…Something about not blogging anymore?

July 20, 2006 at 12:44 am | In media | 8 Comments

All the way back in April 2003, I blogged an entry called I hope nomen est omen not, which described how I learned that my surname is a Yiddish Dutch word derived from the Hebrew word hewel, “a vain cause,” translating colloquially into “trouble.” The word is listed on this site, Hebrew Words in Dutch (via Yiddish). Reading the webmaster’s disclaimer, “Most of the words from the following lists are slang terms, not meant for polite conversation,” didn’t exactly make me feel higher up on any heraldric totem pole, thank-you very much: mud-wrestling seemed more apt.

It has given my atheistic nature pause to consider that a perpetual penchant for getting into trouble is somehow …well, pre-ordained, and there have indeed been times when I wondered whether blogging (or building a crazy wiki) was the equivalent of entering a field filled with the bulls of civility, good manners, and status quo-ness, all the while dressed with a swooping red cape tied around the neck. And yet, to paraphrase every heibelmaker who has gone before me: what the hell? Why not pursue a vain cause?

So: here’s something troubling, taking me back to blogging …

On July 7, Sean Holman of Public Eye Online, a BC-oriented blog /slash/ political_reportage site, reported in his July 7 column, Writing coach written out, that Vivian Smith, a biweekly newspaper columnist for local (but CanWest-owned) daily paper Times-Colonist, was fired.

Clearly, she was fired for exactly the reasons Holman so lucidly lays out: she offended the paternalistic power brokers of Victoria’s allegedly prime industry, tourism. Here’s what happened: Just in time for the lucrative highpoint of Canada Day (July 1) weekend, Vivian Smith wrote a Sunday July 2 column called, “In dear Victoria, the best is often free” (see Holman’s July 7 entry for a full reprint). The column, which had the lightly snarky tone of a blog post, satirised not only her out-of-town visitors (“droolers” from Toronto), but also took on the Big Daddies of Victoria’s tourism industry, viz., the Empress Hotel, the Butchart Gardens, and the newly opened so-called BC Experience. She pointed out how expensive it is to get here (“a C-note” just for the ferry — that’s $100, for a car with mom, dad, and 2 kids), and how expensive it is once you are here. She wrote not a single lie or exaggeration: it was the honest truth. She added:

You may be bunking with relatives (cheap, but strings attached) or in a $200-a-night hotel.

Let’s say you’ve been seduced by the premier’s talk of provincial pride, and want to have a B.C. Experience in the morning. Next, you’d like tea at The Empress, and then spend the later part of the day at the Butchart Gardens.

For a family of four, with two kids over 12, you’d be dropping nearly $350, and that is without breakfast or snacks or souvenirs or transportation or supper. The Empress tea was $48 until yesterday, when it went to FIFTY-FOUR DOLLARS per person for the summer.

After this (and a few more jabs at Tourism, Inc.’s general fleecing of the rubes), she elaborated on all the wonderful things you can do here for free — and believe me, they are plentiful.

Well, on Wednesday July 5, after the weekend, she was fired. Co-incidentally, the day before (Tuesday July 4), the executives of the lampooned tourist traps (all of whom are big-dollar advertisers in the Times-Colonist) had met with the newspaper executives, where they complained to the newspaper about Ms. Smith’s column. Draw your own conclusions, and if you need a hint, see a doctor…

Sean Holman has followed this story up, with several columns:

Tourism slump results in more lost business? on July 11
Flower Power on July 12
Pohle-axed, also on July 12, which refers to the name of the UBC media ethics specialist, Klaus Pohle
The British are coming! on July 17 (which notes that Roy Greenslade (a Guardian UK blogger) had taken up the issue
and Talk of the town, also on July 17, which notes that otherwise, Smith’s firing has hardly made a stir.

That’s what’s so weird about this whole thing. Local journalists have been quiet as mice, except for today’s column in local weekly Monday Magazine by “Dee Penner,” a nom-de-plume, who wrote Composting a columnist.

