Happy Thanksgiving

24 November 2011 § 1 Comment

Enjoy with friends, family, and this classic (thanks to Raf for the reminder; the action happens after 1:15):

And this.

September 11, 2011

11 September 2011 § Leave a comment

From a blogger I had never heard of, via James Fallows:

By all means memorialize 9/11, but do so in a quiet, dignified way. Don’t saturate the airwaves with endless, over-sentimentalized retrospectives and ceremonies. That kind of overkill cheapens the event and turns genuine grief into mere spectacle. Just for once can we not go over the top? Make it solemn and proud, modest and brief. Make it worthy of the kind of people we imagine ourselves to be, the kind of people we should be.

I can’t let today go unmarked, but nor do I have much worth saying.

Love the people you love, feel that love strongly, and show it regularly. Take life seriously. A lot happens, and each of us has important things we can and should do, if we’re up to the challenge of doing those things.

As hard and sad and painful as life can be, every moment and sensation is worth the entire universe. I thank a lot of people for helping me appreciate that.


2 May 2011 § Leave a comment

My first reactions to Osama bin Laden’s death were similar to those of many Americans. I felt glad that a decade-long mission had been accomplished, and I felt that his killing had achieved some measure of justice. Reading celebratory emails from friends still in the United States, I shared some sense of victory, if a little uneasily. I stayed up well past my bedtime to watch the president’s speech. As soon as he finished, I went to sleep, since today would be another Monday, and I had classes to teach.

The morning greeted me with many more emails, news stories, tweets, photos. The small sense of shared victory I had enjoyed the night before began to fade as I saw and heard about celebrations. I went about my day relatively normally today, not too affected by bin Laden’s death or the reaction to it. But I kept checking in, reading and seeing more. And I’ve become more emotional.

I don’t have too many original words to write about bin Laden, the United States, terrorism, and related issues, so let me quote liberally from others. I found all these authors through James Fallows and Ta-Nehisi Coates, among my usual go-tos for help thinking things through.

The group blog Fabius Maximus (via James Fallows) wrote:

Summary:  It’s not a big event.  It might not even be good news for the US, from a long-term perspective.


  1. It’s not a big event
  2. Killing bin Laden might make al Qaeda more potent
  3. The weirdness of President Obama’s speech about the news
  4. For more information

(The rest of the post fills in those subjects.)

Kai Wright (via TNC) wrote:

Upon the news of this victory, crowds gathered in front of the White House and at Ground Zero to chant “U.S.A.! U.S.A!” It was as if we’d just won an Olympic hockey game, rather than capped a decade worth of war and recession with a singular act of violence.

“Today’s achievement is a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people,” the president declared. “We are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to,” he concluded, after insisting that the execution represents justice. “That is the story of our history, whether it’s the pursuit of prosperity for our people, or the struggle for equality for all our citizens; our commitment to stand up for our values abroad, and our sacrifices to make the world a safer place.”

How perverse. President Obama is the leader of a nation in which justice is but a distant dream for millions of residents. He leads a nation that can afford billions of dollars annually for war but cannot feed the nearly 18 million children who lived in homes without food security in 2009. And yet, the Nobel Peace Prize winner can fix his mouth to say that killing a man on the other side of the globe provides proof of America’s exceptionalism.

The gap between rhetoric and reality has long been a defining trait of American life. Lies about our values have shielded us from the brutal facts of our nation ever since we built it on the back of genocide and slavery. But it is in times like these that the dissonance becomes unbearable.

The president says we can do anything we want because we can kill. We could not stop poverty rates from spiraling upward to a record-setting 14.3 percent of Americans in 2009, but we can kill so we are exceptional. One in four black and Latino families live below the poverty line now, and as a result America’s child poverty rate—one in five kids—is the second worst among rich nations, behind Mexico. But we can kill, so we are great.

Radley Balko (via TNC) wrote:

In The Looming Tower, the Pulitzer-winning history of al-Qaeda and the road to 9/11, author Lawrence Wright lays out how Osama bin Laden’s motivation for the attacks that he planned in the 1990s, and then the September 11 attacks, was to draw the U.S. and the West into a prolonged war—-an actual war in Afghanistan, and a broader global war with Islam.

Osama got both. And we gave him a prolonged war in Iraq to boot. By the end of Obama’s first term, we’ll probably top 6,000 dead U.S. troops in those two wars, along with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans. The cost for both wars is also now well over $1 trillion.

We have also fundamentally altered who we are. A partial, off-the-top-of-my-head list of how we’ve changed since September 11 . . .

  • [13 bullet points detailing U.S. government expansions to warrantless seizures, indefinite detentions, torture, spying and eavesdropping on citizens, and more]

I’m relieved that bin Laden is dead. And the Navy SEALs who carried out the harrowing raid that ended his life have my respect and admiration. And for all the massive waste and abuse our government has perpetrated in the name of fighting terrorism over the last decade, there’s something satisfying in knowing that he was killed in a limited, targeted operation based on specific intelligence.

But because of the actions of one guy, we allowed all the bullet points above to happen. That we managed to kill him a decade after the September 11 attacks is symbolically important, but hardly seems worth the celebrations we saw across the country last night. There was something unsettling about watching giddy crowds bounce around beach balls and climb telephone polls last night, as if they were in the lawn seats at a rock festival. Solemn and somber appreciation that an evil man is gone seemed like the more appropriate reaction.

Yes, bin Laden the man is dead. But he achieved all he set out to achieve, and a hell of a lot more. He forever changed who we are as a country, and for the worse. Mostly because we let him. That isn’t something a special ops team can fix.

And James Fallows quoted a reader who wrote in response to him:

I did not find the news heartening, I found it slightly depressing. I support the action to kill OBL, and I believe that the world is a better place w/o him. But I find that reality depressing, and the fact that ‘we’ choose to celebrate his death (there were fireworks in SF) more depressing still. It reminds me how base we (humans) are. I’ve never lost anyone in a terrorist attack, so this is easy for me to say, I know.

Let me, after a day of consideration, echo all these sentiments. Today I am glad Osama bin Laden is no longer alive—but I am unable to forget the world that existed yesterday and still exists today, I see no reason to celebrate his death, and I am disturbed by that response from my countrymen and friends.

I had been meaning to share, before events of the last week, recent events and feelings inspired by two books I’ve read. A couple months ago I read The Looming Tower, a “biography” of Al Qaeda. The book is remarkable for its comprehensive, straightforward account of how Al Qaeda began, how it grew, and what it became in the 1990s. No reader can come away from the book thinking that Osama bin Laden equals Al Qaeda, or that either one is the only principal in 21st-century terrorism. Soon after reading The Looming Tower, I read Columbine, which gives similarly comprehensive treatment to that high school’s massacre, covering the school, the killers, the community, the causes (as well as they can be determined), and the aftermath.

“Reading” both of those as audiobooks during my commutes, I set myself up for an unfortunate experience: Three or four times during Columbine, I began to cry, not loudly, but visibly to any fellow bus riders who happened to glance my way.

Descriptions of kids running away from gunfire, or trying to get their dying friends out of a school erupting with the sounds of explosions, absolutely melted me. Even harder to hear about were the parents collected at the school, kept behind the police perimeter, losing their minds trying to find their kids, desperate to learn that theirs weren’t the ones who had been killed.

[In this space I wrote and deleted four paragraphs about September 11 and me. That's not what I wanted this post to be about. I'll get to that eventually, when I'm ready to really cry and write about it.]

September 11 began years of suffering that can only be described by communicators far more skilled than me. New Yorkers experienced heart-wrenching pain that day, and 3,000 families have not been whole since then. Millions of Afghans and Iraqis have lived through similar events every day for nearly a decade. Americans all over the country, and people all around the world, have suffered much less visible and much more insidious violations that will probably never end. Terrorism and counterterrorism live on. Wars, targeted and global, continue. Suffering continues. Pain remains.

Yesterday’s flawlessly executed mission was a long-sought and hard-fought victory for the United States military and intelligence community. It was (probably) a limited strategic victory for the security interests of the country. It was another day of suffering for so, so many. It is fire with fire at its most necessary—and its most futile, since neither fire is anywhere near extinguished.

