'War on Christmas' comes home


Friday, December 21
Who knew our sleepy, rural county would land the first volley in third annual War on Christmas — the Shot Heard Round the Blogosphere.

Bill O'Reilly officially fired back against the parasitic secularism of Great Barrington's heathen Selectmen, shining the national spotlight on the town's decision to conserve energy by dimming its Christmas lights at 10 p.m. with a three-minute segment on his Fox News program, "The O'Reilly Factor." The oasis of socialist heresy that is Taxachusetts must make an inviting target for a paragon of faith, small government and Middle American values like O'Reilly, but no one could have imagined he would deign to condescend to our modest region.

Never mind that Derek Gentile's article on the subject ran nearly a month ago; O'Reilly realized that Americans were too stuffed on Thanksgiving turkey at the time to muster the requisite outrage. Instead, his show waited to broach the subject.

He must know his public. The Eagle received antagonistic letters from all over the Deep Red South, including one from a Texan threatening to string extra Christmas lights to "carbon-offset" Great Barrington's green initiative.

All joking aside — and notwithstanding the size of the town — this is a moment that should have slipped well below the radar of the culture war. Thursday's Eagle editorial was right to draw a distinction between Great Barrington's "legitimate" environmental concerns and political correctness. Indeed, while calling Christmas lights "holiday lights" may be silly, banning them without just cause is a clear violation of the First Amendment. But the Selectmen voted to allow the lights, with a qualifying condition that rationally addressed a compelling concern.

The O'Reilly piece took pains to portray the Selectmen as overweening latté liberals, "rich elitists ... imposing their ideology on this small town." But dimming Christmas lights — whatever you call them — when no one is around to see them is not a political gesture; it is simply responsible.

Still, making that point doesn't require abstaining from the question O'Reilly's contrived, carpet-bagging hysteria raised. Yesterday's editorial concedes too much in implying that proactively secular statements should be held to a different standard than sensibly environmental gestures.

First, there is the small issue of ours being an avowedly — indeed, foundationally — secular country.

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But just as importantly, it's not the fear of offending shrill liberals or the apocryphally domineering PC-police that has led many mainstream groups — civic, corporate and otherwise — to replace "Christmas" with more broadly applicable terms like "holiday" whenever reasonable. In fact, these substitutions are made in the quintessentially American — and Christian — spirit of ecumenical pluralism.

Are there times and places at which to replace "Christmas" with the generic "holiday" would be verbally cautious to the point of silliness? Sure. "Holiday lights" may qualify, or it may not. When you're wished "Happy Holidays" at Midnight Mass, maybe it's time to ring Bill O'Reilly. Altered lyrics to Bach's Liturgies should set off alarm bells.

Until we get there, however, O'Reilly is simply pandering to what the Philadelphia-based journalist Randy LoBasso (full disclosure: a friend of mine) once called "the phony outrage base" of America's right wing.

The phony outrage base consists of "pundits," "commentators" and other reactionary blowhards and bloviators seeking to distract Americans from the serious issues our country faces by appealing to the worst in people and stirring up irrational, often hateful passions. O'Reilly and his ilk don't find and exploit "wedge issues," as the conventional wisdom holds. They conjure them out of thin air.

In this case, the specter against which the phony outrage base hopes to mobilize public sentiment is the very spirit of pluralism embodied by an inclusive holiday greeting. Intolerant insularity — fear of "the other" — is the animating, if unspoken, principle underlying most of the far right's pet causes: xenophobic opposition to illegal immigration; our holy wars in the Middle East; hostility to the First Amendment rights of the secular or moderately religious; institutional homophobia; and the paranoid anti-intellectualism that has bred hostility toward all science, particularly environmentalism of the sort exhibited by the Great Barrington Selectmen.

Like other self-styled culture warriors of the right, O'Reilly relies on straw men to make his case. His claim — repeated by his guest, producer Jesse Watters — that the town Christmas lights draw sorely needed tourist dollars is not actually outlandish. It's just bogus — and all the more insidious for its plausibility.

Accoutrements like Christmas lights are, indeed, part of Great Barrington's quaint appeal. But, unlike Bill O'Reilly, I've been to Great Barrington. It's not Times Square: There is precious little shopping after 10 p.m., the hour at which the lights must be extinguished — a consideration the Selectmen obviously took into account when drafting the regulation. Anyone intent on shopping for trinkets or curios at 11 p.m. on a Tuesday won't be discouraged by the absence of conspicuous holiday cheer.

There may be more practical and direct ways of reducing energy consumption than enforcing a curfew on Christmas lights. But as long as the inconvenience is phony, it couldn't hurt.

Michael Scott Leonard is a Berkshire Eagle staff writer.


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