Monday, December 20, 2010

Happy Humbug!

Evidence-free rants and their perpetrators

In 1968 my family supported the Humphrey-Muskie ticket against Nixon-Agnew. My parents had not yet lost their minds to right-wing nonsense. Back then, Nixon was political evil incarnate. (Today, Dad dismisses Nixon's transgressions—subverting the nation's electoral process—as trivialities compared to Clinton's dalliance with Lewinsky or Obama's health-care reform “death panels.”) Even back then, as far as Dad was concerned, it didn't do to wear one's political heart on one's sleeve. He promptly peeled off the Humphrey-Muskie bumpersticker that I had affixed to the family car. He disapproved of stickers on cars.

Imagine my surprise, therefore, when last year Dad applied a “We Say Merry Christmas” sticker to his vehicle. I guess the war on Christmas is an occasion even more fraught with peril than a Nixon presidency. You have to admire the sentiment, too: A Christian refusing to turn the other cheek by hurling “Merry Christmas” in the faces of people who dare to say “Happy Holidays” or “Season's Greetings.” It's time to take it to the enemy!

The pseudo-intellectual talk-show host Dennis Prager was holding forth on his program this morning on the importance of public observation of Christmas in this Christian nation. As a practicing Jew, Prager brings a special éclat to the mistimed celebration of the birth of baby Jesus. It must surely delight Prager's arch-conservative Christian listeners to hear him endorse their positions, even as it must occasionally taint their joy slightly to think that he will surely burn in hell one day.

I call Prager a pseudo-intellectual because I have on a number of occasions heard his largely evidence-free pronouncements on the great issues of the day. In fact, he glories in his self-proclaimed erudition as he presents his “Ultimate Issues” hours, during which he panders to the prejudices and preconceptions of his audience. He makes them feel smug and happy because such a well-spoken smarty-pants agrees with them. But his intellectual underpinnings are built on sand. For example, Prager has swallowed Intelligent Design creationism whole. He likes arguments based on personal incredulity and he can't imagine life occurring without God to create it and guide its development.

Therefore I was less than impressed when Prager lamented the death of “Merry Christmas” as a holiday greeting. He declared, with great assurance, that pressure from anti-religious pressure groups had brought nonsectarian greetings like “Happy Holidays” into prominence in preference to speaking of our (not his) dear savior's birth. Instead of taking Prager's word for it, I decided to do a little checking. What does Google's Ngram viewer show?

If one searches through Google's textual database for American English publications between 1900 and 2008, we discover that writers in the United States have favored Happy Holidays by a wide margin over Merry Christmas. (Season's Greetings is a sorry also-ran.) Only twice has the primacy of Happy Holidays been threatened: the era of World War II and the period of the Vietnam War. Both lengthy conflicts coincided with an upsurge in the use of Merry Christmas. (One wonders why.) Of course, it may be that spoken greetings were entirely at variance with authorial word choices during the past century, but I think it's rather more reasonable to expect some parallels. Certainly this tends to run contrary to Prager's claim.

I'm sure, however, that Dennis Prager could find something to like in this data—as unused as he is to looking at any—by homing in on the rise in Happy Holidays in recent years. He could put his finger on 2003 and say, “See, this is the war on Christmas taking hold!” (It would be impolite to point out that Merry Christmas also experienced a spike. In fact, in relative terms its growth is even greater. But that would spoil the narrative.)

If Dennis wants a slam-bang finish, I'll point out that at the end of the chart, in 2008, just as Obama was winning the presidency, Happy Holidays reached its highest peak since about 1917, just as Lenin seized control in Russia with the Bolshevik Revolution. Coincidence? Impossible!


Miki Z. said...

The Ngram viewer is case-sensitive, though. If you capitalize Merry Christmas, it's overwhelmingly preferred to any variant of Happy Holidays.

(I note with interest though that 'tolerance' and 'religion' are almost in antiphase in the American English corpus.)

Markk said...

The Ngram changes a bit if you type in "Merry Christmas" etc rather than leaving it lowercase.

Disturbingly Openminded said...

"He likes arguments based on personal incredulity and he can't imagine life occurring without God to create it and guide its development."

