Yesterday afternoon, the leader of a microscopic cult of idiots who announced plans to stage an "international" day of Quran burning in Gainesville, Florida held a press conference, for a rapt media which decided that his moronic plans were the single most important thing going on in America. At that press conference, in front of "9/11 Truther" signs, this cult leader lied to everyone who was watching, telling them that he was going to call off his 9/11 book burning festival because he had successfully reached a deal with the people behind the Park51 community center in Lower Manhattan, in which they would move their facility away from the site of the World Trade Center.
Not a word of this was true, but it was amazing, all the same -- at one fell swoop, we had finally knit up the strands of a season of irrationality into one big, shiny, synergized knot. This was supposed to be the end of Recovery Summer? More like Relapse Summer.
The story of how one lone idiot, pimping an 18th-century brand of community terrorism, held the media hostage and forced some of this nation's most powerful people to their knees to fitfully beg an end to his wackdoodlery is an extraordinary one. It's a modern media retelling of Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying", in which a gang of Islamaphobes, cast in the role of Addie Bundren, bamboozle the media into carrying their coffin full of malevolence on a journey of pure debasement. Let's begin at the beginning.
Earlier this year, an organization called the Cordoba Initiative were granted permission by the appropriate authorities in New York City to turn an old Burlington Coat Factory at 51 Park Place in lower Manhattan into a community center. The organization was headed by an Imam named Feisal Abdul Rauf, who has made it his life's work to stand against radical cults like al Qaeda and teach young Muslims that America is a place where one can freely worship at the appointed times and then join other faith communities in America in the task of building a great nation. The proposed community center was to include a basketball court and space for different religious communities in New York City to have interfaith relations. It was also going to have a place for Muslims to pray, if they liked.
The news didn't sit well with many people in New York, most notably people who didn't live in Manhattan. This is because they were told by a gaggle of dumb Islamophobes that what was planned was a "Ground Zero mosque." Of course, the planned community center was not, strictly speaking, a "mosque." And it was most definitely not "at Ground Zero." "Ground Zero" is the site of an interminable municipal construction project. There are no plans to build a mosque there. "Ground Zero" is also not the name of a recognized New York City neighborhood, like DUMBO or Murray Hill. But, here's the thing: even if it was, the battle to stop the "Ground Zero mosque" was already lost, because there already is a mosque in that neighborhood.
This logic failed to sink in, because very few people outside of me and the good people over at Wonkette made any attempt to bring these facts to light. But it might not have mattered, because the fertile field of opposition to the Park51 community center was the raw wound of the September 11th attacks. Obviously, many people are still feeling the loss of that day. And that loss breeds many emotions, among them sadness and anger. And people definitely do have the right to express their sadness and their anger. But what people don't have the right to expect is that the government will intervene to remedy claims that have no basis in law.
As soon as the media saw themselves a shiny shiny shining thing shining shinily in New York City, they pounced! How perfect! Something for us to talk about during the slow-news summer! I mean, we could talk about the nation's unemployment crisis, but that would mean we'd have to talk to poor, jobless people, and there's no currency in having access to a bunch of poors. Right away, they accepted the premise that this was a "Ground Zero mosque," when it wasn't. And so, by the power vested in the media, things that weren't in fact true were accorded the privilege of being "one side of a great debate" and "an interesting point of view."
Charlie Brooker, calling out the media for this bullshit, states what should have happened at this very moment:
New York being a densely populated city, there are lots of other buildings and businesses within two blocks of Ground Zero, including a McDonald's and a Burger King, neither of which has yet been accused of serving milkshakes and fries on hallowed ground. Regardless, for the opponents of Cordoba House, two blocks is too close, period. Frustratingly, they haven't produced a map pinpointing precisely how close is OK.
That's literally all I'd ask them in an interview. I'd stand there pointing at a map of the city. Would it be offensive here? What about here? Or how about way over there? And when they finally picked a suitable spot, I'd ask them to draw it on the map, sketching out roughly how big it should be, and how many windows it's allowed to have. Then I'd hand them a colour swatch and ask them to decide on a colour for the lobby carpet. And the conversation would continue in this vein until everyone in the room was in tears. Myself included.
That hasn't happened. Instead, 70% of Americans are opposed to the "Ground Zero mosque", doubtless in many cases because they've been led to believe it literally is a mosque at Ground Zero. And if not...well, it must be something significant. Otherwise why would all these pundits be so angry about it? And why would anyone in the media listen to them with a straight face?
And because the media couldn't do their job, a group of hack politicians, like Rick Lazio and Newt Gingrich, desperate to get a little famewhore attention for their quixotic political career goals, saw an opportunity to horn in on the "discussion." They started telling all the sad and angry people that they actually did have the right to expect someone to provide a remedy to their claims. Their case was primarily based on the idea that nobody has the rights of religious freedom, no one has property rights and that the government has the right -- nay, the duty! -- to intrude.
Right away, they should have been entirely ridiculed, because the people pimping this bilge were primarily right-wing types who would ordinarily say that church and state should not be separated, that property rights are sacrosanct, and that government should be small and unobtrusive. Someone really should have said to Newt Gingrich, "Is this seriously the stand you want to take? Because if it is, we shall never allow you to claim to be a supporter of small government or a 'Constitutional constructionist' ever again. And if you try to assert that claim, we will drop on you like a ton of bricks. We will cause you real, public pain."
