Friday, January 8, 2010

The Spiritual Equivalent of "Manufacturing Consent": On "God", Religion, Brit Hume and Tiger Woods

Mary Kate Cary, a former speechwriter for George H.W. Bush, has suggested that Brit Hume should have said "only faith in God" could provide Tiger Woods with the "the kind of forgiveness and redemption" that a publicly outed serial philanderer really needs.

In fact, Cary thinks it would have been much better for Hume to have dropped any explicit references to either Buddhism or Christianity altogether. She assumes that "God" serves as an all inclusive term that does not refer to any particular form of religion, but merely to religious "faith" in the most general sense. Her blog entry in which she offers her free advice is titled "Brit Hume Confuses Faith and Religion on Tiger Woods".

Mary Kate Cary's assumption that "God" is the organizing principle around which all things religious must revolve is a common mistake. Most Christians treat religions other than their own the way boorish American tourists treat foreign languages when they just assume that anyone can understand English if one speaks slowly and loudly enough: "D O ... Y O U ... B E L I E V E ... I N ... G O D????" Historically those who have provided unacceptable answers to this question have been immediately escorted to the nearest torture chamber in the hopes that they might "turn to God, and He will show you the way." (That is what Cary specifically suggests Hume should have said instead of: "turn to the Christian faith".)

Christians have only very recently (historically speaking) discovered this strange and foreign (to them) idea called religious tolerance, and they still understand it only slightly, if at all. After the so-called "Reformation", it took more than a century of carnage before the bloodlust of the Protestants and Catholics was sated. But even then they merely agreed to a truce among European Christians so that they could focus their combined efforts on enlslaving and conquering the Pagan savages of Africa, Asia and Americas, in the name of spreading the Gospel.

As Perez Zagorin demonstrates in his How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came To the West, the murderous violence of the Wars of Religion (between Protestants and Catholics) was a seamless continuation of the application of what Zagorin calls "The Christian Theory of Religious Persecution", which had been an unchallenged fixture of Christian theology since the 4th century AD.

Zagorin pays special attention to the evolution of the Christian concept of "heresy". This is a crucial point, because the first halting steps that Christians began to take toward religious tolerance in the 16th and 17th centuries were only concerned with tolerance toward "other" forms of Christianity, that is, toward heretics. It is instructive to learn that the Greek workd "haeresis", from which "heresy" is derived, literally just means "choice". It was widely used among Pagans to designated different schools of philosophy. In other words, "haeresis", for a Pagan, had a positive connotation, referring to respected traditions of learning and spiritual inquiry. The early Christian mind, however, recoiled in horror from the idea of competing, and mutually respectful, schools of thought, and, thus, the word "heresy" became something odious and shameful in their mouths.

Early Christians divided humanity into four groups: (1) properly orthodox Christians, (2) Jews, (3) heretics, and (4) Pagans. Only the first two groups of people, orthodox Christians and Jews, were to be left alive. Heretics and Pagans were to be put to death. Well, heretics and Pagans were first to be fined, imprisoned, and tortured. You know, to give them a sporting chance so that they might "turn to God, and He will show you the way." But the patience of the Christians only goes so far, you know? There would be no changes to this policy from the fourth century AD until well into the Early Modern Period, except that Muslims had to be added as a fifth group who fared somewhat worse than the Jews, but slightly better, at least at times, than heretics and Pagans.

An important wrinkle in the Christians' scheme for who lives and who dies is that yet another category was required: apostates. Once a person is born Christian, Christian they must remain on pain of death. Jews were just barely tolerated, but that did not mean that the Jewish religion was a legal option available to Christians. And to further muddy the waters, whatever slight tolerance was extended to Jews or Muslims was subject to the arbitrary whims of the local authorities, who could at any time announce (as was done in Spain in 1492) that Judaism was now proscribed and that all Jews must either leave, convert, or be put to death.

Everything is relative. Because of their history, modern Christians tend to think that as long as they aren't currently burning anyone at the stake they deserve to be congratulated for their broad-mindedness. But 17 centuries of living in a religiously monolithic society, during most of which time religious conformity was ruthlessly enforced with violence, has left a deep and lasting impression on the western psyche, even in the psyches of those who believe themselves to free of any Christian influence whatsoever.

