Saturday, October 2, 2010
What is James O'Keefe Doing?
There is awash in the world today a kind of idealism that’s loosed from its moorings. I suspect this is because the cynicism against which the idealism reacts is so strong and entrenched that it’s provoking reactions that are unrealistic.
A case in point is James O’Keefe, a young man who spoke at this year’s American Chesterton Society Conference. O’Keefe is best known as the video journalist who brought down ACORN and who exposed the racism inherent in Planned Parenthood’s abortion agenda by means of undercover videos in which he posed as a pimp or a racist, and elicited responses that were shocking enough to cause a few tremors. He struck us at the Conference as a quixotic idealist carrying on against the windmills of corruption while under assault from the mainstream media, lawyers and other nasty bugbears.
However, it was a bit disturbing when, in the Q & A session following his speech, O’Keefe was asked, “How do you justify your technique? You lie to people in your undercover videos. You pretend to be something or someone you’re not, and they react to you based upon that falsehood,” and O’Keefe answered, in effect, “the end justifies the means: I am lying to bring down a greater lie.” – which, of course, is consequentialism - poison to any society, any individual, or any attempt at reform.
I later spoke publicly before our performance at the conference, and tried to give a better defense of O’Keefe’s activities. “It’s a kind of guerilla theater,” I said, “in which, as in all theater, masking is used to reveal the truth.” In other words, as in Candid Camera we get to see how people would react in a given fictional situation, but not simply (as in Candid Camera) for cheap laughs, but as in Shakespeare, the fiction, the mask, the pretense, serves to reveal a greater truth that would otherwise remain hidden. But I was not entirely satisfied with this defense, which seemed to be perhaps a bit Jesuitical to me. For one thing, in actual drama the participants and audience are all aware of the charade and no one is victimized by being deliberately fooled. In O’Keefe’s videos, there is a kind of victimization going on, even though the victim might himself be a victimizer, and even though O’Keefe’s guerilla theater might be doing a good by revealing that.
But now we learn it’s not just O’Keefe’s tactics that are in question. He seems, in light of some recent revelations, to be a young idealist utterly overwhelmed by the forces that are preying upon him. These forces are both external – including his financial supporters who appear to be exploiting him, and his critics who are viciously opposed to him – as well as internal: he is being undone by a lack of mature judgment at the very least. His latest attempts at investigative journalism / guerilla theater are far from Shakespeare’s “the virtue of IF”, far from using a mask to reveal a truth, far from even the cheap laughs of Candid Camera, and almost below the level of Punked on MTV.
To wit: the news this week is that O’Keefe had planned on luring a female CNN reporter onto his boat and “faux seducing” her while surrounded with sex toys and pornographic magazines and filming this encounter – to what end being rather unclear. What is clear is that the script outline for this “prank”, obtained and released by CNN, reads like a bad idea for a frat house comedy night sketch.
Suddenly O’Keefe and company seem much more like teenagers with cameras than anything resembling investigative journalists. Give a frat boy a camera, and this is what you’ll get – bad self-indulgent theatrics on the one hand, and nothing resembling journalism on the other.
Of course there’s always the chance that CNN is twisting this to serve its own liberal bias and to bring down O’Keefe, but I doubt that. O’Keefe’s cohort who wrote the scenario has admitted to the plot and the authenticity of the script CNN obtained; another of O’Keefe’s cohorts who “outed” him seems to have legitimately done so out of concern for the pointlessness, perverseness and potential harm of this prank, and so on.
Meanwhile, James O’Keefe is trying to defend himself from what he thinks is a serious misunderstanding concerning his failed mission in Louisiana, in which he and some cronies disguised themselves as telephone repairmen and tried to gain access to a Louisiana senator’s phone system – to catch the senator in a lie. O’Keefe ended up arrested and charged for this one, and he is now serving out his probation. And he’s upset that when the news hit, it was inaccurately reported that he was engaged in wiretapping – which he wasn’t. Of course, this also shows a lack of maturity on his part, for if you enter government property under false pretences and in disguise attempt to gain access to the phone system of a U.S. Senator while surreptitiously filming said event ... well, that’s not much better than wiretapping. Our buddy Bill Clinton can gloat over the fact the he didn’t technically have “sex” with Ms. Lewinsky, but he’s only fooling himself when he flaunts this kind of narrow innocence, and so is James O’Keefe.
Still, O’Keefe is offended by the wiretapping misnomer, and so he wants to set the record straight. And how do you suppose he intends to do this? How does he hope to clear his name and let his viewers know the purity of his intentions before his Federal arrest and guilty plea? By producing and starring in a music video.
A music video.
Well, I think the upshot of all of this is that Distributism is a dangerous thing. It’s a great good, having electronic information technology, once controlled by a handful of megalithic corporations, now in the possession of the people. But like all great goods, it can really sting.
If O’Keefe were an investigative journalist fifteen years ago, neither the telephone scheme nor the sex prank would have gotten past the first editorial review. But now Distributism in media has given ordinary people what was once extraordinary power – the power to be your own producer and your own editor, a dangerous mix; the power to expose corruption and the power to make an ass of yourself; the power to use proper means to achieve an end and the power to use illicit means to achieve an end – in both cases for all the world to see; the power to engage an audience in a virtuous and responsible way and the power to indulge infantile fantasies that are painful and repulsive for your audiences even to hear tell of.
James O’Keefe struck us all at the Chesterton Conference as being a young idealist, and he struck some of us as being distracted, burdened and troubled in spirit – whether from the persecutions he was enduring or from some other issue which was not clear. He was astonished that so many people were telling him they would be praying for him. He was clearly on some sort of Faith journey. He has the potential to be a kind of monk, living frugally, at risk, on the edge, all for the sake of the truth.
But he won’t get there the way he’s traveling now. If G. K. Chesterton is indeed a hero of James O’Keefe’s, then we should continue to pray for O’Keefe that he focus, as Chesterton did, on what is true, on Him who is Truth, on His way, and not on all of the various temptations that can bring a budding young Christian down, from adolescent self-indulgence to using bad means to achieve good ends.
And in the meantime Mr. O’Keefe has to decide if he is a crusading journalist or a Penthouse Magazine version of “Borat”; if he is the child who points out that the emperor is wearing no clothes or the teenager who won’t turn down his crappy music; if he is serious about what he’s doing or if he’s just (like most actors I know) working out his “issues” on a very big stage – in a very sad way.