Journalism, facts and the fires of hell (revisited)

Without a theory the facts are silent, the economist F. A. Hayek has written. That may be true of the cold facts of economics, but the facts of war are not cold. They burn with the heat of the fires of hell.

– John Keegan, A History of Warfare (1994)

The late Sir John Keegan, the renowned military historian known for The Face of Battle and many other superb studies of combat in the Western world, opposed philosophical abstraction. Theories of history that sought to explain the causes of conflict by reference to materialist, idealist, gender, (what have you) theory failed to appreciate the role human agency and culture — tradition, religion, tribal identity — played in explaining human action, Keegan believed.

In his particular field of study, military history, Keegan believed the theories of Carl von Clausewitz that war is about politics, was a wholly inadequate explanation. (War is simply [an expression] of political intercourse, with the addition of other means. Clausewitz, On War, p.605) The adoption of theoretical constructs to explain war, Keegan argued, lay upon totalizing or universalist assumptions that failed to see farther than their cultural presuppositions.

Journalism suffers from these problems. What I see as the displacement of the classical Anglo-American school of journalism by European-style advocacy journalism mirrors the failings Keegan identified in the historical profession. Reporters who come to a story through advocacy journalism have a preconceived notions about the nature of truth into which they seek to place the available facts. If the facts are inconvenient or do not fit the theories, they can be left out of the story.

These musings on the nature of truth and journalism were prompted by a question posed to me by Todd Wilken, during an appearance I made last week on Issues Etc., for Lutheran Public Radio.

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Journalists covering Iraq, please learn this word — ‘dhimmi’

Like it or not, journalists and editors who are handling coverage of events in Iraq are going to have to learn this controversial word — “dhimmitude.” Trust me, the faithful in minority religions who live in Mosul and on the Nineveh Plain, or who have recently fled this region, are already familiar with this concept.

Unfortunately, it is hard to point to a crisp, established online definition for “dhimmitude” right now because of waves of posts attempting to argue that this word is found somewhere in the Obamacare legislation. Ignore all of that, please. Instead, I suggest that readers surf through some of the material found in this online search for “dhimmitude,” “dictionary” and “definition.”

The key is that people of other faiths living in lands ruled by Islam are given “dhimmi” status in which they receive some protection under sharia law, in exchange for paying a Jizyah tax as a sign of submission. The big debates are about other conditions of submission which are, or are not, required under dhimmitude. Dhimmis are not allowed to protect themselves (some claim it is impossible to rape a dhimmi), to display symbols of their faith, to build (or even repair) their religious sanctuaries, to win converts, etc. Historically, dhimmis have been asked to wear some form of distinctive apparel as a sign of their inferior status. The key is that this is an protected, but inferior, status under strict forms of sharia law.

In a recent post, our own Jim Davis noted that some mainstream reporters have begun to notice the plight of religious minorities in the hellish drama unfolding in Iraq, including the suffering remnants of the land’s truly ancient Christian communities. Bobby Ross, Jr., also noted a fantastic New York Times piece about a related drama in Afghanistan.

Now, across the pond, The Telegraph has published a large news feature under the headline, “Iraq’s beleaguered Christians make final stand on the Mosul frontline.” There is much to applaud there, but one interesting gap linked to the failure to include dhimmitude in the picture. Here is some key background:

Between the Sunni and Shia Arabs of Iraq lie a patchwork quilt of other ethnic groups and faiths, many of whom have been reconsidering their future in the most obvious possible way since the allied invasion a decade ago unleashed the sectarian militias and their death squads. Anywhere between half and three quarters of Iraq’s Christians — Chaldean Catholics, Syriac Orthodox, and the rest — have left the country and the Middle East to start new lives abroad since 2003.

The town of Bartella, ten miles from Mosul, is largely Assyrian Orthodox, and its 16,000 citizens currently face a very vivid incarnation of an ever-present threat. They have been car-bombed at least twice in recent years, but this time their presumed adversaries have an army.

