Location: Indianapolis, Indiana, United States

I'm just trying to develop an online body of work (even if the work is throwaway nonsense) to advance my writing career.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Please, Mr. Webster...

Now that February is drawing to a close, I can admit to liking it; I waited until the end in case the weather was really bad, but it was actually quite mild, so now I'll confess.

Why would I like February? First, with all due respect to my readers in the Southern Hemisphere--of which I'm certain there must be almost one--we seem to gain more daylight in February than any other month. I don't have the science to back that up, it just feels that way. I'm not looking it up, either; why should I give science the chance to undermine a fanciful notion? After all, ignorance is... well, something.

Another reason I like February is its precision. Twenty eight days, exactly four weeks, easy to calculate. The first of March will always be the same day of the week as the first of February, unless it's leap year. And if it's leap year, you get an extra day. It's like a bonus for your good works of the previous three years.

February is Black History Month. Most Americans know this but don't know why. Some speculate it was an effort to placate Black Americans by throwing them a bone, as it were, selecting the shortest month to commemorate their contributions to society. This isn't true.

Harvard scholar Dr. Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950) dedicated his life to the long-overlooked subject of Black history. In 1926, he helped establish the second week of February as Negro History Week, selecting it in large part because two of the previous century's Civil Rights titans--Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass--were born during that week. Lincoln's birth came February 12, 1809 and Douglass was born about eight years later. He never knew his precise birthday but since his grandmother always called him her "little Valentine", Douglass selected February 14.

Strange things happened this February. The weather was warm, Iraq was uglier than usual, and Vice President Dick Cheney shot Alexander Hamilton, presumed dead for more than two centuries, but recently discovered alive and hiding on a ten dollar bill. When asked why he'd selected that spot, the 249 year old Hamilton quipped, "I just wanted to put my mouth where my money is." For this comment alone, Cheney felt justified in shooting him.

Finally, Dan Brown, author of "The DaVinci Code", was sued by two writers who claimed his novel was strongly influenced by their nonfiction work of the 1980s. First of all, I didn't think any work from the 1980s was considered nonfiction and secondly, this could set an ugly precedent. I hope they never come after me; I plagiarize all my words from the dictionary.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Nazi Way We Want It

Generally speaking, I try to curtail the reactionary and strident emotion known as outrage. Its supply seems overly abundant and the general impression I get from outraged people is "you should be outraged by what outrages me and if you're not, I'm outraged." We see bumper stickers saying "If You're Not Outraged, You're Not Paying Attention", read articles by outraged pundits who demand outrage from the Muslim community, the Jewish community, the Christian community or any group misnamed a "community" and prone to outrage.

So I try not to get outraged because I feel too many people employ it as a strategical measure to manipulate or advance political and social agendas. Now and then, however, something strikes a nerve. And this week's incident in Austria was just such an example.

In case you're unaware, a British historian--if you'd call him that--was sentenced to three years imprisonment for publicly claiming the Holocaust never happened. The sentence is nearly as stupid as his opinion and less defensible on purely ethical grounds. The idea a person could go to jail for expressing an uninformed, even sinister, viewpoint seems almost comic and surely would work well as parody if it weren't true. But it is true. And as far as I know, Austria has yet to be castigated for its preposterous law which forbids public "diminishing, denying or justifying" of the Holocaust.

Denying and justifying are at least relatively clear terms. Denying the Holocaust means claiming it never happened; justifying it means claiming there were valid reasons for the action. But what constitutes "diminishing"? If a person suggested the Soviet purges of the late 1930s or Pol Pot's reign of terror in Cambodia were actually worse than the Holocaust, would that be "diminishing"? What about saying it "wasn't so bad"? Or referring to it as a "real pain in the neck"? A "complete debacle"? What about "terribly unfortunate"? All of these cast the Holocaust in a negative light but fail to convey the scope and horror it wrought. Would these descriptions be illegal in Austria?

David Irving, the 67 year old British historian and soon-to-be Austrian jailbird, made his public statements denying the Holocaust in 1989, which means for seventeen years the Austrian government has been pursuing this matter. For ten Euros, tell me who's crazier? The man who said there was "not one shred of evidence" the Nazis carried out the Holocaust, or the government who spent almost two decades trying to jail him for such statements? Your tax Euros at work, Austria.

Another gem in the story involves Mr. Irving's recent retraction, saying his earlier claims had been mistaken. The prosecutor in the case dismissed this as insincere, saying Irving was just trying to avoid imprisonment (well, wouldn't you?) But let's consider this for a moment. If you can go to jail for a bad opinion, why shouldn't you be absolved of the crime if you recant? If you were on trial for murder but somehow brought the victim back from the dead, you'd be freed, wouldn't you? It wouldn't matter if you had never liked the person, which presumably you didn't if you went as far as homicide. The prosecutor couldn't secure a conviction by saying, "Oh, he's just resurrecting this person to get out of jail."

The Holocaust and assorted horrors of World War II are still taken very seriously in many parts of Europe, and perhaps they should be. But laws restricting speech that is merely offensive, rather than overtly violent or threatening, resemble Nazism more than they create distance and dissociation from it, particularly when such laws punish not by fine or censure, but by outright prison time. And it was Austria, not Germany, that produced Hitler in the first place. I'm from Indiana, home of Reverend Jim Jones, responsible for more than 900 deaths from forced suicides in South America in the late 1970s. I'm ashamed of him, all right, but there's no law in Indiana forbidding public diminishing, denying or justifying the Jonestown Massacre. And let's hope there never is.

Source: The Indianapolis Star, February 20, 2006

Monday, February 06, 2006

Toon It On Out

Surely by now you've recognized it's a cartoon world. Don't say you never suspected.

I actually thought of this even before the nascent uproar in the Muslim world over Danish comic strips. As for that sad and by now infinitely pontificated on topic, maybe the less said the better, but I'll provide what I hope are three concise observations on the matter.

First of all, no one can tell any person anywhere what should or shouldn't offend his or her sensibilities. Taking offense is generally a relexive behavior; one's response to it can be controlled, but whether or not one is offended is, at best, supremely difficult.

Two, there is no right NOT to be offended in any society I'm aware of. In different parts of the world, standards vary as to what can be read, viewed or expressed in private or in public, but it is not the job of any government, any law enforcement, any organization to ensure individuals or groups are never offended.

Finally, the right of free speech, free press and free expression are crucial tenets, but with rights come responsibilities. Let's assume for the sake of argument I fly into a rage whenever I hear the word "Klansmen", read any reference to Klansmen, or see any Klansmen. Most people who aren't Klansmen would concur that Klansmen of the Ku Klux variety are pretty offensive and I couldn't be blamed for disliking their mention or existence. If I have an acquaintance who enjoys provoking me by saying "Klansmen" and I attempt to injure him every time he does, it is I who have committed the far greater transgression. But it's also difficult to deny that my acquaintance acted foolishly. He was within his rights to say "Klansmen" and I bounded well outside mine by attacking, but should he not have used better judgement?

It is difficult to determine whether or not the European newspapers that reprinted the Danish cartoons could have foreseen such an outbreak of violent protest, although without question they must have known something would happen. But it's worth noting now that not everything within one's rights is a wise course of action. Mind you, that has never stopped me from saying any number of foolish and provocative things, but the subject at least bears consideration.

None of this exonerates anyone who committed or attempted a violent act, ostensibly over outrage at a cartoon. Grow up, I say. And if you can't manage that, just whine about it like everyone else. At least then you won't die or go to jail; you'll just be annoying.

And now, on to what I meant to bring up in the first place, the cartoon nature of the world! It first occurred to me when I heard Disney bought Pixar and at roughly the same time, Boston Scientific was making offers to purchase Guidant, a company known for designing medical supplies like pacemakers. Suppose, however, a dreadful mixup occurred and Disney bought Guidant while Boston Scientific inadvertently annexed Pixar. Then all the pacemakers in the world would be animated, visible and heart-shaped and whenever you saw a desirable person, the device would protrude from your chest and pump loudly and uncontrollably.

One recent Friday in Terre Haute--which is not my hometown in spite of its frequent recurrence in this blog--I had a cartoonish encounter with the city's trains. If you've never driven in Terre Haute, don't! There are actually places in Terre Haute where the traffic lights are perfectly synchronized in reverse! Seriously, the one you're sitting at turns green, the one directly in front of you turns red. Trains are another bane of the town.

On the aforementioned Friday, I drove down Fort Harrison Avenue and spotted a sign that read "Road Closed Ahead." The "ahead" wasn't very far, as a giant utility truck straddled the road about fifteen feet beyond the sign. Nice notice, but not untypical. Behind the truck, a train sat motionless on the track. As it was a diagonal line, the train managed to block motorists in both the westbound and northbound directions. I turned south, but moments later ran into the same train attempting to cross the tracks on a different thoroughfare. This seemed unreal to me, just as it seemed unreal when I visualized people rioting over a cartoon.

So when things seem too exaggerated for reality, just shake your head and toon it out. What else can you do? In any case, don't try to hurt anyone else. That, after all, would be despicable! And you might get your beak shot off, too.