Tag Archives: free speech

National Banned Books Week 2015

Old Covered Books on Table HD Wallpaper

Today is the official start of “Banned Books Week” here in the U.S.; the annual counter-assault against the angry and the self-righteous who dare to tell the rest of us independent thinkers what we can and cannot read. It’s a relentless battle.

This year the theme is “Young Adult” fiction. YA fiction, as it’s more commonly known, is the newest fad among adventurous scribes who want to help teenagers cross the troubled bridge into full-blown adulthood; the period of life where people learn the hard way that they aren’t the center of the universe. Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” trilogy is one highly successful example. Despite its popularity, it has garnered its own share of conservative protestors. I really can’t understand that. Within the context of American mythology, “The Hunger Games” has everything: violence, racial exceptionalism and plenty of bad luck. I mean, people getting shot down like wild animals. What’s more American than that?

One of the more curious books being challenged is Rebecca Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman, born Loretta Pleasant in Virginia in 1920, who died of cervical cancer in Baltimore in 1951. It’s not her brief life or tragic death that is necessarily so compelling. It’s not even the fact she died of cervical cancer. It’s what resulted from her death, and the variety of ethical challenges her situation posed. The type of cervical cancer she developed was unique; something oncologists at the time had never seen. Shortly before Lacks’ death, doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital removed two samples of the cancer – without her knowledge or permission. They ended up in the laboratory of researcher Dr. George Otto Gey who noticed the cells were unusually durable. Gey isolated and multiplied some of the cells, producing a line he dubbed “HeLa.” The HeLa line would go on to assist cancer researchers in the ensuing decades.

Perhaps the most famous outcome was the cure for one of humanity’s greatest scourges. Jonas Salk used the HeLa line to develop the polio vaccine, which was approved for general use in 1955, after only three years of testing. Immediately thereafter, other scientists began cloning the HeLa cell line; since then, over 10,000 patents involving the HeLa cells have been granted.

The Lacks Family didn’t learn of these advances until 1973, when a scientist contacted them, wanting blood samples and other genetic materials. For them and many African-Americans, this scenario reminded them of the infamous “Tuskegee syphilis study;” perhaps the most egregious and blatant example of medical racism in the U.S. The tale of Henrietta Lacks is nonetheless a compelling study of medical research and medical ethics. But one idiot in Knoxville, Tennessee has a different view: she calls it pornography. Parent Jackie Sims found Skloot’s book inappropriate for students at L&N STEM Academy in Knoxville. The term “inappropriate,” of course, means: ‘I don’t like it, so no one else should have access to it.’ Sims apparently equates gynecology with pornography. The term “cervical” surely sent her frail mind into a tizzy. Her precious on was given an alternate text (maybe something along the lines of a Disney coloring book), but Sims – like the typical self-righteous curmudgeon – wants Skloot’s tome to be banished from the entire school district. Fortunately, district authorities haven’t backed down, and – as of this writing – the matter is still under consideration.

For a complete selection of this year’s frequently-challenged books, check out this list. Then go out and buy, or download, one of them and read it, if you haven’t already. Remember, true freedom begins with the written word.

Banned Books Week on Twitter.

Banned Books Weeks is partnered with the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress.

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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.

Charb

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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Burning

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On March 19, Fred Phelps, the patriarch and founder of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas passed away at age 84. Goodbye and good riddance. I’m glad the old bastard is dead. It would be even better if the rest of his family could join him, but their time will come, too.

Westboro gained notoriety in the early 1990s as a rabidly anti-abortion and homophobic clan. They tested the limits of free speech with the simple act of protesting – a test that would take them to the U.S. Supreme Court. Westboro’s roots date back to 1931, when it originated as a branch of Topeka’s East Side Baptist Church. In 1955, however, Phelps broke ties with East Side and established Westboro.

As a biblical literalist, Fred Phelps held a very narrow view of the world and believed anyone who strayed from it was hell-bound. But, he wasn’t just some cantankerous loudmouth who adored media attention. He was a convicted criminal. In 1947, Phelps was a student at Bob Jones University, when he and some fellow pupils traveled to Vernal, Utah to try converting people from Mormonism. After Phelps gave a speech condemning the Mormon religion, a young man in the audience asked him a theological question. Phelps apparently didn’t know the answer and – as idiots are often wont to do – physically attacked the man. The scuffle almost incited a riot. In 1951, Phelps found himself in Pasadena, California, where he led a protest to make kissing in public a criminal felony. When a police officer told him he didn’t have permission to protest, the then-21-year-old assaulted him.

Phelps actually had a good start in life. He was a Boy Scout who earned the coveted Eagle Scout Award. He graduated from high school at age 16 and was admitted to the United State Military Academy in West Point New York. While there, however, he attended a Methodist revival meeting and decided to become a minister instead of attending West Point.

Phelps and his wife, Margie, met at the Arizona Bible Institute in 1951 and married the following year. They eventually had 13 children. Phelps went on to earn a law degree from Washburn University in 1962 and, ironically, developed a reputation as a civil rights lawyer. He even won an award from the NAACP for his work on civil rights cases. But, his career began to disintegrate in 1979, when he was disbarred in the state of Kansas for perjury. He spiraled further out of control with complaints of harassment, witness intimidation and more false testimonies, until 1987, when he was permanently forbidden from practicing law.

In 1991, WBC began its notorious and never-ending anti-gay crusade by protesting at Topeka’s Gage Park; claiming it was a hotbed of homosexual activity. Phelps and his gang seemed to cross a fragile line, however, when they began picketing at the funerals of AIDS victims around the same time. They bought into the right-wing evangelical mantra that AIDS was God’s condemnation of the homosexual lifestyle. Even those who staunchly opposed homosexuality found funeral protests a bit much. WBC harassed gay-oriented businesses, women’s clinics and other institutions they despised by repeatedly faxing – and later emailing – them obscenity-laced messages. Every time someone complained, WBC cited the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees – among other things – the right to free speech.

For some free speech advocates, the WBC tactics raised troubling questions. Free speech is a critical element of a truly democratic society. The U.S. and other developed nations pride themselves on the right of their citizens to speak out; no matter how offensive the verbiage may be. The late comic Lenny Bruce pushed the bounds of free speech with racially-tinged topics and foul language during his live standup routines in the 1950s. He was arrested and fined on occasion.

In 1977, free speech took a darker turn, when a neo-Nazi group planned a march in Skokie, Illinois. Skokie wasn’t a random selection. After World War II, the Chicago suburb had become home to several survivors of Europe’s Nazi death camps. At the time, about 40,500 of the city’s estimated 70,000 residents were Jewish. To them, the sight of people proudly waving the Nazi swastika was a painful reminder of one of the 20th century’s worst periods. Led by Frank Collin, the neo-Nazi group, the National Socialist Party of America, applied for a permit to march on May 1, 1977. Concerned about the antagonism such an event would generate, the Skokie Board of Commissioners passed an ordinance requiring marchers to post a $350,000 insurance bond. NSPA sued, stating that the ordinance violated the Constitution’s First Amendment. The case made it to the Illinois Supreme Court, which upheld the Skokie bond resolution. NSPA pursued the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned it, noting that free speech covered even hate speech.

Free speech came under review again in 1984, when Gregory Lee Johnson burned an American flag outside the Republican National Convention in Dallas. He was protesting the policies of President Ronald Reagan, which subsequently led to his arrest on charges that he violated a Texas statute preventing the desecration of venerable objects, such as the U.S. flag. Johnson sued, claiming the Texas law violated his free speech rights. The case landed at the U.S. Supreme Court in 1989, which ruled in his favor. At the time, I worked for a bank in downtown Dallas and, on my way to lunch one afternoon, encountered a group of patriotic young men who were, oddly enough, protesting the Supreme Court’s decision. They were some kind of ROTC-type group; attired in suits and banging drums to the tune of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” They were also gathering signatures for a petition to the Supreme Court, hoping somehow to get the decision reversed. I signed it, but thought about it later. Can free speech be so limited?

Fred Phelps, his family and their supporters were always on a mission. They hated everyone and protested everywhere. They believed strongly that the United States had a one-way ticket to the “Dark Side” because of its tolerance of abortion, adultery, homosexuality, non-Christian theologies and other vices. In their view, each natural- or human-made catastrophe was a sign of God’s wrath upon America. From such horrors as the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 to seemingly random events, like the 2003 nightclub fire in Warwick, Rhode Island, Westboro claimed God was sending an omen.

