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Be Afraid

Glenn Greenwald has a good article at Salon about the ways in which the threat of terrorism is being used by some to argue for various violations of the Contstitution and our civil rights. He also highlights the media’s complicity in stoking these fears.

I thought of the article last night when I happened to see a “teaser” on the local news for a story about the recent attempted airplane bombing. The newscaster said something along the lines of “In the wake of the recent attempted bombing of Northwest Airlines 253, Americans are increasingly worried about airport security.” It was a good reminder to always be on the lookout for weaselly abstractions in writing or speaking. “Americans,” “everybody,” “more and more people,” “sources,” and my personal favorite, usually used by politicans, “folks,” are all signals that a tendentious argument (or simple hogwash) disguised as an assertion of fact is being proffered.

Television news teasers are meant to be vague and unspecific, of course, because they’re supposed to entice you into sitting through the commercials to find out what they’re actually talking about. But it’s good to keep in mind some of the best advice I’ve ever come across, political, aesthetic, or otherwise, concerning language. From Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style:

16. Use definite, specific, concrete language. Prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract.

It’s hard advice to live up to consistently, but our media could certainly be doing a better job of it.

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Shuffle Off

It’s not Scranton, but here’s an article from New York magazine about people who have moved from New York City to Buffalo and are trying to make the long-benighted city a better place.

I certainly understand the experiences and motivations of the people profiled in the article. I lived in New York City for around seven years, and decided, along with my wife, to move to Austin, which though not as cheap or rundown as Buffalo, is definitely smaller and less expensive than New York. I don’t regret having lived in New York at all, but I’m definitely happier here in Austin. One of the Buffalo transplants, Jana Eisenberg, said something that comes pretty close to my own feelings about leaving New York:

But when I ask Eisenberg what she misses most about New York, she says, “I don’t miss my old life in New York. I only miss the life in New York I know I never would have had.” What [Eisenberg and her husband have] done instead is construct a life in Buffalo that is, ironically, much closer to the New York life they once imagined for themselves than their actual New York life ever was, or ever would be.

I’m working as a freelance writer and living downtown across the street from a beautiful park and my daughter is in an excellent public school. Such a combination is not impossible to achieve in New York, but it’s certainly more difficult and costly to do there than it is in Austin.

I hope this sort of thing is happening around the country in other neglected towns and cities, and I hope it can bring genuinely positive urban revitalization (rather than just create mini-Williamsburgs surrounded by ghettos). If accompanied by good urban planning and community activism, I think it can. There’s no good reason, especially with modern communications, that one should have to move to one of only a few big cities to have an interesting life. If cities like New York and San Francisco continue to be too expensive for all but the rich (or those willing to live beyond their means), this smaller-scale urbanism will continue and succeed.

(Tip of the hat to Brian C. for sending me the article.)

Cities
Culture
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You Make Me Feel Like Danzig

Ed Brayton delves into the beliefs of a Catholic priest in England who recently announced that “among the causes of homosexuality is a contagious demonic factor.” The priest, Father Jeremy Davies, also said that “extreme secular humanism, ‘atheist scientism,’ is comparable to ‘rational satanism,’” which is one of the more ridiculous terms of abuse I’ve ever heard. I guess “secular humanism” is losing its sting.

I can’t give Father Davies’s demonic theories much credence. I know many kind-hearted, utterly un-demonic homosexuals. And everything I know about demons I learned from Glenn Danzig. According to Danzig’s studies of the phenomenon, demonic factors lead primarily not to homosexuality but to awesomely ridiculous heavy metal videos:

Comedy
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Bleak House

Asra Q. Nomani relates a dispiriting story in the Wall Street Journal about Random House’s decision to cancel the publication of The Jewel of Medina, Sherry Jones’s “racy historical novel about Aisha, the young wife of the prophet [sic] Muhammad.” The reason for the decision is depressingly familiar:

Thomas Perry, deputy publisher at Random House Publishing Group, said that it “disturbs us that we feel we cannot publish it right now.” He said that after sending out advance copies of the novel, the company received “from credible and unrelated sources, cautionary advice not only that the publication of this book might be offensive to some in the Muslim community, but also that it could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment.”

Well, considering the mayhem that followed the publication of Sir Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons in Denmark, I’m sure the publication of a book describing Muhammad and Aisha’s wedding night might “incite” acts of violence (by people, it must be remembered, who are perfectly capable of deciding not to be violent in response to such “incitement”). But it’s not as if Random House’s decision not to publish will be free of nasty consequences. It will embolden that small, radical segment to threaten other publishers with violence the next time something it finds offensive is published. Perry’s statement might more accurately be rendered as, “If we’re about to publish something you don’t like, threaten us with violence and we won’t publish it.”

It’s especially shameful that this has happened at Random House, whose co-founder, Bennett Cerf, faced an obscenity trial for trying to publish James Joyce’s Ulysses. (Cerf and Random House won the case, of course, and began typesetting copies of Ulysses within ten minutes of the decision.) It’s hard to think of a more dismal way to traduce Cerf’s legacy than to cave in to the demands of religious fanatics.

