Atheist Scruples: war criminals

September 8, 2014

The question:

You have an older acquaintance whom you suspect was a member of the Nazi SS. Do you report him to the authorities?

The edition I pull these questions from came from the mid 1980s so sometimes the questions aren’t entirely up to date. I could insert some other enemy group from a much more recent war/threat of war and answer the question that way:

I don’t know. A suspicion isn’t evidence. A lot of people were accused of being communists that had no ties to the group. Anyone who looks or sounds a bit “foreign” is a possible terrorist to some people. Babies get put on no-fly-lists because a name matches someone authorities are looking for. Maybe the person is already being investigated. Maybe this person is innocent. I’d have a duty to disclose my concerns if I thought I could offer up better proof than a hunch or report on a random memory of iffy conversation with the person. That’s all I got.

The question actually reminded me of a book I was reading for a book club group but I never made it to the meeting. The book was the Reader by Bernhard Schlink. In it, the adult narrator is reminiscing about a brief affair he had with an older woman when he was a teen. Later on in college, he was in a law class and had to attend a trial for war criminals. His past lover turned out to be one of the women on trial; she’d been a guard at a women’s camp during WWII in Germany. The case itself hinged on documents supposedly written by her detailing the deaths of several Jewish women in her charge during a forced march to another concentration camp. The dilemma faced by the narrator at the time: he had begun to suspect she was completely illiterate and could not possibly have written the report. Should he confess that knowledge to the judge?

Kate Winslet won best actress for the film version, apparently. I don’t keep up on awards. Good for her. I see my local library has it so I think I should borrow it.


Homophobe/homophone — or, why literacy is really important

July 31, 2014

Too funny. Sad for the guy who got fired, but funny for why.

Homophones, as any English grammarian can tell you, are words that sound the same but have different meanings and often different spellings — such as be and bee, through and threw, which and witch, their and there.

This concept is taught early on to foreign students learning English because it can be confusing to someone whose native language does not have that feature.

But when the social-media specialist for a private Provo-based English language learning center wrote a blog explaining homophones, he was let go for creating the perception that the school promoted a gay agenda.

Tim Torkildson was working for Nomen Global Language Center. His boss and owner of the center, Clarke Woodger, needs some language lessons of his own by the look of things.

Here’s one from Wikipedia:

The word derives from the Greek homo- (ὁμο-), “same”, and phōnḗ (φωνή), “voice, utterance”.

Global Language, man. English has borrowed from nearly every language which is part of why it’s so ubiquitous and vital for people to learn if they want to do any business in the English speaking world. It’s what Dr. Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof thought his Esperanto would become – the world’s common tongue. Poor guy with a big dream…

Back to the article.

“Now our school is going to be associated with homosexuality,” Woodger complained, according to Torkildson, who posted the exchange on his Facebook page.

Torkildson says he was careful to write a straightforward explanation of homophones. He knew the “homo” part of the word could be politically charged, but he thought the explanation of that quirky part of the English language would be educational.

No doubt the Center’s getting educated now, but still they’re arguing that it had more to do with a concern that Torkildson would use his blog to get off topic and get confusing and possibly offensive.

The school is in Utah which briefly allowed same-sex marriage recently but then pulled out. Interestingly:

Salt Lake City has the country’s highest percentage of gay or lesbian couples raising children, according to a 2013 study from the Williams Institute. There were 3,909 same-sex couples in all of Utah last year, according to the Williams Institute, a national think tank at the UCLA School of Law that conducts research on sexual orientation and gender-identity law and public policy. Gallup surveys put the percentage of the the [sic] state’s total population identifies itself as LGBT at 2.7.

If Torkildson doesn’t get rehired after this, hopefully he finds an employer who doesn’t mix this kind of thing up.

Memo to self: promote more books

July 23, 2014


As evidenced by the “massive” upticks in hits today, it’s clear that book promotion has a big influence on traffic. I prefer those hits over the many searches for “Helen Keller satanist” that have also led to me. I’m grateful for exposure, but..


What’s wrong with you people? Not counting my home page, it’s the top read article with 2958 hits as of posting. Crazy.

