Salman Rushdie: 1989 and Now

Salman Rushdie was recently awarded a knighthood by Britain, an act which caused more than one anti-Western rant from the medieval ayotollahs of Iran and Pakistan. The usual threats of violence from the usual dark quarter of the world. This honor by Britain reminded these hateful clerics that Rushdie is the author of The Satanic Verses, a novel considered blasphemous (by some) to Islam.

Rushdie has been under a sentence of death since 1989, when the book was first published and the clerics of Iran took offense. Only recently has he felt safe enough to emerge from hiding.

What’s been forgotten over the years is that the hostage-taking Ayotollah Khomeini wasn’t the only one outraged by The Satanic Verses. This excellent article in the International Herald Tribune reminds us that the book was published to great controversy. Like the recent cartoon conflagration in Denmark, not everyone stood behind the right of free speech in an open society.

In a March 1989 Op-Ed article in The New York Times titled “Rushdie’s Book Is an Insult,” Jimmy Carter argued that “The Satanic Verses” was guilty of “vilifying” Muhammad and “defaming” the Koran. “The author, a well-versed analyst of Moslem beliefs, must have anticipated a horrified reaction throughout the Islamic world,” Carter wrote. While condemning the death sentence and affirming Rushdie’s right to free speech, the former president argued that “we have tended to promote him and his book with little acknowledgment that it is a direct insult to those millions of Moslems whose sacred beliefs have been violated and are suffering in restrained silence the added embarrassment of the Ayatollah’s irresponsibility.”

It’s just a novel, words printed on the page, a novel that billions of people will never see or even bother reading. A novel cannot violate a religion. A basic tenet of Western civilization is the right to offend people – we must not go backwards on this.

I had heard of Rushdie in 1989, after reading his book Shame in a modern literature class. The fatwa by Khomeini made The Satanic Verses a bestseller. I remember racing through book stores in DC, looking for a copy. I wanted to buy it to show my support of free speech, to show the Ayatollah that we wouldn’t be intimidated. Your religion doesn’t dictate what I can read.

I couldn’t find one anywhere – it was the iPhone of its day 😉 After I got a copy from a friend who worked in the publishing industry, I started the book and found it incomprehensible, a wild magic realism narrative that I couldn’t understand. All this trouble for a book?

Since then, I’ve gone on to enjoy other Rushdie novels, especially the brilliant Shalimar the Clown.

Looking back, it’s tempting to believe that America and Europe supported the absolute right of free speech. However, when faced with the very real threat of violence, people don’t always live up to their ideals and seek to justify censorship.

What will we do when the next of these conflicts arise?  Will we stand firm or compromise our values?

Reverend Billy Comes to Silver Spring

reverend billy in Austin
Reverend Billy preaches against Starbucks in Austin, TX.

Reverend Billy came to the chain-ridden streets of Silver Spring to minister for our sins. What did we do wrong? Americans shop too much, according to the Reverend, with our dreams dictated by major brands and our lives enslaved by credit card debt.

With this type of message, you would think that his movie, “What Would Jesus Buy” would be a humorless polemic. But what distinguishes the Reverend from the whole crop of latter-day alarmists (for example, the food police) is the humor and humanity he brings to his evangelical message.

I first encountered the Reverend on the streets of Austin during SXSW. He and his joyous band led a gospel-style procession up Congress Avenue, singing out to everyone, “Stop shopping! Stop shopping!” Like the Pied Piper, he soon had a delighted throng following him, for the choir was truly rocking and the lyrics were hilarious indictments of our own materialism. He led a crowd up to a Starbucks and preached against the sins of this ubiquitous company, and for all of us to make better choices with our dollars.

This humor and appeal to our better nature is on display in the new documentary, “What Would Jesus Buy.” This film, which screened at SilverDocs, follows the Reverend and his choir around the country at the height of Xmas shopping madness. Produced by Morgan Spurlock, it’s a funny and occasionally horrific look at the excesses of 21st century America. We have too much stuff and spend more than we have to buy the latest products pitched to us.

Where the doc comes alive is when we see Reverend Billy and his wife, Savitri D, struggle with their mission. Are they really making a difference? The Reverend answers affirmatively, if they can just change one life. And they do, by blessing an infant outside a Target – a really touching moment.

