THE BC LIBERALS HAD A BRIDGE TO SELL YOU, FAST

by Geoff Olson

The Vancouver Courier, June 17
The Vancouver Courier, June 17

BC’s spacey politics doesn’t get much better than “Om the Bridge,” a public relations stunt which stretched from peculiar to Planet Claire in the space of a week.

Responding to public criticism of government involvement in a scheme to shut down Vancouver’s Burrard Bridge on National Yoga Day (June 21st), and the threat of a First Nations “flash mob” co-opting the event, premier Christy Clark turned to social media last Thursday. She tweeted a photo of herself standing in front of the Taoist Thai Chi outlet in Parksville, accompanied with the caption, “Hey Yoga Haters- bet you can’t wait for international Tai Chi day.”

Online confusion followed. Had the premier’s account been hacked? Or had one of her handlers replaced her morning mufffin with a melt-your-face, compassion club edible? (A plan to apply a Yoga mat tourniquet to a main traffic artery is not what you called a half-baked idea. More like fully-baked.)

#shunthebridge backlashers piled on after the premier’s Yoga Haters comment, with children’s entertainer Raffi tweeting that she owed BC an apology. At a later press conference, Clark defended the tweet as an attempt at “self-deprecating humour,” asking reporters, “Did you get it?”

The next day the premier fluttered, moth-like, back into the white-hot filament of social media. “Yoga Day is a great opportunity to celebrate peace and harmony – it’s not about politics. I don’t intend to participate,” she tweeted. The government was out. Co-sponsors and Liberal Party donors Lululemon Athletica and Altagas promptly followed suit.

June 21st is the first National Aboriginal Day after the release of the Truth and Reconciliation report. Yet the government championed a traffic-stopping spectacle for Vancouver’s stretchware demographic, co-sponsored by a gas company of all things. The optics were worthy of Mr. Magoo.

The planned event was wrong on so many levels, why would the government agree to host it – particularly when there was already other National Yoga Day events in the works locally? There is an unknown risk for big bureaucracies to do anything original and inventive, versus zero risk to do nothing. Considering the scandals dropping on Clark and her minions like cartoon anvils, this downward-facing demagoguery seemed like a magic trick of misdirection. ‘Watch this hand, not the other one.’

“Om the Bridge” went sideways rather than samadhi, but even that was better than renewed focus on the culture of neglect at the B.C. Ministry of Children and Family Development, denied FOI requests for government documents that turned out to exist, allegations of deleted government emails involving BC’s Highway of Tears, and the long-running Agatha Christie play involving a supposed RCMP investigation into fired health ministry employees that never occurred.

It’s the latter mystery is looking like the biggest headache for the Libs. The RCMP was blindsided by Victoria’s 2012 claim that police were involved in an investigation into the seven fired health ministry employees, yet information on wrongdoing had never reached RCMP offices.

Phd student Roderick MacIsaac, was one of the seven terminated in 2012. His study of an anti-smoking program had “uncovered evidence that the two pharmaceutical drugs covered by the provincial smoking cessation program, launched in 2011, can cause severe adverse reactions in patients, including death,” noted a 2012 report in the Vancouver Sun.

MacIsaac’s research went down the memory hole, and he committed suicide in the months that followed (the government has since apologized for its “very heavy-handed” approach in firing MacIsaac).

The provincial government also cancelled the contract of health economist William Warburton in 2012. This March he told The Tyee that data from his research indicates that approximately 60,000 people prescribed on anti-psychotic drugs will die prematurely, due to side effects. Two years ago, Warburton launched a lawsuit in the Supreme Court of British Columbia alleging that the Province of British Columbia halted drug safety research to protect donors to the B.C. Liberal Party.

According to University of Victoria drug-policy researcher Alan Cassels, pharmaceutical companies collectively gave more than $546,000 to the Liberals from 2005 to 2012.
But why meditate on social policy buzzkills? Certain parties would much prefer you and me sit in the lotus position, shut our eyes, and go ommmmmm.

The Vancouver Courier, June 19

LISTICLES LEADING US TO MATRIX-LIKE ABSORPTION

by Geoff Olson

I used to think I could resist digital-age distractions better than the average person, but I may have met my electronic Waterloo. I’m talking about listicles, the trivia links found on web portals everywhere from The Huffington Post to Yahoo.com.

“In journalism and blogging, a listicle is a short-form of writing that uses a list as its thematic structure, but is fleshed out with sufficient copy to be published as an article,” according to an entry on Wikipedia. “List” plus “article”, get it?  “It has also been suggested that the word evokes popsicle, emphasizing the fun but not-too nutritious nature of the listicle,” the wiki adds.

Typical listicles have titles like “10 Last Remaining Wonders of the World You Must See,” “The 25 Weirdest Things About Your Body You’ll Ever Learn,” or “17 Extreme Selfies That Are Not For the Faint-Hearted.” Listicles are the species; the genus is clickbait, which is designed to make you click or tap from one mindless item to the next. The arrows for moving forward are often arranged in a purposefully confusing way, so you click by accident on a third-party advertiser’s link. The listicle-based revenue model is partly dependent on your surfing screw-ups.

Most of the times I can ignore this info-pollution. But every once a while I get pulled in by some underinformative but irresistible crap like “6 Celebrities Who Have Aged Poorly” or “15 Hilarious Instagram Comments.” For there is always a listicle tailored just for me or you, ready to hijack processing cycles from our overclocked brains.

And once you’re pulled into this vortex of trivia, bounced from Buzzfeed to goweloveit.org to viralnado.com and beyond, you will click over and over like a lab rat on benzedrine. “16 Parents Spill the Beans on Their Kid’s Hilarious Secrets.”

