Sunday, April 24, 2016

More Turkeys: In Which the Author Breaks Turkish Law.

"Recep Tayyip Erdoğan." is a twerp.

There. I've done it. I could be arrested in Turkey now. I must never try and enter the place. In Turkey it is illegal to insult the president (translation: criticize his government), and it fully expects other governments to enforce this law in their own countries as well - as Germany was recently quite happy to do. Let's hope my government has more guts than Germany's.

Now, Turkey has seen fit to detain foreign journalists as well as her own, as Dutch writer Ebru Umar has learned.  

Tin-pot dictatorships detaining journalists is nothing new. What's galling about this case is that until recently Turkey claimed to be a democracy, and presumed for herself a place among civilized nations. It's depressing to see such places sink backwards, and depressing to see no one in power calling her out on her bullshit. According to the above article, more than 1800 cases have been prosecuted in Turkey since 2014, and more than a hundred journalists imprisoned. Umar isn't the first Duch Woman to be arrested either: they nabbed Frederike Geerdink last year.

Think about this next time you open up your local tabloid and see a grotesquely offensive caricature of your Prime Minister or President in the editorial cartoon. In many parts of the world publishing cartoons is a criminal offense. The ability to publish such cartoons is a very simple acid test of the health of a democracy. Those who would tamper with such rights are beneath contempt.

So yeah, Erdogan is a petty tyrant, a tin-pot dictator, a twerp, a scoundrel, an all around asshole. It needs to be said; stopping people from saying it doesn't make it any less true. 

Friday, April 15, 2016

With Tongue Firmly Bursting from Cheek: Thoughts on Kiss.

Finding myself in a record store with a coupon felt a lot like it used to feel when my grandparents gave me a small paper bag, said “take what you want” and let me loose in their general store. Under such conditions, I acquired my very first Kiss record. As it was only four dollars, and someone else’s four dollars to boot, I figured “why not?”.

Rock and Roll Over was exactly as I expected: unremarkable, but not unappealing. Lead track “I Want You” pretty much sets the pace, right down to the unambiguous title. It kicks off with a wimpy Boston-esque acoustic intro that’s over before you were really sure it began, switching to its teenaged tantrum of a chorus.  The whole album more or-less follows the formula – “get it out of the way” verse, “more like a chant” chorus, ‘nother verse, short bridge, chant-chorus, chant chorus.  It feels almost factory produced. And lyrically[1], there’s nothing here your average horny fifteen-year old couldn’t have written. Who else could’ve penned a petulant refrain like “I Want You”, or “meet me in the ladies room” with a straight face? Was there ever a band up until that point so unashamedly unsophisticated and unabashedly crude?

Yet for all that, it’s catchy as hell. The secret weapon here is of course Ace Frehely, who, if no Blackmore or Iommi, manages to infuse even the lamest choruses with flare and groove.  I confess, I’ve always liked Paul Stanley’s singing, and ringmaster Gene Simmons keeps it all anchored together. The formula works. I suspect Master Simmons realized early on that whatever else he had planned for this mega-venture called Kiss, the whole project would be dead in the water if they couldn’t write songs people wanted to hear.

I was particularly interested in the production by Eddie Kramer. It’s bass heavy, and muffled. It sounds like the band is performing in your living room, and I can’t help picturing them recording in a studio with a shag carpet. Now, I have no idea if Record Plant Studios actually has shag carpet in their recording rooms, but that’s what it feels like. There is something there absorbing the echoes. Compare that with the approach that would become fashionable in the eighties, when every band on the planet, Kiss included, apparently lost their bass player and took to recording in a tin-can[2].   

For me, it’s all very evocative of an era – the Seventies – which I directly experienced, but got all its detritus growing up. Re-runs, film strips, fashions and furniture my folks hadn’t gotten rid of, movies that were still pretty recent and songs that weren’t yet that old. It takes no great leap of the imagination to place my pre-adolescence a little bit earlier than it actually happened. (Okay, a full decade earlier, but bear with me).

