Sunday, 27 May 2012

7 Reasons Why Historians Make Great PR Pros

My apologies up front if this post comes off as a tad self-congratulatory. I of course am a history grad - and a PR pro, so this post could potentially be construed as a screed about how awesome I am. But that's not what I'm trying to do here. This is in fact a message to history grads out there who aren't quite sold on the academic path but don't know where else to ply their skills. There is a place for out-of-work historians, and that place is called public relations.

Granted, I am somewhat biased. I was once that history student who, for a time, saw myself embarking on a long career in academia. It didn't quite work out that way for a number of reasons, and after several years of dabbling in various fields I discovered the world of professional communications, and haven't looked back since. I still love the field, though. My MA thesis, which focused on minority religious sects in Japan during the 1920s and 1930s and the role they played in shaping the character of Japanese nationalism during that volatile period in history, is still something I'm quite proud of, and one that has translated into several spin-off articles in the ensuing years.

A great PR message if ever there was one.

In a way I still consider myself a 'historian', and indeed many of my posts here are very much about history in one way or another. I'm still very much interested in Japanese history, as well as in Russian and Chinese history, which I also studied in considerable depth in university. And the further I get in my PR studies, the more I've become interested in the history of the profession itself, be it the PR disasters of early companies like White Star Line or fascinating characters like Edward Bernays and Ivy Ledbetter Lee who made the profession what it is today. It seems that wherever I go, I still see the world through the historian's lens.

As for history grads making great PR people, I'm not just basing this assertion on my own experience. This is a refrain I've heard from more than one senior public relations practitioner. I believe it. After all, historians tend to be compelling communicators. From the BBC's Jonathan Ross and Louis Theroux to the likes of Conan O'Brien and Sacha Baron Cohen (Ali G, Borat etc.), a disproportionate number of top TV personalities are history grads. A lot of policy advisors have history backgrounds. And yes, you do meet quite a lot of public relations and marketing people with history degrees. It seems to go with the territory.

Why, then, are historians particularly well-suited to the PR field? Apart from the fact that there are a hell of a lot more jobs in PR than there are in history departments, seven reasons spring to mind.

1. Historians tend to be excellent writers.

This one is a no-brainer. There are few academic disciplines that call upon students to do as much writing as history, making it an excellent training ground for a field that more often than not involves a lot of wordcraft. Also, the type of writing that is de-rigueur in the discipline of history, namely clear, concise, reader-friendly prose rather than heavy academese, is exactly what is needed in the PR field. Most PR job descriptions rank writing at or near the top of the required skills, and there's nothing like a history degree to turn you into a writing machine.

2. Historians know a good story when they hear it.

Storytelling and narrative are the heart of the historian's craft. History is nothing more than the totality of humankind's stories, the grand tale of how we all got to where we are today. Public relations is also all about storytelling, about relating compelling narratives about organizations, companies, brands, political candidates and so on. Why should we be interested in the story of British Airways or Greenpeace or Alison Redford? The same reason we should be interested in the Ottoman Empire or the women's suffrage movement. Everything has a compelling story to it - and a good historian/PR pro will find it.

3. They're good at, well, learning from the past.

Organizations facing PR problems often have deep-rooted problems (known in the field as 'smouldering crises') that go back much further than most people would realize. When Korean Air was trying to recover its image following a string of disastrous accidents in the 1980s and 1990s, it was found that the crux of the problem was an authoritarian, non-communicative cockpit culture that hearkened both to the country's recent past as a military dictatorship and even further into premodern feudal culture, leading the company to make vast, sweeping, well-publicized changes to its HR culture. While it doesn't take a historian to realize that learning from the past is a good idea, historians are particularly attuned to its importance.

4. Two words - research chops.

The word 'history' itself derives from the Greek historia, which means 'knowledge acquired by investigation'. As an academic discipline, history is a hell of a lot of writing preceded by even more research, and the higher up you get the more complicated that research becomes. Once you get to the graduate level, you're going to be pulling out all the stops, research-wise, from arcane microfiche and dusty old tomes to digital databases of various sorts. Public relations is often a very research-intensive field, and while a history grad entering the profession is invariably going to have to learn new research tricks and approaches, chances are they will approach said challenges undaunted.

5. History grads are likely to speak another language.

This isn't necessarily the case, but it often is. Graduate students in the history department at the University of British Columbia (where I did my MA) were all required to pass a language exam (whatever language was relevant to their work) before moving on to the research portion of their program. Even students doing British or American history were required to prove their proficiency in a non-English language, be that a dead language like Latin or something tangentally relevant like French or Spanish. While a knowledge of Ancient Syriac or Aramaic is unlikely to be of much use in the PR field, a living second language certainly helps, and historians are likely to have one.

6. They have a lot of 'worthless knowledge' at their disposal.

Here's the thing about historians: we know a lot of random stuff. We're the type of people you hate to play against in Trivial Pursuit because we actually do know what the capital of Macedonia is and how many conspirators were involved in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Historians as a general rule are trivia addicts, and while it's easy to poo-pooh much of this as 'worthless knowledge', it certainly helps in a professional field where one is often required to leap from one domain of knowledge to another, be that pipeline politics one day and Aboriginal duty-to-consult policies the next. It certainly helps to have good baseline level of knowledge in a lot of different areas.

7. Sociability - at least by academic standards.

This may not be true across the board, but in my experience historians tend to have a wild party animal streak. (Apparently Iron Maiden frontman Bruce Dickinson has a history background, which doesn't surprise me.) I don't know if this is simply borne out of a love of animated beer-fuelled conversation or whether it's the product of a sober awareness of the fact that the world could erupt in catastrophic warfare at any moment due to some epic foreign policy screw-up and a crazy Serbian with a semi-automatic pistol. Either way, historians tend to be sociable and animated people - and in PR this makes all the difference.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Split Between PR and Journalism? Why Not Do Both?

It's official!'s recent ranking of the best 200 occupations in the United States echoed what many have been saying about the state of journalistic profession in North America for a long time, ranking 'newspaper reporter' a paltry 196 out of 200 professions. (In case you were wondering, 'lumberjack' was ranked #100 and software engineer #1.)

Public relations executive, meanwhile, was ranked at #70. The U.S. News and World Report ranked it even higher at #41, noting that the average annual salary for a US PR exec is an impressive US$91,810. The CareerCast survey did, however, note that it was the seventh most stressful profession in the country, following enlisted military soldier, firefighter, airline pilot, military general, police officer and event coordinator. Nobody ever said life was easy on the 'dark side'.

Not surprisingly, news of journalism being the fifth-worst job in the US swept the journalistic community, with reactions ranging from indignation to a sort of masochistic embrace of the aforementioned ranking as a badge of honour. Others still retorted along the lines of,"well, it may not be great, but at least I'm not in public f*cking relations!"

There is more than a modicum of disdain for the PR profession among the ranks of journalists. PR execs, we are told, are the Sith Lords to the noble Jedis of the press. The journalists who migrated to public relations are the turncoats, the Sarumans corrupted by money. Even some ex-journos within the PR profession can be heard making similar remarks. An anonymous journalist quoted a colleague who made the jump as saying, "I miss [journalism] every day, except twice a month - pay day."

Today, Ragan's PR Daily published an excellent piece by Aurora University Communications Director Dave Parro entitled '8 Reasons Journalists Should Consider PR'. While he didn't specifically cite the elephant in the room (money), he did provide eight compelling reasons why public relations has many of the same appeals of the journalistic profession except without many of the downsides that have made so many journalists demoralized. The reasons he cites are as follows:

  • You still get to tell great stories.
  • You get to shape the story.
  • You get to be an advocate.
  • You still get to regularly learn something new.
  • You don’t have the emotional baggage.
  • You get to be optimistic.
  • You still have constant deadlines.
  • You understand what makes a great story.

Of these eight points, number three is perhaps the most counterintuitive to many journalists with a jaded view of public relations. PR people for the most part gravitate to organizations whose mission and goals are aligned with their own. While this isn't always the case, at least early on in a PR career, it's certainly the ideal situation for anybody in the profession, and it goes without saying that the most effective PR professional is one who is highly engaged and committed to the cause of an organization.

Likewise, the best journalists are more often than not people who are dedicated to a specific set of issues and pursue it day in, day out. And given the ever-more monopolized and corporatized nature of newspaper ownership and the effect this has on editorial content, it is tempting to suggest that journalism is the wrong place to be for a person with strong convictions and a desire to tell difficult and not-always-popular stories. For people like these, could the 'dark side' in fact be the best road to take?

However, I maintain that this Manichaean view of journalism and PR isn't necessarily the case. Why couldn't one do both? After all, the advent of blogging and citizen journalism means that anyone who can write and conduct and interview can do 'journalism'. Granted, there are limitations to what one can do in this capacity. As an independent journalist you don't have access to the same resources that a reporter for a major newspaper has, and as a PR professional you don't want to be doing independent work that conflicts with your obligations to your employers or clients. Moreover, your connection to a specific organization can potentially be a liability, depending on where you work and what you're reporting on.

On the other hand, provided you avoid any potential conflicts of interest (which ideally is a non-issue due to the focal points of your work aligning with what you care about), this is as close as you're going to get to living the superhero dream while still upholding your adult responsibilities. In the comic book world, Clark Kent and Peter Parker supported themselves as reporters while serving as flamboyantly costumed public advocates of justice in an extracurricular capacity. Today's Kents and Parkers are invariably PR guys by day and online caped crusaders against ignorance and misinformation by night, one Tweet and blog post at a time. Many of them even have their own costumes, which they wear to blogger conventions.

