Worse than the Asiatic Plague

In Works of Love, Soren Kierkegaard has some harsh words for peddlars of gossip that are very apropos for last summer’s News of the World scandal, and the ongoing investigations into media ethics prompted by it.  

 Is indeed any robber, any thief, any assailant, in short, any criminal, as fundamentally depraved as such a person who has made it his task, his contemptible means of livelihood, to proclaim on the greatest possible scale, as loudly as no word of truth is heard, as far-reaching across the entire country as something beneficial seldom reaches, penetrating into every nook where God’s Word hardly penetrates—to proclaim the neighbor’s faults, the neighbor’s weaknesses, the neighbor’s sins, to force upon everyone, even unstable youth, this defiling knowledge—is any criminal as fundamentally depraved as such a person, even if it were the caese that the evil he told was true! 

. . . 

Ah, there are crimes that the world does not call crimes, that it rewards and almost honors—and yet, yet I would rather, God forbid, arrive in eternity with three repented murders on my conscience than as a retired slanderer with this dreadful, incalculable load of crime that had piled up year after year, that may have spread on an almost inconceivable scale, put people into their graves, embittered the most intimate relationships, violated the most innocent sympathizers, defiled the immature, led astray and corrupted both young and old—in short, spread on a scale of which the most vivid imagination cannot form a conception—this dreadful load of crime of which I had never had the time to begin to repent because the time had to be used for new crimes, and because the innumerability of those crimes had secured for me money, influence, almost esteem, and above all a pleasurable life!  In connection with arson, we make a distinction if someone who sets fire to a house knows that it has many occupants or that it is unoccupied; but by means of slander to set fire, as it were, to a whole society—that is not even regarded as a crime!  We quarantine against the plague—but to the plague that is even worse than the Asiatic plague, slander, which corrupts the soul and mind, to that we all open our houses; we pay money to be infected; we greet as a welcome guest the one who brings the infection!

Politics and the Peril of Truth

In chapter 17 of his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, Baruch Spinoza remarks: “Those who administer a state or hold power inevitably try to lend any wrong they do the appearance of right and try to persuade the people that they acted honourably.” Seemingly trite and obvious perhaps, at first, but on reflection, a shrewd observation about the deep roots of corruption that seem almost inescapable in the business of politics. The perpetual peril of the truth and the seeming inevitability of corruption in politics are the theme (or one of the themes) of the remarkable recent film, The Ides of March (don’t worry, I’ll avoid spoilers).

The uncomfortable insight of this movie is that political corruption does not come about simply because all politicians are self-interested bastards (though they are often that), but is, on the contrary, something into which many find themselves sliding almost by accident, despite the best intentions. The truth, it turns out, is too dangerous a thing for the business of politics, and to succeed, you must learn to hide it. As Spinoza realized, it is fatal for any leader, no matter how good a leader he may otherwise be, no matter how wise his policies, to show signs of moral weakness. Image is everything, and character is essential to image. The masses, and nowadays, the media, are hungrily waiting for any misstep, any chink in the armor of apparent virtue, and they will pounce without mercy. When this happens, penitence is no use, it is too late. The people do not want to see in a leader a man like them, someone with many faults, but sincerely regretful for them–they want to see a pillar of virtue. So the only choice for a politician who wishes to succeed is to conceal any faults, to lend to any wrong the appearance of right and try to persuade the people that he has always acted honourably. This, at any rate, is the common wisdom, and this is the tragic dilemma that The Ides of March explores. Read More

Phone-Hacking and Other Misdemeanors

I’ve been procrastinating from offering any public comment on the massive phone-hacking scandal that has engulfed News International and the UK government in recent weeks, as there has been in general more than enough comment to go around, and I figured I could count on my friend Byron Smith to offer some intelligent and provocative reflections on the.  He has not failed me, offering two contributions on the subject last week, one considering the scandal in light of the Wikileaks controversy a few months ago, and another on the systemic flaws it exposes in our corporate culture.

I thought I would also add a few thoughts of my own, seeking to answer the question, “Why has this caused such a furor?”  Don’t get me wrong.  News International’s actions are appallingly irresponsible and depraved.  But the public furor-to-depravity ratio in this recent scandal has far exceeded most other corporate crimes of recent years.  It’s worth cynically asking why.  I have four suggestions.

1) The Scapegoat Factor.  News of the World went to such lengths to invade people’s personal lives because their customers demanded it.  They didn’t wake up one day and say, “Oh, wouldn’t it be fun to ruin other people’s lives for kicks?”  No, they had millions of customers who wanted to feast off of juicy gossip and the public humiliation of others.  They were simply trying to increase their supply to keep up with demand.  This doesn’t get them off the hook in any way, but it suggests that perhaps some of the public fury is the result of a guilty conscience.  Society at large is guilty of this wickedness, and we need a scapegoat to unload our guilt.  Who better than a multi-billionaire like Rupert Murdoch and his minions?

