Thursday, December 13, 2018

Ask Arthur 2018, Part 1: Perfect place

It’s time to begin answering the questions in the 2018 Ask Arthur series, a little later than I’d planned to start this year. It happens. This year’s questions are varied, as usual, and as in previous years, I’ll sometimes group related questions into one post. I may not always answer the questions in the order they were given to me, but this first question is also the first asked, and once again, real-life and long-time friend Sherry was first in with a question:

If the world were a perfect place, would it be closer to the U.S. or New Zealand? What would be the key measures of perfection?

It’s an interesting question, and one that could be more than a little fraught: If I say a nice thing about one country rather than the other, potentially someone may be offended. So, it makes sense to say, as I have for the entire time I’ve lived in New Zealand, that there’s no such thing as a perfect country. People can claim there’s one all they want to, but the reality is that countries, all the way down to a local community, are built by human beings and we’re all flawed in some way, so our creations are, too.

The next important point is that the real measure of the perfection of a place is a simple one: Whether it’s perfect for oneself. I wouldn’t want to live in a desert, for example (though I might consider living in a dessert…), but some people absolutely love it. Same with a place that’s cold and snowy for most of the year: Definitely not for me!

With all that out of the way, and those caveats taken on board, the next thing to say is that place isn’t really all that relevant because beauty is found in all parts of the planet, and the climate we like the most exists in many places. So the perfect place it’s less about those things because, theoretically, at least, they can be found in many places.

For me one of the top criteria for a perfect place is that English is the main language. The reason for that is that I’ve come to realise that I don’t have the capacity to learn another language, beyond a few words or phrases. It’s not for lack of trying—definitely not—and I’m stubborn enough to refuse to give up. But I’m also realistic enough to know that the odds of picking up another language are remote, and becoming more so the older I get. So, I’d struggle anywhere where I couldn’t live using English alone. Some people would find that sad; to me, it’s just reality.

So, with natural beauty, weather, and non-English language out of the equation, that leaves all the things that make a country unique, it’s culture, absolutely, but also the values that make that place what it is.

I have found some things to be true. More democracy is generally, though not always, better than less democracy. Working together as a society to solve our shared problems is better than always going it alone, and personal responsibility means nothing without social responsibility. Care and concern for out planet, its wildlife and wild places, the air, the water, the climate, is non-negotiable. Healthcare is a human right.

In each of those areas, New Zealand is, in my opinion, better than the United States.

Democracy is the structure that keeps us from ripping each other’s throats out when we disagree. It’s what keeps things orderly and predictable because we know that if we lose the argument on the day, we may win it on another day.

For that to work, government and its democratic institutions must have legitimacy—basically, people have to believe they can effect change through the democratic process—the consent of the governed, and all that. New Zealand clearly has the edge on the legitimacy of its democracy, and so, its democracy is better.

Part of this is because New Zealand has a parliamentary system, which means the executive can never have more power than the legislative because they are the same. It means the legislature can get things done, and if it goes too far it can easily be changed completely.

We also have a proportional representation system so that our parliament reflects, as closely as possible, the will of the people. If the USA had that, even only just for the US House, it wouldn’t have half the problems it has. Mind you, New Zealand has no upper house, so the USA would have to abolish the Senate to have the same level of democracy—and that’s not necessarily a bad idea.

On the other hand, we elect representatives to our District Health Boards, which control healthcare within specific regions—the hospitals, the priorities for the area, especially in public health, those sorts of things. This was brought in by Prime Minister Helen Clark’s Labour Government (which ended in 2008), and I think it was a mistake. Too many people (dozens, even) we don’t know at all to choose among for a handful of spots, and some people run just out of personal ambition. Our local elections (towns and cities) are done by postal ballot and it’s appallingly bad—mid 40s percent bother to vote. The authorities adamantly refuse to even consider how online voting might be done. So, our democracy is not perfect, just better.

Because New Zealand is a social democracy (basically, that’s a fusion of socialism and capitalism within a democratic system), we value collective action. We believe that together we can do more than any of us could do alone, and that we can solve problems and move forward together. So, like all but one developed nation, we have national healthcare. Education, police, fire, are all functions of the nation's government which minimises political interference (I say “minimise” because politicians like to muck around with education all the time, and they sometimes pander on crime).

