the diary thing 
A COUGAR KILLED A woman jogging in the woods out in Alberta this week. They tracked down, and shot, the cougar. Another cougar attacked, but didn't kill, a dog. It was caught, to be released far away in the wooded mountains. A third cougar was killed after it was seen killing a deer. The first two bits of news didn't surprise me, but the last made me shake my head.

I thought that's what cougars did.

While I'm sure it's a tragedy for the family of the woman who was killed, and a terrible source of fear for the people in the town near where it happened, the fact remains that the cougar is a smart, beautiful predator, expressly designed for little else but to hunt and kill. Man, on the other hand, is smart in fiendishly specialized ways, beautiful (if only, perhaps, to other of its species), but not particularly strong or clever at evading predators. We move into the habitat of animals like cougars and become offended and enraged when they do what only comes naturally -- kill a large, foolish animal unable to defend itself in a hostile environment. 

I'm too often amazed by the revulsion and terror that predation brings out in otherwise intelligent people. As predators ourselves -- the most perverse on the planet -- we should have some appreciation for the rare moments when another species gets the better of us, but for some reason a primitive instinct for retribution inevitably comes out whenever, say, a pack of wolves in a zoo kill an idiot teenager who climbs the fence into their compound on a dare, or when a captive elephant goes berserk and crushes one of the captors who seek to keep it docile by constantly terrorizing it -- an animal larger than humans by several orders of magnitude. 

I think, basically, that this urge -- a complete abdication of common sense in favour of hysterical, punitive action -- is in some way linked to the persistent will to deny the grim ethics of species evolution. A savage misunderstanding of "survival of the fittest" is often evoked to justify bloody ambition matched with pitiless lack of compassion, but when confronted with the unemotional principal of nature's indifference to sentiment, our inevitable reaction is fear and rage and denial. 

We can't stand, or even comprehend, the idea that we arrived where we are on the planet through a combination of ruthlessness and chance, just as we're offended when our vulnerability is underlined by a chance attack in the woods. Some of us even overreact when wild animals have the tastelessness and lack of tact to kill a deer -- a beautiful, graceful deer, so much like an idealized version of our better selves -- in plain sight within days of killing one of us. It can't be tolerated, obviously; our sentiments and illusions have to be maintained at all costs, and an example must be made.

"It is Ill-manners to silence a fool, and Cruelty to let him go on."
- Benjamin Franklin


I tried to return your e-mail last week, but it kept bouncing back. Send me another one, and we'll try again -- I'm not ignoring you.

An absolutely unreasonable explosion of vituperation and bile.

I WAS, A FEW DAYS AGO, livid with rage at a certain writer. I picked up my morning paper to see that his review of Ken Burns' "Jazz" documentary series (airing on PBS starting this Monday -- a plug, a plug) was running that day. For some -- personal, as we shall see -- reason, I couldn't bear to open the paper and read it until I had a coffee in front of me and K., awake to witness my possible outrage.

It was as bad, if not worse, than I imagined. The certain writer's basic point was that jazz, once the most popular music in America, had declined to the lowly status of minority taste -- from 70% to 3% of record-buying totals in fifty years -- thanks not to changes in taste, society, or demography, but rather because of jazz critics; "pencil-necked geeks" in his words.

(I'd like to point out, as a way of explaining the personal component of my rage, that I was supposed to write a review of "Jazz" for this same paper, but was pulled off the assignment when it was pointed out, by the arts editor of the paper to my editor in the Weekend section, that the certain writer in question was, in fact, the paper's "jazz critic". A precise measurement and comparison of neck dimensions, alas, will not follow. [For the record, I'm a 17".])

These same pencil-necks, he was at pains to point out, had been reviewing Burns' documentary with something less than the hosannas and ecstatic praise which he felt it was due. "Jazz snobs have been lining up to whine," he writes, and summarizes the various flaws found so far in the series by these snobs: Too much time spent on the music's early years, at the expense of its recent history; a canonical approach to its major figures; too many artists ignored or barely discussed; too much time spent with Wynton Marsalis, the series' "senior creative consultant". The certain writer, who has said that he feels he and Marsalis share a certain "relationship", due mostly to a few interviews over the years, thinks this is particularly galling as Marsalis has done so much to make jazz popular again. (Like his Wheaties cereal box, for instance, and his partnership with Fisher-Price.)

(On another personal note, I'd like to make it known, for the record, that after I was pulled off the piece, I talked to another paper -- the free weekly I also work for -- and set about doing my review for them. When the book, CDs, and tapes of the series didn't show in my mail box, I called back the publishing and record companies and publicists I had talked to previously, and was told that the arts editor at the major daily had phoned and told them I was off the story, that they shouldn't send me anything. I was amazed, not at his pettiness, but at the fact that an editor actually called someone back without any urgent reason, like deadlines or money. I'm actually shocked that a paper's editor would go so far as to try and humiliate a regular freelancer at his own paper. Which only goes to show how naive I am.)

Ken Burns' series, this certain writer would have us know, is a godsend to jazz. We jazz critics -- I assume I'm included in the pencil-necked brigade since I share many of the reservations about the series the certain writer so deeply implores -- should be happy for this gift to the music (thanks to the nice people at the N.E.H., GM and the Pew, Doris Duke, Arthur Vining Davis, Reva and David Logan and MacArthur foundations.) Instead, we're a bunch of soreheads sitting at home listening to "14-piece bassoon ensembles from the South American pampas". Don't we know that, thanks to Ken Burns, Wynton Marsalis and "Jazz", "tens of thousands of (jazz) CDs will be in the hands of teenagers who would otherwise be listening to N'Sync." Perhaps they will, if they give them out with Happy Meals. 

At this point it should be pointed out that the certain writer's main gig at the major daily is as the Ottawa columnist, covering the political doings of our federal government. (Since, obviously, nobody can make a living as a jazz critic in this day and age.) I wonder how he'd feel, if some beknighted soul should make a multi-part documentary about the history of Canadian federal politics. (I know you can't wait for that one.) And I wonder how he'd feel should the majority of the series restrict itself to chronicling a "golden age" of Canadian politics that happened years before he, or the director of the series, was ever born, opting to cover the last forty years of the country's political history in a rushed, last episode. 

What if this documentary lavished whole episodes on figures like William Lyon Mackenzie and Wilfred Laurier while dispensing with Pierre Trudeau in just two minutes? And what if this series had some notable gaps in coverage, devoting most of its attention to the Liberal party, a bit less to the Tories, barely touching on Social Credit, the CCF, NDP, or Bloc Quebecois, while giving the last word on any aspect of over a century of political history to, say, Stockwell Day. 

Wouldn't he find this series -- in spite, perhaps, of its high production values and undeniable importance -- critically lacking, biased, or deficient? Wouldn't he feel obliged to list the missing figures, the inconsistencies, the outright biases, the lapses of coverage evident to anyone, regardless of their neck size, who has made it their business to write about politics -- or jazz -- as a living, vital thing and not a historical issue, quaint and drained of vitality?

Wouldn't he consider someone who wrote about this piece of television with witless defensiveness, unaccountable hostility, and occasional lapses into press-release puffiness, to be something of a fool?

I know I would.

writing ©2001
Rick McGinnis
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