A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Appeasing The Supreme Leader

When Sony Pictures caved in last week to North Korea's extortionate demands to yank "The Interview" from distribution, my thoughts turned to Salman Rushdie.
Twenty-five years ago Rushdie, a British author of Indian Muslim extraction, was condemned to death by Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini for writing things that the Ayatollah deemed insulting to Islam in his new, critically acclaimed novel, "The Satanic Verses."
Khomeini issued a fatwa ordering any Muslim who encountered Rushdie to kill him on sight, forcing Rushdie to go into hiding for his life.
How did the publishing industry react? As you might expect, the major book chains, including Amazon and Barnes & Noble, chickened out like Sony and immediately stopped selling "The Satanic Verses."
But Cody's Books, an independent bookstore on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, in the heart of the student quarter, decided to stand up for freedom of speech and stocked the book.
In the early morning hours of May 4, 1989, Cody's owner, Andy Ross, was wakened by a phone call from the Berkeley Police. Somebody had thrown a firebomb through the store's front window.
After the firefighters put out the fire, Ross and his staff started cleaning up. He looked down and spotted a second device – an unexploded pipe bomb rolling on the floor next to the poetry section.
It was too dangerous to move, so he and his staff watched from across the street while the bomb squad blew it up. Though they packed it with sandbags first, it still made the whole building shake.
After it was all over they filed back inside, and Ross told his staff that it was up to them whether to continue stocking the book.
They took a vote. It was unanimous. The book stayed.
"That was Cody's finest moment," Ross said proudly.
A few months later, Rushdie briefly came out of hiding to make a surprise visit to Cody's. Ross showed him the hole in the ceiling from the second bomb. Next to it someone had written, "Salmon Rushdie Memorial Hole."
"Some authors get statues," Rushdie quipped. "Others get holes."
Other independents followed Cody's example, and the writers' community – led by Susan Sontag, Kurt Vonnegut and Norman Mailer  - rallied around Rushdie with petitions, press conferences and full-page ads in the papers.
Compare that to the shameful behavior of the Hollywood community last week when George Clooney circulated a petition urging Sony to call the North Koreans' bluff. He couldn't get a single signature.
Some people are questioning whether it's worth taking even a remote risk for the sake of a dumb comedy like "The Interview."
But, as Clooney pointed out, "With the First Amendment, you’re never protecting Jefferson. It’s usually protecting some guy who’s burning a flag or doing something stupid." We need to defend Seth Rogen's freedom of speech not for his sake, but for ours.
Epilogue: That one firebombing aside, the Ayatollah's threat turned out to be more bark than bite. He died in 1989, but Rushdie is still alive and well. So are Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
I wish I could say the same about Cody's Books. After years of struggling against the huge Internet giants, Ross reluctantly closed Cody's doors in 2006.
The space it used to occupy on Telegraph Avenue is still vacant.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Dick Cheney's Tortured Logic

(Above: Lt. Commander John McCain recuperating from his torture-induced injuries)

On September 14, 2001, four days after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, a memorial service was held in Wheeler Auditorium on the Cal campus for Mark Bingham, one of the heroes of United Flight 93 who led the passengers' attack on the hijackers and caused the plane to crash in a field outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania, instead of the White House or the Capitol,
I arrived at Wheeler Hall about a little early, so I decided to use the men's room in the basement.
I was the only one in the room until the door opened and a short man in a dark suite, red shirt and white shirt walked in and stood at the urinal next to me.
I looked at him and then I looked again, hardly believing my eyes. It was John McCain!
After a few awkward moments he stuck out his hand and said, "Hi, I'm John Mc Cain."
He told me he had flown out from Washington for the service in the back of a military cargo plane – remember, all civilian flights were grounded - because he was moved when he heard that Mark had a McCain poster in his office, and he figured the least he could do was say thanks to the man who probably saved his life. (He had been inside the Capitol that day.)
Then we went upstairs. He sat on the stage with the other speakers, and I sat in the audience.
After the speeches the lights were dimmed, and there was a slide show. Everyone was watching the screen except me. I was watching McCain.
While the others on stage turned around and watched, he waited until he thought nobody was looking, then he quietly stepped down the stairs and watched from the audience.
I was puzzled for a while, and then it finally hit me: He couldn't turn his head because of the torture he suffered for five and a half years in the Hanoi Hilton.
Now, I don't agree with McCain about a lot of things, but you can't deny that when he talks about torture, he knows what he's talking about.
So here's what he said last week on the Senate floor about the Intelligence Committee's report on torture during the Bush years:
"I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners will produce more bad than good intelligence. I know that victims of torture will offer intentionally misleading information if they think their captors will believe it. I know they will say whatever they think their torturers want them to say if they believe it will stop their suffering."
Then, almost shouting, he added, "The use of torture compromises that which most distinguishes us from our enemies, our belief that all people, even captured enemies, possess basic human rights."
In response, Dick Cheney, one of the main architects of the torture program, said, "What are we supposed to do? Kiss them on both cheeks and say, 'Tell us everything you know?'" – as if those were the only two choices.
I don't know about you, but on this matter I'd rather trust a war hero than a draft-dodging chicken hawk.
Muse on that next Thursday, when the world celebrates the 2014th birthday of a man who was tortured to death.