The Online Slime-Fest

The Online Slime-Fest November 20, 2012

In the early months of 2009, I spent many hundreds of hours inside the hulking Widener Library, working on my doctoral dissertation and pausing periodically to look at the snow outside blanketing the Harvard campus and ponder the future.  I probably had a successful academic career ahead of me, if I wanted it.  The pathos and the seasons of academic life appealed to me.  But I also yearned for adventure, and my primary interest was in the public square and not the ivory tower.  I loathed the poor quality of religious conversation online, and wanted very much for evangelicals to set higher standards of discourse.

So when I received an email from another doctoral student (David Charles) who was engaged in building, I jumped at the opportunity to get involved.  I believed in the vision as a whole: We would work together to recreate online the religious marketplace of ideas and yet to make it better: more informed, more charitable, more elevated.  But I also had a vision for the Evangelical Channel, over which I became the managing editor: to model the kind of intelligent and yet winsome, rigorous and yet gracious conversation evangelicals and really everyone should engage in.

On days like today, I’m reminded how audacious that goal is, how hard one has to swim against the currents, and how many people would prefer that we fail.

As I’ve said before, the new media world incentivizes caricature and exaggeration, slander and suspicion.  It disincentivizes deliberate thoughtfulness, patient contemplation, measured and balanced analysis.  Many of the largest blogs grow around a central organizing animus.  Write about how much you scorn liberals or conservatives, Christians or Muslims or Catholics or Mormons, atheists or theists, complementarians or egalitarians, and you’ll attract an audience eager to have their prejudices confirmed.  The convenient thing is: since you will all know who the bad guys are, and since you all possess such stunning insight into their psychology, you can dispense with the usual standards of evidence and argumentation.  Why bother questioning the evidence when their guilt is unquestionable?

I awoke this morning with the intention of criticizing a website called for promoting scorn, suspicion and misunderstanding of conservative Christians.  But that’s not what I got into this business to do.  Instead, I’m going to respond (with as much grace as I can muster) to the co-founder’s criticisms of me and my recent interview with Samuel Rodriguez, since I am in full possession of the facts in this case.

I’m not terribly concerned with defending my reputation.  The accusation here is not the worst I’ve heard, from the Left or the Right, it comes at a relatively small blog/website, and no one who knows me would give this particular yarn much credence.  But I do think it’s an illuminating case study of the kinds of problems we all face when we try to hold a charitable conversation over matters on which we passionately disagree.

According to Frederick Clarkson, co-founder of Talk2Action, conservative Christian culture-war extremist wingnuts like myself faced a problem.  A blogger named Greg Metzger “had had the temerity to write critically about the protean Christian Right leader, Rev. Samuel Rodriguez at the very moment when Rodriguez was being hailed as the Great Hispanic Hope for the Republican Party.”  Oh no!  A blogger (!) – who owns his own blog (!) – and writes too at another small blog called Talk2Action (!) — wrote something critical about Samuel Rodriguez.  Clearly this constitutes an emergency.  Serious measures are called for.  What are Christian supremacist wackos like us to do?!

Apparently, “one Timothy Dalrymple” (that would be me) conspired with Samuel Rodriguez in a “tag team effort” to “intimidate, discredit and ultimately silence” Greg Metzger.  Because Patheos is engaged in “unhinged boosterism” on behalf of Rodriguez, I arranged this interview with Rodriguez for the express purpose of beating up on Metzger.  You could really tell that I was coming loaded for bear, Clarkson says, because I referred to Rodriguez’s critics as his “detractors.”  Whoa, now!  Take it easy, Dalrymple, there are children listening!  Apparently, Clarkson views “critics” as the proper neutral term (neutral, like, you know, “unhinged”), whereas calling someone a detractor…well, you might as well be calling him a Nazi.  Or something.

I co-conspired in this tag-team sliming, apparently, because I’m friends with Rodriguez and I want to silence our mutual enemy, Greg Metzger.  It was all a set-up for Rodriguez to accuse Metzger of being anti-Charismatic and anti-Latino.

Thus saith Frederick Clarkson.  Frederick Clarkson, who has absolutely no idea what he’s talking about.

Here’s what actually happened.  Back in the real world, Greg Metzger is a friend of mine.  And in the real world, criticisms published at Talk2Action really do not evoke a great deal of anxiety.  I know we all like to have an exaggerated sense of our own importance, but notes and comments I’ve gotten that Rodriguez was somehow rendered “desperate” by a few blog posts are just silly.  Also, in the real world, I like Samuel Rodriguez, but I’m just getting to know him.  There was no emergency, no conspiracy, no intent to slime.

I value Greg Metzger for many reasons, but one is because I believe he’s earnest about acting rightly and speaking truly.  He’s brought several noteworthy stories to my attention; he calls me now and then for affable conversations; and I often find points of agreement in what he writes.  I published a lovely piece Greg wrote in which he spoke of a hardening sense of opposition to Samuel Rodriguez that softened after he actually interviewed Rodriguez and got some answers to his questions.  We explored ebook and blogging options (his blog was more wide-ranging in its topics at the time).  I also helped him promote the very worthy cause of Ryan Boyette, who has been reporting heroically on the bombing of Christian villagers in Sudan.

