Sunday, October 12, 2014

The anti-Semitic tentacles of the real campaign against the fake 'War on Christmas'

Each winter, as Christmas nears, Americans are treated to a media creation known as the "War on Christmas" and the pretended righteous response to it. The theory behind the War on Christmas is that there are legions of anti-Christian or hyper-politically-correct people who are out to remove all references to Christmas from the public square, and that these pseudo-militants need to be stopped before they succeed in eradicating Christmas altogether. The movement's proposed strategy to combat these enemies is simply to beat them at their own game and to make sure that stores, public events, and personal greetings contain as many references to "Christmas" as possible. The word "holiday" won't do it; "holiday" is, in fact, you must know, one of the enemy's tools to kill "Christmas."

This may sound laughable, but millions of Americans take this absolutely seriously. Unfortunately, it leads to a strange, indirect form of anti-Semitism, in which the targets of the pro-Christmas warriors are Jewish-run businesses.

Image of elf ornament from Wikimedia Commons. Taken by Jelene Morris. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

This essay was originally posted Dec. 1, 2008 to Helium Network. The theme remains current, as, eight years later, it seems that the "War on Christmas" will once again resume its regularly scheduled program.

Have Yourself a Merry Little Boycott

In 2005, the right-wing American Family Association published on its website a list of companies that allegedly "'banned Christmas' from their retail ads, in-store promotions or television commercials." "Banning" Christmas, a term the AFA used imprecisely, only amounted to using the word "Christmas" selectively – some would say judiciously. The full list, as viewed online that December, identified active boycotts against the seven worst corporate offenders. Office Max and Best Buy were tagged with the brief complaints that they produced "no 'Christmas' in their advertising." The online search engine of the office supply company Staples was found to offer merely three results for "Christmas." Kmart dared to refer online customers who "need it by Christmas" to a "Holiday Shipping Dates" section, while Nordstrom, even more egregiously, published a "holiday shipping" schedule that referred to "December 25."

Groups like the AFA do not use the tools of social science or economics to measure which companies neglect Christmas. They do not consider or compare the demographics of the stores' clientele, the percentages of company profits earned during the Christmas season, whether the stores sell items intended to be given as Christmas gifts, or the number of references to "holiday" versus "Christmas." They simply find examples of stores that someone thinks don't look Christmassy enough, and they boycott them.

Other crusaders also put retailers through the wringer. Macy's, after being attacked by Bill O'Reilly of "The O'Reilly Factor" talk show on Fox News, insisted it had not "banned" the phrase "Merry Christmas" but had merely advised employees not to make assumptions about which holidays its customers celebrate. A customer service representative for Land's End made a similar point and was drawn into a weeklong dispute with the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. To cure what the Catholic League presented as Land's End's ignorance of its customers' religious preferences, the Catholic League encouraged Catholics to call and request "Christmas" catalogs.

The Catholic League also boycotted Wal-Mart, cited as an offender by the AFA, for one day in November 2005. League president Bill Donohue complained that when he searched Wal-Mart's website for "Hanukkah" or "Kwanzaa," he was given search results of individual items, but when he searched for "Christmas," he was redirected to an entire "Holiday" shopping section. "Wal-Mart is practicing discrimination," Donohue declared, assuming that this special treatment of Christmas implied inferiority. Wal-Mart apologized the next day, and a subsequent search for "Christmas" on their website produced a disorganized list of 7,921 products. One can only hope Donohue was relieved that Christians were no longer being "discriminated" against by having thousands of Christmas products usefully organized in a separate section. In 2008, Wal-Mart's online Christmas items were presented on a page called "The Christmas Shop," and in 2011, they offered a "Christmas layaway program." The company did not, however, abandon its policy of "encouraging employees to say 'Happy Holidays' instead of Merry Christmas." In 2014, two months before the holiday, when one types "Christmas" into the search box, one sees the disorganized list again, now with 63,971 items. Wal-Mart was still promoting Hallowe'en at that time, and it was also possible to search by Christmas-related categories. In 2016, one month before the holiday, "Christmas" yields 403,369 results with some organization into 14 categories of decoration.

