Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Same Old Fight, New Stupid Location

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 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.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Only Authorized Religions Beyond This Point

Why has the "Ground Zero Mosque" been near the center of the national political discussion for more than two months? It is neither at ground zero (it's two-and-a-half blocks away) nor a mosque (it's more like a Muslim YMCA). Those two links give pretty good rundowns of what's actually going on. And, from what I can tell, lefty blogs have done a pretty good job responding on the issue. But, as is usually the case with these manufactured controversies, the facts and the rebuttal are always slower to come out and more boring to read than the shocking headlines shrewdly coined by right-wing activists.

The right wing and the Republican establishment have done with this story what they have done with thousands of stories before it. Their appeal is to conservative-minded, generally Christian, generally white Americans. A threat is depicted as coming from some group that is either non-Christian, non-white or, in the worst-case scenario, neither Christian nor white. What is being threatened exactly? Follow their explanations and reasoning down the rabbit hole and you'll pass through a fairy-tale version of America as they imagine it was in the 1950s or earlier. Follow a little further, and I think what you finally arrive at, what they feel is being threatened, is white protestant privilege. The funny thing is, they're right. They--the right-wing, the GOP establishment, and the folks they appeal to--long for an America that is less pluralistic and less democratic, like it used to be in those "good old days" that they're kinda vague about. They either want you to be just like them, or they want to be able to look down on you. But they're fighting against the current of American history and losing. And that's part of why they're so angry and confused.

There is no good reason why the government should step in and stop the construction of the Park 51 Islamic Cultural Center. Does anyone on the right seriously think there is? Or is this entirely a ploy to peg Democrats to a feared brown-skinned 'other' while wrapping the GOP in the flag? For how many blocks from Ground Zero should certain religions be prohibited? If we're going to call the whole area, for blocks around, "hallowed ground," do we demolish the strip clubs, sex shops, bars, liquor stores, banks, and pizza shops? Or how about the mosque that's already in the area, or the Hare Krishna facility, or the Buddhist center? Who gets to be the one to decide what is and is not allowed inside the hallowed-ground zone? Are there any other First Amendment protections we should suspend inside the zone, or should we just suspend freedom of religion, or just Islam?

This whole issue is utter nonsense, and the Right should pay a heavy political price for it. The president should do more than say he supports Muslims' freedom of religion; he should blast Republicans for such cynical and dishonest tactics. Progressive groups should do the same, and they are to some extent. The problem is that the rebuttal and retort need to have the same punch that "Mosque To Be Built At Ground Zero" does. If you can think of that bumper sticker-type comeback, let me know.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A Funny Place To Find Inspiration

I've been asking myself why I've taken an unplanned summer sabbatical from blogging. Here is, I think, one big reason: I'm pretty of sick of 24x7 political "news." I mean, aren't you? It's one manufactured controversy after another. And the corollary to that, which has had me feeling a little burned out, is how irrelevant and short-sighted the national political discussion seems to be.
"Today a flock of seagulls was spotted by beachgoers in Delaware. What does this mean for President Obama?! Let's have a Republican and a Democratic strategist debate it."
Meanwhile, the Huffington Post and the Drudge Report have to keep updating their headlines if they want to stay relevant. But if each day there are multiple shock-bomb, red-alert headlines from these sites, what do they do when something truly shocking happens?

It's like the story of the boy who cried, "It's the end of American democracy!" The first time the boy yelled, the people came running up the hill to help, but they found just another Congressman in a sex scandal. The second time the boy yelled, "It's the end of American democracy," the people came running up the hill, but they found only a trade imbalance with China. So, next time, when something really could be the end of American democracy--climate change? nuclear war? creeping white nationalism?--the boy may yell, but no one will take him seriously. They think it's the same old game.

Another reason I've drifted from blogging is that the stuff I've been thinking and reading about lately has been more macro and long-term in focus. What will America be like 30 years from now? Or 50? Will nation-states still be the dominant political units in 100 years? How will demographic shifts change the political culture in the America my children grow up in? (Actually, I'd like to take a stab at some of these questions, so expect future posts on these topics.)

So if the above are some reasons I've been gone, here is one reason I'm back. I mentioned in a previous post that I now work in an office where Fox News is blaring all day. Well, here's what I've learned, and I've watched enough that I feel qualified to say this. The people at Fox are not chiefly dumb, and they are not chiefly crazy. They are not just right-wingers barking knee-jerk reactions to the day's events. No. They are deliberate and hard working. They're purposeful. They're working hard every day to shape a narrative that, if accepted by the mainstream, would redraw America along a very reactionary line.

I don't want to live in the country they're trying to build, and neither do you. One of the most powerful things we can do to push back is to build a counter-narrative. You and I don't have a 24-hour cable network. But we do have friends and family and neighbors and coworkers who listen to us, and we have Facebook pages and community groups and blogs. We've heard this said a thousand different ways, but it's different when we learn it on our own: We really must speak the truth, or else lies will march all over us.