Why the systematic secularisation of Christmas leads to educational poverty…

This post from Crikey about how Christ doesn’t belong in Christmas, and Australian children don’t want him there didn’t make me angry. Which I suspect is the response it was meant to elicit from Christians like me. It made me sad. It made me worry for this generation of Australians, who, like the generations before them – especially their parents – have grown up thinking that everything revolves around them.

The “keep Christ in Christmas” debate kind of irks me too. It smacks of the sort of culture of nominalism that leads to all sorts of political stupidity – where we assume that calling Christmas “Christmas” is a measure of following the Lord Jesus, and that somehow we’re a Christian nation because we head along to church annually to pay our dues.

Image: This was one of the tackiest of these I could find…

And these guys have a point…

Image Credit: Unreasonable Faith

But I do think that we do our kids an educational disservice if we sanitise Christmas for the sake of any political agenda.

I’m not suggesting that Christianity should be taught in the class room outside of opt-in Religious Education/Instruction. I’d hate my kids minds to be warped by some weird theology, and I’d much rather they be taught just the facts, or better – taught how to separate fact from fiction, with a good appreciation of how culture has developed to the point we’re at now.

But the fact is that our society, modern Australia, has been incredibly influenced by Christians, and by historical events that have shaped us and our values. Including the life and teaching of Jesus, and the growth and expansion of the church.

Even if you don’t believe that Jesus represented something incredible. The incarnation. God made flesh. He, and his, have modelled a life lived in sacrifice for others, seeing others as more important than themselves.

It seems a shame to whitewash that out of the system for the sake of demonstrating that we’re above culture wars, and for the sake of feeding and perpetuating a system that is hell bent on economic growth at all costs – including through rampant individualism that is based almost entirely on the question of what one consumes or purchases (or doesn’t consume, or purchase).

It’s terrible that the wonder of the incarnation is dismissed as:

“…imposed by religious instruction volunteers who lurk around primary schools in the lead-up to Christmas in the hope of relating their version of the miraculous birth to impressionable children.”

Way to make volunteering sound like something sinister. That really boosted the tone of this piece.

Here are some of the sadder quotes.

“The grade five pupil in question reported that all her classmates participated in Christmas activities with enthusiasm: “We love making Christmas cards for each other, and we especially love decorating the classroom Christmas tree.”

That’s nice. I guess. Making cards for each other – cards that come at no cost. That’s what Christmas is about.

What kind of decoration did you and your classmates make? “Well, we made pencil cases, hand-sewn purses, cardboard-cut outs of our favourite pop stars, favourite song lyrics … one boy even dressed up the angel at the top of the tree in the colours of his footy team.

Yes. We need to celebrate the things we love – our heroes. Our idols. The things that make us feel good. That’s what Christmas is about. Those are good Australian values.

“It occurred to me this is Christmas for her and many kids of her generation. This is how Christmas was celebrated at her kindergarten, her primary school, in the broader community and, more or less, at home.”

“Most parents I spoke to seem to be fairly relaxed with the idea of their children participating in school-based Christmas activities, particularly when end-of-year primary school festivities have been stripped of scripture and overt religious symbolism.

According to my neighbour, a primary school teacher, “we seek to involve all the kids by making no reference to God, the miraculous birth, heaven, or anything that’s sacred”.”

You can’t unhave your cake, and not eat it too. You can’t really have a secular celebration, in an educational institution, and not talk about where the celebration originated.

That’s not education. You can’t ignore the fact that both parts of the name, even if you sanitise the events “Christ” and “Mass” are inherently religious in nature.

Even if you dismiss the claims inherent in the name “Christ” – surely you can objectively discuss that what the authors of the historical documents that we call “Gospels” (pieces of biographical royal propaganda that are amazing insights into first century culture of huge educational value) were claiming.

They’re claiming that Jesus is the fulfilment of a pretty amazing string of expectations kept alive through a Jewish people who had been oppressed, displaced, returned, and oppressed by the regional superpowers.

You could discuss the impact that these claims have had on history – how they changed the direction of the Roman empire, and potentially brought it to its political knees, because they valued sacrifice, service, and love for others. And that would be of more educational benefit than a Christmas circus featuring “a clown, juggler, acrobat or magician.”

What beneficial stuff does a kid learn from those roles that they won’t get from elsewhere in the curriculum? I’m not against kids having fun, developing social skills, and learning some self-esteem while they’re at school – but surely they can develop mad juggling skillz at home, and not on the tax payer’s dollar… Or, at a pinch, the P.E curriculum could expand to include a little clowning maybe in cahoots with the drama department… Interdisciplinary skills are good to. What I am sure of is that they have nothing to do with Christmas – secular or sacred.