Picture if you will, a nerdy teenager in the Seventies, living in a room stacked high with comic books and Kenner action figures, and recent memories of Hannah Barbara. Chemicals are raging inside, but you’re not sure where they fit in your current world. You find four spandex-clad masked superheroes singing what you’re thinking, and BOOM – lifelong Kiss fan is born.

(Why mention Hannah Barbara? Evocative of the era. And those cartoons were no-less fantastical than the Don Juan world of Kiss. It’s entirely appropriate that Hanna Barbara produced Kiss meet the Phantom in the Park; it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Kiss coexists in the same world as Scooby-Doo).

Of course, this little counter-factual thought experiment only goes so far. I actually was a nerdy teenager in a room full of comic books and Kenner action figures, with recent memories of Hannah Barbara, and Star Wars and Dungeons and Dragons and every other badge of nerd-dom imaginable, and I never got into Kiss. I was fascinated by their imagery, but was deeply disappointed to hear how much they sounded like frat-boys. I mean, how could you dress like a demon and never sing about demons? Where were the swords? The Space-ships? The Conan-themed concept albums?  Maybe it was the Catholic abstinence-only education, but I was weary of anything overtly sexual back then, and couldn’t relate to party-bands (mainly ‘cause I didn’t get invited to those kind of parties). Hormones could be channelled into pulp fiction and dime novels, but rarely openly confronted or declared.  More importantly, the music itself, mid-paced rock songs, seemed kind of well, sedate to a kid who’d already discovered Black Sabbath. (And Rush ruined just about every other band).

But. . .remember, we’re evoking the era. The year is 1976, and Rock and Roll Over is Kiss’s fifth studio album. Heavy Metal is a very new, loosely defined thing with only a few practitioners (and more than a few who no longer fit the bill today). There is no thrash Metal, no symphonic Power Metal, no Death Metal, Bay Area and Gothenburg are just points on a map, and   Norway exports nothing but peat moss. The world has yet to discover Sad Wings of Destiny, or 2112[3].  Heck, Star Wars hasn’t even come out yet! We are not yet spoiled by the embarrassment of sonic riches yet to come, and the pickings are slim. Into this world parachutes Kiss. . .

            Consider also, that Kiss were never about the records. Picture if you will, the live show, all explosions and spotlights, a choreographed spectacle which no one else at the time was doing, at least on nothing near the same scale. I can’t help but admire anyone who takes theatre seriously. I’ve been to hundreds of shows and am constantly dismayed by how many “performers” can’t respect the science of the stage – looking bored, showing up drunk, opening with slow songs, mumbling to the crowd. . . While the punks may bristle at the blatant capitalism of it all, there comes with it both professionalism and craftsmanship – ticket buying fans are guaranteed to get what they pay for. Compare this with the contempt artistes like Zepplin or G’n’R often showed to common folk who actually had to work for a living. . .

Back to our fifteen year old. Martin Popoff formulated it thus: kid is enraptured by Kiss show, picks up guitar, learns a few Kiss songs, finds they’re not that hard and soon surpasses Frehely. By the time he’s twenty five, he’s guitar wizard in his own right, has his own band, and BOOM: the year is 1986, and there are Metal bands everywhere.    

Everyone from Anthrax to Zombie cite Kiss as an influence. It’s not really there in the songs – would you have guessed Thomas Quorthon was a huge Kiss fan? (Or Garth Brooks for that matter?). But the performance aesthetic – knees bent, shoulder width apart, rictus-grin, tongue like thrust out like a whale-harpoon, chrome, steel and leather[4] - that’s all Kiss[5].  That, and the lust for glory, to stand on stage and command an audience. More inspiration than influence, their impact has been huge. They’re not really a band, but an idealization of what a band should be like.

Besides, how could anyone not like “Rock and Roll all Nite”?