So, if you have a book you’d like me to read and promote, let me know. If it’s one you’d send me for freebies, I’ll take it. If not, I’ll aim to get my city’s library to buy a copy (or 8) so it’s available for everyone in the province of Saskatchewan.

Ideas have power. Books are full of ideas. Books are power. Power to the people, yo!

tiz the season for book memes

December 11, 2010

Not that I’d put any of these on my Saturnalia wishlist (mostly because what I like I already own), but let’s have at it (found via Micheal at a Nadder):

Bold for those you’ve read fully, italics for partially read. The BBC thinks the average person’s read 6/100, according to Michael (source of the stat not included in his post). Consider yourself tagged if you want to share yours.

1. Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen (does Pride and Prejudice and Zombies count?)
2. The Lord of the Rings JRR Tolkien
3. Jane Eyre Charlotte Bronte
4. Harry Potter series JK Rowling
5. To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee (which reminds me..gotta reread this for our Banned Book Club meet this week.)
6. The Bible
7. Wuthering Heights Emily Bronte
8. Nineteen Eighty-Four George Orwell
9. His Dark Materials Philip Pullman
10. Great Expectations Charles Dickens
11. Little Women Louisa M Alcott
12. Tess of the d’Urbervilles Thomas Hardy
13. Catch-22 Joseph Heller
14. Complete Works of Shakespeare William Shakespeare
15. Rebecca Daphne Du Maurier
16. The Hobbit JRR Tolkien
17. Birdsong Sebastian Faulks
18. Catcher in the Rye JD Salinger
19. The Time Traveler’s Wife Audrey Niffenegger
20. Middlemarch George Eliot
21. Gone With The Wind Margaret Mitchell
22. The Great Gatsby F Scott Fitzgerald
23. Bleak House Charles Dickens
24. War and Peace Leo Tolstoy
25. The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Douglas Adams (coming home with me for the holiday. Also due a reread)
26. Brideshead Revisited Evelyn Waugh
27. Crime and Punishment Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28. Grapes of Wrath John Steinbeck (had every intent of starting)
29. Alice in Wonderland Lewis Carroll (should at some point)
30. The Wind in the Willows Kenneth Grahame
31. Anna Karenina Leo Tolstoy
32. David Copperfield Charles Dickens
33. Chronicles of Narnia CS Lewis
34. Emma Jane Austen
35. Persuasion Jane Austen
36. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe CS Lewis (this bugs me. It’s already in #33)
37. The Kite Runner Khaled Hosseini
38. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin Louis de Bernières
39. Memoirs of a Geisha Arthur Golden
40. Winnie the Pooh AA Milne
41. Animal Farm George Orwell
42. The Da Vinci Code Dan Brown
43. One Hundred Years of Solitude Gabriel Garcia Marquez
44. A Prayer for Owen Meaney John Irving
45. The Woman in White Wilkie Collins
46. Anne of Green Gables LM Montgomery (I think this miniseries was on CBC every damn Christmas for a while. Always loved it.)
47. Far From The Madding Crowd Thomas Hardy
48. The Handmaid’s Tale Margaret Atwood (might suggest this for the next Banned Book meet)
49. Lord of the Flies William Golding
50. Atonement Ian McEwan
51. Life of Pi Yann Martel
52. Dune Frank Herbert
53. Cold Comfort Farm Stella Gibbons
54. Sense and Sensibility Jane Austen
55. A Suitable Boy Vikram Seth
56. The Shadow of the Wind Carlos Ruiz Zafon (fantastic piece of work. Fantastic. So well done, loved this one!)
57. A Tale Of Two Cities Charles Dickens
58. Brave New World Aldous Huxley
59. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time Mark Haddon
60. Love In The Time Of Cholera Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61. Of Mice and Men John Steinbeck
62. Lolita Vladimir Nabokov (been suggested for our Banned Book club)
63. The Secret History Donna Tartt
64. The Lovely Bones Alice Sebold
65. Count of Monte Cristo Alexandre Dumas
66. On The Road Jack Kerouac
67. Jude the Obscure Thomas Hardy
68. Bridget Jones’s Diary Helen Fielding
69. Midnight’s Children Salman Rushdie
70. Moby Dick Herman Melville
71. Oliver Twist Charles Dickens
72. Dracula Bram Stoker
73. The Secret Garden Frances Hodgson Burnett
74. Notes From A Small Island Bill Bryson
75. Ulysses James Joyce
76. The Bell Jar Sylvia Plath
77. Swallows and Amazons Arthur Ransome
78. Germinal Emile Zola
79. Vanity Fair William Makepeace Thackeray
80. Possession AS Byatt (FOR HIGH SCHOOL NOT PLEASURE!!1!)
81. A Christmas Carol Charles Dickens
82. Cloud Atlas David Mitchell
83. The Color Purple Alice Walker
84. The Remains of the Day Kazuo Ishiguro
85. Madame Bovary Gustave Flaubert
86. A Fine Balance Rohinton Mistry
87. Charlotte’s Web EB White
88. The Five People You Meet In Heaven Mitch Albom
89. Adventures of Sherlock Holmes Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
90. The Faraway Tree Collection Enid Blyton
91. Heart of Darkness Joseph Conrad
92. The Little Prince Antoine de Saint-Exupery
93. The Wasp Factory Iain Banks
94. Watership Down Richard Adams
95. A Confederacy of Dunces John Kennedy Toole
96. A Town Like Alice Nevil Shute
97. The Three Musketeers Alexandre Dumas
98. Hamlet William Shakespeare (under duress..grade 12 I think)
99. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Roald Dahl
100. Les Misérables Victor Hugo

