What is, and isn’t fake news?

fake-word-cloudFAKE NEWS—the only fake news, the only definition of fake news, the only correct definition of fake news, the only worthwhile correct definition of fake news, the only possible worthwhile correct definition of fake news—is news parody. Fake news is not just news you don’t agree with or that makes you feel sad, even if you are Donald Trump.

Fake news is openly satirical material like that found in publications like The Onion, Private Eye, and The Beaverton, which use the format, style, and accoutrement of news to make their points and/or get laughs, as well as stuff along the lines of Saturday Night Live‘s “Weekend Update” or The Daily Show, in which Jon Stewart occasionally used to open the show with “Welcome to the fake news.”

The central fact of fake news is that even though the thoughts, emotions, and purpose behind it may be genuine, it must never under any circumstances purport to be real news. We know it’s fake, it knows it’s fake, and it wears the “fake” label proudly and unabashedly. 

REAL NEWS is information gleaned from legitimate sources by professionally trained, seasoned journalists writing for actual established news organizations and syndicates preferably of a certain vintage and pedigree—Thomson-Reuters, Associated Press, and Canadian Press, for example.

You’ll find real news in newspapers of record, for instance, The Times, The Sunday Times, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, The Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, and various smaller independent papers; reputable magazines including Time, NewsweekThe Atlantic, Harper’s, Maclean’s, The Nation, National Review, and The New Yorker that have cultivated trust and a following over many decades; and broadcast media such as the CBC, BBC, and major US networks; as well as the online versions of all the above media. In short, the mainstream—or what extremists and partisans oh, so cleverly call “lamestream”—media is the honest-to-goodness real news. 

Real news ideally treats its subjects with a fair mind and an even hand, is rigorously fact-checked and stripped clean of fictitious elements (this is vital!), passes through experienced editors before dissemination to the people, and must not be intentionally misleading. Its job is to keep us, as dispassionately but interestingly as possible, informed about public affairs and trends, and aware of our surroundings. Journalism is a noble profession when practised properly, for the free press is our ally and the best guardian we have against auhority.

Real news is not a cheerleader or a mouthpiece for any government or other societal power structure. As Finley Peter Dunne said (however ironically), it must afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. For this reason, journalists and politicians must never be in bed with one another and there can be no real or perceived conflict of interest. This is a cardinal rule of both professions. 

Real news is meant to train a bright spotlight on dirty deeds that are hidden from view either through neglect or by design. If it’s not turning over rocks and pointing at what crawls out, real news is not doing its job. For this reason, it must be independent.

Independence isn’t the same as not having a point of view, of course. Reporters are people and people have a wide variety of opinions, so it’s ridiculous to believe that they should divorce their personal perspective from their work. The trick is to make sure that ideology never clouds the facts. Moreover, bear in mind that reporters do not make editorial policy, owners do.

Real news also includes commentary, but only if it’s clearly labelled as such and delivered either by experts in a given field or by the seasoned professional journalists mentioned above as a way of providing context for their real news stories. In some forms of real news, for instance day-to-day arts journalism, criticism is the most basic function, while behind-the-scenes reports and interviews are generally the sidebars, except in magazines that specialize in one or another of the arts. In the real news world outside the arts, though, commentary must take a back seat to reportage.

Sometimes real news will get things wrong, but it’s more often than not by accident, and any legitimate news organization worthy of the name will admit its error and correct its mistakes publicly by issuing a retraction. When is the last time a politician did that?

Everything that does not fit the above definitions is PROPAGANDA, which must be avoided at all costs, especially when it calls itself real news. Propaganda doesn’t even rise to the intellectual stature of fake news, much less the real thing.

F: The Social Medium with the X-Ray Eyes

I got to thinking the other day about Roger Corman’s X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, and it struck me that in a sense, Facebook is like that movie. Near the end, the drops that Ray Milland has put in his eyes have made him able to see through a nearly infinite number of layers of stuff all at once, and he goes mad from disorientation.


Back before the internet, in the normal course of a life, we would move from one part of town to another, one community to another, one country to another, and in each place we’d pick up a new set of friends and acquaintances, all except for a few of whom we’d never hear from again once we moved on, but not to worry, we’d pick up a fresh, new crew, most of which we’d shed with our next move, and so on.

