This innovative track has an anchorman reading the news while S&G sing the classic Christmas carol "Silent Night" over it twice. The contrast between the dire declarations of the newscast and the comforting calm of the noel calls into question the power of the carol's religious message. How on earth are we supposed to "sleep in Heavenly peace"... when all this is going on?
As Simon, of course, did not write "Silent Night," we will focus on the text of the imagined newscast, which is attributed to him. There are several clues that this is not an actual newscast.
The first one is in its first line: "The recent fight in the House of Representatives was over..." An actual newscast would have said something more like: "There was a debate today in the House of Representatives over..." Simon first assumes that there is a fight, always, and the news' job is just to tell us about the "recent" one. He then uses the word "fight," which is pejorative. Of course the House debates issues; that's what it does. Even if all the viewers agree that the House members more accurately "fight" than "debate," a news report would not likely describe it so.
The next line makes no sense. If the bill was supported even by "traditional enemies" of such measures, why was it left without the "votes of [its] strongest supporters"? Weren't they there to vote on such a key bill? If not, they how could they have been considered "supporters" to begin with, let alone its "strongest" ones?
The third line is clearly written by a cynic commenting on the news, and not the newscaster himself: "...but it had no chance from the start and everyone in Congress knew it."
The item about Lenny Bruce should probably not be next. Celebrity news is often last, or-- if about their death-- first. Simon adds this item to show that one of the major voices of reason and hope, one that could challenge the establishment, has been silenced when it was perhaps needed most.
The piece about Martin Luther King Jr., should follow next. It is about his response to the "open housing" situation, the subject of the fought-about bill from the first item. This item is well written. It shows how the law enforcement structure tried to get King to "be reasonable," and even threaten him-- to cast him as if he were the one causing the unrest, not the ridiculous laws he challenged-- and then make him look like he didn't respect the police if he went through with it, that rabble-rouser. Simon manages to get through this item without injecting a distracting, unrealistic commentary.
Let us assume that "nine student nurses" did not share a single "apartment," but that this was a typo that somehow got read into the script. The item about Speck is true-- he was a serial killer, and this was his M.O. He was found guilty.
So far, we have a country with an uncaring government that throws its hands up at housing discrimination and a citizenry terrorized by madmen, while those who try to call attention to the issues are either dead or shouted down.
The last news item repeats this pattern. This time, hundreds and thousands of citizens are protesting against the war in Vietnam. Again, instead of addressing the issue and ending the war, the government-- both the House and the White House-- takes aim against those who want it stopped, going so far as to banish them from the halls where they are supposed to be represented, and to even blame them for prolonging the war they oppose... by the act of opposing it. (Well, how are you supposed to stop it, then? By supporting it?!)
Over all this, the soothing lullaby of "Silent Night" sounds ludicrously out-of-touch. Simon has questioned and even attacked religion before, in songs like "Bleeker Street," in which the Shepherd is hidden, "Sparrow" (if, as the spiritual would have it, "His eye is on the sparrow," it wasn't on this sparrow), the subverted Sermon on the Mount of "Blessed," and even "Patterns," which struggles with the idea of predestination.
Here, Simon posits that, if not God, then at least religion had little to say about what was going on in the 1960s.
But if Simon felt that religious leaders were not addressing the realities of his day, he forgot that Martin Luther King, Jr., was a "reverend" as well as a "doctor" and scholar (he is only called "doctor" in the newscast). King was joined in his marches by many religious leaders, including Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. God's servants were responding to the news, and many-- including King-- paid with their lives.
This carol is a song of Jesus as helpless newborn baby. So we get the message that, as far as religion is concerned, speaking against the government will only get you shouted down... you might as well just go to "sleep."
But juxtaposing this newscast with a song about the rebel Jesus who spoke against the oppressive establishment of his day and was killed for it would have made the point that, if speaking truth to power is an uphill struggle, then nothing has changed in human life in thousands of years. In Jesus' case, however, the Roman Empire eventually collapsed due-- at least in part-- to his words. So using Jesus as a case study in the ineffectuality of religious leaders is somewhat spurious.
As I write this, it is both Passover and Easter weekend, and my wife is in the other room watching The Ten Commandments on TV. One is left to imagine this newscast accompanied instead by the spiritual about its central figure, Moses, "Let My People Go," which was sung frequently in the 1960s.
Religious leaders did, and do, care about the events of their day. While some (and some of the loudest) have always tended toward the extreme-- on both the right and left-- most do try help, heal, and promote unity.
And really, is it so wrong to yearn for a time when "all is calm/all is bright"? Or, in other words, when "all is groovy"?
Next Song: Save the Life if My Child