Friday, July 30, 2004

Blogging, conventions and liturgy

Prof. Jay Rosen wraps up the Democratic convention with an interview with Washington Post reporter Thomas Edsall. The two journalists offer insights about the journalism of the blogosphere and how it differs from the more traditional media. The upshot being that both the Metropolitan Daily Times and Joe's Blogworld have a part to play in the presentation of truth. Listen to the interview--it's about 5 minutes on MP3, and my point here won't do it justice.

One difference the two found between "reporting" and "blogging" (using the terms to distinguish, not divide) is that newspapers don't want to offend anybody, and bloggers build traffic by being controversial. Other disagreeing bloggers link, saying, "Look what an idiot he is," and the discussion continues.

Rosen also points out the unreported story of how different this convention was from other political conventions in the past--in the security. It was everywhere, from the constant checks for ID in the hall and around to the prison-like ambiance of the Free Speech area. Nobody talked about it, because everybody just wanted it to go away, but, he added, Al-Qaeda was there.

At the beginning of the convention, Rosen asked what it was all about, why these thousands of people gathered in one place to do what had already been completed state by state, and why triple their number came to report on what they were doing, which was basically nothing new.

He may answer that question yet, but I'd like to take a crack at it. My friend Barb observed that even our social pleasantries are a sort of ritual, a liturgical exchange in some ways like and in obvious ways different from the ones we do in church. I think the conventions are like that, too.

To lay some groundwork for folks who aren't familiar with Orthodox liturgy, the ritual is both set and meaningful. The priest blesses the congregation, saying, "Peace be with you all," and the congregation replies, "And with your spirit." The words and gestures are set, and yet they come compacted with the meaning not only of this congregation with our wandering minds and aching feet, but also all congregations everywhere, in our different languages and times and circumstances--from a fourth-century Cappadocian village to a 21st-century storefront mission to a 17th-century Russian palace Liturgy to the first-century catacombs--and beyond, to the God-Man standing with his disciples and saying, "Peace." These small gestures vibrate with meaning and refer beyond themselves to something greater.

That's not to say that either George Bush or John Kerry is a secular priest, but the conventions are works of the people (the root meaning of the word "liturgy"), places of meeting, and the rituals are themselves meaningful for their connection with something greater than we are.

Blogger Peter Levine is getting at it when he says:
But what if we see politics as ritual, spectacle, tradition, or even "convention" (in the broader sense)? Then we can ask: What do these ceremonies mean? Why do they linger past their original purpose? How does their symbolism change? Jay--more than half-seriously, I think--suggests that newspapers send their religion-beat reporters to the conventions this summer.

What makes it hard to nail down is that the "liturgy" is changes from year to year, decade to decade, even race to race and state to state, and the people who analyze it are frequently not--even if they're religion reporters--all that interested in liturgy. And it's all so familiar that we are like fish describing water.

One transcendent reality in the political liturgy of an American election season is that the candidates are trying out for the office, in the sense that an actor tries out for a role. Earlier in the spring people asked, "Why do these poor candidates have to go to Iowa and flip pancakes? This doesn't have anything to do with the job and it's a grueling schedule, to no purpose." Indeed, it's a grueling schedule, and flipping pancakes is not in the Constitutional job description of the president. Nevertheless, he will have to handle new and unfamiliar situations with people whose mode of expression is even stranger than Iowans'. Does he lose his temper? Behave foolishly? Succumb to heart failure? All these things will be noted in the voters' interview notes as indicative of what kind of president he'll be.

And all the other voices are part of the liturgy--journalists and bloggers, satirists and sycophants, people who read 20 political journals a week and those who get their politics from Saturday Night Live. If it sounds like Babel, well, being fallen, it probably has some elements of it.

Which leads to The Revealer, a blog about religion and the news, referred to recently on one of my favorite blogs, Get Religion, as well as on Rosen's site (Rosen is a contributor to The Revealer).

But it's late and I've gone on and on already with no guarantee that I'm at all coherent, and I don't think I'll get this all sorted out tonight. Maybe if I go to bed, someone will have explained it all in my comments by morning (like the fairy tale of "The Blogger and the Elves").

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