Journalists are not your friend
Let me start off by saying, I am not a fan of the music of rap duo Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope, otherwise known as Insane Clown Posse (ICP), and other than the occasional, “This is the type of music they play … ” cuts I’ve heard in news clips, I’ve never listened to them. I have no alliance to them, in other words, but I harbor no ill will for them either. I know that they exist in the universe, they make music, they wear makeup, and their rap songs are violent. Other than that, I don’t care about the theme of their material, I don’t care that they “outed” themselves as evangelical spiritualists, and I don’t care that their fans (Juggalos and Juggalettes) stated that “They felt deeply betrayed and outraged” by the revelation of the rap duo’s spiritual nature. I am not overtly religious, but I do not condemn organized religion in the manner I once did … in my youth. I also don’t have any particular allegiance to fellow writer, Jon Ronson, either. I say this to let you know that I do not have a dog in this fight. I don’t have an ideological stake in one side appearing better at the end of this article, and I don’t see my side being represented by either party involved in this interview.
What bothers me most about Mr. Jon Ronson’s interview of the ICP, presented in the form of an Have You Ever Stood Next to an Elephant essay, in Mr. Ronson’s Lost at Sea collection of essays, is the sense of trust the rap duo ICP display with Mr. Ronson. I don’t care that that level of trust Jon Ronson attained from these two produced an entertaining article. All the power to him for doing so, but I am not a member of the Jerry Springer contingent that enjoys watching people make fools of themselves. Had I been present at this interview, I may have laughed a little, but at some point I would’ve said, “All right, all right! Enough!” I would’ve then turned to one of these two rappers and said, “This man is not your friend. He is a journalist devoted to exposing the truth, your version of the truth, or the truth, as he sees it.”
I see this level of trust, displayed by religious people, in a number of journalistic enterprises, and I always want to ask the subjects of these interviews if they’ve read a newspaper in the last twenty years; if they’ve listened to the radio; and if they have cable. If you have, I would say, why would you think this man is going to give you a fair shake? Why wouldn’t you walk into the interview with less than a healthy dose of skepticism? Why would you, after witnessing the last twenty years of journalists ripping and tearing at the heart of religion like starved hyena, not approach every question the ask you as if it were a trap? I understand that you appreciate the opportunity this journalist is offering you to “get your message out”, but if you were paying attention you’d know that 9.8357 times out of 10 the only reason a journalist is going to agree to sit down with you, or seek you out for an interview, is that you said something stupid, dumb, or just plain wacky that feeds into their narrative that all religious people are stupid, dumb, or just plain wacky. The latter may be hard for you to swallow, and it may be untrue as far as you’re concerned, but you should approach this interview with that mindset.
I don’t know what Mr. Ronson did to gain the level of trust he attained with the rap duo ICP. I don’t know if he is blessed with such a pleasant demeanor that he disarms the subjects of his interviews, if he was in any way duplicitous with the ICP, or if the rap duo was so excited about getting their message out, in The Guardian, that they didn’t pay enough attention to how they were being presented. I do suspect, however, that the rap duo may have fallen prey to the very human conceit of believing that they have such a command of the issue that they could control the debate that they would be having with a journalist, even if that journalist may be approaching the subject matter from an adversarial position.
As pieces of this type go, Jon Ronson was not as adversarial as some have been, but there are moments when Mr. Ronson characterizes this rap duo as … less than fluent. In one particular section, Ronson writes that Violent J says: “Huh?” to a relatively innocuous, leading question that Mr. Ronson asks of him. The author clarifies his question. Violent J comes back with yet another “Huh?” that the author suggests is due to the fact that Violent J is mystified. This is then followed by Ronson writing that: “There’s a silence.” After this presumed “mystified” silence, Violent J proceeds to answer the question. Whether or not, Violent J actually said “Huh?” on those two occasions, or spent a moment in silence gathering his thoughts, is not the point as far as I’m concerned. The point –that should be remembered by those religious people, excited by the prospect of being interviewed in such a prestigious publication– is that Mr. Ronson considered it germane to include those three reactions. The point, as it see is that the writer chose to include those three reactions to help him frame the interview for his readers, and presumably his colleagues and friends, so that they could laugh about it later. The point is, also, that the editors at The Guardian considered them so germane to their writer’s point, and their writer’s framing, that they allowed it to be printed in that manner. The point is that we’ve all read interviews with rock stars, and movie stars, and can all guess –based on the totality of what we’ve seen concerning the knowledge base of rock stars and movie stars– that these stats have a loose, half-baked grasp on the geopolitical issues they claim expertise in. We can also guess that some, if not a majority, of those interviews are littered with “Huhs?” and spells of silence that are deleted from the final piece prior to publication. For some reason, and I think those reasons are obvious, ICP were not extended this professional courtesy.
The point is not that Jon Ronson misrepresented the rap duo from ICP. We don’t know what happened in that interview, an interview that occurred backstage at an ICP show. We don’t know how long that interview lasted, or why Ronson decided to include what he did. There are only three people that know exactly how that interview went down (unless there were others in the room of course), and only they know whether or not the rappers Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope, of ICP, were properly represented. And if it is the case that this is how these two wanted to be represented, then it appears that Mr. Ronson was more than happy to oblige.
Why would Mr. Ronson allow these two to represent themselves so poorly? If you asked him, I’m sure he would say something along the lines of: “I’m a reporter, and this is what I do …Report the facts and all … I report you decide,” and he might say the latter with tongue firmly planted in cheek. A truer motive might also be that Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope further a narrative that Mr. Ronson has of religious people in general, a point that as I wrote answers the question of why he would decide to participate in this interview in the first place. Would Mr. Ronson enjoy a “Why do you not want to meet (with) scientists? Because (science is a way of) explaining things to people” debate with a C.S. Lewis type of rational advocate for religion? Mr. Ronson very well may enjoy such debates in his private life, but he probably knows that such a heady debate might only find a home in a scholarly journal.
A rational, religious figure, like C.S. Lewis, might argue that while Mr. Ronson may not agree with the explanations religious leaders offer, they are, just like science, “explaining things to people”. Mr. Ronson might then reply with a Richard Dawkins-type reply: “Just because science hasn’t advanced to the degree that it can explain everything, doesn’t mean that we should fill all those gaps with some form of divine intervention.” The C.S. Lewis type thinker could then talk about how the highly regarded physicist Albert Einstein believed in “a supernatural creative intelligence”. To this, Ronson could say that Einstein was dealing with a level of science even less advanced than ours, and he may have had such an ego about his abilities that if he couldn’t explain it, then no one could, and therefore we must fill the gaps of what I, Albert Einstein, cannot explain with the mysteries of a supernatural power. To this, the C.S. Lewis type of rational, religious thinker would remind Ronson that physicist Max Born commented that: “(I do) not think religious belief a sign of stupidity, not unbelief a sign of intelligence.” While I am sure that this debate would be far more intelligent than the one I craft for example, enthusiasts eager for substantial debates of this nature, would view it in the manner sports enthusiasts viewed the epic battles between Michael Jordan’s Bulls versus Patrick Ewing’s Knicks, battles that resulted in blood, sweat and tears being shed before a game seven victor could be declared. For reasons that are endemic to the argument that journalists (and their readers presumably) prefer, we get a preordained pickup game with the Washington Generals in which the journalist is allowed to dazzle the audience with their wordplay, and their Keats quotes, in a debate where the victor is so obvious that it’s an afterthought.
Instead of Michael Jordan skimming the inbound line to throw up a shot that Patrick Ewing barely misses, or John Starks throwing down “The Dunk” on Jordan, we get a Generals’ guard chasing Curly Neal around in a circle:
“Have you ever stood next to an elephant, my friend?” asks Violent J. “A f—— elephant is a miracle. If people can’t see a f—— miracle in a f—— elephant, then life must suck for them, because an elephant is a f—— miracle. So is a giraffe.”
We also read:
“Nobody can explain magnets,” “Gravity’s cool, but not as cool as magnets,” and “Fog, to me, is awesome.”
Finally, we receive the culmination of why Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope prefer the idea of describing natural events as miracles, as opposed to the science explanations:
“Well,” Violent J says, “science is… we don’t really… that’s like…” He pauses. Then he waves his hands as if to say, “OK, an analogy”: “If you’re trying to f— a girl, but her mom’s home, f— her mom! You understand? You want to f— the girl, but her mom’s home? F— the mom. See? Now, you don’t really feel that way,” Violent J says. “You don’t really hate her mom. But for this moment when you’re trying to f— this girl, f— her! And that’s what we mean when we say f— scientists. Sometimes they kill all the cool mysteries away. When I was a kid, they couldn’t tell you how pyramids were made…”
“Like Stonehenge and Easter Island,” says Shaggy. “Nobody knows how that s— got there. But since then, scientists go, ‘I’ve got an explanation for that.’ It’s like, f— you! I like to believe it was something out of this world.”
