Bad Argument of the Week XXXIX

By Dario Battisti

Yuletide festivities are upon us, and with Christmas Day already passed, most of us will be quietly nursing our hangovers and cradling full stomachs in anticipation of the coming New Year’s celebrations. Some, however, do not approach this as the season to be jolly, but rather, as the season to indulge their overblown persecution complex, picturing themselves to be the tortured victims of an imaginary bauble-adorned conflict: the ‘War on Christmas’.

The latest foot-soldier to further reports of this nonexistent battle is journalist Peter Oborne, in a Daily Telegraph article nauseatingly titled “A Government That Isn’t Afraid Of Faith: Alleluia!”. The article is a masterful work of grovelling sycophancy in which Oborne attests to the deeply moral character of the coalition by citing the possibility of religious influences in its policy– as if the adherence to stubborn political ideology in governmental decision-making wasn’t already enough of an issue. The utterly unremarkable celebration of Christmas by coalition members is taken as a sign “that David Cameron’s Government has adopted a religious and profoundly moral social and economic agenda”, supposedly in contrast with an antipathy toward Christmas which never existed to begin with. The examples provided to illustrate this ‘profound’ moral duty are trivial at best.

Some of the evidence is merely symbolic, though not necessarily less important for that. Take Christmas cards. Admittedly, David and Samantha Cameron have followed the lamentable example of the Blairs and arranged a self-advertising family portrait, rather than the traditional Nativity scene. But every Christmas card from Government sources I have seen (including the Camerons’) has abandoned the secular “Season’s Greetings” often favoured by New Labour, and gone instead for a robust “Merry Christmas”.

Cards sent out by the Coalition say ‘Merry Christmas’ instead of ‘Season’s Greetings’! Praise be! I cannot fathom how uptight one would have to be to throw a tantrum over the use of one slogan over the other– ‘Season’s Greetings’ is hardly a recent invention. Nevertheless, the opening phrase of this paragraph is only partially correct. The example is indeed merely symbolic. It is also utterly unimportant. As it transpires in the course of reading the article, all of the supposed evidence which Oborne provides for his central claim is equally symbolic and lacking in import. Case in point:

Meanwhile, Eric Pickles has used his growing authority as Local Government Secretary to declare war on councils who refuse to celebrate the Christmas message. Back in November, he sent out a powerful instruction that they should stop worrying about causing offence, abandon politically correct formulations like “Winterval” and “multi-faith holiday”, and return to the British Christian tradition with carols, mince pies, and all the rest of it. This common sense, it needs to be said, has not only delighted Christians, but has been greeted with relief by those of other faiths, who are fed up with being unreasonably blamed for “banning Christmas”.

The only thing that was ‘powerful’ about Eric Pickle’s message was its crushing inanity, given the predictable ignorance it displayed over the fact that the Winterval episode was a nonsense whipped up by influential Christian figures and a hysterical media; something which Oborne shows himself to be just as ignorant of by perpetuating it. As pointed out in Oliver Burkeman’s debunking of various “War on Christmas” claims, ‘Winterval’ was not in any way a replacement of Christmas celebrations. It was, rather, a festival running from November to January which included promotion of Christmas celebrations, as well as promoting celebrations for Diwali and Eid.

According to an official statement from the council, Winterval – which ran in 1997 and 1998, and never since – was a promotional campaign to drive business into Birmingham’s newly regenerated town centre. It began in early November and finished in January. During the part of that period traditionally celebrated as Christmas, “there was a banner saying Merry Christmas across the front of the council house, Christmas lights, Christmas trees in the main civil squares, regular carol-singing sessions by school choirs, and the Lord Mayor sent a Christmas card with a traditional Christmas scene wishing everyone a Merry Christmas”.

In light of this inconvenient detail, Oborne’s noting that Pickle’s pronouncement may come as a relief to religious groups who are unfairly accused of ‘banning Christmas’ is somewhat misleading. By singling out religious groups as the relieved party, Oborne effectively implies that Christmas is threatened by politically correct secularists, when in actual fact, the accusations themselves are the product of pious paranoia. If Oborne really wanted to prevent undue blame from being attributed to people over Christmas bans, he should do his research and realise that the banning attempts cited are complete fabrications.

His final example of the coalition’s newfound religious leanings is an article written by Iain Duncan Smith on paternal responsibility which uses Joseph’s role in the Nativity as an analogy.
From this trio of rather weak observations– that cabinet members’ cards said “Merry Christmas” instead of “Season’s Greetings”; that Eric Pickles whined about Winterval; that Iain Duncan Smith used a religious analogy in a Daily Mail article– Oborne draws the conclusion that the coalition is driven by a moral, religious purpose (morality and religious belief are treated as synonymous throughout).

There are three main ways in which Coalition policy reflects Christian teaching. The first is debt repayment. Great teachers from King David (who inveighed in one of his psalms against the wicked man “who borroweth, and payeth not again”) to John Wesley have stressed the evils of indebtedness. So do teachers from other religions. So it is often forgotten that George Osborne is following fundamental religious principles by tackling the national debt.

