Paul Martin, shaken and stirred

Scores of people lined up to shake a former Prime Minister’s hand, as Paul Martin stopped by Toronto on Tuesday, Oct. 28, to promote his new memoir, Hell or High Water: My Life In and Out of Politics. Martin was interviewed by Indigo CEO Heather Reisman at the Bay and Bloor bookstore.

Martin spoke on a range of subjects, but the global financial crisis dominated the talk due to Martin’s days as a deficit-slaying finance minister.

“[They’ve] got the right idea—you need to stabilize the credit markets,” Martin said, expressing support for bailout plans in the U.S. and the U.K. He warned of dire consequences if the federal government runs a deficit.

“If you a run a deficit, your children pay for it. If they don’t, your grandchildren do.”

The former PM took several shots at Stephen Harper, who won a minority government in an October election of questionable legality.

Martin became emotional as he recounted a story of visiting a reservation and offering his condolences to a girl who had lost a brother to suicide, to which she replied that she wasn’t sorry. Dumbstruck, Martin asked another reserve resident what she had meant, and learned that it was the third time a brother of hers had killed himself. Harper’s government, Martin said, has turned its back on Aboriginal issues.

When an audience member asked how Martin thinks Harper would get along with Senator Obama should he be elected the American president, he laughed and said, “Boy, would I like to tee off on that one.” He then stressed the need for international cooperation.

Reisman wanted to know how Martin reconciled his support for same-sex marriage with his Catholic faith. Martin spoke of the teenage daughter of a close friend who became inexplicably depressed and suicidal. Upon meeting a female partner and her family’s acceptance of the relationship, the girl recovered and went on to obtain a PhD and move out West with her partner. “We cannot tell people that we’re going to put them in a corner and not understand where they’re coming from,” Martin said.

The imperfect ending

The University of Toronto Varsity Blues field hockey team played fourteen games this past year without losing a single one. Their worst outcomes were a tie against the Guelph Gryphons, the runner-up in the OUA, and a tie versus the third-place finishers, the Western Mustangs. The Blues also had seven shutouts in the regular season, including a 9-0 win over the McGill Martlets. Their eighth shutout was in OUA semi-final, defeating the Waterloo Warriors 4-0. The team was so dominant that even winning by one goal was often viewed as a failure. The Blues featured a great number of All-Canadians, and boasted the Liz Hoffman Award winner, given to the most valuable player in all of Canada. For the second straight year, the award was won by Blues forward Cailie O’Hara.

The Blues went into the CIS Championship in Victoria, B.C. as the number one ranked team in the country, higher than teams from UBC and the University of Victoria where field hockey is staggeringly popular. (The Blues and the Guelph Gryphons were the only teams from Ontario to qualify for the tournament.) Opening the competion by beating UBC, the number two ranked team, 1-0, this game was followed by a shocking 2-1 loss against the host team the Victoria Vikings. The Blues then endured a 3-2 defeat at the hands of Guelph.

In the Blues’ last game of the Round Robin, the University of Alberta Pandas—a squad that finished the regular season with a losing record—pulled off an upset for the ages, with a 3-2 win over the Blues. The Pandas are led by star player and first team all-Canadian forward Bunny Hughes. Their best defender, Dilraj Bal, who helped stymie the Blues’ late charge, missed the previous game, not because of an injury, but for “academic obligations.”

Cailie O’Hara, who was voted most valuable player of the OUA Championship game, scored the final goal of the Blues’ season to keep her team alive against the upstart Pandas. Her foreboding attitude after winning the OUA Championship was surprising then, but seems especially prescient now.

“It was a good season, but we still have a lot to accomplish,” O’Hara cautioned after the OUA Championship.

The entire team seemed subdued in their celebrations, almost mocking the ceremony of hoisting a trophy that signified being the best team in Ontario, but not necessarily the best in Canada.

“Sometimes it feels like it’s an expectation for us to win the OUA Championship. It’s more of a relief than happiness when we win,” explained O’Hara.

In the OUA Championship, Toronto had to come from behind, rather than dominate in order to beat the defending champion Guelph Gryphons.

“When we get to the CIS, we hope to keep improving, because we weren’t entirely happy with what we just did,” said O’Hara. It will be interesting to see how entirely unhappy the team will feel after their performance in the CIS tournament.

The 2008 Varsity Blues field hockey team will probably take little solace from their undefeated season. In the case of the 2007 New England Patriots, an undefeated season seemed bitter when compounded by a playoff loss against weaker competition. Sometimes it’s hard to be the best, as Blues assistant coach Kelly Sadowski noted after winning the OUA championship, victory cupcake in hand: “There’s always an expectation that we should [win]. We’re the undefeated team in the OUA. We’re always the team that people are gunning for.”

While the Blues were gunned down in the CIS Championship, their imperfect championship does not erase a flawless regular season.

Savages, noble and otherwise

Painful questions of cultural superiority have been raised in Canada. Former International Olympic Committee vice president Dick Pound’s comments about Native Canadians’ “savage” pre-contact culture sparked major controversy, and Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente’s recent column defending his statements stoked the flames. The uproar surrounding Wente’s piece, which unabashedly positions Western culture as superior to that of the “neolithic” Native Canadians, exposes a painful rift in North American cultural values.

The artificial Anglo/Native dichotomy exposes a startling lack of intellectual curiosity and respect for empirical, evidence based inquiry. The cultures of Western settlers in North America and Aboriginals are different, to be sure. But does difference imply superiority? A century ago, most European anthropologists and historians would have said yes. I disagree, though I might be accused of fence-sitting. Difference only means difference, not superiority, and certainly not “savagery.” The task of intelligent people in any field is to explore these differences and present them fairly, rather than romanticizing theories and presenting them as fact.

In his sweeping History of Madness, Michel Foucault claims that the rise of the therapeutic asylum in nineteenth-century Europe was the result of a “grand confinement” of those who did not comply with the goals of emerging capitalist states. In order to “encourage the others,” those who wouldn’t work were placed in lock up until they came to their senses. Those on the outside were warned to be on their best behaviour. Foucault’s treatise raises many questions about the nature of state control in the Western world. But as a historical account, nothing could be more flawed.

The rise of the asylum in Europe coincides with the Enlightenment-era ideas of physicians and nascent psychiatrists empirically testing the value of confinement and therapy in the treatment of the insane. Despite this fact, Foucault’s “history” gained currency among the chattering classes. The work of historians who have actually investigated the issue has been ignored.

Something similar has happened in the field of Aboriginal studies. The romantic notion of pastoral, peaceable, highly developed First Nations peoples has taken on a life of its own. Caged in by ignorant attacks, intelligent people have been forced to defend Native Canadian culture rather than research it. Those who want to study rather than rhapsodize have had little choice but to promote the archetype of the one-with-nature Native Canadian. This is akin to claiming that Fuji apples are superior to naval oranges. Each should be explored in its own context. Of course, when speaking of Native culture, one is generalizing about many different cultures. The many groups that existed in pre-Columbian North America were distinct, and while some were building complex urban areas, others were leading nomadic lives on the plains. This holds true for “European” culture as well: what is the primary connection between Germany and Portugal?

In a response to Wente, Aboriginal scholar Hayden King of McMaster University fell into this common trap. King defended Native over European governance, showing his own lack of understanding by claiming that Natives had strict incest laws while the “crowned heads of France and England were as inbred as poodles.” Any medievalist or early modernist will tell you that the Catholic Church had stricter consanguinity laws than we have in Canada today.

King also claims that traditional forms of healing practiced in Native societies have directly impacted modern medical practice. It seems to me that traditional healing has little to nothing to do with modern, empirical-based medicine.

This is not to say that traditional healing ought to be dismissed as “savage” any more than the practice of blood-letting. Each represents a unique period of scientific development in two very dissimilar cultures. Every modern Canadian must live with the historical reality of European conquest. Sadly, it is impossible to know how traditional healing would have developed without Western intervention, but we cannot allow guilt to motivate historical inquiry and inform cultural values. Romanticizing Native Canadian or European culture does little good for anyone, and contributes very little to genuine understanding. We must insist on intellectually sound, evidence-based interpretations of each culture, and resist the impulse to declare one superior over the other. Wente’s and King’s comments about Native culture are not simply “stupid” or politically incorrect. They have both committed an even greater intellectual sin: laziness.

Blues go down swinging

The Varsity Blues baseball team was one game shy of the fourth and final playoff berth this season, despite finishing the year on a three-game winning streak. Nosed out by Waterloo, who finished with 18 points on the strength of nine wins, the Blues wound up winning eight games with 16 points.

Notably, this season marked the second straight year that the team missed the playoffs by two points. They finished with 25 points, two behind McMaster, in the 2007-2008 baseball season. If the Blues’ playoff hunt was an instant replay of last year’s, someone hit the rewind button. A year ago, Waterloo finished a spot behind Toronto by a single point.

Despite the final result, the team can look back on several morale-boosting victories. The Blues won their season series with the eventual OUA champion McMaster Marauders, taking two of three games. The teams split a two game set at U of T’s Scarborough home field on Sept. 20, with the Blues dropping the first game of the double header 4-0 before picking up a 3-1 win in the afternoon game. They clinched the season series by notching a solid 7-4 win at Bernie Arbour Stadium in Hamilton to finish the season.

While the Blues didn’t get to enjoy the playoffs in the formal sense, their three-game winning streak at the end of the regular season felt like a playoff series due to a do-or-die element.

“The games were against the top-ranked OUA teams. The players stepped right up by playing near-perfect baseball. From the top to the bottom of the batting order the team was able to hit with runners in scoring position,” said Blues head coach Dan Lang. “We had several games rained-out, which meant playing without much rest in make-up games, and playing the top-ranked teams at the end.”

It is often said that baseball is an individual sport wrapped around team concepts. The team’s strong efforts were due in large part to the work of Mississauga native Marek Deska, named OUA’s Most Valuable Pitcher of the season. Deska is also a member of OUA’s first team all-stars, an honour shared with Blues’ outfielder Jamie Lekas who finished in a tie with McMaster’s Sean Lemon for the last outfield spot.

Deska demonstrated his team value when he strung together two exceptional late season performances to keep the Blues’ playoff hopes alive as the regular season dwindled away. He tossed a complete-game, two-hit shutout against the cellar-dwelling Guelph Gryphons on Oct. 1. Pitching on three days rest, Deska knocked off a more competitive opponent when he threw another eight innings of two-hit ball—allowing only a single run to score—against the playoff-bound second place Western Mustangs on October 5. Deska’s performance helped lead the Blues to a 3-1 upset over Western.

David Fallico was the Blues’ strongest offensive player this year, leading the team with a .360 batting average and .400 slugging percentage. He finished with a .450 on-base percentage, tying Lekas for the lead. Fallico also led the team with 18 hits, while his eight stolen bases left him tied with Michael Dahiroc.

Looking ahead to next year, Coach Lang saw several variables that could alter the team’s fate for better or worse. “[Next season] depends a lot on whether or not some players recover from injuries. The turn-over next year will be larger than usual, especially in pitching and the infield.”

Our economy, ourselves

“Psychology and economics? That’s an odd combination.” This is what my college chancellor said upon learning of my two majors. His belief—that of a grand chasm between psychology and economics—is quite common. It’s also completely misguided.

The perceived divide stems from the common conception of psychology as a study of people, while economics studies some vague and distant entity known as “the economy.” Accordingly, news coverage over the past few months has been a deluge of reports on the ailing state of this mysterious something. A multitude of questions have arisen as a result of this coverage, reflecting the sense of alienation that most feel when confronted with this ephemeral monster. The overall theme of these inquiries, much like my chancellor’s statement, can be summed up as: “What has the economy got to do with me?”

In a word, everything. The economy is you. More accurately, it is the sum of you, me and every other person who participates in it. “The economy” is merely an omnibus convenience term for patterns of commodity production and exchange among people inhabiting all corners of this globe. If we were all to disappear tomorrow, the economy would not be here waiting for us. Whether or not we are aware of it, the economy is made up of our collective behaviours, beliefs, and above all, our expectations. A problem in the economy, such as the present recession, reflects a problem among the people that compose it. Consequently, its solution is up to us.

The health of an economy depends on how quickly money moves through it. Faster movement between buyer and sellers, lenders and debtors means more spending, innovation, and production. As money changes hands, each link in the chain depends on those willing to freely pass their money along to another. In the environment of open competition and free market rule, espoused by Alan Greenspan until recently, consumers are driven by self-serving motives. Each person is eager to give money to another because they stand to gain personally. In this system, the person becomes separated from the economy. I stand to profit, and the economy helps me do so.

While this competitive mentality has been effective in the past, it also precipitated the Great Depression, the recession of the early 1990s, and our current global meltdown. All it takes is a hint of doubt to turn that competitive momentum in the opposite direction. As individuals begin to doubt the economy’s profitability, selfish motives dictate that losses should be cut, meaning that money should be pulled out of investments and kept to oneself.

The solution is a return to the fundamental driving force of the economy—people. We must re-examine our beliefs and expectations. In prosperous times, we are led to believe that we exist outside of the economy. In recession, however, we must abandon this way of thinking—it can only send us plummeting further and faster into the depths. Instead, we must rediscover our collective roles and responsibilities to one another as defining features of our economy. This approach drove Franklin Roosevelt’s thinking when he established the New Deal to bring the United States and the rest of the world out of a seemingly intractable Great Depression. The economy is a collective entity that depends on cooperation. The current situation once more requires us to make this a fundamental part of our thinking—to help our economy, we must remember how to help one another.

Too pretty for politics

Sarah Palin is sexy. With her fit figure, perfect skin, and adorable facial expressions, many describe her as the first potential VPILF (see American Pie). Hustler’s upcoming pornographic film, Who’s Nailin’ Paylin? Adventures of a Hockey MILF is sure to fly off shelves at a sleazy video store near you. I wish I were making this up. It’s clear that sexually charged politics will only prevent women from voting for Palin.

Palin’s nomination was an obvious tactic to grab Hillary Clinton supporters who weren’t warming up to Barack Obama. But Clinton supporters will not vote for Palin. Apart from her lack of experience and questionable intellectual capacity, one thing annoys us more than anything else: she’s too attractive.

Presumably, one cannot blame Sarah Palin for being beautiful. But as all women know, nice clothes, expensive makeup, and salon hairstyles can mean the difference between a drunken mug shot and the cover of Vogue. The fact that the Republican National Committee spent a jaw-dropping $150,000 to clothe and accessorize the Palin family since late August (while the economy was nose-diving faster than the enthusiasm of an audience during a Joe Biden rant) shows that we can blame her.

Palin is famous for criticizing the unnecessary expenses that come with office, as shown by the story that she sold a private jet on eBay to save Alaskan tax payers “a whole bunch of money.” Both Palin and McCain love to repeat this anecdote to appeal to the three most important American voter types: Joe Sixpack, Joe Plumber, and Average Joe. In reality, the plane did not sell on eBay; an Alaskan businessman bought it privately for $2.1 million, $600,000 less than the asking price.

So she refuses the private jet but spends $75,062.63 at Neiman Marcus? Just your typical hockey mom. While journalists (and Democrats) everywhere delight in this double standard, female voters are making a subconscious connection between Palin’s beauty and her wasteful spending. How much will four years worth of clothing cost? America would forgive her for being “financially careless,” a rehab-hopping addict, even a public restroom fornicator—but not a hypocrite!