Focusing on the experiences of a Captain Firaz Jacob, a Christian who has refused to flee, the Telegraph notes:

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NYTimes: Waves of generic refugees run for their lives in Iraq

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The news from Iraq grows more and more distressing, at least for those who favor old-liberalism virtues found in documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from the United Nations. Here is a typical mainstream-news update, care of The Los Angeles Times.

But let’s back up for a moment and look at two key elements of one of the first major stories that shook the mainstream press into action. I refer to The New York Times piece that ran under the headline “Sunni Militants Drive Iraqi Army Out of Mosul.”

I concede, right up front, that I am concerned about two key issues: (1) the symbolic and practical importance of Mosul to Christians and members of other religious minorities in the Middle East and (2) the tactics and goals of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the militants behind this drive into Iraq. At the top of its report, the Times paints this horror story in very general terms.

BAGHDAD – Sunni militants spilling over the border from Syria on Tuesday seized control of the northern city of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest, in the most stunning success yet in a rapidly widening insurgency that threatens to drag the region into war.

Having consolidated control over Sunni-dominated Nineveh Province, armed gunmen were heading on the main road to Baghdad, Iraqi officials said, and had already taken over parts of Salahuddin Province. Thousands of civilians fled south toward Baghdad and east toward the autonomous region of Kurdistan, where security is maintained by a fiercely loyal army, the pesh merga.

The Iraqi Army apparently crumbled in the face of the militant assault, as soldiers dropped their weapons, shed their uniforms for civilian clothes and blended in with the fleeing masses. The militants freed thousands of prisoners and took over military bases, police stations, banks and provincial headquarters, before raising the black flag of the jihadi group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria over public buildings. The bodies of soldiers, police officers and civilians lay scattered in the streets.

OK, so we have thousands of generic civilians fleeing.

Is there anything else that can be said about that word “civilians”? Veteran human-rights activist Nina Shea — yes, writing at the conservative National Review Onlinenotes a few crucial details about the symbolic importance of Mosul. It helps to know that Iraq’s second-largest city has been the final safe zone for believers in the nation’s 2,000 year-old Christian community and for those in many other small religious minorities. Thus:

Mosul’s panic-stricken Christians, along with many others, are now fleeing en masse to the rural Nineveh Plain, according to the Vatican publication Fides. The border crossings into Kurdistan, too, are jammed with the cars of the estimated 150,000 desperate escapees.

The population, particularly its Christian community, has much to fear. The ruthlessness of ISIS, an offshoot of al-Qaeda, has been legendary. Its beheadings, crucifixions, and other atrocities against Christians and everyone else who fails to conform to its vision of a caliphate have been on full display earlier this year, in Syria. …

(In) February, it was the militants of this rebel group that, in the northern Syrian state of Raqqa, compelled Christian leaders to sign a 7th-century dhimmi contract. The document sets forth specific terms denying the Christians the basic civil rights of equality and religious freedom and committing them to pay protection money in exchange for their lives and the ability to keep their Christian identity.

News consumers who have been paying close attention know that ISIS isn’t just a group that is linked to al-Qaeda, it is a group that has been so ruthless and violent that it has been shunned by many jihadist groups, including al-Qaeda.

The bottom line that might interest American readers: One of the world’s most ancient Christian communities is literally running for its life, trying to escape militants who are too violent to work with al-Qaeda.

Now, read the bland Times report and try to figure out that this is one of the key elements — yes, I said ONE — of the tragedy that is unfolding. Here is how these realities are reported by America’s most powerful newsroom:

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TASS on Russia’s talking dogs

Politicians were like talking dogs in a circus: the fact that they existed was uncommonly interesting, but no sane person would actually believe what they said.

Alan Furst, Dark Star (2002)

I am sympathetic to the sentiments expressed by Pravda journalist André Szara, the central character in Alan Furst’s political-historical novel Dark Star. (I consider it the best of his 13 novels to date.) Once upon a time I too spent a great deal of my time listening to politicians, reporting for the Jerusalem Post on Parliament and the British government.

