Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas as Weapon

So this isn't the usual sort of thing I write about. Usually this stuff is a kind of rhetorical battering ram as well as a not-so-cunning but still effective trap laid by the U.S.-based right for liberals, who usually jump into it in ways that result in it accomplishing more or less what the right wants. But as Lisa Duggan has argued, the right engages in "culture war" tactics not out of sheer perversity but because it helps them accomplish their broader goals, and a genuinely left response to such tactics that recognizes what is actually going on can be helpful. Not sure I can claim to be doing that, but I've decided to say something.

The key thing is to remember is that it is all about exerting power over public or social space.

The issue: Apparently an airport in a U.S. city, I think Denver, had a Christmas display. A local rabbi complained that Judaism was excluded, and from what I heard threatened legal action. The airport authority took down the display and said they would reevaluate their policies for next year. I can't be bothered searching out the original article because, really, the details don't matter much -- it's a story that the right has been using in various forms to mobilize outrage for their own purposes for quite some time.

I encountered this story in two very distinct location. One was a blog post by a blogger claiming the mantle "progressive," about a month ago. Again, I don't really feel like looking it up, and I'm not sure it matters much, because there were probably dozens that were similar. The other was in a pub in downtown Toronto last weekend where I was having a quick pint before my movie started. The speaker in the near empty house was a young white man who seemed to be some sort of minor functionary in the business world -- judging by appearance and words, he could well belong to either of the two dominant political parties in this country (the Liberals and the Conservatives, for non-Canadian readers), but if he is a Conservative then he is more likely to be in the vestiges of the Joe Clarke wing of the party rather than among the hard-right nutters around Harper. (The guy with whom he was conversing and whom he seemed to know and be friendly with, appeared to be -- and such guesses are always risky, of course -- an older gay white man with somewhat nonconforming gender presentation, which also seems to me to be an indicator that our speaker was just some dude and might even think of himself as liberal, and not a committed reactionary.)

Both the post and the person said much the same thing -- so much the same that I suspect they were echoing Fox News talking points, even though I have not seen (and, again, do not care to see) the original source of the story. They disparaged the original request for inclusion. They named "political correctness" and disparaged that. They made a big deal about how impossibly, terribly, unbearably hard it would be to respond to every such request for symbolic inclusion in public space. They talked about "people" attacking Christmas even though removing Christian symbolism was not the point of the request, and a sense of "why can't they just leave us alone." Neither did this from a particularly religious standpoint.

The first thing worthy of comment, though I suppose not surprising, is that both sources of this stuff are at most centrist, and at least one, perhaps both, would think of themselves as liberal. Both are also young, white, middle-class men, which may be more relevant. It shouldn't, after all these years, but it still surprises me how easily such things spill from ostensibly liberal tongues.

I remember the first time I encountered it: I was early in my process of starting to think critically about the world. Some small town liberals of my acquaintance related at around this time of year how one of the few Jewish families in town complained to the local school that their child was in had an exclusively Christian and Christmas-y pageant and they wanted a dash of Chanukkah to give their reality a little visibility and their kid a little affirmation. The school started off in this direction, but some fundamentalist Christian parents objected to including anything that wasn't Christian, and so the whole pageant was scrapped. These liberal folk, who wouldn't object at all if the Jewish content were included without a fuss, did not blame the fundamentalists for refusing to allow Jewish content but blamed the Jews for asking. And I think the phrase "political correctness" did come up.

The second thing that jumps out at me is how quick these two guys were to throw up their hands and say, "This just isn't practical!" This seemed to be one of their central arguments. It became a silppery slope kind of thing. The version of the rant that I heard in person actually included the following racist dialogue, with its sad attempt at reductio ad absurdem through linking Blackness with a symbol chosen because it signals primitiveness: "Okay, so you hang a menorah. Fine. But what about Kwanzaa? What do you hang for Kwanzaa? A goat?" In any case, both post and person seemed passionately committed to the idea that we live in a world in which people can be sent to the moon, the resident hyperpower can produce a functionally useful budget accounting for funds in the trillions each year, we are on the verge of machinery measured in nanometres, and skillfull analysis can allow marketers to target the narrowest of market slices -- and they have the gall to claim and probably actually believe that their objections to hanging a menorah when asked are technical? "We just can't be exected to account for everything"? It's ludicrous.