[1] I swear “Love ‘em, Leave ‘em” sounds a lot like “Normal People”, which is probably the very last thing this band would ever sing about.     

[2] Judas Priest were the worst offenders. Ian Hill was still in the band pics but you’d be hard-pressed to hear him anywhwere.
[3] Alright, released the same year, but the first real statements by either outfit. Consider the era Up Until Then.
[4] Priest played their part here.
[5] Though Gene Simmons did not invent the Malocchio. 

The Turkey rules the Roost: How Recep Erdogan came run things in Germany

           So. . .

             Having destroyed freedom of speech in Turkey, it now looks like Recep Erdogan wants to destroy it in Germany as well. Don’t laugh: he just might.

            According to the Guardian It started when a comedian named Jan Böhmermann read out a less than flattering poem about Erdogan on German television. The legendarily thin-skinned Erdogan went crying to Angela Merkel, demanding Bohmermann be prosecuted. After which Merkel, as leader of one of the world’s strongest democracies, told Erdogan in uncertain terms to screw off, right?


            No actually. She frumped disapprovingly over this “deliberately offensive text”, which is only to be expected in diplomatic circles. After all, what is one world leader supposed to say to another? But it would never go to trial. Would it?

             Well. . .there is a law. Paragraph 103 of the Criminal Code forbids insulting representatives of foreign states. And there are some German politicians who seem quite keen to enforce it. No less than the general secretary of the Merkel's party Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Peter Tauber exclaimed:

“In a constitutional democracy we all have to stick to the rules, and one of these rules is that offending foreign heads of state is punishable by law,”  

              Wow. Nobody tell Kim Jong Un.

              Isn’t it interesting that Mr. Tauber thinks protecting the delicate feelings of foreign despots is more integral to Constitutional Democracy than upholding the rights of its own citizens? And why am I not surprised that a politician would want to enforce a law designed to protect politicians from ridicule?  

              Granted, I’m no lawyer, but all the same, I’m at a loss as to how German lawmakers figured this little stipulation was consistent with Constitutional Democracy. Basically, it means that any tin-pot dictator’s cult of personality is technically enforceable in Germany.
I hope it doesn’t have an extradition treaty with any of these places.

            That’s the obvious part. But there is a little worm in the ointment that complicates things a little. It doesn’t change anything, but it complicates it just a bit. Let’s look at what Böhmermann actually said. Like all the best comedians, most of what he said is true. He accuses Erdogen of “repressing minorities” – true! – “kicking kurds” – true! – “slapping Christians” – true! – “while watching child porn” – oh dear.

            Accusing someone of watching child porn is not a small thing, and it’s only natural that Erdogen would take exception to it. It muddies the waters because it takes us from the realm of political commentary into the world of slander and libel, where, under most juristictions, Erdogen would have a much stronger case.

              What is libel? The technical definitions vary, but it basically amounts to false accusation, or defamation, or falsehoods that could damage a reputation. Spurious accusation of child pornography could destroy a life just as thoroughly as a physical assault, so laws are in place to prevent them being made willy-nilly.
Newspapers have to be super careful when reporting on such things; it’s why in criminal trials, even where the evidence seems overwhelming, the crime is always “alleged” and the defendant is always “the accused”.

             A chief defense against libel law is that of “fair-comment”. It is fair to comment on certain things and express an opinion. So, for example, in a restaurant review, you are free to say it’s a lousy restaurant, but not that they put rats in the stew. The former is just your opinion; the later is a lie.[1] The former is fair comment, the latter would be slander. I wonder if Böhmermann has opened himself up to a charge of slander, rather nullifying his fair (and necessary) political comment with a cheap (and not-terribly funny) joke.

             The existence of libel law – in theory – shouldn’t amount to a limitation on your freedom of expression. You are free to speak the truth. You do have to prove that it is the truth. Which strikes me as only fair and reasonable: say what you will, but be prepared to back up your words.  I personally have always thought of freedom of expression as the ability to speak the truth rather than the ability to blab: but as one man’s truth is another man’s blabbery, the definition should be as inclusive as possible and come with as few external fetters as possible.

