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Monthly Archives: December 2012

(In which I discuss how social media enables the spread of false and faulty information)

“Over the past decade, the entire concept of social media has gone beyond the province of futurists and patent offices, to become a real and tangible part of our lives. Just as quickly, it has grown to be a trusted source of information for many. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that more than half of Americans now get at least some of their news from social networking sites.

Some of this news is misleading, but the spread of bad information on social media is not limited to outright falsehood.”

Read more here: http://mcgilltribune.com/crowdsourced-canards-social-media-and-the-spread-of-falsehood/ 

The cover of the DVD release of the 10 episode "Popetown" series.

The cover of the DVD release of the 10 episode “Popetown” series.

A look at the internationally controversial program you probably have never heard of.

If there is anything the religious right might have a point about, it is that organized religion, here meaning various forms of Christianity, has become one of a select few “acceptable targets” of cultural mockery. I personally have no problem with this phenomenon, but many others would strongly disagree. Enter the aborted British series Popetown. Commissioned in 2002 by BBC Three, the edgier, youth oriented offering of the sprawling British public broadcaster, the show, an animated mockery of the Catholic Church, incited condemnations from church officials—and rank and file Catholics—months before it was even planned to air. In late 2004, the channel decided that the 10 episodes were not worth the trouble and cancelled the program before it even aired. The show did air in other countries to similar controversy—two years later, MTV in Germany (the birthplace of the current pope) aired the full run after a 1 episode trial,  and an airing in Lithuania prompted a fine from the television regulator. Even the conservative Parents Television Council in the United States caught wind of the controversy and issued a predictable condemnation.

But was the show any good? I decided to watch the first three episodes to see for myself. The answer, in short, is “so-so”. Unnoticed in the controversy was that the satirical Vatican City—“Popetown”—was fictional even within the show’s universe; the city and the characters that inhabit it are shown at the start and end of each episode to simply be doodlings in the notebook of a bored Catholic school student. To me this seems like a bit of a cop-out on the part of the writers, an attempt to further disclaim to viewers that the program shouldn’t be taken seriously.

The program centers around Father Nicholas, a levelheaded, generally well-intentioned church official tasked with handling the pope, portrayed as an impish man-child with the intelligence and maturity of a particularly unintelligent and immature toddler. Other characters include Father Nicolas’s assistant/co-worker, Sister Marie, a similarly kindhearted but dimwitted nun, and a trio of cardinals who spend their spare time lounging in a luxuriously appointed pool hidden behind their offices, where they plot various schemes to get to first place on a list of the world’s wealthiest people. A ghoulish-looking priest with a penchant for “exotic animals” rounds out the cast.

The plotlines are just as irreverent as the premise and characters, but they are not truly…imaginative. Despite their relatively small amount of screen time, the conniving cardinals actually drive the plots of all three of the episodes I viewed, from exploiting a papal mass with disabled orphans for merchandise sales, to signing a church business deal with the dictator of a just-established republic.

The lack of imagination evident in the show’s writing brings to mind a major requirement for provocative humor, whether it is the ethnic joke, or in this case, the irreverent TV show; it has to have some sort of point. Offensiveness for its own sake can only take a creative effort so far before it overstays its welcome. The problem with Popetown is that it wastes its premise. While it avoids extreme predictability (there are, mercifully, almost no references to pedophile priests, for example), that still leaves a program with moderately clever but not particularly outstanding humor or commentary. The program as it is would have worked better had it traded in the papal satire for a royal one; of course it would have gotten less attention as making fun of the British royals is far less controversial, but it also would have been a better show. As it is, Popetown takes a provocative premise and produces a pedestrian program. Competent, but not much more.

Popetown: 2.75 out of 5 stars. Watch for the controversy, and that’s close to the end of it. At best (here meaning you don’t find the setup personally and irrevocably offensive) the show provides a an episode and a half’s worth of fresh comedy. Incidentally, the program also overuses some mediocre 3D graphical sequences for their scene transitions. The entire series is available on YouTube in multiple parts

The latest in a not particularly long evolution of columns.

The latest in a not particularly long evolution of columns.

Part 1 of a multi-part series, this time looking at the highlights of my own body of work.

Over the past year and a half, I have written a total of 15 columns for the McGill Tribune. Most of them have been alright, some have been good, and some have been decidedly mediocre.  But that goes for anyone who writes. I decided here that it would be useful to look back at the general evolution of my pieces, and, of course, the hits and misses.

My first column for the Tribune was a piece on the controversy on the constitutionality of Obamacare and why the Supreme Court should vote to uphold the law. It was an unremarkable column; perhaps the most memorable aspect of it was that the folks at the Tribune misspelled my name as “AbrahamMassouko”. The writing itself was competent though not top-notch, and the opinion expressed (Obamacare is a decent though flawed attempt at reform, and the bill works under the Commerce Clause as previously interpreted) is about as original as the selection of panelists on a  Sunday show roundtable.

Over the time I’ve been writing columns, I  have struggled with the question of whether to focus the space on happenings on campus, or things happening elsewhere, be they provincial, national, or international. Campus politics are often (contrary to the claims of some) unimportant, except for the very, very few times when they are important.  Of the columns I have done, a third—five—have centered on campus politics. Two of these pieces, “Safe Space Strife” and “Moral Superiority and Student Politics” were incredibly controversial, and I’ll address the controversies around them later. In general, I have found that my columns discussing campus politics were among my better pieces, especially in comparison to some I have done taking a well analyzed but not particularly strong stance on a non-campus issue.

The problem with all student journalism on the McGill campus, however, is its general irrelevance to the wider student body, and I include my own columns in this. This is why controversy, while certainly uncomfortable when semi-anonymous internet commenters are casting aspersions on your fitness for society, is also refreshing in that it is proof that people outside of the 30 or so friends that can be cajoled into reading your columns are actually reading your work.  “Strife” and “Superiority”, as just mentioned, were undoubtedly the most controversial columns I have written, with both prompting letters to the editor, a phenomenon that is fairly rare at the Tribune.

For those unfamiliar, “Safe Space Strife” was a bit of a departure from  my normal columns in that it involved actual reporting, in this case on rumors of an intra-executive dispute at Queer McGill. The piece discussed the removal of one of the executives at the organization on the grounds of an arguably dubious Equity Complaint. While it went on to become one of the most-read pieces on the Tribune’s site for several weeks—likely the result of  being referenced in a “McGill Memes” posting— it also prompted complaint from the dismissed executive; in his view I had misrepresented his side of the story. I also was contacted by my then-editor about complaints about the piece from unnamed sources. In the end, a small correction adjusting one of the facts ran in the next issue, and the dismissed executive wrote a letter to the editor further outlining his side of the story. While I think I did an alright job with that piece, it definitely was a missed opportunity in many respects.

On the other hand, “Moral Superiority and Student Politics” is, in my humble opinion, one of the best pieces I have written for the Tribune. The first of my columns this year, “Superiority” was  a commentary on one of the major elements of rhetoric implicit (and sometimes explicit) in much of the campus left, which is that involvement in campus politics is some sort of “obligation” in the fight for global social justice. As I discussed, that sort of rhetoric was laid on thick during the MUNACA and student strikes last year. One of the columnists I referenced (but did not name) as an example of such “sanctimoniousness” posted the article for condemnation on their facebook profile (the posting is public), and condemned it was, as “trash”,  a “piece of shit”, and other such invective. The article itself also generated a decent sized comment thread, a rarity on the Tribune website. Two letters to the editor were also sent to the paper the next week, the first of which actually made fair points about the piece. The second one could probably be described more as comic relief than anything, or proof positive of my original point.

So what’s next? In general, I would say that my columns have improved over the time I’ve been writing, but at a far slower pace after my pieces from late last year.  Next term should feature at least one or two on-campus controversies worth writing about, and I probably will try my hand at some other forms of journalistic writing. We’ll see.

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