God save the Tsar

Take up the White Man’s burden–
In patience to abide,
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple,
An hundred times made plain
To seek another’s profit,
And work another’s gain.

So reads the second stanza of what may be the most politically incorrect poem in the English language. Interpretations of what Rudyard Kipling meant by his 1899 poem “The White Man’s Burden“, written in the wake of the American annexation of the Philippines, have differed sharply. From Henry James and Mark Twain to the denizens of Lit-Crit faculties today, many have objected to the poem as racist and condescending. Others, especially as of the time of its writing (Theodore Roosevelt for example) saw in it an expression of a Christian duty to bring the light of civilizations to the darker corners of the world.

The era that produced “The White Man’s Burden” also formed the tenets of classical Angl0-American journalism. Motivated by many of the same moral imperatives that under girded Anglo-American imperialism, the liberal school of journalism sought to civilize the newspaper profession, replacing  partisan, hysterical, “yellow journalism” with an impartial, scientific, and honest retelling of the news of the day.

The mission of classical liberal journalism was summarized by the editor of the Manchester Guardian C.P. Scott in 1921. “Comment is free, but facts are sacred.” While on the editorial page he said: “It is well to be frank; it is even better to be fair”.

Scott’s dictum guides the writers at GetReligion. Yet this view is not universal. It is disappearing within the American newspaper guild and is all but gone in Europe. Yet not all agree that this approach to journalism is possible or ideal. Seeking balance and fairness in reporting is viewed (charitably) as being quaint, and (more commonly) as naive. It exhibits, the critics say, the same sort of condescension that makes Kipling’s poem so execrable. When truth is relative, this line goes, claiming to possess the sole truth is illusory — or an arrogant manifestation of a journalist’s “White Man’s Burden”.

This philosophical conflict can be illustrated by my critique of an article in the Observer, the Sunday edition of the Guardian. The article entitled “Church backs Vladimir Putin’s ban on Americans adopting Russian children” tells the story of the Russian Orthodox Church’s response to the passage of a law by the Duma that prevents Americans from adopting Russian orphans. Here we have a formidable caste of bogeymen — Vladimir Putin, Vsevolod Chaplin, the Russian Orthodox patriarch Cyril — playing off against orphans, Pussy Riot, and liberal democracy. What right thinking person would back KGB hacks and creepy clergy against orphans?

Before answering the question, let’s look at the article. It begins:

The Russian Orthodox church has been attacked for supporting a new law banning Americans from adopting Russian children, at the end of a year that saw it plagued by scandal and accusations of collusion with an increasingly authoritarian Kremlin.

Father Vsevolod Chaplin, a high-ranking priest and a spokesman for the church, said the law was “a search for a social answer to an elementary question: why should we give, and even sell, our children abroad?”

Speaking to Interfax, a state news agency, last week, Chaplin said the path to heaven would be closed to children adopted by foreigners. “They won’t get a truly Christian upbringing and that means falling away from the church and from the path to eternal life, in God’s kingdom,” he said.

This is a strong opening. It asserts the church has been “plagued” by scandal and is in bed with Russian strongman Vladimir Putin before moving to a second hand quote from a church spokesman that is wonderfully awful (to Guardian readers). It then introduces a voice offering an opinion in line with the editorial slant of the story.

Critics say the church’s support for the law is the latest example of its submission to the Kremlin, in which it acts more like a government ministry than an independent spiritual body. “Everything is repeating – it’s like the 19th century, when the church lay completely under the state,” said Valery Otstavnykh, a theologist and Kremlin critic. “Everything was calm and fine until churches started getting blown up in 1917 and they all asked, ‘Why’?”

As an aside, I do not care for the word “theologist” — it is an uncommon word that is most often used in a pejorative sense. That may not be the case here as the statements of the theologist are in line with the views of the article, but it nonetheless is an ugly word.

The article then lays out the 2012 church scandals: Pussy Riot, the wandering watch, hit and run priests driving BMWs, church involvement in politics and suspect financial dealings. It then closes with a gratuitous unsubstantiated accusation and a plea by the outside commentator for the church to clean up its act.

Two weeks later, the state news agency RIA-Novosti cited an anonymous source as saying that a bordello was uncovered in a Moscow monastery.

“The church has also done a lot of good,” said Otstavnykh. “But the church as an organisation must change.”

There is no balance to this story. No facts are offered in mitigation nor voices in defense or explanation of the church’s actions. It may well be these actions are indefensible, but the reader cannot know this from this story. Throwing in the bordello line without further corroboration was improper.

The quote offered by Fr. Chaplin, who is a character about whom I have written, is taken from a Russian language story and is abbreviated in such a way by the Observer as to not allow for any nuance. The tail end of the first quote in the Observer story — “why should we give, and even sell, our children abroad?” — continues in the original with a statement by Chaplin that Russia must take care of their own at the level of the family as well as at the local, state and national levels.

