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Archive for the ‘Essay’ Category

I was going to let Christopher Hitchens rest (lest he is in heaven chafing at the sound of me typing) but then got a nose-full of this warm, cuddly obit, for him by The New York Times‘ boy conservative Ross Douthat.  I’ve written here before that Douthat as a thinker gets everything backward, not looking at the world with true inquisitiveness so much as constantly articulating an a priori conservative identity for himself that the world and facts conform to later. (We start with a love of Ronald Reagan and then try to figure things out from there.) Now he fondly teases another dead man. He cites Hitchens’ bluster about godlessness and says it tacitly reveals what must have been some sort of basic belief in a deity–that Hitchens was constantly saying “no” to a non-entity and was thus not atheist but rebel (Like Job!) So, really, could his anti-theist polemic have happened in a vacuum? Wasn’t there some entity there to argue with? Or, as Descartes argued, isn’t the ability to grasp a perfect being proof that that being is real?

Actually, Hitchens spent a great deal of time trying to find an antidote for this age-old fallacy, one that in one form or another has befallen many Christian intellectuals, that the very concept of a God (or the fight against the concept) is proof he exists. This 1,000-year-old plus ontological hard sell, pushed by Descartes most famously, has been flushed down the toilet often, by Kant most memorably, who said that this reasoning boils down to a maddening tautology, “We know God is because God is.” Hitchens himself took to task the similar logic of C.S. Lewis: Anybody who came up with the idea of a God would have to be mad … so the fact that somebody came up with it despite it all that means God’s existence must be true!

It would have been a really funny, ironic article if Douthat had merely said Christians loved Hitchens because he was a really smart and charming atheist and just too damn irresistible to hate and because love is (or ought to be) the Christian tool with the most reach. It’s another thing to try to indoctrinate a dead man after the fact into a silly cosmology, try to make a net wide enough for Hitchens’ clear-eyed rationalism to be somehow folded into Douthat’s fairy tale and made whole with it. If I were Hitchens, I’d prefer it if somebody told me I was going to rot in hell while fox hounds snacked on my intestines.

The end of the article is simply an insult to everybody who thinks: “Rigorous atheism casts a wasting shadow over every human hope and endeavor,” says Douthat. OK. If I am not allowed to call Douthat stupid (after all, he went to better colleges than I did), then I can at least call this sentence infuriatingly patronizing. If you see off to the right of my page here, there are some 34 pieces of music. I want to testify that every one of them was made while I was drunk on the pernicious wine of rigorous atheism–the knowledge that there is no God (and perhaps even no listeners). I’ll be harsher. I’ve lost relatives, some of them as close to me as my heart, that I have no hope of being reunited with ever. That sad fact is made warm by the knowledge that loving them was a process, that I loved them first with the selfish love of an infant, then that of an adult with some understanding. That love was born, grew, matured. And all processes come to an end, something children come to understand, at least seemingly until they turn into adults. I don’t need a “God” to make those relationships meaningful or the false idea of perpetual life to give them a perspective they don’t require or deserve.

Douthat, who has in the past arrogantly imposed rigidity in the thinking about international affairs (in Libya, for instance) as a cold slap at inchoate humanitarian aims, suddenly falls short in sangfroid when it comes time to attack the most horrible idea: hope is no excuse for illusion.

Perhaps we should turn to Spinoza, who did talk a lot about God, but tended to see “him” as process, as nature in motion, unfolding in mind, which was inseparable from the imperfections of the wasting body, and not as a white bearded celestial mountain man watching over us. All humans are blessed with intuition, and feeling the presence of a greater power is part of that particular spiritual talent. I guess you could make the sensual argument: just because we perceive the color red on a tomato doesn’t mean the color red doesn’t exist, and thus if we feel a God there must be something to that. But intuition might also lead you to a plethora of Gods, goddesses, voodoo rituals, wiccan love spells, space aliens and other ideas your intellect cannot be accountable for and reason won’t accommodate. It leads you to abdicate your responsibility to your here and now.

I don’t think Ross Douthat is dumb; I just find him, for lack of a better word, incomplete. But we’re all a lot more incomplete without people like Hitchens. So maybe I’m not so much angry at the article as sad, because now Hitch is gone and all of us incomplete people are running around free of his delimiting logic to continue chattering our incomplete ideas thinking we’ve been made, by some abstract god, whole.

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Insight vs. Logic

I remember having this conversation with my Christian aunt a few years ago: The reason we tend to have progress is not only because we are logical, but because we have intuition and insight to reflect on that logic. A number of people have suggested that it’s one of the reasons robots will never be as advanced as humans, something I happen to believe. How do you, with a bunch of mathematical rules, create something that can reflect on itself reflecting?

