Point of View Columns

Weekend Edition – September 2, 2010

September has commenced and with it autumn beckons even as we brace ourselves during the midst of yet another hurricane season. The doors of schools are opening all over the country but none of us should take a moment’s pause from learning every day:

Sticks and Stones

I must confess that I do not make a habit of watching the Fox News Channel. Its motto is “Fair and Balanced” but all I ever encounter is vitriol being spewed at anything that does not mollify the right wing of the right wing, fairly balanced between diatribes and shrieks of rancor. But it is important to understand the full range of positions in this country and to learn what millions upon millions of Americans rely upon for their “news” and their points of view.

So I watched the Fox News summary of President Obama’s speech to the nation on the withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq. For the life of me I cannot tell you the details of the criticism leveled at President Obama because it was drowned out by cacophonous insult after insult. The level of critique was eerily reminiscent of a sixth grade schoolyard, one commentator saying “…..Obama looked like one of those nerds with a propeller beanie….” Another pseudo-pundit made fun of the way that President Obama folded his hands on the desk in the Oval Office.

I was struck by the fact that no one on Fox News referred to him as “President” Obama, he was either “Obama” or “Barack Hussein Obama”, but never “President” Obama. The reality of President Obama in the White House will be denied in some circles until time is no more.
And I was also very, very concerned that millions upon millions of Americans get their “news” and points of view from this source of artificial news.

And I think that the “change” that many of us sought in supporting Barack Obama may be very different than what we wanted. We may have expected a more open, caring and humane society. The “change” that we are getting is that adherents of the right wing of the right wing feel emboldened to show their true faces and the speak with their true voices.

The Koch brothers (the right wing of the right wing owners of Koch Industries who have been billion dollar bankrollers of the most insidious and odious attacks on democracy as we know it) can continue to hide behind their billion dollar curtains and drapes. There are more than enough emboldened zealots prepared to hold forth with their vision of America, a vision that does not include openness, caring or humanness. It is a very sad vision. It is a very dangerous vision.

Give Peace a Chance

This past week, Ms. Julie Menin, the chairperson of Community Board 1 in lower Manhattan wrote a very interesting op-ed piece in the New York Daily News. For those of you who have been in a cave for the past two month, Community Board 1 in lower Manhattan is the local organization that gave community approval for the construction of an Islamic cultural center that has a perceived proximity to the site of the World Trade Center.

This perceived proximity has, of course, been the source of tremendous controversy along with the revelation of a deep and pernicious vein of Islamophobia in the strata of political discourse in this country. And while the controversy continues to swirl, Ms. Menin has a very useful “compromise”.

She proposed that the cultural center be built as planned and at the chosen location. She also proposes that in addition to a mosque within the facility that there would also be a floor dedicated to an inter-faith, non-denominational space. The center would celebrate all faiths and inter-faith understanding.

Ms. Menin’s proposal is beautiful in its simplicity and in its appeal to be reason. We should watch the response to this beautiful simplicity and reasonable appeal.

Have a great weekend!

Point of View Columns

When No Sense Is Sense

“For evil to flourish, all that is needed is for good people to do nothing.”
-Edmund Burke

We are drawn inexorably and tragically back to the raging controversy surrounding the proposed Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan. This country has been at war for almost a decade and that casualties mount daily. We narrowly avoided a cataclysmic collapse of the global economy and we continue to sort through the detritus of the damage wrought by Wall Street and our own inattention. Unemployment continues at effective double digit rates and hope is a flickering flame that has to be vigilantly guarded against the downdrafts of despair.

Yet, it would appear to a latter day Rip Van Winkle, if he were to awaken today, that the most important and compelling subject that has riveted the attention of the American body politic is the proposed Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan. All of the noted challenges and controversies are left in the shadow cast by this collision of titanic forces. One the one hand there is the Constitution of the United States and its very clear and unambiguous commitment to freedom of religion and its equally clear corollary that government will not interfere in the exercise of the right of religious freedom.

Arrayed against this seemingly formidable component of the foundation upon which this country was built is a gaggle of opponents with no coherent philosophy save a very ugly anti-Islamist undertone. That undertone is masked with calls for “sensitivity” to the feelings of the families of 9/11 victims and queries as to why the proposed center (which is not a mosque, although it will have a prayer room) has to be “so close” to the site of the new World Trade Center. And then there is an Alice in Wonderland exposition of the theory that while Muslims have the right to build their community center in Lower Manhattan, they have the responsibility to realize that some citizens would be offended by their presence and so they should move to another site. Perhaps in Siberia or Mars.

As we observe this conflagration of opposing views move across a landscape charred and scarred by extremism and venom, perhaps the cooling waters of fact and reason could be helpful. I am personally appalled at the vehemence of the expressions by opponents to the center. Could it be that 7 out of 10 Americans are against the site? Could it be that these 7 out of 10 Americans are unaware that Muslims died as innocent victims during the 9/11 catastrophe, as innocent as the Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Hindu and atheist victims? Could it be that 7 out of 10 Americans are truly offended that an Islamic sponsored community center would be several blocks from the site of a World Trade Center?

Because, if that is the case what should be done about the two mosques that are already near the World Trade Center? One mosque is four blocks from the 9/11 site and has been there since 1970 – in effect before there was a World Trade Center. What should be done about the mosque that is 12 blocks from Ground Zero and has been in existence since 1985, or 16 years before 9/11? These mosques have been in continuous operation since 9/11 without question or concern and not once have the sensitivities and feelings of the families of 9/11 victims been mentioned. Not once.

Are we to infer that the opponents to the proposed center feel that 2 Islamic sites are enough? Or perhaps these two centers should also be dismantled and moved? Or is 4 blocks far enough away? Or 12 blocks? And, by the way, whatever happened to the Constitution of the United States?

Everything that is now being said about Muslims and mosques has been said about Jews and synagogues and Catholics and cathedrals and Protestants and their churches. Flames of intolerance have consumed untold legions of martyrs of every religion. The aspiration of tolerance is a very real aspect of what has made this country different. What a shame it would be for us to reverse the evolutionary process and return to the intolerance embodied by pogroms and holocausts and inquisitions since time immemorial.

If the rights of a minority are protected only when the majority is comfortable and looks favorably on that minority, then those rights are mere gossamer – a half-dream that disappears with the dawning of the dull sun of prejudice. If the exercise of rights set forth in the Constitution were subject to minority rule women might not have voted in Utah until very recently. If Constitutional rights were subject to a vote in North Carolina my father’s great grandparents might have never have moved from the Ford plantation.

There will always be a moment of pause between stated ideals and the full attainment of those ideals, but allowing the construction of the Lower Manhattan Islamic cultural center to be determined by some kind of neo-plebiscite a la American Idol would be shameful. To allow the exercise of religious freedom to be circumscribed because it is “insensitive” would make a mockery of the Constitution and provide the enemies of this country with custom made propaganda to recruit more misguided zealots.

Nonsense begets no sense. And we are all the worse for this very sad episode in the life and times of America.