Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas! Well, sort of

America’s un-Christmassy cards show a national inability to share each other's rituals and beliefs with confidence

To understand America’s troubled soul, look to its greeting cards.

I have just spent many, many hours doing this as part of an increasingly Quixotic annual struggle to send out Christmas cards. It’s ain’t what it used to be.

In the first place, it is no longer enough merely to buy a few boxes of cards and send them out. Authenticity demands cards with photographs, sometimes more than one, printed with a personalised holiday greeting. The development of photo cards has made this easier than ever. It is now possible to order one day and to pick up the next. Even the envelopes can be pre-addressed and stamped with custom postage stamps featuring photos of children or pets. The card-makers have the technical part down to a science - easy peasy. The problem comes when it is time to choose the card itself.

Once upon a time there were two sorts of Christmas cards: the secular ones and the religious ones. They were very easy to tell apart. The secular cards had Santa, reindeer, holly, elves, etc. Inside they said ‘Merry Christmas’, ‘Happy Holidays’ or ‘Season’s Greetings’. The religious ones had pictures of mangers, angels, stars and/or Mary and the baby Jesus. Like the secular cards, they said ‘Merry Christmas’ and often something unmistakably biblical, like ‘Joy to the World, the Lord is come’.

Not so today. There are at least four categories or genres of cards. Religious cards are much as they were. Secular Christmas cards, however, have splintered into ‘holiday’ cards, Christmas cards, vaguely wintery cards and the sly new outlier for wimps and disorganised people, the New Year’s card.

I should say from the outset that Christmas card awkwardness is nothing new. Americans have been struggling with the imagery for years now. Sure, there are still Santas and reindeer, but every year they dominate a little less. Cards, wrapping papers and decorations are decidedly less Christmassy and more wintery. Snowmen! Snowflakes! Polar bears! Penguins! They’re sort of Christmassy, but not really. Like androgynous pop stars, they swing either way.

Take penguin attire. A quick perusal of penguin cards reveals the usual mix of tuxedos, bow-ties and jaunty knitted caps familiar to students of penguin couture. The colours, however, often seem deliberately chosen not to refer to Christmas overtly. The penguin may, for instance, wear a red-and-white scarf, but there will be no green unless worn by a second penguin who is not standing too close to the first one. There is red, there is green but there isn’t much in the way of red and green. More often, these are just two colours among many, casually included in a crowd of blues, yellows and oranges. Nope, nothing Christmassy here! A similar sensibility is at work in snowmen illustrations and polar bears in hats.

Photo cards present a slightly different challenge. Because the photo is the main illustration, the question is not so much one of imagery but text and colour. The result is probably the most bizarre manifestation of Yuletide defensiveness to date: Christmas deconstructed.

Greetings-card writers have literally fractured Christmas carols to produce a new genre of card featuring fragments of lyrics like ‘Holly Jolly!’ or ‘Fa la la la la!’ They are the greetings-card equivalent of a Freemason handshake, referring to a shared reference that dare not speak its name. Of course, copywriters and advertisers have referred to the lyrics of Christmas songs before - ‘tis the season after all - but the sheer volume of these sorts of cards shows that it is probably more than a mere trope.

Some most definitely refer to Christmas, albeit in an off-handed way. It’s a veritable Name That Tune from lyrical fragments like ‘Holly Jolly!’ ‘Merry and Bright!’, ‘Ring-a-ling, Hear them Ring’, ‘You’d better not cry, you’d better not pout’ (the latter cleverly rearranged from ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ to constitute ‘fair use’) and, from the same song, the enigmatic ‘I’m Telling You Why’.

Then there are the snippets from songs we associate with Christmas and sing at Christmas but aren’t technically about Christmas: songs about snow and cold weather and sleigh rides that we could listen to at any point during the winter (but don’t). These include: ‘Let it Snow!’, ‘Laughing All the Way’, ‘Oh What Fun!’ and the much-too-long, ‘And I Think to Myself, What a Wonderful World’.

