Could race decide the race?

During his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, Barack Obama declared, “All across America, something is stirring.” But no one could have predicted the vicious sentiments that have been stirring at McCain-Palin rallies across the U.S. The thousands that gather to hear the Republican duo are greeted with vile, racially tinged rhetoric, as the Republican candidates question Obama’s patriotism and associate him with terrorism. The crowds respond with hateful attacks and unapologetic threats towards McCain’s Democratic rival.

Senator McCain once assured Americans that he would never resort to cheap, low blow tactics just to win an election. His hopes for the presidency have taken a significant beating over the past several weeks, and in a desperate attempt to revitalize his campaign, he has opted to use the issue of race in a blunt and aggressive way. On the surface, it seems like these scare tactics could hurt Senator Obama’s chances with undecided voters. The real threat comes from a deep-seated racial bias that many Americans still harbour, but are reluctant to admit.

Senator McCain’s support is dwindling, especially in states like Virginia and Colorado, once considered Republican strongholds. A shallow grasp of economics in troubled times, an incompetent running mate, and an unpredictable temperament that makes his disdain for Obama all the more crystal clear (especially during televised debates) have all but hastened the McCain campaign’s destruction. The McCain camp has taken on a new strategy of preying on the fears and prejudices of voters to combat the recent rush of independents flocking to the Democratic side. Ties to radicals, mischaracterizations of Obama’s policies, and attacks on his patriotism and religious orientation have become last resorts. While hard line Republicans appear to have an insatiable appetite for this sort of discourse, whether the negative rhetoric will pay off in the long run has yet to be determined.

Meanwhile, Obama has stiffened the competition in a number of traditionally red states. Numerous polls show him taking the lead, winning all three presidential debates. According to analysts and pundits, most Americans are comfortable with an African-American in the White House, or at least deem Obama qualified enough to be president. Despite this good news, a question lingers: could the candidate fall victim to the Bradley Effect?

The Bradley Effect is a political phenomenon that explains why polls might be skewed against white candidates. According to the theory, white voters tell pollsters they will vote for a black candidate to avoid seeming racially biased. Once they enter the voting booth, however, their ballot goes to the white candidate. The phenomenon is named after Tom Bradley, the African-American mayor from Los Angeles who lost his 1982 bid for governor. Ahead in the polls, Tom Bradley’s win seemed inevitable—but on election day his white opponent won the race by just a few percentage points.

Just two weeks before the election, there remains a chance that history may repeat itself. No one knows for sure what kind of an impact this phenomenon could have on the election. After all, Barack Obama triumphed over his white opponents in the Democratic primaries. Thus far, he’s shown level-headedness in a time of crisis and a depth of knowledge that his rival lacks. The Democratic homerun was wrought by eight years of mismanagement and unwise policies by the Republicans. Considering increased voter registration and a level of enthusiasm unmatched by any other party or candidate, preconceived notions about Barack Obama should become virtual non-factors by November 4th.

The outcome of this election will not end divisive politics, but it will encourage individuals to reexamine their own racist attitudes and reject the spineless tricks employed by Republicans.

Dion hangs his head and walks on by

It’s official: Dion’s out.

After an embarrassing defeat which saw Liberal support decreased to a historic low, it was quite clear that a leadership race would begin the next day. Dion has merely delayed the inevitable, remaining in power until the Liberal convention next spring.

Announcing his resignation at a press conference on Monday, Dion apologized for the election results by declaring, “I fully accept my share of responsibility.” While he contributed to the party’s defeat, we cannot blame him exclusively.

Let’s go back to 2006, when Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae went head-to-head as Dion placed third on the second ballot. As they had agreed in a backdoor pact beforehand, Gerard Kennedy, with fewer votes, withdrew and voiced his support for Dion. The underdog came out on top and won the next two rounds, making him leader.

Some blame Kennedy for Dion’s rise, but the Liberals didn’t have to support him. Many say that no one was right for the leadership, Rae being too left-wing and Ignatieff not well-liked. There was no Martin, Chrétien, or Trudeau among the candidates. It seemed as though no strong, popular leader could sweep in to save the Liberals. Dion took on the load because no one else would.

