Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Bonfires and Bloomberg

“Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings."

                               -- Heinrich Heine

I  first encountered this quote by Heinrich Heine when I was in elementary school learning about the Holocaust. I recall a black and white photograph of uniformed men wearing caps and swastika armbands, their faces glowing in the light of the flames as they tossed stacks of books onto a bonfire. The most grotesque thing about the picture wasn’t the fire or the physical destruction of books, our treasured symbols of civilization. It was the joyful carnival-like atmosphere of the scene. Alongside the photograph appeared Heine’s famous quotation.
As a humanist writing in the 19th century, Heine understood something of the dark potential lurking within the rise of German nationalism. It’s easy enough to read his quote as a foretelling of the Nazi Holocaust. It may also be understood as a more general comment about liberty and free expression and how the path to barbarism is paved by a willingness to combat ideas with flames. What is less appreciated is the actual context of Heine’s words. The excerpt comes from a play, Almansor, written in 1821 about the cruelty and ignorance of the Spanish Inquisition. The book that is being burned is the Koran.

Perhaps it’s a stretch to link the poetry and prescience of Heine with the nonsensical story that dominated last week’s news, the threat of a Koran Burning Day promoted by an idiot pastor in Gainesville, Florida. After all, the pastor may be a hateful moron but he's not acting under the authority of the State. He’s a lone extremist with a congregation of about 50 people. He does not represent Christianity or the United States of America or the people of Gainesville.  Clearly the whole thing was a sordid bit of sensationalism.  And yet, look how easy it is for a single actor, threatening to commit a single act of desecration, to dominate the headlines and create an international incident requiring a response from the President and Commander in Chief, the Secretary of Defense and General David Petraeus, the Commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan. I'm guessing that they have better things to do.

I’m not sure which is worse, the moral sickness of the pastor or the fact that such idiocy really is capable of provoking actual violence in the world. Perhaps the sorriest commentary of all is the role our media plays in creating and giving attention to such a nonsensical story. Rather than informing citizens or stimulating meaningful discourse, the media essentially supplies the fuel for the bonfire. Conflagration sells.

Strangely, some have accused New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg of also stoking the flames of controversy but, actually, he’s been a refreshing voice of reason. "I happen to think that it is distasteful,” Bloomberg said last week, “But the First Amendment protects everybody, and you can't say that we're going to apply the First Amendment to only those cases where we are in agreement."

Exactly right. Some might have preferred a stronger condemnation of the burning act itself but that’s our job as citizens. His is to uphold laws and protect rights. New York’s billionaire mayor is nobody’s idea of a great orator and he's surely an unlikely candidate for praise as a defender of individual freedom, but on the all-important issues of rights and freedom, he’s been nearly pitch perfect just as he was when defending the right to build the Park51 Islamic Cultural Center.

“We may not always agree with every one of our neighbors,” Bloomberg stated then in his gruff tone, looking bored as usual at the podium. “That’s life. And it’s part of living in such a diverse and dense city. But we also recognize that part of being a New Yorker is living with your neighbors in mutual respect and tolerance. It was exactly that spirit of openness and acceptance that was attacked on 9/11.”

Not bad for a Bostonian. His statement was perfect because it went beyond the necessary affirmation of rights (there is no right to be respected by your neighbors) and eloquently captured the ethos of New York City and civil society itself. That should have been the end of things. Instead, we saw an absurd controversy  descend into an insulting display of emotional incoherence, civic ignorance and political demagoguery Regarding the furor over the Islamic Center, Bloomberg observed, "This is a political thing. It all came up in two months, and it's going to go away on November 4th."

Or even sooner if the media can find something else that’s flammable.