Keillor bashes Jews, gays? Say it ain’t so, Gary!
Did Garrison Keillor, beloved host of NPR’s “A Prairie Home Companion” and author of innumerable faintly schmaltzy books about Norwegians in Minnesota, veer dangerously close to anti-Semitism in a recent essay about Christmas?
“Don’t Mess With Christmas,” which appeared in the online magazine Slate this week, is a comic argument that “Christmas is a Christian holiday — if you’re not in the club, then buzz off.”
Keillor got worked up after taking part in a Unitarian service in Cambridge, Mass., where he was offended to discover that “Silent Night” had been rewritten “to make it more about silence and night and not so much about God.”
He writes: “If you don’t believe Jesus was God, OK, go write your own damn ‘Silent Night’ and leave ours alone. This is spiritual piracy and cultural elitism and we Christians have stood for it long enough.”
Keillor is explicitly hard on Unitarians, not to mention Ralph Waldo Emerson, former Harvard president Lawrence Summers, and New England elites in general, all in the context of keeping Christmas songs religiously pure. These are easy targets — Unitarians are one of the few groups you can still mock with impunity. And it’s always open season on “elites,” whatever that is.
To his credit — sort of — Keillor doesn’t stop there, but tackles head on the historical fact that many secularizing Christmas songs have been written by Jews (Irving Berlin, Mel Torme, Johnny Marks, etc.):
“And all those lousy holiday songs by Jewish guys that trash up the malls every year, Rudolph and the chestnuts and the rest of that dreck. Did one of our guys write ‘Grab your loafers, come along if you wanna, and we’ll blow that shofar for Rosh Hashanah’? No, we didn’t.”
Keillor is a humorist, in some respects the riskiest of all writing disciplines. Humorists always run the danger of being misunderstood — the good ones, anyway. A classic example is Jonathan Swift’s 1729 essay, “A Modest Proposal,” with its suggestion the Irish ease their poverty by selling babies for rich people to eat.
Maybe Keillor, like Swift, is overstating a point he does not actually believe — Jews should keep their unworthy hands off our Christmas songs! –to make a larger point: Keep the Christ in Christmas.
Or maybe he’s dead serious. The essay, though written in a sprightly, readable style, has a sharp tang of bitterness. Even if Keillor means to overstate his case for satiric or rhetorical value, the plain thrust of his argument — Christmas is for believing, practicing Christians only –seems to run counter to much of the Christmas spirit.
You know, all that peace on earth, good will to men stuff. Reaction to Keillor’s essay, which you can find at Salon and also at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the Baltimore Sun, GalleyCat and elsewhere, ranges from agreement to accusations of anti-Semitism.
Most, however, are reasoned and funny in themselves, like this one at Salon from pinkoursula: “Hey, if you’re going to nit pick (in the spirit of Christmas), don’t go translating a perfectly lovely German song into English. English speakers need to write their own damn carols. So please, keep your Englische hands off our Stille Nacht!”
This is not the first time Keillor, generally perceived as a doctrinaire liberal, has outraged a group you would think he’d be in sympathy with. A Salon column from 2007, “Stating the Obvious,” defended traditional male-female marriage, indulging in some offensive gay stereotyping in the process. For a scathing and pointed response, see The Stranger website.
Do I think Garrison Keillor is anti-Semitic or homophobic? No, his talent and record earn the benefit of the doubt. But that doesn’t mean he might not be slipping.
The quality of his signature “Lake Wobegon” monologues on “A Prairie Home Companion” has become spotty, at best. More jokey, more anecdotal, less shaped and poignant. Less funny, too. A few months ago I heard one that consisted of fart jokes that wouldn’t pass the taste meter in a Seth Rogen movie.
In some of his columns, and some of his monologues, I can’t help detecting a distinct tone of what might be called “age-related crotchetiness.” He’s been doing “A Prairie Home Companion” for 38 years. That’s a long time to plow one field. I’d get cranky, too.