A more unifying political discourse. The dismantling of an austerity agenda that does nothing but pull us apart. A renewed focus on the positive role government should be playing in our lives. Income inequality solutions. That’s the kind of truly groundbreaking transformation an equality Premier could achieve, post-austerity.
Conflict of interest and the toxic Ford effect | #TOpoli
It’s no surprise that the Ford conflict-of-interest proceedings have our attention. Laughs, drama, embarrassment, and more #headdesk moments than you can shake an Escalade at — this has it all.
And of course, it’s no surprise that it’s generating more noise, commentary and Twitters (that is what the young folks are calling it these days, innit?) than any reasonable person can normally keep track of. If there’s any quick observation here, it’s that whatever your views of the mayor, nothing coming out of these hearings is likely to change them. The storylines likely to emerge are, also, predictable, whether you’re talking about the sneering from the Downtown Elitist Lefties on teh Tweetr or the standard braying from the tabloid poo-flingers.
But let’s take a breath, step back, and try for a somewhat higher-level view, because despite the easy snark, there’s a larger lesson in this.
That lesson goes beyond conflict of interest, reading behind the wheel, blowing past open streetcar doors, mischaracterizing the St. Clair ROW, fumbling the transit file, all-night deputations, lack of curiosity, simplistic lapel-button slogans, Ferris wheels, drunken tirades at Leaf games, lies, charging at Star reporters with fist cocked, or bike lanes. If there’s an overarching theme here, it’s this: we’ve seen, over the past day and half, just how uninformed and disengaged our Chief Magistrate seems to be when it comes to the mechanics of government and the requirements of his job. And yet, we’re faced with the possibility that a large number of our fellow citizens are just going “meh … what are you gonna do. That’s Rob Ford.”
And it’s then that the realization sinks in. Just consider the impact that the Ford ascendancy’s had upon politics, upon governance, upon public conversation, upon civic life in our city. Consider the effect on our standards for transparency, for integrity, for intelligence and the ability to work collaboratively. If I were to try summing up the effect, I’d argue that the Ford era has enervated us so profoundly that it’s lowered our expectations of government, and by extension, of ourselves. It’s stripping the whole notion of “citizenship” of any sense that it’s something honourable, something to be cared for and stewarded.
It wasn’t that long ago that ignorance, shallow thinking, and disengagement were considered drawbacks. They weren’t marks of pride or authenticity; they were things to be downplayed, traits you wanted to work to overcome. Now? We just shrug it off. We’re used to it.
I’m not going to try predicting the outcome of this particular court file. Opinions on its merits and its political significance are plentiful, and while I don’t necessarily agree with him, I’d recommend Matt Elliott’s take in particular. I’ve also been mulling over Michael Kolberg’s argument at the Toronto Standard: what if Ford gets struck down, runs again, and wins? Initially, my inclination was to blow off that possibility, reasoning that the dead-enders of Ford Nation are so invested in their victim complex and committed to avoiding critical thought that they’re going to lose their shit no matter what happens. But Michael may be on to something with this:
… despite the technical details being debated by pundits and political junkies in the City Hall bubble, I’m not convinced that inside baseball stuff has any effect on the broader electorate. Those of us who choose to live inside the bubble tend to forget that there is a huge contingent of voters who chose their leaders based on gut-instinct.
It’s instructive, in that regard, to recall something Trish Hennessey wrote almost a year ago about the mythologies underlying the Ford appeal, in particular because of the way they tie into Michael’s argument about gut instinct.
He made them feel hopeful that positive change was coming; that he was going to punch a hole into the bubble of the elites. When they talked about Rob Ford, they often spoke in appreciative, glowing terms – in the same way they spoke about another well-loved politician, Jack Layton. In the focus group discussions, they saw little ideological divide between Jack Layton and Rob Ford. Rather, they felt the two men had in common a sincere drive to take on the struggle of the people despite great odds.
My response to Trish’s piece may have been a little intemperate, but she’s just as right now as she was then. The events of the past year have simply brought things into sharper relief.
