WITH regard to a certain conflict over religious-freedom issues that shouldn't even be controversial, Ezra Klein writes:
Could I imagine a world in which this thing was happening but no one ever thought to comment on it? Well, yes. I can't imagine that world for unemployment, or financial-regulation reform, or the Afghanistan Wikileaks. But it absolutely could've been the case that Imam Feisel Abdul Rauf decided to build an Islamic community center and no one really noticed, or cared, and maybe a few local politicians from both parties showed up to help cut the ribbon. As it happened, a few opportunists went after it, which brought it to the attention of a few sensationalistic media outlets, and then some opportunistic politicians jumped on board, and then their colleagues felt compelled to comment, and then more legitimate media outlets had something to cover, and on and on... This didn't need to become a polarizing national issue. It was made into a polarizing national issue. And now the only thing to do is to wait for it to pass.
Is there really nothing to be done but let this sort of thing pass? Maybe. But it's depressing, not just because of the way these memes degrade political discourse but because they tend to make actual, important projects in demagogue-prone fields untouchable. This silly controversy may end up sabotaging the ability of Cordoba House to serve as a centre of interfaith dialogue between Islam and other American faiths, which is a really important project. And it's a national version of the earlier, New York-centric controversy over the Khalil Gibran International Academy in Brooklyn, which provoked the fury of the professionally infuriated by having the temerity to teach Arabic as a mandatory language. (Other New York City public schools teach mandatory Spanish, French or Mandarin.) That pointless firestorm ended with the resignation of a widely admired principal, Debbie Almontaser, who was known for building ties to the Jewish and Christian communities.* The effect of this nonsense, ultimately, is to discourage people from trying to educate Americans about Arabic language and civilisation, or from setting up interfaith dialogues between Islam and other American religions. Those ought to be near the top of anyone's list of worthy, non-controversial projects.
It's not just Islam-related projects that get hurt. USAID offices abroad shy away from organisations that work with prostitutes or drug addicts; some part of their programme might turn out to offer birth-control advice or clean needles, and the next thing you know some congressman accuses you of encouraging prostitution or drug addiction and you're out of a job. The Veterans Administration suddenly found itself under fire last fall for offering free end-of-life counseling to veterans. (Death panels!) And so on.
It seems like there ought to be some way to defend people and programmes that fall victim to demagogues, without simply amplifying the reach of demagogy. Maybe we could distract them by launching enormous numbers of programmes that actually seem to embody every potential demagogue's worst fears. We could start an organisation dedicated to attracting man-eating sharks to America's beaches, or one that promotes kidnapping young blonde women. Perhaps a club dedicated to spitting at children. In such a target-rich environment, maybe demagogues would have difficulty deciding what to aim at. I don't know. Ideas?
* Opponents, who formed a pressure group called "Stop the Madrassa", tied her to an independent Muslim women's organisation that had put out a T-shirt reading "Intifada NYC". In fact she was simply on the board of an organisation that had rented office space to that group. The city government pressured her to do an interview with the conservativeNew York Post
to defend herself, and thePost
trumpeted comments she made during the interview playing down the significance of the T-shirts. The city government then asked for her resignation. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commissionfound
the city had "succumbed to the very bias that creation of the school was intended to dispel and a small segment of the public succeeded in imposing its prejudices on D.O.E. as an employer." Ms Almontaser ultimatelydecided not to sue the city.