Their hatred reached a putrid climax when they began picketing at the funerals of military personnel killed in the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts. Along with carrying their regular “God Hates Fags” signs (that’s actually the name of their web site), they also bore placards with such terms as “Thank God for I.E.D.s (improved explosive devices)” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” Singing “God Damn America,” while dragging the U.S. flag on the ground, Westboro touched nerves of raw pain for the families of the dead. In 2006, Westboro made their way to Maryland to picket at the funeral of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder who had been killed in Iraq. Snyder’s father, Albert, stated he couldn’t tell what was emblazoned on the group’s placards, but learned about it from later news reports. Albert Snyder sued, claiming Westboro’s actions caused him great emotional distress. Phelps countered naturally that his church was merely exercising its free speech rights. But, a Maryland court agreed with Snyder and granted him a $10.9 million judgment against Phelps. Phelps appealed and got the decision reversed. Snyder pursued the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which sided with Westboro.

I see one major problem with the Snyder case. The family sued for emotional distress, which is immeasurable. The case, as I saw it, centered on harassment, slander and stalking. WBC placed Matthew Snyder’s Marine Corps portrait on its web site juxtapositioned alongside various slurs like “fag” and “murderer.” They also traveled all the way to Maryland from Kansas for the sole purpose of picketing his funeral. But, the Snyder family focused on the emotional distress issue, instead of stalking and slander, which aren’t protected by free speech. Therefore, I can actually understand why the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Westboro.

“Let me put this in more common vernacular,” Shirley Phelps-Roper, one of Fred’s daughters, told a TV reporter during another picket. “He (Albert Snyder) got his feelings hurt.” She went on to explain that Westboro had no regard for the Snyder family’s “feelings.” I’m sure it’s mutual.

Six of Fred’s children, including Shirley, are lawyers. In fact, Shirley Phelps-Roper argued their case before the Supreme Court, which is highly unusual. Generally, litigants before the Court don’t present their own cases.

Four of Fred’s children, including his oldest son Nate, abandoned their family, which essentially prompted their excommunication from Westboro. I’m quite certain that didn’t hurt their feelings. When the Snyder case arose, Nate Phelps, an atheist, went public and denounced his family’s antics, calling the funeral protests “evil.” But, in a television interview, he also made a stunning accusation: his father had often beaten his mother, as well as him and his siblings. No one at Westboro validated his claims. But, that should surprise no one. Some of the most devoutly religious people are also among the most physically abusive. They use their religion to justify the violence.

I’ve always wondered if someone would put a bullet through the heads of Phelps or one his brood. People have slung rocks at them, and Phelps even got sprayed with mace during one protest at a gay rights march. WBC maintains a hefty travel account to support their activities; money that would be better spent, for example, funding education or feeding homeless people. But, just as you can’t tell people what to do with their money, you really can’t tell them how to practice free speech.

I sincerely hope Fred Phelps suffered a long and painful demise. I’m not religious – in the traditional sense – but I am spiritual and believe in an afterlife of some sort. I envision Phelps encountering the souls of all the people whose funerals he protested at or whose tragic deaths he celebrated on his voyage into the netherworld. I can see them waving with gentle smiles, as he descends into the darkness. The right to free speech is sacred to most freedom-loving people. But, it doesn’t guarantee a place on the lap of whatever god you worship.

Westboro gets run out of Moore, Oklahoma.

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Free Speaking

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“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Voltaire

On the night before the United States was set to invade Iraq in March of 2003, the Dixie Chicks, a Texas-born country music trio, took to a London stage.  Lead singer Natalie Maines suddenly blurted out, “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all.  We do not want this war, this violence.  And, we’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas.”

The audience cheered, and Maines laughed loudly, as if she had just been joking.  But, the repercussions here at home were swift and vitriolic.  Country music radio stations quickly pulled the band’s music from their play lists; fans turned on the group and began destroying their records and CD’s; others threatened violence; someone even made a bomb threat to the band’s record company.  The group has recovered in the ensuing decade, but hasn’t really attained the same level of popularity they enjoyed before “The Incident.”  I’m not a country music fan, so I don’t follow the band.  But, I’m certainly not a fan of former President George W. Bush.  Indeed, he is an embarrassment to the state of Texas.

Maines’ 2003 pronouncement came to light again recently with the uproar over comments made by another southerner: Phil Robertson of “Duck Dynasty” fame.  Robertson’s family created an empire making and selling products for duck hunters from their Duck Commander Company in West Monroe, Louisiana, which has been in operation since 1973.  The show debuted on the A&E Network in March of 2012 and became an instant success.  The family is devoutly Christian and proudly redneck.  They seem to celebrate both, and each episode ends with the family gathered around the dinner table reciting a prayer.

Now, the show’s future is threatened after Robertson granted an interview to GQ Magazine during which he equated homosexuality with bestiality and claimed African-Americans were better off in pre-civil rights America.  It’s the homophobic part of his rant that has garnered the most attention.

“Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there,” Robertson told GQ.  “Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men.  Don’t be deceived.  Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers – they won’t inherit the kingdom of God.  Don’t deceive yourself.  It’s not right.”

After I got past the difficult concept of someone like Phil Robertson actually speaking with GQ Magazine, I just sort of yawned.  I’ve heard this crap before.  Evangelical Christians here in the U.S. have long compared homosexuality (especially male homosexuality) to bestiality and always seem to know what’s right for everyone else.  If anyone should dare criticize them, they then claim they’re merely quoting biblical scripture.  I’ve heard that crap before, too.  I’ve known plenty of people who often said, ‘Hey, don’t get mad at me.  I’m just doing what it says in the Bible,’ – not understanding how stupid they sound.  That’s almost like a man claiming he couldn’t help but sexually assault a woman because she was wearing a mini-skirt.

That Robertson assumes Black-Americans would have done well to forgo the efforts of the civil rights struggles of the last two centuries and accept their lowly place in society is equally unsurprising.  Many older White conservatives, particularly in the southeastern U.S., bristle at the thought of non-Whites achieving any kind of equality.  Robertson and his ilk remain indignant about the Civil War and continually reenact key battles in the vain hope they’ll attain victory and the Negroes and Indians will retreat into the fields where they belong.

When A&E announced “Duck Dynasty” would be suspended, many Robertson fans came to his defense.  Among them are the usual right-wing squawkers: Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal.  Yet another, Ian Bayne, an Illinois Republican congressional candidate, produced the most laughable response by comparing Robertson to Rosa Parks.  “In December 1955, Rosa Parks took a stand against an unjust societal persecution of black people,” stated Bayne, “and in December 2013, Robertson took a stand against persecution of Christians. What Parks did was courageous… What Robertson did was courageous too.”

I’d love to see the look on Robertson’s face when he heard that one!  Ironically, Rosa Parks’ actions were an early cannon shot in the brewing civil rights movement.

Several Robertson defenders are denouncing the apparent hypocrisy of his critics.  “Free speech is an endangered species,” said Palin.  Perhaps it is, but then again, you have to consider who’s speaking and what they’re saying.  When Natalie Maines criticized President Bush, her detractors suddenly warned that free speech has its responsibilities, which is a polite way of saying if you don’t agree with them, then you’re dead wrong.

Indeed, free speech has its limits.  You can’t yell ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater (a common comparison); you can’t phone in a bomb threat; and you can’t falsely accuse someone of committing a criminal act, such as…oh, bestiality.  As a writer, I know that free speech is sacrosanct; an undeniable tenet of democracy.  It’s a precious right; one born of blood and more valuable than gold or diamonds.  I’ve known people who grew up in the former Soviet Union or communist East Germany and listening to their tales of living under such oppressive regimes where dissent was regarded as a scourge makes me understand how fortunate I am to have grown up in the U.S.  I’ve seen a few episodes of “Duck Dynasty” and think it’s rather funny.  Only in America can someone make a fortune from building duck calls.  As much as I detest people like Phil Robertson, I can’t let what he says bother me too much.  If he doesn’t like gay people, then that’s his right.  No one should try to force him to march in the next gay pride parade, while holding hands with a drag queen.  If he feels Black folks had it better in America pre-1970, I feel he’s an idiot.  Ask any older Black person, especially those who grew up in the southeastern U.S., what life was like for them under Jim Crow laws, and I’m sure they’ll tell you that – aside from gatherings with family and friends – it was pretty hard and scary.  But, if Phil Robertson believes otherwise, what are you going to do?  Try to drown him in the swamp behind his mansion?

There is one unique irony about Robertson’s pathetic analogy between homosexuality and bestiality.  A hunter’s duck call is actually a ruse; the device mimics the sound of a duck’s mating wail.  In other words, the hunter masquerades as an amorous waterfowl to ensnare an unsuspecting bird into a trap.  Not that Robertson has ever sought to get busy with a duck, of course!  But, just words for thought.

Image: Albany NY a.k.a. Smalbany.

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Face Butt

738.LetterF

This past Wednesday, May 1, Facebook scolded me.  They issued a dire warning that – I guess – was supposed to frighten me and make me reconsider my entire purpose in life and how I fit into this complicated universe.  Apparently, some gentle soul was offended by a post I’d made the day before.  I used the ‘f’ word in response to the story of Jason Collins, the Washington Wizards player who came out and admitted he’s gay.  Here’s part of what I originally wrote:

‘God forbid some pro athlete should come out of the closet and admit he’s queer!  I mean, it’s okay to have wife beaters (or baby mama beaters) and drug addicts in the locker room, but fags just won’t be permitted.’

