A Brief History of Jamaica

Photo: realmystictransportation.com

I rarely engage in this sort of thing, so if you will, indulge me this one #humblebrag: Leigh and I are going to Jamaica.

I’m looking forward to it immensely. I haven’t been out of the country in years, and haven’t ever taken an international vacation with a significant other (though the Caribbean seems like it shouldn’t count, for reasons we’ll get into later), so it’s going to be a real treat, and with the way scheduling worked out, it’ll be a great respite from what’s sure to be another bitter New York winter, followed immediately by a long stay with family in Dallas.

I have, however, been to Jamaica before. As a matter of fact, my grandparents used to own a piece of property in Montego Bay (you can still rent it from the Tryall Beach club if you feel so inclined to visit a place I toddled around in my salad days), though I can’t remember much of those early, early days in the island nation. My immediate family visited again when I was in high school, and it was an exquisite and relaxing time. This is how the country of Jamaica sells itself to potential travelers, as one of a slew of Carribean locales that has built its economy almost entirely around the trade of tourism. As I finalized details of our tropical getaway, I wondered how exactly such a thing happens. How does an entire nation of people become a vacation spot (and little else) to foreign tourists? My hunch is that massive amounts of colonization, financial pressure, racism, and political maneuvering is involved, so let’s jump right in.

A little history: the indigenous peoples of Jamaica, the Arawak and Taino, originated in South America and settled the island sometime between 4000 and 1000 BC. First contact with the West was made in 1494, when Christopher Columbus made his voyages to the Americas, and claimed the land for Spain. Conquistador Juan de Esquivel arrived with troops in 1509 to formally occupy the country, and in doing so, wiped out most of the native population. The Spanish, who at the time were absolutely gold-crazy, were disappointed in the lack of jewels and riches yielded by the island, and used it mainly as a military base for operations in the Americas whilst simultaneously beginning the import of African slaves to the region. During this same period, Jamaica also saw an enormous influx of European Jews, who had fled the continent to escape the wrath of the Spanish Inquisition. These refugees referred to themselves as “Portugals” and practiced their religion in secret. This ethnic enclave would also prove invaluable to the invading British in the mid-17th century, when they were instrumental in forming the strategy of encouraging piracy in the city of Port Royal, a location that allowed bandits to plunder Spanish trading vessels and weaken its armed forces.

A wretched hive of scum and villainy (illustration: piratesinfo.com)

Under British rule, which was formally established in 1655, the island became a haven for pirates and lawlessness. This entire period seems incredibly fascinating, as a number of notorious pirates and sailors all spent time in Jamaica and Port Royal in particular during this period. Upon their defeat at the hands of the British, the Spanish colonists freed their slaves, who dispersed amongst the mountains of Jamaica’s interior and joined up with the Maroons, previously escaped slaves that had formed free cities with the surviving Tainos, who had escaped the earlier Spanish genocide. The Maroons would go on to fight with the British colonists for the better part of the 18th century, battling the empire in two separate wars and winning nominal victories in the name of independence as the UK gradually transformed the island into a slave-dependent, sugar plantation-driven economy. It was during this period that Jamaica shifted to a majority black population, a fact that alarmed British imperialists once the United Kingdom began its gradual abolition of slavery, beginning in the early 19th century. By 1838, slavery in Jamaica had been completely abolished. At that time, former slaves made up nearly 85% of the country’s population.

Jamaica began a slow creep towards independence over the next 100 years, becoming a province of the Federation of the West Indies in 1958, and then gaining complete independence upon leaving the Federation in 1962. Initially, the country enjoyed solid financial growth and economic prosperity, but class disparities (which had been a contentious issue since the early days of British rule) lingered, spurred on by the government’s focus on luring private wealth to the country, most visibly in the form of relaxed regulations surrounding investment in mining and tourism, the country’s two biggest industries. I have to admit that economics is not my strong suit, but there’s a wealth of writing surrounding the subject of Jamaica’s economic downturn and slow recovery.

I’m unable to find a lot of concise and verified information pertaining to Jamaica’s transition to a tourism-based economy, but the country did became a popular draw for traveling Americans and Europeans, especially the British, from the 1950s onward. Celebrities like Errol Flynn promoted the island’s then fledgling tourism trade, and by the time Jamaica gained independence in the early 60s, it only seems logical that the newly formed government would seek to prop up the rather considerable beam of the country’s economy by any means necessary. Again, I’m speaking solely through conjecture, but my gut tells me that this early prosperity and the sudden economic boon for a very young country gave way to widespread corruption at the hands of meddling foreign investors.

