Ben Stein's Diary

Christmas for Me

Its highest values should come as no surprise. Then off to a sendoff of U.S. Marines at Camp Pendleton.

By 12.16.11

Wednesday
I stayed up way too late last night. How could I not? I was out in the desert. It was a cold but crystal clear night and the stars were painted on the sky. The moon was dazzlingly nearby. I swam at about midnight in my wonderful pool. As I kicked up the water, steam billowed out of it. The moon shot moonbeams into the mist through the palm fronds. All around me, our hundreds of Christmas lights shone green, blue, red, orange, yellow into the steam. It was as if there were a swimming pool on a Scottish moor but lined with Christmas lights.

As I swam, I could see meinen wifey wandering around inside the house. It was a perfect sight.

However, this morning, I was tired and in an embarrassingly bad mood. When my wife pointed it out to me, I apologized at once. That's a simple rule of a marriage: when you're acting like a jerk, stop it and apologize. Schnell.

We went to a glorious 12-step meeting and really felt lifted up by it. Then, we had lunch outdoors at Pacifica in Palm Desert, and then shopped at Brooks Brothers and noted with pain how fat I am. Then we headed home where I took a long nap listening to Mozart's Requiem and Laudate Dominum, on my ancient Sony headphones.

Outside, the Christmas lights flickered. My fire roared in my fireplace -- and I needed it, it's cold as can be here -- and the lights on my mantel blinked. In the center of the mantel is a photo of my late Pointer, Brigid.

My wife and I celebrate Christmas big time. I am sure we have more decorations than anyone within miles of here has.

Why?

On a superficial level, it's because the lights and tree and fire are festive. That's innate. Man loves colored lights and fires. When I was a child in Maryland, the Gentiles had festive lights and we Jews had zilch. Forget that. That's the past. Back in 1957, I saw no reason why the Gentiles should have all of the fun and I still don't. Having those lights and a tree -- that's what I always wanted. To have colored lights and to be a part of the dominant culture.

But I love Christmas for much more basic reasons. The New Testament is totally different from the Old Testament. It's not about battles or migrations or plagues as the Old Testament largely is. The Old Testament is about the emergence of a people of faith in a God who favored that people. It also has magnificent codes of conduct for us humans, but also some extremely savage codes of conduct.

The New Testament is about man reforming himself and trying to get control of his barbarous, cruel nature. There are no battles or plagues. There is only real violence against one man. And there is only one real message: try to arrange your relations with your fellow man based on love and empathy rather than hate or envy or sadism.

We used to say in law school that the development of capitalism was because the law allowed a change from status to contract. That is, you were no longer stuck where you were born. You could contract to do certain things that brought you out of your status and raised you up to a higher status.

The New Testament is about the change from status to contract. You can be saved if you simply make a contract to believe in God and (some add) if you act right. It has nothing to do with how you were born or into what tribe.

This is a revolutionary, stupendous freeing of the human spirit. This is why Christmas is such a joyous time for people, whether Jews or Christians, or anyone else, who wants to believe that we humans can be forgiven and go on to lead lives of triumph no matter what has happened in our past.

That, and not shopping at all, not the retail numbers, is why Christmas is such a great time.

Just for example, I got a text from a pal this morning who is in financial extremis and in many other ways as well. "Help," she said, "I feel as if I am drowning and my whole life has been ruined."

I answered her, "We all often feel that way. There is one way out. Turn your life and your will over to God. He made us with all of our flaws and He will forgive you because He knew you before you were even formed and knew what was in you. If you accept Him, He accepts you and you never have to feel afraid or ashamed again."

Or I can put it another way. Very early today, I was watching a famous publicity hound lawyer on TV raging venomously against someone who had said something she didn't like, even though the man was acting within his rights and had apologized in any event.

She could have said, "I think he did something wrong, but I will pray for him and hope he gets his ideas better organized. We all make mistakes and so do I." Instead, she went off on him on national TV.

What spirit do you think would make her a happier woman? What spirit would help the world more?

Easy answers, right? Well, that's why I love Christmas. Because that's when the answers started becoming a worldwide answer. And the lights are nice and the tree is nice and the shopping is nice. But a dominant culture that, at least for December, says that love and peace are the highest values -- that's what I want to honor.

We don't honor department stores. We honor the spirit of forgiveness and love. That's Christmas for me.

Thursday
Up and out the door for a grueling long drive from Rancho Mirage to Camp Pendleton near San Diego. Southern California is so immense that this drive took three hours, all on magnificent freeway. I stopped at a Chick-Fil-A for a fabulous sandwich of fried chicken breast, then went on my way to the immense Marine base.

The occasion was the Christmas party for the 5th Artillery Battalion, 11th Marines, or the 511. Rain was falling so most of it was held in a huge open room in a Spartan building. Inside the room were hundreds of Marines, many with wives, and many with babies -- many, many, many babies -- laughing, joking, eating turkey. A jolly crew. Outside, there was -- in the drizzle -- a knot of Marines on a bouncy platform hitting each other with highly padded pugil sticks -- four-feet-long fighting weapons -- and then wrestling madly with each other.

They looked terrifyingly strong. I was glad I was not fighting against them. They really threw themselves into the fighting.

"Marines like to test themselves against other Marines," said a Marine watching the scene with me.

Two Marine Sergeants offered to show me the ordnance their unit fires, mostly in Afghanistan. There are two main items.

The first is a 155 mm. cannon that is so highly computerized it staggered me. With the combined use of satellites, the radio, or maybe the Internet, computers, and very fancy explosives, the 511 can send hugely damaging projectiles about 18 miles with pinpoint accuracy, as a serious Master Gunnery Sergeant explained to me.

The topper, though, is the Hi-MARS rocket. When a good target is found whom the Marines want to "affect," as they call it, a satellite sends the co-ordinates of the bad guys. The rocket's trajectory is plotted instantly. Then, the rocket is shot 50,000 feet up into the air so it's right above the target -- then it comes STRAIGHT DOWN at way above sonic speeds so the people it "affects" never even remotely hear it coming. They are just gone.

This monster can hit targets 90 miles away within one meter. It's unbelievable.

Anyway, inside the big building, I walked up to just about everyone, stuck out my hand and talked to them. Everyone, every single one, was incredibly friendly.

My favorite was a young girl whose dad is a Marine. I told her she was adorable and I bet all of the boys at her school had crushes on her. She shrugged. "Some of them do," she said with her smile and her braces.

The event was sponsored  by Saddleback Church, an immense church whose pastor is the super famous, super best-selling book, The Purpose Driven Life. The turkey dinner was provided by a nearby church named Calvary. Frankly, the scene outside that room looked like Calvary or Golgotha with the rain and the barren terrain. The formidable missiles and cannon added to the somber mood.

But, as I said, inside all was festive. You would never guess that most of them are going to fight in Afghanistan in a few weeks. They asked me for a speech and I said,

"Of the seven billion men and women on the earth, the most vital are the men and women of the United States armed forces. You stand guarding life and liberty for all the good people of the world. And of the armed forces, none are braver and more resolute than the United States Marines. And of them, none is more indispensable than the military wife. She is the backbone of the free world. God bless you all."

When I got back, I read that Christopher Hitchens had died, 5 years younger than I am, of throat cancer. I only met him once. He was paid by the producers of Expelled to debate an evangelist preacher at Stanford about evolution. I thought the preacher mopped up the floor with him.

The most interesting thing, though, was how Mr. Hitchens at one point described Jews as "a greedy little tribe." I was the moderator of the debate and asked, "Aren't you a member of that tribe, Mr. Hitchens?" He looked straight ahead and said nothing.

Of course, his mother was Jewish. She was a troubled soul who later committed suicide and I can understand why Mr. Hitchens would want to put some distance between him and her. He once famously said that his mother had told him to cover up his Jewishness because, "if there really is a ruling class, I want you to be in it…" A perfect comment from a Jewish Momma.

Of course, he never got into the ruling class. You have to be rich to be in it and he was not rich. He was, like many writers, often short on dough. We writers want to live like landed gentry and it's always a stretch. It was a sad sight to watch him asking the producers of Expelled to do more debates so he could be paid for them. Maybe not sad. I am sure I would do the same. Money is a big thing when you need it.

Well, de mortuis, nihil nisi bonum. He found faith a burden and a sham. I find I cannot live without it. Faith is my rock. For him, it's, well, we don't know what it is to him now.

What I do know is that neither Chris, nor I, nor anyone I know does anything nearly as important as what the youngest Private at Pendleton does for the human condition. I give Chris credit. He knew that and was a great supporter of the fight against Islamic terror. Let's remember him for that. 

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About the Author

Ben Stein is a writer, actor, economist, and lawyer living in Beverly Hills and Malibu. He writes "Ben Stein's Diary" for every issue of The American Spectator.