Je ne suis pas Charlie

The daily news is so full of shootings and other atrocities nowadays that I can hardly tell one from another. Consequently, I can’t muster up much in the way of grief or outrage for most of these incidents no matter how close to home they hit or how high the body count is or how horrific the details might be. I just don’t have the emotional energy to spare, I’m afraid. The last ghastly incident that really hit home for me was the shooting at Sandy Hook school.

The recent events in Paris, however, have struck a chord in me that has my jimmies more rustled than they’ve been in at least the past two years.

Twelve people were shot and killed at a French newspaper called Charlie Hebdo, ostensibly by Muslim militants who were angered by the newspaper’s satirical writings and drawings about the Islamic prophet Mohammed. In solidarity with those who were killed, including four editorial cartoonists, many writers and illustrators and ordinary people across Europe and around the world are taking up the slogan “Je Suis Charlie (I Am Charlie).”

As a former newspaper reporter, I suppose I could be expected to stand up for my fallen brethren in support of their ironclad ideals of freedom of speech and to applaud and admire their courage to lampoon all that is sacred to, well, almost everyone. Charlie Hebdo, so the line goes, was an equal-opportunity offender of every class, culture, creed and religion. Their cartoons aimed at Islam, in particular, are said to be scathing and often scatological. I wouldn’t know, since I don’t seek out this particular form of commentary. In fact, until two days ago, I had never heard of this publication and probably never would have if they hadn’t been so brutally thrust onto the world stage.

I have a lot of swirling and conflicted feelings about this incident that are difficult to sort out into straight lines.

While I recognize the need in free societies for publications like Charlie Hebdo that are not afraid to pull the tiger’s tail and publish words and pictures that others find too taboo to touch, I also don’t appreciate that sort of content. I would never seek it out, and I resent being pushed to inadvertently participate in this trampling of Muslim sensibilities by other news outlets that are publishing some of the controversial images that Charlie Hebdo did. I appreciate the news outlets that are declining to do so despite being called cowards by some of their readers.

Paul Farhi (“News organizations wrestle with whether to publish Charlie Hebdo cartoons after attack“) writes in The Washington Post:

Neither the New York Times nor The Washington Post has ever published the Danish or French cartoons, and both indicated Wednesday that they don’t intend to.

The Times’ associate managing editor for standards, Philip B. Corbett, said his paper doesn’t publish material “deliberately intended to offend religious sensibilities.” He said Times editors decided that describing the cartoons rather than showing them “would give readers sufficient information to understand today’s story.”

Similarly, The Post’s executive editor, Martin Baron, said his newspaper avoids publication of material “that is pointedly, deliberately, or needlessly offensive to members of religious groups” and would continue to apply those principles in the wake of the Paris atrocity.

The New York Times’ Public Editor Margaret Sullivan, in a blog post, only tepidly supports her employer’s decision not to publish the images (“A Close Call on Publication of Charlie Hebdo Cartoons“):

[NYT Executive Editor Dean] Baquet told me that he started out the day Wednesday convinced that The Times should publish the images, both because of their newsworthiness and out of a sense of solidarity with the slain journalists and the right of free expression….

Ultimately, he decided against it, he said, because he had to consider foremost the sensibilities of Times readers, especially its Muslim readers. To many of them, he said, depictions of the prophet Muhammad are sacrilegious; those that are meant to mock even more so. “We have a standard that is long held and that serves us well: that there is a line between gratuitous insult and satire. Most of these are gratuitous insult.”

Sullivan concludes, “The Times undoubtedly made a careful and conscientious decision in keeping with its standards. However, given these events—and an overarching story that is far from over—a review and reconsideration of those standards may be in order in the days ahead.”

The Guardian also declined to republish the cartoons (“The Guardian view on Charlie Hebdo: show solidarity, but in your own voice“) and said in an editorial:

The key point is this: support for a magazine’s inalienable right to make its own editorial judgments does not commit you to echo or amplify those judgments. Put another way, defending the right of someone to say whatever they like does not oblige you to repeat their words.

Each and every publication has a different purpose and ethos. Charlie Hebdo is not the Guardian or the New York Times, nor is it the Daily Mail or Private Eye. The animating intention behind its work was to satirise and provoke in a distinctive voice, one that would not sit easily in other publications.

