A Christmas Without Spying

Sheriff Elf“When parents and teachers bring The Elf on the Shelf into homes and classrooms, are they preparing a generation of children to accept, not question, increasingly intrusive (albeit whimsically packaged) modes of surveillance?” ask Laura Elizabeth Pinto and Selena Nemorin in an essay for the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives this December.

Dr. Pinto is a digital technology professor at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. Dr. Nemorin is a post-doctoral fellow at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. In their column, the two observe that interactive, imaginary play is how children learn to “make sense of their world, their place in society, … their identity, and what is right and wrong.”

But Elf on the Shelf is not interactive. Rather, it is a one-sided, authoritarian intrusion of imaginative “play” (if you can call it that) into the child’s real life:

[I]n other games, the child role-plays a character, or the child imagines herself within a play-world of the game, but the role play does not enter the child’s real world as part of the game. As well, in most games, the time of play is delineated (while the game goes on), and the play to which the rules apply typically does not overlap with the child’s real world.

 

Elf on the Shelf presents a unique (and prescriptive) form of play that blurs the distinction between play time and real life. Children who participate in play with The Elf on the Shelf doll have to contend with rules at all times during the day: they may not touch the doll, and they must accept that the doll watches them at all times with the purpose of reporting to Santa Claus. This is different from more conventional play with dolls, where children create play-worlds born of their imagination, moving dolls and determining interactions with other people and other dolls. Rather, the hands-off “play” demanded by the elf is limited to finding (but not touching!) The Elf on the Shelf every morning, and acquiescing to surveillance during waking hours under the elf’s watchful eye. The Elf on the Shelf controls all parameters of play, who can do and touch what, and ultimately attempts to dictate the child’s behavior outside of time used for play.

The gaze of the elf on the child’s real world (as opposed to play world) resonates with the purpose of the panopticon, based on Jeremy Bentham’s 18th century design for a model prison (a central tower in a circular structure, surrounded by cells).

Anthony L. Fisher writing at Reason connects the point Pinto and Nemorin are making about the Elf of the Shelf—the “creepy side-eyed gnome [who] has spied and informed on millions of kids to an unaccountable power broker at the North Pole—to the “Stasi-meets-stalker lyrics” of Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.

It is the sort of thing that makes people roll their eyes at libertarians. But consider my own experience.

“Mom, why does Santa Claus think it’s bad when kids cry?” my daughter asked a couple of weeks ago.

“Hmmm… Well…. Sometimes it can be annoying when kids are crying or being whiny and no one else can talk because the kid is taking all the attention.”

Not my proudest moment as a parent, I confess. We were in the car, the roads were slick, and I was distracted.

I was fixated on my “Santa Dilemma.” I have truthfully answered every hard question my kid has asked: how babies are made; why her parents do not live together; about religion and death.

The last one was the hardest.

But I have told vast lies about Santa, manufactured complex, extensive secondary lies in support of the claim that such a being exists. Now she is old enough to recognize that Santa’s existence is inconsistent with everything else she knows of the world; to analyze the available “evidence” for Santa, for flying reindeer, elves, a village located at the North Pole, and for Mrs. Claus.

If she asked me flat out, I would confess everything. But all she does is probe around the edges, and I cannot bring myself to utter the words.

I made it all up.

The gnawing guilt over whether I am making the right choice between destroying the magic or allowing the magnitude of betrayal to grow with each passing year got in the way of my hearing the question behind the question.

Why does Santa Claus think it’s bad to cry?

Two days later, I got it.

“Mom, if you get on the bad list, do you stay on it forever, or is it just for that year?”

My daughter’s voice was tremulous and thick with emotion. We were in the car again, on the same slick roads. But all at once, it hit me.

When she cries, it is usually over something real, something that merits tears. Someone stopped being her friend at school. Or she misses someone in her family.

Why indeed would Santa think that’s “bad?” Who is Santa to decide?

This is not a concept I have taught her. We have no “naughty and nice” lists. Our Elf gets played with like a doll. He never spies or tattles. Yet somehow my daughter has picked up on the concept.

I shut it down.

“I know some of the songs talk about that. Or maybe your friends at school talk about it. But Santa Claus does not do that in our family. We don’t have naughty and nice lists. All the kids in our family are on the nice list because all the grownups love them no matter what. Those songs are just silly things people say. It does not work that way in our family.”

