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.



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:


Related: Standing up for family values


Mid-Lent check-in

So, you remember that I was going to take a new approach to observing Lent this year? Well, we’re about halfway through the season now, so it’s time to check in and see how things are going with our efforts to be inclusive, creative and embracing.

I haven’t kept a log of my activities because that seems kind of overweening, but I can say I’ve done a few things these past weeks with a specific intention to reach out, connect and be kind to others. Such as:

  • Baked cookies and took them over to a neighbor who was entertaining a friend of hers with three young children who were more than pleased to help me eat them.
  • Sent some pastries and a gift card to another neighbor who was in the last few days of her pregnancy and having a hard time getting out of the house to have fun (the baby is now a couple of weeks old and quite a cutie).
  • Took the dogs to visit my former neighbors, who lost their own miniature Schnauzer a few years ago and can’t bear to get another one. They sure did love each having one of mine on their laps for part of an afternoon, though, and the dogs loved it, too.
  • Finally worked out a lot of old stuff with an old friend by email, hopefully advancing our friendship into a brighter new day.

While I wish I could say I’ve been really committed and devoted to this practice, the truth is that I am not like that with much of anything that isn’t mandatory, so, no. But I do keep it in mind, and try each day to do something good for myself, such as exercising or listening to music or adding a few dollars to my Mad Money fund; as well as something good for somebody else, such as making a call or sending an email or baking cookies.

I tend to be pretty exclusive in my dealings, and I’m trying to widen my circles a tad. I also take care of things in my current circle–I call my folks and my sister regularly, I keep up with my friends by email and Facebook, I talk to my plants (especially my poor bamboo), and I lavish affection on my dogs. I try to pay attention to and appreciate all my blessings every day.

Self-renewal is not about big one-time gestures and life-changing makeovers. It’s about daily choices, small things, consistently done with love.




Rethinking Lent

I was raised Catholic, so I am familiar with the season of abstinence and penitence known as Lent. It begins on February 13 this year and lasts for 46 days, ending on Easter Eve (March 30).

Observing Lent generally entails giving up something to which one is dearly attached: sugar, alcohol, sex–the really important stuff (or, if you prefer, vices). I don’t recall that we strictly observed Lent in our house, so I haven’t done a 40+-day fast from anything, ever.

Last night I watched one of my favorite foodie movies, Chocolat, about a mysterious woman and her young daughter who arrive one day in a small, conservative village and open a chocolate shop at the start of Lent. The local mayor takes great umbrage at this temptress and her wares, to the latter of which he ultimately succumbs in a wrenching scene that always makes me cry.

When the mayor is temporarily incapacitated on Easter Sunday morning, the young priest in the village, Pere Henri, is left without the elder man’s guidance to deliver the homily. So he finds his own voice, and tells his congregation:

I think we can’t go round measuring our goodness by what we don’t do, by what we deny ourselves, what we resist, and who we exclude. I think we’ve got to measure goodness by what we embrace, what we create, and who we include.

I struggle with too much of some things (pastry, perhaps?), too little of other things (exercise, definitely), and a lot of guilt about not being good enough, not doing enough, not doing things right enough. Catholic guilt runs deep in my veins.

But this movie has gotten me thinking about a new project I’ve been incubating for awhile, and wondering how I might offer that up as a penance, of sorts, for all the neglect I’ve heaped upon my muse and my talents all my life. Because when god gives you a talent, he expects you not only to use it but also to increase it.

As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace. ~ 1 Peter 4:10 ESV

A new goal for Lent could be to create something new each day for 46 days. I’m already doing that with my blog posts, but there’s plenty more that could be done. I could complete one original photograph, have one authentic personal communication with someone I care about, do one act of kindness for a stranger, make one health-affirming choice for my own benefit, sit for one minute in meditation, add one dollar to my rainy day fund, every day. I could add and create and include, just as the priest suggests, rather than subtracting, renouncing and excluding. Every day could be a clean slate upon which to write yet another list of good things done with joy rather than just another arid trek in painful abnegation and bad things not done with resentment.

Imagine how a practice such as that would expand the heart over the course of seven and a half weeks. One might even discover entirely new aspects of oneself, or resurrect aspects that have been hidden for decades. Wouldn’t a god who loves us rejoice in that?

I like that idea, a lot, and I’m going to give it a try. I invite everyone to join me.

create something better

Heaven is real?

The cover headline on the October 15 issue of Newsweek is “Heaven is Real: A Doctor’s Experience of the Afterlife.” I have been a Newsweek subscriber for years and have always respected their take on the news, but this headline and article that accompanies it have caused me to revise my opinion of that publication as a reputable source of facts.

