March 26, 2018 § Leave a comment
Last Thursday night, the Montreal Canadiens hosted the Pittsburgh Penguins. They lost 5-3. The Canadiens are having a miserable year, this loss, their 48th of the year (including regulation and overtime losses), officially eliminated them from playoff contention. The mood in the city is dour and angry. Fans are upset at management for mismanaging the Franchise, Carey Price. He had some mystery ailment he said was Chronic Fatigue Syndrome bothering him earlier in the year. It wasn’t team doctors who noticed it; it was his wife, Angela. Big defenceman Shea Weber played through a nasty foot injury before being shut down for the season and having surgery.
Then there’s the mistakes General Manager Marc Bergevin made in the off-season. He traded away promising defenceman Mikhail Sergachev for moody, sulky, but very talented forward Jonathan Drouin. And then the team put Drouin at centre, a position he hadn’t played for years. Why? Because the Habs haven’t had a #1 centre since the peak of Saku Koivu’s career in the late 90s/early 00s. Drouin, not surprisingly, has been a bust. Bergevin also let iconic defenceman Andrei Markov walk after he insulted Markov in contract negotiations. Bergevin then had the gall to tell us that the defence was better this year than last. I could go on and on.
Something stinks in the City of Montreal and it is the hockey team. It is a laughing stock.
And, not surprisingly, the Twitter wars have been epic. During last Thursday’s game, a prominent Montreal sportswriter made an idiot of himself. This is also not an uncommon occurrence when it comes to the Habs. He was in a discussion with a blogger, who noted that we Habs fans forget that the team has had 3-100 point seasons in the past 5. This sportswriter noted in response that “Germany had three really strong military years in WWII.”
And then all hell broke loose, as it should. When his interlocutor noted this stupidity, he dug in deeper, noting that “They [meaning Nazi Germany] were winning until they weren’t. It’s not that deep.” Another Twitter user called him out, and our intrepid journalist got his shovel out again: “Notice I said military. Only an idiot would stretch that into anything more.”
Well, maybe I am an idiot. As the second interlocutor noted, this is Nazi Germany we’re talking about. Not some random war. This is a régime that murdered 6 million Jews in cold blood, to say nothing of Roma, LGBT, and disabled victims. The Holocaust is, to paraphrase Elie Weisel, an event that cannot be understood, but must be remembered. There have been other genocides, particularly in the last half of the 20th century (after we, the West, declared “Never Again!”). But, the Holocaust remains beyond the pale in our collective consciousness.
And when this was pointed out to our journalist, that he essentially compared the management of the Montreal Canadiens to the Nazis, he got out his shovel and kept on digging: “No, not every soldier was a Nazi, not every German believed the Nazi ideology. But that’s beside the point, because we all know what I was saying, and it had nothing to do with Nazis.”
To put it bluntly, this is epic stupidity. According to the United States Holocaust Museum,
The German military participated in many aspects of the Holocaust: in supporting Hitler, in the use of forced labor, and in the mass murder of Jews and other groups targeted by the Nazis.
The military’s complicity extended not only to the generals and upper leadership but also to the rank and file. In addition, the war and genocidal policy were inextricably linked. The German army (or Heer) was the most complicit as a result of being on the ground in Germany’s eastern campaigns, but all branches participated.
And sure, maybe the journalist didn’t mean to bring up the Nazis. But words have meanings, and someone who works with words on a daily basis should know better. The Wehrmacht was by-and-large Nazified. Period. And his comparison of the Habs 3-100 point seasons with the Wehrmacht includes the Nazis, whether he meant it or not. And he should know better. I did hit the unfollow button, by the way.
February 5, 2018 § Leave a comment
We live in an era in the United States where, in many states, politicians are picking their voters, not the other way around. This is because in most states, the boundaries of congressional districts are in the hands of politicians, and the majority of the party in the state house has more or less carte blanche to manipulated these boundaries as they see fit. In most democracies, this is handled by an independent commission to avoid just this kind of silliness. When left in the hands of politicians, I can see how the temptation to gerrymander is too great to resist. The logic is simple: If we gerrymander the boundaries of congressional districts, we can not only perpetuate our control of the state house, we can also manipulate and control the congressional party from our state, and if others in other states do it, preferably in our political party, then we can control government.
