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Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Back from the U.S.A., and they ask me...

If you’re an American abroad, you might sometimes experience this phenomenon as I have. Morning after morning, I walk in to work, or otherwise encounter British people, and someone asks me about whatever the latest news headline from America is. Often this has to do with guns. The perception in Britain is that every mass shooting is “just another day in America,” and statistically, that is true. Other times the question is “why do Americans not want health care?” or, why would Americans vote against their own economic interests?

I can’t fully answer these questions, and I’m weary of them. How should I really understand “Americans” (that monolithic group) when I haven’t lived there for over 15 years? But the latest round of questions has to do with one of the presidential candidates, of whom, let’s be reasonable, there  shouldn’t even be any yet since the election is next year. How, I am asked, did a celebrity previously famous for being mean on a television show (and being rich) get to be an apparently leading contender for the presidency of the United States?

So here are a few thoughts on that subject. I don’t claim that any of these are original; I’m just pulling together ideas for convenience’s sake. And I hope, by doing so here, not to have to post about him any more.

Since I don’t think he deserves any more publicity from me, I’m not going to repeat his opinions, all of which are easily found on the news. In fact, I’m not even going to name drop—I’ll just nickname this guy Far-right Arsehole Saying Crap and Insisting that Satan is Theotherguy (FASCIST for short). A lot of people, including in the U.S., are worked up about FASCIST and his persistent popularity. Should they be?

First, the scary thing about FASCIST is not what he says, but the fact that so many people like what they hear. In America, anyone can say anything. That’s the great thing about freedom of speech (a right that is curtailed in most other countries, including Great Britain). FASCIST is able to say anything that he wants and, in turn, we are free to judge him on that basis. Why are a lot of Americans still judging him so favorably?

Consider why he can afford to say stuff that would sink any other candidate’s campaign: He’s a gazillionaire. Most other candidates depend on donations and, at some point, would become so controversial that those donations would dry up. He’s immune to that. This appeals to many people: the perception that he is a “self-made man,” that he’s free to say what other people only think. In fact, Republican strategists who don’t support him, but would like their preferred candidates to learn from his success, identify this as his number one advantage: the perception that he cannot be bought. (The only other candidate in this position is Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist.)

Second, FASCIST is appealing to two very rich veins in American politics that have existed about as long as the country has. One is anti-intellectualism. The resentment of education has always been stronger in America than the resentment of wealth. People are readier to forgive someone for being richer than they’ll ever be, than for being professorial. (Personally, I think this explains President Obama’s problem more than racism.) This absolutely baffles non-Americans, almost to the extent that the Second Amendment does. Don’t these Americans know that they’ll never be rich like this guy, that his interests are aligned precisely against theirs? Why do they care more about the values he appeals to than their own economic wellbeing?

Because of the value of anti-intellectualism, facts are not effective against his appeal. For example, recent comments make clear that FASCIST doesn’t know what he is talking about in regard to several subjects: London, its police officers, Islam, and for that matter Christianity. So what? His fans do not care in the least. They don’t know London or Muslims, and they already have their own understanding of Christianity which neither he nor anyone else can shake. They care how they feel.

And this is the other rich vein that has always existed in American politics: nativism. Before the Muslim-bashing took off, Mexican immigrants were bearing the brunt of this, but it’s nothing new. Late in the 19th century, the long, rich anti-Catholic tradition in America reached new heights in a movement called, appropriately, the Know-Nothings. The laws and arguments of that era were against Catholics and their churches in an eerily similar way to the attacks on Muslims and mosques now. What name could more glory in the anti-intellectualism of America than the Know-Nothings?

From the first (non-European) inhabitants of America, to African slaves, to Catholics, Chinese immigrants, Japanese-Americans, and yes, Jews; there have always been people who threatened “real Americans’” way of life, and in return, they were persecuted to the fullest extent possible. That ranged from genocide to the terrorizing of black Americans and the World War II internment camps. By those standards, we have seen nothing yet.

I don’t mean that fascism shouldn’t be taken seriously. It always should. But it can’t be resisted, or even fully explained, by facts. Not when people understand democracy to mean that their opinions carry equal weight with facts.

They will understand your arguments to be what theirs are: ideology and emotion. They will believe that you are pushing for your agenda out of ideological conviction or [quasi]religious belief—not because, however reluctantly, you have been convinced by inconvenient facts. So before you argue with a FASCIST supporter or start posting memes, be sure that you have.

I hope that the rest of the world need not fear a FASCIST presidency, because Americans will work this out. My opinion is that after the outlying primary election in New Hampshire and caucus in Iowa, some sort of reason will return to the Republican primaries starting in South Carolina. That’s right—reason will return in the state that gave birth to the Civil War and flew the Confederate flag until this year. Now that’s a scary thought.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Rīga, Latvia. October 2015

If you look at a map of the vast continent that comprises Europe and Asia, you'll see a string of imperial powers, from the once-Great Britain in the west to today's rising China in the east. Russia, still the largest country on earth, dominates the eastern half. At the crossroads between Russia and Scandinavia, and the rest of Europe, lie the three Baltic states. The middle of the Baltic states is Latvia, and the bullseye of this entire global game is Rīga, its capital.

Knowing where Rīga is, you can see why it's been dominated by so many different peoples. Even today, only a minority of Rigans speak Latvian as their first language. Since its founding by Germans 800 years ago, the city has been German, Swedish (it was then the largest seaport in the Swedish Empire), Russian, German again in the Nazi era, Russian again in the Soviet era, and finally independent, since 1991. Its first female president, Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, who guided her native country into the European Union, had spent most of her life in Canada.

Visitors (other than stag parties) are still a relatively new phenomenon in Latvia, and we were welcomed accordingly. At least in Rīga, the people helping us spoke excellent English, even though it was probably their third language. Compared with Paris or London (The Discreet Traveler loves both, by the way) it is very inexpensive, both to get to and stay in. All the restoration work since independence, though, means that Rīga is an extremely beautiful city to walk around in (it helped that we had nice weather). It has more Art Nouveau buildings, for example, than any other city in the world.

Twenty years ago things were very different. Everyone lived in grim, Soviet-style apartment blocks. There were no people of color or different cultural backgrounds. Today, Latvia, like other E. U. countries, is starting to accept immigrants from other parts of the world, but in those days the only foreign visitors would have been put up in the Hotel Latvija (what is now the Radisson Blu):
At that time the hotel had whole floors dedicated to spying on the guests, and room keys were cumbersome with clunky listening devices. But nowadays it's known for its Skyline Bar, from which we got a wonderful nighttime view of the city (register for the hotel's frequent user points program and you can get in for free).

In the foreground here, you'll see the Freedom Monument. At its base are Latvians striving for freedom; during the Soviet era, laying flowers here would get you sent to Siberia. Curiously, though, the Soviets left the monument in place, preferring to say that the female figure represented Russia holding up Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. (Freedom is actually shown holding the three regions of Latvia.)

Symbols, you see, are very important. Some of the toilets were what I like to call bisexual, a freeing touch, but others bore a curious triangle-circle version of the "male/female" signs. The male symbol is based on the idea that men are all broad shoulders and tapered waists (they wish), while the female symbol, like its Western counterpart, reduces women to a skirt. Be warned.

If you're expecting food in Rīga to be all borscht and potatoes (not that there's anything wrong with that), I fear you'll be disappointed. Everything we had was excellent, whether Russian, Latvian, sushi, or lattes--the last of these universally wonderful! I can't speak for the entire country, but my overall impression was of a very forward-looking place. Latvia has just joined the euro and is in a position to appreciate how much it has gained from the E. U. I realize many Europeans feel quite another way, and I wonder if they appreciate their privileged position.

Some of the most striking buildings in Rīga have been restored from blueprints after bombing destruction, notably the "Blackheads House" and the town hall. The spire of St. Peter's Church (13th century, like the city) has been rebuilt more than once. We got great views from it--you can only go 65 m up, but it has the great merit of having an elevator!

We took time out on a beautiful Friday to visit Jūrmala ("seaside"), at the end of the suburban train line. This was the spa destination for all of the U.S.S.R. It lies on the Baltic Sea, where the River Daugava empties into the Bay of Rīga. I heard it can be chock full in summer, but the beach was almost deserted, and we walked for miles without seeing a single Russian oligarch or trophy wife. (There were a couple of hardy elderly women charging into the sea or down the beach in their swimsuits, though.) The woods come right up to the sand so nothing is spoiled by development. The wooden houses are gorgeous, too, reminding us of Lakeside, Ohio, but I understand they cost millions!

This pristine sand aside, there were a few places I've been that Jūrmala reminded me of. With the unspoiled woods in between the seaside and the railroad tracks, at one point I thought of the late, great train station in South River, Ontario, from where I've set off to canoe adventures in Algonquin Park. Other times we felt like we were on the Toronto Islands. Don't miss the food at 36 Line, a top Russian restaurant on the beach that serves wonderful alus (beer) and pelmeņi (dumplings; think pierogi although I'm sure that must offend somebody). Mine were filled with lamb, in seasonal mushroom broth and with my favorite food in the world: sour cream. If you can't spring for that, try the hot dogs wrapped in crescent roll at the Rīga train station; their skin-snapping goodness took me back to the Cleveland Zoo of my childhood. Don't forget to practice English with the charming, though drunk, Latvian man on the train.

They were filming a period piece outside one of the Art Nouveau buildings on Albert Street. (There were a lot of streets like this with curious names: Albert, Elizabeth, Richard Wagner.) It's hard to walk through this city without constantly photographing. But the most moving picture from my trip was this one.
This represents where where on 23 August 1989, millions of people observed the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. (That was the deal between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, subsequently violated when the latter invaded the former in 1941, occupying Latvia.) On this day, Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians formed a human chain right across the Baltic states. Remember, they were not yet independent countries at that stage, but part of the U.S.S.R. This was their way of showing that people were more important.

Thanks to our friend who is a native, we were able to see the opening night of her mom's play in the Art Deco Splendid Theatre. The play was in Russian, of which I know "yes" and "no," so it's safe to say I was relying on visual cues. But it was a great and flower-filled atmosphere, and afterwards I got to meet Sergey Ustinov, a Russian crime novelist. With help from his English-speaking daughter, he shared with me this joke from an American movie:

Non-writer: What do you do for a living?
Writer: I write bestsellers.
Non-writer: Oh? And how are they selling?
Writer: Not too well!

He also quoted to me Leo Tolstoy's advice "if you can not write, don't." Well, I said to Mr. Ustinov, it didn't work for Tolstoy...

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Bakio, Basque country, Spain. August-September 2015

Euskal Herria. Those were among the first words I saw in the Basque region, and it is the name the Basque people give to their land. In these parts of Spain, Basque comes first on the signs, followed by Spanish. Basque (Euskara) is one of the oldest languages in the world; it predates the vast Indo-European family of languages, and is the only non-Indo-European tongue in Western Europe.

When I heard it, though, it wasn't in the context of separatist rebellion (Basque was repressed under the fascist regime that ruled Spain into my lifetime). It was on the radio, a song (or rap) I recognized as "Fight For Your Right (To Party)." I knew it wasn't the Beastie Boys; was it Spanish? No; the rap to which our hosts' baby was happily bopping along was in Basque! This child will grow up, effortlessly, trilingual. Her books won't be burned. How lucky she is.

Bilbo, as the Basques call Bilbao, is the main city of this region, but we immediately left it to go over the misty mountains. There, we found Bakio, not a tourist town but a place where Spanish families rent holiday apartments. A young girl walked a burro towards a pop-up carnival. When I saw "Freedom for the Basque Country" graffitied on a wall, it took a second for me to register it was in English.

Because this was a vacation spot, at the climax of summer vacation, the people around me were relaxed. I can't know therefore if what I observed is true culturally, or just the behavior of Spaniards on vacation. But I loved being on a Spanish beach, or later, on the patio of a restaurant, with people all dressed in costume for the Bakio fiesta. Parents, grandparents, and children could everywhere be found together. Children ran freely; someone would always look out for them. I think I saw one person under 21 on her phone. People were outdoors, relaxing in an old-fashioned way, and thoroughly enjoying themselves.

North Americans know that Europeans behave differently on beaches. I've heard much mockery of the "pickle pouch" that European men supposedly wear for swim trunks (I hardly saw any of these, but nor did I see the cargo pants that pass for shorts with some N. American men). Here on Bakio beach, people were at ease with their bodies. Let me see if I can get this alien concept across:

If your kids want to run around naked, they just do. If a woman wants to take her top off, go for it. If she doesn't, fine. Bikinis are ubiquitous, no matter what the woman's shape. The feeling of freedom is hard to exaggerate. I knew, whether I took my top off or not, no one gave a damn, and that's what's so wonderful about it. There might be some woman in Anglo-American culture who feels good about her own body, but I get the impression that if you're not wanting to lose 10 pounds, you're a traitor to your sex.

As for the children...there is no zone of personal space. Unless and until they physically crash into you, you are fair game. We inadvertently ended up near the goal of a soccer game, played by boys aged 4, 4, 6, 7, and 7. I learned their ages because that's the level of Spanish I understand. Sesame Street again. The kids played for hours, and one 4-year-old in particular crashed horizontally on nearly every play, but he never tired. Throughout our visit I never saw a fat kid, either. Can't imagine why.