(Dee Penner reminds me of the quixotic “lily of the valley,” Mr. DePinna, in Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You…)
Notes from a teacher reported the affair on July 13; Canadian Journalist blog on July 14, but in general, it has been awfully quiet around the whole business.

Is this ok?

Not really. The Vivian Smith firing raises all the obvious questions around freedom of the press (and answers them very very depressingly), but it also says a lot about Victoria’s immature economy, and the paternalistic mindset of its entrenched classes who expect to be sheltered from criticism, whether the kind emanating from a free press or the kind coming from the market. I think this story fails to have traction in the press or amongst other (American?) bloggers because our Canadian (dare I say, “Victorian”?) climate of controlled capitalism, which seems “natural” enough to Canadian “entrepreneurs,” is in the final analysis utterly illegible to anyone beyond our shores.
It’s the sort of business-as-usual modus operandus I associate with the cradle-to-grave paternalistic capitalism of early 20th century corporations in, say, …Beverly, Massachusetts: take the United Shoe Machinery Corporation, for example, which ran a whole city according to its mandates. What was good for “The Shoe” (as the USMC was known), was good for Beverly. It hired (and fired) the bulk of the city’s working population, gave them decent jobs, provided amenities, and if you didn’t like it, you did what Puritans had always done since the early 1600s: you left, went somewhere else, and started over. It was paternalistic in the extreme. Worked reasonably well as long as paternalism was in fashion, but somehow things went haywire for it down the road.

Victoria’s tourism industry, too, is like a giant “Shoe”: paternalistic and allergic to criticism. “If you don’t like it, leave” is its mantra.

I’d like to think that this could, that it will change. As my old UBC prof used to say, “You have to learn to take criticism!” Only the immature and the paternalistic think criticism doesn’t apply to them. The former can’t deal with it, and the latter think they should be exempt.

That, in my opinion, is the subtext of this non-conversation happening in Victoria around the firing of Vivian Smith. Old guys in suits run this town — who the heck does Vivian Smith — a woman — think she is, challenging them?
“Baby, you’ve come a long way,” but in Victoria it seems you’re still Daddy’s Girl.

8 Comments

  1. Not just Victoria I think. Somebody sent me to this link today.

    Comment by melanie — July 20, 2006 #

  2. Re: Heibel: Note that it’s considered a sort of ‘old-fashioned’ word. I remember my parent’s warning us [kids] not to make too much of a ‘heibel’ (too much noise, ruckus and that). I bet my nieces and nephews would call me an ‘ouwe zeur’ if I brought up that word.

    Just saying.

    Comment by Arthur — July 20, 2006 #

  3. Ah yes, “heibel” is still used in Dutch to denote ruckus and general trouble-making, Arthur, and despite being old-fashioned (or just having a venerable lineage?), the word is even having a revival of sorts. I think there’s a rock band called heibel in Holland. (I just hope they’re not disgusting skinheads or something…!)

    Thanks for the link to fist full of euros, Melanie. I do think, though, that getting “dooced” is different from what’s happening here (in Victoria). This wasn’t some blogger with a “secret” online identity posting revelations, whether about his or her boss’s armpit odour or the company’s policies, whether secretly whistle-blowing or just venting. This is about a journalist hired by the city’s main daily newspaper to write op-ed pieces; one of these gets approved by her editor, but the local big-wig advertisers don’t like it, and she gets fired!! And it points to a much larger problem having to do with Victoria’s immature economy.

    Sean Holman of Public Eye Online posted some more follow-ups on this — in particular take a look at this entry: two additional freelancers at the Times-Colonist have quit in protest.

