Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Bigot and the Troll: All Fist and No Nose

I once took a course with an older gentleman named Mike, who I once heard say:
“ The freedom of your fist ends where my nose begins.”

I don’t know whether he made it up or stole it from someone, but it has always stuck with me. As a man whose own nose begins rather sooner than most, I may be biased, but I always thought it as good a demarcation between rights and responsibilities (remember them?) as any. Freedom is not just the unfettered ability to do as one wants; it is accompanied by the responsibility to Do No Harm.

            At first it would seem a no-brainer; I have heard very few people openly take issue with it. Where it gets tricky is when the harm done is not of a physical or strictly quantifiable nature; when it’s psychological or emotional. Then, we run up against freedom of expression, and the uncomfortable realization that it is the inalienable right of some individuals to visit certain forms of harm on others.

            We all know of the despicable Terry Jones, the loathsome Westborough Baptist Church, and the scum sucking internet trolls continuously poking a sharp stick into the eyes of Amanda Todd’s parents via their truly vile postings on Youtube and Facebook.  These are not harmless actions. In each case, pain is the intended result. Each is a calculated exercise to maximize anguish in other people, for reasons known only to the perpetrators. They have the right to do this; they must have, if freedom of expression is to mean anything.
           
            But what wretched, rancid uses they’ve made of their freedom!

            There are people all over the world fighting for freedom to criticize their governments, to practice their religion or not to practice their lack thereof, to express ideas and express truths. They are being jailed, beaten, tortured, occasionally killed. Our own precious open society was not born in a vacuum but sprang from the blood of many veterans (and I don’t just mean soldiers).

            How sad then that for so many, this much sought and hard won right means nothing more than immunity from the rules of basic civility and common decency. These people do not follow the principle of doing no harm; they consider other people’s noses to be intolerable restraints on their fists.

            They have their rights, and we mustn’t tread on them. But what they fail to realize (and what we too often forget) is that it is also our right to call them on their bullshit.

Terry Jones: the Boy who Kicked Hornets

There was a time when the name Terry Jones brought to the mind’s eye a goofy grin from Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Sadly, these are unfunny (though no less absurd) times we live in, and the name now conjures up images of a hideous moustache  entangled in bigotry the way most moustaches are entangled in breadcrumbs.

Terry Jones: book burner


            Jones, the pastor of the World Dove Outreach Centre (have these people no sense of irony?) has earned himself a dubious celebrity through such publicity stunts as burning the Qur’an (for which he was fined $271 for violating fire regulations), hanging an effigy of Barak Obama  and endorsing The Innocence of Muslims, a real matinee treat of a film that pokes fun at Mohamed (sorry, no Youtube links here!). These stunts caused widespread rioting in many Muslim countries, resulting in the death of the US Ambassador to Libya.

            Discussion of these incidents usually devolves into a kind of “choose your side” showdown between freedom of expression and religious tolerance. If we must choose sides, I have to say my sympathy is not with the killers: murder and insult are not equivalent crimes. The “don’t poke a rabid dog” analogy doesn’t work here because the men (and we can be reasonably sure they were men) who stormed the embassy and murdered Christopher Stephens were not dogs, but human beings who could have chosen not to kill.

            Still, it’s all very fine and good for Jones to make these grand pronouncements on freedom of speech, knowing full well that only other people will have deal with the consequences. Terry Jones and his flock, safe in Gainesville Florida will never have to face the howling mobs and screaming Jihadists. This pleasure will fall to NATO troops in Afghanistan, Embassy staff in places like Libya, and, most of all, to Christian minorities, secularists and Muslim moderates who are trying to live in these countries. Terry Jones can kick over as many hornets’ nests as he wants because he knows only other people will get stung.
           
            This takes a special kind of cowardice.
        
            Not to mention, what sort of champion of free speech burns books?

           
I like this Terry Jones better. . .


















Saturday, October 27, 2012

A bit of wisdom (albiet outdated) from Ambrose Bierce

" We all recognize [the dead's] right to lie at rest, with immunity to all that is harsh and violent." - Ambrose Bierce.


