Toronto Mayoral Debate 04/09/14

Toronto Region Board of Trade and The Globe And Mail newspaper sponsored the latest Toronto mayoral candidate debate yesterday. I watched it live on-line.

A bit of context for Canadians not living  in Toronto and those outside Canada:  many of you know of our city in recent years primarily because of Mayor Rob Ford.  His misadventures are well chronicled elsewhere. For immediate purposes know this.  Ford, whose political career would have ended in disgrace months ago in many jurisdictions, remains mayor of Toronto albeit with curtailed powers. He is also a viable candidate for re-election.

As for yesterday’s debate:

John Tory, an experienced broadcaster-business person-politician, did well. It’s as if he’s suddenly on political steroids. Good to see him being energetic and (amazingly) funny.

Lamentably, Ford did well (again.) He has the corporate, right-wing populist thing down to a T-dot. He’s overtly ant-intellectual, aggressive and refers to himself in the 3rd person like a professional athlete. His approach will continue to work with significant numbers of the disaffected and angry. The good news is that he did not flat out win this debate as he had done previously (very evident to those who watched.)

Olivia Chow who gave up a seat in the Canadian parliament to seek election as mayor seems about to make herself an also ran. She thinks being nice will make her mayor. Odd because her late husband Jack Layton, NDP leader and briefly federal opposition leader before his untimely death in 2011, was, among many other things, a tough, but usually fair and rational, political street fighter of the first water. Like Layton, Chow had a previous  career in Toronto municipal politics, the milieu where the couple met and first worked together.

Entrepreneur and former city councillor David Soknacki is smart and well informed but irrelevant.  Someone should tell him acronyms are meaningless to most people.

So…unless Chow throws her support to Tory in the next few weeks, it could shape up to a tight two person race. Team Ford clearly wants and expects a duel with Tory. Who better to slander with their ‘elitist’ tag?

 A poll from earlier this week showing Tory with a substantial lead is one of a kind. If that’s a trend, good. However, most polls that I have seen show Tory leading Ford by 3-5 points – that’s almost a statistical tie.

Scariest ‘take away’ from yesterday’s debate: addiction, homophobia, serial lying and misogyny are not at issue. Only in fordlandia.

It says here Ford can still win because he can out campaign and out bully Tory from here to the finish line.

Welcome to the Super Bowl - Richard Sherman

“I don’t hate it enough not to love it.” So said a wag about professional football earlier in the 2013-2014 National Football League (NFL) season. The remark followed a barrage of stories about concussions and the news broke of murder charges against one time New England Patriots’ tight end Aaron Hernandez. The statement well expresses the love/hate relationship the thinking NFL fan (such as this writer) has with the sport. It features many of the world’s greatest athletes in a brilliantly marketed display of imponderable skill and sometimes frightening violence. On the field and off its young stars often behave as rich, absurdly privileged athletes who put their health at stake for their livelihood are wont to do. It’s not always pretty.

The incidence of concussions and the severity of other injuries underscores a fundamental truth about the NFL: if you play, you will get hurt.  Those of us who watch the NFL regularly live with an uneasy contradiction. We enjoy a brutal game which can inflict permanent physical and mental damage on its participants.

The NFL is far and away America’s most popular professional sport. Major League Baseball still lays claim to the moniker of being “America’s pastime,” but audiences for the NFL swamp that of both Major League Baseball (MLB) and the National Basketball Association (NBA). In the United States, the National Hockey League (NHL) and Major League Soccer (MLS) are sideshows in comparison.

On the eve of Super Bowl week, one name has cut through all the noise and chatter about the NFL for football fan and non-football fan alike: Richard Sherman.

A week ago, Sherman made an extraordinarily athletic and exquisitely timed deflection to break up what would have been a last gasp, game-winning pass from the San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick to his receiver Michael Crabtree. Watching that play in slow motion is like watching the athlete as Nureyev. With the game on the line, Sherman elevated himself far off the ground while running at full speed and artfully raised one hand to deflect the ball away from Crabtree and into the hands of Sherman’s teammate for a game winning interception. Sherman made a breathtakingly superb play. But the real drama was yet to come. Sherman, to use the vernacular, proceeded to go off on prime time TV. First he made a choke sign with his hands around his neck while glowering at Kaepernick the San Francisco star who had just been victimized – not by his own bad play, but by a superior one from Sherman. Sherman then visibly taunted a disconsolate Crabtree slapping him on the bum and screaming into the ear hole of his helmet. In return, Sherman received a poke in the face-mask from Crabtree. Sherman was penalized for his taunt, but with 22 seconds remaining on the clock, all his Seattle Seahawks needed to do was run out the clock to victory and a berth in the Super Bowl.

