August 2008

Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace

This is the second installment of a quasi-monthly column which includes fragments and partial ideas, and anything else not (yet) worthy of a complete article in the Spectacle.

Every couple of years, after writing an article asserting that the president is stupid or Dick Cheney is dangerous, I think about the fact that I can freely utter the most adversarial, insulting opinions about powerful people on the Internet every month with no consequences.

Of course, the most important reason is the First Amendment, which is so absolute and clear that, like Mt. Rainier, you would have to chip away at it a good long time before you eliminate it. Those who govern us do not respect the First Amendment or even understands what it is; they seem to regard it as no more than a nuisance; courts in the age of technology sometimes forget to apply it to the matter under consideration; and yet, like a neglected mountain, it continues to stand.

However, the First Amendment only protects me against government action, not against private initiatives that can be almost equally punitive. People who may speak freely in conversation with friends will avoid taking a public stand on an issue which may cause them to lose their job, suffer public criticism and accusations, get suspended from schools or organizations or so forth. From the time I started the Spectacle in 1995 until 1999, I had the great luck to work for a man who was at once my boss and my friend, and who was aware but unconcerned that each month I published opinions often radically different than his own. Later, when I was an EMT, nobody I worked for or with was even aware of the Spectacle. Now that I am retired, I have, however temporarily and precariously, achieved a life of almost complete freedom: nobody can fire me from a job or drive me out of any organization I care about.

I benefit greatly from what we used to call "security through obscurity" in the computer industry. On the one hand, I have a web site with excellent Google placement and which, the last time I looked at the stats (couple of years ago) was being read by 40,000 unique domains per month. I get email every week from complete strangers, praising or ragging on me for one article or another. On the other hand, I am acutely aware that despite this modest exposure, I am still nobody. But I have learned to love my nobodyness.

The outspoken people in the greatest danger are the ones in the middle, like Debbie Almontaser, visible enough to piss someone off, but not protected by some huge wealthy structure like the New York Times. Be obscure or be powerful and you can exercise your freedom of speech in this country. Being in the middle between those two extremes is like taking a knife to a gunfight.

In 1980 in Cambridge Mass., in my last year of law school, I elected to take a first year German language class. One of my classmates was a graduate student, Magda Al Nowaihi. In a series of conversations, I learned that Magda, born and raised Muslim in Egypt, was married to an Egyptian Jewish man in what struck me as one of the great love matches of our time. Smart and luminous, Magda made an indelible impression on me. We lost touch after exchanging a letter or so the following year, when I was back in New York and she was continuing her studies in New Haven.

I am sure not a year has elapsed in the last 28 without my thinking of Magda a few times, but I never attempted a Google search until a few days ago, when I found that Magda became a beloved professor of Arabic literature at Columbia, a mentor to many, and died of cancer in 2002. If I close my eyes, it seems like only five minutes ago that I walked with her in the quad or had lunch somewhere and talked of lives and aspirations. As I get older, more people I have known are gone from us, yet remain more vivid to me than the people I saw today. I will never forget this woman I spent a few hours with in 1980.