But of course, that's not what happened. The media has too much invested in flattering people like Newt Gingrich, and whoever writes Sarah Palin's tweets. And so, these inherent contradictions simply became "one side of a great debate" and "an interesting point of view."
And from there, some idiot news producer said, "Hey, I bet we can shoehorn this into our election narrative somehow!" And so the Park51 community center became an election issue. Imagine that, in a world with a nine year-long, going nowhere war and a massive unemployment crisis! Imagine how many times you would have to hit yourself in the head with a ball peen hammer before you would ask a politician from California how they stood on a local zoning issue in Manhattan.
But ask they did, all the way to the White House. And that's when Democrats like Harry Reid stepped forward to publicly cover themselves in cowardice. This turned the frenzy up several notches for the media, because suddenly, they had obtained a very precious thing -- the right to say "both sides do this." The matter had become a folie a deux -- a madness made for two! -- but the media focused all their attention on the "two" and none on the "madness."
And in that climate, a pastor named Terry Jones saw an opportunity to make himself famous. Jones heads up a heretofore unknown and uncared-about gang of Florida morons known as the Dove Outreach Church -- minor bit players in the field of antagonizing American Muslims. This idiot announced that he was going to burn some Qurans on September 11th, and was anyone interested in giving this nonsense a whole lot of media attention?
And boy howdy, lots of people took him up on the offer! And you know why they did that? Because of the shame. Because deep down, your media all-stars knew that they had aided and abetted something that closely resembled an intellectual atrocity, and now it was time to atone by finding the lowest-hanging fruit available and make themselves feel better by beating on them repeatedly for being assholes -- something they should have already been doing for months!
And this gave an opportunity for some of those who had opposed the Park51 community center -- who deserved the treatment being meted out to Terry Jones -- to do the same. They joined their friends in the media in this demonstration of game-show absolution, saying, "This level of bigotry is unacceptable! It's so declasse in comparison to our own bigotry, which is a refined, 'Sunday Afternoon On The Island Of La Grande Jatte' form of despicableness."
A few people, like John Boehner and whoever writes Sarah Palin's tweets went so far as to say, "See, this is exactly the same thing we were decrying with the Ground Zero mosque." Except it wasn't, because the Ground Zero mosque was a thing they had made up!
None of this bothered Terry Jones at all! Why should it? In the long history of fringe religious figures saying and doing stupid things, it is exceedingly rare for the media to provide much attention to them. Pat Robertson has been telling America that gay people cause hurricanes for years, and it never amounts to much in the way of coverage beyond a periodic reminder that Pat Robertson is a complete fool. Terry Jones, however, had been given something very precious: he was now "one side of a great debate" who possessed "an interesting point of view."
And the media worked very hard to push the case that Jones was part of a debate. Now, Quran burning was an election-year issue, for which every candidate had to answer. And they even went so far as to ask Jones repeatedly, "What if President Obama told you not to do this? What if former President George W. Bush told you not to do this?" They were literally brokering negotiations between an idiot cult leader and some of the most powerful and important people in the world!
By now, things were terribly out of control. President Obama had to publicly state that Quran burning is a stupid thing to do. Imagine how out of touch you have to be that you need to go all the way to the White House to find that answer! Other important people were compelled to interject at this point. General David Petraeus had to come forward and state the plainly obvious: that all the public attention being given to this Quran burning would undermine the ability of U.S. forces to conduct their counterinsurgency operations, which depend heavily on winning the "hearts and minds" of Afghans. I think a lot of people read this as Petraeus speaking out against the attention-seeker, Terry Jones. But I think he was speaking more directly to the attention-givers. And everything that Justin Elliot reports here, I believe, lends credence to my contention.
Eventually, Robert Gates -- the Secretary of Defense, who is running two wars! -- had to call Jones up and try to convince him not to do this. "Which is crazy," says Alex Pareene, accurately, because when, exactly, did the Pentagon start negotiating with two-bit terrorists?
All of this finally culminated with yesterday's press conference, where Terry Jones lied and said that the Park51 community center was going to move, thanks to him. You see where this is headed now, don't you? Now the people behind Park51 are on the hook for stopping this Quran burning, and all of the negative external impact it may have. Now, all of the refined hate-merchants from early in the story can say that if the "Ground Zero mosque" isn't moved, immediately, American troops could die!
To go back to Charlie Brooker, let's remember that after sizing up the incompetence that pervaded the Park51 coverage, he warned that the "media" should just "give up" before they "[made] things worse." Pretty prophetic, isn't it? They got played, and played badly, by a dude with 14th-century religious beliefs, 19th-century facial hair and ultra-modern media savvy. Terry Jones has essentially blackmailed some of the most important people in America, with the assistance of the media.
Let's remember that all of this paralysis was caused by 50 people who wanted to burn a book that's available for free, on the Internet!
There were many, many moments where someone could have simply said, "No, we should really not be doing this. These Islamophobes are objectively wrong, objectively stupid, objectively contradictory, objectively harmful, and by God, as someone with a functioning brain and a devotion to the pursuit of reason above all else, I am going to stand here and say no to all of this." But as it turns out, it wasn't until yesterday afternoon that someone finally had the guts to say maybe we cannot really believe a word this man is saying.
Well, they should have thought of that before they decided to point a bunch of teevee cameras at him, I guess.