Daniel J. Laxer

I'm Dan Laxer, and this is my blog.

This Blog Post is Totally Rapey

Western civilization was born of a swift and violent rape.

Zeus, the great god of ancient Greek myth, voyeuristic, rapey, gives into his overwhelming urges, dons the form of a swan, swoops down upon a young and unsuspecting Leda, rapes her, and leaves her reeling, and pregnant with her attacker’s children, perhaps the most notable of which is Helen. Yes, that Helen. The one who’s beauty spawned the Trojan War (although perhaps had Zeus used Trojans none of this would have happened… but I digress).

(Watch that word, by the way, “rapey.” It figures prominently in this blog post.)

For me the best and most poignant version of the story is W.B. Yeats’s Leda and the Swan. Yeats foregrounds the brutal violence with which Zeus the rapist assaults his victim so that there can be no mistake as to what is taking place. And we, as readers, or witnesses, are powerless:

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.

Being so caught up,

So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

Those last 2 lines remain as problematic as ever. And there has been some excellent criticism over the years suggesting that, for Yeats, not only was this assault the birth of civilization, but a useful metaphor for the troubled Ireland in which he grew and lived and worked, witnessing his beloved isle’s destruction, “The broken wall, the burning roof and tower.”

I wrote my master’s thesis on this poem. My intention was to defend Yeats as a poet, and his right, as an artist, to use whatever metaphor he chose. His Vision of civilization’s beginnings intermingled with his sorrow for Ireland. The poem indicates that he felt, to use a common expression, that his homeland had been raped.

What sparked my defence of Yeats was classmate’s presentation in which she argued that by writing about a rape the artist was necessarily enacting a rape. I could not have disagreed more strongly. Was she saying that Yeats, by virtue of this poem, had committed a rape, that he was now a rapist as well as a poet and a politician? That he, or his poem, was… rapey? I just could not accept that reasoning.

Looking back, she may have had a point… to an extent.

But does that mean that by defending Yeats as a poet, that I was also defending him as a rapist? Of course not. That’s ridiculous. But would I have been so quick to defend him if I’d been a rape victim? I still stand by my argument that it is ultimately the right of an artist to use whatever metaphors best foreground his or her vision.


In our culture rape has become almost sacred, as it were, and will not brook being profaned by flippant representations in the pop cultural lexicon (there are some exceptions).

Robin Thicke’s song Blurred Lines, or at least the uncensored video that goes along with it, has been described as “rapey.” Whether you would agree with that characterization is secondary to my point: that “rapey,” as a word, is silly, and perhaps trivializing as an adjectival form of the noun or verb “rape.”

One of my Facebook Friends (and real life friends, for that matter), the always relevant, well-informed, and forthright Shayne Gryn, took me to task on that point, arguing that  “‘rapey’ is a useful word to describe something seriously problematic.”

Shayne is one of the most Feministic men I know. Or to put it more appropriately, no other man I know has the level of respect for women that Shayne does. As such, of late Shayne has been talking a lot about Rape Culture, the theory that in our cultural context, as one publication puts it, “prevalent attitudes and practices normalize, excuse, tolerate, or even condone rape.” To wit, we live in a “rapey” society.

It’s the word that I have a problem with. Rapey is a fairly recent term, an adjective that denotes either an inclination to rape, as in “He’s not just creepy. He’s downright rapey,” or characterized by rape, as in, well, the argument that Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines is a bit rapey. But I believe that “rapey” is just a bit to cutesy a term for its connotation. The suffix –y, attached to “rape” to form the descriptor, indicates the informal, the endearing, and the familiar. Its use, in some cases, suggests nicknames (Jakey, Davey, Barbie, Suzy, Robby… birdy, fishy, doggy… Grumpy, Dopey, Sneezy…) As such it suggests that “rapey,” is a nickname for someone who is inclined to rape (Hey Rapey! Get any action this weekend?”). However the function of the suffix becomes problematic because it is indeed “sometimes used to mean ‘allowing, fostering, or bringing about’ the specified action,” which in this case is rape.

And, again, as Shayne has argued, “rapey” is perfectly useful as a referent to something troublesome. But would you refer to a creepy guy skulking around a playground as seeming a bit child-molesty or pedophiley? That would be like calling him a bit of a pedophile rather than simply a pedophile.

But I’m all about words and whether they adequately express ideas and thoughts. Shayne, at least in this instance, is more concerned with ideas and how we can best express them as to be understood and dealt with. Perhaps, he argues, my focus on the word “is a distraction from the arguments in which the word is used.” He may be right. What is clear is that he and I agree on the idea of rape and the rape culture as reprehensible, we’re just approaching it from two different directions. We will, I’m sure, eventually meet in the middle.

Word up!


Quit Russian Me

A recent drawn-out catfight on Twitter between 3 of my colleagues, spawned by the Sochi Games boycott movement, has suddenly become even more irrelevant, tiresome, and childish.

Ted Bird of TSN 690 wrote a column about the boycott of the 2014 Sochi Games to protest Russia’s stance on homosexuality. Zealots from almost every corner tackled him like a running back barreling in the wrong direction. But Ted knows football; he’d never make that mistake. However the zealots would seem to have piled on top of one of their own.

Ted took hits from several in the gay and journalism communities, from Supriya Dwivedi, from Dan Delmar, and he even got a little kick in the shins from Steve Faguy. What bothered me initially is how all the would-be boycotters who seemed to have a problem with Russia’s stance on homosexuality in particular, and you would think suppression in general, were trying to suppress Ted. One Twit, a would-be sensor, even went so far as to advise Ted that he should not have written about it. Is freedom of speech really freedom of speech? Or is it freedom of speech as long as it conforms to what the majority think and feel, dissenters be damned?

I’m not saying that Ted is a dissenter. I’m saying that he, like anyone else, is entitled to his opinion. Ted is one of the most intelligent, informed, and well-read individuals I know. Perhaps in the present case he let his ego get the better of him and let the caustic barbs fly. But to be fair, some of his detractors fired some poison-tipped arrows of their own.

The whole thing was interesting for about a minute and a half.

But then I came across a comment on Facebook that gave me pause. Peter Mats is an accountant by day, Facebook vigilante by night. He posted the following in his status update:

Still more talk from the left (primarily) about Canada boycotting the Sochi games because of the way Russia treats their homosexual community. To that, I ask them, “Have you ever bought anything that was Made in China? Do you know how gays are treated in China? Or the Tibetans? Or its own people? Do you use fuel or heating oil? Do you know how Saudi Arabia treats its gays? Or women?

That post was followed by the following:

If these phones (sic) really cared about homosexuals, why don’t they start right here at home, by stopping to purchase Chinese goods or cutting down on fuel so that we give less time the Saudis. But that would be too difficult. So let’s just fuck our athletes. Easy solution since, let’s face it, none of us are directly affected by the Olympics. We’re not athletes. We don’t work at the Olympics. So it’s easy to say “Boycott”. After all, it doesn’t personally affect us in any way. Easy. We always go for Easy. Fucking hypocrites. – Peter Mats.

Peter’s been a Facebook Friend for quite some time. His posts are always pointed, sharp, and thought-provoking. I won’t presume to call him a conservative… or myself a liberal for that matter… even though those descriptors may indeed apply to both of us, because to do so would somehow take away from the inherent truth in his observation, and my willingness to accept it.

In the decades since Pierre de Coubertin revived the Olympic spirit with the modern Olympic Games, and the so-called “Olympic movement,” many have contravened the Olympic Charter. Even the IOC itself went against its own charter when they agreed, at London 2012, to erect a makeshift barrier between the Israeli and Lebanese judo teams because the Lebanese delegation refused to practice alongside the Israelis. A travesty if you consider, first, that whatever had passed between those 2 countries politically ought not to have been laid at the feet of the athletes and, second, the charter itself emphasizes, in Chapter 1, Article 6, that “the Olympic Games are competitions between athletes in individual or team events and NOT between countries” (emphasis mine). Further, as the preamble of the Charter states quite clearly, under the section titled Fundamental Principles of Olympism, “Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.” Hence, that barrier between the Lebanese and Israeli delegations should never have been erected. Furthermore, and with all due respect to Ted Bird’s position, the same stated principle (“…politics, gender or otherwise…”) clearly ought to govern Russia’s position on homosexuality.

