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"Idiotic on every level"

A Few Miscellaneous Observations

Sunday Night Journal — September 5, 2010

It’s been a busy weekend, and I’ve been having serious computer problems. So I’m going to limit this to a few comments on recent events.

First, the so-called “ground zero mosque” story. Why “so-called”? Well, the use of the term “ground zero” to refer to the still-gaping hole where the World Trade Center used to be has always bothered me a little. The term originated, I think, with the early tests of the atomic bomb; it referred to the point of the explosion. As terrible as the destruction of the WTC was, it was not on the scale of a nuclear weapon (though one could argue that its global consequences have been). And the use of the term seems to give a greater victory to the fanatics who perpetrated the attack than they really deserve.

And what is proposed isn’t just “a mosque,” though it does include a place for Muslims to pray. Maybe this makes it technically a mosque, but the use of the term seems intended to inflame public sentiment, which certainly has been inflamed.

My own view of this, for what it’s worth, is that it needn’t be a national issue at all. Let New York decide, I say. But since it is a national issue, and the lines of the debate have been drawn largely on the familiar left-right divide, one forms an opinion. Unfortunately I can’t agree with my friend Daniel at Caelum et Terra. I think he has an overly benign view of Islam in general, and the meaning of its collision with the West, both ancient and contemporary, and I don’t think the Westboro Baptist analogy really holds. But I don’t agree, either, with those on the right who think the building of this Islamic complex would represent a successful phase one in the conquest of America by Islam. This piece at Inside Catholic is pretty much my view: in the abstract, it would have been okay to build the thing, but since a large percentage of the population in both New York and the country at large—a significant majority, according to some polls—views it as an affront, the imam ought to retreat gracefully, and build it somewhere else. The best analogy, as Rychlak says, is to the Carmelite convent opened near Auschwitz. I thought Jewish opposition to it was misguided and even offensive, but it was real and from their point of view not unreasonable, and to have insisted on keeping the convent there would only have inflamed the ill feeling.


The big Glenn Beck “Restoring Honor” rally has come and gone. I don’t really know much about Glenn Beck, though what I have seen suggests he is in fact a bit nutty. And I didn’t really get how this event was going to restore honor to the nation. But I think those who see in it, as they see in the Tea Party and other populist outpourings, the spectre of American fascism reveal more about themselves than about their opponents. One of the things they reveal is something I’ve been noticing more and more in recent years: the left in general really does not like middle-class Americans. In fact it often seems to hate them, and it certainly fears them.

Setting aside the attempt to get at the roots and reasons of this hostility, as being too big a topic for this hasty piece, I have to say that it seems a terrible mistake, politically. The people who are attracted to this movement are ordinary hard-working civic-minded Americans who are deeply (and rightly) worried about the future of their country, and are convinced that the left in general and the Obama administration in particular wish to throw out the baby with the bathwater in what they call reform. Obama’s famous promise to “fundamentally transform” the country decidedly does not resonate with them; it sounds more like a threat. They don’t want to fundamentally transform the country, they want to fix it. For the left to work so hard at demonizing them is not only bad for the country, it’s bad for the left; it contributes to the perception that the programs of the left are quite intentionally hostile to tens of millions of ordinary people.


Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos fame is certainly not helping things, with his newly published book which apparently insists, with a straight face, that there is no difference between the Taliban and American conservatives. One cannot hold this view both seriously and reasonably. I don’t know in which of these categories Moulitsas is deficient, but it’s good to see that at least some on the left recognize it.


Similarly, I’m puzzled by the extreme vilification of Sarah Palin, as evidenced by a hit piece in Vanity Fair (described here—I haven’t been able to make myself read the thing itself). I’m not especially a fan of Palin, and I don’t think she’s qualified to be president, and I really hope she doesn’t run. But the repugnance with which she’s regarded by many on the left seems to go far beyond political opposition: they hate not only her views, but her, and—here it is again—the middle-class America she represents. I really don’t think the left likes the common man very much anymore, which sheds a lot of light on the difficulty it has in convincing him that its programs are for his benefit.


Also at Inside Catholic, an interesting appraisal of the appeal of Taylor Swift, by Danielle Bean. I do not know Ms. Swift’s music at all, but this explanation of the reasons for her popularity makes it seem that she’s at least a much healthier presence than, say, Lady Gaga.

But the vast majority of women respond to an instinctual drive to nurture and give of themselves to others by getting married and becoming mothers….Let's see, little girls: Shall we seek personal fulfillment through a sincere gift of self and a life of self-giving love? Or by using sex as a weapon with which we attempt to dominate men? Roll your eyes if you must, but my money's on Swift, sappy love songs...

I hope she’s right, though I fear a little for those girls who do follow this path: those who have done so and been betrayed (not just disappointed—we’re all disappointed in life to some degree—but betrayed), or simply unnoticed and unappreciated, are among the most deeply hurt people I know, and the decline of marriage in our time makes such self-giving all the more risky. But God never lets love go to waste or unanswered; if there is anything about him of which I feel certain, it is this. 


