A Child’s Sister

I have just read my sister’s obituary in the Lakeland Ledger.

Five years ago she stood next to me, grasping my hand, as we watched our mother die.  Coward that I am, I was the one holding on for dear life. She was the one who escorted me through the rite, just like she’s done for every member of of my family since I was twelve.  As practical as I’ve come to be about theoretical things that don’t matter, she was always the one who was practical about the things that did.

In 1956 my father and mother piled the family into a Nash Rambler on a hot July day and headed from just south of St Louis to Florida.  None of us had any idea why, except my father and mother, and they weren’t saying.  My sister later told me that it was because we lived in the shadow of a lead smelting factory and that I had developed bronchitis–a disease I assumed had something to do with dinosaurs.   Florida and ocean air are good for the lungs, I was told. It might have been true.  She also told me that the dog I left behind, an English shepherd named Brownie, would track us down as soon as she picked up our scent and be in Florida days after we were settled there.  Though it stopped my crying, it turned out not to be true.

My sister, whose middle name was Sue and thus always Susie to a younger, attention-craving, insufferable brother, sat in the back seat next to me in a car without air conditioning for a trip to a state with water rather than Kansas and Illinois on either side of it.

By the time we got to Fort Myers, our presumed destination and where the Mayflower Van was headed with our worldly goods,  my sore throat had developed into a major childhood illness: the mumps. The cure was rest, Royal Crown Cola, and saltines.  When my mother asked why the cola, the doctor said, in a drawl my father strained to comprehend, “Well, have y’all evah tried eatin’ saltines without it?”

As I baked in a cheap motel room outside Naples, my sister wrote letters home to boyfriends she had thrown over, and in the custom of the day applied white adhesive tape and turquoise blue nail polish to a class ring from her last steady.  Whenever she’d collected more than one ring, she sometimes let me apply the nail polish to a second.  But it was her policy never to remove the tape when the ring was returned.

I will always remember Fort Myers as the place where I ate my first piece of watermelon and  learned what blind mosquitoes (“aqueous midges”) were.  Driving along the west coast with increasingly frazzled parents–neither parent had a job to go to and they were now confronted with a homesick daughter and a whining invalid son–my always abrupt mother announced abruptly that we weren’t staying in Fort Myers and we began a slow trek inland.

As we did, as though by magic, the solid wall of biteless ‘skeeters  began to dissipate from the back inside windscreen and we focused on eating watermelon.  Both of my parents were musicians (of a sort) so we sang, loudly and constantly as we chugged unhappily along.  It was during that unhappy sojourn that I got to be “Bloop” to my sister’s “Bleep” in the Drip Song and the female part in “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” Her favorite anthem that hot season was Rosemary Clooney’s version of  “You’ll Never Know,” which I wasn’t permitted to sing with her.

By the time we hit the depot town of Winter Haven in central Florida, a way station for northern tourists en route by coach from New York to Miami in the old Florida East Coast Railroad, we were out of songs, almost out of cash, and the Nash was coughing badly.  I was feeling better. My sister was feeling worse.  Her homesickness had turned into something real.  She’d caught the mumps.

Winter Haven became home, by default.  It had lakes, and palm trees, lots of nice houses, banyan trees, fresh water swamps, foliage like you never saw in the Midwest,  and loads of alligators.  When I got to be a teenager I resented it being in central Florida and so far away from the coast and would occasionally say as indignantly as I could “Tell me again why we’re not living in Fort Myers.” But the story was always the same.  “Your sister and you.”

Our mother found a job, then a better one, and ended up teaching at the local Catholic school.  Our father did what he could do.  Probably having escaped Missouri to avoid working for his German father, and after a financially ruinous try at running a restaurant in Haines City,  he ended up working for my mother’s father.  Worse, as we found out, there were blind mosquitoes in Winter Haven too.

After her one and only year in the local high school, my sister went to New Orleans to study nursing.  The Greyhound trip to Louisiana with my father to see her capped was the biggest adventure of my young life, probably the proudest of his.

She married a boy from “back home,” a usual thing to do, and because back home was still Missouri for her, that’s where he was from.  She had two adorable daughters who became little sisters to me, steadfastly refused–even when they were instructed–to call me Uncle Joe, and spent most of their time seeing if they could squeeze into the little area behind the back seat of my 1965 VW beetle.  In biblical terms, they grew in grace and wisdom.