Apparently, author Dr. Eben Alexander’s status as a neurosurgeon allows him to state definitively that heaven is real and he has “proof”–he says he went there for seven days while his body was in a coma caused by a bacterial meningitis infection. He says in the article that he’s a Christian “more in name than in actual belief,” and that he would “tell my story with the logic and language of the scientist I am.” So, apparently, you can believe it more readily when he spins a fantastic tale of puffy pink clouds and winged beings and booming chants and voices inside his head saying reassuring things. He says his story must be real because “as far as I know, no one before me has ever traveled to this dimension (a) while their cortex was completely shut down, and (b) while their body was under minute medical observation, as mine was for the full seven days of my coma.” And yet, apparently that “minute medical observation” found only a cortex in which “all the neurons … were stunned to complete inactivity by the bacteria that had attacked them. … This is clear from the global cortical involvement documented by CT scans and neurological examinations.”

So, the man was brain-dead and he had a vision. Just like thousands of people before him have reported having probably ever since human beings learned to speak. And yet, science has always dismissed such reports as mere hallucination, nothing to be taken seriously. Why should this doctor’s report be taken any more seriously, simply because he is a man of science?

What I wonder, too, is if this candy-colored happy place is, in fact, where we come from and where we’re headed, why is that information hidden from us so completely while we’re alive and fully conscious on this planet? The messages from “beyond” seem to come to us only through unreliable witnesses in unpredictable ways, and certainly not all the accounts match up. One wishes in vain for a rather more orderly and articulate universe waiting on the other side of the veil.

The Afterlife

You can read the article to find out what visions Dr. Alexander saw and what voices he heard (it was all very positive and his heaven sounds like a great place, absolutely), but when it comes right down to it, he’s just another person with a story. He has no evidence. He has no proof. Whatever he says he saw or heard was perceived by and is real only to him and to no one else on the planet. And yet a respected news magazine dares to trumpet this unverified, unverifiable story on its cover as fact, just because the guy’s a doctor and not, say, a psychic or a child or a woman or someone with strong religious beliefs? Newsweek needs to give its readers credit for having better B.S. detectors than that.

Update, 24 October 2012: Daniel Engber offers an even more skeptical take on this article for Slate magazine called “Heaven Help Us.”


Pushing the buttons

As an American and a former member of the Fourth Estate, I fully support both the theory and practice of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. However, as a decent human being, I do not support using these freedoms as an excuse or a means to offend, oppress or endanger other people.

Which brings us to the matter of recent media depictions of the prophet Mohammed that have set the Muslim world ablaze. In particular is a crummy, low-budget film called “Innocence of Muslims” that was written and directed, apparently, by an Egyptian who hired his cast under false pretenses and edited their performances in post production. But since it was made in America, protests have erupted in Libya, Egypt, Yemen and many other predominantly Muslim countries specifically targeting American embassies, some of which have resulted in the death of American diplomats. Some Muslims say President Obama should apologize to them for the actions of this Coptic Christian Egyptian man who has insulted their faith. I am completely dumbfounded by this issue for three reasons.

First, how is it that America–its people, its government, its diplomatic corps–is in any way to blame for the existence or message of this film, except insofar as the laws of this country protect the freedom of speech that makes the production of a film like “Innocence of Muslims” possible?

Second, what right do Muslims have to kill anyone simply for “insulting” their faith? As Thomas Friedman writes in the New York Times, “an insult—even one as stupid and ugly as the anti-Islam video on YouTube that started all of this—does not entitle people to go out and attack embassies and kill diplomats. That is not how a proper self-governing people behave. There is no excuse for it. It is shameful.” All the major religious figures–Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, Moses, the Dalai Lama, and so on–have all been dissected, mocked, caricatured and “insulted” by somebody somewhere, yet their followers do not go to war over it. Recently I have read articles suggesting that Jesus might have been married, or possibly gay, yet no attacks or demonstrations of any kind have resulted from the publication of this information. What makes Islam so special that nobody can say a word against it or its prophet without inciting the wrath of the faithful?

And finally, with all this said, I still have to ask: Knowing how Muslims feel about their prophet and what they will do to defend his name, why do Western media continue distributing words and images that they know are unequivocally insulting to Islam and/or Mohammed? What purpose is served by jamming a thumb in the eye of one-quarter of the planet’s population whose beliefs we do not share? Is this something we (meaning non-Muslims) should do just because, according to our laws and traditions, we can?

I say no. To quote Friedman again, “There is no excuse for it. It is shameful.”



My better angel

I found this lovely statue in a Catholic hospital’s gift shop, and it spoke to me of who and how I aspire to be.

Isn’t she beautiful?

Here is why I chose her to come live in my house:

“Let all that you do be done in Love.”

I’m trying to live that way, every day.

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” ~ Abraham Lincoln