Alas, if only that were so Brosie.  Maybe in your time, but certtainly not in mine.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Presidential debates

Romney:  My state came first in all four measures!

Obama: That was BEFORE you took office.

Romney: No that was mine.


Fact checkers anyone? The experts will doubtless have a great deal to say.


Romney: We have fewer ships than at any time since 1917.

Obama: We also have fewer horses and bayonets.

Amanda Todd: The Girl They Hated.

 

            Clearly a ghost. A face from the grave. A pretty little face, dominated by two large dark eyes, and a delicate smile, timid and tentative, as if she’s asking us permission to smile.

     “ Hello,” she seems to say. “ My name’s Amanda. Will YOU show me any kindness?”

     “ No. . .

          “ No. . .

              “ No. . .

                   “ NO!”

     Time and again, permission denied. No kindness, no pity, no mercy. How many times must she have been shot down to have chosen death?

     I must be imagining it, but every time I look away, in the corner of my eye, I could swear that smile is flickering. Falling. She puts on a brave face when I look at her, but when she thinks I’m not looking, not even her photograph can smile.

     How much indignity, hatred and humiliation must a girl endure for her to feel that slicing her own flesh is an improvement? (And how ironic that this most agonized of distress signals often invites even more contempt from the ranks of the self satisfied?). Were there no bright spots in her life? No little moments of joy she could cling to? Furthermore, was there not a single human being who would stand up for her, defend her, look her in the eye and say “Amanda, you matter!”

     I wonder what she wanted out of life. What her hopes were, what she dreamed of. She was fifteen. She probably wanted to be liked. Not necessarily popular, but to go to school and have one person be pleased to see her. She probably wanted to go on line and chatter with friends about all the things teen aged girls like to chatter about. She probably wanted a facebook page like everyone else, with friends who would tag her in pictures, like her links and write things on her wall. Adults will scratch their heads and wonder why she threw herself at the mercy of the Social Media, which emboldens the most cruel and cowardly among us, but what they have to remember is this:

     She was fifteen, and that sort of thing matters to a fifteen year old!

     Peer acceptance is important at that age. Just about the most important thing there is. Society doesn’t give kids much choice, herding them together as we do in cattle cars called classrooms. Have we adults ever thought of what hells these places must be for those black sheep who aren’t accepted by the herd?

     Amanda Todd just wanted to do what all the other kids were doing, to join the party so to speak. And all she found was taunting and teasing and sexual exploitation, and people telling her she was better off dead.

     In desperation she put her message into a Youtube bottle and cast it out into the cyber-sea. Didn’t she know that Youtube is festering Troll’s nest, that preys on the vulnerable and sincere? Oh yes. She knew. As if predicting the tidal wave of bile in store for her, she made a futile plea for mercy on her Youtube video:

          Haters are haters, but please don't hate, although I’m sure I’ll get them. 

     Hope springs eternal. Please don’t hate. Please don’t hate. Please don’t hate. . .

     But the hate poured in anyway. Two thousand one hundred and thirteen (and counting) bildge-rats thought nothing of eviscerating a girl’s self esteem from the comfort of their keyboards.

     Are her tormentors happy now? Are they pleased with themselves? Are they satisfied? Might they leave her alone now? I wouldn’t count on it. Trolls prey on the dead as well. Already they're polluting her memorial page with bile, braying  hyena-like in a self satisfied effort to apparently maximize her family's grief.

    How could anyone taunt a mother in mourning? The same way they could torment a girl who was suffering. We shouldn't be surprised: the newspapers are too full of examples of evil to believe that a bereaved family would be off-limits to the casual sadist.

   Amanda's haters seem a puritanical lot: her biggest crime in their eyes seems to have been getting targeted by an online predator when she was thirteen. And apparently stealing someone else's boyfriend (the boyfriend gets off scott-free, of course). "Whore! Bitch! Slut!" they cry. Puritanical, sexually repressed hatred of the female straight from the Taliban playbook. Who would have thought we would see a thirteen year old victim of sexual blackmail get blamed for her own situation in Canada?

