Tag Archives: Toronto

Canadians Stand With You

Image result for canadian flag

In March of 2003, shortly after then prime minister Jean Chretien stood up in the House of Commons and told the world that Canada would not be participating in George W. Bush’s flight of folly that was to be the Iraq War, two members of the opposition, Stephen Harper (the future prime minister) and Stockwell Day wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal under this same title criticizing the government’s stance and suggesting that most Canadians were in fact in favour of Bush’s chest-beating military escapades.  I’m not sure who Messrs. Harper and Day were speaking for, because to this day I’ve never met a single fellow Canadian who would cop to admitting such a thing.  Rather, coast-to-coast we were proud that our PM showed the gravitas to stand up against what would ultimately prove to be an act of lunacy in which thousands of lives were lost and the perpetrators remain free to deliver $20,000 an hour guest lectures at universities the world over.

As the sobering and saddening event of November 8, 2016 settles and a serial liar, philanderer and proudly racist fool prepares to assume the office of President of the United States, this time Canadians do stand with you, our American friends, neighbours and cousins.  We stand with you in your trepidation at what a profoundly unqualified narcissist with little interest in the nuance of governance beyond what benefits his personal brand, prone to fly off the handle at the sight of a nasty tweet, will do with absolute authority over America’s nuclear arsenal and a zombie army of neo-Nazis goosestepping cheerfully wherever dark place he chooses to lead.  Though some might try to preach a tempered optimism, hopeful that the nobility of the office might silence the instincts for demagoguery, this really doesn’t seem like a glass half-full situation.  For the 64 million (and counting) souls who voted for Hillary Clinton, it’s more like the glass was sucked dry, smashed and then stolen from the tuberculosis-ridden orphans to whom it belonged.  It is deeply troubling when the most progressive imaginable outcome is that the hairdo is swiftly impeached and the balance of his presidency is entrusted to his homophobic VP – the empty shell of a man who represents Grover Norquist’s wet dream of an obedient puppet who will sign whatever government-shredding legislation is placed in front of him.  The American press is already trying its damnedest to normalize this bizarre sequence of events, falling back into its traditional deference to power and the fallacious and harmful “both sides” approach – counting, perhaps, on everyone to go to sleep again and be mollified by the off-camera antics of celebrities as America’s experiment in democracy approaches its most critical test:  whether it can survive the machinations of a sociopathic moron.

As Canadians, we watched the election of Barack Obama in 2008 with tremendous joy, thankful that the progressive values we had long held sacred (and boasted about in our non-confrontational Canadian sort of way) had a real chance to take heart and root in the most powerful country on the planet.  That we would finally begin to see some global leadership in worldwide crises like environmental degradation, poverty and war, and that the laissez-faire types running our government at the time would have no choice but to follow where President Obama would lead.  It is perhaps the most liberal of failings to assume that everyone should share our values because we know them to be right; we are equally prone to underestimating how forceful the backlash from the right can be when those things that they consider sacred – whatever our opinions of them – are threatened.  And so it was that after the prolonged drama that was the passage of the Affordable Care Act – a frustrating exercise in incrementalism for a president who wanted a transformational wave – the 2010 midterm elections saw the Republicans take back the House and bring a decisive end to the President’s legislative agenda, to be replaced by fruitless repeal votes and endless (and equally fruitless) investigations.  Progress, sadly, would have to wait.  It remains on a shelf, and now seems fated to be relegated to a back corner of that warehouse from Raiders of the Lost Ark as every long-slumbering, knuckle-dragging Neanderthal neo-con rises from the morass to assume a place of leadership in the new administration, determined to take the country back to the bad old days of the 1850’s.

When we elected Justin Trudeau as Prime Minister in 2015, we felt as though it was the continuation of a trend that Obama had begun, perhaps the commencement of a new era of this new breed of statesperson:  charismatic, far-thinking, caring.  The sight of the two of them palling around like old schoolmates at the subsequent state dinner was an episode of The West Wing come to life, and one that seemed destined to continue under safely inevitable President-to-be Hillary Clinton.  Like you, we never thought that in a million years would enough swing-state Americans pull the lever for the loudmouthed candidate whose entire campaign seemed a calculated publicity stunt designed to boost bookings at his hotels and golf courses.  He seemed to like the idea of winning, but not necessarily the work of doing the job after that.  We thought that if trends and polls pointed to a win, he would swiftly drop out, spin it as a victory, and go back to leering at his daughter and stiffing contractors.

When he actually won, Canadians gave ourselves a shake because we had seen this before, and we should have known it could happen, and we shouldn’t have been soothing our panic with promising poll numbers.  Because in 2010 the City of Toronto, thought of as one of the most liberal and diverse metropolises in the world, elected as its Mayor a man who had been similarly dismissed in the beginning as a bumbling, boorish oaf with virtually no chance of winning.  In Toronto’s election, the narrative of the entire campaign was Rob Ford:  love him or hate him, he was all you were talking about.  Ford’s message was uncomplicated and aimed directly at anyone who’d ever been upset with their local government about anything – recognizing that voter anger and the desire for change, no matter what that change might be, is perhaps the most powerful force into which any candidate for anything can tap.  The other candidates might have had some decent and progressive ideas, but they failed to articulate exactly what they stood for other than being against Ford and the dire prognostications of what Ford might do in the mayor’s office.  And it wasn’t enough.  Ford won a handsome victory and despite the rollercoaster of his term looked like he was headed for a second before the illness that ultimately claimed his life forced him to drop out of the race in 2014.

