The David Brooks Route to PBS: Douthat Finds the Right Crude and Xenophobic on Ground Zero

Times columnist Ross Douthat gets on public television to pronounce the X-word against conservatives - and then gets in a lick or two at the Ground Zero Imam.

How does a conservative columnist make his way on to the PBS NewsHour? David Brooks blazed the trail - by trying to be the liberal's favorite conservative. Find much of your own side's staunchest ideologues distasteful, overzealous, under-thought, and even bigoted. Then perhaps you can sound a few discordant notes with liberalism. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat secured a PBS ticket by suggesting in a column that opposition to the Ground Zero mosque was crude, xenophobic - as well as generally useful. Douthat found two Americas:

The first America tends to make the finer-sounding speeches, and the second America often strikes cruder, more xenophobic notes. The first America welcomed the poor, the tired, the huddled masses; the second America demanded that they change their names and drop their native languages, and often threw up hurdles to stop them coming altogether. The first America celebrated religious liberty; the second America persecuted Mormons and discriminated against Catholics.

But both understandings of this country have real wisdom to offer, and both have been necessary to the American experiment's success. During the great waves of 19th-century immigration, the insistence that new arrivals adapt to Anglo-Saxon culture - and the threat of discrimination if they didn't - was crucial to their swift assimilation. The post-1920s immigration restrictions were draconian in many ways, but they created time for persistent ethnic divisions to melt into a general unhyphenated Americanism.

Douthat was invited on PBS on Wednesday night, and asked to restate his thesis. But he was apparently too genteel, and didn't use the X-word. The PBS anchor, Jeffrey Brown, tried to drag it out of him:

ROSS DOUTHAT: There's people who frame it exclusively through the lens of constitutional rights, where what we have here is the free exercise of religion. Muslims have as much a right to exercise their religion as anyone else, and that's the only debate that matters, the constitutional debate.

And then, I think, on the other side, you have people who instinctively or not, or, you know, intuitively or intellectually, conceive of America in cultural, as well as constitutional, terms. And, so, in a sense, in that America, it isn't clear that Islam has completely arrived yet.

There's a sense of suspicion, uncertainty that you have seen in the past with religious groups like my own church, the Catholic Church, in the 19th century, even with homegrown faiths like the Mormons in the same period, where groups are sort of asked to prove their American bona fides.

And I think a lot of the reaction that we're seeing, the negative reaction, to the mosque is the sense that this is kind of presumptuous by a religion that's sort of new to the American scene and is sort of stepping on what`s considered American hallowed ground. I think that it is - it's a combination of the fact that Islam is new-seeming and alien-seeming and so on, and then, obviously, the particular association of this spot with Islamist terrorism.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right, but you're suggesting - and - and your - the brunt of your argument led you to believe - leads you to believe, I guess, that this should be moved to a different site.

DOUTHAT: Well, I think it's a case where the location of the project is defeating the purpose of the project, right, because when this project was announced, it was announced as a kind of outreach, a kind of bridge-building effort between Muslim Americans and the very Americans who are most likely to be suspicious of Islam.

BROWN: But to get back to your - but to move that into your argument, you`re suggesting that the - that America that seeks a more coherent, assimilated culture may produce xenophobia of the kind that Eugene [Robinson of the Washington Post, the other guest] is talking about, but also produces, you think, something positive, the unum, you - as you...

DOUTHAT: The unum. Well, I mean, where I think it is - it's - I mean, if you look back to the 19th century, right, and the Catholic experience, Catholic immigrants came to the U.S. and faced terrible xenophobia, terrible nativism, and so on. But they also faced, I think, reasonable questions about the 19th century's Catholic Church`s views on liberalism, democracy, and so on. This was a period when the Vatican was famously railing against liberalism, against democracy and so on as terrible errors.

Speaking of crude metaphors, it might be a little too crude to compare the Bishop of Rome (even in the mid-19th century) with Osama bin Laden as fright figures of xenophobia. But Douthat clearly felt the PBS bosses would like this metaphor of a bigotry that needs to be overcome. At least Douthat then floated something interesting that wasn't in his column about Imam Feisal Abdul-Rauf:

I think Islam in the U.S. is in a similar position today. And you see this in the debates about the imam who is heading this mosque and his - - things he has said, positions he`s taken, people he`s met with, where there is a kind of burden on Muslim leaders to disentangle themselves from anything resembling sympathy for extremism, terrorism, and so on, that was similar to the burden that I think was reasonably faced by Catholic leaders in the 19th century. And, to that extent, I do think that some of the demands that this sense of American cultural identity places on new arrivals can be reasonable.

On the other hand, if you look at what the imam has done, historically, what he - the bridges that he's tried to build - and I believe he's done this with the best possible intentions - they have often been bridges to factions within the Muslim world whose values he may not share that I think a lot of Americans would rightly consider beyond the pale.

If you look at the comments he made during - during the Iranian - the violence surrounding the Iranian election, the advice he gave to Obama was to give a speech where he recognized the foundations of rule by Islamist jurists in Iran. I mean, again, these are not - they're not the worst things in the world to say. Arguably, you can see the geopolitical picture. But, at the same time, you can see why people would raise an eyebrow.

The advice Douthat referred to wasn't obscure - it was published on The Huffington Post:

He should say his administration respects many of the guiding principles of the 1979 revolution - to establish a government that expresses the will of the people; a just government, based on the idea of Vilayet-i-faqih, that establishes the rule of law.

It can safely be assumed that President Obama wouldn't step forward to say he deeply respects the ascent of Ayatollah Khomeini (and what next? The taking of American hostages?)

Michael Weiss, who doesn't oppose the Ground Zero mosque, but does have concerns about the Imam, addressed this at The New Criterion:

Vilayet-i-faqih in practice means that the people of Iran are possessions of the state. The Council of Guardians, Rauf neglects to mention, was responsible for vetting and approving the list of "acceptable" candidates for the wholly honorific role of president, a fact that rubbishes his boast of an "unprecedented degree of political discourse." You can tell a lot about a government that rigs its own elections beforehand, and rigs them again once all the votes are in.

Rauf published this paean to the captive mind just as many hundreds of peaceful democratic activists were being clubbed and shot on the streets of Tehran. According to the Iranian "rule of law," torture and rape are also permissible forms of punishment for people who exercise their right to be incensed at a pantomime of self-determination.

But how curious that Rauf, who believes that the U.S. Constitution is compatible with sharia law, should be encouraging the President of the United States to issue a statement "respecting" the guiding principles of an Islamist tyranny.

Is this really the best that moderate Islam can do?