Friday, February 21, 2003


Folks, if you don't read The Onion, you're missing out. I don't know anything that makes me laugh as much.
This week's issue has some brilliant stuff for everyone: some great satire, re: Iraq, and some great satire, re: David Foster Wallace, and the usual stuff. This week's people poll, made me laugh for, at least, ten minutes.
Go. Go. Go.
The Internet Sucks

Well, this blog of mine has been down for the past week or so. I believe it has something to do with the snowstorms that crippled the Eastern United States.
So, I'm back. But I've been busy with this show that I'm doing -- a fundraiser for my old high school -- and midterms and drafts of my honours thesis being due... so it's just as well.
Also, my Daily column this week, in my mind at least, sucks. Or, at least, it ain't as good as previous ones. Please feel free to mock or it or comment on it, though, cuz I've had enough praise and need criticism.
Also, as I write this entry, I am drunk. Opening night of the show, free wine, etc, etc. Huzzah!
Happy Reading Week, McGillites. Happy (almost) Spring to the rest of you.
Between Iraq and a Hard Place

“If Tom Brokaw came, then it would be real.”
– A Paducah, Kentucky resident discussing reports of radioactive pollution leaking from the town’s uranium-enrichment plant.

Being on the fence is not always the most pleasant place to be. There’s a constant, nattering conversation going on in my head, as I argue back and forth with myself. It’s a bit like the buzzing noise you get from florescent lights.

This debate, this mental duelling, is particularly annoying right now because I have a bit of a cold and so my head is stuffed up enough as it is.

Anyway, I can’t suffer this whirring and churning alone right now, so in today’s column, I offer you a peek into the thought processes of a young man afflicted with fencitus.

Q. All right. The Columbia, AIDS in Africa, the definition of Palestine, midterms… What’s on your mind today?

A. Media literacy.

Q. Are you kidding?

A. No, I’m serious. I think our education system does an okay job of teaching kids how to read, understand, and interpret words. But even though North American children spend an average of three hours a day watching television — this is just television, forget time playing video games or on the computer – they don’t spend any time learning how to deal with images.

Q. Why is this on your mind?

A. Well, all those issues you just mention tie in. The only subjects that hold our interest are those with compelling imagery. It’s why the 6650 people who die every day in Africa from AIDS aren’t news, but seven people dying in an exploding space shuttle is. One has boring pictures, the other a fireball in the sky and scattered debris.

Q. Okay, but television has been a force for good on occasion. People turned against the Vietnam War after the pictures came back. Civil Rights protestors would shout, “The Whole World is Watching.”

A. Absolutely. The emotional impact of those images was huge. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with television, per se, or with images, but just that we haven’t figured out how to make rational sense of them yet, which is a problem because our lives are now dictated by images captured on film.

Q. Hmmm… What does Don Delillo have to say about that?

A. Interesting you should ask. In The Names, he writes, “The twentieth century is on film. It’s the filmed century. You have to ask yourself if there’s anything about us more important than the fact that we’re constantly on film, constantly watching ourselves. The whole world is on film, all the time. Spy satellites, microscopic scanners, pictures of the uterus, embryos, sex, war, assassinations, everything.”

Q. Which makes us behave differently?

A. Yes. Take last Saturday’s anti-war protest. It was the largest worldwide protest in history. I don’t think more people oppose this war than did, say, at the height of the Vietnam War, but people are a lot more conscious these days about how important the television image of millions of people marching in the streets is.

Similarly, the American government invokes the powerful image of the Twin Towers collapsing to try and persuade people to go to war. Chemical weaponry? Oppression? Boooring…. Show us a colour-coded chart that tells us what the Terror Weather Report is for today, and videos of Saddam firing a gun into the air….

What I am burning and yearning for is some actual discussion, some back-and-forth that doesn’t simplify the world into “war is bad” or “Saddam is bad.”

