Category Archives: Journalism & media

Fearsome foodie

Shelley Gare’s Weekend Austraian Magazine cover story on Melbourne Chef d’jour Shannon Bennett isn’t a ground breaking piece of literary journalism but it is a very good example of a lively, meticulously researched and well structured profile that also tells a wider story.Gare inserts a bit too much of herself into the feature for my liking but she is great at building in anecdotal detail and description. After a story about a Barcelona chef who has “has taken a green olive, pureed it, and then bound it back together with gelatine so that it has the mouth-feel of egg yolk but still tastes of olive,” Gare introduces Bennett’s restaurant Vue de Monde:

But the Little Collins Street restaurant has a similar devotion to detail and surprise. It serves a water, for example, that has been harvested from the cleanest clouds on the planet. It’s called Cape Grim Water, it comes from air blown up from the Antarctic over empty, icy ocean, and it’s offered to diners who are drinking particularly fine wines and want an absolutely neutral palate. The clouds form when the cold air meets the warm air over the north-west cape of Tasmania. There are just zero to 500 particles per cubic centimetre in the air, say the water’s bottlers, compared with 5000 to 10,000 particles in Sydney’s and 10 times that in China’s.Once collected, the water goes straight into tanks and is never allowed to come into contact again with the pedestrian air you and I breathe. It makes me think of larks’ tongues and peeled grapes, but when I finally taste this bottled rainwater it is like drinking dew from a meadow. Indeed, given the ingenuity and expense that goes into gathering it, I start thinking this water is pretty reasonable at $11.50 a 750ml bottle ($7.50 recommended retail). That is exactly the effect luxury is supposed to have upon us.

Gare spent four days at Vue de Monde (yes it is spelled that way she tells us because of a misprint on early stationery that they decided to stay with) and she builds in some fine descriptions of the place and of the chefs at work:

My first glimpse of Vue de Monde is at 10am one Tuesday when the high white space of the restaurant is empty, the cool dark pierced only by the pale green tracery on the water glasses and the glint from the hand-forged Laguiole Inox cutlery from France. But already, the long open kitchen is flooded with golden light, like a stage. There are heavy mirrors suspended above the two marble-topped “passes” – where the food is passed from the kitchen, assembled on plates, and passed to the waiters. The mirrors reflect the chefs as they do their prepping. Some have been at it since eight this morning. They will work until close to midnight, then be here again early tomorrow. At this time of day, the tableau looks like a foodie version of Rembrandt’s study of dark and light, The Night Watch.It’s also the time of day for hours of drudge work. Apprentice Matt Butcher is starting on a 20kg bag of potatoes which must be peeled, sliced top and bottom and then put through the French fries cutter. A young English chef-de-partie, Alasdair Hancock, is cutting potatoes into half-moon slices, and then piling them into pyramids for potato mille-feuilles to go with the paper-thin Wagyu. On another day, three chefs take two hours to produce 48 vacuum-packed serves of Murray cod which will later be poached. It will be enough for about two days. A young kitchen-hand manfully surveys a massive tray of dark brown cooked hare legs which have to be turned into confit. A small pie stuffed with rare quail breast and quail mousse studded with foie gras cannot be baked until another chef-de-partie has scored its puff pastry lid 32 times.It reminds me of artisans hunched over their precious work, ruining eyesight, fingers, backs and shoulders as they create something they believe is a privilege to make. “Arthritis at 25,” Hancock says. “They don’t tell you that at college.”

This last para is also typical of the way she uses “quick quotes” to add personality and contrast to her reporting.Like all good profilers she has clearly interviewed a large number of people to get a handle on Bennett. She uses them to build up a picture of the determined and demanding 31 year old. But she uses their quotes selectively.Her structure is quite complex and she meanders in and out of anecdotes, comment, background and interview with her subject but she maintains a beautiful sense of flow with smart connecting devices.

But that’s Crazy Talk

Sharon Weinberger’s extraordinary feature for the Washington Post Magazine about “TIs” – people who belive they are “Targeted Individuals” of government mind control experiments – is a fine example of suspending judgement and allowing a sympathetic portrait to emerge from an unusal story. She does not avoid the humour in the story but she never laughs out loud at her subject’s expense:

IF HARLAN GIRARD IS CRAZY, HE DOESN’T ACT THE PART. He is standing just where he said he would be, below the Philadelphia train station’s World War II memorial — a soaring statue of a winged angel embracing a fallen combatant, as if lifting him to heaven. Girard is wearing pressed khaki pants, expensive-looking leather loafers and a crisp blue button-down. He looks like a local businessman dressed for a casual Friday — a local businessman with a wickedly dark sense of humor, which had become apparent when he said to look for him beneath “the angel sodomizing a dead soldier.” At 70, he appears robust and healthy — not the slightest bit disheveled or unusual-looking. He is also carrying a bag.

It is also beautifully structured with the story of Harlan Girard as the anchor of the narrative, but far from the only voice. Weinberger introduces us to other TIs and pursues research and reporting that tries to determine what exactly the Pentagon is doing in the area of mind control. It is an excellent example of a feature that combines research into a broader social issue and intimately told stories of those whom it affects.In the end it comes full circle and ends with a celebration of Girard’s survival:

For all his anguish, be it the result of mental illness or, as Girard contends, government mind control, the voices haven’t managed to conquer the thing that makes him who he is: Call it his consciousness, his intellect or, perhaps, his soul.”That’s what they don’t yet have,” he says. After 22 years, “I’m still me.”

Grizzley attack

Thomas Curwen’s narrative about Johan Otter’s encounter with a grizzley bear is one of those features that grabs you and wont let you go – just like the grizzley in attack mode:

JOHAN looked up. Jenna was running toward him. She had yelled something, he wasn’t sure what. Then he saw it. The open mouth, the tongue, the teeth, the flattened ears. Jenna ran right past him, and it struck him — a flash of fur, two jumps, 400 pounds of lightning.It was a grizzly, and it had him by his left thigh. His mind started racing — to Jenna, to the trip, to fighting, to escaping. The bear jerked him back and forth like a rag doll, but he remembered no pain, just disbelief. It bit into him again and again, its jaw like a sharp vise stopping at nothing until teeth hit bone. Then came the claws, rising like shiny knife blades, long and stark.

It is dynamic wordcraft that recreates the frenzy of the attack through the rhythm of the writing.Curwen told Narrative Digest that he received over 400 reader emails about the story and his experience with the piece convinces him “that the salvation of newspapers lies in narratives.”

Images of death

The Saddam hanging videos have raised key questions about the changing power of circulated images. The brutality of the incident is emphasised in the dirty grain and jerky focus of the mobile phone images. the release of the second video apparently posted on a pro-baathist news site and apparently showing the ugly state of Saddam’s neck after the hanging was labeled: “A new film of the late immortal martyr, President Saddam Hussein.” It is clear that the images are quickly becoming a part of the radical Sunni haigiography of Saddam.Today there was a brief report in the Sydney Morning Herald about revenge hangings by Saddam’s supporters:

The day after Saddam’s execution, residents in Baghdad’s Haifa Street reported that three minibuses had roared into the street. Gunmen pulled blindfolded prisoners out of the buses, shooting any who tried to resist. They then threw ropes over streetlight poles, put nooses round the necks of the remaining hostages and suspended them. “We watched as all these blindfolded men were hung up and some were shot in the head,” said a supermarket worker, Imad Atwan.An Interior Ministry spokesman said 102 bodies of Shiites had been discovered. “We believe 90 per cent of them were taken hostage for Saddam Hussein’s execution,” he said.

It is interesting that this incident has been barely reported and no images of it have begun to circulate whereas when four American contractors were hung on the bridges of Fallujah the west’s outrage was enough justification for the publication of the images.On Alternet today Richard Blair reminds us of the power of images on public opinion during the Vietnam war (image above: Nick Ut’s Pulitzer prize winning photo of nine-year-old girl, Kim Phuc, fleeing her village after a napalm attack) and notes that both the US government and the American media continue to censor images of the Iraq war:

This past Sunday, the Washington Post buried a story on Page A14 that could certainly have a significant influence over the public’s perception of future U.S. involvement in Iraq:

