Saturday, 15 December 2012

What Nobody's Talking About In The Newtown Aftermath

Considering the astounding volume of online commentary dedicated to yesterday's horrific school shooting in Newtown Connecticut, I don't care to further clog cyberspace with my own views. I simply want to point out an aspect of this shooting which nobody seems to be talking about, which is hardly surprising given that it is pretty much guaranteed to go unmentioned every time something horrible like this happened.

Every time you have a horrific incident like this, media coverage always seems to follow the same old script: outpouring of grief followed by outrage, whereupon public opinion is predictably divided into ideological camps, with left-leaning gun control advocates on one side and right-wing law-and-order types on the other, with a sprinkling of religious nutjobs who blame atheism and lack of school prayer for the incident. Then as more information comes to light you get the blaming of parents, teachers and other authority figures as well as video games, death metal and fatty foods. And then it subsides, the NRA digs in its heels and nothing changes - until the next horrible incident takes place. Wash, rinse, repeat.

The left-wing argument typically goes something like this: that incidents like this take place because assault rifles are more accessible than mental health care (not that I disagree with this assertion). The right-wing rebuttal typically asserts that guns are not the problem, the people are the problem, and that if the killer in question didn't have access to a gun they would just choose another weapon. This argument of course shoots itself in the foot because, as the school stabbing spree in China's Henan province that took place on the same day indicates, psychotic individuals with an intent to kill are rather less likely to success when they aren't armed with an M-16 assault rifle. The 22 Chinese children attacked are, while doubtless deeply traumatized, still alive.

But aside from this rather obvious (to my mind) point, there's another issue here - and one that's scarcely been addressed. School shootings have been so frequent over the course of US history that they have their own dedicated Wikipedia page. And in every single instance, without any exception I've found (although I didn't read every single entry in detail), the killer or would-be killer was male. Consider virtually every other massacre that springs to mind: 9/11, Oklahoma City, Virginia Tech, Jonestown, Nanjing. Men. And yet nobody sees fit to point out this rather obvious common thread. Many observers made a big deal of the fact that 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers were Saudi citizens. Nobody that I can recall bothered to point out that 19 out of 19 were male.

It seems like too obvious a point to make, except for the fact that nobody seems to be making it. Why do we accept the fact that it is almost invariably men who carry out acts of violence? Why have we somehow politely accepted this as an invariable fact of life. Even if it's true that men are somehow biologically hardwired for violence, why are we not looking for ways to genetically engineer this violent streak out of our gene pool? Why is male violence not placed on equal par with other afflictions such as HIV and cancer, with vast sums of money dedicated to its eradication? Truth is, male violence remains to varying degrees across the globe socially accepted and even celebrated - until it reaches its logical conclusion, as it graphically did yesterday in Newtown.

I don't have any answers to this problem. I really don't. But I think it's high time we started questioning our society's passive, accepting attitude towards male violence. We ask tough questions about the role religions (especially Islam), cultural institutions, parenting styles and the structure of our economies and societies. Why are we not asking serious questions about the one common thread in 99.9 percent of killing sprees and outbreaks of violence?

In the meantime, my heart goes out to the victims of the Newtown shootings and their families, whose grief I cannot even begin to fathom. Peace be with every single one of them.

Friday, 14 December 2012

How To Drive Like An Edmontonian In 10 Death-Defying Steps

I've been living in Edmonton for just over four year now, and in that time I've observed a very interesting affliction among the residents of my adopted hometown. Edmonton's gorgeous and disturbingly sunny summers (Edmonton receives on average 2,300 hours of sunshine per year) seem to have the effect of making Edmontonians forget the fact that their city spends at least half the year as a frozen, inhospitable wasteland where no sane person would ever want to live. And nowhere is this more apparent than on Edmonton's roads, where even a short drive anywhere makes it apparent that the city's residents have a goldfish-like memory span for how to drive in winter conditions.

While 'Ednesia' is in part to blame for this, Edmontonians are quirky drivers all year round. In summer they're so enamoured by how sunny and green and beautiful everything is that they fail to realize they're travelling at 140 km/h down a major city street. In spring (or what little of this there is in Edmonton) drivers are so relieved that winter is coming to an end and they no longer have to worry about ice on the road that they throw caution to the wind - with predictable results. And come autumn, Ednesia has fully taken hold by the time the first ice appears on the road, usually in mid-October, whereupon Edmonton drivers slide around the road like panicked juvenile deer on frozen ponds. It's little wonder Edmontonian pay among the highest auto insurance premiums in the country!

However, with a little practice and a lot of intestinal fortitude, anybody can learn to drive in this wonderful city. Here are 10 basic Edmonton rules of the road. Follow these rules won't necessarily make you feel safer, but they'll certainly get you feeling like a local in no time.

1) Always drive as close to the person in front of you as possible.

In most parts of the world, this type of driving behaviour is referred to as ‘tailgating’ and will typically earn you the unbridled contempt of the driver in front of you. In Edmonton, however, this is a show of affection, a display of esprit de corps among the city's motorists. This is particularly true in winter, when Edmonton drivers will literally huddle together on the roads to keep warm.

2) Pass whenever physically possible.

In many places, it is regarded as pointless and dangerous to try to pass your fellow drivers on crowded city streets at the height of rush hour. But in Edmonton there's never any excuse for not passing, even in seemingly inappropriate places like the Tim Horton’s drive-thru, car washes, the K-Days Parade etc. There is always a way to get where you’re going a nanosecond quicker, and the seasoned Edmonton driver will always find a way of doing so.

3) Always wait until the last possible moment before changing lanes.

In Edmonton, changing lanes well ahead of the place where you have to turn is considered cowardice – here you are expected to wait until your turn-off is entirely within your frame of vision before attempting to change lanes. The more advanced Edmonton driver will deliberately take the furthest lane from the turn-off so as to have the opportunity to demonstrate the art of swerving across multiple lanes (see Rule #6) in a grand display of automotive ballet.

4) Turning lanes and passing lanes are one and the same.

In my defence I was trying to hit this guy!
In most places, the left turn lane at an intersection is strictly to be used for, well, turning. In Edmonton, however, turning lanes are also intended to be used as an auxiliary passing lane by drivers in a hurry, allowing them to pull out in front of the stopped traffic the very split second the light turns green (or, as is more often the case, a split second before the light turns green). The seasoned Edmonton driver can perform this move a split second after the LRT pulls out of a level crossing ahead but a split second before the light changes. And if you can pull this one off at the highly congested intersection of 78 Ave and 114 Street near McKernan-Belgravia LRT Station, you get extra Ed-Cred.

5) When pulling out of a side street onto a major road, always pull the nose of the car a full half-lane into the street before attempting to turn.

A true Edmonton trademark popularly known as the ‘Prairie Dog Maneuver’, this is the move where you pull partway out of a minor residential street into oncoming traffic so that the nose of your car resembles some sort of inquisitive rodent peeping out of its hole. This is done in order to keep oncoming drivers on their toes, requiring them to swerve gracefully around the protruding car, often directly into oncoming traffic. Sometimes people do this just for fun, without any intention of turning onto the busy thoroughfare in question.

6) When merging onto a highway, always swing across to the lane furthest from you.

An Alberta classic preferably performed behind the wheel of a pickup truck the size of a medium-sized bungalow, a perfectly executed ‘Wild Rose Glissade’ will win you immediate respect among Alberta drivers. Edmontonians and Calgarians frequently compete against each other on the QEII as to who can perform this maneuver most skillfully and artistically in heavy traffic, with extra points given when executed in treacherous winter conditions. A rural variation on this move, known as the ‘Stavely Swerve’, involves swerving across the highway to the opposite side of the street across oncoming traffic, and then taking an impromptu roadside pit stop so as to have a conversation with your friend who is bailing hay in an adjacent field.

7) Never, ever let anyone merge in front of you.

Merging on Alberta roads is the art form that it is in large part because Alberta drivers, as a matter of pride, will do everything in their means to prevent you from merging in front of them. Techniques for doing so include driving so close to the vehicle in front of them as to resemble a car in tow (see Rule #1), turning the hazard lights on so as to feign mechanical problems and driving directly alongside the vehicle attempting to merge, matching their speed imitating their every move in the sincerest form of driver flattery.

Is this not a reasonable parking job?
8) Large pickup trucks are entitled to as many parking spots as they ‘need’.

Newcomers to Alberta are often perplexed at how the province's innumerable pickup trucks succeed in defying the laws of physics by simultaneously occupying six or more parking stalls. Don't question it. It's their job to occupy space, and causing a fuss will simply make them grow larger until they begin physically absorbing the cars around them through gaps in their component atoms. Trust me; I've lost two cars in this way. Don't push your luck.

9) Never, ever use your car horn.

Spend any time on Edmonton's roads and you'll notice that hardly anybody ever honks their horns, even in situations where it's clearly warranted. Contrary to what you might think, Edmontonians are a shy, self-effacive bunch akin to the Swedes who, while they may drive like maniacs, are loathe to cause trouble while outside of their cars. Being honked at is tantamount to a major loss of face and an unwelcome intrusion into people's automotive bubbles. It's also considered unsportsmanlike in this city of street ninjas who operate with speed and stealth - or at least as much of this as they're capable of conjuring up.

10) There really always is time for Tim Horton’s.

While Edmontonians always appear to be in a hurry, Edmonton drivers will always find the time to pull into the drive-thru at Tim Horton’s for their daily (or more) double-double. Moreover, pulling off the main road into the Tim’s drive-thru lineup, getting through the lineup in the shortest time possible and pulling back out onto the street with their coffee and box of Timbits gives drivers a chance to demonstrate their prowess at most of the rules outlined hereabove, as well as the jolt of sugar and caffeine that fuels all this outlandish behaviour.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

The Easy Solution To The 'Holiday' Controversy - Celebrate Everything


As a professional communicator for a major Canadian airport, the 'holiday' season is the busiest time of year, with the holiday passenger rush soon to be upon us and retail activity ramping up. And with Edmonton International Airport's humungous Expansion 2012 project now completed and a whole new raft of new shopping and dining amenities to show off to the world, this year's Christmas season has been the airport's busiest ever. A fun little tempest for a newly minted airport communicator to be thrown into, that's for sure!

At Edmonton International Airport there has to my knowledge been no discussion of muting explicit mentions of 'Christmas'. While the messaging around the season has consisted of a mix of 'Happy Holidays' and 'Merry Christmas', the overall thrust of the seasonal marketing has been steeped in Yuletide, with Christmas Trees, Santa's Storyland, children's choirs and so on. Moreover, this has taken place without any hint of controversy - at least that I'm aware of - in spite of the fact that EIA possesses a thoroughly multicultural workforce representing all the major world religions. I've asked, and nobody I've spoken to has been even remotely bothered.

Nevertheless, tune into any major conservative-leaning media outlet (especially in the United States but to a lesser degree here) and you would think that Christmas were a small beleaguered Middle Eastern country being bombarded by missiles from irate hostile states. Christmas, we're told, is under attack by the 'liberal' politically correct secular mainstream. I'm beginning to think this is much more an American problem, as I have never in my life heard of a 'Holiday Tree' or any other such nonsense talked about in any seriousness in any of the Canadian workplaces I've been in. Nor have I ever encountered a member of an ethnic or religious minority who has expressed dismay over overt references to Christmas. It's part of life here, and everyone seems to be okay with that.
Bill O'Reilly, war correspondent from the Yuletide battlefront
In the US, however, the Christmas controversy appears to be very real indeed, and no 'holiday season' is complete without the latest outrage over nativity scenes and temper tantrums by angry atheists, accompanied by the predictable righteous indignation on the part of Fox News and like-minded outlets. As CNN reporter Timothy Stanley points out, the so-called 'war on Christmas' is bigger than simply partisan tomfoolery and conservative paranoia, and in fact reflects genuine tensions within American politics and society. He cites the example of Santa Monica, California's decision this year to terminate its traditional nativity scenes after this hallowed tradition turned into theatre of the absurd last year when a group of atheists won 11 out of 14 spaces, which they used to erect enormous critiques of Christianity. Clearly it's not just the conservatives making a spectacle of themselves.

While it may well be reflective of a cultural divide, I would argue that it's also a product of ignorance - on both sides. While the movement towards politically correct speech has played an important role in purging our public discourse of offensive and hurtful words, the secularist inclination towards denuding our culture of ritual and tradition is not only sad but also profoundly lazy. It is also entirely counterproductive from the standpoint of fostering genuine multiculturalism. Roughly one third of humanity professes Christianity as their religion. This includes a massive majority of Latin Americans and Sub-Saharan Africans as well as significant populations in South and Southeast Asia (particularly in the overwhelmingly Catholic Philippines). How exactly does purging Christmas from our culture help these large and growing minorities in North American society feel at home?

As for the non-Christian minorities in our midst, purging our cultural mainstream of its traditional practices accomplishes nothing - while further highlighting our ignorance. The sad fact of the matter is that most white North Americans, for all of their supposed openness to diversity, are deeply ignorant of other cultures' rituals and celebrations. How many of us, for example, can name a single major Sikh holiday? What does the Muslim celebration of Eid al-Adha mark? Even many Christian holidays are off most Anglo-Saxon North Americans' radar, such as All Saints' Day. For most of us November 1 is Halloween Hangover Recovery Day, but for Mexicans and Filipinos, Día de Todos los Santos or Araw ng mga Santo is a very big deal.
Real multiculturalism means having this guy's birthday in your calendar.
My solution to the whole issue? Don't subtract, just add. Celebrate everything. And as a professional communicator, especially for any organization with a multicultural and multi-confessional workforce, it's an easy but hugely impactful step to take. Make a list of all important holidays for staff and stakeholders, create Outlook alerts for each, and have specially crafted social media posts on standby for those occasions. It's really not hard, and most often it's relatively easy to find an appropriate salutation in the relevant languages, even through a casual Google search. Granted it's a good idea to run it past a person from the ethnic or religious minority in question before you use it lest you end up with something embarrassingly inappropriate on your Facebook page, but as internal communications strategies go, this is a pretty easy one.

They needn't be complicated, nor do you need to make a big show of giving Ramadan and Diwali equal stature with Christmas in the building's seasonal decor. In my experience a simple message wishing people well for Diwali, Ramadan, Yom Kippur, Guru Nanak Jayanti or Tết Nguyên Đán goes a long way in generating goodwill and fostering engagement. And a basic level, it's also much more to celebrate more things than less. And as for Christmas, the way December 25 is celebrated in North American culture, at least by the vast majority of companies and public organizations, barely has any religion in it anyway. From a societal harmony standpoint, that's probably for the best. Keep the message about Santa, the Grinch and Tiny Tim and feathers will probably remain unruffled.

In the meantime EIA's corporate communications team will continue to give out cookies and other seasonal gifts to lucky passengers and wish them Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays. So far not a single airline passenger has complained about this.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Three Extremely Good Reasons Not To Drink And Tweet

If I were an engineer, I would work on developing a breathalyzer system for laptops and handheld devices that would have the function of disabling a user's social media platforms when said user has had a few too many. I hardly need explain why this would be a good idea. In spite of vast volume of blog content devoted to warning people to think their posts through before they clicking on the 'Send' button, people continue to embarrass themselves online - sometimes with dire repercussions to their careers and relationships. And while there are no statistics to back this up, it's probably a safe bet that alcohol is a major contributing factor in most of these instances.

As technology has progressed, the scope for disastrous alcohol-fuelled fallout has steadily increased. In the 1990s we drunk-dialled our exes and adversaries, typically with embarrassing results, but such embarrassment was generally containable. A decade on drunk-dialling progressed to drunk-texting, upping the potential for widespread social fallout, which in turn led to drunk social media mishaps, the likes of which have destroyed careers, landed people in jail and created all manner of reputational damage for heretofore respected organizations.

It's probably safe to say that all social media tools should be made off-limits while intoxicated. Nevertheless, some are clearly more hazardous than others. A drunk edit to your LinkedIn profile might be a source of embarrassment the next day, but unless your boss (or prospective employer) happens to be looking at your profile at that moment, it probably won't do any real lasting damage. As for Facebook, we've all seen the telltale signs of drunk posts which, while highly embarrassing, probably won't get you fired unless you're actually mouthing off your boss or posting photos of yourself committing a criminal act.

Twitter, on the other hand, is the one you should stay well away from while under the influence of alcohol, for the following three reasons:

1) You're probably going to embarrass yourself.

Twitter gives you a grand total of 140 characters with which to make a statement. So unless you're a very thoughtful and concise drunk, you're probably going to make a pig's breakfast of that character count. You're also far more likely to do things you're regret later, like try to get celebrities to notice you or start ranting on issues on which you're less than fully informed. So unless you want that tweet to Adam Levine begging him to read your CD review or that garbled squawk about Alberta Health Services showing up on your feed, you should probably turn off the Twitter once the third shooter tray homes into view. And unlike on Facebook, it's not just your friends who can see that.

2) You can't really delete a tweet.

This is probably the single most important thing to realize about Twitter. Sure you can delete it from your page, but once it's out there, it's out there. And once it's out there, you also can't control a) who reads it, and b) who retweets it. And if it's really egregious, you can bet you're going to get some retweets out of that.

3) You run the risk of tweeting from the wrong account.

As communications advisor for Edmonton International Airport, I co-manage two different Twitter accounts - the regular @FlyEIA account and the @FlyEIACargo account dedicated to the airport's air cargo operations. In addition, I of course have my own personal Twitter account. And like many professional communicators, I have multiple account logins pre-loaded on my Smartphone for easy access. Suffice it to say, when it comes to my personal Twitter use, I always first make sure that I'm logged into my own account rather than one of the airport accounts, as not doing so could easily have embarrassing results.

Screw-ups of this sort have indeed happened before. One of the most appalling 'twuck-ups' in history occurred in February of last year when a communications staffer from the American Red Cross inadvertently sent a drunk tweet through his or her work Twitter account (see above image). In this particular case, the employee in question made the mistake of using HootSuite, which presumably was not linked to the account that this person had intended on using. To their credit, the Red Cross' response to the tweet was inspired and totally charming.

No word on what happened to the Red Cross staffer responsible for the twuck-up in question. One can only assume he or she received at the very least a stern talking to. There's also no evidence that the Dogfish Head Brewery, a popular craft brewery in Milton, Delaware, tried to milk this Red Cross fiasco for its own benefit. They probably didn't have to; an accidental plug from the world's largest international humanitarian organization isn't the sort of thing a small local brewhouse gets every day.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Before Gangnam Style - 10 Great Foreign Language Hits From Across History

We've all heard it a bazillion times now and seen the video nearly as many times. The English-speaking world is now thoroughly in love, or at least fascinated, by Park Jae-sang, the South Korean rapper-pop star better known to the world as PSY, thanks to his ridiculously infectious hit song about life in the South Korean capital's most chi-chi suburb. It's still early to say but 'Gangnam Style' is showing signs of being an epoch-defining pop icon to compare with Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' three decades previous, with PSY's patented equestrian-themed dance move emerging as the 'moonwalk' of the 2010s. As of November 24, Gangnam Style had achieved 806.3 million views, making it the single most watched video in YouTube history.

The global phenomenon of Gangnam Style is all the more remarkable given that the song in question is in Korean. Granted, K-Pop is far from an unknown phenomenon throughout East Asia, where the past decade has seen this mighty-mouse republic emerge as a veritable pop culture powerhouse, in the western world the Republic of Korea, while well respected for its high-tech gadgetry and formidable industrial economy, is hardly seen as a country on the cutting edge of cool. Or at least until PSY showed up. However, it's doubtful that the Gangnam Style craze will lead to the K-Wave spreading beyond Korea's backyard, as foreign-language hits in the Anglosphere have overwhelmingly been one-hit wonders - briefly beloved and then quickly forgotten.

The cruelty of this, of course, is that non-Anglophone popular music acts have long been forced to produce English-language material if they're to have any hope of branching far beyond their homelands. (This is notably not the case for Spanish-language acts, for whom a wide-ranging audience from Madrid to Miami to Montevideo is primed for their material.) Bands from non-English-speaking countries have ranged from pop acts like Roxette and t.A.T.u. to metal bands like Sepultura and the Scorpions, whose only commonality is the fact that they've all adopted the language of Shakespeare and Elvis Presley with the hopes of branching beyond their native lands.

Baku Style: Eurovision winners Eldar and Nigar
What is the consequence of this? Ever tune into the Eurovision song contest before? This cultural institution is a fascinating study of what happens when you take the cream of the entertainment industry in an ill-defined region stretching from Scandinavia to the Caucasus and make them all sing in the lingua franca of contemporary pop music. And while many of the results of this are actually quite impressive, as was the Eldar & Nigar hit 'Running Scared' which won the Republic of Azerbaijan its first Eurovision title in 2011, it still manages to feel somewhat disconnected with reality, like a cross between MTV and Berlitz. Imagine, for the sake of comparison, if Michael Jackson had been forced to deliver his entire act in, say, Danish. Actually, that would be pretty cool.