Knowledge vs spectacle

October 20, 2010

Alternet ran a good piece recently about the media circus and the price viewers will pay by believing everything they see (breaks added).

Mass entertainment plays to the basest and crudest instincts of the crowd. It conditions us to have the same aspirations and desires. It forces us to speak in the same dead clichés and slogans. It homogenizes human experience. It wallows in a cloying nostalgia and sentimentalism that foster historical amnesia. It turns the Other into a cartoon or a stereotype.

It prohibits empathy because it prohibits understanding. It denies human singularity and uniqueness. It assures us that we all have within us the ability, talent or luck to become famous and rich. It forms us into a lowing and compliant herd. We have been conditioned to believe—defying all the great moral and philosophical writers from Socrates to Orwell—that the aim of life is not to understand but to be entertained.

If we do not shake ourselves awake from our electronic hallucinations and defy the elites who are ruining the country and trashing the planet we will experience the awful and deadly retribution of the gods.

Oh, there’s no need to bring silly god beliefs into this. Our own hubris and ignorance will bring us down, just wait. I don’t know who ordered the bread and circuses but you’d think at some point people would start to wonder what else there was to eat and do. At some point you’d think…wouldn’t you? Or are people forgetting how to do that, if they ever properly learned in the first place?

I read a book by Chris Hedges, the author of the above article, some weeks ago and I’m just getting around to writing about it now. It’s called Empire of Illusion: the end of literacy and the triumph of spectacle. It’s a fairly short book and he breaks it down into five different illusions: literacy, love, wisdom, happiness and America.

About literacy from page 44:

Functional illiteracy in North America is epidemic. There are 7 million illiterate Americans. Another 27 million are unable to read well enough to complete a job application, and 30 million can’t read a simple sentence. … A third of high-school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives, and neither do 42 percent of college graduates. In 2007, 80 percent of the families in the United States did not buy or read a book.

And don’t be thinking Canada’s doing better; he claims 42 percent of Canucks are in the same semi-literate boat. That’s appalling.

When writing about the illusion of love, he focuses on the reality of the porn industry. It doesn’t matter that women are often paid far more than men (who make a third of the cash a woman can according to page 77) to take it up the pussy or the ass. What is the continued support of this industry doing to women and the men who objectify and abuse them? Page 87:

Porn glorifies the cruelty and domination of sexual exploitation in the same way popular culture … glorifies the domination and cruelty of war. It is the same disease. It is the belief that “because I have the ability to use force and control to make others do as I please, I have a right to use this force and control.” It is the disease of corporate and imperial power.

He gets a little godly again here by claiming that instead of sacred pursuits, humans “worship power, control, force, and pain” and replace “empathy, eros, and compassion with the illusion that we are gods. Porn is the glittering façade, like the casinos and resorts in Las Vegas, like the rest of the fantasy that is America, of a culture seduced by death.”

Wouldn’t he be a fun guy at a party? I don’t disagree with him, though.

Wisdom is next. He relays an anecdote about doing three years of seminary but still being unable to grok what a classmate said about the related work she was doing. Real wisdom is getting replaced with buzz words and esoteric turns of phrase that mean fuck all. Private dialects, language and terminology reserved for the “elite” segregate people into those who can Know and those who can’t. Even educators are stripping the history and reality out of the very books they claim to be teaching. Page 97:

Writers from Euripides to Russel Banks have used literature as both a mirror and a lens, to reflect back to us, and focus us on, our hypocrisy, moral corruption, and injustice. Literature is a tool to enlighten societies about its ills. … In the hands of academics, however, who rarely understand or concern themselves with the reality of the world, works of literature are eviscerated and destroyed.

He’s hard on ivy league schools and other institutions that pride themselves on their architecture over what their kids should be learning inside. He points to the pursuit of wealth over intelligence as the biggest problem. If success is determined by the size of our bank accounts instead of how well we actually do across the board, then we’re getting a skewed perspective of what’s most important.

Happiness isn’t what’s most important either. I dog-eared page 117 when I read that page and it must have been because of the positive psychology paragraph. Corporations wind up spending a shit load of money on conferences and getaways where the whole purpose of them is to try to teach their people how to think positive and create success through the tricks of positive thinking. There are scads of business books where that’s all that’s in them for advice – catchy slogans and pithy pseudo-smart phrases that look enlightening and helpful but mean squat.

On pages 119-120 He calls this all a

flight into self-delusion [that] is no more helpful in solving real problems than alchemy. But it is very effective in keeping people from questioning the structures around them that are responsible for their misery. Positive Psychology gives an academic patina to fantasy.

By page 129 he’s explaining another reason why this is problematic.

The promotion of collective harmony, under the guise of achieving happiness, is simply another carefully designed mechanism for conformity. Positive psychology is about banishing criticism and molding a group into a weak and malleable unit that will take orders. Personal values, those nurtured by an independent conscience, are gently condemned as antagonistic to harmony and happiness.

So basically, if you refuse to fit in, you’re out. Out of synch, out of a job. They play on the fear of unemployment to really drive this business. It was never meant to be a mood booster. He’d probably call it a corporate conspiracy.

He’s hard on corporations in the last part of the book. Corporations have a stranglehold on the American government, he claims, and not just in terms of defense contracts. NAFTA made setting up shop across borders easier for corporations but the result of that was job losses in every town that relied on those industries to survive. Social services like health care and welfare systems are also in jeopardy. He mentions a book (and film) called The Corporation where they’re compared to the list of attributes usually reserved for psychopaths. They’re also treated like individuals with the same legal rights to donate to candidates, fund lobbyests and advertise how great they are compared to competition (if there is any). Page 182:

Individualism is touted as the core value of American culture, and yet most of us meekly submit, as we are supposed to, to the tyranny of the corporate state. We define ourselves as a democracy, and meanwhile voting rates in national elections are tepid, and voting on local issues is often in the single digits. … Our corporate elite tell us government is part of the problem and the markets should regulate themselves–and then that same elite plunders the U.S. Treasury when they trash the economy. … There is a vast and growing disconnect between what we say we believe and what we do. We are blinded, enchanted, and finally enslaved by illusion.

Which is where I’ll leave off quoting. He finishes the book with the same advice Madeleine L’Engle used to end A Wrinkle in Time, and it sounded just as hokey when I was twelve, as it does now: love conquers all.

Doesn’t make him wrong about the power of that, though. Hope and love and bravery. A willingness to do what’s right in the face of adversity. To show we care about other people, demonstrate that we want to change how things are to make the world better for everyone, no matter what personal risk we’d be under when we attempt to do it. But we’d have to do more than just say it.

Additional: I’m not the only one writing about this topic today. Via Hurtling Through Space I learn of Seth Rogan’s Blog and his take on it.