The USA doesn’t share in that ethic—it once did, but no more. However, New Zealand is far from perfect: We have the world’s worst youth suicide rate, among the worst domestic violence rates, the gap between rich and poor is growing, and people with mental illness have problems getting the help they need. The reason for all those persistent problems is that we don’t take enough social responsibility, leaving it up to individuals to work out. That’s failed. We should get back to Kiwi values and work together to solve those problems.

And that’s why I say, “personal responsibility means nothing without social responsibility”. People can’t “tough it out” when they’re in emotional or psychological pain, when they have no decent housing, when interpersonal violence is chronic. Essentially, we act too much like the USA, and not enough like New Zealand.

New Zealanders really do care about the planet and our environment—it’s not all hype and tourism slogans. However, we’re hamstrung by a strong farming lobby that prevents action on things like pollution of fresh water—our streams, rivers, and lakes—by dairy farms, something they deny is even a problem. The corporate sector—most of it owned by foreigners—doesn’t want strong action on climate change because, like corporations everywhere, they care only about their immediate profits.

What is different about New Zealand as compared to the USA is that all our political parties believe in science and they all want action on climate change. They differ only on what action we should take and how soon. The parties of the Left generally promote more urgency, the Right less, but ALL sides agree on the basics. Unlike the USA.

And the big one: In New Zealand, healthcare is a human right, and no one is denied healthcare because they can’t afford it. We don't even get a bill when we're discharged from hospital. People are still free to pay for experimental treatments themselves if they want to, but except in the rarest of cases, all treatment is possible in the public system. In the USA, well, things are very different.

So, when you look at what makes New Zealand society and culture what it is, its shared values and, especially, its commitment to social democracy, add in the natural beauty, good weather, and English as the main language, and New Zealand is for me the perfect place. For someone else, it could easily be somewhere else. Indeed, for most of the world, it is.

It’s okay to think of a place as being perfect, even if no one else agrees with you. Because the one thing I believe more than anything else is that the real measure—the only one that matters—for deciding on the perfection of a place is simple: Whether it’s perfect for oneself. New Zealand is—for me.

Thanks to Sherry for the question! I was the—ahem!—perfect place to start.

It’s not too late to ask a question: Simply leave a comment on this post (anonymous comments are allowed). Or, you can also email me (mailto:amerinz@yahoo.com?Subject=AmeriNZ%20Blog) your question (and you can even tell me to keep your name secret, although, why not pick a nom du question?). You can also ask questions on the AmeriNZ Facebook page, though some people may want to keep in mind that all Facebook Pages are public, just like this blog. If you’re on Facebook, you can send me a private message through the AmeriNZ Page.

All posts in this series are tagged “AAA-18”. All previous posts from every “Ask Arthur” series are tagged, appropriately enough, "Ask Arthur”.


Let the 2017 asking begin – The first post in this year’s series.

Changing nature of Christmas

Christmas in New Zealand is a mostly secular/cultural holiday, which means that most people don’t engage in the religious traditions surrounding the holiday. It seems as if the USA may be slowly catching up with New Zealand in the way Americans observe Christmas.

This time last year, Pew Research released a look at the relative importance of the religious aspects of Christmas in the USA, and the results show a definite decline in the importance of religion. However, it still matters to most people.

Pew sums up the entire report in its opening:
As long-simmering debates continue over how American society should commemorate the Christmas holiday, a new Pew Research Center survey finds that most U.S. adults believe the religious aspects of Christmas are emphasized less now than in the past – even as relatively few Americans are bothered by this trend. In addition, a declining majority says religious displays such as nativity scenes should be allowed on government property. And compared with five years ago, a growing share of Americans say it does not matter to them how they are greeted in stores and businesses during the holiday season – whether with “merry Christmas” or a less-religious greeting like “happy holidays.”
Not surprisingly, Republicans are more likely to back traditional Christian religious views of Christmas, Democrats less so. However, what’s different is mainly the percentages, rather than having completely different positions on the underlying religious assumptions. Even so, the strength of adherence to a religious Christmas is declining for both sets, a trend that, all other things being equal, is probably likely to continue.

