Christmas Controversies 4.0

A commentary on this year’s Christmas controversies.

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I do have more to say about China, but since Christmas is rapidly approaching, let’s talk about Christmas. Every year, I’m curious as to what Christmas controversies will erupt. In past years, Starbuck’s Christmas cups spurred controversy and this year seems to be no different. According to The Washington Post, this year’s debate is the same as 2015.  There are claims that Starbucks is not embracing Christmas. The coffee giant said it wanted to “look to the past” for inspiration. It seems there are some people who think the coffee giant’s cups lack Christmas symbolism and thus is an attack on Christmas. Starbucks seems to be ‘damned if they do and damned if they don’t.’ I can’t help but think of the idiom, “You can’t please everyone.” The truth is, you will never please everyone, so why bother. Maybe that is the approach Starbucks is taking.

The Guardian has an article, Iceland’s Christmas TV advert rejected for being political, about a controversial ad in United Kingdom. Here is the ad:

A supermarket chain in the United Kingdom, Iceland Foods, pledged removal of palm oil from all its own-brand foods. Habitat loss in countries such as Malaysia – a major global producer of palm oil – has contributed to the orangutan endangerment. The supermarket says, “this is a huge story that needs to be told.”  Iceland Food’s Christmas commercial, about the plight of the critically endangered orangutan, was banned from airing on television.

The ad was pulled from TV because it breached political advertising rules. Ads are prohibited if it is “directed towards a political end.” My question: Was the ad too political because it was affecting sales of palm oil products? The supermarket was merely trying to educate people on the plight of the orangutan. Scientists estimate that 150-200 species of plant, insect, bird and mammal become extinct every 24 hours (see UN Environment Programme). That is alarming! The world needs to be educated, but if people know this truth they may stop buying palm oil products—therein lies the politics—thus affecting profits. That applies to many products. This isn’t so much a controversy about Christmas as it is about keeping people ignorant. The reality is, for the corporate world, making money is more important than saving the environment or endangered species. There is a so-called Native American saying, “When the last tree has been cut down, the last fish caught, the last river poisoned, only then will we realize that one cannot eat money.”  I fear this may become truth.

Black Pete Character

Another interesting controversy is taking place in the Netherlands regarding Black Pete or Black Peter—Zwarte Piet in Dutch—a companion of Saint Nicholas (the Dutch say Sinterklaas). On the feast day of Saint Nicholas, celebrated December 5 in the Netherlands and December 6 in Belgium, this character can be seen.  The character’s depiction typically accompanies Sinterklaas, involves covering the skin in black makeup, wearing black wigs, large earrings and  distributing presents to children. Many people in the Netherlands dress up as Zwarte Piet as well.

Traditions surrounding Zwarte Piet have been controversial since the late 20th century. Opponents to the Black Pete character argue that he stems from Dutch colonial heritage, in which black people were submissive to whites, in other words, enslaved. The Netherlands abolished slavery in 1863.  National Geographic reports,

The character [Black Pete] was popularized in a mid-19th century children’s book written by a man who was very interested in the Dutch royal family members, “one of whom bought a slave in a slave market in Cairo in the mid-19th century,” says Joke Hermes, a professor of media, culture, and citizenship at Inholland University. This slave, Hermes suggests, may have helped inspire the character of Zwarte Piet.

Others reject the stereotypical black features of the figure, such as bright red lips, curly hair and large golden earrings. Some argue that it’s a way the white Dutch people remind black Dutch people that they are tolerated but not yet fully accepted citizens. National Geographic reports that white supremacists raised Nazi salutes at the Sinterklass parade in the Dutch city of Hoorn, and flew neo-Nazi flags at the one in Zaandijk. In Eindhoven, an estimated 250 white extremists chanted racist slogans and threw eggs and beer cans at people peacefully protesting the parade.

Now the question is: Should this tradition continue or should it discontinue as it promotes racism or at least keeps alive a racist past? Many argue that Black Pete is harmless fun. Which is more important, tradition or preserving peace? We are living during a time when racism seems to acceptable and even encouraged by some politicians. If black Dutch people, whose ancestors were slaves, are offended, then the tradition is unacceptable! Any traditional Christmas character that prompts white supremacists to raise Nazi salutes needs to be rejected.

The biggest Christmas controversy of 2018 surrounds the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” a popular song written by Frank Loesser in 1944. It is a duet in which a host, usually performed by a male voice, tries to convince a guest, usually performed by a female voice, that she should stay the evening because the weather is cold and the trip home could be problematic. While the lyrics make no mention of any holiday, it is popularly regarded as a Christmas song due to its winter theme. If you’re unfamiliar with the song—I was—here it is.

Why is an old song causing so much controversy to the extent where it is being refused to be played on some radio stations.  CBC News explains that the song is offensive because of the man’s refusal to accept the woman’s “No” for an answer. It says many modern listeners view the song as “coercive and problematic.” For an in-depth analysis of the lyrics, see Vox.

