Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Fuss Over Holiday Displays Proves They're Clueless in Seattle (December 21, 2006)

For several years now, as the winter holiday season approaches, there's an inevitable controversy about public displays of its religious elements versus political correctness. This year, one already arose in Rhode Island where the governor is insisting on calling the Statehouse Christmas tree a “holiday tree,” which has led opponents to label him a "Grinch." Below, and in the previous posting from 2005, is a column about the fuss that I wrote in 2006.
Once again the annual debate over Christmas displays is upon us and it continues to tarnish the holiday spirit. Even though it’s only a petty war of words and ideas, it affects the right of free speech and the mandated separation of church and state.
The latter concern is important, but ignored from time to time, particularly when Christian fundamentalists toss their weight around the halls of Congress and the White House with their ultimate goal to make secular America a Christian nation.
Those crabby evangelists should wake up and smell the poinsettias. Some non-Christians feel like they’re getting the religious aspect of the holiday forced down their throats! There is no war against Christianity, as some conservatives would have us believe. Nor do the objections undermine “our religious heritage.”
One thing our forefathers recognized was the significance of freedom of religion, yet they purposely — and wisely — did NOT select a specific faith to guide this nation, particularly since many early colonists came here to escape religious persecution.
Guess the founding fathers figured the principle “do unto others as you would have others do unto you” was sufficient for civilized people. Too bad Christian conservatives don’t always act so enlightened.
Like when they lead crusades (no historical pun intended) urging Christmas displays in public places include mangers, which are obvious depictions of Christ’s birth that add a religious-theme to the display; whereas a Christmas tree, despite its name, has nothing whatsoever to do with the religious celebration of His nativity and likely offends few — except perhaps atheists.
A rabbi with a Jewish Orthodox sect in the Seattle area recently asked the operators of the SeaTac Airport to add a menorah to its display of twelve Christmas trees. But when the agency that runs the airport procrastinated, the rabbi’s attorney mistakenly, according to published media reports, threatened to initiate a federal lawsuit. The clergyman, who admits to having no animosity towards Christians or Christmas, and had no intention of suing, was simply seeking some equality for his faith in the public exhibit. He didn’t insist on an equal number of menorahs — just one at his expense for acknowledgment of his faith — which, by the way, would merely have added some holiday lights and made the sight more appealing and festive. Christmas and candles, even if they’re emitting light from a Jewish display, just go together. And he wasn’t trying to transform the Christian holiday into Chrismukkah. So, what could it hoit?
But in the dark of night, when no one was around, the boobs who run the airport recently removed all the trees, which left the rabbi looking like an anti-Christian Grinch when it was the airport’s operators who didn’t want any part of a Jewish display. Their preposterous argument was that if they added a menorah, other cultures would request equal representation. But no other denomination had ever suggested any request, except for the rabbi.
Talk about being clueless in Seattle!
Anyway, when the news snowballed, the incident caused a minor nationwide uproar that most people presumably ignored while they were preoccupied with the hustle and bustle of holiday shopping.
Incidentally, when the rabbi realized the incident was getting out of hand, he volunteered to pay to have the trees replaced. However, ten days ago the SeaTac Airport bozos, who ordered the trees be secretively removed under the cloak of darkness, had their staff restore them in the light of day.
One Port of Seattle commissioner let the rabbi off the hook when he publicly explained there was an obvious misunderstanding and noted the clergyman never asked for the Christmas trees to be removed in the first place. Nonetheless, by the first night of Hanukkah last Friday, there was no menorah, much to the chagrin of the rabbi. Though officials subsequently said they would consider adding a menorah to the airport display next year. (I’d like to be a fly on the wall at that get-together.)
If Santa Claus wasn’t too busy sorting out Christmas gifts and learned of this episode, you can bet he added a few Seattleites to his “Naughty” list.
Accordingly, any tolerant, open-minded individual — of any faith — should have no problem with generic public displays around the seasonal holidays, depictions of Santa Claus or being greeted with the phrase, “Merry Christmas,” unless of course they’re wearing a yarmulke, in which case it has no place in their traditions. But, even if you find it annoying, at least you get a day off from work to stew about it.
Those few who relentlessly insist on public displays of mangers, the Ten Commandments or other religious symbols need to mind their own business and, for Heaven’s sake, stop the bickering and start spreading good cheer!
You practice your religion in your way and I — if I choose to — in mine!
All the same, if there are going to be religious symbols as part of public holiday displays; it would be nice if there were equal representations. But without them, it ain’t necessarily naughty.
To faithful and occasional readers of this column: Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa and a healthy, happy New Year!