Q. What should we be asking?

A. When should the international community intervene in a state that is controlled by a dictator? Is there a way to get Saddam out of power without war? Are Afghanistan and Yugoslavia better off after NATO/American intervention? Could something have been done to avert the genocide in Rwanda? If there is to be no war, what can we do for the Iraqi people, who die by the thousands every month because of sanctions? What kind of reconstruction plan is there for a post-war Iraq? How can we make sure that the revenue from the oil in Iraq goes to the Iraqi people? Will war destabilize the region? What does that mean? Is stable tyranny worth keeping stable?

These are questions that can’t be answered in pictures, at least not how we currently use them. They can’t be answered by sound bites or slogans.

Q. So tomorrow, SSMU is holding a General Assembly on whether or not to hold a student strike to protest the war. Are you on the fence about that?

A. These people are well-intentioned and my heart was on the street last Saturday. (Nagging doubts and a rehearsal kept me inside.) Still, I don’t know what a student strike does. Wouldn’t it be somehow more useful to organise some round tables, to debate the issues, to figure out what can be done for the Iraqi people? Granted, it won’t get us pictures in the paper.

Bah. I sound so conservative and boring.

Who am I kidding? I desperately want to be out there in the streets, chanting and marching, but I have trouble believing what I hear these days. I certainly don’t believe what I see.

Q. So what do can you do?

A. Close my eyes, and try to see with my mind.

Damn it. I have a midterm in, like, ten hours.

On the Fence appears in The McGill Daily on Thursdays. You can email Kelly at

Friday, February 14, 2003

Black History Cola!

Here are just a few examples of how companies promote Black History Month (and their products and their image):

-- The Pepsi Bottling Group Promotes Literacy with Donation of Debut Novel by African-American Writer to "The Next Generation" (This campaign from last year also helped get Pepsi into Detroit elementary schools... Sweet!)

-- Chrysler Celebrates Black History Month!

-- Target Corp and its attempts to "futher the 'dreams' that Dr. King preached three decades ago."

-- Purchase some HBO home videos in honour of Black History Month!

-- What Black History Month products can I buy from A&E and The History Channel?

-- Wal-Mart Presents $50,000 to United Negro College Fund In Celebration of Black History Month

-- The McDonald's Black History Month Poster!

Maybe I'm being too cynical about this... But as laudable as some of these donations and programs are, is this what Black History Month was supposed to be about?
Wrestling with Black History Month

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.
– Langston Hughes

February, thank God, is the shortest month of the year. It is a barren field frozen with snow, full of many of the things that I dread most: Valentine’s Day, midterms, and Arctic temperatures. It is also Black History Month, an annual event that I do not dread, but rather feel totally ambivalent about, which might be worse.

In the three years I regularly attended editorial board meetings of The McGill Daily, whenever February would appear on the horizon, discussion would turn to the subject of a Black History Month issue. It was an issue greeted with, well, ambivalence. There would be talk about maybe coordinating a special issue on multiculturalism instead, or an edition that focused on race relations. Nonetheless, we always ended up producing a Black History Month issue. The main reason, it seemed, was to avoid incurring the anger of the Black Students Network, with whom we traditionally coordinated the issue.

I should note that in these three years, the number of Daily editors who were black was zero. (I should also note that I did not take part in the discussions this year and have no idea how they went, having happily left my days of Friday production nights behind.)

During the lead-up to the Black History Month issue, the relationship between The Daily and the BSN was often strained. We were non-black editors and journalists trying to put out a special edition dedicated to Black History. They were non-journalistic Black activists trying to put out a newspaper. (I remember one particularly heated debate among the Daily staff over whether or not to capitalise “black” or not. Stylistically-correct lower case or politically-correct upper case?)

In the end, the Black History Month issue was always a headache and the most difficult one to produce. It turned out that a great many Black students at McGill were just as ambivalent about the value of a Black History Month issue. While there were some articles that were entertaining, provocative, or insightful, the majority were bland and there were too many first-person meanderings – this despite the most earnest desire of both The Daily and the BSN to put out the best issue possible.


