Yesterday was the 57th anniversary of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which the first article reads as follows:
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
Here is what I have discovered about reason and conscience: it’s not enough to be endowed; you have to actually put your endowment to use. When reason and conscience lie dormant, people get away with some egregious stuff.
Case in point: If you’re burning out on the War on Terror and the War in Iraq, I invite you to accompany me as I tread gingerly through another minefield, the “War on Christmas.” In case you’ve been Rip Van Winkling it for the last month, here’s an article from November 20th announcing Reverend Jerry Fallwell’s “Friend or Foe Christmas Campaign,” a companion strategy to the American Family Association’s boycott of retailers for allegedly banning the seasonal greeting “Merry Christmas.” (When I clicked on the above link, the banner ad over the story advertised the film Brokeback Mountain, just another little irony in our current cultural combat.)
The American Family Association has a Web page exhorting citizens to boycott and contact retailers who’ve sinned against Christmas in their ads; it also lists those who’ve knuckled under to its pressure. The fact that this is a multicultural nation couldn’t be of less interest. “It’s a federal holiday,” said Association President Tim Wildmon (son of its Chair Donald Wildmon). “If someone is upset by that, well, they should know that they are living in a predominantly Christian nation.”
My own view matches those of Barry Lynn, Executive Director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “There is no war against Christmas,” he said. “There is no jihad against Christians. There is nothing going on around Christmas except these groups’ incessant fundraising.”
So why does it work? Why has there been so much press, so much airtime, such copious effusions of outrage flowing over this made-up story? I am fascinated by this because it seems to reveal something rather interesting about American political culture in the 21st century. Let’s tiptoe through the minefield.
First tiptoe: Masochists aside, no one actually likes to be oppressed and persecuted.
Second tiptoe: People who are actually oppressed and persecuted (e.g., refugees and migrant workers) have a tremendously hard time getting attention from those in a position to help. We are told that the comfortable suffer from “compassion fatigue,” needing a break from being importuned at every turn. The actually persecuted are often counseled to stop whining and suck it up.
Third tiptoe: But except for sadists, most people don’t like to be seen as piggies either. A few leaders of the “Friend or Foe” campaign trumpeted a top-dog strategy: William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, said, “Ninety-six percent of Americans celebrate Christmas. Spare me the diversity lecture.” But most portrayed themselves as victimized by powerful, shadowy anti-Christmas forces.
Whether this is the legacy of some deep, culturally engrained identification with the underdog–scrappy Tom Paine and Paul Revere against that bully King George, perhaps–or merely cynical manipulation, even the demonstrably unoppressed and unpersecuted find it congenial to position themselves as victims. Tim Wildmon, for instance, wasn’t content merely to throw his weight around by reminding us we live in a “predominantly Christian nation.” He amped up his message with shadowy references to powerful anti-Christmas forces: “Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether this is sinister–it’s the purging of Christ from Christmas–or whether it’s just political correctness run amok….It bothers me that the White House card leaves off any reference to Jesus, while we’ve got Ramadan celebrations in the White House. What’s going on there?”
Fourth tiptoe: I’d like to dismiss this as a novelty tactic of the lunatic right, but I can’t. Hasn’t exactly the same tactic been used to push and pass Bush’s tax cuts for the rich? Social programs are slashed; poor people who complain are told to pull up their bootstraps and join the Opportunity Society. Enough of their whining! But on Thursday, 243 elected Representatives’ opened their hearts to the sad tale of hard-working executives victimized by cruel government confiscators. The result? Continuing tax cuts for investment income, continuing tough luck for the poor.
Let’s review and get out of this minefield before something explodes (my head?). American politics 101, 2005-style: If you are actually persecuted, it’s best to downplay it or be dismissed as a whiner. Either way, you lose. But if you are neither persecuted nor oppressed, your most effective tactic for securing attention, raising funds and winning legislation is to claim that you are.
In George Orwell’s 1984, the three slogans of the party are “Hate is Love,” “Freedom is Slavery” and “Ignorance is Strength.” What shall we add to bring it up to date? “Privilege is Persecution”? I think I’ll go read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights again.