Friday, January 04, 2008

Eleven Ways of Looking At Entitlement

(Dratted insomnia! I did lie in bed like a good girl and try to sleep. I did. But I give up; I'll let the computer have its evil siren-like way.)

So: Thoughts About Entitlement: a Sort-of Chronology, With Curious Slippage Between Past and Present Tense Voice Throughout, And No Real Conclusion

1. On the first night of Chanukah, the Mermaid Girl has a fit about the present the Renaissance Woman wrapped up and labeled for all three of us to open: a new mini-stereo, better than the old one we'd brought up here with us. On opening it, MG collapses into tears and goes into a sobbing, furious tirade about how that present wasn't for her, it was for us, and this was the worst thing EVER. We figure she was probably expecting a television. We agree that someone's getting a little too entitled. We cancel presents for the second night of Chanukah, after which celebrations return to their normal schedule.

2. I read this post and think: but on the other hand, entitlement can be a good thing if/when it keeps you from accepting crappy and humiliating treatment.

3. After writing this post and discovering that Canada has no state religion after all, I continue pondering the whole question of entitlement throughout December. Specifically, my curious lack of indignation about the universal Christmas assumption here in Canada. I figured it out, I thought: I grew up (as I've written before) in a NYC-area suburb where religious celebrations, even "secularized" versions of Christmas, were kept strictly out of the schools. And in the States, I feel entitled to that experience for my child in the public schools, and entitled to have my religion/ethnic identity/non-Christmas-celebrating self recognized as an adult. Basically, in Seattle, much of the month of December was a continual irritation to me as a result of the gap between my sense of entitlement and the reality around me. My colleagues (at a Jewish workplace) who grew up in the Midwest and in Seattle weren't nearly as pissed-off; they mainly accepted that that's how things are. It's not that they cared any less about being Jewish; they just had different assumptions.

4. But the more I thought about the whole Church/State thing, and the more Santa-tastic MG's school became, the more I got all pissed off again, just like in the old country. Frankly, by the time they closed for winter break, the main reason I wasn't saying anything was because I didn't even know where to start: with the Christmas trees in the classrooms? The angels and santas on the windows? The Christmas sensory essay all the kids in MG's class wrote in their journals? The ornament she painted and brought home, wrapped up carefully as a present to RW and me, was beautiful, and it had a treasured place on the tree RW put up, but every time I looked at it there I felt conflicted.

5. On the other hand, when I read "The Loudest Voice" aloud this year--it's RW's and my annual tradition every December 23rd to read this wonderful Grace Paley story about a Jewish immigrant kid, circa 1920's, who gets a lead part in her school's Nativity play--I understood for the first time why the narrator says, of the Christian teachers and the Jewish children, respectively, "They weren't embarrassed, and we weren't ashamed," and why the families don't have the same uniformly horrified response that I imagine, say, the parents of my childhood town would have had in a similar situation. Christmas was American. Even more than being Christian, it was an American ritual, and here they were--somewhat bemused, but mostly game-- in America. I felt a bit like that here, as a new immigrant in a new land, experiencing a Canadian Christmas for the first time. Hey, cool! It's a Canadian thing! And here I am, in Canada! Like my friend L., who's writing about her experience in Mexico this year, when I thought about it as a cultural experience I could just let it wash over me, and not get all worked up about it.

6. But not always. I found myself complaining about the ornament thing to someone we know here in Canada, and ranting about how it was exclusionary and left out kids who didn't celebrate Christmas, and she looked at me like I was slightly batty and said kindly, "But, elswhere, MG *does* celebrate Christmas." Which is true. And also totally missed the point.

7. But also, for the first time this year, I sort of got what people keep saying when they're like, "Oh, it's not really Christian, it's just a happy fun thing", maybe because there are so evidently so many non-Christians who participate. (Mostly not Jewish, either, though.) I think in Canada even more than the States, even people who aren't Christian just join into the Christmas thing for the heck of it. I mean, hey, it is an official federal holiday and all (in the states, too, I know, but I just never thought about it that way there. Go figure.) There essentially are two Christmases, and most people celebrate the secular one, and get confused when you tell them it's against your religion.

8. Does this mean I'm being brainwashed? Becoming more tolerant? Being culturally sensitive in what is in fact a new culture? Just worn out? I truly don't know. So I keep flipping back and forth between righteous irritation and vaguely cheery holiday-spirit bemusement. I never know which one is going to come up on top.

9. I didn't mean for this to all be about Christmas, honest. I've seen a bunch of posts in the past couple of weeks--mostly not Christmas-related, or at least not related to the Jewish "December dilemma"--where people were struggling with others' feelings of entitlement, or their own unmet ones. Posts like this and this and this. And I kept meaning to post about them in one Grand Unifying Theory about the whole thing. Which, well, you know how that goes.

10. Or maybe entitlement isn't the word I should have been using all along? Maybe, expectations. Or rights. Or some other word I can't even think of because it's too late at night. I usually try to stay away from semantic hair-splitting, but for some reason this is nagging at me.

11. Once she realized that we weren't going to throw the old stereo away, MG calmed down and we had a nice time for the rest of Chanukah. So that was good.


Blogger witchtrivets said...

Great post. I've been thinking about this a lot myself. But I was raised by an evangelical in the US South, so I am coming from a place where I choose to not be part of xmas -- I reject my own entitlement. I guess I am still a cultural xtian (is there such a thing?) because that is the tradition in my family. But I want no part of it and I don't enjoy having it forced down my throat from Halloween to NYE. I don't even want a federal holiday off for it.

After reading this, I am wondering if I am also rejecting the American-ness of the holiday as well as the xtian-ness of it. Right now, I am pretty upset with the evangelicals and America as a whole -- maybe xmas would be less repulsive to me if it were not so associated with the US version and the evangelical version.

11:08 AM  
Anonymous MonkeyPants said...

I have to say I'm pretty surprised at MG's school's Christmas overload. From what I understand, there's a lot of 'holiday' and 'festive' and not so much of the Christmas at most schools.

But the fact of the matter is that, even if Canada is a different country, we're subject to prevalent Western culture. That's 'Christmas', as characterized by the trees, the angels, Santa, and the national holiday. I'm guessing it's because North America was predominantly Christian when our parents or grandparents or great-grandparents got here.

Somehow, through tradition, expectations, and inertia, we have come to practice something that we often call Christmas, when really we should call it 'Holiday Excess, Complete With Family Drama and Guilt'. For a lot of us, that would be more accurate than pinning the whole thing on Christianity. While many people no longer think of themselves as Christian, the traditions hang on.

Pardon the waffle. I thought I knew what I meant when I started.

11:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hate American Christmas.
It ruins Christian Christmas. ("Sorry, pastor, I won't be at Christmas eve services; it conflicts with our family dinner and Christmas is really all about family, you know.") It trivializes a holy day for Christians into festive! fun! for everyone! (Let's imagine a "secular ramadan")And it is exclusionary, creates religious discrimination in the schools and the workplace (why is December 25 a FEDERAL holiday?) and just all 'round stinks.

I blame Bush, but that's just because I blame him whenever I can.

I want to wipe out secularized religious holidays altogether--let those that practice Christianity celebrate in their churches and homes in peace (please!), and stop holding the rest of the continent hostage to a commercialized, semi-sanitized Christmas. If we need to get festive together, there's always New Year's.

5:41 AM  
Anonymous rachel said...

You know, I would imagine the Jewish "December dilemma" dates back to at least Roman times, if not earlier. Think about it: Saturnalia was one of the biggest, longest, craziest festivals of Rome (many of our so-called "secular" Christmas traditions were Roman, which I think speaks to the hugeness and cultural power of the celebration).

BUT, if you're a Jew in ancient Rome, do you celebrate? No way. Isn't divine exclusivity the very underpinning of monotheism? No gods before me, no graven images, etc? And isn't that how Judaism survived, by NOT letting itself get mixed in with the pagan rites?