Black History Month, in many ways, is nothing more than an excellent time for companies and corporations and politicians to demonstrate that they are progressive and care about minorities. Nissan Motors is currently running a multi-million advertising campaign, which includes billboards that proclaim “Black Future Month”. The message: you’ve come a long way, baby, now buy a Pathfinder SUV. The images of Miles Davis and Muhammed Ali are used to sell Apple computers. The major television networks cram in all the Black-themed shows they can, so they don’t have to feel bad that minorities are underrepresented the rest of the year. Republican leaders fall all over themselves trying to rehabilitate their party after the Trent Lott scandal, by posing with Black Americans and heralding Black History Month. It’s a band-aid for North America’s troubled racial conscience.

There’s also the matter that Black History Month just doesn’t have the same raison-d’ĂȘtre here in Canada. Most of the stuff we get fed is African-American History. Sure, you can name Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Langston Hughes, and Thurgood Marshall, but can you name nearly as many famous Black Canadians? Do you know who Harry Jerome, Mary Ann Shadd, William Hall, or Senator Anne Claire Cools are?

Black History Month has been around most of my life. So, why is it that I had to search online to find famous Black Canadians? People are incredibly knowledgeable about slavery and the civil rights movement in the United States, but know little about our own Black culture and history. (And haven’t Blacks had more to do with history than just slavery and the civil rights movement? And by relegating the civil rights movement to history, does that mean that it is over? Do I have to bring up Trent Lott again?)

The Canadian television industry has given us a skewed version of our culture. The inner-city Black culture of the United States is very different from the Canadian Black culture, which is rooted in the West Indies, but it is the American Black culture that turns up predominantly on TV. One rarely spots Haitian-Canadians or Caribbean-Canadians on Canadian television, whereas everyone is familiar with the Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

Including Blacks (and other “ethnic” groups) in our history books is a laudable goal. Over the past 30 years, a lot of progress has been made in integrating voices. But most of this has been the result of social historians and educators working all year round to be more inclusive in their research and teachings. Little has been from the hoopla that surround Black History Month.

I think a great number of people are “on the fence” about Black History Month. It doesn’t have enough fire to get anyone really riled up either way. I wish it did, because February is such a cold, cold month.

On the Fence appears Thursdays. J. Kelly Nestruck can be reached at
[View/Post Comments]

Tuesday, February 11, 2003

Shakespeare and Imperialism

So in that email to my Great-Uncle, I alleged that Henry V is pro-war propaganda... I guess I should clarify that Henry V could be used as pro-war propaganda (and has)... But, you could also play around with it to, say, make Henry seem like a war criminal; he does order his troops to kill the French POWs after all.

Anyway, I dug up a quotation from Gary Taylor, author of Reinventing Shakespeare. He argues that Shakespeare's current status is the fruit of centuries of public relations on the part of British Imperialism, which spread the English language around the world. His book is about how each generation recreates Shakespeare according to their own preoccupations, anxieties and beliefs. Taylor's a bit of a Shakespearean contrarian, so I like him, even if I don't totally agree with him.

Writes Taylor: "Shakespeare is popular now because he has been popular. If we could rewind the tape of the past and erase from 1650 to the present and simply go back on our own to the literature of the fifteeth and sixteenth centuries, I'm not sure Shakespeare would be the one we would choose to elevate. His status in our time is a reflection of inertia as much as anything else.

"Shakespeare became popular in the eighteenth century because he represented a return to the safety of the past before all the upheavals of the revolutions, both English and French. Shakespeare began to get popular during the French Revolution, when he was seized upon as the champion of solid English values such as the monarchy....

"The period of Shakespeare's greatest power and cultural influence began in the late eighteenth century and lasted through most of the nineteeth century, when the university system for the study of literature began. So the study of Shakespeare was culturally locked in place at that time. Shakespeare and the Bible were the two books everybody knew, but making the Bible compulsory is controversial today, while Shakespeare courses are still required. Shakespeare is our last cultural stronghold. His works have become our secular Bible."

-- as quoted in Norrie Epstein's wonderful The Friendly Shakespeare, page 7-8.
Ovt of the Frying Pan, Vnto the (Mvse of) Fire.

Well, I've been quibbling over small points of language all day. It happens when you're surrounded by Shakespeare in class and at rehearsal.

