The Walrus Blog

Monthly Archive: September 2007

Obama: Spirit of ’68?

New York—It’s not easy filling Manhattan’s Washington Square Park, but tonight Barack Obama came pretty close. “Obama rally draws thousands” is the Newsday headline. The Times’ headline is even better: “Obama Rallies Huge Crowd in New York.” Tonight’s storyline — drawing a big crowd in the backyard of your main opponent — is certainly better than the storyline of quiet desperation from earlier today.

Big, high-energy rallies are great. Howard Dean did big high-energy rallies. The last time I listened to a presidential campaign rally was February 2004, in Lacrosse, Wisconsin. I was working on Dean’s campaign, and even though he was reeling from a third-place finish in Iowa a few weeks earlier, we filled — okay, nearly filled — a big room with genuinely excited supporters. The next time I saw him was on TV, a few days later; he was back in Vermont announcing it was over.

Unfair comparison? Sure it is. But every time a candidate is compared with someone who ran before him, it’s loaded one way or the other. (more…)

Posted in Bright Lights  •  2 Comments

Rebel Music, Part II

Nairobi—Everyone was waiting for the Americans. Dead Prez, the New York hip hop duo, had touched down in Nairobi twelve hours ago for a brief tour of the motherland. They had a noon appointment at Ukoo Flani’s courtyard-in-the-slum.

Friends, rappers, and rastas started filtering in well before that, and by late morning the compound had taken on a fairground atmosphere. Three girls with magnificent posture set up a jewellery stand beneath Haile Selassie’s watchful gaze, while a troupe of devout Rastafarians hung T-shirts in the bougainvillea. “Give t’anks,” said their leader, Joseph, when I bought one, tapping his heart with his fist.

By two o’clock, about fifty of us were milling about as best we could in the limited space, but still no Prez. I met Ngulu, a photographer from Capetown who had been backpacking around the continent for the last couple months. We talked about the relative merits of African slums. “Kenyans are lucky,” she said. “Most of them have families with land in the country. But South Africans have nowhere to go. Mandela let the whites keep everything.” (more…)

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Posted in Notes From Vancouver  •  3 Comments

Blogging Ahmadinejad

1:25 p.m. — I’m sitting in an overflow room, one of five Columbia has set up around campus for students who want to see Ahmadinejad speak but couldn’t get tickets. The main auditorium is projected onto a screen at the front of the room; members of Ahmadinejad’s entourage, conspicuous by their grey suits and collarless shirts, have begun to file in and take their seats, separated from the students and faculty. An announcer periodically reminds audience members that the Secret Service asks them not to leave their seats to go to the washroom once the event begins.

1:45 p.m. — Ahmadinejad walks in, to scattered applause. The Dean of the School of International Affairs, John Coatsworth, takes the microphone first, calling today an “extraordinary opportunity” to engage Ahmadinejad. He calls for civility and restraint in the questions, and asks the audience not to interrupt the proceedings.

1:49 p.m. — Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia, takes the microphone, to considerable applause. (more…)

Posted in Bright Lights  •  1 Comment

The Ahmadinejad Circus

New York—Just before six on Wednesday evening, Columbia University’s Office of Student Affairs sent an email to students announcing that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the sabre-rattling, Holocaust-denying, uranium-enrichment-pursuing, no-tie-wearing president of Iran, was coming to campus for a chat. The event, to be held on Monday, would be no cakewalk, the email promised: The president of Columbia, Lee Bollinger, would start by challenging Ahmadinejad over some of his most egregious statements. Columbia students and faculty would then have the chance to question Ahmadinejad themselves.Immediately after the announcement, a number of things happened. First, the talk sold out, fast. (I saw the email ninety minutes after it was sent, and it was already too late.) Second, the news broke, and Columbia’s decision was denounced by the usual suspects. Third, the Bloomberg wire service put out a report saying the event had been cancelled, only to issue a correction half an hour later. Before the correction was issued, other news outlets picked up the news of the cancellation, adding to the confusion over an already contentious event.

In the meantime, the Ahmadinejad announcement is causing a stir inside Columbia as well, but not the way you might expect. The event is being sponsored by the School of International and Public Affairs, or SIPA (the place I’ll be calling home for the next two years). Instead of appreciating the publicity, SIPA students have been up in arms since the announcement: not because a leading anti-Semite was invited in their name without their having been consulted, but because nobody’s been able to get a ticket. Furious email chains have bemoaned the fact that SIPA neglected to put aside any seats for its own students, and the issue now looks likely to inject an angry tone into the student elections coming up early next month. Even at a world university like Columbia, it seems, all politics is local. (more…)

Posted in Bright Lights  •  4 Comments

Rebel Music, Part I

“Until all Africans stand and speak as free beings, equal in the eyes of all men…the African continent will not know peace. We Africans will fight.”
—Haile Selassie, 1963 address to the United Nations

Nairobi—Six graffiti portraits gaze in on the yard: Malcolm X, Haile Selassie, Bob Marley, Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls, and Dedan Kimathi, the 1950s freedom fighter who is Kenya’s version of Che Guevara.

