Winston Churchill is said to have once said that the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter. But that’s the trouble with famous quotes. Maybe Churchill never said that at all – there’s no audio clip and you could look for the source for weeks – an interview transcript, a speech or someone’s recollection of the man in a book or article – and find nothing. But it is clever and it sounds like him, and people do toss that quip into political discussions when they want to stop their opponent cold. It’ll do nicely.
You know the drill. Someone has told you that this or that must be done because most people feel it should be done – the polling shows that or there’s been a referendum of some sort, or everyone is saying so on talk radio or on Fox News or on The View or down at the barbershop. Or maybe they admit that the polling shows not many are saying anything of the sort, but then go on to tell you that Real Americans know what should be done – and they go on to tell you who those Real Americans are. You get the talk about the Heartland and small towns and how college and books and cities ruin everybody and about core American values and the Judeo-Christian tradition and apple pie and motherhood and maybe how the South will rise again, and maybe something about Ford trucks – the full Norman Rockwell meets Grant Wood meets Garth Brooks, at Disneyland, fully armed. It’s all talk about the will of the people, about true democracy.
So you fire back with the Churchill quote. And that sometimes works. After all, a five-minute conversation with the average voter will reveal that the average voter is hardly an expert on international relations. The average voter barely knows where some rather key countries are, if at all. And as for the history of a particular region and who was aligned with whom and why and how that has shifted over the years and long-standing feuds and generations of anger and resentment – forget it. That’s boring detail. And the average voter is not that well versed in economic policy. Government is not the solution, it’s the problem. No one should have to pay taxes. And why aren’t the road and bridges fixed? And the government has no business in healthcare, and thus should keep its hands off the Medicare program, and has no business rescuing feckless people who have no sense of personal responsibility, and thus must save Social Security from going under.
Where do you start? You could talk about Adam Smith and then Marx and then John Maynard Keynes, and what did or did not get us out of the Great Depression, and then talk about how Milton Freidman and the Chicago School of Economics folks developed supply-side theory, and how Art Laffer then came up with the Laffer Curve to show that if government decided to collect less and less tax money, and then none, the government would immediately be awash in enormous amounts of tax revenue and everything would be paid for. But don’t bother. That all may be fascinating stuff, to some, but most people’s politics are instinctual politics. If it feels right they believe it, or if they want to believe it they believe it. Details don’t matter. And the earth is really cooling, you know.
Tip O’Neill is famous for saying all politics is local politics – see Thomas P. O’Neill, Jr. Papers – Biographical Note – John J. Burns Library, Boston College. It seems O’Neill actually said that – but he was describing the symptom, not the problem. Of course voters care what their congressman does for their district – snagging federal money for a new highway or a park or a research center that employs thousands. That sort of parochialism is logical. It’s simple self-interest.
But more important is a more generalized parochialism. People live in their own heads. They think by feeling. We all do. There’s a cool poem by Theodore Roethke about that – “I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.” One’s political position on key national issues is most often generated by one’s vague feelings or generalized unease. There’s not much thinking involved.
And so we vote. And our fate is often in what we cannot fear – in what we like or loathe for no particularly rational reason and what makes us a tad uneasy, because of something in our past or some insecurity or mild neurosis. It’s a hell of a way to run a country. That’s what Churchill was getting at.
Ten years ago it played itself out in the Bush-Gore race. One was rather crude and proudly not inquisitive or reflective, with limited knowledge of much of anything but faith that Jesus would help him out if anything went wrong – a man’s man. And the other was a stiff formal dork who knew all sorts of things and talked endlessly about them, and who tried to look cool by dressing in earth tones. Did you want, as a president, someone who tried to look cool? And the big question at the time was which of the two you’d like to have a beer with. See October 17, 2000 – “According to a just-released Sam Adams/Roper Starch poll, more people would rather sit down to drink a beer with George Bush than Al Gore. Although some 24% of people are still undecided, tonight’s debate could sway these swing voters.” It became a matter of who you’d feel more comfortable with – in the back yard, while flipping burgers on the grill and shooting the shit about football and fast cars. You just couldn’t imagine that with Al Gore. And that was that.
