Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Ernie Picasso

You know I had to stop by to visit the statue of Ernie Banks at Daley Plaza today. Banks, the beloved shortstop and first baseman of the Chicago Cubs between 1953 and 1971, died last Friday and this city is in mourning. It was announced that the statue which normally graces the Clark Street entrance of Wrigley Field, would be temporarily moved to Chicago's most important public square to honor the man known by just about everyone who cares a hoot about baseball as "Mr. Cub". There was also supposed to be some kind of ceremony honoring him but that never seemed to materialize. Instead, a few local TV crews, about two dozen folks, a friend and I, turned out at lunchtime to stand around and take pictures of each other in front of the likeness of the late ballplayer.

As we walked away, the sight of that familiar batting stance as seen through the Picasso brought something to mind. Wasn't there some connection between Ernie Banks and Picasso?

It didn't take me long to figure it out.

Way back in 1967, the massive sculpture by the great Spanish artist Pablo Picasso was unveiled to a collective groan among much of the population of the city of Chicago. On the minds of most of the city after Mayor Daley the First pulled the cord to unveil the sculpture was: "what the hell is that?" The moment was best described by none other than Mike Royko, in his column the following day*.

Anyway, the uproar against the Picasso became pretty intense and the moment before I snapped the picture above, in a flash I realized the connection. After the sculpture was unveiled, one of our fine aldermen, mortified by the new work of Modern art, introduced a resolution on the floor of the city council, recommending that the Picasso be "deported", and replaced by a statue of Ernie Banks.

"Which alderman?" my friend asked. "I think it was Vito Marzullo" was my answer. That's my standard response to questions about the goofy actions of Chicago aldermen.

It turned out the alderman in question was actually the honorable John Hoellen of the north side 47th Ward, whom if memory serves, was the last Republican ever to serve in the Chicago City Council. That makes sense since A) Marzullo the Democratic machine politician would never have been so brazen to publicly challenge the mayor who supported the sculpture, and B) representing a south side ward, Marzullo would have been much more likely to support a statue of Nellie Fox or Minnie Minoso.

Anyway, it dawned on me after that realization that the long departed alderman finally got his wish, well at least half of it. Nobody today in their wildest dreams would ever think of getting rid of the Picasso. At nearly fifty years of age, it's as much a Chicago icon as the Wrigley Building, the Art Institute Lions, and of course, Ernie Banks.

I know many of my colleagues in the art world would be aghast. but personally, I think old Pablo and Ernie make quite the pair.

The Ernie Banks statue will remain on view in Daley Plaza this week, after which it will be returned to its proper home outside the ballpark that Mr. Banks christened the Friendly Confines.

*Apropos of the passing of Ernie Banks, after reading the Royko piece on the Picasso on the link I shared, please be sure to scroll down and read his brilliant account of attending Jackie Robinson's first appearance in Wrigley Field, written the day after Robinson's death.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Ernie Banks

This is not my tribute to Ernie Banks who died yesterday. I wrote that almost three years ago after having written too many tributes to dead people that should have been written while they were still alive.

Beyond the sadness of losing the man who was my greatest childhood hero, several thoughts came to mind since receiving the news of his passing last night.

Buck O'Neil and Ernie Banks
Ernie Banks, who in 1953 became the first African American to play for the Cubs, was one of the last major league ballplayers to have come out of the old Negro Leagues. Banks played for the Kansas City Monarchs, one of the preeminent teams in the glory days of Black Baseball. Banks was scouted and signed to his first contract with the Monarchs in 1951 by none other than Cool Papa Bell, one of the greatest players black or white, to ever play the game. His manager in KC was Buck O'Neil, a very good player in his own right, who would eventually become the first African American coach of a major league team, the Cubs. In that capacity, O'Neil signed Lou Brock to his first major league contract. Cubs fans the world over know exactly how that deal turned out.

O'Neil would later come to nationwide attention largely thanks to being featured prominently in Ken Burns' PBS documentary, Baseball. He spent the final years of his life helping create and drumming up support for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, and tirelessly spreading the news about the glory days of the Negro Leagues, dispelling the old notions that Black Baseball was a second class operation.

O'Neil was also instrumental in gaining induction of several Negro League players and executives into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Although he himself was inexplicably overlooked in the balloting, he graciously took to the podium on July 29, 2006 in Cooperstown, NY during the induction ceremonies of several of his fellow players:

We lost Buck O'Neil shortly after he gave that speech but his spirit lives on not only in the museum he helped build, but in the revival of interest in an often overlooked, yet very significant part of American history.

With Ernie Banks's passing, we have lost one of our last direct connections to that history.

Of course by the time Ernie Banks came to the Monarchs, the team and the rest of the Negro Leagues were in their death throes, having become virtually irrelevant on April 15, 1947, the day Jackie Robinson played his first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers. The door to the majors was opened up that day, if only by a crack for African American players, who were banned from playing in "organized baseball" since the 1880s. It took twelve years before every major league team would have at least one black player on their roster. and most teams like the Cubs, were hesitant to have more than two or three at any time. Consequently, while there were opportunities for black ballplayers in the big leagues, those opportunities were few and far between. Unless you were a player of the caliber of say, Larry Doby, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Roy Campanella, Monte Irvin or Ernie Banks, your chances of making it into the big leagues were infinitesimally small. And with the drying up of the Negro Leagues, the twenty years or so following the "integration" of the game were particularly difficult ones for most black players.

Ernie Banks was not particularly outspoken about race and the injustices faced by people of color in America. For better or worse, he did not feel it was the athlete's responsibility to comment on such things. That probably worked to his benefit. Unlike players like Jackie Robinson who became a very prominent spokesperson for civil rights in America, Banks with his child-like enthusiasm, his easy-going demeanor, and his media-savvy, made him less threatening to white folks, especially during the fifties and sixties in the (at the time) lily-white north side of Chicago, playing on a team whose fans represented that demographic. I don't think it's a stretch to say that Mr. Banks's popularity eased the path for black players who followed him into the majors.

In time Ernie Banks became unquestionably the most beloved player in the team's long history. The question, and at this point it's purely an academic one, is this: was Ernie Banks the greatest player in the team's history?

One could argue that he wasn't even the best player among his teammates. Here's what baseball historian and statistician extraordinaire Bill James has to say about one of them:
Billy Williams was Ernie Banks without the PR.
In the comments section to my tribute to Banks, my friend, writer, historian, Cub (and Ernie Banks) fan, and expert on every aspect of the game of baseball, Francis Morrone, wrote this:
Leo (Durocher) got to where he couldn't stand the sight of Ernie. He just hated him, and hated how (as Leo perceived it) Ernie manipulated the press and the public. Leo wanted to bench Ernie (not without reason, as by the late sixties Banks was a complete liability in the lineup) and felt he couldn't.
Fightin' words to be sure to any dyed-in-the-wool Ernie Banks fan but unfortunately the facts and stats support them, especially in the twilight of his career. 

There have been several great players (though not many in our lifetime) who could challenge Ernie Banks to the title of greatest Cub ever. I'm about to stir the pot to boiling over with one of them.

His name was Adrian Constantine Anson. Anson played a remarkable  27 years of big league ball, 22 of them with Chicago. He came here in 1876, the same year the team's owner William Hulbert and his associates formed the National League. Anson, a first baseman, quickly became established as one of the stars of the game. In 1879 he became player/manager (where he got his nickname "Cap") and led the team, at the time known as the White Stockings, to five championships in eight years. 

As manager, Anson was an innovator in those early years of the game, credited with coming up with or perfecting strategies such as the hit and run, sending players signals from the bench, placing a coach at third base, the hook slide, hitting to the opposite field, all aspects that we take for granted today.