So I was tickled when I saw this article on Yahoo! the other day about those who believe in God being more intuitive than reflective. According to the article, people who are more intuitive tend to believe in God. They also tend to screw up math and logic problems.

This doesn’t mean that only dummies believe god, of course, it just highlights philosophical problems going back to Immanuel Kant’s time. People who believe only in a mathematical/deductive reasoning approach to knowledge tend to completely miss the ideas that experience and intuition offer. Reasoning is indifferent to pain, and it’s our innate spirituality, the fact that we can imagine ourselves in somebody else’s head, that we tend to be more humane.

But intuition without logic is bad, because it can have you believing in fairies and wood sprites and … yes, even a benevolent deity who invented everything. Indeed, intuition almost always requires a human agency or a spirit whose hand operates the loom of the world, even though logic and science and millions of years of progress have taught us otherwise. Because humans have an innate ability to see through other people’s eyes, they always assume there are eyes out there. Sometimes there aren’t.

The problem is that knowledge and understanding require both things. Intuition without logic leaves you with bizarre religious beliefs (I know god is there because I FEEL him.) But logic without intuition leads to a world where pain and suffering are not comprehended, where the essence of things is not understood or even how the essence of something changes. Logic understands how to win an argument but doesn’t understand how the terms of the argument and the rules change.

I am an atheist, as my long-time readers might have figured out. But I think that man is a spiritual creature, and that this is mainly because of our brain’s ability to perceive things that cannot normally be understood through objective reasoning (though, unfortunately, it’s also why God will likely keep getting reinvented over and over, no matter how many times science kills him off). Despite my apostasy, I’ve always been a little biased toward intuitive types, mainly because I know lots of people who are extremely logical and can argue any point with perfectly manicured precision but who nonetheless lack basic wisdom about the world and themselves in it–and for that cause themselves and others pain for it.

There’s an appealing idea that sometimes a relatively dumb person can grasp things through his intuition that the smarties cannot. That meretricious proposal underlies a lot of our political rhetoric today, and gives people like Sarah Palin a populist appeal. She doesn’t need a degree. She’s got the common sense of the people. But to put faith in that kind of intuition is as good as flushing your whole brain down the toilet. To think to the best of your ability about things means trying to aspire to do both the due diligence of logic and reflect on its possible failures. Even if you’re not very good at one type of thinking or the other, you have to try to do both. If you’re a Christian, I would argue to you that common sense and willful ignorance do not sit well together side by side, and you cannot forever argue against ideas like evolution with faith alone. On the other hand, if you’re married to objectivism only, like the troll Ayn Rand, you will tend to see the world in either black and white, not knowing that sometimes the world can be both.

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I was working one afternoon in a coffee shop on the Upper East Side writing, when I found myself in a familiar Manhattan situation: I was forced to listen to an intimate conversation between the women next to me and learn things about them I shouldn’t know. It seems one of them was having trouble dating. Finding the right guy was hard for her, and yet she defined love not in expansive terms but overwhelmingly in the restrictive terms of things she did not want. She didn’t like momma’s boys, for one thing. The latest deal breaker was that a guy she was seeing had used the word “sketchy.”

Really? Is “sketchy” a dealbreaker? If you aren’t familiar with it, the word is in what we in Oklahoma call the goddamn dictionary and is defined as “iffy” or “questionable,” as in a questionable person. It’s first known use, according to Webster’s, was 1805.

I took umbrage, maybe because it’s a word I like. Its slang variants have given us fun phrases like, “He’s a bit of a sketch,” which are useful to me as a writer. But then I started to wonder (as he started to sound like Sarah Jessica Parker) have we become too judgmental? Then I realized (continuing to sound like Sarah Jessica Parker) people make quick and poor judgments because they want to judge first. For he who does it first, does it best, parrying all attacks and rejection. Yet as well all know, that’s mainly the obsession of people who have all their lives been judged. So I took another look at this woman, her crossed arms. Her mostly camouflaging outfit, her stern face and realized (this blog is turning into “Sex and the City” and lacks only the puns) oh, my God, this woman has been rejected more than a subprime home buyer. No, scratch that. In America even subprime homebuyers get homes. This woman must have been sub-sub-prime. Her FICO score could have been 376. Who else would reject a guy for using a harmless word like “sketchy”?

I, too, was rejected a bit in my youth, and wondered if I judge people, too.

The words of my friend Carol rang in my ears, “Eric, you’re too judgmental.”

She’s right! The other woman in the conversation had been sitting by herself a few moments before. She was a lot more cheerful than her friend, much perkier. And she was very excited to hear “Living on a Prayer” by Bon Jovi come. She started shaking her head to the music at the table and having herself a time, and I remember very clearly what I said to myself in my head: “I reject you.”

