Monday, August 02, 2010

Liberal Masochism

A recent rallying cry on the Tea Party Right is opposition to building a "Ground Zero mosque" near where the World Trade Center stood. The mosque will be part of "Cordoba House", an Islamic cultural center intended by its developers to improve relations between Muslims and the West. The crusade to shut it down is nasty and dumb on a number of levels -- Islam is not radical, political Islam; and how can (or dare) we fetter the free expression of religion on American soil? -- but the opposition does rest on resonant emotional logic.

Think of the extreme distastefulness of erecting a German cultural center near Auschwitz as a gesture of German-Jewish reconciliation. Before you get your Godwin up, it's not such an outlandish hypothetical. There are ethnic Germans in Poland, especially in the southern region containing Oświęcim; Poland is a secular republic that allows free expression; and few people other than Daniel Jonah Goldhagen believe German culture is synonymous with Nazism. But regardless of intentions, it would yield questionable benefit while constituting an extravagant offense to the victims of Nazism.

Some argue back that Al Qaeda doesn't represent a nation state. I think this comes from a conceptual bias in which it feels OK to hold the Germans of the time collectively responsible for Nazism, but thinking of Muslims and radical Islam in the same way feels "racist". This double standard is partly a product of the passage of time and the leftish lens through which educated people view these phenomena. But it's misguided. Al Qaeda and like groups embody a religious political movement that enjoys hard and soft support not just in the Muslim world, but throughout the "Global South" and in apologetic precincts at home. And although it was a more localized phenomenon, Nazism was admired and emulated outside the boundaries of Germany.

You might reply that there aren't 1 billion Germans with whom reconciliation must urgently be sought. Fine, let's put aside the dubious utility of consecrating a mosque near Ground Zero to mollify Muslims. When Israel eventually relinquishes the West Bank, should Peace Now insist on setting up a Jewish community center by the Cave of the Patriarchs, where the messianic Jewish terrorist Baruch Goldstein gunned down 29 Muslim worshipers? There is a dire need for reconciliation between Jews and Muslims and Israelis and Arabs, and a JCC may serve as a resonant symbol demarcating Jewishness and Kahanism.

Or maybe it would be better to let the victims rest in peace. But Spencer Ackerman warns, "To not build the Ground Zero Mosque will be to play into Usama bin Laden’s hands." He is seconded by others, such as Jon Chait, Joe Klein, Adam Serwer and Robert Wright, who view Cordoba House as a quintessentially American answer to radical Islam. Maintaining a scrupulous distinction between Islam and the latter is morally and strategically key, and a thinking person's intellectual ECG is measured on reflexive opposition to anything endorsed by Sarah Palin. But also this is liberal masochism, a progressive impulse that heat-sinks toward the most self-flagellating remedy, identifying it as the primary or sole solution, a crucial expression of our values when they are fundamentally challenged.

An adjacent phenomenon is found in the arc that liberal discourse on democratization has traced in the last decade. What began as hostility to the neocon enterprise of exporting democracy was transformed by Hamas' 2006 sweep of the Gaza legislature into a "be careful what you wish for" object lesson followed by counsel about the need to diplomatically engage our worst enemies. A lot of this was good faith commentary, but for a few it became a masochistic spectacle, moving beyond repudiation of Bush into theatrical renunciation of American exceptionalism. This was complemented by a fringe defending Hamas' victory as an expression of democracy per se.*

Just as there are obvious alternatives to engaging Hamas -- discouraging Israel from recapitulating our Cuba mistake, and strengthening Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian National Authority by dismantling settlements -- there are many approaches to conciliation more appealing than Cordoba House. Ground Zero is sacrosanct, and liberals, more than anyone, should be alive to the war narrative. There is no political culture more grossly insulted by radical Islam than liberal democracy. But liberals offer up this creamy nonsense in which decorating lower Manhattan with a mosque is cast as an assertion of American values. Our values need not be ratified by meretricious self-effacement. We can assert them without tithing our integrity. We can win without losing ourselves.


* Readers of this blog are well aware that Glenn Greenwald is not a liberal -- he's a Paulite non-interventionist dressed up as a Left Democrat. However, most people, including too many able liberal commentators, mistake him for one, or a kindred spirit.

If the time URL to the YouTube video of Greenwald's grisly performance doesn't jump to the relevant part, it begins at 2:41.

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