Sunday, June 4, 2006

Are There Any Limits to “Free” Speech or Good Taste?

It is an alleged dogma taught in Journalism schools that while all Americans have the basic right to speak out as our insights indicate, we (especially professional journalists) do not have the right to change the Facts. This seems a fair and tolerant position which we all cheerfully uphold. The fledging journalist is pummeled to “check the facts”. He is reminded repeatedly to double check before he commits to publication. Further, the schools cling ferociously to the Sacred First Amendment rights of Free speech and freedom of the press. It is heartily believed that Americans have almost an absolute right to express themselves at will. But the important and cautious word is “almost.” It is consensually held, I think, that shouting “Fire” in a crowded theatre when there is no fire is beyond freedom of speech. The shouter knows that his shout is untrue and that others stand to suffer significantly because of his distortion and irresponsibility. He is not constitutionally protected in his “shouting.”

Likewise, inciting a crowd to a “lynching party” by twisted or untrue allegations is not constitutionally protected. Nor is a rebellion, fueled by untrue propagandistic material, against a justly installed government legitimate. There are limits to what we call Free speech.

Recently, however (May 27, ’06), the usually ethical cable station A&E aired a program which seriously overstepped the bounds of honest journalism, (and I personally believe) of constitutional freedom and flagrantly offended the spiritual sensitivities of many Christians. The program, meant to focus on some esoteric group called “The Illuminati”, significantly highlighted a totally one-sided position which was not only anti-Christian (and heavily anti-Catholic) but, in my mind, worse in that its scholarship was sophomoric and its tonality was bitter. And some of it was blatantly false.

For example, a woman “scholar” -with a straight face- asserted that the Catholic claim to Petrine primacy was untrue because Catholicism bases its position on the historical fact that Peter was the first to see the Risen Christ. She went on happily stating that John and Mary both saw the risen Jesus before Peter did. Hence, the papal claims are bogus. If she had bothered to check, she, hopefully, would have discovered that the claim is not based on John’s Gospel but on Matthew’s, 16:19. The most unsophisticated Catholic child in the 4th grade knows this. How come our “scholar” did not? Or does my psychologist’s “nose” smell something else? Perhaps, she is not interested in the truth or the facts. Is old Sig Freud right again when he suggests that “things are rarely what they seem?” Is the agenda more of hate than light?

The facile assertion that what are claimed to be the bones of Peter “might” be the bones of an animal is nowhere countered by even a suggestion to the contrary. For fair investigations, the excavations called the “scavi” under the Basilica of St. Peter, with 55 years of serious archeological study, at least should be mentioned. Apart from the pervasive tentative and ambiguous language throughout the whole presentation such as “might”, “could be”, “some say”, “it has been said” (and generally without references), the quick juxtaposition of clips from the Nazi era, subliminally linking the Holy Father with the Fuhrer, clearly suggested a common obsession to “control” the masses. Both are Dictators. Both demand total obedience with no room for individual conscience. The Pope and Hitler, despite the difference of language and garments, are the same. We saw the goose-stepping, seig heiling Nazis one second, and the crowds in St. Peter’s Square applauding the Pope in the next. So, the theme and tone ran. My old Irish Grandmother who was educated only to the 3rd grade, taught me constantly thusly: “Never make fun of what is sacred to someone else.” This is elegance and “class”. What I saw on A&E was inelegant and crass bad taste. It almost shouted the primitive and low class.

I expected to see the clumsy insertion of the “wealth” of the Vatican brought out for our consideration. It, of course, popped on the screen—with all the old 19th century anti-Catholic implication. The Poor. The sick. The world’s poverty. Why isn’t it all sold to do “good”? It is the old Judas Iscariot question. Of course, we never heard, as presented by Dr. William Donahue, of the Catholic League, that the priceless art of the Vatican can not be translated into dollar signs. It is not “sellable.” It can’t even be used as collateral.

Nor did we hear that the annual operating budget of the Vatican is less than that of Notre Dame University in South Bend. It would be impolite, I suppose, to mention that the wealth of Harvard University is astronomically vaster than the Vatican and Notre Dame combined. Since we are on the track of what is clearly anti-Catholic bias, we could hardly omit the Galileo case. The “scholars” on A&E blandly asserted that the real reason for the suppression of this scientist was the Church’s fear that Catholics would leave the Church and become sun worshippers -- a loss of control. It is clearly implied that Catholicism is basically anti-science. I heard no historical context nor did I hear of the apology given by Pope John Paul II on behalf of the whole Church. Nor did I hear of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical: Fides et Ratio on the convergence of religion and science. Nowhere was there any indication of the Academy, the Vatican’s worldwide gathering of scientists.

The case of some early Pope mysteriously dying only 13 days after his election (with dark implications of foul play), the pompous presentation of the worldly Innocent X, the super serious tone in presenting the secular ambitions of warrior Popes, all implied Catholic corruption and deceit. Nowhere did we hear of John Paul II or John 23rd or Gregory the Great or Pius VII. Or any of the many saintly and compassionate Pontiffs of our history. To make such an unbalanced presentation is more than bad taste. It is bigotry.

However, the most outrageous example of this unscholarly presentation was the tentative possibility that perhaps the mummified Body of Jesus Christ is kept in a catacomb in Rome which is off limits to researchers. With an incredible violation of Logic 101, it is stated that, because of the limitation, perhaps there is something to this possibility. I recall the old saw that, since the burned body could not be absolutely verified to be that of the Fuehrer, perhaps Adolph Hitler escaped the bunker to live out his days in Argentina with Eva Braun. He dyed his mustache, grew it longer and wore dark glasses. Some people believed it, fearing that he might return. Others, unconsciously, wanted it to be true. Most people said: “Baloney. It is an obvious fantasy.” The interest in the touted novel, Da Vinci Code, is huge even though it is obvious fantasy. Some people might want it to be true. But for a journalist to assert its authenticity knowing that it is sheer imagination is to be dishonest.[1]

The possibility that any one can be mistaken is taken for granted. However, professionals are supposed to be adult enough to acknowledge an error, to accept the new proven information and make the correction. But knowingly to mislead the gullible is not only dishonest but evil. The “misleading” is not necessarily frontal but, more insidiously, oblique. For example, the program noted, with a critical tone, that when researchers are given access to priceless documents in the Vatican Archives, they are carefully watched by a “cleric”. The “show” made an obvious and false implication. They don’t want you to know the real truth. What does one expect when viewing priceless documents? Beer and bagels? The Magna Carta would not be available for any college undergraduate at his simple request without some kind of serious supervision.

If this A&E presentation were just shoddy research, it could be easily overlooked as the awkward attempt of some historical or theological bumpkin to make his mark in modern television. This presentation has all the penumbras and emanations of bigotry. The errors and distortions might be understandable in 1858 in the days of Know Nothingism. Today, there are too many opportunities to check assertions before any kind of serious publication. Otherwise, the presenters of this program might be suffering from some kind of unresolved juvenile repression surfacing today as uncovering the “real” truth of Christianity. It sounds a lot like embedded teenage rebellion. Perhaps, they had better look me up professionally for psychotherapy. My number is in the New York telephone directory. My fees are light and my burden is Truth.

[1] It is hilarious to observe that Dan Brown features an Opus Dei “monk” in his book. Opus Dei has no “monks” at all. It was just made up to fill out the fantasy of the author.

No comments: