The Bookworm Beat 1/17/15 — Supplemental edition and Open Thread

Woman writingSince I wrote the preceding Bookworm Beat, two things showed up on my computer that I wanted to address.

You’re not brave if there’s no risk

In 2006, as part of Project 2,996, I wrote about New York Fire Fighter Brian Ahearn. I spent a lot of time on the internet looking for the ghosts and traces of Lt. Ahearn, and ended up feeling as if I really knew the man who, despite a lovely and fulfilling life, bravely raced into a burning high rise hoping to rescue people from the destruction. Lt. Ahearn was never seen again. In my post about him, I thought a lot about his raw courage and it was this idea — this courage — that opened my post:

My son, who is ten, is obsessed with superheroes. His current favorite is Superman. After all, when you’re a little boy, battling your way through the world, what could be more exciting than the possibility of being “faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.” I’m bombarded daily with questions about Superman’s ability to withstand extreme temperatures, his flying speeds, his ballistic capabilities and, most importantly, his bravery. It’s here that my son and I run into a conceptual problem.My son thinks Superman is brave because he gets involved in situations that involve guns, and flames, and bad guys. I argue — and how can you argue this with a ten year old? — that the fictional Superman, while good, is not brave, because he takes no risks. Superman’s indestructibility means that his heart never speeds up, his gut never clenches, and he never pauses for even a moment to question whether the potential benefit from acting is worth the risk. In other words, if facing a gun is as easy as sniffing a rose, there is no bravery involved.

The truly brave person is the one who knows the real risks in a situation, but still moves forward to save people, to fight a good battle or to remedy an intolerable situation. The attacks against America on September 11, 2001, revealed the true superheroes among us — those New York firefighters who pushed themselves past those second thoughts, those all-too-human hesitations, and sacrificed themselves in the hopes of saving others. Lt. Brian G. Ahearn was one of those superheroes.

I thought of my own words when I read Mollie Hemingway’s post explaining why there was nothing principled, and certainly nothing brave, when it came to the New York Times’ decision to hide any images of Mohamed, even as it cheerfully and routinely shows images that are disrespectful to or derogatory about other faiths.

What caught my attention was Hemingway’s analysis of a piece Margaret Sullivan, the Times public editor, wrote to explain away the Times’ justification for its deficient Charlie Hebdo reporting:

Mr. Baquet made a tough call, which included safety concerns for Times staff, especially those in international posts. (Those concerns are far from frivolous; just days ago, a German newspaper’s office was firebombed after it published the cartoons following the attack, and now new concerns have arisen about reprisals.) I certainly don’t think that decision was “cowardly,” as many have charged.

Hemingway immediately figured out what is wrong with that paragraph, and it’s precisely the same thing that was wrong when my then 7-year-old son tried to understand why Superman wasn’t really brave. You’re not brave, says Hemingway, if there’s no risk:

Here’s the thing. Sullivan doesn’t give any explanation for why she doesn’t view Baquet as cowardly except that he’s legitimately worried about safety. But courage assumes “safety concerns” to use her phrase. That they are legitimate safety concerns on account of how murderous some Islamic radicals are doesn’t change the question of whether Baquet was courageous or cowardly to be bullied into not journalism-ing by threats of violence.

Let’s hear from Confucius: “To see what is right and not to do it is want of courage.” How about Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ Vanity asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’ But, conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’ And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe or politic, nor popular but take it because one’s conscience tells one that it is right.” Preach, Dr. King!

It would be one thing entirely if Baquet had told readers, “Listen, there is no way I think freedom of the press in the face of violent threats is as important as the safety of my staff and I. They got us right where they want us and we’re relenting.” Even the editor of Jyllands-Posten — the first newspaper to feel the wrath of Islamic radicals — said he wasn’t republishing the cartoons right now out of safety concerns. Then he said that militant Islamists control newsroom decisions.

Not every job I’ve held has been important enough to stand up against bullies for. But our most basic freedoms? That’s important. And if major media figures want to make claim of being such a vital part of a free society, they need to stand up even in the face of safety concerns. That’s the dividing line between courage and cowardice.

Exactement!  Hemingway is quite obviously correct, and Sullivan quite obviously confused.  Just as depressing as the sheer wrongness of Sullivan’s, Baquet’s, and the Times’ approach to defending our freedoms is the fact that Sullivan’s analysis is no more sophisticated than that of a 7-year-old boy.  In other words, America’s paper of record is being run by people whose analytical skills and values are straight out of early elementary school.

Georgette Heyer and defining rape down

I’ve mentioned before my passion for Georgette Heyer books.  It was Heyer who took upon herself Jane Austen’s mantle by writing delightful, often laugh-out-loud comedies of romance and manners.  Her early books aren’t her best, but they’re still delightful.  One of the flaws in the early books was that the heroines were 17 or 18 and the heroes were 33 or 34.  The whole ingenue and sophisticated older man thing just doesn’t play very well anymore now.  As Heyer’s writing matured, though, she brought her protagonists closer together in both age and sophistication.  They are equals, engaged in delightful verbal sparring, and attending to their own needs quite well, even as they fall in love with each other.

