Thursday, November 12, 2009

Who would be against compassion? Me, I guess.

A friend of mine invited me to the Charter for Compassion - Madison inaugural event tonight. I thought: "Is that the Karen Armstrong thing? I'm not a big fan of Karen Armstrong." A month or so ago, she was on Here on Earth with Jean Ferraca - not a big fan of hers, either, you'll soon see why on both accounts - and they were going on about how true religion is peaceful and loving and non-dogmatic and doesn't make absolute claims about the character of God.

I am a linguist. Linguists describe language as it is, not as we want it to be. And in the English I know, religion refers to systems based on a belief in the supernatural and its relationship with the natural world. Some religion is peaceful. Some religion is loving. And some religion inspires people to fly planes into buildings, beat women for the sin of having been raped, jail and kill homosexuals, molest children, and murder relatives.

Not according to the Carter for Compassion Web site. It says
"The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions" (emphasis mine)
As I said to my friend via Facebook,
"That's ... rose-colored thinking. Compassion is important, and it may lie at the heart of most religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, but there are also those that reject compassion, and I don't want to blind myself or others to that tragic fact. If I don't acknowledge it, I can't help change it."

Sorry, we think you built that cave illegally

I was surprised to see an article on the eviction of a Palestinian from his childhood home - a cave in the hills between Jerusalem and Bethlehem - prominently listed on the Yahoo! News homepage today. I don't think I've ever seen an article on this issue in the American press. And, technically, it's still not in the American press - Reuters is the article's distributor - but it's about as close as it can get without being technically American.

The man is being evicted to make room for Givat Yael, another Israeli settlement* in the West Bank - settlements that the U.S. government (along with Israeli groups like Peace Now, Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions and Rabbis for Human Rights) says are an obstacle to peace and in violation of international law and common courtesy. (Although the U.S. government says it, the Israeli groups actually mean it.)

When I was in the West Bank a few years ago, I visited quite a few families who lived in such homes, all of which were either under threat of demolition or, just as often, had already been filled by the Israeli military with rocks, rubble and the trashed property of the homeowners. It goes like this: The occupying authorities say the people who live in the caves built the caves without permits, never mind that the caves are hundreds of years old. The homeowners go to the courts with papers showing that they own the land. The courts either tell them that the papers are worthless (perhaps because they predate the Israeli government), or they agree with the homeowners and issue an injunction to prevent the demolition of the home. Whatever the courts rule doesn't really matter, though; the military is still pretty likely to destroy the caves, because once you've created facts on the ground - a destroyed home, an eviction, and a nice new Jerusalem suburb with orange-tiled roofs - it really doesn't matter what the courts say.

It may sound like an oversimplification, but it really is a lot like Joseph Heller's Catch 22.

*Whether or not Givat Yael is a settlement is disputed by Israelis. Some say the land on which Givat Yael will be built - and I have no doubt that it will be, barring some miraculous new consensus within the Israeli government - is within the municipal borders of Jerusalem and therefore part of Israel. Others say that if that land were part of Jerusalem, the Palestinians who live there would have been given Jerusalem I.D. cards and be Israeli citizens. They have not and they are not, which of course makes it much harder to fight a case in Israeli court, since they are given no inherent legal right to travel inside Israel.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Aggregation vs. plagiarism

Interesting New York Times article about Germany's attempts to protect and enforce the copyright of journalism that appears online. Unfortunately, it's a little skimpy on the details. As someone whose work has been plagiarized, I support the idea of clamping down on plagiarism, especially when people are making money through this unethical and illegal behavior. But I'm a little foggy on why publishers want the term "plagiarist" to apply to news feeds.

News feeds generally provide the title of an article and the first few sentences, then direct the reader to the Web site that originally published the article. What's the problem here? How is this substantially different from a library's book index?

If an aggregator reproduces the article in its entirety, that's a problem. But I have a hard time calling such a service an aggregator. It's really a publication of its own that uses aggregation technology to provide its content. You know, a "plagiarggregator." Don't you love how that flows off the tongue?

Repeat that word without attributing it to me, and I'll sue you!*

*Unless, of course, your use is in line with Fair Use laws, in which case I'll be proud of how my difficult-to-pronounce coinage is invading the English language.

Calling me unconventional

You call me unconventional, and say it like I made a conscious choice to reject your conventions. No, I didn't. I don't even understand what your conventions are. If you took the time to explain them to me, then I could make the conscious decision to reject them. But you haven't, so I haven't.

Really, if you knew the conventions I've chosen to live by, and by which I wish others would live, you would see that I am utterly conventional.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

When there's no more room in Hell ...

Thanks to Fake AP Stylebook, which instigated my laugh of the day with this Oct. 30th addition to its e-edition: "When there's no more room in Hell, omit the final paragraphs to save space."


I think good manners are very important. But I think my notion of what is polite separates me from most of the U.S. population.

For example, there is the class of people who think it is the height of rudeness to touch someone else's stuff without asking, unless that someone is a close friend with whom you have an agreement that doing so is okay.

Then there is the class of people who think that someone who doesn't want others to touch their things without asking is a selfish bitch or bastard.

I fall into the former category, but when I am at work, I feel myself to be in the distinct minority.

One of my co-workers is a particularly egregious toucher. Today he was in my office when my microwave popcorn popper caught his eye. But he couldn't simply ask me about it. No. He had to reach up to the shelf where I keep it, take it down, and gesture with it in his hand as he asked me about it. (Did I mention that this thing is made of glass?)

We have had this discussion before, so I cut to the chase. "I don't remember you asking me if you could touch that," I said. (In my camp, sarcasm isn't as rude as touching other people's things, but I know not everyone agrees with me.)

"No, I didn't," he said, and continued to manhandle it.

Back when I worked with a bunch of hippie types, the way we were supposed to bring up how we wanted to be treated was by saying, "I feel ___ when ____ happens. It reminds me of ____. In the future, I would feel more comfortable if we handled the situation this way: ________."

Maybe I should try it with this co-worker, but I'm not sure it would be any more effective than sarcasm. "I feel violated when people touch my things without asking. It reminds me of all the selfish prigs who have touched my things without asking - for example, that guy who ruined my cycling gloves by trying them on even though his hands are twice as big as mine, or the boss who picked up my pen while holding a used Kleenex in the same hand. But more important than reminding me of anything, such behavior is inimical to my understanding of how people ought to interact with one another. Individuals ought to have some degree of autonomy, and they ought to be free to decide whom to allow into their personal realm. When you touch what belongs to someone else, you are entering the personal realm. In the future, I would feel more comfortable if we handled the situation this way: please ask if you want to touch my things, and respect 'no' for an answer. I work with you; I am not obligated to be your buddy. And the more you impose buddiness on our relationship, the more I will think you are rude and the less likely I am to become your friend."

I guess that sounds meaner than what I actually said, since in our culture people tend to get offended if you state the obvious fact that you are not their friend. It's okay to know it, just not to say it.

Just like it's okay to know that there's something discordant about people who believe they're destined for heaven still fighting like hell to defeat a terminal illness, but it's not considered polite to point this out to them.