Ground Zero And The Zero-Sum Mindset

New York's governor weighed in on the Cordoba House yesterday, claiming his efforts at arranging an "alternate" site were close to fruition. Paterson might as well find an "alternate" bridge to cross the Alabama River -- why march through Selma when you can go miles out of your way and cross at Prattville? -- or an "alternate" lunch counter to Woolworth's, or an "alternate" drinking fountain, or even an "alternate" seat on the bus. As in the Civil Rights Era, there cannot be a neutral ground.

If I seem harsh, it's because I earned the right to be harsh about this. A few weeks ago I noticed a loss of feeling in three toes of my left foot; this is the latest sign of degeneration from the damage my lumbar spine sustained while serving my country. You'll excuse me if I take freedom very seriously, and not merely my own but that of others. To progressives, there is no difference; to regressives, the rights of one subtract from the rights of another. The relative distance of a mosque or community center or titty bar from 'ground zero' makes no difference to the zero-sum mindset, which is why regressives seem impervious to facts.

The president gets this. Last weekend he reframed the debate around Cordoba House by separating the question of whether Manhattan's Muslim community has the right to build Cordoba House from the question of whether it is right to build it at 51 Park Place. Polls show that most Americans get the first part, agreeing Muslims have a "right" to build at that location -- even though the same polls show a majority doesn't think it is the right thing to do. The difference is more than semantic.

If two people each have fifty marbles, the total number of marbles in the game can never exceed 100. If one player wins a marble, the other has to lose one of theirs. That is how the right has consistently framed every civil rights issue since 1969. Senator Jeff Sessions, for instance, framed the Sotomayor SCOTUS nomination this way when he declared that “empathy for one party is always prejudice against another.” In the regressive mind, a job for a brown person is one less job for whites (Jesse Helms' "white hands" ad comes to mind). Pat Buchanan opined that Republicans should

(E)xpose a political activist whose career bespeaks a lifelong resolve to discriminate against white males to the degree necessary to bring about an equality of rewards in society.

Of course, Buchanan now says that Newt Gingrich has "gone too far" in his comments about Cordoba House, a sign of just how different the rhetorical terrain has become in the wake of the president's statements.

The regressive mind sees all ethnic groups in competitive opposition on a Malthusian landscape of scarcity. Even empathy becomes a limited resource. Here is where we find the origin of all prejudice: the leap from racism to chauvinism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and back again, is a small one. Why ban gay marriage? Because it will (supposedly) hurt straight marriage. Why can't women earn the same wage as men for the same work? Because it will (somehow) hurt masculine breadwinning prerogatives. The same goes for Cordoba House, transformed by Pamela Geller and her cohort into a potential "victory trophy" for "Islam" -- as if that religion was monolithic. Perhaps the best recent example is Florida Republican House candidate Allen West's statement that drivers with COEXIST bumper-stickers want to "give away our country."

The right has successfully framed the issue as one of loss versus gain because the word "Muslim" invokes negative associations. The president, quite obviously an indirect subject of this Islamophobia-mongering, has responded by framing the Cordoba House as rights versus what is right. While I disagree with Paterson, Howard Dean, and Harry Reid, none of them has argued that Manhattan's Muslims don't have the right to build a community center. Unlike the president, however, all three have weighed in on the rightness of the project's location -- and this actually changes the debate in a direction Pamela Geller and Newt Gingrich didn't want to go.

The goal of their outrage is denial of rights. When Karl Rove compares a community center to "a neo-Nazi meeting at a Jewish hotel," he's trying to cast Islam as illegitimate. Geller also denies the legitimacy of Islam even as she pretends to respect it. Pat Robertson famously tried to argue that Islam is not a religion at all (and therefore not protected by the Constitution, one surmises). It's the same old culture-war wedge. But all of that goes out the window when the debate is about the rightness of the location rather than the Muslim citizens' right to have a community center in their own neighborhood.

Which brings me back to my toes and my spine and the distance (or lack thereof) that lends excuse to the hatemongers. From the outer perimeter of the holier-than-thou-of-holies to 45 and 51 Park Place is almost exactly 99 strides at a marching pace, which makes me want to visit New York City and ask the haters if one more step is far enough for a disabled vet to pray in peace. Even if I'm not Muslim, I suffered injury defending the right of every American to pray (or not) as their god moves them (or not), and I will remain forever inflexible on this point.


We welcome relevant, respectful comments. Any comments that are sexist or in any other way deemed hateful by our staff will be deleted and constitute grounds for a ban from posting on the site. Please refer to our Terms of Service (revised 3/17/2016) for information on our posting policy.