Taking Offence

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I have a friend who used to say he didn’t take offence even if it was offered.

What the hell does he know? Everyone these days takes offence at pretty much everything someone else says or does and, what’s more, they demand that the offending person by sufficiently punished. Personally I’m offended – and soon you will be, too.

This morning a man is complaining because his anti-abortion flag was taken down by City Hall. He was offended at this insult – which occurred apparently because so many people were offended by the flag. Meanwhile, on Facebook, someone demanded that people stop talking about Mother’s Day because he had recently lost his mother. And so it goes.

Stephen Colbert recently joked that the only use for Trump’s mouth was as Putin’s cock holster. This offended people on both the right and the left; the former thought it vulgar and an insult to the presidency while the later called it homophobic. Meanwhile, Colbert has apologized (sort of) even though he’s frequently said much worse things about better people. This has not stopped the demands for his firing nor diminished the ratings of his late night show.

Over in Ireland, Stephen Fry was under investigation for blasphemy over remarks he made about some generalized God. Never mind that he was addressing an age old theological problem as to why there is evil in the world. And don’t say free will – that might explain evil people but it hardly explains tsunamis or cancer in 4-year olds. The investigation was dropped when it was discovered there was only one complainant and he wasn’t really offended but thought others might be. How presumptuous! I’m offended that he appropriated other people’s offence for his own purposes.

Which brings us to cultural appropriation, which apparently now means observing, talking about, thinking of or imagining anything that is not directly taken from your own culture. This is not to diminish the real issues of colonialism and the silencing of the voice of the other – which may well be a factor in why some writers and artists do not get the attention they deserve – but to suggest that it is inappropriate to even imagine the other is a crime against… well, I’m not sure who. Some have even suggested that eating ethnic food might be inappropriate (and don’t get me started on the evils of tourism) which I’m sure would come as a big shock – and economic blow – to the Chinese family that sells me noodles.

This is not simply an issue of free speech as some have framed it but something much deeper and concerning. It is a form of cultural isolationism, an ahistorical approach that appeals equally to the xenophobic right and the identity-obsessed left.

But if we actually are one race – the human race – and live on one world, as environmentalists like to say, shouldn’t we all be learning from each other and using our imaginations to make the other us?

But maybe that’s just offensive.

And that’s ten minutes.

Hugos 2016

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The World Science Fiction Convention (WorldCon) is over for another year and, as has been the case for the last few years, it was not without controversy. The culture wars that permeate American society have reached deeply into the doings of the science fiction community. The campaigns of the conservative Sad Puppies and loony right Rabid Puppies to subvert the Hugo Awards were again in play with a limited amount of success. One proponent of the slate was expelled from the convention for hijacking a panel discussion to rant against the evils of Social Justice Warriors and I’m sure other, less public, debates, filled many of the rooms and hallways.

I wasn’t there but it seemed to me that the whole thing had lost some of its sting. Perhaps people have grown tired of it (Man, are my dogs barking!) or perhaps the impending rule changes to limit the impact of slate voting took the wind out of their sails. None of the true puppy nominees won though there were a couple of categories where No Award was given. In the rest there was at least one non-slate candidate to vote for – and in most cases, more than one – and that’s who won.

As I say I wasn’t there but I did watch the ceremony on my computer. After all, having recently won an Aurora Award, I have some interest in the matter of SF prizes. I thought the hosts handled the situation with dignity and lots of humour and did a good job of keeping the tension out of the room. Only Neil Gaiman in his absentee acceptance took a shot at the whole Puppies’ slate – essentially pulling aside the cover that they had tried to hide behind of nominating a few works from outside their own numbers so they could claim victory when those more ‘mainstream’ nominees won. It’s an old trick and would fool no one with any experience in the world.

It made me wonder – just how big is the Puppies movement? Fortunately the voting results give us a clue. Theodore Beale aka Vox Day was up for a couple of awards; he is the leader of the Rabid Puppies so presumably his numbers should be fairly telling. And they were. For Best Novella, his total on the first pass was 67 out of 2903. For Best Editor it was 165 out of 2386. That then is the core group of Rapid Puppies – who presumably would show some loyalty to their putative leader. As for the larger Puppies group? That’s a little harder to pin down but can be winkled out from looking at the results of later passes – how many votes did they get before the ballot expired? Somewhere in the range of 450 (the number of nominations their slate received) to 650 (the maximum number of people who preferred them to No Award) it seems.

