Whining for a living

Sometimes I’m overwhelmed by my own privilege. Not only the privilege of being a comfortably middle class so-and-so working towards a university education with a roof over my head and food to eat, but also the privilege of frivolity—of time. Almost everything I do is totally frivolous, and frivolity is a luxury afforded to only the few.

As of last month, I started writing the regular column “If there’s a Hell…” (formerly “Asshole of the Month”). There could hardly be a more frivolous beat than this. While others comment on world affairs, I get to single out someone or something that has pissed me off and explain exactly why they deserve to be derided. Hardly Seymour Hersh stuff.

Last month revealed no shortage of contenders: Rod Blagojevich, embattled governor of Illinois; the IDF, currently launching a ground campaign in the Gaza strip that has claimed many lives already, and will claim many more; Hamas, launching rockets into Israel and destroying months of progress towards peace. There are easier targets, too: George W. changing the rules down south to allow dumping near wildlife preserves, and our own Steve Harper hiding behind the GG to save his political hide.

But I just don’t feel like writing about any of them. Maybe it’s the introspective impulse that a new year brings, but I can’t get rid of that nagging feeling, familiar to anyone with privilege: shouldn’t I do something instead of merely writing about what bothers me? Isn’t it incumbent upon me to sacrifice my plum assignment and start reporting on important things?

Mea culpa. I should but I won’t. I just don’t know how.

In better times, frivolous activity is known collectively as “culture.” Whether it’s painting a picture, staging a play, singing a song, or writing criticism about any of these, when things are good, the rest of the world indulges and lets us happily hum on. But when things are bad and money gets tight, the wider world’s patience runs out. We privileged few have to confront our privilege square in the face.

Instead, we tend to whine. Whine about arts cuts, the importance of “culture,” and how we (well, not me—not yet) need our grants to keep contributing. But the reality is that these are privileges. Writing about assholes is something I get to do, but something that could vanish in an instant.

Singers have no “right” to sing, painters have no “right” to paint, and writers have no “right” to write. All of these things are privileges afforded to few, and enjoyed by fewer. When times get tough, the privileged come under scrutiny. Of course there will be arts cuts, and debates about whether drama needs to be taught in schools, and patronizing quips about how “ordinary” Canadians don’t care about the arts. But we will keep doing what we know, whether it’s painting or singing or playing or writing.

Those fully immersed in the ways of frivolity will just keep soldiering on.

The strong, silent type

“Say something”—that’s what Cynthia Mckinney, former U.S. Congresswoman and Green Party candidate, urged Obama on CNN. Many others are begging Obama to speak openly about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Throughout his presidential campaign, and especially during his powerful acceptance speech, the world viewed President-elect Obama as the bearer of hope and change—as a man with a voice. It’s difficult to understand why such a powerful speaker hasn’t put his oratorical skills to good use amidst the turmoil in the Middle East. He says that, for the time being, he wants to refrain from discussing foreign issues—but this hasn’t stopped him before. Why now?

Since we’ve yet to observe the full range of Obama’s leadership characteristics, it’s easy to assume the worst—to interpret his silence as apathy. Obama was considered the “strong silent type” during the early days of his law practice. He called himself a better writer than speaker, and let others do the talking in court. Will he regret not taking an immediate stand on Gaza? Probably not.

Though Obama stated that he’d like to “learn from [his predecessors’] successes,” he might have already learned from their mistakes. Before his inauguration, Bill Clinton mentioned that he would be willing to admit Haitian refugees to the United States. Haitians interpreted his statement as a verbal “go.” Clinton retracted it shortly after. We must not forget that Obama is a politician: anything he says will go on the record. Most people want a president who stands by his word.

Obama’s spokespeople have put it simply—“there is only one president at a time.” With much of the international community literally counting down the days until Bush’s departure, the statement comes as an unnecessary reminder. Though he condemned Sderot-aimed rocket fire last summer, Obama is keeping his distance from a stringently pro-Israel administration that blames the Palestinian militant group, Hamas, for the Israeli assaults; he’s also avoiding the risky move of expressing a contrary view. But Obama is not a silent bystander; he’s simply refraining from meddling before his turn. “The silence is not a consequence of a lack of concern,” Obama stated in a press conference. “In fact, it’s not silence. I’ve explained very clearly exactly what institutional constraints I’m under when it comes to this issue.”

The conflict definitely hits close to home for many. Over 800 Palestinians have been killed and about 3,500 wounded since the fighting began. The UN Security Council voted 14 out of 15 for Resolution 1860, with United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice abstaining on behalf of the U.S. The Gaza conflict is obviously much larger than one man, and it will take the time and effort of many nations to negotiate a sustainable ceasefire.

President-elect Barack Obama will have the next four years to deal with the crisis in the Middle East, among many other pressing issues. He can only keep tight-lipped for so long. In less than two weeks he will be sworn in and officially named the new President of the United States. He’ll have no excuse—and when he talks, everyone will be listening.

Safe but deadly

In a secluded section of Vancouver International Airport, a man forms a barricade of office furniture in front of a motion-sensor doorway. Though he’s been here for hours, his mother waits for him on the other side of the terminal—she’s been told that no one with her son’s name arrived at the airport today. A small crowd has gathered to watch him, and there’s an air of tense curiosity. Some begin to film him on their cell phones. He’s agitated and pacing; soon he’s hurling objects at a window. Before long, four burly RCMP arrive on the scene. The man backs away nervously, unable to understand their words.

The rest is history: within 30 seconds, the man has been shocked five times with Tasers, and he’s convulsing violently on the ground. Soon he is pronounced dead.

This is the scene that many Canadians relived last month, when B.C.’s Criminal Justice Branch issued a statement exonerating all the officers involved, effectively ruling out the possibility of a criminal trial over Robert Dziekanski’s death. According to Crown spokesman Stan Lowe, the officers that day were “lawfully engaged in their duties,” and their use of force was both “necessary and reasonable in all the circumstances.”

This statement arrived after a prolonged investigation into the incident by the RCMP’s internal Integrated Homicide Investigation Team. The investigation was extensive, including a trip to Mr. Dziekanski’s home country of Poland to determine any external factors that may have contributed to his death. Unsurprisingly, their conclusion was not in his favour. They determined the cause of death to be a combination of a fear of flying, physical exhaustion, and alcohol withdrawal. Taser International would chock the incident up to a state of “excited delirium,” a condition of exaggerated and irregular heartbeat (akin to the sort a cocaine overdose might produce), considered by most medical professionals to be controversial.

But Amnesty International has a slightly different take on what might have happened. A Taser, or “conductive energy device,” operates by using compressed air to propel dual wires. With a charge of up to 50,000 volts, the Taser incapacitates a target, regardless of their constitution, by causing all of their muscles to contract violently at once. If subjected to multiple shocks, cardio-respiratory failure is probable, particularly in cases where the victim is intoxicated or suffering mental health problems. This was substantiated by a recent CBC study that tested 41 Tasers, finding that 10 per cent demonstrated much greater effects than the manufacturer claimed.

Amnesty International found that of the 290 individual Taser deaths reviewed, 90 per cent of the perpetrators were unarmed at the time of incapacitation. Though the impunity awarded to the officers who killed Robert Dziekanski will haunt Canadians, the real issue is one of classification: a Taser can no longer be regarded by law enforcement as a safe alternative to a firearm. Until proper training is provided to officers, proper regulation is exercised, or an outright ban of the weapon takes place, the fate of four officers will seem like small potatoes indeed.

Union prez stands by call to ban Israeli academics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sparks Will Fly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s to a third anniversary.

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

Greek riots mirror Toronto’s problems, protesters say

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

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

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

Protesters also drew parallels between Canadian and Greek immigration policy.

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

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

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

In Soviet Russia, play watches you!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Triumphalist language’ sets back gender equality: prof

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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