Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Je Suis Charlie: What Does That Really Mean?

Nearly two weeks after the Jihadist-driven massacre in Paris that took the lives of seventeen sane, innocent people and a few monsters, the fallout has left me a bit baffled.

"All is Forgiven" ;  "I am Charlie"
It was no surprise, really, that as the staff at Charlie Hebdo rallied to get out its scheduled issue on time - complete with the usual satirical cartoons - the likes of The New York Times and MSNBC refused to show the cover during coverage of the story, explaining that they didn't want to offend Muslims (translate: hurt anyone's feelings). CNN was even more disingenuous about it: they announced they wouldn't show it without reason, for about two days, then said they wanted to protect their journalists from Muslim attack. Baloney - have they not covered other controversial subjects with no such worries? And after all - what sort of "news organization" are you if you do not take risks? At least one on-air anchor openly stated disagreement with the decision.

Funny thing is . . . no one seems to understand what the cover cartoon was about. I read and understand French well, and it left me scratching my head. I had to laugh when news anchors asked French citizens what they thought it meant, and got everything from nervous chuckles to various lengthy theories.  (In the end, I think the meaning was super-satirical: a crying Mohammad as a joke that Muslims would never feel remorse for the violence they inflict on the West in the name of Islam.)

What is astounding to me, though, as a writer and sometime journalist, is that none of these entities seemed to appreciate what I was taught in Journalism 101: that free expression is sacred, and that it must remain so. Sure . . . they give it lip-service as they link arms and walk a few blocks in a parade/photo op, but how many national leaders, and sadly how many news network editors, really get it?  I had to realize that many really don't.

Back thirty-odd years ago when I was a student in the journalism department of a large university, I was assigned a major paper for a writing class. The idea was to learn to write a well-researched 50-pager. I chose to write on Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. He was a Russian writer and social critic. Born in 1918, just as the Russian communist revolution was at an end, he grew up in a world where he was forbidden to write much of what was racing around in his head. But Solzhenitsyn bucked the system and did it anyway. As a result, he spent some time in a Siberian prison camp (he got a good book out of it), and eventually escaped the U.S.S.R. and fled into Western Europe, and after some time, the U.S.  I was twenty-something, and it fascinated me that someone could be punished so brutally for simply voicing an opinion. It fascinated me, and he fascinated me. 

I also was fascinated with the few voices in Nazi Germany who spoke out against the popular regime. Let's not forget that Hitler's rise to power took over a decade . . . during which your average German citizen either was too busy living life to care much about the cancerous elephant in the room, or simply couldn't wrap their brains around the ugly truth of Hitler's aims. So they told themselves it wasn't all that bad, turned their eyes away, and their backs, and well . . . we know how that  turned out.  Those who spoke up, who refused to be silenced against mass opinion, generally ended up dead. But quite a few managed to mess things up for the Nazis a bit before they did.  I understood quite early in my life that these were the lives that mattered in this world - these were the souls that were strongest.  Each time one died, they managed to light a small candle first in a world of darkness - in the form of open speech.  Forbidden speech. 

In early 2012, a teen-aged girl in Pakistan, Malala Yousafzai, was hired to write a blog for the BBC, detailing her life under Taliban occupation.  She talked about their gradual occupation of the valley where she lived, how life became more restrictive and the Taliban patrols more feared. Most of all she talked about how things were changing for women, for girls trying to get an education. Malala loved learning and appreciated deeply the opportunities she had to go to school daily. She was punished for her courage in speaking out, in October of that year, when the Taliban stopped her school bus, boarded and asked for her by name, and shot the 15-year-old girl in the head. All for speaking out about her beliefs. After a long recovery, she continued to speak, even being one of few women to address the U.N General Assembly to speak on the rights of women to education.

There are hundreds of these stories through the time of our history as a thinking, writing, drawing,
photographing, painting, singing  race.  The people in our history who have introduced new ideas, who have spurred the rest of us to think, who have sparked the energy of change for the better, were all such people.  Change is rarely ever welcomed - it is human nature to push back against it; without these brave people to express ideas we have never heard before, ideas that demand thought and social progress, we would stagnate. 

Many of us watched the world leaders (minus our own spineless one) join the millions-strong march in Paris to support Charlie Hebdo and by extension freedom of expression. I had to believe that for many it was a photo op (witness the Saudi leader, having the gall to stand in support of freedom of expression even as his country carries out a sentence of 20 public canings against journalist Raif Badawi for daring to "insult" Islam in his work; or Putin - the thug whose regime murders journalists who get too mouthy). Others likely stood against Islamic extremism without making the connection in their brains that the two issues - Islamic extremism and free expression - were inseparable on that day.

