The sadly predictable hue and cry over President Obama’s comments regarding the proposed building of a mosque near the site of the former World Trade Center towers almost invariably get it wrong. Contrary to his supporters and contrary as well to critics who demagogue the question for partisan political mileage, the only correct position for any elected official from town councilman to president to take in this case is as follows:
Shut the f*ck up.
Presuming the proposed mosque would break no pre-existing laws, elected officials have no more business expressing any opinion whatsoever on the propriety, sensitivity or lack thereof in this case than they would opining over whether Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses should go around neighborhoods knocking on front doors, giant crosses should be erected in plain sight of non-Christians, religious groups like the Gideons should put bibles, etc. in hotel rooms and so forth. In other words, this is precisely the sort of officious intermeddling by public officials that justifies Jefferson’s desired “wall of separation between church and state.”
“But, surely, you don’t mean to contend that elected officials lose their own right to free speech, do you?”
Actually, yes. Yes, I do. Not in the legal sense, of course, but in the sense that there are certain things elected officials should not and cannot do without losing whatever respect, credibility, etc. they had in the first place. Elected officials and political candidates already abide by this rule in all sorts of ways. They don’t state publicly what they actually think about their opponents, various members of the press or even the public, itself. They don’t call ugly babies ugly. They don’t pick their noses or scratch their crotches in public, etc., etc. They don’t do these things not because they are principled men and women of integrity but because doing so will in fact cause them to lose political support and, perhaps, political office.
Sadly, they do not lose political support by demagoging these sorts of issues. But they should. That they do not is, in my opinion, yet another example of the tyranny of the majority in the sense that the biggest problem with democracy is that the people more or less get the government they want, God help us.
The only silver lining to that depressingly dark cloud is that most politicians are mere Gail Wynands and not Ellsworth Tooheys. And that’s probably not enough silver to fill a tooth.
As for whether a mosque should, in some non-legal sense of the term, be built near the site of the attack, well, I have my own opinion. And so, no doubt, do you. And they both should matter in the grand scheme of things exactly as much as the president’s opinion should. Namely, not at all.