This also isn’t about religious orientation as such. A non-religious Christmas is sometimes called a “cultural holiday” because the people themselves may be at least somewhat religious or spiritual, even if they don’t treat Christmas as a religious thing. That matters because of the automatic assumption that people who don’t observe a religious tradition are atheists or agnostics, but, statistically, most such people are religious/spiritual, but don’t necessarily adhere to any particular religion—the “nones”, as they’re often called in statistics reporting.

I’m one of those who doesn’t think the religious side of Christmas matters (except to the religious, of course, and that’s their business, not mine). But Christmas can be a purely cultural, or secular, holiday involving time with family and friends, and for many of us—including most New Zealanders—that’s exactly what it is. I like it that way.

DJ Earworm 2018 Mashup

The video above is this year’s annual mashup by DJ Earworm, “United State of Pop 2018 (Turnin' It Up)”. It’s much like the mash-ups for other years, and this year also continues a personal trend: I’m familiar with a lot of the videos, and very familiar with a pretty high proportion of the videos included.

There are 25 videos featured in this mash-up (the complete list is in the YouTube description). I’m very familiar with seven of them, having seen them many times. While that’s less than a third of the total, there are more that I’m at least somewhat familiar with. This trend of knowing videos included, which has been developing over the past few years, has happened because I frequently watch our free-to-air music video channel (often when I’m blogging, actually). Those seven videos, however, aren’t ones I’ve shared on this blog. Knowing them doesn’t necessarily mean that I like them, after all.

In any case, these mash-ups are a quick look back at the pop songs that were the backing track to the year, and that’s kind of nice. It’s just what is. Not everything has to be serious.

Previous DJ Earworm mash-ups on this blog:

DJ Earworm 2017 Mashup (2017)
First December Mashup (2016)
Season of mash-ups (2015) – First video
And the roundups begin (2014)
Poptastic assault (2013) – First video

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

More American fast food arrives

American brands, both businesses and products, can be found throughout New Zealand, though there are plenty that aren’t here, of course. The fast food industry is particularly well represented, with another chain planning to launch next year, and a convenience store chain already opening locations.

Restaurant Brands, which currently runs KFC, Carl’s Jr., and Pizza Hut in New Zealand, announced this week that they’re bringing Taco Bell to New Zealand, something that’s been rumoured for many years. Mexican food of any iteration—real Mexican, Tex-Mex, or Californian-Mexican—is still pretty rare in New Zealand, so there’s at least a potential for it to succeed here, given it operates at the lower price end of the market, as the main burger chains do, too.

Restaurant Brands runs Taco Bell in Hawaii, Guam, and in New South Wales in Australia. They think that Sydney in particular is a model for what they can do in New Zealand. Over the next few years the company plans open 60 Taco Bell units, with about 20 in New Zealand.

The NZ Herald was particularly eager over the news, telling us what Taco Bell could cost in New Zealand, and that the first unit “could” open by July next year. I don’t know if New Zealanders are waiting with baited breath for Taco Bell to open, but it seems like the Herald might be.

Restaurant Brands used to run Starbucks in New Zealand, but they sold that business this past September to a company owned, in part, by a company that runs coffee cafes, which certainly sounds like a better “fit” than Restaurant Brands’ focus on fast food. [See also: “Why Starbucks 'struggled' in Kiwi coffee culture”].

There are, of course, some people who hate the very idea of Taco Bell, turning up their noses at it. So, there’s a kind of irony in the fact that Restaurant Brands appears to be about to be taken over by a Mexican company. Business is business, after all.

Another brand that originated in the USA is rolling our locations in New Zealand, and it’s entering a market that has far less competition.

Last month, Circle K Stores NZ opened their first location in Cook Street in Auckland. The second location opens in about a week in the Newmarket part of the city.

Circle K was founded in El Paso, Texas, in 1951, but is now owned by Canadian company Alimentation Couche-Tard. There are few American-style 24-hour convenience stores in New Zealand, most of them are connected to petrol stations (and the earliest of those didn’t allow customers into the shop in the evening, making them pay and get their goods through a teller-like window).

In New Zealand, the nearest equivalent to a convenience store is what we call a dairy, basically a very small, family owned and run superette. They all close in the evening. After that are small grocery stores, like Four Square (which also closes in the evening), and sometimes the shops of petrol stations, which may or may not be open into the night (or 24-hours).

When I lived in Chicago, I used 7-Eleven or White Hen Pantry locations when I was out late for whatever reason and normal grocery stores were all closed. Circle K plans to be similarly useful in New Zealand, locating stores where apartments (in particular) are higher in density, and that’s a niche for which there’s little or no competition at the moment.

They also offer American-style hot dogs and coffee, among other things, but the photos of their cabinet food on their Facebook Page shows that, as other American fast food companies have done, they have NZ-focused food on offer, with all the sorts of things that Kiwis would expect at any modern petrol station shop: Meat pies, sausage rolls, and backed goods like lamingtons.

I think Circle K could do well, since there’s nothing else quite like it. Like it is for every other business, they’ll need consistently good quality and service and prices that Kiwis think are fair—the fundamentals, in other words.

I haven’t personally heard any rumours of any other US chains poised to enter the New Zealand market, though supposedly Amazon, which opened a distribution centre in Australia, is looking to do the same here so it can get into the grocery delivery market. I’m a little meh about that, though, because we’ve heard for years that Ikea was coming, and it never has. Also, when I arrived in New Zealand there was talk of Australian-based department store David Jones entering New Zealand, but it’s only doing so now, more than two decades later. But, then, I was surprised when Krispy Kreme Donuts opened here, so I’m clearly not very good at predicting such things.

I’m pretty relaxed about all this “creeping Americanisation” as it’s sometimes called. People like what they like, and they’ll discard whatever doesn’t work for them. For example, Australian chicken chain Red Rooster didn’t work here (much to my surprise), and they quit New Zealand only some five years after opening their first unit here.

In general, I think that people should be free to like whatever they like, and it’s silly to judge people based on something as trivial as what fast food chain they like. Maybe it’s because I like fast food, or maybe it’s also because I think what people choose to enjoy is none of my business. Live and let eat, I say.

Local reaction

A foreign backpacker* was murdered in Auckland earlier this month, and that set off an extensive public reaction across New Zealand. While it’s good the victim is being remembered, there are aspects of this that aren’t good. The questions about all this outpouring are, first, why this case, why now? And, more importantly, what can we do to fix things?

It’s good to mourn the loss of someone to murder, and not the perpetrator. And, sadly, this backpacker is not the first, and probably won’t be the last, to meet their death here, though by far the most common reason is accident. But the large public reaction is unusual, and it seems somewhat out of proportion, especially because this backpacker’s not the first to be murdered.

The alleged killer was given name suppression in court, which means it’s a prosecutable offence to reveal the alleged killer’s name in any way, including on social media. Unfortunately, some New Zealanders openly defied the law, or came close to it, in their anger over the crime. Name suppression exists to ensure the accused gets a fair trial, and also to protect the victim in some cases (usually cases dealing with sexual assault or abuse). Part of the idea behind it is that it’s impossible to “un-do” publicity about the fact that someone has been accused of a terrible crime, which means that if they’re not convicted, their life will be destroyed. This is especially true since the Internet is forever, and anyone Googling an acquitted person’s name after the fact would find out about the charges—but not necessarily about the acquittal (probably wouldn’t, even).

The right to a fair and impartial trial is fundamental to any concept of justice, and yet, because people are so worked up about this case, as they have been about others in the past, some are willing to risk breaking the law. The bigger issue here isn’t that they could be prosecuted for their Tweet or Facebook post, but that they could derail the trial completely—cause a mistrial—and that will only prolong the ordeal for the family of the victim and delay justice even longer. So, breaching a suppression order is always a stupid thing to do.

There’s room for a robust debate on whether there should name suppression at all, but that debate cannot be advanced by deliberately breaking the law, unless one is willing to pay the consequences of doing so in order to make some point. Most of us aren’t—or wouldn’t be if we calmly reflected on the matter.

