On Politics, Religion, Sex & Shutting Up Already

Blitz Magazine, November 2003

Remember the rule of the dinner party? ‘In polite conversation, one does not discuss politics, religion and/or sex.’

Who canceled that rule? When? And why? Because now, we not only discuss the above-mentioned, but everybody evidently feels compelled to beat each other over the head with their politics, religion and sexuality.

straight1In BC, magazines and newspapers are PST-exempt. We don’t collect it, and we don’t pay it. If we happen to pay it in the course of producing our publications, we get it back. And the BC Liberal government was hired, by the people of BC, to dig the province out of a desperate financial situation created by the left-wing New Democratic Party. And part of that administration’s duty is to efficiently collect taxes owing to the people of BC.

The Georgia Straight is a 36 year-old Vancouver newspaper. It’s unbound, on newsprint, available free at public outlets, and serves as an advertising vehicle for Vancouver retailers. It consists of pages of stacked ads, and a little editorial. Presumably, someone at the tax office saw this and said ‘Hey! The Georgia Straight is not a newspaper or magazine, because it has more advertising than editorial. So it’s not exempt.’

The tax office told the newspaper to pay $1 million in un-remitted Provincial Sales Tax.

Although it lists itself in Canadian Advertising Rates & Data’s community newspaper section, the Straight’s masthead says it’s ‘Vancouver’s News & Entertainment Magazine’. Either way, it claims that it has enough editorial to qualify as a magazine, because it prints free events listings, which its publisher says is “one of the ways in which the Straight serves the community.”

The tax guys claim that those listings are advertising.

I pick up the October 9th edition. It is 108 pages, including 21 pages of editorial and 7 of events listings. But the cover is a letter from Straight publisher Dan McLeod, in which he complains of the tax request, calling it “harassment, a “threat”, a “bizarre misuse of power”, and a “witch-hunt”.

MacLeod would have us believe that, because the Straight is left-wing, it is a target—that Liberals gathered one day and someone said: ‘OK, how can we shut down this paper!’ After evoking Richard Nixon (?!?!), MacLeod calls the tax request a “direct attack on all the arts and cultural and business life of the city,” [sic] and urges members of these groups to swear out affidavits in support of the Straight.

(Actually, money is what arts and cultural groups need, and they’d get more from the government if profitable businesses paid their taxes.)

I digress. Inside this issue, there is a 2/3-page editorial headed ‘Q&A About the BC Liberals’ Plan to Terminate the Straight.’ There is a cartoon of Premier Gordon Campbell with a screw emanating from his groin. There’s no by-line, so I assume that MacLeod wrote it. He refers to his paper as being threatened by politics and, believe it or not, mentions the Canadian Charter of Rights & Freedoms, announces a conspiracy between the BC Liberals and CanWest Global, and erroneously (way) claims that the Straight is the only independent journalistic enterprise in Vancouver.

What irks me is that MacLeod is saving his own political flag in our faces. He might as well be saying “I’m a Socialist and you have to join me in my fight against a government that is not Socialist so I can get out of paying my taxes!’

MacLeod runs a profitable enterprise. His paper sometimes covers issues that other papers might not, but it is, in fact, more of a lucrative business than a tool for social support, and people don’t need to hear about his politics or his conspiracy theories. He repeatedly mentions the Straight’s journalism awards, and refers to its ‘journalistic duty’ to fight the government, but appealing to left-wingers’ sensibilities in order to avoid paying taxes is journalistic abuse.

Also this week, a representative of the Catholic Church, irate about same-sex marriage, used the media to tell the Canadian Prime Minister that he ‘will burn in hell’. Who does he think he is? After what the Catholic Church has to answer for concerning the sexual practices of its representatives, condemnation of anyone’s sexual behaviour is hardly appropriate.

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Then I’m watching the ball game and the doorbell rings. A man stands at my door, clutching a copy of the Watch Tower. I don’t answer. Back to the game. A week earlier, I’d noticed that almost every member of the Florida Marlins crossed himself when he stepped up to the plate or makes a play. Now, the Sox are doing it. And the Cubs. They hit the ball and point to the sky. They make it to base and pull garish gold crosses out of their jerseys to kiss and flash. After one guy hits a game-saving home run, he tells a reporter: “I didn’t hit the ball. Our Lord Jesus Christ hit the ball.” (No, millionaire moron, you hit the ball.)

