December 10, 2012

The Self-Censorship of the Community and a Loss of Rights

Justin Katz

This is quite a thing to read, in a region and a nation that prides itself on tolerance and freedoms of expression and religion. A Tiverton family has spent recent years investing in a spectacular show of Christmas lights on their house, to the extent that they're finding the visitor traffic to be an opportunity for charitable collections.

Asked about the national news that Rhode Island's governor, Lincoln Chafee, has made by doggedly and ineptly refusing to call the festive tree in the State House a "Christmas tree," here's their response to Providence Journal reporter Richard Dujardin:

... the couple acknowledged that they, too, have been a bit cautious as to what they include in their Christmas display. There's no Christ child, and no crèche.

If it were only up to her, said Colleen, she would have included "Christmas with a capital C," a song that does call for keeping Christ in Christmas. But she said she was afraid some might think it too political.

"We don't want anything political because someone might then try to shut us down. That could hurt the charities and the kids."

"You have to remember that this is the town that once shut down the Easter Bunny," Larry piped in, referring to a 2007 controversy when the superintendent of schools banned a parents group from setting up a booth at a school fair where people could have their pictures taken with the Easter Bunny — on grounds it would be a violation of the separation of church and state.

"Personally I think there are more important things to worry about," said Colleen. "I worry about people who don't have enough food to eat, and kids who are seriously ill. If people worried more about those important things, the world would be a better place."

So, the aggressive efforts of secular zealots have accomplished a sense among the people that their public expression of religious belief — on their own property and in the context of a holiday that's explicitly about those beliefs — would be political and that political speech would be grounds for the government to prevent charitable and community-building activities.

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There is probably no better illustration of this whole mess than "Charlie Brown's Christmas," wherein Charlie becomes disenchanted with the commercialization of the holiday and asks if there's anyone left who knows what Christmas is all about. . . Linus' marvelous response is a recitation of St. Luke's account of the Nativity. Which is, of course, really what Christmas is all about.

It does seem that in some quarters Christmas is full of bright lights and shiny decorations, but entirely uncontaminated by the light of Christ.

But this year I've resolved not to worry too much about how others mark the holiday and focus more on how I and my family do.

Better to light one candle (as the saying goes) than to curse the . . . brightness (?)

Posted by: brassband at December 10, 2012 9:13 PM

Instead of blaming "secular zealots" for self censorship why not lay the blame with the property owners who lack the courage to display what they wish to display. Trying to lay this off on government is laughable. If you are seeking an example of people taking an unpopular stand in our community and not flinching it would be the decision of firefighters to picket the political fundraisers of media darling General Treasurer Raimondo.

Posted by: Phil at December 11, 2012 7:35 AM

The planets must be aligned because I agree with Phil (excluding his point about the firefighters union - personal financial gain is not a noble political motivation, Phil). If you truly believe in personal responsibility and small government, then you are accepting that it is the responsibility of individuals to stand up for themselves and their beliefs in the face of potential cultural backlash. That a family has mistakenly come to believe that religious ornaments constitute some kind of banned political speech - a belief which is confused on so many levels it's difficult to know where to start - is not a sound indication that public policy needs to be changed.

Posted by: Dan at December 11, 2012 8:38 AM

"So, the aggressive efforts of secular zealots have accomplished a sense among the people..."

Phil, you missed the mark on that one. If anyone is to blame, it's the fringe right who manufactured this "war" in the first place. Claim the sky is falling loudly enough and some folks are bound to duck and cover.

And good points, bb.

Posted by: Russ at December 11, 2012 8:45 AM

Dan & Phil,

Look, yes, I wish the family had the courage of its convictions, and I think we in the local community, especially within their church, have a responsibility to make sure that people understand what their rights are and how their faith ought to play into their actions and behavior.

And I'm not indicating a change of public policy, in a statutory sense... mostly because I think the problem is the perversion of public policy as it already exists.

That said, the responsibility for maintaining freedoms falls on all of us. Freedoms aren't only guarded by the legalities that empower determined citizens to do as the desire; they are also guarded by the social and cultural insistence that our rights are obvious and inherent to life. (I find it tellingingly curious, Dan, that you infer a public policy prescription in my essay --- confirming my suspicion that many libertarians actually fall into believing that all real social action happens through government.)

My point is that this family, which is apparently at least modestly informed, is not completely without basis for its confusion, and most people aren't political-blog-reading policy wonks. If enough modestly informed Americans come to believe that they should silence themselves to avoid potential controversy and government-driven repercussions, just you watch how quickly your every personal decision takes on a political tinge and is therefore suspect.

Posted by: Justin Katz at December 11, 2012 9:01 AM

Social action can certainly happen through government. There is no doubt in my mind that the United States would have more cultural racism without its myriad civil rights statutes. More people would die in industrial accidents without its safety regulations. These are the most obvious benefits that are held up to justify any intervention of the state, and my objection to the unending march of progressive statism has always been that there are less visible but no less serious costs to such programs that are rarely being considered. Giving a homeless person a house, for example, resolves the most immediate and visible problem to the progressive tinkerer, but a more critical thinker understands that there are deeper issues that would more effectively be resolved on the individual and social levels. No government program can convince an alcoholic that life is worth living sober, and the prerequisite for a healthy, functioning society is that individual should bear the costs of their own decisions.

A common source of friction between libertarians and conservatives is the question of whether social issues are appropriate "political" topics. The conservative is fine with state-sponsored prayer or state-defined marriage as long as 50% + 1 of its population share that opinion. The libertarian objects to these issues being political and thus vote-able in the first place, concerned instead about the 50% - 1 who would rather be left alone to make their own decisions without state interference.

Posted by: Dan at December 11, 2012 9:50 AM

Also quite funny is that the couple worries about offending someone somewhere by displaying a creche (I don't know about your neighborhood but folks in Providence keep religious icons in the yard all year), but they are seemingly totally unaware that the neighbors might not be so fond of garish light displays, lines of traffic, etc.

Posted by: Russ at December 11, 2012 10:11 AM

No Russ, what's funny is just as a Christmas Tree is not a Christmas Tree when it's located in the State House, the Director of Administration is not the Director of Administration when he is lighting the menorah in the State House but the menorah is still the menorah. Do you follow? While the 'fringe' right may make the most noise because of their beliefs, some of us just find the whole State House charade ludicrous.

Posted by: Max D at December 11, 2012 1:14 PM

I have no problem with a menorah, nor with the many, many Christmas trees, creche scenes, etc. in the State House. BTW, are you folks also against the Heroes' Tree or is that also an affront to the new PC movement?

Posted by: Russ at December 11, 2012 1:29 PM

If you are seeking an example of people taking an unpopular stand in our community and not flinching it would be the decision of firefighters to picket the political fundraisers of media darling General Treasurer Raimondo.


You couldn't find a better example than that? Where was Mr. Valletta's ire during the last election. Does he not know that the legislation was introduced by Gordon Fox and Theresa Paiva-Weed then signed into law by Lincoln Chafee? Are they all getting a pass? While it's the rank and files own fault, it's just another example of why unions get a bad rap because of idiots like Cook-the-Books Valletta in leadership positions. Talk about clueless.

Posted by: Max D at December 11, 2012 1:31 PM

No Christmas season would be complete without the annual gripe-feast the right-wing-nut invention the totally phony "War on Christmas" .

Is there no better way to celebrate the birth of Jesus than with paranoia, unwarranted feelings of persecution, and faux outrage over imagined slights ? ? ?.

Every year, it seems like the Christmas Warriors have to search harder and harder to find something to be upset about. Their usual method is to take some small incident, omission or innocent phrasing (using "holiday" instead of "Christmas," ) and spinning it up into an outrage

Posted by: Sammy in Arizona at December 11, 2012 1:52 PM

Max D or DogDiesel or...

You make my case. The politically powerful were all united against the interests of labor. Even some in labor found it convenient to fist pump with the wealthy and connected special interests like EngageRI and support the political rise of Raimondo. Remember Max or whoever that she is called and calls herself a Democrat as do the General Assembly leaders you mentioned. So the efforts of the firefighters union to picket the General Treasurer poltical fundraisers flies in the face of the perception of a bought and sold Democrat controlled General Assembly that is friendly to labor. Look at the vote on pension reform where Democrats followed leadership. At least the firefighters have the courage of their convictions along with a handful of legislators. Also wouldn't it be nice if this media darling who is our General Treasurer would actually do the job she was hired to do like getting a decent return on State investments and monitoring large taxpayers investments like 38 Studios rather than running for Governor.

Posted by: Phil at December 12, 2012 7:09 AM

"what's funny is just as a Christmas Tree is not a Christmas Tree when it's located in the State House, the Director of Administration is not the Director of Administration when he is lighting the menorah in the State House but the menorah is still the menorah."

Heh. "Consistency". That's the governor's middle name.

Posted by: Monique at December 12, 2012 7:37 AM

Phil or whoever you are:

That's big old bowl of crap. The weight of public opinion crushed the public sector union's interests not the wealthy or special interest. As for courage, what courage? Since when is courage carrying a message that says what's mine is mine and what's yours is mine.

Posted by: Max D. at December 12, 2012 9:31 AM

"courage of their convictions"

How convenient for the firefighters union that their "convictions" always happen to align with personal financial gain.

Reminds me of a certain firefighter who used to rant here about "integrity" but conveniently never found his voice when it came to calling out his fellow union members for the same exact disability fraud that he loudly condemned in the general population.

Posted by: Dan at December 12, 2012 11:18 AM

So you completely ignore the lack of oversight by the General Treasurer's office in regards to 38 Studios.

Posted by: Phil at December 12, 2012 5:26 PM

Phil - I have no reason to defend Raimondo, but what did you want her to do, go through Curt Schilling's payroll? Test play his sucky video game?

38 Studios should never have happened and the EDC should be shut down. Does finger pointing at this or that person who happened to hold office at the time really help once we grasp the fundamental concept that central economic planning doesn't work? I seriously doubt having a different treasurer in office would have prevented the company from failing.

Posted by: Dan at December 12, 2012 6:37 PM


Happen to hold office? Just dropped down out of the sky into the General Treasurer's seat. No big financial backers with ideas about what they would like to see done. I understand that you are focused only on your central planning rant but, I think holding people accountable in their jobs is not the same as finger pointing. You can throw Caprio into the mix too if you want.

Posted by: Phil at December 13, 2012 6:12 AM

My point is there is a 99.9% chance nothing would have changed with a different treasurer and focusing on this Democrat or that Republican who shoulda/woulda/coulda done something obscures the important lesson from the debacle that EVERYONE is missing. The public has learned NOTHING from 38 Studios because the whole debate has been about whether to blame Carcieri on RIFuture or Fox on AnchorRising. Meanwhile Chafee just said he isn't going to change a single thing with the EDC, the loans keep getting made, and central economic planning plods along in Rhode Island.

I'm still not sure what you wanted her to do as a pratical matter - come tour the company? Tell Schilling to cut his outrageous state-funded salaries by 20% to get them back down to market level? Be realisitic - once the loan was made that money was as good as gone.

Posted by: Dan at December 13, 2012 7:08 AM
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