SEC space unprotected: director

U of T’s Sexual Education and Peer Counselling Centre needs a room.

Slated to be removed from its home at 91 St. George Street by June 30 to make way for a planned $92 million expansion of the Rotman School of Management, SEC’s executive director Mike Markovich is unconvinced that they’ll be getting the space they want.

“So far […] there are few definitive signs that SEC will have the space necessary to provide the full depth and breadth of services which we do now,” said Markovich.

“Space has been identified at 21 Sussex Ave which will accommodate the current activities of SEC,” said VP campus and facilities planning, Elizabeth Sisam. “At this time no additional activities can be accommodated.”

Sisam told Markovich in an earlier email that the space they had “discussed” was available at 21 Sussex. However, Markovich claims that no conclusions in terms of space had come out of his discussion with Sisam. “Sisam promised to visit our office to get a better idea of our situation,” said Markovich. “A date for this tour has not yet been set.”

“In order to provide only our minimal core services, we require a space with which to store and dispense our wide variety of safer sex supplies, a separate space for confidential counselling services, information and referral resources, and to manage the daily administrative and financial business of the group,” said Markovich. “For reasons of both confidentiality and volunteer safety, that means an office space with two directly adjoined rooms of an appropriate size.”

Markovich said 21 Sussex doesn’t have a space that meets SEC’s needs.

SEC also wants space for other services, including room for a library of sex and sexual health-related books and for materials needed for workshops and events.

With volunteers typically away during the summer months, Markovich is also concerned that August might be a difficult time for a move. Sisam said that the centre could move “at their convenience” before the move-out date.

“Our situation is not new,” said Markovich. “Since our group’s inception over 30 years ago, we have moved several times, often taking up residence in places which are only offered to the most organized and perennially active student organizations.”

With SEC’s co-habitants, CIUT 89.5 FM, relocating to Hart House, the radio station looks forward to being at the centre of student activity. Markovich, though, remains apprehensive. “We at SEC are not yet sure what the future holds for our group.”

Home field advantage

Even with a dozen voice recorders tracking his every word, former NFL quarterback Jim Kelly is completely at ease. Seated in front of a background emblazoned with Bills in Toronto logos, he charmingly answers each enquiry. When a reporter rephrases a previous question about permanently moving the Bills to Toronto, I expect Kelly to give a reiteration of his previous answer. But what he says next is music to my ears.

“I’m all for [Toronto] getting a franchise. I think they can definitely support it here. They’ve got millions and millions of people in this community. I’d love to see a Buffalo Bill-Toronto ‘whatever they would be called’ rivalry. Boy, wouldn’t that be great?”

As I nod in agreement, images of a Canadian NFL team dance through my head. Only later, while pondering the phenomenon of football culture, do the Hall of Famer’s words really sink in.

Professional football reigns supreme south of the border. It’s the most popular sport in America, followed by baseball, and college football. Nielsen reports that this year’s Super Bowl match-up between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals garnered almost 99 million viewers in the United States alone.

But football is more than just an entertaining way to spend a Sunday. Kelly has experienced this first hand, both playing and living in Buffalo. “When Monday comes and [the Bills] don’t win, it’s a very disappointing start of a workweek,” he says. “Just by listening to the radio talk shows and listening to the attitude of a lot of the fans, their whole week is determined on how the Bills play—it really is. They live and breathe Buffalo Bills football.”

It wasn’t always this way. When the NFL started in 1920, it consisted of two leagues—the National Football League and the American Football League (AFL). It drew limited interest, as baseball was all the rage. Professional football simply couldn’t compete with America’s national pastime, and didn’t draw much attention from fans until the mid-1960s.

Conversely, during this time, the CFL enjoyed massive popularity in Canada. The NFL was smaller then, and with too many players for the number of available spots, many top-notch athletes were turned away from the NFL. Fortunately for Canadians, they traveled north to pursue their professional football dreams. During that time, the CFL boasted some amazing players and action-packed games. Grey Cup parties—which would go on to become the template for modern Super Bowl parties—were the norm in those days.