The downside to this? In the list of the most stressful professions, 'superhero' was conspicuously absent, but one can only imagine that given the demands of the job it probably outranks even soldier and firefighter. And if PR exec is already at number seven, adding 'citizen journalist' to your mantle is unlikely to bring that down at all. But if you're an adrenaline junkie who cares a hell of a lot and can survive on three hours' sleep, go for it! You might want to come up with a catchy pseudonym first, though.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Is Infrastructure Gay?

Like many people who spend a lot of time on the intertubes, one of my favourite modes of procrastination is posting and sharing light-hearted-yet social-commentary-ey images on Facebook. This one, from Wipe Out Homophobia, caught my attention recently.

Amusing? Highly, but it also brings up and interesting - and perhaps unintended - question. Why is it that those people who are dead-set against according any type of human rights to non-heterosexuals also, almost without fail, also oppose any increases in public spending in infrastructure projects, like roads, schools, subway systems, museums etc.? Is it simply a case of these being selfish people who are unable to see any value in contributing to the overall well-being of society, or is there a deeper force at work? In other words, is there something intrinsically gay about infrastructure?

To most, this will sound like a pretty reaching notion - at least at first. After all, construction work is generally considered one of the most manly professions, and the archetypal image of the construction tradesperson - the Village People notwithstanding - is generally unquestionably heterosexual, with a wife at home who washes his work shirts, cleans his boots and goads him into taking wussy, unmanly safety courses. This is the construction industry, isn't it? Or is it?
(Source: a very real construction company in Brisbane,
Australia. Look 'em up!)

(Source: Leslie/Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art)

While the industry itself may well be as macho as it claims to be, the stuff it builds isn't always so manly. I live in the province of Alberta, a place where potholes are as much a part of the culture as pickup trucks and western alienation. It was here that the stolidly heterosexual provincial government of Ralph Klein froze infrastructure spending across the province for over a decade, while during the same period made Alberta a holdout on same-sex marriage and other LGBT human rights issues until the federal government forced its hand. The province's roads crumbled and planned light rail systems were stalled while gay and lesbian Albertans were being held in a time-warp. The government's slogan might as well have been "Multi-lane expressways are for faggots! We Albertans like our potholes and low taxes!"

The AGA(y)
Is infrastructure gay? Look at the infrastructure developments we've had in the post-Klein years here in Alberta. The new Art Gallery of Alberta (AGA) here in Edmonton? Very gay - in a weird bondage-y sort of way. The Bow Building in Calgary? Curvilinnear, sleek, and with an argyle girder pattern - definitely gay! The Southgate LRT Station? Hel-LO! A smooth train-ride away from the fruity downtown to designer clothing stores with a carpeted skywalk that won't dirty your shoes. It couldn't be any gayer if you had Liza Minnelli collecting the tickets! It even has the sound 'gay' in its name. I could go on, but I think you get the point.
"It's fun to stay at the Tai-Pei One-Oh-One!"
And what about overseas? The Taipei 101 Tower is probably one of the fruitiest structures every built (built in, of course, one of Asia's most progressive countries on the LGBT front). And what about Bullet Trains? Does anything scream homo more than sleek, phallus-shaped wannabe Orient Expresses with cherry blossoms emblazoned on the side and fruity names like Hikari and ICE, with smartly dressed attendants using poofy words like 'vestibule' and 'Romance Car'? That and the fact that apart from Canada, Argentina and Iceland (which has a fabulous road system and lots of hot springs), every single country that has thus far granted gays and lesbians the right to marry has also invested in high speed rail. Even South Africa has one now, with its World Cup-year launch of its much-vaunted Gautrain, connecting Johannesburg and Pretoria, giving them Africa's first high-speed train. This in the only African country where gays and lesbians can marry.

Clearly not all infrastructure builds are gay. The military-industrial complex isn't particularly gay, although with the repeal of 'Don't Ask Don't Tell' in the US all bets are off. And there's definity nothing even remotely gay about the oil sands operations in the vicinity of Fort McMurray, which would explain why this was about the only infrastructure project that Alberta's right-wing Wildrose Party did not target in its election manifesto - the same party that sought to defend the rights of wedding officiators to refuse to bless same-sex marriages under the banner of 'conscience rights' while one of its Edmonton candidates was quoted as stating that gays were doomed to perish in a 'lake of fire' on his blog. In other words, infrastructure is great as long as it's straight infrastructure.

Next time you're feeling thankful about your jurisdiction's forward-thinking views on LGBT rights, thank a construction worker, those burly men who are out there day after day, putting your gay tax dollars to work making your world gayer, one steel girder at a time. He might even take you dancing if you're lucky!

Friday, 18 May 2012

TEDxMogadishu - Rebirth Through Communication and Technology

Yesterday saw an event take place that very few people would have thought possible. May 17 saw the latest installment of the TEDx lecture series (self-organized events within the TED format) take place in a city that for over two decades has been synonymous with lawlessness, violence and human misery. While media reports of a new (relative) calm in Mogadishu following the recent ouster of the al-Qaeda-afiliated Al-Shabaab extremists from the Somali capital by African Union troops have been numerous in recent months, news of a TED lecture series in this bombed-out disaster of a city took everyone by surprise.

