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Spiritual Piracy and Lousy Jewish Christmas Songs: Garrison Keillor and Christmas Bigotry

Garrison-keillor This is either really ineptly done satire… or some of the ugliest bigotry I’ve seen from a beloved icon of liberal culture.

Or else it’s the latter, thinly disgused as the former.

I’m talking about Garrison Keillor’s recent screed in the Chicago Tribune against atheists, Jews, pagans, and others who would dare to besmirch the right and true practice of the Christmas holiday. In which he says, among other things:

Unitarians listen to the Inner Voice and so they have no creed that they all stand up and recite in unison, and that’s their perfect right, but it is wrong, wrong, wrong to rewrite “Silent Night.” If you don’t believe Jesus was God, OK, go write your own damn “Silent Night” and leave ours alone. This is spiritual piracy and cultural elitism and we Christians have stood for it long enough. And all those lousy holiday songs by Jewish guys that trash up the malls every year, Rudolph and the chestnuts and the rest of that dreck. Did one of our guys write “Grab your loafers, come along if you wanna, and we’ll blow that shofar for Rosh Hashanah”? No, we didn’t.

Christmas is a Christian holiday — if you’re not in the club, then buzz off.

As Donnie B. pointed out in the Pharyngula comments (of course I got this from Pharyngula): “I think I can detect Keeler’s mascara running: “Leave Christmas alone!!'”

I usually like to cut people slack and think the best of them until proven otherwise, and I’d love to think that this was just horribly misfired satire on the very attitudes he’s apparently expressing. But this isn’t the first time Keillor’s expressed religious and other bigotry, and unless he comes out with a sincere, grovelling apology, I’m afraid no slack is forthcoming.

So here’s what I posted in the comments at the Tribune:

*

This is truly ugly.

Mr. Keillor, on what authority are you deciding for other people how they should celebrate Christmas? Who died and made you the Christmas police? And what has made you so ugly and hateful about it?

As others here [in the Tribune comments] have pointed out: traditions change, and many supposed Christmas traditions have actually been adopted from other sources. Which is as it should be: traditions should change to meet the needs of the people practicing it. And you don’t get to decide who those people are. The reality is that Christmas is a cultural holiday as well as a religious one. It’s a U.S. Federal holiday, for goodness’ sake. And as a non-believer, if I have to get Christmas shoved down my throat every year, I see no reason why I and my friends and family shouldn’t adopt its traditions to make them work for us. (If “Greensleeves” can be rewritten as the Christmas song “What Child Is This,” why can’t Silent Night be rewritten to make it more Unitarian?)

As for “spiritual piracy”: Christianity is overwhelmingly the dominant religion in Western culture. I am heartily sick of Christians acting like they’re being thrown to the lions every time they don’t get their way in everything.

And the crack about “lousy holiday songs by Jewish guys that trash up the malls every year” is deeply ugly. Did you stop and think about what that would sound like before you wrote it?

*

Christmas_tree_washington I would have gone on for longer. Especially about cultural hegemony and Christianity being the dominant religious culture, and how being the dominant culture means you have to suck it up when other cultures adapt your traditions and put their own spin on it. And double especially about Christmas being a Federal holiday, and if he doesn’t want it secularized he shouldn’t expect it to get government recognition. And triple especially about the entitled ignorance of decrying other people “pirating” Christmas traditions when most Christmas traditions have been pirated from other cultures.

And a hundred times especially about the grotesquely ugly “lousy holiday songs by Jewish guys” crack. Which, frankly, I didn’t even know how to reply to, as it just left my mouth gaping in “Did he really say that?” aghastness.

But the Tribune comments limit people to 1400 characters. So I had to keep it concise. Merry Christmas, spiritual pirates!

Comments

  1. says

    I’ve always liked listening to The Prairie Home Companion. You know, I find it a shock to imagine hearing those words in Keillors soothing and gentle voice. My wife has such a crush on that voice! (Me too, but that’s our little secret!)
    I think I’ve always known that Keillor was a bigot.

  2. Lisa Roth says

    thanks for this. Wow. Screed is right! One of my pet peeves is being forced fed Christian hymns in the name of good cheer. Silent Night is not a holiday tune, it’s religious music and belongs in a church, not the mall. You want holiday hits, stick with “Santa Baby.”