Season's Good Will Takes Back Seat to Petty Controversy (December 15, 2005)


 It's the holiday season once again, but instead of rekindling good cheer and a festive mood, a few sanctimonious malcontents can't resist reviving a controversy that undercuts the holiday spirit.
Yeah, that's right, I wrote holiday spirit, not Christmas spirit! If you have a problem with that, please write a rational letter to the editor!
To tens of millions of Christians around the world, Christmas is a serious, yet festive, holiday that observes the birth of their Savior. Yet, even Christianity has different sects and branches with distinctions that don't necessarily observe Christmas in identical fashions. However, we do not live in a Christian world, and above all, we do not live in an exclusively Christian nation, so substituting the generic "Happy Holidays" for "Merry Christmas" in some instances is appropriate and harmless, not an assault on Christmas by grinches and scrooges, as some zealots would lead us to believe.
How Christmas has become so controversial over the last few years is puzzling and rather thought provoking. On the other hand, it just seems like another determined effort by influential conservatives to Christianize America when the notion of a national religion undermines the essence of our country.
One of the chief reasons Europeans fled to America centuries ago was to escape religious persecution. Therefore, when the Founding Fathers created the core principles to govern the new nation, they guaranteed individuals protection of religious expression, whether one is Catholic, Protestant, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Druid or Atheist. (The latter, of course, faithfully avoid practicing any religion, which, unfortunately, leaves them without any holidays.) This fundamental protection was for individuals, not the government, which is supposed to be nonaligned with any specific religion.
Conservative groups lead crusades urging that Christmas displays in public places should include mangers, adding that the ACLU, by opposing such exhibits, undermines "our religious heritage." To whose heritage are they referring, because federal, state and local governments have always been secular and unattached? Our political leaders' religions are public knowledge, but they seldom display their beliefs for fear of isolating supporters who follow different faiths.
Some groups have also called for boycotts of businesses that display "Happy Holidays" signage instead of "Merry Christmas." Perhaps religious zealots steeped in the controversy would be wiser to condemn Christmas' far-reaching commercialization rather than denounce a neutral and prudent business option. They might even consider turning the other cheek and stop trying to impose their values on the rest of us, who may or may not give a "ho, ho, ho."
Recently, William Donohue, president of the Catholic League criticized the White House for sending out holiday cards that never use the word "Christmas," in deference to other faiths that celebrate at this time of year. What took him so long? Since 1992, long before this chapter in the ongoing culture wars made news, holiday cards from the First Family have read "Happy Holidays" or "Seasons Greetings," not "Merry Christmas," so no one in this melting pot-nation is excluded.
Hereabouts, political correctness is evident with an electric sign on the eastbound side of the Belt Parkway between Knapp Street and Flatbush Avenue that reads "Happy Holidays" from the NYPD Highway Patrol, a division of the New York City government. To my knowledge, passing drivers have yet to object.
As a Jew, I don't celebrate the religious aspect of the holiday, but I do distribute Christmas gifts to Christian friends and co-workers. I usually greet people around this time of year with "Have a happy and healthy holiday." It's innocuous and inoffensive. Though my parents commemorated Hanukkah every year, I recall sometimes getting presents on Christmas Day. Perhaps, like this year, the holidays overlapped. I never questioned the practice presumably because, as a child, getting presents was the overriding factor. (For those unfamiliar with Hanukkah customs, it is similar to Christmas in that lights and gifts are a significant part of its tradition.) When I was married to a non-committed Catholic woman, every December we had a Christmas tree (to me it was a Hanukkah bush) and placed a Star of David at the top. Even my Jewish mother got a kick out of that!
While government property should be devoid of religious symbols, some feel a Christmas tree - sans a manger display - and Hanukkah menorah should be exceptions around the December holidays. However, others object to even that inclusion, demanding equal representation during their respective holidays.
Moreover, isn't one's faith ultimately more important than how one celebrates a religious holiday with pagan roots? Some people in New York City undoubtedly look forward to religious holidays simply because alternate side of the street parking is suspended for the day!
Maybe the sensible way to resolve this inane conflict would be to adhere to the principle of Frank Constanza, a character from the "Seinfeld" sitcom, who, in reaction to the commercialization of Christmas, created "Festivus," a holiday for the rest of us and, now perhaps, for those who find the controversy over Christmas a silly, waste of time.
To the readers of this column who do and don't cling to tradition - SEASONS GREETINGS, HAPPY HOLIDAYS, MERRY CHRISTMAS, HAPPY HANUKKAH, HAPPY KWANZAA and a HEALTHY, HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

For Thanksgiving, Here Are Some Offerings from My Horn-of-Plenty (November 25, 2011)