The 1970s marked the start of the NFL’s epic rise in popularity, and the beginning of the end of the CFL. The AFL disbanded and became part of the NFL in a 1970 merger, making the NFL more powerful and popular than ever. With the addition of the Seattle Seahawks and Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1976, there was more than enough room to accommodate players who would have been turned away in the past. The CFL’s talent pool diminished quickly, forcing teams to put second stringers in as starters. They also picked up athletes whose careers in the NFL were over, like former Oakland Raider and Montreal Alouette Fred Biletnikoff. But these players didn’t take the league or the game as seriously as they took the NFL. The CFL quickly declined into what many now view as an amateurish football league, paling in comparison to its dazzling American counterpart.

Each year, interest in the CFL diminishes, while fascination with the NFL climbs ever higher. According to the Globe and Mail, 2.439 million Canadians watched the Grey Cup last November, while CTV reported that an average 3.6 million Canadians were tuned in to this year’s Super Bowl.

“The Super Bowl is the preferred football event to watch among young Canadian males, an important demographic that the CFL needs to ensure remains loyal to the Canadian game in the long run,” says Harris/Decima senior vice president Jeff Walker.

Despite the CFL’s fall from its former glory, football culture is still strong in Canada, evidenced by the fact that Canadians—young males and otherwise—want to watch and participate in the sport.

We encourage our youth to get involved in football. Last December, the Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations (OFSAA) held its annual high school football bowls. Officially titled the “OFSAA Bills Toronto Series Football Bowls,” it gave high school teams the chance to play football in the Rogers Centre, just like professional athletes. It’s a chance not many young football players get, in Canada or the United States. “I never got this opportunity, to play in a championship game in high school and to play in a domed stadium,” recalls former NFL quarterback and Hall of Famer Dan Marino. “The attention that this brings to [the players], it’s a great opportunity for them.”

Watching live NFL or NCAA-rules football games also holds considerable interest for Canadians. For the past three years, Toronto has been home to the International Bowl, a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) game featuring two American college football teams. This year’s match-up between the Connecticut Huskies and Buffalo Bulls attracted 40,184 spectators to the Rogers Centre. Last year, fans paid more than triple Ralph Wilson stadium ticket prices to see the Bills in Toronto, and each football season thousands of Canadians spend their Sundays catching a game in Detroit, Buffalo, or Seattle.

While Canadian fans don’t mind cheering for teams based in American cities, most would like to back a true home team instead of the one closest to the border. Many would argue an easy solution is to support a CFL team, but it isn’t that simple. The CFL isn’t a Canadian version of the NFL, and it just doesn’t have the same entertainment value as it once did.

Days after my brief meeting with Jim Kelly, his voice still echoes in my mind and it occurs to me he’s right; Toronto can support its own franchise, and now it’s more plausible than ever before. If the NFL underwent another expansion, it’s conceivable that a Canadian team could be incorporated. Recently, the NFL has made a major push to become more international, playing regular season home games outside of the U.S. in Toronto, London, and Mexico City. All were met with considerable interest, proving to the NFL that non-American teams could generate enough revenue to be worth it.

Until then, I’ll wait patiently for the day that I can cheer on the Toronto “whatever they would be called.”

How to reach your student union

During election time, student politicians are evaluated for their competence and attitudes. The Varsity wanted to do the same for the staff student unions employ.

We set out to test this through phone, email, and in-person visits between Feb. 22 and March 4. From cheery laughter to slammed phones, we received a variety of responses as we asked about everything from anti-calendars and health care plans to how to contest a mark and horrible professors.

University of Toronto Students’ Union is the largest of the student unions, and understandably not the most accessible. Office staff are generally helpful, though most queries are passed on to other contacts. The office sells Wonderland tickets and does not only compile tax returns but files them as well. UTSU’s protest-happy website is clearly laid out, with some broken links and a striking resemblance to the CFS site. It does not post minutes online, for fear of the administration knowing its plans. when phoned, staff asked if we were from The Varsity. It is best to call in the afternoon, and dial 221 to skip the trailing directory message.