Years went by.  I moved away.  There were the usual growing-apart pains that always seem to separate brothers and sisters who occupy different spaces, miles apart.  By this point she was the young matriarch of a family that had grown up knowing only Florida as their home.  She returned to school, earned a few degrees and became what many people still call a “legendary educator.”  Having known her in Girl Scout berets, Halloween party masks, with Calomime lotion smeared over her “blemishes” (our mother detested the words “pimples” and “belly”) it was hard for me to acknowledge the legendary part. But you can’t argue with the newspapers.

She had grandchildren. In August, 2007, one of them, her only grandson, was savagely murdered by a local gang. The effect of this on her was so horrible that the less said about it the better.  It is better not even to think about it. It’s just a theory, of course, but it was something she never recovered from.

My relationship with my sister was not always easy.  It was my fault that it wasn’t. I went from being a young brat to an older one, but always a brat. I mistook her endless exuberance for immortality, and when I learned she had cancer I thought the cancer didn’t have a chance. She would beat it.  She would outlive me by a decade at least.

But she didn’t.

Now I’m the last member of the homesteading troupe that rumbled into Florida without a destination, frightened, sick, and cash poor–when Dwight Eisenhower was still in the White House, when the drinking-fountains in McCrory’s said “White Only,” and the Mass was still in Latin. There is no one to grasp my hand this time, and to make the kiss of death gentle and soft.  Meeting my sister’s death is like  meeting death with his mask off and knowing for the first time–really–that this is what happens to us one at a time.

There is one more song she loved that long while ago, and I have been humming it all day.  It helps.

The Devil in Mr Jones

Codex Gigas (The Devil Codex)

Since I posted my commentary on the Terry Jones case I’ve received lots of feedback–mainly attempts to vindicate Jones and wondering why I am “coddling Muslims.”  I like the term feedback because it doesn’t discriminate as to the quality of responses.  Some were actually very insightful–the ones laying out, for example, the conditions for incitement and sedition; some less so–the ones that simply insist that we are citizens of a democracy that values free speech above everything else. I’ve received no recipes for coddled Muslims, but I’m sure they’ll be coming soon.

Often misquoted, in the United States v. Schenck case (1919: involving a man’s distribution of anti-draft flyers during World War I), Justice Holmes wrote that

The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic. […] The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.

“Falsely” is the word that is often omitted. What emerged was the “clear and present danger test,”  since weakened and greatly modified.

I’m reliably informed by no fewer than three lawyer-respondents and my buddy Guido that its successor, the “imminent lawless action” criterion, cannot reasonably be applied in this case because the damage and the loss of human life, even though preventable, did not transpire on American soil and that under current law (Hess v. Indiana [1973], Brandenburg v. Ohio [1969]), Jones would likely be given a pass.

And even though Americans, according to groups claiming responsibility, including Afghani Taliban, were the target (United Nations workers were an easier and softer hit), so far (April 5th) American soldiers did not die as a result of this provocation.  On the other hand, those who have replied that it was not Jones’s intention to do harm have not been following the story closely enough: he is quoted in the Washington Post as saying that after due consideration he felt he had no choice, and was only indecisive as to the method of execution (drowning, shredding, or shooting).  Fire is always the first choice of southern Christian bigots. And there is the small matter of his careful plans to broadcast the events in English and Arabic.

But my guess is that Terry Jones will become a kind of hero.  He already is to his congregation and thousands of well-wishing ultra-conservative Christians around the country. And much more cheaply than buying billboards, his gallon of kerosene has ignited his “Stand up for America” campaign.

But I hope he will not become a culture-hero to people who see his actions as brave and somehow correct–as a test case of the right to express hatred in equal measure to the religious population of a country where American lives are being lost each week in defense of democratic principles that the Afghan people, like the Iraqis before them, have shown no natural interest in pursuing on their own.  I am highly distrustful of the respondents who say they “disagree” with Terry Jones, but approve of the principle.  What principle?  That Islam is evil and he is no more evil than it is?  Or that his example serves as proof to the world (as if it cares) that America is the beacon for the unfettered right to speak even the most hateful and dwarfish ideas openly?

Terry Jones is not fighting for a principle.  He’s merely hiding behind one. It seems plain tawdry to invoke the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on behalf of a listless cracker who wants to see people killed seven  thousand miles away from his sanctuary.

A weird  undercurrent of responses has seen Jones as a symbol of the cowboy freedom to shoot the people who get on his nerves. It’s hardly a mariage de covenance (like the one between anti-abortion Catholics and fundamentalists), but Islam is regarded by right wing Christians, as well as by many atheists, as a toxic faith, so the symbol works for both constituencies in slightly different ways. When Jones sells the movie rights to his saga of upward struggle against the forces of Satan and his lonely coup de grace for freedom and democracy in this sin-loving land, the part should go to (no relation) Tommy Lee Jones.

