Pandemic Diary 11: Bite-sized Insults

“You aren’t worth the breath you use.” I tweeted that to some Twitter account today, some individual or individuals hidden behind an American flag and a pro-Trump phrase in place of a person’s name. (“Something Deplorables Something,” written in the Fraktur typeface favored by neo-Nazis or those who think it is cute to be thought of as a neo-Nazi. The account spent the morning tweeting GIFs at me happy to think that it had “owned” me, a Lib.)

This particular account had defended … oh, who cares about the controversy du jour of April 11, 2020? It is so small that I can imagine future me perplexed by it were I to supply the details here. But I had replied, and then I had insulted it, so I suppose the “deplorable” hidden behind the Nazi typeface had earned what it wanted: me to show a temper.

No, the bigger issue for me today is the effect of insults on me, both received and given, because I am curious as to why I tossed some insults out there into a world full of insults to begin with and why I subsequently deleted them. Neither act impresses me much.
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Lauri Love Banned from Twitter

Lauri Love, the British hacktivist who the United Kingdom has agreed to send to the United States to face charges despite pleas from over 100 MPs that he not be extradited, was permanently banned from Twitter this week. His account was @LauriLoveX.

The reasons are unclear, as no specific charges were fully explained to Love. It is understood that the reasons are related to an “alleged violent threat.” He wrote a few hours ago, “Being an actual Nazi on twitter: fine and dandy. Advocating punching Nazis on twitter: permanently banned for violent threats. This is why we can’t have nice things… (Only told I will never get my account back for obscure probably made-up reasons after starting a dozen support threads.)”
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Harassment & Free Speech

The essayist who wrote this in 2012:

We are all by now accustomed to the periodic whinging of public figures after another round of drive-by shootings on Twitter. But the problem isn’t restricted to those who put themselves on a public platform. Just take a look at how people are talking to each other as well. Frankly, it’s terrifying, and it occurs to me that one of the great challenges of the next decade will be how we, as a society, manage those people unable to manage themselves.

… was banned “permanently” from posting on Twitter this week. A spokesman for Twitter told an interviewer for Buzzfeed, “People should be able to express diverse opinions and beliefs on Twitter, but no one deserves to be subjected to targeted abuse online, and our rules prohibit inciting or engaging in the targeted abuse or harassment of others.”

The author of the essay quoted above, titled, “The Internet Is Turning Us All Into Sociopaths,” is one Milo Yiannopoulos, who seems to have decided that his article was more useful to him as a point-by-point, how-to-become-a-sociopath expository essay instead of a complaint against sociopathy. In the subsequent four years, he became famous as an Internet sociopath, celebrated as an “alt-Right wing” hero of some sort, a keyboard bully who never had the balls to say what he wrote to anyone’s face and yet wore a bulletproof vest for show as if he had even one time spoken truth to power.
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What I Did for Like

In this social media-saturated (and media-about-media-saturated) era, in which both of my parents, one of them an octogenarian, have active Facebook accounts, and in which people who have told me to my face that they do not understand Twitter themselves have a couple thousand followers apiece on that service, drawing attention to one’s writing or art or craft or charitable work without purchasing advertising time on the radio to scream for 30 continuous seconds can seem difficult. For me, a naturally quiet sort, sharing the publication of a new piece feels unnatural, like actually recording that 30-second Janovian advertisement. Screaming is so unseemly.

(Perhaps I will go ahead and record that.)

In the Peter Cook-Dudley Moore film, “Bedazzled,” poor Stanley Moon (Moore) wants the affection of Margaret (Eleanor Bron). The Devil, George Spigott (Peter Cook), offers him seven wishes to win her. In one, Stanley is a gold-lamé-costumed rock star whose new hit song “Love Me!” drives all the young women, including Margaret, wild. The lyrics, and Moore’s performance, are little more than him yelling, “Love Me!”

The very next act, Drimble Wedge and the Vegetations, wins the entire screaming audience over to the Devil, George, as he speak-sings his dripping contempt for their affections. “I’m self-contained. Leave me alone,” goes the new hit, and his dry loathing for them makes the women in the audience desire him all the more. Stanley gets run over by the crowd that once briefly adored him as it rushes to the Devil at the end of his song. (The video clip that follows below the fold here both takes up too much space and is set too loud. Brace your ears.)
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For Raif Badawi

A young journalist and activist has been in jail since 2012 for the crime of insulting his country’s official religion. Sadly, that sentence can be written about dozens, perhaps hundreds, of writers worldwide, but only one writer—one writer that we know about—was publicly flogged this weekend.

