A rather amusing video is currently traveling the social circuit, an excerpt from The Daily Show in which Jon Stewart takes umbrage at the annual raising of the Fox News War on Christmas banner.
The first big story of the 2012 W-on-C season came as an atheist challenge to a Nativity scene set for erection in Santa Monica, California. Said scene, historically displayed on public land along Ocean Avenue, was this year successfully challenged by a coalition of atheist groups, including the Freedom From Religion Foundation. (The display subsequently settled on private property along the same avenue.)
When the news hit the wires, Fox talking heads went lividly red, something any viewer could see even under all that pancake makeup they’re forced to wear. Throughout the hours ahead, host after host had something to say about the episode, most of the arguments and outrage highly predictable (if not, by now, downright shopworn).
The Daily Show segment countered the W-on-C claims and was, for the most part, quite funny. It veered a bit off point, though, with Stewart going on about how Christmas is now eating other holidays (the day formerly known as Thanksgiving, for example, is now merely Black Friday Eve), and how there are channels that do nothing but play Christmas music constantly. (“Feliz Navidad,” anyone?) The Fox argument, of course, is about religion, not about decorations or music, and a nativity scene is spiritually very different from an eighteen-foot inflatable candy cane; as a result, the piece had more of a don’t-think-about-it, stand-up-comedy feel to it, and lacked some of the satirical bite for which the show has justifiably won uncountable Emmys.
The highlight of the segment (at least for the writers who put it together, apparently), was the “Friendly Fire” piece which showed a clip (from Bill O'Reilly's show) where O’Reilly informed his atheist guest, David Silverman, that Christianity isn’t a religion at all, but a “philosophy.” Katherine Weber of the Christian Post reported on the exchange in an article she wrote the next day:
The debate got heated…on Fox News' "The O'Reilly Factor" when host Bill O'Reilly and David Silverman, president of the American Atheists organization, went head to head on the issue of Christmas and Christianity.
While Silverman argued that the government needs to practice neutrality toward all religions, and therefore not honor Christmas as a federal holiday because it is a Christian tradition, O'Reilly argued that Christianity is "not a religion, it is a philosophy," and therefore all non-religious Americans can honor Christmas.
Stewart’s double (triple?) take was priceless, as was a bit comparing Christ and Socrates, with Stewart pointing out that, while both were martyred, only one of them “got better.” Still, while O’Reilly’s comments must have seemed like another Gift from the Magi for the writers at The Daily Show, I was personally taken aback. Instead, what I had was another “There they go again!” moment.
Why was I startled (and a little concerned) by O’Reilly’s tactic? Because he—and his right-wing rhetorical brethren—are artists at first re-framing a conversation and then echoing that new frame throughout the country. It’s happened many times before: think of the conversations our country has had about topics like Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party, the 47%, weapons of mass destruction, the free market, apology tours, birth certificates, global warming, poverty, intelligent design, gender pay gaps, minimum wage, food stamps, and America’s Christian roots (along with many, many more I could name). In all of these cases, the ultra-right of this country has rewritten the narrative, re-framed the picture, in order to change the discussion, to make it look like logical, coherent conversation is unimportant, to make it look like there’s “another” side to the issue, to make it look like anyone who disagrees is pathetically naïve. (O’Reilly’s unctuous smirk certainly adds to the overall effect.) These pundits are so good at it that we actually get suckered in and engage in debates on topics that don’t actually have two sides at all….
I know it seems trite to call on Orwell for a discussion like this, but he is the master on the topic, the man who continually school’s us all. He knew the power of language in controlling thought, and the need to control thought in order to control people. In an essay entitled “Language as the ‘Ultimate Weapon’ in 1984” by Jem Berkes, the author explains that it is to the benefit of tyrannical aims to restrict speech and thought into the narrow confines desired by those framing the narrative. “[T]o restrict language, as with Newspeak, is to restrict the range of thought,” Berkes writes. He then goes on to describe the techniques used in the novel that so effectively gets this job done:
The media is powerful as a tool for manipulation both because the public is widely exposed to it, and also because the public trusts it. The telescreens continuously shout bursts of news and propaganda throughout the day, and the people listen intently and cheer at ‘good news’ (victories) and are driven to rage by ‘bad news’. The characters in Orwell’s novel are slaves of the media; they revere it as an oracle.
So when a popular oracle such as O’Reilly shifts gears on a tried-and-true argument, we should take note.
This particular re-frame is insidious because, if Christianity is positioned as a philosophy rather than a religion, then the whole church-and-state argument starts to wither. The First Amendment, after all, doesn’t say anything about establishment of philosophy. It opens the question up as to whether the government should be allowed any say at all in these disputes, but instead suggests that a community’s cultural proclivities should determine the “philosophies” that it wants to express and the way it wants to express them--even if they choose public venues (or, perhaps, public statutes) to do so. It creates a false discussion, an amorphous alternative point of view in which we seemingly must now engage.
But we mustn’t, under any circumstances, because there isn’t really a debate to engage in. There is no “other viewpoint,” there is only manipulation. What O’Reilly has done deserves our rapt attention exactly because it is manipulation; we must constantly be on our guard, point it out, demonstrate our outrage. But the “issue” at hand—religion vs. philosophy—is no issue at all. It is merely a new salvo in the continued war on logical thought. Should this idea become meme, and then move from meme to belief, the biggest mistake any of us can make is to engage in a “debate” on the topic.