Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Greens and Sound Bites


As you know, the federal green party (the greens) is especially concerned with nature, CO2, radioactive waste and so forth...

Our first female prime minister, Kim Campbell, said, "An election is no time to discuss issues." Correct. Then her political rivals, and a multitude of media characters with a vested interest in sound bites, all tried to condemn her. They tried briefly, but then had to resort to laughing at her, laughing with barely a sound bite of explanation to justify their position. Since then, down the years, I've read of at least one reporter admitting they were wrong, and Ms Campbell was right.

She was just as right as the man who said, "The price of democracy is year round vigilance." In Canada at any time of the year a surprise federal election may be called. (There are sound reasons for not having fixed election dates.) During the hurly burly of a swift election there is barely room for a medley of sound bites, let alone room for any person to carefully paint an "essay landscape" of balanced and composed thoughts. Such carefull efforts should be all year round.

If sound bites were beautiful, if brief was good, then Shakespeare's anti-fascist play would still have the same impact if he left out the first act- and therefore left out the words "hurly burly." Furthermore, he would then have the same impact if he only included the instruction of the final act, or if he included just the moral of the final scene. "Alas, what fools these sound bites be."

The folly of briefness is demonstrated every time some poor working man tries to become self educated by reading a yellow striped Coles Notes. A bare bones summary, picked clean of all but a little pile of sound bite bones, can offer no morsels of wisdom. No food for thought.


To share their brief simplified bits of "wisdom" the federal party leaders met, during an election, for a nationally televised debate. Imagine a small group of old white guys. One of the old guys was from a party that had been around a while but had never elected anyone to parliament- not a single seat, not from any riding anywhere, not anywhere in a sprawling nation of five and a half time zones. I am referring to the green party. As you know from English class, every second of camera time is precious: so why was he even invited to share in the precious debate time? Probably because "he" was in fact a young "she."

The others said to keep her out because, in sound bite terms, "her party had no seats." But they had to bow to pressure. The optics of excluding a pretty young lady were bad, and, more importantly, an election gave them no time to discuss the issue of why they said "No." The implication of "a party with no seats" requires not a sound bite but an essay.

I wonder: Do the greens discuss issues? This sounds like a silly question, "Of course they do!" but I will get back to it.

All around the world democratic elections involve organized parties, not just individuals. A party -or a reform movement within a party- is born when a few people get to talking around the kitchen table. They talk at length; they don't merely throw sound bites at each other.

"Transportation!" says one fellow "We need good people flow!" "You betcha!" the others say loudly. Then comes conversation and calm give and take. Let's think. Purely cars? As one fanatic wants? Could "everybody and their dog" drive a little bubble shaped car, something like a Volkswagen beetle? Purely public transit? As another fanatic wants? Could everyone take something out of The Jetsons? Or take busses, electric trolley busses, subways, little jitney cabs and electric trains? Say, if we do favor cars, could there be a little bike lane? A big bike lane?

As they soberly kick ideas around, with respectful regard for what their beloved but less fanatical, less political neighbors would think, they would end up with very few "pure and fanatical" ideas, but instead a realistic mix of transit options- rather like what we have now, in fact. As most greens would know, compromise can be seen everywhere in nature.


If you don't discuss? Well, if having "idealistic purity" means your neighbors feel disrespected... if they think "politeness," "compromise" and "common sense" are not in your vocabulary... then you will get no seats in parliament.

A variation on "discussion" is the idea of "caucus." This is a meeting for "party members only," a meeting with serious intent. First they close all the doors and windows. Then they agree, before any discussion even starts, that each individual in attendance will be bound by the agreements, to be achieved, of the caucus. Only then do they formally "go into caucus." To me this requires both self discipline and faith. Self discipline means that if I don't like the result of what my caucus decides then I won't act like the spoiled kid in the park one summer evening: I won't "take my ball and bat and go home." (Leaving the other kids with nothing.) Faith means I stand by my democratic creed that most of the people, most of the time, will do the right thing, provided they have the information.

A party's various agreements are the planks that go to make up the party platform upon which members will stand on for talking to the rest of us, telling us what they stand for, telling us not insultingly but respectfully. A brilliant science fiction writer and party member, Robert A. Heinlein, said he will vote for a well meaning dullard from his own party before he will vote for a genius independent. The dullard, if subject to party discipline, can be trusted to try to carry out Heinlein's wishes.

When members of the green party are standing on their platform I am not sure if I can trust them to respect me and my capitalist friends. When they say, "the people" I am not sure if they are actually disrespecting and excluding some of "the people," such as those rich folks a little further down the road. When they preach at me with hasty sound bites it's as if they don't respect me enough to have faith in my democratic ability to listen at length... to new information and reasoning.

...But in fact I do listen to the farmer's friends: the CBC and National Public Radio. A queer note: While watchers of the idiot box despise "talking heads," listeners to the radio enjoy people speaking at length. It's as if radio is for the brain, while TV is "chewing gum for the eyes." Perhaps people who believe in the boob tube will prefer sound bites. Such a pity. Incidently, newspaper film critic Roger Ebert has noted that "inevitably" immigrant taxi drivers have their car radio tuned to NPR. Note to self: subscribe to a newspaper for grown-ups ASAP!...


Maybe greens don't really intend to be sound-bite-preaching at me—maybe they just get bored more easily than people in other parties. My pet theory? I think greens feel this hasty disrespect, about me and their neighbors, because they haven't discussed things enough with each other, not enough to reach a deep bedrock of healthy respect for their own platform. Slogans such as "don't be fuelish" are no substitute for putting heads together in thought.

So I ask again: Do greens discuss? Or do they merely do sound bites and outbursts?

In this small world I happen to know socially not one but two federal green party candidates. One of them, an old friend, was being interviewed in community halls in small towns. I asked her privately what her green party's platform was. Surprise: the party told her "don't worry" and to just use her own judgment. (Cue reggae song: Don't Worry, Be Happy) I wasn't too happy but at least I didn't have to worry: This was a party that had figuratively decided in advance not to win any seats. Note: this was back in 2001; I'm sure the party has evolved since then.

I believe that without discussion there can be no grounding in reality. Some of my best friends are eccentrics, and they are splendid in their solitude, but still, I am convinced the friction of discussion encourages one to think and to research. Sound bites fall away in the face of humility. This can mean humbly burning the midnight oil studying.

I need to go to the library and do some green research myself. Right now Alberta is putting carbon dioxide (CO2) into the sky by burning fossil fuel, irreplaceable coal, in order to generate electricity province-wide. Is coal cheaper than smokeless uranium? I wonder what the difference is between one of our CANDU nuclear reactors, exported world-wide, and the communist one at Chernobyl? Or the ones on U.S. submarines? And does the second largest country in the free world have any practical place to store radioactive waste? What is the Chalk river reactor doing with its waste, that Ontario reactor which is now supplying 70% of the world's hospitals with medical grade isotopes?


I feel a touch of sadness, but no real sorrow, to think that if I asked Joe from the green party... he wouldn't know. If Joe lacks the self-discipline to discuss atomic electricity, or to go find out, if Joe and his green buddies lack the willingness to make such an effort, then you can forget them making any effort for party discipline. Forget about them going into caucus. Such a pity. It was Stephen R. Covey who said that private victories, such as effort and self discipline, must precede public victories.

Once I may have been a young know-it-all, with fixed values. Not now. For the rest of my life I will be engaged in an ongoing effort to re-state, revise and refine those values. This labor can't be done briefly. Nor can it be explained with a sound bite. In good time my values become my guiding stars, stars that guide me to a good orderly direction for my efforts: both for my private life and for my country. Ideals, yes, while my involvement with others keeps my feet on solid ground.

You can steer a ship by starlight but not by sound bite. I just can't imagine Joe Green and his pals, lacking any private victories, having the guts to try to steer the good ship Canada through rising winds, building seas and with a gale warning in effect.

If, someday, my peers elect me to parliament then that will be a priceless certificate of credibility, both for me and my party. If I have such credibility then I can justify going off to do an expensive prime time TV debate. If not, then not.

This essay has required over 1,800 words, over seven pages double spaced, over 12,000 "bites." (12 kilobytes) Now imagine those poor party leaders feeling forced to try explain all this in a single sound bite... The pressure to force those leaders to include a green party leader in their televised debate was a pressure most unworthy.

It was undignified. ...


... Ladies and gentlemen: let's raise a toast to Kim Campbell!

Sean Crawford

trying to be crew not passenger,

host not guest,

in my club, my community and my nation.

February, 2009

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Done and Learned


Well, with some effort, I’ve made it to 100 essays. Such a lengthy labor of love couldn’t be sustained with any cold, calculating cynicism. On the contrary, writing essays “under a democratic sky” requires the temperament of a White House speechwriter: a sunny optimistic faith in people and ideas. In this I have much in common with other Internet writers. Even to keep a humble web log (blog) about one’s life requires a ray of optimism about the world. Having done 100 essays, I’ve learned some things about the web.

So many blogs don’t make it this far, blogs that start out with such high hopes and dreams. I suppose we all want to think our lives matter, that we have something to offer. (We do) We all want some attention; we don’t want to be alone. As western writer Louis L’amour pointed out, (in my own words) ‘When I am on a horse on a lonely trail and I see a double rainbow by a waterfall I want to say, “Hey look at that!”’ … Of course, my “blog” is an essay site, so although I too have hopes and dreams, my postings are not nearly as personal as a blogger’s would be. No reader knows if I even have a horse. (I don’t)

What have I done and learned, here on this brave new cyber frontier?

The prevailing wisdom is that a good blog will have a very clear, very narrow theme. Maybe I’m unwise. For my series of essays I have been applying what I had learned from doing creative movement, public speaking and rhythmic gymnastics: the principle of variety. I know the stage should be used in all areas, at high, medium and floor level, and used with a variety of speed and pace. This is what judges look for, and this is why, for my essays, I used a variety of lengths and topics, all related to citizenship. And besides, otherwise I would have been just too bored!

Another reason for variety is a tip from a small businessman, Barry, of Barry’s Books. It was at CON-Version, the local science fiction and fantasy convention, during a panel on small business, that Barry told us about inventory: “Only stock your shelves half full when you open your new store” he said. It may not seem economical to have shelves half empty, but it sure beats needing to have a sale to get rid of inventory that just doesn’t move, that drags you down. Start by stocking only half your shelves, and then customer feedback, from what they buy, will show you what to stock.

Like Barry, I once dreamed of learning what golden nuggets my readers wanted. This dream never panned out. For customer feedback I’ve always relied on comments, right up until a few months ago when Google’s e-blogger finally added, or I finally noticed, a statistics feature. (I never wanted to download a visible hit counter: too undignified) Unfortunately, the comments I’ve received have not been statistically relevant, while the stats feature is equally inconclusive as to what people like. Happily, I’ve always known my essay blog, despite attracting very few comments, was at least being read because once a month, when I checked the “see my complete profile” page, I would find that several people had clicked to go there.

Of course, if most folks don’t go to the essay section at the bookstore, then they won’t go to my essay site on the web, either. And that’s OK. Yet… surely I’m not the only reader out there, am I? My own pattern is clear: If I find a site by an author I like I then I start reading lots of her entries, or essays, in order. I may also mix up my reading by constantly returning to her home page and checking the table of contents/archives/index. Naturally, I have my dreams of attracting readers who share my reading pattern … but I really shouldn’t: Now that I have a stats feature I can say with some assurance that… none of my readers are like me. 

Instead, my poor home page gets lonely, while individual pages get all the hits. (On the other hand, some e-blogger users say the stats feature is broken, and doesn’t show home page hits) I don’t think people ever click on the “see older post” button. The nice thing about being a confident middle-aged man is I can smile and say, “Hmm. This reader didn’t click on “newer post,” eh? Well, that’s his loss.”

I was so glad to see that my old Vietnam book review, for my university student newspaper, was getting lots of hits, presumably from other male baby boomers, still trying to understand what happened to us. Then one day I clued in: My review was probably being found by innocent school kids doing research. Sigh! But that’s OK.

My “statistics thingy” includes a listing of search terms used. Such an amusing list. This week I got three hits for a 1960’s jingle, one that I had buried midway through my Brass Cannon essay, “you can eat them on the run, eat them just for fun.” Why? Were new interns at Kellogs being given make-work?

I was much more pleased this week when someone found that jingle essay by combining the search terms “Heinlein” and “Brass Cannon.” This was sweet because so few would think to do so. (You can see Heinlein’s cannon, lovingly restored, being fired on Youtube) I was also pleased months ago when some idealistic intellectual found that same essay after we both liked the same paragraph-length quotation: his search term had been the start of the quote, as referenced by Clive James, in Cultural Amnesia.

This week someone in Ireland combined terms to search “Battlestar Galactica" and "post 9/11.” This was sweet because originally a troll had rudely disagreed with my essay, being sure BSG had nothing whatsoever to do with those terrible days. (What? Did he, for example, think the Galactica’s photo board, for missing and dead loved ones, was purely coincidental?) Also this week someone tried the term “panhandling essays”: I wonder if the searcher was disappointed that I was looking at the big picture and being anti-beggar. Other searches this week were for “who are surfers essay” and “why surfers surf essay”: I wonder if those searchers wanted an essay on heroes confronting the waves, not my piece on pathetic web surfers.

It was the web surfers, or “clickers,” that dimmed my enthusiasm for putting links in my pieces. Rather than repeat that emotional lesson of my previous essay, I will use a logical lesson from the book A Taste For Honey.

According to my childhood memory… This book was a 1940’s horror-mystery, recommended by Boris Karloff, where a beekeeper uses swarms of bees to get away with murder. The amateur detective was probably meant to be Mycroft Holmes; the viewpoint character was an ordinary guy who liked fresh honey. One day, walking along a quiet country road, this man sees a new sign that is just too far up the embankment to read. He climbs up and finds an advertisement for honey. As it happens, his usual beekeeper has just been accidentally stung to death (murdered, but he doesn’t know that yet) so he goes to the address on the sign. There he finds Holmes.

As it turns out, Holmes had planted that sign as a screening device. He needed a local partner, who had to be someone curious, someone observant enough to notice a sign was new, and someone adventurous enough to climb up to read it. And, of course, it had to be someone who could convincingly go to the suspect’s bee farm to buy honey.

So I’ve decided to be like Holmes. Rather than make a link, even a link to my own lonely essays, rather than risk casting pearls before swine, I would rather leave those pages for anyone who is active and curious enough to adventurously type up a search term to see what she will find. Or at least take the initiative to go to my home page. Those who are upset at this, those who want all their links handed to them on a silver platter, are probably not intent seekers of knowledge but merely clickers: incurious, frivolous clickers. I feel no guilt at filtering them out, as Holmes would, by denying them their all-too-easy links.

…After 100 posts, what’s next? For now, mostly some re-runs. Since I am canceling my old web site (it has a yearly fee) I need to move some old essays from that site over to my blog. The time I save by not “having” to compose new stuff I can put towards creating my new curriculum. As you may recall from my last essay, I am creating from scratch a leadership course for five staff at work, a course that will be requiring a lot of my attention.

For now, as Holmes would say, “Cheerio!”

Sean Crawford
In her majesty’s dominion of Canada
March 2011