There, that's much better!
While it is much more conducive to good mental health to approach Ross Douthat briefly, sidling up, risking a quick glance and then running away as fast as possible, Douthat's latest effort need more attention than a peek, a scream, and a giggle.
There’s an America where it doesn’t matter what language you speak, what god you worship, or how deep your New World roots run. An America where allegiance to the Constitution trumps ethnic differences, language barriers and religious divides. An America where the newest arrival to our shores is no less American than the ever-so-great granddaughter of the Pilgrims.
Yeah, it's funny how being persecuted for their religious beliefs made some of our early settlers turn against religious persecution. Our beloved constitution makes us a nation of laws, not mob rule, at least in theory. And our judges make sure the more ignorant among us doesn't get to decide what is constitutional and what isn't, since most people seem to think that their pet peeves and prejudices should be the law.
But there’s another America as well, one that understands itself as a distinctive culture, rather than just a set of political propositions. This America speaks English, not Spanish or Chinese or Arabic. It looks back to a particular religious heritage: Protestantism originally, and then a Judeo-Christian consensus that accommodated Jews and Catholics as well. It draws its social norms from the mores of the Anglo-Saxon diaspora — and it expects new arrivals to assimilate themselves to these norms, and quickly.
I was born a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. If I were any whiter I'd be transparent. I speak English, not Spanish (okay, a little Spanish) or Chinese. That doesn't make me special, it makes me ignorant, and jealous of those who speak more than one language. My ancestors were Protestant, Mormon, Jewish, Catholic, and Jehovah's Witnesses--and that's just four generations. My ancestors might have owned slaves, although we were probably too poor. We might have been indentured servants. Many were coal miners, one step away from extreme poverty, and their assimilation was, indeed, very quick, since they went from digging coal in Wales to digging coal in Pennsylvania to digging coal in Washington state. No problem assimilating there. They probably barely noticed what country they were in.
These two understandings of America, one constitutional and one cultural, have been in tension throughout our history. And they’re in tension again this summer, in the controversy over the Islamic mosque and cultural center scheduled to go up two blocks from ground zero.
As I have appointed myself the Official WASP spokesperson for the official WASP perspective, I hereby claim for all WASPkind that none of us care about a mosque going up in Manhattan. Manhattan is far away and I very seldom go there, so they can set up a Princess Sparkle Pony Castle of Unicorn Worship for all I care. I drive by a mosque every day in Texas, God's Country, land of all-American beer, football, and bigotry, so if we can suck it up, so can New Yorkers, who Ross Douthat is now telling us all are delicate flowers who must be protected from the dreaded Muslim menace. Maybe Douthat's ancestors hyperventilated about the Irish Catholic menace and Heathen Chinee menace and Nigerian menace, but mine were too busy trying to survive on the Mormon trail and in the Oregon forests and the Pennsylvania coal mines to get their lace panties in a snit about some other poor bastard just trying to survive long enough to raise his kids.
The first America, not surprisingly, views the project as the consummate expression of our nation’s high ideals. “This is America,” President Obama intoned last week, “and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable.” The construction of the mosque, Mayor Michael Bloomberg told New Yorkers, is as important a test of the principle of religious freedom “as we may see in our lifetimes.”
Our ancestors died in Europe and the South Pacific so we would have religious freedom. They believed in what they did and were proud to serve. They'd be ashamed of us if we gave away our freedom just because some pink-cheeked piglet of a bigot who refused to fight for his country wants us to betray everything they sacrificed for.
The second America begs to differ. It sees the project as an affront to the memory of 9/11, and a sign of disrespect for the values of a country where Islam has only recently become part of the public consciousness. And beneath these concerns lurks the darker suspicion that Islam in any form may be incompatible with the American way of life.
Bullshit. My position (The Official WASP Position, remember) is that 9/11 was a tragic confluence of bad men, bad governance, and bad foreign policy. And, once again, Muslims already are part of the American way of life without destroying Western Civilization at all. They shop in the same stores I shop in, they go to the movies like me, their kids go to the same schools as mine. We see each other at the zoo, the park, fabric stores, book stores, restaurants. We already live with each other just fine, and I do not appreciate some schmuck telling me I'm too stupid to realize that my fellow Houstonians are secretly plotting to throw a black sheet over my head and make me worship their god. If my parents couldn't get me to worship their god, some stranger sure as hell can't.