It makes for great theater, as I said, for those the love bearded ladies, wolf boys, and illustrated men, but if any of you laughers are religious, you should know that Jon Ronson, and his colleagues in journalism, are not laughing with you in such pieces. They’re laughing at you. You, the religious person, may deem these explanations, and this summation on science, as ridiculous as anyone else, but journalists don’t know that. They may consider the ICP a bit of an outlier, but they know that for something to be truly funny it has to have a germ of truth in it, and I’m guessing that most of them find Jon Ronson’s piece hilarious. They are not your friends.
If you are, by and large a religious person, and you are open about it, so open that you hope to encourage others to be religious, you will be considered “the other side” by most journalists, and they will do whatever they have to to characterize you as “that side” for their readers. And you will learn, no matter how nice that interviewer appears to be on the surface, that most modern journalists are on that side, and they will do whatever they have to do to score points on you.
There are myths and miracles at the core of every belief system that, if held up to the harsh light of a scholar or an investigative reporter, could easily be passed off as lies,” Lawrence Wright writes in the epilogue of his book Going Clear.
They could also be passed off as ridiculous, as this essay proves, and while most religious people may agree that Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope’s version of the Christian belief system is ridiculous, the greater import of Jon Ronson’s narrative appears to be that all religion is this ridiculous, but that the ICP version of it is just a slight exaggeration.
As I wrote, I don’t care that ICP were skewered by Mr. Ronson, and I don’t care that he took a few hours out of his day to attempt to skewer religion, insofar as I’m getting used to it. What bothers me is the confusion that the members of ICP felt when the members of the music media pounced on them after their announcement. This confusion is, as I see it, an exaggeration of the fact that most religious people are shocked to find out how anti-religious the media, as a whole, have become. Soon after the announcement, Blender magazine listed them as the worst band in music history; and that “the worst musical moment from the worst band ever, is The Wraith: Shangri-La, the album that climaxes with Thy Unveiling” (the song where they reveal that they have been Christians all along). They received negative responses to Thy Unveiling that spanned from science bloggers, college professors, and even Saturday Night Live.
When Mr. Ronson asked ICP if they anticipated such a reaction, Violent J said:
“No, I figured most people would say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know Insane Clown Posse could be deep like that.”
Deep is, of course, a relative measure, and I’m going to guess that most that read the lyrics to this song are going to agree that depth is a relative measure, but I still can’t get over Violent J’s surprise. When my religious friends express similar surprise, I ask them if they’re paying attention. I ask them if they have cable, if they’ve ever read the newspaper, and when they say they do, I ask them how they can still shocked by it all. If you had been paying any attention at all, I reply, you would know know that even mainstream religious views have been the subject to public scorn, and while I’m sure you regard your views as mainstream, you should know what all religious people paying attention to the current climate of the society should know: journalists are not your friend.
If a journalist asks you if you’d like to be interviewed for a major publication, go ahead and assume that they’re not going on a fact-finding mission that will help their readers learn the essence of your religion. They want kooky ideas, medieval practices, a Svengali-like leader to herd the sheep, racist tendencies, homophobia, xenophobia, sexism, and any vestige of hatred that you may harbor to entertain their readers in a manner that characterizes your ideas and practices as those of the “other side”. Even if you don’t harbor such hatred for your fellow man, and you haven’t said anything stupid that you know of, you should wonder why this journalist is so eager to interview you, and why they’re being so nice to you. You should be skeptical of every question they ask you; treat every “friendly” story they share with you as a way of making you talk; and you should regard every smile as a duplicitous method of disarming you, even if it’s simply a pleasant smile from a relatively pleasant man. You should wonder why a journalist, from a major publication, appears to be on the border of being your friend. You should wonder why he just wants you to tell your side, why he just wants you to talk, and why he thinks the things you say are so funny. I know you think you’re funny, but everyone does, and everyone enjoys making other people laugh, but in this particular case you’re probably not half as funny as he’s leading you to believe. And he’s probably not laughing with you, he’s laughing at you, because he’s not your friend.