Re-posting. Not because of any (tanking) mayor. Because we're still remembering an awful night and thinking a certain critical and creative mind would be welcome today.
Yesterday an entertainer in a Pepto Bismol coloured suit stood up in Toronto’s city council and ranted and raged about “left wing pinkos” to show his support for our new mayor. It seems the mayor requested that this person – a national celebrity who has been known to rant his bigoted views on what is probably the nation’s most popular television show, causing many to question the soundness of his mind and his relevance on a show watched by many, many children – be the one to introduce him and decorate him with the chain of office on the first official day of the new council.
Yesterday’s show tipped the “cringe-o-meter” for many thinking people. Here we had an entertainer in a pink suit taking that deplorable political tool – the sound bite – to a new low in stirring up anger and divisiveness, and helping this mayor move our city from world-class to class-less.
The same night over dinner my daughters and I had a conversation about John Lennon. I said that the pink clad entertainer would call Lennon a “left wing pinko” with great glee. Carly and Kelsey, in their 20s, had never heard the term “pinko” before yesterday; Carly said she'd Googled it. I thought it was funny that a great many of the people the guy in pink was trying to insult would have had to research what exactly his dusty old slur meant since it hadn't been seen in a number of decades.
My girls – both intelligent, thoughtful, reasonable young women – were saying that they feel Lennon’s murderer robbed their generation of knowing a fine critical mind and thought-provoking artist. He died before they were both born – but it just doesn’t seem like it – thirty years on Lennon’s persona looms still. He angered many, but he inspired many more. And that’s because he was a man with big ideas, and he worked them out and expressed them in truly original (and sometimes groundbreaking) ways. None of his protest art included name-calling or trite clichés or sound bites, although the media loved to take sound bites out of his statements, like the infamous “we’re bigger than Jesus…”
Sound bites water ideas down to single layered messages. Sound bites take bits of language and turn them into a symbol. Given that humans process symbols before they process language, it’s not surprising marketers and politicians have turned it into a remarkably effective tool for persuasion. We see the symbol – we don’t have to bother to think – the meaning is handed to us in a neat little package.
Fortunately, many of us still like to use our brains. Many of us – like my daughters – stop and think about what is in, around and behind a message and work out its meaning for ourselves based on our learning and experiences.
One might say War is Over was a John Lennon sound bite. But it was one of many layers – of contradiction, optimism, questioning the status quo, change, motivation, suggestive selling, opportunity, no, yes, maybe… Lennon’s War is Over might have made you think about a hundred things. The point is, it was intended to make you think – not relieve you of the need to do so.
What were the layers of meaning in the “left-wing pinko” sound bite? I don’t think more than one meaning was intended – it simply meant “the other side.” It was easy for that guy’s fans, or the angry supporters of the angry mayor. Who needs to think? Yahoo – take that you Other Side!
Lots of Toronto people though – like my critical minded daughters – are wearing Left-Wing Pinko as a badge of honour today. Especially given that it’s also the day in which many of us are thinking about one particular left-wing pinko and what might have been another thirty years of ideas and music and art – robbed, from a world that could really use them, in one violent moment.
John – I really wish my girls could have lived in the same world you did for a little while. But your messages are not lost on them. If you were here today, you might be as encouraged as I am that there are lots young people around who are able, like you once were, to think beyond a sound bite and imagine a world in which anything is possible.