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Grounded: Thinking Through the "Ground Zero" Mosque

By Benj DeMott

Prologue: New York Story

I went in for the matzo ball soup and ended up married to a Muslim. I met my wife-to-be while she was working as a hostess at Carnegie Deli. Her New York immigrant story has been in my head as I’ve read political narratives about the “Ground Zero” mosque. I might have given New Republic editor Martin Peretz the benefit of doubt when he wondered whether he should “honor” the people behind the mosque by “pretending they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment when I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse it.” But I knew in my gut he was out to lunch once he’d spelled out his own bias in his now notorious statement: “[F]rankly, Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims.” When I read that line, I flashed on my wife leading me around a Senegalese Sufi cemetery on a blindingly hot day in search of her beloved grandmother’s grave.

Personal experience has been one guide as I’ve tried to think through (and around) the mosque controversy. I’ve also had help from minds sharper than my own. I’m putting their higher perceptions on hold, though, at the top of this essay. Surprise is the best teacher so I begin not with Olympian clarities of folks who are wiser than I’ll ever be, but with a confession of error (and wonder) by an independent conservative friend who’s probably better than I’ll ever be.

Know-Nothing Conservatism, Not-Knowing Progressivism

I “met” my friend online when I began commenting at Belmont Club – a website popular among Movement Conservatives with military backgrounds and/or literary bents. Club founder Richard Fernandez (AKA “Wretchard”) stopped accepting my comments from outside his echo-chamber earlier this year and my friend no longer posts there. (I don’t mean to imply a causal connection - he has his own reasons.) We keep in touch by email now. And that’s how I learned he’d been struck by the speech Imam Faisel Abdul Rauf gave at Danny Pearl’s funeral. I’d read about Rauf’s act of solidarity – “Not only today I am a Jew, I have always been one, Mr. Pearl…” – but my friend had heard the speech live back in the day. When it came up in our emails, this honest man allowed he hadn’t realized the same Imam had conceived Cordoba House. Spun by right-wing bloggers and Palin/Newt, my conservative friend had assumed Rauf was a disingenuous extremist or, at best, an “insensitive” Muslim unworthy (as per Peretz) of First Amendment privileges.

I don't know where my friend will come down on Rauf’s project but his willingness to get back up in the air removes him from his former mates at Belmont Club. I checked there to see what was trending among “Country-Class” Conservatives as the mosque controversy heated up. The bulk of the Club and its fearful leader vented at Muslim interlopers and Obama (same as it ever was). But one irregular poster, “Sunderhaus,” gave Richard Fernandez flack for signing off on Big Lies about Imam Rauf. Sunderhaus linked to a report on Rauf’s speech at the Pearl funeral that honored the Imam for daring to say things that could’ve made him a target of Islamist head-choppers. Sunderhaus noted the author of the piece was an Israeli Army vet (i.e. someone with extra cred for a Belmont Club audience) and underscored: “Feisal Abdul Rauf is a Sufi, not a Saudi Salafist.” He punctuated his post with a lament about the Club’s decline: “Time was, even the Belmont Club used to do minimal research.”

I’m not sure there was ever a Golden Age of “research” at Belmont Club, but there’s no doubt its founder has now become a brazen enemy of reason. Responding to his critic, Fernandez began incoherently: “It’s not about the Imam; it’s not even about the Mosque. It’s about the intent of the mosque…” The truth came out quickly (if not consecutively): “Reason in this instance is a disguise. It plays a subsidiary role.” The mosque controversy mattered to Fernandez – and to other right-wing “opinion-leaders” on the web and talk radio - because it offered one more chance to “break” the President: “It’s like one of those pivotal moments in the movies when the citizens realize that the alien or monster can be stopped or slowed and they stop running away.” Signs of Obama Derangement Syndrome were all up there on the screen when Fernandez scorned any “reasonable compromise” and defended nonsense: “The mosque isn’t about ‘laws’ or ‘private property,’ it’s about the 2010 elections…It doesn’t have to make sense.” He copped to opportunism – “If we want some chance of getting back into the game the only way is to treat every little opportunity like it was the greatest chance in the world” – then segued right into faux-noble babble: “To do the right thing without expectation of reward. That’s the coolest thing of all.” Who was he even trying to fool?

Himself, I suppose. There’s a rumor of something human in Fernandez’s hints of bad conscience. His movements of mind distance him slightly from more shameless media whores on the Breitbart-wing of blogosphere such as Pamela Geller - the Randy wack-job who m.c.-ed the 9/ll protest against the “monster mosque” after ginning up outrage at her blog, Atlas Shrugs. Geller has been called out for promoting the fantasy Obama may be the (actual not metaphorical) son of Malcolm X, but her nasty presentation of a passage from Obama’s autobiography may be meaner – and more revealing of her own character - than her blog’s many birther-friendly posts. Geller quoted the following graph from Dreams from My Father – bolding the phrase “niggers and kikes” – under the heading, “OBAMA, Grand Uniter! Healer! SPEAKETH.

