By JOE CONASON
Spreading holiday cheer, a Western tradition for hundreds of years, no longer engages our so-called conservatives as the end of the year approaches. In fact, the innocent phrase “happy holidays” only infuriates them. The new Yuletide ritual exciting the right is the “War on Christmas” — an annual opportunity to spread religious discord and community conflict, brought to us by those wonderful folks at Fox News.
Once started, wars tend to escalate and intensify — and the War on Christmas is no exception. The same right-wing Christian ideologues enraged by any multicultural or ecumenical celebration of the season — the people trying to transform “Merry Christmas” from a kind greeting into a mantra of hate — are now merrily inflicting additional misery on the nation’s downtrodden.
Just in time for the birthday of baby Jesus, they are cutting food stamps and unemployment benefits. And they insist with breezy heartlessness that it’s all for the benefit of the poor.
Ask John Tamny, the Forbes magazine columnist and Fox News personality. During a Dec. 17 appearance on the Daily Show, he endorsed the congressional decision to cut $5 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. “If I were in control, I would abolish SNAP all together. I think food stamps are cruel.” Looking quite well-fed himself, he explained that if people were “literally starving,” they would be saved by a “massive outpouring of charity.” This will happen, said Tamny, when “people have literally distended bellies where they’re getting almost nothing.”
And he sounded let down when he added: “We don’t hear about the poor in this country starving on the streets.” This probably won’t happen immediately, even with the scheduled cuts, but maybe we can look forward to such Dickensian scenes by next Christmas if Tamny and the Republicans get their wishes.
As for the unemployed, food stamps are not the only source of succor that will soon be snatched from them and their Tiny Tims. The Republicans have insisted on a budget that discontinues emergency unemployment benefits beyond 73 weeks, which means that millions of families will soon stop receiving the minuscule payments — usually a few hundred dollars a month — that keep them from destitution.
According to Republican theory, as articulated by Sen. Rand Paul, helping jobless workers and their families for longer than the 26 weeks ordinarily provided by most states is just as “cruel” as giving them food stamps. “If you extend it beyond that, you do a disservice to these workers,” the Kentucky Republican said recently. “When you allow people to be on unemployment insurance for 99 weeks, you’re causing them to become part of this perpetual unemployed group in our economy.”
Actually, the absence of work is what causes long-term unemployment — not the presence of unemployment benefits. But in North Carolina, the right-wing state government has applied Paul’s theory by cutting benefits drastically. The result, as Bloomberg’s Evan Soltas has shown, has been to drive more people out of the state’s labor force, which has shrunken sharply, rather than somehow forcing people to find nonexistent jobs. To receive benefits, after all, it is necessary to prove that you’re seeking a job.
Facts are not about to deter statesmen like Paul or philosophers like Tamny. The spirit of this holiday is supposed to stimulate charitable concern for everyone, including the very least among us. What we are seeing instead is a real war on Christmas — not a silly struggle over greeting slogans and public displays, but an aggressive drive to deprive those who have almost nothing of the little we provide them as a society.
The true enemies of Christmas — and of Christian hope, as articulated in this season by Pope Francis — are those who pretend to befriend the poor by taking bread from their children’s mouths. Both the old Grinch and Ebenezer Scrooge were saved from villainy before their stories ended. Our modern political misers, clothed in self-righteousness, have no such prospect of redemption.