Things took a bizarre turn when the game ended. FOX television had angled to interview Sherman live on the field before the players returned to their dressing rooms. The play-by-play announcers introduced broadcaster Erin Andrews standing by in a mêlée of players, team officials and camera people with a dreadlocked, helmetless Sherman for his instant post-game comments. Instead of humbly thanking the lord and his teammates in the well rehearsed and terminally boring patter practised by many professional athletes, Sherman bellowed that he was the best defender in the NFL, that the 49ers were stupid to challenge him and that Crabtree was a chump who got what he deserved. A visibly shaken Ms. Andrews stepped back from the voluble Mr. Sherman and gave the spotlight back to the lads upstairs. It was extraordinary unscripted television. For what it’s worth, Sherman is African American. Ms. Andrews is Caucasian and considerably smaller. In their brief interview, Sherman appeared almost deranged, extremely angry, arrogant and, frankly, more than a little frightening. His appearance immediately sparked a firestorm in the Twittersphere and about 72 hours of blanket coverage in sports and news coverage across the United States, Canada and beyond.

Hours later Sherman penned “For Those Who Think I’m A Thug or Worse…” an article for, the hugely popular Sports Illustrated website. Sherman has been an occasional contributor throughout the season. A calm, reflective Sherman explained his actions as part of the heat of the game, “To those who would call me a thug or worse because I show passion on a football field—don’t judge a person’s character by what they do between the lines. Judge a man by what he does off the field, what he does for his community, what he does for his family.” The next day, Sherman held court in a press conference. He was rational, articulate and basically non-contrite. In contrast to his outburst with the unfortunate Andrews, Sherman exhibited some warmth and considerable intelligence. In sum, this is one complex and often extremely media savvy dude. I suspect he will have the charm offensive in full gear on media day prior to the Super Bowl.

I say thanks to Richard Sherman. He gave us a pull-back-the-curtains-on-the-Wizard glimpse into the NFL. It’s a tough game played by very tough men. However distasteful his triumphal, adrenaline stoked, macho outburst to Andrews was, it’s refreshing that he did not merely fall on his sword afterward in a pathetic, well-rehearsed apology. Sherman said in effect, ‘it’s all part of the game, man – play on!’ By accounts of those who work with him, including Peter King, Sherman’s editor at and a justifiably respected dean of football writers, Sherman actually is an exceptionally bright young man who happens to be a great football player.

Off the field, management of NFL teams, the players themselves and television networks generally manage to present an image of fine young men that’s often at odds with the realities of a brutal, extravagantly financed game. Not all its athletes are stellar citizens. Imagine that. Whatever Sherman’s crimes are, surely they pale in comparison to other events surrounding the NFL this season. The aforementioned Hernandez stands accused of murder. Days prior to the Seahawks’ victory over the 49ers, former star defensive back and broadcaster Darren Sharper was arrested in Los Angeles on suspicion of rape. Reports state that New Orleans police are also investigating Sharper for sexual assault.

Oliver Stone’s feature film Any Given Sunday as well as the feature and seriesFriday Night Lights from producer/director Peter Berg illuminate the realities of football as an essential aspect of deep America from dusty high school fields in Texas to the professional gridiron. In his recent outburst Richard Sherman gave us a strong dose of the raw reality behind the usual NFL marketing and spin.

- This article was originally published by The Journal of Wild Culture. -

Best of 2013

Presenting a somewhat random and certainly subjective list of stuff that moved and impressed me most in the past year:

Best rock ‘n roll moment – Patti Smith spits on the Massey Hall stage, Toronto

Best concert – Brian Wilson + Jeff Beck, Sony Centre, Toronto

Runner up – The Master Musicians of Jajouka, Villa Medici, Roma

Best performance – Wilco + Feist + Richard Thompson doing Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne”, Molson Ampitheatre, Toronto

Best fiction films – Blue Jasmine; Gravity; Philomena; Prisoners; Unforgiven (Japanese version)

Best actors – Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis); Jake Gyllenhaal (Prisoners); Ken Watanabe (Unforgiven)

Best actresses – Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine); Judy Dench (Philomena), Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle)

Best nonfiction film – El Alcalde

Best Canadian Journalism – The Toronto Star for its coverage of Rob Ford

Best Canadian social sciences peer reviewed article – Ian Mosby,“Administering Colonial Science: Nutrition Research and Human Biomedical Experimentation in Aboriginal Communities and Residential Schools, 1942–1952″ Histoire sociale/Social history, Volume 46, Number 91, Mai-May 2013

Happy New Year and best wishes for 2014!

Thinking of Rob Ford

As Rob Ford careers along his disastrous course, people the world over ask themselves, ‘What the heck is going on in Toronto?’ How could a city touted as a global model of good sense, safe streets and multiculturalism elect an unsavory buffoon like Ford as mayor? As a citizen of Toronto for most of my life, I shall attempt to respond.