Ironically, recently on my Facebook feed, was a post that forcibly argued that this controversy was ridiculous as people know that the song was written in the 1940s, and must be interpreted in light of the times. I doubt young people know this. In the 1940s it was considered a romantic, innocent song. This individual argued that there are worse things, like violent video games, that we should be concerned with rather than an old Christmas song.

Even though the author made some valid arguments, we must be sensitive to the fact that we now live in a #metoo era. The Me Too (#MeToo) movement is a crusade against sexual harassment and sexual assault. This year has been filled with numerous women coming forward with sexual harassment and assault allegations against celebrities, coaches, and politicians, all people with money and power. The current resident of the U.S. Whitehouse has had several accusations lodged against him. This is an issue not to be taken lightly.

A global rape prevention organization known as, No Means No Worldwide (NMNW), has a mission to end sexual violence against women and children. According to this organization,

Globally, an estimated 35% of women experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. In Africa, that percentage increases to 45%. According to the UN Population Fund, almost 50% of all sexual assault victims are girls age 15 or younger. In the slums of Nairobi, where our programming started, 1 in 4 girls are raped every year.

This organization teaches a preventative program. In other words, when a woman, child, or man for that matter, says NO, then they mean no. In the song, the female declares her intentions, “I simply must go.” The male’s response, “Baby, it’s cold outside.” She declares her intentions again, “The answer is no.” The guy’s response, “Ooh baby, it’s cold outside.” Later in the song, the guy plays with her emotions (my interpretation) saying, “What’s the sense in hurting my pride,” and “Baby don’t hold out.”  Now I can see why people would take offense to this song. The male character in the song doesn’t respect the female’s answer of no. No doesn’t mean no to him. It means maybe, hopefully, try harder and so on.

An article titled, What Nobody Wants To Admit About Rape Culture, says,

One of the most common occurrences when a woman has been raped is that her entire sexual history is brought up and used against her. The point of this attack is not that rape is okay, it’s that she’s a slut so she must have consented, right? Therefore it’s not rape. When guys are told “When a woman says no, she means try harder,” it doesn’t mean that rape is okay. It means that a woman is still consenting even if she says no. Therefore it’s not rape.

Does this song promote the rape—legally known as sexual assault—culture? Seems to. Should a song that is a traditional Christmas song—even that is open to debate—that may preserve a rape culture  be aired on radio because ‘it’s traditional? No. Should radio take this as an opportunity to teach about the objectionable parts of the song? Yes. Just because a song is a traditional Christmas song doesn’t make it acceptable. W. Edwards Deming, an American engineer, statistician, professor, author, and lecturer, once said, “Two basic rules of life are: 1) Change is inevitable. 2) Everybody resists change.” Sometimes Christmas traditions have to change. Airing of this song may be one of them.

When Lydia Liza heard the song, she was offended. She disliked the song so much, she recorded her own, “consensual” version with fellow musician Josiah Lemanski, in 2016.  In other words, she disliked the traditional version, so she changed it, and that is okay. I’ll end with Lydia’s version.

China Gave Me Much to Think About

Some thoughts on the recent trip to China

Tiananmen Square , Beijing

On November 20th, I returned home from an eleven-day trip to China. It was indeed a busy, yet educational adventure. The trip made me wonder about economic and political systems. Is capitalism better than communism? Canada is considered a mixed economy where there are some government owned corporations as well as privately owned businesses.

I grew up during the Cold War, continuously hearing about the evils of communism. North Americans were indoctrinated to believe communism was immoral and we were to fear it. I heard U.S. presidents such as, Richard Nixon, say, “The Cold War isn’t thawing; it is burning with a deadly heat. Communism isn’t sleeping; it is, as always, plotting, scheming, working, fighting,” and John F. Kennedy saying, “Communism has never come to power in a country that was not disrupted by war or corruption, or both.”  I lived through the Cuban missile crisis and fearing a nuclear war.

First let’s be clear on the difference between communism and capitalism. The word ‘communism’ has Latin roots, communi, which means ‘common.’ Although it is more complicated, simply put, in communism, everything is owned communally. Ideally, there is no government or class division, and wealth is distributed among people based on their needs; each person contributes to society as best as he or she is able, and takes from that society only what he or she needs. Communism is based on the principle of economic equality. Capitalism, on the other hand, stems from the word, capital, or the “means of production,” which is owned, operated, and supplied to generate profits for private owners or shareholders. Simply put, capitalism is an economic system which individuals own economic resources and industry.  Capitalism is based on the principles of profit and competition.

Climbing Great Wall of China

Based on what I observed, China seemed to have both systems. Many of the places we visited, such as the Jade factory, the pearl factory and embroidery Institute were all government-owned businesses. Free enterprise, or private businesses, were in China as well. We were told that Jack Ma, the co-founder and chairman of Alibaba, (equivalent to Amazon in North America) was the richest man in China.  We visited markets in the cities of Suzhou and Shanghai where small businesses were selling all sorts of things.