Capturing images of war on their digital cameras, as many troops in Iraq have done, Marines took dozens of gruesome photographs of the 24 civilians who were killed in Haditha, Iraq, in November 2005… …Among the images, there is a young boy with a picture of a helicopter on his pajamas, slumped over, his face and head covered in blood. There is a mother lying on a bed, arms splayed, the bodies of three young children huddled against her right side. There are men with gaping head wounds, and a woman and a child hunkered down on their knees, their hands frozen around their faces as if permanently bracing for an attack. …The images are contained in thousands of pages of NCIS investigative documents obtained by The Washington Post. Post editors decided that most of the images are too graphic to publish… [emphasis mine]

During a week when George Bush is preparing to announce his strategery for escalation of U.S. involvement in Iraq, and on a day when five more servicemen were killed, the Post editors made a decision that they wouldn’t publish graphic images of the war, either in their newspaper or online.

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Naming the Civil War

As GWB steadfastly resists calling the conflict in Iraq a “civil war” despite the pronouncements of many of his own current and ex-military advisers, media outlets also grapple with the nomenclature. E&P reports that starting Monday The Los Angeles Times, NBC and MSNBC, will all be using that troublesome phrase to describe what is going on in Iraq. More interestingly the Washington Post seems to be stuck in a precautionary loop. Leonard Downie, Jr., the Post’s executive editor told E&P:

“We just describe what goes on everyday. We don’t have a policy about it. We are not making judgments one way or another. The language in the stories is very precise when dealing with it. At various times people say it is ‘close to a civil war,’ but we don’t have a policy about it.”

This is typical disingenuous strategic objectivity. The obvious question is how and when does ‘close to civil war’ become simply ‘civil war’? How can a media outlet make ‘very precise’ judgments about such matters? The Post’s top reporter Dana Priest is more revealing:

“Well, I think one of the reasons the President resists that label is because it equates almost with a failure of U.S. policy. I will say for the Washington Post, we have not labeled it a civil war. I have asked around to see why not or see what’s the thinking on that — and really our reporters have not filed that. We try to avoid the labels, particularly when the elected government itself does not call its situation a civil war. I certainly — and I would agree with General McCaffrey on this — absolutely the level of violence equals a civil war.”

Priest’s comments reveal that the Post’s caution derives not from some grand commitment to journalistic objectivity it is in fact a text book example of “official source” theory and Stuart Hall’s argument that one of the subtle but highly influential ways official sources hold power over media portrayals is that they are usually the ones that define the language that is used. Hall argues that it is incredibly difficult for other “secondary definers” to move through this initial textual definition of the issue. A classic quote from Hall:

“The more one accepts that how people act will depend in part on how the situations in which they act are defined, and the less one assumes either a natural meaning for things or a universal consensus on what things mean, then the more socially and politically important becomes the process by means of which certain events get recurrently signified in certain ways.” (Rediscovery of Ideology 1982)

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Fallen Preacher Man

Haggard858_1162844730

In amidst following the election coverage (and all my corrections) I have still found time to be fascinated by the Ted Haggard scandal and have been spending time as a lurker in the Christian blogsphere (a revelation in itself – a very vibrant and diverse community) where the discussion has been fierce. What struck me immediately is how Christians, no matter their protestations, have taken it in their stride, this is because in some way “sin” is even more familiar to them than sanctity. As Jeff Sharlet commented on radio open source:

Is this the end of the Christian Right? No, no. Where does it go from here? Ted’s downfall is just going to make the movement stronger…This is a classic narrative, the fallen preacher. They know how to deal with this story, they depend on this story for drama, just as much as secular reporters depend on it.

This embrace of the predictable narrative is very striking. It is what gives Christianity a disturbing circular logic. Take this comment:

Praise the Lord that He knows what is best for HIs children. Even through this dark time I see more of God’s grace. Although the world my use this as an excuse to point the fingers at us Christians as hypocrites…we can point back to Christ as our Savior. Let us brothers and sisters show the Lord that they too need a Savior as Ted Haggard does. Let us show the world that He will forgive His child and that we are not perfect beings…just forgiven. Let us count it all joy through this trial and glorify God in the midst of it. We must stand together for the Lord’s sake.

