Perpetual adolescence goes on display in San Francisco

In America's capital of the weird breaking the world record for naked Santas is no big deal. But it says a lot about the death of childhood.
Paul Adams | 16 December 2011
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SantaFor some time now, I have been following the extensive travels and adventures of a very interesting fellow I know primarily through Facebook via my daughter – social networking in action.  A researcher at a UK think tank, he was educated in Bombay/Mumbai, is an Indian Anglophile who describes himself as a “High Tory.”  

Those he admires range from apostles and saints to Queen Victoria and Winston Churchill and one of my own contemporary favorites, Theodore Dalrymple.  He describes his religious views as “Evangelical within the Anglo-Catholic Tradition. Think Wilberforce.”

This little bit of background helps explain the horror of my friend’s experience recently in San Francisco, which he describes on his Facebook page under the heading, My American Horror Story:

As I walked past one of the many parks in San Francisco this afternoon, expecting nothing out of the ordinary to happen, I found myself drawn to the kaleidoscopic sight of thousands of Bay Area residents, young and old, dressed as Santa Clauses, and so glorious a sight the reds and whites made as they moved constantly upon the motionless green that my curiosity and aesthetophilia led me to walk right to the epicentre of it all to record the moment on film.

As the clock struck three, a mighty gong was sounded, and before I knew it, the crowd burst into an uproar, the thousands taking off absolutely all of their clothes and screaming "Merry Christmas!" TO MY UTTER HORROR! As if that were not enough, the event was captured by photographers from nearly every Californian news publication! So if you stumble upon articles that read "Naked Santas go for Guinness World Record in San Francisco" and see photographs of a startled-beyond-belief chap totally out of place in his blazer, chinos and cardigan and who resembles me, please pause for a moment and say a prayer for my conservative and Christian soul that has been greatly troubled today.

In other news, "the City by the Bay" made sure I was scandalized in countless unspeakable ways, and I am surprised that despite all the harsh cultural terrains my rather timid soul has had to patiently and bravely traverse through today, I still found the city to be perhaps my favorite in America - perhaps the overflow of crab chowder at the Fisherman's Wharf did the trick.

In response to the amusement his story elicited from friends imagining the shocked look on his face, he comments, “Yes, do note the point that I was in the middle of it all, which meant that I had to navigate my way to the street through hordes of screaming naked liberals!”

Two less amusing points struck me about this incongruous scene.  First is that this er, exhibition—though not very shocking or hostile by comparison—stands in the line of blasphemous art intended to shock the faithful.  It reminds me of one anti-Christian artist’s response to a question about why he only creates blasphemous works to outrage Christians and never Muslims.  He said it was because he didn’t want to get his throat cut.  We can imagine the response if the exhibitionists had chosen to mock a much-loved figure of Islamic tradition.

There is something very tired and tiresome about this kind of offensiveness that barely offends any more.  It is a reflection of the loss of religious seriousness and sensibility in the contemporary West as well as of the perpetual adolescence of those who still seek to scandalize the bourgeois (unless they are Muslim) long after their ‘art’ and antics have ceased to shock. 

Now there is no suggestion in my friend’s account that the ‘naked liberals’ he encountered were personally of the Sixties generation, but the spirit of perpetual adolescence or ‘senile avantgardism’ certainly lives on in San Francisco.

It would be wrong, however, to focus too much on the anti-Christian aspect of the self-display of naked Santas in San Francisco.  Santa himself has become so secularized, having so completely lost a felt connection to the historical St. Nicholas or the Christian story of Incarnation and salvation, that parodies of him, say at office parties,  are mere symptoms, not causes, of the degradation of Christmas in our culture.

The second, perhaps more disturbing aspect of this event is the way it mocks a cherished part of children’s experience of the Christmas holiday.  The senile avant-gardism here characteristically makes a mockery of family and childhood.  Children and their traditions have no place in this world. 

It is the world of what Kay Hymowitz calls the ‘child-man’ phenomenon.  It is an expression of men's loss of the life script that previously guided the transition to male adulthood via marriage and career.  It is the world of immature men portrayed in Seinfeld and by Will Ferrell, with its sort-of female equivalent in Sex and the City.  It is a world of autonomous adults and casual sex unencumbered by children or responsible parenthood. 

It was a celebration of a world without children, of what the recent report on The Revolution in Parenthood calls the worldwide trends in law and reproductive technologies that are leading to a redefinition of “parenthood in ways that put the interests of adults before the needs of children.”

Paul Adams recently retired from teaching social work at the University of Hawai’i. He blogs at Ethics, Culture and Policy.

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