World Is Diminished by the Death of Kayla Mueller

Kayla MuellerPeople like Kayla Mueller give me hope for the future of humanity. She was the humanitarian aid worker captured by the Islamic State who died one way or another on 6 February. Even if I didn’t agree with Mueller’s politics (although I do), I greatly respect people who care about the state of the world and go out and do something about it. Some call such people naive, I call them the best of who we are. But there are a few things about her death that I think ought to be discussed.

How Mueller Died

There is the question of how Mueller died. The Islamic State has claimed that she died as a result of a Jordanian airstrike on a building where the young aid worker was being held. The United States has been very aggressive in dismissing this claim. It noted that similar claims are typical of terrorist groups. But the truth is that the government doesn’t actually know. Personally, I don’t see what the Islamic State would get out of lying about this. The group has no problem with murdering people on camera — including burning a man alive. What purpose would they have in trying to hide their savagery?

In the end, it doesn’t matter. The Islamic State abducted her — taking someone doing humanitarian work and thrusting her into the middle of a war. So they are ultimately responsible for her death. And if she was killed due to an airstrike, it was one that was directly the result of their murder of Muath al-Kasasbeh. So I really don’t see why the United States government feels the need to counter the claim that Mueller was not killed directly by the Islamic State. And given what we know the Islamic State capable of, it’s somewhat comforting that Mueller was killed quickly.

Slander Back Home

Aside from the unjust death of this idealistic young woman, back here at home, some conservatives are attacking her. For example, Debbie Schlussel wrote on her website, Kayla Mueller: Dead ISIS Hostage Was Jew-Hating, Anti-Israel Bitch. Of course, Schlussel actually has no facts to back this up. It is just that for many on the right, disagreeing with Israeli policy or helping the Palestinian people means you are a Jew hater. Talking Points Memo provided a couple of other examples of conservatives who think it is great when any liberal dies.

I don’t much get it. Certainly, I wasn’t at all sad when Andrew Breitbart died. But that was largely due to the fact that everything Breitbart did was bad for society. Even if Schlussel and other vile commentators don’t like one part of Mueller’s work, that doesn’t change all the other good work that she did. What these right wing loons really hate is that people are trying to make the world a better place. So they look for anything that people like Mueller might do for something they can complain about. Mueller worked to help African refugees in Israel. It doesn’t sound like she hated Israel or Jews. But conservatives don’t believe in helping other people — especially those people. So they must applaud Mueller’s death. It isn’t enough that she was wrongly killed at a young age after living the kind of life we should all strive for. They need to turn her into an antisemitic monster based upon nothing but a lack of full-throated support for Israel and everything that it does. It’s the same old thing: protesting Israel is protesting “the Jews.” This kind of thing is ironic: racism masquerading as anti-racism.

The death of Kayla Mueller is a tragedy. And it is made all the worse by the conservative hit job on her character. A hit job by a bunch of pundits who do nothing but sit in their well appointed offices with nothing to fear except a car crash while being chauffeured in a Lincoln Town Car. Kayla Mueller worked to make the world a better place. And the world is diminished because of her absence. The same will not be true when Debbie Schlussel and her ilk leave this world. Kayla Mueller was the best of who we are.

Cultural-Death Has Arrived in America

Neil PostmanThere are two ways by which the spirit of a culture may be shriveled. In the first — the Orwellian — culture becomes a prison. In the second — the Huxleyan — culture becomes a burlesque.

No one needs to be reminded that our world is now marred by many prison-cultures whose structure Orwell described accurately in his parables. If one were to read both 1984 and Animal Farm, and then for good measure, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, one would have a fairly precise blueprint of the machinery of thought-control as it currently operates in scores of countries and on millions of people. Of course, Orwell was not the first to teach us about the spiritual devastations of tyranny. What is irreplaceable about his work is his insistence that it makes little difference if our wardens are inspired by right- or left-wing ideologies. The gates of the prison are equally impenetrable, surveillance equally rigorous, icon-worship equally pervasive.

