“Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays”?

That is the question.  Whether ‘tis nobler…

Prince Hamlet’s thinking leaned more existential than a choice between appropriate verbiage for a non-secular holiday salutation in the 21st century. Still, it’s a question we modern-day philistines are faced with. And there’s an element of nobility and gallantry behind deciding how to answer the question posed in my essay header.

I’ll get to the quick: while I’m not anal about it, I prefer “Happy Holidays.” You conservatives might say it’s because I’m a leftist liberal.  There’s a grain of truth to that (although I’m not as leftist as some of you might think).  I would say a more appropriate reason is that I often employ the same brain machinations in non-political as political ways. Hey, I am what I am.

When I was a kid I threw around “Merry Christmas” all the time (or in print, the lazier “Merry Xmas”).  I didn’t know anything about religion.  Hell, I barely knew how babies were made.

I’m older and somewhat wiser now.  I now realize that Christmas is a commercial religious celebration (or at least it started out religious), but that a lot of my fellow Earthlings actually are not Christians.  Eureka!  We’ve got Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, paganists, agnostics, and atheists galore here in Uncle Sam land.  (Maybe not in North Dakota…but you know what I mean.)  Lots of smaller cults, too.

I’ll still say “Merry Christmas” in return if I’m greeted that way, because I know the person greeting me is okay with it.  But if I’m doing the initial greeting, and I’m ignorant of the religious or non-religious affiliation of the person, I always say “Happy Holidays.”  Like Mutual of Omaha, it’s an all-encompassing insurance policy.  It covers New Year’s Day, Hanukkah, and I think it usually satisfies atheists and garden-variety, Christian-tinged agnostics like me.

(I shouldn’t forget Kwanzaa, a black cultural celebration occurring just after Christmas.  Kwanzaa’s popularity has evidently declined since its peak in the 1990s, to the undoubted dismay of Hallmark.)

***

So to those fist-pounding militants who want to “Put Christ back in Christmas,” like the guy around the corner with all the crazy yard signs, I say “knock yourselves out.”  Just don’t foist it on me.  Nothing against Christ—who, by the way, preached humility and tolerance—but I’ll celebrate Christmas in my own way, thank you.

It’s all about politeness.  Or gallantry and nobility. You know, “’Tis nobler.”  Unfortunately, and as we’ve seen with people who are adamant about their “individual rights” and defying “government intrusion” by refusing to wear facemasks in public—masks intended to protect themselves and others—politeness is in absentia in certain dark corners of the country right now.

But in the Christmas spirit, I’ll offer a “Happy Holidays” to even these people.  And throw in a “Be Safe” for good measure.

Book Review: “How Democracies Die”—More Unraveling

how democracies die

Longtime readers of this blog probably know that I lean leftward politically. So maybe I should offer a disclaimer now: my intention here isn’t to “stab” Republicans and conservatives. (I’m a middle-aged white male, so most of my peers and friends—those few that I have—are Republicans.  If that means anything.)

But I’m offering a synopsis of a book.  Also, I’ve never subscribed to today’s fashionable tendency toward “equalization” in all things, especially regarding political parties.  Political parties exist because their members differ on the issues, and they often differ radically. And while they share certain behaviors, in many ways they also behave differently.  And I don’t think this can be disputed.

History has shown numerous examples of political parties around the globe that cease to exist because they overextended themselves.

How Democracies Die illustrates how and why the Republican Party has shifted so far to the political fringe, much more so than the Democratic Party, and I touched on this in my last post. In this post, I’ll briefly list more examples of why authors Levitsky and Ziblatt feel both parties have abandoned their roles as democratic gatekeepers, yet conservative Republicans have far exceeded Democrats in an “unraveling” of democracy in the United States.

2000 Presidential Election: a U.S. presidential election was determined, not by voters, but by a court, when the Supreme Court ruled (in a 5-4 conservative opinion) to cease a recount of votes in a too-close-to-call election in the state of Florida.  The end of the vote recount resulted in a narrow Electoral College victory by Republican George W. Bush over Democrat Al Gore (Gore won the popular vote).

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Conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh (photo Huffington Post)

Tom DeLay and Karl Rove: while Bush promised to be a bipartisan president, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay reportedly told him “’We don’t work with Democrats. There’ll be none of that uniter-divider stuff.’” Bush’s political consultant, another Texan named Karl Rove, pushed Bush to govern “hard to the right.”

