Monday, December 21, 2009

Occluding the Season

Someone on a chat-channel pasted a link to a David Duke diatribe on how "the Jews" were effacing Christmas from our national consciousness. As might be expected, the polemic suffered from overdrawn inferences aided by material omissions. Moreover, it was not clear to me that Duke's Christmas tradition was not simply a Disneyfied version of German-English holidays which didn't leave much room for equally Christian traditions of other sorts.

However, in one factual respect, the report was correct: Rahm Emmanuel, accompanied by two Chabad Lubavitch rabbis in black, had lit the "National Menorah" on the White House Ellipse.

National Menorah? I had never heard of such a thing and I certainly have never seen a Jumbo Candelabra on the White House lawn. Where have I been? When did this start?

According to the AP, the National Menora "tradition" began 30 years ago when Jimmy Carter "attended" a lighting of Hanukkah candles in 1979.

Well... someone at the AP is overstating a case. What Carter did was attend a low key, privately sponsored ceremony -- much in the way presidents munch on ethnic foods and issue commemorative proclamations on the occasion of some hyphen-American holiday. It all fell into the category of ribbon cutting in the Kumbaya State.

The White House archives confirm as much, stating that "many Presidents" -- i.e. Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton -- "have participated in lighting ceremonies marking Hanukkah." However, 2001 " marks the first year a Hanukkah lamp (a menorah) was lit in the White House residence" by President Bush-II and attendees.

In other words, the 30 year "tradition" boiled down to a president toodling off somewhere to light some candles. It was not until 2001, the candles were brought to the public space of the White House, and even then, the ceremony was conducted behind closed doors.

With good reason too, since "one of the oldest symbols of the Jewish faith is the menorah, a seven-branched candelabrum used in the Temple." (Jewish Virtual Library - [here] ) By any standard a public presidential validation or endorsement of a ceremony symbolizing a "faith" would violate the Establishment Clause.

So how is it that a sectarian religious symbol which also doubles as a foreign national emblem gets erected on the nation's Capitol Mall?

The argument trucked out along with the menorah is essentially one of "equal time" -- if you Christians get to light up your tree, we Jews have a right to light up our candlestick. This was the argument put forth Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky with respect to airport Christmas trees. Contrary to David Duke's polemic, Rabbi Bogomilsky did not demand that the Christmas in the SeaTac airport be taken down but rather "requested that a Hanukkah menorah also be displayed" [ Seattle Times ] Bogomilsky is also a member of the orthodox Chabad-Lubavitch, sect which has evidently set for itself the mission of promoting an equal but separate icon.

The promotion rests on the fallacy that the Christmas tree is a religious symbol. It is not. Whatever religious significance it might once have had in the pagan forests of Germany, the Christmas tree is no more than a cultural motif. And a rather universal one at that.

It would be difficult to argue that a Tannenbaum which once graced Soviet era not-Christian Christmas cards constitutes a peculiarly and specifically Christian symbol. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court has so held, which is precisely why a Christmas tree is allowed on the White House lawn, whereas a Nativity Scene is not.

In contrast to the absence of bishops or cardinals attending or blessing the the lighting of the National Tree, the lighting of the National Menorah has always been conducted by and in the presence of rabbis.

Of course, as with almost anything Jewish, the Menorah has a dual character. Thus, the same Jewish Virtual Library which describes the Menorah as a symbol of faith, goes on to state in a separate article that the lighting of menorah candles on "Chanukah is not a very important religious holiday." The celebration arose from the super abundance of lamp oil which miraculously appeared during the siege of the Second Temple by King Antiochus IV against the Maccabees "a religious traditionalist group" who had joined forces in a revolt against [ ] the assimilation of the Hellenistic Jews and and oppression by the Selucid Greek government."

Even here, a religious motive and a spiritual miracle are assigned to the menorah symbol. But, stripping the object of all possible religious connection, what is left is a symbol of a national uprising against foreign domination -- a sort of Jewish Cinco de Mayo.

