Daily Digest: Defensive manuevers and offensive speech; Peter and David, gone, but not forgotten

by Mike Mullen

– We begin in Libya, where Mo Qaddafi seems ready to kill as many of his people (people who love him, he swears!) as it takes to hold on to power. The Washington Post reports on 14 deaths in Ajdabiya, an oil port city (they’re all ports in Libya, the inland real estate market is very weak.) In the critical paragraph, the Post writes, “Witnesses said a convoy of 60 trucks – filled with men armed with bazookas, rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns – entered the area at dawn. Al Jazeera reported that the Libyan air force bombed the oil refinery and port, triggering huge plumes of smoke.” We’ve come now to an impasse. What does the world do with its Qaddafis? Forget the current crackdown, and his loaded statements: Qaddafi’s behavior over a period of decades has proved him to be one of the most irrational megalomaniacs of his day. In a past life, I did a story for this paper in which I talked to David Crane, who indicted Liberian dictator/warlord Charles Taylor. In the interview, Crane described a period of total chaos and rampant violence throughout several West African states. All of it, he said, could be traced back to Qaddafi. How do we make predictions, or negotiate, when the man on the other end is an unapologetic war criminal whose grasp on reality is as thin as his mustache? Finally, this, from the Post story: “Leaders of the Libyan opposition say they do not want ground forces coming in from outside the country, but they are increasingly coming around to the view that people power alone might not be enough to dislodge the longtime dictator from his remaining strongholds.”

– In a landmark free speech case, the Supreme Court upheld the right of the Westboro Baptist Church to continue its terrible protests at military funerals. The Kansas-based church, which has somehow come to the conclusion that the death of American soldiers is due to the tolerance of homosexuality, is infamous for turning up at funerals with signs that say “God hates fags.” Today the high court, in a declarative 8-1 (!) ruling confirmed their right to do this under the free speech law, as the Times quotes Chief Justice John Roberts: “But under the First Amendment, he went on, ‘we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker.’ Instead, the national commitment to free speech, he said, requires protection of ‘even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.'” The lone dissenter, Sam Alito, said the protests amount to “fighting words,” and cross the line. Confrontations with Westboro are not uncommon: a Nebraska man was arrested for trying to pepper-spray them in August, and in December an army vet was found stalking church members with guns and ammo at the ready. For everyone who wants to simplify the task of the Supreme Court to simply referring back to the text of the Constitution, let’s understand that when you try to judge all of the hatred, pain, and rage in this case, you are looking at only four words: “the freedom of speech.”

– A fascinating obituary in today’s Boston Globe marks the passing of Peter J. Gomes, Harvard’s pastor. Gomes, who was 68, is described this way in the obit: “He was the first black minister of Memorial Church and the only gay, black, Republican, Baptist preacher most people would ever meet.” Indeed. In November 1991, after a conservative student magazine at Harvard condemned homosexuality, Gomes announced that he was gay, and that he was at peace with his conflicting lives as a pastor and gay man. As brave as he was, Gomes would probably be unknown if he wasn’t so damn (pardon, Rev.) good. Here he is describing the craft of speaking, in language that could’ve come from a poet: Of his preaching style, he told [the New Yorker]: “I like playing with words and structure. Marching up to an idea, saluting, backing off, making a feint, and then turning around.”

– This weeks’ New Yorker features a posthumous piece of fiction from David Foster Wallace, long-hailed as the best writer of his generation, who killed himself in 2008. Foster Wallace’s novels — “Infinite Jest” and “The Broom of the System,” most notably — are known to be long, daunting, and difficult, though those who make it through describe them as deeply rewarding. At shorter distance, as he is here, DFW’s talent is easier to take in, though still makes you turn your head a bit off to the side to see it best: the New Yorker story starts with a conceit of a boy who wants to kiss every inch of his own body. Here’s its second paragraph: “His arms to the shoulders and most of his legs beneath the knee were child’s play. After these areas of his body, however, the difficulty increased with the abruptness of a coastal shelf. The boy came to understand that unimaginable challenges lay ahead of him. He was six.” Read that, then move on to his masterful, long-form nonfiction: “Consider the Lobster,” “Ticket to the Fair,” and “Roger Federer as Religious Experience.” DFW packed a lot of good sentences into a short life. Go get them.