Had the TED series existed many centuries ago, Mogadishu might in fact have been the perfect launchpad for it. The ancient Sultanate of Mogadishu was one of the most globalized cities of its time, serving as a bridge between Africa and the Arab world and enriched by trade contact with India, Sri Lanka, China and Vietnam. This helped turn the city-state into one of the medieval world's great intellectual centres. The 14th century Moroccan scholar and traveller Ibn Battuta described the citizenry of Mogadishu as "generous, urbane, fat and erudite and genuine followers of Prophet Muhammad’s instruction to 'travel in search of knowledge, even though that adventure takes you to China.'"

Fast forward to the early 21st century, however, and the picture is far less positive. As with the rest of the country, the Somali capital has been without an effective central government since the ouster of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, and the city's once-resplendent medieval architecture has been largely destroyed by wave after wave of warfare. For most of the past two decades, the city has been controlled by competing warlords and their partisans, including the violent Islamic militant group al-Shabaab, a group whose bizarre law and order edicts included banning samosas (a staple food across the region) on the grounds that their triangular shape hearkened to the Christian Trinity.

But while peace remains far-from-certain in Mogadishu, signs of recovery in the ancient city are becoming ever more palpable. Members of the Somali diaspora in Kenya, Ethiopia and the west returning home and starting businesses. International investors have begun exploring opportunities in the city and banking operations have returned. And now - a TED conference in Mogadishu, centred, fittingly enough, on the theme of 'rebirth'. The conference was pitched thusly:
There is hope in Somalia. An influx of African Union troops has pushed insurgents out of Mogadishu and representatives from the country’s clans are meeting to discuss the formation of a new government and draft constitution. With sustained peace on the horizon, the Somali diaspora is returning home and starting businesses. International investors are exploring opportunities and the first Somali bank has now opened.

While the stability remains fragile, Somalis are optimistic that a turning point has been reached after 21 years of conflict, and we are witnessing the rebirth of Mogadishu.
Ilwad Elman
Ilwad 'Elle' Elman
The talk featured ten guest speakers (all but one of whom are Somali), who ranged from a real estate developer, a camel farmer, a women's aid worker, a physician and a financier. Refreshingly, given the country's appalling record for gender equality, four out of ten presenters were women. The opening presenter was human rights worker Ilwad 'Elle' Elman, a tireless advocate for rape victims and recovering child soldiers who founded the Elman Peace and Human Rights Center in Mogadishu together with her mother. The conference also featured Hassan Mohamed H. (Kaafi), founder and president of Plasma University, a medical science institution founded in Mogadishu in 2005 for the purpose of providing affordable nursing, pharmaceutical and healthcare administration.

TEDxMogadishu was broadcast worldwide via live streaming. For those not fortunate enough to be in Mogadishu for the conference (or to have watched it live), a video of the broadcast will soon become available online at In the meantime, a great big salaam to the people of Mogadishu for taking a stand for communication over repression, technology over terrorism and peaceful exchange of ideas over intolerance.

Next stop Yangon? Damascus? After this, anything is possible.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Why Do Racist Sports Team Names Persist?

The Cleveland Indians baseball team has never had an easy go of it. Until the mid-1990s, the team was the perpetual laughing stock of Major League Baseball, fielding one awful squad after another. And while Cleveland fans have had more to cheer about in recent decades, with seven Central Division titles and two American League penants since 1995, the team has nonetheless been the focal point of growing controversy surrouding its racially loaded name and politically incorrect mascot, Chief Wahoo.

Admittedly, not all that controversy has been the team's own fault. On Wednesday of this week, after Chicago White Sox ace pitcher Jake Peavey held the Indians scoreless for seven innings,  an unnamed CBS Sports reporter responded with the asinine headline 'Peavey scalps Tribe for fourth win'. This came not long after the team's home opener at Cleveland's ironically named Progressive Field, where fans were greeted by a group of protesters with signs that read 'Stop Teaching Your Children Racism'. For many, the CBS fiasco further emphasized the need for Cleveland's ballclub to change its name.

Louis Sockalexis (Source: Wikipedia)
And yet, baseball purists (of which there are many) continue to defend the name. Defenders of the name evoke the late Cleveland outfielder Louis Sockalexis, a turn-of-the-century star of Penobscot (Wabanaki) ancestry and the first Native American to play in the major leagues, in whose honour the Cleveland team (then called the Spiders) was renamed. While I'm all for commemorating pioneers like Sockalexis, there are lots of ways of doing that other than giving your team a racist name. When Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier in baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, the team didn't rechristen itself the Brooklyn Negroes. I fail to see the difference.

Of course it would be unfair to single out Cleveland for criticism - other cities have team names that are just as bad. Over in the National League, the Atlanta Braves have long been criticized for their racially questionable name as well as their trademark tomahawk logo and their fans' obnoxious 'tomahawk chop' chant (featuring vaguely Hitlerian hand gestures). Nor is this phenonemon exclusive to baseball. The National Football League has the Washington Redskins and the Kansas City Chiefs, although in defence of the Chiefs, they at least have a wolf as their mascot rather than a racial caricature.

The name I find most baffling, however, is Edmonton's beloved CFL franchise, the Eskimos. Not only is the word 'Eskimo' nowadays considered offensive to Inuit people in both Canada and Greenland (although it remains an acceptable term in Alaska), the name is doubly stupid considering that Edmonton is nowhere even close to Inuit territory and the only Inuit you're likely to meet in the city are migrants from the far north on their way to oilpatch jobs in Fort McMurray. From a geographical standpoint, it would make just as much sense to call the team the Edmonton Mohawks or the Edmonton Newfies. There are certainly more Newfs in town than there are 'Eskimos' - and probably more Mohawks as well. Why Eskimos? Because we're northern? The 'Edmonton Cree' would at least be an accurate name, albeit a bizarre one.

What's more remarkable is that in stark contrast to the Cleveland and Atlanta teams, there seems to be no real controversy surrounding the Eskimos name. In an Edmonton Sun readers' poll conducted in October 2011, which asked readers if they felt the name 'Edmonton Eskimos' was racist, only six percent replied in the affirmative, with 37 percent replying 'no' and 57 replied 'that's just silly'. Granted, readers weren't given the choice of 'no but it's still a stupid name' but the results do suggest that the team's name is a non-issue for sports-loving Edmontonians, or at least those who read the Sun. One can only wonder what the results would have been had they conducted the same survey in Iqaluit or Nuuk.

All this begs two questions. Firstly, why is it that racist sports team names like the Indians and the Eskimos are so stubbornly persistent? And secondly, why is it always Aboriginal people who are being objectified for sporting purposes at a time when stereotypes of other ethnic and racial groups (with the possible exception of the Notre Dame 'Fighting Irish') are totally unacceptable?

Don't Mess With Tradition

The first question is easy enough to answer. Sports culture is fundamentally conservative, a world deeply rooted in tradition and wistful nostalgia. Even the most dedicated progressives turn into to staunch traditionalists when it comes to their favourite teams - borne out of yearning for a mythologized childhoods. Witness the nostalgia in Canada for the 'Original Six' NHL hockey teams and the glory days of the insert-the-blank team in Decade X. And I'm certainly not immune to it. As a longtime baseball fan, I was delighted when the Toronto Blue Jays brought back their early 1990s World Series champion-era jerseys. The sports world lives and breathes nostalgia, making change painful.

But the conservatism of sports culture has its well-known dark side. The passion that sports teams generate has always brought out the ugliest attributes in human beings, be it British-style football hooliganism or Vancouver/Montreal-style hockey riots. And all too often this ugly streak has manifested itself in either overt or veiled racism (as well as, of course, sexism and homophobia). The hatred that baseball star Hank Aaron faced as he approached Babe Ruth's all-time home run record was only a generation ago, and in European football African players continue to have bananas thrown at them from the stands while their Jewish counterparts continue to face hissing fans imititating the sound of gas chambers.

While it would be unfair to equate Chief Wahoo and the tomahawk chop to these overt acts of racism, both stem in large part from the sporting world's profound aversion to change, be that name changes or racial and ethnic integration. And the unfortunate thing about tradition is that it tends to be, well, behind the times. And behind the times is an uncomfortable place to be when you're a member of a long-marginalized minority group.

Source: Indian Country Today
Wigwams and Warpaint

As for the second question, the reason for the enduring presence of native caricatures like Chief Wahoo is, sadly, garden variety ignorance borne out of 500 years of cultural genocide. An Aboriginal colleague of mine once lamented to me that his son once came back from a museum field trip and exclaimed, "Dad, we saw stuffed Indians at the museum!" Sadly, this is still the enduring image of the noble 'red man' - noble, yes, but obsolete, irrelevant to the modern world and with an annoying habit of showing up uninvited to demand a say in how their traditional territories are used. At least the Tonto cliché conveniently stays in the past.

Fortunately, things are changing, albeit at a snail's pace. Education on Aboriginal history and culture - long woefully inadequate in this country - is gaining ground, and Edmonton Public Schools deserves praise for promoting Cree as a language study option for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students alike. Still, anyone looking for evidence of the ugly racist side of mainstream Canadian society need only look at the reader comments on the latest First Nations-related news story on any Canadian news site. Racism towards Aboriginal people still abounds in this country, and when you've finished reading a news story about murdered Aboriginal women and half the reader comments have been 'removed', you know you've got problems.

Aboriginal people represent just under four percent of the Canadian population (although this number is rising) and remain to a great extent a physically (at least those who live on reserve), socially and economically marginalized minority. In the US that percentage is even lower, with roughly 1.37 percent classifying themselves as 'Native American'. As for the Edmonton 'Eskimos', the average Edmontonian has probably never actually interacted with a person of Inuit background and is probably more familiar with Chinese or Japanese culture than with Inuit culture. Which is hardly surprising given the fact that it costs less to fly to Hong Kong or Tokyo from Edmonton than it does to fly to Iqaluit.