The last 24 hours have seen city-wide parties across a country.


“Catharsis” is the reason I have most frequently heard today. I don’t understand.

For those who feel victory today, I ask what has been won. What will be better tomorrow?

For those who are happy today, I ask: Why is death—even when it is just—to be celebrated? What does it build, create, or improve?

For those who feel catharsis, who just feel calm and at peace as a result of this, I ask what you will feel tomorrow. What has been made whole? What pain has been undone?

My thoughts on Haiti

20 January 2010 § Leave a comment

Put better than I could put them, by channeling Martin Luther King:

For King, giving money to Haiti would not be enough. In order to be good citizens of the world, it is not good enough to just to give money, we must make sure to end the economic and social climate that led to the disaster. Here’s an excerpt from his speech “Beyond Vietnam.”

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.


So on Martin Luther King’s birthday, let us reflect on our fellow human beings in Haiti. Let us help them out with our donations, but also let’s fight so third world people do not have to suffer through the poverty that has inflamed this natural disaster. Let us be reminded of how what goes on in our own country affects the rest of the world.

A year later

29 November 2009 § Leave a comment

Another week off to celebrate Thanksgiving, another bombing:

Vladimir I. Yakunin, president of Russian Railways, said: “The basic version that is being investigated by the lead investigators is that it was an unknown device, by unknown persons. Simply put, a terrorist act.”

Official Yakunin isn’t the only one using the word “terrorism”; the Times headline throws out the the same accusation: “Russian Train Wreck Tied to Terrorist Bomb.”

I don’t know anything about Russia. I know less still about Chechnya. So I can’t say this was or was not terrorism. But from the evidence the article provides, neither can the Times. The article makes reference to recent Russian terrorist attacks, and explains this is likely another such attack:

Russia suffered a wave of attacks in the early part of the decade as Muslim separatists from Chechnya struck trains and public places in Moscow and elsewhere, but there have been no such deadly assaults in recent years.

However, another Nevsky Express train was derailed in 2007 by an explosion, wounding more than two dozen people. While two people were later arrested, their motive remains unclear.

For Russians, the attack on Friday night may be reminiscent of terrorist acts that stirred unease across the country earlier in the decade, when Muslim separatists from Chechnya made passenger trains, subways and other public places targets.

A 2003 suicide bombing attack on a commuter train near Chechnya killed 44. At least 12 people were wounded in 2005 when a bomb derailed a train headed from Chechnya to Moscow. And in 2002, more than 100 hostages died in a rescue attempt after Chechen terrorists seized a theater in the heart of Moscow.

But nowhere else do the writers provide any evidence–besides officials’ claims–that this most recent bombing was an act of terrorism. It looks like past terrorist attacks (if we are to call the violent acts of separatist groups terrorism), but how do we know this is terrorism, loaded with all the meaning of that word? Is resemblance to past events enough to explain what this event was and why it happened? Why does the Times tell us an act of terrorism has occurred without giving us any evidence that it is such?

Once upon a time, criminal acts were called crimes. Now, it seems any large crime is quickly and easily labeled terrorism. Is this now to be taken as truth around the world? Whether in Moscow, Madrid, Miami, Mumbia, or Manila, will we now jump to call any bombing terrorism before knowing who planned the attack or why it was committed? Will we remain this way forever?

A year ago today, I wrote of my sadness seeing the aftermath of the Mumbai bombings:

My god. From every act of violence, from every case of abuse, from every painful intrusion into the formerly peaceful lives of good citizens, how much collateral damage must there be? And how many ways can it express itself?

For all that I saw terrorism do to my city, I did not see people fear the next day at work, the next night in bed. No one started sleeping on guns. There were a thousand other fears, but not this one. And now in Mumbai, there is new fear in each citizen. I don’t know all the ways it will show itself — what I’ve read and reprinted is just one way — but it will hurt. And it hurts me to watch.

Once more, people have been attacked, have been killed. I hope–I can only hope–that they and we, all of us, will not live in fear. That need not be the way we live; that is no way to live. We are not necessarily living in an age of terrorism, even if terrorism happens in this age.

A couple days ago I celebrated Thanksgiving with my family and dear friends. Eighteen people in all ate at my apartment, enjoying a meal my family (mostly my mom) prepared. Family members have been here since. There is great good, and I have felt it powerfully this week. If only that could be all we were struck by. I am sorry to make yet another Thanksgiving-time post about such pain. I hope not to do so next year.

We’re post-racial!

5 August 2009 § Leave a comment

Yesterday I retweeted this comment: “ ‘American karma’ called for a black Prez, not a post-racial one.” The original tweet’s author, Michael Shaw, runs the indispensable BAGnewNotes (described on the site as “A progressive blog dedicated to visual politics, the analysis of news images and the support of ‘concerned’ photojournalism”), which I’ve recommended on this blog for over a year, and which I may be lucky enough to soon join in some capacity. More on that later, if and when there’s real news to announce.

But even if we don’t have a post-racial president, post-racialism has arrived! That’s right–it’s right here in this music video. Universal Music Group disabled embedding of the video, so I can only link to it, but here’s what it is: A 15-year-old white Canadian’s own hip hop-inspired music video in which Usher plays his bro/father figure. Welcome to post-racial America (slash Canada, I guess).

My big realization

5 August 2009 § 1 Comment

Yesterday Ezra Klein wrote this (emphasis mine):

One of the problems with the whole discussion over the death of the traditional newspaper business model is that so much of it is done by newspaper writers. That leads to a focus on the journalism side of things rather than the business side. But good journalism hasn’t stopped being profitable. It simply never was profitable. The problem is that advertising has collapsed, and readers have moved online, and department stores have merged, and all the rest of it. If Gawker, and everyone else, was more fastidious about links, there’s no evidence that newspaper revenue would rebound.

Upon reading that, I immediately felt stupid. Why had I never realized this before? It’s so obvious, and yet I hadn’t connected the dots that way before Klein did for me.

And then I became skeptical, and felt stupider. If that’s true, I wondered, how come I hadn’t read anyone else point out that fact sooner? And why am I so willing to call it fact so quickly? What do I know, really?

Not much. I came of age in the internet era, so I speak on little knowledge when I talk about the times before my own. But the highlighted sentence of Klein’s post, as soon as I read it, spoke like truth to me. Here’s what I think I know:

  1. Newspapers made vast amounts of money off advertisements until very recently. Of course they could do so because many people read their papers. But ads, not consumers, paid for the content directly. Consumers subsidized, and made all the revenue possible by reading.
  2. People read newspapers for lots of reasons, and journalism was only one of them. People did and do buy newspapers for access to advertisements, for crossword puzzles and sports scores, and for much other content that is not rooted in journalism, that requires no reporting to obtain.
  3. Before the internet, much of this information would have been available to consumers through media besides newspapers, but: a) most content was only available through specific other media, not all other media; b) media like TV and radio, through which information like sports scores and weather has always been available, transmit content at specific times, and thus must be followed at the right time to acquire the right information; and c) no other medium included all the information that newspapers did and do, every day and every week.

I’ve started and stopped about half a dozen posts now about the future of journalism. My ideas about where journalism is headed mean nothing; I really know nothing about this industry. But, as a consumer and as a hopeful producer before too long, I’m not content to say or hear, “Journalism is dying.” Newspapers, in broad terms, may be. But we need to keep pressing to understand which forces are doing what to the news media in general, and what that means for journalism. Newspapers themselves are not worth saving for any public good; their journalism is.

So let’s make sure we know who paid for journalism and how. Klein, I believe, is on to something that gets far too little attention in this whole discussion. And, though my thought, “Why haven’t I read this elsewhere? Could it really be true?,” is a good test to put most ideas through, it shouldn’t be a stumbling block here, for a reason Klein points out in that paragraph: “One of the problems with the whole discussion over the death of the traditional newspaper business model is that so much of it is done by newspaper writers.” There’s no conspiracy here, but it seems silly to ask newspaper writers to admit that their product has never been profitable. Value, in our economy, is most easily and permanently determined by profit.

