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title Up Front

January 21, 2002 Issue Full Text

by Colby Cosh

Gentlemen, grab your goat

The hills are alive with the sound of buzkashi! A surprise result of the war on terrorism has been an unprecedented rise in media references to the national sport of Afghanistan, whose name translates as "goat-grabbing." And, boy, is it a good name--a lot more descriptive than "football," for example. For buzkashi, in essence, is a fierce form of mounted combat in which teams compete to wrest a headless goat carcass away from each other and ride with it to a scoring area. In qarajai, the most advanced form of buzkashi, the goat-carrier has to complete a circuit of a flag and return some distance to a scoring area without relinquishing the goat.

Aside from that technicality, buzkashi rules basically do not exist. It is not for those who have a phobia about being trampled to death. The photo shows a U.S. Marine learning the rudiments of buzkashi, and apparently having some success. We are assured that only the best, most experienced riders ever get a sniff of the goat, so he is either a natural on horseback, or the Afghans are patronizing him a little. (It could be the latter, but never underestimate the Corps.)

Seeing buzkashi in the newspaper took this writer back to his school days, when the "Social Studies" commissars showed footage of the game as a more or less random example of "weird things other cultures do." It was somewhere between the Aztec version of basketball and the Eskimo decathlon; memory fails on the exact details. One supposes the intent was to inspire respect and awe, but, as usual, the actual response was disgust. Yet it is only yesterday that our "football" was played with a recognizable mammalian bladder; the Afghans probably think it would be grotesque not to leave the goat intact. The Duke of Wellington assured us that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, where they play the frankly psychotic "Wall Game." Perhaps it is not such a stretch to believe that the Afghan War of '01 was won by the goat-grabbers of Ghazni Stadium.

More proof of a brain drain

Alert reader Bob Black of Edmonton spotted some mathematical errors in the last instalment of Up Front and sent us a "gotcha" message by e-mail. The errors were contained in a quote from the Vancouver Sun, which called 126,000 departing Canadians "0.1 per cent of the population" (!) and described an increase from 110,000 self-exiles in the prior five-year period as a "30% gain." For those keeping score at home, that is two mistakes in 12 words. As Mr. Black points out, we ought to have double-checked the Sun's numbers, especially before praising the quoted piece as "direct and factual." Doh! If you find an error in Up Front, don't be shy: write to the section editor at and give him heck. Gently.

The world's worst words

Every year since 1976, a committee of English professors at Lake Superior State University has issued a List of Words Banished from the Queen's English for Mis-Use, Over-Use and General Uselessness. The annual exercise has succeeded in winning fame for the small school in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan; but, alas, noxious verbal tics cannot be ridiculed out of existence so easily. Only the Muse of History can anesthetize monsters like "macho" and "détente," which appeared on the original 1976 list. A sampling from the 2002 edition, with our comments:

DISENFRANCHISE A malapropism (it should probably be "disfranchise") which will not let go. A favourite of the Left, which will say--for example--that voters too cretinous to mark a ballot correctly have been "disenfranchised."

FAITH-BASED The Right is not without weasel words either. When you seek public funding, it is much less antagonizing to say you have a "faith" rather than a "religion."

BIPARTISANSHIP Invoked by American politicians when they want their opponents to roll over and agree to their demands.

SYNERGY Persists in business bafflegab, despite widespread ridicule. A Greek word literally meaning, and pointlessly substituted for, "working together."

INFOMERCIAL Cleverly suggests that if a paid advertisement is very long, it acquires a mystical property of becoming "informative."

CAR-JACKING A policeman asks what was wrong with the older term, "Armed robbery."

ATHLETICISM A monstrosity used by sportscasters to describe basketball players who can jump high or baseball players who can run fast. Often in company with "tremendous," as in "Derek Jeter showed tremendous athleticism there, Bob." Let those of us who live by the word show tremendous restrainticism in using such locutions.

From this magazine February 14, 1977:

St. John's Edmonton Report sheds the spotlight on the subterranean activities of the newly formed Edmonton Area Computer Hobbyists' Club. It seems ordinary citizens can now, for only about $1,000, buy a computer "chip," "not much larger than a soda cracker," to do automated "thinking" much like that done by the massive mainframes at the University of Alberta. The Report is at a loss to explain the usefulness of computer hobbyism, but notes that the new club already has 40 members. "The field is full of terms and equipment both unfamiliar and intriguing to the layman," says club founder Rick Jamieson (below). "This is an easy way to learn, and it's the only way most people will ever be able to own a computer."

My name is Ralph and I'm...

Albertans were kept entertained throughout the holiday season by the fallout from Ralph Klein's drunken exploits of December 11. That afternoon, the premier won a harness race for charity, injuring his back so badly that he had to go to the emergency room later in the week. But he was feeling no pain by day's end, when he visited an Edmonton homeless shelter, had a loud argument with some residents, left $70 behind (on the floor, by some accounts) and fled into the night. Later, when the news broke, Premier Klein tearfully announced plans to battle an admitted "drinking problem."

