We live in a culture of increasing secrecy. Despite claims of being the ‘age of information,’ one might goes so far as to say we live in a culture of ‘the secret.’ Not only has there been a flood of recent secular books all pointing to new secrets being discovered like the strange self-help philosophy of “The Secret,” the blockbuster movie, “The Da Vinci Code” or the new pseudo-history, “Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left.” Christians have been getting in on the secret as well with tons of books recently published around, “The Secret Gospel of Judas,” “Discovering the Secret of a Man’s (or woman’s) Soul” and of course, “The Secret Message of Jesus.” One doesn’t have too look far to find secrecy in the political world as well. Clare Birchall lists some well-known post-September 11th “secrets”: the secret intelligence from British sources that Saddam could launch WMD’s in 45 minutes, passing secrets on where Dr. David Kelly let slip to journalist Andrew Gilligan that he wasn’t convinced of the validity of some of the secret intelligence, then of course secrets surrounding Kelly’s subsequent ‘suicide’ raised by three medical professionals in the Guardian. And of course one of the greatest American political secrets today is the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. ((Birchall, 293-94))
Birchall who helped edit the book “New Cultural Studies” writes in her chapter called, “Cultural Studies and the Secret” that by looking at where the secret rears its head we can often find “ideological uses revelation is put to, but also what status secret knowledge has, and what this might mean for how we decide what knowledge is in general.” ((Gary Hall and Clare Birchall, New Cultural Studies 2006:295)) While secrets are a common occurrence in our everyday life there has been a noticeable increase in appealing to secrets during this presidential campaign. This isn’t surprising since (political) secrets often are given the air of being more valid than regular knowledge. Undoubtedly, politics employing the secret is a common occurrence to some degree, but the McCain-Palin ticket has as of late sought to structure most of their arguments about Obama around the secret.
The Secret Obama
McCain and Palin have either directly or indirectly done their best to shroud Obama in the secret. Consider these examples that either stem from or are related to the Republican party rhetoric over secrets: he’s secret Muslim, he’s secret baby-killer, he’s a traitor and/or terrorist, he’s secretly not a US citizen, and now most recently he’s a secret socialist and/or communist. Now depending on where you fall on the candidates you may or may not find these secrets to be ridiculous, but regardless each of these claims is an attempt to bury Obama in the secret.
Whether or not these things are true isn’t really what I’m after, rather what I find interesting is how these “revelations” often get used to “influence rather than inform” (Birchall, 304) inasmuch as the secret is never finally revealed. If full revelation is even a possibility we would be faced with whether to disbelieve the revelation, or adjust our convictions. The function of the secret in this race has been not one of final revelation about who the real Obama is but rather a rhetorical device to close down the political space so there is only one real non-secret option, John McCain. One my respond to McCain’s “we need to know the full extent…” of this or that is to ask, “well then why don’t you finally tell us?” But revelation here would ultimately lose power over the secret, a power too costly to give up. We saw something like this unfold during the final debate when McCain after repeated proddings reluctantly responded to his campaign’s insatiable fascination with William Ayers with a claim that completely relativized his charge:
“Yes, real quick. Mr. Ayers, I don’t care about an old washed-up terrorist. But as Senator Clinton said in her debates with you, we need to know the full extent of that relationship. “
In other words McCain knew that as the secret becomes a non-secret it loses power, the force is lost and so is control over it. Another related question arises over whether (if possible) we should demand that all secrets be revealed in public in the first place. This kind of control over people’s secrets not only suggests totalitarianism, but also the desire to get rid of difference (diversity of opinion, life experience, etc) in the name of being-the-same. Jacques Derrida said concerning the problem of demanded knowledge:
“…It clearly has to do with not-belonging; I have an impulse of fear or terror in the face of a political space, for example, a public space that makes no room for the secret. For me, the demand that everything be paraded in the public space and that there be no internal forum is a glaring sign of the totalitarianization of democracy. I can rephrase this in terms of political ethics: if a right to the secret is not maintained, we are in a totalitarian state.” ((Quoted in James K. A. Smith’s “Live Theory: Derrida,” 53))
For Derrida then, secrets are often both used to keep people out of the debate as well as force people to relinquish their unique selves for the sake of homogeneity. ((Smith, 53))
Revealing the “Full Extent” of the Secret
With questions around the secret there also arises questions about who is a legitimate authority to authorize knowledge. In the illustration above there is a struggle over who gets to authorize the knowledge of the “full extent.” McCain has his explanations, which he never fully voices leaving people to use their imaginations, and Obama offers attempts at revealing knowledge about this relationship that only seem to validate McCain (as opposed to challenging McCain’s very use of the secret).
On who’s authority does the secret finally get revealed? Who authorizes McCain to say Obama has secrets, and what makes any answer Obama genuine in the eyes of the public? In other words, what grounds can either claim finally be justified? Knowledge then always rubs up against this problem of justification and is open to what Birchall calls “self-authorizing legitimacy,” where circular reasoning comes into play: “I believe X candidate because he/she was authorized by other authorities to be the candidate running in for my party.” What, in our case, it will come down too is the decision we make on when we vote, decisions are what finally legitimate knowledge. ((Birchall, 301))
Another important feature here is to remember that secrets are always contextualized. There is always more to the story, a diversity of viewpoints, explanations, and interpretations, than is often portrayed around the secret. And secrets are revealed in context, because of particular aims, reasons, power-plays, that arise in that given situation. Secrets are subject to conditions and because secrets are subject to conditions, knowledge cannot be totally exhausted; in communication something always gets held back.
Even some secrets when they are told remain secretive because of these varying conditions. This reveled-but-hidden feature of the secret is easily seen when, on either side, there is never any full revelation. ((303)) Birchall creates a scenario where Osama bin Laden has been found, “Even if Osama told us everything he knows, the lack of self-coincidence inherent in identity would ensure that there would be a radical absence accompanying his new media presence.” ((Birchall, 303)) Thus, no matter how often a charge gets answered, especially if it is in favor of the one being challenged, there will remain a level of disbelief. This makes one wonder whether any ‘legitimate’ response from Obama is actually possible.
Knowing in Part
I wonder if the advent of the information age and our obsession with it is largely out of anxiety over the secret, the known and “unknown unknowns,” and does this make us more susceptible to political secrets? This presidential race we’ve seen a lot of power trying to “keep the secret” because often whoever keeps it is in control. I worry that as Christians we get pulled into the power plays surrounding knowledge and authority, and choose sides accordingly. It seems to me that we too fall into this same obsessions and fears as the rest of the world. Rather than keeping the secret we need to expose how it gets used, how it’s understood and related too and who it’s being used against. ((Birchall, 307)) We are reminded by St. Paul that:
For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. (1Corinthians 13:12 NRSV)
Latest posts by Wess (see all)
- Embracing Surprise (Matthew 24: 35-44) - December 2, 2013
- What is Enlightenment Like? Anthony De Mello - December 2, 2013
- The Possibilities and Challenges of Building a Participatory Church - November 27, 2013