Sunday, December 17, 2006

This culture-war story from the Week in Review section of today's New York Times is fluffy and silly, but one aspect of it annoys me enough to make me want to take it seriously: The author, Randy Kennedy, points out that Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins contentedly celebrate Christmas even though they're the authors of two recent anti-religion bestsellers; Harris says it makes sense because Christmas "has been entirely appropriated by the secular world," while Dawkins says he "unhesitatingly wish[es] everyone a Merry Christmas," "understanding full well that the phrase retains zero religious significance."

Kennedy then writes:

Such obliging feelings toward Christmas will undoubtedly serve as another piece of evidence for those like [Bill] O'Reilly and conservative Christians who feel that the holiday has been hijacked -- so much so that even atheists are now comfortable getting into the spirit.

Hunh? That isn't what O'Reilly and the other Christian-right culture warriors have been saying about Christmas at all. In fact, Dawkins in particular is satisfying the principal demand of O'Reilly et al. with regard to the holiday season: He's saying "Merry Christmas" even though he doesn't believe Christ is God. (The only way O'Reilly would be happier, I suspect, is if Dawkins did so not "unhesitatingly," but because he felt dragged into it, kicking and screaming. The point, for O'Reilly and the rest, is that this is their society, dammit, and everybody should defer to their preference and stop grumbling. With regard to Christmas, Dawkins and Harris are deferring, but they're not grumbling nearly enough.)

Shouldn't Randy Kennedy know that the culture warriors want all holiday greetings other than "Merry Christmas" banished, want the greenery of the season to be called "Christmas trees" rather than "holiday trees," want Christmas (identified as such) celebrated in "the public square," and so on, and that it's not the degree of belief that matters to them but the degree of linguistic deference? If you get paid to write about the culture wars for the most important newspaper in America, shouldn't you have this stuff down cold? Shouldn't you have more than a vague, half-accurate sense of the arguments made by the people you're writing about?

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