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.

straight4 straight3

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.

Religion on TV: It Has to be a Choice

Blitz Magazine, May 2002

 tv

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 Freedom of Speech

FREE Poster.indd

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Anorexia

anorexia

Blitz Magazine, September 2000

British Prime Minister Tony Blair takes a lot of flack for his occasionally ridiculous attempts to please everybody. And when he responded to the concerns of his medical community by summoning members of the fashion and advertising industries to No. 10 for a recent confab on Britain’s escalating problem with anorexia nervosa, I just shook my head.

Like everyone who went to an English boarding school, I have rather too much experience with anorexia nervosa, that pernicious disease which has long plagued girls’ boarding schools in the UK. Of the 30 girls in my house, two were anorexic. I’ll call them Rebecca and Sarah. I don’t know what became of Rebecca, but I do know that Sarah died of a heart attack, at 15.

Sarah was a preternaturally talented athlete. Rebecca hoped to become a physicist. They agonized over Latin verbs; I never saw them give themselves more than a cursory glance in a mirror. Six days a week, we played sports for two hours, studied for eight. Make-up was verboten. No one read Vogue. We didn’t have TV. Or a mall to shop in. And we didn’t care.

So, while I’m no expert, I have watched someone starve herself to death and can confidently state that it’s absurd to blame anorexia on advertising. Note that the fashion, cosmetic and entertainment industries did not exist 200 years ago, when Cambridge University began documenting and studying cases of anorexia.

I was just looking at a picture of Stella Tennant, a glaring example of what the British medical community is upset about. She’s the English aristocrat/haute couture favourite who is 6’ and, maybe, 110 lbs. A well-adjusted teen-ager looks at Tennant and thinks ‘Ugh.’ But it does not automatically follow that a mal-adjusted girl thinks ‘I must look like her.’ That conclusion is too simplistic.

Anorexia is a complicated psychiatric issue, not a consumer issue, and it’s pointless to blame it on marketers. Advertising probably exacerbates existing psychological problems, but it doesn’t cause them. And even if that blame were correctly placed, is Calista Flockhart going to be fired for being too thin? No. Are the creative directors for Prada and Gucci going to start using chubby models in print ads? No. Because, for now, skeletons sell.

We all know the blah blah about the entertainment and marketing media’s objectified portrayal and exploitation of the female body. But when discussing anorexia, that conversation is secondary. Because anorexia is the result of bad parenting. By people who give their girls cash, credit cards and pagers instead of books, pianos and cleats. Who are too busy to notice that their daughters feel so rejected, inadequate and powerless that the concept of ingesting food (mysteriously) becomes repulsive. Anorexia is a disease born of neglect, not emulation.

The advertising industry can be blamed for contributing to rampant consumerism. That’s its job. Agencies are paid by producers of consumer products. Who operate in a free market. Blair cannot say to these companies: ‘Change how you do business because you’re killing our daughters’.

As for the Downing Street ‘Anorexia Summit’, we’ll evidently never know what was discussed. All requests for information to official sources were ignored, and none of the organizations dealing with eating disorders were included or up-dated. Which leads me to believe that there was no solution found. Of course.

 

 

Doing the Needful: Defending the Hateful

collinsBlitz Magazine, May 1999

Doug Collins just won’t go away. Collins is the (retired, thankfully) North Shore News columnist who is famous for his ridiculously right-wing positions—he’s a ‘new Canadian’ who constantly rails against immigration; he believes that the Auschwitz photographs were propaganda. On and on goes a never-ending stream of vitriol, a bilious spew which the paper’s editor, Tim Renshaw, appears to be unable, or unwilling, to stem.

When I was the North Shore News’ social columnist, I was often criticized—and, twice, banned from events—because I worked for the same paper that employed him (in a creepily stalwart and loyal manner, I might add).

Now that he’s hung up his dripping spike, I see Collins only at the dog park, where it seems that even the dogs move a little faster to pass this grim, angry guy.

In 1993, changes to the Canadian Human Rights Act included newspapers and other publications in the Act’s provisions. Those amendments, now embodied in the Human Rights Code, prohibit the publication of any statement that ‘indicates’ discrimination, or is ‘likely’ to expose a person, or group, or class of persons, to hatred or contempt.

In 1994, Collins wrote four columns to which a Jewish man objected. The man filed a complaint with the Human Rights Commission. In February, a tribunal found Collins guilty of violating the BC Human Rights Code. He was ordered to pay the complainant $2000., and the North Shore News was ordered to cease publishing statements that ‘expose, or are likely to expose, Jewish persons to hatred or contempt.’

In April, Collins filed an appeal of this decision with the BC Supreme Court. He objects to the tribunal’s determination that it has a mandate to decide the appropriateness of a newspaper column, and that it can dictate the newspaper’s content. He is challenging the Human Rights Code, claiming that it infringes the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and that it ‘is not a reasonable limit prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.’

No one wants to side with Doug Collins, but we are all now in the position of having to support his argument.

Journalists, through their presentation of factual information and their statements of opinion, are supposed to expose people, or groups of people, to contempt or hatred. Pedophiles, rapists, skinheads, ‘freedom fighters’, serial killers, crooked politicians—all need to be exposed to, at least, contempt. As a society, we need that exposure to take place. And, in a free society, we can’t have some tribunal (even the word is repellant) telling journalists that they must be selective in their reportage or statement of opinion—that it’s OK to not flatter, or to damage, the position of one group, but not another.

I have not read the offending columns. I read one hate-filled columns years ago and have not since read anything written by Doug Collins. But the courts have to grant that the public is capable of that same discrimination; that people have the ability to know, or learn, what is credible and what is nonsense. The courts have to provide protection for that nonsense. If they don’t, the credible—the essential—will be unprotected. As will we all.

 

On Dicks & Democracy

spin

Blitz Magazine, May 2001

I used to spend a lot of time with a political strategist. I’ll call him Dick. I can’t say I knew him well, because it was his goal to not be known well. Once, he had too much to drink and let slip his mother’s name. The only time I got a direct answer from him was when I asked the time.

I thought of Dick while watching the ‘debate’ during the run-up to the recent provincial election. There were four candidates, facing four seasoned journalists. The journalists asked questions. Their questions were not answered, not even indirectly. The robots spouted scripted statements vaguely relating to the subject. No one was challenged; there was no debate of any kind. Later, the media discussed who won.

There were only three notable things about the session: the incumbent’s response to every question was a tired deflection against Gordon Campbell; Campbell’s constant repetition of the words ‘British Columbia’, as if to remind himself what province we’re in. And Green Party leader Adrienne Carr’s statement that she “truly believes” that private sector businesses would “find a way”, on their own, to establish wage parity. Sure. Have another joint.

I’ve had several conversations with Premier-Elect Campbell over the years. Ordinary, interactive conversations. But for this election, he’d clearly put himself thoroughly in the hands of a Dick. So had the others. I could hear the conversation, applicable to any one of them.

“You said we weren’t supposed to speak to the public.”

“Correct.”

“Then why am I doing this debate?”

“Just recite one of the responses you’ve memorized.”

“What if the response doesn’t match the question?”

“Immaterial.”

“What if the journalists notice?”

“They’ll be drunk.”

“And later, when journalists gather around me to scram-”

“Scrum. Say nothing. Be in a hurry.”

“But what about democratic principles? What about my obligation to be open, honest, forthwith—”

“Forthright.”

“That too.”

“Forget democratic principles. This is an election.”

BC politics has always been unusual. But this election was extraordinary. I’ve never seen an election, anywhere, where the Dicks so obviously orchestrated everything. No attempt was made to hide that fact that Dicks had total control. Over every movement, every syllable spoken. No one got a direct response to any question, from any candidate, at any time. No citizen was able to spontaneously communicate with any candidate: when a candidate arrived somewhere, the grassroots members that everyone’s always gushing about were unable to get near him without literally muscling through the pre-arranged barrier of placard-waving supporters.

Thomas Paine is often misquoted. He didn’t say that ‘power corrupts’. He said that ‘authority corrupts’. The difference is evident here. Those who have attained power ceded the authority to acquire that power to highly-paid Dicks, Who are faceless, invisible, simultaneously paid by many differing interests, accountable to no one.

Who loses? Any pre-existing good intentions on the part of prospective politicians are smothered, which must make politics torture for the well-meaning. Governments vanish behind a fog that we can’t rely on journalists to dispel, because centralized media ownership dictates their positions. And the man on the street? What man on the street?

