By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Garrison Keillor’s base attack on his base

I have long detested Garrison Keillor, host of the faux-populist program “Prairie Home Companion” on public radio (not, I should note, National Public Radio). I have practically injured myself in my haste to change the station so as not to have to listen to his voice, oozing with smug insincerity. So I’m happy to report that, at long last, Keillor is returning my dislike.

Recently Keillor wrote a column attacking (are you ready?) Unitarians, for the sin of rewriting the words to “Silent Night” to make them less Christian. (For the record, we sing “Silent Night” to close the Christmas Eve service at our Unitarian Universalist church, and we don’t change the words, even though few of us are believing Christians.) Keillor has a few unkind words for the Jews as well. He writes:

If you don’t believe Jesus was God, OK, go write your own damn “Silent Night” and leave ours alone. This is spiritual piracy and cultural elitism and we Christians have stood for it long enough. And all those lousy holiday songs by Jewish guys that trash up the malls every year, Rudolph and the chestnuts and the rest of that dreck. Did one of our guys write “Grab your loafers, come along if you wanna, and we’ll blow that shofar for Rosh Hashanah”? No, we didn’t.

For good measure, Keillor does not know that people who live in Cambridge are Cantabrigians, not — as he writes, crayon firmly in hand — “Cambridgeans.”

No doubt Keillor would respond that he was trying to be humorous. And I have no problem with making fun of people’s religion, not even Unitarian Universalism. But Keillor is as humor-impaired a humorist as has ever walked among us, so when he tries to be funny, mayhem is the almost-certain outcome.

What I find especially delightful about this is that liberal, affluent, public radio-listening UUs are Keillor’s base. He has just succeeded in alienating a rather substantial percentage of his microscopic audience. At the very least, I’d like to see him grovel and deliver an apology, insincere though it would be.

Here is a response from one of his former listeners, a member of the Cambridge UU church that was the proximate cause of Keillor’s outburst.

Update: And mea culpa. Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby went after Keillor yesterday. “Remember when Keillor was endearing and witty?” asks Jacoby. Uh, no, Jeff. I don’t. But nice slam.

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  1. Harrybosch

    How brave of Mr. Keillor to come to the defense of put-upon Christians everywhere!

    I do fear, however, that the linked response from the . . . err . . . ahem . . . witch . . . may only have the effect of somehow underscoring Mr. Keillor’s point.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Harry: And what would be his point? That it’s OK to attack people with non-traditional beliefs? The Wiccan part of Unitarian Universalism certainly doesn’t appeal to me, and is almost entirely absent from our church. As I said, I don’t mind humor. But Keillor seems to be seething with so much repressed rage that he can’t manage the light touch.

  2. Harrybosch

    Soon as I hit “post” I immediately regretted not adding “whatever that [point] might have been” with regard to Mr. Keillor’s essay. Because aside from being mean-spirited for mean-spiritedness sake, I don’t see he has a point.

    In terms of the “witch” comment, my own tongue was pressed firmly in my cheek. From what I know of Wiccanism (in its current incarnation, anyway) it’s just another Earth-based path that some folks take to spiritual enlightenment.

    I meant no disrespect to those who practice it.

    More things in Heaven and Earth . . .

  3. Steve Stein

    I dunno. When I read this a week or so ago, I thought it was 100% satire. I’m surprised so many people took it seriously.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Steve: I also took it as satire — bad, unfunny satire. There’s some real anger there, and he can’t help but show it.

  4. Renee

    Is it relevant to note our own National Anthem is sung to the tune of a popular British drinking song?
    I think people can modify things to their own beliefs systems, what I think is wrong is trying to rewrite history/origins of the lyrics/tune.

    As a Catholic, I know the difference between cultural customs and religious based beliefs. Many of times it is mentioned that cultural customs have little to do with what is in the Bible. People tend to forget that Catholics can celebrate Holy Days differently from region to region. In Australia, for instance, they celebrate the holiday in 100 degree weather and BBQs. If Christmas was about the winter solstice, shouldn’t the people be celebrating on June 21st? Also nothing in Church Doctrine says the colors of Christmas are red and green. Liturgically the color for Holy Days is white.

