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Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Truth About John Geer's Death -- Out at Last

Today's Washington Post finally has what I think might be the definitive report on the death of John Geer, the unarmed white guy from Springfield, Virginia who was shot by police while standing in the doorway of his home, and who then (quite understandably) closed the door, and died alone, next to the door, some time in the next 70 minutes -- the time it took for the police to get into the house.

Here's how the article starts:
John B. Geer stood with his hands on top of the storm door of his Springfield townhouse and calmly said to four Fairfax County police officers with guns pointed right at him: “I don’t want anybody to get shot . . . And I don’t wanna get shot, ’cause I don’t want to die today.”
And then he got shot.

The police officer who shot him thought he saw something that the other officers there didn't see -- that Geer was lowering his hands, possibly with the intent of going for a weapon.  There is speculation that the officer's perception of the situation was clouded by the fact that he arrived at the scene shortly after having had a telephone argument with his wife.

During the 44-minute standoff, Geer had indicated that he had weapons, and had threatened to use them, possibly on himself.  But at the time he was shot, the principal police negotiator thought he had established rapport with Geer, and that the situation would soon be under control.  It had started after Geer's long-time girlfriend and mother of his two children had called 911, after an argument with Geer in which Geer had begun to throw her possessions onto the lawn.

Anyway, I'm only writing this because I think it helps put some of the recent death-by-police killings into context.  Police are trained to use deadly force, and are authorized to do so in certain circumstances.  But police are human.  And being human, they all have emotions that can cloud their judgment in any given situation.  In some cases, their judgment can be further clouded by racism, no question about it.  There are many police officers who clearly should not be police.  But the bottom line is that any of them can make a deadly mistake.

Here's another way to think about it.  Have you ever been really angry about something?  Felt like punching a wall or something?  Or maybe your boss?  Now imagine you're having those feelings, but your job includes carrying a gun and a billy club or a taser.  What might happen if the next person you encounter on the job says something that rubs you the wrong way?  Given your emotional state, you might just go off on that person in a way that has a lot more to do with whatever you were already mad about than what that person said to you.

So my advice to anyone who has an encounter with the police is to treat the officer with respect.  You do not know where that officer has been, what his or her state of mind is, or what kind of person he or she is.  All you know is that he or she is capable of using deadly force against you.  Think about an encounter with police as analogous to an encounter with a strange dog.  No sudden movements, and make it really clear that you are not a threat.  Otherwise, there's no telling what might happen.

And yes, if you're a minority, this is all the more important.  That should not be the way it is, but for now, I'm sorry to report, that's the way it is.

Update 02/12/15:  Here's another case in point -- a non-English speaking grandfather visiting from India is maimed by police in Alabama, apparently as a result of the "language barrier":
"Officers attempted to pat the subject down and he attempted to pull away," the statement reads.
That's when officers forced Patel to the ground, leaving him with an injured neck and no feeling in his arms, the family says.
So another lesson -- if the police want to pat you down, for god's sake don't do anything that might remotely be construed as trying to pull away.  That's just asking for it, even if you're a grandfather.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Shakespeare, Friendship, and Fairies -- STOP IT PLEASE

“A friend is one that knows you as you are, understands where you have been, accepts what you have become, and still, gently allows you to grow.”  -- William Shakespeare.  NOT!

If you see a fairy ring
In a field of grass,
Very lightly step around,
Tiptoe as you pass;
Last night fairies frolicked there,
And they're sleeping somewhere near.
If you see a tiny fay
Lying fast asleep,
Shut your eyes and run away,
Do not stay or peep;
And be sure you never tell,
Or you'll break a fairy spell.

-- William Shakespeare.  NOT!!!

As others have pointed out, the first one (about friendship) is something you'd find in a Hallmark greeting card, not Shakespeare.  And in response to those of you who ask whether perhaps he wrote it in a letter to a friend, the answer is NO, THE ONLY WRITINGS WE HAVE FROM SHAKESPEARE ARE PLAYS, SONNETS, AND A WILL.  If you can find a letter from him, you would be an instant celebrity, and would cause numerous Shakespeare scholars immense joy.  And anyway, Shakespeare never used the word "grow" in the self-helpish way it's being used here, and neither did any of his contemporaries.  I seriously doubt that usage existed before the 1800s, if even then.

As of this moment, a Google search for ["a friend is one that knows you as you are" and "shakespeare"] results in 14,600 hits.  According to a poster here, the same search yielded 780 Google hits on May 25, 2006.  According the Words Going Wild blog, this misattribution showed up on over 7000 websites on August 16, 2010.  So the good news is that while the number of websites went up by a factor of 10 in the four years from 2006 to 2010, it's only doubled in the four and a half years since then.

 Here's what comes up if you make an "image" search out of it.

Searching on the phrase in Google Books has it turn up in the published book, "The Swiss Cheese Theory of Life" The authors' own self-help regimen obviously didn't include Shakespeare, or the finer points of checking one's sources.

It is also shows up in "Life Lessons of Wisdom & Motivation - Volume I," although that one appears to be self-published (the Swiss Cheese theory is just about one step removed from being self-published).

I wonder who the first person was to put up that quote, and what they were thinking.  If it were me, I guess I'd be a little bit impressed with myself.

So if you need to quote Shakespeare on friendship, please don't use that one.  Try one of these (taken from here):

Keep thy friend
Under thy own life's key.
(All's Well That Ends Well 1.1.65-6), Countess to Bertram

Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel.
(Hamlet 1.3.62-3), Polonius to Laertes

A friend should bear his friend's infirmities.
(Julius Caesar 4.3.85), Cassius to Brutus

Friendship is constant in all things
Save in the office and affairs of love.
(Much Ado About Nothing 2.1.166-7), Claudio

I count myself in nothing else so happy
As in a soul remembering my good friends.
(Richard II) 2.3.46-7, Bolingbroke to Percy

The band that seems to tie their friendship together will be the very strangler of their amity.
(Antony and Cleopatra 2.6.150), Enobarbus

To set a gloss on faint deeds, hollow welcomes,
Recanting goodness, sorry ere 'tis shown;
But where there is true friendship, there needs none.
(Timon of Athens 1.2.20), Timon

I desire you in friendship, and I will one way or other make you amends.
(The Merry Wives of Windsor 3.1.133), Antonio

To mingle friendship far is mingling bloods.
(The Winter's Tale 1.2.135), Leontes

Thy friendship makes us fresh.
(1 Henry VI 3.3.87), Charles to the Bastard of Orleans

Since my dear soul was mistress of her choice
And could of men distinguish her election,
Sh'ath sealed thee for herself.
(Hamlet 3.2.75-7), Hamlet to Horatio

I would not wish
Any companion in the world but you.
(The Tempest 3.1.60-1), Miranda to Ferdinand

If thou wilt lend this money, lend it not
As to thy friends; for when did friendship take
A breed for barren metal of his friend?
(The Merchant of Venice 1.3.133), Antonio to Shylock

There is flattery in friendship.
(Henry V 3.7.102), Constable to Orleans

That which I would discover
The law of friendship bids me to conceal.
(The Two Gentlemen of Verona 3.1.5-6), Proteus to the Duke

Love, friendship, charity, are subjects all
To envious and calumniating time.
(Troilus and Cressida 3.3.180-1), Ulysses to Achilles

There are plenty of quotes that are widely but wrongly attributed to Shakespeare, but for most of those (e.g. "what a tangled web we weave, when first we begin to deceive" at least sound like something he could have said.  This 20th century Hallmarky pablum about friendship doesn't come close.

  • Here are a list of false attributions, from a list here:

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.
William Congreve, The Mourning Bride (1697).

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning -- Sonnets from the Portuguese (#43)

I love thee, I love but thee With a love that shall not die Till the sun grows cold And the stars grow old.

Bayard Taylor, from the Bedouin Song

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.
Bible 1 Corinthians 13

Love of heaven makes one heavenly.
Sir Philip Sidney, Astrophil and Stella

Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.
Walter Scott, Marmion.

The object of art is to give life a shape.
Jean Anouilh, The Rehearsal.

’Tis better to have loved and lost Than never to have loved at all.
Alfred Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam(1850).

And here is a list of common misquotes, borrowed from here:

From “The Life and Death of King John”
Misquote: “Gild the lily”
Actual Quote: “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily”.

2. From: “Macbeth”
Misquote: “Lead on, Macduff”
Actual Quote: “Lay on, Macduff, and damned be him who first cries ‘Hold! enough!’”

3. From: “Macbeth”
Misquote: “Bubble bubble, toil and trouble.”
Actual Quote: “Double, double toil and trouble.”

4. From: “Hamlet”

Misquote: “Methinks the lady doth protest too much”
Actual Quote: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

5. From: “Hamlet”

Misquote: “Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him well.”
Actual Quote: “Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio – a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.”

6. From: “Hamlet”

Misquote: “The rest is science”
Actual Quote: “The rest is silence”

7. From: “Romeo and Juliet”

Misquote: “A rose by any other name smells just as sweet.”
Actual Quote: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet.”

8. From: “Richard III”

Misquote: “Now is the winter of our discontent.”
Actual Quote: “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun of York.”

9. From: “Falstaff”

Misquote: “Discretion is the better part of valour.”
Actual Quote: “The better part of valour is discretion”

10. From: “Hamlet”

Misquote: “To the manor born”

Actual Quote: “but to my mind,—though I am native here and to the manner born,—it is a custom more honour’d in the breach than the observance.” (referring to drunken carousing).


An alert reader has now pointed me to the following misattribution:

If you see a fairy ring
In a field of grass,
Very lightly step around,
Tiptoe as you pass;
Last night fairies frolicked there,
And they're sleeping somewhere near.

If you see a tiny fay
Lying fast asleep,
Shut your eyes and run away,
Do not stay or peep;
And be sure you never tell,
Or you'll break a fairy spell.

Searching for ["If you see a fairy ring" Shakespeare] yields 2060 Google hits, as of this writing, and I haven't seen any hits to a site explaining that this is NOT Shakespeare.  Ok, I guess for now, THIS IS THAT SITE.

This might have started with the book titled "If You See a Fairy Ring: A Rich Treasury of Classic Fairy Poems," Illustrated by Susanna Lockheart.  Here is a picture of the poem, as it appears in that book:

Published by "Barron's Educational Series" (October 1, 2007).  And yes, that's the same Barron's that's also known for Standardized Test aids etc.  (  Rather sad that an "education" publisher would allow a mistake like this to get out there; this will almost certainly contribute to the miseducation of any child who stumbles across the book, as in many cases it will be the child's first exposure to "Shakespeare."

I don't know how to explain that this isn't Shakespeare.  Maybe it's the contractions.  Maybe it's the use of "tiptoe" as a verb.  Or the lack of any discernible meter.  Or the excessive rhyming.  Or the fact that it's not a sonnet.  Or the fact that it's impossible to imagine this poem in the mouth of any character in a Shakespeare play.  Or maybe it's just the childishness of it all.

Just take my word for it.  Shakespeare did NOT WRITE this verse.

If you like it, that's fine.  That just means you like fairies.  Just please keep Shakespeare out of it!

Here's a real Shakespeare fairy quote:

And now about the cauldron sing, Like elves and fairies in a ring,      
Enchanting all that you put in. 
Macbeth 1.1.

And here's another, featuring elves:

Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves;    
And ye, that on the sands with printless foot Do chase the ebbing Neptune and do fly him When he comes back; you demi-puppets, that By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make Whereof the ewe not bites; and you, whose pastime    
Is to make midnight mushrooms; that rejoice To hear the solemn curfew; by whose aid,— Weak masters though ye be—I have bedimm’d The noontide sun, call’d forth the mutinous winds, And ’twixt the green sea and the azur’d vault      
Set roaring war: to the dread-rattling thunder Have I given fire and rifted Jove’s stout oak With his own bolt: the strong-bas’d promontory Have I made shake; and by the spurs pluck’d up The pine and cedar: graves at my command    
Have wak’d their sleepers, op’d, and let them forth By my so potent art. But this rough magic I here abjure; and, when I have requir’d Some heavenly music,—which even now I do,— To work mine end upon their senses that    
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff, Bury it certain fathoms in the earth, And, deeper than did ever plummet sound, I’ll drown my book.  [Solemn music.

Tempest 5.1

Come, now a roundel and a fairy song; Then, for the third of a minute, hence; Some to kill cankers in the musk-rose buds,         5
Some war with rere-mice for their leathern wings, To make my small elves coats, and some keep back The clamorous owl, that nightly hoots, and wonders At our quaint spirits. Sing me now asleep; Then to your offices, and let me rest.

Midsummer Nights Dream 2.2.

Puck.  Now the hungry lion roars,           And the wolf behowls the moon;         Whilst the heavy ploughman snores,           All with weary task fordone.      
        Now the wasted brands do glow,           Whilst the screech-owl, screeching loud,         Puts the wretch that lies in woe           In remembrance of a shroud.         Now it is the time of night      
          That the graves, all gaping wide,         Every one lets forth his sprite,           In the church-way paths to glide:         And we fairies, that do run           By the triple Hecate’s team,      
        From the presence of the sun,           Following darkness like a dream,         Now are frolic; not a mouse         Shall disturb this hallow’d house:         I am sent with broom before,      
        To sweep the dust behind the door.
  Obe.  Through the house give glimmering light           By the dead and drowsy fire;         Every elf and fairy sprite      
          Hop as light as bird from brier;         And this ditty after me         Sing and dance it trippingly.

  Tita.  First, rehearse your song by rote,         To each word a warbling note:      
        Hand in hand, with fairy grace,         Will we sing, and bless this place.  [Song and dance.

 Obe.  Now, until the break of day,         Through this house each fairy stray.         To the best bride-bed will we,      
        Which by us shall blessed be;         And the issue there create         Ever shall be fortunate.         So shall all the couples three         Ever true in loving be;      
        And the blots of Nature’s hand         Shall not in their issue stand:         Never mole, hare-lip, nor scar,         Nor mark prodigious, such as are         Despised in nativity,      
        Shall upon their children be.         With this field-dew consecrate,         Every fairy take his gait,         And each several chamber bless,         Through this palace, with sweet peace;
        Ever shall in safety rest,         And the owner of it blest.             Trip away;             Make no stay;         Meet me all by break of day.  [Exeunt OBERON, TITANIA, and Train.        55
  Puck.  If we shadows have offended,         Think but this, and all is mended,         That you have but slumber’d here         While these visions did appear.         And this weak and idle theme,      
        No more yielding but a dream,         Gentles, do not reprehend:         If you pardon, we will mend.         And, as I’m an honest Puck,         If we have unearned luck      
        Now to ’scape the serpent’s tongue,         We will make amends ere long;         Else the Puck a liar call:         So, good night unto you all.         Give me your hands, if we be friends,         And Robin shall restore amends.

Midsummer Night's Dream 5.2

It turns out there are other people out there trying to police the glut of quotes wrongly attributed to Shakespeare.  Here's a site that lists some more:

Friday, January 23, 2015

TED Talks -- Overrated?

I like TED Talks because they are only 20 minutes long, and you can tell that the speaker has spent a long time rehearsing.   They are supposed to be the speaker's "talk of a lifetime" and sometimes they probably are.  I'm going to have to try to make a list somewhere of my favorite ones, as well as my least favorite ones.  I'll put Arthur Benjamin near the top -- he's not really trying to sell anything but the joy of mathematics.  And Ben Goldacre, who is doing good work exposing the way drug companies basic lie, cheat, and steal their way to FDA approval and extended patent protection.

Some of my other posts are about others that I didn't like so much -- Tony Robbins about who knows what, Dan Pallotta about for-profit charity work, and Neil Pasricha, who seems to have discovered 10,000 things to be happy about, about 15 or 20 years after the book came out.  But even a bad TED talk is worth listening too, since, again, they are so well rehearsed.

Anyway, I just stumbled on this piece by Llewellyn Hinkes-Jones, in which the author critiques several highly popular TED talks.  His concluding paragraphs resonated with me:

. . . . Whether or not somebody has an Earth-shattering idea with a flimsy study that goes against decades of scientific research and common sense has little to do with that idea’s potential for success. It’s a ripe atmosphere for anybody with a good stage performance and a quirky idea to sell whatever it is they are thinking about.
Awkward intellectuals with a critical opinion and without something to sell don’t make it very far. Insecure, unkempt, stammering scientists who obsess over details and believe in staid-sounding ideas can’t really cut the morning talk show circuit either. It’s unlikely that many of them will take to the stage to inspire thousands with grandiose visions about how everything was already working relatively well and also let’s not try to disrupt the construction industry or reinvent how we approach heart surgery.

In other words, just as we allow ourselves to be ruled by people -- i.e. politicians -- whose main talents seem to be self-promotion and public performance, we are increasingly allowing our thoughts about scientific matters to be influenced by the same sorts of individuals.  Something to think about.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Norval Barksdale on the Enlightened French

More readings from the April 1922 Living Age.  I stumbled across this one and found that it both reinforces and refutes what H.G. Wells had said about misguided nationalism.  It reinforces it because at the time it was written, any number of white Americans were of the belief that they were living in the best and most honorable country in the world, even though much of the country practiced institutionalized racism against a whole class of its citizenry.  And it also refutes Wells, because it speaks to a national trait -- the acceptance of other races as equals -- that France could justifiably take pride in.

Anyway, I've always had mixed feeling about France, but they were clearly way way ahead of us on this one.


L’Opinion publishes, without further comment than to characterize it as “a very touching document,” the following letter addressed to the French people by Norval P. Barksdale, a young colored man of Kansas City: —

People of France, pause a moment to hear the words of a young man — an American by birth, a Negro by race, but a Frenchman by choice. For, if I may borrow the words of M. Louis Bertrand, “If giving one’s heart to a country and consecrating to it the best of one’s thoughts and deeds entitles a man to belong to that country, perhaps I am not utterly unworthy to bear the glorious name of Frenchman.”

But how am I to write in French — I who can scarcely read your language? I do not know, myself. However, I shall try; for I am convinced that the colored peoples are to find their salvation in French civilization rather than in German Kultur — that is to say, the Kultur of the Germans, the English, and the Americans.

French civilization produced Toussaint L’Ouverture, Alexandre Dumas, Rene Maran, and a host of other French writers and scholars who had colored blood in their veins. Among the Teutonic nations men of colored blood, no matter how gifted and cultivated, encounter nothing but obstacles and discouragements. Just now we have here a talented Negro comedian, — Charles Gilpin, — who received lately a letter threatening him with death if he ventured into any Southern state. I greet the Negro of France. He knows true liberty; he knows what it is to live. He is what they call “a man.” Teutonic culture makes the Negroes who have the misfortune to be born under its banners mere servile underlings. In order to divest myself of the ideas of Germanic culture, I am studying French, so that I may be able to read books and reviews in that language. I aspire to divest myself of Germanic sentiments and to acquire the sentiments of the French.
People of France, for centuries you have been the aid and support of oppressed nations. We people here, watching through the night of Teutonic barbarism, await the dawn of justice. Sombre and black, indeed, is the night that envelops us now; but we see the first blush of dawn in the distant East. That dawn — the justice and freedom from prejudice with which France treats the colored races — gives us hope.

Recently I have read in French magazines articles by L. Bertrand, A. Albert-Petit, U. Forbin, J. Boulanger, and others — articles full of the spirit and intellect of France that give our people hope and comfort. I can say without fear of contradiction that France is almost the only great European nation that does not cherish unjust prejudices against the Blacks — at least to a great extent.

For this we love you. We shall never forget that in your land we have learned to appreciate the truth that your national motto — “ Liberty, Equality, Fraternity!” — is not a mere trio of empty words. They express the true sentiment of the French nation. That, my French friends, is why your colonial subjects are contented and do not revolt against your rule; that is why we Black men elsewhere honor you and why we are ready to flock to your banner if you ever have need of us. Do not abandon us and you will never regret it.
If you click on the link on Charles Gilpin, you'll see that he was indeed a famous actor, and that he lost his signature role as Brutus Jones in Eugene O'Neill's "The Emperor Jones" when he objected to the use of the word "nigger" in the play.  After that (around the time of Barksdale's letter), his career fell into disarray, and he died in 1930, at the age of 51.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Yusuke Tsurumi Meets H.G. Wells

I just gained a new respect for H.G. Wells, as portrayed in this interview by Yusuke Tsurumi.  They had no idea what was coming . . . .  Wells died in 1946.  Epitaph: "I told you so. You damned fools."

(After mentally correcting for 1920's era sexism) I particularly like:

"All educated men are citizens of one state — the Republic of Mankind, H. G. Wells, Sept. 16, 1920,"
"The difference of human ability is not so great. Shakespeare may have had perhaps a 50 per cent better brain than the average."
"I believe the present educational system is fundamentally wrong. In the first place history is taught in a mistaken manner. The teaching of history is responsible for the prevailing strong enmity between nations and races. In England the history lesson commences with England, and they teach children that England is the best country in everything in the world, causing the pupils to think others are their inferiors. Thus they become patriotic in a wrong sense, which inevitably works badly and in many instances gives rise to national enmity."
"I think a different and stronger ideal will take place of the nationality and religion of the past. How was religion taught? They applied the word 'love' to it. But 'love' implies a feeling of self, — I will love you and you should love me, — and I don't like to use this word. I take the words 'sense of service' instead. Every human mind wants to serve others in some way. This is the groundwork of the new civilization. By extension of this feeling they can have a new kind of enthusiasm without depending on old one — Nation and Religion."
We don't seem to be any closer to Wells's hope for a better "mankind" -- one that would exalt humanity's innate "sense of service" over ill-founded patriotism or outdated and oppositional religion -- than we were when he had that conversation, so many years ago.


by Yusuke Tsurumi, published in The Living Age, April 1, 1922.

H. G. Wells

With a thrilling heart I went up in the lift to the apartment of Mr. H.G. Wells. I found the great writer had just come in.

"Good morning, come in," he hailed me. He looked at least ten years younger than his age, with keen blue eyes and light hair. His well-marked eyebrows and unstrained looks gave me a pleasant first impression.

"I thank you for giving me part of your time just before leaving for Russia," I began. " Though it may be disagreeable to you, I am a hero worshiper, and one of the greatest attractions of my visit to England was the hope of seeing you personally, as I have long been an ardent reader of your works."

"Thanks," he replied.

"I admire Japan from the points of view of both peace and war. Japan did not fight for three hundred years. Finding, however, the necessity of taking arms in self-defense,she rose and showed admirably excellent talent. Just as you came here in European clothes, Japan defended herself with Western armament against China and Russia. If Japan had failed to do so, she would have had the fate of India." 
Cordial words flowed from his lips and the courtesy and simplicity forming the groundwork of genius seemed to create quietness in the room. I did not forget to present my autograph book.

"I shall be glad if you will write something besides your signature."

"With pleasure, but it is difficult to get an inspiration at once."  Saying this, he smiled, and moving round wrote, "All educated men are citizens of one state — the Republic of Mankind, H. G. Wells, Sept. 16, 1920," in beautiful writing.

"I wonder," I said, "how could we retain the aristocracy, which, I believe, is indispensable to make human life noble. In this respect I am with Matthew Arnold and I want to hear your valuable opinions on this."

"Have you read my Research Magnificent?"

"No, I have not," I replied. Then Mr. Wells wrote the title of the book on a slip of paper, and turning again to me said: "The age of great men is past."

These words impressed me very deeply; I repeated it in my mind. He continued:
"Generally men have been looking on human greatness with exaggerated respect. Shakespeare was thought to possess one hundred and fifty times as much brain as ordinary men, only because his literary works were so grand. But I think people are mistaken in this. The difference of human ability is not so great. Shakespeare may have had perhaps a 50 per cent better brain than the average. The idea that a great man is necessary to lead and guide the world is a conception found only among uneducated people; it has no significance today. As history shows, the ancient times and the Middle Ages were the times of emperors, great statesmen, and powerful soldiers. But the history of modern times should be one of the people."
"Then what will control society?"
"The people themselves."
"But I wonder if they can do that, having no great philosophy, no good religion. Can they really be capable of producing a great civilization? In fact, I have been disappointed to find the mutual enmity of belligerent people so extremely strong in Europe. I think the Orient has gone a step further than Europe in the spirit of tolerance."
"You are right. But in England not everybody hated the Germans. In Kent where I lived people used to go to give flowers to Germans, and it was found very hard to put down this custom.

"Now," he went on speaking with a graver look,

"I believe the present educational system is fundamentally wrong. In the first place history is taught in a mistaken manner. The teaching of history is responsible for the prevailing strong enmity between nations and races. In England the history lesson commences with England, and they teach children that England is the best country in everything in the world, causing the pupils to think others are their inferiors. Thus they become patriotic in a wrong sense, which inevitably works badly and in many instances gives rise to national enmity.
"I want to change this system and begin with the history of the universe. For instance I would teach the relative position of the earth in space; that of living creatures on the earth; the relation of man with the progress of animals; and so forth. It was long my desire to have someone write a history on this basis. But as none would try it, so I had to do it myself, though I am no historian.
"While preparing for the book I made many discoveries of false ideas hitherto taught as correct. I want to teach children that each nation has its own merits, while all people are in relation with the whole universe; Englishmen, therefore, ought to serve mankind in the way they know best. By this method I think we could make children conscious that they are members of human society, though they belong to different nations. Feelings of exclusiveness might be replaced by nobler thinking. This is the most essential need in the social progress of man.
"Another point I want in the way of education is the teaching of what you may call "rules of conduct." European schools have been very indifferent toward this. The Bible taught it during the past hundred years. But many of the sayings in the Holy Book are not in accordance with modern life.
"While the Bible advises us not to keep goats and sheep in the same place, Englishmen — especially Londoners of today — have neither of them. There should be some good substitute which would teach conduct to children."

"But how about the moral enthusiasm with which men sacrificed themselves for the sake of their cause during the war?" I inquired, having some doubts of his explanation.

"Well, I think a different and stronger ideal will take place of the nationality and religion of the past. How was religion taught? They applied the word "love" to it. But "love" implies a feeling of self, — I will love you and you should love me, — and I don't like to use this word. I take the words "sense of service" instead. Every human mind wants to serve others in some way.
"This is the groundwork of the new civilization. By extension of this feeling they can have a new kind of enthusiasm without depending on old one — Nation and Religion."
"I have been impressed against my expectations to find social thinkers regarding life very materially. How can they build up a new civilization with only material things?"
"But you must remember that the material that the socialists want is not the material itself, but the opportunity or freedom that it can afford. Now you are in London. How did you manage to come here? By money. It is not money, but the opportunity and freedom that money gives that I value. If I have not the money I could not leave London now. With money I can go round the world. This is what socialists want.
"Then what do they want this freedom for? The creative instinct that lies in the heart of man. Every man has a keen desire to create something in this world. This is the most acute want to man and leads to the desire for freedom, and again it turns on the want of material things. That is how I see it."

John Henry Newman's Definition of "Gentleman" as a Guide to Foreign Policy and Free Speech

I've bolded the most relevant parts below, and excerpted the part that is most important. 
Newman was a cardinal in the Catholic Church, and an educator at Oxford.  He was beatified (the third of four steps in the canonization process) in 2010.   He wrote a series of essays called "The Idea of a University," among which was his "Definition of a Gentleman."  I only recently ran across the slightly inaccurate quote that "a gentleman does not inflict pain," attributed to him, and it made me look him up.  In fact, he says just what I thought he would say -- part of not inflicting pain on others is to respect them and their beliefs, including their religious beliefs.

If our foreign policy had been conducted with this in mind in recent years, we would live in a much safer world today.  And if the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo had been "gentlemen" in Newman's definition, they'd be alive today.  

The essay itself, if taken to heart, would be worth more than any Tony Robbins seminar.
Here's a quote which certain modern-day atheists and free speech extremists could learn from: 
"If he be an unbeliever, he will be too profound and large-minded to ridicule religion or to act against it; he is too wise to be a dogmatist or fanatic in his infidelity.  He respects piety and devotion; he even supports institutions as venerable, beautiful, or useful, to which he does not assent; he honours the ministers of religion, and it contents him to decline its mysteries without assailing or denouncing them.  He is a friend of religious toleration, and that, not only because his philosophy has taught him to look on all forms of faith with an impartial eye, but also from the gentleness and effeminacy of feeling, which is the attendant on civilization."
And here's the whole essay (broken into individual sentences or sentence pairs for ease of digestion):

A Definition of a Gentleman (1852)

by John Henry Newman

[I]t is almost a definition of a gentleman to say he is one who never inflicts pain.

This description is both refined and, as far as it goes, accurate. He is mainly occupied in merely removing the obstacles which hinder the free and unembarrassed action of those about him; and he concurs with their movements rather than takes the initiative himself.

His benefits may be considered as parallel to what are called comforts or conveniences in arrangements of a personal nature: like an easy chair or a good fire, which do their part in dispelling cold and fatigue, though nature provides both means of rest and animal heat without them.

The true gentleman in like manner carefully avoids whatever may cause a jar or a jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast;--all clashing of opinion, or collision of feeling, all restraint, or suspicion, or gloom, or resentment; his great concern being to make every one at their ease and at home.

He has his eyes on all his company; he is tender towards the bashful, gentle towards the distant, and merciful towards the absurd; he can recollect to whom he is speaking; he guards against unseasonable allusions, or topics which may irritate; he is seldom prominent in conversation, and never wearisome.

He makes light of favours while he does them, and seems to be receiving when he is conferring.

He never speaks of himself except when compelled, never defends himself by a mere retort, he has no ears for slander or gossip, is scrupulous in imputing motives to those who interfere with him, and interprets every thing for the best.

He is never mean or little in his disputes, never takes unfair advantage, never mistakes personalities or sharp sayings for arguments, or insinuates evil which he dare not say out.

From a long-sighted prudence, he observes the maxim of the ancient sage, that we should ever conduct ourselves towards our enemy as if he were one day to be our friend.

He has too much good sense to be affronted at insults, he is too well employed to remember injuries, and too indolent to bear malice.

He is patient, forbearing, and resigned, on philosophical principles; he submits to pain, because it is inevitable, to bereavement, because it is irreparable, and to death, because it is his destiny.

If he engages in controversy of any kind, his disciplined intellect preserves him from the blundering discourtesy of better, perhaps, but less educated minds; who, like blunt weapons, tear and hack instead of cutting clean, who mistake the point in argument, waste their strength on trifles, misconceive their adversary, and leave the question more involved than they find it.

He may be right or wrong in his opinion, but he is too clear-headed to be unjust; he is as simple as he is forcible, and as brief as he is decisive.

Nowhere shall we find greater candour, consideration, indulgence: he throws himself into the minds of his opponents, he accounts for their mistakes.

He knows the weakness of human reason as well as its strength, its province and its limits.

If he be an unbeliever, he will be too profound and large-minded to ridicule religion or to act against it; he is too wise to be a dogmatist or fanatic in his infidelity.

He respects piety and devotion; he even supports institutions as venerable, beautiful, or useful, to which he does not assent; he honours the ministers of religion, and it contents him to decline its mysteries without assailing or denouncing them.

He is a friend of religious toleration, and that, not only because his philosophy has taught him to look on all forms of faith with an impartial eye, but also from the gentleness and effeminacy of feeling, which is the attendant on civilization.

Not that he may not hold a religion too, in his own way, even when he is not a Christian. In that case his religion is one of imagination and sentiment; it is the embodiment of those ideas of the sublime, majestic, and beautiful, without which there can be no large philosophy.

Sometimes he acknowledges the being of God, sometimes he invests an unknown principle or quality with the attributes of perfection. And this deduction of his reason, or creation of his fancy, he makes the occasion of such excellent thoughts, and the starting-point of so varied and systematic a teaching, that he even seems like a disciple of Christianity itself.

From the very accuracy and steadiness of his logical powers, he is able to see what sentiments are consistent in those who hold any religious doctrine at all, and he appears to others to feel and to hold a whole circle of theological truths, which exist in his mind no otherwise than as a number of deductions

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Who is to blame for Charlie Hebdo Massacre?

To know the answer to that question, we need to know something about the perpetrators, and what motivated them.  The New York Times yesterday provided a fairly in depth story of exactly how these two men evolved into terrorists.

First, their parents died when they were young and living in France.  Both boys ended up in a type of school for orphans.  But apparently they both thrived there, and seem to have had relatively happy and carefree lives, as not-so-observant Muslims in the Western world.

The beginning of the story is all you need to read to see where I am going:

PARIS — In the year after the United States’ invasion of Iraq, a 22-year-old pizza delivery man here couldn’t take it anymore. Sickened by images of American soldiers humiliating Muslims at the Abu Ghraib prison, he made plans to go fight United States forces. He studied a virtual AK-47 on a website. Then he took lessons from a man, using a hand-drawn picture of a gun.
That's what adolescent and post-adolescent young men do -- they get mad at injustice.  Normally, that's a good thing.  The trick is not to go around committing injustices that will rile up young men, especially when there is a religious component that ensures that the young men will never be able to let go of their anger.

In this particular case -- as was probably the case with literally millions of young Muslim men (and women) the world over when the Abu Ghraib pictures came out -- the initial reaction was amateurish and probably harmless.  But the younger brother's willingness to commit to jihad was enough to get him arrested and jailed.  And in jail he met the men who would shape Chérif Kouachi into a committed and deadly terrorist.

In other words, here's what we should learn:

If you want to know why so many young Muslim men (and women) are willing to kill others and themselves in the name of Islam, consider (i) the youth and impressionability of the people involved; (ii) the strength of their religious conviction; and (iii) the strength of the impression that is made when their religion is ridiculed, especially when the ridicule involves the physical humiliation of other Muslims, as it did at Abu Ghraib.
As a thought experiment, why not just change the names of the religions and countries. I.e. let's say that the dominant world power is Muslim, and that country decided -- for almost no good reason -- to invade a Christian country (or two) and kill a lot of Christians, including many Christian women and children. And in addition to that, the Muslim armies rounded up Christian men as "suspects," and threw them into jails, where they were subject to both torture AND religious humiliation.

And suppose you're a young teenage Christian.  Maybe you live in one of the invaded countries, maybe you live in a completely different country -- there are Christians everywhere.  What do you talk to your young Christian friends about?

You talk about the atrocities that are being committed against your faith.

Are you going to do anything about it?  And if you do, will it involve the slaughter of innocent (as well as "guilty" Muslims?  Who knows.  But if you do, the Muslims will have only themselves to blame.

In other words, if it hadn't been for Abu Ghraib, Chérif Kouachi might still be happily smoking pot and delivering pizzas.

The scary thing is that if it could happen to Chérif Kouachi, it could happen to nearly any Muslim -- just like, in my example above, it could happen to nearly any Christian.

And to tie this back to my previous points -- there is nothing secret about what Muslims find offensive.  Obviously Abu Ghraib, and equally obviously, cartoons ridiculing The Prophet.

Why is the Western answer "I am Charlie Hebdo" -- i.e. "let's ridicule The Prophet some more"?

As Dr. Phil would say:  "How's that working for you?"

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Charlie Hebdo -- Why Should I be Charlie?

There's a headline in the Washington Post today reporting that the French Muslim community doesn't want to "be Charlie Hebdo."  In solidarity with the Muslims, and for my own reasons, neither do I.

The Daily Show had a good segment on this the other day:

One day I'll learn how to actually "embed" video clips.

The segment features a lot of clips blaming moderate Muslims for "encouraging" or being silent about the attacks.  And then on to the senior condemnologists -- the white guy denounces the terrorists acts.  The black woman denounces terrorist acts.  And then the Muslim denounces them too.  But nobody is satisfied with the Muslim guy's denouncement -- it was "condemny enough" and it could have been "denouncier."

Tables are turned when the white guy is asked to take responsibility for the acts of random crazy white guys, and the black woman is held responsible for black on black violence in Chicago, where she's never been.  Soon enough, the condemnologists figure out that the interviewer is Jewish, and is dodging responsibility for the financial crisis that a radical sect of his people caused.

After the Muslim guy does a double-denounce of both an Indian insider trader AND the Muslim terrorists, the white guy proclaims "society solved."

That's pretty funny, although it might not be exactly my point.  My point is just that it's one thing to expect people to denounce terrorism, but it's another to essentially canonize the victims, just because they were exercising their free speech rights.

In other words, if you're going to say "je suis Charlie" that's more than just a statement that you are against terrorism and for free speech.  It's a statement that you agree with Charlie's message.  And as far as I can tell, that message is that the Muslim faith is not worthy of respect.

If you disagree with what I just said -- i.e. you think that saying "je suis Charlie" doesn't have to mean you agree with their message -- then consider this:

If a gang of Nazis held a parade featuring antisemitic banners denying the holocaust, and two irate Jews -- even demented Jews -- mowed the Nazis down with machine guns, what would be your reaction?  I suppose you might "condemn" the action of the demented Jew; after all, the Nazis were people too, and hateful though they were, perhaps they didn't deserve to die.  But would you go around blaming other Jews for not condemning the Nazi killers enough?

Unless you really agreed with their message, you wouldn't find it necessary to condemn the killers' actions by walking around saying "I'm a Nazi," would you?

No matter how strongly you believe in the right to free speech -- which the Nazis were certainly exercising -- you are going to make up your own mind as to whether or not you endorse their message, and that will color your decision on just how to go about denouncing the killers.

I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure that for many members of the Muslim faith, mocking images of the Prophet are just as offensive as antisemitic slogans are to Jews.  So why the H*** does anyone expect Muslims to say "Je suis Charlie"?

The bottom line is that we don't have to agree with the message to believe in free speech.  And if we don't agree with the message, then we shouldn't feel pressured to defend it, just because we believe in the speaker's right to say it.  In fact, our belief in the principle of free speech should be completely independent of the message.  So if I felt like joining the march in Paris, I'd probably wear a T-Shirt saying "Dumb message, sorry about your loss."

That's point number one.

Point number two is that if you are walking around saying "Je suis" Charlie, either you haven't thought about what you are saying, or you truly agree with the basic message that the Muslim faith should be ridiculed.  That puts you in a select group of privileged atheists that believe that they have become so evolved that (1) they can ridicule any religion at will, because all religions are wrong and stupid (as I think Bill Maher recently said), and (2) they can criticize the rest of us for not joining them, since only by eradicating religion will we solve all the world's problems.

I'm not religious myself, and I "get" what they are saying.  I've said it before -- religions have caused a lot of problems in the world, and they are continuing to cause a lot of problems.  But the world is a scary place, and I have to think that religion also does a lot of good, in some corners of the world.  Some of the world's greatest humanitarian projects have been motivated by religion.  Religion gives comfort to the comfortless.  It also gives people a sense of community, and a sense that there is a "greater good" somewhere.  And who knows, maybe there is more to life than the atheists would think; if so, it doesn't hurt to think that perhaps one's soul is "eternal", despite all the "scientific evidence" to the contrary.  It might make for better, more responsible people, regardless of what the scientific truth is.

So until somebody does the empirical work necessary to truly declare that the world would be a better place without religion, then I would simply ask the atheists to shut up about it. And, although I'm sorry for their tragic loss, that goes for Charlie Hebdo too.

And now for one more point on point one.  It's odd that people in the United States, which, if Fox News and others can be believed, is a religious nation founded in the Judeo-Christian ethic, would have sympathy with Charlie Hebdo's anti-religious message.  I'm sure it's been done before, and I don't feel like googling it, but suppose an artist were to create images of Jesus farting, cursing, yawning, misunderstanding something, having a cold, having diarrhea, lying, having sex, lying about having sex, not being picked first for a sports team, having an unrequited crush on a girl, lusting after a woman, losing a popularity contest, giving somebody incorrect directions, not getting a joke, having a bad hair day, having excessively long nose hair, having bits of food stuck between his teeth, chewing with his mouth open, masturbating, having an embarrassing erection, crying, picking his nose, scratching his balls, kissing, oversleeping, daydreaming, having body odor, having pimples, having bad breath, not getting an A on every test in school, throwing like a girl, saying his first word "dadadada" while looking at Joseph, after several months of saying nothing at all and not having object permanence, not learning to walk until he was at least 8 months old, not realizing that the earth revolves around the sun, not knowing a particular advanced vocabulary word in Hebrew, and not understanding foreign languages, These are all things that the historical Jesus almost certainly did (or didn't), and they are all a bit inconsistent with the tradition that Jesus is a supernatural being and the son of God.  And not just any God (lots of sons of gods were killed in the Trojan war), the God.

Hey - maybe there's a book in that -- not What Would Jesus Do?, but What Did Jesus Do?

If those images (or that book) were published here in the United States, I have a feeling that different members of the Christian community would react in different ways, but overall, there would probably be a strong sense that those images are offensive and hurtful to religious people.  If somebody killed the artist (or author), I'm fairly sure at least some Christians would say he or she (it's not me, really) got what he deserved, even if they would never have pulled the trigger themselves.  Very few Christians would stand up and protest on behalf of the artist's right to convey his or her particular messages.  And we shouldn't expect them to, just like we shouldn't expect Muslims to say "I am Charlie Hebdo."

I've saved the boring part for last.  Under any definition, what Charlie Hebdo was doing was "hate speech."  Here's the first definition of "hate speech" that comes up on-line:
Hate speech is speech that offends, threatens, or insults groups, based on race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, or other traits.
While our Supreme Court has made it clear that the government cannot punish people merely for engaging in hate speech (see Snyder v. Phelps (U.S. 2011), that doesn't make it right.

Most countries (but not the United States) have some variant of a "hate speech" law.  Let's see what Wikipedia says about France's hate speech laws:

France prohibits by its penal code and by its press laws public and private communication which is defamatory or insulting, or which incites discrimination, hatred, or violence against a person or a group of persons on account of place of origin, ethnicity or lack thereof, nationality, race, specific religion, sex, sexual orientation, or handicap. The law prohibits declarations that justify or deny crimes against humanity, for example, the Holocaust.
So that's not quite the same -- in other words, to be actionable in France, Charlie Hebdo's cartoons actually had to incite discrimination, hatred, or violence against Muslims.  It's not clear that they did that. So it's still hate speech, just not hate speech that is illegal in France.

So I guess what I've proved is that every one wearing an "I am Charlie T-shirt" is essentially engaging in hate speech.  It's their right to do it, sure, but it's woefully misguided.  

Monday, January 12, 2015

Charlie Hebdo and Boko Haram

Don't get me wrong.  Like the million people who marched in Paris yesterday, I'm against terrorism too.  But I think there's a double standard going on here.

Yes, seventeen people from an industrialized democracy were senselessly shot to death by religious extremists in Paris, and it happened because somebody made fun of somebody else's religion.  That was indeed a terrible tragedy and all sensible measures should be taken to prevent its recurrence.

But at just about the same time, somebody strapped explosives to a ten-year-old girl, and sent her into a crowded market place, where she exploded and killed 20 people in Nigeria.  In terms of sheer cruelty and senselessness, somehow that seems worse; a ten-year old girl was killed, along with twenty other innocents.  Nobody in Nigeria that day had a bodyguard, or was intentionally engaging in conduct that would inflame hatred and incite violence by religious zealots.

On the same day (last Friday) that all of France was mobilized against the two Charlie Hebdo killers, Boko Haram was completing the bloodiest massacre in its brutal history -- 2000 women, children, and men in the town of Baga, Nigeria.

So I'm glad to hear that there are a million people out there who have decided they won't tolerate terrorism any more, even if I find their reason -- because it threatens freedom of expression -- a little suspect.

This reminds me of how just about everyone in the United States felt on 9-11, and for the days, weeks, and months thereafter.  Unfortunately, our reaction to 9-11, if anything, seems to have made things worse.  It certainly did not prevent the Charlie Hebdo massacre, and it did nothing to prevent the rise of Boko Haram.  Let's hope those million people -- and the rest of us who feel essentially the same way about terrorism -- find a better solution this time, and that it gets implemented on a global scale.

Update -- on Jan. 22, 2015, the Daily Show picked up on this story.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Free Speech and the Charlie Hebdo Massacre

I guess this is a sequel to my previous post about Sony and the Interview, in which I questioned why our politicians (in that case Barack Obama) get so worked up and personally involved in our right to make fun of other countries.

In the Charlie Hebdo massacre, we have a situation where making fun of another people's religion has very predictably resulted in people taking offense, and has very predictably resulted in an extreme subset of those people taking violent action.  I saw "very predictably" because even the most obtuse Westerner has known for some time that many Muslims take the rule against depicting Mohammed very seriously, and there is a subset that think that violators of that rule need to be punished.  Here's a paragraph from Wikipedia on the Jyllands-Posten (the Jutland Post) Muhammad cartoons controversy on the topic:

The Qu'ran condemns idolatry, and this has led some Islamic scholars to interpret it as prohibiting figurative representation; this is known as aniconism. However, since Islam has many centres of religious authority, opinion and tradition about this is not uniform.[142] In popular practice today there is no general injunction against pictorial representation of people outside of religious contexts.[143] Generally, images of Muhammad have been prohibited throughout history. In practice, images of Muhammad have been made on many occasions, generally in a restricted and socially regulated way; for example, they are often stylised or do not show Muhammad's face.[144] Within Muslim communities, views about pictorial representations have varied: Shi'a Islam has been generally tolerant of pictorial representations of human figures while Sunni Islam generally forbids any pictorial representation of living beings, albeit with some variation in practice outside a religious context.[145] Some contemporary interpretations of Islam, such as those followed by adherents of Wahhabism, are entirely aniconistic and condemn pictorial representations of any kind.
The Wikipedia article touches on some of the same points I am trying to make -- the interrelationships between self-censorship, political correctness, common sense, corporate profits, the "value" of free speech, and the ways different governments "enforce" that value (in the U.S., the first amendment).

In the U.S., even though most of us don't like the thought of KKK or Nazi marches, we tolerate them, because enacting a law against them would mean that the government is suppressing speech.  Some countries have laws against holocaust denial and other forms of hate speech; we don't.  But that doesn't mean that we as a society approve of holocaust deniers, Nazis, or the KKK.  It just means that we believe in a nearly-absolute right to free speech.  That right is also why corporations can now donate unlimited amounts of money to the political candidates that they think will be most hospitable to their bottom line.

But there seems to be an undercurrent that suggests that there's something wrong with somebody who engages in "self-censorship," which is arguably what Sony was doing, and is also arguably what Charlie Hebdo should have done.

In other words, right now I might have ten great ideas for Mohammed cartoons that I think are truly hilarious.  Oh, in fact, I just had another idea -- maybe I should hold a contest for the best Mohammed cartoon.  I'd give a million dollars -- or perhaps just a lot of recognition -- to the one that ranks highest in both offensiveness (to Muslims) and hilarity (to non-Muslims).
Am I being a coward for not implementing any of those ideas?
Would I be some kind of a free speech "hero" if I were to implement them?
I don't think so.  Just as in normal conversation, many of our thoughts need to be kept to ourselves, public discourse also can benefit from self-censorship.

In the Jyllands-Posten controversy, many Muslims peacefully protested the publication of the cartoons.  That even included a lawsuit against Charlie Hebdo, which had republished the cartoons in France.  Those peaceful protests led nowhere, in view of the strong free speech rights in the countries where the protests were brought.  Of course, there were violent protests and credible death threats as well, and this is what led to members of the Charlie Hebdo staff receiving police protection.

Wikipedia also reports on this instance of self-censorship:
In 2009, when Brandeis professor Jytte Klausen wanted to publish a book about the controversy titled The Cartoons that Shook the World, Yale University Press refused to publish the cartoons and other representations of Muhammad out of fear for the safety of its staff.[104] In response, another company published Muhammad: The "Banned" Images in what it called "a 'picture book'—or errata to the bowdlerized version of Klausen's book."
There is no question that there is "free speech" value in publishing these cartoons, especially in an academic book like that proposed by Jytte Klausen.  But there is also considerable offense to Muslims.  In the big scheme of things, I'm not really sure that the "free speech" value in the book outweighs the offense that it causes, even to peaceful Muslims.  It's certainly easy enough to describe the pictures without reproducing them.

To go back to the Nazi example, most of us would agree that hate speech by Nazis has no inherent value, and, if anything, causes more harm than good.  We protect it only because of fears that if the government starts interfering with free speech in one area, there's nothing to stop it from suppressing free speech in other areas where the message might have real value.

In other words, "free speech" should not be a no-brainer exercise where the only answer is that the speech should go forward.  Instead, each of us should -- as we do in everyday life -- consider first whether any "value" associated with the speech outweighs whatever offense it might create.  And then if we think that our speech really has a valuable message, we should consider whether there are less offensive ways of conveying the same message.

According to Wikipedia, Charles Krauthammer sees a double standard:
Columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote that there was a double standard in many protesters' demands for religious sensitivity in this case, but not in others. He asked, "Have any of these 'moderates' ever protested the grotesque caricatures of Christians and, most especially, Jews that are broadcast throughout the Middle East on a daily basis?
The answer is "no, why should they?"  The whole point is that different cultures and religions will be offended by different things.  I'm sure that if one questions the moderate Muslims protesting the images of Mohamed about caricatures of Christians and Jews, they would probably agree that those images are insensitive to Jews and Christians.  But why should they protest about that?

And let's talk about Christians for a minute.  As with Islam, there are Christian splinter groups that are intolerant and can be violent.  There are those who condone murder of abortion providers.  There are those who defend "faith healing" even when it causes children to die.  There are those who feel that assisted suicide is a sin against God.  There are those who think there is a war on Christmas going on.  Remember the Branch Davidians -- David Koresh and his gun-toting "Mighty Men"?  And of course, not so long ago, Christians were killing both each other and members of other religions based solely on their differences in religious beliefs.  We recently had a devout Christian school-shooter.

The question of whether engaging in the free speech might actually be dangerous -- because the Muslim extremists will target you -- is a separate question.  That makes the choice NOT to engage in offensive speech all the more logical -- why risk your own life just to be offensive?  If I decide to tailor my speech or conduct so as to not offend someone like that -- be it a crazed Christian or a crazed Muslim -- then I'm simply engaging in self-preservation.  There's no need to incite violence just because one disagrees with the other's basis for becoming violent.

But the problem is that people seem to be mixing these concepts up.  They seem to be almost saying that just BECAUSE Muslim extremists or the North Koreans might react violently, that's ALL THE MORE reason that the offensive speech must go forward.  To me, that's absolutely backward.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm not totally blaming Charlie Hebdo.  Those cartoonists were quite courageous, and it sounds like they believed that their message was important.  I personally just don't think the message was so important that it needed to be expressed in a way that would offend hundreds of millions of people, and would predictably provoke a few misguided adherents to the point of extreme violence.

The real problem, as I've said before, is that we are not attacking radical Islam at its roots.  Instead, through our actions over the years, we have been simply fertilizing it.  The wars, the civilian casualties, the torture, the abuse of prisoners, and our self-righteousness throughout it all.   It is no wonder that radical clerics are able to direct the post-adolescent fury of aimless young men against the "rest" of the world, especially with the promise that they can "die as martyrs."  Instead, we should simply strive to all be of one world, with or without religions.

I'm not sure that cartoons making fun of a major world religion are really going to help get us there.

Monday, January 5, 2015

A Year of Service for U.S. Teens -- The Sooner the Better

CNN has an op-ed by retired General Stan McChrystal today, in which the General talks about his goal of implementing a year of service for kids graduating from high school.  This is definitely an idea whose time has come.  McChrystal wrote about it in the Washington Post back in November as well.

Yes, there are some parents out there who apparently worry that this will get their kids "off track."  The "track" apparently is to do well in high school, get into good college, get into good graduate school (medicine or law) and then get a good job where you will have security and income for the rest of your life.  And probably be boring as hell.

Maybe we should just let the "fast-trackers" opt out.  Like Dick Cheney and Vietnam, perhaps they have "other priorities" that are more important than working in their communities.  Perhaps their skill sets are so great that they would be wasted on the "minimum wage"-type work that a year of service might entail.

My basic message to these kids (and their parents) would be to slow down.  When you're comfortably settled in your career, and start thinking back on your youth, what will you think about?  Seven or eight straight years of over-achieving in school?  After about age 25, nobody really knows or cares exactly how old you are.  If you've spent a year doing something interesting, that makes you a bit more interesting -- especially if there's a contrast between the work you did then and the work you do now.

The idea seems to be to start with cities, so that we have a group of "service year cities."  Let's hope it catches on.

Part of the reason this is so attractive is that colleges are becoming less and less useful, and should be becoming less and less necessary.

Sadly, a college degree is important.   Yes, it does demonstrate some stick-to-it-ive-ness -- you've gone through eight semesters, gone to class nearly every day, written papers, taken tests, etc., showing that you have "learned" something.  But few people remember much of what they learned in college.  All that knowledge isn't necessary for later life or for any particular job.  And in any event, all that knowledge and learning can now be done on-line.

Perhaps the "year of service" could include not just manual labor, but also research and writing assignments, with due dates, just like college.  That might even give kids a leg up academically, as well as maturity-wise, when they first attend college.

So I sure hope something comes of this.

Here's a  link to the National Conference on Citizenship website, which has more information: