08/18/2010 11:47 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Cordoba House and the Limits of Public Opinion

According to a new CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll, 70 percent of Americans oppose construction of the planned Cordoba House two blocks away from Ground Zero.

Who cares?

It's hard to recall an issue that positions conventional wisdom, traditional media outlets and movement conservatism in a more shameful light. Unless one happens to recall the Shirley Sherrod imbroglio from a month ago. Or last year's debate over "death panels." Or the time Henry Louis Gates was arrested for breaking into his own home. Point is, we're not good at these things.

What "not good," in this instance, means is any sort of issue that can't be transmitted properly through a screaming headline. The Cordoba House is a project a long time in the making, a community center that would include a 500-seat auditorium, a theater, a performing arts center, a swimming pool, an art gallery, a book store, a cafeteria and, yes, a house of worship. In short, it's a lot like the Jewish Community Centers my grandparents took us to in Albany except much, much nicer.

But 9/11 victim's families are supposedly opposed to the project, and shouldn't ensuring their emotional stability be a priority? To see Charles Krauthammer explain the project in the Washington Post, one gets the impression that the Cordoba House would be an imposition of the first order, akin to theme parks near Civil War battlefields, a convent next to Auschwitz and a Japanese cultural center near Japan. Probably because those comparisons make up the entirety of his opening four paragraphs on the matter.

Rush Limbaugh, following on Krauthammer's heels, compared the planned construction to a Mosque at the Pentagon and a Hindu Temple adjacent to Pearl Harbor. Both of which already exist, sort of -- Limbaugh confused Hinduism with Shintoism, the actual predominant religion of Japan. Although since two mosques already stand in close proximity to the proposed site, perhaps Limbaugh was offering a clever meta-commentary.

Otherwise, that easy narrative doesn't hold. September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, consisting of more than 250 victims' families, endorsed the cultural center. Former Bush solicitor general Ted Olson, a 9/11 widower, voiced a similar opinion. By contrast, it's hard to actually find significant blocs of victims' family openly denouncing the project as an insult to their suffering. Chances are, they feel far more invested in initiatives such as last month's attempt in Congress to provide additional health care funding for emergency responders and others afflicted following their rescue duties during 9/11. It failed.

But when Rush Limbaugh and his ilk behave shamelessly, should we take note? They're acting as they always do, manipulating reality and exploiting the latest ephemeral non-issue for political gain. No one is or should be surprised when Rick Scott, a Tea Party darling and the Republican front runner for governor in Florida, releases an ad called, unsubtly, "Obama's Mosque." Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has less of a built-in excuse when, in his statement criticizing construction, he calls the Cordoba House a mere "Mosque," aiding both the sorrowful notion that mosques are establishments to be feared and that what's being built is far more limited in scope than it really is. The same applies to CNN, the New York Times, MSNBC, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, NPR, Yahoo news and the BBC, all of which have at times -- or as a matter of routine -- referred to the project as a mosque as opposed to a community center.

That phrase's prevalence -- "Ground Zero Mosque" -- is to be bemoaned. That cynical label, engineered to create the impression of a star and crescent tattooed on the remains of the World Trade Center, has become shorthand for all manner of anti-Islamic sentiments. Yet it has stuck, and will remain in the public vernacular so long as web editors need to keep up with the latest in search engine optimization. As will perceptions that Muslim proponents of the project are radicals and that all clear-thinking Americans think the Cordoba House is misguided, both of which are easily debunked.

And why not? It's true, at least that last point. Most Americans -- acquainted only with the project through the filters of traditional media or, worse, some godforsaken niche of the blogosphere -- do certainly see the project as anything ranging from an affront to a nuisance. Reality has no place in the popular discussion. Why, then, should popular opinion?

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