New York and “Two Principles: All The Religion We Need”


Once I rented, and then sat in awe watching the nine-part classic Baseball from Ken Burns, I knew I’d made a wise choice in subscribing to Netflix. Access to great documentary series like this, that my local video store does not carry, made it a simple matter to get my hands on the rest of the incredible films made by Burns and his brother Ric. My wife and I just finished the sixteen-plus hours of their New York series, which I cannot praise highly enough.

Anyone interested in American history in general will appreciate this series of PBS films; lovers of Gotham will be enthralled and utterly captivated. I certainly was.

The first seven episodes, which comprise the original version, are each two hours in length and cover the history of the city from the time of Henry Hudson, up through the late 1990’s. Some of the specific events that are dealt with in detail include the initial founding of New Amsterdam by the Dutch, the role of the city during the Revolutionary War, the Civil War draft riots, the creation of Central Park, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, the creation of the subway system, the role of Tammany Hall, the impact of the urban renewal projects, and the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. Iconic figures, some familiar, and others not, are painted in rich detail, including Austin Tobin, Robert Moses (“If the ends don’t justify the means, what does?”), Fiorella La Guardia, Boss Tweed, Alexander Hamilton, Al Smith, Petrus Stuyvesant, and DeWitt Clinton. You’ll be surprised just how they, and many others, shaped this chaotic, utterly unique city into what it is today.

An eighth episode was added in 2003 that covers, as one might expect, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. And while this epilogue includes much disturbing footage of the attacks and the aftermath, and was physically painful to watch at times, the majority of the two-plus hours running time was devoted to the fascinating history behind the construction of the towers, and how most of the residents at first despised them, but eventually came to embrace them. Philippe Petit’s famous high-wire crossing is covered in detail (with plenty of direct commentary from Petit himself) and was absolutely spellbinding.

I was especially impressed with the way that the final episode closed, looking forward to how the city would rebuild Lower Manhattan, a process now well underway with the construction of the gorgeous tower that will be One World Trade Center.

Mario Cuomo, the former governor, had this to say about a memorial for 9-11. Despite a few ideas I’d take issue with (atheism is a religion?), I was quite moved by this sentiment, and his notion of what religion really should be:

I would like to see some depiction of all the religions. List them all: Atheism, Ethical Humanism, Catholicism, etc., and you notice that each of those religions, these value systems, have two principles they share in common. And the two principles started with monotheism and the Jews. Zedakah and Tikkun Olam. Zedakah means generally, we must treat one another as brother and sister. We should show one another respect and dignity because we are like things, we are human beings in a world that has nothing else like us, and we are to treat one another with love, charity, use your own words. The second principle is what do you do with this relationship. Well, we don’t know exactly how we got here, why we got here, etc., etc. That’s for minds larger than ours. But we know that we are like kinds, and we should work together and make this as good an experience as possible. Tikkun Olam. Let us repair the universe. Now, Islam believes that. Buddhism, that has no God, believes it. Every Ethical Humanist I ever met believes it. Those two principles: we’re supposed to love one another, and we’re supposed to work together to make the experience better: that’s all the religion we need, really, to make a success of this planet.


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