Cordoba House and the Power of Political Marketing
If it was called the "Burlington Coat Factory community center" would anyone care about Cordoba House?
Much of what comes to mind about the proposed Cordoba House Islamic community center includes things that have been said repeatedly, so I will try not to belabor them. For example (given that I feel the need to underscore this despite the number of times is has been said): I am saddened by the blatant disregard that so many of my fellow citizens have for both freedom of religion and private property rights, not to mention the calls by so-called small government conservatives for government action in this case. Further, and most disappointing of all, is the blatant politics of bigotry that permeates this entire discussion.*
And, one more dead horse to beat: the notion that it is a good argument (or, indeed, as argument at all) to say things like “when Saudi Arabia allows a church near Mecca, then we can talk about a mosque near Ground Zero” is utterly absurd that it ought to be laughed off the public stage. And yet, somehow, supposedly smart and serious politicians like Newt Gingrich have decided that the United States of America ought to use Saudi Arabia as a measuring stick on the topic of religious liberty. What next, North Korea as a model for economic development?
Look, I understand an initial gut reaction of not liking the idea of “Ground Zero mosque” but the current hysteria in some quarters on this topic have precious little to do with passing reactions.
Ok, enough will all of that, one of the other things that strikes me is the degree to which the mantra of “Ground Zero mosque” is a remarkable example of political marketing insofar as it is a phrase that generates a specific political reaction and has taken over the discussion of the topic in question.
The bottom line is: we are not talking about a mosque, per se and it isn’t being built at Ground Zero and yet the phrase that describes the entire situation is “Ground Zero mosque.”
As should be well known by now, the site of the proposed construction is two blocks from where the WTC stood and, in part, was once occupied by a Burlington Coat Factory (sacred ground, indeed). Here’s a photo of the building in question: click.
However, because the business of news and politics is one of shorthand communication, almost everyone has fallen into the trap of calling this thing “the Ground Zero mosque” as it is the most recognizable way to describe the place/issue. Sure, some people modify the term with “so-called” or they places scare quotes around the words (indeed, I think I have used a month’s quota of scare quotes in this post), but in general people almost universally call it the “Ground Zero mosque.” If one calls it Cordoba House, for example, a lot of people probably wouldn’t know what was being referred to (indeed, it would make for an interesting polling experiment to see what public sentiment is for the “Ground Zero mosque” and to also see what public support is for “Cordoba House.”) Most Americans, if they have an association with the word “Cordoba” at all it is probably with the Chrysler Cordoba with its legendary Corinthian leather as much as anything else.**
Still, the evocation of the phrase in question makes the public think we are talking about an actual Islamic house of worship on the very site where the WTC once stood. This would be odd for a variety of reasons (not the least of which being that a memorial is supposed to be built there as well as a new office building). As such, it is hardly surprising that there is majority opposition to the building. However, if it was called the “Burlington Coat Factory mosque” I reckon that most people would hardly care.
Worse, of course (if one is interested in such petty things as accuracy), the building in question is not simply a mosque, which in the minds of most Americans likely conjures minarets and other architectural features that would be considered perhaps out of place in the cityscape of Manhattan. Instead, we know that the proposed building is a typical NYC high-rise that is unlikely to be especially noteworthy vis-à-vis the other building around it. Further, as has been oft-noted, the proposed building is a community center that will contain within it a place of worship (i.e., a mosque) but it is not, in and of itself, a mosque.
So, to extent the more accurate description, what we have is a “Burlington Coat Factory community center” rather than a “Ground Zero mosque”—no small difference, I would note.
Another issue that I think fuels a lot of pubic opinion on this issue is also the lack of understanding of urban life in a place like NYC. Yes, a lot of American live in cities, but most do not live in the urban density of a place like NYC with is made-made mountains of steel and concrete compacted into every city block. In such a situation a city block, let alone two, can pack in a remarkable amount of diversity with each block sometimes it own microcosm. Two blocks in suburbia is quite different from two blocks in lower Manhattan. Such a reality further undercuts the notion that Cordoba House should be associated with the the WTC site.
If anything, there is quite a but here to study for people who research things like political rhetoric and public opinion.
I would also note that given the current economic climate, the idea that a group is interested in a $100 million+ investment to improve part of city block and create jobs and such in that area strikes me as a good thing and indeed was the kind of private initiate that I used think of as being what center-right conservatives in this country would applaud.
*And as been pointed out in a number of place (such as Doug Mataconis noted today here), the truth of the matter is that there are a number of people out there who are not just protesting Cordoba house in terms of mosque construction.
**Granted it depends on one’s age.