Friday, August 7, 2009

Are Victims' Impact Statements Overused?

This week in Calgary a tragic drunk-driving incident in which a cement truck crushed a car in an incident which occurred in December 2007. The sentencing of Daniel Tschetter, who was convicted of five counts of manslaughter in the incident and one count of obstructing justice, will take place in October but the victims' impact sentences that were delivered to the court on Wednesday leave me with unsettling questions about this part of the justice process.

In this situation, where five lives were lost to the recklessness of a drunk driver, the consequences of the crime and its appalling detail ought to speak for themselves. During his March 2009 trial, Tschetter attempted to reframe his behaviour the best way he could. Alternately he also claimed that he was a changed man who had learned from the tragedy. I will not parse the legal arguments that were laid out to influence the judge's decision throughout the trial. In the case of a drunk-driving trial, the driver's fingerprint are on the smoking gun that is his vehicle and whether he was drunk or not, should not be overlooked when assessing guilt in this situation. Five people were killed sitting at an intersection. A cement truck plowed right through them, dragging the car 275 metres. That truck was going 105 in an 80 km/h zone. Daniel Tschetter was determined to be the man whose hands were on the steering wheel and foot on the gas pedal instead of the gas.

These details ought to be enough for an experienced qualified judge to determine an appropriate sentence for the crime. Sadly enough, there are enough drunk-driving cases to provide a wealth of precedent for the courts to rely on as an indication of what an appropriate sentence ought to be. The defendant's argument that he drank after the crash, when there was evidence to the contrary ought to indicate to the judge the character of a man who committed the crime and was looking for away to avoid the justice that needed to be delivered. The victims' impact statements seem superfluous under these circumstances and seem to be an indication that the justice system had lost credibility over the years not only from being too lenient, let's not rush to that knee-jerk response, but also the times when they have been too harsh when delivering sentences.

I grow uncomfortable with the influence that the victims' impact statement has. I am not against the victims being considered in this situation. I grow uncomfortable with the fact that the victims' impact statements have become such a requirement of the justice process. Perhaps I should be content to say that the justice system is fallible for every human element that goes into it and that I should be glad that the system has evolved to include the impact statement. I am willing to concede that.

However, the media attention that surrounds the victims' statement and the possibility that a judge or a court might be swayed by the ability or inability of a victim to articulate their loss or suffering. These are things that could be easily influenced by someone's level of education, income level and perhaps something as hard to interpret as one's composure. There's every chance that the victims' impact influences the judge's decision but just as much of a chance that it turns into a side show. In this case, where the evidence is so strong, one can only hope that the victims' survivors found their contributions in court this week to be cathartic and fleeting. I do not see enough of a grey area in this case where their contribution to sentencing was vital to the outcome. The details are too obvious for the judge to get wrong.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Culture War in Calgary?

With its western roots and oil wealth, Calgary has probably carved a unique place for itself among Canadian cities. Even nearby Edmonton, rival and provincial capital, seems to be a bit more at peace with itself than Calgary has during the summer of 2009. The flashpoints include everything from the traditions of the Calgary Stampede to the placement of social services and planning for the future development of the city. It doesn't help that members of the provincial government have been a tad loose-lipped in their social commentary on women's rights and how a families ought to be raised.

Each of these have sparked some degree of controversy between lefties and righties who are eager to either get at each other when the opportunity presents itself.

These clashes might be a little more heated at the moment, because while many in the city might cite the way others are spending and say that the city is fending off the recession there are others who can cite layoffs, and cutbacks in corporate extravagance as signs that Calgary is not as insulated as they might think. It would be a cop-out to suggest that Calgary is somewhere in between at the moment. It is more likely a situation where people are trying to gauge the extent and the substance of the economic shift that is taking place. One side is holding out the hope that the recession is just that rather than a fundamental shift in the economy because of the pressures of the environment, peak oil and the trillions of dollars that seemed to disappear from the economy over night when the bail outs and stimulus packages were doled out like Canadian Tire money at a Boy Scout fundraiser.

The uncertainty has sparked a desire among some to stow our resources for a long post-capitalist winter, while others assert that it is but a draft and that by ignoring it long enough it will go away.

Regardless, the lefties and the righties have been doing their best to get their shots in over these issues.

1. Calgary Stampede animal deaths. The almost statistical certainty that animals die during the Stampede is something that the organizers of the rodeo would have enormous difficulty defending. The fact that it is not indefensible, however, is not reason to demand the rodeo be brought to an end. There is a traditional component to the rodeo and it is a part of western culture and heritage that cannot be denied and ought not be erased. Vegetarian and animal-loving tendencies be damned and all that. The arguments against the rodeo because of the threat to the animals' well-being remains a valid one and ongoing consideration needs to be given to their well-being. Eliminating every last threat to the animals is a worthy cause, but it would quickly get to the point where overprotection erodes the intangibles of the rodeo.

At the risk of oversimplifying, it would be like trading the subtle sensation of the wind blowing through your hair while skating, skiing or biking for the security of a helmet that would protect your head from any life altering threat. Gets It: Righties

2. Methadone clinic. The furor over the opening of the Second Chance clinic in Braeside in the SW part of Calgary was a fumble for the whole city. The clinic has had a harder time finding safe harbour than the MS St. Louis did during World War II. The overwhelming negative response by nearby residents who did not want the clinic in their neighbourhood demonstrated a great deal of ignorance when they argued that the patients at the clinic would cause a spike in crime in their neighbourhood. In reality they may have been more concerned about their property values. After the clinic announced it would close as soon as possible and move to another location, the deep cleansing breath was taken and the majority acknowledged that the city needs this clinic if not more. Gets It: Lefties

3. Plan-It Calgary. The attempt to bring in some guidelines for the future development of the city is not uncommon. Other cities across Canada and in the United States have been trying to structure the future development of their cities in response to the future economic reality that distance is going to cost money as the price of gas goes up. Despite having one of the largest urban footprints of any city in North America, many on the city council and in the construction community argue that Plan-It should not be implemented. Evidence shows that the infrastructure for a larger footprint will create a larger tax burden for city residents, but many apparently "tax-payer-friendly" aldermen argue against the plan despite the long-term tax ramifications and the current shortcomings of the city's infrastructure. Gets It: Lefties (When oil goes over $2/litre, the righties should be required to write 'oil is a nonrenewable resource' 5000 times a day until their terms end.)

4. Controversies over government remarks. I'm going to forego the braincramp by rookie MLA Doug Elniski. His sexist remarks at a junior high school graduation show his true colours but also indicate a certain tone-deafness as well. However, the controversy over Iris Evans' remarks about parents being at home to raise their children. While it is a point of view that she was stating and not an indication of imminent government policy - as if they could implement such a thing - the remarks were pilloried as narrow-minded. There are very valid arguments in favour of parents staying at home. Instead of a reasoned discussion and reflection on her comments there were the knee-jerk responses of "How dare she?" versus "Right on!" as trenches were being dug by both sides. Gets It: Nobody.

Government and society need to communicate with much more nuance and background knowledge than either side particularly seems willing to demonstrate. There seems to be a desire to stake out ideological or geographic turf in the city and the province as well. While everyone would like to see some sort of changes to the community the pursuit of ideological change is aimed at having one's way rather than actually being right. If the dialogue that takes place in the city continues to be entrenched along liberal-conservative partisan lines then Calgary is going to bicker rather than fiddle.

Monday, July 6, 2009

News or Storytelling?

Since the death of Michael Jackson, the media has been investigating the intrigue, innuendo and grief that have surrounded his public life and sudden passing. There has been some discussion about the saturation coverage of all things Jackson over the last few weeks but it does not seem that the public has wearied of it. There are countless angles for the media and the audiences to pursue and neither side has shown any Jackson fatigue after 12 days and counting of coverage, which achieve a crescendo and its first intermission with Jackson's memorial service in Los Angeles.

While it would be easy to cite news topics that have been bumped off the front pages, Twitter's trending topics and the scrolling tickers as evidence of irresponsible sensationalism by the media, the fact is that audiences are fascinated and obsessed with the story because of the complexity of the character who is at the heart of it.

Jackson has had several turns as the focus of saturation media coverage, the type that makes it difficult to distinguish the tabloids from those media organs that boast that they shoulder the legacy of credibility and trust that belonged to the likes of Walter Cronkite, Edward R. Murrow or even Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw, Bernard Shaw or whoever else each network would like to cite as their touchstones of integrity and professionalism.

The interest that has surrounded Michael Jackson's death and the controversies of his personal life is not predicated the bearing he has had on issues of global significance and concern. Throughout his past controversies, he has merely taken a stage in the public domain that has been previously occupied by Brittany Spears, O.J. Simpson and other celebrities caught in an ignominious moment.

During such controversies public attention is fixated not because of the relevance to our well-beings but because of the heightened interest in how this story will unfold. In such moments, the line between a news story and the bedtime stories or morality tales that are staples of fiction or myth.