But back to people voting on gut instinct. We all know the Victim Narrative the tabloid screed-writers and talk-radio yellers will be spinning — witch hunt, bullies, elitists, a regular guy being persecuted by a bunch of sore losers, yada yada yada. It may not have much to do with factual accuracy, but it’s got emotional resonance.
The key, I’d submit, is to frame a counternarrative with just as much emotional resonance. And Rob Ford’s testimony yesterday has furnished us with plenty of material for that.
How would you feel about a guy who grows up privileged, who’s had more money, support, family connection and opportunity than most of us will ever see, but who’s never had to deal with the consequences of his actions? Not only does he not follow the rules — he doesn’t even bother to figure out what the rules are. Add that to a demonstrated record of stretching the truth and obvious unfamiliarity with the requirements of his job as both mayor and councillor and we’ve got something with the potential to hit a lot of people right where they live.
One of the guy’s most powerful assets to date has been his regular-guy appeal. I’m just like you folks! Well, no. Ordinary people have to follow the rules and face the consequences when they don’t, but not him. He thinks he’s special. He thinks the rules don’t apply to him. Be interesting to see how that plays on the campaign trail, whether it’s now or in 2014.
Update: Now playing over at TorontoCitizens.
- @JohnLorinc and @GraphicMatt on Rob Ford and conflict of interest | #TOpoli
- @Cityslikr, @NickKouvalis, and more on controlling the narrative: the runup to 2014 | #TOpoli
- Politics, decency, and finding common ground: the restoration of civility | #TOpoli #cdnpoli
- Why making fun of Rob Ford’s weight isn’t cool | #TOpoli
@Cityslikr, Riverdale Farm, and getting business out of government | #TOpoli #publicgood
Our good friend Daren’s been keeping track of the goings-on at City Hall again. This time, he’s favoured us with a yarn from Executive Committee: a split among the members yesterday means the Riverdale Farm is still in business.
All to the good, of course (although learning that I’m on the same side as Norm Kelly and Giorgio Mammoliti doesn’t exactly do wonders for my comfort level), and Daren’s doing a public service by writing and reporting on this stuff. His argument about what this implies for Team Ford’s ability to advance whatever passes for its vision speaks for itself.
I can’t help wondering, though, whether his post doesn’t raise some larger questions about how we decide what’s important and what’s worthy of public support. So, once again, time to take a step back and view this in a larger context (Jesus, does he have that on a macro or something?) — namely, the words we choose to use, their connotations, and the effect those choices have on both policy decisions and the public discourse that shapes them. In brief, it’s all about the framing.
(Once again, if you haven’t bookmarked the indispensible Trish Hennessy’s blog, do it now. She’s one of the best observers / analysts in Canada on the subject of framing.)
Something that comes up repeatedly in Daren’s account is the disturbing term “business plan.” There’s nothing wrong with a business plan per se, but it’s disturbing in this context because it comes up so frequently and because it’s indicative of the extent to which public discourse has been colonized and warped by the language of the business school.
It’s because of this that I’m choosing to focus on the framing. The words we use to talk about things, and the language we use for our conversations, aren’t value-neutral; the decisions we make are very much influenced by the value choices implicit in the words we employ. And the notion that we should be demanding “business plans” of everyone within sight is a perfect illustration of that; it privileges the accountants, the managers, the marketers and the MBAs among us, along with their technocratic and class-biased “expertise,” at the frequent expense of popular access and functioning, inclusive democracy.
I know I call out Brother Doug fairly often for his pompous, condescending lectures about the “private sector,” but in truth this goes way beyond Team Ford or municipal politics. Back to first principles: government should be in the business of government. That means balancing interests, discussing things in a rational and comprehensive way like mature, thoughtful adults, and working to ensure the greatest good for the greatest number. In short, it’s about The Public Good.
So, to everyone who fetishizes business plans or the private sector or harangues us about running government like a business, a rejoinder: This isn’t the private sector, so STFU already. It’s government. If you love the private sector so much, then stay there and leave government to people committed to using it for the public good. We devote public resources to things because we want to advance the public good, not because we expect them to “look for efficiencies” or “turn a profit” or “build the brand” or “enhance investor confidence” or “create shareholder value.”
