A Christmas Proposal | Harper's Magazine

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A Christmas Proposal



Few human activities are more popular than war, and yet the negative consequences of actual battle, with its inevitable atrocities, often are very high. Therefore when the philosopher William James hit on the idea in 1906 that there could be a moral equivalent of war, conflicted fans of military action could be forgiven for hoping that a solution to their quandary would soon be at hand.

Alas, our attempts to find such an equivalent have thus far met with poor results. The War on Poverty, launched by Lyndon Johnson as an alternative to the War on Vietnam, was officially ended in 1996 by Bill Clinton, who claimed that it was not moral after all. The War on Drugs, which seemed more promising, has had the unfortunate side effect of gathering a significant number of Americans into prisons, where immoral behavior is known to breed. And the War on Terror seems too much like a real war to be considered an “equivalent,” moral or otherwise.

But there is another way, one that is often discussed this time of year. Indeed, the War on Christmas may at last be the perfect Jamesian war. On the pro-Christmas side we have television commentators, Christians, the military-industrial complex, and all children everywhere. On the anti-Christmas side we have no one at all. Here is a war that can be fought forever, and with few or possibly even no casualties. What better way to celebrate Christ’s message of peace?

Would such a war require sacrifice? Not necessarily. James predicted that, “The war against war is going to be no holiday excursion or camping party.” And that may have been true a century ago. But America has progressed considerably. Christmas already provides an appealing set of symbols around which the people could rally, and it is well situated to surpass military spending as an economic organizing principle. With just a little effort, we could achieve the peace that endureth for a war that will never end.

And so a proposal:

What if congressional Democrats joined congressional Republicans to reclaim their constitutional right to declare war? That great body has already passed a resolution acknowledging “the international religious and historical importance of Christmas and the Christian faith.” Why not take it a step further and bring America into this enduring battle on the side of Santa and Wal-Mart? Would this not exemplify the kind of visionary bipartisanship our pundits have so long desired?

And would our president dare refuse to act on such a declaration? In many ways, the War on Christmas would be the culmination of the Bushian project. Indeed, it has been foretold in the very book from which many holiday worshipers draw their tradition. “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb,” reports Isaiah, “and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.”


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