Thursday, May 2, 2013
Before any of our readers begin updating their passports for fear they are now, in virtue of their Catholicism, inhabiting a latterday Warsaw Ghetto under attack by the US military, I encourage them to read Paul Horwitz's admirably patient, painstaking sorting of fact and mere spin in his comments to an earlier post here.
I shall quote Paul's first such comment in full just below, notwithstanding my continuing belief that it is a mistake to take 'Mikey,' or the military's hearing him out along with multiple others who have axes to grind, seriously. In the meanwhile, I trust it will not be controversial to point out that Breitbart and Fox are no more 'news' sources than are MSNBC or the Jon Stewart show. Nor, I hope, will it be controversial to point out that some forms of proselytizing within a pluralist and professional state institution such as the military must be would be both profoundly disrespectful of non-Christian fellow citizens and undermining of necessary unit cohesian. All rides on what is to count as impermissible 'proselytizing,' and neither rightwing nor leftwing 'infotainment' outlets are plausible prognosticators where this question is concerned.
Here is Paul:
I appreciate your offering a response to Prof. Brennan and, as important, opening comments. I wanted to offer a response to him on his post, but let me offer it here. Although I agree with you that Breitbart is a poor primary source for news reporting, and indeed most of the story Brennan links to consists of irrelevant and unsourced matter, I think it only fair to try to treat the central facts reported in that story in and of themselves, investigating whether and to what extent they are accurate. After all, the language that Brennan quotes is indeed disturbing, and should be so for people of a broad array of religious beliefs or non-beliefs.
It is accurate that Weinstein is the head of a group that combats religious proselytization in the Armed Forces, although any sophisticated American knows that there are countless advocacy groups and many of them are far more vocal than powerful, often consisting of just a couple of staffers and a good deal of fundraising. It is also true that Weinstein wrote a couple of columns for the Huffington Post that are full of highly objectionable language. I think "rhetorically adolescent" is too kind. His writing is alarmist, hostile, rude beyond its most legitimate targets, hyperventilating, and self-aggrandizing. This is also surprisingly and unfortunately true of Brennan's own writing in the past several posts, but that hardly excuses Weinstein's ridiculous prose. It may make Brennan feel slightly better that on Weinstein's group's blog, some supporters of the group themselves criticized Weinstein's language. But I wouldn't blame him if he didn't feel much better. It is true that he uses the term treason and absolutely shouldn't have, although unfortunately many people overuse that word. In short, I found Weinstein unbalanced and his writing offensive. For that matter, I thought Quinn's column was a pretty poor piece of writing, close to incoherent.
It is also true, as any reader on the military knows, that proselytism has been a serious issue for sectors of the military, especially the Air Force and its academy. This is not what readers might think of as common peer-to-peer proselytization, in which the subject is free to accept or reject the proselytization. It is proselytization from on high, often from the senior ranks to cadets, often of an extreme nature, often linked to broader and disturbing sects of Christianity, and often accompanied by peer and official harassment. Even those who believe that proselytization is an essential part of both religious freedom and free speech ought to research the particular details of the kinds of conduct that exercises Weinstein, some of which is genuinely problematic. What Prof. Brennan, whose rhetorical style in these posts exaggerates what he finds worst and minimizes what he most favors, lightly calls "sharing the Gospel" is often far from what we might consider "sharing." Mandatory prayer for cadets, for instance, is not "sharing the Gospel." None of this excuses what I find Weinstein's offensive comments, but it does help provide some context, of which Brennan provides little or none. Let me add that, to its credit, the Air Force has spent a good deal of time over the past decade trying to address these questions in a way that avoids harassment or abuse of power by those in officer positions while making clear that cadets and officers must be able to engage in religious expression. In putting "religious toleration" in scare quotes, Brennan does a disservice to the actual efforts to ensure genuine religious toleration and avoid religious intolerance in the Air Force and elsewhere in the military.
Finally and centrally, there is the language by Prof. Brennan suggesting that Weinstein is an "official consultant to the Pentagon" and has been "retained by the Pentagon" to offer advice on forming policy. Perhaps Brennan has better sources than I do. The Breitbart story makes such assertions, but it links to the Quinn story, which does not. Weinstein's group's own website does not offer any such announcement, and believe me, it is not shy about trumpeting anything that might increase its visibility or assist in fundraising. As far as I can tell from Quinn's badly written story, and I am open to correction, Weinstein was one of several people invited to a listening meeting at a Pentagon meeting. With all due respect to Prof. Brennan, anyone who is not "naive, willful, or stupid" knows that such meetings are a dime a dozen, don't constitute an endorsement of the views of the attendees, and can mean as little as that a government office decided to mollify a vocal interest group with a meeting.
I think Brennan, without falling for all of the tripe with which the Breitbart story was filled, could easily and fairly have questioned whether Weinstein should have been invited to any such meeting. I question it myself, having read Weinstein's offensive columns. It is true that every White House and every government office regularly has people visit it whose views it does not endorse and whom many would find objectionable; this is a staple of alarmist reporting in every administration, Democratic and Republican. My own view is that such stories are rarely worth the pseudo-panics they involve, and that the fact that a Dominionist Christian or militant atheist made it into the door of a government office is rarely newsworthy in and of itself. But I'm sure everyone would draw a line somewhere, even those who believe that hearing from interest groups and constituents is a standard part of government procedure; I would be less than delighted if a neo-Nazi were invited to be part of even a meaningless meeting at the Pentagon, even if I didn't then jump to the conclusion that the government must be a fan of neo-Nazis.
So I think Brennan's concern that Weinstein was invited to such a meeting, no matter how insignificant or pro forma that meeting was, is reasonable, and I share it. Again, however, absent further details, that does not make Weinstein some kind of "official consultant to the Pentagon" in any meaningful sense in which anyone other than a lawyer would use those words. Condemnation of Weinstein's language seems right on target to me, even if there are genuine issues with respect to genuine religious toleration in the Air Force or the broader military. Concern that he was included in a meeting at all seems reasonable to me, even if knowledgeable people are aware that such meetings are common, include all kinds of people, and don't constitute an endorsement of the views of the motley crew that attends them. Relying heavily on such a poor source as the Breitbart story--and I am evaluating the story on its own merits, not on the basis of the larger Breitbart operation--seems unwise to me. And the general tone of Brennan's post, and his apparent contempt for anyone who views the matter in anything less than the alarmist fashion that he does, just seems hysterical--not wholly ungrounded, but hysterical.
[NB: In a subsequent comment, Paul apologizes for use of the word 'hysterical.' He is more courtly than I.]
UPDATE: The original title of this post has been changed.