Chanticleer #34

Chanticleer
I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up. 

Henry David Thoreau

March 24, 2003

“Chanticleer Calls” was an aperiodic newsletter for discriminating readers, thinkers, feelers, speakers, listeners, and cogitators.


FRYING SPAM

As one who receives more than his share of spam, and probably has less patience with it than most, I have decided to stop distributing Chanticleer Calls via email.

Unsolicited email, or “spam,” passed my personal obnoxious threshold long ago.

Recently, PC Magazine featured a cover story on it. PBS commentator Bob Cringely, a personal favorite read, has written on the subject for the past three weeks in his weekly online column. He relates that experts claim spam accounts for 35% of all email traffic.

Other data points: He set up an email address on his website for inbound mail only – he has never sent out a message from that address, never subscribed to a list or registered to a website using that address. Even so, he receives an average 15 emails each day from spammers who have “harvested” that address through a variety of means.

I installed a “Spam Vault” for my email accounts through my Internet Service Provider on December 23, 2002. This is an “after the fact” spam filtering approach – once I’ve received spam, I go into the “vault” and enter the address and domain information of the spammer to be blocked in the future. Since the sophisticated spammers use dynamically-generated “From” addresses, this approach to blocking spam is effective only against the smaller-scale spammers. Even so, as of today (March 24) my “vault” has captured 579 spam emails, or an average of about 6 per day.

In the past 24 hours, the “vault” has blocked 20 emails. I’ve received another 10-15 that were NOT blocked, depending on how you count multiple copies of the same message. As more and more people turn to spam-killer software applications of various sorts, there is the increasing probability that these automated spam-killers will also block ‘legitimate’ emails such as newsletters, mailing lists, etc.

“HONEY, WHICH CHANNEL IS THE WAR ON?”

The Communications Revolution has come upon us so rapidly, I doubt anyone can adequately grasp the significance, and the consequences, of watching live war on live TV.

I expect that when I face the final furnace, the events of this past week will count among the top five mind-boggling events of my lifetime. That we now have the technological means, not to mention the military mindset, to allow real-time situational analysis, battle damage assessment, and video/audio reports from “embedded” journalists racing across the deserts of Iraq … it just seems … I don’t even know what to say to express my baffled fascination.

I keep thinking along the lines of, “What would Patton and Eisenhower think about this? What if the Normandy landings were watched back home, from permanently-mounted cameras perched atop at the German gun encampments on the cliffs, and from the handheld, battery-operated videophones of “embedded” journalists in the landing craft?”

Is this a good thing? I have no idea … I don’t have a framework for assessing this. By what criteria, using what standards, could one judge whether war on TV is a “good thing”? Perhaps it’s a moot point – it has happened, it is happening, and there is little reason to expect that it won’t continue to happen.

Thirty years ago this spring, I had just completed my freshman year at the Air Force Academy. I entered the mandatory 3-week summer program called SERE, for Survival, Escape, Resistance and Evasion. The cornerstone of the training dealt with a simulated POW experience, how to resist and survive capture and interrogation techniques, etc. We were drilled in the articles of the Geneva Convention – what we were obligated to say, what we were precluded from saying, and how the captors were expected to behave, given that the capturing nation had signed and agreed to abide by the articles of the Convention. The articles forbade the exploitation of prisoners by their captors.

What seemed rather straightforward thirty years ago is straightforward no longer. What was viewed then as “exploitation” by enemy forces – using images and recordings of POWs for public display – is now being argued as a “free press”, “public interest” issue by journalists … on OUR side.

So now we have the what-used-to-be-absurd situation in which the U.S. military can justifiably claim a Geneva Convention violation by the Iraqis for using POWs as propaganda pawns, even as some U.S. journalists (Wolf Blitzer of CNN, specifically, whom I watched) want to “run with the story” and air the same images “in the public interest” that the Geneva Convention explicitly prohibits.

Of course, the whole Geneva Convention thing is problematic to begin with given that, well, after all, we’re talking about … war, not intramural soccer.

My fear is that our technological progress has led us “through the looking glass,” so to speak, before we are equipped to deal with what lies on the other side – socially, culturally, politically, and militarily. For a society in which a good deal of what passes for “knowledge” and “understanding” are simple-minded similes and metaphors, I fear what metaphors may emerge from this. I’ve already heard interviews that compare watching the war on TV to video games and ‘reality’ TV shows. I tend to think this is not a good thing.

But who knows what may result from this? Perhaps a public whose television viewing discretion has been deadened by the diarrhetic spate of ‘reality’ programs will become more discriminating now. Perhaps we’ll demand more responsibility and more accountability from our broadcasters in the future. We can hope.

INSTALLING DEMOCRACY (Version 2.x)

Mark Twain reportedly observed, “You can’t no more teach what you ain’t learned than you can come from where you ain’t been.

Given that one of the objectives of the war against Iraq is to “install democracy” in that historically un-democratic country, I wonder if some Americans could use a refresher course in the democratic process themselves, even after 227 years of practice.

To wit:

  • After the Dallas City Council – a governing body of elected officials – debated, voted, and implemented a contentious ordinance that bans smoking in restaurants and retail businesses, a disgruntled bingo hall operator complained, “Dallas is a place where everybody should have a choice. Right now, it’s more like a dictatorship.” He is associated with a group of business owners who have organized what they call the “Dallas Democracy Project.” (source: Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Mar 13)
  • Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia accepted the Cleveland (Ohio) City Club’s Citadel of Free Speech Award on March 19th – with a condition barring TV and radio coverage of the award presentation and his speech. The Associated Press report noted that the award was to recognize the Justice for supporting free speech. (source: FWST, Mar 20)
  • A 38-year old Fort Worth husband and father of two was falsely accused of being a convicted child molester in a two-page letter mailed to homeowners in his neighborhood association. The letter was sent out by a bogus organization called Protector of the Children. The letter included his full name, address, date of birth, and a picture – of a different man. The letter, in “graphic detail,” accused the man of a variety of sexual offenses. Outraged, the man went to the neighborhood association and asked them to help him inform his neighbors that the letter was, to use the cliché, a “cruel hoax.”

    The homeowners association responded that he first had to prove the letter was not true. (source: FWST, Mar 18)
    A Washington Times (not the Post, the Times) editorial opines, “There is a moral difference between the right of dissent (which is inviolate) and the exercise of it at a moment of high national danger.” (source: FWST, Mar 18)

And with respect to “free” speech …

  • A college basketball player from a small school in New York turns her back to the flag during the national anthem to protest the imminent war in Irag
  • a high school student in Michigan dons a t-shirt that labels President Bush an international terrorist
  • a singer uses her amplified platform at a concert to express her shame of the president from Texas
  • Canadians boo the Star-Spangled Banner before an NHL hockey game, and Americans reciprocate against O, Canada.

Because a sovereign nation chooses to pursue its own foreign policy course, we have elected Congressmen advocating boycotts of all things related to that country, from words to wines to fries to kisses. And because some of us take our leads from these flag-waving, vote-pandering populist legislators, we have “real Americans” vandalizing the homes of French-Americans like the realtor in Houston who awoke last week to the words, SCUM GO BACK TO FRANCE sprayed across her garage door in red paint.

Is that the version of “democracy” that we’re so eager to “install” in Iraq? As if “democracy” were simply a software package we can download and “install” in a foreign (in all aspects of the term) culture?

It’s disheartening-to-me to witness these intolerant attitudes that seem to reprise the America: Love It or Leave It bumper sticker jingoism of the ’70s. Is the case for either extreme position really that cut and dried? Are these not terribly complex and complicated issues that require a measured, thoughtful and finely discriminating evaluation?

No matter how much you despise Saddam and support the war, can you not acknowledge that intelligent, thoughtful and reasonable people might despise the despot just as much as you, but believe unilateral military action at this time is not justified?

No matter how much you might dislike President Bush and buy into the “it’s all about the oil” theory, can you not acknowledge that there do exist arguments that justify military action?

No matter your position, can you not acknowledge that you and all other private citizens of the United States have access to a very, very, very tiny slice of ‘all’ the relevant information that is known and must be considered by the political and military decision-makers?

If you support the war, can you not acknowledge that times of great internal strife and disagreement are precisely when our democratic freedoms must be exercised if they are to have any meaning or relevance?

If you oppose the war, can you not acknowledge that the actions which exercise our democratic freedoms are subject to judgment just as are any other actions? That criticism of the action chosen can be distinguished from criticism of the right?

Tolerating dissent involves a certain level of a priori respect from both the governing majority and the dissenting minority, as well as a modicum of humility from both. To ostracize, castigate, and denigrate in an attempt to stifle the voices of dissent – however dissident the dissent – reflects neither respect for the individual nor for the freedom. To flagrantly, outrageously and irresponsibly flaunt public platforms for self-gratification and self-aggrandizement does not promote freedom of speech as much as it abuses it.

Despite the prevailing and simplistic view among some that “freedom of speech” means anybody can say anything they want at anytime, the ‘real world’ exercises its own constraints on this freedom.

As a politically-incorrect commentator and comedian on HBO, Bill Maher has the freedom to say things that the journalist-commentator Bill Moyers cannot say on PBS. Natalie Maines can exercise her rights from behind the microphone on stage with the Dixie Chicks in ways that are not acceptable for Kenny Mayne from behind his ESPN Sports Center anchor desk. George Clinton of Parliament/Funkadelic can act and behave and do things in public that Bill Clinton of the Presidency/FunkaMonic cannot. (Okay, maybe that’s a bad example …)

Free speech isn’t always responsible, or informed, or relevant, or popular, or equal, or intelligent, or reasonable. But wouldn’t we all be better off if the resulting debate could focus on the assertion – rather than the articulation – of the speech?

PERSPICUOUS PERSPECTIVE

Most of us have probably received well-intended urgings, at various times in our lives, to “walk a mile another’s shoes.” Some of us may have even attempted to do this – usually when the others’ shoes appear comfortable, of suitable size, and the mile ahead continues on a level, paved road.

However, this metaphorical aphorism grossly simplifies the difficulty in achieving an ongoing sense of perspective. Just expanding the metaphor with the obvious questions reveals immediate complexities: Whose shoes? Which shoes? Which road? When? For how long? And so on.

No wonder that this challenge of perspective led Columbia University’s Professor of Mathematical Philosophy, Cassius J. Keyser, to observe: “The second most difficult thing in the world is to get perspective.”

The noted designers and filmmakers Charles and Ray Eames attempted to express their own perspectives about perspective in the marvelous short film, “The Powers of Ten.” In the introduction to the film, Ray explains that one of her husband’s techniques in approaching complex design challenges was to look at the problem from both the next larger perspective, and the next smaller perspective.

A different metaphor to illustrate perspective is that of a marching band. If you’re in the band marching on the field, you cannot see or visualize what your routine looks like to the spectators seated in the stadium.

Is this not a time when we all really, really need to try and look at events from different perspectives, and then acknowledge our limitations to do so?

We should not forget that we Americans, for the most part, have been marching on an American field, playing American music, directed by American conductors. We know how it looks and sounds and feels on the field – on OUR field – but we cannot appreciate how our routine plays to the rest of the world in the stands. And vice-versa … we have a spectating perspective as we watch the routines of the Iraqis marching on their field, but we do not know and cannot project what it’s like to be forced to march to the beat of a dictator for one’s entire life.

All we in America know about this war is what we’re told. All the Iraqis know is what they experience. We should not expect that these vastly different perspectives can be reconciled any time soon.

ENSURING EVERLASTING LIFE (at least among the living)

The prospect of everlasting life after death among the dead remains, for me, a problematic speculation. However, I have recently come to realize that, at least among the living, there can be indefinitely-extended (if not quite everlasting) life for the dead.

This realization comes after having spent considerable time over the past few months digging into my family’s history. We buried my grandmother earlier this month in Clovis, New Mexico, after she had lived a comparatively-hard 89 years. In preparation for the service and a brief reunion with my uncle and cousin, having all of my grandmother’s, my mother’s, and my aunt’s old photos and keepsakes, I scanned over 500 photos dating back to the early 1900s and organized them on a CDROM to give to the family.

Most of these photos I had never seen. They revealed my grandmother and grandfather as children, and young parents, whom I had never seen or known. I ‘met’ them for the first time.

I experienced a similar revelation on my father’s side of the family. Of four sets of great-grandparents, the Eitelman’s were the only ones I knew. My great-grandad Eitelman died in 1961, but I remember him. My great-grandmother attended my high school graduation in 1972 and lived for another nine years to age 98. Their families settled in Fort Worth in the late nineteenth century. I have my great-grandmother’s high school graduation program from Fort Worth High School in June, 1903. My great-grandad shod horses for a living, a trade so long forgotten that its formal name – “farrier” – isn’t even listed in Bill Gates’ MS-Word dictionary. My dad was born in my great-grandparent’s house, about a mile south of my current office in downtown Fort Worth.

I’ve recently exchanged a lot of email with some distant relatives I wasn’t even aware I had until three months ago. We’ve shared many photos and stories and genealogy information, and it has so fascinated me that I decided to begin a website as a way to share all of this with other family members – www.eitelman.net.

In the course of spending so much time with “Ed and Mary,” as I’ve come to know my great-grandparents through their stories and pictures (and Mary’s report cards from 1891 through 1903), I’ve felt an obligation to learn more about them, and others in the family. Not only that, but it dawned on me that, in a sense, these photos and stories and report cards constitute their “everlasting life” only to the extent that I, and other family members, keep them “alive” in our own lifetimes.

From the general semantics perspective of “time-binding,” or passing knowledge from generation to generation and building on the knowledge accumulated by others, it seems to me that there’s an aspect of “time-binding” that obliges us to honor the “time-binders” among our own ancestors. I think that’s important. That’s why I mention it here.

Studying and inquiring about the past is another means toward achieving a sense of perspective about current events and customs; just as we recognize that things have not always been the way they are today, so ought we expect that the way things are today will not stay that way into the future.

Examples: As terrible as the threat of HIV/AIDS is today, I’m not sure it represents the general health concern that young people faced in the ’40s and early ’50s with polio and tuberculosis. Polio struck on both sides of my parents’ families, directly contributing to the premature death of an aunt.

My father told me about his experiences as a young boy during World War II, riding the bus by himself from my great-grandparents house to the downtown Fort Worth YMCA to take swimming lessons in the summer. The fears and uncertainties about polio and tuberculosis, combined with war-time shortages of chemicals like chlorine, resulted in the policy that boys could not wear clothing in the pool. So my father learned to swim naked, because at that time, that was judged to be the prudent policy.

Today, “prurient” would replace “prudent.”

A second uncle of my father’s became a graphic artist and moved to New York City as a young man. Among my great-grandmother’s things, I found a handmade Christmas card that he mailed to her in 1924. The card features a silhouette of a family in their decorated home, seen through the grill of a frosted window. Hanging in the window frame are several different seasonal ornaments and symbols. Featured prominently in the center of the window, I was taken aback to see … a swastika.

Was Uncle Bruce a Nazi?

No. After just a little research, I was reminded that, prior to the National Socialists hijacking of it, the swastika had been used as symbol of good luck, good wishes, etc., for centuries. In fact, Rudyard Kipling featured the symbol prominently on the front covers and title pages of several early editions of his books, at least through the 1920s. What does a symbol mean? It depends. We need to maintain that awareness.

I mentioned Prof. Keyser’s quote, that “The second most difficult thing in the world is to get perspective.

What was his most difficult thing in the world?

To keep it.

ONE MOYER THING …

I close with this statement from Bill Moyers, printed in the March 6, 2003, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, on why he chose to wear an American flag lapel pin on his PBS program:

“So I put this on as a modest riposte to men with flags in their lapels who shoot missiles from the safety of Washington think tanks, or argue that sacrifice is good as long as they don’t have to make it, or approve of bribing governments to join the coalition of the willing (after they first stash the cash). I put it on to remind myself that not every patriot thinks we should do to the people of Baghdad what bin Laden did to us. The flag belongs to the country, not to the government. And it reminds me that it’s not un-American to think that war – except in self-defense – is a failure of moral imagination, political nerve and diplomacy. Come to think of it, standing up to your government can mean standing up for your country.”