A black voice on blackface

Each semester, The Varsity publishes a satirical joke issue that contains no actual news content. Last semester’s joke issue (Nov. 19) included a story entitled “The new face of Charlie Brown” about a fictional avant-garde student production of the play You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown. Among other theatrical imagery depicted, students were described as using blackface makeup (a racist theatrical costume once popular in the U.S.) in the invented production. An image of an actor, digitally altered to make it appear he was in blackface, was also published. The Varsity was subsequently contacted by students representing the Black Students Association, Black Lawyers of Tomorrow, UTSU and other student groups who requested this space in the paper to express their belief that the Nov. 19 article was offensive to black students.

Just before winter exams, I received a call from a friend telling me about an article in the November 19, 2007 joke issue of The Varsity entitled “The New Face of Charlie Brown.” He and other black students had just come across this article, coupled with a large photo of the cast of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, with Charlie in blackface. They were furious. And after seeing it for myself, so was I.

We thought that maybe the authors of this article didn’t know the history of blackface. Maybe they didn’t understand that blackface is more than a “theatrical trope,” as described in the article.

I feel compelled to set the record straight, so here goes. Blackface began as a theatrical representation that depicted blacks in a racist and grotesque manner. Actors in blackface put on black makeup and enlarged the appearance of their lips in order to present a form of “pseudo-blackness.” These performers would also speak, sing, move, and dance in a way that was seen as a black “stylized manner.”

This misrepresentation of blacks was used to make them appear ugly, monstrous, and inhuman. This is exactly how Charlie Brown was depicted in the picture: as a buffoon.

Blackface has a long and troubling history. It first appeared in minstrel shows of the 19th century, where both white and black actors would perform onstage in blackface. At the turn of the century, theatrical performances of blackface declined as they began to appear onscreen, where they reached an even larger audience. Early films like D.W. Griffith’s Birth of A Nation and The Jazz Singer depicted blacks as lazy and simple-minded. Blackface has and always will reinforce racist characterizations of blacks: Sambo, Coon, and Mammy come to mind.

After discussing this article, other black student leaders and I promptly requested a meeting with The Varsity. At the meeting we were shocked to learn that those who contributed to the article did in fact know the history of blackface. Despite their knowledge of the repugnant history of this racist imagery, the editor told us that the article was intended to be satirical. However, there was nothing humorous or satirical about the article and we demanded an apology. Instead, what we got was this space in the paper to voice our concerns. We are still waiting for an apology. We are not asking for censorship but rather demanding respect as human beings. This is our right.

Unfortunately, The Varsity article is not the only emergence of images of blackface on Canadian university campuses in recent years. In 2006, a number of students at Wilfrid Laurier University decided to dress up in blackface for the winter carnival. These students blackened their faces with makeup and wore upside-down KFC buckets on their heads. This incident was met with contempt and corrective action by the university.

There is a connection between the article published in The Varsity and the incident at Laurier. Both have shown a disregard for the painful history of blackface just to get a few laughs.

We’re not overreacting. What made this article disturbing was not that blackface was in the paper but how it was presented. The supposed satirical nature of the article is non-existent. Why was blackface not discussed in a regular edition of The Varsity but rather ridiculed in the joke edition of the paper? Only after we pressed for space is the issue being discussed seriously in this publication.

George Orwell once wrote, “The aim of a joke is not to degrade the human being, but to remind him that he is already degraded.” The Varsity did exactly that with their presentation of blackface. Those in power often decide what is humorous, never making themselves the butt of the joke, but rather targeting marginalized groups who are subjugated and underprivileged.

Those who wrote the article may not have intended to offend black people. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and what they did demonstrates how disrespected blacks are in society, that black history is only worthy to be discussed when it is time for a joke or Black History Month. We’re tired of having our history demeaned, ghettoized, and ridiculed. It’s not funny and we’re not laughing.

Is Sarkozy getting too cosy with the media?

From the ongoing Paris Hilton extravaganza to Britney’s painfully slow self-destruction, the North American media is always looking for something juicy to talk about in order to sell some magazines. But in Europe these days, the most exciting gossip concerns a certain politician: French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Sarkozy is in a relationship only four months after divorcing his wife Cécilia. But what really puts the cream on this tabloid eclair is the choice he’s made in his new lover. While Cécilia Sarkozy was a woman the French population barely knew, Carla Bruni, the president’s new belle, is a former supermodel who has also become a famous singer over the last four years. Before she started dating the political elite of Europe, she was linked variously with Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, Kevin Costner, and Donald Trump. In 2006 she was quoted as saying “I am faithful—to myself! I am bored to death by monogamy.”

These are not the characteristics usually seen in a First Lady, and for the last month the press has hounded the couple as they travel Europe, making them the most sensationalized European couple since Prince Charles and Lady Diana.

Never before have the French people looked so closely into their president’s private life. Neither had they seen any former president pictured with two different women in less than a year.

While former French president François Mitterand hid the existence of a daughter he had outside of his marriage, and Jacques Chirac was also known to have extramarital affairs, Nicolas Sarkozy’s private life is very much more accessible to the public. This is probably because he likes to talk about it, and in accordance to the “transparency” he promised would characterize his presidency, he happily discloses many aspects of his private life. Transparency is a great characteristic for a leader to have when he’s talking about cabinet appointments or budget decisions, but does transparency mean that we should know everything?

Did the idea of “change” that Sarkozy campaigned under also include a change in how the president’s private life would be seen in the public arena?

Although a lot of people actually enjoy sneaking into the president’s private life and discovering his love stories, most people are now getting bored at all this media coverage, keeping in mind that he is their president and not a rock star. This is decline in the president’s popularity.

As the president is enjoys himself with his new friend, France is worried he’s put aside his role of world leader. After all, who couldn’t forgive the man for ducking out of a late meeting a little early to rush home to his supermodel girlfriend? According to French newspaper L’Est Républicain, “He forgot that he should have a romance with France and not with himself and his paramour.”

In fact, some French people are getting positively anxious. It is true that Sarkozy’s political projects seem to make sense and that he has many great ideas for France, but his over-activity is sometimes disturbing and his relationship with the media is a striking example of this excess.

France has teetered on the brink of socio-economic crisis in recent years, with riots in the immigrant enclaves of Paris becoming commonplace. There are major issues that need to be tackled, starting with the low standard of living many French citizens endure. This is an issue that Sarkozy has said is his priority, but he has yet to deal with. Fixing France’s problems is where Sarkozy should put his energy, not talking to the press. For gossip, we should always be able to rely on Paris—but only the heiress variety.

Palestine visit was empty political theatre

President Bush’s visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories earlier this month, his first to the region in the seven years of his administration, brought with it little hope for any substantive resolution to one of the world’s most intractable conflicts. The president has an unenviable record of being slow in responding to numerous critical events during his presidency. but for once, incompetence cannot be blamed for the president’s failure in the Middle East. On the issue of peace in Palestine-Israel, the Bush administration has made a definitive choice to give low priority to resolving the ongoing conflict.

The president’s Jan. 9 visit was a distasteful demonstration of political theatre, utterly devoid of any substance. The same goes for the entire Annapolis Peace effort which began last November but has yet to move forward in resolving any of the core outstanding issues, making the prospects of a long and lasting peace agreement any time soon extremely remote. The unattainability of peace is reinforced by the political weakness of both Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas, who are both hugely unpopular leaders at home and face domestic opposition to making any of the concessions that are necessary for peace.

The political climate in the region is not one conducive to a peaceful resolution, despite what the vast majority of the civilian population desires. Instead, cosmetic measures such as peace talks that never lead to any tenable solutions have become the instrument of choice for both the Israeli and Palestinian leadership to gain cheap political points at home and abroad. However, the prospects of peace are remote because the preconditions set up in these much-hailed talks sabotage any chance for real negotiations to take place.

Prime Minister Olmert’s success in getting President Bush to not push Israel into a peace agreement until after the Palestinian leadership clamps down on Palestinian terrorists is an automatic recipe for failure. This would essentially require President Abbas to take on and potentially demolish militant Hamas before any progress can be made on the issue of an independent Palestinian state. President Abbas is in no position to accomplish this precondition. This fact has been acknowledged by Olmert, who last November characterized his Palestinian counterpart as “a weak partner, who is not capable.”

Olmert and Bush know that this precondition cannot be met by Abbas, and yet they insist upon it because the status quo of continued low-level conflict is advantageous to Israel, America’s main ally in the region. This is because Israel’s leadership has accepted the emergence of Fortress Israel, whereby the Jewish state, with its vastly superior armed forces and its almost total control of movement in the region, can live in relative security without making any concessions to the Palestinians—such as refugees’ right to return to their occupied lands or the cessation of deadly raids into Palestinian territory—which would be necessary for real peace.

A perfect example of Israel’s choice of security over real peace is the current project of erecting the West Bank barrier, an eight-metre high, 700 km wall separating Israel from parts the territories. The wall has been highly effective in virtually eliminating the threat of suicide bombings, but it has done nothing to address the underlying reasons for conflict between the two groups.

Israel’s prospect of genuinely cordial relations with the Palestinians, the vast majority of whom are not terrorists but rather peaceful citizens, remains unlikely. Especially as long as the Palestinian people’s right to return, a right anchored in international law, goes unfulfilled. In so far that a physical barrier has achieved some level of success in smothering the ferocity of the Israeli-Palestinian violence we can perhaps be thankful that President Bush’s shenanigans didn’t make things any worse.

Iran: Bush’s last chance at saving his legacy?

Thankfully, Bush’s days in the White House are winding down, but it seems as if his legacy will impact the landscape of American foreign and public policy long after he is gone. If it were up to him, his name would appear in the textbooks of the great nation to the south forever tied to his self-annointed persona as a “war president.”

He has cultivated this legacy throughout his eight years as president by launching the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to combat autocratic rule. These conflicts were necessary, Bush has said, because autocratic states not only cause instability to their respective societies but they are havens for terrorists, who can take advantage of both the protection offered by despotic leaders and the general lawlessness at the fringes of society, to recruit, train, and plan devastating attacks against Western targets, with impunity.

Under this rationale, Bush started his War on Terror in the Middle East to secure American safety and American interests abroad. He also threw in the whole “bringing democracy to the oppressed people” aspect in order to make a potentially long, expensive, and dangerous set of wars more palatable to the American public. With the sudden shock of 9/11, Bush embarked on an ambitious and violent program of eradicating terrorism from the face of the earth and bringing democracy to every corner of the globe.

But with rising death tolls in Afghanistan, and especially in Iraq, and with no end in sight, the honourable moniker of a “war president” now must certainly take on negative connotations. Given the dismal results of his supposedly necessary wars, Bush must be seen as more of a “war-mongering president.” With his current approval rating at an all-time low of 20 per cent, the lowest of any president in American history, we can safely consider him a “failed president” in the court of public opinion. The only way he can shed this title with the 10 months he has left in office is to create a resounding success in either the domestic or foreign policy sphere, which will not only boost his public ratings but revive his status as a “successful war president,” by the time he leaves office.

This is where Iran comes in. Bush is in the Middle East now, attempting to build another coalition of the willing with Sunni Arab allies, for a probable pre-emptive strike against Iran. Bush’s harsh stance against Iran faces growing skepticism from Gulf Arab states, which are currently extending diplomatic relations to the Shi‘ite country. Bush’s accusations that Iran has a secret nuclear weapons program have fizzled out. Iran recently declared all its previous nuclear activities to the International Atomic Energy Agency and as American intelligence found, Iran suspended its military nuclear projects in 2003.