This was the very same weekend that government leaders from around the world joined a million-person anti-terrorism march in Paris. The march was the emotional punctuation mark that concluded a sad stretch of days in that city. Days earlier, a group of mass murderers who were deluded into thinking that murder is a religious act massacred the staff of an irreverent humor magazine and killed two police officers, one of whom nominally shared the religion of the killers. The killers and the police officer only shared a religion in name, as the killers believed in murder as an act of faith and the police officer did not.

Raif Badawi is the name of the journalist, and he has been living in a Kafka-esque dreamscape of religion-as-part-of-state-bureaucracy since 2008. In May of last year, he was sentenced to ten years in prison and 1000 lashes, which are to be meted out in sets of 50 lashes each Friday for 20 weeks. For over a year, his sentence has been publicly changed multiple times between six years and 600 lashes and ten years/1000 lashes while his case bounced between a higher court and a lower court in his country’s legal system.

His country is Saudi Arabia, and as a citizen of the United States, I am aware that I have no say in the legal system or traditions of another country’s bureaucracy; I can only write this column to implore my government to at least say something to one of its allies in the name of a fellow writer and the freedom of ideas. I have written in the past about things I do not like about my country, its use of capital punishment, for instance, and I vote my conscience on these issues, In another country, I might have been arrested for expressing my views, but it has not happened here.

Amnesty International, Reporters without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Human Rights Watch, PEN International, and many other organizations have taken up Badawi’s cause, possibly in part because of its clear-cut blatancy: A man is being publicly flogged because he is a writer and has expressed ideas his government would rather he not.

A brief sketch of his journey so far: In 2008, he set up a website, a blog named “Saudi Arabian Liberals,” and he was arrested, questioned, and released. He was then charged with insulting Islam, left the country, was told the charges were being dropped, returned home, and then was blocked from leaving the country again, which is never an indication of good things to come. The web site continued, and he was arrested again in 2012 when a religious leader said that his website “infringes on religious values” and proved that he is an apostate, or one who renounces his religion. Apostasy carries with it a sentence of death, and that legal question—is Raif Badawi an apostate or not?—is what has kept his case bouncing between courts in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. A lower court declared that it did not have the authority to decide and referred the case to a higher court which decided that the lower court could indeed decide if Badawi is an apostate.

He was cleared of the apostasy charge, which freed the courts to sentence him for the charges he was found guilty of from pretty much the moment he was arrested in 2012: insulting the faith and “going beyond the realm of obedience.” Ten years in prison, 1000 lashes, and a one million riyal fine. And his lawyer, Waleed Abu al-Khair , was arrested and found guilty of setting up a human rights monitor organization, which landed him a 15-year jail sentence.

On Friday, Amnesty International published an in-person account of that day’s flogging:

When the worshipers saw the police van outside the mosque, they knew someone would be flogged today.

They gathered in a circle. Passers-by joined them and the crowd grew. But no one knew why the man brought forward was about to be punished. Is he a killer, they asked? A criminal? Does he not pray?

Raif Badawi had been brought to the square in front of al-Jafali mosque in Jeddah just after midday. There was a huge security presence–not just accompanying Raif but also in the streets and around the mosque. Some roads had also been closed.

Raif was escorted from a bus and placed in the middle of the crowd, guarded by eight or nine officers. He was handcuffed and shackled but his face was not covered – everyone could see his face.

Still shackled, Raif stood up in the middle of the crowd. He was dressed in a pair of trousers and a shirt.

A security officer approached him from behind with a huge cane and started beating him.

Raif raised his head towards the sky, closing his eyes and arching his back. He was silent, but you could tell from his face and his body that he was in real pain.

The officer beat Raif on his back and legs, counting the lashes until they reached 50.

The punishment took about 5 minutes. It was very quick, with no break in between lashes.

When it was over, the crowd shouted, “Allah-hu Akbar! Allah-hu Akbar!”–as if Raif had been purified.

Raif was taken away in the bus, back to prison. The whole scene had lasted less than half an hour.

A brief cellphone video was made public, and it shows that the punishment is almost as much “a ritualized public humiliation as a specifically physical punishment (though it is certainly that),” as Nick Gillespie of Reason put it. The video is brief, and I hesitated to include it because it is disturbing and because if you go to YouTube to view it, people who comment on YouTube videos can be astonishingly disgusting.

The juxtaposition of a nation publicly flogging a prisoner of conscience and that country sending an envoy to Sunday’s anti-terror march was not lost on one journalist, who Tweeted almost two dozen similar examples of irony:

The Washington Post’s editorial page on Saturday pointed out that those who are outraged have limits on what we can do, since:

The Obama administration briefly on Thursday called on Saudi Arabia to cancel the flogging of Mr. Badawi. On Friday the kingdom ignored the plea and carried out the first of the 50 whippings. So much for strong language from the State Department. It had no impact because it came with no consequences.

The editorial suggested an international investigation into Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, which sounds as toothless as anything that will never happen would sound.

But that is the reality: The U.S. government raised its voice to slightly above a whisper on behalf of one man (not a U.S. citizen) in a different country’s bureaucracy and … crickets. Which is the same non-response our government would give (and gives) if that country formally and diplomatically complained about anything in our system of jurisprudence here.

All I can do as one person, one writer is this: Share the story and some web sites with readers in the hope that someone else will also use their writing voice, their platform. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that last year some 200 reporters were jailed around the world. Many of these reporters are electronic media writers, also known as bloggers, like you and me.

Amnesty International’s Raif Badawi page.

PEN International’s Press Release about Raif Badawi.

My only hope is that someday Raif Badawi will be able to read the many columns out there like this one and, true to his calling, point out that there are a lot of other reporters around the world who need columns like this one written, marches organized, and petitions circulated about their stories.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for January 12 asks, “Picture the one person in the world you really wish were reading your blog. Write her or him a letter.”

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Put a #Hashtag on It

Many writers will claim that they “write for themselves.” This is true enough, but attention, constructive criticism, and a few “attaboys” will make the days creep at a better than petty pace.

In this social media saturated age, in which both of my septuagenarian parents have Facebook accounts and people who state that they do not understand Twitter have a couple thousand followers on that service, drawing attention to one’s work without purchasing advertising time on the radio to scream for 30 continuous seconds seems difficult. For me, a naturally quiet sort, sharing the publication of a new piece naturally feels unnatural, like recording that 30-second Janovian advertisement. Screaming is so unseemly.

But here I am, addicted to my numbers, measuring my metrics each day. It is an inner battle between believing that what I write is worth being written (does having readers or a reader equal “worth”? No, of course not) and wanting people to discover this (un)certain idea for themselves.

In the Peter Cook-Dudley Moore film, “Bedazzled,” poor Stanley Moon (Moore) wants the affection of Margaret (Eleanor Bron). The Devil, George Spigott (Peter Cook), offers him seven wishes to win her. In one, Stanley is a gold-lamé-costumed rock star whose new hit song “Love Me!” drives all the young women, including Margaret, wild. The lyrics, and Moore’s performance, are little more than him yelling “Love Me!” The very next act, Drimble Wedge and the Vegetations, wins them all over to the Devil, George, when he speak-sings his contempt for their affections. (“I’m self-contained. Leave me alone,” goes the new hit, and his dry loathing for them makes the women in the audience desire him all the more.) Stanley gets run over in the crowd rushing to the Devil at the end of his song.


I want to be like George Spigott, the Devil, and declare my lack of outer needs like affection (so banal) and love (so, ugh, human), so that all life-forms on planet Earth will run over each other to cover me in kisses, but really, I am like Stanley. The mere thought of wanting to be like the Devil makes me that much more like Stanley, too.

There are tools to get attention in the cacophony of voices making themselves heard in our social-media-saturated world. (I used to teach freshman college English, and any time that I write something like “In the world” or “In our such-and-such world,” I always hear the nonsense phrase that I saw again and again at the beginning of my students’ papers: “In our world of today.”) But if I hit “publicize,” a fine WordPress tool made available to those of us who use it, and my post goes to Facebook, there it sits as a reminder to people who already know about this website right here. My personal friends. If it gets publicized to Twitter, it gets lost in the dozens of posts per second that whiz past any number of readers.

The hashtag tool seems to be one item that helps the world of noise organize itself. And it has helped me direct some attention toward some columns. And it has not helped me at all, also. Like all imperfect things, it is imperfect. And that is perfect, because it is something else to learn about, experiment with, and use.

And what does a hashtag do? When one posts something on the different media platforms, a label with this punctuation mark: #, is what is called hashtagged. It helps the post get clumped together with anything else so labelled, so that people who might be interested in what it is about might find it. The title of this piece, “Put a #Hashtag On It,” will automatically be clumped together with anything else containing “#hashtag” in the title or description. (How many of those might there be today? We will see.) For the last week or so, the hashtagged phrase, “#ICantBreathe” (minus the quotation marks) has been getting a lot of attention, for good and obvious reasons. It is a shorthand way of saying, “Here is a good article about this topic or concern” or “I am showing solidarity with this concern.”

Here is a good article about this: “Now Trending: Hashtags.”

But it is an imperfect tool. Yesterday was Tom Waits’ birthday and I tweeted two tribute tweets. Both had #TomWaits in the statement. One Tweet was shared and re-shared, by people I have never before encountered on Twitter, hundreds of times according to Twitter (the first one below), and the other? Well, it was not.

What was the difference between the two? I have no idea.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for December 7 asks, “What’s the most important (or interesting, or unexpected) thing about blogging you know today that you didn’t know a month ago?”

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I, Toward a Metrics of Me

In the interest of full self-disclosure, what follows will disclose nothing about me.

I am a Twitterer. I Tweet. Once a year or so, I will participate in the nightly cocktail party, the veritable Algonquin Round Table, of online wordplay and games that can be found on that social media outlet. Perhaps you’ve seen these games, in which people follow the instruction given in a catchy hashtag, like hashtag (which is this symbol: #) “Add A Word Ruin A Movie.” As in: #AddAWordRuinAMovie. And then a participant, me let us say, will snarkily add a word to a famous movie title to ironically change the entire complexion of the movie. “Midnight in the Olive Garden of Good and Evil” is one that I love but can not claim credit for.

One day last year, the wit-fest of hashtag joking, the hive mind of Twitter intellect, had come up with #DrabFilms, and this was my contribution, and it was met with universal silence:

Not one single re-Tweet on there. Not one “favorite.” Bupkiss.

There is little in the world sadder or lonelier than a one-liner delivered to no one in a crowded room crammed with people ignoring the joke-maker’s contributions. “If a Tweet falls in a forest,” someone philosophically minded might ask, “with no one to re-Tweet it, did it make a sound? Nay, did it even exist?” (There are a handful of congressmen who might have their own answers to this question.)

“I Tweet, therefore I know that I am doing what I told you I am doing once I tell you what I am doing because others tell me that they say that they approve.”

Do I know what I am doing, where I have been, where I am going, who I am with—who I am, even?—without social verification, approval, disapproval, a certain number of thumbs-ups or stars or re-Tweets?

The American corporate world introduced the idea of measuring everything many decades ago but in the late 1990s employees discovered that their continued employment was dependent on finding new ways to measure everything. I remember my revulsion upon hearing the word “metrics” used in a sentence the first time. (For months, I heard the ghost-word “system” every time I heard “metric.”) The precise sentence was, “We are using all available metrics,” and I quickly noticed that no one else at the meeting table was laughing and they were still scribbling notes more furiously than students in a freshman philosophy seminar. For a while, the number of documents I was actively working on was my key metric, I was told by my employer. Then it was the total number of pages. It changed, often, but the accumulated number of metrics used to measure my metrics was never itself added up and counted. For a year or two I was publishing the average number of pages per document completed. Then it was pages per document per day.

Some time after that one, I was let go. A bad attitude has no metrics.

The social media revolution was long in coming and I enjoy it very much, but metrics have infiltrated our lives, even our fun-filled social lives. “How many ‘likes’ did that get?” Does my employment hinge on it? No? Why does it feel like it does?

When a celebrity or otherwise important person finds him or herself in an online controversy, the number of re-Tweets of the news-worthy posting is supplied in news accounts about the contretemps. The fact that a number is available and can be reported does not make it a statistic, much less a statistic worth reporting.

Sadly, I find myself watching the likes and numbers of visits to this web site right here, the one in your hands, every night. “The Gad About Town” is not my employment, it is something I want to do and share. But the fine people at WordPress make the information so easy to find and digest. It is information after all and it looks like an impressive collection of live statistics and it makes me want to have a boss to report it to every night. (So I Tweet it out sometimes, to attract more readers.) “This number of visitors read my work last night, but it is a smaller number tonight. Whycome is that, world?” Sad face.