Still, tradition or no tradition, I refuse to give the Eskies a free pass. In terms of stupidity, the name is up there with the Toronto Maple 'Leafs' (it's Leaves, people!) and while the pejorativeness of the term 'Eskimo' depends on where you are in the high arctic, the concensus among Canadian Inuit and their Greenlandic cousins is that the term is offensive, as it hearkens back to a time of overt racism in much the same way as the n-word does in the United States. The Eskimos may not have a problematic mascot like the Cleveland Indians do, but the name is still a problem. And at least in Cleveland there's genuine debate going on about it. I've seen no evidence of that here.

I realize full well that I'm stepping onto sensitive ground here. People love their sports franchises and are loathe to see long-hallowed names changed. I get it. But couldn't we find a name for our football team that actually reflects the region, something appropriate, edifying and inclusive? The Oilers and Oil Kings work, as did our old minor league baseball team the Edmonton Trappers, given Edmonton's historic role as a fur trading hub (although the PETA people will no doubt tear a trip off of me for saying so - pun intended). Surely we can do better than a word that falls into the same category as 'Negro' or 'Chink'.

Or perhaps we should follow Notre Dame University's example and call the team the Brawlin' Ukrainians. That would at least be entertaining - and appropriate.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

World Citizen (I Won't Be Disappointed)

I've been a professional writer for over seven years now and I consider myself to be pretty crafty with the written word. Nevertheless, there are still a great many domains of writing where I feel woefully out of my depth, and one of those is song lyrics. I do dabble in it a bit here and there but it's not a process I find easy, even with my musical background. Writing song lyrics means abandoning the structural crutches that I normally lean on when writing. The type of writing you're reading here feels linear and totally straightforward. The abstract thinking and the abandonment of the comfortable essay-writing and PR copywriting counterpoint I've grown used that songwriting requires is something I'm still not used to.

A big part of what makes writing song lyrics indimidating (at least to me) is the soul-baring the process requires. When you're writing about a 'topic', you have that topic to fall back on. Even novelists can point to the characters and say "Don't look at me, they made me say that!" But with poetry - and by extension songwriting - the words stand alone as naked expressions of the messy viscera within you. Flub a sentence in a magazine article or a PR piece and it's simply sloppy writing. Do the same in a song and it's you who are wrong.

C'mon, you know you secretly dig these guys!
Furthermore, people love nothing more than to tear song lyrics to shreds. Granted, there are plenty of songs that deserve it. Consider the following words by a bewilderingly successful Canadian hard rock unit that shall remain nameless. Sometimes bad songs really are that bad.

Against the grain should be a way of life
What's worth the price is always worth the fight
Every second counts 'cause there's no second try
So live like you're never living twice
Don't take the free ride in your own life

Yep, that's pretty bad. Not only have they succeeded in putting fellow Canadian Bryan Adams to shame in the cliché-per-syllable category but they also manage to contradict themselves mid-verse with the line "don't take a free ride in your own life," which to my mind is a plea for caution and responsible living amid all the faux-rebellious platitudes about "going against the grain" and whatnot. To the band's credit, they manage to string a melody line along this awkward assemblage of clichés, although even that manages to sound like a stretch, to my ears.

But lyrics like this that sound like they're going out of their way to be awful are, to my mind, the exception rather than the rule. Lyrics don't have to be brilliant wordcraft to work. Even over-the-top pretentious lyrics have their own charm, as the enduring appeal of prog-rock indicates. Some lyrics work simply on the basis of their rawness (i.e. most punk and socially conscious rap) and others by their prickly tongue-in-cheekness (anything Cole Porter or Lily Allen ever wrote). The hardest gig, however, is the socially conscious lyric. To pull this off without sounding preachy, alienating (to somebody in the audience) or simply smug is a very tough act to pull off.

This brings me to the song that has been lodged in my head for at least a week now - the song World Citizen (I Won't Be Disappointed), with lyrics by David Sylvian and music by Ryuichi Sakamoto, written for Sakamoto's Zero Landmine campaign. Sylvian, for those not familiar with the guy, initially rose to prominence with the late-seventies, early-eighties British 'New Romantics' band Japan before embarking on an uneven but always interesting solo career. As for Sakamoto, the former Yellow Magic Orchestra keyboardist is best known in the west as a film soundtrack composer but has also recorded countless albums ranging from delicate piano miniatures to beyond-the-fringe electroacoustic creations.

The lyrics here work on a multitude of levels. They're chock full of social relevance while devoid of any sense of superiority. The us-versus-them ethos of many a protest song is replaced by a 'we're all in this together' feel, and unlike the Yahwistic pleas of Bono and Leonard Cohen, this song is thoroughly atheistic and firmly rooted in the here and now. Structurally it's almost Churchillian in its hypnotic succession of statements. The imagery is haunting, and perhaps most interestingly, there are almost no adjectives. As a PR guy with an appreciation for stripped-down prose, this is music to my eyes and ears.

