Happy traditional American holiday season observance

OK, you’ve finally convinced me.  Things were never better than when things were the way they were, back in the good old days when everyone believed in the Constitution and Americans weren’t afraid of their religious heritage; you know, back in the generation of the Founding Fathers and after that, when America was the way God meant it to be:

Not a single state in the Union closed its offices for Christmas on December 25 in 1834. [Abraham] Lincoln marked his first Christmas as President, in December 1861, by holding a Cabinet meeting in the morning and a dinner party in the evening. The Lincoln family never had a White House tree and sent no Christmas cards.

Nobody was much shocked by these omissions.

The public Christmas as Americans know it today did not take form until late in the 19th century. George Washington issued a proclamation on Thanksgiving, but he never made any statement about Christmas (or Easter for that matter). The first state to recognize Christmas as a holiday was Alabama, in 1836, but the North and especially New England resisted. Not until 1856 did Massachusetts accept Christmas as a holiday. The federal government took until 1870 to follow.

David Frum writes that the American attitude about Christmas “back in the day” was one that I think we should learn from.  First, he argues that Americans back then absolutely insisted on keeping church separated from state because of how much they cared about their religions, because they didn’t want government favoring one religion over another: “Better to deliver the mail on Sunday than debate who was right about the Sabbath. Better to issue no religious proclamations than let presidents pick and choose which holy days to mark and how to mark them.”

A second fact also explains the coolness of the early national government to Christianity: the keen awareness of many 19th century Christians of the non-Christian origins of many Christmas traditions.

Christmas is celebrated near the date of the old Roman holiday of Saturnalia. Gift-giving on the day was also a Roman tradition. The Christmas tree, the hanging of wreaths and house-to-house caroling hark back to the pre-Christian German holiday of Yule.

Calvinists had abandoned their outright ban on Christmas observance on the late 17th century. But many Protestant denominations retained a lingering suspicion of the holiday until deep into the 19th century.

Fox News and its co-conspirators can rattle on all they want to about taking Christ out of Christmas and about the terrible secularization of the season, even while filling the rest of the day with ad after ad after insidious Christmas sale ad, but they’re missing (or ignoring) an important point.  That is, the Christmas they claim to be defending is not the Christmas of the birth of Jesus.

It is the Christmas of folkway that is the Christmas so passionately defended by those who talk about “the war on Christmas.”

The Christmas of Santa and Rudolph, and trees and stockings, and candy canes and “Merry Christmas” greetings began to be most publicly celebrated in the United States only after — and only because — the religious impetus for the holiday had already dwindled away.

Just because there’s been another mass shooting is no reason to think that there’s a problem here

Reaction to this morning’s shootings at the Washington Navy Yard are running pretty much as you expect them to: most people are concerned and frightened and interested to know more details, and the cable television news is falling all over itself to bring you the very latest on this BREAKING STORY but generally not helping clear up the confusion that’s only to be expected immediately after an event of this sort.  (Wolf Blitzer, I’m talking to you.)  The pro-gun/anti-gun rhetoric that’s followed all the recent major shootings is no doubt on its way; this morning from his Twitter account David Frum gave us all a head start:

Let’s just wait and see: I bet Frum’s suggestions are pretty close to what we’ll see and hear in the next few days.  It’s sad to think that we’re not capable of any more constructive civic discussion than this…or are we?

Oh, there’s one more thing:

In the wake of the Newtown school shooting

Passing along links to what I think are worthwhile reads on the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, and the aftermath…

For starters, here’s a dispassionate chronology from the Hartford Courant of just what happened in that school that morning. Just the facts ma’am, as best as they are known at the time.

Adam Lanza blasted his way into the Sandy Hook Elementary School. He fired a half-dozen thunderous rounds from a semiautomatic rifle to open a hole big enough to step through in one of the school’s glass doors.

Once inside, he had to make a choice.

Principal Dawn Hochsprung’s office was straight ahead. To the right, 25 or so children were rehearsing a play in the school cafeteria. To his left were the first-grade classrooms.

Lanza turned left.

The initial reaction of most people is disbelief that such a thing could happen…yet it’s been happening more and more frequently in recent years. In Slate Emily Bazelon wonders, if this doesn’t make us change our attitude about guns, what would?

In the United States, we’re divided, and we have no universal basic knowledge of weapons. We make it incredibly easy to buy the kind of weapons that shoot and shoot again instantly, but we don’t search people at the doors of schools or malls or movie theaters, and we don’t post armed guards in these places. We have the guns without the safety checks. We call that freedom.

Of course there are plenty of people renewing calls for more gun control, for outlawing assault weapons, for some kind of change in the law to make us feel safer. But it’s not just “gun control” people; some pretty staunch gun rights advocates are urging another look at the subject with an open mind.