Finally there are the merry wishes: ‘Merry Merry!’,‘Merry, Merry, Merry!’, ‘Merry Everything!’, ‘The Merriest!’, ‘Merry Wishes!’, ‘Warm wishes!’, ‘Toasty Wishes!’ and ‘Winter Wishes!’

This deconstruction of Christmas is not about official bans on wishing Merry Christmas or renaming the ‘Christmas break’ as ‘Winter break’. It is about a deeper mistrust with our collective ability to tolerate other people’s beliefs and for them to tolerate ours. ‘Live and let live’ has been transformed into ‘live quietly and, whatever you do, don’t be seen to be too enthusiastic’.

The irony of these increasingly coy references to Christmas is that the vast majority of Americans do celebrate it. Americans exchange more than a billion Christmas cards each year and yet somehow this mass, largely secular holiday has been transformed in our collective imaginations into a particular religious and cultural event that should not carry more social weight than a holiday, say, Diwali, that is observed by comparatively few people.

At some level, this is an ambivalence about America itself, since the widespread celebration of a secular Christmas is largely an American innovation. Everything from Santa Claus - the way he looks, the colours he wears, the reindeer, the sleigh - through to the songs we sing and the movies we watch are American cultural creations. But more worryingly, it seems to show a disenchantment with the ideals of Christmas itself. Perhaps the whole premise of the holiday mocks us. It represents an aspiration for universalism that seems so out of reach that we are embarrassed we ever tried.

Fortunately, there does still seem to be a point when the holiday simply becomes about the experience of spending time with other people. There comes a point when there is nothing left to do but give a collective shrug and take time out for fun, fancy and impracticality. If the big ideas of Christmas - peace on earth and goodwill to all men - won’t fit on a card, they persist in the actuality of smiles exchanged with friends and strangers, in a lightness of heart, a wave and the words ‘Merry Christmas!’


The marriage gap presents a real cost

If current trends hold, within a few years, less than half the U.S. adult population will be married. This precipitous decline isn’t just a social problem. It’s also an economic problem.

Specifically, it’s an income-inequality and economic-mobility problem. The steadily dropping marriage rate both contributes to income inequality and further entrenches it.

The latest numbers, from the Pew Research Center, are startling and disturbing. In 1960, nearly three-fourths of those 18 and older were married. By 2010, that number had plummeted to a bare majority, 51 percent. Four in 10 births were to unmarried women.

In 1960, the most- and least-educated adults were equally likely to be married. Now, nearly two-thirds of college graduates are married, compared with less than half of those with a high school diploma or less. Those with less education are less likely to ever marry and more likely to divorce if they do.

“Family structure is a new dividing line in American society,” Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution told me.

As marriage increasingly becomes a phenomenon of the better-off and better-educated, the incomes of two-earner married couples diverge more and more from those of struggling single adults. There is a chicken-and-egg conundrum at work here: Did lack of financial stability contribute to the decision not to marry, or did the decision not to marry contribute to financial instability? Either way, the phenomenon is self-reinforcing.

Of even more concern is the generational impact of this increased inequality. Being raised in a stable, two-parent household is a strong determinant of educational achievement. In turn, educational achievement is a strong — and growing stronger — determinant of lifetime income. As a result, the marriage gap becomes a grimly self-perpetuating process.

Rhapsodizing about the benefits of marriage may have a conservative air — promoting marriage among welfare recipients was a big deal during the George W. Bush administration — but you don’t have to be a conservative to bemoan these statistics.

It’s not only that those at higher education levels are far more likely to marry — they’re far more likely to marry each other. “Men used to marry their secretaries,” Sawhill observed. “Now they marry the woman they met in med school.”

As a result, Sawhill said, “These two-earner couples at the top are just making out like bandits and these single parents at the bottom have miserable lives. If the single parents were married, their life wouldn’t be so miserable. And at the top, if these high-earning professionals weren’t getting together and forming little collaboratives, they’d be worse off.”

