Veiling intolerance in liberal discourse

On its surface, the debate in Europe, and to a lesser extent in Canada, about Muslim women wearing the veil appears to be a relatively harmless affair, wrote James Laxer, professor in York’s  Atkinson School of Social Sciences, in The Globe and Mail Oct. 26. After all, we are reminded by many of those who have written on the issue, the niqab is a symbol of the repression of women in highly intolerant societies. What could be more benign than the invitation of oppressed women to stride into liberal enlightenment through the removal of a strip of cloth?

In all dialogues of this sort, it is crucial to keep in mind the power relations among those who are doing the talking, wrote Laxer. What I see is something far from benign. A great deal of pressure is being brought to bear on a few women for reasons that extend well beyond the niqab. What gives the narrative about the niqab its traction in the media is that it is the thin edge of the wedge in a critique of Muslims in general, not just those who wear the niqab. The question that is being asked, in a highly coded way to be sure, is whether Muslims constitute an alien presence in our society. Can they be relied upon to fit in as immigrants, to assimilate and become members of our society? Or will they be a dangerous, separate people, and even a source of terrorist recruits for attacks on us, with repeats of attacks like the suicide bombings in London in the summer of 2005?

People have a perfect right, of course, to subject the streams of thought within particular religions to scrutiny and to critique their social implications. When the powerful within a society begin a narrative of the kind we have seen about the niqab, however, that is not what is going on, wrote Laxer. Muslims are being set apart as the “other.” Though we may pride ourselves on our liberalism, in our civilization when people are set apart and critiqued as not really belonging in our midst, the consequences can be terrible.

  • The issue of Muslim women’s veils has been provoking a great deal of national angst in the Western world, wrote Susan G. Drummond, who teaches Talmudic and Islamic law at York’s Osgoode Hall Law School, in the Toronto Star Oct. 26. Star columnist Rosie DiManno yesterday felt moved to express her worry for the souls of veiled women, wrote Drummond, even if they themselves “apparently have no confidence in their own character” and seem oddly untroubled by their narrow horizons. The idea that real women, stripped of layers and layers of false consciousness, essentially read off the same Western, liberal, rational, enlightened page even leads DiManno to perceive the otherwise real Marion Boyd, former attorney general of Ontario, as a pale, duped shadow of a woman.

The idea that the public promotion of a generalized and approximately homogeneous version of womanhood is facilitative of good relations among the overall polity is very much in the air these days, seemingly concentrated on, as DiManno says, “that one small rectangle of fabric.”

Margaret Wente of The Globe and Mail for example, in an article Tuesday entitled “A small strip of cloth symbolizing Islamic separateness,” advances the argument of Robert Putnam that “ethnic diversity breeds mistrust” and that “communities where many ethnicities live together have lower amounts of trust between people than those that are more homogeneous.”

These arguments invite reflection upon other moments in Canadian history when diversity itself was seen as a cause of friction rather than perceived as deriving from attempts by larger, more dominant, surrounding tribes to stake their own claim to the high ground of Canadian territory, wrote Drummond. The current debate about Muslim women and the veil is the fulcrum around which turns arguments decrying the use of “public” space for “private” ends (religious or ideological). With a little circumspection, Canadians can summon examples of similar outcries against visible minorities occupying too much of the majority’s visual field.

$200 million the goal for York U fundraiser

York University turns 50 in 2009. What better way to celebrate than with a new campaign to raise $200 million leading up to the big day?, wrote the Toronto Star Oct. 26. The campaign, called “York to the Power of 50,” was launched last week with almost 30 donations of at least $1 million. Donations include $5 million from Honey and Barry Sherman for building improvements.  Former York chancellor Avie Bennett has already pledged funds for more than 30 scholarships and awards each year.

York U student plays for Mac

When Mike DiClaudio suits up to play Ontario University Athletics basketball for McMaster Marauders at Burridge Gym this season, he’ll be a visitor on the home team, wrote the Hamilton Spectator Oct. 26. DiClaudio is classified as a “visiting student.” He’s currently taking courses at both McMaster and, online, from York University. But when the 24-year-old graduates, his honours geography degree will be from York.

A Hamilton, Ont., native who played three seasons with the York Lions from 2002-2005, DiClaudio came into McMaster coach Joe Raso’s office last month and asked if he could join the team. “I was here (at Mac) attending classes last year,” DiClaudio said before a recent practice. “And I did some volunteering, coaching boys’ basketball at Bishop Ryan, my old high school.” DiClaudio got the necessary letter of permission from York officials in order to pursue collaborative credits from the Hamilton school. “It was a great experience for me at York,” the 5-foot-10, 190-pounder said. “But at the end of my third year, I wasn’t enjoying playing as much. It had nothing to do with any of the coaches or the players or playing time. When I left, there was no bad feelings. I just wanted to take a year off.”

