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.


Sunday, September 05, 2010

The music goes 'round and 'round

I spent the afternoon listening to Verdi's Don Carlo ahead of the Metropolitan Opera's new production this season. The opera contains Verdi's clearest statement about self-determination and religious freedom, specifically dealing with the persecution of Dutch Protestants under Spanish rule. It must have been scheduled years ago, but it fits neatly into the current farcical "debate" about the construction of an Islamic cultural center two blocks from the hideous new Freedom Tower, formerly the merely unattractive World Trade Center. We can't even discuss religion in this country without becoming utterly unhinged, even in the context of a nineteenth-century opera about the sixteenth century.

Don Carlo was first given by the Met only 60 years ago, the inaugural production of the Rudolf Bing regime (1950-1972). Even before opening night, it was in the news. Boris Christoff was schedule to make his debut as King Philip II, but the State Department refused to grant him a work permit. Although Christoff had long been a resident of Italy and was not remotely political, he was a citizen of Bulgaria. In 1950, with Joe McCarthy waving a letter from a collection agency (probably) and claiming it was a list of Communists in the State Department, no one could take the risk that Christoff would insert subliminal Red propaganda into "Ella giammai m'amo." The Met engaged Cesare Siepi, who had a triumph and began a long relationship with the company. Although he eventually sang with other American companies, Christoff's anthracite bass was never heard at the Met.

After the opera opened, pickets appeared on 39th Street to complain that it was a slanderous attack on the Catholic Church. Only five years after World War II, and facing criticism over its lack of criticism for the Axis, the Church was anxious to change its public image in the US -- from Father Coughlin to Bishop Sheen, so to speak. Don Carlo's terrifying Grand Inquisitor and auto da fe was not the face it wanted to show to a country which had only recently begun to accept it, thanks to its impeccable anti-Communist credentials and the strenuous efforts of entertainers like Bing Crosby. Catholics had reason to be nervous: in 1928, Al Smith's presidential campaign was doomed, in part, because fundamentalist ministers convinced their congregations that if Smith gained the White House, he would rule as the pope's viceroy. The first Catholic president, elected by the narrowest of margins, was still a decade away. Verdi was definitely not a Good Catholic. The Church not only stood in the way of Italian nationhood but made life uncomfortable for him personally, and for his common-law wife Giuseppina Strepponi. Verdi's dislike extended to all clerics: the priests of Isis in Aida come off no better than the Grand Inquisitor. Why this opera now? It must have looked like a plot.

The proposed Islamic center, Park51, will also be known as Cordoba House, after the capitol of Moorish Spain, where Muslims, Catholics and Jews lived a mainly peaceful, shared existence. (This was in contrast to Catholic Spain, which expelled all Muslims and Jews in the magical year of 1492 -- or worse, forced them to undergo baptism.) The imam is so conciliatory, he's practically an Episcopalian. He used to work for the FBI! It doesn't matter a rap to the Rightzis, who are determined to make this their Willie Horton issue and have, by dint of relentless repetition, convinced millions of morons that Obama is a Muslim. (But --- but --- Jeremiah Wright? The radical Christian pastor who hates America and has Obama in his toils? That is so 2008.) Sadly, many Catholics and Jews are happy to link arms with the Protestants who still despise them and march downtown to hate on the Muslims. Religion being by its nature intolerant, the religious minorities only want someone else for their enemies to hate. Once they control their own territories (Utah, Israel), the minority minorities had better run.

Almost from the beginning, the 9/11 attacks were misinterpreted, perhaps deliberately. The ruin was named "Ground Zero," a term from 1950s nuclear civil defense preparations. I remember the concentric circles around the spot where the A-bomb would fall -- these many would die instantly, these many would die in a week, these would die a hideous slow death from radiation -- and thus we grew up. ("Ground Zero" turned out to be all too accurate for the hundreds who believed Christine Todd Whitman when she said the air was safe to breathe, and are now dying their own hideous slow deaths.) Before the second tower fell, people who talk into microphones without thinking were comparing it to Pearl Harbor, as if one sovereign nation had attacked the military base of another. It was actually the greatest crime scene in the history of this country. A dozen individuals decided to hijack some planes and fly them into some buildings, acting for no government or state. A better comparison would be the actions of the Manson gang in Los Angeles in 1969.

There are a number of interesting parallels between Osama bin Laden and Charles Manson. Both are charismatic types who attract and mesmerize the weak-minded. Both offer idiosyncratic interpretations of well-known texts (the Koran, the White Album). Both were careful to be far away when the murders took place, and both could be described as delusional psychotics. Bin Laden imagines he can destroy Israel and restore the Caliphate; Manson evidently planned to ignite a race war which would somehow leave him in control of the United States. Beyond that, the difference is chiefly one of scale. To treat either of them as anything but a criminal demeans us all.

Their crimes were noticed in high places. Richard Nixon famously pronounced Manson guilty before his trial had ended, nearly causing a mistrial. At least he didn't cite the murder of Sharon Tate to justify invading Cambodia. George W. Bush was the first president to lose the popular vote since Rutherford B. Hayes, and needed something to shore up his shaky claim to the White House. And as Henry V knew, nothing unites a country like a foreign war, so Bush invaded Afghanistan, where bin Laden may have been in those days, and then decided to resume his family's vendetta against Saddam Hussein, who had no discernible connection to the murders. Retroactively, "Ground Zero" became the opening battle in a Clash of Civilizations, or a war on "Islamofascism," or anything except a huge crime scene. Now it's also "sacred ground," despite the gigantic commercial building going up there.

The 9/11 murderers were nominally Muslims. So what? Timothy McVeigh and his friends were nominally Christians. Who wants to tell the people of Oklahoma City they can't build a church near the site of the Murrah Building? Yes, I'm being disingenuous. Muslims are foreign, Other, scary -- like Catholics in 1928, like Mormons in the nineteenth century, like those heretics who burn in the second act of Don Carlo as the crowd rejoices. The real Pearl Harbor was followed by the roundup and detention of thousands of people whose only offense was Japanese ancestry, an event of which this country is now rightly ashamed. Are we going to learn to distinguish between the acts of individuals and their group identity? Do we learn from the past? Verdi says no.

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