Christianity as a narrative is all about the miracle of paradox: God/Man, Three-in-one God, darkness into light, he died that we might have life etc. At its most sophisticated it represents a deft worldview that engages in a beautiful dance with both the sacramental/symbolic and the materiality of life but at its most mundane it becomes just plain hokey: one door closes another opens. Either way, for the believer it is an unshakeable, incredibly buoyant framework.The other aspect of this symbolic world is that it is populated by a set of contradictory signs that depend on each other. The fall of Haggard is not only understandable it is in some ways necessary to the ongoing strength of the symbolic narrative and as Sharlet has pointed out the “gay man” (archetype not person) is also vitally necessary to the construction of the contemporary evangelical self.

This whole idea of purity as a way in which you can become a real activist in the cause. You might not be out there protesting outside an abortion clinic, or going out on a mission trip, but you are sort of conducting a mission trip in your own genitals. Driving lust out from your body the way Christ drives the demons out. And it makes everyone feel like, wow, I’m a part of something big…And the reason that the gay man looms so large is because, in their imagination, he’s the one who gives into his temptations entirely…The gay man, he’s not even procreating, it’s just about him, it’s just about pleasure, it’s just selfishness.

There have of course been some quite sophisticated takes on what Haggard means by Christian bloggers. The editor of Reformation 21 has what is in many ways a very traditional view of the whole episode but he recognises that there are two narratives and both the “denounce Ted” and the “just like Ted” narratives are equally flawed. But he does make the interesting point:

The Ted Haggard situation exposes a lot of dark reality in the evangelical movement that we should not gloss over in the interests of “grace”. A high percentage of our churches have hired ministers based solely on their oratorical gifts, with little consideration of whether or not they really are men of God. Godly men who lead holy lives are run out of pulpits so that hip, cool, media personalities can be put in their place. It is generally true, in my opinion, that our evangelical movement has pursued lifestyle happiness over biblical holiness, has emphasized numerical sucess over biblical truth, and has revelled in the gifts of men rather than in the glory of God. In this respect, I fear that the “show grace to Ted” argument fails to confront the values that dominate the broader Christian movement of which we are a part that have contributed to such scandals.

This post or others like it are not going to change these structural issues within American evangelical christianity but it does show a recognition that the logic of transformation at the heart of the personalised message of salvation does have to be taken seriously at the orgainsational level.

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A Christmas gift for Ted..

All I want for christmas...Mike Jones poses on his website

All I want for christmas...Mike Jones poses on his website

This is what Ted Haggard wanted for Christmas… It’s just one of the poses from Mike Jones massage web site. Rev Haggard is obviously not the only local Jones was keeping happy, his site says:

“Voted best massage and personal trainer for the years 2000, 2001 and 2002 by readers of the community newspaper Out Front Colorado. Former state bodybuilding and powerlifting champion.”

Now you know why Ted was tempted.

It is interesting that some of the media are being quite coy about Jones describing him as a “former prostitute” yet he is quite happy to say that he was with Haggard as recently as August.

As the photo indicates Jones is anything but coy: “If you like a strong muscle man to bring pleasure to you then please call me. I am a muscle stud with a friendly personality and a caring heart.

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Evangelical male order

Rev Ted Haggard down on his knees

Rev Ted Haggard down on his knees

It’s fascinating to watch yet another Evangelical/Republican homo-sex scandal erupt. After Rep Mark Foley was introduced to the world by a White House page, Rev Ted Haggard hits the media courtesy of a Denver prostitute called Mike Jones. Not only did the (now former) president of the National Association of Evangelicals pay Jones for sex he also bought crystal from him.

As delicious as it is as a scandal, it is also a fascinating media story and an even more fascinating religion story.

As Colorado Springs gay news site Gazette reports, the story has been brewing for some time and is a great example of the new press rules on how and when a scandal becomes public. NBC Denver affiliate KUSA had been investigating Jones’ claims for two months but say they couldn’t find corroborating evidence. But when Jones went on talkback radio and claimed to have been paid for sex by “one of the biggest religious guys in the country” KUSA decided that they could do an accusation/rebutal story if Haggard agreed to speak to them.

“It became public and we decided we would do the story if Pastor Haggard responded to it, and he did. We presented it as such: There’s an allegation, and there’s a response,” KUSA’s assistant news director told Gazette.

