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Burlington Coat Factory Cultural Center

August 23, 2010 Leave a comment

I didn’t want to believe it, but there’s no way around the fact that the post I spent some 45 minutes working on earlier tonight is lost. My browser crashed, I wondered when the last auto-save took place, and when I re-opened my blog, I found no trace of the post. Maybe I’ll try a shorter version this time around. Just the highlights.

Okay, so, the point was to urge you to look at an article by Justin Elliott that appeared a week ago at Salon, in which Elliott reviews how “ground zero mosque” fear mongering began. I had meant to write about this all of last week, and then found Frank Rich linking to it in his weekly NYT column yesterday. If you read the column, you might have seen the link. If you didn’t follow up on it, please do.

Three months ago tomorrow a college classmate of mine wrote a crazed email to our class email list, forwarding us an article by a guy I didn’t know, Robert Spencer, and prefacing it with the comment that the “idea of two massive 15 story mosques being built literally on the smoldering graves of the 3,000 Americans murdered by Islam in lower Manhattan is so revolting and appalling that the English language does not contain words powerful enough to express the disgust and outrage attendant upon this event.” This was my first sign that something was afoot, but I would never have imagined the crazed (and organized) outrage we have had to listen to since then.

I wrote back to the classmate, wondering why “Islam” was the murderer and suggesting that “it’s worth distinguishing a religion from extremist practitioners of it.” I also made reference to a NYT article from last December 9 that painted a very different picture, quoting the following passage:

The location was precisely a key selling point for the group of Muslims who bought the building in July. A presence so close to the World Trade Center, “where a piece of the wreckage fell,” said Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the cleric leading the project, “sends the opposite statement to what happened on 9/11.”

“We want to push back against the extremists,” added Imam Feisal, 61.

While I’m at it, let me quote more from the article:

Joan Brown Campbell, director of the department of religion at the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York and former general secretary of the National Council of Churches of Christ U.S.A., who is a supporter of Imam Feisal, acknowledged the possibility of a backlash from those opposed to a Muslim presence at ground zero.

But, she added: “Building so close is owning the tragedy. It’s a way of saying: ‘This is something done by people who call themselves Muslims. We want to be here to repair the breach, as the Bible says.’ ”

And:

Joy Levitt, executive director of the Jewish Community Center, said the group would be proud to be a model for Imam Feisal at ground zero. “For the J.C.C. to have partners in the Muslim community that share our vision of pluralism and tolerance would be great,” she said.

Mr. El-Gamal agreed. “What happened that day,” he said, “was not Islam.”

In his Salon piece, Elliott provides a timeline of the fear mongering campaign, starting from the very same NYT article. The next date in his timeline is December 21. He writes:

Dec. 21, 2009: Conservative media personality Laura Ingraham interviews Abdul Rauf’s wife, Daisy Khan, while guest-hosting “The O’Reilly Factor” on Fox. In hindsight, the segment is remarkable for its cordiality. “I can’t find many people who really have a problem with it,” Ingraham says of the Cordoba project, adding at the end of the interview, “I like what you’re trying to do.”

How did things get so crazy? Elliott observes that after this Fox segment, “and despite the front-page Times story — there were no news articles on the mosque for five and a half months.” Then Pamela Geller arrived on the scene. A fanatic anti-Moslem, right-wing blogger. See the biography she provides at her blog Atlas Shrugs. She runs an organization called Stop Islamization of America, along with Robert Spencer, the author of the article my classmate sent around in late May. She and Spencer also co-wrote the book The Post-American Presidency: The Obama Administration’s War on America, which you might have missed.

On May 6, after a New York City community board committee approved the community center, Geller’s campaign began. Within the week, Andrea Peyser had a column at the New York Post quoting Geller and promoting anti-mosque protest.

Lots of opinion makers on the right read the Post, so it’s not surprising that, starting that very day, the mosque story spread through the conservative — and then mainstream — media like fire through dry grass. Geller appeared on Sean Hannity’s radio show. The Washington Examiner ran an outraged column about honoring the 9/11 dead. So did Investor’s Business Daily. Smelling blood, the Post assigned news reporters to cover the ins and outs of the Cordoba House development daily. Fox News, the Post’s television sibling, went all out.

Within a month, Rudy Giuliani had called the mosque a “desecration.” Within another month, Sarah Palin had tweeted her famous “peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate” tweet. Peter King and Newt Gingrich and Tim Pawlenty followed suit — with political reporters and television news programs dutifully covering “both sides” of the controversy.

Geller had succeeded beyond her wildest dreams.

When I chastised my classmate three months ago for identifying an entire religion with terrorists and murderers, I naively failed to understand that this was exactly the point of the campaign he so willingly made himself a part of. And of course, thanks to typical mainstream media coverage of “the controversy,” giving credence to even the nuttiest ideas, we now find even Howard Dean urging “compromise.” It’s suddenly reasonable to tell all members of a religion that they should make special effort not to offend the rest of us, that they should not build on (or rather near, but with no direct sight lines of) “hallowed ground.” My goodness.

Among the many powerful pieces about this manufactured controversy, I especially appreciated Amy Davidson’s piece three days ago at the New Yorker blog, brilliantly connecting the issue to the Little League World Series now underway.

in 1955, sixty-two local Little Leagues in the state of South Carolina entered the tournament that leads to the Little League World Series. For the first time, one of them consisted of black players—the Cannon Street YMCA All Stars. None of the sixty-one other teams had a single black player, and every one of them refused to play Cannon Street. They wanted them out of the tournament. Instead, the Little League head office disqualified the sixty-one white teams.

One can imagine the pressures on the Cannon Street team and their coaches. Why were they spoiling it for all the other kids? Why were they making everyone uncomfortable? If they really cared about racial harmony and people getting along, why were they being so provocative? If they hadn’t meant to be, couldn’t they tell from the reaction that it was a mistake? Were there outside agitators involved? This wasn’t the time, or the place—couldn’t they just play somewhere else?

Davidson describes the Little League’s actions as a shining moment. “Shining moments aren’t easy. They can cost you Little League franchises; they can cost you votes. It might take years to realize how proud, or how ashamed, one is of what one did at a certain moment. (In 2002, Little League invited the surviving Cannon Street players back, and declared them South Carolina champions.) You don’t always have to stand up for one team out of sixty-two, or for your neighbors. But there are times when you should.”

Amen.

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Categories: Journalism, Politics, Religion

Are You Comfortable?

August 23, 2010 Leave a comment

Once again, I’ve sat too long on a topic I meant to write about. Maybe I’ll give it a shot before the issues fade completely from my mind. The starting point was James Surowiecki’s economics column in the August 16 issue of the New Yorker, dated a week ago but now two weeks old. In the context of Congressional discussions on whether to extend the Bush tax cuts that are set to expire at the end of the year, he asks,

who counts as rich? The Obama Administration’s answer is that you’re rich if you make more than two hundred thousand dollars a year as an individual or two hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year as a household, and therefore you should have your taxes raised. Conservatives suggest that this threshold is far too low, and argue that Obama would be taxing mostly small-business owners, or the people a Fox News host has referred to as “the so-called rich,” rather than fat plutocrats. You might think this isn’t really much of a debate. An annual income of two hundred and fifty thousand dollars puts you in the top three per cent of American households, and is more than four times the national median. You’re rich, and a small tax increase isn’t going to rock your world.

Surowiecki goes on to note that “from surveys of how Americans describe themselves, most of the privileged don’t feel all that privileged.” He then reviews why this might be the case, with reasons ranging from the high cost of housing in certain parts of the country to the fact that those earning “a few hundred thousand dollars a year have done much worse than people at the very top of the ladder.”

Surowiecki proceeds to explore this last point in more detail. He observes, for instance, that “People in the ninety-fifth to the ninety-ninth percentiles of income have represented a fairly constant share of the national income for twenty-five years now. But in that period the top one per cent has seen its share of national income double … So at the same time that the rich have been pulling away from the middle class, the very rich have been pulling away from the pretty rich, and the very, very rich have been pulling away from the very rich. … there’s a yawning chasm between the professional and the plutocratic classes.”

Surowiecki concludes that the tax system should reflect this chasm, with the super-rich paying higher rates than the very rich. He concludes that doctors, lawyers, accountants — what one might call (and Matt Miller does call) the “lower upper class” — inhabit a different world from the ultra-rich and should inhabit a different tax bracket as well.

In a commentary at CNN, John Avlon made much the same point two weeks ago, perhaps influenced by Surowiecki’s article, though he doesn’t refer to it. Avlon writes,

There is another issue . . . beyond the increasing gap between rich and poor in the United States.
It is the gap between the “super rich” — who really do have more money than they know what to do with — and what might be called the “working wealthy,” who are taxed as though they’re rich enough to able to give away half their money.

These are individuals whose household income might bring them into the top tax bracket of $250,000 a year but who, with two parents working, might still find themselves struggling to stay in the stability of the upper-middle class in the expensive urban areas where they often work.
Much of the anger about the scheduled sunset of the Bush tax cuts for the increase in top-bracket taxes comes from this productive group of Americans.

The super rich are looking for charitable donations to deduct from their taxes each year, while the working wealthy are still trying to pay all their bills. But they are taxed at the same rate as the private jet set (what a few years ago might been called the Bernie Madoff crowd).

Avlon concludes with mention of “the growing gaps in our society, not just between the rich and poor, but between the super rich, the working wealthy and the forgotten middle class.”

At the Atlantic, Derek Thompson replied to Avlon’s piece, granting that “it can be challenging to put two kids through private school and pay a mortgage on $250,000 a year in an expensive urban area,” but disagreeing “that those families’ experience should guide our tax policy.” He ends up drawing the same conclusion as Surowiecki:

Avalon’s [sic] piece strikes me as an argument for more income brackets. If we acknowledge the country is getting ever more stratified between the wealthy, the super-wealthy and the sweet-lord-they-must-use-their-money-as-napkins wealthy, why not build an attic on top of income tax system to catch extra money at higher rates?

Thompson also takes exception to Avlon’s description of the struggling earners of $250,000 as upper middle class: “I know it’s polite to say we’re all middle class until our yearly income adds a seventh digit, but really. If the 95th percentile is the middle class, does that make the median income earner upper-lower class? Or is America’s middle class more like the stuffing in a three-story Oreo?”

Thompson has a link to a very useful document from Tax Policy Center, from which we can see that about .4% of the population earns over $1 million, whereas another .7% are in the $500,000 to a million range and 3.9% are in the $200,000 to $500,000 range.

Can someone really make $250,000 and be middle class? A week ago, at Andrew Sullivan’s blog site, The Daily Dish, Sullivan’s assistant Patrick Appel quoted from Thompson’s post and then addressed this question. (Sullivan is on vacation and his staff members are running the show.) Appel posits, “families tend to socialize with families who make a little more and a little less than they do. A family earning $250,000 a year likely has a number of friends that make around that amount. They probably also know a number of families making $300,000 to $400,000 a year and number of families making $100,000 to $200,000 a year. Even if an American is in the 95th percentile nationally, they are likely to feel middle-class in relation to peers.” A debate ensued among readers, which you can follow by going over to The Daily Dish.

The notion that we’re all middle class was impressed upon me very early through a joke my father used to tell. It’s a familiar joke, one that could perhaps work in any culture, but one that has come to be identified with American Jewish culture. Indeed, if one does a search on the joke, one finds that it is variously attributed to Henny Youngman, or told with instructions that the punchline should be spoken with a Yiddish accent, or written with Yiddish-accented words (“vell” for “well”) thrown in. Underlying the joke is the notion that one needs a euphemism for being wealthy, it being somehow unseemly for someone to actually admit to being rich. The particular euphemism used in the joke (and so, the euphemism I learned as a child) is that of “being comfortable.”

As for the joke, well, it goes something like this. A man (a Jewish man in some tellings, or more explicitly, a Mr. Cohen) is walking across the street when he is hit by a car. The driver (or perhaps a passing policeman) rushes out to the man, who is lying on the street, puts his sweater under the man’s head, and asks, “Are you comfortable?” The man replies, “Eh. I make a living.”

That’s my understanding of the issues. And yes, I make a living.

Categories: Economics, Humor