We thought nothing of this; it was what naturally happened, and really, sometimes you want to leave things behind and start over. These sets of friends were all in their own individual boxes: you had your grade school friends, your university friends if you went to one, your army buddies if you served, and your friends and colleagues from various successive jobs, and of course you kept the ones who were the most meaningful to you and discarded the rest. Who wouldn’t?

But with social media, and Facebook especially, you find yourself reconnecting with people you might not have seen in 10, 20, 30, 40 years, including some from the discard pile. But your life is incrementally shaped by big and little decisions, people you come into contact with, and events you probably have no control over, till you’re not who you were X number of years ago. The same goes for all of your current and former friends, and if there’s been no contact in the meantime, what you remember is each other at age 10 or 20 or 30 or 40. I know I’ve reinvented myself so many times, growing and shrinking in various ways, that I’ve been several different people with several layers added to my personality, layers that would make 57-year-old me unrecognizable to me at 10.

Now, I’m not even entirely sure I want all the different stages of my life bumping into one another. For most users, Facebook is a big room where we’ve assembled a bunch of family members, old friends, work friends, play friends, and others of various levels of acquaintanceship. Everyone knows a little something about you, your history, your personality, that time in Vegas, but not the whole picture. Put them all together and that kind of goes out the window—so much for mystery. I’d rather be the only one who knows everything about myself.

So when I post something on Facebook and see responses from people I knew when I was seven or in high school, or from community theatre or places I’ve worked, and all these people who’ve never met one another start talking to one another, it’s like I’m looking at a bunch of different and, I had thought, discrete parts of my life all at the same time, like poor Ray Milland with his X-ray eyes, and it’s often disconcerting, but not enough to make me go mad, no, just enough to make me go hmmm…

So, hmmm…

Why Hillary owes Canada an apology

wtc1stplanejustbeforeitcrashesDo you remember 9/11? Of course you do. It was a traumatic event not only for the United States, but the entire world. We watched in horror as the towers fell, worried sick about our friends in New York City. Our broken hearts went out to America. We felt their pain. 

Gestures of support and offers of assistance quickly flooded in from all over the globe, including here in Canada. I myself offered to donate plasma for the injured, but Canadian Blood Services told me it was not legally permissible because the US is a foreign country and besides, the terrorists’ handiwork was so thorough, the devastation so complete, that almost all of the casualties were deaths, and the dead do not need transfusions.

Other Canadians did have an opportunity to help in a meaningful way, though. When all air traffic to the United States was halted because of the high alert, incoming planes were diverted to Gander airport, and hundreds of scared travellers were fed and sheltered free of charge in the homes of Newfoundlanders, who are some of the best people in the whole wide world.

America was grateful, very grateful. She hadn’t been this grateful since the Tehran hostage crisis, when American diplomats were secreted for months in the Canadian embassy at great personal risk to ambassador Ken Taylor and his staff. But that’s what friends do.

Except for those times when the United States attempted to invade us, our two countries, separated by the world’s longest undefended border, have been staunch (if at times testy) friends sharing a host of goals and values. We have also been each other’s largest trading partner for almost two centuries. John Kennedy addressed our Parliament shortly after taking office: 

We share common values from the past, a common defense line at present, and common  aspirations for the future — our future, and indeed the future of all mankind. Geography has made us neighbors. History has made us friends, Economics has made us partners. And necessity has made us allies. Those whom nature hath so joined together, let no man put asunder. What unites us is far greater than what divides us.

So imagine our consternation when Pat Buchanan loudly proclaimed that these mostly Saudi Arabian murderers had come into the United States from Canada. OK, we all knew Pat was a creep, but this came as a total shock to us, and rightly so, because the report he was quoting was untrue. But you know, consider the source.

As it happened, the terrorists had entered the US the way overseas travellers usually do, through an airport on American soil, and then took some pilot training in the US over a number of months. By “some pilot training”, I mean they apparently weren’t all that interested in learning how to land. Why that didn’t raise any red flags with the flight instructors, I have no idea.

Now, imagine our further consternation when in 2005 Hillary Clinton repeated Buchanan’s debunked lie in the Senate, saying, amongst other things. “We need to look to our friends in the north to crack down on some of these false documents and illegals getting in.” 