Besides swimming in the Bay of Biscay, we managed a couple of activities away from the beach. San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is a 10th-century hermitage built out over the sea. The monks must have carried stones to build it all the way up what now purports to be 1,000 steps (I looked it up; there are 241). It is still a pretty challenging hike without stones. The views, though, of the bay and back over to the beach, are gorgeous.

It began to rain on our last afternoon, but not before we had a chance to check out the paella festival just up the road. Fifty-three groups had gathered to cook paellas for their families and friends; then the paellas were judged. T. talked our way into a taste of the 17th-place winner, proudly prepared by teenaged girls. One of them, who spoke with us in fluent English, had spent her junior year of high school in Indiana. There was singing and dancing, accordion and tambourine. Other than homemade paella our main source of food was tapas (Basque pintxos) from a bar...eaten at a much more leisurely hour than mealtimes at home.

The evening of the fiesta was inexplicably centered on an Athletic Bilbao float (the local soccer team) featuring Jesus holding a stuffed lion. A group of people dressed as police officers sang loudly around it. At least I hope they weren't the real cops, as the most popular costume elsewhere seemed to be robbers. Whole families were dressed in silent-film-era robber costumes, holding bags with dollar signs. Someone dressed as a sheikh slugged a beer. From beginning to end of the weekend, kids as young as seven were setting off firecrackers, with seemingly no regard for safety. It was un-British chaos!

Before heading for the airport we had a couple hours in Bilbao. It was raining, so we just looked around the Guggenheim museum, which has put Bilbao on the visitors' map. The building, designed by Canadian architect Frank Gehry, is arguably the main attraction; there were temporary exhibits on Jeff Koons and Jean-Michel Basquiat. The latter was put on by the Art Gallery of Ontario. It felt like stepping back to my previous life on McCaul Street.

This was, incredibly, only my second visit to Spain and my first to the mainland. I loved Mallorca, but there I was surrounded by German and English tourists, and didn't hear much Spanish (or Mallorquin). This time I felt like I'd really traveled to a different country, not just a different climate. I definitely want to return to Spain.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Of Muppets and migration

I don't know if Americans can hear it over the immigration rhetoric in the U.S., but there is something pretty disturbing going on in Europe. It's being described as the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War.

That's a hell of a comparison, and I use hell advisedly. There have been hundreds of gruesome deaths: men, women, and children trapped in trucks; bodies fished from the sea. But I don't want to write about that, as if appealing to Westerners' humanity is enough to make us want "migrants" moving in next door. Because come on, most of us don't. Philosophically and even personally we may be pro-immigration--I certainly am--but that doesn't mean we have an answer for the desperate crowds trying to get through the Channel Tunnel or the Budapest train station. I don't know where to put those people, and even if I did, I don't know the logistics of actually settling them, let alone where Europeans would find the political will.

One thing I do know: These people have to go somewhere. We don't feel the urgency of World War II at present, but let's remember that all those people on the move in the 1930s and '40s had to either go somewhere, or die. There wasn't a humane, "send them back" solution, and there isn't now. Syria, for one, is a land of destruction; I don't need to go into who all contributed to making it a hellhole, it just is.

Some Westerners do sense that there is no way to send people back. They say--tongue in cheek I hope--sink the boats, or just bomb the whole Middle East. I understand the despair that leads to such statements. There is no obvious place to put people, and yet they keep coming. Are they fleeing for their lives, or are they economic migrants, "just" looking for a better life for themselves and their children?

In many cases, both. And here is the hard, cold, economic fact that Westerners and especially Europeans have to face. Whoever the migrants are, and however we manage them, there is no future without immigration.

European countries, without exception, have aging and declining populations. Some of the countries you would least expect this of, such as Italy, are in fact the most aging and declining. At the same time, all these countries have racked up unsustainable debts that future generations are going to be stuck with. Older workers are expecting to retire on a shrinking tax base. Without younger workers who pay taxes, every economy in Europe is unsustainable. Where are we going to get those people?

The United States, unlike Europe, can look forward to a growing economy sustained by continuing numbers of young workers who pay taxes and contribute to paying the national debts. But the only reason for that is immigration--specifically, Latin American immigrants and their children born in the U.S.A. This doesn't tell us, of course, how immigration should be managed, what the laws should be or how they should be enforced. But it's a demographic fact. The future of the U.S. is an immigrant future. (And the past is an immigrant past, but I'm not appealing to that here.)

Europeans, by and large anti-immigrant, point out that the U.S. and Canada are huge countries with a long history of integrating immigrants. Canada, which certainly can only grow and thrive with continuous immigration, is by and large successful; you hear relatively little immigrant-bashing or the idea that such people can never be Canadian. (With the Syrian refugees, Canada, like other countries, has tragically failed.) But Europeans say it's different here. Small, crowded, not used to it, Muslims...

All good points but there is no alternative. There is no future in which the population continues to be overwhelmingly white and monolingual (English or whatever the native language of the country is). It's just not demographically sustainable.

Do I know where to put the hated "migrants" in European countries? No. I don't have an answer for the U.S. either, but I do know the future is brown and multilingual. There is no other way to sustain our populations, our economies and tax base. You don't have to be a multiculturalist or a bleeding-heart liberal to understand this. It's business sense.

Certainly, the British approach of taking in asylum seekers but then forbidding them to work is not a good approach. Forced idleness is profoundly bad even for someone with far more resources than these people have. I remember my months of no work permit in the U.K. as some of the most depressing of my life; I hated it here and felt anything but part of the country I was living in. But a person enterprising enough to leave everything behind and risk his life is likely to work hard if given a chance.

In country after country, immigrants in general pay more in taxes than they use in services, contribute to the economy more (for example, by starting more new businesses) and commit fewer crimes than native-born people do. A system that hands out benefits to idle people is not sustainable, whether those people are migrants or not. But a system that finds a way to integrate new residents and take advantage of their hard work is the future--if Europe is not to decline.

It's this no alternative that, I think, most galls a significant proportion of the population, not only in Europe but in the U.S. The future I paint is basically what those of us who grew up watching Sesame Street learned to expect. Some of the presidential candidate rhetoric makes me think there are two types of Americans: the Sesame Street and the anti-Ses.

My generation was the first to grow up believing that women could do anything (our mothers' generation made it possible). We also learned that Spanish speaking was a normal part of American life, and now we know that a man of color can be President of the United States. All this drives the anti-Ses crowd crazy. They cannot stand a multicolored, multilingual future for America, and they think Barack Obama is somehow causing it. On the contrary, he can't stop it, and neither can they.

