Tag Archives: writing

Hail to Freedonia!

yowza!

F*ck me pumps

Really? 2015? Seven months? A friend likes to quote that great philosopher, Marx (Groucho not Karl):

“Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.”

True. So true.

To which I says: “Look to the future of Christmases Past.”™  (mind the trademark)

There was a show on TV once upon a time that combined skit comedy with social and political satire. It was called “Laugh-In” and was considered a trailblazer for reflecting the “blood humours” (in the medieval sense) of the time.

A last gasp of the late 60s and early 70s, the “Cold War” and looming threats of nuclear obliteration, “sex and drugs and rock & roll”, free love, and Vietnam.

You weren’t really there if you remember it. I had to check with an online encyclopedia to confirm all that.

Today it’s Groundhog Day and we’re all trapped in a perpetual 9/12; AIDS and ebola; zombies and vampires; ecstasy, meth and Kardashians, oh my; Afghanistan and Iraq, Iraq and Afghanistan again; and tsunamis of one kind or another. The Canadian dollar is worth the same as it was against the USDollar in the 1970s.

The genius called Colbert is the new late night Johnny, but The Daily Show remains young Americans’ number one source of news and their window on world events. My every keystroke is monitored for impure thoughts by some mindless super cop and its supporting and equally mindless mobs of minions.

People like Michael Brown are guilty until proven white. Please, may I erase my mental hard drive? I don’t like this place anymore.

Plus ça change.

So whatcha been doin’, Shmohawk? Writing. Seriously. I mean serious writing. You know, knuckling down to purge me soul of angry demons by slinging them onto the screen, much like I’m doing here. Only this is fun. That other stuff is hard work.

I hate it. I love it. It’s complicated.

I have a friend who’s done three books in that same time. Good for him, says I. I hate him. I love him.  This too is complicated because he’s a good friend, a best friend (I almost wrote “fiend”). In fact, he’s one of the constants in my meandering writing life.

Envy is a nasty bitch wearing too much makeup, a tight dress and high heels. But sometimes…. Oooh.

Not today though. Today, I have work to do. Begone, you nasty thing.

2015, eh.  Here we go again.

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Filed under humour, journalism

a poem

Someone put a poem on this blog by Uruguayan journalist, novelist and poet, Mario Benedetti. He’s been called one of South America’s greatest writers and poets of the past 100 years. The poem is entitled No Te Salves (Don’t Save Yourself).
It didn’t belong in that thread. Bad vibes. It deserves some place and peace of its own.

one of the most important South American writers of the past 100 years

one of South American great writers

Don’t Save yourself,
Don´t be immobile
On the edge of the road,
Don’t freeze the joy,
Don’t love with reluctance,
Don’t save yourself now
or ever,
Don’t save yourself,
Don’t fill with calm,
Don’t reserve of the world
Just a calm place,
Don’t let fall your eyelids
Heavy as trials,
Don’t speak without lips,
Don’t fall asleep without sleepiness,
Don’t think of you without blood,
Don’t judge yourself without time.

But if in spite of everything
You cannot avoid it
And you freeze the joy,
And you love with reluctance,
And you save yourself now,
And you fill with calm,
And you reserve of the world
Just a calm place,
And you let fall your eyelids
Heavy as trials,
And you speak without lips,
And you fall asleep without sleepiness,
And you think yourself without blood,
And you judge yourself without time,
And you are immobile
On the edge of the road,
And you save yourself,
Then
Don’t stay with me.

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my first ever online journalism survey

I’m constantly impressed by the quality of writing and the level of discussion that takes place in many Native American publications on important issues, such as the distinctions between “membership” (registration by government) and “citizenship” (accorded by Indigenous nations). There was a time, not long ago, that native publications in Canada would have stacked up well in a comparison with their southern cousins. I’m not so sure anymore.

So I’ve set up a survey to let you decide for yourselves.

I’ve limited the selection to three newspapers. One is Native American. Two are native publications in Canada.

They have all been compared in the past to each other in competition for awards in layout, design, photojournalism, writing style, editorial quality, and journalism.

