Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Fine, I'll Talk About This Thing

Here's the deal: the odds are very, very good that the current controversy about the "Ground Zero Mosque"...

1.  Won't affect any elections this year.

2.  Certainly won't affect the presidential election in 2012.

3.  Will be rapidly forgotten.

4.  Won't have any actual substantive effects.

5.  Nor will it have any important lasting symbolic effects.

I hate to say things are simply just plain not important, but it's a stretch to find anything whatsoever of any importance on this one.  Sure, some people are saying bigoted things...that's too bad, and yeah, they shoul be called on it I suppose, but that doesn't make this specific controversy news. 

Passage and implementation of health care reform is important.  Unemployment is important.  Climate & energy is important.  Iraq and Afghanistan are important.  Torture, detention, secrecy, and the rule of law are important.  Supreme Court Justices are important.  The Fed is important.  Keep going, and you get things like the small business bill, and higher ed loans, and Somolia, and the nuclear arms treaty, and the military reforms Gates is working on, and lower court appointments, and whether Obama is administering federal agencies very well, and eventually you get down to really minor stuff such as (in my opinion at least) the campaign finance bill that the Dems are pushing, then then tunnel deeper and deeper and you're still not going to get to this one.  

It's not going to affect elections, it's not substantively important, and to the extent it's symbolically important...well, let's just say it's not symbolically important as a stand-alone issue in any significant way (at best, it's what Kevin Drum says, one straw -- so shouldn't we pay more attention to all that other straw?).  I'm sorry to be a stick in the mud about it, but it just isn't actually a big story no matter how much it gets hyped.  Okay?


  1. No, the story isn't important in the same sense that major legislation is. But the rhetoric sure is. Don't you think the shift in rhetoric, on the part of Republican elites, is worth noting? The story may not be important, but fact of it's existence sure seems to be. I know we hate on the "meta" story around here, but this one sure makes me awfully sad.

  2. You say: "Iraq and Afghanistan are important."
    That's because originally Osama was able to recruit, pre and post 9/11 young muslims on the claim that the US was anit-Islam.

    Those who have joined this crusade started by the lady who thinks Malcolm X is Obama's father and oppose the building of an Islamic cultural centre blocks away from 'ground zero', are doing Osama's propaganda work for him: "see! Americans are anti-Islam." And those who aren't anti-Islam don't think it is important.

    When the standing of the US in countries around the world with a large Islamic population goes down, will you blame Obama or those whose silence is effectively acquiescence with the bigotry?

  3. Of course it's not important. It's a shiny sparkly distraction, possibly useful to raise money by certain special interest groups and an opportunity for our clueless media to finally do one of those process stories they've been itching to do. But honestly NOBODY GIVES A SHIT on top of which, it's private property and the hypocrisy of right wingers trying to tell people what they can do on their private property is pretty rich. Why does nobody point this out?

    Why does nobody point out there's already a mosque there, been there since the 1970s?

    Why does nobody point out there's a mosque at the freaking Pentagon, while we're at it?

    See, this is how I know this is unimportant. They aren't even trying to cover the story with any accuracy.

    Long term, it may further solidify the Democratic Party as the "big tent" and the Republican Party as the party of Southern white xenophobic rednecks.

    Beyond that ... it's about the economy, stupid.

  4. "It's not going to affect elections, it's not substantively important, and to the extent it's symbolically important"

    It may not effect who wins elections, but, hopefully, unlike Rousseau's English, we are free on days other than when we trudge to the polls. In other words, we need a wider lense than merely elections.

    This gets to the second point, which is substantive importance. Part of the problem is that there doesn't seem to be a clear indicator of substantive importance, or criteria, and how we can differentiate between that which is and that which isn't.

    The current controversy may indeed have substantive importance, mainly insofar as it works in similar ways to the "torture, detention, secrecy, and the rule of law" issue.

    For instance, that the Republican elite, absent Chris Christie, is unanimous on this issue, it means that the Republican base will end up being nearly unanimous on the issue as well. While this may not add much force to the matter of who wins elections, it may be important for how they behave once they do enter office (especially at the level of President). It may readily become more difficult to move away from a policy of religious intolerance and towards one of tolerance, for instance, much as it is very difficult for Republcan (and to a lesser extend Democratic) politicans to move from a policy of secrecy, detention, and torture to one comprised of the opposite dimensions. Moreover, insofar as the Republicans find public opinion on their side on this matter, and insofar as their resolve is hardened to continue on the corse outlined, I think there is a substantive impact on the demcoratic norms underlying improtant protective freedoms. By running on such an issue, and perceiving themselves to have won on it (even if they did not, because perception here is more important than multivariate regressions),it becomes more likely that the politicians involved, and the system generally, does not get snapped back as rigidly to the norms of tolerance and protection of minorities. The boundary is shifted and new attacks may open up that are even more worrisome.

