Union prez stands by call to ban Israeli academics

As casualties mount in Gaza, criticism mounts at home over union president Sid Ryan’s call for an academic boycott on Israel. Advocates deem the boycott an effective way to influence the Israeli government, while critics argue the move unfairly targets Israeli professors for nothing more than their nationality.

Ryan is the head of CUPE Ontario, a union representing public sector workers. The union’s University Workers Coordinating Committee will bring a motion “supporting an boycott of Israeli academic institutions to protest the bombing assault on Gaza and, in particular, the bombing of the Islamic University on December 29, 2008,” reads the CUPE boycott resolution. “CUPE Ontario is taking this action in response to an appeal from the Palestinian Federation of Unions of University Professors and Employees.”

How exactly such a boycott would be carried out is uncertain. The resolution names some possibilities, including refusing to participate in conferences at Israeli universities and advocating for suspension of funding and subsidies for Israeli institutions. If the proposal passes a vote in February, it goes to CUPE members for approval in May as the union asks Ontario universities to adopt its measures. CUPE-O passed a similar resolution in 2006, followed by the U.K.’s National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education, Britain’s largest union of university teachers.

Many critics cite the potential divisiveness of such a move. “It serves no useful purpose. It’s incredibly divisive generally speaking, and then when you bring it into a campus environment it certainly doesn’t promote dialogue,” argues Daniel Silverman, program associate at U of T Hillel. “It really flies in the face of everything a university environment should be.” Silverman noted the diverse fields Israeli professors represent and challenged the usefulness of cutting off potential academic contributors.

Franklin Bialystok, a U of T Jewish Studies professor whose concentrations include modern Israeli history, also objects to the boycott. “Where was CUPE Ontario when Hamas was deploying 8,000-plus missiles against civilian settlements? Or on human rights violations in China and during the genocide in Darfur?”

Activists like Science for Peace president Judith Deutsch, who was among 10 Jewish women who attempted to enter and occupy the Israeli consulate last Wednesday, are in favour of the boycott. Deutsch sees it as a way to effectively pressure the Israeli government without hurting the general population economically. Deutsch allies herself with Israeli academics like Ilan Pappé, formerly of Haifa University and now on the University of Exeter faculty, who supported the boycotts in Britain.

“Many others have felt that [boycott] might be one of the only things that people in Israel would respond to, in terms of the government and the powers that be that seem so impervious to criticism,” she said. Science for Peace has drafted a petition, stating that they “condemn in the strongest terms the flagrant violations of the right to education and the academic freedom of our colleagues and their students in Gaza and the West Bank,” calling for signatures from fellow teachers.

Nonetheless, said Bialystok, the boycott applies special standards to Israel, out of the context of human rights issues in the Middle East. “CUPE Ontario [fails to mention] the oppression of workers in the rest of the Arab and most of the Islamic countries, the treatment of women, the prohibitions against unions, the violations against the rights of women and homosexuals […] While there is much to criticize about Israeli policy, it isn’t constructive to distort the situation.”

Despite the barrage of criticism, Ryan has stood by his proposal. “Academic freedom goes both ways,” he said, “What we are saying is if they want to remain silent and be complicit in these kinds of actions, why should they enjoy the freedom to come and teach in other countries like Canada?” Ryan has, however, apologized for comparing the bombing of Gaza’s universities to Nazi atrocities.

Sparks Will Fly

Toronto-based independent record label Out of this Spark celebrated its second anniversary with performances from the four acts on its roster. The birthday bash, held at Tranzac Club on January 10th, showcased the label’s wide range of talent while collecting non-perishable food items for the Daily Bread Food Bank.

The grassroots label got its start in 2006 with the Friends in Bellwoods compilation, designed as a fundraiser for the food bank. Two years later, OOTS founder Stuart Duncan has established an artist-focused infrastructure that runs contrary to the corporate music industry—OOTS’s artists maintain publishing rights over their music.

Operating amid the sea of independent labels in Toronto, OOTS has distinguished itself by emphasizing quality over quantity—focused on promoting just four bands. Saturday night’s soldout show was a testament to the OOTS method.

Under the Christmas-light glow of the Tranzac stage, Jenny Omnichord kicked off the night with light-hearted, folksy songs from her 2008 album Charlotte or Otis: Duets for Children, Their Parents and Other People Too, which instantly warmed concertgoers trolling in from the snowstorm brewing outside. While Omnichord’s album features a series of duets with the likes of rapper Shad and Tony Dekker of Great Lake Swimmers, highlights of her Tranzac set included a duet with her father and the occasional wail from her four-month-old son on hand for the show.