Sure, why not? Click.

“The Worst 16 Corporate Logo Fails Ever.” Bring it on. Click, click.

“The 10 Worst Couples on Snapchat.” Absolutely – you already hate yourself for doing this, why stop now? Click, click, click.

When you finally stop and come to your senses, it seems only a short time has passed. Yet through some space/time swindle, it’s past midnight and the dog has crapped on the kitchen floor.

For example, the other day I was nooding around on the The Vancouver Sun’s website. How was I to know there were listicles lurking at the bottom of the page, among them “The 10 Best Super Bowl Commercials of All Time”? I like Super Bowl ads as much as I dislike the game of football, so I clicked and found myself on indulgd.com, which immediately hoovered 10 precious minutes from my allotted time on Earth.

Shortly after that I got caught for an unfeasibly long stretch of time on hyperbomb.com, where I clicked on “These Photos From the Past are Shocking, Crazy, or Both: I Still Can’t Believe Some of Them.” Some of the photos  were actually quite compelling – and that’s the evil thing about these clocksuckers; you will go through reams of crap in search of bits of cheese. It’s all about conditioned responses. A similar scheduling of positive reinforcement makes dogs to drool at dinner bells, Croc-wearing seniors throw change at slot machines, and Americans vote for interchangeable, corporate-sponsored candidates.

All through my listicle adventures, my Firefox plug-in Ghostery was going nuts, highlighting (and stopping) dozens of bots from otherwise unseen data brokers. Every time you’re on a big commercial portal your surfing patterns are tracked by these analytic and marketing companies, who buy your “clickstream” and sell it to third parties. All those clicks add up to building a more precise, profitable profile of yourself. (Even your clickstream of listicle choices says something about you.)

In the end, all the free content on the web means the ultimate product for sale is you.

Perhaps one day our atrophied descendants will spend their days clicking, tapping and swiping in their Matrix-like pods. The activity will supply energy to robot overlords, who will reward their farmed humans with holographically-displayed listicles bearing titles like, “10 Crazy People Who Believe We Are Living in a False Reality,” or “Amazing pictures of People in the Past Communicating to Each Other With their Food Apertures.”
The Vancouver Courier, June 12

DINOSAURS, SHREWS, AND DEMOCRACY

by Geoff Olson

It was no regular ivory tower exercise when professors Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University posed an intriguing question: does the US government represent its people?

By combing through 200 public opinion surveys over 20 years, and measuring them against policies written into law, they found an answer: the desires of 90% of Americans have made no impact whatsoever on the deciders and their decisions. In their words, “The preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”

It would be an interesting question to ask of Canadian government. I suspect the figures would look better for Joe and Jane Average, but not by much.

Participatory democracy south of the border has been iffy from the start. As in, if you’re a white male property owner. The 1776 Declaration of Independence was engineered by, for, and about this demographic, and voting rights were grudgingly extended to women and enforced for blacks late in the game; 1920 and 1965 respectively. Even today with an African-American at the top, Barack Obama’s White House is about as far removed from the average working American’s reality as Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.

Perhaps the Gilens-Page findings are not so much a condemnation of the United States’ counterfeit democracy as of hierarchical institutions in general – whether they are left or right, governmental or business, profit or non-profit. (Some of the biggest, most inefficient bureaucracies are found in the private sector rather than in the public sector.)

Former Harper’s magazine editor Lewis Lapham outlined this long-standing problem in his seminal 1988 book, Money and Class in America:

“Having listened to a good many self-congratulatory speeches at annual conventions, I have been struck by how often the objectives announced as the institution’s primary reasons for being prove to be precisely those promises on which it cannot make good…The legal profession preens itself on its concern for justice, and yet most lawyers devote their lives to preserving whatever interest, just or unjust, pays the highest fee. The military believes that it preserves the nation from harm, that without it nothing is safe, and yet…by its deranged stockpiling of weapons it constitutes a constant threat to the world’s peace. Prisons supposedly protects society; in fact they serve as spawning grounds for accomplished criminals. The media assume that they unite society, binding it together with the lines of communication and understanding, and yet most of their efforts result in suspicion and rancor.”

……
The unacknowledged threat to law enforcement agencies is not widespread crime but squeaky-clean streets, just as the biggest threat to health charities is not the diseases they lobby against but their total elimination. And of course, mutual animosity serves the interests of political parties far better than any sort of agreement or cooperation – hence Stephen Harper’s continued political survival.

When a large institution professes to have a particular purpose or goal – conveyed in glossy brochures decorated with laughing couples or in television ads adorned with cherubic babies –  it is safe to assume that the central message comes down to two words: feed me.
Hierarchical organizations may begin with the best of intentions, but they often end up as dinosaurs with massive bodies and tiny brains. The best and brightest become nerve ganglia in entities lumbering toward an evolutionary dead end. Yet this leaves opportunities open for the shrews scampering below.

In Europe, thousands of workers are literally picking up the pieces shattered by years of  bankster-engineered fraud and government austerity programs. At over 500 sites across the continent they are reclaiming abandoned factories and offices and turning them into profitable cooperatives.

Cooperatives occupy a gray zone between the top-down central planning of socialist states and the monopoly capitalism of neoliberal states. They are much more laterally organized, by workers who not only have a stake in the profits but a voice in the business decisions. As a bonus these organizations are without the extreme income disparities found in most large corporations.

Even though cooperatives are economic rather than political organizations, they offer a worthy lesson for those labouring in any big dinosaur of an institution: if those the top are no longer listening, it’s time to start conversing with those at your own level.

The Vancouver Courier, June 5