I recently read Thomas Frank's ambitious work,What's the Matter with Kansas,in which he explores the history of Kansas as a microcosm of the history of the Religious Right's capture of the poor and working class - against their own interests - in the U.S.
Again and again, Frank's analysis returns to the central role that education plays in the painting of liberals as "elitist" in the minds of these lower and middle class voters who are persuaded to line the pockets of corporate CEO's, in the name of populism.
Extreme anti-intellectualism is perhaps one of the most unfortunate aspects of the highly successful campaign of the Right against liberalism. When higher education is given a bad name, the critical thinking involved in assessing political and policy arguments gets lost in the shuffle. As a result, large blocks of the population become highly vulnerable to faulty and emotional arguments.
With the current hysteria over the misnamed "Ground Zero Mosque," (which, as Keith Olbermann has pointed out, is neither at Ground Zero, nor a mosque) in addition to the tragic absurdity of an American pastor threatening to burn Korans on 9/11, the loss of critical thinking has rarely been so obvious.
The merging of the concepts "Muslim" and "terrorist" - which forms the basis for both of the above campaigns - is the result of a series of errors, biases, and otherwise faulty reasoning, that need to be teased out and challenged.
Perhaps the most obvious error, in this latest hysteria, is the belief that the actions of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers (and al Qaeda, in general) represent the beliefs and motives of all Muslims. The tendency to make this error, is much greater when people are looking at others than they perceive as different from themselves. For example, when extreme Christian fundamentalist activists commit acts of terror, such as the murder of fertility specialist Dr. Barnett Slepian (who also performed abortions), no one suggested that all Christian fundamentalists - or even abortion rights opponents - should be seen as harboring murderous motives. For people who share a common ethnic and religious background with Slepian's killer, it's easier to differentiate between him and other people who may share some of his religious beliefs. This is, of course, why stereotypes abound, despite our best intentions. It also explains why it was so easy for Bush & Cheney to link Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden - one person with a foreign-sounding name is less distinguishable from another. Besides being illogical, assigning of collective responsibility is just wrong.
Another error is the idea that, on 9/11, we were attacked by a religion, rather than by al Qaeda. For this, George W. Bush deserves much credit, for arguing that al Qaeda had hijacked Islam, rather than that they legitimately acted in the name of Islam.
These errors of perception are augmented by simple errors of fact: such as, that the community center is actually a mosque, and that it is actually at ground zero. Opponents of the planned center are left in the absurd position of arguing that a former Burlington Coat Factory is somehow hallowed ground.
I've heard a number of people say that it would be upsetting to 9/11 families to "see" the "mosque" from "ground zero." This, of course, ignores that fact that the community center would not be visible from ground zero, and that some 9/11 families are in favor of the community center.
The lesson of Thomas Frank's Kansas, is that we progressives need to find a way to make critical thinking fashionable again.