This was downright insulting. A large majority of Canadians had been positively ecstatic when the American people kicked George Bush out of the White House and replaced him with Bill Clinton. During the 1990s, Clinton and Prime Minister Jean Chrétien got along famously — even golfed together many times — and got some good things done. We thought we were best buds with the Americans in general, and the Clintons in particular. And we were horrified when George W Bush followed Clinton.

So Senator Clinton’s words felt like a betrayal of all we had achieved together. Obviously she blamed Canada for political purposes; she was, after all, representing the state where 9/11 happened, where the population was still justifiably on edge, and which borders Canada, and she could not afford to be seen as lax about the threat of terrorism.

Still, when it was pointed out to the senator that the report of the 9/11 terrorists entering the US through Canada was a hoax, she replied that “the hoax was all too believable.” Around then, she was believing a lot of things that weren’t true, including that there were WMDs in Iraq and that marriage is only between a man and a woman. I suppose that was her politician’s way of saying she was fooled without having to admit she was wrong.

But did Senator Clinton apologize for this slight? No.

Has Secretary Clinton apologized since for her slander? No.

Will presidential candidate Clinton ever apologize to the Canadian people? My first impulse is to say no, but I think the answer is yes — that is, if she hopes to have normal, happy relations with Canada as President of the United States.

Till then, nothing is forgiven or forgotten.

RIP, Emmanuel-Howard Park Chancel Choir

Our small choir performed its last service on 31 May 2015.  Church attendance and revenues not being what they used to be, Emmanuel-Howard Park United Church in Toronto has divested itself of its Chancel Choir. Here are our final three numbers.

First the Introit, “Cast Thy Burden upon the Lord” by Felix Mendelssohn, from Elijah.

“Cast thy burden upon the Lord, and He shall sustain thee. He never will suffer the righteous to fall. He is at thy right hand. Thy mercy, Lord, is great, and far above the heav’ns. Let none be made ashamed that wait upon Thee.”

Our Anthem was “Waters of Babylon“, written by Philip Hayes in 1786.

“By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept, and wept, and wept, when we remembered thee, remembered thee, O Sion. As for our harps, we hang’d them up upon the trees that are therein.”

Our final song for ever was the Offertory, Giuseppe Pitoni’s “Cantate Domino“.

“Cantate Domino canticum novum, laus ejus in Ecclesia Sanctorum. Laetetur Israel in eo qui fecit eum et filii Sion exultent in rege suo.” (“Sing to the Lord a new song, and His praise in the church of the saints. Let Israel rejoice in Him that made them: let the children of Zion be joyful in their king.”)

I’m going to miss singing with Rosie, Neil, Heidi, Rhonwen, Michelle, Bob, and all those other people who subbed. But at least Suzanne is a neighbour of mine.

Oh, get OVER yourself already!

corey crawford

Fuckin’ right, Chicago!” With those words, for the second year in a row, Corey Crawford caused the media to clutch their collective pearls and go into a faint.

Honestly, I don’t understand why F-bombs are such a burning issue for supposedly intelligent adults. “Bad” words do not exist. There are bad thoughts, there are bad deeds, there are bad intents, but no bad words. Spoken language is nothing more than phonemes strung together in a way that conveys information to a listener. Phoque is French for seal (the animal); the phonemes are identical to those in “fuck”, and in the same order, and yet phoque isn’t a swear word in French. It’s the thought process behind the word that gives these phonemes meaning. Dirtiness is in the brain of the beholder.

In the movie The Sound of Music, the Mother Abbess says, “Maria, our abbey is not to be used as an escape. What is it you can’t face?” But because of her accent, it sounds very much like “What is it, you cunt face?” which, when you think about it, is absurdly funny in context.

I used to work as an administrative assistant to a doctor named Shitij Kapur, whose name kept getting flagged by computers in email correspondence and on message boards. Objectively speaking, that was, you know, remarkably silly. He told me that he’d had to put up with a sniggering attitude not only during his career, but throughout his youth and all the way through medical school.