Postscript: At the end of his post, Klein links to this piece by David Simon in the Columbia Journalism Review (which was also sent to me tonight by a friend. HT: DGP). Though I don’t believe he’s right in insisting that an immediate paywall at The New York Times and The Washington Post is the only or even necessarily the best route for American newspapers, the piece is maybe the best, most thoughtful, and most fair analysis on newspapers’ pasts, presents, and futures. Most of all, I take from it that HBO, more than anything else, is the model to follow, somehow.

Beyond headlines

4 June 2009 § 1 Comment

Since I was 10, I’ve made memories of headlines. Some are vague; others are detailed and fresh. My first such memory dates to early 1999, when NATO forces began bombing in Kosovo. I remember seeing the headlines, with big accompanying photos, day after day on the front page of The New York Times. The news fascinated me, even though I was completely ignorant about the history, context, or implications of what was going on. I remember asking my parents to explain to me what I was reading, and I remember beginning to learn history and about geopolitics, for the first time, by discussing with them the stories I was reading in the newspaper. A month later I saw the first specific headline that became seared into my memory when I read about a soon-to-be infamous school shooting in Colorado.

Two and a half years later I had grown up enough that, when my city was in the news for even more historical events, I was a regular newspaper reader. No longer did individual days’ headlines grab me and get lodged in my memory the same way, but the events unfolding before me affected me even more as I grew up. My adolescence was framed–even defined, in some ways–by a series of events that could only have been covered on A1. After wars, murders, and terrorism in 1999 and 2001 came a war in 2003 and elections in 2004, 2006, and 2008. Each event was important in world history and equally so in my coming of age.

Given how powerfully these events have affected me, I’m fascinated by other historical events that happened in my lifetime. I’ll never really be able to believe the Cold War ended after I was born, or that apartheid in South Africa fell apart when I was in elementary school. Without memories of those events–of seeing them written about the next day, or over weeks, on the front page of the Times–they feel like history to me, rather than the current events they were not too many years ago.

Another such event was made current again today, on its twentieth anniversary. As with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of apartheid, I’ve also never understood the Tiananmen Square protest, I suspect because I didn’t experience the event as it happened. The narrative as I’ve learned it after the fact–students and intellectuals in China protested for more freedom in 1989, the protest was quashed with a massacre, little more freedom arrived, and twenty years later no one protested–doesn’t make sense. Then again, I can’t expect China to make a lot of sense to me. In every way, it’s as foreign, as far from what I know, as anything on Earth.

I’ve loved learning just a little about China over the last year from a few sources. James Fallows, the Atlantic writer and editor who has lived in China for the last few years, maintains a blog that I’ve read religiously since last summer. He writes about technology, aviation, the craft of journalism and the life of a journalists, and China. All of his writing is interesting; his observations and understanding of China are enlightening. And since January a friend of mine, Dylan Suher, has been studying abroad in China. He too has kept a blog, where he has given a mostly personal account of his time there, but through which he has shared impressive insight into a country he is just getting to know. I’m glad he has blogged so regularly while abroad, disappointed his dispatches will cease when he returns to the U.S. this weekend, and most happy his wisdom will last in his writing. Trusting him to have something interesting to say in response, I recently sent him this Atlantic article by Mark Hertsgaard about China’s balance between economic development and environmental protection. The article is especially interesting because it was written in 1997, and yet it reads as if it could come out tomorrow: all the issues it covers seem as relevant, if not more so, today as they were a dozen years ago. Being the good friend and smart guy he is, Dylan replied to the article with a surprisingly long and thoughtful response, which I’ll assume his permission to reproduce here:

I was only too happy to read this article instead of reading [sic: missing word], although I was sad I couldn’t watch the YouTube video (damn you, China, don’t you know seeing the “Leprachaun” video is an inalienable human right?). I think it’s really right on. I think people who are not here can sometimes get the impression that the Chinese government and the Chinese people just don’t give a shit about the environment. But actually, compared to the Americans, the Chinese lifestyle is much more environmentally friendly (air drying, no heat below the Yangtze by government order, great public transportation, lots of biking). What we’re really worried about is that more and more Chinese will start to live like us, which would undoubtedly lead to a world environmental crisis. Also, the sense I’ve gotten is that in recent years (since this article has been written), the government has taken serious steps to improve the environmental situation. This of course varies from province to province and city to city (Yunnan has a particularly good party boss, according to people I’ve talked to), and some cities are still absolutely awful (I had a hard time breathing in Tai’an in Shandong province and in China’s coal centers in the Northeast, and the smog in Xi’an is really sad). But the government is limited in what it can do, both by corruption and by the economic/demographic situation.

