Just Jake

Jake Highton is a journalism professor at the Reynolds School of Journalism, University of Nevada, Reno. He teaches media law, history of journalism and advanced reporting. Highton is the author of numerous books, including "Nevada Newspaper Days." He writes a weekly column for the Daily Sparks Tribune.

Location: United States

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Ethical truths found in words of Jesus

All college students should be required to take a course in the Bible as Literature.
The moral and ethical truths found in the four gospels alone are guideposts in the Art of Living. Jesus said:
• “Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” (Matthew 6:24) [All biblical quotations are from the King James Version but with modernized punctuation.]
• “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:24)
• “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth…For where your treasure is there will your heart be also.” (Matthew 6:19 and 6:21)
• “For what is a man profited if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” (Matthew 16:26)
• “If thou wilt be perfect go and sell all that thou hast and give to the poor.” (Matthew 19:21)
• Jesus, after overthrowing the tables of the moneychangers in the temple, cried out: “My house shall be called the house of prayer but ye have made it a den of thieves.” (Matthew 21:13)
• “And when thou prayest thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets that they may be seen of men.” (Matthew 6:5)
• “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.” (Matthew 7:12) [The Golden Rule] Kant’s categorical imperative says essentially the same thing but in a more philosophical way: “Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”
Then there are the memorable sayings of Jesus: “a prophet is not without honor save in his own house and own country” (Matthew 13:57); “blind leaders of the blind” (Matthew 15:14); “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21); and “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” (Mark 3:25) [Lincoln, the best writing president America has ever had, used biblical cadences and excellent supportive quotations in his speeches. He quoted the house-divided imagery at the Republican state convention in Springfield, Ill., June 16, 1858.]
My favorite biblical stories are the account of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37) and that of the “woman taken in adultery” (John 8: 3-11). The adultery story contains to me the greatest line in the whole Bible: “He that is without sin among you let him first cast a stone at her.”
I also like the widow’s mite story (Mark 12: 41-44). The widow gave a fourth of a cent to the church treasury--all she had--as opposed to those who gave much more but “out of their abundance.”
I have a great admiration for the life and wisdom of Jesus. But sometimes, in the judgment of this non-Christian, Jesus was wrong. I would argue that he was not perfect. For example, in Matthew 8:22. When one of his disciples asked if he first could go to the burial of his father, Jesus replies peremptorily: “Follow me and let the dead bury their dead.” Surely the humane path would have been to allow a son to pay last respects to his father.
Again, in Matthew 21:19. A hungry Jesus came upon a fig tree without fruit. Angrily, he shriveled the tree. Surely that was no cause for destroying a harmless tree.
As for the miracles of Jesus, this Doubting Thomas cannot believe them: cleansing a leper, healing a withered hand, walking on water, casting out devils and bringing the dead back to life. I also reject the divinity of Christ. Like Spinoza, the 17th century deist philosopher, I deny that “Christ is the living God.”
Indeed, many people in Jesus’ day surely must have thought him mad. Such messanic language as: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man cometh unto the Father but by me” (John 14:6); it is “written that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God”(John 20:31); and “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth” (Matthew 28:18).
Neverthless, Jesus was one of the most influential men who ever lived. It is a sad truth that so many of his so-called followers like President Bush and right-wing religious zealots have absolutely no understanding of Jesus and/or his message.

Keystone of freedom

Part I of an abridged version of an essay presented at the 4th International Conference on Communication and Mass Media in Athens, Greece, May 22, 2006.

The First Amendment is the most glorious thing about the United States. It is the cornerstone of liberty and freedom.
Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, dissenting in a 1951 case, wrote: "I have always believed that the First Amendment is the keystone of our government, that the freedoms it guarantees provide the best insurance against destruction of all freedom.”
The First Amendment is a radical statement. Its command is absolute: no law. The amendment contains perhaps the finest 45 words ever strung together.
Novelist Kurt Vonnegut has written that the First Amendment "reads more like a dream than a law." He added: few countries have "been crazy enough to include such a dream among its legal documents."
Far more nations should be "crazy enough." It remains a shame that most countries do not have a First Amendment or its equivalent.
Take France, a nation which often has far better values than the United States. In 2004 a French court fined a magazine $375,000 for a review in which a wine critic called Beaujolais Nouveau vin de merde (shit wine). Wine is almost sacred to the French. That is why the judge in the case said the critic “seriously abused the freedom of speech.”
He ruled: "By debasing Beaujolais to the point of scatology, and likening it to excrement," the writer for the wine magazine had "seriously abused the freedom of speech."
The U.S. First Amendment protects such "abuse."
Other French cases seemingly clog the courts. A French comedian was fined $5,300 for “inciting racial hatred” when he gave an allegedly anti-Semitic interview that was published. Brigitte Bardot was convicted of inciting racial hatred for portraying Muslims as “cruel and barbaric” in her book, “A Cry in the Silence.” She was fined $6,050.
Take Austria. A court in Vienna recently sentenced a British historian, David Irving, to three years in prison for denying the Holocaust. Irving was terribly wrong. But three years in jail for being stupid? For being unhistorical?
Take Italy. An Italian judge ordered Oriana Fallaci to stand trial on charges that she defamed Islam in her 2004 book, “The Force of Reason.” She wrote that the Islamic faith “sows hatred in the place of love and slavery in the place of freedom.”
An Istanbul court sentenced a newspaperman to six months in jail for daring to criticize a penal code provision barring writers and scholars from “insulting Turkish identity.”
Another Turkish court tried five newspaper columnists for “insulting” the country’s courts. The “Istanbul Five” attacked court rulings trying to block an academic conference on the Armenian genocide, a verboten topic in Turkey. (The Ottoman Empire slaughtered thousands of Armenians in 1915, some estimates ranging up to one million.)
Singapore outrageously prosecuted the International Herald Tribune because it told the truth in an article on the flawed asiatic judiciary. It is ever thus in dictatorial regimes. The last thing the Chinese government wants is a First Amendment.
The United Kingdom could use a First Amendment. British libel laws are harsh, making it difficult for the media to criticize celebrities, powerful people and powerful institutions.
The press is far freer in America than it is in Britain which has an Official Secrets Act. The act forbids former intelligence officers from leaking to the press or publishing books about anything they did or about any event that took place while they were in government service.
Such a law would be unconstitutional in America. As one of the British law lords said about another official secrets case: "In a free society, there is a continuing public interest in seeing that the workings of government are open to scrutiny and criticism."
In America, critics are entitled to be abusive without being fined or jailed. What all too few Americans understand about the First Amendment is that it protects opprobrium, hatred, insult--and stupidity.
Justice William O. Douglas rightly said: the First Amendment is not designed to dispense tranquillizers. Or, in the words of novelist Salman Rushdie, himself the target of a fatwa death sentence for writing his truth about Islam: “The moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.”
The United States is and has been a badly flawed nation. The widely accepted notion of American exceptionalism is absurd. But there is no gainsaying the wonderful First Amendment.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Traffic jams, pollution, tourists mar Athens

ATHENS, Greece--Athens, alas, is not Paris or London.
The glory of the Golden Age of Pericles fades quickly in the horn-honking, monumental traffic jams here. Rush-hour traffic crawls at 5 mph. Loud gear-shifting motorscooters add to the terrible din. Neighorhoods are often dirty, the streets and sidewalks potholed. Pollution reigns.
The English edition of Kathimerini (daily) of Athens reported recently that the Greek Health and Environment ministries urged the elderly and children to stay indoors because air pollution levels “climbed toward dangerous highs.”
Athens lacks parks. So much so Kathimerini editorialized: “We’ve long become accustomed to the tragic lack of green space in our capital…we have to visit other European cities to understand what is meant by a ‘humane natural environment’ within urban areas…Most of these cities have countless parks and tree-lined streets.”
Bicycle paths are nonexistent in Athens. But Paris has 20 miles of bike paths. Amsterdam, the bike capital of the world, has 1,100 bicycles for every 1,000 residents. The Netherlands has 10,000 miles of bicycle paths.
Nevertheless, tourists swarm in Athens even in the quasi-off-season of May. Tourism is the No. 1 “industry” of Greece. Tour groups clog the Acropolis with its symbol of Greece, the Parthenon, robbing much of the pleasure of seeing this ancient shrine.

Torture Paintings Sicken
The National Gallery of Athens is showing a special exhibition of the works of Fernando Botero, Colombian painter. His artistic signature is plump people--and even blocky pets. His wit is wry.
Both facets are evident in a 2004 portrait, the “Family.” The father and mother are staring starkly ahead like the figures in “American Gothic.” The couple’s boy is riding a hobbyhorse. From the roof of their house two vultures peer at them.
But the mood soon darkens. Botero has painted a harrowing series of pictures of Abu Ghraib, the Baghdad prison made infamous by U.S. torturers.
In one, a snarling dog is atop a blindfolded prisoner, his arms bound with ropes and his shirt blood-soaked. In another, a hooded male prisoner has a jackboot pressed on his back and is being humiliated by wearing a bra. In another, one of three piled-up prisoners vomits.
In yet another, a stream of urine is directed at a prisoner. And still another: a prisoner is clubbed. Another: a prisoner is forced to kneel over another prisoner’s genitals. And yet another: a prisoner with a bloody anus. Ad nauseam.

