So the big news story of the past week was that some guy owns some books and that’s it.
I just spared you several million words and many hundred hours of pointless news coverage. He’s not burning them. Nothing is happening.
There are four distinct fails worth reporting on here, I think, from different people letting the side down in different ways. In increasing order of egregiousness:
My productivity has sucked lately, which is why this post is arriving several days beyond its moment of relevance. I was ill for a while, then I was travelling across Kent to see the Scott Pilgrim movie and my friend Sara, both of which were fantastic. But I’m getting back on the wagon now.
3. Pastor Terry Jones
The guy pretty much sounds like a dick.
He made a massive deal out of his intent to burn some books, as a protest against the “Ground Zero” “Mosque” (which is evidently neither), then called it off, as may have been the intent all along. Having got all the press attention conceivable, there’s really no need to actually go through with it now.
But it was an obnoxious form of protest in the first place. And it’s worth my explaining why, as someone who has defended – and indeed taken part in – a deliberately provocative protest against extremist Islam before.
Everybody Draw Muhammad Day was a response to the threats, violence, arson, and murders committed by religious extremists in response to some cartoons being published in a newspaper that precisely zero people were forced at gunpoint to read. It was a way of telling the dangerous lunatics that they do not get to make the rules for the rest of us, and we will not accept their barbaric attempts to enforce a blind adherence to their theocratic dogma on the rest of us.
Most of the people who took part in it accompanied it with an explanation of their intentions, and were careful to contextualise any offence given. The protest was a legitimate one, against unacceptable acts committed in the name of religion, and I think it made its point well.
Pastor Terry Jones is not protesting against anything worth making a fuss over – the “Ground Zero” “Mosque” is in no way an oppressive or extremist action, and infringes not even slightly on anyone else’s rights. He has no sensible reason to be upset, and so his protest seems unmeasured and ill-conceived.
Moreover, the way he’s going about it is distinctly hostile. The Muhammad drawings were, for the most part, unobtrusive and friendly. There were a lot of smiling stick figures, comical cartoons, sketches that were parodic without descending into tawdry piss-taking. Even the less respectful ones were just images which can easily be looked away from.
Burning a book, on the other hand, is an inherently violent and destructive act. Not a criminal one, by any means, but far from conciliatory. As Rebecca Watson pointed out on the SGU podcast this week, book-burning is aggressively symbolic of silencing others, and suppressing free speech, even while not being an explicit act of censorship in itself. It represents the destruction of ideas by force, regardless of their merit, which is entirely anathema to rationality or humanism.
I was never among those standing by Pastor Jones on this, or planning to acquire a copy of the Koran just to take a match to it. I did not endorse his protest, and I don’t think I want to associate with those who did.
2. The media
One lone idiot decides he wants to make a spectacle of himself, by means of an unoriginal idea which the Westboro Baptist Church have been keen to point out they were doing years ago. And the media fall over themselves to help him do just that.
Although they’re deplorable on many other matters, the HuffPo pretty much have this one right. It’s been a media circus of the most infuriating kind – the kind where I’ve been compelled to put on the clown make-up and join in, lamenting at great length that people are still talking about this non-issue at any length at all.
It’s just some guy who doesn’t like the Park51 centre – and there’s no short supply of those – and his congregation of fewer than 50 people, making their tedious point known to anyone who’ll listen. Nobody should know anything about these people. It doesn’t merit anything like the attention it’s received. But the circus has already come to town.
A special mention in this category goes to the politicians who have assisted in drawing attention to this nonsense and making it a story of even greater media interest by publicly condemning it. Obama’s come out against it, and Pastor Jones apparently received a phone call about it from Robert Gates, the US Defence Secretary.
It’s depressing that someone with a job title that makes him sound like he really ought to be a very busy man is personally bothering with stuff like this. This one guy is a very small part of the problem here. Much bigger is the artificial furore that’s been constructed around him, and which he’s no doubt been delighted by.
That’s still not the biggest part, though.
1. The religious extremists
Let’s not forget why someone destroying their own property in a way that harms no-one is even a problem in the first place.
What Pastor Jones is doing (or not doing, it now seems) is offensive. I’m not saying that as a condemnation – that’s me downplaying it. All it is is offensive. The worst it does is offend some people. Its not their books being taken from them and destroyed. The ideas in their heads remain intact. Those who take offense are diminished or physically wounded in no way whatsoever by someone else’s decision to mutilate their own copy of these printed pages. It neither picks their pocket nor breaks their leg.
But the response has been predictable. It’s as clear as ever that large numbers of Muslims want to force us to abide by their rules, and will feel righteous in their use of violence against us if our expression of our rights ever goes outside their own concept of the sacred.
The reason for this is a little bit because of one lone idiot stating his intention to burn some books. It’s partly because of the media almost universally deciding that this should be a matter of worldwide interest and immense gravity.
But it’s mostly because some people think they have a god-given right and duty to react with violence when their sensibilities are offended.
Those dangerous maniacs are the prime failures here.
Another special mention, though, goes to those commentators who have been asserting the need for tolerance and a more sensitive approach, but who act as if Pastor Jones is the one most in need of this lecture, and effectively become apologists for religious brutality. At a mosque in London recently, a Muslim spokesman said:
A number of churches have condemned this act. There is nothing wrong with intellectual or theological debate, but this should be conducted within the bounds of decency and tolerance. Instead, what we are seeing is hatred being spread.
He was talking about the proposed book-burning. Not the rampaging mob charging down the streets to attack a Nato base, because of something going on thousands of miles away which they heard about on the news and which does not concern them in any material way.
Others have been calling for the book-burning, if it’s attempted, to be “prevented”. The US government have been urged to “take steps” to make sure it doesn’t happen.
The idea of holding free expression as a valued principle doesn’t seem to occur to them. But the lectures about tolerance continue.
There are also those who, while not personally offended, still consider Pastor Jones’s stated intentions “irresponsible”, because of the inevitable incitement of the Muslim communities who will take offense. That was the point of Robert Gates’s phone call, after all – it was feared that there could be violent repercussions.
And, well, clearly they’re not wrong about that. But there’s a problem with simply saying that people shouldn’t exercise their rights, because of how someone else can be trusted to react. Specifically, it fails to suitably condemn and place the responsibility for violent acts on the people actually doing the violence.
The logic is identical to that employed by those devout Muslims, and others, who refuse to allow women to be seen in public without being covered head to toe in thick fabric, because the mere sight of a wantonly flaunted ankle may incite men to acts of violent, lustful passion. If the sight of women being allowed some basic autonomy will do that to men, then it’s the men who need to get a fucking grip.
I don’t buy that someone else’s evil, unhinged, unjustifiable arrogance and fury is enough reason to warrant limitations being placed on my rights.
Well, there’s the chart run-down. I hope some of your own favourites made it onto the list. Next week: the top eight things I hate about Buddhists. Those bald wankers have had it easy for too long.