Country songbird Dani Strong makes ‘Nashville Star’ finals

Former York student Dani Strong knew right away that she didn’t quite fit in, wrote The Toronto Sun Oct. 26. “Definitely my accent,” she chuckles. “Everybody was so southern. I figured I’m going to get tossed out for not having a southern drawl.” Instead, the singer-songwriter from Newmarket, Ont., has just learned that out of 20,000 contestants, she is one of 56 finalists and the only Canadian to make it to next week’s regional finals for “Nashville Star”, country music’s equivalent of “American Idol”.

This is all pretty exciting for a 24-year-old songbird who hates reality TV and calls the Idol shows little more than “karaoke contests.” “I’ve always been against these,” the outspoken Strong admits sheepishly over lunch, “but I always said that if I did one of them, I’d do ‘Nashville Star’ – they actually encourage you to play music and they encourage you to write your own songs.”

Next Friday, she will perform in front of a live audience in Nashville in a bid to become one of the final 10. Strong has been singing “forever” and writing songs since she was 13. When she is not teaching guitar to kids, she is performing gigs around the GTA. At the regional finals, she plans to sing What Hurts the Most by Rascal Flatts and Pumpkin, and a touching song she wrote for her dad when she was a struggling York University music student without enough money to buy him a Father’s Day gift.

Canadians have a right to assess Afghanistan mission

On Saturday, people across Canada will be taking to the streets to voice their opposition to the war in Afghanistan. Whether or not you agree with this “day of action,” it provides a much-needed opportunity for generating more public discussion about our country’s involvement in this conflict, wrote Richard Oddie, a PhD candidate in York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies, in the Hamilton Spectator Oct. 26.

What began in 2001 as a mission promoted under the banner of “reconstruction” and a “Three-D” approach, integrating defence, development and democracy, has become a combat-oriented mission. Canadian soldiers are putting their lives at greater and greater risk, yet the federal government has yet to clearly explain the long-term objectives of this mission or the criteria that is being used to measure its success or failure. Canadians have good reason to demand answers about the long-term goals of this campaign. If democratic reform is a primary goal, why have alliances been struck with drug barons and warlords who are now members of the new Afghan government?

A new approach is needed, one that focuses less on combat missions and more on the facilitation of humanitarian aid, poverty relief and development. This would encourage Afghans to see our military as a stabilizing force rather than an occupying one. Such a plan requires working more cooperatively with countries and aid agencies which can commit resources and knowledge, wrote Oddie.

Thomas Wolfe Postcards: A Ghost Story At The Hotel Chelsea

Novelist Susan Swan, humanities professor in York’s Faculty of Arts, visited New York’s Chelsea Hotel last summer, wrote Ed Hamilton, editor of Living with Celebrities: Hotel Chelsea Blog, in an entry dated Oct. 25. Swan, said Hamilton, stayed in Thomas Wolfe’s old room (you remember Thomas: he wrote “You Can’t Go Home Again” in room Swanwolfe3829). She considers Wolfe a literary father-figure, and, as you can see from the following story, her stay at the Chelsea was for her a profoundly spiritual experience.

Swan wrote, in part: Thomas Wolfe doesn’t knock. Why bother? He’s home. I hear his tubercular cough as he lets himself in. He floats through the wood and on down the curving vestibule until he is right where he wanted to be. Of course I scream and clutch the sheets to my chest. “It’s just me…a shade of my former self.” His ghastly head inclines back and forth and I realize he is laughing at his own joke.

Once his writing was synonymous with American prose. But today his books are an “undergraduate indulgence.” Today his name is so faded on the mattering map of American literature that it is no bigger than the bottom row on an ophthalmologist’s chart – the tiny letters that only those with perfect vision can see.

I, too, worry about my reputation in American letters. Especially now that my book had been savaged in the Times. Following a silence of 15 years, I had brought forth a new work and heard it dismissed as “inconsequential, plodding novel & neither original nor memorable”, “brittle & overwhelmingly self-pitying” had been some of the dismaying phrases. “At least they didn’t say I couldn’t write my way out of a paper bag.” Thomas Wolfe replies. “The only thing a writer needs to concern himself with is staying open to experience. If we aren’t vulnerable we can’t write.”

On air

  • Jennifer Jenson, professor in York’s Faculty of Education, spoke about the use of video games in education, on CBC Radio morning shows in Winnipeg, Kingston and Sydney, NS, on Oct. 25.