Not a post-racist world: study

Many people overestimate their reactions to racist acts, according to a new Canadian study. Contemporary race relations are marked with paradox: though overt prejudice is condemned, blatantly racist acts continue to occur on a regular basis.

The report, published in the Jan. 9 issue of Science magazine, posits that the explanation lies in how people miscalculate how they would feel and react after witnessing racism.

One way that people may stem the tide of negative emotions related to witnessing a racial slur is to reconstrue comments as either a joke or harmless remark, according to the study, co-authored by profs from York and the University of British Columbia.

Bad Rap

Recent University of Toronto graduate Kaspar Puley is crazy for basketball. This 6’5” former student who played for the University College intramural team is currently involved in a coed pick-up league twice a week. Puley’s allegiance to basketball is more than recreational. He’s one of a small group of born and bred Torontonians that chooses to watch basketball over all other sports, including hockey. While in university, Puley routinely bought a flexible package of Toronto Raptors season tickets, attending as many games as he could, always cheering for the boys in purple, (or red, or black, or whatever colour the Raptors were wearing that day).

Upon graduating, Puley discovered a great opportunity to teach English in Japan. During his eighteen months in Japan, Puley diligently followed the Raptors through streaming tape-delayed games on his computer. Upon his return to Toronto this past September, Puley was ecstatic to attend games at the Air Canada Centre, and resume following the Raptors on live television. Yet he hasn’t seen a single Raptors game all year, despite being offered all kinds of discounted tickets. During last Monday’s Raptor collapse to the Milwaukee Bucks, Puley had switched over to the Montreal Canadiens game.

Puley still enjoys basketball, and remains loyal to the Raptors, but he finds this year’s team to be dull. “I did not realize how much I would miss T.J. Ford,” he lamented. Ford, the shoot-first point guard, was basically run out of town by Raptor fans that favoured Jose Calderon. “At least Ford brought a little excitement to the team. Nobody on the current team attacks the rim except for Bosh,” said Puley, identifying the biggest problem with this year’s Toronto Raptors—a lack of flair.

The Raptors acquired the troubled and oft-injured Jermaine O’Neal in the offseason, with hopes that teams would back off Bosh, but O’Neal has broken down as advertised. In his absence, Raptors have been forced to use retread big men like Kris Humphries, Jake Voskuhl, and draft bust Joey Graham to attack the middle. Sadly, none bring much of an attack. Last year’s surprise find Jamario Moon has seriously regressed, settling for jump shots. First overall pick Andrea Barganani can drain jumpers but is far too tentative to go to the rim, leaving him vulnerable to aggressive defenders that know he is likely to post up.

Even when O’Neal has been healthy enough to play, the team takes far too many jump shots, and crumbles when trying to protect a lead. Earlier this season, the Raptors led the defending NBA champions, the Boston Celtics, by double digits in the fourth quarter—in Boston. Rather than defend the lead through hard fouls and double teams, the Raptors let Celtics big man Kevin Garnett go untouched to the basket, and their lead wilted in the process. These games have cost coach Sam Mitchell his job (though it was rumoured that O’Neal may have led the push), and new coach Jay Triano has often seen the same kind of performances.

The Toronto Raptors are not going to win the NBA championship this year. They are unlikely to even make the playoffs. Yet fans and players continue to believe that the season can be salvaged, and look to general manager/former saviour Bryan Colangelo to somehow resuscitate a lost season. Though he cannot drastically improve the team, Colangelo can make the Raptors relevant again. The team’s short history has seen some colourful characters come through Toronto, players like Oliver Miller, Charles Oakley, and young Tracy McGrady.

Former Raptors announcer Chuck Swirsky added a distinct flair to the team, bringing a voice to the Raptors, first on the radio, and later on television. Although some fans found him gimmicky, Swirsky punctuated every Raptors win with his demand to “get out the salami and cheese.” Though no fan faults Swirsky for family obligations that forced him to leave Toronto, Raptors fans blame number 15 for the whining that accompanied the departure of “Air Canada” Vincent Lamar Carter. Though Vince Carter is still public enemy number one, the Raptors fans can thank “Wince” for the only TV exposure that the Raptors received in the United States. Without Carter, there wouldn’t have been the infamous dunk contest, the Raptors would never have played a Christmas Day game, and the team may have gone the way of the Vancouver Grizzlies.

Colangelo must find the next Vince Carter. The ideal candidate to turn around the franchise already has ties to the team. The Toronto Raptors must take a chance on guard Anthony Parker’s talented sister, Candace Parker, the best female basketball player on the planet. Even if CP never gets into a game, the Raptors will instantly become a sensation. If Candace Parker is blown away, and cannot compete at an NBA level, there are plenty of men that would have done the same. Imagine if Candace Parker did manage to contribute to this team. Would there be any way to keep the Toronto Raptors out of the news?

In the event that the Raptors do not want to become leaders in women’s liberation, they cannot continue to field such a boring team. Chris Bosh is nowhere near as marketable as Vince Carter. If the latest rumours are true, and there is a chance that Steve Nash will sign with the Raptors once his contract is over, the fans will push Bosh under the bus in a second. But waiting for Nash is not the answer. The Raptors must do something even more drastic to ensure that in the future, serious fans like Puley do not even consider switching over to the Montreal Canadiens game.

Obamanomics for dummies

It looks like Obama’s new economic plan will include $300 billion in tax cuts to stimulate spending and job creation. How effective can this be? Browsing through a little economic theory might help us find out.

Obama intends to provide tax credits to individuals and families, tax cuts to businesses, job-creation incentives to companies, and money to states, in addition to provisions to increase capital investments. The specifics of his plan include credits of $500 to individuals and $1000 to families making less than $200,000. According to current estimates, roughly 150 million Americans would qualify.

The plan has taken heat from both Democrats and Republicans. Republicans worry about an “open checkbook” approach to spending, while key Democrats accuse Obama of returning to “trickle-down” economics, otherwise known as Reaganomics.

John Kerry spoke out openly against the idea of a $3000 tax credit for each job created, while others doubt that tax credits are an effective way to inject money into the economy when it could be better spent elsewhere. Yet both parties agree that something must be done to stimulate the economy, and want to see an effective bill passed.

We know today that there are two different ways to stimulate the economy: monetary policy (playing with interest rates) and fiscal policy (cutting taxes, providing subsidies, and spending money on social programs). Changes in monetary policy have the most immediate effects, whereas fiscal policy takes much longer to enact and its effects are largely unpredictable.

When interest rates are lowered, the effective price of borrowing goes down. So if an interest rate is lowered from six per cent to three per cent, that’s three cents less the bank has to pay back as interest for every dollar it borrows from the Federal Reserve or the Bank of Canada. Usually this encourages banks to borrow, which causes them to lend more and lower the interest rates that you and I deal with. Interest rates are raised to curb inflation and stop the market from getting out of hand (no one wants the 1920s again).

Currently, banks are terrified: the current financial crisis was caused by the out-of-hand lending practises of the past few years, and banks no longer know how to proceed. So far, the U.S. Government has already attempted to use monetary policy to fix the economy. But even though interest rates are extremely low, banks aren’t willing to lend because they cannot distinguish reasonable risks from poor ones. Thus, government is forced to enter the mysterious realm of fiscal policy.

Why are the effects of fiscal policy so hard to predict? For one, fiscal policy is split into two schools of thought: people tend to subscribe to either “Reaganomics” or “Keynesian Economics.” Tax cuts are usually associated with right-wing thought. President Reagan was famous for his belief that with lowered taxes, money would go to business first and then “trickle down” to the poorest individuals. Companies would be encouraged to hire more workers and raise their salaries.

Left wingers, on the other hand, often subscribe to the theories of John Maynard Keynes—the famous economist who convinced Franklin Delano Roosevelt that the best way to stimulate the economy was not through tax cuts alone, but with government spending. This means providing funding for roads, public works, and infrastructure, because doing so creates jobs. Rather than just hand people money, Keynes Theory ensures that people work for it—the economy is stimulated in a way that promotes public good.

The downside of both types of fiscal policy is an increased budget deficit, which could carry many dangers, including inhibiting productive spending by future governments. Furthermore, no one is quite sure how long the money will take to circulate through the economy. First the tax credits or government project funds go out, and then people spend.

Say you are given a dollar. You spend it on a coffee, the coffee shop owner spends the profit s/he made on your dollar, and so on. The effect of this dollar would not be limited to its value; instead, it would be multiplied. Economists call this “the velocity of money,” and refer to the multiplying powers on that dollar as the multiplier. The multiplier is shrunk by tax rates and an increased desire to save money. We can estimate these effects, but in the real world, it is nearly impossible to know for sure.

Another mystery in fiscal policy is the business cycle. Economists believe that the economy operates in cycles: booms usually occur at the top, and recessions at the bottom. The problem is that there is no way of knowing where in this cycle we are, or where in the cycle we will be when fiscal policy changes take effect. Theoretically, the policy enacted today could come into full effect six months after the economy repairs itself, leading to inflation that the government would then have to remedy.

Why use fiscal policy at all? It can and does improve things, but there is always debate about how and why—it is a last resort, and a powerful one. Any market is highly dependent on consumer confidence. If people sense improvements, they’ll be willing to spend more.

With blanket tax cuts, you can expect arguments from the Democrats. With promises of social programs, you can expect the Republicans to chime in as well. The change we’re seeing is an attempt at accommodating both sides of the political aisle, but don’t expect Obama-style “change” with regard to the field of economics. Will his plan work? If I could tell you that, I’d probably be appearing on CNN for a considerable sum instead of writing unpaid articles for The Varsity.

Jock Briefs

Men’s Volleyball

In their first game back this year, the Varsity Blues men’s volleyball team defeated the Waterloo Warriors 3-1 (21-25, 25-16, 25-21, 31-29) last Friday at the Athletic Centre Sports Gym.

Steven Kung led the Blues with 21 kills and a game-high 21 digs. After returning to his starting spot for the first time since an early season injury, setter Deagan McDonald was named Player of the Game, tallying 39 assists.

On Saturday, the team fell 3-1 (25-10, 22-25, 22-25, 18-25) to the Laurier Golden Hawks. Despite the loss, the Blues dominated the first set, 25-10. Kyle Konietzny was named the Blues Player of the Game, while Steven Kung led both teams with 18 kills and 10 digs.

The Varsity Blues are now 5-7 on the season. The Blues return to the court this Thursday at the AC Sports Gym against the struggling York Lions (2-10).

Women’s Volleyball

After their stellar second place finish at the National Invitational Tournament last weekend, the women’s volleyball team suffered two disappointing losses to the Brock Badgers and the Ottawa Gee-Gees.

On Friday, the Blues fell 3-1 (10-25, 25-19, 18-25, 16-25) to the Badgers at the AC Sports Gym. OUA point leader Heather Bansley was named Blues Player of the Game with a game-high 16 kills and 15 digs.

In Sunday’s game in Ottawa, the Blues were dominated by the Gee-Gees 3-0 (21-25, 17-25, 21-25). The team returns home this Thursday to battle the undefeated York Lions (11-0).

Men’s Basketball

The Varsity Blues men’s basketball team didn’t have a capital time this past weekend in Ottawa, losing two crucial games.

On Friday, the team fell behind early to the Carleton Ravens. Despite great numbers from guards Rob Paris and Nick Magalas, who scored 17 and 16 points respectively, the Blues lost 81-68.

The team didn’t fare much better on Saturday, falling 80-72 to the Ottawa Gee-Gees. The Blues are now 6-5 on the season, moving them into a third-place tie with the Queen’s Gaels. Next weekend, the Blues return home to battle the Gaels and the RMC Paladins at the Athletic Centre Sports Gym.

Women’s BASKETBALL

The Varsity Blues women’s basketball team must have resolved to be perfect this new year. In 2009, the team is 2-0 after securing a 64-57 win against the Carleton Ravens on Friday, and defeating the Ottawa Gee-Gees 61-50 on Saturday.

The two wins move the Blues to a 7-5 season record and a tie with the Ravens for first place in the OUA East.

The Blues return home next weekend to defend their first-place title against the Queen’s Gaels and RMC Paladins at the Athletic Centre Sports Gym.

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.