What are we paying for?

As I take a look at my 2010-11 fees, something just seems wrong. When I was accepted to U of T two years ago, the last thing on my mind was ancillary fees. My course fees add up to around $6200. There are certain extras I’m more than willing to pay for, such as use of the libraries and publication of The Varsity. Thus, we can add around $230. This makes our total $6430. ROSI tells me I’m currently owing $6940.78. This leaves around $500 dollars unaccounted for.

For example, this year, we pay $136.05 per semester for Athletics. This is $272.10 for the entire year. To me this says that I will have paid around $1000 by the end of four years. And what will I have paid for?

Before the fervour of health nuts and athletics students sets in, let me explain myself. I should be able to opt out of paying, just like I opt out of paying for medical and dental because I’m already covered. What about those of us, myself not included, who already belong to gyms? Should they have to pay for athletics as well? Is it possible to have a system wherein a student goes to a U of T gym, has his or her T-Card swiped or Student Number entered into a computer, which displays whether or not he or she has paid for a gym membership?
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U of T charges us for student services, health services, athletics, Hart House, and Constituent College fees. It also charges us on behalf of student organizations, for student society fees, social and cultural services (Hart House excluded) and other fees levied by student organizations to cover the costs of operating the organizations or services provided by them. To quote the policy: “The University may act as a collection agent for [any] student organization.”

So let’s take a look at ROSI and break this down. We pay around $140 dollars a year to Hart House. Hart House has plenty of contributors, and easily makes its money back in ticket sales, so why should we have to pay all this money for it? Especially those of us who aren’t in Arts or Theatre and couldn’t care less? This is on top of fees we pay to our colleges (as a Vic student, between VUSAC and student services, I end up paying $150 a year as well as UTSU and ASSU fees. This is a slight exaggeration, but since part of this money is going to something that is basically useless to me (Athletics), I see it as a waste.

Could some of the money we pool our facilities, which are some of the most expensive in Canada, instead be diverted to the Arts and Sciences undergraduate programs which have suffered major budget cuts this year? I would be more than happy to know that my extra money could contribute to the saving of the Centre for Ethics, the Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies, and the Centre for Comparative Literature?

It is, however, my choice to do what I want with my life. It should thus be my choice to pay $1000 in fees to Athletic centre or not. This should not be forced upon me, nor should it be forced upon any U of T student, especially those on restricted budgets.

Going Constitutional

Unless his political fortunes take a sudden turn, it may be years before our current prime minister moves out of 24 Sussex Drive. Despite autumn election rumours, the result is far more likely to be a Conservative rump minority than a Liberal government of any sort. But in the past four years, Stephen Harper has already sown the seeds of his constitutional legacy and the harvest is set to be poor at best. Harper has done more to change Canada’s constitutional order than any of his recent predecessors and he has done so with extraordinary cunning and skill.

Worries that Canada’s government is gradually becoming parliamentary and more “prime ministerial” or even presidential, are not new. This accusation has been leveled against Conservatives and Liberals alike since William Lyon Mackenzie King was prime minister, and especially vociferously since Pierre Trudeau held Canada’s top job. No prime minister is more deserving of this accusation than Harper. The details of Harper’s first prorogation of parliament in late 2008 are well known: facing a coalition of the three opposition parties who were committed to defeating his government, Harper simply asked the Governor General to end the session.

Harper’s request itself was not problematic, since prorogation is usually an uncontroversial procedure used to take a break once the government has completed the bulk of its legislative business for the session. However, Harper used it to avoid a vote of confidence which he would surely have lost. In doing so, he made it clear that he felt that his right to remain in office was not tied to the will of parliament. If so, then what could it be tied to but his own will? His second prorogation a year later was likewise objectionable, though less so because it enjoyed greater support of precedent.

What was concerning about Harper’s second prorogation, however, was that he did so to shut down the hearings of a special committee on the handling of detainees by Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan. When Parliament returned, the prime minister argued that the government could not release the classified documents requested by a Parliamentary committee, in clear violation of the parliamentary privilege to compel any and all papers and testimony it requests. The opposition asked the speaker of the House of Commons to rule on the question. His decision struck a difficult compromise and is currently being implemented.

These three events demonstrate the prime minister’s will to alter the relationship between his office and the most important institutions of our constitutional order, the Governor General and parliament, to suit his political purposes. The prime minister has given every indication that he will continue to do so. There is an important sign otherwise that we cannot afford to ignore. Amid the speculation that the prime minister might appoint a partisan to replace Michaëlle Jean as Governor General, the government implemented a new selection process to guarantee that the choice would be non-partisan.

The process centered around a secret committee of eminent Canadians which quietly consulted far and wide to find a non-partisan candidate. They settled on David Lloyd Johnston, then president of the University of Waterloo and former University of Toronto law professor. The choice was widely lauded and rightly so: Johnston is an excellent nominee. What deserves more praise though is the way in which Johnston was chosen. Non-partisanship was placed above even bilingualism as the key characteristic of the nominee. Expertise in constitutional law was also a criteria, which shows that the government expects that the Governor General’s judgment may come into question if the prime minister makes another controversial request for the exercise of a reserve power.

Unlike past governors general who seemed to be chosen mostly on the basis of loyalty, the process organized by the prime minister’s office which eventually selected Johnston ensured that the nominee would be beyond reproach. It is doubtless that this was the result of political pressures on the prime minister, but it nevertheless presents an important opportunity to solidify the constitutional role of the Governor General. Doing so would transform Stephen Harper’s constitutional legacy for the better and would protect the Governor General’s crucial role in the Canadian system of government. He should begin by entrenching the selection process and using the reform as an opportunity to launch a broader conversation on the role of the Governor General. Instead of slowly changing the balance of power, he might create an opportunity for Canadians themselves to shape it.

Families underestimate the cost of university

Relying on Mom and Dad to foot the bill of university may not be the best idea.

A TD Canada Trust Education and Finances Survey published August 16 reports that whilw 87 per cent of parents say they plan to pay all or part of the costs of their child’s post-secondary education, 26 per cent say they have yet to start saving and another 15 have no idea how they will finance it.

“With the provincial government having raised the amount that a student is able to receive with OSAP, but also raising the minimum salary needed to receive the student loans, neither students nor parents have planned for the financing of post-secondary educations,” said Barbara Timmins of TD Bank Financial Group. “[There has been] an increase in fees without parents having the ability to be able to plan for the rise in costs. Furthermore, the federal governments saving plan is relatively new.”

Of the 1001 students surveyed, half the respondents are working this summer to help pay for school and 66 per cent will be unable to earn enough money to cover expenses. 44 per cent of students are relying on student loans to aid their payments whereas another 27 per cent are using RESPs. The study was conducted in July.

Despite working all summer to finance his studies, fourth-year student Arun Srinivasan still finds university tuition sometimes overwhelming.

“[…] sometimes paying for tuition along with other costs can still be challenging,” says Srinivasan, suggesting early in high school as a time to start looking at university financing options.

A 2009 TD study revealed that a four-year undergraduate degree costs approximately $80,000 for students living away from home. Financing post-secondary education comes at a time when degrees or training beyond the high-school level is valued more than ever within the job market.

“With a very large portion of University of Toronto students getting OSAP loans, nearly 40 per cent, they often face very severe debts at the end of their education,” said Trinity College Registrar Bruce Bowden. “While students pay for their education through a combination of their own savings and work, scholarships and bursaries, even that may not be enough to completely finance a post-secondary education.”

Meditations in a humanitarian emergency

Each year since 1999, America’s iconic Time Magazine has compiled a list of 100 people its staff deems to be the most influential in the world.

When giving the 2010 edition a cursory glance it’s easy to be distracted by the big names: Obama, Clinton, and Winfrey are all there, and have consistently made the cut multiple times in the past decade.

2010’s edition also includes the popular (Lady GaGa), the newly unpopular (General Stanley McChrystal) and the populist (Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck). The inclusion of these celebrities, powerful media figures, and influential statesmen is essential to the integrity of the list as their images are ingrained in the collective consciousness of the United States and in some cases, the entire world.

