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Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Rachel Dolezal and the Culture of Condemnation

When the Rachel Dolezal affair became a major news story last week, we at first had only a few details. Her parents were claiming that she was white, not Black; we learned that Dolezal was estranged from her mother and father; and we were told that her parents had adopted four Black children when Dolezal was young.

That should have been enough to make Dolezal the subject of intense curiosity, and for some people she was. What life experiences led her to identify herself as Black rather than her "birth" race? Was she just a totally dishonest person worthy of contempt, or a struggling human (like so many of us) trying to make some sense of her life. And what does race mean, anyway? Is it a biological concept, a social construct, or both? In the days that followed, some commentators did take up some of these questions, often in very thoughtful ways.

Many others, however, especially the social media lynch mob--which seems ever growing in numbers these days--immediately condemned her. She had lied, she had betrayed the trust of her community, she had pretended to be something she was not. Of course, none of those who criticized her had ever been dishonest about any of these things, had they? I would wager that, one time or another, some of her fiercest critics had been less than honest about some aspect of their lives.

Now, as more details come out--she reportedly was married to a Black man but it ended in divorce, she began taking care of one of her adoptive siblings, another is accused of sexual abuse, her parents moved to South Africa--there is even more reason to pause and consider that all of us have complicated lives and behave in ways that might seem inexplicable to others. Nearly of us have lied, misrepresented ourselves, and betrayed friends and family at one time or another.

The culture of condemnation has become a disease afflicting the USA and many other countries as well, perhaps all those that have access to social media--in other words, the entire world. Of course, some things should be condemned: Racist or sexist statements or activities, the murder of fellow human beings including acts of war and terrorism, the exploitation of the bodies or the labor of other humans. But in almost every case we have the information we need to know that condemnation is the right attitude.

What do we have in the case of Rachel Dolezal? A woman with a long history of fighting racism, which is more than most of those condemning her can claim. Someone who might (or might not) have become confused at some point in her life about who she was and what she wanted to be. Someone not so different from the rest of us.

Perhaps it is good that Dolezal's case has sparked yet another "national conversation about race." If so, let's discuss, and be curious, and wonder about her as we would wonder about any fellow human who has done something that needs some serious explaining. Leave the condemnations behind, at least until we are very sure that there is good reason for them--and that we are so without sin that we have the right to throw stones.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Charlie Hebdo and the current controversy within PEN America

Many readers will have read about the debate within PEN America over the past several days, over whether the organization is doing the right thing by awarding the Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award to Charlie Hebdo at its upcoming May 5 PEN Literary Gala. The original six writers who objected to this have now expanded to at least a few dozen. PEN's leadership has responded to the objections, in terms that I think most writers and defenders of freedom of expression can rally around. The title of that response is "Rejecting the Assassin's Veto," and even those objecting to the award agree that murder is not the appropriate response to speech with which we disagree. But throughout the Charlie Hebdo affair there has been a lingering suggestion by some that the 12 murdered colleagues had it coming somehow, because they insulted Islam, Muslims, and/or the Prophet Mohammed. I'm afraid that those who object to the award are in effect buying into that notion, just as some suggested that Salman Rushdie had provoked the fatwah that came down on his head after the publication of "The Satanic Verses."

PEN has now opened up a Web page for public debate on the matter, which has received some very wise comments (and a few unwise ones, in my view.) One of the wisest observations came from writer/lawyer Wendy Kaminer, who took issue with the suggestion that Charlie Hebdo did not deserve the award because it targeted the powerless (supposedly marginalized Muslims) rather than the powerful. Not only is this not true in general terms, but as Kaminer pointed out, Charlie Hebdo continued to publish its cartoons and articles against Islamic extremism despite death threats. That takes courage, as she pointed out:

"PEN protesters might respond that a courage award should only be bestowed on speakers who offend the powerful. It doesn’t take a lot of courage to offend people who can’t hurt you. Charlie Hebdo’s speech targeted the powerless, the 'victimized,' they assert. Not quite. If murder isn’t a definitive assertion of power, what is? The power of the sword has been wielded most effectively; we’ll never know how much speech has been chilled. Most of us are not that courageous."

I posted my own thoughts on this comments page, which I am reproducing here with a few changes (mostly to clean up my typos.) My main point is that Charlie Hebdo should not be defended in spite of what it stood for,
but because of it. Here they are:


I'm very glad to see PEN open this issue up for general comment and debate. I live in Paris about half of the year, and my home is a 10 minute walk from Charlie Hebdo's former offices in the 11th district. I was on the scene, along with hundreds of other journalists, within an hour of the horrific massacre of our colleagues. So this hits very close to home. A lot has been said already, so I want to underscore one key point: In the United States particularly, there is a huge misunderstanding about the cartoons and caricatures that Charlie Hebdo published and what they meant. Charlie Hebdo is a left-wing, anti-racist publication and the cartoons it published concerning Islam, the Prophet Mohammed, etc, were all in that spirit. Charlie Hebdo never attacked or ridiculed Muslims as individuals, but was hostile to all religions; its caricatures and drawings of the Prophet were all intended to attack and satirize Islamic extremists (ISIS, Al Qaeda, Taliban, etc) who used Islam as an excuse for their crimes and brutality. Stephane Charbonnier ("Charb") and other editors of Charlie Hebdo made that clear time and time again in their responses to criticisms of the publication and the cartoons in particular. In his posthumously published book, just out this month, Charbonnier made that clear once again. He rightly points out the difference between attacking individual believers and the religion in which they believe, a distinction that is the basis of French law (which does not go far enough in protecting freedom of expression in my view.) He criticizes the patronizing attitude of many anti-racists on the left (a group I normally count myself among) and suggests that Charlie Hebdo's critics assume that every Muslim is so sensitive to criticism of his or her religion, and so lacking in humor, that they should be viewed as on the verge of committing violent acts (beheadings etc) on a hair-trigger basis. Few members of PEN, and few Americans in general, would consider a caricature of the Pope (say caught committing an act of pedophilia, to take a relevant example) as an attack on all Catholics as individuals, but somehow a caricature of the Prophet (if he was indeed a prophet) is considered to be a racist (or "Islamophobic") expression. To summarize, the controversy over Charlie Hebdo is in very large part based on a misunderstanding of the cartoons, their meaning, and the intentions of the publication's artists and writers. They are not racists but anti-racists who refuse to allow extremists to dictate what they can say and cannot say, write, or draw; they are not colleagues who should be just defended in spite of their thoughts and actions, but also because of them.

Addendum: Just a reminder that I commented on whether Charlie Hebdo primarily targeted Muslims and Islam in an earlier post. Answer = non.

Update: No one has written more eloquently and nailed the key issues in the Charlie Hebdo killings better than Adam Gopnik at The New Yorker, and he does it again today. Essential, vital, obligatory reading for all those who need a lesson in what civilization is really about (and to inspire those who already do know.)

Update II: I've just become aware of an excellent Web site, Understanding Charlie Hebdo Cartoons, which takes a number of cartoons and explains in detail what they mean within the context of French culture and politics. Thanks to a NYT story on the controversy published yesterday, which provided it.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A Toilet in Tarrytown

Have you ever wished you had enough time to deal with life's annoyances? Well I am taking the day off today so thought I would find out why the men's bathroom at the Tarrytown Metro North station, used by thousands of commuters, is "out of order" and how long it's going to take to fix it. I don't have to tell you how important an issue like this can be to our quality of life...

So first I called the telephone number for complaints and comments posted right by the station's ticket window. The sign indicated that it was available 8:30 am to 5:00 pm. After trying three times and letting it ring at least 20 times with no answer (and no recording), I thought of going online to see if it was the right number. Turns out that it no longer is, and you have to call 511 and go through the usual long list of choices. Too much trouble to put a recording on the old number and let us know that? Apparently so.

Okay, so I called 511 and went through my many, many options, finally saying "comments and concerns" into the telephone as instructed. Amazingly, this actually transferred me to a real human being--imagine my surprise (how easy it is to be cynical.)

So this nice lady said she would immediately send an email to the Tarrytown station manager and make inquiries, and call me back when she found out more. Again, surprisingly, the station manager emailed back while we were still on the phone with a preliminary response.

Now it gets a little more typical. The station manager did not know when the bathroom would be fixed (isn't that something he should be concerned and curious about, given that he is the station manager?) He also indicated that since the Village of Tarrytown has certain responsibilities for running certain aspects of the station (the Village Hall is right across the street), it was not clear to him whether the village or the structures department of Metro North was responsible for the repairs. So he agreed to contact the structures department and find out more. The nice lady agreed to call me back when she had more information, perhaps as early as this afternoon.

So things could have been worse, but isn't this actually already pretty bad (I return to the issue of the station manager's ignorance--is this really the first time anyone has asked about it after several days of "out of order" status?

There are some other issues concerning Tarrytown station (a major stop on the Hudson Line) which I will save for a subsequent post. For, as you can see, I've decided not to let this one drop. Sometimes in life we just have to find time for the little things--the things that we can actually do something about.

Update 11 am: So the nice lady has now left a message on my cell phone updating me on the situation. It turns out that the bathroom was closed because there is some sort of blockage in the sewer lines that lead to the toilets, or possibly a crushed sewer pipe. MTA or Metro North (not clear which), possibly together with the Village of Tarrytown, is now hiring a company to investigate, which will involve putting a camera into the sewer pipes to see what is going on. That will determine whether Metro North (MTA) will be responsible for fixing the problem, or the Village of Tarrytown. The nice lady apologized and said it was too soon to know whether it would be sooner or later before the bathroom was operational again. Does this sound like the kind of thing that could go on for weeks or months? And what if MTA and the village can't agree on who is responsible? All I can hope is that they see the @MetroNorth and @MTA tags in my Tweets of these blog posts and get on the problem quickly. Unfortunately I am only in the area until April 7, and then back again briefly late April, but will monitor progress as best I can.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Was Charlie Hebdo obsessed with Islam? A study by two sociologists says "non"

Yesterday's issue of Le Monde featured an opinion piece by two sociologists, who looked at the cartoon covers of Charlie Hebdo over a period of 10 years (see graph at right.) Contrary to what many commenters have said (especially in the United States), their exhaustive study showed that only a small percentage of covers involved Islam (7% strictly about Islam.) Three times as many covers targeted Christianity. The main focus of the publication was on political figures.

The two sociologists also conclude, as most people in France know, that Charlie Hebdo was a left-leaning, anti-racist publication, albeit very rude and irreverent in the way it expressed itself. I would add a personal observation: Charlie Hebdo did not target Muslims or Christians, nor their religious beliefs; instead it rightfully took aim at the hypocrites who would justify their outrageous acts under the cloak of religious belief. That might have offended some people, but the right to offend people is fundamental to free speech.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Stuart Klawans on "American Sniper"

"People want American Sniper to come from the Clint Eastwood who directed Unforgiven, but it's made by the guy who talked to a chair at the 2012 Republican National Convention."

           --film critic Stuart Klawans in The Nation.