December 28th, 2008

Paul Krugman, at the end of an otherwise sensible op-ed on Obama’s challenges, dons the nightshirt of Ebenezer Scrooge and snarls at the Cratchits Obamas for going on holiday in Hawaii:

And surely I wasn’t the only person who winced at reports about the luxurious beach house the Obamas have rented, not because there’s anything wrong with the first family-elect having a nice vacation, but because symbolism matters, and these weren’t the images we should be seeing when millions of Americans are terrified about their finances.

Bah. Humbug.

Krugman has become Keynes’ bulldog and the prime defender in the public sphere of the counterintuitive wisdom that in a slump, don’t cut back but spend. He knows perfectly well that now is exactly the time when well-off people like the Obamas should splash out, and it’s Queen Elizabeth II who’s doing the wrong thing with her economy Christmas.

No, the objection must be that it’s a holiday: violating the perverse Yankee norms of Puritan workaholism. (See my documented rant of yesterday.) The Obamas should have stayed in Chicago, kept up the amazing illusionist act of the virtual presidency (Bush having abdicated the office except for handouts to cronies), and compensated the children for rationed attention with a frantic cornucopia of mall-bought Stuff.

FWIW, I think they are sending exactly the right signal by giving their children something far more precious: time, privacy, and sun. (It may not have played out exactly like that. I can readily imagine a breakfast-table showdown with three determined females pointing through the window at the Chicago sleet and demanding as one: Get. Us. Out. Of. Here.)

The defence of leisure ought to be a thread in the Auld Alliance in the Democratic tradition between American Jews and blacks. For one of the greatest gifts of Jews to the world was Moses’s invention of the Sabbath day of rest, merely time-shifted by Christians and Muslims. The Sabbath family meal, and its epitome the Passover seder (modified by Christians into their central rite), is still a “light to the Gentiles”.

Since Moses had made Sunday a day of rest to Christian slave-masters, it became special for their African slaves. As early as 1520 in São Tomé, Portuguese plantation-owners had worked out an arrangement under which the slaves tended their garden plots on Sundays. (Hugh Thomas, The Slave Trade, 1997, p. 110). So not exactly a day of rest, but a day of relative autonomy, a memory and hope of freedom, and a space in which community and culture could be rebuilt. The later conversion of the slaves themselves to Christianity made Sunday even more central to black identity, and created a second eschatological link to the Hebrew Prophets.

Freud said that “love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness”. That’s not quite right: he left out their background illumination by repose and peace. Shalom to you all for 2009.

And, Paul: buy a plane ticket. You deserve a break too.

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