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A Few Revolting Pages

December 09, 2001

There's something about revolutions that seems to love a guidebook, perhaps providing an ideological behavioral outline for humans amid chaos. Modern zealots (a word originally the name of a radical Jewish sect that fought Rome's occupation of Palestine) prefer pocket-sized philosophies. Little books have proven especially popular guiding the apparatus in totalitarian societies on how totalitarian to be about unacceptable behavior. China's Cultural Revolution, for instance, had its Little Red Book of Chairman Mao's quotations. ("We should support whatever the enemy opposes and oppose whatever the enemy supports." Or, "All men must die but death can vary in its significance.")

Now we discover amid the Taliban's repressive rubble a little white book of perverted proscriptions, the Official Gazette, a melange of Muslim misinterpretations and local traditions describing all manner of "big sins" and the punishments afforded thereto. A clenched fist beneath the chin, for instance, measured minimum beard length reflecting hirsute religious loyalty. Shopkeepers got 10 days in prison for selling kite-making materials for children. Same for pagan dolls. According to Article 1, any woman without appropriate head covering was followed home and she and her husband punished according to the amount of uncovering. An uncovered woman in a car earned the male driver five days in jail. Article 12 stipulated that women washing clothes near a spring would be stopped and the owner of her house punished. Article 14 required women wearing tailored clothes to be chastised and the tailor jailed up to 10 days.

Amazing to think how harsh these little books have gotten in the more than two centuries since Ben Franklin began penning Poor Richard's Almanac, arguably the most lasting guide to appropriate American pre-Revolution behavior. "Don't throw stones at your neighbors'," it said, "if your own windows are glass." A good holiday dictum: "Eat to live and not live to eat." And finally Poor Richard's observation on human discretion, even in peacetime: "Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead."

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