Monday, October 18, 2010

Are We "Capable of Feeling the Force of Reason"?

When doing research, you always have to beware the danger of distraction.  While researching for my dissertation, I waded through years of the New York Times, looking for articles relevant to my topic.  Inevitably I'd stumble on something that looked fascinating, but I had to force myself to move on or I'd never find what I was looking for.

On the other hand, you have to be open to serendipity.  Sometimes the best thing you find is not what you were looking for.

I had one of those serendipitous moments while working on my last piece.  I had the news on in the background, and I heard the story of how Bill O'Reilly prompted a walkout on "The View."  O'Reilly was trying to defend his position that the Islamic community center in downtown Manhattan should not be built, and (not surprisingly) fell back on the idea of collective guilt.  It was insensitive for Muslims to build the center, he said, because "Muslims killed us on 9/11."

While that story played, I was looking through Ben Franklin's writings for material on religion.  What I found was Franklin's answer to O'Reilly.

In 1763, at the end of what Americans call the French and Indian War, Franklin penned an outraged diatribe condemning Pennsylvania whites who had massacred a village of peaceful, friendly native American Indians.  He denounced the perpetrators as "CHRISTIAN WHITE SAVAGES."

Almost as bad, in his mind, were other colonists who defended the massacre by citing "the Command given Joshua to destroy the Heathen."  This, Franklin thought, was appalling: "Horrid perversion of Scripture and of Religion! to father the worst of Crimes on the God of Peace and Love!"

"We pretend to be Christians," Franklin fumed, and went on to compare the Pennsylvania Christians unfavorably to "Heathens" and (even worse in today's Islamophobic America) Muslims.  He specifically praised Mahomet (Muhammad) and Saladin for humane treatment of prisoners.  The Indians, he said,

would have been safer among the ancient Heathens, with whom the Rites of Hospitality were sacred.  They would have been considered as Guests of the Publick, and the Religion of the Country would have operated in their favor.  But our Frontier People call themselves Christians!—They would have been safer, if they had submitted to the Turks; for ever since Mahomet's Reproof to Khaled, even the cruel Turks, never kill Prisoners in cold Blood.

One of the things that most outraged Franklin was the failure to distinguish between Indian enemies (with whom the colonists were at war) and these victims, who were "Friends." Pennsylvanians had justified the killings by engaging in collective guilt.  Franklin was appalled that some "would extenuate the enormous Wickedness of these Actions, by saying, 'The Inhabitants of the Frontiers are exasperated with the Murder of their Relations, by the Enemy Indians.'"

Franklin had no patience for such nonsense: "If an Indian injures me, does it follow that I may revenge that injury on all Indians?"  He observed that the Indians were not monolithic, and were comprised of "different Tribes, Nations and Languages."  He pointed out the utter absurdity of treating all people who share one characteristic as if they were all the same:

In Europe, if the French, who are White People, should injure the Dutch, are they to revenge it on the English, because they too are White People?  The only Crime of these poor Wretches seems to have been, that they had a reddish brown skin, and black Hair; and some people of that sort, it seems, had murdered some of our Relations.

"Indians killed us!"  "Muslims killed us!"  Not much difference, is there?

The proper response to such foolishness, Franklin thought, was a recommitment to government and law:

Let all good Men join heartily and unanimously in Support of the Laws, and in strengthening the Hands of Government; that JUSTICE may be done, the Wicked punished, and the Innocent protected. … it belongs to brave men to spare, and to protect; for, as the Poet says,
---Mercy still sways the Brave.

Amen, Brother Franklin, Amen.

Franklin's piece is a rousing call for the triumph of reason in the face of unreason.  Franklin believed that "even the most brutal" of people "are capable of feeling the force of Reason."  But listening to O'Reilly and Fox's Brian Kilmeade, who in defending O'Reilly stupidly asserted that "all terrorists are Muslims," it is hard to have much faith in reason's power these days.


  1. And I discover yet another wonderful article I find worthy of sending to all my friends via twitter.

  2. Thanks, Sylvie. I'm still new to Twitter and trying to get some folks to follow the blog there: @byrnesms

    Thanks for spreading the word!

  3. But it is insensitive to build a mosque there, even if the 70% of Americans who oppose it are not being "rational."

    "Insensitive" refers to offending sensibilities, feelings.

    BTW, Franklin also says the Indians would have been safer with the "Popish Spaniards." Good piece though, and certainly a perversion of the Scriptures by those "Christian white savages" [Franklin apparently used italics, not ALL CAPS] "of Peckstand and Donegall."

    I feel some "collective guilt" about the massacre of the Indians there, at least enough that perhaps a Protestant church should be built somewheres else.

  4. I'd say it goes beyond merely not being rational--it requires that one engage in a collective guilt mentality, precisely the thing that Franklin demolishes in that piece.

    I am using the Library of America volume of Franklin's writings, and they render it in all caps--they put "Peckstand and Donegall" in italics. (p. 556)

  5. Sorry. I used the 1837 Jared Sparks. I shouldn't have trusted Sparks. [No sarcasm; he did bowdlerize Washington.]

    As for the mosque, I don't hold all Muslims or the prospective builders responsible for 9/11. I do think it's insensitive, though. I do not think my sentiments are unusual, nor do I think the wise Mr. Franklin would necessarily condemn O'Reilly or find the 70% of Americans who agree with him unreasonable, just as I do not find Jews who object to Christian symbols at concentration camps unreasonable---even as I would object to any "collective guilt" being assigned to Christianity for the Holocaust.