That’s the ticket! II

Can Stop the Salaries win without changing their campaign tactics?

After their second campaign — and second loss — organizers of the two Change slates by and large gave up. In the vacuum formed by their absence, a new group named the Student Political Action Committee (SPAC) emerged. By election season, SPAC had amassed a sizeable war chest and prepared to field a slate named Students First.

But Students First didn’t advance beyond the qualifying stages of the race, as three candidates were disqualified over their nomination papers. The entire slate resigned and pledged to boycott the election.

Rather than offering constructive critique, Stop the Salaries’ MO has been to occasionally antagonize the UTSU executives in public and otherwise bide their time circulating half-hearted memes on Facebook.

Today, many of the students who backed SPAC have taken issue with UTSU spending on executive salaries, wages, and benefits. They are working under a new name, Stop the Salaries, essentially an awareness campaign spread through social media. The group has produced a slick website and released a handful of campaign-style videos. They also maintain an active Twitter feed and a Facebook group that has many members in common with SPAC’s group from last year. “Their salaries up, your services down,” they are fond of saying.

But the suggestion that the UTSU is cutting student services is disingenuous. In an op-ed published in The Varsity last week, president Danielle Sandhu firmly dispelled the claim.

Strangely, accuracy is irrelevant to the people behind the campaign. They are working with a different playbook entirely.

Brett Chang, half of the duo behind Stop the Salaries, told me candidly that the campaign is an effort to import “American-style political strategy” to U of T. That would explain the relentless adherence to their talking points and the populist appeals to student wallets.

In the long run, it will likely prove impossible to win an election on campus using these tactics. What works well for the Romney or Harper campaigns will probably fail when transplanted to a university setting. Here, students that care enough to vote (15 per cent of the student population) demand a lot from their candidates: face time, at the very least, and a degree of earnestness towards a student cause that goes beyond an accounting error.

That is, ultimately, the redeeming strength of the pro-CFS candidates. It is also the likely reason for their continual victories.

In part enabled by their salaries, executives like Sandhu and her predecessors spend the year attending student-run events and building grassroots support across all three campuses. This, in turn, exposes their brand to students who vote in the March elections.

It is possible that the organizers behind Stop the Salaries are prepared to do the same, but they don’t act like it. Most are irritated with the way the UTSU does business, yet few seem committed enough to change it.

As we saw last year, SPAC/Students First foundered on an electoral system that is inhospitable to outsiders. Their story should be a lesson: it will take more than indignant rhetoric to win at U of T.

Rather than offering constructive critique, Stop the Salaries’ MO has been to occasionally antagonize the UTSU executives in public and otherwise bide their time discussing the UTSU’s activities on Facebook.

To mend what has become a lacklustre first impression, they must assume a more dignified role on campus.

Why not point out, for instance, that college-level governments dispense a roughly equal amount of money as the UTSU does to clubs while paying only a fraction in honoraria to leadership? Is an alternative method of governance possible? Maybe — but don’t rely on Stop the Salaries to tell you about it.

“This project is sort of like floating” — Toronto’s Moon King

“This project is sort of like floating” — Toronto’s Moon King

To use music as a form of therapy is not uncommon. But in the case of Daniel Woodhead, one half of the Toronto electro-folk band Moon King, his songs revealed issues unknown even to himself. “With the newer songs, I found that if I sing them over and over again, eventually the sounds turn into words and they ended up being about things I didn’t even realize at the time.” With hesitation, he observes that “the lyrics are usually a lot darker than you would think, considering the songs — a lot of songs about my family and my brother.” While Woodhead writes all the lyrics, he says that Moon King is “totally a duo,” referring to the band’s other half, Maddy Wilde. The project was conceived last summer, and the two have since put out a 7” and released a few songs online; the debut album is yet to come. However, they’re far from being new to the whole band business.

Since 2003, they’ve been taking Toronto by storm in the folk-pop quartet Spiral Beach, along with Woodhead’s brother Airick (now busy with Doldrums and Phedre) and Dorian Wolf (now very busy with Austra). Sadly, I never got to experience one of the extravagant live shows that Spiral Beach was known for (think Rich Aucoin but more artsy). They were so popular that they got 400 people to take the ferry to Ward’s Island for an all-night show, appeared on MTV Live twice, and toured extensively across North America and Europe. When the band decided to call it quits in December 2009, it was probably “the most positive way to end a band ever.” Woodhead says that with Spiral Beach, it was always just about playing together as a group. “We never really decided what Spiral Beach should sound like. We always just did it. Everything was about those four people playing together. And that’s amazing — that’s really rare.” But as with most people in their early twenties, the members of Spiral Beach needed to figure their shit out. “We decided to make the last record and tour to infinity and then it was like ‘Okay, I guess we’re done.’”

