Thursday, June 5, 2008

Disinformation, Speaking Truth to Power, and the Ministry of Blogging

I have noted previously, valued friends, that I want to avoid focusing this blog on political discussion per se. As my profile statement indicates, I’m primarily interested in the intersection of religion and politics—in religious discourse that feeds into political discourse. As a theologian, I long ago committed myself (or, rather, I got committed by tidal waves in my own life beyond my control) to doing theology from an “interested” position—from the standpoint of any person or group reduced to non-person status by power structures beyond that person’s control). With such a focus, I cannot ever do theology while dispensing with social and political critique.

And vice versa: in American culture, for anyone interested in politics, it’s impossible to avoid theology. We are a nation with the soul of a church. Religious discourse permeates our public discourse.
The current election contests have been laden with religious rhetoric, from the impassioned discussion of the political role of the black church in the person of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, to more subdued (but nonetheless critically important) analysis of the absolutely noxious ideas of zany televangelists whose influence reaches right into the center of our political (and socioeconomic) power structures. Though the Pat Robertsons, Parsleys, and Hagees may have waning power, they remain powerful nonetheless—and dangerous, because their preaching is tainted with toxic prejudice of one sort or another.
As I say, I do not want to make this blog overtly political. At the same time, because it focuses on the interface between religion and social change, there is no way around politics, particularly for those of us living in the United States.
All this as prelude: yesterday, for the first time in this presidential campaign, I received an email about which I’ve been reading on the internet. I imagine that variants of this email are circulating everywhere. It is interesting to me that the release of the email (or its transmission to me, at least) was timed to correspond with the announcement of Mr. Obama’s nomination victory.
The email contains an unbelievable spate of lies about Obama. It develops an elaborate conspiracy theory about how Islamic fundamentalists have planned his rise to power ever since 9/11—how he is being placed in the White House to clench the Muslim takeover of our nation.
You and I, cherished companions on the Way, know that this analysis is balderdash. It’s a pack of lies—and not subtle ones. It’s one gross lie.
We have the critical acumen to look at the story being recounted to us and to note the obvious disconnect with reality: the fact that Mr. Obama is a Christian and not a Muslim, for instance. We know immediately that the email is an ugly attempt to manipulate our consciousness, as if we are gullible fools who will open our mouths and swallow the bitter medicine of untruth anytime an authority figure offers it to us.
But you and I are not the whole world. And that worries me—not because we have superior knowledge or intellects, but because we go to the trouble of informing ourselves. Those transmitting these lies by techniques of mass communication count on many readers of their poisoned emails to swallow the medicine. Such emails are part of a disinformation campaign that is only now gearing up for its full push, now that Mr. Obama has the nomination.
The same day that I got this email, I noticed the blog threads of the Arkansas statewide “liberal” weekly, Arkansas Times, being inundated with postings. These, too, were obviously timed to correspond to the announcement that Mr. Obama had won the nomination. They, too, are full of venom and lies. Some posters purport to be Hillary Clinton supporters outraged at the selection of Mr. Obama, and determined to vote for Mr. McCain. Others—who have usernames echoing those of the “Hillary supporters—are Republicans gloating that the Democratic party has just flushed its chances of an election win down the tubes.
In both cases, the tactic is so childish, so obvious—to you and me. It is a divide-and-conquer tactic. It is a disinformation tactic, one that willingly employs lies, and willingly does so even in the name of God. We see this clearly. Many others do not, and those spreading the disinformation count on those others to believe what they are told.
In American politics, we are now on the verge of a disinformation campaign the likes of which we have not seen at any previous point in our history. The dissemination of lies will make adroit use of the internet. This will be a campaign of disinformation as opposed to misinformation.
Misinformation is what happens when we have not done sufficient research to confirm the truth of a story we are told, or when our sources are flawed but we do not know this. Disinformation is what happens when puppet masters like Adolph Hitler deliberately, cynically, with full knowledge of what they are doing, plant hateful lies in the consciousness of people to control what those people do.
If this campaign of disinformation succeeds (and it may do so: who thought Hitler would triumph, when he first entered the German political scene?), our democracy will be so impaired that it will, in my view, effectively cease to function. We are passing through a perilous moment in the development of the American democratic experiment, when truth-tellers can already be silenced by those with enough economic clout or access to legal power to shut the mouths of the truth-teller. The Bill of Rights has been very nearly gutted by the current administration.
If the campaign of disinformation now gearing up for full-throttle activity wins the day, participatory democracy will be over and done with. The dream of a Mary McLeod Bethune or a Martin Luther King, Jr., of a society in which everyone is invited to the table, in which those with wealth and power have no more entitlement to a voice in the dialogue that constitutes participatory democracy than the poor and powerless: that dream will end.
And what will churches do?
What are churches doing, already? As a theologian, I must keep pressing that question. It is my vocation to do so, and I have been given the gift of education so that I may put my theological training to use by teaching in every venue possible—and, above all, by using my voice on behalf of those whose voices are being stopped up by the power mongers of their social (and ecclesial) worlds.
What are the churches doing? As my posting yesterday notes, racism is alive and well in our society. So what are the churches doing? Clearly, not enough.
In a nation with the soul of a church, a nation where large numbers of people go each week to church and hear the Word of God broken like bread in sermons, in a nation where each Sunday, church members hear preachers point out the connections between God’s Word and how we live our daily lives, why does racism continue to have such a stranglehold on the American imagination?
If the churches are doing their business, why is racism alive and well among us?
What will the churches do, as the disinformation campaign gears up? Not enough, I must sadly conclude. Not nearly enough. Indeed, many of those swallowing the bitter medicine of disinformation will be church members. Indeed, not a few of those purveying the poison will be church members themselves, as well as pastors and leaders of churches.
In fact, one of the posters on the threads at Arkansas Times yesterday is, I have reason to believe, the pastor of a church. If not, he is, according to his own profession, an ardent churchgoer who has posted again and again about how acceptance of gay persons will cause our nation to burn in hell.
After the announcement that Mr. Obama has the nomination, he posted that the white house is not the black house . . . .
And so to blogs, the power of blogs, the necessity of blogs to counter disinformation campaigns: blogs as ministry. A few days ago, I posted a comment on a blog recommended by this blog, one I mentioned yesterday in my note of thanks to various blogs that have been linking to mine. This is the “Clerical Whispers” blog.
The webmaster for this site is an Irish priest who recently announced that he will be making a visit to Rome—one of the ad limina kind of visits that some bishops and priests are required to make to Rome periodically (as well as on occasions when the Vatican “invites” them to discuss issues).
When this priest, whose blog name is Sotto Voce, posted about his trip to Rome, a number of bloggers posted messages of support for the work he does on his blog. I did so, as well, noting that he is pioneering a new form of ministry within the Christian churches—a ministry of spreading information to which people desperately need access in a world in which disinformation campaigns are so active, so powerful, and so well-funded.
Those of us who do theology within a Catholic context know very well the mechanisms of censorship. We have watched it practiced again and again in our own lifetime, with prominent theologians. My own dissertation director, a Jesuit, has been silenced by Rome, forbidden to teach, told what he may or may not say in writing.
The Catholic church excels at censorship. It has had centuries of practice at the art of silencing troublesome voices. My church, after all (and horrific to admit), invented the Inquisition.
Because of its history of censorship and the power it once wielded to censor free speech, the Catholic church is crucially concerned today about the spread of the internet, and about the wide development of blogging. How does one censor the free speech of countless bloggers around the globe, who may or may not be ordained, people over whom the church has no institutional control other than the threat of excommunication?
Many of these issues have been coming to a head recently in English-speaking areas of the Catholic church, including Australia, Canada, and the U.S. They are coming to a head because of the publication of the book Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church, published recently by retired bishop Geoffrey Robinson in Australia.