Once you examine the list more thoroughly, you’ll encounter some names that are unfamiliar. You may ask how important and influential they can be if they’re not household names like Barack Obama or Sarah Palin.

One does not need to be a public figure to wield an enourmous amount of influence. After reading more about these relative unknowns, you will understand exactly why they are on this list. No matter what their field, discipline, or profession may be, their impact is tremendous.

What is most interesting about this year’s list is the inclusion of a relatively unknown Canadian. What piqued my interest even further is that he is from Toronto, and the organization which he founded in 1998, and has led ever since, deploys to disaster zones around the world.
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Rahul Singh, along with a team of volunteers, operates GlobalMedic, a humanitarian aid organization that specializes in providing relief to victims of natural disasters, out of their headquarters in Etobicoke.

Getting in contact with Singh was the simple part. Finding a suitable time in his packed schedule to conduct an interview was significantly harder.

Luckily, I was able to have a brief conversation with him over the phone as he was racing from one meeting to another; a typically busy day for one of the world’s most influential people.

Singh begins by shedding light on how the idea for the organization was born. His best friend, David McAntony Gibson passed away in February 1998 and Singh felt like creating an aid organization would be the most appropriate tribute to his friend’s life.

“I talked to David’s family and told them I wanted to set up this foundation in his honour to help people in Third World countries by delivering emergency medical services which they would otherwise not have access to,” he explains.

GlobalMedic’s official name is the David McAntony Gibson Foundation.

As their website bio states and Singh reiterates, the foundation’s goal is to be an efficient aid agency that delivers the maximum amount of aid with a minimum operating cost.
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Through large donations, positive coverage in the media, and Singh’s own dedication, he has been able to assemble a team of highly skilled and dedicated volunteers which has led to GlobalMedic’s exponential growth since its founding.

Over the past 12 years, GlobalMedic has deployed in 36 countries spanning four continents. They’ve provided emergency relief to victims of floods, tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, and military conflicts.

When responding to natural disasters they’re equipped with water purification systems, inflatable field hospitals, and K-9 units which are all manned by a highly experienced and skilled group of volunteers.

GlobalMedic was responsible for providing safe drinking water to hundreds of thousands of Haitians. It was this mission in Haiti, following the January earthquake, that gained Singh the recognition in Time Magazine.

Though obviously elated when he heard about his placement on the list, Singh is modest about the achievement and quickly reminds me that the honour belongs to all GlobalMedic’s volunteers.

Since its founding, GlobalMedic has expanded its vision and now operates capacity building programs in multiple developing countries. These programs have included water sanitation projects in Cambodia and Gaza (the latter of which is ongoing) and emergency medical training in more than 10 nations.

“We really want to permanently improve conditions in these countries through these capacity building programs,” says Singh.

Singh’s organization is not as inclusive as other non-profit aid agencies. Volunteering with GlobalMedic is not as easy as becoming involved with Habitat for Humanity.

“Prior experience as a paramedic is a must before being deployed with us. New recruits also must complete training sessions that deal specifically with providing relief in disaster zones,” he says.

A standard training day consists of three one-and-a-half hour sessions. Each session is further broken down into three stations which encompass disaster-zone safety and instructions on how to properly use equipment like their inflatable hospitals and water purification pumps.

New recruits are not the only ones showing up to the training sessions. GlobalMedic volunteers also attend to hone their skills or get a refresher prior to a deployment.

His organization operates in far-flung regions of the world, and Singh regularly travels to developing nations and disaster zones where GlobalMedic is needed. Through all this he maintains his job as a full-time paramedic.

It is completely ordinary for him to work 12 hour days, five days a week. Perhaps this is why he sounds so modest when he speaks of his humanitarian work. He travels to some of the world’s most dangerous places to save lives, yet at the end of a mission he still returns to Etobicoke to work full-time.
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Despite his incredibly busy schedule, Singh is jovial and good-natured throughout our conversation. While he is explaining the history of GlobalMedic his phone cuts out for at least five minutes. To my surprise, when I finally get him back on the line he’s incredibly apologetic.

“Sorry buddy, I’m in the middle of nowhere and the reception is terrible,” he laughs.

“Let me start from the beginning,” and without skipping a beat, he delves back into the organization’s history.