So now we have to tolerate spiritual exhibitionism in baseball? Didn’t Jesus purportedly say that we should keep our religious beliefs to ourselves and that proselytizing is a bad thing?

In the southern US states, there are Christian groups claiming to be planning to take over Israel and kill the Jews. There are Muslim nuts who want to kill all non-Muslims. American television is saturated with programming where members of the Religious Right tell people how to live their lives—and that if they don’t it right, in all senses of the word, they’ll be damned.

All of a sudden, people just have to go public with their beliefs. Why do they assume that others care what they believe? Or that we should care? Or that they have the right to insist that we care? In spite of all of our education and worldliness, and our knowledge of history, we’ve degenerated into a culture of spouters of the worst kind of rhetoric, all of which boils down to: ‘If you’re not with us, you’re against us.’ ‘If you don’t practice what we practice, you’re on the wrong side.’ ‘If you don’t love correctly, we will oppress you.’ ‘If you don’t believe what we believe, we will kill you.’

Religion is about intangibility. Belief in the intangible requires that faith trump reality. Government is about facts, figures and stark reality. Ergo religion has nothing to do with governing. When people claim otherwise, I remind them of what happens when religion permeates government—Iran, Iraq, Palestine, Israel, Afghanistan, Northern Ireland and, increasingly, the USA. Religion is for the faithful only. It has no place in the practical reality of everyday life and it has no business trying to foist itself on society at large.

This same-sex marriage thing also puzzles me. I’ve been surprised at my friends—even the most liberal are appalled at the idea. As one friend put it: ‘Marriage is taken. Let them have their civil contracts.’ But, in this country, not allowing ‘them’ to marry has been deemed discrimination. And the law is the law—in a perfect example of the beauty of Separation of Church and State.

straight5I admit that watching two men or women making out can be off-putting—maybe gays and lesbians feel squeamish when they see heterosexual couples kissing. I don’t know. And I don’t care. I don’t care who consenting adults sleep with and I’m sick of hearing about it. From gays, from lesbians, or from anyone else.

Pierre Trudeau said that the State has no place in the bedrooms of the nation. But that goes further. The Church also has no place in the bedrooms of any nation, or in the government of any nation. And publishers are not supposed to use their products to launch groundless accusations of conspiracy against governments who want them to pay their taxes. The same Charter of Rights & Freedoms that MacLeod leans on also allows gays and lesbians to marry and religions to freely operate.

Conversation and debate are healthy, and essential, to a free society. Trying to appeal to the worst elements of human nature, and trying to drag an agenda through a situation in hopes that people’s ignorance will stick to it, is extremely unhelpful. In a time of mass communication, it’s also dangerous.

I wish people would go back to the etiquette books. Practice their religions. Practice their politics. Practice their sexuality. Run their businesses. Live their lives. But quit using the media, and mendacious and intimidating tactics, to frighten others into joining their teams.

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On Communicators Needing to Think Things Through

Blitz Magazine, November 2007

thinking2I was watching Leno last night. He did his regular Headlines bit. It’s funny because it contains ads which are hilarious by virtue of careless errors, ignorance, laziness, and that old bane of writers: the do-it-yourself mentality of those who refuse to hire people who can actually write.

Lately, it has occurred to me that, when communicating with the public, more and more professionals are just not thinking things through.

Last summer, the White Spot restaurant chain ran a TV spot (ad nauseam) in which the gag was that the chef was left to clean up after a team of chefs worked all day to come up with new menu items. But, in the final shot showing the messy kitchen, every pot, pan and utensil was spotlessly clean. ‘Little problem with the props and art direction budget, I guess.

In October, I was one a judge on the Registered Graphic Designers of Ontario’s Design at Work show. I was judging the publications section and saw some beautiful work. But, being me, I had to read the pieces. And found that there were typos in some and grammatical errors in others. Well, if you’re producing a high-end publication, doesn’t it follow that you should hire a writer who, you know, can actually write? And who might stoop to proof the final before it goes to press?

It broke my heart to have to discard an absolutely stunning catalogue. Well, the first part was stunning. Then I got to the copy, and found that the designer had used silver type on a white background. Well, when you put silver type on a white background, you can’t read the type. And if you can’t read the type in a publication, the publication ceases to be a publication and it becomes a waste of paper.

