The Evil in Your Midst

by admin Posted on September 17, 2012

So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear of it. (Deut 21.21)

As the smoke settles in Libya and Cairo, it seems to collect in the heads of people like Jerry Coyne, P Z Myers and Eric MacDonald.

All three cleave to the quaint 18th century assumption that the right of free speech is as sacred as the Bible, a book they reject as a compendium of intellectual rot. Odd, how the freethinkers are willing to be slaves of the right pope. Sacred writ is stupid and retardant. Secular writ, that’s something else again.

The First Amendment to the Constitution–like the Second, the favorite of gun-toters–was written at a time when people could be charged with treason and hanged for criticizing the King. Its scope is now so broad that it has become the rhetorical equivalent of carrying a Smith and Wesson SD9 VE (available online) to within one hundred yards of a presidential speech in New Hampshire. Live Free or Die–your choice.

If you begin with the doctrine that Islam is evil, as Coyne and company do, then I suppose your Manichaen instincts provoke you to want to stamp it out. It’s one of the reasons the formidably smart Christopher Hitchens supported Bush adventures in the Middle East, because in terms of stamping out religion, you have to bomb someone, and on average (at least recently) Muslims behave worse than Christians.

I agreed with Hitch about so much else: but not about that. It was a cyclopic, post-in-the-eye blind spot with him. But if you begin with a more sensible proposition: that men, and many women, in the Islamic world and especially in unstable zones like Libya, parts of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and now Egypt (following the colossal failure of the Arab spring to yield flowers) are grossly undereducated, passionate, and often irrational, the question becomes whether the United States, in its national interest, needs to test the limits of its precious liberality abroad. Our vaunted attachment to free speech and bullets (and their odd convergences) is not something we have a right to expect the Islamic masses–mainly young, mainly bored–to “get.” They have the internet, with all the offending images to get their testosterone roiling, but they could never have created it: that, symbolically, is part of the problem.

This is not 1776 or 1789. It’s 2012. If Muslims had been buzzing hornets in 1776, news of an insult against their sacred book or holy prophet would have travelled so slowly that it would have died of attrition before it reached the target.

We are not talking about insult or the right to blaspheme (which has become a cardinal right and rite among the new atheists) but about restraint in the pursuit of moral objectives. Restraint? America? Not in Don’t Tread on Me Land, where cutting someone off in the next lane is enough to get you shot.

I know that when I call a Catholic priest a child molester, or the pope a moral fascist who manipulates doctrine to control people’s sexual lives, there will be those who take offense. I also know that I run almost no risk for doing this, because (to be blunt) Christianity has just about run its course, influence-wise. It is only in the fusty, historically challenged heads of some atheists that blasphemy continues to be interesting; dissident Catholics, Catskill comedians and liberal theology sucked the real life out of parody and insult decades ago (South Park did the rest)–leaving only the odoriferous vestiges of evangelical gas as a target.

Most sensible religious people in the United States don’t care how much you insult religion–even their own–as long as you don’t actually murder the priest or harass their pastor. But reality demands that we look at Islam in a different way. Not the way poofy religious inclusivists look at it–a good faith gone wrong, ruined by subverters–but as an unstable and insecure faith that commands the affection of almost 2 billion people worldwide. That is not a population you can enroll in American Values 101: where would they all sit?

The number of evangelical Christians in the United Sates is about 70,000,000. That is a big number–about 25% of the population (and shrinking)–but it is is not a very big number, and within that number there are lots of smaller numbers: fundamentalists, pre-millennialists, Pentecostals, dominionists old and new, sectarians, and low, low down on the food chain, people like the Rev. Terry Jones and his allies.

In the earliest stages of the Libyan crisis, the Obama administration tried to diminish the effects of the viral YouTube video by saying that Americans don’t really see the Prophet as a child molester, womanizer and murderer. That is probably true–they don’t. In fact most Americans are so ignorant of Islam that they don’t know the story of Aisha or the basis for the well-worn calumny. (It goes back to the Christian Middle Ages). An equivalent claim–that Mary the mother of Jesus was a prostitute or unwed mother, for example, is not only not scandalous to many Christians outside the evangelical and Catholic camp, but a theory that looks plausible to some very good scholars. That is how different the two traditions are at the “intellectual” level, and how much alike they are at the level of extremist yahoos. But a yahoo fringe aside, Christianity, slowly but surely, has moved on over the centuries, dragging its lunatic fringe along behind it. Islam has come into modernity without actually leaving its tent.

Hard as it is for me to say it, Obama and friends were wrong: You cannot put YouTube back in the tube anymore than you can toothpaste. When it’s out it’s out: nothing can be done. But the hard facts remain: a hack named “Sam Bacile,” with the express blessing and encouragement of the Rev. Terry Jones, conspired to beam his “film”-trailer around the world. He was able to do this because he is an American who can hide behind an Amendment designed to protect people from arbitrary punishment for their political opinions. It was not designed to protect cowardly long-distance assassins and provocateurs from scrutiny.

“Bacile” like Jones’s mock trial of the Koran in 2011, becomes a hero to a thousand fools. He is defended by mobs of men and women who are committed to their own kind of terrorism–people (as I’ve already said) who will turn their gaze on the next enemy (atheists?) as soon as they create Vesuvius in the Ummah.

And he is protected by religion-hating pundits like Jerry Coyne–who each time he opens his mouth on any topic but evolution proves yet again how badly we need other subjects than science taught in our universities. The secular-atheist absolutism of people who reject controlling the sources of violence at their inception, and prefer instead to look on a row of caskets as the “price” of free speech and liberty, using hackneyed, unmodern, and useless eighteenth century slogans, is frankly insidious and pathetic.

Not only pathetic but a study in bad analogies: If I were looking for a good one for what’s wrong with letting hatemongers stoke fear and resentment, I would say that just as we require parental and legal controls to keep the worst forms of pornography out of the hands of children, and children out of the clutches of unscrupulous men, we need to accept the infantile nature of some religious views and act accordingly. That is a mature thing–a reasonable thing to do.

The permissible boundaries of pornography as it affects vulnerable populations has been tested again and again in the courts and the pornographers seldom win. We need to see the crisis in Islam as a test case in the use of visual pornography intended to incite, not as a test case in the right to voice an “opinion” or engage in blasphemy as a parlour game. But I can hear the clamber already: if you believe, as the Coynes of this world seem to, that all religion is pornography, then it follows that all religion should be controlled–and we wouldn’t want that, would we? It’s a red herring, but let me throw it at my own argument.

The suggestion that (as Romney says of Obama) that I am capitulating, apologizing tiptoeing, coddling, or missing the point misses the point by an imperial mile. The coalition of Christian crackers, dissident Islam-hating ex-Muslims, and atheists now seems to be an established fact. –A bit like the one-issue coalition of anti-abortion fundamentalists and zygote-worshipping Catholics.

It is not an alliance that can last, because the hidden fractures will grow larger over time. It may seem counter-intuitive to say that liberty requires restraint. But that is what I’m saying. To insist on the right to blaspheme and insult, at this price, beggars the morality of the right. What calculus do we use to determine the value of any principle? The Constitution? The Constitution is not a calculus; it is a list of legal commandments based on political compromises–some of them theoretical, but many just practical. It is not a primer on ethical reasoning. Once it envisaged slavery, male only voting, and the prohibition of spirituous liquors. Its infallibility is for high school debaters, young Republicans and American Legion conventioneers to celebrate–not people with a good grasp of its history and interpretation.

There is nothing to be gained from giving the abusers of free speech and the perverters of freedom the right to shoot from a distance and then claim that they were just being good citizens. Every soldier killed in Iraq and Afghanistan sacrificed for a period of time his right to do as he pleased in order to do what he was told. In the interest of peace, there is a greater good, one that can only be pursued by using reason as a measure of action.

