In the aftermath of the media spectacle around the Reverend Terry Jones and his threat to engage in a good old-fashioned book burning ceremony (and what was popularly imagined as “Let’s hope this crazy redneck doesn’t start World War III”), the public discussion has centered on several things that miss the broader and more important points:
1. This is not about media excess. Lunatics don’t need mainstream news media to create enormous problems. Witness the Reverend Fred Phelps, infamous for his “God Hates Fags” protests. The media typically ignore his shenanigans, yet it will take a ruling by the Supreme Court to finally put an end to his protests at funerals. Here too, as Justin Elliot reported in Salon, this story was getting a lot of attention in the Muslim-world long before it became a media spectacle in the U.S. The reason why, of course, is that it fits within the broader right-wing war against Islam that is being waged daily in the U.S. and in Europe. Irrespective of whether those wars are waged over real (Iran) or fictitious (Obama as Muslim) issues, they are rightfully received as threatening to the Muslim world. Where the media has demonstrated excess is in its coverage of the Park51 “Ground Zero mosque” project, buying into the right’s cynical machinations and Fox News’ promotion of this as Issue Number One, while stoking a “controversy” where none had previously existed.
2. This is not about a lone lunatic fringe figure named Terry Jones. In suspending his antics, Jones directly linked that “deal” to the discussion over the “Ground Zero mosque.” Jones figured himself as an important figure, even a hero, in that battle. But that battle is larger than Jones, Sarah Palin, Fox News, and the other instigators of this hysterical outpouring of bigotry. What is ascendant is the tendency toward fundamentalism in American thinking and behaviors, or if not the “American” mindset writ large, certainly in the rhetoric that continues to dominate public discourse. Writing during the Cold War, political scientist Murray Edelman noted the tendency for nations to mirror their enemies. Fundamentalist thinking isn’t just that which dominates Middle Eastern politics and religion at this moment in time—it is that which consumes us as well. Jones is just one of the less “respectable” members of a much larger constituency.
3. This is not about the book-burning event itself. Now that Jones has “suspended” his ceremony and no books were actually burned, has the Muslim-world breathed a sigh of relief and gone back to its previous concerns? Protesters in Afghanistan rail on, while two have actually been killed as a result of the fervor over the stated intent to burn the Islamic holy book. Americans have, in effect, already “burned” the Quran, whether real copies were turned to ash or not. We burned it with our invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. We burned it every time we offered our blind support of Israel’s worst offenses against international law. We burned it by allowing citizens to use the religion as a substitute racial epithet when attacking our president. The damage has already been done, whether Jones’s event proceeds or not.
As news media take measure of their performance during the pause in the action, perhaps they should stop obsessing about themselves and train their sights on the broader discourses of fundamentalism, bigotry, and hatred that define our times.