Sunday, January 25, 2015


“Geez, Dan, you’re the only kid I’ve ever seen who can trip over his own two feet standing still!” Whitie said, laughing.  This struck the other kids at the picnic—cousins and second cousins all—funny to the point of hilarity.
He—my dad, Whitie—must have seen the hurt look in my eyes as I scrambled to my feet and brushed myself off, because he said, “We’re not laughing at you Dan’el, we’re laughing with you. And everybody “laughed with me” some more.  (If you were laughing, you were obviously one of the winners).
It was a family reunion and we were playing whiffle ball. Whitie was the only adult playing. The other kids had tried to talk their dads into playing too, but after a heavy picnic lunch—fried chicken, hotdogs and hamburgers, potato salad, deviled eggs, ham salad, beans and franks, huge bags of potato chips, heavenly hash, three bean salad, scalloped potatoes, macaroni and relish salad, Waldorf salad and an assortment of pies, cakes, cookies and brownies—on this hot July day, they got turned down flat.  But to my surprise, my dad was the only one to say, “Yeah, what the hell, I’ll play,” before stubbing out his cigarette, downing a cup of coffee drawn from a gallon Thermos, and following the kids over to an open area of the park where we quickly laid out an ad hoc baseball diamond: “That bench over there’s first, that bush is second, that maple’s third and this here’s home plate.”
I hadn’t asked Whitie to play like the other kids had asked their dads. I figured the answer would surely be “no,” so why bother? But Whitie could be full of surprises depending on his drastic mood swings. When he decided to play, however, I couldn’t help thinking it wasn’t that he didn’t like playing a little ball, it was just that he didn’t like playing it with me, since he always seemed to have better things to do at home than toss a ball around with me or show me some of the boxing moves he knew so well, or put up a backboard and shoot some hoops with me.
Today, by some odd bastardization of the rules, Whitie ended up being permanent pitcher as well as a sort of coach-slash-umpire for both teams. I found it incredible to see him on the imaginary mound calling the pitches as he threw them: “Fast ball...Slow ball...Curve...Look out, now, here comes a knuckle ball...Grab a towel, kiddo, here comes a spitball...hahaha, swing an’ a miss...” I couldn’t recall a single time he’d done this with me at home. Reba Mae, my mother, was the one who’d taken charge of teaching me enough about baseball so I wouldn’t be too embarrassed to play some sand-lot ball with my cousins and a few friends. She was always a good sport, playing some pitch and catch with me and popping me some flies to catch (she’d played some softball as a girl and could bat incredibly well, but she didn’t have a mitt so I had to throw the ball back to her gently).
Peewee League had been a short-lived disaster that was forced on me and in which I mostly haunted the sidelines until I got bored and quit...which, I suppose, was the coach’s ultimate idea. Somebody had given me a mitt. I was a southpaw and it was a right-handed mitt (in other words a mitt that went on the left hand), so I was obliged to learn to throw with my right. This meant I seldom missed a catch but couldn’t throw for crap. When I played the outfield (which was most of the time...the further out the better, my team-mates felt), if I accidentally caught somebody out it was difficult to throw hard enough with my right arm to pull off a double play, so sometimes, after the catch, I’d quick shed my glove and give the ball a heave with my more powerful left. But for lack of practice a long pitch with my left hand always went wild. Long story short, I could throw with either hand...though not good enough for anyone to be impressed. And the same was pretty much true of batting. No one seemed interested in helping me develop my switch-hitting potential, least of all the volunteer coach who was usually hung over and smelling of booze for morning Peewee League practice and pretty much left the playing up to the kids who already knew how, telling the others to “have a seat on the bench for a while.”  
On the drive home from the picnic, Whitie said, “That was pretty fun, wasn’t it Danny?”
“What was?” I asked, playing dumb though I knew exactly what he was talking about.
“Playing some ball,” he said. “You had a good time, didn’t you?”
I didn’t answer.
Didn’t you, Dan?” he insisted.
“Not as much as you, obviously,” I said with sullen apathy.
He clucked his tongue with irritation and then very ostensibly ignored me for the rest of the trip home, chatting with my mother and sister and now and then saying, “Whacha doin’, ‘Clody’ boy?” to my little brother, Jim (‘Clody’ to Whitie), who was dozing on Reba Mae’s lap on the passenger side of the front seat, as if to let me know I’d offended him and was being intentionally left out of the conversation. I kept wanting to apologize, to say I had indeed had a good time, mostly because it was nice to do something fun with him for a change, and why couldn’t  we do that more often? But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I was as angry and disappointed with him as he was with me. Kind of permanently angry, both of us. So why should I be the one to capitulate?
And that was pretty much the standoff that Whitie and I maintained as I was growing up. Baseball, that all-American link between father and son, blended into any kind of organized sport and became the barricade we erected between us for our impasse. When it first took shape, I can’t say exactly, but sometime between the time as a preschooler when I inherited Whitie’s love of boxing, sitting on his lap to watch the Friday Night Fights on our big black and white TV, and the time when I was old enough to play Little League baseball (and didn’t), that early rapport was lost and I decided not to do anything I knew he would want me to from then on. The feeling got to be kind of mutual.
He was passionate about organized team sports and had pretty much played them all in his youth and now watched them all on TV. But I viewed that as something he didn’t want to share with me in any hands-on way, so why should I feign interest? I saw other dads getting involved with their boys’ sports, encouraging them, pushing them to be as good as they could be, rooting for them at their games, correcting their techniques, buying them the best equipment, even coaching their teams. Whitie didn’t do any of that. It was as if he’d given up on me before I’d ever gotten started.
It wasn’t that Whitie didn’t want me to play. On the contrary, he would have liked for me to have been the “normal” sports-loving son most men want to be represented by. (Indeed, that was precisely the point of my rebellion). Rather, it was that, from the beginning, he let me know that he had no real expectations for me. In fact, he basically said I should just play for fun and try to do the best I could, because I was a guy and guys played sports, period. But he felt I’d probably “never be really, really good at sports.”  So...okay, I figured, game over!
The guys on his side of the family were, he observed, of the quick, light, agile kind. Even his dad, who’d never played team sports, was a lightning-fast, highly capable and very dangerous fighter, though he never weighed more than a hundred and fifty pounds soaking wet. It was, then, a question of genes. Not better or worse, he consoled me, just the way things were. Some guys had it and some didn’t.  Some were “naturals”. Others had to work at it. Still others would just never have what it took. The indication was that I formed part of the latter group. 
I took after my mom’s side, Whitie often clarified, “Big, solid, German farmers...Strong, don’t get me wrong, but pretty slow and pretty clumsy. I mean, don’t take it the wrong way, Danny, but let’s face it, you are pretty awkward.” Then seeing the look on my face, he might add, “Well, but don’t worry, you might outgrow that, once you grow into your hands and feet.”
When he said things like that, I used to picture Grandpa Vern, my mother’s father. By no stretch of the imagination could I think of him as slow or clumsy—German and farmer though he was. In fact, words like “rugged”, “rawboned”, “lightning fast” and “lethal” sprang to mind when you spent any time with Grandpa Vern. I figured the fact that he’d never played organized sports had more to do with his having grown up out in the country and only having gone to school for three years, and in a one-room rural schoolhouse to boot, than with any lack of the required physical prowess.
In my own case, it wasn’t that I didn’t like physical activity, but that organized sports had become my nemesis. I had been consistently convinced by someone whose judgment I couldn’t help but trust—my father—that I would never be any good at them. It sounded like a sentence and felt like an illness, a disability diagnosed by an expert on the subject: Whitie. So at first, I avoided them out of embarrassment, and then grew to hate them and to consider them enemy territory.
Instead, I turned to the activities that my city-raised father abhorred: trekking along rivers and creeks, camping, bike hikes to parts unknown, fishing with my father’s father, hunting with my mother’s father and both those activities with friends later on. The great outdoors was fine with me as long as it didn’t involve diamonds, courts, pitches, courses or playing fields.       

         To be continued...

Sunday, January 18, 2015


When eight of the highly creative people who formed part of the staff of the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo were murdered at their desks earlier this month—along with four other unfortunate people who were randomly killed in the attack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time—I couldn’t help identifying with them far beyond the normal anger and compassion that terrorist violence awakens in any right-minded person. My first thought was, in fact, “That could have been me.”
Nor did I think of it right away as merely another instance of Muslim fundamentalist violence. Rather, I “lived” the attack, first and foremost, as a violent assault on freedom of expression in a nation and a city that have long honored razor-sharp satire as a traditional and highly-developed art form.
Reading about the attack carried out by two fundamentalist gunmen, who claimed to be the agents of vengeance for the Prophet Muhammad and who invoked the name of Allah while slaughtering top members of a team of creatives whose only sin was the ability to think, reflect and question in a bright, audacious and humorous way, I couldn’t help recalling the first nine years out of a total of thirteen that I spent working as a journalist for what was then Argentina’s most outspoken newspaper, the English-language daily known as the Buenos Aires Herald. I refer to the years from 1974 to 1983, when I had the privilege of first standing shoulder to shoulder with and later helping lead a small team of journalists with an almost obsessive-compulsive interest in reporting what practically no one else was willing to, and in defying every kind of threat and pressure exerted in a vain attempt by the de facto government to get them to stop.
