A Further Perspective

Hoist the Colors!

Mosqueteers Frank Rich and Richard Cohen take their turn at playing Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush.

By 8.26.10

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Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End was a big-budget example of scriptwriting by committee, and many of the people involved in making it should have walked the plank. Nevertheless, that 2007 film and the franchise of which it is the third part can shed surprising light on why some pundits want the rest of us to welcome a new mosque near where the World Trade Center used to be.

Supporters of the Cordoba House/Park51 project have been as extravagant as the producers of the "Pirates" movies; neither group hesitates to go over the top. On the one hand, pundits like Richard Cohen drop anchor in the currents of public discourse muttering blithe absurdities like "if you do not believe the attacks of September 11, 2001 were launched by an entire religion," then "you have a moral duty to support the creation of the Islamic center" precisely where Imam Rauf and his wife want to build it.

On the other hand, some goofball decided that because the rivalry between two pirate captains was entertaining, it couldn't hurt to add seven more captains to the mix. A flotilla of fanciful ideas followed:  writing a parrot into a pirate movie was too easy, so a Capuchin monkey did most of the sight gags. (In fairness, Capuchin monkeys have also worked with actors in other movies, and a writer for the Washington Times recently noted that Al Gore "blamed everyone and their monkey for the failure of Congress to pass comprehensive climate legislation.")

Hefty as it is, the animal budget in the Pirates movies looks small next to the special effects budget. "Going to Davy Jones' locker" used to be an idiom for drowning at sea, but a visual like that doesn't pop, so studio execs turned Davy Jones into a tentacle-faced enforcer with a soft spot for a sea nymph from the West Indies.

The mania for supercharging a narrative beyond its effective carrying capacity also afflicts Cordoba House defenders who paint project opponents as bigoted, shortsighted, and parochial, because no single slander applies to all the bilge rats in what the Condescending Class thinks is a field guide to the American Right.

New York City already has a hundred mosques, yet the Muslim population in the financial district is under-served, we're told, and so a factory damaged in the attacks of September 11, 2001 would be the ideal spot for a new mosque built by a "moderate" imam -- and don't worry about the only-when-discussing-Islam meaning of "moderate," me hearties, because if you do worry, you're "fear-mongering."

Although commentators like Nick Kristof, Frank Rich, Richard Cohen, Kathleen Parker, and Mark Halperin lament different failures of understanding, all of them are "mosqueteers" writing for mainstream publications; all of them think it reflects badly on the American character to oppose Imam Rauf and his planned development. This attitude forgets the Gadsden ("Don't Tread on Me") Flag and the reason why the Marines' Hymn refers to the "shores of Tripoli." It also reminds me of a scene in Pirates 3 where two captains want to command the same ship, and neither man will yield to the other. Instead, the pirates echo each other while barking identical orders at the crew. "What are YOU doing?!" asks Captain Sparrow, with his kohl-rimmed eyes flashing indignation. Even the do-rag on his head looks offended. But Captain Barbossa -- bigger, hairier, and altogether more pirate-like -- will not be intimidated. Glaring at Captain Sparrow from under a floppy felt hat that would turn a less confident man into a dandy, Barbossa applies classical pirate emphasis to the verb in the same question when he roars "No, what ARRR you doing?!" right back.

Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush were the actors hamming it up in that scene; Frank Rich and Richard Cohen are the pundits emulating them while they write now about the mosque controversy (and it is that according even to the wife of the imam; spare me the new line about how a "mosque-mosque" isn't the same as a prayer room in a 15-story community center). Rich played the "Islamophobia" card, little knowing that Christopher Hitchens would destroy that silly diagnosis faster than Jack Sparrow munches on a stray peanut. Not to be outdone, Cohen thunders against what he calls "the pornography of analogy" and suggests that moving the mosque complex farther away from the 9/11 debris field is an idea that could only be embraced by cheese-eating surrender monkeys. Cohen's exasperation sounds cinematic, as anyone who remembers "Parley? Damn to the depths whatever man what thought of ‘parley'!" and Captain Sparrow's witty reply, "That would be the French!" could tell you. Moreover, Cohen's argument, such as it is, suffers from a clumsy bow toward moral equivalence. "I am a Jew," he writes, "but do not judge me by Baruch Goldstein, who in 1994 murdered 29 Muslims in Hebron."

What Cohen does not understand is that only a lunatic would compare him to Baruch Goldstein because no mainstream school of Talmudic thought condones murder, but there is no double standard because the same cannot be said of the Koran and its high-profile interpreters. In other words, belay that critique, Mr. Cohen. We'll be setting a new course, because it's not Jews who agitate against something as removed from religion as Greenwich Mean Time; it's Muslims.

That's why when people who fret needlessly about "anti-Muslim backlash" and have no problem with current plans for "Park51" vilify those of us keeping a weather eye on those plans, it's time to hoist the colors.  "Stop fomenting discord," they demand (sometimes from the Oval Office), only we're not the ones fomenting discord. There is no hate here. This, my lefty friends -- this -- is freedom of speech. As for keeping silence in the matter, Captain Barbossa's reply to a proposal from Elizabeth Swann speaks also for me, to wit, "I'm disinclined to acquiesce to your request. Means ‘no.'" Savvy?

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About the Author

Patrick O'Hannigan is a writer in North Carolina.