Such was Cap Anson's influence on the team that the nickname White Stockings was replaced with "Anson's Colts". When Anson finally departed from the team in 1898, his loss was so profound that the nickname was changed again, this time to" the Orphans". The team would keep that unfortunate name for four years, until a newspaperman reporting from spring training (another invention of Anson's), referred to the promising crop of new players on the team as "cubs." The name as you can imagine, stuck.

Cap Anson by many accounts is considered the greatest major league player and manager of the nineteenth century.

There was another side to Anson however. During an arduous road trip in 1883, his team was scheduled to make a stop in Toledo to play an exhibition game against the minor league Toledo Blue Stockings. Out of fatigue, he balked about playing a meaningless game but his boss, team president Albert Spalding insisted as the Chicago team's success assured a huge draw in the northwest Ohio city. Further complicating the issue, when he got to the ballpark, Anson refused to take the field unless an agreement was made that the Toledo catcher, Moses Fleetwood Walker, an African American, would not play. Charlie Morton, Toledo's manager refused to take his catcher out of the lineup and assured Anson that if his team refused to take the field, the Chicago nine would forfeit their share of the hefty gate receipts. Anson relented that time, but in later meetings with Toledo, and other teams that had black players, he got assurances that no black player would ever take the field against the Chicago team. 

In some circles, Cap Anson is given much of the credit (or blame), for the "gentlemen's agreement" among baseball club owners and officials, which banned African Americans from organized baseball for sixty years. 

Even for his day, Anson was a virulent racist who would make Ty Cobb look like a card carrying member of the NAACP. 

Despite that, Anson's contributions to the game are indisputable.

In his list of the 100 most important people in baseball, John Thorn, Major League Baseball's official historian, places Cap Anson at number 64, just below Jacob Ruppert, (the Yankee owner who signed Babe Ruth), and just above Bill Veeck. 

Sadly, the name of Ernie Banks is not anywhere to be found on the list.

Let me point out, it's Thorn's list not mine. 

If it were my list, highly biased of course, Ernie Banks would be near the top. When he became a big leaguer in the fifties, the game of baseball was in its doldrums. Attendance was down drastically, either because of TV or out of fear of the changing neighborhoods where the ballparks were located. In the sixties, teams built brand spanking new polyester-laden stadiums indistinguishable from one another, each with all the personality of a  block of styrofoam. The Cubs were holdouts in the National League and during the sixties, there was Ernie Banks, the lone voice in the crowd, extolling the virtues of day baseball, played they way it should be played, ("baseball in the daytime, loving in the nighttime" being one of the least quoted of the rakish Mr. Banks's favorite comments), played on grass in the "Friendly Confines" of Wrigley Field. Eventually, the burghers of baseball saw the light and dynamited all those concrete-clad mausoleums and replaced them with new ballparks all modeled after Wrigley Field. 

Baseball is back to at least some semblance of being the way it should be, played on real grass (if not in the daylight), in real ballparks, which in my estimation, is thanks in no small part to Ernie Banks. 

Now there's a contribution worthy of John Thorn's list if you asked me. 

Last night an amazing thing happened. As I was working on a website devoted to baseball, I was testing out a feature that retrieves ballplayers' stats. The random name I plugged in to test the program was what else, Ernie Banks. Not more than two minutes later, as his lifetime stats were staring me in the face on my computer, my son came in the room to deliver the news that Mr. Banks had died. 

I took that to be some kind of sign. 

Personally, what would put Ernie Banks at or near the top of my list of most important people in the game of baseball is this: He is the person who without a doubt, is most responsible for making me fall in love with the game. 

I have no doubt that I am not alone in that sentiment. And for that all I can say is this:

Thank you Mr. Cub, you wear that title well.

May you rest in peace.

 fIf it were or it than almost any other segment of American so in 1883ciety.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Charlie again...

Like just about everyone, for the past week I've been thinking a great deal about the fate of the staff of Charlie Hebdo, the Paris magazine that published cartoons that many in the Muslim community found brutally offensive and blasphemous. The more I think about it, the closer I come to the conclusion that the publication of those cartoons, which cost nine members of the magazine and three police officers their lives, was utterly pointless.

Now let me make it clear that I'm a staunch defender of freedom of speech, religion, assembly and of the press. For that reason, back in the seventies I supported an Illinois State Supreme Court decision that allowed neo-Nazis to march in the Chicago suburb of Skokie. Mind you, I was also prepared to shed not a single tear in the event that any harm might befall the marchers in the predominantly Jewish village. It turned out the march never took place, as the Nazis in the end turned out to be either too cowardly, or too sensible to go through with it.

I understand that comparing Charlie to a bunch of Nazis is a bit of a stretch but please bear with me.

There is little question that many of Charlie's cartoons were offensive, even racist. The editors got around that issue by publishing cartoons that were offensive to many different groups, especially the religious. Few it seemed, were spared the wrath of Charlie

As everybody knows by now, Charlie was made up of writers and cartoonists who had been performing their craft since the heady days of the sixties. They considered themselves up until the time of their deaths, to be radical leftists, and their work reflected the disdain of social mores that was the rallying cry of their youth. The inheritors of a long history of crude satire in France, Charlie's target back in the day was the establishment. Just as their ancestors in the craft made profane and scatalogical images of royalty and the leaders of the Church, the pens of Charlie focused on those in power: politicians, captains of industry, and of course as always, the Church. The forebear of Charlie, a magazine called, Hara-kiri, was officially banned after it made fun of the death of French icon, former President Charles de Galle. The mocking of sacred cows has been the raison d'être of Charlie ever since it sprung up from the ashes of Hara-kiri in 1970.

In the sixties, young people, raised in the relative prosperity of the times, became disillusioned with society. Fed up with the status quo, they called out the wrongs they saw in society: racism, sexism, the war in Vietnam, uptight and hypocritical views on sex and drugs, the list goes on and on. The anti-establishment work of individuals such as cartoonist Robert Crumb, writer William S. Burroughs, LSD guru Timothy Leary, and  radical organizations like the Black Panthers, and the S.D.S. served as beacons for at least some of the Baby Boomer generation, who saw themselves as particularly enlightened compared to the people of the generation that proceeded them, namely their parents. This is precisely the mileu in which Charlie Hebdo flourished. Like the British comedy sextet Monty Python, Charlie Hebdo ridiculed the institutions their parents held dear such as government, patriotism, the class system, and religion.

This gets to the very nature of satire and its power as a tool for social change.

Thanks in part to Charlie and its like-minded brethren in establishment bashing, the world did begin to change. They were helped along by the corruption, arrogance and incompetence of the highest magnitude on the part of those in power, and the relentless pursuit of them by the press. The net result of the turbulent sixties and seventies was the creation of a new, and exceedingly cynical generation, mine, one that questions everything and holds little sacred. My generation, raised on Monty Python, Saturday Night Live, and Charlie Hebdo, is the one that currently holds most of the power in the western world today.

Sorry about that.

Our overriding cynicism transcends ideology; no politician on the left or right, could succeed in this day and age by taking him/herself, or anything for that matter too seriously. Today in the U.S., if you aspire to higher office, you have to make the rounds and play stupid pet tricks on Letterman, SNL or Wait Wait Don't Tell Me. In other words, in the West, every politician has to understand, if not necessarily like the language of Charlie.

The one thing my generation does hold sacred, is our liberty. We may disagree over the rights of individuals versus the collective rights of all, but we do all like freedom of speech, especially when it comes to our own speech.

As with any ideal with devoted followers, there are those who take their belief system to extremes, wrapping themselves around dogmatic minutiae to the point of losing sight of the core, fundamental basis of those values. This holds true with the devotees of liberty as much as it does with followers of any religion.

