About a week later, my grandmother, who has a habit of forwarding various bits of mostly harmless silliness to the entire extended family, e-mailed a link to that note along with a warning that we not "be fooled and sucked in" by the apologists for thinly veiled Islamic jihad.
Ordinarily, I let my grandmother's more nonsensical e-mails slide right on by, but Newt gets under my skin on a good day, and this note was hardly Newt on a good day. I responded to the e-mail, at about four in the morning, by adding my commentary to Newt's note. I won't bore you with the whole thing, but a couple of points are worth repeating here.
Newt: The proposed "Cordoba House" overlooking the World Trade Center site – where a group of jihadists killed over 3000 Americans and destroyed one of our most famous landmarks – is a test of the timidity, passivity and historic ignorance of American elites....
Me: The proposed building is 13-15 stories tall. When One World Trade Center, or Freedom Tower, is complete, it will stand 1,776 feet above street level—the top floor reaching the same height as the top floor on the former WTC buildings, with an additional 400 feet of spires and parapet. EVEN TODAY, the incomplete Freedom Tower is already 26 stories tall, twice as tall as the proposed height of Cordoba House. "Overlooking" is an interesting word to choose for a building that will stand 10% as tall as the building to which it is being compared.
Newt: Today, some of the Mosque's backers insist this term is being used to "symbolize interfaith cooperation" when, in fact, every Islamist in the world recognizes Cordoba as a symbol of Islamic conquest. It is a sign of their contempt for Americans and their confidence in our historic ignorance that they would deliberately insult us this way.
Me: Imagine this is actually true. [And by the way, it's not. Also, they've since changed the name from 'Cordoba House' to 'Park51' to tone down the reference.] Who cares? Georgia is named for King George II of England, and he was an asshole that we ended up overthrowing, and somehow we didn't find it necessary to change the name of our state because of how insulting it was to live in a state named after a tyrant. You know why? Because we weren't, and hopefully aren't, a bunch of petulant 6-year-olds. And while I'm no apologist for any religion, ever, but for what it's worth, the Caliphate of Cordoba wasn't all bad. The philosophy and literature of the ancient Greeks were preserved through Arabic translation during this time, and helped introduce Europe to a good deal of the ancients' work. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church of the time is a touch notorious for attempting to keep the work of the ancient Greeks out of the public sphere of knowledge—though it's also worth noting that the Muslims tended to avoid translating the more overtly political texts of the Greeks, as they didn't quite jive with what Islam was all about, so that's a bummer. Oh, and they introduced the region to toothpaste, and deodorant, according to Wikipedia.
Newt: Finally where is the money coming from? The people behind the Cordoba House refuse to reveal all their funding sources.
Me: The first time you see a "Newt for Prez 2012" sign, I want you to ask, does Newt agree 100% with the feelings of every individual who donated to his campaign?
Newt: America is experiencing an Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization.
Me: Again, assume this nonsense is actually true. Imagine that the people behind the center really are the jihadist-boogeyman-under-the-bed (or is it in the closet?) that Newt makes them out to be. Do we best combat this "Islamist cultural-political offensive" by playing into their stupid, willful ignorance and sink to their level, where we fight them on their own hateful terms? Can we win by displaying the same level of fear and intolerance that we claim to be railing against? Or do we stand a better chance of winning by standing upon the same moral high-ground that made us the greatest experiment in individual liberty in the history of the world? A giant Muslim YMCA that doesn't even really qualify as a mosque, built two and a half blocks and around the corner from the World Trade Center, is a testament not to what makes this country terrible, but what makes this country great. It says, we are bigger than your hatred, we are bigger than your ignorance, we are bigger than your religion. It sends a message to the world that our foundational values mean more to us than anything, even 3000 lives, even "famous landmarks."
Newt: Sadly, too many of our elites are the willing apologists for those who would destroy them if they could.
Me: It is Newt, and this line of thinking, that would destroy that which is most important and fundamental about this country. Let them build their mosque. We will be stronger for it.
The best part about Newt's bit of hysteria is his central, grade-schoolish point – "There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia." – or, put classically, "Nyah, nyah, wah, wah, nyah, nyah, nyah. Also, thhhbbbthhpbbth."
Newt Gingrich would like to see the United States lower itself into a moronic quid pro quo with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a theocratic monarchy where it is illegal to practice any religion besides Islam, gender equality is regarded as a quirky Western oxymoron, and a government ministry determines what is acceptable for Saudis to publish and view on the internet. Newt, a man never shy about his Christianity who has gone so far as to convert to Catholicism, evidently missed the part of the New Testament where Jesus shunned the old brutality of eye-for-an-eye in favor of a morality exhibited not by demanding that those with whom you disagree capitulate to the way you see the world or else face your wrath, but a morality revealed to, and compelled in, others by example and leadership.
But Newt is a political hack with delusions of ascendancy to the White House—I expect him to say these sorts of things, just as I expect the vast majority of the politically aware public to dismiss him out of hand. Shows what I know.
