THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 648, December 11, 2011
"What westerners should do is encourage the development
of a healthy secular culture in the middle east."
Zagmuk, Christmas, and the Whole Nine Candles
Special to L. Neil Smith's The Libertarian Enterprise
About this time last year, I got a message from a conservative correspondent who frequently sends me interesting, thought-provoking material. In this particular message, he was making the same complaint one hears so often from conservatives, whenever their strange idea that America is a "Christian nation" is challenged, usually by liberals.
I, as you may be aware, am not a liberal.
It seemed he had an artist friend accustomed to sending handmade ornaments to Washington for the White House Christmas tree. That year, she was notified that there would be no White House Christmas tree. Instead, reflecting the current "politically correct" interpretation of the First Amendment, it would be referred to as the "holiday tree". Ornaments that even hinted at the religiosity of the season would be unacceptable.
'Tis the season to be whiny, I guess. Everywhere you go, what you hear above all the bustle, even above the recorded Christmas Muzak in the local mall, are self-appointed social critics of every imaginable variety, religious crybabies, and assorted other professional and semiprofessional spoilsports, parasites, and sour apples whimpering over almost every aspect of the winter holidays you can possibly think of.
Chief among them are those who bitterly complain that Christ has been foully extracted from Christmas by an evil conspiracy of, er, antichristmasites. These are the same cretins who assert that America was meant to be a Christian country, although most of its Founding Fathers were atheists or agnostics and its primary financier was Jewish.
I suppose I need to add that my correspondent is one of several who frequently send me material that is highly anti-Arab, anti-Muslim, and anti-Iranian. As I've testified often, I've known many Arabs, many Muslims, and more than a few Iranians, and found most of them to be extremely likable, if not downright admirable people. What I see in my e-mail is an obvious product of ignorance and prejudice, and even worse, it fuels the evil machinations of the murderous warmongers in government.
Accordingly (with a few later additions), I wrote back to my correspondent:
We'll all do better at getting rid of the current administration, which both of us abominate, if we face the truth, even if some of usprincipally youfind it unpleasant. This is not a Christian nation, nor was it ever intended to be. It was founded by a coalition of various Christians and deists (which is what 18th century atheists and agnostics called themselves to avoid getting burned at the stake). It was bankrolled to a large degree by a Jew, Haym Salomonlook him up. None of this information is a secret. It's freely available to anybody who possesses the courage and integrity to click on Google or Wikipedia.
The deal between all of them is that religion would be separate from politics; we would not make public policy on the basis of our mystical beliefs. Some Christians are trying to break that deal now, which is too bad. Historically, people of other nations have murdered each other over theological disputes. We have not. But it could start, if these Christians won't stop welching on the bargain their ancestors made.
While we're at it, let's lay off the Muslims. If we Americans were judged by the attitudes and actions of dogwhistles like Jerry Falwell or Jeremiah Wright, the rest of us would resent the hell out of itmost of us would, anywayyet we're supposed to judge a billion and a half individuals by the attitudes and actions of the worst among them?
How Christian is that?
Islam is at the same stage in its historytheir current year is 1432as our culture was during the Inquisition. Everybody who is not insanely religious among them (a vast majority) is afraid of those who are. What westerners should do is encourage the development of a healthy secular culture in the middle east, one we can get along with. Dropping bombs on people, killing ten-year-old goat herds and pregnant widows, cutting millions of kids off with embargoes on medicine and food, while destroying whole villages in order to save them is not a good way to accomplish that. Getting out of their faces, depriving the fanatics of an object for their Five Minute Hate, will work much better.
But I have digressed.
It may surprise my correspondent to hear that I agree with him that trying to remove religion from the holidays is evil, stupid, and insane. It's exactly like trying to remove history from our study of civilization, or evolution from our understanding of the way biology works. Although I've been an atheist all my life, I love Christmas and I always have. It first appeared in recognizable modern form during the Industrial Revolution. It celebrates the wonders of capitalism and the unlimited potential of the completely unfettered individual human mind.
Still, I would miss hearing about Jesus in a manger (poor kid's birthday was on Christmas, and that's never good) as much as I would hearing about other Christmas characters. Santa Claus, for example, or old Ebeneezer Scrooge, or Sherlock Holmes and his Blue Carbuncle, or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, or Hermey, a Santa's elf who wanted to be a dentist, or Frosty the Snowman, or Nero Wolfe and his "Christmas Party", or Hercule Poirot and his, or Ralphie, who wanted an official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time, or Scott Calvin who failed to read the Santa clause, or even Martin Riggs, who hated God back.
