Sunday, December 18, 2016

nonessential symbols on 34th street

Like so many, I have a habit of watching Miracle on 34th Street (1947). This is the charming, humorous movie in which a man in New York acts like, speaks like, and describes himself as, Santa Claus. (He always gives his name as Kris Kringle.) This premise is played with in both innocent and cynical ways. Characters respond to Kris according to their differing motivations...and often with full concern about the publicity of their responses.

This time I noticed something new in a particular conversation. Doris Walker, who hired Kris to be her store Santa, is trying to deter her romantic interest, defense attorney Fred Gailey, from ruining his respectable career. Fred is attempting in court to keep Kris from being forcibly committed to asylum—but he's recklessly decided to do it by arguing that his client is correct to think that he is Santa.
Fred: You don't have any faith in me, do you?
Doris: It's not a question of faith. It's just common sense.
Fred: Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to. Don't you see? It's not just Kris that's on trial. It's everything he stands for. It's kindness and joy and love and all the other intangibles.
Doris: Oh Fred, you're talking like a child. You're living in a realistic world. And those lovely intangibles of yours are attractive but not worth very much.
[...later same scene...]
Fred: Some day, you're going to find out that your way of facing this realistic world just doesn't work. And when you do, don't overlook those lovely intangibles. You'll discover they're the only things that are worthwhile.
During the earlier religious phase of my life, I might have reflexively cheered Fred's mere mentioning of "intangibles"—crucial values. My former religion preached the superiority of similar spiritual goods such as virtues and meaningful living and a quality soul. Along with that I might have caricatured Doris as a pitiful personification of too much dull focus on earthly concerns. To some extent, especially near the beginning, Doris' lines evoke this caricature.

Now, though, I can't help noticing the sly tactic of melding Kris to intangibles. It seems to me that Doris could've parried it. "Oh Fred, I'm in favor of your intangibles as much as you are. I just don't think that those depend in any way on what you decide about Kris or about this trial. But your future livelihood might." Their genuine disagreement is over what actions are practical to take toward moral goals, not over whether moral goals exist and should inform actions. Safeguarding Kris' freedom of movement at any cost isn't as imperative if he's more like a nonessential symbol of the precious intangibles than a supporting pillar.

To the quixotic Fred, the thought of declining to sacrifice himself for this specific nonessential symbol may be equivalent to declining to sacrifice himself for everything that's right. But that doesn't necessarily imply Doris' concepts of intangibles have the same equivalency with the same nonessential symbol. Likewise, the past religious version of me could've raised this objection. That version wouldn't have accepted that mine and Fred's shared appreciation of intangibles required me to embrace and defend his nonessential symbol too. In fact, I would've strongly insisted that my beliefs in intangibles were perfectly complete without an earnest belief in Kris Kringle. And then maybe I would've countered that the really essential symbols were my own of course, i.e. the ones within my religion.

Naturally, the tactic's relevance to my past self wasn't primarily why it grabbed my attention recently. It has relevance to me currently as well. More than I would like, it's analogous to the overdramatized reactions which confront boosters of materialistic naturalism. Our dissent, not from kindly Santa but from cherished supernatural figures, is promptly reinterpreted as wide-ranging dissent from every important cultural value there is. This is unfair to us because we certainly have numerous ethical principles; we're only classifying the conventional supernatural figures as nonessential (or highly misleading...) symbols of them. In our view they're as nonessential to fortifying the ethical principles that matter as the movie character Kris is nonessential to fortifying the everyday intangibles of a religious person watching a pleasant movie.

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