     Her other big crime was taking her own life.  There are those who feel no sympathy at all for suicide victims: for the puritan, suicide is a sin, and compassion goes out the window. “ It’s the coward’s way out,” goes the old refrain, as if death were something we all  looked forward to and had to wait our turn for. Might I ask just how brave Amanda was supposed to have been? She was fifteen. She was a child. How much is a child supposed to endure?

     How much hurt lay behind those dark eyes?

     “ Everyone has a story," she wrote "and everyones future will be bright one day, you just gotta pull through. I'm still here aren't I?"

     If only you were Amanda. Even in the darkest darkness there was a little light in you that got through, and for every heartless hater, there were a hundred human beings who see it now and are cursing themselves for not seeing it sooner. If only you could have held out just a little longer. You wanted to live so badly, you so wanted the pain to stop, you hoped so much that someone out there somewhere might be able to take it away. Your Youtube channel was covered in pictures of bandages embroidered with the word “hope”. Were those your mutilated arms on display? It doesn’t matter: you chose the image for a reason. Wounds literally bandaged in hope. You hoped that if you only told your story, maybe they would stop hating.

     Please don’t hate. . .Please don’t hate. . .

     You desperately wanted to feel this hope, you so badly wanted to live. But you couldn’t do it alone, you couldn’t hold out forever, and we didn’t get to you in time. Even hope can be toxic if it's left unfulfilled for too long.

     I’m so, so sorry Amanda. For what it’s worth, we don’t hate you.  We think you're wonderful. We want you back.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vOHXGNx-E7E


Please don't hate. . .


Tales from the UK VOL VI: Dartford

(In the spirit of generosity, I am providing for your reading pleasure the sixth chapter of my UK memoir. You'll have to buy the bleedin' book if you want the previous four. . .)

From the Archives. . .

           My first glimpse of the town of Dartford, in the county of Kent was of an empty train station in the middle of the night. I was alone on the train, all the passengers having gotten off at earlier stops. As if they knew something I didn’t. There was not a soul in sight, nor a lit window anywhere. There were no taxis in the car park, no city maps posted, no streets signs or visible addresses. There were no coffee shops or petrol stations where one might have asked for directions, or at least bought a map. For all I could tell, the city was dead.

            “ Oh dear,” I thought. “ This town and I aren’t going to get along at all.”

            So how’d I get here you ask? Well, let me take you back a couple months.

            In our last episode, our young protagonist (c’est moi) found himself enmeshed in the sea weed of British bureaucracy and dragged under the raging waters of unemployment. At this point, he called up the agency responsible for his employment (though not, apparently, for his lack thereoff), and reminded them in no uncertain terms that he had signed a contract which guaranteed full time work which he expected them to honour and didn’t gave a damn if they hadn’t checked with their government first.  

              Well,” said the nice young lady on the phone, terribly embarrassed.  “ Here’s what we can do for you. . .”

            And they sent me to Dartford, in the county of Kent, where my Canadian police check would be recognized.  Let me tell you about Dartford:

            Dartford is a hole. A dump. A wasteland. A blight on the landscape, a scab on the countryside, a stinking, steaming, fly-infested heap of a town decorating Kent county like a turd on a Persian rug. As picturesque as Chernobyl, as culturally stimulating as Abu-Gaib, as welcoming as a venus flytrap, Dartford is the nadir, the bottom of the barrel, the amputated gangrenous stump of the English urban landscape. I hated every pockmarked pebble of it, and I was stuck there for the better part of two months. 

            It’s the sort of place that makes it clear from the outset that it doesn’t want you there.  It’s the kind of place where street lamps go out as you approach, where streets aren’t named and buildings aren’t numbered. Where bovine drivers shout at you from their rust bucket cars. Where the streets are paved with cigarette butts, the lawns seeded with Styrofoam containers, and the river is filled with shopping carts.  The buses are never on time and the shops are never open. There is not an inch of Dartford that does not exude ugliness and inefficiency.