            Unfortunately, libel law is often used to limit freedom of expression, and limit the truth. In Britain, anybody can sue anybody for just about anything. The British Chiropractic Association sued Dr. ___________ for telling the British public that chiropractic is full of shit[2]. He didn’t slander them: all he did was publish the data. In my home town, developers have sued residents for speaking out against them – their case was weak, but they were counting on their victims to be unable to bear the court costs. In the hands of the rich, this law, like most others can be a gag for the poor.

            But libel law isn’t the only gag available to the psychotically insecure, and dictators aren’t the only ones ins search of them. I don’t even know if Erdogen’s going for libel. What interests me is that laws exist in democratic countries which give foreign dictators a measure of control over their citizenry, and many people seem happy to relinquish this control. Germany isn’t the only place with such laws on the books: Italy, Poland and Switzerland have them too, and in Britain’s it’s still technically illegal to call for abolishing the monarchy in print. Not so long ago, many people happily conceded that the Ayatolah Komeny should have the power of life and death over British citizens. Many seem to think the Charlie Hebo staff had it coming. Ireland still has blasphemy laws on its books. In Canada, citizens can be hauled before “Human Rights Tribunals” without legal representation, for any perceived slight. Some conservatives want to criminalize criticism of Israel (anti-semitism), and some liberals want to criticise criticism of Islam (Islamophobia) and both call for ever expanding the hate speech or obscenity laws.

           Meanwhile, bloggers have been arrested and lashed by their government in Saudi Arabia[3], or lynched by their countrymen in Bangladesh for the despicable crime of expressing their thoughts. Both must have known the risks and both thought them worth taking. Courageous people the world over are dying for what we in the first world are quite relinquishing. How inspiring and sickening it is at the same time.   

Update:  Merkel's caved in, and is letting the prosecution go ahead: 

Most concerning is this little quote from the CDU Parliamentary Faction leader:

“In a constitutional democracy, it is up to the courts to decide where the boundaries lie."

So, the courts get to decide the limits of satire, and the limits of speech, and the limits of thought. Has the Parliamentary Faction leader considered that the courts decide such things in dictatorships as well?

Autocrats of the world, rejoice!

[1] Assuming of course they don’t actually do this – but even if they did, you’d need damn good evidence for it before committing it to print. You’d be better off just repeating what other people say.
[2] Fortunately, Dr.___________ is also a best-selling author, and so happened to have the resources to fight back. Many do not.
[3] Which Canada’s Liberal government is happily selling a billion dollars worth of armoured cars to. 

Two trials in Toronto: On Jian Ghomeshi and due process

            Jian Ghomeshi is a creepy douchebag, who, until recently, was one of the chief arbiters of Canadian culture. Think about that for a minute. What does it say about a country’s art scene that would choose to be represented by such a goof? I digress.

            A lot of things have come out about this demented hipster lately that leaves little doubt in most people’s minds that he is a narcissistic letch; but there just wasn’t enough to convict him of a crime.

            This has made a lot of people understandably upset, and inspired many to call for drastic changes to the system. Just what kind of changes I’ll leave to the experts, but in this highly emotionally charged atmosphere, I would caution everyone to remember that a conviction is never guaranteed.

            If there is one thing that protects us from the wrath of dictators, or the hysteria of the mob, it is that. It’s what separates democracies from tyrannies, free societies from closed ones. Innocence is the default assumption, allegations must be proven, and everyone, but everyone, gets to defend themselves.

           Now I would never make excuses for an evident scoundrel like Ghomeshi. But I would never deny him his trial either. Some seem upset that there was a trial at all. What they apparently wanted was an automatic conviction in a kangaroo court. Many are angry with the Defense lawyer, Marie Henein, but don’t specify how they themselves would have conducted the defense, or what sort of defense they would have allowed under their ideal system. These are not technicalities; until such things are specified, calls for change aren’t much more than demands for a witch-hunt.  And while “I believe the victims” hashtags all sound very nice, they do reject outright the presumption of innocence.

            There probably are changes that do need to be made to the justice system, there are indeed things that the law and society at large need to do to improve the lot of victims, and there is possibly the political will to do it now. But whatever changes end-up being made, don’t forget that a conviction is not supposed to be easy, and it is the prosecution’s responsibility to prove guilt. If there’s anyone the demonstrators should be angry with, it’s the prosecutors, who completely failed to make the case; it was their responsibility, their opportunity, and their bungle. Any reforms that weaken the threshold of evidence or weaken citizen’s rights to defend themselves would not serve justice any better.

            In the aftermath of the acquittal, it may be of some comfort that Ghomeshi is not getting off scott-free. His life is ruined, his career is over, and he's got no one but himself to blame. He’s not getting his job back at the CBC; he will never work in broadcasting again. He will be lucky to scrub the toilets at any radio station from here on in. He’s the public face of sleaze: who’s going to hire him?  He will be lucky to appear in public without getting pelted with lettuce. No one will read his book. No one will remember or care about Q, or Play, or Moxy Fruvous. Nothing he does again will ever matter. He will only be remembered as a guy who liked to hurt women. It will be the denouemant of his Wikipedia entry, and main plot of his obituary. For a narcissistic primadonna like him, that’s probably a worst punishment than anything the judge could have handed down.  

       His day in court seems almost irrelevant. 

Two Trials in Toronto:On Law Enforcement and Due Process; Sammy Yatim and James Forcillo.

Two trials in Toronto. One finished some months ago. The other only just. One ended in a Guilty verdict. The other in a Not-Guilty one.  Both verdicts of both have made people very upset. One has upset people who hold a great deal of power; the other, people who hold a great deal less power. Some are so upset, they want to see the whole system changed. 

I don’t care very much about media circuses (though compared to high profile US trials, these ain’t nuthin’), but I do care very deeply about due process – as far as rights go, I’d argue it’s just about the most important one. The one that allows all the others. And during emotional cases like these, it’s at its most fragile.

The first trial was about a cop who shot a kid. That sounds bad, but it gets to the heart of the matter. Use “Police Officer opened fire on a knife-wielding teenager” if you prefer. The whole thing was caught on Youtube, a lot of people thought the cop didn’t need to shoot (nine times as it were), there was a trial, and the jury agreed. Officer James Forcillo was found guilty.

Having never confronted a knife wielder myself, I’m in no position to judge how someone else should handle the situation. But, like most Canadians, I’m appalled by gun violence, and when such stories come out I think it’s entirely fair to ask “was there no other way”?  Alas, a lot of the time isn’t. Sometimes though, there is. That’s what inquiries are for, and when enough questions are raised, trials.

Officer Forcillo had his day in court. He made his case, he told his side of the story. The jury heard the evidence, deliberated, and found that yes, he had used undue force. They found him guilty. Some people are upset about this (just as many people would have been upset if the trial had gone the other way) – they think it sends a disturbing message to police, that it punishes them for doing their jobs. Nothing of the kind. The message it sends is that they too will be held accountable for their actions, and that nobody is above the law.

But everybody gets their day in court.

Which brings me to the next trial. . .   

On Liars. . .

             While I studying at Ryerson, one of the things I had to read was Joe Gould’s Secret  by Joseph Mitchell. In it, Mitchell, a New York reporter, tells of his encounters with Joe Gould, a homeless man and local celebrity. While Gould possesses a great many eccentricities, what interests Mitchell most is the “oral history” Gould is supposedly in the process of writing, a massive collection of all the city’s little stories, legends, and anecdotes, which he claims will soon be longer than the Bible. Just about everything Gould has ever seen or heard has found its way into the oral history, and he is keen to bring it up in almost every conversation. Despite all this, he’s never actually shown it to anyone, nor has he told anyone where he keeps it (he is homeless remember). It sounds all very fishy to Mitchell until one day he clues in:

            There is no oral history. It doesn’t exist.