Privately-owned resorts and clubs ring the beaches of the island (photo: royalcaribbean.com)

It’s a glum outlook, but it seems that if interventionist foreign powers couldn’t control the island of Jamaica outright, the next best thing would be to grab large portions of wealth and power in the country by means of investment in tourism and mining. Whether the Jamaican government has colluded in these sorts of matters or been taken advantage of by bullying foreign capitalists is a matter for somebody more well versed global economics than I.

I feel like something of a hypocrite writing all of this and then realizing that my vacation may very well be contributing to the wealth disparity in a country that’s been more or less put on fiscal life support by the tourism industry. I’m also rather intrigued by Jamaica’s fascinating history, yet I can’t say with conviction if my six days in paradise will find me traveling very far from my all-inclusive resort. At the very least, I can take a little bit of the guilt off my plate via my own lackluster education, and I can hope that others who are thinking of making a pleasure pit stop in the Caribbean might take a few moments to learn about the place they’ll be a guest of.


A Strange History of Souses: the Nation’s Weirdest Drinking Laws

Last night I was doing my manly dinner duties, aka, running to the store to fetch wine and Parmesan cheese. I stopped into a relatively recent addition to the neighborhood, something I would describe as a “hipster grocery store”, for lack of a better term, knowing they would probably have non-canned cheese available. Much to my dismay, they apparently had no license to sell alcohol, as there was no wine or beer to be found.

I walked a few blocks further down Knickerbocker, to the Associated Supermarket, knowing that they sold beer, and thus, would probably sell wine. No dice. After posting a puzzled status update to FaceBook, it was confirmed to me that New York is in fact, one of several states in which the sale of wine in grocery stores is prohibited.

A rifle through the Internet revealed some interesting history. One of the odder tidbits concerns the city’s first open container laws, passed by Ed Koch in 1979. It was originally pitched as a quality of life measure to cut down on the number of derelicts imbibing on city streets and sidewalks, with Councilman Frederick Samuel reassuring constituents that, “We do not recklessly expect the police to give a summons to a Con Ed worker having a beer with his lunch.”

Most relevant, however, is a provision that allows only a single individual living within a few miles of his or her business and holding no other liquor licenses in the state to sell spirits and wine for off-premises consumption. This restriction is unique to New York City, and part of the city’s long-standing but swiftly crumbling opposition to chain businesses. Basically, it means only sole proprietors can sell liquor and wine.

This is a good idea in theory, I suppose. The smokescreen of supporting local business is often invoked by proponents, who say that you’re blessed with a myriad of options from knowledgable wine-slingers rather than subjected to the generic stocks of a soulless entity like CostCo or Whole Foods (or, y’know, a neighborhood chain grocery store). In reality, and especially in neighborhoods like Bushwick that are swiftly becoming gentrified but are still, in certain respects, food deserts, it means that liquor store owners are given permission by the state to not give a shit. The Discount Liquor store I ended up going into was filled with a poorly organized selection of bottles and tended to by a disinterested clerk who clearly made most of his money from the folks who wander in and buy marked-down rotgut whiskey.

For a city with some of the most relaxed liquor laws in the Northeast this is an oddly restrictive practice, but as is the case with many NYC regulatory curiosities, it’s mostly about commerce. It will be interesting to see how this law holds up as the city gentrifies further, and its constituents (presumably) become more vocal about consumer advocacy.

The aforementioned FaceBook comment thread brought the proclamation from my friend Ian that the three weirdest states in terms of alcohol laws and restriction were Utah, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania. Let’s take a look, shall we?

They’re not messing around

Utah is one of the 18 “control states” in the union, meaning that the state government controls a significant portion of the alcohol sold for retail or wholesale within the state. This means there are spooky state-run liquor stores, which are also the only places that one can purchase beer for off-premises consumption with an ABV% higher than 3.2 (I had a personal experience with this, when my brother and I split a six pack during a road trip and were mystified at our complete lack of buzz). Liquor and stronger beer can be purchased in restaurants and bars or nightclubs that are licensed to sell liquor. The serving cutoff time is 1am. Enforcement has apparently been relaxed in recent years, partly due to complaints from members of the Olympic International Committee during the 2002 Winter games. There have been a lot of inching reforms over the past several years, including a loosening of laws that supposedly prohibited restaurant patrons from drinking alcohol before ordering food, after a series of controversial citations were administered to grown adults who apparently can’t be trusted to follow the state’s archaic religious nanny-state regulations.

An SC Dispensary-issue bottle

Speaking of history, there’s a lot of it to be found in South Carolina’s liquor laws (and probably more than I can adequately explore within the confines of this article). In 1892, a “dispensary system” by which the state completely controlled the wholesale and retail sale of alcohol was established in response to mounting pressure from the state’s growing prohibitionist faction. It’s clear that history repeats itself, as the dispensary system was more or less a brilliant ploy by Governor Ben Tillman to appear to capitulate (at least partly) to the demand for prohibition. In actuality, the dispensary system allowed for rampant corruption by the state politicians who controlled it (they sold political offices and accepted bribes from local distillers, and embezzled untold amounts from the dispensary itself), and helped Tillman secure a seat in the United States Senate, where he would remain until his death in 1918 (a full two years after the dispensary system had been dismantled by the General Assembly).

Today, liquor is available for off-premises consumption only between 9am and 7pm, and banned outright on Sundays. Beer and wine sales vary from county to county, with some allowing sales 24 hours per day, seven days a week, and some bars remaining open until 7 or 8 in the morning, but recent pressures have more or less established a 2am closing time for most, except by special permit (which has a provision against events that “violate the public peace”). The strangest bit of rule-mongering? Until 2006, South Carolina was the last state in the union that mandated cocktails and liquor drinks served in bars to be made with mini-bottles, aka “airplane bottles”. In what might go down as the most dunderheaded move by teetotaler legislators, the impetus behind the law was to standardize the amount of alcohol served in each drink, and to allow for easier taxation. It was somehow overlooked that mini-bottles contain 1.75 oz of liquor, whereas the free-pour drinks sold by bars in every other state contained only 1.2 oz. Basically, the state government forced bars into over-serving. Whoops.

Take your state-approved allocation of spirits and get out, Citizen!

The first sentence of the Wikipedia entry “Alcohol laws of Pennsylvania” reads as follows: “The alcohol laws of Pennsylvania contain many peculiarities not found in other states, and are considered some of the strictest regulations in the United States.” Strap in.

Pennsylvania is another “control state”, and wine and liquor may only be purchased at those same spooky, State-run stores, but there is also a “Limited Winery License” that can be acquired by a winery (in our out of state) that produces less than 200,00 gallons per year. Businesses that hold these licenses can sell their wine in their own shops, to state-run stores, or ship directly to customers. Strangely, there’s also a note indicating the wineries are permitted to sell “wine or liquor scented candles”.

Beer gets confusing. It is available for on-premises consumption at bars, restaurants, and available for off-premises consumption at licensed beer stores and distributors, but they typically only sell in bulk, meaning cases (24 beers) or kegs. However, patrons can purchase six-packs, twelve-packs, and individual 24oz and 40oz bottles directly from bars and restaurants, in quantities not to exceed 192 oz per purchase (!). Stranger still, many grocery stores have begun offering beer for sale at restaurants attached to the store, but only under very strict guidelines (the restaurants must have a clear separation from the rest of the store, a separate cashier, and seating for 30 customers or more). A convenience store called Sheetz in Altoona, PA obtained a liquor license for an attached restaurant, and the ensuing debate went all the way to the state Supreme Court, which ultimately decided that Sheetz could only sell liquor for off-premises consumption if it allowed on-premises consumption as well (??).

Bars and restaurants are forced to close at 2am, as is the case in most of the country. However, unlike most states, minors are barred from consuming alcohol under any circumstances, even when provided by a parent or guardian, and even when consumed for religious or medicinal reasons. Minors can also be charged with “constructive possession” by simply being in the general vicinity of alcohol being consumed illegally. Hasn’t anybody told Pennsylvania that the children are our future?

No liquor on Sundays, but this is OK

In the interest of self-examination, I’m going to take a look at the laws of my native state, the finger-wagging but selectively lax Republic of Texas. Like a lot of other states, Texas raised its minimum drinking age from 18 to 21 in 1984, to comply with a federal law that would cut highway funds to the state by as much as 10%. Beer and wine are available at grocery stores and convenience stores between the hours of 7am and midnight Monday through Friday, and between 7am Saturday morning through 1am Sunday morning, and at Noon on Sunday through midnight. The same holds true for alcohol purchased in restaurants (to be consumed on premises only), but on Sundays from 10am to noon, liquor, wine, and beer are only available for purchase when ordering food.

Liquor is only available for off-premises consumption at liquor stores (which are privately owned) from 10am to 9pm, Monday through Saturday. No liquor may be purchased for off-premises consumption on Sunday. Bars and restaurants state-wide may sell beer, wine, and liquor with the same restrictions (save for the Sunday ban). Apparently, a 2am closing time is legal only in counties and cities where such hours are approved, and require a special license. However, from my own personal experience, this encompasses basically any county in Texas where bars are allowed to operate.

There’s also a strange yet seldom enforced rule that I can’t find much documentation on, but that I have seen selectively enforced. As the legend goes, legislators were facing stepped up pressure to restrict serving amounts in order to cut down on drunk driving deaths, and arrived at a limit of two drinks per customer per transaction. The so-called “beer and a shot” rule was put in place so that someone might be able to chase their shot immediately with a beer. Like I said, I can’t find much evidence to support this being a hard and fast law, and its very seldom enforced, as people will often take turns buying rounds, and I have never seen anyone in a bar refused when ordering three, four, or even five drinks at a time. However, there is a bar in Downtown Austin which serves $4.50 pitchers of Lone Star beer during happy hour (5-8pm) on Fridays, and in accordance with the supposed “beer and a shot” rule, the purchase of said pitchers is limited to one per two customers. The employees at this establishment are very proactive about enforcing this rule, supposedly because the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission would put them in serious hot water if they weren’t. Still, I have been served a pitcher of beer while waiting for other friends in different bars before and have never been given a second glance.

Texas is additionally divided by a bizarrely byzantine system of wet and dry counties, and exceptions and special licenses that can be applied. There are 18 “dry” counties, in which all sales of alcohol are illegal, and 47 “wet counties” in which all sales are legal. That means the 189 remaining counties are a strange mix of wet and dry neighborhoods, which can be navigated with the help of the exceedingly odd “Unicard” system. Certain dry areas allow for the limited sale of alcoholic beverages by “private clubs”. The spirit of this exception was (supposedly) to allow organizations like the Freemasons or whatever to have bars in their clubhouses, but in practice, hundreds of restaurants throughout the state simply declare themselves private clubs, which you can join by purchasing a Unicard, which basically serves as your membership ID in these so-called “clubs”, which often charge no fee, or only a nominal one, to join. Essentially, it’s a pass to drink in dry areas. Come to think of it, the Unicard system is little more than an updated, more bureaucratically annoying version of South Carolina’s Dispensary system: it’s a way for the state government to appear to kowtow to the hand-wringing of teetotalers while still making booze readily available to people who want it. History repeats itself, as we’ve learned.

Looking back at this research, I think I’ll have to disagree with Ian and place Pennsylvania as the most bizarrely restricted state in the union (that I know of). Its laws and regulations aren’t just restrictive, they’re flat-out strange and nonsensical in terms of what is and is not allowed. A common theme running throughout all of this: everything is gradually being challenged, and, most likely, slowly changing. Will we one day find ourselves in a country in which every state’s alcohol laws are as libertarian as Louisiana?

My old (and perhaps oldest) friend Ben once recounted a trip to New Orleans, in which he walked into a Crystal Burger at 3am, shirtless, and drinking from a cup filled with Jack Daniels. He described putting his drink down on the counter to order, and the employee behind the counter yawning as he rang up another routine transaction.

“That,” Ben concluded, “is freedom.”

Paul Ryan, Women’s Health, and The Long Con

Paul Ryan didn’t used to scare me.

When Mitt Romney first announced his running mate choice, my initial reaction was “who?” followed by “oh yeah, the guy with the road map”. There followed the usual reactionary blather from both left, right, and right pretending to be middle about how scary Ryan was for the Obama campaign. All of the things that made him so supposedly dangerous for the democrats in 2012 were part of a song and dance we had heard before: he’s good looking, in touch with the common people, etc, etc. It all seemed part of the usual Republican playbook.

It wasn’t long before the blogosphere had started digging up dirt on Ryan, or at lest spreading around the dirt that was already in full view: his views on gay marriage and women’s health (read: abortion and birth control) were correctly identified as liabilities in a political climate that, despite the economic situation in the U.S., is quickly becoming a culture war.

But today, something happened that chilled me to the bone, and made me think, for the first time, that maybe the Ryan-bandwaggoners are onto something. It started, like most horrible things, when I was looking through my facebook news feed, a tried and true method of antagonizing your intellect by bombarding it with poorly researched hyperbole. A friend of mine who shall remain nameless posted a link to a HuffingtonPost (go figure) story that quoted Ryan as referring to rape as a “method of conception”. The woman in question was of course dutifully horrified, as were several other commenters.

