Tuesday, July 30

Authenticity

Another controversy has emerged over authenticity and which writers have the proper background to write and speak out on certain topics.

Critics, including Daniel Politi of Slate, are blasting an interviewer who questioned scholar Reza Aslan about why, as a Muslim, he set out to write a book about Jesus. Critics on the opposite side have suggested that Aslan and some interviewers were devious in hiding his faith. Aslan responded firmly and masterfully on that point and others:  He mentions his Muslim faith on page 2 of the book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, and he is an academic and historian. Being a practicing Muslim and historian are not exclusive.

Likewise a woman who was raised by Catholics can write about a Muslim woman in rural Afghanistan. 

Demanding that authors segregate their writing toward their own countries, their own beliefs, their own politics or experiences - denying human capability for research, analysis, and imagination in making connections - is an insidious form of censorship and control.

The most pointed analysis can come from commenters, and one, fingersfly, responded to the Erik Wemple blog in The Washington Post: 

Aslan is seen as a threat because he writes about "Jesus the man" and points out the contradictions between him and the "Jesus of myth" created by the Roman Church. Jesus the man and his socialist message would not serve the masters' agenda so they co-opted and changed him from socialist revolutionary to peaceful obey-er of all things secular. Religions are invisible chains to enslave believers into living lives in fear .... It's a hideously twisted way to control people, but sadly it works.  

Writing is judgment, from the very moment one picks up a pen and selects a topic. And yes, authors can and should write about other countries and time periods.
  
Aslan can't complain though. Controversy helps a book, and this morning his book ranks first on Amazon.    

Friday, July 12

Need to share

In war, what you don't know can hurt you. 

Yet "The US military has blocked access to the Guardian’s website for troops in the Middle East and south Asia, after disclosures about widespread US surveillance," reports the Guardian. The message that comes up instead of the newspaper suggests that the newspaper's recent reports on US National Security Agency surveillance activities include classified information, some of which may be inaccurate, and the block could assist troops from inadvertently releasing classified information.

But the troops on the front lines should probably not be censored. Richard A. Best, Jr.,  analyzed "Intelligence Information: Need-to-Know vs. Need-to-Share" for the Congressional Research Service in June 2011:

"It is possible to limit dissemination of especially sensitive information, whether it is sensitive because of the nature of its contents or because it was acquired from an especially sensitive It is also possible to prevent the downloading and reproduction of large masses of information. It is possible to trace the identities of those who had access to particular pieces of information. Ultimately, however, security depends on the loyalty of cleared officials at all levels."

Readers around the globe are poring over the Guardian reports about the US surveillance, especially since the president suggested that privacy protections may not apply to non-citizens. The latest NSA statement reframes that sentiment more elegantly: "Not all countries have equivalent oversight requirements to protect civil liberties and privacy." Of course, the blocks on the Guardian are not thorough, with other news outlets repeating the reports. NSA secrets have been exposed, and US troops have as much right as anyone else to debate the merits of these programs.

Best went on to conclude: "For the U.S. Intelligence Community, the policy decision of whether the emphasis should be on“need-to-know” or the “need-to-share” can be viewed as a false choice. Information must always be shared with those with a genuine need to know even if this potential universe is a large one....Intelligence efforts are never risk-free.... Government officials must also accept the enduring reality of a media culture that is prepared to publish official secrets and considers such disclosure a patriotic contribution to democratic discourse. That individual civil servants or service members can be very harshly punished for their role in releasing information while editors and reporters are honored and celebrated seems to some as paradoxical."

Censorship puts a spotlight on the withheld information. "Even though people may want to withhold information, they will give us more information than what they realize," explains Mark McClish, retired deputy US marshal.

Philosophers have long debated if withholding information is lying, and Thomas L. Carson has suggested "withholding information can constitute deception if there is a clear expectation, promise, and/or professional obligation that such information will be provided."So, no, there is no clear expectation that the US would provide its troops with access to surveillance secrets or articles in the Guardian. Most members of the US service would not have heard of the Guardian, based in Great Britain, if not for news about the block.

Troops overseas must prepare for encounters with would-be terrorists and that entails understanding what an enemy combatant might know and how he or she might use the new reports to their advantage, possibly a sudden avoidance of Skype. Of course, federal employees, and probably members of the US armed service, too, in the course of their duties can request special authorization to visit blocked sites.

The Army Ranger Handbook ends with Standing Orders for Roger's Rangers, guidelines created in 1757 by Robert Rogers during the French and Indian War. Number four notes: "tell the truth about what you see and what you do. There is a[n] Army depending on us for correct information."

So much trust, loyalty, democracy and more rely on correct information.

Note: A main character in Fear of Beauty relies for guidance on a 1992 copy of the Ranger Handbook as much as an Afghan counterpart relies on the Koran.

Illustration of Robert Rogers, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, July 1

The Iris Farm

Every farm has a certain time of year when it offers pure delight. And early June is that time for the Iris Farm in Michigan.The farm small, at six acres, was once a cherry farm, but the soil, weather and birds pose constant challenges for fruit farmers in in northern Michigan. "Seventeen years ago, this fifth generation Leelanau farmer decided to no longer fight against the elements, and instead choose to embrace the offerings of his land," reports the Leelanau.com Blog about the farming family of William Black. "The family noticed that the iris plants blooming around the farm thrived."

Smart farmers don't fight nature, and instead they study and appreciate its many whims. Today, the farm has more than 700 hybrids of Iris and several hundred of day lilies. The farm doesn't seem to have a website. Teh family doesn't do much advertising, but the two brothers are obviously delighted by the attention their new crop attracts. Passersby on Route M-72 recognize something special and slam on the brakes.

The genus Iris has about 250 species - and the name comes from the Greek word for rainbow. 

So of course, I strolled along the rows of colorful irises, searching for Iris afghanica or some variation, but of course, those are not well suited for Michigan weather. "Iris afghanica is a striking species," report Malin Rivers and Richard Wilford, science editors of  Kew Royal Botanic Gardens. "The slender, bluish-green leaves can be up to 30 cm long, though are often shorter, and the outer ones are sickle-shaped.... At higher altitudes the plants are more strongly coloured and only about 10 cm tall. At lower altitudes the flowers are larger and more softly coloured, and the plants can reach 25 or 30 cm tall."

The plant was noticed by an iris collector in 1964 and named in 1972.And it grows among boulders and on steep rocky slopes at altitudes from 1,500 to 3,300 meters - and likely might be found in the mountains overlooking the imaginary village of Laashekoh in the novel Fear of Beauty. 

Iris afghanica has been cultivated, Kew reports, but is rare. It thrives in hot dry summers and freezing winters - with little rain and the Kew species is in Kew House. Kew Gardens in London has 300 acres of wonder and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site - with shopping is available online.   


So, Iris Farm has no Iris afghanica, but some other purple varieties will soon join my garden and offer memories well into the future, and I look forward to returning to Traverse City later this summer and retrieving my rhizomes.

Photos of the Iris Farm, courtesy of Douglas Olsen. Thumbnail photo of Iris afghanica, courtesy of Kew Gardens and Richard Wilford.