Survivor: Fake TV

Well, Survivor II is in full swing now. In case you missed it, a group of individuals are placed in a primitive, uncivilized location and forced to fend for themselves for three months or so while relying strictly on their wits, skills, and courage– and the generosity of the camera crew– to survive. Once a week, they have a “tribal council” meeting and vote one member out of the club. The last remaining member wins $1 million.

The movie is called “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They” based on a novel by Horace McCoy (1935) and filmed by Sydney Pollack in 1969 (starring Gig Young, Bruce Dern, Bonnie Bedelia, Michael Sarrazin and Jane Fonda).

What? How can that be?

The movie is about a dance marathon. During The Great Depression, various organizations, including radio stations, would host these crazy dance marathons to attract an audience, and, I suppose, to distract people from their problems. Couples or individuals would sign up and dance and dance and dance, non-stop, until only one couple was left on the floor. That couple won some money. The prize was never really very big, but it was the depression. People were desperate.

Gig Young, in one of the great roles of American cinema, plays the MC of this particular dance. His performance is dazzling. He is a mixture of Dick Clark, Billy Graham, and Satan, cajoling the dancers onwards, promising them extravagant rewards and fame, ruthlessly weeding out the half-hearted, the weak, and the indifferent. When a beautiful young girl offers to have sex with him on the understanding that he will help her win, he smiles slightly, takes the sex, but delivers nothing. The girl mistakenly believed some kind of obligation would exist, when she knew full well that she had no power to compel it.

Some medical care is provided for the dancers, but they are generally brutalized, ruthlessly weeded out, and cruelly disposed of when they give up.

When it becomes clear that not enough dancers are falling fast enough, they hold “sprints”. The dancers race around in a big circle, and the last couple is eliminated. During one of these sprints, a sailor (Red Buttons) has a heart attack and dies. His girl continues dragging him along and over the finish line ahead of one other couple. As medical personnel attend to him, Gig Young orders the band to play to distract the crowd– the party goes on. And now a word from our sponsor.

The similarities between “They Shoot Horses Don’t They” and “Survivor” are uncanny. Except that Jeff Probst is to Gig Young what Dean Jones was to Laurence Olivier. But the message is the same. Survivor is about our system, our society, and what makes you a winner or loser in the general scheme of things by which most of us live. As such, it is a remarkably amoral scheme. There are no rewards for virtue, honesty, or integrity.

The scheme of Survivor is sold to us as a contest in which the most talented and strongest are the likely winners. But it soon became clear that the most talented and strongest were the first to be voted off the island, and the most devious and manipulative dominated the proceedings. It is a tribute to the endless resourcefulness of our culture that this state of affairs was readily absorbed and adapted. Richard Hatch, the cleverest and most cunning of the contestants, quickly became a celebrity.

It is interesting that, while selling us the program as a test of survivor skills (even the name…), the producers didn’t have the guts to stay with the original concept for very long. First of all, emergency medical help was always readily available. Secondly, food had to be flown into the island on a regular basis in order to keep the contestant’s alive. Thirdly, scenes were regularly staged or re-enacted to improve on camera angles.

But most importantly, contestants were routinely manipulated in order to provide more conflict– and better television.  Left to their own devices, they were quite likely to have cooperated, something that could only be allowed in the worst nightmares of the sponsors.

But the most important element of phoniness in the whole thing is the rather bizarre ritual of voting someone off the island at the end of every episode, as if this process is analogous to some indispensable element of human society. Think of the possible alternative ways of determining a winner. A simple vote by all the contestants at the end of three months. A vote by the audience. A skills contest. Or they could even have split up the million among anyone who could survive one year without any outside help.

What might have happened is that the group would have pulled together, built a society that works for them, and learned the value of cooperation and sharing. But hey, even Sesame Street has advertising nowadays.

On the other hand, they might have broken down into competing factions, started bickering, and ended up killing each other.

What is clear in “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They” is that the entire contest is rigged. The participants are urged to believe that, “in this great country of ours”, the rules are fair, the rewards are just, and anyone can win. The belief in this system is what propels people to join the marathons, and what provides the owners of the marathons with their wealth. The climax of the story is when the contestants find out that the cost of all of their “expenses” (food, water, bedding) are deducted from their winnings. Not only are they exploited and cheated– they are obliged to finance the very means by which they are exploited and cheated!

In the same way the Capital Gains Deduction takes money out of the revenue stream and hands it over to the rich, so that middle-class taxpayers– who can’t afford personal accountants, and can’t make the huge investments that are eligible for capital gains exemptions– are essentially funding the very system by which they are cheated.

The weekly tribal council idea is propaganda for the right wing. There are only so many goodies to go around, and the best way to distribute things is to have a system that rewards the greediest and most ruthless among us, and punishes the nice. It’s George Bush Jr.’s tax cut in the flesh.

But I’ll bet the producers of Survivor didn’t consciously think that they were providing the right wing with free advertising. I’ll bet they just thought that a bunch of people cooperating and helping each other would be pretty boring to most viewers. And as much as I despise them, they got the viewers, and the headlines, and the talk shows, and the book deals.

They are the real survivors.

Bush League

Facts you need to know about George Walker Bush Jr., the next president of the United States.

Mr. Bush is a member of the Republican Party, which advocates strong families, personal responsibility, free enterprise, and a strong military.

He has raised $58 million so far for the 2000 presidential campaign. His only serious opponent at the moment is Senator John McCain, a likable war-hero whose key platform is campaign finance reform. Well, I suppose you could consider Mr. Forbes as a candidate too. Like Mr. Bush, he has lots of money, but he doesn’t have very much charisma. I don’t think he has much of a chance.

