Somehow, over the course of the last six decades, America has evolved into the world’s rhetorical whipping boy. Negative opinions about the United States abound, even domestically. Whether discussing the government, economic system, or the everyday lives of its citizens, the country has become a symbol to many of all that is wrong with humanity.Although some of this criticism is probably warranted, America’s detractors often exhibit an arrogance that unfairly belittles many of the country’s great contributions to the world, especially in the realm of culture. And I’m not talking about the New York theatre scene here, or Mark Twain either. I’m talking about mass-market, middle-class popular culture, the kind so often derided for its lack of sophistication.In Canada, we have an entire bureaucracy dedicated to defending us from the “threat” of American cultural exports. The Europeans too, obsessed with their own histories, carefully protect their aristocratic culture from the “low” culture of the New World masses. Many Americans have themselves bought into this myth of cultural inferiority.I recently came back from a road trip to the northeast United States. After staying in New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland, while taking in numerous baseball games and a wonderful trip to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I came to a much different conclusion.Baseball and rock n’ roll are rich cultural enterprises, with deep histories and a global outreach. Otherwise known as the National Pastime, professional baseball has been around since the 19th century and continues to be an important aspect of American life. While sitting in a sold out, 85-year-old Yankee Stadium, I could only imagine the millions of people before me who had sat down with a hotdog and beer and witnessed the defining moments of one of the greatest sports franchises the world has ever seen.In Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I explored the complex web of music that is rock n’ roll. From the early influences of gospel, blues, and jazz to the emergence of funk, punk, alternative, and hip hop, American popular music has reflected the country’s diversity and defined generations, while constantly reinventing itself along the way.Although baseball and rock music are in many ways uniquely American, they have both become important aspects of global culture that have shaped, and been shaped, by the rest of the world.Baseball, for example, was heavily influenced by British cricket. Today, much of the world has fallen in love with the game. In Latin America, Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, two very anti-American leaders, are avid baseball fans. In Asia, professional baseball leagues are producing many talented players that are increasingly making inroads in the United States.As for rock and roll, some of its roots can be traced to music brought over by African slaves, and since its emergence in the mid 20th century, it has been in a constant cultural interplay with European, especially British, music. American blues influenced the Beatles, who in turn shaped American rock in the 1960s. Since then, its been a musical ping-pong match with bands like Led Zeppelin and Metallica, the Strokes and the Arctic Monkeys playing off one another, pushing themselves to greater musical heights.Contrary to being a disease spread by imperialists, American culture has intrinsic value, best shown by the way people around the world embrace and add to it. In fact, labelling it simply as “American” ignores the role it has had in defining the identities of millions, if not billions of individuals.So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go throw on some Green Day and watch the Jays game.
In defence of the sleeping elephant
The Motorcycle Diaries
“The best fiction is far more true than any kind of journalism—and the best journalists have always known this” – Hunter S. Thompson (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas)It was late August. I had been planning all summer to get my motorcycle level two license but had largely spent the time procrastinating, plagued by sleepless nights and reckless drinking which was definitely contrary to the process. But it was late August, as I said, and I knew I had to complete at least one thing on my summer ‘to do’ list and—let’s be realistic—I wasn’t going to learn French in a week. So I turned to the page labeled “summer goals” in my notebook, between pages containing some demoralizing financial statements and hack poetry which I probably composed at 5 o’clock in the morning in some altered state of awareness and decided that I needed to ride a wild hog before labour day—or die trying. Over the years I’ve found you learn a lot about yourself at five o’clock in the morning, if you can remember any of it. My main method is just jotting down whatever I figure out, and then trying to make sense of it in the morning. The problem with this is that the words end up looking like hieroglyphics or some illegible cipher. It’s basically like trying to interpret and analyze a dream and after some quick consideration decided that I was unwilling to subject my burning desire to ride a motorcycle to anything close to Freudian analysis—lest I figure out something I didn’t intend to.So, by 8 a.m. on Monday morning I had to be down at the Docks for my first day at the Rider Training Institute (RTI for short). Seeing as how 8 a.m. had been my bed time for most of the summer, I was forced to get up from some half-trance state which was more like a glazed over reverie than actual sleep. I made some coffee, which seemed pointless since I had just popped some combination of sedatives and tranquilzers, having alternated some days between Ativam and Robax, just stopping short of popping valium in concocting my pharmaceutical trail-mix combinations. Still it did not cure my insomnia a bit nor did a stiff belt of Vodka which my best friend assured me was an ancient Russian remedy that had been in his family for generations.It was nearly 8 o’clock when I called a cab, knowing full well I was in no physical condition to make it down there under my own physical power, but having shelled out the 400 dollars or so to take the course in the first place I resigned my fate to higher powers and hopped inside. The day was far more grueling than I could ever have imagined. I could hear Raul Duke’s fictive voice echoing in my head having watched that Fear and Loathing movie for a 58th time: “God please give me a few more high speed hours before you drop the hammer!”Unlike Duke I was without a Doctor Gonzo to share in my ‘loathing,’ having been so unceremoniously ditched in my quest by my friend with the Vodka morning breath….The Taxi arrived at 8’oclock on the dot which meant that I was already late. Not good, considering the pass/fail nature of the days that were ahead. I sat in the cab trying to avoid small talk to no avail, a disappointing turn of events because I really needed the time to brush up on my road rules. “What’s going on at the docks?”, my chatty cabby Amir inquired. I recalled that Cirque du Soleil had just debuted their new show nearby, hoping he would take the hint and just let me study. But he noticed the book spread a top my lap, forcing me to reveal my true intentions. Motorcycles. A quick, perverted grin lept to his lips. “A ha! Girls… they love the motorcycles, you know… lots of power between the legs, right? Right?” Great. Really insightful buddy. Of all the cabbies in Toronto they had to send me an amateur Freudian. I dove back into the rule of the road.By quarter to nine I had made it to the RTI more than a half an hour late, perking up instantly as I saw the bikes from the streaked cab window. I immediately gravitated towards a black Kawasaki Eliminator 125. Not exactly the kind of bike you want with dubious motor skills, but I was assured that a 125cc engine is probably one of the slowest this side of a moped. There were eight of us in the class, all guys, and the testosterone flow was as obvious from the start from Eloi the Cop, brothers Cory and Collin (two Irish construction workers), and Will the graphic designer who looked more like a Hells Angels alumnus than an artist.We started off discussing how to turn on the bikes, using the freakyass acronym COLD KNIFE. Man, it’s like motorcycle school was designed by a psychotic ex-Navy Seal. I’ve since forgot the exact formula but the letters somehow stood for Choke, Kickstand, Ignition, Fuel, Engine. Maybe it was one of those incomplete acronyms.The bike was more heavy than I anticipated, and I struggled to keep it up at slower speeds, but with the engine on I didn’t face this problem. I pulled in the clutch to separate the back wheels from the engine, put the bike in neutral then gave it some throttle and I was off.I was the first one to get into the actual exercises as my classmates spent a considerable amount of time revving their engines by jostling with the throttle, which they assured me was to warm up a cool engine, but sounded more like some strange, metallic mating ritual for motorcycles.I’m not sure at what point in the day I received it but eventually I had acquired the moniker “First Gear”–a pretty emasculating moniker for a guy. Wanting to shed this label I gave in to peer pressure (like any post adolescent male) and did something stupid. I didn’t know how brash I was being until my lower torso and solar plexus were rudely introduced to the cold, hard, pavement.I had tried to shift into 3rd gear but had trouble finding it with my left boot and ended up riding “air bike,” which is about as bad as playing air guitar—but with more painful consequences.I ended my first day of training physically beaten down, but on the plus side I fell into a deep sleep of pure exhaustion by the time I got home. If I had known that a motorcycle could cure my insomnia I would have gotten one along time ago.
