Thursday, December 29, 2005

Meanwhile, in another part of the forest...

...we're in the midst of Kwanzaa, and the usual suspects are out in force attacking the holiday full-bore. Why the frenzy? one might be tempted to ask. Why the obsessiveness? Surely it couldn't be...racism? Heavens, no. It's just joyful conservatives taking an annual whack at a holiday celebrated by millions of Black people.

Let's have a look, first, at what these concerned commentators are saying. (We'll give the folks a miss, though, if that's OK. No group endorsed by Fox News is getting a pulpit here.) So why not start with Ann Coulter?

The outlines of her argument are clear enough: the founder of Kwanzaa, Ron Karenga, was an FBI pawn (although, given her politics, I can't imagine why this would constitute a criticism), a violent Black nationalist, criminal and Marxist who, in the natural course of events, became a university professor. He "invented," "concocted," or "made-up" the holiday, "a lunatic blend of schmaltzy '60s rhetoric, black racism and Marxism." She ends her article (actually a pretty restrained one by Coulter standards) by comparing and contrasting Kwanzaa with the more venerable Christian religion, as do many of the other Kwanzaa-dissers. (No mention of the latter's seamy history of colonization, torture, massacres, witch-burning and slavery: that would spoil the turkey dinner, and make Ron Karenga look like a veritable saint in comparison.)

"Ann Coulter calls a spade a spade when she comments on Kwanzaa," says one forthright blogger, no doubt amused by his own wit.

But the anti-Kwanzaa charge is being led this year by Black conservative LaShawn Barber, whose agenda is Christian, not racial. Kwanzaa is "made-up" and "anti-Christian," she avers. "Kwanzaa is a jumble of political ideology, pseudo-cultural, and spiritualized 'African' rituals."

Attention Christians: Kwanzaa is a made-up creed cobbled together by a man hostile to the very God you claim to worship! Kwanzaa is not an innocuous celebration of black history. It attempts to spiritualize that history, replacing Christ-centered theology with pagan principles.

Other commentators weigh in with their takes on Kwanzaa, often calling Karenga a racist or a Black nationalist, e.g., "Now, I'm not trying to be the grinch who stole Kwanzaa here, but I think it's a sin that the rather radical, Marxist, black nationalist origins of the holiday are ignored every year-- ignored with the power of a thousand suns." Or, as Tony Snow puts it (take note of his racist assumptions):

The fact is, there is no Ur-African culture. The continent remains stubbornly tribal. Hutus and Tutsis still slaughter one another for sport... Kwanzaa is the ultimate chump holiday--Jim Crow with a false and festive wardrobe. It praises practices--"cooperative economics, and collective work and responsibility" -- that have succeeded nowhere on earth and would mire American blacks in endless backwardness.

But not every Kwanzaa-hater agrees:

My research also tells me that Karenga is not a racist. In fact, the best research on Ron Karenga reveals no violence against Whites by him or his followers. He had an excellent relationship with former Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty. He met with then Governor Ronald Reagan and other white politicians.

Predictably, our Kathy Shaidle plays the "me-too" game every year as well. We have an oh-so-clever entry this year: and a ripe one from Dick Evans, of "Rosa Parks was a fraud" fame.

Well, Kwanzaa is not the only set of cultural practices that can be called an invented tradition. The historian Eric Hobsbawm has assembled a series of essays on this very matter: one of them, by Hugh Trevor-Roper, demonstrates that the Scottish clan tartan and the kilt are both fairly recent inventions. The former was originally produced for the tourist trade; the latter was an exuberant post-Culloden creation.

Or take Christmas. Christmas as we know it is even more recent than Highland tartan. One reviewer writes, of Stephen Nissenbaum's The Battle for Christmas:

This scholarly analysis of our modern celebration of Christmas pulls together a thoroughly convincing case for the widely accepted notion that it is a 19th-century creation, indeed a deliberate reformation and taming of a holiday with wilder pagan origins. Christmas was set at December 25 in the fourth century, not for any biblical link with Christ's birth, but because the church hoped to annex and Christianize the existing midwinter pagan feast. This latter was based on the seasonal agricultural plenty, with the year's food supply newly in store, and nothing to do in the fields. It was a time of drinking and debauchery from the Roman Saturnalia to the English Mummers. The Victorians hijacked the holiday, and Victorian writers helped turn it into a feast of safe domesticity and a cacophonous chime of retail cash registers.

Here's another, on Jock Elliot's Inventing Christmas: How Our Holiday Came To Be:

Nodding to its earliest origins, Elliott focuses on the "invented traditions." "Most of our Christmas customs," he explains, "were invented in an amazingly short twenty-five-year period, from 1823-1848-a sort of `Big Bang' of our Christmas." Gorgeous illustrations by Thomas Nast (who created the Republican elephant and Democratic donkey) show the invention of Santa Claus, which began with a story by Washington Irving and culminated in "The Night Before Christmas" by Clement Clarke Moore. Nast's vision became iconic, but Elliott persuades us that a trio of New Yorkers--Irving, the holiday booster John Pintard and Moore--invented the child-centered family holiday that we know today.

Christmas is certainly a hodgepodge of a holiday if ever there was one: pagan Christmas trees (discouraged in the Bible: Jeremiah 10, 2-5), the ritual sacrifice of the God-King reduced to the roasting and eating of a turkey, a jolly fat man reverse-burglarizing homes, Christmas carols which often are an odd but appealing mixture of pagan and Christian themes ("Here we go a-wassailing," "The Holly and the Ivy"), and lots of being kind and being together with family, and watching the wonder in the eyes of children.

Now, that all sounds great to me. I love Christmas, pastiche though it be. It's a marvellous celebration, built out of a series of myths and inventions. Its origins matter far less than what it means now; the past is continually constructed and reconstructed.

Which brings us back to Kwanzaa. The celebration has taken hold with such tenacity that even George W. Bush has stood up for it, and a US stamp has been issued to mark it, much to the despair of the far-right. Situated in a context of continuing racism and poverty, a history of slavery, exploitation, oppression and degradation, Kwanzaa is not the creation but the re-creation of a myth that can be found world-wide, combining elements of rebirth and community.

From its archetypal roots, Kwanzaa speaks to people where they live, resonating deeply as do all myths emerging in the here-and-now: fluid imagery and values that take new form, re-presenting the profound meaning of what it is to be human. Kwanzaa doesn’t belong to Ron Karenga, but to those who celebrate it; like a text, the identity or intentions of the author really don't matter. The celebration is what counts. And it will continue, and flourish, despite the array of racist, anti-socialist and fundamentalist forces that have, predictably, risen up in coalition against it.

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