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Thursday, August 19, 2010

Place

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.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Secularism and the Bane of Religion

My post on the little mosque in Manhattan caused a minor dividing among those I know. About half of those who commented upon it loved it and half hated it. I lost a long-time Facebook/Twitter friend whom I have never met because of it. I suppose I am actually pleased that the vast noise of public life is such that it has precious little possibility that I will have to defend this beyond the circle of my near and dear.

The most cogent and extended critique was from an old friend on Facebook, but alas his critique in my view simply exposed the degree to which liberal thought has devolved into sentiment and wishful thinking. (If he wishes, I will be happy to quote his entire reply as a comment to this post.) The right wing is given entirely to hysteria and lies, and the left wing adjudges its positioning almost exclusively as counterpoise to those it opposes. So the reactionary christians hate the muslims, so the muslims must be okay. Not my view. I do not determine what I think by reference to a bunch of whack job christians who think that Einstein is a liberal plot.

I am interested in figuring out how secularists should defend a free society against religion. I make no bones about it: I think that religion ... all religion ... is a proximate threat to a free society and the autonomous individual who seeks to exercise his or her rights within that free society. Frankly, private religious belief is harmless, if silly. But the public practice of religion is inimical to a free society, no matter the assorted niceties, because its underlying and motivating ideology is about the reduction of the free individual to the demands of an irrefutable truth. All the falderal about communities of faith and dialog and respect among the believers is a frank and open lie; they're winking at us. Those who believe without the possibility of contradiction that there is only one truth and their group has it, then ultimately that is the source from which they will act once they get the chance. The liberal religious, pretending that things are nice, will have no impact upon the ideological religious should the latter have the power to enforce their views. On this, see Iran ... see Saudi Arabia ... see Russia for that matter, or Nigeria.

The religious only ever pretend, fooling even themselves a lot of the time, that they are tolerant. Their tolerance is the product of their impotence. And they always seek to reverse that impotence. With the power to act the tolerance vanishes.

I don't trust religion, I don't have to, and no amount of billing and cooing among the believers and the sycophants will change my mind. They have slaughtered too many. And fags are always at the top of their bloodstained lists. Call me parochial, but I keep a running count of which religion slaughters the most fags. You know, and I know, that the trail of blood is long and horrible. I have some pictures of teenagers being hanged in Iran for those whose experience of the horrors of religion is less visceral than it is for me.

So back to the wee innocent harmless mosque in the shadow of those towers that no longer cast a shadow.

The New York Times reports that the hapless sponsors to he project were unprepared for the storm. That was foolish ... but their innocence, like the much ballyhooed innocence of religion ... has the ring of a convenient stance. Evidently they will need to raise a $100 million. The innocent don't do that. So we secularists, seeking to defend our society against a religion which openly states that we should be forced to believe their ideology and practice their religion, surely have the right to ask where that money will come from. How much of that money are we prepared to accept as coming from Saudi Arabia? Remember, now, that Saudi money has played an enormous role in the recrudescence of the most reactionary forms of Islam throughout the world; it has built and financed countless madrassas that preach a virulent hatred of the secular.

And what happens even if the mosque is built with clean money? What prevents its sponsors from being overwhelmed by a tidal wave from the vast right wing of the Muslim world? A mosque is a vastly easier place to infiltrate and take over than a church. What plans do these people have in place to prevent the hatreds that besmirch mosques all around the world? Do they have a plan to prevent it from becoming a cesspit of homophobia? Will they set up a shelter for women seeking refuge from the reactionary views of Islam on the place of women and the routine and accepted violence that is visited upon them? Are they willing to discuss these issues openly?

We have the right, indeed the duty, to ask these questions. Just as we have the right and the duty to ask them of the Roman persuasion with its history of hatred and bloodlust. But the same liberals who cackle and shriek when another priest is exposed with his hands down some skinny boy's pants choose to give a pass to a religion that actively and currently executes juveniles for the act of loving each other.

Liberal muslims, such few as they are, act as apologists for the unthinkable. We do not need to apologize with them.

And liberals at the very least should apply to islam the same standards they apply to the papists.

Some argue that this is a private property issue, that those who own the land can do what they want. Not exactly a liberal position we would want to apply to your next door neighbor's desire to turn his home into a strip club or the desire of some right wing whack job to dump toxic chemicals into the water supply. As I argued in my previous post, because religion demands of the state special tax privileges, the state has the right to examine the motivation and appropriateness of any temple that comes along. Certainly those of us who are the victims of religion have the right to question as we choose whether this abuse of tax privileges is warranted in one or another circumstance.

Ah, but surely that is a breach of the freedom of religion. But just as my freedom does not mean that I can piss on your lawn, so their freedom does not mean that they can use their tax privileges to oppose my liberty or life. The freedom of religion is the freedom to choose what you want to believe. It is not the freedom of organized religion to do whatever it damned well pleases.

So we come to the heart of the matter. There are lots of mosques ... too damned many in my view, but I have that same view of churches and temples and altars of all manner ... so why not a mosque two blocks from the scene of the Twin Towers massacre? There are two reasons why rational secularists can reasonably disagree with this locating: firstly, because it is an offense to a free society that an ideology that actively opposes it can dance on a battleground and, secondly, because this has the potential to be seen and used as proof to the believers that they were right and that the massacre of innocents was a blow in their favor.

As I said before, they have no shame. And we who oppose religious tyranny are free ... so far ... to call that shame down upon them.

My good friend wrote, "Religion does not cause such attacks, it merely excuses them." Sorry but that is nonsense on the one hand and a specious distinction on the other. If it excuses them in advance: if religious ratiocination is the agar on which the germs of murder grew, then what is the actual distinction between cause and prior excuse? This is what is relevant: what the 9/11 murderers did is another episode in a dominant theme in Islamic history certainly since the earliest post-prophet conflicts, the era of the so-called rashidûn, the "rightly-guided" caliphs who followed Muhammad, three of whom were murdered by fellow believers. Only old Abu Bakr managed to die in his bed. More than one observer, myself included, notes the direct lineage of the 9/11 murderers in the Khawârij, or kharijites, of the early islamic period. These were the fanatics who took the prophet at his word and thought that the faithful in community should actually control government. That strain of islamic thought has never died despite occasional bloody repressions. So ... and I am prepared to argue this at considerable, even intolerable, length ... the 9/11 murderers are thoroughly islamic. Moreover, the protest against their slaughter was muted at best in the muslim world, and to this day remains a heroic episode for vastly more muslims than are ashamed at it.

Liberals may think that muslims bear no responsibility for 9/11, but that is not the view of the muslim world. Remember, they are corporatists; we are the individualists. We excuse their religion where they broadly accept that the murderers acted in the name of their religion even when they do not agree with the act.

My friend objected that I was adopting the Huntington thesis. The curiosity here is that I believe that that the Muslim world generally does adopt the Huntington thesis. They do accept that there is a clash of civilizations. Some account needs to be taken of that.

Now, let me retrench a little. I do not think that there is any realistic hope that islam will moderate or develop a wing of genuine secularist accommodation. But I do think that economic forces will eventually carve out some areas in the muslim world that will pay less and less real attention to the demands of religion. Some have argued that the articulation of islam in the western world will create a ground upon which such a rational incursion into the medieval structure of the religion might occur. I don't see it, and current evidence does not support it, but if that is to occur, it will do so only in the context of a deliberate and pointed challenge. To paraphrase Mao, ideologies do not change because of tea parties. They change because of struggle.

We have to have to guts to challenge the reactionary and bloodthirsty character of islam, to call it to account. Caving in to it, treating it like a neighborhood Italian-American Culture Club of sorts, will only pave the way to further calumnies.

The religious are more panicked at being exposed than ever because their nonsense is more exposed than ever. That the rising tide of religiosity is able to dominate so much of the globe reflects not a return to religion but the bloodthirsty demand of religion that it, and it alone, has great and deep and ultimate truth. We have to say, "No."

And that is what I am saying. No! Build your temple somewhere else. We are a free society. We do not accept the reactionary demands of any religion. And we do not have to. Yet.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Ground Zero and the Much Ballyhooed Religion of Peace


A few weeks back a young socialist friend of the gay family was in town, and we got into a rollicking argument about "islamophobia". His position, reduced by his opponent, was that there are nice Muslims and the bad ones are rare and contrary to the spirit of the thing. My position was that in matters of religion no matter how large the pile of nice believers, you must always look to the leaders. It was, as I say, a rollicking argument, and my young friend eventually was exhausted by my intansigence, pronounced me an islamophobe, and terminated the discussion.

Before I go on, lest my young friend read this, I have to add that I enjoyed the discussion, admire his commitment, crave his respect, and desperately want him not to not like me.

But his representations on islamophobia fill me with dread. When socialists, let alone liberals, defend religion, they tread on very thin ice. Even more egregious is the theft of the application of the suffix -phobia to a religious point of view. We can never forget that religion is an implacable enemy of freedom, and that when it pretends to be a friend to anyone who seeks freedom, it is lying in order later to show its true intentions.

So first, the -phobia nonsense. It was an innovation of the gay movement to understand that the loathing of gay people by our enemies had the characteristics of a mental disease. The red-faced, palpitating rage and the visceral revulsion suggested that those who hated us could not see our humanity through the twisted lens of their own disturbed psyches. We called that a phobia in the same sense that an irrational fear can propel a person to irrational acts.

But to label as a phobia the entirely rational opposition to a religion which has a 1300 year history of murder, repression, torment, and, yes, terrorism ... well, that is a retreat from reason. I am not afraid of Islam in some irrational sense like some people are afraid of open spaces or homosexuals. I have studied it, I wrote a dissertation about it, I have travelled in Muslim countries and have counted Muslims among my friends. But no amount of familiarity has blinded me to this indisputable fact: Islam is an enemy of freedom; it demands not merely of its adherents but of everyone that they surrender their individual rights to its demands.

Defense of the freedom of religion does not require the endorsement of religion. I support your right to believe any nonsense you want, to elevate any fairy tale you want to the status of life-determining philosophy. But I demand that the state protect the rest of us from religion's incessant need to force others into that idiocy.


There is presently a lot of liberal angst about the conservative opposition to a mosque proposed for land close by the former Twin Towers. Liberals need to think again. I'll get back to that. In the meanwhile, imagine this: what if Fred Phelps bought the yawning empty pit next door to the San Francisco Gay Community Center on market Street and proposed to build a church there which would house a God Hates Fags Research Center. would we oppose that? What if the Dutch Muslims wanted to build a shrine on the same street where some of their co-religionists bloodthirstily murdered Theo Van Gogh? What if the Catholics wanted to build a cathedral outside Auschwitz called the Cathedral of Pius XII?

The religious always say that certain places are more holy than others. This too is a fantasy, but we are forced to accept it. So I accept that I can never wander into the Kaaba unless I believe their nonsense. I accept that I should adopt an attitude of reverence when I am in Notre Dame de Paris. But they don't accept the corollary that they have to stay out of my places, keep their moralizing demonology to themselves outside of their little perquisites.

So I think the notion that a mosque be built next to Ground Zero is an offense to freedom-loving people. Have these people no shame? Their religion was the proximate cause of a foul murder. That many of their number do not endorse murder is irrelevant. Most Germans probably didn't want Jews exterminated under the Nazis, but that was of no consequence in the event. Most Iranian Muslims are against the bloody executions carried out in their names, but it does not stop their leaders.

Secular society thrives because we have established that religion and the state are separate. Islam has not quite learned the lesson, and certainly Christianity is doing its best to unlearn the lesson. Religion seeks its special privileges, including tax holidays, special spaces, and public respect which it does not merit. But when we cash in the other side of the deal by telling religion to keep away from the sites of its particular horrors, they cry out phobia phobia phobia.

Individuals should be free. But religion must always remain under suspicion. For it is always ready to reclaim its blood right to destroy the society which tolerates it.

The mosque at Ground Zero would become an international Muslim tourist mecca. Secularists are right to demand that it never be built. As a gay man, I know what that religion has in store for me should it assume power. What if some fanatic wanted to build a mosque on Castro Street in San Francisco? No way.

That's what we have to say to religion ... no way. Keep your bigotry to yourselves. Respect the spaces where your religion has created horror, just as you demand that we respect your special spaces. And show some shame for the horrors committed in your name.