Friday, July 3

Censoring Fiction: A Facebook Review

For the better part of a year now, 44 weeks to be exact, I've been writing one short story a week for a project that challenged me to write 50 short-short stories for 50 weeks. By short-short, I mean stories that range from the shortest — a mere 30 words — to more robust pieces up to around 2,600 words.

The challenge has been a great exercise, twofold. I've been consistent, always meeting my Thursday deadline. The discipline in doing so has helped me grow as a story writer and, at the same time, establish a small following on my Facebook page where I share my stories as a first look. The audience is mostly organic word of mouth, supported only by two small promotional buys: one general page promotion, and one $1 a day story promotion for each.

The formula has grown the page from 200 to 1,200 followers, which isn't bad since my offering is best described as eclectic. The stories toggle back and forth from a slice of life and experimental to supernatural and thriller. If there is any underlying theme, it's that each takes place in a different state, and the read time never really exceeds 10 minutes. Eventually, they'll be published as the collection called "50 States."

The Problem With Censorship  

Except for this week, my short story won't be promoted. Facebook rejected the promotion, then approved the promotion, and then rejected the promotion again. It's not clear what prompted the appeal to be re-reviewed, but I do know it wasn't my audience or anyone seeing the promoted story. The promotion never recorded negative feedback. In fact, people enjoyed it.

Without giving much away, The Sweeper is about a young filmmaker in 1972. Medford is biding his time before taking a teaching position at a college in Connecticut by heading down south with his family to make a documentary about civil rights in rural Mississippi. Medford has some preconceived notions about the south, which is enough to frame the plot conflict without giving too much away.

Interestingly enough, I've had a couple setbacks with story promotions before, but they've always won an appeal because, well, they are fictional stories. The first one that was ever rejected was because the reviewer thought I was sharing personal information about a real person. I won an appeal because the character was not a real person. The second rejection was accidental. I won an appeal because the first reviewer misread what I wrote.

The Sweeper experience was different because it was initially flagged for potentially "influencing the election" and required me to verify my identification. I followed the same path I had in the past to appeal and the promotion was approved. As I said, about six hours later, the approval was retracted on a new premise that the story somehow violates community standards.

Doesn't that cut right to the heart of the matter? The problem with censorship is the suppression of words, images, or ideas that are "offensive" whenever some people succeed in imposing their personal political or moral values on others. It's subjective — so subjective that different Facebook reviewers had different conclusions. And that's what is happening inside Facebook today.

When A Mission Doesn't Matter

Sure, I understand that more than 400 companies are clamoring after Facebook to censor more content, under the guise of removing "hate speech." It's not a bad principle. I hate "hate speech." But, as always, censorship is one of those things that sounds good in theory and then breaks down in practice. There is no hate speech in The Sweeper. It's the opposite.

In fact, rejecting the promotion isn't a violation of Facebook's community standards as much as it's a violation of its mission. Facebook's mission, after all, is to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together. People use Facebook to stay connected with friends and family, to discover what's going on in the world, and to share and express what matters to them.

Except for a short story set in 1972. Never mind it was written to bring people together more than tear them apart.

There Really Isn't Any Recourse

I don't want anyone to think I'm shedding real tears. The story hasn't been banned outright. Sure, it's a shame that Medford isn't allowed to introduce new readers to my writing. His potential reach is only being unfairly stunted (as there is no community standard violation). It's fiction.

And yet, I see this incident as something else too. I've written other stories that brush up against similar subjects without concern because I intentionally handle such subjects gently. So this decision really is a reversal that undermines the social network's mission.

It sets a precedent that says one day The Sweeper won't be allowed to reside there or any other stories that might be a bother even if they don't bother anyone. It tells us that for all the best intentions, brands like Microsoft Corp., PepsiCo, Ford Motor, Starbucks, Coca-Cola, Verizon, and Unilever are setting the stage for something considerably more sinister: a world where the only stories told are vetted by increasingly unforgiving, arbitrary, and unjust community standards. And it alludes to a future where the freedom of speech and independent thought is no longer valued in America, censored not by government but by unelected corporations that want to own all messages.

Friday, June 19

Chasing Names, Part 1: My First Family Mystery

"I would have answered you sooner, but your last name confused me," she told me the first time we talked on the phone. "I couldn't see how we were related."


Meeting my Aunt Roxanne for the first time marked the end of an enduring mystery for me, one that I had actively tried to solve over two decades ago. At the onset, I had more misinformation than anything concrete, trying to chase down a presumed grandfather who was a "British soldier of Irish-Spanish descent, serving in World War II."


Separating Myth From Mystery


The British soldier myth was an upgrade from the original story. My father, who died at 19 in a car accident, was described as a "dark German." The story changed for me about the same time it changed for my father. We were both about 14 years old when we learned the truth. His father wasn't his father. My grandfather wasn't my grandfather.

My step-grandfather's name was placed on my father's birth certificate in Germany as a matter of convenience. When she was two months pregnant, he met my grandmother and loved her enough to propose and claim the child as his own anyway.

Since I was estranged from my father's family during my teens, it took another 15 years before I learned that my second set of clues was also a myth. I reconnected with my grandmother after my son's birth, and she gave me a new set of fuzzy facts.


My grandfather, she told me, was not a British soldier. He was an American soldier she met during the Berlin Blockade. She couldn't recall his name but remembered he would get in fights because he looked Mexican. His name may have been Oscar, she said, but he didn't go by that.


DNA tests were just emerging at the time, but I decided to try one. The first one, DNA Tribes, helped refine my search. My grandfather was less Mexican and more Native American, including genes exclusive to the Quechua tribe (part of the Inca empire). A significant number of potential family members could be found in Texas.


While DNA Tribes provided some detailed findings, it had few members, so I expanded my search with 23 and Me (a MyHeritage partner at the time) and ancestry.com.

Putting DNA Tests To Work

There are plenty of stories about lucky people. They find people right away. I wasn't one of those. My plan was built on meticulous research. I searched the databases for all Texans named Oscar, who served in the armed forces. I would then cross check them (and any brothers) with those who served in the armed forces between 1948-1949 and people who were potential DNA matches. 


Unfortunately, not all people with close DNA matches build their family trees on these sites. So, I often looked up weaker DNA matches with more robust family trees and searched for any reference to one of the Oscars I had found. I must have searched through hundreds of family trees, looking for my needle in a haystack of needles.


When I felt like I was narrowing in on a close match, I would send out in-service messages to the people managing those family trees. And, given there was a chance my biological grandfather did not know about my father's birth, I was as sensitive as possible.


We have such a good DNA match, I was hoping you might be willing to share some family history with me. My grandfather was an American soldier who served in Berlin abt. 1948-1949. He may not have even known he had a son. Do you have any relatives who this might be? I would love to know, and finally find the missing link.


On genealogy sites, patience can be a virtue. It's not uncommon for inquiries to go unanswered for years if they are ever answered. Some sent messages are still sitting in the inboxes of people who never revisited the site, couldn't reconcile my acquired German name with their surname or weren't interested in verifying an illicit relationship.


Making Sense Of Family Ties


Sometimes it takes more than your own ability to connect all the dots. While I had written and corresponded with several people, I had to write my most promising DNA match twice. The first time she didn't respond. The second time took six months.

She decided to respond because one of her daughters had tried another service, and my name appeared again. She reread my message, then we started writing, texting, and then talking to each other on the phone. We knew there was a connection, but we weren't sure where.


All five Navejar brothers had served in the armed forces. She had to make several phone calls to find out which brother was stationed in Germany at the time. It wasn't the brother named Oscar. It was Baldemar, who always went by Sonny, and he happened to be her father.


Roxanne taught me about the father my father never knew. And while he had not raised her, she knew him, who he was, and was connected to the Navejar family. They were early Texans, Native Americans, and descendants of the Quechua. They inspired my sketchbook project at The Brooklyn Art Library.

She taught me something else, too: how to welcome lost family members into your own. It was a lesson that would come in handy twice more in the year that followed —two stories that I'll share in part two. The lesson was simple enough. New family connections always start with an open mind, empathy, and a big heart.

"I want you to know you will always be part of my family," she told us. And my Aunt Roxanne will always be part of ours. Good night and good luck.

Monday, April 20

Failing To Plan Is Planning To Fail: Nevada Needs A Plan

On April 7, I wrote a well-reasoned letter to Nevada State Governor Sisolak and shared that letter with several elected officials and representatives. All of them, except Governor Sisolak, responded.

All of them, except Governor Sisolak, acknowledged its merits.

In sharing this letter, An Open Letter To Governor Sisolak Regarding COVID-19, almost 2,000 Nevadans also took the time to read it. Many of them also acknowledged its merits while several asked that I might write a letter for them. I am sharing a second letter (below), one that outlines what has gone wrong and why Nevada needs a plan.

 While some might say this is a heavy-handed letter, it's purpose is far simpler. I would encourage anyone who wants to write the Governor to copy this letter as their own and remove or add any points they would perfect over those I've included below. Email the letter to the Governor (email here) and make sure you also send a copy to your State Assemblyman/woman, State Senator, Country Commissioner, and City Council member (find them here). These representatives want to help, but they need to know you stand by them and want them to help. God bless and good luck.

Dear Governor,

A crisis is like a glass of water. The longer you hold it, the heavier it gets. While you claim to be the only person who can hold it up, all Nevadans now feel the full weight of it. It is crushing us.

The time for you to relinquish exclusive oversight and allow local leaders to step up and hold up the weight is now. The time to acknowledge the following errors in judgment is now.