First an etymological note: a few days after the events of November 18th, by which time Ford’s powers and budget had been seriously contained by city council, I dare say the coast is clearing somewhat. BRAVO, city council! Consequently, I have personally chosen to restore to the city its proper name , Toronto. ‘otnorot’ – which I’ve employed for the last year or so as the Ford catastrophe gathered momentum was chosen to suggest the backward state of our politics. I hereby set it aside. Hopefully, for good.

A wee summary of events for international readers. Ford, a long-serving city councilperson, was elected mayor in 2010. He replaced the outgoing mayor by campaigning on a tax cutting, pro-automobile campaign. His rule has been controversial all the while due to his strong views and belligerence. He withstood a conflict of interest civil suit. In May 2013, a video was shown to some members of the media that seemed to show Ford smoking crack cocaine. He denied the allegation. In recent weeks, Toronto police acknowledged the video’s existence and revealed they had been investigating Ford’s ties to criminals. Within days, Ford admitted to smoking the crack and drunk driving. He instantly became an international news phenomenon. He refuses to resign, but Toronto city council has severely limited his authority.

The gong show that provided fodder to comics and, found its way to international newscasts and late night American talk shows has abated for now. However, the positive developments of the past week do not mean that Ford is gone. I’m somewhat disturbed that the mayor’s antics provided comic relief. There’s nothing funny about Ford’s record on public transportation and affordable housing. The fact appears to be that his core supporters are sticking with him even though city council, including the majority of his principal allies, have deserted him. He adamantly refuses to step aside, even temporarily. It would appear that unless he is charged with a criminal offence or his health fails, he will be running for re-election in October 2014. More disturbingly, polls released in recent days suggest that he retains significant popular approval. Huh? Yes, you read correctly. Rob Ford, now exposed as a serial liar, having admitted to smoking crack cocaine and driving a car under the influence of alcohol while in office, retains an approval rating of just over 40 per cent.

How do we make sense of this? Jerôme Lussier with l’actualité, a French language Canadian magazine, has argued that Ford presents a particular sort of political attraction. ( Rather than offering voters a vision of something bigger and better than themselves, Ford’s very appeal is based in his loutish, inarticulate, ill-disciplined, taunting, uncivil manner. His political essence perhaps encourages voters to subconsciously feel that their own weaknesses and their own anger at shadowy elites are OK. His banality appeals.

Ford taps a resentment of elites even though he personally is privileged. People don’t want to believe that strong man politics works, but obviously it can. In his bumptious way, Ford exhibits some of the bullying, resilient characteristics of right-wing populism that produces a Berlusconi or even Mussolini during his rise to power. Such politicians can muster enormous support and devotion among their followers. Ford is a Toronto mutation of the theme. In his 2010 campaign, Ford made false claims about the level of immigration in Toronto. He was caught in lies about previous problems with alcohol and marijuana and about a public confrontation at a professional hockey game. He won the election.

The mystery of his appeal may also lie in some other unpleasant truths about Toronto. Ford reflects powerful sentiments of anti-environmentalism. While teaching at the University of Toronto, the great cultural theorist and scholar Northrop Frye wrote about ‘a garrison mentality’ at work in the collective Canadian psyche. I suspect that the impulse remains operational in Toronto and can provide for political success. In that 2010 election, Ford campaigned overtly against the expansion of effective public transportation and improving conditions for bicyclists.

In fact, Ford’s overt campaign against above-ground public transportation is one reason for the support he continues to enjoy. Toronto is a city of car addicts. The use of public transportation is a marker of class distinction in a way it no longer is in London, Paris or New York. Even avowed environmentalists routinely use cars in the downtown area. Ford and his ilk stoke the perception that public transportation is for the poor. The message is simple: if you’re a winner, you drive a fossil fuel burning car. In this respect, Ford’s signature shiny black Cadillac Escalade sports utility vehicle means he’s not so much an exception as an exemplar of deeply held civic mores and economic ambitions.

Unlike Copenhagen or Montréal, Toronto is distinctly unfriendly to the bicyclist despite enjoying favourable weather for about eight months of the year. There is precisely one street in the downtown core with a safe dedicated bike lane. Like the solitary wind turbine just west of downtown, that lonely bike lane bears testimony to a city where environmentalism is often more marketing tool and political rhetoric than a lived experience. In that light, it’s not surprising that Rob Ford found fertile ground for his mayoral ambitions.