But there's more reason for the English-speaking work to embrace foreign-language music than it simply being just deserts. By effectively excluding non-English-language songs, English speakers are missing out on a vast amount of great music as well as lyrics which, with the aid of liner notes, can be appreciated almost as deeply as lyrics in one's own language. Singer-songwriters like Caetano Veloso, Salman Ahmad and Shokichi Kina are poets comparable to Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, and yet are virtually unknown to Anglo audiences - much to their loss. The bittersweet love songs of Charles Aznavour pack a punch even without translation, as do the haunting vocals of Mercedes Sosa and the rapturous glory of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Granted you can't necessarily understand the songs, but the continued popularity of mumbling rockers like Dylan and Dave Matthews must mean that incomprehensibility isn't necessarily a barrier to popular appeal.

Of course there have indeed been foreign-language crossover hits over the years. The curious thing about them, though, is they seem to have become less frequent over the decades. As our world has become more globalized, popular music tastes in the Anglo-American world seem to have gone in the opposite direction, Gangnam Style notwithstanding. There was once a time when the songs of Édith Piaf and Yves Montand were standard fare on English radio, and iconic Latin American songs like La Bamba and Guantanamera were beloved in the US at a time of anti-Latino bigotry was far fiercer and more overt than that it is today. Why is it now that now, when our society is arguably more tolerant and more diverse than it's ever been, there seems to be more resistance than ever to foreign language songs? Resistance to an ever-encroaching outside world? I don't get it.

My feeling, however, is that this will shift soon, probably within the next decade. While English remains the de facto language of globalization, the Anglo-American world no longer maintains an undisputed monopoly over the diffusion of popular culture. PSY's homeland is a perfect case in point - a country that 50 years ago was a war-ravaged basket case but is now one of the leading forces not only in global commerce but also in popular culture, in everything from RPG gaming culture to melodramatic soaps with a following stretching from Japan to Indonesia. Brazil's homegrown pop music scene has long had a following in the Lusophone world; look for this emerging world power to flex its creative muscle. And as los Estados Unidos becomes an increasingly bilingual country, the presence of Spanish-language music can only grow.

In the meantime, here are 10 classic foreign-language songs that, for whatever reason, beat the odds and took the English-speaking world by storm.

1) Édith Piaf, 'La Vie en rose' (1947)

An oldie among foreign language crossover fans, Édith Piaf's iconic 1947 hit about seeing the world through rose-coloured glasses is probably the most quintessentially French song after 'La Marseillaise' (which Serge Gainsbourg famously profaned with his reggae cover of it on Aux Armes Et Caetera). With a melody by composer Louis Guglielmi and lyrics by Piaf herself, the song sold over a million copies in the United States (Imagine what Fox News would have had to say about it had they been around at the time?), while reaching #1 status in Italy in 1948 and #9 in Brazil the following year. It has also shown tremendous lasting power, having since been covered by everyone from Liza Minelli to Cyndi Lauper to, curiously enough, Iggy Pop. La vie est toujours en rose.

2) Domenico Modugno, 'Nel blu dipinto di blu (Volare)' (1958) curious thing often happens to foreign language songs that catch on in the English-speaking world - they change titles. Such was the case with Italian crooner Domenico Modugno's 1958 hit 'Nel blu dipinto di blu' ('In the Blue, Painted Blue'), a song that became known outside Italy as 'Volare' ('To Fly'), after the song's famous refrain. Inspired by a pair of paintings by Marc Chagall, the song won third place at the 1958 the Eurovision Song Contest and then spent five weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100. It has since been covered by Dean Martin, Al Martino, David Bowie, Gipsy Kings and Barry White, and also made a memorable appearance in the movie A Fish Called Wanda as part of Kevin Kline's mock-Italian bedroom talk.

3) Ritchie Valens, 'La Bamba' (1958)

The song that put Latin America on the rock 'n' roll map, this classic folk song from Veracruz was immortalized by teenage Chicano rock legend Richard Valenzuela, better known as Ritchie Valens, otherwise best known for his death at age 17 in the 1959 plane crash that also took the lives of Buddy Holly and J.P. 'The Big Bopper' Richardson. The song reached #22 on the US Billboard Pop Singles, an unprecedented feat for a Spanish-language song, and finally reached #1 in 1987 thanks to LA Chicano rock band Los Lobos' cover of it for the eponymous Luis Valdez biopic starring Lou Diamond Phillips. It remains the only non-English-language song on Rolling Stone Magazine's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list.

4) Kyu Sakamoto, 'Ue o Muite Arukō' aka 'Sukiyaki' (1961)

In 1963, British record executive Louis Benjamin travelled to Japan where he fell under the spell of young crooner Kyu Sakamoto and his sweetly sentimental ballad 'Ue o Muite Arukō' ('Walking While Looking Up'). The song became an overnight sensation in the west under the name 'Sukiyaki' in spite of the exactly zero references to simmered beef in the song. (Benjamin presumably figured it was the only non-militaristic Japanese word his audience knew.) The song sold over one million copies in the US and reached #1 status in June of 1963, and to this day remains the only Japanese song to reach #1 on the US Billboard charts. In an interesting parallel to Valens, 'Kyu-chan' was also killed in a plane crash - in the infamous crash of JAL Flight 123 in 1985 - and was also posthumously immortalized in a motion picture named after his greatest known hit.

5) João & Astrud Gilberto, 'Garota de Ipanema (The Girl from Ipanema)' (1964) 

When Brazilian composer Antônio Carlos Jobim and renowned diplomat-poet Vinicius de Moraes sat down to write their now-famous voyeuristic paean about beauty and heartache in Rio de Janeiro's ritziest beachfront neighbourhood (think Gangnam Style on valium), they must have felt fairly assured of a hit. Nothing, however, could have presaged the phenomenal success of 'The Girl from Ipanema', a song that almost singlehandedly popularized bossa nova beyond Brazil thanks the Grammy Award-winning 1965 recording of it starring João and Astrud Gilberto together with American tenor saxophonist Stan Getz. Nearly a half-century old now, it is believed to be the second-most recorded pop song in history after the Beatles' 'Yesterday' and one that, like 'La Vie en rose', has become an unofficial anthem of the country that gave life to it.

6) Serge Gainsbourg & Jane Birkin, 'Je t'aime… moi non plus' (1969)

In addition to being one of the most famous foreign language crossover hits of all time, French bad-boy chansonnier Serge Gainsbourg's ode to...well, fucking holds the distinction of being one of the world's most widely banned songs. Originally written for and sung with actress Brigitte Bardot in 1967 (whose husband refused to allow it to be released), it was re-recorded by Gainsbourg and his then-lover Jane Birkin two years later on the appropriately titled album '69 Année érotique. Chiefly remembered for Birkin's heavy breathing and simulated climaxing, the song was banned in a swath of European countries, with the Vatican allegedly excommunicating the Italian record executive who oversaw its release in Italy. Suffice it to say, the Papal PR campaign on behalf of the song did wonders for it, helping it top the UK charts and sell over 4 million copies by 1986.