But the winter holiday does not belong exclusively to Christians. They've simply appropriated it from the people who came before them. Jesus was born, it says here, in an altogether different part of the year.
The plain fact is that people of every culture, every civilization in human history, in anything resembling a temperate zone, have always craved a period of celebration, a midwinter shindig, a big, noisy, colorful clambake at the nadir of the coldest, darkest months of the dreariest season, when somebody finally says, "I'm sick of all this gloom and chill and snow, this lousy, miserable, depressing weather! Light some candles, maybe even a bonfire, roast something moderately large, get drunk, and sing and dance! It's time we threw a frigging party!"
Emphasis on the frigging. Who is there who doesn't fondly remember the old story about the office party where everybody was making Merryuntil Merry got up and went home, whereupon they all jumped for Joy?
Every one of those cultures has had a different way, of course, of dignifying what is essentially a middle finger in the face of nature. The earliest I found was Zagmuk, an ancient Mesopotamian celebration of the triumph of the Babylonian god-king Marduk over the forces of Chaos. (Which may mean Marduk was an early incarnation of Maxwell Smartsorry about that.) I also suspect a period of Mesopotamian merriment would have been decreed even if it had been Chaos that had won over Marduk in the second, by a knock-out. In any case, nearby cultures soon picked the idea up and began celebrating their own versions.
All of this happened about 4000 years ago.
I suppose it's possibleno, it's absolutely inevitablethat earlier folks, maybe Homo neanderthalensis, or at least the citizens of 8000-year-old Catalhoyuk, beat the old Babylonians to this winter holiday idea, but for now, what we've got for sure are Marduk and Zagmuk.
The Romans had their own midwinter holiday, Saturnalia, which involved feasting and gift-giving. Later, the word became a synonym for abandon and debauchery, but the Romans, by and large, were a prissy, puritanical bunch, given to grim tales like that of Lucius Junius Brutus who had his sons executed because they sold out to the Etruscans, and Mucius Scaevola who burned his own hand off to prove that ... well, Romans would burn their own hands off given half a chance. Nobody ever needed a festive midwinter holiday worse than the Romans.
Saturnalia started around the eighth century, B.C.
Chanukah is interesting. I learned about it when I wrote The Mitzvah with Aaron Zelman. These days a lot is made of the "Festival of Lights" and the miracle that occurred when the Jews retook their Temple from a pack of Hellenized Syrians who had left only enough lamp oil behind for a single day. The oil miraculously burned eight days, instead, and that's what all that ceremony with the Menorah is all about.
But there's another Hanukkah story, of a victory of the Maccabees (a nickname, meaning "hammer"see Charles Martel) over those same Hellenized Syrians, which is how the Jews got their Temple back. Jews argue over which story is more significant, but it's pretty obvious to me. It's equally obvious that they'd find something else to celebrate in the middle of the winter, even if they'd never gotten their Temple back.
Which happened in 165 B.C.
Christmas probably wasn't celebrated, as such, for a couple of hundred years after the presumed birth of Christ. I say "presumed", because the whole storyvirgin birth, no room in the inn, born in a manger with farm animals on the watch, shepherds coming to worship, three wise men (or were they kings?), a star shining high overheadwas shoplifted directly from other religions popular in Rome at the time of the early Christians, notably the worship of the warrior-god Mithras.
Speaking of sticky fingers, holidaywise, the Yule log and the Christmas tree were "borrowed" from the Norsemen, who were accustomed to hanging dead male animals and male slaves from a tree to decorate it.
There is one midwinter holiday that has come along more recently than Christmas. I have to confess that, to me, Kwanzaa (Est. 1966) represents one of the lamest, most transparent inventions a con-man ever foisted off on any segment of the greeting-card-buying public. It's basically a holiday for black people who don't want to celebrate the white peoples' holiday. (Why hasn't anybody pointed out that this is racism?) On the other hand, I suppose Kwanzaa is no lamer than any other excuse for a holiday. It's how Mother's Day got started after all.
Of all the spoilers and Captains Bringdown, the very worst are those who mutter about the "overcommercialization" of Christmas. Now let me get this straight: the essential message of Christianity is thatfrom birth, mind youall human beings are inherently nasty, filthy, dirty, and evil by nature (that is, for doing everything that comes naturally to them as beings) and must be cleansed, somehow, and redeemed.
