Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Professor apologizes for Appalachian slur

Peter Gordon, an assistant professor at Columbia University, has apologized for comments he made in The New Yorker magazine.

Gordon used the term "Appalachian inbreeding" to defend the intelligence of a South American people he has been studying. Columbia was flooded with emails complaining about the remark and demanding an apology.

Apparently Gordon didn't see this paper from the University of Kentucky.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

A depressing truth

I spent much of today at a murder scene, taking photographs and walking the rutted road that the alleged killers took when they brought the victim to the site, killed him and dumped his body. It wasn't a fresh scene -- the body was discovered and removed some six months ago -- but it still brought the truth about violent death into sharp focus once again.

I've been at death scenes -- natural deaths, accidental deaths and murders -- many times. It's part of the job when you're a reporter, and I did that job for 18 years. It's also part of being a true-crime author. Every death is different, but there is one overriding truth in all of them: it is not glamorous. On television, in movies and in music, violent death is high art. The reality is that violent death is depressing and very often degrading.

The elderly victim from the crime scene I visited today was strangled in the middle of a muddy road, and his face was held in a puddle to make sure he was dead. Then he was dragged along the road and up a hill, losing scraps of clothing, shoes, and a cap in the process. Finally, his body was rolled down a hill toward a stagnant, algae-covered pond and left crumpled next to a foot-high pile of empty beer bottles. He lay there for two weeks before police finally located his body.

That place says more about the attitude of the killer or killers than any testimony at trial could ever say. This man's life was no more valuable than an empty bottle, no more than the rusted hulk of an appliance dumped over the hill a scant 50 yards away. The killer thought no more of this man than the jagged shards of coal and slate over which the body was dragged after the murder.

In the wake of the Virginia Teach shootings, attention is focused again on the movies, and music that might or might not incite kids into violent behavior. Rather than attack the movies, I believe a more effective means of addressing young people's fascination with death would be to expose them to the real thing. Real murder victims aren't glamorous. They're dumped with the garbage, or found floating face down in a cesspool.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Is Columbia professor qualified to teach?

Peter Gordon, an assistant professor at Columbia University, interviewed by a writer for The New Yorker magazine used the term "Appalachian inbreeding" in a quote defending the intelligence of an Amazonian tribe.

The question now is this: Who is going to defend Gordon's intelligence? The quote was so stupid on so many different levels that it begs another question as well: Is Peter Gordon qualified to teach?

Columbia has a hell of a good reputation, but if it employs people of Gordon's caliber, that reputation might be in danger. Words cannot adequately express how colossally ignorant Gordon's statement was. And his non-apology ain't gonna cut it either. When called to account for what he said, Gordon stepped in the cow pie again.

Gordon told Lee Mueller of the Lexington Herald-Leader: "It was just a reference. I'm really sorry. I really was just talking about a tribe in Brazil." Since when does Appalachia have anything to do with South America? To make matters worse he said he would never intentionally offend Appalachians, noting that his wife lives in Northern Kentucky. Sounds an awful lot like the "some-of-my-best-friends-are-black" defense.

Don Imus just lost his job for using a racial and gender slur to describe the Rutger's women's basketball team, but it appears Gordon is going to get away with using an ethnic slur against Appalachians. Columbia's only response was that it doesn't censor its faculty.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Whitesburg suddenly a different town

The city of Whitesburg, which I describe in PRECIOUS BLOOD as a town where alcohol is against the law, is now a changed place. As of 6 p.m. today, Whitesburg became wet.

When the polls closed and the votes were counted, the wet forces had won overwhelmingly. I don't have the total vote now, but with the two largest precincts counted, the referendum on restaurant alcohol sales was ahead by 261 votes. There are not enough registered voters in the third precinct to reverse the trend, even if every voter in the city limits voted "no."

But while the referendum passed by a wide margin, it will take at least four months before the first legal drink can be sold. The city will become wet 60 days after the election results are certified, during which time the city must appoint an ABC administrator and pass the other necessary ordinances. The licensing process will then take about 60 days for each restaurant that applies. This is a abbreviated information, of course. You can get the full story from the state ABC Board.