Senate Democrats: Democrats responded to the Bush presidency’s hard-right governing by “routinely filibustering Bush proposals they opposed” and rejecting or ignoring Bush’s judicial nominations. The 110th Congress filibustered “an all-time high of 139—nearly double that of even the Clinton years.” Later, during the Obama presidency, Senate Democrats responded to Republicans’ obstructionism of a Dem president by voting for a so-called “nuclear option” that eliminated the filibuster for most presidential nominations. Obama himself engaged in norm-breaking with unilateral executive actions in the face of “an increasingly dysfunctional Congress.”

House Republicans: “If Democrats eschewed forbearance to obstruct the president (Bush), Republicans did so in order to protect him.” The Republican House of Representatives essentially abandoned the practice of “regular order” which allowed minority parties to amend legislation, and began introducing bills under “closed rules.” The authors point out that the GOP-ruled House “conducted 140 hours of sworn testimony investigating whether President Clinton had abused the White House Christmas card list,” yet didn’t once subpoena the Bush White House, even during the controversial Iraq War.

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Former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin (photo AP News)

State redistricting: the longstanding norm of state redistricting every ten years to maintain equal populations was shattered by Texas Republicans (led by DeLay) when, in 2003, they gerrymandered in order to isolate black and Latino voters and ensure Democratic defeat. It worked. “Six Texas congressional seats changed hands from Democrats to Republicans in 2004, helping to preserve Republican control of the House.” Racial gerrymandering by Republicans continues today, most notably in the state of North Carolina, which contains what one NC pastor called “apartheid voting districts.” It worked there, too. In 2012, although more Democrats than Republicans cast votes statewide, nine of North Carolina’s 13 congressional seats were won by Republicans.

Conservative media: during the Clinton years, “the emergence of Fox News and influential radio talk-show personalities—what political commentator (and former Bush speechwriter) David Frum calls the ‘conservative entertainment complex’—radicalized conservative voters, to the benefit of ideologically extreme candidates.” While the authors give Bush credit for not questioning his Democratic rivals’ patriotism during anti-Muslim hysteria following 911, they point out this was not the case with conservative commentators. “Commentators began at times to link Democrats to Al Qaeda—as Rush Limbaugh did in 2006, when he accused Senator Patrick Leahy of ‘taking up arms for Al Qaeda’ after Leahy probed Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito on the Bush administration’s use of torture.”

Conservative writer Ann Coulter joined the hue and cry with books featuring simplistic and melodramatic titles that portrayed Democrats and liberals as an existential threat: Slander, Treason, and Guilty. Not satisfied with these histrionics, she employed religion to emphasize her point: Godless and Demonic.

The authors say this “right-wing media ecosystem” reached a watershed with Barack Obama’s ascension to the presidency. He was cast, by Fox News and others, as “Marxist, anti-American, and secretly Muslim” and linked with terrorists like Chicago professor and ex-Weather Underground member Bill Ayers, because Ayers had hosted a gathering for Obama in 1995. Fox News filled its programming with “at least sixty-one different episodes during (Obama’s) 2008 campaign” discussing the Ayers story.

McConnell (Reuters)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (photo Reuters)

Levitsky and Ziblatt say that the most disturbing aspect of this “right-wing media ecosystem” isn’t so much the extremism of the media itself, but its enormous popularity amongst right-leaning voters, and that its influence has, more now than ever before, seeped into the words and actions of powerful and influential Republican politicians:

Newt Gingrich: Obama is “the first anti-American president.”

Tom DeLay: “…unless Obama proves me wrong, he’s a Marxist.”

Iowa GOP Congressman Steve King: Obama is “anti-American” and will lead America into “totalitarian dictatorship.”

Sarah Palin: Obama has been “palling around with terrorists.”  (Words that elicit, from her fawning crowds, cries of “Treason!,” “Terrorist!,” and even “Kill him!”)

Rudy Giuliani: “I do not believe that the president (Obama) loves America.”

Ted Cruz: Obama is a “threat to the rule of law.”

Donald Trump: “I have people who have been studying (Obama’s not being born in America).”

Former Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott has admitted that “If you stray the slightest from the far right, you get hit by the conservative media.”

The combination of slanted conservative media coverage (read: propaganda) and reckless statements by conservative political leaders has been shown to profoundly effect voters:

According to a 2011 Fox News poll, 37 percent of Republicans believed that President Obama was not born in the United States, and 63 percent said they had some doubts about his origins. Forty-three percent of Republicans reported believing he was a Muslim in a CNN/ORC poll, and a Newsweek poll found that a majority of Republicans believed President Obama favored the interests of Muslims over those of other religions.