This is typical of how these debates usually play out. The first America tends to make the finer-sounding speeches, and the second America often strikes cruder, more xenophobic notes. The first America welcomed the poor, the tired, the huddled masses; the second America demanded that they change their names and drop their native languages, and often threw up hurdles to stop them coming altogether. The first America celebrated religious liberty; the second America persecuted Mormons and discriminated against Catholics.
The first America lives up to its ideals. The second America is bigoted and dangerous, jealous of power and privilege, swollen with self-love and undeserved pride and vanity. None of which are compatible with supposed superior Christian Anglo-Saxon values.
But both understandings of this country have real wisdom to offer, and both have been necessary to the American experiment’s success. During the great waves of 19th-century immigration, the insistence that new arrivals adapt to Anglo-Saxon culture — and the threat of discrimination if they didn’t — was crucial to their swift assimilation. The post-1920s immigration restrictions were draconian in many ways, but they created time for persistent ethnic divisions to melt into a general unhyphenated Americanism.
It's not that Lesser America was racist and xenophobic--it was just helping newcomers assimilate. It's not that they enjoyed petty power plays of social dominance and collective punishment--they were just ensuring that everyone who came to America abandoned their own culture for Northern European Protestant culture, which is superior than any other and therefore the ideal and goal of all immigrants. We're just better, that's all. Look at all that beautiful religious art the Catholic Church paid for. That proves Protestants are superior. And all those inventions by Southern Europeans in the Renaissance? That proves Northern Europeans are superior too. Arabia's mathematical genius? More proof. China's ingenuity? Even more proof. Everything proves that Ross Douthat's personal history is more special and more superior than any other peoples', and that's just the way it is.
The same was true in religion. The steady pressure to conform to American norms, exerted through fair means and foul, eventually persuaded the Mormons to abandon polygamy, smoothing their assimilation into the American mainstream.
Mormonism was created during this supposed Time Of Assimilation. Does Douthat not know that?
Nativist concerns about Catholicism’s illiberal tendencies inspired American Catholics to prod their church toward a recognition of the virtues of democracy, making it possible for generations of immigrants to feel unambiguously Catholic and American.
What was Catholicism's illiberal tendencies? Obedience to the pope? How does Catholicism go against democracy? What is he even talking about? Spit it out, man! Don't be coy. We couldn't possibly think worse of you then we already do.
So it is today with Islam. The first America is correct to insist on Muslims’ absolute right to build and worship where they wish. But the second America is right to press for something more from Muslim Americans — particularly from figures like Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam behind the mosque — than simple protestations of good faith.
We can accept other religions or we can be bigots; harass them and make them prove they are not planning to murder us in our beds to allay our illogical fears. Douthat chooses Door #2.
Too often, American Muslim institutions have turned out to be entangled with ideas and groups that most Americans rightly consider beyond the pale. Too often, American Muslim leaders strike ambiguous notes when asked to disassociate themselves completely from illiberal causes.
So do Christians. Does that mean we can get rid of them too?
By global standards, Rauf may be the model of a “moderate Muslim.” But global standards and American standards are different. For Muslim Americans to integrate fully into our national life, they’ll need leaders who don’t describe America as “an accessory to the crime” of 9/11 (as Rauf did shortly after the 2001 attacks), or duck questions about whether groups like Hamas count as terrorist organizations (as Rauf did in a radio interview in June). And they’ll need leaders whose antennas are sensitive enough to recognize that the quest for inter-religious dialogue is ill served by throwing up a high-profile mosque two blocks from the site of a mass murder committed in the name of Islam.
So as long as they don't insist on actually practicing their religion or dare to criticize their Christian betters, we'll tolerate their existence.
They’ll need leaders, in other words, who understand that while the ideals of the first America protect the e pluribus, it’s the demands the second America makes of new arrivals that help create the unum.
We must do what the bigots who betray the principles of our nation and their religion want, because they say so. And we must ignore the people who fight to preserve the values Douthat claims to uphold. Because Douthat is a white Christian male, the epitome of civilization, the embodiment of virtue, the protector of virginity and the defender of his faith. All cultures but his must be assimilated, all religions but his must be abandoned, all people must hail the superiority of the white race, the Christian God, and Western Imperialism.