New York Times Op-Ed columnist David Brooks (“I am not Charlie Hebdo“) notes that even if you claim to be Charlie (or at least share its ideals), “Most of us don’t actually engage in the sort of deliberately offensive humor that that newspaper specializes in.”

When you are 13, it seems daring and provocative to “épater la bourgeoisie,” to stick a finger in the eye of authority, to ridicule other people’s religious beliefs.

But after a while that seems puerile.

A commenter on this story called all American media cowards and hypocrites, saying, “Your case would have been far stronger had you compared the courage of Charlie Hebdo with the cowardice & appeasement of American media. This very newspaper will not publish satirical cartoons commenting on Islam even as it will freely analyze, say, The Book of Mormon. The most galling example is that Comedy Central has censured South Park’s satire on Mohammed, in which Parker/Stone examine the lengths their station will go to self-censure. As soon as “Revolution Muslim” threatened death to Parker & Stone for the episode, Comedy Central responded by heavily censuring & ultimately removing the episode. So in a show that freely satirizes Christians, Mormons, Jews & everyone, somehow Muslims are forbidden—It’s not out of delicacy or political correctness or being respectful or disrespectful. It’s out of cowardice, appeasement & moral weakness.”

Jennifer Schuessler (“Charlie Hebdo Attack Chills Satirists and Prompts a Debate“) writes in the New York Times:

But amid all the “I Am Charlie” marches and declarations on social media, some in the cartooning world are also debating a delicate question: Were the victims free-speech martyrs, full stop, or provocateurs whose aggressive mockery of Islam sometimes amounted to xenophobia and racism? ….

Mr. [Tom] Spurgeon of The Comics Reporter said that when he posted some of what he called Charlie Hebdo’s “ugly, racist” covers in a show of solidarity on Wednesday, he got a number of emails from cartoonists challenging the decision.

“Some people questioned such work as simply cruelty hiding behind the idea of free speech,” Mr. Spurgeon said.

Rabbi Michael Lerner (“Mourning the Parisian Journalists Yet Noticing the Hypocrisy“) writes in the Huffington Post:

the media has refused to even consider what it would mean to a French Muslim, living among Muslims who are economically marginalized and portrayed as nothing but terrorists, their religious garb banned in public, their religion demeaned, to encounter a humor magazine that ridiculed the one thing that gives them some sense of community and higher purpose, namely Mohammed and the religion he founded.

To even raise this kind of question is to open oneself up to charges of not caring about the murdered or making excuses for the murderers. But neither charge is accurate. …

“But they ridicule everyone’s religion, not just the Muslim’s, so isn’t that fair?​” we are reassured. But the reassurance isn’t reassuring. That they ridicule everyone is exactly the problem—the general cheapening and demeaning of others is destructive to everyone. … So let’s call demeaning speech, including demeaning humor, what it really is—an assault on the dignity of human beings.

And finally, here is cartoonist Joe Sacco’s response to the shooting (click image for a larger version).


Surely we can do better by one another, and we at least ought to try because we really are all in this together.

Extremism is extremism, and murder is murder that cannot be “justified” by religious beliefs. By the same token, racism, bigotry and bullying are disrespectful and abusive no matter what religious or ethnic group is the target—or the source, either, for that matter.

That is why I am not Charlie. I don’t stand with those who mock and belittle and attack others simply because they can, yet claim to be valiant defenders of liberty and freedom. I believe in respect and kindness toward all and in promoting what you love, not bashing what you hate.



Identity as wealth

I read a story in The Guardian today about a native-born Texas man named Eric Kennie who, for various reasons, is unable to secure the state-approved identification necessary to comply with the rather stiff new voting laws in his state. He doesn’t own a car and does not drive, so he has no driver’s license. He has never traveled outside his native city of Austin, or even outside the state, so he has no passport. He’s never served in the military, never held a concealed weapon permit, and his only state-issued credential, an ID card, expired in 2000. For all the state of Texas knows or cares, he doesn’t even exist. And, at least in this election cycle, he and his vote will be as absent as if he really didn’t.

This story made me realize that an identity is a product, and it is not free. In fact, it is both expensive and valuable, which makes it a form of wealth. I have a passport, a driver’s license, credit cards, bank accounts and utility accounts in my name. I am licensed by my state as a certified nursing assistant, and it has my fingerprints on file from when I was licensed as a real estate agent. I own a business, a house and a vehicle, all properly licensed and registered and insured. I have a computer with an internet connection, so I am plugged into a variety of social media platforms. In every possible way one can provably and “legitimately” exist in this world, I do. And of course I am a registered voter.

All of this costs money, one way or another. Registering anything with the state always entails fees. Except being a voter. Or so I always thought.

Casting a ballot in any election, at least in my state at this time, appears to be free. When I show up at my polling place at a nearby elementary school, I have only to say my name and sign my name to show that I received my ballot—they don’t ask me to prove anything because my name is written on their rolls. I don’t remember what I had to produce to get my voter ID card (which I’ve never once been asked to show); probably a current utility bill and my driver’s license. It was no different from getting a library card or an account at the video store. I never considered identification to be a burden or a barrier because I’ve had a driver’s license and utility service for more than 30 years. Being unable to produce “proper” identification is completely foreign to me, entirely beyond my range of experience in this world. I take such things so completely for granted that I am baffled that anyone wouldn’t always have both. Must be nice to be me, right?


I never considered my state-recognized identity to be an expense, until now. I’ve always considered it a right rather than a privilege, but apparently it is more the latter than the former. Which is scary because privileges granted by the state can also be taken away by the state with the stroke of a pen.

I exist as a person and as a United States citizen with “certain unalienable rights” only at the pleasure of the state, and it could take all that away from me for any reason or no reason at any time. The state of Texas has taken away Mr. Kennie’s right to vote, essentially, simply because he lacks the means and the will to participate in American society in the ways the state believes he should.

I like to think that I have done everything right and nothing wrong in my life and that therefore I am perfectly safe from my own government, which is dedicated to protecting my sacrosanct “rights.” But this is merely a comfortable illusion created mostly by the unearned privileges I enjoy because of my class, race and (although I have never thought of it as such) wealth. I have all the protection that middle-class white money can buy—no more, no less.

So how safe am I, really? How safe is any one of us?


This car can take it

I’ve always thought the Subaru Forester is a really cute, smart car with everything I value in a vehicle: fuel economy, cargo room, all-wheel drive, excellent visibility, comfortable amenities, and a reasonable price. If I didn’t drive an Escape, I’d probably drive a Forester.

Yet more evidence of this car’s value comes from that terrible freeway crash I alluded to at the end of yesterday’s post. Here is the car that got the worst of all 44 vehicles involved:


The Subaru was struck by a 2004 Kenworth logging truck driven by Cory D. Ford, 38, of Emmett. The Subaru got caught in the right front section of the logging truck’s loaded trailer and rolled several times as it was pulled forward.

Silva was taken by ambulance to Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center in Boise. He was listed Thursday morning in serious condition, a hospital spokesman said.

That any person could have come out of that wreckage alive is a miracle. I mean, run over and rolled by a loaded logging truck at freeway speed! That is almost the very definition of a non-survivable event. Mr. Silva-Cuellar was either very lucky or very well protected or both. We wish him all the best in his recovery.

Volvo used to be synonymous with safety, but I think Subaru might be usurping its place.


Yep, I could see myself in one of these.

Update, January 13, 2014: The Subaru driver has been released from the hospital.



“She freaking made it”

Hooray and congratulations to endurance swimmer Diana Nyad, who today achieved her life-long dream and a place in the history books by becoming the first person ever to swim without a shark cage from Havana, Cuba, to Key West, Florida. It took her 53 hours to cross 110 miles of open ocean against stinging jellyfish, strong currents, sun and wind, and her own 64-year-old body.

Diana Nyad's route from shore to shore, from her website.

Diana Nyad’s route from shore to shore, from her website.

What an achievement.

I wrote about Nyad’s last attempt at this crossing in 2012, which was her fourth try, and was convinced at that time that she was not going to make another run at it. After reading more about her and her life, though, including her first attempt in 1978, I guess I should have realized she would either do this thing or literally die trying. She is the very embodiment of the word “competitor.”