7) Falco, 'Rock Me Amadeus' (1985) there's one song that truly presaged the arrival of Gangnam Style, it's Johann 'Falco' Hölzel's 1985 rap homage to his country's best-known musical export. Originally a bass player with the late-1970s-early 1980s Austrian hard rock-punk outfit Drahdiwaberl, Falco established himself as a solo artist in 1982 with the rock-rap hit 'Der Kommissar' ('The Inspector') before rocketing to worldwide renown with his campy Mozart-themed hit, accompanied by an over-the-top video that gives PSY a run for his money. Boosted by the success of the 1984 biopic Amadeus, 'Rock Me Amadeus' reached #1 in Canada, the UK and the US, where he was the first German-speaking artist to reach such heights. Largely disappearing from the scene thereafter, Falco died in a car crash in 1998 - supposedly as he was mounting a comeback.

8) Mitsou, 'Bye Bye Mon Cowboy' (1988) divide between Canada's 'Two Solitudes' is nowhere more pronounced than in popular music. French and English-Canadian music typically occupy very separate spheres and Francophone artists such as Céline Dion and Roch Voisine have had to switch languages to get any success outside Québec. One of the few Québécois artists to breach the language firewall was teen pop star Mitsou Annie Marie Gélinas, the granddaughter of renowned playwright Gratien Gélinas, whose breakthrough hit 'Bye Bye Mon Cowboy' became a rare smash hit across Canada, selling over 100,000 copies. (The fact that the only French word in the title is 'mon' may have helped.) Like Falco, Mitsou had a difficult time replicating her early success, although she continues to be a prominent media personality in La Belle Province.

9) Los del Río, 'Macarena' (1995)

File:MacarenaLosDelRio.jpgSigh. Anyone who came of age in the 1990s had to endure dance parties wherein, apparently under the spell of some malevolent spirit of the airwaves, otherwise normal people would cease whatever they were doing and perform a mime-dance that could only be likened to a cross between the YMCA and a border-patrol body search. And yet, the song that inflicted this craze on the world really wasn't that bad - at least at the outset. Originally written and recorded by the Seville-based Latin pop duo Los del Río, the original acoustic guitar-based dance number didn't become a craze until the Bayside Boys turned it into a club mix in 1995. The single spent 14 weeks at number one on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, one of the longest runs atop the Hot 100 chart in history, was was ranked the '#1 Greatest One-Hit Wonder of all Time' by VH1 in 2002. And still nobody knows why.

10) Rammstein, 'Du hast' (1997)'s something about the German language that seems to lend itself to industrial rock, as exemplied by veteran sonic terrorists like Die Krupps, KMFDM and Einstürzende Neubauten. While little of this has had any mainstream exposure, industrial rock experienced a brief surge in popularity in the mid-1990s thanks to the success of Ministry, Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson, which also opened the door to Berlin-based industrial metalheads Rammstein. The group's 1997 hit 'Du hast' (a play on words meaning both 'You Have' and 'You Hate') gained international prominence thanks to its inclusion on the soundtrack for The Matrix, briefly reaching #2 status on Canada's Alternative Rock charts. At yet we still make fun of the Germans.

Is there anything important I've missed here? I'd love to hear about it.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Yes, Actually We Do Live In A 'Rape Culture'

If I were in a position to nominate somebody for Time Magazine Man of the Year for 2012, my number one choice would be Todd Akin. Thanks in no small part to the Missouri senate candidate's extraordinarily stupid and offensive remarks about 'legitimate rape' on St. Louis television in August, the rampant sexism and misogyny that has long pervaded the US Republican Party was suddenly catapulted to the forefront of the election and resulted in the greatest gender divide in any US presidential election in history - and an unprecedented wave of victorious female candidates

The Akin remarks, as well as a number of similarly off-colour comments, also brought the issue of rape to the forefront of the election, and by proxy to the general online conversation. The phrase 'legitimate rape' has over the past few months become a byword for misogyny, and served as a lightning rod for debate about the so-called 'rape culture' within American society. Not surprisingly, the resurgence of this much-maligned second-wave feminist concept has incurred an angry backlash from those who asserts that while Neanderthals like Akin are clearly rape apologists, characterizing North American society as a whole as a 'rape culture' is a dangerous overstatement.

One blog post in particular caught my eye, one by a blogger who goes by the handle Bigot Vanquisher. (Love the name, by the way!) A relative newcomer to the blogosphere from what I can tell, Bigot Vanquisher is clearly the sort of angry atheist shit-disturber that I'm sure I would normally get along with famously out in the intertubes. Nevertheless, her post (I'm assuming she's a she) on American 'Rape Culture' raised a number of points that I felt needed addressing, as I feel they misconstrue the term and ultimately understate the severity of the misogynist virus within our society. Ms. Vanquisher, if you're reading this post, I more than welcome a rebuttal.

Ms. Vanquisher claims that those who characterize the United States as having a 'rape culture' do so on the following grounds:
  1. Women are taught not to get raped instead of men being taught not to rape;
  2. Women are objectified and oppressed in our society;
  3. Rape victims are more often than not blamed for their own rape instead of the rapist being blamed.
She then goes on to refute these assertions on the grounds that the vast majority of men do not commit acts of rape and that violence is a problem that affects both sexes (and indeed men are more likely to fall victim to physical violence than women), and furthermore than men are also judged on the basis of their appearance - and that women do indeed participate in their own objectification by wearing revealing clothing. While it's not clear to me what all of this has to do with concept of the rape culture, the main point of her post appears to be that 'rape culture' is an unfair blanket characterization of a society wherein the vast majority of men are not rapists.

C'mon, it's all in the spirit of fun, isn't it?
There are two inherent problems with this line of reasoning. The first is while it's all fine and good for Ms. Vanquisher to assert that "the average male does not rape, nor has a desire to," the statistics out there paint a darker picture of the 'stronger sex'. Numbers cited by Roger Williams University in Rhode Island indicate that one out of four American women is sexually assaulted at some point in her life (a fairly commonly cited statistic). Regardless of how accurate this is, that's still a hell of lot of women, however you cut it. The American Medical Association also states that two to four million women are abused every year. That means if you're an American woman, you have a greater than one in 50 chance of being raped on any given year. The RWU numbers also show that fewer than 20 percent of instances of sexual assault are reported to the police, so these figures are invariably lowballed.

What about then men then? The RWU study showed that one in 12 male university students surveyed had committed acts that met the legal definition of rape (and again these are men who admit to it). While one out of 12 is by no means 'most', it's still a worryingly high number. If it transpired that eight percent of the population had committed armed robbery, you'd consider that a crime wave. Likewise if you were to find out that eight percent of the elected officials in your region had admitted to accepting bribes, you'd probably call that endemic corruption.

Clearly there's a lot of rape going on and vast majority of it is being committed by men against women, and the sheer numbers reveal that this is no the work of a small but dedicated assortment of creepy back-alley perverts in dirty raincoats. But even this is somewhat beside the point when it comes to discussing the concept of 'rape culture', and here Ms. Vanquisher commits the logical fallacy of confounding 'institutionalize oppression' with the very separate issue of individual men oppressing individual women. This defence is the typical knee-jerk reaction that one gets from men who object to the idea of a patriarchy along the lines of "Well, I'm not like that!"