But Dion is different from most politicians. He’s an honest, intelligent, kind but geeky professor, with a honourable interest in working for Canadians. Dion has integrity—he’s the kind of person you would want to represent your country. But he is not an effective politician. Looking over his policies and politics, it seems significant that Dion’s biography is titled Against the Current.

As a Member of Parliament, Intergovernmental Affairs Minister, and eventually Environment Minister, Dion worked hard for his country—he even wrote his own speeches. And unlike Harper staff in 2003, he would never plagiarize the Australian prime minister.

Tasked with dealing with the Quebec sovereignty movement, Dion managed to hold the country together. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to do the same for his party. Unable to connect with his MPs, Dion sometimes refused to compromise. He looked for new ways of doing things and moved around seats in the House of Commons, which upset many party members.

In addition to upsetting his fellow Liberals, Dion couldn’t communicate. The party leader struggles with English, which made it difficult for him to express his party’s platform to most Anglophones. He was neither charismatic nor articulate.

Worst of all, Dion couldn’t communicate his big plan. The Green Shift was lauded by many experts as exactly what Canada needs to save its environment and global reputation, but Dion wasn’t able to sell it. A difficult plan to explain—particularly one that includes taxation—is easily criticized, twisted, or simply misunderstood. Many party insiders had warned Dion of the risk, but he persisted. Conservative attacks plunged Liberal support levels. The Green Shift, and not Harper’s performance over the past two years, decided the election.

Dion couldn’t project himself as a leader. He scared away other parties, preventing coalitions from forming and allowing Harper’s bullying tactics to ensnare swing voters. This is why Canadians are stuck with a Prime Minister they don’t want.

The Conservatives’ attack ads played a huge role in the Liberal party’s downfall. The Tories started planning attack strategies as soon as they won the 2006 election, customizing their propaganda to the top Liberal leadership contenders: Ignatieff, Rae, Kennedy, and Dion. Consider a Dion speech from June, all the more pertinent now that the damage has been done: “We Liberals will fight fear with hope. We will fight lies with facts. And we will fight Republican-style attack ads with Canadian-style courage.”

Dion’s win was a surprise, and it helped the Conservative war machine to kick into high gear long before this election. No politician could have weathered those attack ads—nor could they have contended with the Tories’ budget. Dion is a brilliant policymaker, but he’s not fit to lead his party. His demise was caused by a host of factors: his genuine character, his uncompromising nature, issues of communication, and the resources at his opponents’ disposal.

But all hope is not lost. Many ridings were won by less than 100 votes on the Conservative side. This party has survived a major scandal, a weak leader, and a funding deficit. At present, Dion needs to keep Harper on task. The party will need more than a new face, but the current financial crisis should give the Liberals room to reorganize, heal intra-party conflicts, improve their communication abilities, fundraise, and refocus.

Corresponding with Patrick Brown

“When in conflicts, or dangerous places, or exotic places, there’s always this interest in ‘What’s it like trying to do journalism in such-and-such a place?’ That hasn’t changed, and I don’t think it ever will.”

Veteran CBC foreign correspondent Patrick Brown is sitting in a downtown Starbucks, describing the varied viewer response he has received to his three-decade career reporting abroad. He’s in the midst of a quick tour of Canadian cities to promote his book Butterfly Mind: Revolution, Recovery, and One Reporter’s Road to Understanding China, which came out this summer as Brown covered the Olympics from Beijing, the city where he has been stationed for the better part of 20 years.

We are discussing the allure—the myth if you will—of the foreign correspondent. As Brown recounts in his book, there is a certain minor-celebrity status that comes with reporting from abroad. When a 33-year-old Brown set out in 1980 to become a “fireman,” a correspondent zipping about from hotspot to hotspot where there is no resident reporter, he was excited to join the ranks.

“I was thirty-three years old,” he writes. “This move was a promotion to the major leagues of journalism, an opportunity to witness extraordinary happenings.”

So far, so good. But Butterfly Mind is not your typical memoir. Among the broad biographical details I ask him to fill in: Brown is 61 years old. He was born in Birmingham, England. He is married, but separated—his wife lives in Bangkok, he lives in Beijing. He has two sons, one of whom is in the British military and is currently serving in Afghanistan.

The question at the heart of Butterfly Mind concerns how one can write responsibly about being a foreign correspondent, given as Brown once said at the 2006 CBC Foreign Correspondents’ Forum, there is something abusive about a reporter registering their emotions before the viewer in the face of a tragedy.

“There is a style of reporting which is emotional and emotive, and belongs in my mind properly on The Grief Channel, if there were such a thing. I see it as being somewhat pornographic,” he said in 2006. “Violence and emotion is very compelling on television. I don’t see it as my job to tell you how I feel or how you think I ought to feel in the face of some disaster. My job is to present to you what is happening where I am, and it’s up to you to feel as you will.”

“I didn’t particularly want to do a China Rising Olympic Book, and I didn’t have time to do deep new research on a new China subject that would satisfy me as being original and compelling,” he says over coffee. “I thought combining a memoir with some insights into why China is the way it is and the way that it is the great exception to other countries, which it likes to present itself as, and the ways in which it is exactly the same as other countries.”

Alongside accounts of world events he witnessed in the 1980s—the fall of the Berlin Wall, the rise of the Solidarity party in Poland—is the story of his own descent into alcoholism. Brown delves into what he has learned about China by way of contrast.

When Brown first started reporting from China, he thought the Tiananmen Square Massacre was just another example of a communist party falling apart, similar to what he witnessed in Eastern Europe. China is the great exception. While the majority of Chinese may not be clamouring for western democracy, the people, says Brown, are outraged by injustice. Milk powder tainted with melamine is only the latest example.

“It was considered a national priority cover up the deaths of children in order to preserve the public relations for the Olympics. It’s outrageous, and it is the biggest threat to the Communist Party that they continue to do this because it puts them ever the more in disrepute with ordinary Chinese people who otherwise would think, ‘Hey, things aren’t that bad, things are improving.’”

“It’s still not a place where human rights is widely respected. Many people I know are in jail for what they said and what they’ve written, but nevertheless, it’s a much more open society than it was. Still, ‘Let’s cover it up, let’s pretend it didn’t happen,’ is a very powerful impulse.”

The book’s structure can make for complex reading that some have found difficult to appreciate. Jay Smith in Vue Weekly claims the book contains too little of Brown’s alcoholism to be a memoir, and concludes that the author’s failure to go into greater specifics about his experiences during the collapse of the Soviet bloc was the result of drunkenness, not, say, the “butterfly mind” of the title, an epithet Brown was given as a child. He’s since grown into the nickname, which implies the attention span of an insect and the ability to flit from subject to subject.

“A butterfly mind turned out to be an asset for a foreign correspondent who is expected to be on the air speaking in an apparently knowledgeable and sensible way hours after descending into a chaotic and violent situation in a country he’s never visited before,” he writes.

Smith critiques, “Why is Brown bothering to write about his battles with alcohol against a washed-out backdrop of world history if he doesn’t really want to talk about the former and can’t talk about the latter?” Smith infers that Brown is trying to be a Canadian Robert Fisk, the Middle East correspondent for The Independent and of Pity the Nation fame.

More apt comparisons might be to John Scully’s Am I Dead Yet? 71 Countries, 36 War Zones, One Man’s Opinion, published last year, and from 2003, Anthony Feintein’s Dangerous Minds: War and the Men and Women Who Report It. Scully’s work garnered attention for the long-time CBC and CTV producer’s personal story of suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, though the stories were in the typical vein of veteran correspondent memoir. Looking for the typical memoir might be Smith’s mistake.

Brown’s story runs contrary to the common tale of war correspondent turned alcoholic. Of his own substance abuse, Brown writes, “It is commonly supposed that some journalists drink heavily because of the dangerous and irregular lives they lead, but I am absolutely sure that, in my case at least, this is back-to-front. If I had been a bank manager or a bishop I would still have been a drunk. I was not drinking because of what war was doing to me. On the contrary, one of the reasons I liked going to wars was that it gave me license and an excuse to drink.”

Concurrent with his descent into alcoholism, he notes in the development of a persona inflated by the interest in war journalism, offering him the opportunity for self-indulgence he now finds shameful.

“It was on my second trip to Lebanon, during the Israeli invasion of 1982 and the ensuing siege of West Beirut, that I really found the voice of the person I wanted to pretend to be. That voice had the weary swagger of someone pushing beyond normal limits, living life on the edge, saddened by the violence around him, but somehow rising above it all to send dispatches from the belly of the beast,” writes Brown.

“The most important words were the sign-off, ‘Patrick Brown, Beirut.’”

When asked about the development of this swagger and whether it’s part of being a correspondent, Brown is unequivocal.

“Well, I was a drunk.”

But is being a drunk the cause of that former persona?

“It’s hard to separate what it is. Still, to this day, there is a certain amount of satisfaction to be gotten from being able to do a difficult thing well in dangerous circumstances. Part of being an alcoholic, as the illness progresses, is a kind of self-aggrandizement, a bravado, and that plays so readily into the myth of the foreign correspondent with a battered old suitcase and a typewriter and a bottle of scotch and a press card in his hand.”

Especially when that stereotype includes the bottle of scotch. Brown is now a recovered alcoholic. CBC top brass had an intervention with him in the late ’80s when he missed an assignment after blacking out.

“People invite you to play that stereotype and it becomes quite—I don’t know, it’s a whole set of circumstances that leads to what I describe in the book, and some people thought I was rather too frank about it, and others think it’s great that you’re willing to say, ‘Hey, here’s something I got wrong.’ Because a lot of journalists’ memoirs are ‘I went to so-and-so when such-and-such was happening, and I was great, and I got it right every time.’”

It’s the need to be true to the work that runs through Butterfly Mind—the belief that quite aside from the need to be honest as a journalist, Brown’s personal chaos found a release in the larger political landscape, a destructive, dictatorial force that dishonesty imposed in both.

“One reason that I wrote about alcoholism more than I might have done otherwise is that I see a very interesting parallel between personal recovery from that kind of distortion of your life and recovery of these countries that went through huge amounts of turmoil and misrule and are trying to get themselves back together. The key to both is honestly taking a look at your situation and resolving to do things differently.”

Arson hits McMaster rez

Most of the 559 residents of Brandon Hall at McMaster University in Hamilton awoke to a blaring fire alarm at approximately 4 a.m., Saturday Oct. 18, and stumbled into the cold autumn air in their pajamas. The few who didn’t woke up smelling smoke.

“We heard the alarm, and thought that it was just some kind of prank, or a drill. We were just making our normal route out of the building when we saw the fire coming from the elevator. A lot of people slept through the alarm altogether,” recalled first-year student, Mika Iwata.

The early morning fire at the university residence had four people sent to the hospital.

The Ontario Fire Marshall’s Office on Saturday deemed the fire in McMaster’s largest residence hall arson, sparking a full-fledged investigation involving every student present at the time of the fire. With no university personnel at the residence hall after 3 a.m., the culprit only needed a swipe card key to gain entrance to the building.

“We don’t really know anything about the investigation,” said Iwata. “We heard that the fire started in the elevator with a bunch of newspapers and some lighter fluid, but they haven’t confirmed anything. We had to talk to the cops, though. Most people are more annoyed and stressed than scared. We’re all pissed that we don’t have our stuff, though most of us found a place to stay.”

A large percentage of the displaced students are staying with friends or relatives. The rest are temporarily accommodated at the Ron Joyce Stadium team rooms and the Ivor Wynne Activity Center.

The fire came at an inopportune moment. McMaster University is in the midst of mid-term exams and assignments. Due to the fire, residents are missing their notes and textbooks, along with other personal items.

“I wouldn’t want to speak for the student body as a whole,” said University spokesperson Andrea Farquhar, “but most students are more worried about their belongings, academics, and their residence than they are about the fire. Nothing is due this week for these students, but the arrangements are made with individual students, depending on whether they feel able to write their exams or not—given the situation.”

Extensive steps have been taken by McMaster to ensure that students have a successful year. The majority of residents have been able to acquire their essential belongings. The university estimates that they will be able to move back into the residence in January.

“We’re trying to reassign housing in groups,” continues Farquhar, “We’re really looking at the long run, trying to make sure that these kids not only have somewhere to live, but a good experience, and a sense of community.”

In the meantime, the investigation continues through Detective Marco Delonte, head of Hamilton police’s arson unit, though no developments have been made public.

“We really can’t disclose what’s going on with the investigation, without sabotaging our own investigation,” said one McMaster security officer. “But I can tell you that we’re working with the cops, and they’re all over the place conducting the investigation.”

Film Review: Changeling

With a perfect blend of style and substance, Clint Eastwood’s films have become so impeccably crafted they’re practically boring.

It’s simply become too difficult to get excited about a director who, after Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, and the Iwo Jima movies, seems capable of belting out an Oscar frontrunner in his sleep. I’m sure I could cut and paste much of this review for Eastwood’s Gran Torino, due for release later this year. He’s become so predictably good.

With Changeling, Eastwood adapts the compelling true story of the Wineville Chicken Murders and the corrupt LAPD of the 1920s into a well-packaged period piece.

Angelina Jolie seems comfortable playing the classic Hollywood damsel, ably losing her celebrity in the role of Christine Collins. Through this character, Jolie brings a delicate balance of fragility, restraint, and torrential emotion to the film.

Collins is a middle-class woman whose kidnapped son is replaced with an impostor by the scandal-fraught Police Department. After she dares to challenge the impostor’s identity, the LAPD send her to the loony bin (it’s almost hard to believe that this is true, but it did indeed happen).

Changeling is a harrowing story that uses its protagonist as the only beacon of virtue. Eastwood’s trademark gray aesthetic is on full display—the only distinctive, colourful images are Jolie’s crimson lips and the occasional splash of blood.

Yet the film fails to properly develop any other character. Though Collins’ many virtues may have been exaggerated, she’s depicted as a brave, patient heroine, and a true figure of female empowerment. The only other agent of any complexity is a wily serial killer whose wry sense of humour makes his perversity all the more disturbing.

While Eastwood offers a respectable treatment with economical storytelling, the film’s exquisitely framed and studio-polished look lacks the rawness of real life. Consequently, the viewer is never entirely engaged with Collins’ story. Instead, we’re fully aware that we’re right in the midst of a Clint Eastwood blockbuster that has its sights set firmly on the Academy Awards.

Rating: VVV

Sands of Grime

Images of barren grey wastelands were projected behind him as Canadian author and journalist Andrew Nikiforuk summarized the thesis of his most recent book, Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent. A native Albertan, Nikiforuk argued that his province has become a “petro state,” and that the whole of Canada will follow, perpetuating an unsustainable, toxic industry.

Speaking at U of T’s Munk Center on Tuesday, Nikiforuk said that despite the province and oil industry’s arguments to the contrary, the extraction of oil causes major loss of biological diversity. “It’s an earth-destroying economy […] All the predictions are that woodland caribou will become extinct within the next 10 years in northern Alberta.” Nikiforuk also argues that decreasing water and air quality causes increasing cancer rates for Albertans.

A peculiar thing happens in regions reliant on privatized oil industries, said Nikiforuk. They tend to have long-term politicians, low taxes, and low voter turnout. Once the politicians start relying more on oil revenues than tax dollars, their loyalty falls to the oil companies. Recognizing this, locals become disillusioned and stop showing up at the polls. “People just stop voting,” explained Nikiforuk. “Why bother? You’re not being represented. You’re not paying any taxes so there’s no accountability.” He cited Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach and Sarah Palin as examples of this.

As the industry expands and dependency on foreign customers—particularly the United States—grows, Nikiforuk sees numerous risks for the Canadian economy and sovereignty. “One of the consequences of becoming a petro state, of course, is that you have a petro dollar; your economy becomes pegged to the price of oil and we’ve seen that vary dramatically in Canada.” Nikiforuk fears that with trade deals being made to further tie the Canadian economy to the American one, sovereignty could become a big political issue. “In the end, if we continue at the rate we are going […] the economic integration could very well end Canada’s sovereignty.”

By the conclusion, Nikiforuk’s lecture was not only about scorched landscapes and tar, but national issues like Canada’s world reputation and conscience. “Canada has reached a point now where we need to have a national debate about the pace of development of this resource. If we do not, we will fail as a country.”

Far from heaven

Oscar-nominated writer/director Deepa Mehta has been criticized in some conservative circles for her progressive views on the role of women in Indian society. Her most successful film to date, Water, depicted a woman who, after being widowed during infancy, was forced to live the rest of her life in a poor monastery. The film inspired protests that were supported by the Indian government.

Her latest work, Heaven on Earth, follows Chand (Bollywood icon Preity Zinta, in a revelatory performance), a young woman who moves to Canada to enter into an arranged marriage. Upon arrival, Chand finds that her new husband Rocky (Vansh Bhardwaj) is cruel and abusive, providing her with pitiful living conditions.

When Chand confides in a co-worker about this frequent spousal abuse, she is told to grind a particular root into his drink that will supposedly make him love her forever. This recipe proves to have unforeseen consequences. Mehta is unblinking in her depiction of domestic violence, filming scenes of the couple’s home life with unsettling intimacy.

When I spoke with Mehta, I assumed the arranged marriage was the film’s centre. “Who cares about arranged marriages?” she said. “Arranged marriages happen in our country, Canada, through computers—you know, ‘MatchMaker.com.’ That’s an arranged marriage. The movie is about [immigration], when you give up everything that you have known, and have no relations.”

She looked straight at me. “If you go to India, you will be lost. It’s a mainstream white myth that I wanted to break.”

What exactly is this myth? “In Canada, working class immigrants have no dignity. And people in the mainstream are used to seeing how somebody makes [a successful living in their adopted country], or they’re used to seeing films about Bollywood.”

“The reason I made the movie is this is something that really bugs me.”

Mehta paints a nightmarish portrait of cultural displacement. Chand, whose grasp of the English language is modest with an understanding of Canadian society that is even more negligible, is symbolic of the common existential crises of immigrants moving westward. She is stripped of power and treated as sub-human, unfamiliar with even the most commonplace customs of her new country.

Mehta explained the central emotional and psychological dilemma of many immigrants. “What people generally lose is their sense of self. That’s what this movie is about.”

“Canada is a country of immigrants. It’s not heaven on earth. Some of us really do well as coloured people in a white country, but some of us are ghettoized, and some of us are marginalized. Some of us have no recourse—we can’t even read outside a certain environment. Yet, we work from 9 to 12 every day, and half our money goes to tax dollars. What are we getting? We are not getting dignity. Everybody in Heaven on Earth is a victim.”

50,000 pleas for tuition freeze

The Canadian Federation of Students presented the Ontario government with a petition containing 50,000 signatures at Queen’s Park on Oct. 22, demanding an immediate decrease in post-secondary tuition fees.

CFS contends that Ontario’s 2005 plan for post-secondary education has failed to curtail tuition fee increases. CFS chair Shelly Melanson claims that the plan, titled Reaching Higher, has propelled Ontario’s undergraduate fees to the second-highest in the country.

On the same day Ontario announced a revised budget to address the economic crisis ensuing from the U.S. stock market collapse. Melanson said that postsecondary education was a “wise investment during an economic downturn.” She went on to cite the major investment that Ireland made towards education during a recession and how it transformed the country into its current knowledge-based economy.

The education budget will remain unchanged, and continue along the Reaching Higher framework in the revised budget.

Minister of Training, Colleges, and Universities John Malloy said Reaching Higher had been developed to facilitate an increase in student assistance. “The government’s primary objective is to ensure that postsecondary education is as accessible as possible,” he said.

Malloy stated that current fee-hike restrictions on post-secondary institutions will remain in place. The minister also emphasized that the government was most interested in aiding students who had the greatest financial need to ensure that postsecondary education would continue to be accessible to those from the lower income strata.