The Summer of American Intolerance

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By Elizabeth Burke
Special to the Clyde Fitch Report

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Last week in New York, my intolerance level was kicking into high gear. First there was the heat: intolerable! My sweat was actually sweating. Everyone is cranky, short-tempered, bloated with humidity. Two parts of my body touch: instant sweat zone. And maybe that’s why there are so many people screaming and wailing about the proposed “Ground Zero Mosque” — which is the last time I will use that misnomer. The heat, humidity and extortion of Con Edison (have you seen your electricity bill?) is enough to make otherwise calm and sane people act like complete lunatics.

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When the Landmarks Preservation Commission laid bare the last remaining roadblock to building the new Muslim community center to be called Cordoba House, people lost their minds — and dignity. I was embarrassed as the news portrayed opponents crying and wailing because a community that has long been located in downtown Manhattan wanted to build a new facility — gasp! — close to the World Trade Center site. How dare they! In fact, it will not be a mosque but a community center, called Park51, that will include these amenities:

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  • fitness facilities (swimming pool, gym, basketball court)
  • a 500-seat auditorium
  • a restaurant and culinary school
  • cultural amenities, including exhibitions
  • education programs
  • a library and art studios
  • childcare services
  • a mosque intended to be run separately but open to and accessible to all members, visitors and our New York community
  • dedicated meditation room

Visit the website. Notice it says it will be open to the public: no religious background check needed.

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Part of the project’s mission is: “Uphold respect for the diversity of expression and ideas between all people.” What a contrast to the tone of the intolerants pushing that most un-American of all things — revoking an organization’s right to freedom of religion. Blowhard bigmouths like Carl Paladino, who is running in the Republican primary for New York governor and is apparently not intolerant of racist jokes, are jumping all over this issue not because they actually believe we have the right to boot out any religion we don’t like, but because they’re pandering to their fear-mongering base: Super-Family-Value-Christian-Only-Need-Apply-Conservatives. Oh, and because of Sarah Palin, who barely knows where New York is and doesn’t like Muslims. So what she doesn’t like, the big boys won’t like! Please, Ms. Ex Governor, butt out of New York. You can’t see Russia from here. (By the way, you didn’t know about the Republican primary in New York? Thanks to Paladino, there is one. Poor Rick Lazio just can’t pick a campaign he can actually win.)

What these Neanderthals forget — aside from the very reason this country exists — is that Muslims have been in New York since it was a baby town in diapers. Muslims comprise between two and seven million of the U.S. population. It’s time we started treating them like actual citizens and not brush them with the broad stroke of extreme fundamentalism that their hate-filled opponents use to smear them. Nineteen religious fundamentalist psychotics murdered 3,000 people in a fit of hatred and judgmental rage on Sept. 11, 2001. Not the two million who live ordinary lives, possibly right next door to you (another gasp!).

We live in the most tolerant city in the world. We tolerate trash in the streets, noisy and dirty “street fairs,” subway strikes in the middle of winter. We tolerate the New York Post. But where we should be most tolerant is with other people and religion. These well-meaning but wrongheaded New Yorkers, shaking their fingers and yelling “9/11” (cue: Rudolph Giuliani), need to sit back and realize their actions are exactly the same as those they want to vilify. Their very actions resonate with the fundamentalist Muslims who are saying and doing the exact same thing in the name of their God.

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While there is religious intolerance downtown, uptown in ‘da Bronx, we find political intolerance. Yes, in the ongoing soap opera that is State Sen. Pedro Espada’s life, we find him showing extreme intolerance of the democratic process by which he was elected. Apparently, Espada is completely intolerant of anyone with the nerve to run against him! Imagine that. This man, tiny though he is, has huge cojones. Seeing he has a worthy challenger in Gustavo Rivera, Espada unleashed the hounds this week. Well, actually, lawyers. Espada’s team has subpoenaed a number of people who signed as witnesses on Rivera’s petitions to get on the ballot. To make the situation even more typically Espada-like, the process server (though some claimed they were more pimp-like) served the subpoenas to the wrong people, including the 19-year-old daughter of a campaign worker. Another Rivera campaign aide was directly threatened with physical harm by an Espada staffer.

Then Espada sent out letters to constituents who had signed Rivera’s petitions a “Notice of Legal Information Warning.” This smacks of voter intimidation — which is not surprising, given who sent it. The letter, officially, was sent by a made-up group, “Concerned Citizens for Good Government,” but we know what that means. And it warns “…there is reason to believe that your [petition] signature has been obtained against the law.” In small letters, it is noted that the letters are “Paid for by New Yorkers for Espada.” Did you all get that irony?

This follows on the heels of Espada’s hissy-fit in Albany: a now famous video of him throwing his hard (and allegedly stolen) dollar bills at a tenants’ rights organization.

In my own world, I tried to be more tolerant as I waited for my Bolt Bus to Boston, which was 30 minutes late. I read my paper, stayed calm and did not let one curse word fly. That’s tolerant!

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Elizabeth Burke, a New York-based actor, has been involved in politics since her first campaign at age 16. Burke’s Law does not necessarily represent the views of The Clyde Fitch Report.