Unfortunately, even if it's true that a significant majority of men don't condone or apologize for sexual assault in any way (although I myself have my doubts), the fact would remain that we live in a culture that makes all manner of excuses for male behaviour while shaming women who publicly assert their own sexuality. Pornographers and religious demagogues are united in their obsession with female purity (the line between Barely Legal and the 'purity ball' phenomenon is a narrow one indeed) and their contempt for female sexual autonomy. From Sleeping Beauty to today's torture-porn films and hideously misogynistic fashion shoots, the passive helpless female as rape-fodder is an undeniable presence within our culture's psychological landscape.

A gold-plated Infiniti luxury sports car outside a jewelry store in Nanjing, in East China’s Jiangsu Province, March 31, 2011. Corrupt officials, who often use their stolen money on extravagant luxury items like this, are a problem for the CCP as such officials plunder wealth and flee the country. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)
A gold-plated Infiniti outside a jewelry store in Nanjing, China
Still not convinced that this constitutes a 'rape culture'? Let me give you the following analogy. Let's say you have a hypothetical country someplace wherein eight percent of public officials admit that they either are or have been on the take. From that one can be pretty much assured that a) the actual number of corrupt officials is significantly higher, and b) an even larger number are probably aware of the corruption and either turning a blind eye to it or otherwise remain silent, either out of fear or a sense of hopelessness about the situation. By any standard this would constitute a 'culture of corruption' worthy of a Transparency International dossier.

The analogy of political corruption with rape is, I believe, a telling one. As with rape, nobody in any country no matter how dysfunctional needs to be told that accepting bribes for political favours or rifling the national treasury is a bad and unethical thing to do, and yet somehow it happens. A lot. However, it happens decidedly less in settings where you have transparent democratic institutions, a culture of egalitarianism and a relatively even distribution of wealth. It is significantly less common in countries where whistle-blowers are afforded legal protection and public opinion more often than not sides with the whistle-blower rather than the officials in question.

Corruption is also much less common in societies where it's considered distasteful for public officials and other members of the elite to flaunt their wealth in public as opposed to authoritarian countries like China, Russia and many African countries where high office and high society are virtually synonymous. This is not to say that all wealthy officials in these countries have achieved their wealth through illegal means, but in such milieus defined by opulence and luxury in which officials are seen as getting a free pass, it's fertile breeding ground for bribery and graft.

Hildur Lilliendahl Viggósdóttir, culture warrior
Now apply this analogy to a social setting in which a certain group of people (men) are programmed from birth to define themselves on the basis of their penises and their sexual prowess and where rape is, while not approved of, often explained away as a natural byproduct of male sexual frustration, and you have a rape culture. And when you have an online culture where sexually brutalized women are standard fare not just on porn sites but on 'edgy' fashion sites - and yet women like Icelandic feminist blogger Hildur Lilliendahl Viggósdóttir are banned from Facebook for re-posting misogynist content and calling men out on their misogyny, it's not exactly sending an anti-rape culture message.

Another point that Bigot Vanquisher makes in her post is that it's folly to describe countries like the United States having a rape culture where there are countries in the Middle East and elsewhere where the war on women isn't even remotely disguised and women literally fear for their lives when they walk out the door - and often behind closed doors as well. Again I think the analogy of political corruption is helpful. It's patently obvious that the 'rape culture' as it exists in North America pales in comparison to that in, say, South Africa, where a recent survey revealed that a shocking one out of four men admit to having raped a woman and nearly half of that total admit to more than one rape. However, the existence of different magnitudes of rape culture does not mean that we don't have problems here. The fact that Thailand is more transparent than, say, Cameroon doesn't mean that Thailand doesn't have serious corruption issues that need to be addressed.

Rape culture is a highly complex phenomenon, one that is informed by numerous other social conditions - racism, nationalism, classism, homophobia, religious indoctrination and so on. Volumes could be written on this stuff, and indeed volumes have. But the main problem I have with Ms. Vanquisher's post is the same problem I have with a great many right wingers, which is a refusal or an inability to fathom the concept of institutionalized oppression as a concept entirely separate from individual volition. Denying the existence of a rape culture on the basis that "none of the guys I know have raped a woman" is akin to denying the harmfulness of smoking on the basis that "my grandfather smoked all his life and he lived to the age of 96." Not very helpful.

What could possibly be rape-enabling about this?
Yes, individuals can do a lot, but if you're serious about combating something as massive as rape culture it takes a lot of work. Men in our culture are conditioned to not speak out against sexist behaviour while women who publicly assert a feminist stance are frequently admonished as man-haters. Many men I've spoken to have confided that confronting sexism and misogyny within the context of our prevailing "bros before hoes" guy culture means opening yourself up to ridicule - or worse. And feminist bloggers have become well accustomed to the vilest of online threats wherein the abusers can enjoy the cloak of anonymity. We all know this - and yet somehow we convince ourselves that it's an inevitable reality of life and that there's nothing we can do about it.

So in closing, yes, we do have a 'rape culture' in our supposedly advanced society. No, it's not nearly as bad as it is in, say, the Democratic Republic of the Congo or Afghanistan, but saying that your society is "less sexist than Afghanistan" is not exactly a glowing endorsement. The fact that eight percent of any given group of men admit to 'helping themselves' to women's bodies against their will while being aided and abetted by major strands of our culture still constitutes a big problem in my book. Furthermore, telling women that they "have it good in our society" is nothing but a further silencing tactic whose ultimate aim is putting women in their place and shutting them down when they complain about their objectification by men.

Rape culture is an inflammatory term - but in my experience you need to be at least a bit inflammatory to get a difficult message across. Rape culture, like corruption, is a social condition rooted in a deep-seeded sense of entitlement. And until men the world over stop defining themselves by their penile prowess and viewing women's bodies as public goods, women from Calgary to Kinshasa will - to varying degrees - continue to feel less than safe in their company.

And in the meantime, would Time Magazine please please PLEASE choose Todd Akin as Man of the Year for 2012! I mean c'mon, Hitler's received the nod before. That and it would send a pretty powerful message.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Lest We Forget - Why Remembering The 'Great War' Matters Now More Than Ever

It's not often that I find myself agreeing with conservative Sun Media columnist Lorne Gunter. We tend to be on opposite ends of the political spectrum on most issues. And yet, I found myself nodding in agreement with his column today excoriating parents who pull their children out of Remembrance Day ceremonies for either religious reasons or a belief that such ceremonies glorify militarism and warfare. Lorne, I don't say this very often, but hats off to your thoughtful and cogent column!

In less than a year from now, we will mark the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. While the Second World War continues to occupy prime real estate in our collective historical memory (thanks to its relative recentness and our continued fascination with its chief antagonist, Adolf Hitler), the 'Great War' - as it became known in its aftermath - is largely overlooked. After nearly a century since its outbreak, it is now in serious danger of slipping completely from public consciousness. Indeed there are very few people left who experienced it. On February 4 of this year, former Women's Royal Air Force mess steward Florence Green and the world's last surviving WWI veteran, died at the age of 110.

Field Marshal Haig, war criminal
The First World War broke out on July 28, 1914 and lasted until November 11, 1918. While eventually overshadowed by the Second World War in scale and bloodiness, it was at the time the most devastating military conflict in history, whose total death toll ranges from a low estimate of 15 million to a high of 65 million (if one includes Spanish Flu deaths as a direct consequence of the war). To put that in perspective, on the low end of the scale that's nearly one percent of the entire human population at that time, to nearly four percent on the other end of the scale.

It was also a conflict characterized by callousness and contempt for human life on the part of many of the military leaders involved. Such leaders included the criminally insane Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, a man whose zealously violent military tactics and sky-high casualty rate (including 60,000 of his own men in a single day at the opening of the Battle of the Somme) would earn him the nickname 'Butcher Haig'. At the time the scale of the conflict was unprecedented in human history and led to a radical reshaping of every society touched by it.

Fast-forward to the present, many people - particularly those of a liberal bent - find today's Remembrance Day celebrations an uncomfortable business. Remembrance Day, one sometimes hears, is merely a glorification of our military akin to the jingoistic 'Support Our Troops' cries that we're accustomed to hearing from right wingers critical of anyone who, say, questioned the wisdom of invading Iraq back in 2003 or calls for our troops to be removed from the line of fire in present-day Afghanistan. And indeed our current government here in Canada has proven to be particularly prone to over-the-top flag-waving military fetishism, a trend which I agree is worrying.

Nevertheless, I do believe that liberal-minded people are entirely wrongheaded in boycotting Remembrance Day - or pulling their children out of such ceremonies. For one thing, the old cliché about those who forget history being destined to repeat it seems to be as true now as it has ever been, and with World War I now pretty much as historically remote as the Napoleonic Wars, it seems all the more important that it be recognized for what it was. To my mind, any self-declared pacifist does their cause a profound disservice by denying their children this profoundly important reminder about the horrors of conflicts past - and why such military entanglements should be avoided at all cost.

Still not convinced? The First World War was one of modern history's most important catalysts of social change. It was a war driven first and foremost by greed on the part of European colonial powers, and as such the war represented the beginning of the end of European colonialism in Africa, Asia and elsewhere. It saw the overthrow of oppressive, out-of-touch monarchies in Russia, Germany, Austria and Turkey, as well as political liberalization elsewhere. In much of the developed world it saw massive improvements in women's rights, including female suffrage in Canada and elsewhere. In addition, the public health and welfare crisis that the war engendered was probably the single most important catalyst in the development of the kind of state-funded social supports that are the core of today's social democracy.

Flanders' fields are still littered with war remains.
Lastly, Remembrance Day is, above all, about the troops, not the countries and governments involved. It honours people who were forced to the front lines in Western Europe to fight in a futile war of attrition that, in the memorable words of Captain Blackadder in Blackadder Goes Forth, "would be a damn sight simpler if we just stayed at home and shot fifty thousand of our men a week." No war in history has more graphically illustrated the destructive futility of warfare. The Second World War was a different affair altogether as there were bona fide good guys and bad guys, the latter being the German Nazi Party in the west and the imperial forces of Japan in the east. In the case of the First, the good guys were the soldiers on both sides of the front, the ones who famously declared an impromptu Christmas Truce in 1914 in direct contravention of high commands on both sides.

This, if nothing else, strikes me as well worth remembering. Feel free to criticize the military and its current entanglements. By all means criticize our leaders when they wax poetic about our country's 'proud military heritage'. Just don't deliberately keep your children ignorant of one of history's most cataclysmic conflicts. Do that and you're helping sow the seeds of future warfare.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

The Dungeons & Dragons Guide to Political Decision-Making

I have a confession to make - one that will, I fear, to great harm to my geek cred. I actually know next to nothing about Dungeons & Dragons. I know that it's a fantasy role-playing wargame that has had an enormous impact on the development of today's online RPGs. I know that it's been derided by many as a domain for losers and misfits and inspired the occasional fit of moral panic among social conservatives for its supposed links to Satanism and the occult. But beyond that I know very little about it. I'm open to being educated.

That said, I've recently become fascinated with D&D Alignment Charts, thanks to their current popularity as an Internet meme. From what I understand, in basic D&D, players create characters based on one of three alignments: lawful (implying honor and respect for society's rules), chaotic (implying the exact opposite) and neutral (something in between). Advanced D&D then introduces a second axis of good, neutral and evil, offering a combination of nine alignments. The D&D Alignment Chart therefore looks like this:

In the Dungeons & Dragons worldview, all individuals are to be found somewhere within these nine classifications. Here is a basic rundown of the archetypes in question:

  • Lawful Good: Also known as the 'Saintly' or 'Crusader' character, the domain of compassion, honour and duty. The domain of chivalry and bushido.
  • Neutral Good: Also known as the 'Benefactor' alignment, the domain of characters driven by conscience and altruistic motivations without regard for or against the established rules. Most Nobel Peace Prize winners fit within this category.
  • Chaotic Good: Also known as the 'Beatific', 'Rebel' or 'Cynic' alignment. This is the domain of the Robin Hood types who have nothing but disdain for the 'system'.
  • Lawful Neutral: Also called the 'Judge' or 'Disciplined' alignment, the domain of individual driven first and foremost by a personal code and placing a high value on traditions and historical precedent. Conservatives, in other words.
  • True Neutral: Also referred to as 'Neutral Neutral','Undecided', 'Nature's' alignment or 'The Swiss'. No strong feelings towards any alignment.
  • Chaotic Neutral: Also known as the 'Anarchist' or 'Free Spirit' alignment, the domain of roguish individualists who follow their own heart with general disdain for rules. Think libertarians and socialist agitators.
  • Lawful Evil: Also referred to as the 'Dominator' or 'Diabolic' alignment, those who see a well-ordered system as being easier to exploit, usually inclined to obey their superiors while twisting the rules to work in their favour.
  • Neutral Evil: Also called the 'Malefactor' alignment, characters with no qualms about turning on their allies-of-the-moment and making strategic alliances solely for the purpose of furthering their own goals.
  • Chaotic Evil: Also known as the 'Destroyer' or 'Demonic' alignment, the ultimate wreakers of havoc, destroyers of public order - often for its own sake. The domain of serial killers, suicide bombers and génocidaires.

In recent times the D&D Alignment Chart has become a popular meme among sci-fi fans for classifying characters. Here is an example of one from a movie series we all know well.

A fun little exercise in character study, and one that got me wondering what its applicability might be in the 'real world'. Specifically, it struck me that this system might be directly applicable to political decision-making. How might we vote if instead of classifying candidates on a crude left-right spectrum we classified them in the two-dimensional D&D fashion? As an experiment I applied the same classification system to Canadian political history. This is what I came up with:

How are we to read this chart? Clearly the lawful-chaotic axis is more or less analogous to the conservative-liberal axis that dominates our political system, but what of the vertical good-evil axis? While it might seem obvious that one always wants to vote for the 'good' candidate, the track records of these nine individuals bears a closer examination. Of the three 'good' characters, the only one who can truly be described as successful is Lester B. Pearson, and even he had a rough time in his short stint as prime minister. René Lévesque and Louis Riel may well have been good, honourable men, but both were dealt losing hands by history.

