Tuesday, December 20, 2011

On Shooting an Elephant

(With apologies to Mr. Orwell)

In recent years I have been a begrudging participant in a game which I am detesting more and more. A game which is played during a White Christmas, but deserves to be played on Black Friday. It is called White Elephant. Unlike most games, where one is trying to win, in this one the participants try hard not to lose. Losing, is when you end up with a useless and equally crappy gift, which tests the denotation's boundaries of what constitutes a 'gift' in the first place, of which, I am told, is the point of the whole exercise.
It can also serve as an exciting showcase of economic theory when one brings a gift that is not so crappy. In all the games I have been a party to (oddly enough, at parties) these 'tusks of ivory' tend to be ones where alcohol is involved. Alcohol: the Arabic word that Americans are most intimate with and simultaneously the one thing that Muslim Arabs consider anathema. Strange, that a liquid with cleansing properties is itself considered unclean by it's namesake.
Be that as it may, when a bottle of Grey Goose or a boxed set of Crown Royal (complete with covetous, blue, velvet bag with golden drawstring, a necessity for gamers who own a plethora of polyhedral dice), or even a designer set of chocolates laced with the unclean distillery of ethyl, causes hoots and guffaws and the envious thoughts of thievery among the assembled throng. For in this game, if game it can be properly called, one can steal what he otherwise cannot rightfully obtain. Depending on which house the game is played in, it can be stolen, at most, twice or thrice, but I find that three times is the consensus. I have seen people run away, lock themselves in restrooms, throw a fist (not a fit, a fist, although the former does happen as well), break the gift (after all, if I can't have it neither can you), and other fanfare such to shame even Gollum's obsessive hunt for the One Ring of The Dark Lord.
This is especially true with children playing the game, though adults act uncannily like them, but with a child it's more hurtful as they do not understand that in an adult's world such terrible things as theft and envy and the law of diminishing returns are commonplace, acceptable and even humorous. Thomas Paine once wrote, "I cannot believe in a religion that would horrify a child", similarly I must say of White Elephant, 'I cannot play a game that would mortify a child'.
After all, what does this avaricious and roguish game teach to those who participate and to fellow well-wishers observing from without:
1) Theft is not only encouraged, it's fun!
2) If you want something bad enough, it can be yours.
3) What you steal can be, in turn, stolen from you.
4) The more you steal something, the more it becomes yours.
5) Alcohol is Gold. Take it at all costs!
6) Expect nothing. Your gift sucks and so does everyone else's - except that guy who got the ice bucket and Stoli set.

I can't help it. I am the idiot that buys a decent gift to put into the pool and watch Hobbes and Locke go at it with the spirit of Darwin hovering over the aftermath. But what I invariably receive is something like a plastic, rotating, TV remote organizer. This would have been a nice gift... in 1977. Or a floating, magnetic, photo cube which doubles as an earthquake detector. Or a black, plastic cauldron with the words emblazoned red as blood in an unmistakable font, "Captain Morgan". Obviously stolen from a Halloween display at your local Rite-Aid.
Oh boy.
If I could work my will, I would alter the game such that everyone would buy cheap, but decent gifts and everyone would draw lots for which one you received. Seems droll and boring, but at least there would be no ill-will on the part of the giver and the receiver, and everyone would have a good time, and children wouldn't feel cheated.
Brian, are you promulgating some spontaneous, neo-socialist doctrine during Christmas? No. I am promoting Christianity (or at least what Christians profess to believe). After all, if we are celebrating the birth of the Christ-child should you not act to emulate his core practice. Should one find that this interferes with the capitalistic excess which this pachydermal pursuit seems to inculcate, then one would have to call one or the other into question. After all, it was Jesus who said, "One cannot serve two masters".
And all this coming from an athiest...

Well let me cap this final thought in the Buddha's words (just to be as religiously inclusive as I possibly can), "Be true to your beliefs and they will be true to you".

And I believe we should start by shooting this White Elephant.
(And not the White Elephant that presaged the Buddha's birth, either).