“That guy could swim under crocodiles, man,” Kamau is saying. “He was invisible, everywhere at once. Government troops ambushed in the south — Kimathi. Later the same day, another battle five hundred kilometres away — Kimathi!”

Kamau’s own weapon of choice, as he likes to say, is a microphone. Twenty-nine years old with a fang-like chipped front tooth and chin-length dreadlocks, he’s part of the hip hop trio Kalamashaka, whose lyrics express a world view shaped by life in the ghetto. Kalamashaka, in turn, forms part of Ukoo Flani Mau Mau (“Another Mau Mau Clan”), a well known artists’ collective in the Nairobi slum of Dandora. We’re standing in their headquarters, an open-air compound sheltered by the broad canopy of an acacia, talking about the faces on the walls.

“We were going to paint Marcus Garvey too,” Kamau says, “but we ran out of room.” (more…)

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Posted in Notes From Vancouver  •  5 Comments

After Outremont?

New York—There are plenty of good reasons to talk about politics as if it were a horse race. It’s exciting, since you’re predicting winners and losers. It’s easy, because you don’t need a lot of information. (Why bother? Somebody else always has information that supports the opposite prediction.) And it’s always changing, so the discussion always feels new. Even if it’s a discussion we’ve all been having for months and months.

The American presidential campaign is the textbook example of the horse race approach: a large number of exceptionally bright people contest ideas for the direction of their country, and the one thing everybody wants to know, every day, every news cycle, is who’s winning: who’s raising the most money, and who’s got momentum.

From the sidelines, people may occasionally complain that nobody’s talking about ideas. (Hillary Clinton put out a new health care plan Monday. The big question: will it help her or hurt her?) But they come off sounding like a prissy minority. Meanwhile, Barack Obama beats (or loses to) Clinton in quarterly fundraising; Fred Thompson’s campaign loses (or gains) momentum; Mitt Romney places higher (or lower) than expected in the Iowa straw poll. That’s exciting. That’s new. Somebody’s winning. Then somebody else is winning, and it’s new all over again.

Likewise, it’s hard to fault anybody for looking at Monday’s Quebec by-elections like a horse race. (more…)

Posted in Bright Lights  •  No Comments

John Tory’s Big Idea

New York—In this weekend’s New York Times magazine, Ken Mehlman, George Bush’s campaign manager in 2004, separates elections into two basic categories: crunchy and squishy. Crunchy elections are fought on meaningful policy differences, while squishy elections are fought on personality.

Mehlman’s context is the threat of terrorism, and how Republican and Democratic presidential candidates are addressing it. But the distinction applies generally. In Canada, the classic “crunchy” election was the battle over free trade in 1988; more often, candidates avoid clear positions on divisive issues. The squishy approach doesn’t do much to stimulate public debate, but it’s good strategy: a clear position, once taken, is hard to back down from, and if you don’t get the reaction you hoped for, there’s not much you can do about it.

Which is why John Tory’s pledge to extend public funding to religious schools is so interesting — not because the idea looks set to define the provincial election campaign, which launches today, but because it’s a risky way to win. In the Times magazine article, the crunchy campaign in question is that of Rudy Giuliani, who would be an unlikely frontrunner if he hadn’t been mayor of New York six years ago this week.

Posted in Bright Lights  •  3 Comments

Into the Tiny City

New York—When I was 16, my high school class took a trip to New York City. Most of us had never been before, and our first glimpse came as the bus pulled into line for the Lincoln Tunnel. The city skyline came rushing across the Hudson, crashing through the windows to leave us dented and shrunken, and a little larger too, as if, just by laying eyes on the place, we had grown in our own esteem.

New York has a funny pull on Canadians. We’re not the only ones, of course; the city is famously the destination of people from all over the world. But we seem to be a special case. Unlike immigrants from more exotic locales, we don’t choose this city out of necessity, needing to find a linguistic or cultural community that we can blend into. Neither do we come to New York as economic migrants, looking to escape joblessness at home (unless you’re a writer). We even seem to be a degree removed from the Europeans I’ve met here, who like New York but could just as happily be in London.

For so many Canadians, this city is the endpoint on a continental migration of ambition. Some people claim to be drawn by the money, although given the cost of living, it’s not clear that’s much of a reason. (The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side is $2,775 a month.) Proximity is another possibility, though you seldom hear stories of Canadians rushing to Boston or Chicago. The nightlife’s great, but good luck enjoying it when you’re working 80 hours a week. (more…)

Posted in Bright Lights  •  No Comments
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