We do think by feeling, and Winston Churchill was right. And it played out again in the last election. It was identity politics. Some felt comforted, or confirmed, by McCain’s scattershot and gaffe-prone anger – they were angry too, and often couldn’t articulate their anger – and they loved Palin’s attitude, even if she clearly don’t know much about anything and, when you thought about what she was saying, seldom made sense. It was just the attitude. As with all identity politics, it was one set of neuroses finding its voice in a public figure. On the other side many on the left didn’t seem to notice Obama wasn’t much a leftist – just a careful and thoughtful pragmatist. He didn’t even hide it. But he was young, black and cool – with a knock-out wife and two absurdly cute and well-mannered kids. And he wasn’t all Lady Macbeth cut-throat ambitious like Hillary Clinton. And, because he was so damned smart and so articulate, he would drive the folks on the right crazy, and that was way cool after the mess of the Bush years. And now they’re disappointed in him. They too were thinking by feeling.
And now the big issue is the Ground Zero Mosque, as they call it. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg delivered an inspired speech in support of the Cordoba House, that proposed Muslim community, and the idea was that his words end all debate:
Whatever you may think of the proposed mosque and community center, lost in the heat of the debate has been a basic question: Should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? That may happen in other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here.
That seemed clear enough, but via Tobin Harshaw doing the digging, it seems there was more to it, as Michael Barbaro had reported this in the New York Times:
Michael R. Bloomberg is a former Wall Street mogul with a passion for the rights of a private property owner. He is a Jew whose parents asked their Christian lawyer to buy a house and then sell it back to them to hide their identity in an unwelcoming Massachusetts suburb. And he is a politician who regards his independence as his greatest virtue.
All politics is personal politics:
That potent combination of beliefs and history, those closest to Mayor Bloomberg say, has fueled his defense of the proposed Muslim community center in Lower Manhattan – a defense he has mounted with emotion, with strikingly strong language and in the face of polls suggesting that most New Yorkers disagree with him. “Something about this issue just really hooked into him,” said Howard J. Rubenstein, the powerful public relations executive, who is a friend of Mr. Bloomberg. “It deeply upset him.”
The Washington Post’s Charles Krauthammer has a different animus:
A place is made sacred by a widespread belief that it was visited by the miraculous or the transcendent (Lourdes, the Temple Mount), by the presence there once of great nobility and sacrifice (Gettysburg), or by the blood of martyrs and the indescribable suffering of the innocent (Auschwitz). When we speak of Ground Zero as hallowed ground, what we mean is that it belongs to those who suffered and died there — and that such ownership obliges us, the living, to preserve the dignity and memory of the place, never allowing it to be forgotten, trivialized or misappropriated …
It is why, while no one objects to Japanese cultural centers, the idea of putting one up at Pearl Harbor would be offensive. And why Pope John Paul II ordered the Carmelite nuns to leave the convent they had established at Auschwitz. He was in no way devaluing their heartfelt mission to pray for the souls of the dead. He was teaching them a lesson in respect: This is not your place; it belongs to others. However pure your voice, better to let silence reign.
So this place is either a monument to tolerance – the New York Times editorial – or a monument to terrorism – the view of all those across the nation who want no mosques anywhere in America now, or ever. It’s all personal.
It seems to be a personal for Joe Klein at Time’s Swampland site:
I knew people who died in those attacks; nine people in my suburban town didn’t come home that night. I also have Muslim friends – some of whom live in that town, some of whom knew and maybe even were friendly with those who were killed – who are appalled by what they consider Al Qaeda’s perversion of their religion.
Klein argues that the personal gets complicated, and that Charles Krauthammer is a bit of a fool.
Krauthammer raises a second shoddy argument: You wouldn’t want the Japanese to build a memorial or cultural center at Pearl Harbor. This is conflating ethnicity with religion. But I’d also be open to a Japanese monument that honored those who died on December 7, 1941, apologized for the attack and expressed the desire for continued close friendship between our two countries. The Polish government’s gesture of allowing Israeli jets to be photographed flying over Auschwitz – which Jeff Goldberg describes in his Atlantic cover story this month – is sort of like that. And so is the Cordoba Center: as planned, it is a celebration of American diversity, a monument to those who died (including the Muslims who died) and a rejection of the extremist theology of those who carried out the attacks.