In addition to dismissing bicyclists as losers, Ford also made political hay in opposing a fully funded proposal for light rail transit (LRT) to Scarborough, an eastern suburb of Toronto, in favour of a subway. The plan that Ford quashed would have seen that LRT already under construction with a proposed completion date of 2015. The new subway plan that he championed will not be completed until at least 2023, at a much greater cost and requiring a municipal tax hike. Yet, Ford is lauded by himself and his supporters a champion of the taxpayer’s best interest. Tellingly, Ford did not act alone in this subway fiasco. Council helped him reverse earlier plans. The same Liberal provincial government that now has taken its distance from Ford over his personal misbehaviour cynically supported his subway plan in order to win a by-election in the area. In 2013 in Toronto politics, that kind of thinking that says that  ‘roads are for cars and trucks’ is a winning strategy – with or without Ford.

First time visitors to the city who are  flying in from abroad are often surprised to learn there is no rail link between the airport and the city. As they enter the downtown area via limousine or taxi along a crumbling elevated expressway, they will pass by, to these eyes,  a rapidly expanding, hideous array of steel and glass condos and office towers that crowd the shore of Lake Ontario cutting the lake from sight of average Toronto citizens. Such developments are precisely the visible signs of supposed economic progress that fuel the politics of a Rob Ford. Garrison mentality indeed.

There is much to like about Toronto. We enjoy relative multicultural harmony. The arts scene is exciting. Our streets are extraordinarily safe and peaceful by global standards. Unlike some American cities, Toronto has many fine, diverse neighbourhoods in the downtown area. This was true before Ford’s 2010 election and remains so. What has been lost due to Ford? Meaningful progress on public transportation has been severely curtailed. A tone of civility and intelligence has been tarnished as a bullying, antagonistic style of leadership found a path to political success.

There’s no question that Ford is weakened…at least for now. Even the governing federal Canadian Tories have cut bait. Employment Minister Jason Kenney, one of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s most trusted colleagues and an architect of the Conservatives’ successful wooing of voters in immigrant communities in the Toronto suburbs, asked Ford to resign. In his remarks en français, Kenney called the Ford situation “bordélique” which means extremely slovenly and inappropriate, but translates literally as ‘like a bordello’. A few days earlier, Harper had released a statement that called the Ford matter “troubling”.

Ford recently told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that he had experienced a ‘Jesus moment’ and that voters would be presented with a new man in time for his 2014 campaign for re-election. The potential redemption of Rob Ford will focus the challenge of the true meaning and real appeal of his politics. From my vantage point, the outcome is very uncertain.


This article was originally published in The Journal of Wild Culture


John Fahey documentary UPDATE Autumn 2013

Autumnal Greetings from Tamarack Productions World HQ!!!

Pleased to offer this wee update on the continuing progress of In Search of Blind Joe Death – The Saga of John Fahey

This evening the film screens for a fourth time in the past year in London, UK  at Goldsmiths, University of London. The film will be followed by live music and a discussion with a music journalist and anthropologist.

The film appears at WOMEX World Music Expo in Cardiff, Wales, Oct. 23-27.

The doc is slated for broadcast by BBC4 in December.

The USA theatrical release continues with upcoming screenings in California, Massachusetts, New Mexico and North Carolina. (We at World HQ are particularly excited about the Albuquerque screening – that city is also the title of our favourite Neil Young song!) Our John Fahey film is screened in tandem with Approximately Nels Cline, a  fine film about the guitarist Cline.

An Italian tour of the film begins in Rome on November 14 and Udine on December 13 with a Verona screening date TBA.

We will soon confirm dates for screenings in Pune, India. Stay tuned.

The film appears this month in Montevideo, Uruguay as it continues its journey with BAFICI Itinerante, a touring best of Festival from BAFICI 2013 (Buenos Aires Festival of Independent Cinema) where the film had its South American premiere in April.

Closer to home, the film will screen at Toronto Reel Indie Film Festival RiFF on October 19.

The DVD with extras including performances by Fahey, Chris Funk of The Decemberists, vinyl maven Joe Bussard and an extended interview segment with Pete Townshend will be available in mid-November.
Canada – VTape
USA – First Run Features
Other territories –  Tamarack Productions

We salute you!

Happy trails,
James Cullingham
In Search of Blind Joe Death – The Saga of John Fahey
Twitter @JohnFaheyfilm

John Fahey film opening in NYC 16/08/13

COME SEE OUR FILM IN NEW YORK CITY!!! “In Search of Blind Joe Death – The Saga of John Fahey” starts its American theatrical run at Cinema Village in Greenwich Village August 16-22. Our effort is twinned with a boffo film about guitarist Nels Cline.

If you’re in NYC, I hope to see you over the weekend of the 16th. If you’re not in those environs, please tell every living soul you know near NYC about it!!! If you’re aware of a potential USA booking, contact Paul Marchant Please “friend” the page on Facebook and Twitter away @JohnFaheyFilm Here’s the skinny on the USA release:


James Cullingham

director.producer,executive producer In Search of Blind Joe Death – The Saga of John Fahey

Tamarack Productions, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Planet Earth.

