Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Book Burning, redux

An old friend posted a comment to my recent posting about International Koran Burning Day, and his comment really got me thinking. Most people tend to read, and comment on, this blog on Facebook, rather than on the original site, and so wouldn’t see his comments. But, they’re really interesting, and I want to respond (and hopefully, hear other responses as well). So, I’m going to include his comment here:

Behind on my blog reading as usual, so my apologies for being a bit slow on the uptake here, but I'll take opposite (or perhaps more correctly the agnostic) position.

Who gives a $#!% what a bunch of fanatics (of any stripe) burn? Burn the Bible, the Koran, the Book of Mormon, the Talmud, the U.S. Constitution (include the Bill of Rights for Extra Irony!), Catcher in the Rye, the Collected Works of Shakespeare, Where the Red Fern Grows, old copies of Mad (or Playboy) Magazine, or the stupid advert circulars that fatten our Sunday newspapers (my favorite for camp fires), what difference does it make? If -- IF -- there is "[T]truth" in any of those publications, how could it or its ostensible accompanying wisdom possibly be diminished in any way by the mere childish symbolism (for that's all it is at the end of the day) that some people insist upon attributing to (or seeing in) a pointless act of arson? Truth, if indeed it exists as such and especially if it ever could be expressed in the scribblings of people, by definition cannot possibly be that fragile. Human feelings, sensibilities and egos, of course, can be and usually are, but who ever found any [T]truth worth knowing in those places?

Unless you're talking about the destruction of literally the last copy of something that cannot be replaced in any form or format (or a burn protocol that violates common sense or local fire safety regulations including "Spare the Air" days here in California), I simply cannot be bothered to summon the energy to care any less about what someone burns, when or why. I only ask the burners please just don't disrupt traffic, thank you very much, as you make a fool of yourself and generally prove the very point you probably set out to protest in the first place.

And finally, I'm constrained to identify the obvious: The sort of outrage expressed in posts like this (as genuine and heart-felt as it was I'm sure) is exactly what these ridiculous people are hoping to provoke. There's a reason why they don't show the ball-park streaker on TV....

Sorry, but there it is. Peace from NorCal (where we loves a good book burnin'!).

So, there are two basic complaints here – one is that it’s silly to worry about burning a book. The other is that, by complaining, all I’m doing is drawing attention to these idiots, and helping them accomplish their goals. I actually think that both of these points have a ton of merit, and I agree with them, up to a point. But, there are other points to be made, as well.

First, let’s talk about book burning. In principle, I really agree with Mike. A book is, after all, just a book. Paper, ink, glue. What really matters are the ideas contained in those books, and those will not be harmed by some bigots burning some copies of it. Especially in our day of mass communication, the idea that we can stop anything by burning a book is, on some level, silly.

But, at the same time, can we so easily write off the human side? Rationalist though I try to be, and agreeing in principle with Mike as I do, I have to admit that seeing someone burn the Talmud or the Hebrew Bible would be incredibly distressing to me. It may be a human failing, and it may be one that I should strive to rise above, myself. But, is it useful, and is it kind, to tell others who are feeling distress, to just get over it? It’s an imperfect analogy, but I have a watch left to me by my grandfather. It’s one of the few objects that I hold dear in life*, and I’d be crushed if something happened to it. Is that so wrong? And, if something did happen to it, would we want to be so dismissive of my emotions? I guess that what I’m getting at is that, rationally speaking, I mostly (fully?) agree with Mike’s comments. But, there’s an emotional side which I think is valid, as well.**

* for some reason, I’ve been thinking lately about objects which I care about. Near as I can tell, I have two watches, one tallit and one ketubah which mean something to me. The rest of the “stuff” that I have, I may like and enjoy, but I don’t think I really care about very much. I wouldn’t be very upset if I lost them.

** Although, I just re-read the last part of Mike’s comment, about how human egos are a terrible source of truth. It’s an incredibly important (and, I think, valid) point. I think I’m kind of stuck between two truths here – on the one hand, we’d be better off if we could just get over stuff like this. On the other hand, there’s a human, emotional side which has to count for something. I think.

So, what about the “don’t draw attention to them” argument? I thought of exactly that before writing my post, but I figured that, since I saw this thing on the front page of, that horse was already out of the barn. I don’t think that my prattling on about it is going to have much of an impact there! But, that misses the larger point I was trying to make.

Maybe Muslims shouldn’t care when someone burns their books. But, they do. And, it’s not irrelevant to point out that a book burning is rarely just a book burning – it’s just one expression of a larger hate, and often of larger plans. I can’t help but think (and many others have made this connection) that the Nazis included book burnings in their early stages. Watching a book burn isn’t only about watching the physical pages be destroyed; its symbolic of something much more pernicious. It hurts, and it’s truly, deeply frightening.

Imagine what it must be like to be a Muslim in America today. Hearing national politicians declare that your religion is evil. Watching that become part of the national debate (as if, even if it’s not true, it’s still a point with some merit). Being harassed on the street, or in your homes, simply because of your name, or your skin color, or your faith. Watching a religious leader burn your sacred book, and then watching as the world shrugs.

Jews often lament that, as the Nazis built up their persecution of our people, the rest of the world remained silent. We’ll never know, but maybe some unity against the evil would have had an impact – small or large. Anyone who’s ever been persecuted, on any level, knows that it’s a lonely experience. Simply having someone else stand by you and say “I’m with you, not with them” can be incredibly empowering. More than anything, that’s what I wanted to get out there. Again acknowledging that few Muslims are likely to read my words, I just felt the need to let them know that I was on their side. They aren’t alone.

1 comment:

msands said...

A proper response, my friend, to be sure!

As for your main point, the validity of which I certainly acknowledge, I suppose I can only say this: Freedom is hard and never without controversy (or expense). A bit like walking from Times Square to Grand Central at quiting time. I have no apologies to offer for that.

I don't believe that all Muslims are terrorists, neither do you and neither does any rational thinking person anywhere in the world. But fact: Some are. Just as some Catholics and Protestants (oh, let's just say "Christians") in Northern Ireland (and elsewhere) are terrorists, some Jews in the Middle East (and elsewhere) are terrorists, some Animists in Sub-Saharan Africa (and elsewhere) are terrorists, and so on until the sun rises. The point is this: They all came (and come) here at one point or another, and for better or worse what Muslims in America are going through now is not really anything substantially new in our illustrious history of tolerant intolerance (or should that be intolerant tolerance?). They aren't, as you say, alone at all, at least not historically. (Sept. 11 and the resulting fall-out makes it *seem* new and different, but I argue it really isn't -- just perhaps a bit more raw in action and reaction. And that, I would also argue, cannot reasonably be helped...yet.) People will always try to shout others down, literally and figuratively, anywhere and on any topic you care to mention (religion far from the least!).

You make a very revealing personal statement in your post when you say, "I have to admit that seeing someone burn the Talmud or the Hebrew Bible would be incredibly distressing to me." I respect that. Were I a believer in some faith that had amongst its accoutrement a sacred book, perhaps I would feel the same way. Or perhaps, while feeling some passing sadness over the destruction of such an excellent vessel of truth (though not the truth itself, of course), I might give thanks for the warmth and light provided by so pure a fire. Or I might just ignore it altogether like I'm apt to do now, hard to say. Maybe it would depend on what the rules of my faith told me to feel.

But in the end is it about respect, or perhaps solidarity, as you say? Yes, I agree that it is, and you are certainly correct that we all -- each and every one of us -- should strive to be more understanding, more inclusive, more tolerant, more forgiving, more...well...reasonable. A point well worth making, and a goal even more worth pursuing.