When I logged onto Facebook Thursday morning, I received a message telling me the post had been removed because of the “offensive language.”  It also referred me to their “Terms of Service,” which warned about “hate speech” and other admonitions.   Keep in mind this is the same web site with groups called ‘Fucktards Need Not Apply’ and ‘Shit That Makes Me Laugh.’  In fact, I’ve seen the words ‘fucktard’ and ‘shit’ in comments all over the site, along with other equally colorful terms.

I don’t know who got upset enough to report me to Mark Zuckerberg.  They were allowed to remain hidden behind their computer, while Facebook’s treacherous Word Police invaded my profile overnight and hurriedly stripped away the horrid verbiage.  Finally, with the hateful terminology safely obliterated, the pack of Silicon Valley 20-somethings dispatched their carefully-worded ‘Don’t You Dare’ message.  For that one terrifying moment, it took my breath away.  Then, I realized I just had gas.

This whole fiasco reminds me of the time in February 2008 when I posted a message on AOL in response to a comment someone had made.  They had a story about how Christopher Columbus tricked the indigenous Taino people of Jamaica in 1504 by telling them that, if they didn’t provide him and his crew with food, he’d make the sun disappear on February 29.  He knew that a lunar eclipse was imminent on that day.  The Taino didn’t believe him – until the eclipse occurred.  Then, they were terrified and bowed to his commands.  If Columbus had been somewhere on the mainland, say in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, or the Inca capital of Machu Picchu, they’d probably laugh and skewer his Italian ass.  Remember, the Aztecs and the Incas charted the stars with amazing accuracy, as did many other Native Americans societies.  Columbus simply lucked out that he was in the midst of people who were slightly less educated.  As I perused the comments in response to the brief editorial, I noticed some idiot had posted something like, ‘No one has suffered like the Jewish people.’  First of all, Jews had nothing to do with the story.  Second, it always pisses me off whenever some Jews think they’ve suffered more than the indigenous peoples of the Americas.  So I replied, saying something like, ‘Pardon my extreme political incorrectness, but Jews haven’t suffered one bit anywhere in the Western Hemisphere in comparison to the Indians and the Negroes.’  I went on to use the word – brace yourself – ‘bullshit.’  I think I even threw ‘fuck’ into the mix just because it was the kosher thing to do.  Then, at some point, someone got their feelings hurt and complained to AOL who then wreaked revenge by removing my capacity to make comments for a week.  Oh, God!  I was devastated!  I had to drink half a bottle of wine and masturbate for an hour to get over the trauma.  And, of course, the offended person remained hidden; a troubled spirit in the digital night – never to be seen or heard from again.

Now, this shit with Facebook.

Somewhere along the keyboard, my intentions got lost.  I don’t hate homosexuals.  In fact, some of my best friends are homosexualites.  Hell, I’ve had my own sexual encounters with other men – including myself!  But, my comments centered on the irony – hypocrisy – over the hype surrounding Collins’ announcement.  It’s pathetic to see professional athletes reacting with such vitriol at the thought of a homosexual in their midst.  Consider that pro sports is rife with wife-beaters (or baby mama beaters); infidelity; drug addicts; drunk drivers, etc.  How many times have you heard of professional male athletes going out to bars or strip clubs and getting into fights?  How many of these guys have been tagged for steroid abuse in recent years?  I guess it’s okay for a pro athlete to beat the crap out of his wife or girlfriend, but they obviously draw the line at queers in the shower.  I mean, they have standards, right?

Considering that today is World Press Freedom Day and I’m a strong free speech advocate, I won’t apologize if anyone was offended by a briefly-worded post on Facebook.  I made no threats and didn’t slander anyone.

But, I’m glad to know I pissed off someone.  I learned years ago that trying to please everyone will lead to complete insanity, so annoying somebody enough to feel that have to contact an authority figure gives me the utmost pleasure.  Some folks are so sensitive you’d think they’d just had 3 orgasms in a row!  Believe me – I know from experience.  Either way, life isn’t worth living if you don’t piss off a few people here and there.  At least they know you who you are!  And, that you’re not afraid to speak.

