Sunday, September 5, 2010

Get Tough: Reasonable Bigots and Others

Picking a single worst thing about the ongoing nightmare parade circling the non-mosque that may or may not ever be built some distance from Ground Zero is difficult. This, and I promise this will be the last time you read this in this post, is a credit to the awfulness of all involved -- the Staten Island bigots showing up looking to punch Bin Laden in the nose because the New York Post told them he might be there, and pleather-bound monster and serial Muslim-baiter Pam Geller, and the out-of-town cynics willing to parrot the crudest and most ignorant bigotry if they think it will win them a chance to cut capital gains taxes next year and impanel a congressional investigation of the president's "birth" "certificate." These are all bad people, doing bad things. I've already written about this at length, albeit in kind of a narrow, NYC-centric context, and I'm happy with what I wrote. I'll leave that at that for now. But I want to write about something else having to do with this. I want to write about how non-nightmares have tried to be wrong about this question -- this very-easy-to-be-right-about question -- in a reasonable, more-in-sorrow-than-in-whatever way.

To a great degree, I know, even bothering with these ambivalence jockeys is kind of missing the point. The people who have chosen to be wrong about this -- or, by dint of their own sheer and self-evident demi-retardation, had that wrongness thrust upon them -- are so wrong, so fully and offensively wrong and so cynically and dangerously wrong (and, it must be presumed, possibly both at once), that it's probably best to focus on them. But rebutting Newt Gingrich is, finally, both someone else's and everyone else's job. (He also does a pretty good job of it himself, just by being the epic barf-beast that is Newt Gingrich) And anyway, Gingrich is just kind of cheating. Him and the rest of them.

What makes it possible for the Palins and Rick Lazios and Newt Gingriches and That Construction Worker Guy On Fox News With The American Flag Hardhat to be who they are is that being right on this issue -- that is, either not being bigots or recognizing the primacy of private property rights or the exercising even a modicum of perspective or keeping out of other neighborhoods' business, or all of those -- simply never occurs to them. The people who want to be both evenhanded and blindly biased are perhaps a more interesting case, but they're also a minority in this instance, and not a terribly sympathetic one. So, yeah, let's get to talking about them.

Even as someone inclined to see pretty much everything as poignant, I find it kind of difficult to feel for these dudes so hungry to see their biases be righteous. With the exception of actual crazy people like the aforementioned Pamela Geller -- she's on the left at right, and is also the ur-bigot behind the planned September 11 anti-Park51 protest, and a woman who would definitely have sex with Glenn Beck -- more or less everyone involved with trying to get the non-mosque moved/stopped/turned-into-a-wedge-issue feels obliged to at least pretend to reasonableness. Much of this is due to the right's choice of "sensitivity" -- to the families of certain 9/11 victims, to people who don't much like Muslims but don't feel comfortable with shrieking Gellerian bigotry and, per La Palin, "families in the heartland" who can't abide the idea of a Muslim 92nd Street Y that's exactly as far from the erstwhile Ground Zero than The Vitamin Shoppe at Maiden Lane. Even Michael Goodwin -- the anonymous NewsCorp apparat whose work lies on the other side of that hyperlinked "demi-retardation" above -- makes some awkward feints in the direction of brotherhood and sensitivity in his column. It's not exactly the sort of outreach that Imam Rauf engages in -- it's less a Muslim cleric reciting the Shma and making common cause with the Islamic world's most-hated minority than a well-compensated pundit reciting the word fire in a crowded theater. But even Goodwin-ian hatchetpeople realize that they need to try to appear not to be a part of the mob. While signaling frantically to the mob in semaphore the whole time, naturally, but in the subtext rather than the headline.

But what about those who could never bear the thought of being mistaken for the Michael Goodwins of the discourse -- the land-grant yobs making the most noise and casting the smallest amount of light in the discourse; the sort of puffed-up, under-educated Babbitts who would never use words like discourse? Yeah, I'm talking about Martin Peretz agonistes -- Peretz being the plu-Harvard publisher of The New Republic who happens to fucking hate Arabs as much as he loves ostentatious, flex-time-to-have-sex vocabularizing. The New Republic is still a pretty great magazine, I think -- I'm biased insofar as my two best pieces of magazine writing, this and this, were both done for them -- although more despite Peretz than thanks to him. He's been wrong and nasty about the non-mosque, in his distinctive way -- it's not that he opposes a mosque so much as that he's concerned about some very ordinary things Imam Rauf said willfully misunderstanding the importance of the "Cordoba" in Rauf's Cordoba Initiative. (For example) And there's this touchingly out-of-touch bit here, from another of his nasty maunders: "Nobody knows whether the entrepreneur who wants to open a gay bar next door to the Muslim center will be permitted to do so. This is a question of fairness." The entrepreneur, here, being red-faced, coke-speed Fox News late-night host Greg Gutfeld, who is obviously very serious about opening a "Muslim gay bar", possibly to be called Ram-a-Dan, next to the "mosque." Peretz and Gutfeld are less mismatched company than either would probably think, but you see my point here: clown is as clown does.

