Tuesday, February 28, 2006

One sign of free speech

A jogger looks at a sign in John Caffery's front yard displaying and commenting on one of several editorial cartoons that have inflamed many in the Muslim world as he runs by the Daisy Street home Monday afternoon. (Photo by Scott Eslinger, Beaumont Enterprise)

In other parts of the world, people are killing each other because of an editorial cartoon showing the Prophet Muhammad, but ironically, most of them -- neither killers nor victims -- have actually seen the cartoon. Why? In Arab and Muslim countries, where most of the violent protests are happening, it would be blasphemous to print, broadcast or even show a snapshot of it under Islamic law.

In the USA, where free speech is the basis of our law, a Beaumont man has erected a large sign in his front yard, showing the cartoon that started all this bloodshed.

"It's cowardly for (a) newspaper giving in to the pressure from the Muslims for these so-called offending cartoons," sign-poster John Caffery said. "Most of the cartoons are pretty silly. The one out there on the sign is probably one of the least offending cartoons."

It's hard to disagree. Respect for religion is a good thing, but it's a two-way street. The WTC attacks, kidnappings and beheadings of innocents, the continued threats from Osama bin Laden ... all are more offensive than any editorial cartoon. One reason American newspapers have not generally run the cartoons, despite their news value, is respect for diverse readers ... not a comfortable decision, but defensible for now. When's the last time you could criticize a newspaper for being gracious and tolerant? Have a field day on this one, folks.

My hat's off, though, to Caffery for at least having the stones to say what he believes in big, bold lettering. He's not urinating on Muhammad's hat, or beheading a sweet little Lebanese girl, or torching the Yemeni consulate, or threatening Muslim bystanders with an AK-47. He's speaking his mind. You needn't agree with him, and you needn't worry he'll kill you for disagreeing.

The sooner the Muslim world learns to respect that particular freedom the sooner it will enjoy greater respect from the world. Respect that isn't earned by threat, intimidation and bloodshed.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Mush! Call of the white wild

SLED-DOG RACE by Chris Detrick (2006)

I just thought this was a remarkable photo by one of the best young photojournalists on the scene today. Chris Detrick just graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia's acclaimed School of Journalism last year, but he's racking up significant awards already as a rookie shooter at the Salt Lake (UT) Tribune. But don't take my word for it. See some of his extraordinary images at his web site www.chrisdetrick.com

Saturday, February 25, 2006

The Slacker Games

"My quality of life is the priority. I wanted to have fun here, to enjoy the Olympic experience, not be holed up in a closet and not ever leave your room. People said, 'Why can't you stay in for the two weeks, three weeks? You've got the rest of your life to experience the games the way everybody else does.' But I like the whole package. I always have."
Olympic medal-less Bode Miller

Between the excruciatingly self-absorbed Bode Miller, the miscalculating show-boarder (not a typo) Lindsey Jacobellis and the Hedrick-Davis speedskating skirmish, the USA doesn't look real sharp in the 2006 Winter Olympics, but we'd sweep all the gold medals in the 2006 Slacker Games. I guess being an Olympian just doesn't have the same cachet as it once did. Maybe Generation X-Games just wasn't intended for the world stage.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Why is ice slippery?

Since we're about to witness an orgy of Olympian ice-skating tonight, you are probably wondering: What makes ice slippery?

Well, a recent New York Times article attempted to explain it, but you might be surprised that ... nobody knows! Oh yes, there are new theories and long-held beliefs, but it simply hasn't been proven.

It might have to do with the more mobile top layer of atoms on the surface of ice. Or the heat of pressure caused by a skating blade. Or just the heat from friction caused by traveling across it. But nobody knows for sure.

But it might shock you to know that legions of scientists are, at this very moment, trying to find out! Irina Slutskaya probably won't be waiting to find out, but I will.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Honey, didn't I give you that lottery ticket?

Eight Nebraska meat processors will share this week's record $365 million Powerball jackpot -- which means they're about to hear from relatives they never knew existed. But you gotta feel a little giddy on their behalf, don't you? Can't you imagine what it would be like to have your life upended -- in a fabulous way -- for the investment of one dollar?

Alain Maboussou, a 26-year-old who fled war-torn homeland in Central Africa, said he'd spend some of his $15.5 million in winnings getting a college accounting degree.

"It's too early for me to retire, but I did four days ago. I'm going to be working for myself now. ... [three-month-old daughter, Katherine] is going to be happy for the rest of her life."

It took four days for the winners to come forward, for understandable reasons. But it got me thinking: For four days, what would you do with this little scrap of paper that's literally worth millions of dollars? (A co-worker says she'd lock it in a plastic bag and tape it to her body.)

Aside from protecting it from theft or damage, would it command your attention, night and day, until you could hand it to the proper authorities? What obsession with this little piece of pulp can you imagine in that four days?

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Gold, silver, bronze and black

HBO's Real Sports host Bryant Gumbel recently told his audience he doesn't like or watch the Winter Olympics, partly because there aren't enough African-Americans competing. He said:

"Finally, tonight, the Winter Games. Count me among those who don’t like them and won’t watch them ... Because they’re so trying, maybe over the next three weeks we should all try too. Like, try not to be incredulous when someone attempts to link these games to those of the ancient Greeks who never heard of skating or skiing. So try not to laugh when someone says these are the world’s greatest athletes, despite a paucity of blacks that makes the Winter Games look like a GOP convention. Try not to point out that something’s not really a sport if a pseudo-athlete waits in what’s called a 'kiss-and-cry' area, while some panel of subjective judges decides who won ... So if only to hasten the arrival of the day they’re done, when we can move on to March Madness — for God’s sake, let the games begin."

Hmmm. Let the questions begin. The actual transcript has been removed from HBO's site, but the curiosity remains.

-- What do Republicans have to do with this? Are they all white? Are Democrats all black? Is activist-journalist Gumbel showing his own political and racial prejudices?
-- What would happen if any white commentator had said he doesn't watch the NCAA's March Madness because it "looks like a Nation of Islam convention"? (I find that abhorrent.)
-- Despite Gumbel's viewing preferences, is it really fair to hold the Winter Olympics responsible for geography? After all, the great bulk of blacks outside the USA live in countries where winter sports are alien ... or is there some belief out there that an affirmative action-like program is necessary to fix this particular sporting event?
-- Why must so many people inject race as a divider when it's simply not?

I say pop, you say soda

It has divided America into Red States and Blue States. It has bubbled quietly, inexorably. We have become slaves to our own traditions and refuse to acknowledge that other people in other places might see it differently. Can't we all just get along?

What's that? ... politics? .... NO! The whole "soda" vs. "pop" vs. "Coke" debate! Americans can't seem to agree on what we call fizzy soft-drinks! Really, people, you might find this difficult to comprehend, but this is a far more important schism than whether Saddam Hussein prefers boxer or briefs!

Now East Central Oklahoma University's Department of Cartography and Geography has studied this phenomenon with more than 120,000 respondents. Matthew Campbell of the Spatial Graphics and Analysis Lab created a roll-over map of every U.S. county and its tendencies to call it "soda" (or "sodey" in some places), "pop," "Coke," or something entirely different (although, check out Southern California's preferences.)

Go to the web site and check out your county's preferred term ... and please, let's try to avoid a civil war.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Just another Texas hunting ... party?

It's a good thing Cheney wasn't hunting the way REAL Texans hunt!

OK, now I'm really confused. All my Lefty friends are up in arms about Vice President Dick Cheney's marksmanship. "What a dope!" they say.

That's what's confusing. Normally, they'd be celebrating the shooting of another Republican Texas lawyer!

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Love sucks, but let's do it anyway

"I'm pregnant. He couldn't have been THAT gay.''

"I love you, but your credit's not that good.''

"I said I love you and think I want to spend my life with you,
but right now I'm in Safeway and I can't find anything,
so I'll call you later.''

"I think he married the first nonhooker he met.''

"She is my second wife. I'm actually much closer
to my first wife, though. We've exchanged gunfire.''

"I was looking for someone for just a really good time,
but then I peeked at his iTunes playlist.
He'd be serious baggage.''

Yep, those are all real quotes from real people. After my screed yesterday about fibbery in the media, would I lie to you? Well, not today anyway. Lying on Valentine's Day is like ... oh wait, I suppose a lot of lies get told on Valentine's Day .... but these quotes are genuine. Probably. I hope.

Want to see more? Check out Leah Garchik's column in today's San Francisco Chronicle. That's where these quotes were harvested.

Hey, let's start our own list. What's the funniest thing you've ever heard said in the name of romance? Man, woman, whatever. Love, lust, like-real-bad, love-you-but-not-in-love-with-you ... whatever.

Monday, February 13, 2006

America loves its lies

Every day, a phone rings somewhere in my newsroom -- and, I'd bet, in every newsroom in America -- and a caller excoriates some young reporter for being "biased." Sometimes, the story is fairly criticized, but mostly not. Readers have become increasingly bold (and nasty) in their demands for "fair and balanced" reporting. And it comes from all political directions, not just devotees of Fox News.

"Fair" is the absolute grail of most legitimate news reporters (a group that doesn't include Bill O'Reilly, Geraldo Rivera, most TV anchors and Nancy Grace, among others.) Good reporters have feelings, but they've learned to step back from their lesser beliefs to serve a greater belief: Fairness. A good reporter wants you, the Reader, to be able to make up your own mind. Why would I risk my credibility to win you over to my politics? Your politics simply don't matter that much to me.

And here's the reality: People don't want "unbiased" reporting. Instead, they want reporting with THEIR biases already built in (which is why almost every good story looks "biased" to about half the populace.) Ask yourself next time you read an account of a political squabble: Is it "unbiased" because My Guy looks better than Their Guy? Or is it "biased" because My Guy looks bad?

In a column headlined "When the 'facts' collide, honest debate is elusive," Pulitzer-winner Leonard Pitts of the Miami Herald had an outstanding view of the issue today.
"It's increasingly the case that there's no such thing as the truth. Rather, we have truths, separate but equal. We choose the one we need, based on which best validates our preferred worldview. We get these truths from radio talk shows and Internet forums that manufacture them according to our political alliances and warn in dire tones against trusting truth that comes from ideologically impure sources.

"So extreme conservatives shun the 'liberal media' and extreme liberals shun the 'mainstream media.' And neither seems to get the joke that they're both shunning the same media for supposedly favoring the other side. Seems obvious to me that when opposing extremists each accuse you of supporting the other, you're probably hitting pretty close to the truth.

"... Once upon a time, we all drew upon a common pool of facts. You might interpret them differently than I, but we could have an honest disagreement because the facts themselves were not in contention. Now we have designer facts, facts that aren't facts but that gain currency because somebody wanted to believe them. The thing is, facts that really are facts, truth that really is true, doesn't always validate your beliefs. Sometimes it challenges and confounds them. That's probably the problem."

We support liars when they are Our Liars, yet suddenly become righteously indignant when it's Your Liars. We're comfortable -- even defensive -- with the lies Our Side tells, yet hypersensitive to any hint of inconsistency on the Your Side. We zealously believe every spam that says Your Guy is a pedophiliac monkey-rubber; we rise up against the obvious and destructive "lies" that Our Guy once double-parked near an old folks' home.

Does it come from a legal system where two professional liars test every stupid theory and expect the truth to be somehow discerned? Do we live in a world of competing expert witnesses/paid punditry? Are we watching too much Court TV?

America says it wants the truth, but as Jack Nicholson said (and Pitts quotes) .... we can't stand the truth. We love our lies.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The ghosts of 'In Cold Blood'

“Until one morning in mid-November of 1959, few Americans – in fact, few Kansans – had ever heard of Holcomb. Like the waters of the river, like the motorists on the highway, and like the yellow trains streaking down the Santa Fe tracks, drama, in the shape of exceptional happenings, had never stopped there.”
Truman Capote, “In Cold Blood”

Outlanders have almost no good reason to be on Kansas Highway 50 past Holcomb and Lakin, Kendall and Syracuse … In the circulatory system of American roads, it’s a thin, black capillary, a minor vein barely pulsing with the rhythms of the Heartland.

Yet there I was, an outlander. I had driven all day from Denver on a journey that was part research, part pilgrimage. I was about to begin writing an intimate book about a monstrous crime that had splashed me in 1973, when I was a child growing up in another isolated small town that almost nobody had heard of – an abduction, rape and murder involving two young friends who were, at the end of a dark night of terror, thrown from a very high bridge. And that was only the beginning, not the end, of the horror. ...

The rest of this essay appears at the new blog "FALL," where you can find lots more about Ron Franscell's upcoming true crime/memoir.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Sorry, my karma just hit your dogma

An act of disrespect or impiety toward something regarded as sacred; gross irreverence toward a hallowed person, place, or thing

This question arises in the midst of the now-deadly Muslim protests over a Danish newspaper’s editorial cartoon depicting Mohammed, which they consider sacrilegious: Can a non-believer do something truly sacrilegious against a faith not his own?

If it is sacrilegious for a non-Muslim newspaper to publish a cartoon depicting Mohammed, then is it also sacrilegious for:

-- a Baptist to eat pork?
-- a Catholic to kill a cow?
-- a Jew to swear “Jesus Christ!”?
-- a Muslim to work on Saturday?
-- a Buddhist to take communion?
-- a Presbyterian to get an abortion?
-- a Wiccan to cross herself?
-- an atheist to use a crucifix to open a can of beans?

And if those things are truly sacrilegious, what makes some religions capable of absorbing -- even understanding -- the disrespect while others to go on murderous rampages?

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Getting over the 'Brokeback' hump

I was raised in Wyoming -- not as a cowboy and not gay (not that there's anything wrong with that) -- and I was fascinated by Annie Proulx's short story when it first came out. So last weekend, my 22-year-old daughter and I went to see "Brokeback Mountain." It was her second time, and she planned to see it at least once more with her boyfriend. We went to a 1:45 p.m. matinee, thinking that'd be the thinnest crowd. It was packed, proving it's not wise to make broad assumptions here in the Bible Belt.

Well, I graduated from the 18-to-34 male demographic exactly 15 years ago, so I don't count, but there weren't many of those precious consumers in the audience. Lots of older folks of both sexes, and some young women -- but few young men. Why's that?

The San Francisco Chronicle's pop culture writer Peter Hartlaub noticed, too. And this weekend, he offers some excellent tips (and some hilarious writing) on the phenomenon. He says, in part:

"It's a strange phobia, considering that 'Brokeback Mountain' may be the best date movie to come along in years. You have the potential to look so sensitive that you can probably get her to pay for the movie and a trip to Red Lobster. Add a few tears near the ending (just think about that scene in 'Rudy' where underdog Rudy leads the Notre Dame Irish on the field), and you might be surprised where the evening takes you. Think make-up sex is great? Try some you-just-took-me-to-'Brokeback Mountain' sex."
For my part, I liked "Brokeback Mountain." While most of it was shot in Canada, it captured the promising-but-perilous (and occasionally bleak) landscape of my home state pretty well. I knew guys like Ennis and Jack: Rootless, aloof, lonely, deliberately dispassionate, and usually impoverished, living from meager paycheck to rodeo entry fee to meager paycheck. We've seen his type depicted before: Montgomery Clift (who also happened to be gay) in "The Misfits" and Cliff Robertson in "J.W. Coop." So, for me, there was this twinge of recognition of those guys, and I felt terribly sorry for them ... and hoped to God I wasn't like them when the time came to take stock of life.

Is there a real Brokeback Mountain, you might ask your blogging Wyoming friend?


The USGS Global Names Information System contains no Brokeback Mountain, but there's a Brokenback Creek, Narrows and Reservoir about 100 miles northeast of Riverton, a real city in central Wyoming (the town where Ennis Del Mar lives in the story.)

Annie Proulx told the Jackson Hole (Wyo.) News: "Brokeback is not a real place. There is, on a map I once saw, a Break Back Mountain in Wyoming which I have never seen, but the name worked on several levels and replaced half a dozen more pedestrian names I had been trying out."

But, in fact, there are no Break Back geographic sites in Wyoming either. Ain't creativity cool?

PHOTO ABOVE: This is what's known in Wyoming as an "IFOT" -- an image made "in front of Tetons."

Thursday, February 02, 2006

WWDD (What would Doonesbury do?)

OK, it's not really news that radical Muslims are mad and want to kill people ... that's just every Thursday for Osama and his boys.

But it's kinda funny that they now want to blow up anybody who laughed at a Danish newspaper's editorial cartoon depicting Mohammad with a bomb on his head. In fact, a terrorist mob armed with automatic weapons showed up at the European Union's offices in Gaza City, looking for somebody -- anybody -- to shoot. United Nations officials have been dragged into it. In Pakistan, mobs chanted "Death to Denmark!" and "Death to France!" It's funny to think of Denmark as a threat to Islam, isn't it? Denmark isn't even a threat to Finland.

Muslims consider it sacrilegious and blasphemous to depict the Prophet Mohammad in any way. And out of respect for the religion among most media outlets, you won't see the cartoon anywhere ... except the Internet, where nobody usually cares about anybody else's feelings. (OK, if you don't think Westerners have similarly strong feelings about images of their religious leaders, just ask Sinead O'Connor.)

I wonder: How can a culture that justifies crashing planes into buildings or beheading innocents find a piddling editorial cartoon too offensive?

Hunting for logic in the madrassahs of the Muslim world is fruitless. Logic is a head-thing, and radical Islamists listen only to the sour bile in their guts. We have Muslim media (al Jazeera) airing decapitation videos for the simple reason that radical Islamists know beheadings are highly provocative to Westerners ... but now radical Islamists are going (slightly more) insane over a newspaper cartoon?? Man, they need to cut back the caffeine in that Turkish coffee.

If Muslim countries wish to ban such idolatrous art, let 'em. But most Muslim nations put more energy into organizing "Death to America!" parades than election days. Why waste time debating issues when you can simply blow up the opposition? Why write a letter to the editor when you can just shoot your rival? Face it, terrorists generally aren't good listeners (or cuddlers, for that matter.) But, hey, it's their little corner of Hell, and if they wish, they should be free to set the thermostat on "high."

But a lot of nations in this world still have free presses, free expression, and really wicked editorial cartoonists. Radical Islamists with 12th century sensibilities have already made a too-big dent in the 21st century ... and when they arrive at democratic government offices and newsrooms with loaded weapons, they're no better than the "devil-dogs" they so gleefully decapitate. Haven't they seen how George Bush is portrayed in cartoons? And how long do you think before "South Park" has a Mohammad character dancing nekkid with 72 virgins?

Oh well. Editorial cartoonists' only reason for living is to get under somebody's skin. And now, one Danish cartoonist has found some readers who want to get under his skin ... with a scimitar.

PICTURED ABOVE: A real editorial cartoon from an Arab newspaper. Maybe it's me, but it seems to lack something ... oh yeah, humor. Kill the cartoonist!