I assumed that this insipid nonsense, an emotional appeal to feelings of fear and sadness and entirely devoid of logic, reason, and even an actual argument, would simply go away. Instead, it turned into the most important thing in the history of the world, this summer. I have spent a goodish amount of time over the last few days trying to remember a "controversy" just plain dumber than this one. I have been unable to think of one.
This mosque controversy stands out because there is absolutely no legal, or even logical, argument being made by the opponents of the center as to why it shouldn't be built. The anti-mosque drive is based entirely on emotion, on feelings—on ethereal notions of what feels right, and what feels wrong. It's like President Obama's 2008 campaign for the White House, but for Palinistas. Stephen Colbert couldn't have scripted it any better.
There's a good reason that the arguments against the proposed Islamic Community Center have been entirely emotion-based: there is not a shred of legal rationale available to oppose its construction. If you believe otherwise, you are wrong. Park51's opponents largely acknowledge this fact. The only legal questions at issue are those of the local zoning ordinances variety, which have been sorted out by the local officials in New York City responsible for such things.
Putting aside the pundits and the politicians, about whom it must be assumed only ever do or say anything just for the sake of their own ratings, publicity, or page-views, is there something to be done for the 60% of the American public who are against the building of the fallaciously named Ground Zero Mosque? Probably not.
The fact that this is a nonacademic discussion makes engaging people who are opposed to building the mosque pointless. How do you convince a person that what he feels is wrong, that his visceral reaction to a set of circumstances is just incorrect? Nor would I want it to be that easy—if someone else's mind is so easily changed, what does that say about my own convictions and core beliefs? There is, however, something to be said for pointing those who seem to be blinded by emotion in the general direction of the light of reason.
People will be offended by anything, for any reason, at any time. As has been said many times before, and perhaps said most loudly by some of the very people decrying the "Ground Zero Mosque," no one has any right to not be offended. That we have no right to not be offended is one of the tenets of freedom of speech and expression, if not the very lynchpin of what it means to live in free society.
A woman without a headscarf. A woman in a headscarf. A person with red hair. A nativity scene in the public square. McDonald's. An animated Santa Claus pretending to be an animated prophet inside an animated bearsuit on an animated cable television program. A guy wearing the wrong school's colors. A guy wearing the wrong skin color. Any word or concept or situation or proposal in any conceivable context is going to offend someone, somewhere. Sometimes, things offend lots of people all at once.
It is not at all interesting that people are offended. It happens every second of every day on every corner of the planet. If you are offended by this proposed building, it proves only that you have the ability to have an unthinking, emotional reaction to something that some politician or pundit somewhere desperately wants you to have an unthinking, emotional reaction to. It is manipulation at its most base, and "discourse" at the absolute lowest common denominator.
Not to go too big picture here, but for me, anyway, the fun part about being a human individual is the ability to transcend my base instincts. I have immediate, emotional reactions to things all the time--so do my cats. My emotional reaction to a proposal to build any house of worship--be it a church or a mosque or a temple or a spaceship riding the wake of a comet--is one of immediate opposition. I am, as Christopher Hitchens would say, an antitheist, and rather relieved that no evidence exists to support the idea that some god somewhere actually exists, especially given how monstrously conceived said god might be, according to the various monotheisms.
That said, being a person capable of rational thought and empathy and not a complete narcissist or totalitarian, I can move past my feelings and logically conclude that if someone wants to build a house of worship for themselves and their like-minded fellows to hang out in, I'm in no position to be offended by it, and have no standing whatsoever to deny them the right to do as they see fit.
If anyone has made it this far, I'll close by posing the following worst case scenario:
Instead of just a couple of retarded Somali Muslim pirates getting it into their little heads that a sort-of-mosque sort-of-in-the-neighborhood of the World Trade Center symbolizes Islam's total global victory, it turns out every single Islamic jihadist on the planet believes Park51 to be a symbol of the coming submission of America to the will of Allah. There are high-fives and AK-47's fired into the air and much rejoicing.
Have we so little regard for ourselves and our principles that the delusions of psychopaths make us pink in the face with rage, that we walk around slapped and embarrassed and feeling the self-defeating impotence of "being offended"? We have the rule of law! We have the Constitution! We have a system based on the principle that people should be allowed to think, believe, and speak as the see fit! Our free society is designed to abide the delusions of disturbed human beings because liberty posits that people will behave irrationally, and allows for it. It is a tyrannical impulse that drives this controversy, an emotional impulse that must be overcome in the name of human freedom. We must be that shining beacon in the night that our founding ideals have always demanded of us, but our baser impulses and emotions have seemingly always prevented us from actually achieving.
Don't let Barack Obama's waffling, or Nancy Pelosi's baiting, or Sean Hannity's self-righteousness, confuse the fact that they're pandering to the lowest common denominator, attempting to tease out and manipulate emotions that don't even belong in the conversation. The three of them, and all the rest of the politicians and the pundits, are betting that most of us cannot escape the morass of our basest instincts. Yes, you can.