2010 was a dark year for Woodhead, a time he spent soul searching, partly on the streets of NYC, “sleeping wherever, on benches and in parks. After we decided to end Spiral Beach, I was really lost. It was that classic tale of the young guy who doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life.” For a while he just played with various projects and put on shows under his blog moniker Snakes + Ladders. His parents are both artists; his mom does pottery and his dad is folk musician David Woodhead. To grow up in this environment makes musicianship a legitimate career choice, but for Woodhead, it all just so happened. After spending a year and a half wondering whether he wanted to be a musician at all, he finally made a decision and got together with Wilde, whom he has been playing with since they were kids. “I feel like there’s nobody that I really trust more, and we really know how to bounce off each other.”

Though Woodhead emphasizes that Moon King is “totally a duo,” the new project posed a profound change from the collaborative song writing he used to do with his brother Airick in Spiral Beach. “The idea of doing a solo thing was pretty daunting,” he admits. At the moment, Moon King is deep into recording, going for a “dream punk” sound with “lots of electro.”

“Basically, I’m trying to record as much as possible and we’ll carve an album out of that. We’ll probably release a couple more singles or 7” [until the album comes out].” Moon King’s songs take time to unfold. They appear simple and contain the directness of punk but reveal subtle layers that give them more intricacy. “[Our music] is really loud, but I wouldn’t say it’s aggressive. It has harmonies and softness,” Woodhead says. This “softness” he speaks of is not the subtle caressing of Spiral Beach’s dream pop, but rather, a danceable, beat-heavy weaving of entrancing harmonies. And while lyrics like “whenever it’s summertime well I’m dead/all I wanted I forget, things I guess I never had” certainly indicate darkness, the music itself conveys a carefree attitude.

What is most notable about Woodhead and his approach to musicianship is his communal nature. If anything, that is the recurring theme that shines through in the interview. Whether he talks about the Toronto music scene, his motivation for putting on shows, or his own music-making, it’s evident that the collaborative aspect of making and playing music is what he revels in.  He wanted to be a writer when he was young and says that “how I express myself is more in the lyrics.” But considering the solitary nature of the writing profession, it’s not surprising that he came back to music after his “literal and figurative wandering” of 2010.

 See Moon King at the Great Hall on February 24.

Check out Moon King and friends here:

Growing up Valentine’s

I’m pretty sure Valentine’s Day has been going downhill ever since the elementary school days of cute paper valentines for all and delicious homemade cupcakes. Still, every year, I try to do something somewhat awesome. This year it’s a Tuesday followed by a Wednesday when I will have to submit a paper and write a midterm. So, I’ll be working a lot — decidedly not awesome V-Day activity. To honour the spirit of love and chocolate, I’ll bring Hershey’s Hugs to my ballet students (we don’t know each other that well); I’ll send a cheesy mass “Happy V-Day, love you!” text; then I’ll eat the chocolate my mom will send me and Skype with the object of my affection. And we’ll get excited about the real celebration of all things romantic when he picks me up at the Edmonton airport Wednesday night and we spend a cozy Valentine’s weekend in Jasper. After all, I’m a grown up now.

Valentine’s Day = Friday

This year will be different. When I left England behind for the land of maple syrup, I decided to leave some old habits there too. Last year’s Valentine’s Day pity party involved six girls in pyjamas, a bucket of Häagen-Dazs, and Bridget Jones trying to find love in central London. We epitomised the stereotypical lonely girl. No more of this! This year I am going to spend my Valentine’s Day like a winner, and winners drink a lot. Who needs love when you have friends and vodka? Like any rational, mature, and well-rounded individual, I will drink myself into oblivion, flirt with everyone (it is the day of love after all) and then wake up on the floor somewhere next to an empty bottle of merlot. In reality, Valentine’s Day will just be a mid-week repeat of every Friday night I’ve had in Toronto thus far. I can’t wait.

Cardboard Valentines

Remember in grade school when you had about 30 little cards with pictures of your favorite action hero or play-doll, posing in front of a silly, embroidered heart, and you had to choose — out of all of your classmates — who got the biggest, best card in your pile? You gave them out indiscriminately, and you secretly saved your favourite for that special someone with braces or with those adorable freckles, and you hoped that secretly they had saved their best piece of cardboard for you.

Simpler times, right? It’s just harder to say “I like you” now. Can we not take a bit of time out of our busy schedules to sign a few Valentines and hand them out to the ones we care about?

This Valentine’s Day go out and buy those silly cardboard cards again. Take the time to write a few sincere words on them, and give them to the people who perhaps don’t know that you truly appreciate them.

