Belmont Club

If I had a Hammer

Human beings are blessed — some would say cursed — with the ability to “get” things on several levels. The story of Ground Zero mosque is a perfect example. Building a mosque or any religious building is at one level an exercise in religious freedom. Building it 2 blocks from the WTC, naming it Cordoba House and setting the groundbreaking for September 11 is an exercise in symbology at another level. It’s a pretty old game and most of us know it.

In totalitarian countries Christians often use the Gospel’s exhortation to succor the poor and free the imprisoned as as a proxy method to criticize whichever General El Caudillo is in power. In Iran people used the memorials to a popular cleric to express their displeasure at the Ayaollah. To use another example closer to home Pete Seeger wrote “If I Had a Hammer” to support the ‘progressive’ movement. Anyone who thinks the the song is about bells, danger or hammers is missing the point. Most everyone who heard the lyrics ‘got it’. In the case of the Ground Zero mosque, one line of argument is that it is all about simple piety and innocent worship or even about a Green YMCA. But polls suggest that about 70% of the public ‘get it’.

The nice thing about parabolic speech is that its meta-meaning is deniable. You can shelter behind its literal words and that is precisely why it is so effective as a means of indirect discourse. The important thing to remember about allegorical discourse is that the arguments are transferred elsewhere.

In dictatorial countries neither the security services nor the protesters mount the stage to debate the meaning of hammers, danger or bells. They chase each other through alleys and shoot each in the dark. In this case of the Ground Zero mosque the argument will soon shift away from the discourse of the scolds to union obstructionism of construction and the November 2010 polls.

What President Obama achieved in endorsing the mosque’s construction is to change what it is all about. Prior to his endorsement the mosque controversy might have been about religion or the culture wars. It might even have been about the War on Terror. What the President’s words have done — apart from making it all about him — is transform it into a referendum on whether a country can long rely on a elite that doesn’t even remotely “get it” the way they do.

If I’ve had a ballot
And I had a box
And I had just one thing to pull so you’d understand
I’d remember the burnings; I’d remember the blastings
I’d remember the tears among my brothers and my sisters
All over this land.

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