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.”
The Oracle at Massey
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.
Do it like a Puritan
“Some communitarian subcultures are more inspirational than others,” advises writer Sarah Vowell, gulping down a Starbucks coffee in the lobby of the Westin Harbour Castle, in town for the International Festival of Authors before making another appearance in Atlanta that evening.“I wasn’t really cut out to be a rural person. I have friends who are part of the ‘slow food’ trend, who give back to the land and idealize and romanticize that way of life. I buy organic vegetables, but I’m not really a tiller of the land type. I like a nice rock.”Hailing from Muskogee, Oklahoma, the adopted New Yorker has gained notoriety for her sardonic examination of American culture. A regular contributor to National Public Radio’s This American Life, Vowell has acted as a guest columnist for the New York Times, a music critic for SPIN, and the voice of Violet in The Incredibles. In 2005, her non-fiction work Assassination Vacation took her on a cross-American road trip (she doesn’t drive but Ira Glass taught her to parallel park) to the murder sites of Abraham Lincoln, William McKinley, and James Garfield. Her newest cultural summit, The Wordy Shipmates, is a little tamer: it’s about Puritanism.Specifically John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, elected on Thanksgiving Day 1629, whose Sermon on the Mount gave Vowell solace after the attacks of 9/11.“Any old day in New York there’s a definite feeling of community. Maybe it’s because we’re all so crammed together. But that idea of being members of the same body really spoke to me. That aspect of the puritan always did, getting in a boat with your community and sailing off…” she muses, drawing her legs into a puffy sofa chair.“I always loved that sermon of Winthrop’s. I’m not religious by any means but I’ve accumulated a bible of sorts—speeches, movies, pop songs, and novels culled for inspiration. I can turn to these texts in a time of need.”In part a tribute to her own upbringing, Vowell has relinquished the Red State, hardline Christian values of her Midwestern parents (her father is a member of the NRA) to ponder the meaning of America’s need to divide and conquer. There are parallels for instance, in the puritans intent to “help” the savages offset by a fevered recitation of the Bible. Though Winthrop spoke of a desire to “make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labour and suffer together,” American pathos leaves Vowell with distinctly bitter tastes.“When you’re an author, you meet the Americans who by definition read books. They’re usually well-informed, free thinking, and open hearted. Between the land and the people, [going on tour] is a pretty skewed and rosy view,” she admits of her cult-lit status.“But I also have to go on call-in radio shows. There’s ugly sentiments out there, whole pockets of the country who are desperate and bitter, and that kind of hopelessness breeds contempt. I’m aware of how the rest of the country is seen. I trip all over myself trying to hide my American-ness. But I can’t help that I’m writing about history in a country that doesn’t care about history.”Or perhaps they’re more intent on recreating their own. Unenthused about Obama’s prospects (she deems him a “garden variety Democrat”), Vowell yearns for the simpler times of 2000, an election she cheered on with clear resolve.“There’s so much at stake now, it’s like trying to put the apocalypse back in a bottle. I’ve been invited to election parties, but I’m not going. I plan to sit at home in my pyjamas and watch the returns with all the anxiety of a father waiting for his child to be born.”
ASSU wiped clean?