You may notice that I used the word “sniggering”. Or maybe you didn’t. Congratulations if the word didn’t make you feel queasy because of what follows the “s”. That means you have a refreshingly mature attitude towards language. Remember a number of years ago when that aide to the Mayor of Washington DC got into trouble for using the word “niggardly” to describe his budget constraints? He meant “stingy” and “narrow”, but some staffers unfamiliar with the word got all bent out of shape because they thought he was using a racial slur. He was more or less forced to leave his position, but thankfully he was hired back, so the story had a happy ending at least. What was really offensive was that he should have had to suffer for others’ ignorance, and it made me want to use the word “niggardly” as much as possible, just to poke the prudes where they needed to be poked.

Related to this is the word “Jew”, which to me is “someone who practises Judaism”, but as far back as I can remember, people have been reluctant to say “Jew” due to its antisemitic connotations when used as a verb with a lower-case “j”, so instead they go out of their way to say “Jewish persons”. This avoidance, while well-meaning, has led to an overall impression that the word “Jew” is a slur in itself and in all applications, This has an unintended but dangerous consequence: once you get it into your head that “Jew” is a bad word, eventually you’re going to start thinking that Jews are bad people. Really, if you call Christians Christians, Muslims Muslims, Buddhists Buddhists, and Hindus Hindus, then there’s no reason not to call Jews Jews.

But back to the word “fuck”. Corey Crawford is a goalie, not some withered up old school marm from the 1950s who, as my mom would put it, “wouldn’t say shit if her mouth was full of it,” and he’s addressing a huge crowd of happy Blackhawks fans. If his language offends some people’s sensitive virgin ears, well, one has to consider the context. Sometimes “fuck” is exactly the right word. That’s hockey. That’s language. That’s life.

And for those who would argue that they don’t want their kids hearing that kind of dirty talk, exactly what do they think their little darlings hear (and say) every single day at recess? If they’re anything like what we were like, I can guarantee that it’s a hell of a lot worse.

Parents, don’t keep your children in a linguistic bubble. Your prudery will do them no good and will not prepare them for the real world. This is not to say you have to talk like a stevedore all the time, but your babies have to learn context. Teach them that words are not to be feared, and that each one is just another arrow in their quiver. And that includes a well-chosen F-bomb.

Music, math, architecture, and Jeanine Tesori

Screen Shot 2015-06-02 at 10.37.24 AM

Since the accomplishments of female lyricists, poets, novelists, visual artists, and performers of all stripes are well known and beyond question, I have long been puzzled that there is such a dearth of female composers both in musical theatre and in the classical concert hall. Women are perfectly capable of composing, but for some reason, they just don’t, at least not in proportion to their numbers. For every Clara Schumann, there are dozens and dozens of Roberts; for every Mary Rodgers, dozens and dozens of Richards. Is it the nature of music itself? Is it due to temperament or a difference between how male and female brains are wired? Is there any particularly good reason why the composition of music has to be a masculine endeavour?

At first I wondered if it’s because music is such an abstract, almost mathematical art, and girls have often been discouraged from excelling at mathematics and other sciences because “those are boy things” and “you’ll never get a man that way,” and so they’re similarly put off from writing music. Nowadays, of course, the situation at schools is changing, and women do work in maths and sciences at least on a par with their male counterparts. Also, in the interest of full disclosure, I admit that while I’ve been writing music since I was eight, I’ve never really enjoyed math.

So maybe math isn’t the connection after all, but if it is, more and more women in the field of mathematics should lead to more and more women writing music. I hope so; a wider variety of voices can only enrich the art form and add to its vibrancy.

What’s a more compellling analogy, then? I’ve noticed that there are also comparatively few female architects. Maybe that’s it. Boys build things, whether because of aptitude or conditioning. Now, there are many ties between architecture and music. Music is basically architecture in sound and architecture is visible, tangible music. Architecture and music are essentially structural arts, sheet music is a kind of blueprint, and both architects and composers require other people to translate their blueprints into forms that are useful and meaningful to consumers—contractors and builders in the case of architecture, conductors and performers in the case of music.

What’s more, it takes a lot of financial resources to put up an office tower or premiere a large musical work. Someone has to pay those contractors, conductors, builders, and performers, and women have traditionally and unfairly received less funding than men. It’s a societal thing. I don’t much like it, but there it is, and it’s even worse when times are tight. If there’s less money for artists, there’s proportionately less money for female artists.