The great difference between then and now, I was thinking, was that back then we were facing an internal threat, first by a rogue populist government that suspended constitutional guarantees and took the law into its own hands even before the military coup, and then by a far rightwing dictatorial regime that overthrew the democratically elected if out-of-control administration. And we were also confronting the latent threat of violence from the urban terrorists who opposed both regimes—since our banner was that of liberal democracy, the rule of law, and egalitarian justice, principles that neither side in the civil strife of those days shared with us. The threat to Charlie Hebdo, meanwhile, came from an external source, one that is seeking to impose its will via terror and destruction on the world as a whole. But then again, as it becomes wider spread, the Muslim fundamentalist threat is also turning more and more internal, as brain-washed, self-disenfranchised losers like the two fanatical brothers who carried out this heinous act become the “enemies within” in Western democracies, only too glad to offer up their stunted, pathetic lives to serve the fundamentalist designs of the crazed “evangelists” of “faith by murder”.
While in contemporary use the term fundamentalism has come to be equated with religious fanaticism (and for some people—mostly those who have never read the history of the Christian Crusades or lived in the US Bible Belt—Islamic fundamentalism), there are clear basic elements of fundamentalism in every closed society. Or in other words, in societies ruled by an elite that doesn’t admit the rights of others to their own beliefs or to their own expressions, or to their own desires beyond the dictates handed down from the pinnacle of power (even when that pinnacle is only the toad stool on which village tyrants stand). Thus any sort of totalitarian or dictatorial political philosophy is essentially fundamentalist, since all of them are based on “a cause”, even when their only real purpose is to accumulate control and power.
That was certainly the case of “my” dictators, back in the days of what was known in Argentina as the “National Reorganization Process”: In what was clearly a dichotomous message, their pitch was that they had cut short an admittedly questionable “democracy” by armed force in order to “preserve the Constitution” (parts of which they immediately suspended and the rest of which they made subject to the decisions of the military junta) and to “defend Western and Christian values” against the advances of “godless communism”. The way they planned to do that was by jailing and/or killing everybody who didn’t agree with them. In the words of one of their most boisterous exponents, General Ibérico Saint Jean, who served as military governor of Buenos Aires Province during the worst repression, “First we’ll kill all of the subversives, then we’ll kill their collaborators, then their sympathizers, and right after that the ones who remain indifferent, and, finally, we’ll kill the faint of heart.”
This bears obvious, if ostensibly opposing, similarities to the “holy war” of the Islamists, the ultimate purpose of whom is to “destroy the West” and, according to the words and deeds of the most fanatical of their ilk, to kill all of those who do not convert to their brand of Islam. In the midst of this sort of government-sponsored or extremist-imposed lawlessness and terrorism, the task of authentic democrats is to become ad hoc “authorities” themselves: moral authorities, authentic defenders of democracy and of the basic rights that go with it, which is precisely what the editor of the paper I worked for did, and what we continued to do after he was eventually forced into exile after direct threats to his family. We continued to exercise our rights as democrats even when the country’s illegitimate rulers told us we no longer possessed any such rights. We continued to defend the right to free expression the best way anyone can, by exercising it fully and boldly in the face of tyranny. And we continued to do our duty as writers, thinkers and journalists by defending human and civil rights as a whole, in demanding that other people’s rights be restored and respected, despite the risk to our own safety that doing so signified.
This is an important point to bear in mind, because it has a lot to do with why je suis Charlie, and why you should be too, if you genuinely value freedom above all else. Because whether or not you agree with Charlie Hebdo’s politics, or viewpoint, or style of expressing itself, by doing so in defiance of every kind of legal and illegal warning and threat imaginable, its artists, writers and editors were also exercising your right to freedom of expression and mine, as do a number of other defiant and creative people around the world who day by day refuse to be told what they can and cannot say or represent. Like, for instance, Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi, who was recently sentenced by a Saudi court to ten years in prison and to fifty lashes a week for twenty weeks, for writing frankly in his Internet blog. Or like the people around the world who publicly protested that sentence against Badawi and managed to get his case reviewed by the Saudi Supreme Court, despite his already receiving the first fifty-lash flogging and languishing in jail for exercising his and our right to free expression. 