Once it's official, restaurants that seat at least 100 people and are inside the city limits will be able to apply to sell alcoholic beverages by the drink, as long as they earn at least 70 percent of their receipts from food.

Book signing on April 18

I will be signing copies of PRECIOUS BLOOD at the Harry M. Caudill Library in Whitesburg, Ky., tomorrow, April 18, beginning around 9 a.m.

The library is just down the street from the Letcher County Courthouse, where the criminal proceedings outlined in PRECIOUS BLOOD took place in 2002. The signing is part of the library's celebration of National Library Week.

A tragedy and a failure

Thirty-three dead. Twenty-four wounded. The number of dead and wounded in the Virginia Tech massacre speak not only to the unbelievable tragedy of the shooting, but also the failure of our society on many different levels.

Why would someone kill 33 of his fellow students? Why didn't the college cancel classes immediately when the first two bodies were discovered -- two hours before the deadlier rampage began? Why were students not warned of a possible shooter on campus earlier?

Police are still investigating the incident, but one thing has become abundantly clear already: If future tragedies are to be avoided, students must be taught how to respond to these emergencies. Witness after witness in the Blacksburg college said they hid under their desks while the shooter pumped bullet after bullet into their classmates. So far there is no word of anyone attempting to stop him. Students blocked the door in only one known case.

Students in the U.S. are taught from their earliest experience in school not to fight back. They are taught to be passive -- to take any abuse without striking out to protect themselves. If they do defend themselves, they receive the same punishment as the aggressor. This is a ludicrous policy. Confronted with a crazed shooter, passive behavior will only get you killed.

The first response should be to barricade the door and prevent the shooter from getting in. If that fails, students should be taught to respond with force. A man with a gun will probably wound an attacker, but he will certainly kill many if they hunker down under flimsy school desks. Those desks would be much more effective as missiles than as shields.

Would the number of dead have been less had students fought back? It's impossible to say. But the numbers certainly couldn't have been higher.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Plagiarism or something worse?

Faces are red at CBS News over a segment of Katie Couric's Notebook that the network now acknowledges was taken almost word-for-word from a Wall Street Journal column by Jeffrey Zaslow.

Notebook is a column-like segment in which Evening News anchor Couric allegedly opines about things that have caught her attention. I say allegedly, because CBS now says that a producer -- not Couric -- wrote the piece after the idea for it came up at a meeting about what the Notebook should include. CBS fired the producer, whom it declined to name.

The question is, which is most embarrassing: The revelation that someone at CBS plagiarized a column from the Wall Street Journal, or the revelation that the network's top reporter doesn't even write her own column?

And network brass wonder why CBS News comes in third in the big three's nightly news race.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Changes in Whitesburg

It has only been two days since PRECIOUS BLOOD came out, and already some of the things described in the book may be changing. As I noted in the book, alcohol sales have been banned in Letcher County, Kentucky, since World War II, but an election is set for Tuesday, April 17, to change that within the city limits of Whitesburg.

The ballot initiative, if passed, would allow limited sale of alcoholic beverages in Whitesburg. Restaurants that seat at least 100 people would be able to sell beer and wine by the drink, though hard liquor would still be illegal. It would also be illegal for anyone to open a bar, since at least 70 percent of the establishments income would have to come from the sale of food.

Predictably, there's been a hue and cry from certain quarters about the vote. Personally, I hope it passes. While there are only four restaurants in town that are big enough to qualify for sales, I think you'll see more if the measure passes. I know for a fact that one large chain restaurant wants to move in, and I think others will probably follow suit. It would also allow restaurants to sell wine produced less than 10 miles away at Letcher County's only winery. Currently, the wine can be sold only at the Highlands Winery or to wholesalers.

Right now, anyone who wants a drink with their meal have to go to Perry County or the city of Pikeville, Ky., or to Wise County, Va., to get it. Whitesburg can only gain economically if tourists can have a nice dinner with wine there, rather than going somewhere else to get it.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Publication day!

Today is the publication date for PRECIOUS BLOOD. Amazon is advertising that you'll get the book tomorrow if you order it today. You can order by clicking the PRECIOUS BLOOD links in this post, or by clicking the Amazon link on the right side of the page. You can also see the cover and read about the book at the above links.