A conversation with courage

Possibly the hottest piece of my career so far hovers on the horizon.

We’re not talking breaking political news or even a critical review, no scandal, sex, or groundbreaking discovery.

That’s true, but for me it might as well be. It’s high end, controversial, and coveted in journalistic circles. I’m scared.

Why are you scared?

I don’t know really. I feel paralysed with it.

But if you were writing for your professor 25 years ago, you wouldn’t be afraid.

True. But he’d be there to guide me, and all I’d be afraid of was a grade. This time my reputation is on the line – my future.

Do you think you can’t do it?

No. I can do it.

Do you think you’re too stupid?

No. I’m not too stupid.

So, you’re afraid of yourself. You’re afraid that this one event could determine your entire future worth.

Possibly yes.

But no single event determines your entire future worth. There are always opportunities to try again. You should let yourself drop all that pressure; you should try to enjoy the opportunity. Enjoy your own life, with its failures and successes, savour what you’re doing. Because what you’re doing today is more exciting than what you did yesterday; and that’s enough for now. Isn’t it?

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Drink or Die: reflections on how to carpe diem

At 3:30 today I poured myself a glass of Lillet rouge. It was too early for happy hour, and unusual for me to open the door of the fridge and poor a sweet, alcoholic drink in the middle of the day. But that’s what I did. It’s 4:30 now, and my glass is still half full, which makes me feel like somewhat less of a lush.

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Your glass is half full?, you say. Yes, it’s half full.

I’ve gotten to this point where nothing feels right. Problems at work. An imploding profession. A salary that tanked over the past two years. I’ve enough reasons to complain today.

But my glass is half full. And I’m leaving it that way just to make a point.

I’m not so sure it’s working, though. After all, if I drink, more can be given. But if I leave it there as some kind of rotting reminder of past bounty, how can it ever be refilled with new, chillier things? Maybe I’m digging my own grave with all this negativism.

I just took a sip.

The spider carcass that I squished behind a book yesterday still sits on the window sill behind my half-full glass, a leggy reminder of my inner turmoil. Here it goes. Drink or be the spider carcass.

This is where it starts.

And now…

A French journalist I know wrote an article yesterday that basically brushed aside the millions of comments written over the past week about the Paris murders and claimed that really only one thing had to be said: his comment. His insight. It gave me pause. Actually, the entire frenzy has given me pause.

My colleague is generally an open man given to tolerance and dialogue, and his unusually vainglorious approach startled me.

I live very near the French border and am familiar with French mentality. They are, unlike most of the world, truly given to the vignette style and unabashedly earthy. Long have they embraced their culture, and long should they. Freedom has been their mantra for generations, even if at times they fail to see how others view what they accept as normal – as do most cultures. As does my own. As do I.

The week following the Paris murders began with a global uprising in the defence of freedom of speech. All the world stood up and took part; it was moving, powerful, and crucial for the impending debates. I have stood alongside them, in defence of the profession but also in defence of the right to free thinking, to free convening. But as the wave recedes and critical reaction swells, censor has begun to rear its ugly head. Just yesterday a man responded to a short piece I wrote, telling anyone who questions the vignette culture to fuck off. He told me to use my brain to think. My response was that Charly Hebdo would have welcomed my reaction for the simple reason that I had one. Charlie Hebdo – if this is what it’s really about – would have told me I was thinking just by critiquing them. Freedom of speech is a two way street. If nothing else, Charlie encouraged that.

After 9-11, the world did much the same thing. We joined hands against terrorism and set our sights on an even freer civilisation. An attack on the free world, the tower murders shook the very foundations of liberty. The aftershocks of sympathy and solidarity were overwhelming, but what happened in the wake of 9-11 has long sent shivers up my spine. There were years when speaking even the slightest critique of the US government was not only frowned upon, it was risky. For unexplainable reasons people were tagged terrorists, and freedom of speech was being choked and suffocated. The effects of that linger still in the unconstitutional liberties taken by the government under the Homeland Security Act.

In an interview with the Dutch newspaper Volkskrant on January 10, Charlie Hebdo cartoonist William Luz said that that “people are asking us to carry a symbolic weight on our shoulders that doesn’t exist in our vignettes, and which is too much for us to bear. I’m one of the people that has a hard time with that. The world sees us as human rights advocates. Freedom of speech was not murdered, people were! Just people, making drawings in their little corner of the world.”

Luz also said, bringing focus back to the reality of who Charlie Hebdo really is, that “we vomit on all these people who are suddenly our friends. We have a lot of new friends, such as the Pope, Queen Elizabeth or Poutine. It’s ridiculous.” His words came as a relief in this tense frenzy; the snap of a strained rubber band.

Contrary to what my French colleague wrote yesterday, I think it is important that we let the debates begin. We need to hear from all sides of this issue if we truly want to foster freedom of expression, of speech, and of thought. THAT is free speech.  It is important not to lose sight of the fact that the freedom in question is the freedom to not be killed in cold blood. Setting up a false ideal will only disappoint us in the end because it is based on a non-truth: that Charlie Hebdo is an heroic publication that defends freedom of speech. There is no question that Charlie Hebdo is a free-speech publication. But defenders of that liberty they hardly are. There is no honour in, and certainly no use for, exaggeration, no matter how well meant.

I support Charlie Hebdo’s right to expression. I support, more importantly, Charlie Hebdo’s right to assemble safely in their offices. We must focus.

Freedom of speech

Last month I wrote an article about new technology that’s making a big splash in the international press these days. It was an opinion piece, and though heavily verified and water-tight, I remember worrying the night before it went to print over whether I had made the right choice gently criticising a certain brand.

My colleagues laughed, saying I was making a big deal out of nothing, and that my mention could actually end up bringing them visibility. It was an honest critique, and a necessary one, but I’ve felt strange having it out there since I know the CEO personally. When the staff at CharlieHebdo was murdered in Paris this week, all that came into focus in a very different way.  Like the curve of astigmatism, my perspective was instantly skewed.

CharlieHebdo promulgates a style I could hardly get behind. Vulgar and offensive, they criticise organisations, politics, beliefs of every nature mercilessly, and without exception. But satire by definition is thought-provoking (provoking being the key word) and their blows are as effective as they are equitable. Other than having my feelings hurt on occasion, I find no fault in their ways. They are a mouthpiece, they are the checks and balances of a democracy, they are human beings.

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And words do not equal bullets, even if their impact is often much more powerful. Then I remembered my article, my tiny critique that suddenly seemed just a comment of truth. And why should we not speak truth?

I felt ashamed for having been so fearful of it. Their methods are not my own, but their deaths have provoked thought in me. I dare say they would draw a terrible, vulgar picture of me to prove my point, were they here in my office now. Bless them.

Vive la liberté.