This is (Potentially) a VERY Big Deal: Hamas drops call for destruction of Israel from manifesto

ETA: When I first read the Guardian article, I carelessly did not look at the date, which is January 12, 2006, and so this is not so much a big deal now. Nonetheless, it is significant that Hamas has taken this position. I will write more about that in the post I am working on, which I mention at the bottom of this post.

From The Guardian:

Hamas has dropped its call for the destruction of Israel from its manifesto for the Palestinian parliamentary election in a fortnight, a move that brings the group closer to the mainstream Palestinian position of building a state within the boundaries of the occupied territories.

The Islamist faction, responsible for a long campaign of suicide bombings and other attacks on Israelis, still calls for the maintenance of the armed struggle against occupation. But it steps back from Hamas’s 1988 charter demanding Israel’s eradication and the establishment of a Palestinian state in its place.

The manifesto makes no mention of the destruction of the Jewish state and instead takes a more ambiguous position by saying that Hamas had decided to compete in the elections because it would contribute to “the establishment of an independent state whose capital is Jerusalem”.

Here’s the hedging and the nuance, but I don’t think this changes the fact that this shift on Hamas’ part is still a very big deal:

Gazi Hamad, a Hamas candidate in the Gaza Strip, yesterday said the manifesto reflected the group’s position of accepting an interim state based on 1967 borders but leaving a final decision on whether to recognise Israel to future generations.

“Hamas is talking about the end of the occupation as the basis for a state, but at the same time Hamas is still not ready to recognise the right of Israel to exist,” he said. “We cannot give up the right of the armed struggle because our territory is occupied in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. That is the territory we are fighting to liberate.”

But Mr Hamad said the armed resistance was no longer Hamas’s primary strategy. “The policy is to maintain the armed struggle but it is not our first priority. We know that first of all we have to put more effort into resolving the internal problems, dealing with corruption, blackmail, chaos. This is our priority because if we change the situation for the Palestinians it will make our cause stronger.

“Hamas is looking to establish a new political strategy in which all Palestinian groups will participate, not just dominated by Fatah. We will discuss the negotiation strategy, how can we run the conflict with Israel but by different means.”

I have been working on a longish post about the current Israeli invasion of Gaza, but now I need to go back and rewrite some, and I am glad for that.

Posted in International issues, Palestine & Israel | 4 Comments  

This copyright dispute is funny because monkey


Andrew Charlesworth at The Conversation nutshells:

Whilst visiting a national park in North Sulawesi wildlife photographer David Slater had his camera stolen – not by a thief, but by an inquisitive crested black macaque. The resulting selfies are causing controversy and raising questions about the ownership of images on the web. So just who does own the copyright when a monkey gets trigger-happy on your device?

Slater was photographing the endangered monkeys when he left his camera unattended. One of the monkeys began playing with the camera and, fascinated by its reflection and the noise produced when it accidentally took a photo, it snapped hundreds of images of itself. Most were blurred and out of focus, but several of the photos produced unique up-close and personal self-portraits of the rare creature.

But Slater now finds himself in a dispute with Wikimedia, the organisation behind the Wikipedia online encyclopedia. Wikimedia has made the images available online in its collection of royalty-free images without Slater’s permission. It argues that Slater does not own the copyright to the images as he did not take the photos.

Although initial news reports made the photos sound like a lucky accident, Slater now says he deliberately created the circumstances for the macaques to snap the photos.

In either case, if we must have copyright law – and I’m not sure we must, but that’s a separate discussion – then it seems clear to me that Slater should own the copyright to these photos.

Even if the macaque taking the pictures was pure luck, in order for that lucky accident to happen Slater had to 1) spend years honing his craft as a nature photographer 2) travel to North Sulawesi 3) spend days traveling with the troop of macaques, making them comfortable both with him and his equipment 4) realize that photos taken by a macaque were of interest and 5) spend the time going through hundreds of macaque-taken photos to find the few that were in focus.1 That David Slater wound up with these photos may have been lucky, but it wasn’t pure chance; Slater put an enormous effort and skill into being in the right time and place to be able to get lucky.

