Saturday, November 19, 2005

Administering Corporal Punishment to a Metabolically Challenged Quadruped Non-Human Associate

"That's all right. It's in every contract. It's what they call a sanity clause."

This week, the Mail and the Express reported that Havant City Council has banned both Christmas lights and Santa Claus. Both stories were similarly worded – I would hazard a guess that the quotes were lifted verbatim from the Havant local paper.

Why is this "news"? The Daily Mail makes its agenda chillingly clear:

"Yesterday, the decision to drop the Christmas lights was greeted with amazement in a borough where 99.1% of the population are white."

"Where 99.1% of the population are white."

Step away from the computer. If, like me, reading that makes you feel violent: makes you actually want to start walking around the house breaking things, have a break and take a walk round the garden.

99.1% of the population are white. Words literally fail me.

To start with, notice the way that they have slipped the phrase "drop the Christmas lights" into the middle of a sentence. This is typical of the way in which P.C.B stories are constructed. The front page headline in the Express (1) yells:

"Yes, it's hard to believe, but now Santa AND Christmas lights have been banned."

This is clearly intended to make us think that Santa Claus has been the subject of some country-wide prohibition. After all, if Tony Blair has banned fox-hunting and the cane, what might he not ban next? The upper case "AND" is quite interesting: "You knew and accepted that Christmas lights had been prohibited" it seems to say, "but can you believe that Father Christmas has now been banned as well?" (It would be more surprising if someone had banned one and allowed the other to go ahead. If I were Scrooge, I would certainly ban lights, trees, Christmas Pudding, the Wizard of Oz, and the Doctor Who Christmas Special. "Inconsistent puritan bans mistletoe but says Christmas pud can go ahead" would be a headline worth printing.)

If you turn to page seven, the internal headline reveals that this outrage is in fact limited to only one place:

"Now a town bans Santa AND the Christmas lights."

Whew! So the rest of us can carry on celebrating as normal. It's only one town where Christmas has been prohibited. But still banning Christmas in a whole town is pretty nasty. The Daily Mail headline for the same story asks "Is this the most miserable town in England?"(2)

Read the story itself, and you will find that something even more modest is being alleged:

Politically Correct commissars caused outrage in a town last night after banning the term Christmas lights. Residents were up in arms after Havant Borough Council removed the word Christmas from the turning-on-ceremony and renamed it The Festival of Light

So. By headlining the story "Christmas lights banned" and slipping in phrases like "the move to drop the lights", we clearly intend to give our readers (particularly those who don't bother to "turn to page 7) the impression that it is the Christmas decorations themselves which have gone away. This is what the non-analytical reader will remember about the story six months hence. But we are not in fact talking about "banning Christmas"; or "banning Christmas lights" or "banning the word Christmas" but merely "removing the word Christmas from the turning-on ceremony."

However, let's be fair. The mere fact that the council have "removed" the word Christmas indicates that they are being a little officious. Or at least, it would do, if it were true.

I checked on Havant Council's website. And yes, they are indeed running organising an event called the "Festival of Lights"(3) – including such delights as late night shopping, fireworks, and a ceremonial turning on of illuminations. As municipal events go, it actually sounds rather cool:

Younger children will be able to dress as their favorite character for a special fancy dress competition with a pantomime theme. The winner and their family will be treated like royalty and be driven around town in a shiny limousine and given the chance to flick the switch that will kick off the evening's spectacular firework display.

Okay, I'd rather see the Doctor and Rose turning on the lights in Cardiff, but still, it sounds like some little kids are going to have a good time.

"This event is a first for Havant town center and we are delighted to be working with Havant Business Group and the Meridian Center to create a wonderful winter fiesta that the whole community can be part of" said Senior Retail Support Officer, Gail Grant "A torch lit procession will wend its way through the town center streets, the Christmas tree will be illuminated..."

Hang on, could you say that again, please?

"...the Christmas tree will be illuminated and everyone will be able to enjoy a family carol concert..."

That would be a Christmas Carol Concert, of the kind that has all but disappeared because of the P.C.B?

"...and a firework display....until 7PM or so visitors will be able to start their Christmas shopping..."

That word again...

....with their windows decked for Christmas...the town center shops will be open until 7Pm. There will also be a chance to stock up for Christmas

So, to summarize.

"Local council doesn't ban the word Christmas from light switching on festivities at all."

But mere facts aren't going to stop a lot of people in Havant telling the Daily Express that they are very angry indeed. A man who sells vegetables thinks that:

"dropping the word Christmas is ludicrous. It will make for a miserable Christmas in Havant"

What would have to be going on in someone's head for the wording on a council press-release to effect their joy or misery at Christmas one way or the other?

One David Gillett (the council leader, apparently) explains:

"I can't for the life of me see why people would be offended and to be honest I don't think that anyone is. It's just a case of"

Is he going to say it? Is he going to say it?

"political correctness gone absolutely barmy"

But what of Santa Claus? Is he coming to town or not? This part of the story is so exciting that readers of a nervous disposition may want to leave the room. It appears that there exists a club called the Havant Lions, which raises money for charity by engaging in such daredevil endeavors as running a Tombola at the annual Emsworth and Rowlands castle shows. In an ancient tradition stretching all the way back to 1996, they also run a Santa's Grotto at the local shopping mall. On November 2nd, Portsmouth Today ran an item under the almost unbearably witty headline "Santa Has to Find New Ho-Ho-Home". It reported that the Grotto couldn't go ahead in shopping mall this year because of fire regulations:

"Center manager Tim Smith said that changes to the interior of the center meant a bulky grotto could hamper the ventilation system in the event of a fire. There is no sprinkler on the ground floor, where the grotto is located. Mr Smith said that he was advised by the fire prevention officer last year that the center should not have a grotto."

Sensationally, Havant Lions have therefore moved their grotto from the Meridian shopping center in Havant to the Asda supermarket in Bedhampton. (Remember this is front page news or a national paper.) As ever, the Express finds out both the age and the opinion of the man in the street:

Shopper Steve Sackett, 43, said "I would normally take my son to the Grotto, but I'll have to take him the Portsmouth instead. Its completely daft."

It is, indeed, completely daft: Asda is only up the road from the Meridian Center. (Here is a map for Mr Sackett's benefit.) He could drive there in five minutes and still be back in time for the fireworks. But "Town moves Santa five minutes round the corner" would somehow have lacked the sense of scandal and outrage that the festive period requires.

All this would be very funny and pathetic if the Express didn't have "Britian Defiant!" emblazoned across its masthead, and the Mail hadn't placed the story explicitly in a racial context.

Yesterday, the decision drop the Christmas lights was greeted with amazement in a borough where 99.1% of the population are white.

The only possible inference is that "Christmas" is a festival for white people, and that black people are taking it away from "us". This is the inference drawn by readers who contribute comments to the website of the Mail . They say that Havant council is trying to eradicate "our" Christian heritage. They say that "foriegners of different religions must accept Britain's religious beliefs and respect them". They say that individuals of other faiths "would do well to remember that as nation we are Great Britian, a Christian country.". They ask us to imagine what would happen if "they" tried to "ban" other religion based festivals.

I once saw a despicable leaflet distributed by the British National Party, arguing (if you can use the word) that by next Tuesday, "England" would be completely concreted over to provide free housing for black people who -- as everyone knows -- have more babies than white people and who would soon therefore be the racial majority. Since all black people get free houses, we'd have to put up housing estates all over the green-belt and bingo, no more green and pleasant land.

Preaching a fantasy about one race taking away the winter traditions of another is not the same thing as preaching a fantasy about one race outbreeding another; but both lies play to the same irrational fears; both lies stoke up the same kind of hatred. And if you start to believe one lie, you are very likely to run into the arms of people who believe the other.

"It's hard to believe, but now Santa AND Christmas lights are banned."

It is very hard to believe. Very hard to believe indeed. Because it's not true.

(1) The day's main news items is actually "DIANA FUND PAYS OUT TO GYPSIES AND ASYLUM SEEKERS". This piece alleges that about £2 million of the £28 million raised by the Diana memorial fund has been given to what are described as "controversial groups", "fringe groups" and "weird minority groups". The controversial, fringe, weird, minority groups mentioned are "asylum seekers, refugees, gays and lesbians". The shout lines rather imply that if you're a Northern Irish Lesbian, you can expect to receive a cheque through the post any day now. The fair and balanced phone in poll asks "Should Diana's money be given to gypsies?" as if someone were walking around camp-sites handing out fivers. If you read down the article, you find out that what is actually being funded is a number of specific projects, so that "money for asylum seekers" translates to funding a community arts center providing courses for the children of refugees. The item as a whole is premised on various bizarre religious theories involving posthumous shame and the transmigration of souls which I frankly don't understand. "Her name will always be tarnished by controversy over these groups." "If that money is used simply to support weird minority groups, she will never rest in peace."

(2)The Daily Mail specialises in headlines of this kind, which have been described as "very interesting questions to which the answer is no,"

(3) Festival of Lights is, indeed, a really silly name particularly as it's about one month after Diwali. Just because we disbelieve in the existence of the P.C.B, we don't have to believe that no small-time bureaucrat has ever done or said anything A Bit Silly. I used to live in Tooting Bec, one stop on the tube from Balham. One year Balham Council decided to hold a (doubtless worthy and worthwhile) multi-cultural festival. But they promoted it under the slogan "Balham - Gateway to the South." Did someone on the council have sense of humour -- or did several people on the council have absolutely no sense of humour whatsoever?