Mark Manson wrote in The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck about concern over the lack of Christmas trees at malls and similar social crises:
“The writer and media commentator Ryan Holiday refers to this as ‘outrage porn’: rather than report on real stories and real issues, the media find it much easier (and more profitable) to find something mildly offensive, broadcast it to a wide audience, generate outrage, and then broadcast that outrage back across the population in a way that outrages yet another part of the population. This triggers a kind of echo of bullshit pinging back and forth between two imaginary sides, meanwhile distracting everyone from real societal problems.”
The Christmas defenders' complaint is nebulous. First of all, the assumptions behind the movement are unclear. Is the movement centered on employee rights or consumer comfort? Is it about the right to greet someone with "Merry Christmas" or is it about the expectation to be so greeted? Does it acknowledge that Christmas can be referred to in a matter-of-fact way – as two Jews can coherently discuss buying Christmas presents for their Christian relatives and friends – without invoking the word Christmas in a sacred context and without any assumption of bolstering its sanctity? Do the movement's coordinators believe the pro-Christmas-language initiative will benefit non-Christians in any way? Do they care if it does? Secondly, although the AFA and Fox News pundits claim that companies are "banning" Christmas, they have not claimed that Christian clerks or shoppers have felt obligated to suppress their religious identities. In legal terms, they have not claimed injury. Thirdly, the proposed remedy is even fuzzier. Are the Christmas activists arguing that employees' speech and company publications should be required to use the word "Christmas"? If so, how frequently? Or do they merely want employees to be permitted to use their own judgment when interacting with customers? Without answering these questions, the movement in response to the non-existent "War on Christmas" (if the "response" can be dignified as a movement and not just as a media creation) lacks direction, and it tends to wander into anti-Semitic territory.

Where's My Christmas, Mr. Kresge?

In 2005, two-thirds of a million Christians, organized by the American Family Association via an online petition, rushed to condemn the absence of Christian celebration on the part of several large companies. It is unclear whether they realized that these companies were founded mainly by Jews.

Sears was shaped by Julius Rosenwald, who became the second president in 1895 and was the original business partner of founder Richard Sears. Kmart was the child of the S. S. Kresge Corporation, founded by Sebastian Kresge in 1899. Kohl's was founded by Max Kohl in 1962; Home Depot, by Bernie Marcus and Arthur Blank in 1979; Staples, by Thomas Stemberg and Leo Kahn in 1985. Macy's, the company against which Bill O'Reilly demanded a simultaneous boycott, became one of the most famous Jewish business success stories after the dry goods store was acquired in 1896 by Isidor and Nathan Straus.

The AFA's 2008 list of "naughty" companies that fail to mention Christmas early and often included Barnes & Noble, whose chairman Leonard Riggio was a recipient of an award from the Jewish-led Anti-Defamation League for his efforts to educate children against prejudice; Costco, whose CEO James Sinegal was mentored by Jewish businessman Sol Price; and Kroger, which at the time was expanding its selection of kosher food.

Save Merry Christmas, an organization that advocated "celebrating Christmas in stores," used its briefly-lived website (accessed Sept. 2006) to list the names and contact information of 14 CEOs to whom they encouraged Christians to apply pressure. The CEOs' names included Bern, Pressler, Rounick, Schaefer, Ulrich, Wexner, and Zimmer. While it is difficult to demonstrate which of them are Jewish if they choose not to make that part of their public identities, it seems likely that at least some of them are – and therein lies the point.

When the AFA encouraged its eager boycotters to email Richard Schulze, founder of Best Buy, how many hundreds of thousands of people were able to type that Jewish-sounding name and criticize him for his lack of Christmas spirit? Did they do it without pausing to question whether he might be Jewish, or did they intend to use their own religious holiday to harass someone they believed to be a Jew? Either option is demoralizing.

Of course, when the executive leaders of national and international companies develop their business plans, they must consider not only their own identities, but also those of their employees and their customer base. To make an example of New York, about 17 percent of residents of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and suburban Nassau County are Jewish. If the employees and customers of department stores are representative of the general population, then, in about 3 percent of clerk/customer interactions in Brooklyn (where Sears and Target have stores) or Nassau County (where Wal-Mart does business), both clerk and customer are Jewish. No reasonable large-business leader could mandate that all clerks use Christian greetings with all customers, which would lead to a circus of New York Jews routinely wishing each other Merry Christmas, and provides no benefit to Christians except to make a mockery of their holiday by imposing its rituals on those who would not otherwise choose to practice them.