Iran’s increasing importance to Bush can even be seen at home. A mere three hours after Nicholas Burns, the State Department official in charge of Iran policy, resigned, Bush appointed William Burns to the position. William Burns, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, is loyal to Bush’s cause and many think will cooperate with the administration’s pushes for harsher anti-nuclear sanctions on Iran.

However, with the American elections looming, it is unlikely Bush will embroil America in another long and expensive military operation. For now, he is verbally locking horns with Iran, hoping the “enraged” Iranian bull will spend its energy and eventually back down, exhausted by the rhetoric and diplomatic might of the U.S. Bush is hoping to salvage whatever legacy he has left as a “war president” through his dealings with Iran. It’s a good thing he doesn’t have more time in office, otherwise he might have tried the same thing with North Korea, the only remaining member of the Axis of Evil club he hasn’t said he’s prepared to invade.

It’s Not Rocket Science – Episode 5

We are one step closer to creating the Bionic Man

This super cool piece of technology is straight out of science fiction: a contact lens with embedded lights that could eventually allow for visual displays to be projected on the wearer’s eye. Still in its infancy, the technology is designed so that the electronic components do not obstruct vision and are safe for use on humans. As soon as they get a prototype that can project hockey games onto my eyes, I am going to buy one.


Monkeys control robot…with the power of their minds (I am not making this up)

There is no end to the crazy things scientists will do in the name of science, but this one definitely tops the list. (Mad) scientists at Duke University implanted electrodes in the brains of two Rhesus monkeys and sent the signals to a robot in Japan whose locomotion was controlled by this information. The purpose of the study—besides giving the team a great story to tell at the bar—was to observe the relationship between movement and brain activity in the motor and sensory cortexes of the brain. Interestingly, the monkeys were able to make the robot continue walking by simply thinking about it after they had stopped moving. Conceivably, this technology is a first step towards mentally controlled robotic braces, and other movement devices for paralyzed people. Fortunately, the researchers had the foresight to not allow the monkeys to control a tank or jet fighter.


An explanation for flirty people

This eye-opening analysis of the practice of flirting in Time Magazine explains why we engage in this sometimes counter-intuitive behaviour. It turns out it’s a hard-wired way to ensure that our genes are passed on to the next generation. Most interesting is the explanation for why married people flirt. As informational as the piece is, it still can’t explain why Scott Baio was single for so long.


Everything really is bigger in Texas (file this one under “unsurprising”)

Guess which part of America emits the most carbon dioxide emissions? That’s right, the Lone Star state. If it were ranked as a country, it would be the seventh worst pollutant in the world. This is more than the number two and three states (California and Pennsylvania) combined. With 19 coal-burning power plants and an unnatural fondness for large vehicles, the state’s new status isn’t a shocker. Now if only we could find a way to turn carbon dioxide directly into beef.


Vindication comes for squirrel hatred

It turns out squirrels are paranoid. Bored with doing actual scientific work, Dr. Michael Steele of Pennslyvania’s Wilkes University decided to study the behaviour of grey squirrels. While it is known that squirrels hoard food, they were observed digging fake holes with no actual food stored in them. Since other squirrels will thieve food from their storage spaces, this is a clever tactic to avoid getting their dinner stolen. As well, the squirrels were observed to dig more fake holes when they knew they were being watched. These squirrels were also observed building a doomsday device, conclusively proving that they are evil and cannot be trusted.


Honey, I cloned myself

Because everyone loves a good ethical quandary, Dr. Samuel Wood decided to clone himself. Don’t panic, there isn’t an army of mini-Samuels running about as the embryos only survived for five days. The same process that was used to clone Dolly the sheep was used in this experiment. I can hear anti-cloning activists around the world furiously scrawling clever slogans on Bristol boards. Naturally, the Vatican condemned the practice.