It seems to me that the sometimes reckless disregard for the consequences of violating a name suppression order is merely the result of people’s outrage over this case, which is the same reason it’s happened before. People are also embarrassed that this has happened in New Zealand, when our international guests, whatever their age, gender, nationality, mode of touring, etc., OUGHT to be safe. Sometimes, no matter how good the vast majority of us are, one bad—or evil—person can stain us all.

But there have been other tourists murdered, and plenty of New Zealanders are murdered every year, too. So, why this case? Why has this one hit a nerve that those others haven’t? I don’t think we can fully understand that yet, but there are pointers.

It’s true that the news media has been fuelling people’s passions by giving the case extensive coverage, but they do that all the time, so that’s not a logical reason. Something else must be actually fanning the flames.

It could be that social media is stoking the fire by giving people an outlet to express their raw emotions—grief, shame, rage—without any brakes or space for reasoned thought. Social media—Facebook in particular—profit when we are in a heightened emotional state and reacting broadly, unthinkingly, and confrontationally, and probably out of proportion to an incident. That’s what social media encourages us to do.

We should remember murder victims like this one, we should feel sympathy for their families and friends, and we should also redouble our own personal efforts to make our foreign guests feel welcome and safe. All of them.

What we mustn’t do is allow our raw emotions to drive us to lash out in irrational and counterproductive ways, nor to allow one case to blind us to all the similar and, sadly, even worse cases that don’t make the news or social media posts.

In short, we need to be better humans. We cannot by ourselves prevent this from ever happening again, no matter how good and noble our intentions. But if we all work to become better humans, maybe—maybe—bad things like this will become so rare that a strong reaction will not only make sense, it’ll be required.

The way we’ve been acting as humans allows things like this to happen. By being better humans we can help to fix that.

*I’ve chosen not to name the backpacker, or to use identifying descriptors of the victim, even though the linked stories all do, because my questions and unease actually have absolutely nothing to do with this particular case. It’s also one of the few ways I can limit how much I add to the frenzy surrounding this tragedy when, again, this particular case isn’t the point.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Uncertain guarding

The caption to the Instagram photo above pretty much tells the dogs' story today, about one dog’s enthusiasm for a treat, another’s indifference/disdain for it, and the third’s not wanting it nor wanting to give it away, either, and choosing to guard it without being certain it was a good idea. Or not.

In the end, Leo did follow me out on the deck as I got ready to clean out the gutters, and when we went back into the house, Sunny had taken his chew stick. Leo looked around for it, seemed both displeased and not quite sure where it had gone. But he likes Sunny, so he wasn’t mad at her (assuming dogs even get mad at each other…). Soon, of course, he’d forgotten all about it.

What the dogs experienced today was kind of an ordinary day for them, even though they don’t get chew sticks very often. Watching them was an ordinary day for me, too. I like that.

YouTube Rewind 2018: Everyone Controls Rewind

The video above is the annual “rewind” video from YouTube, this year introduced by actor Will Smith, who is not a YouTuber (and, at 50, seemingly a little old to be one…). I said about last year’s “Rewind” that it was “apparently a colourful amorphous blob that doesn’t actually have any point.” This year’s is the same, but has a sort of structure, and a bit of a focus.

As has been common in recent years, I don’t recognise most of the YouTubers included in the video (they’re all listed in the video description on YouTube and also on a separate page called “2018 Rewind Creators”, which links to each of their YouTube Channels). In fact, out of the dozens listed, I only recognised 8 people from four Channels: The AsapSCIENCE boys, Casey Neistat, Sam Tsui, and The Try Guys.

The video’s theme is people controlling this year’s “Rewind”, and, as they say in the description, “All comments featured in Rewind inspired by real comments from the YouTube community.” So, technically, the video has a point: The “YouTube community” determines not just what’s in the Rewind, but also what YouTube is. Personally, I think that point is kind of muddled, but it’s there nevertheless.