I wonder how many in the crowd really understood it either.  France has a long proud history of fighting for freedom for the individual, and a long history of producing great artists and writers that introduced controversial ideas, and I have to say I'm not surprised that this social explosion occurred in France, of any of the western European countries. But, France has failed to protect free expression to the extent that it should have: it folded to the politically correct left and put in place "hate speech laws".  In the past decade, even Canada - that bastion of liberty - has made the same mistake.  The situation there is such  that an ex-Muslim, having fled the radical religion in his own country, cannot openly speak about his experience in Canada without some whiny leftist having him arrested for "hate speech". 

One day several months back, some worthless piece of dung posted an anti-gay rant on Twitter.  It was picked up by some in the gay crowd, who ranted back that he needed to be "banned from Twitter" for "hate speech".  I made the mistake of pointing out that, in my view, that would be wrong.  Several people threw back at me that what he said was "illegal" and "against the law".  I walked away from it - how to begin to reason with people in that frame of mind?  But he broke no law - he was expressing a free, legal, albeit vile, opinion.  People didn't seem to understand that in the U.S., where Twitter is based, it is not in fact illegal, and that in cyberspace there is no such regulation. 

But for me it was more than  that: this was an example of why free expression matters so very much. 
Let me say here that I understand well, as a journalist, that there are limits to free speech even in
Malala Yousefzai won the Nobel Peace prize at 17, in 2014.
the U.S., which arguably has the most free of speech regulation laws in the world.  You may have heard the joke that you can't yell Fire! in a crowded theatre, unless of course there is an actual fire.  You can't incite a public riot - posing imminent harm to people in a crowd (people in Ferguson, take note). Generally our speech laws reflect caps on speech which would cause immediate physical harm to people.  What we will not put caps on is more telling of American society:  we allow open criticism of government (people in New York, be grateful) in either public discourse or written form; we allow pretty much anything to be said in a novel including criticism and distortion of religions (Dan Brown);  we allow the burning of our own flag; we allow criticism of political ideas in the form of satire - comedy skits (you think SNL would fly in Saudi Arabia?), newspaper columns, and yes, cartoons.  We argue constantly about what to allow on prime-time TV and in feature films. These expressions of creation - good and bad, inspiring or debasing - spur discussion, they invite new ideas, new ways of viewing the world around us.  In this way they stretch our collective creativity and imagination. 

But what about the idiot on Twitter with the anti-gay slurs? What about those of Charlie Hebdo's cartoons that many deem distasteful?  What about the fact that SNL's skits are leftist-slanted?  What about when Solzhenitsyn, from behind the electrified fences of his U.S. home, ranted about the evils of the U.S. in much the way he ranted about the U.S.S.R. (the man was perpetually dissatisfied and angry, it turns out, genius though he probably was . . . )?  Do we have to tolerate speech that is . . . well, worthless?  Destructive?  

I would argue that we do. I would argue that we make a grave mistake when we fail to protect the vilest of speech and this is why:

1 - I truly believe in sunlight as the great disinfectant. Consider the person on Twitter - I suspect it was a 13-year-old trying to get a rise out of a bunch of gay porn stars and pro-gay activists, but let's say for argument's sake it was a 45-year-old business executive and respected member of his town.  I think it's good for us all to see what that man says, see it plainly for what it is, know the disease in our midst and then destroy it with education. If we are never permitted to hear it, after all, we never have to really look hard at its existence.   And. . . when it's out in the open, the person who spoke has to face consequences, has to defend an indefensible stance. That can only be a great exercise. 

2 - Secondly, we cannot with good conscience say that we are a free society that respects varied points of view, and then silence some points of view.  It's hypocritical, and furthermore it is damned dangerous: the more tyrannical regimes in the history of the world did this - a few people decided what everyone should believe and God help those who spoke up with a differing opinion. When we silence any point of view, we imply that only some of us have the right to silence others. This is pompous, arrogant, and invites totalitarian ways of thinking.  If we are a truly equal society, then we don't silence views we don't agree with. 

3 - Silencing unpopular views destroys the possibility for one of those views to change the world for the better.  Does any of us really want to live in a society where everyone agrees?  How boring!  How impossibly bland!  How would we create anything meaningful in such a place?  How would any innovation be born?  As I have already asserted, necessary changes for the better often begin with the spark of an offensive idea - or an offensive political cartoon.