I’ll give you the example of Kunming, since I know a bit about it. Kunming has about six million people, and is growing at an insanely rapid rate. The government expects it to reach ten million people by 2012 or so. Kunming’s main source of water is the filthy Dian Chi lake. Now, in America, most water pollution is agricultural or industrial. However, this is not the case with Dian Chi. Years ago, fertilizer and tanning plants did a number on Dian Chi, but most of those have been shut down; now, the main source of pollution is literally household sewage. But what can you do? It has to go somewhere. It doesn’t help that the marshes that used to clean Dian Chi were drained during the Great Leap Forward, but it’s now not an option to restore the wetland: it would mean the relocation of thousands of people who now live in the reclaimed land. So what can the government do? It can’t stop the migration. All it can do is really what it’s doing now, which is throwing millions at sewage processing plants and punishing people who violate plumbing regulations.

Which brings it back to the point that this guy made that I think is the most insightful and right on. China’s problem is a world problem. We have a billion very poor people, and the real question is, can we fulfill the promises that modern, liberal, capitalist society has made to allow every human being on the planet live a life of unprecedented comfort without destroying the planet. It’s something to lose sleep over.

With friends like these, who needs professionals to tell you about the world? Nevertheless I appreciate what professional journalists do (of course). In addition to Fallows’ writing and the Hertsgaard article, I recommend today’s column by Nick Kristof, in which he recounts his experience in Tiananmen Square twenty years ago, when he was the Beijing bureau chief for the Times. Here is a fascinating recent blog post by John Pomfret outlining China’s relationship with North Korea, explaining why it may be that China watches happily as North Korea antagonizes the United States and the West. (H/T to Fallows for recommending it.) And here the Times runs down the stories behind the iconic photos of Tank Man in Tiananmen Square during the protest. (Here too is a follow-up post with a never-before-published picture of the event.) All interesting reads to learn just a little more about the Middle Kingdom in the modern era.

At work today, with the TVs on the cable networks, an MSNBC afternoon anchor said the following as the channel cut to a commercial break: “A dark chapter in China’s history: Tiananmen Square, twenty years later. What do you remember about the event?” This was followed by a call for viewers to send in their recollections of the protest and the massacre. The line was completely in character for cable news, and had I been barely less attentive I would have missed it. But I heard it, and it struck me. This simplification was just one example out of hundreds I must have heard on TV today. Yet it perfectly encapsulated a source of sadness in me: Here was “coverage” of a truly fascinating historical event that–by the choice of the “journalist”–removed all the elements that could have educated, enlightened viewers. Instead, we were given a vague allusion (“dark chapter”) and encouraged to be egocentric, to share our memories of the event, as if they were, are somehow relevant, as if they mean anything at all. Nothing before or after that teaser gave viewers any better understanding of what happened in Tiananmen Square twenty years ago, or what has come since. For that, one would have had to look elsewhere, far away. Cable news is pitiful, but the 2009 media landscape includes more media offering the same antisubstance. I’m saddened that so little attention is given to the most interesting parts of the news, which also happen to be the most valuable to know. And I’m fearful of a media that is ever receding into a universe of headlines.

Update 6/14/09: How many of my friends will go to China? With one high school friend recently back, another is leaving for Beijing in two days. And a friend from college will be there all of next year, taking a year away from Yale to study Chinese more in China. He’s a tremendously talented guy, as can be seen in this video of him speaking Chinese, playing cello, and beatboxing:

Did I say this was a ‘family blog’?

3 May 2009 § 2 Comments

Check out the beautiful irony of this op-ed piece in The Times. The author argues that the Supreme Court and the F.C.C. should get over their prudishness and stop, as it were, giving a shit about certain common “fleeting expletives.”

LAST Tuesday, the Supreme Court upheld the Federal Communications Commission’s crackdown on the use of dirty words on the airwaves.

That the justices managed to do this without actually uttering either of the words at issue — one refers to a sexual act, the other to a bodily function — exemplifies both the court’s tact and its lack of connection with contemporary English usage

Take a guess as to which words the case dealt with. And notice please that the author, bound by the superior standards of the paper in which he writes, must himself leave unnamed the words he chides the Supreme Court for avoiding. He tries to work around the limitation, but the charade gets a little ridiculous:

Writing for the majority last week, Justice Antonin Scalia stated that it was “entirely rational” for the F.C.C. to conclude, as it did, that one particular curse “invariably invokes a coarse sexual image.”

Does it? The evidence is mixed. Jesse Sheidlower, editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary and the author of a book on swearing, described the F.C.C.’s argument as “rubbish.” Although the word in question originally referred to a sexual act, Mr. Sheidlower argued, it has now taken on an independent “emotional” sense. The nonsexual use of the word can be seen in countless contemporary examples, as when Vice President Dick Cheney used it in 2004 to recommend that Senator Patrick Leahy do something that is, strictly speaking, anatomically impossible.

Nowhere does the column mention that The Times, by its own rules barring any usages of certain especially foul words, is forced to be as tactful and disconnected from contemporary English usage as the author claims the Supreme Court is. By author or editor’s choice (I guess the latter), an opportunity for light self-criticism was missed, and silly affectations (“strictly speaking, anatomically impossible”) are forced into the piece.

Such blind adherence to verbal cleanliness hurts a newspaper’s coverage when its stories are specifically about unspeakable words that have made news. An article in the American Journalism Review late last year examined newspapers’ policies regarding news-making profanity, encouraging papers toward more revealing coverage and explaining the power in printing the unprintable.

Count me a supporter of the crude, the dirty, the vulgar. Not in life, at least not to excess, but when obscenity is the story, it’s got to be in the story. The Times and other “family papers” following excessively prude standards do their readers a disservice by protecting the delicate minds of hypothetical young readers.

For my part, I was proud to beat the censor (who was, I should note, my higher-up at the paper, not a government agency or a court) a few times this year in my role as newspaper editor. I didn’t write the offending words, but when they popped up in appropriate places, I did my best to get them in the paper. Once was a slip-up: Challenged by the boss, I agreed to change the offending word, but I forgot, so it appeared in print, granting me a little undeserved pride. (In the Times‘ cutesy style, the word refers technically to the excrement of male cows.) Earlier in the year I got the word “asshole” into a column six times. The piece, on “section assholes,” would have been a barely readable farce without the simple and widely used term that served as the subject. That was a battle I didn’t have to fight too hard to win, but in which I’m still grateful to have succeeded.

And this whole business about publications being family-oriented? Screw that.

Popularity Contest ’08

1 January 2009 § Leave a comment

I should have posted this a couple months ago, when it came out, but I only found the link today. It’s a piece I wrote for The Sydney Globalist, a sister chapter of my own Yale Globalist under Global21. Christine Ernst, the editor in chief of the Sydney chapter, approached our our chapter, the only in the United States, to contribute something about the American election for their November issue, and I volunteered to write the piece. Apologies for the awkward sentences in the beginning; I’m not sure how I wrote those. I’m not to blame, however, for the funky punctuation: that’s the fault of Australian English. The piece is online here. Below is an excerpt:

When McCain’s campaign manager declared that the election was not “about issues”, he was trying to craft a reality that suited his campaign: one in which he believed they had an advantage, rather than one in which he knew they were dreadfully behind. So while McCain attempted to drive the discussion away from policy, Barack Obama – holding the winning cards, if he ever got to play them – attempted to keep voters focused on the things they claimed mattered to them. Meanwhile, someone had to decide what, in fact, the election was “about”.

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