In the flashback West Wing episode “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen,” longshot primary candidate Jed Bartlet chafes at a staffer’s suggestion that he refrain from mentioning his front-running opponent John Hoynes’ name in speeches as it gives him free publicity.  Bartlet argues that not mentioning Hoynes’ name just makes him look like he can’t remember Hoynes’ name.  But in 2016, every Clinton election ad that filtered north of the border did indeed seem to be about her opponent; every terrible thing he had done and the piss poor example he would set as a president and role model.  (I shared a few myself on Twitter.)  Utterly lost in the messaging was what she would do, how she would make things better, that one singular idea that can light a fire in a soul and spread ravenously to others, the idea from which world-changing movements are born.  Instead, with the ratings-hungry media eager to cash in on trainwreck spectacle, the election became Rob Ford redux, and what little time was afforded Hillary Clinton was devoted to the tiresome saga of her emails.  The book The Secret posits the question of why sometimes, in elections, a widely loathed candidate still manages to win, arguing that it is because all thought, energy and attention is focused on him.  Whatever the truth behind the veneer, on the surface he was the dazzling wealthy celebrity with the glamorous supermodel wife and the incomparably lavish lifestyle, the embodiment of “American exceptionalism,” the archetype many Americans feel it’s their divine destiny and right to one day become; the Big Lie of the “haves and soon-to-haves,” and day after day, night after night, he was the full story.

I really don’t mean to Monday morning quarterback; it certainly doesn’t ease the pain of what happened on November 8th.  I offer it only as a caveat for what comes next, because others will look to copy the model of Rob Ford and the walking comb-over in years to come – and we need a solid strategy to defeat them.  Already here in Canada we have a candidate for the leadership of our Conservative Party praising the U.S. election results and saying that we need some of that bad mojo to spread up here – to which I and I think a majority of Canadians respond with a unified gag reflex.  But we don’t dare write this person off or pretend that such views can’t possibly take a toehold and mutate into something larger and much uglier.  When people are desperate, they will latch on to whomever is selling the easiest solution in the loudest voice, and it’s dangerous to dismiss such people as suckers.  As progressives and liberals we need to do better at selling our ideas instead of just defining ourselves in opposition to the heinous garbage the other guys are rolling out.  We need to go into those reddest of red states (and bluest of blue provinces – the red/blue thing is flipped up here) and start the conversation with the most unfriendly of audiences and not stop it until we’ve won hearts and minds.  The cheaper, easier alternative, shoring up the base and waiting for demographic evolution to take care of business, is an errand for fools.

There’s no sense in applying the comforting coat of sugar, my American friends:  you have some hard times ahead.  The monsters you thought you’d driven under the bed over the last eight years are slithering back out to sink their greedy teeth into you, and this time they won’t be the slightest bit subtle about it.  But the good news is that a small group of committed citizens can change the world, and your “small group” outnumbers this gang of robber baron cretins by about 320 million.  The world remembers when your collective effort allowed humanity to walk on the moon; surely you can do it again, after all, there’s even more of you now.  President Obama himself said that progress rarely moves in a straight line.  So don’t let your country slip back into the Dark Ages without a fight.  Don’t let the media normalize this caricature of a man who is about to become your president.  Speak out.  Organize boycotts.  Take to the streets and to the barricades.  Don’t be lulled into complacency by reality shows and celebrity catfights for one precious second.  Raise your voices, sing your songs and spread your words far and wide every chance you get, and you will win the real battle to make America great again.

And know that on this side of the border, Canadians stand with you.

With a Song in My Heart: O is for…

“OK Blue Jays” – Keith Hampshire and the Bat Boys, 1983.

Full disclosure:  I had originally chosen another song for this slot.  When I decided to embark on this odyssey (another O-reference!) back in March, I assembled the music first, without giving too much thought to what I would write about.  Most were obvious picks, as were the substance of the posts that would accompany them, but as I’ve gone along here plumbing the recesses of my memories, my inner editor-in-chief has wanted to ensure that the content remains varied and interesting.  So, rather than compose another brooding entry about a melancholy song, I’ve made a last-minute swap for something out of left field – literally.  “OK Blue Jays” has been the theme song of Toronto’s major league baseball team for over thirty years, with the same dance performed every seventh-inning stretch at every home game.  In the mid-1980’s and early 1990’s, tens of thousands of fans united in this upbeat, calisthenic celebration of their hometown squad.  Today, barely a few hundred can be bothered to summon the meager enthusiasm needed to detach their rears from their chairs for a purpose other than refreshing their beer.

There is a deep irony associated with the fandom for Toronto sports franchises, in that Blue Jays fans bailed after the back-to-back World Series victories in 1992 and 1993 and have never returned, while the Maple Leafs continue to draw capacity crowds despite regularly sucking and failing to make the playoffs year after year.  I can’t claim the high road here, either; the strike of 1994 tore the heart out of Toronto’s baseball fans, and it has never fully healed.  I remember feeling betrayed, disgusted, fed up, and vowing never to come back, despite Blue Jays games having been a formative part of my youth.  Carefully preserved, still, in a box in my basement is a copy of the official souvenir program from the very first Blue Jays game at Exhibition Stadium on April 7, 1977, where snow baptized the brand new artificial turf and froze the thousands who’d come to share in a piece of sports history.  In another box is the small, faded jersey that was my uniform for Jays games with my dad – with STIEB 37 stitched on the back.   From 1983 to 1986, my father would go halfsies with a friend on a season ticket package each year – section 11, row 9, seats 1 and 2, just up from the first base line.  Fortunately, since his friend knew nothing about baseball and used the tickets largely for client giveaways, Dad managed to acquire the best games.

The “Ex,” or the “Mistake by the Lake,” was a slapdash stadium that looked like it had been assembled by accident, yet it harbored a spirit that its fancy replacement SkyDome (I refuse to call it the “Rogers Centre”) has never replicated.  The scoreboard looked little better than that of a high school football team with its yellow LED’s, a few of which were usually burnt out, and the sound system scratched and popped with the voice of local radio personality Murray Eldon announcing “yourrrr To-RONTO Blue Jays!!!!”  The $15 field level seats at the Ex weren’t any more comfortable than the $1 general admission over the left field wall, the hot dogs were soggy after being steamed all day and you had a one in three chance of getting drenched and the game being rained out, but nobody cared.  The twenty to thirty-odd games Dad and I would attend each year were like family reunions, as we’d become friendly with the other season ticket holders in the surrounding seats, the concession vendors hollering out their wares (“rrrrroast beef on a kaiser!” drew a few laughs one night), even with the mustachioed security guard manning the gate separating the stands from the field.  We perfected “The Wave” in those stands; you could hear it rumbling towards you as column after column stood up and flung their arms into the air, and metal seats snapped back.  When a foul ball flew our way, gloves were brandished and bodies leaped across aisles and occasionally into guys carrying trays full of beer in order to snag a fragment of the wonder – and we would all applaud a fantastic amateur catch, even the guy who’d gotten soaked with his own four-pack of Labatt’s Blue.