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World Press Freedom Day 2013

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Today, May 3, 2013, is World Press Freedom Day, a day to celebrate and honor the value of a free press.  It started in 1993, when the United Nations General Assembly decided to highlight the need for truly independent media – free of censorship.  In scores of countries around the world, media outlets are banned from presenting controversial subjects.  Journalists, editors and publishers have been harassed, injured and even murdered amidst valiant efforts to publicize the truth about an event or a circumstance.  In the past decade, some 600 journalists, social media producers and media workers have been killed while reporting news to the general public.  It’s evident in México, for example, as that nation wages an ill-fated war on drugs.  But, it can be as seemingly mundane as China’s ongoing internet censorship.  Even here in the U.S., the Bush Administration forbade media coverage of the flag-draped coffins of dead military personnel being returned from Iraq and Afghanistan under the guise of privacy concerns for the families.

A free press is synonymous with free speech; the two ideals are intrinsically bonded and are hallmarks of a truly democratic state.  As bloggers, it’s our obligation to uphold this mantle.  Civilization depends on it.

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In Memoriam – Anthony Lewis, 1927 – 2013

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I should have mentioned this earlier, but author and journalist Anthony Lewis died this past Monday, March 25.  He was just two days shy of his 86th birthday.  Lewis is best known – and perhaps most admired – for his book Gideon’s Trumpet, but he was also a noted liberal academic; a purveyor of free speech and civil rights.  Gideon’s Trumpet recounts the U.S. Supreme Court case of Gideon v. Wainwright, in which Clarence Earl Gideon, a petty thief in Florida, fought for legal representation.  The battle resulted in one of the most important and extraordinary litigious decisions of the 20th century.

It was that kind of commitment to personal freedom, no matter what one’s status in life might be, that drove Lewis’ passion.  Gideon’s victory, Lewis wrote, “shows that even the poorest and least powerful of men – a convict with not even a friend to visit him in prison – can take his cause to the highest court in the land and bring about a fundamental change in the law.”

Lewis’ tenacious work produced two Pulitzer Prize awards.  He won his first in 1955 at the age of 28 for articles he published in the Washington Daily about the U.S. Navy’s relentless charges of communist activity against a civilian employee, Abraham Chasanow.  An unnamed informant had accused Chasanow of being a radical communist sympathizer; a charge that, in post-World War II America, was a veritable death sentence for many people.  Lewis’ articles culminated in an apology to Chasanow by the Navy and his reinstatement to his previous job.  Lewis won his second Pulitzer in 1963 for reporting on the Supreme Court.

“A final argument for broad freedom of expression is its effect on the character of individuals in a society,” Lewis wrote in his 2007 book Freedom for the Thought that We Hate: A Biography of the First Amendment.  “Citizens in a free society must have courage – the courage to hear not only unwelcome political speech but novel and shocking ideas in science and the arts.”

In 2001, he received the Presidential Citizens Medal from President Bill Clinton.  The citation read, in part, that Lewis “has set the highest standard of journalistic ethics and excellence” and called him a “staunch defender of freedom of speech, individual rights, and the rule of law.”

I think it’s rather curious he received that honor just days before George W. Bush took office as President.  Bush’s administration would become the modern epitome of corruption, secrecy and irresponsibility.  As a writer, I understand and appreciate the value of free speech.  From that extends every other basic human right that allows people to live a full life in a truly democratic society.  Lewis left a strong legacy of commitment to the world as a whole, and it’s the duty of us in the literary and blogging worlds to uphold it.

Lewis leaves his wife, Margaret H. Marshall, former chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and three children by a first marriage.  The funeral will be private.

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Free Speech – Not Free Guns!

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“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.”

– 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

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December 17, 2012 · 8:13 PM

Vandals Assault Lubbock Democrat

Last Tuesday, October 23, a group of men defaced political campaign signs for President Obama and then, physically attacked a local man, Leo Flores, who is running for office in Lubbock, Texas.  Flores captured most of the action with his cell phone camera.  Once the attacks came to light, Lubbock Republican Party Chair Carl Tepper dismissed it all by saying, “I have a weird suspicion that the Democrats might have damaged their own signs.  It’s an outlandish story.”

Lubbock, which isn’t exactly a mecca for academic and scientific intellectuals, is already deep in Republican territory.  Of course, there are a lot of places in Texas that can make that claim.  It doesn’t surprise me that the local Republican Party Chairman negates the severity of the vandals’ actions.  These are the same bunch of clowns who helped put George W. Bush into the governor’s mansion twice and the White House twice and have helped Rick Perry hold onto the current governorship like the papacy.  Yes, it’s getting increasingly dangerous to be even a moderate Democrat here in Texas.  But, free speech isn’t a privilege – it’s a right.

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