That has always been the real strength of the west, and what has largely guaranteed its political evolution. There’s nothing reasonable about tormenting a mentally-challenged woman just to show to others how stupid and preposterous she is. But for Myers, Coyne and MacDonald, there seems to be something reasonable–if the sacred writ of the Constitution is your guide–about throwing stones at the stone throwers to see how they will respond.

Far better, it seems to me, to seek out the real evil in our midst–the “occasions of sin”–and deal with them before they leave dead bodies on the ground for which, they can plausibly say, they are not responsible.


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35 thoughts on “The Evil in Your Midst

    • I have to challenge you on that Dwight. You could be right but I’m skeptical.

      Can you cite any “modern” nation’s law that would have prevented the making of a film that portrays a religious leader as [something bad]? Can you cite any “modern” nation’s law that would punish the makers of such a film, after it was produced?

      I could be wrong but ‘inciting’ is when you say to a crowd, something like, “they insulted the Prophet, let’s get them!!!” I agree that these idiots poked the proverbial hornet’s nest–they did not ‘incite’ by my thinking of the legal meaning. Am I incorrect?

      I’m assuming you’re not counting as “modern” the nation of Malaysia and some others where insulting the King is a punishable offense.

    • Dwight is perfectly correct.

      New Zealand prohibits hate speech under the Human Rights Act 1993. Section 61 (Racial Disharmony) makes it unlawful to publish or distribute “threatening, abusive, or insulting…matter or words likely to excite hostility against or bring into contempt any group of persons…on the ground of the colour, race, or ethnic or national or ethnic origins of that group of persons.” Section 131 (Inciting Racial Disharmony) lists offences for which “racial disharmony” creates liability.

      Australia’s hate speech laws vary by jurisdiction, and seek especially to prevent victimisation on account of race.

      In the United Kingdom, several statutes criminalize hate speech against several categories of persons. The statutes forbid communication which is hateful, threatening, abusive, or insulting and which targets a person on account of skin colour, race, disability, nationality (including citizenship), ethnic or national origin, religion, or sexual orientation. The penalties for hate speech include fines, imprisonment, or both.

      In Switzerland public discrimination or invoking to rancor against persons or a group of people because of their race, ethnicity, is getting penalized with a term of imprisonment until 3 years or a mulct. Sweden prohibits hate speech, and defines it as publicly making statements that threaten or express disrespect for an ethnic group or similar group regarding their race, skin colour, national or ethnic origin, faith or sexual orientation.

      In the United States, hate speech is protected as a civil right (aside from usual exceptions to free speech, such as defamation, incitement to riot, and fighting words).

      • Steph, Thank you. I see the distinction between the U.S. law and those other countries. Thank you for taking the time to list those.

        Your and Dwight’s point (unless I misunderstand) is that those county’s laws would have kicked off some legal action, if the film was created their by one of their citizens.

        Have any of those countries subsequently banned this film (sales or distribution or asked YouTube to shut it off for their countries) for violating those laws you cite? If not, I don’t see that you have a point. If they did, then point made.

      • There has been no suggestion the film will be shown and if it is shown there would no doubt be complaints and the anti hate laws in place will allow prosecution of certain people or the banning of screening.

  1. “It may seem counter-intuitive to say that liberty requires restraint.”

    Only to people who haven’t thought about it very deeply. Unfortunately there are very many of those. But of course you are right, there are limits to freedom and we are debating about where to say the limits. Freedom, like morality, is relative. What’s good for someone limits other people’s freedom or downright hurts them or endangers their lives.

    I disagree with some of your use of numbers. 70 million is, in my opinion, a very big number. Also, I don’t see such a bright clear line dividing evangelicals from other Christians as you seem to. Perhaps they seem particularly remote to scholars surrounded by people who insist that the socially-liberal varieties of Christianity are the most “authentic.” I put the word in quotation marks, because I don’t know what it has ever meant in Christianity other than the sort of Christianity with which one happens to sympathize. And when you say that you run almost no risk by offending the sensibilities of Christians, think of the people who work in women’s clinics who have been murdered by anti-choice Christians.

    And you mention the figure of 2 billion Muslims almost as if to say that most of them are dangerously close to violence, and apt to be set off by the crass excesses of crude Islamophobes. Clearly, many Muslims denounce the actions of the enraged mobs, although the Islamophobes continue to be deaf to those denunciations and Western media often seem much more interested in the Muslim extremists than in the moderates.

    You argue your case well, but the picture you’re presenting here leaves out both some moderate Muslims and some extremist Christians.

  2. My girlfriend was over in Afghanistan for a couple of months. I’m pretty sure if people who are (for lack of a better word) trolling Islam had someone they cared about over there they would be more prudent about their criticism. If something had happened to her due to some yahoo posting an inflammatory video from the comfort of his own home that caused a riot I certainly would not have just shrugged my shoulders and said “well, my gf died for Freedom Of Speech and Islam needs to get with the program”.

  3. Your insightful presentation of the complexities of either Islamic or Christian politico-religious Weltanshauung illustrates part of the broader problem of Ummah versus those whom extremists call Kafir; how sad that moderates often appear so voiceless in these matters. I wish our Western laws had punitive teeth for those like Im-Bacile and Terror-Terrier Jones who are irresponsible with our freedom and seem to have little or no desire to understand temperance and historical grounding.

  4. I have to disagree with you and the scary number of (any is to many) who want to repeal the first amendment by making it subject to the approval of the all wise good guy brigade. You are asking for nothing less than to take away peoples freedom or property (our friends in Egypt would like lives too) for expressing an opinion. The people we should fight are not the makers of back-alley F grade movies but those who are willing to kill to enslave us.

    • I have to disagree with you Mike. It’s not just a simple matter of freely expressing opinion is it? It’s arrogant disregard of the fact that other countries aren’t obliged to obey your laws, and it’s insane and deliberate speaking freely in full awareness of the inevitable consequences. What is reasonable about that? It’s not about criticising ‘normal’ people. It’s about expressing opinions about people whose reactions will be devastating to other human beings. Surely it’s not too much to ask that educated American individuals living with the modern evolved advantages of a free society, utilise some intelligent self control.

      • “Surely it’s not too much to ask that educated American individuals living with the modern evolved advantages of a free society, utilize some intelligent self control.”

        You can ask. There are about 300 million people in the U.S. There will always be some idiot somewhere doing some unbelievably idiotic thing, won’t there?

        What do you propose? I didn’t respond to the main article itself because there was no proposed solution or call to action in it. I agree that everyone should be ‘nice,’ for example. Can you enforce that? No.

      • Write laws so that people can complain and impose them and arrest stupidly dangerous morons like Gee Dubya Bush and Terry Jones and his lapdog the film maker.

  5. Your post, while thoughtful and humane, unfortunately doesn’t deal with the legal complexities or potential free speech ramifications of arresting/charging Bacile and Jones with a crime. But God (or the devil, take your pick) is in the details. It’s easy to assume the mantle of the Reasonable Person, and to tar your opponents as yahoos, but without addressing the legal issues, how can your post be regarding as anything more than noble sentiment? Fine enough, of course, but it won’t win the argument.

  6. I’ve been a faithful and silent lurker here at TNO but this particular comment thread has compelled me to state my opinion. In typical Yankee fashion, this time I simply can’t be bothered to shut up. 😉

    Americans tend to cleave to the first amendment like white on rice. Rightly so, in my view. Full disclosure: I am personally so Jeffersonian in this respect that I ought to be squatting at Monticello.

    Why is this so important to me? Because it means that I can stand in the center of Times Square and at the top of my lungs assert that Barack Obama is an extraterrestrial sent to utilize gay marriage and solar energy to poison our water supply. I can also stand there and recite Magna Carta, which is pretty nice. What I can’t do – and this is important – is stand there and say I want to HURT Barack Obama. I can’t say I intend to harm POTUS, or Joe, or other people, and reasonably expect not to end up in jail or in the psych ward. There do exist these most basic of laws to protect us.

    In fact, there exists a number of incitement laws in the US. The language, the precedent-making court cases, and the documentation surrounding it all are incredibly nuanced and complicated. You could spend your entire life – and some have – dealing with these issues. By the very nature of its (deliberate) vagueness, the First Amendment and our methods of coping with it in the United States are forever in a state of flux. A cursory look at even the Wikipedia pages and their dependent discussions will give you some sense of just how gray the gray area gets.

    Stephanie: perhaps you could clarify just what you think we should do, in a specific legislative capacity, to deal with content that you have determined is designed, intended, and certain to result in bloodshed. Where do you draw the line between fighting words, harassment, OR protected subversive speech? Underline that. Then bold it. Subversive speech. Subversive speech, “I am sure we can all agree”, (doesn’t that phrase taste a little funny in the mouth?) is easy to want to protect. But it’s not enough in a courtroom, or even in an honest intellectual space (as I would like to hope this space is) to say “obviously the line is here. Anybody can see that”. No, sorry, not everybody can see that. That’s nothing more than a completely unilluminating appeal to intuition. We must not forget that the pendulum swings both ways. For every Westboro Baptist or brain dead filmmaker, you will find 5 dissidents, radicals, whatever you’d like to label them. People in the right who not 100 years ago, perhaps not even 50 years ago, would have been hauled before a judge or a censorship board and harassed and harangued and possibly jailed or deported. Today they’re either ignored, or if they’re especially good, still harassed. I can’t take seriously anybody who seems to speak from some misguided sense of moral omniscience in this, or in just about anything. Would you like to immigrate, settle in, naturalize yourself, and assist us in sorting it all out? It certainly seems like you think we need the help.

    • I have only personal values which I have formed during my life. I share these with others in my society. As American imperialism affects the entire globe, environmentally and socially, we have opinions on the way America behaves and its foreign policies too as these have an impact on all of us. I did take a couple of politics papers and a few on criminal and Maori land and water laws but I do not hold a law degree or practice law, and I am not a politician and do not write policies. Therefore I can only vote for those who I hope will govern in the best way and wish that American legislators would become less isolated from the rest of the developed world. I do not wish to leave the country to which I have returned and certainly don’t think America needs help from foreigners, but perhaps it might be helpful if there was more cooperation and less domination, in a more egalitarian environment. Just ideas.

      • Stephanie: There’s no need to apologize for anything. I criticize other people; I have no cause to expect no criticism in return. I have no desire whatever for you to apologize for your opinions. They’re opinions, and I’m not going to do anything about them, except write back.

        I do disagree with some of your statements. Very stridently (though I mean no personal offense) do I object to the sentiment that America should submit to some international tribunal in determining how her citizens should be allowed to express…anything. I don’t believe international law has any place governing freedom of expression in sovereign countries.

        I also think it’s more than a tad naive to think that, say, the genuinely tragic assassination of Christopher Stevens in Libya was CAUSED by an obscure American film making fun of and slandering Islam. To my mind, the film was an excuse, and only an excuse, to do that violence. Any excuse could have been used because Americans (and other Westerners, let’s be fair) make fun of Muhammed and his importance to Muslims EVERY SINGLE DAY. It’s a big trend on the internet now to say something public and outrageous about Islam and pretend like you’re a freedom fighter and the death threats should be rolling in any minute now, etc.

        Another central problem is that it confuses me when fellow liberals (I guess I’ll take that label, begrudgingly) are quick to say something along the lines of “well, what do you morons expect, when you don’t legally prevent people from saying those things. You need to arrest somebody. This needs to be censored”. How is the onus ever on me if I say something offensive and halfway across the world you blow up a building full of innocent people “because” I said it? I don’t think “I” I am the problem here. “You” are the problem for taking a life because what you can’t take is a joke, or an insult. Yes, more than space divides us all; it’s culture. I know that, I see that, and I recognize that something festering in the West is fomenting emotional outrage in the Islamic countries. All said and done though, in my stubbornness I refuse to see us all as anything but human beings, almost all of us with some capacity – large or small – to change.

