Op-ed: Enhancing internationalization at the University of Toronto

Keeping politics aside, U of T must globalize in spirit, practice, and implementation

Op-ed: Enhancing internationalization at the University of Toronto

The University of Toronto proudly promotes the notion that it is a diverse, multicultural, and innovative research-oriented institution. The institution has grown to be a symbolic manifestation of the values of openness, progressive thought, and inclusivity imbued in the very idea of Canada as a country.

To a large extent, this is true. Our university has one of the largest student bodies in Canada, with approximately 25 per cent registered as international students. Furthermore, the wide-ranging cultural and disciplinary backgrounds of academics and staff at U of T have allowed others to regard the institution as one promoting global thought leaders.

Yet it is imperative that all stakeholders at the university pay further attention to engaging with international students through more comprehensive platforms. International student fees remain uncapped and unregulated, which has resulted in the university having one of the highest nominal undergraduate fees in the country. Moreover, problems adjusting to language, religious customs, social engagements, and other socio-economic differences, in addition to a worryingly growing unease around mental health concerns such as homesickness, depression, and anxiety, have manifested in a lack of interest among international students in the university’s governance and student politics.

This is not to say that international students remain completely uninvolved in student life. In fact, U of T has one of the largest networks of globally themed student organizations in the world, which remains a testament to the desire for students from around the world or with an interest in global affairs, cross-cultural learning, and diversity to be active members of the student community. However, we as a university need to question what is holding these organizations or individuals back from partaking in student governance. Perhaps it is the volatile nature of student politics at our university. Perhaps it is the personalization of political choices by our student leaders. We leave that up to our constituents to decide.

With respect to student politics — and particularly with respect to the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), which I am a part of — international student issues have formed a key portion of our aim to be effective representatives of our constituents. Yet, for various reasons over the course of our history, we have fallen short with regard to putting international student issues front and centre. It is a collective failure for which there is little excuse. But we recognize that this issue exists, and we want to change it.

One of the platforms that the UTSU is developing is called the Global Dialogue Series (GDS). Engaging student organizations, academics, and other stakeholders in town hall-style, discussion-based events, the UTSU organized its first GDS through a series of four events during the fall semester, with a focus on immigration, migrant rights, and minority rights in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Syria, South Sudan, and Canada. The collaborators were comprised of student clubs like the Bangladeshi Students’ Association, academics from the Munk School of Global Affairs, and even a filmmaker working with Rohingya children based in Canada. It seemed to me like a good starting point to push student-centred global issues to the forefront of the UTSU’s relationship with its constituents.

Keeping up with this philosophy, the UTSU is planning to continue its GDS series, with a primary focus in student activism and education in countries ranging from Turkey to the United States. While the planning of the event series is still in its preliminary process, with the active engagement of on-campus student clubs and external stakeholders, we hope to make this event — and, from a long-term perspective, the GDS in general — a permanent platform for student politicians to carry forward, irrespective of political differences.

I invite all interested parties to partake in this endeavour. Conversations spur conversations, which ultimately lead to a better informed student body — better informed about foreign cultures and varying ideologies and lifestyles. Maybe one day, we at the university will be able to say that rather than international students adjusting to the Toronto culture, we all should collectively adapt to and celebrate diversity. If we can do that, we will truly be able to call ourselves a comprehensively diverse institution, not just in terms of numbers, but in the way we talk about and represent ourselves.

For far too long, student politicians and activists at this university have engaged in hostile politics, sometimes just for the sake of doing so. Differences in ideologies will remain, but they do not give us the right to ignore core issues for students, including Islamophobia, mental health concerns, homophobia, and academic difficulties.

My demand as an international student is that we come together to project genuine internationalism, from engaging with platforms such as the GDS to participating in activities hosted by bodies like the Centre for International Experience. Let us put aside partisan disparities across political slates, socio-cultural organizations, and academic disciplines and unite in the spirit of putting issues affecting international students front and centre.

 

Mir Aftabuddin Ahmed is a fourth-year student at University College studying Economics and International Relations. He is the Associate Vice President-University Affairs of the University of Toronto Students’ Union.

In conversation with the director of SponsorLand

Michèle Hozer's latest documentary examines the relationship between a Syrian refugee family and their Canadian sponsors 

In conversation with the director of <em>SponsorLand</em>

Michèle Hozer is an Emmy-nominated and Gemini-winning Canadian documentary filmmaker, known for films including Sugar Coated, Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould, and Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Romeo Dallaire. Her newest documentary, SponsorLand, follows the relationship between a Syrian refugee family and their sponsor group in Picton, Ontario. The film explores themes of belonging, diversity, and community. 

The Varsity spoke to Hozer before the film’s premiere on November 8 to discuss the importance of gaining the family’s trust and authentically documenting their collective and individual stories while maintaining respect for their privacy. 

The Varsity (TV): What inspired you to create this documentary?

Michèle Hozer (MH): In 2015, at this time exactly, TVO threw a national callout to filmmakers across the country, looking for films for Canada’s 150th birthday. They were looking for films that explore the theme of Canadians having one foot in one culture and one foot in the other. And I totally responded to that. 

At the time of the TVO call, the Syrian refugee crisis was in full force. Canadians were responding. We were bringing in 25,000 refugees. I thought [it was] great to sort of see how refugees deal with coming into Canada. 