What Huxley teaches is that in the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate. In the Huxleyan prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours. There is no need for wardens or gates or Ministries of Truth. When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeille act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.

—Neil Postman
Amusing Ourselves to Death

Grammar Don’t Matter When Your Hate Is Clear

Molly WhiteRamon Mejia wrote a great article over at Truthout, How Dare You Question My Patriotism? A Muslim Veteran’s Response to Texas Rep Molly White. And I’m not even talking about the politics. It’s the grammar that I love. Because if you don’t care about grammar — be it English, Spanish, or any of the other hundred languages that Americans speak — then you can’t care about America.

Look: I understand. I’m not perfect. Then again, I don’t have a staff. I have no editor. And I don’t publish a 500 word article every week or two that allows me to carefully check what I write. I grind out an article, trying to make it hang together along the way, and it is done. I read through it once very quickly to catch the obvious homophone errors and repeated repeated words that are repeated. And then the “publish” button is clicked and I don’t give it another thought. But it is rather different for a politician who doesn’t spend much time writing and has staff to keep them from embarrassing themselves.

On 29 January, a group of people held the Texas Muslim Capitol Day. The Houston Chronicle described it this way:

They came out by the hundreds from Dallas, San Antonio and Houston, mostly women and children, girls with silver-bowed shoes and pink owl backpacks. They sang the national anthem and prayed.

It’s a pretty typical thing. I grew up with the yearly Portuguese parade. It is a way for people from the old country to celebrate their connection with their new country. It’s a beautiful thing and about the most American thing I can imagine. And no one much thought about it when I was growing up because Portuguese are pretty well represented in California. They certainly aren’t and weren’t a hated minority group. (The same cannot be said of the Portuguese in Texas.) So all these women and children meeting up to proclaim their religious identity and their American identity resulted in another great American tradition: hatred and intolerance:

“We don’t want you here!” shouted one. Others yelled, “Go home,” “ISIS will gladly take you” and “remember 9/11.”

“You don’t have to dress that way! Take it off!” came from a woman holding an Israeli flag. “Islam is the war on women!”

But they are just a bunch of kooks, right? Such would not be the case with an establishment figure like someone in the Texas legislature! Oh, I’m kidding! Rep Molly White wrote on her Facebook page:

I did leave an Israeli flag on the reception desk in my office with instructions to staff to ask representatives from the Muslim community to renounce Islamic terrorist groups and publicly announce allegiance to America and our laws. We will see how long they stay in my office.

In addition to being deeply offended by the hateful and ignorant words of Representative White, Ramon Mejia noted that she wasn’t too good with the whole English thing:

Her confusion of the term “capital” for “capitol” raises the question whether she believes that all Muslims are supporters of terrorist organizations and should “renounce” their affiliation, or if she meant “denounce.”

Words, words, words! It’s true that dictionaries are descriptive not prescriptive. But that’s a social phenomenon. It isn’t the case that any given person can just start using words differently from everyone else. People will think you are crazy if you point to a cat and say, “Dog!” But Ms White gets her point across very clearly. The devil is not in the details. She thinks that Muslims are bad and suspect — guilty until proven innocent.

But in the court of Frankly Curious, we look at the facts. She was innocent to start. But we now find her guilty of being ignorant, poorly spoken, and hateful. She’s an embarrassment to my country. But sadly, it is probably because of her ignorance, inarticulateness, and hatefulness that she is a successful politician. I weep for this great nation that bore Walt Whitman, Upton Sinclair, and John Steinbeck.

The Republicans and the Zax

John BoehnerThere’s another showdown in Washington between Obama on one side and John Boehner and Mitch McConnell on the other. But unlike in the great westerns of old, Obama will be sitting in the saloon drinking a whiskey, and it will be Boehner and McConnell on the street riddling each other with bullets. Now why would the Republican leaders do that? After all, this is all about funding for the Department of Homeland Security — one of the things that conservatives think the government should be spending on — and spending and spending and spending some more. It all comes back to the old saying that Democrats hate their base and Republicans fear theirs.

