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What do Michael Moore and Newt Gingrich have in common?

Posted: Wednesday, September 15, 2010

As if things were not crazy enough already, here comes Michael Moore.

In a posting on his website and an interview Monday on CNN, the liberal filmmaker upped the emotional ante on the controversy over construction of a mosque and cultural center in lower Manhattan. Don't build it near ground zero, he argued. Build it ON ground zero.

Moore framed his argument as a response to the furor the proposed mosque has ignited and what he calls the "bullying" of American Muslims. I think he is disingenuous. Not that I doubt his anger at the treatment Muslims have endured, but does anyone really believe Moore's suggestion addresses, or is even meant to address, that treatment? Does anyone really believe persuasion is his goal?

No. As was the case with Newt Gingrich when he equated the erection of a mosque near ground zero with the placing of a Nazi sign near the Holocaust Museum in Washington, it seems obvious that furthering the discussion was not Moore's aim. Provocation was. Indeed, can't you just picture the smoke billowing from the ears of those who oppose the mosque when they heard what he had said?

Moore and Gingrich thus become liberal and conservative bookends, an illustration of the degree to which bomb throwers, people willing to say the simplistic, outrageous thing, BECAUSE it is the simplistic, outrageous thing, have infiltrated American political discourse.

For the record, I agree with Moore about the shameful bullying of American Muslims. It is un-American and silly to boot, given that there is already a mosque in that neighborhood and has been for 40 years.

Also for the record, I DISAGREE with him about putting a mosque directly on ground zero. Whatever rises there should be nondenominational and should memorialize all those whose lives were vaporized in the Sept. 11 attacks.

Neither the agreement not the disagreement, however, is what occasions these words. Rather, I find myself drawn to a speech given on Monday by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the would-be spiritual leader of the proposed mosque. Rauf, the Kuwait-born son of Egyptian parents who came to this country in 1965, placed his story in the context of the classic immigrant tale.

"I'm a devout Muslim," he said in his measured voice. "I pray five times a day, sometimes more, if I can, and I observe the rituals required by my faith. And I'm also a proud American citizen. Let no one forget that. I vote in elections. I pay taxes. I pledge allegiance to the flag. And I'm a Giants fan."

For all the effort that has gone into framing the War on Terror as a clash of cultures, as Christian us versus Muslim them, said Rauf, "the real battle that we must wage together today, is not between Muslims and non-Muslims. It is between moderates of all the faith traditions against the extremists of all the faith traditions. We must not let the extremists, whatever their faith, whatever their political persuasion, hijack the discourse ..."

But that's already happened, hasn't it?

On radio, on television, online, thoughtful people, idealistic people, are routinely drowned out by the sounds of explosions - verbal bombs tossed haphazardly into the marketplace of ideas. For those who do this and those who admire them, this is straight talk, unfiltered and bracingly free of moderation or caveat. Words as weapons of war.

For the rest of us, it is disheartening. And it is proof Rauf was right when he spoke of the need for moderate people to band together in coalitions of reason. Otherwise, we cede the future to those who cannot see beyond us and them. And that is incompatible with the veneration of American ideals, the ongoing work of building a more perfect union.

After all, bombs don't build.

• Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at lpitts@miamiherald.com.



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