I was not. Mainly because nothing anybody on the right side of the aisle said would faze me at this point, but more to the point: Ryan didn’t actually say this. This quote, taken from an interview, began circulating in its appropriate context a few days ago. In the full video of the interview–which dishearteningly enough, HuffPo embedded with the commentary (a move that directly contradicted the site’s own commentary)–a journalist asks Ryan about Todd Akin and his now infamous blather concerning women’s bodies being able to shut down pregnancy resulting from rape.

Ryan reiterates that he and several other party members encouraged Akin to resign, as the comments were so damaging that he felt Akin’s running would do a disservice to the GOP (or something to that effect). The journalist then asks Ryan if he is pro-life, to which Ryan gives an enthusiastically affirmative response. The journalist then asks Ryan how he feels about abortion in instances of pregnancy resulting from rape. Here’s an unedited quote from Ryan’s response:

“I’ve always adopted the idea–the position–that the method of conception doesn’t change the definition of life. But let’s remember, I’m joining the Romney/Ryan ticket, and the President makes policy. And the President, in this case, the future President, Mitt Romney, has exceptions for rape and exceptions for the life of the mother, which is a vast improvement over where we are now.”

So, clearly, what Ryan is saying is that he is pro-life, meaning he believes that life begins at conception, and therefore, in his eyes, a life that begins at conception, regardless of the method of that conception, consensual or forced, is still a life that society has an obligation to protect. Within the framework of the pro-life view, this is a logical stance. Ryan then goes on to emphasize that he is not running for President, and the policy of the Romney White House would be to make exceptions and allow abortions in instances of rape and in order to save the life of the mother.

To clarify: I do NOT agree with Ryan or Romney on this issue, and I am decidedly pro-choice. However, the spin this clip of video has received from the hard-left blogosphere is mind-boggling, with commentators saying Ryan considers rape “just another form of conception” and alleging that the VP nominee makes no distinction between forced and consensual sex.

This is A)terrible journalism B)intellectually dishonest C)ethically reprehensible and, most importanlty, D)counterproductive to the cause of Dems and progressives everywhere.

If you’re going to attack Ryan, and lord knows, the man needs some attacking, on so many issues, attack the viewpoint he actually holds, which is that we can’t let women have control over their own bodies because the Bible says so. Don’t move the goalposts and pretend that he said or implied something that he clearly did not using a view out-of-context quotations.

This kind of move only adds ammunition for the Republican talking point that the mainstream media in this country can’t be trusted on ANYTHING related to radical-right insanity because they will constantly spin the hell out of anything a Republican says. The consequence of ACTUALLY spinning the hell out of something a Republican says is that they get a free pass on that particular quote, and in many ways, that particular issue.

One of the commentators on said facebook post actually said they were unnerved by the “casualness” with which Ryan responded to the question. It has to be said: I’m a registered Democrat, I voted for Kerry in 2004, Obama in 2008, and will vote for Obama again in 2012. However, if the left is going to start trying to play the neo-con-patented, spin-the-news card in order to keep an incumbent in office, they will fail, and miserably. This move never works out for Democrats, mainly because when they do they not only piss off undecided voters and Republicans, they piss off intelligent members of their base who don’t appreciate having bullshit shoved down their throats. Ryan, for all his flaws, has thus far impressed me with his poise and his remarkably articulate responses in interviews. His answer to the question about rape, pregnancy, and abortion was honest, clear, and completely lacking in any fire-and-brimstone rhetoric. I don’t agree with the guts of his argument, but his method of communication is sound.

If the Dems are already running scared and trying to make Ryan into the bogeyman, then we’re clearly in trouble. As far as veeps go, Joe Biden isn’t exactly the sharpest tool in the shed, and he’s not too great on the mic either. I still think this race belongs to Obama, and as it comes down to the wire, social issues that used to be radioactive are going to be the final shove over the hill (I’m predicting Obama making a big push on gay rights, women’s rights, and gun control). But please, the-rest-of-the-left: as one of your own, I’m begging you, stop this foolish chicanery and nonsense. Stop stooping to the level of a party that is so bereft of good people they have to ask THEIR OWN SENATORS TO SUSPEND CAMPAIGNS OUT OF EMBARRASSMENT. Facts are important, and becoming even more important in an age where talk is as cheap as it is in the age of non-vetted “news”.

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.