What's the secret to writing song lyrics like this? Let me know when you find out.

World Citizen (I Won't Be Disappointed)

What happened here? The butterfly has lost its wings
The air’s too thick to breathe and there’s something in the drinking water.

The sun comes up; the sun comes up and you’re alone
Your sense of purpose come undone; the traffic tails back to the maze on 101

And the news from the sky is looking better for today
In every single way but not for you

World citizen

It’s not safe; all the yellow birds are sleeping
'Cause the air’s not fit for breathing; it’s not safe

Why can’t we be; without beginning, without end?
Why can’t we be?

World citizen

And if I stop and talk with you awhile
I’m overwhelmed by the scale of everything you feel
The lonely inner state emergency

I want to feel until my heart can take no more
And there’s nothing in this world I wouldn’t give
I want to break the indifference of the days
I want a conscience that will keep me wide awake

I won’t be disappointed

I saw a face; it was a face I didn’t know
Her sadness told me everything about my own
Can’t let it be; when least expected there she is
Gone the time and space that separates us

And I’m not safe; I think I need a second skin
No, I’m not safe

World citizen

I want to travel by night, across the steppes and over seas
I want to understand the cost of everything that’s lost
I want to pronounce all their names correctly

World citizen
I won’t be disappointed

She doesn’t laugh; we’ve gone from comedy to commerce
And she doesn’t feel the ground she walks upon
I turn away and I’m not sleeping well at night
And while I know this isn’t right, what can you do?

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Article 9 - One Paragraph, Many Views

Make soup, not war? An ad for pro-Article 9 spoons from Japan. (Source: Masatoshi Nagase's Blog)
Today marks the 65th anniversary of the adoption of Japan's postwar constitution (日本国憲法, Nihon-koku Kenpō). The document, which was drafted in a period of less than a week upon orders from General Douglas MacArthur and presented to Japanese officials on February 13, 1946, was created by two senior US officers with legal backgrounds and steered by an entourage of Japanese legal experts and political officials, notably past and future PMs Kijūrō Shidehara and Shigeru Yoshida. It became law upon imperial assent on November 3, 1946 and formally came into effect six months later.

Given the remarkably short window of time assigned to the job (and MacArthur was never one to give out extensions), it's hardly surprising that the postwar document was essentially a rewrite of the old prewar Meiji Constitution. The old constitution, known as the Constitution of the Empire of Japan (大日本帝国憲法, Dai-Nippon Teikoku Kenpō), was ratified in 1889 and based primarily on the Imperial German (Prussian) constitution. The prewar Japanese constitution was in turn used as a model for the 1931 Ethiopian Constitution (which also codified the notion of the 'Divine Emperor'), which remained in place until the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1975.

While the new constitution was essentially superimposed on the old one, it did bring forward a whole barrage of changes. It introduced a whole parade of individual human rights statutes, including separation of church and state (in stark contrast to the State Shinto of the prewar period), freedom of assembly, workers' rights (including the right to unionize), right to due process, prohibition of torture and cruel punishments, prohibition of forced marriage and the right to free compulsory education. It also represented a long overdue victory for Japan's beleaguered feminist movement in its introduction of universal suffrage for the first time in Japanese history.

While the postwar constitution brought about widespread change, the document is largely famous for a single paragraph, namely Article 9. At 132 Japanese characters in length (a Tweet ahead of its time, perhaps), Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution is arguably the most important piece of text in modern Japanese history. The Article reads thusly:
日本国民は、正義と秩序を基調とする国際平和を誠実に希求し、国権の発動たる戦争と、武力による威嚇又は武力の行使は、国際紛争を解決する手段としては、永久にこれを放棄する。二 前項の目的を達するため、陸海空軍その他の戦力は、これを保持しない。国の交戦権は、これを認めない。

Translated into English it reads thusly:


Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. (2) To accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.

There you have it - one of the greatest paradigm shifts of modern times, encapsulated in 71 words. But while the intent of these words remains reasonably clear, the devil is, as always, in the details, and successive generations of Japanese citizens have since contended with what this constitutional clause actually means in practice.

You Say Military, I Say Jietai

It didn't take long for Article 9 to be put to the test. With Mao Zedong's consolidation of power in nearby China in 1949 (and the expulsion of Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists to Taiwan) and Cold War tensions mounting between the United States and the Soviet Union, the still-ruling US occupational forces in Japan were already beginning to get cold feet about Japan's newly institutionalized pacifism. And by the time civil war broke out on the Korean peninsula in 1950, it became apparent that some type of military force in Japan was required in order to free up US troops to fight in Korea.