One is left to wonder whether we will soon see the lighting of the National Sombrero on the Ellipse as well.

What is ironic, if not galling, is that an object which symbolizes apartness and a rejection of assimilation should receive public validation under the rubric of "inclusivity". While it is certainly appropriate for public officials to give recognition to the distinct and separate traditions and heritages that make up the American tableau, it is quite a different matter to elevate one of those symbols into a national icon. In fact, given the Menorah's non-religious role as the symbol of a foreign nation state, it is hard to see what justification could exist for erecting it, in that or any capacity, on our nation's Capitol Mall.

On the other hand, despite its name, the Christmas tree was and remains an appropriate national symbol because it is religiously neutral. As noted, a decorated tree is an object that has been adopted the world over as a motif for end-of-year celebrations, of all hues. In the United States, the decorating of a Christmas tree is a festivity engaged in by virtually everyone and by virtue of that very commonality (Jews included) is appropriately a symbol of all of us during this Season.

The hoisting of a menorah on public space is an artifice that seizes upon the inherent ambiguities between culture and religion. Traditionally, virtually all of a society's culture flowed from religion. Even where a cultural artifice had a material or economic origin, it was inevitably "spiritualized" and became imbued with a religious significance or, at least, connection. Since the close of the 19th century, the dynamic has flowed in the opposite direction. Originally religious motifs have been secularized and, under the "scientific" aegis of sociology religion has been reduced to an aspect of culture. The Supreme Court has struggled to implement the Establishment Clause within these ambiguities.

The more or less traditional legal rule set forth in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) 403 U.S. 602 was that the Establishment Clause prohibited "entanglements" between Church and State. The rule recognized that in the modern state, strict separation between the government and anything was impossible. In sociological fashion, the Court interpreted the clause in light of its supposed "function" and held that state action (1) have a secular legislative purpose; (2) must not have the primary effect of either advancing or inhibiting religion and (3) must not result in an "excessive government entanglement" with religion.

The issue was more or less simple so long as at issue was whether the government was funding lunches or textbooks in parochial schools. But what about a Nativity Scene on the steps of City Hall?

In Lynch v. Donnelly (1984) 465 U.S. 668 the Court ruled that the issue depended on the "setting". Where the creche was simply part of a larger display of non-religious cultural artifacs such as "a Santa Claus house, reindeer pulling Santa's sleigh, candy-striped poles, a Christmas tree, carolers, cutout figures representing such characters as a clown, an elephant, and a teddy bear, hundreds of colored lights, a large banner that reads "SEASONS GREETINGS," the Nativity Scene lost its religious character and its erection at a minimal cost of $200.00 could not be regarded as involving excessive entanglement or as having the primary effect of promoting religion. After all, the State funds art museums, which are chock full of religious paintings, and

"whatever benefit there is to one faith or religion or to all religions, is indirect, remote, and incidental; display of the creche is no more an advancement or endorsement of religion than ... the exhibition of literally hundreds of religious paintings in governmentally supported museums."

The issue came before the Court again a few years later, County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union, (1989) 492 U.S. 573 when the court was asked to rule on the constitutinality of an "equal time" Menorah / Manger / Tree display on city property.

The Court had little difficulty with the creche. It ruled that the Nativity Scene was essentially and unavoidably religious in nature. But, unlike the multi-cultural setting in Lynch, Allegheny's creche stood alone. Its isolated display on public property -- not connected with any other cultural exhibit -- constituted a public endorsement of a particular religious idea. Manger out (at pg. 613)

However, the Menorah and the Tree were part of a separate display, across the square, supposedly celebrating "liberty". Except for Justice Brennan, the Court agreed that whatever pagan symbolism the Christmas tree may have had, it had become widely viewed as a "preeminently secular symbol" of the "Christmas" [they meant "seasonal"] holiday. The Menorah, however, posed " a closer constitutional question"( at pg. 613.)