In addition to Will Smith, this year’s rewind also has other non-YouTubers I’m familiar with—Marshmello, Adam Rippon, John Oliver, and Trevor Noah—all of whom (apart from Rippon) I’ve watched on YouTube. No, that doesn’t make them YouTubers, because they create stuff for other media, and it may be posted to YouTube, too. I don’t recall a “Rewind” video having so many non-YouTubers before.

I liked this year’s Rewind more than last year’s, but that’s probably not saying much, considering how much I disliked the 2017 version. Still, it’s an improvement, right?

Still, everything else aside, what makes these videos interesting is that they’re a sort of time capsule about what videos people were into in a year. Well, maybe it’s just what people in the “YouTube community” were into. That’s still something.

It would be nice if they made one that was a little more accessible for the rest of us, though.

Related – Previous posts about YouTube Rewind videos:
YouTube Rewind: The Shape of 2017
YouTube Rewind: The Ultimate 2016 Challenge
YouTube Rewind: Now Watch Me 2015
YouTube Rewind: Turn Down for 2014
YouTube Rewind: What Does 2013 Say?

Sunday, December 09, 2018

Coca-Cola Christmas 2018: Be Santa

The ad above is Coca-Cola’s Christmas ad for 2018 and, as we would expect, it’s a good one—they almost always are. It’s all to help keep it the most popular brand in the world, and as the sixth most valuable brand, they have an incentive to make really good commercials to keep their popularity and, thus, the value of the brand. They're also masters at international marketing, as the various versions below show.

This ad contains no spoken words, making it usable in any country. However, the printed words are often changed for other languages, and the imagery is sometimes changed for different regions (see other versions below). The ad features the brightly lit Coca-Cola truck from other years, and Santa Claus resplendent in Coca-Cola red. It uses the well-known theme of inspiring the Christmas spirit in people who don’t have it. As they say in the YouTube description:
The world is increasingly becoming more and more divided. We need to take action and do what’s within our power, as regular people, to make it a better place.
Who can argue with that? Which makes this a good ad to the end of this year’s series of Christmas ads. Many of the companies I’ve been monitoring haven’t posted share-worthy ads this year, and some haven’t posted any at all, which I think is sad because this is a year when we could have used a dose of Christmas cheer.

Still these posts have been about sharing Christmas-themed ads from various countries and companies, and that, too, makes Coca-Cola a good place to end this year’s series. As they have other years, the company has created versions for various international markets, and the differences, sometimes subtle, other times not, are interesting. What follows are some of those international versions, along with some of the changes that were made.

First, a very different version for English-speaking markets:

The version for Greece, in which nothing much is changed apart from the final words:

Here’s the Serbian version – the “closed” sign and the “elderly center” sign have been translated:

The Romanian version translates the stickers on the shop’s fridge door, the closed sign, and the “elderly center” sign:

In the Bosnian version, the “closed” sign has been translated, the young man isn’t wearing the helmet inside the shop, and the town scenery is different:

The Spanish language version does away with the door/closed sign scene (which makes the young man giving the old man a Coke seem pretty random compared to the other versions). The elderly center sign was translated. It also has different scenes in the town. The background music also starts differently, using a piano:

The Albanian version takes a very different tack, starting with the end of the commercial, “2 orë më parë…” (“two hours ago…”). It also translates the stickers on the shop’s fridge door, the closed sign, and the “elderly center” sign:

This series of posts has been about showing a small slice of how Christmas is marketed around the world. Coca-Cola is a master at that, clearly. If only people could buy the message as easily as the product.

Saturday, December 08, 2018

Coles Christmas 2018

The ad above is for Australian supermarket chain Coles Supermarkets, Australia’s second-largest supermarket chain by locations. Together with Woolworths, whose ad I shared yesterday, Coles is part of a grocery duopoly in Australia.

This ad is simple and fun enough, marketing the supermarket as the go-to place for people’s Christmas feast needs. There aren’t many other ways to promote a grocery store other than that, I don’t think, though some have promoted their store brands generally. For most grocery retailers, most of the time, this is a time-honoured approach.

This ad is also notable for its use of Australian slang and ordinary accents, rather than more polished forms of speech. Maybe that makes it feel a bit more authentic? In any case, for what it is, I think it’s good.

Apparently, though, Australians need Santa to bring them some apostrophes for Christmas…

Friday, December 07, 2018

Sudden recollection

It’s not uncommon for someone in pop culture to die, of course—it happens to us all sooner or later. What we think/feel about such a death depends on a lot of things, including how much we linked the person’s work. But sometimes a person we weren’t exactly a fan of can give us momentary pause, too. Then, we move on with our day and maybe not give it another thought. This time, I thought I’d mark such a death because at one time in my life, when it mattered a lot, I connected with a particular song.

Pete Shelley died today at the age of 63. He’s probably best known for being the co-founder, songwriter and lead singer for UK punk band Buzzcocks, founded in 1976. When the band broke up in 1981, he went on to a solo career.

I wasn’t that familiar with Buzzcocks’ songs, but the one I knew best, though probably not at the time, was 1978’s “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn't've)” (video below). It was well-regarded, though it reached only Number 12 in the UK. In an interview many years later, Pete said “the song was about a man named Francis that he lived with for about seven years”, though at the time of its release he wasn’t officially out as bi.

The first song in which I was aware of Pete personally, though, was his 1981 song, “Homosapien” (video above). But that, too, came some time after it was released, after I left university. The song reached Number 4 in Australia, and Number 6 in Canada, and Number 14 on the US Dance Chart (and it would probably have been a club where I first heard it, most likely after I moved to Chicago in 1982-3).

The song, which was originally intended for what would have been Buzzcocks’ fourth album, was banned by the BBC because of what they called the song’s "explicit reference to gay sex", the lyrics "homo superior / in my interior". Now, the BBC, like broadcast executives in many places, have had a history of having humourless prats making such decisions, and in this case they were right AND wrong.

I say they were “right” only because when I first heard the song I sort of giggled to myself at what seemed like a somewhat risqué veiled reference, something those “in the know” might get, but that, in context, weren’t risqué. Of course, I also knew the entire lyric, something the BBC language guardians apparently didn’t:
In my interior
But from the skin out
I'm homosapien too
And you're homosapien too
And I'm homosapien like you
And we're homosapien too
In context, the lyric in question can be seen as completely innocent, describing himself. Still, in those days “the Beeb” wasn’t going to give anyone the benefit of the doubt, especially anyone gay or bi.

In my newly-out days, I was still finding out that there was such a thing as pop performers—including singers and songwriters—who I could relate to without “filling in the blanks”, as I put it a few years ago. “Homosapien” was one of those songs and for a completely ordinary reason: It was just fun. I was also slightly subversive to me, not the least because of the frequent vocal stress on homo.

Around that same time, I also remember seeing guys in Chicago wearing white t-shirts with the word “Homosapien” and no other printing. I was sure they were kinsmen, and, at the time, it seemed like they were giving a knowing wink to anyone who knew the song. But, I also could easily have been projecting.

So today, when I heard that Pete Shelley had died, I remembered that song I once thought was fun and subversive, and I also remembered what it felt like to discover songs like that after having been denied them all my life until not long before then. I wasn’t exactly a fan of Pete or of the Buzzcocks, but I once really liked that one song of his, and today I remembered that.

I’m glad it’s now so easy to find openly gay artists to listen to, and that I no longer have to “fill in the blanks”. But there was also something fun, exciting, and kind of revolutionary-feeling about finding those songs and artists all those decades ago, and Pete Shelley was part of that, and for that, and for that fun song, I thank him.

RIP, Pete Shelley, and thanks.

The existential threat to America

The United States has a major threat to its democracy, something deeply entrenched, and that’s been around a lot longer than the current occupant of the White House or his Russian enablers. That threat is the Republican Party. It is no exaggeration to say that, left unchecked, they will utterly destroy democracy in the USA.

We saw in the recent Midterm Elections that the system is so rigged in favour of Republicans that even though Democrats did better than Republicans did in 2010, they won about two-thirds the number of seats in the US House. In Wisconsin, Democrats won more than half the popular vote, but got only about a third of the legislative seats.

Republicans have rigged the system to make it so difficult as to be nearly impossible to win elections without a massive landslide. But when, despite all their efforts, Democrats win elections, then Republicans go to Plan B and legislate to essentially nullify the election.

