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By Eric Oppen

For a long time, visual shorthand for a person who has ripped a big hole in his marble bag has been a little man with a wild-eyed expression in a crude approximation of Napoleon's uniform, with his hand stuck in his shirt-front. Napoleon's career has, apparently, an irresistable attraction to the mentally unstable, to the point that one slang term I've heard for a mental instititution is a "Napoleon factory." Since Napoleon was described, rightly, as a man who "tried to do too much -- and he did it," this is quite appropriate.

Although I am no psychologist, I think that I have identified a related syndrome, one that afflicts many of our wise and beneficient rulers, and those who aspire to their godlike status. Were this complex reduced to cartoon terms, it would be a little man with a wild-eyed expression, dressed in an ill-fitting Santa Claus suit. The sleigh and reindeer, or approximations, would be strictly optional. The name for this condition could be "the Santa Claus complex," or the "Kriss Kringle disease," or "Nicholasism," in Europe.

The Santa Claus complex has three related features. One side of it is seeing oneself as a wise, benevolent being, destined to give all deserving people goods merely for the good feelings derived from being generous and giving. This can be seen in many of our wonderful leaders, who seem to feel that the monies extracted from us by taxation and other chicanes are theirs to dispose of as they see fit, to reward the deserving, or those who are especially needy.

One side-effect of the "giving, generous" side of the complex is seeing oneself as a divine being. After all, do not the gods, in all religions, scatter benefits to their deserving worshippers, taking no thought to where they are to be obtained? The whole Trojan War, according to the myths, was set off because Aphrodite, to win a contest among the goddesses, bribed the judge successfully with a woman who was already married to another man. The fact that his abduction of his prize set off an incredible ten-year war was nothing to Aphrodite---had she not won the contest? Santa Claus is generally depicted as supernatural, if not a deity in the formal sense, although I remember many of my age-mates addressing him far more fervently than they ever did their parents' God, now that I think of it.

Another side of the complex is related to another aspect of Santa Claus: Santa, the Judge of All. Even in children's songs and stories, Santa Claus is depicted as judging, infallibly, who is "naughty" and who is "nice (and deserving of presents)," which inevitably attracts our beloved rulers, who long for the same powers over their subjects. The question of what exactly constitutes naughty and nice has engaged some of the subtler philosophical and theological thinkers of our time, Bill (Calvin & Hobbes) Watterson, and Charles (Peanuts) Schultz. The thought of being set above all others, judging infallibly who is to be punished and who is to be rewarded, is a heady one to almost anybody, and people already attracted to power over others find it particularly intoxicating. After all, who can honestly say that they, given such power, would not relish wielding it, to dole out good and ill as they saw fit?

The final symptom is a total intolerance of even the mildest criticism. Once one is convinced one is the rightful wearer of Santa Claus' mantle, do not one's opponents become Ebenezer Scrooge (pre-conversion) or the evil Grinch who Stole Christmas (ditto)? Being an iconoclast and barbequer of sacred cows, I always thought that Ebenezer Scrooge was a lot braver and better before his conversion than most people admitted -- I can tell you, if someone I knew was dead the last five years came into my bedroom, clanking chains, I'd levitate five feet up out of my bed and be through the window and halfway to Mexico with a scream like a gut-shot electric guitar! Scrooge, on the other hand, cracks jokes. "There's more of gravy than of grave about you!" Back when it looked like Newt Gingrich was actually trying to shrink the federal behemoth, he was routinely portrayed as an evil Grinch; I've seen a full-length parody of The Grinch who Stole Christmas, called The Gingrinch who Stole Congress.

So, the symptoms of our "Santa Claus complex" can be summed up roughly as follows: An urge to shower the deserving and needy with goods and/or money, without regard to where they may be obtained, combined with a view of oneself as a divine being who may conjure such things up with a snap of the fingers, and an urge to separate others into categories of good and evil, so that the good may be rewarded and the evil may be properly excluded from rewards. This sums up all of our current leaders so well that I honestly think that very little more is needed. In some of them, the "giving" aspect is foremost, along with the "I can produce things from thin air!" delusion; these are the "liberals." On the other hand, the "conservatives" are more attracted to the idea of judging all others, rewarding good and evil according to their own lights. However, all statist politicians show all sides of the complex; the most "liberal" politician will cheerfully sign off on separating the naughty from the nice, merely differing from his more punitive "conservative" colleague on where the line is to be drawn. Similarly, the most flint-hearted "conservative" doesn't mind showering those he approves of with rewards from the government's treasury, while sharing with his "free-spending liberal" colleagues the delusion that the government's money comes from Heaven, instead of being taxed out of his constituents. Finally, both sorts of politician are extremely un-fond of anybody who opposes them in their semi-sacred duties; for such malcontents, no extreme of character assassination is too evil.

© 1999 Eric Oppen

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September 22, 1999