Like I said, it all boils down to the control of public and social space. That's why it is useful to the right to blow up such controversies, because they stir emotions to push people not otherwise explicitly in their camp to support their side, without making the real issues visible. Who has power to control a given space? Who gets excluded? What happens when the excluded ask to share? In the sarcastic words of Phil Ochs, a liberal is someone who is ten degrees to the left of centre in good times, and ten degrees to the right if it affects them personally. By invoking something treasured even by many non-religious people whose heritage is Christians and making it seem to be at risk, the right can push privileged liberal (and other) practices in responding to the demands of oppressed groups, which already reflect a very shallow patience for such things, to the right because it feels like it affects them personally. Then the ideology of "political correctness" as mobilized by the right kicks in, and is used to take this focused, instinctive rejection of sharing power in one particular situation and expands it to a rejection of sharing power in all sorts of areas.

Of course, like I said, they don't really have to be pushed far anyway. "It's too difficult" or "They shouldn't cause a fuss" are really just liberal ways of saying (and feeling comfortable about saying) "This is ours!" They are a way of saying, "Public space's character should not be determined by who it is that constitutes that public in a respectful and collaborative fashion -- we stole this space fair and square and anyone else is here by our good graces so they should just up." It is a way of saying that momentary discomfort or the need to actually make some effort on the part of white, often middle-class, and even a lot of the time liberal folks is more important to avoid than Other people being wholly erased from public or social space.

It is a way of motivating hearts against challenges to those who already control public space. It is a way to encourage those who are the same as those in control in some ways to act out of that sameness and to get used to acting out of that sameness, rather than to act on our sameness with others who are excluded in different ways from us from access to comfort, security, power.

A part of the pub rant was about defending his right to say "Merry Christmas," something threatened only in the fevered imaginations of Republican political consultants and those they manipulate. What he was actually objecting to was not someone standing with a gun to his head and making him say, "Happy holidays." Rather, what was being suggested and resisted is the idea that the people around us be engaegd with and social space be treated as inherently needing to be negotiated. These rants affirm the right not to care about the holidays of non-Christians amongst us, not to figure out with the people in our lives how to navigate these things in ways that allow both/all of us to be who we are, feel seen, feel respected. This isn't tricky, it just takes a little effort and a willingness to be challenged. More importantly, it assumes a willingness to relinquish the power and privilege to determine the character of a particular space, something that is almost never done willingly. And, again, the emotive power that even a purely cultural Christian such as myself still associates with the season is poked with the stick of "political correctness" so it bleeds into all sorts of other areas, reinforcing an instinctive rejection of demands to share power -- from a former queer co-worker in a reasonably queer-positive workplace using language that would be completely unremarkable in a queer space being informed in different language but in no uncertain terms, after a straight woman heard it and complained, that queers were welcome but were not allowed to determine the character of the space; to middle-class activists (and, in different ways, activists socialized into dominant forms of masculinity) refusing to function in ways that reflect ways of work different from our own; to men of my parents' generation reacting badly to the changes in expectations of the women they married in terms of relationship roles; to people of all generations feeling smug in their refusal to question the narrow and boring range of relationship categories/scripts handed to all of us by the culture.

That's what it comes down to: Democracy in its purest form means that any shared space, from the interpersonal to the most massively social, must be continually renegotiated as a matter of course. By invoking high twitch issues like Christmas, the right can keep lots of people thinking about what they might lose if things actually worked like that -- unearned and oppressive privileges, for the most part. The thing is, most of us have a lot to gain, too -- a lot more, in my opinion. Not only could we gain a potential for richness in our lives, for greater human connection, but if we subject everything to that perpetual, equitable renegotiation, then the vast majority of us, in our workplaces, our communities, and our homes, would ultimately be much farther ahead. Our workplaces would no longer be dictatorships, our communities could define their own standards for the use of public space, our families would be flexible in form and democratic in practice.


Todd said...

Doesn't this continual renegotiation of space boil down practically to that old saw of "socialism by endless committee meetings"?

Scott said...

It doesn't have to, no...I mean, obviously at the level of public and large-scale social space, some kind of process that might look like that would be necessary. I wouldn't care to define in advance what form that would take, though I think the biggest barrier is not how onerous the process would be but the refusal of those who already benefit to even discuss the issue.

In terms of the interpersonal level and the small-scale social, it would not need to be much of anything formal at all. Perhaps some greater willingness to talk about process than is present in the present culture, I guess, but again the biggest thing would be men/white people/middle-class people recognizing that we do not only and always get to do things our way, and being present in social spaces in different ways.

Todd said...

Yes, the biggest barrier would be surmounting the current ideas and beliefs out there; then, hopefully, better ideas could be tried, discarded, etc.

Heavens, we'd need a revolution!

Well, I'm game.


Scott said...

Me too! Sign me up! :)

Anonymous said...

me too - lol

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