Take a look. Read articles (news, editorial, analysis, column or commentary).  Then you’re invited back to fill out a short survey (10 questions).

Here are links. (maybe next time I’ll have a full survey)

  1. Windspeaker Online (Edmonton-based, claims national readers) (has trouble updating its website)
  2. First Perspective Online (June 1 – May 28) (Winnipeg-based, more local these days)
  3. Indian Country Today Online (national Oneida, New York-based)

Hope this works.

var PDF_surveyID = ‘340ACFB338981C34’;
var PDF_openText = ‘View Survey’;

View Survey

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Filed under Aboriginal peoples, Canada, Indigenous peoples, journalism, United States

confused

I’ve been moving away on this blog from responding to every issue that pops up in news reports or idiotic post in the moronosphere. It takes a lot of time and energy to keep up with it all, not to mention the time to do a bit of research, draft what I hope is a reasonable or at least intelligent response, and then post it. There must be better things I can do, I tell myself. But what?

From time to time, I try to post a bit of writing that lies dormant in one of the dozens of folders on my computer. Some of them, I’ve flogged but have had rejected. Others are things I’ve had to get off my chest and poured out through the keyboard. I’m not sure if anyone reads these, and it gets like my old job at CBC Radio where you’d bust your butt getting something done, send it over the air, and then…. hissssss (the sound of static).

One thing I know. Issues that get me thinking require that I deal with them somehow. But the pressure, put on me by me, to react immediately (or at least timely) often results in half-baked ideas get posted. As you can tell, I’m not satisfied. I need to do something here that means something, that I can feel good about.

I’m not sure what that means except it means change. Less frequent postings? More time to think? Better writing? More meaning? Will anybody give a crap except me?

It’s that last one that seem most important to me. Why should I care what anyone else thinks? Do I really care? Should I? Really, should I?

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Filed under Indigenous peoples, journalism, writing

laugh… and the world goes: huh?

A friend makes his living as a humourist. That makes him a comedian who won’t stand up, or a writer looking for yuks. It seems to work. For him, it’s a living, and a good one too.

We’ve run into someone else, a standup comic with a serious day job. He likes his job, but he loves his profession as a comedian. Unfortunately, there aren’t that many standup comedians making serious money year-round.

Put these two together and you’d think you’d be rolling on the floor the whole time. They start by riffing each other. Your jaw begins to ache from laughing. Your ribs hurt. Then you realize you’re watching goats butting horns, testing and asserting. Once that dance is over, they settle down to more serious talk – still funny but more serious.

They discuss their similar but different crafts. Sitting there, you see how their shticks work. They both know how to tap dance with an audience. They love the give and take, the snappy one-liners. They like to share a laugh, to make people want to laugh – not make people laugh. “You can’t make people laugh,” one of them says.

Both are great storytellers. In between the zingers, you appreciate that you’re with people with degrees in humour too. They’ve studied with some of the great humourists, comedians, and yuksters on the planet. They believe that humour, the act of laughing itself, can do more than make people feel good at the time. It does that. They believe, however, that laughter can heal, change lives in the longer-term, help people survive the bleakest situations. That’s pretty serious stuff.

I watch the comedian engage his audience. It starts with a story about himself. Physically, he’s up there while they’re sitting down in front. With language, he pulls himself down until he is with the audience. He does it by making fun of himself at first. Self-deprecation. His stories explain what a dolt he is while leaning toward a group of gigglers up front. They are his door to the rest of the audience.

He talks about a trip to a remote community where the elders spend most of the time pulling his leg, making fun of him, turning him into the butt of their jokes. He can’t seem to do anything right. The people in front are nodding. They know what he’s talking about. They know all about those elders.

That’s his point. He usually comes out to face a mixed-race audience with all kinds of things hidden back in their skulls. He describes how he can feel the freeze up when he’s introduced or mentions that he’s Indian, or “First Nation,” or Ojibway. He can feel it. He feels their jaws shift into stiff smiles, their shoulder muscles tighten, their sphincters slam shut.