As Pinto and Nemorin observe:

Under normal circumstances, children’s behaviour (i.e., what is “naughty” and what is “nice”) is situated in social contexts and mediated by human beings (peers, parents, and teachers) where the child conceptualizes actions and emotions in relation to other people and how they feel.

 

Through play, children become aware about others’ perspectives: in other words, they cultivate understandings about social relationships. The Elf on the Shelf essentially teaches the child to accept an external form of non-familial surveillance in the home when the elf becomes the source of power and judgment, based on a set of rules attributable to Santa Claus.

… Broadly speaking, The Elf on the Shelf serves functions that are aligned to the official functions of the panopticon. In doing so, it contributes to the shaping of children as governable subjects.

Christmas listBefore a certain age, children’s behavior is either genetic or it is learned from their environment. Manipulating them with an omniscient, omnipotent “daddy” overseer—a god-power with a jolly laugh and a bag full of rewards for conformance—is just passing the buck.

I prefer to let my daughter learn right and wrong by interacting with real people, not under threats from imaginary spies. I prefer to let her enjoy the magic of the season.

Gun Control and Electoral Math – The Scoreboard

Two years ago, I wrote a piece about electoral math and gun control, and how it was unlikely that we would have any serious national level gun control… and we have not (state level is another story unfortunately).

In that, I included a list of democratic senators who were up for re-election this year, their position on gun control, and how “at risk” their seat was:

Stupidity, Politics, and Electoral Math

So, now that we have the results of all of their elections, let’s see what the last two years hath wrought among them:

XX = Unelected (or resigned and replaced by Republican)

  1. XX – Alaska – Mark Begich – Very Pro Gun – very unsafe seat
  2. XX – Arkansas – Mark Pryor – neutral – very unsafe seat
  3. XX – Colorado – Mark Udall – neutral – not a safe seat
  4. Delaware – Chris Coons – Very anti-gun – safe seat
  5. Hawaii – UNKNOWN (special election to replace Daniel Inouye) – safe seat
  6. Illinois – Dick Durbin – Very anti-gun – safe seat
  7. XX – Iowa – Tom Harkin – Very anti-gun – iffy, can’t afford to screw up
  8. XX – Louisiana – Mary Landrieu – neutral – very unsafe seat
  9. Massachusetts – UNKNOWN (special election to replace John Kerry) – safe seat
  10. Michigan – Carl Levin – very anti-gun – safe seat
  11. Minnesota – Al Franken – very anti-gun – not a safe seat
  12. XX – Montana – Max Baucus – very pro-gun – iffy, can’t afford to screw up
  13. New Hampshire – Jeanne Shaheen – very anti-gun – not a safe seat
  14. New Jersey – Frank Lautenberg – very anti-gun – safe seat
  15. New Mexico – Tom Udall – slightly anti-gun – safe seat
  16. XX – North Carolina – Kay Hagan – very anti-gun – not a safe seat
  17. Oregon – Jeff Merkley – very anti-gun – safe seat
  18. Rhode Island – Jack Reed – very anti-gun – safe seat
  19. XX – South Dakota – Tim Johnson – very pro-gun – very unsafe seat
  20. Virginia – Mark Warner – very pro-gun – not a safe seat
  21. XX – West Virginia – Jay Rockefeller – moderately anti-gun – very unsafe seat

Lotta XX’s there… 9 actually, out of 21 (10 of those 21 were considered safe seats, barely challenged by Republicans). Pretty much every anti-gun democrat that wasn’t in a safe seat, except Shaheen and Franken (and they’re kinda weird cases).

And THAT folks, is why we will not have any significant gun control on the national level any time soon.

The Day the Guns Were Silent

Just about 100 years ago around Christmas during the so-called “war to end all wars” (WWI) something incredible happened: a momentary peace along the Western Front. The History Channel website describes what became known as the Christmas Truce of 1914 as follows:

Starting on Christmas Eve, many German and British troops sang Christmas carols to each other across the lines, and at certain points the Allied soldiers even heard brass bands joining the Germans in their joyous singing.

At the first light of dawn on Christmas Day, some German soldiers emerged from their trenches and approached the Allied lines across no-man’s-land, calling out “Merry Christmas” in their enemies’ native tongues. At first, the Allied soldiers feared it was a trick, but seeing the Germans unarmed they climbed out of their trenches and shook hands with the enemy soldiers. The men exchanged presents of cigarettes and plum puddings and sang carols and songs. There was even a documented case of soldiers from opposing sides playing a good-natured game of soccer.