I cannot blame the Episcopal Church or the Church of England for giving me my jaundiced eye. Reading the debates in Hansard and ministerial press hand outs was unpalatable work, akin to eating sand. I no longer follow politics and politicians. For my sins I now read denominational reports, church press releases and bishops’ sermons. I’ve exchanged sand for sawdust.

Yet, this work must still be done. Even though a great deal of fluff and nonsense is spouted by the great and good, reporters must keep their ears (and brain) open. Even politicians say things that are novel and important.

Foreign correspondents have a doubly difficult job in that what may be novel and important in one culture is drivel in another. And, if they do not speak the language, they must rely on what others tell them. Raw information passes through sieves of culture, language and spin before it lands in the ear of an American foreign correspondent, who then must make it interesting and intelligible for his home audience.

The result often is an incomplete, or wrong-headed news story. One that bears but slight resemblance to what was said or done.

As GetReligion’s editor tmatt has noted in a recent story, the conflict between Russia and the West is one are where the press has fallen short by omitting, ignoring or not understanding the religious issues that are in part driving the conflict. On June 4 Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) in Moscow the clash between East and West was a clash of religious worldviews (Orthodox Russia v. post-Christian Europe/America).

And, from what I have been able to find, this story has not appeared in the mainstream press.

The ITAR-TASS news agency published an English-language reporting summarizing Lavrov’s speech — but their correspondent seems to have slept through the talk. The TASS lede stated:

MOSCOW, June 04./ITAR-TASS/. Russia is not going to build anti-western constructions and get involved in senseless confrontations only for the sake of providing us and NATO with desirable enemy image, Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said.

The policy of limiting Russia’s capabilities is conducted mostly not by European powers, but by the United States, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at a meeting of Russia’s council for international affairs. “The oddest thing is that all this is happening contrary to the obvious and objective benefit the pooling of technologies, resources and human capital might yield for both parts of the European continent,” Lavrov said.

The remainder of the article continues along these lines — tedious babbling. All politics, all foreign policy wonkery — dull, dull, dull.

Yet the next day the Interfax News Agency put out a one-paragraph story reporting that Lavrov had said the clash between Russia and the West had arisen over Russian return to “traditional spiritual values” and that America and Western Europe were “more and more detached from their own Christian roots and less susceptible to the religious feelings of people of other faiths.” Oh my.

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NYTimes notices old doctrine wars over InterVarsity chapters

The debate started out behind closed doors but quickly jumped into the mainstream press. The news hook was that a lesbian student at Tufts University claimed that, under the campus nondiscrimination policy, she had been unfairly denied access to a leadership role in the Tufts Christian Fellowship, which was affiliated with InterVarsity.

The campus chapter was banished, at first, but then allowed to re-draft its charter to stress that it was a doctrinally defined religious association, one requiring its leaders to “seek to adhere to biblical standards and belief in all areas of their lives.” The story was already rather old at that time, as I noted in an “On Religion” column.

“We have had more challenges to our basic right to exist in campus settings during the past two years than in the previous 55 combined,” said Steve Hayner, president of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship USA. “It’s not just us. … This is hitting Catholics and Muslims and others. What we are seeing is a growing challenge to religious free speech — period.” …

InterVarsity created a “Religious Liberties Crisis Team” in response to this dispute and similar cases on five other campuses. Then attorney David French of Cornell Law School and Tufts InterVarsity staff member Curtis Chang produced a sobering handbook for others who will face similar conflicts. French and Chang noted: “In a free country, individuals or groups are permitted to form schools that serve only Christians, or only Jews, or only Muslims, or only gays.” For traditional Christians at private schools, the “sad reality is that there may come a time when you are no longer welcome … and there is nothing that any lawyer can do to change that decision.”

The year was 2000.

I bring this up because of a New York Times story that — 15 years down the road — has noticed this legal issue and put it on A1 as a hot trend. To cut to the chase, this First Amendment story has reached Bowdoin College and another InterVarsity chapter is facing the same old fight for its rights as a doctrinally-defined association.