Scarborough Campus Students’ Union was difficult to reach the first two days, as commuter students lined up outside the office for metropasses. Phone calls went to voicemail until Wednesday, when the voicemail system was filled until noon. Often both staff members on duty served only one student at a time. When available, the staff tried to help as much as possible before referring us to other people or the Internet. Information on SCSU’s slime-green website is badly categorized, but it is updated frequently with detailed information on upcoming events. Some pages haven’t been touched in years, and the last minutes available are from December. Budget information was released this year after high demand. Staff recommend phoning between 3 and 5 p.m.

University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union is the smallest and, consequently, the most accessible of the unions. Although it offers fewer services than the other four, the front desk is located right in the middle of the student centre. Staff were cheerful, but often reluctant to give any information beyond references to VPs or online information. When functioning, UTMSU’s slick website is up-to-date, well-organized, and invites student thought. Its budget and meeting minutes are sorted out clearly. Staff recommend phoning in the afternoon, and not during Board of Directors meetings.

Arts and Science Students’ Union has the advantage of a unique organizational structure, with almost all attention on academic services. Although the office often opens a few minutes late, it is welcoming and the staff are helpful. They even sell cheap pop. When asked for budget and financial information, we were provided print-outs without getting questioned. ASSU’s website is very functional, although most information can only be found on individual disciplines’ websites of varying usefulness. Students should avoid phoning after marks are released and the end of the semester.

Graduate Students’ Union also holds a unique role, catering to grad students’ needs through services such as a swap shop and housing networks. When phoned about meeting minutes, staff were hostile when our reporter did not give their name and terminated the conversation. When visited, office staff wanted to know if our reporter was from The Varsity and said the budget was not available to non-graduate students, even though the information is posted online. The website features a well-organized layout, with more propaganda than useful information. The information it does have is up-to-date, including meeting minutes.

We wanted to know how accessible the presidents were, so we sent an aliased email just after midnight last Sunday asking for a meeting to discuss “getting involved with politics on campus.” ASSU’s president wrote back within an hour; the heads of UTMSU, SCSU, and GSU within a day; UTSU did not reply by print time.

Report card breakdown

We approached the staff as regular students with a variety of concerns. While the questions were modified based on each union’s services and official lingo, these are the main ones:

  • How can you help me contest a mark in [humanities course] from last semester?

  • How can you help defend me in an English literature essay plagiarism case?

  • Can I get a copy of your last executive meeting minutes?

  • Can I get a copy of your most recent budget?

  • How can I apply for Dollars for Daycare/family services?

  • How is the anti* calendar assembled?

  • Can you help me find housing near campus?

  • Are you offering income tax workshops?

  • I have a really ineffective professor. What can you do to help?

  • I was wondering how I go about accessing the food bank and who is eligible?

  • How can I get involved with volunteering on campus?

  • The email we sent to each union president’s official address asked: “I was wondering if I could meet with you sometime this week to [discuss] getting involved with politics on campus.”

Approachability

We made notes of how friendly the staff seemed at varying times, including Monday mornings. This included smiles, tone of voice and patience with seemingly absent* minded callers. We also made note of when we were asked if we were from campus media.
Helpfulness

We tallied up how much effort staff seemed to put into serving us. Some staff put in time to find answers, while others wanted to be finished with us as soon as possible.
Knowledge

We recorded our impressions of how knowledgeable the office staff were. This included how much they knew about services and how often we were referred to other people. We also took note of when we were referred to the wrong people.

Availability

We designed schedules of when to visit and phone the unions to ensure they were contacted on different days. We took notes on when the offices were open and how long it took for the phones to be picked up. We also called at the end of our testing to find out how many administrative staff are employed and when are the best times to call.

Office Layout

We visited each office to observe the layout and test out office supplies available to students.
Website

We reviewed websites for content, loading time, ease of finding information and design. We also tallied a table of every service offered by the unions to design our questions and find services unique to each union.

Overall

The overall score was tallied mathematically, assigning each grade a number (A+ as a nine, C- as a one). We then combined the scores for all categories and divided it by six to provide an average number score, which was translated back into a grade.

