Gov. Paterson has had some bad ideas in his time, but his recent idea to give a Muslim group state land so they could build a community center somewhere other than two blocks from Ground Zero had to be one of the worst.
That’s what he said: If the sponsors of the project wanted a new location, to “accommodate a better feeling among the people who are frustrated, I would look into trying to provide them with the state property they would need.”
Just imagine. The state of New York giving public land to a religious group to build a religiously-oriented building.
Well, he quickly backed away, telling a radio station, “I am not mixing church and state. I’m not putting a religious institution on state property,” but you had to wonder what he was thinking in the first place, if indeed he was thinking at all.
One of the first groups to holler was American Atheists — yes, there is such an organization — which declared, “Whatever his intentions, Gov. Paterson has no right to use public money or other taxpayer resources to assist ANY religious group to build a house of worship.”
The governor had simply gotten ahead of himself, trying to assuage the bitter feelings of those New Yorkers who feel insulted by what has come to be known as the Ground Zero mosque, even though it’s not at Ground Zero, it’s two blocks away in an ordinary commercial block; and it’s more than a mosque, it’s a 13-story cultural center that includes a swimming pool, a gym, and an auditorium along with a prayer hall. Not to mention trying to assuage the patriotic fervor that is being inflamed by Fox Propaganda, whose town criers present the proposed building as an Islamic victory monument.
“Hallowed ground,” is one of their buzz phrases, marking perhaps the first time in American history that a former Burlington Coat Factory has been so described.
What struck me was this outfit calling itself American Atheists that had the audacity to identify itself. I screwed up my courage and called them on the phone, at their headquarters in New Jersey, to find out what they were all about.
Naturally it made me nervous to talk to someone who doesn’t believe in supernatural beings — what incentive could the person have to be moral? — but I did it. I talked with David Silverman, vice president and director of communications.
After some pleasantries I asked him if there’s no god how come it says “In God We Trust” on our money.
“That gets me really riled up,” he said. “We challenged it in the Supreme Court, and we lost. A theocracy like Iran doesn’t have God on its currency, but we do.”
I asked about paid chaplains in Congress. Surely congressmen wouldn’t pay for such services if there were no god to pray to.
“That’s a $200,000 job to break the law,” he said. “It’s a ridiculous amount of money to ask an invisible magic man in the sky to bless politicians.”
I was talking here to a descendant of the group founded back in 1963 by the notorious Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the person who successfully sued to stop prayer in public schools and thus gained a position of eternal infamy with the patriotically religious portion of the country.
We were on dangerous ground, so I asked him if he wasn’t apprehensive about declaring himself so openly with a complete stranger.
“It’s less scary now,” he said. “It’s changing by leaps and bounds.”
He told me he had recently gone to a Six Flags amusement park in New Jersey wearing a “Proud to Be an American Atheist” T-shirt and had gotten no dirty looks or nasty comments but instead had been stopped by four separate people who asked him where they could get such a shirt for themselves.
He said he attributed the change in atmosphere first to the Internet and secondly to George W. Bush. I suggested Osama bin Laden as another possible contributor to the willingness to disassociate oneself from faith, and he agreed.
So we were getting somewhere after all, and little by little I was losing my trepidation.
We certainly saw eye-to-eye on the mosque, or cultural center. The idea of the state providing land for it as a way to get it farther from Ground Zero was pretty ridiculous, but so was the idea of the government blocking it, as opponents urged.
The government can’t favor one religion over another, and as for characterizing all Muslims as “the enemy” or even just the moderate Americanized Muslims who are behind the cultural center as “the enemy,” well, that’s better left to the right-wing blogs and demagogues.
The front-page headline in this newspaper the other day, “Stores say new cigarette tax is killing sales,” caught the eye of Arnold Ritterband, a Schenectady doctor who has long been active in the anti-smoking movement. “Better sales than Schenectadians,” he said.
I had a similar if simpler thought, which was, “Good, that’s the point. We don’t want tax revenue to go up; we want sales to go down.”
Of course both goals are defeated if people simply find other ways to buy, that is, if they contrive to buy from Indian reservations which, in one of the great anomalies or our society, are tax-exempt as if they were sovereign nations. A sham if there ever was one. Or if they drive to another state where the tax is lower and bring back a trunkful.
Let’s see if Gov. Paterson is able to fulfill his commitment to start collecting sales tax on Indian sales to non-Indians. That would be a good start on killing sales rather than killing what cigarettes kill.