In the Arena

Kristol: Obama Not A Muslim

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Well, it’s good to learn that there are limits to Bill Kristol’s tactical skeevery. He clearly states here that Barack Obama is not a Muslim. No winks, no nods, no gratuitous McConnellesque “If he says he’s not, that’s okay with me.” But read the editorial all the way through and you get to this paragraph:

It’s similar with the Community Center Formerly Known as the Ground Zero Mosque. Today’s progressives are multiculturalists. They’re inclined to make grand claims about the positive merits of a multicultural, non-judgmental mosaic replacing our old, uniculturalist melting-pot view of America. But when political realities force them to retreat, as Obama has done in the mosque controversy, from a proud multiculturalism to a narrow defense of the right to the free exercise of religion and the right to build on private property, they’re in trouble. The free exercise of religion and respect for private property are not a promising agenda for progressives.

Say what? Is Kristol actually admitting that his crowd, including his aspirational hand-puppet Sarah Palin, have been arguing against the conservative themes of the “free exercise of religion and respect for private property?” Of course, the idea that the mosque debate can be simplified into a Manichean, liberal versus conservative, multiculturalist v. uniculturalist standoff is the sort of cheap campaign demagoguery that has become Kristol’s sole intellectual product. There are plenty of us who support both the mosque and melting pot uniculturalism (I’m certainly one of those). And I dare say that there are more than a few honorable conservatives who support the Islamic center because they believe in freedom of religion and private property (and more than a few not so honorable liberals and moderates who oppose the center for reasons of their own). This was never about multiculturalism, never about bilingualism or political correctness. It was always about one thing: the Constitution, a document that is proving to be inconvenient for populist wingnuts in many areas.

The cynical desecration of traditional conservative principles is a hallmark of the damage that people like Kristol have done to American political discourse and to a philosophical movement that, in its best, most sophisticated–and yes, ultimately, elitist–form, has plenty of value to contribute to our current policy discussions. Here are some conservative principles I admire: Foreign policy realism, budget discipline and a belief in (carefully regulated) markets as the best vehicles for delivering prosperity and even some forms of government services. The best conservatism has a healthy respect for complexity and a deep skepticism about the perfectability of human nature. Kristol’s superficial cant is somewhat different: it combines a deep addiction to oversimplification with an even deeper cynicism about the exploitability of human nature. This brand of radicalism–bellicose crusades abroad, riotous tax-cutting and cronyism at home and a mean-spirited nativist populism–has been a sad but witting perversion of  a valuable tradition.

The mosque controversy shows that many people who claim to lead the conservative movement do not believe in freedom of religion or private property; it also demonstrates that they are not conservatives, in any meaningful sense of the word, at all.