A slate led by Colum Grove-White swept the scandal-ridden Arts & Science Students’ Union at its council meeting last Tuesday. In September, the administration withheld funding and recommended a new election after completing a review of their controversial elections.The decision came after The Varsity revealed improper collaboration between the elections chair and former president Ryan Hayes, who defeated Grove-White in the contested spring elections. Hayes resigned after ASSU’s funding was frozen.ASSU is the largest course union on campus, representing some 23,000 students and receiving $345,000 per year in student levies.“It is quite clear from the first two elections that I have a vastly different agenda from previous executive who focused on social justice issues,” said Grove-White said. He added that his priorities—limiting the union’s activities to academic matters and bringing transparency and legitimacy to its systems—were vital to restoring confidence and authority to ASSU.Grove-White voiced his opposition to projects that would reflect the political views of executive members. He said he would immediately commission a constitutional review to examine ways to augment the constitution and ensure its protection from executive members’ self-interest.Grant Gonzales, who was elected as an executive member, echoed the need to restore an academic focus to ASSU. He cited Turnitin.com and academic changes being discussed by the faculty council as important issues for students. “That [is] what ASSU should be about as opposed to last year,” Gonzales said.Last week Gonzales, who is also a student representative on Governing Council, voted in favour of president David Naylor’s Towards 2030 framework, which calls for corporatizing research at U of T and hints at increased tuition fees. U of T’s undergraduate, part-time, and graduate student unions all vehemently opposed the framework.Elected execs include Iram Yunus, a returning exec, and Kimberly Stemhorn, both from Grove-White’s spring election slate. Former U of T Student Union exec Binish Ahmed also won an exec spot.Responding to the three outstanding labour grievances that had been filed by staff against ASSU, Grove-White said that they would be resolved once he officially assumed presidency.VP students Jill Matus said that the university administration would release the union’s levies on Nov. 5, after Grove-White requested the hold be lifted. To ensure that all student societies operate in an open and democratic fashion, Matus said, a committee has been convened, chaired by political science professor David Cameron.When asked about specific goals, Matus was hesitant to provide an answer and replied that it would simply be “an open forum for students to talk about issues regarding the democratic process.”She added, however, that such actions as the re-election imposed on ASSU wouldn’t become typical practice for all student organizations.With files from Andrea Zavala-Cantú
Diamonds are forever
With a new coat of charcoal paint sparkling beneath glimmering spotlights, the Garfield Weston Exhibition Hall in the ROM’s Michael Lee-Chin Crystal oozes class and luxury, a fitting location for the Royal Ontario Museum’s newest exhibit, The Nature of Diamonds. Organized in collaboration with the American Museum of Natural History, The Nature of Diamonds explores the many facets of one of the world’s most alluring gems. This spectacular exhibit will be on display at ROM until March 22, 2009, the only Canadian stop on a North American tour that includes the Houston Museum of Natural Science and Chicago’s Field Museum.The expansive exhibit is divided into seven sections. “What is Diamond?” discusses the chemical properties of diamonds, including interactive stations like a three-dimensional structural model of the famous gem, and a handgrip that measures the pressure exerted by the user compared to the 80,000 kg of force required to make a diamond.Other sections focus on the gemstone’s geological origins, providing an explanation of how its unique properties make it an invaluable tool. The “Four C’s” gives patrons a look at the four ways diamonds are evaluated: cut, carat, clarity, and colour.Canada’s prominence as a diamond-producing region is given a tribute in a video entitled Crystal Clear: Diamonds from Canada’s North. The video will accompany the exhibit on tour, emphasizing Canada’s swift ascent in the industry from the opening of our first diamond mine in 1998, to our current place as the world’s third-largest producer.In the Historical Galleries, beautiful pieces chronicle the significance of diamonds throughout history and across cultures. Among the most captivating displays are a painting depicting the exchange of diamond engagement rings between Hapsburg Emperor Maximilian I and Mary, Duchess of Burgundy in 1477, and a butterfly brooch made with rose-cut diamonds, an example of the insect motif popular in the late 1800s.Also on display is the “Tip of the Iceberg” ring designed by independent jeweler Niki Kavakonis. A U of T alum, Kavakonis did her masters and doctoral studies in Art and Architectural History. She used a natural uncut diamond for the ring and embedded it into the metal, forgoing traditional setting techniques. The result is a modern ring with the simple elegance of the Canadian icebergs that inspired it. Ms. Kavakonis’ ingenuity was also reflected in a necklace of her own design. “Ice Floe: Blue Ice” is a rectangular gold pendant with an uncut triangular macle diamond jutting out to one side. The apparent simplicity of the piece is misleading: under UV light the diamond shines bright blue, breaking away from the pendant. In both pieces, Ms. Kavakonis pays tribute to the individuality of the naturally formed diamond crystals.The much anticipated “Gem Vault” showcases some of the most incredible diamonds from around the world. Included are a rose corsage worn by the niece of Napoleon I and a pendant watch belonging to Catherine II of Russia. At the centre of the vault is the Incomparable Diamond, the third largest cut diamond in the world.Other highlights are the “Milky Way” necklace and “The Aurora Butterfly of Peace,” which represent the diamond’s wide range of appeal and their captivating beauty.Canadian designer Dieter Huebner designed the “Milky Way” in collaboration with Brinkhaus Jewelers, winning the DeBeers Diamonds International Award for creative commemoration of the new millennium. Made of exactly 2,000 diamonds set on a platinum frame, the “Milky Way” has an ethereal quality that reflects the majesty of its namesake. “I am captivated by the fire of the diamond,” Mr. Huebner mused. “By fire, I mean its sparkle, its life, the play of the light and the colors of the rainbow.”“The Aurora Butterfly of Peace” was the result of twelve years of labour on the part of Alan Bronstein and Aurora Gems. The piece resembles a constellation of natural coloured diamonds forming the image of a butterfly. It’s not jewelry—the diamonds aren’t even set in a medium. Yet crowds gather around the case to gaze at the unconventional design. “Seeing a collection of coloured diamonds for the first time,” Mr. Bronstein explains, “is like seeing a rainbow for the first time. It lifts your spirits, even if only for a few seconds, then you go back to daily life. But for that moment, you know there’s more to life—there’s something that can bring happiness.”Dr. Kimberly Tait, the ROM curator for this exhibit and a U of T professor, says she hopes The Nature of Diamonds will provide to the public a better understanding of the diamond: its explosive beginnings deep beneath the Earth’s surface, the difficult mining processes, and Canada’s growing role in the industry. The exhibit also treats the diamond as not only a favourite trinket and a girl’s best friend, but as a paradigm of beauty and elegance.
Quest for students
Quest University Canada, the country’s newest private university, has not yet reached a quarter of its capacity. Designed for 800 students, the school’s current population is 142, of which 40 per cent are international students. Quest was modeled after elite U.S schools, with tuition at $24,500 a year and teaching methods nearly unrecognizable to U of T students. Private donors have given Quest $100 million, which suggests high expectations, but this has not led to higher enrolment.Quest students are taught in small classes using a technique called block programming, which allows more direct contact between teachers and students. The average Quest student attends four “blocks,”which focus on one course and last three and a half weeks, in each academic term. A year is made up of two terms, which run in fall, spring and summer. Students can choose the terms they want to attend and accelerate their studies by adding an additional third term.In the meantime, travel grants are offered to students who want to tour the university. There are blogs and videos available online that highlight different aspects of the school and the option to chat live with an admissions counselor on the Quest website. The university is encouraging its students join in recruiting efforts by going back to their old high schools and bringing back at least one student for the following school year.Melanie Koenderman, director of student affairs, said in an interview that students are accepted into Quest using a “holistic” approach rather than a high school GPA. Quest applicants must submit a personal essay and complete a personal interview. Extra-curricular activities are also taken into consideration.Koenderman said extra-curriculars are taken into consideration so that students who may not have excelled academically, but have volunteer experience, are also given a chance.For those who meeet certain GPA requirements, full scholarships are offered.Quest’s aim, Koenderman said, is to “produce graduates that can think, communicate, solve problems, work in collaborative environments and make a difference wherever they go.” They just have to fill the seats first.
The first Toronto Palestine Film Festival was held last week, showcasing 37 films as Palestinians commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Nakba. The event featured the theatrical release of Annemarie Jacir’s film Salt of This Sea, starring Suheir Hammad, a Palestinian-American poet, as a Palestinian woman who leaves Brooklyn and travels to her homeland in an attempt to claim her grandfather’s life savings. In a press conference held on the festival’s opening day, Hammad spoke with The Varsity about making her big screen debut.The Varsity: Why do you think Toronto was chosen as the venue for the film’s release?Suheir Hammad: I come from the States, and sometimes when you say the word “Palestine,” you have to defend yourself. I am really glad to be in a major city where people understand the story that we ourselves as Palestinians live in so many ways […] and where people who are or are not Palestinian can listen to our accent and look at our hair and see our stories for their weaknesses and their strengths.TV: Traditionally, Palestinian women have been denied a major role in the country’s film industry. How is this film changing that?SH: This is the first feature film that has been written and directed by a Palestinian woman, Annemarie Jacir, and in that regard it is worthy of people’s attention because it takes a lot for a woman writer and director to get a feature off the ground.TV: Were there difficulties making this film in the West Bank and Israel?SH: We applied for a permit for our entire West Bank crew to travel to the 1948 Israel with us and they were all denied. We were sponsored by the French and North American embassy but every single one of our crew members was denied entry in spite of Israel. So we had to hire a crew in Israel. Annemarie and all of us agreed that we wanted a full Palestinian crew because there are so many Palestinian artists and technicians. We really wanted to make that happen, but when we got there we realized that there was no way. We needed a truck driver, someone with an Israeli license, and the guy [we hired] was not even Jewish—he was a Russian Christian who came to Israel.TV: The Israeli government forced your crew into shooting certain scenes in France. Can you describe the current conditions of the film industry in Palestine?SH: It seems that anyone who wants to work in film in Palestine has to leave. Anyone who wants to work in Palestine has to leave, but especially in film, it is very sad how people want to make art there but have to leave. Annemarie has been denied entry into Israel-Palestine since the making of our film, and we actually had a part of the film which was ruined and it was a scene which had to be reshot. She was not allowed re-entry, so we shot that scene in the south of France. Since last June, Annemarie has not been allowed back in. She now lives in Jordan.TV: You recently launched your fourth book of poetry. Do you plan to pursue an acting career following this project?SH: I’m a poet, not an actor. It was poetry that allowed me to do this film. I did not have formal training, and the scenes where I really acted are not in the film.
Toronto-based documentary photographer Allan Cedillo Lissner has spent the last two years documenting mining operations by Canadian companies in Tanzania and the Philippines. The resulting photo essay, Someone Else’s Treasure, contains rare visual evidence of the exploits of Barrick Gold, the world’s largest gold mining corporation,. On Wednesday, Lissner took the podium at Hart House and told a group of 30 the stories of communities adjacent to often-hazardous mining operations.“Just a few metres past the dam, contaminated water—carrying with it cyanide, lead, copper, and mercury—joins together with the clean water coming from the mountain springs into the river system,” said Lissner, describing a photo from the Philippines, where mining sites are often in mountains and contaminate their river systems.Lissner’s photos exhibited the detrimental effects of these hazardous wastes on the local people. Their stories were filled with sickness, death, destitution and the loss of habitat. Acid mine drainage employs extremely hazardous chemicals, including cyanide, in the extraction of resources. Waste is not properly disposed of and mixes with water that local communities rely on.The essay included photos of mining activists from Australia, Papa New Guinea, and Chile protesting Barrick Gold’s annual general meeting along with Canadian activists. “Reactions were mixed,” said Lissner. “We were told that one shareholder said that he did not know what the company was doing, and now that he has been informed he will divest his share.”U of T’s relationship with Peter Munk, former CEO of Barrick Gold, has often been protested on the U of T campus. Munk donated $6 million to found the Centre for International Relations named after him, and has since given another $6 million.Although U of T’s relationship with Barrick Gold is an important issue, said Paul York, “The main focus is changing the Canadian laws, which requires letting people know what is happening abroad with their tax dollars.” York is a member of the Toronto Mining Support Group, who co-hosted the talk.York said that Canadian Pension Plan and Ontario Teachers Pension have shares in Barrick Gold, so any Canadian that has a pension is indirectly funding the abuses perpetrated by Barrick.“The slideshow was the first public showing in Canada of photos of victims of the Bulyanhulu mine in Tanzania, which forced the displacement of approximately 400,000 people,” York said.“The photos were very sad, yet they also showed the dignity, resilience and persistence of the people in surviving and where possible, opposing this crime against humanity.”