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an liberal atheist unexpectedly defends a wingnut Christian preacher....

2nd UPDATE: to paraphrase the political philosopher Andrew Dice Clay:

Jack Be Nimble
Jack Be Quick
Jack Burned Off
His [censored censored.]

Much - over, overmuch, actually - has been made of one screwball tax-dodging pastor's Burn a Koran [sic] event in Florida.  The President, the Department of State, the FBI and probably other government departments (Interior? Forestry Service?) have or will have weighed in against this Fred Phelps wannabe (Team Phelps being understandably pissed that their prior Qur'an burnings did not get the coverage.)  It has gotten to the point that Talking Points Memo's MJ Rosenberg, a commentator whom I generally respect, actually rationalized the warrantless arrest of the preacher in violation of the federal and Florida Constitutions, and actually used Bush-era warrantless aggression by the state to justify it.  To quote Rosenberg, "as often happens, the feds can act and come up with a legal justification later....Let the pastor go to court. Let him win. What difference does it make?"  Rosenberg is a very good man who, at the moment, needs either to stop drinking whiskey or to start doing so.

It's one thing to have a law protecting a book on the basis of its content - such as one might find in most of the Islamic world and some of the Christian West with its holdover blasphemy laws.  Extremely offensive to free-speech advocates and civil libertarians, but at least preservative of separation of powers, due process of law and the concept of law itself.   It's another when liberals lose their fucking minds and start fanciful speculation about arrests because a small bunch of right-wing Christians might be setting about to burn books that they themselves own (no one is advocating theft.)  A greater capitulation to the Islamic Taliban and a greater political and moral win for the Christian Taliban here at home is scarcely imaginable than to arrest at the federal level a minister not for tax violations or raping a child, but for burning a book that he owns on the basis of the content of that book.

I don't really want to throw a turd into Talking Points Memo's punch bowl.  I hold its Editor-in-Chief Josh Marshall in high regard, recalling him and his gracious wife fairly well from Princeton years ago and having derived a great deal of pleasure and understanding from his magnificent blog empire over the years.  Josh and TPM are among the good guys, the grown-ups who stayed cool and focused while blogswarm madness and teacup tempests have swept over this site and others from time to time.  But if we have gotten so lost that we will freak over one wingnut in the wilderness getting ready to torch his own book with X number of his sympathizers, we have gotten lost, gone astray, run amok and done went all afuck (and I say the word "afuck" proudly as a free American, that coinage coming from my friend Craig - Hat Tip +1 - whose contribution to American English should be noted by future etymologists.)

The burning of a book that one owns, or the burnings of 500 books that 300 people own and voluntarily burn, is as much an act of free speech as the act of printing the book itself.  Printing a book is a statement by its owner that a book is worthy of being read; burning it expressed the contrasting idea.  No one should tolerate facile comparisons of the current demonstration to Nazi book burnings.  Unlike the books burned in Nazi book burnings, these books in Florida are not property confiscated by Gestapo agents as contraband or as the booty of the millions of robberies from Jews before their murders.  It was illegal even to possess the sorts of books that were burned in Nazi Germany; the burning was an extension of state oppression of all ideas save its own.  These Qur'ans to be burned on Friday are the lawful property of the owners who are as free to burn them as they are to shelve them or throw them out with the garbage.

The burning specifically of a religious book constitutes the additional expression by deed of another idea, namely, that a book held sacred by some is NOT sacred.  Unlike say, a copy of Das Kapital or the Federalist Papers (held as literally sacred by no one), Muslims hold specific beliefs about the holiness of the book, its text, itself.  Islamic scholars of different schools have debated whether the Qur’an actually constitutes part of creation itself, i.e. whether it pre-existed creation in some way.  The Qur’an's Arabic text is not merely an expression of concepts but, for devout Muslims, constitutes the verbatim transcription of the words of God ("Allah" being the mere translation of "God" in Arabic for Arab Christians and Muslims alike), for which translation is insufficient and not the Qur’an.  Islam treats the Qur’an - the text and the object containing the text - as sacred in the extreme, and the act of burning it expresses the extreme de-sacralization of that book/text in precise contrast.

As an atheist, I am all for de-sacralizing life - getting past what sacred meanings we pile onto bread, wine, books, art, buildings, stones, icons, towns, countries to discover what's actually there when we don't impose such concepts on reality.  I'd not participate in book burnings, because even terrible, violent, morally depraved books like Mein Kampf, the Bible and the Qur’an have useful value, however limited.  But this is not the early middle ages where the burning of a book might render its contents unavailable to an entire village, or even permanently unavailable.  Between modern typography and the Internet no book, save the rarest archeological find, should go "extinct" and certainly not the Qur’an.  But the real threat is not losing an anthropological artifact, but going extinct ourselves as a free nation and mutating into some "show your papers" banana republic where federal agents pay "visits" or, per Rosenberg, execute warrantless arrests without probable cause of a crime on preachers for obnoxiously and rudely expressing opposition to Islam and its sacred book in public.

For those who, like Rosenberg, would entertain the thought of ripping apart really basic American values out of a case of the jitters, I would ask: what worse military morale-destroying message could possibly be sent than to surrender to the very forces of Islamic theocracy itself? Every military servicemember pledged his or her life to serve, defend and protect the United States of America; don't we owe to them not to warp America into an unrecognizable frightened, freedom-fearing country while servicemembers serve abroad, hoping to recognize their homeland upon return?

If this be treason, or blasphemy, make the most of either.

UPDATE: looks like the minister has cancelled his plans, ruining all my intellectual fun.  Oh well, intellectual masturbation's a sin anyway.....

3rd UPDATE: Though I disagreed with his prior communion wafer blasphemy, PZ Myers speaks for me.

Originally posted to tbrucegodfrey on Thu Sep 09, 2010 at 01:29 PM PDT.

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