The 80’s and 90’s were probably the last era for Blue Jays who would endear themselves to the fans the way classic ball players like DiMaggio and Mantle would.  At the Ex we watched Willie Upshaw, Damaso Garcia, Ernie Whitt, Buck Martinez, Rance Mulliniks, Lloyd Moseby, George Bell, Tony Fernandez, Garth Iorg, Jesse Barfield, Dave Stieb, Jim Clancy, Luis Leal and Jimmy Key bat, throw and field their way into highlight reels and hearts.  We watched other greats like Wade Boggs, Don Mattingly, Cal Ripken and George Brett take them on, managed by legends like Earl Weaver, Sparky Anderson and Billy Martin.  Later on, new favorites like Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter would carve themselves a place in Blue Jay annals.  By that time, though, the Ex was abandoned for its shinier, retractable-roof replacement, and a few short years later it would be demolished to make way for, as Joni Mitchell would appreciate, a parking lot.

They still play “OK Blue Jays” in the club’s new home, but it doesn’t sound right there.  To me that song belongs to another place, another decade.  A more innocent time, perhaps; at least, a time when I was far more innocent.  When I hoarded the glossy program from each game and spent hours copying statistics into my own comprehensive Blue Jays binder like some medieval monk attempting to chronicle the history of the world.  When that jersey still fit, and when I could be wowed by the prospect of walking onto the field to meet my heroes.  When I couldn’t wait for the seventh inning and a chance to sing that tune at the top of my lungs while flailing my arms about in a proud display of support for – in my humble opinion, of course – the greatest team to ever play the game.  Where did it go wrong?  Years of rising ticket prices and deflating player talent have tempered that devotion, and our interest is limited to maybe pausing on a televised game for a few minutes while channel surfing on a Friday night.

Yet that devotion will always be there, even if it’s been papered over by a few decades of cynicism and disinterest.  Support for a sports team is like support for a political position – ingrained, fundamentally unshakable.  It is as inflexible as one’s morals and as lasting as the greatest love.  I may not be able to afford season tickets anymore, and I may not have the time to go to 30 games a year, but the song can still remind me of the reason I first became a fan:  the sheer joy of the experience as it unfolded, the anticipation of what would happen next, and the unlimited possibilities beyond that simple phrase, “Let’s play ball.”

You can’t handle the tooth

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Going to the dentist is one of those necessary life rituals that causes an irrational explosion of anxiety in otherwise sane, stable people.  The ear-slicing whine of the tiny drill as it scrapes at enamel inspires more revulsion than that of a vegan served a slab of porterhouse, more terror than the prospect of a Rob Ford sex tape.  Finding out today that I need a root canal, my mind is cast to the image of C.J. Cregg on The West Wing episode “Celestial Navigation,” wailing “I had woot canaww!!” and advising that the pwesident needs to be bwiefed immediatewy.  Yet my dentist assures me that I can go straight back to work, it’s not like the days I needed off from school when I had my wisdom teeth out so many moons ago.  They numb you up, drill inside the tooth, extract the pulp – which you don’t need anyway once the tooth is fully formed – and cap it with a sealant.  Easy peasy, really.  But that won’t stop dental work from being a reliable source of dread on TV shows and the like until the medium itself expires.

There are hundreds of things that the entertainment industry has convinced us to wet our pants at the mere thought of that are in reality quite benign.  Sharks and air travel are the two that spring to mind right away.  Up until 1975, shark attacks were the rarest of the rare, with beachgoers more likely to suffer a nibble from a petulant sea turtle.  Then Jaws drops and nobody wants to go in the water, and the fear of the shark is so indelibly etched into our collective consciousness (accompanied by John Williams’ foreboding theme music) that almost forty years later we’re still using them as stock monsters for our schlockiest of movies, only now they’re flying out of tornadoes.  They’re reduced to mindless predators driven into a frenzy for human flesh by the slightest whiff of blood, the standard pet of every supervillain, sometimes even with frickin’ laser beams attached to their heads.  The documentary Sharkwater had to be produced to try to restore the reputation of these fatally misunderstood creatures – murdered by the thousands every year – and yet, the Mayor’s cautionary words from Jaws still ring in everyone’s ears:  “you yell ‘shark,’ and you’ve got a panic on the Fourth of July.”  Whether you realize it or not, you too scan the horizon for the telltale fin when you go swimming at a tropical beach.  The primal fear is that entrenched.

And then there’s the terrors in the sky.  Airplanes, and indeed air travel, are almost never shown in movies or TV unless something bad is going to happen mid-flight.  The plane is going to be hijacked, or run out of fuel, or hit a deadly storm, or the crew will be incapacitated, resulting in the massive jet needing to be landed by the plucky kid who loves flight simulation games on his XBox.  Look at Lost, the show whose entire premise revolved around the aftermath of a plane crash on a deserted island.  The first episode began with an unnamed survivor opening his eyes and staggering around the plane’s debris field, and witnessing some poor schmuck get sucked into the still-firing engine – an airliner so lethal it was still killing people after having gone down.  The media doesn’t help, shunting real-life crashes to the front of any broadcast.  I’ll never forget the day in 2005 when that Air France flight skidded off the runway after landing at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport and CNN’s Wolf Blitzer sounded crestfallen that there were no fatalities to report.  How often do planes crash in real life, though?  Once every six months or so?  Sounds like a lot until you consider that in entire world, there are on average 7,000 flights daily.  That’s every single day of the year.  So yeah, your odds of ending up dodging the black smoke monster on that time-traveling island are pretty much on par with having a sharknado drop on top of your house before you finish reading this sentence.