Top Docs

In recent days, I had occasion to see both “Surviving Progress” and “Force of Nature: The David Suzuki Movie.” Both films rail against unbridled development and warn of the possibility of ecological catastrophe.

“Progress…” is based on ideas in a book and series of lectures by Ronald Wright. It’s a BIG IDEAS film which is threaded neatly with stunning visuals and provocative commentary from Wright and the likes of Margaret Atwood and the aforementioned Suzuki, among other deep thinkers.

Suzuki will be well known to Canadian readers – he’s been the leading figure in Canadian environmental and scientific broadcast journalism for decades. The film sprouts evocatively from clips from a ‘legacy’ lecture Suzuki delivered as he reached his 70s and began to scale back his public life. Like “Progress…”, this film, superbly directed by Sturla Gunnarsson, also touches on  ideas about the folly of limitless growth and the arrogance of contemporary economics.

The Suzuki film is remarkable for its intelligence, intimacy and sensitivity in revealing private aspects of a very public man. The film follows the arc of Suzuki’s life from forced removals of Japanese Canadian citizens during World War II, to the legacy of the nuclear bomb at Hiroshima, the American civil rights movement and aboriginal protests in Canada.


The Pulitzer Goes To...

If you are interested in hockey, player safety and a lamentable silence in most Canadian journalism, rush to read The New York Times brilliant and disturbing series, “Punched Out: The Life and Death of a Hockey Enforcer”, about Derek Boogaard.

Writer John Branch and a team of  ‘New Media’ story tellers have spun a profound tale about the ill-fated, late NHL ‘enforcer’ Boogaard. Many Canadian sports journalists, and seemingly all broadcasting entities in the country, led lamentably by the  juvenile Hockey Night broadcasts on the publicly owned Canadian Broadcasting Corporation,  condone fighting in the NHL.  It’s past time to read a deep account of how one hockey player’s life was ruined by the absurdist, lethal culture of fighting in hockey.

Gaza/Israel, news and the digital conceit

A few observations about the deadly,  tragic fiasco off the coast of Gaza:

Collectively, we are dupes to assume that we are always empowered and privileged by access to information in the digital age. For more than 24 hours after the events of May 31, the state of Israel was largely able to commandeer the news agenda. Its Prime Minister stated that his commandos were attacked and justly defended themselves. There is still precious little information from the mouths of the activists who are being released from Israeli detention. Whatever happened…whoever was responsible for the deaths, the world remains largely unaware of what actually occurred. Israel is resisting calls for an independent international inquiry; it says it will look into the matter itself. It’s Wednesday, June 2.

Netanyahu’s Toronto speech on Sunday in which he proclaimed yet again that Israel is the ‘only democracy in the Middle East’ was also widely reported in backgrounds following the events at sea. The only democracy, you say? Well, Bibi, perhaps then the people of, at least, the West Bank, and not just the Israeli settlers who reside there, should be allowed to vote in Israeli elections. The lives of Palestinians in the West Bank have been controlled by the state of Israel and its military since 1967….43 years and counting. To the best of my understanding, Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel itself can vote and have significant legal rights, but most do not enjoy the same package of rights, services and responsibilities that Jewish citizens enjoy. Democracy? Just asking. I write from a country with an appointed chamber of Parliament and a non-elected representative of the British monarch with very real constitutional powers, so I know full well that democracy is a slippery notion, but I am troubled by Netanyahu’s assertion and the North American media’s generally easy acquiescence in it.

The raid on the high seas off Gaza underscores another geopolitical factor: The state of Israel has scant respect for the American administration of Barack Obama. Hillary Clinton may say that the siege of Gaza is “unsustainable and unacceptable”, but the Americans seem largely impotent or simply unwilling when it comes to doing something about it.

Turkey is a member of The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Turkey is a candidate to join the European Union. It would appear that the state of Israel under its current government has decided that it can pursue what it considers its “legitimate security concerns” with barely a nod to the international norms of the democratic club to which it claims membership.

Haiti - It's All About Us

CANADA RIDES TO THE RESCUE That was the headline on yesterday’sToronto Star.  This morning’s on-line edition features more front-page news about the efforts of Canadian rescue teams. Trust The Star to look for the Metro angle anywhere, all the time.

Readers in the Greater Toronto Area are not alone. Flipping the dial through the Am-nets for the last week, I see repeated images of various Clintons, Anderson Cooper, Katie Couric and other stars of American news/entertainment/politics.  I see, or hear precious little from the mouths of ordinary Haitians, let alone the surviving political, military or intellectual leadership of the country. The wise heads of English language television in many parts of North America clearly feel their audience is incapable of hearing lengthy translations from Creole or French. It’s classic, pervasive pandering that underestimates the intelligence and humanity of those audiences.