When Dicks run the show, we lose, Dicks win. The Dicks gotta’ go.


 

On Automobiles, Advertising & Talking to Americans

Blitz Magazine, January 2003

suv

I’m sitting in traffic, in my Mustang. We’re not going anywhere and I have no idea why. Because I can’t see a thing. I am surrounded by SUVs. And I start to think about how gullible people are. We know that, in an accident, an SUV is 30% more likely to roll and 25% more likely to kill the other driver. We know that, by virtue of their size, SUVs increase traffic volume, thereby increasing the amount of time vehicles are on the road, thus the amount of fuel burned. We know that SUVs burn more fuel individually, and that they cost more to insure. Yet people keep buying them.

I prefer the European attitude toward automobiles. They’re mere appliances, made of steel and plastic and rubber and fibre. Their purpose is to get people from point A to point B, in a safe and efficient manner, with some speed and a little fun thrown in. If you look at any European street, it’s clear that people there don’t care about dents and scratches, or dust and mud. I have an English friend who drives an old Bentley. It makes strange sounds, smells of cigars and is usually full of damp dogs, but it’s fuel-efficient and there’s no point in fixing something that ain’t broke. Over there, people like nice cars, but cars are by no means the status symbols that they are on this side of the pond.

In North America, automobile advertising has people believing that, without an SUV, people might not be able to drive up mountains—as many of us so often have to. Worse, advertising has people believing that SUVs are safe, and that they’re essential for good parenting. That a huge van with a built-in entertainment system is a must for childhood happiness, or that the ability to reconfigure seating will keep kids from fighting. I spend $80 a month on gas, which is barely enough to get the average SUV-wielding soccer mom to and from Wal-Mart. In fact, the money that parents spend on these contraptions each year far exceeds the annual tuition at most private schools.

The other message being swallowed is speed. (I should admit here that speed has always been a problem for me. In fact, I flunked my first driving test by going over the speed limit.) But, in Vancouver as, I’m sure, in other cities, speed has become an increasingly deadly problem.

On the one hand, there’s a huge population of recent yuppies who are too busy to drive their teen-agers anywhere. It’s a lot easier just to buy them their own high-performance cars—and trust them. On the other hand, Vancouver has a huge population of Asian immigrants. These people work hard and prosper in their new county, and they want to give their kids (especially their sons) everything their hearts desire. And they’re new to the culture, so they’re finding their way through that culture’s media.

In both cases, if the family prize wants the newest, fastest car on the lot? No problem! ‘Course, he could end up blind, paralyzed, dead or in jail… Recently, in a Vancouver suburb, road-racing teens snuffed out the life of a 30 year-old RCMP officer. This week, the officer’s parents (also Asian immigrants) were on the news—he was their only child and the item was on how they’re working with local government to stop road racing. The broadcast then went to commercial—it was a spot from Subaru, about its newest, fastest car. It’s ‘rally-proven!’

So now the question is, how socially responsible will advertisers be forced to become? We can’t advertise tobacco. We can’t show anyone drinking liquor. There are strict rules governing promotion of those products and only hypocrites can support those rules while claiming that the Zoom Zoom Zoom commercials don’t contribute to dangerous behaviour.

Obesity is a huge problem among North America’s youth, with a thoroughly preventable disorder saddling millions of kids with diabetes and heart disease. What’s this going to do to the rules of advertising for McDonald’s? Coca Cola? Chips, pop, doughnuts? Candy, chocolate bars? Pizza? Or those fat-packed, salt-soaked pre-made meals people keep buying?

We know that one cause of obesity is a sedentary lifestyle. What’s going to happen to the marketing of video games? Computers? And now Canada has ratified the Kyoto Accord and we are committed to reducing greenhouse gases. What’s going to happen to that automobile advertising? I have no answers here—but I do know that the future of marketing is going to be very interesting.

The whole Kyoto storm was another amusement. There’s Alberta Premier Ralph Klein, touting the oil industry line that cutting greenhouse gases is going to cost thousands of jobs and all kinds of money. Meanwhile, the precious Alberta beef industry depends (duh) on climate. Following the worst drought in the memory of every farming community on the Canadian prairies (the ‘bread-basket of the world’), Alberta farmers were shipping their cows to slaughter and entering lotteries in which the prizes were rail car-loads of moldy hay.

BC Premier Gordon Campbell took the same position as Klein. But Vancouver and its environs are now legally committed to bidding on the 2010 Winter Olympics. I’m writing this on December 16th. Vancouver’s famed winter rain arrived last week—two months late. I have a garden full of flowers, and the local mountains have yet to see a snowflake. Let’s hope that Whistler/Blackcomb can make enough snow by the time the Olympic Selection Committee gets here.

In the US, it’s ‘Global warming? What global warming?’ Rising sea levels are causing the United States to physically, and rapidly, shrink. Inestimable damage is done every year by increasingly intense storms, and American farmers are no happier than Canadian farmers. Cross-border smog has created an epidemic of asthma among Ontario children; in summer, from the sky, Toronto is barely visible. There are pockets of Texas where up to 40% of the population suffers from respiratory ailments and cancer is rampant. Ah, yes, Texas. Home of the World’s Most Dangerous Man.

There’s little doubt that, when Jean Chretien’s communications director called George Bush a ‘moron’, it was one helluva PR gaff—even though she was telling the truth. But it made me recall a famous quote by Barbara Bush. It took place at a party celebrating Dubya’s first Texas gubernatorial election. Babs, not realizing that there was a journalist behind her, reportedly turned to her daughter and said: “Can you believe this?”

If a guy’s mother doesn’t think he should be in public office, he shouldn’t be in public office. But Babs raised Dubya to do what he’s told, and he’s doing it. Texas industry put him in power and the result if now evident there. American industry put him in national power and the damage is evident everywhere else. Two years of this guy and the world is a disaster. Last night, Al Gore announced that he won’t run in the next presidential election; I get the feeling that he thinks he might not be able to fix things. On the same broadcast of 60 Minutes, Donald Rumsfeld was shown telling Steve Croft that the war on Iraq has ‘Nothing to do with oil. Nothing whatsoever’.

He’s lying. And everyone knows he’s lying. Senior US cabinet officials are popping up all over the place, doing as many interviews as they possibly can, trying to sell a war that has no credible basis. It’s gone past the point of ridiculousness to the point of comedy. Every day, there are reports that UN weapons inspectors have found nothing, and that they have unfettered access to suspected sites. And, almost every day, the British or American PR machines come out with a ‘new’ piece of ‘evidence’. ‘Oh,’ they say, ‘We’ve had this evidence for years—we just didn’t tell anyone.’ Who do they think they’re kidding?

Anyway, what set me off on this tangent is a 60-minute re-run of Rick Mercer’s Talking to Americans. At one time one of the funniest concepts on TV, watching it became one depressing experience. As you’ll recall, Mercer would ask Americans to comment on outrageously stupid ideas. So we see Americans congratulating Canada on legalizing insulin and staplers, the completion of 800 miles of paved road, getting a second area code and becoming part of North America. ‘Hysterically funny.

Then a professor at Columbia University signs a petition against placing Canadian senior citizens adrift on ice floes. A professor at Harvard, after proudly proclaiming that he received tenure in 1965, agrees that Irish-Canadians should be allowed to vote. A professor at Boston College considers the merits of Canada’s honouring of its treaty with Chief Gordon Lightfoot and allowing an annual rhino hunt. A professor at Stanford concurs with the notion of sending ground troops into Saskatchewan. And the governor of Arkansas congratulates Canada on getting FM radio. And they’re all serious.

When these spots first aired, Bill Clinton was president of the United States. If the American media had been less obsessed with his sex life, the world may be in better shape today; he recently told David Letterman that all of ‘that’ definitely distracted his administration from the hunt for Osama bin Laden, which began in the early ‘90s.

There was never any doubt about Clinton’s intellect. The guy is probably a genius. And when someone that sharp is running the show, other types of ignorance can be funny.

Now, ignorance is as deadly as any other weapon. And the Leader of the Free World (shudder here) is a dimwit. His ignorance is a staple on Saturday Night Live. It is commonly discussed on the late night talk shows. It’s now mentioned by mainstream journalists, as if it’s OK. But it’s not OK. While one can occasionally see a dim flicker of understanding in those tiny little eyes, there’s little doubt that he’s not the one running show. He’s being handled. Who by? Who knows? PR experts certainly, but who are they and what agenda do they have?

