Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Propaganda, Fundamentalism and Sports

Master Talk in Paris on Fundamentalism

By John Taylor; 2008 Oct 08, 11 Mashiyyat 165 BE

In our daily study session the kids and I have been going through Paris Talks, perhaps my most beloved Baha'i book. When several other books seemed inadequate for our purposes (we have gone over the lives of Baha'u'llah and Abdu'l-Baha so often that I fear it will soon bore them -- I certainly have had enough for now) I suddenly realized that the simple, direct words in this book make it perfect for reading with children.

The Master seems to have visited Paris, the center of Western culture, with little in mind other than to convey a very simple, almost sparse message. Paris was unusual among the places the Master visited in the West. Unlike in English speaking lands, there seems to have been little attempt at widespread publicity in France, either because the Baha'is were small in number, being mostly expatriate Americans and other foreigners, or because of a lack of receptivity among Parisians, who were either secular materialists or strongly Roman Catholic. In any case, most of His talks were given in His own apartments to a small number of interested individuals. In these domestic rather than public surroundings the Master drew a broad sketch of what He was to say in greater detail six months later in America.

I have always thought of the text of this book as a sort of literary minefield. You walk down the garden path and look around to find these lovely sounding sentiments about niceness and light, then you look down at where you are walking. As soon as you think about what you are standing on Kaboom! -- an astonishing, mind blowing explosion of meaning. Take the most recent talk we read, called "Religious Prejudices." He starts off, taking us right down the center of the garden path.

"The basis of the teaching of Baha'u'llah is the Unity of Mankind, and his greatest desire was that love and goodwill should live in the heart of men." (Paris Talks, October 27th, 1911, 45-46)

Sure, so does just about everybody else. Who is not for peace and goodwill amongst men? Nice sentiments. But take a look down at the ground.

"As He exhorted the people to do away with strife and discord, so I wish to explain to you the principal reason of the unrest among nations."

The first time we tried to read this talk there was extreme unrest among my students, never mind among nations. They were bickering with one another insatiably and could not sit still for a second, so I broke off the class at this point and instead we watched some Baha'i internet videos that I had collected together for just such an emergency using an aggregator program called Miro. Even this did not help much but at least we got through the class. The next night we tried again. I find that by taking turns reading we can often go through much heavier material than this. All during the next day I was in suspense, though, wondering what could possibly be the reason for the unrest among nations. The next evening the kids were much more subdued and I got the chance to find out what causes the world's unrest.

"The chief cause is the misrepresentation of religion by the religious leaders and teachers."

Ahh. The mine goes off. Kaboom! Here is the original lie, a misrepresentation born like original sin out of all varieties of professional religious leadership. This Big Lie was in place long before Hitler and Goebbels appropriated it. But what did the religious leaders misrepresent? The Master goes on to explain,

"They teach their followers to believe that their own form of religion is the only one pleasing to God, and that followers of any other persuasion are condemned by the All-Loving Father and deprived of His Mercy and Grace. Hence arise among the peoples, disapproval, contempt, disputes and hatred. If these religious prejudices could be swept away, the nations would soon enjoy peace and concord."

Here is the discovery that Tolstoy laid out at length in his Confessions, the book that detailed here last spring. Tolstoy's discovery of the Great Lie prompted me to write an essay series on fundamentalism, of which this essay is yet another instalment.

In the talk, Abdu'l-Baha goes on to describe in detail a remarkable peroration that a Rabbi gave his flock when He attended a synagogue in Tiberius. I will not go into more detail, but the substance of the Master's observation is that religious leaders flatter their listeners, raise self esteem in them by telling them that God offers his great prophets to them as rewards of merit. The Jews were the chosen people because they were the best people in the world. Before there were Nobel Prizes, there were prophets of God. If a nation is worthy enough, God will reward it with a divine Visitor. Their only moral duty, then, is to hate those who were thus not honoured with God's approbation.

This is a deliberate lie about what religion is, and what it aims at. Religion is not an Academy Awards ceremony. In this sense, Baha'is and anti-theists agree completely, religion has been made into a cause of unrest for nefarious, corrupt and selfish reasons by a small professional elite. But then the Master goes on to tell of what one of the actual prophets taught. Muhammad did not flatter His flock, instead He berated the people saying, "Why do you not believe in the prophets of Israel, and especially Jesus?"

Later on, in America, the Master spoke more at length about the several other forms of prejudice deranging the world. But He never gave up on the religious strain of the disease, the one that in Paris He had labeled as the most virulent of all. On one occasion He said,

"One of the forms of prejudice which afflict the world of mankind is religious bigotry and fanaticism. When this hatred burns in human hearts, it becomes the cause of revolution, destruction, abasement of humankind and deprivation of the mercy of God. For the holy Manifestations and divine Founders of religion Themselves were completely unified in love and agreement, whereas Their followers are characterized by bitter antagonism and attitudes of hostility toward each other." (Promulgation, 337-338)

I think the reason that Abdu'l-Baha called religious prejudice the "chief cause" of unrest is that it served as a model for the many forms of propaganda -- systematic flattery and manipulation for selfish ends -- that now batter the mind at every turn today. The word "propaganda" was coined to describe the way the Catholic Church manipulated the public agenda, but now every element of society is heavily involved in some kind of lie or "spin" to make it look good and its opponents bad. In its article on Propaganda, the Encyclopaedia Britannica says,

"In many times and places in the past, the propagandist could profit handsomely by ignoring the welfare of a nation or the world and appealing to extremes of religious, racial, political, or economic fanaticism. This paid off very well, in the short run at least, within many subsystems. Today, however, this kind of propaganda can prove to be useless and even dangerous. The prudent propagandist has therefore to decide what mix of universalistic and particularistic symbolism will best serve his purposes at given times in given places. The choice is never an easy one: parochial or class-conscious or national groups may be aroused to the highest passions; and they are numerous and diverse and often highly incompatible with one another and with the imperatives of the nation or the world."

The fact is that religious leaders no longer have a monopoly on the Big Lie. Many groups are flattering their own and inciting hatred in out-groups, and many Big Lies cancel one another out. That does not help the cause of truth, though, because we become inured to lies and cease to seek truth or expect peace at all, ever.

Two examples. One, lately in Toronto two vandals expressed their election fever too boisterously by cutting the brake lines on the cars outside a meeting of one political party. Thus partisan fervour flares out into attempted mass murder. My question, why does not such an incident cause widespread soul searching about partisanship, propaganda and rabble rousing? Answer, because the media thrive on conflict. It sells more papers. And we expect it. We are used to the flattery and the bickering. It all seems natural and inevitable.

Another example. I just watched for the first time "The Bad News Bears." This I missed when it came out; the DVD cover assures us that was a low budget sleeper that turned into the most popular film of 1976. I thought it was a kid's film, a comedy, but I was shocked when I saw it. If there were such a thing as backbiting porn, this would be it. Words are used as weapons of mass spiritual destruction throughout. Future historians will look at that this story of a bunch of misfits who, led by a viciously verbally abusive drunk, make it to the little league championships and wonder, "Why did it not cause a sensation when in came out? Why was baseball not banned? Indeed, why were competitive sports not banned?" If I had seen this film when my kids were small I would never have let Silvie near a baseball diamond. As it was, she stuck it out one year and -- although the team won the championship -- she has not considered sports of any kind ever since. Baseball, seen through this film, is a training ground for conflict, contention all that is wrong with the world today. I know that is not true, that other sports have more influence, and that it is not all bad. Still, it seems to me that cooperative sports, where everybody wins and there is no zero sum outcome, (is there such a sport?) would seem like a better training ground for a world at peace.

Our ingrained habits and attitudes of false fundamentalism, the habit of telling Big Lies, flattery followed by incitement, do spring from religion, as the Master says. True religion forbids it, as Abdu'l-Baha emphatically did in His Will,

"O ye beloved of the Lord! In this sacred Dispensation, conflict and contention are in no wise permitted. Every aggressor deprives himself of God's grace." AB will and testament, 13

But I am starting to think that if we are ever going to get rid of propaganda -- systematized prejudice -- reformers and peace activists will need to quit picketing (or vandalizing) political functions and start protesting sports and games, for it is there the next generation are being systematically trained to accept flattery and to hate others without qualm or question. And it is there that the young must learn to take firm hold on God’s grace and learn never to be an aggressor.

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