Stuff Happens IV, The Reckoning, Week 4: The kid in the MAGA hat

There was a time, not long ago, when the mainstream media drove the agenda. Newspapers decided what was news, TV news copied whatever was in that day’s paper, and that’s what we all talked about.

Of course, those days are gone. Thanks to Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and whatever social media monster comes next, social media increasingly sets the agenda, and the mainstream media follows. You can call it the democratization of the media, or you can call it mob rule. A dismal example of the power of social media, and the willingness of professional media to follow the narrative, played itself out in the U.S. this week. Let’s call it the story of the Smirking Kid in the MAGA hat.

It started with a video that apparently showed white high school students, in Washington for a pro-life/anti-abortion (take your pick) rally, many dressed in Make America Great Again hats and shirts, mocking a Native American elder at the Lincoln Memorial. At the centre was a smirking, MAGA-hatted student staring down the elder with a look of condescension or contempt, or both. The Twitterverse went into full outrage, the school (a Catholic high school in Kentucky) and the students were vilified and threatened. Mainstream media outlets joined the piling on, with even outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post joining in the general outrage. The Associated Press reported: “Videos circulating online show a youth staring at and standing extremely close to Nathan Phillips, a 64-year-old Native American man singing and playing a drum. Other students, some wearing Covington clothing and many wearing “Make America Great Again” hats and sweat shirts, surrounded them, chanting, laughing and jeering.”

And now, as radio commentator Paul Harvey used to say, and the rest of the story.

new video that surfaced days after the incident shows what happened before and after the encounter Friday. A group of black men from something called the Hebrew Israelites hurled vicious, vile racial slurs at the kids for about an hour. The kids – who were not a mob as depicted, just waiting for their bus – reacted by trying to drown out the abuse with a school cheer. Into the fray came the elder, chanting in an attempt to diffuse the situation.

Smug racist kid vs. native elder and Vietnam vet? Or something else?

So the kids were taunted, and reacted as teenagers in a group would react. It’s ugly all around. Even the elder doesn’t come off looking so good; he was described as a Vietnam veteran – adding to the outrage that a veteran would be treated so shabbily – while in fact he is not.

You can read whatever you want from this episode, and people on both sides of the Great American Divide have done exactly that. That is what we expect from social media, but it is not what we expect from professional journalists. Reputable news outlets have got to stop reacting to every twitch from Twitter, take a deep breath, look into the facts, and most importantly, keep their fingers off the Twitter trigger.

Thinking about a nice fun-in-the-sun vacation in Mexico? At this time of year, when winter seems particularly endless, it’s awfully tempting. But if you do, bring a flack jacket. Mexico has set a new murder record for the second year running, with 33,341 homicides in 2018, and almost 15 per cent increase from last year’s record total. The numbers are even worse than when the country was in the grips of a drug war in 2011. . 

But surely, the vacation spots are safe, right? Probably for turistas, but not so much for others. Last year, Cancun saw 540 murders, more than double the 227 of 2017. Acapulco has a murder rate of 103 killings per 100,000 people, making it one of the most violent cities in the world. And for anyone thinking, “Gee, Mexico would be a great place to be a journalist,” think again: since 2000, 122 reporters have met their final deadline.

A new type of crime, fuel thefts, left dozens dead a couple of weeks ago. The illegal tapping of pipelines and refineries is apparently a $2.5 billion to $3.5 billion criminal enterprise, led by organized crime. A tapped gas pipeline exploded a couple of weeks ago, killing more than 80 people who had gathered to soak up the fuel.

Still way south of the border, Venezuela is in the grips of a revolution. The president, Nicolas Maduro, is a classic South American strongman who has ruined the country’s economy and mutilated its democracy. The leader of the opposition, Juan Guaido, declared himself president, with the support of several South American countries, the U.S. and Canada. Which ways this goes, nobody knows. But we do know Venezuela is a basket case.

Violence and hunger are widespread; children are literally starving to death. Grocery store shelves are bare. Hospitals struggle to treat severely malnourished children. The country’s public health system has collapsed. More than three million people have left since 2014. And the rate of inflation, according to the International Monetary Fund, is at 10 MILLION PER CENT, the worst inflation rate in history. And this in a country that has the world’s largest proven oil reserves. Venezuela should be awash in cash, but instead thanks to a dictatorial socialist leader, it’s virtually destroyed. So, if it’s any consolation, Alberta, we’re not the only place to piss away the gift of massive amounts of oil.

RIP

Michel Legrand, 85, French movie score composer, Oscar winner for music in 1968, 1971 and 1983. His most famous work, and maybe the most beautiful, was the haunting theme to the film Summer of ’42 which, by the way, is still a terrific movie… Russell Baker, 93, Pulitzer Prize winner humor columnist for the New York Times. I read a lot of Russell Baker many years ago. Now that I’m old enough to have a real appreciation of him, I can’t find any of his books …

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Stuff Happens, The Reckoning, Week 3: Canadians pawns in game of Chinese checkers (yes, I know that doesn’t make sense)

I believe there is an ancient Chinese proverb that goes: don’t mess with China.

China, a country we are trying desperately hard to establish firm trading ties with, is still PO’d about their Huawei executive being arrested on Canadian soil. They have already arrested two Canadians on trumped up, if not entirely false, charges. Now, they’ve upped the ante. A Canadian idiot who is in jail on drug smuggling charges has had his sentence of 15 years in prison changed to … death! A Chinese court, which apparently usually takes months to make such a decision, pronounced the death sentence in mere hours. I don’t have any great sympathy for this great Canadian drug dealing ambassador (he has previously been convicted of drug dealing in Canada, so this guy is clearly a slow learner), but again it’s clear that China doesn’t play by any existing set of rules.

China is in full-on evil superpower mode right now. The Chinese ambassador to Canada, Lu Shaye, told reporters that Canada’s arrest of a Huawei Technologies executive was an act of “backstabbing” by a friend, and warned of “repercussions” if Canada bars the firm from its new 5G network for security reasons, as have three of its intelligence-sharing allies. He also accused Canada of being a white supremacist nation. Nice talk from an ambassador.

China is showing its true colours. While it is an unquestioned economic superpower today, we overlook the fact that it is a vicious, brutal Communist regime that quashes any form of dissent. This is a dangerous, dangerous country – but there’s money to be made, so we still have to play with them.

Meanwhile, the country now ironically known as ‘Great’ Britain is lurching towards full-fledged crisis. Prime Minister Theresa May’s proposal as to how to leave the European Union – a.k.a. Brexit – was defeated in the House of Commons in what has been called the worst parliamentary defeat in British history – and this from a country that invented parliament.

I’m not going to bore you with details about repercussions of Brexit (mainly because I don’t understand them), but suffice it to say they are bad. There are stories of panic amongst some members of the public who have taken to hoarding food (I hear there’s been a run on spotted dick). May survived a non-confidence vote in the House of Commons, but the Brexit deadline is fast approaching, and there is no deal in sight.

A provincial election is just a few months away here in the People’s Republic of Alberta, and the rhetoric (and government spending) is ramping up. Consider this statement from the insufferably arrogant Environment Minister Shannon Phillips. While predicting the election campaign will be the nastiest in Alberta history, she criticized the UCP, saying “… white supremacists make great campaigners, and racists make good candidates.” I guess that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

As you know, sometimes it’s not what you say, it’s what you don’t say that matters. Here’s an example. Last week’s Edmonton Sun (owned by the shell of what was once Postmedia) carried a story about Postmedia finances. The story ended on a hopeful note: “The company posted its eighth consecutive quarter of double digit growth in digital advertising, which increased by 10.1% … to $32.7 million.”

Well, things sound good for Postmedia, don’t they? But the Edmonton Journal, also a Postmedia paper, carried the same story, but with a few extra paragraphs. Right after the happy news of double-digit growth in digital, the Journal reported: “The gains in digital, however, were not enough to offset losses in print advertising and circulation of $14 million and $4.3 million respectively … total revenue dropped to $171.3 million from $189 million.” Oh, did we forget to mention that, said no one at the Edmonton Sun.

RIP

Boo, world’s cutest dog.

Boo, 12, the Pomeranian dubbed ‘the world’s cutest dog’. Boo had 16 million followers on Facebook, and was the subject of four books … Carol Channing, 97, effervescent Broadway star with the squeaky, little girl voice, best known for performing the lead role in Hello, Dolly a staggering 5,000 times.

Stuff Happens IV, The Reckoning, Week 2: Trump TV

I really did not want to write about Donald Trump, at least not in the second week of the year. But the Glowing Orange Menace decided that eating up 90 per cent of the air in the news universe was not enough. He wanted it all, and what better way to do that than to hold a prime-time address to the nation, based on a crisis of his own creation. No, I did not want to watch. But ignoring a Donald Trump TV speech is like closing the curtains while a 250-pound gorilla performs ballet on your front lawn.

As you probably know, part of the U.S. government has been shut down over a budget spat. Trump wants billions to built a wall to keep “bad hombres” out, the Democrats say no. It seems hard to believe that the most important democracy in the world can use their employees as political pawns, but there you have it. Trump, desperate to get his most (in)famous campaign promise built, has decided that the lack of a wall is suddenly a crisis, although the U.S. has survived without a wall for 243 years. So, Trump took to the air for his first prime-time TV address. The results were, well, just as expected.

Trump is not a natural orator. Idiots rarely are. When he has to read prepared text, he sounds like a guy who had just learned how to read. Every. Word. Is. Spoken. Very. Very. Carefully. He also breathed loudly through his nose during the broadcast. Do they not have Dristan in the U.S?