We know that not nearly enough refugees were taken in the 1930s and '40s, because we know what happened to those left behind. Many of those who fled, such as European Jews, made massive contributions to their adopted country. What seemed at the time like just a crisis turned out to be an opportunity. I know--sounds like something an American would say! At least, the America I grew up in.

Sesame Street was not the actual world of the 1970s, but it became real because my generation of kids grew up believing it was possible. Now it has moved from the possible to the necessary. This is the future of the United States. If Europeans are wise, they'll embrace it also.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Book review: Those Bones Are Not My Child

“Lady, Black boys getting killed in the South just ain’t news.”
“And girls,” she inserted. “And women and men.”
“I know how you feel, but I don’t make network policy. The news of the moment is Iran, when it’s not the election or stories about international terrorism.” 

Sounds like it could be this morning’s news. But it’s 1980 in Atlanta, and more than forty black children have in fact been murdered, in a pattern that can be traced around “the city too busy to hate.” This novel, Toni Cade Bambara’s masterwork, follows an estranged mother and father whose son goes missing just as the killings are finally becoming news.

I was a child in 1980, about the same age as Zala and Spence’s younger son. I was daily reminded of the U.S. hostages held in Iran, but I had no idea that in the next state, the deadly backdrop to this book was unfolding. Atlanta was supposed to be the Black Mecca of the New South, progressive and free. It had a black mayor and new black police officers; one of them, Sergeant B. J. Greaves, is a character in the novel. I never saw a black police officer the whole time I was growing up—or a woman—but I knew such things were possible, because they were characters in books.

It was in reading those same books at school that I first came across fiction by Toni Cade Bambara. “Raymond’s Run” is one of those unforgettable stories that has stayed with me since childhood. So to discover this big novel, published after her death in 1995, is a real pleasure.

A pleasure, despite the horror that is at the heart of the story. For Bambara’s writing is so beautiful, illuminating the most everyday details of a family’s life, which will never be everyday again. She is in absolute command of her characters’ perspective, the viewpoints of both parents, the younger son and daughter. Through their increasingly desperate efforts to find out what happened to Sonny and the other children, Bambara shows us a city in the round. The upwardly mobile Atlantans, the Vietnam vets like Spence, elderly black residents who have seen it all. Whatever their class or background, none of these characters are victims, except in the true sense of being victims of crime. They never whine. They have confidence and pride.

Because of the richness of detail with which she writes, Bambara does the best thing I think a novelist can do: she takes the reader into another world. I see the banana magnet on the car ashtray, the kids at the boys’ club, the African-identified activists in the park. I am back in the time, though not the place, of my childhood, its phones, furniture, school buildings. The horror of what is happening to the children is more real, not because Bambara writes violence (which is never gratuitous) but because she places it in the ordinary world, the one we live in.

Bambara was an important figure in both feminism and African-American studies, as well as an accomplished filmmaker. All of this comes through in a highly cinematic novel. We learn a lot as readers, but she is never preachy. Instead, she sets the story in the context of other events of the time: the Harvey Milk assassinations, the Jim Jones massacre, David Duke and Jesse Helms, the struggle of Black Britons and South Africans. The mystery grows so big that the main characters almost feel lost, as they surely must have in real life—yet Bambara regains the thread of their story just when we’ve given it up for lost.

From beyond the grave, Bambara tells a human story, at a time when we cannot be reminded too often that “Black Lives Matter.” To all of us, because we are part of each other, and part of the same world. Last week* many RedState activists were calling a broadcaster who challenged Donald Trump a whore and a lesbian, and the man in the White House a “nigger.” I only wish the country of this novel felt more distant than it does.

*http://www.economist.com/news/united-states/21661010-when-republicans-ditch-donald-trump-they-will-also-have-confront-his-supporters-anger

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Annie

The other night, our neighbor passed away. My family's neighbor, the woman who lived across the road (not street) from my parents, for as long as I can remember. Annie.

As a child in the South, I learned to call most grownups Miss or Mr. somebody--even if it was their first name. But Annie was just Annie. That's what she insisted everybody call her, whether her own age, my parents' age, or mine.

She lived all her life on one side of the road or the other, that same precious spot of earth. She and her husband, Raymond, built the house my parents bought from them, then moved just across the road. For decades afterwards, Annie liked to call our house "my house."

She was born before America entered the First World War. She was a farm girl and grew up knowing country things. She had a wonderful sense of humor, and loved to tell stories, in a voice I can always hear in my head. The time she'd been doing chores in the barn and got stuck trying to crawl under a barbed wire fence. She yelled and yelled for Raymond, who was largely deaf, a result of his years working in the box factory. With no help coming, Annie finally tore loose from the fence in desperation. When she got to the house, Raymond said, "Why woman, where's your britches at?"

She'd laugh and laugh. And, my sister tells me, she could cook a mean squirrel.

But she was also revered in the church, where she worshipped until within days of her death. She would do anything for anybody. My mother recalls that when they first moved into the house more than forty years ago, Annie came over (down to "her house") and talked at some length about what a wonderful a place it was to live, and how safe my family would be. Only at her departure did Annie turn around and say, "Now honey, you be sure to lock this door when I leave."

Raymond would do anything for anybody too. I didn't realize how true this was until our dog, who had never learned not to chase cars despite being hit by three of them, finally sustained an injury that left us no choice but to put him to sleep. We tried to get him to the car to take him to the vet in town, but it was agony. Finally--it was the country after all--Raymond agreed to bring down one of his guns and end poor Toby's suffering.

It must have hurt Raymond too. He was a hunter and guns were part of life, but he wouldn't have wanted to hurt Toby, the dog he'd fed and looked after whenever we went away. He did it for us. When Raymond died some years back, I remembered this as an example of his kindness.

I had lots of conversations with Annie over the years--she could talk for hours--but I never heard her say anything unkind about anyone. I have no idea what, or if, she thought of politics, same-sex marriage, or the Confederate flag. Last summer she met my partner, my brother's wife and baby girl, and our gay friends. The couple who just picked up their marriage license, the same day Annie died.

Not that they were introduced that way--we used our names, not labels. People were all just people to Annie, just as she was Annie to everyone.

In the New Testament, Jesus tells an inquirer that living rightly means loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves. That's it. When pressed to answer "Who is my neighbor?" Jesus tells the story of the "Good Samaritan." Even that misnomer points to people's inherent prejudice; Jesus' listeners wouldn't have expected Samaritans to be good, since they were "other."

