City of Brass

City of Brass

ou sont les John McCains de l’antan?

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

In the 2000 election, John McCain was a very different politician. He was truly a maverick, unafraid to confront the radical elements within his own party, and he paid the price. He lambasted the social conservatives’ hold over the GOP agenda, critiquing the symbolism of George Bush’s speech at Bob Jones University, and calling evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson “agents of intolerance.” For his principled stand, he was rewarded with a truly horrific smear campaign in South Carolina by the Bush campaign which insinuated that his adopted Bangladeshi daughter Bridget was actually his illegitimate love-child. That smear derailed his impending victory in SC and literally cost him the nomination.

In 2008, John McCain has flip-flopped on almost every issue, consistently moving towards politically-expedient positions that fall in line with the social conservatives he once criticized. He’s also courted even more extreme evangelical leaders like John Hagee, whose comments on Jews, homosexuals, women, muslims, Catholics, and Hurricane Katrina make Falwell and Robertson (who blamed American morality for 9-11, if you recall) seem tame in comparison. And, most tellingly, he has hired the architect of the smear campaign against his own daughter, to help him win against Barack Obama.

I will admit that in 2000 I was less of a political junkie than I am now. But I was a big fan of John McCain in 2000, and had he won the nomination I’d have likely voted for him over Al Gore (because then, unlike now, I didn’t really appreciate Gore’s intellect, vision, and his judgment in matters of foreign policy). Actually, I might have voted for Bill Bradley over McCain, but that’s another story. At any rate, the John McCain today is not the John McCain of yesteryear.

My good friend Joshua Trevino argues that John McCain’s acceptance speech at the RNC convention was a return to the John McCain of old, and in many ways a direct rebuke to the Bush years. But a speech is one thing – the words sounded great, but his actions say something else. By moving to embrace George Bush over the past 8 years, by sacrificing his principled stand against everything that darkens the GOP for the sake of his political career, by choosing a vice presidential nominee whose role is purely to ignite a culture war of the sort he once was an anchor of resistance against, he has betrayed his old 2000 maverick identity.

I’m certain that I am one of the people Josh had in mind when he wrote,

“I’d vote for John McCain if he were still the John McCain of 2000,”
they say. After tonight, we get to find out if they mean it.

However, even the John McCain of 2000 falls well short of the new standard set by Howard Dean and Barack Obama. That new standard is born of the transformative paradigm of a people-powered campaign, a 50-state strategy, a true call for the empowerment of the ordinary American citizen to take direct control of the political machine. Howard Dean was bested by the establishment, but succeeded in clearing the path, and Obama has followed. The country wasn’t ready for these new ideas in 2000, and the key organizing power of the Internet which makes this political revolution possible was still in its infancy (though, McCain 2000 was one of the pioneers there, too).

So would I vote for John McCain circa 2000 in 2008? It would be like riding a steam engine rather than a shinkansen. But easy as such a choice would be, that’s not even the choice offered to me today. McCain 2008 is  not McCain 2000 – that John McCain is gone, and there’s no room for him in today’s GOP.
 
(bonus points for identifying the allusion in the post title…)

no condemnations, please

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

As a follow-up to my earlier disagreement with Rabbi Hirschfield, it’s worth looking at what other muslim bloggers in the Islamsphere have to say about the New York Times article about the Hezbollah death shrine in southern Lebanon:

Angry Arab As’ad: What is Robert Worth’s point in this article? That Arab children love and enjoy terrorism?”

Arabic Media Shack: “Israel used and celebrates the terrorists who fought for its cause just
as much as the Arab side does.  For example, if you can prove that you
were a member of the Stenn Gang or Irgun during the Mandate era, the
Israeli government  today will give you a medal.  That’s celebration of
terrorism just as much as what is being said in the Mughnoya piece. “

AMS goes on to ask whether we can have equal opportunity condemnation, but actually I prefer that we ask no one to condemn anything. This incessant “Condemn This” routine is tiring.

Palin vanilla

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

When John McCain announced Sarah Palin as his running mate, I googled her and found her to be a very interesting mold of Republican, who took on her own party in Alaska and fought against the entrenched corruption in her state. She also had a pretty compelling personal story, in terms of her journey from hockey mom to public servant. My first reaction was therefore disappointment, because pulling Palin out of Alaska seems like eating your seed corn. Young, policy-driven leaders like Palin and Louisiana governor Bobby Kindal are GOP 2.0, the kind of Republican that the GOP needs to lead it out of the wilderness from which it is inevitably headed after this election cycle. It’s leaders like Palin and Jindal, in the mold of Schwarzenegger, who will be needed to recast the GOP as a party of solutions rather than ideology, along the lines advocated by Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat in their new book, Grand New Party.

As John McCain’s vice-presidential nominee, however, Palin is relegated to the status of hyper-partisan attack dog. In one prime-time televised speech she’s completely squandered whatever future she might have had as an appealing moderate Republican leader and is now diminished. If McCain loses, her political career is over. Having donned the mantle of hyper-partisan, social conservative warrior princess, she can’t easily reclaim the moderate mantle.
So be it. Palin has set a new course. But watching McCain’s speech Thursday night, which is more McCain 2000 than McCain 2008, I am struck by just how different the political landscape would be right now had Palin delivered a speech aimed at wooing the independent voter rather than exciting the base.

Arguably, the social conservatives who fell so easily into line with Palin’s appointment that they gave her a standing ovation before she’d said a single word, would have fallen into line come election day. And with both McCain and Palin giving persuasive appeals to the middle rather than stemwinders, real inroads might have been made towards Obama’s voter coalition.
However, it’s clear why McCain chose the lower road strategy – because the independents are independent, whereas the base is more predictable. McCain’s team doesn’t want to put all their eggs in one basket, so they are trying to have their cake and eat it too. McCain alone could not excite the base, but by positioning Palin as a persecuted martyr (with the media playing the villain) and stoking a culture war, the social conservatives can be mobilized. Meanwhile, McCain will woo the middle by taking the rhetorical high road and pointedly mentioning key issues like alternate energy sources, global warming, and expressly non-ideological talk of finding solutions from “both sides of the aisle”.
If everything falls into place, they theoretically could pull it off – but the problem is that the independents are watching Palin, too. And they didn’t like what they saw:

“Who is Sarah Palin? I’m sorry but I still don’t know anymore about this young lady tonight than I did last night … The way it looks to me, she’s the Republican vice presidential nominee for one reason: because Hillary wasn’t selected.” — Mike Kosh, 38, West Bloomfield independent

“Sarah Palin is a self-described ‘pitbull with lipstick.’ She spent little time helping Americans learn who she is. She is a cool, poised speaker, but her speech contained few statements about policy or the party platform…. I am not convinced that Palin’s experience as a mayor or governor in Alaska meet the qualifications to be vice president much less one stroke or heart attack away from being commander in chief.” — Ilene Beninson, 52,

Berkley independent
“Nothing worked for me. I found her barrage of snide remarksand distortions to be a major turn off. She is not a class act. The most important point she made is that she will be an effective attack dog.” — Jan Wheelock, 58, Royal Oak independent

Those were from focus groups in Detroit, MI (a critical swing state). Meanwhile, former Hillary voters in Nevada (another swing) were put off by Palin’s deragotory tone and lack of any policy specifics:

one attendee kicked off the discussion by saying “she’s a good speaker, and a crowd pleaser,” the rest of the room articulated their agreement. “I didn’t expect to be as impressed as I was,” said another respondent. But then another woman added: “Once she started mudslinging, I thought, it’s the same old crap as other politicians. McCain used her to get the women’s vote. And she’s using McCain.”
“Thank you,” another woman responded. “That really upset me; there was no need for that. It was snippy.”

The unmarried group also voiced similar objections to the harsh, partisan edge of Palin’s remarks. “I’m not impressed with her at all as a person,” one said, citing her “finger pointing” and general sarcasm after the group had generally agreed that she was a talented public speaker.

So, will the gambit work? My guess is that Palin will succeed in bridging the enthusiasm gap and succeed in mobilizing the Republican base, but the Republican base is a. steadily shrinking and b. as incompatible with the independent vote as oil and water. Palin’s youth and contrast to McCain are a double-edged sword for him, as well. Further, Palin’s personal attacks on Obama triggered a democratic grassroots response, with $8M raised in 24 hours (almost twice the McCain campaign’s $4.5M post-Palin groundswell). Palin cannot erase the Obama campaign’s financial, infrastructure, and ground operation advantages. Also keep in mind that the McCain campaign has decided to gamble on a media scapegoating strategy, effectively ending the media honeymoon he’s enjoyed for most of his career, especially in the years since the 2000 campaign where he’s essentially abandoned his principles for political advantage.

