Tuesday, September 7, 2010

"Taste" and Park51

September 11th is right around the corner.  As someone who lives two short blocks away from Ground Zero and whose office building sits directly across the street from the site, this day means that tourists will clog my neighborhood, memorial services will close some streets down, and a general somberness will fill the air.  This will be my fourth September 11th in the Financial District, and it will be my first time sharing it with protesters.

Park 51, The Cordoba House, or the “Ground Zero Mosque” has brought international attention to my neighborhood.  There is an event planned for September 11th to protest its construction.  My friends and family are divided on the issue of whether or not Park 51 should be built.  Those who disagree with the building of the Mosque usually tell me that although the group has the right to build, it is in poor “taste” to do so.  It’s not just my friend’s and family--the idea of “taste” has entered the vocabulary of the media as well.  

What exactly is “taste”?  Taste is what I talk about when picking out patterns and colors of my bedding.  On the show Project Runway, taste comes into play when judges talk about their personal preferences and prejudices.  When talking about charged political and social issues, taste is a word people invoke to reify their own personal prejudices.  As a philosophy major, I know I can’t use the “taste” argument in any meaningful sense.  Taste caters to feelings, and not to an answer of what is right and wrong.

Let’s take a look at when Taste has been used as an argument in through American history:

  • In a New York Times Article “Matter of Taste” written on May 3, 1908, the article states: “We regret to notice the disposition of our Southern Contemporaries to grow hysterical over the recent miscegenation banquet of the “Greater New York Cosmopolitan Society.”  Of course, the whole affair was eminently disgusting, but really it does not concern the South in the least.  It is a matter of Northern taste, though taste most offensive to the very instinct of every man and woman who has a right to be recognized as white, and not a Caucasian degenerate and pariah .”
  • In another New York Times Article “Critises Jane Adams” written on August 21, 1912, Charles W. Eliot, then the President of Harvard University said, “Women have no proper share in a political convention.  Never before in our history as a Democratic Nation have we gone so far as to permit women to nominate a candidate for President.  Miss Addams received a great deal of popular acclaim when she seconded Mr. Roosevelt’s nomination. It was a very spectacular proceeding, but it was in very bad taste.  I also understand Col. Roosevelt had the bad taste to publicly compliment her on her action and thank her.”
  • In Chicago Tribute article written on June 5, 1920 entitled “Ready To Picket Coliseum: This Debate on Women Pickets is Quite Spicy- "Bad Manners" Vs. "They Can't Think." Leola Allard writes “"Bad manners" and "poor taste" are only two of the things the women taking part in convention preparations said of Alice Paul and her picketing plans.”

And now, of course, what Park 51 is trying to achieve is also “poor taste” according to several commentators, family and friends.   All of these issues are charged with prejudice and demonizing the ‘other’.  What is more scary about this is when the constant media attention about Muslims and their “tastes” filter into our everyday lives, some people start to believe that there is something inherently wrong with being Muslim. There isn’t. I have already seen this misconception materialize in some of my students’ Facebook status updates.  The “taste” argument slides sloppily into prejudice.

Over the last three years, I worked with a student named Hassan through the Model United Nations Program at his high school.  We often practiced on days off during the school year because we could get more accomplished those days.  When practice was on a Friday, Hassan could not easily come to our law office because his closest place of worship was far away.  If Park 51 existed while a Hassan was a student, this problem would have been remedied.

Hassan is Muslim.  He was born in Pakistan and moved here when he was twelve.  He is one of the most tolerant and accepting people I have met.  He’s had coaches from Israel and India that he got along with phenomenally.  He is now attending a Catholic college, and working as an intern in the Financial District.  He has an impeccable record--he was salutatorian of his class, served as police commissioner for a day, and was generally in charge of running most community events at his high school.  He is not an extremist Muslim, and the acts of the terrorists certainly had nothing to do with him.  This is true of the overwhelming majority of Muslims living in the United States  and throughout the world (see this graphic).  Why should someone like Hassan be told that he can’t have a conveniently located place to worship because a small group of radicals that happened to be part of his religion did something ridiculous?  For those of us who are religiously affiliated, nearly all major world religions have histories of violence and hatred. For example, if you are a Christian, would you like to be told that a church couldn't be built in any of the places the Klu Klux Klan performed lynchings?

I do know this: America was founded on the values of freedom, equality and tolerance.  Tastes change, but these values do not.    These values hold up regardless of tastefulness.  Can we live up to those values?  I hope so. The Ground Zero Mosque controversy at the end of the day gets at the same issues that have plagued the America since its inception. 

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