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  • Sunday, December 04, 2005

    Outrage Redirected: The Christmas Bait and Switch

    When you are constantly enacting legislation that makes people's lives worse, there will be anger. The trick - well learned by the Republicans - is to focus that anger on to something trivial... or in this case, something nonexistent. From American Progress:

    'Tis the season for the conservatives' "War on Christmas" conspiracy theory to rear its head. The purported progressive plot to ban Christmas from the public square is now a daily staple of conservative talk radio and television, the focus of a popular new book (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"), and the battle cry for some 1,600 lawyer-volunteers working with Rev. Jerry Falwell's Liberty Counsel and the right-wing Alliance Defense Fund. In the latest teapot tempest, House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) made much ado over his insisting that the decorated spruce tree on Capitol Hill be called a Christmas tree. But the truth is, there is no war on Christmas. As Salon.com's Michelle Goldbert points out, "What there is, rather, is a burgeoning myth of a war on Christmas, assembled out of old reactionary tropes, urban legends, exaggerated anecdotes and increasingly organized hostility to the American Civil Liberties Union."

    If Speaker Hastert really wants to put Christ back into Christmas, we would join him in celebrating around the Christmas tree if he, in turn, starts concerning himself with the hardships felt by millions of poor and working-class Americans this holiday season. Before the House went on Thanksgiving break, it passed $50 billion in spending cuts that would squeeze recipients of Medicaid funding, food stamps, and student loans. The House bill plans to cut $12 billion in Medicaid access and benefits for the poor (read the details about how the House budget harms millions). "The Medicaid provisions would allow state governments to impose co-payments even on the poorest beneficiaries for emergency room visits for non-emergency health problems and for drug prescriptions not on a list of preferred treatments." The Congressional Budget Office has estimated the House bill "would cut food stamp benefits by about $45 a month for 225,000 people" and that 40,000 children would lose their eligibility for free meals at school. At the same time, conservatives are seeking to "extend several of Mr. Bush's biggest tax cuts, including those on stock dividends and capital gains" -- over half of the benefits from those cuts benefit people earning over $1million per year. Hastert should heed the true spirit of Christmas by caring for those who cannot care for themselves. Jesus reminds us, in Luke 4:18-20, that by following his example we can "bring good news to the poor."

    It turns out that the game of "the war on Christmas" is old hat for this ilk. First to attack the Jews, then the Soviets, then the UN.

    Conspiracies of a "war on Christmas" are not at all new, though the scapegoats have changed some. In the 1921 screed "The International Jew: The World's Foremost Problem," automaker and notorious anti-Semite Henry Ford observed that "most people had a hard time finding Christmas cards that indicated in any way that Christmas commemorated Someone's Birth." He noted menacingly, "Now, all this begins with the designers of the cards." Later, the Soviet Union and the United Nations were fingered for plotting to undermine Christmas. A 1959 John Birch Society pamphlet stated, "One of the techniques now being applied by the Reds to weaken the pillar of religion in our country is the drive to take Christ out of Christmas -- to denude the event of its religious meaning." The writer breathlessly sounded the alarm: "Department stores throughout the country are to utilize UN symbols and emblems as Christmas decorations." As Salon.com's Michelle Goldberg writes, "To compare today's 'war on Christmas' demagogues to Henry Ford is not to call them anti-Semites." Yet they to promote a conspiracy theory "that repeatedly crops up in America," in which the "scheme is always massive, reaching up to the highest levels of power." In O'Reilly's words, "There's a very secret plan...to diminish Christian philosophy in the U.S.A"; in Gibson's telling, "I began to connect the dots and discerned the outlines of the conspiracy."
    As with anyone caught repeatedly lying, when O'Reilly speaks on the issue, it should set off alarm bells:
    In the latest incarnation, the war on Christmas is used to falsely portray progressives as anti-religious. According to O'Reilly, the self-described "leading general of the anti-secular forces in this country," it is just one arm of the "secular progressive agenda to get Christianity and spirituality and Judaism out of the public square." Comparing progressivism to Nazism and fascism, O'Reilly claimed, "In every secular progressive country, they've wiped out religion ... Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro, all of them." Others on the right echo this line: Pat Buchanan writes, "What we are witnessing here are hate crimes against Christianity." Meanwhile, the Alliance Defense Fund says it pursues legal action over perceived attempts by "government officials to censor Christmas carols, eliminate all references to Christmas, or silence those who celebrate Christ's birth." The White House could be a potential target; no mention of "Christmas" is made anywhere in the White House Christmas card.

    Enough of the manufactured outrage. Now it's time for reality:

    The truth is that "one can in fact offer Christmas greetings without legal counsel." Christmas trees, legally considered secular symbols, are permitted in public schools. Following the Supreme Court decision in 1984's Lynch v. Donnelly, nativity scenes "are allowed on public property, although if the government erects one, it has to be part of a larger display that also includes other, secular signs of the holiday season, or displays referring to other religions." Additionally, the law protects students who wish to distribute religious holiday cards and literature in school. As Salon.com points out, "If the administration tries to stop them, the ACLU will step in to defend the students' free-speech rights, as they did in 2003 when teenagers in Massachusetts were suspended for passing out candy canes with Christian messages." There is a strong progressive religious movement that honors Christmas and holds fast to Christian values that put the needs of the poor first.

    In short, save the outrage for things that not only really matter, but that actually exist.

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