Of course, this is not how it’s supposed to work. And yet, we end up with congressional districts like these two, from California. We tend to hear in the news that Republicans are the ones who gerrymander. But they’re not alone. Democrats do, too. But, without question, Republicans do it more often. Anyway, look at these two congressional districts. One is the 11th District in California, the other is the 38th. One was Republican, one was Democratic. Both images are from c. 2004, and both districts have been re-drawn.
The gerrymander has been used in nearly every democracy, and is one of the many dirty tricks politicians have used to maintain power. That the gerrymander is, by definition, anti-democratic is another matter. The first time the word was used was in the Boston Herald, in March 1812.
That year, Massachusetts state senate districts had been redrawn at the behest of Governor Eldridge Gerry. Not surprisingly, Gerry’s gerrymander benefited his party, the Democratic-Republicans. The Herald’s editorial cartoonist was not impressed with the re-drawing of the South Essex district:
The Herald charged that the district looked like a mythical salamander, hence we get gerry-mander. It’s worth noting, though, that Gerry’s name wasn’t pronounced ‘Jerry’, but, rather, ‘Geary,’ so, in early 19th century Boston, it was supposed to be pronounced ‘Gearymander’. One theory I’ve read is that the Boston accent re-appropriated the word to ‘Jerrymander.’ More likely, though, something else happened: In the rest of the nascent United States, the name Gerry was likely to be pronounced ‘Jerry,’ not ‘Geary.’ And there we go.
For the remainder of 1812, Federalist newspapers and commentators around the country made use of the term to mock the Democratic-Republican party, which was then in the ascendancy. The Democratic-Republicans were Thomas Jefferson’s party, and it controlled the White House from his election in 1800 until the party split in 1824, largely due to Andrew Jackson. His branch eventually became the Democratic Party we have today. The other branch eventually became the Whigs. Together, the Democrats and Whigs were the core of the Second Party System of the United States, c. 1824-54.
The term also travelled out of the United States, crossing the Atlantic Ocean to the United Kingdom, and north to Canada. To be fair, the coining of the term in March 1812, came on the brink of the outbreak of the War of 1812 in June of that year. So, for the British, this was just another way to mock the Americans. But, either way, the term became an accepted term in the English language by 1847, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
February 1, 2018 § 4 Comments
The Canadian Football League has long sought to add a 10th team in the Maritimes. To do so would be to make the CFL actually national. But, the CFL has also had to deal with some serious instability with its franchises in Montreal, Toronto, and Ottawa, especially, over the past 30 years. Ottawa is currently on its third (as far as I can count) franchise since the 1980s. The Rough Riders folded in 1996. They were replaced by Ottawa Renegades; this franchise only lasted from 2002 to 2006. Currently, the REDBLACKS play in the nation’s capital. Meanwhile, down the 417 in Montreal, the original Alouettes folded in 1982; they were replaced by the Concordes, who only lasted until 1986. After that, Montreal was devoid of Canadian football until the Baltimore Stallions were forced out of that city by the relocation of the original Cleveland Browns to Baltimore in 1995. The Baltimore team moved to Montreal. Meanwhile, the Argonauts have never ceased operations, but they have been a basket case in terms of stability and presence in the city most of my adult life. So, in other words, expansion to the Maritimes has not exactly been on the front burner. But that’s changed recently, and reports state that not only is there an ownership group in Halifax, but there is will at CFL headquarters.
Personally, I’d love to see a Halifax CFL team. This would both make the league truly national, it would also speak to the deep popularity of Canadian football in the Maritimes. The universities of the Maritimes have a long and deep tradition of Canadian football. And just like the Alouettes and the REDBLACKS (in French, the ROUGENOIRS) have offered a professional career to many French-Canadian football players emerging from Quebec’s college teams, a Halifax team could do the same.
