It’s A People Problem

Ha, I just watched the CBC explain to me how Canadians feel about Obama. As if I need telling, due to me being part of where those feelings are sourced. Boy, those journalistic “parsing” skill-sets are hard to switch off, aren’t they? I can’t help but feel a little sorry for journalists who, while they’ve certainly got a great story to tell, are confined to just one way of telling it over and over again. Today it’s all about what did it mean, and the sober appraisal of what may come next, and what that will mean…

Just as if Obama’s speech wasn’t the truly great one that it was: just as if, in listening to it, they couldn’t feel the warmth of the stove, that they were laying their hands on. “Change has come to America.”

It certainly has; but journalists, at least in public, are not allowed to really get that.

Which brings me to a conversation I had yesterday, at a bar.

It was about the venerable theme to Hockey Night In Canada, and how it is no longer licensed by that program because the CBC chose to play tough guy with its composer. Just as if she was trying to hold them up, you see.

Of course she wasn’t: they wanted to be able to use it for things they hadn’t licensed it for, and they owed her money. Then the licence came up for renewal. And CBC gave it a pass. I believe your people call it “hardball”.

So then they held a contest, in which they invited people across Canada to write new themes, one of which would be selected as “the” theme.

You really have to understand what a big deal this is. This is not just some random piece of music, it’s genuinely beloved.


So here’s the deal: whoever wins the contest (it’s already been won, but I don’t know anything about it — to me there is only one “real” theme to HNIC), splits the publishing rights with CBC. So when it gets played, the composer gets paid half of what he’d get paid for any other use.

Now to me, that’s just bad business, and moreover it’s bad for business: it’s a kickback to the licensees for doing the composer the great favour of thinking his song best-suited to their own commercial purposes.

And I happen to believe that people should be paid what they’re owed, for the work they do. Pretty much full stop: they should be paid in full what they are owed, in exchange for the benefit they bring. If you can’t afford to pay them, you should learn to live without their labour. Do it yourself, instead.

Or, hire some kid who doesn’t know any better, so he won’t insist on what he’s got coming?

The way I figure it, that’s just what they did. You often hear professional hockey players say that they love the game so much they’d play it for free, and hopefully we all feel that way about our work at some time or other…but you cannot go and see a hockey game for free, and mortgages need ponying-up for, and it’s not right that somebody incur physical injuries to fatten somebody else’s wallet and receive nothing for it.

In other words, I’ve never cared if professional athletes get paid well for what they do. More precisely: I think they should be. I think they deserve a piece of the owner’s money pie. I think that’s only fair. People are coming to the game to see them.

Of course, many people do not think this is fair at all.

And, surprise surprise! It seems that these are the same people who think that splitting the composer’s royalty with his licensee is a really good deal that the composer should jump on quick, and be grateful to get.

Last night, at the bar, a fairly civil, if not what I’d call an inconsequential, disagreement:

“The CBC has an obligation to try to save money on things like that.”

“An obligation? To whom? To its ‘shareholders’?”

“Well, the taxpayers of Canada are its shareholders.”

“No, the citizens of Canada are its shareholders.”

“…All right fine, the citizens.”

“It’s an important distinction, don’t you think?”

“Yeah, yeah…whatever…”

“I mean we don’t have a poll tax in this country…”

“Yeah, whatever. Anyway they’ve got an obligation to…”

“What, to get kickbacks for themselves? What was the last composer getting, like thirty thousand a year in royalties? Don’t tell me, one shareholder to another, that that was bankrupting the public broadcaster…”

“Look. It’s a contract, okay? It’s a negotiation. They signed it with open eyes, and anyway it’s not like you’re automatically entitled to anything for your copyright anyway…”

“But you’re entitled to a hundred percent of whatever you can get from it, surely? Anyway I don’t know how much of a negotiation it was, sounds a bit more like ‘hey, let’s play a fun game where one of you lucky people gets to make money for me!'”

“Look. It’s what the market will bear…”

“‘Boy, this fence-paintin’ sure is pow’ful fun!‘”

“LOOK! What do you want, some kind of songwriter’s union, or something?”

“Hey, aren’t you in a union?”

“That has nothing to do with it! They signed a contract!

