Phil-osophically Speaking: August 20, 2010


Political Correctness — Off the Rails

Oscar Wilde, the celebrated satirist, once wrote “the only duty we have to history is to rewrite it.” I note this little jibe among the criticisms, fast and furious, being directed by some of our political leaders at the benighted rabble (their constituents) who have dared to raise objections about building a 15-story high mosque/Islamic center just 600 feet from where the rubble of the Twin Towers had lain.

Leading the chorus is the often sensible but sometimes insufferable NYC Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, whose severe tongue lashing should be reserved for terrorists and other misanthropic sorts feverishly looking for an encore to Sept. 11, and not at the mosque’s dissenters, many of whom remain deeply scarred from the events of that horrific morning.

In his numerous statements on the subject, Bloomberg seems strangely nonplussed that the great cavity in the earth where the Towers once mightily stood was the result of Islamic terrorism. Consider if you will, the mayor’s misplaced rhetoric regarding the latest attack against the city and his painful awkwardness in dancing around what was obvious to everyone. The Wall Street Journalist Dorothy Rabinowitz, in her column “Liberal Piety and the meaning of 9/11,” put it well: “The failed car bomb attempt in Times Square, the mayor began to ludicrously suggest every possible motivation (including the act of someone who doesn’t like the health care bill) except the most plain and correct one: Islamic terror.”

So the mayor, like Oscar Wilde, feels duty bound to reinterpret history by making believe Islamic fanaticism isn’t the greatest threat his city faces. In one sense, he undoubtedly feels an obligation to protect, as he should, the Muslim community from retaliation. But this is hardly compelling since this is certainly feasible without whitewashing reality. I have a suspicion that undergirding these denials is a symptom of a larger timidity, the fear of committing modern society’s one mortal sin, the only sin it really cares about, being perceived as intolerant.

Serving his third and last term, Bloomberg wants history to record that he was on the side of the angels holding fast against the barbarians at the gate. With regal condescension toward those who do not share his lofty moral views, he has convinced himself that any other course but his own threatens the very survival of American democracy. He is not alone in exhibiting an airy superciliousness to the unthinking masses he harangues but belongs to that exclusive club, the progressive aristocracy, who are not happy unless they are inhaling the incense of their own self-righteousness.

What’s at stake in building the mosque near Ground Zero, or so the keepers of the keys tell us, is religious freedom. But exactly what metaphorical resonance is established by building a mosque in the shadow of what became a graveyard for 3,000 people, including Muslim Americans, in the name of Jihad? What sacred bound principles of the Republic are besotted by building it elsewhere in the city? It is not as if the citizenry of New York raised objections to building mosques in general; there are, after all, more Muslims living in New York and the Muslim religion is more widely practiced after 9/11 than before. Are the sensitivities of those troubled by its uncomfortable symmetry in the wake of immense death and devastation so inexplicable as to invite endless civic lessons by the mayor?

In the following days, weeks and months after an attack more gruesome than Pearl Harbor, the nation anxiously braced itself for another attack as Manhattan became gripped in a vice of fear. As intelligence agencies spoke openly about the possibility of chemical and even nuclear terrorism, Americans did not organize mobs or vigilante groups to roust Muslims from their beds, but acted with restraint and liberality even amid repeated charges that some mosques had been less than cooperative in the investigation of the attacks.

Indeed, I cannot think of an example where Americans during a full-blown national emergency had ever behaved so commendably. During the dark, brooding days of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, as close to a secular saint as America ever produced, suspended the Writs of Habeas Corpus and imprisoned some 13,000 American citizens on mere suspicion of disloyalty. In 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt, the Patrician who was fancied as the champion of the working classes signed Executive Order 9066, forcing the relocation and internment of the nation’s most vulnerable population, 110,000 Japanese living on the Pacific Coast (62 percent of them American citizens) into what was then called “War Relocation Camps.”

None of this remotely occurred after 9/11, as the Draconian measures taken by Lincoln and Roosevelt have become relics of the past rather than artifacts of the present. Americans understood that actions of individuals should not be conflated with the aggregate and that the vast majority of Muslims are law-abiding Americans and not terrorists. This apparently was not enough for Bloomberg and others of the political and cultural clerisy whose simple-minded indignation over the entire controversy reflects a political correctness that has gone straight off the rails.

These fustian exhortations are inherently more self-promotional than evidence of their devotion to American justice and democracy. I’m reminded that it was said of the late Senator Ted Kennedy and those of his ideological stamp, that they fervently hoped for the discovery of “moon men,” not for the sake of science but only to provide them with another stage to show they harbor no prejudice but only good will to those who are different.

Sarcasm for sure, but so much of this moralizing masquerades as self-congratulatory hype that it beclouds rather than clarifies what is fundamentally wrong with building a mosque/Islamic center where the most infamous act of Islamic terrorism occurred. It’s not because it is illegal or un-American, it is because certain things are not done to those who have been emotionally traumatized and savagely aggrieved even if no law proscribes it. It is a matter of good taste and common sense to recognize the sensibilities of those who suffered and lost greatly especially in light of the fact that religious liberty, for Muslims, Christians and Jews alike flourishes in America.

The power of association requires a cultivated discrimination of what will be representative when we commemorate the time and place of such a profound and shattering national disaster. Well-intentioned people of all faiths should be discerning enough to embrace the larger perspective rather than using religious freedom, so ubiquitous in America, to thumb people in the eye. Building a mosque by Ground Zero is not an affirmation of American values since it needs none, nor will it promote interfaith understanding, but it will do much to inflame the raw hostility that Bloomberg and others assure us they want to extinguish.

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