The sooner we stop talking about public affairs in those terms, the better.
- #TeamFord’s two-years-and-change horizon, and a proposed two-track strategy | #TOpoli
- Fiscal discipline, @cityslikr and Toronto’s endless budget follies | #TOpoli #onpoli
- Politics, decency, and finding common ground: the restoration of civility | #TOpoli #cdnpoli
- In defence of the public sphere
- Let’s stop fetishizing “The Market” | #cdnpoli #TOpoli #classwarfare #austerity
- Video: This is what a public servant looks like | @kristynwongtam <3 #TOpoli
@Cityslikr, @NickKouvalis, and the need for civility in public discourse | #TOpoli #TeamFord
What a thing it is to contemplate. It’s so bracing. Complication. Reflection. Complexity. It’s what puts the real in real life.
My friend @cityslikr, who on his worst days is ten times more eloquent and compelling than I will ever be, was involved in one of those Twitter conversations the other night. Initially it was with some tabloid scribbler, but as the evening went on, he was joined by Nick Kouvalis.
Mr. Kouvalis, you may recall, was widely credited as the brains behind Rob Ford’s election victory. And full marks to him for that; a lot of people, including me, never thought it would be possible for a guy like Rob Ford to win the mayor’s chair. Regardless of what we may think of it, Mr. Kouvalis ran an effective and successful campaign. Whatever’s happened in the ensuing year can’t change that.
But watching that exchange and reviewing the duelling tweets prompted a couple of related observations: perhaps not especially original, but no less relevant for that, especially given the state in which Toronto now finds itself. The first concerns the difference between electioneering and governing; the second, perhaps more subtle but no less important, concerns the importance of framing (for which I’m also indebted to Trish Hennessy. If you haven’t bookmarked her blog, do it now).
Back to @cityslikr and Mr. Kouvalis. Rather than put words in their mouths, I’ll let them speak for themselves (guys, if I’ve left anything out, or if you feel I’m taking your words out of context, please feel free to write. I’ll publish your comments as you submit them).
To the extent that you can have a compelling policy debate via 140-character bursts, that’s what appears to be going on. And I can’t help but contrast that with the themes that dominated last year’s mayoral contest, thanks in large part to Mr. Kouvalis: Gravy Train. Respect for Taxpayers. Wasteful spending. We don’t have a revenue problem. War on the Car. Those of you bored or desperate enough to read my stuff regularly know what I think of those memes, but that twitter exchange illustrated, beautifully, the gulf between electioneering and governing.
Admittedly, this isn’t a new lesson, but it’s no less worthwhile for the repetition. Democratic governance, whether it’s at the local, provincial, or federal level, is a complex, multifaceted exercise. It involves balancing of multiple interests, looking at issues from both a long-term and short-term perspective, analyzing costs and benefits, identifying opportunities and stakeholders, allocating resources in accordance with needs, recognizing that community is evaluated not just in fiscal terms, but also in terms of aesthetics, cohesion, and sense of common purpose, and above all, trying to fashion public policy in a way that produces the greatest good for the greatest number. Ideally, it’s informed by devotion to things like citizenship and stewardship, a resolve to enhance the public good and leave the public sphere just a little better than we found it. In sum, it’s complicated. It’s not something that can be reduced to sound bites, lapel buttons and bumper stickers.
It’s been instructive, watching the direction the conversation’s been taking, most notably with the recent comparisons likening Toronto’s municipal finances to the impending cataclysm in Greece. Do we really have to go there? We’re not Greece. Greece itself isn’t Greece, at least not in the apocalyptic way the tabloid brayers have been portraying it. But that’s the problem with caricature, hyperbole and simplistic thinking. It may play well on the campaign trail or in tabloid columns written by or aimed at people with limited attention spans and cognitive faculties, but it rarely translates into effective and responsible governance.