Something I noticed about the Chinese people is that they have a great love for their country. They speak of Chairman Mao, China’s revolutionary leader, with love and affection. Forbes describes China’s present leader  Xi Jinping as having a dream of a “moderately prosperous society,” instead of a communist utopia. He talks about “national rejuvenation,” and a China with a space program, high-speed rail network and high technology parks. One of our tour guides said Xi Jinping most known sayings—at least in China—is, “If it is good for China, then China will do it.” It seems to work as China is growing rapidly. Forbes says, China is on its way to becoming the largest economy in the world. It reports that in just one generation, 300 million+ people went from rural subsistence farming to urban industrial and technology jobs. The United States has always been considered the world’s economic power house in modern times, but the New York Times says,

Emerging signs of weakness in major economic sectors…are prompting some forecasters to warn that one of the longest periods of economic growth in American history may be approaching the end of its run.

Temple of Heaven exercise park

Another thing I observed while visiting China, was how happy the Chinese people were. In fact, one of my travel partners commented on how happy the Chinese people were, and how unhappy the people back home were because they were always complaining. The Chinese government does takes care of its people. For example, their government provides exercise parks for their retired citizens. We visited one at the Temple of Heaven Park. The Chinese people were happy to show us how the various machines worked. In this Beijing park, we saw musicians and large groups of people singing loudly and looked to be having fun. We also witnessed this at the Summer Palace. In fact, one Chinese person grabbed the hands of two people in our tour group and starting dancing with them. Unemployment, we were told, was non-existent. One of our tour guides told us that unless retired, everyone had a job. I saw numerous people with brooms cleaning the streets and removing falling autumn leaves. There was virtually no garbage anywhere.

Rickshaw Ride

China’s political system is drastically different from democratic countries like Canada and the U.S. China has a one-party system; the Communist Party. We asked about what Chinese people thought about the politics of their country. The guide’s response (paraphrased) was Chinese people really don’t care about politics or their government. As long as people are living a good life, have a job and making money, they are happy. He said there is consistency with a one-party system as when there is a change in leadership, the policy of the previous government continues. Then our tour guide said something thought-provoking. He said in the democratic world, little is accomplished as governments are always squabbling. He further explained, whenever a new party is elected, they reverse the previous party’s policies, thus little progress is made.

Now this made me think. It’s true. In Canada, when a new party takes power—presently it’s the Liberal Party—they change many of the policies put into place by the previous ruling Conservative Party. In the United States, the Trump administration—Republicans—are reversing and changing many of the policies that the Obama administration—Democrats—put in place. It’s accurate, there is no consistency in policy. No wonder little progress occurs. The U.S. is a very divided country, and Canada has its divisions as well. China, because it is a one-party system, is relatively united.

Now I’m not saying that China doesn’t have problems, it does. According to Global Risk Insights,

“Land disputes, labour strikes and environmental concerns have been frequently cited as the leading causes of protest across China in recent years, as the drive for growth has resulted in the destruction of farmland, the proliferation of polluting factories and waste plants, and poor labour rights.”

Smog was prevalent in Beijing. I’m sure we visited only places the government wanted us to see. We saw none of the negative parts of society. But that is also true of tours taken in democratic countries I’ve visited.

Chinese Market

It was obvious that the Chinese people are likely one of the most watched people in the world. I saw cameras everywhere. But is it any different in the “free world?” According to Crime Feed, an average American citizen can be caught on camera more than 75 times a day. I was unable find stats on Canada, but likely it is no different in my country. When we entered China, we had finger prints electronically taken, and our passports were scanned by every hotel. We, as foreigners, were tracked. We in the “free world” like to think we have freedom, but the reality is our phones are tracked and our Internet activity is monitored. The Huffpost has an article, 9 Ways You’re Being Spied On Every Day, where it talks of all the ways we are being monitored. In reality, we are just as watched as people in China.

You’re probably wondering if I am a communist. No, I don’t believe so although the idea of economic equality and doing what is best for everyone makes sense. Am I pro-capitalism? Not when I hear stories such as General Motors laying off thousands of workers by closing one plant in Canada and four in the U.S. This is a company that earned $35.79 billion in 2018 in revenue, up 6 percent from $33.62 billion during the same quarter in 2017 (see GM).  Or, when I learn that Sears is seeking court approval to pay its executives as much as $25 million in annual bonuses when the company has declared bankruptcy. Three top executives could get nearly $1 million each if the company goes out of business (see CNN). Furthermore, Sears pensions were cut by 20%, yet billions in payouts to shareholders happened (see Union). Rewarding people whose decisions caused bankruptcy makes no sense. Putting shareholders before workers is unjust.

Terracotta Warriors

American celebrity, Whoopi Goldberg, once uttered, “I don’t really view communism as a bad thing.”  I agree with Whoopi. Canadian-born economist, public official, and diplomat, John Kenneth Galbraith, once wrote, “Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under communism, it’s just the opposite.” Exploitation occurs in both economic systems. There are pros and cons to both economic systems and both forms of government. Neal Donald Walsh, in one of his Conversations with God books, wrote, “Your way is not the only way, it is just a way.” That quote sums up my point of view.