Of peace and underpants

“Our objective should be to give capacity to civil society groups, especially women’s organizations,” Dr. Razmik Panossian, director of policy, programs, and planning at Rights and Democracy in Montreal and instructor at the London School of Economics told students gathered at Hart House last Thursday.

Panties for Peace, a women’s advocacy group pushing for reform in Burma, is one such organization. Women’s movements are often at the forefront of combating dictatorships, a speaker at Hart House told students yesterday. The Panties for Peace campaign taunts the Burmese leadership on its superstitious belief that contact with a woman’s underpants will rob a man of his power. The group asks women around the world to mail their panties to Burmese embassies to protest the regime’s gross violations of human rights, especially offences committed against Burma’s women.

Razmik outlined a strategy of non-violent resistance in ending dictatorships. He emphasized the crucial role of citizen groups in finding points of oppression in the systems and pushing through them.

For anyone who has grappled with the question of what Canada can do to help end the tyranny of dictators like Robert Mugabe and the Burmese junta, the Hart House talk on Thursday evening offered a place to entertain the question.

In collaboration with the Canadian International Council, the Hart House debate club hosted a panel of three experts, each bringing a different perspective to human rights issues.

In contrast to Dr. Panossian’s citizen-group approach, Dr. Rhoda Howard-Hassman, Canada’s Research Chair in International Human Rights at Wilfred Laurier University and Senior Research Fellow at the Center for International Governance and Innovation, advocated increased scope for military intervention in combating dictatorships in the Zimbabwe.

The first problem, according to Howard–Hassman, is that “We don’t have a name for what is going on in Zimbabwe—there is no ethnic cleaning through violence to speak of. International law and international practice have not caught up with the many ways that a government can systematically cause its people to die and suffer.”

The Genocide Convention of 1984 refers to national, ethnic, religious or racial groups, but does not consider what some scholars are calling politicide and genocide by attrition. Even if the Genocide Convention was amended to include politicide and state-induced famine, the international community is not required to intervene militarily to enforce its mandate. This is the second obstacle to ending the crisis in Zimbabwe, she argued.

The final panelist, Judy Jackson, an award-winning social justice documentary filmmaker, spoke emotionally of her experience as a journalist in Chile during the rule of Augusto Pinochet. She described the psychological importance for victims to see their oppressors put to justice, and of her incredulity at how little is being done for the people of Zimbabwe.

“It is extremely important that whenever a person stands up to speak of an experience of personal suffering, that it is acknowledged and validated by those listening,” said Howard-Hassman. “It takes tremendous courage for a person who has suffered extreme persecution to speak to strangers about it. Often when they speak and no one says anything they go home. They think that nobody cares about them or understands them. That they made fools of themselves.”

Give up the fight

In a split-second, the hockey world saw tragedy. Twenty-one-year old Don Sanderson hit his head on the ice while playing for the Whitby Dunlops during a fight in a Major Hockey League game. After weeks in a coma, Sanderson succumbed to his injuries and died on Jan. 2. With this tragedy in mind, the NHL needs to debate the place of fighting in the league, at least for the sake of the Sanderson family.

The argument needs to be brought to the forefront. Precautions should be made in order to prevent this from happening in the NHL, or in any league ever again.

In the Major Hockey League, fighting is penalized with an automatic game suspension, yet it was Sanderson’s fourth fight in 11 games. Even in a league that does not permit violence, there seems to be no real attempt at reduction as it continues to happen, with players having multiple offenses from the rules set in place.

When fighting is debated, some suggest that the instigator rule should be removed. Yet, this empty rule is barely enforced. Finding the last time the instigator was enforced is like finding a hundred people who admit to liking the Atlanta Thrashers. The NHL rule book states that unless a player is deemed to be the clear aggressor in the fight, a game misconduct is only given if the instigator is called within the final five minutes of the game, or a player starts a fight for the second time. Allowing two acts of instigation shows that the rule is bogus, and that the league is inept at curbing fights.

