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Santa’s Little Enablers


From both the political right and the left, this is the time of year that people moan that we’ve lost our way. We need to get back to our roots, they say, back to the “true” meaning of Christmas. According to one academic, a renowned expert on the holiday, if you insist on finding an essential purpose to the celebration – the one going back centuries – it can be identified. But it’s not what you think.

Whether it’s Bill O’Reilly and John GibsononFox News discussing the “war” on Christmas as an assault on traditional values or the new documentary What Would Jesus Buy? which profiles Reverend Billy and The Church of Stop Shopping as they protest the commercialization of Christmas, materialism and the overextension of personal credit, conservatives and progressives, religious and secular forces, all insist we’ve lost our way. They say that we’ve gotten away from how Christmas used to be celebrated.

Professor Stephen Nissenbaum, the author of the Pulitzer-Prize nominated book The Battle For Christmas calls the notion that there’s an ultimate meaning to this season “Christmas essentialism.”

The Battle
for Christmas

Nissenbaum notes that our current notion of Yuletide is of fairly recent vintage. Western culture seems to have had some sort of Christmastime festivities going back centuries. The Winter Solstice has long been a time for celebration. If you’re a farmer, by December, the agricultural cycle has ended. The working aspects of the farm have closed down. The beer and wine is ready for consumption. The weather becomes cool enough to slaughter animals, but it’s before the deep freeze of winter. It’s time to kick back and have a party.

As the feudal system developed, new traditions emerged, such as wassailing, where less fortunate peasants would go to the lord’s house, begging for food and drink. This was a big thing at Christmas, eating and drinking to excess. Christmas, like Halloween and Mardi Gras, was a time of what sociologists refer to as “ritualized social inversion.” This roughly translates into a socially-sanctioned time to go nuts and break the rules.

As the 19th Century began, cities grew in size and industrial capitalism increased in influence. The wealthy began to physically withdraw from the lower classes, setting up communities like Boston’s famous Beacon Hill. The Christmas celebration became a time to stay in the house with your family and celebrate. Christmas also played an important role in commercializing the American economy, as people made luxury purchases and gave gifts to family members.

Nissenbaum marks our modern version of Christmas as beginning around 1823 with the publication of Clement Moore’s poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (more popularly known as “The Night Before Christmas”). By the late 1820s, he notes that images of Santa Claus – a clearly prosperous, fat, generous old man meant to embody the spirit of the season – appear in advertising.

Today, spending (and overspending) during Christmas has become a part of our popular culture, as news outlets cover Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving and the beginning of the holiday shopping season, with breathless anticipation. How will the economy do? Will consumers do their part and go out and spend?

But even the notion of consumers’ responsibility to go out and buy is not new. The Panic of 1837 lead to a five-year depression in America. Nissenbaum found two newspaper editorials that argued in 1840 that people ought to go out and spend during the holidays in order to cure the economy – shades of President George Bush’s exhortations to do the same after 9/11.

But perhaps you remain unconvinced by economic history and sociological references. In your mind, Christmas represents one thing: the birth of Jesus Christ. But it wasn’t until the 4th Century that December 25th was designated as the date of the Nativity. In fact, it’s fairly clear just from Biblical text that this is incorrect, since shepherds would be watching their flocks at night during the spring. Some current scholarship also suggests that it didn’t happen in Bethlehem.

In a conversation with me, Professor Nissenbaum said that if one wants to find an essential meaning, then that meaning is “consumption.” Before 1800, that meant eating and drinking, often to excess. After 1800, it became shopping, often to excess.

I am not in favor of gluttony, whether physical or financial. I’m as stressed and stretched during the holidays as most people. I love the notion of a time to think of our friends and family and wish goodwill towards others. But history tells me that there’s never been a time when it was picture perfect and pristine. The consumerism, materialism and mix of sin and sanctimony are, for better and for worse, for richer and poorer, our tradition. And we seem to be keeping it up rather nicely.

Posted by P.J. Rodriguez at 5:00 AM | Permalink

From Sea to Shining Sea


I’ve long been pushing the Big Tent Theory of pop culture, that America ought to be all-encompassing when it comes to culture, that diversity is our strength. There’s plenty of evidence around to demonstrate this theory: rock’n'roll is a melding of musical cultures, the bagel, pizza and the burrito, are the products of different food cultures.

But you see people arguing against the diversity that underlies our pop culture’s ability to absorb ideas and create new trends. The immigration bill that recently went down in flames is one example of a fairly high-minded version of this discussion. There are many arguments that can be made about immigrants: economics, security, health. But one source of anxiety for those trying to control immigration is people coming in from another country, speaking another language, wearing strange clothing, listening to weird music, the funny-smelling food…Listen carefully and you’ll hear the often unspoken logic at work:

If they absolutely must come here, they need to get with the program, speak the language, go to McDonald’s, wear a T-shirt from the Gap. And quite frankly, that goes for that black kid over there. What’s with the crazy hair and the loud music and the sagging jeans? And can’t they speak proper English?

And while it comes as no shock that critics will periodically decry some aspect of popular culture, I also find it a little off. I consider pop culture to be an integral part of the environment in which we live, like the ocean we swim through every day. You might run across some garbage now and then, but I doubt you see many fish complaining about the water.

We live in a cultural ocean. We’re swimming in a sea of Mexican food, dreadlocks, sushi bars, hip-hop slang, mehndi tattoos, and manga. It’s all around us, influencing us, in agreement or opposition, whether we like it or not. And sometimes, the criticism comes from odd quarters. It was a bit like fish complaining that one drop of water is more annoying than another.

This past week I heard the liberal Harry Shearer (of The Simpsons and Spinal Tap fame) on his radio program Le Show read a story about how rap sales are down and closed with the comment, “So, it’s not all bad news.” And I also read the conservative John Derbyshire in the National Review explain this week how he doesn’t watch television and is “TV-challenged” (A tip for John: when you use Bruce Jay Friedman stories and John Cheever novels from the Sixties to back you up, you’re already showing how out of touch you are). Such remarks are common, all over the political landscape.

We celebrated Independence Day here in the U.S. this week, the birth of our nation. Many are taking stock of the Big Picture of America. I’ll put my two cents in: We should give thanks every day for the petri dish of American pop culture. We are a big strong nation that can absorb anything that comes in and figure out a way to make it work. We are many faces, many religions, many foods, many awkward dances at family weddings. It’s what makes us the diverse nation that we are and I think it’s part of what will carry us forward into the future.

When you’re caught in a riptide, they tell you not to fight the current. You’ve got to swim with the water to survive.

Posted by P.J. Rodriguez at 1:23 PM | Permalink

The MPAA Blows Smoke


At this point in time, it’s almost universally recognized that smoking is a major health problem. The problem is that smoking is really cool.

Even someone like myself, who has never smoked in his life, understands the aesthetic. You take a long drag and stare at your enemy with narrowed eyes. You flick your cigarette away in tired resignation. You breathe in deeply, hold it for a moment, and shoot twin jets out of your nostrils, illuminated by a bare bulb overhead.

Can you even have film noir without cigarettes?

It’s more than that. Smokers like James Dean and Humphrey Bogart are loners and rebels. Or perhaps romantics, such as when Paul Henreid lights two cigarettes and hands one to Bette Davis in Now, Voyager.

Of course, those days have passed. U.S. consumption of tobacco has declined by nearly 100 billion cigarettes over the past decade (The peak was 640 billion cigarettes in 1981). And now, perhaps the nail in the coffin, the MPAA has announced that it will start rating movies based, in part, on the portrayal of smoking.

We do take a lot of our social cues from pop culture, everything from the sneakers we wear to the whipping off of our tops on Daytona Beach. But I don’t believe that the proper role of culture is to act as nanny. The research I’ve seen on the influence of media on our behavior presents a muddled picture.

All the while chanting “Correlation is not causation,” I can point out that there are studies showing a relationship between the amount of smoking viewed in TV shows and movies and intentions to smoke by the viewers. There are beginning to be a lot of studies showing a correlation between amount of time spent in front of a screen and obesity. There are numerous studies showing a correlation between viewing violence on TV and later exhibiting physical aggression. But in the end, most of the studies have their flaws and it’s unclear if they merely show that people with a pre-existing propensity exhibit certain behavior or if the viewing causes that behavior.

I don’t recall any study that shows people exhibiting good behavior as a result of seeing positive behavior in movies or TV shows. If it were true, we could solve World Peace overnight. Or at least we could ensure that every movie character fastens their seat belt at all times.

Let me briefly acknowledge here that there does seem to have been a great deal of smoking shown in movies over the last twenty years, with smoking shown in recent years at the same levels as it was in the Fifties, despite the fact that smoking in the Real World has decreased. It also appears that, in addition to the aesthetic reasons outlined above, the display of smoking in films is not always accidental, but sometimes the result of deliberate efforts on the part of tobacco companies.

In spite of this, rather than singling out smoking, I’d just like to see more realistic portrayals of human behavior, complete with repercussions. After all, if a character smokes or drinks or shoots heroin because it makes sense for their character, then go ahead and show it. I’m loathe to let the MPAA start down any path of affecting film content for the betterment of society. As the documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated amply demonstrated, that organization has a very bad record in their dealings with sex and violence. I’m pretty sure I don’t them them mucking around in health issues.

Because if they do, I see a grim future:. “This film has been rated T for the excessive display of foods with trans fats.”

Posted by P.J. Rodriguez at 10:37 AM | Permalink

Taking the Culture War to DEFCON 3


We are at war, trapped in a conflict that seems doomed to escalate as the year goes on. No, not the War in Iraq. Nor the Global War on Terror. I’m referring to the Culture War – that amorphous conflict between “values” which has now gone global, making it more political than ever.

Remember Dan Quayle versus Murphy Brown, Bill Clinton versus Sister Souljah and Joe Lieberman versus Doom? Those were just warm-ups.

Bashing pop culture, as we’ve seen, is pretty standard political grandstanding. But conservative author Dinesh D’Souza‘s latest book takes it to a new level. He’s pointing a finger straight at the enemies he sees in this country, the ones responsible for the propagation of abortion, divorce, homosexuality, secularism, blasphemy, feminism, pornography, and graphic violence. He sees a global war with the Left – the folks who support all that corruption – a force not being simply satisfied with destroying this country, but exporting its weapons abroad.

The Enemy

At Home

Andrew Sullivan, in his review of D’Souza ‘s book, contextualizes this conflict as a logical next step for the conservative movement. In the 20th Century, there was a great war fought between the Left and the Right and (in the view of conservatives like Sullivan and D’Souza) the Right won. Now, everyone can agree that Capitalism won and Big Government lost. What’s left to fight about? Morality and faith and how things ought to be, that’s what.

This is the philosophical path that D’Souza has chosen. When I became aware last fall of his book, I was prepared to dislike it sight unseen and dismiss it as merely a continuation of the type of polemic that shrieking loons like Ann Coulter are always launching. But then I noticed that the promotional materials for the book included charges that terrorism (specifically) and the global cause of anti-Americanism (generally) are driven by the “moral depravity of American popular culture,” and I had to explore further.

Back in January, when Stephen Colbert, host of the satiric program The Colbert Report, suggested that D’Souza was supporting radical extremists in the Muslim world, it seemed quite amusing – a comic exaggeration made more entertaining by the idea that conservatives – that’s the flag-waving crowd, right? – would endorse the ideals of our harshest critics and deadliest foes. So, imagine my shock upon finding out that D’Souza seems quite sympathetic with our enemies – just as Colbert had, I thought facetiously, suggested.

D’Souza asks a basic question: “Is American culture now so decadent and depraved that it is a danger to the traditional culture of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East?” He seems to come very close to excusing the murders of two Dutch citizens – politician Pim Fortuyn and filmmaker Theo Van Gogh – because of their personal sexual behavior; both were gay. He criticizes Hillary Clinton for supporting “a V-chip” to control violent programming, since she “has never called for an S-chip to enable parents to monitor sexually explicit programming;” he seems unaware that the V-chip and other parental control options block content in a variety of ways that include both violent and sexual content. He suggests that Ellen DeGeneres’ announcement of her sexual preference was a deliberate transgression of convention and a breach of decency. Really? Not The L Word?