Boy Jockey
The Athens National Archaeological Museum has a wearying sameness: rooms full of statues, busts, cups, vases and amphoras. But the museum comes to life with a marvelous bronze of a race horse and its jockey (140 B.C.). The jockey’s face is contorted from the fury of a race. A huge vein bulges on the head of the horse, the nostrils flaring.
One historical-sociological note: a 4th century B.C. marble bust of Aphrodite was disfigured by early Christians. The face of the beautiful woman is desecrated by chiseled crosses on the forehead and chin. (Pagan Greeks, you see. Art be damned.)

The Plague
A plague infects Greece: smoking. The dining room and lounge of the Athens hotel my wife and I stayed at reeked of smoke. Greek breakfasts, lunches and dinners are eaten with cigarettes in hand.
I have accused America of being uncivilized about so many things. But surely the Greeks are uncivilized to spoil the taste of food with cancer sticks.
Kathimerini noted that Greeks smoke their first cigarette on average when they are 11.5 years old. Then it warned: “One in two teenager smokers would eventually die from the habit.”

Glimpses of Greece
Aegina, one of the Greek islands off Athens, proclaims itself the pistachio capital of the world. But it is just another tourist trap. I have bought ten times better pistachios at Trader Joe’s ... Greek women are most polite to their elders. Three times on the Metro they gave up their seats to my wife, Mary, who is a bit beyond “a certain age.” A woman even offered her seat to me. But this Old Codger refused, deeming it improper…
The Greek aperitif, ouzo, is powerful. Anise-based. The bartender in the hotel wisely advised drinking it with ice and eating food…Our rooftop hotel had a moving view of the Acropolis about five miles away. But the sight was marred by two huge billboards glaring over the avenue. If I were the Greek cultural minister, I would order the eyesores removed.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Paine denied spot with Founders

(From 1 June 2006)

Thomas Paine and the Promise of America
By Harvey Kaye
262 pages. Hill and Wang. $25

One of the saddest episodes in American history was the burial of Thomas Paine on June 9, 1809. His French maid, her two sons, a Quaker and two black men were all who attended. No public officials. No eulogies over the grave in New Rochelle, N.Y.
That is how an ungrateful America bid farewell to one of its greatest Founding Fathers.
Even sixty-seven years later at the San Francisco centennial parade, officials refused to allow a portrait of Paine to be included with those of the Founders.
The reason for such shabby treatment was Paine’s “The Age of Reason.” The book, a blistering indictment of organized religion and biblical myth, caused most Americans to forget all his remarkable writings that helped launch the American Revolution and then sustain it during its darkest days.
Paine, an unknown Englishman, electrified America with a best-seller, “Common Sense,” in January 1776.
“Within just a few months, 150,000 copies of one or another edition were distributed in America alone,” Kaye writes. “The equivalent sales today would be fifteen million, making it, proportionately, the nation’s greatest best-seller ever.”
The pamphlet denounced monarchy, divine right and aristocracy. It ridiculed hereditary succession of kings. Paine concluded in all capital letters with a plea for “an open and determined DECLARATION FOR INDEPENDENCE.”
Fighting for freedom was not new for Paine. In March of 1775, barely two months in America, he wrote an article as editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine urging the abolition of slavery.
Also forgotten by most Americans was Paine’s series of 16 Crisis papers that lifted sagging morale and rallied the ragtag forces of General Washington. The first appeared in December 1776 with the memorable first line: “These are the times that try men’s souls.” It continued:
“The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country. But he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered. Yet we have this consolation with us that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”
Returning to Britain, Paine wrote “Rights of Man,” a defense of the French Revolution, an attack on the monarchy and aristocratic privilege and a declaration that the “universal right of conscience” demanded separation of church and state.
Fleeing to France, he was elected to the National Convention as deputy from Calais while the French government declared him an honorary citizen. But he was thrown into prison by the Jacobins after voting to spare the life of deposed King Louis XVI. (Paine strongly opposed capital punishment and was grateful for French support of the American Revolution.)
Then Paine penned “The Age of Reason.” Rejecting all creeds, he wrote: “I believe in the equality of man. And I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy and endeavoring to make our fellow creatures happy…My own mind is my own church.”
Contrary to centuries of smears, Paine was not an atheist. He was a deist, believing in God and rational religion. (President Teddy Roosevelt mislabeled Paine “a filthy little atheist.”)
Author Kaye notes the significant influence in America Paine has had over the centuries, particularly on the Left by people like socialist labor leader Eugene Debs. Communist writer Howard Fast, whe wrote a laudatory historical novel about Paine, was blacklisted for his pains.
Unfortunately, Paine’s words have been sometimes misapplied, most notoriously by President Reagan. Reagan fondly quoted Paine: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” But that is a revoltionary cry, the cry of Lenins, Maos and Castros. It is not the cry of a reactionary like Reagan.
Paine was the most radical of the Founders. Indeed, you could argue that Paine was the greatest of the Founders. He was the best political writer of his age. And in these terrible days of the Bush archreaction, Paine’s glow is sublime.
No monument to Paine stands on the Mall in Washington. But it should. Paine was one of the rare citizens of the world, one who believed in the brotherhood of man. He sought and fought for liberty for all people.
In his “Agrarian Justice” he was sensitive to the working class. He demanded universial manhood suffrage at a time when even revolutionary France insisted on a property qualification for voting. He urged a system of social security for the elderly and public funding of education.
Paine remains radical 203 years after his death.

New day in journalism? So what?

(From 25 May 2006)

We the Media
Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People
By Dan Gillmor
251 pages. O’Reilly Media. $16.99

Huey “The Kingfish” Long, populist demagogue and dictator of Louisiana in the 1930s, proclaimed: “Every man a king.” Dan Gillmor, newspaperman and cyberspace guru, proclaims: every man and every woman a reporter and a photographer.
In one sense Gillmor is right. The technology has transformed communication to such an extent that anyone with a computer and Internet access can be a journalist. And anyone with a video cellphone can be a photographer. (The ever-advancing technology is dizzying to this guy from the antiquity of pre-television days. But it is also dismaying in that no one reads serious books anymore in this Aural and Visual Age.)
Will this grassroots journalism, which Gillmor exults over, make America a better nation? No.
Sure, the Internet allows anyone to take part in what Gillmor calls a great conversation. So? What progressive measures will come of it? It will be the same old reactionary politics, the same old status quo. We’ll still get dumbbells like Presidents Reagan and Bush II running the country and the world.
Gillmor uses various phrases to hail this grassroots journalism: civic journalism, public journalism, citizen journalism, interactive journalism and citzen media. It sounds so wonderful, getting away from dreaded corporate and Establishment media. But none of it will bring about so much of what the nation needs. Such as:
• National health insurance that all industrial nations have.
• The end of the death penalty. Universal acceptance of gay and lesbian marriage. The right to abortion without the fulminations of un-Christian right-wingers.
• The right to death with dignity. The right to medical marijuana. An end to the phony drug war. Laws to aid labor not hinder it. Repeal of so-called “reform” of bankruptcy law written by credit card companies. Return of regulations that Bushites repealed in their deregulation madness. The closing of offshore tax loopholes.
People journalism will not see a return to muckraking, the most glorious era in U.S. journalism history. Internet journalism will not produce people like Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell and Upton Sinclair who attacked the fraud and corruption of the robber barons of the Gilded Age.
Oh, 10 years from now Congress will raise the minimum wage from the paltry figure of $5.15 an hour to about $6. But money in politics will always trump grassroots journalists. And boobus Americanus will still rule.
Gillmor glows with optimism. He writes: “Grassroots journalism is part of the wider phenomenon of citizen-generated media, of a global conversation that is growing in strength and power…They literally can change the world.”
All revolutionists declare that they will change the world. But cyberspace is a mere culture change. It is not the social revolution so desperately needed in America.
Blogging? Fine. The bloggers work off angst, frustrations. Pour out soulful feelings. Good for the psyche. But of what societal good? Gillmor declares that bloggers have “engaged the community”and “brought forth new voices.” So?
More foolish optimism. Gillmor says: “the rise of the citizen-journalist” will produce “a truly informed citizenry.” But citizens are as informed now as they want to be. (Most want entertainment not information.) As for news, TV stations “would have to dig deeper to be shallow,” Gillmor writes in the best line in the book.
Spreading news as Gillmor suggests? The bloggers and online “reporters” spread trivia. They do not spread news that matters, truths the Establishment media do not report or underreport.
Gillmor asks excitedly: “What will happen when 10 average citizens aim their phones at the stars and zap their images?” Such paparazziism will not improve a nation that is No. l in weath and military might but just No. 10 in everything else.
The wonders of technology will never produce the great nation that never was. Yet Gillmor keeps harping on conversations as the salvation of the nation.
One blurb for the book says “We the Media” vividly demonstrates how “democratizing information” will allow an “ongoing conversation between reporter and citizen.” So?
New Media, supplanting Old Media, will not produce progressivism. Gillmor’s nationwide conversations will do nothing to restore liberalism and the justice of socialism.