        Anyway, to wrap up another huge comment, I’d like not to leave the bigger picture neglected. The day after Christopher Stevens died, hundreds of Libyan Muslims, innocent as angels, gathered in front of the embassy to mourn him, to express their love and gratitude for his service, and – heartbreakingly – to apologize on behalf of the killers. I’d like to find a way to connect with THOSE people, to work across any great distance with them, in any way I can, to bring us together. Peace is a dream transcending everything. That said, I’ll never get behind anything that requires I tear my Constitution apart first. Maybe it’s futile idealism, but I’ll probably always take up the cause for having one’s cake and eating it too. 😉

      • I don’t think anyone suggests America tears up its Constitution. But as fundamentalist Christians claim that biblical texts are the inerrant word of God, modern evolved Christians understand the literature in its historical context and religious ideas evolve accordingly so as not to contradict new scientific evidence in an enlightened … and evolving world.

        For what its worth (not much) Aotearoa NZ has a ‘constitution’ – a collection of statutes, Treaties, Orders in Council, letters patent, decisions of the Courts and unwritten constitutional conventions. As with the United Kingdom, there is no one supreme document; the New Zealand constitution is not codified or, with the exception of certain electoral law, formally entrenched. Nothing is sacred in this secular country.

    • Exactly, Rebecca. Those that want regulate offensive speech don’t seem to question whether the board of all wise censors they propose to tell us what messages are worthy of expression would never abuse their power.

  7. Steph

    Are you proposing that the right of the americans to free expression should be subject to approval by the muslims in the arab world?

  8. I’m not sure it’s appropriate to try to draw comparisons between New Zealand and the United States. I live in Connecticut. The entire population of New Zealand is barely any larger than the population of my tiny state. My tiny state also has its OWN tiny constitution, sort of and kind-of-not-exactly subordinate to the federal constitution. We have Connecticut-specific laws, procedures, benefits, problems, etc. Just trying to get through the legal documentation on (only) Connecticut’s anti-defamation laws will melt your brain. It seems a hell of a lot easier to create anti-hate laws in a very prosperous and tiny country, such as New Zealand, with (last I understood) only two major ethnic groups. I’m probably too American to even muster the cognitive strength to comprehend ‘outlawing hatred’. There’s an entire spectrum of human emotions and forms of expression to take into account. There’s even an entire spectrum of hate. I don’t want to write an essay or make a cartoon and get dragged into court and charged with hate. “You’ve been going around hating too much. Here’s six months printing license plates for three cents an hour in Enfield Correctional so you can think about how to play nice. PS: try not to get shanked.”

    To return to the points about America needing to conform to international laws determined by ‘other secular nations’, it’s all for the best to confront this reality: never in a trillion years will you see that happen. I’d be very happy though to talk about other ideas you might have to reduce what you see as negative American cultural influence in very vulnerable and unstable countries undergoing massive change. That’s a sincere, uncynical, and snarkless request because I can’t even bluff: I’ve got virtually nothing. I can more or less assert that with a continued Obama administration you may be pleasantly surprised about how we may reform our foreign policy. If you want to move mountains, you have to make peace with their progressing an inch or two at a time. Sadly, Christopher Stevens was a major asset in that process. I hope we’ll find the right person to fill what are some very big shoes.

    • Right. Completely inappropriate. I said fwiw, “not much”. New Zealand and the UK (or even Australia etc). America is much more prominent internationally, with real influence. I was more alluding to principles than intending to draw direct comparisons. I admit I quite like not having an audible or relevant voice in the wider world. Our insignificance and miniscularity gives some of us down under in Aotearoa NZ an ‘illusion'(? or perhaps not an illusion) of security, being unknown and hidden and not even important enough to feature on some world maps, on the bottom of the globe… Kia kaha 😉

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