This sets up the final confrontation with the forces of the “shopacolypse” as Reverend Billy goes into the belly of the Beast (or Mouse) to spread his good news.

The packed house at SilverDocs loved it, especially when the Reverend and the choir appeared in the wings and began to sing a couple of new songs.  They’re trying to get distribution for the movie.

Nobody likes being preached to, whether it’s religion or politics. But Reverend Billy has managed to communicate his message through humor and satire. And it’s a message that stays with you because the Reverend doesn’t try to make us feel guilty, he tries to make us good.

The Mini-Retirement: Costs and Benefits

palm tree, Santa Monica, CA
In his book, The 4-Hour Workweek, author Timothy Ferriss discusses the idea of taking a “mini-retirement” while you’re still young enough to enjoy it. His point is that we Americans have it all wrong. We work hard through our youth to save up for a retirement in old age. That seems backwards to him – we should have our fun now, while we still can.

This is something I’ve always believed in. “You have the rest of your life to work,” I’ve counseled others who have considered taking a few months away from cubicle land. We’re fortunate to live in this historically unique time and place where jobs are plentiful. You’re not going to starve and there will be work for you when you come back, at least if you’re lucky enough to be a college graduate in America.

However, mini-retirement has costs and benefits that need to be considered. In my own life, I’ve tried to alternate my creative pursuits (writing) and my career (web person). I’ve taken several mini-retirements so that I could write. Here are the costs and the benefits:

August 1991 – December 1992: I leave my nascent career as an Information Assistant in Washington, DC, and move home to Florida. I work as a temp while I write a novel. I’m completely broke, live with my parents and yet am really happy.

  • Cost: I’m “behind” some of my friends who are becoming successful in their careers.
  • Benefit: I write a novel, my most important life goal.

July – October 1996: The Internet has just begun to take off. I’ve created my first web site, so that I can publish my fiction. I leave my library job behind and take several months off to travel and write. I also think there has to be a way for me to find a job doing this new web stuff.

  • Cost: None. I don’t make any money for three months but I get a new and much better job as an Internet Content Consultant.
  • Benefit: I work on my writing and edit the script of an independent film, Carrots and Onions. Reading someone else’s screenplay convinces me that screenwriting is something I can do. Perhaps more importantly, with my web job I’ve switched fields. For the first time in my life, I feel like I have a career not just a job.

December 2001 – May 2002: A few months after 9/11, it’s a terrible time for a mini-retirement. My plan, formalated earlier in the year, of taking a couple months off to travel and work on a screenplay stretches into a half-year of intermittent freelance work.

  • Cost: My finances suffer a major blow from the months of semi-paid freelance work. And when I finally find a new job, it pays less than my old job. My friends are buying homes, piling up $$ in their 401Ks, having kids. And spending lots of time in the office.
  • Benefit: Though it’s tough to see as I look at my bloated credit card balance, the work and connections made during this time will pay off later. I finish my script, Mount Pleasant, which in 2006 will win the Film DC screenplay competition. And, with plenty of time on my hands, I become part of the local film community and meet people I will work with in the 48 Hour Film Project (2003, 2006) and DC Shorts. I also get into photography, a hobby that will bring me much joy.

Mini-retirements are not without cost. However, they’ve added a richness of experience to my life that is truly priceless.

Tim Tate's Artomatic Stunt?

artomatic pic

I’ve met Tim Tate, the noted Washington glass artist, a couple of times. One of his glass sculptures, a really cool rocket, was stolen from Artomatic and held for ransom. It was only returned after a dramatic midnight exchange – Monopoly money for art. An individual named “The Collector” took credit for the theft. His aim was to increase this city’s appreciation of its art and artists.

This was a brilliant PR stunt, one that was expertly pulled off by “The Collector” or by Tate himself. It garnered both of them a story on the front page of Style in The Washington Post.

Did Tate set this up? Anyone who has met him would argue that he was certainly capable of such a masterstroke. After all, he’s a man who once had 99 films made about himself, including one that I wrote. But whoever did this crime is a marketing genius who should be applauded for bringing excitement and intrigue to the world of art in DC.