I had a lovely argument with a friend over MSN Messenger as to whether you could use "quote" as a noun. I say yes. I know quotation is the correct word, but quote is in common usage, all right? Even, the OED accepts it!

I'm a reasonable man. Get off my case.

The next quibble was about the Henry V quotation/quote which I used in my last On the Fence. It came from my Great-Uncle Jack, who sent me an email saying:

"On checking your quotation I find:

"Henry V urged his lords and soldiers 'Once more into the breach * * * Or close the wall up with our English dead.'

"The closing words suggest to me that Henry would have been on the side of today’s hawks!"

Of course, I immediately become very defensive when someone calls me on something like that. I hate to be wrong.
This time, at least, I wasn't.

My reply:

"I have no doubt that Henry would be the biggest hawk of them all... Henry V is the ultimate pro-war propaganda play. It was Winston Churchill who asked Lawrence Olivier to make his film version of Henry V during World War II , in order to boost British morale.

"As to your quote quibble, Henry is oft misquoted as 'Once more into the breach', but in the original Folio version (1623) the famous speech begins with 'Once more vnto the Breach / Deare friends, once more; / Or close the Wall vp with our English dead.' (I have no idea when we switched 'v's and 'u's...)

"There is an earlier version of Henry V, the Quarto text (1600), but Henry's famous speech is nowhere to be found in it.

"I'm not sure what edition you checked, but I imagine some editors have changed the line from "unto" to "into" to facilitate comprehension. You aren't alone in believing 'into' to be correct; a quick check on the Internet showed about 16,000 instances of 'into the breach', but only 4,000 instances of 'unto the breach.'"

I knew my English degree would pay off someday!

**For those who really care, a Google search for "into the breach" turned up 27,600 sites, while "unto the breach" resulted in 4750 webpages.

Sunday, February 09, 2003

Well, this is it.
This is why I started this blog, and the reason why its address is Below you can read the latest On the Fence column from The McGill Daily, McGill University's dailiest paper. I welcome your responses here and emailed to me. Huzzah.

Once More Unto the Breach?
- Originally published February 6, 2003.

“War, huh. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing.”
- Edwin Starr

With all due respect to the groovalicious Mr. Starr, the lyrics to his 1970 Number 1 hit “War” are not exactly correct. War is good for many, many things.

War is good for the military-industrial complex; subjugating people; infringing on civil rights; and distracting the world while you quietly get rid of that pesky [insert nationality/ethnicity of choice] population. Equally, it is good for research into medical techniques for burn victims; liberating Nazi concentration camps; and increasing ratings for 24-hour news channels. It is also good for AIDS-ridden Africa, to which Bush pledged $15 billion last week while trying to temper his otherwise jingoistic State of the Union address.

Let me slowly remove my tongue from my cheek and say this: war is bad, and I wish that the world I lived in would stop using violence in an attempt to solve its problems. That said, it would be easy to oppose all war if the only alternative was peace. Alas, it is rarely so.

Most opposition to war with Iraq that I have encountered is predicated on a desire not to kill innocent Iraqis (coupled with a reluctance to send our citizens out to die in a faraway land). It is also predicated on a healthy skepticism towards the United States’ official reasons for war, which seem to change with the seasons. Doves are not members of the Saddam Hussein Fan Club, and most would be very happy to see Saddam deposed. They just don’t feel that it is up to us to do this. If someone is going to overthrow the dictator, they’d rather it be rebel Iraqis risking their lives.

Let’s switch gears: How many Iraqis died in the Gulf War?

In the immediate aftermath of the war, it was estimated that 100,000 Iraqi troops died and 300,000 were wounded. Most independent research done since has shown that these figures are quite a bit higher than the true count. The official US figure is something like 22,000 casualties. The Hussein regime reports that 2,300 Iraqi civilians died as a result of the Allied air campaign — but they don’t count unwilling soldiers as civilians. So, let’s say that somewhere between 22,000 and 200,000 Iraqis were killed in Gulf War: Episode I.