Jonathan Chait also thinks Krauthammer is nuts:
We’re left with a stark contrast in strategic approaches to fighting Islamic radicalism. One approach is to attempt to divide extremist Islam from the rest of Islam, demonstrating American openness to the latter in order to isolate the former. The other approach – Krauthammer’s approach – is to treat all Muslims as potential terrorists. After all, who is to say that any Muslim organization won’t hire a radical? You certainly can’t prove a negative, especially in advance.
Charles Krauthammer might argue back that you don’t take chances – if there’s a one percent change something bad will happen you act as if it were one hundred percent certain that this bad thing would happen. That was Dick Cheney’s way of looking at things after all – his entire philosophy for dealing with terrorism. And he kept us safe, or something.
But it’s all personal. Betsy Newmark sees what is being said of Krauthammer and says she’s being called names:
Our betters such as the Mayor and the White House which posted his remarks all think that the only reason that people would oppose such a mosque is due to unthinking prejudice against Muslims. Because, in their view, only someone of deep-seated bigotry would be against such a mosque. Well, then the majority of Americans are bigots. People don’t oppose this imam’s building of a mosque, but just one in that location. If he was truly interested in cross-cultural openness and discussions, he would pick another site. Instead, he is deliberately choosing a site to exacerbate relations.
It’s the most-American’s argument again. Or, as Adam Serwer notes, it’s pure politics:
The reason this became a national controversy is because Republicans see a political advantage in harnessing anti-Muslim sentiment, particularly if that forces Democrats to defend an unpopular minority group. Rauf and Khan are merely collateral damage in a larger political battle in which the rights of Muslims are forfeit as long as Republicans see some political interest in curtailing them or forcing their opponents to defend them. But just as no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people, no Republican ever went broke underestimating the political cowardice of the Democratic Party.
So what we’re left with is a largely uncontested notion that any observant Muslim is a potential national-security threat, a view that was once confined to the conspiratorial right-wing fringe but is now, thanks to Republican demagoguery, Democratic cowardice, and mainstream media know-nothingism, an entirely respectable, mainstream view.
This isn’t just a setback for religious tolerance and individual freedom; it’s a setback for the fight against terrorism, which demands that the United States marginalize violent extremists, not embrace their narrative and worldview.
Well, of course – but they weren’t thinking, or they were thinking by feeling.
But thinking helps out, and Barbara O’Brien looks around and thinks:
Over the past several days here on this blog I have documented that within a three-block radius of the area called Ground Zero there are at least two strip clubs plus a number of bars (one popular with lesbians). This morning through googling I found a lingerie and porn video shop about two blocks south of Ground Zero that a reviewer calls “grimy” and “sleazy.” Those establishments have existed in close proximity to Ground Zero lo these many years, and no one seemed to care.
Yet talk about putting up a cultural center within this same area, one that won’t even be visible from the Ground Zero site, and suddenly people start squawking about “hallowed ground” and “sacrilege.” Give me a break.
And then the White House hosted a dinner celebrating Ramadan, a tradition started by Thomas Jefferson, and Obama used the occasion to state his unequivocal support for religious liberty in general and the Cordoba House project in particular:
Recently, attention has been focused on the construction of mosques in certain communities – particularly New York. Now, we must all recognize and respect the sensitivities surrounding the development of Lower Manhattan. The 9/11 attacks were a deeply traumatic event for our country. And the pain and the experience of suffering by those who lost loved ones are just unimaginable. So I understand the emotions that this issue engenders. And Ground Zero is, indeed, hallowed ground.
But let me be clear. As a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America. And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country and that they will not be treated differently by their government is essential to who we are. The writ of the Founders must endure.
We must never forget those who we lost so tragically on 9/11, and we must always honor those who led the response to that attack – from the firefighters who charged up smoke-filled staircases, to our troops who are serving in Afghanistan today. And let us also remember who we’re fighting against, and what we’re fighting for. Our enemies respect no religious freedom. Al Qaeda’s cause is not Islam – it’s a gross distortion of Islam. These are not religious leaders – they’re terrorists who murder innocent men and women and children. In fact, al Qaeda has killed more Muslims than people of any other religion – and that list of victims includes innocent Muslims who were killed on 9/11.
So that’s who we’re fighting against. And the reason that we will win this fight is not simply the strength of our arms – it is the strength of our values. The democracy that we uphold. The freedoms that we cherish. The laws that we apply without regard to race, or religion, or wealth, or status. Our capacity to show not merely tolerance, but respect towards those who are different from us – and that way of life, that quintessentially American creed, stands in stark contrast to the nihilism of those who attacked us on that September morning, and who continue to plot against us today.
Yes, he sounds like Bloomberg, and he’s not even Jewish. And Steve Benen is a happy camper:
It was as clear a demonstration of President Obama’s character and courage as we’ve seen in quite some time. There is some political risk in defending religious liberty when it’s unpopular, but he did it anyway. He didn’t hedge; he didn’t equivocate; he didn’t try to find some middle-ground compromise. He heard the words of small-minded demagogues and chose to respond with simple truths, honoring American principles while the political winds blow in the other direction.
Ideally, this wouldn’t be necessary. The country would celebrate religious liberty for all, and we’d recognize that it’s not our way to allow our neighbors to be second-class citizens.
But sometimes, Americans need a reminder about the values that make us great. Last night, the president gave us one.
But this will now turn into a battle of values, as all politics are personal, as much as Churchill disliked that. Do we recognize that it’s not our way to allow our neighbors to be second-class citizens – Muslims, Gays, Hispanics – or do we go with the Judeo-Christian tradition and apple pie and motherhood and maybe how the South will rise again, and maybe something about Ford trucks? It’s time to choose sides.
Oddly, Michael Gerson, the former speech-writer for George W. Bush, chooses Obama’s side:
An enormously complex and emotional issue – but ultimately the right thing to do. A president is president for every citizen, including every Muslim citizen. Obama is correct that the way to marginalize radicalism is to respect the best traditions of Islam and protect the religious liberty of Muslim Americans. It is radicals who imagine an American war on Islam. But our conflict is with the radicals alone.
No more tea parties for him.
But Ben Smith in Politico reports this:
Speaking to reporters today, President Obama drew a sharp line under his comments last night, insisting that his defense of the right to build a mosque does not mean he supports the project.
“I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding,” he said.
Obama’s new stance is logically consistent with his words last night, if a bit less “clarion,” as Mike Bloomberg called the first remarks. And there are certainly two possible stances here: Bloomberg’s, that the Cordoba project itself represents the best of America; and Obama’s, that the freedom of religion is an important American value.
Oh well. It was a nice gesture for the president of the United States to unequivocally recognize the constitutional right to religious freedom. It’s probably too much to expect that he might unequivocally stand up for religious tolerance too.
Nope, he wasn’t what the left imagined.
But if you think by feeling it may be time to decide how you feel. Here’s some guidance – Edward Wyatt in the New York Times – Three Republicans Criticize Obama’s Endorsement of Mosque. And there’s Suzi Parker at Politics Daily – Sarah Palin Questions Obama’s Support for Ground Zero Mosque. From CNN – Crist Backs Obama on Controversial Islamic Center and from John McCormack at the Weekly Standard – Marco Rubio Rips Crist and Obama on Ground Zero Mosque.
Beyond Florida there is Bill Kristol at the Weekly Standard – No, Mr. President (“a classic of brain-dead multiculturalism” and “the ultimate destination of multiculturalism is platitudinous stupidity”) and from Matt Duss at Think Progress – CNN Contributor Erickson Compares Building of Mosque To Human Sacrifice. And at Powerline – An Awful President, A Worse Theologian – but also see Fox Hosts Agree With Obama’s Defense Of Mosque (he had to do that, because it is his job, but it’s too bad things are like that) – or see Frank Gaffney – Obama’s Ground Zero Mosque and Andy McCarthy at the National Review – The President Stands with Sharia – or Greg Sargent at The Plum Line – One of the Finest Moments of Obama’s Presidency.
If all politics is instinctive, and just about feelings – and if we do think by feeling – Obama just called everyone’s bluff. Okay. Don’t think. But how do you feel about who we are? Exclude and purify and be righteous, as that’s the only thing that will keep us from all being killed, or drop the paralyzing fear and loosen up and treat others as we would want to be treated ourselves, with no exceptions. Yeah, yeah – there are those who would remind us that, as they read the New Testament, there are those who Jesus said we should hate and destroy, so it’s unfair to frame it that way. Yeah, whatever you say. But if you are going think by feeling, just how do you want to feel?