The Mosque and the Meta-Debate
When the debate over the proposed “Ground Zero Mosque” first began to engage the attention of the nation, my first reaction was to dismiss those who loudly and insistently protested its construction as demagogues bent on stimulating the worst impulses of the American public for political advantage. That opinion I have not revised: the proposed project is not in any meaningful sense “at” Ground Zero. This single fact moots the entire argument even if you cede all the questions of principle to the mosque opponents. But as is typical with public arguments about cultural questions, the argument about the mosque demonstrates some interesting facts about American public discourse, and these facts are not all to the discredit of the demagogues.
The most important feature of the argument has been one of its most typical, namely ambiguity about the level of abstraction from the immediate question. Are we arguing about whether to use public action to stop the mosque from being built, about whether Imam Rauf and co have the right to build the mosque, about whether it’s sensitive and prudent to build the mosque given that Imam and co have the right, about whether anyone has the right to say that it isn’t sensitive and prudent even if they also say that Imam and co have the right, or about whether it’s sensitive and prudent to say that the mosque isn’t sensitive and prudent given that people have every right to say it isn’t sensitive and prudent?
The ever-shifting ground of this debate is what makes it so perfect a culture-war wedge issue. The proponents get to call the opponents bigots, the opponents get to caricature the proponents as multi-culturalist appeasers, and everyone goes home happy, since no actual policy, no course of action and no point of principle is being discussed. It would be only marginally less illuminating if Gallup simply asked Americans for an up-or-down vote on the question “Muslims?”
To my dismay, the mosque proponents (or are they just mosque opponent opponents?) are not emerging from the meta-debate unsullied. To be sure, if you go looking you can dig up some hard-bitten anti-First-Amendmentists who don’t seem to realize that actually using the government to stop the mosque’s construction pretty much amounts to exhuming the bodies of the founding fathers just to spit in their faces, but the vast majority of the voices publicly opposing the mosque aren’t calling for Congress to send in the troops, though of course being coy about saying so explicitly is a tactic of long-standing in arguments about race, where conservatives frequently make intentionally ambiguous and provocative statements so they can cry foul when a foolish and frustrated liberal calls them racists. Sadly the Right is giving us plenty of that coyness. The Left is responding even more foolishly than usual, however. Even to the many opponents who make clear that they acknowledge the legal right to build the mosque, many liberal voices have responded not by pointing out how thoroughly inoffensive the project actually is but by denying that the debate about whether the project is offensive is even legitimate.
That’s a really stupid hill to die on. It’s obvious, or it should be, that some hypothetical incarnation of this project really would be offensive even if it were perfectly legal. Suppose a wealthy family — bin Laden’s, for example — had bought the Millennium Hilton on Church St, directly adjacent to Ground Zero, and deployed from the roof a massive banner reading “Glory to the holy warrior Osama for the victory won here against the Great Satan.” A lot of the rhetoric coming from the Left has suggested that the principle of religious freedom means never being offended by religious groups doing what they have a constitutional right to do, but John Boehner is of course entirely right, even if entirely in bad faith, when he says “The fact that someone has the right to do something doesn’t necessarily make it the right thing to do. That is the essence of tolerance, peace and understanding.” I’d like to hear liberals affirm that principle a little more explicitly, if you please.
Taking a step back, at some level of debasement, I believe it becomes morally obligatory simply not to get involved in these arguments. When you accuse the demagogues of bigotry you’re taking their bait and probably saying something probably untrue, unjust, and irrelevant (and, obviously, if you really think that building the mosque is an insult to the victims of 9/11 then you have bigger problems than an inclination to casual slander). If you have to speak up, reiterate the actual principles at stake and explain your position on each, if you have any positions that can’t be reduced to expressions of contempt for the guys on the other team.