I feel for dentists, I really do.  Just as airlines and sharks never get a positive portrayal in the movies, neither do dentists.  (For a double whammy, check out Cast Away where Tom Hanks’ plane crashes before he can make a dentist appointment for an abscessed tooth.)  They’re all drawn from the Little Shop of Horrors or Marathon Man mold, depicted as sadistic, domineering and utterly inconsiderate of the sheer agony they’re about to inflict on their squirming patient.  All the better for us to laugh at, I suppose.  And yet their real-life counterparts have to overcome this stereotype each time a new victim – er, client walks through the door, to say nothing of the years of training and certification required to be able to do the job in the first place.  A job that requires them to stick their fingers into some pretty disgusting, halitosis-wracked mouths every day.  I suppose the message in all of this is that we shouldn’t rely on the movies to tell us what we should and shouldn’t be afraid of – and that we need to remember to floss.

Theories of relativity

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Thanks to the modern miracle of wi-fi, I’m writing this in a Starbucks, where the scents of burnt coffee blend in an orgiastic melange with subliminal jazz and the tinny patois of the three teenage girls sitting to my left, cajoling one another with tales of romantic woes with such frequent interjections of the word “like” it might as well be in, like, a completely different language.  I gather an acquaintance was at a young lad’s house overnight and the former somebody is obsessed with the latter, and another someone is totally getting engaged in Utah, omigod, make of it what you will.  Shards of October are littered across the deep sienna tile in the form of fragments of leaves hitching rides in from the street on clumsy boots, and yet, November is in full swing inside, pumpkin spice abandoned for peppermint, gingerbread and hot apple cider, menus and cups transformed to holiday red.

The espresso machine whirs and spits milk foam, and the girls are on to complaining about work now, and while to each his own, I can’t help but smile a bit at the relativity of personal problems – what seems disastrous to one person is laughable to someone else.  I guess the whole “First World Problems” meme is the perfect example of that; how dare we privileged few whine that our latte is weak when someone in the deserts of Sudan is crawling haggardly across the sand in search of a drop of water.  I read a statistic a while back that if all seven billion human beings lived at the same standard as we do in the northwestern hemisphere, we would need four earths worth of resources to sustain everyone.  I haven’t checked the star charts lately, but barring some unforeseen discovery I’m pretty sure this is it.  Kinda makes it difficult to justify getting mad at an inadequate supply of chocolate shavings on a peppermint mocha.

This week has seen some interesting developments in the political sphere, particularly as it concerns two gentlemen whose continuing success seems the embodiment of global unfairness.  First, Dick Cheney decided to cancel his trip to Toronto, where he was scheduled to give a speech to an economic forum, claiming that Canada was “too dangerous.”  This followed a report that a group of lawyers had sent a letter to the Attorney General of Ontario demanding that Cheney be arrested on war crimes charges the moment he landed.  Dodging small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades on the way to this cafe, as I often do, I wondered what on earth would possess anyone to want to go see a speech by Dick Cheney in the first place.  Really, what was he going to tell the group of too-rich-for-their-own-good muckety-mucks ponying up for the ticket – how awesome it is to be wealthy and how the only way to become more wealthy is to screw the poor into the dirt even harder?  There, I saved ol’ Six Heart Attacks the bother of the trip.  But had he chosen to tread upon these allegedly too hazardous shores, he would have found his appearance swallowed up in the news by the Rob Fordpocalypse.  The two men are truly a pair of poison kings:  unrepentant bullies who always get away with everything because karma’s apparently asleep at the wheel.  Confronted by the revelation that the Toronto police have the infamous “crack video” in their possession, and facing calls by all four major Canadian newspapers to step down and attend to his personal problems, Ford is pulling the equivalent of sticking his fingers in his ears and bleating “na-na-na-na-I-can’t-hear-you.”  We’ll see in the coming days and weeks whether he’s able to hang on to his office, but if and when he does go, it won’t be voluntarily, no matter what consequences Toronto suffers in the meantime.  The man’s CN Tower-sized ego simply won’t permit him to express those magical little words, “I was wrong and I’m sorry.”  Ultimately, that’s what the opponents of both men want.  It isn’t to see them flayed or doing the perp walk in irons (though to be fair, in Cheney’s case that image would be particularly satisfying.)  It’s wanting them to feel guilt and regret and shame and desperate wishes that they could somehow atone – you know, wanting them to be human.  Cheney is probably too far gone, but Ford may have a semblance of a soul left.  One can only live in hope that he will ultimately do the right thing, but I’m not a betting man.  (At least not if his serial-enabling brother Doug has anything to do with it.)

And yet, what happens to Rob Ford and Dick Cheney affects my life as little as what the girls at the next table decide to do about their next shift at the restaurant, or about the girl who’s apparently getting engaged in Utah, omigod – so why worry about it?  I remember an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation involving a telepathic guest character who was so overwhelmed by the emotions and thoughts of others that it drove him to near madness.  You can be paralyzed if you let all that stuff get to you.  Yes, it’s awful that Dick Cheney will probably live out the rest of his life in ease and affluence after ruining the world for everyone else, but there’s no sense in shortening our own time on this troubled planet by stressing out about it.  Nor is there much to be gained by spitting blood over the escapades of RoFo and DoFo.  They’re certainly not up late worrying about us.

