The potlatch spirit

Just in the past week, I’ve noticed a significant increase in nasty driving during the evening commute. More drivers are abruptly changing lanes, often multiple times, and speeding into tight gaps. The time they gain from this is negligible, and they contribute to traffic congestion, as I discussed in an earlier post. I think this is a result of the start of the Season of Good Will.

People are trained to talk about “commercialism” when they discuss this sort of behavior, but that explains nothing. Commuters are traveling to businesses to make money, and that’s as commercial as anything gets. The problem with the shoppers isn’t that they’re buying things, but the reason they buy the way they do.

Some North American tribes had a custom called potlatch, in which people with high status would go wild giving gifts to raise or maintain their rank. In popular legend, this sometimes led to gift-giving feuds in which the loser would go broke. Christmas has become a nationwide potlatch, in which people buy expensive gifts out of obligation rather than good will. As Tom Lehrer put it, “It doesn’t matter how sincere it / Is, nor how heartfelt the spirit. / Sentiment will not endear it, / What’s important is the price.”

When people are on a mission to spend lots of money because it’s demanded of them, they aren’t going to think well of other people. If they’re thinking of what they’ll get in return, they know a lot of it will be expensive junk they’ll have to return or stick in the closet. This isn’t commerce, it’s stupidity, and it makes them think of everyone else who’s out doing the same thing as enemies. Some of them take it out on anyone else who’s on the road.

I’ve opted out of the whole thing, and my friends know it. I neither expect nor give Christmas presents; when I give gifts, it’s to the people I want to do something for, at a time which works for us. On December 25, I celebrate Newton’s birthday. Letting the Christians have Christmas back, as long as they don’t try to impose it on the rest of us, may not be such a bad idea.