Among Jonathan Swift's many targets in Gulliver's Travels are the Dutch. Strange you might say. Of all the evils to be bemoaned in the world of the 18th century, you wouldn't think the tolerant Dutch would be among them. But you must see the world through a Swiftian eye. Japan of the Tokugawa shogunate had closed itself off to foreigners -- except for Dutch traders (and then only under strict conditions). There were several reasons for this, but for Swift's purposes, it was the Dutch tolerance rather than the apparent Japanese intolerance that was intolerable.
The Dutch toleration within their borders of vying religious sects was synonymous in Swift's mind with a doctrinal and ecclesiastical wishy-washiness, which he despised, being a High Anglican. And so the great satirist composed a scene in which Gulliver asks the Japanese emperor if he can forgo stepping on a crucifix, as he, Gulliver, was "a Christian." (What did that make the Dutch, who were allowed entry into Japan?) This ritual was resonant of the Tokugawa shogunate practice of "Fumi-e”: anyone suspected of secretly practicing the forbidden religion of Christianity was asked to stomp on an image of Jesus or Mary. Those who refused were tortured until they renounced their faith. If they held strong, they were executed. (Some Japanese Christians managed to secret themselves away for centuries.)
So any European who had access to Japan, and its trade, during this period must have been someone prepared to sell out his faith for a mess of patronage.
We now come to Florida Atlantic University, famous the world over for absolutely nothing. At least until recently, when an FAU professor asked his class to write the name "Jesus" on a piece of paper and . . . stomp on it. One student refused, even complained about the insensitivity of the exercise. He, of course, was punished for his impertinence:
A Florida Atlantic University student who filed a complaint against his professor after he was ordered to stomp on the name of Jesus has been brought up on academic charges by the school and may no longer attend class, according to documents obtained by Fox News. . . .
Paul Kengor, the executive director of the Center for Vision and Values at Grove City College, told Fox News he’s not surprised by the classroom lesson.
“These are the new secular disciples of ‘diversity’ and ‘tolerance’ – empty buzzwords that make liberals and progressives feel good while they often refuse to tolerate and sometimes even assault traditional Christian and conservative beliefs,” Kengor said.
Kengor said classes like the one at Florida Atlantic University demonstrate the contempt many public institutions hold for people of faith.
“It also reflects the rising confidence and aggression of the new secularists and atheists, especially at our sick and surreal modern universities,” he said.
The university did not explain why students were only instructed to write the name of Jesus – and not the name of Mohammed or another religious figure.
In the immortal words of Arnold Horshack: "Oooh! Oooh! Mr. Kotter! Mr. Kotter!"
Why would anyone ask students to do something this offensive and absurd?
The activity was part of a suggested exercise found in the instructor’s manual accompanying the classroom textbook.
“This exercise is a bit sensitive, but really drives home the point that even though symbols are arbitrary, they take on very strong and emotional meanings,” the manual states. “Have the students write the name JESUS in big letters on a piece of paper. Ask the students to stand up and put the paper on the floor in front of them with the name facing up. Ask the students to think about it for a moment.”
“After a brief period of silence, instruct them to step on the paper,” it continues. “Most will hesitate. Ask why they can’t step on the paper. Discuss the importance of symbols in culture.”
Ohhka-a-a-y -- but wouldn't that mean that those students who refused (and there seemed to be but one of those, and he a Mormon) were just as much "participating" in this study of symbols as those who complied? Couldn't such a refusal provide the grounds for a discussion of the power of symbols, icons, and their meaning through history, especially during times of persecution?
Why are there no Swifts today? Perhaps because episodes this pathetic are ripe for only low humor. After all, FAU is not much of an empire; I doubt it's much of a school. And suspension from class is not exactly the equivalent of being thrown into a volcano. But that doesn't make this exercise in tolerant intolerance any less obnoxious. (Or the fact that there was but one lone demurrer any less depressing.)
Maybe it will earn a swipe from Jon Stewart.
UPDATE: The FAU professor at the heart of this story, Dr. Deandre Poole, has been suspended -- for "safety reasons."
UPDATE 2: Poole gives his side of the story. The whole thing grows curiouser and curiouser. Question for the good doctor: If the Instructor' Guide told you to jump off a bridge ..."
Homepage image via Wikimedia Commons