48 Hour Film Project

48 hour

I’ve done the 48 Hour Film Project twice. For those who haven’t experienced this weekend of madness, it’s a contest where you have 48 hours to make a short film. You pick a genre out of a hat and everyone has to use the same character name, prop, and line of dialogue.

On the weekend of May 5, a hundred teams from around Washington set out to make their short films. The results are being shown this week at the AFI Silver in Silver Spring.

Both times I’ve done 48 Hour, it was an amazing learning experience – it’s like Hollywood in a microcosm, with all the highs and lows of any filmmaking experience, though on a smaller scale and budget than what gets made on the West Coast.

Here’s a story of my 48 Hour experience from 2003, when me and the team of Midnight Motley set out to make a mockumentary.

Uncle Sam's Podcasts

Uncle Sam wants YOU to listen to his podcasts!  Government web sites are increasingly using the tools everyone else is using (podcasts, videos, blogs) to communicate with the public.  A recent Wall Street Journal article highlighted some of the many government podcasts that are out there.  For example, NOAA (the agency I work for) created a podcast on a research mission to Greenland.

Photo Shoot with Caveat Improv Group

I had the opportunity to take some pics of Caveat, an improv troup that is part of the Washington Improv Theater. It was a lot of fun – they’re a very creative group and they came prepared with ideas of what they wanted to do, which really helped. We shot in Meridian Hill Park, a city park designed by Frederick Law Olmstead. Once known as the “most violent national park in the region,” it is now safe and scenic, the way it should be.

riding down the park's steps
An impromptu slide down the stairs race.

Caveat
The Caveat improv group.

Government Web Content Managers Workshop

I attended the Web Content Managers workshop on April 24 at the FDIC training center in Arlington. It was a great workshop, with lots of opportunities to meet other gov’t web folks and learn new things. Here are my notes from the conference:

Pierre Guillaume Wielezynski, The World Bank Group, “Social Media: Transforming Communication Between Government and Its Customers”

  • World Bank gets criticized in the blogosphere, drowning out the Bank’s message (this was before the latest scandal). The Bank needs to be part of the conversation rather than being defined by it.
  • Solution is to let groups of employees blog, provided that each blog has a strong governance body and that users are interested in it.
  • Example: Private Sector Development blog has personal stories of staffers in the field. This blog gets more traffic than their department’s web site.
  • “Communication 2.0” is to help the experts communicate rather than controlling the process.
  • Social media is evangelized throughout the organization by the installation of RSS readers, so staff can follow blogs, and a “BuzzMonitor”, showing mentions of the Bank across the web.

Alex Langshur, PublicInsite, “How to Re-Orient Our Websites Around Users’ Top Tasks and Get Top Management Support”

  • We should reorient our sites around the keywords that users use in searches, which demonstrate the type of content they want.  This means to change the categories of your site to match those keywords and to optimize your pages around those keywords.
  • Outdated pages should be deleted since they gum up your search results.
  • Use data on what users are “voting” on with their clicks to depersonalize the web site debate.  Let the data decide rather than the “Hippos” (highest-paid person in the room.)
  • What’s the mission of your site?  It must be a measurable criteria.  What are the top tasks of your users? Iterative improvement over time.  No major redesigns, just constant tweaks and changes.

Kathryn Summers, UMBC, “Getting Users From Point A to Point B: Designing & Writing Tasks for the Web”

  • Nearly 50% of the US population reads at an 8th grade-level or below.
  • Log-ins, forms and search are difficult for low literacy readers (she showed heartbreaking videos of older people who couldn’t figure out how to log in to banking sites).
  • Breaking up long paragraphs and sentences, avoiding acronyms, using simple words and shortening text are all ways of improving comprehension.  This also improves comprehension for high-literacy readers.

Brian Dunbar, NASA.gov, “Success Stories From the 2006 Web Best Practice Award Winners”

  • Web stats on usage are used to counter critics.
  • Most popular items on his site are images, lesson plans and mission coverage.
  • NASA is decentralized with multiple web sites.
  • NASA.gov is relaunching in October, the 50th anniversary of the agency.

Some (but not all) of the presentations from the meeting are online.