Drawing Lines

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In March of 2003, the Dixie Chicks prepared to take a stage in London, when lead singer Natalie Maines declared that she and her bandmates were “ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas.” She was referring to George W. Bush (who was actually born in Connecticut), and the U.S. was on the verge of invading Iraq. In a sense, Maines was joking, but within hours, her comment thrust the group into the most unfavorable of positions. Country music fans across the U.S. demanded their local radio stations stop playing the Dixie Chicks music, and the group became the subject of hate mail and death threats. Shortly afterwards, ABC correspondent Diane Sawyer interviewed the group, during which she repeatedly asked Maines why said something so disparaging about the president of the United States. In all my years of watching politics and paying attention to how our elected officials interact with the news media, I’d never seen so much antagonism launched at one individual over a simple comment.

For one thing I am embarrassed that Bush claims he’s from Texas. I remain embarrassed that this state put him in the governor’s mansion twice and helped to place him in the White House twice. Bush is one of the worse presidents the U.S. has ever produced. I know plenty of people who would disagree with me, and we could argue about it for days. But one thing is certain: we all know we have the right to feel that way and we certainly hold the right to express our sentiments about the matter. After all, Maines didn’t curse; nor did she call Bush an idiot or a mass murderer. She didn’t threaten his life. She just opened her “big mouth again,” as she later stated, and said something. The trio eventually got their careers back on track, but I don’t think the band has fully recovered in terms of popularity.

I thought about the fiasco surrounding Maines’ comment, when the massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo exploded the other day. Three Islamic fundamentalists, apparently angry that the long-running satirical French magazine had the audacity – yet again – to insult their religion and the prophet Mohammed, stormed into the building and gunned down 11 staff members. They’d also gunned a Parisian police officer – a Muslim – outside the building. One of the men turned himself into authorities immediate, while the other two fled and – as of this writing – have been killed. The tragedy reminded many of the 2005 publication of a cartoon of Mohammed in Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten and the vitriolic response from many in the Muslim world.

First of all, it is an offense to Islam to publicize any delineation of Mohammed; unlike, say, Roman Catholicism, which is virtually idolatrous with its many renditions of Jesus, Mary and their gallery of saints. Second of all, I don’t care. If anything, Muslims should be upset by the September 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S.; the March 11, 2004 Madrid train bombings; or the July 7, 2005 London train bombings. I imagine most were. I’m not one to be judgmental, but I am a strong supporter of free speech. So were the folks at Charlie Hebdo. And now, most of them are dead.

It’s a tricky thing – free speech. Just about everyone I know has expressed their strong support for it. It’s a critical element of any truly democratic and civilized society. But, as with all other freedoms, it’s cumbersome when you confront the words of those who are your ideological opposites; people who say things you find offensive, even vulgar. Free speech (and its ideological cousins, freedom of expression and freedom of religion) was at the center of the push to legalize pornography in the U.S. in the early 1970s. In the spring of 1977, it was a key component of the right a group of neo-Nazis proclaimed when they petitioned to march down the streets of Skokie, Illinois, a community with a large Jewish population. The Westboro Baptist Church relied solely on the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to protest at the funerals of deceased military personnel, claiming the latter died for a country that supports abortion, homosexuality and other perceived evils. Their case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court where they won. It’s not okay to call someone a murderer, but it’s apparently okay – according to the decision – to shout, ‘Thank God for IEDs.’

This 2007 cartoon by “Mr. Fish” upset plenty of people.  I still think it’s funny and truthful.

This 2007 cartoon by “Mr. Fish” upset plenty of people. I still think it’s funny and truthful.

Where should that line be drawn? Or should there even be a line?

In February of 2008, my then-ISP, AOL, published a story on how, in 1504, Christopher Columbus allegedly deceived Jamaica’s indigenous Taino Indians into believing the gods were unhappy with their treatment of him and his stranded crew and would cause the moon to turn blood red. Columbus apparently knew of an upcoming lunar eclipse on February 29 of that year. When it did occur, the Taino supposedly became terrified and were convinced Columbus was some kind of deity. There are countless stories like that about early interactions between Indigenous Americans and Europeans. I had never heard of that particular story until I saw it on AOL in 2008. Then I saw something else. Someone had commented that, despite everything “no one has suffered like the Jewish people.” What the hell?! I thought. Where did that shit come from?! It was like commenting how much you like glazed doughnuts in an article about refurbishing your dining room. I quickly responded with a profanity-laced diatribe, pointing out that Jews haven’t endured one fraction of the suffering in the Western Hemisphere that Indians and the African slaves brought over to replace them have. I was careful to mention ‘in the Western Hemisphere.’ Apparently either that original commenter or some other fool got their little feelings hurt and reported me to AOL. AOL then deleted the comment and put me on “probation,” which meant preventing me from commenting on anything on their site for a while. Gosh, can you imagine how mortified I was? When I called AOL tech support in India (the land where Columbus thought he’d landed), a representative couldn’t (or wouldn’t) tell me who had reported me. I noted that, here in the U.S., foul language fell under the regimen of free speech. After all, I didn’t make a bomb or death threat against anyone. I didn’t accuse anyone of being a pedophile or arsonist. I just called some Jewish guy a dumb fuck, which he was, because of what he said. The tech rep refuted my claim and said she could do nothing about it. Eventually they let me off probation. God, I was so relieved! I wouldn’t have been able to live otherwise.

The cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo always pushed the boundaries of personal tastes. Their efforts seemed destined to offend anyone and everyone. It’s curious, though, that France finds itself in this situation over a cartoon. According to Human Rights Watch, between 2004 and 2011, French law enforcement fine 594 Muslim women for wearing the niqab. Yet, in 2008, legendary French actress Brigitte Bardot went on trial for the fifth time because she’d insulted Muslims. She had said that Muslims were “destroying our country.” A devout animal rights activist, Bardot had gotten into trouble previously for disparaging the Muslim custom of slaughtering goats during the Eid al-Adha festival. She was literally dragged into court over these matters. Seriously? In freedom-loving France, it seems political correctness is meted out with a vengeance.

Again, I ask where is that line between free speech and common decency supposed to fall? Whose free speech? And whose decency? It’s a never-ending debate.

Mr. Fish.

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In Memoriam – “Charlie Hebdo” Staff

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“Je suis Charlie!”

This is yet another call for one of my greatest passions: free speech! I don’t care if it pisses off every Muslim, Jew, Christian and other right-wing religious morons! We need more speech, fewer guns and less religion.

Soutenir nos amis en France. La liberté d’expression pour toujours!

 

Frederic Boisseau

Brigadier Franck Brinsolaro

Jean Cabut

Elsa Cayat

Stephane Charbonnier

Philippe Honore

Bernard Maris

Ahmed Merabet (police officer)

Mustapha Ourrad

Michel Renaud

Bernard Verlhac

Georges Wolinski

 

This is the last cartoon that editor Stephane Charbonnier (a.k.a. “Charb”) published in Charlie Hebdo.

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Title: “Still no attack in France.”
Terrorist: “Wait! We have until the end of January to present our greetings.”

Charlie Hebdo attacks.

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Writing Lives

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Think about what it takes to create a writing system from scratch. Imagine the intellectual aptitude of someone who draws an image on a rock, in the sand, or anywhere and declares that it represents something – a word, an action, a single sound. What is required of somebody to actually sit down and do that?

Not long after I began walking and talking around the age of 9 months, my parents started teaching me to read. The books were those simply-worded “See Spot Run” types, but I took to them with uncannily inborn sense of ease. Whenever my folks became engaged with some task around the tiny two-bedroom apartment where we lived, they made sure I was either asleep or sitting on the couch with one of those books. Many of those colorful little pre-school tomes were “Golden Books,” the classics of childhood literature that helped to educate the young masses. I still have scores of them stored away neatly in boxes; surely they’d be collector’s items by now.

By the age of 5 – even before entering kindergarten – I was writing stories. Although I could speak in complete sentences and use seemingly grown-up words (my parents never “baby-talked” to me), putting those thoughts into written form became my primary means of communication. I’ve been reading and writing ever since.

My precociousness wasn’t always viewed with admiration. As a first-grader at a Catholic parochial school in Dallas, me and my fellow students were required to look at our name plates before carefully copying our names onto sheets of paper. I looked at mine once and, upon the second time I had to write it, I simply did so from memory. Proud of my accomplishment, I displayed the sheet of notebook paper to the nun teaching the class.

Her reaction was harsh. “Don’t ever do that again!” she chided.

It didn’t seem to matter that – all of 6 or 7 years of age – I successfully reprinted my name after having looked at the plate once. So I sauntered back to my desk, feeling humiliated and dejected.

Bitch!

I recounted the incident to my parents that evening at dinner, and they beamed with pride. My father reassured me I did nothing wrong and told me, from that point onward, just “pretend” to look at my name plate. I followed his advice, confident in my new-found ability. I never again looked at that stupid name plate; neither did I try to impress that decrepit nun. I surmised some time later that a vow of poverty, coupled with a life of celibacy and a cardboard headdress, must have a nasty impact on a woman’s cerebral capacity.

Another incident at that same school a few years later, however, made me question everyone in the education field. A lay teacher arrived at the school in the fall of 1977 to teach English. She and I got along nicely at first. But my impulsive audacity to question certain things apparently made her head hurt, and she’d stare at me from behind those gigantic 1970s-era glasses (the kind that now would qualify as motorcycle windshields) and seethe with frustration.

Other students in the class loved when her and I got into those “fights,” as one by described them. That teacher certainly didn’t enjoy it and used every opportunity she could scrounge up to humiliate me in front of my classmates. Then, one morning, things came to a head between us over a single word: llama.

Because it’s a Spanish-language adaptation of an Indian term for the only draft animal to evolve in the Western Hemisphere, I knew it was pronounced “yama.” In Spanish, a double “L” bears a “Y” sound. The teacher shook her head no and insisted it was pronounced “lah-mah,” with the “L” clearly enunciated. I didn’t budge. I knew I was right.

Yet our constant linguistic tennis match finally made a few of her precious brain synapses explode, and she literally yelled at me to shut up and pronounce the word the way she saw fit – with that Anglicized “L” sound.

A near-deadly pall enveloped the room like a tsunami accosting a beachfront. Everyone fell silent, and the teacher ordered me to remain after class. My heart sank, and my stomach felt hollow.

After my fellow students departed, the teacher stuck a well-manicured fingernail into my quivering face and told me never to question her authority again. “Do you understand me?” she growled.

A weak “Yes, ma’am” tumbled from my lips. That evening at dinner I recounted the entire episode to my parents. This time they didn’t offer any coy suggestions for me to remain quiet. Arriving at school the next morning, both of them promptly entered the building with me and demanded to speak with that teacher.

The principal, a feisty and intimidating nun named Jean, told them they either had to make an appointment or wait until an upcoming parent-teacher conference.

My father, who was growing increasingly disillusioned with Roman Catholicism altogether, leaned forward onto the paper-cluttered desk and said, “Jean, get her in here now, or I’ll go find her and drag her ass in here myself.”

Sister Jean’s eyes widened, and her self-righteous demeanor crumbled faster than a Ku Klux Klansman accidentally entering the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation with a suitcase full of Christian bibles. The lay teacher arrived, and, as I waited outside by the secretary’s desk, she tried to explain her side of the story. My parents had always been renegades, but they were also fair. I don’t know what all was said amongst them, but my father made it clear that she was never to yell at or humiliate me in front of the class. He and my mother also made that teacher realize my pronunciation of the word “llama” was correct. Technically, everything was settled, but she still gave me a “B” for that spring semester. It didn’t matter. I graduated from the school shortly thereafter and was more than glad to get the hell out of there.

Neither of those situations diminished my love and passion for the written word. I’ve remained an avid reader and writer. And, just like I resisted the demands of those two teachers to think and behave differently, I’ve resisted any attempts to downgrade my intellect or circumvent my literary aspirations. As we stand on the threshold of this pioneering electronic medium called blogging, I think of the countless writers and poets who simply wouldn’t up on their dreams to describe the world as they see it, or to tell the truth as they know it. I’m a strong advocate of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees free speech. But the power of the written word transcends that.

Writers have always been at the forefront of social and political changes. Powerful elites have tried to silence us; lest the truth gets out to the otherwise loyal masses who then should dare to forget their places in a carefully-structured society – places designated by those same powerful elites. Education and literacy are the best tools against tyranny and oppression. Once someone learns how to read and write, they start to think for themselves. And, while that’s good for society as a whole; for some, it forebodes danger. It’s why, for centuries, the Catholic Church tried to keep books out of the hands of commoners, especially women. It’s why, in the aftermath of the American Civil War, some Whites tried to do the same with the freed Negro slaves.

In more recent years, a number of journalists have been murdered in México, as they covered that nation’s ongoing war against the drug cartels and linked some of that violence to government and law enforcement officials.

Of course, composing short stories for my blog or recounting skirmishes with haughty nuns and teachers doesn’t constitute a battle against repression. But, from the moment some six millennia ago, when an unknown individual in the Sumerian desert carved the emblem of a human head in conjunction with a fish to indicate eating, writing has been an essential and inescapable attribute of our existence. I observe, from the comfort of my suburban home, the battles between police and drug lords in México and wonder if any of them are aware that a form of writing arose in the central part of that country around 600 B.C. Do they even realize how significant that is, not just in México’s history, but the history of the world?

I swing my attention to the mountains of landlocked Afghanistan and question if any of the men training to attack Europe and the U.S. in the name of Islam realize their ancestors corresponded frequently about such matters as the possibility of an afterlife and how birds stay aloft. How did that area reach the 16th century and become stuck there?

I remain passionate about literature and education, even in this increasingly digital world where cell phone text messages have become the norm. I have no less than 400 books crammed into my home, placed neatly on shelves or stacked atop one another. They cover everything from art to political science. Moreover, I have scores of magazines: “National Geographic,” “International Artist,” “The Sun,” “Indian” and the “Smithsonian.” And I keep adding to my repertoire. My only hope is that I get to read them all before I die, and even then, maybe carry them with me into the afterlife.

Regardless of what happens anywhere in the world, I know we writers will win the ongoing battles against ignorance and arrogance. Whether we have to stay after class for daring to question a teacher over the pronunciation of a single word, or stand before a hostile government that only wants so much of the truth to get out into the world, writers will always win. Even if we have to die for it.

Image: Mr. Dowling.

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Happy New Year’s 2015!

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“The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.”
Maya Angelou

 

Thank you to all my followers, visitors and fellow bloggers for another great year! It is up to us to keep the world moving.

To all who share the same passion for the written word as I do, just keep fighting and keep writing!

Image courtesy Anna Lenabem.

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When Family Christmas Photos Go Bad

Family Christmas photographs are a grand tradition that stretches back almost to the invention of photography. Christmas is all about family, whether the family is comprised of blood relatives or close friends who provide that irreplaceable sensation of family. A few of my friends mailed me their usual Christmas cards bearing portraits of their own beautiful families.

Some folks like to get creative with their holiday photographs. Often they’re cute and even funny. Other times, though, you have to wonder how many spirits these people had beforehand, or if local child protective services has a case file on them. Herein are a few examples of people who should’ve just left the camera the hell alone.

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Postado no Sexta-feira.net

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Happy Birthday Annie Lennox!

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“I think music is the most phenomenal platform for intellectual thought.”

Annie Lennox

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kIDVHYMmgxU

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Happy Birthday Sissy Spacek!

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“I’ve always been a people-watcher, and as an actor, later, I just mined all those little details.”

Sissy Spacek

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