Jane, you ignorant s***l

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Robert Delaney

Blend, a new social networking app aiming to attract university students, is one of the many new channels drawing attention from Facebook, according to a Digiday report.

The name suggested to me the start of a move away from the trend that New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd lamented several years ago: online applications that allow college students to select roommates most like themselves.

Roommate screening makes sense at first blush. You really don’t want to live with a yodeling fetishist or someone who listens, unironically, to N’Synch. But think about the idea again and it flies in the face of the spirit of the university (root word: universe), where our young are supposed to be exposed to new ideas. It might not be spelled out in the curriculum, but university students of different backgrounds, ideologies, and lifestyles should learn to, well … blend. Or at least mingle.

The compulsion to bunk with our clones is just another manifestation of the social trends that have led to the sort of loudest-voice-wins political discourse we see pundits spew in front of television camera. Dan Ackroyd’s “Jane, you ignorant slut” wouldn’t necessarily register as comedy these days. Without this ferocity, broadcast news would be dead and buried. This is particularly the case in the U.S., where an inability to accommodate differing views has shut down the federal government.

Perhaps Blend, as the name suggests, would break down the walls we construct through social media…. those echo chambers within which some people can’t imagine anyone not appreciating Latin jazz, Jeff Koons sculptures, and bibimbap. All at the same time.

So this brings me to blend.com, which turns out to be just another incarnation of twitsnapinstumblineredditvinebook, with the benefit of more advertisements that you can’t kill. It’s YouTube without having to type any words, and it’s promoted with a video featuring college students getting drunk, stoned, and felt up, all to the beat of trance music we’ve heard for the past 20 years. (For some thoughts on why music hasn’t changed for two decades, read my previous post.)

I was hoping, rather quixotically, that blend would have found some way to bridge social media micro-tribes through… I don’t know… some sort of challenge. Let jocks figure out how to show modern interpretive dance afficionados something that would force them to acknowledge the artistic value of sports. And vice versa, of course. Let fans of Justin Bieber… um, nevermind.

So, in the end, I’m let down by Blend. It’s just another way to amplify the social media bubbles we inflate unconsciously regardless of how much Blend pushes the image of young people carousing with each other indiscriminately.

It’s not that I object to university students getting drunk, stoned or felt up. Hell, I wish I had got more of that when I was there. I just wonder if that gets boring in the absence of anything else, especially when it’s probably happening with their clones.

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Marshall McLuhan and the Suit I Wore to 30 Interviews

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Robert Delaney

I had always hoped that the first time my name appeared in a headline, the matter would be somewhat auspicious. … Something I would be happy to highlight on social media. Instead, it turned out to be this.

There are countless angles from which I could begin analyzing this turn of events. The steep drop in the value of objective, well-sourced and professionally edited news is a topic that won’t begin or end on my blog. But my termination from the Globe is still too recent for me to pick this apart dispassionately.

So instead, I want to write about art and fashion, partly as an antidote to all of the financial newswriting and editing I’ve done over the past 20 years.

Once the shock of my termination wore off, I started setting up interviews, so I needed proper threads. Most of my office attire dates back to sometime around Y2K, yet this didn’t turn out to be a problem.

Clothes that have been in our closets since the late-1990s still work if you want to put them on. Fashion isn’t the only lifestyle segment that’s been on hold in evolutionary terms. Music hasn’t changed much in the past 15 years. We’ve not seen any breakthrough art movements apart from Banksy. A restaurant called “Asian Fusion” just opened in downtown Toronto’s Queen West Village. Wow. Is it 1992 again?

Yes, I know. Quinoa is huge now. Mad Men-influenced thin ties and tightly tailored suits have been big for the past few years. Hipsters wear tight jeans and Rat Pack-inspired hats (because the irony of wearing similar outfits as a way of expressing individuality doesn’t become apparent until you’re out of your 20s). These are fads and echoes, not zeitgeist. The pair of Gap jeans or khakis and the Oxford shirt you had tailor-made in 1999 –– when you thought some sort of Y2K-related armegeddon might wipe out your credit card debt –– will always get you by in a pinch. In 1985, clothing bought 10 years earlier would only work for costume parties. Ditto for just about every 10-year increment throughout the 20th century.

Music? Consider what topped the charts in January of the following years:

  • 1985: “Like a Virgin” (Madonna)
  • 1975: “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” (Elton John)
  • 1965: “Come See About Me” (The Supremes)
  • 1955: “Mr. Sandman” (The Chordettes)

Hair? In the 70s you could just let it grow because you had to be a free spirit. In the 80s you’d need enough hair spray to look like the Queen of Sheba because wealth was all that mattered. Is there any hairstyle that defines anytime since 1998?

What to make of the fact that music, fashion and art, in general, hasn’t changed nearly as dramatically in the past 20 years as it had in the century that ended in the early 1990s?

This thought led me to that most irritating touchstone of cultural theorists and intellectuals. Marshall McLuhan and his most quoted assertion: “The medium is the message.”

