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Terry Jones, Fanatacism and the Violence of Bumper-Sticker Politics

September 11, 2010, 3:13 pm

It looks like Terry Jones will not burn a Qur’an today, the ninth anniversary of the terrorist attacks that occurred in the United States on September 11 2001, although I fully expect that some other fanatic will. The publicity surrounding this proposed violence around a sacred object has been so great that Jones’ counterparts elsewhere in the world have already performed a series of retaliatory actions, and I am very glad that I did not schedule my AHA book prize committee to meet in Washington today as we had originally planned to do.

Although not a jihadist, I too have always been offended by needlessly offensive actions, signs and bumper stickers that make sport of things I care about; I even dislike ones that announce other people’s political positions or social identities. I dislike Confederate flags for all the reasons you might expect, but I dislike even more those people who have so little sense of self that they fly them to try to acquire an identity. I once saw a group of young men burn an American flag at an anti-war demo and was surprised by the contempt that I felt for this nasty bit of masculine aggression (have you ever seen a woman burn a flag? Think about it.) Bumper sticker politics are a more daily, low-level irritation. I don’t want to know that you feel defined by your Great Dane; that you have “A Baby On Board” that I, a complete stranger, am supposed to be concerned about; whether you are gay; who you voted for; that you would feel good about shooting me if you felt you needed to; that you vacation on Nantucket; or your position on abortion.
Bumper stickers have not stopped the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. If it is true that God loves me (and a very good friend has assured me that this is so), I don’t think S/he is going to signify it by sending me a bumper sticker and commanding me to put it on my car. I feel similarly about signs of all kinds that are not selling a service, but rather, are pushing a point of view or something that someone is asking me to feel about a political issue (for example, signs all over the Midwest encouraging me to get all weepy and guilty about 150 embryonic stem cells that didn’t get to become a baby or asking me if I “miss” W yet. No, I don’t. And I don’t think he misses us either.)
Last year Terry Jones’ church posted a lawn sign that said “Islam is of the devil,” an event that didn’t draw enough media attention I guess, and had to be ratcheted up. It occurred to me to wonder last night as I was watching Jones on television whether he actually is the devil. It’s just a thought. But it has also occurred to me to wonder why it has taken American extremists like Jones so long to figure out what anti-American demonstrators around the world have known for years. At any given demo, a bunch of journalists may be sitting around going, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Rock throwing, yeah. Tear gas, yeah, so what? Police violence against children, yeah, yeah, yeah.” But pull out your Zippo and send up one of those polyester American flags made in China, and all of a sudden you are surrounded with cameras and featured on a dozen nightly newscasts.
Prior to Jones canceling/suspending this event (and apparently telling a lot of lies about why he felt he could), my fantasy was this. The Gainesville police department, led by someone like Deputy Chief Brenda Lee Johnson, would step in and do one of those things that you see on TV: you know, a traffic stop on the pretext of a cracked tail light, and holding Jones for 36 hours while he found the documents that prove he is actually an American citizen. Or that Homeland Security would do what it does to Middle-Eastern and South Asian looking people every day, which is to simply arrest Jones on suspicion of inciting terrorist violence and hold him in an undisclosed location, threatening to disappear him into a series of black sites unless he got his $hit together. As long as we are violating the civil liberties of citizens and legal residents every day, couldn’t we just include Terry Jones too?
For once, I would have to say that I have to applaud the private sector for doing something that government can’t. Rackspace, a Texas web-hosting service has taken down Jones’ web page, which advertises al his noxious views on Islam. According to the Christian Science Monitor, they can do this legally because they are a private company and Jones violated the usage policies set by the company, in which he implicitly agreed to a limitation of his speech:
Dan Goodgame, a spokesman for Rackspace, which is based in Texas, told the AFP today that Dove World had “violated the Offensive Content section of its Acceptable Use policy… As a customer of Rackspace, they agree to adhere to the policy and they didn’t,” Goodgame added.

According to the AFP, Goodgame pointed specifically to a clause that forbids any content that is “excessively violent, incites violence, threatens violence, or contains harassing content or hate speech; and creates a risk to a person’s safety or health, creates a risk to public safety or health, compromises national security, or interferes with a investigation by law enforcement.”

What few national news accounts of Jones’ proposed Qur’an burning have noted is that his church, the Dove World Outreach Center of Gainesville, FL, is also responsible for acts of aggressive homophobic propaganda that encourage violence against gays and lesbians. This is not just the conversational, Leviticus-quoting “God Didn’t Make Adam and Steve” variety of homophobia, but the ginning up of active hostility by making GLBT people out to be uniformly crazed perverts. Such lies are aimed at persuading straight people that, if queer people are given access to full civil rights, hets and their supposedly het children are certain to be sexually assaulted by gays, lesbians and transgendered people. The main target has been the openly gay mayor of Gainesville, Craig Lowe (hat tip.) Last year, Dove had the lawn sign up that said “Islam is of the devil;” this year it was replaced during the campaign with a sign that said “No Homo Mayor.” Threatened with losing their tax status, the sign was taken down and replaced with one that said “No Homo.” Dove’s pastor Wayne Sapp also made a video in which he called Lowe a “fag” who was trying “to convert Gainesvi
lle into Homoville.” He urged viewers to “Speak out against homosexuality. Speak out against the ones trying to force themselves and their lifestyle on you, on your children.” In reference to a city ordinance that bans discrimination against transgendered people, a leaflet passed out during the campaign warned that women’s restrooms would be occupied by gays (thus making all restrooms dangerous, not just for transgendered people, but for all of us who might be perceived as gay or “improperly” gendered.)
In case you think this connection between Islamophobia and homophobia is just a coincidence, Shirley Phelps Roper of the Westboro Baptist Church is ticked at Jones too. Phelps-Roper is the daughter of Fred Phelps, that nice man who organizes the “God Hates Fags” pickets and who referred to Muhammed on the Westboro website as a “pedophilic gigolo.” Phelps also pickets military funerals, in an attempt to make the point that American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are being killed because God is angry about America’s tolerance for homosexuality. But Phelps-Roper is fuming, not because the Jones event was suspended, but because Westboro Baptist Church has already burned Qur’ans and no one paid any attention to them. Reached Thursday on a Chicago picket line where she was protesting the presence of Jews in America, she commented “that in 2008 she and her father’s Topeka flock set fire to a Qur’an in plain view on a Washington, D.C., street and nobody seemed to care. ‘We did it a long time before this guy,’” she said.
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