It’s argued that fighting is an act done by two willing participants, who both know the risks involved. But the NHL is a business and an employer, and they owe it to their players to ensure their safety. They can educate the players about helmet safety all they want. They can change the rules deciding whether helmets remain on, or off, during fights. But ultimately, a tighter chin strap will not prevent a tragedy from happening again.

Don Sanderson’s death was an event guided by the changing hockey culture. We now see players who exclusively train to fight. They play for two minutes, sit in the box for five, and then are benched for the remainder of the game. The size and stature of these players have increasingly grown to accommodate the new perception of the hockey goon. Past goons actually played substantial minutes, put up decent numbers, and their ability to fight didn’t take away from their skill. Today’s goon is someone like George Parros who has a total of 19 points in five seasons, while having 490 penalty minutes.

Yet people protect fighting because they see it as a way for the players to police themselves. These same fans see the death of Don Sanderson as a tragic accident, but a once-in-a-blue-moon occurrence. The accident has shed light on the dark side of fighting which should no longer be perceived as a sacred act that separates the game from other professional sports. Although people defend fighting to their grave, they demand no-touch icings and stop signs on youth players’ backs to help prevent serious injuries. While it’s true that driving, smoking, drinking, or eating fast food could kill us but isn’t outlawed, fighting in hockey is an act that that can be prevented. Hockey should be praised for skill, finesse, and strength that isn’t associated with a right hook.

The swift removal of violence from hockey is too harsh at this point. But it is time to seriously question its role within the game. The “sacred act” of fighting needs to be brought down to earth. Out of all the great hockey statistics, the game will forever be etched with one dark stat: one dead from a meaningless hockey fight, which is one too many.

UTSC student group focuses on relief but can’t choose sides

A Scarborough Campus Student Union-sponsored Gaza Coalition at UTSC plans on selling 300 keffiyehs to fundraise for victims of the recent conflict between Hamas and the Israeli government.

The coalition was created on Jan. 9 after the SCSU formed the Taskforce on the Humanitarian Crisis in Gaza. The union passed a motion condemning the Israeli Defense Forces’ “attacks on academic institutions and […] innocent civilians.” SCSU president Zuhair Syed has issued an official statement.

During their second public meeting on Thursday, led by Syed, students from groups like the Women’s Centre, Muslim Students’ Association, and UTSC’s NDP club discussed further plans for raising awareness, contacting local politicians, and contributing to humanitarian aid with the Red Cross.

So far more than 350 people have joined Facebook group UTSC Gaza Coalition for Justice and Peace. While most of the two dozen student groups declaring support have political, ethnic, or religious affiliations, there is also representation from sports, photography, and humanitarian clubs from the campus.

At a “fax-off” event last week organized by the coalition’s awareness committee, students added personal messages and signatures to a typed letter to be faxed to the Ontario government. However, the content of the letter was changed when concern expressed over the words “war crimes” and “assaults” was used to describe the Israeli bombing campaign on Gaza. Some objected that the words made the coalition appear partisan.

At another event with the UTSC branch of the Canadian Red Cross, the coalition’s fundraising committee raised $300 through “A Buck to Save Gaza.” The campaign aims to raise $10,000 for the charity Islamic Relief.

With such a large goal, several times throughout the Jan. 22 meeting members had to remind the group that its sole purpose was to focus on the victims of the conflict. However, many expressed support for Hamas and a desire to include politics as part of their outreach efforts.

“Can we tell students Israel is an illegal state and that what they did was illegal?” asked a student in attendance.

The group also plans on selling keffiyehs and keffiyeh-style ribbons this week as part of their fundraising efforts. The scarf has recently become ubiquitous as a fashion accessory, but in the two decades prior was seen a symbol of support and solidarity with Palestine against Israel.
The UTSC Gaza Coalition is set to meet again on Jan. 30 at 2 to 4 p.m. The location has yet to be announced.

With files from Dylan Robertson

Search continues for Osgoode subway shooter

A young man was shot in the abdomen and leg last Thursday after three bullets were fired inside Osgoode Subway Station during the mid-morning rush.

Within minutes, police from the city’s Emergency Task Force and 52 division arrived at the station’s entrance at University and Queen Street. Police closed a section of the north-south line for four hours to search for the weapon used and to question witnesses.

No weapon has been found.

According to reports, the victim was shot following an argument that erupted as a group of young men exited a southbound train.

Detective David Barwell, who has been following the case, told The Varsity the victim had seen the shooter before, but does not know his identity.

“We know the guy was targeted,” said Barwell. “My hunch is that it is gang-related.”

The 19-year-old victim was taken to St. Michael’s Hospital and released the same day after undergoing surgery for non-life-threatening injuries.

Late Thursday, police released a security-camera photo of the suspect. He is described as being in his early- to mid-20s, a light-skinned black man, and about six feet tall with a medium build.

“Lots of people saw the incident and they certainly cooperated enough to say that the picture released is definitely the guy who pulled the trigger,” said Barwell.

There are about 10,000 security cameras throughout the city’s transit system, but most don’t cover subway platforms.

The TTC is boosting its security by mounting more cameras inside stations. Beginning this fall, subway cars, buses, and streetcars will also be equipped with video surveillance.

Is extra security worth the added cost?

“I would pay more to use public transportation if that meant stations would be safer,” says Regina Cho, a U of T student and TTC rider.

Barwell cautioned against overreacting to the isolated shooting, saying the city and the TTC are safe.

“This was an incident between two individuals that could have happened anywhere. Toronto is a very safe city and our subway system is very safe. We have transit security and they are able to deal with any problems that arise.”

No arrests have been made in connection to the shooting. Additional video footage of the suspect walking in Downsview station was released on Friday. Police have received several tips pointing to one individual’s involvement, but according to Detective Barwell, “we can’t call him a person of interest yet, just someone we are going to have to look at.”

Police are urging anyone with information about Thursday’s shooting to call 416-808-5200 or Crime Stoppers 416-222-TIPS (8477).

Goodbye neo-cons, and good riddance

To many, the image of George Bush leaving Washington in a helicopter following the inauguration was a welcome sight. The last eight years of American politics have been some of the worst on record: two poorly planned and disastrously executed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, an economic crisis, a surge in radical Islam, and a deeply rooted mistrust of the United States and its policies worldwide. The transition that took place on January 20 marks not only a fundamental shift in American politics, but the end of the political monoculture driving the dangerous and destructive policies of the last eight years.

The self-described “neo-conservatives” have enjoyed a vital role in the formulation and implementation of American policy since Reagan. In the post 9-11 era, they have monopolized US politics and the broader American political establishment. Yet prominent neo-cons Paul Wolfowitz, Karl Rove, Donald Rumsfeld, and Henry Kissinger were nowhere to be seen at Obama’s inauguration. The politically questionable Colin Powell was barely visible, hiding in the back row. Witnessing former vice-president Dick Cheney (who, ironically, injured his back while packing up the VP residence) being pushed around in a wheelchair, we’re met with a literal depiction of the state of American neo-conservatism at the dawn of the new administration: frail and unpopular.

But as many have noted, the Obama campaign’s success would have been unthinkable eight years ago. When one compares the current political climate in Washington to that of March 2003, at the peak of the “War on Terror,” the nation’s sharp turn becomes apparent.

Just five days before the inauguration, UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband strongly rebuked the outgoing administration and its policies. Miliband suggested that the War on Terror had been a “mistake,” and had “only served to unite disparate groups against the West.” He later added that the right response to the threat would have been to champion law, not subvert it, a reference to the secretive detention facilities and military courts that have been the subject of criticism for their legal and moral dubiousness. Miliband’s words are surprising considering the role that the Labour government played in the military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Until Tony Blair’s resignation in 2007, Great Britain had been the staunchest ally of the Bush Administration, and one of the leading participants in the implementation of neo-conservative policy worldwide. Miliband’s statements seemed to reject the reasoning behind Bush-era foreign policy, which reached its apex with the infamous “Axis of Evil” speech during the State of the Union Address in 2002.

The notion that terrorism is a unified, ideologically motivated movement bent on destroying the West was one of the central tenets of the neo-conservative worldview. This way of thinking led to the Iraq War, brought the US close to war with Iran, and established the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay. Above all, this worldview has encouraged unilateralism over diplomacy, disdain for international bodies like the UN and the World Court, and a readiness to use military force over negotiation.

The new administration brings hope for a more pragmatic approach to foreign policy. Less than 24 hours after entering office, President Obama signed an executive order announcing the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison facility within 100 days. If Obama delivers on his campaign promises, he will withdraw American forces from Iraq within 16 months and hold multilateral negotiations without preconditions with countries like Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela. In other words, he will bring an end to the divisive politics that have plagued Washington for the past eight years.

The Gaza war in our own backyard

Never has the chasm between political debate and military reality been so wide. The ease with which one can whip an entire polity into war fever has grown past the point of humanitarian realism.

“Stop the rockets, start the peace,” read the signs as I walked through the Toronto for Israel rally in Dundas Square last Sunday. I was there to support a friend of mine, who delivered an outstanding introduction to kick off the event.

Across the street was a small counter-rally organized by Independent Jewish Voices, a Jewish group highly critical of Israel’s policies, whose mantra is “Not in Our Name—Jews Against Zionism.” I overheard some resentful comments while leaving the rally, people charging them as “self-hating Jews,” but for the most part, there were no serious clashes.

Despite the fact that I stood out like a sore thumb—an Arab at a pro-Israel rally—nobody harassed me. In fact, most of the protesters were friendly, and greeted me with more respect than I would expect a Zionist to receive at a pro-Palestine rally.

The event’s theme was “peace.” The speakers impressed upon the crowd an image of a courageous Israel, supported by the international community for fighting the good fight while being the only democratic state in the area, struggling to coexist in harmony with its pugnacious neighbours. What the demonstrators failed to see was that Israel has made a pariah of itself through its condemnable actions in Gaza and the West Bank.

It’s this kind of detachment from reality that makes it hard for someone of my background to comprehend the motive behind anything Israel does. Having lived in an Arab country that has been the target of terrorist attacks, I’ve grown to detest terrorism, and I’m not alone. The majority of Arabs are no fans of fundamentalist groups like Hamas, Hezbollah, or the Muslim Brotherhood. These are rogue terrorist organizations whose unmeasured actions put civilians at risk of reprisal.

But the retaliation exercised by Israel borders insanity. After 60 years, countless attempts at peace, and no less than 50 massacres, Israel should realize that answering violence with violence doesn’t solve the problem: it exacerbates it, and creates a vicious cycle of aggression. At the rally, I was truly disappointed that nobody mentioned how fundamental the peace process is to ending terrorism. Savaging a besieged Gaza does the opposite.

Halfway through the protest, the organizers delivered their bombshell: the evocative 15 Seconds in Sderot video, which sent a chill down my spine. The clip shows a girl, presumably playing hide-and-seek, counting down from fifteen while children run for cover before a rocket lands in the middle of Sderot. While I could find much more horrific images at pro-Palestinian rallies, I can’t deny that the horror of living in constant fear of rocket attacks struck a chord in me. But only for a few minutes.

As the crescendo of praise for Israel climaxed and the keynote speakers whipped the crowd into a frenzy, I wondered how the attendees would react if someone displayed a picture of a Gazan child maimed by a cluster bomb, or civilians charred to the bone by white phosphorus. WP is a highly controversial weapon, which burns everything in its vicinity, including human flesh. While it’s true that WP isn’t internationally banned, its use in one of the most densely populated areas on Earth is troubling.

To make matters worse, two medics with the Norwegian aid agency NORWAC have recently charged Israel with using Gaza as a “test laboratory” for new “extremely nasty” chemical weapons such as Dense Inert Metal Explosives (DIME), which have a carcinogenic effect on people within its blast radius. This is precisely where the self-defence argument falls apart.

A good portion of the people at the rally, including an Indian speaker of questionable credentials, probably weren’t aware of any of these facts. They were too busy extolling Israel’s efforts to battle “terrorism.” They probably didn’t consider the words of Israeli founding father David-Ben Gurion, who said: “If I were an Arab leader, I would never sign an agreement with Israel. It is normal; we have taken their country […] There has been anti-Semitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault? They see but one thing: we have come and we have stolen their country. Why would they accept that?”

Pro-Israel activists need to be made aware of Palestine’s raw deal. They’re already living in extreme poverty, under a virtual occupation. The illusion that Israel’s unilateral disengagement plan has effectively ended the occupation needs to be cast aside, as does the deep-rooted desire on the Palestinian side to “wipe [Israel] off the Earth.” To cut things short, the borders of hostility must be broken down before peace can arise.

Future generations will judge us, not by how many people we killed to take revenge on our enemies, but by our endeavours to set our differences aside. Some time in the distant future, when these nations can once again live in peace with one another, they will look back on this point in time and decry our legacy if we don’t start making reconciliations soon.

Stealing the spotlight

Nikolai Fraiture claims it was never his dream to be a frontman.

The Strokes’ bassist, whose debut solo album The Time of the Assassins hits shelves on Tuesday, is insistent that his new project Nickel Eye wasn’t designed as any kind of ego trip.

“It was never my intention,” he says. “These were always words and ideas that never really had a plan—they were always just a way to let things out. With the time off, I was able to make them into an album.”

The result is The Time of the Assassins, a collection of acoustic-based folk tunes inspired by Fraiture’s appreciation of Neil Young and Leonard Cohen. There are glimpses of The Strokes’ driving rhythms, but the trademark ripping solos and snarling vocals are conspicuously absent—the new frontman is as understated as ever when he steps behind the microphone.

Fraiture’s reservations aren’t surprising. With The Strokes, he’s always been the quiet bassist, shying away from the spotlight in the long shadows of modern rock gods like Julian Casablancas and Nick Valensi.

In early 2007, after spending a year on the road in support of their third LP, First Impressions of Earth, The Strokes told dismayed fans that they would be taking an extended break.

Various solo albums have since followed, including two from guitarist Albert Hammond Jr., and Little Joy, the eponymous debut by drummer Fabrizio Moretti’s side project.

Yet with The Strokes weeks away from reconvening to begin work on album number four, a fact that Fraiture looks me in the eye and confirms (frustrated Strokes fans rejoice!), the oft-overlooked bassist has hit the road with a new backing band for what will be a very brief tour.

Why did he wait so long? It seems the creation of this record was designed simply as a way to pass the time.

“I had the basic words for quite a while, but most of the music was written during the two years we had off from The Strokes.”

Fraiture reveals he was frustrated by their lack of progress on new material.

“I think originally we [needed time off], and then Albert [began] concentrating more on his own project. It was by then that we wanted to get back together, and we tried, and for a while he wasn’t coming in so much, he was still focusing on his solo effort. We met up, all of us, and decided that February 2009 would be best [to get back together].”

Initially, Fraiture found time to finish an old project that had been lying dormant.

“It was this experimental film that I wanted to do for a long time with a friend from college. We had filmed it…in 2003 when we had a quick break back then. It’s based on French surrealist writing, mainly a few poems by Rimbaud.”

Fraiture met his new bandmates (which include guitarist Jamie MacDonald of the band South) unexpectedly while on vacation. “I was visiting my wife’s family in London for an extended period of time, and we all hung out. We started talking about music, they said they had a studio in Hackney, and we went in and recorded some demos.”

Though it’s been a while since Fraiture jammed with his most famous group of friends, he did call in a few hired guns—the album features guest appearances by Regina Spektor and Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

True to form, Fraiture is modest about his new venture into the spotlight. “It [feels] the same, but with a twist. It’s the same kind of connection with the crowd, and I really enjoy that aspect of performing. It’s a little bit different of course, because it’s a different type of attention that you get.”

“The album’s not out yet, so it’s not that much pressure. People don’t know the songs, so they’re more just discovering a new band.”

With another successful solo album primed for release, Strokes fans are going to have to wait just a little longer for their heroes to return. In the meantime, they can tide themselves over by exploring this effort, which came as a surprise to everyone, including its creator.

Funny as hell

“I feel so dirty!” exclaimed the teenager next to me as Satan and Jerry Springer took their final bows. He wasn’t the only one: the older couple sitting to my right had left in disgust at intermission, dismayed at the show’s “utter lack of moral values.” (Just file theirs along with the other 50,000 complaints received when the play aired in 2005 on BBC Two.) Sure, in director Richard Ouzounian’s production, the F-bomb is dropped 297 times, while Jesus admits to being “a little bit gay” and the Ku Klux Klan tap dances with a Confederate flag. But even beyond surface-level controversy, Jerry Springer: The Opera succeeds as a challenging, rewarding piece.

“Bring on the losers!” begins the first act, which serves as a faithful recreation of the daytime trash-fest that is Jerry Springer. An onstage “studio audience” of Walmart-clad rednecks lob insulting chants at Jerry’s guests. The stars themselves, including feces fetishists, an aspiring stripper, and countless adulterers, are no tamer than the usual guests on the television series. The only difference in this musical is the stars’ overwhelming earnestness and naïveté, enhanced by the operatic delivery of the dialogue. As she searches for fame in a “Jerry Springer moment,” the soprano lilt of regressive prostitute Baby Jane (Jocelyn Howard) makes her intentions seem almost pure.

The only redemptive character is Jerry himself, with impressive deadpan delivery by Byron Rouse. Jerry is set apart as the only non-singer, speaking his own lines with amusing awkwardness. While interjecting the fights with witticisms, quipping that “a broadcaster with less experience might feel responsible,” Jerry is occasionally faced with his conscience in the form of a Valkyrie (Sarah Parkin). His Nordic foil takes the moral high ground, criticizing Jerry’s apparent lack of concern for the well-being of his guests. Jerry remains unconvinced until the second act, when the same argument is provided in Hell by Satan (JP Bevilacqua) himself.

The show morphs into a parody of Paradise Lost as the boorish guests of the first act take on the roles of Adam, Eve, Jesus, and God. The analogy makes sense: if Satan was sentenced to damnation for leading Adam and Eve astray, can Jerry be accused of the same sin? Shouldn’t he be held responsible for glamourizing self-destructive lifestyles, dishonesty, and violence? Both on television and in the musical, once his guests’ 15 minutes of fame are up at the end of each episode, it is evident that Jerry has not changed their lives for the better.

As noted by Ouzounian, “If countries get the leaders they deserve, they […] get the TV shows they deserve as well.” Inevitably, a critical commentary on the Jerry Springer demographic extends to American culture as a whole. The outside view of life in the United States is full of contradictions: we endlessly lambaste their crass taste in entertainment, but also their fervent religiosity. This omnipresent dichotomy collides in Springer’s portrayal of the deification of television personalities. Dropping Jerry Springer into one of the most familiar Judaeo-Christian narratives provides a powerful illustration of false idolism.

Those looking for the addictive, cathartic humour of the television show (regardless of the lofty morals) will be similarly impressed by Ouzounian’s production. Hopeless Hawaiian-shirted cheater Dwight (Greg Finney) particularly stands out as a comedic force, especially when reincarnated as a preening version of God. But best of all is the studio audience, who don’t miss a single opportunity for a cheap shot, no matter how self-reflective their insult. Their most telling scene is a trance-like chant that aims to sum up existence: “Eat, excrete, and watch TV.” Surely, we the (real) viewers can get past such passivity in our interpretations of Jerry Springer: The Opera. Providing big laughs, Hart House’s bold production will have you cheering for Jerry, for better or for worse.

Jerry Springer: The Opera runs at Hart House through January 31.