Archive | November, 2014

Censorship and the self-righteous now target restaurants

26 Nov

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On a day when at least one college president was pressured to apologize for saying something rational, a minor story appeared about angry people trying to censor a restaurant.

Within just a few days, possibly while another person was making a forced apology, a second report of restaurant censorship appeared. What this means is that the movement to shut the traps of the dumb, the smart and the mediocre has reached a new and dangerous low.

While sporadic, disarrayed and multi-headed, the censorship movement is highly effective. Its practitioners sacrifice freedom for all as a way to secure kindness for all – which ends up being not so kind. Their popularity has grown with their intolerance, but God help them if they get between a hungry person and their food.

conflict-kitchen-storefrontNot going down easily is a Pittsburgh takeout joint called Conflict Kitchen. It shutdown after death threats, but has since reopened. More than 200 people – God bless them all – rallied on its behalf, singing and twisting verse from John Lennon: “All we are saying . . . is give food a chance.”

The Conflict Kitchen – little more than a kiosk – serves food from countries in conflict with the United States. Since opening in 2011, owners Jon Rubin and Dawn Weleski have prepared culinary items from nations such as Afghanistan, North Korea, Iran, Cuba and Venezuela.

The food is wrapped in paper containing information about the country’s culture and politics. The restaurant claims not to take a position but wants to present the positions of countries we may be biased against. Jon and Dawn also hold public forums to facilitate discussions.

When the Conflict Kitchen began serving Palestinian food in October, there were complaints from the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, the B’nai B’rith and other groups. The restaurant closed after police received a letter with death threats against it, but it has since reopened. A police investigation continues.

Meanwhile, out in Colorado, a fellow named Pete Turner has vowed to keep open his Mexican-style restaurants in the face of community protests. Again, the complaint is not about food but about words, in this case a single word.

Pete has been operating restaurants for 20 years and has six in Boulder and Denver. It is only recently that his trouble began.

The trouble is about the name of his restaurants: Illegal Pete’s.

It is felt by the protesters that the “I-Word” is offensive and hurtful and should be removed.

Pete’s inspiration for the name came in several forms. It’s a literary reference, he said, to a bar in a novel he read as a college student. It also pays homage to anti-heroes and the counter-culture, honors the nonconformist streak of his father (also named Pete) and keeps his own name out there as well.

Pete recently attended a community meeting with his detractors. He listened politely. Several days later, he announced he would not change the restaurant’s name.

I admire his guts.

You can’t please everyone and it’s ridiculous to try. You also can’t guarantee a person a totally inoffensive day, unmarred by an indelicate word, picture, conversation, hint or suggestion. Life as a whole is offensive. Isn’t that abundantly clear? We are an aggressive, acquisitive, violent and murderous species. Must we use the proper words in the course of our murdering?

I don’t think Pete was trying to offend, but if people are free to offend, at least we will know where they stand. To me, this is preferable to having people hide their feelings and seem like something they are not.

Sometimes all we need to do is shake our heads and continue walking – or eat somewhere else.

Milton Guevara, the Salvadoran general manager of an Illegal Pete’s in Boulder, took what I think is the right “c’est la vie” attitude. He said, “I’m Hispanic, and I’m very proud to be. People come to us because they love our food . . . The name doesn’t mean anything.”

In the end, if someone is providing you with good food, how can you not like and appreciate them? If you’ve got to picket, I say picket those who can’t cook.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

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In the Old West, without GPS, if they wanted you, they’d find you

16 Nov

Cormac McCarthy

Everyone knows we’re being tracked. You leave a trail with credit cards, cell phones, cookies and social media. Cameras take pictures at traffic lights.Auto dealers hide GPS devices on the cars they sell. Even U.S. passports have a chip embedded in them.

But in the Old West, in the days of the horse and buggy – mainly because of the horse and buggy – it also was easy to track people. People back then left tracks, the old-fashion kind.

Blood MeridianI point this out after reading Cormac McCarthy’s 1985 novel, “Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West.” In it, a band of characters travels endlessly across vast expanses of plains, desserts and mountains. They always seem to find each other. Their enemies always seem to find them, and they their enemies.

There are some major skills involved here, as Cormac suggests. But the basics are hard to miss. In today’s times, we forget about giveaways like smoke from a cook fire, dung and urine from animals and humans, the simple imprint of foot, hoof and wheel. Either way, it’s pretty much a sure thing that after crossing the dessert everyone is going to end up at the well or creek. A great place to wait for your prey.

While it is frightening to think that today’s phones reveal where we are and where we went, it’s also a scary thought that you could ride or walk for days and nights, in the heat and cold, possibly without water and food or even clothes, across the harshest terrain, and the person trailing you will find you and kill you in the most brutal fashion.

This lesson, among others, I learned from Cormac McCarthy and the book they call his masterpiece.

No country posterIf you don’t know McCarthy from his many novels – almost all of them filled with horrific violence – then you might know him from the films made from his books. Perhaps the most famous is “No Country for Old Men,” which in 2007 won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Some see McCarthy as the equal or near equal of Faulkner. While I was amazed by “No Country for Old Men,” I’m embarrassed to say I had overlooked McCarthy, then and even after. I only came to know him after briefly watching a so-so TV movie with an unfamiliar name – one I don’t even remember — and hearing several pieces of brilliant dialogue.

I admire a good sentence and these were unlike anything I’ve heard on TV – with the possible exception of “True Detective.” They came from deep within some dark, mysterious, knowing soul.

I checked and found they came from Cormac McCarthy. And so I went on to read “Blood Meridian.”

If you read it, or even just look at it, you’ll notice some things right off. First, there are no quotation marks (even when there are quotes). Cute, but only idiosyncratic. Next, there are all these words you won’t understand because they are archaic and rarely appear anywhere. Doubly troubling are the passages in un-translated Spanish – the common tongue of Cormac’s characters, who are American, Mexican and Native American.

But the most obvious and disturbing thing about McCarthy is the violence. Nearly every page is covered in blood. I recall thinking that while the writing was terrific, the plot line had to come from a thoroughly sick and disturbed mind.

Glanton gang
Then I began to listen closer to the tone, attitude and motif phraseology of his characters. I came to realize this was not made up. This was all true. It was history, and the writer must have relied heavily on journals and first-hand accounts.

While McCarthy is not in the habit of discussing his work, I searched for confirmation of my theory and found it on good old Wikipedia:

The majority of the narrative follows a teenager referred to only as “the kid,” with the bulk of the text devoted to his experiences with the Glanton gang, a historical group of scalp hunters who massacred Native Americans and others in the United States–Mexico borderlands from 1849 to 1850 for bounty, pleasure, and eventually out of sheer compulsion . . . .

 

. . . McCarthy conducted considerable research to write the book. Critics have repeatedly demonstrated that even brief and seemingly inconsequential passages of Blood Meridian rely on historical evidence. The Glanton gang segments are based on Samuel Chamberlain‘s account of the group in his memoir My Confession: The Recollections of a Rogue, which he wrote during the latter part of his life. Chamberlain rode with John Joel Glanton and his company between 1849 and 1850.

 

Unlike many people, I try not to look for meaning in creative work. Beauty alone is enough for me, and “Blood Meridian” is beautiful. The best art is an open presentation of depth that allows the consumer to add the meaning. It really doesn’t come with it.

Still, my favorite parts of the book are the philosophical pronouncements of the character known as “the judge.” I sense he sounds a lot like Cormac McCarthy at a cocktail party. The judge accepts violence. In total, what the book does for me is calm my frustration at man’s inhumanity, convincing me – if only for a short time – that violence is NOT inhuman, but rather perfectly and intrinsically human.

I’ll end with a passage and invite comment.

“It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.”

Lanny Morgnanesi

Where did everyone go? “Baby Bust” affects both prison population and college enrollment

9 Nov

Prison

Someone once told me if you build a prison, it will fill up. Conversely, if a prison is full, criminals will be let out.

From this it is easy to conclude that a person who normally would be free might get locked up, and a person who normally would be jailed might go free.

Both are frightening thoughts. Neither says much about justice.

Prison pop worldMore frightening is the widely known but often ignored fact that the United States puts more people behind bars than any other nation. That figure is about 2 million.

The U.S. population has increased by about one-third since 1980, but the federal prison population has grown by about 800 percent.

Yet we still call ourselves the land of the free.

So it goes. I wish I understood why. I wish there was someone who could explain these problems and come up with a method to reverse them.

Well, sometimes things reverse themselves.

A recent story that was basically overlooked said that the federal prison population has declined by 4,800 inmates. This is the first decline in a decade. And it turns out that the populations in state and county lockups have been dropping for the past five years.

“Our new projections anticipate that the number of federal inmates will fall by just over 2,000 in the next 12 months — and by almost 10,000 in the year after,” said Attorney General Eric Holder “This is nothing less than historic.”

Fine, but no one explained why.

Prison poulation-WikiIt is doubtful our government has the ability to stop crime. Government can take credit for it, but that doesn’t mean it’s true. After crime dropped years ago, improvements in law enforcement were credited. Later, under the category of Freakanomics, it was determined that the drop in crime occurred about 18 years after the legalization of abortion. This means that there was was less crime because fewer criminals were born.

It was that simple.

Abortion may not be behind these new figures, but fewer criminals being born may be.
A running demographic trend called the “baby bust” has now caused a decline in the number of young adults, the same people who commit most crimes. A bad economy, it seems, affects childbirth, and the economy hasn’t been good for quite some time. It is said that the recession of 2008 alone resulted in a half million fewer births.

I’m familiar with the baby bust because I’ve seen its impact on higher education. With fewer students of college age, enrollments are declining at colleges and universities across the nation.

“They can’t go to college if they haven’t been born,” one educator explained.

Birth ratesIn 1900, Mark Twain looked for some linkage between crime and education and said, “Every time you close a school, you have to build a jail.” While the reserve could be true, new colleges aren’t needed right now because of the enrollment decline. But because of the savings from the decline in prison population – the feds spend $80 billion a year on incarceration — money could be available to help students with tuition.

What a great nation ours would be if, like some others, we made it easy and cheap for young people to get an education. But we still would have the empty prisons and we’ll need to figure out what to do with them.

Maybe we can just let them rot. They can become sad displays of a culture that with a blind eye created and nourished the darker side of humanity. But a demographic bump doesn’t permanently correct a problem. So a better idea might be to turn the prisons into factories, which will improve the economy, which will increase the birth rate, which will create more crime, which will require more prisons. At that point, we can close the factories, open the prisons, and wait for economy to go bad and the birth rate to drop again.

That sounds so right it has got to be wrong. But I’m not hearing much better from the experts. Do you think we can put a little pressure on them? Or should we just wait until everything fixes itself? Actually, this seems much more likely.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

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