All of us cover up vulnerability in different ways. Some people are lucky enough not to have emotional vulnerability, and they go on to head up companies like Halliburton and Bank of America and Goldman Sachs and largely avoid jail time. But the rest of us create armor for our lack of confidence. We tell jokes. We hide behind a guitar. We only leave the house on days when the perspiration isn’t so bad. We create huge altars to the Virgin Mary or to Cure founder Robert Smith. We construct public personae that are increasingly elaborate and perhaps even estranged from who we are inside.

I once read a description of introverts and extroverts I quite liked. This was the way I’ll interpret it: An extrovert will get into a car engine and just start playing around to see what’s wrong with it. An introvert must make a map of the engine in his head before he touches anything. The extrovert will fumble around and might lummox up everything–but if not, he might get it done a lot more quickly. The introvert, meanwhile, might needs to constantly make notes and reassess the situation, and figure out what might be wrong in the extrovert’s thinking. That slows things down quite a bit. And it means making judgments. Sometimes these kinds of judgments can make you come off like a real asshole. But sometimes it can make you cautious enough to say, I need more information before I make a decision about a complicated matter.

I don’t know whether to put this woman in the cautious category or the asshole category. It could be that she doesn’t know who she is, and trying on boyfriends and discarding them is a way of getting to know herself. Is is possible to judge people and accept them at the same time? Can I accept the parts of Noam Chomsky’s political outlook I like and then vehemently judge the rest? Do I have to reject the philosophy of Ayn Rand or can we just be friends? Maybe the ultimate goal isn’t to be judgmental but simply selective. That way we can grow without becoming ingrown. Accept other people’s rejection of us as an opportunity to grow up. Maybe the sketch is us.

How’s that for a pun, Sarah Jessica Parker? I reject you.

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A New Look

I was scanning my blog for typos the other night and started to get a big headache, and it occurred to me suddenly, “Wow, I wonder if white letters on a black background are hard for others to read, too.” I’m worried that my poor design choice is putting off readers.

This is embarrassing, because once upon a time, for about five minutes, I actually made money in a graphics department. Not that I can draw, but I had enough of a design eye that the owner of a very tiny advertising company in Austin, Texas asked me to come work for him. His firm marketed but three things: salsa, strippers and country artist Rick Trevino. (If that doesn’t sound like the makings of a hot Texas orgy to you, then you obviously have no feelings.) Sadly, I could not draw pictures of salsa. When I tried, it looked like a lot of blood. I failed again when I was put in charge of a tiny advertisement for the local strip club, and was given a picture about two inches across with five girls in it. I decided it was better to focus on one so I could balance her body with the text and give readers something visually compelling, rather than five tiny strippers in miniature. All due respect to the miniaturists of the world, but tiny strippers are not sexy. Strippers, if they are far enough away, look just like red ants in Spanx.

Well, all my work was re-edited by my boss, and the five girls were all put back, probably because I had violated the rules of strip club diplomacy by featuring only one. Obviously I had not seen the HBO documentaries on strippers yet and didn’t know how intensely competitive they are. I don’t know if I made anybody angry, but I do know that I was discharged after about a month. Somewhere on an Austin, Texas backup server there sits idly a picture of a lonely bowl of chips awaiting marriage with its salsa in heaven. I think maybe there is also a picture of a molcajete that is the worst picture of a molcajete ever drawn by Anglos or Aztecs.

So why did I turn my page black in the first place? I’ve always liked the moody approach to content, probably after reading “The Medium is the Massage,” by Marshall McLuhan too many times. I wanted my readers to know that this is a place where I regularly delve into my subconscious and evince from those attic boxes of the spirit things that are forgotten, unremembered or repressed. I wanted to give you a really evil Happy Meal in a dark box.

Of course, I could probably come up with more interesting approaches to packaging, the way the McSweeney’s crowd does. But I’m already too busy being creative in other areas to spend an inordinate amount of time on visual design these days. I’ve also hit a wall with technology. I don’t know how to make Word Press do what I want graphically without spending hours of time. Stephanie, my beautiful wife, has more patience for figuring out Web design programs, which is why “The Retributioners” page looks so much better than this one.

Anyway, I’ve decided for the time being to offer you a clean attack. My logo is the same: a seraph looks to heaven for guidance as he would in a Caravaggio painting. (Or perhaps he’s just looking at the ceiling for water damage; I like to think the sculptor understood the marriage of sacred and profane.) In any case, I hope this version of my blog is a little bit easier to read and gives you no headaches and that it also marries the sacred and profane in a way that doesn’t give you an epileptic fit. You deserve no less. I don’t believe you came here in the first place, actually.

(If you have, though, please check out my music on the right hand side! I really think I’m getting better at this. If you’re a fan, I’ll even give you a name: A Salo Head!)

