Have you ever wondered exactly how Santa knows who is naughty, and who is nice? In 2005, a mother-daughter team wrote and self-published a book, ostensibly for kids, that set out to answer just that question. That book, The Elf on the Shelf, is both a smash-hit bestseller and a creepily straightforward symbol of our overreaching national security state.
Here’s how it works. Parents buy the Elf on the Shelf kit, which comes with a copy of the book, as well as their very own elf doll (available in both sexes and diverse shades, the better to maximize marketing potential). The parents read their children the book, which outlines how it is precisely this elf who informs Santa when they’ve been bad and when they’ve been good. Every night, in fact, when they’re sleeping, the elf flies from the kid’s home up to the North Pole and passes along the fruits of its surveillance, and then flies right back so as not to miss a minute of potential misbehavior.
The sign that the elf is making this trek is that every morning, it’s moved to a different location in the house. I leave it to the reader to divine what sophisticated method produces the elf’s locomotion — as far as the kids are concerned, though, the one hard and fast rule in the Elf on the Shelf state is “Don’t touch the elf.” You can talk to it — tell it your deepest desires — confess to it — reveal to it the misdeeds of siblings or parents — but don’t you dare lay a finger on it, or else, as it notes in plaintive verse, “My magic might go, and Santa won’t hear all I’ve seen or know.”
Yet this is precisely the demand the American surveillance state makes on us: to respect above all else its presence, its wisdom, its necessity. And this demand becomes ever more pressing; as the Wall Street Journal recently revealed, the National Counterterrorism Center [NCTC] now claims the right (backed by the signature of the attorney general) to “examine the government files of U.S. citizens for possible criminal behavior, even if there is no reason to suspect them.” Moreover, they can store this data for up to five years (with longer durations doubtlessly on the way, if not already de facto present) and share with any foreign government for joint investigations.
While Santa always represented unimpeachable extrajudicial authority, it wasn’t as if he had a uniformed agent present inside the house itself.
As the WSJ article shows, anyone speaking out against this new regime from within was purged from the ranks — their meddling potentially preventing Santa from hearing all that the elves had seen, and thus endangering the magic of the entire system. Those left to oversee the activities of the NCTC are the same ones who were gung-ho for it in the first place — those falling all over themselves to put an elf on every shelf, the better to have minutely detailed lists of the naughty and the nice (or, more accurately, the naughty and those who might yet prove naughty, if only we survey them long enough).
The Elf on the Shelf fad might seem innocuous — in most cases, is innocuous: a little bit of wonder added to the days leading up to Christmas. Still I can’t help but wonder myself about anything that encourages citizens, and especially children, to recognize the validity of an arbitrary authority; still more, to internalize that authority, by conducting themselves by thinking first and foremost about what that authority will report to its higher-ups.
Is this really such a big revision of the much older and still creepy idea that Santa (or some other omniscient white-bearded figure) is keeping tabs on you? I would argue yes; while Santa always represented unimpeachable extrajudicial authority, it wasn’t as if he had a uniformed agent present inside the house itself. And you could petition him directly, making the case for your goodness by letter. Now, a kid hoping to sway the balance to “nice” has to appeal to Santa’s intermediary, and hope nothing gets lost on the way through the North Pole bureaucracy.
I’m sure there’s no causal connection here. It’s not as if the DHS or CIA or anyone is funding Elf on the Shelf as part of some grand conspiracy to produce a more compliant citizenry. They don’t have to: as the Journal report and the deafening lack of protest shows, we’re already compliant enough. Rather, games like this — and often the sillier, the better — help prepare children for the age in which they will live; it’s a form of socialization that doesn’t have to evade resistance because it doesn’t seem like there’s anything to resist. It’s just natural that there’s a spy in your midst, the public face of a distant organization whose power you can’t imagine; it’s just natural that this power must go unquestioned and even unexamined. Because that’s the fundamental assumption of American and much other modern governance today — and any who dare resist will find themselves on the naughty list. And as a recent Christmas release, Zero Dark Thirty, taught us: we have ways of dealing with the naughty. If contemporary America excels at anything, it’s in its many and various ways of dealing with the naughty.