But read the following carefully and see if you notice something interesting in the Times frame around this story. This is long, but crucial:

After this summer, the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship will no longer be recognized by the college. Already, the college has disabled the electronic key cards of the group’s longtime volunteer advisers. In a collision between religious freedom and antidiscrimination policies, the student group, and its advisers, have refused to agree to the college’s demand that any student, regardless of his or her religious beliefs, should be able to run for election as a leader of any group, including the Christian association.

Similar conflicts are playing out on a handful of campuses around the country, driven by the universities’ desire to rid their campuses of bias, particularly against gay men and lesbians, but also, in the eyes of evangelicals, fueled by a discomfort in academia with conservative forms of Christianity. The universities have been emboldened to regulate religious groups by a Supreme Court ruling in 2010 that found it was constitutional for a public law school in California to deny recognition to a Christian student group that excluded gays.

At Cal State, the nation’s largest university system with nearly 450,000 students on 23 campuses, the chancellor is preparing this summer to withdraw official recognition from evangelical groups that are refusing to pledge not to discriminate on the basis of religion in the selection of their leaders. And at Vanderbilt, more than a dozen groups, most of them evangelical but one of them Catholic, have already lost their official standing over the same issue; one Christian group balked after a university official asked the students to cut the words “personal commitment to Jesus Christ” from their list of qualifications for leadership.

At most universities that have begun requiring religious groups to sign nondiscrimination policies, Jewish, Muslim, Catholic and mainline Protestant groups have agreed, saying they do not discriminate and do not anticipate that the new policies will cause problems. Hillel, the largest Jewish student organization, says some chapters have even elected non-Jews to student boards.

My question: Did the Times team investigate whether the issue is a matter of practical work or mere symbolic statements? In other words, is the issue that traditional Christian groups — evangelicals, mostly — are simply not willing to pretend to go along with the policies? And what about in other doctrinally defined groups linked to science, the environment, arts, sexuality?

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What? You thought Francis, Peres and Abbas really prayed?

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Let’s state this in journalistic terms.

What? You thought that the mainstream journalists covering the remarkable Vatican rite offering prayers for Middle East peace rite would actually produce coverage that included any content from the prayers?

Friends and neighbors, this event was all about politics and statecraft. Clearly, if the men wanted to produce real change in the real world then the only words that they spoke that mattered were addressed to one another and, thus, to the press. Get real.

The story that most American news consumers saw this past weekend was from the Associated Press, so let’s consider that text (in the version used by The Washington Post). Here’s some of the key material about this encounter between Pope Francis, Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas:

The event had the air of an outdoor summer wedding, complete with receiving line and guests mingling on the lawn as a string ensemble played. …

Vatican officials have insisted that Francis had no political agenda in inviting the two leaders to pray at his home other than to rekindle a desire for peace. But the meeting could have greater symbolic significance, given that Francis was able to bring them together at all so soon after peace talks failed and at a time that the Israeli government is trying to isolate Abbas.

“In the Middle East, symbolic gestures and incremental steps are important,” noted the Rev. Thomas Reese, a veteran Vatican analyst for the National Catholic Reporter. “And who knows what conversations can occur behind closed doors in the Vatican.”

So was the omnipresent Father Reese actually, literally at this event or was he merely acting in his unofficial role as the press spokesman for all mainstream journalists and alleged Catholic insiders who would join him in calling a Vatican prayer service a “symbolic gesture”?

No one was hiding the fact that other talks took place behind closed doors. Also, no one was hiding the fact that, with the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I joining in some parts of the ceremonies (but not leading prayers), there were actually two participants present who represented elements of the Palestinian people. Well, the pope would make three, since there are Eastern Rite Catholics in the region, as well. The AP report noted:

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Can Christian unity help a troubled Ukraine?

SANDRA ASKS:

Can common ground be found to unite the Ukrainian-speaking and Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine [and could the harmony across church lines] during the Maidan protests point the way?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

Possibly. But this troubled nation with a declining population of 45 million has excruciating religious and political history to overcome. It is blessed and cursed by geography, with rich farmlands and mineral resources yet perennially caught between East and West.

