The War on Christmas: Part 94

The annual hysteria is manufactured and unnecessary and needs to stop.

Well, it's that time of year again. The mother of all manufactured controversies. It's the War on Christmas!

Once again, Christians are lashing out at secularists and the non-religious under the pretence that Christmas is under attack. In the United States, there is renewed controversy over billboards and bus ads carrying atheist messages.

The Fox News host Bill O'Reilly claimed the posters were designed only "to offend people who enjoy Christmas". So what are the messages that are causing such dire offence during this holiest of seasons? "Millions of people are good without God", "Don't believe in God? You are not alone" and "You know it's a myth. This year, celebrate reason!".

Can someone explain how encouraging people to be intellectually honest about their beliefs is offensive?

These posters and slogans are not designed to convert believers into non-believers. Even the most controversial slogan ("You know it's a myth") is clearly aimed at people who already think that way. It is a means of encouraging non-believers to be public about who they are and what they do or do not believe. Is that so dangerous?

Why is it OK in the US and in Britain to plaster Christian slogans and posters everywhere, but when secular causes do the same it is "an attack" on Christianity and on Christmas? It seems to happen all the time.

Remember when the "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life" slogans appeared on buses and billboards in 2008. Or, the example that won't seem to go away, that Birmingham City Council once had a winter marketing campaign that it called "Winterval". There are always these types of stories in the news, and they are totally manufactured and utterly unnecessary.

In contrast to these "attacks", there is the Christian side of the argument. I see a poster at a bus stop every morning on the way in to work which depicts an image of a child in the womb with a halo around its head. The poster reads "Christmas starts with Christ". Is that not the same thing that these atheist posters are doing, but for Christianity? Of course it is. Yet, where is the controversy? I have seen nobody complain about these posters and have seen no news stories about them causing offence. Christian preaching is apparently fine, whereas atheists are held to a much harsher standard because people don't like what they're saying.

As an atheist, I could find the poster very annoying, mostly because the only way in which Christmas starts with Christ is in the word. The celebration itself pre-dates Christianity by a great many years. Stories were being told of gods being born as men on 25 December to a virgin mother for centuries before Jesus was ever reported to have lived. Christmas the celebration does not start with Christ. Christianity hijacked 25 December from paganism in order to make conversion easier. After all, if you still celebrate on the same day, what difference does it make?

Despite that, though, I am not going to demand that the poster be taken down, or claim that secular society is "under attack", or anything like that. That is because the person or organisation that commissioned the poster was well within its rights to do so. Just like atheist groups have the right to encourage people to be honest about their non-belief. It is not an attack. It never is.

The "War on Christmas" rhetoric has become a perpetual-motion machine of modern journalism. Every year, reactionary journalists will howl about some "PC" measure that is waging war on Christmas, and not-so-reactionary journalists will have to take their time to debunk the claims.

I appreciate the irony that, by writing this piece, I have become a cog in the perpetual "War on Christmas" machine, but it really does need to stop. There is no war on Christmas. Let people put up posters expressing their beliefs, and let people celebrate the season however they choose. I, for one, will be indulging my Christmas tradition of watching The Muppet Christmas Carol.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.