"The menorah, one must recognize, is a religious symbol: it serves to commemorate the miracle of the oil as described in the Talmud. But the menorah's message is not exclusively religious. The menorah is the primary visual symbol for a holiday that, like Christmas, has both religious and secular dimensions. Moreover, the menorah here stands next to a Christmas tree and a sign saluting liberty. While no challenge has been made here to the display of the tree and the sign, their presence is obviously relevant in determining the effect of the menorah's display." (At pp. 613-614.)
In other words, because the Christmas Tree was non-religious, it served to "secularize" an otherwise Jewish religious symbol and reduce the the whole display to a celebration of Liberty without endorsing either Christianity or Judaism.

Justice Brennan dissented, arguing that the display endorsed both religions since the Christmas Tree was a patently religious symbol. Although Justice Brennan is worthy of great respect as a jurist, on this point, he was plainly wrong. The Christmas Tree, so called simply because the Solstice and Christ's birthdate coincide, is not a religious artifact. While the Solstice Tree has been incorporated into a religious holiday it is patently not the symbol of Christianity the way the Menorah is the symbol of Judaism and the Jewish State.

The defect in the Court majority's reasoning lay not in its secular characterization of an evergreen but in the supposition that a symbol can have its religious essence "leeched" out of it by a tree. If that were the case, why not erect a Cross as well?

Equally shallow was the majority's reasoning that the posting of a sign saying "Liberty" could secularize the "message." No one could have thought that this was a Fourth Of July celebration in the snow. Moreover, if the whole issue depends on signs, why not accompany the Nativity Scene with a sign that reads "Family Values Through the Ages."

Alleghany was a bad decision because the ground of decision was simply fear of giving offence to a vociferous minority intent on "equal time".

It goes without saying that all religions are deserving of official respect. But the constitutional line is drawn at "endorsement". It is certainly true that religious artifacts can loose their liturgical import when viewed simply as artistic or cultural products. But that is not what is involved in erecting a "national" anything. A national symbol is one which, by virtue of being "national," speaks to and represents all of us. That, the Jewish Menorah does not do, and its hoisting on the Ellipse is an interloping occlusion of the otherwise common festivities we observe as nation at this time of year. That non-sectarian and festive commonality is sufficiently represented by our National Christmas Tree which desrves to stand majestically alone.

First National Christmas Tree -1923

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Kitchen Debates Redux

In the early Fifties, shortly before the Nixon-Kruschev Kitchen Debates, the Soviet Union decided to prove that it too could be a consumer society -- that the Dictatorship of the Proletariate could shower goodies on the worker as well as any capitalist trickle-down. Enter GUM

GUM, or the Glavnyi Universalnyi Magazin (Главный Универсальный Магазин), was originally housed in the shell of what had been a 19th century trading mall on Red Square. Once the Soviet Union picked itself up from the devastations of the Great Patriotic War, the mall was converted into a general mass-merchandise mart for the masses.

The range of GUM's goods counted over 30 thousand items, including textiles, ready-made clothes, shoes, knitted and linen goods, kitchenware, household goods, furniture and rugs, furs and headwear, stationery and toys, and recreational goods. Eventually, some specialty food items were included as well. The basic idea was, You can get anything you want at the State Department Store.

And anywhere as well. As the decade wore on and the missle gap closed, branch GUMs opened around the country, diffusing through the vast reaches of Mother Russia all the goods and trinkets the Central Planning Office could order up. Pictures in Soviet Life proudly showed ordinary Russians being... uhm.. as almost American as anyone.

Life Magazine showed us the same pictures, but with a different sub-text. Those poor Russian wannabees! Look at them lining up outside gussied up warehouses to grab what they can carry. Sure it's better than nothing -- even if it is shoddy -- but would you want to live there?

Yesterday, for some reason, I thought of GUM.