There are deeper ideological tensions than most people realize in this so-called debate over the so-called Ground Zero Mosque. Thankfully, the mosque and community center have cleared the key hurdles that might have been imposed by New York City, despite the chagrin and charades that have surrounded its inception. The “controversy,” like so much manufactured angst these days, began with Republican pundits and political opportunists decrying an act of liberalism or multiculturalism as disrespectful to their own sensibilities that deserve “protection” where the exercise of others’ rights do not.
‘The World Trade Center is the largest loss of American life on our soil since the Civil War,’ [Newt] Gingrich said. ‘And we have not rebuilt it, which drives people crazy. And in that setting, we are told, why don’t we have a 13-story mosque and community center?’
He added: ‘The average American just thinks this is a political statement. It’s not about religion, and is clearly an aggressive act that is offensive.’
What’s worse is that the Anti-Defamation League also famously opposed the construction of the mosque, citing the insensitivity of such a blatant attempt of inclusion of a group that makes its members uncomfortable.
Proponents of the Islamic Center may have every right to build at this site, and may even have chosen the site to send a positive message about Islam. The bigotry some have expressed in attacking them is unfair, and wrong. But ultimately this is not a question of rights, but a question of what is right. In our judgment, building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain – unnecessarily – and that is not right.
How quickly the lessons of history are forgotten! I hate to even approach invoking Goddard’s law, but in the specifically historically ironic case of the ADL, the rise of Jews in Nazi Germany made plenty of people uncomfortable, but if one’s absolute right to make others uncomfortable is not respected, the consequences become literal atrocities. Never forget, indeed.
Clearly, for these opponents, individual rights should give way to the unchecked sensitivities of their constituencies. These opponents ironically have no qualms about trying to exercise what they characterize as a majoritarian veto over the rights of minorities, despite the fact that this betrays the historically American value of protecting rights period. Even more ironic is that in reality, these ideologues are likely a small fraction of the population in the face of an atomized, unorganized, and disinterested majority of the population that has little to gain in fighting this political fight. That which is uncontroversially correct and not worthy of debate is just that; the problem is that the defense of the uncontroversially correct is rarely more fervent than tepid. Conversely, those who support the values of ignorance frequently have a lot to gain–either politically or personally–by pushing debates that are factually ludicrous. Take, for example, the fact that an increasing number–now 41%–of Republicans believe that Obama was not born in America. The incentives to repudiate this lunacy simply don’t drive Democratic political agendas in the same way that it can solidify a Republican base. This political dynamic presents a core problem of liberalism that results in the more easily understood symptom that liberals have frequently lacked spine since 1994.
At its roots, this problem is a conundrum because it amounts to excessive toleration of intolerance. Liberals rightly assume that as individuals they do not have all the answers to all of life’s questions. As such, they think it preferable to allow individuals the freedom to make their own decisions and live their own lives as experiments, in the grand tradition dating back to the Founding Fathers, who had come to America for that very reason, regardless of whether one takes the view that their experiments were religious, political, philosophical or scientific in nature. Of course, the Founders also knew firsthand that liberals had to vigorously defend these freedoms in the face of any form of encroachment. To paraphrase Ben Franklin, “those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither,” regardless of whether that security is military, political, or cultural in nature. However, liberals have grown too accustomed to tolerating as simply “diverse” those viewpoints that work to undermine the ecosystem that allows such diversity to flourish. Such toleration is self-defeating and hypocritical in terms of consequences if not methodology.
Liberalism need not be so neutered. One recent success of this kind of liberalism was Judge Walker’s vigorous ruling that California’s bigoted Proposition 8 was plainly unconstitutional. Aside from appealing to core liberal values of tolerance and acceptance of others’ choices, the opinion did not shy away from actually decrying the bill as intolerant, invidious, and inconsistent with our constitutional values. Liberals, despite their proclivity to live-and-let-live simply cannot tolerate intolerance if they seek to protect the environment of toleration for all of the political community’s members.
Republicans, at bottom, appear to prefer a regime based not on the protection of rights, but instead based on pandering to the lowest common denominator. With America’s bedrock of intolerance reaching down to ever-increasingly unplumbed depths of depravity, liberals need to create the platforms and floors beyond which we shall not allow ourselves to descend.