Mark Byrnes: Keep Fear Alive!

Editor’s Note: Dearest Readers, meet Mark Byrnes.  Mark is an associate professor of history at my alma mater, Wofford College, in Spartanburg, SC.  He blogs at The Past Isn’t Past.  Over the last year or so I’ve thoroughly enjoyed his thoughtful commentary on politics and current events, so I asked him if he’d be interested in cross-posting at SC Soapbox from time to time.  He said yes!  So y’all be nice and welcome Mark to SC Soapbox.  I hope we’ll be seeing a lot more of him around here. – Laurin

Why does it so often seem that those who most loudly proclaim America’s exceptional greatness seem to also have the least faith in its traditions and principles in practice?

This week we’ve been treated to the spectacle of South Carolina Republican State Senator Mike Fair following the lead of Oklahoma in proposing an “anti-Sharia” law. At the same time, Glenn Beck has been calling events in Egypt evidence of the “coming insurrection” that will create a new caliphate from Iran across North Africa, and up into western and central Europe. In both cases, these baseless fears are grounded in the idea of the inherent fragility of western civilization’s most basic institutions (otherwise, there would be nothing to fear). What’s going on here?

This is beyond mere paranoia. These are completely manufactured, utterly irrational, and potentially self-destructive fears that tell us far more about the speakers than their targets.

According to Talking Points Memo, Fair initially admitted his bill was aimed at Sharia: “This bill has been called anti-Sharia law, and I suppose it does deal with that,” Fair said. “There are some localities around the country that have imposed Sharia law in lieu of local laws.” Later, perhaps realizing that he had let the cat of the bag, he retreated and stated that the target was “foreign law,” and that he didn’t want his proposal to be interpreted “as anti-Sharia law and statute.

There’s one big problem here: there are no localities that have imposed Sharia law in the U.S. It’s a simple fact. Yes, I know there are many websites that claim it is true.  But the only so-called “evidence” ever cited to support this crazy claim is a court case that never once mentions Sharia law. It was a case of a wife accusing her husband of sexual assault, in which a judge decided that the state of mind of the defendant was relevant and that he lacked criminal intent. And even that ruling was overturned by a higher court.

That’s it. That’s the extent of the alleged imposition of Sharia law in America.

And what about that “new caliphate“?

In his TV rants, Beck claims that the recent unrest in North Africa is a sign of the “coming insurrection” which aims to establish a new caliphate. Today Morocco and Spain, he says, are “on fire.” Having just returned from a visit to both countries, I can assure everyone that neither country is currently in flames.

Beck sees in the street protests of Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen not popular unrest provoked by undemocratic regimes, but a larger conspiracy (one that involves everyone from both presidents Bush to Obama to ACORN) to restore the Islamic caliphate. There is about as much chance of a new caliphate in North Africa and Europe as there is of Pat Robertson becoming grand ayatollah in Iran.

What do these cases have in common (beyond the pathological paranoia)?

Projection.

Fair says that his bill was prompted by concerns over “people who are accustomed to their religion and their civil laws being inextricably connected.” You don’t need a degree in psychology to see the irony here. This is a state that banned tattoos until 2004, in part due to Biblical injunctions against the practice.  (In 2006, a tattoo parlor in Columbia was initially denied a license because it was located within 1,000 feet of a church.) To this day, when I go food shopping on a Sunday, I cannot pick up beer or wine from the Bi-Lo because of religiously-inspired blue laws. And this is a state that recently re-elected Jim DeMint to the Senate, who has a 100% rating from the Christian Coalition.

Fair’s objection (and that of many South Carolinians) is not to religion and civil laws being intertwined—their problem is with the wrong religion and civil laws being intertwined.

And Beck? In his simplistic view, world events are not complicated and multifaceted, they are all explainable by a single, malevolent intent. Someone (else) is trying to impose his vision on everyone. No one is an independent actor; everyone is the tool of dark forces. Tellingly, his interpretation of events in Egypt coincides nicely with the Mubarak regime’s take—it is not authentic, spontaneous, or legitimate.  It is the work of “foreign agents.”

The irony here is that Beck makes himself the mirror image of radical Islamists who see the United States behind every problem in the world, seeking to impose its control over everyone and everything. Not only that, but by darkly hinting that American presidents have been in on the plan for the new caliphate, Beck even agrees with the Islamists that ultimately America is in control of events—only in his telling, it is the “bad” Americans out to destroy the “real” America.

Both Fair and Beck represent essentially the same thing: fear of the unknown. Both feel beset by a world far too complicated for their simple minds to understand, and rather than seeking knowledge, they give in to their own ignorance and seek to make others fear as much as they do.

Mark Byrnes is an associate professor of history at Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC.  He blogs at The Past Isn’t Past. Mark’s obsessive interest in politics goes back to watching the Watergate hearings as a child (seriously). You can follow him on Twitter at @byrnesms.