Sarah Posner - Propagandist Extraordinaire

Sarah Posner is a propagandist, not a journalist.

Last week I wrote about how pre-existing narratives can actually becloud our vision of contemporary events, rather than elucidate them. Of course, in some sense, we all have pre-existing narratives or else it would be impossible to place data in context, impossible to make sense of the world or bring our different sets of beliefs and experiences into some kind of coherence. But, anyone wishing to be intellectually honest must be aware of the down-side of pre-existing narratives, the way they can miss nuance, dismiss alternative arguments and frustrate the possibility for political resolution.

This capacity of both possessing and questioning one’s assumptions is especially important for those of us engaged in journalism, and even more especially for those of us journalists engaged in expressing opinions about public matters, and more especially still is this the case for those of us journalists who offer opinions in the hyper-politicized, hyper-polarized culture we inhabit in the U.S. in 2012. “It is doubtful that an extremely activist political culture can also be a heavily deliberative one,” writes University of Pennsylvania Professor Diana Mutz, and so while sharp elbows are fine, and political effects to be considered, a journalism that is not concerned with elevating discourse, uninterested in sorting through data to find the truth of something, and incapable of questioning it’s own presuppositions is no journalism at all. It is propaganda.

Here is the opening paragraph from Ms. Posner’s post at Religion Dispatches about the USCCB’s document on religious liberty last week:

As promised at their March administrative meeting, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has released its Statement of Religious Liberty, "our first, most cherished liberty." As expected, it's basically a rehash of the same arguments the Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty has been making for almost a year. This document, though, is even more pointed and hostile than previous statements, expressing disdain for (and even a refusal to acknowledge) court rulings against the Bishops, vowing not to obey "unjust laws," and pledging to deploy "all the energies the Catholic community can muster" to resist "totalitarian incursions against religious liberty" this summer.

Of course, throwing around the word “totalitarian” is always sure to catch the reader’s attention. But, the bishops did not say that they were pledging the energies of the Catholic community to resist totalitarian incursions against religious liberty, although presumably they would and so would Ms. Posner. They did not suggest that the current political landscape of the nation was totalitarian. What they said this: “In addition to this summer’s observance, we also urge that the Solemnity of Christ the King—a feast born out of resistance to totalitarian incursions against religious liberty—be a day specifically employed by bishops and priests to preach about religious liberty, both here and abroad.” By neglecting the context, and playing around with selective quotations, Ms. Posner makes it seem that the bishops are calling Obama a totalitarian and planning to do something about it this summer. This is a suggestion not born of journalistic attentiveness but partisan hubris.

Posner’s tendentiousness leads her into some curious intellectual territory. She accuses the bishops of “court-snubbing,” and that “the decisions of the courts are not respected by the Bishops, but rather dismissed out of hand as further evidence of discrimination against them.” This is curious. It should come as no surprise that many Americans have questioned judicial decisions in the past. Why should court decisions be viewed as sacrosanct? I wonder if we might have Ms. Posner’s thought on, say, Bush v. Gore or Citizens United? The long history of the nation includes many instances when a prior court decision was subsequently over-ruled by the courts: Should Thurgood Marshall have simply “respected” Plessy v. Ferguson or should he have dismissed it out of hand as further evidence of discrimination?

Even when Ms. Posner finds herself in agreement with the USCCB, she is so uncomfortable with that fact she dissembles and exposes her journalistic sloth. She writes:

Among the "concrete examples" of infringement of religious liberty there's a new twist, added, no doubt, to rebut charges the Bishops are fixated exclusively on matters of sex. The Bishops object to harsh immigration laws, such as those in Alabama, which bar "harboring" undocumented immigrants, "what the Church deems Christian charity and pastoral care to those immigrants." As noble as an objection to these odious laws may be, I find it difficult to see an infringement of religious liberty of the shelterers of undocumented immigrants as their most noxious feature.

First of all, no one said the religious liberty implications of these laws was their most noxious feature. But, had Posner taken the time to do a bit of research – and she could have done it all online – she might have discovered that the USCCB showed how its religious liberty concerns are related to the spate of anti-immigrant laws in its amicus brief against the Arizona anti-immigrant law in ways that are entirely analogous to the USCCB’s opposition to the HHS mandates. But, why permit anything like an inconvenient truth destory one’s narrative?

Yes, I use the term “inconvenient truth” advisedly. Posner’s writing are to the debate about religion and politics what global earming deniers are to the debate about climate change. Any argument, any data point, that conflicts with her interest or her prejudice cannot cause her to reflect, still less to reconsider, her views. She knows what she knows, even if she knows nothing else. Her writings are pure propaganda. It is a strange career choice for someone who styles themselves as an open-minded liberal.

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