Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A Writer asks a Famous Writer to Stop Writing Because–Why Again?

Every writer is jealous of other writers.  Whether it’s fame or fortune or talent, we can’t help but snivel a little when they become Them and we’re still just us.

Most of us do it in silence or in the midst of a narrow group of co-commiserators.  Not many (Okay, a few, but they’re gone now) do it as publicly as a writer named Lynn Shepherd did recently when she wrote a blog post on HuffPo UK telling J.K. Rowling she’s had her turn and if she had any decency at all she’d hang it up and give someone else a chance.

Now, who is Lynn Shepherd to be telling the great Jo Rowling she’s being selfish with all that extraneous publishing now that Harry Potter is done and over?  Beats me.  I don’t know and I don’t care.  Honestly, I don’t.  I’m all for audacity and truth-telling but I can’t get past her own admission that she really doesn’t read Rowling.  It’s all about the fame and fortune.  One person apparently shouldn’t have that much.
A snippet of what she said:
"I didn’t much mind Rowling when she was Pottering about. I’ve never read a word (or seen a minute) so I can’t comment on whether the books were good, bad or indifferent. I did think it a shame that adults were reading them (rather than just reading them to their children, which is another thing altogether), mainly because there’s so many other books out there that are surely more stimulating for grown-up minds. But, then again, any reading is better than no reading, right? But The Casual Vacancy changed all that.
.It wasn’t just that the hype was drearily excessive, or that (by all accounts) the novel was no masterpiece and yet sold by the hundredweight, it was the way it crowded out everything else, however good, however worthwhile. That book sucked the oxygen from the entire publishing and reading atmosphere. And I chose that analogy quite deliberately, because I think that sort of monopoly can make it next to impossible for anything else to survive, let alone thrive. Publishing a book is hard enough at the best of times, especially in an industry already far too fixated with Big Names and Sure Things, but what can an ordinary author do, up against such a Golgomath?"
I guess you noticed that she never read any of the Harry Potter books?  Seems odd, doesn’t it, that she would then go on to say, “I did think it a shame that adults were reading them (rather than just reading them to their children, which is another thing altogether), mainly because there’s so many other books out there that are surely more stimulating for grown-up minds.”

Gulp and gasp and get outta here!  I’m a grown-up, I read a LOT.   I loved the Harry Potter books.  I felt a lot of things while reading them, but I’m pretty sure I never felt shame.

So here’s my dilemma, and I’m going to be honest about this.  I don’t much like that this person who puts herself in league with “ordinary authors” (see above) is getting all kinds of attention simply because she’s in a snit over someone else’s fame. (Check out her FB and Twitter hits.  Many more than I (sniff) ever got.  Hmmmph.)   And here I am, adding to the so thoroughly unearned attention

But why Jo Rowling?  Because she had the nerve to move on to “adult” books instead of staying in the kiddie section where she belongs?  Because people are buying her books simply because her name is J.K Rowling?  Because she doesn’t deserve it?

I have a feeling Lynn Shepherd knew exactly what she was doing with this piece.  A friend tried to warn her, but I think she saw it as the perfect attention-getter for her own books.  If that’s what it was, she failed.   Look at this (My bold):
"So this is my plea to JK Rowling.  Remember what it was like when The Cuckoo’s Calling had only sold a few boxes and think about those of us who are stuck there, because we can’t wave a wand and turn our books into overnight bestsellers merely by saying the magic word. By all means keep writing for kids, or for your personal pleasure – I would never deny anyone that – but when it comes to the adult market you’ve had your turn."
Jo Rowling’s success was anything but overnight.  I get that she's talking about her fame giving her a head start with any subsequent books, but Jo Rowling has certainly paid her dues.  There isn’t a writer on earth who doesn’t know about Rowling’s struggles while working on the first Harry Potter book.  She was a single, jobless mom living for a while on welfare and food stamps.  Her fame was not handed to her.  No magic wands.  Not by a long shot.

But, by golly, Lynn Shepherd got what she wanted.   First Huffington Post and now here.  (Oh, I’m kidding!)  I admit I’ve never read her books, but I don’t need to in order to say this:
That was a cheap trick.  I’m sorry I got pulled into it but if I hadn’t I wouldn’t have been able to say publicly that that was a cheap trick.
It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities. – Albus Dumbledore”
J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

NOTE:  I wrote this post last night, before I heard there was a negative-review bomb against one of Lynn Shepherd’s books over on Amazon.  At last count I saw 44 one-stars, most of them published yesterday.  They were all paying her back for what she wrote about J.K. Rowling.