For a more serious-seeming TNR iteration of the why-can't-we-just-compromise-and-do-what-I-want, here's Israeli correspondent Yossi Klein Halevi's better-informed and less pugnaciously bigoted take. It's not worse than Peretz's mulitple and multiply wrong takes on it -- Halevi's a better writer, and less inclined towards the sort of drive-bys (i.e. there's no need for Park51, as there are already enough mosques in New York City and besides the cultural programming will stink) that make Peretz so exhausting and strange to read. But from the subhed -- "My Friend, Imam Rauf" -- on down, it's every bit as wimpily dishonest as the ADL's statement on the matter.

First of all, Halevi and Rauf aren't actually/at all friends -- they met once, in 2001, at a symposium. And while Halevi is (generally, hedgingly) willing to admit that Rauf isn't an al Qaeda apologist -- like I said, better than Peretz -- he still manages to be really wrong about what "the mosque" even is, and to misapprehend the actual thing at issue, here. "You have dedicated your life to helping Islam enter the American mainstream. In its current form, though, your project will have the opposite effect," Halevi writes. And I'm going to quote more in a second, but this is where he loses the thread to the point of utterly misunderstanding this situation: the point is that the "opposite effect" has nothing to do with Rauf or his project. The issue is that there is NOTHING Rauf or Cordoba could do to alter Park51 that would change the response from the people leading the charge against it. You can't negotiate with Martin Peretz or Pam Geller on this. They are unappeasable, and for that reason ought not be appeased -- there is no place this non-mosque could be that Geller wouldn't call it a "Monster Mosque" and Peretz wouldn't talk about Rauf (or any other Muslim leader) as if he were Ayman al-Zawahiri. But yeah, continuing: "However inadvertently, your current plan would be understood by large parts of the Muslim world as a victory over the West. Merely adding an interfaith component to the proposed Islamic center would not counter that distorted impression. Instead, it would likely reinforce the medieval theology of extending 'protection' to Christianity and Judaism under the auspices of Islam. But an interfaith center in which the three Abrahamic faiths are given equal status would send the message that I believe you intend to convey."

Which is maybe well-intentioned, but also pretty embarrassing. Because, first of all, it wouldn't even work: it's a compromise that solves nothing -- based on some soothsaying of "the arab street," it offers to replace this guy's dream of a Muslim JCC (and what a dream) with some weird, denatured monument to interfaith cooperation. Hopefully it will still have a pool, because otherwise it sounds pretty boring. But the bigger point that Halevi misses, and what compromise-minded David Paterson and Howard Dean and everyone else in the "too close/too soon" camp miss, is that they are not in a conversation or a negotiation, but a tip-of-the-pitchfork shouting match with people for whom it will never be acceptable that a center of this type get built by this person, anywhere. The reason why there has not yet been a convincingly reasonable, tolerant argument for moving or deferring or canceling Park51 is that reason has its limits, and that there is no real tolerant way to hold an intolerant position. Cordoba Initiative played by the rules in every possible way, and seem as good a neighbor as anyone could want -- this isn't even hard to see or understand. But if you're truckling to people intent on seeing a 15-story building as towering over the 1,776-foot Freedom Tower, perspective obviously would be an issue.

On issues of this sort, Peretz can usually get some equally verbose support from TNR's chief literary critic, Leon Wieseltier. Wieseltier generally spends more time calling out antisemites and lambasting contemporary philosophers than he does getting his hands dirty on matters like these, which I guess is fine. Wieseltier is a long sentence, Great Big Idea guy, but his eloquent defense of the mosque is surprisingly, bracingly simple in addressing the myriad complexities -- and the few, integral simplicities -- of this conversation. This right here is just good:

There are families of the victims who oppose Cordoba House and there are families of the victims who support it. Every side in this debate can invoke the authority of the pain. But how much authority should it have? I do not see that sentiment about the families should abrogate considerations of principle. It is odd to see conservatives suddenly espouse the moral superiority of victimhood, as it is odd to see them suddenly find an exception to their expansive view of religious freedom. Everybody has their preferred insensitivities. In matters of principle, moreover, polling is beside the point, or an alibi for the tyranny of the majority, or an invitation to demagogues to make divisiveness into a strategy, so that their targets come to seem like they are the ones standing in the way of social peace, and the “decent” thing is for them to fold. Why doesn’t Rauf just move the mosque? That would bring the ugliness to an end. But why don’t Palin and Gingrich just shut up? That, too, would bring the ugliness to an end.

I know this whole thing has been something of an August non-story, blown up to gargantuan size by the worst kinds of cynics and some blinkered, shameful simpletons. But I feel like my earlier argument -- that opposition to Park51 represented a misunderstanding and underestimation of New York City -- kind of feels insufficient now, as the story has expanded and the depth of the misunderstandings and underestimations of those who have kept this an issue have come into sharper focus. It's not a surprise when Palin and Gingrich and USDA Prime kooks like Pam Geller say idiotic, intolerant things -- they always do, for one, and I see no real reason not to take them at their word when they claim to believe their own words. But seeing how hard smart people are willing to work to make this simple issue seem complicated -- and to make their own essential cowardice appear reasoned and reasonable -- keeps on surprising me.

Wieseltier points out that Islam is no more "a religion of peace" than Christianity or Judaism -- that is, not one at all. Which, I have always thought, is precisely why we have a public, secular religion grounded in the rights enumerated in the constitution. Our common secular faith's health, and the strength of our national soul, is reflected in the citizenry's devotion to those rights -- not just for themselves but for all, not merely when flattering but always. I am interested, and a bit afraid, in seeing just how well our single real shared faith weathers this test.

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