So the hard core RBs represent 5-7% of voting fandom and the more casual supporters less than 20%. While everyone denies there is an opposite slate – there is one telling number. A book by Jim Hines featuring John Scalzi and which, I guess (as I haven’t read it), represents the opposite camp, garnered about 188 nominations (out of 2080) in its category (and didn’t make the final ballot) . Conclusions can’t be drawn from a single case but I have to ask: What is all the fuss about?

Looks to me like most fans just want to have fun.

And that’s ten minutes.

Erin Go Bragh

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Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

I’ve had a long, if somewhat oblique, relationship with Ireland. My English grandfather was stationed in Ireland during the 1920s. He was regular army – not the much hated Black and Tan who came later – and always expressed sorrow over the difficult lives experienced by so many of the Irish, both Catholic and Protestant.

As a teenager interested in fantasy, I was drawn to Celtic mythology much of it based in the legends of Ireland. I still have a copy of Nora Chadwick’s ‘The Celts’ on my bookshelves. Given how often I’ve moved and how many books I’ve given up, that’s an indication of how important it was to me. On the fantasy side, Lord Dunsany, an Anglo-Irish writer, was a favorite.

the celts

Over the years, I read many Irish writers. Some like Yeats and Joyce were readily identifiable as such; others, like Beckett, less so.

In my mind, Ireland was a green land, filled with mist and bog and surrounded by a tumultuous ocean. It was a land of faerie and myth. It was much more than that, of course. Though the common image of the Irish church is one of oppression and backwardness, this was a modern development. Irish monks had been essential to the preservation of much of the legacy of ancient times. While libraries were being burned across Europe, they preserved and protected books and eventually returned them to the mainland. The Irish may well have saved western civilization. Irish theologians were also the strongest defenders of the idea that women had souls – a matter of some dispute in the 9th century.

In the 1990s, I wound up becoming the Artistic Director of the Liffey Players in Calgary and was introduced to the majesty of Irish theatre. I directed half a dozen plays by Friel and Heaney and Keane. I even had a chance to chat briefly with Seamus Heaney – the year before he won the Nobel prize. I wrote a play of my own – thankfully lost now – loosely based on the poetry of W. B. Yeats. The highlight of my time with the company was directing Bold Girls by Rona Munro.

The Cure at Troy

The cast of The Cure at Troy by Seamus Heaney

A couple of years ago I finally visited Ireland itself – or at least Dublin – where I walked the banks of the Liffey and cruised the many museums and parks that fill the city centre. Dublin was a little down at the heels – Ireland was swept up in the banking madness of the early 21st Century and is still suffering the consequences. But it was still a pleasure to see.

We visited numerous pubs where we heard too many versions of ‘Whiskey in the Jar” but also some great traditional music. Liz and I spent a fun evening dancing to live music in what passed for a pick-up bar in Dublin. We even tried to get the locals up on the floor. The lasses were willing but the lads went so far as to fake injury to avoid participating. At the end of the night, one of the women took Liz’s hands in hers and told her in a beautiful Irish lilt: You’re lovely.

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The River Liffey

Which is pretty much how I felt about Dublin. I look forward to returning to it and the surrounding countryside someday.

And that’s ten minutes.

Porn

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Porn.

Did that get your attention? Well, you’re not alone. Pornography, which used to lurk on the back shelves of seedy bookstores on the shabby screens of even seedier cinemas, is now everywhere. Blame the Internet if you like but this transition began in the 70s when chic New Yorkers flocked to movie houses in better neighbourhoods to see Deep Throat or The Devil in Miss Jones.

Now, porn lives on every laptop or tablet. In a few clicks, every taste can be served. Google can find any sex act you can imagine and quite a few you might never want to think about. In the West almost all of it is legal, with the exception of images involving children. Where it isn’t legal, it is still ubiquitous. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry whose motto seems to be: if you make it, they will come.

But it is not simply graphic images that have invaded our world; the very idea that forms the basis of pornography has become ubiquitous. The blurring of the lines between fantasy and reality and the confusion between lust and desire now form a key part of everything we do, even our politics.

My wife and I sometimes engage in what we call real estate porn; we’ve even dipped into tourism porn. We aren’t surfing the net for bawdy houses or nude beaches. We are gazing longingly at things that we can never have. Which is the essence of the porn experience – to gaze not at the forbidden but at the unattainable.

And then to imagine that we can attain it.

This is not a minor thing. Everyone has dreams but ordinary life tells us that those dreams are tempered by reality; at the very least, we learn, those dreams can only be attained, if at all, by hard work, sacrifice and focus. Nothing comes easily in the real world.

In the porn world, everything can be obtained with a wink and a nod. Beautiful women and men fall into our arms at the merest hint of desire. Even pizza delivery guys get laid on a regular basis. And everyone wants sex, everywhere and all the time – no matter how tough or shitty the day has been. And, if you don’t what’s wrong with you? It’s no wonder men feel inadequate (and it’s not merely penis size) and some women feel helpless. Rape culture didn’t start with pornography but it has undoubtedly been exacerbated by its spread. While men (and women) with real life experience might be slightly inured; studies have shown that the confusion over what is sexually normal (and by that I mean adult, responsible and reciprocal rather than any particular sexual practice) has impacted relationships among the post-Internet generations.

But the pornification of western culture doesn’t stop at the bedroom door or on the dance floor. The real estate bubble, boom and bust was, in a way, a porn experience – people unrealistically believing that the object of their desire was within reach – without cost or consequence.

And the current explosion of populist politicians a symptom of the same psychological stance. We listen to their impossible promises and desire what can never be achieved. And we let them pretend that problem solving is as simple as a nod or a wink. No wonder they prove inadequate, brags about penis size aside.

And that’s ten minutes.

Comedy

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“Dying is easy; comedy is hard.” This death bed quote attributed to British actor, Edmund Kean, encapsulates the nature of humour in six short words. Comedy is all about death.

My friend, Hamlet the Clown, tells a story about doing a gig in a Northern Alberta school in late spring. The kids were eager to be outside playing and, on top of everything else, were hyped on sugar treats as 250 were gathered in a gym to watch his show. Things started out shaky but got worse when some 12 year old yelled, Kill the Clown! Pretty soon the entire auditorium was chanting “Kill the Clown!” as the teachers watched in horror.

“Kill the Clown!” It was a wise king who understood the value of the court jester and didn’t fall into the trap of following the advice of his ministers to end his sharp-tongued bantering. Self-important and self-righteous people hate any humour that they don’t create themselves; they especially hate to have their own pompous balloons punctured by wit.

Not everything is funny. Not everything that is funny is funny to everyone. It all depends on what you fear. Four year olds find fart jokes enormously funny – because the horror of toilet training still weighs on their minds. To fart is to exercise control over a wilful body. A fart is not a pant’s full of shit and so it is funny.

Most jokes suffer from over analysis.

But here’s one I find hilarious. A wealthy man – one who made his money honestly, treated his employees and family well and was generous to his community – is dying. An angel appears to tell him his time has come. The man, who lived a modest life, is still proud of his accomplishments – accomplishments that he and others measure by the wealth he has amassed. He begs to be allowed to take some of it to heaven and the angel grants him one suitcase. When he arrives at the Pearly Gates, St. Peter, the archangel, asks to look inside the bag and discovers it filled with gold bars. He asks incredulously, “That’s it? You brought paving stones?”

It sends up the foolishness of wealth and the hypocrisy of religion in a single paragraph.

Comedy is dangerous. Indeed that is why it is so often used as a weapon to attack people of other races, religions, genders. Racism or homophobia or misogyny excused with – hey, it’s just a joke. But it’s not, even if you have a perverse sense of humour. Nothing is just a joke – it is all meant to do something, to say something, to attack something.

Yet, would the world be better if there were no jokers, no jesters? The people who killed the satirists at Charlie Hebdo (and their progressive detractors who suggest that maybe they brought it on themselves) might have us think so. But they are wrong.

Comedy is what we use to laugh in the face of power, to assert our dominance over our fear of death and over those who would use that fear for their own ends. Sometimes, in the darkest of moments, comedy is all we have to say: I’m here. I’m still alive. I’m still laughing.

So go put on your red nose. Because that’s ten minutes.

Westerns

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At the heart of the American dream is the idea of the frontier and, integral to that, the myth of the Old West. The cowboy – more than any other figure – has been an iconic image that defined America to itself and to the world.

The western expansion of America began in earnest in the 1830s and over the next fifty years, the west was gradually filled up – to the extent that the empty spaces of Montana or Wyoming have ever been filled. By 1890, virtually every space on the continental USA had been ‘tamed.’ That is to say, Native Americans – defeated as much by disease and starvation as by force of arms – had been deprived of their traditional lands and livelihoods and confined to the reservations and the law – in the form of both Federal marshals and Pinkerton detectives – had asserted itself over the lynch mob vigilantism of the previous years.

But, in the meantime, the idea of the cowboy and the code of the west had achieved mythic proportions and all the disagreeable portions had been literally whitewashed – the contributions of blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans swept away as if they had never existed.

Yet, some estimates put the number of black cowboys as high as one in four; certainly, they represented a far greater number than were ever portrayed in popular novels (in the 19th Century) or the movies of the first half of the 20th. The gear that made the cowboy famous – chaps and lariats – were all adaptations of clothing and tools that Mexican gauchos had been using for several generations.

Cowboy culture is real – if occasionally idealized and exaggerated. No-one who has spent any time in the west and attended even a single rodeo could deny that. But most ranchers I know – and I admit I’ve only met a few – are more likely to wear ball caps as cowboy hats and few, these days, still round up their cattle with horses. It’s not quite a vanished culture but it exists – as do many resource industries – on the fringe of modern life. More to the point, they continue to exist as part of modern life as integrated into modern industrial capitalism as any office or factory worker. After all, who would buy their cattle if there were no cities?

But this myth of the independent cowboy – and most importantly this myth of the pure white west – continues to fuel the ideology of people like the Bundy clan and their band of fellow travellers. They make a show of flashing their guns but, usually, it comes to very little. The most recent rebel stand ended not with a bang but with a whimper and now some of the former occupiers – waiting trial in federal jails – have even talked of law suits against the government – as if the courts ever played a prominent role in the old west (actually they did – but they have no place in the mythology).

I’ve read a western or two in my life – who hasn’t occasionally delved into Zane Grey? I’ve even read some of the speeches of the only real cowboy (movie cowboys don’t count) to occupy the White House. Teddy Roosevelt did as much to establish the western myth as anyone else. Paradoxically, he also did as much to establish a federal presence in the west – through parks and conversation areas – as anyone since. Irony is not dead – it’s gone to live in Oregon.

And that’s ten minutes.

Fantasy

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So apparently Antonin Scalia didn’t die of natural causes; he was sacrificed in a pagan ritual by Barrack Obama. Wait, there’s more. Leonard Nimoy faked his own death and participated in the process.

I’m not sure what is more perplexing. That someone feels that people dying in their late seventies or early eighties is unnatural and needs some bizarre explanation or that somehow, someway, President Obama is not only to blame but an active participant. Nimoy (as Spock) is involved, I suppose, because the President is a well-known Star Trek fan.

Based on that thinking, we should expect Andre the Giant to come back from the dead to crush the head of Donald Trump in aid of Ted Cruz – who is, quite creepily, a big Princess Bride fan – to the point that he does imitations of the actors during political speeches.

I shudder to think what will happen if it becomes known that Bernie Sanders is a fan of Freddie Kruger. You didn’t know that? That, my friend, is because it is part of the cover-up. I mean, it could be true, right?

This is the world we increasingly live in. As you know, the Internet has changed a lot of things, many for the better, but its impact on such valuable things as evidence or sanity has been less than ideal.

We all know by now that thanks to Amazon (among others) that anybody can publish a book. Sadly, many take advantage of the opportunity. As one wag put it, in the 21sy Century everyone is publishing novels but no one is reading them.

But fiction that nobody reads is not a danger to society or social order. It is the ability of anybody to set up a ‘news’ site and then claim to be legitimate journalists that has really played havoc with modern discourse. When a large number of people are getting their ‘news’ from their Facebook accounts or Twitter feeds, we run a real risk of descending into a fantasy land where everything anyone opines becomes the truth.

Never mind the facts, free speech means that my opinions are as valid as anyone else; my propaganda is better than the news because it is, to quote one Conservative activist, more true. Well, it feels truer and that’s all that really matters, right?

And before you think this is another attack on the right, the left is increasingly engaged in the ‘truthiness’ debate. When the majority of health professionals tentatively linked microcephaly in Brazil to the Zika virus, a few doctors disagreed and said it was caused by a larvacide designed to shrink the larvae of mosquitoes. Makes sense right? Shrunken larvae equals shrunken heads. Never mind causal factors or anything resembling proof. We have the link and the enemy was Monsanto!

I don’t know what is causing this terrible rash of birth defects. It could be a virus, a chemical pollutant, a concentration of flawed genes – the evidence one way or another doesn’t exist. But who cares? If the fantastical narrative fits our fantasy life, just go with it. After all, reason and evidence – there’s so last century.

And that’s ten minutes.