Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Sacred Freedom, Sacred Ground.

In both France and the United-States, freedom of speech is a constitutional right. In France it is guaranteed by the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen which has constitutional value and in the U.S. it is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution. In both countries there are also some restrictions to freedom of speech: in France, for instance, denying the Holocaust is prohibited by the law and in the United-States, falsely yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater is illegal, and these are only two instances.

But the United-States has a looser understanding of free speech than the rest of the Western World. Certain forms of hate speech are tolerated.

For instance, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that an anti-gay church has the right to picket military funerals, even though it may cause emotional distress to the families of the dead soldiers. (BBC news). It may be immoral and disturbing but it is still coherent with the way Americans value free speech.

So it was all the more surprising to read this piece of news:
A group of friends went to the Jefferson Memorial to commemorate the president's 265th birthday by dancing silently while listening to music on headphones. Park Police ordered the revelers to disperse and arrested them when they did not. The dancers sued on free speech grounds, but the appeals court ruled last week that their conduct was indeed prohibited "because it stands out as a type of performance, creating its own center of attention and distracting from the atmosphere of solemn commemoration" that Park Service regulations are designed to preserve. (Huffington Post, WP)

How can the solemnity of a monument be more sacred than that of the funeral of an American soldier who just died for his nation?

Apparently the sacredness of the space supersedes freedom of speech :
"A prohibition on expressive activities in a nonpublic forum does not violate the First Amendment if it is viewpoint neutral and is 'reasonable in light of the use to which the forum is dedicated,'" said the Judge, and "expressive dancing” does constitute an act that undermines "an atmosphere of calm, tranquility, and reverence" at the memorial.

And in an odd footnote that demonstrates the speciousness of the argument rather than its reasoning, the court added that Jefferson "discouraged celebrations of his birthday" (WSJ
Well, OK then.

Of course the court’s decision simply motivated more people to go to the Jefferson Memorial and because we are in the age of instant video, the arrest of the dancers was filmed and the video went viral. The arrest itself caused a larger disturbance than the dancers themselves who were, at least in the first instance, dancing in silence. The court’s decision only aggravated the matter.

Watch :

So how does one make sense of any of this? If we want to even begin to understand what this means, we should probably keep in mind that the Jefferson Memorial is not a simple monument but that it serves the function of a modern religious temple devoted to the Civil Religion (Belah) of the nation.

Visit Washington D.C. and you'll see that the monuments and memorials devoted to the Founding Fathers are modeled after Greek or Roman temples: the Lincoln Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial are the most obvious examples. Walk into the former and you’re immediately struck by the size of the statue which is not unlike those found in religious temples in ancient Greece. In the National Museum of American History in DC you can even see a statue of George Washington modeled after the great statue of Zeus Olympios, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Temples, according to mythologist Mircea Eliade, house the gods and give us a sense of the sacred in our world. The architects on the national mall knew this well and built sacred temples in which to honor those gods who built the nation: a creation myth.

The idea of myth here does not reflect the idea of something false, as it often does in today's parlance, but a story of the origin which has become sacred. Myths are stories we tell ourselves in an attempt to ascribe meaning to the world. One of the most powerful forms of myth is the creation story, which tells a story of our earliest beginnings. Every society has its creation myth and all are concerned with fundamental rather than historical truths. In the case of national myths, the creation myth represents in narrative form the founding of a nation. (see Robert Segal, Mircea Eliade). Rome had the myth of Romulus and Remus, France has the French Revolution and the US has the American Revolution.

The American narrative of the origins has all of the essential features found in myth: a sacred time which is the time of origins (the American Revolution), a sacred text (the US Constitution), nearly divine demigod heroes (The Founding Fathers), rituals (4th of July, Presidential Inaugurals, etc..) and sacred places, which can take the form of temples.

There are other national myths specific to the US as well (Manifest Destiny, self-reliance, the American Dream) but the story of the founding of the US is deeply felt. So keep this in mind the next time you intend to exercise your right to freedom of speech in the US:  one can dance on graves but not at the feet of the gods.

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