    This is all, of course, to ignore the potentially very substantive, and very real, effect such rhetoric may have on the lives of Muslim-Americans, whose right to worship as they see fit is being challenged and not just in New York but apparently across the country. I'm sure many of them think this has substantive impact on their lives. And while it is possible that those challenges will ultimately fail, it is no sure thing and does require an active political defense of those rights...which, sadly, our other band of elites, seem ready to give up on.

  5. My apologies for typos and mis-spellings - I wrote that in Notepad and copied it over.

  6. Joshua,

    I do think that efforts nationwide to prevent people from building mosques does, in fact, have substantive importance. But at best this story is a sidebar to that, rather than the other way around.

    As far as the other big picture stuff...I guess what I'd say is that if you took Joe McCarthy out of the picture, you still have the real Cold War (including real Soviet espionage), you still have anti-communists going after real and phony communists in the US, and you have real civil liberties violations and intimidation of diverse views. In a lot of ways, McCarthy is a sideshow to a big, real story. And that's what this is; it's a tiny piece of a larger picture, and within a few weeks it will be more obvious that this particular piece of it just isn't particularly significant.

  7. You say: "Iraq and Afghanistan are important."
    That's because originally Osama was able to recruit, pre and post 9/11 young muslims on the claim that the US was anit-Islam.

    Those who have joined this crusade started by the lady who thinks Malcolm X is Obama's father and oppose the building of an Islamic cultural centre blocks away from 'ground zero', are doing Osama's propaganda work for him: "see! Americans are anti-Islam". And those who aren't anti-Islam don't think it is important.

    When the standing of the US in countries around the world with a large Islamic population goes down, will you blame Obama or those whose silence is effectively acquiescence with the bigotry?

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. Sorry, didn't mean to post same thing twice. I agree with Joshua R.
    McCarthy messed up a lot of peoples' lives to be dismissed as a sideshow. He was an example of the recurring centrality of paranoia as an effective tool in American politics.

  10. Actually, I think the Ground Zero Mosque story will serve an altogether substantial purpose of normalizing walling off freedom of Muslims in the US. Keep in mind that perception follows language, not the other way around.

    IMHO, those who would restrict Muslim freedom in the US have largely won this debate by winning this discussion. Note the liberal responses: the Mosque isn't particularly close to Ground Zero, there's a Mosque near the Pentagon, etc. Such responses concede the basic conservative argument: there are places in the US that worshiping Muslims best not go (though perhaps the Ground Zero mosque isn't actually in one of those places, or the Pentagon Mosque refutes that 9/11 icons are among restricted Muslim holy places).

    Public language is extremely important to the extent that it plays a significant role in guiding public thought. To that extent, the Ground Zero Mosque debate has been a win for those opposed to a Muslim role in US society: consensus has pretty much conceded the idea that Muslims aren't welcome in American locations of high sensitivity.

  11. Gee Jonathan, I know you're an expert in the dynamics of public opinion and all that, but to second CSH, you sure seem wrong to me here.

    Per a Ben Smith story, I think the Republicans completely repudiating Bush's efforts to differentiate Islam from Islamism is significant. I think Palin's success in bringing another poisonous meme to the eruption point is significant. I think that waves of hysterical demagoguery that hit fever pitch are significant. And I think that, as with torture, when it comes to defense of civil liberties leaders have to be better than the rest of us, because majorities will sell those liberties without a twitch for a modicum of relief from rage or fear. When one of our two major parties goes all out demonizing an entire religion and works assiduously to interfere with a local government's approval of a religious institution to be built on private property, that's dangerous.

    We may never yet have witnessed a mature democracy essentially vote away its core civil liberties by rewarding politicians who trample them. But how do you know it can't happen, and that we're not on the way?

    Your perspective here reminds me of your extremely utilitarian characterization of the right relationship between elected rep and populace: that the rep is a good rep if he essentially does what he promised, fulfills the outlines of her own "brand," as it were. That view seems to foreclose condemnation of a rep who fulfill his constituents' wishes even when those wishes are wrong - for example, by fighting to preserve segregation. Similarly, here, you don't seem to account for the possibility that leaders' pandering to voters' rage against or fear of Islam could do serious damage to our civil liberties, regardless of what they do or don't do to election results.

    You may respond that McCarthyism did not ultimately erode our core liberties, that these fevers burn themselves out. Perhaps they do - -until they don't.

  12. I'm not saying that anti-Muslim bigotry isn't important; I absolutely think it is. I guess I don't see this particular kerfuffle as nearly as much of a turning point, or whatever, as some of you do. I don't know...Yes, George W. Bush said some good things about tolerance and all in 2001-2002, but I think that there was quite a bit of bigoted stuff coming from the usual suspects even back then, and certainly by mid-decade. IIRC, Muslims became a solid Dem voting block by 2006, maybe by 2004 (but not in 2000), in large part because one party (Bush notwithstanding) was far more likely to use conflate Islam and terrorism a whole lot more than the other was. Someone can check my memory on that, but at any rate, I just don't see this event as looming very large within the general story of civil rights and civil liberties. I mean, we've basically had conservatives saying for the last couple of years that all Muslims should be tortured and that American Muslims shouldn't have any Constitutional protections within the criminal justice system; is this really a significant step after that?