Now, I’m a pretty mild-mannered fellow, Bloggers. I actually set the bar pretty high, when it comes to other people’s behaviours and beliefs that I’m willing to simply judge the shit out of. Normally you have to be some kind of Olympic-level hypocrite to get over it. But…

I don’t know, either we’re all drinking a lot more fortified milk, or that bar’s slipping, because…

…Because here I sat, on the very day this momentous event occurred, and not only was it somehow, amazingly, inconceivably NOT the topic of conversation — I know, only bar in the whole country where people were watching sports! — but instead we were having an argument about fairness, and how it’s not fair to insist people practise fairness and cleave to fairness, and admit fairness is desirable, or at least concede that it’s preferable to unfairness.

And at last, I see that if people are going to devote so much effort to flying over the bar anyway…well then I might as well start to lower it.

The guy in question, that I was talking to…he’s a nice enough sort, well-liked by many people (who seem to view even a milquetoast like me with a certain amount of suspicion, so this must be saying something), and no doubt he’s nice to puppy-dogs and little retarded children, fairly well-educated and decently tolerant and I’m sure he pays his rent on time and he’s got a sense of humour…

And he was happy to see Obama win, and he liked the speech…

But that man’s a cynic even so. And therefore I’m not sure he gets it.

Here’s an example, basically chosen at random, of the kind of thing I mean.  Of course since this guy is an historian instead of an reporter, he commits an error no journalist ever would, by concluding his analysis with a prescription…but you can see the general drift of the thing, regardless.  Nothing will change.  Everything is mechanical.  It’s all just the E talking.  Time to place it all in a larger context, time to show it as just a particularly prettied-up conventionalism, more of the same, because it’s about systems and limits operating on a sociohistorical continuum in which change, properly speaking, cannot really occur.  Because there are many different flavours, but there are no different foods.

If you see what I mean.

And thus:  the view of the historian and the reporter.

But we should remember something this view does not include, something actually rather important:  that we are all historians too, and reporters too, but we don’t have to do what those other historians and reporters do.  Because we outnumber them.  They are studying us, to see how to do their jobs better;  not the other way around.  This is the problem with the CBC telling me what Canadians are saying about Obama, you see — because they do not really know any more about what Canadians are saying about Obama, than I could tell them. Similarly, the problem with analyzing Obama’s speech to see who he was appealing to, who he was speaking to…

A typical journalist’s game.  But cynical:  because don’t we all know that Obama wasn’t speaking to anyone, at all?

No.  He was speaking for.

I mean that’s how you make this kind of a speech, damn it.  That’s its function.  That’s what made it so great.  But there are people out there nevertheless, who will not get that.  They will think they liked it.  But they will think of it cynically, as a strategic move by a political game-player, so they will like it only in the sense of “oh my God, these jelly beans taste like roast potatoes!”  But they won’t actually be eating roast potatoes, as the rest of us are, so they won’t be getting the actual nutrition of roast potatoes along with the taste, and so how could they ever really like it as much?

My friend in the bar, I couldn’t figure him out, at first.  Couldn’t figure out why he was getting so pissed at me.  I mean, all I said was that if I could’ve talked to these HNIC-theme contestants ahead of time, I would’ve told them “tell ’em to pay you properly, or they can go whistle for their new theme song.”  Because they would be the young guys on the job, and I would be the wizened old coot, and I should tell them how it all works, because they need to get paid too.

To my mind, an innocuous remark.  So were was all the spicy-hot fervour coming from?

Then I realized:  he was defending some stuff he believed, because he thought I was attacking it.  Which I guess in a way I kind of was, but naturally I had no idea about that, I just mostly clunk along in this world thinking everybody’s like me.  And maybe he doesn’t even know he believes that thing he was defending, maybe he thinks he believes something else entirely.  Like, he probably doesn’t know enough about what he believes to be able to analyze all the ins and outs of the way it jerks his chain…after all, he is probably mostly a guy that after a hard day’s work would like to sit on a stool in a bar and eat potato-flavoured jelly beans and contextualize shit into meaninglessness, because this is a behaviour that he has discovered does not bite him in the ass.  He is happy Obama won, and he liked the speech…but ultimately it’s all just grist for the mill, you know?  You walk along and you sample random stuff, you put it in your mouth and try to guess what sort of flavour it has, but you are not interested in it being its own thing, you’re not interested in actually doing anything so practical or experiential as eating it, you’re just interested in figuring it out, somehow.  Like it’s a trick, a game, a skill-set you just haul out and exercise for its own sake.  Heck, you’re probably not even that hungry.  You just like to put things in your mouth.

