Reading event: Naomi Klein

Naomi Klein

War Memorial Hall, University of Guelph, September 9 2017:

Wow. It’s been a year since I’ve been to a reading. War Memorial Hall is where the keynote speakers for the Eden Mills Writers’ Festival appear a day before the festival proper kicks off, and it’s where I saw Alexandre Trudeau last year. This year Naomi Klein was up.

The event was sold out and there were actually people lined up hoping to get tickets outside. I thought this was kind of weird. It was sort of like scalping, but it was being arranged by the festival coordinators, and the people who wanted tickets were, as I say, lined up waiting to get second-hand tickets. Tickets were $10 each and I didn’t ask how much they were selling for on this grey market. Surely there was some premium, as those who had them and who had already come out for the event should have been expected to get something for their troubles. But how much of a premium? If you’d bought a ticket and shown up at the Hall, what would somebody have to offer you to give your ticket up? I heard somebody suggest $5, but that hardly seems fair. On the other hand, would you really want to pay $20 for a ticket?

The guests appeared on time but Klein didn’t actually start reading until twenty minutes in. There were three introductions, including a sing-a-long with a representative of Indigenous people. This was a bit different, and also weird because nobody in the audience (I’m sure) had a clue what the words they were singing meant.

Klein read her most recent column, about the forest fires in British Columbia, instead of something from the book she was signing (No Is Not Enough). I wouldn’t say she is a great reader, and I thought the sound needed to be bumped up a bit on the speakers. The interview/discussion after, however, with Tanya Talaga, went very well. Klein is really good at communicating her ideas in a conversational, informal way, and Talaga’s questions took us through the arguments made in No Is Not Enough.

It also helps that it was a friendly audience. The only point where I had some reservations was when Klein talked about taking her child to see the part of the Great Barrier Reef that is still alive. Isn’t such tourism (eco- or otherwise) a big part of the problem? I think we should all be traveling a lot less. I’m all for setting up more sanctuaries where visitors aren’t even allowed and that can only be viewed by webcams.

The audience questions got cut off at the end. They really should have got started sooner. One seemingly eccentric scientist got up to say that she thought the U.S. military might be behind the hurricanes currently pounding Texas and Florida. The crowd groaned, and Klein politely said that she disagreed with such a theory, but I got a kick out of it anyway. It takes all types.

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Cable captions

While I was recently reading a new book on American politics I came across the use of the word “chyron” to describe the words (and/or graphics) that appear at the bottom of the television screen, typically during news broadcasts. I’d never heard the word before, and since I’m always interested in new words I thought I’d check it out.

I figured it must be a new word, as it describes a relatively new phenomenon. Before the advent of cable news I doubt we had much use for it. And indeed the first known occurrence was apparently in 1990. The etymology isn’t from some Greek source but is rather a genericization of a trademark (like “band-aid). It derives from the Chyron Corporation, an American company that, in the 1970s, made the character-generating device that created these captions.

Another one for the word bank!

A media battering

They hugged after the fight.

Last night Floyd Mayweather Jr. defeated Conor McGregor in a highly publicized (read: hyped) boxing match.

The result surprised no one, as Mayweather, despite being a much older man and coming out of retirement for the fight, as well as being (at least) twenty pounds lighter, had a record of 49 – 0 coming in, while McGregor had never boxed professionally.

Even the way it played out wasn’t surprising, as Mayweather simply let McGregor tire himself out in the first few rounds (as he has a known tendency to do) before walking him down later. I don’t think we can read much into the result. Though commentators would say after the bell that McGregor “acquitted himself well/didn’t embarrass himself/held his own,” the fight followed the script Mayweather had written, and the script was to put on a good show.

In most respects, then, it was a fight that was a pseudo-event. Though not fixed, the outcome was never in much doubt and everything pretty much went as expected. What really made it a pseudo-event, however, was the fact that it was such an artificial, manufactured spectacle. Despite not even being a real boxing match, and with no title on the line (though there was a gold, jewel-encrusted “Money Belt”), it became, reportedly, the biggest pay-per-view event in combat sports history. In the weeks leading up to fight night the big question sports reporters were asking was what it would all “mean” for the sport of boxing and MMA. It’s significant that they had to ask. The only real answer was that it meant nothing.

Even the build-up was a let-down. Three of the four public events held with Mayweather and McGregor, both legends in the trash talking department, were unmitigated disasters. But for a pseudo-event the hype is everything, no matter how good it is or whether or not it means anything.

McGregor made his usual boasts about knocking Mayweather out in the first round, and how his cardio was up to a full twelve rounds (which, of course, it wasn’t). “Trust me,” he kept repeating. It was all bullshit. Effective, to some degree, at pumping himself up, but how were we in the audience to take it?