That the War-on-the-War-on-Christmas folks organize boycotts of companies mostly founded by Jews – rather than, for example, promoting the business of Christian-owned and -operated companies – is indicative of something ill-mannered and spiteful about the campaign. Intentionally or not, the subtext seems to be that these Christians are not interested in doing business with non-Christians or less outwardly pious Christians.

Jews Against Christmas

If we are sensitive to the plight of "America's tragically persecuted Christian super-majority" (sarcastically so called by J. Daniel Janzen in Flak Magazine), especially given that, as Jon Stewart noted on the fake news show "The Daily Show" in 2011, there are ostentatious Christmas displays all over the country and even in the White House, many of which "are subsidized by – uh, what's that thing you don't want to spend on anything? – taxpayer money!", then we must ask: Who is perpetrating this horrible persecution against the Christians?

It's hard to get a straight answer these days. Precisely because the idea of a "War on Christmas" makes so little sense on its face, the angry movement against it is likely disguising a more serious, deep-seated complaint, one whose true name is not spoken.

The suspicion of a conspiracy to steal Christianity back up the chimney historically has been overtly anti-Semitic. Absence of distinct ill will toward Jews is not a full excuse for participation today in this conspiracy theory. If there are enemies of Christmas, then pro-Christmas activists should have the courage to identify them by name, individually and collectively. Drawing a circle around the supposed culprits in negative space is dishonest. Their vagueness appears to be intended only to avoid charges of bigotry. Those who accuse the ephemeral Christmas enemies of bigotry and bah-humbug should lay themselves bare to examination of whether they, themselves, hold any bigotry and bah-humbug about non-Christian beliefs.

The subtitle to John Gibson's War on Christmas (2005) effusively referenced a "Liberal Plot." More recently, Bodie Hodge, who is associated with the creationist organization Answers in Genesis – USA, published a book in 2013 War on Christmas: Battles in Faith, Tradition, and Religious Expression whose description refers to Christmas as "ground zero in an ongoing culture war". Fox News political analyst Jim Pinkerton (2005) dated the alleged "War on Christmas" back to the U.S. Supreme Court's 1962 decision against prayer in public schools.

Automaker Henry Ford was more blunt in "The International Jew" (1921), a complaint about secularized Christmas and Easter cards. His essay "The International Jew" lists Jewish-led legal assaults on Christian prayer and celebrations in public schools dating back to the turn of the twentieth century. "The whole record of the Jewish opposition to Christmas, Easter and other Christian festivals, and their opposition to certain patriotic songs, shows the venom and directness of that attack," Ford wrote. He also blamed Jews for Christians' own avoidance of preaching in civic contexts: "No President of the United States has yet dared to take his inaugural oath on the open pages of the New Testament – the Jews would denounce him."

Such prejudice survives today. For example, while claiming that those most offended by Christmas today are atheists and agnostics, the organization Boycott Watch implicitly admits that the "original complaint" was ascribed to Jews.

Keep Christmas in Kmart

The Knights of Columbus have promoted their "Keep Christ in Christmas" campaign since the 1980s. Part of their message is that, to preserve the meaning of the holiday, Christmas must be understood as a religious holiday, and material gifts must not be given center stage. But the hundreds of thousands of Christians who signed the AFA's boycott had the opposite agenda. A more elegant name for the platform of the War-on-the-War-on-Christmas would be "Keep Christmas in Kmart."

The former homepage of Save Merry Christmas explained the offense as follows:
Each Christmas season, every kind of decoration, advertising gimmick and sales promotion is directing the public to purchase their merchandise for the Christmas celebration...This deliberate and intentional substitution of 'Merry Christmas' with un-celebratory phases are thoughtless, condescending and hurtful."
The complaint seems to be that shoppers appreciate having gimmicky sales promotions directed at them near Christmastime, and that they are insulted only by the stores' failure to pretend that their overpriced junk has anything to do with the Messiah, a ruse that enhances these shoppers' enjoyment of the holiday and without which they feel demeaned.

The hours devoted to church attendance by the average American are already considerably outstripped by the hours he or she devotes to television and Internet. (Only one-third of Americans claim to attend church weekly, and people tend to overreport their church attendance, so the real number is likely much lower.) One might question whether the department store boycotters really want the lion's share of audible references to Christmas to come from commercials rather than church. If the AFA has tapped into a real current of dissatisfaction, then the most common answer would likely come in the unsettling affirmative.