And then if you are really, really unlucky, you run into someone like me while you’re trying to have a quiet drink.

Because what it all comes down to — what the people in the crowds get, and the people on the TVs and the barstools don’t — is that this is all about nothing less than agency itself.

Can we bear the existential terror of living in a world where people have it?  Where, God forbid, they’re entitled to it?

It’s a frightening prospect, I think:  because if other people have it, then skill-set potato-jelly-bean continuum contextualizing gets a lot harder to do — sound-bites boil away into the vacuum of free — really actually free! — will, and then there’s something even worse to follow all that up:

Because if other people have it, then that means we have it too.

It’s all Obama’s been saying.  Agency. He’s been saying “hey, everybody — we don’t need to be scared of this stuff!”  Not that I really believed he meant it really for real real, until last night:  I just figured he was a politician, and so a little bit different from me and the people I know, like the guy on the barstool.  I figured that whatever he said, as a politician he would naturally shun agency, the well-known enemy of things-as-they-are, which is the very thing upon which political careers conventionally depend…in other words I was not quite willing to risk being gulled into assigning Obama his own agency.  I wanted to reserve my right to mentally speed-sort the guy, sum him up, boil him down!  But last night, when he spoke so gratifyingly for and not cynically to, I realized that buddy on the barstool, he’s the politician…!

And Obama’s the guy I should be grabbing the after-work beer with.

“Change has come to America.”

Yes…yes…you know I think I do believe that.  Anyway I think, at the very least, I must be willing to risk believing it.

Because if I can’t bring myself to do that…

Well then, what’s my agency worth?


I mean, it doesn’t mean I won’t still like people.  I’m actually very pro-people, heck I’m a goshdarn people-person!!! (swings fist positively)

But damn it, one way or another that bar is getting LOWERED.

And I think I may have to find a new place to drink beer, too.

Well, Bloggers, I think that’s just about all the time we have, for this session…


5 responses to “It’s A People Problem

  1. It is sooooo uncool to believe in, hell, anything, let alone a politician. Especially given the last 30 some-odd years of American politics. Especially given just how slick this guy seems. Really, cynicism is easy. Trust is hard.

    I voted for the guy I trust. It wasn’t that hard; the other guy just wouldn’t do. The hard part, maintaining trust and hope, starts now. I thought Obama made a great speech, accomplished an amazing feat, and, just maybe, can actually change things for the better.

    The black people (teachers, other staff, and students) at my school, though, they were over the moon. Their belief in this guy is powerful, stronger than any cynicism I’ve encountered. I spoke to an older black man who was practically speechless, and my principal, who grew up in Boston in the ’60s, couldn’t be happier.

    It’s been a good week.

  2. This habitual cynicism is really such a terrible, destructive thing…and I think at just this time, it’s important to be consciously and wholeheartedly intolerant of it. All it’s good for is shutting eyes and ears, really: it’s just a big excuse, fear that the things people do actually matter. Above all, this is a therapeutic event, isn’t it? I keep hearing V’s voice, to Evey: “woman, this is the most important moment of your life; don’t run from it.”

    Much, much more than merely “historic”. Good Lord, what an artificial distance that nevertheless-apt word can impose!

    I guess I’m saying we should be learning from your huge idealistic breakthrough, up here, not vivisecting it. We should be taking this stuff on board, ourselves. What would be so wrong with that? I’m not saying I’m an American too, or that I share your historical background, or anything like that: I’m comfortable being my own separate thing, which is Canadian. For me this is not historic…not yet.

    But it’s goddamn well symbolic! It’s symbolic as hell, right now! Even for me.