About those collaboratives: More people are cohabiting these days, but as an economic matter, this doesn’t solve the problem.

An earlier Pew study found that the typical college-educated cohabiter enjoyed a slightly higher household income than a college-educated married person, which only makes sense. For the college-educated cohabiter, living together tends to be a step toward marriage and children, at which point household income may drop as one spouse works less.

But for those who aren’t college-educated, cohabitation is more an alternative to the marriage track than a precursor of it. They are more far more likely than college-educated cohabiters to have children — and they enjoy significantly lower median household incomes than comparably educated married couples.

Not only that, cohabitation is not the equivalent of marriage in terms of family stability. Demographers Sheela Kennedy and Larry Bumpass found that, by age 12, about two-thirds of children born to cohabiting parents will see them split up, compared with a quarter of children born to parents who are married.

Nor does the marriage gap seem destined to lessen. Pew found that 27 percent of those with college degrees say they consider marriage “obsolete.” But 45 percent of those with a high school diploma or less took that view.

A different arm of Pew, its Economic Mobility Project, found that among children who started in the bottom third of income, only one-fourth of those with divorced parents moved up to the middle or top third as adults. By comparison, half of children with continuously married parents — and, somewhat surprisingly, 42 percent of those born to unmarried mothers — moved up the income ladder as adults.

Is marriage a magic-bullet solution to the broader problem of income inequality and lack of economic mobility? No, but fewer marriages will mean more inequality. Neither development is healthy.


How BBC wrongly predicted bad news for British economy (and then relegated the story when the figures were actually good)

Two hours before Britain’s economic figures were released yesterday, the BBC enthusiastically predicted that growth would be ‘even worse than we thought’.

The potential economic slowdown was discussed at length in grave tones for three and a half minutes on Radio 4’s flagship Today programme.

The issue was considered important enough to be placed third on the programme’s news bulletins at 7.30am and 8am.

Unfortunately, their pessimistic predictions were wrong. Instead of growth being worse than forecast, it was better.

But rather than injecting a more optimistic tone into their analysis, they simply relegated the story to being an also-ran.

Indeed it dropped off some later bulletins altogether. The World at One on Radio 4 did not include it in its headlines, neither did BBC1’s 1pm news.

Earlier on the Today programme, the normally scrupulously impartial John Humphrys introduced the economy story with a dose of doom.

He said: ‘We know the economy is slowing down, which is another way of saying the nation won’t be getting much richer, if at all. But today the latest revised growth figures will be published and everyone seems to think they will show it’s even worse than we thought.’

While questioning economics editor Stephanie Flanders, Humphrys asked if it would mean ‘most people are actually worse off than they were’.

Flanders replied: ‘So far there is a surprising degree of resignation in the face of austerity and the fact that pay packets at the top are going up.’

Humphrys then suggested that ‘people are getting fed up’ with austerity measures. Less than two hours later the ONS released figures saying that the UK economy grew by 0.6 per cent between July and September – faster than previous estimates of 0.5 per cent.

The issue was discussed for a minute on the World at One, with presenter Shaun Ley introducing the story by saying the economy had expanded slightly more than had been thought. However, he concluded: ‘The prospects for the New Year are far from encouraging.’

On the BBC1 News at One, where the issue did not make the headlines, presenter Sophie Raworth did at least introduce the story as ‘a bit of good news’. On the BBC website, the economic figures from the ONS languished at eighth on their news schedule.

By 5pm, the story had finally been given a more prominent spot, when it was fourth on the news schedule on Radio 4’s PM programme.

Philip Davies, Tory MP for Shipley, said: ‘This is what we have come to expect from the BBC. They leap on anything damaging to the Government, but when there is anything positive they want to bury it.’

Last night the BBC responded: ‘It’s nonsense to suggest we did not cover the fact that the figure was revised up from the original calculation. The Radio 4 13.00 and 18.00 bulletins, the News at One, News at Six and News at Ten all clearly stated in their introductions that the 3rd quarter figure for GDP growth was higher than originally calculated.’


The Australian Labor party's freedom from information office

Never accuse the government of lacking a sense of humour. It was brilliant! Here was its new agency, the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner. An official-looking website claimed this supposed "OAIC" was part of the Attorney-General's Department.

It was committed to "open public sector information", according to the mission statement. On and on it went about the integrity and importance of free, public, and open information in government.

"We will champion open government, provide advice and assistance to the public, promote better information management by government … we will have a comprehensive range of functions, including investigating complaints". Vigorous stuff, but was it too vigorous to be true?

Government-held information is a national resource, this OAIC said

Just the place to go for some information, we thought. We had discovered public information had been disappearing from government databases. Something had to be done. The Australian Information Commissioner here we come!

"No comment," the commissioner said, via email.

But hang on! Large files of public information had been quietly purged by the corporate regulator, and the central bank and Treasury. National resources buried, by three separate departments. We have a pattern. Here is the proof.

"No comment," the email from the communications operative said on behalf of the commissioner.

It was at that moment that the penny dropped. This was not just another bureaucratic enclave whose sole raison d'etre was self-preservation. It was actually a gag, and a damn fine gag too, an information gag.

"Care for some information about information? Yes sir, you've come to the right place, no doubt about that! Just wait there for two weeks, sit tight, we'll get right back to you!" It was Pythonesque - the Ministry for Silly Pranks, the Bureau for Wasting People's Time.

The name of the Australian Information Commissioner, they say, is Professor John McMillan. It sounds lifelike. Indeed the name is attached to long and windy statements in the annual report about strong commitment to open government, engagement with government agencies and so forth.

But was he real? Dare we try to speak with this mysterious professor himself? Again, we emailed a question to this elusive figure via a communications officer:

"In the spirit of freedom of Australian information and keeping the public properly informed in the press are you prepared to actually speak with me on the telephone?"

Alas! Our petitions were met, once again, with a good old fobbing-off.

"Thanks for your email. John often speaks directly to journalists but he is very pressed for time this afternoon as he is leaving for the airport at 4. He asked me to let you know that there is nothing more that he can add on this particular issue without a proper investigation."

Was it that the professor, if he really existed, had yet to embrace the mobile phone revolution? Or perhaps he was off on a trip, one of those nice overseas trips; a fact-finding mission from Canberra to Cancun say; finding facts about information at the annual international conference for information commissioners in order to commission a steering committee report on a white paper to evaluate the opportunities for a comprehensive range of functions with which to address the challenges of promoting more efficient information management.

The question is serious. It is about information vanishing from public databases: public information about banks using government guarantees, information about government agencies providing special favours to liquidators.

McMillan proffered his "no comment" to the question of exemption orders being purged from the public database of the Australian Securities and Investments Commission. The documents were relief orders given to liquidators, providing special exemptions from their having to file public accounts. Lots of them.

They disappeared about the time the regulator was to come under scrutiny by a Senate inquiry into liquidators. The Senate report was damning. Nothing was ever done by ASIC to restore the information to the public database. And as yet there is zero accountability from the OAIC or any other agency.

To the second issue: large swathes of public information had been purged from the Reserve Bank of Australia and Treasury websites, without explanation, relating to sovereign guarantees for wholesale bank funding.

When questioned, the RBA conceded it took down the information because a bank, or the banks, had requested it. The OAIC did not even respond to the issue by acknowledging it with a "no comment".

"The OAIC looks forward to an energetic year promoting information rights, information policy and the strategic management of personal and public sector information," Professor John McMillan, Australian Information Commissioner, said in this year's annual report.



Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.

American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.

For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, DISSECTING LEFTISM, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN (Note that EYE ON BRITAIN has regular posts on the reality of socialized medicine). My Home Pages are here or here or Email me (John Ray) here. For readers in China or for times when is playing up, there is a mirror of this site here.


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