Church-State: In search of a better metaphor

October 30, 2008

In Freedom of Expression, we have been discussing, among many other things, the usefulness of the “wall of separation” metaphor first coined by Jefferson and cemented in American jurisprudence by Hugo Black in Everson v. Board of Education. The metaphor has been used describe the proper relationship between church and state, and the appropriate administration of the Establishment Clause.

The First Amendment is widely interpreted to contain both a free exercise clause, giving Americans a constitutional right to religious expression and practice, and an establishment clause, prohibiting government from establishing, endorsing or unfairly burdening or aiding any one religion over others. As we have been wrestling with it, this tension between “no aid” and “no hindrance” is highly problematic. The results often produce some odd compromises, like the Allegheny County v. ACLU plan of rotating displays at Christmas.

My question for the class in this post: Is the wall, or Black’s “high wall”, the best metaphor? Is it even an appropriate metaphor? Or has it actually been detrimental, leading us down false roads of inquiry and public policy? Have the limitations implicit in the metaphor, realizing all metaphors to be inherently limited, actually hurt constitutional law? If you agree that the wall metaphor is deficient, can you think of a better one? One that leads us down better, or at least less destructive, roads of discourse and public policy?

James Madison, for example, proposed instead a line, one that undulates and changes, accommodating various levels of cooperation and collaboration depending on the circumstances.

I proposed in class the metaphor of a shoreline, a metaphor that recognizes that you cannot hold back the sea, that there will be a co-mingling of land and sea — we call it the beach, or shore — and one that acknowledges varying levels of interaction. Think of an inlet, a set of circumstances, such as school vouchers, in which the government allows religious expression and exercise alongside secular expression. The water is allowed to pool, but it is contained.

Taylor Damron added to this metaphor the notion of silt, or those areas such as public monument parks in which there is liberal mixing of the secular and the religious. Think Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, the case we just litigated.

The premise for me in the shoreline analogy is that the question is not whether government should be permitted to affect religion or vice versa. The question is how, and a metaphor of a wall diverts us from wrestling with the First-enfranchised right of religious freedom and with the difficulties of finding, determining, negotiating the terms of cooperation (intermingling). I, therefore, am an accommodationist. The separationists among us will disagree with me, and that’s cool (how boring class would be if we all agreed on everything!).

I await your answers. (Let me hear from you by midnight Sunday.)

We might be talking about democracy

October 7, 2008

What an interesting and in some ways disturbing discussion of product placement and, more importantly, the inversion of culture by and for commercial purposes. In no particular order, I want to respond to some of the comments.

First, a few endorsed product placement as better than other forms of advertising, such as email spam or circulars stuffing your mailboxes. I agree, but the endorsement supposes an “either or” choice, that by choosing product placement we somehow diminish the effects of the other forms. This, of course, is not true. We will continue to get lots of spam. Our mailboxes will continue to be filled with tree-killing trash. So it’s not a matter of choosing where the ads are going to come from; it’s a creep or march of commercial messages into all areas of our lives.

Several mentioned that product placement isn’t a problem because had we not done this exercise, we likely wouldn’t have even noticed the placements. To me, this sentiment underlines precisely why it is a huge and growing problem. To the extent we don’t notice commercial messages embedded in our culture, in our reading and viewing, we have stopped thinking critically about our world and about the many messages clamoring for our attention. Caitie mentions this when she lamented “people losing the ability to critically analyze the world around them,” which means that perhaps we are “willing to let advertisers . . . inundate us without putting up any sort of fight.” I see little fight in what should be a group that I would expect to be among the most discerning of media watchers — COM majors. Finally, Caitie warns that we risk being indoctrinated, and I fear she is right.

Fears of indoctrination lead to another problem I see in our reactions to the commerce/culture melt, which is sympathy for advertisers and movie makers. Several of us are willing to abide the messages because they “help pay for the movie.” There are lots of ways to pay for a movie. Product placement revenues do not necessarily go toward paying directors, actors, key grips and camera operators. They do go into the coffers of the distributors, who are interested only in profit. Directors, writers, actors — often these individuals are simply creating and expressing. A few of us did see the dangers in limiting this creative process with purely commercial motives (Kate S. and Katie O., for example).

Another common sentiment was that seeing a product makes us feel better about buying and using the product ourselves. Starbucks was the example used. Seeing it in a movie, like You’ve Got Mail, makes us feel better about buying coffee there ourselves. Remember what You’ve Got Mail was about? A soul-less book chain driving out a Mom-and-Pop corner bookstore! I don’t know that we should feel better about giving another soul-less chain our coin when it is driving out smaller, better, more responsible coffee houses more intimately tied to the local economy. My opinion.

And let’s make sure we know what we’re saying here when we say no problem to being bombarded by and with brands. If you see a row of khaki pants, for example, a pair each from Gap, Dockers, Ralph Lauren, Fubu and Duckhead, how are these pairs of pants different? Other than the little logo patch? Style, design, workmanship — all of this is nearly the same. Heck, some of them came out of the VERY SAME FACTORY. These brands don’t make anything. Realize that. They manufacture only an image. Outsourcing and third parties make their stuff. And who is paying for the very expensive image production, the advertising, the product placement? We are. Those costs are passed right along to you and to me.

So a big part of what’s going on is a lie, a deception, a romance that we apparently are all too willing to uncritically accept. In short, to quote Leigh Jackson, “maybe it is a problem that we are so numb to advertisements.” I think it’s a huge problem, and I had no idea how huge until I read these comments. This is not to condemn anyone, not at all. This is a college. We’re in this class together to learn. So this is all written to encourage us to question our answers.

A few more thoughts.

I appreciated Nayu‘s concern for our children. If the blur is this dramatic now, what will our children face? If we have this much trouble critically examining cultural and commercial artifacts parading into our lives, what hope do our children have of understanding when they’re being pitched as opposed to merely entertained?

I also appreciated Brittany‘s caution that when news and information sources flirt with product placement, they do so at the risk of their own credibility. So there are lines in the sand, it would seem. We just aren’t sure where they are or why.

Finally, I liked Christina‘s warning that the commercial impulse might also be a superficial one, that to the extent a piece of culture is commercial, it can only be to that same degree superficial. I think she’s right. And we should think long and hard about this, as well. If a movie is selling, it’s not doing much else. Or, more accurately, when it is selling, it can’t do much of anything else, like inform, inspire, re-imagine.

We might, then, be even talking about democracy itself. Commercial messages have the potential to turn consumption into a substitute for democracy. By thinking, “Hey, I can choose what to buy, what to eat, what to watch, I’m free! This is democracy!” No, it’s not. It’s capitalism. Having significant and varied political choices, a say in how we are governed, a look at how government is going about its business, at how it’s spending my money — that’s democracy. Commerce and capitalism potentially mask or divert us from all that is undemocratic in society, like the incredibly unfair taxation and wealth distribution systems in this country. Do not fall into the trap of replacing “citizens” with “consumers.”

To underline my point, think about how much we learn from and about our political candidates from their advertising and from entirely staged, produced, manufactured, managed events? Nearly all of it. There is almost nothing authentic or spontaneous; it is all visual and symbolic. So the advertising ethic has become the dominant method of communicating even political messages. Wow.

So I beg you to re-think these questions. I beg you to shake off the anti-biotic-like resistance to the corrosive power of commercial messages. To wonder how much of creative expression fulfills or has a commercial goal, and to wonder if perhaps it is too much.

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