At the end of Casablanca, Rick tells Ilsa that the problems of two people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this world.  Perhaps, but when you’re neck deep in beans that hill feels insurmountable – even if a stranger would look at you and scoff, wondering what the heck the big issue is.  Much as how while I might feel that what these three girls are obsessing over is utterly trivial, so too would they think I’m an idiot for wasting my hour writing about the travails of the former U.S. Vice President and the Mayor of Toronto, two men I have never met and will likely never meet.  At least they’re talking about people they know, people who matter to them, smiling and laughing and having a great time.  I’m the solitary soul typing away in dour silence about strangers.  Who’s better off?  We are all our own little universe, after all, we define the shape of that cosmos with our individual hopes and dreams and fears, and it is not anyone’s place to say that universe doesn’t matter.  That way lies the death of empathy and of compassion, of seeing others as human.

I eye the clock, drain the last of my lukewarm beverage, click save and shut down and slip the laptop back into the bag.  And as I head for the door I wonder if by some quirk of fate one of those young women ends up reading the post their conversation inspired.  Unlikely, of course, but you just never know.  Cold air touches my face, and I step onward into the street and disappear.

The importance of being human: Social Mix 2012

Canadian Internet media company Jugnoo (Sanskrit for “firefly,” or light from within) hosted Social Mix at Toronto’s Royal York hotel yesterday, gathering social media notables such as Amber Mac and Gary Vaynerchuk to impart their observations on how things are evolving in cyberspace circa end of July 2012.  One of the best-received speakers was someone who at first glance wouldn’t appear to be a go-to social media guru:  Sgt. Tim Burrows of the Toronto Police Service.  While the talks of the other speakers and panellists focused largely on how to approach social media from the perspective of private business establishing a digital image for itself, Burrows’ challenge was somewhat unique – using social media to attempt to manage the image of an institution that from day one has been defined almost exclusively by others.  In the West, our perceptions of the police have evolved, as Burrows’ presentation illustrated, from the idyllic image of Officer Friendly sharing a soda with a wide-eyed kid at the malt shop, through the steroid, napalm and inexhaustible ammunition-fueled antics of Dirty Harry and his cinematic descendants, to what was singled out as the worst offender in terms of creating unrealistic expectations, TV “reality” shows like Cops and procedurals like CSI.  In his role with TPS, Burrows confronts attitudes forged by hyped-up media reports, Public Enemy songs and overactive imaginations and tries to reassure the community that behind the often contradictory mythology that has grown up around the blue is a group of human beings trying to do their jobs – human beings as prone to failure as the rest of us but expected at all times to be unflappable paragons of virtue – and looking to change the conversation to that level.  It’s an important lesson for any public body looking to take the plunge into the digital space, particularly as the cost of ignoring that space means that it will be filled with exactly what you don’t want out there influencing people’s opinions of you.

Simon Sinek talks about how companies like Apple, even in the era that preceded the digital media wave we are riding now, crafted their brand loyalty not through the selling of a product, but the sharing of ideas and values that could be identified with by the consumer regardless of what product was being offered – why they do what they do.  In his keynote, Gary Vaynerchuk expanded on this to boil success in social media down to a single concept – storytelling.  In one of his many insightful anecdotes, Vaynerchuk described how every first-time customer of his wine business always received a personal follow-up thank you call.  Frequently, he observed, the customer on the other end of the phone would wait awkwardly for the other shoe to drop – for an expected additional sales pitch, which never came.  It was a money-loser and literally nothing more than a personal touch, with no sneaky attempt to generate revenue or leads or any other marketing shenanigans (as an aside, Vaynerchuk remarks with resignation that ultimately marketers ruin everything, as they will eventually ruin social media).  For Vaynerchuk, the idea was to hearken back to the story of the old country general store where the clerk knew your name and could fill your order before you walked in – in essence, crafting a more human experience.  It’s remarkable, although not totally surprising, that as the volume of information flow expands exponentially with each nanosecond and our attention span becomes more and more fractured, we crave that connection even more.  Why else do we post pictures of our children on Facebook and share details of where we go and what we’re doing at every opportunity?  Because it makes us feel human.  And there is nothing so uniquely human as the story.  Nothing else can move, engage or inspire us in quite the same way.  In an era where almost everything is available by download, people still go out to the movies to share the experience of the story in the company of their peers.  Sgt. Burrows is attempting to craft a story for the Toronto Police that establishes them as partners in peace, rather than jack-booted, fear-inducing authority figures; in other words, humanizing them.

What then, is the lesson for public entities looking to create a strong digital profile?  The irony for organizations such as governments is that in a democracy people tend to treat their government like they do their appendix – ignore it unless it’s acting up.  Using social media simply as an additional channel for press releases and official statements is certainly doomed to failure.  The key question is how to create a story – and as any professional storyteller will advise, a great story starts with great characters, that is, the human beings at its heart.  Public servants, like the police, have long been the collective whipping boy for everything that is wrong with government – the archetype of Sir Humphrey Appleby of Yes, Minister, striving constantly to maintain the status quo and do as little as possible while reaping tax-funded pensions and keeping the people they ostensibly serve baffled by the process.  (The news of former prime ministerial advisor Bruce Carson’s arrest for influence peddling today doesn’t help.)  There is still, however, plenty of opportunity to try to start rewriting that narrative, emphasizing the responsibility and indeed the nobility of service.  Government is uniquely positioned beyond any brand to be able to use social media to help craft a sense of community; for all the ballyhoo that private corporations do everything better, one is hard-pressed to find examples of corporations uniting neighbourhoods and instilling a sense of civic pride in the people who walk those streets. If government can become more personable, if it is able to let its humanity shine through, then the compelling story will write itself.  People will become engaged in their government as everyday partners, not once-in-a-blue-moon voters, because they will care about where the story is going – and want to write themselves in as part of it.  The ROI isn’t clicks and shares, but something far more precious:  a healthier democracy and ultimately a more human place to live.