Those women who’ve had success as songwriters usually have had to work with smaller ensembles like pop bands, or acted as entrepreneurs and showcased their songwriting gifts as solo performers. Dolly Parton, Carole King, Cyndi Lauper, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, Madonna—all of them are supremely talented artists, but as far as I know, none of them has written, or chosen to write, a symphony, though the first three have all had their work performed on Broadway.

Which brings me to theatre composer Jeanine Tesori. She’s truly exceptional, and I mean that in both senses of the word. At least two of her scores, CAROLINE, OR CHANGE and VIOLET, are among my favourites. She has enjoyed quite a bit of critical acclaim, but she has also confessed that she hasn’t had the easiest time making a living as a theatre composer. So while I’m pleased that her latest venture, FUN HOME, has received the usual plaudits from critics, I’m even happier that the show is playing to capacity audiences on Broadway, and I hope she receives her much deserved and overdue Tony Award this Sunday.

Water, water, every where, nor any drop to drink


(Photo by Chris Jordan, EcoToaD)

I have purchased exactly two single-use bottles of water in my 56 years. The first time, I was so disgusted by the dank, plasticky, sodium taste that I couldn’t finish it. The second time, I had scraped my calf pretty badly while riding my bike, and I needed something to wash out the wound before taping it up. When I go to some event, if I ever need a drink of water and have not brought my reusable bottle with me, I invariably try to find a water fountain. Failing that, if there’s a bar of some kind, I ask the person there for a glass of ordinary tap water. And failing that, I’ll use the washroom sink. What I will not do is pay anywhere up to five dollars for a bottle containing two cents’ worth of water. That would be idiotic.

Access to clean, drinkable water should be considered a basic human right. Our bodies are mostly water, and horrible things happen to people who become dehydrated or who drink water that is brackish or loaded with bacteria. Often, though, the stuff in bottles is the only source people have available, whether due to their remoteness or poverty or lack of infrastructure. Since one of the functions of government is to protect citizens, this has to change. We need good plumbing if we want a good quality of life.

The trouble is compounded by the fact that the government has given the bottled-water companies access to our aquifers, which they plunder in exchange for a payment of a few pennies per million litres of the wet stuff. (I’m looking at you Nestlé; I’m looking at you, Coca-Cola.) They then sell the water to consumers at a clear profit of billions upon billions of dollars, in bottles that require three times as much water to produce as are in the bottles themselves, plus a lot of oil. The consumers then discard the bottles—again, billions upon billions of them—which get dumped into ditches, landfills, and ironically, the lakes and rivers that are a source of much of our water supply. On average, 2.5 million bottles are thrown away every hour.

Once the bottles have been thrown out, they’re no longer our problem, right? Out of sight, out of mind? Well, no, actions have consequences, even if they’re not necessarily immediate. The garbage doesn’t just disappear, and since we’re talking about plastic here, it also doesn’t decompose within our lifetimes. Every piece of plastic that has ever been produced still exists, whether in solid form or, if it’s been incinerated, in the form of hydrocarbons and particulate in the air. No matter, though. It’s Somebody Else’s Problem. Unfortunately, those “Somebody”s are your kids, and eventually their kids. bottlegraph

(Graph from Container Recycling Institute)

There is an excellent article by Alissa Walker at Gizmodo.com, titled “Stop Drinking Bottled Water”. Not only are there links to other related stories, but Walker also has answers for those who are averse to drinking tap water, and she raises a number of points and makes a number of worthwhile suggestions about how to handle the very serious problems caused by the manufacture and sale of bottled water. If I may, though, I have a solution of my own.

It would be very difficult to ban bottled water locally. Such bans generally have to be done at the provincial or state level, or even nationally, in order to be practical. If an outright ban is not possible, I think we need to levy a one-dollar deposit on each single-use bottle of water, redeemable for 50 cents upon return to any retail outlet that sells them. Merchants would then be reimbursed by the government, while the bottles would be shipped back to the manufacturers (at their expense) for recycling. The other 50 cents of the dollar would help pay for administrative and other costs associated with the program, as well as maintaining, improving, or building potable water infrastructure where needed. This would have four other measurably beneficial effects:

1) It would discourage the purchase, and eventually the manufacture, of bottled water. This would in turn also help us to conserve our water for more worthwhile purposes.