Out of breadth

Students should be free to set their own curricula

University is not a fun time for many students. The Varsity recently published a survey that found students complaining about large class sizes, little interaction with professors, and a virtually non-existent school community. Add that to the fact that university is enormously stressful and you have a toxic combination that too often can lead to escapism through alcohol or drug abuse, and high rates of depression. University is meant to be a time of exploration for young adults who finally have the freedom to craft their own intellectual experience. Unfortunately, this is not the case. A desire to build “well-rounded citizens” has caused the undermining of our education system and all the problems university students suffer from.

Almost every student at U of T has complained about required courses — usually the breadth requirements that demand humanities students take science courses and vice versa — but few question the scope of the damage caused by eliminating freedom of choice. In this regard, the problem does not lie primarily with breadth requirements for a degree but with the required courses within any given field of study. There are  requirements that demand history students study periods from every continent on the globe or that philosophy students question the nature of reality instead of focusing on ethics, for example.

Of course, we are given the illusion of choice — to get our major we must choose one course from selection A, three from selection B, and two from selection C. As anyone who has used ROSI knows, it can be practically impossible to create any semblance of specialization when many of your courses that share subject matter do not fit in the same timetable. What many students end up with is a hodgepodge of virtually unrelated courses, many of which they would prefer not to be in.

When you take 30,000+ students and put them in classes they don’t want to be in, you end up with underperforming students, jaded professors and TAs, and a reduced standard for reading material and course work. This means the few students who do get into the courses they want are confronted with a subject they love being taught in a way they can’t stand.

University is meant to break from the traditions of high school. You are told that you will have more free agency than you did in the structured world of secondary education, but required courses make this less and less the case. If you are a history student with a passion for Imperial China, what can you gain from having to study what the Germans were doing during the Industrial Revolution? Rather than building an integrated area of specialty from which you can draw upon deep knowledge of a specific subject, you get a long list of areas of which your understanding is incredibly shallow.

It’s a commonly understood educational principle that people will not learn unless they are interested. This is the reason that high schools in Ontario practise the enriched program that ensures overachievers do not become bored with the material they are being taught and thus underperform. It is the same in university. If you do not want to be in class, you will learn almost nothing from class.

What if instead we had a system that actually treated students like individuals and gave them greater choice within education? What if you could specialize in the specific area that interested you no matter how broad or narrow that might be? It may seem like a novel concept but it is in practice in schools like Brown that have no course requirements, and New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study.

The Gallatin School allows undergrads to come up with an outline of what they would like to achieve by the end of their studies. The staff and faculty then help them flesh it out using courses from any and all areas of study to achieve a specialized and individualized program based on the desires of each student. Because students are given the freedom to choose, they have a stake in creating their own education and a greater interest in their courses.

Professors know that excited students want to be in class and as a result will want to offer intriguing and challenging courses and introduce students to new reading material instead of tired old textbooks. Excitement makes learning easier and reduces stress and the negative results thereof. And students in self-selected areas of study are surrounded by like-minded individuals, making community and extra-curricular life more enjoyable in the long run. If U of T desires to be one of the top learning institutions in the world, then it should not squander the ability of its students; instead it should undertake a similar course of action and give the student body the freedom of choice it deserves.

Trimming Ontario’s budget

The progressive case for austerity

Austerity is anything but a progressive policy. The term austerity, which is used to describe what are often drastic cuts to state spending and sometimes increased taxes, is a deeply moral one. Governments claim that they make these cuts not because they are easy but because they are necessary. This term has seen a more widespread adoption in recent years because of the financial turmoil that has put major pressure on debt-addicted governments. Even socialist-led governments are adopting this vocabulary of restraint, much to the horror of their traditional constituencies —  particularly public sector unions.

Despite the undeniably hurtful nature of these cuts and the poor choices about which programs to eliminate there is a progressive case to be made for austerity. This is true not only of traditional left-wing hobbyhorses like corporate subsidies and tax breaks (though some of these are too economically vital to be removed all at once), but also of core public services, such as education and health care. Avoiding the problem of rapidly rising spending in these sectors will only increase the pain of curbing them.

The progressive case for austerity is simple but admittedly counterintuitive: we all want public services. However, most of us want to pay less for them than we do now. Therefore, we must choose which are most important to us and optimize the delivery of these services so that we can continue to pay for them. If we want more services in health care, then we need to explain how to pay for them, whether that be by cutting services in another sector or increasing revenue to offset the new spending. New taxes are one way of doing this, as is ensuring economic growth to increase revenue from existing taxes.

Since most of us do not want to pay more taxes, then we either need other people to pay more taxes or we need taxes that we already have to raise more money. The others whom we want to pay more taxes are usually those wealthier than us, whether they be companies or individuals. This approach works to a point, but we need to be careful not to tax others so much that they want to move elsewhere to avoid the added tax burden. This would remove them from the economy, which is bad for growth and in turn reduces our revenue from other taxes. Therefore, increasing growth and taxes are only part of the solution. During good times they can more than cover our needs, but in hard times, they are simply not enough. This is especially true when our spending is growing faster than our economy, as is the case with health spending in Ontario. Some may argue that we should wait out the current crisis and rack up big deficits to keep up services. This makes some sense, but the more debt that piles up, the more likely it will be that we will eventually be forced to make deep cuts to make interest payments.

Rather than being forced to cut spending across the board, it is far better for governments to identify their priorities and reduce spending in lower priority areas. While cuts in these areas will certainly be controversial, they will be less painful than cuts that would go to the core of essential services, especially education and health. Spending must be controlled in those areas they do not come to swallow more than their fair share of the budget. This means capping spending and learning to live within these limits.

However, it is not simply enough to enact tough austerity measures. It is also crucial that governments examine their sources of tax revenue and identify those which can be increased. There is significant public pressure to increase taxes on the wealthy but they would do more to decrease inequality than to reduce the deficit. Any tax increases will need to affect a large proportion of the population to make a dent in the budget. If we combine modest tax increases with cuts, as the Chrétien government did in the late 1990s, then we can put our financial houses in order.

There is a progressive case to be made for austerity. However, this is only true if austerity is taken to mean not only cuts but also new efforts to raise revenue. Neither the left nor the right have the complete answer to the question of how to deal with a mounting deficit and the ballooning cost of social programs. Instead, what we need is a moderate approach that does what needs to be done to preserve and protect the services that we hold most dear.

Letters of love to nowhere

Mourning the loss of a distinct form of communication

Letters of love to nowhere

In a world where emailing, texting, and instant messaging did not exist, there prevailed a most elegant form of communication. Written with nothing but ink, thought, and consideration, it started with “Dearest…” and ended with “Love…” It was an art that originated in the love and care of two people. Written, folded, enveloped, marked, stamped, posted and then opened, unfolded, read, and kept — once upon a time we used to write love letters.

Despite the fact that the world’s global postal system has managed to stay afloat amidst the frenetic development of communication technology, the hand-written letter has long since been put to rest. As the world discovered the sparkle of the Internet, it forgot the magic that could be made by a pen on paper. We forgot the feeling of receiving an envelope marked with our name in our loved one’s handwriting. We forgot the experience of reading a page filled with another person’s thoughts that may have had a smudge where a tear had fallen or a giant exclamation mark for when they got excited. We lost the sense of anticipation as we waited for the next letter from a loved one to arrive or for ours to reach them. Letters used to be a representation of a relationship — a constant back-and-forth of words that were special to two people because they were written with the greatest care for no one but them.

People reading this may think I’m being overly sentimental. Some may call it old-fashioned or anti-modern or some other fancy label. The simple truth, however, is that the modern day replacements for the letter do not allow for the emotional consideration that used to be written into letters, nor do they do justice to the emotions being conveyed. The act of emailing or texting is a rapid, on-and-off action: read, reply, send, read, reply, send. Forget elegance; forget style, courtesy, and tone; forget checking what you wrote. Modern day communication has a standard format: start with their name, write a message, write your name, add an emoticon or two if they are your friend, and send. Today we write in haste, typing one message after the other without pausing to reflect or think, leaving all the work to spellcheck.

Anyone who has studied the tiniest bit of history and looked at letters as sources will see the striking differences between these two forms of communication. The first has simple and classy eloquence in that letter and mail correspondents address one another and are presented on a “page.” Letters may seem more formal than emails, but words like “hey” and “whatsup” cannot replicate the emotions attached to “my dearest.” Soldiers communicating with families, mothers with children, fathers with colleagues, friends with friends: it was a constant ongoing exchange of life and emotion on paper. That letters were even written is indicative of the strength of communication, and the detailed pages upon pages of writing are not something that Generation Y cares for.

Because of such factors as distance, time, and even circumstances, letters were read with greater anticipation and were written with greater care. Modern technology has shortened distance and time — great progress for communication — but because of the fast-paced nature of modern life, reactions to emails are different than those to letters. There is no personality to email, nor is there any thought. It’s a bunch of words strung together in a casual conversational style. We take it for granted, read, laugh, reply. It’s a robotic response, not personal.

So yes, today’s emails and texts lack the emotional depth of hand-written letters, but they do enable us a quick and efficient connection that could not be done with pen and paper. Still, it wouldn’t hurt once in a while to actually think about what we’re writing and read over what we have written really carefully with thought and consideration before hitting “send.”

Perhaps it’s time we dig up our boxes of letters and learn a few things about true communication.