Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Blogroll Amnesty Day 2016

It's Blogroll Amnesty Day again, a tradition started by skippy and the late Jon Swift. Be sure to head over to read skippy's post for the event, but the basic idea is to give some link love to good blogs that don't get the heaviest traffic. Several from my blogroll:

Bark Bark Woof Woof: Mustang Bobby offers short, sharp political takes and good music picks.

Cheyanne's Campsite: Cheyanne (Shy Ann) has redone her home page with a neat tile format for her posts.

Experiential Pagan: Check out Syrbal-Labrys' book reviews and other observations here, or head over to Herlander-Walking for her more political posts.

The Hunting of the Snark: I never get tired of reading Susan of Texas' dissections of the odious Megan McArdle and other hacks.

Infidel753: Head over for good political analysis.

I Spy With My Little Eye: aimai posts infrequently, but her work's well worth catching.

Mikeb302000: Diligent coverage of gun deaths and gun control issues.

Onyx Lynx: Providing some great roundups.

P3: Persuasion, Perseverence, and Patience: If you appreciate fine editorial cartooning, you'll want to read Nothstine's roundups.

Poor Impulse Control: Head over for Tata's cool photos and musings.

The Rectification of Names: Check Yastreblyansky's blog before you rectify yourself.

Strangely Blogged: How can you say no after reading Vixen Strangely's Woody Guthrie reference in the blog header?

World O' Crap: Good cultural posts and dissections of the nuttiest of wingnuts.

You Might Notice a Trend: You might notice a trend of regularly reading Paul Wartenberg after you check him out.

Zen Comix: What is the sound of cartoons clapping?

Don't forget Crooks and Liars, where every day is Blogroll Amnesty Day thanks to the feature Mike's Blog Round Up. Awesome founder Mike Finnigan passed on management to the indefatigable Blue Gal, and I'm honored to be one of about a dozen bloggers who run it for one-week stints.

Thanks again to skippy for keeping this tradition alive, and if you choose to participate, make sure to link your post in his thread here!

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

None Thought of Themselves as Monsters

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, one of several such memorial days worldwide. Last year, The Guardian ran a short, excellent piece by Holocaust survivor Gene Klein, who urged the importance of remembering what happened, especially as the number of survivors dwindles. It's worth reading in full, but when I revisited it, one paragraph particularly leapt out:

It is terribly easy for one group to strike another group off the roster of humanity, to see others as vermin or pests, as an affliction that must be destroyed. It happens again and again. And once it does, people are capable of inflicting terrible hardship and pain on others and to feel they are righteous in doing so. None of the SS officers who ordered me – a starving teenager – to carry heavy steel rails up a hillside thought of themselves as monsters. They were adhering to their beliefs and they were serving their country. We must be constantly vigilant for the descent that takes us from self-righteous beliefs, to the dehumanization of others and into the sphere of violence.


The consequences of bigotry aren't always violent, and bigotry doesn't always get organized (thankfully), but it's always harmful in some fashion. We know how these stories can end.

It's a fashionable conceit in some circles that expressing bigotry, being "politically incorrect," is a badge of honor and somehow bold and courageous. It is instead an act of intellectual, moral and personal cowardice, an attempt to assert power and preemptively – lazily – shallowly – dismiss other human beings outright. Embracing bigotry may not be a natural path, but it's an easy one, not a sign of toughness (and certainly not reflection).

Klein moves on from "the sphere of violence":

While we are capable of all of this, we can also rise to amazing heights in the service of others. For two weeks I had the good fortune to have a respite from hard labor while I was assigned to work with a civilian German engineer who was surveying the landscape where future roads would be built. He saw the terrible conditions I was living under and decided to help. Everyday he hid food for me from the SS kitchen where he ate lunch. Chicken, milk, rice and cheese left under a bench in the back corner of a barracks. He cared, he took a risk and he saved my life. He deserves to be remembered too.

No one should be judged because of his or her nationality, religion or race. We were sent to the camps because propaganda was believed, individuality was erased and hate was rampant. When asked if I am angry with Germans, I think of the German engineer and know that individuals must be judged by their own personal actions. If I can hold this as a guiding principle after what happened to my family and me, then you can, too.


Last week was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and King often spoke about meeting hate with love. That may be too high a moral bar for some of us (or most of us) to reach with any regularity, but Klein's piece essentially suggests tackling dehumanization and bigotry with humanizing stories and tales of connection. And while hyperbolic, inaccurate invocations of the Holocaust definitely aren't helpful (and that's the real point of "Godwin's law"), some more serious comparisons prove valid, and a commitment to basic human rights remains valuable.

You can find several videos of Gene Klein online, and in this one, he speaks movingly of the German engineer he credits with saving his life. The engineer saw Klein as a fellow human being, and acted to alleviate his suffering. That story continues to be worth remembering.

Monday, January 18, 2016

MLK Day 2016

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s most famous speech is the obvious choice for the day. It's worth revisiting periodically both as a reminder of how far social justice has progressed and how much still needs to be done.

If you've written a post celebrating the day, feel free to link it in the comments.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Jon Swift Memorial Roundup 2015

(The Best Posts of the Year, Chosen by the Bloggers Themselves)

(A 2008 Jon Swift picture, relevant every presidential election season.)

Welcome to a tradition started by the late Jon Swift/Al Weisel, who left behind some excellent satire, but was also a nice guy and a strong supporter of small blogs. As Lance Mannion put it in 2010:

Our late and much missed comrade in blogging, journalist and writer Al Weisel, revered and admired across the bandwidth as the "reasonable conservative" blogger Modest Jon Swift, was a champion of the lesser known and little known bloggers working tirelessly in the shadows . . .

One of his projects was a year-end Blogger Round Up. Al/Jon asked bloggers far and wide, famous and in- and not at all, to submit a link to their favorite post of the past twelve months and then he sorted, compiled, blurbed, hyperlinked and posted them on his popular blog. His round-ups presented readers with a huge banquet table of links to work many of has had missed the first time around and brought those bloggers traffic and, more important, new readers they wouldn’t have otherwise enjoyed.

It may not have been the most heroic endeavor, but it was kind and generous and a lot of us owe our continued presence in the blogging biz to Al.

Here's Jon/Al's 2007 and 2008 editions. Meanwhile, here are the revivals from 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014.

If you're not familiar with Al Weisel's work as Jon Swift, his site features a "best of" list in the left column.

Meanwhile, Blogroll Amnesty Day (cofounded by Jon Swift and skippy) is a celebration of small blogs coming up again the first weekend in February.

Thanks to all the participants, and apologies to anyone I missed. (As always, my goal is to find the right balance between inclusive and manageable.) You still can join in, by linking your post in the comments. Whether your post appears in the modest list below or not, feel free to tweet your best post with the hatchtag #jonswift2015.

As in Jon/Al's 2008 roundup, submissions are listed roughly in the order they were received. As he wrote in that post:

I'm sure you'll be interested in seeing what your favorite bloggers think were their best posts of the year, but be sure to also visit some blogs you've never read before and leave a nice comment if you like what you see or, if you must, a polite demurral if you do not.