He’s got to get them to loosen up, to make it okay for them to laugh at his jokes. To make that happen, he has to give them licence to laugh at him first; to smile at the man, to giggle at the idea, and then to let loose from the belly.

He says this doesn’t occur with an Indigenous audience. Comedian and audience speak a common language right off the bat. Sure, he has to show cred, but nothing like the lengths needed to reassure a mixed-race or non-native audience that it’s okay to laugh at what they call racial humour. With the Indigenous audience, it isn’t racial humour at all – it’s everyday life.

You sit there, listening to the humourist and the comic compare notes; one a writer, the other a performer, both amazing storytellers. They compare the tools of their trades, pulling out and confirming that many serve similar uses even if they aren’t exactly the same. They agree completely that what they do is essential to the health of their peoples and communities.

They don’t define their roles in the same vein as doctors or counsellors, but they feel that what they do is just as vital. One deals with the body, the other the mind, while they feed the spirit. Instead of dealing with one person at a time, they’re able to reach out to groups of people, an audience or a community all at once, even bridging cultures and peoples across Canada.

When things go well, they help people set aside their individual problems and share a common humanity, to feel less alone, by sharing a laugh. That’s the serious side of humour. It’s their deep understanding of their crafts that makes them good at what they do.

And now for absolutely no reason except that it seems a fitting way to end…

“Duct tape is like the force. It has a light side, a dark side, and it holds the universe together…”

– Carl Zwanzig (someone I’ve never heard of)

“Hard work never killed anybody, but why take a chance?”

– Charlie McCarthy (him, I know)

Have a nice day.

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Filed under Aboriginal peoples, Canada, humour, Indigenous peoples, writing

coming home

As threatened, every now and then I’ll post a bit of writing here that has been turned down for publication or that I don’t think is ready for a paying audience. It helps me if people read it, offer criticism or advice, tell me more than “nice” or “I liked it.” I’m always looking at the whys of things – what worked or didn’t. So take a look and let me know what you think. 

It’s part of a larger project. That’s all I can say for now. Anymore and I’d have to kill you.  😉

(shhhh… don’t tell the SQ i wrote that)