2) The Competition Factor.  This scandal has befallen one large media conglomerate, one that has had rival media outlets fuming in impotent envy for years as it continued to grow its monopoly.  Now they have a chance to hit back.  The media might have occasionally have fun bringing down an Enron or a Lehman, but that’s nothing compared to the satisfaction of bringing down a rival.  So you can expect all non-NewsCorp media are making as much of the scandal as possible.

3) The Misdirection Factor.  It can be quite useful to parade your sins in public and make them out to be terrible indeed–if you’ve got much worse sins lurking in the closet.  You can pretend that you’re coming clean and acknowledging all your faults, so people will forgive you and trust you henceforth, never knowing that you’re just trying to distract their attention from the much worse sins you haven’t given up.  Phone hacking and police bribing is probably pretty minor when compared to the media’s massive collusion in deception and war-mongering, as documented in John Pilger’s The War You Don’t See.  By exposing the minor fault and making a great deal of it, the media can hope to persuade the public that this is the worst of its crimes.

4) The Hypocrisy Factor.  Similarly, the government stands to benefit from angry rants against the wickedness of News International, even if some of this rebounds upon government officials that had close ties to NI executives.  The government can pretend that phone hacking is an unthinkable intrusion on people’s privacy, conveniently obscuring the fact that, especially since 9/11, UK and US governments have been engaged in massive unconstitutional breaches of privacy that make anything News of the World did look like child’s play.

Documentary Round-Up Pt. 3: The War in Iraq and the KJB

The War You Don’t See (2011):

 Message: 5/5
Content/Compellingness of Argument: 4/5
Cinematography: 4/5

Back when I was spewing venom about the obsequious media response to the prospective war in Libya, a friend recommended this documentary to me, and I finally got around to seeing it a couple weeks ago.  It’s made by John Pilger, a veteran English documentarian who has made a business of unmasking the powers that be for more than three decades (though this is the first film of his that I’ve seen).  Indeed, with his track record, it’s surprising that he was able to get any higher-ups to sit down and consent to an interview with him.  Many of them don’t come off looking very good at all, and Pilger has no hesitation in contradicting them to their faces when they try to BS their way through awkward questions.  Of course, being English, he’s still too polite to go for the kill and elicit the kind of angry outburst that Ferguson gets in Inside Job.  Also, the film appears to be on a considerably lower budget than Inside Job, and so isn’t quite as cinematically flawless; but it does pretty well considering.

The theme of this movie is the pervasive failure of the Western media (of course Pilger’s chief focus is on the British media, but the sins he uncovers there look like petty quibbles next to what many American networks are routinely guilty of) to offer a really honest and transparent account of Western military engagements.  Too often, they simply act as the public relations arm of the government, disseminating to the masses the official statements–often enough bald lies–of White House or Downing Street.  The official account is rarely subjected to any serious scrutiny, and independent reporting that calls it into question or unearths inconvenient facts is usually swept under the rug and not allowed to make it to press.

Unsurprisingly, Pilger devotes particularly blistering criticism to the way the major news sources handled the lead-up to the Iraq War, repeating without qualification the false information government sources fed them and tripping over themselves to flatter national leaders.  Once the war started, he shows how the media practice of “embedding”–getting military permission to have reporters stationed with certain units–meant that those reporters by and large only got to see what the military wanted them to see, and when they saw something different, they generally felt pressure not to report it so as not to lose their “embed” status.  The result is that viewers generally only get to see the war from the perspective of their own triumphant troops, not from the standpoint of the civilians who are suffering.  Pilger discusses how, even though civilian casualties are mentioned in the media, they are often understated and are given only as statistics–viewers are never invited to share the pain of the victims and their families.  And he cites one arresting statistic of his own–in WWI, civilians accounted for less than 30% of all casualties, in WWII around 50%, in Vietnam around 70%, and in the Iraq War over 90%!  All this time I had supposed that, however bad civilian casualty rates were now, at least we were getting better and better at minimizing them.  Apparently not, and no wonder, when a single US GI death brings as much public outcry as the deaths of 100 civilians.  

Pilger also looks at warped media coverage on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (and this is in Britain, where I always thought they were remarkably pro-Palestinian!); and gives some interesting attention to the Wikileaks issue (including an interview with Julian Assange).


So why does this happen?  Here is where I thought Pilger’s film could’ve done rather more.  A lot of the answer that seems to come up in his interviews with people is that it’s the embedding phenomenon–in Washington and London as much as in the field.  To get a lot of information, reporters need to gain the favor of government officials, who will supply them with information.  But this means that they are limited to sharing the information that those officials want them to know and to pass on.  If they should ever do research on their own account that contradicts the official story, they’ll immediately be threatened with losing their special access.  And so the pressure to conform is tremendous.  

However, there’s another, deeper problem that emerges when Pilger is interviewing some particularly defensive media executives, which is a confusion about what it is that the news media are supposed to do–a false ideal of democracy.  Defending themselves against Pilger’s question, a couple of execs insist that they never told viewers that such-and-such official report was true, they simply passed it on as it was, and left it up to the viewer to decide about the truth of it.  Their job, they insist, is simply to be a conduit for facts and opinions that come to their attention; it is then up to ordinary citizens to decide what to make of these facts and opinions that are passed along to them.  Our society is frightened to death of elitism and paternalism, and idolizes least-common-denominator democracy; so the news media insist they must not take any responsibility for interpreting, investigating, and cross-examining information–that is the citizen’s job.  But of course, this ignores the fact that most ordinary citizens simply do not have the time and the means to properly investigate government claims and media reports–they must opt either to assume a perenially skeptical posture (as I do), or to presume that what the authorities tells them is usually true (which most still seem to do).  They rely on media to sort through things for them and get to the truth of the matter.  But the media (at least as represented by some of the people Pilger is interviewing) is busy trying to shove this responsibility off onto the government, which is hardly the most impartial source.  Pilger presses them a bit on this point, but not as strongly as he could have.

I also would’ve liked to see him talk about how part of the problem is the instinctive patriotism and war-lust that seems to so easily seduce all people, modern Western reporters as much as anyone.  So many of the people he talks to admit to just having gotten caught up in the excitement of it all and not wanting to ask any hard questions.


Needless to say, an illuminating, challenging, disturbing and sobering film all round.  Now I’m going to have to go check out some of Pilger’s other work.



KJB (2011): The Book that Changed the World

 Message: N/A
Content/Compellingness of Argument: 4.5/5
Cinematography: 4/5

Now for something completely different!  This is not a strict documentary at all, but a hybrid docu-drama, with a generous sampling of live action mixed throughout the documentary interviews and narration.  Although it’s very politically-charged in its own way, the politics in question happened four hundred years ago, so it doesn’t seem quite as controversial anymore–however, there’s still plenty of controversy to go around, at least for Presbyterians whose identity is dependent on a certain narration of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras. 

This docu-drama, made in celebration of the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, invites the viewer to experience the complex political and religious milieu of the late 16th and early 17th century in which the King James emerged.  By doing this, rather than simply focusing narrowly on the production of the translation, its merits, and its reception, the filmmakers succeed in recreating the original wonder and drama of the King James Bible, helping viewers to really feel what a monumental accomplishment it was.  In this, they are helped in no small way by the booming and melodramatic presence of John Rhys-Davies as narrator and presenter, roaming around old buildings and libraries and rapturously inhaling from the pages of archaic manuscripts.  The best scene of all is when Rhys-Davies, to demonstrate the auditory qualities of the translation, thunders forth favorite passages from a pulpit in an old stone church.  

But it was perhaps King James himself who stole the stage.  Although a no-name actor on a very rushed and under-budgeted production schedule, he (see, I still don’t even know his name) does a fine job of bringing this brilliant and enigmatic monarch to life.  The scene where he brazenly mocks both the reactionary Anglican clerics and the over-scrupulous Puritan protesters at Hampton Court is almost worth the price of the film (at least for me, though I know most people aren’t doing their dissertation on Anglican-Puritan disputes).  The film offers a much more sympathetic (and from what I can gather, historically accurate) take on King James than we–at any rate we in Presbyterian circles–have generally been exposed to.  (I grew up in a church where the pastor would not even call it the “King James Version” lest he show any respect to the monarch that commissioned it, always referring to it obliquely as the “Authorized Version.”)  He comes across as a incredibly educated and theologically aware ruler, headstrong and defensive but deeply conscious of his duty to his subjects and to Christ’s kingdom, as well as politically savvy.  In particular, I was surprised to learn in the film how closely he was involved with the commissioning and oversight of the translation, which I had always assumed simply bore his name because he was the king who officially signed off on it.


There are only two weaknesses in this film, that account for my giving it four rather than five stars.  The first I have already mentioned–this was filmed on quite a low budget, and so one should not expect the “drama” part to be top-quality, and it’s not.  That said, it’s much better than one might expect–the costumes, acting, sets etc. are all respectable and there are few if any moments that make you wince at their corny-ness.  A bit more irritating at times is Rhys-Davies’s melodrama–indeed, if it were anyone else but Rhys-Davies, it might be intolerable, but we expect no less of him, and he has the ethos to back it up most of the time.  But occasionally, it is a bit over the top.   

Nonetheless, I highly recommend this film to anyone–Christian or not–who wants to learn about this most remarkable contribution to our cultural heritage and this fascinating period in history.