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Road Test

Five U of T students get a lesson in civics, life and tolerance

“Have you ever fired a gun?”
“Are you free to cross the border?”
“Do you believe in aliens?”

It may have been the strangest job interview in U of T history. Political science prof Ron Deibert needed five undergrads to cross the United States in a motor home. This was no pleasure trip: nine months after Sept. 11 tested U.S. confidence and tolerance, Deibert wanted five young Canadians to confront the myths and realities of the American dream.

As an extra complication, documentary filmmaker Mike Downie would tape the entire trip for broadcast on TVOntario.

This was Deibert’s second summer exposing students to strange new worlds. In 2001 he challenged six interns to champion their own political cause: promoting research into neglected diseases. The students’ creativity got them on CBC News, in the Globe and Mail and into the G8 summit of world leaders. Last year, Deibert turned his attention to America. “We’re taking a traditional seminar and busting out of the university environment,” he says. “Instead of talking about Ground Zero and the security implications of 9/11, we decided to go there.”

The internships were open to the 800 students in PoliSci 108, the global politics course that Deibert, who runs the Citizen Lab at the Munk Centre for International Studies, teaches with centre director Janice Gross Stein. The five students selected joked that they sometimes felt like stereotypes out of Gilligan’s Island.

There was Alex Cooke, confident, conservative economics student from Trinity College; Alexandra Artful-Dodger, argumentative poli-sci junkie (and yes, it’s her real name; she changed it from a long Polish name she insists even Poles can’t pronounce); Beth Palmer, the quiet, sensible history major (think of Gilligan’s Mary Ann, if she’d been a feminist with a background in anti-violence issues); Geordie Gibbon, a laid-back musician who didn’t yet have a major; and Nadia Daar, the only second-year student in the group, a Muslim from Oman studying poli sci, economics and music. In June 2002, the five of them, with Deibert, Downie and driver, set out from U of T for a three-hour, um, three-week tour.

It wasn’t fun and games. The road was long, the 34-foot Pace-Arrow crowded and hot. At night, the students stayed in motels while their seniors slept in the RV. Lunch was sandwiches in the motor home; dinner was fast food. Still, the students experienced unforgettable events, ideas and people. Among the highlights:

In Stratford, Conn., the students attended a New England town hall meeting to explore grassroots democracy. They found it boring. (Nadia, who grew up in an absolute monarchy, was saddened to see democracy reduced to disputes about cutting trees.) But after the meeting the Canadians were invited to the fire hall next door for pizza. The students even got to try on the firefighters’ chemical suits that they had all seen in pictures.

In New York City they joined the throngs gaping at Ground Zero, but found little of interest in the vacant pit where the World Trade Center once stood. Geordie sagely turned his back to the site and watched the pilgrims instead. “You can see the effects of the tragedy [better] by looking back at the people here,” he said, “rather than looking at the hole.”

In Hinton, W. Va., the students experienced the Civil War: a fierce street battle between actors dressed as Union and Confederate soldiers. The students were disgusted by this celebration of war in the name of heritage. But Downie’s camera caught two great moments: Geordie sitting with the locals and “jamming” period tunes on his guitar, while Dodger debated slavery with the clone of General Lee.

In Moycock, N.C., the students visited a shooting range. As they argued gun control with their instructor, each also had to fire a pistol. “Every one of us hit the target,” recalls Beth. “It was so easy,” she recalls. “You’re so detached from it. I could so easily have turned around and shot anybody.” Alex noted he had fired guns before, at the Hart House shooting range.

In Atlanta, Dodger, Geordie and Alex Cooke toured CNN and scored points off a producer. When asked about being part of the AOL Time Warner empire, the producer admitted he thought CNN went overboard in covering Warner’s Harry Potter movie. And he confessed that the globally influential network has little appetite for investigative reporting: “It’s not very profitable.”

In Selma, Ala., the students learned two versions of Selma’s notorious “Bloody Sunday” of March 1965, when police broke up a peaceful civil-rights march. A woman recalled seeing people clubbed, gassed and trampled by horses. The head of the chamber of commerce recalled it as a minor incident resulting in a few “scrapes and bruises.” But he agreed it’s important to remember history; it brings in the tourists.

In Arkansas the students visited a Christian theme park. Before taking a tour through 38 biblical simulations, the group browsed in the gift shop. Incensed to find a book that called Islam evil, Nadia refused to enter the park; she wouldn’t give her money or respect to a business that didn’t respect her.

Actually, respect was never an issue for these students. When the others returned, they told Nadia she had missed a good laugh. Especially when a smirking Geordie borrowed the guide’s microphone and led a tour group in singing Jesus Loves Me. Nadia was disgusted. “No matter how intolerant they [the park owners] are, I thought it was disrespectful how intolerant they
[the students] were.”

In the most moving experience of the trip, the interns spent a day probing the Texas-Mexico frontier, courtesy of the El Paso sector of the U.S. Border Patrol. In 2002, this sector alone apprehended 94,000 illegal immigrants.

In the control centre, the students watched on TV as guards rounded up two Mexican teens. They also drove with the guards through empty desert along the barbed-wire border.

With dusty shanty towns and ragged children visible across the Rio Grande, Dodger asked one border agent if he felt sympathy for the illegals. Sure, he said. “If I were Mexican, I’d be doing the same thing. But what do you want us to do – open our borders?” For once the students had no answers. “I feel so spoiled,” commented Beth. “What makes us so lucky?”

The students went on to explore “faith” by visiting both Roswell, N.M. (the UFO capital of the world), and the 2,900-seat Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif. The group also toured NORAD headquarters in Colorado Springs. Located deep inside a mountain, the centre monitors North American airspace. The students described it as “cheesy… like a movie set.” They were less impressed still when they learned the centre got its news on
Sept. 11 from CNN.

Heading home, Deibert arranged one last attraction: a gay rodeo in Nebraska. Here, in the middle of Middle America, gay cowboys and cowgirls competed in “animal-friendly” events such as steer decorating. Deibert thought the event epitomized the trip’s frontier theme, literally and metaphorically. The students weren’t so sure; the competitors they talked to didn’t feel welcomed by the locals at all. “I think the only reason the town accepts them is the money they bring in,” says Nadia.

After visiting 26 states in 21 days, the students returned home on Canada Day. “They wouldn’t admit it,” says Deibert, “but I sensed they were very, very grateful to be Canadian, and to be back in their country.”

What had the trip taught them? For Nadia, it confirmed her preconceptions: “I thought of Americans as being in this bubble away from the rest of the world; not conceited, but self-absorbed. I found that holds true exactly.”

Others thought they were starting to understand the American view. “It’s a very military culture,” noted Alex Cooke. “Military power factors into their thinking, whereas it’s a major debate in Canada.” “I was surprised how politically disengaged people are,” said Artful-Dodger. “People didn’t feel they had any kind of commitment or dedication to making life better.”

Six months later, Dodger learned one final lesson. On a radio show promoting TVOntario’s documentary, “Into America,” she was surprised at how many people phoned in “spouting totally brainless anti-American propaganda. After all our making fun of Americans, the Canadians made fun of themselves for us.”

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