Even during a time of national crisis, such as the 2008 recession, Republican leaders refused to exercise bipartisanship. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell announced, immediately following Obama’s election, the “single most important thing we want to achieve (in the Senate) is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

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Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland (with President Obama)

And after Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died in February, 2016, the GOP-ruled Senate refused to hold nomination hearings for Obama’s replacement choice, Merrick Garland—a moderate with more federal judicial experience than any Supreme Court nominee in history—claiming it was too close to the November presidential election. It was an unprecedented act, yet another partisan maneuver to give Republicans an edge, this time to maintain a 5-4 conservative majority on the Court.  And it worked. Republican Donald Trump was elected, he nominated conservative Neil Gorsuch, and Gorsuch was confirmed by a Republican-controlled Senate.

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Recall that, at one time in America, the two major parties were able to restrict extremists, such as Henry Ford, Father Coughlin, and John Birch Society leaders, to the fringes of the political landscape. Political gatekeeping, mutual toleration, institutional forbearance, and a respect for norms and unwritten rules were the order of the day. Political leaders exhibited moderation, restraint, and civility (in varying degrees).

By the election of 2016, however, “open attacks on President Obama’s legitimacy (and later, Hillary Clinton’s) were carried out by leading national politicians.” Also recall that such questioning of the legitimacy of one’s opponent is one hallmark of democracies that have crumbled elsewhere in the world. This disturbing trend has allied itself with an almost total abdication of institutional forbearance, as exemplified by the Senate’s unprecedented blocking of the Merrick Garland nomination.

Enter Donald Trump.

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

(Illustration courtesy Edward Camp)

“…(U)pon the banquet of his funeral they most piously do pounce… And for years afterwards, perhaps, ships shun the place; leaping over it as silly sheep leap over a vacuum…” – Herman Melville

When I was in high school, we were assigned a novel called THE OX-BOW INCIDENT, by Walter Van Tilburg Clark.

It’s about three cowboys who are accused of cattle rustling and murder. While the cowboys insist on their innocence, a vigilante posse is convinced of their guilt. The vigilantes outnumber the cowboys, so they get the upper hand. The cowboys are hanged after a long night of drunken accusations and brutality. After the vigilantes commit their dirty deed and ride home, they’re stunned by what they discover: the cowboys were innocent after all.

The book is fiction, but it was my introduction to several life realities: warped vigilante justice…the concept of “court of public opinion” … the behavioral trait where people will do things in a group which they wouldn’t normally do alone (mob mentality) …and the idea that the majority in a democracy is not necessarily right. I’ve never forgotten the book. If you don’t like to read, you should at least see the movie, starring Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, and Anthony Quinn. It will stay with you.

Clark published THE OX-BOW INCIDENT in 1940. The 1943 movie was nominated for Best Picture. One would think such a powerful story would offer a moral lesson to those who would rush to judgment. But in the late 1940s and 1950s, America underwent the Hollywood blacklist and McCarthy hearings, a demagogic, Cold War smear campaign to hunt down alleged Communists. Careers were permanently destroyed.

In 1950, a slow-witted man in England, Timothy Evans, was tried, convicted, and executed for mass murder, despite later being found innocent. His case contributed to England’s abolishment of the death penalty. The U.S. is now the only Western nation to execute prisoners, despite numerous death row inmates later being exonerated.

Currently, America is in the throes of public figures being accused of sexual misconduct.  The entire reality show is sad and tawdry, a perfect second course to last year’s election. For some people, though, it’s a form of gladiatorial entertainment.

The latest name to fall from grace is author and radio personality Garrison Keillor, accused by an unidentified woman of sexual misconduct.

I usually walk the other way when I see sensational “soft” news like this. While I definitely don’t belittle the problem of sexual misconduct, obviously more widespread than anyone could have imagined, I’m more concerned about things like health care, income inequity, environmental degradation, and gun deaths. I know only a few details in the cases involving Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Harvey Weinstein, John Conyers, Roy Moore, Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, and Al Franken. The reason I’m writing about Keillor is because for many years, off and on, I’ve listened to his live radio show A Prairie Home Companion, one of the best programs on radio.

Another reason is that, whether Keillor’s guilty or innocent, there are some troubling signs.

On November 29, Keillor was suddenly fired by Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), after 42 years of employment, for alleged improper conduct with a woman. The station had hired a law firm back in October to independently investigate allegations. Both the law firm and MPR have been silent about the details. Not so Keillor, who retired from A Prairie Home Companion last year.

