In the wake of the passage of California Proposition 8, there have been protests, boycotts, and denunciations leveled at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (often called the Mormons, though I am not entirely clear on when that is considered polite and when it is not) and some of its members in response to a disproportionately large number of Pro-8 donations by individual Mormons made at the urging of church officials. There have also been some assaults, threats, and at least one terror incident, in which some douchebag sent white powder to a temple.
The obvious and ideal public relations strategy for the Mormons is to associate the protests, boycotts, and denunciations with the assaults, threats, and terror incident. That's classic politics; it's why pro-Obama forces strove to associate McCain's campaign and anti-Obama sentiments in general with the sort of isolated jackasses who shouted "terrorist!" at McCain rallies in particular.
Fortunately for the Mormons, they have friends prepared to school them in this fairly fundamental propaganda point. The Becket Fund For Religious Liberty, through a new entity and web site called NoMobVeto.Org (rule of thumb: never trust an entity that has a web site in its name. But let us move on from that), took out an advertisement in the New York Times to decry . . . well, certainly violence, but the full scope of what NoMobVeto.Org is decrying is left deliberately vague.
The advertisement condemns "violence and intimidation." Now, nobody but the most peripheral whackjobs are condoning violence — most of the fiercest critics of Proposition 8 despise the thugs who commit it, as in addition to being morally wrong and illegal it detracts from the core message of the movement. Nobody of consequence is defending sending white powder to Mormon temples (assuming that the white powder was not a clever piece of agitprop by pro-8 forces — a proposition that is no longer comfortably in tinfoil-hat territory, when we live in a world where numbskull coeds can get their fifteen minutes by carving a backwards "B" on their faces).
However, the term "intimidation" is distinctly malleable. So is "coerce," another term that NoMobVeto uses in the advertisement. NoMobVeto conspicuously fails to define them and fails to exclude protests or boycotts from their scope. Moreover, NoMobVeto takes pains to point out that the violence is being "stoked" by public statements decrying the Mormon church; it also claims that "far too many" demonstrations were not genuine protests but mere "mobs" bent on … yes, you guessed it … "intimidation." The advertisement ends with a rousing flourish that notes that anti-religious propaganda is wrong, but that NoMobVeto will stand against it and expose its perpetrators. Wait a minute. I thought we were talking about violence, not about propaganda?
The advertisement is meandering, and deliberately so. It achieves the primary goal of the Prop 8 supporters in general and the Mormon church in particular — it conflates violent illegal protest with dissent and condemnation. After a brief and transparently insincere brief assurance that churches are properly subject to criticism, it spends the rest of its length backing away from that proposition, eagerly suggesting that advocacy that "fails to condemn or seems to condone" violence is responsible for violence.
You can't understand NoMobVeto.org's tactic without observing the context in which it arises. The usual conservative suspects have worked relentlessly to equate boycotts and advocacy with "mob" behavior and intimidation (and continues to do so today, using "mob" to denote all boycott and protest activity.) Moreover, as of this writing, roughly half of NoMobVeto.Org's documentation page is made up of links to to media stories about nonviolent protest and advocacy, including the rather sharp "we're here to take away your rights" advertisement I talked about before, protests at temples, and a general Time magazine survey of all sorts of post-Prop-8 activism. The message is clear — even though NoMobVeto and the Beckett Fund won't come out and say it explicitly, they are pushing an equivalence between violence and physical intimidation, on the one hand, and a wide range of protests, boycotts, and condemnations, on the other hand.
In my opinion, an entity that names itself after Becket ought to have the stones to say this shit directly and wade into the marketplace of ideas on the topic, rather than hiding behind the skirts of deliberate ambiguity. So what I'd like to ask them, and NoMobViolence.Org (once they get their blog working. Hey, it's complicated, we know), is this:
1. Do you intend to assert that boycotting people and business that donated to Yes on 8 is beyond the scope of legitimate discourse? What is your argument in support of that proposition?
2. Do you intend to argue that protesting in front of a Mormon temple is inherently beyond the scope of legitimate discourse? If so, again, why?
3. Is it your position that people who do (1) or (2), above, are in any way morally culpable for violence, racial or religious epithets, or threats by others who oppose Prop 8? If so, how do you defend that proposition?
4. Is there any reason these points could not have been made explicitly in your advertisement?
The life of Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was marked by intellectual and moral rigor. NoMobVeto and its advertisement offers neither. What it offers is weasly but politically astute insinuation.
If the signatories to the advertisement wanted to walk in the shoes of Becket, they would levy their charges explicitly and defend them.
I'm not holding my breath.
Edit: The NoMobVeto.Org blog is now up. I left a firm but civil comment summarizing this post and asking the questions above. Let's see if they leave it up.
Edit2: About 24 hours, and it seems that NoMobVeto has not approved any comments on its blog.
Edit 3: Comments, including mine, now appear on that blog.