Bishop Robinson is now traveling through Canada and the U.S. to talk about the need for reform in the Catholic church. He calls for a democratization of the structures of the church that, in his view, would go a long way towards resolving the horrible problem of clerical abuse of minors, which is rooted in abuse of authority by the ordained members of the church.
Because of his views, Bishop Robinson is being hounded by those seeking to silence him. Bishops in both the U.S. and Canada have tried to forbid him to speak in their dioceses. His brother bishops in Australia have issued a mass condemnation of his book, though a few courageous bishops in that nation have publicly defended him and his right of free speech. The organization Voice of the Faithful has, by contrast, presented Bishop Robinson with an award for his valuable ministry to the gospel.
The attempt to silence Bishop Robinson has extended to the blog world, where those supporting the bishop often find themselves bullied and attacked by other bloggers, whose goal is clearly to shut down the conversation. There have been behind-the-scenes maneuvers to shut down blogs dedicated to pursuing this conversation—ineffectual attempts, given the right of bloggers to free speech, insofar as we do not violate the ethics codes of our blogsites, engage in illegal behavior, or fail to adhere to other legal covenants we may have made regarding what we say and publish.
I am discussing the case of Bishop Robinson at length because I want to make a point—one intimately related to the analysis with which I began, to the disinformation campaign now underway in the American political arena. Blogging can be—of this I am more and more convinced—an extremely valuable ministry within the Christian church.
Bloggers have the ability to counter disinformation by seeking and telling the truth. Bloggers have the possibility to speak truth to power, when disinformation is emanating from either social or ecclesial power centers and has behind it all the economic clout and force of those who occupy such power centers.
Bloggers have the ability to participate in what the Jewish tradition calls the healing of the world—the fundamental vocation for one who walks the Jewish way of faith. Telling the truth, especially when lies are being used to oppress and marginalize others, heals social wounds. Telling the truth places on the table information about the humanity of despised Others whose dehumanization and demonization serves the interest of power centers of church and society. With information at our fingertips, we can spot when we are being manipulated, lied to, used to deepen the wounds of the world and the despised of the earth. With information, we can engage in the ministry of healing.
Above all, blogging is (particularly for educator-theologians such as me) a new and potentially very effective way of carrying on the teaching ministry of the churches. Though we are a nation with the soul of a church, we Americans, we are abysmally ignorant, when it comes to religion and religious ideas. Many of us are fixated at the level a grade-school religious education, when it comes to religious ideas. Many of us have not advanced even to adolescence in our knowledge or understanding of religious issues.
This makes us sitting ducks for those who want to use religion to manipulate our political choices. It is critically important that the churches support and not undermine the ministry of blogging, insofar as this ministry exposes churchgoers to religious ideas and information that counter hateful disinformation campaigns.
As the disinformation campaign rolls out in this election process, it will be interesting to see how the churches react—and, in particular, how they react to the attempt of bloggers to keep accurate information about religion and its intersection with politics in the mind of the public. E.J. Dionne’s book Souled Out, which I’ve cited repeatedly on this blog, suggests that the political alliances of Christians are now cross-denominational.
People with right-wing political ideas and agendas have made common cause with those who have similar agendas and ideas, across denominational lines. There are very powerful Catholic theological-political movements that have joined forces with similar movements within Protestant evangelical churches, despite the differing theologies of these churches. The same may be said for progressive movements in the political and religious spheres.
A corollary of Dionne’s analysis is that the attempt to censor the speaking of truth to power within one religious context may easily spill over into other religious contexts. Even when Catholic bishops and Episcopal bishops or Methodist bishops have widely divergent theologies, they may well make common cause with each other in seeking to control unfettered critical analysis of theological and political ideas within churches other than their own—insofar as these power figures within various churches have bought into socially regressive agendas, and want to use religious ideas to support their attacks on progressive movements.
Blogging will play an increasingly vital role in our political sphere, and, in particular, in the vexed terrain in which volatile religious and political ideas come together. If the power centers who wish to suppress free speech today and to spread disinformation are not successful, blogging will—of this I am sure—one day become a significant ministry within churches that seek to explore the everyday applications of religious belief.

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