Tuesday
Jun122012

Review: Let the Right One In

I was channel surfing the other night and getting ready to head to bed when I saw that TVO was just starting a broadcast of Let the Right One In, the 2008 Swedish vampire flick directed by Tomas Alfredson (who is best known to English-speaking audiences as the director of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy). The film got excellent reviews when it came out, so I made some tea and settled in. 

The plot is pretty straightforward. A 12 year-old boy named Oskar is being tormented by a group of bullies at school. Meanwhile, people are turning up dead in his housing project, their bodies hung from trees and drained of blood. Eventually, Oskar is befriended by Eli, who has just moved in next door with her father. Eli looks about 12, but is clearly wise beyond her years. She urges Oskar to fight back against the bullies, which he does. The violence at school escalates, as do the killings, while Oskar falls in love with Eli.  Except Eli is a vampire, which puts a crimp in things. 

The film pulls of the difficult manoeuvre of making use of the cliched tropes of vampire flicks from Nosferatu to The Lost Boys, which is why Eli can fly, is incredibly strong, and is afraid of the sun. What prevents it from getting anywhere near camp is the film's flat, almost emotionless tone (if you've seen TTSP, you know what it's like) and a storyline that spends far more time on Oskar's problems at school than it does on Eli's blood-sucking needs.

That is why a lot of reviewers interpreted it as a bullied-schoolboy revenge fantasy grafted onto a story of young lust. As one review put it, Let the Right One In is "a pensive meditation on the transcendent possibilities of human connection."

I found it to be a pensive meditation on the soul-destroying nature of love. Or at least, of the kind of self-denying obsession that adolescents fall into, and which too many people mistake for true love. To that end, there are two key scenes in the movie: The first is when Eli is preparing to go meet Oskar, and her apparent father, Hakan, pleads with her not to go meet that boy. There is a jealousy to his tone that suggests their relationship is more complicated than it appears.  The second crucial scene is when Eli goes to Oskar's house, and she stands waiting on the threshold of the door. Invoking yet another staple of the vampire canon, You have to invite me in, she says . When Oskar asks what happens if he doesn't, she enters and promptly starts bleeding from every orifice. Panicked, Oskar yells "I invite you in!"

With that, they are bound to one another for life. Oskar is destined to become the next Hakan, a friend and lover, then father figure and blood-sourcer for Eli, keeping her forever young while he ages and watches as the cycle repeats itself.

The moral of course, is right there in the movie's title. The trick to love is not about letting someone in to your heart,  it is about letting the right one in (a nuance lost in the title of the American remake, 2010's Let Me In.) If you let the wrong person in, they can become a vampire, sucking the lifeblood out of you and turning you into a slave to their every need. 

The last scene of Let the Right One In shows Oskar escaping on a train, with Eli in a box hiding from sunlight. The two of them tap sweet nothings to each other on the box in Morse code. This isn't a "romantic horror film", as Wikipedia describes it. It's a horror film about romance. 

 

Monday
Jun042012

An Afghan interpreter in Canada

As part of a touch-and-go media tour of Afghanistan two years ago, I spent a few hours at the headquarters of a Canadian OMLT on the outskirts of Kandahar City. The OMLT - for Operational Mentor and Liason Team -- was the business end of Canada's training mission in Afghanistan. Small groups of Canadian mentors -- about 30 or so -- would embed with ANA kandaks, and spend days and weeks out in the field, patrolling villages and engaging in move-to-contact missions. 

As the small troop of reporters I was with were being introduced to the Canadians, one of the officers made a point of drawing our attention to a squat Afghan wearing a rumpled uniform and a broad smile. "This is Froggy," the lieutenant said. "He's an interpreter." I looked at Froggy, who nodded and smiled. The Lt. went on: "Froggy saved one of our guys out in the field. He'd stepped on a mine, Froggy ran over, put tourniquets on what was left of his legs, and saved his life."

I looked at Froggy again, more sharply this time. He smiled some more. "Seriously?" I said. "Froggy's a bit of a hero around here," the Lt. said, then wandered off. Froggy and I chatted for a bit, and the source of his name became obvious: he spoke in a deep, guttural voice, almost like an Afghan Louis Armstrong.

Our stay at the base was hurried, and between the usual rounds of powerpoint decks with the Canadians and tea and nuts with the Afghans, I never saw Froggy again. But I always kept him in the back of my mind, partly because of what he had apparently done, but moreso because the way the tough-as-nails Canadians clearly worshipped him. 

And so here we are two years later, it turns out that Froggy is now living a few miles from me, in Ottawa, Canada. After receiving one night letter too many from the Taliban, Froggy (real name, Mohammad Rahman) decided to pack up his wife and seven children and come to Canada. It wasn't easy. Just as the Canadian government likes to support the troops when they are young and healthy and kicking Taliban ass but neglects them when they are wounded vets with PTSD and family problems, Canada made all sorts of promises to its Afghan terps about fast-tracking their refugee status if they wanted to come here, only to reject two thirds of all applicants. 

But with some of his Canadian friends pulling strings, Froggy made it to Canada. How is it going for him? To find out, you must listen to the CBC documentary, "The Interpreter", an outsanding piece of journalism by Julie Ireton, which aired this morning on The Current.  The closing scene, where Froggy is reunited (via Skype) with Major Mark Campbell, the officer whose life he saved four years ago, is an absolute triumph of storytelling. Yeah, I cried. So will you. 

 

Saturday
Jun022012

Van Gogh's children

 

Last week, the new touring exhibition of Van Gogh's works on nature, "Van Gogh: Up Close", came to the National Gallery of Canada. It is expected to be the absolute blockbuster of the summer, following on the mega crowds it drew over the winter in Philadelphia. 

What is it about Van Gogh that transfixes us? The paintings, for sure. His weirdly compelling life, yes. But there has to be more to it. In a new book, Solar Dance, Modris Eksteins argues that to understand Van Gogh, and our reaction to his work, is to understand the cultural warp and political weft of the 20th century. It is to understand the fall of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the Third Reich, the birth of the counterculture and the death of communism, and—not least of all—the great flourishing of celebrity culture and our obsession with the who of art, not the what. In sum, Eksteins writes: “Van Gogh is ours. We are Van Gogh.”

I review Eksteins' book in the new issue of the Literary Review of Canada. 

Here is Peter Simpson of the Ottawa Citizen giving his own take on why we remain obsessed with Van Gogh. 

And here is professor Eksteins himself, writing inthe Citizen about Van Gogh's "extraordinary afterlife."

 

Saturday
May262012

How politics escaped the clutches of reason

In a new essay I wrote with Joseph Heath, we try to explain how our politics came to be dominated by "truthiness", bullshit, and the rejection of facts. On the story we tell, our descent into unreason began with the confluence of two crucial events: The election of Ronald Reagan, the Great Confabulator, and the launch of CNN, which inaugurated the 24hr news cycle. Here's a snippet from the conclusion:

Reason is not neutral between civilization and barbarism, and neither is intuition. Some things can be “framed” more easily than others. Tax resistance can be framed in a number of highly intuitive ways -- “They’re taking your hard-earned money!” being the most obvious. The case for paying taxes, on the other hand, is difficult to frame in an intuitive way. This is not an accident. The logic of taxation — the reason why markets fail to provide public goods, so that the state must intervene — is slightly counterintuitive. It’s not beyond the capacity of the average citizen to grasp, but it takes at least five minutes to explain — a lot longer than the current environment tends to allow.

 

Saturday
May192012

Some links for the long weekend

In blind taste test, Danish people prefer cheap frozen chicken to expensive fresh chicken.

A new ethnography of lap dancing. 

Copenhagen cuisine has entered the realm of extreme authenticity. 

Why the streets of Copenhagen are so different from ours. (Answer: Bikes)

After years of pretending to be sick to avoid military duty, young Danish men are now lying about their health problems in order to serve. 

The Authentic Brands Group manages, inter alia, the Bob Marley and Marilyn Monroe brands. 

On Romney: "What the search for authenticity should not attempt to do is serve as a kind of placeholder for character".

Artisan bagel baker sues Dunkin' Donuts for calling its bagels "artisan". 

The failure of Arab liberals:

 For al-Aswany, Eltahawy, and dozens of other liberal intellectuals, the urge to maintain “authenticity” and “credibility” in the new Arab landscape—not to mention feeding the angry Twitter mobs—trumps fidelity to liberal values any day.


Authenticity and the economy of esteem

The myth of cultural irony


Friday
May182012

A summer of fish: The worst job I ever had

(This piece was originally published in Now Magazine, August 2000)

 

I was standing in a pizza place on my lunch break. "God, something reeks in here," said the girl behind the counter, talking through her nose. I raised my hand. "Uh, that would be me."

"No, it smells like rotting garbage or something."

"I know," I said. "It’s me. I work at the fish market around the corner."

"Christ," she muttered, and walked into the back. As I waited for my slice, the manager came out and asked me if I would please wait outside.

I walked out, sat on the step and decided that it was time to apply to graduate school.

It was July, and I had been working at the fish market in Montreal for three months, ever since graduating from McGill with a BA in philosophy and a sense that, if the world didn’t quite owe me a living, I deserved at least a substantial line of credit.

 Slick slime

But there I was, earning $6.15 an hour, working 10-hour days knee-deep in chipped ice and fish guts, my hands infected and burning from countless cuts and puncture wounds, and every pore of my body impregnated with the odour of rotting seafood.

It’s hard to say which part of the job was the worst. I really hated the first couple of hours in the morning, before the store opened. A half-dozen of us had to haul up from the basement a few thousand pounds of fresh fish -- salmon and snapper, mackerel and monkfish packed in insulated boxes.

The 70-pound boxes, slick with fish slime and melting ice, often wouldn’t stay on the conveyor belt, so we’d have to drag them up the stairs one at a time.

Once the fish was up, we would fill huge tubs with ice chips that we shovelled out of the walk-in ice-maker, and then start rotating the fresh fish onto the long steel display counters. Overnight, blood and guts would leach out of the displayed fish into the bed of melting ice underneath. We would drain off a few gallons of this seafood slurpee, shovel fresh ice into the counters and replace the fish.

