Editorial: U of T’s democratic sham

Political science students at U of T might tell you of a troubling trend now being recognized in Third World countries, an emerging kind of autocrat dubbed “dictators for a democratic age.” Leaders like Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez prove that despite superficial appearances of democracy, a political system can easily be manipulated behind the scenes. Whereas the definition of tyranny was once limited to countries that maintained concentration camps, controlled their citizens’ lives through the use of violence, and officially banned opposition voices, the rise of leaders like Chavez shows that creative tactics can ensure perpetual power for the few, while preserving the illusion of rule by the people.

Sadly, it appears that over the last few years U of T students have fallen under a similar regime. From the dubious connections between Your Team candidates and the Canadian Federation of Students during last spring’s University of Toronto Student Union elections, to the unholy strategies used by the “yes” campaign’s members in last week’s Student Commons referendum, questions about the fairness of our school’s political process are justifiably being raised.

Senai Iman, who ran against Your Team last year under the New Deal slate, put it bluntly: “Our student governments today survive on a complex system of political affiliation, blatant patronage, and monopoly over the rules that govern them.”

Iman cited the UTSU elections last year between Your Team, which supported the CFS, and New Deal, which did not. CFS represents dozens of student unions across the country. If New Deal won and pulled UTSU out of the CFS, the federation would lose the hundreds of thousands of dollars U of T students pay the group each year in union dues. Despite the CFS’s vested interest in the election results, UTSU’s chief returning officer and election supervisor last year was Eric Newstadt, who was a CFS executive at the time he accepted the position.

While Your Team won, there is no evidence that Newstadt directly influenced the election results. Nevertheless, it is not unreasonable to question his impartiality. Affiliations in themselves aren’t incriminating, but surely we must question the legitimacy of a system that allows such close ties to exist at its highest levels.

Last Thursday, The Varsity ran a story exposing the questionable methods of the “yes” side in the SC referendum, a group predominantly made up of the same individuals who campaigned for Your Team last year. Some disturbing tactics included the bribing of voters with free coffee directly across from a polling station at Sid Smith, attempts to use campus police to silence “unregistered” opposition, and the mysterious absence of a polling booth at Victoria College (whose students were less likely to support a campus-wide student commons due to plans for their own).

Hugh Macintyre, who was approached last Tuesday by UTSU president Andrea Armborst as he distributed literature opposing the Student Commons levy, described another disturbing incident. “They told me I was violating the Code of Conduct,” he wrote on his blog. “They asked me if my degree was important to me. They told me that their lawyers were very excited.” The fact that he has faced no official sanctions makes one suspicious that these threats were baseless, designed only to intimidate him into silence.

On the international scene, human rights organizations like Amnesty International decry Chavez’s selective censorship of opposition through the use of complicated electoral regulations and the mandatory registration of opposition voices, all under the guise of preserving “fairness.” Canadians of all political stripes would agree such conduct has no place in this country. Why, then, is it happening at Canada’s biggest university?

There is clearly a group of elite students at this school who, for whatever reason, think they know what is best for the rest of us. And if that means adopting illiberal tactics, so be it, they say, politics is a dirty game. Even though U of T appears to operate under a democracy, the smallest amount of scrutiny reveals a different story.

But these movers and shakers are not the only ones to blame for this democratic deficit at U of T. Voter apathy shoulders part of the responsibility for this abysmal state of affairs. Turnout for student elections and referendums is dismal, making the job all the easier for those who wish to control student politics. As the latest incidents of creeping authoritarianism come to light, one can only hope student voters will pay more attention.

Hot Topic: How do you feel about the positive outcome of the recent Student Commons referendum? Is student space on campus a concern?

Clockwise from top-left

Adina, third-year Jewish Studies student

Twentyfour hour, multifunctional student space should be a part of our tuition. There are things we pay for that we don’t even know about. There are other things we could be concerned about wasting our tuition dollars on. Rachel, second-year Visual Studies student: It’s all well and good to have common space but increasing fees only makes U of T in general less accessible to people who would go there. If suddenly I couldn’t afford tuition, a student common space would be of no use to me at all.