Michael Jackson's death is evidence of a tendency among news media to try to plot out a narrative that will compel audiences to follow a story to its conclusion rather than do the investigation and newshounding that provided people with the facts and the core of stories and issues that have greater influence on their lives.

Much of the coverage over the last two weeks has been used to set up future plot points and developing characters for the quasi-daytime soap coverage that will be the custody battle, execution of Jackson's will and the mystery surrounding his cause of death.

Such "plot development" is often carried out at the expense of in-depth reporting. Recently, in the run up to the June 12 election in Iran, Newsweek's June 1 issue ran with the headline "Everything You Think You Know About Iran is Wrong" and angled its coverage toward the likelihood of a moderate win that would usher in a new era for Iran and Iran-American relations. NBC's "Dateline" took the same tact on June 6 with its indepth coverage of the election. It is debatable whether the media were capturing the facts of the story or were merely caught up in an optimism of unknown source with the reporting they did before the election. When the results did not lead to the anticipated moderate victory, the mainstream media was nothing short of sluggish in its response to the harsh realities in the streets of Iran.

TV news is merely content and the chance to serialize it is rarely passed up. In the Michael Jackson death and other recent stories, the media craft news into archetypal moments or plot points, attempting to anticipate potential consequences. In doing so they act more like soothsayers or Hollywood script doctors than credible journalists.

They are not, however, alone in this. In the coverage of the Jackson funeral it is clear that the audiences still have not gotten enough of the story. When the salacious details of Michael Jackson's life are unfolded and his various hangers-on each exercise his or her profit motive, the captive audience will remain large because of the desire to find some meaning, some mythic structure or some original point of reference in this tragic story.

Meanwhile, the world economy, swine flu, American medicare, car bailouts and war near and far, despite their significance, remain ignored because for all intents and purposes they are too tedious and too demanding for audiences to figure out.

Sadly, audiences' capacity for the details and nuances for more important matters falls short of what it ought to be.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Twitter as Public Domain

The social media/old media war continues both in Iran and in the west. Twitter continues to morph and respond to the events in Iran and perhaps even shape it while the Iranian government uses the state media and threats against foreign journalists to contain the discussion and keep the local and global opposition in check.

For the most part foreign journalists have been left to muse on events from their hotel roofs or beyond Iran's border and have had to rely on amateur video and images posted to YouTube, Facebook and Twitter as sources of information and conformation of what is unfolding in Tehran and beyond. They have either had to acknowledge that the people participating in the event are their main source of information or use those mediums to help get their own message out or figure out how to do it. Apart from the expired visas and government restrictions that have removed them from the frontlines of the story, the institutional inertia of the television networks in particular has not mediated the volume of interest or information that is trying to integrate. The other habit of the TV networks that is starting to prove a bit wonky is their reliance on "experts" to voice some insights on what is happening. The reliance on the university Ph.D to provide analysis of the events. Once a talking head is slotted in for an interview, the network is committed to making the best of their analysis for that 4 or 8 minute timeslot, regardless of the bias and the questionable credibility. There is, of course, need to squeeze in the regular dose of the absurdity formerly known as human interest.
Throughout the events in Iran, the social media have remained responsive and nimble to events taking place. Twitter, which first basked in the spotlight of the inane Ashton Kutcher/CNN race to 1,000,000 followers just a few weeks ago, has morphed into a source of news and a spine for the revolution unfolding in Tehran. Within the activity that can get a bump in attention on Twitter there are a wide variety of events that can gain attention, ranging from the results of the NBA finals to the rumours of a celebrity death that seeks, but does not receive confirmation.
As with the celebrity rumour, news coming out of Iran has sought confirmation and crystalized into reliable information as the protests and ripostes take place. Recommendations of reliable news sources, whether bloggers or mainstream media, have helped news seekers find direction and given shape and credibility to information that has inundated other sources. There is still plenty of dross and garbage in the infoflow but the exchange of interested Twitterers has defined the discussion.

Throughout these discussions there has also been information exchanged to allow the social media to thrive in response to the attempts by the government to track down and stop social media activity as it takes place. Tweets have provided new internet service provider addresses and other information to help sustain the flow of news and information. The more important development over the last few days has been Twitter's response to events. Faced with a maintenance shutdown that would stem the flow of information, Twitter rescheduled to limit its impact on the Iranian audiences who have become so reliant on the service over the last few days. If the mainstream media had the flexibility and responsiveness to its users, it would be able to rival this platform as a source of information.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Static Headlines an Embarassment to CNN et al

CNN and the other major American news networks continue to provide muted coverage of the events in Iran during the Sunday am broadcasts of June 14. Even Fareed Zakaria's GPS, which CNN pitched as a source of updates on Iran resorted to the staid standard summit of experts who speculated on possibilities but did not go into detail. The set piece seemed to have been predetermined for addressing the Iranian election but was handcuffed when it came to insights on the protests or even details on the very fluid situation that is unfolding. Ahmadinejad's victory speech was pondered but little else of the house arrests that have taken place, the extent of the rioting, the military response.

There has been very little analysis of the situation either. No one has dared say that the election has been stolen. Ahmadinejad's response has not been critically examined by the media and muted responses on CNN and other media arms have not identified the behaviour of the leadership in Iran as out of step with the movements of a legitimately elected government. Ahmadinejad and those who support him have seized power after being legitimately voted out of office. The size of the response against him and the energy that it has sustained over the 30 hours since victory was declared is not the response of a disgruntled minority. None of the networks have indicated this.

The news of the major media is being revealed to bne little more than product, churned out by factories that are unable to retrofit or retool themselves for fast moving events. Throughout the Sunday morning broadcasts, the networks have stuck to the scripts and production plans that they determined days ago and included their regular dollops of pap to fill out their hour. That Zakeria took a substantial segment of his June 14 broadcast to congratulate himself on his 1st anniversary of the show is evidence of the rigid confines that the networks have trapped themselves in.

Meanwhile, social media continues to outstrip major network coverage of an event that may be of the magnitude of Tiannamen Square, Berlin or Prague. The networks were following events in these locales but fail or choose not to cover the events in Iran with the detail that they ought to. Meanwhile, the information coming from Twitter, YouTube, Flickr and other social media site continue to report on the pulse in Iran. There have been reports of the actual election outcome (with Ahmadinejad a distant 3rd and out of the runoff election), reports that the government has brought into Hezbollah or other Arab-speaking troops and police to put down the riots and most recently even tanks in the streets of Tehran. Any of this news will be slow to reach the mainstream media.

At a time when events are as epochal as this, CNN and its brethren are failing miserably and revealing themselves to be as stagnant and slow-moving as their print brethren. The papers, of course, devote themselves to a single edition a day and do not insist that they will be able to bring up-to-the-minute coverage of an event.

For those who are looking for up to date reports, Andrew Sullivan of the Atlantic has been effective and Jim Sciutto of ABC is on the ground in Tehran and doing as much as he can to report on things despite run ins with authorities.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Twitter takes a giant step

A few months ago, the heightening of Twitter activity during the "Miracle on the Hudson" crash landing in New York City was cited as an indication of the potential of the social media as a form of communciation, or to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, "an extended global central nervous system. With the unfolding of events in Tehran on June 13, the network has proven to be a nimble, agile news source while the mainstream North American media have proven to be sluggish, off the mark and trite in its coverage.

CNN, CBC and other mainstream North American media sources have been relatively slow in delivering news on events in Tehran and throughout the smaller cities in Iran. The routine is the same for all of the networks. Go to the big name on location, (Christiane Amanpour) report with scenes of events in the streets then find some talking head in a North American institution to hold forth with their opinions on matters and follow up by hyping a report on events that will be shown tomorrow, before going to a report on Tetris' 25th anniversary. (Fareed Zakaria's GPS, a program that will likely lack the fluidity required to cover the situation with any accuracy.)

CTV, Canada's largest private network, went so far as to suggest in its reports and interviews that the protests on Valiasar Avenue were those of a minority disgruntled with the consequences of the election, suggesting that there was every possibility that Ahmadinejad's victory was a legitimate one, so off key has CTV's grasp of events in Iran been.

Throughout the presidential election campaign, social media, namely Facebook, have been an engine of communications used by the moderate politicians who have come under seige following the announcement of election results. There were news reports of the Iranian government's shutdown of Facebook to limit communications among supporters of moderate presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. The shut down was brief but was an indication that the government had some notion of the threat social media were posing.

As events unfolded following President Ahmadinejad's claim of victory reports came from both mainstream media and Twitter. Within hours, Twitterer's posted updates regarding Mousavi's house arrest, action in the streets, links to YouTube videos, blogs and other sources of information from Iranians on the ground and some mainstream media sources such as ABC's Jim Sciutto who was reporting on difficulties with the internet network, confiscation of his tapes and the challenges of videoing and uploading his reports via cellphone.

There is undoubtedly some rumour and hearsay that is being sent out via Twitter in the midst of all of this and there are problems with egoized posts that merely hype the trending topics of the day. Despite this, Twitter has been a wealth of information about the events that have been taking place in Iran. One of the first developments of the day, Mousavi's house arrest remained overlooked for hours by the mainstream media. This was likely an attempt by the media to be responsible but when Mousavi himself twittered that he was indeed under house arrest.