America's race and class problems are intertwined. Whether because of density or because of its scale, it was only [there] that I began to grasp the almost mathematical precision with which America's race and class problems joined; the bile that flowed freely not just out on the streets but in the stalls of Columbia's bathrooms as well, where, no matter how many times the administration tried to paint them over, they remained scratched with blunt correspondence between niggers and kikes. By Barack OBama (sic)

Geller added on commentary about Obama's "very extra special brand of divisiveness.” Then she steered her reader to that “great site” “Obama WTF,” featuring “top posts” with headlines like: “Senator Obama refers to Jewish people as ‘kikes.’”

Given Geller’s will to inflame, Minister Farrakhan was bound to turn up as one of the heavies in the notorious X-rated take on bitherism she published at Atlas Shrugs. Geller got lawyerly when confronted with the X issue. She never “said” Malcolm was Obama’s daddy. It was another fantast who made that case at her site. Yet she had no regrets about posting this rube’s fever dream since it did “a spectacular job” documenting Obama’s radical affiliations. The post in question amounted to a long march through conspiracy theories (it ran dozens of pages with tabloid-style pics) and included almost nothing but disinformation. One “scoop” jumped out at me as I scanned it. Obama’s secret Arab money-man/Svengali was…Tony Rezko? Nah, too MSM. The Muslim behind Obama’s Manchurian candidacy was one Khalid al Mansour. A mystery to you perhaps, but a familiar name to me because back in the day the Mansour meme migrated through…Belmont Club (along with the fantasy that ex-weatherman William Ayers wrote Obama’s memoir). Convergences that suggest differences between Geller’s gutter and the slightly tonier Club are pretty cosmetic.

Not that the G.O.P. is too choosy. When paranoid stylings of right-wing bloggers go viral, s’all good with the biggest elephants in the room. During our most recent moral panic, Palin’s tweets were kinder, gentler tweaks of Geller: “the mosque is a knife in the eye” morphed into “the mosque is a knife in the heartland.” Newt was on the case too, though he lagged behind another prospective presidential candidate, John Bolton, who wrote the foreword to Geller’s (fair and balanced?) treatise: The Post-American Presidency: The Obama Administration’s War on America.

It’s not enough, though, to expose tight connections between Republican stars and extremists. Rachel Maddow was right when she condemned G.O.P. tribunes for cozying up to crazies. But she was only half-right. That came home to me during a dinner conversation with a politically engaged buddy of mine who comes from a family of echt New York leftists. Word of Imam Rauf’s presence at the Pearl funeral was news to him. The right wing noise machine wasn’t to blame here. Madness about the mosque got traction in part because not-knowing progressives tended to rely on a First Amendment defense of Cordoba House (and Islam in general). Once argument was on, they followed Bloomberg’s or Obama’s lead, cited freedom of religion and stepped off. Public officials charged with upholding the establishment clause (or engaging in diplomatic outreach to millions of Muslims who are neither jihadis nor as open-minded as Sufis) might have been able to leave it there. But the left thing to do was measure the distance between a ballsy moderate like Rauf and his murderous co-religionists.

Going There

Bernard Avishai drew everyone a map in his blog post “Cordoba House – Too Far Away” http://bernardavishai.blogspot.com/2010/08/cordoba-house-too-far-away.html. Confronted by Charles Krauthammer’s fear-mongering: “Who’s to say that the mosque won’t one day hire an Anwar al-Aulqi, spiritual mentor to the Ford Hood shooter and the Christmas Day bomber?” – Avishai wasn’t content to back up those who argued freedom of religion “can’t be contingent on such what-ifs.” He answered Krauthammer straight up but first established a parallel context. He compared Cordoba House to the 92nd street Y – another faith-based New York institution established (in the 19th century) “as a form” of cultural struggle against currents of religious orthodoxy – then placed the Y in relation to a well-known figure in Israel’s settler movement, Rabbi Moise Levinger, who takes pride in committing violence against Palestinians. (Avishai might have cited faith-based mass murderer Baruch Goldstein or the fanatic who assassinated Rabin, but there was something up close and un-neighborly about Levinger’s acts of religious animus that evoked the local quality of intra-faith struggles. This ragin’ Rabbi has not only pled guilty to shooting a Palestinian storekeeper; he’s also been arrested for assaulting a six-year old Palestinian boy and, on another occasion, two Palestinian girls after other children had “made fun” of his daughter.) Back to Avishai: “To ask, today, what will prevent the proposed Islamic cultural center from hiring Anwar al-Aulaqi, is like asking what will prevent the 92nd Street Y from hiring Rabbi Levinger. The very ethos of the sustaining community – the very purpose of the institution – will prevent it.” Avishai quoted from a review of Imam Rauf’s book, What’s Right With Islam,by a Catholic writer who affirmed it was an “essential statement of the ‘moderate’ Islamic position that so many claim is nowhere to be seen:” “Making Rauf’s position crystal clear is his book’s appendix: a Fatwa, or Islamic religious ruling, that permits U.S. Muslim Military Personnel to participate in the Afghanistan war effort.” Avishai’s own concluding statement was crystalline too:

So the problem, you see, is not that Cordoba House is too close to Ground Zero. It is too far away. What could be a more poignant, fitting response to the attackers than a center of this kind right at the site of the attack itself; a living monument to the tolerant, liberal, American strain of Islam that gives the lie to the terrorists and their pathetic narrow-mindedness - their creepy desire for purity? The arguments against the center do not just insult Muslims around the world…They insult anyone for whom religious imagination - what William James calls religious experience - is something more than a childish play for certainty.

That felt like the final word on the mosque controversy when I came across it in mid-August. But the panic wasn't about to burn out. And haters ended up generating disdain from genteel urbane voices whose faith in cultural relativism amounted to another sort of obnubliatory certainty. Take Tom Robbins’ Village Voice piece (“Mosque Haters Go Dutch”) on the 9/1l demonstrations featuring Geller, John Bolton and Dutch politician, Geert Wilders, who aims to ban construction of mosques in Holland. Robbins presented an exchange between a (good) Pakistani family man named Syed Haider and a nameless anti-mosque protester in a déclassé “pork-pie hat with a long braid down his back:”

“So what to you tell your daughter here about the fact that the Koran says you should marry her off at her age nine?” Haider stared at the man. “She’s 10, and the Koran doesn’t say that.”

Haider was correct but his come-back sounded a little too definitive. I wonder if reporter Robbins was aware, according to Islamic tradition and standard Western biographies, Muhammad wed one of his wives, Aisha, when she was six or seven years old and their marriage was consummated when she was nine or ten. (The prophet is said to have enjoyed watching Aisha play dolls with her friends.) I don’t bring this up to imply Muhammad was a pedophile (a charge brought by various crusaders over the centuries). But certain details of Muhammad’s life cry out for astringency in our time since orthodox claims he was “the perfect man” serve to sanction (and salve the consciences of) Muslim primitives who continue to take child brides and exploit women in countless other ways.

Robbins’ Voice article ended with his family man from Pakistan, “deep in another debate huddle, defending his faith the old-fashioned way: with words.” This final scene quickly acquired a layer of meaning the journalist probably hadn’t foreseen. The week Robbins published his piece – and the day I read it (September 17th) there was bad news about jihadis’ new-fangled (yet medieval) way of defending Islam. The Seattle Examiner announced their cartoonist, Molly Norris, had taken FBI advice to “get ghost.” Norris had changed her identity and moved from the Northwest to escape Muslim extremists who’d threatened to kill her because she’d sponsored “Everyone Draw Muhammad Day” earlier this year. Norris was inspired by South Park’s blasphemous creators and by Danish cartoonists targeted by muftis in 2006. Those Danes are still living in danger. Now an American citizen who acted in solidarity with them is on the run too.

Does that mean Americans should roll with Euro Islamophobes like Geert Wilders? Nope. But intolerance will rule in this country if we try to slip Wilders and Co.’s best punches. We must…absorb them. Liberals should not only speak truth about Muhammad’s life-story/legacy but face up to the fact pious Muslims are the faith-based nuts most dangerous to Americans right now.

Leon Wiseltier hit the right notes (in his September TNR piece, “Mosque Notes”). First he cited former Bushite Karen Hughes’ line that perpetrators of 9/11 were “murderers calling themselves Muslims” in order to reject it: “They did not call themselves Muslims. They were Muslims. America was not attacked by Islam, but it was also not attacked by Jainism.” Then he heard out the hateful logic of Wilders, Geller and G.O.P. presidential aspirants before nixing that too: “I hear we shouldn’t let them build a mosque downtown until we can build a church in Mecca. I get it. Until they’re like us – we’ll be like them.”

While Wiseltier was striking a balance, his fellow New Republic editor, Martin Peretz lost it. Peretz has apologized to his “Muslim brothers and sisters,” though he originally doubled down on his assertion “Muslim life is cheap,” claiming it was “a statement of fact not value.” His comments have been excoriated by respected journalists and Harvard students who protested last month when he was given an award for his decades of teaching there. Youtube video of (what one of his apologists dubbed) “the war on Marty” at Harvard wasn’t winning. The spectacle of a righteous Ivy crowd chasing down a single sinner (and his handlers) didn’t make my day. But that night in dreams, the video of the professor being caught out in the open took me back to a more inspiring scene of another teacher outside class. It’s in Andre Techine’s French film about passions of the 60s, Wild Reeds. The teacher in this scene is the one adult who remains a model of engaged intelligence as ripe French boys and jeune filles – the wild (thinking) reeds of the title – come and blow in wind through changing times. He tutors a bitter pied noir – trying to reach this rebel soul in extremis who’s contemplating an act of terror against a local CP party office (though he’ll end up loving a leftist girl who works there). After a one-on-one classroom session, there’s a tantalizing scene that ends up clarifying why the teacher finds it natural to sympathize with the wild boy. A car door opens and waiting in the front seat for the teacher is his wife (at ease on the movie’s creative margins like her husband). She’s a Muslim wearing a head-scarf. Their one scene together is with me until death do us part. I asked my wife to marry me a few days after I watched it.