This part wasn’t too bad -- making the fish look presentable was mildly creative -- but it wreaked havoc on my hands. Red snapper were the worst: needle-sharp dorsal-fin rays poked through my gloves and gave me so many puncture wounds, I looked like a junkie who’d lost any hope of finding a decent vein.

 Daily restocking

Working in the frozen fish section wasn’t any fun either. The store had an immense industrial deep-freeze with wooden pallets piled with frozen fish reaching precariously toward the 30-foot ceiling.

In the summer, Montrealers apparently consume more frozen fish than they do jazz, and every day someone had to restock the display freezers with hundreds of packages of frozen calamari, sardines and prawns.

The deep-freeze was kept at a steady -35°C., and walking into it from the store’s humid summer air was an experiment in sudden, involuntary cryogenics. To borrow a line from Thomas Pynchon, it was like being hit over the head with a Swiss Alp. Freezing to death is supposed to be a fairly pleasant way to die. Not so pleasant, I would expect, would be freezing to death while pinned under a 500-pound solid block of frozen sardines that has toppled over onto you because your brain was too busy trying to avoid being flash-frozen to devote adequate resources to basic motor control.

But for sheer unpleasantness, nothing approached working at the customer service counter, where the corpses of just-purchased fish were subject to all manner of indignities.

"Cleaning fish" is a ridiculously Orwellian term for the most consistently disgusting activity I have ever been paid to perform.

The head fishmonger was a middle-aged Portuguese man named Manuel who clearly had it in for fish. Tiny Vietnamese women would approach the counter waving plastic bags filled with flailing, gasping carp recently plucked from the live fish tank. Manuel would take a carp, pin it down with one hand and bash its brains in with a heavy wooden mallet.

Then he’d toss it into the automatic scaling machine, basically a cross between a band saw and a car wash. The carp would slide down a groove into one end of the machine, there would be a loud metallic shriek, and it would shoot out the other end, sans scales. Occasionally, the carp weren’t entirely dead when they went through the scaler, and they would emerge in what appeared to be a considerable amount of pain.

My job at the counter was pretty straightforward. I would scale the fish, then take a heavy pair of scissored pliers and snip off all their fins. I would cut open their bellies from throat to anus, grip their gill rakers with the pliers and rip out their insides. Then I’d wash the fish out with a hose and pass them on to Manuel to be turned into filets.

All the fish parts that weren’t returned to customers as food went into a long trough that led to a hole in the floor. We would hose the blood and entrails down the hole to the basement, where it would sluice into more big plastic tubs. At the end of the day we had to stack these tubs in a walk-in fridge, where they would sit in primary fermentation.

 Allied soldiers

Once a week, the tubs were emptied into the hindquarters of a modified garbage truck with "Non-edible meats/viandes non-comestibles" stencilled on the side.

The truck also made regular stops at local butcher shops and the humane society, and it generated an olfactory Doppler effect: you smelled it before you saw it. When it came crawling up St. Laurent, the cafe patios would clear, the streets would empty, windows would slam shut. The non-edible meats/viandes non-comestibles guys would hang off the back of the truck, grinning and waving in their dark jumpsuits like Allied soldiers liberating Berlin.

Normally, the truck would pull up behind the store, we’d throw the tubs onto a conveyor belt, and the n-em/vn-c guys would empty them into the truck and toss them back down. But on this particular day, the conveyor had broken, and an employee named Marc and I had to carry the tubs, one at a time, to the truck.

Imagine the conveyor belt as the hypotenuse of a right-angle triangle, with a base (the floor of the basement) of 30 feet, and a height (the outer wall) of 8. We had to duck-walk the heavy tubs along the floor to the wall, from where it was 8 feet straight up to the street and the waiting arms of the n-em/vn-c guys.

Marc climbed halfway up the ladder built into the wall, leaving me to pick up a tub and lift it up so that he could grab one end. We then tried to muscle it up to the landing, but the geometry was all wrong. It was impossible to keep the tub level -- to get it to the lip of the landing, it would have to tip at about a 30-degree angle.

As we lifted, a steaming stew of rotting fish guts sloshed out of the lower end and onto my hand and face and oozed down my arms and neck.

Twelve or so tubs of that later, it was time for lunch.

Seven years later, I have just graduated with a PhD from the University of Toronto, and I’m not sure if I’m any better off. I took that line of credit I thought the world owed me in the form of student loans, and I’m about to enter a flooded job market that sometimes seems to have it in for young scholars the way Manuel had it in for carp.

I wonder if it’s too late to apply to law school....

NOW | August 10-17, 2000 | VOL 19 NO 50

 

Friday
May182012

In praise being young, and in praise of bad jobs

It is a bad time to be young.
What's left to us can't be undone without it riding on our backs
when young and poor go hand in hand.
It is a bad time to be poor. -- The Rheostatics, Bad Time to Be Poor

 

As the song says, it's a bad time to be poor. But is there a bad time to be young?  It's easy to see why one might think so, especially if you happen to be young. We're in a stubborn economic slowdown; the federal government is proposing changes to key strands of the social safety net, while the federal minister of finance, Jim Flaherty, made what sounded like a hugely insensitive remark: "I was brought up in a certain way. There is no bad job, the only bad job is not having a job," he told reporters. "I drove a taxi, I refereed hockey. You do what you have to do to make a living."

The question we're tempted to ask then, is not why are the students in Quebec rioting, but rather, why isn't every other student in the country joining them?

But like most apparent injustices, this one is more complicated than it looks. To begin with, being young and poor tend to "go hand in hand" for the simple reason that young people haven't been around long enough to acquire money, or the skills that allow you to make a lot of it. To properly grasp the essential relationship between being young and being poor, watch this video by Louis CK:

This is pretty much just a standup comedian's version of Jim Flaherty's comment. And they aren't wrong. If you're 20, you're probably going to get a shitty job. You know what you should do? Take Louis CK's advice: Do the shit out of it. 

The summer I graduated from university in Montreal, the unemployment rate was almost double what it is today. The year I started, the Quebec government unfroze tuition rates that had been the same since the 1960s -- my total fees doubled in the four years I was at McGill. By the summer of 1993 I had a BA in philosophy, the city was a disaster, and the economy was in the tank. 

Nevertheless, I still had the sense that the world owed me living. What I got, instead, was job as a fishmonger, making $6.15 an hour. 

It was the worst job I ever had. But in a way, it was also the best job I ever had. I did the shit out of it. A few years later, in the summer of 2000, a time when I was still young-ish, and still very poor, Leah Rumack asked me to write about it for Toronto's Now Magazine. (Here's what I wrote).

I promise, you'll learn more from the bad jobs you take as a 20 year old than you will in any other job you'll get. Once you get older, people start giving you jobs because you have skills, training, or ability. And you got those skills or training because you wanted to do the job. That means you're on a glide trajectory, in a comfort zone, following the path of least resistance. The day you start doing a job you like is the day you start to die, just a bit. 

Having a bad job is a sign that you are still young. And as everyone eventually realizes, there is never a bad time to be young. 

 

Monday
May142012

Which is more authentic, striptease or burlesque?

(This contribution is from Ulla Holm, a sociologist and columnist at the Danish newspaper Information.)

 


It’s funny what a label can do. Dancing in sexy underwear in front of an audience is demeaning, objectifying, alienating and reproducing gender stereotypes when women do it for money in strip clubs, whereas the exact same thing is liberating, subversive and artful once it’s called ”Burlesque”.

That I learned the other night when watching a documentary on Danish television about the the American Neo-burlesque icon ”Dirty Martini”. Prior to the tv tribute to Dirty Martini there was a documentary about girls who do strip tease for a living in British night clubs: these girls expressed a great deal of satisfaction over the acknowledgement and money they receive from pleasing the costumers with their pole dancing.

In the burlesque universe, however, the motive of pleasing the audience is a sin and makes you just another slave of the Culture Industry. That at least is what Dirty Martini seemed to suggest with her proud remark that she doesn’t give a shit what the audience thinks of her ”performance”, all she cares about is ”being comfortable in her body” and with her ”art”. What you do in burlesque is ”perform,” whereas normal strippers just do work. Apparently what strippers do cannot be classified as ”art”. In an interview with Timeout Dirty Martini says ”we know what I’m up there for, and we know it’s not the same reason a stripper might be on a pole.” And she goes on to say that’s what makes her performance so ”subtle”, it’s ”a form of self-expression” and ”political speech” as opposed to standard striptease.

So: what supposedly makes burlesque so avant-garde in opposition to mainstream stripping is that it’s not done for money or other people’s enjoyment. As Dirty Martini says in another interview with ”21st Century Burlesque Magazine”: ”Why perform? Because you have to. It has nothing to do with money, making people happy or any lofty values. Performers must do it. It burns in their veins. To be quite frank, if you want to be famous, don’t do burlesque. Become a pop singer or an actor. People love that crap and you can make millions.”

This echoes the Wikipedia definition of Burlesque ”performers” which reads: ”Unlike strippers who dance in strip clubs to make a living, burlesque performers often perform for fun and spend more money on costumes, rehearsal and props than they are compensated.”

What it all boils down to is this: When a woman takes her clothes off for commercial gain, it is alienating and inauthentic. On the other hand, it highly empowering, self-actualizing, and authentic when there are no financial interests involved. The failure to get paid, then, is what transforms it from exploitation into art. Obviously it all adds to the authenticity of burlesque that its performers make references to burlesque icons of the past, lending it a sort of cultural superstructure that goes down well with academics. Another authenticity bonus is the fact that burlesque, according to the curatorial statement of the Danish New Burlesque Festival, ”has existed since time immortal and we will find examples of burlesque in Aristotle’s and Plato’s work in ancient Greece, and also in the renaissance works of Shakespeare.” Modern striptease, because it has no such fine history, cannot make any claim to any such cultural distinction.

It is ironic that burlesque speaks out so loudly for the female need to feel comfortable about oneself, because its requirement for authenticity is what frames normal strippers as poor commodified sex objects with no cultural value and keeps us and the strippers themselves from attaching any real value and prestige to what they do. They may be enjoying their work, but outside the clubs it’s ”stripped” of the celebration and recognition that Dirty Martini and her queer co-artists enjoy. But hey, in contrast to burlesque performers, striptease dancers are out there actually making an effort to please their audience. Shouldn’t we give them credit for that?

Back in 1853 Gustave Flaubert wrote in a letter to Louise Colet: “To publish something is to degrade yourself and your work, it’s to give up being an artist.” What this quote translates into is highly reflective of the Burlesque logic: Work performed with the intention of pleasing an audience ceases to be worthy of the “art” label and becomes self-humiliation. This is reminiscent of Kant’s view that the aesthetic object must be separated from any interests outside itself – be they money, power or recognition. It’s sad, because it cuts off a whole array of phenomena and experiences – such as striptease - from aesthetic appreciation and makes being in the world a lot less fun.

Finally, if you want to see how absurd the burlesque argument is, substitute "taking your clothes off" for another chore that women have been doing for millennia, namely, "housework." According to this view, women who clean other peoples' houses for money are doing menial, alienating work. But cleaning your own home, for no one's pleasure but your own? That's authentic and empowering.

Ulla Holm can be reached at ullaholm38@hotmail.com

 

Friday
May112012

Moral pressure at the cash register: No one likes it. 

I asked my Twitter followers how they feel about the growing trend where retail outlets ask you if you care to make a donation to a charity of their choice, just as you are slapping down an unreasonable amount of money for booze, junk food, trinkets, gewgaws, or other unnecessary items. 
Either I have a churlish set of Twitter followers, or it's a widely despised phenomenon. Here are some responses. 
  Giving a donation when you're wallet is already out is kinda like getting sucked in by an internet pop up.

  I always say no.

  I think (I KNOW) it works. I would like to know how big the "guilt factor" is - why do not more people say no?

  annoying but wonder if it is effective.

  If they offer charitable donation receipts, then I have no problem.
  Depends on how reputable the charity is and how hard the sell . . . but I'm not opposed to it in principle.
  I don't agree. They put you on the spot. Their choice may not be my choice.
  Hate being asked, hate that a cashier is forced to ask me. Feels like supporting their corporate "goodwill," not cause itself
  interesting use of social pressure, e.g., dont want to look like a Scrooge to cashier & people in line.
  I hate it. And I'm cynical so I know that the strategy is "people can't refuse so it's a golden idea for fundraising".

 

  Hate that. But often get sucked in. The guilt!

 *%$#! RT : What do we think about retail outlets that ask you to donate to a charity of their choice at the cash register?
  Good luck saying no to a CHEO donation when your kids are with you.
  If it raises money for a good cause why not. If you disagree with the charity, just say no. Generally not a pressure sale.

 

  We feel bad for those employees, who have been told that their numbers are being tracked and minimums are expected.

Thursday
May102012

Sir Lovesalot, or, the rise of conspicuous honour

 

 

With his horse, Coeur-de-Lion, the French-Canadian Vincent Gabriel Kirouac is spending the summer dressed as a knight. Why?

“I’m crossing Canada on horseback dressed as a knight, to remind people of the values of long ago, such as devotion,” he said.

“All the values of the knight.”

The ancient code of chivalry is an interesting list of virtues, a mix of the anachronistic ("serve the liege lord in valour and faith"), the mildly sexist ("To respect the honour of women"), the ridiculously noble ("To despise pecuniary reward"), and the wonderfully sublime ("To persevere to the end in any enterprise begun"). For the most part, it is completely incomprensible to the modern mind. 

When I give my authenticity spiel, at some point some one usually asks where I think the culture is going next. So we had conspicuous leisure, then conspicuous consumption, the conspicuous rebellion, then conspicuous authentiticy. What next? I usually try to weasel out of a serious answer ("Just like the present, but moreso" is my usualy reply). Or I suggest that if I really knew, I'd be investing in that thing and would soon be rich. 

But if I had to bet, I'd say we are headed for a fairly reactionary period. I wouldn't be surprised to see a Neo-Victorian movement, for example, where a return to 19th century values amplifies the already-huge steampunk culture. The hipster-Christian trend is part of that, I think.

But perhaps something else is afoot: a return to pre-modern attitudes towards chivalry, honour, and loyalty, fed by the twin streams of relentless cultural nostalgia (and its obverse, irony) and the growing crisis of masculinity. I would put the Trudeau-Brazeau fight (and the remarkably complex set of responses to it) in this trend. 

And then there is Vincent Gabriel Kirouac, knight-errant. If the public reaction to his -- ok I'll say it -- Quixotic journey across Canada is any indication, there's a niche here ready to be exploited. Dare we call it "conspicious honour"? 

Tuesday
May012012

Conrad Black: Hipster arriviste?

Former news baron Conrad Black is expected to be released from his US prison later this week, and despite having given up his Canadian citizenship in order to accept an appointment to the British House of Lords, he has obtained a temporary resident permit from Canada's department of citizenship and immigration. This will allow him to remain in this country for one year, for starters. 

I'm of at least two minds about this. From the late 1990s until his indictment in the United States in 2005, Black had very little in the way of good things to say about Canada. He made it clear he preferred the culture of Great Britain, the tax regime of the United States, and the companionship of a global wealthy elite to the people, policies, and politics of his home and native land. 

