She was dead.
Dear, gentle, patient, noble Nell, was dead.
Her little bird -- a poor slight thing the pressure of a finger would have crushed -- was stirring nimbly in its cage; and the strong heart of its child-mistress was mute and motionless for ever.
Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop (1841)
The Anglo-Irish playwright and bon vivant, Oscar Wilde, once observed that "one must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing."
On the surface, Wilde's aphorism is wicked. Laughing at the death of an impossibly good child is a heartless act. Yet the strength of Wilde's remarks -- and their repetition to this day -- comes not from the discovery that Little Nell's death was funny. Rather it is the realization that Dicken's depiction of Little Nell's death was aesthetically flawed. So over the top, so one-dimensional that the power of the narrative collapsed under the weight of its treacly sentiment. It was bad art.
Reading an article in USA Today entitled: "Mosque projects face resistance in some U.S. communities" elicited the same response from me as Little Nell's death did for Wilde.
One must have a heart of stone not to laugh at the persecution of Muslims in America as depicted by USA Today. This article is so bad, so one-sided, so inept that its ham-handed attempt to elicit sympathy by condemning prejudice felt by some Muslims in America brought me to tears -- of laughter.
The article begins:
CHICAGO – Mohammed Labadi has a lot at stake when the DeKalb City Council votes Tuesday on a request from the Islamic Society of Northern Illinois University to build a two-story mosque.
Labadi, a businessman and Islamic Society board member, wants a bigger mosque to replace the small house where local Muslims now worship. He also hopes for affirmation that his neighbors and city officials have no fear of the Muslim community.
The article offers a protestation by Mr. Labadi of his American credentials -- and then notes the zoning commission has approved the request for a new mosque. An inaspicious beginning for an article on prejudice against Muslims -- but USA Today has a narrative arc in mind that will not be deflected by the facts in its lede.
The article then takes a bizarre turn. Starting with the plea by Mr. Labadi not to "look at me just as a Muslim, look at me as an American" and to "take the unfortunate stereotypes about Muslims out of the picture" the article then removes Islam from 9/11. It states:
Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which were carried out by hijackers from Arab countries, animosity toward Muslims sometimes has taken the form of opposition to construction of mosques and other Islamic facilities.
What is the author trying to say? Is it that 9/11 was really an Arab affair that has spawned unfortunate repercussions against Muslims? That Islam has nothing to do with it?
The article reports on "anti-mosque activity" in more than 25 states since 9/11, citing the ACLU as its source of information, and then quotes the director of the ACLU's freedom of religion program as saying that some mosque opponents raise concerns about traffic and parking.
A lawyer for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) then enters the story, claiming prejudice -- not zoning issues -- lay behind the decision by DuPage County, Ill., to block a construction permit for a mosque.
Some DuPage County residents who objected to the permit "raised allegations of terrorism," Vodak says. "The post-9/11 atmosphere has created a lot of fear and hysteria about Muslim institutions."
The article does offer the voice of a neighbor to the proposed mosque, objecting to the building being located in a residential area -- and then offers anecdotes of zoning concerns over proposed mosques in Connecticut and a successful zoning application in Wisconsin. The article then ends with comments from two Muslims a la Rodney King -- "Why can't we all get along".
Still, says Othman Atta, the Islamic Society's executive director, some opponents said the mosque would teach violence and impose Islamic law. "The level of knowledge about Muslims is pretty abysmal," he says. "People, if they don't understand something, they tend to fear it."
Ebrahim Moosa, a Duke University professor of religion and Islamic studies, worries that discrimination against Muslims is growing. "Opposition to mosques," he says, "is not a misunderstanding, because reasonable people can talk and mutually educate."
Why the laughter? Why the sniggering? Because this is a mess of an article.
The news reported in this story is that two mosques have received zoning approval and two mosques have been denied zoning approval. The expert commentary offered in this story, however, comes only from those condemning anti-Muslim prejudice and ignorance -- nothing from experts on religion and zoning.
A further problem with the story structure is that the article fails to offer any proven examples of prejudice and ignorance. We are offered a few factual crumbs courtesy of the ACLU, but they are not placed in any sort of context. How many mosques have been vandalized? Are Muslim hate crimes on the increase or decrease? Are hate crimes against Jews, Sikhs, Buddhist, Christians on the increase or decrease as well? What sort of Muslims are we talking about? Sunni, Shia, Ismaili, Ahmadiyya? Are mosques backed by Saudi money being built, but not those of other schools?
And CAIR? In an article complaining about the linkage between Islam and terrorism it is a bit much to have a group some members of Congress believe is a terrorist front organization put forward as a source without having any sort of context explaining from whom we are hearing.
This article is full of cliches and stock metaphors and uses these trite devices as well as an appeal to sentiment to advance an argument that it does neglects to support with facts.
Which takes me back to the death of Little Nell. The Old Curiosity Shop presented an unrealistic picture of death. Dickens offered the reader a child who on its death bed is uncomplaining -- who as death approaches only increases in earnestness and gratitude for the little she has received in this life. There is no suffering, no pain, no loss. The only action found in the pages describing the death of Little Nell is the fluttering of an innocent bird hoping about its cage as life slips away.
Dickens depiction of death was so unconvincing, so trite and contrived that it was funny. Wilde's bon mot was not heartless but an apt judgment on aesthetic failure -- on the failure of Dickens as an artist in this passage from The Old Curiosity Shop.
While I concede that this article has no pretensions to being art, it too is an aesthetic failure. It is also a professional (journalistic) failure and a moral failure. It seeks not to establish the truth but to prove a point. All it succeeds in doing, however, is to glorify sentiment.
Oscar Wilde in a letter to Lord Alfred Douglas described the sentimentalist as one who
desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it . . . Even the finest and most self-sacrificing emotions have to be paid for. Strangely enough, that is what makes them fine. The intellectual and emotional life of ordinary people is a very contemptible affair .... And remember that the sentimentalist is always a cynic at heart. Indeed sentimentality is merely the bank holiday of cynicism.
By crafting the story on a foundation of sentiment rather than fact, USA Today fell short in its reporting. There is a story to be told on the acculturation of Muslims in America in the wake of 9/11. What say you GetReligion readers, does this article help tell this story?
Mosque image courtesy of Shutterstock.