Featuring songs from their 2008 OOTS release We Are The Hunters, The D’Urbervilles followed with a high-energy set of post-punk tunes. A favourite among the crowd’s underage members, the young men of The D’Urbervilles gave a charismatic performance with minimal banter and dedications to both Duncan and their families in attendance. With songs like “Dragnet” and “National Flowers,” the band proved that the buzz surrounding their music is more than warranted.

While the evening’s audience seemed more interested in loud conversations and sipping on the Tranzac’s draught selections, Forest City Lovers garnered quiet, rapt attention. The quartet has recently seen success south of the border, with radio rotation of songs off their sophomore album Haunted Moon Sinking. The band’s rich orchestration, led by Mika Posen’s violin, and the sweet but never saccharine vocals of Kat Burns showed off OOTS’s softer side.

The live show was capped off by Timbre Timber, whose music is best described as low-fi blues. However their performance seemed inspired by a clash of ultrasound machine chirps, robot chanting, and whale song. If you’re confused and frustrated by that description, you’re not alone, but it adequately fits a performance that was a far cry from the sounds of the band’s forthcoming, eponymous release with OOTS. The duo spent their half hour crouching in the dark of the stage manipulating feedback. While such performance art might be riveting at Nuit Blanche, it left many an audience member scratching their head.

The evening was a great reminder to jaded music lovers that unique, original music is still created on a small-time scale—even in a world that seems oversaturated with corporate-boosted “indie” bands. As the snow continued to fall, DJ Bahai Cassette helped the crowd transition from rock show to dance party mode, allowing fans, friends and family to mingle with bandmembers and raise a glass to Out of this Spark’s second birthday. The terrible twos should be an exciting year for the label, with Timbre Timber’s album and a new Friends in Bellwoods compilation in the works.

Here’s to a third anniversary.

Out of this Spark will continue the celebration on January 16 with the same lineup at The Albion Hotel in Guelph, ON.

Greek riots mirror Toronto’s problems, protesters say

In December, Greek protesters occupied 700 high schools and 100 universities amid days of massive riots, after police shot and killed 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos. His death fuelled anger at economic policies as the global financial crisis hit Greece, with demonstrators rallying against the privatization of education, barriers to immigration, police repression, and poverty. Their chants echo at solidarity protests across the world.

In Toronto, U of T students joined others to raise banners outside the Greek Consulate. Dubbing their demonstration “Spark in Athens, Fire in Toronto,” two dozen protesters sought to connect the unrest in Greece to local issues. The rioting in Greece comes at a time when higher education is increasingly more difficult to access, and when graduates face soaring unemployment.

“We’re also here because we believe in universal access to education. The University of Toronto’s priorities are all wrong. Instead of spending millions to build an elite sports facility, they could put their dollars towards supporting marginalized students,” says Joeita Gupta, VP Internal for the Association of Part-time Undergraduate Students. U of T has publicly lobbied for the deregulation of tuition fees..

Protesters also drew parallels between Canadian and Greek immigration policy.

“The ongoing occupations in Greece are against the repression of immigrants and refugees. The same repression happens here in Canada,” says Hussan, a member of No One Is Illegal. In September, U of T students rallied to demand residency for Saad Alam, who lost his study permit midway through his Life Sciences and Psychology degree. He was subsequently deported to Bangladesh where he is unable to complete his studies. U of T president David Naylor declined to comment on his case.

“What’s happening in Greece is happening across the world. The labour movement has the potential to be a catalyst for radical change to oppose the marginalization of racialized youth,” says Ajamu Nangwaya, president of CUPE 3907.

A community forum on the uprising in Greece and its lessons for Toronto will be held at OISE (Room 2211) on Jan. 17 at 5:30 p.m.

In Soviet Russia, play watches you!

“SHIT! PETROLEUM! FREEDOM!” chants the cast of Methusalem, or the Eternal Bourgeois at the height of the play’s first revolution. By the end the audience has joined in on both the chanting and the party. Written by French-German surrealist Yvon Goll, the play is set in a vaguely industrial past, parodying capitalism with a stream of absurdities.