Interesting example of how the journalistic rules suddenly change when a media organisation suddenly thinks it might be scooped, on what is obviously going to become a pretty dynamic story. It’s a classic example of “strategic objectivity” being abandoned because it was no longer strategic. It’s also a story about elections. Jones says he wanted it out before next weeks elections because Haggard had been playing such a key role in the Colorado marriage amendment.

The rules of the PR game are also in effect. At first Haggard denied the claims. Then he stood down from his church position while an independent investigation took place. But after that an incremental series of admissions have leaked from the pastor himself, culminating in the strange: I only contacted Jones to buy drugs and a massage not to have sex, yeh I did buy the drugs but I didn’t use them and ah the massage no, there were no happy endings – sorry we are all tempted. Positively Clintonesque: I did not have sexual intercourse with that man nor did I inhale. As Josh Holland on Alternet sarcastically comments:

The sad thing is that Haggard’s followers will probably buy all that. After all, they throw millions of dollars at these “spiritual leaders” who are transparent con-men of the worst sort. They support Republicans who pay them lip service but ignore them until the next election rolls around. ‘It’s all political,’ they’re saying to themselves now — part of the Grand Liberal Conspiracy® to tear down people of faith.

Probably the most interesting reflection on the whole saga comes from Jeff Sharlet who did a long profile on Haggard for Harpers last year. He writes: “The downfall of Ted Haggard is not just another tale of hypocrisy, it’s a parable of the paradoxes at the heart of American fundamentalism.” He also admits to missing that the first time around:

I wrote about the role of sex in Ted’s theology, but removed it from the final edit of the story (some of it I refashioned into a short essay on Christian Right’s men’s sex books for Nerve). I made the mistake of viewing Ted’s sex and his religion of free market economics as separate spheres. The truth, I suspect, is that they’re intimately bound in a worldview of “order,” one to which it turns out even Ted cannot conform.

In the Nerve article Sharlet notes how “the gay man” as archetype fills the role of the “harlot” of old as the new seductress:

It is no longer acceptable to speak of loose women and harlots, since sexual promiscuity in a woman is the fault of the man who has failed to exercise his “headship” over her. It is his effeminacy, not hers, that is to blame. And who lures him into this spiritual castration? The gay man.

Christian conservatives loathe all forms of homo- and bisexuality, of course, but it is the gay man (singular; he’s an archetype) who looms largest in their books and sermons and blogs and cell group meetings. Not, for the most part, as a figure of evil, but one to be almost envied. “The gay man” is the new seductress sent by Satan to tempt the men of Christendom. He takes what he wants and loves whom he will and his life, in the imagination of Christian men’s groups, is an endless succession of orgasms, interrupted only by jocular episodes of male bonhomie. The gay man promises a guilt-free existence, the garden before Eve. He is thought to exist in the purest state of “manhood,” which is boyhood, before there were girls.

And it is this state of unordered – uncoded – manhood that is such a threat, and so seductive. A seduction it appears Haggard could not resist.

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At Reuters, a New Book and a Lost Job – New York Times

New York Times reports that Joe Maguire, one of two editors in charge of markets coverage at Reuters, has apparently been fired because his new book on right wing commentator Anne Coulter: Brainless: The Lies and Lunacy of Ann Coulter. A clear case where a commitment to objectivity principles quash argued critique.

On Wednesday, Mr. Maguire discovered he would have plenty of free time to promote his book, which comes out this week. Neither side in this dispute would say that he was fired.

“There was a difference of opinion about the approval I received to write this book,” Mr. Maguire said. “I thought I had met the conditions, and proceeded accordingly. As a result, I no longer work there.”

Mr. Maguire, who joined Reuters in April, said the book “looks at Ann Coulter’s arguments, and deconstructs them to show how misguided they can be.”

He added: “When the political discourse has dropped to the unfathomable levels it has, someone has to say this is wrong.”

He said he was unable to interview Ms. Coulter for the book, or even get her to return e-mail or phone messages left through her publicist.

Reuters confirmed that Mr. Maguire was granted conditional approval to write his book on Ms. Coulter — a conservative lightning rod, author and TV talking head. When asked what changed once the book was ready, a company statement pointed to Reuters’ principles of “integrity, independence and freedom from bias.” The statement reads: “Our editorial policy and The Reuters Trust Principles are prominently displayed for all to see on www.about.reuters.com. Mr. Maguire’s book will soon be available. Both speak for themselves.”