When it comes to political longevity, it's clear that neutral is the way to go. Macdonald, King and Trudeau all enjoyed long careers at the epicentre of Canadian political life, with 'True Neutral' W.L. McKenzie King dwarfing all others in longevity, with 22 years as prime minister over the course of three terms. As for the 'evil' category, it remains to be seen how our current Machiavellian prime minister will fare, but the other two enjoyed brief halcyon periods before going out in a destructive blaze of glory. Mulroney famously laid siege to his own political party upon his exit from public life, while Parizeau nearly took out the entire country - and destroyed any credibility his ever had beyond his fellow hard-core sovereigntists by blaming his narrow loss on "money and the ethnic vote." 

Binders full of 'evil' or 'neutral'?
Who do you want in power? Do you want a Dudley Do-Right along the lines of Pearson or Jimmy Carter or cautious calculators like McKenzie King, a man whose perpetual fence-sitting (e.g. "Conscription if necessary but not necessarily conscription.") while in office was instrumental in navigating a divided nation through human history's most desctructive war? Is it ever beneficial to vote for 'evil'? Few did more to ruin the credibility of the Quebec sovereigntist movement than Jacques Parizeau, which in retrospect might have made him an attractive choice for Quebec federalist voters.

Could the D&D alignment system serve as a more nuanced alternative for discussing political candidates than the rather limiting left-wing/right-wing axis? And speaking of which, how might we have classified the two candidates in this week's US election? Does Mitt Romney's track record for flip-flopping and questionable alliances make him 'Neutral Evil'? Is President Obama more of a 'Lawful Neutral' or a 'True Neutral'? Over to you.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Inigo Montoya Teaching Moment #4 - Sexism vs. Misogyny

Last week I wrote a post on the Amanda Todd suicide, in which I expressed the opinion that the media ought to be focusing more on the issue of misogyny than that of bullying and the role of social media. 'Misogyny', it turns out, has been a newsworthy word as of late, and as such I think it's worth digging deep into the word itself in the latest of the 'Inigo Montoya Teaching Moment' series of posts on misused - or allegedly misused - words and expressions.

Misogyny and discrimination against women in both the developed and developing world has been in the news a lot in recent weeks. When not making news in Metro Vancouver in the aftermath of the Amanda Todd tragedy it was doing so in Pakistan's beautiful but chronically unstable Swat region, where a 15 girl by the name of Malālah Yūsafzay became an international heroine thanks to a passion for education, a Taliban thug willing to kill in the name of preventing girls from being educated, and by valiant intervention by surgeons in Peshawar, Rawalpindi and Birmingham.

Meanwhile in Australia, the word itself became the centre of a media frenzy following a tirade by Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard against opposition leader Tony Abbott. Gillard's rant, which quickly went viral over YouTube, was delivered in the Australian parliament two weeks ago following demands from the opposition leader for the firing of House Speaker Peter Slipper, accused of making derogatory comments about women in a series of text messages. The prime minister, while stopping short of defending her colleague's actions, took the opportunity to expose her the famously macho and socially conservative opposition leader's hypocrisy in this 15-minute verbal smackdown. If you haven't seen it yet, it's well worth watching.

Gillard's rant - noteworthy even within Australia's famously bellicose political culture - quickly became international news, winning her praise in many corners both in Australia and overseas for her unapologetic stance against entrenched sexism and - a word she invokes frequently in her rant - misogyny. It also resulted in changed the PM could hardly have expected. Within a week of her 'misogyny' tirade, The Macquarie Dictionary, which bills itself as Australia’s National Online Dictionary, announced that it was changing its definition of misogyny from "a pathological hatred of women” to “entrenched prejudice against women."

This linguistic shuffle prompted a degree of backlash, particularly from Australia's opposition Liberal Party. "Ms. Gillard called Mr. Abbott a misogynist. Mr. Abbott clearly does not hate women," asserted Senator Fiona Nash in the Sydney Morning Herald. "It would seem more logical for the Prime Minister to refine her vocabulary than for the Macquarie Dictionary to keep changing its definitions every time a politician mangles the English language."

Political pleading notwithstanding, the incident begs the question of what precisely misogyny is, and how does it differ (if at all) from garden-variety sexism. In the aftermath of the Gillard attack, The Guardian asked six leading feminists to define the term. In the end, all of the them more or less agreed that 'misogyny' was simply a darker, more malicious form of sexism. British feminist author Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett characterized the difference between the two being akin to the difference between Benny Hill and Rush Limbaugh, noting that "While sexism demonstrates a disregard and disrespect for women, I always have associated misogyny with something darker, angrier, and more cynical."

When a man claims that women are naturally maternal, or are by default, bad drivers, he is a sexist. If he was to add that women are only good for a fuck and should be confined to servicing men and their children, it is misogyny.
- Julie Bindel

American author and renowned Third Waver Naomi Wolf digs deeper, contending that while 'sexism' is the product of unthinking prejudice, 'misogyny' is the product of a deeper, more emotionally charged contempt for women. "A public figure who tolerates the systemic under-prosecuting of rape is guilty of serious and unforgivable sexism," she explains. "Making rape jokes or explaining away the damage of rape in public [see Missouri Congressman Todd Akin] or legislating, as over a dozen US states are now doing, transvaginal probes that are medically unnecessary, simply to sexually punish women for choosing abortion – well, that is misogyny."

abbott new
Note to Tony Abbott: appostrophes are your friend, even if women aren't!
This then begs the question as to whether or not the 'misogynist' tag truly apply to the man at the centre of the controversy, the man who the Australian Prime Minister attacked saying "If [Mr. Abbott] wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia he doesn't need a motion in the house of Representatives; he needs a mirror." What exactly is Tony Abbott's track record for misogyny? Wolf argues that Gillard used the term accurately in her characterization of Abbott's view of abortion as "the easy way out" and his anti-Gillard placard campaign in which he urged Australian voters to "ditch the witch, wherein she was also described as '[Senator] Bob Brown's Bitch'."

Other Abbott classics might be more aptly described as sexist, such as his famously thoughtless on-air remark in 2010 when he referred to "What the housewives of Australia need to understand as they do the ironing," or when he notoriously quipped that mandatory paid maternity leave would happen "over this government’s dead body." Such declarations clearly reveal the opposition leader's adherence to an antediluvian view of the proper place of women in society - unquestionably sexist but not quite misogynistic. The 'Ditch the Witch' campaign and his acerbic and patently untrue dismissal of women seeking safe and legal abortions, on the other hand, betray an active mean spiritedness that can only be described as misogynistic.

Perhaps the most apt characterization of the difference between these two states of mind comes from Julie Bindel, British feminist author, LGBT advocate and co-founder of the group Justice For Women. "When a man claims that women are naturally maternal, or are by default, bad drivers, he is a sexist. If he was to add that women are only good for a fuck and should be confined to servicing men and their children, it is misogyny. Misogynists are always sexist, but sexists are not always misogynists."

Was Australia's leading dictionary right in revising its definition of 'misogyny' from 'a pathological hatred of women' to 'entrenched prejudice against women'? In my opinion, probably not. Moreover, I believe Julia Gillard was bang on in her characterization of her rivals views as being both sexist and misogynist, and that no such dictionary revision was needed in the aftermath of her now legendary knockout round.