Watching a news clip of Pastor Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida, I found something about him to be familiar; I felt I had seen or had met someone like him before. Then it hit me. Well, of course! Here was a latter-day Jed Clampett, the genial Ozark patriarch played by the inimitable Buddy Ebsen on the popular TV show of the 1960’s The Beverly Hillbillies.
The Florida preacher, who is making geopolitical waves and great headlines after announcing he and his flock would mark the ninth anniversary of the September 11th terrorists attacks by burning a copy of the Holy Koran, seems a lot like the loveable TV hayseed from West Virginia. In the interviews Jones gives, he comes across calm and unruffled and possessed of an intense conviction that burning the Muslims’ sacred texts is not only in no sense wrong, but that it’s the right thing to do by his lights, considering that Islam is “of the Devil.”
Setting aside the potential his book-burning has for roiling the 1.5 billion strong Muslim world and moving thousands of otherwise law abiding believers to suddenly “go postal” on Western personnel, symbols, and institutions, the reason for such high anxiety within the U.S. and elsewhere, there remains the steadfast character of the Florida preacher, a Rock of Gibraltar, apparently, which I very much suspect has appeal for many of our American neighbours.
It wasn’t so long ago editorial cartoonists were lampooning Paul Martin, our short-lived prime minister (2003-06), as “Mr Dithers.” Martin, an able Finance Minister in Prime Minister Chretien’s regime, seemed to lack core convictions and react like a weather vane to whatever political winds were blowing. Hence, the moniker. It was this same perceived lack of core convictions that moved Ronald Reagan to comment on his two-term vice-president George H.W. Bush, struggling to gain traction against his two presidential rivals, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot, following a bruising primary, “We don’t know what he stands for.” Another wet noodle.
That could not be said of 19th Century Abolitionist John Brown, an irresponsible fanatic who attempted to raise the slaves in the U.S. and arm them against their white masters. In 1859, he led a failed raid by scores of his followers on the armory at Harper’s Ferry in Virginia. Brown had intended to arm African-American slaves with a cache of weapons seized from the arsenal. All his men were either killed or captured or routed. Brown was arrested, tried, and in the end hanged for treason.
During his trial, however, he displayed remarkable fortitude. Such that he soon became a hero in Northern eyes, his cause taken up by New England luminaries like Thoreau and Emerson. Historians in the main agree that as an agitator for the abolition of slavery John Brown helped move the United States a step closer to civil war; a righteous crusader whose good intentions paved a road to mass fratricide.
Which brings us to Pastor Jones, our fanatic of the hour. There he is, seen standing pat against a formidable array of detractors and critics, from editors at the “venerable” New York Times to smarmy talking-heads at MSNBC, from the stalwart General Petraeus to the canny Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, from the Vatican to the U.S. Attorney General. In short, that Little Man of populist folklore facing down a pantheon of elite figures heading great institutions.
As I write, the pastor is three days away from enacting his burning of the Koran. Perhaps multiple copies will be immolated. Call Jones irresponsible, outrageous, sacrilegious; call him mad, bad, and dangerous. What we’ve got is that normally irresistible force of the Powers That Be unable, seemingly, to cause this old immovable object that is the storefront preacher to budge from a resolve to set alight Muslim bibles on the anniversary of 9/11. It is a remarkable example of Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophical notion of the “coefficient of adversity in things,” which measures the shove-back resistance with which our world confronts us when we push up against it. Jones’s CoA must be off the scale, yet he shows no sign of even breaking a sweat. Impressive in an age of beehive sycophancy!
Orest Slepokura is a retired schoolteacher, after 30-odd years spent teaching, much of that in Alberta; but also in and around Montreal, as well as in a Native community on James Bay, over in London, England, and Toulon, France. A lifelong reader, Orest continues using much of my time reading books, journals, and newspapers.
No one has mentioned the rogue, JetBlue flight attendant Steve Slater in the same breath as Terry Jones. The former catapulted to fame within hours of staging his pre-flight meltdown and became a working-class hero to millions because of his blue-collar, Johnny Paycheck, take-this-job-and-shove-it antics. Slater, as it happened, had a constituency of millions.
Jones, too, I expect also has a huge following, aside from those 50 blowhards inside his congregation. These are the people who don’t buy into the liberal concept of namby-pamby tolerance, who bring a frontier mindset to the 21st Century, who have looked down and seen the feet of clay on their conservative heroes, and concluded “To Hell with them!” A peculiar social dynamic is work: One that welcomes the rebel-misfit.
Naturally, I don’t know who the next rebel-misfit celebrity will be, but I’m fairly confident it will be someone who, in a manner of speaking, will on a sudden break rank and boldly approach the review stand and give the Dear Leaders up there, whoever they are, the middle finger.
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