Joe Manchin III, the pro-gun-rights West Virginia senator who drew attention in 2010 after running a commercial that showed him firing a rifle at an environmental bill, said that “everything should be on the table” as gun control is debated in the coming weeks and months.

David Frum makes a great point about the nuts and bolts part of any change in gun laws: he believes the push must come from outside government, along the lines of what Mothers Against Drunk Driving did to change the culture, to avoid politically polarizing the debate and dooming any chance for agreement.

That campaign should be led from outside the political system, by people who have suffered loss and grief from gun violence. Only that way can the campaign avoid being held hostage by the usual conflict of parties — Democrats who fear that gun control will lose them rural congressional districts; Republicans who exaggerate for partisan gain exactly what gun control would mean.

Gun control should no more mean the abolition of guns than Mothers Against Drunk Driving abolished the car.


Responsible gun owners have a right to their guns. The challenge for the grass-roots gun-safety movement of the future is to focus on the danger posed by irresponsible owners. The goal should be less to ban particular classes of weapons — such a goal puts the law in a race against technology, a race the law will likely lose — and more to change the rules defining who may keep a gun.

Impossible, you say—there’s no way we could change the culture on guns. Well, we’ve done things like this before

To modern sensibilities, the injustice [of lynching] once again seems obvious, as do the solutions: Prosecute lynchers, fight for racial justice, strengthen the rule of law, and mobilize public opinion to condemn rather than excuse outbursts of brutality. And yet it took more than 100 years for lynching to begin to disappear as a feature of American life, and even longer for Americans to fully acknowledge the depth of its horror. In the meantime, thousands of influential people, including many esteemed congressmen and senators, argued that lynching was simply a fact of life, a random act of violence about which nothing could be done. It was not until 2005 that the U.S. Senate, spearheaded by Mary Landrieu, apologized for failing to pass federal anti-lynching legislation, and for leaving hundreds of innocent people to be sacrificed to official inaction.

But just changing gun laws isn’t the answer; we should look at changing not only laws but our attitudes toward mental illness, and be better at seeing the warning signs that disturbed people give before they commit such an extreme act of attention-grabbing.

One reason shooters tip their hands is that they are trying to solve a problem. Though they are often intelligent, high-performing boys, their peers tend to see them as unattractive losers, weak and unmanly. In a school culture that values sports prowess over academic accomplishment, they face rejection. The shooters are rarely loners, but tend instead to be failed joiners, and their daily social experience is full of friction. Since they are almost always mentally or emotionally ill, those rejections — so common in adolescence — take on greater importance and become a fixation. Rebuffed after trying to join friendship groups, they look for ways to gain attention, to reverse their damaged identities.

The shooting is the last act in a long drama: a search for acceptance and recognition. The earlier acts fail miserably. But once a shooter starts to talk about killing people, ostracism can turn to inclusion. Suddenly, he is getting the attention he has been craving.

Help for mentally ill. A change to the culture of guns. David Gergen makes the case that we must take action to honor these dead and do it now or next time the blood will be on our hands.

Some years ago, no one thought that we could change our tobacco culture. We did. No one thought that we could reduce drunk driving by teenagers. We did — thanks in large part to Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Years from now, no one will note what we say after this latest massacre. But they will hold us morally accountable for what we do. To honor all of those who have been slain in recent years — starting with the first-graders in Connecticut — we should highly resolve to change our culture of guns.

Meanwhile, to some measure of surprise, the National Rifle Association is laying low. Out of respect? Don’t know; they’re not talking.

On Dec. 13, the National Rifle Association’s Twitter account announced a giveaway promotion, thanked its followers for getting its Facebook page up to 1.7 million “likes,” and related a story from Wyoming in which a gunman apparently retreated from a nail salon after realizing one of its customers was “packing heat.” It tweeted the Wyoming case using the hashtag #ArmedCitizen.

On Dec. 14, the day an armed citizen killed 26 unarmed women and children at a Connecticut elementary school, the NRA’s Twitter account went silent. It has not tweeted since. Meanwhile, its Facebook page has disappeared, along with those 1.7 million “likes.” Navigating to www.facebook.com/nationalrifleassociation now redirects to the Facebook homepage.


UPDATE Dec. 18: The NRA ends its silence with this statement.

This is how nothing gets done

OK…finally, I’m going to write; I don’t even know what’s been so important for the past week that I couldn’t find time to write, or even to start to write.  But today is different: as soon as I let the dogs out I’ll be nailed to the keyboard—about time I wrote about this amazing revolution in Egypt and linked to those articles backgrounding the Muslim Brotherhood before Mubarak flees and a new government is already in power.

