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).

sacco-on-satire

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.

 

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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?

privilege

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?

 

Excessive optimism

As I mentioned yesterday, my hope is that the U.S. Supreme Court will rule some time this summer that all state laws prohibiting civil marriage between consenting adults of the same sex are unconstitutional because they deprive certain citizens of equal protection under the law (the Fourteenth Amendment).

It seems so obvious and simple to me that this is what needs to be done because California’s Proposition 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) are so clearly discriminatory against a certain group of people on no legally defensible grounds. But apparently that view is both naïve and excessively optimistic at this time.

A friend of mine who is well-versed on the matter pointed out to me that although the Court may, someday (say, 20 or 30—or more—years from now) find DOMA and Prop 8 and other laws like them to be unconstitutional, they are not going to do so now because the tide of public opinion on same-sex marriage, while it may be running from one pole to the other more swiftly on this issue than any other in recent memory, has not yet reached the tipping point at which the court must affirm the will of the people.

My feeling is, if these laws will be deemed unconstitutional at some point in the future, why wait for public opinion to provide the push? Why not get ahead of it and do the right thing for the right reasons—not just for the sake of the law, but for the sake of all the human beings in this country who are being hurt every single day by the bad laws now in place? Why should same-sex couples in blue states be able to enjoy the benefits of marriage while those in the red states remain second-class citizens? Is this one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all, or not?

The answers to these questions are, like everything involving human sexuality, complicated.

Jonathan Rauch gives a good explanation of the legal issues and likely outcomes in an article called Gay Marriage Hits the Supreme Court for the Brookings Institution. As simple as the issue seems to me (i.e., discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is both wrong and unlawful), to the Court, the issue is anything but simple. And the most likely outcome, according to people with far more knowledge of the case and the law than I have, is that nothing much will come of this in terms of sweeping change to federal laws, state laws or society in general.

Some people say the Supreme Court justices are cowards for not tackling this issue head-on once and for all while they have the chance. My well-informed friend calls the Court “a political body of people with lifetime appointments and axes to grind” that has swung so far to the right in recent years that it is unlikely to take any action on this issue before at least a few of the hardest-right members are replaced with people of a slightly more liberal frame of mind. That could be a long, long time from now.

I remain stubbornly optimistic on this one, though. As Winston Churchill once said, “Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing … after they have exhausted all other possibilities.” If not this year, perhaps next year.

the-arc-of-the-moral-universe

 

Seeing red

The U.S. Supreme Court is hearing arguments this week in a case that challenges California’s ban on same-sex marriage, Proposition 8. I am not familiar enough with all the legal ins and outs to say what the outcome might be—whether they’ll decide that all 50 states must allow same-sex (or equal) marriage, or that all 50 states can decide for themselves whether to allow it, or what.

My hope is that the court delivers a unanimous ruling similar to the one they made in Loving v. Virginia, a 1967 case in which they struck down all state laws banning interracial marriage. To me, it’s exactly the same issue: Only one definition of marriage should exist in this country that applies equally to all citizens, and individual states should not be allowed to decide which consenting adults can and cannot marry based on nothing more than bigotry and prejudice.

The arguments against what used to be called miscegenation were all the same as those against equal marriage: God never intended it and does not approve, it’s bad for the children, it will lead to the downfall of civilization as we know it. All bullfeathers of the purest ray serene, and everybody knows that … now. I hope that someday soon the vast majority of Americas will regard same-sex marriage with exactly the degree of indifference with which they now regard interracial marriage.

The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) is encouraging people who support equal marriage to change their Facebook and Twitter profile pictures to the symbol for equal marriage, which (naturally) is an “equals” sign:

equal-marriage1        equal-marriage2

The one on the left is the original version; the one on the right is the one the HRC is promoting for use this week. The red symbolizes love, which is what marriage equality is really all about.

I’ve been seeing a lot of red today as my Facebook friends and their friends have changed their profile pictures to the red symbol. I’m pleased and proud to see so many different people willing to publicly support equal rights for all citizens. This is a civil rights issue and a legal matter, not a religious or moral matter. Ensuring equal rights for everyone takes away no rights from anyone. If you’re opposed to same-sex marriage, don’t have one.

The We Do campaign organizes actions across the Southern United States in which same-sex couples are filmed going to their local courthouses and “requesting—and being denied—marriage licenses in order to call for full equality under federal law and to resist unjust state laws. WE DO actions make the impact of discriminatory laws visible to the general public and illustrate what it looks like when LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered] people are treated as second-class citizens under the law.”

There are several videos of these actions available. The one below brought me to tears when an older lady plaintively asks the very young clerk, “Can you tell us what steps we might take to become full and equal citizens under the law before we die? Can you help us with that?”

That’s all that we’re asking for: full and equal citizenship under the law. I am very hopeful that this battle will be won before I die.

Oh, and by the way, I thought the red symbol was nice but not quite fabulous enough for my taste, so I am using this one instead:

marriage


Related: Standing up for family values

 

The power of cooperation

My mom told me today about a story she recently saw on TV that profoundly affected her way of thinking about what is “possible” and “impossible.”

Say you have a 10-foot-tall stone that weighs 5 tons, and you want to move it from one place to another (the actual distance it is to be moved is merely a detail). Your only resources are about 30 able-bodied people and three long ropes. Is moving that stone possible, or not?

Turns out, it is.

The secret to making that monster move is not technology, not money, not sheer numbers, not brute force, and not the divine hand. Just balance, coordination and above all, cooperation toward a common goal. The power of a cohesive group is far greater than the sum of its parts and a miracle happens: the statue walks.

So when people say that the problems facing our nation and our world are insurmountable and impossible to solve, I have to wonder:
  • What if each one of us recognized that we and every one of our fellow human beings are all in this together–this life, on this planet?
  • What if each of us was willing to bend our back to the work at hand, side by side with our fellows, knowing that what is required of us is not super-human strength but only our best effort?
  • What if we all worked together as one body?

What couldn’t we do then?

The best thing about the election …

Is that it’s finally over. I actually feel a glimmer of hope about the next four years, and am powerfully relieved that America re-elected Barack Obama. No lame duck president, no conflict between the outgoing and incoming administrations, no radical shifts (I hope) in foreign or domestic policy, and no constant bellyaching about how the previous party/president is responsible for this whole mess.

Added bonus: No more political ads!

the election is finally over

I approve of that message, too.