In the previous post, I suggested that Marci McDonald blurs important distinctions among various religious groups, movements, and categories she discusses. She does it so much, in fact, that her central argument, that there is an emerging and important Religious Right in Canada, is compromised: Who and what are the Religious Right? How are they related to Canadian “social conservatives” or “so-cons” and to those she calls “theo-cons”? It’s not clear whom she is describing, unless she means simply “everyone to my political or religious right who is connecting religion and politics and advocating for their views in public”–and that’s not a very helpful characterization. I don’t mean to be unkind: I truly think that is the best way to characterize Ms. McDonald’s understanding of the Religious Right, lacking a definition from her book itself.
As for other misdemeanours of journalistic interpretation, here are a few.
Alongside of reporting what has actually happened or is actually happening, Ms. McDonald sometimes suggests what she thinks might have happened, or what she thinks might be happening, or what she thinks might happen, or what some other people think has happened, or think might have happened, or think might be happening, or think might happen. Reporting such opinions can sometimes be worthwhile, to be sure. But in a project whose heart is an assertion of fact–This is happening, and it’s important–trading in opinions rather than interpretations of fact puts one’s credibility at risk. And if you don’t name or even identify the sources of those opinions, so much the worse.
For example: “As Harper’s minister of public safety, Day negotiated a controversial agreement with the Israeli government…. Critics speculate that the agreement commits Canadian officials, including those from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and intelligence agencies, to assist Israel in policing its internal barriers against Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank” (p. 333). Who are these critics and why should we take their speculations seriously as news?
Here’s another: “With the stroke of a budgetary pen,” Ms. McDonald avers, “[Harper] has defunded agencies such as the Status of Women Canada and the Court Challenges Program, leaving both feminists and gay activists without resources to take on hostile government policies” (p. 354). How does she know there are no resources? As a feminist myself, I am insulted to be told that I and my fellow feminists have no resources except what the federal government will give us. And as for gay activitists, the last time I looked, I didn’t see any slowing down of their relentless campaign because of this particular form of government defunding. Is there any evidence that either cause has been seriously hurt by these moves? Ms. McDonald doesn’t provide any.
Because the main thrust of the book is conspiracy theory (let’s call it what it is), Ms. McDonald trades in the requisite rhetoric. But her sinister language often becomes comical: “McVety was not alone in operating from the shadows.” (Charles McVety? Operating inconspicuously? The mind reels.) “Other religious groups made their presence felt under an array of mysterious identities…. Ron Heggie, the point man for Concerned Christian Parents, insisted the initiative [of newspaper ads decrying same-sex marriage] was entirely his own, but a trio of his dark-suited Brethren had already been spotted in the Commons visitors’ gallery during the marriage debate” (pp. 78-79). Dark suits in the House of Commons? How ominous! One wonders what Ms. McDonald would have made of them if they had shown up in pastel leisure suits instead….
There’s more, much more. The National House of Prayer, “under the guise of hosting a parliamentary prayer mission, [is] engaged in a massive demystification effort designed to lure wary evangelicals into activism or even to run for office themselves.” Um, what was that? The National House of Prayer is educating Canadian citizens, previously alienated from involvement in public life, to take up their responsibilities as citizens and contribute as they can? And that’s a Bad Thing?
Ms. McDonald doesn’t strike me as a mean person, but she does indulge in the occasional dirty trick. The founder of a museum advocating “creation science” is the only person in the entire book whose speech is rendered by dropped “g’s,” as if he is, yes, a true fundamentalist (= hick) straight out of “Inherit the Wind”: “The teachers don’t want their students comin’ [sic] in here, askin’ [sic] the questions because then they’d have to deal with it” (p. 189). You can just see the bib overalls and the toothpick, can’t you?
And the head of the Creation Science Association of Alberta is Dr. Margaret Helder, who holds a Ph.D. in biology. But here’s how Ms. McDonald describes her: “Margaret Helder, an Edmonton grandmother with a Ph.D. in biology.” Excuse me? Why is she called “a grandmother,” with her relevant professional qualifications mentioned afterward when no one else in the book is defined by grandparenthood? (C’mon, Random House editors. Help your author sound her best.)
