Thursday, April 21, 2011

The ham sandwich defense

No, really. I had just finished putting a nice outsize slice of Dearborn Bavarian ham* on a sandwich to take in for lunch when I saw the morning's top story. It's a somewhat better story than the hed suggests, which is mostly a design issue; when you paint yourself into a hard-news vertical corner, don't be surprised when you get "Pope still Catholic, Vatican claims." Here's the lede (online version):

In an open letter Wednesday to Pastor Terry Jones, Dearborn Mayor Jack O'Reilly Jr. blasted claims that his city is under Islamic law, noting it has three strip clubs and a factory that makes pork products sitting across the street from a mosque.

Pastor Jones, see, is planning to hold a rally outside a Dearborn mosque on Friday to warn the world about creeping Sharia. And what the hed needs is not the "no we aren't" angle, which is head-scratchingly self-evident, but a taste of "what flavor of moron would think we are?" If the letter is strong enough for "blasted," see if it's strong enough for "Dearborn to Florida pastor: Are you nuts?" (The Freep's pretty much a tabloid soul** in a broadsheet body, so a little outrage mixed with ridicule wouldn't be out of order. If you're looking for a hard-news lede for your top 1A news slot, that is.)

The story's more of a thumbsucker, at which it could use a little further work:

From Newt Gingrich to Mike Huckabee to state legislators, a growing number of officials across the country are proclaiming that Dearborn and metro Detroit are under Shari'a law because of the sizable Muslim population. Urged on by an active network of conservative blogs and groups, they are filing lawsuits and legislation against what they perceive as a threat to the U.S.

It's all based on a lie, local officials say -- but one that continues to stick in some minds because of the growing power of social media.

The local situation is a special case of generalized national sharianoia; the loonies proclaiming that Dearborn mourns in lonely exile beneath the Muslim jacksandal aren't necessarily the ones clowning around with the legislative system in Tennessee and Missouri and Oklahoma. So the story needs to go beyond pinning "based on a lie" to "local officials": not because it isn't a lie, but because the lie is part of a broader paranoid fantasy that goes beyond how many kielbasa plants you can have and still qualify as Sharia-ensnared.

... Muslim Americans say they should not be compared to how Muslims live in foreign countries.

They say they're facing the same accusations that American Catholics faced in the 19th and early 20th centuries when some Protestants feared their influx would lead to Vatican domination.

And, the story could usefully point out, the same sorts of conspiracy theories that have traditionally singled out the Freemasons, the Illuminati and the Jews. Back in the McCarthy days, A.J. Liebling summed it up nicely in reviewing the procedural details of the "Popish plot":

Some were Jesuits, who said they had not plotted. This proved they had, because, the judge reminded the jury, all Catholics were liars; if they were not they would plead guilty. Some denied being Jesuits, which proved they were, because Jesuits were taught to lie.

Plug in a few random transliterations of "taqiyya" copped from professional bedwetters and you essentially have modern right-wing discourse about the Muslim Peril. A newspaper that takes its public service mission seriously could afford to spend a little time sketching out this history on its own. You won a Pulitzer for pointing out that the mayor was lying; is there some reason Terry Jones, Newt Gingrich, Sharron Angle et al are getting a free pass?

* Nom.
** The Charlie Sheen centerpiece cartoon was the highlight of how many consecutive days of 1A coverage?


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