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Fahrenheit 24-7

September 12, 2010

The other day the French Cowboy watched a TV debate on French television about the Floridian-pastor-wants-to-burn-Koran story. Needless to say, among the four participating panelists (two French, two English) there was exactly no conservative-leaning opinion. Only the host — and that’s to his credit — tried to inject one or even two notions that looked at things from a right-of-centre angle. It was an attempt to create some discussion that went beyond the question whether Pastor Terry Jones is very, very stupid or just very stupid.

In the beginning, though, the French Cowboy didn’t disagree with what was being said. All four panelists found it important to point out that Jones is just one pastor among countless and with a rather tiny congregation to boot. So at least there was no tsk-tsk-ing over how this shows the degree of islamophobia in the US. (That is until the host asked his guests whether Americans are islamophobic. That question wasn’t answered with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ but with monologues on Americans’ islamophobia, the existence of which was simply considered to be so obvious that a direct response to the initial question wasn’t deemed necessary.)

I had half expected that the left-of-centre media would try to take Jones as a representative for a majority of Americans — you know, the Tea Partiers, the Bible-clingers, those who oppose the Ground Zero mosque etc (Ah, but I forgot: those 70% of Americans are the extremist fringe!). But the narrative was rather built around the fact that the Floridian pastor has only about 50 followers, that he’s a fringe figure etc. At least, this is my impression of how the international media interpreted the story. I’m not sure whether Ed Schultz, eg, tells it that way, too.

And yet the French Cowboy isn’t happy with the way the Jones story has been depicted. The four panelists, eg, — while not disagreeing on anything much — vividly engaged in a discussion over the question whether Jones should have been given as much air-time as he has been given and why it was possible that he had reached such a high level of attention in the first place. Was is the 24-7 media cycle that simply loves to wallow in crazy people’s provocative statements? Was it Obama’s public comments on the issue?

I’d like to note here that the panelists spoke of Jones in such a condescending and scornful manner that I felt embarrassed. The more arrogant of the two French participants (yes, there are degrees) routinely called him “le pauvre pasteur!” — the poor pastor! — and he didn’t mean it in a nice way. Another panelist opined that no attention should be paid to “pasteurs stupides” like Jones. You can’t help but wonder whether you’d ever hear them speak in such a derogatory fashion about a religious leader — no matter how insignificant or crazy — from a non-Christian denomination. Maybe in private, but certainly not in public. It seems that to the snotty elitists every religion has to be spoken of with respect and sensitivity, except when it’s Christian.

More generally it was disappointing to see that the focus has been on analysing and criticising the whys and hows of the Jones story’s getting so much attention, than to wonder what to make of people who gather in violent demonstrations every time they feel insulted — or, as in this case, potentially insulted.

I suppose that the French Cowboy should explicitly state that, of course, I don’t support the Koran burning. While I doubt that Jones himself is stupid, I’d say that his Koran-burning idea is stupid. It’s a pointless provocation that has a huge potential for harm and virtually none for good. And yet, in a free society, he has the right to burn those books. He wants to make a statement, he darn well has a right to make it and those who can’t live with that — ah, and here the rub comes in. Those who can’t live with that pour into the streets for violent demonstrations.

How is the violent demonstrators’ worldview compatible with free societies’ priniciples? How is it compatible with the worldview that says that “If burning the Koran ever did happen […] every foreigner in this country [Afghanistan], one hundred percent of them, will be in trouble. Every Muslim is responsible to show their reaction to that. It is the right thing to do.”? That’s the question I’d like the snotty panelists to discuss. Instead, we have the less-arrogant French guy almost fall off his chair from wildly gesturing as he explains that the US media amplifies the Jones story in an undue fashion because it has this strong conservative bias. (Yeah, you read that right.)

And then the AP and the NYT came out saying that they won’t publish any pictures of the koran burning should it take place because they don’t want to publish what’s been “gratuitously manufactured to provoke and offend” (AP) and because there’s no “offsetting journalistic purpose” to the offence of publication (NYT).  Why is it our journalistic institutions pat themselves on the back for their courage whenever they provoke the non-violent, but pride themselves of sensitivity and honourable principles whenever they chicken out of publishing what provokes the violent? That was a rhetorical question, bien sûr.

So in one corner we have the pastor of a small church announcing that he wants to commemorate the 9/11 attacks with a Koran-burning session, and in the other corner you have men taking to the streets in violent protests, in diverse parts of the world, in response to that announcement. And all that the courageous media finds to do is wonder whether the 24-7, Internet-fueled news cycle is passing on too much information. And in answer to that self-posed question they begin to restrict themselves by declaring not to publish photos of what’s provocative to some. The only good thing about this is that it might prevent additional attacks against Westerners in Islamic countries, most notably of course US soldiers. But this is to the NYT just a side-effect from their own cowardice.

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