It's time for mandatory memicide:

We need skeptics to vaccinate the planet against holy war

Bill Millard

September 14, 2001

I take as my text for the moment a certain national embarrassment, the comments by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson reported September 14 in the Washington Post. There's the evidence in all its repugnant glory: those twin tumors, the leaders and spokesmen of the U.S. Religious Right, believe our nation deserved Black Tuesday. In Falwell's eyes, America's "secular and anti-Christian environment left us open to our Lord's [decision] not to protect." The God of his imagining "continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve."

My stomach turns again at the sight of Dubya Bush -- good God, what we need right now is a strong leader whose democratic legitimacy is unquestioned and who doesn't owe his political backside to either the Christian Right or the oil industry, and what we have instead is Dubya Bush -- attempting to lead the nation in prayer. With all due respect to those who find genuine solace in prayer, there are those of us in this nation and most others who do not, particularly when it's led by someone as closely allied to Messrs. Falwell and Robertson as Dubya Bush; who find the whole posture of certainty about unknowable matters (such as what transpires beyond the grave) presumptuous at best, and occasionally (cf. Crusades, Inquisitions, jihads, pogroms, etc.) a lot worse than presumptuous; and who, after seeing several thousand innocent citizens incinerated by a clever little crew acting on their own form of theological certainty, would welcome a bit less theo-speak and a bit more honest, circumspect, and eminently practical uncertainty about such things. One might be forgiven for thinking, after that Tuesday, that we'd all had quite enough of any form of prayer for a while.

The critical conflict is not between the West and the whole Muslim world, or between the U.S. and Osama bin Laden, who will be replaced, if we simply remove him individually, by legions of fellow mujahedeen. It's between secular modernity and medieval fanaticism, whether the latter takes the Islamist or Christer form (among the many flavors available). As Benjamin Barber memorably put it a few years back, it's between Jihad and McWorld, more or less. No one needs to study too hard to know what's wrong with McWorld, but it's also a no-brainer to recognize that Jihad is far, far worse. And the Jihad vs. McWorld conflict doesn't correspond simply to East vs. West. Islam, no one should forget, has its broad range of views, its modernists and liberals and, for much of its history, an admirable record of tolerance toward other beliefs. And we have our very own American Taliban, as evidenced by the remarks by Robertson and Falwell, homegrown and well-financed and no less willing to wish hideous death on the rest of us.

Isn't it time that secular society -- which I'd define to include not just first-world agnostics and atheists but also the largely peaceful majority of Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, pagans, et al. who cherish their own beliefs about all things rational and nonrational, but don't view differences of opinion about unanswerable questions as grounds for murder or suicide -- took a hard look at what fundamentalism is really about, and recognized that it's ultimately inimical to life? Isn't it time modernity defended itself? The cluster of beliefs found among the fundies (that end times are coming; that any horror is excusable in the name of holy war; that killer/martyrs will be hailed as heroes in heaven; that behavioral "decadence," however the fundies may define it, marks certain people as unworthy of living or of being defended) has ripened into a toxic meme, an ideological cancer that threatens the lives of humans, societies, and possibly (considering what weapons of mass destruction can do) the Earth as a whole. The meme of fundamentalism arms the suicidal madman, makes him impervious to both reason and intimidation, and even makes him for all practical purposes immortal, as more anonymous madmen rush to replace him, deluded that they're one bomb-blast away from the eternal caresses of Allah's lovely houri'een. If the modern world has to resort to war to defend itself (and it most obviously does), the logical target for that warfare isn't particular people: it's an idea. The modern world has to assemble its collective efforts and render the militant fundamentalist idea extinct by any means necessary.

The fundamentalist idea, carried to logical fruition and transformed into action, is as deadly and metastatic as Nazism, which humanity's collective immune system successfully cast out half a century ago, at incalculable cost. A few pathetic neo-Nazis persist, of course, and cause genuine menace in certain places, but mass Nazism on a nation- or culture-wide scale isn't likely to inspire trouble again. Mass fundamentalism is. It must perish.

Cultural evolution from the primitivism of the fundamentalists to the more advanced stage of the secular world view has become mandatory on a global scale -- and there can be no caviling about whether this constitutes true progress, no banal appeals to noble-savagism, no cowardly claims of moral equivalence between Jihad and McWorld. The limits of cultural relativism have been reached. When an idea is as toxic as fundamentalism has proven to be, eradicating it does not constitute intolerance; eradicating it is a precondition for tolerance. The organism fighting a cancer does not stop to consider the cancer's feelings or try to comprehend the cancer's world view. The cancer would kill the entire organism if unchecked, and the organism has no choice but to do whatever it takes to remove the cancer. Malignant cells cannot function among benign cells and have no claim to the same treatment as benign cells. Malignant memes obviously have features that speed their proliferation; it takes a sustained collective act of will, like the actions that ultimately overcame the Nazi-meme, to overcome the fundamentalist-meme.

Conventional military force is indispensable, no doubt, and if U.S. forces take out the Taliban, true progressives won't miss them for a nanosecond, nor will most of the nation they've hobbled and disfigured. (Provided, of course, that the U.S. and allies can show enough long-range common sense to eschew the carpet-bombing option, which plays right into the hands of the pro-apocalypse lobby on both sides.) But as long as the fundie-meme remains transmissible, Talibans are replaceable. As long as there are willing martyr/murderers, the real doomsday weapon is an idea. (Richard Dawkins has identified that idea as the critical component in the guidance system of the weapons that devastated lower Manhattan.) The world has to disarm that idea. This is where the practitioners of crafts sometimes considered socially peripheral, impractical, or dilettantish suddenly find themselves charged with the gravest of responsibilities, the weightiest of long-range burdens.

The memetic analyst, the counterpropagandist, and the culture-jammer are the future's most effective soldiers. The instillers of religious doubt on the part of young Muslims and Christians are lifesavers and heroes: they diminish the force that craves apocalypse. The rai singer or Bible Belt blues belter who dares to remind puritan cultures of sensual pleasures is Allah's true favorite son, Jehovah's beloved daughter. The ironist who asks impolite questions about forbidden topics does more to protect the world than a legion of Jedediah Purdys spouting the virtues of sincerity. The blasphemer is the greatest of all the saints.

St. Socrates, St. Voltaire, St. Mark Twain, St. Lenny Bruce, St. Salman Rushdie, ora pro nobis.

Bill Millard is a writer, editor, and musician living in New York City.

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