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Jul. 12 2010 — 4:51 pm | 246 views | 1 recommendations | 7 comments

Harvey Pekar’s struggle with fame and aging

American Splendor

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The death of Harvey Pekar, graphic memoirist and chronicler of everyday lives, will most likely go down the way his artistic career usually did: those who know him will be hit hard, but most will barely notice.

His name in tomorrow’s obituaries might not spark recognition, but two details of his life could — the movie “American Splendor,” based on his illustrated book of the same name and his appearances on David Letterman in the 1980s, both of which brought a fame that The New York Times called “uneasy” this afternoon.

Uneasy might describe his work as well, due to his unflinching honesty. Whatever veneer Pekar might have placed over his private life in writing memoir, it was not glossy. Late last year, in an interview with The Faster Times, Pekar talked about worry:

Well, I mean RIGHT NOW, I’m doing OK… Of course I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop, you know, something bad to happen… I’m always fearing that there’s something bad around the corner… something I got from my mother… you know pessimism.. She’s always telling me “There’s another HITLER AROUND THE CORNER”… ALWAYS STUFF LIKE THAT…

It was no different in his work. In a piece about aging for SMITH, posted early this year, he writes:

I wonder if there are a lot of older people that are in decent shape physically and financially, and still worry their asses off.

That kind of honesty tends to shorten your reach in a culture as enamored with distraction as ours. But I sense a real loss in that kind of bluntness, which has nothing to do with stepping on other people to aggrandize himself or sensationalize life, but simply lays out the human condition as-is. Perhaps the memory of Pekar will outgrow his natural life. And he won’t have to worry … the shoe has sadly dropped.

Jul. 12 2010 — 10:20 am | 357 views | 1 recommendations | 11 comments

Dostoevsky on Roman Polanski: Did he get away with rape?

Polish-French director Roman Polanski attends ...

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Today, the Swiss Ministry of Justice has most likely ended the 32-year-old legal question of whether filmmaker Roman Polanski will ever face jail time for raping a 13-year-old girl in Los Angeles. The Swiss decision not to extradite the him to the U.S., however, will once again re-open the debate as to whether the crime deserves a punishment.

Woody Allen and Martin Scorcese came to Polanski’s defense, saying his exile status has been punishment enough. The rape victim long ago requested that the charges be dropped. But the news last fall of his Swiss arrest provoked a flood of opinion that Polanski should not get away with this crime, even if it is three decades hence.

It’s a case ripe for opinions. And being in the middle of reading Crime and Punishment, I thought I would let Dostoevsky weigh in on the matter:

If he has a conscience he will suffer for his mistake. That will be punishment-as well as the prison.

But if memory is the jury, the case is most likely settled. Polanski seems to have answered Dostoevky’s punishment when he told Martin Amis a year after the crime (with thanks to Michael Deacon at the Telegraph):

If I had killed somebody, it wouldn’t have had so much appeal to the press, you see? But… f—ing, you see, and the young girls. Judges want to f— young girls. Juries want to f— young girls. Everyone wants to f— young girls!

In his statement last spring, Polanski spoke only of legal matters:

It is true:  33 years ago I pleaded guilty, and I served time at the prison for common law crimes at Chino, not in a VIP prison.  That period was to have covered the totality of my sentence.  By the time I left prison, the judge had changed his mind and claimed that the time served at Chino did not fulfil the entire sentence, and it is this reversal that justified my leaving the United States.

He does not answer Dostoevsky in that statement; does not speak to his own juror. If he ever suffered, one must assume that his memory released him long ago.

Jul. 7 2010 — 10:51 am | 1,299 views | 2 recommendations | 37 comments

On Christopher Hitchens: Why would cancer cure atheism?


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Last week, Christopher Hitchens posted this on the Vanity Fair website to announce the cancellation of his Hitch 22 book tour:

I have been advised by my physician that I must undergo a course of chemotherapy on my esophagus. This advice seems persuasive to me. I regret having had to cancel so many engagements at such short notice.

Hitchens is many different things to many different people, much of which has to do with animosity. A man who can infuriate both right-wing evangelicals and left-wing war protestors has definitely left his mark on the culture. And he portrays himself as an arrogant jerk, so I wasn’t exactly expecting peals of sympathy at his news.

But I wasn’t expecting this either–a growing Internet conversation about how the terrible diagnosis might cure Hitchens of his atheism. For instance, here’s Francis Phillips of the Catholic Herald in London:

Some years ago, I happened to mention to a saintly Irish priest (his one small vanity was to think he looked like the actor Robert Mitchum) that the scientist Francis Crick – of Crick & Watson, the well-known firm of DNA supplies – had just died. “He didn’t believe in God,” I added. “He does now,” replied my Irish friend.

Perhaps visiting his doctor will be a wake-up call for Hitchens?

But why would a potentially fatal disease create belief in the creator of all things when the sweep of all good and evil did not? Apparently Phillips, along with many other Christians, believes the answer is that one’s own mortality goads theistic thoughts. And this assumption exposes one of the Christian apologist’s great rhetorical weaknesses–belief as Insurance Policy. It belongs to the larger category of belief-though-fear that has dogged many world religions. It is as harmful to the pursuit of truth as is the belief-through-benefits arguments: that faith will get you what you want in this life.

Hitchens’ response is already well-known:

I’m not even an atheist so much as I am an antitheist; I not only maintain that all religions are versions of the same untruth, but I hold that the influence of churches, and the effect of religious belief, is positively harmful.

I don’t agree with Hitchens. Religious belief is like anything else–it has potential for beauty and nobility and truth. It also has potential for creating the kind of ideologies that make life miserable here on earth. Of course, so does Hitchens’ worldview, most notably found in his war-hungry, poorly disguised anti-Islam phase, from which he tries to shuffle away through pseudo-confrontation in his vainglorious memoir.

Phillips and Hitchens are both wrong and for the same reason–certitude. Phillips should know it has no place in faith; it is, in fact, the opposite. And Hitchens may be learning that it offers cold comfort in times of trouble for the unbelieving. The persistent evidence is we can’t fully understand this existence. From there, honest exploration, fortitude and companionship are our best resources.

Jul. 2 2010 — 6:39 am | 200 views | 1 recommendations | 0 comments

Photojournalism: Students examine the photo as memory

Nguyen Ngoc Loan executes Viet Cong Captain Ng...

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Greetings from the Washington Journalism and Media Conference on the George Mason University campus in Fairfax, Va. I am serving on the faculty this week, which is a privilege because the students–highly accomplished rising high school seniors from across America–give me hope about journalism’s future. They are not here to learn to write a news lede, but to become news leaders and they have spent the week thinking through some of the weightiest topics journalists face.

As part of that experience, my class was sent to the Newseum’s powerful Pulitzer Prize Photographs gallery. If you have not seen the gallery, take a look at the online exhibit to get a sense of what confronted them. Jen Mickley, a student in the conference, said the photographs supply the “true meaning or importance of the event.”

Keeping my profession (and, hey, why not my blog too?) in mind, I asked them to consider:

1) The role of the photographer when he or she stays behind the camera, even while they capture great human suffering.

2) The role photography plays in the collective memory.

Here are insights from some of these young journalists and leaders-in-training…

By Kelsey Grey

You asked us to recognize the reason we remember photos so well, and to be truthful, I thought maybe I wouldn’t remember any of the photos. Tonight I’m realizing I was completely wrong. The images we saw are sticking to me like glue. The more I think about those images lighted on the walls, the more I begin to see why. From far away, the photos just seemed like the average, ordinary images that helps tell a story better, in this case an event in the news. Then as we actually approached the photos, and read the stories behind each one, I felt it. I felt the hate, the love, the life, and the death that took place in each individual photo. Some I felt a smile run across my face, but then right as soon as I moved to the next photo, I could feel my stomach up in my throat. It was unbelievable how such a joyous photo could be placed next to such a gruesome one. But that’s when it hit me. The reason I was remembering these photos in the back of my mind was because of the emotion it made me feel when I looked at it.

For one example, I actually looked at what was really occurring in the photo and saw a 19-year-old woman and her 3-year-old niece falling to their deaths after their fire escape had fallen out from underneath their feet. Right then I could have jumped. I wanted to reach into the picture and catch them, but I couldn’t. It was a picture from the 1960’s in which one strong-minded photographer kept telling himself, “just keep shooting, just keep shooting.” It was done. The woman fell to her death and miraculously her 3-year-old niece had survived. But it was that feeling in the bottom of my stomach that sent a shock across my body that reminds me every so often of that photo. Then while watching the video of the photographers who took some of the pictures in the gallery, I heard one that really struck me. It was a man who stated that he hated the fact that he had won such a high award by taking photos of war and famine. He then proceeded to say that his wife calls him Mr. Toss and Turn because the images he has taken have forever impacted his memory. Think about it. You’re just standing there taking a picture, sometimes dropping all humanity, to get the story through a visual. But you will always remember that starving kid curled up in a ball on the ground with a vulture behind him. You will always carry that thought of, “what if I had dropped the camera to save him?” The truth is you didn’t though. You just did your job. You got the shot. It’s that emotion that will make people remember a photo forever. These photos go with stories that are about people. If even just one person cares about a situation, then there is at least another half a million who do too. But if no one has the gut to get the shot, who will? All of these ideas have just taken over my brain, and it reminds me of the joyous photos such as an Olympic team embracing each other as they win their event to photos such as a fireman carrying dead infant in his arms. That shock, that smile, that feeling in your gut is what makes you remember a photo. Not what the print said next to it.

By Katie Mafucci

For most of us, memories are strictly pieces of sensory input strung together as a series of images, little vignettes of our lives that sneak up on us. Photographers capture a single moment in time that resurrects the emotions one experienced firsthand in the past.

Of the numerous snapshots of humanity and its inhumanity, it was easy to tell from the responses and expressions of my peers which topic had the greatest impact: The 9-11 photos.We were all third graders when the worst terrorist attack on American soil claimed nearly 3,000 of our fellow countrymen and shattered our collective childhood delusion that no one wanted to hurt us. Most of us didn’t understand the implications then, but we could tell by the reactions of our parents that something was seriously wrong. All attempts to explain the circumstances could always in our minds be simplified to this: Bad men want(ed) to kill innocent people.

This was the event that gave us our first real glimpse of life’s harshest realities, brought to the surface by one simple photograph.

By Sarah Moreau

A photograph can release so many different emotions in the viewer–happiness, heartache, guilt, and regret, among others. If just looking at a powerful picture can do this much to someone, just imagine what the person behind the lens went through when taking the picture. Not until someone has actually experienced being the photographer during these pivotal moments in history can he or she know the thoughts and emotions that will forever be trapped in the mind of the artist.

For example, one of the photos displayed in the Pulitzer Prize exhibit at the Newseum in Washington D.C. shows a young, starving child from Sudan curled up in a ball in the middle of a field. This child was so exhausted from starvation that she stopped to rest on the way to a feeding center. The photographer behind the camera was Kevin Carter, who later came to regret his decision to take the photo instead of helping the child. Due to his haunting memories of this, as well as many other situations, Carter ended up committing suicide at the age of 33.

The horror, joy, and excitement that photographers experience during significant moments will create a lasting impression in their minds for a lifetime, even more than simply reporting a story in words. Sometimes these memories will bring up pleasant emotions. At other times, as in the case of Carter, the memories will generate haunting emotions that leave scars.

By Jessica Erwin

Remember the last time you pulled a box of old photographs from your attic? Brushing away dust from the stiff cover of a photo album and reflecting on times past can be heart-wrenching and nostalgic, but can also be a great reminder of many cherished moments. The Pulitzer Prize Winning Photography exhibit, a tribute to all the prize-winning photographs and their creators, is a prominent example of the linear relationship between memory and photographs.

The images seen in this exhibit burn a hole in your mind, creating a permanent portrait of an emotion: joy, sorrow, grief, hatred, hope, and fear. When a photographer can grasp the human impact behind the viewfinder, not just a simple snapshot, it is not only viewed as a work of art, but as also a tangible memory. The most incredible pictures are featured in the exhibit and the reasons these artists won their Pulitzer Prizes are extremely apparent, for I don’t believe people could walk away from seeing this collection without having a war raging in their mind: “will I ever forget the visions of famine, war, violence, and injustice?” against “do I even want to forget?”

One can not simply look at the photographs that journalists have risked their lives to capture and ‘forget’ the emotion that comes with each one. Each holds a story and marks an important place in history itself. The exhibit is an unforgettable experience that pulls on your heartstrings and provokes questions, concerns, and most importantly creates everlasting memories.

By Jilian Palmer

A photograph can be many things; entertainment, information, and devastation.

A photograph serves as a file in your memory bank.  As time goes on, people’s vision of the past can grow fuzzy. They remember the situation, but they may forget the little things, like what shoes they were wearing that day, or the color of the uniform of the Nigerian women’s track team as they watched in elation when they won the bronze medal at the 1992 olympics in Barcelona, while the rest of the world had their eyes turned on the United States gold medalists.  They also notice objects in the background that they failed to see before, like the onlooking vulture  sitting ten feet away watching as the body of a starving child in Sudan slowly consumed its insides.

Some question the values of a photographer when they see a child stabbing a man engulfed in flames: Why are the people behind the lens not doing anything? It is not because they don’t care, but it is because they are trying to capture their memory and share it with the rest of the world. History springs to life through each passing photograph leaving a lasting impression.

By Anastacia Peadro

Memory fades but photographs, if well taken care of, will last. I know that some people have a photographic memory which will help those select people remember in detail, but what about memorable photographs? What makes an image stand out and make an impact? I believe that it is the emotions that were captured in that one point in time. Love and hate. Life and death. Joy and tragedy. Hope and despair. All emotions can be felt and remembered when reminiscing. All emotions can be expressed through photography. One captures a unique moment in time that will never be repeated exactly. In essence, it is almost like a memory. A small tribute as to what was occurring. When I think of a memory, I’m thinking of the past. When I look at a photograph, I’m seeing and feeling the emotions captured in that moment in time. The Pulitzer Prize Photographs at the Newseum are wonderful examples. When I gazed at the photos, I was emotionally impacted. I commend the restraint of those photojournalists who captured the images, because I’m certain I wouldn’t be able to not get involved in what was happening. Memories may fade but photographs can help to preserve the events of the past.

By Harley Marsh

A picture is a memory frozen in time, creating an open book of your mind. Photographs found in the Pulitzer Prize Photographs are full of different emotions, though many bring horror. These pictures bring history to life. We take these pictures so the world will see and remember what we’ve seen. In the end it will make a much bigger difference than one pair of eyes or one set of hands.

Jun. 24 2010 — 9:56 am | 252 views | 1 recommendations | 8 comments

Elie Wiesel wants to arrest Ahmadinejad: Why he’s wrong

WASHINGTON - MAY 27:  Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace...

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Earlier this week, the Detroit Free Press reported on a speech by Elie Wiesel, the venerable Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor who had this to say about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the world’s most famous holocaust denier:

Just as Pinochet (late dictator of Chile) was arrested a few years ago, he should be arrested and brought to The Hague (court) and be indicted for incitement of crimes against humanity.

This is a continuation of statements Wiesel has made of late that shows an irrational fear of speech. In a forum held earlier this month in Toronto, Wiesel said Holocaust denial should be the one exception to free expression, although he added the caveat that this should not be the case in the United States, where free speech is arguably our most treasured right. He also used the forum, which was billed as a debate with the author Salman Rushdie, to criticize Iran’s suppression of expression and the reactionary attitude towards “blasphemy” in radical Islam, in general.

Wiesel’s statements go beyond just wanting to control speech, but let’s stop there for a moment. Over at ScienceBlogs, on a page called Respectful Insolence linked to below, the author rebuts Wiesel every bit as well as I could have and did it earlier, so:

I never thought I’d say this, but here Elie Wiesel is dead wrong. I really hate to say it about who’s done things as great as what Elie Wiesel has done with his life, but he is human, after all, and therefore has his blind spots. Quite frankly, Wiesel’s advocacy of a ban on Holocaust denial while championing free speech to criticize Islam doesn’t just look hypocritical. From my perspective, it is hypocritical. Why this one exception to free speech for Holocaust denial bans? Why not other exceptions to free speech–such as for criticizing religion or racist hate speech against others besides Jews?

Of course, Wiesel has always had a worldview that extends well beyond Judaism. I’m not qualified to discuss whether this view has tightened over the years, although the criticism is fair enough I guess. But in his speech in Detroit this week, he explains himself a bit.

Referring to the Holocaust, Wiesel said:

“If this tragedy were to be forgotten, it would be a tragedy not just for the Jewish people, but for the entire world.”

And he’s right about that. But Wiesel, it seems, is willing to retain the memory of the Holocaust with a troubling authoritarianism. He does not just want to control speech, but the social memory of that terrible moment in history. I sympathize. Someday Holocaust survivors won’t be able to tell their own stories. Will movies, books, museums and monuments be enough to remind us of our inhumanity to ourselves? It’s a real fear.

Wiesel stressed the importance of memory and not forgetting even though we may want to. ”The body fights memory,” Wiesel said, because it is sometimes about pain.

But, he added, “History without memory can’t exist. Civilization without memory can’t prevail…Books can disappear. Memory can be wounded.”

But of course, collective memory cannot be harnessed any more than individual memory can. Wiesel must trust that the truth about the Holocaust will live on for the same reasons he must believe that peace might someday prevail in the world–the human march towards fulfilling our potential for goodness. If he can’t trust that, I suppose I understand why. But if he cannot trust, as Martin Luther King Jr.’s faith once led him to proclaim, that the universe leans towards justice, then no laws will help his cause.

Excepting such hopes, there’s only one way a collective memory stays alive: through activity. And here we find the great irony that Wiesel seems to be missing: Ahmadinejad helps keep the Holocaust alive in our active collective memories. When he makes his inane comments denying or downplaying the genocide, an avalanche of evidence rolls down upon his arguments and we are reminded again of the truth. Rushdie certainly sees this:

It would be very inappropriate to think of any system of ideas as something that should be protected from debate. This is in a way at the heart of the free-speech argument, that you should by all means protect individuals against discrimination by reason of whatever their belief system may be. But the beliefs themselves are open for debate, criticism, satire, and all kinds of disrespectful remarks.”

“We are in danger of losing the battle for freedom of speech”: Salman Rushdie – National Post, June 1, 2010

Not that the memory’s survival necessarily staves off future atrocities. We’ve already learned that many times over. But when you institutionalize a memory through laws, when you disallow the free flow of opinions, you are dooming that memory to become a ghost or, worse, forgotten altogether.

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    About Me

    About 10 years ago, this lady in her 80s told me a childhood story about the day her mom tied her to a post on the porch. It was punishment for riding her tricycle past the curb at the end of their block. In the middle of the story she said to me, 'Wait, mom didn't tie me to the porch, she tied the tricycle to the porch. I just remembered that.' I've been fascinated by memory ever since.


    To make a living during those 10 years, I wrote about religion, politics and people for The Kansas City Star and National Catholic Reporter. I also delved deep into memory by teaching over 2,000 retired Midwesterners how to write their life stories. Now I am putting those two things together -- I'm reporting on memory from science, social and personal perspectives. I am also earning my MA in Journalism at NYU.

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