Simplistic narratives depend on fudging the truth, on omission of nuance, on leaving out and glossing over anything that complicates things or gets in the way of delivery of an easily digested and manipulative message, like … oh, like “public-sector workers are lazy overpaid unionized thugs. Unions are to blame for the mess. David Miller left the city on the verge of bankruptcy because he was their puppet. Who the hell are these greedy bastards?” It plays right into prevailing attitudes of envy and intellectual laziness. Why bother to think things through? Certainly, it’s easier to be a disengaged dullard who gets information from tabloid headlines and Don Cherry’s yargle-bargle, if that’s the extent of your civic engagement.
Which brings us to the source for most of those simplistic narratives: the city workers’ strike of 2009.
It’s no great secret that Ford’s strategy was to tie it to Miller. (Indeed, he wasn’t the only one.) It’s also not much of a revelation to suggest that much of Ford’s mayoralty is predicated on payback for that, most apparent in the drive to privatize or contract out waste collection. Once again: Respect for Taxpayers. Stop the gravy train. Greedy unions. An easily digested, simplistic message which may be short on facts but resonates emotionally with the target audience. Truth and reality are just a bit more complex than that, but you won’t read about that in the tabloid press. It’s much easier, and a more effective means of manipulating people, to keep recycling spite, hatred, misdirection and disinformation.
Good for campaigning, no doubt, which may be why the tabloid press seems to be in permanent campaign mode. Not so good for citizenship or governance.
It’s all in how you frame things, really. Not to take anything away from Nick. Guy ran a successful campaign, based largely on his ability to frame things. Can’t argue with it. He won. His boy’s the Chief Magistrate now, ably backed by the drooling cheering section in the tabloid press. But at what cost? I’d argue that it’s been at the cost of reasonable intelligent discourse, and of effective and responsible governance. The very tone of public conversation has been debased by the constant flow of bullshit and sloganeering. To the extent that we can, it’s worth considering the way issues are framed nowadays, because that’s how the stage is set for public discourse.
This isn’t about elitist sneering at coarse, loutish, vulgar behaviour any more. At the end of the day that’s a matter of personal taste, and that’s not what this is about.
Public conversation and civil discourse are the currency of citizenship. They are the means whereby we conduct public business and ourselves as citizens. Maintaining standards for them is in everyone’s interest, regardless of whether we’re left or right or liberal or conservative or socialist or whatever. Allowing them to degenerate to the level currently practiced by the Ford administration and enabled by the tabloid press (half-truths, distortion, misdirection, name-calling, screeds) makes it that much harder to have civil conversations with one another. Our ability to talk to each other like sane, intelligent and reasonable human beings is undermined.
Effective, responsible governance has suffered as well. (No point in rehashing the campaign-trail guarantee of no service cuts, except to contrast it with current fiscal discussions, dominated as they are by the song of the chainsaw.) The Port Lands clusterfuck may be the most high-profile example, but it’s not an isolated one. When you consider the underhanded, sandbagging way that Team Ford does things, it’s hard to see how things are better than they were under the previous administration.
Again: framing. It isn’t even about whether Rob Ford can grow into the job any longer. If we allow tabloid screed-writers and astroturfing operatives to set the terms of the discussion, we’re screwed. We’ll waste God knows how much time and energy distracted by Shiny Objects and manufactured controversies (polar bear versus beaver, anyone?) instead of having the conversations we really need to have.
Let’s move beyond slogans.
- Revisiting #FordNation: some hard truths
- Further thoughts on the Long War
- If Team Ford’s Port Lands plans are truly dead, would someone mind driving a stake through them?
- From the Star: Land transfer tax will put Toronto finances in surplus
- Beyond the Port Lands: Dragging Swamp Ford for the remnants of civic engagement
- Not Your Grandaddy’s Conservatism
Revisiting #FordNation: some hard truths | #TOpoli @cityslikr @trishhennessy
Two thoughtful and well-written pieces on the subject of our beleaguered Chief Magistrate today: one from my friend Cityslikr and another from Trish Hennessy at the compellingly named Framed in Canada. (The latter’s going on the blogroll on the strength of this one piece. Where have you been, Ms. Hennessy?)