            Dartford strikes me as a place that just couldn’t adapt to the modern era. That suffered all the debilitating effects of technology, but none of its benefits. The little cobblestone streets are crammed with traffic now, and the historical church that dominates the downtown core accordingly looks like it spent the last twenty years inside an exhaust pipe. The air reeks of exhaust, asphalt, and the Galaxo-Smith Kline plant up the road. What greenery exists looks like it was bred on a triffid farm, and mainly serves to hide junkies and football hooligans from view. There is a central park area that looks like it would rather be somewhere else.

            If the plaques on the pubs are to be believed, Dartford has quite a history behind it. Henry V and Bloody Mary were said to pass through (they didn’t stay long), and it is reportedly the birthplace of Mick Jagger (which would explain “Sympathy for the Devil”). The guitarist for Bruce Dickinson’s first band also supposedly came from here, though it has in no way improved the town’s Metal scene. Dartford was the site of a major tax revolt in the twelfth century, and it has been revolting ever since. The leader of the revolt was a disgruntled peasant named Wat Tyler, who, like Henry and Mary, didn’t actually come from Dartford, but was only passing through.

Tyler now has a pub/inn named after him where I stayed for my second night in Dartford – the first was at a place called the Campanile. Here, I met an old war veteran who kept ordering me drinks then running away when the bill came, his son, who couldn’t say much besides “Nah, yer no Canadian!”, and the only other person in the UK I’ve met so far who knew who Noddy Holder was (I must not be trying hard enough). In the morning, I found a dead mouse in my room that I could have sworn was not there when I checked in.

The next night I went back to the Campanile.

            Returning to Wycombe that weekend was like dying in Ypres and waking up in Elysium. Wycombe! Sweet Wycombe! All is forgiven! Is that the attar of roses I smell? Is it just me or does the rain taste like Shiraz? Even my neighbour’s bloody wind chimes which kept me up all night when I first moved in sounded like a choir of angels singing the Hallelujah chorus. Wycombe, High Wycombe! Let’s never fight again. . .


NEXT EPISODE: Gypsy Roads, or Steve vs Bathroom Sink.

Ronnie James Dio: Stargazer, Strange Dreamer, Goodbye.

(First posted Tuesday 18 May, 2010)

I’m writing this because I’ll be damned if I let those patronizing jackasses at the New York Times get in the last word on Ronnie James Dio. Knowing or caring about a man never was a requirement for writing his obituary, but a crudely concealed contempt for those who loved him apparently is. Take comfort though: the author of this claptrap will have far fewer people crying over his own obituary than the man he refused to respect.

Do you know who we lost on Saturday?

A singer? A poet? A mystic? A Shaman? Spiritual advisor, trusted guide, muse and oracle? Yes, yes and yes, all of the above, and all the clich├ęs that go with it, and that would have been enough. That would have been cause for regret, and reflection and tribute. But not so many tears. An artist can inspire you, but it takes more than an artist to get close to you.

On May 16, we lost a friend.

How many young Metalheads, finding themselves at the bottom of life’s barrel, looked up one day and saw Dio’s gnarled fingers pointing the way? Sometimes pointing to salvation, and sometimes just giving words to the struggle. It is difficult not to believe that he couldn’t see straight into one’s soul. He was our personal Merlin, Gandalf, Cantus, and Doctor Who; and now he’s gone.

Faulkner once said that the only thing worth writing about was the human heart in conflict with itself. If you listen carefully, that struggle was the theme of almost every Dio song. Either your struggle with temptation (and I do mean YOURS), your guilty conscience, the masters you choose for yourself, your dreams, triumphs and tragedies. Even when he was just harping on the pleasures of Rock and Roll, Dio was invoking something transcendent and sacred.

And if he framed it all in the motifs of classical mythology, the same motifs invoked by storytellers since the Epic of Gilgamesh, I fail to see how it denigrates the work. Which is why my blood always boils when peons from the mainstream press dismissively say “He wrote about dragons”. Yeah he did. The kind of dragons you and I face every day. So did Isaiah, Homer and Mallory. I suppose Tolstoy wrote about guns, Marlow wrote about devils and Bradbury wrote about spaceships.

