Friday, September 3, 2010

South Dakota Capitol's covered mural: flyover country's lesson for Ground Zero mosque?

The South Dakota State Capitol Building

An historic mural by an artist with works on display "in libraries in Detroit, Kansas City, the New York City College (now C.C.N.Y.), M.I.T., Grove Academy of Athens (Georgia), Baltimore and Cleveland court houses... the obverse of the 1896 Two Dollar Bill... the dome in the Jefferson building of the Library of Congress..." was covered up by order of Governor Bill Janklow in 1997.

Spirit of the West is the artist's tribute to "Manifest Destiny," the American civil religious idea by which Western civilization spread across the continent and also destroyed the existing Native culture.

Sensitivity to Native American pain resulted in the painting's removal from public view, despite earlier efforts to recast it as a reminder and warning of historic misdeeds.

Go to the link and read the whole account. Sometimes, people of good will decline to assert a right (in the mural's case, free speech) in order to show respect for a neighbor.

This is all that is being asked of the Cordoba Mosque developers in NYC. Just build it at another location.


caheidelberger said...

I can't roll with the analogy:

1. The developers want to build a religious facility, not celebrate the destruction of the native race.

2. The developers want to exercise their First Amendment rights on private property.

3. The developers are not direct beneficiaries of the destruction wrought on September 11—arguably, their lives as Muslim Americans have been made more difficult. They are not conquerors like the state of South Dakota, which owes its very existence to the destruction wrought in the 1800s.

4. Extending the analogy suggests we would ask all Muslims to refrain from displays of their faith within some arbitrary distance from the World Trade Center ("hallowed ground" for whom? Christians? Capitalists?). If the analogy entails that unacceptable conclusion, then the analogy is unacceptable.

5. Generalizing the analogy suggests that the primary religion of an aggressor should not be permited a presence at the site of great massacres of people of another nation and, primarily, another religion. What, then, of the Urakami Cathedral at Ground Zero in Nagasaki?

Your headline is no easy question. I suggest, with respect, that your analogy does not present a suitable answer.

TLF+ said...

The solution calls for a principle, not a point by point analogy, and I think the principle is the same at the end of it all. Sometimes we should not assert a right so that we build a better relationship.

Point #1 is anachronistic. The muralist, in his time and place, was not "celebrating the destruction of the native race" - he believed he was celebrating human improvement. The writings of the time, even by people who criticized mistreatment of the Tribes, is full of the assumption that White culture is a big improvement and inevitability.

But even taking the mosque developers at their stated intention of building dialogue and understanding doesn't make the objection evaporate. Intention isn't decisive - I go back to the Carmelite nuns at Aushwitz. They meant no harm but their cross came down.

Your point 4 is a good one. It does get subjective and arbitrary, what a friend from the South calls "Dog's Law - you know you done broke it when you get kicked." I suspect that the proposed mosque would not generate widespread or sustained objection if it were at a site a) not damaged directly on 9/11 or b) not positioned to look down into ground zero (don't know that the current site is - just taking a stab at "how close is too close").

re #5 Don't know that I would generalize an analogy, just the principle. At what point do I refrain from exercising a right in order to build best relationship with my neighbor(s)? There's no checklist of conditions or perfect analogy - or even perfect solution. It depends on what gets people involved. In the South, Confederate flags came down from state houses, but I'm not aware of any broad movement to do away with the ubiquitous CSA war dead memorials.

Relational stuff is messy.

caheidelberger said...

Interesting: when the mural controversy happened, I might have been in the camp advocating not covering the mural.

Rights are central to this discussion. Does the State of South Dakota have rights in the case of the mural comparable to the rights of the NYC developers?

TLF+ said...

Cory - The fact that the mural is on State property (and I assume was given or sold to the State) gives the government the right to display, cover or explain the piece. Governor Janklow covered it in response to heartfelt public appeals. But that was a choice.

The mosque developers have the right to buy and develop the private property they desire. They could move their project in response to heartfelt public appeal. But that has to be the developers' choice.

caheidelberger said...

Anotehr perilous analogy:

In my English class, students often made heartfelt appeals to skip reading The Grapes of Wrath. I persisted, against their wishes, causing them discomfort but educating them.

An Islamic center (not really a mosque, or not just a mosque, right?) at this site offends many at first glance. But might not such a center, demonstrating the capacity of Muslims to serve the community in peace and neighborliness, but good for the community, both pactically and spiritually?

If this use is inappropriate, then what use is? Do we allow only secular stores in this neighborhood, praying to the proper gods of capitalism? Or is commercial activity an offense to the sacred here just like moneychanging in the temple? Should we clear out the entire neighborhood and build a park? a church? a synagogue? If not an Islamic center, then what? Did the act of 19 terrorists permanently trump the rights of an entire class of American citizens? (I know, legal rights versus moral responsibility, but you're saying it is immoral for these people to exercise their rights... right?)

And who sets this standard for appropriate use that should awaken the moral sense of the developers to cede their religious and property rights for a greater good? The families of the dead? The residents of lower Manhattan? Taxpayers? The entire city? Majority vote?

TLF+ said...

I don't think my last is into analogy at all. The rights in both cases are facts. The choices are open choices.

Who is to decide? It sounds as if you are looking for a legal formula that would apply in every case. Sometimes, it might be two parties talking. Sometimes, it might involve protracted debated and all kinds of third parties weighing in. Sometimes, the party with rights might assert them. Sometimes, one or more parties might resort to violence (most of us would agree that this is bad/worst choice).

The only way to avoid forced analogy is to allow for different situations to play out in different ways.

I agree, the Islamic Center could be a place of peace, love and understanding. But it is already off to a bad start, and the NYT poll released earlier this week indicates that the developers are either tone deaf or into polemic in the first place by asserting the old "only a few outside agitators are making a problem" line.

I think the best statement of dialogue and understanding, to serve the developers' stated purpose, is to change location.

caheidelberger said...

I do get legalistic and formulaic, and I appreciate your point that some problems are better solved by neighbors speaking as neighbors, outside the courts and the commission meetings. If the opponents of the Islamic center were committed to that principle and weren't trying to use the zoning commission to shut down the plan, I'd be more comfortable having just that conversation. But the opponents (and Fox News, whose second-biggest individual stockholder is a primary financier of the project) seem determined to politicize the issue. Once it's politicized, I feel justified in pursuing the legal formula.

Indeed, if I were Muslim, I might see the sense in just not fighting the fight. My neighbors don't want me and my fellow believers building a facility where we can practice our religion and serve the community. Fine. We'll quit. We'll move. but would missionary Christians take that position? Do Christian missionaries (more clearly dedicated to converting non-believers than this Islamic center?) stay out of Afghanistan simply because they face opposition to their message more violent than the NYC developers face in the big city? Even within neighborly conversation, there are some basic principles we adhere to, aren't there?

TLF+ said...

I think that missionary Christians today do take that position - it takes years in some cases to get even social service type work into Muslim or Communist countries. But this is an opportunity for the mission agencies to show respect and foster good will. And some are still killed or hounded, but that goes with the territory. Witnessing to faith without the point of a sword or the force of law to compel hearing and conversion is inefficient but the whole Christian message is about God operating in a way that, on earthly terms, is ineffecient. (So we vote to replace God and write better action plans, like the Crusades). That's why the Bible frequently invokes marriage as a metaphor - talk about your inefficient, messy relationship!

I think that the basic principle - that Muslims have a right to build the place of worship here, needs to be stated and I think it has been. I think that using some zoning gimmick to deny them that right would be the worst outcome (well, short of some violent act against them, and there appears to have been an arson attempt already.)

My guess is that there have been gentler appeals to conversation and - who knows? - maybe even some conversation happened. But as you point out, that does not get headlines.

On the other hand, I think the "Cordoba" name is a PR disaster and that characterizing the objections as "outside agitators" hasn't helped, even if it was a reaction to some obvious examples of noisy, outside agitators.

The only legit outcomes are 1) the place gets built there, which the developers have every right to do - and acceptance of bad will that may flow from it or b) it is moved voluntarily as a response to community sensitivity with the stated hope of that gesture opening more conversation about how we can all be better neighbors in testy times.

I'm sorry, I'm sleep deprived and this is wandering so I will try to wrap up. On a happier note, I made enchiladas this weekend. They would have been perfect but we don't have your firepit and hospitality right here in SF. But did think of them while rolling up hot tortillas.