Category Archives: Christmas

Christmas meditations

A New York Times essay offering a different take on the perennial classic It’s a Wonderful Life sparks a lively discussion in the comments.

The essay argues that the small-town life Capra’s hero embraces at the end is, in fact, terrifyingly and asphyxiatingly oppressive, and that the movie is all about resigning oneself to the loss of dreams, to being trapped in a life of compromise, small-mindedness and conformity. He even asserts that the “Pottersville” of the alternate reality in which Jimmy Stewart’s George was never born — filled with booze and vice — is a lot more fun than boring New Bedford, where The Bells of St. Mary’s is all that passes for entertainment.

Some commenters agree, and also point to the movie’s disturbing gender ideology: without George in her life, his wife Mary (Donna Reed) has become — the horror! — a single, childless librarian. One poster mentions (approvingly) that Ayn Rand hated this movie because of its emphasis on self-sacrifice and the compromises of adult life. Others defend close-knit communities as well as the idea that adulthood is about accepting compromises and limits, and that life’s true satisfaction comes not from chasing adolescent dreams but from family, friends, and community.

This is where I’m always reminded of a famous Niels Bohr quote:

“The opposite of a small truth is a falsehood; the opposite of a great truth is another truth.”

There is a great truth in the Randian/libertarian celebration of the free individual, of the stubborn pursuit of one’s dreams and visions, of the struggle against limits. There is also a great truth in the conservative/communitarian vision that emphasizes relationships and acceptance of reasonable compromises and limits. Both of these starkly different approaches to life have value — are, in fact, necessary to a healthy culture, which needs both roots and wings. (I believe the origin of this metaphor is this quote by American motivational speaker Dennis Waitley.) So do the vast majority of individuals, even if some can be perfectly happy pursuing their individualist dreams with no human ties and some can be perfectly happy living completely for others.

Of course, each vision also has a seamy side. A lot of “autonomous individuals” who pride themselves on never compromising and never “settling” are not Randian Howard Roarks but obnoxious, egotistical jerks with a very exaggerated notion of their own talent. A lot of lives that revolve around family, community and self-sacrifice are poisoned by undercurrents of bitterness, resentments, and suppressed conflicts. And so on.

But in the spirit of the holiday, let’s focus on the positives. Here’s to roots and wings. And to the fact that American culture is big enough to accommodate Frank Capra and Ayn Rand.

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Filed under Ayn Rand, Christmas, conservatism, libertarianism

When atheists attack: The "War on Christmas" redux

Okay, I hate to admit it when Bill O’Reilly has a point in his latest “War on Christmas” crusade (see here, here and here on its previous installments), but this time, he does.

At issue is an atheist billboard displayed in the Washington State Capitol in Olympia, Wa. along with a “Holiday tree” and a nativity scene. (Apparently, there is no menorah this year.)

The placard, installed by local members of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, reads:

At this season of the Winter Solstice may reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.

More on the story here.

According to Gov. Christine Gregoire, a Democrat, and State Attorney General Rob McKenna, a Republican, it is the state’s policy to allow any group to sponsor a holiday display “regardless of that individual’s or group’s views.”

Here’s the problem. The atheist display doesn’t simply express the beliefs of atheists or secularists; it attacks the beliefs of the religious. Its message, except for the first line, is entirely negative, and the last line is actively insulting to believers, implying that they are hard-hearted and weak-minded.

A Christmas display on public property, paid for by the taxpayer, that explicitly attacked non-believers would be inappropriate. So is this.

Perhaps Gregoire and McKenna are right as a matter of publc policy. (Though, if all viewpoints may be represented in holiday displays in the State Capitol, where do you draw the line? Would a placard urging Jews to convert to Christianity be appropriate? How about a “God Hates Fags” placard from the abominable Fred Phelps?) However, those fine folks from the Freedom from Religion Foundation are wrong as a matter of respect, civility, and common sense. They have chosen to express their views in a manner almost calculated to cause irritation. They are also perpetuating the stereotype — which underlies much of the hostility to atheists in America — that an atheist is not just a non-believer but someone who actively attacks and denigrates religion.

If they truly wanted to get into the holiday spirit, how about a placard saying something like, “At this season of the Winter Solstice, those of us who do not believe in a deity celebrate the beauty of the natural world and join believers in wishing for peace on Earth and goodwill toward men.” A positive message that, among other things, would have countered the widespread notion that atheists “believe in nothing.”

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Filed under Bill O'Reilly, Christmas, freedom of speech, religion, religious freedom