In Wisconsin and in Michigan, Republicans have attempted to legislate to prevent Democrats from doing what they were elected to do—things the Republican Party opposes.

In a piece explaining the Republican power grabs, Vox laid out the background:
Democracy is premised on the idea that political power is only legitimate when exercised with the consent of the governed. But in reality, people disagree about fundamental political and moral issues; no elected government will ever have 100 percent support of the population, or anything close to it. The purpose of a democratic political system is to bridge that gap: to create a system for resolving these disagreements that everyone thinks is fair. That way, everyone will accept the outcome of the election as basically legitimate even when their side loses.

The post-election power grabs amount to Republicans declaring that they no longer accept that fundamental bargain. They do not believe it’s legitimate when they lose, or that they are obligated to hand over power to Democrats because that’s what’s required in a fair system. Political power, to the state legislators in question, matters more than the core bargain of democracy.
What Republicans are doing is undermining democracy itself, first by rigging the electoral system to benefit themselves, and now by engaging in a bald power grab to prevent the will of the people from being done. If Democrats had ever tried anything so crass and disgusting, Fox “News” would have organised riots in the streets, but the Republican Party in Washington and their party’s media, like Fox, are completely ignoring what’s happening. That figures: The party’s motto is "Party First, Country Last".

We can hope that courts will overrule these crass partisan games, and they very well may. But longer term the only answer is to inflict massive electoral defeat on Republican candidates—so massive that there won’t be enough of them left to prevent the repair of the USA’s democracy. It’s only by inflicting such a massive defeat that the party will be forced to reform itself so it can return to supporting democracy again.

The reason this is so important is that Republican politicians are making peaceful change impossible and rendering all of the USA’s democratic structures illegitimate. When that happens, the people lose all faith in democracy itself, and that can end in one of two ways: An authoritarian dictatorship, which is, apparently, what the Republican Party wants. The other possibility is violent revolution, and that’s something that no one could hope to control, but it would lead to the collapse of democracy, too.

President Kennedy warned us all: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” Republicans need to respect democracy again—before it’s too late.

The Facebook post from Robert Reich, above, is his response to the disgusting situation the Republican politicians are engaged in. I share it because I agree with him.

Woolworths 2018: ‘Home for Christmas’

The ad above is for Australian supermarket chain Woolworths, which also owns New Zealand’s Countdown supermarket chain (whose Christmas ad I already shared). Woolworths and Coles, Australia’s second-largest supermarket chain by locations, control about 80% of Australia’s grocery market, making them a duopoly, though less so than New Zealand has, with only two chains.

The ad is very different from the one for their New Zealand operations. While both use lighthearted situational comedy, the New Zealand commercial seems to carry more urgency than the Australian version does, though the way Christmas is experienced in the two countries isn’t all that different in frenzy levels. That’s merely interesting, but not important. I doubt the company was trying to “say” anything by the way the commercials were made, but were merely making commercials that appealed to different markets. As they should.

Personally, I’m just glad that we in New Zealand didn’t get a reheated Australian ad used here. Plus, I still get to see how Australians are marketed to, and see how different companies in different countries do their marketing. That’s the point of this annual series of posts, after all.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Target Holiday 2018: ‘Gather Round’

The USA’s Target retail chain has a bunch of short ads under the “Gather Round” theme. All of them are fast-paced and feature people having fun using products or product categories that can be bought at their stores. The latest ad in the series is above, previous ones are below, and in order from second-most recent to the oldest. There are a whole bunch of other videos, including 7-second versions of a couple of the ads, on their YouTube Channel.

When I was last in the USA more than a decade ago I bought several things from a nearby target, including several shirts I still have (they’re long sleeve, so too warm to wear much of the year, plus I bought a lot of them, all of which means that I don’t wear any of them very often). In looking around the store, I saw a lot of stuff I might have bought for our house, had that not involved some sort of international shipping. I have no idea if that’d still be the case.

In any event, I think these ads a fun enough, and even if they’re not not quite Christmasy enough for me, I think they’re fine for what they are.