The books are delightful windows into the Regency era (Heyer always did her research) as well as being products of their time, as they were written from the late 1930s through the early 1970s.  They therefore accurately reflect a time when men ruled the world (the Regency era), as well as a time when men were men, women were women, and sexual flirtation was the name of the game.

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that in all of Heyer’s books, the decision to kiss is a man’s prerogative.  Moreover, in at least two of her books, the men steal kisses without realizing that the women they’re kissing are of their own class.  Yes, it’s classist and sexist.  But it’s also realistic for both the 1810s and the 1940s through 1970s.  In each case in which a hero kisses a heroine without first establishing a relationship with her, the women handle the matter with dignity and that’s the end of it.  Just think of this kiss scene from The More The Merrier, a delightful 1943 romantic comedy about the housing shortage in Washington, D.C., during WWII:

I’ve always found that scene rather romantic, even though he is an octopus.  Here’s another romantic, and musical scene, in which the man is a predator:

And what about Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald?

In each of those classic movie scenes, there’s no threat involved, which is what I think makes the difference between a man going after a woman in a romantic sense and a threatening sexual assault.  I therefore found it discomfiting to read a series of Georgette Heyer reviews referring to these kisses as “sexual assault”:

Lord Damerel owns the crumbling estate next to the Lanyon lands. As always in Heyer novels, “crumbling estate” means “moral degeneracy” which more or less defines Damerel. After running away at a young age with a very married woman who then abandoned him in Venice, Damerel has spent his time happily indulging in various vices: massive spending, extravagant travels, gambling, mistresses, and even a—gasp—drunken orgy in his house which provided neighborhood gossip for years. (And yet, not a single detail of the possible sex because, well, Heyer.) On this visit (free of drunken visitors), he encounters Venetia, kissing her before she has the chance to say anything. It’s pretty classic sexual assault, and Venetia is not strong enough to fight him off. She does, however, have an overly friendly dog who manages to interrupt things anyway (mostly because the dog, being a dog, wants the YAY STRANGER to scratch her chin). One sentence from her, and he (er, Damerel, not the dog) realizes that Venetia is a girl of quality, not a mere village girl. Since he doesn’t seduce that sort of girl (good to know you have standards, Damerel), they instead exchange a few insults. A few days later, Aubrey is injured on Damerel’s lands, and taken to the baron’s house for treatment. Venetia arrives in distress, and a few hours later, she and Damerel have fallen in love.  (Emphasis mine.)

I’m going to have to turn in my feminism card right about now because, as my reaction to the movie clip above shows, I’ve never considered an unwanted, but manifestly non-threatening, kiss a “sexual assault,” whether in Heyer life or in real life.  A kiss . . . is just a kiss. . . .  It’s a physical “try it on for size” thing.  If it stops there, lips on lips, it’s done and over.  Sexual assault to me involves rape or attempted rape.  Kisses are at most a form of harassment or an irritation.

Apparently, though, I’m very behind the times, because the latest news from the PC misanthropic feminist brigade is that a mentally handicapped who kissed a young woman on the top of her head was suspended from college on the ground that he “sexually assaulted” her:

Brian Ferguson, a 20-year-old with autism attending special-needs classes at Navarro College in Texas, had been expelled for sexual assault. But what he did that constitutes sexual assault will leave you scratching your head.

Ferguson is 6’5” and gives hugs to his friends with a kiss on the top of their head since he towers over them. A week ago, that got him expelled. The problem arose when Ferguson thought he saw a woman he recognized and gave her one of his trademark greetings — except that the woman was a stranger.

“And then [the school] labeled it ‘sexual assault’ because of the kissing,” Ferguson’s mother, Staci Martin, told NBC. “They said a kiss is considered an assault.”

And before you blame the stranger he kissed for this travesty . . . don’t:

The woman who received Ferguson’s hug, Taylor Bruton, said she thought the punishment was too severe. “I didn’t want him to get in trouble, special needs or not,” said Taylor Bruton. “I didn’t want anyone to get in trouble, not over a hug.”

She said the kiss was nothing more than a “peck” and that she tried to tell school administrators, who saw the hug, that it wasn’t a big deal. “They asked me about the incident,” Bruton told a Texas NBC affiliate. “I explained what happened and I told them, ‘It’s not a big deal. I don’t want anyone to get in trouble and I don’t feel the need to report this.’ And they asked me for a written statement, just in case.”

When she found out that Ferguson had been expelled over the incident, she thought it was “ridiculous.”

The crazies here were the school administrators, who are incapable of distinguishing between physical conduct that is threatening and physical conduct that is not.  In the same way, I find disturbing the fact that someone would look at a 60 year old novel describing a kiss and term it “classic sexual assault.”

Sexual assault is a horrendous crime — but it ceases to be when we define it down to a kiss, even an unwanted one.

And this is my last word on the subject: