Category Archives: Pop Culture

Stop reading this and go watch Borgen.

borgen 1

Seriously. Click here to purchase the first 2 seasons.

Need more convincing? Here is why I enjoy”Borgen” so thoroughly:

I am a political nerd. Like most political nerds I am able to quote (and subconsciously merge with reality) all 7 seasons of “The West Wing.” For a few months one of my colleagues at work made a point of recommending the Danish political drama Borgen to me a number of times corresponding with my referencing of Aaron Sorkin’s 2nd best television series.* I finally decided to obtain a copy of the first 2 seasons (with subtitles because that forces me to pay closer attention) and I ended up consuming all 20 episodes over a long weekend like I did back in university watching Breaking Bad.

The Plot (contains spoilers):

Birgitte Nyborg (leader of Denmark’s “Moderate Party”) does unexpectedly well in the Danish parliamentary election. She manages to become Denmark’s first female PM. Her party doesn’t have the majority (or even the plurality) of seats so she forms a coalition with Labour, the Greens, and the Solidarity Party.** There is a centre-right party that was in power before the election, a centre-right  pro-national security/law & order party and a far-right anti-immigrant party as well.The show deals with how Birgittee and her “spin doctor” Kasper Juul are able to navigate the perils of minority government, the opposition, the coalition parties and the press.

What so enthralls and impresses me about Borgen is how it deals with Danish politics in a serious manner. The strain of politics on Birgitte Nyborg’s family and personal relationships is something I haven’t really seen addressed in other artistic portrays of political life.

There are a number of episodes that I think are uniquely poignant for a Canadian audience:

  • One deals with gender equity on corporate boards in Denmark. Politicians and journalists deal with sexism, and the influence of financial interests on governments in a really interesting manner.
  • Cost overruns occur when the Danish military is deciding what kind of jet to purchase. The parallel to the F-35s issue in Canada is almost too perfect.
  • The relationship between the Danish government and the Greenlandic Inuit people is the focus of several episodes. Poverty sovereignty and colonialism are examined from a number of angles. These episodes are particularly interesting when viewed through the lens of the Idle No More movement.
  • The relationship between the media and minority government is one of the overarching themes of Borgen. Some suspension of disbelief is necessary (and I don’t want to ruin any of the surprises) but some interesting questions are raised throughout the show.
Go watch Borgen. It is a really smart and interesting show that does an excellent job of portraying how politics is about compromise & nuance and most politicians are flawed human beings just trying to their best.
borgen rules
*The first is “Sports Night.”
** This only really spoils the first 2 episodes and the details/maneuvering haven’t been ruined so please don’t complain.

Uranowski’s First Law of Involuntary Suspension of Disbelief Even if you didn’t know that the 1999 masterpiece “Deep Blue Sea” was about super-intelligent sharks before hand, Saffron Burrows’s character (Dr. Susan McCallister) interacts with a 3D computer model 14 minutes into … Continue reading

The Tea Party/OWS: The Musical (Spoliers)

I come from a very musical family (buy my sister’s band’s EP: The Prime Minister of Cool Chicks) and musical theatre has always been a big part of my life. One of my earliest memories is seeing a production of Brigadoon at the high school my father taught music at. In high school I performed in Jesus Christ Superstar, You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown and Les Miserables, and at U of T I helped produce (and appeared in) my favourite musical of all time, Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods.

With my other obsession being politics I have been wanting to write about how two specific musicals, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson & Urinetown, should be watched by anyone trying to understand the Tea Party and Occupy movements in the United States. This evening I read an article on Fox News online that compared Newt Gingrich to President Andrew Jackson in a non-ironic, complimentary manner (whitewashing the fact that Newt Gingrich has never fought for his country and Andrew Jackson’s legacy of supporting slavery and wholesale slaughter of Native Americans.)

This article immediately made me think of ‘ Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson’, a musical released in 2008 that made its Broadway premiere in 2010 that was written, in part, in response to The Tea Party.

In 2004, three years after ‘Urinetown’ premiered on Broadway, I saw a production at Canstage in Toronto. As I listen and re-listen to the soundtrack of Urinetown I am surprised by how well it presaged the Occupy Wall Street movement, not their methods but their critique of corporate control of politics, the disparity between the 99% and 1%, the societal divisions created by the politics of austerity and police reaction to large protest movements.

While BBAJ seems as manichean as the movement it comments on, Urinetown does an excellent job addressing the naivety/short-sightedness that mass movements predicated on distrust of all establishment entities sometimes suffer from.

“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” and the Tea Party:

The style of this musical is as important as its subject matter. BBAJ is an “emo rock” musical. This is perfect for portraying the petulance and perpetual adolescence of the Tea Party. The show opens with “Populism Ya, Ya” which sets the stage for the political mindset in the U.S. at during “the age of Jackson” and in the Republican Party of today.

The most striking lyrics are:

Take a stand against the elite
They don’t care anything for us
And we will eat sweet democracy
And let them eat our dust,
Eat our dust, eat our dust

Cause it’s the early 19th century
We’ll take the land back from the indians
We’ll take the land back from the French and Spanish
And other people in other European countries
And other countries too
And also other places
I’m pretty sure it’s our land anyway.

The same faux-anger at a vague class of elites that is currently fueling New Gingrich’s campaign is what swept Andrew Jackson into power. Another parallel to the world of the musical and the TP is the underlying layer of racism and xenophobia that manifests itself in calls to “take America back” to a time that was as mythical in the 1820s as it is in 2012. With his constant usage of the term “food stamps President to describe Barack Obama and his anti-“European” rhetoric, Gingrich is playing the same kind of politics of fear as Andrew Jackson (though obviously less overtly racist.)

After “Populism, Ya Ya” the musical goes on to profile Andrew Jack’s frontier adolescence, a brief meeting with George Washington, his marriage to his wife Rachel and his frustration with the American governments failure, in his eyes, to defend the frontier and his rise as a military hero. Jackson’s time as Governor of Florida is hauntingly portrayed in the song “Ten Little Indians.” The 1824 election is wonderfully summarized by the song “The Corrupt Bargain.” This song is what initially attracted me to the musical. As a musical/history nerd, the fact that a comedic summary of the backroom deal that denied Jackson the Presidency on his first run existed in musical form seemed like it was written for me.

During the 1828, Jackson is seen as a Rock Star. When Jackson finally wins the Presidency he discovers, like the Tea Party Republicans elected in 2010, that governing is harder than he naively believed. The lyrics that most eloquently summarize the Tea Party after 2010:

“So we’ll ruin the bank, and we’ll trample the courts,
And we’ll take on the world for America’s sake.
And we’ll take all the land, and we’ll take back the country,
And we’ll take, and we’ll take, and we’ll take and we’ll take.

And this country I’m making cannot be divided,
The will of the people won’t stand in my way.
How can I tell you how deeply I’ll make them all bleed.

As Gingrich has made “taking on activist judges” a cornerstone of his anti-elite narrative, the parallel to Jackson is an obvious one. The more subtle element in this song, is how, just like the TP, once Jackson gained power he turned against democracy. Republicans took over a large number of state governments in 2010 and have been passing vote suppression laws all over the United States. This song does an excellent job portraying the selfish nature of the TP movement. Instead of saying “how can we expand pensions and strengthen workers’ rights?” the Tea Party has engaged in the politics of envy by pitting non-union workers against union members. Another parallel between Newt and Jackson, both the real and fictional, is their neoconservative foreign policy. When Gingrich goes after Ron Paul on Iran, he might as well say “We’ll take on the world for America’s sake.” The largest delusion of the Tea Party is that, though they are statistically white and wealthy, they speak for all Americans. When Andrew Jackson says “the band plays on” he means that America isn’t for everyone.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson does a superb job showing how the rage of a narrow group of individuals can propel a candidate into office and how the impossible, misguided and self-contradicting expectations of his supporters lead to a more divide and unequal America.


Unlike the Tea Party, the musical Urinetown is extremely self-aware. The musical seamlessly transitions between various musical styles and parodies. The show takes place in an unnamed American town in a postapocalyptic type future. There has been a 20 year drought and water is severely rationed. Private toilets have been outlawed and there is extreme punishment for those who don’t pay to use the privately owned toilet every day, “Urinetown.” It is revealed in the second act that, though the myth is that you are exiled to a fictitious place called Urinetown, the police simply murder you. All of the toilets are owned by a single megacorporation  called “Urine Good Company.” One of the first numbers of the show takes place in one of the poorest and filthiest public urinals.

Bobby Strong works at “Public Amenity #9.” His father, Joseph, asks the manager for a freebie and is rebuffed by her and everyone in line. This song illustrates, in a hilarious manner, how in times of austerity social solidarity breaks down. The idea that in a time of extreme, extended drought the government would give control of a precious natural resource isn’t that absurd. There are African countries that have privatized water, with prohibition being placed on collect water off of your roof. Similarly, it was private contractors that have swept in to Afghanistan and Iraq to profit off of war.

After Joseph Strong is arrested for public urination, the scene shifts to “Urine Good Company.” The owner, Caldwell B. Cladwell, explains, in song, to his daughter Hope, why his massive wealth is a good thing.

The whole song could be an ad for Mitt Romney’s campaign. Romney has made his time at Bain Capital the central reason for his why he is qualified to be President. This song does a spectacular job pointing out the nonsenscial arguements that corporations use to justify massive tax cuts, a complete lack of ethical business practice and the continuation of massive CEO bonousess during a time of recession.

The most salient lyrics:

“Gosh Daddy, I never realized large, monopolizing corporations could be such a force for good in the world.”

“All those coins
That we take from the throng
End up here
Where those coins all belong
Lots of coins
Make our company strong!

Charging fees
As we please
Is our right – it’s not wrong!

We’re not greedy as some make us seem
We need funds for our big research team

Men in labcoats and test tubes with steam!

What it shows
No one knows
But, hey, still we can dream!”

Bobby Strong ends up falling in love with Hope Cladwell. The next day he takes over (occupies) the urinal where he works and opens the doors for everyone for free (starting the “pee-for-free rebellion.” Hope is still not convinced that her father is right about the “positive” affect his business has on society, he argues that the poor are animals and if they can’t pay it is their fault. Hope begins to doubt her father.

The first act ends with the Bobby publicly debating Mr. Cladwell on the system they all live in and Mr. Cladwell ordering the police to violently suppress the protestors. The police/corporatist side call Bobby/the rebels short-sighted and label them “socialistic scum.” Hope pretends that Bobby is kidnapping her so she can join the revolution without her father knowing.

Act 2 begins with the rebels on the run. While Bobby is away, they contemplate killing Hope before the police find them. Bobby returns and reminds them what they are fighting for. Mrs. Pennywise bursts into the secret hideout telling Bobby that Cladwell wants him to come to the UGC headquarters. Cladwell tries to bribe Bobby and when Bobby refuses he is “sent to Urinetown.” Then Cladwell bribes a Senator to let his company raise the urinal fees. The Senator and Mrs. Pennywise lament being part of such a corrupt system while the police officers relish the opportunity to execute Bobby. Hope takes over the rebellion and executes her father. She declares the water rationing over.

The musical ends with a complete subversion of expectations. The narrator, Officer Lockstock reveals that “As cruel as Caldwell B. Cladwell was, his measures effectively regulated water consumption, sparing the town the same fate as the phantom Urinetown. Hope chose to ignore the warning signs, however, preferring to bask in the people’s love for as long as it lasted.” The town in the musical becomes “what is always was waiting to be”, Urinetown!

Urinetown, not the place, the musical, is as complex as the Occupy movement. The difficulty for me, or anyone, critiquing the OWS movement is that they are not as monolithic as the Tea Party, so bear with me.

The disagreement I have with OWS is also one of their greatest strengths. Though I believe that capitalism is flawed and needs reform, those Occupying public spaces around North America were arguing for a complete rejection of the traditional power structures that lead to the global financial collapse. This is the complete opposite of the Tea Party who called for more deregulation and more power to corporations.

To many on the outside, Occupy may seem like the pee-for-free rebellion. They are demanding such drastic change, in some instances, that it is impossible to comprehend such a paradigm shift.

The revolution in Urinetown is not similar to the OWS protests of the summer of 2011, but it does have parallels to the causes of those protests. The revolving door between the United States Congress and Wall Street, as personified by the deals between Cladwell and the government, are too real. With private contractors giving corporate entities the ability to raise their own armies, the idea that a CEO could violently suppress a protest isn’t out of the realm of reality.

Some concluding thoughts:

The end of Urinetown provides a similar critique of populism to the one Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson does. Both musicals explore what happens when the mob/99% take over. In BBAJ, the fact that the mob is not the real majority drives their leader into an incoherent attack once that incongruity is revealed. In Urinetown, the goals of the revolutionaries, like those of the Tea Party, ignored the reality of their scarce resources.

The lesson that I take from both musicals is that the temptation of the populist narrative is strong but should be resisted. The term “revolution’ means a complete change in all aspects of society. I believe that there are some power structures that have positive potential but are corrupted by money and corporate interests.

Musicals, like many movements, are driven by emotion. They are propelled forward by emotions that are so potent that they can only be expressed through song. Like the characters in both musicals, members of the Tea Party and Occupy are driven by some undercurrents that they fail to acknowledge.

Go see/listen to Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Urinetown and tell me what you think. Also, see Into the Woods, it’s really great.

Canada ♥s Libraries

A QMI poll released today revealed that 84% of Canadians want our public libraries to remain publicly funded (7% refused to answer the question.) Now, I know the brothers Ford don’t like to read, but when the writing on the wall is this clear, perhaps they will re-think their position on library funding.

Doug Ford as Ozymandias (or How I learned to stop worrying and love libraries.)

“When I read about the way in which library funds are being cut and cut, I can only think that society has found one more way to destroy itself.”

 – Isaac Asimov


I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear —
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

– Percy Shelley


I am a big Margaret Atwood fan, so when I first read that Doug Ford had ignorantly dismissed her while ignorantly dismissing libraries, I was angry. Then I realized that in 20 years no one will remember who Doug Ford is and Margaret Atwood (who has a list of accomplishments that is most likely longer than anything Mr. Ford has ever read) will still be taught in high schools, and considered a national treasurer & one of Canada’s greatest writers.

The problem with conservatives like the Ford brothers (and Stephen Harper) is that they don’t follow their nonsense anti-government philosophy to its logical end by actually cutting waste, they go after government programs that actually work efficiently (like the long-form census, and the Toronto Public Library system.) The Globe and Mail  neatly summarizes the awesomeness of Toronto’s 99 libraries: “Toronto’s system is the second largest, by number of branches, and the busiest by circulation, on the continent. New York City public libraries lent out 24 million volumes in 2010; Toronto’s lent out over 32 million. The system has innovated, offering music and e-book downloads, making Internet access widely available, delivering materials to local branches, and lending out cards that give free access to local museums.” The library is one of humanities greatest accomplishments. It is a place where anyone, literally anyone can come for the ultimate democratic experience. Immigrants and those who live in poverty can help lift themselves up with the information found in our libraries. Libraries are one of the last/best places where people are brought together in the world of social isolation that we all now inhabit. Doug Ford’s dismissal of libraries is an attack on an institution that brings out the best in people.

Finally, the fact that Doug Ford said that he would only talk to Mrs. Atwood if she were an elected politician is complete horse-feces. During the election campaign both Ford’s claimed to have received calls from private citizens demanding an end of the so-called “gravy train.” Margaret may be an internationally respect author but she is also a Torontonian, one of the “tax-payers” that the Fords falsely claim to defend.

When industrialist Andrew Carnegie wanted to create a legacy he donated money to build gigantic libraries in New York City as he knew that they were a public good. What will Doug Ford’s legacy be? A $60 saving on a car registration fee? Several bleak parking lots where libraries used to be? Look on his works, Toronto, and despair.


From July 27 to 31, Indigo Books & Music Inc. is offering library card-carrying customers a 30 per cent discount on Margaret Atwood titles.

2011: A Trivia Odyssey

From the Orange Catholic Bible:

“Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a man’s mind.”

The Pigeon Poem

Twas time for the pigeon festival,
The streets were filled with straw,
My sister said, “Come on lets go!”
And led me with her claw.

We flew above the trees so high,
And saw a farmer boy,
We laughed and chortled at his plight,
For him we would destroy.

Fifty-thousand pigeons flew,
The pigeon king then said:
“Behold the lowly peasant folk,
Soon we will all be fed.”

My beak was poised, my talons bared,
And sister took the lead.
An anxious coo rose from our ranks,
The peasants paid no heed.

They thought it simply was a cloud,
Which blotted out the sun,
Our flock of doom drew ever nigh,
The culling had begun.

With tails in place, and targets marked,
Our king began the dive,
The unsuspecting feudal town,
Would surly not survive.

The little boy we mocked before,
Did quite enjoy the shade,
But a rush of feathers then flew past,
A eunuch he was made.

The wails from out the eunuch’s mouth,
Did break the porter’s sleep,
He rang a bell to warn the town,
And was slaughtered like a sheep.

The peasants recognized the bell,
And smiled and raised their heads,
They now knew that the pigeons came,
They ran to grab their breads.

As a novice to the festival,
I flew around in awe.
So, I asked my sister why they threw
The bread amongst the straw.

My sister said that they believed
We like to eat that tripe.
“But now we are all carnivores
Of the person eating type.”

Limbs and pigeons filled the air,
Our king struck down a drunk,
While I, still hungry, then flew to
The church to taste a monk.

“Wait my boy.” The king cried out,
“I’ll join you on your quest.
I see your taste is quite refined,
The best part is the chest.”

The abbot quenched our appetite,
He tasted quite divine
Much better than that farm boy did,
(He tasted like his swine.)

The Flock of Doom had had its fill,
The peasants thought us done,
But the survivors did not know,
That we had only just begun.

We grabbed the eunuch by the ears,
So we could play a game,
We dropped him once, we dropped him twice,
A cripple he became.

The game then ended with a thud,
We tossed him in the well,
And with his final breath he cried:
“I’ll see you all in hell!”

We all thought this was quite a lark,
And on the ground we rolled,
He should know we can’t be damned:
We’re not immort’ly-souled.

We flew up for a better view,
The festival was done,
We left but one man still alive,
Lamenting towards the sun.

The sun set on that lonely man,
In crimson he was drenched,
He knelt amongst the blood-soaked straw,
His angry fists unclenched.

The royal trumpets then rang out,
Then spake the pigeon king:
“Our revelries are at an end,
This hallowed eve will bring

Prosperity and glory,
For us and all our kin.
The featherless ones must be wiped out,
There existence is a sin!

We pigeons are the master race!
The sky is our domain!
That man will spread our gospel wide!
Their blood will fall like rain!”

We soared up o’er the feudal town,
The horde, my Sis’ and I.
We all flew east to meet the sun,
Trailing darkness through the sky.


Written by John Farrell, Greg Rupik,  Pierre F and Joseph Uranowski. January 8, 2007.