Post-Peretz Dialectics

Not all discourse on the Peretz mess spoke so personally to me, but Todd Giltin’s attack on his ex-professor concentrated my attention. Gitlin had a right to this fight. He’d been an informed defender of Cordoba House, helping make the case for the moderacy of Imam Rauf’s writings. (Gitlin’s reading of Rauf’s work also hinted it’s a bit rich. Though I may have mixed up the tone of the self-described “visionary” Imam with that of his interpreter.)

Gitlin put his own model of mind on display when he dumped on Peretz: “the life of the mind is not the life of the spleen.” (But was he aware anger is an energy that beats the hell out of sniffishness?) Gitlin placed himself inside a smart set of tweener arbiters: “when the margins crawl with insanity, it is all the more important for the vital center of calm, reasonable, evidence-based thought to hold.” His phrase, “the vital center,” dated back to the 50s. Gitlin himself has long staked a claim on the 60s - he's done a memoir, Years of Hope, Days of Rage, a media study of the Movement, The Whole World Is Watching etc. But his best and brightest image of a rational, imperial middle elite suggested he’d slept on the decade. His case for (dead) calm centrism slighted the possibility of a high and wide humanism in extension. (See Wild Reeds!) Defenders of Mind in America must be clear “reasonable, evidence-based thought” may happen on the margins. You can get Out There – or even start on the edge. Beginning in the center is no guarantee – see Martin Peretz’s apology to “our Muslim brothers and sisters” – you’ll keep faith with reason (and the human family).

Two responses on different ends of the spectrum of condemnation-to-justification of Peretz pushed my thinking past Gitlin’s hoary vital centrism (and brought out the whiteness of that whopper). The first outlier was Ta-Nehisi Coates’ indignant posts challenging journos who sought to excuse Peretz by invoking “the breadth and splendor” of his legacy as the owner/operator of The New Republic. Coates linked Peretz’s bias act against Muslims with TNR’s record of cultivating ethnic stereotypes (and contempt for African Americans in particular). Coates recalled Peretz’s role in promoting The Bell Curve, attacks on affirmative action, and canards about shiftless black folks. History, as Coates noted, that once moved Philip Graham (publisher of the Washington Post) to propose “‘Looking for a qualified black since 1914’ as a motto for The New Republic.” Coates zeroed in on a 1996 cover story, “Taxi Cabs and the Meaning of Work,” by famous fabricator Stephen Glass. This piece of fraud, which was full of cooked “urban” characters, launched Glass’s run at The New Republic. Coates argued “it is by far the most racist article I've ever read.” That might’ve been over the top but Coates’ conclusion was not:

This is all about firepower. The fact is that Peretz has the social and economic guns to be a bigot, to then be defended by even those who acknowledge his bigotry…

Coates’ angle of vision on Peretz’s guns was miles away from that of my second outlier - an American woman living in Saudi Arabia who blogs at Sand Gets in My Eyes. But bigotry was the bottom line for both. The author of Sand Gets in My Eyes allowed Muslim lives are not cheap “in the cradle of Islam,” but pointed out “all non-Muslim lives are.” She directed readers to her blog post on the system Saudis use to determine the amount of blood money to be paid if someone takes a life in the Kingdom:

[A] Muslim man is worth $26,222 USD, while the life of a Muslim woman comes in at just under 13 grand – a 50% discount based solely on gender.

The life of a Christian man is worth as much as the life of a Muslim woman, some $13,333 USD. And again, the life of a Christian woman is about half of that of a Christian man, or $6,666 USD.
And here’s where things get tricky – and telling.
In Saudi Arabia, the life of a Hindu man is worth just $1,777 USD.
The life of a Hindu woman, on the other hand, is worth only half that, or about $888 USD.

Sand Gets in My Eyes’ blogger fired away at Muslim men who have social and economic guns to be bigots in Saudi Arabia.

T]he life of a Muslim woman is about equal to the cost of a hand-tied Iranian rug, while the life of a Christian woman like myself might cover the cost of the designer watch so many of the locals here adore. For the life of a Hindu woman, however, you couldn’t buy a month’s worth of groceries for a family of four.

So, tell me again that all lives are precious and have value in Saudi Arabia?

Oh, and did I mention that a well-bred camel can go for several hundred thousand US dollars at auction? Go figure.


Sand Gets in My Eyes sent me back to Lawrence Wright’s eye-opening and devastating report on the world made by Wahabis, “The Kingdom of Silence.” Originally published in The New Yorker and available online here http://www.lawrencewright.com/art-saudi.html), Wright's piece provides essential facts of feeling that should inform American thinking about the "clash of civilizations" in a post-9/11 era. Wright's account of his time mentoring journalists on an English language Saudi newspaper in 2003 evoked the alien nature of that society.

The self-effacement of an entire sex, and, in consequence, of sexuality itself, was the most unnerving feature of Saudi life. I could go through an entire day withouit seeing any woman…Almost all public space, from the outdoor terrace at the Italian restaurant to the sidewalk tables at Starbucks, belonged to men. The restaurants had separate entrances for “families” and “bachelors,” and I could hear women scurrying past, hidden by screens, as they went upstairs or to a rear room. The only places I was sure to see women were at the mall and the grocery store, and even there they seem spookily out of place. Many of them wore black gloves, and their faces were covered entirely – not even a pair of plumy, heavy-lidded Arabian eyes apparent. Sometimes I couldn’t tell what direction they were facing. It felt to me as if the women had died, and only their shades remained.

Wright ran into a middle-aged Saudi man who worried about the next generation of males: “They don’t see any real women at all…Everything is masculine. And yet they are bombarded by images. They can easily see porn. They live in the imagination of sex all the time. We don’t grow naturally, to be loved, not to be loved – we don’t undergo these changes.” Another younger Saudi (“who regularly flies to Morocco for female companionship”) allowed “we’re all sex maniacs by the way:”

There’s a part of me that I share with all men, where women are concerned. And there’s a part of me I share with Arab men. But there’s a big part that only Saudi guys have in common.

Saudi guys were different. (And not just when they had more money.) Wright tied the mad Man’s Man’s Man’s world of the Kingdom directly to 9/11:

The hijackers who killed themselves on September 11th were propelled in part by the notion of being rewarded in the afterlife with the company of virgins. Such abstractions don’t seem quite so strange in a country where images of women piped through a satellite dish seem more vivid than actual Saudi women—whom the male reporters at the Gazette liked to call B.M.O.s, or “black moving objects.”

Wright found even sophisticated Saudis were in denial about 9/11. He told of his dinner party at the home of a Saudi chemistry professor that went sour after the host insisted the CIA (or Mossad) was behind 9/11. When the professor claimed Arab dupes on the planes could not have handled commercial airliners on their own, Wright asked the opinion of the professor’s son, an airplane pilot: “The officer looked at his father and said: ‘To ram a skyscraper on a cloudless day? I should think it would be the easiest thing in the world.’" The family was “stunned” the son would contradict his father. It’s no wonder that conspiracy thinking was rife among Saudis.

Of course it’s all the rage in the U.S.A. too, as Wright noted in his post on Cordoba House at The New Yorker’s blog. His piece alerted me to Pamela Geller’s role in framing the mosque controversy and to her history of promoting birther fantasies about Obama-the-alien.

Nowhere to Run

Wright went to Saudi Arabia in part to do research for his book on Bin Laden and 9/11, The Looming Tower, but “The Kingdom of Silence” focuses on another Saudi atrocity. In 2002, 15 girls perished and scores more were badly injured in a fire at a school in Mecca. Members of the country’s religious police, the mutawa’a, were on the scene and refused to unlock the school gates because students were not wearing their full-body cloaks (abayas). Wright had assumed the girls had been crushed up against the gates or in the stairwells. But, after investigating further, it seemed the truth was even worse. A Saudi law professor - a member of the board of Human Rights Watch - told him about a call he got from a businessman named Abou El Fadl who claimed to be the father of one the dead girls. This man had been at work (“a ten minute drive away”) and had rushed over to the school where he encountered fireman, policemen and muttawa’a.

A few minutes later, the father said, his daughter ran to the gate with a group of girls. The girls pleaded for someone to let them out. “She was screaming, ‘Break the lock! Break the lock!’” Abou El Fadl continued. “The smoke was overwhelming, it was very hot. One of the girls was screaming that her clothes were sticking to her skin.”

Seventeen fire engines had responded to the alarm, along with members of the civil defense. Between them and the desperate students stood the muttawa’a. None of the representatives of Saudi society standing outside the gate of the girls’ school—the police, the firemen, the parents, the bystanders—were able to summon the collective will to ignore the muttawa’a and save the girls. The [father] said he was afraid of challenging the religious police. They sent his daughter back into the school to get her abaya. She burned to death. “He said, ‘I want the criminals tried. They murdered my daughter. Help me bring justice,’” Abou El Fadl told [the Human Rights Watch lawyer]. But that was the last he heard from the man.