—————-

It’ll be five years on Sunday. 
I’ve never written or said anything about my younger brother to anyone in all of that time; nothing about how he lived, what happened to him during his adult life, or how he died. Part of the reason is because it’s painful. It’s a bleak portion of my life because we left home, went our separate ways, grew apart, and were never there for each other. Someday, I may hear the jokes, his laughter and see his smile again. For now, at this time of year, there’s regret, guilt, and sadness. 
Work took me away. I followed the example of my older brother and sister in heading out to find jobs. Unlike them, I stayed away, going home only for birthdays or holidays for most of my life. When Joe got old enough, he followed my lead. We saw each other during visits home or coming and going. I was amazed when I first saw his art. I was struck by his strength and his sharp, clear, unrelenting vision. I  was shocked by how much I’d missed.
The few times when we were alone, the talk was about mundane things. We had this river between us. Our attempts to talk over that got swept away by small slights and petty grudges; the kind that haunts all kids in a big family. Never a touchy-feely family, we grew apart and let those slights remain over the years. When Mom died, our family touchstone went too. Dad was there but he was the quiet, silent type just like the rest of us.
It’s strange that the further I get from his death the more I think about him, discover about him. A slip of paper he’d written, found folded between the pages of a book. A familiar face hidden away in a shoe box stares out at me. An article about him jammed into in a file folder is almost thrown out with the garbage, but is saved at the last minute. Someone recently sent our family a picture of him at a photo exhibit in Ottawa. It makes you wonder if maybe he’s trying to tell you something.
I once wrote a couple of paragraphs about him in a magazine article. It spoke to his ability to find and liberate faces in pieces of stone, or make colours sing on a piece of canvas. There was a lot more though. He had something to say. He could use his art to magnify society’s ills and reflect that back to Canadians. He could pull your eye on a dark canvas to a tiny bit of bright humanity way off in the corner. Unlike so much of so-called Indian art these days, he refused to copy Norval or Daphne or Alex. He learned from them, admired them, respected them, but he refused to make a career painting cute birds. He wanted to grab you by the lapels with his own style, and either hug you or scream at you to wake up! 
I don’t know how he got that way. Maybe that’s not exactly true. We knew, even as little kids, that there was something special about him. From the moment he was born, he was Grandma’s favourite. She said so. We might get chased off her porch with the broom, but Joe could stay for warm bread and real butter. Later, while the rest of us were growing like wild weeds, Mom and Grandma watched over him. It wasn’t that they loved us less, or him more. There was something that shone from within him. They saw it even if we couldn’t. 
Sibling rivalry was just a phrase but there was certainly some of that in or relationship, me and him, and probably with the others too. I’ve never asked. It was one of those things that set him apart. He grew up in solitude and even loneliness. But it’s difficult to separate the normal distance between brothers of different ages and the inevitable jealousies when growing up. I wanted to do things with kids of my own age, and there was this little kid who wanted to hang around. We were bigger, older, beginning to discover girls and do things that we didn’t want him blabbing to Mom or Dad. So he got left behind. Just as I got left behind by my older brother and sister. But I don’t think he ever forgot, even as an adult.
Joe didn’t die immediately. He was shot between the shoulder blades. Surgeons removed most of the bullet, but pieces remained in his neck and too close to his spinal chord. He lived in constant pain with no relief. He was in a coma for nearly a week. It was nearly a month before he realized he would never move anything below his neck. Although he’d later regain limited use of his arms and hands, it was clumsy at best. That part of the artist responsible for his clear voice in a world of mumblers died first. It went slowly, painfully. He’d long before driven away the family; including Dad, who may have been the last to let go.
It shouldn’t have happened. Some people say he brought it on himself. They point to a string of incidents before the shooting when he threatened to kill himself or asked others to do it for him. When quiet threats didn’t work, he made ever grander and more public gestures. He once laid on the road in front of a school bus daring the driver to run over him. He lashed out at the family, at my Dad mostly. He blamed us, or the Crisis, or the Canadian Army, or the drugs, or the booze. He knew his demons and they knew him. 
There’s a medical term for his behaviours after the so-called Oka Crisis; post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. He was one of the Mohawks swept into military jails after the barricades came down. He became a minor celebrity after a jury acquitted him and most of the rest for the most serious charges. Along with the attention came money for speaking engagements, and offers from people to pick up his bar tab or share their stash. This went on for years. He got caught up in a whirlwind that eventually, suddenly, collapsed when one of his friends, another of that summer’s warriors, committed suicide. My brother took over his friend’s house, and withdrew into a world of ghosts and spirits.
We knew he needed help. We also knew that he was a manipulator. He would play along until he got what he wanted, then the cycle would begin again. The threats to himself, screaming insults at Dad, and then withdrawing back into his shrinking world. But there were signs of hope and change. He planted flowers and a vegetable garden. He started painting again, accepting invites to shows and exhibits; the Smithsonian in NYC, the Museum of Civilisation in Ottawa. It ended when some kid tore up his garden with a four-wheeler.
Joe flipped a bird to the kid and threatened to knock him around if he ever came back. Around home, those kinds of threats are heard every day. But around home, with Joe, with a band council chief anxious to show the people in the community that he was the boss, a police chief anxious to throw his weight around, and reserve cops hyped up on action movies, that threat would lead to an 9-hour standoff, a police car full of bullet holes, and a village drunk used to lure my brother out to be shot in the back.
A justice of the peace, a Mohawk from Kahnawake, would look into the standoff that led to the shooting. The band council chief would claim that Joe had been drunk or on drugs, refuted by a medical report. But she accepted the chief’s version. The JP would note the use of the drunk as a decoy, to get my brother outside of his house. She would note but not condemn the tactic. The pleas from family to the police to wait for the situation to calm down, were ignored at the time and by the JP a few years later. The JP would absolve the band council chief, the chief of the reserve police force, and the cop who shot my brother in the back. Joe was devastated. He withdrew even further from the family, blaming us for not doing enough.
Then one day, he was gone. Dad had died a couple of years earlier, and that was the last time I saw my brother alive. We arranged to have him picked up and driven to the funeral. Otherwise, Joe had cut all ties to the family, and made clear at Dad’s funeral that he didn’t want to renew them. He went back to Montreal. I thought, I hoped, he might eventually get back in touch with us. I was wrong.
The phone call was from my sister. We would meet at a funeral parlour north of Ste. Therese where we would pay respects and mourn. It had all been arranged by his friends. They would coordinate the cremation, and the spreading of his ashes on the mountain at Kanehsatake. We would have nothing to do with it. His wishes.
It was a cool, sunny day. We took his friends to Joe’s favourite spot on the mountain. We took them to a large flat rock that overlooked the valley. This was where he went before the Crisis to contemplate whether to pick up a weapon and become a warrior. This was where he went afterward to try to find himself again afterward. This was where his ashes swirled about on the wind. This was how my brother came home.