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‘Same thing with web designers who slap 8-point type against a black background. What’s the point in putting words in view when there’s no hope of those words being read? This is why there’s now an entire mini-industry of Usability Experts—people who spend their lives teaching people to think things through.

A current TV spot for Maltesers shows two lovers cuddling on the couch. The guy is feeding the gal the balls of candy with the help of a straw. Which would be fine (sort of), except that the guy is 17 and the gal looks to be in her mid-40s. It’s actually pretty creepy. It’s as if the creative director wanted to appeal to that massive ‘high-school-kid-sleeping-with-his-teacher’ market.

President’s Choice has a new campaign, in which the tag line is ‘Worth Changing Supermarkets For.’ That’s kinda’ catchy. Or would be, if Canadians used the (American) term ‘supermarket’.

Then there’s the ‘Christmas’ v ‘Holiday’ thing. Here’s a case where communicators are really failing to think things through. ‘Christmas’ is a Christian holiday, celebrating the birth of a man named Jesus Christ. It is a very old holiday containing all kinds of rites that have been practiced for a very long time. And, even in today’s cynical world, a lot of people take it very seriously. To millions, it’s not just a retail bonanza.

But marketers say: “Well, we don’t want to insult Muslims and Jews!” And they point to some survey they did, in the course of which maybe 100 carefully-selected people who happened to answer their phones skewed in a certain direction and that was extrapolated to the population at large. Lame lame lame.

In the first place, I’ve yet to hear a Jew or a Muslim complain about feeling excluded from Christmas festivities. And I’ve yet to hear a Christian complain about feeling excluded from Hanukkah or Ramadan celebrations. Every religion has its own stuff; how hypocritical to praise multi-culturalism and diversity and pluralism and then lump the observances of three religions into a muddy term called ‘The Holidays’.

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Secondly, if non-Christian religious groups are so important marketers, why aren’t large advertising dollars spent on advertising specifically to them? Crafting advertising that is clearly trying to sell ‘Christmas’, while failing to tip-toe around two other religious holidays is not only nonsensical, but arrogant, disrespectful and insulting. To everyone.

Third, marketers are not getting it right. They use the term ‘For the Holidays’, but their stores are decorated with all of the accoutrements of Christmas. At the moment, in most malls and shops, all you can hear are Christmas carols. Why not play the Dreidel Song? It’s still All Christmas All the Time—it’s just that no one wants to say that word.

This is very weird. It’s taking political correctness to a foolish extreme. Marketers say it’s ‘good business’. It’s not. It’s just silly.

Fed Up With Hypocrisy : Bad Journalism Sparks a Rant

Blitz Magazine, March 2003

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Winston Churchill, a man famous for his powers of recall, remarked that a good memory was often a sorrow and an inconvenience (to him and, I presume, many others). And the only thing, I’m sure, which I have in common with Winston Churchill is a mind like a steel trap.

This is relevant because I used to be a social columnist. For three years, I covered up to 20 events a week. And not just galas and luncheons, but political events, sports events, functions involving law enforcement and military types, small parties, large parties, parties in honour of people from all walks of life and celebrating, or raising money for, an endless array of things.

This became relevant when BC Premier Gordon Campbell found himself living the nightmare of his life, after he was charged with impaired driving while on vacation in Hawaii. It was national news but, in BC, it was a feeding frenzy. The man’s mortification was gleefully compounded by everyone from journalists, to unionistas, to ‘pundits’, to people on the street. Local stations repeatedly devoted as much as 30 minutes to the story—some sent journalists to Hawaii, for Pete’s sake. I was as embarrassed by the coverage as I was for Campbell. The Hospital Employees Union is now using the incident in radio ads, and you can bet that the left is planning to dredge it all up in the next election.

So I’m watching, listening and reading the opinions of these people and the ol’ Winstonian memory is ticking like a stopwatch, and I’m thinking ‘Hey, but don’t you remember that night at the press club when you….?’ and ‘Wait a minute, what about the night you…?’ and ‘Surely you haven’t forgotten the incident at….!’ ‘And how did you get home?’

The only time I was tempted to actually speak up was when Opposition Leader Joy McPhail spoke up. Her party has (for good reason) only two seats and she is the most hypocritical, odious and opportunistic politician I’ve ever encountered. This is a woman not known for her, shall we say, demure social behaviour. ‘Lucky for her that my notebooks from those years are buried in a crammed crawl space, and that I’m too lazy to dig them out.

To those calling for Campbell’s head, and/or planning to use this incident it to fulfill their own agendas, I suggest that they search their memory banks to see if they’ve ever broken the law, whether the violation involved rolling through a stop sign, speeding through a school zone or neglecting to mention purchases at Canada Customs. They should be absolutely certain that they’ve never driven a vehicle after having too much wine, or after smoking a joint. Once they’re sure that they’re pure and innocent, they can squawk all they want. If they’re not blameless, they should shut up and let the man do his job.

sword1Journalistic free-for-alls are all-too-common these days. The rules seem to have been discarded. In the US, the FBI fabricated a story about five terrorists who had crossed the Canadian/US border to conduct a New Year’s Eve attack on New York. No journalist bothered to check the facts—one idiot working for a CBS affiliate claimed that he had shared a bus ride from BC with one of the ‘terrorists’—a man who was happily living in Lahore and had never been anywhere near Canada. The story was everywhere, Canada was blamed for everything. When it turned out that the story was false, there were no admissions of journalistic negligence.

‘Hard to believe that Pat Buchanan, one of the most dangerous men in America, has his own television show. Alas, he does and he spends a lot of time blaming Canada for America’s inability to guard its borders. He seems to forget that the US/Mexico border is one of the world’s most porous; indeed, I doubt that the US government could even hope to calculate the true populations of Florida, California and New York. (If he actually did the research, he’d know that 1% of people who illegally enter the US do so through Canada.)

And the National Review? Could there be a more precious organ for the paranoid and redneck? I can’t even stand to skim its website, never mind touch the physical product. This magazine is replete with inaccuracy and historical revisionism. To wit, a recent article which had the gall to suggest that Canada should be grateful to Americans for “all we’ve done for them”. Oh? Well, what would that be? Hmmm. I’m not really coming up with anything. Maybe the US lost a good chunk of its male population while staving off the enemy in WWI, while Canada took two years to show up? No, that’s not right—it was the other way around. And again in WWII? No, it was the Americans who were three years late…

I still feel for California politician Gary Condit who, by all accounts, was an honest and hard-working professional. Following the disappearance of one of his interns, he was quickly convicted, by the press, of murder. His career, finances and reputation were ruined. Trashed. The charge was led by Larry King and his posse of ‘crime experts’, and abetted by Vanity Fair, which allowed both Dominick Dunne and Judy Bachrach to absolutely skewer Condit. But the nail in his coffin was probably his decision to sit for what was an obscenely ridiculous interview with Connie Chung. Chung used the interview to revive a flat-lined career and was rewarded with her own show on CNN. We now know that Condit had nothing to do with the disappearance of the victim. Has anyone apologized to him?

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Closer to home, there have been alarming signs of journalistic decline. CTV Vancouver, for example, recently showed post-event ‘footage’ of the scene of an incident, without bothering to tell viewers that what they were seeing was shot after the incident took place. The same station reported the urban myth that a well-wisher snuck a puppy into Vancouver General Hospital to present to the victim of a dog attack. And the Seattle networks have taken to luring viewers to their newscasts by referring to Vancouver news stories as ‘Northwest Stories’.

And all over North America, in the US in particular, what one looks like is way more important than what one is saying. Anchor make-up is thicker, hair is more helmet-like, the clothing budgets higher but, increasingly, what we’re seeing and hearing on television news is sensationalistic, maudlin and biased. Reporting the actual facts, and providing the required background, is just so secondary. That sends credibility out the window. As I’ve said before, no credibility, no viewers/readers/listeners. No audience, no advertisers. Bad journalism is bad business.

The best journalists are always, and have always been, people who couldn’t wait to get out of high school before beginning to investigate the world—if they even bothered to finish high school. And there is no doubt that ‘journalism school’ is a colossal waste of time and money. People cannot be taught how to write well. People cannot be taught to be succinctly articulate, or to simultaneously think broadly and in terms of detail. People cannot be taught to develop instinct and curiosity. They cannot be taught to acquire integrity, discretion and love for the truth. People can only be taught the rules. And it’s increasingly obvious that people cannot be taught to remember, or care about, those rules.

