By now, I’m sure most everyone has heard of the pastor and congregation down in Florida, who’ve cooked up the idea of burning a bunch of Qur’ans in “commemoration” of September 11. Following Rachel Maddow’s lead, I won’t be mentioning these people by name, as publicity seems to be precisely what they’re interested in. I’ll simply take a cue from The Rude Pundit and refer to them as “Pastor Yosemite Sam” (because he really does look like the cartoon character) and his accompanying flock. And actually, it’s an insight on this business from Rude Pundit that I’d like to highlight. (Forewarning: It comes in his usual crude style.)
[Pastor Yosemite Sam] adds, “A small church, in a small town, down a back road, burning copies of its own books, on its own property, is not responsible for the violent actions anyone may take in retaliation to our protest.” And, painful as it is to say these things, that motherfucker is right. If some stoked up vet beats the shit out of someone who burns an American flag, is the flag burner responsible for his beating? Principles are principles. And, frankly, fear of stirring violence isn’t a good enough reason to restrict even idiotic speech. […]
(By the way, as far as General Petraeus saying that Pastor Yosemite Sam shouldn’t exercise his right to free speech because it might endanger our troops in Afghanistan, oh, sweet General, what endangers our troops in Afghanistan is having troops in Afghanistan.)
That a lot of liberals have latched onto Petraeus’ criticism — that this Qur’an burning stunt will make life harder for U.S. troops — is entirely understandable. First off, because it’s true, and secondly, because of the poetic justice factor: Back in the early 2000s, when the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were still popular, the argument that such-and-such an action harms the troops was hurled over and over at liberals and leftists for protesting the Iraq and Afghanistan wars; often by types just like Yosemite Sam and his flock. So there’s no small satisfaction in being able to throw that accusation right back at them.
But. The way the “don’t harm the troops” argument can be exploited by just about anyone ought to be taken as evidence that it has no real use in intellectually and morally serious debate. A genuinely free public discourse will inevitably be messy, offensive, and occasionally downright ugly. But these rights are here to be exercised, and — leaving disagreements over the wisdom of our current military misadventures aside — to no small degree our troops are in harm’s way precisely to preserve those rights. As such, suggestions that people should refrain from exercising them for the sake of the troops — even in cases as transparently ugly and stupid as Yosemite Sam’s stunt — involve an inversion of values and priorities that is, to my mind, sort of creepily un-American. In a sense, it renders the needs of democracy subservient to the needs of the military, and thus carries the whiff of militarized authoritarianism. Gratitude to the troops is always appropriate, but as citizens we should remember that they are here to serve us and to answer to us, and not the other way around. So it’s unbecoming to use the “your exercise of free speech is harming the troops” argument as a political football.
At any rate, we liberals/leftists were happy to dismiss, and object to, the use of that argument during our own protests and dissensions. If we didn’t feel it overrode the importance of our participation in the public discourse then, intellectual integrity calls upon us to refrain from using it against Yosemite Sam’s participation in the discourse now.
As always, the appropriate way to confront the Qur’an burners is to meet them on their own moral, political and philosophic terms: That they are declaring Muslims unwelcome in America, simply for being Muslim. That they are betraying the values and the commitments of the Christian religion they claim to uphold. That they are celebrating hatred and bigotry, and attacking the openness, the diversity, the vitality, and the beleaguered-but-unbroken idealism that nearly everyone, American or not, points to when asked to name what is good and worthy in our country.