Sunday, December 17, 2006

I passed through Shannon Airport in Ireland the other day. They have a “holiday” display in the terminal, but guess what? It says “Merry Christmas.” The Emerald Isle has a few Jews, and these days rather a lot of Muslims, and presumably even a militant atheist or two. But they don’t seem inclined to sue the dickens out of every event in the Yuletide season.

By contrast, the Associated Press reports the following from Riverside, Calif.:

“A high school choir was asked to stop singing Christmas carols during an ice skating show featuring Olympic medalist Sasha Cohen out of concern the skater would be offended.”

I hasten to add this Sasha Cohen is not the Sacha Baron Cohen of the hit movie “Borat.” The Olympic S. Cohen is a young lady; the “Borat” S. Cohen is a man, though his singlet would not be out of place in a louche Slav entry to the ice-dancing pairs. Likewise, the skater-puts-carols-on-ice incident seems as sharply satirical of contemporary America as anything in “Borat,” at least in its distillation of the coerciveness of “tolerance”:

“A city staff member, accompanied by a police officer, approached the Rubidoux High School Madrigals at the Riverside Outdoor Ice Skating Rink just as they launched into ‘God Rest Ye Merry, Gentleman’ and requested that the troupe stop singing.”

The cop and the staffer — “special-events employee Michelle Baldwin” — were not acting on a complaint from the celebrity skater. They were just taking offense on her behalf, no doubt deriving a kinky vicarious thrill at preventing a hypothetical “hate-crime.” The young miss is Jewish and so they assumed that the strains of “Merry Gentlemen” wafting across the air must be an abomination to her. In fact, if you go to, you’ll see the headline: “Join Sasha On Her Christmas Tree Lighting Tour.” That’s right, she’s going round the country skating at Christmas tree lighting ceremonies. Christmas tree lighting ceremonies accompanied by singers singing Christmas music that uses the C word itself — just like Sasha does on her Web site.

Nonetheless, the Special Events Commissar and her Carol Cop swung into action and decided to act in loco Cohenis and go loco. Many of my fellow pundits find themselves fighting vainly the old ennui when it comes to the whole John Gibson “War On Christmas” shtick, but I think they’re missing something: The idea of calling a cop to break up the singing of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” would strike most of the planet as insane. The Rubidoux High School Madrigals should have riposted by serenading the officer with the beloved Neal Sedaka classic, “Oh, Fool, I Am But A Carol” (I quote from memory).

Now it’s true there are Jews who don’t dig Christmas. There was some story out of Seattle the other day about a rabbi who objected to the “holiday trees” at the airport and threatened a lawsuit unless they also put up an 8-foot menorah. So the airport officials say, “Oh, dear, you’re threatening a lawsuit? OK, we’ll take down the trees.” And in an instant the trees were history. Not “history” in the sense of a time-honored tradition legitimized by its very antiquity. But “history” in the sense of the contemporary American formulation of something you toss in the landfill in the interests of “diversity.”

So then the rabbi and his lawyer reel under a barrage of negative publicity and suddenly it’s their chestnuts being roasted on the open fire. “Whoah,” they say. “Why are we the bad guys? We love Christmas trees. What made you think we had anything against Christmas trees? Just cuz we threatened to launch a gazillion-dollar lawsuit. What could be more American than that?” In Newsweek, Rabbi Marc Gellman managed to miss the point and deplored the airport’s “cowardly response.” But what “cowardly response”? Instead of going to court and almost certainly losing, they raised the stakes, put the plaintiffs on the defensive and forced them to call off the dogs. The “holiday trees” are back.

Everyone who knows Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky says he’s an affable fellow, he doesn’t want to Scrooge up anybody’s Christmas, he’s an all-around swell guy. No doubt. But in the week when the president of Iran hosts an international (and well-attended) Holocaust Denial Convention (which simultaneously denies the last Holocaust while gleefully anticipating the next one), this rabbi thinks it’s in the interests of the Jewish people to take legal action against “holiday” decorations at Seattle Airport? Sorry, it’s not the airport but the plaintiff who’s out of his tree. An ability to prioritize is an indispensable quality of adulthood, and a sense of proportion is a crucial ingredient of a mature society.

This isn’t about religion. Jesus is doing just fine in the United States. Forty years of efforts by the American Civil Liberties Union to eliminate God from the public square have led to a resurgent, evangelical and politicized American Christianity unique in the Western world. The rabbi in Seattle and the cops in Riverside are colluding in an assault on something more basic: They’re denying the possibility of any common culture.

America is not a stamp collection with one of each. It’s an overwhelmingly Christian country with freedom of religion for those who aren’t. But it’s quite an expansion of “freedom of religion” to argue that “those who aren’t” are entitled to forbid any public expression of America’s Christian inheritance except as part of an all-U-can-eat interfaith salad-bar. Seattle Airport’s initial reaction was right: To be forced to have one of everything is, ultimately, the same as having nothing. You might as well cut to the chase.

To what, after all, is the rabbi objecting? There were no bauble-dripping conifers in the stable in Bethlehem. They didn’t sing “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” either. That’s, in effect, an ancient pop song that alludes to the birth of the Savior as a call to communal merry-making: no wonder it falls afoul of an overpoliced overlitigated “diversity” regime.

Speaking of communal songs, they didn’t sing “White Christmas” round the manger. A Jew wrote that. It’s part of the vast Jewish contribution to America’s common culture.

Seattle Airport could certainly put up a menorah. And maybe a commemoration of Eid, and Kwanzaa, and something for solstice worshippers, and perhaps something for litigious atheists. But to do so is to turn society into a kind of greater airport departure lounge — to say it’s no more than an assemblage of whoever happens to be in it at any particular time.

Successful societies (unlike plastic trees) have deep roots: nobody should be obliged to believe Jesus is the Son of God, but likewise nobody should take such umbrage at trees and tinsel and instrumental versions of “Silent Night” that he would deny the reality of the land he lives in to the vast majority of his fellow citizens. The logic of that leads not to a diverse secular society but to an atomized ersatz nonsociety. And, as those other touchy types the Islamists well understand, once you put reality up for grabs all kinds of pathologies suddenly become viable.

On which note, God rest ye merry. It’s tougher than you’d think.

Mark Steyn is the senior contributing editor for Hollinger Inc. Publications, senior North American columnist for Britain’s Telegraph Group, North American editor for the Spectator, and a nationally syndicated columnist.

© Mark Steyn, 2005

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