Religion on TV: It Has to be a Choice

Blitz Magazine, May 2002

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I’m watching a murder mystery on 48 Hours. Suddenly, the show is interrupted by a sickly-looking man in a grey suit telling me that I should read the Bible. Then he reads a passage from the Bible, which explains why I’m supposed to read the Bible.

I realize that I’m watching 48 Hours on NowTV, a newly-created Canadian ‘family values’ station. I check the listings and find that 48 Hours is also on the American channel. I switch to the CBS channel; same signal. The grey man is still there, telling viewers to read the Bible.

I change the channel. Get NBC. Dateline. The subject is the latest sex abuse scandal to hit the Catholic Church. I watch a woman state that, for 10 years, she complained to her diocese executives about a priest who, she knew, was abusing boys. When asked why she simply didn’t call the police, she said that the priests told her not to.

I change the channel. I get a re-run of a recent news conference held by the local Anglican archdiocese. The British Columbia government is currently conducting a referendum to allow the public to voice its opinion on how aboriginal land treaties should be settled. The Anglican Church, which has much to answer for as far as treatment of aboriginals is concerned (and knows it), has told its flock to vote ‘no’ on all of the referendum questions.

The maxim that there absolutely must be a clear separation between Church and State is as true today as it was hundreds of years ago, when it was first enshrined in democratic processes. Religions are not supposed to tell us what to do. They are based on philosophy, faith, superstition and folklore. The priests, ministers, pastors etc., are supposed to present the ideals of their religious affiliations to accepting members of their congregations, and use those mores to offer guidance, when it is requested.

Politics, while also ideological, is fact-based. It follows the laws of economics and geography, and the facts of history. It reacts to reality. It creates reality. It provides reasonably workable frameworks within which we co-exist. And the people put in office to make the decisions which form these frameworks are elected by independent, free-thinking individuals.

What politicians and clergy do share is power over society—power that is granted to them by those they serve. It is, therefore, essential that there be reportage on how their actions affect us. The two institutions should be completely open to journalistic scrutiny, but neither institution can be allowed to fill the airways with dogma. I may have been watching some mindless ‘news’ show, which will in no way enhance my intellectual or spiritual life, but that’s my business. I am allowed to watch anything I like, and at no time did I consent to be interrupted by some guy spouting scriptural samplings.

Religion has caused must distress and bloodshed over the centuries. In my lifetime, it’s been Northern Ireland, Israel/Palestine, the American Religious Right, Muslim Fanaticism. When religion ceases to offer solace and guidance and begins to dictate the thoughts and actions of its adherents, it can do tremendous damage to society as a whole. Ferocious, irrevocable harm.

I’ve always been relieved that Canadians, while being free to practice any religion of their choosing, have also always been able to keep religion in perspective. That religion has never been allowed to force its way into our homes. That if we didn’t feel like being preached at, or hit up for money in the name of God, we could just change the channel.

Religious programming has always been there, always freely available to anyone who wants it. But, much more importantly, it has always been avoidable by those who wish to conduct their spiritual practices in the privacy of their own heads. In has to stay that way.

 

On the Post-9/11 Plague

Blitz Magazine, November 2001

On September 9th, it was time to start another book. I randomly plucked one from a shelf and began to read. The book was The Plague, by Albert Camus. By September 12th, I realized that the choice was an eerie coincidence.

plagueThe Plague, published in 1947, is the story of a city visited by the bubonic plague, and of the psychological and functional changes forced upon the city’s people. However, the plague is only a symbol. What Camus was really writing about was the German occupation of France.

We are now the plague-stricken, with our affliction being terrorism and everything that created it. The parallels between the novel and what we are now experiencing, and what we will experience, are too numerous to cite—you’ll have to read the book. But in it, Camus touches on the media and writes about how, when journalists become bored with reporting the death tolls, and on the frustratingly-slow recovery process, they turn their society’s disaster into morbid entertainment. Their news becomes limited to the information supplied by the Prefect. In the time of crisis, they lose all credibility.