Rob Ford and political chicken

I’m no fan of Rob Ford.  I find him to be a regressive, rude, bullying, half-witted right-wing douchebag I wouldn’t trust to have my back in a bar fight, let alone as the mayor of one of the most progressive cities in the world.  Yet this uproar over his recent purchase of some fried chicken at a local KFC, dutifully recorded and uploaded to the Internet for the digital world’s derision, is a step too far.  I recall a conversation with a guy I used to work with, when we were talking about Ford and I was relating my less than favourable opinion of him.  This fellow said to me, “I appreciate that you don’t ever talk about his weight.”  My response was, why should I?  He could be a 98-pound beanpole and still advance policies that make my stomach turn.  Ford’s physical condition has absolutely nothing to do with how he conducts himself or how he performs as a public official, which are the only things we should be judging him on.

The counter-argument is that Ford made his weight an issue ripe for public scrutiny by politicizing his “Cut the Waist” challenge.  Contrast this with the response to Vic Toews and his infamous “child pornographers” comment.  There were two major initiatives on Twitter:  the @vikileaks feed, which posted publicly available records of Toews’ divorce, and the spontaneous #TellVicEverything campaign, in which users overwhelmed Toews’ Twitter feed with the mundane details of their lives – what they ate for breakfast, what was playing on their iPod, how many pigeons there were in the park and so on.  The former was disgraceful, because it made political hay of Toews’ family problems.  The latter was hysterically funny, because it mocked Toews’ boneheaded political stance.  It made the policy a laughingstock, without belittling the man’s private life.  That’s what the other guys do.

Imagine if Rob Ford were a liberal titan, boldly advancing green initiatives and progressive social policies and vowing to make Toronto car-free and overgrown with trees by 2020 – would we on the left side of the spectrum be so inclined to laugh about a lapse in his diet?  Anyone who’s ever dieted knows how hard it is, how bad the cravings can get, even when you’re not under the 24-hour stress of leading a city of millions.  We’ve all had our weak moments where we reach for the ice cream.  That’s not a criticism of Rob Ford; if nothing else, it humanizes the guy a little, and reminds you that under all the bloviating and bluster there is in fact a very vulnerable soul.  Which I would still never vote for.

The past few elections in Canada, and the upcoming American presidential contest, have brought to the forefront of the public consciousness a hideous scorched earth form of political campaign where nothing is off limits.  Effective government leadership demands that the best people step forward, and how will we encourage those folks to step out into the spotlight when the mere public rumination of a run for office can spark the filthiest invective from the opposition in response?  The silent demographic who do not vote because they cannot abide the cynicism of politics are not silent without cause.  They have been systematically alienated from a public debate that operates on the intellectual level of a high school cat fight.  It’s all too tempting for liberals to want to get down into the mud and fight just as dirty as their conservative counterparts, but doing that only accomplishes two things – it accepts with resignation the premise that government and public service is the realm of savages, and often engenders sympathy for the opponent (and by accidental consequence, the opponent’s argument).  It takes more courage to stand up to a bully with words instead of fists.  But sometimes, a victory won with words – the right words – can be all the more decisive.  Canadian and American progressives may dream of a day when right-wing parties are a nausea-inducing anathema to the voting public, but we won’t get there by calling Conservatives and Republicans fatty-Mcfat-fats.

A comedian whose name I can’t recall once opined that it was stupid to be a racist, because if you got to know the person really well you could find a much better reason to hate their guts.  Likewise, it’s ridiculous to go after Rob Ford because of his weight.  He could be the most drool-worthy, sculpted embodiment of Adonis on the planet and still be a lousy mayor.  Call him misguided, call his policies ludicrous, call his approach to governing positively inept, but if the guy wants a bucket of extra crispy chicken for dinner after a bad day, leave him the frack alone.

This is your brain on digital media

Arianna Huffington addresses the Toronto Digital Media Summit, photo by yours truly sitting four rows back.

Johnny Mnemonic features a pre-Matrix Keanu Reeves as a “futuristic” (I put the quotes around futuristic because many of the movie’s concepts have grown quite out-of-date) courier whose packages of data are uploaded directly into his brain.  Eager to take on a high-paying job, Reeves’ character agrees to carry more information than his brain can handle.  I find myself in a similar situation after two days at Toronto’s 2012 Digital Media Summit, having assimilated the insights of dozens of expert speakers and panellists, including representatives from Facebook, Google, LinkedIn and Microsoft, on what this whole concept means and where they think it might be going.  The key word there is “think,” because digital media is progressing too fast for the majority of us to simply keep up, let alone predict.  Today’s phenomenon is tomorrow’s relic, and what seems like a ludicrous concept this morning might be a smash success this afternoon.  The statistics are cosmic in their scope:  2 billion people on the planet access the Internet as part of their daily lives.  52 billion pages indexed on Google, 1.3 million articles on Wikipedia, 100,000 years’ worth of YouTube video shared on Facebook in 2011 alone.  Futurist Michael Tchong, one of the featured speakers this past weekend, refers to it as an ubertrend, which he defines as “a major movement, pattern or wave emerging in the American lifestyle that ripples through society leaving many subtrends in its wake.”  Although opinions on how to harness these ripples are numerous, one fact that seems to be shared is the idea that all of this is fuelled by the human need for connection – and kinship.

Associated with that need for connection is the humorous acronym FOMO, that Tchong suggests is behind much of the social media explosion – Fear Of Missing Out.  When so much flies by at lightspeed, billions of times every nanosecond, we are terrified that we might not see all of it, whether it be the latest updates from our friends and family, infinite funny cat videos or actual breaking news.  Texting and driving, Tchong says, happens because some of us have decided that being in touch is more important than being alive.  Perhaps, if one can venture down the garden path of existentialism, for many people being in touch is being alive; this idea of ambient awareness that I have discussed before.  But it is far more than simply wanting to know what’s going on – it’s wanting to know.  Arianna Huffington, who gave the closing keynote address yesterday, referred to her early book The Fourth Instinct, which suggests that beyond the usual human needs for survival, sex and power, there is a hunger for spiritual fulfillment and meaning; to answer that fundamental question of Life, The Universe and Everything (yes, Douglas Adams fans, I know it’s 42, but stick with me here).  Digital media is a sublime leap towards the realization of this answer, because it brings people together in a grand unified search.  This is why I put no stock in the philosophy of every man for himself; the mere existence of the ubertrend under examination here suggests that we are inclined towards a sense of community, of belonging, and that the reason why the technology of information has been the fastest to progress (instead of jetpacks) is because it reflects what we want most as a species gifted with intellectual curiosity.