• You have refused to protect civil rights as afforded to all citizens of the United States, calling for the State of Emergency but failing to set reasonable parameters that define the end of that emergency. *

• You have failed to provide equal representation and have neglected to call the Nevada State Legislature to meet for a special session during an emergency. *

• You have created new offices and task forces, hoisting up unelected decision makers who meet in forums devoid of any public record. *

• You have disavowed the good faith efforts of local leadership to alleviate the mounting pressures of uneven, unfair, and arbitrary state mandates. *

• You have closed businesses that are capable of meeting CDC guidelines and cut off our trade, thereby disrupting supply lines and sending people into poverty. * * *

• You have encouraged residents not to pay their rent or mortgage, but failed to provide them a remedy to pay back deferred payments and/or be protected from future rent spikes. * *

• You have turned local police departments against us, putting them into a position to release criminals while seeking out and fining otherwise law-abiding citizens. * *

• You have encouraged the closure of public parks and lands, denying all access, which negates the purpose of those public assets. *

• You have disrupted the court system, thereby denying the proper pursuit of civil and criminal justice. *

• You have failed to recognize that while at-risk people are dying in Nevada, so too are those who are losing their savings, businesses, fitness, and mental health. *

• You have turned neighbor against neighbor by further polarizing and politicizing the pandemic — claiming it to be a choice between money or lives when it the fact is the unfortunate choice between lives or lives. *

• You have closed schools but failed to provide remedies for all children to have equal access to a complete education. *

• You have inadequately provided for the mental health of citizens who are forced to live in relative isolation. *

• You have failed to provide responsive unemployment for those who are forced out of work by your mandates, largely because you did not plan to accommodate for the tens of thousands you put out of work before putting them out of work. *

• You have resisted any semblance of a recovery plan that would provide citizens hope, business owners the ability to survive, and students an opportunity to enjoy their best years. *

• You have conspired to rewrite voting laws, making it easier to fake and defraud upcoming elections.    *

• You mocked Nevadans by posting pictures of yourself getting a haircut while people go hungry in their homes and fear for their future. *

• Your inaction has resulted in a growing number of protests, which further puts Nevada in jeopardy as protestors express their right to peacefully assemble out of frustration for your inadequate leadership. *

• You have not demonstrated any agility in mitigating the medical crisis, forcing members of our medical community to be furloughed. *

In every stage of your oppressive actions, myself and many Nevadans have petitioned for redress and your response has only been that failure to comply will result in more punishment and greater injury with harsher mandates. Such actions can only be characterized as the definition of a tyrant, one who is unfit to lead the free citizens of Nevada alone.

Governor, I and my fellow Nevadans call on you today to release the reins of oppression and begin to move in a manner becoming of the office.

We call on you to restore our representative government. We call on you to develop a recovery plan that minimizes the risk to at-risk people (not just a testing plan) while also affording healthy people the ability to resume their lives. We need a plan that recognizes that there are businesses beyond our resort corridor (although many resorts are stepping up too). We call on you to allow local leaders — counties and cities — to better manage our recovery starting today. We call on you to adopt the guidelines set forth by the White House and being enacted by many states across our great nation.

Governor, set down the crisis. Nevada needs a plan.

Respectfully, [Your Name]

Tuesday, April 7

Writing: An Open Letter To Governor Sisolak Regarding COVID-19

Red Rock by Richard Becker


Dear Governor Sisolak,

As the parent of a softball player, the story of Jo’VInni “Jo” Smith really hit me today. Jo Smith was a young softball player who died from stress issues related to COVID-19 in California. She committed suicide.

Her story truly underscores the mental health issues taking hold in our communities as everybody handles isolation differently. It’s also the reason I decided to write to you today.

I appreciate the stay-at-home order and several things you are doing in the face of the coronavirus, including the COVID-19 Task Force, BattleBorn Medical Corps, and request for the National Guard to assist our state with logistics. I have even promoted these initiatives and plan to lend more support in those areas. So yes, I understand the seriousness of the situation and can appreciate, if not imagine, the challenges you face as Governor.

However, the time for our state to have a plan for recovery based on clearly defined parameters is NOW if for no other reason than to give people hope. Yes, I know there are many variables, but an “if this, then that” plan could provide people with a light at the end of this tunnel, which is so badly needed for so many Nevadans, especially those with mental health issues.

I also believe this plan should be created before any budget cuts as it could provide insight into possible revenue projections before they are necessary, especially with the consideration of something like a state lottery. In addition, a plan before cuts would allow Nevadans a breath between what has been a constant barrage of negative "not-good-enough" announcements.

Once the plan is announced and the defined parameters are met, the state could begin to loosen the stay-at-home order, in stages, for manufacturing, limited store visits beyond groceries, limited seating in restaurants, etc. This creates a positive, forward motion that people can get behind and will alleviate some stress and mental health issues.

Likewise, in the interim, I think talking more about how well Nevadans are doing great would be more effective than highlighting only the ones breaking the order with threats of increased punishing restrictions, which only amplifies the growing tension and mental stress of the crisis. Evidence suggests Nevadans are following the order better than most states. I respectfully encourage you to talk about what we are doing well, as most people are staying home for Nevada.

Please also know, while I appear critical of your performance during the crisis, my criticism of your performance (or the performance of any previous Governor for that matter) has never outweighed my love for Nevada. This has been my home since the 1970s, and I have served in many public and private leadership positions within our state for more than 30 years, in addition to teaching and building a small business.

That said, please do take care, keeping in mind that the best messages transform “you” and “them” into “we” for Nevada. Nobody wants to see people die of COVID-19 in Nevada, but neither do we want to see children commit suicide because of stress related to COVID-19.

Please do the right thing. I know you will.

 Sincerely,
 Richard Becker
 

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