In the aftermath of the September 11th attack on New York, I’ve been sickened by the media/Hollywood treatment of it. The image of the plane crashing into the World Trade Center just had to be shown again. And again. And again. And again. The major news organizations used it as a logo. There were/are the Creative Writing 101 titles: ‘America Under Attack’, ‘Helping America Heal’, ‘America’s New War’. The White House joined in, with Dubya’s speechwriter making him say things like ‘Dead or Alive!’ then helped with the branding of it all with the incredibly ridiculous ‘Operation Infinite Justice’. Dateline is still busy wringing every last melodramatic ounce from the disaster. Advertisers are running promotions around it: ‘Buy an RV and we’ll give $100 to the New York relief effort!’, and ‘Buy a 2002 SUV and help keep America moving!’

Other truly nauseating examples were the special editions of the magazines. Those from Time and Newsweek were little more than collections of photographs taken on and around that horrible day. As what? Keepsakes for scrapbooks and photo albums, to be pasted in along with the baby pictures? On September 16th, Fox scheduled Independence Day for its Sunday night movie. On the already moronic Entertainment Tonight, the story from the odious Mary Hart was how ‘The Stars’ managed to get home from the Toronto Film Festival. Then she interviewed a producer, who unwittingly summed up all that’s wrong with Hollywood when he said: “This kind of thing is entertainment as long as it’s fantasy. Once it happens, it ceases to be entertainment.”

plague1In The Plague, the citizens struggle to live their lives normally, in denial, helplessly going through the motions, obedient to every edict from the Prefect. Dissenters are quashed.

The novel’s main characters are heroes; doctors and volunteers, who spend their days lancing the buboes on the bodies of the stricken, in hopes that release and disposal of the noxious fluid will help bring an end to the pernicious plague.

There is only one character who self-destructs—the profiteer. This man makes a lot of money by appealing to the base instincts that arise in people during times of crisis; once the plague has run its course, he loses his mind, his friends and his freedom.

Camus was writing about World War II, and we know that this type of situation, and its effects on any society, has been the same for centuries. But the nature of media has changed; its scope and capabilities have changed. One would hope that, with all this sophistication, the behaviour of those who work in all forms of media would change for the better. I’m not seeing it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Freedom of Speech

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The cocktail talk is about John Ralston Saul. Saul, an established author on, among other things, political philosophy, is married to Canada’s Governor General. And, in his latest book, he states that the western world is, in part, to blame for the events of September 11th.

Horrors! In the House of Commons, acting Reform Party leader John Reynolds rants about the fact that the Governor General’s husband could say this. Prime Minister Chretien was happy to point out that Saul is an individual who is a member of a free society and can, therefore, say anything he likes.

On October 1st, Sunera Thobani, Assistant Professor of Women’s Studies at the University of British Columbia, addressed the unfortunately-named Women’s Resistance Conference (I’m sorry I missed that shindig). In her speech, Thobani sharply criticized US foreign policy, including its policy regarding the Arab world. Kaboom! There were calls for her job, calls for her head, calls for cuts to the university’s funding—Thobani suddenly needed a security detail.

Back at the cocktail party, the guy next to me recalls how nonplussed David Letterman was after the September 11th attack. Of every pundit on his show, he asked: ‘Why would they do this? How could they hate us?’

Hello, I say. Of course the western world bears some responsibility for this attack. Of course US foreign policy has been horribly wrong. Of course many Arabs deeply resent the western world. Every federal dollar that every western government has ever sent in support of Israel, while not providing equal support to the Palestinians, has been a drop of gasoline on the inferno has resulted in 9/11. Many people—of all religions and political stripes, cannot believe that democratic leaders support a government that treats human beings the way the Israelis treat, and have long treated, the Palestinians. I note to my martini-swilling pals, that I have a Jewish friend who sees no difference between the Israelis, the IRA, Al Qaeda and the goons in Somalia and the former Yugoslavia. Yet, she tells me, she can’t express her thoughts to any member of her family, including her husband.

“Shhhh!” my friends say. “Lower your voice! Someone might hear you!”

So? What the hell is going on here? We’re all of a sudden not allowed to say what we think? We all have to toe some line of political correctness? Whose apple cart are we not supposed to upset?”

People are going to read this and say “Oooh. You shouldn’t have said that.”

Why not? Does stating my opinion mean that I’m going to be called ‘stupid’ for blasting hypocrisy? Anti-Semitic for disagreeing with Israel? Sued for injuries to someone’s sensibilities? Or attacked in the name of someone’s god?