His point, of course, was that being a neighbor has nothing to do with who you are or whether you live next door. It has everything to do with how you treat other people.

Annie was still clear minded well into this, her 99th year on earth. Still walking among her beloved flowers. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee wrote: "Neighbors bring food with death and flowers with sickness and little things in between."

Annie was our neighbor.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Supreme sacrifice

This is a story that goes to the heart of how I became The Discreet Traveler. It is played out in the U.S. Supreme Court. Who is a citizen, and whether there are different classes of citizens with different rights, are decisions that in our democracy have ultimately come to the Court.

Tomorrow, or Friday or Monday, the Supreme Court of the United States will reveal end-of-term decisions. Two of the most eagerly awaited cases have the potential to affect many lives. In Burwell v. King, SCOTUS could rule that the federal government's provision of health care (in states that haven't set up their own exchanges under the Affordable Care Act) is unconstitutional, gutting "Obamacare" for millions of people.

Obergefell v. Hodges is "the same-sex marriage case." Here, SCOTUS could rule that there is a fundamental right to marry, opening the door to marriage equality across all the States. Or it could simply rule that states have to recognize marriages that have been performed in other states--which would be constitutionally obvious in any case that didn't involve gay people.

Or the Court could give a disappointing ruling and rain on the Pride Parade.

I remember two years ago, Pride Week in June, and the Supreme Court's decision that ruled part of the "Defense of Marriage Act" unconstitutional (part of it remains in force, but could be overturned by Obergefell). That day, the door was opened to Americans who wanted to return to the U.S. with their non-American spouses. It's bittersweet to be in London this week, missing some of the couples who marched in 2013's Parade. They've gone home, because they can.

("Home" is a slippery concept, for me more than for most. It may not be home for the foreign partners. But in America as in other advanced countries, it's often assumed that everyone would live in the United States, if they only had the opportunity.)

The thing about Court cases is that, as the names imply, they're always about individual people. Bush v. Gore. Obergefell v. Hodges. Perhaps most dauntingly, the DOMA case: United States v. Windsor. Edith Windsor is a real person, and she won, against the most powerful nation on earth.

James Obergefell was married to John Arthur, who died of ALS. But in their state, Ohio, same-sex marriage isn't recognized. The State of Ohio insists that these two men were legal strangers.

The Obergefell case, consolidated with other cases in the 6th Circuit, is about bringing marriage equality to states that do not recognize it: Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, and Tennesssee. And here is where The Discreet Traveler comes in. Because TDT was born and raised in Tennessee, and although it's been many years since I lived in the U.S., it's still the state where I am registered to vote, as a U.S. citizen.

It will make no practical difference to my life, personally, if the State of Tennessee is forced to recognize same-sex marriages. I don't have one, and I don't live in Tennessee. But that doesn't stop me from rooting for James Obergefell, just as I did for Edie Windsor. I didn't move in 2013 either, yet the Windsor decision overturned the factor that, more than any other, has defined my adult life.

In the early 1990s, binational relationships were formed when people went abroad, not via the Internet. I had never left the United States before, and I went not to neighboring Canada, which was closer, but to Great Britain. At that time, there was no recognition of same-sex partnerships whatsoever in Britain, any more than in the U.S. Never mind marriage--no country on earth had passed that, nor was it on the radar of any queer activist I knew.

With no way into each other's country, two decades ago, an American and a Briton could wait seven years for the opportunity to live together. It sounds almost biblical, doesn't it? And for most of that time, there was not even any foreseeable end in sight. Over seven years those two young people spent 18% of their time in the same country.

With what does that compare favorably? Hostages, maybe, or people in prison. A very long war.

At last year's Pride I went to an exhibition in Toronto called Landed. It told the story of Americans who had gone into exile in Canada, because it was possible for them to immigrate independently to Canada and be joined by their foreign partners, whereas it was not possible for them to bring their partners to the U.S. That exhibition, too, was bittersweet. Landed Americans like me were an anomaly of history; with DOMA overturned, U.S. citizens no longer have to go to Canada for the reasons I did.

I didn't consider myself in exile in Canada. At twenty-seven, the age when I finally qualified to immigrate, I was adaptable and flexible. I was a "new Canadian" from the moment I landed. I found friends, a church, a career that both supported me and that I enjoyed. Most of all, I became a professional writer--my lifelong dream. I was born in the U.S.A., but Canada made me.

As overjoyed as I was to be chosen by Canada, however, it was a decision made for me. Just like DOMA determined that no Brit I had the temerity to fall in love with would be allowed to live in the States. Americans could choose either to live in their own country, or with their foreign partners, if they were able to get into Canada. That was Canada's choice, not ours.

So now we have Windsor, and within twenty-four hours we may have Obergefell. And my point is that our lives have already been shaped. Last night I met an American who's written widely about seven years of temporary visas for his British partner, and how they were forced into exile in Britain in 2012. They have the choice to go home to the U.S. now, too, but what is "home"? Britain isn't exile to the Brit, and by now, they've both made a life here.

Those of us who have spent far longer than three years abroad may choose to stay. Some of the partnerships in Landed did not survive. Marriage is supposed to be the happy ending, and forever, but long-distance relationships change when you're finally in the same house. And every relationship ultimately ends.

So I await the decision as eagerly as other queer Americans, but it is once more bittersweet. James Obergefell already knows that it is too late for John Arthur. The years and decades for other lives and marriages are gone.

Obergefell and his fellow plaintiffs, like Windsor, are not doing this for themselves. They are doing this so the next generation of Ohioans and Tennesseans--and Americans--have choices that we never had.

Read about the Supreme Court cases in plain English and follow along live at http://www.scotusblog.com/

Friday, April 24, 2015

Ireland. April 2015

Decades ago, when I was less discreet and less traveled, I engaged in a brief war of words with a reader about the virtue of Americans sending money (and guns) to other countries, from the safety of their own. The gentleman failed to convince me of the merits of plunking down coins for the I.R.A. in a bar in Chicago, but he did say one thing I agree with: The conditions in the north of Ireland were beyond my imagining. That was true. Even now, years after a peace process that changed Northern Ireland and having finally visited it for myself, I can only imagine what it must have been like to live there then.

So I won't. Though it's difficult to know how to write about this particular part of the world without any politics; even place names are disputed. The city close to the border with County Donegal, for example, is called Doire in Irish, Derry or Londonderry by English speakers; during "the Troubles" what you called this town was a shibboleth that put you on one side or another. But my observations are those of a North American visitor, what I see from outside. I am using the terms as used by my hosts and the people I've met from there, just as I pronounce "TanZANia" the way my Tanzanian guide pronounced it, and "AppalATCHia" the way everyone around me said it when I was growing up there. Even if you say AppalAYCHia, I hope we can still get along.

More than twenty years ago, I spent a week traveling in eastern, western, and southern Ireland. The one part of the island that I missed out was the north. This time, we flew to Belfast in Northern Ireland, then made our way to Derry and from there to Donegal. (For North Americans who, like me, struggle to keep up with the geography of these islands, Donegal is also in the north, but part of the Republic of Ireland.)

I saw a vending machine in the airport for something called "Taytos," a brand of potato chips manufactured in County Armagh. Of course I had to try these. They tasted exactly like other potato chips, but there was that curious emphasis on pronunciation: TAYto. Naturally I thought of the Gershwin lyric: you say poTAYto, I say poTAHto (which no one does...) As we drove west, signs began to appear for Londonderry, some with the "London" crossed out with spray paint, others with the "derry" crossed out--or random parts of other town names. Years ago I used to hear news about Northern Ireland and not click that Derry and Londonderry referred to the same place, or, for that matter, the Maze Prison and Long Kesh. You almost have to be bilingual to get along here, and that's just the accent.

There is a United Kingdom election coming up, so here too there were political signs for the "Westminster election." In Wales a couple of weeks ago I saw signs for the Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru; here I saw more and more signs for Sinn Féin, "Putting Ireland First." (Factoid: the first woman ever elected to the U.K. Parliament was a Sinn Féin candidate, the very Irish nationalist-sounding Countess Markievicz, but in the tradition of her party, she never actually took her seat at Westminster.) Then there were signs for the Democratic Unionist Party. Last year in Scotland I was wondering about the outcome of an independence referendum there. These are big decisions, but I was struck by the ordinariness of lawn signs, as opposed to murals and posters of other kinds.

Those were visible when we arrived in Derry. Like many other place names not knowing what they referred to, I'd heard of the Bogside; on the other side of the River Foyle is the Waterside, but it is not true, for example, that only Protestants come from the Waterside. Instead, here and there are curbs  painted with red, white, and blue paint; elsewhere there are Irish flags. On the Bogside we approached a mini roundabout with a poster of a balaclava-clad figure: "Welcome to the Creggan. Watch your back on the way out." "Not a bullet IRA," urged a nearby graffito. "Not an ounce."

Some people like to go on tours of this sort of thing, black cabs, museums, but I was happy just to drive past the murals of "Free Derry" and street signs like Bishop Street/Sráid an Easpaig. When I was a child, I remember reading that Irish Gaelic was the most difficult language in the world to learn. I have no idea if this is true or how to measure it, but dealing with "tomAHto" is enough hard work for me!

On my first trip to Ireland, even though I was traveling to Dublin and Cork, I remember police in the British airport armed with machine guns. You rarely see firearms on anyone in Britain, including the police, so that stood out. This time, I didn't even have to show ID to fly to Belfast. Similarly, crossing the land border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic used to involve a checkpoint, with soldiers. Now it's no more exciting than crossing a county line. The only thing that happens is suddenly the signs are in km, and also in Irish. Twenty years ago, the currency of Ireland was the punt, but it's the euro now. With the switch to metric, a different currency, and a general sense of escaping tension, it felt like crossing the U.S. border to Canada.

Dún na nGall, Co. Donegal, is a place of stunning rural beauty. I was immediately struck by the familiarity of the landscape. With its hills--not high mountains--roosters crowing to wake us up early in the morning, and checking the dogs for ticks, it reminded me a lot of my original home, Upper East Tennessee. I could understand why the Ulster Scots (see previous post), when they reached the Southern Appalachians, felt at home.

I was reminded of where I grew up in other ways, too. No people of color; no bars on the mobile phone. And here lies the awkward part: to a foreign observer like me, the difference between a Catholic or Protestant is completely invisible. You might as well ask me to pick Hutus or Tutsis out of a lineup. All I saw were a bunch of white people and churches, and none of them were wearing labels. This is true of the church buildings, too: I kept looking for signs, but never saw one identifying the church as Roman Catholic or Presbyterian. Maybe you're just supposed to know.

The welcome couldn't have been warmer. We stayed in a big rented farmhouse with an upstairs room big enough for a loom to weave Donegal tweed. There was an old-fashioned clawfoot tub in the bathroom (why don't they make them like that anymore, with the faucet in the middle?) On Sunday morning the radio played a gospel hour, with country hymns like "I'll Fly Away" and "This World Is Not My Home," followed by the mass. I didn't make it to any of the churches, but I felt like I'd covered all bases!

And the hills were only the beginning of Donegal's beauty. The coastal drive, the "Wild Atlantic Way," and beaches which, in the improbably sunshine, looked like they could be somewhere in the Caribbean. The water shining with different shades of blue and green. Fanad Head, Lough Swilly. Fresh baked scones and enormous Ulster fried breakfasts. And, of course, pints of stout. The sun was shining every day of our visit, but the diet is for people who deliver lambs and gather eggs in the rain.

The last evening wrapped up at a local watering hole where country dance music was accompanied by a melodica, and the drinks were more likely to be juice or mineral water. People danced with great enthusiasm, and if the only partner available was a 90-year-old man, or another woman, they just went for it regardless. At the end of the set, we all stood up for the Irish national anthem (I didn't recognize it having not watched an Irish sporting event lately, but that's what it sounded like to me). After all, we were in the Republic.

We crossed back over the border: "Welcome to Northern Ireland. Signs are in miles." (I will never understand why the U.K. still uses miles--Canada doesn't--while insisting on kilograms, Centigrade, and every other measurement like the rest of Europe.) Having seen, shall we say, a range of "Welcome" signs on the trip, I wanted to stop at the Peace Bridge, the newest bridge across the Foyle. The Peace Bridge is for pedestrians and cyclists, and physically, if not emotionally, connects the Waterside and the Cityside. I don't belong on this bridge, or this island, but I wanted to see something designed to represent hope for the future.

On my first trip to Ireland in 1994 I missed all this, from Donegal to Belfast, because my family (and lover at the time) would have thought I was crazy to go. I think of all the opportunities missed, as well as lives lost, because of violence that has enveloped communities, not only here but in many parts of the world. There have been young men willing to kill and die for "the cause," and mothers willing to sacrifice them, at least since the days of Carthage and Rome. In the 1970s Madeleine L'Engle wrote about Northern Irish Catholic and Protestant women who crossed the lines to pray with each other; I never appreciated before how brave they must have been. L'Engle cautions us against being "big on causes and small on people."

We only passed through Belfast, not visiting it properly, but on the way I saw a tremendous amount of publicity for the city's major tourist draw: "We built the Titanic." You wouldn't think anyone would want to brag about having built the unsinkable ship whose sinking is one of the most famous disasters of all time. But if the alternative is creepy posters and historically recent conflict, maybe it's just as well for Belfast to be famous for something else!

Twenty-plus years ago I sat in a pub in Galway with my salmon and stout and listened to a musician. He sang "In the city of Chicago, as the evening shadows fell, someone is dreaming of the hills of Donegal." Chicago was my home then, where I'd come from and was going back to. Now I've finally made it to those hills of which the singer dreamed.



Thursday, March 19, 2015

Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia, by Fiona Ritchie and Doug Orr




This is a book that is going to stay with The Discreet Traveler for a long time. As the title suggests, it is about travel—the migration of music, and the people who sang and played it, from one country to the next (and back). If there is anything I love as much as travel and books, it is music.

I bought Wayfaring Strangers because I was born and raised in the southern Appalachian region, and I’m a lifelong fan of folk music. By “folk” I mean traditional music, but also the many permutations of it, such as the folk revival in popular music in the early 1960s. One of the key things I learned from this book was that the lines are blurred. Who is to say that “I Wonder As I Wander,” a carol with a known composer, is more “authentic” than a lullaby recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary, one of the first songs I ever knew—written by a slave mother whose name we'll never know?

But I quickly discovered that there’s a lot more to Wayfaring Strangers than just one line of musical history. Take the song "Wayfaring Stranger." It’s on the enclosed CD (itself a gem that adds a third dimension to the words and illustrations); it’s been recorded by artists such as Joan Baez; it’s a shape note hymn in The Sacred Harp. Reading about the latter tradition of sacred music, I discover that, in addition to a white and black tradition, it’s also sung by a Cherokee community in the mountains that somehow escaped deportation along the hideous Trail of Tears. Shape note singing, until recent decades only carried out in a few such traditional communities in the South, is now being revived by people of many ages, races, and indeed religions on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. As with other varieties of folk music, it is not about rehearsal and performance but about participation and joy.

This journey back and forth, both geographically and in time, takes place over and over again with songs, musical styles, and people. The vaudeville favorite “Danny Boy,” while set to “The Londonderry Air,” does not have traditional lyrics from the mists of time, but from an opera librettist who, furthermore, was English. More egregiously vaudeville, the blackface “minstrel” tradition was such a cruel caricature of black Americans that they gave up playing string band music, even though the banjo originated as an African instrument. Practically the only African American to keep up old time music before the heirs of the present generation was a fiddler named Joe Thompson. Reading about him and his cousin Odell, I suddenly realized that I’d actually seen them play, at what must have been one of Odell’s last performances (in the early 1990s). Chills ran down my spine as I remembered these two very elderly musicians singing the Appalachian composition  “Mountain Dew”!

I hadn’t realized the living history I was witnessing at that folk festival, but I did pick up a few recordings of others interviewed in this book, including Sheila Adams (from Madison County, North Carolina) and Irish-born John Doyle. So some ballads and tunes were familiar to me from their singing and playing. Most of the interviews were conducted by coauthor Fiona Ritchie, known from National Public Radio as the host of The Thistle & Shamrock, and it started to seem that every artist from the past 50 years is in here somehow, as influence or influenced: Doc Watson, Jean Ritchie, Dolly Parton, Al Petteway, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, the Seeger family. Judy Collins recorded Billy Edd Wheeler’s songs; Knoxville’s Everly Brothers’ harmonies influenced Simon & Garfunkel, the Beach Boys, and the Beatles. 

The movement of music was two-way, also, with Jean Ritchie, Peggy Seeger, and other Americans traveling to Britain and Ireland to trace the roots of songs, and in turn influencing British musicians like Ewan MacColl. His most famous composition, “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” written for Peggy Seeger, was a hit for Roberta Flack—who, it turns out, is from Black Mountain, NC. And before that, the Scottish-American ballad "Black Is The Color" was made famous all over the world by yet another singer born in the North Carolina mountains—Nina Simone! Celebrating my fortieth birthday in a Paris bar, I’d recognized the endlessly sexy voice coming from the speakers, but had no idea it belonged to a woman from Appalachia. (When I first emigrated to Canada, I got the impression that all sorts of musicians and other entertainers were turning out to be Canadian and I’d never known it; this book gives me the sense that everybody is Appalachian.)

The story is about much more than the geographical migration of one type of music. It’s about many types of music and song traveling back and forth with people to whom they were important, then further cross-pollinating with the songs and instrumentals of other people. The movement of the “Scots-Irish” to Pennsylvania and, ultimately, to a town like Johnson City, Tennessee is my family’s story and mine. Reading, listening, or singing along, one feels part of a musical community that spans many places and across generations. If it sounds like I'm describing a spiritual experience, I am.

Read this book, glory in the pictures, and listen to the CD (repeatedly). Then get out there and explore the places and the kinds of music that interest you. And try it yourself. I know I’m going to.



Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Y factor


CNN is (finally) reporting "3 Muslim students shot to death in apartment near UNC Chapel Hill." These murdered students volunteered to give dental care to Middle Eastern children as well as help their homeless neighbors. It is being reported that the killer was an atheist. When will we notice that the one common denominator among almost all American terrorists is not a religion, but a sex?

Are the “lone wolves” who commit acts of terrorism women? Were the police officers who killed Eric Garner or Michael Brown female? Do girl students shoot up their schools?

I am not about to speculate on what, if anything, evolutionary or genetic may explain the lack of proportion between male and female terrorists. I’m even limiting myself to one nation, the U.S., and not extrapolating to every other culture on earth. (The U.S. is my example because it’s a leading country in terms of being rich, yet depressingly ahead of most of its peers in terms of violence, too.)

That is not my point—the "why" of male violence. There are feminists who have spent a lifetime on that and we’re no closer to ending it. My point is that it is wrong to tar a group with a stereotype, even when that stereotype is overwhelmingly true. And it is far closer to the truth to generalize terrorists, or school shooters, or murderous police officers as male, than it is to characterize killers as Muslim or atheist or even white.

Yet imagine how ridiculous were I to conclude that we should fear all men. Or that maleness, the cause of so much suffering, should be eliminated from the earth (which is what Richard Dawkins, apparently now the imam of atheism, wants to happen to religion). Or what if I insisted that every instance of this male violence was characterized as such—“a male fired on a classroom of first graders,” “a male planted a bomb at the Boston Marathon”—just as “black” or “Muslim” are used.

Come to think of it, that’s not such a bad idea. By underplaying this truth, we risk not even noticing it, taking it for granted. If we “don’t see” gender in this situation, we are accepting the violence as an inevitable fact about the world, rather than something individuals are responsible for. We should see the person.

"If you 'don't see'”color/sexual orientation/etc., as Ash Beckham reminds us, “you don't see me.”

Friday, January 9, 2015

We are Charlie, and Clarissa, and Ahmed

I’ve been thinking about how to respond to the killings that took place in Paris this week. Ten members of the staff of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical weekly, were killed, as were two police officers trying to protect them. Another police officer was killed yesterday. Her name was Clarissa Jean-Philippe. She was only 27 years old.

The sheer volume of atrocities these days prevents us from responding to each one. The day before Wednesday's attack, a Colorado office of the N.A.A.C.P. (national African-American rights organization) was bombed, though without casualties in this case. The same day I read about the Paris attack I read in the same newspaper about an attack in Turkey that killed 31, as well as an attack in Yemen where 50 people died. Police officers are killed so frequently in these and other attacks that the risks they take daily are almost overlooked, as part of their job.

But these deaths were in Paris. Paris, like New York, is a city so familiar from movies, etc. that people all over the world feel like they know it. Moreover, I live in Europe. I’m not European and I’ve never lived in Paris, but I have indelible memories of that city. I’ve been young and in love in Paris; I’ve been middle-aged and drunk; I’ve been there with my partner and with my dad. I am closer to Paris, geographically, than I was to New York (or D. C. or Pennsylvania) on September 11, 2001.

Responding to September 11, the Paris newspaper Le Monde ran this leading editorial: “Nous sommes tous Américains” (We are all Americans). Despite the “freedom fries” nonsense that came later, on September 11 the U.S.A. remembered that France was its oldest ally—its ally from before it was even a country. France gave the U.S. the Statue of Liberty. Oh, and I’m a writer myself, and a satirical one (at least I try to be). There are lots of reasons for me to take the attacks in France personally.

After the initial shock of the news, reports came in that the killers were Islamist terrorists. Charlie Hebdo had published lots of provocative cartoons by the four artists killed, including some making fun of Islam. I thought of Private Eye, a British satirical magazine, whose cover a week or two ago had shown a mock nativity scene, with the characters’ speech bubbles referencing various things going on in British society. (For the record, I liked this satire and didn’t think it was truly insulting Christ or Christians at all, but by definition satire doesn’t make everybody laugh.)

The not-funny thing is that Britain outlaws words or writing if the intent is to stir up religious hatred (among other things). That’s right—the U.K. actually does not have freedom of the press. That doesn’t mean the law is applied, at least not to everyone. It is more the chilling effect of the law—self-censorship. I cannot imagine some of Charlie Hebdo's cartoons being published in this country, which also has a significant Muslim minority, although not as large as the one in France.

Let's be clear that freedom of expression has been under attack by more than Islamists lately. Remember the movie The Interview, about North Korea, and the flap about Sony pulling that from movie theatres? Sony said they were canceling the film because theatres wouldn’t show it; the theatres said they were afraid of terrorist attacks. Can you imagine if there had been one?

Of course, the only terrorist attack on a U.S. movie theatre I can think of was in Colorado (again), when a crazed gunman went in and shot people and the film wasn't the target at all. U.S. shootings almost aren’t news anymore; we are in danger of regarding them as banal as a bad taste cartoon or a stupid Seth Rogen movie. One of the many brilliant cartoons drawn in response to the Paris killings was one of a gun captioned, “This is not a religion.” In the U.S., it needs to not be. The much-to-be-regretted paramilitarization of police there is because they are in an arms race with the civilian population.

Increased force is always justified by appealing to our fear. The phrase “an attack on freedom ” is used to justify everything our countries (including the U.S.A. and France) do that leads to civilian deaths in other countries, no matter how specious the reasoning. We can be forgiven for being cynical about this phrase.

But this really was an attack on freedom. This is a challenge to decide what kind of society we are and want to be. Are we as committed as we ought to be to freedom? Because freedom means religion has to compete in the marketplace of ideas—like any other idea. Religion has to win by convincing people, not by making them afraid. Otherwise, we might as well be North Korea, where there is only one idea.

To imagine that these terrorists killed artists for drawing cartoons is to miss the point. No doubt some of them are offensive to Muslims (and were designed to be), but for terrorists, that is a pretext for attack. Would we be safe from terrorism if only we didn’t publish such work? These terrorists’ goal is not just to make us afraid and therefore censor ourselves; it is to provoke and exacerbate an “us vs. them” conflict.

In their view of the world, there is dar al-Islam, the world of Islam (as they imagine it) and dar al-Harb, the world of war. Nothing else. There is no place for a Muslim to live in a society where Islam, as a religion, has to compete for adherents along with every other religion. There is no place for a Muslim who disagrees with and is offended by expressions, but doesn’t call for their suppression, let alone kill over them. Charlie Hebdo frequently offended Catholics who felt their faith was being mocked; the editorial director, Stéphane Charbonnier (Charb), said the goal was to lampoon Islam until it was as banal as Catholicism.

In the terrorists’ vision, who is squeezed out of the picture? Muslims, of course. Muslims who can practice their religion in the same way Christians can practice ours in a free society: by choice, not by forcing it on others. Putting up with what is sometimes very insulting rhetoric about their religion, because that is part of the give and take in our civilization. These terrorists would like nothing better than for our governments to crack down even harder on our personal liberties, to go to even more extreme excesses in the treatment of prisoners, to launch even more military operations in even more countries, so that there is no longer any way to be a Muslim except to be at war with the West. There is certainly no room in their world for Muslims like the one they gunned down outside Charlie Hebdo's offices on Wednesday. Another police officer, named Ahmed Merabet. A police officer who, like his colleague, died defending a freedom that includes the freedom to insult his religion.

Another of the many wonderful drawings to emerge in recent days showed symbols of people on the left side: the familiar male and female symbols from bathroom doors, the disabled symbol, males holding hands with males and females with females. On the right side were symbols of various religions and ideologies, including reprehensible ones like Nazism. The caption was: People have rights. Ideas do not have rights.

This is crucial. Your idea, your belief, has to compete in a world of other ideas and there is (or should be) no “protecting” it from the reasoning of other people. It may be sacred to you, but you, your precious human life, should be sacred to me. No idea, belief, expression is a capital offense. France, and most other of what used to be called “civilized” countries, did away with the death penalty a long time ago.

If everything is subject to satire, is nothing sacred? Yes. Freedom of speech, of the press, yes of religion too—of my religion and your religion and you who doesn’t have a religion. Absolutely, freedom is sacred.

To paraphrase Charb, who died for his blasphemy: If your God needs your protection from a cartoon (or other work of art), you don’t have a big enough God.