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What is the Elf on the Shelf?

A sweet Christmas tradition - or a toy that trains children in the logic of the police state?

It seems to be the year that the Elf on the Shelf has broken the UK. Over the past few days, social media has been alight with a particular demographic of young people - no kids, but plenty of friends with kids - wondering who this wee red fella is, any why he's suddenly all over their Facebook feed in a variety of strange poses.

So what is the Elf on the Shelf? Well, depending on who you ask, it’s either a nice Christmas game or the worst thing that’s happened to a) the season and b) your friends’ social media feeds.

The Elf is a stuffed toy that comes with a book promising a new Christmas tradition. Every night, parents hide the Elf somewhere in the house; in the morning, it’s up to the children to find it.

But this rather sweet diurnal ritual has a twist: the Elf is, in fact, a “scout elf”, sent from the North Pole to watch the children for Santa. Once in the family home, the Elf gets to work monitoring their behaviour in the run up to the big day. He is always watching, and every night he sends back a report. The children are not allowed to touch the Elf.

Parents credit the toy with helping to instil good behaviour, often joking that they need all the help they can get in the demented capitalist whirlwind that is Christmas. (Although obviously there’s plenty of elf-related tat to nag for on the Elf on the Shelf website).

So what's the problem? Is this not just a relatively innocuous toy slash parenting aid which children and adults can both enjoy? Is it really fair to think its pert, rosy cheeks and smiling eyes resemble the faux-naivity of something a child might find in the attic during one of Stephen King’s early novels?

Yes, yes it is. Here's why.

1. The Elf turns parents into monsters

I polled friends and colleagues about this, and the results are not good.

My friends first posted about him on Facebook a year or two ago. They’re always unstoppably creepy and end with, “he’s watching you, winky face

His job is to grass on you to Santa. But there are people turning him into a pimp, or putting him in a hottub with Barbie. Honestly he’s a bit of a perv... our kids knew it was bollocks

It just seems really creepy – I think there’s a lot of creativity and imagination that goes into it but the idea that the elf is always watching is rather unpleasant.

I don’t know if it’s part of the thing to post updates online, but yeah, you do get a blow-by-blow account of the kids’ behaviour. I mean, a lot of parents do that anyway...

The Daily Mail even has an article where parents (or should that be co-conspirators?) call the thing “the bane of [our] December” – although one dad, who dressed as the elf every day to infuriate his teenage son, may be my hero.

Photo: Amazon screenshot

2. It extends Christmas to the whole of December – but only December

I’m by no means anti-Christmas (I make mince pies! I went to a carol concert! I have a tree in my flat!) but I’m not sure even the most dedicated nativaphile can hack a month of it.

In early December, children are still in school every day, parents are still in work, and America is still recovering from Thanksgiving. Advent calendars are one thing – a daily elf-hiding ritual sounds exhausting.

On the other hand, the ritual may end too soon, with parents reporting that the Elf only manages the child’s behaviour during December. There’s always the chance a month of good deeds will form new, virtuous habits . . . but there’s also a chance children will suppose that their moral compass ought to be oriented Elfwards, and January will turn them into tiny, anarchist nightmares.

Photo: Amazon screenshot

Which brings us to the final, most worrying, point.

3. The Elf on the Shelf: capillary of the police state?

The Elf is also possibly, to use the internet parlance of 2015, a bit fash.

Dr Laura Pinto and Dr Selena Nemorin, based at the University of Ontario’s Institute of Technology, have co-authored a paper entitled ‘”The Elf on the Shelf” and the normalization of surveillance’.

Their study explores the possibility that this all-seeing, ungovernable “police” presence might be preparing children to live in a totalitarian state.

The paper contrasts the notion of the Elf “game” with a more sinister reality. The does not allow the child to be imaginative, or indeed, since they cannot touch the Elf, to “play” in any real sense of the word.

Rather than being consigned to fantasy, Pinto and Nemorin argue that the Elf can potentially disturb the child’s sense of comfort in the real world. In this respect, its panoptic gaze is comparable to Jeremy Bentham’s famous design for a model prison in which the inmates, unable to tell when they are being watched, constantly feel the threat of surveillance and discipline themselves accordingly.

Several case studies, they suggest, show that the “help” parents receive with their child’s behaviour is gained at the expense of happiness and security. (One little girl even called 911 after she touched the Elf).

Pinto and Nemorin include a video clip of Michel Foucault conversing with the Elf.

Personally, I think there’s more to be done here. Is the Elf included in the household by its exclusion? Is a child who touches the Elf engaged in the politics of redistributing the sensible?

There’s your January essay, students. Happy Christmas.

Photo: Amazon screenshot

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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