Jan 15, 2024
“Macaulay Culkin is ‘every boy’ and his Home Alone family is ‘America’s family’ – except it’s not!”
Another season of holiday specials has passed, but it was reassuring to see that the Home Alone movie franchise remains alive and well. In addition to being immensely entertaining, these films prompt some ‘AT (Aletheia Today) worthy’ questions, beginning with, “How do we come to know about the world we live in?”
Seriously? Isn’t the answer obvious? We know about it because we live in it! Living is knowing, right? Well…maybe not:
Imagine you’re a toddler. You’re certainly living in the world…but how much do you really know about that world? On the mappa mundi you drew for your Park Avenue therapist, 60% of the ‘canvass’ was taken up by your house and yard. The scrub pine at the corner of your lot was the tallest landmark, and your so-called ‘caretakers’ were pictured as giants.
You are in the world, but your knowledge of that world is rudimentary at best. But come on! You're a toddler; you’ll learn, right? How? By living, of course. But if our knowledge of the world came from living in it, our maps would look more like Escher than Euclid! Things would recede geometrically from here and now. Bostonians could be forgiven for mistaking the Connecticut River for the Mississippi.
Once upon a time, it’s possible that people did learn about the world by living in it…but not now! Today we learn about the world, not from our experience of that world but from representations projected at us by the media. Roland Barthes called such images mythologies.
What’s a family and what’s it like to live in one? Turn on the TV and find out! Most of us grew up in families; many of us live in families now, but we don’t trust our experience. For our ideas about family, we rely on television and the movies.
The contemporary American family has been defined for us by shows like Leave It to Beaver, The Simpsons, and Modern Family. Of course, we don’t live on the set of a TV sitcom. My own dad was less like Phil Dunphy than he was like Sir Robert (Downton Abbey), but I never expected to grow up like Prince Charles. I might have hoped to grow up like Luke Dunphy.
Confronted with these images, we have two options: either (1) we ignore actual experience and imagine that our own families are ‘just like’ these sitcom families, or (2) we honor our experience and accept that we live in ‘failed families’. I think I do a bit of both, but either way, we do it to our detriment.
Today, our social scientists are focused on the twin phenomena of Entitlement and Privilege. Our media diet certainly reinforces both. But it sets our socio-economic expectations as well. Macaulay Culkin is ‘every boy’ and his Home Alone family is ‘America’s family’ – except it’s not!
The McCallister family is rich. Rabbit rich! They are unapologetic ‘one-percenters’. They live in a McMansion in a posh Chicago suburb. In 2023, the estimated price tag was a mere $2,800,000.
Plus, the family can afford (money and time) to take an extended vacation in Europe. (Two vans to the airport; parents fly first class.) Both parents work, but the nature of that ‘work’ is posh-vague. Suffice to say, neither works in a sweat shop, coal mine, or cube.
Economists estimate that in 2024, a family would need an annual income of at least $750,000 to support such a lifestyle. Yet, the Home Alone franchise encourages all of us to imagine ourselves Growing Up McCallister. Nice work if you can get it.
The McCallister Life is the way life’s z’posed to be. It’s the way all of us were meant to live. According to Bernie Sanders, our actual lives fall short because our patrimony has been stolen from us by greedy robber barons. Sadly though, most of us locate the fault, neither in the stars nor in the social system, but in ourselves.
“What’s wrong with my parents that they did not provide me with the McCallister lifestyle? What’s wrong with me that I cannot provide that lifestyle for my own children?” These questions seem ‘natural’, if self-denigrating, but they are anything but. They contain anaerobic assumptions that will not survive exposure to oxygen…or sunlight.
First, the questions assume that the McCallister lifestyle is within the reach of median members of society. Of course, there are Families McCallister, and in a sense, any family could be a McCallister Family (they could hit on a scratch card, for instance), but such outcomes are at best loosely related to the skills, efforts, abilities, or virtues of the beneficiaries. Somebody’s got to win life’s lottery, but, Immanuel Kant and Bernie Sanders notwithstanding, not everyone can win. That’s not how lotteries work.
Second, and even more perniciously, the questions assume that the McCallister lifestyle defines ‘the good life’. It is good to live in a mansion in a monochrome neighborhood. It is good for siblings to have their own rooms (and not to share). It is good for families to spend the holidays in Europe. Sez who?
The consequences of these hidden assumptions are nothing short of ‘socially catastrophic’. Think I exaggerate?
We have decided to view life in terms of winners and losers. That’s problematic at best. Do winners earn immortality? Then what’s the point?
We have told all participants that they will win or lose based on their performance on a ‘standardized test’ called childhood.
What the players don’t know is that their answer sheets are shredded the minute they are turned in; no one will ever even look at them. Winners and losers will be determined instead by a secret algorithm unrelated to test scores.
After a suitable interval, our beloved founder, Gordon Oliver Day, enters the exam room to announce the results. James Astor – winner; Jonathan Baskin – loser; and so on through the entire roster. (Note: there are many more losers than winners.)
After tears of grief, the losers are left to mourn: “I’ve let myself down, and not just myself, but my parents, my coaches, my teachers and any future spouse(s) and children.”
After tears of relief, the winners begin to compare notes and quickly realize that they did not all perform brilliantly on the test; they begin to intuit that something else must have intervened in the selection process. Their euphoria turns to insecurity…or even guilt.
In the down-under film Hunt for the Wilderpeople, the 12-year-old lead says, “I didn’t choose the Skux (gangster) life; the Skux life chose me.” Kevin McCallister might have said the same thing about the Posh life.
So, we’ve managed to create a value system in which we are all designated ‘losers’, at least in our own minds. Not easy to do but we’ve done it. Brilliant!
I’m not done!
I’m not rich, but I’m not poor either. I have a ‘nice’ lifestyle; I’m ‘satisfied’. But it’s not the McCallister lifestyle. So I am dissatisfied with being satisfied, and I take every opportunity to mimic the Family McCallister. Some people ask, “What would Jesus do?” I ask, “What would Kevin McCallister (or his parents) do?”
So, I buy a house bigger than I need…or can afford, and I take the family on a trip to Europe, even though I have no interest in things European. These are the things one does if one wants to think of oneself as an honorary McCallister...or Dunphy.
Like everyone else in the game, I was dealt an average hand. It was all I needed. But I squandered it by trying to live someone else’s life. Looking back, I wish I had paid more attention to the Rolling Stones: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try some time, you just might find, you get what you need.”
Image: Home Alone. 20th Century Fox.
David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.