    Anyway, on McCarthy, my point wasn't that McCarthyism and the 1940s-1950s Red Scare wasn't a big deal -- it's that Joe McCarthy's specific role within that was neither essential nor dominant. And McCarthy's role within the Red Scare was pretty obviously a much bigger deal than this flap within today's anti-Islam stuff. For example, I believe that some (all?) of the efforts to stop other mosques around the US predated the Park51 thing, no?

  13. CSH has a point in that a fairly typical liberal response to a stupid conservative attack like this one is to attack the conservatives for being stupid. So, conservatives expose themselves to the attack this time because of the Pentagon mosque, the mosque that's a block or two away, and the property rights argument. And liberals jump on those lines, because it seems to liberals that pointing out stupidity will win you converts, or at least win this current debate.

    I wonder if the correct response is to actually engage the conservativism, not the stupidity of the argument. That is: what's wrong with building a mosque anywhere?

    In other words, to take ASP and CSH's points (I think): perhaps Park51 isn't the end-all, be-all. But maybe once any of these fights becomes a fight, it's important to pick one and fight it. We shouldn't be doing this on every issue or even most issues. But, I wonder if this is "first they came for the NY mosque, and I said nothing, because I don't care about NY or religion. then they came for the ivory towers, and I was hosed."

  14. Matt makes a good point above in quoting the unfortunate liberal tendency to attack conservatives' stupidity instead of their arguments. One envisions liberal talking heads sneering about Palin being stupid for thinking that Park51 is at Ground Zero when it is only nearby (thus "at Ground Zero" is unacceptable, but "nearby" is okay?)

    The MSM left is maddening in this respect, IMHO. Its as if they save their real counterarguments for each other in the salons, while engaging in insidery snark for the rest of us. Since thinking follows language, not airing counterarguments is routinely a losing strategy for the left.

    Worse, this specific topic is ideal for liberal counterattack. Imagine if left-wing cognoscenti argued something like the following: 'there are certain strains of Islam harboring virulent anti-American tendencies, within our borders such Islamic communities are probably more likely to be found in multicultural Lower Manhattan than Manhattan Kansas. We expect that the intelligence community is aware of this distinction and will monitor a Battery Park mosque accordingly. Beyond that, what is the difference between a mosque within the remains of the WTC complex and one several blocks north of Central Park?'

    What is the difference? The Ground Zero mosque might - cue right wing radio - hurt some feelings.

    One of the few redeeming qualities of the Reactionary Right is calling out leftist fascist tyranny dressed up as sympathy for some aggrieved group's hurt feelings. Here the shoe is precisely on the other foot, this is Right Wing Fascism dressed up as sympathy for some group's hurt feelings -

    - and damn but the left should call them out on that. Frustrating. Maybe Jonathan is right that this is not the straw that breaks the camel's back, but it is definitely straw, it is definitely contributing to the eventual breakage of said back.

  15. Somehow it has become okay to be bigoted against Muslims, in the open, among some Democrats and all Republicans. As an academic who works easily with Muslims and who sees the humanity in all of them, this overt bigotry, condoned by our leaders and not forcefully opposed by our President, is shocking. I think it will have enormous consequences and it shows how easily the simmering devils in one's nature can be ignited. This is a turning point. Over the next few years, as you see rising anti-Muslim bigotry, proudly displayed in mainstream America and practiced by its leaders, you will see how wrong you are about this. What we need, if he had any spine or sense of decency, is for George W. Bush to forcefully condemn the Park 51 bigots.

  16. Anonymous said... "not forcefully opposed by our President,"
    What would you have had him say/do? He had previously indicated that the actual decision making process was a local issue; on Friday he, I thought, forcefully defended the constitutional rights; on Saturday he said what he had previously said, the actual decision of where to build was not something he was going to express an opinion on.
    Anyone who had paid attention to his previous statement, would not have seen a contradiction between what he said Friday and what he said Saturday. There was no walkback except in the minds of the addled media.

  17. I agree that the issue may not be "important." But that doesn't mean it won't affect elections.

    Most people don't vote on what is or is not important. They vote on feelings and trust. Dukakis came out in favor of the indisputable First Amendment right to burn a flag. Even though it wasn't an "important" issue--and it was an issue he was right on--people didn't like him for it. If people don't like you, it's harder to get them to vote for you.

    I'm hopeful that this particular issue will be gone long before election day. But I think its non-effect will be a matter of timing, not of any lack of importance. It's too dismissive to say that just because an issue isn't important then it won't affect an election. They too often do.


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