Electoral politics – and in the United States the majority of political effort is devoted to getting either elected or re-elected – is a nauseating exercise in hypocrisy at the best of times.
The Founding Fathers of the United States devised a political system that they intended to be insulated from the whims of vulgar popular opinion but the result two centuries later is a massively dysfunctional government that seems to do almost nothing but pander to vulgar popular opinion. Two centuries ago, political leaders publicly debated the form that their government should take through such epoch-shattering works of literature as the Federalist Papers. Now crass and boorish charlatans like Sarah Palin sell out stadiums by publicly rejoicing in the petrified state of their own intellects.
Well, elected hypocrites have one very great advantage over the unelected kind: they tend not to murder their own citizens, at least as long as they have to keep getting re-elected. I once asked a renowned scholar of the Presidency how many citizens of the United States had been literally murdered by the order of American presidents in the 20th century. He thought about it for some time and said, "I would have to say that, as far as I am aware, the number is zero." Now ask the question about past heads-of-state of, say, the Soviet Union, Germany, China, Cambodia, Indonesia, or Iraq. Given that, it's probably best to learn to live with the infantile sloganeering, the unthinking enthusiasms of the party faithful, and the depressingly predictable mudslinging from all sides of the political spectrum.
Still, it does get mighty tiresome. One terminally boring refrain made by Republicans in the United States is that the Democratic Party seeks to leave America toothless and defenceless in the face of its enemies. A prominent American comedian, Ann Coulter, even says that for this reason Democrats are uniformly and literally guilty of treason. This is easily contested by a ten-minute search for freely-available figures on American defense expenditure since the 1930s, but it's not necessary to do that, even. The most cursory examination of 20th century history will remind anyone that it was liberal Democrats who led the US into World Wars One and Two, who dropped the atomic bombs, who started and escalated the Vietnam War, and that Obama's last defense budget was larger, even accounting for inflation, than any since the Second World War. But, then, facts don't matter when there are electoral points to be scored.
Still, there was something particularly perverse, during the last presidential election, about the Republicans' argument that Obama would not "keep us safe" from the terrorists, when the Americans who actually were attacked on 9/11, the citizens of Washington and New York, voted overwhelmingly for him. And there is something equally perverse today about the way in which millions of Americans who have never been to New York – and who hate the city from afar – have taken a far dimmer view on the question of the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" than have most New Yorkers themselves.
Last week, I visited Ground Zero, and saw the great chasm (now a major construction site) where, nine years ago, a small group of religious nihilists murdered three thousand people. St. Paul's Chapel, adjacent, holds a deeply moving display of photographs, placed in the succeeding days by hopeful loved ones of the missing, that went unclaimed as hope faded. The Church has retained them in the form of a makeshift memorial, one that I found far more touching than the memorial planned for the site itself when construction of the new World Trade Center is finally complete. It occurred to me that day that if anybody has a right to adjudicate on the question of the Ground Zero Mosque it ought to be New Yorkers. I don't agree with but I can at least comprehend the sentiment of the two-thirds of New Yorkers who have said that, while they agree with the legal right of the proposed center to be there, they would prefer it to be elsewhere. If anybody has a right to an irrational fear about this sort of thing it is them. Why the folks at Sarah Palin rallies in Armpit, South Dakota, or Bible-Belt fans of Rush Limbaugh suddenly care so much about issues of public safety in a city that they have never visited and detest for its liberalism and multiculturalism is easy enough to see: they actually don't care. But they do care about making political hay out of a non-issue, and all the better that they should do so at a time when fully a quarter of Republicans profess that they suspect their President is a Muslim. (We need hardly speculate about the percentage of those people who have even the foggiest notion of what Islam is.)
The proposed Mosque is not, incidentally, a Mosque at all, but a community center with a basketball court, a swimming pool, and a prayer room. And as many commentators have observed, Muslim worship is already going on in an old building at the site, as indeed it does daily at the Pentagon. Again, facts are the not the point.
Obama's response – which was that, as President, he ought to have no opinion on this matter –has been called typically clinical and academic, but you can bet that it was the result of a fairly lengthy discussion with advisors about how different response scenarios would "play" with various voting constituencies. (I suspect that it has been eons since any President has genuinely spoken his mind about an issue.) But it was also, coincidentally, the correct position for him to take. One of the fundamental principles of the American constitution, defended by its earliest and most important presidents, is that the state is secular and its citizens religiously autonomous. The same people who howl that Obama is a power-mad dictator and profess that they want "small government" now want him to exceed his constitutional authority on a very small matter that's no business of theirs.
On TV the other night some Fox News mercenary stated that the Mosque might be a breeding ground for terrorism, and "less than a mile" from the new World Trade Center, too. Does he believe that this danger is negated if the center was two miles away or ten? Does he think that terrorists are incapable of taking the subway? But what really caught my attention was something another commentator said: that the site was "sacred". Perhaps it is, but like many sacred things the believers themselves do not agree on what the significance of it is.
Next to St. Paul's, there is another temple, to the real religion of America: Century 21, a vast discount department store, where acreage of "designer" clothing, most of it manufactured in China, is marked down to something resembling its actual worth and set upon by throngs of people seeking salvation through middle-class conformity. I suspect that, when the history of the 21st century is written, the supposed clash of civilizations will have been deemed to have been decided in favour of that faith and none other.