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You’re Fit And You Know It

If The Wall Street Journal keeps printing articles like this, a speculation on whether Barack Obama is too skinny to appeal to an increasingly corpulent American electorate, it could really eat into the circulation of . . .  The Onion. (Even the infographic looks suspiciously Onion-esque.)

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More Bones

I don’t know why I’m finding so many stories about old bones lately. (I’m not seeking them out, honestly! They keep popping up in my inbox and RSS feed.) The most recent reminder of mortality delivered to me through the Internet comes from the Austinist‘s sister site in San Francisco. The SFist unearths a 1902 San Francisco Chronicle story about some children in my native city using human bones to play baseball. A short excerpt:

Residents of the vicinity of Leavenworth and Broadway going home to dinner were treated to a choice assortment of cold shivers at the sight of the national game being played with the grisly loot from a tomb. Half a dozen boys were making long drives of the ball to center field with resounding thwacks from the long bones, the femur and fibula radius and ulna humerus. Between times two yellow skulls would be tossed to the batters, and the fun characteristic of the reverence of the North American youth, waxed warm until a policeman swooped down upon the players.  

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Grim News from Afghanistan

Sayed Parwiz Kambakhsh, 23, a journalism student and reporter in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, has been sentenced to death by a local court for insulting Muhammad by calling him “a killer and adulterer,” and “downloading a controversial article and adding some of his own words about the ignorance of the Prophet [sic] Muhammad on women’s rights.”

Kambakhsh has the right to appeal his sentence, and I hope the Supreme Court will be more liberal in its views of the right to free speech than the lower court has been.

Index on Censorship has more, and says it’s possible for Kambakhsh to receive a pardon from Afghan President Hamid Karzai, though he has not yet spoken on the case. Still, it is appalling that anybody could be convicted for such a victimless “crime” in the first place.

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“Not so lazy as a monthly, not quite so incessant as a weekly”

When I lived in Brooklyn, New York, I discovered an odd little publication called Three Weeks in a local bookstore (Spoonbill & Sugartown, if you’re interested) some time in the late summer of 2002. Three Weeks was laid out in an anachronistic, late-eighteenth- or early-nineteenth-century style and typeface, and printed on newsprint. It was an unusual format, too, printed on a paper about half the size of a tabloid sheet, and then folded in half so that it was taller than it was wide. The price was “two cents, voluntary.”

The writing was both topical and trivial (the back of each issue had an essay on “The Weather”) but arch and old-fashioned, like the publication’s appearance. I enjoyed it, sometimes in spite of its willful eccentricity, and dutifully picked it up every three weeks, until it stopped publication. I only have four or five copies, but they published eighteen in all, and thanks to an enterprising Three Weeks enthusiast and the power of the Internet, you can read them all online at the Henry William Brownejohns Appreciation Page. (Brownejohns was the name of one of the writers, all of whom, I’m guessing, used pseudonyms.)

It’s not for everybody, I’m afraid. I failed to convince any of my friends to read it even when it was being published. Here’s a typical title of a Three Weeks article:

Radiation

PALLOR VERSUS TAWN

WHITE FOLKS’ COCKAMAMIE PERCEPTION OF HEALTH, & COMMON SENSE

Also, On Shirts, and How We Feel People Ought to Wear Them

There’s also quite a bit of political writing, which despite, or perhaps because of, the archaic style, manages to be interesting and relevant. Three Weeks published from Oct. 15, 2001, till Oct. 19, 2002, and for me, at least, captured the mood of the great city (or at least my mood in the great city) after the calamity of Sept. 11, 2001, better than anything else: trying to make sense of what had happened while also trying to preserve your sense of humor and previous interests. Anyway, I’m very glad somebody’s chosen to preserve this bit of literary ephemera.

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Back in Black and White

In an earlier post on a New York Times article on state oppression in Iran, I pointed out the oddity of the reporter Neil McFarquhar’s claim that a judicial decision not to carry out a public stoning of an adulterous couple makes Iran “a difficult country to separate into black and white.” As is often the case when the supposedly liberal-minded try not to sound too judgmental, the meaning of the assertion is not clear.

If the reporter (or copyeditor) meant that you can’t judge the Iranian people by the actions of its government, he is right, but the point is obvious. If he meant, though, that we shouldn’t be too emphatic in our condemnation of the Islamic Republic of Iran because it’s capricious and unpredictable in its use of state violence, well, I disagree, to say the least. That Iranians are sometimes able to prevent their government from carrying out unjust and barbaric practices does not change the fact that any state that punishes adultery as a crime with stoning deserves condemnation, not suspension of judgment.

The hedging and moral muddle of that paragraph have been rendered superfluous, anyway. According to Iranian feminist site Women’s Field, Jafar Kiani, the male half of the couple, was stoned to death July 5, while his fellow accused, Mokarrameh Ebrahimi, waits in prison with her children.

Norm rounds up some of the condemnations, from the United Nations High Commissioner and Amnesty International and elsewhere, of this barbaric criminal act, carried out by an institution, the state, whose primary role in a just world would be to protect the rights of its citizens.

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What’s Left

David Thompson recently linked to a video site where you can view Vanessa Engle’s BBC documentary series, “Lefties.” The series profiles three radical projects in Margaret Thatcher-era Britain: the attempt to start a socialist newspaper, revolutionary feminists who declared that political commitment required women to become lesbians, and middle-class university graduates heralding “the revolution” by living as squatters in South London. It’s a fascinating documentary, and it’s hard not to feel a mirthful derision and contempt for many of the ideologues profiled—all the most unpleasant aspects of the self-righteously indignant and sanctimonious lefty are presented in vivid fashion.

Nevertheless, I found myself feeling something close to sympathy for a few of the folks in the series. Most of us want to change the world in certain ways and to be part of a community that shares that desire. We all face moments when our vision of the way the world is—often built up over long periods of time and through considerable effort of thought and debate—is eroded by the indifferent reality of the world as it actually is. When this happens, it can be very painful to do the right thing: to alter our even abandon our theory in the light of the facts.

In the battle between belief and reality, the lefties in “Lefties” almost all choose to preserve the purity of their vision no matter the complications, and even to goose themselves into ever greater heights of absurdity and dissonance with the world they live in. It’s an act of defiance, and somewhat admirable in the way bizarre feats of will power, like eating sixty-six hot dogs in twelve minutes, can sometimes be, but it’s also indistinguishable from the homesteaders in the loonier precincts of religious millennarianism. The squatters who insist on the imminent arrival of the revolution are not much different from the Seventh-Day Adventists that confidently predicted the exact date of the second coming only to push the day ahead just as confidently every time the Nazarene failed to return.

I wonder if there’s some retrospectively obvious turning point where each of these people could have chosen to alter their theory rather than wall themselves off from criticism or common sense. The difficulty lies in the fact that they may have started out trying to realize worthwhile things—sexual equality, poverty relief, a new newspaper. But they’ve convinced themselves that altering their mental edifice of political “certainties” would be to abandon those earlier idealistic commitments, which of course is not true.

Listening to them makes you realize how easily we deceive ourselves. Self-deception is the well-spring of both great tragedy and comedy, which is why this film is so funny and so mortifying at the same time.

It also has a great soundtrack, culled from the era: Joy Division, the Smiths, Magazine, and more.

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Rage, Rage Against the Dubbing of the Knight

Christopher Hitchens has written an article in Slate on the semi-pro members of the “Muslim street” who keep Karachi’s flag shops in business with their regular protests against any and all perceived insults to Islam from the West. Anger over Salman Rushdie’s knighthood is only the latest casus jihadi. Hitchens once again rightly chastises Western media producers for setting up people like “Rage Boy” as the true representatives of the Muslim world:

But our media regularly make the assumption that the book burners and fanatics really do represent the majority, and that assumption has by no means been tested. (If it is ever tested, and it turns out to be true, then can we hear a bit less about how one of the world’s largest religions mustn’t be confused with its lunatic fringe?)

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Not Everybody Must Get Stoned

The New York Times has an article on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent crackdown on dissent and “un-Islamic” behavior. It’s full of sickening details: men with “Western haircuts” forced to walk through the street sucking on jerry cans used for cleaning your bottom, Iranians with American citizenship not allowed to leave the country because they’re accused of being spies, student leaders thrown in prison for publishing “articles suggesting that no humans were infallible, including the Prophet Muhammad and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.” It’s worth reading in full to see what democrats, trade unionists and other reformers are up against in Iran.

But there’s an odd paragraph late in the article where the reporter, Neil MacFarquhar, writes:

“Iran can prove a difficult country to separate into black and white. Amid all the recent oppression, for example, last week the public stoning of a couple—the punishment for adultery—was called off. Women’s rights advocates had been agitating against it.”

I can’t see why the Iranian government’s decision in one instance not to carry out its standard barbaric punishment for adultery somehow suggests that we shouldn’t characterize it as fundamentally despotic, unjust, and illegitimate. If he means that we shouldn’t paint Iranians with the same brush as we do the Iranian state, he’s right, but that’s obvious from the article. It chronicles the many Iranians who are fighting against the state in small and large ways, putting their lives and security at risk to assert their rights and dignity in the face of an oppression that in the modern U.S. is very difficult to imagine.

It’s almost as if MacFarquhar (or possibly an editor or copyeditor) feared someone might think the article was biased or racist because it’s saying bad things about a non-Western government, so he had to throw in a paragraph to muddle up the obvious moral distinctions the rest of the article displays. See? We can’t say the government’s completely bad. They decided not to stone some adulterers, after all!

More on human rights abuses in Iran here.

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Concern for Bangladesh

Human Rights Watch (via the excellent Butterflies and Wheels) has a report on the arrest—on no charges—of Tasneem Khalil, a young investigative journalist in Dhaka, Bangladesh, by a government goon squad calling themselves the “joint task force.” Khalil’s “crime” has been to report on government corruption and human rights abuses, including extra-judicial killings by the Bangladeshi security forces.

The Bangladesh government has an unfortunate habit of arresting people for things that should in fact be celebrated, as in the case of Salah Choudhury.

Contact information for the Bangladesh Embassy in Washington, D.C., is here. An e-mail or letter might not do much, but at least it will signal that this sort of outrage is not being ignored.

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