Superbowl Sunday, the High Holy Day of our de facto state religion, has become such abrobdingnagian spectacle of militarist self-worship that Leni Riefenstahl would probably find the proceedings a bit excessive. The Caligulan feast in Dallas did offer one small source of consolation: Contrary to what compulsive mosque-baiters would have us believe, the culture on display is not haunted by the specter of impending Sharia rule.
|Hail the Empire! Superbowl Sunday, 2011|
Christina Aguilera, selected to perform the role of Vestal in yesterday’s Ludus Gladitorius, is in no peril of being stuffed into a burqa, much as that development would benefit the public. She may have fatally injured her career, however, by her inept recitation of the Regime’s official hymn.
Aguilera’s celebrity will suffer, but she won’t endure the hardships inflicted on dissidents — many of them belonging to a sect founded in her home town of Pittsburgh — who refused to offer ritual public submission to the State during the Holy Crusade to Save Stalin.
During World War II, recalls Molly Worthen of The New Republic, those who refused to recognize the State as their liege attracted the eager attention of pious souls willing to correct their thinking:
|Hail the Reich! Anschluss Saturday, March 12, 1938.|
“Violence against Jehovah’s Witnesses [who reject oaths of allegiance to any government] erupted in hundreds of towns across the nation. In Wyoming, a mob tarred and feathered a Witness. Public officials permitted beatings in Texas and Illinois; in Nebraska, self-appointed patriots castrated another.”
The Jehovah’s Witnesses had a long-established and well-earned reputation for being insular, authoritarian, and confrontational. In matters of religious controversy they were strangers in the house of subtlety and given to exercise what one legal analyst called “astonishing powers of annoyance.”
What precipitated public persecution of the Witnesses, however, was not their sectarianism but their commendable loathing for the State. As Sarah Barringer Gordon of American History magazine summarizes, Witnesses were taught to display “open disdain” toward “all forms of government,” both in the United States and abroad. This included a “refusal to serve in the military or to support America’s war effort in any way.”
|Painful to watch, more painful to hear.|
In a 1940 Supreme Court ruling that upheld state laws mandating recitation of the Pledge(Minersville School District v.Gobitis), Felix Frankfurter asserted that “Conscientious scruples have not, in the course of the long struggle for toleration, relieved the individual from obedience to a general law.”
“Some vigilantes interpreted the Supreme Court’s decision as a signal that Jehovah’s Witnesses were traitors who might be linked to a network of Nazi spies and saboteurs,” notes American History. In the service of that grand deception, the Witnesses — whose deviousness apparently knew no bounds — arranged to have thousands of their co-religionists imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps, and hundreds more executed for refusing to serve in the armed forces of the Reich. While officially sanctioned persecution of Witnesses by FDR’s corporatist state wasn’t nearly as intense, at least 1,500 members of the sect were assaulted in more than 300 separate attacks following the Gobitis ruling.
“In Imperial, a town outside Pittsburgh, a mob descended on a small group of Witnesses and pummeled them mercilessly,” recounts Gordon. “One Witness was beaten unconscious, and those who fled were cornered by ax- and knife-wielding men riding the town’s fire truck as someone yelled, `Get the ropes! Bring the flag!'”
Another patriotic mob in Kennebunk, Maine laid waste to the local Kingdom Hall. Jehovah’s Witnesses in Rockville, Maryland were beaten by a mob across the street from a police station while officers looked on in contemptuous amusement. In Litchfield, Illinois, “an angry crowd spread an American flag on the hood of a car and watched while a man repeatedly smashed the head of a Witness upon it.”
“I hoped to beat up these people,” one enforcer of patriotic virtue said after he and other members of the Greatest Generation took part in the Litchfield pogrom. “Why, they wouldn’t even salute the flag! We almost beat one guy to death to make him kiss the flag.”
Those were extreme measures, of course, but they were tragically necessary in order to make the infidel make Islam (submission) to the divine State and its sacred totem.
In 1940, shortly before the Supreme Court authorized violent enforcement of collectivist piety,the FDR administration was shamed into modifying the flag salute, which was identical to the notorious stiff-armed fascist salute. Three years later, the Court itself was shamed into revisiting its ruling in the caseBarnette v. West Virginia Board of Education.
During oral arguments, the counsel for the state Board of Education insisted that “permitting Jehovah’s Witnesses to abstain from reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and saluting the flag leads to more violence” from those zealous to punish the infidels, who (in the mind of this State functionary) had it coming to them.
“To believe that patriotism will not flourish if patriotic ceremonies are voluntary and spontaneous instead of a compulsory routine is to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions to free minds,” wrote Justice Jackson in a welcome repudiation of the earlier decision.
Although nationalist violence against those who abstain from displays of nationalist piety fell out of fashion following Barnette ruling, there is an occasional relapse. For example, Brad Compeau-Laurion was assaulted and thrown out of Yankee Stadium by police officers during a 2008 baseball game for the supposed offense of using the restroom rather than participating in the mandatory singing of “God Bless America.”
Compeau-Laurion — who eventually won a nominal settlement from New York City — was not intoxicated, nor was he misbehaving in any way. Yet two tax-engorged bullies seized him, wrenched his arms behind his back, and dragged him out in humiliating fashion in front of a huge crowd. When he pointed out that it wasn’t necessary to hurt him because he was offering no resistance, one of his assailants belched something to the effect that things would get worse for him if he didn’t shut up.
“Get the hell out of my country if you don’t like it,” one of the thugs sneered at Compeau-Laurion as he was kicked out of the stadium. The goons then returned to the section where Campeau-Laurion’s friend was still sitting and defamed Campeau-Laurion, informing spectators that he had been intoxicated and had told them, “This country sucks.” Compeau-Laurion said nothing of the kind, of course, but in light of the way he was treated he was certainly entitled to.
America has never been plagued by the kind of fanaticism that led to people being harassed, beaten, mutilated, or murdered because they refused to profess allegiance to Mohammed and his religion, nor are we going to see this happen in the future. Crimes of that kind inspired by intolerant nationalism, however, are disturbingly commonplace. Any moral or material distinction those varieties of fanaticism is too small to be measured by any instrument of which I’m aware.
War tends to destroy the critical distinctions between “country and government”; that’s one reason why rulers are incessantly cultivating wars and similar crises. James Madison famously warned that no nation can retain its freedom in the midst of perpetual warfare.
When the artlessly misnamed USA PATRIOT act was inflicted on our country in 2001, the legislators who enacted that measure before it was written insisted that it would be a temporary measure, subject to renewal at regular intervals. Congress is now poised to make that act as immutable as the laws of the Medes and Persians — thereby formalizing the state of perpetual warfare Madison warned against.
Mubarak’s Egyptian torture state, one of the Empire’s most lavishly compensated regional affiliates, has operated under an “emergency powers” decree for more than three decades.
Whatever results from the turmoil in Cairo, it is immensely significant — and more than a little inspiring — to see hundreds of thousands of Egyptians loudly and defiantly insist that their country doesn’t belong to the government ruling it. That defiance hasn’t been limited to large public displays.
Two New York Times correspondents who covered demonstrations in Cairo’s Liberation Square were among scores of journalists arrested and detained by the regime’s secret police.
As they were taken to a nearby secret police headquarters, one reporter asked a soldier: “Where are you taking us?”
“My heart goes out to you,” replied the soldier. “I’m sorry.”
The reporters saw dozens of people, both Egyptian and westerners, handcuffed and blindfolded. The interrogator who subjected them to the display told them: “We could be treating you a lot worse.”
|Egyptian Christians shield Muslims at prayer in Cairo.|
The sounds the reporters heard during their confinement underscored that warning. From a nearby cell, they could hear a series of dull whacks — the soft, percussive noise of human flesh being beaten — followed by screams of pain.
They also caught snippets of a remarkable conversation:
“You are talking to journalists?” demanded the torturer.“You are talking badly about your country?”
The victim defiantly rebuked his tormentor: “You are committing a sin. You are committing a sin.”
How many Americans – of any religious background – would display such self-possession, such principled defiance, in similar circumstances?
On “Superbowl Sunday,” as millions of Americans celebrated the unsustainable debt-fueled opulence of our consumer culture and the decaying might of an imperial Regime in steep decline, Christians and Muslims living at the periphery of the empire united in a peaceful rebellion rooted in a shared rejection of the supposed divinity of the State. While Egypt certainly isn’t the land of the free, it has a far better claim than we do to call itself the home of the brave.
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