 My thoughts return, again, to how gullible people are. Americans in particular. There should have been massive protest, even civil disobedience, when Bush was elected in the shadiest of shady elections. There wasn’t. Texans voted for the guy because he likes to talk tough—they love that ‘Don’t Mess With Texas’ mantra. Just a few months ago, Americans had a chance to reduce the number of Republicans in office, reduce Bush’s power and damage his chances for re-election. Yet barely 25% of them turned out to vote.

My conclusion is that North Americans have adopted the mentality of sheep. If it’s advertised, buy it. If a politician says it, it must be true. If it’s in the papers, it’s gotta’ be real. Perhaps this mentality is not new, but it’s never been more unhealthy, more damaging, or more dangerous. And what we all want—what we all absolutely need—is for everyone to start telling the truth.

 

On Being Sick of the Blood

Blitz Magazine, January 2007

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The year of BC news-viewers’ discontent has begun, and in the most appalling fashion. It was yesterday that the first trial of alleged serial killer Robert Pickton began. We had been duly warned: Global began to advertise its up-coming coverage a week ago. Now, it has become clear that the news-viewing public will be forced to watch the media engage in the agonizing process of sucking every ounce of blood from this already-bloody story.

Pickton, as you know, is accused of killing 26 women, whom he lured from the Vancouver’s skid row to his suburban pig farm. He is now on trial for six of those murders. A cursory view of CTV showed that its coverage was in pretty good taste. Global was a different animal altogether, with anchor Deb Hope using her nauseating ‘there, there’ voice to repeatedly warn squeamish viewers to use their discretion, following which no fewer than five reporters filed from the courthouse.

Every available family member was tagged for comment, a diagram of the courthouse was shown and explained, the judge was profiled, the Crown prosecutor and lead defense lawyer were profiled, the victims were profiled. The biggest guffaw was elicited by an interview with a child psychologist who advised how to counsel parents on how to help their children deal with this coverage—although I noted that he did not advise turning the TV off.

We all know about the ‘if-it-bleeds-it-leads’ mantra. We’re used to it, which is why we’re all so desensitized to the carnage we watch on the news every day. But so much has been said about ‘thinking outside the box’, that one would think that news organizations might pick up on that. They haven’t. No news organization seems to want to dare to step outside of said box and make changes so that their news delivery is more dignified and professional. Instead of wanting to simply inform and enlighten, they want to continue to pile it on, feeding the most base and prurient thoughts to be mined from the minds of viewers.

Does this help society in any way? Not a whit. In fact, I would suggest that it contributes to stress, anxiety, negativity, fear, callousness, even crime. Not everyone watching these stories is rational, intelligent and strong enough to listen to this crap without being influenced by it. Indeed, perhaps Robert Pickton is one of those people.

 

On the Dog Park & Self-Expression

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Blitz Magazine, November 2008

I’m very fortunate to live in a community which has an off-leash dog park—a 13-acre dog park, complete with five running fields, two beaches and endless supplies of plastic bags (biodegradable, of course). Given that Vancouver is a very doggy city, this park is extremely popular; hundreds of people pass through there every day. It is a microcosm of society, in that it is used by people from all walks of life and socio-economic levels, of all ages, ethnicities and nationalities. And I’ve been observing what choices and styles of dog ownership say about their owners.

For example, I get talking to a guy with a very large, unusual-looking dog. I asked him about it and he proudly stated: “This is an Argentinean pit-bull. It is the largest  pit-bull you can buy!” What he thought he was communicating was: “I’m a tough, strong man who fears nothing!” But I looked at the baby in the stroller he was pushing and noted that what he was really communicating was: “I’m extraordinarily stupid.”

A girl appears in the parking lot. She has a Chihuahua. In her purse. She finally frees the poor thing and I notice that she’s about 16. And pregnant. I’m not sure what she is trying to communicate. Perhaps: “I’m just a girl who can’t say no.” Or, “I’m so into accessories that I just have to have a baby.” Or “My parents are extraordinarily stupid.”

