Posted by: Harold Knight | 04/04/2011

America in the time of the new Grand Inquisition

[If the last part of this seems to be a wild harangue, it is. I don’t write about this often because I can hardly keep a civil tongue when I do.]

Yesterday KERA, public television for Dallas, broadcast a Metropolitan Opera performance of the opera Don Carlo by Giuseppe Verdi.  I watched all but the first twenty minutes of the performance.

Don Carlo is disconcerting in many ways. It’s in French. Verdi in French? Well, that’s the way I first heard it, but the Met production is in Italian—as it should be. Never mind; I don’t understand either. If that isn’t enough, the opera comes close to being about incest at the royal level—or it seems that way. If it isn’t incest, it’s the next best thing: Don Carlo’s father, Philip II of Spain is married to Elizabeth, who was at first betrothed to Don Carlo. Like son like father? Of course, the king had to marry her in order to end a war with France. You know how those kings are—marry for power and to hell with love (except the poor inept but overly powerful king can’t figure out why she doesn’t love him).

The opera has all the usual love triangles and deceptions and adulteries and what-have-you. The Boston Opera (may it rest in peace) used to sell a T-shirt that said, “Rape, incest, murder, adultery—all to your favorite tunes: The Opera Company of Boston.” Don Carlo almost fills that entire bill.

I said the king was overly powerful. In fact, he’s a pushover. He’s completely cowed. He’s in thrall. He’s a weakling. There’s this blind old guy, the Grand Inquisitor. He has all the power. More than God herself. The Grand Inquisitor decides who lives, who dies, who’s happy, who’s not, who marries, who doesn’t. He’s the Church, don’t you know? The Church speaks for God (actually, the Church thinks it IS God), and no one who gets on the Grand Inquisitor’s List is safe.

(By the way, just for the record, I am not making fun of the opera. I am as overwhelmed as the next opera buff by the music, by the power of the drama, by the spectacle, and—the most glorious of its glories—by the immense strength of every one of its characters, the lily-livered king excepted. It is opera—no, it is ART, it is the achievement of the human spirit—at its apex.)

The controversial Florida pastor who halted plans to burn a Quran on the 9/11 anniversary last year oversaw the burning of the Islamic holy book on Sunday after it was found “guilty” during a “trial” at his church (1).

“Oh,” you say, “he’s a crackpot. He doesn’t represent anyone—especially me!” It’s the lily-livered king in Don Carlo who gives the Grand Inquisitor his power. If the crackpot in Florida doesn’t represent you, what are you doing about it? Have you written to Kay Bailey Hutchison asking her to take a stand against Islamophobia? Have you asked the pastor of your church to speak out against this hatred from his pulpit? Have you written a letter to the Dallas Morning News?

When your best friend asks you (as one of mine has on several occasions), “Why don’t the Muslims speak out against terrorism?” do you suggest that she look at any of the dozens of Islamic websites doing just that? Or that she make an appointment with the Imam of the local mosque to talk about it? And when she finds one of those websites and says to you, “Oh, they’re just trying to look good,” or “They don’t mean it,” do you ask her how she knows that? Her answer will be that Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh or some other FOX News “reporter” said so. Or perhaps Republican Pete King, member of the House of Representatives from New York.

I can speak only from my own experience, of course. However, I will make a blanket and unsupportable statement that destroys any rational argument I am trying to build here. Every instance of anti-Islamic hatred and/or nonsense (or both) I have read or heard (even from highly placed authorities such as Bruce Hoffman and other members of the “anti-terrorism” elite in the United States) has been based on ignorance of Islam. Period.

Some manifestations of Islam have come to be regarded as potential threats to public security, not because of anything that can be clearly seen, but because of what some believe may be hidden from view. Thus, two phenomena may come together: attributions of secrecy and the belief that such attributions are markers of social danger (2).

I don’t have the time or energy to make a logical argument. Actually, I have too much energy. This argument boils just below the surface of my consciousness at all times. It is one of the reasons I have withdrawn from much of society—especially the church. I am ashamed to be an American in the time of the new Grand Inquisition.

So I will simply let Michael Barkun finish what I mean to say. . .

One of the paradoxes of all secrets, of course, is that it is difficult to demonstrate that a secret does not exist, not only because of the difficulty of proving a negative, but because of the lack of knowledge about the secret taken as evidence of the secret-keepers’ effectiveness. If the alleged secret is undiscoverable, that merely demonstrates how well it has been concealed. In the case of an imagined secret, disclosure is impossible even in principle, for there is no secret to be disclosed. The result is either that the alleged secret-keeper can never demonstrate his or her innocence, or those who allege the secret go on to invent its supposed contents.

The effect of such factors is magnified when the outsiders believe religious groups may be involved in conspiracies. Conspiracist beliefs posit a world in which evil results from hidden plots engineered by an evil cabal; hence, evil is organically linked to secrecy. To believe in evil as the workings of a conspiracy casts suspicion on any organization that is or is believed to be secret (3).

. . . and apologize to Verdi and the Metropolitan Opera for making it seem as if they brought all of this up in my mind.
(1) Banks, Adelle M. “Florida pastor oversees Quran burning.” USA Today/Religion. Gannett Co. Inc. 3/21/2011. Web. 4 Apr. 2011.
(2) Barkun, Michael. “Religion and Secrecy after September 11.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 74.2 (2006): 275-301.
(3) Ibid.


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