It is unclear what the team would be called, and so, social media (as well as Halifax’s media in general) is full of speculation, and a bevy of names have been proposed. Last week, a fan art Twitter account, dedicated to this proposed team, suggested that perhaps the team could be called the Explosions, in a tweet:
Uh, yeah. No. The Halifax Explosion occurred on the morning of 6 December 1917, when a Norwegian ship collided with a French cargo ship, the Mont-Blanc, in the Halifax Harbour. The French ship was carrying explosives and war munitions (this was the middle of the First World War, after all) and caught fire after the collision. The fire ignited the cargo, which then exploded. It devastated a large chunk of Halifax. Nearly every building within a kilometre radius was destroyed. A pressure wave accompanying the explosion snapped tress, grounded vessels in the harbour, and devastated iron rails. The remnants of the Mont-Blanc were found several kilometres away. Nearly every window in the city was broken. The city of Dartmouth lies across the harbour from Halifax. It suffered extensive damage. The Mi’kmaq First Nation, near Dartmouth, was destroyed by a tsunami caused by the explosion.
The blast was the largest human-made explosion prior to the advent of nuclear weapons. It released the equivalent of 2.9 kilotons of TNT. Think about that for a second. Of all the blasts of bombs and munitions in war prior to 6 and 9 August 1945, the Halifax Explosion was the greatest one ever caused by humans. It killed over 2,000 people and injured nearly 10,000 more, out of a population of around 95,000.
In short, the Halifax Explosion destroyed the City of Halifax. So suggesting a CFL team be called the Explosions is flat out disrespectful and idiotic. Shame on @CFLinHalifax for even suggesting it. Since this initial tweet on Monday, the people behind the account have doubled down in their idiocy.
Meanwhile, the CFL and the proposed Halifax ownership group have had to put out press releases distancing themselves from @CFLinHalifax.
January 30, 2018 § Leave a comment
The Cleveland baseball team took a positive step this week. It announced on Monday that it was going to remove the deeply offensive Chief Wahoo from its caps and jerseys for the 2019 season. This is an important start. Chief Wahoo is an offensive caricature of an indigenous chief, drawn in a cartoonish, stereotypical manner. Note that not only is he grinning, he is actually red. Like, you know, ‘redskin’. (The Washington football team is a whole other problem, for another day).
Chief Wahoo has a long genesis. The Cleveland baseball team was originally founded in Grand Rapids, MI, in 1894, and known as the Rustlers. It moved to Cleveland in 1900, calling itself the Lake Shores. Seems pretty obvious how that name didn’t stick. Up to that point, the Grand Rapids/Cleveland team was a minor league team, in the Western League. In 1900, the Western League evolved into a major league, rebranded as the American League (the National League dates back to 1876, hence, it is sometimes called ‘the senior circuit’). The Cleveland baseball team is a charter member of the AL, and for the launch of the new league in 1901, it also rebranded itself as the Bluebirds. In 1902, they were the Barons (this name was revived by the sad sack NHL team based in Cleveland from 1976-78; they didn’t last long, in 1978, they merged with the Minnesota North Stars, which is now the Dallas Stars franchise). From 1903 to 1914, they were named after their star player, Nap Lajoie. But, in 1914, Lajoie left Cleveland to go play for the Philadelphia (now Oakland) Athletics. So, the Naps needed a new name.
And so, we ended up with the Indians. This was meant to be a nod to Cleveland baseball history. The original major league team in town was the Cleveland Spiders of the National League; they folded in 1899, precipitating the Rustlers’ move to the big city. The Spiders had had an indigenous player, Louis Sockalexis, who played his whole career with the team Thus, the Indians. So, in a way, the name came about as a tribute both to the defunct baseball team and to one of its star players. But, of course, this is one of those historical obscurities that got lost, it has become anachronistic over time.
In 1932, the Cleveland Plain Dealer used a cartoon precursor of Chief Wahoo as a logo to stand in for actually using the full name of the team. This version became known as ‘the little Indian,’ and the Plain Dealer used the logo in its coverage for the next several years. In 1947, the team’s owner, Bill Veeck hired a graphic design firm to create a new logo for his team. And thus, we got the original Chief Wahoo. He wasn’t called that at the outset, in fact, he had no name. Also, while a cartoon stereotype, he wasn’t red-skinned. A red-skinned version appeared in 1948, but was not the official logo of the team until 1951.
The name Chief Wahoo eventually came from Cleveland sports writers. The guy who created the original, in 1947, Walter Goldbach, was only 17 years old at the time. Goldbach has noted several times since that he didn’t mean to offend anyone, and that he actually had a hard time to render an indigenous man as a cartoon. He also has argued that Chief Wahoo isn’t actually a chief, he’s a brave. He only has one feather. (That of course, brings us to the Atlanta baseball team, another issue for another day).
