Max's Blog

How Pop Culture Leads and Misleads

Month: May, 2011

Life Goes On

You really have to wonder about someone who is disappointed that the world did not end on Saturday. Somebody like John Ramsey, a 25-year-old from New Jersey who, inspired by preacher Harold Camping’s incessant calls that the apocalypse was on its way, quit his job, re-arranged his life, gathered his extended family around him and waited for the rapture.

(He also donated a couple thousand dollars to Camping’s Family Radio network. If the end were indeed nigh, why did they need donations?)

As the Huffingtonpost reports, Ramsey’s family huddled in his apartment flipping news channels and checking for word of action movie-sized tsunamis on facebook. (Maybe they played some Farmville in the mean time). “They cried. They argued. But mostly, they waited. Nothing happened.” On Sunday, Ramsey said he now faces a “mixed bag”. His wife, who is nine months pregnant but was resigned to never give birth, now must prepare to go into labour, maybe this week.

“Life goes on,” Ramsey said. “I get to live. I get to be a dad.” You can almost hear the disappointed sigh.

I don’t want to be mean. There’s a lot of naive people out there, and by ‘naive’ I actually mean brain-dead-stupid-who-should-probably-not-be-allowed-to-drive. No culture, time period or religion has a monopoly on snake oil salesmen scamming the gullible masses.

But my question about the May 21st non-apocalypse is why did we all end up talking about it? Why did I make a joke on facebook, inviting friends to go see ‘Bridesmaids’ Saturday night if “we’re all still here”? Why was it a casual topic of conversation all dayat the cafe where I work, up there with the wonderful weather?

It’s unsettling that a fringe figure can preach thunderclaps and fireballs and not only gain a following but hog media attention. Could I just start raving tomorrow that a giant, purple hippopotamus was hurdling towards earth, set to destroy us all with his voluminous violet derriere, and get hash-tagged all over the twitter-verse? Camping even did this once already in 1994! But, spoiler alert, life went on, which was especially fortunate for the cast of ‘Friends’.

Isn’t it irresponsible to give publicity to someone ripping off the money of his very own followers? In defence of reporters, it’s not like there’s real news out there; no natural disasters; no historic uprisings in the Middle east; no sex scandals involving formerly-influential middle-aged politicians with too much testosterone.

Camping sheepishly stayed quiet at first, but he gave a press conference Sunday outside his home. “It has been a really tough weekend,” he said. (I thought my hangover from watching drag queens at Crews and Tangos was bad.) Some have noted that Camping’s employees appeared to have planned to go to work on Monday. There’s no implication that his radio company, which is worth about $120 million, will give any donations back.

Despite the Reformation, the Enlightenment and Revolutions both Industrial and Digital, we’re not that different from medieval peasants who were taken in by wandering, wailing doomsday ‘prophets’. The human race knows a million times more about math and science than we did then but many of us don’t know how to use it. Just as disturbing, we live in a time when we’re as saturated with media as they were in the Dark Ages with bubonic plague, but we lack the skills to analyze claims critically and rationally.

“It’s not [Camping’s] fault,” Ramsey said. “I read the Bible. The math added up. I don’t think anybody would do something like this and not mean it.

Scientists (remember them?) do think the world will end in a couple billion years when the Sun cools down, but unlike the child Woody Allen at the beginning of ‘Annie Hall’ (“He won’t do his homework!” “The universe’s expanding; what’s the point?”) I believe that our relationships with other people and human beings’ incredible capacity for love, friendship and empathy, makes life worth living. Rather than as some sort of consolation for not receiving the loving embrace of God after his ascent, Ramsey should see that the love for and from his newborn child is what will keep him going.

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If I Had A Hammer

As the youtube description says, “you can’t sing a protest song without a fabulous gown, a glamorous wig and matching heels”. I like it because it feels like the one side of the 1960’s (the earnest, political, and hippie-dippy side) is being taken over by the other (the kitsch world of American Bandstand and TV dinners). It’s good for a Sunday when you’re hung over and drinking banana smoothies your Mom made you frantically before work.

Happy Mother’s Day.

Max’s Big Gay Article

It’s finally here! The WORN Fashion Journal feature that I brainstormed on this here blog oh so long ago has arrived fresh from the presses (and boy, has it changed a lot since then!). If you like my writing in pixels, just wait until you see it on paper. I’m so thankful for everyone on the team who made it possible: Haley for helping me research; Gwen and Serah-Marie for their editing and commitment in making the piece everything it could be; Casie and Stephanie for fact-checking my many words; and the rest of the WORN team for copy-editing, proofing and believing in my ‘big gay article’.

The entire issue is looking pretty spectacular. It’s the best of the world of WORN: insightful, witty and quirkily pretty.

How can I pick up a copy, you might ask. The best way to behold the glory of Issue 12 and supporting the magazine is to come to our Fancy Pants launch party tonight at the Dovercourt House, starting at 8.00 (but going quite late). I shall be there and wearing something awesome. (It’s a surprise.) Or you can order it online or drop by in person to these fine stores.

Keep chasing that rainbow.

Keep Calm, Kawaii On

I am not a gigantic film buff, despite the fact that the ‘film’ tag on the right hand side of this page continues to swell, crowding out other important topics like ‘Sex and the City’ and ‘Sarah Palin’). I knew that Akira Kurosawa was an acclaimed and influential Japanese director. His name brought to mind images of grunting samurai. I was not prepared for the romantic whimsy of his early film ‘One Wonderful Sunday’.Young couple Yuzo (Isao Numasaki) and Masako (the charming Chieko Nakakita) meet outside a train station for their weekly date on their day off from work. They each only have a handful of yen but Masako is convinced that their empty pockets won’t stop them from having a good time.

But it’s 1947 in Japan: not only has their country lost WWII, survived the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and witnessed their emperor forced to admit his infallibility, but the Americans are still an occupying force, as evidenced by English signs in the background and Western songs floating through the film’s score.

Besides the mention that Yuzo was a soldier (and he’s not given any respect for that by his fellow citizens) these events are only hinted at. When the couple go to visit a model home (looking eerily similar to suburban tract housing which would spread across the world in the post-war period), Yuzo complains that the house never would have been so expensive “before”. The couple desperately need a place of their own, and are tempted by a horrible flat which the landlord warns looks out on the neighbouring factory’s toilets. To cheer themselves up, they get involved with a group of young boys playing (whatever else?) American baseball.

Despite the viewer being spared footage of any real destruction (the movie was filmed half on real streets and half on obvious sound stages) the sense of having survived a disaster permeates the film. Children without parents are a recurring theme, and even the adults, whether they be drunken black-marketers, corrupt landlords or sleezey ticket scalpers, appear just as lost and drift-less as the kids.

“Remember when we saw the cheery blossoms?” Masako asks at one point. “It’s almost spring time again.” “It’s much colder now…” Yuzo replies.

With her tireless effort to make Yuzo happy, Masako seems to be testing the Beatles’ assertion that all you need is love. Her incessant cheeriness never becomes annoying because when she lets the mask slip you see that behind the smile is worry and frustration. It also doesn’t hurt that Chieko Nakakita is, and I have to use this word, one of the cutest women in the world.

That word ‘cute’ has dominated Japanese visual arts since the 1970’s, but some of suggested that the origins of “kawaii” culture (“adorable, precious, lovable and innocent”) date back even further to the widespread despair of the post-WWII years. A once proud imperial country, humiliated and defeated, sought comfort in the hopeful innocence of childishness, replacing faith in the emperor with faith in Hello Kitty.

Masako carries around a little dog figurine in her purse and, after they’ve had a fight mid-movie, it’s Yuzo finding the toy in his apartment that causes him to miss her.
After having spent their last bit of money on an expensive pot of coffee, the couple are left with only their imaginations. In an abandoned lot they mentally design the cafe that they dream of opening, “with fair pricing” and “cobalt blue curtains.”(“Cobalt blue again?” Yuzo asks. “Just leave colours to me,” Masako shoots back.)Having missed a Chopin concert earlier in the day, the couple sneak into an empty amphitheatre and, with Chaplinesque whimsy, Yuzo begins to conduct the orchestra, telling Masako to imagine the music in her head. When he finds it difficult to go on, Masako begs him to continue. In desperation, she does something very few film characters ever do: she breaks the fourth wall. Tearfully, she begs the viewer to applaud for Yuzo, to encourage him, “for all the poor, young couples in the world!” I half-expected her, like Mary Martin in ‘Peter Pan’, to say “Clap if you believe in fairies!”

I wonder how many original theatre viewers actually started applauding. If you can get an audience to clap for a images on a screen that’s quite a testament to the film maker.

But just as interesting are the more subtle messages about carrying on through adiversity. When a dirt-covered orphan boy upsets them earlier in the film (“He’s not a child,” Yuzo tells Masako to comfort her. “In some ways, he’s older than us.”) Masako’s sunny exterior breaks down. She’s tired of trying to keep her fiance happy and tired of working so hard to make this Sunday ‘wonderful’. Then, having turned her back to Yuzo, she suddenly spins around and dries her eyes. “I’m fine now,” she says smiling. “What should we do next?”

The ability to cheer yourself up, to carry on no matter what has happened, is the timeless lesson of ‘One Wonderful Sunday’ and the one which is most relevant for a country yet again rebuilding after tragedy.

Ruth Ellen Brosseau for PM

It sounds like the plot of an Anna Faris comedy: a pretty, blond single mom returns from a discount trip to Las Vegas and discovers that she’s leading in the federal election race she supposedly didn’t have a chance in. Before she can even visit the riding, she’s swept into power along with a tidal wave of support for her party. Now she must quit her job as the co-manager of a pub, move to Ottawa and frantically learn enough French to communicate with her mostly-Francophone constituents.But that’s the way it happened for Ruth Ellen Brosseau, the 27-year-old who is set to represent the Quebec riding of Berthier-Maskinonge. Brosseau is one of the 57 rookie politicians the NDP elected in that province, which also includes four undergraduate students from McGill University and Canada’s youngest Member of Parliament ever, 19-year-old Pierre-Luc Dusseault.

I’m actually a little jealous, because I have a suspicion that if I had been in Quebec and thrown my hat into the ring, I could be on my way to sitting in the House of Commons.

How to explain the win of a candidate who famously left the campaign trail to fly to Nevada? It seems that Quebec voters didn’t just sour on the Bloc Quebecois; they broke up with them. And it was a nasty break up. They burned love letters. They threw clothes out the window. They reduced the party to four members, denied Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe a seat and elected a candidate who may not have even visited the riding.

Even though a recent poll found that Berthier-Maskinonge voters were aware of her shortcomings but wanted to support the NDP and Jack Layton regardless, there has been grumbles from the media that Brosseau and her young colleagues are too inexperienced and too green behind the ears to be trusted with federal office. (These are some of the same pundits who were spectacularly wrong when they said this election would be boring and nobody would care.)

The NDP, who’s chief priority for the next four years will be to look like a responsible, electable opposition to the Conservatives, does need to watch out for its new caucus members. As The Toronto Star wrote, “Hundreds of staffers must be hired to work in the Parliament Hill offices, hours of training must be scheduled for dealing with the media, playing by parliamentary rules and taxpayers’ money.” NDP spokesman Marc-Andre Viau hasn’t gotten much sleep in the last two days, fielding endless calls from reporters about the new New Democrats.

Brosseau has attracted a lot of the attention (someone has already created a joke Twitter account for her) and the fact that she has been hiding from the media has made it worse. She has not done a single interview, there’s only one photograph of her in circulation and, after collecting her newspaper clippings, I’ve discovered there’s even confusion about whether she has one kid or two.

But as NDP MP Libby Davies said on the CBC, there’s something disturbing about the idea that just because a candidate doesn’t fit the tradition idea of what a Member of Parliament looks like, they shouldn’t be elected or respected. Don’t we whine about how young people aren’t involved in politics and don’t vote? Don’t we turn them off when we patronize young members, already elected by their ridings?

Along with more young people, the upcoming parliament will have the greatest about of women and First Nations representatives ever. This is a very good thing. The next four years could be a transformative time in Canadian politics. As NDP MP Pat Martin said, “The nation’s problems through the eyes of young people are maybe not so insurmountable.”Then today the news broke that Brosseau’s nomination papers may not be all in order. Four people whose names are on her endorsement list claim to have never signed it, while allegations have been raised that other signers don’t live in the riding or didn’t know who they were endorsing. I should add that the effort to delegitimize Brosseau is being spear-headed by her defeated Liberal opponent. You need 100 signatures in order to run, and Brosseau collected 128. So yes, if it turns out there’s reasonably cause to discount 29 of those, even I will have to agree with a by-election.

But I hope that doesn’t happen. Brosseau has my best wishes. She may end up being an embarrassment to the party. She could also be its future. We now know that anything’s possible in Canadian politics.

The Conflicted New Democrat

It was the best of outcomes, it was the worst of outcomes. As the polls predicted, but no supporter could actually believe, the New Democrats doubled their last greatest seat count, decimated the Bloc Quebecois and, for the first time, became her Majesty’s Official Opposition.

But it came with a price: Stephen Harper got his long-sought-for majority, ensuring that he will be Prime Minister until I am thirty years old. The fact that he achieved this with only forty percent of the vote is further evidence that our first-passed-the-post electoral system fails the majority of voters.

But let’s start with the day of the election. After some soul-searching I had decided to pound the pavement for my local NDP candidate Andrew Cash. I had volunteered in campaign offices before (and, because my parents both worked for the party in the 1980’s and 1990’s, I was partially raised in them) but I had not gotten involved in an election since I was 19. Because I was never comfortable bothering people on the telephone or going door-to-door, despite the fact that I knew that those were still one of the surest ways to promote the candidate, I often ended up performing safe but uninspiring tasks, like photocopying and dropping leaflets.

This election I worried that if I didn’t get involved, if I was too afraid to be even a small part of the ‘orange tide’ I would regret it. Your values are only your values if you affirm them when it’s inconvenient. For me this meant waking up at 8.30 am, pinning on some vintage NDP buttons from my parents’ collection (don’t tell), and heading out in the rain to ‘pull the vote’: going door-to-door, reminding people who said they would support the candidate to go vote. If they say, as many do, that they plan on voting that afternoon or evening, you are to write it down and return later to make sure they do. You are to be, like a Jehovah’s Witness, friendly but persistent.

Luckily, my old friend Sarah Lewis was volunteering for the same campaign. Sarah is an incredibly sweet and unassuming young woman, and she feels just as uncomfortable knocking on doors and talking to strangers. But she is from a family that is even more invested in the party than mine (yes, she’s related to that Lewis) and volunteers in every election. Her commitment and ability to overcome her nerves was a powerful inspiration.

Even though she was given her own couple blocks (you are handed a map of streets along with a list of would-be supporters), she accompanied me on my first poll for moral support. She encouraged me to knock on doors even when I found reasons not to (“I don’t know, there’s no lights on… maybe no one’s home…”) and made me be the one to speak when people actually answered.

“You’re doing great!” she would said. “You’re a natural.” But my stomach still turned whenever I rang a doorbell, as if I expected people to yell and curse and reach for shotguns. Frankly, I have new-found respect for Jehovah’s Witnesses.

After two blocks, like a parent teaching a kid to ride a bike, Sarah began to let go. “Okay, Max, I’m going to go off to do my own poll now. I know you can do this. You’ll be fine!”

“Alright…” I said, shaky as a toddler on training wheels.

I needn’t be afraid as, it being the middle of the day, most people were not home. There was one beautiful old renovated house (the porch was painted deep purple) where a small note was taped to the door asking visitors to not wake the baby by ringing the bell. But by the time I was close enough to read it, the dog was barking and a young mother sleepily came to the door.

“I’m sorry!” I said. “I’m from the Andrew Cash campaign, just reminding you today is election day.”

“I know,” she said.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t see the note in time. I didn’t ring the bell. Did the little one wake up?”

“Yeah.”

“I’m sorry!”

“It’s okay. My husband and I will vote tonight. And we’re supporting Cash.”

“Okay. Thanks! Bye!”

Other than that, and a talkative older woman who said she had to support us because she knew someone (potentially her son) who played in a band with the candidate and NDP MP Charlie Angus, my day passed without incident.

I was losing steam in the early afternoon, so I went back to the buzzing campaign office to wait for Sarah to grab some lunch. There were so many volunteers, the organizers barely seemed to know what to do with them. It’s ironic that people are more encouraged to get involved in a campaign that’s doing well when it’s winning campaigns that least need the support. I was feeling tuckered out and worried that I wasn’t helping in a substantive way. Then Andrew Cash waltzed in and came right up to introduce himself.

“How’s it going out there?” he asked.

“Oh, it’s great. Good response. How’s it going out there for you?”

“It’s fantastic.” Then he added, with touching sincerity, “Thanks so much for being here today and helping out. It means a lot.” And with that, he was off and I was revived.

Political buttons are an interesting thing. Especially when you’re wearing a lot of them and looking somewhat official (ie. walking around with paper and a pencil) strangers see you differently, as though you’re in a uniform. You’re no longer just some guy on a street, but a representative whom they feel secure in talking to. After I passed an older black man on the sidewalk, he called out,

“So who’s going to win tonight?”

“In this riding? I think we are.”

“And who’s going to be Prime Minister?”

Not sure what my official line should be as a NDP scrutineer, I paused. “Well, I think Stephen Harper probably will.”

“Really?! The man’s a bully. It’s Mulroney all over again. When’s this country gonna learn? Why can’t Layton be Prime Minister, with the support of the Liberals?”

“Well, that may be one option going forward…”

“Yeah. Alright. Good luck!”

Watching the results that night was both exciting and tense. Exhilarating as the NDP seats rose dramatically, towering over the Liberals, but scary as the Tories’ inched towards the 155 seat mark which would give them a majority. My friend and I played a not-very-strict drinking game in which we’d take a sip for every NDP win, but take several for every Conservative one. Tipsiness ensued.

And Cash walloped Liberal Mario Silva.

My parents, who dedicated large parts of their adult lives to the New Democratic Party, never dreamt that we could become the Official Opposition. But their pride was dampened by Harper’s supposed mandate.

“Perhaps it had to be this way,” my Dad said.

To people who blame the NDP for splitting the left by stealing voters from the Liberals, I’m going to quote Ralph Nader when he was asked after the American election in 2000 if he felt bad for potentially spoiling Al Gore’s win. “No. He spoiled mine.”

So in conclusion, happy about NDP opposition but sad about Tory majority; happy about the decline of the Bloc but sad about decline of the Liberals (for the country’s sake, even if it benefits my party); sad about four years of PM Harper but happy that the new NDP caucus gets the same about of time to provide a local progressive counter-narrative. Trepidatious about the next parliament but hopeful for the future of Canada and our democratic ability to remake our country. It’s a privilege that daily headlines about dictators and murdered protesters reminds us we’re lucky to have.