The first time I heard it, as a communications student at Philadelphia’s Temple University sometime in the Paleolithic era, I thought: What the fuck does that mean? I heard it again in 1997 from my supervisor at Bridge News (a long-ago bankrupted financial news and data service that thought it could put Bloomberg out of business). At the time, Bridge News was working on the radical idea that it would package its news reports with hyperlinks, photos and – one day – video. As my boss explained what was coming down the tracks, he concluded with a comment meant to sum up the changes: “The medium is the message.”

And I wondered, again: what does that mean?

Fast forward to 2011, when I was doing my master’s degree in communications at Toronto’s Ryerson University. I realized that you can’t be a communications student in Canada without referencing McLuhan. So I thought, fuck it, I’m going to write an entire paper on how the Bloomberg terminal is the realization of the McLuhan universe. I didn’t really know what I was talking about, but I used the word “epistemology” a lot because academics love that word, and I got an A. (Not an A+.)

As I contemplated the suit and accessories I wore to more than 30 interviews, I finally understood more clearly what McLuhan was talking about.

The clothes we wear, the music we produce (and listen to), and art in general, represent the messages we send out, individually and as a society.

Somewhere starting in the late 90s, the message, as McLuhan predicted, became the medium. That is, the channels we chose to communicate became more important than what we were saying.

“Do you Yahoo?” I chose not to look at someone’s resume in 1998 because that question concluded the email he used to send me the document. That applicant is probably better off having never worked for me.

Are you sending a message via LinkedIn, a blog, Pinterest, email, Reddit, or the f-word standby whose name we dare not speak? The choice of the medium is more important than the message. Banksy’s art isn’t radical so much for his subjects as for the canvases he dares to grace or deface (depending on your point of view).

So as our lives have become embedded online, we don’t worry about the message we’re sending – which used to be conveyed in what we wore and played – as much as we worry about how we will send our message. Technological advances have absorbed our culture’s capacity for change.

The revolution that’s taking place online has obliterated our ability to craft a common message that defines our time.

No judgment here. The absence of a style that defines our newly online existence allowed me to sail through more than 30 interviews with one suit, paired with several different shirts and ties, all from the turn of the last century.

And I ended up with several offers.

Singapore

 

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In response to my last blog post, my good friend Allan Tan asked about my thoughts on press control in Singapore vs. the PRC. 

I remember reading somewhere that Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, once said that the number of people capable of leading the city-state effectively could fit on a commercial airliner. This, according to his logic, is part of the justification for measures that prevent the kind of liberal democracy seen in the West. Essentially, he’s saying that there are too few people in Singapore for a fully democratic society. Disclaimer: This comment may be apocryphal; a quick Google search I ran didn’t turn up any documentation of the alleged comment.

China has a similar justification for its restraints on freedom of speech. It’s the other side of the same coin. The logic goes like this: There are too many people in China to accommodate “Western style liberal democracy.” Therefore, restrictions on opinion and information must be in place.

Perhaps they’re both right. If so, there’s a “democracy sweet spot” in population terms, and it runs somewhere between 5 million and 1 billion people.

The U.S., with it’s population just north of 300 million, would seem to be somewhere within that sweet spot range. But from what I’ve seen of U.S. politics in the 22 years I’ve lived outside of the country, there aren’t enough competent leaders there to fill a Dodge Caravan.

But really, I don’t want to spend any more time on polemics. The title of my blog says “Art, humor and public policy,” and there’s been so little humor so far.

I really don’t give a toss that Singapore doesn’t have freedom of speech. And I hope they never get it. Why? Because they have so much other good stuff.

They have the best airport in the world, hands down. I love their airport so much that I’ve considered taking a trip from Toronto to Singapore just to spend a long weekend at Changi International. You can: watch first-run films, visit a butterfly sanctuary, have the best laksa noodles imaginable, relax by stunning koi ponds, visit orchid gardens, and sleep in loungers that will massage every muscle that hurts. You can do all of this without paying a cent. Really!

(I have to stop for a moment because I’m getting aroused. … I’ll be back.)

If you fly into Changi on Singapore Airlines (don’t even get me started on how amazing this airline is – all I’ll say is that you’ll get a total hate on for United, KLM, Air Canada or the likes thereof afterwards), you can take a free stopover tour of the city, where the world is your oyster. Literary types can soak up the environment of M. Somerset Maugham at Raffles Hotel. Gamblers, modern architecture buffs and anyone looking for the world’s most jaw-dropping infinity pool can visit the Marina Bay Sands Hotel. When you’re done luxuriating in either of those two places, you can experience Singapore’s legendary hawker stalls. Chili crabs, more laksa noodles and Tiger Beer (!) for pocket change, all near spotless streets lined with majestic royal palms.

All in all, Singapore is a sanctuary. Brilliant if you’re there for a day or two. Any longer and it starts to feel like The Truman Show or The Stepford Wives. I know. I lived there for six months in the late 1990s. The first month was great. The rest, well…. made me long to return to China or Indonesia. But, when I was toughing it out in those two countries, I always welcomed the chance to spend a day or two in the beautiful tranquility of Singapore.