I would translate the second passages as:

As he noted, the adoption of children by foreign couples in most cases means “they can not get a truly Christian education, and thus fall away from the Church and from the road to eternal life in God’s Kingdom.”

“Orthodox people should remember and take seriously the words of the Lord Jesus: ‘He who has faith and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not have faith will be condemned’.”

The shading of the Observer’s version may leave the impression that children taken from Russia will go to hell because they have been taken from Russia. However Chaplin’s meaning is they may wind up raised in homes where the Christian faith is not practiced.

Chaplin’s views about the necessity of a Christian upbringing do not find favor with the Observer. In a Twitter exchange about the article, the author of the story responded to a critic who defended Chaplin by writing:

Your attempts to justify his statement as holding any logic or good will confound me.

The author may well think that, but should she have commented in public? If this article was in the op-ed section, I would say it would be appropriate for her to make this statement. But is it appropriate for a news story?

From a journalistic perspective, the critique offered by Mr. Otstavnykh should have been matched with a defense of the church’s actions. And it also would have helped the reader to know that Mr. Otstavnykh spoke in court on behalf of the Pussy Riot defendants, saying their actions did not constitute blasphemy.

Please note I am not speaking to the issues under examination. I am commenting on the professionalism and journalistic craft exhibited by this article. As a hit piece, the story is well done. As journalism, it is junk.

While many of the ideals expressed by Kipling in “The White Man’s Burden” are passé, “By open speech and simple, An hundred times made plain”, is not. There is a story to be told from Russia on the interplay of the church, state and society. Mr. Otstavnyk’s concerns the Russian Orthodox Church is returning to the days when church and state were one is an important one. Is the Orthodox Church returning to the bad old days of the Nineteenth century, updating its prayer and priorities from God Save the Tsar to God Save the President? That story needs to be told.

The story told in this article, however, is neither plain nor simple, frank nor fair. And that is a shame.

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  • Dan Crawford

    So what is the real story and how do we access it? Your criticisms of the Observer are in order, but is there still not the matter of the relationship of the Orthodox Church to the Putin government and its policies that needs some reporting and analysis?

    • George Conger

      You are quite right Dan that this story needs some reporting and analysis — We don’t do that here, I’m afraid — but I do hope someone in the press takes up the challenge.

  • Ben

    So I guess the Kipling framing is to make the point that the poem can be interpreted either as very politically incorrect or as containing some Christian wisdom. And that the same can be said for Fr. Chaplin’s quote. A few points:
    1) I agree journalists should strive for balance and this story seems to fall short.
    2) The way you frame your posts with unrelated historical asides is often distracting for me as a reader. Your commentary focuses on fairness, but could use a little more frankness :-).
    3) I can see people other than secularists being upset with Fr. Chaplin’s quote — people like American Christians. The US is still a very Christian country, probably more so among the subset who adopt, so Fr. Chaplin’s insinuation that the kids’ upbringing is more likely to be Christian is a bit offensive to believers here. A full 43% of Russians, in fact, are some form of “not religious” compared to just under 20% of Americans. Just 47% or so of Russians are Christian, compared to 73% of Americans. So his comment just doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense, unless what he’s really saying is that they won’t be raised Orthodox Russian but will be raised by a lesser Christian denomination, which again, would be offensive not so much to secularists but more to American Protestants.

  • http://friarsfires.blogspot.com Brett

    I agree that the writer’s response to a commenter gives any reader the impression that the story is written from a point of view and for a point of view, and that she is defending not her objectivity but the correctness of her point of view.

    And although I dislike disagreement, I would have to say, contra Ben, that I very much enjoy the historical context you give to the articles and commentary. They’re often interesting in themselves.

  • Ben

    I’m glad it works for some, Brett. Diversity of voices and styles is good.

  • Kevin

    Those of us who are both Orthodox Christians and also have direct experience of the Moscow Patriarchate will not dispute the overall accuracy of the Guardian article. The situation in that Patriarchate has been deteriorating for the last 10 years and we now have a situation where Father Vsevolod Chaplin is allowed by the Patriarch to make the most outrageous statements on this and many other issues without any check whatsoever, and leave them uncorrected.

    Surely the Patriarch’s Press Office cannot be unaware of an article in the Guardian? If it is inaccurate, why is no statement issued to put matters right?

    Interfax is a news agency very closely related to the Patriarchate and the Kremlin and I would give real credence to whatever it says as accurately reflecting the official views of the Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church.

  • John M.

    George,

    How many languages are you competent to translate from? I count French, German and Russian, and that’s just in the last few weeks.

    -John

    • George Conger

      John, I was blessed with a good education but the passage of time has left me with spoken fluency in English only, but an ability (or memory) to puzzle through the principle European languages with the aid of a dictionary.


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