 

It’ll be five years on Sunday. 

I’ve never written or said anything about my younger brother to anyone in all of that time; nothing about how he lived, what happened to him during his adult life, or how he died. Part of the reason is because it’s painful. It’s a bleak portion of my life because we left home, went our separate ways, grew apart, and were never there for each other. Someday, I may hear the jokes, his laughter and see his smile again. For now, at this time of year, there’s regret, guilt, and sadness. 

Work took me away. I followed the example of my older brother and sister in heading out to find jobs. Unlike them, I stayed away, going home only for birthdays or holidays for most of my life. When Joe got old enough, he followed my lead. We saw each other during visits home or coming and going. I was amazed when I first saw his art. I was struck by his strength and his sharp, clear, unrelenting vision. I  was shocked by how much I’d missed.

The few times when we were alone, the talk was about mundane things. We had this river between us. Our attempts to talk over that got swept away by small slights and petty grudges; the kind that haunts all kids in a big family. Never a touchy-feely family, we grew apart and let those slights remain over the years. When Mom died, our family touchstone went too. Dad was there but he was the quiet, silent type just like the rest of us.

It’s strange that the further I get from his death the more I think about him, discover about him. A slip of paper he’d written, found folded between the pages of a book. A familiar face hidden away in a shoe box stares out at me. An article about him jammed into in a file folder is almost thrown out with the garbage, but is saved at the last minute. Someone recently sent our family a picture of him at a photo exhibit in Ottawa. It makes you wonder if maybe he’s trying to tell you something.

I once wrote a couple of paragraphs about him in a magazine article. It spoke to his ability to find and liberate faces in pieces of stone, or make colours sing on a piece of canvas. There was a lot more though. He had something to say. He could use his art to magnify society’s ills and reflect that back to Canadians. He could pull your eye on a dark canvas to a tiny bit of bright humanity way off in the corner. Unlike so much of so-called Indian art these days, he refused to copy Norval or Daphne or Alex. He learned from them, admired them, respected them, but he refused to make a career painting cute birds. He wanted to grab you by the lapels with his own style, and either hug you or scream at you to wake up! 

I don’t know how he got that way. Maybe that’s not exactly true. We knew, even as little kids, that there was something special about him. From the moment he was born, he was Grandma’s favourite. She said so. We might get chased off her porch with the broom, but Joe could stay for warm bread and real butter. Later, while the rest of us were growing like wild weeds, Mom and Grandma watched over him. It wasn’t that they loved us less, or him more. There was something that shone from within him. They saw it even if we couldn’t. 

Sibling rivalry was just a phrase but there was certainly some of that in our relationship, me and him, and probably with the others too. I’ve never asked. It was one of those things that set him apart. He grew up in solitude and even loneliness. But it’s difficult to separate the normal distance between brothers of different ages and the inevitable jealousies when growing up. I wanted to do things with kids of my own age, and there was this little kid who wanted to hang around. We were bigger, older, beginning to discover girls and do things that we didn’t want him blabbing to Mom or Dad. So he got left behind. Just as I got left behind by my older brother and sister. But I don’t think he ever forgot or forgave even as an adult.

Joe didn’t die immediately. He was shot between the shoulder blades. Surgeons removed most of the bullet, but pieces remained in his neck and too close to his spinal chord. He lived in constant pain with no relief. He was in a coma for nearly a week. It was nearly a month before he realized he would never move anything below his neck. Although he’d later regain limited use of his arms and hands, it was clumsy at best. That part of the artist responsible for his clear voice in a world of mumblers died first. It went slowly, painfully. He’d long before driven away the family; including Dad, who may have been the last to let go.

It shouldn’t have happened. Some people say he brought it on himself. They point to a string of incidents before the shooting when he threatened to kill himself or asked others to do it for him. When quiet threats didn’t work, he made ever grander and more public gestures. He once laid on the road in front of a school bus daring the driver to run over him. He lashed out at the family, at my Dad mostly. He blamed us, or the Crisis, or the Canadian Army, or the drugs, or the booze. He knew his demons and they knew him. 

There’s a medical term for his behaviours after the so-called Oka Crisis; post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. He was one of the Mohawks swept into military jails after the barricades came down. He became a minor celebrity after a jury acquitted him and most of the rest for the most serious charges. Along with the attention came money for speaking engagements, and offers from people to pick up his bar tab or share their stash. This went on for years. He got caught up in a whirlwind that eventually, suddenly, collapsed when one of his friends, another of that summer’s warriors, committed suicide. My brother took over his friend’s house, and withdrew into a world of ghosts and spirits.

We knew he needed help. We also knew that he was a manipulator. He would play along until he got what he wanted, then the cycle would begin again. The threats to himself, screaming insults at Dad, and then withdrawing back into his shrinking world. But there were signs of hope and change. He planted flowers and a vegetable garden. He started painting again, accepting invites to shows and exhibits; the Smithsonian in NYC, the Museum of Civilisation in Ottawa. It ended when some kid tore up his garden with a four-wheeler.

Joe flipped a bird to the kid and threatened to knock him around if he ever came back. Around home, those kinds of threats are heard every day. But around home, with Joe, with a band council chief anxious to show the people in the community that he was the boss, a police chief anxious to throw his weight around, and reserve cops hyped up on action movies, that threat would lead to an 9-hour standoff, a police car full of bullet holes, and a village drunk used to lure my brother out to be shot in the back.

A justice of the peace, a Mohawk from Kahnawake, would look into the standoff that led to the shooting. The band council chief would claim that Joe had been drunk or on drugs, refuted by a medical report. But she accepted the chief’s version. The JP would note the use of the drunk as a decoy, to get my brother outside of his house. She would note but not condemn the tactic. The pleas from family to the police to wait for the situation to calm down, were ignored at the time and by the JP a few years later. The JP would absolve the band council chief, the chief of the reserve police force, and the cop who shot my brother in the back. Joe was devastated. He withdrew even further from the family, blaming us for not doing enough.

Then one day, he was gone. Dad had died a couple of years earlier, and that was the last time I saw my brother alive. We arranged to have him picked up and driven to the funeral. Otherwise, Joe had cut all ties to the family, and made clear at Dad’s funeral that he didn’t want to renew them. He went back to Montreal. I thought, I hoped, he might eventually get back in touch with us. I was wrong.

The phone call was from my sister. We would meet at a funeral parlour north of Ste. Therese where we would pay respects and mourn. It had all been arranged by his friends. They would coordinate the cremation, and the spreading of his ashes on the mountain at Kanehsatake. We would have nothing to do with it. His wishes.

It was a cool, sunny day in May. We took his friends to Joe’s favourite spot on the mountain. We took them to a large flat rock that overlooked the valley. This was where he went before the Crisis to contemplate whether to pick up a weapon and become a warrior. This was where he went afterward to try to find himself again afterward. This was where his ashes swirled about on the wind. This was how my brother came home.

 

[end]

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Filed under Canada, journalism, writing

now… the word

And the word is: “brazen.”

Nothing important here. Just… lately I’ve noticed the word “brazen” popping up more and more in newscasts and print. It seems to be one of those words that, for some reason, journalists and editors fall in love with every now and then. They use “brazen” because everyone else is using it. Maybe they’re afraid they’ll appear out-of-touch or out-of-fashion if they don’t use the word too, so they put it into almost every story whether it fits or not. Maybe they just like the way it feels.

You can say that there’s nothing wrong with any of the above – and you’d be right. This is how entire words and phrases become part everyday speech. Remember “kinder, gentler”? One little speech by Bush the First (sorry but George I was taken) and for years journalists and editors were crowbarring that phrase into all kinds of stories. They invoked that phrase like some magic incantation as they attempted to win debates, dominate conversations, defeat opponents in arguments. Or maybe they thought people might confuse them with the intelligentsia; the learned class.

I was first surprised and then disgusted as that phrase by an American president infected the herd in Canadian journalism like some form of virulent disease. I noted at the time that the only question in my mind was: What the hell does “kinder, gentler” mean?!

The answer? It means absolutely nothing. Dick all. Nada. Zip. Bupkes. Rien.

I remember listening to and reading Canadian journos at the time, and becoming increasingly confused at nearly each and every instance that Canadian journalists used “kinder, gentler.” It seemed they wanted to signify something, yet they imparted not a whit of meaning. Didn’t any one of them ever question what that phrase meant, or didn’t mean? Why they used it? Why they shouldn’t?

It reminded me of an old friend who turned to me one day with a quizzical look on her face. She asked in all seriousness: “What does ‘throw the baby out with the bath water’ mean? And why do journalists use it all the time? Why can’t they just say what they mean?”

I found that no matter how I tried to explain that phrase to her, or tried to justify its use in journalism, I could not. Finally, a lesson from a George Orwell essay kicked in: If a word or phrase confuses, explain what it means. If you cannot, then chuck it.

All of which brings me back to the word “brazen.” According to Webster’s online, it’s an adjective. Journalists should always be wary of adjectives, another lesson from Orwell. Can you count the number of times in one day that you see or hear a journalist refer to someone who “claims” to be innocent of a crime (nudge, wink) instead of “they said they’re innocent,” which is much less judgmental. “Brazen” means “brass… or made of brass,” or “sounding harsh… like struck brass,” and “marked by contemptuous boldness;” such as “a brazen disregard for the rules.”

So brazen connotes everything between admirable and criminal. A person who stands against the odds, or strict orthodoxy, or unjust laws is… showing brass, brazen behaviour, some backbone. Joan Rivers can be brassy; loud and provocative. But are members of violent gangs who, by definition, operate outside society’s laws “brazen” when they shoot up a nightclub? Or are they acting like… um… a gang of outlaws?

Would they be outlaws at all if they didn’t act in such a brazen fashion? Isn’t it slightly presumptuous of any journalist to tut-tut the behaviour of a gang like some school marm?

I found five stories in two Canadian dailies, the Globe and Mail and the National Post, that used the word “brazen” during the past week. The G&M used the word twice; once about gang shootings in Vancouver, then in a story about India’s elections but referring to that terrorist attack in Mumbai.

The National Post used “brazen” three times, three days in a row, all referring to pirates off the coast of Somalia.

Like I wrote at the top, this ain’t no earth-shattering issue. It’s not something that keeps me awake at night. But I find it interesting how journalists use language, and misuse language as well. I have to credit CBC Radio News for renewing my interest in this; how easy it can be to mislead an audience. It can be just as easy as choosing a handy adjective, like “brazen” or “claims.”

A Sikh teenager “claims” he didn’t threaten a white teenager with a kirpan (religious ceremonial dagger). It turns out that the judge has acquitted the Sikh teenager of this charge (but guilty of another), deciding that this kid never misused the kirpan. But the impression that he might have, just maybe, had been implanted by the journalist already with an audience that remains woefully ignorant and fearful of the other.

It is just so damn easy.

And that’s the point.

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