There are two propositions that keep me away from reducing this episode to just another example of hate speech or civil disobedience, on the analogy of the Klan marching through Skokie in 2000 or burning draft cards in 1969 or the Haymarket riots of 1886.   The difference may not be immediately obvious, or compelling, but it is a difference.

If Mr Jones had staged his execution of the Koran, “a work of the Devil,” in 1969, it would have been the shot heard round Lake City, Florida.  No one would have cared; few people would have known.  It would have the resonance of a wooden clapper.  As a Florida boy myself, I can easily imagine a woman outside the Lake City Winn-Dixie store saying, “He burned the whut?” But it did not happen in 1969.  It happened in the age of rapid information-transfer, and sudden celebrity–the age and space that Jones is counting on to raise him from evangelical crackerdom to national guru.  I see Dancing with the Stars down the road for this guy and I pray that his partner will be someone named Aisha.

The Amendment we depend upon to protect us from slander while, at the same time, defending our right to blaspheme, criticize, oppose, peaceably assemble and demonstrate was carved at a time when America was relatively isolated from the foreign effects of domestic action.  Even though the polemic was hot and strong throughout the pre-Revolutionary era (one of the reasons the First Amendment exists at all) reaction was slow because news traveled that way.

I think there is something qualitatively different about Jones and the way he does business, and it has to be acknowledged. There is something different about what constitutes “imminent and likely lawless action” in an age where cause and effect have been reduced to days, sometimes seconds.  And one day the courts will have to deal with it–but not yet. Jones’s only miscalculation in this case was that the media wasn’t paying attention to him anymore, so he had to try doubly hard to get the word out.  He was duly abetted by Hamid Karzai.

As to preserving free speech against the odds of too much sway in the direction of controlling it: As a Christian triumphalist, Jones would like nothing more than an America in which the very thing he was permited to do could not be done.  A sheer increase of the Terry Joneses of this country–among people who now see his action as noble–would lead to a Christian state wherein it would, at a minimum, be illegal to burn a Bible or insult a man of the cloth, or more precisely, the evangelical cloth. Atheism in Jonestown, USA? As likely as a women’s right to education act under the Pakistani Taliban.

No one realistically thinks that this kind of America is coming, least of all me.  But it is an interesting test of priorities that condemning Jones’s action as being fundamentally opposed to the cardinal American values of freedom and tolerance  should be immediately seen as a complaint about hypothetical “infringement” of Mr Jones’s rights, without any equivalent assessment of what he did and the way he did it.  –I’m reluctant to mention the one muddled response that compared Jones’s burning of the Koran to the 1933 (fol.) book burnings in Nazi Germany because, frankly, I couldn’t understand the premise.

The way the Rev did it was to make sure that Muslims were paying attention.  When he streamed the “trial” and execution of the book, with some hapless imam from Dallas acting as a defense atttorney, he dressed in judge’s robes.  He streamed the proceedings with Arabic subtitles.  Those are the facts; I am guessing, but cannot know for sure, that he was also trying to convey an impression of “authenticity” to the web-viewers, as though to suggest this was a real trial.  Given the limited sophistication of the Arab street, this would not have been a difficult thing to do.

So, this was not an act confined to the churchyard; this was a belligerent act designed to do harm, to substantiate his weird metaphysic about Islamic violence, and he was right: harm was done. People are dead. or should I say, more people are dead.  Now to search “Koran Burning” on Youtube will link you to dozens of copycat rituals going on all over the world.  Congratulations, Mr Jones: you are a success because this is how we now measure success, the degree of lunacy that a single image can generate.

After further thought, however, I have decided that Mr Jones is really being judged by the wrong criteria.  His case falls between free exercise and free speech, and so it falls between the stools.  Holmes’s aphorism about “clear and present danger,” and all later refinements, are not going to help us with the Terry Jones case, unless he magically appears in Kandahar and starts shooting Muslims.  Even then, alas, he would likely find supporters back home and die a hero.

I’ve asked a number of respondents if they think Jones is “guilty” of anything other than bad judgement.   Law and ethics are not only two different areas but fields that often collide on principles. If law does not help us with this one, is there a moral position that can be condemned–or vindicated?  Is Mr Jones “just a cracker” and his actions as predictable, and thus as unremarkable, as the predictable response of angry young men in Afghanistan?  After all, we have become accustomed, to the point of dozing off, to images of angry, mainly young Muslim men all over the Islamic world.

I don’t fully understand the pathology of their anger, but I do know that the symbolic respository for what they are willing to die and to kill to defend is the Koran. I also think I know that lectures on God’s existence or their foolish and superstitious ways are not going to get their attention.

Arrest This Man

And his little Dove, too. With predictable ghoulish clarity, the American media is goading the Reverend Terry Jones to follow through with his Koran bonfire on September 11th, while politicians (both kinds) and religious leaders of all stripes are urging him not to do it.

Of course, there is no story if he doesn’t do it–and media hate that. And if it’s called off he will be called a coward for capitulating to the “supporters” of a religion he has t-shirted as “of the Devil.” Jones has stated that if Jesus was alive he would light the first match. And he has said, as all cultic leaders do, that a gunfight with the police wouldn’t faze him and his followers: “We’re prepared to die for what we believe in.” Echoes of another Jones, another catastrophe.

Mr Jones is all the usual cultic suspects rolled into one. He is a gay-basher, a hate-monger, and a crusader for the old time religious value of intolerance.

He founded the Dove World Outreach Center as a front for his hate-inducing sermons and grandstanding.

He is a Christian Triumphalist with a clear millennial vision, which he saw previewed on Septmber 11, 2001: the first fiery signs that the Antichrist was entering the world. He considers the pastors and priests organizing “prayer” and loaves of bread protests around him “lily livered Christians” for failing to stand up to the the threat of Islam. –Although it is not clear why, if Islam betokens the end-time, Mr Jones would want to oppose it: in his theology anyway, it’s the last act in a very big plan wrought by God himself.

And what do Gainesville officials do? Besides praying and dissuading, they have denied Mr Jones a burn permit. Perhaps the next recourse might have been for him to order a hundred porta-potties to the parking lot of the Church?

But no, Jones says the burning will go ahead as planned. There’s something, as every Klansman knows, about a fire.

Meanwhile, we are all missing the point and the President of the United States is missing an opportunity. The same president who personally intervened in a squabble between a fumbling Harvard professor and a Cambridge cop when the former locked himself out of his house is staying away from this one.

Despite the fact that the country is in wars with Muslims all over ther world, both hot and cold, and that the burning of Korans is likely to be seen as the most vicious symbolic attack on the Islamic faith since Urban II called the First Crusade.

There will be riots, there will be murders and bombings, there will be dead Americans and others. All because one undereducated self-ordained cowpoke took refuge in the First Amendment’s free expression clause.

Loaves of bread, prayer marches and picket signs–“good religion” vigorously expressed–are not going to have an effect on this donkey of a man so deeply out of touch with modern religion that he may as well be Osama bin Laden’s cavemate.

Mr President: You are a lawyer. You know the Constitution. You know the difference between hate speech and incitement. You know the line is thin, but that once it is crossed the damage cannot be undone.

I’ve seen it with my own eyes. During my time in Pakistan, in 2009, the mere rumour that some Christians had “desecrated” pages of the Koran led to disaster.

Four women, a man and a child died as Muslim militants set fire to Christian houses in the town of Gojra. Two men died later of gunshot wounds. Houses were burned and streets strewn with debris as people fired at each other from rooftops. There were bloody riots throughout the country. Then it was “revealed” that the rumours which led to the unrest were false and probably started by some children.

But Mr Jones is real. He will use real matches and real (if doubtless inexpensive) copies of the Koran. This very dangerous man has publically announced his intention to flout the law and to cause riots, even gunfights. He has already cried fire–real fire–in the crowded theater of global religious tension.

Mr President: Arrest this man. Do not turn this discussion over to political theorists, Constitutional talking-heads and interfaith tweeps.

If the dignity of Henry Louis Gates was important to you and the chance to be seen defusing a “racial situation,” this is infinitely greater and a thousand times potentially more harmful.

Arrest him without delay. Deploy the National Guard. Surround the Church. Be seen to be doing something courageous in this instance.

Your top general, not known for emotionalism, has already announced the consequences on the ground in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan. But it will spread–you should pardon the expresion–like wildfire. You will have let it happen.

You will be criticized, but your critics won’t prevail in this argument: you are trying to prevent loss of life. You are not trying to save Korans.

If you do not arrest this man, Christians in Pakistan, Lebanon, and corners of the Islamic world will be in jeopardy. Some will be killed; churches will be torched.

If you do not do this, American-Muslim relations, already lying in the dust will suffer an unimaginable blow. And Muslim Americans will consider you weak and treacherous.

Please, Mr President: show us this man in handcuffs and a U.S. marshall doing his sworn duty before Saturday.

Thank you.