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I Am A Brand

I just returned from a business and economic conference in San Diego, which is one of the reasons for the sparse posting this week. It was a fun conference. Valerie Bertinelli showed up for some reason I can’t quite figure out (I think she was betrothed to a businessman, but I’m too lazy to look it up). But even though she used to be married to a rock star, the real rock stars at this conference were people with names like William Sharpe, a Nobel laureate in economics, and Todd Buchholz, an economist and author. Over the next few days, I’ve been thinking this would be a good place to talk a bit about their economic insights.

But then I thought: “Do you care?” You might be asking, “Eric, you write a lot about stuff that’s not very funny considering you’ve always advertised this as a funny blog. Aren’t you being kind of a pretentious asshole? Or more succinctly, aren’t you diluting your brand?”

Maybe.

Stephanie and I have a good friend named Jessica who specializes in branding people and products. It sounds like one of those absurd non-jobs, but it actually plays an important role in our daily life. It helps turns the wheels of our society in secret, like those companies that create the smell of our “food.”

Everything is branded, from President Obama to raisins, to the Gap, to the outstanding hit Web comedy show “The Retributioners,” which, of course, you can see preserved in the amber of eternal Internet glory. Our brand is so strong that Stephanie and I are being told by everyone that a new season of “The Retributioners” is in order. If you are one of our fans, you have probably noticed that the show has been dormant for a year or so. That’s not because we don’t like you. We’ve just had a bizarre and sometimes tragic year, which I’ve written about elsewhere.

We wondered if perhaps the brand of the show might be strong enough that we can branch out to a new show with new characters that I’ve written, perhaps keeping the link and continuity between the two series. We’ve even got some great actors in mind. But our friends in the branding world say “no!”

Wait, that’s not strong enough. We must say it in German: “Nein!”

If you are, like me, more artistically inclined, this goes against your grain. I am a person who is led more by my inspiration than logic or branding demands, which is why I have carved out this little blog space here, “Beauty is Imperfection,” my playhouse, and repository for whatever I feel like doing whenever I feel like doing it. This page has a different “brand” than “The Retributioners” has. It is based more on Eric Rasmussen and his artistic whims, political obsessions and smart assery. This is also a place where, as you can see on the right hand side of the page, you can find lots of music I’ve written, none of which my wife would allow on “The Retributioners” page. She’s very careful about branding. Also, she’s a horrible bitch and practically deaf. (Just kidding about one of those things, honey!)

So I have to ask myself, what is the Eric brand? Well, first:

–*Eric is inconsistent. Sometimes he’ll blog 30 days in a row. Sometimes he stops for months. This reflects his artistic temperament. It does not reflect on you his readers, whom he loves very much. But how do I brand this? Perhaps I should show up on the cover of a men’s magazine without my shirt on and admit in the cover blurb, “Really, I’ll screw anything.” Sounds like a lovably inconsistent guy, right? Even better if I can pull off this persona in a British accent.

–*Eric is moody. Goes with being inconsistent. For that we need dark colors and a lighting scheme designed my Michael Mann. Envision me, if you will, in shadow. I’ve got deep pains I don’t want to show you. Come on, girls, don’t you like that shit?

–*Eric likes “dark sounds.” One of my favorite essays is by Garcia Lorca, and it’s called “Play and Theory of the Duende,” the duende being a little ghost who is the evil version of a muse, a demon who not only inspires but harasses. He provokes those artists haunted by him to create not only things of beauty but things that are beautifully ugly. You can hear his presence when you hear a guitar really out of tune in a good way, a poet who is raw and whose verse whose ragged but whose insight is profound, and I guess in just about anything by Thomas Pynchon or William S. Burroughs. So cue the dark music. Velvet Underground, please!

–*Eric is pretty liberal. Sometimes I think I could turn conservative. The best conservatives are cautious and skeptical about wrongheaded idealism, yet also optimistic that we can innovate our way out of trouble rather than tearing up dearly loved beliefs and institutions. At least that’s what I read somewhere. So I’m not sure why the ones I see on television are all greedy, racist, superstitious, warlike, hateful and conformist. Until they change, cue the color blue!

–*Eric cannot dress. That’s right. I couldn’t in 1984 and I can’t today. I like jeans and t-shirts and whenever I try to do anything with more style than that, it blows up in my face and I end up looking like something Carmen Miranda’s dog barfed up and then ate again. I’ve just decided to deal with it. Cue some jeans and a black t-shirt.

–*Eric is stubborn. Cue nothing!