The news has been rife with planned boycotts and protests, and plans to dump gallons of Russian vodka (the alcoholic equivalent to the legendary Boston Tea Party?). I’m more of a whisky drinker myself. But when it comes to vodka I’ve always preferred Absolut, even though hipsters who don’t really know their Stoli from their Moski insist that Grey Goose is the best vodka… but I digress.

Peter’s comments on Facebook express his frustration with the hypocrisy of those protesters who jump all over an issue because it affects them personally, but might not know enough to protest inhumane practices in other countries that produce the things we enjoy every day: coffee, cocoa, diamonds, the authentic Asian rugs you might have in your homes. We know more about blood diamonds now, but how many of us ask a jeweller showing us a beautiful engagement ring where the diamond came from? What did it take before you started buying Fair Trade coffee and chocolate? Do you know where the grounds in your Tim Horton’s Double-Double come from? What about the pods you use in your Tassimo machines?

At the very least, the Sochi protests have indeed raised awareness about Russia’s stance on homosexuality, just as the 2008 Olympics did about human rights issues in China. However just yesterday Uzra Zeya, acting assistant US secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labour, argued that human rights abuses in China are actually getting worse. Is that because after the games finished we’d moved on and forgotten China? And if so, what happens to Russia’s gay community after Sochi? Who’s responsibility will they be then?

Na Zdorovie!

Why You I Oughta…

Drones. All of ‘em. Cashiers, sales clerks, customer service agents, receptionists. Pawns on the corporate chessboard set up as a buffer between you, the customer, and the management they’re trained to protect. Protect from whom? From you! They are usually young, fairly inexperienced, exceedingly polite, and completely exasperating.

Call up a customer service line. Or approach a complaint counter. Try to exchange something. You’ll quickly become wrapped up in what will undoubtedly become a frustrating conversation, filled with magician’s patter designed to confuse and distract. And then it happens. Just toward what they hope will be the end of the conversation, what they hope will be their last explanation as to why you can’t get whatever it is that you’re asking for, the one stun-grenade of an answer that’s designed to make you shut up and go way: “That’s just our policy, sir.”

They may be drones. But we are sheep. Most of the time we just accept it. But I won’t anymore. I’ve grown weary of the defensive line keeping me from my goal. Their last line of defense is no longer acceptable to me. So what I’ve started doing in these situations is turning the tables on them, confusing them. They’ve likely already said that to me a couple of times. So I say “Yes, I am aware that it’s just your policy. But (and here’s the clincher) why is it your policy?” Then I just sit back and wait. I watch, silently bemused, while they struggle, searching somewhere in their implanted databases for that question and its stock response. But they won’t find it. It isn’t there. Their bosses didn’t even anticipate it, so they didn’t prepare the front line for it. They’re not trained to answer that question. They’re just told to reiterate the company policy, and to defend whatever policy it is, to justify it, simply by the tautological response “it’s just our policy, sir.” That doesn’t tell you anything. And it certainly doesn’t help to do anything other than frustrate you further. And now they’re caught off guard, stunned, gone into brain-lock, pupils dilated, mouth agape. You ask that question and they’ll crash like a PC that’s gone into overload and can’t handle the input. Once you’ve asked them why, they’ll come a-tumblin’ down like a house of cards.

Policies have to have some logic behind them. Companies don’t enact policies at random. They have reasons behind why they do things. “That’s just our policy, sir” suggests that a policy exists for no apparent reason. I was taught as a child that “because” is not a proper answer to “why.” But saying “That’s just our policy, sir” is the same as saying “Just because” or “because we felt like it” or worse (read this out loud in a Goofy-like, dumb voice) “I don’t know.”

The other one that gets me is the once again calm, exceedingly polite customer service agent who completely frustrates you with empty phrases designed to not help. Then, when you’re beyond frustration, and they can tell that you’ve become frustrated at their hands, they say “Sir, there’s no need to be rude.” And that’s when I turn into The Hulk. Because maybe, just maybe they’re wrong and there’s every reason to be rude.

And what about the warning sign they have on the wall behind them? That little placard stuck to the wall, taunting you as you approach the counter: “Violent or abusive behaviour will not be tolerated.” Ooooooh, that gets me going, which is precisely what it’s designed to do. You see that sign and you’re primed, already tense because, if you’re anything like me you’re thinking to yourself “violent and abusive behaviour”? What do they mean? Why do they think I’m going to get violent and abusive?” I see that sign and I go into “fight or flight” mode. And since there’s no way I’m leaving without answers, it’s really just fight mode.

The sign is a red flag, designed not to caution you about your behaviour, but to let you know that you are about to become frustrated so don’t even think about getting mad, because one furrowed brow, once your voice rises a decibel louder than theirs (Sir, please lower your voice), and you’re labeled violent and abusive. It happens all the time with the airlines. A colleague once had a frustrating time at a ticket counter. He’s a squeaky wheel who was not going to walk away from the counter unsatisfied. But he was frustrated by what he saw as incompetence and he let that be known. Then, handing his ticket to the employee at the gate, he noticed a card stapled to his boarding pass. “Wait a minute,” he said. “What is that? Let me see that.” It was a card that read “Difficult passenger.” He grabbed the boarding pass, marched back over the ticket agent he dealt with earlier, and demanded she remove the “Difficult passenger” card.

For the most part, the individuals I deal with on a daily basis are good, kind, hard-working individuals. But every once in a while you come face-to-face with a pawn who either knows the policies inside and out, or who doesn’t know them at all, and unbeknownst to either them or you, they are about to ruin your day.

Take a deep breath and rise above. I think we all have a little D-Fens inside of us You want to keep him at bey at all costs. But you can let the Three Stooges out. A couple of multiple slaps and a forehead conk might help to straighten everything out.

The Juicy Bits: Serving Up the News

“Our job is only to hold up a mirror, to tell and show the public what has happened.” – Walter Cronkite

“We have currently a built-in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information. Our mass media reflect this.” – Edward R. Murrow

“News travels fast in places where nothing much ever happens.” – Charles Bukowski

Hunter S. Thompson once said that, other than sports scores, race results, and stock quotes, there is no such thing as objective journalism. I don’t know if I necessarily agree. Walter Cronkite said that only a true liberal, not in the political sense, but in the sense of one who is detached from any one particular cause, political stance, or set of beliefs, can be a good journalist. It’s virtually impossible to be that objective. The world has changed with the advent of cable news, and of course the Internet. News is available almost as soon as it happens. But it is almost never objective.

This week the city of Cote Saint Luc was the scene of an uncharacteristically dramatic news story that unfolded over a period of almost 24 hours. Just a few blocks from where I grew up, around the corner from the pool where I swam as a child, down the street from a park I used to play in, a man was holed up in his house, armed, and in possession of well over 100 guns. Something set him off, likely before the Hydro inspectors, whom he imagined to be intruders, showed up. I still live fairly close by. So when I heard from an old friend that her mom was confined to her home, others evacuated, police cruisers blocking off streets, I cycled over. I never considered myself a journalist, except in the sense that, as the late Gord Sinclair used to say, all of us in the business are reporters; if you happened to be there when a story happens you cover it, you do the digging, ask the questions, get the story, and then call it in. There were no other media on the scene when I arrived. So I asked the questions. At that stage the police weren’t saying very much. One officer, a young woman, seemingly new to the job, did divulge that the police were trying to coax a man out of his house. Her ostensibly more experienced partner intervened and said “We can’t say any more, sir. You’ll have to call public relations.” I asked one more question.

“Is he armed?”

“I’m sorry, but we can’t tell you anything more.”

I talked to some of the people gathered on the sidewalk. Then I got back on my bike and tried to get closer from a couple of different streets. I chatted briefly with a few bystanders. Then, while trying to see what I could from one strategic corner, a young man, tense and jittery, approached.

“Hey,” a man said to him, “that’s your house, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, but I can’t talk right now.”

He crossed the street to where 3 women of different ages were milling about. I followed, eager to know who he was, and if it was indeed his house.

“Excuse me,” I said. “Are you relations?” They ignored me.

“Can you tell me what’s happened?” They moved away from me.

“Is that your house, or are you neighbours?”

