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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Imagine the Consequences of Burning the Koran

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Members of the Dove World Outreach Center gather in Florida to Protest Islam

To burn or not to burn? That was the question that Pastor Terry Jones of Gainesville, Florida, was asking himself on the eve of the ninth anniversary commemorating the 9/11 attacks. In case you hadn’t heard, the plan, which was concocted by Jones and announced this past July, was to burn along with his congregation copies of the Quran on September 11th. They were going to do this to raise awareness of what Jones calls “…an evil religion.”Talk about a field day. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, delivered a “…clear, unequivocal condemnation of this disrespectful, disgraceful act…” and noted, “Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation.” President Obama called the planned burnings “a recruitment bonanza for Al Qaeda,” to which General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, issued a fractal continuation, stating, “…it is precisely the kind of action the Taliban uses and could cause significant problems.” On September 7th, ABC World News correspondent Martha Raddatz reported that Jones’s scheme “… ignited protests for a second day by hundreds of Afghans, who burned U.S. flags and shouted ‘Death to America.'” Way to go Terry. The Dove World Outreach Center, where Jones is the head pastor, is a non-denominational charismatic Christian church comprised of about fifty members. Charismatic, in this context, refers to a Christian doctrine that states that believers may experience supernatural or divine manifestation through miracles, prophecies, speaking in tongues, etc. For a congregation whose faith is rooted in what boils down to various forms of display, it follows logically that they would wish proactively to display their beliefs via the public burning of the Muslim holy text. So why not let them? After all, this is America, the place founded not only on religious tolerance, as Ms. Clinton points out, but on all forms of relativistic tolerance. If a radical, redneck pastor wants to lead his display-oriented congregation of fifty like-minded fanatics in a visually provocative Quran burning extravaganza, the first amendment protects his right to do so. The problem isn’t that fifty-one people wanted to hang out in the back yard and burn some books. The problem is that a Google search for “Pastor Terry Jones” returns thirty million hits, and over two billion people have access to any one of them. In our media-saturated worldsociety, individual and disparate actions have the combustible potential for exponential magnification. In fact, the image gets so large, so magnified, that it becomes impossible for someone outside of the particular national frame of reference to establish any kind of context. If a teenage boy in California produces a comedic Youtube video about how much he loves kittens, and that video is counted as seen by a hundred million individuals outside of the U.S. – individuals whose frames of reference and neural resonances (i.e. sarcasm, boredom, irony) are distinctly un-American – the general perception is that Americans love kittens. Citizens of African nations are typically shocked to learn that only 25% of Americans own passports when the general images produced by U.S. media sources portray us as savvy, cosmopolitan multiculturalists with border-busting vision and cando bank accounts. There is obviously much to be said regarding this discrepancy between perception and reality. The media has been contributing (mostly unintentionally, I think) to the blurring of that distinction ever since the Vietnam War. This is profoundly interesting when you consider that the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and other insurgent groups have capitalized on the propaganda of images and framed many of their tactics in terms of strategies derived specifically from the historic public outcry against the fuzzy, violent reels of film that were broadcast from the front lines of Vietnam. What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate. Communication relies on context, and that is precisely what images lack. Consider Pictionary: if I have to produce an image that will induce my partner to say “string,” and I draw on paper a single, squiggly line, what are the chances that they are going to hit the buzzword correctly? Very slim. The challenge of Pictionary is to create context. The chances that my partner will say, “string,” are greatly improved if I can draw a yo-yo or a balloon or any number of recognizable signifiers, and then point, specifically, to the string; to part of the whole, which is exactly what context is. So, let’s establish some context. Is this misinformed and misdirected act that was proposed by Jones an anomalistic infringement on the general consesus, or is it synecdochic of popular opinion in the US? In other words, is Jones just another misguided Neanderthal, or is there a trend in this country towards theocracy? Fortunately, or, rather, unfortunately, we have an example to reference that is oriented less with deviant, fringe-psychology and more with viable mainstream concerns – the Ground Zero mosque. Park51, as it is properly named, is a planned Islamic community center to be located about two blocks from the former site of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. According to a poll in Time magazine, 61% of respondents oppose construction of the mosque with an additional 9% in agreement that the mosque would constitute an insult to victims of the attacks. That makes 70% who harbor some moral opposition to the construction, if not pragmatic, restrictive opposition. No big surprise there. But what about less sentimental issues? 28% of those polled said they believe Muslims should not be allowed to occupy seats on the Supreme Court. 30% object to Muslim presidential Candidates (compared with the 25% who mistakenly believe that President Obama is, himself, a Muslim). And here’s some further context: if every one of those 30% exercised their right to vote in the last presidential election, they would have constituted more than half of the total voter turnout. That would mean that a majority would bar a Muslim candidate from office based solely on their religion. Does that make us theocratic? Perhaps, but I’m inclined to say that were not. The simple truth is that the overwhelming public opinion regarding Muslims is, itself, out of context because, for most of us, those opinions are also based on an image. A very specific, and powerful, and harrowing image, indeed.