The men who committed the murders in Paris last week took their religion to the most extreme point possible. As a result, their acts not only profane humanity, but also subvert and profane Islam and all religion. These are not my words but the words of countless Muslims, including the leader of the radical organization, Hezbollah in Lebanon.

It is my sincere belief that the publishers of Charlie Hebdo also took the one thing they held sacred, their own freedom of speech, to such extremes that they lost sight of the deeper meaning of that liberty. Granted, they didn't kill anyone directly, but we all saw the result of their acts of publishing the offensive cartoons. The editors, cartoonists and publishers certainly knew the risk they were taking, and innocent lives were lost along with their own. After the tragic events a week ago Wednesday, cartoonists in solidarity with Charlie including Robert Crumb, felt compelled to publish their own profane images of the Prophet Muhammad. This week, the survivors of Charlie, published yet another cartoon of Muhammad, this time wearing a "Je suis Charlie" button.

And like clockwork, the reaction of much of the Muslim world who did not grow up with the same cynical values we did, has been predictable.

Like the issue of the Nazis in Skokie, I support the right to publish those cartoons, but not for a second do I endorse them.

I can't help be reminded of an incident that happened in our family a long time ago. I don't know how it started but one Thanksgiving, my grandmother and my uncle got into a terrible fight, the screams of which reverberated through our entire house via the heating ducts. The subject of the argument was this: which one of them suffered more during the war. My uncle, a bombardier shot down over Romania in 1944, was captured and held prisoner of war for about six months. My grandmother, recently widowed, had to live with the fact that she might have lost her only son as well as her husband. Obviously both of them suffered a great deal during the experience, and on the surface, the argument was stupid and pointless.

But like all conflicts between human beings, this flight wasn't really about the subject at hand, but about the entire relationship between the individuals and all the baggage that came with it. The sad part was that neither my uncle nor my grandmother were able to empathize with the other, neither could see or even be willing to imagine the other person's perspective.

Likewise, the folks who are offended by the Charlie cartoons don't know (or care about) the history of French satire, the context in which the cartoonists grew up, or the fact that the cartoonists don't particularly link themselves with the anti-Islamic Western establishment. What they do see are cartoons that ridicule and demean the thing that is most sacred to them, drawn by old white men, the very embodiment of the anti-Islamic establishment.

For their part, the Charlies, with their privileged backgrounds and disdain of anything that reeks of religiosity, cannot (or care to) grasp the lives of the powerless. Their one-size-fits-all world view does not conveniently fit in with the views of  the poor, the marginalized and the disenfranchised, for whom faith is a transcendental source of hope and inspiration.

What the Charlies of the world have so far failed to grasp is the fact that satire is effective as the tool of the powerless against the establishment, but does not work very well the other way around.

As their one and only accomplishment to date in this conflict, Charlie Hebdo at least for the time being, has made bed-fellows of the pro free-speech-at-whatever-cost left, and the xenophobic right in Europe, in the spewing of anti-Islamic rhetoric. I pointed out in my last post, that this plays right into the hands of extremist Islamic organizations such as al Qaeda and ISIS, in their attempts to recruit people into their ideals of global jihad. Nothing that has transpired since has tempered my feelings.

I don't see any of this turning out at all well, at least in the near future. Perhaps time will heal the wounds and thirty or forty years hence, we'll all, (Muslim, Christian, Jew and Atheist), be able to sit down at the table together, and like my family who continues to this day to talk about the rift between my grandmother and my uncle, laugh about the conflict which for all intents and purposes, amounted to little more than a silly pissing contest.

One can only hope.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Again, the pen is mightier than the sword

What's this world coming to?

Those were the sentiments of many of us on this side of the pond as we woke up Wednesday morning to the news of the massacre in Paris where gunmen killed twelve people in and around the offices of the satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo.

The tragedy spawned countless real and virtual demonstrations around the world with people expressing their solidarity with the victims, and their disdain of the assault on the freedom of the press, by posting, chanting and carrying signs proclaiming, "Je suis Charlie."

Charlie Hebdo was no stranger to violence. Its Paris offices were bombed in 2011, after they published a cartoon depicting the prophet Muhammad, as "guest editor" of a special edition of the paper temporarily re-christened: "Shariya Hebdo."

In the name of freedom of expression, the publishers of Charlie Hebdo were not swayed in the least; they retained their edge since the bombing. Despite the attack and numerous threats, the paper continued to publish articles and cartoons slamming Islamic extremism, among other things.

I for one admire the temerity and the sheer chutzpah of the folks at Charlie Hebdo. They understood full well the risks of publishing work that was critical of radical Islam, work they felt was important to publish. They stood by that work, and paid the price with their lives.

But like most of the burning issues of the day, or any day for that matter, it's much more complicated than that.

One thing puzzles me about the public's reaction to the terrible event, namely, how can anyone in this day and age be the least bit surprised by this act of terrorism?

The staunch defenders of Charlie Hebdo's publishing of their provocative cartoons, including the depiction of the prophet Muhammad,  (which alone is considered a grievous offense to many of the world's 1.6 billion Muslims), is the simple manifestation of the paper exercising its freedom of expression. "I live under French law, not Koranic law",  Stephane Charbonnier, an editor and cartoonist who was killed on Wednesday said back in 2011. M. Charbonnier and his colleagues published work that many people feel was not only biting satire, but also at its root, deeply offensive to a great number of people. From an article in the New York Times published after the attack:
After the 2011 bombing, some were critical of the magazine. In a letter to The International Herald Tribune (now The International New York Times), Celina Maria Pedro de Vasconcelos wrote, “It’s disturbing to see how the principle of freedom of the press in the West continues to be confused with free-for-all permission to target various cultures with slander, innuendo and disrespect. The consequences of mocking the Prophet Muhammad should not surprise us.”
Some might label this sentiment as political correctness run amok. After all, are we to restrict ourselves to publishing only ideas that are offensive to no one? If that were the case, nothing would ever get published.

On the other hand, one needn't live under Koranic law to understand the implications of lambasting the deeply held beliefs of one quarter of the world's population.

Many point out that Charlie is an equal opportunity lambaster, its favorite target is religion of all stripes. There is a long tradition of highly irreverent humor of this type in France dating back to time immemorial. Some suggest that all the fuss over the Charlie Hebdo cartoons is simply a clash of cultures. Why not lighten up and laugh it off some people say.

Well I may not know much but if I've learned anything in my 56 years on this planet, it's that people who are deeply religious, no matter what the creed, seldom have much of a sense of humor about their own faith.

But it goes much deeper than that...

I hardly need to list the atrocities committed by extremists in the name of Islam over the past twenty years whose victims were guilty of nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The big difference here is that the victims of the Paris massacre Wednesday were directly involved in the act that angered their killers; all the victims that is except for the wounded policeman whose execution at the hands of the perps as he pleaded for his life, exists on video for all the world to see. That officer by the way happened to be Muslim.

Whether we like it or not, Islamic extremists, whether they belong to al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, the Taliban, or any number of similar groups, have declared war on the West, on our lifestyles and especially on our values.

We must be willing to except the fact that not everyone in this world accepts our core values of Liberté, Egalité, et Fraternité. As we've seen in our failed attempts at nation building in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, there are many who don't share our belief in a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Contrary to something President Obama said this week, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom to practice, or not to practice the religion of one's choice, are not universally held values. And without a doubt, not everyone in the world believes in equal rights for all, including women, or that people should be afforded the opportunity to live their own lives as they see fit, including homosexuals. There are many in the world, who are not necessarily Islamic extremists, who view these cornerstone values of our Western democracy as morally bankrupt, corrupt, and decadent.

In a perfect world, people with different sets of values would learn to live in peaceful coexistence with each other. Unfortunately we don't live in a perfect world.

Here in the United States, the fragile status quo after the attacks of September 11, 2001 have left many of us complacent about the threat of terror. Our military has taken out key terrorist targets, most notably Osama bin Laden. Despite that, few of us are foolish enough to believe that with bin Laden gone, the threat is over. Fortunately there is strength in numbers and the number of extremists willing to commit unspeakable acts of terror is still relatively small.

That might not always be the case.

"If you give in to the terrorists through self-censorship, then the terrorists win", argue the "I am Charlie" crowd. On the contrary, I believe that the editors of Charlie Hebdo played right into the hands of the extremists by publishing their cartoons portraying Muhammad as a bumbling idiot in stereotypical Arab garb. Nothing could fit better into the master plans of the extremists than to make it appear that we in the West are waging a war on Islam, not the least of which, through our laws that permit the publication of words and images that ridicule what is most sacred to them.

For all their brilliance and guile, the propagandists of ISIS and al Qaeda (who as of Friday has taken credit for orchestrating the Paris attack),  could not have come up with better recruitment posters to radicalize new members into their ranks than the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo. "Look at these..." I can hear them shout, "this is what the western infidels think of us, our Prophet, and Allah, may He be exalted." Like it or not, the Charlie cartoons were a provocation, certainly not to all Muslims, but to a volatile, lunatic fringe whom al Qaeda is more than happy to exploit in order to carry out their plans of global jihad.

We can rant all we want about the absurdity of people going on a murderous rampage because of a cartoon, but as we saw this week, this is the reality of our world today. To make matters worse, the Paris murders will no doubt embolden scores of right-wing French in their quest to rid their country of foreign (read Islamic) influence. Muslim businesses in Paris have already been vandalized and we can expect more to come. The survivors at Charlie Hebdo have promised to publish their next issue on time, being as irreverent as always, pissing off and provoking more violence to be sure.

And as this war on Islam, real or perceived, gains steam, more and more bored, anchorless, and disenfranchised, young Muslim men and women looking for meaning in their lives, will become radicalized and join in the fight, precisely the scenario al Qaeda is looking for. From his suite from deep within the recesses of hell, Osama bin Laden surely is pleased today.

We in the West take our liberties for granted. To most of us it is inconceivable that our most basic rights will ever be taken away from us. Perhaps that's why the reaction following the slaughter of the staff of Charlie Hebdo has been so great. For their defiance in the face of threats, the victims are viewed by some as heroes. But to me the real hero Wednesday was Ahmed Merabet, the police officer who was shot in the head by the terrorists as he lay helpless, immobilized on the street after being already shot in the groin. By far the most poignant comment I've read since Wednesday came from a man named Dayd Aboud Jahjah who tweeted:
I am not Charlie, I am Ahmed the dead cop. Charlie ridiculed my faith and culture and I died defending his right to do so.
No, I am not Ahmed, simply because I am not a hero. As for the heroism of the Charlie staff, well personally I'm not so sure. The question for which I have no answer is this: were their intentions in publishing their cheeky and provocative cartoons truly intended to make the world a better place, or were they merely self-serving means to get attention for themselves and their paper? If it's the former, then yes of course they were heroes, if misguided ones. If it's the latter, then all bets are off and their actions have to be characterized as nothing more than foolish and irresponsible.

Along with liberty comes responsibility. Contrary to popular opinion, our freedoms are not absolute. This week we learned just how powerful ideas and the expressions of them can be. In the words of Václav Havel:
I inhabit a system in which words are capable of shaking the entire structure of government, where words can prove mightier than ten military divisions.
And as somebody else said: "a picture is worth a thousand words."

Why then is it so unreasonable, especially in this world of tenuous relationships between cultures, to expect ourselves to choose our words and express our ideas with care and good judgement?