    Here’s something to give you an indication of how strong the tourism industry’s hold is on Victoria, and how immature the economy is: On Thursday night I went to a public hearing at City Hall for a downtown Victoria development proposal by Westbank Corporation, a Vancouver developer known for really high-end/ high-quality projects. The proposal in question will be built (I hope) on what’s known as the Y-lot in Victoria (has nothing to do with the YMCA, it’s the shape of how the streets converge), which is next to a couple of 18- and 19-storey hotels and across the street from the Victoria Convention Centre and Nootka Court (both on Douglas St., the main street): i.e., important location. Currently, the site is “home” to an ugly surface parking lot — a total waste of space, IOW. The architect for the mixed-use (residential & commercial) proposal (to be called The Falls) is James Cheng, a gifted designer who has spent the past couple of years listening to Victoria’s planning department and the various advisory planning councils and advisory design panels. And he has come up with a wonderful building that’s going to significantly improve downtown.

    And yet… At the public meeting, over 60 people were there in support of the project (wearing green “up” arrow stickers), and many of them spoke in support of the project. Most of them were “ordinary” Victoria residents. But also present was a lawyer for the owner of an adjacent property, a surface parking lot used for a rental car park (i.e., for tourism purposes). This lawyer tried everything in his power (including much innuendo) to get the city to turn down the proposal before them. He even managed to get two additonal hired guns (lawyers representing additional tourism venues next door) to speak vaguely in support of his cockamamie plan to prevent this proposal. In addition, two women and one man from the “general public” spoke against the proposal. The man is a well-known crackpot who opposes everything on principle; the women wanted parks or low-rise performing arts centres, although they had NO idea who/ what/ how these should be funded.

    Anyway, point is: easily 95% if not more of the folks (residents!) at that public hearing were in favour of the project, and yet city council hedged and hemmed because, presenting the case for the tourism industry, one lawyer strongly and two lawyers weakly spoke against the project.

    So, you have a huge majority of actual residents supporting a project, yet someone representing tourism squawks (for eg., about how the new development will deprive his client’s hotel of “views” or some such thing) and suddenly the world stops turning. Is this right? I don’t think so. Who is Victoria for — its residents, or the tourists? For the residents who actually live and work here, or for the one-trick-pony “industry du jour” (a.k.a. tourism), whose big operators call the shots around here?

    The really insane thing is that it’s completely incomprehensible why the industry should be opposed to the improvement this project will bring to the downtown, unless it’s because they know it will make their facilities look shabby in comparison. Or else it’s just a power struggle, an insane need to assert dominance over city council.

    But here’s the really galling thing: The additional insanity is that we have a couple of city councillors who think they’re representing “the little guys” or the “heritage Victoria” by maintaining our pathetic status quo, and who don’t seem to understand how they are in reality the ones in the pockets of big capitalism around here (i.e., beholden to the tourist industry). The other crazy thing is that the mainstream media (the Times-Colonist, which fired Vivian Smith for criticising the tourism industry) in turn unequivocally supports these supposed “watchdog” councillors, who are really nothing more than pawns of the status quo and of the big-$ tourism, which has Victoria over a barrel, BOGU.

    So, instead of some of these councillors stepping up and fighting for a diversification of the economy, stepping up to lead with ideas and initiatives to attract, say, clean and cutting edge industries, they hem & haw and get a reputation (smeared on them by the media) that they’re not representing the “average” Victorian. Meanwhile, the media-styled “watchdogs,” alleged “experts” on “heritage” and “urban form” and even “ecology/ greenism,” are in reality (whether they know or understand it or not) protecting the interests of the biggest industry around, an industry that is not interested in letting Victoria evolve in any way. And the supposed “left-ish” newspaper, usually eager to counter whatever the “other” newspaper (daily Times Colonist) puts out, has swallowed the PR of the alleged “watchdogs” hook, line, and sinker, and thinks that these are the people “protecting” Victoria from “evil” capitalists.

    Well, excuse me, the Empress Hotel (proudly charging $54 p/P for afternoon tea) is foreign-owned, part of an international conglomorate, for example, and if that’s not corporate capitalism, then please explain to me what is. So, in other words, you’ve got the supposed “right” and the supposed “left” newspapers both uncritically supporting Big Tourism because they both support the councillors who always support tourism interests, typically by opposing any innovative new development (whether in business or in built form) in town.

    This is in part how Victoria stays immature and why its economy continually goes into slash-and-burn mode and remains undiversified. And this is the climate in which Vivian Smith got the sack.

    Comment by yulelog — July 23, 2006 #

  4. The preceding comment is perhaps one of my most paranoid reflections on politics & society in Victoria. And it could be that I don’t entirely mean to say that “watchdog” style councillors, celebrated (albeit in different ways) by both the supposed right- and the supposed left-wing media in Victoria, are consciously working according to a script written by the local tourism industry. But I am suggesting that it’s something for all parties to consider: that you are far from furthering the interests of “the community,” taken to mean citizens who are wage-earners or business-owners, youth or retirees, students or entrepreneurs, if you are pursuing policies that in one way or another contribute mainly to upholding a particularly Victorian late-20th c./ early-21st c. status quo determined by a single sector of the economy.

    Victorians have been asked so often to weigh everything according to whether or not “the tourists will like it” that it has become an ingrained and unquestioned shibboleth. Many people, unable to think for themselves or exercise their imaginations, can’t even imagine that tourists might actually like some changes, and has blinded them into believing that the city should be cast in amber forever. Is genuflection before the gods of “tradition” and “small-scale urbanity” really benefitting residents, or does it contribute to the “resort mentality” in ways that overbuilding of downtown residential condos couldn’t hope to match? Does it benefit residents, or does it reinforce the nightmarish “Disney-esque” qualities enshrined by touristic approaches to the city? As for the “left” or the anti-business/ anti-corporate crowd: Is relentless cynicism over development and change in downtown Victoria really a “critique” of bad capitalism, for example, or does it play into the hands of those who already hold far too any strings here? Do you really think we can turn back the clocks or stem the tide?

    After one of my letters-to-the-editor was published in the local paper (Victoria News, not Times-Colonist), the journalist whose reporting I had critiqued called me on the phone. His suggestion — and I’m not making this up — was that we could perhaps “save” Victoria if we had universal male contraception and stopped people from coming here. That was his answer to “development,” which he clearly resented and which is why he wrote a tendentious piece full of innuendo about the proposed development now known as The Falls. His is a common approach and it’s essentially a scorched earth policy: I’ve got mine, I made it here, I’m all set, and now let’s pull up the drawbridge. Sterilise all the men, stop people from breeding, and eventually we’ll be able to handle all our problems.

    That’s our press, folks. It’s nice to know that things are so …sane (not), over in the newsroom. The question is: how great is the distance between that newsroom and chambers of council? And how great is the space in people’s heads, and what is it filled with?

    Comment by yulelog — July 23, 2006 #

  5. One more thing, re: “nightmarish ‘Disney-esque’ qualities enshrined by touristic approaches to the city,” mentioned above (and this deserves a longer entry, perhaps on the wiki): The latest nightmare meme to gain ideological traction, now that perhaps the “Victoria is just like a mini-London” meme has become too clotted even for the densest among us, is the “Victoria should be more like Paris” meme. It deserves a take-down for what it is: not a commentary on the built environment, but another grasping at ideological straws, at making Victoria into yet another simulacrum, the perfect expression of alienation and anomie in corporatist fakery. How about “Victoria should be more like Victoria” instead — that is, not an inland city on a river (London), nor an inland city on a plain (Paris). Not a city subjected to the most massive levelling and razing of its historical built environment in favour of a new structure that favoured military deployment (Paris as built by Baron Hausmann), but a city that shows its historical becoming and looks to its geography (Pacific Rim, Asia, “Ecotopia,” and harbour frontage) and the future.

