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Freedom in America: Why don’t some folks get it?

August 6th, 2010

Mike Bloomberg marked the Cordoba House victory from Governor's Island (nee Nutten Island), where the Dutch first settled New Amsterdam.

This past week has seen two important victories for liberty in America.  Yet somehow, the news accounts are all over the place.  If you look at a Red station/website/paper (e.g., anything owned by Rupert Murdoch), the sky is falling.  If you’re on Twitter or Tumblr, you’d think everyone had decided to sing Kumbaya and that all the world’s ills are over.  Obviously, the reality is somewhere in between.  And, at least in my eyes, these victories for liberty were but speed bumps that have not halted a harsh and brutal wave of oppression that ironically brandishes the name of freedom.

The victories of which I speak were both very important.  The first came on Tuesday when the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission voted unanimously against a measure to grant landmark status to the building that once housed The Burlington Coat Factory and now is planned to be torn down and replaced with a 13-story community center called the Cordoba House.  The second was Wednesday, when a California jurist enjoined enforcement of a ballot initiative that effectively banned same-sex marriage in the state.  While these two levees pushed back the waters of hatred and bigotry (of late, quite commonly in the name of fundamentalist Christianity), this country is leaking like a sieve elsewhere and that the victories were necessary at all is reflective thereof.


The Cordoba House decision tugs at heartstrings of many in America.  Just blocks from the site of the World Trade Center, the building that formerly housed the Burlington Coat Factory was purchased by the Cordoba Initiative, a group with a charter mission to improve relations between Islam and Western society.  Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf has been an outspoken critic of terrorism and radical application of Islam over the last decade, but many have a hard time accepting a community center run by Muslims within a short walk from the locale where radical Islam struck such a fatal blow.  Especially for those who lost family and friends, the name Islam presents too much of an obstacle to overcome.  Well, the reality is that even those who lost family and friends at the site (while I was fortunate in that I did not, many of my friends did lose people very close to them) have to be told that their opposition to the Cordoba House is anti-American.

Mike Bloomberg has been an early and outspoken critic of the movement to block the center’s construction, which movement (spearheaded by GOP “leaders” like Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh and Rick Lazio) is anti-American and bigoted.  Mayor Mike put it best in his speech on Tuesday, celebrating the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s vote:

Whatever you may think of the proposed mosque and community center, lost in the heat of the debate has been a basic question: Should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? That may happen in other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here.

While almost no one defends the actions of the Westboro Baptist Church and their over-the-top antics, the actual difference between their positions and those of Pat Robertson and Glenn Beck are not that significant(Robertson and Beck would just never bring troops into it).

This nation was founded on the principle that the government must never choose between religions or favor one over another. The World Trade Center site will forever hold a special place in our city, in our hearts. But we would be untrue to the best part of ourselves and who we are as New Yorkers and Americans if we said no to a mosque in lower Manhattan.

That so many politicians have rallied to the “cause” of stopping what is being called by some a beachhead of radical Islam is nothing short of bigotry and religious persecution of Muslim Americans.  It is commendable that Mayor Mike did not feel the need to go negative towards folks like Palin, instead focusing on the core elements that make the case for the Cordoba Initiative… those very core elements which make the argument every bit of what liberty is supposed to mean in America.  While many politicians have given in to the pressures of political expediency and either opposed the Cordoba Center or simply publicly abstained from comments (looking at you, Chuck Schumer and Anthony Weiner), it is refreshing for some to note that this is the forefront of a major battle.  Except the battle is as to what America stands for… and those bathing themselves in the flag and cross are the opposition and the tyranny.

Across the country in California, in Perry v. Schwarzenegger (PDF), the cry of liberty was loud again.  Also true again was the manner in which so many missed the point.  Prop 8 was a sham from start to finish.  It was funded behind closed doors by the Church of Latter Day Saints and was publicly ignored by a very popular Democratic candidate for the Presidency (for as much as President Obama illustrated hope and change, he did little, if anything, to combat the ballot initiative in a state he overwhelmingly won).  Champions of Proposition 8 continue to argue it is about the freedom and will of the people to define marriage as their god intended.  They say their god intended for marriage to be between a man and woman.  Biologists, meanwhile, note that homosexual activity is common throughout nature, but science be damned… we’re talking religion here.

Still waiting for Americans to marry their pets.

But the religious argument isn’t even what’s disturbing here.  It’s the belief that the “will of the people” should rule.  No, that’s not the way America works.  It’s not the way any constitutional democracy works.  At least not any system that intends to protect and empower all of its people by ensuring freedoms for those in the minority.  It is almost as if de Toqueville had never written on the tyranny of the majority and the manner in which American society sought to operate in a collective that ensured rights for all.  Ironically, AdT linked American principles of equality to the country’s religiosity.  That link, a commonality in the rallying cry of oppression against the Cordoba House, is perhaps best reflected in this challenge to the liberty of two men or two women to wed. Judge Vaughn Walker put it well in his opinion:

In the absence of a rational basis, what remains of proponents’ case is an inference, amply supported by evidence in the record, that Proposition 8 was premised on the belief that same-sex couples simply are not as good as opposite-sex couples….. Whether that belief is based on moral disapproval of homosexuality, animus towards gays and lesbians or simply a belief that a relationship between a man and a woman is inherently better than a relationship between two men or two women, this belief is not a proper basis on which to legislate….

California’s obligation is to treat its citizens equally, not to “mandate [its] own moral code.”…  “[M]oral disapproval, without any other asserted state interest,” has never been a rational basis for legislation…. Tradition alone cannot support legislation.

Again, we have a great stand for liberty and American freedoms.  Perhaps they are not “uniquely American” freedoms (as we used to be able to say), but I would argue that we no longer even really stand for the true freedom we once called uniquely American.  And that’s why I have a hard time really standing up and celebrating these victories this week.

GOP defense of liberty certainly is hard to articulate well.

There are too many other instances where this country is being ravaged from within by bigotry and oppression.  And it has been as Sinclair Lewis predicted; facism has come wrapped in a flag and carrying a bible.

  • In Arizona, Governor Jan Brewer is spearheading an effort to target all people brown skinned.  Is there a legitimate purpose to policing the border?  Yes, of course.  And no one doubts that immigration policy and administration in this country has its flaws and that legal immigration must be emphasized; however, Arizona has taken the tact of decrying all persons brown and creating a sub-class of citizens who can be harassed solely based on the color of their skin and a suspicion that they might not be legal residents.
  • In Washington, the war against non-whites continued with Sen. Linsey Graham (SC) pushing for a Constitutional amendment to limit the scope of the 14th Amendment (which, in Section 1, grants citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States).  In their attempt to combat “anchor babies” (a term whose bigotry and de-humanization is scarring), Graham and his ilk have revealed the degree to which they are willing to trample liberty and the rule of the Constitution when faced with political expediency.
  • In Murfreesboro, an Islamic Center (again, sought to be built legally on private property) is facing incredible opposition from people who do not wish to count Muslims among their neighbors.  This fear and hatred is exposing the quickness with which the most religious parts of our country, in particular, are willing to ensure that freedom of religion is only applicable for their particular religion.
  • In Louisiana, a particular parish is also pushing for religious superiority.  This time it’s Christianity’s superiority over science and the battlefront, again, is evolution.  Directly in conflict with the Louisiana-born Supreme Court ruling in Edwards v. Aguillard (holding that creation science could not be required to be taught to advance a religious purpose), the Livingston Parish school board has openly advocated teaching creationism in order to ensure that science classes would not conflict with the Christian mores of the board.
  • And, of course, you had Texas school board and the wholesale revision of American history and social studies.  I still intend to write separately on this, but needless to say, I find the idea of banishing Thomas Jefferson to a corner while bringing John Calvin to the forefront to be nothing less than an affront.

I don’t mean to gang up on the Republicans and Tea Baggers who stand at the forefront of all of the above.  Indeed, few good politicians of any ilk have stood up for the rights of the minority.  I don’t look to the Democrats as willing to stand up for the “uniquely American” rights to liberty because I don’t trust them to move beyond political expediency either.  Nowhere was this more apparent than the lack of a kickback from the White House over Fox News’ ridiculous outcry when the President noted the mere existence of “non-believers” in the country.  The continued lunacy of a country dominated by evangelicals and Catholics complaining about a “war on Christmas” aside, the mere entertaining of the idea of freedom from religion seems to strike the most resonant chord with right wingers.  And it has not been the case that the left has stood with free-thinkers.  It’s rather pitiful that I am tempted to applaud Obama for even recognizing those of us who don’t have believe in any religion.

Generally anonymous to the public, Texas' Don McLeroy was the most dangerous man in American education and had no bones about being public with his ideological biases. He was voted out this past year, but not before doing great damage.

Ultimately, I’ve over-simplified the complex issues above.  I get that I’m guilty of that in this blog post.  But I do so to make a point and not to obfuscate the many cross-currents.

With respect to the Cordoba House, there is the question of whether someone should do something simply because they have every right to.  Yes, emotionally many will want to “refudiate” the idea of putting the center so close to the Trade Center. But the greater issue is not prudence of planning; the trampling of rights is far more important.  And it should also be noted that America’s reaction to the Cordoba House is the very type of victory for Al Qaeda that Mayor Giuliani and President Bush eloquently warned of.  The hatred for and fear of Islam has extended across the country to block mosques in places that have no direct connection to 9/11… but rather simply feature people who don’t want to live next to Muslims.

In Proposition 8, this was clearly a major victory for liberty, but there is an underlying, troubling issue that so much of America has been misinformed and been made the tool of fearmongers.  Parents across the country really do somehow believe that sodomy is being taught to kids in schools and that teachers are suggesting kids try homosexuality.  This ignorance leads not only to homophobia, but also to a lack of education, period (particularly when it comes to sex education).  It is no wonder that the most religious of communities sport some of the highest teen birthrates and STD counts.

With SB 1070 and Arizona, it’s not hard to empathize with Arizona residents who literally do have a war going on across the border and a federal government that has not done enough to seal it.  While the civil war between the government and drug cartels in Mexico is divorced from the reality in border states (that violence and illegal immigration are actually generally down over the last decade), states like Arizona that are suffering brutal droughts and collapsed economies are even more susceptible to the fear mongering that is so easy to do.  The problem is that permitting them that excuse is the very type of leniency that allows fascism to slip into the country. That fascism is well reflected by the duhumanization of a people, as has been done by the concept of “Anchor babies” and the rhetoric of fear of being “bred out” by a Latino culture featuring higher birthrates.  This is really, really dangerous stuff.

As with most dangerous issues, the greatest multiplier of fear and hatred is a lack of education.  In Texas, Louisiana, Kansas, South Carolina and so many other locales, we have seen parents thumping their chests (and often their bibles) in an effort to prevent educational programs that promote scientific literacy and, in some cases, an accurate reflection of American history itself.  Those leading that charge often decry the “nanny” state and call for more individual responsibility; however, these very same folks attempt to coopt the state in order to promote and impose their own ideological biases, religious convictions and moral hangups.

This week had a couple of fine moments, but I implore you all to note that the war is being lost.

  1. August 6th, 2010 at 09:17 | #1
  2. August 6th, 2010 at 09:20 | #2

    Whoops, put that comment on the wrong article…

  3. admin
    August 6th, 2010 at 10:23 | #3

    Yeah, I did see it and it was awesome. I think Stewart is not as deft as Colbert, but he is one heck of a funny guy. The Beck send up was classic and I just hope he can eventually do to Beck what he did to Crossfire.

  4. Ken
    August 6th, 2010 at 11:28 | #4

    How about you attack the democrats with the same intensity over the health care bill (“wrapped up” socialism and nothing more) or the effort to tax people over carbon dioxide, as if more taxes will help solve pollution problems?

    You would be much more credible, and gain more willing ears, without the obvious bashing of Christians, and without the childish name-calling of “teabaggers.”

  5. admin
    August 6th, 2010 at 11:44 | #5

    Ken, taxing greenhouse gas emissions would actually solve problems if it could be done effectively. Taxes that create a financial incentive to not pollute would be a positive; however, the ultimate goal could not be obtained absent a universal, global process of taxation or (wait for it) cap and trade. There is no proposal for a universal measure, so it won’t work and it won’t get through.

    As for taxation of polluters. Yeah, I have no problem with that. It’s a means of getting around free rider issues. Then again, I have no problem with the “nanny” state measures of Mayor Bloomberg (e.g., taxation of alcohol and tobacco as sin taxes and of sugary drinks as a health tax).

    As for the “health care reform”, you give it too much dignity in calling it reform. It was a bill, but it hardly reformed anything and it certainly did not institute socialized medicine. Socialized medicine, if instituted correctly, would be a far better system than we have currently, but it’s not what was passed. What was passed was merely a lobbyist’s wet dream.

    And yes, I openly bash radical Christians in this because, to be quite honest, the right wing has been unfurling an assault on liberty in this country for some time. While not all of the above is directly related to Christianity (the Cordoba House is more about general anti-Islamicism and the Texas School Board is more about conservative propaganda than promotion of Christianity), the evangelical community, the LDS community and other Christian sects are a very big part of the wrongs I discuss.

    As for Tea Partiers, yes, calling them Tea Baggers is childish. But they have done enough to lose my respect so, quite simply, I couldn’t give a damn. I’m not running for office and I’m not trying to convert anyone. I’m simply stating that America is a very scary place right now.

  6. Ken
    August 6th, 2010 at 12:26 | #6

    America is a scary place. But all blame can’t be placed on right-wingers. It’s both sides. None of them–politicians (save Ron Paul)–are willing to truthfully follow the Constitution. And the presidents? No better. The proof is in how Obama has extended many of Bush’s illegal/anti-Constitutional snooping programs; and his expansion of the “war” on terrorism. (Did Congress ever officially declare a war? Nope. Then it can’t be and the troops shouldn’t be in the Middle East.)

    The Tea Party was admirable until it got overtaken by Sarah Palin and her like. They have hijacked what truly began as a grass roots movement of people concerned about the country.

    As for taxing carbon dioxide, that tax would eventually fall on the American citizen, as businesses would surely have to raise prices for services or goods affected by any tax.

    You’ve got good writing skills. I just wish you could take both sides to task. Neither cares about you, or the country.

  7. admin
    August 6th, 2010 at 12:49 | #7

    Ken, thanks for the complement and for reading. Although I readily acknowledge that I get far more worked up by the antics of the far right than the far left (and that most certainly comes across), I do hope you note that I actually do take to task the DNC for caving to political expediency and not standing up for what is right.

    Yes, the left has its issues on which it tramples liberty, too. And I don’t believe a larger government is a better government. You make a good point about the Tea Party having genuine roots as those complaining of government overreaching have a case. But as you noted, that movement has long since adopted the radical idiosyncrasies of the far right and long abandoned any noble cause. They had their chance to expel the birthers and those calling for the heads of anchor babies, but they did not. In not doing so, they imploded and have forfeited any right to respect.

    Anyway, the general point of the article was the trampling of liberty and the fact that two admittedly big wins still don’t put much of a dent into the flowing tide of legitimized bigotry and ideological brainwashing that goes on in this country. Unfortunately, there isn’t any single party you can turn to for protection as no party is willing to stand for what is right over what is expedient. So you do what you can, which is to educate and protect those that are closest to you.

  8. Ken
    August 6th, 2010 at 13:52 | #8

    “…as no party is willing to stand for what is right over what is expedient. So you do what you can, which is to educate and protect those that are closest to you.”

    Worded perfectly.

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