    I’m not angry at my friend on the barstool, there, but damn if I could bear to hear anyone try to reassert the privilege of “things as they are” at that instant, even if it was unconsciously. I can’t listen to that speech and then be asked to believe in a bullshit-as-usual world just because I happen to be over the border, you know? Today on the news, they were talking about what Obama’s election “means for Canada”, and it really makes one weep for the insufficiency of our public narratizing schemes — most people feel happy, that’s what it “means for Canada”. But who’s talking about that?

    Instead, I hear people talk about how Obama can’t really change anything, no one can really change anything, it’s all out of our hands…either he can’t do what he says he’s gonna do, or if he could he won’t, because he’s just another politician…and I find I cannot tolerate that roll-over-and-die point of view even as much as I could tolerate it last week. I wish I could have those cynical folks come down there and meet the black people at your school, just so they could get the cobwebs shaken out of their heads. I cannot believe the neurotic urge to cling to a world where human agency remains safely neutralized, fallen between two stools as it were, I mean this hockey stuff is really such a dumb little insignificant thing compared to Obama’s election…it’s most definitely not my finest hour, as far as linking up unrelated things goes…but surely hope deserves better than to be compartmentalized, reserved only for the really big and important stuff. Fear’s all over the place, in the little things too. And we can’t have that anymore, can we?

    Matthew pointed out that Obama mentioned us, too, in his speech. I guess I’d just like to be able to return the favour. And I don’t want to be a prima donna about it or anything, but…

    The hidden term in all of this ranting of mine is the Siegel decision, to bring it down to a comic-book level. A fantastic victory for fairness. And yet what an uproar of inchoate reactionary sentiment it sparked! Like people either can’t bear the moment, or they can’t bear to be in the moment — like they’re somehow scared to death that something previously shitty can actually be corrected, and turned to the good, and without any blood or fire…

    Scared to death, that the system can be made to work the way it’s supposed to?

    For me, it’s drinking with the rosy-cheeked idealists only, from now on. I just can’t be asked to respect pessimism as a social nicety, but oops, I’m being a prima donna after all, I guess. Anyway, very happy for you, Mike! After the Canadian election I felt cheated and ripped-off — just pleased as punch that you don’t have to feel that way. It is a good week!

    Can’t wait to have some more of these kinds of weeks!

  3. Oh, you’re not going to want to drink with me now.

    It is a great week, and I’ve always believed that things can be changed for the better. But we had our Obama moment in ’97, when Blair came in after eighteen years of rancid right-wing rule. He was young and charismatic, gave good speeches and did a pretty good job in his first term.

    Then he got in bed with the neocons and started attacking places. Having your country screwed over by someone you thought was on your side is much worse than having your enemies do it.

    Like I say, I’ve always believed better things are possible. But I look at Obama and I see Blair, and it makes me wonder.

  4. Ah!

    I was there in ’97!

    And I’d been there when Major won the time before, too. Really weird stuff: at that time, for some bizarre reason, we were an election cycle ahead of you, basically your Tory implosion was replicating ours. How people hated me telling them exactly what Major was going to say, and how he would win…and then the next time it was all Blair, Blair, Blair, and he was actually just like Chretien except I think more flawed, because he bought his own bullshit. Not that Chretien was any prize, but he got in almost the same way, and for the same reasons, and with the same speeches and policies.

    Except, you know, he was an old-timer by then. But the comparison was striking.

    You may still be following in our fractal wake, I’m not sure. I mean obviously it was just a matter of structural similarities between Canada and the UK, coupled with the inevitable fallout of the thrice-damned “conservative revolution”, filled out with a heaping helping of total coincidence…but brother was it weird!

    Anyway, I don’t think we’ve had our Obama moment yet. We did have our Chretien moment, but I think that was real similar to your Blair moment. There, I said it!

    Now if you’ll still drink with me after I’ve let loose that bold opinion, I’ll still drink with you as well. In fact why don’t you crack one open, I’m just getting ready to watch “Jack Kirby: Storyteller”. I hear it’s good.

  5. At least the neocon movement is on the decline. Democrats actually gained seats in the House & Senate, despite abysmal approval ratings.
    Givehn Obama’s record thus far (even taking blemishes like voting for wiretapping into account), I think it’s safe to say he won’t turn into what the country has rejected.

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