While speaking to Singh over the phone it is apparent that his confident personality and exuberant yet modest attitude toward his work surely help his team when they encounter circumstances as dire as the situation in Haiti following the earthquake.

Although Singh currently has no plans to expand GlobalMedic’s base of operations, the organization will continue to recruit, solicit donations, and deploy to disaster zones whenever they are needed. But wherever they go, the world will be watching and hoping they succeed.

Two New Degrees Offered at U of T

The University of Toronto will be offering two new masters programs this September. The Master of Global Affairs at the Munk School of Global Affairs and the Master of Science in Applied Computing at the Department of Computer Science come in response to a growing demand for professional and applied postgraduate studies.

The MGA degree at the Munk School seeks to bridge the sectors of government, business and NGO work while addressing the changing landscape of global affairs. The program is directed of Steven Bernstein, previously director of the Master of Arts in International Relations program.

“We purposely called it a Master in Global Affairs instead of International Relations not because states are irrelevant, but because we want people to recognize that this old model is just one way the world is interacting,” says Bernstein. “It grew out of student demand for a degree where they could develop applied skills in addition to knowledge which would launch their careers.”

The program seeks to bridge the sectors of government, business and NGO work and features a mandatory internship component, where overseas placement is stressed.
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“James Orbinski is one of the stories of this degree,” says Bernstein, referencing former president of Médicins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) and current cross-appointed faculty at the Munk School. “He told us that when he was in Rwanda as a medical professional, he didn’t understand the political forces leading to the problems.”

In only two months after the program’s inception, applicants have already expressed a high interest. The selective program admits 40 students from among a large pool of applicants. According to Bernstein, most applicants are undergraduates from a social sciences background, but around 10 per cent have been already working overseas, in government or are law, business, and engineering postgraduates.

“We were […] happy to get MBA grads who had terrific skills in management but not necessarily the cultural and political knowledge to act globally,” says Bernstein. “Our vision is that our graduates would be innovators who will take leadership positions in any of the three sectors.”

Across campus the Department of Computer Science has established the Master of Science in Applied Computing, another new professional degree. Known for being highly research-intensive at the postgraduate level, the department also saw a strong student demand for professional experience as opposed to purely research-based projects.

“After doing extensive outreach, we came to a programme that plays to our particular strengths: research in aid of technology transfer to industry,” states M.Sc. of Applied Computing program director Eugene Fiume.

Along with taking the program specific graduate level courses students in the program also take courses in communications and business. The professional M.Sc. of Applied Computing also requires internships specifically in transferring technology to industry and the private sector.

“Students will also do internships in industry on well-defined projects that require the deployment of new research results into industry,” notes Dr. Fiume. “To my knowledge, there is no programme like this anywhere.”

The program proved to be highly selective. Only six students were chosen from one hundred and twenty applicants in the inaugural year. Fiume suggests that expanded enrollment may be a possibility in the future.

Mistaken views

July 11th marked the 15th anniversary of the worst case of genocide in Europe since the Holocaust. In 1995, in Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bosnian Serb forces systematically killed more than 8,000 Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) in a UN designated safe area. For the past five years, Canada’s Bosniaks has been lobbying for a Srebrenica Resolution, which would mark July 11th as Srebrenica Remembrance Day in commemoration of these victims.

In early June, Bill M-416 in support of this resolution, was submitted into the House of Commons by NDP MP Brian Masse (Windsor West). Prime Minister Stephen Harper refused to give full support. In order for the motion to pass, Harper requested that the word “genocide” be taken out, as well as for the number of victims (8,372) to be lowered to less than 7,000 and for the word “Bosniak” to be replaced with the more general term “Bosnian.”

Harper’s decision to torpedo M-416 when the event in question is a proven fact, was an ignorant move.

The case of Srebrenica is internationally recognized as an act of genocide. It has been declared so by the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which puts Harper’s position in direct conflict with international law. The Hague Tribunal has already charged numerous Bosnian Serb war criminals with genocide including the late Slobodan Milosevic, Radislav Krstic, Radovan Karadzic currently on trial, and Ratko Mladic, who is a currently a fugitive.

The US Congress, the European Parliament, and numerous other governments have already passed Srebrenica Resolutions, condemning the genocide and creating remembrance days. The European Parliament has called the Srebrenica genocide “symbol of the international community’s impotence to intervene and protect civilians.” In July 2009, former Yugoslav republics Croatia and Montenegro adopted resolutions condemning the genocide and marking July 11th as Srebrenica Remembrance Day.

Harper is deeply mistaken in his belief that the number of victims should be lower than 7,000. Many specialized organizations such as the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP), the Federal Commission for Missing Persons and even the ICTY all claim the number of Srebrenica victims in July 1995 to be above 8,000. Perhaps Harper got his facts confused with the 6,481 Srebrenica victims who have been identified according to ICMP as of July 09, 2010.

Bosniaks were specifically executed in order to “ethnically cleanse” the region for then Yugoslav President fanatical idea of a Greater Serbia. On June 10 2010, in the largest case ever held before ICTY, Vujadin Popovic and Ljubisa Bara, two high-ranking Bosnian Serb military officers were found guilty of genocide, extermination, murder, and persecution of Bosniaks in Srebrenica.

“[…]The plain intention, apparent from the evidence, to eliminate every Bosnian Muslim male who was captured or surrendered proves beyond reasonable doubt that this was genocide,” the trial chamber stated.

The aggression that happened in Srebrenica meets the definition of crime of genocide in Article II of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, issued in Paris on December 9, 1948.

There are over 50,000 Bosnians living in Canada today many of whom still bear emotional and physical scars from the war. This simple recognition would help the healing and reconciliation process by openly confronting the crimes of the past. This violation of human rights should be recognized and remembered in order to help prevent similar war crimes from occurring elsewhere in the world. By denying judicial facts, Harper is undermining the rule of law, which is unacceptable in a democratic society.

The Bosnian Canadian community will not accept Harper’s faulty requests, and will continue lobbying for Liberal MP Rob Oliphant’s (Don Valley-West) new bill C-533 supporting this resolution when Parliament returns in September. The time has long past for Canada to join the rest of the world in remembering the Srebrenica Genocide. Despite the fact that Canada is a major peacekeeping country and a contracting party of the 1948 Geneva Convention, Harper has yet to responsibly recognize the documented realities of the crime of genocide in Srebrenica.

Help Conquer Cancer with Your Computer

Curing cancer can be added to the list of ways to procrastinate come September. U of T’s Help Conquer Cancer (HCC) project uses your computer’s spare processing cycles to understand the functions of cancer-fighting proteins.

The program works by asking volunteers to download a program that fetches data whenever their computer is turned on but not in use. Anytime a screen-saver would normally turn on, the program fetches data to calculate.

“A project’s data is divided into work units and sent out to WC Grid members’ computers,” explains Scientific Associate Chistian Cumbaa. “Each work unit takes a few seconds to download […] once complete, it is uploaded from the members’ computers back to the WC Grid server.”

HCC is part of the World Community Grid, a distributed-computing network funded by IBM that supports computer-intensive research projects. The WCG estimates that computer owners typically only use 10 to 15 per cent of their computer’s power.

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The collective computing power of grid computing far surpasses the ability of any supercomputer.

“The numbers describing the World Community Grid are crazy,” says Cumbaa. “There are about 520,000 members that contribute to the WC Grid, donating computer time from 1,580,000 computers”

Since HCC launched in November 2007 the program has screened over 12,000 proteins and generated over 115,000,000 images. In an average day the WC Grid calculates 288 CPU-years of data. This is the same amount of data a single computer running at full capacity would take 288 years to complete.

The ability of grid computing to fight disease is not a new concept. In 2003 scientists used the technology to uncover 45 potential genes to fight smallpox. Other grid computing projects currently underway relate to HIV and muscular dystrophy.

The WCG was founded in 2004 with the mission of becoming the largest computer grid in the world. HCC is funded by the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Canada Research Chair Program, the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and IBM.

To learn more about HCC and use your computer to fight cancer, visit www.worldcomputinggrid.org

Dysfunctional government

In recent years democracy in Canada and the United States has been significantly undermined by a lack of transparency and an increasing trend of ideological pettiness. This has polarized voters and created an atmosphere of political cynicism in which the deliberative process necessary to run a democratic society has given away to whatever power can be grabbed from moment to moment. If these trends are not reversed then democracy in Canada and the United States itself will become increasingly less relevant, because everyone will either be too defeated, or too indifferent, to care.

The Conservative Party of Canada and its leader, Stephen Harper, formed a minority government in 2006 with a mandate towards accountability and transparency in Ottawa. Four years later, the Prime Minister has twice prorogued Parliament to avoid public debate. The first was on December 2, 2008 to avoid a coalition of the Liberals, New Democrats and Bloc Quebecois formed to defeat the government in a non-confidence motion. The second prorogation occurred on December 30, 2009 to avoid public scrutiny over the treatment of prisoners of war in Afghanistan. This summer, Minister of Industry Tony Clement announced the government would scrap the mandatory long form census and replace it with a voluntary short form census. According to Statistics Canada, the new census will only have 70 per cent compliance compared with nearly 100 per cent for the mandatory long form. This undermines the integrity of the data, the uses for which are diverse and multi-faceted. The provinces use population statistics provided by the census to determine education funding, and also by non-profits when they apply for federal funding. The Conservatives have essentially undermined one of the most reliable, accessible, and vital forms of public information.

The government continually silences its critics. Veteran Ombudsman Pat Strogan will not have his term renewed simply for criticizing the handling of disability treatment by Veteran Affairs Canada. He now joins Paul Kennedy at the RCMP complaints commission, Peter Tinsley at the Military Police Complaints Commission, and Linda Keen at the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, who have all been silenced by the government for simply criticizing it, even though these offices exist to provide oversight. These moves would be unnecessary for a government that respects transparency, openness, and accountability. However, the Conservatives govern based on the idea that public access to information is a privilege rather than a right. The government’s current stance on democracy gives us the worst of both worlds: weak regulatory bodies combined with the public perception that since they exist they must be doing their jobs.
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In the United States, where public servants pride themselves on working with a spirit of transparency, political dealings are equally opaque and disjointed. In the Senate – the upper house of the nation’s legislature – democracy is routinely undermined by a severe lack of transparency. Earlier this year, the Senate voted down a proposal by House majority leader Harry Reid to have bills posted online for public access prior to consideration in the house, just months after they shot down a proposal to have the Federal Reserve’s audit papers made public. Today, there still doesn’t exist a reliable mechanism to track how taxpayer dollars are being spent, nor how individual Senators are handling their office expense accounts. Comparatively, problems of transparency in Canada involve the government skirting around accountability, while in the United States, the lack of transparency is more institutional and a function of the problematic way that government is organized.

Perhaps more consequentially, a stubborn commitment to ideology obstructs legislative efficiency and undermines the democratic process in the United States. Consider, for instance, the recent health care bill, which, save for Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning, the entire Republican contingent in the house voted No on. The sensible conservative argument against the bill – that a combination of open-market competition and tax credits would more adequately serve public needs – was abandoned in favour of vitriolic, strident partisanship, couched most notably in statements decrying Obama’s plan as “socialist.” Obama’s proposed economic stimulus faced the same narrow, unreasoned ideological opposition. Earlier this year, Evan Bayh, a veteran Democrat from Indiana, chose not to seek re-election, saying that: “There is too much partisanship and not enough progress-too much narrow ideology and not enough practical problem-solving.”

The implications of narrow ideological politics are far-reaching and troubling, especially considering that the Obama administration has major short term goals – educational reform, withdrawal from Iraq – that will require a very involved, deliberative democracy. If upcoming public debate is going to be littered with the same poor quality party-line rhetoric, you can expect decision-making to be slowed and progress, ultimately, to be hindered.

The Conservatives and Republicans clearly believe the legislative process is not only an inconvenience, but something that can be exploited or dismissed. When one states that “government is broken” one is speaking of government as an abstract entity that is somehow not affected by the people inside or outside of it. This is precisely what the political right wants. By removing ourselves from the responsibility we have to fix the democratic process, we are only helping those who seek to break it further.