Now that Russia has seized power over the Crimea province, its agents and Ukrainian allies are subverting added areas in the east, with fears that Russia might invade, or exercise effective control without needing to invade. Threats from these pro-Russian operatives prevented voting in some sectors but on May 25 the nation managed to elect new President Petro Poroshenko, who called for a “unitary Ukraine.”

By coincidence, unity was also on the agenda that same day in Jerusalem as Catholicism’s Pope Francis conferred with the veteran symbolic leader of Eastern Orthodoxy, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. They issued a joint declaration hoping for full spiritual concord and shared communion between their two major branches of Christianity.

Ukraine, more devout than many nations in western Europe, has seen bitter rivalry between Catholics and the Orthodox, and serious splits within Orthodoxy. Church differences are intertwined with the divide Sandra notes between Ukrainian-speakers in the west and Russian-speakers to the east (though in practice Ukrainians are largely bilingual).

There was substantial church support for the months of mass protests in Kiev’s Maidan (“square”) that toppled a corrupt regime aligned with Russia. Sandra notes that during these demonstrations believers from the various Orthodox and Catholic groups overcame historical barriers to join together in countless open-air prayer meetings. (Also backing the protests were most of the minority Protestants, Jews, and Muslims.)

Both the Ukrainian and Russian nations trace their founding to the A.D. 988 conversion to Orthodoxy by a state centered in Kiev. Over centuries, control of the land seesawed among Mongols, Poland to the west, and Russia to the east. After the Communists’ 1917 takeover in Russia, Ukraine declared independence, but was soon forcibly absorbed into the new Soviet Union. After Soviet tyranny collapsed, Ukraine again declared its independence in 1991 but has had huge problems establishing an honest and stable democracy.

Bishop Borys Gudziak, who ministers to Ukrainian Catholics in western Europe, summarizes some history: During Communist rule and two world wars “more than 17 million people are estimated to have died violently on Ukrainian soil.” Among the Orthodox in the Soviet Union “tens of thousands of bishops, priests, monks and sisters were executed, as were hundreds of thousands of lay martyrs.” Then Stalin turned with a vengeance against the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, making it “the largest illegal religious body in the world, … outlawed, mercilessly hounded, and driven into the catacombs.”

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Pod people: Vatican III? Nicea III? Press blind spot 666?

The questions jumped into Twitter in a flash, which is what one would assume would happen when there is a chance that a once-a-millennium news story could be breaking.

So Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I and Pope Francis have proposed a 2025 event to mark the great Council of Nicea.

Line up, religion-news consumers, to ask your big questions. Father James Martin, you go first:

So no Vatican III?

But a proposal for Nicea III?

Slow down. First things first. Was this a proposal for a true Ecumenical Council between the ancient churches of East and West?

It quickly became clear, from Rome and Istanbul, that this was not the case.

But what did it mean, really, to say that this date — so far off in the future — is now on the calendar for an ecumenical gathering to celebrate the great Ecumenical Council of Nicea? That, of course, is the gathering of the church fathers best known because of the Nicene Creed and its proclamation of the Holy Trinity.

Once again, I was amazed that the big guns in the mainstream media didn’t jump in on this story. Amazed.

During this week’s Crossroads podcast chat, host Todd Wilken and I pondered, once again, why journalists concluded that the Pope Francis pilgrimage to the Middle East was primarily a political event about statecraft. It was not, repeat NOT, as the Vatican kept stating, an event that grew out of the highly symbolic invitation by Bartholomew for the pope to meet him in Jerusalem. (Click here to listen in.)

In this case, I had written both a GetReligion post (click here) and a Universal Syndicate column (click here) on this topic. In the column I noted:

The symbolic leader of the world’s Eastern Orthodox Christians, the successor to the Apostle Andrew, had earlier invited Francis, the successor to the Apostle Peter, to join him in Jerusalem to mark the 50th anniversary of the breakthrough meeting between Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I. Their embrace ended 900-plus years of mutual excommunication in the wake of the Great Schism of 1054.

So why wasn’t this gathering newsworthy? Why was it missing from the vast majority (kudos to the Associated Press for being a major exception) of the mainstream reports about this trip?

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