Thursday, August 19, 2010


Frank Rich's piece on the little mosque in Manhattan today, as is the norm with Rich's writing, cleared the haze so as to better focus on the key determinants. He argues that the hysterical right opposition to the mosque betrays their hero General Petraeus and his efforts in the Afghanistan war which increasingly only the far right supports. In other words, the right wing, if it were true to its principles, should favor Park51, as the wee mosque is often agnostically labeled.

It has been some time since the American right wing has been true to any principle other than naked cynicism, and this is Rich's underlying point. But the corollary of this argument to me is that a principled opposition to a cynical religious project by secularists should not be stymied by the fact that the far right is in its usual purple rage about everything and anything. I oppose the project because I believe that civil society has the right to defend itself against religion and its lies and depredations, and its cynical sleight of hand and misdirection. I don't see Islam as a religion of peace any more than I see Catholicism as a defender of life or an educator of youth. New York has the right to determine zoning, and it should determine that no further religious structures should be built near the former twin towers.

All the current ratatat-tat-tat about the aforementioned little mosque in Manhattan has got me thinking in a larger sense about place. And the place of place. It is a curious contradiction in secular society that religion places so much emphasis on place, and then, their faces plain with unctuous honesty, asks us to forget about it when it suits their ends. In other words, religion proposes that certain places are more holy than others, and demands that everyone respect their determination of which places are to be so deemed. But then it backs up and says that it has the right to change the meaning of any given place without reference to any thoughts or opposition that secular society and secular individuals might have about it. They always insist that they be recognized as holding all the cards and that we submit to them.

Christian churches have argued that zoning does not apply to them, that environmental legislation does not apply to them. They run tax-free businesses that compete with their non-religious neighbors. They demand special access to education and the public purse. I am against all of that for all religions. I think secular society should always be righteously suspicious about religion in all its endeavors.

Liberal thought betrays itself when it adopts without critique the prejudices and demands of religious thought. And nowhere is the conceit of religion more evident than in its demands about place.

Various senses of place. We all enjoy what I will call the Walt Whitman sense of place: the numinous refraction of the calm majesty of life in the quiet and solitude of nature, in the waves of sensation created by wind and light and weather. As the trees bend and the grain undulates, as the birds soar and the insects hover, so our souls move in syncopation, stirring our being in harmony and in contrast to the land, water, and sky which are our home.

We liberals seek to hold on to that beauty through parks and reserves and respect for nature. I say it is precisely our secularism that opens us to the necessity of preserving nature ... those who have bought into some gawd or other can cheaply and egotistically dispense with nature in favor of the supernatural. They abandon the presence of place for the immanence of the divine. It is this "zero-sum divider" that permits the religious to adopt all manner of positions that are inimical to the expressed spirit of their own imaginary system. Yes we may be stewards of the earth, they say, but given the greatness of gawd, we still want our Hummers. When they experience the Walt Whitman sense of place, they pin it on their gawd, and thereby are vastly more likely to miss the responsibility of civil society to protect the beauty, to guard nature against our baser instincts.

Then there is the architectural sense of place. Staring up at the Empire State Building in amazement. Contemplating the Golden Gate Bridge. Indeed, marveling at Saint Chappelle in Paris. I find great comfort in the still majesty of great cathedrals and I loathe with an abiding passion the unwashed tourists who have no sense of place. I love to contemplate the ancient stones and wonder at the horrors and the pageants that they have witnessed.

It is a curiosity of modern secular life that we can imbibe place without being its victim, that we can appreciate the whispers of ancient and outmoded thought without giving up our intellect to it. The religious hate this. To this day, muslims carefully guard access to their holy places and are deeply suspicious of the presence of blasphemers and those think it is all a bunch of piffle. christians in the West put up with it because they are such an endangered species, except in this font of religious idiocy, these good old United States of America. Johann Hari's recent piece "The Slow, Whining Death of British Christianity" amply captures the political contradictions.

There is another sense of place which the religious loathe, and that is the sense of private place. At the end of long day, after the dog walk when I close the front door for the last time, I am wrapped in my personal space, the private realm where my objects and my "family" and my animals and most importantly my books warm my being and give me for those few short hours before sleep a sense that I am whole and free and, frankly, safe. The sense of private place is the great invention of modern life. It is what allows us in a practicable sense to be autonomous individuals, to choose how we live and with whom we live. Without private place, the forces of social conformity, religion chief among them, have vastly greater pull upon our lives.

When I used to hang out in Indonesia, I frequently had the experience of my host checking in on me or sending some offspring to intervene with me when I had been locked alone in my room for too long. There is a cultural predilection in Indonesia that the person alone is lonely and abandoned. They sought only to make me happy, not realizing that my happiness at the moment when the door was closed was predicated precisely upon my being in solitude.

I love Indonesia. I am fascinated by religion. I live for the exquisite whispers of place and context. But I am a free person, and I live in a free society. I am, and we should be, suspicious of those who seek to predetermine place and context, who seek to tell us who to love, what to think, and how to act. No part of me forgets that threat ever. And when I think of the horror of 9/11, I realize that it was an imposition, still broadly unrepented in the muslim world, upon a free society of exactly that idea that something, a religion, is greater than freedom. The idea that such an idea can build a temple to itself in the very shadow of the horrors of what it means is anathema to me. It should be anathema to anyone who loves our freedom from religion and its bloody trail of misery.

That is because place does matter. We, the lovers of freedom, must demand and secure our own sense of place and not surrender it to those who loathe everything we stand for.

All photos from my 2006 photo essay on Paris.

1 comment:

hungarian.manufacturing said...

I enjoyed reading this thoughtful post, and there's much there that I find interesting, but imo you're not looking closely enough...

911 wasn't an attack by a religion or in the name of a believe this is to overlook the... reality of many decades of complex and powerful political, military, intelligence, and economic machinations, much of it covert, by the U.S. in the Middle East. It ignores that the U.S. has had a very selfish and aggressive interest in this region of the world for a very long time, and that it has a long promiscuous list of very shady bed partners from this region of the world. It ignores that 911 is part of a cause and effect history that has significantly less to do with religion than it does power and profit.

There are those who will benefit by the widespread existence of such a naive belief...they need an "enemy" to keep the spotlight away from their own protected and covert political/corporate agendas, and with this smoke and mirror issue they have carefully cultivated one. This is a time-honored strategy that never seems to fail - that uses "lies and depredations" and "cynical sleight of hand and misdirection" to manipulate public opinion and stir up a smokescreen of hysteria. The bugaboo of religion has been used for thousands of years to psych op the masses and distract them from more covert motives and strategies of conquest. As a gay man, you're aware of this strategy and know how effective it is.

The opposition to a muslim cultural center two blocks away on private property is shown for what it is when it is loudly asserted that ground zero is "holy space" (appeals to christians), or "protected space" (appeals to anti-religionists). If these assertions of "place" were authentic, these same people surely would have years ago raised a howl over the seedy bars, peepshows, tacky lingerie boutiques, tenements, etc...that are also within close and even closer radius. And there isn't a word said about the corporations that headquarter in this newly created "holy space"...corporations that cause immensely more destruction and kill enormously more living beings than 911, as they toxify and exploit people and the entire ecosphere for their power and profit. Also, if it were truly an opposition to religion illegitimately taking a "place" in the contrived "holy space", then there would have been an outcry against Trinity Church a long time ago, about which nary a peep have we heard (much more convenient to just go after the "bad" religion). Where were the secularists and their belief that the "place" must be protected from the nastiness of religion before the Muslim cultural center issue surfaced?

There is a segment of our population that is casting around blindly for an enemy to crucify for 911, but they're not willing or daring enough to look more than superficially for this enemy...and they have conveniently been handed one that appeals to both hidden Christian and secular xenophobia.

When liberals and progressives buy into the contrived argument that says they need to protect this fantasy of "place" against a Muslim cultural center two blocks away on private property, they directly support the toxic anti-freedom agenda of those in our society that liberals and progressives normally would never support and that they actively oppose in other social issues.

Make no mistake about it...those that would prevent this cultural center from being built would happily throw you on a bonfire to protect themselves from their own fears of "other".