I wanted to move away from the 30-second, feel-good news items and TV items. What really goes on? What happens to the refugees? They are very grateful for being in Canada, but they really miss their home country. Is there a line between care and control when it comes to sponsors, even the well-intentioned?

That’s the basis of the documentary. How much, as refugees, do they have to sort of give up in order to fit in? I was trying to stay [out] of the politics of the war, and I wanted to go beyond ‘they left hell and came to heaven and we lived happily ever.’ No. There are issues. Do we have, as Canadians, ingrained biases in terms of refugees and in terms of ‘we’re the best country in the world?’

We don’t use [the family’s] last name because they asked us not to use it — they fear retribution back in Syria. In fact, we geo-blocked the film, and our Facebook page and everything else, so it doesn’t appear in either Syria, Lebanon, or Turkey. That’s why we don’t use their last name. But I thought, ‘What a great story.’ 

Picton, like my hometown of Laval, is kind of immune from diversity. Multiculturalism hasn’t come to Picton. We thought that was a great story to follow, but in order to do it properly, I had to be embedded in the community. My husband and my dog, we were there from January to July. I set up my edit room there. I needed to get the trust of the community. I needed to get the trust of the family. 

TV: While you were filming the documentary, what were some of the setbacks or obstacles you had to overcome to depict the right kind of story and tone?

MH: I couldn’t really bring my team in all the time. It was very invasive. So I got my DOP [director of photography], John Tran, one of the best in the country. I got a camera from him, got a mic, got Camera 101 course. I got two sessions from him — school of filmmaking. I started filming myself with my supervising producer. 

It was much easier to do it that way, much less intrusive. We had spent many hours around [family members] Abdel Malek and Sawsen’s kitchen. That way we were able to take out the camera when the time was right. It was always in my car, always in a bag in the corner of my house. At one point, we gained so much of their trust that Sawsen, one of the evenings, said, “Michèle, take out your camera.” 

The other challenge, too, is that I had to wait to see who wanted to share their story, and that took time. Sawsen was interested, [sons] Slieman and Ramez were interested. They were really interested in speaking English with me. Some of the interviews were in English. But to really get the nuance of what they were feeling, and the struggles that they had, we had to do the interviews in Arabic. I had two really good, trusted counsellors and translators with me, Rasha Elendari, who’s a PhD in Toronto at U of T. She runs the NMC-CESI Language and Cultural Exchange group — it’s very big in the Syrian community. She helped with those interviews, especially with Slieman, who really gets a lot in that interview. 

I think Slieman is really an interesting guy because he’s really quite charming and tons of fun, but he carries a lot from the war. And to show that duality was really, really important. It took a long time to get him to trust us, to get him to open up to us, and I think it was just spending time with him, just hanging out, listening to him, going out with him. So, that was the big challenge. 

Also, the nuances with the sponsors and the family. It’s very easy to sometimes want to sit back and have a critical eye, but it’s not easy to sponsor a family. It’s almost like an arranged marriage, right? They don’t know each other, and then they’re in this intense relationship that’s only supposed to be a year. 

The nuance was really important and a challenge in terms of getting it right with the camera and with the perspective. It’s not an easy relationship; there’s no road map. It just takes time and patience and effort to make that relationship work. 

TV: Are you still in contact with the family? 

MH: Oh yeah! I haven’t been there in a while because we’re just finishing the film. They keep saying, ‘Where are you?’ They kept calling me ‘okhti,’ which means sister. I became very close to them. I hope to go back. Actually, we loved it so much that we hope to get a place there — not leave Toronto completely. I mean, eventually. It’s a great community. It’s really, really great. 

TV: What are you hoping this documentary will achieve on a grander scale?

MH: There are two answers to that question. 

There is this fear of others. We did elect the Liberal government, and we got them in, but there are still a portion of Canadians who are worried and weary. The first thing we wanted to do is to really get people to understand who Abdel Malek and Sawsen are — they’re like you and me. They’re a normal family, a bit larger, bit more rambunctious, but they have the same kind of needs and concerns that we do. 

Now, they lived through a civil war and hardships that we didn’t live through, but I think our goal was to get a sense that they’re not a family we need to fear, especially the boys. Ramez and Slieman are of the age, those young men, who we’re the most fearful of. If they didn’t belong in the family, maybe they wouldn’t have been able to be accepted as refugees. Meanwhile, they are so loving. They’re like normal teenagers, and even that scene when, in January 2017 I guess it was, the killings in the mosque in Québec City, Ramez’s response: ‘I’m not going to judge all Canadians based on this one guy who killed in the mosque. Don’t judge all of us based on a few terrorists.’ He wants to stand like Canadians, he cares about his family. He wants their safety and he will stand with Canadians against global terrorism. I think that’s one answer. 

The second answer is, what does it mean to be a refugee? What is the relationship between the refugees and the sponsors? When we give help for free, is there this inherent sort of expectation in return? As a refugee, how do you be grateful but at the same time, give agency to your needs? How much do we have to give up as a refugee or immigrant to fit in? I think these are all important questions. We don’t pretend to answer all of them, but it’s something to explore, so that there’s a greater understanding of different culture and acceptance. 

 This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

An international student’s perspective on the Canadian healthcare system

International healthcare debates can put benefits, drawbacks of Canada’s approach in perspective

An international student’s perspective on the Canadian healthcare system

It is common for strangers in a foreign land to feel disinclined to critique its customs and practices. Sharing my experience with the Canadian healthcare system here makes me an exception to the rule.

Discussions about healthcare in Canada often focus predominantly on the strengths of the current system, particularly when compared to complementary systems around the world. As the debate around healthcare rages on in the United States, many references are made to the successful Canadian alternative. Nevertheless, significant evidence suggests that the system is not as flawless as it is made to appear.

In August 2016, I rushed to the emergency room at Mount Sinai Hospital. As a result of a freak accident, I had gotten a papercut in my eye. I found a receptionist behind a desk and a couple of doctors in the hallway, all of whom seemed utterly unaffected by my red eye and tearful pleas for urgent help. The fact that I waited for two and a half hours to receive medical attention was an unexpected surprise — I had heard many people speak highly of the Canadian healthcare system in the past.

Dr. Andreas Laupacis, Executive Director of the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute at St. Michael’s Hospital, wrote an article in the Toronto Star that accurately sums up my experience. Laupacis argues that the staff within the medical system have become so accustomed to the endless waiting line within and outside the ER that they have become desensitized to its heartbreaking impact on patients.  

Unaffected staff seem to be the just the tip of the iceberg that plagues the Canadian healthcare system. It is also extremely difficult to book an appointment the day a medical problem occurs, or even on the day after. Furthermore, timely access to specialists for patients seems like a luxury. The problem is further compounded because long-term medical care facilities, such as hospitals and nursing homes, are overburdened, while home care options for patients are limited. This creates a vicious cycle — patients who require a lower degree of care cannot leave the healthcare system, while others in need cannot enter it.

As illustrated by my experience, and those of many others, the Canadian system faces some serious problems that need to be addressed. At the same time, if we are to engage in a balanced, productive debate about healthcare reform, it is also important to acknowledge what Canada is doing right.

Notably, I cannot help but admire the principle of universal, equal access to medical care. When compared to the developing world, Canada’s system becomes even more pronounced. In my home country, India, for example, an underfunded and inadequately staffed public healthcare system makes access to proper medical care extremely difficult for most people.

There are also some things that the United States can learn from Canada. In the context of the present debate on healthcare accessibility, the best example is the principle of universal coverage. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, more commonly known as “Obamacare,” reflects this principle to a degree, given that the act expanded the scope of Medicaid to adults who could not afford adequate healthcare and made universal health insurance mandatory. However, The Republican Party, who currently hold a majority in both the House of Representatives and Senate, want to overturn this legislation on the grounds that it hinders job creation and burdens too many business enterprises.

This also raises several questions about how public healthcare should be managed, the most of important of which was whether it should be publicly or privately insured. In the US, as in India, private insurance companies dominate the healthcare sector.  To remedy this, Obamacare made it illegal for private insurance providers to deny coverage to those insured based on pre-existing terms and conditions included in policy documents.

Though many people in Canada also have private health insurance, most Canadians are not dependent on their employers for the healthcare benefits and security they need, unlike their American counterparts. It is incredible to me that the medical costs of Canadian citizens and permanent residents are covered by taxes paid to the government. This means that the average Canadian pays less than the average, insured American for the healthcare they receive. Even international students attending Canadian post-secondary institutions in Ontario are covered by the University Health Insurance Plan.

Moreover, the federal government subsidizes the cost of several non-prescription medical drugs. The flip side of this is that prescription drugs in the country are exorbitantly priced,  making them inaccessible for many people. The CBC estimates that Canadians wasted approximately $15 billion — of $81 billion spent — on prescription drugs in the last five years.

The divergences in healthcare regulation strategies adopted by Canada, the US, and India shed light on the fundamental question of how to make access to healthcare simultaneously efficient and low-cost. There is little difference between Canada and the US in this regard: a study conducted by the Commonwealth Fund placed the Canadian healthcare system ninth out of the 11 developed countries surveyed, while the American system ranked 11th.

This indicates that both systems yield inefficient results, despite being driven by different economic principles. Furthermore, the case of uninsured prescription drugs shows that economic barriers can sometimes make healthcare just as inaccessible in Canada as it is in the US.

Considering Canada in international context is beneficial, for there is much that Canada can learn from ongoing healthcare debates. For one, the American example shows us that policy changes in healthcare cannot be made suddenly, which is something the Canadian government must realize when it modifies the existing system.

Ultimately, the Canadian healthcare system is a mixed bag of benefits and drawbacks — all of which must be acknowledged if we are truly committed to improving our system. When we have conversations about healthcare in Canada, we should adopt a balanced perspective or risk disregarding the areas that are most in need of reform.

Rohit Khanna, writing for The Walrus, observes that “Healthcare becomes the embodiment of a nation,” and therefore it too, must be looked after. The alternative is painful, hazardous disillusionment.  

 

Sonali Gill is an incoming fourth-year student at St. Michael’s College studying Criminology and International Relations.

Why hasn’t Canada responded to anti-gay violence in Chechnya?

If the Liberals are true allies to LGBTQ people, they must provide assistance to persecuted groups in Chechnya

Why hasn’t Canada responded to anti-gay violence in Chechnya?

Reports of extreme government-sanctioned violence against gay men in Chechnya have quickly spread around the world. Over 100 men have reportedly been detained in concentration camp-style prisons and subjected to brutal torture methods. Three men have reportedly been killed.

Although some gay men have successfully escaped Chechnya thanks to help from the Russian LGBT Network, gay men continue to find themselves in a position of danger within the country. And despite seeing itself as a compassionate country that takes its moral obligations to its LGBTQ people seriously, Canada has done nothing to assist Chechens in crisis.

This is hypocritical and concerning on a number of fronts. While LGBTQ people face danger and violence all over the world, gay men in Chechnya are facing authorities who have urged families to kill their own gay children, and a leader who has set out to kill the entire LGBTQ community before the start of Ramadan. This crisis is time-sensitive and could result in further tragedy, making it all the more prudent that the Canadian government prioritize its cases.

Canada has developed a rather noteworthy reputation for stepping in during humanitarian crises like this one. Yet if we as a country truly believe ourselves to be a beacon of tolerance and acceptance, why aren’t we doing the tolerant thing, like offering refuge?

It’s not impossible to imagine speeding up the resettlement process via the creation of special visas, or a program similar to the one used to bring Syrian refugees to Canada. Such proposals should be given serious consideration in light of the situation’s urgency.

Still, the Canadian government doesn’t show any sign of doing so. In a statement to The Globe and Mail, a spokesman for the Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship said that these men do not qualify for refugee status, and did not mention the possibility of giving them special visas to allow them to come here. Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Ahmed Hussen also did not promise any specific action to help them.

As individuals facing extreme violence and persecution, it might seem like gay men in Chechnya are in a position analogous to some refugee cases. Yet the Canadian government has labeled them as unqualified for resettlement, because — given that Chechnya is a semi-autonomous republic of Russia — they have not left their country of origin, making them internally displaced people (IDPs), not refugees.

Nevertheless, it is important to note that IDPs are not necessarily in any less danger than refugees. As explained on the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ website, IDPs “have not crossed a border to find safety. Unlike refugees, they are on the run at home.” This means that “IDPs stay within their own country and remain under the protection of its government, even if that government is the reason for their displacement. As a result, these people are among the most vulnerable in the world.”

In this particular case, Chechen individuals certainly face danger in Russia, which is known for its hostile attitude toward LGBTQ people. A 2013 Pew Research Centre study found that 84 per cent of Russians do not believe that society should accept homosexuality.

In the past, the Liberals have posted highly publicized photos of Prime Minister Justin Trudea marching in the Toronto Pride Parade and raising the rainbow flag on Parliament Hill in June 2016. On the latter occasion, Trudeau stated that “Canada is united in its defence of rights and in standing up for LGBTQ rights.” Knowing this, it’s surprising that the Liberal government is ignoring the crisis that gay Chechens face when the party has made such a show of their support for the LGBTQ community.

Canadians should be wary of politicians who present themselves as allies to the LGBTQ community yet fail to take action that would actually help the LGBTQ community.

In this case, action means accepting Chechen gay men who need to leave Russia as refugees, and doing so quickly. Students can put pressure on the federal government to take action by getting involved with political organizing and lobbying Members of Parliament. In turn, how the government chooses to navigate those regulatory waters is up to its discretion — but something needs to be done, and soon.

 

Adina Heisler is an incoming third-year student at University College, studying Women and Gender Studies and English.

Freedom of hate

Evaluating speech, the right-left divide, and the need for respectful debate in light of recent political shifts

Freedom of hate

The past few years have seen college campuses, with characteristically dramatic and maladroit gusto, thrust themselves back into the heart of our continent’s culture wars. The politically correct (PC) left of the ‘90s has come back with a roaring vengeance, mobilizing factions of both the left and right into a resistance against the policing of speech.

In one of his less controversial statements, Breitbart provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos bisected the battleground not along the traditional line of left and right, but rather of libertarian and authoritarian.

This alliance of ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ could very well be a novelty in the decades-old free speech debate; in the ‘60s and ‘70s, liberals fought against the speech-curtailing stances of their conservative opposition. But a blurring of the distinction between the two groups may not be wise. The alt-right insurgency has proven time and again that, for many on the right, the defense of free speech simply acts as a guise for more dangerous impulses.

Here at U of T, a number of student-led movements and Facebook groups created in the wake of the Jordan Peterson affair have adopted this façade. Whatever your stance on the issue, Peterson raised and continues to raise important concerns over compelled speech, governmental and social authoritarianism, and the influence of partisanship on culture.

The controversy galvanized the university, and provided classical liberals and so-called ‘cultural libertarians’ of both the left and right with an articulate and reasoned critique of PC ideology. But, as has been the case in all the clashes characterizing this feud, a sizable fraction of the coalition’s right side broke from valuable discourse on speech, and devolved into a consortium of Neanderthal memes and openly avowed racism and anti-Semitism. They perverted Peterson’s stance on preferred gender pronouns into an apologia of hatred for trans people, and they took the defense of free speech proffered by their moderate counterparts and weaponized it for use against Jews, Muslims, women, and other communities.

Now, with the rise of Trumpism, the same people see their casual violence reflected in the conduct of the most powerful person on Earth. I see no fault in a rebellion against the speech standards of the modern left and, as a true liberal, I am alive to the dangers posed by a relentless retrenching of ‘what is okay to say out loud.’ But absolutely nothing excuses the mendacity and malevolence of the student alt-right. To call these nascent social-media uprisings defenses of speech is frankly absurd.

I have idly observed a handful of the Facebook groups born from support for Professor Peterson’s initial comments through to the rise of President Trump, and watched as the groups morphed into hateful echo chambers. Many were created with the intention of stimulating useful conversation on the nature of speech, but none have so remained.

More than anything, these groups now serve as Trump fan pages at best, and havens for the most ideologically backward opinions out there at worst. Much of what is posted in the way of prejudice comes as an agitated response to the left’s undue proclamations of racism and bigotry: this is not to say that these injustices no longer exist, but rather that the left has grown increasingly reactionary.

Some portions of these online postings are thus attributable to trolling, tongue-in-cheek criticisms of the predominately liberal cultural hegemony. It is only natural, especially for younger people — who happen to make up a substantial segment of the online alt-right movement — to reject commanded behavior, and brashly do the opposite.

This is doubly true for those that hold political opinions on the more conservative side of the spectrum, as the left’s apparent hold on morality becomes more and more absolute. Today’s rebel isn’t the Mao-toting hippie or sexual libertarian of the 1960s: it is the alt-right troll. People with legitimate concerns about illegal immigration, government overreach, the infusion of Marxist dogma into the left’s platform, and Islamic extremism, tired of being demonized for their beliefs, become self-caricaturizing just to get under the skin of their accusers.

This form of satire is a reasonable rejoinder to oppressive social norms, and, in my opinion, even has a place in a well-functioning democracy. But the line between it and genuine hatred is ill-defined and far too easily crossed. The danger comes with the ease of slipping from one to the other. And what’s more, in its more extreme forms, this protestation is indistinguishable from bigotry.

I would unequivocally identify myself as left of centre, but even I am often moved, by their sheer ridiculousness, to parody my side’s arguments. I do not, however, use this as an excuse to pollute the evolving dialogue on the nature of free speech. This is where I feel the distinction between the left and right halves of the ‘cultural libertarians’ becomes important. The old demons of the right are on full display in its modern incarnation.

The left-leaning, anti-PC crowd seems motivated only by an expansive view of free speech: they see speech as John Stuart Mill did, as a means of arriving at the truth, and as a means to expunge outdated and ineffective thinking from society. Their alt-right counterparts, on the other hand, have transformed a much-needed debate on the limits of expression into a vindication of poisonous trolling. They have found in President Trump a champion of the unverified, and defender of all that falls under the banner of what is considered ‘non-politically correct,’ however vitriolic it may be.

If this debate and revolt against the stultification of the regressive left is ever to yield a constructive outcome, the shrinking moderate right needs to reel in their growing extremist wing. This conversation is far too important to be destroyed by an autocratic politician and his trolling multitudes.

Sean Goldman-Hunt is a fourth-year student in Chemical Engineering, Environmental Engineering, and Sustainable Energy Development.

The sociability of socialism

Evaluating the permissibility and popularity of an inchoate ideology on campus

The sociability of socialism

The University of Toronto has three registered socialist-affiliated student organizations: International Socialists, Socialist Action, and the NDP Socialist Caucus. Their professed political programs are to be expected. Undergirded by a desire to construct a social movement and inculcate a revolutionary spirit, these groups’ enunciated goals include the abolition of capitalism, an emphasis on socioeconomic class inequities, the centrality of labour’s role in their endeavors, and international solidarity with the oppressed.

According to Oxford University’s Socialism: A Very Short Introduction, “The fundamental characteristic of socialism is its commitment to the creation of an egalitarian society.” Infused with notions of global solidarity and cooperation, the essence of socialist thought is a critique of capitalism, privilege, ownership of capital, and the concentration of power among the wealthy. Since its modern inception in the early 19th century, socialism has appeared in many different incarnations. While Bernie Sanders’ democratic socialism is in vogue, Cuban Castroism, Chinese Maoism, Soviet Stalinism, Venezuelan Chavismo, and Cambodian Communism each represent unique strands within a family of ideas under the umbrella of socialism.

What is unsettling, then, among the platforms of the university’s socialist student groups is their alacrity in disavowing themselves from socialism’s worst offenders, whilst simultaneously reflecting the intellectual foundations of these specific cases. Despite couching their rhetoric upon the analogous tenets of class consciousness, worker solidarity, social engineering, and, most importantly, a centralized economy, the ideology carries a great degree of appeal within university circles.

This, I believe, stems from two possible scenarios: either a lack of awareness about the history of twentieth century socialism, or a disingenuous attempt to obscure any accurate manifestations of the ideology’s ills. Tracing socialism’s contemporary history can demonstrate exactly why it has failed.

The consolidation of socialism within Russia, following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution — under Lenin, who was subsequently succeeded by Stalin — provides a telling example of the implementation of such ideas. Stalin’s initiatives included simultaneously collectivizing agricultural landholdings while eliminating class distinctions among the propertied, relatively affluent peasantry, or kulaks. This ‘classicide’ resulted in the deaths of over 3 million kulaks.

[pullquote-default]Tracing socialism’s contemporary history can demonstrate exactly why it has failed.[/pullquote-default]

Moreover, according to the eminent historian Timothy Snyder, instituting grain requisitioning and sealing the borders of Ukraine produced the artificial “silent genocide” — known as the Holodomor — that claimed roughly 3.3 million lives. To compound the Soviets’ reputation, from 1931 to 1957, two million prisoners from the USSR passed through the Gulag system in Vorkuta alone — nearly three million died in gulags. The Communist Party purged its three million member party in ‘The Great Purge’ of the 1930s, and approximately one third were killed.

As per The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terrorism, and Repression complied by European scholars in 1997 and translated to English in 1999, as well as The Gulag Archipelago, the sum total casualty rate of the Soviet experiment was 20 million lives.

Under Mao, China was even deadlier. As Niall Ferguson reiterated in Kissinger: The Idealist, “Mao alone, as Frank Dikötter has shown, accounted for tens of millions [of deaths]: 2 million between 1949 and 1951, another 3 million by the end of the 1950s, a staggering 45 million in the man-made famine known as the ‘Great Leap Forward,’ yet more in the mayhem of the Cultural Revolution.” The Hong Kong-based historian, Dikötter, describes Mao as overseeing “one of the worst catastrophes the world has ever known.”

Maoism blended the distrust of urban industrialization — a potential source of bourgeois elitism — and the conviction that revolution should gestate among the rural peasantry, “who would later join with their proletariat comrades in the cities to form classless paradises.”

There are many cases that echo the failures of socialism defined by collectivization, classlessness, social engineering, and the centrally planned economy. In North Korea, the Kim dynasty adopted collectivization and implemented other socialist policies that have resulted in the starvation deaths of up to three million people. In Cambodia, between 1975-1979, the Khmer Rouge, a communist paramilitary group, perpetrated a genocide killing up to two million.

[pullquote-default]There are many cases that echo the failures of socialism defined by collectivization, classlessness, social engineering, and the centrally planned economy.[/pullquote-default]

More geographically proximate cases include Chavez’s Venezuela and Castro’s Cuba. In Venezuela, ‘chavismo’ exemplified “other revolutionary authoritarian Marxist ideologies”, repackaging the concepts of socialism, revolution, and the global left. Under the auspices of Chavez, Venezuela experienced mass food shortages, rolling electrical blackouts, skyrocketing inflation — exceeding 700 per cent — a shrinking economy, and nationalization that spelled national disaster.

In the Cuban context, Castro’s recent death — which inspired much equivocation on the part of socialists — masked his troublesome reign. Purging political opponents from the government, silencing media outlets, expropriation of all private property, launching political crackdowns, and perpetuating Cuba’s one-party political system all illustrate the severity of such shortcomings.

A comparative analysis between East and West Germany provides perhaps the best example of the vicissitudes of socialist policy. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, GDP per capita in West Germany was more than double that of East Germany; their life satisfaction was higher, and unemployment was lower. More than 10 per cent of East Germans emigrated following the unification of Germany.

Our study could extend to India, Chile, Vietnam, Eastern Europe, Afghanistan, and some countries in Africa. Yet, what should be abundantly clear is the convergence between U of T socialist groups and the aforementioned case studies in terms of their ideological underpinnings. Both campus groups and the historical experiments that have so tragically failed are grounded in revolutionary change, collectivization, classless societies, and centralized economies, which represent undercurrents beneath the unifying wave of socialism.

One caveat is in order. The West, loosely defined by varying degrees of market-oriented economies, was embroiled in many acrimonious chapters throughout the Cold War. Under the leadership of the US, coup attempts in Cuba, Chile, Iran and foreign intervention in Grenada, Vietnam, and Cambodia, among others, represent the darker side of the Western Bloc’s involvement throughout the Cold War. Complicating such matters include the legacy of race relations, the Red Scare, and the growing bifurcation of society along socioeconomic lines.

[pullquote-default]What should be abundantly clear is the convergence between U of T socialist groups and the aforementioned case studies in terms of their ideological underpinnings.[/pullquote-default]

Nonetheless, the absence of gulags, mass starvation, one-party states, cults-of-personality, and large-scale expropriation of private property — and in turn, the erosion of freedom of mobility and freedom of expression,  to name a few civil rights — reaffirm the superiority of market-based economic policies and their efficacy in distilling prosperity to broader society, beyond any socialist ideological incarnation.

Only democratic socialism — which neither Toronto’s International Socialist or Socialist Action groups subscribe to — acknowledges the advantages of a market-oriented framework, and advocates for greater government intervention in easing society’s ills.

Mindful of such considerations, it is essential to review the development of many of these case studies following their transition away from socialism. China, which under Deng Xiaoping began a reformist agenda in the late 1970s, which included the decollectivization of agriculture, foreign direct investment (FDI), an increase in entrepreneurship, and the removal of price controls. These policies have helped lift 800 million people out of poverty.

Following independence in 1947, India, under the tutelage of Nehru, initially embraced socialist-inspired economic models. Declining growth rates and per capita income, food shortages, and the devaluation of currency are few of the problems wrought by such policies. India’s economy liberalized in the 1990s, espousing more market-oriented strategies. Between 1994 and 2012, according to the World Bank, 133 million Indians were lifted from abject poverty.

Similar success stories include East Germany, which eventually converged with West Germany’s standard of living, along with Estonia, Chile, and South Korea. Cases like these, which highlight global trends of decreasing poverty, and a rising standard of living all substantiate positions held by the World Bank, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and the World Economic Forum — that free trade, economic liberalization, and reducing trade barriers “is a great enabler for reducing poverty, curtailing hunger, improving health, and restoring the environment.”

Apologists like Noam Chomsky and others will never be convinced. This reflects an unwillingness to acknowledge the shortcomings of socialism, and embodies the “No True Scotsman” logical fallacy, where their reasoning is unfalsifiable due to the lack of purity of criticisms. As U of T’s student groups attest, Stalinism, Maoism, or socialism’s other failed experiments neither represent nor reflect ‘true’ socialism.

The popularity of such groups on campus shows an alarming trend. Apart from iterations of socialism claiming more lives than fascism, it would be ostensibly inappropriate for universities to offer corresponding student groups. There would be outrage, protests, and wholesale condemnation — justifiably so. We are left, then, with an unsatisfying question: why has such a historically invalidated philosophy flourished and accrued social capital?

Ari Blaff is a student at the Munk School of Global Affairs.

The Obama effect

Reflecting on the political economy of charisma in light of recent events in the US

The Obama effect

Charismatic liberal politics and mass media often collide to manufacture culture and public perceptions in a way that contradicts underlying grievances — especially those that affect youth. This collusion is based on the ‘charisma economy,’ where liberal elites use popular images, narratives, and appeals to gain short-term power and profit.

This charisma economy is not sustainable. Ignoring mass grievances and the public’s needs ultimately feeds into disillusionment. This occurs until reactionary politics exploit the charisma economy to gain power in the name of anti-establishment ‘change,’ a ‘change’ ironically marked by identity cleavages that only deepen the oppression of the most vulnerable.

Consider the final days of the Obama presidency. On December 16, 2016, Netflix released Barry, a biopic that follows a young Obama navigating through his competing identities, to the public. On social media, people latched onto the ‘Thanks, Obama’ event this January. Liberal media outlets sensationalized unsubstantiated allegations of Russian hacking during the American election, by which Obama’s actions against Russia, including the expulsion of diplomats, asserted the power of his leadership. Finally, before leaving office, the apparently heroic and benevolent Obama signed numerous executive orders meant to soften the horrific effects of the incoming Trump presidency.

Obama’s memorialization was a concerted move by the politico-media complex to reinforce the narrative of Obama as a ‘cool,’ intelligent, and ‘progressive’ leader. Obama was portrayed as a man whose charisma and racialized background exemplified the fruit of inclusionary American nationalism, compared to the authoritarian Putin and Trump, who would soon rule the world.

Yet, was it not Barack Obama who expanded the draconian surveillance state in the Snowden era, accelerated the criminally imperialist drone strikes program, bailed out the top one per cent in light of a recession they caused, and deported more immigrants than any of his predecessors? The imperialist, neoliberal, authoritarian demon that the liberal media projects onto Trump already exists in the status quo. Where leadership can appeal to hegemonic standards of charisma, objective reality is swept under the rug.

This was true, at least, until a reactionary force developed in the form of the so-called ‘alt-right,’ characterized by an alliance of white nationalism, patriarchy, and anti-globalist capitalism.

While the corporate liberal media supported the Obama-Clinton Democratic establishment throughout this election cycle, the alt-right, pioneered by voices like Donald Trump, Bill O’Reilly, and Dinesh D’Souza, mythologized Obama in recent years as a socialist, anti-colonial, Kenyan-born Muslim with a dubious, anti-American agenda.

The bottom line, then, is that two competing projections of Obama — both myths — became the basis of a charisma economy. On one hand, competing media outlets grabbed audiences by regularly sensationalizing these projections and misinforming the public; on the other, these myths became the fault-line for the Democratic and Republican parties and their competition for legitimacy.

The media failed to critically scrutinize Obama and all of his anti-democratic policies, under which an equally false, racist, alt-right insurgency accumulated. While the charisma economy legitimized the rhetoric of an orange face promising to take back the country for the white majority — the alt-right’s actual policies align with deepening elitist structures. This includes repealing Obama’s healthcare advances.

It is the media’s primary responsibility to critique and challenge power, yet the media became complicit in the events leading to today’s outcomes. From the disproportionate airtime he received to receiving daily mockery instead of serious scrutiny, Trump, too, took advantage of the charisma economy that legitimized, advertised, and consummated his leadership.

Likewise, Canada is in danger of prioritizing charisma over widespread grievances. While Tom Mulcair’s NDP was more committed to meeting the needs of the working class, Trudeau’s youth and charisma made him a brighter alternative to the Harper government in the 2015 election. The media chose to underplay Trudeau’s right-wing, neo-Harper activities, from his support for the racist Barbaric Cultural Practices Act, to his suspicious claims about balancing the economy and the environment. In spite of his charisma, he stands today as a neoliberal candidate who backs anti-democratic free trade deals alongside anti-Indigenous and anti-climate pipelines, and calls precarious employment for youth a “new reality.”

Just like Obama’s own racial background did not stop him from harming racialized peoples domestically and abroad, Trudeau’s youth does not stop him from compromising the future of young Canadians. However, he does take his time to play on his charisma, whether by boasting that he’s a feminist at international conferences, taking selfies, or appealing to the myth of inclusionary Canadian multiculturalism. Perhaps the Conservatives were correct that, in place of substance, he really only “has nice hair, though.”

Meanwhile, non-mainstream, right-wing media outlets like The Rebel Media are not slow to create an alternative image of Trudeau, criticizing him for being anti-oil and soft toward “Muslim terrorists.” It is precisely within this context that Kevin O’Leary — groomed by the CBC for years — makes a fertile Conservative candidate. He claims that Trudeau is a menace who compromises economic growth and competitiveness, and vows to recapture the youth vote and invest in Canadian energy independence. O’Leary’s commitment to an anti-climate, fossil fuel economy is not unique; Trudeau himself just applauded Trump’s re-invigoration of the Keystone XL pipeline project.

Amidst the caricatures and myths that political characters and competing media outlets manufacture, it is the youth who are affected the most. Our so-called precarious employment, concern for the environment, and responsibility to reconcile with Indigenous peoples push us to demand meaningful justice — whether by challenging the ‘progressive’ candidates we elect in Canada or the United States, or by vocalizing our anger through solidarity marches, like those following Trump’s inauguration.

Yet, leadership and media are clearly not responsive or accountable to us. As the greatest stakeholders of the future, we have little control over current political discourse dominated by neoliberals and ultranationalists. Geographer David Harvey, recently hosted by the Department of Geography and Planning on campus, warns that ruling class policies are “foreclosing the future.” Ironically, in Barry, Obama voices that the President is merely an actor, and that it must be “…people [who create] change.”

Liberal, inclusionary nationalism is fundamentally unsustainable when it ignores systemic grievances under smiley-faced, popularity-based leadership. Where widespread appeal fails, particularistic and specialized interests dominate. If we are to transcend this pattern of falsehoods and myths, the mass media needs to critique power and actively inform the public as opposed to being subservient in the name of ‘neutrality.’ Meanwhile, political leadership needs to represent widespread democratic interests.

On the other hand, if today’s elites continue to profit from this volatile charisma economy, the people, especially the youth, are disabused of institutional processes, and are left with one choice: to imagine, struggle, and create a radically alternative world.

 

Ibnul Chowdhury is a second-year student at Trinity College studying Economics and Peace, Conflict, and Justice Studies. His column appears every three weeks.

Wynne shuffles provincial cabinet

Premier announces seven new ministers and more women in cabinet

Wynne shuffles provincial cabinet

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne announced a shuffle and expansion of her cabinet, which will now contain more female ministers. Wynne stated, “These ministers bring experience, energy, fresh ideas and diversity to the cabinet table.”

Some of the long-term ministers who were also part of former Premier Dalton McGuinty’s cabinet will remain, including Charles Sousa as Finance Minister, Eric Hoskins as Minister of Health and Long-Term Care, and Glen Murray as Minister of the Environment and Climate Change.

Ontario’s cabinet will be expanded from 27 to 30 minister positions.

“Wynne expanded the size of the cabinet so she could appoint more women,” said Nelson Wiseman, U of T professor of Canadian politics and director of the Canadian Studies program. “I think Wynne felt pressured after Trudeau appointed women to as many cabinet portfolios as men.”

In comparison, Wynne created a 40 per cent female cabinet, and Trudeau created a 50 per cent female cabinet.

Wynne’s expansion also creates three new portfolios, as she divided some of the larger ministries. There are now separate ministers for Housing, International Trade, and Infrastructure.

Included as new members of the cabinet are: Laura Albanese, Minister of Citizenship and Immigration; Chris Ballard, Minister Responsible for the Poverty Reduction Strategy and Minister of Housing; Marie-France Lalonde, Minister Responsible for Francophone Affairs Minister and Minister of Government and Consumer Services; Kathryn McGarry, Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry; Eleanor McMahon Minister of Tourism, Culture and Sport; Glenn Thibeault, Minister of Energy; and Indira Naidoo-Harris, Associate Minister of Finance (Ontario Retirement Pension Plan).

These changes to the cabinet come after four ministers recently announced their departure, including former Attorney General Madeleine Meilleur and former Chair of Cabinet Jim Bradley.

According to Wiseman, “Election campaign planning begins much earlier now so that MPPs are asked to commit now to whether they will run again in 2018. Since some cabinet ministers were not planning to run, [Wynne] had them resign now to open up some cabinet posts.”

The announcement also included Deputy Premier Deb Matthews’ new appointments as Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Development and Minister Responsible for Digital Government.

“Wynne trusts her advice, judgement, and competence,” Wiseman stated.

Matthews’ appointment to Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Development will see her take on the responsibilities of the recently revamped Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities. Previously, Reza Moridi served as Minister of Training, Colleges, and Universities; Moridi will now serve as the Minister of Research, Innovation, and Science.

Within her new role, Matthews will be overseeing the launch of the Ontario Student Grant program in September 2017, which is expected to lower or cover the costs of tuition for university students. In addition, Matthews will be charged with equipping the Ontario workforce with the necessary skills in order to compete within the global economy.