The comments on posts like this are often more informative than the post itself. So we get gems like this…

Now, it’s a time to rest, reflect, spend time with family & friends, stop working, go to the beach, eat a lot, give presents, share a meal, celebrate family, friends and life. Importantly, it’s an opportunity to do that at the same time everyone else is doing it, because despite Thatcher’s dire predictions there is still a thing called society.

But what sort of society does this celebration produce? When we’re all being selfish at the same time. I’ve never heard so many adult tantrums, or arguments, in the local shopping centre as I have in the last few days.

Why not get rid of the inane secular celebrations and do what schools are meant to do – educate? Why not spend some time looking at the history of Christmas, from the manger, to the pagan festivals that Christianity took over as it expanded? To the rise, and fall, and rise of celebrations of the Christ Mass – including puritanical attempts to ban Christmas? Why not look at what “the Christmas spirit” has been historically, not so much about satisfying our desires, but things that embody the guy whose birthday it is?

I’d love kids to learn about the true wonder of Christmas. But school’s not the place for that. Not in our time, or country, and certainly not in a public system. I’m fine with the secular cause – provided it continues to allow some space for parents to elect for their children to receive education about religions from people who practice them.

I’m confident that the Christmas story – of God made flesh, coming to his own world to sacrificially swap his place for ours, and bring us peace with the Father – is the best and most appealing story – more appealing than seeing the angel on top of the tree dressed in the maroon and white of my beloved Sea Eagles. So my motives aren’t completely pure – I do think that people thinking about Christmas, and what it’s about, will possibly lead to them meeting the Jesus who was born, for real, in history. Who grew up, died, and was raised. Who claimed to be the promised king of the Old Testament, who would mend our broken world – through sacrifice.

But these motives aside, what we’ve got now, if the Crikey piece is accurate, is a poor imitation, of little to no educational value. Surely our country would be a better place if our kids took a little bit of time to get informed about what Christmas is, and why it has endured. If it was less about us, and more about others.

This can happen without threatening the provision of a robust, secular, education to every child. Suggesting that a secular education requires no mention or treatment of the sacred leaves a pretty gaping cultural/sociological hole to be filled when it comes to why the world is the way it is.

Why you shouldn’t care that 50% of all media coverage comes from PR

As a former PR spin twit* nothing raises my hackles faster than the suggestion that PR is a pointless industry that thrives on the back of lazy journalism like a carrion bird picking the dead carcass of this once noble industry.

Crikey “broke” a story today, a bit of a non-story if you ask me, and it is certainly not “news” to anybody who knows anything at all… more than half of the stories in the media that Crikey monitored for a week originated in Public Relations.

After analysing a five-day working week in the media, across 10 hard-copy papers, ACIJ and Crikey found that nearly 55% of stories analysed were driven by some form of public relations. The Daily Telegraph came out on top of the league ladder with 70% of stories analysed triggered by public relations. The Sydney Morning Herald gets the wooden spoon with (only) 42% PR-driven stories for that week.

I’d be willing to bet that 95% of that 55% were about newsworthy issues that were worth breaking, and that they were reported in a fair and balanced manner.

As a PR spin twit I released hundreds of media releases a year – and probably 30% of them were never ever going to get printed but were released to meet KPIs, commitments to other organisations, or political expectations. Media releases are currency in modern business – a way that companies can be seen to be taking a proactive stance on issues. Who cares if this sort of release is picked up (well me, as a PR spin twit whose pay increases are dependent on a better than average rate of pick up of my stories)? Some media releases are produced simply to reflect the company line on issues upon request, others are glorfied advertorials that might get a run on a really slow news day – but the vast majority – are things that a company believes are going to make the news because they are inherently newsworthy. Media placement is competitive – especially when you’re in a major city where space is tight. You’re not going to cheapen your brand by releasing something that everybody recognises as dross – unless you’ve got a really good reason to do so. You want to be the guy the media calls when they need stories, not the guy who clogs their inboxes with meaningless corporatised tripe filled with weasel words.

I’m actually surprised at how low that figure is – I wonder if they excluded all sporting stories from the mix – which would be a folly, because I can’t think of any competitive sports team that doesn’t employ a media manager to train players in how to talk to the media after games. PR is happening any time someone talks to a journalist with an agenda. Unless the journalist gazumps somebody with an FOI story, or doorstops them with a bombshell question, you can bet that “PR” is at play when any spokesperson from a listed company, political party, advocacy body, or sporting team fronts a camera.

If this figure only considers proactive PR, rather than reactive PR, it’s still lowballing the actual reality – there are thousands of ways to place a story – and unless a journalist literally stumbles across the story themselves on the way to work you can bet they’ve got a source who is interested in seeing a story getting out. Whistleblowers are engaging in public relations.