Of course we know that this peace would not last. Had it been up to the men on the ground from both sides, I would doubt the war could have continued. But alas, the ancient notions of king and country, nationalism, the “leaders” (who were never in any danger of risking life and limb themselves), etc. would have none of it.

The so-called Christmas Truce of 1914 came only five months after the outbreak of war in Europe and was one of the last examples of the outdated notion of chivalry between enemies in warfare. It was never repeated—future attempts at holiday ceasefires were quashed by officers’ threats of disciplinary action—but it served as heartening proof, however brief, that beneath the brutal clash of weapons, the soldiers’ essential humanity endured.

100 years ago, men fighting each other showed the world that peace is possible – if only for a day or so…

An Open Letter To Supporters of Ismaaiyl Brinsley

ramosandliu

To Whom It May Concern:

Yesterday afternoon, two NYPD officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, were shot at point-blank range by a man named Ismaaiyl Brinsley, who also shot his girlfriend earlier in the day in Baltimore. Statements made online by Brinsley indicated that he was killing cops as retribution for what happened to Eric Garner, but reports are also coming out that he had issues for a very long time. The reactions to this shooting are predictable, especially from the right. An NYPD police union even declared war on its citizens.

We expect this. I’m going to talk now to those of you celebrating the shooting.

Before I begin this letter properly, I need to let you know: I’m a card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union and a donor to the Innocence Project. When protests over Trayvon Martin’s death happened, I stood beside people – as one of only a few white people in the crowd – and protested in Bridgeport, CT. I tolerated Ernie Newton and the Nation of Islam while holding hands with my friends and singing We Will Overcome. I get it. Police brutality is a legitimate issue, it’s one that any honest person will admit affects black people disproportionately, and it must be challenged and ultimately changed.

So believe me when I say: you’re screwing this up. At best you’re burning any currency that’s been built up since the acquittal of Daniel Pantaleo; you’re only going to get more people hurt, or worse.

I’m going to belabor two main points:

1) Speaking solely from a tactical perspective: we – by we, I mean protesters, supporters and others who decry police brutality – are in a position of weakness. It needs to be understood that a lot of people – I don’t have recent polls I trust, but I’m comfortable in calling this a majority – are perfectly fine with police officers using whatever means they have to control “other” people. To them, anything that threatens their sense of security of stability is open game. Remember: when the NYPD was spying on Muslims, most citizens approved of it; it didn’t affect them, if they didn’t have anything to hide, vague reference to 9/11, etcetera. These people are taught that the police are infallible. Yes, we know that there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary, but this is about optics. Simply put, we have to convert a lot of people, and rooting for murder is a poor way of going about that. Remember: everyone talks about Martin Luther King Jr., and it wasn’t because of his comments on rioting. Meanwhile, Huey Newton and Fred Hampton are footnotes.

2) None of what I said above takes into account humanity. The accusations people are making about the police is that they don’t hold into account the lives of those they “serve and protect”, particularly those of minorities. Statistics honestly bear all of this news out. But when you sit there and cheer for the deaths of two officers, with families that just lost someone before Christmas, take a look in the mirror and ask yourself what you have become. If you think so low of the police force or anyone in an uniform that you consider them monsters, do you really want to drag yourself to that level? Listen: I know people who are cops, or want to be cops, that I don’t trust with an ice cream cone, let alone a gun. The system needs reform. But when you cheer a senseless murder from an obviously deranged individual, you’re no better than the police. I’d argue you’re far worse, honestly.

I’m sure there will be a chorus of “you don’t get it!” from people saying a white man on a site that prominently uses the Gadsden Flag can’t speak for how to approach the police. I’d argue it’s my position as a suburban white man that gives me a perspective of the people you’re going to have to convert to get real, honest reform, and not just a temporary burst of energy that burns off just as quickly. Trust me: I hold no love for the ignorant white doofus who thinks racism ended on July 2nd of 1964, complains bitterly that life isn’t what it was like in 1986 for some reason he can’t articulate, and doesn’t understand our political system beyond hating Obama. But he has to be converted, or at least made to understand a new normal.

What is happening now is turning off that person. The more of those people that get turned off, the harsher the reaction can be from the NYPD and other police departments across the country. More death, more injury, more protests, more spinning of our tires. If we want true reform, and with it true equality regardless of race, then it’s critically important that we forcefully denounce Ismaaiyl Brinsley, denounce anyone who supports his actions, and keep working towards a better future for everyone.

Sincerely,
Chris Bowen

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