Normally, when I mention that saying, it is to complain about the way that the Democratic Party treats liberals like myself. But in this case, I have to admit that the attitude of the Democratic Party leadership at least makes sense. The Republican leaders are a pathetic lot — quaking in their boots about what a tiny slice of their base wants. And what that group wants doesn’t make a lick of sense. The argument is always the same: if the Republicans just held strong and didn’t give in, the Democrats would cave. If shutting down the government for a week doesn’t work, do it for a month! If a month doesn’t work, do it for a year!

Mitch McConnellIt would be one thing if such displays of stubbornness hurt the Democrats as much as they did the Republicans. But of course, they don’t. It’s like what Joe Biden said during the last vice-presidential debate, “Look, folks, use your common sense. Who do you trust on this?” As a liberal, I may complain that the Democratic Party is too quick to compromise. But as a result, the folks know that when there is a stand off like this, it’s the Republicans who are to blame. And so the Republicans will eventually cave. And the Republican base will grumble that the party doesn’t act like “The Zax”:

This is about the level of conservative thought in this country. “The Zax” was written to show five year olds that compromise was a good thing and that stubbornness doesn’t get you anywhere. But let’s look at a little history shall we.

After the 2008 election, Republicans responded to their defeat by claiming that they hadn’t actually lost because President Obama wasn’t born in the United States and thus wasn’t qualified to be president. After they won the 2010 election and took over the House, they acted as though that meant that they controlled the whole government. Sadly, the Democrats in large part went along with this and allowed for some pretty bad policy. In 2012, the Republicans against lost. In fact, they lost the vote in the House of Representatives, but the Republicans still managed to control it because our system is not very democratic. They still felt that they controlled all of Washington and shut down the government. They even threatened to crash the economy. And after the 2014 election, they got control of both houses of Congress. And they are really mad that Obama doesn’t just abdicate and make Boehner president.

The Republicans can’t get everything that that they want because they don’t control all of the government. But rather than compromise a little, they behave like The Zax. And their base cheers them on. They stand there in the middle of the field and refuse to move when the smallest of compromise would allow them to move along and accomplish things they care about. Meanwhile, the world around them continues on. And this, my friends, is how great empires fall: not by catastrophe, but inch by inch — doing nothing. And the Republican base cheers that just one more election cycle of doing nothing at all will allow them to finally do something. Of course, its been over thirty years since the Republicans Party has known what it is they want to do. Once in power, President Ted Cruz will yaw after his first good night of sleep in the White House and think, “What should I do? What did Bush do before me? Oh, that’s right: tax cuts for the rich. That’s what I’ll do!”

Franco Zeffirelli

Franco ZeffirelliToday, the great film director Franco Zeffirelli is 92 years old. He has created a lot of great films. He is probably best known for making Shakespeare work on the screen better than anyone before him. And it is one of films that I want to focus on: his 1968 version of Romeo and Juliet. It is not a play that I’m particularly fond of. But when I was very young, my older sister would take care of me. It worked like this: my parents would have my sister babysit me, and my sister would drop me off at a movie while she went off to hang out with her friends. Usually, the film would be something appropriate like Escape to Witch Mountain. But one night, the only choice was Romeo and Juliet.

I saw the film at least two times — that was the drill. And I didn’t hate it. I think at that age, most things didn’t make much sense to me, so the awkward dialog didn’t stand out. And I knew that it was something I shouldn’t be watching, because I got to see Leonard Whiting’s bare butt and Olivia Hussey’s breasts ever so briefly. I dare say the film scarred me, however. It gave me a very skewed view of what love was all about. How could it be otherwise:

Of course they are both so very silly. But how was I to know at eight or ten (clearly, I did not see it when it was first released). It was very powerful. It isn’t the way that I think women ought to act, but rather the way that men should. And Romeo — long before he meets Juliet — is a very bad role model. So I blame Zeffirelli (and my sister and my parents) for my troublesome love life. But it could have been worse. I could have watched Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry repeatedly. Oh, wait — I did!

Happy birthday Franco Zeffirelli!