Friday, September 10, 2010

Avoiding A Future Harvest of Hate

Another seemingly reasonable objection to the Park 51 Community Center in Lower Manhattan comes along.  Roger Cohen's Op-Ed comes down to this: the community center is simply not sensible in the face of so much anger.

His caricature of this anger in the U.S. does begin with 9-11, but includes the longer-term context of 9 years of foreign wars and a more recent economic slump.  His psychoanalysis of America takes up most of his piece:

"The Sept. 11 attacks ... shattered America’s self-image."

"Two wars ... deepened the trauma."

Discussing similar anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe he notes: "The self-image of a Christian continent persists, drawing lines between insider and outsider."

But who exactly is Mr. Cohen psychoanalyzing?  Do Jews, Hindus, Muslims and atheists in Europe really cling to an image of Europe as a "Christian continent"?  Did African Americans, Japanese Americans, queer Americans, farmworkers, reproductive health practitioners, and other Americans really hold the belief that the U.S. was a "continent-sized sanctuary, flanked by the shining waters of two oceans" until 9-11?  Pearl Harbor and the Oklahoma City bombing were blips apparently.

It seems he, like a gentle yet firm scout master, is explaining to Muslims that they best not camp here, lest they attract the pack of wolves.  Lay low, maybe even camouflage your faith, until the pack moves on.

Cloaked in compassion, his Op-Ed dissects the opposition, generalizes its sentiment to bitter Americans, and raises the specter of the holocaust: "Less than a decade separated the Nazi book burning of 1933 from the crematoria of the Final Solution."

But Mr. Cohen is presumably not Muslim (not even American despite the certainty he uses to describe the American experience and sentiment since 9-11), yet he has chosen to use his column in one of the most widely-read publications to lecture Muslims and specifically those who want to build a community center in Lower Manhattan.  My question to him is: "Where do you stand?"

Of course he is correct to note how easily such reactionary scapegoating can turn into a widespread movement with deadly consequences, but he is wrong to place the only obligations on the targets of that scapegoating and to counsel that their obligation is to give into the wrong-headed bigotry demanding that they move.

Where does he stand on the the scapegoating itself?  He doesn't say.  It would be a much better use of column inches were he to denounce it.  After all, when Nazis were burning books, the answer was not for Jews to hide and give in, it was for people everywhere, of all faiths and every ethnicity, to stand up to the bigotry before it really gets out of hand.  It is particularly important for people in positions of power, like say anyone who has a national audience in a major newspaper, to speak out.

"Good sense is needed when a harvest of anger is in," he writes.  True enough, but giving in to hate does not make good sense, particularly when what we're seeing is less a harvest, and more an attempt to plant seeds.