Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Holy Smokes

Hot on the heels of a slack-jawed Florida preacher Terry Jones' decision not to serve up Korans flambé as some sort of twisted 9/11 “tribute”, video has surfaced on YouTube of Alex Stewart, a lawyer and avowed atheist from Queensland, Australia tearing pages from both the Bible and Koran to use as rolling papers for a pair of oversized joints he then lit up to see which holy text “smoked better.”  Stewart did this bit of desecration to lampoon the hysteria over Jones' plan to set fire to a stack of the Muslim holy texts and also to promote his own view that all religions are false.  Of course his protest against religious hysteria has threatened to spark its own wave of hysteria with the head of the Islamic Association of Australia issuing an appeal for calm.

Jones and Stewart's actions, and the furor that surround them point to a real flaw of this digital age.  Throughout human history, every community has had to put up with its share of oddballs, all nursing their own set of grievances, hurts and conspiracy theories that they are happy to broadcast to anyone within earshot.  I remember the summer I spent working as a small-town reporter once (unknowingly) getting into an hour-long conversation with our town's resident crackpot that bounced from using the biblical calendar to plant wheat, to sunspots, to the JFK assassination.  I told my editor about it when I got back to the office, she replied that everyone in town knew better than to get in a conversation with ol’ Merle because he'd talk your ear off with his nonsense.

Unfortunately, the Merles of the world now have a global megaphone thanks to the sudden ubiquity of YouTube, et al. and a media so bereft of actual reporting skills they gladly hype whatever Internet meme strikes their fancy into the next “must-see” story.  Thus crackpots like Preacher Jones become the must-have media “get” as an interview, giving them a platform to spout their insanity.  To make matters worse, their appearance then just stokes others to do something more outrageous to seize the spotlight for themselves; without Jones Koran immolation threat it's hard to imagine we would have had Stewart’s holy rolling papers.

The worst part though is that these people aren't dismissed as nuts (racist, bigoted nuts in Jones' case), but rather treated with a degree of seriousness far beyond anything they actually deserve.  The threat of Jones's Koran-burning sparked protests around the Muslim world, protests that actually resulted in deaths in Afghanistan and Kashmir.

We all need to take a deep breath and realize in this age of instant fame and lazy journalism that crazy people will do crazy things for attention, we just have to stop taking them so seriously.

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