Category Archives: Our Blog

Taking a Knee

If you’ve been hoping I could make sense of the passing scene, lo these many weeks, your long wait is over. At last, events have crystallized and I can now take on the most important issue confronting the nation (as President Nixon, Watergate raging, famously said to his Cabinet about inflation three days before he resigned) — namely, taking a knee while the national anthem swells through football stadiums across the country. Continue reading

The Winter of Our Disconnect

My Trump Timeout has timed out. It’s high time to get on with things. A few of my more daring friends are way ahead of me, and one or two never tuned out. They’ve actually been reading the papers every day. The president, they tell me, has reassured us all: things couldn’t be better. (The only person I know who admits to voting for The Donald says that things are at least all right.) But just because I’m in the dark—I don’t know anything, I swear, about the attorney general’s lying under oath, or Congress’s failure to repeal the Affordable Health Care Act immediately, or the EPA’s plan to renounce its mission, or the president’s press secretary’s amiable ignorance (he couldn’t be lying, could he? they don’t do that sort of thing)—doesn’t mean I don’t know what’s going on elsewhere. Continue reading

The year of living offensively

Offensiveness won. Or lost. It’s really the same thing: it just depends on how you come at it.

For more than a year, the press has treated Americans to a tsunami of stories about offensiveness. Though many of the stories were one-offs, they centered around two motifs: the hothouse atmosphere on college campuses, and the abhorrent rhetoric of Donald Trump, now the President-elect of the United States. Continue reading

An Inoffensive Road Trip

Just returned from a 4,000-mile round trip to the Rockies. It took us by car from the east coast to Cleveland, Ann Arbor, Chicago, Omaha, Lincoln, Cheyenne, Boulder, Denver, and back via Colby (KS), Kansas City, St. Louis, Springfield (IL), Champaign, Louisville, and home (via Charleston and western Maryland) — 14 states in all and in several of them, different routes east and west. A lot of ground to look for signs of that spirit of offense that has been fodder in the reports this past year of the national mood. But we found — nothing. We didn’t even find anything mildly suspect. Continue reading

Donald Trump, Olympian Offender

Offense of the Month: June 2016
He’s back — well, at least in my columns. He’s been daily on your other screens, I know, though we can pray that two or three years from now today’s junior high school students will wonder who he was. But at least for this month he’s back, having taken the art of offending to Olympic proportions.

The offense: explicitly asserting that a federal judge cannot be trusted to rule impartially because of his ancestry.

If you’re reading this years after the event, you can be pardoned for not remembering what is vivid to any American reading the newspapers or watching the evening news in June 2016. The Donald, we learned, doesn’t like Federal District Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who is handling two civil class actions brought against him by former “students” of “Trump University,” an unaccredited institute of lower learning that granted no degrees. Continue reading

Scrub ’em clean

I’ve been away from the blog for a couple of weeks, writing the first draft of the proposal for the book Taking Offense. During that time, I’ve been musing about a problem that has loomed large in the news this spring, the problem of when to scrub away the names or symbols of honorees whom we now understand dishonor us.

It’s likely a fundamental human impulse to pay homage to those who have achieved great things: saved the community from enemies in battle, governed well, invented processes and machines to raise us from trouble and drudgery, created works of art that inspire, taught us to learn and grow, or helped or enlightened us in some other way. You no doubt have a hero or two in mind as you read this, as do I as I write. Some honorees are known to families, neighborhoods, or particular communities, others to whole nations and the world.

And then comes the moment when you wake up, or grow up, or learn something new, about yourself, the world, and your hero. Continue reading

Less Majesty, More Speech in Germany

Offense of the Month: May 2016
Have you heard the one about the president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan? No, that’s not an insult; that’s his name. But just about anything else said of him can land you in hot water in Turkey, where it’s a crime to insult the Turkish nation or government institutions. Erdogan has used the infamous Article 301 of the Turkish penal code more than 1,800 times to prosecute critics for insulting him. Sometimes not even critics — he went after a TV news network for running a headline “‘Dictator’ under Investigation” about name calling by an opposition leader (the news program put the word “dictator” in quotation marks to indicate it was simply reporting a statement made by somebody else). Made no never mind to Erdogan.

In early May he sought a preliminary injunction in Germany against the release of an open letter from the CEO of Axel Springer, one of the country’s leading media firms. The letter, written by Mathias Döpfner, supported the right of a comedian to ridicule Erdogan. The comic, Jan Böhmermann, mocked Erdogan in a long, sexually crude poem. Döpfner’s letter repeated some of Böhermann’s language. Erdogan’s lawyers pointed to an archaic provision of German law, paragraph 103 of its penal code, prohibiting insults to foreign leaders, a remnant of the old crime of lèse-majesté, once widespread, that counted as treason offending the dignity of the ruler. Continue reading

AO in One Easy Lesson

I missed it at the time, so this is a retrospective reflection on a curious blunder last March, when Microsoft unleashed an AI bot to talk to millennials on the Web. (Now there’s a nine-word phrase my parents would never have understood: for you elders, an Internet bot [short for robot], is an automated software program that carries out a repetitive online task that would take you or me forever if we had to do it by hand, like searching for codes or copying specific information, like addresses.)

Microsoft called its “chatbot” Tay and described it as “Microsoft’s A.I. fam the internet that’s got zero chill.” Continue reading

Meow

Offense of the Month: April 2016
Richard Emery, chairman of New York City’s Civilian Complaint Review Board, which oversees actions of the police department, stepped down (“resigned abruptly,” as the New York Times labeled the move) on April 13, a day after the board’s executive director sued him for gender bias, specifically for uttering a misogynistic phrase.

The squeamish Times did not report the language, but the more colorful New York Post trumpeted the line cited in the lawsuit: “I don’t know why everyone is acting like a bunch of pussies.” (The New York Daily News managed to point to the offensive word, rendering it as “p—y.”)

Executive director Mina Malik claimed Emery’s plaintive cry was aimed at her and a female staff attorney in a conference call last September, during a heated discussion about disciplining two police officers for punching a man on a gurney. Emery insisted that the line had nothing to do with the women; it was, rather, aimed at police department officials who were on the call. That seems the logical explanation. And one wonders what would have happened had he had the discernment to call the department folks “dick heads.” But the entire brouhaha is an example of taking someone down for what he’s said rather than for what he’s done. Continue reading