The US forces in Japan under MacArthur's command were also worried about the stubborn popularity of Japan's domestic Marxists. In 1947 the Japanese political scene swung dramatically to the left with the election of the Japan Socialist Party led by Tetsu Katayama, a Christian socialist and staunch pacifist. Meanwhile, many in Japan's radical left contended that the postwar constitution didn't go far enough, namely that the Emperor should have been at the very least removed from his post if not tried for war crimes.

In large part in response to this leftward lurch, the US forces de-purged a number of wartime politicians who promptly repopulated the country's political scene. Among these wartime figures were Ichiro Hatoyama and Nobusuke Kishi, two future prime ministers and founding members of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party that would enjoy nearly uninterrupted rule from 1955 to 2008, as well as Yoshio Kodama, a sinister ultranationalist and professional union-buster who helped engineer the rise of the LDP and foster the emergence of the modern-day yakuza crime syndicates.

Who are you calling an 'army'?
These unreformed wartime politicians were, not surprisingly, not fans of Article 9. Kishi, a former official in Japanese-occupied Manchuria under General Tojo, attempted to revised the article upon becoming PM in 1957, as did his protégé Yasuhiro Nakasone upon his kick at the can in the 1980s. Meanwhile, following the outbreak of the Korean War, it was decided that while the Article prohibited the establishment of a fighting force, it was permissible for Japan to maintain a purely defensive force in order to ensure its own security. This began as the 75,000-strong National Police Reserve (警察予備隊, Keisatsu Yobitai), ultimately becoming the Japan Self-Defence Forces or JSDF (自衛隊, Jieitai), a name that remains today.

The establishment of a de-facto military in postwar Japan without violating the constitution involved some extraordinary linguistic gymnastics. Virtually every piece of military nomenclature needed to be translated into civilian-speak in order to avoid breaching Article 9. Japan's new artillery corps were dubbed 'Special Units'. The infantry corps were referred to as 'Regular Units'. Tanks were rechristened 'Special Vehicles'. The absurdity of this doublespeak was not lost on the Japanese public at the time, as exemplified in the satirical 1952 student protest song 'A Tadpole Is Not A Frog'.

To this day, Japan's 'military' remain official extensions of the national police force. The upshot of this is that Japan still does not officially have a military, in spite of the fact that by 1990 the country had the third largest defence expenditures behind the United States and the Soviet Union and a military force clearly capable of waging war. After having been derided by Washington for refusing to contribute troops to the 1991 Gulf War, change came in the form of Japan's post 9/11 Anti-Terrorism Special Measures Law in October 2001, which  broadened the scope of Japan's self-defence purview enough to justify a supportive role in the US invasion of Saddam's Iraq in 2003.

Four years later, then-prime minister Shinzo Abe (Kishi's grandson) commemorated the 60th anniversary of the postwar constitution by calling for a bold review of the document to allow the country to take a larger role in global security. However, popular support for the preservation of Article 9 remains widespread in Japan and Abe's hawkish stance lacked popular support. But Japan has continued to quietly expand the breadth of its military activities. In 2011, Japan established its first post-WWII overseas military installation in Djibouti for the purpose of combatting Somali piracy, while current PM Yoshihiko Noda is revisiting the country's decades-long ban on arms exports.

News photo
Pro-Article 9 Demonstration (Source: Japan Times)
Whither Article 9?

Conservative groups in Japan continue to lobby for the revision of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution. On the occasion of the 65th anniversary of the constitution, a citizens' advocacy groups known as Minkan Kenpo Rincho (People's Constitutional Commission) called for a revision of the war-renouncing clause, calling it outdated and a threat to Japan's national security, a position supported by the now-opposition LDP.

Anxiety surrounding national on the part of the Japanese is hardly surprising. The country's close proximity to impoverished but belligerent (and nuclear-armed) North Korea remains foremost among national security concerns, while the dramatic rise of China as a regional economic and military power coupled with Japan's own loss of economic primacy in the region has made a compelling argument for reexamining the country's postwar charter. Moreover, Japan's relations with its longstanding postwar superpower sponsor have been less than smooth in recent years, with contentious issues like the US' continued troop presence in Okinawa adding fuel to the revisionist cause.

And yet, continued public attachment to Japan's antiwar constitutional clause remains widespread. A 2008 poll in the Asahi Shimbun showed that 66 percent of the Japanese public favoured retaining Article 9, with only 23 percent supporting its revision. Popular opposition to Japan's involvement in the 2003 Iraq War resulted in a resurgence of support for the Article and the current backlash against the nuclear energy industry in the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown has, to a certain extent, coalesced with the country's longstanding antiwar, anti-nuclear armaments movement.

To many, Article 9 remains a core element of Japan's postwar identity, a rock on which the modern country rests. Author, Nobel laureate and peace activist Kenzaburo Oe contends that “The rebirth of the Japanese people depended on Article 9." Most available polls suggest that the majority of Japanese people agree with him. And while Japan's military clout has steadily expanded within the context of a 'defensive force', continued widespread support for this national commitment to peace and non-aggression indicates that Article 9 has plenty of life left in it.

Happy anniversary, Article 9!