Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Jonathan Weiler on Journalism by the Elite, for the Elite: Implications for American Catholic Conversation

Jonathan Weiler's analysis of what has happened to journalism since the 1970s and how that has affected the national political discourse of the U.S. is illuminating for me.  It helps me understand better what I've long found so disquieting about the centrist perspective of many high-profile members of the Catholic media-intellectual commentariat, who are entirely divorced from (and seemingly impervious to) lived sympathy for those who are gay.  And, increasingly, from the viewpoints of a large majority of the faithful on issues like gay right and marriage equality.

Echoing Howard Kurtz in his book Media Circus, Weiler thinks that around 1970, American journalism took a turn from its traditional social location reflecting working-class roots and began to professionalize itself.  As it did so, it moved away from its historic stance of advocating for those excluded from circles of power, and began to incorporate the perspectives of a new commentariat whose social location and social interests were closer to those within the circles of power than outside them.

The upshot: 

Those elite professional strata most responsible for shaping our political and economic discourse (with exceptions, of course) have at once grown richer and, predictably, have increasingly articulated an ideological worldview justifying their privileged positions. The priorities they've articulated -- business-friendly economic policies (including a generally knee-jerk hostility to unionism and uncritical support for "free" trade), a mostly indulgent attitude toward expansions of the national security state and deference to government prerogatives in prosecuting the "war on terror," moderation and prudence in addressing major social problems (with a tendency to focus on the necessity of individual behavioral changes and discomfort with significant government intervention in the economy except when it comes to bailing out major financial interests), a concern for bi-partisanship and civility in elite discourse -- make perfect sense for people who enjoy full material security and all of the perks associated with professional prestige and opportunity. And stenographic journalism is a good fit for that worldview. A rancorous press corps, unafraid of losing access and committed to stirring up trouble and to provoking the powerful might open the floodgates to a much more contentious, wide-ranging debate that would examine the real roots of wealth and power in America. By contrast, he-said/she-said journalism, while it does convey clearly (if in a fundamentally flawed way) the deeply polarized nature of our partisan politics, works well to obscure the deeper divide between the one percent and the ninety-percent.

What becomes more clear than ever to me as I read this commentary is that the inability (and unwillingness) of centrist Catholic intellectual-and-media gurus to muster empathy for their gay brothers and sisters has everything to do with the social location and interests of those at the center.  That social location and those interests are with the U.S. Catholic bishops in their battle against the gays.

Not with fellow Catholics who are gay or all the gay citizens of the U.S. who also suffer when the bishops make it their business to mount increasingly shrill attacks on the entire gay community in the U.S.

Centrist Catholics are writing who they are or who they imagine themselves to be, when they either refuse to raise their voices against the stepped-up attacks of the bishops on gay human beings or actively collude with those attacks.  They are or imagine themselves to be heterosexual, for the most part.  (Or they imagine that they have a sanitized and safe public heterosexual journalistic persona,  even when they also claim to be openly gay.)

They are or imagine themselves to be the benchmark by which authentic Catholicity is to be measured--the heterosexual benchmark by which authentic Catholicity is to be measured.

They are closely connected to the U.S. Catholic bishops in manifold ways, and they will not--of course they will not--open their mouths to criticize the bishops when the bishops seek to remove and block the rights of gay citizens.

Meanwhile, as Joel Connelly notes in an op-ed piece in yesterday's Seattle Post-Intelligencer, a growing majority of the American Catholic laity rejects the bishops' position about those who are gay and deplores the hurt it inflicts on family members, friends, coworkers, and the entire Catholic church.  And so to the extent that the centrist commentariat continues to walk lockstep with the USCCB about the human rights of the gay community, it places itself outside where the moral center of Catholic discourse about these issues is quickly moving, in the public square.

And it becomes as irrelevant as, say, an intellectual defense of a geocentric worldview is today.  Or as an intellectual defense of creationism is today.

Silence in the face of glaring injustice and needless pain inflicted on fellow human beings does have a way of making us irrelevant, especially when our silence goes hand in hand with our claim to be intellectual arbiters of the core moral values of a religious tradition.  "In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends": M.L. King.

The graphic is Armand Hosmi's cartoon depiction of what centrism looks like in the struggle for democratic values and human rights in the Arab nations, in An-Nahar (2 July 2011), via the Tajaddod Youth blog site.  As the cartoonist recognizes, and as liberation theologians have long argued, the pretense of "objectivity," of not taking sides in a battle between two unequal sides, is really standing on the side of those who have power.

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