Acts of Apostles

“Manifesto,” the poem that launched Banned Book Week 2010, was written by banned author Ellen Hopkins. As a perspicacious undergraduate I know pointed out, each stanza of this poem addresses an aspect of that strange cultural fear known as Banned Book Week. Her line, “false
patriots who live in fear of discourse,” in stanza one makes me tremble each time. You see, it is easy to believe that censorship applies only to Nazis goose-stepping around bonfires with books flying through the air like a Steven Spielberg movie, or even, more recently, The Book Thief (the book is better than the movie), or godless Communists. That fear, however, travels both forward and backward in time. The Patriot Act has been at work effacing liberty for several years now, and people too fond of fear are unwilling to withdraw it. The world of frightening ideas in which we live, however, is nothing new. Literary artists bring us to uncomfortable places. That’s why we read them.

If we turn history’s pages back to the Nazis, we find ourselves sitting in judgment over their cowardly act of book burning. Those who never read of the phoenix are swift to recreate the myth. But we do history a disservice if we stop there. I was recently reminded that burning books has a biblical precedent. According to Acts 19.19, while Paul was performing miracles in Ephesus, those who were converted brought out their books of magic and burned them, to the approval of the nascent Christian movement. A Bible that advocates the burning of books is ironic, for the Bible itself has been banned in parts of the world. What greater crime against humanity can there be than the deliberate destruction of its own cultural heritage? We don’t believe in magic any more, but we still burn books.

NewYorkSocietyForTheSuppressionOfVice

Owen Davies, in his book Grimoires, shows that the practice goes back even further, with Romans burning books of magic as early as 186 B.C.E. There is a perverse symbolism at work here. As someone who admires, but can’t afford, antique books, the thought of ancient documents intentionally destroyed appears as one of the most easily preventable of cultural crimes. Sometimes as I hurry through the Port Authority Bus Terminal to reach my gate, I see the military guards with machine guns and full combat fatigues and I hope that they don’t stop me to search my bag. The only thing I’m carrying is books. Books, however, convey ideas. Banned Book Week reminds us each year that ideas are essential to the life of the mind. They may be burned or banned, but they will live on. The cost, however, may never be fully recovered by the society that permits its ideas to be incinerated.


Private Property

I’m receiving a government-sponsored massage at Newark’s ironically named “Liberty Airport.” Like most federal freebies, this massage leaves me wanting. Now, I’ve had many pat-downs to protect me from people like myself, and each time I find myself feeling like so much meat for politicians’ pork-bellies in this culture of fear. I am afraid. It isn’t terrorists who worry me, but my own elected (sometimes) guardians. When being a citizen is considered the same thing as an enemy of the state, there is a problem. In the line next to me is an infant-in-arms being given a pat-down by a stranger. Yes, ma’am, my tax dollars help pay for that. Please, don’t bother to thank me. It will be only the first of many.

The last time I flew was from London to New York. In Heathrow US citizens aren’t sent through the humility of full-body scanners. Only a nation afraid of its own does that. I often ponder what this means. Frequently I hear, “these colors don’t run.” I wonder if it’s because they’re too busy sticking their hands down their own citizens’ pants. Home of the brave? Only if bravery means giving in to the intimidations of terrorists. I’ve fallen off a bicycle a time or two. One time it was with pretty messy results. I’ve even actually fallen off a cantering horse. (That may explain a thing or two.) As a child I was always told that you need to get right back on and try again. After 9/11, however, our country showed its naked fear in the overregulation of air security while continuing deregulation of the airlines. Money does not guarantee a secure future.

If our government has a desire to see its citizens naked, what more need they do? They know every penny we earn or exchange, taking a cut each time, and the only way to get on a plane without hassle is to let them view everything. It’s not good for my Constitution. Our Constitution. Moral outrage, however, is apparently a thing of the past. Full-body scanners may be science, but I still believe in the humanities. And when a babe in arms is considered a threat to national security, I have to wonder what we’re truly afraid of. And next time do you think you could use a little more pressure on my neck? I feel like I’m coming down with a wicked headache.

Read the sign


Religion Undisclosed

I’m getting to be a pat-down connoisseur. In Raleigh-Durham it was a more intimate affair with Mr. TSA—I don’t even have his name or number—narrating the intimate details. “I will move my hands up your thigh until I encounter ‘resistance,’” he said. At Newark the pat-down was quicker, more business-like, almost as if Mr. TSA were embarrassed. In Raleigh-Durham, nobody batted a lash when I said full-body scanners were against my religion. At Newark, they laughed. The gate attendants began asking me what my religion is. Private. My religion is as private as my “resistance.” And I was being ridiculed for it. This is the Patriot Act vision of America. Regular readers of this blog know that I have never revealed my religious convictions. They are a very private matter with me, and I had supposed that I’d been born in a nation where that was respected. Instead, I am laughed at.

We extend religious liberty to those who wish to handle rattlesnakes. To men who wear black dresses and have an historic penchant for young boys. To people who believe the world was created in six days. To people who believe golden tablets only seen by one man through rose-colored glasses are the basis for sacred scriptures. To the traveler who believes in the integrity of the human body and cannot divorce it from the respect and dignity of human modesty, this does not apply. Religions arm military forces. Religions rape women. Religions murder children as well as adults. Who’s laughing at them?

I wonder if I might have a legal case here. When has the free practice of my religion—which decrees that full-body scanners are immoral—been opened to public scorn? And don’t tell me it’s the price of security. I walked through “security” with my eyes open; first class passengers do not get scanned like hoi polloi. It’s not a matter of security—it’s about control and money. When will the people take back control of their own country from officials inebriated with power? I feel no safer with a stranger’s latex-gloved hand on my resistance. I feel no safer when people who couldn’t cut college get jobs in the US government and look at their fellow citizens naked. You’ll blank out my face? That makes it even worse. If someone’s going to violate my dignity I want him to look me in the eye and realize that it’s a human being he’s humiliating, not just a hunk of meat. Or in the language of the TSA, mere resistance.

First, show me yours


Witch Crazy

The self-destructive tendencies of human societies should be of major interest to those who study the mind. Why a highly evolved species would forego reason—or create an entire false logic—to give itself an excuse to mass-murder its own is among the greatest trials of theodicy. Can God be justified in such circumstances? With or without divine approval, God is nevertheless implicated. One of those homicidal events, the European witch craze of early modern history is a prime example. Anne Llewellyn Barstow’s Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts is a disturbing book on many levels. For a human being with any level of empathy, reading about the torturous destruction of at least 100,000 people—generally women—is hard going. We don’t want to be reminded that we were ever so naïve as to believe that women slept with the devil, flew through the air to meet with other witches, and were trying to bring down society. The “upright,” as Barstow makes very clear, feared for the church. Concern for the ways of God excused—demanded even—the death of the innocent. Many of the victims confessed, under torture, that the godly men had got it right.

Barstow contends that economic stresses and fear for the sanctity of the church, along with a generous dose of native misogyny, fueled this holocaust. She notes that it happened in the same society that would initiate another holocaust a mere three centuries later. But why women? Coming out of the medieval period, societies were strengthening centralized governments. Roles of power that belonged to women were highly individualized, and therefore considered threats. The healer, in absence of a medical profession, was often female, frequently a midwife. In days of high infant mortality, they were sometimes blamed for performing abortions, something men in power simply couldn’t accept. Barstow points out that population increases were stressing the economic production of the period. The newly minted Reformation advocated a very active devil in the world. Since the devil, like God, was a guy, well, women satisfied his lust.

The most disturbing aspect of reading this book for me, however, is the fact that our society has come to resemble that one once again. Strong centralized governments control what citizens do through fear—what else would compel us to allow Patriot Acts to pass? They target women as scapegoats—otherwise the issue of abortion would not command such male attention. Fear for the sanctity of God is repeatedly invoked. Sometimes these modern witches are persecuted on the basis of ethnic background as well as gender. And in both the witch hunter society and that of today an elite class has collected the wealth and sits back to let the remainder incinerate itself in the name of God. Witches don’t fly through the night to meet a fictional devil. The real threat to society is right here among us, but its not who the powerful want us to think it is. And it is very human.


Naked Before the Almighty

Okay, so I’m a bearded white man traveling alone. Perhaps I look like I have nothing to lose. So at the Raleigh-Durham Airport I’m singled out for a full-body scan. I told the very serious-looking woman that it was against my religion. She said, “You can have a pat-down then.” Oh boy! I was very stoic as the stranger with a southern accent told me just how he was going to touch me, using the back of his hands until he met “resistance.” Echoes of Pulp Fiction. By the time it was all over, I think he kinda liked me.

We, as Americans, have allowed our government to subject us to horror. My younger colleagues tell me that the terror of high school after-gym shower time has finally been eliminated. I grew up taught that no one, not least myself, had a right to look “down there.” Naked in a windowless room with a bunch of boys whose hormones are tearing them apart was never comfortable for me. One gym teacher sadistically told us if we could hold our hand under the hot water tap wide open for a full minute we’d get an A in phys ed without having to do a thing more. Pain makes the man.

Now I go to the airport where some voyeur I don’t know and will never meet makes an assessment of my endowment, analyzes my assets. Thank you, no. Who gives him the right? Of course, the Bush Administration did. We, as citizens, stand bare before our rich and powerful leaders. I don’t think that’s what the right to bare arms is all about. From a shop below wafts Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” The irony seems lost on all but me. But then, a stranger’s hands are down my pants. Bush’s legacy in the Patriot Act is that all are guilty until proven innocent. After being felt up, I feel like I need a shower. I need to check my “resistance.”

Then again, maybe my government will do it for me.


Brave New Whirled

Today marks the triumph of capitalism. Having just finished reading Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World for the first time since my undergraduate days, I found it strangely appropriate and prescient. Huxley foresaw a bleak future where comfort and convenience outweighed concerns for truth and meaning. As the World Controller of Western Europe reveals to Mr. Savage, it was the Nine Year’s War that made people so docile that they would accept complete government control over their private lives. Read “9-11” for the Nine Year’s War, and he pretty much nailed it. Americans today put up with severely restricted freedoms because only the rich and powerful are truly free. We even have Huxley’s “feelies” – we just call it the TSA checkpoint at the airport.

“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.” So says Mr. Savage shortly before his tragic end. The remainder of society – those willing to play along with the game, those willing to be anesthetized with the little perks the government throws their way – are already dead. “Let them eat cake.” We have our hedonistic day of shopping frenzy, looking forward to the soma of Christmas. We will comply despite the dehumanization the unemployed, the unwary traveler, the racially profiled, face every other day. As long as we have our electronic toys and the network into which they may be plugged, guide us o thou great Patriot Act. Freedom is not free. Orwell called it doublethink. Today it is doubleclick.

Novels have the capacity to say what libraries full of dusty dissertations cannot. Perhaps the future has not turned out quite the way Orwell or Huxley or Burgess predicted, but they were not far off. November has become the month of the novel. The Office of Letters and Light hosts National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo for those in the know) each year to encourage others to find their creative voice. The challenge: write a 50,000-word novel fully in the month of November. I finished mine in just over two weeks. Perhaps someone who has the good fortune to break into the publishing world will once again sound that warning shot before society takes its next Huxleyian turn. But until then, anyone who says they don’t need a gramme or two of soma, well, they’re just plain lying.