Newsflash: The debate about the Park 51 building (the non-mosque not at ground zero) is not really about the building. America does not generally care about municipal zoning issues. Nor does America care about maintaining some sacredness (or secularity) in the blocks around ground zero in Manhattan, as evidenced by the diverse-as-America assortment of establishments in the neighborhood.
Have the protesters even said how far away is far enough? Chris Matthews interviewed a guy from "America's 9/11 Foundation" who wants the center moved but could not or would not say how far. It makes sense that they're mum on that question, because the moment they name a distance, it reveals how ridiculous the whole thing is. Five blocks? A mile? They'd be just makin' stuff up.
So it's not about location. But this whole discussion has become--just because so many people are talking about it--a discussion about what kind of country America will be. "Why are we even talking about this?" was the correct reaction at first. But as the story stayed in the headlines, my thinking slowly changed to, "Ok, so this is where we have to fight for religious freedom and tolerance." Democracy's battlegrounds pop up in strange places sometimes. Obviously the Republican noise machine picked this particular battleground. They think that near ground zero they can throw confetti in our faces to shut us up and invoke the 9/11 dead to cancel our most cherished freedoms. Conservatives picked the battleground, but now progressives have to show up.
This has become a debate about whether or not we as Americans actually believe what we say we believe. Will we be free to practice whatever religion or beliefs we choose? Are we comfortable enough in our institutions to allow a diverse "marketplace of ideas?" Can we disagree with what our fellow citizens say but defend to the death their right to say it?
To all these questions, the Right says, "Hell no!" They say some people are offended. They say Islam is bad. They say America is a "Christian nation." What they're getting at is that they believe might makes right. They believe they can roust up an angry mob and intimidate an unfavored group into submission. Today it's Muslims. Yesterday it was African-Americans or women or gays and lesbians or Latinos. Go back further and it was Irish, Italians, Germans, Slavs. To them, there's always a threat among us, and the threat always is some of us.
I'm not saying every conservative is a racist or bigot, and I'm not saying everyone protesting the Park 51 construction is a racist or bigot. I am saying that racism and bigotry are and always have been extremely important to the Right's political fortunes. (And it's not pure coincidence that this racially-heated issue is huge in right-wing media at the same time Republicans are trying to re-take Congress, repeal health care for all, and extend Bush's tax cuts for the rich.) I'm also saying that if your skin ain't white enough, you probably are not safe walking through the conservative protest crowds near ground zero. Just ask this man, who was physically threatened and chased away for no apparent reason other than being Black and among the crowd.
So if the Right is doing what it's always done, it's good to see the Left at ground zero doing what it's always done too.
This is some sloganeering I can get behind. It's interesting that the first banner is by folks from SocialistWorker.org. It's an under-acknowledged fact of American history that progressive/radical working-class organizations have often been at the forefront of the struggle for racial justice and civil rights. In fact, the left-wing of the labor movement and the civil rights movement have often been synonymous.
This is the same old fight at a new stupid location. If the Right is gonna show up to do its usual thing of dividing working people against themselves (notice in the video above it's a guy in a hardhat getting in the face of the African-American man, who is reportedly a union carpenter working at ground zero), then the Left must show up to do its thing of uniting us against racism, bigotry, and division.