's reasonable to assume that the Shacktowners' problems have been solved at the end? Do you, indeed, think their problems could be solved by this private charity that you love so? Does the story provide you with any indication whatsoever that Barks might have been thinking that? And, further, do you think that, if some government program were proposed that would permanently lift them out of poverty, Donald, Daisy, and HDL's reaction would be "no! This would mean we have to increase taxes on the Noble Billionaires Who Earned Their Money By The Sweat Of Their Brow!" Does that seems particularly plausible to you? If the answer to any of these questions is other than an emphatic HELL YES! then I don't see how you can possibly associate this story with any kind of libertarian philosophy.

You know, it's okay to like art that doesn't accord with your personal ideals. I do it all the time! It's not necessary to contort said art to pretend that it does.

February 24, 2016 at 3:28 PM  
Blogger Achille Talon said...

Re: Shacktown's problems being solved in the end. It's not what Barks had in mind specifically when writing this story, but I find it worth noting that Shacktown, if INDUCKS is to be believed, never made any further appearances. Doylistly speaking, of course, it's probably just that other writers found it too depressing, but watsonianly, I think we could take it as a hint that Shacktown didn't last long past that Christmas.

Heck, it's not even mentioned in the Don Rosa sequel Gyro's First Invention. Speaking of which, wouldn't it have been a nice touch in that story to have Scrooge go to Shacktown while poverty-stricken, rather than live with the nephews? That way he'd get a new understanding of the Shacktowners' poverty, actually go Ebenezer Scrooge, and actually fix things in the background at the end of the story.

October 27, 2016 at 6:01 AM  
Blogger Nerdytimes said...

"You know, it's okay to like art that doesn't accord with your personal ideals. I do it all the time! It's not necessary to contort said art to pretend that it does."

Well, you see, as an objectivist, it is in fact necessary to do so. You see, because Objectivism is a morally bankrupt ideology with to redeeming aspects to it, so actually Objectivist authors have a form of creative sterility that renders them incapable of writing stories with even remotely likable protagonists.

(Spider-Man was a fluke.)

May 24, 2020 at 4:34 PM  

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