  5. MarkB

    Who could he possibly criticize liberal, affluent, public radio-listening UUs? After all, they’re liberal, they’re affluent, they’re public radio listening, and if that’s not enough, they’re UUs!!! What’s not to love?

    Oh, the humanity!

  6. Harrybosch

    “When I read this a week or so ago, I thought it was 100% satire. I’m surprised so many people took it seriously.”

    Granted, everything I know about satire I learned from Mad Magazine, but isn’t satire supposed to . . . satire something?

    Not sure you can “satire” an entire group of individuals, as Keillor apparently does in this piece.

    Seems to me there are a few other words normally used for when entire groups of people are painted with such a broad brush.

  7. Steve Stein

    Though I am an avid NPR listener, I have never been a Keillor fan. The fact that it was unfunny wasn’t particularly news to me – I feel that way about most of his stuff. There’s no accounting for taste, I guess.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Steve: Please repeat after me: “Prairie Home Companion” is not on NPR and never has been.

  8. Steve Stein

    Harry, I thought it was supposed to be a send-up of the “War on Christmas” crowd – a group thoroughly deserving of satire, to my mind. But like I said, I’ve never been a Keillor fan, and I only read it when it popped up on the Memeorandum. Seemed like normal Keillor fare to me, or at least it fit my conception of what normal Keillor fare was.

  9. Steve Stein

    Ah, mea culpa, Dan! For so long, I’ve just considered ‘BUR and ‘GBH to be “NPR”. Is this a dimension to the impending Great Boston Public Radio War of 2010?

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Steve: Not really. Public radio stations buy programming from a variety of sources. NPR gets most of the attention because it has the highest-profile programs — “Morning Edition,” “All Things Considered,” “Talk of the Nation,” to name three. But both WBUR and WGBH run “Marketplace,” which is produced by American Public Media. ‘BUR obviously loads up a lot on the BBC. “Prairie Home Companion” is American Public Media, too.

      And, of course, there are public stations that get much of their programming from Pacifica, a left-wing outfit.

  10. Harrybosch

    “Seemed like normal Keillor fare to me, or at least it fit my conception of what normal Keillor fare was.”

    Gotcha. I confess I’ve only recently begun reading his opinion pieces, and have been struck by their hard edge. It’s not something I expected, given the downhome persona of his radio act.

  11. Brad Deltan

    “Real anger”? Please. Keillor may be an old fart who just isn’t terribly funny anymore (if he ever was) but if that column defines “real anger” for you then Glenn Beck has cried your perceptions out of whack. So what if Keillor is just a cranky old man who, like many cranky old men, dislikes the idea of “change” happening to the few traditions he holds dear? (regardless of whether those traditions have any basis in reality)

    Quite frankly, I could look at his column as a rather skilled example of self-mockery. For example:

    Emerson tossed off little bons mots that have been leading people astray ever since. “To be great is to be misunderstood,” for example. This tiny gem of self-pity has given license to a million arrogant and unlovable people to imagine that their unpopularity somehow was proof of their greatness.

    Admittedly, I think Keillor’s ego is SO huge that it never occurs to him that the above statement could easily apply to himself. Although even now I am not certain of that. I mean, I know he’s got a titanic ego, but he’s also a humorist of the Midwest, which means dry-as-the-Sahara wit and self-depreciation is the rule, not the exception.

    Look, I don’t like A Prairie Home Companion, either. And I think that Keillor’s writing skills took a nosedive after his first “retirement” from APHC several years ago…and I agree this column was, at best, either “cranky old man” or “so subtle it forgot to be funny”.

    But this whole “scandal” positively REEKS of uber-smug public radio listeners feeling “betrayed” because someone on public radio DARED to attempt to shine a spotlight (no matter how ineptly) on themselves.

    P.S. Keillor’s writing for a national audience, none of whom know what a “Cantabrigian” is, and would be confused by the term. I’d give him a pass on that one.

    P.P.S. I *am* one of those uber-smug public radio listeners…never less than four hours daily…so don’t think you can dismiss me as another right-wing public radio hater. However, I do admit that I am not a UU and only have a vague understanding of the traditions within it.

  12. Harrybosch

    “But this whole “scandal” positively REEKS of uber-smug public radio listeners feeling “betrayed” because someone on public radio DARED to attempt to shine a spotlight (no matter how ineptly) on themselves.”

    Interesting take on the matter, though I highly doubt Jeff Jacoby is a public radio listener (seem Dan’s addendum above.)

    Upon reading the article, one wonders if perhaps Keillor left “Jews should keep their big noses out of Christmas!” on the cutting room floor.

    It would, however, have been perfectly appropriate for the tone of the piece.

  13. lkcape

    What is fun to watch in this discussion is who is out of his comfort zone and who is not.

    Satire’s value is in its bite.

    Clearly Dan has felt the teeth!

  14. Ben

    I’d be surprised if this became a scandal. Keillor has been making fun of Unitarians on his radio show for as long as I can remember. I always assumed that there were a fair number of them listening. I imagined them listening, and laughing, with a humility that made them better Christians than most of us.

    Maybe I’m wrong – have Unitarians been boiling over with rage all these years?

  15. Laurence Glavin

    Here’s an angle that neither you nor Jeff took into account: unlike 99 44/100% of the American public, Garrison’s taste in music has moved forward. Most people just accept the recorded material they’re handed as they grow up and kling to it, just like being a sports fan. About three years ago, Garrison was talked into going to see one of the operas being transmitted into movie theaters, in this case Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin”. In an article about the experience, Garrison mentioned that he had somewhat tenuous feelings about Tchaikovsky and opera going in; as he left the theater, he felt that he had underestimated both the composer and the emotive power of great music. So that may be the reason why he’s more sensitive to the (as Stephen Colbert might put it) “dreckiness” of the crap played in shopping malls and numerous radio stations between Columbus Day and December 25th.

  16. TomW

    I was going to stay out of this discussion, but as I’ve been following the posts, it seems to me that some are letting Keillor off the hook by calling his column satire. That it may be, but at a time when the airwaves and blogosphere are getting more and more divisive and intolerant of other people’s views, I think Keillor should take time to think about his words are contributing to that climate. Some may see the “humor” in this (if that’s what you’d call it); however, many others will think he’s serious, agree with him, and start spouting these ideas. We don’t need more of that.

    Oh, and Dan, I also hit any other button on the radio (including OFF) as soon as I hear his voice.

  17. Harrybosch

    “So that may be the reason why he’s more sensitive to the . . . “dreckiness” of the crap played in shopping malls and numerous radio stations between Columbus Day and December 25th.”

    Nah. Apparently, it was written as satire, so that means he really LIKES the stuff played in shopping malls and whatnot. I think.

    You wanna take this one, lk?

    To your credit, you seem to be one who “gets” it.

  18. Trevor3130

    Respondent Laurence Glavin has a good point, about exposure to different forms of music. It’s tough to be on a learning curve at GK’s age. And there’s another clue, maybe. GK wrote about the birth of a child, in 1997, so that makes him the aged parent of someone about to enter the teenage years. Think about that. Putting on a facade of enjoyment of parenting for six (or many more) years when one should be sliding down the scale of mortality as a devoted grandparent.
    If GK is still cranky about the fine points of distinction that make the essential differences between congregations, he could do worse than consult ‘The Life of Brian’.
    I loved the rebuttal from the Wiccan. Did GK write that, too?

  19. Steve Stein

    Hey, if you’re offended by Keillor, don’t even think about reading this:

    (“Try to take a delighted interest in the Jewish holidays by asking questions like “Do you ever create a tiny Victorian village under your menorah?”)