Without further ado:

The Professional Left Podcast
Episode 295 (July 31, 2015): "Is Cecil the Lion a Proxy War?"
Blue Gal: "Cecil the Lion – Environmental crime and misplaced rage."

A Blog About School
"Standardized tests and your cat’s body mass index"
Chris Liebig

Infidel753
"Long war, decisive battle"
Infidel753: "Why does the right wing invest the fight against gay rights with such existential importance? Deep down they know it's a crucial part of a much longer and more fundamental conflict over the essential nature and identity of our civilization."

You Might Notice a Trend
"Insanity Is Repeating the Same Shooting Over And Over Again and Expecting a Safer Gun-Happy Result"
Paul Wartenberg: "The United States is under attack from itself as a minor group of gun-worshiping sociopaths allow – and in some ways encourage – shooting deaths on a daily basis just so they can proclaim their devotion to a metal god of death."

Mad Kane's Political Madness
"St. Boehner???"
Madeleine Begun Kane: "3-Verse Limerick mocking the so-called "sacrifice" John Boehner made in giving up his Speakership."

World O' Crap
"World's Worst Toys R Us Spokesmodel"
Scott Clevenger: "Who can forget Sabrina Corgatelli, the sultry, seductive Idaho accountant who went to Africa, wrapped a dead giraffe around her body like a mink stole, and sang "Blood Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend"? "

The Debate Link
"Anti-Semitism as Structural and the Iran Deal Debate"
David Schraub: "Many critics of the Iran Nuclear Deal have contended that deal proponents have engaged in anti-Semitic rhetoric; proponents have roundly rejected the charge. Both camps, I argue, are mistaken in the processes by which anti-Semitism operates and has its effect in contemporary society."

Kiko's House
"When Things Fell Seriously Apart & The Center Didn't Hold"
Shaun D. Mullen: " We'll motor past how the brilliant Yeats, as prescient as he could be, foresaw this political season and the coming of Donald Trump nearly 100 years ago in his classic dirge for the decline of civilization, but today even the best in the overcrowded Republican field seem to lack all conviction, the worst are full of passionate intensity, and surely some revelation is at hand. Or so we should fear."

Zencomix
"Beyond Here There Be Dragoons"
Dave Dugan: "Watercolor, Pen & ink on handmade paper, about 8 cm x 11 cm for each image, contained in a small gift box with a velcro closure, decorated with white exterior house paint and india ink, marking 70 years of goddamn nuclear weapons..."

Pruning Shears
"On the sorry state of American fascism"
Dan: "A look at some of the more hyperbolic claims about so-called 'PC culture.' "

David E's Fablog
"Pa Pa Pa Pa Pa Pa"
David Ehrenstein: "It's about how Federico Fellini's "La Dolce Vita" is as valid today as it was in 1960 in showing how the media actually works."

Experiential Pagan
"Innocence Lost"
Syrbal/Labrys: "A brief memory that proves 'the more things change, the LESS they stay the same' – at least for a female."

Confession Zero
"With the Wind it Shall"
Mark Prime offers a poem.

Scrutiny Hooligans
"Sellin' the big nothin' "
Tom Sullivan: "In the military we hold up as representing America's highest ideals, it's all esprit de corps and teamwork. Yet outside the base perimeter in Anytown, USA, it's screw you, I’ve got mine. (Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.)"

Strangely Blogged
"47 Dumbass Ronin"
Vixen Strangely: "The idea that 47 actual US Senators got together to show this particular letter and their behinds off to the world struck me as a suggestion that perhaps they hated President Obama more than they even liked their country."

Simply Left Behind
"How to Defeat Terrorism"
actor212: "Thirty years of war (going back to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan) has done nothing but make more rabid dogs. That's a failed policy. This is not a war against people, it's a war against an ideology – the ideology of jihad – and every time we've bombed a country, we created more enemies as we've attempted to wipe out that ideology."

Real American Liberal
"Diving into the Abortion Debate"
John Sheirer: "I tried to have a civil, reasonable discussion about abortion on the Internet. The results were even more disturbing than I anticipated."

Just an Earth-Bound Misfit, I
"Republicans May Be Perfidious Bastards, But the Democrats Are Still Idiots"
Comrade Misfit: "Essentially, why the Democrats' focus on gun control will hurt them."

Shakesville
"Jeanie Bueller's Day of Feminist Killjoying"
Melissa McEwan: "In which I reconsider "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" 30 years later and discover that I'm rooting for little sister Jeanie Bueller, who huffs and eyerolls and shouts indignantly through the film, a perfect picture of injustice in a pink cardigan."

Spocko's Brain
"Mr. Robot Will Scratch The Corporate Justice Problem in Your Brain"
Spocko: "Mr. Robot was the most fascinating TV show I watched this year. The lead, Elliot, is a cyber-security engineer by day and vigilante hacker by night. His target is "Evil Corp" a sort of BofA, Goldman Sachs, Monsanto, JPMorganChase combo. In this post I reviewed the pilot and anticipated the ethical, technical, financial and human issues it will grapple with over the season."

M.A.Peel
"The Songs Our Mothers Sang to Us"
Ellen O'Neill: "The news of the BBC's discovery of Diana Rigg's Desert Island Disc lead me to their wonderful website. Where I stumbled on Yoko Ono's desert selections, and her anecdote about a particular song & her mother poignantly, surprisingly linked her to me and my mom."

Kathleen Maher's Pure Fiction
"If He Wished"
Fiction by Kathleen Maher.

Poor Impulse Control
"The World Is the World"
Tata: "You can be a different person every day, and by you, I mean me."

Mock Paper Scissors
"Hell Hath No Fury Like A Boomer Scorned"
Tengrain: "MoDo writes a poisoned pen letter to Hillary Clinton using Joe and Beau Biden as the ink."

The Rectification of Names
"What's to stop me from marrying my television?—Ross, I think you did."
Yastreblyansky: "Back in May, as we were all awaiting the Obergefell decision, Monsignor Ross Douthat, Apostolic Nuncio to 42nd Street, decided to show us how marriage equality was going to lead to polygamy for all, and then how are you liberals going to like that? Spoiler: He was wrong."

Indomitable
"American Exceptionalism? ISIS and the Christian Right are More Alike Than Different"
Chauncey DeVega: "The American Christian Right-wing and ISIS are much more alike than different. This truth is upsetting because American Exceptionalism is based on a lie. On matters of violence, extreme religion, anti-Cosmopolitanism, and a yearning for End Times battles between countries ruled "god's law" ISIS and the American Christian Dominionists and Reconstructionists are in almost total agreement."

driftglass
"At The Pillory Clinton Hearing"
driftglass: "An experimental, real-time, free-form, impressionistic interpretation of the Hillary Clinton Benghaaaazi show trial in October."

The Way of Cats
"The difference between dogs and cats"
Pamela Merritt: "Dogs do sports. Cats do theater. They are two very different kinds of pets, and require two wildly different approaches for care and training."

Anibundel: Pop Culturess
"Good Morning and Welcome to Force Friday"
Ani Bundel: "In case you haven't heard, today the 4th will be with you. But it's not May the 4th, the organic holiday that sprung up in the Star Wars community in the last decade. Today is a different fourth. One invented by Disney, to go along with their marketing department's plans for total Star Wars world domination."