Dubya can’t say enough about the “boys overseas” who are “fighting to preserve the freedoms we hold dear.” Well, that includes freedom of speech. In this country, in the US, in all democratic nations, we’re all allowed to say what we think. To whomever we want. Wherever and whenever we choose. We’re allowed to print opinion, broadcast opinion, shout opinion. If someone doesn’t like it, he can argue back, voice his own views, open a debate. It’s that kind of communication—free communication—that leads to resolution.

If more of us had spoken our minds all along, maybe September 11th wouldn’t have happened. Maybe billions of dollars, which are much needed elsewhere, wouldn’t be going up in smoke over Afghanistan. Maybe some of the countless people who have died over the Israel/Palestine issue in last 50 years would still be around. And if more people start saying what they think, and telling the truth regardless of public relations, party position or political fall-out, maybe we could enter 2002 with a little more optimism.

 

Blitz Magazine, January 2002

Cross-Burning, Cross-Border Oil & Celebrating Cruelty: A Bad Week for PR

Blitz Magazine, May 2001

In the last week, not once but three times, I’ve been gob-smacked. Dumbstruck. By PR disasters that leave me wondering what, if anything, public relations professionals are being taught. And, if they have any brains at all, why they’re not using them.

The first time was when I heard/watched BC Member of Parliament Hedy Fry tell fellow MPs, and the nation, that the practice of cross-burning was prevalent in Prince George, BC. (We now know that Fry invented the story and has trashed her career. Only her psychiatrist knows why.)

bush2The baffled Prince George mayor speculated that Fry might be thinking of another city (there’s a Prince George in Virginia). The region’s bemused RCMP boss suggested that, if someone was burning crosses, he would probably have heard about it.

The next instance of gob-smacking was care of George Bush. We know the guy’s an idiot, but I think everyone was kind of hoping that he could maybe tiptoe through the next four years with minimal damage and embarrassment. Alas…

Just after the Fry outburst, Dubya declared that a) he’s not interested in environmental protection and b) to solve the problem arising from the fact that America’s population has overwhelmed its resources, he’ll tap into the Northwest Territories’ oil and gas reserves. Oh?

It would be career suicide for any Canadian politician to agree to such a thing. So the issue will drag out for many years. By then, cars will run on electricity or compressed air (if there’s any air left) and Dubya will be a  bad memory. Still, the oil companies could send him up to negotiate with environmental groups and Canada’s aboriginal peoples. That would keep him busy, in a nice cool climate, for, oh, ten years or so.

bush1Not one day after Dubya left me speechless, I was gob-smacked again, when a local announcement had me, once again, saying ‘What the…?’ to my television.

The Vancouver Aquarium is no longer allowed to take whales from the wild. It can, however, capture dolphins. While this issue is being debated, the facility evidently though it needed some light-hearted PR. It launched a campaign celebrating its ‘Golden Girls’. In particular, one whale that has been in captivity for 30 years. Yippee.

Picture a baby girl. Your daughter, niece, sister. Snatched from her cradle and family. Caged. Taught to perform ridiculous tricks to amuse paying tourists. She matures in public, mates in public. When she produces a child, the birth is televised, people cheer, ‘Baby dies, but never mind. On her 30th birthday, her captors call her a Golden Girl and urge everyone to celebrate—and people teach their children that all of this is a good thing.

 

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(And no, the practice of keeping wild animals in captivity is not important for education—it’s a cruel hold-over from the Victorian Era. National Geographic videos, which can be bought, rented or borrowed, are way more educational.)

Massive PR gaffs, yes. But it must be remembered that, behind these gaffs, are people who are paid rather a lot of money to make sure that PR gaffs don’t happen. Public relations professionals are supposed to ‘control the message’, guide their clients, tell them what to say and, especially, what not to say. If they can’t control their clients, they’re at least supposed to make an effort. They don’t appear to be making much of an effort, not lately anyway.

bush4Whoever handles Hedy Fry should change careers. Whoever handles Bush should tighten his grip. And the aquarium’s PR people should focus on repositioning it as a strictly heal-and-release facility.

PR and publicity advisors should stop assuming that audiences are stupid. Some people may be too stunned to response immediately. Words and actions, little blurbs read, may not be reacted to, but they are stored away, perhaps sub-consciously. Eventually—often at election time, those memories will surface.