4 - The cool crowd is fickle and their preferences change regularly with the wind. Today, it's not cool to speak against Islam; however it's fine to bash Christianity. Tomorrow.. who knows?  Two decades ago it was risky to defend gay marriage out loud . . . today it's nearly chic. Do you want to gamble that tomorrow the cool crowd agrees with you 100 per cent - because if you allow the cool crowd to always determine what is acceptable expression, and you value being truthful more than being one of the crowd, you may find yourself muted. Defend those who aren't cool today so that tomorrow your voice is safe. Simple.

Some argue that we go too far if we insult one's very religion. Imagine . . . if we outlawed religious critique and discourse, how shallow our philosophical world would become.  The Pope - bless him - got it wrong. His predecessors had the moral courage in the Stalin era to speak out against what they saw as an evil ideology; they did it again in the Nazi era. He might do well to review history. As for pulling our punches when discussing religion and politics, so as not to offend the faint of heart, I am with Bill Maher - whom I generally dismiss as a brainless  twit mind you, but lately have become a bit fond of (I hardly recognize the old guy nowadays . . .) 

A few wise people have pointed out since the Paris march that "free speech" is not made for those whose views are acceptable, but for those whose views are repugnant. This is why Evelyn Beatrice Hall's quote lives on through the decades (no, it was not Voltaire!): "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."   I was deeply offended by the rant on Twitter against so many of the people I love in the GLBT community, but I do not want to see that account banned for the same reason I don't want the vilest of rhetoric from Jihadists using Twitter to recruit banned - I want it right out in the open to be seen for the filth it is, and I want us all to have to consider it in its existence, and form our own moral code accordingly. I value an individual's right to free expression only secondly to human life. 

A wise reader of the New York Times wrote a poignant note to the editor in the days after the newspaper's decision not to run the controversial cover. In it, Gael Mooney of New York wrote:

"If freedom of speech applies only to speech deemed inoffensive to anyone, including extremists, then the terrorists have, sadly, achieved their objective."

Indeed, as Gael pointed out, by doing exactly what the terrorists want the West to do, the Times, CNN, MSNBC and other cowards of the media, moved us all a little closer to the objective of extremists - to force us all to silence.

As Bill Maher so simply and succinctly puts it: "Opinions shouldn't be illegal."  Think about it. Charlie Hebdo is a satirical paper by its own definition. It has insulted every religion, many individuals, and frankly I see much better anti-extremist-Islam cartoons. I agree that most of the time, the cartoonists at CB were and are simply jerks when it comes to their work.  But I would hate to live in a world where their right to draw and publish them, and my right to see them, is denied.  Because I cringe to think about the arrogance of those who would dare to decree for the rest of us, what information is fit for us to see and hear.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Former Life of a Novelist, or Thoughts On Courage

Some have asked recently about my interest in politics - specifically the politics of international relations and radical Islam. I have tried for the three years I have been on Twitter to keep that part of my writing out of "Lichen Craig".  But...I find that passion takes me where it will, and more and more my interest in politics creeps into what began as a pro-LGBT account to promote my fiction. Judging by the inquiries, many would like to hear the story, so here it is.

In 1983 I made my first trip to France with the man who would become my husband for near twenty years. I was 21 years old, wide-eyed and curious about other cultures. I had lived in Denmark for a time, so wasn't entirely ignorant of Europe, but I had never had any interest in France in particular. I was pleasantly surprised; it was Christmas, and lights, French carols, family, people off work, holiday shopping, chocolate and great food, were everywhere. I fell in love with my adopted culture. My fiance's family was in many ways a traditional one: generations of French blood back to medieval times and probably beyond. My father-in-law had spent years in the French army fighting in Algeria - my fiance had spent time there as a child, playing with donkeys in the streets with his Muslim companions, and picking up Arabic.

One night Dominique and I decided to go to a local Middle-Eastern restaurant for couscous, and we invited his dad and stepmom along. His father flatly and unapologetically refused. He would not enter an Arab business. My fiance grumbled to me about how racist/ethnocentric his dad was, how hopelessly old-school, how stupid. We laughed and went to dinner and had a great time. Through the years his father would make many anti-Arab, anti-Muslim comments, causing us to roll our eyes. We were young - we knew it all.

I suppose it was about 1993 when I stumbled upon a book that changed my life. Journalist Jean Sasson teamed with a member of the Saudi royal family to write Princess: A True Story of Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia. The book has since been reissued (2010) and has become a sort of classic of the study of Islamic popular culture. For me it was an eye-opener; I had no idea that women were treated thus in the Middle East. Stoned? Walled up in rooms to starve and die? I was horrified and sickened by the book - and permanently fascinated by a culture that allowed such things.