One of the woman quickly said “Yes, we’re neighbours.” But I knew better. Obviously this was the man’s family: an older woman I took to be his wife, a woman about my age I assumed to be a daughter, and this young man, a son. And they were quite obviously in a lot of distress, and were not, at least at that point, talking to anyone. Except the police.

Two officers were crouched behind a cruiser, trying to communicate with the man through a megaphone. The son approached the police tape and beckoned an officer over.

“He can’t understand what they’re saying,” he said.

“Well, we’re saying it in both French and English,” the officer replied.

“That’s not the point,” the son said impatiently, clearly wanting to help his father as much as he could from behind the lines. “The megaphone is not clear. He won’t hear what they’re saying.”

I took a few pictures, emailed them into the newsroom, called the desk to report what I’d learned, and returned home; I’d left a chicken in the oven.

This story came a few days after the shooting of a young man on a Toronto streetcar. One of the handful of officers that surrounded the streetcar opened fire. Nine shots rang out. 18-year old Sammy Yatim was killed.

Just days earlier George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, who died in a confusion of physical violence that may or may not have warranted a gunshot to the heart.

The difference in the present case is that the Montreal Police Department showed immeasurable restraint, almost as if they were operating solely out of respect for the family. The standoff was long and tense. There was a gunshot, and one officer suffered a bruised foot. Rubber bullets and tear gas were used. An armoured car, a broken window. All with a mind toward communicating with the suspect, and getting him out of the house safely. In the end that’s just what happened. The news reported that the standoff ended peacefully. Facebook denizens argued back and forth over just what “peacefully” means. There was also plenty of harsh criticism for the police for taking so long, letting it drag out, not going in earlier, and the usual claptrap about taxpayers’ money, and nonsense about the family’s irresponsibility of allowing a clearly mentally unstable man in a home with a vast gun collection. So many chose to pass judgement rather than extend a little generosity, sensitivity toward the family.

I heard from some who figured out who the family was. Many in the community know them. They all expressed worry and concern. Whereas the harsh criticism came from outsiders, people who are not law enforcement officers, and who have only ever seen a standoff on television, either on any one of several cop shows, or on the news. People who felt they know better than the cops. People who felt they had a right to pass judgement, all based on what they heard on the news.

Well, what you hear on the news is not the full story. It never is. It’s just the juicy bits that are generated for public consumption, without a second thought for those left to suffer the pain and devastation. The credits roll. The screen fades. And the feast begins. We swoop down from Facebook, from Twitter, on call-in shows, our teeth bared, tearing into what we think to be the meat of matter. There are always at least two sides to every story. Why are we satisfied when we are served only one?

Tuned In, Turned On, and Dropped Out: I’ve Grown Leary of the Mobile Movement

I predict that the when the current generation gets older they’re going to start suffering severe neck problems and curvature of the spine. In fact, I’m surprised that we aren’t seeing more head wounds.

Look around, if you are able, the next time you are out and about. Count how many people are looking down at the hand-held devices that have wrested their attention away from the world. You are likely one of them. It’s this whole if-you-can’t-beat-’em-join’-em, either-you’re-in-or-your-in-the-way mentality, and I’m just as guilty. I used to take pride in being the only person on the bus with a book in my hands while everyone else either texted their way home or played games. I’m talking about adults, businesspeople, professionals. But now that I have a smartphone I’m almost always on Facebook or Twitter, checking or sending email. And I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I’ve finally cottoned on to Angry Birds (actually, I beat all the levels so I don’t play anymore; I’ve grown bored of it.).

Think about it, though. We are weakening our neck muscles and will start to have disc problems. We will lose our ability to move our heads in all of the six directions it’s supposed to move in. And at some point people are going to start walking into each other, smacking their heads on light standards, and wandering into traffic against red lights. Remember the plight of Cathy Cruz Marrero, the Pennsylvania woman who tumbled into a mall fountain because she was texting while walking? From what I understand, there is an iPhone app that uses your camera to let you see where you’re going so that you can avoid a similar fate. But that’s not going to solve our impending neck problems. Wouldn’t it be easier to simply sit down for the brief time that it takes to text?

I remember the first time I texted somebody. I thought it was cool. But these days texting frustrates the hell out of me because I realize that, despite the spectre of modern technology, we’ve actually gone backwards. Parents complain that their teenagers sent hundreds of texts a month. The reason is because they don’t send texts the way our generation does it. I finish a thought before I press send, I use full sentences. But have you seen your kids’ text conversations? It’s faster, I guess, to send them one or two words at a time: Hi-send. Where-send r u-send. *facepalm*-send. I feel the same way about emailing. I used to be fascinated by the technology but, again, we’ve actually gone backwards. An electronic conversation takes so long that I sometimes feel like I’m wiring ship-to-shore. Teens wouldn’t understand that apparent anachronism. But compare the above example of a text exchange to the following:

Aboard ship Stop Weather fine Stop Will arrive next Tuesday Stop Miss you Full Stop

My father had a Telex machine in his office. That was the first time I saw words with letters removed to render a message shorter and therefor cheaper to send. It was ticker tape technology; you typed your message and the machine translated it into perforations on a long paper strip. Then you reinserted the strip into the machine, pressed “send,” and sat back while the machine read the tape, retyped the message, and sent it out along the phone lines. When my father received a Telex message the machine would jolt awake and start typing away. It was cool. But it wasn’t new. And neither is texting.

Speaking on the phone is infinitely more efficient. But nobody talks on their phones anymore. In fact, “phone” is really a misnomer. “Telephone” is from the Greek for “distant sound.” The word “device” has replaced, or is on the way to replacing, the word “phone.” Most of our communication is conducted in the absence of sound. And to heighten the silence, most everyone have their brains stuffed with ear buds. It makes me think of a lyric from “We’re Not Gonna Take It” from The Who’s rock opera Tommy: “So put in your earplugs, put on your eyeshades, and you know where to put the cork.” Tommy was the “deaf, dumb, and blind boy” turned god-like hero. His followers, in reverence of him, would don sunglasses attached to earplugs and a cork that fit into the mouth. Pete Townshend perhaps intended a reference to the hear-no-evil-see-no-evil monkeys, but the trope also emphasized the tune-out part of Timothy Leary’s imperative to the Hippie generation. How prophetic. With the advent of mobile devices that are phones, TVs, computers, video players, and iPods all rolled into one we have definitely turned on, tuned in, and dropped out. But we’ve turned Leary on his head and inverted his original meaning of the phrase. He once said, by the way, that the phrase was given to him by Canada’s own media philosopher, Marshall McLuhan (Mc Clue In?). McLuhan also said “the medium is the message.” The medium is the device. Leary intended a deeper engagement with the world around us, free of the worldly trappings that distract us. But what we’ve got now is the opposite of deep engagement. In fact, “social media” is also a misnomer, an ironic one at that; is there anything more anti-social than social media?

It used to bother me to see a mommy smoking while pushing a stroller. But now it bothers me even more when she’s pushing the stroller while gabbing on her Bluetooth. Go to the park. Look around. How many mommies or daddies are actively involved with their kids as compared with the ones who are sitting on a bench with their hand-helds, weak neck dangling over the screen, barely listening to their little cherubs saying “Watch me, mommy, watch me!” Our moms didn’t take us to the park secretly wishing that they could be back at home talking on the phone. When did being on the phone nearly every waking moment become so much more important than real-time real-life social interaction?

Ironically, Leary’s imperative also emphasized “a commitment to mobility,” as he explained in a 1983 interview. But it’s our devices that are mobile. We, however, are standing still.

What If God Finds Out I’m an Atheist?

Interesting how so many of the people I admire, as much for their ideas as for their talents, are atheists. Granted, they don’t live in foxholes, where there are, allegedly, no atheists. But then we aren’t living through trench warfare. At least not beyond the metaphorical sense.

But, still it dawned on me, while doing research for a future blog, that so many of the people I admire have decided that there is no God.

We are living in the wake of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens’ more recent God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, two books who’s bastard child might well be The Last Testament: A Memoir by God (and David Javerbaum). This last one has spawned one of the most entertaining Twitter accounts, God’s Twitter account: @TheTweetOfGod where even God Himself lets loose his cynical side. Ours is indeed a cynical era. But we are certainly not the first to allow cynicism to slither in and undermine religion. French philosopher Rene Descartes would have argued against the existence of God but for the threat of death. English author Edward Gibbon, as the story goes, was a Christian, bouncing between Catholicism and Protestantism before he wrote his great work The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. But he might well have become an atheist by the time he finished it in 1788, more than 2 decades after he’d started it. In fact, the two most ticklish chapters of the voluminous history would seem to foreshadow Dawkins, Hitchens, and even George Carlin.

Carlin remained convinced until the day he died that religion is a sham, and that there is no God. “When it comes to believing in God,” he riffed in an HBO special, “I really tried. I really, really tried.” But he just couldn’t make it stick. Later in the same bit he concludes quite simply that “there is no God.”

I read that very same phrase recently in a column by another man I admire: Joe Fiorito. For a time Joe Fiorito was my favourite columnist at The Montreal Gazette. He wasn’t a journalist in the conventional sense. He was a writer. A storyteller. And he told good stories. True stories. Stories that mattered about people who mattered. Eventually, Fiorito followed his wife to Toronto where he writes for the Toronto Star (he’s also written a handful of books, the best of which, in my opinion, is The Closer We Are to Dying. You really ought to read that). When he made the decision to leave Montreal and set up shop in the reviled Toronto, home of the hated Toronto Maple Leafs, he said that where he lived didn’t matter, that he’d make a living anywhere, that he could write anywhere. I asked him at the time if he thought the rivalry between Montreal and Toronto was over. He said unequivocally yes. “They have a stadium that works. They have a city that works.” I don’t know if he still feels that way about the city and its administration. But he’s living and working and writing in Toronto. This past summer he wrote a column about turning 65. It was a list of the 65 things he’d learned in his 65 years. One of them, number 13, is that there is no God.

And then there’s Ricky Gervais, another one of my favourite comedians. Gervais spends all kinds of time on Twitter. He tweets jokes, he promotes shows he’s working on, and he pokes the religious with a stick. He is a committed atheist. Atheism is a belief, as it were, to which he holds fast, and he preaches atheism on Twitter to anyone who’ll listen, often taking believers to task (and more often than not laying them out). He says he’s known from a very early age that there is no God. “My mum only lied to me about one thing,” he told James Lipton on a great edition of Inside the Actors’ Studio, “She said there was a god.” He explains, as Carlin did, that he’d have liked to believe in God, telling Lipton “From what I’ve heard He’s brilliant.” But he just couldn’t make the leap of faith after making the leap of, well, unfaith. “Also,” he pondered, “if there is a God, why did he make me an atheist?”

We all fit somewhere along the religion spectrum from secular-though-traditional, to orthodox, or even ultra-orthodox. And we all, I think, pray at one time or another. Some because it’s a way of life. Others because, well, what the heck, who knows, maybe it’ll help. All religions have their rituals. And psychologists know the comfort that ritual brings us, how it grounds us. However there is a point at which, I think, ritual begins to resemble something more akin to obsessive compulsion. Every religion has a set of steps one has to take, in proper order, throughout the day. And if you miss a step, then you gotta to back. Or do something else to make up for the missed step. It’s exhausting. And I can’t help but think that God is up in Heaven looking down at us thinking “What the heck are they doing? Why are they doing that? Did I say to do that? I didn’t say to do that.”

Like Carlin and Gervais, I would very much like to believe in God. I’ve always leaned to the spiritual side, always hoping that there is something more, something beyond this mortal coil. A small part of me wants answers, and hopes I’ll find them in the world to come, if there is a world to come, when I come face to face with my maker.

I once had an argument with a devout Christian who believed that only Christians were destined for Heaven. He said this knowing that I am Jewish, thereby telling me that, being Jewish, and unless I accept Jesus into my life, I am not getting into Heaven. “Okay,” I said. “You’re on. It’s a bet. But if after I die I see you in Heaven, you owe me big.”

I hope to collect one day.

By George!… not: Carlin Did Not Write The Paradox of Our Time

Oh, man, I am getting really tired of seeing this pop up on Facebook, and having to re-educate the masses once again on behalf of my comedy mentor, the now deceased George Carlin. He did it himself so eloquently prior to his death, but it didn’t seem to do any good. And we can’t blame the Internet; Jesus and Buddha had both told their followers at one time to knock it off, don’t follow me, I am not the Son of God, I am not a deity. But their followers chose not to listen. Remember that scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian when Brian, mistaken for Jesus, finally turns to his would-be followers and screams “Alright, I am the Messiah. Now f**k off!” Then a rather shocked and confused John Cleese looks up and says “How shall we f**k off, O Lord?” This is kinda like that.

Just the other day, a good 12 years since I first saw it online, “The Paradox of Our Time” popped up on Facebook, once again attributed to George Carlin.

I first saw the essay in the days following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and, being a George Carlin fan, thought to myself “Nah, this doesn’t sound like anything George Carlin would say.” The problem was that our then-boss at CJAD wanted the essay posted to our website and talked about on the air. Having done just a tiny bit of research (by logging on to Carlin’s web site) I said “Hang on a minute! George Carlin didn’t write it.”

What I found on his web site was an essay, this one actually written by Carlin, titled Don’t Blame Me. The original web site is gone. But the essay is preserved in a few different places. Here it is. All the italics are mine:

Floating around the Internet these days, posted and e-mailed back and forth, are a number of writings attributed to me, and I want people to know they’re not mine. Don’t blame me.

Some are essay-length, some are just short lists of one and two-line jokes, but if they’re flyin’ around the Internet, they’re probably not mine. Occasionally, a couple of jokes on a long list might have come from me, but not often. And because most of this stuff is really lame, it’s embarrassing to see my name on it.

And that’s the problem. I want people to know that I take care with my writing, and try to keep my standards high. But most of this “humor” on the Internet is just plain stupid. I guess hard-core fans who follow my stuff closely would be able to spot the fake stuff, because the tone of voice is so different. But a casual fan has no way of knowing, and it bothers me that some people might believe I’d actually be capable of writing some of this stuff.

One of the more embarrassing items making the internet/e-mail rounds is a sappy load of shit called “The Paradox of Our Time.” The main problem I have with it is that as true as some of the expressed sentiments may be, who really gives a shit? Certainly not me.

I figured out years ago that the human species is totally fucked and has been for a long time. I also know that the sick, media-consumer culture in America continues to make this so-called problem worse. But the trick, folks, is not to give a fuck. Like me. I really don’t care. I stopped worrying about all this temporal bullshit a long time ago. It’s meaningless. (See the preface of “Braindroppings.”)

Another problem I have with “Paradox” is that the ideas are all expressed in a sort of pseudo-spiritual, New-Age-y, “Gee-whiz-can’t-we-do-better-than-this” tone of voice. It’s not only bad prose and poetry, it’s weak philosophy. I hope I never sound like that.

Here’s a rule of thumb, folks: Nothing you see on the Internet is mine unless it came from one of my albums, books, HBO shows, or appeared on my website. If you see something with my name on it, and you really need to find out if it’s mine, post a question on my bulletin board . But only if it’s really important to you; don’t fuck around with me for a lark.

– George Carlin, 2001. Originally found at http://www.georgecarlin.com/home/dontblame.html

He couldn’t have been more clear. But it’s like banging your head against the proverbial wall. And when that wall is as obstinate as the vastly over-populated Internet, the message, even if it is the truth, will be drowned out amidst the cacophony. Remember the old adage “Don’t believe everything you see on TV”? Well, don’t take everything on the Internet at face value. I was going to quote the other perhaps too-oft quoted adage “Believe half of what you see and none of what you hear.” But the Internet has frustrated my attempt by attributing that quote, in differing forms, to both Edgar Allan Poe (http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/252780-believe-only-half-of-what-you-see-and-nothing-that) and Benjamin Franklin (http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/333612-believe-none-of-what-you-hear-and-only-half-of). So what are we to think?

The words to Baz Luhrmann’s Sunscreen Song, a would-be commencement address set to music, and falsely attributed to the late novelist Kurt Vonnegut, was actually a column written by the Chicago Tribune’s Mary Schmich. I got in touch with her at the time, when I was a producer at CJAD. She was shyly flattered and amused by all the attention. Vonnegut later said that he would have been proud had he indeed written it.

George Carlin did NOT write The Paradox of Our Time. But the whole Internet believes he did because someone attached his name to it. Why? I don’t know. But I’m sure we’ll have this conversation again… perhaps under a different name.