Thursday, September 16, 2010

Our regularly scheduled pogrom

America's version of Good Friday has come and gone. It was ugly, but nobody died.

"Where they burn books, soon they will burn people." Unlike most who solemnly quote those words, I don't believe Heinrich Heine was foreseeing the Holocaust. I think he was describing the preceding fifteen hundred years of European history, when the Catholic Church and its offshoots burned books and people with great zeal -- more people than books, before the invention of moveable type. On Good Friday, which is supposed to be a time of reflection, prayer and repentance for Christians, the pious would leave their churches, frequently led by priests, and invade the nearest ghetto or shtetl, avenging the death of Christ by killing as many Jews as they could find. In America on September 11, led by the likes of Newt Gingrich and Rudolph Giuliani, the pious enforce a hatred of all Muslims that stops just short of murder. So far. And although the promised Koran-burning did not take place in Gainesville, Florida, it might as well have. The big tenth anniversary is only a year away. What will they burn then?

Fire has a permanent hold on the reptile brain, the part that harbors religiosity. To our first ancestors it must have seemed like magic -- it illuminates, it warms, and it destroys. In Greek myth, Prometheus is hideously punished for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to puny humans. The most honored women in ancient Rome were the Vestal Virgins, who gave up everything to tend the sacred fire, for if it went out, Rome was finished. These were sophisticated societies. Imagine what fire meant to those at the fringes of Europe still painting their faces blue. Imagine what it meant in the Dark Ages. Well, we know what it meant: fire was for burning witches and heretics and books that challenged the authority of the Church. Into the fire Savonarola cast works of art that he called "vanities." In our own time fire has been the destination of everything that gives offense to the mystic-minded, from the writings of Einstein to the albums of the Beatles. It's the ultimate "fuck you" of the Christian world.

But there are other gestures of equivalent scorn and contempt. Before humans tamed fire -- before humans -- chimpanzees were flinging their shit.* They do it when angry or provoked, or maybe because they're stressed by having to live in zoos and be stared at all the time, but they don't do it to harm. For that, you need stones, a human refinement. Stoning, it happens, is enjoying a resurgence in places like Iran. Think of it: they build nuclear reactors at the same moment they imitate primate behavior. (According to the Old Testament, they're also imitating Jews. I wonder which they would prefer to acknowledge.) I know I'm not the first to point out that the people who became most hysterical at the thought of a few singed Korans -- not even the real thing, an English translation -- are people who believe it their religious duty to hurl rocks at a woman until she dies. Pile of smouldering paper vs. dead person. There's no moral high ground, is there?

Burning books is dumb, but it's protected free speech, like burning a flag or an effigy. Stoning a human being is killing, and you don't get to play the indignation card. So shut up, all of you. Just shut up and take your sanctimony and put it where the moon don't shine, because as an atheist, I am tired of all of you. I'm tired of demagogues, and pundits, and overpaid radio bellowers and bigots and assholes. I was in New York that day, unlike Neuter and Sarah and "Pastor" Terry Jones, who should change his name so no one will ever confuse him with the Terry Jones who directed Monty Python's Life of Brian. I saw the smoke and dust cloud from my window, for days. My neighbor went to work at Cantor Fitzgerald and never came home. So go and pray to whatever sky-daddy has your loyalty, or do something worthwhile like read to children or clean up a vacant lot, or join the Marines (if they'll have you) and go kill troublemakers in Afghanistan. Spare us any more of your stupidity and hatred. Amen.

*I don't know why Darwin never pointed to this as evidence of our shared ancestry. Maybe he didn't study enough chimps. Maybe he had enough trouble with the religion lobby. Maybe as a Victorian, he just couldn't think of a polite way to describe shit-flinging.



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