For the last decade or so, I have been increasingly sensitive to fundies (religious, political, sports, whatever) saying "I can't imagine " as if they have made a Really Good Argument. I have no reason to think the phrase is any more common now than before; I just seem to be noticing it more.*

Whereas I used to attempt to reason with people about the idea they find unimaginable -- to attempt to show them that it is well within the realm of possibility -- I have begun to change my approach. Some time ago I began to take them at their word: they "can't" imagine it -- presumably because they aren't very good at imagination.

I tell them that accepting their limitation is the first step to improving. That imagination is, to some degree, learnable. That there are methods to enhance one's imagination. That, as with any skill, practice helps. I offer to teach them a couple of simple techniques.

This approach seems to stun such folks because it appears to have never occurred to them that what they find unimaginable is, in fact, perfectly reasonable to someone else. (This fact has never changed their opinion, of course.) When they try to argue the substance, I keep returning to their imagination. ("I can easily imagine that our military will still be strong even if gays are allowed to serve openly. Why do you suppose that this is impossible for YOU to imagine.")

I admit I started doing this out of pure dickishness but, lo and behold, it often seems to me that they are being truthful: they really CAN'T imagine very well. They not only can't imagine whatever the idea is, they can't imagine that anyone else can imagine such a thing.

Changing their minds about topic A, B, or C is probably too ambitious. First we need to change how they think.

* A couple years ago my younger child started saying "banana" every time she sees a yellow vehicle on the road. Now I see yellow cars everywhere that I swear weren't there three years ago.

phalacrocorax said...

If you search in capitals you'll find rather different results. (Google stresses the queries are case-sensitive.)

Zeno said...

Busted! (And much more quickly than I expected.) The only thing left to do is insist that I'm right anyway!

Kathie said...

Well, I don't know about the rest of you guys, but on December 25 we'll be touched by the Flying Spaghetti Monster's noodly appendage, by having pasta for dinner. And, to prove we're still "good Americans," we'll top it off with homemade apple pie -- à la mode, no less! -- for dessert.

We'll start feeling more celebratory once the Winter Solstice's annual grip starts to loosen as the days begin lengthening again.

Unknown said...

Hilarious, a psuedo-intellectual calling an intellectual a psudeo-intellectual.

Zeno, I suggest you first figure-out why you endeavor to convince yourself of your relevance.

Unknown said...

Hilarious, a pseudo-intellectual calling an intellectual a pseudo-intellectual.

Zeno, I suggest you first figure-out why you endeavor to convince yourself of your relevance.

Zeno said...

No, Russ, that's where you're wrong. I'm a real intellectual. Why, I can even spell "pseudo-intellectual," use hyphens correctly, and post comments without double-posting. I'm really that smart!

Anonymous said...

You talk about pseudo intelligence, citing a google search compiling english publications from the last 100 years or to use as proof that Happy Holidays is used more often than Merry Christmas and try to pass it off as profound?? I could have told you that without any fancy searching. This is a obvious, given the majority of media have been left leaning since their inception. This should be of no surprise. Also, Prager never implied that this was strictly a collective study of American English pub. He was speaking more in terms of public interaction rather than the former, although I do acknowledge the subject has been discussed at times in regard to the media. Maybe you have him on a technicality here, but I would argue thats not even the point or the question he was trying to make. Rather, does it make us a better, historically affirming society that we use a phrase such as Merry Christmas. Phil B

Zeno said...

Thanks for your stirring defense of Dennis Prager, Phil. I also commend you for your keen insight, somehow discerning that I intended this post as an exercise in erudite profundity. You're even aware that plugging something into Google is "fancy searching." Your perceptions are well beyond those of most mortal men. You might even be as smart as Dennis Prager, which I imagine you will take as a compliment. Enjoy.

Anonymous said...

Zeno, why dont you stick to the subject rather than throwing haymakers. Did I hurt your feelings? :( If you did not intend this post to make a compelling argument to Pragers, whats the point? Just a waste of time. Phil

Zeno said...

If it's a waste of time, Phil, then why are you here (again)? It's my blog, so I hang out here. What's your excuse. Nothing important to do? (You could always try to learn how to use an apostrophe. It's the latest thing.)

Anonymous said...

I read the article because I was interested in the topic. You have offered nothing. The waste of time was in regards to you writing the article. I was trying to do you favor. Maybe you will think again next time you decide to write. Anyway, after this post you will be back down to your normal weekly readership of 8. Thanks for nothing d-bag

Zeno said...

Au contraire, Phil. I offered gentle and winsome mockery, which you lacked the wit to appreciate. I also seem to have wasted more than an hour of your precious time, which you'll never get back because you didn't realize in time that you were wasting it. A bit slow, eh?

Since you couldn't be troubled to do any research (hey! are you really Dennis Prager?) by clicking on the Sitemeter link, I'll share with you the information that my daily readership averages over 300. A staggering number! But we look forward to missing you anyway. Merry Xmas!

Hmm. I wonder why so many people are using Google to find articles containing "pseudo intellectual prager"? Maybe word has gotten out.

Anonymous said...

Totally off-topic, Zeno, but you may take heart in the knowledge that "psuedo" is on the wane:

James said...

Disturbingly Openminded, I'm curious what techniques you recommend to people to improve their imagination skills. I'd like to try that out the next time I hear "I can't imagine how . . ."

Jeff Eyges said...

It must surely delight Prager's arch-conservative Christian listeners to hear him endorse their positions, even as it must occasionally taint their joy slightly to think that he will surely burn in hell one day.

This has been driving me crazy for years. The fate of their immortal souls is the elephant in the living room, and whenever I bring it up, all I ever get from other Jews is, "Well, we don't believe it, so why do you care?" This absolutely floors me. I'll try to explain why I think it's inappropriate, and, invariably. the end result is, "I understand - but we don't believe it, so why do you care?" Like a goddamn broken record.

I don't want to have coffee with someone who even believes in hell, let alone thinks I'm going there; I certainly don't want to work with that person - yet thousands of politically conservative Jews are happy to do just that, to get into bed with theologically conservative Christians, in order to accomplish a perceived mutually held social agenda. Makes me nuts.

There's a handful of Jews - Prager, Klinghoffer, Ben Stein, Rabbi Daniel Lapin and his lapdog, Michael Medved, perhaps half a dozen others - who work closely with conservative Christians, even to the point of working for their science-denying organizations. Klinghoffer works for the Discovery Institute, and Ben Stein - well, you know what happened there. All I can figure is that the authoritarianism is deeply ingrained, plus, they enjoy being rarities in that world. I think it confers a sort of exotic, exclusive status, especially as the fundies have recently laminated a thin veneer of Judeo-philia over their antisemitism. Also, David Berlinski, a mathematician who works or has worked for the DI, was supposedly overheard at a debate saying he did it for the money; I think that may have a lot to do with it as well. The bottom line is that what the Christians think in soteriological terms seems not to bother them at all; I'd wager it rarely, if ever, even crosses their minds. "We don't believe it, so why do you care?" Incredible.

Speaking of authoritarianism -

@Disturbingly Openminded: Whereas I used to attempt to reason with people about the idea they find unimaginable -- to attempt to show them that it is well within the realm of possibility -- I have begun to change my approach. Some time ago I began to take them at their word: they "can't" imagine it -- presumably because they aren't very good at imagination

This may be part of it but I'd say it isn't merely a matter of imagination. There's a small but growing body of evidence indicating a strong neurological foundation for fundamentalism. I'm convinced that more research will bear this out, if we have the money (which we haven't) and the time left as a species (which I also think we haven't). I think it's generally a waste of time trying to get them to develop their imaginations, or to alter their thinking in any way; I don't think they're capable of it. The best we can do, for the sake of human continuity, is to breed this maladaptive trait out of the genome - which, of course, we won't do, which is the main reason I think we're screwed.

Oh, and yes, Prager is a colossal tool. On behalf of the Jewish people, I apologize.

Happy Holidays, Zeno.

Disturbingly Openminded said...

James, I can hardly claim much in the way of success. But I personally find such conversations more interesting than hearing their moronic talking points.

I'd recommend a little book called The Universal Traveler (in-stock at Amazon. I just read the reviews and pretty much agree with every word other people have written.) First published in 1971, UT is ostensibly about getting around design problems. But, really, it is about thinking creatively about any kind of problem. (My day job is "designing" solutions to people's financial problems. One of my credos is: If you won't do it, then it isn't a solution.)

I'll describe two techniques, which may not have come from UT, but which I have used in various situations.

1. A modified version of word association in which the respondent is supposed to provide 5 words for a single prompt. The idea here it that the first word or two are the usual suspects and the subsequent words require more thought, imagination, creativity, etc. If the prompt is "homosexual", then maybe, just maybe the 4th or 5th response might be something like the name of someone they know and like whom they suspect is gay.

2. This one has some stupid name I don't remember. I call it "And what is it about that...." The idea here is get people thinking about why something really matters to them. Example:

Me: What is your favorite kind of vacation?
You: Go to beach!
Me: And what is it about going to the beach that you really like?
You: It is so much fun!
Me: And what makes it so much fun for you?
You: Oh, my family is all there and we know lots of people at the beach.
Me: And what is it about having all your family around that is enjoyable?
You: It reminds me of when we were all growing up......

And you can imagine how this goes on. In my example above, the "You" character never, never, never gets around to mentioning sand, water, boardwalks, or anything else related to being at an actual beach. "The Beach" is a proxy for something else. With a bit of mental effort, "You" might come to realize that he/she can get more of what he/she wants without going to the beach or in addition to going to the beach.

If you have any feedback, I would be interested to hear it.

Faegan Harti said...

I feel sad for "seasons greetings" (caps or no-caps). Makes me want to start using it all the time to see if we can bring this sad lagger up a bit. Perhaps if we get PZ's hordes on it?

Kathie said...

Disturbingly Openminded, your second item reminds me of when I was a student-teacher and our teacher-training supervisor worked with us to get us to develop the skill of asking our students "higher order" questions -- as opposed to those with a single correct answer, short binary answers (yes/no or true/false), multiple choice answers, fill-in-the-blanks, etc. Math students were shocked when we tried to make them think (paging Dorothy Parker...).

Kathie said...

"A Holiday Message From Ricky Gervais: Why I’m an Atheist":

Gervais closes with: "'Do unto others...' is a good rule of thumb. I live by that. Forgiveness is probably the greatest virtue there is. But that's exactly what it is -­‐ a virtue. Not just a Christian virtue. No one owns being good. I'm good. I just don't believe I'll be rewarded for it in heaven. My reward is here and now. It's knowing that I try to do the right thing. That I lived a good life. And that's where spirituality really lost its way. When it became a stick to beat people with. 'Do this or you'll burn in hell.' / You won’t burn in hell. But be nice anyway."

Anonymous said...

Hello Kathie, Interesting you point to a biblical quote to exemplify a universal virtue. While I agree that many of our most important values and virtures are not "owned" by any one religion, I think it is quite difficult not to associate the value/virtue with the vehicle in which it was delivered to the populus in the first place, namely monotheism, here in the west. I agree it is trite and shortsided to say the least, that an entirely literal interpretation of any holy manuscript is the only way to govern ones life, this is ridiculous. You say you are good and that you do the right thing, which I believe, but in a vacuum how do you measure that? Without a dogmatic foundation, good and the right thing become relative and this is dangerous. It is clear that religious ideologies have been used in the past, and currentley, which have led to terrible destruction and horror. But, this can also be said for any secular ideology as well because in the end we are all humans to interpret either. The difference is that the religious at least have an original value system or guide, if you will, to look back to when led astray. What can the non religious point to if in the same situation, reason? Maybe, but I don't trust humanity to be all that reasonable.


Kathie said...

Phil, *I* didn't quote the bible, Gervais did.

"Do unto others" = Role reversal.

Just because a phrase occurs in the bible doesn't mean it has to be accepted out of religious faith, though. Don't murder, e.g., can be accepted from a secular perspective.

Anonymous said...

Kathie, haha yes I noticed that the quote was entirely of Gervais after I posted, sorry bout that. But, I would have to assume you do agree with his statement at least in general if not word for word since you posted it and if so, might have well been your quote anyway :)

"Just because a phrase occurs in the bible doesn't mean it has to be accepted out of religious faith, though. Don't murder, e.g., can be accepted from a secular perspective".

100% correct. Whether one is pious or not is entirely a personal matter and I would never question the level of ones religious belief or lack there of. If you happen to share many of the same values that I do by any other means, then I am happy and thankful for it. My point was many non religious do not like to give the credit where it is due regarding the roots of our value system and why it came to be. But maybe a bit off the original topic at this point... Phil

Kathie said...

Phil, some of those sentiments that some credit to the bible may well long predate it. Hammurabi, anyone?

Kathie said...

And Phil, don't forget, the bible and other codes of conduct (religious or secular) were all created by humans (no divine inspiration involved -- that's just a con to try to bully others into accepting them).