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.

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