McCain has raised about 1/10th of what George W. Bush has raised. The story is that he cannot win, no matter how much people like him, because you just can’t beat $58 million dollars. If this is true, then we are essentially admitting that the Republican nomination for president is almost entirely about money. That’s not completely bad– you have to have some measurable prospect of success in order to raise money. And the candidates that have lots of their own money to spend, like Ross Perot and Forbes, haven’t actually done very well. Still, it makes you wonder.

George W. Bush has raised his $58 million from people who don’t expect any special favours in return. Nothing at all. Right.

Former Chancellor of Germany, Helmut Kohl, is in big, big trouble right now because he accepted about $1 million from unidentified donors. The German people are outraged and the Christian Democratic Party is at its lowest point in the polls in fifty years. They think he might have pedaled some influence in exchange for that $1 million.

How can they possibly be so cynical and suspicious?

In 1979, George W. Bush– he of the “self-reliance” principle– created Arbusto Energy all by himself, with money from family and friends in high places, including Lewis Lehrman, the Rite-Aid drugstores chairman, and William Draper III who was later appointed by President Reagan to the Export Import Bank, and, the famous and slick James Baker III. George W. Bush, by then a seasoned pro, then ran for Congress, and lost badly to a Democrat. Then his business nearly went bankrupt, but a good friend of the family helped arrange a $1 million investment from Philip Uzielli.

Bush smartly merged his company with a partnership called Spectrum 7, thanks to a couple of old Yale buddies. This venture also collapsed. Then a company called Harken Energy Corporation bought Spectrum 7 and gave Bush a seat on the board and $120,000 a year as a “consultant”.

Then Bush moved to Washington to help manage his father’s successful campaign against Michael Dukakis. He got to meet a lot of rich, influential people. Very nice for him.

In 1989, Bush was invited to join a partnership that was purchasing the Texas Rangers baseball team. Though he owned a measly 2% of the team, Bush was the most visible of the owners, attending every home game. The reported purchase price of the team was $86 million, but nobody seems to be able to explain how they arrived at that figure, since the total amount paid by the new owners is no where near it.

While Bush was attending ball games (and his father was president), Harken Energy continued to flounder and lost $40 million. Just when it was ready to die, the Emirate of Bahrain came to the rescue with big bucks.

The Emirate of Bahrain. I guess he just happened to be passing through Texas that day and spotted a great investment opportunity, right?

Why would some Arab oil Emirate half a world away come and rescue a tiny little Texas drilling company? Well, did it help that the U.S. State Department and the American ambassador to Bahrain (one of those big party donors who gets rewarded with a plum post, Charles Hostler) were good friends of George Bush Sr., President of the United States of America?

After making a good dollar on his investment in Harken, Bush sold his shares, by coincidence, just before Iraq invaded Kuwait (driving down the share values of every oil company dealing in the Gulf). Amazing good luck there, George. The Securities and Exchange Commission thought the timing was a little too fortuitous and investigated.

If you own shares of a company and you are also one of the executives of that company, as George W. Bush Jr. was, then it is very illegal to sell off your shares on the basis of information you have received which is not generally available to the other stockholders. You have essentially cheated the other shareholders by dumping the consequential losses entirely on their shoulders.

Now, do you honestly think they might have found a case of “insider trading” involving the President’s own son? Do you?

Then, in 1990, Mr. Bush decided that his team needed a new ballpark. Following standard procedure in the U.S. (but not, apparently, in Canada), he threatened to move the team to a different town, unless the city of Dallas built him a stadium for almost nothing and turned over 270 acres of valuable real estate. Hm. Do I hear the phrase “self-reliance” echoing in the distance? Surely Mr. Bush was not, like some indolent welfare cheat, prospering through government largesse?

The mayor said, “yes, sir, Mr. Son of the President” and forked over the taxpayer’s dough. He even had a recalcitrant owner’s property condemned by the city so the baseball team could pay less than half it’s assessed value. The family sued and were awarded $4 million. Harper’s Magazine described the jury as “outraged”. But, hell, come election time, that’s only 12 votes.

As governor, Bush appointed a gentleman named Tom Hicks, an investment broker, to the Board of Regents of the University of Texas. This gave Hicks access to the University’s endowment fund which was worth about $13 billion. Isn’t that amazing? That’s a lot of money for a university to have. This money was generated by oil found on property that had been donated to the University many, many years ago. It belonged to the taxpayers of the State of Texas. Mr. Bush wanted to make sure that those taxpayers got good value out of their investments, I guess. But Mr. Bush and Mr. Hicks didn’t seem to like the fact that the fund was administered in such a way that the public could actually check up on what the administrators were doing with it. Very inconvenient. So what Governor Bush did was pass legislation transferring control of a lot of that money to a body called UTIMCO, which, unlike the Board of Regents, was shielded from public accountability by different rules and regulations. In addition, Honest George appointed other generous donors to the Republican party to the Board of Regents. It was all quite cozy and “legal”.

Hicks used his position with UTIMCO to obtain information about companies that were interested in obtaining investments from the Regents’ fund. The same information, you should know, is very, very useful to a company like Hicks, Muse, which manages leveraged buy-outs for a percentage. Very, very useful. Suddenly, University money began pouring into companies managed or controlled by Hicks, and by Republican loyalists, former White House staffers under Nixon and Reagan, and friends of George Bush Jr. By a coincidence, Hicks, Muse began to also do a lot of business with many of these companies.

Meanwhile, George’s dad, George senior, got himself a posh post-presidential job with a company called Carlyle, which pays him large sums of money, usually in the form of stock, for making speeches at events sponsored by itself.

Finally, Mr. Hicks decided that he too was a baseball fan. He bought the Texas Rangers for three times the price that Bush and his partners had paid for it. Three times! And, surprise, surprise, George W. must have bought some more shares: he now had a 12% stake. But wait– he didn’t actually “buy” those shares. What? With his own money? Are you kidding?! His partners in the team gave him the shares. For nothing! Boy, these are generous people! Of course, they might have been expressing gratitude for all the hard work George did, persuading the Mayor of Dallas and the governor, Ann Richards, to build the team a stadium under terms that do kindness to the word “sweetheart”. Or maybe it was in gratitude for his encouragement and support of Mr. Hicks’ activities at the University of Texas. Who knows?

This is the man who wants to “restore” integrity and decency to the White House. Reminds me of Nixon’s oft-quoted promise to get crime off the streets of America.

The odd thing about Bush is how utterly brazen he is. His entire life has been about nothing other than using other people’s money to accumulate personal wealth. Even so, he never hit the big time until he finally got his hands on the public purse.

He didn’t do anything useful as governor (just as his father never did anything particularly useful as president). He has no vision, no great plan, no interesting policies. He doesn’t even pretend to, really. He merely dispatches correct slogans and party mantras and grooves on the adoration.

Nixon was equally “conservative”, in that bizarre credentialist sort of way that provides the currency of political debate in the U.S. But, ironically, he was far more interested in political issues and policy and strategy than George Jr. is. By gosh, you could even say that Nixon had a twisted way of holding the welfare of the nation dear to his heart. You can’t say the same thing about Bush. It just doesn’t show.

Bush Jr. is about as calculating and cynical as they come. I can’t figure out why he’s running. I think he just wants to add “president of the United States” to his resume, and then get on with the post-presidential jackpot of honorary chairmanships and board appointments.

McCain, like Nixon, has some kind of vision about things. He’s a bit of a pragmatist, and a bit foolish at times. I like him more than Bush because at least he has some idea of the real purpose of a politician.

Bush is constantly touted by the media as being from an old “patrician” family, a phrase that nicely implies respectability and dignity. Let’s consider the family:

  • George Sr. was the most undistinguished president of the century, with the possible exception of Gerald Ford, who, at least, was never elected.
  • Prescott Bush, George Sr.’s brother, was an advisor to a very shady Tokyo investment firm that may have been involved in money-laundering.
  • Neil Bush, George Jr.’s brother, was a director of the Silverado Savings and Loan, which failed, and which involved him in a conflict of interest for which he was fined by SEC.
  • Jeb Bush, governor of Florida, was allegedly involved in the arrangements for a bad loan that caused another Savings and Loan company to fail.

Prediction: if elected, Bush’s administration will be the most corrupt since Taft. Bush will bring in a staff that will make Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Colson look like boy scouts. These guys will know that their time is limited, so they will make the best of their 15 minutes of fame: there will be graft and pillaging on a grand scale. The George W. Bush administration will collapse after three years in scandal and disarray. The next administration after that will finally introduce substantial changes to the campaign finance rules.

[notes: 2011-12 — I forgot one thing– it’s only corruption if it isn’t normal operating procedure; what Bush did was make corruption (eg. Cheney’s secret meetings with the oil industry, outsourcing military supplies and operations, deregulation, tax cuts for the rich) routine government procedure, which meant there was no entity to “scandalize” this behaviour.

And, of course, nobody foresaw 9/11, which contributed mightily to Bush’s re-election in 2004.

Napster Hamster

Is Napster the Death of the Music Industry?

If you are not familiar with a program called the Napster, these are the salient facts:

The Napster creates a sub-network of users on the internet. Anyone who is logged on and running the program can become part of the network. When you join, the Napster scans a directory on your hard drive for MP3 files (you specify this directory when you set the program up). It then makes a catalog of these files available to all the other users of Napster on-line at that moment. While it’s doing that, you can use the search function of Napster to scan the MP3 files on every other user’s hard drive. When you find something you like, you click on it and download it to your machine.

The music industry is dead.

As I ran the Napster and did a search for some Tom Waits, I remembered something I read a while ago about the music industry going after some university servers that were carrying a lot of “illegal” MP3 files. The representatives of the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America –or Vampires Anonymous) went to the administrators of these universities and forced them to delete the MP3 files and take action against the students who posted the files.

The “action” consisted, generally, of a very stern warning.

The RIAA had some mild recourse in this situation: there was a physical server upon which the files resided and from which they could be deleted.

But there are no servers for Napster. Or rather— there are thousands of servers. They appear, and then they disappear, when the user logs off. They could be in Anchorage or Vancouver or Minsk or London or Bogota or Moscow.

At the time I logged on, there were 1500 servers and 200,000 songs on line.

There is no way that the RIAA is ever going to be able to shut down such a network. There is no way the police can possibly track down and arrest all of those users. There is no way the government is going to impose protocols or software encryption programs on the internet to prevent the distribution of music. No one will accept it. No one even accepts that the government can tax the internet. There is a deep consensus out there– in government and academia and business– that the internet cannot be regulated and no one should even attempt it. Even if you could try to shut down all the servers in the U.S., traffic can be simply routed overseas.

There is no way that anyone will be able to prevent people from rapidly distributing “illegal” copies of any recorded work whatsoever, and that will soon include video. There is no way to convince these people that they should not do it. For one thing, many of them don’t care about right or wrong when it comes to copyright. For another thing, many of these people are mighty sick and tired of the music industry gouging them on the price of CDs and Hollywood gouging them on the price of movie tickets.

And, finally, some of these people are aware of how the music industry and Hollywood gouges and cheats their own artists.

It’s all good free enterprise, you know. For all the talk about morality and values and ethics, the United States promotes the idea of free enterprise capitalism above all else. Is it really such a large step from Microsoft’s or AOL’s marketing practices to stealing music and video? Come on…. Microsoft has been robbing people for years by negotiating deals with vendors that require them to pay for a copy of Windows for every computer they sell regardless of whether or not the purchaser wants it. That is “theft” by any other name. What has the Department of Justice done? So far, a big fat nothing.

It might be possible, in the future, for the music industry to encode CD’s in such a way that they cannot be copied. Well, no they can’t. First of all, that would only last a few weeks, at best, because the hacker community would quickly find a way to defeat the encryption that is used. Secondly, people will not want to buy CD’s that cannot be copied. Thirdly, no form of encryption will actually prevent someone from playing the CD– of course–and as long as it can be played, it will never be too difficult to convert it to an MP3 file.

Consider that the music industry has already won a major concession from the government. In the future (if not already), all blank tapes and CD’s are going to be “taxed” to return some of the “lost” royalties to the music industry. Think about this. Blank tapes and CD’s. Precisely at the moment when the media has become irrelevant, the government proposes to tax it!

The Napster doesn’t require a tape or a CD. All it requires is some hard drive space.

I’ve been saying for years that the music industry will never be able to sustain it’s current marketing strategy in the face of new computer technologies. The Napster, and similar programs that are sure to come along, might well be the last nail in the coffin.

Good bye Sony. Good bye Warner Brothers. Good bye EMI and Deutsch Gramophone.

Hate the Sin; Hate the Sinner

Did you ever hear a person say “hate the sin, love the sinner”?

That’s right. Usually just before he whacks the sinner in the teeth.

Some Christian leaders in the U.S. said it about Bill Clinton. Yes, they love Bill Clinton the man, and they forgive him, as a man. But as President, he has to pay. He should be impeached.

This strikes me as a little strange. This is their interpretation of Christ’s commandment to his followers that they must be prepared to forgive people, seventy-seven times, or seven times seventy-seven times, if necessary. Jerry Falwell says that Jesus didn’t mean that you should let people get away with things. If a person strikes you on the cheek, you forgive him, of course. Then you whack him on his cheek, to teach him a lesson. This “turn the other cheek” business? Allegorical, I guess. A mere illustration—not to be taken seriously.

But Falwell is mistaken. Jesus did not mean, “forgive those who harm you, but make sure they are punished”. When Jesus said, “forgive”, he meant, forget about punishing them. Forget revenge. Forget “just deserts”. It’s as plain as day. Read it. Read the gospel. This is not an abstraction. It is not a symbol. It is not an option. If you are a Christian, you must forgive.

At the time of Christ’s ministry, there were no prisons for punishment, as we have today. The “penitentiary” is a modern invention. And it is a bizarre invention. It is a complete failure. The U.S. keeps building more and more of them as fast as they can—like McDonalds—but people keep committing more and more crimes.

The purpose of the Roman prison in Jesus’ time was to secure the evil-doer until justice could be done. Nobody was sent to prison as punishment. If you did something really, really bad, you would be executed. If you did something moderately bad, you had to make it up to the person you had wronged. You would be held in prison– fed by your family, hopefully– until you made up for what you had done. And if you were the personal enemy of a person with power—you might be held there until you died, or you might be exiled to some remote island. Nobody was sentenced to a “term” in prison. There was no such thing.

So when Jesus said to forgive those who wrong you, it meant something. It meant that a person in jail for robbing you would go free– because you no longer demanded restitution.

Jesus pointed out that forgiving our friends and being kind to those who are kind to us is not remarkable behaviour. However, forgiving our enemies and being kind to those who hate us is.

That’s a pretty tough demand. Almost as tough as asking people to give all that they own to the poor. Did Jesus mean it? I don’t know. We like to say that when the bible condemns fornicators to hell-fire and damnation, it really means it. When it asks us to give to the poor until it hurts us– it’s only being figurative. And these people– Falwell and Robertson and their ilk–tell you that the bible is meant to be taken literally– word for word.

Some people would argue, well, how could you run a society that way? People would rob you with impunity! They would do drugs. They would pirate software. They would rip those tags off their mattresses!

These people are mistaken. They assume that everyone will forgive, but nobody will be forgiven. Imagine for one minute a society in which everyone really lived according to Christ’s teachings. Imagine that everyone forgave each other. Imagine that everyone sold everything they had and gave the money to the poor. Imagine that everyone acted towards each other with goodwill and kindness and love. Do you still think, in this kind of society, that theft and murder and robbery would be a problem?

If our society took Christ’s approach to sin, everything would be different. Poverty, in which most crime is rooted, could not exist in a society that actually shared its wealth with the needy. Corporations would not close their plants in industrialized areas and move them to Mexico or Thailand. Cities would not have allowed their downtown areas to decay. Schools would be well-funded. Medical care would be provided to everyone equally. Drug addicts would be treated instead of incarcerated.

Ah—but we don’t live in that kind of society. But isn’t that the point? We tell our children not to emulate society, in the way that they fornicate and do drugs and watch perverted movies and listen to perverted music. But when it comes to forgiveness and compassion and love for your neighbor, we act just like everybody else. We’re out there joining the tail-gate parties at the prisons on execution night. We’re out there filing lawsuits seeking damages and laying charges and putting in alarm systems and buying guns. We’re out there demanding more prisons and harsher sentences.

Jesus also tells his followers to love their enemies. I guess Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson must regard Bill Clinton as a friend, because they certainly don’t love him.

If you asked Jerry Falwell, he would probably say, yes, by golly, I do love Bill Clinton, as a Christian, of course. He would be lying. He knows it. You know it. And I know it. The whole world knows that Jerry Falwell despises Bill Clinton. According to Salon Magazine, Jerry Falwell helped finance and distribute a 1994 video called “The Clinton Chronicles” which made numerous wildly unsupported allegations against the Clintons, including that they were involved in drug-dealing in Arkansas, and that they may have murdered Vince Foster.

Some days I am tempted to take at face value the polls that say that something like 70% of Americans are Christians. Other days, I believe that the actual number of people who sincerely try to live according to God’s word is very, very, very small.

Maybe about 10.

Two Great Movie Ideas: You’re Welcome, Hollywood!

All right, these ideas are copyrighted– okay? So you can’t steal them. They are going to make me a lot of money.

There are two absolutely magnificent, wonderful movies out there just waiting to be made.

First of all, a movie biography of Bob Dylan.

Bob Dylan grew up in Minnesota and wanted to be a rock’n’roll singer like Elvis. He didn’t see the fact that he sounded like a chorus of drowning weasels as an obstacle. He hitch-hiked to New York, found out that folk music was what was happening, man, and began playing at open mic shows at several local folk clubs, sounding more like Woody Guthrie than Elvis Presley. In fact, people used to say he sounded more like Woody Guthrie than Woody Guthrie did. (You can check this out by downloading some Guthrie tunes through Napster– the resemblance to early Dylan is uncanny.)

He wrote some of the greatest folk songs of the century. He was noticed by New York Times folk critic Robert Shelton. Bingo– Columbia (now Sony) signed him to a recording contract. For a while he was known as “Hammond’s Folly”, after John Hammond, the A&R man who signed him. But Joan Baez took him along on tour. Peter, Paul, and Mary covered his best songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All right”. He became big. Very big. Even the Beatles were listening to Bob Dylan. (But Elvis wasn’t– he was in the army, and then he was making crummy “B” movies in Hollywood.) He became the “spokesman of generation”. He didn’t want to be the spokesman of a generation. He shifted to rock’n’roll in 1965, with a bunch of Canadians known as “The Hawks” (later known simply as “the Band”) backing him. He wrote more great songs. Then, in 1967, he was almost killed in a motorcycle accident. In the meantime, the Beatles and Rolling Stones released several massively over-produced behemoths of albums, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Her Satanic Majesties Request. Everyone eagerly awaited Dylan’s response. Would he top them?

Dylan shocked the music world by releasing a very folky, very laid-back album called “John Wesley Harding”, featuring drums, bass, guitar, and harmonica. He retreated into a simpler, more introspective style.

It’s a great story. It covers the most fascinating period of American history this century: the 1960’s. It’s got everything. Everything except… the rights to Dylan’s songs.

Bob Dylan– unlike most musical artists today– actually owns the rights to his songs. If someone were to make a movie of Bob Dylan’s life, he would have to get Bob Dylan’s permission, or make a movie about the greatest song-writer of our century without using any of his songs.

Bob– if you’re listening– I have a great idea for you. Call Martin Scorsese and tell him that he can make a movie about you and you will give him the rights to use any of your songs in the movie. Tell him that you won’t even look at the movie or the script or anything until after it’s all done. Tell him he can do whatever he thinks is best with the story.

Come on, Bob. You gave “The Times They Are A’Changin'” to the Bank of Montreal. It’s the least you could do for your fans. You owe it to them.

The results would be a great movie. It would not always be flattering to Bob Dylan, who sometimes acted like a jerk, and who was known to stand aloof from his friends. But the most flattering thing about it would be that Bob Dylan was big enough and brave enough to do the right thing and let someone else make this movie and to let the director have all the control over the material, the way Bob has full control over his own recordings.

Are you listening, Bob? I ask a measly 1% of the gross in exchange for permission to use this idea, and the right to meet Uma Thurman, if she could be given a bit part, perhaps as Nico.

Okay– my second great movie idea: a remake of the 3 Stooges. This time, they are computer programmers working for Microsoft. While they’re not coding new applets for Office 2003 1/2, they are off creating mayhem at the Department of Justice Hearings, or directing U.S. negotiations at the WTO.

I’m serious. People are ready for unsophisticated, trashy, vaudeville-type humour. The baby-boomers will love it. Young people always find obscure retro-acts hip and amusing. Anyone who has ever used Microsoft Windows will immediately appreciate the humour of Curly trying to figure out how “plug’n’play” works, or writing little Java applets for the Microsoft Web Page or finding ways to make Word Perfect crash.

Well that’s it. Are you listening, Hollywood Moguls? Call me and make me rich.

Who should star in a Bob Dylan Movie:

Sean Penn as Bob Dylan
Robert Deniro as Albert Grossman
Anne Hathaway as Joan Baez (yes, Anne can sing).
Ronnie Hawkins as the ghost of Elvis
Tom Waits as Woody Guthrie

Uma Thurman as Nico
Al Pacino as Leonard Cohen
Winona Ryder as Sarah Lowndes

10 years after I wrote this, Bob Dylan did exactly what I suggested– except, he gave it to Todd Haynes instead of Martin Scorcese. The result was the exquisite “I’m Not There”.   You’re welcome, Bob.  Call me sometime and we’ll work out a gratuity.  [2011-03]

Correction: Todd Haynes was the director, not P. T. Anderson as stated earlier. [2014-09-16]

The So-Called Left Wing Media

Where is the Liberal Media?

I was discussing the long dead Clinton scandal the other day with someone. When she insisted that he really did deserve impeachment, I pointed out that the vast majority of Americans didn’t agree with her. She said, “Oh well, that’s the liberal media…”

The liberal media? What liberal media?

I didn’t want to embarrass this person, but I wanted to ask her to identify a single specific example of “liberal media”. Who can she possibly mean? The New York Times? The Wall Street Journal? The Washington Post? The Chicago Tribune? Who? CBS news? ABC news? CNN? U.S. News and World Report? The New Republic? Who?

The media represent one point of view: profit. The media are, almost without exception, owned by corporations, and most of the owners of these corporations are extremely conservative. (The only exceptions, really, are the CBC in Canada and, to a limited extent, PBS in the U.S. However, PBS has lately adopted a far more conservative slant thanks to threats from the Republican majority in Congress, who constantly whine about the mythical “liberal” bias of the network. Look at how often Pat Buchanan and Robert Novak get their ugly mugs onto the air.)

The objective of most news organizations nowadays is very simple: get as many readers/viewers/listeners as possible in order to generate as much advertising revenue as possible. Most of the media thus merely reflect popular opinion. Right now, it is quite trendy, in the U.S., to give harsh sentences to petty criminals. Can you name a single media outlet, newspaper, or television editorialist in the U.S. that advocates the contrary?

How many news outlets in the U.S., editorially or through the selective rendering of news stories, advocate the following:

  • legalization of marijuana
  • cuts to the defense budget
  • the passing of an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, for women
  • more sex education in public schools
  • more spending on welfare or other programs that help the poor
  • forgiveness of those debilitating loans which impoverish the third world
  • elimination of capital punishment
  • more regulation of the chemical industry
  • liberalization of the copyright laws

Where is this so-called liberal media?

If there was a liberal media, why didn’t it come out in force during the Clinton impeachment hearings and denounce the scurrilous allegations made by Henry Hyde and his fellow hale hypocrites? Where were the stalwart defenders of Clinton’s wildly progressive, activist government?

You must realize that the bias of the media is reflected primarily in the decision of which story to report and how to report it, rather than in overt editorial content. Thus, when Dan Rather, with his monumental ego, raced back from Cuba and the papal visit–the first to that communist country ever–to report on the semen-stained dress, a momentous indicator of media bias was at hand: the important story is a scandal with elements of lurid sex. Why? Because sex sells. That is the “media” bias. And this bias dominated all branches of U.S. media, from radio talk shows to the Washington Post to the New York Times and CNN. All of them made the scandal their headline stories. You could make an excellent case for the argument that the media was exceedingly biased in favor of the conservative point of view on the scandal, except that the truth is that the media simply wanted to sell advertising dollars.

Even so, after watching CNN on a regular basis for a few weeks, I found it astonishing that most Americans continued to resist this overwhelming drive to convince them that Clinton’s “monstrous” act of consensual groping should result in impeachment.

What is even more preposterous is the idea that a defender of Bill Clinton would be a “liberal” because Bill Clinton is a liberal. Bill Clinton is pro-capital punishment, pro-free enterprise, pro-GTO, and his idea of “reforming” welfare consists of booting people off it. This is a “liberal”? Could someone please point out to me a single “liberal” policy of the Clinton administration? Well, he balanced the budget. Judging from the performances of Bush and Reagan, I guess you would now have to regard balanced budgets as a “liberal” value.

Still, it must be confessed, that real liberals generally thought the whole Lewinsky scandal was a cynical plot by the Republicans to oust a president they never believed was legitimately elected in the first place. But they certainly didn’t get any comfort from a “liberal” media (whom the Republicans also blame for Clinton’s election in the first place).

In Canada, I suppose you could argue that, in addition to the CBC, the Toronto Star is “liberal”. That leaves the Globe and Mail and the Post, in Toronto as bastions of conservatism. As for every other major community in Ontario…The London Free Press? The Hamilton Spectator? The Niagara Falls Review? The St. Catharines Standard? Read their editorials. All of them are fundamentally conservative.

Most newspapers in Ontario are owned by Southam, which is owned by Conrad Black (the owner of the Post), an arch-conservative who wants to be a British Peer when he isn’t busy clearing up editorial space for his wife, Buffy. The Post is rather extreme, even for Conrad Black. Every story is selectively presented to emphasize a conservative axiom. Every headline invites reactionary scorn for Liberal policy. Editorials hammer at our decadently tolerant society.

The Globe and Mail is reliably conservative, but with good taste. It respects some diversity in point of view. To paraphrase the man who finally stood up to Joseph McCarthy, it has some “decency”.

The CBC certainly leans to the left, but hands the pulpit over to reactionaries on a regular basis, if for no other reason than to prove they are tolerant of all points of view—a bedrock liberal value. In television, that leaves Global and CTV and everyone else—all conservative (especially CTV).

So why, if there really isn’t a liberal media, do conservatives persist in blaming it for Clinton’s success? Well, because, to believe otherwise, is to admit that your arguments have been fairly presented and argued before the public and were not convincing to large numbers of people. Better to argue that they were tricked and deceived than that they believe you were wrong.

Or that the circulation of “The Nation” is a lot bigger than is widely believed.


The President of the University of Western Ontario was recently on the radio, explaining why his institution needs more money. He said that classrooms were filled to overflowing, and the residences were over-crowded– some students even had to sleep at professor’s houses. What an outrage! Mr. Harris better fork over some more money right now!

Then the reporter asked him a simple question– if you don’t have room for these students, why did you accept them? The president floundered briefly, then tried to explain that the University of Western Ontario believed so strongly in the rights of all students in Ontario to a post-secondary education, that it just had to squeeze them in, though they didn’t have enough room to accommodate them.


Well, well. It’s nice to know that the University of Western Ontario is motivated by such lofty sentiments. One wonders how many homeless people they took in this week, or emergency medical cases.

I found this interview disturbing. I don’t happen to like Mike Harris, but I have some respect for the political process. It disturbs me that colleges and universities in Ontario might have so little regard for the rights of their students that they would use them, crassly, as pawns, in a little political game of showmanship. It looks wonderful in the news when the University of Western Ontario reports that they are over-crowded. The public is outraged, possibly. Possibly, they will demand that Mike Harris increase funding.

Possibly, they might ask themselves why colleges and universities continue to hike their tuition costs, year after year after year, in spite of the fact that average earnings for the average person have not increased at all over the past twenty years. The professors at the University of Waterloo are demanding a 20% increase in their wages. When asked who would pay for it, they insisted that students would not. Oh no– we would never force the students to assume that burden. They say they think the private sector should contribute.


And today it was reported that most hospitals in Toronto– 30 out of 32– are refusing to accept emergency patients. Most even refuse to accept critically ill emergency patients. We’re over-crowded! We have no beds! We have no monitors! We don’t have enough money or staff!

Mike, fork over the bucks.

CNN: Pabulum for the Brain

CNN, the world’s most important news station (and so say all of us!) showed it’s true colours tonight.

Tonight is the 10th anniversary of one of the most significant events of the 20th century, the tearing down of the Berlin wall. Though the end of the cold war was marked by many different stages and events, the tearing down of the wall was easily the most powerful and dramatic. It marked an end to almost fifty years of isolation and hostility, that macabre dance of death between the two lethally-armed super-powers, the exploitation of proxy states in the third world, and the polarization of the globe’s communities. It provided the world with a striking symbol of the failure of communist ideology to satisfy the needs and aspirations of millions of people. It was one of the most important events of the century.

In honor of this event, CNN decided to broadcast an interview… with Princess Diana’s butler.

You know, this is pretty consistent with CNN’s general philosophical point of view, if you can call it that. News is entertainment. That was clear from the early days of “Eyewitness News”, a stylistic innovation pioneered by the masters of trashy tv in the 1970’s, ABC. “Eyewitness News” redefined “importance” to mean “that which provides the most exciting film footage”. The top news story would be that blazing car wreck at Jefferson and Wilson, or a gaggle of high school cheer-leaders holding a car-wash to raise money for fashion orphans, instead of some new disarmament treaty or new labour laws or trade agreements or whatever. Eyewitness news injected humour and trite personal comments by the newscasters. It emphasized the chemically enhanced skin tones of their anchors and their flashy hairstyles.

This is where most Americans ingest their news. Pabulum for the brain.

The Slippery Slope

I can’t tell you how many times someone has told me that this or that particular development in our society has put us all on the “slippery slope” to who knows where– damnation, probably.

It’s a long slippery slope. It started when Clark Gable uttered those immortal words, “Frankly, I don’t give a damn”, in Gone With the Wind. Or it began when Pierre Trudeau announced that the state had no business in the bedrooms of the nation. Or it began with Roe vs. Wade. Or it began with Elvis. Or the Beatles. Or Harvey Milk. Or Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman. Or Watergate. Or the Internet. Or Mad Magazine. Whatever.

Most people don’t realize that “slippery slope” is a derogatory term. Yes, it is. If you take logics in college– something you are usually required to do for a philosophy degree– you will learn very quickly that “slippery slope” arguments are almost always invalid. Why?

The essence of a “slippery slope” argument is this: this particular development, while not in and of itself evil, will lead to other developments that are really bad. Therefore, we should stop it all right now and take action against this particular development.

It’s appealing– isn’t it? If we allow sex education, we encourage promiscuity, and if we have promiscuity, we will have abortions, and then pretty soon we’ll allow voluntary euthanasia, and then involuntary euthanasia, and then we’ll be Nazis.

But imagine you were in court and a the crown attorney argued thusly: “Yes, picking pockets is not a very serious crime, but many pick-pockets go on to become murderers, so we ask to the court to sentence the defendant, who has been found guilty of picking pockets, to 30 years in prison.”

The judge, of course, would laugh at this logic, and sentence the defendant to 30 days (except in the U.S. where he would, in fact, be sentenced to 30 years). You can’t convict a man of a crime he might eventually commit. It offends our fundamental principles of justice. In the same way, you can’t argue for capital punishment on the reasoning that it will prevent murderers for murdering again. Many people don’t understand this– you can’t punish someone for a crime he has not committed. It’s against our most fundamental principles of justice. Many people don’t care. You should read that again– many people don’t care.

“Slippery slope” arguments should always be rejected as feeble and specious and absurd. If homosexuality is evil, let it be evil, and let’s oppose it. Let’s throw all the homosexuals in jail. If it is not, in itself, an evil thing, then permit it. If there are other things that you think are evil but they haven’t happened yet, by all means, let’s be ready to deal with them when they come.

You see, that’s another problem with slippery slope arguments– if you follow the logic consistently, you would never permit anything, for there is nothing that does not come before something else. It is obvious that abortion is the result of feminist activism. And feminist activism is only possible because women have the vote. And the vote is only possible for women because a court ruled that women were “persons”. So, to prevent abortion, we should never have decided that women were “persons”.

So where do you stop your slide down the slippery slope? Logically, you should stop the courts from defining women as persons. But everybody knows that is absurd. So you pick and choose. Many people choose abortion. Some choose birth control. It’s entirely arbitrary. And that, again, is why slippery slope arguments are so weak.

It is so elegant, so beautiful, and so reasonable to simply say that we will decide whether any particular act is right or wrong and respond accordingly. It works well. It is at the heart of all that is good about our system of justice.

Go Your Own Way

For a few years in the mid-1970’s, the album “Rumors” by Fleetwood Mac was ranked the best-selling album of all time. One listen and it’s not hard to see why. Rumors has something for everyone, the romantic, the rocker, the thoughtful sentimentalist. I didn’t usually buy pop albums back then– Tom Petty and Jackson Browne were about as mainstream as I got– but I bought a copy of Rumors. My favorite song was Lindsey Buckingham’s “Go Your Own Way”, but the most haunting was a group effort: “The Chain”.

fleetwood.jpg (16168 bytes)

fleetwood.jpg (16168 bytes)

There was considerable attention paid to the fact that the members of Fleetwood Mac appeared to be documenting personal experience in their songs. Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks were married to each other, as were John and Christine McVie. During the life of the band, both relationships floundered. “Go Your Own Way” is poignant, though you wouldn’t know it from the lyrics alone:

You can go your own way
You can call it another lonely day…

I don’t know the details, but a few years later, Nicks and Buckingham went their own ways and got divorced, and so did the McVie’s.

A couple of years ago, the band reunited for a concert and a new album. As a rule, I am not fond of rock band reunions. The Beach Boys flogged themselves around for years and years and it was downright embarrassing, especially when they tried to drag Brian Wilson along. The Eagles set a record for ticket prices — and greed– on their last tour. What are they selling? Nostalgia. It’s kind of pathetic. They couldn’t stay on top of the charts with new material, so they disbanded. The members all had disastrous solo careers. They all squandered their money on fast cars, drugs, and loose women. Now they’re broke. But all those baby boomers are rich and conspicuous and just looking for something fake and ostentatious to squander their money on and here we are– still singing “California Girls” and “Hotel California” and reliving our misspent youths. Sponsored by Schlitz.

Yes, “Hotel California”– that epic diatribe against shallow, grasping materialism– is now performed by shallow, grasping, aging former rock stars. You may now call them “entertainers”.

There are exceptions. Yes, the Rolling Stones continue to tour, and yes, they have corporate sponsors, but at least they continue to put out original music on a regular basis. So does Bob Dylan and Neil Young. Neil Young even has the integrity to refuse corporate sponsors– one of the very few 60’s icons who hasn’t sold out.

Anyway, back to Fleetwood Mac and “The Chain”. The chorus is

if you don’t love me now
you will never love me again
I can still hear you saying
you must never break the chain

This was not my favorite song when the album came out. I couldn’t understand it. I didn’t think it was very meaningful. And there wasn’t much to the lyrics– about four lines worth.

Now I have a better understanding of what it means. If you have been in a relationship for a long time, you know each other in a way that young lovers never do. There is no mystery, no promise, no exciting possibilities. Instead of seeing someone who represents a whole world of new experiences and ideas and feelings and relationships– you see someone with whom you have exhausted opportunities together, and whom you realize is not likely to ever change or grow or improve. Your relationship is established in concrete. Your social circle is congealed. Your potential has been realized. Even your income is probably relatively fixed.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. If the relationship is still good, there are other bonds, and familiarity, and understanding, and the thing we refer to vaguely as “home”. The world can be a demanding, stressful place– there should be one place where you are unconditionally accepted and loved. When a relationship works, that’s what you get.

But if you fall out of love with that person– if you lose the daily acts of affection and intimacy and consideration– it will be, I think, almost impossible to rebuild that relationship later. “If you don’t love me now”– right now, this very moment– it will be impossible to fall in love with me again. What we have left is the baggage of your life, your children, your mortgage.

You could still go on for forty or fifty years, without ever feeling passion for each other again. Some people think that is magnificent. Family values. You should hang in there and try to work it out.

Or you could dissolve the relationship. But that’s pretty depressing too.

You get the feeling, from the content of Rumors, that Lindsey Buckingham wanted out of his relationship with Stevie Nicks, and that Stevie Nicks didn’t want him to leave:

It’s only right that you should
Play the way you feel it
But listen carefully to the sound
Of your loneliness
Like a heartbeat… drives you mad
In the stillness of remembering what you had
And what you lost… [songwriter: Stevie Nicks]

But these are just songs. People write from the heart, but they also have an ear for rhythm and an eye for strong imagery. Maybe it was the other way around.

Ian and Sylvia, the folk duo who had their best years in the 1960’s, (“Four Strong Winds” is probably their best-known song), also did a reunion concert a while ago. Like Buckingham and Nicks, they were a married couple writing and performing music together. Sylvia Fricker ran away from home in Chatham, Ontario, (“River Road”) and joined the older Ian Tyson in Toronto, and they had a pretty good career together, mostly covering songs by Dylan, Lightfoot, and others. And like Buckingham/Nicks, they eventually split up. Sylvia left Ian because she felt somewhat stifled by the relationship, and felt a need to develop her own potential away from his dominating influence. In all of their recorded music, Sylvia rarely solos.  [I later read that there were affairs…]

ian and sylvia.jpg (44347 bytes)

At the reunion concert, they sang a lot of love songs, about relationships starting and relationships dying. I had the feeling that Ian was inviting her back, in song, pleading with her, promising that it would be different this time. Sylvia looked more like, hey, it’s just a damn song. Let’s get the nostalgia thing over with so I can get back to my life. The chain was broken. She works in Toronto for the CBC. He has a ranch out in Alberta.

Why are so many pop singers so physically attractive? At the most superficial level, you would think that what we’re really after here is a voice. But of course, that is nonsense. In fact, the music industry will quite often take someone who can’t sing at all, but has a great body, and turn her or him into a singer.  Or someone who is attractive and can act:  the Monkees.  They never do that with someone who is overweight and has a bad complexion. No, singers have to be beautiful because part of the experience of listening to their music is a powerful sense of identification and fantasy. All around the world, men imagine that Stevie Nicks and Sylvia Fricker and Shania Twain and even Madonna are thinking about them when they sing songs about passion and surrender and desire. And women feel the same way about Donny Osmond.


If you have Rumours in your collection (if you’re a baby boomer, the odds are pretty good), give “The Chain” a fresh listen. Then turn up “Go Your Own Way” really loud and dance with the kids.

Note 1: Nicks and Buckingham actually split up as the album was being recorded, not afterwards.

Note 2: Nicks’ wrote a song called “Silver Springs” which was left off the album for management reasons. Nicks reportedly went ballistic when she found out and never forgave whoever it was she thought was responsible for the decision, which might have been Fleetwood and McVie.