Obama’s Park51 Mistake
Guess what happens when you try to please everybody
Unless the Park51 developers decide they will play ball with New York Gov. David Paterson (and they most recently denied reports that they are willing to move sites), the issue looks likely to fade into memory as another culture war battle, another bit of sound and fury signifying many things and leading to nothing in particular. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) prominently opposed the mosque’s building, presumably because of his tough upcoming election fight. Former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich essentially equated Nazism and Islam, presumably to gear up for his tough upcoming primary election fight. Politics once again brings out the best in us all.
And then there is Obama. His position—speaking in favor of religious tolerance Friday night, in a way that seemed to endorse the center; then spending the rest of the weekend backtracking—was blunt: Not in the way strong opinions are blunt, but in the way heavily used razors are blunt.
What has his waffling accomplished? One wants to say that he pushed the conventional wisdom toward the position that, if nothing else, the Park51 developers have the right to build their center there, and in fact he probably did. But it was never all that important for the conventional wisdom to come around on the rights issue: Constitutional rights don’t require conventional wisdom; they can be opposed by 90 percent of the electorate at any given time and our judicial system is still going to uphold them; that’s what makes them Constitutional rights.
What Obama’s bland non-position has done, really, is to raise the temperature on an issue that was already hot enough while providing a further opening for the center’s detractors and no comfort for its supporters. (It was also almost certainly a stupid move politically—stupider than just keeping his mouth shut, anyway—but never mind.) Richard Cohen’s op-ed today is something of a masterpiece, and the first thing you should email around if you indeed support the center’s construction at 45-51 Park Place. But reasonable people can differ on that. What seems indisputable is Cohen’s point about Obama:
Having once again gotten high praise for so very little, he went to bed a panicked man and reached, trembling, some hours later, for a political morning-after pill to take back some of what he had said. Whew, for a moment there he was pregnant with principle. …
Does he not grasp that questioning the “wisdom” of the mosque’s placement is predicated on thinking that 9/11 was a Muslim crime? Does he not understand that the issue here is religious prejudice, not zoning? The answer, of course, is that he does.
That’s what is so profoundly disappointing. Most of what we know about the man suggests that he personally agrees with the minority of Americans that the center should be built as planned. If he had admitted this, then great. If he had determined, whether out of principle or political wisdom, that it was not his place to comment, then that could be respected. Instead, no one is happy. “But unlike Henry Clay,” writes Cohen, “he would rather be president than right.” His non-stand makes both less likely.
Daily rate: $2
Monthly rate: $18
Yearly rate: $180
WAIT, WHY DO I HAVE TO PAY TO COMMENT?
Tablet is committed to bringing you the best, smartest, most enlightening and entertaining reporting and writing on Jewish life, all free of charge. We take pride in our community of readers, and are thrilled that you choose to engage with us in a way that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. But the Internet, for all of its wonders, poses challenges to civilized and constructive discussion, allowing vocal—and, often, anonymous—minorities to drag it down with invective (and worse). Starting today, then, we are asking people who'd like to post comments on the site to pay a nominal fee—less a paywall than a gesture of your own commitment to the cause of great conversation. All proceeds go to helping us bring you the ambitious journalism that brought you here in the first place.
I NEED TO BE HEARD! BUT I DONT WANT TO PAY.
Readers can still interact with us free of charge via Facebook, Twitter, and our other social media channels, or write to us at email@example.com. Each week, we’ll select the best letters and publish them in a new letters to the editor feature on the Scroll.
We hope this new largely symbolic measure will help us create a more pleasant and cultivated environment for all of our readers, and, as always, we thank you deeply for your support.