The Endurance of Ideas

In our current news climate, that of the 4-hour information cycle, the story of Pastor Terry Jones is now a thing of the past. As most are aware, the Pastor backed down and cancelled the event, citing that the chief financier of the infamous Cordoba House (aka the 9/11 mosque) was open to discussions about moving the location of the Islamic Community Center.

Credit should be given to the Pastor for voluntarily cancelling the event. Such a vulgar, inflammatory display has no place in western democracy, and even though it is more than likely the Pastor folded after the U.S. Military (in the form of General Petraeus) warned that such an event was tantamount to a death sentence for American soldiers serving in the middle east, the man’s decision to waive his right to free assembly and freedom of expression deserves recognition.

However, that last bit, freedom of expression? Let’s talk about that. Specifically in regards to the institution of book burning as means to communicate the disapproval of ideas.  Though Nazi Germany may be the most oft-referenced instance of historical book burning, it is hardly a recent phenomenon. Over one thousand years ago, the Bible and those who preached its word were burned by the hundreds in an effort to stamp out what was then viewed as blasphemy and an affront to God. In China, different phases of anti-intellectualism preceded the sacking of the country’s great libraries and the destruction of priceless works of art. These bygone ages mark perhaps the only moment in history in which book burning had any tangible effect on the proliferation of media at all. Days in which besieged cities were often quite literally burned to the ground understandably produced the attitude that the same methods used to stamp out civilizations could be applied to ideas.

As history has demonstrated repeatedly, nothing could be further from the truth. The reach and influence of Christianity in modern times is staggering. Philosophy professors in universities around the world still assign readings by Lao Tzu and Confucius. After John Lennon remarked (very accurately) that The Beatles had become more popular than Jesus Christ, angry Christians across the United States staged giant bonfires fueled by Beatles records and merchandise. Though Lennon apologized for his comments, it’s not unreasonable to think The Beatles would not have had the far-reaching notoriety they did if the whole fiasco had never happened.

In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck, though not speaking directly to the concept of media burning wrote of “the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression only works to strengthen and knit the repressed.” This fact sits nestled with another: you cannot kill ideas. Spending five minutes with a good search engine will illuminate one truth: no matter what crazy idea you can think of, somebody, somewhere, believes in it deeply. While you’re on the web, surf around a bit and you’ll arrive at a second conclusion that will be startling only to Pastor Jones and others who put stock in the destruction of physical media as a deterrent to belief: in the internet-age, ideas are as permanent as ever. As every job applicant knows by now, the new rule of thumb is: if you don’t want somebody to see it, don’t put it online. At the risk of exaggerating: once it’s there, it’s there for good.

Viewed side by side, these two facts reveal the greater truth about book burning, which should answer all those clamoring to point out that the destruction of media is “merely” symbolic: the practice has little to no practical effect on the adherents of the ideas in contention, and more often than not only serves to galvanize the targets of such demonstrations. At best, the practice amounts to little more than meaningless saber rattling.  At worst, it is an outdated tactic that accomplishes the exact opposite of its intended goal. The complete and utter failure of book burning on any practical or conceptual level firmly establishes its worthlessness as a symbol. The advice I would offer to Pastor Jones and others interested in the “symbolic” power of book burning? Consider the debate years ago over the display of the Confederate flag over state buildings in the Deep South. Many argued that flying the Stars ‘n’ Bars had no ties to racism or slavery, but rather represented tradition and Southern pride.

True enough. But let us not forget: the Confederacy lost.

Freedom, Opinion and the Public Response

Pastor Terry Jones is now a household name. The Christian leader who has spearheaded “International Burn-a-Koran-Day” has made global news after announcing his plan to host a bonfire on the grounds of his church, during which copies of the Islamic text will be destroyed.

