Saturday, January 10, 2009

"Instant History" Syndrome

With all of the real fighting and bloodshed that is going on in Gaza, it has become increasingly difficult to sort out truth from shoddy reporting, and real perspective from fiction invented solely to influence public opinion. If I want to know what is happening there, I find I must avoid the usual sources of CNN, the BBC and print media like the New York Times and the Washington Post. Why is that? I can remember a time when the latter three, at least, were reasonably trustworthy, even with their built-in bias to the left. (Almost from the beginning, CNN had problems sorting out actual news from manufactured filler when it determined to be the first 24-hour news channel.) Today, however, they are hopeless as a source for reliable information that you can use in your life. As more viewers and readers discover that fact, their audience dwindles, resulting in layoffs which further reduce their ability to report the news. If they were aircraft, one would be watching horrified to see whether they can pull out of their steep dive.

But they are not aircraft, filled with real people in peril for their lives; they instead are the (formerly major) media, proving unable or unwilling to adapt to circumstances where the number of news sources has multiplied exponentially. As such, their decline is Darwinian, and I, at least, shed no tears. The once mighty Washington Post, which broke the Watergate story, now devotes precious column inches to inane babble (by a former president!) about Israel's ruthless bombing of "a defensive tunnel being dug by Hamas." Both its Website, and that of the New York Times, are eclipsed in viewership by---you guessed it---the upstart CNN, which pulls in viewers with exploitative videos that (for example) are furnished by to it by a camerman who used to manage the main Website for Hamas. (See also this update.) 

The problem here is with what I call "instant history." The resources of the Internet, while unsurpassed for obtaining instant news, are equally capable of manufacturing it. When someone wants to counter, or to mitigate, the impact of particular news, one can instantly post "eyewitness" or other first-person accounts that are tailored to suit, and that in some cases are staged, or wholly bogus. The result is instant history, which gathers in credibility as more people pick it up and link to it.

What determines whether a given version of instant history will be effective is its strength as an Internet meme. And that strength in turn will wax or wane depending on how well it matches what a given constituency wants to hear, or what that constituency thinks the real world is like. CNN, for example, is doing far better with its memes just now than is the Washington Post or the New York Times. No doubt the reason is partly that the constant streaming video of CNN is more mesmerizing than the printed words of the newspapers. (One still has to read words to navigate the CNN site, but there are far fewer of them overall.)

But forget CNN---I want to concentrate on the printed news story, because it is simpler to analyze than a video. Take this simple test. Please read the following paragraphs, which are from a published news story about the California Supreme Court's recent decision in The Episcopal Church Cases:

Rebellious congregations that part ways with their denominations may lose their church buildings and property as a result, the California Supreme Court said Monday in a unanimous ruling. . . .

The Rt. Rev. J. Jon Bruno said the diocese was "overjoyed" and predicted that the ruling would encourage disgruntled congregations to remain united with their mother churches.

Although the ruling came in a lawsuit over St. James parish, Bruno said it also would affect property disputes involving St. David's Church in North Hollywood and All Saints Anglican Church in Long Beach. . . .

The Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin was among those that hoped to benefit from the court's ruling.

The diocese sued its former bishop, John-David Schofield, after he and a majority of congregations in the diocese broke away in 2007, placing themselves under the authority of a conservative Anglican archbishop in South America. Schofield was ousted by the Episcopal Church and replaced by Bishop Jerry Lamb.

The diocese's lawsuit seeks the return of more than 30 church properties.

The court's decision "supports the contention that Bishop Lamb is in fact the bishop of the diocese and therefore he is the owner of the property," said the Rev. Canon Mark Hall, assistant to Lamb.
Now comes the test part. Please answer "true" or "false" to each of the following three statements:

1. The California Supreme Court decided that the property of St. James parish now belongs to the Episcopal Church, since the parish decided to leave the Church.

2. This case also resolves the property disputes with regard to two other parishes in the Diocese of Los Angeles who left the Church as well.

3. The Church and its dioceses will now be able to use the decision to go after the property of still other parishes, such as the ones in San Joaquin who left with Bishop John-David Schofield.

Did you decide whether each statement is true or false? Good. Now please add up your "score" on the test, as follows:

Take the number of statements you considered to be "true", and multiply that number by ten. Add 70 to the result, and write that number down.

Likewise, take the number of statements you considered to be "false", and multiply that number by minus ten, so you get a negative number. Write that number down (with its minus sign).

Now add the two numbers (which really means that you in essence subtract the negative number from the positive one), and write down the result. 

For example, if you considered each statement to be true, you would have zero to subtract, and you would score 100. If you considered one of the statements to be false, you would have the number 10 to subtract from the number 90, so you would have 80. If you thought two of the statements were false, you would have the number 20 to subtract from 80, and so you would end up with 60.

And finally, if you thought that none of the statements was true---i.e., that they were each false, then you would end up with a score of 70 minus 30, or 40.

Now, here is how to interpret your final score. If your score is 80 or greater, there are two choices:

Either you are a faithful Episcopalian, and have no sympathy for those who left---especially if you are still in a parish that voted to leave (with you in the minority); or you are in a parish that left, but you are feeling extremely worried and pessimistic about that decision. (If your score is 100, you probably think of those who left and tried to take their property with them as "stealing.")

If your score is exactly 60, either you may think that there is nothing wrong with the Church hanging on to its property via the Dennis Canon, or alternatively you think you were right to leave the Church, but may feel worried about it; in either event, however, at least you do not believe everything that you read in the newspaper.

And if your score is only 40, then you are probably a regular reader of this blog. Congratulations!

Here are the statements again, with a brief explanation of the answers.

1. The California Supreme Court decided that the property of St. James parish now belongs to the Episcopal Church, since the parish decided to leave the Church.

FALSE. The California Supreme Court decided only that State courts should apply the "neutral principles of law" approach to church property disputes, and that under that approach, the trust imposed by the Dennis Canon could be given effect via a State statute, and would trump any language in the parish's deeds once the parish left the Church. 

Explanation. The case went up to the Supreme Court after the trial court had ruled that neither the Diocese of Los Angeles nor the Episcopal Church had alleged a valid claim based on the Dennis Canon, and had dismissed their respective complaints. The Supreme Court ruled that the claims alleged were valid, assuming the Diocese and the Church proved those allegations. The case now has to go back to the trial court again, to allow St. James (and the other two parishes involved) to answer the complaints with allegations of their own. If there is a genuine dispute of fact raised by the parties'  pleadings, the case will go to trial based on the factual evidence offered in proof of the parties' respective claims. 

2. This case also resolves the property disputes with regard to two other parishes in the Diocese of Los Angeles who left the Church as well.

FALSE. The Supreme Court no more "resolved" the property disputes with regard to St. David's, North Hollywood, and All Saints, Long Beach than it resolved the dispute with St. James. Their cases, indeed, are based on different facts from those in the case of St. James. And if there is a factual issue raised by the pleadings, then each of those cases will have to be tried as well before there can be a final judgment as to the property. 

3. The Church and its dioceses will now be able to use the decision to go after the property of other parishes, such as the ones in San Joaquin who left with Bishop John-David Schofield.

FALSE. The decision actually helps Bishop Schofield and his diocese, since it holds that the court in Fresno will have to follow a "neutral principles" approach, rather than deferring outright to the decisions of the national Church. This means that the court in Fresno will take a look at all of the applicable canons and constitutional provisions to decide whether a diocese (as opposed to just a parish) may leave the national Church. 

Explanation. The Dennis Canon does not apply to the property of a diocese; it applies only to the property of a parish, mission, or congregation. (The "30 church properties" referred to in the article are not properties owned by parishes in the Diocese of San Joaquin; they are held at the diocesan level.) Indeed, under the Dennis Canon, the Diocese in which the parishes are located is a co-beneficiary of the trust that it imposes on parish property. Thus before the "Remain Episcopal" group headed by Bishop Lamb can even assert any claim to parish property, they will have to prove to the court that they are a genuine diocese of the Episcopal Church, led by a properly installed bishop.

They will be able to do this in only one of two ways. Either they demonstrate, under the "neutral principles" approach, that there is language in the national Church's Constitution and Canons that prohibits a diocese from leaving, or they organize as a new proper diocese of the Church. But this is a "catch-22" for them. 

The only language to which they can point (in Article V, section 1 of the Constitution) says that a new diocese must have an "unqualified accession" to the Church in its own constitution to be admitted to membership. Once a Diocese has been admitted, the Constitution says nothing about withdrawing that accession later---which is what the Southern dioceses did during the Civil War. (Moreover, if a Diocese must always maintain language of "unqualified accession", why is it that the Dioceses of Maryland and Washington remain members of the Church when they do not have such language in their Constitutions today, nor did they ever have any such language in the past?)  

Under the first option, therefore, they have no language to which they can point that forbids a subsequent withdrawal under the "neutral principles" approach now required by the California Supreme Court. And if they elect the second option---organizing as a legitimate new diocese, with the approval of General Convention as required by Article V---they will be conceding that Bishop Schofield's diocese did have the right to leave the Church. That is why I call their dilemma a catch-22, and that is why their counsel argued so doggedly against the "neutral principles" approach before the California Supreme Court.

Thus do not believe everything you read in the papers. And on the subject of "instant history", note that the story from which I quoted appeared in the Los Angeles Times within an hour of the announcement of the Court's decision. That interval really gave the reporters who wrote it time to digest and assimilate the actual effect of the ruling, don't you think? 

It gets worse. Because the reporters had no ability properly to assess the legal impact of the ruling in just 60 minutes from the time it appeared, they resorted instead to a familiar meme: first, make the point that the case is a victory for the national Church; second, link it to other recent decisions in such a way as to make it seem that they each decided similar things, again all in the national Church's favor; and third, use weighted adjectives like "rebellious" to refer to the withdrawing parishes. Do all this in the first few paragraphs, and you have influenced the very readers who want to believe in the meme, or who do not have the information required as an antidote to resist it. And in this case, as the test above proves, those are the readers who already back the national Church, who want a reason to continue to do so, and who feel good backing a "winner." (More than that---it lets them feel magnanimous when the story tells them that Bishop Jon Bruno offered an "olive branch" to the dissenters if they would return to the fold. Forget the fact, not mentioned in the story, that the same Bishop had just announced his approval of rites for the blessing of couples, including those of the same sex, in the churches of the Diocese.)

The Instant History Syndrome creates huge difficulties in trying to discuss what should be objective topics, such as what the Constitution or the Canons actually say. For those who have fed their minds for so long on the memes propagated in the name of the national Church, it is simply inconceivable that the words "unqualified accession" could mean anything other than "unreserved and irrevocable submission." Yet as I have tried to show in my historical posts, the people who founded the Church felt entirely differently. Indeed, one of their founding principles read as follows:
"VI. That no Powers be delegated to a general ecclesiastical Government, except such as cannot conveniently be exercised by the Clergy and Vestries in their respective Congregations."
(Bold added for emphasis.) It was not the national church that came first, therefore, and which created the dioceses; instead, the dioceses created the national church, and delegated to it only those powers which could not conveniently be exercised locally. As a voluntary association with delegated powers, the Episcopal Church (USA) is not a hierarchy like the Roman Catholic Church. 

Those of you who ended up with 80 or 100 on my test should not, therefore, brag about the score. Viewed from another light, the number measures your susceptibility to memes from the left, much as a thermometer measures temperature, or a spring measures tension. I have no doubt a similar test could be prepared to measure susceptibility to memes from the right; that is not my point. To the degree one scores high on either type of test, one is thereby hindered in understanding what motivates others who are not like one---indeed, one is thereby drawn into dividing a continuous spectrum at some arbitrary point into "us" versus "them", and thus into constructing "sides" that prove to be self-fulfilling prophecies. 

Instant history is a way of fueling the divisions that beset us. As the Internet grows in scope and extent, and as their one-sidedness becomes ever more self-evident, the major media are losing their ability to hang on to what was once their exclusive control of the news. The challenge for us is to graduate from the hold they once had upon us, so that the Internet will be a boon for discussion, rather than merely accelerate our polarization into a Gaza of our own making.  

1 comment:

  1. The Curmudgeon intuitively strikes again,and brilliantly, I might add. Thank you once again for saying and explaining clearly that which I want to say but can not.