In keeping with Thanksgiving tradition, this week I offer my two cents worth on a cornucopia of issues that have been rattling around my mind of late.
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Talk about a glaring exploitation of a superlative. More often than not, the term “super” is exaggerated when used to describe a performer or an athlete. But, in the case of the Congressional supercommittee (formally known as the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction) that this week, after three months of negotiations, failed to find common ground to trim the nation’s multibillion dollar debt, the term became the epitome of superfluous. Maybe if it was the superdupercommittee things may have been accomplished.
But, noooooo, those ninnies probably couldn’t agree on whether it was day or night at high noon.
Monday’s admission of failure is the latest proof of the dysfunctionality of America's political system. The main task of the 12-member panel - six Democrats and six Republicans - was to find a measly savings of $1.2 trillion of savings over the next decade, which is an insignificant fraction of our total GDP (the indicator of our standard of living) for that period. Nonetheless, most economists deem it vital to start the nation’s finances in the right direction.
Congressional leaders pointed fingers at each other as they tried to deflect blame for their inability to figure out a way to lower the federal deficit without having to rely on automated cuts.
You know, right from the start, that Republicans did not want to give in to anything President Obama had hoped for. After all, why change now since they’ve been opposing him at every opportunity since he took office.
Though Democrats aren’t totally blameless yet appeared to be more willing for some give and take the Republicans had a negative approach before it even got underway when House Speaker John Boehner warned they would not budge on opposing new taxes to reduce the federal deficit, yet the GOP insisted on massive cuts to entitlement programs, such as Social Security.
It’s common knowledge that the nation faces a humongous long-term debt — the worst this country has ever had — and, in addition to making some barebones cuts, responsible tax revenues are necessary to even think about any decrease in that shortfall.
It ain’t higher math guys and gals, but by implementing a balance of new taxes, particularly on the wealthiest 1% of Americans, and sensible spending cuts — especially Department of Defense waste — it would have at least been a step in the right direction.
But, instead of Americans being thankful for their elected representatives this week, they all, particularly the supercommittee, deserve the bird — and I’m not referring to the stuffed one with all the trimmings.
But, then again, as know very well from past legislation, no compromise is better than a bad one. 
***
On a couple of matters closer to home, the City Council is taking a cue from other cities around the country, by asking the state legislature to authorize parking permits for residents living near the new Barclays Center arena. When the NBA’s Nets debut in downtown Brooklyn about a year from now, advocates maintain it would limit local parking congestion when outsiders inundate the area during events. Opponents claim the permits are only a band-aid for the much larger traffic problem that is expected to gridlock the neighborhood. 
Area residents are already griping about the dearth of parking near the Atlantic Yards complex and it is only going to worsen when the mall and sports arena finally open. If the bill, which has been stalled for two years, eventually gets approved by the State Legislature and City Council, it would allow up to 80 percent of parking spaces in the area be set aside for local residents. The fee for the permits is reported to start anywhere between $20 and $100 and would exempt commercial strips. Revenues generated from the sale of parking permits would be specifically used to benefit New York City’s subway and bus system.
You can bet the fee won’t be frozen and likely to increase every so often when the city and state are looking for easy money; comparable to Mayor Bloomberg’s parking fine increases and subsequent random ticket blitzes around the city.
If it takes effect, parking permits would also be used in the vicinity of Yankee Stadium, where local parking is at a premium when the Yankees are home 81 games a year. It could also trigger other neighborhoods to request permits for parking. But, that, presumably, would be determined only by government approval on a neighborhood by neighborhood basis.
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The City Council’s been busy recently, but this other matter should be welcome by most New Yorkers since it should not directly affect them.
The Council hopes to fast-track legislation to raise the New York City hotel tax, which expires next week. The hotel occupancy tax increase would only add $2.62 for a $300-a-night room. It’s only .875 percent, but it could add $80 million to the city’s treasury.
The bill was introduced by Brooklyn Councilman Lew Fidler, who noted that the addition “is insignificant…especially when you consider that the money raised would pay for 1,000 new police officers,” and supports other services, such as fire and transportation, that are essential to the tourist industry.
With the city in dire financial straits, and city residents already paying higher costs for everything under the sun, it was a reasonable idea, as Council Speaker Christine Quinn put, “for visitors, who take advantage of city services, like police and public transportation, to pitch in to help.”
At first, the mayor opposed feel the additional cost claiming “it will kill the tourist trade.”
Fidler pointed out that since the occupancy tax became effective two years ago, the city went from third to first in American tourism.
A few days after the mayor made that remark, Bloomberg, who has promised not to raise taxes to resolve the city’s fiscal dilemma, changed his mind because this, he defended, was not a tax increase, but a “temporary extension” that would expire in two years.
What a guy!
The mayor has had no problem increasing fees for anything he can for citizens, so asking occasional visitors to pay a little more should never have been an issue in the first place.
  Hey, Mr. Mayor, we elected you — three times — not tourists!
As Fidler noted, it would be “a mistake to let that money slip through our fingers” when every penny in collected taxes is oh so precious these days.