Entry from November 24, 2003

Thanksgiving always brings up the question of what we have to be thankful for. There is of course always lots to choose from, for no matter how unhappy we may be, we still have the great and miraculous happiness of life itself and with it the freedom to draw breath in the world — even if we don’t have it for very long. But it is also a good thing to focus from time to time on a special thing; a new thing, to mention over the festive board, and this Thanksgiving I nominate the ban on partial birth abortion which President Bush signed into law three weeks ago. Although it is already subject to court challenges and only covers a few abortions a year, it is at least a first step taken on behalf of that invisible multitude of souls who, over the thirty years since Roe v.Wade, have been denied that freedom to draw breath in the world that we enjoy on the sole and sufficient grounds that they have not yet done so.

It’s been a good month for innocence, which makes it interesting that Hollywood, where pro-lifers are as rare as 21-year-old virgins, has chosen Thanksgiving as the release date for Terry Zwigoff’s Bad Santa, a movie intended as a thumb in the eye to the only kind of innocence that has ever mattered there. Billy Bob Thornton plays Willie Soke, a mall Santa Claus who moonlights as a safecracker and whose partner in crime — doubling as an elf in Santa’s grotto — tells him: “You’re an emotional cripple; your soul is dog s***; every single f***ing thing about you is ugly.” That is, if anything, an understatement. But the worst thing about Willie is that he doesn’t even pretend, as you would think a man in his position would have to do, to a respect for the innocence of the small children who come to sit on his knee, thinking he is Santa Claus. One child in particular, played by Brett Kelly, is so clueless as to be unable, apparently, to take any number of obvious hints that Willie and Santa are not one and the same.

No prizes for guessing that the kid is going to be a redeeming figure in this Santa’s life, but — and here is the really interesting part — the child’s innocence appears to play no part in that redemption. On the contrary, Willie’s drunkenness, cursing and fornicating, nearly all of it undertaken in (or just out of) his Santa-costume, continues unashamed and unrepentant to the end and without the slightest regard for the boy’s presence. Supposed to be a comedy, the only sort of humor the film knows is just this incongruity, done to death, of a drunken lout in Santa-garb being watched by a youthful believer in Santa. Ha ha. If the child has anything to offer such a man, it is not the shaming example of his innocence but rather a sort of dumb, dog-like devotion which is repaid by Willie’s instruction in, among other grown-up arts, self-defense against bullies by kicking them in a sensitive place.

Yet there are people laughing, and you’ve got to ask yourself what, in our wonderfully sophisticated 21st century, is the use of innocence? Is it just something to be disposed of as soon as possible — akin to an illusion we need to shed in order to get at “the truth”? Is it nothing more than the state of illusion we live in before we learn about the real world — which to us of course means sex? This would appear to be Mr Zwigoff’s view, and yet the disgust that many people will feel at his contempt for childish innocence suggests that there is more to it than that. At least to religious believers, innocence is not the same as ignorance but the image and remembrance of that perfected state which our first parents lost by a reckless grasping at knowledge. And it is that state to which we hope to return when the stains of sin have been cleansed from our souls. Only those who have utterly forgotten this noble aspiration can glory in sin as this film does.

I wonder, too, if they have that tragic forgetfulness in common with the defenders of partial birth abortion. For innocence also means potential, and the freedom of the clean slate — the freedom of our children, for however brief a period it lasts, not to make the same mistakes we did. It is partly out of respect for that freedom and that potential that we treasure innocent life, dismissing the sophistry of those who imagine that time is the only thing that matters in defining our humanity. If we suppose, for the sake of our convenience in killing it, that the foetus in the womb is just a mass of cells up until the moment before it takes its first breath and becomes a person the moment after, it is because, like Terry Zwigoff, we have lost our natural sense of awe and gratitude for the potential of life itself. Those of us who are lucky enough still to have that sense should be giving thanks for it this week.

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