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Belmont Club

Fear and Loathing in the 21st Century

October 21st, 2010 - 6:46 am

One word which has unexpectedly returned to fashion is blasphemy. It is commonly defined as “irreverence toward holy personages, religious artifacts, customs, and beliefs.” The idea was supposed to be nearly extinct in the secular West. That is, if you believe the West is truly secular. But there are indications that blasphemy, far from being dead letter, is alive and well. Wikipedia, in discussing the subject, warns the reader to also consult the entries for “hate speech”. That is now the alias the blasphemy lives under and it certainly has that effect among modern true believers. Recall that when Larry Summers, then the President of Harvard “said during an academic conference that the innate differences between men and women might be one reason fewer women succeed in math and science” a singular event took place.

Nancy Hopkins, a biologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, walked out on Summers’s talk and later said that if she had not, she would have “blacked out or thrown up.”

Something Larry Summers aid made Hopkins physically sick, and that something was blasphemy. When Anita Hill received a message from her answering machine saying “good morning, Anita Hill. It’s Ginni Thomas. I just wanted to reach across the airwaves and the years and ask you to consider something. I would love you to consider an apology sometime and some full explanation of why you did what you did with my husband,” she didn’t just erase or ignore it. She called the FBI. Hill, for those who can’t remember, testified against Ginni Thomas’ husband, Clarence, during his confirmation hearings in the Supreme Court. On that occasion Hill spoke the sacred and now Ginni Thomas had blasphemed against it. Who wouldn’t fear as if a crime had been committed in those circumstances?

Today, the MSNBC reports that veteran NPR analyst Juan Williams was dismissed from a position he had held for years because he made the following remarks while on the air with Bill O’Reilly.

“Look, Bill, I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.”

He would have been even more nervous had he realized that simply feeling nervous would get him fired. A reasonable person might believe that Larry Summers was wrong to argue there was any connection between gender and mathematical aptitude. One can sympathize with Anita Hill for being sensitive about a matter which may have been significant in her life. One can believe that Juan Williams is wrong to fear demonstrative Muslims on airplanes. But does that really explain why one should faint, or call the FBI as if a federal offense was in progress, or fire a veteran news analyst summarily? Of course it does. NPR, explained why it dismissed Williams without explaining it, except to suggest the reason should be self-evident. It said,

Juan has been a valuable contributor to NPR and public radio for many years and we did not make this decision lightly or without regret. However, his remarks on The O’Reilly Factor this past Monday were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a News Analyst with NPR.

See? That sheds light on everything, but only if you realize that the key to understanding these non-explanations is to grasp that they should be self evident. They implicitly assume that if you “don’t get it” then there must be something wrong with you. If you require elucidation then some critical sensitivity is lacking from your make-up, just as it was absent from Larry Summers, Ginny Thomas or Juan Williams. An inability to recoil instinctively, or worse a desire for reasons signifies a reptilian stain in your bosom, which if it doesn’t make you want to rip it out, means you are the equivalent of a dead soul, lacking in some basic quality. The reactions to modern blasphemy immediately recalls the passage in Matthew which says, “then the high priest rent his clothes, saying, He hath spoken blasphemy; what further need have we of witnesses? behold, now ye have heard his blasphemy.”  What further need have we of witnesses? And that is that.

The trouble is, the blasphemy is only obvious to from a certain perspective. If you’re an outsider then you are walking blindfolded through a cultural minefield. So it is probably with some trepidation that the morally infirm must regard the rise of anti hate-speech and blasphemy laws in the legal codes of the 21st century. They mean that next time Anita Hill can call the FBI and get you arrestedReuters reports that “the U.N. Human Rights Council adopted the non-binding text, proposed by Pakistan on behalf of Islamic states, with a vote of 23 states in favor and 11 against, with 13 abstentions” making insults to Islam a human rights violation. What those insults may be is the rub. If there are just some things the blasphemers don’t instinctively “get” or which they wrongfully assume is protected under such quaint notions as freedom of speech, then too bad. They just have to get used to the idea of people inexplicably fainting around them, calling the FBI, demanding their dismissal or going to get a sword, the better to behead them.

The rise of blasphemy probably mirrors the most unremarked phenomenon of the 21st century: the comeback of religion. Not only have Christianity and Islam risen with unprecedented speed in the Third World, but Western equivalents such as Communism and Environmentalism are now subliminally established as state religions in “progressive societies”. This is the modern age of faith, and how. Under these circumstances occasions of offense are likely to multiply and not diminish. Belief, and therefore blasphemy, is back. Ironically it has returned just as the secular world was congratulating itself on creating a multicultural world in which religion had been banished to domestic altars. It was in fact creating its parody all along: a patchwork of monocultures, a series of echo-chambers, a checkerboard of ghettos each with its own public idol living in uneasy proximity with each other.

At this rate there must eventually come a time when we simply cannot understand each other, when people suddenly jump up at the mention of opening an egg on the big, or mayhap, on the little end, when the demand for reasons itself will have become the ultimate disrespect. That’s called ‘enlightenment’, or sometimes ‘sensitivity’ or ‘understanding’. If you don’t understand it, why excuse me, I have to call the cops.

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