For the love of fashion

The theme of the 10th annual Toronto Fashion Week was “Show Love,” and celebrations were abundant, putting a spring in my strut that the trickiest of stilettos couldn’t discourage. Fashion followers, your faithful scribe was LOVEstoned, as my two unwavering adorations (fashion and family) merged on the runway. Here’s what’s hot for Fall-Winter 2009:

Designer Linda Lundström (full disclosure: my mom) debuted the Fall 2009 collection for her eponymous label, Lundström. The show was designed as a comeback after a year of major transitions. With a line entitled “The Conversation,” she displayed an elegant dialogue of outerwear and glam gowns topped with sumptuous furs. Featuring the most environmental of fabrics (materials made of recycled pop bottles, bamboo, and corn) it was chic and uniquely Canadian.

Naturally, I might be a little biased, so I looked out for objective opinions. Sarah Casselman of Fashion Magazine described the collection as “gorge,” while Fashion Television’s Jeanne Beker declared, “It appealed on so many levels. It was just all so desirable.”

Though it may have been grand to hear LL touted as a Canadian fashion icon, the next day she was back to being dear old mom. “Mosha, there’s a big scratch on the front left side of my car. Do you know how it got there?”

I evaded the question by dashing off, because there were a week’s worth of fall presentations to review.

The Gaudet show featured designers Norm and Gio Gaudet’s artfully hand-painted standout coats. Nada was soundtracked by Marilyn Manson, and the clothes were appropriately gothic, yet romantic. Bondage, Victorian influences, and plenty of leather were fierce and reminiscent of Givenchy’s aesthetic.

Andy Thê Ahn‘s show was beloved by society belles. “We needed something uplifting, joyful, and colourful. We need some hope sometimes,” said Thê Ahn as his design credo on press materials. Catwalkers opened the show from the opposite end of the runway in stunning mocha evening wear with 3D sequin flower embellishment. The show closed with four colour-block satin dresses that evoked a high-style Wonder Woman. My favourite look was a blush blazer with an oversize bow flap worn bare-gammed.

Pink Tartan explores a bold new theme each season, and this year it was disco-queen Grace Jones. “I was really inspired by her. She’s got a new album out and is the epitome of strength and power,” said designer Kimberly Newport-Mimran. Even with edgy inspiration, Tartan’s preppy Forest Hill-mom aesthetic always manages to seep through. Capri-length leather pants were paired with turtlenecks, while extravagant fur chubbies had tight little socialite shoulders. Working with black, white, and fuchsia, Pink Tartan riffed on lean-bean androgyny. While there were many desirable pieces, I lusted most for the Chanel lace tights that KNM sported end of show. One caveat: with such luxe togs, her low-heeled pointy patent pumps didn’t measure up.

Joe Fresh delivered winterlicious confections for the zippy supermarket chain. It was the fashion equivalent of President’s Choice Candy Cane Chocolate Fudge Crackle ice cream—pure icy joy, with a retro figure skating theme. “It’s very difficult out there right now. The whole show harkens to a time passed,” explained designer Joesph Mimran. Indeed, teacup skirts, sexy seamed ski pants, and a darling printed onesie were fast fashion at its best. “I think you go to the supermarket, do a shop and sneak it on to the grocery bill,” he said. While the line is perfect for those on a budget, a top-model appearance cost a pretty penny. The Karl Lagerfeld-approved Canadian coquette Irinia Lazaranu opened the show, charming the crowd with a little shoulder wiggle at the end of the runway. It’s tres mignon.

Attending the top secret Project Runway Canada finale show was a privilege. Supermodel Coco Rocha was in the audience, as Bowie-love Iman handled MC duties. That’s about all the confidentiality agreement will allow me to disclose. Instead, I’ll gush about past PRC alums Carlie Wong, Evan Biddell, and Lucian Mathis, who did not disappoint.

I met the sweet and humble Ms. Wong, who designs effervescent party frocks for Pretty Young Things. Her dresses evoked louche 1970s Paris nightclubs. With such a plentiful use of black and gold, it was very Jerry Hall.

Evan Biddell is last season’s winner and enfant terrible. Ear plugs were handed out at the beginning of the show to guard delicate ears against the blasting soundtrack. Though it sounded like an awful turn-of-the-millennium rave, the collection made up for the noise. Motorcycle jackets with thick zippers and sci-fi superhero dresses in chartreuse, teal, and purple were strong, and the chunkiest of wool scarves softened the mix.

Lucian Matis is a true artiste. Antler-topped creatures took their place one-by-one at the end of the runway, forming a beautiful line-up of airy looks. His wood-nymph palette of neutrals like soft blacks and ashy browns was whimsical and delicately ornate. Buried in the midst of so many shows, his vision stood out as unique and transformative.

As I did the kiss-kiss and sipped my last glass of champagne (hard work, isn’t it?) at the closing party, I thought of how to sum up such an uplifting season. Canadians are wonderfully fashionable, and we need to embrace our homegrown talents. I’m reminded of Iman’s words: “Canadians have to support [their own] fashion industry. The British industry has lost most of its talent to the rest of Europe. There is great talent here and they really should support it.” I couldn’t agree more, but tomorrow I think I’ll take a fashion sick day.

Sunday morning, I awaken to a phone call. “Mosha, it’s Mom. I can’t wait to talk about next season. I have this idea…”

Fashion never sleeps.

Give PACS a chance

After a troublesome year, the Peace and Conflict Studies program at the Trudeau Centre is undergoing serious reform. New staff, a new supervisor, and a name change are on the way for PACS, following decisions from a review committee.

After two prominent faculty members, Thomas Homer-Dixon and David Welch, abruptly left for positions at the University of Waterloo, the program was left with only one faculty member until a program review committee was organized. U of T’s VP and provost Cheryl Misak said she would support the immediate replacement of both faculty members.

Since Homer-Dixon was the director, the program wants to find a replacement as soon as possible. But it will be at least another year before full-time staff are hired.

“We haven’t even started the [hiring] process yet,” said David Klausner, chair of the review committee and vice-dean of interdisciplinary affairs. “We’re in the process now, right at the moment of hiring seasonal instructors to fill those two positions just for next year.”

He said the program has also been given permission to create a new faculty position.

“I’m hoping, with a little bit of luck, that we may have a director appointed […] within the next week or two,” said Klausner.

The review committee, with representatives from the PACS program and related departments, has raised other issues with the program. A separate curriculum review committee will be set up next year, to look into concerns like making the program more interdisciplinary.

“There’s a very strong consensus, and the students agree with this, that at the moment, it isn’t very interdisciplinary. For the most part, it’s a political science program,” said Klausner. He pointed out that similar programs at other universities have significantly more input from faculties like sociology, anthropology, English, and history.

The Munk Centre’s School of Global Studies will have oversight of PACS, taking over from University College. With UC’s resources stretched, the review committee felt the program could be better served under the Munk Centre’s auspices.

“For the foreseeable future, until adequate space becomes available, the Trudeau Centre will continue to be housed in its present space at University College,” said Janice Stein, the director of the Munk Centre. “It will have the same resources as it has had as well as the additional resources that the Munk Centre makes available.”

PACS may also get a new name. “The committee approved that we change the name from Peace and Conflict Studies to Peace, Conflict and Justice Studies,” said Klausner.

The name change would reflect the push to broaden the focus of the program, but it has to be approved by the Faculty of Arts and Science curriculum committee, which will not happen for at least another year. Some students have objected to the change, on the grounds that the committee was pre-judging the curriculum review that would be underway next year.

Awake and Sing!

Musical theatre is one of those things that people either hate or love. Ain’t no in-betweeners when it comes to Sondheim, Fosse, or that mid-90s phenomenon known as Rent. Even rabid fans of the genre would never claim the form to be high-brow. For me, it’s one of those things I love in spite of myself, something I claim I only listen to on occasion, when in fact the most-played item on my iTunes is “My Junk”—the vaguely nonsensical ode to teenaged infatuation from Spring Awakening—which just happens to have landed at the Canon Theatre this past week.

This isn’t the first time Spring Awakening’s popped up in Toronto. Back in the halcyon days of 1986, the late Bill Glassco produced a version of Frank Wedekind’s (non-musical) Spring Awakening that did the unthinkable: casting real teenagers. Maybe that doesn’t seem so wild now, but the show was shut down pretty quickly. Glassco and director Derek Goldby were slapped with an obscenity charge, and Spring Awakening went back underground.

Written in 1891 by renegade German poet and playwright Frank Wedekind, Spring Awakening was a straight-up piece of expressionist theatre; a layered series of narratives focused on growing up in a repressive environment—sexually and emotionally—portending much of the political unrest that would come to define Germany in the 20th century. Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s musical version of Spring Awakening diverges from the racy material that got everybody in such a snit back in the 19th and 20th centuries, but doesn’t entirely do away with the all the discord—it just makes it a little more hummable. And a little more razzle-dazzle.

In both Wedekind and Sater’s versions, Spring Awakening spotlights a small group of teenagers, specifically the radical free-thinker Melchior Gabor (Matt Doyle), and Wendla (Christy Altomare). There’s also the tortured Moritz, a young man whose troublesome lust gets in the way of his Latin conjugations. Through a fusion of bouncy ensemble numbers (reprise of “Mama Who Bore Me”) and pensive duets (“The Word of Your Body”), Spring Awakening tempers the darkness of the original play while creating something entirely distinctive.

Although much of the darker element has been stripped from the musical (Wendla and Melchior’s sex scene wasn’t consensual in the original), Spring Awakening never claims to be Wedekind’s direct progeny. Instead, it aims to take a hundred-year-old relic, radical as it was, and make it accessible to a new audience. That includes casting teenagers and early twenty-somethings, an age bracket rarely given an entire show. Here, it’s the two adult characters who are relegated to the thankless Mom-and-Dad roles usually consigned to Angsty Daughter #2. It’s refreshing because it demonstrates that the new guard of mainstream theatre is loosening up with regard to edgier content such as masturbation, isolation, and curiosity about anatomy and pleasure. It honestly illustrates the physical and emotional awakening that these characters are experiencing.

One of the most fascinating conceits of the musical is the formal conventions that Sater and composer Duncan Sheik have done away with. Spring Awakening knows that it takes place somewhere in turn-of-the-century Germany, and the dialogue reflects that. But when the singing starts, what the audience sees is a group of real kids performing as themselves, bringing their secret inner rock star onstage for all to see. In one scene, the boys sit rigidly in class before shifting seamlessly into the frenetic “Bitch of Living,” pulling out their mikes and leaping off the hard-backed chairs. It successfully blurs the line between performance and reality, emphasized by the audience members who sit onstage with the cast, their emotional responses integrated into the action. The performers make no qualms about responding directly to them with a smile or nod. It’s the subtlety that makes it effective, especially since musical theatre is not known for that specific quality. This synthesis underscores the contradictions that make being a teen so beautifully complicated.

Further narrowing the division between the people onstage and off is cast member Andy Mientus (who plays the predatory Hanschen, seducer of would-be pastor Ernst). He began his involvement in Spring Awakening by way of Facebook. “I originally saw the show when it was off-Broadway, and my friends and I were all really into it. I made the group for us to post information on and all these other people started to join.” Producers of Spring Awakening eventually asked him to maintain the page, and it’s now the official Facebook group with more than 20,000 members. Even after being cast in the touring production, Andy still moderates the official blog (totallytrucked.blogspot.com), making backstage videos and interacting with Spring Awakening devotees. Within all this, Andy has managed to keep loving the show and everything it meant to him at the outset.

“Because of the way I was cast, and my history of loving the show without a dream of being in it, it would be very difficult for me to fall out of love. Of course, there’s that honeymoon period at first, but now I feel like I’ve got a good handle on the show—it doesn’t feel like work anymore. It’s a great place the show is in right now—we’re all still excited by it, but more solid about what we’re doing. I really know what I want to do with this character now. There was a lot of play and exploration at the beginning. Now that allows me to just enjoy the show.”

Across the board, everyone has enjoyed Spring Awakening, reaping it with critical praise, major awards, and a cult following. Still, the show has its detractors. Jonathan Franzen, best-known for that lengthy novel of family dysfunction The Corrections, famously slagged off the musical in the forward to his translation of the Wedekind original, calling it “insipid” and “overpraised.” Harsh, but spot-on in pointing out the unapologetic way in which the adult creators of Spring Awakening have capitalized on the thrill of watching sexy teenagers “discover” each other for the audience’s benefit. I don’t see why that’s a problem for a show that admits to being about the mysteries (and sometimes absurdity) of sex. It certainly won’t stop me from playing “My Junk” twelve times in a row while my roommate shoots me dirty looks. Not those kinds of dirty looks.

Spring Awakening runs until April 19 at the Canon Theatre (244 Victoria Street). Tickets are $25-$99 and are available at www.mirvish.com. Onstage student rush tickets are $25 and can be purchased at the box office day-of two hours before performance time, one ticket per person, with valid student ID.

Nowlan nabs ASSU presidency

Gavin Nowlan has emerged as the president-elect of the Arts and Science Students’ Union, which caters to over 23,000 full-time undergraduate students and provides funding to about 40 course unions.

“During elections, everyone was there, all the course unions were involved. That’s a big change from last year,” said Nowlan, the union’s current treasurer.

Greater participation is the result of ASSU’s attempt to rebuild itself after last spring’s election, where former president Ryan Hayes, with the help of the union’s CEO and another exec, manipulated election results to win over his opponent, Colum Grove-White.

U of T admin stepped in, pulling the union’s funding and forcing ASSU to hold another election. This time, Grove-White won.

“Coming in, there was so much to do. I wanted to start up all these committees to really get ASSU back on track,” said Grove-White.

He set up five committees examining the budget, constitution, sustainability, social venues, and donations and endorsement funding.

The constitution committee, which will help to improve the union’s transparency, is still working out a clear set of election guidelines, expected to be ratified in September.

“I think the biggest improvement this year has been communication,” said Nowlan, who ran on a slate last year with Grove-White.

“Communication was difficult under the old executive. It was really hard to get funding for events, unless you were their political ally,” said Gabe De Roche, co-president of the International Relations Society.

Political advocacy no longer has a designated spot in ASSU’s budget. That money has been funneled into course unions instead, almost doubling their funding. Now, student groups wanting money for a political cause outside the university have to present their case to a committee.

But, De Roche said, ASSU’s ambitions came at the cost of its focus. “This year, I think the union bit off a little more than it could chew,” he said. “They had some great goals, but I think they should have put all their focus into the constitution to get that passed quickly.”

Nowlan will begin his presidency in May. “One of the things I plan to work on is getting more institutional support so we can improve the academic experience of students,” he said.

Review: Spring Awakening

It’s not typical for a big musical to leave the houselights up while an ingénue sings her way through the first number, but that’s just one of many elements of the national tour production of Spring Awakening that makes this subdued cast all the more resonant. Focused on a small group of provincial German youth in the late 19th century, the production is an interesting study in both adolescent sexuality and a deconstruction of the American musical.

Spring Awakening never bothers to cover its hand, embracing what might generally be left off-stage. This makes sense in a musical that centres on the often chaotic process of growing into your sexuality. Director Michael Mayer shows the wires by stationing the band in full view onstage, complete with a blackboard set list.

Duncan Sheik’s rock score strikes the perfect mix between angsty radio pop and the narrative transparency that makes a good showtune. Kevin Adams’ gorgeous lighting added the perfect amount of spectacle to an otherwise minimal set. When the stage glows with gem-coloured lights during “Totally Fucked,” it’s thrilling.

Yet the first act sagged a bit, as “My Junk” lacked the up-tempo energy that’s required of such a joyful number. It felt sombre, particularly in contrast to the really grim songs, like “The Dark I Know Well,” a haunting piece about abuse made particularly moving in the hands of Sarah Hunt (Marthe) and Steffi D. (Ilse)—who not only have stunning voices, but the ability to express the emotion of the often obscure lyrics.

That being said, the least compelling aspect of Spring Awakening is the book and lyrics by Steven Sater, which stick with the formal language appropriate to the time period, but don’t always commit to active communication between characters. It’s only when the songs pick up that something gets said.

Repression is one thing, but some of the performers can’t find strong footing when it comes to the dialogue. The exception is a wonderful scene between Ben Moss (Ernst) and Andy Mientus (Hanschen) late in the second act (whew!) that offers a witty and intimate look into the musical’s one gay relationship. The dialogue manages to show the beauty and danger of their romance, as they sing, “Oh, you’re gonna bruise too/Oh, I’m gonna be your bruise.” Dramatically, it’s one of the show’s most moving moments, shifting from the innocence of conversation to the moment when Wendla is handed off to a backroom abortionist from which (spoiler alert!) no good will come.

The transitions are at their best between “Mama Who Bore Me (Reprise)” and a scene in Latin class that fully embraces the layering of time and place, having the boys set up their chairs for the next scene while the singing girls pass through them.

In spite of a few expository gaps and a low-energy rendition of “Totally Fucked,” the national tour production of Spring Awakening succeeds in providing a contemplative and emotionally charged interpretation of this unconventional musical. The sensational quality of the original Broadway production is muted here—these kids project a maturity that seeps through from their personalities—but that only adds to the bittersweet experience of springing from childhood into something a little more dissonant, but equally compelling.

Directed by Michael Mayer.

Starring Christy Altomare,

Matt Doyle, Blake Bashoff

Rating: VVVV

—Naomi Skwarna

Tamils rally for decriminalization of Tigers

Last Monday, 120,000 people from Tamil communities across the GTA formed a seven-kilometre human chain to demand that Canada recognize the Tamil Tigers as a liberation group and a voice for Sri Lanka’s embattled Tamil minority.

A crowd of people gathered at Union Station in the afternoon to show strong support for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who are currently locked in a decades-long battle with Sri Lankan forces.

Ramya Janandharan, the awareness coordinator for St. George campus’s Tamil Students’ Association, led a group of student demonstrators but was careful to say that she attended the protest to express her personal beliefs. The TSA has no official position for or against the LTTE, preferring to let its members choose for themselves.

“As a TSA we did not take a stance. But we believe the LTTE is the Tamil nation’s only hope for lasting peace,” she said.

Kiruba Kulaveerasindum, a Toronto man who joined student demonstrators at U of T, called the Tamil Tigers “freedom fighters” and accused the Sri Lankan government of perpetrating genocide on its Tamil population.

“[The government] is not at war, they want to destroy the Tamil nation,” he said.

Demonstrators gathered signatures for a petition to have the LTTE taken off Canada’s list of terrorist organizations. Janandharan told The Varsity that organizers plan to send copies of the petition to Prime Minister Harper and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. The LTTE have been banned as a criminal organization in Canada for three years.

Last month, a former president of the Canadian Tamil Students’ Association pled guilty in a U.S. court to facilitating a $900,000 weapons deal to supply the Tigers with guns and surface-to-air missile launchers.

Former U of T student Sathajhan Sarachandran is awaiting sentencing along with former Waterloo student Suresh Sriskandarajah. Each faces a sentence of 25 years to life.

Rocking for the weekend

Rocking for the weekend

Charting the best and worst of Canadian Music Week 2009

Gentleman Reg (Horseshoe, Thursday, 11 p.m.)

He’s had a rough couple of years, but Gentleman Reg’s CMW appearance was a declaration that not only is his career back on track, he’s in better form than ever. While it’s true that the local folkie rocks out harder than ever before on his new album, Jet Black, fans of his romantic ballads needn’t worry, he hasn’t gone hardcore. Emerging with a silk scarf thrown around his neck (used as a towel once the house lights started beating down), Gentleman Reg ripped through a selection of glossy rockers including “You Can’t Get It Back” and “Coastline.” He did so with a little help from his friends: The Bicycles’ Dana Snell was a force on the drum kit, and Land of Talk singer Liz Powell rushed the stage for an impromptu backing vocal. The latest in a long line of rock ‘n’ roll comebacks, if things keep rolling for Gentleman Reg, at least we’ll be able to say we knew him when.
—ROB DUFFY

Rating: VVVv

Malajube (El Mocambo, Thursday, 1 a.m.)

Love the band, hate the fans—after all, it isn’t often that a performer needs to tell the audience to shut up. Unfortunately, Malajube’s legion of Quebeçois groupies thought it best to puncture the gaps between songs with soccer chants, and with lead singer Julien Mineau’s mic mysteriously turned off through the set’s first half, the audience didn’t quite know when to stop. Malajube played much of their new album, Labyrinthes, a decidedly more subdued and sombre effort than their earlier work. While lead track “Porté Disparu” was performed with a riveting spookiness, the rest of the new songs blended into a rhythmless mush. Even peppy old stanbys “Casse-Cou” and “La Monogamie” got lost in the shuffle of new tracks. The show’s one saving grace was an encore rendition Malajube’s biggest hit, “Montréal -40º.” But it wasn’t enough to remedy a show that left the audience largely bewildered and disappointed.

—SHOSHANA WASSER

Rating: VV

Katy Perry (Masonic Temple, Friday, 9:55 p.m.)

Two things distinguished Katy Perry from the rest of the CMW lineup—besides her obvious American citizenship, she provided one of the festival’s few shows that could truly be described as a guilty pleasure. Within the opening synth beats of “Hot N Cold,” Perry was masterfully working the stage, dancing in impressively high heels, and beaming contagiously at a capacity crowd of pop lovers and industry lowlives who packed the Masonic Temple. Her energy sagged noticeably when she broke out the acoustic guitar for her country-infused “Thinking of You,” and even worse was “Ur So Gay,” an absolutely painful Carly Simon-inspired sendoff to an ex-lover. Luckily, Perry was captivating with her upbeat numbers, particularly the show-closing “I Kissed A Girl.” Before waltzing offstage, Perry danced with a six-foot inflatable tube of cherry Chapstick, then smooched an unwitting female in the front row. (And yeah, the girl definitely liked it.) —SW

Rating: VVVv

Teen Anger (Friday, Gladstone Hotel, 10 p.m.)

With the collapse of The Deadly Snakes, Toronto’s Teen Anger want to revive garage rock the only way they know how—by kicking ass. While the band’s set at the Gladstone’s Eye Weekly showcase stalled due to a broken guitar string, leaving attendees awkwardly milling about, Teen Anger got back on board with smouldering tracks like “Carole Pope,” “Homecoming Queen,” and “Minimum Wage”—with the calling-all-graduates opening, “I make minimum wage, I’m always hoping for the best!” A slinky girl bass player complimented Teen Anger’s adolescent fury, a melding of Richard Hell and the dirge-like aggression of Anagram. A band worthy of breakout status, see them now, and brag to your friends later. —CHANDLER LEVACK

Rating: VVVV The Ghost Is Dancing

(Silver Dollar, Friday, 2 a.m.)

Everyone loves a love affair. The Ghost Is Dancing, yet another of Toronto’s seven-person-don’t-ya-love-hand-claps bands stole hearts with a late-night showcase at the grody Silver Dollar. With the forthcoming Battles On, new tracks like “This Thunder” and the orchestral-call-to-arms title track boasted a darker, synth-based sound than the band’s poppier fare. And yet, “Wall Of Snow” and “Organ” had fans jumping, as the band (predictably) shed winter layers down to their skivvies. While haters may call the Ghost on overdramatic trumpet lines and aw-shucks crowd demeanour, one thing’s for certain: it’s the most jubilant live show in town. Plus, Jamie Matechuk without a shirt on? Swoon. —CL

Rating: VVVV

Bloc Party (Kool Haus, Saturday, 10 p.m.)

London post-punk turned electro-rockers Bloc Party headlined the weekend with a two-night stand at the Kool Haus, and were greeted Saturday evening with a lone bra that hit the stage before they even picked up their instruments. It was immediately clear—we were in for a sweaty night. While classic rave-ups “Banquet” and “Like Eating Glass” were delivered with precision, Bloc Party were a different band once they broke out the electro material off 2008’s Intimacy. Singer Kele Okereke ditched his guitar in favour of a vocal effect pedal for “Mercury” and “Ares.” Despite a few strange decisions (leaving out current single “One Month Off,” not to mention my personal favourite, the ode to unrealized grade school romance “I Still Remember”), theirs was a party-starting performance that demanded a second encore. As he bid the Toronto crowd adieu with a moving rendition of “This Modern Love,” Okereke thanked Owen Pallett of Final Fantasy for a wonderful tour of the city, and promised to return with album number four. —RD

Rating: VVVV

Cuff the Duke (Lee’s Palace, Saturday, 12:45 a.m.)

Cuff the Duke were allocated one of the last time slots of CMW 2009, and they certainly ended the festival with a bang. Riding the success of their critically-acclaimed 2007 album Sidelines of the City, the band provided lengthy, wistful instrumentals on “Remember the Good Times” and “Long Road.” Most memorable, though, was when the band invited all of the night’s previous performers onstage with them for a rendition of “If I Live or If I Die.” Assorted members of Elliott Brood and Basia Bulat’s band harmonized with Cuff the Duke on violins, guitars, and vocals, as the Lee’s Palace stage was transformed into a funky East Coast kitchen party. (Good thing everyone knew the lyrics.) Cuff the Duke also previewed several encouraging tracks from their upcoming album, including the tentatively titled “Good Day” and “Promises.” If the rest of their new work turns out to be anything like their CMW concert, we definitely have some great music to look forward to. —SW

Rating: VVVVv

Iraq’s Prolonged Occupation

The withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq was one of the most contentious issues of the 2008 presidential campaign. While Democrats insisted on a quick and phased removal of troops, Republicans like John McCain opted for a decidedly ambiguous “stay the course” approach which would leave U.S. forces in Iraq for “maybe 50, maybe 100 years.”

In a remarkable reversal that many members of the GOP are now hailing, President Obama has decided to withdraw all “combat forces” by August 2010, and remaining forces by December 2011. Prominent Democrats like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have criticized the plan to leave 35,000 to 50,000 “residual troops” until the final withdrawal date. Disregarding the paradoxical positions taken by both parties, the plan seems ridden with loopholes.

First, Article 27 of the Status of Forces Agreement negotiated by the Bush Administration in 2008 gives the United States leave to “take appropriate measures, in the event of any external or internal threat or aggression against Iraq.” The ambiguity of this rhetoric is worrisome. After all, Iraq’s Shiite majority is likely to form closer ties with Iran, a nation hostile to U.S. interests in the region. The government of Nouri Al-Maliki could easily be replaced by a less pro-Western administration that would formalize these ties. What constitutes “aggression” may thus be a point of contention, and the text of the SOF Agreement is distinctly vague about the nature of any American response. It might, for example, take the same form as the “appropriate measures” carried out in 2003 to protect the American people from the “imminent threat” of Iraq’s non-existent stockpile of destructive weapons.

Second, there does not appear to be any plan to scrap the $700 million monstrosity jokingly called an “embassy.” The 104-acre complex in downtown Baghdad is about the size of Vatican City and heavily fortified even by the standards of the so-called “Green Zone.” Its construction is permanent, and the United States will maintain a staff of more than 1,000 in addition to marine and security contingents. The price of sustaining such a large facility will cost the U.S. taxpayer a projected $1.2 billion a year, with funds paying for staff and maintenance as well as a cinema, swimming pool, and recreational centre. Construction contracts for the facility were awarded to “First Kuwaiti Trading and Contracting,” a company notable for its unethical labour practices. In July 2007, a congressional sub-committee heard testimony from a medical technician working on the embassy. He claimed that the company had illegally employed foreign workers who had their passports confiscated while believing they were bound for Dubai to work on hotels. He described the working conditions at the construction site as “absurd,” noting that many of the workers were “without shoes, gloves, or safety harnesses.” Thus, Baghdad’s costly fortress will remain indefinitely in a location central to Iraqi governance and infrastructure.

But perhaps the biggest hole in the Obama withdrawal plan is that it makes no mention of the more than 100,000 private security guards working under State Department contracts in Iraq, a number likely to increase if troop withdrawal occurs on schedule. These personnel are not the benevolent, smiling security guards one sees at a shopping mall, but a vast mercenary army consisting of multiple firms, and completely immune to Iraqi law according to a report by the Congressional Research Service of the U.S. Congress.

The Iraq War is often characterized as an “unmitigated familiar” or a “terrible strategic blunder,” but just as the word “aggression” is highly subjective, so is the definition of success. For the Iraqi people, the war meant the destruction of their secular education system, more than a million refugees, and terrifying sectarian violence. For the American taxpayer, it meant an estimated bill of $3 trillion (though an accurate number is impossible to gauge) and more than 4,000 military casualties. For American firms, the invasion created a highly profitable enterprise; the titanic sum spent on the war did not simply disappear into a vacuum. Rather, much of it was transferred to private companies in a dramatic outsourcing funded by the U.S. taxpayer.

The war’s preamble was also a highly successful public relations exercise: one poll conducted in 2003 by the Washington Post found that nearly 70 per cent of Americans believed Saddam Hussein to be responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Another poll, conducted in late 2006, found that 90 per cent of American soldiers believed that the purpose of the U.S. mission in Iraq was “to retaliate for Saddam’s role in the 9/11 attacks.” These spurious pretexts for the war have long evaporated, but the occupation itself may be far from over.