Wright tried to train Saudi journalists to bring justice to their society by reporting how it had been polluted by piety and misogyny (and bribery). He didn’t have much luck in part because Saudi newspaper editors serve at the pleasure of the Kingdom’s intelligence services. But, thanks to the web, there are signs Saudi Arabia may not remain the Kingdom of Silence forever.

Last month I followed a Belmont Club link to a website, Migrant Rights, that told the story of a Filipino maid, Norma Calderon, who was treated brutally by her Saudi employers. That site, which aims to raise awareness about exploitation of migrant workers throughout the Middle East, is devoted to posts about instances of modern-day neo-slavery: “Saudi Sponsors Suspected of Brutally Murdering Two Asian Maids… Nepali Workers deported from Qatar for daring to strike…Almost every two days a migrant worker commits suicide in Kuwait…”

Such tales of alienated workers of the world can't be told enough. It's important to pass them on in solidarity with liberals in the Arab world who are fighting against cruelty and silence. We can't leave this struggle to (union-bashing) movement conservatives like Belmont Club’s Richard Fernandez. He seized on the Saudi horror story to trash concerns about American Islamophobia by arguing… Filipinos had good reasons to despise Saudis. (Remember, this is Belmont Club: “it doesn’t have to make sense.”) Fernandez’s political motivations were transparent but he may have truly identified for a hot second with Norma Calderon. Like her, Fernandez is both Catholic and a Filipino in exile. [1] He lives in Australia. Which makes his yen to influence American elections - and his knee-jerk impulse to accuse Obama of being a foreign agent - all the more dodgy.

Fernandez’s trip with Norma Calderon came in the same post, “When Did You Stop Beating Your Wife,” that moved Sunderhaus to criticize him for equating Sufi Imam Rauf with Salafi Saudis. Later in that thread, an online voice from the Migrant Rights site, “Fatima,” weighed in gently against Fernandez:

Richard, I’m glad to see you’re using a post I wrote on our site dedicated to human rights of migrant workers in the Middle East, but you should know that all the writers on the site, except one, are Muslims, two of them citizens of Saudi Arabia. Not all Muslims are violent – some care about fellow humans and fight for their human rights, like the freedom of religion.

Fernandez had no answer for Fatimah. Though he was present by his absence. Fernandez has cultivated a rep (among the many vets who follow his lead at the Club) for having conducted covert military operations. While I have no reason to doubt his physical bravery, he lacks the courage of his ideological compulsions. When it comes to argufying, he’s not a natural debater (though he seems to be a born censor). In this realm at least, hard man Fernandez turns out to be a runner, not a fighter.

“Just Us”

Paul Berman dissected intellectual cowardice on the left in his controversial book,The Flight of the Intellectuals and disputes about it have been in the air – rarefied perhaps but still there – as the mosque morass has played out. Flight is a feat of dialectical imagination that exposes Swiss Islamist legal “philosopher” Tariq Ramadam and liberal eminences in the Academy (and major journals) who defend him as a model moderate Muslim. Ramadan notoriously nailed himself when Nicolas Sarkozy (then France’s Minister of Justice) pressed him on French tv to condemn Sharia-mandated stonings of women adulterers. Ramadan refused to call for an end to the practice. He came out, instead, for a “moratorium” on stoning. He’s stuck on that position. And his stance on Cordoba House was similarly meachy (and/or takfiri). Ramadan was against building it because he didn’t want to upset anyone. He’d’ve been better off taking the Fifth – though his little act of cowardice may offer the consolation of confirmation to Berman, who himself spoke up “for” the mosque in a New York Times blog posting.

Self-proclaimed Somalian “infidel” Ayaan Hirsi Ali serves as Berman’s antithesis to Ramadan in Flight. She added her voice to the late summer debate about Islam in America in a Los Angeles Times op-ed calling for a federal law prohibiting death threats against blasphemers. Jumping off from the example of Molly Norris (and looking back to the murder of Theo Van Gogh and her own forced exile from Holland), Ali, and her collaborator Daniel Huff, urged free speech advocates intent on resisting intimidation by Islamists to learn from pro-choicers who pushed Congress to outlaw violent threats against abortion-providers back in the 90s.

A federal law would do two things. First, it would deter violent tactics, by focusing national attention on the problem and invoking the formidable enforcement apparatus of the federal government. Second, its civil damages provision would empower victims of intimidation to act as private attorneys general to defend their rights.

Ali’s impulse to focus national attention on acts of Islamist intimidation implied an absence of leadership at the federal level. I wish Obama would fill this vacuum – God knows feds should come down harder on censorious killer muftis than on book-burning Christers – but I doubt he’ll be getting more fired up in defense of free speech for blasphemers any time soon.

There are reasons of state for Obama’s stance on this front. As commander in chief of a counter-insurgency in Afghanistan (and beyond), he means to make peace with orthodox Muslims as long as they’re not at the mercy of fanatics. Even proud “laptop general” Paul Berman understands intellectuals without portfolio will play a different role than military men and diplomats in the war against Islamist terror [2] Still, Obama’s reticence isn’t purely a matter of national security. If he were just another free thinker, his approach to modern Islam (and faith in general) would likely distance him from a figure like Hirsi Ali. Obama’s own intellectual/political growth has been founded on his respectful comprehension of the uses of religion. He had help on this front from his mother who was an anthropologist, though he had to come to Jesus all by himself. What he got on his own was the basic affirmation – the Yes to participation – that’s at the heart of religious ritual. The sociality of religion has informed Obama’s way of fusing the political and personal. His intellectual journey has taken him in the opposite direction from Hirsi Ali. The logic of her life story – from Infidel to Nomad – runs counter to Obama’s. She makes a case for enlightenment through deracination. Obama’s autobiography, Dreams from My Father, testifies to a human need for roots.

The cool sense of self-command that’s long distinguished Obama comes in part from his very American history of having made himself up. But his charisma also flows out of his choice to identify with a tradition much larger than himself – the Time-on-the-Cross experience of African Americans. His groundings with Brothers and Sisters enable him to bring universal humanism down to earth. His touch of soul was apparent at the end of his September 10th news conference when he hung tight with American Muslims, distancing them from the “tiny minority of people who are engaging in horrific acts – and have killed Muslims more than anybody else.”

[W]e’ve got millions of Muslim-Americans, our fellow citizens, in this country. They’re going to school with our kids. They’re our neighbors. They’re our friends. They’re our coworkers. And, you know, when we start acting as if their religion is somehow offensive, what are we saying to them?

I’ve got Muslims who are fighting in Afghanistan, in the uniform of the United States armed services. They’re out there putting their lives on the line for us. And we’ve got to make sure that we are crystal clear for our sakes and their sakes: They are Americans. And we honor their service. And part of honoring their service is making sure that they understand that we don’t differentiate between “them” and “us.” It’s just “us.”

Obama’s equation of “just 'us'” with simple justice amounted to a message from the grassroots. It’s part of the folk culture of Afro-Americans to mock the unfairness of our country’s legal system: “We go down to there looking for justice and what do we find, just us.” Obama flipped that old bluesy truth – transforming race-based “local” history into a source of solidarity with a new group of American outsiders. His audacious aim? (As ever?) To perfect our union.

Afterword: Hanging Around the Ante-Inferno

Obama’s last word wasn’t enough for CNN’s David Gergen who offered an amazing...meh in his post-Conference sound-bite. Gergen allowed Obama “impresses everybody with his competence…the subtlety of his mind:”

At the same time, I thought it was mostly passionless and frankly, boring.

Gergen allowed the Conference “came alive” at the end, but his thumbs down still drew a rebuke from CNN’s African-American panelist Roland Martin:

Let me also address something that David said. David talked about - well, you know, the nuance and what he said - you know, and it was boring. Well, you know what? He's not an entertainer.

Martin went on to defend “the idea of talking about things in a substantive way,” rejecting once again the notion that a President “should be entertaining.” Martin was speaking for himself, but he was also talking back to Gergen on behalf of multitudes of African Americans who take pride in Obama’s evident seriousness. Gergen’s flustered, flailing response to the race man’s on-the-fly critique suggested (to me) he’d been shamed. After all, his role on CNN is to serve as non-partisan judge of judges. He plays it well because it fits his own sense of himself as a smooth but honorable operator with a first-rate temperament and a history of service to his country. Yet here he was in the dock, on trial for trifling. The twinning of Martin’s and Obama’s black acts of judgment must have seemed a nightmare scenario to him – as if he was being mau-mau-ed by mo bettah patriots who made him feel mighty irreal (and mighty white).

Gergen is usually a human coolant so his (for him) hair-on-fire response to Martin’s plaint suggests he may have…entertained the possibility viewers might think he belonged in the moral equivalent of Dante’s Ante-Inferno. That’s the spot just outside hell reserved for the uncommitted – those who refused to make conscious moral choices in their lives. Their punishment, which they must endure along with those “neutral” angels” who sided with neither God nor Satan in the war in Heaven, is to chase constantly after a blank banner.

That’s not Gergen’s hustle. He may be American’s preeminent pundit-in-the-middle, but his willful neutrality doesn’t necessarily add up to moral cowardice. And in the new age of objectionable journalism, there’s a patriotic argument for keeping your counsel above the fray (as long as you don’t talk out your…frivolousness). That blank banner though, reminds me of another self-centered, would-be patriot who’s been known to chase flags (and headlines). In the days after 9/11, Todd Gitlin bought an American flag and hung it from his New York City terrace. Given his past history as a 60s radical, the notion of him flying the flag was counterintuitive enough that the New York Times ran a story about it. Gitlin then wrote the (literal) book on his flag-waving, The Intellectuals and the Flag(2006).

“To tell the truth” – Gitlin wrote in his suspect first sentence – “9/11 jammed my mental circuits and I spent much of the ensuing year trying to get them unjammed, first of all, and, second, trying to make sense of both the jolts and the jamming and to learn from them.” There wasn’t time enough apparently to work on his writing. Not that there would’ve been any way to disguise the thinness of the jam (or the jolts?) he was spreading. Gitlin claimed to have resisted emotional and intellectual “closure:” “I did not shy from bewilderment, from unprecedented feelings and thoughts, whole shelves stocked with cans of worms.” There was, he asserted, no precedent for him putting up the flag. (Smart marketing I suppose, but in fact he’d written a book-long brief for liberal patriotism in the 90s.) The flag soon came down anyway. And, cans notwithstanding, Gitlin took a conventional left position against the Iraq war. To tell the (whole) truth, Gitlin wasn’t born to be bewildered. Despite some light Hamletizing in his 60s memoir, he couldn’t do wild and blue justice to the decade (in part because he was unmoved by pop sounds of surprise that seconded the 60s’ existential emotions). Back in that day and post-9/11, Giltin was no apocalypto. Which would have been a virtue if he hadn't been so close to being the eternal paleface - an A student for life secretly sure his soul was saved when he became valedictorian of Stuyvesant high school. (You can check in at the hotel Stuyvesant but – see Gitlin’s bio at his Columbia University home-page – you can never leave.)[3]

Compared to Americans on the Vichy left who passed on judging those responsible for the “tragedy” of 9/11, Gitlin’s patriotism still looks pretty heavenly. He was on the side of the victims and everyone hurting and care-giving in downtown New York at a time when many teachers (charged with helping students make up their minds) refused to choose. But what did his flag-waving signify uptown? (A fair question, I think, since he teaches at Columbia, which is on the edge of Harlem.) Sure, there were plenty of black citizens with unmixed patriotic emotions on 9/11. But there were many others who knew America didn’t stop living a lie on that day. Country First for them may not have been a no-brainer. Rather than wrapping himself up in the flag, Gitlin might have thought about making his banner more welcoming to those conflicted Americans tempted to count roosting chickens or fade into their own private Ante-Inferno. That wouldn’t have got him into the Times, but if might have been on point for someone who’s made a career out of being a man of the left. Who knows? Maybe he could’ve helped certain black folks come up with a good answer to James Baldwin’s question – “Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?”

Baldwin, though, isn’t Gitlin’s idea of a crucial public intellectual. The Intellectuals and the Flag bows down to David Riesman, C. Wright Mills, and Irving Howe. Different strokes? Fine. But didn’t Frederick Douglass belong in a book about patriotism and the American left? Maybe Gitlin thought Douglass’ great 4th of July oration (“What to a slave is the 4th of July?”) was entirely out of time. Then again, Obama’s famously patriotic 2004 Convention speech didn’t make the cut either. I guess Gitlin just had other priorities. He’s been over race in America since the 90s when he began arguing against “identity politics.”[4] His post-9/11 flag-waving (as I‘ve noted) followed on from his 1996 critique of multiculturalism, Twilight of Common Dreams.

In the wake of Obama’s rise, it’s hard not to cast a Frosty eye – “What to make of a diminished thing?” - on Gitlin’s various patriotic postures. Consensual liberals like him failed to see this country had to prove to Afro-Americans they were part of “us.” Now the 2008 election is history, our black president is undeniable (no matter what happens this November). As long as Obama’s in the White House, our national sense of justice will be rooted in Afro-American experience. Twilight? Baby, it’s six in the morning.


1 Fernandez’s posts display contempt for Filipinos who haven’t left their country of origin.

2 See Berman’s remarks in his response to a critic of Flight in Foreign Affairs especially the comment about his obligation as a intellectual to give “in full the reasons for my…opinion, as critics, unlike diplomats, should always do.” http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/66550/paul-berman-jeffrey-herf-and-marc-lynch/islamism-unveiled

3 Gitlin’s homepage: http://www.journalism.columbia.edu/cs/ContentServer/jrn/1165270069177/JRN_Profile_C/1165270081547/JRNFacultyDetail.htm

4 Gitlin’s turn on race may date to ethnic/racial conflicts around Ocean-Hill Brownsville. His parents and a sister became “militant” members of the New York City teachers’ union at that time. In Years of Hope, Days of Rage, Gitlin recalls slipping across the union’s picket-line to attend a Freedom School. As usual, he’s not much of a witness (or a prophet):

The moment moved me – it felt like a kind of liberation from the pettier aspects of High School – but it was another “movement high:” dramatic as personal experience, of limited use to politics...Delighted by my day with the liberators, I minimized the acrimony crackling on both sides.

There’s a hint, though, of passions missing from Gitlin’s Years and Days. “Aretha Franklin records,” he notes, “were playing for the blacks {!} in study hall.” It’s the only mention of Aretha in the book.

From October, 2010

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