A woman appears with a tiny fluffy dog. The dog is wearing a faux fur coat and a bejeweled collar and has a ribbon pinned to his head. I look at the woman and see that she’s had major work done. No matter what she does, her breasts will never jiggle. And if her diction isn’t perfect, her forehead will split open. So what is she trying to communicate? “I believe that we should use medical technology to achieve perfection?” “My sense of self-worth is based solely on my appearance?” Or just “I believe that my dog should look as silly as I?”

I see a big hulking macho man with an 8-lb miniature Daschund. Another with six big ol’ Heinz 57s who are missing eyes, ears, legs. A woman who says: “I don’t know what his breed is, I love him anyway.” These people aren’t trying to communicate anything through their dogs. But they are saying much about themselves. And it’s all good.

Then I start thinking about how, for many people, everything they own is a form of communication. There are pimp or hood wannabes who drive around in gleaming sports cars (check it–black only) with hip-hop music playing so loudly that it blows pedestrians’ eardrums. They’re trying to communicate that they’re cool. Not.

I drop in HomeNonSense and find a woman making a big noisy show of purchasing four five-foot ‘crystal’ lamps topped with hot-pink sateen shades trimmed in gold and festooned with plastic beads. She wants everyone around her to know that she has good taste. Uh….

There are people who use their children to communicate how unique they are. They name them after cities, states, countries, obscure biblical characters, plants and fruit. (Lately, my favourite is McKenzie which, loosely translated, means ‘Kenneth’s son’. So if the child’s father’s name is Richard, the kid could, one day, ask ‘Who the heck is Kenneth?’)

There’s a guy up the hill from me who’s building a 40,000 square-foot home. Oh, and a 2,000 square-foot guest cottage. He has one wife and two teen-agers. Why is he doing this? To tell everyone that he has money? (Note to Mr. Nouveau Riche: Money is supposed to be ‘quiet’.) There are people who wear their political opinions on their cars, or display it on t-shirts, jackets, houses and front lawns. And people who plaster their vehicles with signs and stickers reading ‘Jesus Lives’ and ‘Jesus is Your Saviour’ and Jesus is this and that and blah blah. Note to Thumpers: it was Jesus who said you’re supposed to keep your religion to yourself.

SUVs have magically disappeared from many neighbourhoods. I suspect that his has less to do with the price of fuel, and more to do with drivers wanting others to know that they’re ‘Green’. At the beach, I see tattoo-covered bodies. At the gym, women in full make-up, matching clothes and jewelry. Everywhere, people zoned out while they play with electronic toys. And YouTube’s slogan is ‘Broadcast Yourself.’

Not only has communication gone wonky, but it has taken on a sort of desperation. People are falling over themselves to tell others about who they are. I think it’s because face-to-face conversation is becoming a thing of the past.

I have close friends whose faces I may see once a year. I haven’t seen the art director of this magazine in two years. Email, texting and the telephone take care of everyone’s communication needs. We hear that marriages crumble because couples aren’t home at the same time and, when they are, they’re too busy to talk. I spoke to a prostitute last year, who told me that many of her clients don’t want sex at all: they want to talk. In business, employees so resent having to constantly waste time in meetings that they make jokes about management’s insistence on face-time and buzz them around the Internet. At the social level, raves provide a place where the music is so loud that conversation is out of the question. Teen-agers deface buildings with their art. How often do you host a dinner party, or get invited to one? Where do you hear new music? On the ‘Net. Do you have to attend a school every day to get a degree? Nope—you can do much of it on the ‘Net.

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For all the good it’s done, for business, education and networking, I worry that the Internet is turning into a pernicious force, sucking us all into a world of silence. Where, if you want to say something, you have to type it. If you want to meet Mister or Miss or Mizz Right, you have to post a static image and write your feelings. But humans are animals. Social animals. We need body language. We need to speak to each other, and watch each other’s faces for reaction. We need the back-and-forth, the thrust and parry, and the quick wit that goes with conversation. We need to hear guffaws, exclamations and laughter.

I think we need more dog parks. It’s the dogs that necessitate attendance and then teach us how to play nice. That what we look like or wear or drive is irrelevant to who we are (and, often, communicates the wrong thing). That spontaneous interaction is essential to our well-being. That it’s easy to go to someplace that’s busy and crowded and just talk to people.