August
14th 2010
Profiles in Courage?

Posted under: American history

Seriously?  Because President Obama has read and can reasonably interpret the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution?  (You know–the one he swore to preserve, protect, and defend?)

As a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America. And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country and that they will not be treated differently by their government is essential to who we are. The writ of the Founders must endure.

I’ve been traveling today so I haven’t kept up with all of the chatter, but I heard about this last night from the BBC World Service as I tried to fall sleep, and wondered at all of the play it was getting when Obama’s comments seem so obvious.  What was the big friggin’ deal?  The statement was made at a Ramadan observance at the White House last night, so it was an appropriate venue for the President to make his statement.  It’s a perfect issue on which Obama might express an opinion–since it’s really a local issue over which he has no real authority.  (Unlike say ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, which he could do with the stroke of a pen, or a host of other campaign promises made that are still unfulfilled.)  So he can’t raise expectations here–he was just handing out a warm slanket to his guests, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  But there are people out there who think Obama’s statement is the awesomest, hopey-changiest thing they’ve heard for at least 18 months, apparently: 

Obama’s core declaration here is as simple and clear a statement about what’s really at stake in this fight as one could have asked for. Obama argued that an “unshakable” devotion to the notion that all faiths are “welcome” is “essential to who we are,” thus casting this as a larger argument over the bedrock moral principles that are the foundation of American identity.

Obama issued this statement in the full knowledge that his opponents have been itching for him to wade into this battle. The right is engaged in a concerted effort to make it politically toxic to stand up for the rights of Muslims — and to simultaneously insinuate that Obama is on “their” side, and not on ours. . . .

Yet Obama entered the fray anyway, in dramatic fashion, asserting that our identy rests on “our capacity to show not merely tolerance, but respect towards those who are different from us.” [ed. note:  Did he neglect to mention the importance of mothers and apple pie in this bold, new vision of our national identity?  Or was that too controversial?]  Crucially, Obama also cast support for the religious freedom of Muslim Americans as key to winning the battle with Al Qaeda, even as he hailed the service of Muslim Americans in our military. In so doing, Obama directly confronted the demagoguery at the core of much of the opposition to this project.

Yegads.  If the left is not only willing but apparently eager to settle for crumbs–that is, a statement reiterating settled Constitutional law–then it gets the presidents it deserves.

23 Comments »

23 Responses to “Profiles in Courage?”

  1. Roxie on 14 Aug 2010 at 10:47 pm #

    Oh, Historiann, I heart you so, you teller of truths. Leave it to a cowgirl to walk into a barn and say, “Wow, there sure is a lot of manure in here!”

  2. Historiann on 15 Aug 2010 at 7:29 am #

    Thank, Roxie. I’m getting pretty sick and tired of all these damned naked emperors in the WH.

  3. koshem Bos on 15 Aug 2010 at 8:27 am #

    Sadly, the left has failed to understand many thing and in this case they failed to see that the real controversy has nothing to do with religious tolerance. There are religious acts that will surely inflame feelings. For instance, building a synagogue in Mecca or a mosque in a concentration camp or a church on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Kind of don’t scream fire inside a movie theater full of people.

    The left didn’t try to convince the public that the Cordoba House isn’t screaming fire; the faux left just declared that the mosque is kosher and demanded full acceptance. Obama just gave platitudes.

  4. disappointed on 15 Aug 2010 at 9:42 am #

    The snideness of this post is a little off-putting, but what’s really disappointing is that it’s a straw-man argument. Just because some folks on the left find Obama’s statement laudable doesn’t mean they are “settling for crumbs.” No one on the left, including the writer quoted, is actually saying that, because Obama has made this statement, his entire presidency is therefore an unqualified success and he is absolved of responsibility to do anything else. *Certainly* no one is saying that because Obama has spoken for the first-amendment rights of Muslims, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell suddenly doesn’t need to be addressed. Maybe I misread what you mean be “settling for crumbs”; I think a reasonable gloss of that phrase would be, ‘accept something meager as a substitute for something more substantial and appropriate.’ But who ever said this statement was a substitute for something else? It’s just a thing in itself, which observers are free to evaluate on its merits. And though it certainly isn’t earth-shattering, or anything more than what a president should say in this circumstance, it is, on its own (albeit small) merits, laudable. Evaluating it as a substitute for other things that no actual person is comparing it to is intellectually insincere, at best.

    If a floundering student in your class, at long last and in a pleasant surprise, made a perceptive and appropriate comment in class, you would respond by affirming the student’s comment — not by saying, ‘Why didn’t you turn your last paper in on time?’ (Even the most derelict student understands that doing one small thing right [making a good comment in class] doesn’t erase his responsibilities to do other, bigger things [write papers and turn them in on time].) And you *certainly* wouldn’t demean the student’s comment because you’re mad at him for his failings elsewhere. You would evaluate the comment as a thing in itself and address the student’s other issues in more appropriate contexts. Yes, yes, an undergraduate student and the president of the United States are not the same, of course. But intellectual unfairness is intellectual unfairness wherever it appears, and I think this post is guilty.

  5. Dickens Reader on 15 Aug 2010 at 10:03 am #

    I don’t see how having power over a student with direct contact via a professor/student dynamic is the same as criticizing a president as a person he is responsible for governing. The president made promises, the student did not.

  6. Bill Harshaw on 15 Aug 2010 at 10:37 am #

    Don’t ask, don’t tell is law, not something Obama can undo himself. From Wikipedia:

    Don’t ask, don’t tell (DADT) is the common term for the policy restricting the United States military from efforts to discover or reveal closeted gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members or applicants, while barring those who are openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual from military service. The restrictions are mandated by federal law Pub.L. 103-160 (10 U.S.C. § 654).

  7. Z on 15 Aug 2010 at 11:04 am #

    You may not realize that this WAS brave in the face of what the Christian right actually thinks about freedom of religion and so on. It’s essentially freedom to choose among Protestand sects that they want, and freedom to impose these upon others. The degree of violence and the depth of hatred there is is *very* hard to imagine but in that context standing up for any form of reason or tolerance, no matter how mild, is risky personally to say the least. I’m not saying that’s good or that Obama AND OTHERS shouldn’t express himself more often and more forcefully on these matters. I’m just pointing out what the climate is like in much of the country.

  8. Indyanna on 15 Aug 2010 at 11:16 am #

    Bloomberg has done a much better job on it, early, and often, and viscerally (rather than belatedly, nuanced, and quickly “recalibrated”–NY Times today), and from *much* closer to the line of fire. It seems bizarre that a national leader simultaneously reported to be unleashing drone-strikes on Quaeda sites in a broadening array of global places feels in the least disempowered to speak out forcefully on a domestic civil liberties and constitutional issue. What more should you need to shush up a buzzcut car dealer from Kenosha, Wisconsin, loudly parading as a congressional representative?

  9. koshem Bos on 15 Aug 2010 at 11:18 am #

    In defense of Historiann, Obama’s comments and arguments are not to be evaluate vs the right wingers and their priests. He basically is evaluated by the center and the left. In the Cordoba House (where does the name come from? The last Muslim empire to bloom?), Obama throw a self evident statement and done it late. That’s a behavior of a tail and not a head. Because our left is arrogant and hateful, they cannot evaluate a politician beyond vague promises. Then they, and us, get Obama. Indeed crumbs.

  10. Historiann on 15 Aug 2010 at 12:28 pm #

    Whatever. I just think it’s sad that Obama has given the left so little to cheer, but that some are so pathetically eager to cheer at something that they’ll jump on this as evidence of presidential bravery. Indyanna is right–Bloomberg has been on the side of the Constitutional angels as well as right on the politics, and he’s someone who’s butt is in fact on the line.

    “Disappointed,” if you want to cheer Obama, go right ahead. I’m just saying I don’t get all the fuss. And if you don’t like the “snideness” of my “tone” here, feel free to click away.

  11. Rebecca on 16 Aug 2010 at 7:35 am #

    What I find disappointing here is your unwillingness even to engage with some of the thoughtful responses to your post that some of your devoted readers have posted. Are you so convinced that you are correct in your thinking that you find it obnoxious to consider any interpretations that differ from own? “Feel free to click away” is an incredibly rude, dismissive, and immature response to a sincere attempt to discuss the issues you put forward in your post. Unless you happen to know “Disappointed,” and there is some angsty subtext that the rest of us readers can’t decode, your response seems way out of proportion to the situation.

    And, my response is *not* to “click away,” since I do enjoy reading your interpretations of current events, your musings about current scholarship, and your engagement with popular culture. I do not always agree with your interpretations, but that does not prevent me from checking back and continuing to read this blog.

  12. Historiann on 16 Aug 2010 at 8:01 am #

    I’m never allowed to dismiss a single comment, ever? I guess women bloggers, like women faculty, are expected to engage in care work that other bloggers aren’t expected to.

    “Disappointed” has never made a comment here before, and sounds an awful lot like the concern trolls I get whenever I am critical of President Obama. Ze also falls into the hectoring on other feminist blogs in which women are lectured on their “tone,” and when that happens I’m not likely to engage their ideas (such as they are.)

    You have a strange interpretation of *my* blog space. I don’t make any dough doing this, so I don’t know what I owe my “devoted readers.” People are free to disagree, and yes, to click away.

  13. Rebecca on 16 Aug 2010 at 9:07 am #

    You make a good point about not owing your readings anything. I don’t follow the comments to your blog closely, so I’m not familiar with the “comment trolls” (or, until now, that term) of whom you speak.

  14. Historiann on 16 Aug 2010 at 9:11 am #

    Thanks for the reply, Rebecca.

    Concern trolls are commenters who come to a blog (usually in a hit-and-run) and express “concern” about the “tone” of a post, and pretend to be quite wounded by it all, usually while condescending to the blogger and/or other commenters and explaining that they *would* be in agreement with the ideas expressed if it weren’t for all that unseemly anger or aggression.

  15. Z, the 2008 Kucinich Fan on 16 Aug 2010 at 10:35 am #

    Well, perhaps I give too much credit, but I live among the members of the Tea Party and “Rapture Right” and they are violent / irrational / intimidating, and what they have to say about Obama, race, Islam, African Americans and Arabs is scary.

    I keep thinking O. is moderating so as not to hurt the chances of Democratic candidates like Charlie Melancon, who might be able to replace David Vitter in the US Senate but will need Republican votes to do this. I can really see wisdom in that strategy if it is one.

    At the same time Obama/Clinton are both Patriot Act fans so far as I can tell, and supporters of events such as the Honduran coup in addition to various other things, so I should stop feeling sorry for these Democrats and making excuses for them.

  16. Profane on 16 Aug 2010 at 11:29 am #

    To add a concrete example to Koshem Boss’s first post, building a Carmelite nunnery at Auschwitz.

    This whole turn of events is disturbing on a number of levels – not only that an affirmation of basic 1st amendment rights is seen as courageous, but also that in the current (noxious) atmosphere, it is yet another illustration of the tin ear of the White House political operation. Ugh.

  17. disappointed on 16 Aug 2010 at 11:43 am #

    Historiann, I think you’re absolutely right that I shouldn’t have begun a comment by calling out your tone. I don’t like it when people do that to me, and I agree that it’s a very gender-unequal way of framing criticisms. I owe you an apology for that. But I’m not a troll, I’m a lurker (I think that’s slightly less objectionable, right?). As Rebecca intuited, I am an admirer and regular reader of this blog for a variety of reasons, and I was driven to comment on a post that elicited a strongly negative reaction in me, perhaps partly as a way to think through my own reaction, but also, I think, because I do feel a sort of investment in this blog as a discursive community. (That probably means I ought to be commenting more, and under a real or at least consistent name — I get that now.) I know that you don’t make any dough doing this, Historiann, and I agree that you don’t owe your readers anything, but I did think part of the motivation for blogging was to communicate with an audience and get reactions to one’s ideas. If I had been less intemperate in my original comment, I would have restricted myself to saying only the below, which I think remains a valid (and, I hoped, constructive) point in the discussion you started Obama’s statement on the NYC mosque.

    Just because some folks on the left find Obama’s statement laudable doesn’t mean they are “settling for crumbs.” No one on the left, including the writer quoted, is actually saying that, because Obama has made this statement, his entire presidency is therefore an unqualified success and he is absolved of responsibility to do anything else. *Certainly* no one is saying that because Obama has spoken for the first-amendment rights of Muslims, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell suddenly doesn’t need to be addressed. Maybe I misread what you mean be “settling for crumbs”; I think a reasonable gloss of that phrase would be, ‘accept something meager as a substitute for something more substantial and appropriate.’ But who ever said this statement was a substitute for something else? It’s just a thing in itself, which observers are free to evaluate on its merits. And though it certainly isn’t earth-shattering, or anything more than what a president should say in this circumstance, it is, on its own (albeit small) merits, laudable. Evaluating it as a substitute for other things that no actual person is comparing it to is intellectually insincere.

  18. Dickens Reader on 16 Aug 2010 at 11:51 am #

    When it is laudable to do what is expected, the bar is set too low.

  19. Historiann on 16 Aug 2010 at 12:42 pm #

    What Dickens Reader said, exactly. That’s what I meant by the expression “settling for crumbs.”

    In many ways, the low bar explains the rise and triumph of Obama in the first place. Being the not-Bush with no record of problematic votes he had to cast while gaining actual experience in Washington were his major credentials. Not having major experience either in Washington or in any executive office clearly has hurt his presidency. I almost never link to The New Republic (unless it’s to mock something published there), but I found this analysis of the problems with Obama’s governing strategy as well as his specific tactics is extremely acute: John Judis, “The Unnecessary Fall: A Counter-History of the Obama Presidency.” (Regular readers will have seen most of the opinions therein expressed in various different ways here over the past 18 months.)

    We need a bold leader willing to take the heat, not the post-partisan unity schtick. Readers are free to disagree, but I don’t think that giving Obama cookies for endorsing the First Amendment is anything but silly. I don’t see why that’s at all “intellectually sincere.” So “disappointed,” please show me the posts in which I have claimed otherwise, or have praised people inordinately for being able to read and comprehend the First Amendment.

  20. Historiann on 16 Aug 2010 at 12:49 pm #

    p.s. to Z: I don’t think Obama is moderating to help anyone else. At least, House Dems seem pretty unanimously to think that both he and the Senate have forced them to take the tough votes, then let them hang out to dry. They don’t think he was helpful when his approval ratings were in the 60s, and now that they’re in the mid-40s, the ones you cite sure as hell don’t want him setting foot in their CDs during the campaign.

    Being moderate and unconfrontational is who Obama. For more perspective on this, read the Judis article, if you have a spare 15 minutes today.

  21. Aishlin on 16 Aug 2010 at 5:37 pm #

    I heard on the radio (NPR, I think?) that Obama backpedaled on that statement, saying that he was only asserting that Muslims had a legal right to build a mosque on private property, not that these particular plans were a good idea. IIRC, he even went so far as to say he thought the Cordoba House shouldn’t be built on the proposed site. Pretty disappointing. On the other hand, they also had some poll showing that 60% of Americans agreed with the Republican/Tea Partier line on the issue, which I think explains why some liberals would greet Obama’s first statement as courageous. That was generally how I felt about Obama when I supported him in the election, anyway. I didn’t expect his political stances to reflect my views that closely, but I was impressed whenever he stood even a little to the left, since he seemed to take so much heat for that. I’m not impressed anymore, and I’ve come to agree with something you said on here: I’m tired of supporting these Democrats just to see them toss women and gay people under the bus. But because I thought during the elections that I wasn’t one of those deluded Obama fans, that I wasn’t idealizing him or expecting more than he was actually promising, it always stings a little when you point out the naivete of so many Obama supporters –which is not to say that you shouldn’t be angry, just that occasionally, if not very often, the people who leave angry comments on Obama topics aren’t trolls with anti-feminist expectations but defensive female Obama supporters (or, like me, former Obama supporters) upset at feeling that, even among feminists, they can’t quite manage to get it right. At least, at the times when I’ve been tempted to leave comments like the first one by Disappointed, that was my motivation.

  22. Z on 16 Aug 2010 at 6:13 pm #

    Obama, moderate and non confrontational, sure, although I’d actually say conservative (just not rabid right). Judis article, yes, I know the record and if I were in Obama’s place I’d lead.

    But I still say, the air waves here are SO anti Moslem and anti First Amendment generally, I see why the odd rational statement on these matters stands out.

  23. quixote on 17 Aug 2010 at 10:43 am #

    This is the second time Obama has backpedaled on what’s right, isn’t it? (There are only two occasions that I remember, so he’s only had two chances.) The first was the Gates – Cambridge Police affair, when he said the cops over-reacted. Now there’s L’Affaire Mosque.

    Have there been any others? Has there ever been one where he came down on the right side and didn’t backpedal?

    (Also, thanks to Aishlin for explaining. At least for me, it’s too easy to forget some of the other viewpoints. Remember: you were insistently and skillfully lied to. I’d say it speaks well for *your* honesty that you expected honesty. There’s a reason why many of the people who didn’t support him were older.)