Word on the Street is on in Saskatoon today

September 26, 2010

This sounds like fun.

Saskatoon & Region Family Literacy Advisory Group will be hosting an informal, fun information area to promote several of its local literacy organizations. On behalf of this group, staff from READ Saskatoon and the Saskatoon Public Library will be providing larger-than-life word-based games and activities for the entire family. They will be joined by volunteer artists from Saskatoon Community Youth Arts Programming (SCYAP) to perform face painting for children.

Several authors will be on hand to read some of their work, I presume, and it’s running at the Farmer’s Market from 1-4 pm. Bring the kids and support literacy!

Mom breaks library law; won’t return “offensive” books

May 20, 2010

She’s breaking bigger laws, too, as far as that goes. I’d found the article earlier this month but any day is a good day to talk about censorship. The story comes out of Florida:

Longwood parent Tina Harden was so disturbed by references to sex and drugs and foul language in the world of fictional teenager Jenny Humphrey that she is ignoring overdue notices and phone calls from her neighborhood library and its bill collector.

Harden refuses to return several books connected to the Gossip Girl series that detail Humphrey’s life, even though she’s had them since 2008.

“If I turn them in, they will be put back into circulation and they’ll be available for more young girls to read,” said the mother of three, who keeps the four books hidden in a closet. “Some material is inappropriate for minors.”

Surprisingly, she’s not asking to ban the things entirely; she just wants warning labels on them.

The library refused but has agreed to re-shelve them in the adult-reading section.

“If we denied access to this particular title, it would be censoring,” said Jane Peterson, the county’s library services manager.

That’s not good enough for Harden, who said that as a taxpayer she should have a say in which books land on the libraries’ shelves. “They’re supposed to be public servants,” she said.

Saskatchewan has signed on with a company that’s providing the whole province with a new computer system in use in the States, maybe even in Florida. One thing the system does is restrict child level cards to child level material. That’s as much about a kid’s ability to read and process information as it is to protect them from the grittier stuff their older siblings and parents might want to borrow. They still might flip through the book, or sit and watch the movie with everyone once they’re home. We don’t know and we don’t care. Young adult cards also have a restriction – the system makes it impossible for a teen under 18 to borrow a restricted DVD. But again, we don’t care if a parent lets them watch it at home anyway, it’s just the way the system sorts itself out.

The system is also capable of creating a Child-Friendly searching catalogue that our library has tried not to implement. We don’t want kids restricted to child-level material when they search for projects or entertainment. Their child cards restrict them from borrowing most of it anyway but allowances might be made for non-fiction. We shelve many lower reading level books with the adult collection that a ten year old probably could wade through for an assignment on planets or animals or history. We want to provide equal access to pretty much everything that’s in there, leaving it up to parents to decide what’s best for their own children – but not everyone else’s.

Deborah Caldwell-Stone, deputy director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association, said it would be unconstitutional for the library, a public institution, to restrict access to books. Labeling alone would raise legal issues, she said. Movie theaters are different, she pointed out, because ratings are created and enforced by private entities.

“Somewhere in every library, there’s something to offend everyone,” she said. “You tolerate that because the library is trying to serve the needs of the community.”

She said books such as those in the It Girl series can help “teenagers confront life situations in the safe environment of a book.” She said those books could also appeal to teens who otherwise might not read.

Both of those are good reasons for a library to buy books. Literacy is so important and I know our selectors work very hard to buy a range of materials that will cater to any interests, popular or fringe. We rarely say no to a patron’s request for purchase. If someone wants it, we’ll do what we can to provide it – within limits, of course. Porn’s still out but our fiction librarian does purchase erotic fiction once in a while so get one of those and use your imagination.

Books with plots that mention sex and drugs and have characters using sex and drugs wind up being kind of important at a teen level because they are issues kids are facing at a younger and younger age all the time. While Harden has hopes her daughter won’t get involved with anything that will damage her (she’s quoted as saying, “The whole book was filled with everything I don’t want my daughter to do or be.”) the sad fact of the matter is, other kids aren’t going to be that lucky. Harden’s daughter may even know some of them.