Twitter is not primed to be crowned as a champion of truth and accuracy in media coverage, but indications so far have been it has been a reliable venue for one to watch discrete and disparate voices unify to flesh out details of pictures that the mainstream media are too preoccupied or too cumbersome to investigate.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Misplaced Stigma and Nadya Suleman

Over the last two weeks the indignance toward Nadya Suleman's birth of octuplets. There was a sense of wonder surrounding the sense of accomplishment and hope risen about the survival of all eight children thus far. As the story of Ms Suleman's life has unfolded, however, the ridicule of her decision and background have brought her under a scorching level of scrutiny. At this point, there is no doubt that the woman has lost any chance of raising her children in a some degree of privacy. She may, however, be hoping to eke out an existence thanks to some largesse from the tabloids or some other rubberneckers. At this point it is certain that all of her decisions - past, present and future - will be wielded as evidence of her unsuitability to perhaps have any children at all. It is all but assured that the Suleman children will eventually run into precocious schoolmates who deem themselves qualified to hold court on their mother's sanity as well.

A key figure, however, has been able to remain anonymous as people have taken it upon themselves to crunch the numbers, read the background and pillory Ms. Suleman and her family. The doctor who was responsible for the IVF fertilization despite reasons to deny this
has remained nameless and there has been no indication that his or her professional colleagues have re-examined their practices in this field. That name will remain out of print and that face out of the spotlight indefinitely and there will is little chance that these actions will require some accounting or consideration. Sadly, the misguided mother and her children - who will be more justified in many others to ask that most universal of questions, "Why did you bring me into this world?" - will bear far more stigma than the individual who looked at all the evidence available and went ahead despite it.

Doctors have long declared themselves professionals and by that definition ought to be a self-regulated to at least some extent. They should be able to decide amongst themselves what the best practices are for themselves and their colleagues. They should also engage in the ethical dilemmas that they encounter with some sense of responsibility and set some standard amongst themselves and abide by it. Not merely drag out that vague insistence that they did their best, but actually abide by the principals which have guided their profession for generations and have earned them the respect and trust of the general public.

What happened with the octuplets is a consequence of technological hubris and a refusal to disregard uninformed opinions. Ms. Suleman was clearly the uninformed opinion here. She wished to get pregnant again despite her economic circumstances and already having 6 children. There should have been a point where the physician should have taken a confident measure of his experience, education and knowledge as a doctor and simply said, "No." There is a strong possibility that some doctors did say this in response to Ms. Suleman's quest to expand her family, but at least one doctor did not. Did this doctor simply want to find out what was humanly possible? Did this doctor want to be the answer to a trivia question? (Right now it seems not.) Did this doctor decide that someone was bound to do it and forego the ethics to beat everyone else to the paycheck?

A doctor ought to bring something other than technical proficiency to the clinic or hospital and it seems in this case that this medical professional could not or would not do that. How much actual skill is required to fuse an ova and a sperm? There are probably more challenging tasks being performed in a Grade 11 Biology dissection. What ought to - and used to apparently - distinguish the practice of medicine from auto repair was a moral component and a compassion for the human condition that guided people to making sound decisions.

The unknown doctor who impregnated Ms. Suleman ought to be placed in the same pantheon as the reckless technocrats of government, banking and industry who have stretched the natural cycles of the economy to see what they could do, regardless of the consequences for human life.

I doubt this doctor will step forward, but I certainly hope that the medical profession starts to establish clearer guidelines for how that old boy's club conducts its business.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Plight of Newspapers

With the advance and growth of the internet, the popularity of newspapers has declined significantly. In recent months, newspapers including the New York Times and Christian Science Monitor to The National Post have laid off staff and reexamined publication. CSM is online now and The National Post has scaled back printing in different parts of Canada.

Easily the internet can be identified as the cause of this demise. Still, most papers have established an internet presence to mirror their print editions and are generating revenue.. On the internet, however, the newspapers don't have the same contiguous readership base they used to. The newspaper is become less and less a reflection of the communities they are based in or the readership in that area. Internet readers opt out of reading the site of an entire paper and spend more energy nurturing their own interests rather than reading about their community or limiting their interests to the pages of a paper.

This may also be a reflection of the ways cities have evolved or suburbanized into entities with less sense of community. Many people merely commute from their homes to their offices and end their days at home, the life of their community less defined by the municipality they live in and more defined by the interests that they share with others on the internet.

The internet has given more and more people the opportunity to nourish their individual interests. If someone away from home wants to read the news from there, if someone wants more information about the issues or the subjects that interest them, the internet serves those needs better than any of the newspapers that could be dropped at their door or plucked of a buck on the corner.

The question though is what kind of community would exist when people in the same area have interests so disparate that they may not share the same interest in the community where they live, or the same idea of how that community ought to serve them or be served by them. With such a fractured audience, it is difficult for newspapers to provide a product that recaptures their market.

Monday, February 2, 2009

All Calgarians are Equal but Some Calgarians are More Equal Than Others

The Calgary news media has started to turn their gang violence coverage into a minor industry and it even earned greater national attention on New Year's Day when Calgary went about getting an early start on its murder tally with a total of three in the wee hours of 2009.

Despite the gang violence, nothing has quite got city hall phone lines humming as much as snow removal.

Snow removal?

People are being gunned down on a regular basis and the police and the mayor have made regular announcements that they are going to get tough on crime and cited the problem in a bid for more provincial money to set things right and get more cops on the streets. A lot of talk but the murder tally grows. The citizens have been relatively quiet in the face of this, especially when you compare their response to poor snow removal - unique to Calgary among Canadian cities but something many claim they are accustomed to.

Granted, the city's by-law requiring sidewalks to be shoveled while streets remained clogged is a form of hypo--... er ... bureaucracy unique to Calgary and someone should be held accountable.

The gang violence probably has not garnered a comparable response. It has been a long-present problem and perhaps Calgarians have been quieter because it requires our patience to allow the City’s best and brightest to respond effectively to the complexities.

However, this is a government that does not seem capable of timely snow removal.

Perhaps the citizens' skewed focus on these two issues - or more accurately the one issue and the rite of Calgary winter - stems from a belief that the violence is not a "real" problem yet. After all, only two innocent people have fallen victim and, ironically or not, they happened to be from "away," just as many assume the criminals are. The same distinction between those who are from away and those who are true Calgarians has been made while nostrils flare over the absence of decent snow removal and the struggle with the driving consequences. According to some, a real Calgarian apparently knows how to drive in such snow and should not have to tolerate getting stuck behind someone who doesn't.

Given the city's growth, the question, “How long you been here?” is an inevitable part of many a conversation. The question, however, often seems an effort to qualify someone rather than make conversation. We, after all, just re-elected an MP who linked immigrants to crime and once had a mayor-cum-premier who accused Eastern Canadians of being bums out to bring ruin and bedlam. As more people seek the convenience of automatic garage doors in Calgary’s new "communities," the turf war taking place seems a distant abstraction rather than a reality affecting our neighbours. One radio station, trying to make hay or light of the problems with the snow took callers only to tell one that she could not possibly be Calgarian - despite 20+ years in the city - because of the way she pronounced the word.

The us-and-them attitude has provided the space and privacy for violence and crime to foment in those neighbourhoods many of us consider less desirable. The trend in Calgary has been repeated in countless cities in North America - a demonization of the city's centre and newcomers and a retreat to the suburbs weakens the connections that make the city a welcoming, diverse community. This cannot be resolved merely with more law and order, but heavy lifting from all to integrate these groups into the community.

The fact that snow removal and gang violence are battling for the attention of the city’s administration are a consequence of focusing on providing the city with an unsustainable physical infrastructure while it social infrastructure shows such urgent signs of decay.

The more worrying matter in the meantime is the lack of tolerance among the people who pride themselves for their hospitality.

Has Adbusters Run Out of Gas?

May 6, 2008

For the second time in much less than a year Adbusters magazine has dedicated its front cover and its diminishing editorial talents to an attack on CanWest's media empire and Izzy Asper's corporate and political agendas. The first time I read the article and found it a poorly-written diatribe against a familiar foe. The second time around, I confirmed my suspicion that it was by the same author as the previous bit of pamphleteering and returned the magazine to the rack. It is not that the criticism of CanWest is unjustified, it is simply that the Adbusters team seems to have lost a bit of traction or focus and has chosen to rail at the familiar out of desperation. Hopefully they will replace their editor or a brasher more confident team of lefties will take up the cause.

Zero Tolerance Ought to be Toast

I came across an article indicating changed attitudes toward zero tolerance discipline policies in schools in the United States. In recent years, schools have been applying rules with a rigid impunity that bordered on ridiculous. Asthmatic students were not allowed to bring their inhalers because they were drugs. Other students have been disciplined for attempting to break up fights and there have been countless other instances where school administrators have had to expel or suspend students because they violated these laws. One school even had a no-touching policy that would have forbid teammates from high-fiving one another. You can tag a guy at second base, sack the quarterback or check a right winger in open ice, but you cannot high-five your teammate.

Zero tolerance policy has been regarded as a necessary evil to deal with violence in schools and other youth problems that wash up on a school's front step. I'd like to break this subject down into a few parts and deal with them one at a time. The first thing I would like like to muse about is how zero tolerance came to be legislated as widely as it has.

Given all this grey area that our schools, educators and students must negotiate, how did such a strict, black-and-white policy on discipline come into existence? Like many other anathemas to education, it rode the wave of a trend and found its opportunity to exist in polarizing a group that had been uninvolved or uninterested in the fate of schools, students or education. In other words, people sticking their noses in where they don't belong. There are countless sociological, economic, and pedagogical issues that have to be taken into account whenever a major policy change is made and the public was not aware enough of the entire range of issues to make a considered contribution to either the discussion or the formation of policy.

It was the opportunity to polarize attitudes on the subjects of school violence and youth drug use, to name just two problems that zero tolerance aimed to address, that whipped up the strong support that it did. Tired of the violence and other risks that students were facing people sought to ease a symptom rather than identifying the problem and addressing it. It is an all-too-common consequence of modern policy-making and as politically palatable a solution it turned out to be, it did not address the causes. While the public has a vested interest in education, it chooses, to its own embarrassment, to exercise that interest intermittantly.

Toxic Individualism

The swarm of legitimate journalists (as opposed to paparazzi) bouncing like locusts at the pricey heels of one Paris Hilton has made it clear that we are living in an age of greater - if not outright pathological - individualism. It is our privilege if not our raison d'ĂȘtre to be individualist after all, but over the last few months there have been nearly operatic or Shakespearean tragedies made out of childish attention-getting behavior. Whether it is young bimbos of the likes of Lindsey Lohan, Paris Hilton and Britney Spears or the pompous posturing of Donald Trump, the media have scrambled to cover what amounts to pouting, foot-stomping tantrums or dress-over-the-head routines of four-year-olds. And we eat it up!

In the case of Paris Hilton's arrest and jail term, there has been no indications that she has recognized either the potential consequences of drunk-driving nor
responsibility that she has as a licensed driver. Wishing to merely be sent to her (well-appointed, I'm sure) room for violating probation indicates her immaturity than a desire to flash her celebrity-notoriety-tolerance card. It could be argued that she has the same sense of indestructibility that other young people have, but there is a strong tincture of selfishness and irresponsibility at the center of this. It may not so much be a matter of her arguing, "But I'm Paris Hilton," as much as it is an individualism that makes one believe that their rights and privileges exceed those of the collective that they are still a part of.

Such toxic individualism is fostered by possessing the affluence to finance one's
way into comfort and ease and it is not just the affluence that comes with being an heiress. That wealth is what bought her celebrity despite her dearth of talent or intelligence. There is likely a harried teacher at a private boarding school who could account for what a pain in the neck most spoiled rich kids become whenever they run into an opportunity to grow up and become an adult. A quick phone call and the parents or their emissaries sweep down with bluster about one's rights and how this is a free country. The bluster ultimately is nothing more than the minimal effort required to avoid the mature task of parenting, which the Hilton scion has been spared for far too long. Everyone knows stories of kids who have lazy or overindulgent parents. The fact is there are more and more who look to buy their ways out of life's request for a reality check and thereby evade away from adulthood or parenthood for an unseemly length of time. In the tumult surrounding Paris Hilton the media has yet to ask either of her parents about the way they shaped and extended their daughter's childhood.

This selfish, hyper-individualist conduct is not restricted to a clutch of talentless, 20-something celebrities. That Donald Trump's shallow comments and critiques draw more attention that Bill Gates' philanthropic efforts reflects
the realities media-market model that require papers to print what will sell or the networks to broadcast whatever will stop you on their channel. The amount of coverage that CNN and other "serious" news outlets were able to dedicate to Trump's school yard spat with Rosie O'Donnell before it finally ran its course, illustrates that audiences do not need a distraction or a bit of escapism as much as well-deserved collective smack in the head.

The drawn out coverage of the Hilton jail house carousel indicates how easy it is to devote our attention to shallow people rather than deeper issues. Even those of us
who attempt to cultivate a haughty indifference to the spectacle are avoiding the need to look deeper at what is shaping our fascination with this case and so many others like it. An opinion expressed on the Paris Hilton fiasco does not obligate us to take an action. People are not going to line up to protest for her freedom. People are not going to write to Arnold Schwarzeneggar to demand that she be kept in jail. Either act would be an admission of insanity. Expressing opinions on more substantial issues of the day would obligate us, however, and that is just the type of enlightened citizenship that so many of us, as individuals, are avoiding.

Create your own [racist] world?

I've let my blog go dormant since completing a course in Visual Culture and Education that I took during Fall 2006. I have not turned my eye away from the issues that were raised during the course and the issues that I had taken up during that time.

Over the last few months things have piqued my interest or just aggravated me outright but recently an advertisement from Telus, a major telecom in Canada, has started promoting the flexibility of its handsets with its campaign for the entertainment that can be downloaded onto the handsets. Looking at the comments and ratings on the YouTube page are for the most part glowing (for some reason). Frankly, after the controversy surrounding the X-rated content that Telus allowed its subscribers to download onto its phones, I find the commercial another indication of how these internet technologies are being used to allow people to turn inward and create environments of their own design rather than participating in the collaborations and deeper interactivities the Web 2.0 is purported to offer.

One of the knocks about the internet has been that it has caused communities to breakdown and it has given many people the opportunity to refer to themselves or their immediate gratification as the locus for their existence. For years the pornographic industry has been at the cutting edge of several consumer-related applications or means of sneaking past the spam filters that have been put up. Far too much of efforts on the "old" internet have been aimed at these matters rather than inviting us to make better use of the time that we spend on line. The invitation to use Amp'd in the ways suggested in this commercial suggest the same things.

The main character in the commercial is obviously bored with his commute and chooses to entertain himself. He objectifies the passengers around him, much as he would objectify the people who would entertain him via Amp'd. In this case there is not only the objectification taking place but also the fact that there are two key African-American figures in the commercial. In the first instance when the main character says, "You two, fight," a younger black man starts beating up an older white man. The woman he tells to "Shake your junk" is also black. This is of course a fantasy setting, but it is a metaphor for what Amp'd intends to offer with its consequences for your "entertainers." Furthermore, the one-way communication that takes place reinforces a closed-mindedness and discourages the dialogue necessary for understandings to take place. All for the low price of $30 a month.

Part of the fascination with Amp'd and its competitors is to give people the opportunity to show off a bit of status by demonstrating how much they can do with their cellphones, which is no longer merely a matter of technological savvy but rather a willingness to spend more on their equipment. These people using cellphones themselves in such a matter, and needing to bring this technology wherever they go so that they can entertain themselves must be either addicted to the technology or lack the sensual acuity to draw stimulation and satisfaction from their non-virtual surroundings. The other possibility is that they are chosing to opt out of reality as the Amp'd commercial in question seems to indicate. The misfortune is that by being plugged in to the degree that so many people are today, that whent he opportunity to interact presents itself, either in person or online, they lack the social wherewithal to do so deeply or even with the degree of social grace or fluency required.

The cliques that these technologies form mirror the cliques that form in the real world and people are finding it all the easier to avoid interacting with people who would stimulate them with meaningful discussion, even if it is contrary to what they wish to hear.

Hopefully Amp'd and its like will be usurped by greater use of more social software and the isolation and fantasy that it offers will be pushed aside in due course.

Terrorist, Narcissist or what?

When the blogging phenomenon first came to my attention it seemed to be a bit of a curiosity to me. My first hunch was that it was nothing more than a bit of a vain indulgence for people who were looking to find something in the anonymous presence that the internet can afford people who wish to express themselves. While people might be doing nothing more than keeping a journal or diary online, there might be the hope that these people are putting it online in an effort to find some degree of validation by getting some feedback from someone, anyone to make their experience or their take on the state of the world a bit less lonely.

There are of course people who have other agendas - "the insiders" whose blogs get the most attention for their revelations about the more famous figures who bask in the spotlight before stepping behind the curtain to rub elbows with these people who, I suspect are betraying a trust of some sort. I have not read enough blogs to attempt a taxonomy of any sort. If there were only two classes of bloggers - and I suspect there are more varieties out there - I would lump myself in with the first group.

Throughout my adult especially I have made a point of recording thoughts and reactions to the things that I have experienced or witnessed. For the most part these thoughts have been private or have consisted of letters mailed and unmailed that I have written for specific people who have been significant in my life and at a given moment have taken hold of my thoughts. Usually these have been done with pen and paper in a leather-bound journal of hand-made paper: a sensual experience that demands my clearest thoughts to be written in a careful hand with fountain pens that I have bought exclusively for that purpose or for the occasional scribble of my name in a greeting card.