That appeal to trust made me think of another supreme bullshit artist: the current president of the United States. “Trust me,” he said throughout the 2016 election campaign. He was going to build a wall. He was going to defeat ISIS. He was going to make America great again. It was going to be beautiful. Trust me.

The parallel points to a depressing truth. There seems to be little society can do to defend itself against such masters of self-promotion. One may criticize them, fact-check them, rail against them even, but it’s all for nought. The sports media rightly called Mayweather-McGregor a cynical money-grab and a joke, but so what? The mainstream news media, including most of the conservative media, rejected Trump right down the line. It didn’t make any difference. Simply by being talked about these celebrity brands and pseudo-events were winners.

This was brought home to me in a recent report done on the media coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign. Remember: the mainstream media overwhelmingly endorsed Hillary Clinton for president. Nevertheless, Trump won the war for the media, getting far more coverage, and it didn’t matter in the slightest that most of it was either (a) clips of his most outrageous gaffes and lies, or (b) negative commentary on the same. It also didn’t matter whether what he was saying was true or offensive. His whole campaign was a pseudo-event, like the Mayweather-McGregor fight. Criticism is pointless. Such people and such events are critic-proof, just like countless Hollywood and publishing blockbusters. Did anyone think 50 Shades of Grey was a good book, or a good movie? Twilight? The Transformers? They were panned by critics and audiences, yet they were all runaway franchise megahits. The power of the brand is truly remarkable.

It seems to me this is a problem. It’s a natural bias in the media that, as I say, society doesn’t seem to have any defence against. In the week leading up to the big May-Mac fight it didn’t just dominate the sports news programs but even took over top spot on the regular news. All of this coverage (promotion, free advertising) for a phony spectacle starring a couple of particularly loud celebrities. It’s assumed that between them Mayweather and McGregor took home close to half a billion dollars for the night’s work. A reality-TV host has become president. I know I shouldn’t be surprised or upset by this, but I don’t know how to be cynical enough not to be.

Mad madhouse

Over at Alex on Film I’ve been watching some adaptations of the Poe story “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether.” It’s an odd story, and may be the first to develop the theme of lunatics taking over and running the asylum. It’s always been a bit of an awkward piece to adapt though, as the audience knows what’s going on well before the coup is revealed, meaning our attention has to be diverted elsewhere. Nevertheless, I thought The Mansion of Madness (1973) was really good. Don’t Look in the Basement (1973) is just cheap exploitation fare. Stonehearst Asylum was only OK, and nothing to be excited about despite the cast.

Rustling to and frou

From The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham: “There was a pocket of silence in Midwich, broken only by the frouing of the leaves, the chiming of the church clock, and the gurgle of the Opple as it slid over the weir beside the mill . . .”

Frouing? I thought this was a typo at first. What it appears to be is a derivation — perhaps unique in English (since I can’t find any other examples of it or any dictionary citations, even online) — from frou-frou, which is a rustling sound as of silk. This in turn comes from the French for something decorative or fancy (particularly with regard to clothes). The French verb is froufrouter, to rustle.

I would like what Wyndham’s done, but I don’t think frouing sounds right in English. I guess it’s pronounced froo-ing, but I’d like to say frow-ing. In any event, it didn’t catch on and for all I know this is the only place it appears. Making it a kind of linguistic cuckoo itself.

Waiting for the great leap . . . forward?

You mean, we’re all going to turn into Johnny Depp? No thanks.

Over at Alex on Film I’ve been watching a bunch of SF movies dealing with the next step in humanity’s evolution. What surprised me the most was how upbeat and apocalyptic the response seemed to be to this. There’s nothing to be frightened of because it will be something truly incredible: the tipping point where we become as gods in the Singularity or digital rapture. I wanted to include my thoughts on Demon Seed just to provide an example of what an earlier generation (my own) thought about the wedding of humanity with our technology. In any event, I once again got more political than I probably should have, but that’s the fun part of having a blog. Here are the films I looked at.

Demon Seed (1977)
Limitless (2011)
Her (2013)
Lucy (2014)
Transcendence (2014)
Morgan (2016)

On not rising to the top

Over at Good Reports I’ve posted my review of Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers In Their Own Land. It’s an excellent work of social reportage that stands alongside Brian Alexander’s Glass House as an attempt to explain and understand what is happening in the United States, and in particular the forces that led to the election of Donald Trump.

What I find interesting is that there was another book on the same general topic that was published at the same time: Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance. To say that Vance’s book received far more coverage and enjoyed better sales than the other two books combined would, I think, be an understatement. And yet of the three I think it’s by far the worst. The cream doesn’t always rise to the top.