He didn't just change his tune when he was incarcerated -- he switched genres entirely. The Canada's-a-socialist-dump dirge switched overnight to an upbeat pop number called "Canada Rocks!" Since 2005 Black has used the podium of his column in the National Post to praise Canada, its people, its laws, its former Liberal leaders, and its... animals

The timing of it all is more than a little suspicious. I don't think it speaks super well of the man that he only started saying nice things about this place when it was clear that it was the only country where he might be even remotely welcome, but that he'd --oops -- gone and told his compatriots where they could shove their economy-class passport. I'm inclined to the view that the measure of a man is not how he acts when he needs the goodwill of others, but when he does not. 

But Jon Kay, Black's editor at the National Post, has argued that Conrad Black is a genuinely changed man, that prison has given him an empathy for the unjustly accused and for his fellow man that he never had before. How sincere is any of this? I honestly don't know, but I'm willing to take Jon's word for it. People can change. 

Not that it matters, since it isn't up to me. Conrad Black is coming home, and on the whole I think Canada will be the better for it. He invested more in journalism in this country when he owned the Southam chain than anyone has done since, and it has been my great privilege to work for and with journalists, editors, and publishers whose careers he made happen, directly and indirectly. Plus he's loads of fun and endlessly entertaining. 

The only remaining question then is, where shall he live?

The assumption is that he'll go back to his pad in Toronto's ritzy Bridle Path. But I think it would be a mistake for him to go back to living, as he did for so long, amongst the elite and the out of touch. It would be a shame for him to lose contact with the common man for whose travails he has discovered such awareness and compassion. 

Besides, isn't wanting to live amongst the high-powered and the high-priced precisely what got him into such trouble in the first place? His troubles with the law were in many ways a direct consequence of his enthusiasm for social climbing, in particular of his desire to be a peer (and later, Peer) of the crowd that Paul Fussell calls the "Top Out of Sight" class -- the billionaires and multi-millionaires who are so wealthy they can afford exclusive levels of privacy. You never see them, and they never see you. 

Instead of aping the English upper crust, Black might have taken his lead from his fellow rich guy Richard Branson, who turned his whole personality into a global brand. But Lord Black isn't an exuberant adventure-seeker like Sir Richard. So even better, he might have picked up the gauntlet tossed down by seriously rich guys Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, and devoted his considerable genius and energies to charitable one-upmanship.

But Conrad Black never had remotely enough money to play in these leagues. Now he has even less, which is probably a blessing. What he really needs to do is jump into a pond where he can keep in touch with people who have no money and no real life prospects, while engaging his particular talent for status-seeking. That is, he needs to become a hipster. 

Black is never going to look good in skinny jeans and a v-neck 70s t-shirt, but the spirit of Orson Wells that permeates Conrad's character could be leveraged into a mid-century Mad Men sort of cool that would be perfect for Montreal's Plateau. Better, given his Victorian-era vocabulary and a few tweaks to his wardrobe and Black could reinvent himself as a steampunk entrepreneur, selling carboys of science experiments out of a food truck in Ottawa's Hintonburg.  But given how easily he managed to adopt the one-pantleg-rolled look of the prison yard, maybe his best bet would be to move into Toronto's gentrifying, but still ethnically complicated and economically downtrodden, Regent Park neighbourhood. 

It doesn't really matter where he chooses to live, and with whom, as long as it isn't amongst the old tribe with its old values, the ones that got him into such trouble. Conrad Black has his country back: now all he needs is a people to keep him grounded. 

 

Thursday
Apr262012

Copenhagen Graffiti

Copenhagen is one of the most quietly beautiful cities I've ever seen. It's one of those European capitals that as a North American, you walk around in and spend most of your time wondering "how did we get it so wrong." A lot of its elegance comes from the uniformity of building height across the city, and the similarity of the architecture. (Compare that with a city like Toronto or Ottawa, where a given street will have three-storey Victorians abutting 8 storey offices sandwiched between a fifteen storey highrise and a two-storey grocery store.)

But there is one thing about Copenhagen that I found a bit jarring: It is easily the most aggressively graffiti'd city I've spent any significant time in. Virtually every building, facade, transit station, park bench, or pillar has been tagged, bombed, or stenciled, including the storefronts in the more chi-chi part of town. This isn't necessarily a problem: 'm a big fan of street art, and a some of the bigger pieces help underscore a neighbourhood's identity, like so:

And so it was into this seemingly welcoming environment that Shepard Fairey arrived last August for the opening of an exhibition of his work at a Copenhagen gallery. While in town, he swung by one of the most notorious vacant lots in the city -- Jagtvej 69, the site of a lefty squat at in the wonderfully multicultural Nørrebro district that was demolished by the city in 2007. Since then, the lot has become a sort of martyr of negative architecture, a sign of The Man's ongoing persecution of the counterculture. Here is the building right next door to the old squat:

On the side of a building facing the vacant site from the east (above), Fairey painted a mural that showed a dove in flight above the word "peace" and the number 69. The locals didn't seem to like the mural or its message. After the mural went up it was immediately defaced with "NO PEACE!" and "Go home Yankee hipster". A few days later, Fairey was beaten up outside a nightclub in Copenhagen's rather douchey meatpacking district (very similar look and feel to New York's) by someone who called him "Obama illuminati" and ordered him to "go back to America".

It really is an appalling work -- the street-art equivalent to John Lennon's ode to empty-headed peace-mongering, "Imagine". Fairey tried to make it better by trying to tidy up the work and make it cooler by adding a black helicopter to the bottom, but that only seemed to make the locals angrier. The thing continues to get vandalized, to the point where the bottom twenty feet are a riot of paint-bombed resentment. Here's how it looked when I was there last month:

The saddest part is that there is already plenty of excellent indigenous art on the buildings surrounding the vacant lot:

As a result, it isn't clear how Fairey thought he was helping, or what he thought he was adding. If anything, it looks like he was trying to keep his cred by piggybacking on the authentic anti-establishment politics of the Jagtvej 69 diehards.

But then again, it isn't clear just how authentic those politics ever were. A few doors down from the commune there was a McDonald's that used to get vandalised every night by anti-corporate lefty types. But someone was patronizing the joint, and it is significant that shortly after the building at Jagtvej 69 was knocked down, the McDonald's went out of business. There's a crappy little bakery there now.

Wednesday
Apr252012

"Then kablooie, they changed": How Coke lost its authenticity

Pop quiz: When did Coca-Cola stop being authentic? 

Never, you might answer. After all, as the company's own promotional material puts it,  Authentic Americana -- with all of the "happiness and uplift" that implies -- has been the core of the Coca-Cola brand ever since the first Coke was served at Jacob's pharmacy in Atlanta 126 years ago.

If you're a bit savvier, you might suppose that the day Coke stopped being authentic was the day it announced the introduction of New Coke. As it turns out, that was 17 years ago yestersday, and the CBC has posted the news story Ann Medina did a the time. 

View the CBC story here. 

It's hard to imagine now what a big deal the story was at the time, partly because it is hard to think of a contemporary parallel. Soft drinks, groceries, and other consumer-goods markets tend toward healthy competitive duopolies, while the inevitable network effects in the the tech and software industry tend to lead to successor monopolies. And it is hard to think of a contemporary product that has the myth and mystique of Coke's secret formula. (Any ideas? Send me an email).

Anyway, few new product launches have gone as badly. As this article from Fortune shows, a month after the launch of New Coke, Coca-Cola executives were still confident they had made the right decision. 

Yet Pepsi knew that something fundamental had happened: it gave its employees the day off to celebrate what it saw as Coke's gaffe. As Pepsico's Roger Enrico put it: "These two products, Pepsi and Coke, have been going at it eyeball-to-eyeball. And in my view the other just blinked." Reinforcing success, Pepsi quickly came out with a devastating ad showing a young woman wondering why Coke had abandoned her. The ad was famously written in about thirty seconds and shot in one take, and starred the actress Kim Richards (who would go on to star in Meatballs II). 

When I was in Denmark last month, I spent a day at the University of Southern Denmark at Odense in a workshop on authenticity and marketing. Over the course of the day, Soren Askegaard, a professor of marketing at the school, asked the question I posed at the very top. Most of us answered that Coke lost its authenticity when it brought in New Coke. 

But as Soren pointed out, it wasn't the changing of the formula that undermined the authenticity of Coke's brand. After all, the product's formula, however secretive, had undergone plenty of changes over the years. No, the really bad move from a branding point of view was when they introduced a new product, a variant of the original, called "Coca-Cola Classic," on July 10, 1985.

Why is this signficant? Because that is the moment when Coca-Cola became a copy of itself. It was no longer Coca-Cola, it was "Coca-Cola" or -- just as bad -- "Coke Classic". Just as no true VIP ever goes into the "VIP Room" at a bar, nothing that calls itself  "genuine", "famous" or "classic" is genuine, famous, or classic. 

On July 10 1985, Coke ceased to be a living brand, evolving organically with the changing tastes and attitudes of America. With Coke Classic the brand was put in a museum, where it remains a simulacrum of the powerful brand it once was. 

For those who are interested, here is a video of a conversation I had with Soren Askegaard the morning of our seminar:

 

 

 

Wednesday
Apr252012

Journalists who fell in the line of duty

In parliament yesterday, Canadian senator Joan Fraser rose "to bear witness to the more than 50 journalists and media workers who died in 2011 because they were journalists." She then made a short statement, and read out the names of media workers who fell in the line of duty. It is a depressingly long list. 


Nearly half of the journalists were murdered outright. Others were killed in crossfire or combat, as they were doing their jobs. Others were killed on dangerous assignments of one sort or another covering demonstrations, riots, mobs and racial clashes.