Despite my fervent belief in freedom of speech, and of the press, in light of the terrible events in France this week, I must regrettably conclude with this sentiment:

Je ne suis pas Charlie.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

About a tenth full

They say the difference between an optimist and a pessimist is that the optimist sees the glass as half full while the pessimist... well you know the story.

I've mentioned before that I'm the son of  woman who believes that if you anticipate the worst out of life you're seldom disappointed; and that philosophy has served me well for many years. But when push comes to shove. as far as my general outlook on life is concerned, I'd have to say I'm a glass is half full kind of guy. In other words, when things look pretty bleak, I figure it could always be worse, at least up to a point.

My optimism threshold is about twenty percent; that is to say, if the glass gets any lower than that, all bets are off. During this evening's commute, I encountered two women who put my capacity for optimism to shame. 

The train I take home is called the Purple Line; it makes local stops between Downtown Chicago and Belmont Avenue, then runs the next five miles express, north to my stop, Howard. Now the Purple Line runs on the same track as another train, the Brown Line. That is, up until Belmont, where the Brown line switches tracks and heads northwest. It's not unusual for Brown Line riders to mistakenly board a northbound Purple Line train at Belmont, only to discover after the doors close, that they are in for a ten mile detour. 

Some people rant and rave about their misfortune, sharing their woes with the rest of the passengers, while others suffer in silence. Some people take it all in stride, but the woman who sat across from me who made that mistake this evening was downright philosophical about her problem. Another woman sitting next to me, a seasoned Purple Line rider, struck up a conversation and was very comforting and understanding about the situation. "Oh this train is an express and it will only take ten minutes to Howard. You'll have plenty of time to catch the last express train that will get you back to Belmont in no time at all." Knowing better, I kept my mouth shut. 

The two women became fast friends and kept up their up-beat banter for most of the ride north. The so-called "express" train actually ran at a pretty good clip, unusual given the cold weather and the terrible condition of the tracks. We got up to Morse, two stops from Howard, in just as the woman predicted, about ten minutes. She said to her new friend, "you see, you'll be able to catch the express back, no problem. The Brown Line passenger, happy with this unexpected turn of events got up and went to the door as the train began to slow down, assuming that we were about to enter the Howard station where she could finally get off the train going in the wrong direction. Again, knowing better, and not wanting to sound like a Debbie Downer, I kept my mouth shut.

The train came to a stop, as it almost always does as we approach Howard. What I didn't want to tell the woman is that three different lines, all going inbound and outbound, use that station and there is always a delay in the evening as the crunch of trains going in six different directions at rush hour is too much for the system to handle. 

So we waited.

And waited.

The women for the first time during the ride remained silent. Then the voice of the operator came over the speaker. It was unusual as he did not spew out the normal CTA-speak explanation for the delay: "we are standing momentarily waiting for signal clearance. we expect to be moving shortly." His frustration was apparent as he said: "Folks, what can I tell you, we've been standing here for ten minutes and there are still two trains ahead of us, I don't know what the hell they're doing with these trains up ahead of us but we'll be sitting here for a while. All I can say is the CTA says it's sorry, and I'm sorry. " In all my years of riding the system, I've never heard such candor from an employee. 

After the announcement, the stranded rider sat down again. She realized, as did the rest of the passengers in the car, that she'd certainly miss the last express train and have to take the Red Line local back to Belmont, about a thirty minute ride, if she was lucky. 

Again, she was philosophical. She said to her new friend, "in these situations, I tell myself this happened for a reason. I imagine something terrible might have happened to me had I caught the right train." The other woman then relayed a story about how her ex-husband once missed a flight meaning he would miss a job interview and the opportunity of a lifetime. It turned out that the flight he missed crashed just after takeoff killing everyone on board. 

The story confirmed the woman's feelings, and seemed to make her feel better. 

Again, I kept my mouth shut, hoping and praying that nothing bad would happen to her on the way home.