Posted by: Harold Knight | 08/18/2010

“Cry, Our Beloved Country”—The Cordoba House and Real Insensitivity

When one references a literary work, one runs the risk of being thought to be making connections one does not intend. The heading on this post is intended solely as an expression of my current distress—apprehension—despair about the vitriol and incivility of what is touted as political discourse in my beloved country. The unnecessary and idiotic controversy regarding Cordoba House (Park51 Islamic Cultural Center) near Ground Zero in New York has caused my distress.

Of course, if you remember Alan Paton’s novel, Cry, the Beloved Country, and the distress of the characters brought about largely by racism and oppression in South Africa and want to make connections, you are welcome to do so.

The Hebrew Congregation at Newport, Rhode Island, was founded in 1658 when fifteen Jewish families immigrated to the New World. Its synagogue, the second built in the colonies, and now the oldest extant synagogue in the United States, was built in 1763. On August 18, 1790, as is well-known, President George Washington wrote in a letter to the Congregation,

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support (1).

The Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” This is, Washington said, because “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.”

One “immunity[y] of citizenship” in the United States is the right to own property. One of our most beloved phrases defining our rights, not only as citizens, but from birth as persons “created equal,” comes from John Locke’s formulation that all people have the rights of life, liberty, and property (2). The right to own property is basic to Americans’ freedom.

It may seem so self-evident that to point it out is ludicrous, but a city exists only as a conglomerate of parcels of land owned by various persons. Philosophers since before Aristotle have tried to define the nature of a city. Greek thinkers struggled first to define the “city” (state/nation) and then to delineate what makes a person a citizen of a city (state/nation). In her book on the development of Greek society, Arlene W. Saxonhouse says,

It is the sharing [emphasis in original] of the place that defines the city, but the sharing does not mean that each one owns the whole. . .Aristotle’s vision [is] of a patchwork quilt where each part owns a patch, but there is still a quilt. They share in the whole by possessing a part. . . (3).

Saxonhouse follows Aristotle’s complex discussion of what is necessary besides possessing property to be a citizen of a city (state/nation). Her  argument (explaining his) is so involved that jumping to its conclusion is most likely absurd, but I will do so regardless.

The political art is to understand the need for diversity within the city and not to fear it, to acknowledge that it is the diversity that, while building the city, can never bring about a city that has escaped the conflicts of political claims. To be human is to be a part of a city that is neither whole nor stable. . . Aristotle celebrates life in all its many confusions and debates. In accepting the “city of parts” and demanding that we see its parts. . . [he] opens the door for a diversity. . . Diversity previously had meant the need for suppression or destruction. . . .for Aristotle it means life. . . (4).

George Washington reassures the Hebrew Congregation at Truro that, “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.” Aristotle argues that the art of politics demands that we understand the “need for diversity within the city” (beginning with owning property). To be human is to be part of a city (state). However, to be human is necessarily to be part of a city (state) that is not “stable.” This is to possess “the immunities of citizenship.” The immunities (the guarantees) are not stable because of the diversity of the citizenry, but they are dynamic. And the diversity means not suppression, but life. Citizens, according to Washington, possess the immunities (guarantees) of liberty—even in their diversity. And one of those immunities is the right to own property.

This business of the supposed “insensitivity” of the Islamic Cultural Center is an attempt at the same “suppression or destruction” of diversity that Aristotle’s predecessors envisioned. The continued use of the word “insensitivity” in relation to the Mosque is a cover, a smokescreen for a fear of diversity. George Orwell describes this prospect of creating a smokescreen.

All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer. . . .But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation, even among people who should and do know better (5).

The “bad usage” of the word “insensitivity” has spread like wildfire. First one person described the Cordoba Initiative’s plans as “insensitive.” The word was picked up by certain politicos, and it immediately corrupted the thought of a mass of Americans. Exactly why the plan is “insensitive” cannot be explained. Objections to the word can be “explained away,” but the “insensitivity” itself cannot be explained. Is it because men whose Muslim beliefs had been radicalized beyond all recognition were responsible for Ground Zero? How is it, then, that building the Islamic Cultural Center is “insensitive” to the Muslims who died on September 11? It would be “sensitive” to allow Muslims to exercise their right to free expression by establishing a place where true Islam can be explained, taught, and practiced. The movement not to permit it has nothing to do with the perpetrators of the events of 9/11. It is simply to “suppress and destroy” freedom or to deny Muslims the “enlarged and liberal policy” of possessing “inherent natural rights” Washington spoke of. The word “insensitive” has become the code word for “not deserving.”

Orwell continues his description of political speech (the nonsensical use of “insensitivity”).

Political language—and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists—is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind (6).

The true “insensitivity” is the continued demonization of our neighbors and friends—Muslims of Arab descent, Muslims of hybrid American descent, Muslims of South Asian descent, Muslims. To continue to punish and ostracize Americans for the terror they did not cause—and which they suffered with the rest of us—is worse than “insensitive.” If I were accustomed to using such language, I would say it is evil.

(1) Meacham, Jon. American Gospel” God, The Founding Fathers, and The Making of a Nation. New York: Random House, 2006 (261).
(2) Locke, John. Second Treatise of Government.  E-text. Orgeon State University. 1996. Web. 15 Aug 2010.

(3) Saxonhouse, Arlene W. Fear of Diversity: The Birth of Political Science in Ancient Greek Thought. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1992 (200).
(4) ibid, 232
(5) Orwell, George. “Politics and the English Language.” In William Smart. Eight Modern Essayists.Third Ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1980 (170).
(6) idem.


%d bloggers like this: