Thursday, October 9, 2008

More notes on spin...

It’s said that there are youngsters who think that you can shoot somebody dead and the person will be able to get up and walk away. This apparently explains some incidents of shooting by kids. They don't really understand what guns do. If, after all, a movie star dies in a movie, and is very much alive on TV or in the newspapers the next day or the next week, then obviously shooting doesn't make the person dead. Alarming, to say the least!

We really do not know enough (never mind that there have been so many studies) about what TV, movies and electronic media do to the way people perceive, to how they mediate what they see and hear on film and television. (Might this explain why people in Jamaica, despite being constantly warned, still drive their vehicles into overflowing gullies and get swept away and drowned?) Nevertheless, what we do know makes it clear that the combination of images and the spoken word has an enormous and immediate effect on people and certainly provides a sufficient basis for the spin doctors to spin things very effectively, so that, as jdid says, “…it’s not even about the real message anymore; its about who spins it better.” When jdid expresses concern about people still being convinced that Barack Obama is a Muslim despite the brouhaha about his going to the church pastored by Rev Jeremiah Wright, a Christian minister of religion, he's pointing to an example of how people can – what? Uncomprehend? Perskewceive?

The first 'academic' article I ever published discussed strategies for English teachers who were trying to teach students to mediate TV and film. (It's less of a problem with radio, since images, which are very powerful things, aren't part of the message there.) This discernment skill has to be taught, especially as media become more and more pervasive. Determining bias in written material is hard enough! Never mind how bright we are, we will have difficulty construing what's in the newspapers, what's on TV, what's on the net, what's in the movies, unless we have somehow learned how to deconstruct these things. And I don't mean that word in any highfalutin sense. I mean literally pull these things apart so that we can see how they are made, and so understand how they work.

Stephen Harper's baby blue sweater may have persuaded many people that he is a warm family man. However, many others have been made aware – by all the talk about the blue sweater and what it was intended to do – of how images are used in the attempt to sway their opinions. Two days ago, Mr Harper (having finally, one week before the election, deigned to present the Conservative platform) suggested that the devastated stock markets were an opportunity for people to snap up good investments! So much for the warm fuzzy family man!

So it’s a problem that’s serious and needs to be addressed. I suspect that there hasn't been enough of an attempt at teaching these – as Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner called them – 'crap detection' skills to students in junior and high schools. Because that's where it has to begin – indeed, starting earlier wouldn't be a bad idea. So, yes, fsjl, Caribou Barbie and her "Hiya solja!" and "Drill, baby, drill!" acts represent a real threat. God bless us with a spirit of discernment – in Canada over the next week, in the US over the next month!

PINK ICING on's list of 100 top African-American titles!

Just thought I'd share some news with you. My first book of short fiction, Pink Icing: stories (see ad on this page) published by Insomniac Press in 2006, was enthusiastically reviewed in US journals like Callaloo and The Literary Review, in the Caribbean Review of Books, as well as in newspapers like the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, the Observer and the Jamaica Gleaner. Reviews don't necessarily translate into sales, so it's with much delight that I discovered today that it's on's list of the top 100 titles in the category "African-American Studies"! (It may well not stay there, but it is there as of now!) I'm hoping that means it's got onto courses in high school, college, and university. That's not just because it will mean improved book sales, though I won't deny this is important since I earn my living exclusively from writing. It's because I think it's a book anyone can enjoy, in particular anyone from the Caribbean. It's a book of simple (deceptively simple, some reviews said) stories about old people and youngsters and all the ages in between. One of the most satisfying reports about it came from an alumna of my high school, a Chinese Jamaican who told me how much her mother, who was ill, and so in bed, was enjoying having it keep her company. That was a review that pleased me for true.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Is the Pope Catholic? Some notes on 'spin'

You know that joke, "Is the Pope Catholic?" It's a phrase used to archly refer to something that's self-evident. Except that what's self-evident to me, is often not self-evident to the next person. I'd have thought, for example, that there was no question about whether a Catholic is a Christian. Catholics, after all, think that they are members of the "one true" Church: they believe that the heads (those same popes) of that Church descend in a straight line from Saint Peter. However, fsjl informs me that, for black folk where he lives, a Christian is a Baptist or an Evangelical, and most certainly not a Catholic. (I hope I'm not misrepresenting what you said, fragano!) I don't know what that makes of all the churches, other than the Baptists and Evangelicals, that believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Redeemer of humankind, but there you have it. In Jamaica, it was once held by some that a woman who was a Christian would not straighten her hair – another, and very interesting, definition of 'Christian'! This isn't really a post about religion. It's a post about packaging, propaganda – what's nowadays called 'spin'. 'Spin' is by its nature invidious, that is, meant to cause resentment and hatred. It’s a good word for the activity it describes. It means that admen, political handlers, biased journalists and packagers turn us round and round so fast with their false or carefully slanted information and carefully concocted images that we believe what they say because we’re so dizzy with being turned round and round! As they do their jobs, spinners are having a laugh at those for whose consumption they are 'spinning' things. They know that the purpose of spin is to set us at one another's throats, Democrats against Republicans, blues against reds, Left against Right, meat eaters against vegetarians, creationists against evolutionists, free marketers against regulators, capitalists against – well, once it was communists, but that one has kind of broken down, hasn't it? We really should not allow our intelligences to be violated in this way. Here’s an example: the admen for the Conservatives in Canada put Stephen Harper in a blue sweater and film him sitting comfortably in a homey place and the public for whom he is being 'spun' are supposed to think he is a warm and fuzzy family man. Well, he may well be, but I, for one, am insulted to think that I could be persuaded to this point of view by a picture of him in a baby blue sweater! Stéphane Dion, the Liberal leader, is less easily spun. I don't know if he is a hockey player, but that picture of him wouldn't convince me about anything other than what I already believe: that he's a decent man who likes kids and with whom I'd leave mine, confident that they'd be safe. Spin isn't anything new either. Down through history, it's been used, perhaps most devastatingly in the arena of religion, to whip up one set of human beings so they'd go out and do injury, sometimes mortal injury, to others: crusaders against infidels, Jews against Christians, Muslims against Christians, Catholics against Protestants, Muslims against Hindus, and so on, and so on. Nowadays, we're packaging war in much the same way: "Support our troops!" doesn't mean that we should be anxious that the men and women injured in war should have adequate care for their bodies and their minds. It doesn't mean that we should agitate for veterans to get education and other benefits. It doesn't mean that we should be concerned that armored carriers for the troops are the safest they can be, nor about the psychological health of pilots who are fed uppers and downers so that they can fly as many missions as required and as often as the army requires them. It doesn't mean that we should take any interest in their welfare at all. What it means is, "Don't you dare suggest that these brave young men and women aren't fighting for God and their country!" What it means is, "Don't you dare protest against the battles they are sent into in defense of freedom and democracy!" And what do the words 'freedom' and 'democracy' mean? They are probably the words that have been spun to humankind's greatest detriment. I've already gone on too long, and so cannot tackle that ‘spin’ now. Suffice it to say that if we are free in the supposed “First World," then some are clearly much more free than others, as the present fiscal crisis in the US so amply demonstrates. Some people were 'free' to manage other people's money, were 'free' to do so without regulations or controls, and so were ‘free' to plunge an entire country's economy into ruin. We need to get out from under the spin and start to examine what words, images, information really mean – that is if we are to preserve what really is ‘democracy' and ‘freedom’.

Monday, October 6, 2008 A pro-environment website to help Canadians make their votes count...

People have to make choices, and making good choices takes courage – sometimes a lot of courage. There's an argument being pushed by Conservatives in North America that we can't afford to go green, subscribe to Kyoto, etc., because it would upset the economy, deprive people of jobs, alter our quality of life, etc. etc.. (I'm tempted to go into the implications of the current economic situation in the US for that argument, but I won't right now.) In Canada, Stéphane Dion has tried hard to reassure people that this is a false argument, that there are thousands of jobs to be created if we do go green, and that the economy will benefit when we change our dependence on increasingly expensive fossil fuels. What we need to understand, however, is that this isn't a Liberal Party matter. It has to do with all of us, every Canadian who wants Canada to be a healthy place for its citizens – now, and for the next generation, and the one after that. The great news is that there's a website where people who care about the environment can make their votes count, whether they vote Liberal, Green Party or NDP. The url: I won't try to explain how it works here, but the idea is to garner votes to defeat Conservative candidates in close ridings and at the same time enable NDP, Liberal and Green candidates to vote their party by arranging a switching of votes. A note for Bible believers like myself. There's a lot of talk about the don't care attitude of Evangelical Christians who believe these are the last days. I think the Bible makes it clear that Christians continue to have a responsibility to take care of the Earth, right up until Jesus comes, whenever that is. The New Testament is full of parables that talk about good stewardship. I don't see anywhere that we're excused from doing this. It bothers me that Stephen Harper can claim to espouse family values and not see that if he loves his children, he needs to choose well for them. That sacrifice may have to include having less now so that they can have much more later, like clean water and clean air, and food that they can safely eat when they are grown up and when they have children themselves. I've been saying again and again that it's important for voters here and in the US to make their votes count. Here's a really good way to do it. Go to Tell your friends about it. Vote for your children and your grandchildren. Vote wisely. Above all, vote! Selah.