Who is the ‘wicked man’ that Oborne has in mind, if not the public? If using this parable as analogous to our current economic situation, then Oborne pretends that we are dealing with a simple case of the public helping themselves to a “five-finger discount” after having been offered a fair loan in good-will, whereas the banks’ own devious lending practices and laissez-faire regulation must shoulder much of the blame for our current crisis. In any case, one would think that if George Osborne was religiously keen on recuperating money owed, he wouldn’t have cleared six billion pounds of the debt which Vodafone owed in avoided tax. One can only presume that getting a camel through the eye of a needle is, contrary to first impressions, incredibly easy.

The second way in which the Coalition reflects Christian teaching concerns the relationship between the state and individual. Both the Tory and the Liberal traditions treasure personal responsibility, while Labour emphasises the importance of decisions made by remote authorities, who are theoretically answerable to the collective will of the people. The basic problem with this is that it flatly denies Christ’s teaching about free will. Instead, it can lead to an ugly determinism which assumes that moral decisions are made for us by some impersonal force, whether the state or simply economic circumstance.

This, frankly, seems an exercise in manipulative rhetoric. The separation of ‘personal responsibility’ and ‘the collective will of the people’ alone seems suspect, as the two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. Oborne also capitalises on the common usage of ‘free will’ by Christian apologists as a cheap get-out clause when dealing with the Epicurean problem of evil to imply that the concept of ‘free will’ is fundamentally Christian. Working from these two dodgy assumptions, Oborne states that Labour’s social policies must lead to an ‘ugly determinism’ by presuming that moral decisions are ‘made for us by some impersonal force’. Some reflection on this, however, reveals that if this impersonal force is formulated as either the state or economic circumstance, then practically any government decision on social or economic affairs can be categorised as impersonal. The accusation is therefore devoid of significance, and the distinction between Tory and Liberal tradition as centred around ‘free will’ and Labour tradition as ‘deterministic’ strikes one as, on the face of it, entirely arbitrary.

For those of us who are Christian, this is difficult to swallow – but there is also a very important consideration that viscerally affects even those who have no religious belief. Certainly, some people may continue to behave impeccably towards others if they are taught that society is responsible for our conduct, and not we ourselves. But in this fallen world, there are many who react in a way that is not only damaging to themselves but also to society as a whole.

To put the matter in religious terms, they are not merely denied the prospect of paradise, but are licensed to turn earthly life into a kind of hell for everybody else. Indeed, the central purpose of the Big Society is to try to confront this kind of moral hazard, which is an inevitable consequence of the kind of state intervention we have experienced over the last 50 years.

Oborne’s conflating of coalition policy with religious doctrine hereby reaches a climax, as it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish which element he’s actually discussing. The shoddiness of his prior assumptions– that society’s collective responsibility is automatically opposed to individual responsibility, and that this individual responsibility is accepted only by the coalition as a distinctly Christian teaching– has rendered his argument all the more perplexing. Note, for example, how he continues to talk about society as if it were an external entity running counter to ‘we ourselves’, even though society is comprised of ‘we ourselves’. What should one make of confusion on this level?

Nonetheless, something that is clearly distinguishable in this passage is that tired cliché which assumes that a lack of faith leads to immoral behaviour. As has been noted time and time again, such statements say more about the religious individuals who make them than it does of those to whom they are addressed. Oborne has simply reiterated the famous line from Dostoyevsky’s ‘The Brothers Karamazov’– “Without God, everything is permitted”— and tacked it onto this lazy political speculation. Rather than take this as a given, Oborne would do well to acquaint himself with the existentialist conception of personal responsibility and free will, whereby individuals are resigned to their relative amount of freedom, and thus have no choice but to take full responsibility for their actions precisely because there is no divine appeal to be had when facing the consequences. By this account, it makes no sense to suppose that without God everything is permitted, since, while there is indeed no higher power who would prohibit anything, nor is there one with a rubber-stamp of approval at the ready– actions must simply be weighed up according to their social advantages and disadvantages. A kind of hell indeed.

As for the application of this muddled philosophising to political concepts such as the Big Society, the assertions made remain unsubstantiated. In what way is the moral deterioration of society an ‘inevitable consequence’ of the ‘state intervention’ of ‘the past 50 years’? What precisely is being referred to? Oborne doesn’t specify, relying as he does on empty religious platitudes and deliberately vague inferences.

Since it’s that joyful time of the year, Peter Oborne’s prize is a belated Season’s Greetings card from The Twenty-First Floor team! The receipt of a card which reads Season’s Greetings instead of Merry Christmas will no doubt be recognised by him as another grand victory for filthy secularists as ourselves, who despise Christmas with all our hearts, what with its advent calendar chocolate, exchanging of presents, and similar abominations.

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