  20. Amused

    I, on the other hand, found the concept humorous given the now-traditional seasonal bemoaning by the right-wing nutbags of the use of the word “holidays” as being a sign of a grand conspiracy to wipe out American culture by not saying “Merry Christmas” to people who may be non-believers.

    The execution, on the other hand, was awful, another example of Keilor amusing himself and a group of people suffering a delayed adolescence in which they want desperately to be part of the in-joke. Nobody else even guffawed. However, now I hear outrage, one of the true signs of effective satire.

  21. lkcape

    Satire is not humor. It is commentary: social, political or otherwise…

    …just like Dan’s discourse on those policies and people with which and whom he does not agree, but with an ironic twist.

    He has every right to present his view, does he not?

    Not a fan of Keillor, myself, but if he makes the “believer” and the “established” squirm, more power to him.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Ikcape: Does squirming with embarrassment for Keillor count?

  22. MarkB

    It certainly is interesting to see so many of you professing the same opinion as Homer Simpson – that classic Ugly American doofus. You do remember the episode in which the Simpson clan sat watching P.H.C. on television, right? They all sit silent and puzzled while Keillor rambles, until Homer gets up from the couch, walks to the television and slams it from the side with his fist a few times, shouting “Be funny, be funny!”

  23. mike_b1

    One must understand no one really reads or listens to Keillor. He’s just one of those guys everyone has on their bookshelf because, well, they’re supposed to. It’s kind of like saying you like Spalding Gray. How could you know whether something is good or bad when it is simply impossible to stay awake through?

  24. Aunt Nancy

    Steve – while the Keillor piece offended me, your link to the New Yorker column was very funny. You’ve got me thinking now that maybe it wasn’t Keillor’s blatent antisemitism that offended me so much. Maybe it was just how dreadfully unfunny it was? In either case, thanks for the laugh…as I research teeny Victorian villages to set up under my menorah next year.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Aunt Nancy: My Jewish cousin checks in! I think Keillor is bitter and angry because he can’t write like Paul Rudnick. That is a very funny piece.

      For the record, I used to love “Son-o-God Comics” in the National Lampoon.

      The best part of Keillor’s piece is that he links the Unitarians and the Jews. Back in the late 1800s, Boston Unitarians discussed merging with Reform Jews, which made sense, given their near-identical (at the time) theologies. It probably would have happened except that the Unitarians realized they’d all be dropped from the Social Register.

  25. Harrybosch

    Speaking of Rudnick, it’s surprising Keillor didn’t work the gays in there as well. His views on them persuing their own happiness are well-known.

    Oh, wait.

    That was satire too.

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  27. Newshound

    Keillor I think, not unlike many people, is angered or disappointed that after reaching this stage of life realizes he has and continues to be restricted in his thinking because of the dogma of the religion he is committed to.

    Especially for someone who wants to be known as a free-thinking, creative soul, he is envious of the Unitarian denomination which freely and openly allows individual thoughts ranging from one extreme, figuratively, of course, to the other.

    If he were a Unitarian he would be allowed to think and believe everything he is suppose to as a Lutheran, or to pick and choose. No one would judge.

    Too bad he is, too, so devoted as a Midwesterner. If he were a New Englander he might have had the Rev. Roger Williams as a role model who after thinking over the Bible, the universe and the unknown, resigned is pastoral duties from the church he founded.

    Garrison most likely would be happier living in places where Unitarians are happy and well such as Cambridge, Middleboro, Duxbury, and if he wants he could have a Creche on his front lawn and softly play Silent Night without the least bit of criticism from anyone, including his loving Unitarian, Lutheran, Jewish and Catholic neighbors.

    If he wanted, he could play Rudolph, too, and none of the Lutheran brothers and sisters in Minnesota would hear it that far away, but he could at least enjoy the freedom of who he really is. If he comes here and doesn’t change his ways, it’s not going to be that nice for him or us.