Chief Wahoo remained the primary logo of the Cleveland baseball team until 2013, when it decided that perhaps it was time to start rethinking Chief Wahoo. At that time, the team unveiled a new logo, a stylized C, for Cleveland. It’s actually the superior logo. I much prefer it.
The Clevelands have not, of course, won a World Series since 1954, the longest running drought in professional sports (now that the Chicago Cubs have won the World Series). Cleveland sports writers have wondered if Chief Wahoo is actually a curse.
So the announcement this week that Chief Wahoo is being retired next year is welcome. Except that’s not entirely the case. You can believe there will be a run on this offensive cartoon logo as this season and year progresses. And, in order to maintain the trademark, the team will continue to sell Chief Wahoo-branded gear in the Cleveland region after banishing the logo from the uniform.
So this isn’t a total victory. But it’s an important start. The next thing is to get the Cleveland baseball team to change its name, perhaps to the Spiders. And then there’s the Washington football team, and the Atlanta baseball team. But, baby steps?
January 24, 2018 § Leave a comment
I watched both the AFC and NFC Championship games last weekend. I haven’t watched as much football or even NHL hockey this year and I’ve been trying to figure out why. In terms of hockey, my team sucks, but, I’ve remained a fan of hockey in general when the Habs have sucked in the past. When it comes to the NFL, to be a Chicago Bears fan is to know misery. They’ve sucked almost continually for the past 35 years. So I’ve watched a lot of football, despite my team being in last place.
But this year, something has changed. I have long had issues with football, the injuries, the concussions. I played football when I was younger. I have lingering injury issues, and I don’t want to think about how many concussions I’ve had. No one cared about head injuries in the late 80s/early 90s. And then there’s the question of football and CTE. I wrote about this a few months ago, when the Commissioner of the Canadian FootbalL League, Randy Ambrosie (a former CFL player) insisted that we don’t know if there’s a connection between CTE and football. Funny, the NFL has admitted there is a connection.
Hockey isn’t doing much better. We have been subject to a steady stream of stories about ex-NHL players being caught up in drug addiction, depression, and early death. This has happened to stars like Theoren Fleury and Mike Richards, and it’s happened to former enforcers, like Chris Nilan, Derek Boogard, and so on. Earlier this month, I read an article about former enforcer Matt Johnson, who was in jail in Los Angeles after vandalizing a Denny’s restaurant on New Year’s Eve. Johnson claimed to be homeless and refused legal help, at least initially. His dad reported how worried he was about his son, and how much he’s tried to help him in recent years. Or how about Kevin Stevens, who was one of the greatest power forwards of the early 90s, who devolved into addiction to painkillers?
To me, it seems that these athletes are sacrificing their bodies, their brains, and their futures to play. And, yes, part of that is their own choice. But, there are also structural issues here. Teams have historically pushed their players to play injured or not. Teams have pushed painkillers on players. And then there’s brain injuries. The NFL has come to an agreement with a group of former players for payouts for concussion damage, though there are problems there.
But that doesn’t do much for the current game. Think of Houston quarterback Tom Savage continuing to play after appearing to convulse after hitting his head on the ground. Or how about Rob Gronkowski in the AFC Championship game, when he was knocked silly by Barry Church of the Jacksonville Jaguars. After the hit on Gronkowski, the Jaguars celebrated, and the commentators, Jim Nantz and Tony Romo (a former NFL quarterback), just carried on as if nothing major happened.
Then there’s the NHL. A group of former players has brought a class-action suit against it. The league’s response? To challenge the science behind the linkages between hockey and brain injuries. Seriously. It is otherwise doing next to nothing, beyond a ‘concussion protocol’ that is as much of a joke as the NFL’s. This week, TSN in Canada reported that former NHL star Eric Lindros, whose career (and that of his brother) was ended by concussions, and Montreal Canadiens’ team physician Dr. David Mulder, approached the NHL last year and challenged the league to donate $31 million (or $1 million per team) to fund research in brain trauma. The league has ignored them.
And so, ultimately, I am finding it increasingly difficult to watch NFL or CFL football or NHL hockey. Watching 200+ pound men smash into each other at full speed, in many cases purposely targeting the head is nauseating. And wondering about the long-term effect of concussions is equally nauseating.
Both hockey and football are brutally physical sports. Hockey is also played at incredible speeds on ice. That’s part of the game. Hitting is central to both. I don’t have a problem with that. I do have a problem with blatant head shots. I have a problem with pumping players full of painkillers to get them back on the ice/field. I have a problem with professional leagues denying a connection between concussions, head shots, and CTE. I have a problem with commentators and fans acting like these kinds of hits are acceptable.
And until fans and advertizers really do question these forms of brutality against the bodies of professional athletes, nothing is going to change.
January 22, 2018 § 6 Comments
I was reading a scholarly article on polling and the issues it creates in terms of the democratic process last week. In the article, the authors note many of the problems with polling, and there are many. I worked for a major national polling firm in Canada for a couple of years whilst in undergrad. There, I learned just how dodgy supposedly ‘scientific’ polling can be.
My issues have less to do with methodology, where random computer-generated phone numbers are called. Rather, they have to do with both the wording of questions and the manner in which they are asked. I should also note that the rise of cell phones complicates the ability to do random sampling. Something like 48% of American adults only have cell phones (I have not had a landline since 2002, a decade before I emigrated to the US). It is illegal to use random computer-generated calling to cell phones in the US.
The authors of the study I read commented on the manner in which questions were worded, and the ways in which this could impact results. For example, last year during the great debate about the repeal of Obamacare, it became very obvious that a not insignificant proportion of Americans did not realize that the Affordable Care Act, or ACA, was the legislative act that created what we call Obamacare. So you have people demanding the repeal of Obamacare, thinking they would still have their ACA. Obamacare was originally a pejorative term created by (mostly Republican) opponents to the ACA. They figured that by tying the legislation to a president wildly unpopular amongst their constituency (if not the population as a whole), they could whip up public opposition to the ACA. It worked.
But now consider a polling question concerning the popularity or unpopularity of Obamacare/ACA. Does a pollster ask people about their thoughts on Obamacare or on the ACA? Or does that pollster construct a question that includes the slash: Obamacare/ACA? How, exactly does the pollster tackle this issue? Having worked on a team that attempted to create neutral-language questions for a variety of issues at the Canadian polling firm, I can attest this is a difficult thing to do, whether the poll we were trying to create was to ask consumers their thoughts on a brand of toothpaste or the policies and behaviours of the government.
But this was only one part of the problem. I started off with the polling firm working evenings, working the phones to conduct surveys. We were provided with scripts on our computer screens that we were to follow word-for-word. We were also monitored actively by someone, to make sure we were following the script as we were meant to, and to make sure that we were actually interviewing someone taking the poll seriously. More than once, I was instructed to abandon a survey by the monitor. But the monitor didn’t listen to all the calls. There was something like 125 work stations in the polling room. And 125 individuals were not robots. Each person had different inflections and even accents in their voices. Words did not all sound the same coming out of the mouths of all 125 people.
When I had an opportunity to work with the monitor to listen in on calls, I was struck by how differently the scripts sounded. One guy I worked with was from Serbia, and had a pretty thick Serbian accent, so he emphasized some words over others; in most cases, I don’t think his emphasis made a different. But sometimes it could. Another guy had a weird valley girl accent. The result was the same as the Serbian’s. And some people just liked to mess with the system. It was easy to do. They did this by the way they spoke certain words, spitting them out, using sarcasm, or making their voice brighter and happier than in other spots.
Ever since this work experience in the mid-90s, I have been deeply sceptical of polling data. There are already reasons, most notably the space for sampling error, which means that, with the margin of error, most polls are accurate within plus or minus 3%. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but the difference between 47% and 53% is significant when it comes to matters of public policy. Or support for candidates. And more to the point, the media does not report the margin of error, or if it does, does so in a throwaway sentence, and the headline reads that 47% of people support/don’t support this or that.
But, ultimately, it is the working and means of asking that makes me deeply suspicious of polling data. And as polling data becomes even more and more obsessed over by politicians, the media, and other analysts, I can’t help but think that polling is doing more than most things to damage democracy, and not just in the United States, but in any democracy where polling is a national obsession.
