Work and Days

America — Behind the Mosque

Blah, blah, blah

We’ve had nearly a month now of fruitless acrimony over the Ground Zero mosque.

About everything that can be said has been said. Little-read Newsweek and Time have published a near dozen “I accuse” essays about America’s supposedly yokel intolerance — as if we did not get their message at about screed two.

The past inflammatory statements and hypocrisies of the Janus Mr. Rauf have been widely aired, and juxtaposed with his occasional Aspen-like ecumenical “I feel your pain” outreach. We have learned that to emphasize the former is considered bigoted calumny, but to cite the latter is called context.

Rauf, from 1-4

In varying degrees, all four possible motivations of Mr. Rauf have also been widely dissected. For a brief moment let’s review them.

1) Rauf is a sincere ecumenicalist, who simply wants to turn the “tragedy” of 9/11 into a teachable moment of interfaith bridge-building: the mosque, in other words, will be a beacon of America’s tolerance;

2) Rauf is part crass P.T. Barnum, part new-age Deepak Chopra con artist whose therapeutic mish-mash and narcissistic efforts to build a $100 million-complex will result in a lot of lucre and influence for himself: the multistoried and multimillion-dollar mosque then will be quite a nice headquarters for Rauf, Inc.;

3) Rauf is a simple naïf who sort of bungled into a controversy, fled the country, and has no idea of the firestorm he inadvertently lit and so when or how or if to come back: the mosque will not be built as he retreats back to a less foolhardy, less ostentatious project;

4) Rauf is a wily, cynical divisive figure who knows darn well that, on his Islamic flank, radical Islamists will use his mosque for triumphalist propaganda value, while, on his liberal flank, the clueless multicultural left will see it as a way of contextualizing America’s role in the world — as all the while he emphasizes a supposed litany of America’s overseas transgressions; if the mosque is built, it surely by intent will be a much discussed, perennially controversial center aimed at offering context to often polarizing Islamic ideas about everything from Iran, Hamas, and bin Laden, to Sharia and the role of religion and state — a project as praised by the left in the U.S. as it is employed as a banner logo on radical Islamist Internet sites in the Middle East.

The Elite Take

I could analyze all this a zillion ways, but let us try some economic reductionism, crude though it may be. A majority of those in the elite liberal culture (CBS, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the foundations, universities, Hollywood, and the usual suspects) seem to have opted for explanation 1, while a vast majority of Americans, even in liberal New York, seems to agree with 4. So the mosque is as much about ourselves as it is about the seemingly permanently absent Mr. Rauf.

This same divide plays out in varying degrees over the Arizona immigration bill, the gay marriage propositions in California, and even much of the Obama agenda itself.

I have no interest in trying to persuade the elite why or where they are wrong, or in hearing from them for the nth time why I am supposedly not only mistaken, but bigoted for thinking a huge Islamic complex juxtaposed to Ground Zero is in itself bad taste, but, under the leadership of Mr. Rauf — given his written and oral corpus of unhinged and crack-pot ideas — bad taste to such a degree that all legitimate rhetorical means should be employed to persuade concerned parties to move it.

A World Apart

Instead, I am curious about the material foundations that frame each side of the divide — not so much money per se, but the very nature of work. Here I ignore both those on the hard far left who do not like America at all for what it has been, and the hard far right who clearly do not like America for what it has become.

In between those poles, it seems to me that the loud voices of columnists, politicians like Mayor Bloomberg, the concerned in the universities and the arts, many on the public payroll, and the elite self-appointed minority spokespeople assume that the building of the mosque near Ground Zero says something about themselves as caring, tolerant, and liberal souls — the sort of progressive community that they wish the world to see and hear about.

To the extent that there is any danger in alienating millions of Americans, or causing grief to families of the murdered, or the possibility of insidiously lending support for revising the 9/11 “narrative,” or even galvanizing extremists abroad, these are all negligible risks or even fatuous concerns.

In the world of a Mayor Bloomberg, the political and DC-New York journalist class, or even the publicly employed hierarchy, few worry much about loss of income or too many deductions. Higher taxes, with proper legal and accounting advice, can be mitigated, or taxes offer little bite out of a quite generous income, or they can be matched dollar for dollar by automatic pay raises.

Children of the cognitive elite go to safe, enlightened and, for some, expensive schools, from kindergarten to the Ivy League or its liberal arts counterparts. Life is lived within safe, secure, fashionable, and enlightened neighborhoods.

In other words, there is a cocoon around many of our culture’s most vocal critics. The elites of postmodern America, because of their education, own merit, hard work, connections, luck, or inheritance, have reached a point where they are largely exempt from worries about dangers to what I would call their good life — one that the vast majority of Americans, who otherwise do pretty well themselves, do not share.