Self-Styled Siren
"Claude Rains: An Actor's Side-Eye"
Farran Smith Nehme: "My posting rate slowed considerably this year, but this was by far the most popular thing I wrote for the blog. Sifting through stills from all stages of the career of the great Rains was a wonderful experience."

Perrspectives
"Sorry, Jeb. Your Brother Did Create ISIS."
Jon Perr: "Jeb Bush got schooled by a 19 year-old college student who informed him, "You brother created ISIS." Or to put in terms even Republican myth-makers can understand: ISIS? George W. Bush built that."

The Rude Pundit
"America Has Become a Second Amendment Death Cult"
Lee Papa: "The United States is on the same road as the Mayans and the Aztecs as we shoot ourselves into oblivion."

Ramona's Voices
"As Long As There Is A Constitution, The GOP Can't Win"
Ramona Grigg: "So the crazies won the 2014 midterms. What, me worry? Yes, me worry."

[this space intentionally left blank]
"I Read Only Books by Women For a Year: Here’s What Happened"
Dallas Taylor: "Post details the experience and results of a year spent reading only books by women: why I did it (as both writer and reader), what it was like, what I learned from it, and how it changed me. Concludes with encouragement for the reader to try the same, or at least examine the reasons for refusing to do so."

Doctor Cleveland
"Winnowing the GOP Field with Jane Austen"
Doctor Cleveland AKA Jim Marino: "Demonstrates the Pareto principle with the five sisters in Pride and Prejudice and then applies it to the crowded GOP primary field, showing which candidates have never been in the running. A post so crazy it just might work."

The Hunting Of The Snark
"Guts And Glory: The Story Of Ross Douthat"
Susan of Texas: "This is a review of Ross Douthat's book about his years at Harvard, Privilege: Harvard And The Education Of The Ruling Class. In this book we see how the son of "ex-hippies" reshaped himself into an authoritarian thought leader without becoming either thoughtful or a leader."

The Inverse Square
"We Have a Problem With Guns"
Tom Levenson: "Guns are not toys. They’re profit centers. As long as we accept that, we get the culture — political and more — that might be expected. This post is another way of writing how sick I am of having to say In Memoriam…."

Show Me Progress
"The Bill of Rights applies to everyone, right?"
Michael Bersin: "An interview with anti-Obama open carrying teabaggers flying large Confederate battle flags (among others) in an overpass protest on U.S. 50 in west central Missouri."

Lotus – Surviving a Dark Time
"Only the poor face drug tests to receive any public aid or benefit"
LarryE (Larry Erickson): "The content should be clear from the title: Drug testing of the poor – and only of the poor – to qualify for a public benefit is expanding."

Eunoia
"Timetraveller's' Reunion
Ole Phat Stu: "Some of the consequences of time travel."

Bark Bark Woof Woof
"Gay Day at the Supreme Court"
Mustang Bobby: "Written on the morning of oral arguments for marriage equality before the Supreme Court in April: 'If I cannot be treated the same way as everyone else for no other reason than an innate quality such as sexual preference, then the rest of those rights, however noble, are meaningless.' "

Empire Of The Senseless
"Hold my Life"
zombie rotten mcdonald: "A review of the recent Replacements reunion shows, and reminiscence…"

and that's the way it was
"Don’t help ISIS get what it wants"
Derek Davison: "I'm my own worst critic when it comes to evaluating my writing, but this piece, written in the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attack, is the most widely-read and shared thing I've ever written for my own blog. I try to explain why overreacting to ISIS's terrorism—by rejecting refugees, by turning on Muslims living in our own communities, by panicking—is giving the terrorists exactly what they want and what they need to perpetuate their message"

This Is So Gay
"Onward, Christian Soldiers"
Duncan Mitchel: "If you're using the Bible to hurt people, you're using it wrong: you should be using a sword, or a battle axe, as the Lord intended. You can't do any serious, God-breathed damage with a floppy leather-covered book!"

Checking Out Your Shorts
"Behind the Politics – Scott Walker"
paleotectonics: ""VH-1 Behind The Music meets the Scott Walker Campaign, takes much acid."

Gaius Publius
"Climate Change, the "Free Market" & the California Drought"
Gaius Publius offers an overview of the situation.

Bluestem Prairie
"No small potatoes: Dept of Natural Resources requires EAW for pinelands to spud fields project"
Sally Jo Sorensen: "When the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources announced a discretionary environmental assessment worksheet (EAW) for an area where the R.D. Offutt Company, America's largest potato company, been buying forest land and converting it to potato fields, bushels of money set the stage for a later withdrawal of the study."

Balloon Juice
"It’s a Giant Fucking Mystery Wrapped Inside A Riddle Inside an Enigma"
John Cole sounds off about the "enigma" of the Planned Parenthood shooting.

p3: Persuasion, Perseverance, and Patience
"Sunday morning toons: Fear of a Trump planet! And other horrors."
Nothstine: "A December 2015 edition of p3's weekly round up of political cartoons (with a dash of Golden Age animation). This week the theme was Fear!"

Mister Tristan
"Liars"
Gary, a relative of Mister Tristan: "Liars' pants should actually burst into flames. Brian Williams paid a price for lying about Iraq; Dick Cheney, not so much."

alicublog
"Roots"
Roy Edroso: "It’s less overtly political than most of my stuff, but also (I hope) funnier."

bjkeefe
"Now THAT's something to ponder"
Brendan Keefe: "Since I haven't been writing much at length lately, I'll pass along one of the most fun things I read this past year."

Schrodinger's Cat: Many Worlds and One Cat
"Bihar Gives India a Diwali Gift: An In-Depth Analysis of the Assembly Elections"
schroedinger's cat: "I analyze the state assembly elections held in the Indian state of Bihar where Prime Minister Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) suffered a humiliating defeat. I explore what this means for India now in the context of the recent past and in the historical context."

Lance Mannion
"Nobody's unbreakable, not even Kimmy Schmidt"
Lance Mannion: "The premise of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt isn't comic. It's tragic. A real evil has been inflicted upon Kimmy and her friends from the bunker and, whatever the outcome of the trial, the villain has gotten away with it. What he did to the four women cannot be undone. The comedy is in Kimmy's determination to survive the evil."

Vagabond Scholar
"Blogiversary X: 10 Posts That Shook the World (or Slightly Amused a Dozen People)"
Batocchio: "I didn't write much this year, but this post links the best pieces of my first decade by category."

Thanks again, folks. Happy blogging (and everything else) in 2016.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Blogiversary X: 10 Posts That Shook the World

(or Slightly Amused a Dozen People)

(Gentlemen of great erudition and culture. GIF version of the bottom one here.)

Earlier this year, this blog turned 10. I haven't had much time to write this year (or the past few years), but I'm still keeping the blog lights on as a repository for my infrequent posts.

As usual, I'll be recapping major posts and categories since the last blogiversary, and in this case, all 10 years. This is mainly so I can find the stuff later; I don't expect anyone to read through this entire post, let alone all the linked pieces, which amount to far more than 10 posts. However, if you've got a load of free time to read long blog essays, you're in, um, luck?

The Nature of Liberalism

I suppose this section could be more robust, but I always think this stuff should be fairly obvious.

  • "Some Reasons I'm a Liberal" (5/5/08): All that bleeding heart stuff (and more).
  • "The Social Contract" (7/21/10): Some basic civics, seemingly forgotten (or rejected).
  • The Nature of Conservatism

    Trying to suss things out.

  • "The Chart That Explains It All!" (3/12/07): Authoritarian conservatives don't play by the normal rules of good governance, and it's a mistake to pretend otherwise.
  • "Concern Trolls for Nixon" (9/3/08): Don't fall for their shtick.
  • "The Most "Conservative" Films" (4/7/09): Examining the reductive, ideological approach of many conservatives toward film (and art in general).
  • "The Persistence of Ideology" (6/3/09): Trying to sum up modern conservatism through its approach to economics, foreign policy and torture.
  • "Diagrams on Conservatism" (7/3/09): Visualize the insanity.
  • "The Five Circles of Conservative Hell" (7/21/10): From "preserving cultural privilege" to more fearsome depths.
  • "Engaging the Opposition, and A Wingnut Checklist" (8/30/10): Trying to assess whether engagement is worth it (issues I'm still pondering).
  • "The Stupid-Evil-Crazy Vortex" (11/10/10): Diagnosing the problem.
  • "The Four Types of Conservatives" (7/30/12): "Most conservative political figures break down into one of four broad groups. They are Reckless Addicts, Proud Zealots, Stealthy Extremists and Sober Adults." An in-depth investigation. (Film at 11!)
  • National Politics

  • "Diagram Madness" (7/15/09): Trying to visualize the American political spectrum, using some unconventional models.
  • "American Politics Seen as a Japanese Monster Movie" (11/29/09): Pretty silly, but the analogies kinda work.
  • American Political Insanity Explained (2/9/10): An attempt, anyway.
  • "Attack of the Plutocrats" (7/18/10): Contextualizing wealth inequality and the pushes to increase it.
  • "We Cheat the Other Guy and Pass the Savings to You" (7/25/10): The game is rigged, and certain parties think that's a good thing (or blame the wrong people).
  • "Voting and Political Activism" (11/5/12): Less about the 2012 election specifically than a looong look at political activism in general and the prospects of change.
  • "Lucky Duckies and Fortunate Sons" (8/14/14): Why some people are reluctant to acknowledge that the game is rigged.
  • Our National Political Discourse

    Media critiques of why political coverage is often inaccurate and shallow.

  • Color Commentary (3/15/07): A chromatic depiction of how the corporate media presents "balance."
  • "The Bullshit Matrix" (3/16/07): Truth, lies, bullshit and their many variations.(I keep coming back to the themes of this one.)
  • "False Equivalencies" (4/5/07): Arguably the worst fault of media coverage.
  • "Silent Questions" 8/12/09): "The questions we ask determine the answers we receive. The specific form of those questions, and the assumptions they hold, further shape our answers."
  • "Common Ground and Equal Blame" (1/6/11): The inadequacy of saying 'both sides do it' without more detail (or when it's flatly inaccurate).
  • "Defining "Common Ground" in Diagrams" (1/7/11): A follow-up, with pictures.
  • "Partisanship, Policy and Bullshit" (7/6/11): "Partisanship" isn't necessarily a bad thing. Policy matters. And media outlets have incentives for generating bullshit.
  • "Both Sides Do It: Partisanship Redux" (8/1/12): A follow-up post, taking a closer look at the popular "both sides do it/are equally to blame" brand of bullshit.
  • "But Paul Ryan Seems Like Such a Nice Fellow" (8/11/12): A journalist focuses on rhetoric and charm and ignores policy to conclude that Paul Ryan wants to help the poor (and isn't a scumbag).
  • "Civil Both-Side Bipartisans" (10/21/12): Another crack at the "both sides" scourge, urging "honesty over civility, accuracy over politeness."
  • "Our National Political Discourse" (12/1/13): An attempt to "visualize how our national political discourse should work, and discuss how it does work instead."
  • "The Bullshit That Civilly Dare Not Speak Its Name" (7/25/14): A civility meter has its uses, but a good bullshit detector is far more valuable.
  • "Artificially Equalizing Unequal Views on Inequality" (8/17/14): A case study of a journalist going into contortions to blame both sides equally.
  • "The Fallacy of the Golden Mean" (8/19/14): A "both sides" reader.
  • The War Series

    I've periodically written pieces in an ongoing series on war and related issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder. The most significant posts are:

  • "How to Hear a True War Story" (5/29/07): Truth and fantasy in war stories.
  • "Iraq and Vietnam: Selling the Stab-in-the-Back Myth" (8/30/07): Old themes resurface.
  • "That Pesky Violence in Iraq" (12/5/07): I wrote multiple posts on Iraq, including several on the "Surge." This one noted that a decrease in violence was most welcome, but a decrease to a mere 575 attacks per week shouldn't be celebrated as success and vindication.
  • "Day of Shame" (2/5/08): My contribution to a blogswarm on the anniversary of Colin Powell's presentation to the United Nations to sell the Iraq War.
  • "The Poetry of War" (3/19/08): Looking at contrasting war poems (among other things), as part of an Iraq War blogswarm.
  • "John '100 Years' McCain" (4/9/08): The more extensively one examined McCain's statements on Iraq, the worse he looked.
  • "Brave Cowboys of the Junior High Lunch Room"(5/29/2008): The insecurities that drive war cheerleaders.
  • "War and the Denial of Loss" (11/11/09): This piece was the culmination a six-post series for Armistice Day, and should be read after the others. I'm still not entirely satisfied with the opening, but this post probably comes the closest to what I tried to accomplish during my brief teaching stints, in terms of encouraging reflection and making connections.
  • "Asymmetric Inhumanity" (5/30/11): The urge to dehumanize.
  • Only the Faithless Suffer (11/11/12): Denying suffering and blaming the victims.
  • "The Dogs of War" (11/17/13): Looking back at the Iraq War and some of its most dishonorable cheerleaders.
  • "The Courage to Make Others Suffer" (5/25/15): Among a certain breed of pedigreed dolt, going to war is matter of fashion.
  • Torture

    I've done a fair amount of research on torture and wrote a number of posts (if not as many as some others, and not as many as I wanted to). It's an essential subject but it also burnt me out a bit, given all the maddening obfuscation by culpable parties and their apologists. The full category is here, but the most significant posts are:

  • Jack Bauer versus Maher Arar (7/3/07): Torture apologists overwhelmingly cite fiction and dire fantasies about ticking time bombs while ignoring actual reality about torturing innocent people.
  • "Torture Watch 2/19/08": A roundup and summary of important pieces on torture.
  • "Using Justice Against Us" (11/7/08): Examining bad arguments by John Yoo against due process. (I originally posted this at the Campaign for America's Future, but their template and formatting subsequently changed, so this is a repost at VS from March 2010.)
  • "Tortured" (12/5/08): A poem.
  • "Rivkin's Protean Logic on Torture" (3/12/09): A long dissection of one of the most slippery of torture apologists.
  • "Sensory Deprivation Op-Ed" (4/20/09): A close reading of a key op-ed by prominent torture apologists who conveniently omit that they could face criminal prosecution for the actions they're defending.
  • "The Torture Flowchart" (4/23/09): An attempt to visualize the insanity, and how many opportunities there were to stop.
  • "Torture Versus Freedom" (5/15/09): An attempt to address and debunk all the arguments for torture, with heavy use of supporting links. The "further resources" section links significant books and articles.
  • "A Venn Diagram on Torture Apologia" (5/21/09)
  • "The Torture Apologia Chart" (6/2/09): An attempt to summarize all the major arguments for torture. (I never got around to revising this into a full debunking tool, because it would be a significant undertaking to do it properly, but the links in "Torture Versus Freedom" serve most of that.)
  • " I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" (7/31/09): Exploring the deadly certainty of torturers and "the comforting violence of Jack Bauer."
  • "Why Does Liz Cheney Hate Civilization?" (3/10/10): Examining the then-latest round of fearmongering 'If you investigate my daddy you're all going to be killed by terrorists' bullshit.
  • "They Could Not Look Me in the Eye Again" (11/11/11): Pondering dehumanization and cruelty in the contexts of war, torture and racism.
  • "Greater Context for Zero Dark Thirty" (8/15/13): A long consideration of the filmmakers' artistic choices and the facts and context they ignored.
  • Tolerance and Freedom

    Several of these posts were written for the (mostly annual) Blog Against Theocracy.

  • "The Social Tolerance Charts" (3/13/07): The misunderstanding of "tolerance" by many conservatives. (I've explored this issue many times since.)
  • "The Religion-in-Society Charts" (3/14/07): Looking at religious tolerance specifically.
  • "The Conservative Brain Trust Takes On: Freedom of Religion!" (3/29/07): Supposed conservative intellectuals prove extremely unclear on the First Amendment, especially when those icky gay people are involved.
  • "The Case for Writing More Accurately About Religion in America" (3/29/07): Dissecting Time magazine's poorly reasoned cover story, "Why We Should Teach the Bible in Public Schools."
  • "How Many Deities Does It Take to Change a Light Bulb?" (4/6/07): Humor and religion. (Some video links have since gone dead, alas.)
  • "Faith and Certainty" (4/6/07): For some people, religion doesn't make them more reflective, humble or open; it makes them more rigid and self-righteous.
  • "The Truth By Any Other Name" (3/23/08): Respecting different metaphors for living.
  • You Damned Kids Get Into My Church (1/8/10): Religious narcissism, or narcissistic religiosity.
  • "I'll See Your Jesus and Raise You 10,000 Buddhas" (1/12/10): A follow-up, because Ross Douthat sheds whine, not light, and "there's no virtue in discussing religion stupidly."
  • "The Meek Shall Inherit What's Left of the Earth the Mean and Dumb Destroy" (4/21/11): The religion of conservatives John Shimkus and Ann Coulter versus that of Stephen Colbert.
  • "Surely the Constitution Must Match My Theocratic Beliefs" (4/7/12): Rick Santorum versus the Founding Fathers.
  • "My God Can Beat Up Your God (Defining "Tolerance")" (4/9/12): Most of the time, when conservatives say "freedom," they really mean "privilege."
  • "Control, Punish and Shame" (3/31/13): The impulses of religious social conservatives.
  • "You're Intolerant of My Intolerance!" (8/20/14): Another crack at the issue, this time focusing on gay rights.
  • Specific Political Analysis

  • "Will GOP Senators Face Consequences for Lying to the Supreme Court?" (7/12/06): A deep dive into some dishonorable behavior involving the Hamdan v. Rumsfeld decision about due process and the congressional record.
  • The Aryan Minstrel Show (8/8/06): An extensive look at the performance art of hatred from Ann Coulter. (I still need to fix some old broken links.)
  • "Dance of the Straw Men" (10/12/06): "Of all the faulty argument patterns typically employed by the GOP, the most popular by far is a straw man argument with an ad hominem attack nestled inside."
  • "The Knaves of the Bush Administration" (3/20/07): Considering the Bush administration by way of King Lear.
  • "A Recap of the Sliming of Graeme Frost" (10/19/07): Chronicling the attacks on the 12-year-old survivor of a horrific car crash and just how nasty mainstream American conservatism has become.
  • "That Fragrant Horse Race Coverage" (1/13/08): Examining the blatant stupidity of media coverage of the 2008 early primary elections.
  • "That Damned Liberal Racism" (1/24/08): Looking at bad faith and idiotic discussions of race, centering on the 2008 election.
  • "The Passion of Saint McCain" (9/3/08): The Republican National Convention's depiction of John McCain as suffering Jesus (while simultaneously trying to sidestep the whole torture thing).
  • "Where's Bush?" (9/4/08): The disappearing of then-President Bush from the 2008 Republican National Convention.
  • "With Thy Father's Permission" (9/9/08): Motherhood and patriarchy sanctified at the Republican National Convention.
  • "Not One Person Called Giuliani a Douchebag" (12/8/09): Dissecting the disingenuous "he didn't use the magic words" political attack that's still popular among conservatives.
  • "Extremism in Defense of Nihilism Is a Vice" (7/28/11): Contextualizing the debt ceiling hostage situation and pointing out the striking extremism of conservatives.
  • "Why We Can't Have Nice Things" (12/7/12): Looking at the fiscal "compromise" and an ongoing trend of tremendous bad faith (and horrendous coverage of all this).
  • Satire and Humor

  • "Proof of Iran’s Perfidy Provided by Anonymous Experts!" (2/13/07): A skeptical, satirical look at another round of saber-rattling.
  • "Valentine's Day (The Death of True Love)" (2/14/08): This rant about what's probably my least favorite holiday elicited some strong responses. (Nonpolitical, apart from some dated and largely pointless political references.)
  • "Hall of Fame Material" (1/14/09): Looking back on the Bush presidency, and contrasting expectations for him with those of sports fans for their favorite team (in this case, the then-woeful Detroit Lions).
  • "Anti-Terrorist Fantasy Dream Team on the Case" (5/20/09): Obama recruits Jack Bauer and Wolverine, because "a fictional threat is best met with decisive fictional force."
  • "A Field Guide to Political Creatures" (8/14/09): A sillier look at wonks, hacks and zealots.
  • Film

    I've written several hundred reviews (most of them short, some more expansive) generally as part of a post-Oscars roundup, a preblog tradition. Those are easiest found by scrolling through the Oscars and film categories. (A post examining the conservative ideologue's approach to film is linked above.) Some obituaries and retrospectives of note:

  • "Sven Nykvist 1922–2006 (9/25/06): The work of one of film's greatest cinematographers.
  • "A Moment of Silence: Ingmar Bergman (1918–2007)" (8/9/07): Looking back at the work of a cinematic giant.
  • "Kurosawa Exhibit" (12/10/08): Considering another of cinema's masters.
  • "Éric Rohmer (1920-2010)" (1/26/10): Appreciating the subtleties and sublimeness of Rohmer's work.
  • "Roger Ebert (1942–2013)" (4/12/13): A look at the film critic and his prose.
  • "Ray Harryhausen (1920–2013)" (5/20/13): The stop-motion magician.
  • Banned Books

    I try to write a post for Banned Books Week every year (and comment on current events, if relevant). To date, the most extensive posts in this category are:

  • "Just Another Concerned Parent Firing Librarians" (9/12/08): My most in-depth post of several on Sarah Palin's unsuccessful censorship attempts as Mayor of Wasilla.
  • "Fahrenheit 451" (10/3/08): A look at the novel and recent attempts to ban it.
  • "Banned Books Week 2010" (9/27/10): Choosing not to read something is fine; banning entails preemptively making that choice for everyone else.
  • "Banned Books Week 2011" (9/25/11): Efforts to ban works by Aldous Huxley and Sherman Alexie.
  • "Banned Books Week 2014" (9/27/14): Kurt Vonnegut and Slaughterhouse Five.
  • Other Arts

  • "Who's on First?" (5/7/08): My experiences rehearsing and performing the famous sketch. (I've done it about a dozen times now.)
  • "Creativity" (7/10/08): A piece about protecting and nurturing the creative impulse.
  • "Ar Eirinn Ni Neosainn Ce Hi" (3/17/09): This St. Patrick's Day post on one of my favorite Irish songs still gets hits occasionally.
  • "Iain Banks" (6/5/13): An assessment of the Scottish sci-fi and "straight" fiction author Iain Banks, who unfortunately died in 2013.
  • "Pete Seeger (1919–2014)" (2/12/14): An appreciation of the folk singer and activist.
  • I really should write more about theater and poetry, but I try to post something for National Poetry Month in April every year, and I'm always happy to plug the wonderful Favorite Poem Project.

    The Holocaust

    Each year, I write a post for International Holocaust Remembrance Day and sometimes write related posts about current events. The most significant posts in The Holocaust category are:

  • Holocaust Remembrance Day (2006): A roundup of Holocaust materials.
  • "International Holocaust Remembrance Day, 2008": A look at the Nazi propaganda (including films) used to sell their T4 "euthanasia" program, a precursor to their death camps. (Some film clip issues, alas.)
  • "International Holocaust Remembrance Day, 2009": Music from composers persecuted or killed by the Nazis.
  • "Godwin's Law" (4/21/09): Considering its value and limitations.
  • "Deny Me Health Care or Give Me Death" (8/16/09): Conservatives misrepresent history to compare giving people health care to Nazi killings.
  • "If This Is a Man" (1/27/10): A look at one of the best Holocaust memoirs, Primo Levi's If This Is a Man (Se questo è un uomo), better known in the U.S. as Survival in Auschwitz.

    The Jon Swift Roundup (and the Rest)

    For the past several years, I've continued a tradition started by the late, great, Jon Swift (pen name of Al Weisel) – the best posts of the year, picked by the bloggers themselves. The category is here.

    I've also cross-posted or guest posted at Crooks and Liars, Hullabaloo, the Campaign for America's Future, and the dearly departed Blue Herald. (At times I miss the series Right-Wing Cartoon Watch that ran there, but it was a ton of work.)

    That's about it. At times, the site name "Vagabond Scholar" strikes me as stuffy or pretentious – and it doesn't fit my sillier nom de blog – but I picked it in the spirit of curiosity and searching, not pretending to know all the answers. (More background's here.)

    Thanks to everyone who's stopped by over the years, and happy blogging.

  • Wednesday, November 11, 2015

    Armistice Day 11/11/15

    (Click on the comic strip for a larger view.)

    In 1959, Pogo creator Walt Kelly wrote:

    The eleventh day of the eleventh month has always seemed to me to be special. Even if the reason for it fell apart as the years went on, it was a symbol of something close to the high part of the heart. Perhaps a life that stretches through two or three wars takes its first war rather seriously, but I still think we should have kept the name "Armistice Day." Its implications were a little more profound, a little more hopeful.

    You said it, brother.

    Thanks to all who have served or are serving, on this Veterans Day, or Remembrance Day, or Armistice Day.

    This post is mostly a repeat I run every year, since I find it hard to top Kelly.

    My latest post on war is "Sense and Insensibility."

    Six years ago now, I wrote a series of six related posts for Armistice Day (and as part of an ongoing series on war). The starred posts are the most important, but the list is:

    "Élan in The Guns of August"

    "Demonizing of the Enemy"

    "The War Poetry of Wilfred Owen"

    ***"Giddy Minds and Foreign Quarrels"

    "The Little Mother"

    ***"War and the Denial of Loss"

    The most significant other entries in the series are:

    "How to Hear a True War Story" (2007)

    "Day of Shame" (2008)

    "The Poetry of War" (2008)

    "Armistice Day 2008" (featuring the war poetry of Siegfried Sassoon).

    "They Could Not Look Me in the Eye Again" (2011)

    "The Dogs of War" (2013)

    "The Courage to Make Others Suffer" (2015)

    I generally update these posts later with links to appropriate pieces for 11/11 by other folks as I find them. If you've written one, feel free to link it in a comment. Thanks.

    (British soldiers.)

    Others' posts for 11/11:

    "Armistice Day," by John Quiggin at Crooked Timber.

    "Poppy Love," by Maria Farrell at Crooked Timber.

    "The Thirteenth Anniversary of the Walk," by syrbal-labrys at Herlander-Walking.

    "Bitter as Wine from Blood: A Poem for Veterans Day," by syrbal-labrys at Herlander-Walking.

    "On This Veterans Day," by Paul Wartenberg at You Might Notice a Trend.

    "Lest We Forget," by Shakezula at Lawyers, Guns & Money.

    "Happy Veterans Day," by Adam L. Siverman at Balloon Juice.

    Sense and Insensibility

    On Armistice Day (or Veterans Day, or Remembrance Day), it’s an especially good time to pause and reflect. Those most eager for war are rarely the ones who will fight or pay the costs. Requiring a high threshold for war is the position of basic sanity; it’s common sense. Yet saber-rattling and posturing bravado always sell well to certain crowds, and blithe imperialism will eternally be fashionable among a particular vacuous and powerful set. What’s ignored is the human experience and the inevitable suffering of people a step or two (or many) removed.

    World War I, the Great War, which sadly proved not to be “the war to end all wars,” was raging 100 years ago. One of the war’s best poets was Wilfred Owen, who tragically died shortly before the war’s end. I’ve featured his poetry before, including this piece, but was reminded of it again recently:

    Insensibility
    By Wilfred Owen

    I
    Happy are men who yet before they are killed
    Can let their veins run cold.
    Whom no compassion fleers
    Or makes their feet
    Sore on the alleys cobbled with their brothers.
    The front line withers. 
    But they are troops who fade, not flowers, 
    For poets’ tearful fooling:
    Men, gaps for filling:
    Losses, who might have fought
    Longer; but no one bothers.

    II
    And some cease feeling
    Even themselves or for themselves.
    Dullness best solves
    The tease and doubt of shelling,
    And Chance’s strange arithmetic
    Comes simpler than the reckoning of their shilling.
    They keep no check on armies’ decimation.

    III
    Happy are these who lose imagination:
    They have enough to carry with ammunition.
    Their spirit drags no pack.
    Their old wounds, save with cold, can not more ache.
    Having seen all things red,
    Their eyes are rid
    Of the hurt of the colour of blood for ever.
    And terror’s first constriction over,
    Their hearts remain small-drawn.
    Their senses in some scorching cautery of battle
    Now long since ironed,
    Can laugh among the dying, unconcerned.

    IV
    Happy the soldier home, with not a notion
    How somewhere, every dawn, some men attack,
    And many sighs are drained.
    Happy the lad whose mind was never trained:
    His days are worth forgetting more than not.
    He sings along the march
    Which we march taciturn, because of dusk,
    The long, forlorn, relentless trend
    From larger day to huger night.

    V
    We wise, who with a thought besmirch
    Blood over all our soul,
    How should we see our task
    But through his blunt and lashless eyes?
    Alive, he is not vital overmuch;
    Dying, not mortal overmuch;
    Nor sad, nor proud,
    Nor curious at all.
    He cannot tell
    Old men’s placidity from his.

    VI
    But cursed are dullards whom no cannon stuns,
    That they should be as stones.
    Wretched are they, and mean
    With paucity that never was simplicity.
    By choice they made themselves immune
    To pity and whatever moans in man
    Before the last sea and the hapless stars;
    Whatever mourns when many leave these shores;
    Whatever shares
    The eternal reciprocity of tears.


    These are old and recurring themes, and this poem resonates across eras. It spoke to World War II veteran Eugene Sledge, who wrote the war memoir With the Old Breed (part of the basis for the series The Pacific and also used in the Ken Burns documentary, The War). Sledge recommended the piece to Studs Turkel during his interview for Turkel’s great, ironically titled oral history, The Good War. Remarking on the poem’s speaker, Sledge observed, "This is the only way he can cope with it mentally... and he hates to see his buddies killed."  (It’s fascinating to listen to the discussions between Sledge and Turkel because Sledge is so candid and reflective, and Turkel is so genuinely interested in other human beings.)

    “Insensibility” covers a great deal of ground in a short space – it expresses a sardonic wit, explores numbness (whether voluntary or involuntary) as a survival mechanism, and ponders “Chance’s strange arithmetic,” an apt phrase for a perennial wartime fear. Insensibility isn’t the only possible response – Sophocles explored rage and madness in his 5th century BCE play, Ajax, a piece that still resonates with modern audiences, particularly those who have experienced combat. How does someone deal with such experiences? It’s not easy, and sometimes the response may indeed be post-traumatic stress disorder (the “shell shock” of an earlier era), or numbness, or rage, or depression, or fatigue, or some mix, or something else altogether.

    This is an old story, but not one our country has grappled with well, especially as it plays out against actual human beings. Obviously not every veteran is a powder keg, and that’s definitely not the point of discussing this – the issue is whether we’re offering adequate help to those who need it. A set of 2014 studies bolsters past findings on PTSD and its prevalence. It can be treated, but there’s still a heavy and unfortunate stigma attached. Anthony Pike of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) observed that “An estimated 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are diagnosed with PTSD or depression, and most civilians are unaware that 22 veterans take their own lives each day.”

    Reportedly, the military has gotten better at addressing PTSD and similar issues over the years. But for perspective, military spending by the U.S. has often exceeded 600 billion a year in the past decade or so, and that trend looks to continue when everything is tallied. Given all that money, perhaps more could be diverted to the general mental health and well-being of servicemen and women. Perhaps more effort could be made at addressing attitudes that PTSD or other problems are due to a lack of character (or, as we’ve explored in previous posts, a lack of religious faith).

    Wars of choice are unconscionable (and we’ve explored that in depth in other pieces), but especially if one supports such a war (or really any war), it’s inexcusable not to take care of that war’s veterans. That means not serving up hollow slogans or flag-waving or jingoistic platitudes and instead providing actual help, from physical health care, to mental health care, to jobs programs. (Honestly, all of that would a good idea for the whole country, too.) The vacuous, the rabid, and the dullards might not want to discuss such things – or any of the negative consequences of war – but addressing them remains a matter of basic decency and common sense.

    (Cross-posted at Hullabaloo.)

    Saturday, October 03, 2015

    Banned Books Week 2015

    It's the end of Banned Books Week, which celebrates reading challenged and banned books. I've written more extensive posts on this in the past (the archive is here), but I did want to revisit a few issues.

    The most recent list of "Frequently Challenged or Banned Young Adult Fiction" features some familiar works:

    1) The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

    Reasons: anti-family, cultural insensitivity, drugs/alcohol/smoking, gambling, offensive language, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group, violence. Additional reasons: “depictions of bullying”

    2) Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi

    Reasons: gambling, offensive language, political viewpoint. Additional reasons: “politically, racially, and socially offensive,” “graphic depictions”

    3) And Tango Makes Three, Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell

    Reasons: Anti-family, homosexuality, political viewpoint, religious viewpoint, unsuited for age group. Additional reasons: “promotes the homosexual agenda”

    4) The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison

    Reasons: Sexually explicit, unsuited for age group. Additional reasons: “contains controversial issues”

    5) It’s Perfectly Normal, by Robie Harris

    Reasons: Nudity, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group. Additional reasons: “alleges it child pornography”

    6) Saga, by Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples

    Reasons: Anti-Family, nudity, offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited for age group. Additional reasons:

    7) The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini Reasons: Offensive language, unsuited to age group, violence

    8) The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky

    Reasons: drugs/alcohol/smoking, homosexuality, offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group. Additional reasons: “date rape and masturbation”

    9) A Stolen Life, Jaycee Dugard

    Reasons: drugs/alcohol/smoking, offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited for age group

    10) Drama, by Raina Telgemeier

    Reasons: sexually explicit


    A past post covered The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. The latest ban, from April, is troubling if also laughable and familiar. From the National Coalition Against Censorship:

    According to recent press accounts, Alexie’s award-winning young adult novel was removed from the middle school curriculum in Waterloo, Iowa—a decision made based on one parent’s complaint and in blatant violation of the district’s own policies regarding challenged materials.

    Today, NCAC’s Kids’ Right to Read Project (KRRP) sent a letter urging the district to reinstate the book. Alongside allies from the American Booksellers for Free Expression, National Council of Teachers of English, Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, PEN American Center, and the Association of American Publishers, KRRP points out that the “decision to remove the book was made on an ad hoc basis without following the district’s policy for reviewing book challenges, and with no input from teachers.”

    The Waterloo school district entirely disregarded its procedure for dealing with challenges, based on the specious argument that the parental objection—based on profanity and sexual references—was never a “formal” challenge.

    The KRRP letter argues the decision “to remove a book with such strong literary and pedagogical merit not only disserves the educational interests of students but also raises constitutional questions…. the attempt to alter school curricula in response to individual objections means privileging the moral or religious beliefs of some families over others. It is precisely this form of viewpoint discrimination by government that our constitutional system is designed to prevent.”