Imagine if John McCain had picked Canada’s Green Party leader Elizabeth May as his running mate. This hard-working woman would have little interest in Saks Fifth Avenue. May’s toned-down makeup, casual dress, and loose wavy hair are in stark contrast to the business suit and prom updo usually sported by the stylish Palin. May would be out there getting things done, not sitting in a salon chair for two hours.

Let’s face it: Sarah Palin reminds us of the popular girl in junior high who developed early and ran for student body president, promising pop machines in the cafeteria and revving up the boys by batting her eye lashes and showing too much leg. In the race for the White House, Palin’s sex appeal carries negative connotations that will keep female voters from supporting her.

The Oracle at Massey

It’s Halloween, and Margaret Atwood is sitting down with me to discuss the Important Topic of debt as a human construct, how it shapes our society, and how our present value system skews the way we view our debt to the planet. This timely topic of the 2008 CBC Massey Lectures is titled Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth. Her final lecture will be delivered at Convocation Hall the following day.

And yet what I can’t help but notice is that Margaret Atwood, a formidable force in the social fabric of this country, who recently returned from a quick jaunt to Spain to receive that country’s highest distinction (added to a pile of awards that includes pretty much everything but the Nobel Prize), is wearing a black sweater with an orange shirt, carrying a pair of monarch butterfly costume wings.

Who cares? As John Fraser, the Master of Massey College, remarked while introducing her to the packed hall on Saturday night, there are two Margaret Atwoods: a woman who chooses to dress like a butterfly for Halloween, and the Great Writer, the Margaret Atwood, the brilliant mind daunting to interviewers (though very kind to student journalists). The two are mutually reinforcing.

Presently, the question “Why write about debt?” isn’t one that people are asking—it’s hard to think about anything else. As work on the lectures began in earnest in late January, Atwood’s decision to choose this topic and not, say, bananas, looks pretty prophetic. Sources of inspiration, she says, included “the ads on buses—people making a living off debt—19th-century literature, and social animals that exist in hierarchies where there is exchange.”

Given her prescience, it might be tempting to call Atwood the Lady Oracle. More likely, being attuned to society is just part and parcel of being a novelist.

Other source material included her mother’s household ledgers from the 1930s and ‘40s. “What debt you had you paid off the next week. Your biggest debt was the mortgage on your home,” she says when we have our sit-down interview in the common room at Massey. Though debt has always been the subject of morality, our position has been inconsistent.

But as much as Payback is about debt, it also concerns the innate human qualities that make the concept possible—debt is just part of how we think. Only a species with a sense of balance and fairness could create a debt crisis. Atwood notes an experiment in which capuchin monkeys were taught to exchange pebbles with their keeper for slices of cucumber. One day, one of the monkeys got a grape, valued as being worth more than the measly cucumbers the rest received for their pebbles. The other monkeys were furious and refused to continue playing.

“When one monkey got a grape for doing nothing, it didn’t work into the system. It’s just not fair,” she intones. It seems awfully deterministic.

“It’s not genetic, not determinist. It’s epigenetic,” she retorts, referring to the study of how certain genetic traits may be switched on or off, depending on the environment. As she writes in Payback, “I’m not proposing a stamped-in-tin immutable ‘human nature’ here. […] I’m merely saying that without gene-linked configurations—certain building blocks or foundation stones, if you like—the many variations of basic human behaviours that we see around us would never occur at all.”

“We’re disposed to this way of thinking,” she tells me, “but the light needs to go off for it to happen.” There are few instances where humans don’t think by way of fairness, balance, or debt. “Not when the other person’s got an axe or a nuclear arsenal.”

But this disposition to value things improperly has disastrous results.

In its 47 years, the Massey Lecture series has covered everything from Ursula Franklin’s Real World of Technology to Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress. In the college’s partnership with CBC Radio 1’s Ideas and the House of Anansi Press, there are three discernable principles:

One. Ideas—those airy, unsubstantial, in-theory, thought-bubble things—matter. They have always mattered, whether or not you are aware of their structuring your life and the decisions that affect you.

Two. The world—the very concrete, lived in, consequential, hard-realities world—is at stake. You may not comprehend it in the pressing, underlying way that the Massey Lectures address. The basic job for the lecturer is to identify that sense of malaise we all feel but can’t figure out until, handily, the lecturer gives it a name.

Three. If we are to wrestle the world from the brink, the ideas we need must belong to us all.

If with Payback Atwood seems an oracular figure, the mantle of Massey Lecturer fits her well. There’s a sense in which fulfilling the proper role of an academic is enough. “What would Margaret Atwood do in the face of the environmental crisis?” someone asked. “She would give this lecture,” the Great Writer replied.

The final question was from a woman named Ruth, an ecologist who worries that she could give people all the information in the world about how their actions harm the environment, but it doesn’t change people’s behaviour. She believes “people are inherently wanting to do the right thing.”

“I enjoy your writing,” Ruth said, “because as a scientist, I don’t get people. I don’t understand—I want to understand people better. If I can give people information, and it doesn’t change their behaviour, then it becomes about the brain. The brain seems to protect you. You can’t accept things that are threatening.”

“I spend a lot of time thinking about this because it relates to my job,” Ruth admitted, her voice breaking. “What do you think needs to be done to help people when information isn’t enough?”

Atwood responds: “The sad truth is, it’s usually necessity that drives behaviour, rather than being told, ‘You’d be good if you did this,’ which works for about two weeks. It’s just like dieting: great resolutions, but they don’t hold up in the face of donuts. You have to give them something else to do. So I would say, redirecting energy in a positive direction, so that people can see that treating things differently is actually good for them.”

“So it’s not futile?” Ruth asked. It was most poignant question of the evening, and a test of whether the Massey Lectures can really answer the questions they pose. But if the Massey Lectures can’t, who will? Where else does the public witness a scientist asking a novelist about how to make people really understand?

“No, it’s not futile. And when people realize that they need that information, there you will be. You’re providing the data upon which action will be taken. When somebody needs that data, the knowledge will be there. You may feel it isn’t necessary right now, or that people don’t recognize it, but it will be necessary, and that’s what you’re doing.”

UTSU hires insider as exec

The University of Toronto Students’ Union appointed staffer Adam Awad as the new VP university affairs on Thursday. In a committee meeting at Hart House, the UTSU board of directors elected Awad over French Club president Antonin Mongeau. The number of votes for each candidate aren’t known, as The Varsity was asked to leave during the vote.

Awad is a former founding editor of a Woodsworth College magazine, the Ginger, and has been on the union’s payroll as executive assistant since last October.

The former VP UA, Binish Ahmed, is now an Arts & Science Student Union exec. Ahmed resigned at the beginning of the school year citing personal reasons. UTSU immediately announced that no elections would be held in selection of the new VP. UTSU bylaws states that vacancies occurring after the month of August may be filled by an appointment rather than by-elections. A hiring committee headed by VP internal affairs Adnan Najmi selected Awad and Mongeau out of the five applicants who had applied for the position. Nominations were open for 21 days and followed by a competitive evaluation.

During Awad’s four years at U of T, he has been closely involved with campus life. Awad has organized many USTU campaigns, his most recent being a demonstration for reduced tuition fees at Queen’s Park last Thursday.

Awad sees himself as a bridge between the student body and the administration. His priorities for the year will be the development of the student union’s equity, university affairs, Drop Fees, sustainability commissions, and reforming U of T president David Naylor’s Towards 2030 agenda.

Like his competitor Mongeau, Awad expressed his disappointment about the 2030 plan, commenting that students did not have any say in it. According to Awad, the synthesis report did not address any changes that require aligned consensus leading to intensified relationships between the students and the governing body. “It is a document that affects us all as students and faculty and we need to do something about it,” he added.