Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Soft bigotry for sophisticates

We know why the Sarah Palins and the Newt Gingrichs want to keep passions burning about the Park51/Cordoba House project in lower Manhattan. These demagogues derive their influence in the country's life from keeping a segment of the country terrified, afraid of swarthy Muslims out to kill us all. They lost a useful, mobilizing enemy when the Soviet Union collapsed. For them, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 were a godsend. People who are scared out of their wits are easy to lead around by the nose, or at least to convince to vote for a Republican party that has no program to address any of the country's real problems. They thrive on phony problems.

The New York mosque is a classic phony problem, a hate balloon. This poses a dilemna for mainstream pundits who try to treat the demagogues as credible spokespeople for something or other. They want to find some defense for their indefensible rantings, but they would lose their own credibility if they signed on with pure prejudice. So in addition to white-hot nativist denunciations of Muslim places of worship from the know-nothing fringe, we're getting dimwitted soft-bigotry from writers who would be ashamed to throw down with the nuts, but want to keep a line open to them.

Marc Ambinder of the Atlantic deigns to tell us "What Obama Meant to Say about the Mosque." Lest we subscribe to the infantile notion that the President might believe in the Constitutional guarantee of free exercise of religion on U.S. soil, he assures us the President's intervention last Friday was mostly about U.S. security -- we have to convince those pesky Muslim countries that we aren't on some kind of crusade, so he has to say these things. And besides, Obama's coalition --"young Americans, modernists, seculars, suburban couples who believe in the virtue of tolerance, members of stigmatized minority groups" -- approve of the President's unpopular breaking of silence. The President's is a "sophisticated position."

But Ambinder is worried about other U.S. citizens who wouldn't understand the President defending the rights of people who affirm a religion that is not (yet) "part of One America."

In America, the Judeo-Christian heritage has essentially been smoothed over into a blend of cultures and traditions that we see as equal. Islam was always marginal. The truth is, as Osama Bin Laden would have it, that Islam and Western values are at odds now; civilizations are clashing. America has never assimilated its Muslims even as Muslims have assimilated into America. Add to this the recent homegrown terrorism attempts from Muslims who've been radicalized by the past ten years and it suddenly seems almost sensible that many Americans do not consider the practice of Islam harmless. This is not a comfortable or capacious worldview, but it is not something that elites, people who don't see Islam the same way, should trivialize.

Is this bigotry? Yes. ...That's soft bigotry and it is excusable.

Over at the New York Times, the resident soft conservative oped ed writer, Ross Douhat is also defending bigotry from elites.

There’s an America where it doesn’t matter what language you speak, what god you worship, or how deep your New World roots run. An America where allegiance to the Constitution trumps ethnic differences, language barriers and religious divides. An America where the newest arrival to our shores is no less American than the ever-so-great granddaughter of the Pilgrims.

But there’s another America as well, one that understands itself as a distinctive culture, rather than just a set of political propositions. This America speaks English, not Spanish or Chinese or Arabic. It looks back to a particular religious heritage: Protestantism originally, and then a Judeo-Christian consensus that accommodated Jews and Catholics as well. It draws its social norms from the mores of the Anglo-Saxon diaspora — and it expects new arrivals to assimilate themselves to these norms, and quickly.

Douhat is a Catholic carrying an ancestral memory of the time, not so long ago, when Catholics were on the receiving end of nativist agitation.

The first America tends to make the finer-sounding speeches, and the second America often strikes cruder, more xenophobic notes. The first America welcomed the poor, the tired, the huddled masses; the second America demanded that they change their names and drop their native languages, and often threw up hurdles to stop them coming altogether. The first America celebrated religious liberty; the second America persecuted Mormons and discriminated against Catholics.

This country has worked, not when Douhat's "first America" coddled its fearful neighbors, but when it asked them to buck up and make the country's ideals a reality.

This poster was a World War II era appeal to the same sentiments that Douhat and Ambinder are so protective of. We know where that led us: the shameful internment of loyal Japanese Americans for which the country is still apologizing. When groups of people are subjected to harm on the basis of prejudice, however seemingly "rational" and "popular," shame follows. We don't have to do this again.

World War II-era propaganda also suggested a better way to deal with difference when the country was under threat. By and large, this was the lesson that triumphed out of that era, as people from many races and backgrounds learned to trust one another as part of a national effort. This took leadership from politicians and, in that crucial moment, we got it.

President Obama could lead far less equivocally in this crucial moment. It's easy to criticize his backsliding on Saturday after his fine statement last Friday. Another of these pundits, Richard Cohen points out that:

The inclination to go from the particular to the general -- to blame a people for the acts of a few -- is what has always fueled pogroms and race riots. History shows that it is a natural tendency and it will literally run riot if not controlled. It is the solemn obligation of elected leaders to restrain such an urge -- to be moral as well as political leaders. Obama almost pulled that off, but he flinched. Yes, he couldn't

I'm not so harsh on the President. He's on the right track -- and his coalition is on the right track -- let's take the country where we know the country must go.

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