Published for The Washington Post, September 14th, 2010:
It is a horrifying wonder of the Internet age that a failed, half-crazed Florida pastor with a Facebook account can cause checkpoints to be thrown up on major roads in New Delhi, provoke violent demonstrations in Logar province south of Kabul, and be rewarded with the attention of America’s four-star commander in Afghanistan and the president of the United States.
It is the globalization of insanity. It is also the culmination of a certain revolutionary logic.
Since the days of Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, radicals have talked of the “propaganda of the deed” — the use of dramatic, usually violent, acts to inspire the masses and topple the existing order. The method — targeting symbolic landmarks to create powerful images — is now familiar. The killing of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. The first World Trade Center attack. The Oklahoma City bombing. And 9/11 itself.
These events required murder and suicide to gain the global media stage. But the Rev. Terry Jones achieved something new, something that will be studied for generations: the propaganda of the idiotic gesture.
This development was made possible by a number of enabling conditions.
The first is the symbiotic relationship between new and old media. There was a time when gaining attention for saying something stupid required an institutional standing — a prominent pulpit, a denominational leadership position, a following of more than a few dozen people meeting in a warehouse. In the Internet era, attention for stupidity is a democratic right, rewarded for audacity and timing alone. The new media provide a platform without filters for those without credentials — people who, in previous times, could not get a letter to the editor published in the shopper’s gazette.