Lisa, third-year Psychology student

After hours, the only place to go and study is the second floor in Robarts, unless you know someone in res who can let you into one of their common areas. The Student Commons is necessary because space is in high demand.

Michael, third-year Sociology student

For people who tend to stay up late, the only option we have is Robarts, so twenty-four hour common space is incredibly useful. Fees in general are a necessary evil, but they should be spent on things all students could use

Rachel, second-year Visual Studies student

It’s all well and good to have common space but increasing fees only makes U of T in general less accessible to people who would go there. If suddenly I couldn’t afford tuition, a student common space would be of no use to me at all.

Harper’s war panel won’t help Afghans

Some call it cynicism, but I call it learning from experience. While the Canadian government frequently sets up projects that seem to have good intentions on the surface, history has shown that ulterior motives lie beneath. So when I heard the Harper government’s plans to set up an Afghanistan panel, I was skeptical from the first. The panel, headed by John Manley, a former Liberal cabinet minister, will deliberate and advise the government on the future of the Canadian military mission in Afghanistan.

Manley has put forth four limited options for the panel to choose from. Canadians can continue training Afghan troops, readying them for when Canadian troops leave. Another option is to shift the troops’ focus from the hotbed areas they’re currently in to different, less violent regions. A further option calls for a continued combat role, and withdrawal of troops by February 2009. Finally, Canadian Forces might remain fighting in the war-torn country past the current mandate, which expires in two years time. In making its final recommendation, the panel is supposed to take into consideration public views and opinions about the matter.

Despite the supposed effort to stabilize the Afghanistan situation, many critics call the panel a ploy by Harper to gain support for extending the military mission. Though opposition parties are against continuing the mission past 2009, the Conservatives have not dismissed the option of staying until at least 2011.

Aside from the political intentions behind creating the panel, the panel’s mission and ideology are misguided. Our ultimate goal in the conflict, all can agree, should be peace and democracy in Afghanistan. What can the Canadian military possibly do to further these aims?

It is naïve to believe that peace can be achieved through tying aid and development to military might. An increase in Canadian military strength could lead to greater support for insurgent groups, meaning innocent civilians could get caught in the crossfire. As long as we try to promote our liberal values through the use of force, we can kiss development and democracy goodbye. What good are schools if they’re shut down for being in the midst of a conflict zone? How can there be democracy when a focus on military presence predictably equates power with weapons and soldiers?

With these obvious contradictions between intentions and reality, the Afghanistan panel, regardless of why it was set up, is headed down a very inefficient path. Throw in a public who knows as much about Afghanistan and what it needs as Arizona knows about snow, and you end up an entirely irrelevant consultation process. The whole panel effort should be reassessed and rather than asking Canadians for their opinions on the matter, the Afghan people should be consulted for their input on the course of development. After all, it’s their country that we’re supposedly trying to help.

No Country is uncharted territory

I was going to write that No Country for Old Men is unlike anything the Coen brothers have ever done, but such a statement is difficult given the brothers have tried their hands at just about everything, from thrillers (Fargo, Miller’s Crossing) to stoner comedies (The Big Lebowski) to a film noir experiment (The Man Who Wasn’t There), and the occasional stab at mainstream popularity (Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers).

But, in relation to their other work, No Country for Old Men is probably the least Coen-like Coen brothers movie yet. It is a minimalist thriller without a single drop of the quirk-factor that characterized their previous films (so, in other words, no Steve Buscemi). It’s also easily their best movie since Fargo, and one of the best of the year.

Here’s the gist: in 1980, a cowboy wannabe from Texas (Josh Brolin) stumbles across the remains of a shoot-out and finds a suitcase full of cash. Meanwhile, the killer responsible (Javier Bardem) escapes police custody and we’re launched into, if I may descend to cliché, “a deadly game of cat and mouse.” Revealing any more of the plot would be cruel and evil.