At home, we are besieged  for requests to help by non-governmental organizations of all kinds. Believe me I hope the world combined gives the Haitians all the assistance they need, but like some of the media content, I often find the tone of some appeals unsettling. Frankly, a lot of it would make Rudyard Kipling blush. It’s ‘the white man’s burden’ all over again; classic ‘underdeveloped world’ as home to permanent victims stuff. As some academic wag noted: there is nothing “post” in “post-colonial”.

I appeal to the media to continue covering the relief effort even when the news agenda is temporarily bushwhacked by items such as the Democrats’ own Massachusetts disaster. It’s wonderful that relief teams and soldiers from Canada, the United States and elsewhere are getting through, but please – they are not the centre of the story! The BBC is one of the few news organizations that seems committed to seeing the disaster and the recovery through the eyes of those who experienced it directly – the people of Haiti.

Finally in a domestic political aside: Team Harper is drawing deserved praise for its quick response. The early pictures of Steve alongside the understandably grieving Haitian born GG Michaelle Jean humanized him.  Next Monday’s quick international conference, held appropriately enough in Montreal, home to a 100,000 strong Haitian expatriate contingent, could reflect well on the Harper government and perhaps help it recover somewhat from his self-inflicted wound of that ill-advised early prorogation of Parliament.

A Bad Week for Barry

Scary stuff that xMAS day incident over Detroit Airport.  Equally unsettling for many was the unsteady response of the Obama administration. To begin with, Homeland Security Secretary Jane Napolitano bizarrely seemed to suggest that the incident showed the system worked!  I guess citizens wrestling with would be terrorists on commercial flights in mid-air was part of the plan all along. Then three days after the event, President Obama appeared sans cravate near his Hawaiian holiday getaway very, very calmly expressing his regret. The next day, still without a tie, Obama assumed Commander in Chief mode and angrily denounced the entire bungling homeland security apparatus.  It was a strangely disconnected performance undermined further by a loss of video transmission during its initial live broadcast. Obama seemed to be assigning blame without accepting responsibility.  Uh, Dude, these people work for you, right!?

Obama’s performance raised the hackles of the usual suspects, including former VP/pit bull Dick Cheney. No surpise there.  But some of the folk who’ve been largely admiring were almost as scathing.  Check out Maureen Dowd’s column, “As The Nation’s Pulse Races, Obama Can’t Seem to Find His” in NYT 29.12.09.  Dowd is not exactly of the Fox News tribe, but she’s deeply freaked by “Barry’s” under performance.

As 2009 comes to an end, the Obama honeymoon is most decidedly over. The current flap over national security may even jeopardize passage of his most prized domestic goal – health care reform – if his stewardship of the past week begins to gnaw on the minds of wavering congress members.B

The Marvels of Testosterone

The worst start in the history of the franchise. That would be ZERO wins in seven games to date. That’s what big Brian Burke’s injection of “pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence” has wrought for the pathetic Toronto Maple Leafs hockey club. Pugnacity, male hormones and idiotic fighting on skates aside, the ‘Loafs’ just plain bite. Their goalkeeping is sub-standard. They have no scorers. (Woe to them if the next promised saviour Phil Kessel turns out to be another Jason Blake.) They have a defenceman Tomas Kaberle who would star for most teams, but Burke and his coach Ron Wilson spent the best part of a year denigrating Kaberle for his sophisticated approach to the position. Kaberle now appears confused. Last year’s promising rookie Luke Schenn is this year’s dull-witted, slow-footed sophomore. Maybe the startlingly handsome Schenn’s modeling assignments during the off season wore him out.

It has been a rude awakening for The Loaf Nation. The collective boy crush that the ‘sports media’ of Toronto had on Burke during the pre-season led many to predict that the Leafs were playoff bound for the first time in five years. A Toronto daily even ran a feature with admiring photos of Burke  surrounded by the supposed worthies with whom he has filled the executive suites at the ACC. Perhaps that brain trust will produce a win before November.

I’d bet that the likes of Don Cherry is delighted that almost all Leaf games feature a contrived display of fisticuffs at some point. NHL management is no doubt quietly satisfied that such displays often lead the highlight package in what passes for sports broadcast journalism. (Gary Bettman is sufficiently cynical to know that selling fighting is in fact a critical part of marketing the NHL.)

Hey, let the testosterone flow! This hockey fan will eschew the Loafs and the absurdist,  fight-riddled NHL while looking forward to some real hockey when the women’s Olympic tourney begins in February.

Obama takes Kabul Pt.II

Wow. The straight press (see Page 1 The Globe and Mail 24.08.09) reports that Messiah Obama will be urged by his military commanders to send an additional 20,000 troops to Afghanistan. Listen up kids – that’s on top of the 21,000 grunts who have been sent to Afghanistan since Barack was inaugurated!

Imagine my surprise. I’ve been in journalism for more than 25 years. Never in my career have I witnessed a collective suspension of judgment to rival the euphoric, oceanic embrace the mass media bestowed on Obama in the 2008 Democratic leadership campaign and the subsequent non-contest against John McCain and Ms. Sarah Palin. All the while, Obama declared his intention to expand the war in Afghanistan – a policy TO THE RIGHT OF BUSH!

In 2008-9, I observed grown journalistic adults write laudatory poetry about Obama; another colleague, also a journalist, told me that he habitually drove around Toronto listening to a download of Obama’s inaugural address.

Predictably enough, in practice, Obama’s foreign policies are just more simple-minded American imperialism.  Don’t even get me started about the wall between the USofA and Mexico which Obama has not lifted a finger to arrest. In Afghanistan, Obama – like the British, like the Soviets – believes his will can be imposed on the people of Afghanistan. Democrats must prove they have cojones, so they expand wars. Forget the Camelot myth and look at what JFK actually did in Viet Nam!

I predict tough, tough sledding ahead. The same knee-jerk mainstream media that created Messiah Obama soon might turn on him, declaring Afghanistan a symbol of failed promise. In fact, he’s only being true to the convictions he campaigned on that the same media failed to challenge. Of course, that was because Barack was so cool…hell, supporting him was almost as hip, trendy and cool as being embedded in a Humvee racing towards the ‘liberation’ of Baghdad in 2003!

Reynolds + Gilder on Israel G&M 31.07.09

In The Toronto Globe And Mail of Friday, July 31 2009, the iconoclastic, neo-liberal Neil Reynolds wrote about a new book on Israel by George Gilder. Gilder is a contrarious analyst of trends in capitalism. His new book The Israel Test, according to Reynold, holds up Israel as a model of what can be achieved by a state dedicated to democracy, education and economic growth.

The notion that Messrs Reynolds and Gilder proffer Israel as a paragon of democracy and development troubles me. As I write, Israel continues to expropriate homes of Arab citizens of East Jerusalem. Such actions violate international laws. Similarly, despite the protestations of the Obama administration, Israel is strengthening the illegal foothold of its half million settlers in the West Bank. Israel is only a democracy in a severely mitigated way. One could argue that its bundle of democratic rights and responsibilities only belongs fully to its Jewish citizens.

I recognize that all ‘democratic’ countries have constraints. Canada, after all, has the embarrassment of an appointed Senate and suffers still the shame of the Victorian era apartheid regime constructed under the extant The Indian Act.

Israel’s exceptions to the fundamental tenets of liberal democracy are more salient. In an ample Israeli democracy. the state might have to acknowledge to the world that it has nuclear weapons. That state might then sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Finally in the ultimate test that Mr. Gilder and Mr. Reynolds would presumably vaunt, a true Israeli democracy would extend voting rights in Israeli elections to the more than 3 million Palestinian Arab citizens of the West Bank and Gaza whose lives have been controlled by Israel since 1967.


Michael Jackson - one month on

A great artist died on June 25, 2009. For many days afterward, we witnessed a media spectacle devoted to the life and work of Michael Jackson. Television, radio, the Internet, newspapers and magazines joined in an instant canonization. In Canada, the alleged weekly news magazineMaclean’s proffered an embarrassingly shallow instant ‘tribute’ edition. Overall, I found the sum of the coverage very alienating.

Some great artists die young. In popular music, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jerry Garcia, Elvis Presley and Kurt Cobain are among those that perished tragically young with drug related problems. Jackson’s life was also very troubled but uniquely so. He certainly had a terrible drug problem. More importantly, and what was under emphasized in the coverage that sang his praises as both a great artist and a great human, Jackson had extremely troubling relationships with children – he was quite possibly a pedophile. Yes, he was acquitted of a criminal charge. It is also true that he settled out of court with a significant payment to the family of a young boy who had been in his company. In an interview, he said that he enjoyed having children in his bed.

The general media silence about Jackson’s problem with children troubles me. There were a few worthy exceptions. On July 4, 2009, Bob Herbert, a columnist with the New York Times, wrote a column that featured a chilling portrait of the Jackson that he had met and some sombre thoughts about the cult of celebrity in America. As is often the case, the British magazineThe Economist in its July 2 edition outshone its print competitors with an eloquent, brief, crystalline obituary of Jackson.

In the days and weeks ahead, we will learn more details about Jackson’s autopsy. Some media reports suggest there may be manslaughter charges in the works. We will also learn the outcome of the current bidding war for rights to the video footage of Jackson rehearsals for the tour he was planning. It is safe to predict that the release of the finished production will be one of the television and/or cinematic  events of 2010. I wonder at what stage the media might engage in a responsible, thoughtful discussion and investigation into the true nature of Jackson’s relationships with children. That’s hard to do at a canonization.


The Lens shuts

Errgghhh. In a move that demonstrates a stunning incapacity to honour CBC’s putative role as public broadcaster, the geniuses at English Television have canceled The Lens. That strand, once known as Rough Cuts, was a prime showcase for emerging documentarists from all over Canada.

Before proceeding let me be clear about my bias: I belong to DOC (The Documentary Organization of Canada); and  I once produced a film forRough Cuts

I’m also a broadcast educator and journalist-filmmaker with a quarter century of experience. The sad fact is that the gang currently running CBC-TV are betraying a public trust.

The CBC would rather spend our tax money on drama that mimics the worst that Hollywood can offer, professional sports and the rights to Coronation Street. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a Corrie fan, but what on earth are the priorities of our CANADIAN national public broadcaster on television?

CBC Radio continues to provide some excellent programming. CBC-TV now consists largely of weak variants of American trends in both its fiction and non-fiction programming. I would hope that taxpayers would begin to have higher expectations of a service that was once a trend setter rather than a prime symptom of Canada’s colonial status.

Lawrence Martin sings Chretien's praises

In the Thursday July 16, 2009 edition of The Globe And Mail of Toronto, columnist Lawrence Martin expressed his admiration for former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien. This following the announcement that Chretien would be named to The Order of Merit by Queen Elizabeth. As such, Chretien would join the likes of Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa.
Martin weighs the pros and cons for including Chretien in such prestigious company. As  for demerits, he missed a few:
1. the White Paper on Indian Policy 1969. This outrage would have capped Canada’s assimilation project for First Nations. The Nisga’a decision of 1973 proved how wrong then Indian Affairs Minister Chretien and his Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau had been.
2. Chretien’s  constant shilling about business opportunities in an anti-democratic China. In his farewell address to a Liberal Party convention that selected the doomed Stephane Dion to replace him, Chretien chose to attack the ruling Conservatives for criticizing China about its human rights record. In a rare appearance in support of Dion in the 2008 federal election, Chretien weirdly chose to speak about – you guessed it- cozying up to China. Promoting China is actually part of Chretien’s job as a lawyer for Canadian businesses with interests there.

Like George W. Bush, Jean Chretien skillfully cultivated a ‘man of the people’(le p’tit’ gars de Shawinigan) persona. As a politician and in his new corporate life, Chretien has seldom been on the side of the little guy against the big shots as Martin argues.


Tom Friedman and the USA will save the world!

Thomas L. Friedman’s columns in The New York Times are thought-provoking. His concerns about the environment and social justice are laudable. However,  his analysis often suffers from an insistence of putting himself into every story and for an almost naive belief in America’s moral duty to lead the world.
Today’s column (Sun. NYT 19.07.09) on education in Afghanistan “Teacher, Can We Leave Now? No.” is noteworthy for its embrace of ‘soft’ imperialism (now backed by Obama’s big guns) and its transparent Orientalism. Having swooped into a remote village school by helicopter with a top American military commander,  Friedman describes a heroic effort to educate Afghani girls. Once again, that’s a laudable goal. What’s surprising is the  lack of context and scepticism in Friedman’s argument.

Friedman’s column and American policy in Afghanistan are part of an old story that usually ends in tears – the USA, Great Britain and other NATO countries (including Canada) probably face the same prospects for success in Afghhanistan as the British and Soviet empires did.

Valpy on Ignatieff – The Globe And Mail 18.04.09 April 20, 2009

I want to commend Michael Valpy and Toronto’s The Globe And Mail for a fine article about Canadian Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff. This major feature appeared in The Globe on Saturday, April 18, 2009. The analysis was thought provoking. The piece featured a terrific interview and the excerpt from the Ignatieff’s new book was most revealing.

I think ‘Iggy’ is largely “wrong, wrong, wrong” in his take on his Uncle George Grant’s famous book on Canadian nationalism Lament For A Nation, but it’s heartening to see an intellectual/politician taken seriously by a Canadian newspaper. In that, The Globe and Valpy committed a form of journalism that it seems newspapers still do best. Despite the joys of theblogosphere and Internet journalism of many kinds, I hope newspapers like The Globe continue to produce work of this calibre and nature. Journalism of this kind has simply disappeared from most North American television.

Perhaps Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper will be spurred into finishing his long promised tome on hockey. Then the next Canadian election campaign could be a battle between authors!