Do You Hear What I Hear

Posted: Dec 20, 2013 12:01 AM
Do You Hear What I Hear

There are some trends that one can fight against, and others that one must simply embrace. It is the job of a statesman to determine which is which. And that brings us to the proliferation of Christmas music.

Just a decade or so ago, radio stations had what was dubbed a “sleigh list” filled with holiday tunes. But most waited until a day or so before Christmas to roll it out. December 20, maybe, at the earliest. No longer.

Round-the-clock holiday music starts before Thanksgiving now. SiriusXM satellite radio launched its Christmas-themed channels on the day after Veteran’s Day, so you could feel patriotic and festive at the same time.

At least one station in each broadcast market gives itself over completely to Christmas music. That effectively means it becomes an oldies station. Real oldies. Most holiday standards are decades and decades old. It wouldn’t be Christmas without Perry Como (died 2001), Bing Crosby (died 1977), Dean Martin (died 1995) and the singing cowboy Gene Autry (died 1998).

Modern classics, on the other hand, are thin on the ground, notes Chris Klimek in Slate. “Despite the gigabytes of Christmas music released each year they are, overwhelmingly, reiterating yuletide warhorses.”

Still, the wise statesman attempts to guide the forces he cannot control. So let’s embrace the deluge of Christmas music. Or at least sift through it for valuable lessons.

Begin with a song recorded by everyone, but apparently parsed by no one: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Dean Martin may have the best version of this tune, a swinging, tongue-in-cheek rendition by a guy who, quite possibly, was sporting a red nose himself when he recorded it.

But listen to the words, and absorb the message. Rudolph is different because his nose shines. So “all of the other reindeer used to laugh and call him names.” He’s shunned for a minor physical difference. “They never let poor Rudolph join in any reindeer games.” In the stop-action TV special, even the sainted Santa Claus makes fun of Rudolph, until it turns out his nose is helpful.

These days, students are taught to be respectful of those with physical differences. High schoolers try to include kids with special needs instead of shunning them. So the idea that Rudolph would be excluded because he looks different seems absurd. Every time you hear this song, try to give thanks for how far our country has come.

There’s also overtly political Christmas music, although, luckily, there’s not much of it. A rare success in this genre is Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” recorded by overpaid British superstars in 1984 to raise money for famine victims in Africa. The song tells listeners they’re lucky to live in Britain instead of Ethiopia: “Tonight, thank God it’s them instead of you,” Bono croons.

But luck isn’t the main factor here. Good government is.

For centuries, the British (and American) political and economic system has been based on what Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, the authors of the book Why Nations Fail, call “inclusive” policies. We have the rule of law, Constitutional institutions, copyright laws and other protections. These institutions encourage people to work and invest because they know they can make money by doing so.

Ethiopia, on the other hand, was an “extractive” economy, run by a political elite to benefit a handful of politically connected people. The government was using the famine as a political weapon to eliminate opposition. And when help started flowing, plenty of it was channeled to rebel fighters posing as aid workers. As much as $95 million may have been wasted in this way. So while you’re feasting on roast beef this year, hum a tune of praise for the Constitution that supports our successful political and economic system.

Of course, there are times to simply tune out. “So this is Christmas,” John Lennon warbled in 1971. “And what have you done?” Turned off the radio right then and there, that’s what. Even a statesman has his limits.

Merry Christmas to all!