Top-billed Tommy Lee Jones actually has the least screen time of the three leads, but his performance here, as well as In the Valley of Elah, reminded me what a subtle actor he can be. Toronto International Film Festival patrons may remember Josh Brolin in the Coens’ segment of Chacun son Cinema, where he essentially played the same character. I never really noticed Brolin before, but the Coens put him to good use here. The dominating performance, though, is Javier Bardem—chillingly understated as a pure sociopath. (Incidentally, are the Farrelly brothers still trying to put together that Three Stooges movie? Because it just struck me that Bardem could be a hell of a Moe.)

The actors are good, but the film really belongs to the Coens. This is easily the most suspenseful film of the year. There are no cheap thrills—the Coens use little music, and there are no great revelations about the Bardem and Brolin characters to trivialize the story. They trust their carefully built tension to carry the film, and respect the audience’s intelligence. They also don’t wrap things up with a neat little bow, and if this movie does indeed turn out to be the Oscar-bait the studio is hoping for, it might restore my faith in the Academy. This is a great, engrossing piece of filmmaking.

Attack ads are a low blow

One company suggesting that it is better than its competitors is endemic to advertising. At their most successful, these ads are humourous and effective. Consider the Pepsi television commercial where a little boy buys a Coke from a vending machine. In goes the coin, out comes the can. He sets the drink on the ground, inserts another coin, pushes the “Coca-Cola” button again, and receives another Coke. He puts it on the ground next to the first, and steps on top of them. Reaching up, he presses the “Pepsi” button at the top of the machine, and out comes the glorious beverage. He takes his prize and walks away, leaving the first two cans in the dust. Quite amusing, and the point is not lost on anyone: a Pepsi is a whole lot better than a Coke.

Ads like this are deemed humourous and effective when they’re about soft drinks or fast food joints, but they take on a whole new dimension when directed at political parties. In the political world, commercials like these are known as attack ads. They amount to one candidate saying, “You just can’t trust that other guy. If you elect him/her you are DOOMED. Vote for me, because I’m your last chance.” This strategy involves singling out previous mistakes made by the opponent, not only pointing out flaws in political strategy, but also generally making them look incompetent and dangerously under-qualified.

This strategy is currently being used by the federal Tories against Liberal leader Stéphane Dion. The Conservatives have launched a campaign against Dion, claiming that the Liberals will return the GST to seven per cent if they win the next election. True, Dion has been vague on the GST issue. In the usual manner of coy politicians, he’s not promising anything either way. However, the Conservatives would have the populace believe with this new wave of hostile advertisements that Dion has said his party would definitely raise the GST. They illustrate this point in one of their commercials with a typically unflattering picture of Dion, and by repeatedly playing an out-ofcontext sound bite of the Liberal leader.

Attack ads are the wrong way for a party to promote itself. Pointing out all the flaws in the other candidate can make a party sound like it has nothing good to say about itself. When politicians get nervous, they say “And what’s so great about you? You’ve screwed up at this and that, and oh yeah, that other thing too, right?” Instead of trying to push voters away from the opponent with negative advertising, why can’t our leaders try attracting us with positive observations or effective policies?

Political parties only resort to attack advertising when they’re out of ideas. People only focus on the negative when the positive isn’t consequential enough or is non-existent. In politics, I want a positive leader, not the lesser of two evils.

Digging Edward Burtynsky

Edward Burtynsky is probably the most famous Canadian artist working today. Burtynsky’s critically acclaimed images of manufactured landscapes and his colourful series on life in China made him an international superstar.

His latest exhibition Quarries, at the Nicholas Metivier Gallery, focuses on a series of quarries in the Iberian Peninsula. The show coincides with the release of his book Edward Burtynsky: Quarries.

At the exhibition’s opening reception on November 1, I saw the crème of the Toronto art scene crammed into the Metivier Gallery with buyers and students. The atmosphere was full of celebration, and for good reason: Burtynsky’s images are stunning. Some may even go so far as to call them beautiful. The photos are so striking that the viewer forgets the subject matter is not some inactive landscape scene, but actual working quarries. From these places come the stone that builds our skyscrapers and our schools. Burtynsky’s talent, of course, is taking photographs that look like perfect compositions of these active, living sites.

Some look like expansive landscapes, such as* Iberian Quarries 14 A, B, and C. Others have such a strong verticality as to make the viewer feel like they are looking down from a helicopter, such as *Iberian Quarries #9. Still others resemble an abstract expressionist painting from a distance, such as Rock of Ages #38. My personal favourite is Iberian Quarries #8 (pictured right), an aerial view of a quarry with an unmistakably crucifix-shaped body of water in the bottom.

Burtynsky has long been obsessed with landscape as architecture and this latest series may be viewed as a culmination of this 17- year obsession. After the book and this exhibition, Burtynsky says it’s the end of his fixation with quarries. These images, however, will stay with me, and no doubt with Burtynsky, for years to come.

Edward Burtynsky’s Quarries runs at the Nicholas Metivier Gallery, 451 King St. W. until November 24.

Heart of darkness: Chimpanzees’ struggle in Africa

The primary goal of the Jane Goodall Institute is to preserve African great apes and their habitats, with an emphasis on chimpanzees. According to Debbie Cox, African forests are still being destroyed at alarming rates, second only to that of the Amazon rainforests. Simply put, our closest genetic relatives are at risk.

Cox is a veterinary nurse, zookeeper, and executive director of operations in Uganda for the JGI since 1996. She paid a rare visit to U of T to publicize the issues that govern habitat destruction in Uganda and other areas of the African continent.

Current remaining chimpanzee habitats are highly concentrated, with over 90 per cent of the entire African chimp population living in 11 countries. The Congo Basin—the world’s second largest tropical forest—is one of the most prominent chimpanzee hotspots in the world. It is also home to 24 million people. There are numerous reasons for the extensive loss of chimpanzee habitat in this area, including illegal logging, expansion of lands used for agriculture, and the prevalence of bushmeat hunting.

Cox said the JGI is tackling the problem head-on. As part of its community- based conservation objective, the institute provides African communities with the financial and educational resources to better understand what is happening to their environment and what they can do to change it.

In Uganda, the JGI plans to install education centres near each of the six largest chimpanzee populations in the country. They plan to visit centres in local schools to educate students about relevant issues. The conservation education materials that the JGI develops and distributes have also met with success. Of the 500 schools where the materials were distributed, 400 have embraced the message. The JCI now aims to reach 8,000 schools, a more ambitious target.

Another concern is the bushmeat trade of undomesticated animals, which flourishes due to a lack of livestock. “In four years I have counted one cow and four goats,” said Cox.

This illegal trade is most rampant in Congo, and the JGI targets its educational campaign in Congo’s capital of Brazzaville. The institute uses billboards, posters, stickers, and taxidriver pundits in its campaign. The approaches reach a wide audience in this city where most use public transport. Already, vendors are starting to acknowledge the trade’s ecological affects—the real problem is finding a viable alternative. Cox argues that better education and law enforcement are key tools in halting the bushmeat trade.

“No amount of money that we have is going to save these apes if people on the ground are not interested in their care,” she said.

Curiously, archaic laws are an unexpected stumbling block. In Sierra Leone, a 1940s law forces hunters to pay a $2 penalty for killing chimpanzees. Unfortunately, in a diamond-rich country like Sierra Leone, this penalty is not a strong deterrent. After the JGI pushed for reform, the penalty now stands at $2000 or eight years in jail.

It is difficult balancing human interests with animal ones. “We’ve probably lost 700 square kilometres of chimp habitat to sugar cane,” said Cox. In an industry with a mere ten per cent profit margin, there is zero tolerance for a chimp with a sweet tooth. Sadly, locals have no option but to fend off chimpanzees by setting up traps. The JGI has countered this with a chimp welfare program called Conservation Alert. Local groups of Ugandan veterinarians remove snares and thereby save chimpanzee lives.

As well, the JGI has initiated a Good Neighbour Award program, a quarterly financial reward for communities deemed the best neighbours to their natural environment.

“By giving money every three months, it keeps the momentum going and people are excited that they could get access to this money” said Cox. In the 12 sanctuaries across Africa, there are currently over 800 chimps that the JGI plans to slowly release back into the wild. Saving the chimpanzees is an uphill battle and—like so many environmental problems—it all comes down to money.

“There has been very positive work in Sierra Leone in the past two years, but, after the latest election, the newest president is just not very much interested in conservation,” said Cox, who went on to name other countries that, in her opinion, have been slow to protect chimpanzees. “Guinea don’t really care too much about it. Liberia, they care a lot about it if you go and give them lots of money. And that is the problem with conservation organizations: we don’t have money.”

Denzel Washington deals drama as NYC drug lord in American Gangster

Consider the bitter irony of it all. Frank Lucas, the once-notorious drug kingpin who blasts the “Thug Life” fetishism of the gangster rap era as “bullshit,” is now to be immortalized in American Gangster, a studio pic that’s being heavily marketed to exactly that generation of “bling” heads.

In an attempt to draw every doragged Scarface worshipper to theatres, the film dangles such household names as T.I., Common, and RZA amongst its cast, and has apparently “inspired” the Jigga Man himself to record a complimentary soundtrack. Though he may not like it, Lucas’s legacy is being marketed to the very generation that irks him: the kids who worship the shameless flaunting of money and violence in America’s new corporate-sponsored “gangsterism.” Call it bittersweet justice, since, after all, gangster- crazed America is something he—along with fellow O.G. Nicky Barnes—helped design.

However, Ridley Scott’s glossy, schematically-drawn American Gangster makes it clear that while this new America is a product of the likes of Frank Lucas, the entrepreneurial businessman himself came from the dark womb of corporate America.

Tracking the large-scale dope supplier’s rise to power during the turbulent late-sixties/early-seventies, American Gangster depicts the cold and calculated Lucas (played by an impeccably smooth Denzel Washington) as a man who made a name for himself on 116th Steet, but could have just as easily done the same on Wall Street. Lucas has acumen for branding, pricing, and cutting down the competition so that they too end up buying from him.

If Lucas gives back to the community like his mentor, Bumpy Johnson, regularly did, it’s only to keep his public image on the upand- up while he bleeds the city dry with his 10-per-cent-pure heroin (a product that no doubt cost a number of lives to deliver). Like America, Lucas had a particular investment in Vietnam: the steady supply of caskets for dead soldiers transports his heroin supply from East Asia.

Scott and his team (with due credit to writer Steven Zaillian) develop a symbiotic relationship between Lucas and his country while paying close attention to New York’s climate in the seventies. The heroin epidemic was just one of several plaguing the U.S., and Lucas and his compatriots were not the only ones supplying it. This was, after all, the period of the French Connection scandal, when corrupt SIU officers used their unlimited resources not to shutdown the drug trade but to compete in it—an ordeal the filmmakers aptly play out against Lucas’s enterprise.

Amidst all this is Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe’s outrageously version of Frank Serpico), the pariah of the police force. Roberts has the far-from-glamorous task of bringing Lucas down—a job all the more difficult since half of the justice department is on the crime boss’s payroll. As Roberts observes, “If we stop bringing dope into this country, about a hundred thousand people are going to be out of a job.”

If this film doesn’t strain your moral fibres—it paints a somewhat alluring picture of the murderous Frank Lucas—don’t feel bad. America felt the same allure. The very judge that put Lucas away described him as “easy to like,” and most followers of gangster rap (as well as the corporations that neatly package their sonic addictions) have ingrained the crime figure into the consciousness of popular culture.