Unfortunately, Greg has found the continuous stream of Samuel Rodriguez criticism coming out of Talk2Action convincing, while I have not.  Greg decided he was wrong to have been duped by the interview with Rodriguez, and has become a regular detractor (I mean “critic” — pardon my language!).  I’ve often wondered whether any answer would satisfy Greg that Samuel is not the nefarious person he imagines him to be, but is an earnest (albeit imperfect) brother in Christ who tries to build targeted political coalitions to advocate on issues important to Hispanic evangelicals.  So when Samuel Rodriguez found himself in the news again, due to the GOP’s terrible proportion of the Hispanic vote, I reached out to arrange an interview on (1) Hispanics and conservatives and (2) Rodriguez’s responses to critics.  I even asked Greg to suggest some questions, because I wanted to know what questions Greg considered the most important.

So I conducted the interview.  Greg and the crew behind Talk2Action have accused Rodriguez of being an Islamophobe, a dominionist “Christian supremacist,” a homophobe, and the kind of opportunistic huckster who says one thing to this audience and another thing to that audience.  (But thank goodness they didn’t call him a “detractor” because that would have been truly beyond the pale!)  In the interview, I mentioned what seemed like the more persuasive charges and gave Rodriguez a chance to respond.  The response as a whole was reasonable, I thought, but it included a little counter-attack: “one of the individuals behind the articles you mention — and I say this without any hesitation — has a very discriminating, very bigoted anti-Pentecostal, and in my opinion anti-Latino, presentation.  Looking at other articles this individual has written, he explicitly went after the Pentecostal/Charismatic community and tarnished the group as a bunch of lunatics.”

It wasn’t entirely clear to me whether Rodriguez was referring to Greg himself (I’ve never seen Greg write anything I would describe in those terms) or to another of the men behind the attacks emanating from Talk2Action.  But let’s assume he was referring to Greg.  Should I have pushed back and demanded specifics?  Perhaps.  But I wasn’t sure that I would publish that part of the interview; an interviewee is rarely going to be able to provide you with specific quotations or titles or links from memory; no one who knows Greg is going to accept that he’s prejudiced, and people who don’t know Greg won’t even keep track of whom Rodriguez is talking about; and I didn’t want the interview side-tracked into interpersonal issues.  Should I have refused to publish that part of his answer?  Perhaps.  If I had done so, however, it would have been to protect Samuel Rodriguez, not to protect Greg Metzger.  People rarely come off well when they make personal allegations like that; the accused typically comes off better than the accuser.  So, ironically, in my “unhinged boosterism,” I chose not to protect Rodriguez.  He said what he said, and he’s a big boy, so he could defend it if he wished.

When I interviewed Jim Wallis years ago, and he attacked the integrity of World Magazine’s Marvin Olasky, I published it, even though Marvin’s a friend.  Marvin didn’t complain; as he understood, I was just reporting what Wallis had said.  Marvin simply responded to the accusation, and the accusation ended up hurting Wallis a lot worse than it hurt Marvin.  I figured with Greg, as I did with Marvin, I would simply follow up the interview with a later post.  Because while I agree with much of what Rodriguez has to say in other portions of the interview, and I think much of the paranoia at places like Talk2Action about “dominionism” and the New Apostolic Reformation (of which many legitimate criticisms can be made) does seem informed by a general anti-Charismatic stereotype, I’ve never seen Greg personally publish anything I would characterize as anti-Charismatic or anti-Latino.

I did, in the comments after the interview was posted, criticize Talk2Action, and I suspect that has a good deal to do with Frederick Clarkson’s response.

But Clarkson could not even get the details right.  He links to the first part of the interview but calls it an “introduction” to the interview; he gets my work title wrong; the second part of the interview was never featured on the front page of Patheos.  He offers a ludicrously wrong-headed interpretation of Rodriguez’s comments on abortion (Rodriguez was suggesting that some people on the Left criticize him because he is pro-life, not that all prochoicers are “venomous, intolerant, bigoted, cancerous and intolerant” (sic) or that Christians cannot be prochoice; he was not even claiming that Greg Metzger specifically is prochoice).

But Clarkson’s post is all too typical of Talk2Action.  There’s the conspiratorial anxiety, suggesting that Rodriguez and I are in cahoots, when I actually know Metzger much better and was consulting with him on which questions might allay his suspicions.  There’s the gob-smacking obliviousness of a website whose entire purpose is to attack conservative Christians suggesting that Patheos is engaged in “unhinged boosterism” because I published on my blog what a Christian leader actually said.  There’s no real research, because research implies an openness to questioning your own presuppositions.  In spite of the blazing irony of Talk2Action complaining about a “sliming,” there’s no self-examination, no questioning of whether it’s true that they’ve dealt in anti-Charismatic stereotypes.  There’s really not even a decent effort to get the facts right — because a decent effort would have meant picking up the phone and calling me or calling Rodriguez.  Yet Talk2Action never actually speaks to the people they regularly slime.  Instead, a couple of facts are strung together with a bunch of presuppositions and misinterpretations, all based on a presupposed slate of the good guys and the bad guys and a preconceived template of what motivates the conspiratorial actions of the Christian Right and the good and noble deeds of those who hold them to account.

