American freedom

It’s cold today in New York. I mean that strictly from a weather standpoint.

The primary election runoff is heating up, with one candidate trying to fling World Trade Center mud on the other. Prior to the first primary, all of the candidates were on their best behavior. The only one to be flinging mud was non-candidate Giuliani, attacking one of the candidates of the other party. But that was before September 11.

I still haven’t heard it from the mayor, himself, but news reports seem to indicate that his secret political plan involved an ultimatum to the three main victors of last Tuesday’s primary. Either they would allow him to continue as mayor through the end of March, or he would seek to get the legislature to overturn the term-limits law for him. Now that one of the candidates has turned him down, the mayor says he wants to think about it. That seems like a good idea.

One of the candidates who agreed to the mayor’s proposal held a press conference at Brooklyn Borough Hall with about a dozen officials of his party who had endorsed him. When a reporter asked how many of those officials supported the mayor’s plan, only one hand went up, embarrassing the candidate. That was when he began mudslinging.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor visited New York on Friday, and, after saying that she was “still tearful,” she prophesied that “we’re likely to experience more restrictions on our personal freedom than has ever been the case in our country,” a prophesy she is empowered to help fulfil. I wish I knew what she meant. Other than our freedom to fly and our freedom to build and be in tall buildings, which of our other freedoms, if restricted, would have prevented the tragedy?

I’ve always had a cheery interpretation of Robert Frost’s end-of-the-world poem, “Fire and Ice.” In my view, it points out that there are too many ways to die to spend time worrying about it. I do not, therefore, fear being killed by a terrorist. But I am very fearful of any reduction of our freedoms. They’re what I love most about America.

White House press secretary Ari Fleischer doesn’t seem to agree with me. He was commenting on the brouhaha that arose over Bill Maher’s comments on a recent episode of “Politically Incorrect.” As a result of those comments, at least one TV station and at least one sponsor have dropped the program. That’s their right (though it DOES seem kind of foolish to me to get upset about something you consider to be politically incorrect being said on a program called “Politically Incorrect”).

Fleischer’s comments were scarier. He said, “The reminder is to all Americans that they need to watch what they say….” He wasn’t referring to classified or strategic information. He wasn’t even referring to hate speech or anything sexually obscene or indecent. He just wanted never to be heard a disparaging word.

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” It sounds like something one of the founders of the United States might have said, though it’s usually attributed (sometimes in a different form) to Voltaire. What we DO have in the U.S. Constitution is this:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

That’s the complete text of the first amendment. It doesn’t seem so hard to read. I can’t find the “watch what you say” part.

As soon as I get a chance, I plan to make (and wear) a T-shirt with “BILL MAHER MAY SAY WHATEVER HE WANTS TO” on it in red, white, and blue. Bravo to ABC for standing behind Maher!

A few days ago, I described how I reconciled myself to all the American-flag flying in New York and elsewhere (a correspondent reports that Old Glory is also being flown all over Tokyo). I can still believe that most of the flags here were put up in solidarity with the victims of September 11, but I think I was too hasty in comparing them to the menorahs of Billings, Montana. There may be nothing wrong with flying the flag here now, but there’s nothing brave about it either.

I heard an amazing story of post-attack, non-rescue-related bravery right here in New York on the radio today. New York is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world, and Queens is our most diverse borough. An Egyptian coffee house in Queens was attacked by four young men at 3 am five nights after the fall of the World Trade Center. They smashed everything they could get to.

Amazingly, the police rapidly caught the perpetrators and brought them to the coffee house. Amazingly, the owner refused to press charges. It wasn’t that he was scared of future retaliation; he said he could understand their feelings. He wanted to do something to “bring the anger down.” The story’s not over yet.

Amazingly, an hour later, in the middle of the night, the four men returned to the coffee house. They wanted to thank the owner for not pressing charges. They apologized for their attack and said they would clean and repair everything, which they did. They also paid for drinks all around. Then they all — vandals, owner, staff, and customers, sat around tables for four hours, drinking Egyptian coffee and talking until morning.

Today I saw about a hundred foreign visitors who had bypassed the usual border-crossing controls congregating near the Harlem Meer. That’s the northernmost body of water in Central Park. The Canada geese have noticed the drop in temperature and are heading south.

Today I also saw thousands of people in Central Park, all on a mission, with signs and banners. The signs said “Share-A-Walk,” a benefit for breast and ovarian cancer support. There were no American flags. The color of the scarves wrapped around their arms was pink.

Today we went to see “The Mikado” at the New York City Opera. As best I could tell, the house was packed. At the Metropolitan Opera on Saturday night, I was told the house was nowhere near full. But maybe that just has to do with the fact that “Wozzeck” isn’t as crowd pleasing as “The Mikado.”

There’s no accounting for taste. I’m glad I live in a city that tries to satisfy them all. Television permits are being issued again. Tomorrow I work on HBO’s “Def Poetry Jam.” It should be interesting.

The “Styles” section of today’s New York Times has a short piece called, “When Only a Burger Will Do.” It quotes consulting chef Aaron Bashy as saying, “People want simpler, more comforting foods right now.” Chef Daniel Boulud of DB Bistro Moderne said his burger has been helping people “reconnect with their pasts.” It has “foie gras, black truffles, root vegetables and wine-braised beef” and goes for $26.

Welcome to New York.

TTFN, Mark

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