Charlesworth makes an interesting analogy to machine-created artwork:

Another possibility would be to look to the section on computer-generated works in the CDPA. This tells us that if a literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work is generated by a computer, the author is the person who makes the arrangements that are necessary for the work to be created. That might be the computer programmer, for example.

While the act says nothing about animal-generated works, it seems a plausible argument that the owner of the camera, who took his camera into the wild, allowed an animal to handle that camera, recovered the camera and downloaded the pictures, should legitimately be able to claim a copyright, rather than an entity which is unaware that it is exercising any creative function. In other words, animal-generated photography should be treated no differently to machine-generated photography.

As Charlesworth points out, this is a case where the original purpose of copyright law – encouraging artists to create and distribute new work – applies. Because it takes so much effort (and expense) to get macaques to take photographs, it’s important that photographers feel they can profit, so that more of them will go through the trouble and we’ll all be rewarded with more macaque selfies to look at.

For a disagreeing view, see Techdirt.

UPDATE, 8/24/2014: The U.S. copyright office says that a photo taken by a monkey cannot be copyrighted.

  1. I’ve seen several news accounts state the photos weren’t “edited” by Slater; I’d argue that going through hundreds of photos to find the best few is a form of editing. []
Posted in Free speech, censorship, copyright law, etc. | 3 Comments  

I’ve Lived Until The End of My Desires

I’ve heard more than a few jokes about men who, after finding the proverbial genie in a bottle, manage to screw up their three wishes. The one that comes to me now involves a man who walks into a bar with another man, who is about twelve inches tall, sitting on his shoulder. Without a word, the first man takes out of a case he is carrying a small piano and a stool that he places on the bar. The foot-high man climbs down from the other one’s shoulder, also without a word, sits down at the piano, and begins to play the most beautiful music that anyone in the place has ever heard. Inevitably someone asks the regular-sized where he found this musical treasure, and he explains that he was walking alone on a beach in the Mediterranean when found a bottle with a genie inside. The genie granted him three wishes. I don’t remember what the first two were, but the last one, the man explains, produced the piano player. Someone asks him why he wished for a twelve-inch tall piano player and he says, “Well, it was just my luck that the genie was hard of hearing. He thought I asked for a twelve-inch pianist.” Ba dum dum.

There’s another one, though I only remember the punchline, where the guy gets turned into a tampon because he doesn’t recognize the ambiguity in how he phrases his desire for heterosexual prowess, and there are at least two more hiding somewhere in the back of my brain, absolutely refusing to let me tease them out, so I’m not sure if they also poke fun at the absurdities of conventional male heterosexual desire or if they just poke fun at greed. I am, however, reasonably certain that their humor lies, just like the two examples I gave above, in marking the difference between asking for what you think will make your life easier or better or more immediately profitable and having the courage and honesty to ask for what you really want.

The thing is, of course, that it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference. A man with a small penis who has endured the teasing and humiliation that will inevitably fall on him in this society may truly believe he needs those twelve inches, if only to silence his tormentors, both past and future. More to the point, though, his desire to silence them, if he allows it to consume him, would very likely blind him to the fact that a large penis would still not guarantee him love or happiness or even good and frequent sex.

I am, though for reasons that have nothing to with sex, confronted with this distinction between what I think I need and what I really want right now. Like almost everyone else I know, I could use more money, not because I want more luxury in my life, but mostly because I have debt that I need to repay. It’s honest debt, in the sense that my wife and I incurred it to pay for things we could not afford at the time but that we could not put off doing any longer; but it is debt nonetheless, and it is heavy, and I spend more time and energy than I would like thinking about what we need to do to get ourselves out from under it as quickly as possible. Inevitably, this thinking leads to fantasies of all the ways that enough money to pay off the debt might fall, or that I might facilitate its fall, into my lap. These are not paralyzing fantasies, by which I mean they do not prevent me from doing what I need to do to pay the debt off responsibly, but I am conscious of how frequently they grow beyond the goal of balancing our budget to become stories about how “if only we had enough money, all our problems would be solved.”

Continue reading

Posted in Iran, Writing | 11 Comments  

Rob Hayes Is In Jail, And Would Like To Hear From People


(Honestly, I would rather have illustrated this post with this cartoon. But it looks like that cartoonist hates having his cartoons reproduced, so…)

Several “Alas” folks have asked me if my old college friend and frequent “Alas” comment-writer Rob Hayes is all right.

I’m sorry to say, Rob’s in bad shape. He’s had ongoing problems with money (or, more precisely, with lack of money) and with drug addiction, and in May was arrested for bank robbery.

Yes, you read that correctly. It took me a while to believe it, too. (Insert joke about the free market not being that free here.) It’s worth noting, if you missed it when you read that article, that this wasn’t armed robbery; no weapon was involved.

Rob will be in the system for a while – if all goes well for him, I’m told he could be out in a year – and I hope will get the help he needs. Meanwhile, I’ve been in touch with a friend of Rob’s, and she thinks it would help Rob a lot if people would write him. I know that Rob is fond of the “Alas” community, and I’m sure he’d enjoy hearing from us.

So please use the comments here to post well-wishes or comments to Rob, or even to find some old comment of his you disagree with and give him a counter-argument (If I were Rob, I’d love a good argument.) Short comments are welcome, too. I will print out the comments and mail them to Rob, and I’ll also post any responses I receive from Rob.

Please keep in mind that the usual civility rules of “Alas” remain in effect!

Posted in Prisons and Justice and Police, Whatever | 20 Comments  

One In Four Americans Is A Lot Of Feminists


According to a new Economist/Yougov poll, “Just one in four Americans – and one in three women – call themselves feminists today.” I have no idea how reliable the methodology is, but I’m intrigued by the use of the word “just” in their report – as if “one in four” is a small number.1

Andrew Sullivan seems to agree, linking to the survey while saying “not many Americans” are feminists. And whenever a survey like this comes out, anti-feminists rush to gloat.

Which makes me wonder: Since when is a quarter of the country “not many Americans”?

To put that number in perspective, The Big Bang Theory, the most popular TV show in America, is watched by 23 million Americans, or 7%. The World Cup Final was watched by 26.5 million Americans – a little over 8%.

If this poll is accurate, about 60 million Americans self-identify as feminists.2 With all respect to Andrew Sullivan, I’d call that a lot of Americans.

* * *

Interestingly, according to the Economist/Yougov poll (see page 35 of this pdf file), 41% of Americans age 18-29 consider themselves feminists. I doubt that’s a result my friend Cathy Young will be reporting anytime soon. (Update: Cathy says she’ll cover it.)

So what about other polls?

Another YouGov poll (pdf link), conducted in 2013, found that 20% of Americans – about 48 million – call themselves feminists. This poll is interesting because it asked respondents to choose between feminist, anti-feminist, and neutral.


Notice that in this poll, young people weren’t more likely to identify as feminists.

A 2005 CBS poll found that 24% of US women identify as feminist.

Various Gallop polls from 1991 to 2001 found that between 25% and 33% of Americans self-identify as feminist.

Finally, a Ms Magazine poll of voters found that a little over half of female voters identify as feminist. (Note that this is a poll of voters, not of Americans in general.)

* * *

Although it’s comforting to think of there being 60 million feminists in the US alone, it’s a mistake to focus too much on these numbers. Feminism’s victories aren’t in how many Americans call themselves feminist; they’re in the ways feminism has changed America.

  1. YouGov asked a follow-up question, defining “feminist” as “someone who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes,” and then asks people if they self-identify as a feminist. Unsurprisingly, asking the question this way leads to much larger numbers identifying as feminist. I’m not convinced that’s a meaningful result, so I haven’t focused on those numbers in this post. []
  2. 60 million excludes the 23% of Americans who are under age 18, since the YouGov poll was of Americans age 18 and up. 25% of all Americans, including those under 18, would be about 78 million. []
Posted in Feminism, sexism, etc | 51 Comments  

The Viper Strikes, and Lives

I have been fascinated by metaphor since I was an undergraduate linguistics major, when one of my professors assigned parts of Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. In that book, Lakoff and Johnson argue that, as human beings, we use metaphor to give structure to the world around us. They point out, for example, that we describe the process of having or making an argument the same way we describe war. As examples, they offer this list of expressions:

  1. Your claims are indefensible.
  2. He attacked every weak point in my argument.
  3. His criticisms are right on target.
  4. I demolished his argument.

Lakoff and Johnson don’t stop there, though. They go on to show that we don’t just talk about argument as if it were war; we actually experience it that way as well. Like wars, for example, arguments are won or lost; and the people on either side of an argument behave in some ways as if they are doing battle with each other, taking different lines of attack, or surrendering some points in the hopes of gaining others that will lead to victory. To illustrate by way of contrast, Lakoff and Johnson ask us to

imagine a culture where argument is viewed as a dance, the participants are seen as performers, and the goal is to perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way. In such a culture, people would view arguments differently, carry them out differently, and talk about them differently. But we would probably not view them as arguing at all: they would simply be doing something different. (5)

Other examples abound. One of my favorite classroom exercises is to ask my students to list all the slang expressions they know for for getting drunk and/or high (the latter, of course, being a metaphor in itself). Here are some of the more common ones they come up with:

  • wasted
  • bombed
  • annihilated
  • blasted
  • blitzed
  • polluted
  • shitfaced
  • embalmed
  • hammered
  • pickled
  • plastered
  • smashed

Inevitably, my students are surprised not just at how violent the list is, but at the way these expressions portray getting drunk or high as violence one does to oneself–a way of structuring what it means to alter one’s consciousness that is very different from cultures that use such substances in religious or other spiritual rituals.

The story from Golestan that I have chosen for this week’s Sa’di Says is about the structure of power in a monarchy, and I think the metaphors that Sa’di uses in telling this story are fascinating. Before you read it, you need to know that Hormuz was the son of King Nushirvan, whose name is synonymous with what it means to be a wise and just ruler. Hormuz, on the other hand, was cruel and tyrannical. Here is the story:

When he was asked what crime his father’s viziers had committed, Hormuz replied, “None. I put these men in jail because they feared my power without respecting it. I knew that to protect themselves from the capriciousness they saw in me and the harm they thought might come to them because of it, they might try to kill me. So I had no choice. I took the advice of the sages, who said:

The power to wipe out a hundred men
should not replace your fear of one who fears you.
Watch when a cat is fighting for its life;
it plucks the tiger’s eyes out with its claws.
To stop the stone the shepherd might throw down
to crush its head, the viper strikes, and lives.

Hormuz is unapologetic in his explanation, but you have to wonder just how aware he is of how much his metaphors reveal about him. Look closely at the metaphor in those last two lines. By having the king compare himself to a viper, while at the same time comparing his father’s viziers to a shepherd, Sa’di uses Hormuz’ self-justification to reveal not just the fear and weakness at the heart of any tyrannical rule, but also something about the nature of power itself. The shepherd’s authority to kill the viper comes from his role as protector of the flock, though he can choose not to use that power if he doesn’t have to. (Hence, “the stone the shepherd might throw down.”) The viper, on the other hand–and I am following here the logic of the metaphor, not commenting on the behavior of actual snakes–because of the poison that defines it and the threat it poses to those around it, cannot afford to wait for the shepherd to make that choice. It must assume that the shepherd has assumed that it will attack and so it has no alternative but to defend itself accordingly.

The viper’s power, in other words, is defined by its fear of the world, its sense that the world is arrayed against it, while the shepherd’s power is defined by the choice that is available to him. Not that the fact of this choice will make the shepherd a good and wise ruler by definition; but it does seem to me that awareness of the choice is a prerequisite for a wise and benevolent rule.

The cool thing about a metaphor is that no single reading will ever capture its entire meaning, and so I know the reading I have presented here is a partial one at best. I’d love to hear what you think.


Posted in Iran, Writing | 18 Comments  

I Can’t Think of a Better Reason to Write

You never know how people are going to find your work, and you never know how it’s going to touch them or why. Earlier this month, a man contacted me asking for a copy of the uncorrected proof of my Selections from Saadi’s Gulistan, which I make available through my website to anyone who asks for it. All I ask in return is that they tell me a little bit about why they want it and how they intend to use it. I’ve gotten these requests from a wide range of people, including graduate students in Iran who are working on their MA in translation studies to people, a scholar in Russia who was preparing a multilingual anthology of selected works of classical Iranian literature, and several people from India who were studying Sa’di for their own purposes and preferred my translation to the ones that were available in their country.

The most touching request for a copy of this PDF, however, came this month from a man who, as he wrote, “happened upon [My Companion’s Scent Seeped Into Me] while reading The Male Privilege Checklist on Alas! A Blog.” I featured that poem on my blog on June 27th. Here it is again:

I held in my bath a perfumed piece of clay
that came to me from a beloved’s hand.
I asked it, “Are you musk or ambergris?
Like fine wine, your smell intoxicates me.”
“I was,” it said, “a loathsome lump of clay
till someone set me down beside a rose.
Then my companion’s scent seeped into me.
Otherwise, I am only the earth that I am.

That poem, he went on, “is a reflection of what happened to me.

I am a 46 year old male. I have recently been reunited with my ex-wife who I hadn’t spoken with for over twenty years. It has been a wonderful experience of learning and enlightenment thus far. She gave me a book to read by Don Miguel Ruiz called The Four Agreements which has had a profound impact on my life and the way I live it.  It is a book of wisdom. I would like to reciprocate by sharing this with her.

To know that my book has been a part of the experience this man describes–well, I can’t think of a better reason to write.

If you’d like to read this week’s “Sa’di Says,” it’s called “Creation Kills What It Was Made to Love.”

As usual, I’d love to know what you think.


Posted in Iran, Writing | 2 Comments  

Appeals Courts Issue Contrary Rulings On Affordable Care Act


An exciting day for ACA-watchers! This morning a three-judge panel from The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that Obamacare’s federal subsidies to help people afford health insurance can be offered to people who buy their insurance through state-run exchanges, but not to people buying health insurance through federal-run exchanges. (The case is Halwig v. Burwell (pdf link).) The ruling, if it gets to be applied (it’s on hold for appeal right now), could take away subsidies for over 7 million Americans, effectively gutting Obamacare.

Then, two hours later, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals issued an opposite ruling on the exact same question. that case is King v. Burwell.

Vox provides a useful three-sentence summary of the majority’s decision in Halwig:

1) The D.C. Circuit ruled that the Affordable Care Act never authorized subsidies for health insurance purchased on federally-run exchanges, rendering the subsidies illegal in 36 states.

2) Although this would absurdly undermine the entire purpose of Obamacare — which is to make affordable health coverage available to all — the court points to two other examples of “absurd” outcomes from the text of the law, including language that would have locked Guam and other U.S. territories into an unsustainable health insurance system.

3) The judges contend that there’s not sufficient evidence from the legislative history (like old drafts of the law, or other evidence predating this lawsuit) to determine whether Congress intended to use subsidies as a carrot or make them available in every state; without clear legislative history, the court defaults its interpretation of the plain text.

As I wrote last year, this issue is the single largest threat to Obamacare; if Obamacare can’t subsidize health insurance bought through Federal exchanges, that seems very likely to put Obamacare into a “death spiral”; prices will go up 70% or more, everyone but the most unhealthy will flee the heath exchanges, having only unhealthy people on the exchanges will cause prices to go up even more, etc etc..

On the legal merits, the courts can essentially decide one of three ways:

1) Read in full, the ACA unambiguously says that the subsidies are only available to people who buy insurance through state-run exchanges. This is what the majority in the Halwig case ruled.

2) Read in full, the ACA unambiguously says that the subsidies are available to people who buy insurance through either state or federal exchanges.

3) Read in full, the meaning of the ACA on this point is ambiguous. This is what the Fourth Circuit panel unanimously ruled. A ruling that the statutory text is ambiguous on this point is a victory for the Obama Administration, since in cases of genuine ambiguity Courts are supposed to defer to administrative agencies. (Although as Kevin Drum points out, that deference is a standard that the conservatives on the Court may be eager to overturn.)

The Obama administration has already announced its plan to appeal Halwig (which has been stayed pending appeal) to the full 11-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit. The three-judge panel that issued today’s ruling consisted of two Republican appointees and one Democratic appointee, all of whom voted along predictable party lines. However, the full 11-judge panel consists of 7 Democratic appointees (including 4 from Obama) and 4 Republican appointees, and I expect will go the other way.1

The question, then, is if the Supreme Court decides to take the case, and if so how they’ll rule. I could imagine that going either way, for reasons laid out in my earlier post.

P.S. The most quotable part of the fourth circuit’s ruling:

Appellants’ reading is not literal; it’s cramped. No case stands for the proposition that literal readings should take place in a vacuum, acontextually, and untethered from other parts of the operative text; indeed, the case law indicates the opposite.

So does common sense: If I ask for pizza from Pizza Hut for lunch but clarify that I would be fine with a pizza from Domino’s, and I then specify that I want ham and pepperoni on my pizza from Pizza Hut, my friend who returns from Domino’s with a ham and pepperoni pizza has still complied with a literal construction of my lunch order.

That is this case: Congress specified that Exchanges should be established and run by the states, but the contingency provision permits federal officials to act in place of the state when it fails to establish an Exchange. The premium tax credit calculation subprovision later specifies certain conditions regarding state-run Exchanges, but that does not mean that a literal reading of that provision somehow precludes its applicability to substitute federally-run Exchanges or erases the contingency provision out of the statute. [...]

Appellants insist that the use of “established by the State” in the premium tax credits calculation subprovision is evidence of Congress’ intent to limit the availability of tax credits to consumers of state Exchange-purchased health insurance coverage. Their reading bespeaks a deeply flawed effort to squeeze the proverbial elephant into the proverbial mousehole.

  1. Hooray for the nuclear option! []
Posted in Health Care and Related Issues | 32 Comments  

The Gunshot Hit Archie Where?


Despite the illustration, I presume the fatal shot hit him on the nose. From People Magazine:

Archie Andrews Will Die Taking A Bullet For His Gay Best Friend.

The famous freckle-faced comic book icon is meeting his demise in Wednesday’s installment of Life with Archie when he intervenes in an assassination attempt on Kevin Keller, Archie Comics’ first openly gay character. Andrews’ death, which was first announced in April, will mark the conclusion of the series that focuses on grown-up renditions of Andrews and his Riverdale pals. [...]

“We wanted to do something that was impactful that would really resonate with the world and bring home just how important Archie is to everyone,” said Goldwater. “That’s how we came up with the storyline of saving Kevin. He could have saved Betty. He could have saved Veronica. We get that, but metaphorically, by saving Kevin, a new Riverdale is born.”

I’m glad that Archie has dropped the fundamentalist Christianity and is now pro-gay. Huzzah huzzah, and all that. But does the writing have to be so hamhanded?

Oh, and the person who shot Senator Kevin? A homophobic gun activist who objected to Senator Kevin’s pro-gun-control stance. (Why did he bother? It’s not like any gun control bill has any chance of making it through Congress.)

Jon Goldwater, Archie Comics publisher and co-CEO, defended Archie’s demise being a lesson about gun violence and diversity.

“Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I don’t agree,” said Goldwater. “I think Riverdale is a place where everyone should feel welcome and safe. From my point of view, I’m proud of the stance we’ve taken here, and I don’t think it’s overtly political on any level.”

What would he consider overtly political, I wonder?