The bizarre aspect to this story is that Reuters is literally hiding behind their statement of principles and wont even say that Maguire was fired – they know that this would never play in a general discussion of freedom of expression. In announcing to colleagues that Maquire would not be working at the company any longer management gave out a copy of the “Trust Principles” and said that employees were not to ask why Maguire had been fired.

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More than craft plus

Stumbled across NYU’s Zoned for Debate: section again while buzzing around the web. Lots of good stuff. This from NYU prof Ellen Willis struck a chord:

The first step toward reinventing the journalism curriculum is to recognize that serious journalism–in all its genres and forms–is in itself an intellectual activity. While it may draw on academic knowledge, it has its own distinct character as an intellectual enterprise: it is a transdisciplinary inquiry into the present, which takes place not in scholarly journals but in a non-specialized public conversation. A serious journalist is by definition that figure so much discussed in the academy—the public intellectual. Craft is integral to all kinds of journalism—as it is, for that matter, to scholarship—but it is a means to an end: promoting a rich, nuanced, complex and diverse public conversation on contemporary affairs. How can journalism education contribute to this end? This is the fundamental question Columbia and all journalism programs must address.

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Fundamentally adversarial

Maybe my post yesterday was too pessimistic. Perhaps the controversy over the Pulitzers will round support for a press that is taking itself more seriously. As the NYT reports:

Some observers on the press side saw the awards as a recognition that the split between the government and the press, which many thought had been papered over during the first Bush administration, had widened again.

“I think that there is a renewed recognition that the relationship with government is fundamentally adversarial,” said William L. Israel, a professor of journalism at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “I have not seen the kind of unanimity from the Pulitzer board for some time. Over and over, they endorsed work that held the government to account.”…

But Eugene L. Roberts Jr., a former editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer and a journalism professor at the University of Maryland, said that the press policies of the administration in power were always worse than those of the administration that went before it.

“I think every generation of journalist thinks they are more put-upon and aggrieved than the one that came before it,” he said. “I worked in the 50’s and 60’s at Southern papers, and there was plenty of pressure back then.”

Still, the press likes to cite its moral authority, especially in the face of an administration that has reflexively invoked executive privilege, a tool that was used 4 times between 1953 and 1974 at the height of the cold war and 23 times between 2001 and 2004.

Since the beginning of his presidency, Mr. Bush has made it clear that he does not buy the industry’s widely held conceit that it serves as a proxy for the American people. That, he has suggested over the course of his two terms, is his job.

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Fundamentalist Occultism

From a review of David Kats’ The Occult Tradition from the Renaissance to the Present Day in today’s Australian:

His most provocative claim however, is that “messianic fundamentalist Christianity” belongs firmly within the occult tradition. It is not difficult to see why fundamentalism is significant within the contemporary US political landscape: 91 per cent of Americans believe in God, 71 per cent believe in hell, 34 per cent believe the Bible is inerrant and, Katz estimates, 20 per cent “can be called ‘evangelical Protestants'; that is, fundamentalists”.

Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush all embraced evangelical Christianity, yet its “establishment quality … should not exclude fundamentalism from the history of the occult tradition”.

“Fundamentalists predict the future through deciphering a document whose meaning is hidden, occult rather than manifest,” Katz writes. “[They] believe in the imminent … Second Coming of Christ, according to a plan that they have worked out from encoded references in the Bible, with supernatural implications for everyone living today on earth.”

According to this Armageddon theology, true believers will be spared the tribulations of the impending End Times by being bodily removed from the earth in the “rapture of the church”.

When The Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward asked Bush whether he had discussed his planned invasion of Iraq with his father, he replied: “You know, he is the wrong father to appeal to in terms of strength: there is a higher father that I appeal to.”

In one of the most fascinating passages, Katz turns to Bush’s speech announcing air strikes against Afghanistan a month after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US. This contains clear allusions to the books of Revelation, Isaiah and Job, which enable Bush to communicate with fellow fundamentalists, “winking at them conspiratorially as partners in a type of Christianity that is based on the careful reading of an esoteric text”.

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