Today, instead of the Inquisitor's rack and the Conquistador's sword, Christendom relies mostly on the spiritual equivalent of what Noam Chomsky has dubbed "Manufacturing Consent". Chomsky's idea is simply this: through manipulation of the media (and other sources of information and "culture") it is possible to control what people think without all the fuss and bother of torture chambers, guillotines, pogroms, etc (or, at least, without primarily relying on brute force repression).

This notion of Manufacturing Consent was first articulated in 1988 by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky in their book by that name. They explain (in the turgid prose so typical of Chomsky) what they call the "Propaganda Model" as follows:
The mass media serve as a system for communicating messages and symbols to the general populace. It is their function to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society. In a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interest, to fulfill this role requires systematic propaganda.

In countries where the levers of power are in the hands of a state bureaucracy, the monopolistic control over the media, often supplemented by official censorship, makes it clear that the media serve the ends of a dominant elite. It is much more difficult to see a propaganda system at work where the media are private and formal censorship is absent. This is especially true where the media actively compete, periodically attack and expose corporate and governmental malfeasance, and aggressively portray themselves as spokesmen for free speech and the general community interest. What is not evident (and remains undiscussed in the media) is the limited nature of such critiques, as well as the huge inequality in command of resources, and its effect both on access to a private media system and on its behavior and performance.

A propaganda model focuses on this inequality of wealth and power and its multilevel effects on mass-media interests and choices. It traces the routes by which money and power are able to filter out the news fit to print, marginalize dissent, and allow the government and dominant private interests to get their messages across to the public. The essential ingredients of our propaganda model, or set of news "filters," fall under the following headings: (1) the size, concentrated ownership, owner wealth, and profit orientation of the dominant mass-media firms; (2) advertising as the primary income source of the mass media; (3) the reliance of the media on information provided by government, business, and "experts" funded and approved by these primary sources and agents of power; (4) "flak" as a means of disciplining the media; and (5) "anticommunism" as a national religion and control mechanism. These elements interact with and reinforce one another. The raw material of news must pass through successive filters, leaving only the cleansed residue fit to print. They fix the premises of discourse and interpretation, and the definition of what is newsworthy in the first place, and they explain the basis and operations of what amount to propaganda campaigns.

The elite domination of the media and marginalization of dissidents that results from the operation of these filters occurs so naturally that media news people, frequently operating with complete integrity and goodwill, are able to convince themselves that they choose and interpret the news "objectively" and on the basis of professional news values. Within the limits of the filter constraints they often are objective; the constraints are so powerful, and are built into the system in such a fundamental way, that alternative bases of news choices are hardly imaginable. In assessing the newsworthiness of the U.S. government's urgent claims of a shipment of MIGs to Nicaragua on November 5, I984, the media do not stop to ponder the bias that is inherent in the priority assigned to government-supplied raw material, or the possibility that the government might be manipulating the news, imposing its own agenda, and deliberately diverting attention from other material. It requires a macro, alongside a micro- (story-by-story), view of media operations, to see the pattern of manipulation and systematic bias.
As a matter of fact, the concept of "Manufacturing Consent" applies even more clearly to religious ideas than to political ones. In Part Two of this series I will look at the way in which Atheists and Christians work together to narrowly define the spectrum of acceptable religious ideas, in just the same way that "liberals" and "conservatives" perform this function for political ideas.

Best. Advice. Ever?

World renowned Zen teacher, punk rocker and monster movie maven Brad Warner informs us in his blog today that he was interviewed, "for about 45 minutes", by a reporter from AP/YahooNews who wanted, desperately, to know what advice he would like to give to Tiger Woods. In response, Brad was "like, well, I don't know Tiger Woods. I don't really know what's actually going on in his life. I don't like to give people advice even if I know them well." And so forth.

In his blog Brad goes on to describe how the reporter kept insisting that surely he must have some Zen words of wisdom for Tiger, until Warner finally relented and said something along the lines of
well, I guess I'd just tell him what I tell everybody... y'know, do some Zazen, try to see clearly what your actual circumstances are without judging or thinking too much about them. Just see it for what it is. This takes years of practice.
That's not exactly how it came out in the published version, but still that article is pretty interesting and includes snippets that the reporter managed to drag out of a variety of high profile American Buddhists (including the editor of Tricycle and also Uma Thurman's father).

But my favorite part was when Brad says in his blog: "As for Tiger, I really have no advice for him. Maybe he could advise me on how to pick up girls!"

Obviously, THAT is what he should have said to the AP reporter!!