It’s shameful, too, that the University of Texas, alma mater of my parents and my paternal grandfather, has a part in this. Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of history at UT, was asked to review Jones’s book by Random House and after doing so took it upon herself to mobilize Muslim opposition to the publication of The Jewel of Medina. According to Nomani’s article, Spellberg said, “I don’t have a problem with historical fiction. I do have a problem with the deliberate misinterpretation of history. You can’t play with a sacred history and turn it into soft core pornography.”

You can’t? Why not? It’s a novel, that is, a work of the imagination, not a history book. And anyway, offending religious sensibilities and titillating readers with soft-core pornography are an important part of the novelistic tradition and have been since the very beginning, as anyone who’s ever read François Rabelais or Laurence Sterne, to name only two early novelists, can tell you. I hope there is a publisher out there with a spine and an understanding of the fundamental importance of defending freedom of speech against thugs, bullies, and perpetually offended humanities professors (someone in other words more like Bennett Cerf than Thomas Perry), who will publish this book.

Books
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Religion
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The War on Buncombe: Good News from the Front

It’s impolite, and probably poor character, to take delight in the misfortune of others, but I can’t help but feel gleeful upon hearing that hogwash peddler Uri Geller (the man who mostly uses his fantastic “psychic powers” to solve one of mankind’s most vexing problems—how to bend spoons with your mind) has been forced to withdraw a frivolous copyright threat to people who posted video on YouTube of him failing to bend spoons on The Tonight Show. Geller’s company will also have to pay a settlement and allow use of the clip under a Creative Commons license. Well done, Electronic Frontier Foundation. (And a posthumous tip of the hat to Johnny Carson, who made sure the spoons given to Geller on that long-ago Tonight Show were normal spoons, untouched by Geller or any of his assistants, and which thus proved resistant to the psychic vibrations.)

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Truly Truly Truly Outrageous

Via Butterflies and Wheels, a philosophy blog on the silliness (well, it’s a philosophy blog, so rather the unreasonableness) of imagining that being offended—even deeply offended—gives one the right to demand that offending statements cease:

The underlying problem, I suspect, is that our public culture has become so infected with subjectivist assumptions that people don’t realize that there’s a difference between desires and reasons. Sentiments are taken as given; no-one ever stops to question whether their reactive attitudes are warranted. Any kind of negative emotion is not just evidence, but constitutive, of suffering injustice. You’re offended, therefore they’re in the wrong.

A similar phenomenon, perhaps the flipside of this unquestioned subjectivism, is the way people seem to believe that their own anger about an issue is some sort of proof that they’re right about it. Very often among left-wing “viewers with alarm,” and probably among right-wingers, too, though I don’t pay as much attention, we hear that the country needs to see how angry they are. It’s summed up perfectly in the bumper sticker I’ve made fun of before: “If you’re not completely outraged, you’re not paying attention.” Those who are outraged are obviously the best informed, and if you’re not exploding with anger, well, you must not know what you’re talking about.

But isn’t anger generally an unreliable guide to what’s right? Certainly you can be outraged over true cases of injustice, but if I were to look over all the times I’ve been angry and the proximate causes thereof, I’m quite sure I’d find that often I was angry for no good reason at all. Anger and passion can certainly motivate (though they can also exhaust and depress), but they’re only worth celebrating if they’re motivating something worthwhile.

Culture
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Extreme Makeover Hitch Edition

The Christopher Hitchens makeover continues in Vanity Fair, this time with some terrrifying photos of the Hitch’s recent dental work. (The main article by Hitchens is not online.) Don’t worry, there are waxing photos, too.

Incidentally, I hate to perpetuate a national cliché, but what is it with the British and their teeth? One of Hitchens’s (ex-?)friends, Martin Amis, goes into harrowing detail about his rotten teeth and their extraction and replacement in his memoir, Experience, and he, like Hitchens, grew up well-fed and well-educated. What went wrong? Do British water pipes have a sugary lining? Is the National Health Service really that bad? Or is it like obesity here in the U.S.: an obvious problem that most people are simply too lazy to do much about?

Comedy
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The Checkout Line Just Won’t be the Same

“The World’s Only Reliable Newspaper,” The Weekly World News, is ceasing print publication. The online version will still be updated, but you’ll no longer be able to read about Bat Boy, Hillary Clinton adopting an alien baby, or the discovery of an eleventh commandment while you wait for your groceries to be scanned. From now on it’ll be nothing but celebrities and recipes and the occasional booklet on healing foods of the Bible or horoscopes for cats.

(Via DSTPFW).

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What Zombies Like

News 8 has the scoop.

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Welcome back

I’ve decided to start blogging again, on a new site all my own. If you wish to read my old blog, you can find it here. Any suggestions are welcome. You can e-mail me at jndevereux [at] gmail.com.

Welcome to any and all.

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