Ironically, Bill O'Reilly is one of the fiercest advocates for the secularization of Christmas. On Dec. 3, 2004, O'Reilly explained to a Jewish caller that Christmas "is a federal holiday honoring the philosopher Jesus." Three years later, he answered Rabbi Adam Bernay's question "[W]hat if a company is owned by Jews? Would you still object to no Christmas displays?" as follows: "The objection is based on the federal holiday, Rabbi, not religious connotation. Nobody's asking businesses to promote the divinity of Jesus. We're just asking stores that profit from Christmas to acknowledge Christmas." By calling Jesus a "philosopher," identifying Christmas as a government holiday, and arguing that Jewish merchants should "acknowledge Christmas" free from theological claims, O'Reilly laid out a strategy for stripping Christmas of its religious content and converting it into a department store holiday.

Adam Cohen's New York Times opinion piece in 2005 brazenly declared, "Religious conservatives have a cause this holiday season: the commercialization of Christmas. They're for it." But he concluded, hopefully, that the "smack-down attitude toward non-observers...does not, however, appear to be catching on with the public. That may be because most Americans do not recognize this commercialized, mean-spirited Christmas as their own."

One could always argue that it seems far more "thoughtless, condescending, and hurtful" toward Christians to outwardly associate the birth of their Messiah with coffeemakers and Barbie dolls, or with crazed shopping behavior such as that which led to the fatal trampling of a Wal-Mart employee on the day after Thanksgiving in 2008. How would it be more respectful to Christianity to acknowledge these shoppers as "Christmas tramplers" rather than "holiday tramplers"?

"It's as though the 'War on Christmas' has become a rote observance, devoid of all its original spiritual meaning," Jon Stewart concluded in 2012.

During the presidential campaign in 2015, Donald Trump threatened to boycott Starbucks because its disposable coffee cups were insufficiently Christmasy. In December 2016, after Trump had been elected but before he was inaugurated, former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski told Sean Hannity on Fox News: "You can say again, ‘Merry Christmas,’ because Donald Trump is now the’s not a pejorative word anymore." The Republican National Committee prepared a Christmas message: "Over two millennia ago, a new hope was born into the world, a Savior who would offer the promise of salvation to all mankind. Just as the three wise men did on that night, this Christmas heralds a time to celebrate the good news of a new King." Some questioned whether a political parallel to "new King" was intended.

What Do You Have Against Thursday?

President Bush sent a photograph of the White House pets with wishes for a good "holiday" to over a million people in 2005. editor Joseph Farah broadcast his petulant reaction to Bush's neutral word choice: he destroyed the card. In 2007, the White House sent a more overtly religious card, including wishes for a "blessed season" with a passage from the Biblical prophet Nehemiah, but still, the card avoided the controversial word "Christmas."

That seems like a reasonable compromise. It is puzzling why the words "holiday" or "season" should be deemed offensive simply because they are vague and inclusive. The Hebrew and Yiddish expressions "chag sameach" and "good yontif" translate as "happy holiday," and Jews use them to refer to the Jewish holiday du jour, which is always a simple matter of calendrical fact. So, too, when one wishes another "Have a nice day," it would be unexpected to receive an accusation of waging a "War on Thursday" because of a failure to specify the day of the week. This is why it is strange and inconsistent that, when one wishes another a pleasant "holiday" (etymology: "holy day"), one should be cast as a grinch or a militant atheist for failing to specify the holy day in question.

Perhaps the English phrase "Happy Holidays" offends some members of the majority religion precisely because it is designed to be inclusive to people of all religions, races, and nationalities who enjoy the Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa and New Year's season. Such people profess to feel that the implicit admission of the existence of other holidays somehow diminishes their enjoyment of their own holiday. This resembles a child boycotting her own birthday cake because it isn't sold with her name already written on it. She can still eat the cake. The cake was sold with a blank space to ice a child's name because that kid isn't the only kid in the world who's having a birthday.

The Boston Globe's editorial on Dec. 3, 2012 put it well: "The conservative attack dogs ought to remember that the Christmas spirit is best expressed through charity, forgiveness, and merriment — not shouting from the bully pulpit or through a bullhorn." Those being shouted at, the Globe noted, "for the most part, just want to make sure everyone feels welcome during the holiday season."

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