Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Nimbyism in New York

A lot of people are greatly exercised at the thought of a mosque occupying a part of the site of the old Twin Towers in New York. Most of them don’t seem to have a clue what they’re talking about, and many see Osama Bin Laden behind every bushy beard. It has been pointed out (correctly or not) that the leader of the group is a man of peace and practices ecumenism. The name is not well chosen, smacking of Islamic imperialism, and it is certainly true that it would be seen by many violent thugs around the world as a symbolic victory, but that, I would suggest, is neither here nor there. It’s not relevant to the case.

We have heard infantile suggestions of opening a gay bar opposite said mosque (go ahead, what’s stopping you?) and so on, but the general argument seems to be ‘I disapprove of this, therefore someone must stop it happening.’ It’s Nimbyism, combined with the Guardianista idea that everything really belongs to them.

I don’t know what I’m talking about either, but I offer the following thoughts:

I’m not American and I don’t know anyone who was killed, but the values that were attacked that day were mine too. And those values aren’t just vague ideals espoused to help me feel good about myself; they are what allows me, and hundreds of millions of other lucky people, to live a free and prosperous existence. They are worth defending, not for abstract motives of rightness, but because the fact that our lives are worth living depends upon them.

It seems to me that, deeply and viscerally symbolic though that site is to Americans, it doesn’t actually belong to them. It belongs to a group of individuals who, in accordance with the principles of liberty, will dispose of it as they see fit. And if they choose to rent it or sell it to a group of people who will use it to practice their religious faith, that is also fully in accordance with the principles of liberty that we defend. The US Constitution is so beautifully clear, transparent and unambiguous on these points that US governments find it extremely difficult to ignore them, unlike our governments at Westminster and Brussels, who can always wriggle out of anything, even the Magna Carta.*

Behind that visceral sense that the site of the towers is public property is a moral laziness that is very damaging to the freedom that that place has come to represent. If the objectors wish to stop a particular use of the place they have a way to do it, fully compatible with that freedom; they should club together and buy it. There are a lot of them, it wouldn’t cost them much each, and then they could legitimately dispose of the land as they wished. Otherwise, however they feel about it, however strongly, and however rightly, it isn’t up to them (or to Obama).

Incidentally, I wonder if Polly Toynbee and her fellow Guardian columnists have realised that, if the revolution they claim to desire ever comes about, they, as well-fed, privileged agents of a bourgeois state, who do no useful work, would be the first against the wall. Could it be that they know they can spout pretentious claptrap in exchange for large sums of money, confident that their salaries and quality of life are not really in danger? Do they not, in fact, believe what they say?**

*The charter of fundamental rights of the EU is largely meaningless waffle, intended to allow it to be interpreted in any way that may be convenient to the ECJ, the Commission or the national governments. It recognises the right to hold opinions, to free expression and to exchange information and ideas, but in some member countries the expression of certain ideas is explicitly forbidden and punished by law. They simply ignore the charter.

**I don’t have any objection to a private organisation paying anyone what it wants to, but I can challenge their ideas, and the coherence of their position.


Vincent said...

I don't regularly read Polly Toynbee and am glad to be free of that irritation. But I see a huge difference between the British, as typified by their reactions to the Blitz of 1940, and the Americans, as exposed in their reactions to 9/11.

A difference which speaks for itself, I think.

CIngram said...

In fact, I don't read Polly either, but she's useful as a metonym for hypocritical left-wing columnists.

On the other point, I missed the Blitz by several decades, and I wouldn't care to make comparisons, but we, and I include myself, live too well these days to accept easily the thyought of losing it all.