Now that the so-called Ground Zero Mosque controversy is slipping off the front pages for the first time in weeks, it's time to ask: Just what the hell was all that about, anyway? Why was it so important that we had to spend all that time discussing it? And why are the conservatives taking out after the Muslim community now -- nine full years after 9/11?
By now, it's pretty obvious that this was never really about sacred ground or respecting the memories of the dead. What it was really about was the future of the conservative movement.
Where Have All The Bad Guys Gone?
Conservatives can do without a god, but they can't get through the day without a devil. Their entire model of reality revolves around the existence of an existential enemy who's out to annihilate them. Take that focal point away, and their whole worldview collapses into incoherence. This need is so central to their thinking that if there are no actual enemies around, they'll go to considerable lengths to make some (or just make some up).
Unfortunately, the past couple of decades have been rough for them on this front. Losing the Communists as the Bad Guys left a big gap in the conservative cosmology, which they've been trying (mostly unsuccessfully) to fill ever since. This void has driven them crazy, forcing them to reveal their inner ugliness in all kinds of ways as they thrash around looking for some likely replacement. The longer this goes on, the more of that ugliness we've all seen -- and the less coherent their politics have become.
They had some luck early on with gays. But that target had one serious flaw. If you're going to go to all the trouble of conjuring yourself a major existential demon, you want one people can hate on with unfettered abandon for at least a couple of decades to come. The biggest threat to that goal is familiarity: it's nearly impossible to sustain the necessary level of fear when members of the feared group are living on your own street (or can be seen regularly on your own TV), where you're forced to deal with them as actual human beings. It's a question of ROI: you don't want to invest all that effort in a creating a target, only to have people figure out within just a few years that you were flat-out lying about how awful those people are. In the end, hating on gays turned out to be nothing but a big fat credibility hit, which they're still paying for.
Hating on Latinos seemed promising for a while; but it's fizzling out, too. Even the most rageaholic right-wingers now realize that the GOP has no future if conservatives don't knock off that crap, preferably 15 years ago. You've got a rising Millennial generation that's 44% minority -- a plurality of it Latino -- that will probably not be voting Republican in their lifetimes due to this new New Southern Strategy. So that's not going to work, either.
For a couple of years around 2008-2009, they tried to ratchet up the liberal-hating. The proximity problem made liberals a bad target from the get. But on top of that, there was a scary rash of nutjobs who didn't get the memo that this was all just political noisemaking, and the "liberals are a mortal threat to the nation" exhortation wasn't meant to be taken as a literal call to arms. In less than a year, over a dozen people were murdered in cold blood as a direct result of this hatemongering; and Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Bernard Goldberg, and Bill O'Reilly were all put in the uncomfortable position of telling people that they didn't mean for their blustering eliminationist screeds to be taken seriously. Given the choice between dialing down the liberal-bashing or acknowledging the blood on their hands, they picked the obvious alternative.
All this leaves the conservatives right back where they were in 1990 -- still flailing around trying to find their next scapegoat. And at this stage, there's nobody really left to pick on but the Muslims. They've got all the perfect attributes for a solid long-term enemy: brown, Not Like Us, we've actually been in a war with some of them, and they're mostly so far away that it's unlikely that any red-blooded conservative will ever actually have to acknowledge one as a fellow human being. Apart from the messy downsides like war, debt, world approbation, continued terror, and so on, the right wing is starting to see the Muslim Threat as potentially the best thing that's happened to them since the Communists.
"Teachable Moments" -- Conservative Style
Having identified such a great potential target, the next logical step was to whip up public outrage and give people emotionally satisfying reasons to adopt this group as a worthy object of hate. Fortunately for the right wing, conservative PR folks have made an art form out of creating calculated, protracted media crises that drag on for weeks, during which they get to suck up all the news time and create "teachable moments" that put some new agenda item on dramatic public display.
Take two past examples: Terry Schiavo and the Minutemen. Both were ginned-up controversies carefully designed to create a public crisis around a new right-wing political initiative. The goal in both cases was to create a public outcry that someone in a back room somewhere hoped would galvanize the nation into mass political action.
Sometimes this works; sometimes, it doesn't. Schiavo was a spectacular failure. Americans of all persuasions took one look at that situation and recoiled: it turned out nobody in the country wanted Congress and/or the Southern Baptists making their end-of-life decisions for them. But the Minutemen's summer campouts on the border succeeded in bringing immigration and border security to the front burner, ultimately feeding into the militancy of the Tea Party and leading to the building of the border wall.
And that's what the Ground Zero Mosque tantrum was -- yet another conservative PR confection designed to put a new boogeyman on the public agenda. (And the media, as usual, went right after the fake throw -- again. My dog is too smart for that trick, but our corporate media can be counted on to go for it every time.) The right wing has put us on notice that after nine years, they've abandoned Bush-era restraint where Islam is concerned, and are now declaring the entire Muslim world to be the new Devil who will fill that yawning void at the center of their cosmology.
As a target, Muslims were just too tempting to resist any longer. They can be killed with impunity. They can be used to justify endless war. As a demon, they're likely to have tremendous staying power: after all, in the white, straight, Christian enclaves where most American conservatives live, Muslims are far rarer on the ground than even gays, Latinos, or liberals.
It doesn't have to be this way, though. American Muslims (including our homegrown Black Muslims, who are collateral damage in all this) are strong and well-organized, and they're already fighting back. They're taking steps to define their faith in the public mind, rather than let conservatives do it for them; and to make themselves and their cultures more familiar to the average American. (This was, in fact, the ultimate goal of building a Muslim cultural center in lower Manhattan in the first place.) The hate campaign can only last as long as most Americans don't know a few Muslims personally. The sooner that ignorance is fixed, the sooner this nonsense stops.
As progressives, we need to give them all the help we can, for two reasons. The first is that we have a clear moral obligation to step up and defend the civil rights of a group that's now been declared a high-profile public target. We've always done this, and history is calling on us to do it again. The media has moved on; but now that war has been declared, the conservative haters have their orders, and we'd be smart to expect more attacks on our Muslim neighbors, no matter where in the country we live.
But beyond that, if we can deprive the conservatives of this made-to-order boogeyman, we may be able to keep that void at the center of the conservative cosmos wide open -- thus forcing them to keep their essential meanness on full public display. Conservatism doesn't thrive in cultures where diversity is recognized, embraced, and celebrated. As long as we keep debunking their devils, we make it very hard for them to regroup politically and present themselves as sane.