Look, I spend my work life creating all-age comics which I hope are informed by my feminist and progressive politics. But I work very hard to bury any of those messages deep under truckloads of entertainment and well-constructed stories and characters. Because a crappy comic with good politics is still a crappy comic.

Via righty Rod Dreher, who, upon finding out that a couple of minor supporting Archie characters are lesbian, commented “Seems like everybody is gay in pop culture today.” Yeah, because it’s so hard to find depictions of heterosexuality in Archie Comics.


1) I really hate the sort of patting-ourselves-on-the-back-for-being-so-brave feeling I get from events like this, when Archie or Marvel or DC or Star Trek or something makes a supporting character lgbt.

Including a gay or lesbian supporting character in mainstream American pop culture is not brave. At this point, it’s just being ordinarily decent. It would be brave if this were the 1970s or 1980s.

Making Archie gay or bi would be something. Having Jughead come out as asexual – that would be pushing some boundaries. And let’s see some trans characters, already!

I’m glad that Archie is no longer pushing the idea of a world where there’s tons of romance plotlines but never any gay characters, because that was unrealistic and sort of embarrassing. And representation does matter. They are doing a good thing. But if they want to deserve credit for being brave, they have to do a lot more.

2) I really hate it when TV shows and comics depict bigotry as a vicious murderer with a gun. The more pop culture depicts bigotry in those extreme terms, the harder it is to talk about the majority of real-life bigotry, which is far more subtle and carries around platitudes and smiles, not firearms.

It’s true, of course, that there are still bigots with guns shooting people – from what I’ve read, the per capita likelihood of being murdered is especially high for transsexuals, and that’s horrible. But that’s still an outlier. Typical anti-homosexual and anti-trans bigotry simply isn’t that obvious, and I think it’s actively harmful to our culture when our popular narratives only acknowledge the most obvious forms of bigotry.

Posted in Cartooning & comics, In the news, Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Trans and Queer issues | 6 Comments  

In Them Alone My Spirit Will Endure


Towards the end of his preface to Golestan, Sa’di—that’s a picture of me at his tomb in Shiraz–says:

Long after we have crumbled into dust,
and the grains of who we were are far-flung atoms,
these words, well chosen and arranged, will live,
and in them alone my spirit will endure.
Perhaps one day a sympathetic man
will offer a prayer for the labor done by dervishes.

When I was a sophomore in college, I took my very first poetry workshop with June Jordan, whose poetry and essays continue to inspire me today. I remember sitting in her office, talking about a poem of mine that did not make very much sense. She kept asking me what I was trying to say, and I kept resisting the question. I had, I thought, been very clever about planting clues to my meaning in the lines of the poem, and I wanted her to figure it out for herself. Finally, she looked at me and said, “You know, Richard, a poem is an act of communication. You are trying to say something to someone in a way that will change them, but if they can’t understand what you’re saying, or if they have to work so hard to understand you that they lose interest, then what was the point of writing in the first place? That’s how I feel about this piece you’ve brought in today. Since I don’t understand why I should bother, I don’t understand why you bothered. So why should I waste my time trying to understand you?”

Those words sound a lot more cruel when I read them back to myself than they do when I remember June saying them, but they are not so much different than the words I use with my own students when I tell them that if they don’t take themselves seriously as writers, they shouldn’t expect me to take them seriously either. I say this at the beginning of every semester to every writing class I teach, whether it’s developmental writing, which I’m teaching this month, technical writing, creative writing, or English as a Second Language composition, each of which I will be teaching in the fall. I want them to start thinking of the writing they do as more than a response to an assignment; I want them to start thinking about it as what they have to say, and I want to impress on them the audacity inherent in presuming that what one has to say is worth the time and/or money that someone else will spend in order to read it, even if that someone else is the teacher who assigned the piece of writing in the first place.