    Comment by yulelog — July 23, 2006 #

  6. Yiddish terms have a life of their own, with geneational connotation modifications. Language in general is like this — remember not too long ago when the words “damn” and “fart” were only uttered by guttermouths. Now they are both accepted, not considered necessarily rude or foul, and function as part of the general and accepted parlance.

    Yiddish, perhaps more than other languages, also has (and had) many regional or geographic nuances. Heibel (to my ear seems like it should be heibleIt has given my atheistic nature pause to consider that a perpetual penchant for getting into trouble is somehow …well, pre-ordained, and there have indeed been times when I wondered whether blogging (or building a crazy wiki) was the equivalent of entering a field filled with the bulls of civility, good manners, and status quo-ness, all the while dressed with a swooping red cape tied around the neck. And yet, to paraphrase every heibelmaker who has gone before me: what the hell? Why not pursue a vain cause?

    to which I comment—–> nothing is pre-ordained until viewed in retrospect.

    There are self-fulfilling prophecies, there is pattern behavior. If all were preset, our lives would simply be episodes of The Twilight Zone. And not worth the living, as we’d be droids and drones of some others’ design(s).

    I had a Calvinist professor when I was in college. He believed everything was preordained, including giving me a bad grade as an extension of his raving, raging anti-Semiticism. And I’d Aced the final of his class. And this was, of all things, a LOGIC course. He gave me an F. Yet I was one of only two students in the class who really got the math, the philosophy, et al….a girl who sat next to me was the other student who got it — we joked that we grokked it, but we knew he had disdain for SciFi, so we kept that to ourselves.

    So he was rather panic-stricken when I showed up outside his house with a baseball bat as he came out to walk his beloved little Yorkie pooch, and I announced that it was preordained that I would be brutally and slowly killing the loathesome cur by clubbing it to death. And right in front of his eyes, at that, as [preordained] punishment for failing a student who had Aced the course.

    Of course I didn’t so much as touch the dog, but I did scare the the hell out of the professor. I believe, between the tears (for the pooch) and the immense, intense hatred (for me) he had, for a brief moment, second thoughts. He also wet his pants, which was for me, a small victory. He took the dog for a walk, and became incontinent when I showed up and rocked his world out of the straight (and preordained) narrow.

    The ultimate joke was on me — the grade held, he was Chair of the Philosophy Dept., I had no recourse available to me.

    It wasn’t preordained. It was just an object lesson. And in this case, I think, all around. Except, maybe, for the loathesome cur, who simply yipped, peed, shat, and went home with his master, a lowlife believer in preordination who failed me in a class in which I’d actually excelled.

    Life is often unfair. But not preodained.

    Comment by Dean Landsman — July 23, 2006 #

  7. Thanks for the reminder, Dean — you’re right, it is “pattern behaviour,” and maybe I just feel it in my bones when I’m getting into some kind of “bad” pattern.

    That’s quite a story, BTW, with your former phil. professor. Well, it wouldn’t have happened with Dr.Weimaraner, eh? 😉

    Incidentally, your comment is showing up split into two sections, as tail end to my last comment (#5) and as separate comment on its own (#6). I wonder if that’s just my browser, or some other bug?

    Comment by yulelog — July 23, 2006 #

  8. UPDATE: Vivian Smith was reinstated. Sean Holman of Public Eye Online pursued the story through last week and into today. Here are the links, from oldest (including time of day) to latest (today):
    July 24: http://www.publiceyeonline.com/archives/001642.html

    July 24:
    http://www.publiceyeonline.com/archives/001643.html

    July 24:
    http://www.publiceyeonline.com/archives/001644.html

    July 24:
    http://www.publiceyeonline.com/archives/001646.html

    July 25:
    http://www.publiceyeonline.com/archives/001652.html

    entries include links to other relevant sources (CanWest Global Corp.’s news release, The Tyee, etc.)

    Thanks, Sean Holman, for turning the heat up on this one…!

    Comment by yulelog — July 26, 2006 #

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