What I wrote above is fair game.  It’s my opinion, just as Lynn Shepherd’s opinion is hers.  What is happening to this writer at Amazon is an attempt to destroy a writer’s work by giving it deliberately low ratings.

I left my post as it was originally written because my thoughts about Shepherd’s piece haven’t changed, but I’m frankly appalled by the outside attacks on works that have nothing to do with what she wrote at HuffPo.  This is chilling to any writer who writes opinions on controversial subjects.

Whatever I said about cheap tricks above goes ten-fold for those who think this is a cool way to get back at her.  Get back at her for what?  I think Jo Rowling will be just fine after this.  Whatever I think about Lynn Shepherd, I don’t want to see her own career ruined over a simple thousand-word opinion.

I hope I’m not alone.

Follow Up:  This is what Lynn Shepherd told The Guardian on 2/27/14:
Speaking to the Guardian today, Shepherd apologised for upsetting writers and readers alike, explaining that she had "only ever meant to raise the issue of how hard it is for new writers to get noticed and how publishing is much more of a zero sum game than people often think".
"Many writers face the same challenges and frustrations when they're just starting out, and JK Rowling did herself," Shepherd said. "She's been a phenomenal success since then and has millions of fans who are passionate about her books. That's an amazing achievement. With hindsight I'd have written my piece an entirely different way, as I never intended it to upset anyone, and I'm very sorry that it did."

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Story: Pentecostal Snake Handler refuses help and dies. My Reaction: Surprising, even to Me

For days now, since I heard about the death of Jamie Coots, the snake-handling preacher from Middlesboro, Kentucky, I've been struggling with my own thoughts about it.  There is no reason in the world why I should be involved in any of it.  I didn't know him.  I had never before heard of his church.  And I didn't know before this weekend, when I read about his death, that he had been the star of a National Geographic Channel series called "Snake Salvation".

Photo:  National Geographic
 I read about his death--about how he had been bitten by a venomous snake during a church service on Saturday, about how his family carried his unconscious body to their home, about how the family refused help from the EMS team dispatched to their home with the needed anti-venom serum, about how Jamie Coots of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name died without ever waking up again--and before I had even finished reading the article a blog post was already taking shape.

The more I read about this man, about his beliefs, about the origins of Pentecostal snake-handling in the hills of Appalachia, the closer I came to seeing it as a story ripe for ridicule.  And I wrote it that way.  I had some funny lines in there--laugh-out-loud, if I do say--and I had a link to a video that would make Jamie Coots look foolish.  He did look foolish.  To me.  But I couldn't get it right.  I kept coming back to the raw fact that a man had died.  A man was dead and I was trying to create a piece that would be a candidate for Wacky Story of the Week.

It isn't that.  It's a story about belief and trust and how difficult it sometimes is to understand interpretations, perceptions and faith.

It's about the actions of generations of men who invented and relied on their own definitions of a few passages of the bible having to do with the handling of snakes in order to start a new kind of church.

And it's about us, the outsiders, and where we draw the line.

For any church, for any religion, the outsiders are irrelevant. Unless we're directly affected, their methods of worship are their business, not ours. If we don't understand their rituals, they can live with that.

My own sense is that we draw the line when it's evident that during their rituals people can be, and have been, physically harmed.  Then we step in and look around.  In this case, it should be easy to analyze the problem here:  Their religion causes them to show their devotion to God by handling venomous snakes.  As reported in a USA Today article, they don't believe that God will save them from snakebites.  That's not the point:
Professors who study snake handling say worshipers are very aware of the risks they are taking and accept the consequences.

Brian Pennington, a religion professor at Maryville College in Maryville, Tenn., has studied Coots during his research on snake handling in worship.

He said the prominent leader of the snake handling community saw the practice as "an absolute command of God."

"These are not irrational people. These are people who know very well what they're doing every Sunday or Wednesday night — whenever it might be they go into that church," Pennington said. "They know very well the fate that Pastor Coots suffered could be suffered by any of them who does this during a service."
 Throughout the history of the Pentecostal snake-handling movement, mainly based in rural Appalachia, many people have died from snake bites, including the movement's founder, George Hensley.  After being bitten numerous times, one of the bites finally killed him.  He wasn't alone.  There are no accurate records of the numbers of snake bite deaths during these rituals, but it was enough for some states to outlaw religious snake handling.

In 2012,  Mark Wolford, pastor at the Apostolic House of the Lord Jesus, died of snake bite wounds.  These deaths aren't nearly as publicized as that of Coots, who was the star of a TV show and thus better known, but they happen, and are expected to happen.
"A common misunderstanding is that handlers believe they can't get bit or it won't kill them," [Ralph Hood, a religion professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga] added. "What they'll tell you is, `No one will get out of this alive.' They'll also tell you it's not a question of how you live; it's a question of how you die. ... This is how he would have wanted to die."
  The problem, then, and the reason we pay attention--beyond a natural curiosity about something as odd as serpent-handling for God--is that people seem to be willing to die for reasons we will never understand.  They are deliberately putting their lives in jeopardy as a supposed honor to God.  All based on a few slim passages nearly hidden away in the King James version of the bible.

I was angry when I first heard about this--and maybe I still am.  People are dying over something that makes no sense.  But the longer I got into it, the more I came to realize--for my own self--that we can't help them.  We can't understand them and we can't help them. They embrace a literal translation of a few biblical passages and have created an entire religion around it.  A religion that's over a century old now.  That's pretty monumental.  In the end, it doesn't have to make sense to anyone else. 

There is the snake's point of view, of course, and it shouldn't be ignored.  Some say that in order to keep the snakes willing and docile, they underfeed and underwater them.  They keep them tightly together in glass cages and their life span--three to five months--is far below the normal span of 10 to 20 years.  That is animal cruelty and needs to be addressed.

But if it can be proven that no snakes are harmed in the process, I'm all for moving on to something else.  They're going to do what they're going to do with or without our blessing--which, it should be noted, they haven't asked for.

Even now, the next generation is moving to take over where Jamie Coots left off.  Jamie's son, Cody, will follow the family tradition. (Jamie's father and grandfather were both serpent-handling preachers)  Children in these churches are not allowed to handle snakes, but nobody stops them from watching.  If they're brought up in a culture where handling venomous snakes is a major part of honoring their God, it would be the rare kid who wouldn't want to try it as soon as they came of age.  Even the dying part is noble.  But once they're adults, our commitment to watch over them has ended.

According to Knoxville's WATETV. com on Sunday:
 The pastor's son [Cody ]Coots saw the snake bite his father last night.

"The snake that bit him, we've been carrying it for four months. It's been carried hundreds of times and handled all kinds of times. But when it's your time to go, it's just your time to go," Cody Coots said.

Cody says while they're in shock, his family will stand strong in their beliefs.

"I don't think it's dangerous. It's the word of God. We've always said it's a good way to live by and it's a good way to die by," Cody Coots said.

Cody Coots is expected to keep his father's ministry going.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Ugly Politics: When the Meme is "The President Must Die" We Have To Pay Attention

At a Town Hall meeting held last week in Oklahoma, an audience member raised her hand and said to Jim Bridenstine, a congressman from the First District,  “Obama is not president as far as I’m concerned. He should be executed as an enemy combatant.”

Read that again:  "Obama is not president as far as I'm concerned.  He should be executed as an enemy combatant."  (Video here.)

 She then went on to remind Bridenstine and the audience about the Muslims Obama is letting into this country to be pilots on commercial jets, which was proof to her that "this guy is a criminal!"  She blamed congress for doing nothing when Obama "has no authority.  He has NO authority!"

And when she was finished and the camera turned back to him, the first words out of U.S. Congressman Jim Bridenstine's mouth were, "Look, everybody knows the lawlessness of this president."

He went on to describe a Chief Executive so out of control, so power-hungry, that when he couldn't get something done through executive order, "then he used foreign bodies".

He used as an example an effort in April, 2013 to ban certain types of guns, "not because they operated any differently than any other types of guns but because they looked scary". Then he tried to block magazine sizes, which, again Congress blocked.  "Which was the right answer," according to Jim.

But the congressman saved the best--or worst--for last: "Then he wanted universal background checks, which is a national gun registration, let me be clear."  Pause, repeat:  "He wanted universal background checks which is a national gun registration. . .".   And when Obama couldn't get that done he went to the U.N, where they passed an international Arms Trade Treaty, which, according to Jim, says if you have any gun that has any part manufactured in a foreign country, then they have to do more than a national background check, they have to do an international background check and it becomes an international gun registry.  (The Horror!)

Well, of course, this president signed it.  So here's how Jim sees it:

"Now let me be clear.  The Second Amendment of the United States of America is not open for debate by a foreign government."

A woman in his audience has just called for the President of the United States to be executed and this congressman answers her by bringing up the president's push for background checks, gun registration, and his dealings with foreign countries to accomplish the same.

Nobody seems to know where this meeting took place or exactly when, but someone put it on YouTube and it went viral. The press picked it up.  Bridenstine got wind of the flak and put this notice on his web page:
“A public figure cannot control what people say in open meetings. I obviously did not condone and I do not approve of grossly inappropriate language. It is outrageous that irresponsible parties would attribute another person’s reckless remarks to me."