It’s disingenuous to run this story suggesting that the landscape of journalism is changing, or indeed that there’s a problem with the idea of public relations. Journalists are interested in pursuing either truth or their newspaper’s particular agenda (read the hobby horses of their readership). These biases are usually so overt it’s as if they’re declared on the masthead or clearly obvious from the demographics they reach. So long as news is market driven – ie giving the masses’ itching ears what they long to hear – PR professionals have to be presenting stories in interesting and intriguing ways that will move units and sell advertising.

Here are some facts to consider when dismissing news coverage because it originates in PR…

  • Most public relations professionals hold some sort of qualification in journalism or communication
  • Most have a good eye for a story
  • Most are killing more dumb stories in their organisation as editorial decisions (ie things people think are stories that aren’t) than they are releasing
  • Most are investigating their claims and fact checking rigorously to avoid releasing bad information (which is deadly for any company that trades on its reputation)
  • Most have a vested interest in the truth getting out – unless they’re working for a terrible and unscrupulous company in which case they’re interested in cover up and are culpable, or working for a politician in which case their bias figuratively written all over their faces.

PR people aren’t the bad guys – and spin mostly isn’t the enemy. Spin is the product of a culture that crucifies any company or individual brave enough to take an unpopular stand. If you want to know why politicians vacillate and pontificate rather than providing answers to questions from journalists look what happened to Tony Abbott when he admitted the he’s scared of homosexuals (which was admittedly a pretty stupid thing to say).

This quote from the editor of The Australian – Chris Mitchell – to Crikey is pretty telling…

“It’s very difficult I think, given the way resources have drifted from journalism to public relations over the past 30 years, to break away as much as you really want to … I guess I’m implying, the number of people who go to communications school and go into PR over the years has increased and the number in journalism has shrunk even more dramatically.”

Why are we assuming that the better trained and more talented journalists end up working for the media? I’d rather keep a good company from the maws of the ravenous tabloid journalist than feed the masses their latest sacrifice any day of the week. There is no real nobility in the fourth estate (the media) any longer.

The Crikey article reaches some stupid conclusions that are pretty close to scaremongering propaganda themselves.

Our investigation strongly confirms that journalism in Australia today is heavily influenced by commercial interests selling a product, and constrained and blocked by politicians, police and others who control the media message.

Why is controlling a message a bad thing? If it was up to the unscrupulous headline grabbing media barons they’re conduct crucifixions by media, or put heroes on pedestals, just to sell more papers. Why would the media run a moderate, unmanaged quote when they can take a sensational soundbite and beat someone they don’t like over the head with it. You’re stupid not to think about how you control your message in any context.

Some PR is stupid though – I’ll leave this rant with a priceless quote from a SMH story in the Binglegate case. The only winners in this case are the promoters (and perhaps Michael Clarke). Max Markson is using this opportunity to get himself on TV so every aspiring celebrity golddigger knows his name – and the best line in any of the stories surrounding the affair came from Bingle’s law firm. In a media release.

”We are not seeking publicity by this media release.”

How can you tell me a line like that is not worth a story of its own – and Crikey complains about 55%.

*A title bestowed on me by the Townsville Bulletin’s resident cynical “about town” columnist…

Black spot on clean feed

I’ve said it once. And I’ll say it again. The clean feed is bad for anyone who believes in freedom of speech. I think it’s especially important for Christians – who are one of the driving forces behind the clean feed concept – to know what it is they’re supporting in the case of this policy.

The government’s internet watchdog – ACMA (the Australian Communications and Media Authority) can blacklist whatever they want. It doesn’t have to be “objectionable” content (read child abuse material) – unless the government definition of “child” now extends to an unborn fetus – which would have grand implications for the abortion debate. You see an abortion protest site has just been added to the blacklist – as reported by Crikey. 

This content is hosted outside Australia, outside ACMA’s jurisdiction, so they can’t demand it be taken down or guarded by an age-verification mechanism. They can only add it to the blacklist — and under Conroy’s plan, everything on the blacklist is blocked, secretly, for all Australians. No choice.

“The Government does not view this debate as an argument about freedom of speech,” says Senator Conroy.”

No, of course not. As the government has pointed out, it’s about preventing the exploitation of children. A noble cause. It’s when the government refuses to allow criticism on the policy on the basis that anyone objecting is tacitly approving of the child abuse that the discussion breaks down.

“”Freedom of speech is fundamentally important in a democratic society and there has never been any suggestion that the Australian Government would seek to block political content.” Conroy said here

Well yes there has Senator – that’s been the grounds of all the rational objections to your stupid, and technologically flawed, legislation (well that and the fact that it’s unlikely to work and it’s just going to punish everyday users of the Internet… ). 

The abortion site is pretty nasty. While I agree that abortion is one of the great moral debates of our time, I wouldn’t recommend going there. I did. It wasn’t pretty. But that’s not the point. Once “objectionable” includes “things we disagree with” the Liberal Party better make sure their policies are consistent with Labor’s, or they’ll be banned.

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