            When confronted, Gould is speechless, and goes into something of a trance. Mitchell backs off, and Gould goes straight back to telling his stories, not even acknowledging the conversation. He had become so invested in his stories that he came to believe them, and could no longer face the reality, or lack thereof.

            Have you ever met someone like that? Someone so obviously full of shit, but utterly convinced of it? I don’t mean the occasional fibber, or embellisher – we all do that now and then. I mean. . .

            People who always have some crazy story to tell, but can almost never provide direct evidence of it happening. . .

            People who never seem to have any witnesses, can never produce anyone to corroborate their stories, never have any shared experiences with common acquaintances. . .

            People who’s experiences never seem to have any logical consequences – no long, or even medium term affects. Nothing ever comes back to haunt them, and they never follow-up on things they mentioned before. . .

            Who didn’t take pictures, or save their receipts. Who don’t ever have any souvenirs from their adventures. . .

            People who who’s stories are always more interesting than yours, who’s triumphs are greater than yours, whose sufferings are greater than yours, who’s coincidences are stranger than yours, who’s celebrity encounters are greater than yours, who’s dealings with bureaucracy are more frustrating than yours. . .

            Who remember things in just bit too much detail; who’s experiences sound just a bit too scripted. . .

            Who seem to be trying just a bit too hard. . .

            You see what I mean? Not to mention body language and tone of voice. Do they look you in the eye? Do their voices ever waver? Police investigators are experts at detecting all the little ticks of the liar, but on an instinctive level, most of us can just tell. Really good liars know this, and learn how to control themselves, but most. . .don’t.

            I saw a good movie once (forgive me, I forget the title) in which an East German Ustache instructor lectures an auditorium full of bright-eyed-bushy-tailed would-be interrogators “An honest person will make mistakes, forget things and contradict themselves. A liar will stick to a script they’ve memorized beforehand.” Possibly contradictory, but it makes sense on some level: most of us don’t memorize the details of our lives. We simply take them for granted. Often as not, we can’t remember where we were at two o’clock last weekend, how many times we’ve been out in the past week, what we were doing at such-and-such a place when we ran into such-and-such a person. Where we put our car keys and television remote controls.  As Sky Masterson tells Nathan Detroit: “I’ll bet you can’t remember the colour of your tie.”

            Yet the liar of this magnitude will remember their experiences in excruciating detail, and recall conversations with scrip-like accuracy.

            Now, who knows: possibly some people can do that. Some people do have very good memories and some people do lead very interesting lives. But sometimes. . .you can just tell.

            Here’s the other thing: most people, when caught telling tall-tales, will own up. They confess, equivocate or rationalize (maybe apologize), and probably cling to that little kernel of truth around which they built their tale. But some, like Joe Gould, will not.

            What to make of such people? Is reality so intolerable that they need to construct fictions in which to live? In which case it’s for their benefit rather than ours. Despite their colossal untruths, liar doesn’t quite seem to fit. I often think they genuinely believe what they’re saying. Delusional? Maybe.

            Every now and then I run into a guy at the bar. He’s friendly and gregarious, and just plain full of it. I don’t believe any of his fish stories, for all the reasons listed above. But because he’s friendly and gregarious, and because I’d rather be greeted by friendly people than unfriendly people, like Mitchell, I let it go. No difference to me. 

            But supposing it was skin off the nose? What happens in those situations where the stories are not harmless; when they lure you into their lives with their tall tales and convince you to make important, possibly life changing decisions based on them? Do they really not see what they’re doing? Do they need their fictions so much that they’re willing to drag you into them?

            I’ve met people like that too. But that’s another story. . .