Whatever your stance on alcohol, do notice that the premier visits real homeless people, not the imaginary ones favoured by Prime Minister Jean Chretien. Tut-tutting reporters and Opposition politicians failed to mention something that is clear from early reports of the fracas: Ralph didn't start it. He was talking to the residents about their lives when one man woke up from the floor, made a beeline for him and started ranting about government policy. There is no evidence at all that the premier came there intending to tell people to get jobs or to vote Tory. He came to visit the down-and-outers, who have always been his people, and to see how they were doing.

"He talks to people you and I would not want to talk to," his old friend Henry Mah told the Edmonton Journal's Ric Dolphin. Will sobriety change this most notably Christian trait of Ralph Klein? Only time will tell.

While the iron is hot

Fans of J.R.R. Tolkien (profiled in last issue's cover story) may wish to visit the on-line aucton site eBay for a look at a Peterborough, Ont., seller's remarkable piece of Tolkienalia, now on sale. The item is a letter postmarked July 28, 1955, and addressed to a "Mrs. Dixey" of Cape Town, South Africa. In the letter, which is written on Tolkien's personal stationery, the author expresses the hope that Mrs. Dixey will enjoy the forthcoming Book III of The Lord of the Rings.

"I do not suppose I will write any more about hobbits, but the success of Lord Of The Rings has been quite as surprising to the publishers as to me (possibly more so) that it seems likely now that they will wish to publish the legend of the First and Second Ages (written first but refused)." The rejected material in question, of course, was published as The Silmarillion. Tolkien admits rather reluctantly to his correspondent that he is a native of South Africa. "I...belong really to the N. West of the Old World," he says, "...[but] I suppose that even in 'The Shire' they had heard some tales of the far south."

Grown-up LOTR freaks with high disposable incomes may wish to get in on the bidding for this letter, which starts at $3,500. The price is a bit high--even for handwriting as handsome as Tolkien's--but the seller, whoever he is, stands to profit mightily from his keen sense of timing.

Duly Noted

The University of Toronto announced December 14 that Preston Manning, former leader of the former Reform Party, will become a "distinguished visitor" of the school and maintain a residence at Massey College. "He's got what I would call a pan-Canadian agenda," said U of T political scientist Norman Wiseman approvingly of Mr. Manning. Will university life give the ex-leader the free time to renew his annual Sisyphean assault on the French language, in the name of "pan-Canadianism"? Probably not; Mr. Manning has already accepted similar positions with the Canada West Foundation, the Fraser Institute and the University of Calgary. The Canadian Press reports that he plans to split his time between Calgary and Ontario. We hope there will be no unseemly air-rage incidents between Mr. Manning and fellow "pan-Canadian" Joe Clark.

Civil servants in British Columbia celebrated the holiday season under a cloud of fear as they awaited "Announcement Day," expected to come on or around January 16. Liberal Premier Gordon Campbell's first round of civil-service cuts is expected to lop off about 12,000 taxpayer-funded jobs. The ministry has prepared an airtight plan for the day--security measures will be taken to prevent theft or destruction of property, "survivors" will receive counselling and the distraught will be offered rides home from work. In short, an explosion of recrimination and violence is anticipated. Sounds tailor-made for "reality TV"! Is it too late to sell the broadcast rights and apply the money to the provincial deficit? In all fairness, though, we would want to let the miners and forest workers who have lived through 10 years' worth of "Announcement Days" watch for free.

Troubled Argentina lost two presidents--Fernando de la Rua and Adolfo Rodriguez Saa, who both retired--within 10 days, as the country remained in the grip of rioting and financial panic. The Argentinian chaos is of some significance to Canada, as it followed a 10-year period during which the Argentinian monetary system was "dollarized"--that is, it used the American dollar as the basis for the national currency. Dollarization is often floated as a cure for Canadian economic ills, and it is now up to proponents of this position to explain why dollarization did not save Argentina. It would seem that having a solid unit of account will not make you prosperous, ipso facto, if your other economic policies remain stupid beyond belief. Hard news for those hoping for, and urging, a place for Canada in the comforting shadow of the Federal Reserve.

A shared Anglican and United Church in Invermere, B.C., is discussing the fate of its most precious artifact. Christ Church Trinity owns and curates a fabulously rare second-edition King James Bible dating to 1613, but can only put it on public view once or twice a year because of its fragility, the Vancouver Sun reported January 2. Some parishioners want the church to hold on to the Bible as a legacy for future generations, but many want it sold and the money invested in "outreach" programs like food banks and scholarships. Up Front wishes to go on record with a prediction: somehow, sometime, the money from the sale of this Bible will end up in the hands of residential school "survivors."

If you wondered what brilliant idea the Liberals would promote after gun registration got underway, wonder no more. On December 28 Transport Canada issued a "discussion paper" in which the ministry mooted requiring carmakers to put "anti-suicide screens" on the tailpipes of all automobiles sold here. Around 300 Canadians take their own lives every year by means of carbon monoxide. Officials say the cost of hidden vents to prevent attaching a rubber hose to the exhaust would amount to just $4 per car (and we all know how reliable those government cost projections can be). There is no word yet on whether the supporters of Robert Latimer are organizing a march on Ottawa to protest the idea, but it is surely only a matter of time.

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