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Keillor bashes Jews, gays? Say it ain’t so, Gary!

December 18, 2009

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.

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21 Comments leave one →
  1. rachel permalink
    December 18, 2009 3:08 pm

    Nothing’s real anymore! (Daniel Johnston)

    Christmas doesn’t really seem like it is very much about Christ at all. The Christmas spirit seems like it is more about buying things and at best, about spending time with family. Moreover, it doesn’t seem very “Christian” to be so exclusive when Christ, you know the guy we are celebrating, was about inclusion. Not to mention Christmas takes over at least 2 months of our year and you cannot escape it even if you want to.

    To plow one field! You crack me up Chauncey Mabe.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 18, 2009 3:57 pm

      You’re too kind. And you’re also right about what’s wrong with Christmas. It isn’t the lukewarm Unitarians, rewriting Silent Night, or the many talented Jewish songwriters who have given us classics (whether we wanted them or not) like Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas. It’s the commercialization of the holiday. What could be more desacralizing than that?

  2. December 18, 2009 3:21 pm

    I came from a place where we celebrated both holidays. I always thought these holidays were really about getting together with friends and family. I really did. Showing people and other beliefs they were welcome in your home. The true trouble is in religion it self. Follow it to the word and they all are pretty stupid. How can any one believe in any religion and not first respect, the others. It would seem to me that would be all religion, 101. It has to be. Another thing I am not big about is killing children in the name of religion. Do it and you are out. No excuses.

    You see I wrote about it You see.. When you continue down the trail, you will meet a nice fellow, and yes he is dressed in yellow. He is very tall and his name is Paul. The story is he used to play basketball. It may seem at odds, but he talks to all the Gods. (turn the page)

    He says they all get along and so should we. They give us so many beautiful places. We should love all their faces, understand and hug all the different graces. Now we find we all all together no matter what the weather. From PurpleUmpkin. A classic book for children.

    As you know Chauncey as per our conversation with the Devil Writer, I play cards with all the Gods on PurpleUmpkin every Monday night. It usually is a time to talk about other things other than religion. What is happening though is deep concern that the earth people are screwing it all up. One God does not understand why some people are going back to restart a 33oo hundred year old war? Wadda bout the childrennnnnn!!!!!! He says. I agree. If you have any thing you would like me to bring up next Monday let me know. They think I am the funny one.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 18, 2009 3:59 pm

      Well, yeah. Could you ask One of the Gods, or All of Them, I don’t care, why They don’t have a Representative in Copenhagen?

  3. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    December 18, 2009 4:13 pm

    By the way, I should apologize to Seth Rogen. There is, in fact, no fart joke so tasteless that he would not deliver it in one of the movies he does with Kevin Smith or Judd Apatow. Really, guys, I know how important your arrested development reputations are to your careers. What I should have said is something about how fart jokes in a Seth Rogen movie have a different context than they do in monologue on A Prairie Home Companion, where they are way more offensive than, say, even the [Toilet] Demon (I can’t use the actual word here) in Smith’s movie, Dogma. Context may not be everything, but it’s something.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 18, 2009 4:15 pm

      And if you have no clue what I’m talking about in that last note, then you’ve obviously never seen a Judd Apatow or Kevin Smith movie (for which you should probably be grateful). So never mind.

  4. rachel permalink
    December 18, 2009 4:39 pm

    Not true! Dogma is a great movie.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 18, 2009 5:44 pm

      But it does have a [Toilet] Demon, does it not.

      • Tommy permalink
        December 18, 2009 6:37 pm

        The technical term for that poo ghoul is a Golgothan. Derived from Golgotha, the location where biblical scholars believe Christ was crucified.

        Dogma is an excellent film, so is Clerks. Zach and Miri, Clerks 2, Jay and Silent Bob are the real montrous movements from Kevin Smith.

        Am I the only one who thinks in this picture of Keillor he looks like Dwight Schrute’s father?

  5. Connie permalink
    December 18, 2009 4:58 pm

    Overall I kinda like Seth Rogen more than Garrison Keillor.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 18, 2009 5:46 pm

      Would that be fat Seth, or thin Seth? And can Seth sing? Oh, wait…

  6. Oline permalink
    December 18, 2009 5:27 pm

    Good column, Chauncey. As usual, you are a voice of reason

  7. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    December 18, 2009 5:46 pm

    Thank ye, ma’am. I think. I was trying to be a rabble rousing trouble maker…

  8. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    December 18, 2009 5:56 pm

    Since writing this earlier today, it’s occurred to me that we would do well — and by “we” I mean all of us, including Garrison Keillor — to remember that he is primarily a spoken-word artist. Considered in that light, I think his Christmas column, and his one on marriage, too, would go down less offensively if we heard it delivered on stage, or on the radio. With the addition of Keillor’s persona, and the wry self-mockery of his storytelling delivery, this would all flow with a bit more twinkle, and parts that seem offensive would turn into laugh lines. Maybe they’d still be offensive, but they’d surely be funnier. Some things that work when recited, spoken or acted fall flat and take on unintended connotations when reduced to flat text. That’s why writing is a more nuanced skill than performing, or at least nuanced in significantly different ways. A performer like Keillor ought to know that his onstage delivery does not translate unaided to the page.

  9. December 19, 2009 7:00 am

    Heloo Chauncey,

    Oh yes the Gods are in Copenhagen. They complain not many people are listening.
    It is the same on the way people treat each other. They do not understand why we just do not get it and take care of each other. I could sense a bit of frustration last Monday night about that. They can ask people to believe in a good way but the people must act. Any way I will bring it up Monday after the card game. We may need a replacement player. You in?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 19, 2009 11:17 am

      I’m no good at cards, Mike, I don’t think I’d bring much to the table. Besides, I thought it was dice that God does or does not play with the universe, and by implication the human race, individual human life and all that jazz? Or mayhap Shakespeare was right (again), and as flies to wanton boys are we to the gods…

  10. December 19, 2009 11:44 am

    If I tell them all what you have just written, they will want you to play for sure. Great job. Thanks

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 19, 2009 3:04 pm

      Besides, I’m a freelance writer, which is the same thing as taking a vow of poverty. Penny ante is all I could manage.

  11. Occam's Tool permalink
    December 22, 2009 10:52 pm

    The brilliant Michael J Nelson in his novel “Michael J Nelson’s Deathrat,” (can’t underline so I’ll put in quotes) portrayed Mr. Keillor (thinly disguised) as a vain, obnoxious, undertalented jerk. I thought at the time Mr. Nelson might have been exaggerating. I now find that he was understating. Apologies to Mr. Nelson.

    However, to be more charitable to Mr. Keillor than he is to others, it should be pointed out that he recently suffered a stroke. Depending on location, this could account for increasing irritability, worsening judgment, and worsening impulsivity. Only his Mayo Clinics Neurologist knows for sure.

    Oh, what the heck. Screw you, Keillor, and your Lindbergh loving friends. We Jews can’t help being more talented than you.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 25, 2009 2:47 pm

      Mr. Tool, thanks for info on Michael J Nelson and his book, with which I was not previously acquainted, and for the possibly pertinent musings on Keillor’s medical condition. I thank you also for making me laugh out loud. Please, don’t be a stranger. I like to laugh.

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