I suppose also that Dio would have grabbed more headlines if he’d drank himself to death after a life of self indulgence or died in a hail of gunfire following a life of gang violence. Such is the criteria for media admiration nowadays. Instead, we’ll have to settle for stories of a good man, a kind and decent man, a husband, father and grandfather. The kind of man who organized the Hear’n Aid charity benefit (sans messianic Geldof/Bono pretensions), and devoted time and energy to his wife’s Children of the Night organization. The man who Eddie Trunk claimed spent his time in chemo cheering other people up, the man who Rob Halford called “selfless”, who Tony Iommi called “a kind man and would put himself out to help others”. A man who always had time for his fans.

I had the privilege of meeting Ronnie back in 1998 outside Copps Coliseum in Hamilton Ontario. I’m embarrassed to say I blubbered and stammered and had nothing at all intelligent to say. But he warmly greeted us idiotic fanboys (even holding hotel security at bay), signed autographs and posed for photos, which you can see on the left. Have a good look. You can tell a lot from a man’s smile. You might realize why I feel we’ve lost a friend and not just a singer.

The world became a colder, less magical place on May 16. I never thought there would one day be a world without Dio. It never occurred to me that he wouldn’t overcome the cancer and go back on tour. I never imagined that Heaven and Hell wouldn’t perform again or that Magica II would never see the light of day. I never thought I wouldn’t get the chance to say any of this to the man who told me it was alright to be a dreamer.

But maybe he knew it all along.

Have a good journey my friend.



References:
http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/05/16/ronnie-james-dio-rock-singer-dies-at-67/
Eddie Trunk Live – May 17, 2010
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/8685851.stm


An explanation is in order

Why "Whispers in the Dark"? 

It would be fittfully dramatic to say something like "when I raise my voice, I'm often unheard, and so I feel like I'm 'whispering in the dark'".

But it would be much more honest of me to say that my best thoughts come to me in the middle of the night when I'm trying to sleep. I like to talk to myself, but I can't wake anyone up, so I have to whisper.

Now aren't you glad you asked?

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Tales From the UK, VOL I, or "Curry on a Thursday"

(Generous guy that I am, I'm giving away for free - yes free! [As if you jokers would pay for anything], the very first installment of my UK memoir. Initially shared only with a few select friends, it was meant to be either the first in an ongoing series, or the first chapter of a book. Still want to write that book - thinking of calling it Curry on a Thursday- but I have to figure out how to approach the latter portion of those years, which were not fun, without sounding self pittying. In the meantime, content yourself with this!)

"Should I have done you any wrong at any time during our acquaintance, I have now been thoroughly punished for it.  Flying Air Transat is the kind of purgatory once reserved for semi-penitent sinners, an aeroplane seemingly engineered for the specific purpose of antagonizing my lower back. Had I been hogtied with piano wire and tossed into a chicken coop for seven hours, I could not have felt more cramped or uncomfortable.  Only the truly jittery among you will appreciate the personal insult inherent in covering the floor of the plane with round, slippery surfaces, devoid of any nook or cranny in which to perch one’s toes for temporary relief.  And once my neighbours fell asleep, visiting the restroom required a display of gymnastics that would put Jasper Schuringa to shame.

 I can say with perfect confidence that Gatwick airport is the ugliest building this side of York University. It looks like an experimental laboratory from a Jon Pertwee era Doctor Who episode, the kind of place where they breed slime monsters.  With my nifty new British Passport however, I did not have to spend long in the place. Unlike Canadian customs agents or border guards, who are as interested in your reasons for returning to the country as for leaving it, the British didn’t seem to care at all why I’d been “abroad” for so long. I marched straight through, and the bored-looking guard didn’t say a thing.

But for me the fun was just beginning.

