Wednesday, March 03, 2010


I don't own a television. This is not out of any particular principle: we had one back in the UK, but just never got around to buying one here in Canada. So I've never been in the Canadian media loop, and have never missed it. Plus I have plenty of other ways of distracting and/or entertaining myself, not least watching television shows that just happen to be packaged in convenient DVD packages.

So with the Olympics, and even though I really didn't see very much of it, I have been watching much more television than usual. And what strikes those of us who are not accustomed to it (or what strikes me perhaps even more particularly given my long exposure to the BBC) is less the programming, which I can get by other means, than the adverts. There are so many of them. And they are often so very odd.

There are two current adverts that were played throughout the Olympics that I find particularly strange, and particularly disturbing. And at the risk of this blog becoming (almost) all Canada (almost) all of the time, I note that they are both selling, in part, images of Canadian national identity. Or rather, they rely for their success on certain images of Canada that are dear to this country's inhabitants.

The first of these ads is this one, for Tim Hortons, the Canadian coffee chain. It's discussed, among other places, on Darren Barefoot's blog. Frankly I still can't quite get my head around it, except to say that I think it is truly appalling.

The other ad is this one, for that rather recognizeably US brand, Coca Cola:

I find this extraordinary, too.

The commercial purveys a sense of Canadian identity tied up with sport, specifically hockey, and the rituals and memories that go with that: from playing street hockey to watching a game at school, going out to a bar, or seeing a match live. The Canadianness of this progression, or rather the way in which this is precisely an apprenticeship in Canadianness, is emphasized with images of flags and maple leaves and the consistent presence of red and white highlights. Of course, it is only gradually (and more obviously at a second viewing) that you realize that the most ubiquitous of these red highlights are those associated with Coca Cola: this is an ad about becoming Canadian by growing up with coke as well, if not more than, growing up with hockey. So we are to associate Canadianness equally with coke and with hockey: they form a nexus by which the viewer is to interpret his (or her) progression from child to adult.

But the odd thing is the ad's punchline: As the camera flies across an ice rink towards the goal, as though the viewer were put in the position of either a speeding player or indeed the puck itself, and as the music reaches a crescendo, with cheering in the background and a cutaway to three women in red raising their index fingers, we see spelled out between us and the goal the text: "Let's make sure everyone knows whose game their playing." We then cut to an overhead scoreboard on which we see coming into view... the iconic Coke bottle and the words "Coca Cola" repeated (for good measure) four times.

Again, I find this very strange. The advert works in so far as it takes for granted the fact that any Canadian is going to be able to answer the implicit question: Whose game are they playing? Why, hockey is Canada's game of course!

(The truth of this assertion, by the way, is as far as I can see very far from certain; in fact, of the NHL's famous "original six" teams, for instance, only two were from Canada, the other four all being from the US.)

But precisely because the ad's ideal viewer already knows the answer to this question, they are likely to misrecognize the answer that the ad itself seems to give to that question. For though the ad provides implicit acknowledgment of the contention that hockey is Canada's game, this is not what it actually says. Rather more explicitly, the answer it appears to provide to the question "Whose game are they playing?" is, well, that it is Coca Cola's game.

Now, we can perhaps understand this assertion two ways in so far as the ad is suggesting an absolute identification between Canada and Coke. Hockey is Coca Cola's game because it is Canada's game, and perhaps even vice versa. The circular identification between viewer, soft drink, and country is now complete: the viewer identifies with Coca Cola through his identification with Canada (and again, perhaps even vice versa). This is what the commercial appears to be trying to achieve. But this is surely a hard sell. For after all, what product is more fully identified with the USA, notionally the country whose claim to hockey is here being denied (though when was the last time that a non-US team won the Stanley Cup, I feel like asking), than Coca Cola? Coke is the quintessential product of American modernity. Why else do they call Americanization also "Coca Colonization"?

The other possible reading is an absolutely post-ideological one: the advert is telling us that hockey belongs to Coca Cola because, well, corporate interests have now fully bought up what is imagined to have once been the kind of communal organic activity that the ad's narrative initially suggests. Indeed, finally the story that the commercial most explicitly is telling is this: you grow up playing hockey, and thinking it is your sport, that it is a pastime that defines you and your imagined community; but then at some point you come to the realization that it isn't yours, it's been bought by corporations such as Coca Cola. They own it now, and don't you forget it.

Of course, this is a familiar narrative, too, and you wouldn't have to press a Canadian hard to hear it: they'd talk about "the trade" or about the opening of hockey in Sunbelt markets in the US while it is taken from hockey-mad cities such as Winnipeg. Any Canadian worth their salt can despair at the corporate takeover of their sport, and at the evils of the NHL's presiding commissioners that have allowed it to happen. (Such complaints, too, make up Canadian national identity.)

What's strange is to see one of those corporate interests telling this same story, too.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Chile II

My previous post on Chile was also propagated (as all this blog's posts are) on Facebook, where my good friend Loreto Navarete commented at length. With her permission. I'm reproducing her comment here (it's actually too long for the comment box on the post itself), and below I'll include my reply. Note, however, that she commented on a previous version of the post, which I've since revised in the light of some of her comments (and since have revised to clarify still further after somewhat similar comment on the blog itself).

Querido Jon, aunque en tu primer párrafo lanzas una clave de interpretaciñon plausible, el análisis sigue sobre la base de inexactitudes.

Para quienes sí vivimos el terremoto (todos quienes vivimos desde la región de Coquimbo hasta la región de la Araucanía (más de 1200 kilómetros desde norte a sur, en donde se concentra el 80% de la población de Chile) estaba claro que estábamos ante una catástrofe de proporciones.

A las 4.00 am aproximadamente ya se estaba evaluando la situación desde la oficina de emergencias, con la presidenta Bachelet a la cabeza. En efecto, ella jamás dijo que no se necesitaba ayuda internacional, lo que dijo es que había que dimensionar la situación para poder clarificar qué tipo de ayuda internacional se requería. A las horas se solicitó la ayuda internacional en hospitales de campaña, teléfonos satelitales, puentes mecano, equipos electrógenos, purificadores de agua y sistemas autónomos para diálisis, entre otras cosas. Ésa es una primera precisión.

La segunda, éste es el terremoto más grande y devastador en 50 años. No sólo afectó Concepción, sino también Santiago, Valparaíso y Viña del Mar, Rancagua, San Fernando, Talca, Curicó, Constitución, Talcahuano, Santa Cruz, y decenas de poblados costeros en donde, posterior al sismo, el tsunami terminó de arrasarlo todo. Ésa es una segunda precisión. No es un terremoto acotado a un territorio, como fue el de 1985, el de 1939, el de 1906 o incluso el de 1960. Éste es un terremoto que ha afectado seis regiones del país, dejando hasta ahora 2 millones de damnificados. Sólo en Santiago los daños estructurales en los edificios tanto patrimoniales, como públicos y residenciales (antiguos y nuevos) tendrán un costo de miles de millones.

En ese contexto, en menos de 2 minutos, el país vio como la única carretera que nos conecta con el sur quedó cortada impidiendo por horas, la llegada de ayuda; cómo el sistema de distribución de energía también colapsaba dejando sin electricidad, agua y comunicaciones a cientos de miles de personas. En ese contexto, y particularmente en la ciudad de Concepción, la posibilidad de saqueos era absolutamente real. Y no es primera vez que pasa en la historia de nuestros terremotos.

El terremoto, estamos de acuerdo, nos permitió ver lo que había detrás del decorado (y que no había que ser experto para verlo): las profundas desigualdades que existen en Chile, el miedo -también profundo- al otro que ya había planteado Lechner hace más de una década, y la fragilidad institucional e ineficiencia en la gestión que plantea la centralización política y administrativa.

En fin, da para largo, lo que quizás quiero decir con todo esto es que lo que ha ocurrido en Chile es un cataclismo -nada menos- y que aunque las imágenes de los saqueos y de los militares en las calles son seguramente muy provocadoras para analizarlas, no hay que olvidar que es cómo los medios han construido el relato de estos días, y esos medios -no podemos abstraernos de ello- están jugando un rol en un contexto político específico.

Un abrazo, Lore

In response, I wrote:

Lore, gracias por este comentario. Creo que estamos de acuerdo en casi todo: claro que sí fue (y es) un catástrofe, con consecuencias graves.

Mi única observación fue sobre la diferencia entre las expectactivas y representaciones de los desastres en Chile y Haiti, y así de las distintas imágenes sobre los dos países. Y claro que estoy hablando mayormente de los medios extranjeros. Pero en todos lados está la comparación. Aquí, por ejemplo:

Bueno, sobre el papel de los medios en Chile mismo (y he estado leyendo también lo que dices en Twitter, sobre los rumores y el intento de fomentar pánico), bueno eso es otro asunto , aúnque quizás relacionado en tanto que esté reapareciendo una práctica de seguridad basada en un discurso de miedo hacia los pobres. Habrá en algún momento mucho para decir sobre eso, sin duda, pero claro que no fue mi intención en mi breve entrada.

Mientras tanto, gracias por la precisión sobre la actitud de Bachelet sobre la ayuda internacional. Otra vez, quizá sea esto simplemente una instancia más de como se ha escrito sobre el desastre en los medios, y revisaré lo que he puesto en el blog al respecto. Pero sí hubo mucho reportaje sobre esto, también. Vease por ejemplo

Mientras tanto, sobre todo me alegra oir de tí. Estoy pensando en tí y en mis otros amigos chilenos. Un fuerte abrazo.

Let me just end by saying that my point is not to give credence to the way in which the disaster in Chile (or in Haiti) has been reported; rather, quite the opposite. And I am sure that there is much to be said about the ways in which it has been covered in Chile itself, but I have been reading the international rather than the national press, which is (again) precisely where such comparisons between Chile and Haiti have been most prevalent.


I have nothing very much against looting, particularly in the aftermath of a natural disaster of the scale witnessed a day or so ago in Chile. At a basic level, one does what one can to survive. More interestingly, it could also be seen as the inversion of Naomi Klein's "shock doctrine" thesis: taking advantage of a shock to the physical and material infrastructure in order to re-imagine social relations, now no longer in capital's favor but in the multitude's. As Rebecca Solnit argues:
The aftermath of disaster is often peculiarly hopeful, and in the rupture of the ordinary, real change often emerges. But this means that disaster threatens not only bodies, buildings, and property but also the status quo.
Part of this peculiar hopefulness arises, as Solnit also argues, from a realization of "the fragility of existing structures of authority." If this recognition leads to looting (no doubt itself the wrong word), then so be it.

And in some sense then it is no wonder that in the aftermath of disaster sovereign power is also so anxious to re-establish its authority, in large part for instance by stigmatizing the affected populations. And no doubt the more anxious that power is, the more it resorts to such tactics, even therefore at the cost of revealing the extent of its own fear and ineptitude.

Some of that ineptitude, the way in which disasters wrong-foot constituted power, can be seen in an examination of how the disasters in Haiti and Chile reveal such different expectations and representations of the two countries and their populations.

Note that I am here mostly talking about how the international media have covered these two tragedies, which appeared at first sight to offer an object lesson in the distinction between progress and poverty, civilization and barbarism. But in the end there is almost a certain wry amusement to be gained in seeing how wrong these representations have proved to be.

Haiti was of course treated as first and foremost a security problem, for which a military response was in order: Port au Prince and its slums had to be stabilized and secured before aid could be distributed; no doubt hundreds more lives were lost in the delays caused what what was fundamentally a racist fear and stigmatization of the threat of black violence. (Again, Rebecca Solnit is excellent on this.)

Chile, on the other hand, is one of the whitest of Latin American countries, and it regularly prides itself on being the most civilized and economically advanced; sometimes the Chileans think of themselves as the English of South America, and not just because they, too, don't know how to dance. The "Chilean model" is touted far and wide as the height of democratic order, economic efficiency, political transparency, and so on.

In line with the expectations that such images raise, initial reports on the earthquake that struck near Concepción emphasized how prepared the country was, how much better was its infrastructure and capacity to respond, how much more quickly it would bounce back. Its market-driven economic growth would barely wobble; after all the country is an "A plus student when it comes to economics". President Bachelet was even said to have initially declared that they needed no foreign aid on the basis precisely, Chilean commentator Patrico Navia was reported as saying, "that Chile is not Haiti. It is like Japan, or the US."

Indeed, comparisons with Haiti were overt and ubiquitous. The New York Times actively encourages teachers to draw quite literal lessons from pairing the two together.

The implication was clear: Chile, white and prosperous, could comfortably survive an earthquake that was many hundreds of times more powerful than the little tremor that touched that backward (and black) Caribbean island.

Ah. But now it turns out that, when push comes to shove, those white people are just a rabble of thieving ne'er-do-wells. Time to send in the tanks.

Monday, March 01, 2010


It's three in the morning, many hours after the Winter Olympics came to a close and (more to the point) long after Sid "the Kid" Crosby scored the dramatic overtime goal that gave Team Canada its final, and most dearly coveted, gold medal by beating the USA at (ice) hockey.

Yet even now I can hear the shouts and celebrations on the streets of downtown Vancouver below my apartment window. And I don't even live that close to the epicenter of the extraordinary street party that broke out as soon as that puck entered the net. The celebrations are no doubt in full swing on Granville and Robson Streets, some six or seven blocks away.

In the afternoon and early evening, the so-called Granville Entertainment District and nearby Robson Square were mobbed with thousands of mostly red-and-white clad revelers, chanting "Go Canada Go" or "Crosby, Crosby, Crosby," giving each other high fives and hugs, ringing cowbells and hooting horns, climbing lampposts and bus shelters, and bursting into impromptu renditions of "O Canada!"

This notoriously reticent and self-effacing country has perhaps finally learned the trappings and gestures of nationalism. Of course, Canadians have always quietly considered themselves superior; but the emphasis has been on the quiet sense of distinction. Indeed, the exuberant displays of pride visible over the past few hours would previously have been considered to be precisely the kind of gauche jingoism that Canada had associated with other, more vulgar and less civilized nations.

So one consequence of all the flag-waving and chanting is that Canadians may be a little less smug in the future: they've shown that they can be just as blindly patriotic as (say) their neighbors to the south. As they become more ostentatiously Canadian, they undermine that sense of entitlement that comes precisely from the notion that "ostentatious" and "Canadian" are two words that don't really belong in the same sentence.

The more visibly Canadian they become, the less "Canadian" they actually are.

And perhaps it's for this reason that so many of the most visibly and audibly frenetic of the revelers were the so-called "new" Canadians, the relatively recent immigrants (and their children) from China, Japan, India, and so on.

Vancouver is, after all, an extraordinarily multicultural city; about 40% of its inhabitants were born outside of Canada, most of whom come from Asia though with a significant proportion also from places such as Southern or Central Europe. And yet there are times when this is not so obvious: the various ethnic groups are parceled out around the city and a huge number of Chinese Canadians, for instance, live and work in suburbs such as Richmond, just to the south.

Yet it was clear that very many of the crowds who poured across the bridges (some of which were soon closed to vehicular traffic because of the sheer numbers of pedestrians) to get to the downtown peninsula came from precisely these outlying suburbs.

I wonder if this is because painting your face with a maple leaf or waving the flag from a hockey stick is a form of nationalism that is more available to new immigrants than the rather more insidious distanced self-regard that has hitherto characterized Canadians' sense of themselves. It is a habitus that can more easily be picked up or (better) incarnated, whatever one's background or skin color.

In any case, with the Olympic celebrations, and with the multitude that packed its thoroughfares to shout and holler, Vancouver city center felt distinctly less white than it does on a regular business day.

And it is certain that the experience of the Olympic Canada (literally) on the streets was much more multiracial than the image presented by either the opening or the closing ceremonies, both of which gave us only a tokenism towards First Nations as a flimsy cover for an otherwise overwhelmingly white and European depiction of the country. (As many have pointed out, for instance, there was no official recognition at all of Asian Canada during the opening ceremony held in this most Asian of Canadian cities.)

Almost four years ago, and while recognizing all the legitimate critiques of this over-commercialized festival brought to us by Coke and Visa, I asked "why not rescue something of the (perhaps utopian) commonality that still resides in the Olympics, rather than, inaccurately, damning them as simply another set of enclosures?"

It seems to me that we have indeed seen some of this utopian commonality in action on the streets of Vancouver over the past couple of weeks, albeit (ironically) ultimately clad in a maple-leaf flag. And we have seen both its distance from the official representation as well as the ways in which it potentially challenges, transforms, and ultimately undermines the national symbols around which it seems, superficially perhaps, to be organized.

Update: Mike Cowie says something similar about this being an Olympics on and of the streets.