Too little too late

It seemed as if Stephen Harper had an epiphany when he claimed in a CNN interview that NATO troops are “not going to ever defeat the insurgency” in Afghanistan. This is a turnaround from a year ago, when he said during a visit to Afghanistan that NATO troops could completely wipe out the Taliban insurgency. However, if there is one politician whose change of heart should not come as a surprise, it’s Stephen Harper.

One could argue that the experiences of Canadian troops in Afghanistan have made him reflective. But during the interview, Harper gave a different reason: “My reading of Afghan history is that it’s probably had an insurgency forever, of some kind,” he said. Harper (and many notable others) were naïve to think they could destroy the Taliban. Fighting an insurgency in a highly unstable country where the opponents have the home-field advantage is not an easy feat. We’d like to think that our national leaders would read up on a country before sending their troops off to fight there.

Harper’s blunt talk about the war in Afghanistan to an American news channel was disappointing. His comments seemed to be directed at Obama—his change of view comes as the Obama administration begins to act on its promised troop increase in Afghanistan. The past month’s events also shed light on Harper’s comments. During his visit to Canada, Obama indicated that his government would emphasize development and diplomacy. Harper’s strategy in Afghanistan is similar to Obama’s rejection of military-only solutions. So what accounts for Harper’s new-found wisdom?

Harper’s claim that NATO cannot defeat the insurgency raises the question of why Canadian troops are in Afghanistan in the first place. Canada has spent more time fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan than it did fighting in World War II. So when will we finally withdraw? Harper’s claim that the insurgency is impossible to defeat was a response to a question about the decision to withdraw Canadian troops in 2011. Let’s not forget that, in 2007, Harper strongly condemned a “cut and run” strategy for Canadian troops, claiming that was not his “way of doing things.”

Harper’s new and realistic approach to insurgency and his emphasis on effective governance in Afghanistan are praiseworthy. However, his vision is not motivated by concern for stability. Whether Harper’s comments were motivated by Obama’s foreign policy or reflect his own government’s strategy for withdrawal, the bottom line is that his words carry weight—and he will be held accountable for them.

Obama Watch

Last week’s news cycle was much livelier than usual. Alongside ubiquitous stories about the declining stock market, staggering unemployment rate, and Depression-era gloominess, the media’s attention was fixed on one entertainment figure. The man of the hour was the government-bashing go-to guy for everything conservative: America’s neighbourhood blowhard, Rush Limbaugh. For those who aren’t familiar with the talk radio host, he’s been deluding American listeners for over 20 years with his unapologetic brand of abrasive, racist, and misogynistic banter. His extremist views and moral crusading have elevated him to rock-star status in Republican circles, and as an attendee of the Conservative Political Action Conference a couple weeks back, his mere presence caused the audience to erupt with elation. During his rant, he called for a non-interventionist, free market approach for dealing with domestic issues and lambasted President Obama’s strategy for fixing the financial system, saying that he hoped it would not be successful. Over the years, Limbaugh has maintained a core fan base predominantly of white working-class men, and a strong following of GOP members of Congress. Considering that the Republicans suffered devastating losses in a number of red districts during the presidential election, one might expect the party to craft a new electoral strategy, broadening their message and creating policies to speak to a changing demographic. Instead, they’ve been portrayed as Limbaugh-worshipping fools that speak from both sides of the mouth—one minute they criticize his words, the next they’re begging for forgiveness.

It is truly shameful to witness these distinguished men—and so far, it’s only men—seeking political advice and wisdom from one of the most divisive and inflammatory people in the country. Bill Maher summed it up best when he said, “they went looking to the future and they found radio.” The party’s counterarguments to the president’s policies originate largely from Limbaugh, as the nation rejected the Republican way of doing business. Their ideas are no longer credible or effective, and this can only mean good news for the Democrats.

Obama has kept his distance from the loudmouth, but congressional Democrats and pundits alike have alleged that Limbaugh is now the unofficial leader of the Republican party. While it is technically untrue, the notion is not far-fetched. Democrats are pushing this guilty-by-association meme as much as they can because, for the most part, Americans loathe Rush. Many tune into his show out of morbid curiosity, not ideological allegiance. If it appears he’s running the show for Republicans, then voters are more likely to be turned off. Of course, this isn’t a surefire strategy. Last week’s media blitz and the over-the-top live coverage at the CPAC event must have upped his show’s ratings. However, his popularity stands in stark contrast with the president’s. Approval ratings for Obama hover at around 70 per cent, and a large majority have confidence in his policies and leadership. If the opposition chooses to remain loyal to the sermonic Limbaugh, it will be much more difficult to modernize their party and build a stronger coalition for upcoming elections.

CIA debacle leaves hope for lessons learned

A little over a month has passed since U.S. president Barack Obama ordered the closure of Guantanamo Bay and other CIA detention centers. Now, new information has surfaced about the extent of the 2005 destruction of interrogation tapes by the CIA. The number of tapes destroyed by the CIA was previously unknown, but the news broke early last week that 92 was the total.

The number comes as a disappointment to many, but a shock to few. The CIA has long been known for the torture tactics it employs during interrogation sessions. The injustices, not surprisingly, only increased during Bush’s post-911 terror interrogations. Consequently, when the investigation against the CIA began in 2005, it came as no surprise that the audio and visual evidence that documented the interrogation sessions was systematically destroyed in an attempt to protect the CIA officials that engaged in these sessions. Now that the amount of evidence destroyed has been revealed, American Civil Liberties Union attorney Amrit Singh has stated that the CIA should be held in contempt for failing to reveal the information at an earlier date.

That this revelation arose in conjunction with the instructions to close down Guantanamo Bay leaves me wondering if this string of events signals a long-overdue reign-in of the CIA, and the dawn of a new era under President Obama. The disclosure of the destruction statistic was made by CIA officials during legal proceedings, but it was the Obama government that released to the public the information from the trials (along with the Justice Department memos from Bush’s presidency). Could this mean greater transparency in the future? All that Obama has done since his inauguration points to a move in the right direction. Still, these are only the first steps, and it will take more work to correct past injustices and ensure better practices in the future.

The optimism in response to the information release was tempered by the grim realization of belated atonement for the Bush administration. A further and even more troubling realization is that the government has probably only scratched the surface of revealing, and moving to correct, past wrongdoings. Given that the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel gave Bush the authority to suspend freedom of speech, ignore the Fourth Amendment, and send prisoners to countries known to use torture, what is left to discover isn’t likely to make the free world proud. Nevertheless, it’s better to be disappointed with eyes wide open than to be blissfully ignorant of the truth.

The Rebirth of Gentleman Reg

The most interesting aspect of the fourth record from Toronto folkie Gentleman Reg (a.k.a. Reginald Vermue) is that it almost never happened.

After Three Gut Records—the legendary Guelph indie label that unearthed The Constantines and Royal City, among others—folded in 2006, Reg found himself without a label or a project.

“I made this on my own,” he says. “My record label had collapsed, but I decided that I needed to make a new record. I just started working on it. It was very much ‘Let’s just record these songs we have,’ and after that there was no plan.”

The record sat in limbo for two years until powerhouse Toronto indie label Arts & Crafts picked it up last fall.

“I’ve been around them for a long time, and it felt very natural,” Reg notes, and he admits to having received offers from smaller labels as well. “But they were the best deal for me. Arts & Crafts are putting my record out for the world, which is nice.”

Indeed, the label founded and headlined by Broken Social Scene is putting Gentleman Reg in a much better position than he could have anticipated even a year ago. Aside from releasing the record in Canada, they’re also releasing a compilation of his previous work in the United States and Europe. The international introduction is a little jarring for Reg, who has garnered national attention since his first record, The Theoretical Girl, made him a hit with Canadian indie music fans.

“It’s a little bit strange. It’s technically my fourth record, but in so many ways, it’s the first that anyone is ever going to hear. It’s strange, but it makes sense in a lot of ways. I wouldn’t want anyone to hear that first record—I actually wouldn’t want to be associated with it now!”

The new material is a big change in direction for the Guelph-born rocker, following 2005’s Darby & Joan, a romantic collection of sentimental pop ballads.

On Jet Black, Reg lowers his trademark fey tenor voice to a baritone, and surrounds knowing lyrics with muscular guitar riffs, most of which were provided by The Constantines’ Bry Webb.

The songs also take a more downbeat worldview. The album’s standout track, “You Can’t Get it Back,” is an ode to remorse in all its forms.

“There’s not a big point to hanging onto regrets,” says Reg. “You can’t get the time back, you can’t get the innocence back.”

The rest of the album seems similarly obsessed with the passing of time. Tracks like “How We Exit” and “Rewind” reflect a general downtrodden tone, maintaining a consistent, harder-edged, guitar-rock sheen.

It’s on the album’s sole danceable track, “We’re in a Thunderstorm,” that the idea of turmoil is most pronounced and literalized, while “To Some it Comes Easy” and “Falling Back” temper the idea of tragedy with a weary acceptance.

For Reg, the album’s title reflects a whole new state of mind.

“[Jet Black is] a reflection of the change in direction and what I wanted to put out there. We rocked out a little bit more. I actually don’t know why it happened. There were some ballads, but we decided to keep them off this time.”

Despite this admission, Reg bristles at the thought that his music is becoming more masculine.

“Obviously, I’m very macho,” he blurts out sarcastically. “My music will never be masculine.”

Yet in spite of the newfound blackness in his lyrics, Reg still sees much cause for optimism.

“I’m very forward-looking right now, in so many ways. I’ve been cleaning out my apartment, getting rid of things I don’t need, and just looking at everything in my life. I’m getting ready to tour now, more than ever before. It’s a lot at once, but it’s good.”

Gentleman Reg plays the annual Chartattack Horseshoe showcase (368 Queen St. W.) tonight at 11 p.m. Single tickets are $20, and all-access wristbands for CMW are $50.

Boys who cried wolf

Alexander Ortiz is fluent in four languages: English, French, Spanish, and music.

“Music is an extension of the everyday for me,” explains the We Are Wolves bassist and singer over the phone, while relaxing with his one-and-a-half-year-old daughter Paloma. “I speak French with my friends, English at school, and Spanish with my parents. So my music reflects all sorts of interactions.” On Total Magique, his latest album with We Are Wolves, Ortiz’s conversations are hinted at through trilingual track names. His sources of inspiration, though, go far beyond the aural.

“I also love looking at interesting architecture…it can become a song, or a song can become art. My real dream is to become a contemporary artist,” he says. “I’d love to do conceptual installations and sculptures.”

Ortiz, along with bandmate Vincent Levesque, came to music through the visual art world, learning his craft through jam sessions rather than professional training. The tribal, primal energy of We Are Wolves emerges from this spontaneity. “We learned from being together, from allowing the emergence of feeling from inside,” he says.

We Are Wolves’ unique sound stems from the way they combine this raw emotion with analog synthesizer tones. “We’re really inspired by sounds from the ’70s and ’80s, especially bands like Kraftwerk and Trans Am. The texture is just more appealing, there’s more colour behind it.”

The resulting post-punk mayhem of We Are Wolves is equal parts Velvet Underground and Atari gaming system, sounds which sometimes purposely clash but are generally complementary. The lead track on Total Magique, “Fight and Kiss,” is upbeat and catchy, but its dark undertones deepen the sound. This explains Ortiz’s opposition to “stuff that’s digital, cheesy, commercial. Like, you know the bass line for Seinfeld? I love Seinfeld, I watch it so much, but that bass line is just bad, bad, bad!”

We Are Wolves lack originality only in their choice of name, frequently being confused with fellow Montréalers Wolf Parade and English crooner Patrick Wolf, among others. “Yeah, I think wolves were just the cool thing five years ago,” laughs Ortiz. “Since then, you’ve had a lot of bands with the word ‘black’ in the name, and then a ‘crystal’ phase with Crystal Castles and Crystal Antlers. But it’s so hard for a band to find a name. You just have to hope it pops out. When it does, you know it comes from the heart.”

Their naming strategy seems to have worked—We Are Wolves were on tour in England and Germany this month before returning home for Canadian Music Week. On Thursday night, they’ll be taking part in Sirius Radio’s Vive la Musique Montréal line-up at the El Mocambo, and on Friday, they’re opening for London indie rockers Bloc Party at the Kool Haus. “We love Bloc Party,” declares Ortiz. “It’s a real honour to be playing with them.”

But while you’ll only see three people onstage at their shows, We Are Wolves has a self-proclaimed fourth member: rock. Just as music is a fourth language for Ortiz, it’s also a bandmate, a near-physical presence: “Music is just part of our lives. That’s just how it is.”

Catch one of We Are Wolves’ shows this weekend, and you’ll hear exactly what he means.

We Are Wolves play the El Mocambo (464 Spadina Ave.) tonight at 11 p.m., and the Kool Haus (132 Queens Quay E.) tomorrow night at 9 p.m. Single tickets for both shows are sold out, and all-access wristbands for CMW are $50.

The Freewheelin’ Mohsen Namjoo

You can often hear the Persian language spoken in the district of North York Centre, but last Friday evening Iranian culture was concentrated around the Toronto Centre for the Arts. The event was a concert by Mohsen Namjoo, the Iranian music phenomenon who is widely known as Iran’s Bob Dylan. Since he burst onto the Iranian music scene roughly two years ago, his legend hasn’t stopped growing. His first songs generated millions of hits on YouTube, and Namjoo has since played shows all over Europe and North America. With his skyrocketing popularity, he was widely recognized in Iran as a revolutionary musician before he released even a single album.

For many, he’s more than a favourite musician—he’s a symbol of a new movement in traditional Iranian music. He revolutionized the ancient musical form by mixing it with modern folk, blues, and rock influences.

About his innovative sound, Namjoo says, “Its [distinctive quality] is that a new paradigm has been presented in a closed and limited arena like Iranian traditional music, [which] has always been a ‘museum art’ in relation to other forms.”

His popularity in Iran has spread all over the world, making Namjoo such a big name within the Iranian community of Toronto that his March 6 concert sold out a month in advance. He was even followed around the city during his week-long stay by an entourage of fans. Any attempts to hide his place of residence proved ineffective.

But despite his newfound celebrity, the best part of the Namjoo experience is the concert itself. Armed with only a guitar, Namjoo presented a number of his newest works, including one in which he shouts out the name of Muslim prophet Mohammad with a curious sheep imitation: “Maa.” His explanation? “All three main prophets (Jesus, Moses, and Mohammad) were shepherds.” His audacious mash-ups included mixing Johann Sebastian Bach with old Iranian pop singers, and Iranian “new wave” poets with Turkish pastoral hymns.

Namjoo spoke on Sunday afternoon to a packed audience at Hart House’s East Common Room, an event organized by the Iranian Student Association at the University of Toronto. He spoke passionately about his Iranian music projects, and revealed his interest in an unbelievable number of ancient poets.

He’s been celebrated at Toronto’s Arta Gallery in the Distillery District and numerous venues in North York, providing hundreds of concertgoers with the Namjoo experience. The reception has been so warm in Toronto that he admitted he’s thinking of returning to stay for good.

Why does he claim he likes Toronto more than the dozens of other cities he’s visited on tour? “To be honest I couldn’t give you a very rational answer,” says Namjoo. “This is more about senses. We judge everything, and this has been [my judgment] about Toronto. I feel a biological attraction to this city and its people.”

If Namjoo does indeed choose to relocate, those who welcomed him this past week could arguably claim a role in the shaping of Iranian music history.

Crowded field at GC election town hall

Governing Council candidates appeared at a public town hall at Hart House on Tuesday, a day into the election. In attendance were full-time undergraduate hopefuls Andrew Agnew-Iler, Maximilian Cadmus, Anthony Darcovich, Zayne Dattu, Albert Delitala, Vik Handa, and Margaret Min Hee Kim; full-time undergrad incumbent Grant Gonzales; part-time undergrad candidate Joeita Gupta; graduate student (humanities and social sciences) Paul York; administrative staff candidate Diane Crocker.

A major topic was President Naylor’s Towards 2030 plan, consisting of a shorter framework document voted in last October and a more detailed synthesis, whose recommendations have not been voted on. Controversial sections of Towards 2030 include “self-regulation” of fees and a plan to gradually decrease the overall undergrad population in favour of more grad students. The plan also encourages more corporate-funded research.

All governor hopefuls said they would work to protect students from the economic downturn by avoiding fee increases. Candidates disagreed, however, on how to maintain the complex balance between tuition, government, and corporate funding. Cadmus said he wanted to find a balance between all three sources to ensure access for “at-risk” students. Gupta disagreed: “I think education is a right and that we need to push for newer models at the university that don’t rely on corporate funding […or] increasing tuition fees.”

“I will advocate not to increase tuition, but realistically, I can’t promise that,” said Darcovich. “What I would do on Governing Council is really lobby for alternative methods.”

“If tuition were to be raised to $15,000 that would be ridiculous, I would oppose that and I speak as an OSAP-receiving student,” said Gonzales, the incumbent who had voted for the Towards 2030 framework.

Several candidates spoke about sustainability and a need to make U of T more environmentally friendly. “Environmental sustainability has to be addressed as a part of this [Towards 2030] framework,” Kim said.

“Universities can be instruments of social change for the good, not evil,” said York, an environmental activist who has made this issue central to his campaign. He emphasized the many steps needed, including changing curricula, retrofitting buildings, and dropping investments in corporations like Imperial Oil.

Out of 50 governors, only eight are students—a point that came up throughout the debate. “If we change this, we could start to address all the other issues all the other candidates have raised,” said Agnew-Iler, who was particularly incensed. “And how I plan on doing this, is by mobilizing all the students, regardless of political orientation.”

Accessibility was also a big issue, with Kim, Darcovich, Handa, Delitala, and Zayne vowing to make themselves available to their constituents through email, Facebook, and in-person meetings.

Also present was Semra Eylul Sevi, a GC candidate last year and one of the Fight Fees 14 who staged a sit-in at Simcoe Hall in March. Sevi ran on a platform of eliminating tuition fees and changing investment policies, but this year she’s encouraging fellow students to boycott the election.

“It’s meaningless because student representatives have tokenistic seats, so they can’t make any meaningful change. I think that students should de-legitimize the whole system and not vote for Governing Council,” said Sevi. She now wants to stay out of student politics and continue working from the grassroots.

Researchers predict sea level rise to be highly variable

University of Toronto researchers predict that in the event of the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS), the coasts of North America and countries bordering the southern Indian Ocean will be hardest hit by rising sea levels.

Jerry Mitrovica and Natalya Gomez from U of T’s Department of Physics, along with Peter Clark from the University of Oregon’s Department of Geosciences, used computer models to predict what would happen following the complete disintegration of the WAIS.

The results of their study, published in the February 6 edition of Science, indicate that sea level rise is likely to vary significantly around the globe.

The coasts of North America and countries in the southern Indian Ocean would see the most drastic change, up to 25 per cent greater than predicted. This could mean an increase of six to seven meters in some locations, rather than the typical estimate of five meters, the figure used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

In the past, predictions of sea level rise were calculated by converting the amount of water released from melting ice and spreading it uniformly—or eustatically—around the world’s oceans. The problem with this method, Mitrovica says, is that it fails to take three critical points into account.

The first is the elastic nature of Earth’s surface. As the ice sheet melts, the ground beneath it, compacted under the weight of the ice, bounces back, expelling water away from where the glacier once was.

The second factor is the gravitational attraction exerted by the ice sheet on the surrounding water. If the WAIS collapses, ocean levels within 2,000 km of its borders will fall as water moves away, rising incrementally at greater distances.

The final factor is the ice sheet’s effect on Earth’s rotational axis, which will experience a 500 metre tilt if the WAIS disappears completely. This shift would cause water to migrate northwards out of the southern Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

Canada’s coastal regions, including major centers like Halifax and Vancouver, would see a rise “in excess of six metres if all of the WAIS disappears,” says Mitovica. Some of the United States’ most populous cities, including New York, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. would see similar increases.

Mitrovica is keen to avoid apocalyptic predictions, pointing out that the ice sheet will likely collapse over a period of “several centuries or more.” However, he continues, “this work shows that the sea-level rise that would occur at many coastal sites would be much larger than currently estimated.”

There is evidence that the WAIS is already becoming unstable. This is in part due to its structure: the WAIS is a grounded, marine-based ice sheet, sitting on the earth’s surface below sea level. Its edges are surrounded by a protective barrier of floating ice shelves, which are particularly vulnerable to rising air and water temperatures. Losing them, Mitrovica says, means the ice sheet “will have a lot less impediment to collapse.”

He adds that the WAIS “is only part of the story.” Other sources of meltwater, including mountain glaciers and ice sheets in Greenland and the eastern Antarctic, also need to be considered to fully understand the degree and effect of eventual sea level rise.

This study marks a significant improvement in the ability of researchers to make accurate predictions about the world’s oceans. “We are providing the ‘ingredients’ if you will,” Mitrovica says. “The final recipe—that is, the final combination of the different sources—remains to be seen.”

Natalya Gomez is currently embarking on a study of the unique “fingerprint” of Greenland’s ice sheet—another vulnerable ice reservoir—on sea level rise.

Mitrovica hopes this study will relate that “scientists as well as policy makers should focus on projections that avoid simplistic assumptions.” Instead, they should understand that “sea-level change will vary significantly from place to place, [and if they] want to prepare for our warmer future, they need to take this into account.”

More information about what rising sea levels might look like is available at the website for the Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets: