Friday, August 11, 2017

stray thoughts: the rhyming spiral of history (pt 2)

Ary Scheffer & Charpentier, Portrait of John Calvin Meditating

Elsewhere in The Western Intellectual Tradition from Leonardo to Hegel (1962), authors Bronowksi and Mazlish relate the brutal methods of theocratic dictator John Calvin in settling a dispute with Michael Servetus:
Calvin enforced his regimen with great vigor and, frequently, with outright ferocity. One of his "citizens" was beheaded for writing a set of what Calvin called obscene verses. A card player was pilloried, and an adulterer whipped through the streets and then banished.

Among these, the persecution of Servetus was the gravest incident of Calvin's rule in Geneva. Servetus, who was a doctor and scientist living in France, wrote a book attacking the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. Thereupon, he and Calvin became engaged, by letter, in a violent theological polemic. Calvin's anger mounted to the point where, himself a heretic from the Catholic Church, he secretly accused Servetus of heresy to the Catholic Inquisition in France. Servetus was forced to flee; and, as bad luck would have it, his escape route took him through Geneva. Although his book had been neither written nor printed at Geneva, Calvin had Servetus seized and burned at the stake.
I'm not saying that John Calvin invented or even prefigured the au courant practice of "swatting," but you've got to admit that going through back channels to anonymously rat out a despised ideological adversary to the Inquisition is similar in spirit, if not substance, to sending a SWAT team to someone's door on a bogus report of a hostage situation because they offended your sacrosanct beliefs regarding ethics in gaming journalism (or whatever).

Anyway, it's probably just this kind of waggishness that inspired Bill Watterson to name the precocious hellion of his beloved comic strip after Calvin.

Thinking about Calvin's having Servetus executed in Geneva for writing a book that was neither printed nor circulated in Geneva (except for the copy the unlucky doctor had mailed to Calvin, with whom he had already been corresponding), I recall the execrable 2015 incident involving a small-town Indiana pizza parlor owned by an Evangelical family who told a local news reporter (who'd put the question to them during a survey of businesses in the area) that they would decline to cater a gay wedding in the event that someone ever asked them to cater a gay wedding. It seems like a stretch, I know—if we're talking about history rhyming, this one would have to be given the benefit of a slanted reading.

I don't want to spend much time recapping of the brouhaha over Memories Pizza. It's worth at least mentioning that the establishment wore its religious beliefs on its sleeve (or, rather, in its decor): the only gay couple who would put the O'Connors at the top of their list of wedding caterer choices would be a fundamentalist Christian gay couple, and, well, there you go. And I'd like to once again applaud the social left for deciding that a shared moment of self-righteous catharsis was worth the cost of handing conservatives a martyr to rally around and another SJW boogeyman sighting to help scare up support. Smart!

This, as I see it, is the note of consonance: Servetus was burned at the stake in Geneva for printing a book in Vienne, France. Christianismi Restitutio's print run consisted of 800 copies. One—the copy Servetus sent to Calvin—made it into Geneva. The rest stayed in France. Servetus was tried in Geneva for "crimes" he committed not only in a different city, but in another country, and roasted alive when the court found him guilty. The internet mob that struck out against the O'Connors were composed of people who had never been to Walkerton, Indiana (pop. 2000), were never going to visit Walkerton, Indiana, didn't know anybody in Walkerton, Indiana, and had never even heard of Walkerton, Indiana, but who nevertheless felt entitled to exact 21st-century mob justice against a previously anonymous Walkerton, Indiana family who'd answered a hypothetical question put to them by a local reporter doing a story on Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Even though he was prosecuting Servetus, Calvin did not appear personally at his trial. There's that, too.

Hail to the digital revolution: in the 21st century, anyone can be a vicious, dictatorial enforcer of their preferred doctrine, empowered to ruin people whose beliefs they find odious, no matter where or how far away they might be, and without ever having to show their face to them. Granted, the democratized 21st century Inquisition(s) tend to employ nonfatal attacks—but scrolling through The Comments, one suspects that if were possible to set someone on fire by getting enough people to retweet invectives against them, the tactic would never be off the table.

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