Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Foul Is Definitely The Word

Hey, you know what we haven't done in a little while? Taken a look at a highly-regarded American conservative political commentator and marvelled at how full of shit they are!

This time round, let's take a look at Ross Douthat. Plenty of people rate Douthat - the ever-impressive Daniel Larison seems to view him as one of the few intellectually honest conservative political voices that anyone bothers to listen to. Progressive responses to his columns fall a little more into the "I can see where this comes from but..." category than they do with obvious hacks like Krauthammer, Kristol and McArdle, who are rightly immediately consigned to the "Mendacious propaganda artists" bin almost every time.

With the frenzy over Cordoba House - the proposed Islamic Faith Centre that applied for planning permission two blocks away from the former location of the World Trade Centre - reaching boiling point, it's a good time to consider what exactly all the fuss is about. Douthat takes his best stab at it here.

So what's the verdict? Well, his opening assumptions are pretty shaky:
There’s an America where it doesn’t matter what language you speak, what god you worship, or how deep your New World roots run. An America where allegiance to the Constitution trumps ethnic differences, language barriers and religious divides...

But there’s another America as well, one that understands itself as a distinctive culture, rather than just a set of political propositions. This America speaks English, not Spanish or Chinese or Arabic. It looks back to a particular religious heritage: Protestantism originally, and then a Judeo-Christian consensus... it expects new arrivals to assimilate themselves to these norms, and quickly.
With his first two paragraphs, Douthat sets up his shell-game. Even so early, it does not seem difficult to extrapolate his argument. Sure, American citizens can do X, Y and Z, but that doesn't mean they should. Which, in itself, is an entirely banal point. There are certain rights that people expect you not to exercise in certain ways. Again, that seems entirely reasonable. I don't have any problem with the idea that one has, for example, the right to go on the radio and constantly use the n-word whilst telling a black caller they're being over-sensitive, for example, but one should still expect to be socially ostracised immediately thereafter.

Note where Douthat is placing his boundaries, though. My example involves the clash of two inalienable American rights - the right to free speech and the right to equal treatment independent of one's colour. Both racism and restricting speech are contrary to the spirit of the Constitution. In other words, I'm comparing apples to apples.

Douthat's formulation is different. He finishes what he has begun with his next sentence:
These two understandings of America, one constitutional and one cultural, have been in tension throughout our history.
Douthat's argument hinges entirely on the idea that it is not part of American culture to want to uphold the constitution. It should be obvious to anyone with any experience of American thought that one cannot flense devotion to the constitution from US culture. It's lunacy to try. What Douthat is doing is taking a near-universal cultural trait, and the dominant American sub-culture, and redefining the former as (essentially) constitutionalism so that he can redefine the latter as the totality of American culture. In effect, he's arguing that white Protestant America is America. This is a depressing common rhetorical trick for the right. It gets much easier to espouse the kind of principles American conservatives cling to once you deliberately declare those that disagree with you outside of America in any case. All of which is to say nothing of the large number of people who simultaneously draw on their shared white Protestant heritage (which would include me, by the way, even if I'm not American) but who don't demand rapid assimilation. I suspect Douthat has realised he can't make the demands of these incoherent hysterics sound any more reasonable, so he is trying to artificially pump up their importance and commonness, instead.

Douthat digs his hole deeper:
The first America welcomed the poor, the tired, the huddled masses; the second America demanded that they change their names and drop their native languages, and often threw up hurdles to stop them coming altogether. The first America celebrated religious liberty; the second America persecuted Mormons and discriminated against Catholics.
Man, it doesn't sound like this second group are particularly great, huh? Maybe we shouldn't be listening to them too closely. I mean, clearly they were wrong about the Mormons and Catholics.
But both understandings of this country have real wisdom to offer... During the great waves of 19th-century immigration, the insistence that new arrivals adapt to Anglo-Saxon culture — and the threat of discrimination if they didn’t — was crucial to their swift assimilation.
Wait! What's that sound? Why, it's the alarm that goes off in the head of anyone with the intelligence God gave a golden retriever when they hear current grotesque injustices being defended by arguing historical injustices were actually good things!