Predictably, Jones’ actions have sparked outrage in all corners of the world, including public officials, politicians, and news anchors, such as Anderson Cooper, whom I watched eviscerate Jones via satellite during my gym visit yesterday evening. The talking head’s aggressive interview revealed mucha bout Jones that was not surprising: Jones considers Islam and the Koran evil, wishes to see all Muslims converted to Christianity, the ‘one and only true religion’. Pretty standard, boilerplate-bigot stuff. However, the way the pastor framed his controversial viewpoints was far from standard. Jones acknowledged that Muslims have the right to worship in the United States, to immigrate, to build mosques. He allowed that he was intolerant of Islam because (according to his interpretation of) the Bible tells him so. He accepted that according to the dictionary definition of a bigot, he fit the bill. The sound at the gym was off, but from my viewing of the interview, Jones was calm and collected, even when he was shamed into admitting that he had never actually read the Koran.

This might not seem remarkable in and of itself, but viewed alongside other instances when the talking heads of the faithful clash with the secular, Jones’ presentation of his undoubtedly warped and eccentric views seems downright cordial. As a somewhat extreme example, footage of Shirley Phelps-Roper of the always delightful Westboro Baptist Church showcases a mind so wrapped up in fundamentalist Christian dogma it is literally unable to differentiate between between private faith-based decisions and secular public opinion. In contrast, Jones, while undoubtedly bigoted and ignorant, at least has the wherewithal to accept that his stance is far removed from the mainstream. While the pastor might not have articulated it properly, his position is undoubtedly that his actions and opinions are those of a private religious institution, and serve as a demonstration of opinion and what he sees as a stand against evil.

Looking at the public reaction to the whole fiasco, it is interesting to see how many people have begun to conflate the principles of what is acceptable under the law and letter of the United States and its constitution versus what the spirit of that document and its assorted laws might deem distasteful. I have read page after page of facebook status updates insinuating that “International Burn-a-Koran Day” is an affront to the first amendment. Not so. Here is the full text of the first amendment to the constitution of the United States:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Obviously, a private action by a religious institution does not fall under the heading of a congressional act. The right of Muslims to practice within the country is not being impinged upon. Oddly enough, the only portion of the first amendment that one could argue has been violated applies more to the cause of James than that of American Muslims.

The sheer idiocy of invoking the constitution as grounds for suppression of free assembly and a demonstration of political/religious opinion (distasteful as it may be) is not nearly as infuriating as the inability to see the equal but opposite parallels between the issues at hand in the “Burn-a-Koran” debacle and the controversy surrounding the so-called “9/11 Mosque”. While much has been made of whether or not the move is politically motivated, an act of aggression on the part of a radical Muslim disguised as a moderate, or if the construction of said center is huge giant “eat me” to Western Power…these arguments and debates have all been thrown around in the same breath as “American Values”, and that invocation has come from both sides of the debate. The larger picture here is being ignored: in times of panic and religious hysteria, the fallible nature of human emotion and opinion cannot be expected to correctly dictate the course of public action. Arguments against strict Constitutionalism aside, the document has proved itself useful time and again as a stiff, immovable guideline restricting the implementation of morality and personal motivation (two factors far too relative to be unilaterally applied to something as pervasive as a legal system) upon a public that may not even know any better.  Taken in tandem with state and local laws, there is no argument against the “9/11 Mosque”, even if the center WERE preaching radical Islam. Pre-emptive legal restriction is a very dangerous path to walk down, and those who jump to the federal government whenever they see trouble thirty steps down the road have to live with the potential collateral damage a free nation of laws affords its citizens.

A favorite teacher of mine, Troy Howell, once presented the first amendment to our American History class thusly: “No one in this country has the right not to be offended. We do not need the first amendment to protect speech nobody will find offensive. The only reason it exists is to protect speech that somebody ALMOST CERTAINLY WILL find offensive.” While the actions of Terry Jones and his congregation may be stupid, cowardly and intolerant, there is no legal avenue to stop them, nor will such restrictions ultimately change the lives of Muslims and non-Muslims alike. The warnings coming from sectors of the military that this demonstration could lead to increased violence towards American citizens and soldiers eerily echoes the sentiment that an Islamic community center so close to ground zero will embolden terrorists (and I would refer supporters of those arguments to my collateral damage argument). If we American progressives are content with the power afforded to us as private citizens of the free world, we must also accept that with this autonomy comes the responsibility to endure that which we might find offensive or that which might even put us in danger, conceptual or physical.