What’s the difference between a Chinese monk who lights himself on fire and an American punk who lights himself on fire? Well, the first one is illegally exercising his right to free speech, whereas the second will be used to ban said speech.

Connecticut native Jason Lind should be receiving his nomination for the Darwin Award some time this week as he fights infection and struggles for life in the Boston Shriner’s Hospital burn ward. Thirteen-year-old Jason learned two valuable life lessons that will cost him major skin grafts: 1) the people on TV feel no pain, 2) gasoline, when ignited, is really hot.

Thirty-five million skater punks and TV junkies watch MTV’s “Jackass” every week and only one decided to light himself on fire. For those of us with little faith in Homo Americanus’ critical-thinking skills, those are some damned good odds. Consider the once-popular, insipid trends of the “Rachel” haircut and quoting Austin Powers. Yet only one punk kid managed to round up gasoline, matches and enough moronic friends to cheer him on.

The knee-jerk moral reaction to the latest episode of “Little Timmy Imitates Something Bad on TV” should begin right about … now. Congressmen and soccer moms will unite against Johnny Knoxville and his band of depraved pranksters. The skater punks turned All Stars of Pain will be whipped and scorned by fickle media execs eager to bury the issue. The show will fade back into cult obscurity, and we’ll all sleep a little easier with Tom Green humorously sucking milk from the udder of a dead cow.

Keep in mind that the moral idiots who will charge Knoxville with corrupting the youth of America are the same type of people who helped kill Socrates, Jesus, the Marquis de Sade and other glorious freaks of the industry. The charge of corrupting youth has always been an easy out when faced with someone who runs so grossly against the grain that they defy the basic conventions of society.

Here you have this “twentysomething” wannabe actor who becomes a hero to millions for lighting himself on fire, swimming in feces, faking car accidents and screwing with the cattle culture of America. He’s a disgrace and an idol. He doesn’t act at all and yet communicates the most visceral, empathetic experience of all dramatic art – pain.

Watching “Jackass,” the viewer becomes both the gleeful sadist and the cringing masochist. Our sadistic ratings are the impetus for him to take bullets and stun gun barbs. Our masochism lives vicariously through his screams. Make no mistake, true reader, “Jackass” is pure avant-garde art for a generation with a most depraved palette for beauty.

As for those who point a self-righteous index finger at Knoxville’s self-immolation, they need only inspect the three fingers pointing back at them. For every horrible gag Knoxville commits, there are a million bored, unsupervised, pissed-off American kids with a video camera and nothing better to do. Take it from me, I was one of those skater punks until I found the safe, sane world of drug abuse.

Knoxville and his boys came from the same grocery-store loading docks and waxy curbs of suburbia that their fans and imitators currently inhabit. They originally started doing their gross stuff for the skateboarding magazine Big Brother. Like any good art, the skaters made the innovation for themselves, completely ignorant of the ground they were breaking. Like any good artists, they promptly sold out for every dollar they could get when the fat cats told them it was time to become famous.

Ours is an age in which snuff films gain national audiences under the title “World’s Most Dangerous Car Chases.” Our aesthetic sense can be summed up in chillingly accurate phrases like “pretty explosions” and “poo cocktail.”

As for the story of the 13-year-old who lit himself on fire – it is met with chuckles and laughter by everyone to whom I tell it. It’s too bad his friends didn’t get the whole thing on tape. It would’ve made a damned fine exhibit in our evening news gallery.

David Downs is the Daily Friday editor. At the stroke of noon today he will smother his naked body with hollandaise sauce and perform a half gainer into the reflecting pool from the top of Storke Tower.