Fees suit fails
U of T’s Governing Council was pleased to announce a judicial ruling in its favor in a case brought against it by two of its student unions. The Association of Part-time Undergraduate Students and the Graduate Students’ Union had accused U of T of accepting an illegitimate vote on a controversial athletics and recreation fee increase.On Tuesday, August 28, a provincial judge ruled that the fee hike—which amounts to $19 per year for full-time students—was not illegal.APUS and GSU representatives, however, have warned that the ruling opens the door for unprecedented fee increases far outstripping the rate of inflation.The increase was approved at a hastilyconvened meeting of the Council On Student Services called on April 5, 2007 especially to vote on the Athletics fee, which had been rejected earlier in the year.APUS and GSU, who hold four of the COSS’s 17 votes, refused to attend the meeting, believing that it would not achieve quorum without them and therefore could not legally vote. The unforeseen last-minute appointment of Andréa Armborst (then SAC VP internal), from a non-voting to a voting position on the COSS, allowed the meeting to proceed and approve the increase.GSU president Gina Trubiani accused the university of “exploiting the wording of the COSS protocol,” which U of T must follow when raising ancillary fees. These fees pay for non-academic aspects of the university— like athletics facilities, psychiatric services, and Hart House.“The wording of the protocol is slightly on the ambiguous side, however the spirit of that protocol was not to exploit students and double-dip,” Trubiani said. The alleged double-dipping, in this case, means adjusting a fee by an inflation factor— twice.Governing Council can only raise ancillary fees by a certain amount—generally, to keep up with inflation—without COSS approval. To calculate this amount, the university uses either the Consumer Price Index, which reflects the rate of inflation (this year’s CPI was set at two per cent) or the “University of Toronto Index”, a special formula calculated separately for each service fee. For example, this year’s UTI for the Student Services fee was set at 5.6 per cent, while the UTI for Hart House fees came to 13.4 per cent .The UTI is generally the higher of the two indices, but fee hikes using the UTI are limited to a three year term, after which the COSS votes to scrap them or keep them permanently.Governing Council has always chosen one or the other of these factors: the benefit of increased funding from using the higher UTI is offset by the risk of losing that funding after three years.The $19 increase marked the first time the univrsity has added both factors to the cost. The ruling in Governing Council’s favour upheld the argument that such double inflationary increases are permitted.GSU and APUS will each decide at their next meeting whether they wish to pursue further action on the matter.
Huffin’, puffin’ Ignatieff
For those of you who blinked last week, you missed a brilliant statement by Michael Ignatieff about the potential new Liberal party mascot. The Grits were out on a whalewatching tour in Newfoundland when deputy Liberal leader told accompanying media how thoroughly impressed he is by puffins, a group of which was apparently flocking nearby.“It’s a noble bird because it has good family values. They stay together for 30 years. I’m not kidding. They lay one egg and they put their excrement in one place. They hide their excrement!” he beamed. “They flap their wings very hard and they work like hell. This seems to me a symbol for what our party should be.”Mr. Ignatieff’s light-hearted humour has bemused Canadians familiar with his party’s record and his own past. Apparently the best way to impress voters is to flap your wings, appearing to work very hard. And while no one likes to make personal jabs, Mr. Ignatieff is just begging for it in praising the monogamy of the puffin. He has been married twice.But perhaps the fact that the puffins hide their excrement is their most admirable deed, at least in the eyes of the former wannabe Liberal leader. When Mr. Ignatieff suggested that the puffin should be the symbol for the Liberal party, it is difficult to not recall the sponsorship scandals his party so thoroughly failed to cover up. It seems that Mr. Ignatieff only regrets that the Liberals are not better at hiding their dirty messes.While the Liberals continue to puff up their political campaign, what voters are looking for is a real contribution to prove the Liberals can indeed assume responsibility for governing this country instead of mere “flapping”. That, Mr. Ignatieff, not flapping around and hiding its shit, should be the focus of the Liberal Party of Canada.
NDP caters to students’ needs
Canadian students anxious over tuition fees and high interest loan repayments will soon have a little more breathing room, if the NDP has its way.Last week, Denise Savoie, Victoria MP and NDP post-secondary education critic, set forth a campaign she plans to bring to campuses across Canada. The NDP’s Fix Student Aid petition calls for the federal government to reform Canada’s current federal Student Aid program.The petition calls for measures such as lowering the interest rates of federal student loans, and the creation of a needs-based grants system. The petition also proposes an increase in the number of available study grants and suggests the instatement of a Federal Student Loan Ombudsperson to investigate and resolve complaints by student loan borrowers.“If we look at the loans, it’s nothing but high interest rates,” explained Savoie during a phone interview. “Where countries like Australia have 2.4 per cent, Canada’s students pay 8.5 per cent as a minimum on their student loans. New Zealand and Germany—no interest rates. Even in the USA, which Harper likes to model Canada’s policies on, students pay 3.3 per cent.”Savoie intends to increase the amount of needs-based grants for student borrowers. Her 2007 proposal suggests giving $1,500 to every student in need of a loan for every year of their study. The plan proposes phasing out the money set aside by the government for tax credits, and instead using that money to create a needs-based grant system for students.“If you look at Ontario and B.C., the average debt load is $25,000, which is a large debt for someone who is just graduating,” says Savoie. “It’s really an unfair position to put them in at the time they’re just starting their career. If we expect them to be in a position to contribute to society and compete in this economy, we have to do so without burdening them with these astronomical levels of debt.”Jen Hassum, Chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students, and former SAC president, levelled similar criticisms.“All the time, students are complaining about the amount of inflation they have to pay, how they wish tuition fees are lower, how they wish they could have needs-based grants,” said Hassum. “We get those kinds of sentiments all time from e-mails and letters and from students on the streets.”Savoie added that a great deal of government resources go to recovering defaulted loans. “So instead of putting all that energy in, I’m saying let’s fix it, because there’s an obvious problem.”According to a 2007 Auditor General’s report, the Canada Student Loans Program distributes an approximate $1.9 billion every year to postsecondary students. The total value of the Federal Student Loan Portfolio is reported at $11 billion.“It’s quite a big chunk of our economy,” said Savoie.Overdue and defaulted loans are estimated to add up to over $800 million, which is recovered from student borrowers by 12 different collection agencies and the Canada Revenue Agency.“I’m hearing and have had first-hand experience with collection agencies that insult student borrowers, bully them, and harass them. They act like pit bulls, whose only incentive is to recover and collect,” says Savoie. “We have to have, and I’m calling for, legislative collection standards.”According to Canada’s Coalition for Student Loan Fairness, a non-profit, non-governmental organization that keeps track of the needs of Canada’s student loan borrowers, the most common complaint from borrowers is being “unduly threatened or harassed at their places of work or at home” by collection agencies.
Protestors to cops: J’accuse!
SPP summit in Montreal saw rough exchange between activists, officials at corporate North American conferenceFlags and teargas filled the air as activists, police, and police disguised as activists clashed as North American leaders and corporations met in the nearby Chateau MontebelloSûreté Du Québec admitted in a newswire last week that the three masked instigators caught in an incriminating YouTube video of the protest against the August 20-21 Security and Prosperity Partnership summit in Montebello were in fact policemen in disguise, Sûreté du Québec asserted that they were not there to incite violence, but to “identify and stop trouble.” The video, however, showed an officer holding onto a rock, but a spokesperson for the organization claimed that the stone was given to the officer by another protester.The video shows Coles demanding that the three masked men put down their rock and reveal their faces, accusing them—correctly, it turned out—of being policemen. The men refused, and finally made their way through the police line, where they were handcuffed and taken away. A picture posted on Flickr also shows that the soles of the men’s shoes were identical to those worn by the police.Approximately 2000 protesters gathered at the Chateau Montebello in Quebec where presidents George W. Bush and Filipe Calderon of Mexico met with Prime Minister Harper and the heads of 30 major North American corporations, such as Scotiabank, Lockheed Martin, Walmart and General Electric to discuss border control, anti-terror regulations, employment and immigration laws in an attempt to “enhance prosperity and improve safety.”The protestors included members of several civil societies such as the Council of Canadians, the Canadian Federation of Students, the Ontario Public Interest and Research Group, and a large number of students from universities across Canada including the University of Toronto.In accordance with the protesters’ democratic right to be heard, arrangements were made so that the politicians could view them on screen. However, the system left them with the option of muting or switching channels on protesters at any time.After being barred 25 feet away from the premises by a wall of policemen with shields and batons, the protesters were eventually dispersed by an onslaught of teargas shells, rubber bullets and pepper-spray.Police said the action was in response to violent behaviour on the part of the protesters, such as hurling projectiles into police lines.However, the protesters have a different version of the story to tell Dave Coles, president of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers union, said the allegedly violent protestors were in fact undercover SDQ policemen who “were ordered to infiltrate our peaceful assembly and provoke incidents,” so that the police might break up the otherwise peaceful protest.The protesters were alarmed by the scale of the police presence. “I’ve been to many protests,” said a unionist from Toronto standing in front of the Parliament Hill at the Ottawa protest on Sunday, “But this level of security baffles me.”The event was one of several protests all around the country organized by a partnership of various concerned groups, including OPIRG, the War Resistors Support Campaign, and other unions and human rights groups.The University of Toronto Student Union set aside $500 as subsidies for those who wished to go to the protest, but all U of T students who went to the protest opted out of the subsidy, said Dave Scrivener, UTSU VP external, who feels that students have a particularly important role in the protest.CFS-Ontario president Jen Hassum said their participation was a good thing because students have much to fear from the SPP.“There are private interests that are looking to commodify post-secondary education,” she said.
Stories to change the world’s view of Africa
This summer I read two interesting, but notably different, books on the AIDS crisis in Africa. Stephen Lewis’s Race Against Time is a compilation of the Massey Lectures he delivered in 2005. Published this year, Stephanie Nolan’s 28 Stories About AIDS tells the individual stories of twenty-eight Africans affected by the epidemic.Lewis, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy to Africa for HIV/AIDS, has arguably done more to stop the spread of this disease than any other person or organization. His work merits both admiration and praise. But when Lewis chooses to name a chapter about Ghana in his book “Pandemic: My Country Is on Its Knees”, the former politician reveals an attitude towards the people of Africa that is overly simplistic. By suggesting that Ghana is “my country,” Lewis, at best, declares kinship with the people of an entire country. At worst, he claims ownership over Ghana, a disturbing allegation that reveals a colonial mindset. In fact, most North Americans thoughtlessly fail to respect the diversity, strength and self-reliance of the millions of people that inhabit Africa.It is precisely this flawed, one could even go so far as to say racist, attitude that the Globe and Mail’s Africa correspondent Stephanie Nolan rejects in 28 Stories. In contrast to the onesided depiction of Africa that Lewis and others adopt, Nolan writes in her introduction that “There is always a danger in talking about ‘Africa’ – as if it were one place, one country, one homogeneous story. Africa is fifty-three countries, many of which are themselves made up of hundreds of peoples and cultures.” From the outset, Nolan does not claim full knowledge or possession of Africa. Instead, she reveals a refreshing respect for the plethora of experiences that make up its life.Nolan herself does not tell Africans’ stories about AIDS. Rather, she lets the men, women and children who have been intimately touched by the disease tell their own stories.One significant and positive consequence of Nolan’s innovative approach to writing about AIDS is that the Africans she depicts are not passive victims. All twenty-eight stories the journalist chronicles feature people who are, in one way or another, fighting against the disease. And all of them are very real and complex people.Nolan writes that many Africans are “irritated by the one-dimensional portrayals of sexually predatory men and silent, long-suffering women that continue to characterize discussion of the pandemic by experts in the West.” Indeed, it is no wonder that Africans are frustrated by this portrayal when people as intelligent and esteemed as Stephen Lewis say that Ghana is “my country.”Not one of the men that Nolan writes about are aggressive or sexually charged. They are human beings struggling to fill the role of husband or father when their search for work takes them to places far away from their families. None of the women lie down and passively accept their position. These women leave abusive or philandering husbands and lead organizations that are at the forefront of AIDS education and prevention.In the end, Nolan’s book illustrates that hope for Africa’s future lies within the brave and diverse African population, some of whose stories she has been fortunate enough to tell. On another level, Nolan gives people like me hope that Westerners can adopt more educated and less discriminatory understanding of the reality of life in Africa.
Busking for change
The U of T Engineering Society took on a charitable cause in the midst of orientation with the fourth annual Frosh Week Buskerfest. The midafternoon showcase of talents was an effort to raise awareness and funds for the Starlight Starbright Children’s Foundation of Canada, a charitable organization dedicated to providing support and entertainment for sick children and their families.The engineers divided themselves into 16 groups and spread out across the perimeter of campus, where they proceeded to draw as much attention as possible in the name of their cause. Among the eclectic mix of displays were human pyramids, bucket percussion bands, people taped to traffic poles, jugglers, a trio of trumpeters and a chain gang of pants droppers.“We’ll do anything for pennies,” said second-year frosh leader Ke Lu. “It’s always a good cause and people are always enthusiastic.”Starlight Starbright is incredibly pleased and grateful with the collaboration. “Because we’re a lower key organization we don’t get a lot of exposure, so this is great,” said Tammy Dean, the charity’s community events coordinator. She went on to extol the engineers’ “incredible enthusiasm and creativity.”Aside from the fun and games, Buskerfest brought much public attention to the SSCFC.Over the past four years, the Engineering Society has not only helped the SSCFC make a name for themselves in the U of T community, but has also raised over $15,000 to help SSCFC finance playrooms, family events and outings, educational programming and technology based programs.Casting a darker note on the afternoon’s good intentions, many students were told by police to move from their street corners because they were being too disruptive. The engineers didn’t seem fazed by these roadblocks, and with each street corner raising anywhere between $200 and $500, it’s safe call Frosh Week Buskerfest 2007 a worthy success.