Opinion: The pre-Christmas jitters
In just four days, the Seasonal Terrorist will sneak into many American homes. This is a relatively new panic-provoking phenomenon. It has been a cause of seasonal anxiety and insecurity for our children and grandchildren. Most of these kids suffer from it as another “tradition” of our post-1984 Orwellian world.
The snooping urban guerilla goes by many names. Common aliases include Zippity, Gimbel, Dobby, Snowflake, Tinsel, and Blitzen, among dozens of others. However, the terrorist is known generically as the Elf on the Shelf.
The eavesdropper that visits me calls itself Snitch. I hate it.
In this era of electronic surveillance when a camera can take a photo of our car going a few miles an hour over the posted speed limit and then send us a copy with our traffic ticket, we don’t need another voyeur spying on us. We are already victimized by candid cameras, recorders, wiretaps, social media, spyware, and compromised emails. We know that everything we do with our smart phones, tablets, and computers is stored somewhere in a mysterious celestial file cabinet, called “The Cloud.”
I don’t know if The Cloud is an actual amorphous emanation floating around in our atmosphere or if it’s a humongous hidden cache of secrets buried under a military installation. But I do know that it’s something, somewhere that can bite you in the seat of the pants when you least expect it.
The China trap
Every night, in clear weather, when I take my evening walk, I can look up in the sky and see at least two satellites that can monitor everything for miles around. I routinely wave at the closest espionage unit with one of my fingers, even though I know that it can zoom in on me and direct a missile right at my head. But I feel that at some point, we must take a stand. If we don’t, we could fall into the China Trap.
The Chinese government uses electronic mass surveillance to check on the everyday behavior of its citizens. In 2019, there were 200 million CCTV cameras on China’s “Skynet” system, four times as many surveillance devices as there were in the U.S. Just one year later, it has been estimated that the number of China’s spying cameras had increased to 626 million.
The cameras are tied into China’s Social Credit System, with the assistance of at least eight of the country’s technology giants that specialize in facial recognition, big data analysis, and artificial intelligence. The basic idea is to regulate social behavior, promoting “trustworthiness” and adherence to “traditional moral values.”
People who have low scores on their Personal Credit Rating will find it difficult, if not impossible, to use public transportation, get bank loans, receive promotions at their place of employment, and avail themselves of other social benefits.
The Christmas elf trap
The Elf on the Shelf usually shows up on the mantle on November 24th, one month before the gift-laden global sleigh-ride on Christmas eve. Then, the intruder watches everything we do and reports it to Santa. But unlike typical Chinese citizens who know that they are always being surveilled, we never know when the elf might have its eyes trained on us. Although it arrives on the mantle, it moves to a new location every night while we’re asleep.
The little blabbermouth might be positioned so that it can check if we’re brushing our teeth before bedtime, or it might be hiding in the kitchen so that it can see if we’re reaching into the cookie jar before dinner. And that’s why it’s so anxiety provoking. In China, people know that Big Brother is always watching. Here, we might think that we can get away with a little naughtiness once in a while, but we really don’t know if our behavior will show up in a report sent to the North Pole.
It’s the uncertainty that causes our panic attacks. What we do know is that the sneaky little critter is prowling around the house, seeking places to hide from us, but choosing locations from which it can record our behavior. Then, without giving us a chance to defend ourselves, it reports its perceptions to the Big Guy in the red suit.
Finally, there is a set of rules that apply to the Elf on the Shelf. We live in a democracy, which means that we rule ourselves. I don’t remember ever having the opportunity to vote on the rules that apply to Snitch. The elf simply arrived with a note that stated (grammar has been corrected):
• Don’t touch me. I will lose my powers.
• Talk to me. I can’t talk back, but I am listening.
• Write Santa letters so I can bring them to him.
• Be kind to everyone.
Not only are these rules arbitrary, but they are also vague. First, if I touch Snitch, what power does it lose? If it’s the power to report to Santa, I’ll never stop touching the treacherous tattler. Second, carrying on a one-way conversation is very likely to exacerbate SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), otherwise known as the Christmas Blues.
Third, shouldn’t we be sending our letters to Santa via the United States Postal Service. After all, it costs us well over $70 billion each year to keep the system running. Sure, by giving our letters to the chatterbox courier, we’re saving the cost of a stamp, but we’re also adding to the USPS annual deficit.
Fourth, being kind to everyone is a good idea, unless you have to deal with a government bureaucrat. It is likely that whoever wrote that rule never tried to board an airplane.
If the Elf on the Shelf had been sitting on Mr. Scrooge’s mantle, I’m pretty sure he would have said, “Bah, humbug!”
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Jim Glynn is Professor Emeritus of Sociology who makes fun of some Christmas tradition every year in order to cement his reputation as a curmudgeon. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.