Your Mama, My Boogers: Free Speech and Charlie Hebdo

Like many of people, I’ve been following the story of the shootings at the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris, and because I’m always good for an opinion, it turns out, I have one.

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The attacks, obviously, were horrific and wrong. To quote my mother, “people are not for hitting.” It goes without saying they are also not for shooting. Equally obviously, free speech is incredibly important. A free and just society is an active, constant creation, much like love, and speaking freely and truthfully is a crucial part.

But just because it is your right to say it doesn’t mean it’s right to say it. I’m not talking about political correctness or other people telling you what not to say — censorship of all kinds is frightening. I’m talking about taking responsibility for the power of your words.

Words are very powerful. “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,” is a flat-out lie. Satire is a particularly powerful tool, because of the way it can speak truth to power. This is where Charlie Hebdo was right, and this is also where I think they were wrong.

We’ve been hearing a lot that Charlie Hebdo is an equal opportunity satirist. However, the implications of making fun of different people are really different. Satire is imbedded in the political and social structure — it’s whole role is to comment on that structure. But that means that it can’t escape the power dynamics of race, gender, class, and the colonial residues that are part of that culture.

Making fun of Islam in a country that a) colonized a lot of North Africa, and b) has a long history of marginalizing Muslims, and c) etc. is not the same as lampooning the president or the Catholic Church. It’s not speaking truth to power — it’s picking on the underdog. Clearly, the editors thought differently, as is their right. And I may be missing something, since I’m getting these cartoons in translation. But the conversation I’m interested in isn’t so much about that particular newspaper as it is about free speech and responsibility — both of the speaker and of their society.

We have the right to write all kinds of things. I can say anything I want to about your mother (as long as it’s true!), or talk endlessly about my own boogers. If I want to do these things, I shouldn’t be censored, but I can be held responsible for what I say.

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about one of my favorite essays, “Boats Is Saintlier Than Captains,” by Robert Bringhurst. It’s an essay ostensibly about morality, language, and design, but it doesn’t stop there.  He says that “there are always plots afoot to limit the moral sphere. These schemes are often called philosophies, but they are rarely more than claims to the ownership of power….” He goes on to define morality as a “working relationship” with humans, other life forms, objects and ideas. Artists are those who “act from a developed moral sense towards certain inanimate things.” Paint, or wood, or cartoons, for instance. This doesn’t make artists more moral than other people, it just means that “the artist is, in his particular field, articulate. We might, in a healthy culture, ask the artist to meet many more criteria than that.

What criteria might we ask our satirists to meet? That they write courageously in the face of intimidation, yes, but perhaps also that they write from a spirit of love, or that they pick their targets with the good of people in mind, or that they are wise, or kind, or genuinely funny. And what about the rest of us writers?

This (along with how to keep the recent events from fueling Islamophobia) is the conversation I hope we all have.

(A couple relevant links:  In a look at the problems with the cartoons, Jacob Canfield of the Hooded Utilitarian wrote, “Nobody should have been killed over those cartoons. Fuck those cartoons.” And an interesting article from 2012 in Slate about the hypocritical way we treat offensive speech against Jews vs. that against Muslims.)

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Hank, Your Brother Made Me Cry

We braved the middle school girls yesterday and saw The Fault In Our Stars, which if you don’t know is an adaptation of the novel by John Green, who if you don’t know is the brother of my friend Hank, who if you don’t know is awesome.

The movie was awesome too (as are the novel and John and probably the middle school girls when you get to know them). There was love and there was cancer and death and Big Questions and a blind kid egging a fancy car. Hollywood didn’t take all the smart out of it. I cried and the middle school girls laughed inappropriately so they wouldn’t cry and then cried anyways.

The strangest thing was that Gus, the boyfriend in the movie, had John and Hank’s mannerisms. He had the eyebrow lift, the hand thing, the quick delivery of the witty line. Either he watched a million of their videos or they mimic the mannerisms of today’s awesome eighteen-year-olds. Either way, it’s weird to see a movie star doing someone you know’s mannerisms. Even if that person also happens to be a teen heartthrob of the internet age.

Anyways, go see the movie. Read the book. Buy stock in Kleenex. Be good to the people you love before the inevitable oblivion.

Ass and You Shall Receive

“I wish I had a bronze statue of your butt,” Nate told me a couple of months ago. “With a plaque: Becca’s butt, age thirty two.” Careful what you ask for, Nate.

Bronze was outside the scope of my budget, so I used Sculptamold.

“How would you make a casting of an, uh, torso?” I asked the art store guy. He suggested painting on latex, then supporting it with plaster.  He stressed the importance of thorough Vaseline. You have hairs you’ve never even noticed, he warned. I enlisted my friend Brigid, an artist who has seen my rear end plenty of times at the ladies’ spa.  She coated me up in latex like some sci-fi movie heroine.

“It’s like I’m just making art,” she said, “but then I remember, it’s your butt.”

Hours went by. But the latex wouldn’t dry. It kept, well, cracking. I worried about the efficacy of my vaseline. Brigid got out the blowdryer. Squinchy looked on, confused. He never has understood fine art. Finally, we thought it was dry enough. She put on the plaster casting. But when she peeled it off, the latex came off in shreds, dissolved by the moisture in the plaster. Now I was the sci-fi swamp monster. Hours of lying very still while someone painted my butt with tropical tree sap were wasted. And somehow I had to get all those shreds off of myself. I was rightly worried about the vaseline.

Displaying photo 4.JPGHowever, the plaster cast was good on its own. I loaded it up with sculptamold and voila — there was a statue of my rear. Very white and kind of pockmarked, but still totally my butt.

“You’re going to love your birthday present,” I told Nate. “But it isn’t ready yet.”

“Is it a puppy?”

“Noooo….”

Days went by. It still was not dry completely. I stuck it in the oven on warm for a few hours, then wrapped it in a couple of towels and drove it over to Nate’s.

When Nate unwrapped it, the statue was steaming.

“This is an amazing present,” said Nate, with deep sincerity. Yep Nate, it’s a benevolent universe.

I told my brother about it, and he thought Nate and I should each make one yearly, and line our basement with them. That’s an idea, Aidan, but forget the basement. Nate wants to hang it on his wall. Though for now it’s on an oven rack on his table, still drying.

The Disaster of the Cranky Crankie

So Lady Gaga had just gotten back from space and was wearing a hotdog costume.

Hitler came up to her and said, “You look like a Wiener Schnitzel.”

She says to him, “This is a bad romance, Adolf.”

But I get ahead of myself.

It all started when Hitler, Mitt Romney, Obama, Hans Solo, a fried egg, and a boy named Mychal decided to make a crankie together. A crankie is a scrolling paper movie, but this was The Disaster of the Cranky Crankie. It was all going fine until Mychal decided to draw a tree.

“NO TREES!!!” cried Romney. “Money!” Then he and Hitler got in a big fight about it that went pretty much like this:

Hitler: “Nature!”

Romney: “Money!”

Hitler: “War!”

Romney: “Money!”

Hitler: “Art!”

Romney: “Money!”

“Noooooooo/neiiiiiiiiiiiiin!!!!!!”

Meanwhile aliens were landing.

“Help me, help me!” cried the fried egg, running straight towards the Tower of Mordor.

Obama and Hans Solo went to greet the alien, who turned out to be Lady Gaga in her hotdog suit.

“I’ve just come back from Uranus,” she said.

A giant slug slimed out of a tree and across the entire crankie. “Yuck, slug slime,” said Squinchy. Then the giant slug climbed onto Lady Gaga’s head.

No one was working on the crankie. Hans Solo was playing holographic chess with Chewbacca and the politicians were still fighting about trees. Mychal decided he would have to finish the crankie by himself. Squinchy wondered when he would be done so they could go play frisbee.

Hitler, Romney, and Obama finally came to an agreement: there would be no trees. Obama was sad about the compromise and nobody saw anything of him after that.

“Hey guys,” said Mychal, “I finished the crankie, and I added a bunch more trees.”

“NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!”

“NEIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIN!”

Their heads were enormous, their eyes bloodshot, and they were suddenly missing most of their teeth.

And off flew the giant slug on Lady Gaga’s spaceship.

“Now can we play frisbee?” asked Squinch.

That’s the plot summary of the crankie my campers made last week. Can you see why I like my job?

Rising with our Peers

Sometimes its too easy to think of everything as a competition, whether it’s blueberry picking, writing, or art, or love. And while I don’t mind a good blueberry picking race (especially with my cousins and my sisters and my Nate), really the point is that we eat as many berries as possible and get whatever else we pick into the freezer so someone can eat them later. And the point of creating isn’t to compete on a judged scale of betterness, but to create the truest, wildest, most mysterious humanity we’ve got.

Last winter, at the AWP conference, I attended a workshop about being a good literary citizen — about promoting your friends’ work and helping build a strong literary community instead of just tooting your own booty all the time. They talked about the idea of “rising with your peers,” and I’ve been thinking about it all year. I thought about it at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, where it seemed to be the unspoken spirit. Instead of being a week of jockeying and ego, it was an intense immersion in exactly what it sounds like it is — a writers’ community. It was the kind of place where Richard Ford shows up to my friends’ party, and everyone knows who he is. Where we had endless exciting conversations (which we all understood) about long lines of tension and things being on the nose. Where you tell perfect strangers the most shameful thing that ever happened to you and they write it down and that is ok. Also Gail Tsukiyama gave me her sandwich. I left feeling exhilarated, like I was rushing forward towards authorness in a great mass of allies, instead of running like the lone child towards the red rover line.

I thought about it again last week when I saw The Way Out, an acrobatic/dance/theater show my high school friend Terry Crane directed. When I met Terry, he was always popping out of hollow logs in a pointy hood, like an elf, and I was always wearing my mother’s old Goretex coat, which I thought made me look mysterious (it also had a big hood), but statistics suggest actually made me invisible. Then we both went off to college, and Terry got into circus arts and I started writing. Now Terry and his crew has made a show that is indescribable. I left different than I came in. The world is different than it was before that show, or at least it is to me. I feel so excited to have an old friend making art like this. Terry taking his art seriously gives the rest of us permission to do this too. It makes our artistic community that much richer.

Besides, who wants to be the only awesome writer or aerialist or blueberry-picker, anyways? That would be one boring cocktail party.

Pocket Guide

Hey everyone,

Guess what! My friend Cara and I are starting a zine.  It’s called Pocket Guide.  It’s hip. It’s unfolding.  And it’s made from ONE PIECE OF PAPER!

You can check it out here.

We’re looking for contributions, so send us your art and your writing by March 31st.

Or send us your address, and we’ll send you a copy.  First one’s on us.