They were: in Afghanistan, Ahmad Omaid Khpalwak and Farhad Taqaddosi; in Azerbaijan, Rafiq Tagi; in Bahrain, Zakariya Rashid Hassan al-Ashiri and Karim Fakhrawi; in Brazil, Edinaldo Filgueira, Luciano Leitão Pedrosa and Gelson Domingos da Silva; in the Dominican Republic, José Agustín Silvestre de los Santos; in Egypt, Ahmad Mohamed Mahmoud and Wael Mikhael; in Iraq, Muammar Khadir Abdelwahad, Sabah al-Bazi, Alwan al-Ghorabi, Hadi al-Mahdi and Mohamed al-Hamdani; in Ivory Coast, Sylvain Gagnetau Lago and Marcel Legré; in Libya, Ali Hassan al-Jaber, Mohammed al-Nabbous, Anton Hammerl, Tim Hetherington, Chris Hondros and Mohammed Shaglouf; in Mexico, Luis Emanuel Ruiz Carrillo, Maria Elizabeth Macías Castro, Noel López Olguín and Rodolfo Ochoa Moreno; in Nigeria, Zakariya Isa; in Pakistan: Nasrullah Khan Afridi, Wali Khan Babar, Asfandyar Khan, Shafiullah Khan, Javed Naseer Rind, Faisal Qureshi and Saleem Shahzad; in Panama, Darío Fernández Jaén; in Peru, Pedro Alfonso Flores Silva; in the Philippines, Romeo Olea and Gerardo Ortega; in Russia, Gadzhimurad Kamalov; in Somalia, Abdisalan Sheikh Hassan, Noramfaizul Mohd and Farah Hassan Sahal; in Syria, Ferzat Jarban and Basil al-Sayed; in Thailand, Phamon Phonphanit; in Tunisia, Lucas Mebrouk Dolega; and in Yemen, Jamal al-Sharaabi, Hassan al-Wadhaf and Fuad al-Shamri.

Every one of them died in the service of bringing the truth to the rest of us. They died, in the most profound sense, for us. This is our small way to bear witness to their sacrifice.

Fraser is the former editor-in-chief of the Montreal Gazette. 

 

Tuesday
Apr242012

Getting to Denmark

(Copenhagen Airport)

Is there any country that punches further above its weight class than Denmark? It is a small country in both size (43000 square km, smaller than Nova Scotia) and population, with just over 5 million people. But from Hamlet to Hans Christian Andersen, from Niels Bohr to Bjorn Lomborg, from Kierkegaard to Lars Von Trier, Danes both real and imagined have had a hugely disproportionate influence on global culture, science, and politics. 

(I reviewed Fukuyama's book for The Progagandist)

It is perhaps no surprise then to discover that Danes are supremely happy. By a recent measure, they are the happiest people in the world, out-happying the rest of Scandinavia and the entire Anglosphere. What is interesting about Danish happiness is that the result is based on the measure pioneered by the Kingdom of Bhutan, with its metric of "Gross National Happiness". Yet while Bhutan has always used GNH as a political tool to show that wealth is an obstacle to happiness, in Denmark wealth is one of its very sources. That is, while the Bhutanese are looking for happiness by turning their backs on the modern world, Denmark's path to happiness is profoundly and enthusiastically modern. 

That shouldn't be too controversial: Look at the list of the top ten happiest countries, and compare with the bottom ten. The most obvious differentiator is wealth. But not just any sort of wealth, but wealth leavened by high level of trust, a strong welfare state, high employment, substantial gender equality, low levels of corruption, and a high degree of social integration.

This is Denmark. 

I recently spent a week or so in this peaceable kingdom, mostly in Copenhagen with a side-trip to Odense. I originally went at the invitation of Professor Per Østergaard of the Institute for Marketing and Management at the University of Southern Denmark. I also met some journalists and various young thinkers, including David Turner and Markus Bernsen. Both are on staff at Weekendavisen, a weekly broadsheet that seems pitched at the the same sort of audience as The Economist.  I also got to hang out with a gang associated with the think tank CEPOS, including the author/anthropologist  Dennis Nørmark, the sociologist Ulla Holm, and a handful of other academics, journalists, and public sector workers, all of whom were extraordinarily generous with their time, ideas, and booze budgets. 

The trip was remarkable in a million ways. A constitutional monarchy, Denmark has a lot in common with Canada -- notwithstanding the enormous differences in geography and demography. In many ways, Denmark is Canada's idealised version of itself. In the face of rising levels of immigration, Denmark is struggling with existential questions of national identity, something that Canadians have become extremely good at. 

The nature of Danish masculinity is also in play. A surprising number of youngish men and women I met freely admitted that Danish men were emasculated and that Danish women were authoritative and independent. But as with so many issues that arose over the course of conversation, the answer was a laughingly self-deprecating "at least we aren't as bad as the Swedes!". And in that, they are probably right. 

The crisis of Danish masculinity (if it indeed exists, and is not just an artifact of the phenomenon known as Traveler's Insight) is reflected in the broader national angst over their participation in the war in Afghanistan. Fighting alongside the Brits in Helmand, the Danes have suffered the highest death rates of any allied country.  It is also providing one of the highest per capita contributions the war -- 750 troops, compared to Canada's 3000. 

Like Canadians, Danes had grown accustomed to thinking of themselves as a nation of peacekeepers, and the shock of finding themselves killing and being killed in a shooting war in Asia was profound. To get a sense of this, watch the movie Armadillo, a Restrepo-style documentary  that shows the soldiers doing the usual things -- goofing off on base, handing out candy to Afghan children, and messing around in LAVs trying to avoid IEDs. But one extended episode, that involved  Danish soldiers pulling Taliban bodies  from a ditch and stripping them of their weapons, caused a huge fuss back home. There was talk of charging the soldiers with war crimes, though they were cleared after an investigation. 

I don't want to make too much of the similarities between Canada and Denmark. They are there for sure, but Denmark is interesting enough in its own right. In the next few posts on this blog, I'll try to do justice to one of the more intellectually and personally rewarding trips I've ever taken.