To write for publication, no matter how small the audience, is to possess a healthy dose of this audacity, but it is also, often, to take on a correspondingly healthy dose of doubt. For most of us, after all, writing doesn’t pay well enough to make a living; for many–especially poets–it doesn’t pay at all; and given that any kind of fame or enduring significance is as much a matter of chance as skill, that obscurity, if not oblivion, is the fate that awaits most of our work, it would be strange if we didn’t sometimes wonder, as June Jordan asked me, why we bother in the first place. Until something happens to reminds us. The first time I felt the power of knowing that my writing had made a real difference in someone’s life was in 1988. I had published an essay about reproductive rights with a profeminist men’s magazine called Changing Men. It was my first publication, and I was stunned, happily stunned, to find in the issue after my piece appeard a letter to the editor from a woman who said she was grateful to have read it. It had, she wrote, helped her figure out how to talk to her now ex-boyfriend about her unexpected pregnancy and her decision, which he had opposed, to have an abortion.

On another occasion, a colleague of mine told me that an essay I’d written about pornography for the long-and-unfortunately-defunct American Voice had been the subject of conversation at a dinner party she’d attended. One of the guests, not knowing that she knew me, told about reading the entire piece out loud to some of his friends, male and female, so they could have an honest discussion about porn. Then, my colleague said, he talked about giving the essay to his teenage son as way of starting a conversation about sexual values. I’ve even gotten this kind of response to my book of poems, The Silence of Men, when someone wrote an open letter to me on the Internet–it is, sadly, no longer online–about how the book had helped a friend of his come to terms with some family issues.

Most recently, however, I saw how my words have touched people when I discovered the hashtag #Saadi and learned that, without my knowledge, someone with the Twitter handle @ShaykhSaadi has been tweeting 140-character-or-less excerpts of my Saadi translations since 2012. ShaykhSaadi has more than a thousand followers, more than have bought, and certainly more than have read The Silence of Men–and they have been drawing comfort, inspiration, and guidance from the voice I’ve given in English to a Persian-speaking Iranian writer who’s been dead for almost eight centuries. Knowing this has certainly put any ambitions I have for my own work into perspective, and I am conscious that Sa’di brought that kind of perspective in thinking about his own endeavors. In the section of Golestan where this week’s Sa’di Says occurs, he puts it this way:

The nobles of my lord’s court, may his victory be glorious, are pious men and profound scholars. How could I dare to speak in their presence? If in the passion of the moment, like a child trying to speak with his parents as an equal, I added something of my own to what they had to say, my thoughts would be revealed as simplistic trifles, paltry imitations of the noble’s subtle and supple ideas. Glass beads in the jewelers’ bazaar are not worth a barley corn; in the presence of the sun, even the brightest lamp will fail to shine; and who will call a minaret’s height lofty if the tower is placed at the foot of Mount Alvend?

Granted that the conventions of writing for a royal patron demanded this kind of courtly flattery–the nobles of the king’s court, after all, could very easily have conspired to ruin Sa’di, or even have him killed. Still, it’s hard not to hear at least a hint of sincere doubt (and perhaps also mockery) in Sa’di’s tone. “Why do I bother,” he seems to be asking. “These men will never really hear what I am saying, no matter how worthwhile it may be.” Then, on the very next page, he answers his own question:

Nonetheless, trusting that the great men of the king’s court will be generous and discrete, choosing not to see the faults of those beneath them and to keep silent about the crimes their inferiors have committed, I have devoted a portion of my precious life to setting down in this book, in a shortened form, some rare events, stories, and poems about our ancient kings.

Sa’di’s answer, in other words, amounts to this: I write because I have something to say that I think it’s worth your time to read. What’s more, he goes on to say, finishing with the lines I quoted at the very beginning of this post, what I have to say is far more important than I am. It will outlive me and, because the words in which I have said it are mine, a part of me will outlive myself. Let me quote those lines again:

Long after we have crumbled into dust,
and the grains of who we were are far-flung atoms,
these words, well chosen and arranged, will live,
and in them alone my spirit will endure.
Perhaps one day a sympathetic man
will offer a prayer for the labor done by dervishes.

Sa’di’s spirit has indeed endured and I am happy to have built a home for it, with my words, in English.


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