I began to read everything I could get my hands on, first about women living in Islam, then about Islam itself, about the histories of Islam in various countries, in Europe. During one trip to France we visited the lovely city of Clermont-Ferrand in the French mountains (Massif Central), where we saw the cathedral where the First Crusade began. For the first time I understood that it began - three hundred plus years of warfare - as a result of Moorish Muslim invasions of the Holy Land and of mainstream Europe. Islam had been overrunning Europe by sword, since the seventh century when its founder prophet taught his followers that his faith was the only answer, that the rest of the world must bow to it ("Islam" means literally "submission"), and those who refused to do it had to be forced by violence.  I later visited Poitiers, where Charles Martel stopped the Moors, two thirds of their way into the north of France in the eighth century.

For many years, I worked in various jobs and wrote/edited for extra pay on the side. I never wrote politics - I dabbled at wildlife and ecology, education, social issues, edited a local newspaper. Nothing terribly controversial. Then came 9/11.

Those of us born before say . . . 1985 or so all remember that morning well. For me, a phone call came from a friend. None of the usual cheery hello, but just, "Turn on the TV. NOW."  I turned on NBC - I remember Tom Brokaw's voice. The first plane had just hit a tower. At that point, everyone was horrified but assuming an accident, an unfortunate, tragic accident. Then about five minutes in, the second plane . . . like many others I watched it aim for the tower and plow into it; my jaw dropped. I still remember my brain scrambling, desperate . . . trying hard to connect dots. The slow and horrible realization that this was no accident.  I remember Tom Brokaw going silent for what seemed like forever but was probably a full half-minute or more, while his brain - and that of his producers no doubt - did the same gymnastics mine did. After that I remember little, save spending the morning curled on the corner of the sofa with a Kleenex box and my heart heavy with indescribable grief, staring at the TV screen, my day's work neglected.

Most of us were changed forever on that day. I know I was. I started to reread the books that had interested me. And I read more. I began to talk to people . . .to Muslims I knew, to those who had left the religion. Life went on and years passed, and I continued to obsess and gather knowledge. I read the Koran, I read books discussing and interpreting it. I read others on Christianity and Judaism, trying to understand why this level of violence occurred in this one of the three faiths of Abraham.

Back in about 1998 I had made a visit to Paris, and during the course had to visit a magazine in the Muslim section of the city. I had visited there before, and had enjoyed the friendly street vendors and exotic products from the Middle East, spices in the air, colors and sights. I had loved the restaurants. I was looking forward to revisiting that neighborhood of the city. As I stepped out of the subway into the light, I was hit in the face by the unexpected sight of a sea of burkas - for blocks and blocks as far as I could see. I strained my ears to hear a word of French, but could detect only Arabic around me. Men stared as I stepped carefully around people on the sidewalk. I was petite, young, blond, white, dressed modernly - and feeling very vulnerable. I had heard that Paris had changed and that the Muslim population had established closed enclaves unfriendly to non-Muslims, but hadn't quite understood fully until I witnessed this. It saddened me. Not because it was a piece of multiculturalism but because it was NOT. It seemed to be intent on erasing Paris itself... in these streets there was no trace of the Paris I loved. I remember thinking to myself that Tehran was in the middle of Paris now. This was not multiculturalism, it was the denial of the host culture altogether. I took a cab out to avoid walking the sidewalk again.

By 2006 I was divorced. My ex let me know that my father-in-law, to whom I'd been close and who had been suffering from cancer for a time, had passed away in France. I thought back to his words, all his words, warning of the coming of Islamic extremism. The advent of the internet had allowed information to reach me and others in ways it never had before (my dad always calls it a library in the living room).  My knowledge of the subject through years had grown and ate at me. I felt a tinge of guilt at the times we had laughed at my father-in-law and assumed him outdated and ethnocentric. On the contrary, he'd obviously come to understand a few things from his years in a Muslim country. My brother-in-law had gone to live and teach in Algeria after about 1998, and after 2001 violence had risen in the streets there against all Europeans/non-Muslims. In the end, he barely got out by the skin of his teeth in the middle of the night. His lover, a young man who was Muslim but associated with Europeans and dressed and acted Western, had suddenly disappeared.

Denmark, which I had known well as a teenager, was under attack for publishing cartoons. This pained me not only because it was Denmark but because back in 1986 I'd earned a journalism degree and had the idea of freedom of expression pounded into me. The notion that anyone could be killed for expressing an idea was astounding for me. And now...Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh had been butchered on an Amsterdam street by Muslims for making a film about Islam's treatment of women. The extremist menace was growing. My ire had grown, and like any writer, I was driven to channel it into writing. The first article - and I used a pseudonym, a bit frightened of writing frankly about Islam - was about Denmark: http://europenews.dk/en/node/6517.  I felt out of my element; I had no formal education at university in politics, but I did have a brain. I saw so many around me so much smarter and more articulate. I worked daily and hard to learn from them. My article was quickly picked up all over the internet, I was paid, and best of all . . . a gentleman scholar from Denmark wrote to tell me how much he liked it and thought it was accurate.

I kept writing. I wrote on the growing enclaves in Paris. I wrote about Theo Van Gogh, about freedom of speech, about Islam and real history and the revision of history by apologists and liberals. I wrote it all - all that had eaten at me for years. Haters - yep, I heard from them. I got some death threats. I was careful never to mention where I lived. But I made friendships too . . . with people I never would have imagined. Like the young people who ran a website devoted to telling the stories of those who had left Islam at great peril to their lives and welfare. Or the scholar who worked to educate people about what Iran was pre-Islam (Iran, "Persia", was one of the last Middle Eastern areas to be conquered
by Islam). Once, he warned me about being lured to a meeting in Paris with a source who turned out to be a former soldier of Sadaam Hussein's inner guard; that man meant me harm. I talked with people who grew up in Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, and had left the religion. They passed information on to me for stories. I did a guest stint on a national radio show a few times to talk about the rise of radical Islam in the U.S. I felt safe doing it because no one could see my face. I manned a blog called ASKEW, focusing on the plight of victims of Islamic ideology - Muslim and non. I got thousands of hits a week. (I took it down two years ago, when the host went out of business.) I got letters in response to my articles that I will never forget - like the one from a physician in London, a Muslim, who said my articles often made him angry but that he could find no flaw in my arguments or research, to his frustration. In the end, after writing for a few years, I was asked to speak at a large conference in Florida, side-by-side with people I so admired. I was flattered and astounded that they considered me one of their own, an "expert" on radical Islam.

But I had to admit to myself - and it was hard - that I hadn't the courage my associates had. These people lived daily looking over their shoulders, lived daily with death threats from Islamists. Some lived under guard, behind electric fences that made a sort of prison around their properties, in Western countries far from their places of birth. Many had been rejected from their Muslim families for their truth-telling. I hadn't the courage to show my face in Florida and risk my safety.  And truth be told, it was all taking a toll on me, mentally and emotionally. It wasn't interesting anymore; it was damned depressing.

You see, the more you learn, the more you really look into the truth of radical Islam, the more you realize what it is. You hear the comments of people bent on being politically correct and you stifle laughter: if they only knew how out of touch they are, how astoundingly dark the truth is. How insidious the danger is as it silently creeps further into cracks in Western culture - cracks made up of naivete and of the political double-speak of politicians who have no idea what kind of threat they pave the way for. I became more depressed the more I realized and understood; I hadn't the spirit for it.  I am tough - I've lived a tough life and well - and it was the first time I saw a lack in my character, the first time I saw a limitation to my own courage. It was humbling.

I had to quit. I had to find my sanity again. I had to find light in the world, to balance the darkness I'd wallowed in for those few years. And so I turned to writing about animal training and animal husbandry, editing nursing journals, and finally, writing a novel. That was 2012.

Now...I see what is happening in the world, and in Europe, and I find my own lion awakening again. Once again, I am inspired by the courage of those working to disseminate the truth about Islam's most radical followers - radicals are actually the Muslims who follow Islam as it is really written. (While "moderates either delude themselves or struggle within themselves to find an alternate "interpretation" of a faith built upon the musings of a cold killer and his god.)

This time I have balance - I write on other things; I hold onto my emotional well-being jealously. I'm older, wiser, and I know the toll writing can take. But I find myself pulled back into that world I left - where top leaders of nations lack basic education on something so terribly important to our futures and consequently say the most idiotic things in public interviews. Where Shariah Law continues to creep into Western cities. Where most people blithely go about their lives talking about their latest job and love interest and post selfies on Twitter and never give a thought to the coming threat. Except in a week, perhaps, when 17 innocents are mowed down by Islamic fundamentalists in Paris. And then. . . like the masses do so many times, they pause, say "what a shame", then forget about it in a week and go back to their lives. But the Islamists . . . they aren't forgetting.  And increasingly, I find that I can't forget either, and more frequently I rejoin the conversation of those brave ones who refuse to forget it even for a day.

It's a struggle that goes to the heart of who I am. The written word has defined me since I was 12 years old, when I found my voice as a writer. To me, it represents freedom, the singing of a soul. The thought of it being silenced fills me with a dread and fury that I cannot adequately describe to you all. And so, I have to continue to pick up the pen, like those braver souls around me, and light my one small candle - and tell the unpleasant truth about an unpleasant subject. For indeed, JE SUIS CHARLIE.