Assigned the task of silencing debate on the Park51 project, the press and the center-left punditry have decided to haul out the overused tar-brush of racism, by which they mean to depict 65 percent of all Americans—Americans who’ve lived quite peaceably with our Muslim population, with no mass lashing-out against women of cover, no desecration of mosques, no random acts of violence in the years following the attacks of 9/11—as “bigots,” “xenophobes,” and “Islamophobes.”
This resorting to a knee-jerk superiority of sensibilities is itself a display of neurotic insecurity, but more importantly, it is the destructive and reckless swinging of an axe into the psyche of a fevered nation which desperately needs the attendance of a delicate physician, and a bit of rest, or her breakdown will become unsurvivable.
Resistance to a proposed Islamic cultural center and mosque two blocks from Ground Zero is not about bigotry or xenophobia; the demonstrated tolerance of Americans during the last nine years belies those unhelpful charges. Rather, the rancor is an amalgam; it is constructed of built-up feelings of anger, powerlessness, indignation and—most potently—disillusioned self-awareness and resentment against ham-handed, disdainful leadership.
Anger alone would be manageable. In our therapeutic culture we know that before a psych patient can get well, he needs to touch a needle to the crux of what is eating at him, like an interior boil-lancing, and sometimes it takes a lot of roundabout discourse and venting to locate it. Until the thing is touched upon, though, there is no chance of healing, just a general sense of disease, failure, and hurt.
We could find it, lance it, and start healing. But America is being told—by the very people who have spent decades promoting the primacy of “feelings,” over thought, and who have declared that “a feeling is neither right or wrong”—to shut up, to not express its feelings, to not even have feelings, because those feelings are bad, stupid ones that are very, very wrong.
No wonder Americans are frustrated. They’re being eaten alive by “feelings” they don’t completely understand, yet they may not explore them. They know that the Cordoba Group has a right to put their mosque where they like—they don’t dispute it—but they are afraid.
They are not afraid of the mosque or its members; they’re afraid of what the mosque will communicate—to the world and to themselves—as it rises so near the sterile ground where once stood two towers. They intuit that such a structure will signal a defeat more thorough than any found on a battlefield because it will suggest a defeat of the will, of priorities, ingenuity, of energy, and most importantly of identity.
Americans, divided, devolved, and distanced from their formerly unifying ideals, no longer know who they are. They want to believe they are still the can-do nation, but that hole suggests they can-not; it suggests that stultifying bureaucratic process has overtaken progress, that complacency has supplanted creativity. And those suggestions are shaking Americans to their core; they wonder who they have become, yet dread the answer.
Two weeks ago in this space I wrote about love, loss and the way mental illness challenges a marriage. A reader asked me if my description of heroic forbearance for the sake of a marriage vow could not also be applied to this controversy, i.e, shouldn’t a people so dedicated to religious freedom be capable of enduring a symbolic notion of defeat, for the sake of their commitment to liberty?
The difference in the two equations is trust. Surrendering ones circumstance to a loving, trust-worthy God in challenging times is quite different from being nagged into acquiescence by people who you no longer believe even like you, or have your best interests at heart. President Obama, Nancy Pelosi and the press are no longer credible enough to convince the angry 65 percent of the country that Park51 could ultimately mean something good for America.
It didn’t have to be this way. Mature leadership, like good parenting, could have assuaged the trembling national doubt that has overtaken us. And mature leadership is what we lack.
Mature leadership on this issue would have said, “I hear you; I am one of you, and your feelings are not stupid, or bigoted or without merit; they are human and understandable and we are not wrong to feel confused or hurt over this; we are not wrong to feel defeated when we look at that empty hole, in whose sadness we all have a share, and worry that it may be forever an aching void we cannot fill.”
Mature leadership would have continued: “But we cannot allow those feelings to lead us into forgetting who we are: the nation so exceptionally tolerant that every religion, every belief system seeks to build here, to worship in the freedom that is so singularly American; the nation that is still indispensable to the cause of liberty. We love liberty; we live in liberty; we die for liberty, and even when we are suffering and hurt, we promote liberty, outside our borders, and within.
“Americans may be reeling over many things, but we know that nothing can better demonstrate a victory over tyranny as a liberty that does not bend to feelings and sentiment; nothing can so eloquently celebrate that liberty as our consent to build a church, or a synagogue, or a mosque, where we’d rather not. Doing so says something great about America; it says, ‘we may quibble about many things, but we do not quibble about liberty.’”
That sort of speech would have not only challenged America to rise toward her better angels, it would have the added benefit of being right—and victorious—in the paradoxical way of the truly transcendent.
Sadly, no one made such a speech. The president offered a robotic, “yes, it’s hallowed ground but” and then lectured us about rights. The Speaker of the House squawked that opposition to Park51 should be investigated. The Mayor of New York tried use shame as argument.
Various mediafolk fell into predictable parrot-mode, decrying the “intolerance” and “stupidity” of the “ineducable” non-elite yahoos who make up too much of the country for their liking. When the yahoos balked, the press—realizing that the people no longer trust the messengers—cried out for former President Bush to weigh in, hoping he would voice the empathetic words Obama could not.
But Bush won’t opine; he has stated many times that it’s the job of a past-president to shut up and stay out of the way. And frankly, if at this moment Bush did speak up, he would only make things worse, because people have become too angry to hear anything conciliatory. The far-right, sensing America’s diminishment, has become like a pilot light in search of a flame, and the far-left, anxious for a post-American reality, aches to strike the match.
If we have not yet passed the moment in which a delicate physician can successfully treat America’s virulent madness, and bring her some rest, it is a very near thing.
Elizabeth Scalia is a contributing writer for First Things. She blogs at The Anchoress.