For one reason or another I have resorted to electronic formats. The first significant time I did this was on September 12, 2001. I had woken up in Kyoto that morning after a poor sleep and walked around my neighborhood on a glorious morning to look for a newspaper that said a bit more about left my ice cream melting in its bowl the night before. The sky was a cloudless shade of blue that was rare, given Kyoto's humidity and fits of industrial haze. Mothers were biking their toddlers to kindergartens while the children stretched out to grab the butterflies of their fantasies or just feel the breeze of their mothers' speed on yet another morning. I took great relief in those simple poignant touches and found myself breathing easily for the first time in twelve hours. I decided it was time to write everyone and let them know that I was fine and give them the early report - the sun while rise again (I said it with much less corn the first time around) and that this too would pass. While all the political intrigue and anxiety that had been uncapped the day before had filled my thoughts, I managed to focus on these gentler, truer pleasures in the days ahead as so many other accounts of life in this strange new world unfolded.

I tried to push these thoughts and notions forward to feel reconnected with home and let everyone know I was fine or just merely loopy in my own rather benign way rather than cracking up in some other response to what was happening. The reviews to that first mail and the other missives that followed were mixed. Friends were more inclined to indulge their hard feelings about it all and the pen and journal got their turn again before long.

Blogging never really came to mind seriously until the summer of 2005 when I was assigned the task of teaching in Iran for a month. The purpose of it all was to assure everyone who was panicking about my well-being in that country and do so without inundating them with a daily mass email to clog their mailboxes. There was no way to tell how interested everyone I knew would be in my experience there and apart from that I find the "blanket email" a bit impersonal in tone and felt more comfortable doing a blog entry rather than trying to tailor emails in a way that was a bit more intimate. There was probably also a part of me that felt that this was an ideal opportunity to sample this mode of expression and I did so with the belief that it was a rather personal thing that very few people would read or seek out. If anyone stumbled upon it without be told by one of my friends, they would have quickly glanced at it and moved on in all likelihood. While I harbour ambitions to publish something one of these days, I was not looking to parlay my blog into massive advance from M & S or Key Porter books.

While I found the blog a good way to cope with one event or another, I restrained myself to makes sure that I did not say anything that would get me into trouble or publish photos that would get the people I met into trouble either. I was fully aware of the environment that I was in and the potential consequences of stating or describing certain events or people. Upon getting back to Canada I did not take the opportunity to revise things from the comfort of my home that I was not able to express while I was in Iran. Part of it was the safety of the people I met there but there was a strong desire to end that experience upon my return from there. To whatever extent the visit has remained in my imagination and has been transformed by memories and other experiences related to Iran over the last year or so, those thoughts have had more influence on the way that I think about and react to the world today rather than the day-to-day experience that took place in Tehran and Isfahan.

While I must confess to tweaking this blog from time to time I would argue that it is more often for the sake of tidying up the typos and occasionally disorganized thoughts that spill out of my fingers when I am revelling in that rare moment of free flight on the keyboard when I can look at the wall or the stack of dishes on my kitchen counter, or the traffic passing by my window and know that I am spinning things out rather than fretting over commas or other grammatical minutae or the question, "Who's going to want to read this?!" or "What is the name for that combination of exclamation and question marks?" There is an occasion when I geet a bit self-conscious about the sound of my own voice as this thing spills across the screen and wonder how it really sounds to a reader who is thinking it is all self-important BS rather than anything of significance. Ah yes! We come back to the vanity of the blog.

There is something somewhat transient about this collection of words. For all of the weight and revelation about my soul, the world or what I did at 11:52pm on Wednesday night, it would be all quite easy to alter and is I spin out these details about the time, the environment I am sitting in, the deconstructive questions well up and make me wonder if there is much difference between tapping the delete button back to take that errant "l" (was it really an "l") out or deleting this entire paragraph out and denying that this particular entry has wandered so off track that I wonder if I'm being clever for the sake of being clever or sarcastic or something else entirely.

As I contemplate the status of a blog entry and the flexibility to revise and reframe things, I have to acknowledge that saying that I have a certain set of parameters that I work within does not really satisfy the question. It is nothing more than an attempt to hide from the question my trumping up a sense of morality in perhaps a rather defensive manner when there is no clarion call for morality or defensiveness. The interesting thing is that there is a certain degree of internal dialogue that is going on throughout the editing process and the writing process. A paragraph back it was quite tempting to digress with humourous references to Hansel and Gretel and one of my favorite Bugs Bunny cartoons where Bugs was cartooning Daffy through a particularly rough experience before deciding to erase him altogether. At that moment though I chose not to give into those desires. In the context of this paragraph I hope that I have made a comparison to the blogging task and the possibilities that occur when someone is able to edit something after it has become public. There is an opportunity to engage in a reading and editing experience with one's own blog that in and of itself might be more satisfying than the dialogue it would start with other visitors who read and comment on the blog.

The ability to use the technology for this type of communication with one's self gives a blogger the opportunity to reflect on the evolution of one's own thoughts as they address their desire to revise and restate, but there is a chance that it indulges that vanity I spoke of before. It would not be particularly healthy or beneficial for someone to take this aspect of blogging to an extreme and attempt to grow or assess their own thoughts without engaging in an expanded dialogue with people beyond this medium.

Structured misinterpretations

This morning I came across a news report about a Christmas wreath in Colorado drawing the ire of neighbours because it violated a community association code regarding political statements. The wreath was in the form of a peace symbol, which neighbors - being red-stated and all - considered a specific anti-Iraq War symbol. Apart from complaints, the wreath also earns fines of $25 a day.
The fact that people believe that they can impose their values on one another to the point that Person A can limit speech because of his or her own (mis)interpretation is repugnant evidence of the environment that I described in my last post.

Such a specific interpretation of the peace symbol as a direct protest against the U.S. war in Iraq is part of the effort to insulate ourselves more and more in environments that we can control as tightly as possible in order to avoid interacting with people who are not of the same mind as myself. The misinterpretation here is more likely a deliberate instigation than a gut reaction. A peace symbol of all things, during the Christmas season, in acknowledgement of the birth of the "Prince of Peace," is promoting peace as a general principle not merely as an increasingly vague notion to the people of Iraq.

While there is the option of pursuing the alternate interpretation of the peace symbol as a symbol of satan the more significant point is the deliberate obfuscation for the sake of communicating intolerance. While some of the Colorado neighbours involved in this spat cite their children's involvement in the Iraq war as reason for their offence at this symbol, they seemed to be overlooking the oft-stated sentiment in the United States that they support their soldiers far more than they support the war in Iraq itself. This conduct on the home front raises doubts about the actual intent of the war in Iraq. Is it an effort to bring democracy to the country or a new type of elitism and intolerance based on something as amorphous as the dogmas we associate with our own economic status and political beliefs? Apart from this little neighbourhood spat is the internet message board foolishness that crops up whenever something as polarizing as this rears its head and gives everyone the opportunity to criticize each other for having opposing points of view. It would be easy to say that this is a minority opinion, but it is more likely a case where these strongly held attitudes are simmering just beneath the surface, ready to be uncorked at anytime, just as Michael Richards' tirade of November 17th got unleashed by a man who insists that he is not a bigot or a racist. My suspicion is that Richards' understanding of the terms "bigot" or "racist" merely means that he does not express those words publicly.

We have opted for a bland medium of exchange to use with the larger world and maintain a much more loaded and specific lexicon for people that we believe understand us. The problem in Colorado is that the people protesting against the wreath are speaking their language because they expected that their neighbour has the same worldview as they do or at least hope that they can pressure this woman into looking at the world through eyes. They have, after all, moved to the same community and have paid comparable prices for their homes, internet connection, cable hook-up, cell phone service, and every other demographic variable that so many statisticians relied on when structuring and identifying this community. The wreath is the one random element that none of these people counted on and their reactions to it indicate the degree to which they hoped that their neighbourhood environment could be controlled or tailored to their desires and tastes.

In one of his essays during the 1950s, Hugh MacLennan suggested, in a defense of classical education, that the level of one's education had a more direct relation with one's level of consumption rather than their morality or value system. Incidents such as this, which are at turns laughable and infuriating, is further evidence at how much people hope to buy for their money and how conservative-minded Americans are falling short of their nation's ideals for tolerance and freedom.


My use of the word transcendent during the class discussion about what art is "Canadian" and what is not was a choice based in part on it place in my vocabulary as a poet and a photographer. Over the years, first with my poetry, there has been a commitment to writing in terms that would be lasting rather the attaching my words so specifically to a moment or trend that they become rooted in time and become dated. I cannot say for sure that my poetic efforts always achieved this. There was every possibility that what I wrote was too vague and nairy-fairy to mean much of anything.

In my photography it has been much easier to manifest something in. With the aspiration to create something relatively artistic, I have made a point to make sure that my images have not been "tainted," whether it is by v-flashing tourists in someone else's shots, garbage, man-made objects, brand-name logos or anything else that detracts from the image I am trying to create.

