Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Furry Snarks All About

Senses of humor: what are they? How many are there? Where do they come from? Why do some people seem not to have them? Why do Germans like toilet jokes so much? Why is George Bush so snarky? How did snarky get to be a word? Why did the expression "elephant that sticks to the roof of your mouth" make me squirt Pepsi out my nose, once?

Those are just some of the questions I have no answer for. I wanted to devote today's column to things I don't know. But that's such a big subject I've had to narrow it down to just the things I don't know that have recently come to my attention.

In particular, as I was telling my life story to a captive audience last week, it dawned on me that although I was talking about dreadful, horrible, catastrophes that had befallen me in my innocent childhood, I was breaking out into giggles. I was talking about disaster after disaster happening to a poor defenseless child, the sort of stories that can make grown men cry. But since it all happened to me over fifty years ago I was on the verge of giggling like any three teenage girls in the same room.

Another odd sense of humor is the Seinfeld sense. I'm not speaking of the Seinfeld stand-up sense of humor, but the Seinfeld sit-com sense of humor. I watch reruns of Seinfeld, the sit-com, all the time. While I watch, Anitra "Netmama" Freeman, Upon Whose Kitchen Floor I Have Sometimes Slept, is almost always trying to surf the internet while at the same time holding her hands over her ears and making "la-la" noises to block out the Seinfeld dialog. To sweet caring sensitive Anitra, the Seinfeld dialog is mean and Seinfeld characters are the dregs of human society and she finds nothing funny about them

Whereas, to me, the Seinfeld dialog is mean and Seinfeld characters are the dregs of human society, and I laugh and laugh no matter how often I see them.

Perhaps what got me thinking about this is the latest issue of Time Magazine, which has a set of short stories that all amuse me.

First, there's the PETA fur coat story. PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) has organized boycotts of stores selling fur coats, even stores selling only vintage fur coats. But they also give fur coats away to the homeless. Now they are giving fur coats to homeless people in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Now, speaking of things I do not know, "eccentric former basketball star" Dennis Rodman has something called the Dennis Rodman Foundation, which helps the homeless. I did not know that. But I guess I know it now, because Dennis heard about how PETA was helping the homeless stay warm by giving them clothes made from tortured animals, and thought "I'm down with that," or something to that effect, so he agreed to participate in PETA's "I'd Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur" campaign.

Meanwhile, homeless men in Amsterdam are voluntarily wearing winter jackets that advertise Ben & Jerry's, in return for money from Ben and Jerry going to local nuns who in turn help the needy.

But that's not all! The New Hampshire Fish and Game Department is now giving away confiscated meat from illegally killed moose and deer. Moose jerky, anyone? "Say, what are you going to do with that moose-hide, Mister Fish and Game man? That'd make a fine pair of pants for a homeless guy…" "Oh, rats, there's a bullet hole in mine."

Allow me to summarize.

I don't know everything. I know that I have a weird sense of humor, but I don't know why. I know that Dennis Rodman would rather be naked than wear fur, but homeless people would rather wear furs than freeze to death. I know that PETA and Dennis are OK with that. I know that Anitra would wear a jacket with a Ben & Jerry's ad on it, just to promote ice-cream. I know that I will never see a squirrel ice-skating on the Potomac in July.

But I might wear him for a hat some winter if I were homeless again. I'd get a pass from PETA.

Wednesday, January 5, 2005

Plain Right

Let's talk about justice!

Here at Real Change we are always talking about justice, but do we know what it is? My answer to that question is, who cares? All I care about is if I know what justice is.

Upon close examination and careful study and other redundant picking about of that last question, I realize that answering it is problematical, and hinges a lot on what "knowing" is. If by "knowing" a thing, I can mean I "know" what it isn't, well, then I am really on top of this justice thing. For example, justice is not a number 2 pencil. Nor is it an egg salad sandwich or a Ford Bronco or a genetically engineered grapefruit. Whereas, if to "know" a thing, I have to actually "know" what it is, I could easily be in over my head.

Part of what confuses me about justice is that I get it all mixed up with righteousness. I notice that I'm not the only one who does this. Perhaps that's where I should start.

Instead, I'm going to start with an idea of righteousness that was inculcated in me at the malleable age of three. At that age I had been wronged considerably by someone and I desperately needed to understand how that could be. An informal teacher of mine then taught me a concept that he wrapped in his own language, which concept he translated into English as "standing up happens."

Notice what he didn't say: he didn't say "sh*t happens, get used to it." What he also didn't say was, "God will set things right some day and slay your enemies; yea, verily, unto the seven times seventh generation of your enemies will He slay them." He said that whatever people are made to lie down will stand up. He said the rest of us have basically three choices. We can either help the fallen get to their feet, or we can be in the way, or we can be utterly irrelevant. But the standing up will happen. Get used to it. Standing up is a force of nature.

By contrast, justice is a force of humankind. Justice isn't about the standing up; justice is about the helping or the getting in the way or the being irrelevant. My teacher's version of righteousness, as uprightedness, was morally neutral. If uprightedness happens eventually, no matter what, there's no good or bad uprightedness, there's only early or late. But there's definitely excellent, good, mediocre, poor, and bad justice. There's timely justice, there's stingy justice, there's belated justice, there's Roman justice, there's English justice, there's Papal justice, there's martial justice, there's poetic justice, there's sweet justice, there's sour justice, there's even surreal justice, to the point of Kafkaesque justice.

Now is the time in this column when I like to turn to concrete examples, examples similar to bricks, only more cement-like, to illustrate my musings.

Here's an instance of justice and standing up: Rep. Robert Matsui died at the age of 63 on New Years Day. Matsui spent his earliest childhood in an internment camp for Japanese-Americans during World War II. Later he stood up to become a US Congressman for California, a job he held for 26 years, from 1979 on. One of his achievements in Congress was helping to gain the passage of an official apology for the wartime internment, together with compensation for the survivors. That would be justice. We should all honor his life and the justice he helped create.

Ironically, at the same time that Robert Matsui was dying, the Pentagon and the CIA were asking the White House to make arrangements to keep some alleged enemy combatants at Guantanamo in prison for life. Specifically, the Defense Department wants 25 million dollars to build a prison for about 200 detainees for whom there is likely not enough evidence to convict in a military tribunal, and whom the government acknowledges do not even have any intelligence to give up.

That would be bad justice, even Kafkaesque justice. I remember when it was supposed that Kafkaesque justice only happened in KGB dominated USSR and Soviet satellite states. Welcome to the new world. But remember this too: standing up happens.