The town where I had arranged to stay for the night was a place called (and how English is this?) “High Wycombe”, which had no direct train connection from Gatwick airport  The lady at the information desk casually suggested I simply “take the tube” from central London, advise which only a nitwit tourist like myself would have taken.

See, the thing about the London tube is that it has well over a hundred stations connected, many of which were built before the invention of escalators, connected by more than a dozen lines through nine different “zones”.   It is no place to trundle about with 26 kilos of luggage. (There would have been even more had strict post 9/11 weight restrictions prevented the packing of Education Psychology ).

I traveled from Gatwick Airport to London Bridge, to Elephant and Castle, to Marleybone stations, each transfer necessitating the traversal of yet another flight of stairs. The journeys themselves were spent staring at a ghastly advertisement warning about the dangers of taking unmarked mini-cabs (rather like decorating TTC stops with stills from Hostel) and listening in on other people’s conversations. I got a good glimpse into the minds I’ll soon be shaping when a little girl told her mother in all earnestness:

“I wouldn’t like it if Daddy set me on fire.”

Indeed not.

I finally arrived at my destination some four hours after landing in Gatwick. Or it might have been a measly three hours, I don’t remember. Time does not fly when one lugging all his worldly possessions up and down stairs. It not called luggage for nothing.
As luck would have it, it was raining, and my shoes were leaking. The countryside looked like a soggy lump of canned spinach.

High Wycombe is a town mainly known for its litter. Its habit of decorating streets with chip bags and beer bottles earned it the 26th place in the British General Union “Filthiest cities in UK” survey. There is £20 fine for failing to clean up after one’s dog, which encourages surprisingly few people to clean up after their dogs, and the potholes were recently the subject of a double page spread in the Buckingham Times.  Despite all this, High Wycombe is not without its charms. The petrol station across from my hotel is fully stocked and opens at 5:30 am. The Falcon pub downtown serves curry on Thursdays, and there is a cinema/bowling alley across from the library, which actually stocks Ian Gillan records and Octopus vs Mega Shark, which I have been dying to see.  It is home of the doubtless fascinating Chair Making Museum, and was apparently the place where the Hellfire club used to meet. Every year the mayor of High Wycombe is weighed to ensure he or she is not getting fat off the tax payers.

By the time I arrived at the modestly named Buckingham Hotel (without utilizing the services of an unmarked mini-cab), I was utterly unconcerned that my room was less than two metres wide, and rather more preoccupied with the fact I was soaking wet and hadn’t slept for 26 hours.

I woke up at midnight, still in my suit, and realized that not only was I now fully awake, but that everything in town was closed. Even the Bird in Hand. I had eight hours to kill in a room the size of a coffin.

But I had arrived.

Welcome to England!

NEXT EPISODE:

-         “New Years Eve among the trouserless”

and

-         “Shoe Shopping with Steve”

Welcome to the Show. . .

I've started this whole thing because I'm still vain enough to think I've got something to say.

Of course, I will need to give the people something nice to look at, a background say of breathtaking ocean shots or mountain landscapes, or perhaps some flash animations with trumpets and a magestic Wagnerian chorus to announce my presence on your screen. Otherwise, folk might think I'm just some cutting and pasting twerp, and we certainly can't have that!

It would behoove me to put up photograph of myself, as I intend to identify fully with everything I say, but I'll have to shave first.

Perhaps it would help to file these irrepressible mediations on existence into topical compartments: say, breaking news in one section, music/cinema in another, and keep personal baggage entirely seperate. But that would mean maintaining three different blogs (at least).

And life doesn't quite work like that. Topics bleed into each other, streams of thought merge into and branch off each other, and no one thing is so completely unrelated to something else that they can't wind up in the same paragraph. That might be a thought experiment we can try another day; the point is, I'll be throwing everything into the same pot. I also believe that tragedy and comedy are never so seperate as is often thought, and that laughter and tears are never really complete without each other. For me, that hasn't been  a guiding principle so much as an observable fact.

I could hope for a better prologue, but if I spent too long on that, we'd never get into the first act. Better to charge into these things and let the main body speak for itself. Up with the curtain and on with the show!