In fact, upon her arrival on the Florida beach, she looked pretty close to death. Clearly this crossing took everything she had.

I have three messages. One is, we should never, ever give up. Two is, you’re never too old to chase your dreams. And three is, it looks like a solitary sport but it’s a team.
~ Diana Nyad, 2 September 2013

At an age when most people are ready to retire, Nyad has zealously pressed on in pursuit of her dreams while at the same time always encouraging others to pursue theirs. She’s a shining example of determination, courage, commitment and perseverance against all odds.

She told the Los Angeles Times in 2011, “I don’t want to reach the end of my life and regret not having given my days everything in me to make them worthwhile.” One hopes she now can look back on her days and say yes, they were worthwhile.

But I wouldn’t count her out to go chasing some other record just as soon as she recovers from this one. ONWARD!

Never enough

I am very saddened to learn of the death this past Saturday of Cory Monteith, the star of the television show “Glee.” He died alone in a Vancouver hotel room late at night, after years and years of struggling with addictions to, he once said, “anything and everything.” It might have been an accident, or something congenital, or otherwise innocuous, but the early word is that his death was likely related in some way to drug use.

Cory Monteith. Image from The Guardian.

Cory Monteith. Image from The Guardian.

I no longer watch network television, but I did catch a few episodes of the first season of “Glee” back in 2009. I was always impressed by Monteith’s enthusiasm, commitment and professionalism in his role as the sweet, dumb jock forced to join the glee club. He was so dynamic in his singing numbers—always the leader, strong of voice, sure of movement and clear of eye. If he had substance abuse issues, and he always freely admitted that he did, they sure didn’t show on camera. That’s a true professional for you.

The tragedy of this man’s life is that he had a dream job at which he excelled, the love of a beautiful woman, fame, fortune, youth and good looks. What more could any person want to be happy? If that is not success and the very definition of a good life worth living and loving, what more could possibly be added to it? But for some people, no amount of love or money is ever enough. Happiness lies always just beyond their grasp.

All of which goes to show that no matter who you are and what you do or have or earn, happiness is an inside job. Always was, always will be.

May he rest in peace at last.

Update, July 16, 2013: The cause of death was found to be an accidental overdose of heroin and alcohol.


The price of happiness

I read today in the LA Times that the price of a one-day ticket to Disneyland has increased from $87 to $92.

Holy cow, and I thought 3D movies were expensive at nearly $15 a pop.

The summer after I turned 12, my parents moved us from one town to another so that my dad could take a two-year sabbatical from his college teaching job to complete his Ph.D. While my parents were busy moving house, my grandmother took my brother, my sister and me to Disneyland. I think we went for only one day, although it might have been two. Possibly my aunt and uncle were with us (this was more than 30 years ago; details fade). So let’s assume our party included three adults, two children over 10, and one child under 10. In 1978, that set my grandma back $40 (equal to about $140 in 2012) for each day’s tickets. That same party today would pay $546, which in 1978 would have been nearly $2,000.


I have been back to Disneyland only once since then, and I don’t remember exactly when I went or how much I paid as an adult, but the price didn’t sear itself in my mind so it couldn’t have been that much. Maybe it was $25 or $30. 

Even if I had a hankering to return to the Magic Kingdom again someday, which fortunately I don’t, the price of admission alone would sour me on the idea just on principle. It might be the happiest place on earth, but if it costs a grand to take the family for a couple of days, well, I can stand to be a little less happy somewhere else.

Alone in the dark

The world of journalism, of movies, of words and writing and lyrical prose lost one of its very best yesterday. Others have memorialized Roger Ebert better than I ever could, but I will say that he was a personal hero of mine and I will miss his writing tremendously.

In addition to being a Pulitzer Prize–winning movie critic


He was also an author, a memoirist, a blogger and, perhaps best of all, a good man who made a happy marriage of 20 years. He had intelligence, wit, energy, integrity, grace and charm.

His passing leaves us all watching the movies alone in the dark.


Roger Joseph Ebert, June 18, 1942 – April 4, 2013.

Rest in peace, Roger.