Left angry by Garrison Keillor’s latest screed


I used to live a block west of Garrison Keillor when I lived in St. Paul. Occasionally when out jogging, I’d cross paths with the humorist, out pushing his daughter in a stroller, and I’d nod politely, as talking in such a situation would be un-Minnesotan. I knew quite a bit of Keillor’s oeuvre, of course; growing up in Minnesota is was impossible not to know a bit about the fictional hamlet of Lake Wobegon; indeed, I did a sixth-grade map project about a search for Lake Wobegon, which, as all Minnesotans know, is located under the fold they made in the map to hide the fact that the state was just a bit too big. 

At any rate, I’ve seen A Prairie Home Companion live, and I’ve read Keillor’s writings in the Strib for years, and generally speaking, I like the guy. But even though Keillor is the apotheosis of “One of Us,” I can’t let his latest missive go. Because unfortunately, whether intended in humor or not, Keillor has written a ham-handed, angry, and anti-Semitic column about Christmas that is, quite flatly, offensive. And that doesn’t even get to the part where he attacks my religion.

Keillor starts off okay, talking about what a douche Larry Summers is. Okay, I think we can all agree on that, and if Keillor talks about his financial mismanagement of Harvard rather than his comments that women’s girl brains can’t handle science, well, Summers’ stupidity is a target-rich environment. Then, suddenly and without warning, Keillor takes a hard right turn into Lake Bigoted:

You can blame Ralph Waldo Emerson for the brazen foolishness of the elite. He preached here at the First Church of Cambridge, a Unitarian outfit (where I discovered that “Silent Night” has been cleverly rewritten to make it more about silence and night and not so much about God), and Emerson tossed off little bon mots that have been leading people astray ever since. “To be great is to be misunderstood,” for example. This tiny gem of self-pity has given license to a million arrogant and unlovable people to imagine that their unpopularity somehow was proof of their greatness.

And all his hoo-ha about listening to the voice within and don’t follow the path, make your own path and leave a trail and so forth, encouraged people who might’ve been excellent janitors to become bold and innovative economists who run a wealthy university into the ditch.

Now, do I believe that the Unitarians at First Church of Cambridge reworked “Silent Night?” Yeah, sure I do. It seems like the kind of thing my fellow UUs would do. Of course, being Unitarians, I’ll bet you a mythical sawbuck that half the congregation goes ahead and sings the original lyrics anyhow, and a non-trivial number try to sing in German, and nobody much cares, because that’s how Unitarians roll. Of course, the fact that it is a German hymn – “Stille Nacht” – rather suggests that the lyrics have already been reworked. Come on, Garrison, real Christians sing in German.

Also: Ralph Waldo Emerson? Transcendentalist philosopher, author of “Self-Reliance,” the man who said, “A man of genius is privileged only as far as he is genius. His dullness is as insupportable as any other dullness”? That Ralph Waldo Emerson? Really? Huh. I guess I don’t see how Emerson’s philosophy of individual responsibility and nonconformity leads to a conformist Harvard president betting money in the stock market, but hey, that must be the “joke.”

Indeed, you’re going to find that this column by humorist Keillor is heavy on “jokes.” Not, alas, jokes.

All right, so far, we just have an incoherent jab at Unitarians, the kind Unitarians make weekly.* It wasn’t a particularly funny joke, but okay, I can let it slide. They’re not all gonna be gems.

What comes next, though, crosses over from not particularly funny to outright offensive.

Unitarians listen to the Inner Voice and so they have no creed that they all stand up and recite in unison, and that’s their perfect right, but it is wrong, wrong, wrong to rewrite “Silent Night.” 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. 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.

Christmas is a Christian holiday – if you’re not in the club, then buzz off. Celebrate Yule instead or dance around in druid robes for the solstice. Go light a big log, go wassailing and falalaing until you fall down, eat figgy pudding until you puke, but don’t mess with the Messiah.

Now, here is where I as a Minnesotan am required by law to say that these two paragraphs don’t say what they say. They’re not a bitter, angry complaint that Irving Berlin wrote “White Christmas” and that Garrison Keillor surely didn’t mean to suggest that non-Christians can’t celebrate Christmas.

But I’m not so sure that’s true. And even if it is true – that this is meant as a joke – it fails the first rule of comedy: it isn’t funny.

Indeed, while Keillor may be attempting satire here, it doesn’t really read as satirical. It reads as a particularly nasty barb, a shot across the bow of non-believers. Moreover, who is Keillor’s target here? I think I’m supposed to think it’s intolerant Christians, but I don’t think that. I really feel like his target is Unitarians and Jews, and other nonbelievers during the holiday season. This doesn’t feel like satire. It doesn’t read like satire. This reads angry.

I want to give Keillor the benefit of the doubt here. I really do. But I’m sorry, I just can’t. Whether he meant to or not, he penned a column that is nasty and offensive, and yes, anti-Semitic. And whatever he meant, that’s how the words read to more than a few people. I hope that Keillor apologizes quickly. And I hope that he doesn’t fall back on the tired, “I was just joking” defense. Because I’m sorry, Garrison, jokes are supposed to have humor embedded in them, and they’re not supposed to afflict the afflicted. This is a disappointing column from someone who should be better than this.

I guess it’s like Ralph Waldo Emerson once said – “Every hero becomes a bore at last.”

*Seriously. A running joke at my church is the fact that the last line in our usual chalice-lighting reading has been rendered alternately as “Spirit of Life” or “Spirit of Freedom,” and that we have about an equal division of people saying each. We find this to be both amusing and fitting.