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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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 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

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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

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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.