Monday, August 2, 2010

Debased discourse

A passionate Facebook exchange between five individuals, spanning nineteen comments last I checked, alerted me to a sad and convoluted Congressional tale.

As Raymond Hernandez of The New York Times summarized,
House Republicans on Thursday blocked a Democratic plan to provide billions of dollars for medical treatment to rescue workers and residents of New York City who suffered illnesses from the toxic dust and debris at ground zero. A majority of the lawmakers in the chamber supported the bill, but the 255-to-159 vote fell short of the two-thirds margin needed under special rules that were used to bring the measure to the floor. In the end, 243 Democrats and 12 Republicans supported the measure; 155 Republicans and 4 Democrats opposed it.

The five FBers were arguing whether 155 Republicans & four Dems were bad legislators for voting to deny medical treatment to first-responders to the attacks of 11 Sept 2001; or whether the Democratic party leadership were bad legislators for bringing the bill to the floor under procedural rules that required a 2/3 majority for passage. Everybody in the FB scrap was holding a torch for the 9/11 heroes.

Why did the Dems invoke special procedural rules? Back to you, Mr. Hernandez:
Heading into the vote, Democrats acknowledged it would be difficult to gather enough support to pass the bill under special rules requiring a two-thirds majority. But Democrats were concerned that a simple majority vote would allow Republicans to propose a controversial amendment that seeks to deny 9/11 health benefits to illegal immigrants. That amendment threatened to fracture Democratic support for the original bill into two camps: moderates who might feel political pressure to deprive illegal immigrants of such benefits and liberals who flatly oppose the Republican amendment.

That is, the issue became something other than the issue, as issues tend to in Washington. It became a pivot around which each of the nation's two major political parties attempted to gain advantage in the upcoming November elections.

Here, thanks to one of the Facebook Five, is a video of Congressman Anthony Weiner's outrage over the other guys whinging about procedure instead of voting up or down on "doing the right thing on behalf of the heroes" -- a performance that was, itself, a masterpiece of political theatre, whether Weiner (D-NY) played it as he felt or as he calculated it:

Was Rep. Weiner speaking from his furious heart, or acting a scene dictated by political calculus? (Warning: if you answer this question you'll learn more than you might care to about your Personal Cynicism Index.)

The dustup reminded me of a passage in Adam Gopnik's story about the historical Jesus in The New Yorker of 24 May 2010, a passage in which Gopnik paraphrases Philip Jenkins' Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Belive for the Next 1,500 Years.

Gopnik writes, of the early first-millennium struggles between Christian factions over turning stories about Jesus into theology:
It wasn’t that they really cared about the conceptual difference between the claim that Jesus and the Father were homoousian (same in essence) and the claim that the two were homoiousian (same in substance); they cared about whether the Homoousians or the Homoiousians were going to run the Church.


I'm also put in mind of the ongoing mosque-in-lower-Manhattan 'controversy,' about which Sarah Palin's tweets were the subject of One Finger Typing the week before last. WTF? The Cordoba House (which may now be more blandly renamed Park51, should it ever be built) is represented in the NY Times as a center intended to be
a monument to religious tolerance, an homage to the city in Spain where Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived together centuries ago in the midst of religious foment." Even reports that "The mosque is a project of the American Society for Muslim Advancement and the Cordoba Institute, which promotes cross-cultural understanding between Islam and the West.

That Fox quote is part of an article titled "N.Y. Congressman Calls for Inquiry Into Funding of Mosque Near Ground Zero" -- which points to the nature of the spin that outre conservatives in local and national stages are giving to the 'controversy.' From the Fox article:
Rep. Peter King raised concerns about the sources of funding for the proposed $100 million mosque, just blocks away from the site of the Sept. 11 attacks, where nearly 3,000 Americans died at the hands of Islamic terrorists. 'It's a house of worship, but we are at war with al-Qaida,' King told the AP. 'I think the 9/11 families have a right to know where the funding comes from; I think there are significant questions.'

Mosque. Islamic terrorists. Al-Qaida. 9/11 families have a right. That's not just spin, that's a full-speed-ahead spiral down into the gutter. Who can wave the flag hardest and fastest as November approaches? Will the Homoousians or the Homoiousians run the Church? Take particular note of the deliberately restrained pose, the faux-thoughtfulness:
I think there are significant questions.

Another undercurrent beneath this issue, an undercurrent of national political import, was laid out starkly by Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. No relation, per se, to Fox News, but nobody'll be shocked if you wondered. The ADL is an organization whose mission, as condensed in an attention-getting block of red at the top of its web site, is "To stop the defamation of the Jewish people ... to secure justice and fair treatment to all."

Here's how the ADL's position and Foxman's explanation was positioned in the NY Times on Friday (emphasis added):
The issue was wrenching for the Anti-Defamation League, which in the past has spoken out against anti-Islamic sentiment. But its national director, Abraham H. Foxman, said in an interview on Friday that the organization came to the conclusion that the location was offensive to families of victims of Sept. 11, and he suggested that the center’s backers should look for a site 'a mile away.' [...] Asked why the opposition of the families was so pivotal in the decision, Mr. Foxman, a Holocaust survivor, said they were entitled to their emotions. 'Survivors of the Holocaust are entitled to feelings that are irrational,' he said. Referring to the loved ones of Sept. 11 victims, he said, 'Their anguish entitles them to positions that others would categorize as irrational or bigoted.'

One wonders: where to begin? The blogosphere is abloom with responses to Foxman's statement, so I'll keep my response narrowly focused around the odd phrase, "entitles them" and the emphasized sentence as a whole.

Why odd? Well, I might agree with "explains." But to elevate irrationality and bigotry to an entitlement that -- in the context of the ADL's statement as a whole -- is proposed as a driver of public policy? That just doesn't compute.

To be sure, people are traumatized by trauma. To be sure, traumatized people may cling to irrational and bigoted positions when their emotions are skewed by trauma. But what does that have to do with the question of where a religious organization should be permitted to build a community center? I can't explain Foxman's and the ADL's logic any more than I can explain how irrationality and bigotry are a means of securing "justice and fair treatment to all." But irrationality and bigotry drives an awful lot of demagoguery in these perilous times. Foxman's getting right down there in the mud with Palin, Gingrich, and Beck. Will the American people fall for these populist haters? For bigots posing as thoughtful and restrained leaders? Stay tuned. I'm afraid we're going to have to watch & see.

The ADL spews unsubstantiated insinuation --
legitimate questions have been raised about who is providing the funding to build [the Cordoba House Islamic Center], and what connections, if any, its leaders might have with groups whose ideologies stand in contradiction to our shared values

-- and pretends to be smoothing feathers. Congresspeople blow smoke about obligation to 9/11 first-responders and procedural trickery -- but they're really all about controlling power. Political discourse is pretty thoroughly debased. The ghost of Diogenes would have one hell of a time finding an honest politician or pundit, even if his lamp were a klieg light.

Some debunking of the fog of insinuation around Cordoba House can be found in a Clyde Haberman's NY Times piece of 26 July, in which he takes conservative hysterics to task over their hypocrisies and obfuscation. And, indeed, it's imperative to effectively and rationally defend against assertions by ostensibly responsible leaders that irrational bigotry ought to be a principle of social governance.

But who will pay attention?

The question of providing medical care to those made ill by their role in the aftermath of attacks on New York in 2001 will come up for a vote again in September. As for the mosque in lower Manhattan? Best to keep an eye on that one.

1 comment:

  1. The ADL "controversy" is a sad reminder of the short-sightedness and selfishness of many people. It is deplorable that an organization like ADL would make excuse for things "irrational" or "bigoted". Mr. Abraham Foxman must retract his irrational statement and apologize to all human kind, particularly to the Jewish people.

    Matthew Felix Sun