Polytheism is by nature inclusive. It has to be. If all my gods are real, all your gods are probably just as real (or at the very least, are just my own gods by different names).

Which is a long-winded way of saying: I imagine this is part of the reason why Hindus have an easier time being relaxed about Christmas (and even participating) than you do. The whole weight of centuries is stacked against you.

8:35 AM  
Blogger elswhere said...

Oh, Rachel, that's an excellent point! I'd also add that Christmas is one of two huge widely-"secularized" holidays (Easter being the other) that celebrate the exact points at which Judaism and Christianity diverge. (Those being the virgin birth and the resurrection, respectively, of Jesus.) And since those two religions (as opposed to, say Christianity and Hinduism. Or Judaism and Hinduism, for that matter) have a long and bloody loaded history between them, it makes the assumption of universal celebration even more problematic: it can feel like a "creeping pogrom," as one of the characters in the Grace Paley story says.

So, yeah, if we were in, say, a widely Hindu (or pagan, even) country, I think I'd have much less trouble with MG's participation in the local religious festivals. It's that clash of two monotheistic religions that causes all the trouble, isn't it? (Which--hard to link in comments--kind of brings us to Arwen's recent post on objective reality. My one God vs. your many gods= at least one of us not caring too much. But my one God vs. your different [or differently-perceived] one God? Oy. Trouble with a capital T.)

10:05 AM  
Anonymous rachel said...

I have a much harder time considering Easter "secular" in any way, the Bunny notwithstanding. We don't do Easter at all.

10:13 AM  
Blogger elswhere said...

See, everybody has that place where they draw the line. For lots of people, Easter is totally secular, and for some reason I'm much less conflicted about decorating eggs than I am about putting up a tree. And then I know Jewish families who don't do Halloween, though most--even very observant Jews--don't think anything of it.

It's just very varied and personal. So...oh, I forget my point. Just that things hit different people different ways and it's good to be thoughtful and respectful and not make assumptions, I guess.

12:04 PM  
Anonymous Arwen said...

Funny, I had also started making the whole poly- or pan- theistic comment - because my most numerous exposure to other friends are of second gen Hindi or Buddhist traditions. They seem pretty open: and like Judaism, seem to encourage the maintained worship of family gods. It seems that it's new-fangled religions that have converting as a goal. So I wouldn't JUST put it at monotheism's door, since Jewish folks aren't generally on conversion drives. That said and closely related monotheistic traditions are obviously going to have a harder time getting along.

But then I went two directions and confused myself: the historical and often political or social conflicts that the theologies of the Torah-based religions have had was one direction.

Overlayered with that, though, is a cultural thing: I have had the sense that many of the parents of my second-gen friends see schools as White. And White people are christians who eat mayonnaise sandwiches. Home culture is practiced at home.

Of course, as a white person of white secular liberal culture, it rather horrifies me that our schools are white. Of course, I have ALSO learned that some traditions - be them Southeast Asian, Italian, Jewish or Greek - are big on the preservation of culture by marriage and don't appear to begrudge other dominant cultures the pile driving of culture, as long as they're allowed their home cultural space and the kids don't get converted. So I wonder if some of it isn't poly- or pan- theism, but rather a different cultural valuation of the preservation of culture .... a true cultural "conserve"-atism.

And THEN I thought, yah, but that could be defensive. Because whatever white liberal multi-culturalists say, how accepting would it really seem if a Hindi mom came to school to teach the the holiness of cows? I don't know: which is privilege of mine being of the dominant culture. So I consider it a possibility.

And then I deleted it. But now I'm adding it back, because it all seems like such an interesting intersection of things.

I celebrate anything that involves chocolate.

1:53 PM  
Blogger elswhere said...

Well, there's a difference between a Hindu mom coming in to teach *about* the holiness of cows, and someone teaching kids in school that cows *are* holy. It's the difference between teaching and indoctrination.