More broadly, D’Souza comes across in the book as somebody he doesn’t like this country all that much. In fact, he sounds a lot like Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian author and intellectual whose writings helped shape Islamic fundamentalism and Al-Qaeda. From 1948-50, Qutb was a scholarship student studying curriculum at Colorado State Teachers College (now the University of Northern Colorado) located in Greeley, CO. Greeley was small-town America, with only about 16,000 residents. It was a planned community based on the philosophy of temperance. Hardly a hotbed of degeneracy, but it drove Qutb crazy.

In 1951, he wrote an account of his time in Greeley, called “The America I Have Seen.” Keeping in mind that Qutb observed small town America in the late Forties, here are three choice quotes:

To further understand Qutb’s probable role as town grouch, an NPR report interviewed people who actually attended school at the same time as Qutb. To say that they had a different view of their lives is an understatement. Girls had a 10:30 p.m. curfew. Teachers were required to wear coat and tie.

Naturally, today’s society is more rough-and-tumble than it was back in the Forties. There is a great deal of sex and violence to be consumed in the media. Our discourse is coarser than it once was – ironically, a by-product of the free market economy that conservatives fought for. But I think Qutb’s experience reveals a key error on D’Souza’s part.

D’Souza treats faith and morality as a universal culture that unites Islam and Christianity. So much in common! He thinks women ought to stay home and take care of the kids – and so do they. He thinks secularism is bad and religion ought to be central to everything – and so do they. But those moral issues also exist in a cultural environment. Concepts like “authority” or “freedom” means different things in Pennsylvania than they do on the Saudi Peninsula. A kiss from Richard Gere means one thing in Iowa and something quite different in Mumbai.

Has D’Souza really found his spiritual brothers on the other side of the world? Should the conservative movement line up behind him in this new front of the Culture War? Will we see Republican presidential candidates move from blaming Hollywood for corrupting teens to inspiring terrorists?

I hope not. I happen to think America’s rich cultural diversity is our strength. And even if I’m wrong, even if popular culture is a corrupting influence, I think we can rise above. Hey, Dinesh. You think Sex and the City is dangerous? Well, I’ll take Carrie Bradshaw’s confused but well-meaning attempts to chart her dizzy way in the world over strict lessons and precepts concerning what she – or I – should be doing for our moral or spiritual health any day of the week.

Posted by P.J. Rodriguez at 6:44 PM | Permalink

Seeking Tragic Answers in the Aisles of Best Buy


These things – these savage snaps of carnage and outrage – seem to happen with sickening frequency. And they have a predictable denouement. Any time someone goes on a rampage, particularly since the Columbine High School slayings, our ritual is firmly in place. Watching the news coverage this week of the shootings at Virginia Tech, I could see the pop culture blame game playing out.

In July, 1999, Mark Barton killed his family and then walked through two Atlanta, Ga., day-trading firms, killing nine people and injuring 13 more. In March of 2006, Kyle Huff went to a rave party in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, killed six and wounded two. Charles Roberts murdered five young Amish girls in a Nickel Mines, PA in October, 2006.

A blog post on reported that Virginia Tech murderer Cho Seung-Hui “was a fan of violent video games” such as Counter-Strike. But his college roommates report he did not play video games. Fox News ran a crawl under their Virginia Tech coverage: A new survey from the British Board of Film Classification about violent video games revealed that gamer respondents conceded that “people ‘who are already unhinged in some way’ may be pushed over the edge if they play violent games obsessively.”

Down in Blackburg, VA, the Big Media reporters asked if Cho listened to rap or metal music. He did play a song over and over, which turned out to be Collective Soul‘s “Shine,” which includes this chorus: “Love is in the water / Love is in the air / Show me where to go / Tell me will love be there…”

Then it turned out that Cho had taken pictures of himself that seemed similar to shots from the Korean film Oldboy. There’s no direct evidence that he was inspired; it’s ironic that the movie is an ode to the worthlessness of violent revenge.


Posted by P.J. Rodriguez at 5:48 AM | Permalink

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