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Fire In Many Bellies

On Nov. 30 the National Portrait Gallery, a sister organization of the Smithsonian Institution, pulled a video piece from its exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture one month after the exhibit opened after pressure from both the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights; and congressmen.

The piece in question, a four-minute excerpt from Fire in My Belly by AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz, is a collage of images captured in Mexico, such as Mayan ruins, a man spitting fire, a marionette, cockfighting and a man masturbating. But it was an 11-second segment of ants crawling over a crucifix that prompted William Donohue, president of the Catholic League to condemn the film as "hate speech" against Christianity in a press release on Nov. 30.

The same day, Soon-to-be House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) called for the cancellation of the exhibit, with his spokesman Kevin Smith saying, "Smithsonian officials should either acknowledge the mistake and correct it, or be prepared to face tough scrutiny beginning in January when the new majority in the House moves in."

Incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) called the piece "an outrageous use of taxpayer money and an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season."

Just how much taxpayer money went into the exhibit? As for just the exhibit, an editorial in the Washington Post points out that all exhibits at the portrait gallery are funded by private donations. $750,000 in private funds was spent on Hide/Seek. Around $6 million a year in public funds goes towards caring for the private collections, employee salaries, building maintenance and security.

The question of hate speech in the piece is more debatable, however, in any piece of artwork, context is always important and absolutely necessary for criticism. A review by the NY Times provided the example of testimony Wojnarowicz gave against Donald Wildmon of the American Family Foundation in a lawsuit for misrepresenting his artwork. The work in question this time was Wojnarowicz's take on Guido Reni's 17th-century painting Christ Crowned With Thorns, in which Christ looks both agonized and ecstatic. Wojnarowicz's painting depicts this Christ with a heroin syringe in his arm.

In court he explained that he was struck by the rampant and rising use of hard drugs among people he knew and the self-destruction that resulted. He said that in his own upbringing as a Roman Catholic he'd been taught that Jesus took on the sufferings of all people in the world.

"I wanted to make a symbol that would show that he would take on the suffering of the vast amounts of addiction that I saw on the streets," Wojnarowicz testified.

Wojnarowicz made Fire in My Belly after his longtime lover Peter Hujar had died of AIDS and found out that he himself was H.I.V.-positive. Just as he was looking for a symbol of suffering and self sacrifice in his painting of Christ, he was most likely looking for those same qualities in his depiction of Christ in Fire in My Belly.

As a result of the actions by the portrait gallery, museums all over the U.S., (most recently, The Walker Art Center) have now begun showing Fire In My Belly, but the whole fiasco raises a question for both sides of the argument: If the crucifix had instead been a Qur'an or a depiction of Muhammad, would Rep. Boehner have issued such a threat, and would galleries even display such a video?

Wikileaks, Amazon and Free Speech

The leaking of hundreds of thousands of State Department cables has put the transparency advocate site Wikileaks on the run from domain to domain as governments where Wikileaks is hosted are putting pressure on service providers to take down the site.

One such case was here in the U.S. as Geoff Fowler in a Wall Street Journal video explains.

Over last weekend Wikileaks was hosted in Europe and under heavy cyber attacks. As a result, Wikileaks transferred at least some of its server time to Amazon Web Services on.

By Tuesday Amazon had been contacted by the office of Sen. Joseph Lieberman, one of the outspoken critics of Wikileaks throughout "Cablegate," asking Amazon to drop Wikileaks from their servers.

By Wednesday morning Amazon called back Sen. Lieberman's office, saying that they had severed all their ties with Wikileaks.

In a statement Amazon announced that it was for "copyright ownership violation" and not because of government pressure that they ended their service to Wikileaks. It's a valid excuse, as the cables certainly weren't Wikileaks' to release, but, then, why did Amazon host Wikileaks in the first place?

Lieberman struck next at data visualization service Tableau for hosting charts about the leaked cables, though unrelated to the actual content of the cables. Tableau, like Amazon, cited their terms of service as their reason for removing the charts from their servers.

If Lieberman gets his way, his SHIELD Act (Securing Human Intelligence and Enforcing Lawful Dissemination), introduced Tuesday, will make it illegal for sites like Wikileaks to publish information" concerning the identity of a classified source or informant of an element of the intelligence community of the United States," or "concerning the human intelligence activities of the United States or any foreign government," according to a Wired article.

All this calls into question how far one could be associated with such leaks and still be breaking the law. If an American publication did like The Guardian and posted the leaked archive on it's site, would that be illegal?

It's hard to tell, but for the moment, students at Columbia with an eye on the public sector had best keep their online mouths shut on Cablegate.

The Choice Word of The Minnesota Daily

This last week revealed the grisly details of a multi-state prostitution ring, and the indictment of 29 people people involved, 17 of whom were arrested in Minnesota.

It is practically slavery what these Somali girls, some as young as 12 years-old, suffered at the hands of several gangs.

In the coverage that followed, MPR offered insight from a reformed gang member, as well as a mental health counselor, revealing that more outreach is needed for girls who find themselves falling into human-trafficking.

The Star Tribune showed the ways in which these Somali gangs differ from "traditional" gangs. They are highly mobile, operating in multiple cities in multiple states, and they bare no signs or tattoos signifying them as gang members.

Though MPR's article dances around several terms for the Twin Cities' Somali-Americans, (The Somali community, the Somali-American Community, Somali-American members) both news sources clearly distinguish those accused of committing the crimes from those who are saddened and horrified by these crimes.

However, the lede for The Minnesota Daily's article on reaction to the exposure of the sex-trafficking throws that distinction out the window.

To quote, "After the shocking arrest of 17 of their peers Monday, the Somali community of Minnesota is struggling to grasp the bust of a human trafficking sex ring that spanned three states."

Their peers? Community is acceptable, although too often it becomes a blanket term to describe what is really a diverse collection of people. But peers goes too far. It almost implies that this community as a whole is implicated with these 17 accused.

To call someone a peer means you have common ground in three areas: age, status, and ability. To think that Somali students walking to class on Northrop Mall or studying in Wilson Library would think these 17 young people their peers on the grounds of the latter two is absurd.

By calling these accused their peers, the article groups a wide range of Somali-Americans under one banner of delinquent "peers."

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