First Things editor Joseph Bottum has an editorial in the new issue of the magazine that repeats the consensus of a lot of conservatives who can’t quite cave to the worst impulses of the right’s burgeoning anti-Muslim fervor, but also can’t pass up the chance to use the “Ground Zero mosque” as an opportunity to score against their ideological opponents. It’s too beautiful a chance to portray Obama as out of touch with the majority of Americans and, worse, on the side of Islam. Bottum calls the proposed construction of the Islamic community center “wildly offensive” but “wildly constitutional.” Later on, he throws in a couple of barbs about unborn babies and the Greek Orthodox church at Ground Zero that is mired in a bureaucratic struggle with the Port Authority—basically, irrelevant grievances presented as vague justifications conservative excess.
The only reason I mention this piece at all is because of how well it demonstrates the faux-reasonableness of the “constitutional but offensive” position, which is fully betrayed by the end of Bottum’s piece. It wants to be a middle-of-the-road compromise betwen elite multiculturalists and passionate Americans, an admittance of constitutional reality without the imagined cultural snobbery of the Islamic center’s champions. But as Bottum complains about the way Obama and Bloomberg assume “there is nothing left to discuss,” his true feelings are clear: He is deeply suspicious of and hostile to Islam, and resents liberal American leaders for failing to empathize with the anti-Muslim sentiment sweeping the electorate and, apparently, his own person. So he takes comfort in the fact that the messy nature of democracy will probably halt construction of the Islamic center—a project “so offensive, so bizarre, and so deliberate that it should be stopped.”
After reading the available data on Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, viewing the plan as a deliberate provocation against the American people, as Bottum repeatedly asserts that it is, verges on embracing conspiracy theory. The bad apples among American mosques notwithstanding, there is little doubt that what will actually going on at Park51 is not at odds with Western civilization. But Bottum is committed to his conspiratorial conception of the Islamic center, dismissing its significant distance from the actual Ground Zero and the existence of actual mosques nearby and blindly insisting that this one is a “grand statement.” This same current propels him to this strange conception of how international Muslims will view the center, and how it will “poison” the experience of Americans visiting the site:
The offensiveness looks like this: Regardless of how it is intended, it will be perceived by radical Muslims around the world as a giant monument, in the heart of the beast itself, to their success in attacking America. Indeed, it will be perceived by many Americans that way. The funereal and memorial emotion that embraces one on a visit to the Ground Zero site will be weakened—poisoned, just a little—by the presence of this new, grand construction.
This is extraordinary. Conservative arguments about virtually any issue involving 9/11 have frequently championed indifference to what radical and even non-radical Muslims think of American actions. People who care about what the Muslims will think, they harrumphed, are weak liberal internationalists. But now that Obama and Bloomberg have taken that position—being robustly American as an act of indifference to Islamic extremism—Bottum thinks we should start worrying about how “radical Muslims around the world” perceive us. (Even if we are to be concerned about such things, the idea that radical Muslims might look upon this center as a triumph is more than a little absurd.)
Rather than advance any serious argument against the center, Bottum continues to take offense at the liberal leaders who have championed it. In his opinion, Obama and Bloomberg have rightfully defended a constitutional principle, but wrongly insisted that the legal principle is the last word. Though Bloomberg, unlike Obama, gets praise for being consistently, passionately in favor of the center, Bottum is miffed on behalf of the American people:
And yet, there’s something in that Bloombergian line that puts one’s back up. Something condescending, superior, and hectoring. Something of the school marm and, more to the point, something of the 1950s high-liberal technocrat who just doesn’t like the messiness of human interaction. …
The self-congratulation in all this is a little hard to take—a kind of belief that, unfolded in full, would betray a vast sense of superiority to both those culturally backward Muslims who must be offered such tolerance and to those culturally backward Americans who must be lectured on tolerance.
Bottum adds, falsely, that Obama and Bloomberg think “only bigots and un-American theocrats would continue agitating against an Islamic center near Ground Zero.” But all of this is a smokescreen. Neither Obama nor Bloomberg have levelled snobbish accusations against the American electorate or cast aspersions on its tolerance. They have urged Americans to stick to one of our central ideals even when our passions make us want to do otherwise. Maybe I don’t mind politicians striking the educator pose when it comes to a deeply important component of Americanness like religious tolerance. The fact that politicians shouldn’t be so naïve as to believe passions like those on display last Sunday can be diffused with speeches, doesn’t mean those passions aren’t crude and unsettling.
When it comes down to it, Bottum has no evidence that the Islamic center is a “grand statement,” no serious argument that Bloomberg and Obama really misunderstand democracy, and no case that Americans’ one-size-fits-all Islamophobia is righteous and justified. He just serves up these sideshows as distractions from the fact that he really wants to make a prejudicial argument against the Islamic center without being called a bigot.
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