2) Even though merchants would be fully reimbursed by the government, the resulting paperwork and other headaches would discourage them from selling bottled water in the first place.

3) It would quickly eliminate a major source of litter that is ruining our environment. I’d even grandfather previously sold containers into the system and open the landfills to bottle-hunters. Payment would come out of the second 50 cents of the one-dollar deposit.

4) It would give homeless people, children, and the working poor a reasonable and useful supplementary income from collecting the bottles from ditches, campsites, and other places where they’ve been disposed of. A five-cent return was OK for pop and beer bottles back when I was a kid, but nowadays that is a meaningless sum, whereas 50 cents a bottle is nothing to be sneezed at, especially when you’ve scavenged several hundred of them.

So there it is: several problems solved at once with just one law. Reduce, reuse, recycle.

UPDATE: It just struck me today (2015-Jun-02) that we should also charge the same dollar deposit on plastic single-serve pop bottles, and two dollars on the two-litre ones. Not only do these bottles create a phenomenal amount of PET waste, but their sugary contents are a major cause of obesity and diabetes. which tax our health care system.

I have always depended on the kindness of strangers…

spalding gray

It’s 1999. I’m in New York for a ten-day business trip and my wallet is stolen two days into the trip—all my ID, the receipts for the first three days, and about $20. Luckily my hotel and theatre tickets are prepaid and my return ticket and travellers’ cheques are all safely back in my room.

But how do I get back over the border without identification? I go to the 13th precinct, report the robbery, and ask for a letter or document of some kind that I can show Canada Customs. They give me one and I leave, but I’m still bummed out, because I can’t really use my travellers’ cheques without ID, the hotel will only cash one $20 cheque per day, and there’s not much you can do in NY on only $20. So I take a stroll down 2nd Avenue and after a while I sit down on the steps of this Russian restaurant in the East Village. I put my head in my hands and start sobbing.

After a minute some bum comes up to me and says, “Why so glum, chum?” I think, “Oh, god, a panhandler now…” I look up to tell him I don’t have any money for him, and under the three days’ growth and wool hat, it’s Spalding Gray, whose work I just love. So I tell him what happened.

“Come on, you hungry?” he says, and he leads me into the Russian place where we have this awesome supper, and he says, “I want to try out some material I’m working up.” So for the next two hours, over Russian food and lots of vodka, he performs a monologue about depression that I don’t think ever got produced, after which he sends me on my way with a “Cheer up now.”

Fast forward a year, and Gray is on Broadway in The Best Man. After the show, he’s taking collections for Broadway Cares in the lobby, so I go up to him to see if he remembers me. “Sure I do,” he says, “You were in rough shape.” I thank him for his kindness the year before, and he says, “No, no, thank you! You were a good audience.” He signs my souvenir poster and I leave him to the others. “Cheer up!” he yells after me.

And when they fished his body out of the water a few years later after he killed himself, I reckoned that if Spalding Gray thought I seemed depressed, I must have looked really wretched.

Send Off the Clowns

(with apologies to Stephen Sondheim)

They’re filthy rich,
One nasty pair.
They have a shitload of nerve,
Our Twinford Mayor.
Send off the clowns.

T.O. is screwed.
Our ox is gored.
What did we do to deserve
Rob and Doug Ford?
Banish the clowns.
Send off the clowns.

Rob likes his crack.
Rob likes his booze.
Rob has a habit of making the wrong kind of news.
But bear in mind, if you think we’ve been under a curse,
Druggie is bad…
Dougie is worse.

Shut the fuck up,
Move to the rear,
If you’re a pinko, a cyclist,
Asian, or queer.
Our unlucky town’s
Infested with clowns.
It’s best we steer clear.

We only pray
Both of them lose.
We do not want them inhabiting each other’s shoes.
They’ll make their exit for good at the end of next month.
Will that be thad?
No, ‘cauthe they’re cunth!

Vile Tweedledum,
Dumb Tweedledee,
Trying to tag-team Toronto’s
Away with those clowns,
Those two evil clowns
(And Michael makes three).

Send Off the Clowns A