As Marc Ambinder notes, it’s going to be a Palin September. But the spotlight is harsh, and in the end Palin is nothing more than another angry right-winger intent on lobbing the same old partisan attacks that John McCain disavowed one night later. Obama supporters should be more worried about what lies in store next month. Palin isn’t the only surprise coming down the pike.

interview with the author of “Jewel of Medina”

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

Alt Muslim has an exclusive interview with author Sherry Jones, of Jewel of Medina fame. It is interesting to note that unlike the Danish cartoonists, it seems that Jones’ motivation in writing her book was to approach Islam from a sympathetic and conciliatory perspective:

ALTMUSLIM: unlike so many other times in our recent history where we are
struggling against people who are really out to vilify us, I sensed
from the beginning that you were doing this out of appreciation or
respect. I don’t think that has gotten through to a lot of people,
regardless of their opinions on the subject matter. Could you elaborate
on this?

JONES: Yes, well I went into my reading with absolutely no preconceived
notions except that Muslims had attacked the World Trade Center and
that the Muslim regime in Afghanistan was very oppressive to its
people, especially women. And so, you might say that my initial
impressions of Islam were negative.

But as I read – books by Western scholars, Islamic scholars, religious
clerics, ancient Arabic poetry – what I gained from my reading was an
impression of Islam being a religion of, primarily, peace. I read that
Muhammad admonished his followers to fight in self-defense only. That’s
really what he was doing all those years too. He was constantly being
persecuted, assassination attempts, etc.

You could say that the revealer of Islam, Muhammad, embodied Islam. He
lived this incredibly ascetic life – totally unmaterialistic, gave
everything away to the poor. He could have lived like a king but he
didn’t. He was very respectful toward women and, actually, I was so
impressed by how he gave women rights that we didn’t even possess in
this country until the early 20th century. He was generous and kind and
compassionate. He forgave people who had done him wrong if they asked
him for it.

The more I read about Islam at the beginning stages, the more impressed
I was. Muhammad endured so much persecution, there was never any doubt
in my mind that he was sincere and that he was a visionary. He gave up
everything for his belief in God and his, I believe, sincere desire to
bring the truth of one God to his own people.

Having developed that respect, out of all the reading that I did – and,
you know, I read some stuff by older historians who claimed that he
went out and conquered in the name of Islam and forced people to
convert. But the newer stuff that I read, the more recent historical
writings, actually refute that. And the impression I gained of him was
of an incredible man and a great, heroic leader.

I think that it is important for muslims to understand the difference here between Jones’ book and actual hate speech of the kind embodied by the Danish cartoons. Jones demonstrates an appreciation for Muhammad SAW that is refreshing. Her interpretation of the relationship between him and his wife is that of a relationship first and foremost. It’s not surprising that she accepts the controversial argument that Aisha was only 9 years old at the time of marriage, since that seems to be the dominant view in the literature, even though it makes no sense when analyzed from historical sources. That supposed age discrepancy prodded her curiosity to write the book in the first place, and I think her intention is a valid literary pursuit. Whether the final product is indeed a sensitive treatment or a racy hijab-ripper is of course a different matter, and we can reserve judgement on its literary quality later, after we’ve actually read the thing.

Jones goes on to say,

I did all this in the service of what I see as a truth. My truth -
this is my vision of what things would have been like based on my own
experiences and my own research and my own intuition and observations
of human nature. I’m very sure of the work I’ve done and the choices
I’ve made. I know why I did everything I did in that book. Maybe at the
time I was doing it I wasn’t always sure, but I revised this book seven
times.

Since this whole thing started, I’ve been accused of Orientalism, and
I’ve stopped and I’ve taken a step back to look at myself. How would we
feel if a Muslim wrote a fiction book about Jesus, how would that be
perceived? How would Christians feel? It’s hard for me, though I’ve
tried, to imagine myself among a group of people who feel discriminated
against and co-opted already. I can understand why there would be
resentment and suspicion of my motives.

But I’m really aware and conscious of the choices I made. I have felt
that people who didn’t like my book might challenge me and that we
could discuss it.

I agree with her. And I think that it would be a good idea to discuss and challenge her, respectfully and without rancor, on her assumptions and her choices.

Read the whole interview at altmuslim.com – and there’s an extended version coming ot as a podcast next week which I will link to when available.

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