–*Eric is obsessive compulsive. By day, I am a copy editor, which means I spend my time hunched over pages full of tiny fonts, my eyes flitting about looking for misbegotten commas, poor syntax and diction so bad it might give the paper Dutch Elm disease. I’m not sure whether I’m a good copy editor because of OCD or whether I got OCD from being a good copy editor. Since I tend to stack everything in neat little rows and always triple check the door to make sure I’ve locked it … you would probably agree with my sister that it’s just baked in. So my brand definitely includes some bleach and other kinds of disinfectant (a warning, though, when creating your brand, don’t mix bleach with ammonia! You will totally blow right the fuck up!)

–*Eric has a dirty mouth. Cue the word “ffffff…udge!”

–*Eric has too many hobbies. Like Madonna, I have created lots of books, movies and music. For some reason, she can tie it all together into a career and I can’t. So, cue bustier.

–*Eric is funny. I will try to remember that even though it has not been a funny year, and even though the only thing that has moved me to write lately are the horrible political and economic times. If I’ve got to talk about the alternative minimum tax again, I promise, I will make a fart joke out of it if I can. You deserve the best.

So reader, what would your brand be? What are the most important words you would use? What emotional affects and effects would your brand require? Are you known for your personal integrity? Are you environmentally friendly? Do you offer grits with that? Does your brand make people think of a comfortable home and hearth or uncomfortable Mid-Century Moderne furniture from Denmark?

If this little essay has done anything, maybe it has allowed you to benefit from my bad examples. If you don’t have a goal in life, maybe you could create the brand first and the goals would follow. The world is yours. Take it from me. Or don’t.

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As I get older, I feel less enthusiastic about marking the anniversaries of horrible events (or even good ones). I hope that doesn’t sound callous, especially since I didn’t lose any friends or family members in the Twin Towers. But at some point, grief becomes self-perpetuating. I have known people who have built entire shrines to their grief as a way of holding on to it. I was familiar with this behavior on Sept. 11, 2001 from reading. I know it first-hand this year after losing my mother in a car wreck. Grief is something you have to let go of. And anniversaries are just one more way of preserving grief in amber.

But for documentary purposes, I’ll tell you that as a New Yorker, I went through periods of shock, depression, mania and denial due to the terrorist attacks, if not nervous breakdown. I’ve heard there are studies suggesting that the closer you were to the towers on Sept. 11, the greater your chances of suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. I was two miles away, for whatever that’s worth. And looking back, I sometimes wonder if I indeed suffered from it, if not from some milder, derivative form of despair.

I was a freelance journalist at the time, living in downtown Brooklyn. I had just finished up a morning Web feed for a financial news site when a friend called and told me to turn on the TV. Seems the World Trade Center had been hit by an airplane. I walked to the Brooklyn waterfront and found not one but both buildings gashed, with flames licking up the sides–vast walls of flames that it takes you a moment to realize are as tall as small buildings themselves. But why two crash sites? I thought at first that maybe one plane had sliced through Tower 1 and hit Tower 2 (though the trajectories didn’t match). The radio said two planes.  “That’s impossible. Surely I’m hearing it wrong.” Terror wasn’t in my thoughts.

Though I knew about Al Qaeda and the bombings of the U.S.S. Cole and the African embassies, I never really understood Osama bin Laden, a former U.S. ally whose beefs still seemed too esoteric and obscure to me. He didn’t seem to be a guy fighting against colonialism or for the freedom of his people but rather a self-important freebooter who felt double-crossed by the American military. He seemed so proud, blustering and overly sensitive that he had probably felt double crossed a lot in his life–by the Americans, by the Saudis, by his family. People like that make great sociopaths.

I then made what in hindsight turned out to be a foolish decision. I decided to go back home and call a few editors to see if there was anything I could write about the emergency. I have never been much of a spot reporter, but 2001 was the year I had quit my job with the intention of being more of a go-getter.

So I ran home thinking, again foolishly, that the fires, still burning at that point, would be contained. “Why sit here and watch it burn?” I thought. “It’s not like the towers are going to collapse.” In 1993, the World Trade Center had already been attacked, when a terrorist loaded up a van full of explosives. The destruction underground opened 100 foot holes five stories tall. And yet the towers stood. And a B-25 Mitchell had hit the Empire State Building in 1945 without felling it.

My bad. As we all found out later, the math changes when the most vulnerable beams are all on the outside of your building. They didn’t have to melt. All they had to do was fail. I raced home to find out from the radio that  Tower 2 had indeed fallen right where I’d stupidly left it. Shows how good a spot news reporter I am. I ran home from the real story.

I then sallied back outdoors to see from my cramped Brooklyn vantage point what Lower Manhattan had turned into. Many TV cameras have caught the images of that day, so I doubt I could do them justice with poetic ruminations of destruction. But what had been lower Manhattan was subsumed in a dark purple-yellow cloud with some buildings sticking up out of it. It looked as if part of the sky had been erased by a furious illustrator unhappy with the work he’s done. But it was obvious from the columnar shape of the cloud that what had been erased was a building.