The Deity, who supposedly designed this nasty, filthy, dirty, evil human nature deliberately and on purpose, now brings a poor, helpless, innocent human child into the world whom He intends, thirty-three years later, to string up and let die in one of the most horrible ways imaginable, as a sacrificial payment for all of mankind's alleged shortcomingswhich were in His original specifications to begin with!
Looks to me like Marduk wasn't quite as triumphant over Chaos as advertised.
As to the doctrine of Original Sin, I say, speak for yourself, Pilgrim. Me, I'd much rather that we go back to calling the holiday Zagmuk, and let it be a celebration of Capitalism triumphant over the forces of Misery and Poverty, rather than of some threadbare, ancient, warmed-over psyche-damaging mythology about the inherent evil of humanity.
As you may know already, I am not a religious person. I believe in the value of looking at the world as it exists in objective reality, forming tentative conclusions based on my observations (rather than on what I wish were true or what some "authority" tells me), and, when possible, testing those conclusionsto destruction, if necessaryin order to form revised conclusions. The process goes on as long as I live.
It's a system of epistemology (the philosophical study of how we know what we know) called science, and despite what flat Earthers and evolution deniers claim to the contrary, that's all there is to it.
Science is the most effective way ever discovered or developed to learn about the universe in which we find ourselves. It's why we all live in houses instead of caves, ride around on engine-powered wheels wherever we go, munch on strange and wonderful food from all over the planet, and tend to live four or five times longer than our not-so- remote ancestors. You don't have to have a laboratory, wear a long white coat, or be a scientist to employ, and live by, the Scientific Method.
I have endeavored to do so, ever since I was a little kid.
It's why I'm writing this essay on an impossibly sophisticated little machine, sending it wirelessly to a device in the other room, from which it will go by wire and satellite to our esteemed editor, who will send it to you the same way, for you to read on another impossibly sophisticated little machine. Nobody ever prayed computers or the Internet into existence, and no sky-ghost had a hand in their creation.
Sorry, folks, it's not my intention to offend anybody, but I have had to listen to contrary opinions my entire life, and it's my turn now.
The fact is, I get annoyed whenever anyone who confesses to seeing fairies at the bottom of his garden, sees fit to try to lecture me on anything, let alone how America was meant to be a Christian nation, exclusively founded and fought for by Christians. At the risk of repeating myself, it is simply not the truth. The Founding Fathers were an extremely interesting libertarian mix of individualsand individualiststhat certainly included Christians, but it also included numerous deists, agnostics, and atheists. Benjamin Franklin attended meetings of the Hellfire Club, a hedonistic pagan cult. And once againsomething I learned from my co-author Aaron ZelmanAmerica wouldn't exist today as an independent entity, if it hadn't been for a Jew, Haym Salomon, who raised the funds needed to fight the Revolution.
The First Amendment was written to make religion irrelevant in politics (not in everyday non-political life). The Founders had seen too many countries in which that wasn't the case, and the misery, torture, and death it invariably engendered. We're in grave danger of going through all that anyway, thanks to a vicious new religion called environmentalism, in which Original Sin consists of exhaling carbon dioxide.
Conservatives often smirkily point out that the phrase "separation of church and state" doesn't appear in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights, but "only" in the writings of Thomas Jefferson. What they don't tell you is that the Bill of Rights was written by James Madison expressly to satisfy doubts that his friend Jefferson had about the advisability of a strong central government. It's largely the product of the thoughts of Jefferson and that "nasty little atheist" Thomas Paine.
But enough of all that. I don't care about anybody's religion as long as they keep it in their pants. I have many Christian friends. Whenever Marshall Fritz and I were together, he liked to spar about religion. That's how I decided that if I were God, and someone decided to believe in Me on the basis of Pascal's Wager (look it up), I'd send the cowardly four-flusher straight to Hell. Good thing I'm not God, hunh?
I also have Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist friends I value, as well as agnostics and atheists (not too many deists these days, I guess). My Persian publisher believes in celebrating everybody's holidays.
So, in whatever manner you choose to celebrate it, a very Happy Zagmuk to you and yours, from me and mine. Let us proclaim now that an appropriate ornament for your Zagmuk tree might be something shiny with the word "freedom" on it in cuneiform. And because those ancient Babylonians apparently drank beer and wine, we hoist a bowl to you! Like Marduk, may we all overcome the Forces of Chaos in the year to come!
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