This past week, I posted a controversial Charlie Hebdo cover on my Facebook wall and appended a je sui Charlie legend to it, inviting others to do the same if they were true believers in freedom of expression. Surprisingly few of my Facebook friends did this. And even fewer of the friends of those who did followed suit. One friend on whose wall I had posted it later posted the response of one of her friends on my wall, which made it clear that even if he was indeed repulsed by the Charlie Hebdo murders he wanted to make it clear that as far as he was concerned “Je ne suis pas Charlie” (he was not Charlie). Why? Because he didn’t believe in the “disrespectful way” in which the cartoonists and humorists of Charlie Hebdo treated the Islamic culture or, in fact, how the magazine disrespected everything many other people considered sacred or beyond reproach.
That is, of course, his opinion and, fortunately, his right. But sadly, I felt, he had missed the point, as had my friend, perhaps, in reposting his criticism on my wall as a kind of comment as to the possible error involved in my embracing Charlie unconditionally, even if I was shocked and disgusted by the murders. The point I feel they may have missed wasn’t whether or not I agreed completely with Charlie Hebdo’s often over-the-top satire, but whether or not I—and everyone else who gives frequent lip service to it—actually believed in its writers and artists’ right to free expression.
This past week, the US-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) conditionally defended Charlie Hebdo’s right to free speech, but called for greater understanding and respect. Some Muslims clearly consider Charlie Hebdo to be anti-Islamic because of the satirical cartoon images of the prophet Muhammad that it prints....
Which brings me to a brief aside: It has been pointed out that the most fanatical of Muslims would probably consider anti-Islamic any caricatures that Charlie Hebdo or any other magazine might print of Jesus as well, since Jesus, the key figure in Christianity, is also a minor prophet of Islam. So even if non-fundamentalist Christians were to take any such images in stride, if you were to poke fun at Christianity you might still get targeted, ironically enough, by normally rabid anti-Jewish Islamists for disrespecting the image of a prophet who was known in his day as King of the Jews. I mean, with fundamentalists, you just can’t win! They’re a touchy lot who are eminently offendable and defy appeasement, so why try?
And then there’s the viewpoint of unapologetic atheists like political comedian Bill Maher, who believes that if religions are free to publicly express, espouse and promote their beliefs in God, then atheists should and do have just as much right to publicly express their view that all such beliefs are a crock. By the way, what Maher said regarding the Charlie Hebdo massacre was, and I quote: “These assholes in Paris who shot cartoonists this week, they don’t like it [being on the wrong end of a joke], and as a jokester, I just have to say, the world needs to stand as one and—to quote the immortal Dick Cheney—say, ‘Go fuck yourself.’”
But anyway, what the CAIR’s Executive Director Nihad Awad said about all of this was that, “Just as Charlie Hebdo has the right to publish, we have the right to peacefully challenge negative portrayals of our religious figures. The answer to speech one disagrees with should not be violence, but should instead be more speech promoting tolerance and mutual understanding.”
Fair enough, and Awad is right. The whole idea behind free speech is just that: that it is free and open to everyone, so as to permit an exchange of opinions and ideas, which are the bloodline that nurtures a free society. And to paraphrase Voltaire, it’s my right to disagree with what someone else says or to question how they express themselves, but if I’m a democrat who truly believes in free speech and individual liberties as a whole, then it’s my duty to “defend to the death their right” to say what they say and to express it however they express it.  
Edgar Hopida, Communications Director for the ISNA, was quoted by the Huffington Post as saying that, “While we respect everyone's right to freedom of speech, even when it offends and disparages our religious traditions, we also have the right to address and peacefully challenge a narrative that encourages anti-Muslim bigotry, Islamophobia and xenophobia...” And up to there, I’m in complete agreement with him. But after that, his opinions wondered into the minefield of prior censorship, when he said that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons “only incite already increasing anti-Muslim sentiment...” adding that, “if [free] speech or expression incites people to commit violence and harm on others then it should not be allowed in our society.” The fact is that if Mr. Hopida were allowed to decide what was and wasn’t allowed in terms of “free” speech, according to whether or not it wounded his fragile sensibilities and those of his brethren, he wouldn’t be living in the United States, but in some fundamentalist state where telling others what they can and can’t say and do is the order of the day. And as long as Charlie Hebdo is published in France, he won’t be able to get away with deciding who can say what there either.
Pope Francis, for his part, was disappointingly unhelpful as well. One has come to expect bold, out-of-the-box thinking from the Argentine pontiff, but this time his response couldn’t have been more mundane and tended to reflect his own latent fundamentalism. While he indicated that it was unacceptable, of course, to murder a group of writers and artists armed only with their pens and pencils, he tacitly justified the fundamentalist rage that ended their lives by going on to say that religious freedom and freedom of expression were fundamental human rights, but that they were not total liberties. “There is a limit,” the Pope said. “Every religion has its dignity. I cannot mock a religion that respects human life and the human person.” And then, to bring his point home he cited a colloquial example by saying that if somebody called his mother a dirty name, “they’re going to get punched in the nose.”
Whether the pontiff meant it to be or not, this last hinted that, in a way, the dead artists and writers at the French weekly were asking for what they got, which is a little like saying, I don’t think the girl next door should have gotten raped and I’m sorry it happened, but then again she did wear her skirts awfully short and her neckline awfully low. It might have been more excusable coming from someone who had never lived through a period of harsh repression, but back in the days when he was still a priest, riding the subway in Buenos Aires and carrying his lunch, Pope Francis lived through the same dictatorship that I did and should know the price paid for intimating that victims are the authors of their own fate and he should know too the value (all too often in human blood) of free expression and the uncompromising nature of its genuine defense. Overwhelming silence in the Argentina of his day cost tens of thousands of lives and ruined tens of thousands more. Even as Pope, he hasn’t earned the privilege of overlooking that.  
The other point that needs to be made here is that Charlie Hebdo’s satirical criticism of Islam is aimed, not at Muslims, but at Muslim fanatics, whose modus operandi is to attack, vanquish and murder anyone who doesn’t agree with them. In fact, the French weekly’s editorial policy as a whole is aimed at poking withering satirical fun at everyone and everything that seeks to violate the natural rights of the individual to do what he or she pleases and to believe (or not believe) whatever his or her own heart and mind dictates.
The fact is that the magazine’s editorial policy is all about taking to task and “ridiculizing” everything that it feels undermines liberal thought. It is all about being stridently anti-establishment and non-conformist, about boldly representing, by its own description, left-wing, anti-racist thought and about satirically jerking the chains and punching the readily-emotional buttons of the foremost representatives of contemporary religion, politics and culture. It is not an “anti-Muslim” publication, but an anti-establishment one, taking on—with the same even-handed, poison-pen precision—the political extreme right and the established religious dictates of Roman Catholicism, Judaism and Islam alike. Murdered former editor Stéphane “Charb” Charbonnier described the magazine as reflecting the viewpoint of “all components of left-wing pluralism, and even abstainers.”
The other thing worth pointing out is that, despite the fact that Charlie Hebdo has ridiculed just about every icon possible and incurred the anger of leaders and celebrities from all walks of life—and while they might get a papal punch in the beak if the dare insult Bergoglio’s mother—the only two instances of violence that the magazine has suffered (a bombing in 2011 and the mass slaughter carried out this month) were both perpetrated by Muslim fundamentalists, who thus win the je suis Charlie prize for intolerance.
A voice that Voltaire (and George Washington) might well have applauded was that of writer Salman Rudshie, who, himself, long lived under death threats from Islamic fundamentalists. This past week, Rudshie said: “The French satirical tradition has always been very pointed and very harsh, and still is...The thing that I really resent is the way in which these, our dead comrades ... who died using the same implement that I use, which is a pen or pencil, have been almost immediately vilified and called racists and I don't know what else...Both John F. Kennedy and Nelson Mandela use(d) the same three-word phrase which in my mind says it all, which is, ‘Freedom is Indivisible.’ You can't slice it up. Otherwise it ceases to be freedom. You can dislike Charlie Hedbo...But the fact that you dislike them has nothing to do with their right to speak.”
From mid-1974 through early 1983, I lived in a climate in which I became accustomed to existing, first, with the threat of death by proxy involved in being part of the support team for courageous editorialists, and, later, with direct threats to my own life and to the newspaper that I worked for, as I devoted my own efforts to expressing the paper’s political and moral line. Asked, on occasion, why I did it, when it wasn’t my country or my fight, I’ve always replied that, on the contrary, opposing tyranny and violent fundamentalism of any kind is everyone’s fight no matter where it happens, and that for writers, journalists and political humorists, it’s not a choice, but a moral and professional obligation.
Seen from that vocational viewpoint, I fully identify with the murdered staffers at Charlie Hebdo. But I also identify with and am grateful to them for defending everyone’s right to free expression by exercising theirs with such uncompromising passion and self-sacrifice. And that’s why je suis Charlie. How about you?