So let's talk about who is being irresponsible.  You kept quiet when an audience member called for the death of the president, and then you added fuel to the fire. You brought up guns and the Second Amendment and insinuated that the President of the United States is in league with foreign players to take American gun rights away.

I hope the Secret Service pays that group a call and I hope you're there when they do.  You all need a lesson in Government, in Civics, in Constitutional and Sedition Laws, and in civility.

I confess that I've never been as fearful of a president's safety as I have with Barack Obama.  The gun nuts are getting bolder and the propaganda against his "otherness" is unrelenting and growing more fierce. 

There is no proof that this president has been threatened more than any other.  (I went looking.)  The Secret Service won't provide those statistics, of course, and Politifact finds no evidence and calls the charges that he has been "false".   But a simple search finds threats against this president by the thousands.  Including this one on Facebook from the Christian American Patriots  Militia (Read more here.):

The rumor is that Ted Nugent got a visit from the Secret Service for saying, "If Barack Obama becomes the president in November, again, I will be either be dead or in jail by this time next year."  I hope it's not just a rumor.  We'll never know unless Teddy tells us, but I hope they're doing their jobs.  That was a direct threat. (Not that it would cure him.  I wrote about his shenanigans just last month.  He gets off on this stuff.  Apparently so do a lot of other people.)

Are threats against the president illegal?  It depends.  There is this:

18 U.S. Code § 871 - Threats against President and successors to the Presidency

Whoever knowingly and willfully deposits for conveyance in the mail or for a delivery from any post office or by any letter carrier any letter, paper, writing, print, missive, or document containing any threat to take the life of, to kidnap, or to inflict bodily harm upon the President of the United States, the President-elect, the Vice President or other officer next in the order of succession to the office of President of the United States, or the Vice President-elect, or knowingly and willfully otherwise makes any such threat against the President, President-elect, Vice President or other officer next in the order of succession to the office of President, or Vice President-elect, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both. 

But then there's this from FrumForum on July 21, 2011:

On Tuesday, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that comments which encouraged the assassination of President Obama and predicted that he would have “a .50 cal in the head soon” while using racial slurs against him were protected by the First Amendment. While the decision seems to be a plausible reading of existing precedents, a former Secret Service agent contacted by FrumForum thought that it exposed the president to unacceptable risk.

“It was a bad decision,” said Joseph Petro, former agent and co-author of Standing Next to History: An Agent’s Life Inside the Secret Service. He argued that permitting such remarks “creates more potential for someone to do something” dangerous. Petro claimed that, in his experience, it is normal to treat such comments as threats, saying “I’ve seen this before … Back in the Nixon days, there was a guy who put up a billboard in New Jersey saying ‘Kill Nixon.’ He was arrested and the billboard was taken down.”
“We’re all in favor of constitutional rights,” he added, but “there should be some … sensitivity shown for the unique risk that the President faces.”

The former agent suggested that the ruling was part of a pattern of recent events that did not show a proper awareness of the dangers presidents face comparing it to incidents in the past two years in which protesters brought weapons to presidential speeches. Petro also noted that the fact that the accused, Walter Bagdasarian, predicted that Obama would be shot with a .50 caliber rifle while he owned such a gun made the threatening nature of the comments especially clear.

However, two legal experts contacted by FrumForum both agreed with the majority’s central claim that Bagdasarian did not express an intention to personally kill Obama because he merely predicted the president’s killing and encouraged others to shoot him. “The speaker did not tell Obama that if he didn’t do something he would shoot him,” said Geoffrey Stone, a law professor at the University of Chicago who has written extensively on First Amendment issues. “The speech may have been repugnant and ugly … but it did not constitute a threat within the meaning of the First Amendment.”

I'm afraid.  I'm very afraid.  When advocating and encouraging the killing of our president is protected under the First Amendment, it's destined to become as twisted as the Second Amendment to mean whatever the advocates want it to mean.  It'll be open season on wishing the president dead.

Something will have to happen before we wake up to the harm this can bring.  I dread to think what that might be.

(Can I just say to those who are already revving up their keyboards to remind me that George W. Bush got death threats, too?  I don't doubt it.  Every president has.  It goes with the territory.  But this was a town hall meeting where a member of congress did nothing to disabuse an audience member of the notion that the President of the United States should be executed as an enemy combatant. Instead, he immediately launched into an attack on "the lawlessness of the president" and his shady attempts to bring in foreign countries to control our guns, showing him to be a dangerous character, indeed.   Let me know when you find something comparable.)