During a recent stay in Berlin, I visited the old headquarters of the East German Ministry of State Security, better known as the Stasi. The building, in a suitably bleak part of what used to be East Berlin, is now a museum devoted to the communist surveillance state. The upper floors display some of the tools of that surveillance -- miniature cameras, listening devices, files on everything -- that the German Democratic Republic used to control every aspect of its citizens' lives.
But the first floor of the Stasi Museum is not about spying. Instead, it is devoted to the propaganda that East German bureaucrats used to foster socialist consciousness in an unwilling public. One display explains the GDR's efforts in the 1950s to politicize what in the past had been family and religious occasions. The state sought to transform weddings, confirmations, and other personal events into "socialist celebrations," to be "committed collectively and aimed at a confession to socialism," according to the awkward English translation of the exhibit.
The exhibition informs visitors that the project "did not gain popular acceptance." Amazingly enough, people didn't want to turn their family holidays into socialist celebrations.
Here at home, this Thanksgiving brings an effort by the Obama administration to turn a day of giving thanks into a day of discussion about the virtues of national health care. On Wednesday afternoon, just hours before Thanksgiving, President Obama's Twitter account -- which has more than 40 million followers -- sent out this message: "Make sure everyone who sits down with you for #Thanksgivukkah dinner is covered." ("Thanksgivukkah" refers to this year's rare overlap of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah.)
The president's tweet linked to a photo of a young man sitting at a table with a turkey and a menorah. The accompanying text: "Celebrating Thanksgiving. Lighting the Hanukkah candles. Talking about health insurance. Gotta love dinners like these."
Now is the time to state definitively: The United States is not communist East Germany. It's not in any way close to being communist East Germany. So why is the Obama administration seeking to politicize Thanksgiving? And Hanukkah, too? At the very least, why invite the ridicule and derision that inevitably follow?
The administration knows many people will be unfamiliar with the etiquette of discussing national health care at Thanksgiving. So Organizing for Action, the president's political committee, has created a strategy sheet and suggested talking points.
"Take advantage of downtime after meals or between holiday activities to start your talk," OFA advises. It's especially important, the tip sheet says, to use special circumstances that might arise during a family celebration to press the case for health care. For example, one OFA tweet showed pictures of a young man wielding a big knife to carve a turkey. That was followed by a picture of the man with a bandage on his hand. "Food-related injuries happen a lot this time of year," the message said. "It's a good time to talk about getting coverage."
After taking care of a food-related injury, OFA recommends, it's time for the sales pitch. "Offer to walk them through it: 'Would you like to take some time with me to sign up right now?'"
"Start by asking, 'Have you thought about signing up for health insurance on the new marketplace?'" OFA suggests. Then, after going through the steps involved, a more direct question: "'When do you plan on signing up?'" Knowing that this might not be what many Americans — giving thanks, eating turkey, and watching football — want to do on Thanksgiving, OFA advises its health care advocates to "be persistent, but keep it positive."
The administration's talking points have been widely mocked. "Incredibly creepy," said the conservative writer Jonah Goldberg. On Twitter, some made parodies of the hand-cutting sequence. And others recalled when the Obama 2012 re-election campaign urged Americans to turn their most personal holidays into celebrations of the president.
"Got a birthday, anniversary, or wedding coming up?" the campaign asked. "Let your friends know how important this election is to you — register with Obama 2012, and ask for a donation in lieu of a gift. It's a great way to support the president on your big day."
Again: The United States is not East Germany. It's not close to being East Germany. And that is one reason why such efforts to politicize Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, birthdays, and more are especially unwelcome. Christmas is approaching, and no doubt the president and Organizing for Action have a plan for that. Just don't expect millions of Americans to go along.