January 19, 2018 § Leave a comment
Rough and Rowdy is a form of amateur boxing native to West Virginia. It appears to me to be the grandson of the 18th-19th century Southern backwoods fighting style known as Rough and Tumble, or Gouging. It was so-called because the ultimate goal was to gouge out your opponent’s eye. There were very few rules involved in Rough and Tumble and, while it wasn’t exactly prize fighting, winning was a source of pride in the local community.
The men who fought in Gouging were backwoods farmers, it was common in swamps and mountain communities. In other words, the men who fought were what the élite of Southern society called (and still call) ‘white trash.’ As an aside, if you would like to know more about the plight of poor white people historically in the US, I cannot recommend Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold Story of Class in America enough. Nevermind the fact that the story is not untold, historians have studied and published on poor people for a long time, but that’s what publishers do to your book, they create silly subtitles to sell more copies.
I digress. The West Virginia Rough and Rowdy is a continuation. The Guardian produced a quick 7 minute documentary of a championship tournament in West Virginia, you can watch it here.
I have some serious problems after watching this. The first is the behaviour of New York City-based Barstool Sports, led by Dave Portnoy (a Massachusetts boy, I might add, from Boston’s North Shore). Barstool bought up the rights to the tournament, and, according to the documentary, stood to make $300,000 on it. The winner of the tournament wins $1,000. The fighters are getting nothing out of this, other than glory or shame, depending on who wins. Portnoy is walking away with the profits. He wants to make this the new MMA, to take Rough and Rowdy nationwide. But he profits,the fighters don’t. He doesn’t have a problem with that, of course, because he figures they’d be doing it anyway.
The community where this takes place is an impoverish borough in West Virginia, in former coal-mining country. All of the social problems of Appalachia can be found there, from deep, deep-seated poverty to drugs and everything else. It is easy to dismiss the people who live there using whatever term you want. Portnoy calls them rednecks. He also argues that they would call themselves by the same term. After living in Southern Appalachia in Tennessee, I would think he’s right. But THEY call themselves that. I did not think it was my place to use the same term, given its pejorative meaning in our culture.
Essentially, while it is true that this tournament existed before Portnoy came in, he is exploiting a poor community, with a sly grin to his viewers on the web, about the fat rednecks fighting for their entertainment. The fighting style of most of these men is poor, if you were to look at it from a boxing or MMA perspective. Of course it is, they’re amateurs, they don’t have training. They fight as if they’re brawling in a bar. And that’s what Rough and Rowdy is: amateur fighting. It is not professional boxing.
The comments on the YouTube site are exactly what you’d expect. Commentators mock the fighters for their lack of boxing style. And, then, of course, come the stereotypes. The documentary centres around one young man, George. George has recently lost his job and he wants to win the tournament and give the $1,000 to his mother. He’s a confident in his abilities before stepping into the ring with a man a full foot taller than him, and who must have at least 60 pounds on him. Not surprisingly, George loses the fight. But the comments mock him. One commenter says that George died of a meth overdose three weeks later. And so on.
And therein lies the problem. Too many people seem to think that mocking the poor white folk of the Appalachians is easy. They’re dismissed as stupid, idiotic, as rednecks and white trash. And worse. This is universal, too. This is not a conservative/liberal thing. The poor white people of Appalachia have been abandoned. Completely. They’ve been left to their own devices in hard-scrabble areas where there are no jobs. The coal mining companies pulled out. What industry existed there has also pulled out. Most small Appalachian towns have little more than a Dollar General and a gas station. People get by, in part due to family connections and grow what food they can on their land. They scrounge for other things, like roots and scrap metal, that they can sell for next to nothing. They use food stamps. And sometimes they just go hungry, or worse.
JD Vance’s insipid Hillbilly Elegy has added to this, and has re-shaped the conversation nationally. Vance argued that the plight of Appalachia is the fault of the Appalachians themselves. He blames ‘hillbilly’ culture, argues it has engendered social rot, and has dismissed poverty as secondary. Put simply: Vance is flat-out wrong. He simply seeks to continue in the long American tradition of blaming the poor for their poverty.
That’s not how it works. Appalachia has been struggling for the better part of a half-century. Politicians, including the current president, continue to ignore it. And then turn around and pull a Vance and blame the poverty on the poor. That is a lazy, self-centred, immoral position to take.