Hence, the great pedagogical power of the phrase "Many people believe..." when discussing religion in public schools.


"Many people believe that Jesus's birth was a miracle, and that's the origin [okay, not entirely, but work with me here] for the holiday of Christmas. Since most people in this country [town, etc.] are Christian or have Christian ancestors, we see a lot of Christmas celebrations here."

"Many people believe that cows are holy, and that's why Hindus don't eat meat."

"Many people believe that Santa comes down the chimney and leaves presents, and that's why lots of families put up stockings."

Part of the mission of public schools in countries with large immigrant populations is to acclimate the children of immigrants to their new national culture: to teach them how to be good citizens, and also to teach them *about* that culture.

That's why the presence or absence of an official state religion makes a big difference to me. If it's there, sure, go ahead and say, "Anglicanism is the official religion in Canada, even though not everyone follows that religion. So now we're all going to celebrate Christmas in school, not as Christians, but as Canadians." But if there really is supposed to be separation of church and state here, than it's just lazy pedagogy to assume that everyone celebrates Christmas. And in a town full of immmigrants of different religious backgrounds, it seems like a bad idea educationally as well as ethically. Someone, please teach my kid about Diwali! She's going to know a bunch of Hindu kids, and I know nothing about it. But Christmas, I think, is covered.

Argh. Meandering off the original point again. Off to make my kid some lunch.

2:17 PM  
Blogger S. said...

When I converted, I found it hardest to give up my connection to the pagan parts of Christmas--hanging ornament and bringing greens inside the house, especially--and in the end I've just fudged the issue in various ways, the largest of them being that we celebrate with my parents in exactly the way I've always celebrated.

But Santa is both hyper-commericialized and *Christian*. Saint Nicholas. So when my mother asked if some of Z.'s presents could come from Santa, I said no.

But on the whole, the Christmas of lights and presents and evergreen foliage and bright shininess seems to me to be a very adaptive holiday for people living in the colder and darker parts of the Northern hemisphere.

Presents, though--I think there's a post of my own brewing there.

6:00 PM  
Blogger nyjlm said...

Your Town, Canada sounds a lot like My Town, Florida.
I too range from anger at the tree in the classroom, etc etc to not caring. Afterall, we participate in Christmas with the cousins and dad's parents. At some point this holiday season I admitted to myself, well, we are the minority. My kids are the only two at the school, how on earth will they know about anyone who doesn't practice Christianity if we don't share? This year there was a Happy Chanukah message in the PTA newsletter- first time ever. And I was invited to three classes to read Chanukah stories, and got the most wonderful letters from the kids in my son's class.

I'm sure I'll still have mixed feelings next year too. I'm hoping it gets easier, because one thing I learned for sure this year is that feeling upset about it all sure puts a strain on me for the entire month.

7:03 AM  
Blogger MexicowithKids said...

During a bout of insomnia I composed a very thoughtful comment on this post. Unfortunately I didn't drag myself out of bed to write it down. So now most of what I want to say is: "uh, thought provoking post.

There was the thought that what you (and badger) describe mostly seem like rights--things that all people deserve because of common courtesy or shared humanity--like the right to practice the religion of your choosing, to be free of tyranny, to be treated with common courtesy.

Entitlement to me has always meant something *I* deserve because of *my* specific birth/family/attributes/experience. Like expecting everyone to speak English, or there to be toilet seats in the bathroom, or to get an individual Hannukah gift every night. Not great examples but I had better ones in my bed!

Where the confusion starts in the 'December dilemna' is where they bleed together. I too have no conlusion, just observation. It has been easy for us to enjoy all of Navidad here in Mexico, as we are really tourists here. For my sister, who moved here in 1970 and converted to Judaism at the same time, she made a point not to come back to visit during Christmas until her kids were grown. The psychic dissonance was too much for her. I still wonder at how she managed practicing her Judaism in a Catholic country. Will be a good topic for discussion when I visit her.

12:51 AM  

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