Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Of arms and men (and war on Christmas) I Sing...

According to an email I recently received, repeatedly, the “War on Christmas” is still on this year, with heavy fighting and many casualties on both sides. I notice that I always get these from the pro-Christmas side; never from the anti-Christmas forces, which suggests to me that they’re fairly disorganized. Also, apparently, their major accomplishment, in the eyes of the anti-Christmas brigades, was forcing teenagers at the mall to greet shoppers with “Happy Holidays!” instead of “Merry Christmas!” This first suggests that this is the single pussiest war ever (and, yes, I did use that as a superlative adjective). Secondly, it suggests a paucity of accomplishments on the part of the anti-Christmas forces. If they could force the malls to stop playing the same irritating Christmas music for two months out of the year, it would be worth losing a few young lives over.

It is worth thinking seriously about why people are so concerned over this. Okay, honestly, it’s not worth thinking seriously about; but I need a break from my dissertation, so here goes. The first point is that, yes, the “War on Christmas” is largely a media-created “movement” intended to get people to buy books or watch certain television programs. It’s about as serious as the “Disco is dead” movement was in the 70s. However, the people who send me these emails take this issue seriously, which suggests that their serious concerns are being channeled towards a silly cause.

Part of that, I would imagine, is simply that people like to be a part of something. It helps to feel like our unexpressed desires and fears are shared by others and can be expressed collectively. Positioning ourselves against an Other, usually defined as almost comically evil, allows us to make some sense of ourselves in easily defined terms. We are the people who defend Christian tradition, as against those who either don’t or who are thought to attack Christian tradition. This defense, then, is an expression of belief, but also a “good work”. Forwarding these emails demonstrates faith, while perhaps strengthening it. It’s a bit like the Crusades, but really childish and non-violent.

Many Americans worry about the secularization of society. Even in a country with as much religious allegiance as America, it’s noticeable that religious belief plays little role in most people’s daily lives. Few of them seem to have read their own religious books, and instead, many seem to embrace a sort of meaningless pop religion. As a relative outsider, I find this tacky. I would imagine that the devout find it worse than tacky.

It’s worth noting, however, that no serious theologian that I know of has spoken out about this “War on Christmas”. Instead, the crusaders have been simple yeoman douchebags like Bill O’Reilly. One could speculate that the theologians understand the concept of religious pluralism and prefer it to letting the majority decide how faith should be practiced. Or that they don’t want to cheapen faith by reducing it to a catchy marketing slogan. Also, they must know that America is a pluralist society with a secular public sphere and has been since its founding, regardless of what people wish to believe.

I do suspect that this has to do with the never-ending battle about religious expression in the public sphere, a struggle in which both sides have tended towards the obnoxious. Many states have decided that public schools, for example, should nix the Christmas pageants, something that does strike me as heavy-handed, provided that these evening events are still not mandatory. So I guess I’m on the “pro-Christmas” side there. My general feeling is that, if it’s not forced on me, I’m okay with people celebrating their faith, even if they do so in a public building. It’s no skin off my heathen ass.

Next, I think this stuff might be connected to the commercialization of Christmas that people worry about every year. For devout Christians, of course, Christmas is the focus of the religious season of Advent. For everyone else, it is a time of sales and shopping. This tends to debase and devalue the original religious idea. Of course, consumer capitalism tends to debase all cultural traditions, being based, as Adam Smith put it, on the continuous creation and satisfaction of new needs. Traditions are venerable because they have endured. In consumer culture, everything becomes outdated and is replaced with the newer and better thing as a matter of course.

None of this is evil, but it does necessitate a lack of stable fixities, which people tend to find upsetting, especially as they get older. I’ve noticed that I get these emails from people back home that grew up in smaller, homogenous, and organic communities based largely in clans. In their lives, they’ve seen the local businesses replaced by impersonal chain stores and communal religious traditions replaced by “Black Friday” and Blue-Light Specials. I think there is some yearning for something that has been lost.

I also think it’s inescapable that some of that yearning is tied to demographic changes- those small communities are less homogeneous than they used to be, and not everyone has those religious traditions. Some people find it hard to adjust to sharing space with people with whom they haven’t much in common. Others do things like replacing “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays” out of courtesy, and this riles up their bitterness about having to adjust to new residents from other cultures.

People have claimed that the “war on Christmas” meme started with white nationalists, which I can’t possibly verify. There is, however, a real animus about cultural pluralism underlying a lot of this. The warriors imagine that the more polite among us are bending to social control and that there has been some sort of power shift. I think, therefore, that the War to save Christmas makes me uncomfortable because it makes the bullying assumption that the majority should show no courtesy towards any minority and that we wouldn’t do so if we weren’t made to be “sensitive”. Instead, my politeness reveals that the “PC Nazis” have forced me to suck up to the Jews, Hindus, and Muslims. Otherwise, I’d be an asshole. In keeping with the teachings of Christ, of course.

So, maybe it’s the focus that bothers me. I think these people just care about exercising a certain amount of power in public, which they’re already able to. Most likely, nobody would care if they said “Merry Christmas”. Of course, they might hear “Happy Hanukkah” in return. That’s the problem, I think. They don’t want to be free to say what they want; they want to make other people say what they want to hear.

Or, maybe they’re just bitching. I think I’d actually approve if they “defended” Christmas by reviving door to door caroling. I haven’t seen anyone do that since I was a kid. Why not express your faith by spreading joy, rather than waging miserable “wars”?

[Note: After spending 20 minutes thinking about this topic I do, in fact, feel a bit stupider. sorry.]


narrator said...

great post... What confuses me most is the argument by the self-declared "very religious" that their symbols - including their saints - are not religious symbols at all but cultural icons. The Cross - just a graveyard design element. The Christmas Tree - just a pagan cultural icon. St. Nicholas - just a popular myth. I think it is one of the great things about the First Amendment that religious zealots are forced to argue that their religions are meaningless in order to push them into the public sphere.

- Ira Socol

Rufus said...

To a certain extent, I'm fine with these things being in the public sphere, but it has to go both ways and I think people forget that.

For example, we have a church down the street whose members sometimes stand on the corner and give out candy bars and spread the word, and I guess some people might object to things like that, or to the Mormons who come to our door every few weeks and pester us. But, I think most of us can live with it.

In return, though, they have to understand that some people just don't celebrate Christmas and don't want to have to start just to make them happy.

The Pagan Temple said...

"Many states have decided that public schools, for example, should nix the Christmas pageants"

Right here is really the crux of the matter, along with a few other things such as the banning of Nativity scenes in public parks, the removal of the word Christmas from school calendars in favor of the more neutral "winter holidays", etc.

People who feel strongly about this kind of stuff, and who see this as some agenda driven creation of people like the ACLU, feel like they are helpless to do anything about it, due to the position of judges who have been appointed, and who are beyond the grasp of their own power.

This gives them very little in the way of options, so what do they do? They channel their discontent and their outrage towards store clerks and their employers who fail to recognize the Christmas holiday seasons in the way they think they should be recognized.

They don't want a holiday neutral expression of the season like "happy Holidays", they want to hear Merry Christmas. They don't want a "Holiday Tree", they want to see a "Christmas Tree", etc.

You can almost hear them saying, "Hey Merry Christmas motherfuckers, and fuck you if you don't like it."

So what they do is boycott, or threaten to boycott, any store that doesn't placate them. It's really the only power they have. I really think it's kind of funny myself, and I actually sympathize with them to an extent.

It's like they're saying, "hey, I ain't going to shop in your stores if you don't recognize Christmas the way I do. Sue that, ACLU."

Yes, they can be obnoxious as hell about it, but on the other hand, it's not really much different than civil rights groups boycotting South Carolina over the confederate flag, or Al Sharpton threatening a boycott of radio sponsors if Don Imus wasn't fired for the "Nappy headed hos" comment.

It's really more about making a point than anything, and serving notice to politicians and judges that they aren't happy campers about their beliefs being marginalized and seemingly forced out of the public square, as they see it.

Rufus said...

It's a bit like politically correctness then. What should we call it? Religious Correctness? Christian Correctness? Christmas Correctness?

In general, a good rule of thumb for public life, I think, is "don't be a douche". That would apply as much for people who can't deal if the Christians want have their Christmas pageant in the school after hours (again, if it's not mandatory, who cares?) as much as to the people who can't deal if some kid at Wal-Mart says Happy Holidays to them.

As for the bullying secularists, I have to say that I've heard a lot more about them than actually encountered any of them. I'm sure they exist, but I'm skeptical that many of these people have actually struggled with them.

As for me, I guess I'm one of those dreaded 'multiculturalists' I hear so much about- I'd actually like it if all holidays- sacred and profane- were shared and celebrated in public. It would be great to go downtown and celebrate Diwali for instance. But I'm weird.

The Pagan Temple said...

You're right, it's very much a right-wing version of PC. I've always recognized it's existence, even if they don't see it that way. I guess they actually excuse it on the grounds of fighting fire with fire, I don't know.

A lot of it is just sour grapes, but I do sympathize with them to an extent. Like everything, it's a matter of sometimes they're right, sometimes they're wrong, and sometimes they just get carried away regardless.

I can sympathize with them over things like public holiday observances, but that doesn't put me squarely in their corner by any means, because these are the same people that want prayers in public schools, intelligent design taught as science, and the Ten Commandments posted on court house and school walls.

People on both sides need to learn how to pick their battles more wisely and ask themselves one simple question-am I really being reasonable here?