And speaking of women: The Anchoress is away in Rome, and her blog has been full of guest posts from several witty and profound Catholic women bloggers: Sally Thomas, Simcha Fischer, and the aforementioned Danielle Bean. I’m through now—go read them.


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I am not in her target audience, but Taylor Swift interests me. My ear was caught by her big hit "Love Story" a year or two ago, and it encouraged me to listen to some more of her music. She's got talent, but, more than that, there is something sweet and wholesome about her. I find her monster success very encouraging.

Overly benign? Perhaps, but isn't that refreshing, considering the overly hostile (and ignorant) view of the majority?
I have been reading pretty extensively, and the ignorance is perhaps inevitable. Did you know that a Gallup World Poll just after 9/11 revealed that 97% of Muslims worldwide opposed the attacks? Or that every major Islamic organization condemned them (including Hamas and Hezbollah)? No, of course not, because the Media did not cover those stories. but a few Palestinians dancing in the streets? That played over and over. Of course 7% of a billion and half is no small threat, even if only of fraction of them are likely to actually act. But it is hugely less a threat than a billion and a half enemies!

Of course there is a violent minority in Islam, as there is in every religion. Of course there is a history of violence, as there is in every religion. Of course there are sacred texts that can be used to justify this, as there are in other religions. But religions can evolve, and Islam evolving peacefully is not served by hostility to those proposing Islamic centers that profess to promote a peaceful tolerant version of the faith...

I don't think people are so very hostile as all that. Ever since 9/11 the media & govt have been sounding dire warnings about a huge wave of anti-Muslim violence, and it continues not to happen. There are several times as many officially reported anti-Jewish incidents as anti-Muslim. But I certainly grant most people are very ignorant and don't/can't distinguish one variety of Islam from another.

I haven't heard anybody with any sense suggest that this imam is going to make bombs in the basement or launch suicide attacks from this place. It's the symbolism, very much like that of the nuns at Auschwitz. I don't really share that sentiment, and if it were up to me I probably would have said ok. But I can understand the feelings and would defer to them. The fact that he's dug in his heels on this makes me wonder if he's really such a nice guy.

"All religions can be violent" is true, but not all are equally so or lend themselves equally to it. I think there are grounds for supposing Islam has more of that propensity than some.

I don't think that is true. The tomb of Baruch Goldberg, who murdered 29 praying Muslims, is a shrine to radical Zionists and ultraorthodox militants. The numbers are smaller, as the numbers of Jews, who do not proselytize, are smaller, but the percentages are probably similar. And the Old Testament gives more ammo for justifying killing the unbelievers: it is stated that God >i the murder of women and children, while the Koran forbids this. True, that does not mean it does not happen, just as Christians have massacred civilians despite the words of their Founder and the teaching of the Church. And the Wahhabi radicals find all sorts of reasons why other Muslims, not to mention Christians and Jews, are unbelievers, and thus can be killed. (Just as I heard a Jesuit once give an elaborate rationale about how no one in a totalitarian society is really innocent and can therefor be morally vaporized).
For that matter, I know Catholics who think that holy war is just fine, and have met some who proposed a new inquisition. A minority, yes, but they exist, in spite of the advantage of having a magisterium, which Islam and Judaism (and of course Protestantism) do not.
But I think that the imam not backing off is not an indication of some hidden malevolence, but rather that to him it is unthinkable that he would be categorized with those who use violence and hate. A look at his writings and history bear this out. You may dismiss the analogy, but it IS like the Westboro Baptist Church. That has nothing to do with the faith I profess, and I would be bewildered and insulted that anyone would suppose it does. You readily grant that secularists do in fact make such assumptions about Koran burners and hateful gay bashers. Is is such a leap for you to think that to many Americans a Muslim is a Muslim, and as most of the news coverage is of the hateful minority that colors their perception of all Muslims? How else to explain the opposition to a moderate, mainstream center in NYC? I thought this was exactly the sort of thing we ought to hope for. A Taliban leader has been quoted to the effect that this outcry has been their biggest recruiting tool since Abu Ghraib. Ironic; if this sort of place had been erected in Afghanistan the Taliban would blow it up!
Islamophobia creates terrorists.

The italic thingy didn't work; that should read "God commands" the murder of...

"How else to explain the opposition..."

I think you're missing the point of the main objection. It's not to Islam-as-such, and it's not to Islamic-center-as-such. It's to Islam/center + hole where World Trade Center used to be but isn't because of Islamic fanatics. Granted, there is some bigotry at work there, but there's also a valid objection. I think the analogy to the convent-at-Auschwitz is quite close. Do you think the Church should have insisted in that case?

I've read at least two op-eds by Muslims saying that the Taliban types will in fact take this as a victory dance. So it's probably not going to work to our advantage either way with them. Anyway, although we can try not to go out of our way to further inflame them (as in burning the Koran), there's not much we can do to placate them, either.

I don't think it's hidden malevolence that's keeping Rauf from backing down, but I do think that at this point it's bad judgment. It's coming across as "We're going to shove this gesture of reconciliation down your throats."

The reasons I don't think the Westboro Baptist analogy applies: obnoxious as they are, they haven't killed or even threatened anybody, while, aside from 9/11, Islamic fanatics continue to attempt and occasionally succeed at murdering people; WB appears to have no support at all outside their little group, whereas Islamic fanatics rule more than one nation, at least two of which are quite powerful and one of which is about to have nuclear weapons. (the fact that some of them hate the others doesn't really matter.); the analogy does hold in the sense that it's not fair to judge all Muslims by the actions of aQ, but I don't think that's the main dynamic in this situation, just as no one accused the Carmelites at Auschwitz of being Nazi sympathizers.

As for the general relationship between Islam and violence, well, I'll just say I disagree, and get back to work.

While Westboro is an extreme example, it is also true that there is a significant number of Christians who espouse extreme views and do not view even the horrific violence of nuclear war as evil. I note not only Christian Zionists, whose number is legion, but a sizable minority, the Restorationists, who espouse a literal adherence to Old Testament Law, who would establish a nation very like Geneva under Calvin. It is not just highbrow snobbery that sees this; it is true. Our own past as Catholics is full of religious violence, and not so long ago at that. Islam is a religion in its adolescence; it could go in different directions. Most Christians- but not all- no longer believe in religious violence. Most Muslims do not either, regardless of a noisy (and destructive) minority.
As an aside, and partly in response to several things you have written lately, I think our takes on certain aspects of the contemporary mess are interesting, especially given what I know of our backgrounds.
You, born to Southern aristocracy, and whose fathers have been well educated for generations, are outraged at "the left's", as you see it, hostility to ordinary Americans. And you are puzzled by the vilification of S Palin. I, on the other hand, a blue collar worker born into a working class family, whose father had an 8th grade education, am more likely to look askance at the anti-intellectualism of the Right, and understand perfectly the horror with which Palin is viewed. Maybe we are both somewhat contrary?
What's more, from what I see carrying mail- the exterior of political mail- I am far from concluding that the Left is as nasty as the Right. A typical mailing from Senator Sherrod Brown: "Let's tell those right wing Republicans what we think about their radical agenda!" From the Right (I forget which organization, because they are so numerous): "Obama's Insidious Plan to Take Away Your Freedom!" And I am not sure I buy your distinction of the responsible Right and the talk show hotheads. Both Hillsdale College and the Heritage Foundation send out mail with Sean Hannity as the money-raising spokesman. Just the mailman's perspective, mind you.

And yes, a rare day off, with wife and chillen staying elsewhere while our house is repaired, and actual time to engage in online yakking. :o)

Well, I went to school with rednecks and married into a redneck family. :-)

The debate over whether the left or the right is nastier is truly an impasse. We could swap examples and counter-examples all day (have you seen that video of the promoter of tolerance screaming curses in the face of the Holocaust survivor?) and never change each other's minds. One's view of this truly depends on whose ox is being gored, I think. My intent in talking about nastiness on the left is not to establish who's worse but just to dispute the left's self-awarded nice-and-reasonable-ness prize.

Day off...I'm going to take one of those sometime...

Lord knows there is enough stupidity on either side...the Left is nice and reasonable the way that Fox is fair and balanced.
But if the Left does see the Quran burners and Fred Phelps of the world as representative of Christianity, is it such a leap to think that most Americans, who are profoundly ignorant of Islam, see terrorists as typical Muslims?
That is why so many work under an assumption of suspicion: they SAY that they are moderate, but who can trust a Muslim? Well, obviously in the -to me- unlikely event that the imam has some other agenda, well, he will have the most scrutinized mosque in the Western world. Anything amiss and there would be a huge outcry.
This Modern World has a pretty funny comic about this...

Oh, I know that prejudice is there. I never meant to be saying otherwise. What I mean is that the problem is not that people believe Imam Rauf is scheming to nurture terrorists in the heart of Manhattan (although I'm sure you could find a certain number of people who think that). What I keep referring to as the understandable objection is about the symbolic import of it: what it is (large and Islamic) plus where it is.

There are mosques all over the country, including in Mobile, Alabama, and reportedly one or two in that same general neighborhood where Rauf wants to build. There's no big groundswell of demand that they be razed, or that no mosques be built anywhere in the country. Nearly everyone I've heard or read who's against it has said some variant of "it's fine if they build it, just not there." They also note that Rauf has a legal right to build it, but that it's a question of sensitivity and judgment.

Anyway, although we can try not to go out of our way to further inflame them (as in burning the Koran), there's not much we can do to placate them, either.

And why would we need to placate them? Is it b/c so many Muslims are, in fact, murderous thugs?

It was Chesterton who noted that Christianity brought in stark contrasts, as opposed to pagan compromise. Thus, in Christianity, there exist pacifists and crusaders. Both are good, in Chesterton's estimation and together they baance each other out - but it's not a compromise. I often think of that during such conversations as these and it satisfies me as an explanation of how good Christians can think very different things.

A good soldier fights not b/c he hates what's in front of him but b/c he loves what's behind him, said Chesterton, and if we bear that in mind, we can see how some Christians are less bothered by violence than others. I am one such. The Gospel is not about non-violence especially, but a very radical committment to non-violence certainly can show the great value of human life.

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