Meanwhile, sanctions imposed after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait have been responsible for about 1.2 million deaths. UNICEF says that an estimated 5,000 Iraqi children die every month because of the sanctions.

Sanctions – the peaceful, diplomatic alternative to war – have killed more Iraqis than the Gulf War did. The only real, tangible difference is that it is easier for us to turn a blind eye or blame Saddam (just like it is easy for us to ignore the over 9,000 Africans who die every day of AIDS).

Okay, so war is bad, and sanctions are bad. Then why not just leave Saddam alone? Well, because he has made attempt after attempt to procure nuclear weaponry. Plus, Saddam has this nasty habit of using chemical weapons on populations (particularly Iraqi Kurds) he doesn’t like. He also likes to engage in political debate by murdering all those who oppose him. Leaving him unchecked and with a free hand doesn’t seem like the nicest thing to do to Iraqis either.

If Saddam is Richard III, clinging to power through tyranny, that does not mean we have to view Bush as the right and honourable Richmond. (In Shakespearean terms, I am fascinated by the media myth that George Jr. has evolved from Prince Hal to Henry V; one day he’s snorting cocaine with Falstaff, the next he’s once-more-unto-the-breaching and engaging in wars for Empire. But, I digress.)

Many of those on the Left have nothing but contempt for Bush and his fellow Jingos. I concur. I think Bush is an environmentally-unfriendly, fundamentalist Enron lackey. The problem is in thinking that my enemy’s enemy is my friend. Radical Islamic fundamentalism is dangerous to the world (including, perhaps especially, the Muslim world). An unchecked Saddam Hussein is dangerous to the world. Ditto for an unchecked imperial United States.

Critics, myself included, denounced the war in Afghanistan. We scoffed at the idea that the US would pay any attention to the country after it was done routing out Al Qaeda.

But I have to give credit where credit is due. In 2002, 2 million refugees returned to Afghanistan, and 250,000 internally displaced Afghanis returned home. Sure, it didn’t do anything to stop terrorism, and Osama is still at large, but Afghanistan is a safer, freer country than it was under the Taliban in the view of millions of returnees.

We should be saying no to an American Jihad against Iraq. If there is to be a war, I would rather have some other countries on board, checking the US’s tendency to throw away the parts of the Geneva Convention that Rumsfeld disagrees with. I disagree with those who feel that any intervention in Iraq’s internal affairs would be paternalistic or imperialistic; in my view, the greatest crime against humanity in the 1990s was the world’s inaction in Rwanda.

So: war is bad, the status quo is bad, and Saddam doesn’t seem to be reforming or stepping down of his own accord. If the alternative to war was peace, I’d be out there on the streets. As it is, I hesitate to do so, because I’m not sure it’s what the Iraqis really want.

On the Fence appears Thursdays. Email
Late again.

I know I'm kind of late jumping on this whole blog bandwagon, but what can I say... I was steadfastly against Napster for at least six months, before I actually got it on my computer and warmed to the idea of free music on my computer. I had this paranoid argument that some evil child pornographer was going to get access to my harddrive.
As for online communities, I teased a friend of mine for her obsession with a particular website, until I ended up addicted to a message board myself.
There's also the small matter of my cell phone. I used to endlessly harangue my friend Alex about his, the end of the distinction between public and private, the brain cancer... Now, I really don't know what I would do sans cell.
All this to say that I may be coming on late, but what the hell.
Mockery is welcome.

Well, this is my attempt at a Blog. Really, I just wanted to create a space where I could archive my McGill Daily column and other writings online. But now, the allure of web-celebrity is slowing pumping up my ego. Now I have dreams of becoming the next Jennycam or whathaveyou. Soon, The New York Times will write a story about the charismatic young Montrealer who captured the world...
So to those of you who know me, hi. Please make gratuitous fun of me in whatever way you can.
To those of you who do not know me, what the hell are you doing here? How did you get here? Also, hi.
To Jayne, please be gentle in correcting my grammar/spelling.

(NB: This View/Post Comments Link below is wonky and totally unmoderated. I'm working on it.)
[View/Post Comments]