Friday, November 25, 2011

The War on Christmas

The Colbert Christmas special last year featured country star Toby Keith singing a song about the War on Christmas, where he denounces the change from Christmas to Holiday and tries to take back Christmas for the Christians. It's a great song and a great Christmas special in the spirit of Colbert's hilarious and biting social commentary. But it looks like Toby's going to have more to sing about this year, as the Occupy Wall Street Movement announces their latest venture: Occupy Christmas.

Abdusters magazine is calling for Occupy Christmas to be launched today, Black Friday in the US, where there's already been one story of a woman in LA using pepper spray to ward off other shoppers looking for deals. This story would probably have more sway if it wasn't in LA where most people are crazy anyway, but it does reinforce what greed has done to people today and that gives one point to the Occupiers.

One point against the Occupiers? Well, launching an offensive against a season which is traditionally known for peace and goodwill is not the greatest PR move. True, Adbusters is targeting the mountains of presents left for entitled greedy children and the spirit of empty consumerism and waste that spoils the holidays. But the reason why this movement is going to fail is because that is not the way the rest of us tend to see it.

The Occupy Wall Street movement resonates with people because it attacks social injustice and the widening gap between the rich and the poor. It's a battle between the haves and the have nots. But the point of Occupy Wall Street is not to turn us into a society of have nots; it's to bridge the gap and give everyone a fair chance at a good life where they don't have to struggle for the basics. It harkens to the spirit of 'we want bread, but we want roses too.'

Fair enough. But Christmas isn't a social justice issue. The most meaningful aspects of Christmas remains the same for the majority of people: getting together with friends and families, giving to charity, watching Christmas specials on tv, baking gingerbread cookies. These things are for everyone, not just the rich elite.

The Occupy movement should be focused on what it was intended to do: fight the power on Wall street and make the big banks accountable to the people whose tax dollars bailed them out in the midst of a financial crisis. There can be some important social changes, changes to government and policy as a result of this movement and more important of all, a change in attitude when it comes to how society should treat its people.

If anything, the Occupy movement would do best by embracing Christmas. The real Christmas, which is all about giving to others, and not just in the form of gifts. Not only will people resent a raining of their Christmas parade, they are likely to misinterpret it as an attack on a cherished holiday. Adbusters is quick to point out that they don't protest the religious spirit or the giving spirit of the holiday, but that's not the way that most people are going to view it.

Occupy Christmas is a bold statement and that's clearly what they want. But it's not going to help the cause. Occupiers should be celebrating with everyone else and asking them to do so moderately.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Wheels on the Bus Are Falling Off

OC Transpo and the city of Ottawa transit riders are at it again and this time, it's all out war. With the 2010 Ottawa bus strike fresh in the minds of everyone in the city, it's galling to see that the union representing the bus drivers is threatening once again to strike a year later after what they called a 'witch hunt' of its employees.

Labelling Ottawa transit riders as a torch and pitchfork mob is not exactly going to endear them to the public. But then again, there was zero public sympathy for the drivers when they went on strike in the winter of 2010, timing the strike to fall in the coldest months of the year and just in time to spoil the holidays. They stranded seniors, low income people and students during a time of crazy snow falls, exams and what should have been peak holiday shopping and get togethers.

Compounding the problem with an obnoxious attitude and no sign of compromise, the union kept digging its own grave by making statements that were anything but sympathetic for stranded riders. Now, the union is back at it in the media, claiming that they can stop all the buses with a flick of their fingers.

Let's consider the recent OC Transpo stories, both of which can be found on youtube:

The singing bus driver: riders complained to OC Transpo management that they found this singing bus driver annoying. He was told to stop. He stopped, even though many others said that they found his singing to be delight and if you watch the video, he's incredibly charming. Rare for a bus driver of any kind. But the complaints of the few meant no more singing for the many who enjoyed it. OC Transpo stated that professionalism was their top priority and that they had to silence him.

The swearing bus driver: the online video is supposed to portray an angry bus driver screaming at a semi-autistic teenager, even calling him retard and swearing profusely. While there's controversy about the context of this video, it's pretty clear that this is a rude man on the edge, talking in a way that many of us would never tolerate. In the interest of maintaining professionalism, OC Transpo wants to fire this bus driver. The union leader for OC Transpo has now proclaimed that there's a witch hunt and is threatening to strike.

So much for professionalism.

What does it say about the city of Ottawa when a union defends a screaming swearing employee against the public and management and declares a witch hunt?

OC Transpo is not the transit of choice in Ottawa. It's the only transit in Ottawa. There is no competing transit service, there is no complimentary service like a metro and there is no other commuter train or tram or streetcar. It is the transit for low income, students, seniors, mentally ill, or for those people who simply choose not to drive.

The amount of urban sprawl occurring in Ottawa due to sky-rocketing property tax and million dollar condos has driven most Ottawans out to Kanata, Barrhaven and Orleans because there is no affordable housing downtown. It's only natural that transit is going to be considered a have-to rather than a want-to option.

So most people aren't happy about riding the bus in the first place. And it's probably not a pleasant job to have. But the attitude that bus drivers for the most part are giving to their riders is that they see us as nothing more than chattle. And we aren't chattle. We deserve better.

Transit riders aren't asking bus drivers to be singing happy people. We're not even asking them to be pleasant to us at all. We just want them to do their job and treat us with a minimum amount of respect and not call strike on us every time that something bad happens to them.

All of us are accountable in our jobs if we blow our tops or lash out at our client base when working with the public. You know what happens to us in that situation? We get fired. We don't have people step in to defend us or call for action. OC Transpo should learn to be accountable as well, even though they clearly have no vested interest in serving us well, as there is no competition of any sort.

Transit is becoming a fight in Ottawa. It's time that the city intervene and legislate it. Transit shouldn't be a fight. It's a right. We can't all walk, drive and bike year round. Although with the way things are going, most of us probably want to.

Peace, Love and Big Bucks

Lululemon is coming under fire for its latest bag which features a quote from Ayn Rand, the author of Atlas Shrugged, described as a favourite among free market capitalists. It's a book which claims that self interest is the path to a better world, a true right wing lover's book, in sharp contrast to the holistic hipster chic attitude of the yoga-loving store.

Known for such spiritual tidbits as 'Friends are more important than money' and other trendy new age sayings for whole wheat goodness, many people are shocked or angered by this quote from Ayn Rand. And yet, does it really surprise anyone that a company which charges $80 for seaweed pants is all about making money?

Time to wake up and smell the herbal shade tree green tea, folks. The feel good earthiness of Lululemon is nothing more than a marketing strategy and not a life philosophy. Of course, smart marketing and brand recognition is about building a philosophy around a product and selling a lifestyle to go with it. That's why the Lululemon girl is the one who eats right, carries her own tea tumbler with her to the bus stop on the way to yoga after work, looking cute and flexible in her stretchy pants.

The brand may be selling you this idea of a responsible, fair, ideal and healthy lifestyle with spiritual benefits. The fact remains that it is a brand and the only purpose of its existence is to sell you goods and make a profit. It hardly matters that the business model it's based on has nothing to do with the feel good clap trap that it espouses on its bags and T-shirts. The company probably comes a lot closer to the Ayn Rand mentality and charging ahead with whatever means allows it to sell you more hyped up goods.

Even its positive messaging about setting goals for the future is suspiciously similar to the can-do capitalist mentality. Ultimately, it's all about getting what you want and what the company wants is more sales.

Like any capitalist model, Lululemon succeeds because it gives consumers what they want. People actually enjoy the brand's products. But maybe they should keep it in perspective that this is ultimately a company and that it shouldn't take it or themselves so seriously. Buy the pants if you like the pants. Don't buy the pants and tell people to live spiritually through them.

Thursday, November 17, 2011


The new Benetton ad campaign titled 'Unhate' featuring digitally altered photos of world leaders kissing each other is causing a firestorm in Rome for depicting the Pope kissing an imam. It has no doubt also caused discomfort for other public figures, such as Barack Obama who is depicted kissing both China and Venezuela's leaders, no doubt making Michelle more than a tad uncomfortable.

Benetton is known for making controversial ad campaigns. Which is probably better than the overpriced dull clothes it makes. It's disappointing, however, to see a clothes company try to make use of what should be an inspirational message of tolerance to sell their cheap wares.

If you remove the shock value of the pictures themselves, the ultimate message isn't inspirational; it's confusing. On the one hand, love is not quite the emotion that the company is trying to get at. Tolerance, understanding and open relations can be depicted in other ways than lip locks. Why they didn't opt for something more simple and acceptable like shaking hands, a gesture which shows concilation and cooperation, is beyond me. Of course, there's no shock value in hand shaking, so the lip locking is the way that they decided to go. And I'm sure that the clothing company doesn't want to be mistaken for the UN which actually works on conciliation and not sweaters.

On the other hand, there's no clear indication that any of these people actually hate each other in real life. While many of these factions are at odds, they don't actively 'hate' each other. It would be counteractive for them to hate each other, as a matter of fact, because they share the world stage and often have to find ways to work together. Hating something or someone means that you actively wish for their destruction. And while Christians and Muslims don't exactly like each other, the Pope isn't actively gunning for imams.

An Unhate campaign around issues of racial tolerance and sexual orientation may be more appropriate, but those issues would require subtlety, tact and reason, while the company opted for cheap shock. I don't hate this campaign, but I definitely feel a strong unlike for it.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Great Reads for November 11th

The following is a list of books that I recommend for any person interested in reading more about the two world wars. It's by no means exhaustive, and there are many other great reads out there, but these are the ones that I personally recommend:

1- All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. The quintessential trench warfare novel, the graphic details within this book can be frightening to many readers, as it should be.

2- A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway. A solid read from one of literature's manliest of writers, the distinctly macho flavour of this book is softened by its stark attention to detail and total lack of sentimentality; appropriate for this genre.

3- Mr. Britling sees it through by H.G. Wells. While Wells is more commonly known for his science fiction works such as the Invisible Man or the Island of Dr. Moreau, Wells never considered himself to be a science fiction writer and wrote many quality pieces of literature regardless of genre or type. This novel is heart-wrenching, as seen from the point of view of one man who doesn't actually fight in the war, but does suffer.

4- Bonheur d'occasion by Gabrielle Roy. Known as the Tin Flute in English, this book takes place in the quartier St. Henri in Montreal during the first world war and is centered around a poor working class French family. It offers a unique perspective of the war from afar, where recruitment came down to a question of righteousness for upper class Canadians or a winter jacket and three square meals a day for the working poor. The book loses some of its character in its English form; highly recommended in French for those who can.

5- The Diary of Anne Frank. The thing that struck me the most about this tragic tale is the fact that the point of view is so fresh, frank and girlish. Anne Frank is very much a child, and her writings reflect the preoccupations of her age as well as a developing sense of self in the most extraordinary of circumstances. A truly inspirational and very human read.

Remembrance Day

Today is the 11th day of the 11th month in the 11th year, which makes this November 11th all the more special. It's a good time to remind people that November 11th was chosen as Remembrance Day because it is originally Armistice Day, when, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month back in 1918, World War I ended. Known as the Great War, it was the first global conflict which threatened to tear apart the civilized world and caused millions of people to suffer and die.

The Great War is often glossed over in favour of the Second World War, which is highly popularized by Nazi films and countless images of Hitler. As a person who's studied history and considers myself to be something of a historian, it pains me to hear people say that World War I is boring and that the second world war was just so much more interesting to study and read up about. Hollywood and media have done a great disservice by glamourizing the Nazis and highlighting the goriest and most sensational details of the second world war. Politicians have also done a great disservice to the memory of this conflict by emphasizing current conflicts which many people do not wholeheartedly support.

With veterans of the Great War passing, it's disheartening to think that this war is going to fade into relative obscurity, or that future generations will blur together the details of one world war with the other, mostly due to Hollywood's lack of attention to detail. The Great War cannot be forgotten. It is the reason that November 11th was chosen as the day to commemorate and honour war veterans. November 11th has since become a day to commemorate all veterans of all conflicts, even those who are still actively fighting today. In all of this, the Great War gets forgotten.

When the population takes a moment of silence at 11am on November 11th, they should use that moment to think about what war means to them. But they should also take that moment to think about how it must have felt, on that fateful day in 1918, after suffering through 4 years of a global conflict which was supposed to be over by Christmas 1914, to be alive to see the end of the war and a return to peace. They should put themselves into the shoes of those people, think about what must have been in their hearts at that moment, what faint flicker of hopes for a return to peace and normality was within them, and how thankful they were to see the end of violence and madness.

Remembrance Day is about remembering and people should not forget the Great War or its impact on the world. Take a moment to reflect on what it would have felt like to see your world turned upside down by conflict and the sudden appearance of armies. Take a moment to reflect on what it would have felt like to witness entire towns being torn apart or an entire generation of young men losing their lives to bullets, poison, disease, starvation, cold or madness.

War is not a period film or a video game. It's a part of human history that should always be remembered as it was, a brutal reminder of what civilizations are capable of and how we should never make the same mistake.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Suffer the Little Children

If there was a doubt in your mind as to whether or not children these days are spoiled, let it be swiftly erased with a look at a letter a group of children from Oshawa wrote to one of their neighbours the day after Halloween:

The letter states that the former owner of the house, a lady, used to give out candy apples, but that there was no candy whatsoever from the new owner of the house. It goes on to explain how the new homeowner can rectify his mistake, outlining that chocolate bars are fine, they get too many chips and that if the owner would like to 'deliver' the candy to them over the weekend, that would also be an acceptable solution.


Part of me doesn't know where to begin with this one, but maybe a good first step is to point out what Halloween actually is. It's a holiday, considered pagan by some, but mostly a reason to dress up as imaginary people and go door to door for treats. There's a tacit understanding of behalf of the two parties that adults will stock up on candy and children will make themselves adorable or horrible in order to get it. But there's one important thing to underline in this exercise: it is VOLUNTARY.

There may be people out there who don't believe in it. There may be others who simply don't like it. There may be even more people who don't believe in the commercialization of a holiday that started out as an excuse for people to go around and get to know their neighbours. Whatever the reason, nobody HAS to participate in Halloween. And that includes doling out the sweet stuff.

It's not just supposed to be about the candy. Getting to dress up weird and go out late at night are the primary perks of this holiday and candy is just icing on the cake. It's not a candy grab. At least, that's not what it was intended to be. But it's no surprise that kids continue to see it as a candy grab and treat it like one, to the point where they feel entitled to complain about the quality or quantity of the candy or whether or not they get it. And even to the point where they feel that the candy should be 'delivered' to them by errant adults.

The homeowner responded in the best possible way:

"Dear Children of Entitlement (and likely their parents)," starts the Kijiji post. "You have gone ahead and reminded me of why I do not want children, and why I weep for the future."

Couldn't have said it better myself.

Children: you have rights. Rights to an education, clean water, shelter, food, and the right not to be exploited for labour purposes. You do not have the right to Halloween or any other holiday where you feel that gifts and sweets should be showered upon you from on high. Alas, this applies to Christmas too, even though you probably think that it's every child's right to be greeted by a Christmas tree with an explosion of presents underneath its holiday tree skirt.

It's yet another common sense lesson that kids don't seem to be getting from their parents: gratitude. Gratitude for what you have, and for the things that you don't have to suffer.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Who Doesn't Like Short Shorts?

Dana White is trying to put a stop to a controversy regarding his views on homosexuals. The culinary union which has a beef, pardon the pun, with the UFC President and his organization, has made the claim that he's anti-homosexual and cited a slur that he once used in an interview which they deemed homophobic. There is this idea that because of that one comment and comments made by fighters and trainers regarding the idea of training with gay fighters, that the whole UFC organization is homophobic.

That's ridiculous. How can any organization that promotes grappling on the ground with men in short shorts be homophobic? How can any organization which promotes such tight short shorts be considered homophobic? The whole premise is wrong.

While it's true that the super-macho world of ultimate fighting may not be a place for sissies, it's hardly anti-gay. Hyper masculinity is not a form of discrimination based on sexual orientation. While it may be deemed to encourage sexual stereotypes, it itself is not discriminatory by definition. The UFC stands for strength, endurance, competition and various forms of combat. That doesn't make it anti-gay.

And while it may be true that fighters have said homophobic things in the past, this is a sad reflection on themselves and their own personal opinions, opinions that White would be quick to disassociate himself and his organization with. He has even come out and said that he would like one of his gay fighters to come out and be open. It obviously isn't an issue for him.

The other point to consider in this whole debate is the accuser. The culinary union is fighting with promoters like White because they're anti-union and events taking place in Vegas with members of the local are probably in violation of the union rules. But turning around and accusing him of being anti-gay, when he is in fact, anti-union, is not fair.

If they have a problem with White and his anti-union stance, they should take him up on that point and on that point alone. It might be time for the culinary union to man up.