A guy nearby on the Brooklyn waterfront said “I know there’s a God now because I’m over here and not over there.” It sounds horrible, but the graveyard humor started before both towers had gone down.

I headed north to my friend Michael’s house. He  lived much closer. Before I got there, it started snowing–not precipitation but pulverized concrete, getting into my eyes and piling up on the cars. Winter in September. And overhead of course, the lighter material was flying away–reams of paper. You could only imagine what was printed on it. Thousands (millions?) of pieces of paper flying away on top of the rising heat. With Brooklyn suddenly enmeshed in clouds of the destroyed Tower 2, I had to go indoors with my friend and watch the final destruction of Tower 1 play out on television like the rest of America. I knew by that point we’d be going to war. Some friends and I went to the water front again when the skies had cleared a bit. “This is the new skyline,” said a guy with a video camera. “Guess we better get used to it.”

I went back home to attend to e-mails flooding into my box from friends and family asking me if I was OK. On the map, I looked very close to the destruction, especially to people out of state.

At some point I cried. I don’t remember what set it off. I think it was a friend’s letter asking me what they could do. I wasn’t sure what to do next, but then a friend from Texas gave me a virtual slap upside the head: “You’re a writer. Write about it.” As it happens, I had only one writing gig at that point at a nurse’s magazine. Not exactly what I had in mind. But they wanted a story. All of a sudden I was a real reporter covering a life and death situation.

So I lay down on the floor and had a panic attack. Not only was I going to have to write about something I hadn’t come to grips with, but I was going to have to become a spot news reporter instantly, which I hadn’t been before. My chest hurt and I felt when I got up like I was going to fall over. At some point, though, I made it to the George Foreman grill, and shoved a piece of chicken into it, then ate the bland, vulcanized thing for the protein. It was the bit of strength I needed to get out the door.

I somehow got a subway train to Manhattan, which coughed me up in Greenwich Village, but most of the routes downtown were barricaded at Houston Street. Nobody was allowed to go south, even if they lived there, and I couldn’t convince the cops to let me through. It was the middle of the afternoon and the day was still, all things considered, quite pretty. The traffic was diverted and in the middle of Sixth Avenue, the usual river of taxis had dried up. In the middle of the empty thoroughfare was a young man who had set up an easel and was splashing across his canvas a giant expressionistic acrylic version of our national tragedy while it was still in progress. More gallows humor (or coping?)

I went to St. Vincent’s hospital and found a press area, defying the press credential requirement and jumping into the pit. I asked doctors and nurses what kind of injuries they were seeing. Turns out, there weren’t many. Sept. 11 was extremely binary in its casualties list (at least during the first day) Either you died or you didn’t. You can read the story I wrote on it here if you like. It’s not Pulitzer material, but it got me through the day.

Drinks were free that night. We told more inappropriate jokes. We asked each other if we were OK. Some people hooked up. Others just walked around. The next day was like a Saturday at Disneyland. People walked around with their kids in a light so soft it was almost impressionistic. People called friends they hadn’t called in years. Even I called an ex with whom I’d had an acrimonious break up. I don’t know why. I had to make sure she was OK.

I met Stephanie a few months after the attack and went back to work full time and can say now that 2002 was one of the best years of my life, following 2001 which was undeniably the worst. I came through it better, but different.

I am extremely clear headed about the political questions raised by 9/11. Whatever America has done in Chile, Nicaragua, Vietnam, East Timor, Angola or Cuba, you can’t possibly take the side of a murderous religious fundamentalist, somebody who wants to revive a medieval caliphate, and think it’s OK for him to murder American civilians to right American wrongs. If you are one of the people who think America had 9/11 coming, I don’t count you much of a thinker. I think of you as doctrinaire and sad.

At the same time, the burden of introspection on Sept. 11 was unfortunately on those who were hurting the most. Only a few brave contrarians pointed out back then that Afghanistan was going to be a mess if we invaded. Now we have that mess. People cried war, because at the time we figured at least 10,000 people were dead and surely that was an act of war. Logic didn’t bear this out, however, since no government per se had attacked us. Ultimately I backed our president’s incursion into Afghanistan because the Taliban were at least undeniably protecting the people who attacked us.

Not so, Saddam Hussein. Americans still in pain 20 months later were still not thinking critically at all, and they let George Bush and his cadre of think-tank neoconservatives take advantage of us by leading us to war in Iraq. We know in hindsight that we were vulnerable to manipulation. It’s very, very hard to say we should have anticipated it from Day 1.