Past to present: Israeli Apartheid Week

Every year, Israeli Apartheid Week provokes heated debate between pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian students and groups on campus. The week includes lectures, demonstrations, and films to shore up support for “boycotts, divestments, and sanctions” against Israel, according to its website. Launched at U of T in 2005, IAW is being held in 40 cities this year.

“We do this week to raise awareness of Palestinians living under Israeli apartheid and to promote the growing global movement for boycotting domestic sanctions, and to get Israel to comply with three demands,” said Students Against Israeli Apartheid organizer Golta Shahidi. “The first one is an end to occupation, and dismantling the apartheid wall; the second demand is to respect the right of return of Palestinian refugees; and the final demand is equal rights for all citizens of the state.”

The campaign has drawn criticism for using the word “apartheid.” Pro-Israeli student groups say the event is one-sided, and spreads hate and misinformation about Israel. This year, two Ottawa universities banned IAW posters that portray Israel as killing children.

While friction at other campuses has been rising, U of T’s event is the calmest since its inception. SAIA member Semra Eylul Sevi said the group is faced with a “different way of trying to suppress dissent” from admin. She cited a Freedom of Information request that revealed senior U of T administrators were involved in denying SAIA space bookings.
Two weeks ago, Carleton University threatened expulsions and sanctions against SAIA for circulating promotional IAW posters that depicted an Israeli warplane firing a missile at a Palestinian child.

Sevi said these posters were posted around the U of T campus, but many were torn down or defaced. A new batch of posters, now up, read, “Tear down this poster if you support Israeli Apartheid.”

The phrase “Israeli Apartheid” was banned by McMaster University last year, with support from the McMaster Students Union. McMaster’s photocopy centre refused to reproduce a poster with the phrase “Israeli Apartheid Week,” sending it off to the university’s human rights and equity services office instead.

On Feb. 12, reported student newspaper the Excalibur, pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian student groups protested simultaneously at Vari Hall, separated by a row of campus security guards. The York branch of SAIA held the rally to urge York president Mamdouh Shoukri to condemn the bombing of academic institutions by Israel. Jewish student groups like Hillel and Hasbara Fellowships organized a counter-demonstration.

SAIA, as organizers, have been suspended for 30 days and fined $1,000 for disrupting classes. The suspension bars the group from booking rooms, halls, and tables, according to SAIA member Hala Farah.

The day before the protest, SAIA had interrupted a press conference announcing that enough signatures had been obtained to impeach the York Federation of Students executive. The conference was apart of a Drop YFS campaign organized by Hillel at York and other pro-Israeli student groups. Tensions boiled over when SAIA and other supporters of YFS entered the room, breaking the fire-code capacity of 30 people, and abruptly ending the press conference. Accusations of racism flew from both sides.

IAW has also attracted controversial figures. Former University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill was a featured guest at IAW at U of T in 2006, and then again at Ryerson in 2008. In an essay written shortly after the World Trade Centre attacks, Churchill called some victims “little Eichmanns,” referring to Karl Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi official who administered concentration camps in World War II.

Palestinian professor of political science at University of Massachusetts, Leila Farsakh, First Nations activist Bob Lovelace, and York University professor David McNally will speak at the Koffler Institute at 7 p.m. tonight.

Editorial: ‘Hate Week’ forces sides when it should be stimulating debate

For those of us not yet convinced, the recent Gaza invasion made clear the disproportionate nature of Israel’s response to provocation and the dismal conditions under which many Palestinians live. The sanctions, brutal violence, and targeting of civilians are inexcusable. But the crux of the issue is human suffering, not the moral characters of Israel or Hamas. Vilifying the aggressor is not an effective response to a conflict in which thousands of victims lie between two violent extremes.

Israeli Apartheid Week has taken an already divisive international issue and used it to create an antagonistic environment on campus. IAW is about furthering the views of its organizers rather than facilitating an open discussion on the topic, which is one that many students do care about. The organizers cannot be wholly blamed in this regard—there are also those who have been baited into an equally extreme response.

And campus media have to shoulder some of the blame, too. After all, it’s pretty clear that many of the tactics used—including the name “Israeli Apartheid” itself—have been chosen to attract maximum media coverage by playing to our known weakness for stories involving conflict, a good photo, and an easy phrase simplifying a complex situation.

Whatever IAW’s original purpose, the nickname that this weeklong series of events has taken among the student body is telling: that any week of the year should be known as “Hate Week” demonstrates a profound failure on the university’s part.

Inevitably, university policies will be treated as part of the conflict. However, this is just the kind of problem that policy—or policy alone—cannot fix. Treating this as a policy issue exacerbates the problem. By “failure on the university’s part,” we refer not only to university administration, but to all of us. Hate Week exemplifies how easy it is to get carried away with the conflict between students and university governance—a conflict that so often becomes a matter of eye-for-an-eye justice. Ontario campuses can become battlegrounds: offences invite counter-offences from other groups (witness the advertisement battles that take place in this newspaper and on campus lamp posts). Passersby get dragged in trying to return overdue books to the library.

It’s a strange situation given that universities aren’t states, they’re universities. We can appreciate that those who hand out fliers for hours in the bitter cold are trying to help educate students about this issue—no easy task on a notoriously apathetic campus, especially during this time of year when we have enough information to process as it is. The question is this: Israeli Apartheid Week has been around since 2005, so how much have we learned?

Hate Week proves that merely providing a free space for open discussion cannot create discussion itself. Unfortunately, the free space is what we’ve been focussing on for a while now. The failure to make effective use of public forums results in two sides (though in reality, we know there are an infinite number of sides on the issue of Israel-Palestine) yelling at one another, neither listening to what the other is saying.

The role of the university in our society is a place for informed and open discussion, free from dogma and intimidation. That some students don’t feel welcome to participate in that discussion, or simply avoid certain buildings so that they won’t be asked to take sides, is a clear signal that we as a community have deviated from that role.

The first step toward a solution is inviting other groups on campus to organize an alternative to IAW. The point would not be to initiate a third firing squad, but to avoid the tactics and rhetoric of Hate Week altogether. If these events are organized by groups with no obvious connection to Israel or Palestine, all the better. The participation of such third-party groups would hopefully emphasize the multiplicity of views available. Anything that can be done to dissolve the tension that usually accompanies IAW is a plus.

Pro-Israel for good reasons

Over the years at this university, a number of people have approached me asking how a Chinese atheist came to be the president of a pro-Israel group on campus. Certainly at face value, this curiosity is understandable. But at the same time, it is symptomatic of a sad state of affairs on this and many other campuses. Because there is nothing controversial or peculiar about one’s support for Israel: it is a liberal democratic country that affords rights to all its citizens. As liberal-minded Canadians, it follows that we should sympathize with a country agreeable to our own values, just as we do with democratic allies such as the United Kingdom, France, Japan, and India.

That most students don’t realize how self-evident a stand with Israel should be is probably due to events like Israel Apartheid Week. It is unfortunate that on this campus, the first thoughts that come to students’ minds when Israel is brought up is a week devoted to negative portrayals and slander. As another Israel Apartheid Week comes and goes, this campus’ diverse student body ought to try a thought experiment: how would you feel if an organization devoted an entire week to the vilification of your home country? Would it be productive to the discussion of serious issues, or would it simply incite racial tensions and anger? How fair would it be if profession of your patriotism was labelled as “racist?”

As a person of Chinese descent proud of his cultural and national roots, I am confident that if this university held a series of events focussing on criticisms of the Chinese state, students would balk in disgust. They would no doubt acknowledge the multiplicity of political and social issues surrounding China that need to be discussed, and would protest the lack of balance and objectivity. This analogy extends to all states, including Israel.

Some will object to my characterization of Israel Apartheid Week. They will argue that it does indeed promote discussion, and does so in an objective and balanced manner. Perhaps an account of my experiences can put such objections into perspective. In November, Students Against Israeli Apartheid, the sponsors of Israel Apartheid Week, held a public forum to discuss Israel’s security fence. At the forum, I made a public overture for dialogue, stating that students on this campus would love to have a discussion on Israel with all opinions voiced and heard. The proposal was immediately rejected. It turns out that SAIA was not interested in dialogue with ideologically differing students, because these students were “racist.” I was later accosted by some of the students present at the forum and asked if I knew the whereabouts of a Ku Klux Klan meeting, the implication being that support of Israel was tantamount to racism.

This was not an isolated incident. Two years ago, Israel Apartheid Week included a lecture by an Israeli Member of Knesset on the subject of Israeli democracy. When dissenting students, myself included, asked questions critical of the lecture’s content, we were booed by the audience. Loud chants of “shame” erupted to the point where we knew we were not welcome at the event.

Although SAIA events are open to the public, SAIA routinely bars the media from taking pictures or making video recordings. SAIA meetings, which are advertised as all-inclusive, have ideological litmus tests. I know this because I have attempted to sit in on their meetings, with the end result being outrage and contempt directed toward myself and my peers.

If the organizers of Israel Apartheid Week intend to stimulate intellectual exchange and objectivity, their actions beg to differ. They have shown, through intimidation and verbal assaults, secrecy and hostility, and that they do not care much for discourse on this campus. It is ironic that while the rights of free speech permit their events to occur, they have no problem silencing their opponents with ad hominem arguments and the discouragement of criticism from dissidents and journalists.

Joshua Xiong is the President of Zionists @ University of Toronto

Apartheid is not dead

“Israeli policies in the Palestinian territories appear so similar to the apartheid of an earlier era, a continent away, and I believe it is very important we in the United Nations use this term,” says Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann, the current serving president of the United Nations General Assembly. “We must not be afraid to call something for what it is…Today, perhaps we in the United Nations should consider following the lead of a new generation of civil society, who are calling for a similar non-violent campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions to pressure Israel to end its violations.”

The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, initiated by over 170 Palestinian civil society organizations in 2005, is a growing peaceful campaign demanding that Israel comply with international law by ending its illegal occupation of Palestinian land, grant equal rights to all of its citizens irrespective of race or religion, and allow Palestinian refugees the right to return to their homeland, as stipulated under UN Resolution 194.

This year, Israeli Apartheid Week, organized to further the BDS movement on campuses, is taking place concurrently in over 40 cities worldwide, including campuses in the West Bank, South Africa, and Britain. Complete with lectures, multimedia presentations, cultural performances, art showings, film screenings, and demonstrations, IAW unites the growing chorus of voices identifying Israel as an apartheid state.

Apartheid, meaning “apartness” in Afrikaans, was a term used to describe the legislated racial segregation of pre-1994 South Africa. Under the regime of “grand apartheid,” and especially with the introduction of the 1950 Group Areas Act, white South Africans forced the displacement and denationalization of large numbers of indigenous black South Africans. The subsequent concentration of these black South Africans into a series of cramped, nominally autonomous “Bantustans” led to the creation of a white majority “democracy” within the remaining 87 per cent of the South African state.

This story is all too familiar to Palestinians who, during the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948, saw the forced expulsion of 800,000 of their own people and the destruction of over 430 towns and villages. Today, Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories—the West Bank and Gaza—confront a complex network of checkpoints, walls, roadblocks, curfews, Jewish-only roads, and other tools designed to Bantustanize and ghettoize over 3.5 million Palestinians into less than 20 per cent of their historic homeland.

The establishment of this system of grand apartheid in Israel, which mirrors the South African system, has managed to create a Jewish majority in Israel and thereby artificially construct an ethnic “democracy” by displacing the majority indigenous population. The roughly 1.2 million Palestinians who remain nominal “citizens” of Israel face legislated discrimination in land-ownership, family law, and citizenship rights, while over three million Palestinian refugees expelled from historic Palestine continue to be denied the right to return.

Some have argued that the title of apartheid belongs solely to the case of South Africa. However, this is not true as the United Nations International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, adopted in 1976, defines apartheid as a universal crime that could be committed by other states as well. Uri Davis’ book Apartheid Israel provides an in-depth analysis of the links between South African and Israeli apartheid. It is very telling that colonial states with surviving indigenous populations—like Israel, Canada, the US, Australia, and New Zealand—all refused to sign on to the apartheid convention insisting that the crime only applied to South Africa.

Students Against Israeli Apartheid (a working group of OPIRG-Toronto) is encouraging all students to stand against our university’s support for Israeli apartheid and racism in all its forms. To get involved today, and for a full listing of IAW events and speakers, visit www.apartheidweek.org or contact saia@riseup.net.

Saron Ghebressellassi and Faraz Vahid Shahidi are both members of Students Against Israeli Apartheid @ UofT, and are volunteers at the Ontario Public Interest Research Group-Toronto.

Heroically Misguided

Why should I care? That’s the question I kept asking myself during Watchmen, director Zack Snyder’s 163-minute, $100-million adaptation of Alan Moore’s graphic novel. The question Watchmen fans will want to know is if Snyder and company “screwed it up,” and they haven’t (the film is surprisingly faithful to its dense, bleak source material), but having read the book and seen the movie, I’m not sure the original was worth such reverent treatment in the first place. “Somebody’s pickin’ out costumed heroes,” says Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), a Travis Bickle-like avenger in an overcoat and inkblot-patterned mask. The grave solemnity of this line’s delivery points to Watchmen’s central flaw: it ignores the fundamental absurdity of the premise.

In an alternate America circa 1985, Richard Nixon is serving his fifth presidential term and the world teeters on the brink of nuclear war. Crime and debauchery plague the streets as the costumed heroes that once kept them clean have been outlawed (Watchmen skirts between anti-Nixon leftism and the pseudo-fascism of the vigilantes, and the ideological incoherence is troubling). Rorschach is the only hero still on the prowl, but when his former colleague The Comedian is killed, he fears a conspiracy will wipe out the other ex-crimefighters, including Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman), and Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), who is in reality Adrian Veidt, the only superhero to reveal his identity. Looming as an intimidating presence over the superhero community and the world at large, Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) has become an actual atomic superman during a freak accident, with awesome powers used to end the Vietnam War.

Watchmen has been touted as a deconstruction of the superhero genre—these heroes have angst, moral qualms with vigilantism, erectile dysfunctions, etc. But again…why should I care? The film and the book present the existential crises of costumed heroes with as much gravity as The Passion of the Christ, which would be interesting, I suppose, if superheroes were real. Because heroes like these are such an intrinsically absurd notion, I find it hard to care about and relate to their problems. I know you’re thinking about The Dark Knight, but that film tried to show how a single comic book hero could exist in a very realistic (and thus relatable) universe, while the hero-infested 1985 of Watchmen is downright surreal. I was reminded of The Incredibles, a film that made similar material infinitely more relatable by treating it lightly.

No review of Watchmen is complete without discussing its ending, which has been altered from the book but still retains its central philosophical dilemma [spoilers ahoy]. Without giving too much away, it involves an apocalyptic scenario hinged upon Dr. Manhattan, which leads our heroes into an important moral issue with potential world peace hanging in the balance.

Some have viewed this ending as posing a deep philosophical quandary, but the situation itself is about as relatable as the type of outlandish pseudo-profundities unleashed by a stoned philosophy student: ‘Okay, dude, imagine this—there’s an apocalyptic scenario involving an atomic weapon who is inherently human with free will, dude.’ Well, since the idea of an atomic weapon with free will is inherently ridiculous, why should I care? Putting this aside, I’m leery about the ends-justify-the-means implications of the scenario, and resent the suggestion that it would bring peace when two world wars and a Holocaust couldn’t. (Might I suggest that in the militaristic, Nixonian universe of this film, such an event would only inspire increased nuclear paranoia, not to mention uproar over the government that created the weapon?) [End spoilers.]

Snyder and screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse have done an adequate job adapting a complicated book into a workable screenplay. The key scenes are here, with the biggest cut being the newsvendor/comic-within-the-comic scenes (which will reportedly surface on an extended DVD). Yet perhaps the film is too faithful: every shot has a glowing, artificial sheen similar to Snyder’s 300, suggesting that the director is so reverent to the material that he’s not only presenting the comic book panels, but polishing and laminating them (if ever there was a futuristic universe that deserved a gritty, Blade Runner-style treatment, it’s this one). The film is simply a prettier, shorter version of the comic with a more problematic ending. Why should I care?

Rating: VV