Listen, Douthat. There is a world of difference between an action having an eventual upside and an action in itself being good. I'm all about the liberation of the slaves, but that hardly means I'd argue that it was a good thing the South seceded. Moreover, this result Douthat sees as a long term good is often preceded by short and medium-term very bad indeed. I mean, Catholics and Protestants are very well integrated in much of England, but it was a long and bloody process in which a spectacular number of people were tortured and killed.

And all of that is assuming rapid assimilation is necessarily a good thing in any case. I mean, I have no objection to it in theory, but the crux of the matter here is that Douthat is just assuming it must be good because he comes from the second America. He values cultural assimilation over constitutional protection, and thus argues that violating the latter - implicitly or otherwise - has led to something good. There's no reason to believe the groups Douthat is considering wouldn't have assimilated themselves at length anyway, without "the threat of discrimination" (and really, once someone is arguing that advocating the threat of discrimination constitutes "wisdom", it becomes pretty difficult to not just walk away in disgust), but Douthat just assumes that a) his tactics must work faster, and b) faster is better, irrespective of the tactics used. He even goes out to point out that these ends were achieved "by fair means or foul" without so much as a pause to consider that whether they were fair or not matters.

Another problem is that this argument as it stands doesn't apply to Ground Zero, it applies across America. If he wants Muslims to assimilate, and he believes building Islamic Faith Centres is contrary to that assimilation, then why would that only apply to lower Manhattan?

Douthat attempts to escape this trap by arguing that Cordoba House is a special case.
The second America is right to press for something more from Muslim Americans — particularly from figures like Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam behind the mosque — than simple protestations of good faith.

Too often, American Muslim institutions have turned out to be entangled with ideas and groups that most Americans rightly consider beyond the pale. Too often, American Muslim leaders strike ambiguous notes when asked to disassociate themselves completely from illiberal causes.

Douthat's clumsy, last-minute attempt to argue "It's not the mosque, it's the iman" (not that it is a mosque, but whatever) reveals more than he intends. The counter to those three sentences is almost pathetically obvious - the difference between Muslims, Christians and Jews is not that only Muslims hedge when asked to dissociate themselves from people a large section of the population have a problem with, it's that only Muslims are repeatedly asked to do it. The idea of asking Jewish leaders to repudiate Israeli excesses in the Gaza Strip before they would be allowed to build synagogues would be viewed with horror by Douthat. Why? Because they're already part of his arbitrary definition of the second America. [1]

That example in itself makes stark another point, Douthat is basically arguing that the Protestant/Judeo-Christian majority gets to determine who America's enemies are, and anyone who shares the faith of such enemies is morally bound to agree entirely. Then, once you're exactly in synch with what Douthat's buddies think, and only then, you just have to wait a century or two and voila! The US will be arguing you are incapable of doing wrong, and demanding everyone who doesn't think you're entirely and invariably in the right learns to be more like you. Assimilation achieved!

And if anyone doesn't meet Douthat's standards? No building permits for them! They're not trying to engage in "inter-religious dialogue", which Douthat, with breath-taking arrogance, is defining as "agreeing with Christians and Jews". This is why I don't buy that his argument is just about the WTC. It's too easy to generalise to every imam who doesn't fit Douthat's description of what he thinks a moderate Muslim should look like. In his eyes, either you claim the US was entirely blameless in bringing about 9/11, and you renounce Hamas, or you just ain't trying. Because cultural mixing must mean cultural homogenisation, and because inter-religious dialogue means shouting down the side who disagrees with you.

In conclusion: ain't adding this guy to the "Arguing from good faith" pile.

[1] Just to be clear, I'm not saying religious leaders shouldn't be challenged regarding the unpleasant activities done either by their fellow holy men, or by their followers in the name of their God. I'm just saying that I'm not sure demanding repudiation before permitting the building of places of worship is a good idea, and if it is, it's damn sure a good idea for every faith.

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