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.

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.