She picks on bigger folk, to be sure, but with equally risible results. She says of the Prime Minister, “Although Harper had succeeded in remaining an enigma to all but a close circle of advisers, there had never been a hint that beneath his opaque mask lurked a covert Bible thumper” (p. 19). I’ll buy Ms. McDonald an expensive lunch if she can prove that Stephen Harper has thumped a Bible anywhere, anytime, in his entire life.
Positively odious is her attempt to paint Preston Manning as a Machiavelli intent on misleading Canadians and on teaching others to do so in order to advance a covert agenda (in a chapter entitled, “Serpents and Doves”). Preston Manning, of all people! Yet here are words she directly attaches to him: “deception” and “verbal obfuscation” (p. 103); “linguistic subterfuge” and “strategic wiles” (p. 106); “guile,” “cunning,” and “equivocation” (p. 108). If she could prove Mr. Manning to be a liar and one who teaches others to lie, she certainly would have a scoop. But, alas, she doesn’t comprehend what he is advocating, which is simply political and rhetorical savvy: a lesson he learned the hard way via experience with award-winning reporters from major North American media who fundamentally misunderstand people like him. If anyone could teach enthusiastic Christians how to speak carefully and persuasively in public, given his own long experience of both failure and success, it would be Mr. Manning. To portray Preston Manning as a cunning spin-doctor rather than a wise veteran is just looking for trouble.
And here’s a case of rhetoric worthy of FOX News (and, yes, I mean to prick Ms. McDonald’s conscience hereby): The Liberal opposition could hardly object, because of their own record of patronage, when the Conservative government began “larding the bench with its own failed candidates and former party pooh-bahs” (p. 282). “Larding”? Are you really calling Canadian judges pigs, Ms. McDonald?
The alarmism mounts. Ms. McDonald reports that six CRTC commissioners resisted granting licenses to single-faith television channels because they were “horrified by the ethnic massacres then bloodying Bosnia” (p. 257). I’ll gladly assume that she read their testimony to that effect, from what she says in her notes. But surely they, and she, should have referred to the much more culturally relevant case of the United States, not Bosnia, in which not a single shot has been fired in any religious war based on what someone on a faith-based television channel has said.
The alarmism finally goes right over the top. “A former New Democratic Party MP, [Dennis] Gruendig laments that ‘there is little in progressive Ottawa to rival the networks that have been created by the religious and political right'” (p. 342), which perhaps is true as long as you don’t count the CBC, CTV, and Global broadcasting networks, the universities, Bay Street, the mainstream print media, the large entertainment media, and the majority of major philanthropists, foundations, and granting agencies in Canada–none of which are known for their friendship and collaboration with the Religious Right, so far as I can tell, and who instead present a pretty consistent message of antagonism to what the Religious Right stand for.
People who dismiss “opinion columns [as] long on argument and short on facts” (p. 90) and then characterize a National Post contributor, Andrea Mrozek, as “whipping off breezy opinion pieces” (p. 91) need to be long on facts and circumspect on argument. Ironically enough, then, Ms. McDonald’s own concluding page says that “many of us in the mainstream media are ill-equipped to take the measure of a movement that conforms to few political stereotypes and operates in a parallel universe” (361). Leaving aside the last phrase as a silly cliché (her whole point is that the Religious Right do not operate in a parallel universe, whatever that means, but in social networks now interacting with those with which she is more familiar), she is right and is herself, alas, a case in point. It makes one wonder, again, whether journalists lacking appropriate training in a field (in this case, the history and sociology of Christianity in Canada) should be attempting whole books in said field.
But it would be wrong to stop here, so we won’t. For Ms. McDonald, despite her evident trouble understanding quite what she’s looking at, has nonetheless found something to which the rest of us ought to pay attention. There are, it appears, people in Canadian public life and in the federal government in particular whose views and associations ought to trouble not just the Marci McDonalds but even card-carrying, bona fide evangelicals like me.
More on that in the next post.