For director Ted Witzel, Goll’s text was only the starting point for the play’s absurdity, to which he’s made a number of adjustments. He’s transformed the production into a blowout of reinterpretation by replacing a few of Goll’s characters with robots (including hookerbot, who comes complete with a steel wool muff), adding unitards and glitter, and parodying modern-day radicalism. Monitored and controlled by a cadre of communist agents who sell Che Guevara t-shirts to the audience before the show (“Free with a $20 donation to the cause”), the players shout out light cues as the actors say their lines onstage.

To top it all off, Methusalem is hilarious. The cast members sport their punchlines like costumes, drenched in facial expression, body language, and vocal pitch. They break the fourth wall, but only to let the audience in on the joke, throwing props into the audience. (Sitting in the second row, I caught a shoebox, revolutionary cardboard sign, and a few items of clothing.)

It’s clear that the actors are trying to get the audience to become radical communists, feeding into the subtext of irony on which the play rests. The play avoids preachiness because its message—the absurdity of politics—takes a backseat to pure entertainment.

The Red Light District players are current or former U of T students, and they deliver a gem of wry comedy. You’ll giggle every time Lauren Gillis hits her cowbell and recites poetry, or when Reid Linforth dances with his face lit up. You’ll guffaw at Marcel Dragonieri’s obtuse rants and Briana Templeton’s nervous ones. And you’ll appreciate the Commie tendencies of Jiv Parasram, Kat Letwin, and others who walk the line somewhere between working, acting, and advertising for the Learning Achievement Centre.

All things considered, Methusalem lives up to the manifesto of the Red Light District (printed on the back of the program) and its three most important tenets: “We will not make theatre for your grandparents,” “We will not honour the text,” and, most importantly, “We will not bore you.”

Methusalem runs January 14 to 17 at the Whippersnapper Gallery, 587A College St. West. Tickets are $15, doors are at 7:30 p.m.

Triumphalist language’ sets back gender equality: prof

How can anyone really think that they can change all the sexist practices in the world? No, that’s not a cynical student you hear. The question came from visiting lecturer Jane L. Parpart, who delivered a sharp critique of gender-based development work at the Munk Centre on Friday.

Parpart, a professor at the University of West Indies in Trinadad and Tobago, discussed how development policies were suffering from an overdose of “triumphalist language” that promotes gender equality as an achievable goal.

The path to empowerment, Parpart reflected, isn’t as simple as women’s entry into places where they were previously excluded. Consider Condoleeza Rice: did her presence produce empowerment and destabilize the sexist bent of the US administration? Parpart argued Rice’s senior position speaks more for her personal qualities than progress for women in general: “[Rice] played the game better than most of them.”

While development agencies pursue such easily measurable goals as inclusion into political office, Parpart said they ignore contexts where that inclusion doesn’t produce the desired effect. In South Africa, she pointed out, women’s political participation was among the highest in the world – but so were levels of violence against women. Sometimes women’s inclusion into institutions doesn’t resolve the deep-seated problems of gender equality.

According to Parpart, development policies were simplified into technical and measurable goals that prevent nuanced understanding of empowerment. Instead of seeing gender empowerment as a clear-cut issue, to be measured and calculated, development agencies needed to take a cue from feminist scholarship.

Parpart said that the women’s movement needs to be seen as subtle and diverse, appearing in places development agencies might not recognize. Empowerment can be seen in young women expressing sexuality and wearing makeup as an act of resistance to their fathers, or in women who choose to wear the veil, she pointed out. Taking into account a variety of resistances, said Parpart, could help achieve the transformative change that development practices have yet to see.

Karlotta James, an undergraduate in the International Relations program, went even further than Parpart in criticizing development practices. “We need to see gender mainstreaming in our own societies before we can enact gender mainstreaming in third-world countries,” she said.

Q&A

After her lecture, professor Parpart sat down with the Varsity to talk nationalism, how cultural differences collide with feminism, and flexible interpretations of empowerment.

The Varsity: In your lecture, you mentioned that you see nationalism as having been ‘hijacked’ by masculinity. Can you envision a feminist nationalism?

Jane Parpart: While it is certainly possible to have a feminist nationalism, since militarism and conflict tends to be gendered masculine, the tendency is for women in nationalist movements to identify more with masculine values rather than the reverse. The history of nationalism as a means for liberating women and improving gender relations is dismal — unfortunately.

TV: How should development agencies and scholars deal with their links to political, economic, and social structures which may have caused or exacerbated the problems which they are trying to remedy e.g. US-affiliated development agencies in Afghanistan?

JP: This is a very hard question to answer because it probably depends on situations. Some organizations can distance themselves, perhaps best by linking up with local people/organizations. But sometimes it is impossible. But it is something that has to be thought about — carefully.

TV: How would you recommend development agencies address the critique of their gendered development work as a civilizing mission of “white men saving brown women from brown men” (to quote Gayatri Spivak).

JP: This again is very complicated because development agencies have certainly used the idea that brown men often mistreat their women as a reason for northern interventions. At the same time, romanticizing all brown (or white) men as angels is clearly a problem. Again, I think this is a type of intervention that needs to be lead by local women and their allies, as they are the ones who have the right to say who is impeding their ambitions and desires.

TV: You mentioned that there needs to be a more nuanced understanding of gender empowerment, and that practices which liberal feminists might label as patriarchal could actually be recognized as empowering. Is there a universal standard at which you would draw the line and argue that certain practices can never be empowering? Is it possible to have a flexible understanding of gender equality while maintaining such a universal standard?

JP: I know that one has to be sensitive to difference and cultural practices, but it seems to me that there are practices that can be seen as universally detrimental to women — such as female genital cutting, the loss of control over one’s body. I know this is controversial, and my point is that in an imperfect world, women often have to adopt very limited forms of resistance to patriarchal authority (and its female allies), and that that resistance has to be acknowledged rather than dismissed as disempowering, but that does not mean there are no universal standards that can be drawn. This is my own take on the matter as it is a continuing debate.

Bands to watch in 2009

N.A.S.A.

This duo are poised to be the breakout rap all-stars of 2009, as their debut The Spirit of Apollo livens up standard American hip hop with Brazilian funk elements (their name stands for North America/South America). But the most appealing aspect of N.A.S.A. is the astounding list of guest stars, which includes Kanye West, Santogold, and Lykke Li (all on the same track!). It’s been confirmed that Tom Waits lends his gravelly crooning to a track called “Spacious Thoughts,” giving The Spirit of Apollo the kind of advance buzz that only comes from legendary cameos.

Florence and the Machine

Twenty-two-year-old Florence Welch is a south London native who walks the line between howling anthems and delicate art-pop, a disparity that will make her 2009’s model for eccentric sound and style. While she’s only released a handful of singles thus far, her debut album is due in May from Island Records. If we had to select a new tortured British starlet to make up for the loss of Amy Winehouse to her superhuman drug addiction, Florence would be our candidate. Just keep her away from Pete Doherty!

The Knux

On their birth certificates, The Knux’s Rah Almillio and Krispy Kream are officially listed as brothers Alvin and Kintrell Lindsey, who grew up playing all sorts of instruments that they eventually worked into this multi-faceted project. The boys ditched their hometown of New Orleans after Katrina and headed to Los Angeles, where they completed their debut album Remind Me In Three Days, which eschews the superglossy sound of modern day hip hop. The Knux’s raw, crunchy guitar riffs allow them to get away with comparing themselves to The Strokes. They spent the end of 2008 opening up for Q-Tip on his North American tour, and the new year promises even bigger returns.

Magistrates

The latest product of the world’s premier indie tastemakers, UK label XL Recordings, Essex’s Magistrates are hard at work on what seems destined to be a star-making debut album. Combining indie-funk grooves with soulful, falsetto vocal turns, Magistrates will fill the void left by the swift demise of the nu-rave craze. Plus, it’s always an encouraging sign when a band’s MySpace bio sounds less like an endorsement and more like a warning, claiming that the five boys in Magistrates “are constructing a masterplan…to infect the world with a dirty groove like some out of control STD.” Dance floors everywhere, beware.

Land Of Talk

The newest member of Broken Social Scene (but let’s not hold it against her), Montréal’s Liz Powell croons love songs amongst a crackling indie rock landscape that recalls Bonnie Raitt covering Dinosaur Jr. Though 2008 saw the highly acclaimed full length Some Are Lakes (produced by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon) signed to Saddle Creek, this year expect Land Of Talk to tour the West Coast, garner even more glowing reception from Land-lovers SPIN and Rolling Stone, bottle up, and explode.

Teen Anger

Picking up where bands like Anagram and the Deadly Snakes left off, Toronto’s Teen Anger revives garage rock with classic whiplash guitars and lackadaisical laments on being young, bored, and working for minimum wage. Self-described as “three guys, a girl, and an alcohol addiction,” June’s LP release Banned From Beaver portrays a riotous punk energy augmented by car crash melodies. But don’t miss them live—while Shakespeare might wonder what’s in a name, the band ain’t called Teen Anger for nothing.

U Ottawa suspends ‘rogue prof’

A University of Ottawa professor has been suspended and banned from campus after years of locking horns with the administration. The tenured physics instructor could also lose his job: his dean recommends that the Board of Governors fire him.

The university’s argument with Denis G. Rancourt began in 2005. Rancourt took over a first-year course and, instead of sticking precisely to the senate-approved course outline, used experimental teaching methods like self-directed learning and cancelling grades. While response from students was largely positive, the university was livid and issued a stern reprimand. An arbiter agreed with the university’s reprimand, but added that “[Rancourt’s] pedagogical initiatives were legitimately within the purview of […] academic freedom.”

Friction between Rancourt and the administration increased the following year, when he taught a newly introduced course on science and society. The class generated a great deal of media coverage with its high-profile guest speakers, but also triggered a slew of lawsuits against the university over a TA shortage and registration errors. The Science Faculty Council declined to renew the course for the following academic year. Supporters of Rancourt, however, attended all council meetings and tabled motions to “challenge the chair,” ultimately forcing the meetings to be cancelled.

The situation reached critical mass in November 2008 when the university denied Rancourt’s request to make his fourth-year physics course pass/fail. Rancourt promptly gave everyone in the class an A+. In response, U of O suspended Rancourt, locking his lab and redistributing his grad students. Campus police escorted him off campus.

A number of professors at U of O have spoken against the man they call a rogue professor, alleging that Rancourt’s actions have crossed well beyond the bounds of academic freedom. When asked about the sanctions against Rancourt, Alain St-Amant, a chemistry professor, said, “The events of the past few years are justified. You can’t trust him to teach anymore.”

Many of Rancourt’s former students have been very vocal in their support, while others have allegedly filed complaints against him.

Rancourt’s supporters retort that the professor’s actions are well within the realm of academic freedom, and that the university’s actions are politically motivated. “I believe the real reason they are being this vicious is […] my stated and well known positions and activism on Palestine and the Israel lobby,” Rancourt said. He added that he plans to do everything he can to fight the sanctions.

Do you know how your food was made?

It sounds like a dream come true: technology that has created crops like hypoallergenic wheat and cancer-fighting tomatoes claims to have the tools to solve world famine and reduce reliance on pesticides. Genetic engineering has made a major impact on our world and production of genetically modified food has exploded since its introduction.

Humans have selectively bred food for centuries. Now, new techniques allow scientists to skip the long process. With genetic engineering, isolating the desired genes from one organism and hybridizing them with another makes crossing species much easier. Soy and corn—two of the most important crops in the world—have had their DNA altered through this process.

A popular technique used in genetic engineering is gene splicing. DNA cannot be directly inserted into an organism using this technique. The donor DNA must first be cut and recombined into a fragment compatible with the host DNA. The host is usually a rapidly multiplying bacterium in which the DNA gets duplicated and used as a product in plants, animals, and other organisms. However, DNA can be directly inserted into an organism by injecting it through cell walls (of plants) or fertilized eggs (of animals). By introducing foreign genes, the altered organisms are prompted to make new proteins and enzymes. Consequently, these cells perform new functions.

Genetic engineering can be unpredictable, and is a concern in the areas of environmental safety and conservation, ethics, and the modification of the natural food chain. When foreign genes are inserted into another organism’s DNA the effects are not always foreseeable. A gene could be inserted the wrong way or into other genes. The genetic make-up of the organism could become unstable. Problems may only begin to arise after many generations, making it difficult to know if the initial process did not go smoothly.

Farmers that grow organic crops have concerns about genetically modified food. Seeds from a farm that grows genetically engineered food could be carried to an organic farm, leading to the contamination of these crops. This would not only cause expensive recalls, but the loss of organic certification.

Although there is much scrutiny regarding genetically modified food, there are significant advantages to this technology. Not only is GM technology rapid, there is a virtually unlimited gene pool available for modifications to a species’ physicality and function. For instance, a tomato’s size, flavor, and even growth rate can be altered by GM technology. In addition, specific genes are targeted and species can be crossed. Natural breeding, in contrast, is slow, and occurs within a limited gene pool. The desired genes cannot be solely targeted, and it must occur between the certain species to ensure breeding compatibility.