Listening to him, I got the impression that the U.S. had been swamped by millions of bloodthirsty, drug dealing, illegal migrants. He said “thousands” of Americans have been brutally killed by illegal aliens. Could this be true? Well, no. I searched for any information that claimed thousands have been killed by illegal aliens, and couldn’t find any corroborating evidence. In fact, there is no national database or study tracking how many people have been killed by undocumented immigrants or the nationality of the victims. But hey, it sounds good. Really riles up the base.

There is no doubt America has an illegal immigration problem (so do we, on a much smaller scale). And there are certainly criminals and drug dealers and the like who slip across the border. But most come for work; according to Pew Research, 7.8 million unauthorized immigrants are working. That’s a lot of workers, all working illegally, no doubt doing the crap work Americans won’t do.

Here in the People’s Republic of Alberta, we are snickering, just a bit; B.C. has had a pipeline problem. A planned Coastal GasLink pipeline, which would would ship natural gas from northeastern B.C. to a coastal terminal in Kitimat, runs through traditional Wet’suwet’en territory. While the nation’s elected band councils have approved it, the provincial government has approved it, the courts have approved it hereditary chiefs of the five Wet’suwet’en (translation: Land of Many Apostrophes) clans have not. The RCMP were called in to clear an encampment that stopped the pipeline construction. A handful of protestors made a lot of noise across the country in response.

B.C. Premier John Horgan supported the arrest of the campers. He really wants that natural gas pipeline built. So, it seems that the British Columbia government is intent on building pipelines transporting fuel through the province – as long as it’s not from Alberta. Snicker, snicker.

And now, for a pop culture moment. Have you ever heard of Baby Shark? Neither have I. We must be in the minority. Baby Shark, entered the Billboard Hot 100 chart at No. 32 this week, placing Pinkfong, a South Korean educational brand, alongside the world’s top musical artists, according to the New York Times.

Shark attack

Is it popular? Well, the video – which you can see here, if you dare – has been viewed more than 2.1 BILLION times on YouTube. It was streamed 20.8 million times just in the past week, Billboard said, with 73 percent of those streams coming from video.

A Korean company called SmartStudy, which produces videos under the Pinkfong brand, first posted it on YouTube in 2015. It has now been adapted into more than 100 versions in 11 languages. Apparently, grown adults are listening to this children’s song, and digging it. Somebody should tell Fred Penner that he’s sitting on a gold mine with ‘The Cat Came Back’.

Now, a quick book recommendation. If you’re a reader, and/or a library patron, then I can say with almost 100 per cent certainty that you will love The Library Book.

Susan Orlean, a New Yorker staff writer and author of the bestselling The Orchid Thief, has taken one obscure (to anyone outside of L.A., anyway) incident – a 1986 fire that caused massive damage to the Los Angeles Central Library, destroying 400,000 books and damaging 700,000 more – and spun it off into a hugely entertaining and fascinating love letter to books, libraries, and librarians.

She goes back in history to recount the history of the LA library system and the characters who led it (this is way more interesting than it sounds). We learn about the remarkable effort to save the hundreds of thousands of water damaged books, and how the community rallied around the library. And there’s a mystery in there for good measure; who set the fire (was it a liar and charmer named Harry Peak?), or did anyone set the fire?

I am envious of Orlean’s writing style. Her prose just flows; it’s never stodgy or stuffy, and packed with fascinating facts. I haven’t enjoyed a book quite this much in a long time. And full marks to publisher Simon and Shuster for its old school look of the book.

And finally, the Crime of the Week. In Phoenix, a woman in a vegetative state gave birth in a nursing home. That alone is kind of, shall we say unique, but it passes into the realm of the criminal and the grotesque when you learn that she had been in a coma for about 14 years. The baby is doing fine. The male staff at the nursing home … not so good.

RIP

Myron Thompson, 82, rabble rousing right wing former Alberta politician … Gene Zwozdesky, 70, longtime Alberta MLA, cabinet minister and former Speaker of the Legislature … Jim Taylor, 82, veteran Vancouver Sun sports writer known for his humour, something that has vanished from the daily newspaper sports pages. As Taylor wrote, “when sport makes instant millionaires out of kids who can hit a ball or a puck with a stick or stuff a leather balloon through a fishnet, what’s not to laugh?”

Stuff Happens IV: The Reckoning. Week 1, when not much happened.

I’m back. Did you miss me? No? Well, some of you did. Mostly nice family members who idly asked me at Christmas dinner why I didn’t write my weekly news roundup anymore. As you may or may not remember, I started writing it in 2015 as Stuff Happens, followed by the smash sequel Stuff Still Happens in 2016, and the conclusion of the trilogy, The Return of Stuff Happens in 2017. I took 2018 off to try to detox myself of the news. It didn’t work.

So why, you ask, am I back to torturing myself by following the news again?

Simply put, there is going to be just too much news in 2019 for me to ignore. A provincial election. A federal election. An impeachment (OK, that’s a prediction, but still). One year closer to the end of the world as we know it. That kind of stuff. And writing is a good brain exercise, and believe me, my brain is in dire need of a workout.

So, I’m back, committing to 52 weekly blogs. This year, when there is nothing much happening, I’ll throw in a few snarky, ill-informed comments (is there any other kind?) about social trends and entertainment . And my always upbeat, happy concluding paragraph about people who have died in the previous week. What fun! So, let’s get to it.

So the first week of the new year is always sleepy, and people around the world wake up to a new day, unsure of exactly what day of the week it is. Here in the People’s Republic of Alberta, a curious story emerged from Rachael Notley’s caucus.

A Calgary MLA, Stephanie McLean – a former cabinet minister, the first woman to have a baby while an MLA, and just the kind of shiny young female face the NDP adores – resigned her seat in the legislature. She had already left cabinet some time ago, and had announced that she would not be running for re-election. But on Wednesday, she resigned her seat, meaning she is no longer an MLA. Oddly, she didn’t make the announcement, leaving it to a tersely worded press release from Notley.

Why would an MLA who is not running for re-election resign her seat with only, at most, four months left before the election? This is very curious. Speaking from experience, I know that an MLA can easily coast and do virtually nothing if they choose to do so. The legislature may not even return for another sitting before the next election. So why would she quit? I don’t know, and the incurious media hasn’t dug too deeply. With the other MLA resignations (particularly from young women, which is also curious) one gets the impression that there is something ugly bubbling beneath the surface of the NDP government.

No doubt you’ve heard of the Canadians being held on trumped-up charged in China. This is certainly in retaliation for Canada’s detention of that Huawei executive at the request of the Americans. It took a long time for the Trudeau government to get angry about it, and they finally have, cancelling some tourist promotional trips. However, a group of MPs (one of them the weasly MP for St. Albert, Michael Cooper) and senators are still going on some phoney baloney trip to China. Nothing stops a good junket, not even the unjust detention of Canadians by a communist government.

And now, on to pop culture.

Netflix has people watching and taking about a movie called Bird Box. Netflix reports some 45 million people have watched it. I’m one of them, and I can safely report that Bird Box is … OK. It is inferior to last year’s similar-themed A Quiet Place, John Krasinski’s smash hit horror film, but it is diverting enough to get a passing grade. Why so many people have gone nuts for this film, I do not know. I do know the most terrifying thing in the movie is what Sandra Bullock has done to her face.

Bullock is 54 years old, and her face is as smooth as a baby’s bottom. It also seems barely capable of movement. So what has she done? Well, she told Ellen DeGeneres that she had a procedure that involved facial injections of a serum derived from (get ready, because this is true) the foreskin of Korean babies. Hey, anything to prevent a wrinkle, right?

Also with Netflix, critics are drooling all over a Mexican film called Roma. It’s on dozens of top 10 lists – some at the very top – and is a dead certainty to be Oscar nominated in the foreign language category. As a service to you, dear reader, I watched it – in two chunks. The first hour was so boring, I stopped watching it. The second hour was better, because something FINALLY HAPPENED. I don’t want to get into what’s good or bad about Roma, but let’s just say that it’s a critic and movie snob film, the kind of ‘film’ (not a movie, but a ‘film’) that has critics stroking their beards and nodding sagely at its brilliance. I think most average movie goers will find it mostly tedious and pointless. But if arty, black-and-white foreign films are your bag, have at it.

RIP

Ray Sawyer

Ray Sawyer, the eye-patch wearing singer with Dr Hook & the Medicine Show in the 1970s, died Dec. 28, aged 81. They had hits with When You’re In Love with a Beautiful Woman, On the Cover of the Rolling Stone and Sylvia’s Mother. He retired just last year …‘Mean’ Gene Okerlund, 76, longtime announcer for the World Wrestling Entertainment (formerly known as World Wrestling Federation)

Super Dave

‘Super’ Dave Osbourne, (real name Bob Einstein), 76, towering, deadpan comic actor. He got the ‘Super Dave’ name by doing fake stunts on the Canadian comedy series Bizarre in the 1980s. He was also a recurring character on Curb Your Enthusiasm, and occasionally appeared as Larry Middleman, who spoke for George Bluth when George was wearing an ankle bracelet (you had to be there) on Arrested Development. He was the brother of comic actor and writer Albert Brooks … Daryl Dragon, 76, the cap-wearing Captain of the popular 1970s group The Captain and Tenille. Their hits included Love Will Keep Us Together, Do That to Me One More Time, and Muskrat Love.