As mentioned in these pages in late November, in Mondays With Murrow, we are divided. Bill O'Reilly and the whole Fox News network have mounted a campaign to end the oppression of beleaguered and minority Christians in this country and save Christmas itself from the secular bullies who now run this country.
See Media Matters here for a review of what Bill O'Reilly, the most popular cable news commentator in America, had been saying up to that point, or check out the new book by another Fox News anchor - John Gibson's The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought (Sentinel, October 2005).
Bill says we need to get back to what the Founding Fathers intended (but ignores that they worked on Christmas Day 1779 and Christmas wasn't a national holiday before 1870 - the Puritans banned the holiday and 25 December is mentioned nowhere in the New Testament).
So what is the war about? John Gibson argues this war must be fought every time someone uses the greeting Happy Holidays rather than Merry Christmas. And who does that? Costco, Target, Wal-Mart, K-Mart and Sears have "Happy Holidays" in their promotional material - not "Merry Christmas." So we need to fight them. If we don't fight them? That would be a victory for the secular left and a defeat for all Christians.
It's hard to avoid this issue. It's all over the press, and some on the Christian right have even turned on the president, when a few of the more easy-going and sardonic of those who follow such things pointed out to them that the more than a million cards sent out by the White House this December wished recipients "Happy Holidays." The First Lady's press secretary, Susan Whitson, had to scramble - "Certainly President and Mrs. Bush celebrate Christmas." It's just that their "friends" include "people of all faiths."
This may not mollify some. Bush has, for the last four years, tried to make up for initially calling our current effort in Iraq a "crusade." Some trembling staffer had to explain to him that might be a word that would upset more than a few of our allies in the Middle East. The president's life-long contempt for history and detail had him at a temporary disadvantage here. To many in the Middle East, the historic Crusades, by Christians to win back the Holy Land from the Muslims, are just something everyone knows happened, and they'd rather not they happen again. So the president would, now and then, here and there, assure those in that part of the world that this wasn't a Christian holy war on Islam. He had used the "crusade" word in a general sense, of course, and then stopped using at all. And how many times did he say, "Islam is a religion of peace?" Quite a few times - attempting to diffuse all this. Of course, worse yet, if you're a proud Christian, last week you might have seen the president lighting a Menorah at the White House.
The mainstream, or near mainstream like Fox News, gives him a pass on all this. But the Christian right is wary. How they see that secular bullies are running the country is difficult to understand, given that the party they support, and depends on them to stay in power, controls the White House, both houses of congress and most of the courts. But the wariness is there. Someone is out to get them.
Note this, a bit of an editorial by Chris Satullo in the Philadelphia Inquirer -
Well, you can be sure these folks are not out to "poison a national holiday of good will." But there is some panic here.
"Happy holidays" and "Seasons greetings" are neither new nor hostile to Christmas. They are fine, old inventions that exemplify civility and recognize that one of the nation's glories is its diversity. In much of America, you never know whether the stranger with whom you exchange pleasantries in the line at Starbucks might be Jewish, Buddhist, agnostic, Muslim or Hindu. The "War on Christmas" riff smacks of a panicky grievance against an America of many hues.
Retailers such as Wal-Mart appeal to the broadest, most diverse market. That's why "Happy holidays" or "Season's greetings" makes perfect sense for them. It's not an insult to Christians. It's marketing to those who are not. (Don't conservatives believe in capitalism?)
Now, if a store wants to shout "Merry Christmas" to the world, the First Amendment is certainly OK with that. Retailers may do it, churches may, individuals, as well. A newspaper may, without apology, publish an annual Christmas story. (Hint: See this space next Sunday.)
The First Amendment limits only what government, with its myriad powers, may do. Government must not grant adherents of one faith greater (or lesser) rights and benefits.
That's why creches at City Hall and pious carols on the school stage are always problematic (though not always wrong). People who don't get the First Amendment, who yearn for their faith to be top dog, can't see that. Instead, they seek to poison a national holiday of good will with trumped-up grievances.
And everyone agrees civility is fine. It's a good thing. But here one assumes civility is something that, while nice, is something that one cannot afford when one is "at war." In fact, the argument might be roughly parallel to the idea that we cannot afford to forego state-sponsored torture - we wouldn't normally codify and do that, but September 11 changed everything and we're in a new kind of war. Civility is something we can no longer afford? Well, when the very core of your being, your faith, is under attack, you might argue that.
So the Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert, proclaims the "Holiday Tree" on the lawn there is now a "Christmas Tree" - and the same happens in Boston and all over, in a show of solidarity, even if the relation of such trees to the birth of Jesus is well beyond tenuous. The dead tree made pretty in December is a winter solstice thing, isn't it? Is it pagan? There's no such thing in the New Testament, but then there was no parade a balloons in the shape of cartoon characters in Jerusalem that night more than two thousand years ago.
Whatever. It's a show of defiance - standing up to the bullies. And there are a few votes there too, of course.
Now as a goy, and a life-long atheist, the dark side of this should not bother me. But there is a dark side. Bill O'Reilly is all over George Soros, as here he warns America about the vast conspiracy to get rid of Christmas -
It's the ACLU and the secular Jews like George Soros, of course. Damn those Jews! They hate Christmas.
There's a very secret plan. And it's a plan that nobody's going to tell you, "Well, we want to diminish Christian philosophy in the U.S.A. because we want X, Y, and Z." They'll never ever say that. But I'm kind of surprised they went after Christmas because it's such an emotional issue.
And lately O'Reilly has been all over the satirist Jon Stewart for kidding around about this on The Daily Show on Comedy Central. Stewart's mocking relies in part on Stewart noting he himself is Jewish.
It's all silliness. But there is this dark side, as many have seen but M. J. Rosenberg points out here in Israel Policy Forum -
Yeah, it seems anti-Semitic, doesn't it?
The fact that the Christmas warriors are talking in code should not fool anybody. When a political candidate denounces his opponent for receiving campaign contributions from New York and Beverly Hills, we all know who he is talking about. Similarly, denunciations of secular liberals, especially when coupled with references to, say, George Soros and John Stewart, are pretty unambiguous.
Yes, and both CNN and MSNBC have reported on the "controversy." And Fox News, which invented the whole thing, from November 28th to December 2nd devoted fifty-eight segments to the subject, and, last Wednesday, the conservative Heritage Foundation held a symposium on "the liberal plot" to ban Christmas.
Rosenberg is not pleased -
Why would that be? Because Bill O'Reilly in response to a Jewish caller last December who said that he found O'Reilly's views on Christmas objectionable told the fellow to "move to Israel?"
Of course, the "war on Christmas" it is totally manufactured. There is no Jewish, or other non-Christian group, that campaigns to ban the term "Merry Christmas."
I suppose there are individual Jews (or Muslims, or others) who prefer to be wished "happy holidays," but that is simply neither here nor there. As for the secular liberal groups making war on the term, they don't exist either. The whole issue was invented by the far right to divide Americans from one another, at Christmastime no less. As the Christmas warriors probably know, the reason businesses have adopted the term "the holidays" in place of Christmas is that Christmas is one day, December 25th. "The holidays" suggests a period that runs from Thanksgiving through New Year's, more time for shopping and exchanging. Anti-Christmas animus is a myth.
But that does not mean that the "war on Christmas" brouhaha is not threatening to Jews.
Would it be because O'Reilly said this?
Rosenberg notes Soros is a Holocaust survivor and a billionaire who backs liberal causes, and Lewis is also a billionaire and a major donor to progressive and Jewish causes.
Now the reason this is happening is because of the ACLU and George Soros, Peter Lewis. Just a reminder: George Soros and Peter Lewis are the far-left, secular progressive billionaires who have funded - they pour money into the ACLU, they pour money into the smear websites, you know, they buy up a lot of the media time. And they basically want to change the country from a Christian-based philosophical country to a secular progressive country like they have in Western Europe.
Would it be because O'Reilly said this when The Daily Show made fun of him and his war on those who say Happy Holidays and use those words in store promotions?
Ah, that's how you handle uppity Jews - get in their face, poke them in the chest and sneer, "Merry Christmas." The message is there are more of us than are of you people, so shut up, if you know what's good for you.
There you go, Jon Stewart. We know what he's doing over there [on Comedy Central]. And it's not just Stewart. You know, ninety percent of quote unquote entertainers are secular progressives. And a Merry Christmas to you, John Stewart. As I said in my newspaper column this week, three wise men showed up to honor the baby Jesus way back when. And if corporate executives are not wise enough to emulate that, well, those of us who respect Christmas might look elsewhere.
Jews have seen this before. What more is there to say?
Eric Alterman here points out another detail, but a small victory -
Maybe so, but why is it being fought at all?
Rosenberg reserves special scorn for O'Reilly's new ally, comedian Jackie Mason, who has gone on Fox to take O'Reilly's side against those liberal Jews who are out there assaulting Santa Claus. He calls Mason "the Stepin Fetchit of Jewish comedians." The O'Reilly-Mason alliance is no big surprise. Mason, who famously called Mayor Dinkins "a fancy schwartze with a moustache" has always trafficked in racial stereotypes. In his dotage, he has now turned on the Jews. Bye bye, Jackie. It says something when the crazy right has Jackie Mason and we have Jon Stewart. This is a cultural war we have won!
And what's with O'Reilly? Some had him pegged as this generation's Joe McCarthy, with all this talk about secret plots, and with his blacklist of enemies of American (and of him) he is going to expose and drive into oblivion. It seemed a retro fifties thing. Now it seems like a late-thirties-in-Germany thing.
That O'Reilly has the largest number of viewers - of those who watch opinion shows on television - just as Rush Limbaugh has the same on radio - is interesting. These are odd times. Schoenberg and Thomas Mann and all the rest bailed out of Germany and Austria in the middle thirties and ended up here in Hollywood. Will things reverse? Steven Spielberg to Munich? You never know.
But there is an explanation for all this, from the mysterious Umberto Eco - God Isn't Big Enough For Some People.
Eco digs deeper -
That's curious. What makes O'Reilly and John Gibson so defensive, what makes them go on attack, is their sense that someone, somehow, is taking away their justification for simply being, and their hope. The first depends on their Christianity, and the second depends on the belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
We are now approaching the critical time of the year for shops and supermarkets: the month before Christmas is the four weeks when stores of all kinds sell their products fastest. Father Christmas means one thing to children: presents. He has no connection with the original St Nicholas, who performed a miracle in providing dowries for three poor sisters, thereby enabling them to marry and escape a life of prostitution.
Human beings are religious animals. It is psychologically very hard to go through life without the justification, and the hope, provided by religion. You can see this in the positivist scientists of the 19th century.
They insisted that they were describing the universe in rigorously materialistic terms - yet at night they attended seances and tried to summon up the spirits of the dead. Even today, I frequently meet scientists who, outside their own narrow discipline, are superstitious - to such an extent that it sometimes seems to me that to be a rigorous unbeliever today, you have to be a philosopher. Or perhaps a priest.
And we need to justify our lives to ourselves and to other people. Money is an instrument. It is not a value - but we need values as well as instruments, ends as well as means. The great problem faced by human beings is finding a way to accept the fact that each of us will die.
Eco here simply points out that the role of religion to provide that justification - religions are systems of belief that enable human beings to justify their existence and which "reconcile us to death." Thus O'Reilly and Gibson and the rest see the abyss, know they will die, as we all do, and attack the Jews and other who question their justification for being. As Eco says, we're all still looking for something that will reconcile each of us to the inevitability of our own death. Of course, the attacks help in the ratings too.
Eco, of course is making a far different point. He's writing, in amazement, at the growth of belief in some mighty odd things - "from strange pagan cults and sects to the silly, sub-Christian superstitions of The Da Vinci Code." -
Well, there's a lot of that specific kind of depression going around these days. And he notes Himmler and many of Hitler's henchmen were "devotees of the most infantile occult fantasies." And in bookstores he sees all these books explaining "Templars, Rosicrucians, pseudo-Kabbalists, and of course The Da Vinci Code, but also anti-semitic tracts such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion."
It is amazing how many people take that book literally, and think it is true. Admittedly, Dan Brown, its author, has created a legion of zealous followers who believe that Jesus wasn't crucified: he married Mary Magdalene, became the King of France, and started his own version of the order of Freemasons. Many of the people who now go to the Louvre are there only to look at the Mona Lisa, solely and simply because it is at the centre of Dan Brown's book.
The pianist Arthur Rubinstein was once asked if he believed in God. He said: "No. I don't believe in God. I believe in something greater." Our culture suffers from the same inflationary tendency.
The existing religions just aren't big enough: we demand something more from God than the existing depictions in the Christian faith can provide. So we revert to the occult. The so-called occult sciences do not ever reveal any genuine secret: they only promise that there is something secret that explains and justifies everything. The great advantage of this is that it allows each person to fill up the empty secret "container" with his or her own fears and hopes.
As a child of the Enlightenment, and a believer in the Enlightenment values of truth, open inquiry, and freedom, I am depressed by that tendency.
Yes, there's something in the air. It smells like middle Europe in the late thirties, like dank metallic streets and fear, not like fresh-cut pine and cookies baking in the kitchen.
O'Reilly and Gibson and their legions, of course, aren't into the infantile occult - unless your count their defense of the Jesus Tree with blinking lights and tinsel.
And Christmas will be over soon. And these guys will forget the Jewish Problem until next year.
These are available for your Jesus Tree -