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Blasphemy redux

Posted by Thersites on UTC 2018-11-06 16:23. Updated on UTC 2018-11-07

In Britain, on Bonfire Night, 5 November, five men burnt a small model of Grenfell Tower, the apartment block which burned down on 14 June last year with a loss of 72 people. As is customary these days they made a video recording of the event, including all their disparaging comments about the low social status of the victims.

The media pack swung into action almost immediately. As the tsunami of hate crashed over them the five quickly turned themselves in to the police. They are currently in police custody whilst the powers that be work out what to charge them with. They now face possibly losing their livelihoods, since no employer will risk the black spot of employing them; if they have businesses, they will be forced into bankruptcy because no customer will risk being associated with them. They will have a criminal record. Due process is just a name: when the Prime Minister herself takes time out to call you bad names in the media, the police and the prosecutors will not be too fastidious in creating the charge sheet.

The abuse now being spat at them from all sides is almost entirely formulated in terms of the feelings of the observer – 'outrageous', 'despicable', 'disgusting' etc. This is, after all, the nature of hate-crime legislation: all the traditional components of justice such as motive, intent, culpability and actual damage remain largely unconsidered, instead only the degree of the observer's outrage is relevant.

Pieties

If on the other hand we consider the actions of the perpetrators as opposed to the feelings of the observers we find at worst that the men showed a complete absence of piety for the dead. We could throw in a few words for good measure such as 'insensitivity' or 'boorishness' or even the trusty 'knuckledragging'. But that is all their actions were. No one was harmed or suffered because of what they did. The dead are still dead and the living are still living.

The theft of a bike causes more real-world suffering, not to mention all those crimes against property and the person which the police in Britain have defined to be beneath their consideration.

The phrase 'absence of piety' leads us to a further conclusion. These men have not done any harm to anyone; they have merely committed New Age blasphemy – that is, they have failed to observe one or more of the current social pieties.

Christian blasphemy might get you into a little bit of trouble in a few places in Europe even today, but mostly there will be no comeback. Mohammedan blasphemy would get you into a lot of trouble anywhere. Where Christian blasphemy has faded it has been replaced with a secular blasphemy, which is more all-pervasive than its religious counterpart. The demonstrations of piety required from those who had to live under Communist or National Socialist regimes are eerily similar to today's obligatory secular pieties. I was about to write 'True, you are not immediately dragged off to prison' – but in fact you are.

Those attempting to counter the vicious allegations made against Brett Kavanaugh during his hearings for the US Supreme Court had to walk over the eggshells of modern pieties about women: no aggressive cross-examination, no bullying, no scepticism, belief rather than disbelief. Those fundamentals of Enlightenment and even Roman jurisprudence, evidence, verifiable facts, proof, in dubio pro reo, seemed to have no place in that process. Even Kavanaugh's defenders ducked away from confronting feminist pieties.

We are overwhelmed with public pieties: the ponds of flowers and teddy bears, the armband-wearing, the minute's silences; at this time of year of course the forced poppy-wearing for public figures and the official oceans of poppies and candles. Older British readers should think back to their childhoods, when the Armistice Day commemoration was a small crowd around every war memorial in the land. Nearly everyone in the crowd had some relationship to the two great wars. The modern son et lumière evocations and their artificial pieties are more repellent than any burning cardboard box.

Those who avoid or resent such public pieties become blasphemers – and blasphemers are hunted down, named, shamed and imprisoned with as much vigour as in those times long ago when the Christian religion was taken seriously.

The curse of symbolism

We now hurl invective at the blasphemers, who in reality hurt no one. We imprison them and take away their livelihoods. In contrast, in the real world, the non-symbolic world, we are calmly waiting for someone to be made to some extent responsible for the fire that took 72 lives in the Grenfell Tower block. The people who allowed the fire to happen, whether through negligence or incompetence in whatever degree are safe. Unlike our five blasphemers, due process protects them. Little sins of omission and commission will be parcelled out among the great bureaucracies and, in the end, no one will suffer at all.

We live in a culture obsessed with symbolism. If you expected that the Enlightenment had done away with such irrationality once and for all you should think again. A cardboard model of Grenfell Tower is no longer just a cardboard model, it is a symbol. That many British people on Bonfire Night unthinkingly burn a more or less lifelike effigy of Guy Fawkes is just one of those mysteries. Roman Catholics, who should be the ones complaining about poor Fawkes' treatment, keep quiet because they know that in the end it really doesn't matter: sticks and stones etc.

Excessive piety and blasphemy are two corners of the triangle: the third is superstition. The rationalists of the Enlightenment in the 18th century such as Gerard van Swieten rode their bottoms sore trying to counteract the idiotic superstitions of their time, superstitions that led to the burning of witches, Jews and members of obscure sects – in short, the persecution of anyone who didn't fit in to the current pieties.

FoS image, size 708x497

A wax doll and a wax heart with pins. The essence of superstition: the magical identity of original and model. No different from a cardboard box with some cutouts and paper figures. Why do we take such identity seriously any more? Image: Musea Brugge.

Proxies contra blasphemy

For every thousand who are complaining about the blasphemy of burning Grenfell Tower in effigy, there is perhaps only one who has some real connection with the tragedy. Whether this proportion is accurate or not is beside the point: we are not only caught up in the pieties of our times, blasphemy against them is countered by thousands and even millions of the pious as a proxy act. That is another characteristic of blasphemy – the injured party (Jesus or God) need do nothing, revenge is exacted by proxy through the army of the faithful.

In the legends of early Christianity the punishment for blasphemy or godlessness came with a flash and a bang from heaven, that is, from the person affected. In the later Church, in which the flashes and bangs became unreliable justice, blasphemy was punished by the clergy in proxy. In our decayed, secular times the punishment is meted out by a million tweeters who have nothing in common but the lazy comfort of their shared piety at their empty symbols.

Afterthought
The video the five men made of the burning of their cardboard Grenfell Tower is so shocking, hateful and hurtful that the British media have been playing it again and again throughout the day. QED.

Update 07.11.2018

Added the wax doll image.