That was weird: a broken fence slat.  Looks like something on the other side of the fence, where they’re building the new road, slammed into the middle of that fence slat and broke it in two; hell, the big piece was knocked out into the garden.  I’ll just get a hammer from the garage and nail it back in, and then hit the blog—maybe something about the deafening cognitive dissonance of all the talk about “high taxes” while today’s news reports that our tax burden is lower than it’s been since 1950!

You’d think a grown man would be smart enough to, first, change out of his dress shoes before stepping into the garden, and second, be careful enough to avoid the dog poop obstacle course between the back door and the back fence.  After I clean off my shoes and walk around to check out the other side of the fence, I’m back at the blog—gotta check on the reaction to the story that new government spending under Obama has been less than the tax cuts under Obama!

Wow; I learned more about the neighbors in the last 20 minutes than I have in the whole nine years we’ve lived here.  Dude just kept talking, changing from one subject to another, with no apparent destination in mind.  I like the guy, but it was too cold for just standing there for a chat.  Now, just let me get this mess on the desk cleared off and I’ll get to work…I should riff on David Frum’s post about how the crazy talk on the talk shows is getting even crazier as the ratings start to slide.

I had a nagging feeling I’d forgotten something: well, now’s a good time to get that stack of papers off of the kitchen counter.  Some think getting a  new job is a pain in the neck, but I have a much lower opinion of it.  Forms for new health insurance, and receipts, and registration info for the new 401(k).  At least I can do that quickly on line, and then start writing…what’d I do with that article about the brain being wired to resist new science?  That can mesh with the story about the people who insisted on believing—despite the absence of any evidence—that a terrorist attack was being plotted in a Port Arthur Ramada Inn conference room…15 years ago!

OK then, I’m going to start with—was that the dryer?

“We are better than this; we must do better”

I knew it:  I knew right away that whether or not there was any evidence that the person who shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was motivated by the loudmouths on radio and TV, that some of those loudmouths would be blaming the others for inciting political violence.  And I was right…I also predicted the sun would rise in the east this morning.

405992-giffordsMore than two days after the fact and there is no evidence (of which I’m aware) that the man who shot Giffords and 19 [1/12, authorities have revised the figure to] 18 others was persuaded to lethal levels of violence by radio and TV stars; short of his declaration that “so-and-so said it was the right thing to do,” I don’t see that there ever will be.  So let’s leave that alone.

Starting with Sheriff Clarence Dupnik at Saturday’s news conference, there has been a lot of ink spilled calling for restraint, for throttling back the vitriol that fuels so much of the political discussion in our halls of government and our radio and television studios.  It is worth considering to what extent the personal viciousness—and the attendant self-satisfied smugness—of the professional politicians and the paid-to-be-controversial “opinion hosts” has created an environment where consideration of physical violence becomes less theoretical.

I’ve written about the tone of modern political discussion, which is clearly not intended to appeal to the intellect but to rouse the emotions and appeal to paranoia.  And I’m troubled by how successful those messengers and their messages are.

Sure, I’d like to see more restraint and less accusation in political speech, but I know that real world politics isn’t an academic debate.  And I agree with Jack Shafer’s insistence that there be no government-imposed restriction on political speech—the First Amendment makes clear that is not allowed.  (Check my We the People page for a collection of quotations on free expression.)

But I wish there was more self-control when it comes to speech intended to demonize political opponents: to say not just that someone’s position or opinion is wrong, but that those people are evil, or hostile to American ideals and virtues, because of what they believe.  Disagree with me?  Fine; argue my conclusion, dispute my facts, prove me wrong, ridicule my reasoning, do so with vigor; but to respond that my disagreement with your point of view is evidence of imbecility or treason is not a rebuttal.  It’s a sign of the weakness of your position; it’s a sign that you have nothing to say.

One of the more touching observances of a moment of silence for the victims of the shootings in Tucson came this morning from Giffords’ brother-in-law: NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, the current commander of the International Space Station.  (Full disclosure—I work at NASA Johnson Space Center and am acquainted with both Scott Kelly and his brother Mark Kelly, Giffords’ husband.)  The good stuff starts 1:27 into the clip–

We have a unique vantage point here aboard the International Space Station.  As I look out the window I see a very beautiful planet that seems very inviting and peaceful; unfortunately, it is not.  These days we are constantly reminded of the unspeakable acts of violence and damage we can inflict upon one another, not just with our actions but also with our irresponsible words.  We are better than this; we must do better.  The crew of ISS Expedition 26 and the flight control centers around the world would like to observe a moment of silence in honor of all the victims, which include my sister-in-law Gabrielle Giffords, a caring and dedicated public servant.  Please join me and the rest of the Expedition 26 crew in a moment of silence.