Wednesday, August 11, 2010

More Thoughts on the Ground Zero Mosque

I have been pondering this culture war situation and I have come to a conclusion about why it has become such a cause celebre among the left. Of course, many conservatives see the left's embracing of the cause as a sign of America-hating Islamophilia and a blatant middle-finger to the families of the victims of 9-11. But I see the left's attention to this issue as springing out of a reaction to the rightwing's clear cognitive dissonance here. Speaking for myself (and perhaps other lefties will share my view), I find myself a bit taken aback by the many clear "exceptions" to conservative orthodoxy that so many prominent rightwingers are espousing in their opposition to the whole project.

First, there is the question of private property rights and the role of any state authority to regulate the use of private property. Here we have a case where the rightwing is demanding some kind of coercion on the part of some civil authority to put roadblocks in the way of private property rights and the freedom of individuals to use their private property as they see fit. This seems to fly in the face of two cherished principles often brandished by the rightwing: (1) the right of individual property owners to do what they want with their own property, and (2) an opposition to the heavy hand of the state in manipulating how private property is managed.

Second, there is the question of freedom based on reason as opposed to coercion based on feeling. I can't count the number of times I have heard conservatives complain about how liberals are guided by emotion and pursue policy based on feelings and the need to be "sensitive" to the feelings of any particular interest group. And this critique of liberals is always contrasted with the idea that conservatives are the opposite: they look at things rationally and let foundational principles guide their decisions as opposed to letting emotion and feelings get in the way. And yet, with the Ground Zero Mosque, we have conservatives playing a kind of politically correct "be sensitive to the victims' feelings" game that would seem to trump any contract and decisions made by individual property owners in terms of what they get to do with their own property. So, the only logical conclusion to draw here is that, on some issues that elicit gut emotional reactions from conservatives, feelings and emotions should serve as the prime motivation for public policy, even to the extent of constraining private property rights.

Third, there is the whole conservative ideal of decentralizing decision-making and authority such that local decision-making should be privileged over federal or national movements. The whole "states rights" mantra that conservatives advance with vigor is rooted in this notion. And yet, when it comes to the actual local community's decision-making authority to determine the suitability and appropriateness of the Ground Zero mosque, many conservatives seem to be abandoning this notion in the hopes of rallying a national force that can cooerce the local community to behave against its will and against its better judgment.

For these three reasons, among some others, I think liberals look at the conservative reaction to the Ground Zero mosque -- and they look at the stridency and militancy and anger in this reaction -- and are simply aghast that so much of conservatism's supposed foundational principles are being ignored. And the fact that this abandonment of foundational principles by conservatives is connected exclusively at what amounts to an anti-Islamic movement, in spite of the fact that Muslims were also victims in the 9-11 attacks and are also members of the American population, leads liberals to think that it's nothing but bald-faced religious (and perhaps ethnic) bigotry at the expense of fundamental freedoms at work in this controversy, and a bigotry that is being stoked and demagogued by many of the so-called leading voices of American conservatism.

It is a moment where the worst stereotypes of conservative bigotry are being revealed as bearing some truth, and where conservative claims of a rock-ribbed, unwavering adherence to particular principles of freedom, private property, and small, unobtrusive government are being revealed as phony.

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