“I put my hand on a woman’s bare back,” Keillor explained. “I meant to pat her back after she told me about her unhappiness, and her shirt was open and my hand went up it about six inches. She recoiled. I apologized…We continued to be friendly right up until her lawyer called.”

On Facebook, Keillor commented “It’s astonishing that 50 years of hard work can be trashed in a morning by an accusation.”prairie image

MPR didn’t just fire Keillor. Similar to what happened to late football coach Joe Paterno at Penn State University after the child sex abuse scandal, it’s trying to erase all evidence of his presence, including cancelling rebroadcasts of his old shows, removing them from the MPR website, and canceling production and distribution of his syndicated series The Writer’s Almanac.

It’s almost assured that, after MPR’s actions, listenership for A Prairie Home Companion will suffer collateral damage and decline. Keillor’s already been consigned to the Bill Cosby Memorial Landfill, so this won’t be punishing him.  Similar to what happened at Penn State, when NCAA sanctions punished students, alumni, and fans, listeners of A Prairie Home Companion will be punished. The show, now hosted by Chris Thile, may end up dying a slow death.

Additionally, PBS recently pulled an episode featuring Keillor from its “Finding Your Roots” genealogy series.  Venues around the country are also canceling prescheduled shows with Keillor. Berkshire Theatre Group in Massachusetts was one, commenting that it “finds all victimization of people deplorable.”

(Does “all victimization” include Keillor and listeners of A Prairie Home Companion ?)

Just so no one thinks I’m excusing Garrison Keillor and downplaying this woman’s suffering, I’ll emphasize that he may indeed be guilty of more than just sliding his hand across a woman’s back to console her.  In which case he deserves a just punishment.  But he also may be innocent.  No one knows the truth at this point except Keillor and the woman (or women).  Not even MPR.

My problem is MPR fired him without ever consulting him about the allegations (at least, that the public is aware of).  They and others also want to erase any evidence of Keillor.  Though still a far cry, this expunging of history nevertheless has the whiff of Nazism and the dystopian worlds of Kafka and Orwell.

Once more in America in this age of tweet-friendly soundbites, a new term has been coined: “outrage machine.” But if there truly is outrage, how is it possible a man can be elected to the presidency after incontrovertible evidence of misogyny and sexually inappropriate behavior? Are we a nation of hypocrites?

***

If my wife or daughter were the victim of sexual harassment, I’d be at their sides in a heartbeat. At work, I’ve participated in ethics training. A good chunk of this training involves how to associate and how not to associate with employees of the opposite sex.

Some things are obvious. You don’t invite female co-workers to your bachelor pad to watch X-rated actors like “Long Dong Silver,” like one of our Supreme Court justices reputedly did (and I emphasize “reputedly”). You don’t grab them in their private parts, like our sleazeball president advised men to do (and here, I’ll emphasize definitively advised).

But there’s a large grey area (philosophical, not physical). One person’s idea of harassment could be another person’s attempt at being friendly or compassionate. There’s also the dating game. How many times can an employee request a date without it being considered “harassment”? Three times? Twice? Or should it be absolutely forbidden to request social time with an employee of the opposite sex?

Can you compliment someone on their outfit or hair? If she’s feeling depressed, can you put your hand on her shoulder? If so, does the shoulder have to be clothed, or can it be bare? Can you move your hand slightly while it’s on this bare shoulder?

I’m not being facetious, I’m totally sincere. Judging from what’s happened lately, I think we now need to ask ourselves these questions.  How are we going to define sexual misconduct? Should an office manager now be concerned about smiling at a co-worker? Could a friendly smile be construed as a sexually suggestive “leer”?

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Garrison Keillor’s guilt or innocence isn’t the point of my essay. My point is that, even before all evidence and testimony are in, and despite his denial of sexual misconduct, he’s been hung by the neck in the court of public opinion. The court here includes Minnesota Public Radio; all those who have cancelled his future appearances (some adding editorial spice, like Berkshire Theatre Group); and various journalistic sharks around the country who smell blood.

The Republican Party, dominated by white males, is completely out to lunch regarding the problem of sexual misconduct by public figures.  The Keillor story is the opposite extreme: knee-jerk liberals anxious to judge, convict, execute, and expunge all traces of a man who didn’t even get the opportunity to defend himself.  And I say this as a liberal.

The idea is to discourage and punish sexual misconduct.  You aim for the bullseye. But you don’t pull back on the string until the bow’s ready to snap. Otherwise, you miss the target completely. And you could do a lot of harm in the process.

 

ox-bow incident