Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Maybe Bernstein's wrong this time?

If I may indulge in a lazy blog post format, at bottom is my comment in response to Jonathan Bernstein's rather astonishing claim that the fight over the Islamic Center near Ground Zero. Bernstein, always trenchant in his  debunking of unsupported assertions about the way politicians' words and deeds affect electorates, rather gleefully insists that Park51 (f.k.a. Cordoba House) is

not going to affect elections, it's not substantively important, and to the extent it's symbolically important...well, let's just say it's not symbolically important as a stand-alone issue in any significant way (at best, it's what Kevin Drum says, one straw -- so shouldn't we pay more attention to all that other straw?).  I'm sorry to be a stick in the mud about it, but it just isn't actually a big story no matter how much it gets hyped.  Okay? 
My response, which I'll be the first to admit lacks supporting evidence and doubtless needs work:
Gee Jonathan, I know you're an expert in the dynamics of public opinion and all that, but to second CSH, you sure seem wrong to me here.

Per a Ben Smith story, I think the Republicans completely repudiating Bush's efforts to differentiate Islam from Islamism is significant. I think Palin's success in bringing another poisonous meme to the eruption point is significant. I think that waves of hysterical demagoguery that hit fever pitch are significant. And I think that, as with torture, when it comes to defense of civil liberties leaders have to be better than the rest of us, because majorities will sell those liberties without a twitch for a modicum of relief from rage or fear. When one of our two major parties goes all out demonizing an entire religion and works assiduously to interfere with a local government's approval of a religious institution to be built on private property, that's dangerous.
We may never yet have witnessed a mature democracy essentially vote away its core civil liberties by rewarding politicians who trample them. But how do you know it can't happen, and that we're not on the way?

Your perspective here reminds me of your extremely utilitarian characterization of the right relationship between elected rep and populace: that the rep is a good rep if he essentially does what he promised, fulfills the outlines of her own "brand," as it were. That view seems to foreclose condemnation of a rep who fulfill his constituents' wishes even when those wishes are wrong - for example, by fighting to preserve segregation. Similarly, here, you don't seem to account for the possibility that leaders' pandering to voters' rage against or fear of Islam could do serious damage to our civil liberties, regardless of what they do or don't do to election results.

You may respond that McCarthyism did not ultimately erode our core liberties, that these fevers burn themselves out. Perhaps they do - -until they don't.


  1. I think his point is that as soon as Repubs started screaming "He's a Muslim!" on the campaign trail when what they really meant was "Obama is un-American", they had already crossed all the lines they're re-crossing with the GZM controvery. No new ground here. For instance, the mosque controversy in Murphreesboro, TN a couple of months back featured all the same horrible stuff, but without even the pretext of "Hallowed Ground" to fall back on.

  2. Hell, there's a Megachurch in FL planning to celebrate the 9th anniversary of 9/11 by holding a Koran burning in the parking lot. This isn't new for them.

  3. And Tea Party activists, who claim they are only interested in fiscal concerns, are weighing in on an Islamic Cultural Center in Temecula, CA- some 3,000 miles from Ground Zero. I think this shows their cards as truly being xenophobic, despite their best efforts to persuade us otherwise.