  28. Michael Pahre

    Taking somebody else’s song and rewriting the lyrics to suit your own agenda is standard practice in the cultural wars.

    Obvious example: My Country ‘Tis of Thee / Sweet Land of Liberty / …

    Now if only somebody knew the original words to Yankee Doodle…

    While I’m no expert on changes to the words of Christmas carols over the years — and many have had their words “evolve,” and not just from older language usage to modern wording — I would be surprised if Silent Night were to be the first case of a Christmas Carol’s lyrics changed to be more secular.

    Other examples? Surely there’s a large knowledge-base amongst the commenters here!

    I read Keillor’s column and, I must say, I couldn’t tell if it was borderline offensive against UU’s or failed humor or reasonable satire. Probably none of the above, instead being drivel, poorly written in haste so that he could make deadline and not be late for the office holiday Christmas party.

    @Dan: While you may think his humor altogether lacking, a few of his lines — particularly “where all the children are above average” — would be accurately described as incisive social commentary and have rightly entered the public lexicon.

  29. TomW

    “A few of his lines — particularly “where all the children are above average” — would be accurately described as incisive social commentary and have rightly entered the public lexicon.”

    Yes, if a person writes enough dreck over the years, a few lines are bound to stand out. Sort of like the infinite monkey theorem, which states that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a given text, such as the complete works of Shakespeare. (per Wiki)

  30. lkcape

    There is not a hint, Dan, of your squirming in embarrassment for Keillor in your initial or subsequent remarks, only anger and a sense of bitterness that your ox was the one singled out for goring.

    I get the sense that you are working hard to suggest that some of the blood on the dagger is not yours.

  31. io_saturnalia

    How many Unitarian Universalists does it take to change a light bulb?

    Trick question: No Unitarian Universalist would ever ask a light bulb to change.

    Sorry, best I could come up with midway through my first cup of coffee (I work nights).

  32. Newshound

    To Michael Pahre – Somewhat like you, and unlike many on this blog, I have over the years listened to Keillor a few times and found him entertaining and humorous.`

    To Ikcape – I’d see no reason for Dan or any Unitarian to be embarrassed. I wouldn’t let someone’s dogma interfere with my thinking or beliefs.

    If Keillor is going to allow the ethos of the Lutheran’s to dictate his life to the point he thinks he can intrude into the minds of others, I find that hilarious. Couldn’t happen to a better comedian.

    This country was built upon great principles in which it is okay to think like Catholic, Lutheran, Jew, agnostic, or even like Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin or Unitarian John Adams. It’s all okay. Someone else’s dogma, even our own, can be funny.

    This stuff about defining what is the universal thinking about Christmas, or intruding into others over beliefs, seems to cause more chaos than clarification.

    There is no reason why an atheist should not enjoy Christmas. Many atheists prefer the Episcopalian Church because of the ethos and ritual. Even Benjamin Franklin was not a Christian, but was an Episcopalian – – most certainly not a non-Christian denomination.

    This country was not built on Christianity or the Trinity.

    Merry Christmas to all!

    And to anyone else, Happy Holidays!

  33. Doug Shugarts

    Remember back in 2007, when Keillor went on a rant about gays? And when the widely read sex-advice columnist Dan Savage dismembered him, so to speak?

    Dan Kennedy, by comparison, seems positively tame!

    It would seem that, in the parlance of the times, Keillor has issues.

  34. Linda the Copy Editor

    Dan, tell me more about the proposed Unitarians-Jewish merger? My great-grandparents were Reform Jews in Boston at that time and I never heard of this.

    I can’t stand Garrison Keillor either, so maybe I totally fail to get the point, but if it is satire, whom is he supposed to be mocking? Cranky intolerant old men, or Jews and Unitarians? You can’t really have it both ways. Though I hate “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” possibly even more than I hate Garrison Keillor, I thought it was really nasty.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Linda: Thanks for checking in! The merger is lodged somewhere in the deep recesses of my memory, and I’m not sure I would be able to track it down at this point. There is a book called “A Stream of Light,” and it might be in there somewhere. Wish I could do better than that.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Linda: Well, I paged through “A Stream of Light” and couldn’t find anything. I could have sworn that’s where it was. As I think about it, it must have been just a faction of the Unitarian church, since the denomination was nominally Christian well into the 20th century.

      @tunder: Did you hear about the Unitarian Jehovah’s Witnesses? They knock on your door, but they’re not sure why.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Linda: I’m not hallucinating. Take a look at this.

  35. tunder

    While we’re throwing the Unitarian jokes around…

    The last time the name Jesus Christ was uttered in a UU church was when the sexton fell down the back stairway. Ba-dum!Crash!

    lkcape: please more, more!! Fantastic! Please, continue to sit back, observe and illuminate everyone on “who is out of his comfort zone and who is not.”

  36. Steve Stein

    Dan and Linda – that’s very interesting! There are a couple of local Unitarians who are more frequent attendees at synagogue than most Jews in the congregation.

    Back when we were planning our son’s becoming Bar Mitzvah, the synagogue held a workshop for families. One woman asked for special guidance because their family was not Jewish. The Rabbi was a bit flummoxed, and a bit of theological inquiry followed. Once it was established that Jesus’s divinity was not at issue, the Rabbi said “well, then we can talk.”

    It was funny at the time.

  37. Newshound

    The Unitarian Church is not necessarily non-Christian, nor are devoted Episcopalians Christians.

    The first Unitarian Church, King’s Chapel in Boston, broke away to from Episcopalians to form the denomination. It continues to use the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, the book that led in a substantive way to Separatists.

    King’s Chapel celebrates Christmas. Members sing real Christmas carols.

    It’s slogan: “In the love of the truth, and the spirit of Jesus Christ, we unite for the worship of God and the service of man.”

    It is a Christian unitarian congregation affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association, a perfect place for Garrison Keillor should he want to come East and join in with Christian Unitarians since they proclaim “All are welcome.”

    Unitarians think for themselves rather than tell others what thinking is allowed and not allowed. After all these years, Garrison might find this a refreshing alternative from his pent up emotions of being confined to the dogma of a religion that can not tolerate others singing, celebrating and enjoying life in their individual, spirited way.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Newshound: A survey was done within the last 10 years that showed only 10 percent of Unitarian Universalists consider themselves to be Christians. So it’s really not a Christian denomination, even though those are its historical roots. King’s Chapel is a very interesting place — it may be the most Christian UU church in the country. But it’s definitely not representative of the denomination as a whole.

  38. Newshound

    Yes, Dan, I was aware but the clarification you make is important. And, even King’s Chapel does not have a creed or doctrine.

    I was just hoping to lure Garrison to Boston so he could be tamed, and happier, and maybe learn it is okay to think for himself about spiritual beliefs.

  39. BillH

    I thought the column wasn’t very good, though I generally listen to the radio program. No question that Keillor has lost a lot off his fastball over the years, but he was once funny and insightful. Just for information, Keillor is not, and never has been, Lutheran. He was raised a Sanctified Brethren and now attends Episcopalian services.

  40. Newshound

    Wikipedia reports Keillor has been Lutheran. Maybe not correct, though. Who knows what he really is. He claims he was brought up to “believe.”

    He does have New England roots being a descendant of Roger Williams, who in the end was a Seeker which perhaps can be a lonely, but maybe perfect denomination for the mind-twisted Midwestern comic.

    Oh, just in case as sales probably are not that great – there is a web site that sells “Garrison Keillor is not Lutheran” t-shirts for $17.95 . . . perhaps more popular among those Lutheran fictional characters living around that fictional lake in Minnesota.

  41. Linda the Copy Editor

    Really interesting, Dan! I’ll tell my mom …

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