So What is the Good Life?

What is the good life? Surety about one’s finances and personal safety. Confidence about one’s status and influence. Opportunities for endless travel and entertainment. A need to justify one’s own privilege in terms of extending it to all others— albeit without losing an iota of it for oneself in the natural diluting process.

On the flip side is not the underclass — who live day by day due to state largess, and know real hardship, whether induced by larger economic and political forces or their own bad luck or bad choices — but the largely middle and upper middle classes that so overwhelming in the polls oppose the Ground Zero mosque while supporting the Arizona immigration law. As the less educated and more materially minded, they are dubbed “fearful,” as in ignorant, and “wound up,” as in manipulated to irrational emotions by larger, far more evil populist bogey people such as Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin.

But in truth, the middling and upper middling classes are usually quite rational, at least in the sense of making reasoned assumptions based on their own experience on how life works. You see, apart from the tenured English department or public administrator job, life is far more of a constant struggle.

The auto dealer, as opposed to the foundation head, sees a thousand ways each day how he and his 50 employees can lose their jobs — from needless regulations to theft to vandalism to disgruntled employee law suits to higher taxes to changing tastes and bad products. The farmer, unlike the op-ed columnist (believe me here), fights hourly a hostile world of brokers, bugs, and boom-bust cycles, within which he must consistently produce food from the seemingly empty soil. The sooted welder knows that he has a brief window of viability — only so much heat, injury, chemical smell, stooping, and recessions can he endure in his thirty-year struggle to put away a small sum for retirement that is not so guaranteed as his senator’s or congressman’s pension.

Imagine…

In such a world, there is less luxury for either the frivolous or the empathetic grand gesture. Such pragmatic folk, for example, would know that you would not build a supposedly mainstream states-rights, pro-gun, pro-militia center near the Oklahoma City bombing site “to reach out” and “bridge the gap” between pro- and anti-government ideologies — purportedly to dialogue in order to prevent another extremist Waco or McVeigh-like bombing.

If such a con-artist declared, “Let me build this information and visitor center at ground zero in Oklahoma City, both so that the public does not confuse my legitimate distrust of the federal government with Timothy McVeigh’s, and also so the more unhinged who have some vague ideas as our own do not resort to extremism,” well, then, the cop, plumber, Army captain, and insurance salesman would laugh him out of town for what he was (see explanations 2-4).

They know from their rougher lives that you don’t offer generous entitlements, or off-the-books cash wages, to millions of impoverished from Oaxaca without earning huge social and cultural problems of assimilating those without English, legality, and education in a salad-bowl host world of multiculturalism and identity politics. They all know all this, because, unlike those for whom job security, or enough money, or the safety of themselves and the well being of their children are not existential issues, they extrapolate from the way things work in their more tenuous worlds every day.

Imagine again…

If a Mayor Bloomberg or a John Kerry were to put their children in the Washington, D.C., or Bronx public schools, and if they were to make $60,000 a year, and if their neighborhood were not all that safe, and their checking accounts were dry on the 25th — then they might have more sympathy and less venom for those who oppose their utopian views.

I am not suggesting that all supporters of the mosque are either rich or liberal, or that all opponents are middle class or more practical sorts, only that there is a greater likelihood than not that they are. And I am not suggesting that middle class pragmatism at times is not too harsh, or even not, in turn, sometimes wildly idealistic — or, again, that there are not hard-nosed zillionaire reactionaries who want, as the president preached, ever more money that “at some point” in his view they do not really “need.”

Brave New World

The problem is that most Americans do not live the lives of a Maureen Dowd, or an Al Gore, or even an assistant city-manager or tenured professor with a solid publicly paid salary and pension and tenure. In the old days it was easier to say the richer were all against progressive agendas, from minimum wages to overtime pay, but that age and those issues are now largely over with.

Yes, we have left the once contentious arena of achieving a chance for equal opportunity and entered the even more acrimonious, more complex arena of ensuring an equality of result, mandated by high priests exempt from their own religious decrees. Like it or not, the elite world that drives the proclamations of a John Edwards, Al Gore, John Kerry, Mayor Bloomberg, Bill Gates, or George Soros increasingly has little to do with the rest of America — even as it insists that it cares so much for the less fortunate of America that it must be allowed to dictate to others for their own moral salvation and enlightenment — or else.

So the message of a Mayor Bloomberg is that we all can become as sensitive and non-judgmental as he has magically become; in short, if we are not to live in his own enlightened billionaire Lala land, then at least we are supposed to think and act as if we do.

But for most Americans, the answer is more or less, “Not this pig.”