Hate rats? Me too

A rodent that tips the scales at one tonne has been discovered in South America—but don’t worry, you won’t find it on the subway. This massive prehistoric rat (called Josephoartigasia monesi) dwarfs the largest rodent currently alive, the 50-kilogram capybara, also from South America. It is thought that competition from predators after the two Americas joined, as well as introduced diseases and a change in climate, doomed the overgrown rodent to extinction. Perhaps it is for the best that they no longer exist—I would hate to discover one of these suckers in my kitchen. Plus, the rat traps would be insanely large.


Sometimes the best ideas are considered ridiculous at first

It became clear that humanity has a special skill for finding weird solutions to everyday problems after the invention of suspenders. To continue this proud tradition, ecoble. com presents five oddball solutions to the current climate change crisis. I think my favourite is wrapping glaciers with sheets to avoid them from melting. It’s like some kind of crazy Christmas came really early, and everyone is getting ice and a reasonable temperature for the planet.


The south pole migrates (seriously, this thing has legs)

Every year, researchers place a new south pole marker, as the ice sheet moves anywhere from seven to 10 metres a year. A unique place marker is put down (you can see the past four on the website). This also includes a gratuitous group shot of the brave (if somewhat foolhardy) scientists and workers that inhabit the Amundsen- Scott South Pole Station.


Talking Heads: What are your plans for after graduation? Is it a scary prospect?

Clockwise from top-right

Jagneet , 3rd-year Commerce

I’m trying to become a CA (chartered accountant), so essentially I’m looking at work right out of graduation. Really its getting to graduation and getting certified thats the scary part. The rest is easy.

Federica, 4th-year Peace and Conflict Studies

My plan is to continue my studies back in Italy. I’m applying to places, scared to leave Canada but excited at the same time

Andrew, 2nd-year Engineering

I’m not afraid in the least. I plan to go to grad school, and anyways, after 20+ years of schooling, it will feel good to finally be independent.

Victor, 3rd-year American Studies

Oh…God…uhh…perpetual academia is the easiest choice. I’m staying in school as long as I can.

Cloverfield is on the loose

How strange it is to remember all the talk in the weeks following September 11 about whether scenes of urban chaos and destruction would ever be permissible in popular culture again. Now just over six years after 9/11 comes the much buzzed-about, J.J. Abrams-produced monster movie Cloverfield, which is a creature feature for the “War on Terror” years. Here’s my wacky pitch: Cloverfield is like Godzilla meets United 93.

If you’ve been thinking of seeing Cloverfield but haven’t yet, read no further. It works best if you know as little as possible going in. The plot, in general terms: in New York City during a going-away party held in honour of dashing young Rob (Michael Stahl-David), a giant monster attacks the city without warning or reason. In the midst of the chaos, Rob and a few friends try to make it to midtown Manhattan to save Rob’s girlfriend.

One of Rob’s friends is Hud, a drunken loser who happens to record the party with a MiniDV camera. Hud takes it upon himself to document the evening so that future generations can “see how it all went down.” The gimmick of Cloverfield is that it is told entirely from the perspective of Hud’s MiniDV camera.

With a few more introductory scenes and a third-person, 35mm perspective, this could easily have been an unspectacular entry in the Godzilla cannon. The choice of filming Cloverfield from the perspective of a MiniDV camera gives it the blunt immediacy of…well, the amateur footage of the planes hitting the World Trade Center. Cloverfield is uncanny in the way that it captures the confused feelings in the air on September 11: frustration at not knowing the reason for the catastrophe, and anger at the disaster itself.

Apart from that, Cloverfield is a damn fine monster movie. It’s intense, suspenseful, and has a few legitimately scary moments. The minor story flaws (how can a character who has been impaled still work up the energy to run?) are redeemed by the ending, which is refreshingly uncompromising. This is also a richer and more complex film than the average monster mash: message boards are already swamped with theories about the movie’s near-subliminal background details (look carefully at the film’s final shot) and its legendary, complicated viral marketing campaign. But perhaps most astonishing of all is that Cloverfield has a genuinely compelling human story, no easy feat considering that the plot construction leaves little time for background details.


In a telephone interview with Michael Stahl-David, Jessica Lucas, and Odette Yustman, the film’s stars were eager to distance Cloverfield from 9/11.

“Our intentions weren’t to recreate 9/11 at all,” said Yustman. “This is a complete fantasy movie and it’s about a big huge monster that attacks New York City. We understand that there are similarities, but those were not our intention at all.”

Added Stahl-David, “I think you can have this really emotional expeReence of watching characters deal with this really catastrophic situation while at the same time being entertained by the fact that it’s a monster, there are these creatures jumping out, the guy behind the camera’s making wisecracks.” Despite the denials, Lucas mentioned later on that the cast watched footage from different disasters “just to get an idea of how people react to that situation, which actually helped me a lot.”


Jessica Lucas: “We didn’t know what we were auditioning for at all, except that it was a J.J. Abrams project. I read for it a couple of times, and then I booked it, and we didn’t get a finalized script until really close to shooting, and then we finally knew it was a monster movie.”

Odette Yustman: “We had to sign different confidentiality agreements saying that we wouldn’t say anything. When we finally got a script, the script was all red pages, with our names typed on every page, so if we lost it we were completely screwed.”


Michael Stahl-David: “It was interesting because sometimes you had to be super relaxed, and sometimes you had to be very ‘non-acting,’ and then sometimes subtlety really just wouldn’t read, because the camera wouldn’t be close enough, or you had to believe that Hud was holding the camera in that situation, so he couldn’t be too conveniently focused on your eyes.”

Odette Yustman: “It was such a different process, because we were able to address the camera, which we’re taught not to do. Also, there was the whole improvisation part of the movie. We were able to bring our own thoughts and our own creative process to these characters, so it was very interesting.”


Michael Stahl-David: “I think it’s cool and interesting how much the fans become part of the advertising. The message board becomes such a huge part of promoting the movie, and these are just the people who are excited about it. So these fans are really becoming huge players in the industry, collectively.”

Pioneer prof switches schools

Political science superstar Thomas Homer-Dixon is leaving U of T for a position at the start-up Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, beginning this July.

Homer-Dixon came to U of T in 1989 after completing a PhD at MIT. He rose to prominence with the 1991 article “On the Threshold: Environmental changes as causes of acute conflict,” which caught the attention of academics and policy-makers worldwide. Subsequent work followed this strain, including the award-winning books The Ingenuity Gap and The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization, among others.

Homer-Dixon currently holds the George Ignatieff Chair of Peace and Conflict Studies at the Trudeau Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies. David Welch, director of the centre, credited Homer-Dixon with “[taking the] small research centre on peace and conflict issues, renamed it the Trudeau Centre, and brought it global recognition.”

Homer-Dixon said he is moving towards an intensely interdisciplinary approach on issues of scarcity, conflict, and complex systems. “I don’t feel the University of Toronto is particularly well-suited to allow me to do that research.”

Waterloo’s smaller, closer-knit community, he said, allows for the clearer, more focused vision that he desires.

“Sometimes you reach a watershed where you think about what you’re going to do for the next section of your life,” he said.

A joint venture between the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University, the Balsillie School was funded by a $50-million gift from Jim Balsillie. Balsillie is the founder of Research in Motion, the company that produces Blackberry handhelds.

Despite his misgivings about U of T’s structure and direction, Homer-Dixon spoke glowingly of his colleagues, principals, and mentors in University College, and most of all, his students. “The best thing about [the Trudeau Centre] is the students. We’ve somehow got something going on here that attracts just truly wonderful people, interesting people who will make a real difference.”

“This is going to be an emotionally wrenching thing. I have deep roots and deep commitments and a lot of friends on this campus.”