But the political realities are just one thing that have made me grow up. More important was that 9/11 made me realize  how much I love my city. Moving here and becoming part of New York with its bustles and frustrations had been a dream of mine since I was little. Learning the city means making it a part of your body–you have to know the rhythms, the steps, the hustles, the battles. You have to know when to step back from the subway. You have to know when to fight city hall and when not to. When you make the city so much a part of your own body, perhaps it just makes sense that you would hurt when it hurts. The strangest thing I can say about 9/11 is that, even though I didn’t lose anybody close to me in those planes or in those buildings, I took the attack very personally. This great metropolis they had built was in my mind, despite its flaws, a paradise. And to see so many ideals ripped down at once–the aspirations of young people, the aspirations of peace makers, and the aspirations of people who build things like tall buildings–was the saddest thing to me as a New Yorker and a young person, too. Soon, I wasn’t young anymore.

Photo: The 9/11 Tribute in Light

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It seems like whenever you tear down a building, rats always come out.

Likewise, there’s a certain stink of hypocrisy that always surrounds controversial topics like Park 51, (also known as the Cordoba Project), the 13-story Muslim cultural center (and small mosque) planned for construction in Lower Manhattan. If you haven’t heard, it’s a mere two blocks from the World Trade Center site, where thousands of Americans (of all faiths) lost their lives in a jihad carried out in the name of Islam by extremists almost nine years ago.

Because 9/11 is such a sensitive topic for so many Americans (especially New Yorkers), it requires extra critical thinking by both sides–especially, I hate to say, by those hurting the most. Those most inclined to yell and those in best stead to do harm to other people.  But instead of tolerance or listening or ratiocination, we have instead the pastiche and passion play that now pass for democracy: screaming tantrums, threatening, bulling, political posturing, recrimination and thumb sucking cries of persecution by the people who actually hold the real power.

And of course there are lies. Stinking piles of them reeking like a colony of dead rats behind your drywall. Untruth can be found on both sides of the debate. Opponents who know nothing about New York City think the mosque is going up right on the site, not two blocks away (and if you’re not familiar with the place, two blocks in New York City can take you through as many cultural dynamics as the Epcot Center). Some liberals (even, sadly, the otherwise heroic Keith Olbermann) have said there will be no mosque at all, which is odd considering that the Park51 site itself advertises a small mosque.

But it’s probably no surprise that Cordoba House opponents are the ones lying more, not only about the specifics but about the big picture. Do they have a good reason? After all, politics play a role in how we use our space. Yes, the First Amendment protects Muslims and whatever the hell they want to build even if they want to build it within homogeneous white enclaves. That’s an irrefutable fact.

But you’ve got to pick your battles. Law is not the only yardstick with which we measure our relationships to each other and at some point you have to turn to the Cordoba House builders and ask … did you have to plan one so close to the World Trade Center? It’s just two blocks away. If the objective of Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam, was to build interfaith bridges and span the gulf between cultures, as he says, I would argue that not every beachhead is a good one for a bridge. You have to find the shortest span where the goods are really going to flow and where there can be some real commerce between us. It might be right for you to fight on legal points, but it wouldn’t further your stated cause.

If you are going to fight, I would have to start arguing again, for opponents, that lots of churches in the United States get denied permission to build for all sorts of reasons all the time. It mostly happens because they run afoul of municipal ordinances–their domes are too high, or their driveways cause traffic problems, or the planned use of the adjacent community centers do not square with local zoning and cause disruption. If I were on the New York City planning commission, I might make a reasonable argument that safety and traffic and historic use of the land are all factors to take into account before I let, say, Oral Roberts build a giant golden egg in an overdeveloped downtown. Some have argued to protect the building that’s already there with landmark status. A nice argument unless you’ve seen the building. There’s also the argument that the developer is a bit unsavory, so why should the city help him out?

But if it’s reason you’re looking for, why do I feel the Muslims have more of it?

Hopefully, if you are paying attention, the month of debate has reinforced the point for you that bigoted conservative pundits lie as easily as Kelly Slater surfs. After fanning across the country for the past year and a half like self-flagellating monks, they have cried that their Constitution has been under attack–and by that they mean the universally prescriptive, strictly constructionist view of the Constitution that allows no “experiments” like Social Security, the Federal Reserve, Medicare, the CIA,  presidential cabinets or greenback money. If you want proof, you have only to go to YouTube where these zealots insist that their freedom has been hijacked by extra-Constitutional chicanery, thus they have every right to harass health care reform supporters and bray like mouth-frothing fanatical anabaptists.

Yet when the time comes for them to defend the actual text itself, the Elephants are no longer in the room. Not one high profile Republican has stood up for the First Amendment in this case except for always reliable libertarian Ron Paul. Who’s against? Palin. McCain. Gingrich. Giuliani. The Tea Party leadership. Meanwhile, others such as George W. and Mitt Romney are conspicuous by their silence.

Of course, some high profile Democrats like Sen. Harry Reid have also showed us the white feather, turning tail against the haters and coming out against. But in a courageous move (one badly needed from him lately) Barack Obama did, and for that he was falsely labeled a Muslim (again). Mike Bloomberg stood up for freedom of religion, and for that he was called a hypocrite for not supporting the Second Amendment also. In other words, no other notable right winger (unless you label Paul right wing) will fight the merits of the issue itself. Nobody supports the First Amendment here when it’s a Muslim right that’s being discussed. Why? They are playing a game of reverses and switchbacks. They want only to win.

I had hoped that eight years of George Bush running up enormous deficits and doing away with civil liberties by creating a law outside the law would expose the simple truth that most conservatives don’t believe what they say about big government. They have had plenty of chances to prove the purity of their libertarianism and they fail repeatedly. Only recently have some of them come around to the idea that gay marriage is an issue that ought to be accommodated by their “leave me alone” view of government. But most of them haven’t, and the 9/11 mosque just shows us again that right wing libertarianism is a smokescreen for conservatives whose biggest desire isn’t freedom but power. I’m talking about the usual suspects: Rush, Newt, Side Show Glenn, Laura, Ann … etc.

But those are just extremists. Let’s talk about the people who really matter: New Yorkers and 9/11 victims’ families. Most New Yorkers don’t want this mosque. But in Manhattan proper, the vote swings toward Park51. (The borough most against is dependable Republican bastion Staten Island, whose opponents are 73% strong and a good five miles away by boat.) Even if most New Yorkers don’t want the mosque built, they have also said Imam Rauf has a right to build it. That might seem like an unimportant distinction to you (or The New York Post), but it isn’t. When New Yorkers say “I don’t like what you’re doing, but you have a right to do it,” it’s important for you to read the inflection because it defines the statement. It suggests that New Yorkers might understand the bigger picture here–individual liberty–than the people from Scottsdale operating Web sites.

We also have to remember that Muslims are New Yorkers, too. “A small community!” you say. Try about 600,000 (according to one conservative estimate). Let’s do some math people: the Muslim population in New York might be bigger than the total population of all other U.S. cities except the top 25 or 26. If I told Christians in any city under 600,000 in this country that they couldn’t build a new church there because of Christian persecution of the Indians, I’d be laughed out of town.

Which brings me to the next point about 9/11 victims. The idea that we were attacked by Islam rather than Islamic fanatics is a fantastically awful meme that has to stop in this country. If you are a well-meaning Christian, you must be aware that this sort of criticism opens you up to personal responsibility for the Crusades, the Inquisition and the genocide of indigenous American peoples. Newt Gingrich, a man considered a serious contender for president in 2012, has made the comparison that a mosque two blocks from Ground Zero would be the same thing as hanging swastikas near a Holocaust museum (in other words, he’s calling a mosque an implied threat). Honestly, if you really find it odious that Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calls the Holocaust a hoax, how can you sit still when such a high profile American politician calls a quarter of the world’s population murderers?

Then we have to talk calmly with the victims’ families. Not all of them are against the Mosque. Those who are against have to concede a few points for their pain. They refer to this crime scene as hallowed ground. I’d like to say you had me at “hallowed.” But as we all know from The Wall Street Journal and the phone book, there are topless bars right around the corner from this hallowed ground that nobody has ever complained about. And as much as we might like to see the entire area turned into a park, the fact is that we’re putting up new giant commercial buildings with vast business space. That’s political reality and ought to be a much bigger pain to victims’ families. Helpless to do anything else, it’s much easier to project anger on Muslims. The families opposed now seemed not to care that there have been other mosques in the area over the last decade (within four blocks, if not two). Why are they bothered now by something that hasn’t bothered them before? If anybody is injuring them more, I’d say it’s the people inciting them to hatred. In fact, since the horrible day that our country was attacked (a day in which the ashes of the World Trade Center flew down on my house in Brooklyn), the people we have had to distrust the most are the people telling us whom to be angry at. Newt Gingrich is Iago. Sarah Palin is Cardinal Richelieu. Glenn Beck is Lady MacBeck. It was bad enough that we had to attack Muslims in the street after 9/11. But it was people who used that hatred to convince us to invade Iraq, a country that had not attacked us, that are just as culpable. They have the same strategies. They have the same political interests. Your pain is their gain. Your anger is their medicine show.

If your family member was a victim on 9/11 and you are at peace with this strategy … you find you must indeed continue to hate all Muslims for what happened on 9/11, then I can’t tell you anything other than that’s a war you’re never going to win.

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