    The ban was issued by Debbie Lee, the "Waterloo School District’s executive director of K-12 curriculum." From the news article linked above:

    The concern of the parent, Lee explained, did not constitute a “challenge,” so there was no need for the creation of a review committee.


    That's a cute trick. Lee wanted to ban the book, so she issued an edict and bypassed her own district's policies. It's worth noting that Lee has allowed the book for high school, but not middle school. That doesn't make her decision any less dictatorial, though – she and a few administrations made this call, deliberately excluding teachers and dissenting parents.

    And what was the reaction from teachers? (You know, the people who actually interact with students on this material?)

    Kevin Roberts is a literacy teacher at George Washington Carver Academy, a middle school in Waterloo. He was leaving school for spring break when he got the email [from Lee banning the book].

    Roberts had recently wrapped up a unit about “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” in his eighth-grade advanced literacy class. He knew how much his 13- to 14-year-old students had related to the novel’s depiction of adolescence and struggle against adversity. He said some students told him it was the only book they had ever read they actually liked.

    On March 25, Roberts replied to Lee and all the other teachers and administrators included in the email thread.

    “As one who has used this book in the classroom, navigated the references to masturbation and profanity and fostered rigorous dialogue about theme and action in our community, I disagree with the blanket censorship of this book,” Roberts wrote.

    Deciding what books to use in class based on whether they were "controversial" was problematic in Roberts' eyes, but what troubled him most was how the Alexie novel was removed, and by whom.

    “Allowing one person to deem a book inappropriate and require all copies of that book to be returned is a breach of those guidelines,” Roberts wrote in reference to district policy. “More importantly, the choice to put this decision in the hands of one person reflects poorly on our district’s teacher professionals who deserve a voice in this process.”

    Roberts’ concerns about district policy were echoed by at least four other teachers and staff members over the last few weeks in the email thread, all of whom have asked not to be identified in this story. . . .

    “Saying this book was not challenged, and therefore the district policy requiring a review process is not necessary goes against the spirit of the district policy," he wrote.


    Relatedly, The Washington Post recently published a piece on by banned author Jacqueline Woodson. It's thoughtful, but has a lousy, clickbait title (likely an editor's choice), "It’s Banned Books Week again. Can we stop yelling at each other about it?"

    Woodson, the mother of two children, 7 and 13, hopes for greater dialogue, less shouting.

    “Everybody wants to believe that they’re in the right place,” she said. “And I think that’s the same way for people who are challenging books. These people see violence or something sexually explicit, and they think, ‘We don’t want our kids exposed to that because we want to protect them.’

    “I definitely can understand parents having objections. As a mom, as someone who wants to protect my children in any way that I can, I can kind of get inside the heads of people who are saying, ‘This is not okay,’ only because they’re fearful. That’s where I can begin to have the conversation. I think people are willing to talk about anything if you come to it with kindness. But there are all these conversations that I fear are not being had, and as a result, we get banned and challenged.”

    For Woodson, those conversations involve asking, “Are you really protecting your child, or are you keeping your child from the tools they’ll need to deal with these issues?”

    If she hears a parent say, “I’m afraid that my daughter will see something sexually explicit and will want to do that,” Woodson responds, “Okay, but let’s talk about what it means to be a teenager. Let’s talk about what it means to have hormones.”

    “We, as adults, are the gatekeepers,” she said, “and we have to check our own fears at the door because we want our children to be smarter than we are. We want them to be more fully human than we are.”

    She sees books offering solace to kids who feel different or unaccepted. We never know when a young person will read something and think, “Wow, I’m not as alone as I thought I was.”


    This is a fantastic approach. As we've explored in previous years, certain parents get very anxious about their teenagers regarding sex, and act in counterproductive ways. (The entirely predictable increase in teen pregnancies in regions dictating abstinence-only sex education is a prime example.) Humanizing these situations the way Woodson does can help cut through some of the resistance.

    A few caveats are in order, though. Not all parents truly want their children to "be more fully alive" than they are. For some parents, fear and and the urge to control override all else. The authoritarian model preaches obedience, not giving someone 'the tools he or she needs to deal with these issues.' Likewise, the "yelling" and "shouting" is almost exclusively initiated by the pro-censorship crowd, who are picking these fights in the first place. Moreover, they don't want an honest discussion of issues or a fair fight. This isn't surprising, given that the entire point of censorship is to prevent engagement.

    For instance, if Debbie Lee had actually formed a review committee, perhaps she still could have banned Alexie's book, but she did an end-around the process instead. Was it because she feared losing? Was it because she was in a position of power, could impose her will and felt she was unaccountable? Related to this, was it because she felt, by virtue of cultural demographics or something similar, that she and those like-minded were clearly correct (or even righteous), so fair process be damned?

    Would-be censors often skip over a key dynamic this passage touches on:

    And yet Woodson readily admits that she has removed books from her own children’s shelves — at least temporarily. She remembers one title in particular, but declines to name it, with a young narrator whose English was poor. “My kids were mimicking her language in a way that made me, as an English major, crazy. The character was also very, very rude to adults.” So she had “the conversation” with her daughter: “Is that kind, what she just did to that teacher?” And her daughter sagely responded, “No, but that’s fiction. You don’t do that in real life!”

    The book went back on her shelf.


    We've discussed this in previous years, but no one's ever really challenged the rights of a parent to make decisions about their kid's reading. (The wisdom of such decisions, perhaps, but not the right.) Would-be censors aren't merely saying, "I don't want my kid to read this, and my kid should be exempted." They're saying, "I don't want my kid to read this, and no other kids can be allowed to, either." These two actions are significantly different. In the context of school curricula, discussing whether a particular book has merit and whether it's age-appropriate is important, of course, but mechanisms exist for doing this (such as curriculum meetings among teachers, or the public review process Debbie Lee circumvented). There's a line misattributed to Mark Twain that nonetheless makes this point quite well: "Censorship is telling a man he can't have a steak just because a baby can't chew it."

    Students can almost always handle material much better than their fearful parents believe, too. As it turns out, Woodson's daughter was assigned The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and she told her mother, “That book is so good I cannot believe it was assigned.” With a good curriculum, that shouldn't be a rarity. With a heavily censored curriculum, it's the rule.

    Saturday, September 19, 2015

    Talk Like a Pirate Day 2015

    As is traditional for Talk Like a Pirate Day, I'll be using a English-to-Pirate translator on a scalliwag. This year, it's Sarah Palin and her latest childish, taunting word salad. The original can be heard or read here. (Rachel Maddow played it and said, "Tell me what it means.") Rendered into pirate, it's:

    So up thar in Alaska, across t' way Russia. You know thar be a name for this takin' advantage o' America. There be a Russian name for that. And it be called 'fortushka.' And that means Obama's window o' opportunity. So as Obama leads from behind t' skirt o' his starboard-hand man, Valerie Jarrett, then it's up t' Congress t' close that window. He may propose. You dispose, Congress. You gotta be in it t' win it because we want peace. With unapologetic mighty red, white, and blue, will have peace.


    That might actually be more coherent.