So when anyone asks me about freedom in Singapore, I want to shut them up. There are about 5 million people living there. If they don’t like the restrictions, they can rise up.

In the meantime, I will enjoy the peace of Changi, Raffles, the Marina Sands and the hawker stalls.

 

 

My China Mistake

Covering Stephen Harper's state visit to Beijing, 2009

Covering Stephen Harper’s state visit to Beijing, 2009

 

By Robert Delaney

Late last month, Beijing renewed the credentials of many, but not all, foreign journalists working in China for The New York Times and Bloomberg News. The renewals, which took much longer than usual to process, came little more than a week before these reporters would have had to leave the country. The not-so-clean resolution of the standoff followed a personal appeal by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden about the issue. The delay in granting journalists their status in the country is ostensibly in retaliation for reports by the Times and Bloomberg on the wealth of China’s top leaders, the latest in a never-ending series of episodes that tests the relationship between China and the West.

I spent nearly five years working in Beijing for Bloomberg News. My time with the company in the capital city capped more than a decade I spent in China, (on four stints stretching from 1992 to 2007), studying Mandarin and working as a journalist. There wasn’t much that didn’t change over that 15-year period. I watched entire neighborhoods of grimy post-communist housing blocks with ground floor tuck shops selling soap and watermelons transform into translucent shopping malls featuring Louis Vuitton and BMW.  One thing didn’t change. As wealth boosted standards of living, Beijing continued to crack down on dissent and limit the activities of journalists.

Throughout, I maintained the same mistaken assumption that policy makers in Washington, Ottawa and Brussels make when it comes to confrontations with the world’s most populous country: China just needs time. Time to understand that the West’s long struggle into an era wherein authorities respect and promote principles that apply universally is the path that China will need to take. Time to accept that no one is above the law. Time to adopt the Enlightenment era’s idea of basic human rights as being part of something the West calls Natural Law.

Will China learn this time? Will they understand that transparency, to the degree that we have it in the West, will ultimately strengthen China and empower its people?

I asked the same questions. It wasn’t until I left Bloomberg to attend graduate school in Canada that I realized my assumptions and questions were wrong. One of my professors pointed out how few people in the world enjoy the human rights that intellectuals of the Western world insist should exist universally as part of a natural order.

My professor asked: How can these rights be natural and universal if they’re not?

Critics of Western society can point out how poorly universal rights and responsibilities are applied in North America. A lack of clean water would mean societal collapse in the 416 area code (Toronto); it’s just an everyday occurrence if you live in a rural outpost that happens to be near a tailings pond. Many of those who caused the financial crisis of 2008 were enriched when Washington bailed the financial sector out with taxpayer funds. How does that square with Western principles?

As for China, it’s not as though the country’s citizens don’t want justice. Noted sinologist Joseph Needham described Chinese cosmology, enshrined in classic Confucian texts, as “an ethical solidarity of the universe,” or a paradigm in which eclipses, the change of seasons, government policy and actions as mundane as eating must be seen in the same context. Emperors changed policy in accordance with celestial and terrestrial phenomena. Drought called for leniency while abundance compelled rulers to be more vigilant, just as different seasons call for different diets. No principles have ever applied permanently across all contexts. A son has fewer rights and more responsibilities compared to his elders, but he benefits as he ages. Feudal lords may have had more rights than farmers, but most citizens of the kingdoms that now comprise China understood that disaster befalls rulers who allow their subjects to starve.

While many in the West struggle to understand Beijing’s central leadership, just as many citizens in China wonder why Western leaders prattle on so much about human rights that don’t seem to exist in many corners of the societies they govern.

For my thesis, I explored the degree to which the Chinese and Western cultural contexts are “incommensurable,” a term used to describe a situation where those who understand one paradigm have no way to understand the other because the units of measure and reference are completely different. (Think Newtonian physics versus Quantum physics.) Using editorials in mainstream Chinese and U.S. newspapers, I found that leaders on both sides could find a “fusion of horizons” in the realms of finance and economics, but that commensurability is nearly impossible in the political realm.

As for China’s efforts to censor news and information about the country, I would evaluate the situation by using the assumptions common in the Chinese cultural paradigm. There’s an argument to be made that information is now nearly as important as food. Now more than ever, developments in the financial realm determine our individual wealth profiles and retirement prospects. Those without access to information face tougher odds.

By threatening journalists who work for two of the world’s best news organizations with expulsion, Beijing sends a signal to news outlets domestic and foreign that prying isn’t acceptable. That makes probity a dangerous game, which could lead to a paucity of information available in China relative to its availability elsewhere. And everyone in China knows what happens to leaders who let subjects starve.

Leaving Beijing. Reporters get plenty of booze on this plane.

Leaving Beijing. Reporters get plenty of booze on this plane.IMG_0040