And as expected, many fear the undiscovered country it is leading us towards.  Misguided approaches to regulate digital media, such as SOPA, ACTA or the Vic Toews nonsense going on in Canada, are the last refuge of an old guard longing for the simplicity of the era when everything could be explained as God’s will.  Ironically, that fear comes from the very same place as the curiosity that drives the democratic exchange of ideas as exemplified by digital media.  When information rested only in the hands of a few, those few were respected and admired as learned leaders.  The more the truth spreads, the less those people are needed – the influence they have built for themselves, out of this same, basic longing for community, diminishes as others cease to listen to them, until they are finally left alone, and forgotten.

So what then, in a nutshell, could you say is the biggest takeaway from my massive data intake of the last two days?  Certainly enough thought to chew on for the conceivable future (and more than a few blog posts I’m sure), but above all else, reinforcement of the notion that a global community, a global family, is not just a pipe dream of a few starry-eyed prognosticators, it is a place we are going whether we like it or not.  Our existence as individuals in a population of 7 billion mirrors our tiny earth adrift in an incomprehensibly vast universe, and just as each of us longs to find meaning as part of a family, our entire race hungers for meaning within the endless dark.  Why are we here?  Maybe Cousin Phil has an idea – check his status update.  Connection, knowing that we are not alone, is tremendously liberating – it reassures and emboldens us to take the next step.  Host Rob Braide of Galaxie Radio kicked off the conference by invoking the analogy of a drunk who drops his keys on a dark street and wanders to the safety of a street light instead of looking for them straight away.  The connection provided by digital media is that light.  And the more light the better.

Give me Maher!

With the recent political swing to the right in Toronto, first with Rob Ford, then with the Conservative GTA wins in the federal election, you’d think there wouldn’t be much of an appetite for Bill Maher’s brand of comedy in Hogtown.  But a packed Massey Hall couldn’t get enough of him last Saturday night.  For 90 minutes the master of taking the piss out of the American right-wing was slicing and dicing the likes of Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum, to a crowd that thankfully doesn’t have to face the prospect of a ballot with any of those names on it, but was still informed enough to understand just how deserving of mockery those targets are.  (Curious how Rick Mercer might have done with a set on Stephen Harper and Rob Ford in Texas – I’m guessing crickets, and that’s nothing against Mercer.)  To any regular viewer of HBO’s Real Time, some of the wisecracks were familiar.  But Maher delivers them with such verve you can laugh at them again and feel like it’s the first time.  It’s all still hilarious, and ever so true.

Those of a certain political inclination inclined to dismiss Bill Maher as a “loony leftie” miss the point.  His politics, and by extension his comedy, isn’t about left and right, it’s about intelligent and stupid.  Maher is, like Aaron Sorkin in many ways, if not an idealist, then at least someone who prefers to be led by smart and curious people and has no patience for the kind of false populism that celebrates the mediocre and the small-minded.  Religion is a particular bugbear for him – among the best jokes of the night was a bit about how the West has learned to ignore its religious leaders (in contrast to fundamentalist regimes abroad) and a prediction that the Pope will one day be nothing more than a  float robotically blessing the onlookers in the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade.  For Maher, looking to the imaginary guy in the sky for answers is the refuge of the foolish, and he saves his most bitter disdain for scheming politicians like Rick Perry who prey on that naivete to win votes.  I don’t suspect Bill Maher would have as much of a problem with the likes of Perry and Bachmann if they didn’t parade their faith around like a political prop.  It’s when faith is used in lieu of reasoned arguments that gets Maher’s hackles up.  These aren’t the William F. Buckleys of decades past laying out their case in thought-out paragraphs spiced with Latin.  Today it’s Southern-accented fire and brimstone and the all-consuming, earth-ending threat of gay marriage.

The conservative comedian Dennis Miller, for all his verbal calisthenics and classical references, these days comes off only as sad and angry – not in the rebellious sense, but more in the mold of that kid at the party who was only invited because his mom pulled some strings.  Miller’s repertoire has become a tired litany of ramblings about Joe Biden’s hair and Nancy Pelosi’s makeup – he’s mainly upset because his team didn’t win.  Bill Maher, on the other hand, remains fresh and inspired because he doesn’t really care which team wins – he just wants both teams to be better.  His targets are anyone he sees to be dragging the whole cause down:  a refrain repeated often during the show, with a hand covering his face was “I’m embarrassed for my country.”  He isn’t afraid to take shots at President Obama either, bemoaning what he sees as a pattern of capitulation to the Tea Party extremists in Congress who are determined to see him fail.  But what bothers Maher most is what he sees as America’s hypocrisy-fueled descent into idiocracy; an electorate swayed by celebrity into voting against their own interests time and again, and a political movement that claims to be for the common man but is in fact backed by billionaires and underpinned with a very real, very ugly swath of racism.  The fact that he’s out there making jokes about it, even to a foreign audience, suggests that he thinks there is still hope – if the good people can find their feet and their guts and start taking the power back.

You might miss that message amidst all the laughs, and the occasional side ventures into the never-ending mine of the perplexity that is male-female relations.  But Bill Maher knows that the best way to serve up wisdom is with a smile.  You come out of his show with your sides hurting and your mind thinking.  Maybe the way we beat these guys is to make them ridiculous.  It’s certainly a lot more fun than hate.

The Stormy Present

Towards the end of his second State of the Union address, Abraham Lincoln said, “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.”  That quote has been at the forefront of my mind for the last few days.  Lincoln was trying to rally a Union divided against itself and suggesting that they needed a new way of thinking.  Basically telling them that everything you think you know is wrong – that the old solutions aren’t going to cut it.

The stock market is collapsing.  The U.S. Congress is beholden to corporations and morons wrapped in the flag.  Extreme right-wing governments are readying the knife to slash the social safety net to ribbons.  The planet is cooking and scientists desperate to reverse it are mocked, slandered and defunded.  Intellectuals are feared and ignorance is lauded.  The Mayor of Toronto wants to close libraries.  And the great city of London is on fire.  The present is not just stormy – it’s an all-out hurricane.

Right now, a guy I used to play in a marching band with named Steve Gaul is attempting to break the world record for marathon drumming.  He survived testicular cancer and lost his sister to paranasal cancer just last year.  He’s doing this to raise money and awareness and you can check him out (and donate) at www.beatstobeatcancer.com.  The record is 120 hours and as I’m writing this he just passed 105.  I have to confess to a bit of cynicism about cancer research.  There seems to be an awful lot of money raised for it every year and precious little progress made in treatment methodology – and the real pessimist side of me notes that we’ve never heard about a pharmaceutical company executive who’s died of cancer (happy to be corrected on this point if anyone out there knows something I don’t.)

But watching Steve is amazing.  Even though we were in the same band for three years, I never knew him very well.  He was the leader of our percussion section when I first signed up and was known for his endless reserve of “guy walks into a bar” jokes shared with the group before we stepped off on parade.  I didn’t know until I stumbled upon the site mentioned above that he had survived cancer at so young an age.  As I remember him he wouldn’t have struck me as the guy who would have this kind of fight in him.  But there he is.  105 hours in, still smiling and laughing, jamming away to an endless soundtrack of rock classics.  My wife was telling me today that even though she’s never met Steve, she’s proud of him and what he’s doing.  So am I.  Here’s a guy staring into the gale and saying “bring it on.”

The world kinda sucks right now.  We can admit that.  It feels like the bad guys are winning.  The field of Republican candidates running to run against President Obama next year is a terrifying group cut from the Greg Stilson cloth whom one could easily imagine pushing the nuke button at God’s command.  Canada gave a majority government to a guy who thought George W. Bush was the bee’s knees, and we put a redneck doofus in charge of our most progressive and cosmopolitan city.  We could really use a victory right now.

Steve Gaul is proving that the victory lies with us as individuals.  Sometime around 8am tomorrow morning he’s going to break the record.  He’s going to smash it to bits.  Kick its ass.  Make us stand up and cheer.  Make us ask what we can do and dare us to do better.  Because the old way of sitting back and waiting for the storm to pass isn’t working.

Beyond the stormy present lies the clear skies of the future.  We can get there.  We know the way.  We just need to start walking.

Caveat elector

You can’t blame an un-housebroken puppy for making a mess on your living room floor.  Nor should anyone, in a democracy, feign shock at the actions of the stupendously incompetent who ride into office on waves of voter discontent and proceed to wreck the place.  As I’m writing this, the United States Senate has just passed a bill to raise the debt ceiling, avoiding by the narrowest of margins a default brought on by the extreme right-wing elements of the Republican Party who were swept into power in the 2010 midterm elections.  The Brothers Ford are threatening to balance Toronto’s books by… cutting books (i.e. libraries), as it turns out that all of the city’s fiscal woes cannot, in fact, be cured by eliminating the “gravy train.”  You can’t really blame these people for being unskilled and unfit to govern.  They didn’t put themselves in office.  We should blame ourselves for buying what they’ve sold without thoroughly kicking the tires first.

In politics, the simplest message is the most successful.  “I Like Ike.”  “Yes We Can.”  “It’s the economy, stupid.”  “Stop the gravy train.”  “He didn’t come back for you.”  So too does it often seem that the simplest people have the simplest time getting elected – for the simple reason that running a campaign of pandering is the simplest path to victory.  Tell people what they want to hear often enough and you’ll convince them.  Why?  Because democracy is a pain in the ass.  In a democracy, the governed are meant to stay informed, learn about issues, examine all sides of a problem and keep their representatives honest.  The problem is, nobody really wants to do that.  The majority of us are perfectly happy to leave governing to anyone who wants to, so long as we don’t have to.  The least we are asked to do is vote and many of us can’t even be bothered doing that.  Those of us who do bother are usually seduced by the infamous simple message.  “I don’t like taxes and this guy says he’s going to cut them, that’s good enough for me.”  Imagine interviewing someone for a job at your company – you have an applicant who has no prior experience, no qualifications for the position and just keeps repeating the phrase “Hire me and I’ll save you money.”  You’d be showing him the door faster than you can say “hard-working families.”  Yet politicians use the same strategy to find their way into highly-paid positions of authority where they can affect thousands, even millions of lives.

George W. Bush came from a legacy of failed business ventures and could barely pronounce half the words in the English language and he was placed in charge of the nuclear launch codes for eight tumultuous years.  I choose not to believe it was because the majority who voted for him were stupid.  It was the widespread laissez-faire attitude I’ve described above that favored his simple answers over the more complicated solutions Al Gore and John Kerry respectively were offering instead.  The irony is that governing is complicated.  Anyone who says it is simple is lying for votes.  Good governing is a dance of nuance, intelligence, curiosity, respect, and compromise when necessary.  Not everyone can do it and it demands minds that are sharp and inquisitive and not chained to ideology at the expense of reason.  A four-year-old who’s heard a slogan on TV can repeat it ad infinitum, but you wouldn’t consider putting him in charge of the Ministry of Finance.  You wouldn’t even put him in charge of a lemonade stand.

So let’s set our standards higher – if we do not demand more from candidates, if we continue to let them get away with pandering, pat answers to complex questions, if we continue to vote by picking the least of the worst – we should not be surprised when it turns out that the people we’ve elected are completely unsuited to handle the complex questions that will arise in the course of governing.  Because whacking the puppy with the newspaper after the fact isn’t going to do much to clean up the steaming pile lying in the middle of the floor.  Better yet, instead get a cat – they are smart enough to know to use the litter box in the first place.