Today, however, there seem to be more and more temporal ways of expression and very few people in the public eye succeed in expressing themselves in more transcendental terms. It is apparent in all fields whether it is an attempt to capture the mood of the moment or the audience, an ill-fated attempt to be ahead of the crowd or an appeal to the lowest common denominator rather than a call to arouse intellects and create images, or emotional responses that imbed themselves in the imagination of audiences.

Capturing a wide audience is something that happens on a rare basis these days. (Ah yes, he states the obvious.) Perhaps nothing ever was meant to capture a wide audience and all I am calling for is a degree of homogeneity that is oppressive and leads to an inertia the deadens the society. (I might have sounded more cogent with my opening salvo in this paragraph.) The cross-section between these points is that there has to be a common vocabulary, whether visual or in some other context, that allows people to communicate clearly when they disagree with one another.

The evolution of political cartoons that was described showed a move away from images that carried far more connotation than they do today. The British lion, Russian bear and retired members of the political cartoon elite, have probably been pushed aside by political correctness, and other forces that have altered the representation of history. This has been part of an attempt to sanitize the discourse of political cartooning and probably other communication as well.

Somewhere in the midst of this evolution, and has occurred in all fields of communication as technology has prevailed in so many fields, the means have been offered to allow people to communicate with each other less and, instead, insulate themselves from a meaning dialogue that would enlighten people and expand their knowledge and strive towards a constructive understanding.

Instead of participating in such dialogues, people have been able to contain themselves within fixed points-of-view and surround themselves with images, music, You-Tube clips, and friends that concur with it all and do nothing more than spin their own cliches about how the world is or ought to be. It has all happened under the guise of progress, leaving us aware of the Faustian compromises but lacking the will to expose ourselves to the realities beyond the worlds we have created for ourselves. The reality is that many the images we choose to surround ourselves with today lack the meaning that comes when something communicates with a transcendent vocabulary rather than the evanescence of inside jokes, pop-tarts of the month or mock idols who need their own portmanreau nomenclature to define their purpose. (Let me take a self-conscious moment to accuse myself of attempting a purplish patch of prose...)

The suburbs that have mushroomed in the last fifty years are just one example of the meaninglessness that has been spawned by technology and progress. Whether it is Burnaby, Tuscany, Cole Harbour or Scarborough, many of the suburbs that we have grown up in lack the meaning and sense of home that the farmland and "empty" space they encrouched upon once possessed. There is a rootlessness, a lack of connection to place that has been spawned in these suburbs and the transience of the suburbanite has probably worsened as yet another generation grows up in paneled damp basements with three TV's in the house and the siren call of affluence inviting people to go it alone rather than strengthen their communities. Oddly enough, that siren call which invites more and more people down customized paths is not as original as the trekkers hope it is. That customized path is lined with fads and other trivia that only reinforces the transience of the suburban life and the other things that were born at the same time.

At least some of the things that a person surrounds their life or fills their lives with ought to have some transcendent values. There needs to be a copy of Catcher in the Rye or The Unbearable Lightness of Being sandwiched in among the Judith Krantz, Dean Koontz or John Grisham novels - even if one complains that they did not get it. There needs to be some Vivaldi or Ellington on the shelf or a memory of that final chord from "A Day in the Life" that passes through one's head from time to time to connect people to that vague something more. When one steps out and asserts their own identity to say, "This is a big part of my life," it ought to stand on its own as something unique but transcendent to identify the values that a person has or a people share.

The attempt to break oneself off into a subculture is fine, but there is still a requirement to represent that subculture with elements that are sublime remains essential. It could be argued that a pair of cowboy boots does not have to fit into the Canadian identity because it is unique to western or cowboy culture might be a valid argument. However, if those cowboy boots lack the visual presence or emotional context to communicate something universally human about the cowboy experience to audiences beyond that subculture they baffle people outside of that group or at worst make the cowboys a laughing stock to outsiders and, after a while, to themselves as well. The goal might be to isolate that group as much as possible for the sake of excluding others but that will lead to the self-destruction of that group, whether as a result of decadence or a disintegration as members of that group find participation occurs at too great a price.

This is not to say that the subcultures are capable of communicating their values in terms that outsiders would not understand. As the attempt to define what is Canadian and what is not evolved and presented the opportunity to go a step further and determine what would be in the Canadian canon, I gave thought to the music of Stan Rogers. His music was explicitly regional throughout his career but he made a point of communicating about as many parts of the country as he could. Whether discussing the plights of fishers in Nova Scotia, laker crews on Superior and Erie, or farming families on the prairies, he wrote and sang songs that were compelling and indicated the sensitivity that Canadians of all walks, or at least a burly, balding boy from Ontario, would have for the experiences that binds the country together even if we do not share the intensity of that experience.

If we do not want to be represented to the world and each other by art and music of that depth and resonance, then erect the fences and put on your cowboy boots.

I'll be booking a flight home. Somewhere.

More and more of us confine ourselves within our own worlds, limiting us in the comforts of our illusions.

The Shape of Things

As time passes and technology makes things more compact, one loss that seems to have gone unnoticed is the degree to which function and purpose are self-evident in the design. It is quite easy to recognize the purpose of a gramophone at a glance. This is probably something that is open to debate, but it is clearly easier to recognize the purpose of the gramophone than it is with the once-modern stereo component. Given the fact that so many modern technologies are essentially nondescript, something that is evident if you've ever made the mistake of putting a DVD or a disc of MP3's into a CD player, the obsolescent technology still has a bit of value as an icon. We still picture antennas on the top of a TV. Many photographers adorn their business cards with the old silhouette of a photographer hidden behind view cameras with the cloth hood over their head.

Photographers are probably not the only people who couch their profession in imagery that has little to do with the current reality of their work. There are still plenty of photographers who portray themselves from behind their camera, but the image of a photographer hunched over his desktop and manipulating PhotoShop would be easily confused with countless other professions. As more and more work converges towards a routine that is similar at first glance, it will become more and more important for the older quaint images associated with the profession to symbolize it.

While the nostalgic imagery adds a bit of gravitas or history to professions that might lose their character as technological forces cause them to converge towards something that denies them at least some of the prestige that existed when such occupations were more distinct. Given that and digital photography's continued development towards the resolution and quality of the highest quality film images, there is every possibility that a digital camera could be developed that would not need to resemble the configuration of a traditional SLR. As megapixel counts rise and the possibilities for Photo Shop manipulation continue to evolve, there could be a strong possibility that many photographers could buy digital cameras and lenses in configurations that reassert the prestige of their profession by using equipment that would distinguish themselves from the hobbyist and set an artificial price barrier between professional and amateur.

This is just one (albeit potential) situation where questionable efforts are made to maintain visual consistency or iconic currency as more and more elements of our everyday world lose the distinct shape that came with their function.


In Milan Kundera's book The Art of the Novel he talks briefly about the Soviet Union's ability to win the battle of symbols that took place during the Cold War. He points out that the Nazis will be forever portrayed as more evil than the gulags (and purges) of Stalin and that the American foray in Vietnam will resonate far more deeply than the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He goes on to compare other things that have a stronger influence on our collective psyche than others and asks how it is that one tragedy lasts longer with us than others. His suggestion, especially as he illustrates it with the comparison of the United States and the Soviet Union, could be regarded as nothing more than the suggestion that the Soviets were better than the Americans at propaganda, the 20th century precursor to spin for those of you who have never heard of it.

It would be easy to suggest that a totalitarian regime has a few advantages in the production and control of images, but that would overlook the fact that audiences there probably had a comparable appetite for images, unless a dearth of cameras dented this appetite. How is it, though, that certain images hold much more influence than others? There is not a single image that we can associate with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, let alone one equal to the power of the escape from the napalm blast or the Saigon street execution. This is an extreme example, admittedly, but how is it that the Americans were unable or unwilling to portray their Cold War enemies to their own advantage? I am not suggesting that the Soviet Union was relaxed enough to allow journalists to cover their wars, but there had to be some effort to capture images and sneak them out of their various battlegrounds, if not Afghanistan, then why not any of the satellites they tinkered with throughout the Cold War.
Instead of trying to find real-life images to do this, the United States put most of its energy into portray their enemies indirectly via films and other entertainment. I doubt this approach has generated an overpowering image of the Soviet enemy, unless one of the cartoonish Bond movie portrayals comes to mind. Real life images to a great deal more to motivate certain beliefs in people, but perhaps they do so in a manner that audiences are cognizant of while the movies work in subtler ways, if they did at all. I was not really planning to pursue a comparison of fictional and real-life images, however. The focus was intended to be the effectiveness of images that essentially end up competing with each other for the public consciousness.

How is it that the limited and predominantly amateur images of the Boxing Day 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean contributed to the massive worldwide response in the form of donations and goodwill while the images of New Orleans prove to be much more divisive. Could it be that the lack of images and greater reliance on the word contributed to the response? Perhaps in the case of the tsunami in 2004, it was simply a recognition that the victims of this tragedy were undeserving victims and that they needed help. The same could be said for the victims stranded on the Gulf of Mexico coast of the United States, but for several reasons these images failed to generate a unified response.

Is it possible that the United States, for all its collective media media savvy is unable to control images? What?!

One possibility is that the efforts to control the images that are at the center of the discourse or that form the visual vernacular that shapes the dialogue. As with any attempt to control, however, the desire for inertia ultimately leads to inertia. It is an inertia that becomes apparent in the failure to incite a strong reaction to images which have been reproduced or imitated time and time again. This approach to image-making and image-sharing is one that leads to attempts to resort to more and more visceral communication, the type that appeals to the lowest common denominator rather than to minds or hearts or eyes.

Milan Kundera says that the images and symbols produced to represent good and evil were targeted at an audience that was avid for values, but incapable of distinguishing them. Given the predominance of carefully structured, (contrived) images shaping everyday American discourse, could their preponderance be making it too difficult for people to respond appropriately to their experiences and the images they are exposed to.

Perhaps they need a collective visual detox...


Since 1992, or even as far back as 1967, the Royal Canadian Mint has done a very good job of making us take a longer look at our change whenever we are emptying or filling our pockets. It is hard to say for sure what kind of reactions people have whenever a new coin turns up. Perhaps the response is nothing more than a passive one, but it does serve to broaden or reinforce the definition of Canada that people carry around with them, whether in their heads, pockets or piggy banks.

The Mint has done an exceptional and creative job of contributing to people's image of Canada in its own small way. The commemorative silver dollars that they have produced over the years have always been an intriguing prompt to look at another aspect of the country and its history and the quarter sets produced in 1992, 1999 and 2000 heightened national pride at least a little bit and got a few people a bit more interested in coin collecting. There are probably a few coin collectors who got their start in the last ten to fifteen years. The additional strikings of alternate coins over the last few years is becoming an increasingly regular occurrence and the variety is something that has become then envy of other countries and has even been imitated by the United States in recent years, which has circulated coins representative of each of their fifty states.

The most recent quarter struck and circulated by the Mint has troubled me somewhat. It is a replica of the national medal for bravery and it is an ideal cause to represent on the quarter. When I got one myself, I made a point of setting it aside along with the Saskatchewan centenial quarter, the pink ribbon quarter and the 1604-2004 anniversary coin of the St. Croix sailing ship. The appearance of the Royal Canadian Mint logo on the back of the coin, instead of a letter indicated where it was struck or who did the design. It concerns me in part because an object that was primarily or merely a source of national pride has now taken another step toward being marketed as a possession rather than a symbol of the nation. The Mint's concerted effort to advertise in this way gives me the impression that these national symbols are being hawked for the sake of capturing an a new market of coin collectors, who would gradually progress to buying more and more expensive products regardless of the country they come from and what symbols are put on them.

While the Mint ought to be lauded for the way in has increased awareness about Canada's history and its symbols, if it is doing so for monetary gain (the irony, the irony) it may ultimately undermine the significance and merit of these images. There have also been coins struck with Santa Claus on them and the coloured logos of Canada's NHL teams, efforts that do not flesh out the mosaic of Canadian identity as much as the images that make people more aware of parts of our history or culture that have not enjoyed the spotlight to the extent that they ought.

Oh Deer

During the last discussion one topic that emerged was that of evaluation of visuals in the classroom. It is a dilemma fraught with questions about standards of evaluation and concerns about the teachers' subjectivity and their authority assessing the quality of student performance. The question that would come to mind of anyone wishing to keep assessment focused on written rather than other forms of interpretation and communication in the classroom would be, "How can you give that a 90 and that a 50?" - question of course that gets harder to answer as the gap between the two scores closes.

The suggestion inherent in such a question is that the teacher is biased. Ultimately it would be hard to defend oneself against such an accusation. Partly, this is because the inquisitor would hardly be content with any explanation and also because teachers are human. They bring a set of perspectives, values and beliefs to the classroom and the school that most people want their teachers to possess. It does not mean that teachers conduct their classes and carried out their evaluation in an unjust manner. It means that they have standards that they are going to apply and maintain.

Evaluation has been a struggle in a variety of fields and in some, such as Art and Music, teachers find themselves marking their students' response to efforts at classroom management rather than their development in response to the curriculum. When the teachers are able to mark on this, there is the issue of whether or not the instructors are evaluating the effort that the student is making or their aptitude for the subject. The question that comes to mind is whether or not the same standards are applied in other subjects. This is not the case, at least not in mathematics and the sciences. In more creative endeavours there seems to be a higher standard put on the teacher because there is a strong belief that creativity is only imparted in significant amounts to a few select geniuses and that trying to measure it or evaluate it is unfair. Putting only a number on a student's creative project is inadequate, no matter how high the mark is. Adding anecdotal commentary is a risky venture as well because there is every chance that a teacher might make light of or overstate a student's efforts or intentions when commenting on his or her performance.

In order to effectively evaluate a student's creative work, the numbers must be superceded by an ongoing dialogue between the teacher and the student about each project. During my career as a student there was one instance when that dialogue was a counterproductive one. My studies in photography have been independent for the most part and consisted of nothing more than trying to accomplish what other photographers did with their images and reading owner's manuals ad nauseum, which was truly the case when doing it for a Kodak 110 Ektra in 1979.

Finally, in 1998, I felt I had gone as far as I could on my own and took a correspondence course in photography. There were true and false quizzes based on assigned readings and photographic assignments that were described within a technical context, but were evaluated for the aesthetic qualities as well. I would mail the photos in and receive a tape recorded evaluation. For the most part I found my instructor's tone brash and a bit impatient - something that I merely regarded as the nuances of a New York accent striking my ear a bit more harshly than I'd like. There was very little praise as well, but in retrospect I regard it as a consequence of me thinking a bit too much about working within the confines of the assignment and then even more so when sitting down to select my photos. I regarded much of the criticism as justified and took it well. It was rarely something, however, that I could integrate into my work. My patience with my instructor was exhausted when I got my response to this shot, taken in Nara, Japan. The instructor's exact words in his assessment were, "it looks like you took a stuffed deer's head and stuck it on a tree."

After voicing my complaints about this assessment and adding other photographs from Nara to indicate how tame the deer were, I got a new instructor to assess the last batch of photos I took to complete the course. I never listened to that instructor's assessment of my work and the diploma I received is something I only come across when packing and unpacking between moves. Approximately a year passed before I had one of those six-roll days that I have when I feel like the camera and I are getting along.

In contrast to that experience was what I enjoyed during my university Creative Writing class when assessment ought to have been further complicated by numbers and the question of competition amongst a small class of about a dozen, maybe 15 students. The key thing that set this assessment apart was the dialogue that went on. The professors asked us all to use pseudonyms so that things would be a bit more frank and everyone would be able to deliver their assessments of each other's work and while most of us seemed to be doing nothing more than working out whatever post-pubescent, late 80s, university-radio-fuelled angst there was turning insipid on the page, the prof remained focused on the process and encouraged us to find ways to break out of whatever constraints we were working within and find our voice.

I can't remember if the final mark was a 72 or a 78 but after 17 years I can still recall what my best work was and what strengths and weaknesses I displayed in the effort. While there is no certainty whether he resorted to marking on a curve, dared to rank our efforts and added numbers accordingly or found some other means to generate the numbers, the dialogue that took place within class and in his commentary on our efforts helped nurture rather than smother the creativity we aspired to hone.

The key thing is an active exchange taking place between the teacher and student, with the teacher providing models to point the way to each student and letting them pursue paths and unique models that will contribute to their development. Perhaps it is easier to provide this guidance in a textual rather than an image-based context. It is challenging to turn to one producer of images and indicate that there is a consistent style at work. In the case of Freeman Patterson for instance, it would be quite difficult to find a link between his work in his backyard at Shamper's Bluff, NB and the images that he has taken of deserts in Africa.

With writers, however, there often seems to be an effort to tell that one story perfectly and if it is not quite right, to try again with similar stylistic touches, themes or characters turning up again and again in the pursuit of aesthetic perfection. Many of those who produce images, and I suspect that I may only speaking of photographers, continue to pursue, capture and produce new images with a relentlessness, voracity and abundance that can defy efforts to comprehend it.

Imitation is the Lowest Form of Imagination

Last week there were a few news articles that coincided with the publication of a book about the 101 most influential non-existent people. It was a rather broad category that got violated with the addition of the Loch Ness monster, Kermit the Frog and Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock who shared their entry as one person. Number one on the list was the Marlboro Man, who was also recognized as the number on advertising campaign of all time.

I do not wish to praise the Marlboro campaign for its effectiveness. The elements of rugged lifestyle, the outdoors, the freedom and hard work all contributed to the image of the Marlboro Man, along with the suggestion that he was going to be sleeping by a campfire rather than heading to his suburban home for a long bath, a bit of yoga and sympathetic ear to his complaints about how picky the director was about getting the right light. Despite the fact that the healthy lifestyle that was being sold was actually the smoke and mirrors required to hide the toxic reality that they were buying a nicotine delivery system, there was something authentic about the guy that contributed to the iconic status that he attained.

It is quite easy to identify other advertising campaigns that resemble the Marlboro one. Brewers and car manufacturers strive to capture as much of the mystique of the Marlboro man with their images of wild horses, rugged blue collar types, mountains and other elements that attempt to recreate the appeal of the Marlboro Man without the same degree of success. In my estimation there was a combination of elements, some of which were not even considered when creating the campaign, that added some intangible to this series of advertisements that has been missing from all of the imitators.

In many cases the popularity and effectiveness of an advertising campaign rests on the timing and its ability to strike a chord with an audience. However, another thing that is key to achieve that success is to offer a campaign that is neither so trendy that it panders to the audience in a manner that insults its intelligence nor is so original and esoteric that it baffles the same audience. Perhaps this was the issue that has undermined the effectiveness of Benetton's advertising in North America. They were just a bit ahead of their target audience to some degree.

In constructing images to contribute to any discourse, many are forced to work from within limits of the discourse that is already taking place. This is not to say that the discourse is confined and that there is little opportunity for it to evolve but that it can rarely move by anything more than increments. The other key thing is that if a discourse rehashes or retraces old territory too often, it will only find the limited tolerance for a visual cliche. The Marlboro man somehow managed to defy this. Perhaps it was because it was used by the manufacturer on a sparing basis, regulations limiting the use of cigarette advertising on television or it had a classic element to it that allowed it to remain resonant with the audience. (Or perhaps the addiction had taken deep root and other factors contribute to its longevity.) Meanwhile those who have attempted to sell their beer or SUV's with the same type of imagery are not capturing the public's imagination for the same length of time. While it is enough to make people question how effective images are, my only question is how much thought and care goes into their creation.

A Glutton for Confusion

There is every possibility that I have stepped into a bear trap or knocked down a massive and lethal bee's nest but during my regular visits to the Fitness Centre at the university I have seen a poster advertising this form of birth control. The poster is a photograph rather than an illustration of the figures above and I would not be facetious if I said that the illustration is more realistic than the poster. In the poster, there are four young women who have rather exotic names and are attired and armed to play roles in the type of campy action movie that would good trashed by movie critics but find a niche in the video stores as an unabashed bit of male fantasy. The questions that have dogged me everytime I've seen the poster are: "Who would fall for that?"; "How does this fit with the fit thinking process of the target market?" and of course a good old, "What the...?!!"

The best that I can theorize is that there is a desire to conjure up an appealing image of the type of young woman who would need or want this contraceptive. My guess is that it is targetted at women who are a bit too naive about their sexuality to know what exactly they would be getting themselves into by becoming sexually active to the extent that they would have to make such a substantial investment. (I acknowledge up front that I am making assumptions and would promptly stand corrected if I have guessed wrong.) The Alesse page which is based on or linked to the Much Music website at features games and contests that can be played and induce young women to buy into the Alesse lifestyle, whatever that may be.

To visit the site, see the content - I did not play the games, by the way - and contrast it with the antiseptic facade of corporate responsibility that appears at the site of the manufacturer is shocking. The fact that Alesse is a drug, a DRUG, is hardly apparent on the Much Music site. Instead of educating the users about this drug, the consumers are sold a fantasy about a sexually active lifestyle. There is a chance that the campaign is targetted at establishing an area bond with future clients at an early age, but that is something I cannot confirm.
I am uncertain of the efficacy of this ad campaign but it has run for a year if my memory serves. It is evidence of how precise and cynical advertising can be. The fact that one company makes a point of presenting two such drastically contrasting images is unsettling.

Problems with Prosser

After reading Jon Prosser's article, "The Moral Maze of Image Ethics," I found myself a bit annoyed with his confessions about his aesthetics and wondering if the maze was one that got a bit more complicated because of his own indiscretions with the camera and his subjects. It is not a matter of him publicly disclosing the bag of tricks that photographers rely on to get the images they strive for. I prefer to take issue with the fact that he has had to resort to such constructions in order to achieve the aesthetic goals that he aspires to in his pictures.

I too have had problems when the camera or the film has not done what I hoped it would do. In the instance that I illustrate here, (don't buy Agfa film) the film for a shot that I thought was going to be brilliant ripped or disintegrated during development. Apart from that it did not deliver the colours that I wanted either. Looking at the image in retrospect, it was clearly an occasion when my recollection of the image surpassed what I actually captured. When I first saw the negative and the damaged image, I was crushed that an image that I thought I had "nailed" was ruined because of forces beyond my control. A few years later I returned to the same spot and took a picture that was both technically and aesthetically superior to what I had taken the first time around. Prosser's sense of aesthetic is a bit problematic for me. I find that his attachment to the original version of the Ritual of knock and wait photo cut off the range of creative possibilities that could have been available to him and cornered him into the reconstruction that proved to be as problematic as it was.

I refrain at all costs from such constructions and the photographs that I take are not manipulated to the extent that Prosser manipulated his first photo. It does not mean that I rely entirely on chance when I am behind the camera. I choose my moment when I frame the moment that I am trying to capture. When a situation presents itself, such as this sunset in Miyajima, Japan, I knew what I wanted but took "lesser" pictures to cover myself while waiting for the image that I wanted. I had the combination of elements that I knew would provide a decent image but was familiar enough with composition to wait for the deer to finish its right to left walk across my field of view and effectively separate itself from the torii and stand beneath the reflection of the setting sun in the water. While there was a bit of serendipity in visiting while the tide was that far out, familiarity with the deer in the area encouraged me to wait until this final shot presented itself.

Tag Freeze

One of the most significant quotes from this week's articles is "People ... attend to communications... because they seek psychological reassurance about their existing beliefs and prejudices." I came across a news report and accompanying message board that provided evidence supporting point Peter Cunningham made as he concluded his article. The ban on tag that is central to the latest brouhaha surrounding childhood and their education even warranted comment in the pages of Sports Illustrated, whose editor in chief devoted a column to the subject in what was not exactly a quiet week in sports.
More significant about this debate than the fact that so many adults are expressing their disdain for such a policy is the fact that it seems part of the campaign that started with the mental hygiene movement. In both the tag ban and the hygiene movement there has been a misguided effort to use the school environment as the setting for an ambitious project to redefine childhood. Both the hygiene movement and the more recent trends to alter childhood experience for the saking of sparing children undue damage to their psyche. Whether it was the motivation of the whole-language movement, the rationale for medicating more and more children or banning tag because it serves as a threat to the child's emotional and physical well-being, the proponents of these movements have disregarded the resilience of children and the fragility of the concept of childhood as well.

The irony of this movement to "protect" children is that it is occurring at a time when children's literature has moved from sanitized stories and representations in favour of Grimm variety details that J.K. Rowlings has peppered her Harry Potter novels with. While parents nurture their children's fondness for literature and reading with stories that are by turns gross or frightening and its characters are put in the physical or psychological peril that so many people wish to spare children today.

Schools are the location for an ongoing battle of the way children ought to be socialized and how childhood ought to be defined. It seems that teachers, as uncertain surrogate parents, were the ideal constituency to influence the way to treat children and the trends that have run through the classrooms and schoolyards over the years. While these British propaganda films, as well-known as they appear to have been, had a significant influence on the way both parents and teachers perceived the school system and the role of the teacher, there are certainly countless others that may only be exposed to teachers within the confines of a workshop or other occasion for professional development and lay the seeds for the next trend that takes place.

The desire to attend to works that reinforce our own beliefs suggests that it would be hard to induce a great deal of moral or institutional change. As much as schooling has changed over the years, we find more comfort in nostalgic representations of schools rather than those that propose or introduce change. While the difference between the school's represented in Village School and Children's Charter is quite striking, and it might be puzzling to see this change within as little as five years or to, alternatively, regard the change towards more a conservative and stratified social structure as a regression. I suppose that this happened in part because of the improved conditions following the conclusion of World War II, allowed the society the luxury of going it alone. The society reverted to old form as it were.

So what is going on with tag? Where am I going with it? In his book The Disappearance of Childhood, Neil Postman makes the point that childhood has been a construct rather than a natural condition that has prevailed in all societies and eras. Schooling of course has been a key part of childhood, and the time set aside for the experiences that school provides our children is another luxury and one that is an indication of the wealth and well-being of this society.

The argument that childhood or the child-age years ought to be hermetically sealed or contained and preserved in someway indicates the neuroses and the paranoias that are taking more and more energy from adults and denying them the pleasures of life that they should have been educated to enjoy. All in all, this entire trend to "protect" children from childhood may be nothing more than a semantic cover for the deliberate erosion of the childhood as we fondly knew it.

Clearly the efforts to portray children as cruel beings who make each other's lives insufferable is propaganda. Or is it? Kids have always been like that and devoting more and more attention to it has only served to demonize a segment of our society that needs to be nurtured guided and protected rather than used as the fodder for ongoing lip-service.