  3. vel says

    How amazingly hypocritical. “Spiritual piracy” indeed, from the religion that has specialized in that since its beginning. Too bad I’m not suprised with Keilor’s actions. Unfortunately, that “folksy” persona seems to always cover a hateful bigot.

  4. says

    Inspired by a Facebook commenter:
    Silent Night, Ex-mass night
    All is fraught, on the right.
    On the blogs the bigots are shrill,
    calling out for some heathens to kill.
    Suck my cock, Garrison Keilor,
    Suck my cock Garrison K!

  5. says

    Typical “nothing is pure anymore” whining. Nothing is pure. Nothing is sacred. And I quite like it that way. Never been much of a Keillor fan anyway.
    I saw the Salon piece he did.
    http://www.salon.com/opinion/feature/2007/03/14/keillor/
    I have no idea what to make of it. The person from whom I got the link seems to think it might be satire, but I have no idea. I really don’t even think he makes a point in it except to say something seemingly derogatory about how because of the gays and because parents are too dramatic these days, family gatherings are really complicated. I’m of the mind that family gatherings have ALWAYS been complicated.
    Keillor has officially entered the stereotypical phase of life of the crotchety old white man. He’s the guy on the bus who just can’t keep his frustrations to himself anymore.

  6. Sastra says

    I wonder if Keillor was really trying to make some fairly reasonable aesthetic point about giving cheesy “new” words to familiar, traditional old songs — and the subject rather got away from him.
    It’s worth noting I think that, for all his ranting about Christmas being for Christians only, his advice on how to celebrate, and his examples of proper celebrations, have no religious content in them at all. Not even a word about the Baby Jesus. I have trouble thinking the inconsistency is accidental.
    If he’s trying to make some obscure pro-humanism point, though, it’s more or less lost in translation. Much like the humor on the Jewish guys trashing up the mall with Rudolph the Reindeer.

  7. Michael Keenan says

    You’re making too much of all this. He doesn’t come off well in print. It is ALL satire but he IS getting old and crotchety. Even on the radio show there are days it doesn’t work all that well. But, if he were speaking this column, it would have sound like one of his sardonic Lake Woebegon stories and probably no one who knew him and his style would be offended. In print you don’t get that sense.

  8. says

    Michael, if it hadn’t been for a history of his writing other pieces like this, I’d be willing to cut him slack and buy the “satirical” angle. But given his history of this sort of thing, I’m unconvinced. It sounds a lot more to me like genuine bigotry and hostility trying to pass itself off as satire. If he sincerely apologizes for his blundering tone-deafness and says he didn’t mean any of it, I’ll rethink.

  9. says

    Celebrations around the Northern winter solstice pre-date Christianity by many centuries – including the Syrian Sol Invictus, the Roman Saturnalia and of course the Jewish Hannukah, so it’s a bit rich when Christians complain about their holiday being usurped!

  10. vel says

    if Mr. Keilor doesn’t “come off well in print”, he has no one but himself to blame if people react negatively to his articles. I’ve read this one and his one about how gay people dare add more “confusion” to the pageant of relatives. As has been said, I and others know real people who really mean such things.

  11. says

    When you consider that Christmas is itself a rip-off of the pagan solstice festival, this critique falls flat. I love choral music and great hymns (a remnant from my believing days) and for the most part, I don’t mind just shutting out the ridiculous words and going for the music. That works when the music is up to the task, but the maudlin sentimentalism of a lot of Xmas music just isn’t worth it.
    Yep, if you want to change the lyrics to Silent Night, or Little Town of Bethlehem or Jingle Fucking Bells, then mazeltov! If we non-believers and non-Christians have to be assaulted 24-7 with crappy music at least spare us the dumbass mythology and let us have some fun with it.

  12. says

    Ingrid made a point about the “It’s just satire” angle on this that I think is really valid (it actually put into words something I was thinking but having a hard time saying). And that’s that, even if it’s true, it’s no excuse.
    If you’re satirizing bigotry, and part of your satire involves pretending to have bigoted attitudes towards people who are traditionally the targets of serious bigotry, contempt, and marginalization… you have a thousand times more responsibility to make sure your satirical intentions are clear. Otherwise, you’re just perpetuating the very bigotry you’re supposedly satirizing.
    Keillor could have done that fairly easily. He could have made any of the points we’re all making in satirical form: “Sure, Christmas traditions are mostly stolen from pagan ones — but that’s no excuse for the pagans to steal them back! Two wrongs don’t make a right!” That sort of thing.
    It’s true that there will always be somebody who doesn’t get the joke… but if a large group of intelligent people with good senses of humor aren’t seeing it, then at best we’re looking at a grossly irresponsible, callously cavalier attitude towards bigotry. (Which is kind of hard to distinguish from actual bigotry.) And at worst, we have actual bigotry, trying to cover itself with a veneer of satire.

  13. Nurse Ingrid says

    Look at it this way: does anyone have to debate whether or not The Onion or Robot Chicken is satire? If smart, funny people really can’t tell, you are not doing it right.

  14. says

    Actually, Ingrid, I just spent an hour explaining to a Facebook-friend that the video she was freaking out over was in fact satire. Despite people pointing out the Onion logo in the corner, she kept insisting it was real.
    As to the Keillor piece, I agree that if you are going to satirize bigotry, it has to be very clear that you are doing so. When I meet bigots I usually join in and then take it too far:
    “Those people are taking our jobs!”
    “Yeah, and our women and our yams! Have you noticed how little yam there is lately? Damn those vegetarian lesbians! Wait… who were you talking about?”

  15. Maria says

    That’s true, I see people often who mistake satire like the Onion for real stuff and freak out over it, but to be fair, Ingrid did say ‘smart, funny people’ :-)

  16. says

    I have to say I am really upset about this…for years my husband and I were great fans of the lake Wobegon tales ,I was raised Lutheran and he Catholic so we would laugh together at the stories of the people there,his voice was soothing and great to fall asleep to….my husband passed away a few years ago ad I held our lake Wobegon CDs with great reverence……..I am agnostic and still celebrate Christmas for the good it represents,for peace and family and charity for me the Christ figure is no different than santa but just as cherished for childhood memories,as an agnostic I have grown accustomed to intollerence toward thinking outside the box but I found this article so deeply offensive…not only toward people like myself but toward Unitarians,Jews basicly anyone who isnt Christian what a load of racist crap this is! Christians arent the only ones celebrating in December yet it has become fashionable for them to act like they own exclusive rights to this time of year and oh they are all so oppressed if you say otherwise!.well Mr Keillor if anyone is ruining Christmas it is you and your ilk.

  17. says

    In the heart of his article, I can see Keillor wanting Christmas to be a safeguarded celebration of Christian virtue, and not meddled with by the faithless. And while he gets off-track enough about pagans, Jews, Unitarians, and song-changing to the point that I felt the need to write a column about it (linked), I agree with the heart of his point.
    Hear me out.
    I think Christmas should be about Christ, and shouldn’t have its traditions updated to be acceptable to the modern world. I also think Christmas should remain in churches. The problem is, we have this national celebration, so as you point out, of course non-Christians are going to put their own spin on it. If we could just separate religious Christmas (plenty of Christ-filled traditions for church-goers only) from a national winter festival, (crazy songs for a silly multicultural country that also enjoys dressing up in costumes and demanding free candy), things would be better.
    I feel the same way about marriage. If we just separated Church-Sanctioned Christ-Joining-Marriage (which should be purely a religious ceremony and carry no more legal status than a baptism or confirmation), from marriages and weddings (wherein persons who presumably hold mutual affection choose to somewhat merge their futures, legal status, etc. of their own volition), it wouldn’t be as much of a problem. While we might prefer that certain religious leaders joined the modern age, they would be applying their “religious purity of marriage” restrictions only within their religious Christ-joinings, and actual marriages and weddings would no longer need to be assaulted by rules more properly reserved for the church.
    It’s a nice idea, anyway.

  18. Julanar says

    Like what? I’ve seen comment threads get out of hand sometimes, but don’t see how any of these comments are bigoted, unless you’re taking examples of bigotry out of context.

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