Saturday, September 11, 2010

Perfect Day For A Book Burning

One hardly knows what to think of a certain Terry Jones, the now fifteen-minutes-famous pastor of some little congregation south of here who wants to demonstrate--what precisely?--a Christian, or American, or masculine principle or other by burning a stack of Korans. He has, since announcing this pending bonfire, renounced it; I suspect the visit by the local FBI office had more to do with the suspension of the planned gaities than any supposed deal he had with the Ground Zero Imam.

A number of things attach in my memory to book burning, the combination of which perhaps makes no more sense than the good pastor's project. But hey, he started it.

1. A line in a song by the Crash Test Dummies, Afternoons and Coffeespoons, where writer Brad Roberts muses on burning tobacco and mortality:

What is it that makes me just a little bit queasy?
There's a breeze that makes my breathing not so easy

I've had my lungs checked out with X rays
I've smelled the hospital hallways

Someday I'll have a disappearing hairline
Someday I'll wear pajamas in the daytime

Times when the day is like a play by Sartre
When it seems a bookburning's in perfect order--

2. Fra Girolamo Savonarola's Bonfire of the Vanities, where he exhorted the flock in Florence, circa 1491, to unburden themselves in a very public and very final way of the things of this world, including books. His compatriot and fellow Florentine Niccolo Machiavelli watched and made a note to himself: add stupefying public spectacle to catalog of advice to would-be princes.

3. The Book of Acts, 19:16-20:

And the man in whom the evil spirit was leaped on them, and overcame them, and prevailed against them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded.
17And this was known to all the Jews and Greeks also dwelling at Ephesus; and fear fell on them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was magnified.
18And many that believed came, and confessed, and shewed their deeds.
19Many of them also which used curious arts brought their books together, and burned them before all men: and they counted the price of them, and found it fifty thousand pieces of silver.
20So mightily grew the word of God and prevailed

4. David Hume, concluding his argument in his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, riffing off of some medieval caliph or other who used this same form of argument for books other than the Koran:

"When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics for instance; let us ask, "Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity and number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matters of fact or existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion."

5. Fahrenheit 451, where future Americans are dissuaded by the government from thought by burning the books that might foment it.

6. Berlin, Germany, May 10, 1933:

In a symbolic act of ominous significance, on May 10, 1933, university students burned upwards of 25,000 volumes of “un-German” books, presaging an era of state censorship and control of culture. On the evening of May 10, in most university towns, right-wing students marched in torchlight parades “against the un-German spirit.” The scripted rituals called for high Nazi officials, professors, university rectors, and university student leaders to address the participants and spectators. At the meeting places, students threw the pillaged and “unwanted” books onto bonfires with great ceremony, band-playing, and so-called “fire oaths.” In Berlin, some 40,000 persons gathered in the Opernplatz to hear Joseph Goebbels deliver a fiery address: “No to decadence and moral corruption!” Goebbels enjoined the crowd. “Yes to decency and morality in family and state! I consign to the flames the writings of Heinrich Mann, Ernst Gläser, Erich Kästner.” (

Burning of things thought detestable--witches, heretics, books, city blocks, even whole cities--probably ensued shortly after humans discovered fire + meat = good.
Maybe we can convince Terry Jones and the other clerical book burners out there to repair to the backyard grill and burn some steaks--or if they want to be provocative, some pork chops--instead of books of fake revelation this weekend.


Innes adds: I was surprised to see Pat Buchanan advocating that the FBI arrest Jones for endangering our troops. Is there a law that covers that? And what if there is? There's a fundamental law that covers Jones.

Also, it was an interesting providence that this should happen at the same time as the Cordoba Mosque controversy, and that the President should comment on both of them. (Of course, on what does he not have a comment? There is a six word combination that Obama has never discovered: "That is none of my business.") Obama is all in favor of religious liberty for the Imam in Manhattan and dismissive of concerns for continuing 9/11 sensitivity. But in Florida, when it comes to burning Korans, he is all about sensitivity toward Muslim, and he entirely disregards the Rev. Jones's freedom of speech.

And he's surprised that a quarter of the country thinks he's a Muslim?

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