(Sigh.) Metrics.

Never before in my life have I known how many friends I have, but if I wanted to, I could look and see every morning if the number of my online friends is larger or smaller than yesterday’s. Metrics.

Am I my numbers? Am I my metrics of me? Everything in the world can be counted, and that number can be known and disclosed, but more often than not this one fact does not make it information.
The WordPress Daily Prompt for October 1 asks, “To be, to have, to think, to move—which of these verbs is the one you feel most connected to? Or is there another verb that characterizes you better?” I Tweet.

Daily Prompt: Unasked Questions

“AMA” no longer stands for the “American Medical Association” or “Ameliorating My Attitude.” (Never heard of that one? Neither have I. It doesn’t exist.) In our Twitterverse and Redditworld, AMA is now the acronym for “Ask Me Anything.”

And we can. Even Pope Francis (yes, THAT pope) has a Twitter account, @Pontifex, as does the Dalai Lama, other religious figures, and every politician. Or at least their offices have Twitter accounts. Here is a recent papal Tweet:

The sentiment may be true enough, but what stands out is that the pope gets a lot more retweets than I do. This is irking, as I have been on Twitter (@MarkSAldrich) for far longer.

For the last few years, public figures from the president to famous actors have scheduled AMA sessions on Reddit, on Facebook, and on Twitter, the start of which is usually announced with a photo of the famous person holding a handwritten sign stating “Ask Me Anything” and the day’s date. The “holding a sign” part often makes the famous person look a bit like a hostage. Like poor Bill Gates (well, those three words do not often appear in that particular sequence!) here:


In the old days of any time before now, if one wanted to ask a famous person a question, one had two available methods: A. Study and work very hard and become famous oneself and learn to befriend other famous people, one of whom is the person you always wanted to ask something, anything. Sidle up to that famous person and say something like, “You know, I have always wanted to ask you something. In fact, I worked and studied very hard to become famous myself and I became famous and I became friends with you just so I could ask you something. And now I do not remember what it was. What an amazing short story this would make! More caviar?” B. Write them a letter, purchase a stamp, place the letter in an envelope and the stamp outside the envelope, mail it and hope to receive a reply.

Somewhere, my mother has a scrapbook filled with autographed photos of Hollywood celebrities of the 1950s; in some rare cases the movie star hand-wrote a note of thanks. I do not believe she “asked them anything” personal, so she did not receive any news making replies. (Luckily, she did not have this mailman working in her neighborhood: “Brooklyn Postal Worker Arrested for Not Delivering a Decade’s Worth of Mail.“)

Part of the appeal to the contemporary social media “ask me anything” sessions, and to the fact that many famous actors and writers and some famous politicians personally work on their Twitter/Facebook accounts and reply to us everyday sorts, is to be impertinent to them. Call it the “BaBaBooey Effect.” This is the opposite to the “Access Is Everything” attitude which we sometimes see in the press, the “‘Meet the Press’ Effect,” in which reporters whose employment depends on continued access to important people do not ask difficult, impertinent, questions, questions that might make the important person cut off future access. People who are not reporters might shout a verbal graffito (“Bababooey”) and make some noise, become a part of the story. They are easily ignored, but so are the Sunday morning talk shows, on which news is rarely found or broken.

Instead, news is more often broken when a reporter who knows that he or she will lose access to a famous news maker if they in fact ask them anything, goes ahead and asks that one question. Or when, as with shows like “60 Minutes,” the show reports on some shady business whose practices are worth exposing by sending a national reporter who will not face backballing in his or her own neighborhood because he or she exposed a neighbor’s shady business practices, like a local reporter would.

Early in my brief local newspaper reporting career, I actually heard this from the sidewalk below my second-floor apartment: “We can’t talk here. I see the light on in that hack’s room.” That felt like a huge compliment coming as it did from someone I was publicly writing about. “I’m a hack! I’ve made it.” Then I thought, “How does he know where I live?”

It was a criminal matter I was writing about, after all. But given one question to ask one person, I might go back in time to that night and yell out my window, “How do you know where I live?”

The WordPress Daily Prompt for September 26 tells us, “You’ve been given the opportunity to send one message to one person you wouldn’t normally have access to (for example: the President. Kim Kardashian. A coffee grower in Ethiopia). Who’s the person you choose, and what’s the message?”