In response to this post about adults getting more involved in Halloween, my friend Craig passes on a Time Magazine article titled "Boo, Humbug! Call me a Scrooge, but why can't adults leave Halloween to the kids?" by Michael Elliott. Mr. Elliott writes a lot I disagree with (and some I don't), and I don't think he gets Halloween, any more than he gets the reasons behind the current wave of Francophobia sweeping the America. But anyway, let's take a look at what he says.
Still, if companies want to sell even more masks, lanterns, witch hats and the like, good luck to them. It's the gullible consumers who fall for the pitch whom I detest — the employees who insist on decorating sensible cubicles with orange and black streamers and littering the office with bowls of candy, the folk who dress up and throw pumpkin parties at country clubs, the hundreds of thousands who will come to work next week in costume. Chris Riddle is the Halloween trend spotter at card-and-decorations giant American Greetings, which estimates that 25% of the American work force will observe Halloween in some fashion this year. "It's a release," Riddle says of the way people deck out their suburban yards, "a way to say, 'I can still act like a kid.'"However, in the article I linked to in my previous post, York University history professor Nick Rogers points out that, "The notion that Halloween is simply for kids is a misconception based on the centrality of trick-or-treating in the 1950s, when there was an attempt to take the mischief out of Halloween and 'infantilize' it." So perhaps Mr. Elliott should be rejoicing that adults are de-infantilizing the holiday? After all, if his main objection is that the holiday is too childish, then one of the best things he can hope for is that Halloween will return to its more historical role as a community-wide harvest festival. Of course, most communities don't actually harvest anything anymore, so it's only reasonable that the holiday take on a different focus. I hate to break it to him, but adults have worn masks and dressed up in costumes for thousands of years, all around the world and in every culture, and such behavior is not generally seen as uniquely childish. That perception appears to be the product of late 20th-century America, more than anything else.
That's my problem. Halloween, for me, is the gaudiest example of the infantilization of American culture. It's up there with other classics like McDonald's Happy Meals or Hollywood's post — Star Wars decision to concentrate on making kids' films for grownups. These aren't just the mutterings of an old curmudgeon. I like parties as much as the next guy (so would you if you'd grown up in a house where the Messiah was considered light entertainment), though I've never quite seen why you needed a specific date on the calendar as an excuse to let your hair down. There's a larger point. In time, infantile societies become degraded, unable to meet the realities that face them.
Further, I fail to see the connection between Happy Meals, "Star Wars", and the infantilization of culture. Happy Meals provide parents a cheap and easy way to feed their kids, and give the kids a fun toy; the food may not be healthy, but that has nothing to do with infantilization. Would he rather that kids be forced to eat gruel from a burlap sack with a shard of glass for a spoon?
"Star Wars" is a great movie, and nearly everyone in my generation loves it (even Europeans I talked to while traveling) -- so what's his point? Does he object to "Star Wars" and similar films because he thinks they cause his so-called infantilization, or because they cater to it by entertaining people without *gasp* literature?
How did cultural infantilization creep up on us? In The Disappearance of Childhood, a wonderful little book first published in 1982, Neil Postman, a New York University professor who died this month, identified a shift from a culture based on literature — on reading — to one based on the image. In a preliterate world, there's no distinction between children and adults. Look at a Bruegel painting, and you see adults eating, drinking, groping, necking, together with their children. Literacy changed all that. Reading has to be learned; it separates the world of the child from that of the adult. But children can absorb images — from TV, say — just as easily as their elders. Postman worried that a postliterate culture would be one in which barriers that protected children from the perils and temptations of the outside world would be torn down.Oh brother. So, Halloween is connected to Happy Meals and "Star Wars", which in turn keep people from reading, which leads to illiteracy, and the infantilization of the culture. Ok, got it.
Halloween shows that the process works in reverse. We now have to be worried not just about children acting like adults but about adults behaving like children. That doesn't mean adults have to be serious all the time. It does mean that they should recognize when it's time — and what it means — to grow up and let the kids run their own holiday.Sorry, in my world the kids don't get to run their own anything, because they're kids. I think it's important to separate the roles of children and adults, and I think that adults should be in charge of everything -- and I'm surprised that Mr. Elliott thinks otherwise. Even if adults don't dress up, who do you think is buying all the costumes and candy? Who's going to build the haunted houses for the kids to creep through? Who's going to walk the little ones door-to-door collecting treats?
Do I really need to expound on the bizarrely out-of-context Bible quote at the end of his article?
When it comes to the infantilization of culture and adults acting like children, I think there are far better targets than Halloween. Mr. Elliott briefly mentions TV, but doesn't mention the vast quantity of nonsense that inhabits most of our airwaves -- of course, New York intellectuals have railed against TV for years, so maybe he wanted to try something new. Or maybe that position is just wearing thin, considering that there are some truly great shows on TV these days. Similarly, there are a lot of terrible movies, but there are also some great ones. Oh yeah, there are some pretty awful books too, and some are even considered "classics".
If one wants to discuss the infantilization of culture, why not mention professional sports? Why not mention the sensationalism that runs rampant through our news organizations? Why not mention the grocery workers who are striking because they think putting boxes on shelves entitles them to $40,000 a year and free health care? Why not take the whiny, self-righteous Bush-haters aside and explain to them that there's more at stake right now than the next Presidential election? Why not condemn the welfare state that exists solely to create a childish constituency who will vote in favor of its own expansion?
Mr. Elliott may just not like Halloween -- and that's fine -- but he shouldn't try dress up his personal opinion as high moral virtue built on care and concern for our collapsing civilization.