I don’t have any more indignation for this kind of thing.  It’s just sad.  It’s sad that online conversation on matters of religion so quickly becomes a veritable circus of scorn and suspicion.  It’s sad that organizations like Talk2Action, which actually raise legitimate concerns from time to time, undermine their own purpose by letting their hostility get the better of them.  It’s sad that extremists never recognize their own extremism, and sad that people like Samuel Rodriguez who break the mold and try to work with both sides of the aisle all too often become the subject of unrelenting witch-hunts from the purist-partisans on either side.

Samuel Rodriguez may not get everything right, but he’s a good man.  So is Greg Metzger.  I can only mourn that we live in a fallen world that breathes out enmity, that sows the seeds of confusion and suspicion, and would rather see Christians up in arms against each other than joining arms in common cause.

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  • Derrick

    Nice work. I agree with your conclusion, and I don’t think being out of indignation is a bad thing. Articles like Clarkson’s seem to be published more increasingly, and you can always tell them because they all have the same form:
    1. Introduce the blog post, article, statement, etc. that we should all be outraged about.
    2. Spend the rest of the time quoting passages at random and out of context, followed by snippets of withering criticism, sarcasm, and increased indignation–adding to the already bountiful bonfire of righteous indignation and increased fervor to combat our new and deadly foe.
    It is bad writing. It is parasitic writing that takes the words of another and leeches rancor. It is the perfect anti-example of critical thinking.

  • Tim, the point with the allegations Rodriguez made about me in the interview that you seem to totally not recognize is that they certainly fit with the pattern of Rodriguez’s public ministry that I have portrayed in my articles on him far more than they fit with the picture of Rodriguez you seem intent on maintaining. What does it say about a person’s commitment to integrity that he would without any documentation or any substance make an accusation that even you know is ridiculous? How are people who have read my work to feel about Rodriguez’s motivations when he makes perfectly clear that his point in making the accusations against me is, as he says in the interview, to discredit me as an analyst of public life? What is more disappointing to me at this point is not that you didn’t challenge him for evidence in the interview, though I definitely think you should have, but that you still maintain a vision of him as a straight shooter who builds honest coalitions after you have seen what he is willing to say about a critic/detractor with no evidence. I should think that this would give you far more pause than it has. A person who equates criticism of him with criticism of his entire race/ethnic group is certainly someone who would be capable of doing/saying the things that I have challenged him on doing/saying.

  • Steve Billingsley

    As a sometime blogger (one whose posts generally get somewhere between 20-100 hits – almost all from people I already know) – even in my small, hobby sort of world in which I blog I sometimes am tempted to waste time and energy in stirring things up by writing criticisms of people I disagree with (and there are never a shortage of disagreements). I would likely get more traffic if I did (again, I am not talking about tens of thousands of hits – this is a hobby for me, so I likely could get a couple of hundred more hits). It’s just the easy way out and it doesn’t help anyone.

    It’s sad to me that in the Christian world (and the Evangelical world in particular) online the quickest and easiest way to generate traffic if to slam someone else. I expect it in the world of politics, but unfortunately human nature takes over in this little corner of the world as well.

    • I think there is a distinction between investigative journalism and simply writing to “stir things up”. I hope that my wrting fits the former more than the latter. I do think a real benefit of blogging/internet is that people can explore stories that others in the mainstream media are ignoring. In the case of Rodriguez, that is what I have tried to do.

  • Steve Billingsley

    There is a distinction. And I can honestly say I know next to nothing about Samuel Rodriguez. But in the short amount of time that I have spent on the Talk2Action website, I have to say that in my opinion I don’t really see a lot of journalism. What I see is a lot of slamming of Christian people and it doesn’t motivate me to want to stay there and read much more. I haven’t explored your writing much, either – so I don’t really have an opinion on whether or not your writing is helpful. I hope that it is and that you bring good information to light that can inform and help people think more clearly. But I hope you can see why my appetite for this particular controversy is pretty limited.

    • I don’t write at Talk to Action primarily and wasn’t really wading into the whole aspects of their content. Their director is more than able to do that and I have enough to deal with defending my reputation from the fact that one of America’s leading Hispanic Christians has labeled me anti-Latino. Not saying your questions aren’t worth engaging, just saying that was what I meant. Peace.

  • Ben

    Circle the Wagons! How interesting it is to see how the left reacts when they are criticized for their views. Greg Metzger, you shouldn’t be surprised when you you get a little dirty playing in mudslinging pits like talk2action.

  • Jonathan Szish

    Tim, thanks for following your vision and helping to start the Patheos evangelical site, and for striving to take the high road in how you present content to all of us. I always look forward to the articles you share through Facebook. Good for the mind! God bless!