Shockingly, it seems that some of the folks who voted for Rob Ford are, um, having second thoughts. Ms. Hennessy cites one focus-group participant who says it was “the worst and biggest mistake of my life.”
Gratifying as it is to see that some voters are coming to their senses, both posts raise the obvious question: what now? What do we do about this? Like it or not, we’re stuck for the next few years with Rob, and his brother, and wannabes / acolytes / enablers like Mammoliti, Minnan-Wong and the like.
It’s at this point that a recommitment to the notion of civil discourse becomes timely. Admittedly, it’s an ideal I haven’t always managed to live up to; while sanctimonious hectoring may provide momentary emotional release, it’s not going to get us too far. So let’s abandon any notion that Ford voters are a uniform, monolithic mass of belligerent, knuckle-dragging morons, revelling in their own shallow ignorance. It’s a stereotype born of resentment and sore loserdom, and it’s no more helpful or accurate than the corresponding stereotype of the condescending, snooty, latte-sipping, Birkenstock-wearing downtown elitist who lives it up on gravyboats full of tax dollars. Ms. Hennessy’s piece provides some encouraging evidence that many of those who voted for Rob Ford are indeed capable of dealing with complexity, nuance, and tradeoffs.
Unfortunately, however, there’s a disturbing note common to both posts, and that’s in Toronto voters’ capacity for self-delusion. So for all the encouraging signals that people are learning from their mistakes, there’s equally disheartening evidence that they aren’t.
As Cityslikr puts it:
Even now, a year into Rob Ford’s mayoralty, some of those who voted for him are holding on to the notion that we can have all the amenities our city offers without paying the price necessary to maintain them. They seem to think there’s an easy fix that doesn’t involve having to pay more.
And then in Ms. Hennessy’s piece:
Many of the people in our focus groups are still in the phase of wanting to believe that they did the right thing in voting for Rob Ford. When he cancelled the Vehicle Registration Tax, they saw it as a sign that he would make good on his promises. Few associate the cost of that tax cut with the city’s budget woes today. Most believe Rob Ford inherited a deficit, when in reality, David Miller handed over a surplus budget.
So they WANT to believe. They persist in thinking things that are demonstrably false.
There’s another description for this: wilfully clinging to your delusions. In a word: stupidity. Wilful stupidity. There is nothing to be gained by pretending it is anything else. I know it’s not a pleasant message, and I know it’s not going to win many converts, but once again: Stupidity is not a civic virtue. How can we have a rational, adult conversation with people who persist in covering their ears and going “LA LA LA LA LA?” How is civil discourse supposed to happen in an atmosphere like this?
It’s tempting, at times like this, to blame the yellers in the tabloid press and on Fox News North for their spiteful campaign of misinformation. But that’s only effective to a certain point, and beyond that, it’s really not relevant. Their agenda isn’t information, but ideological. While we needn’t delude ourselves in that regard, it doesn’t absolve citizens of their most basic democratic responsibilities: Civic engagement. Critical thinking. Filtering. Separating useful information from bullshit. Sloughing off those responsibilities is a sign of laziness, apathy, and self-absorption. It’s as good as admitting that it’s just easier to be stupid.
I know, I know. Honey and vinegar. I’m sorry, but I really don’t know how to sugarcoat this.
That’s the easy lesson. But both posts raise the more difficult and challenging question: How do we bridge the gap?
In his post, Cityslikr argues, correctly, that Ford voters were duped. That’s the beginning of the analysis, however — not the end. I’m reminded of that scene in Braveheart (and if anyone finds it on YouTube, please please please email me) where Robert the Bruce screams at his father: “You deceived me!”
To which his aging, leprous father responds: “You let yourself be deceived!”
The analogy isn’t all that far-fetched, is it? Truthfully? Isn’t it just slightly possible that a lot of the people who voted for Rob Ford allowed themselves to be duped? Ms. Hennessy does hit upon the enduring resonance of fundamentally stupid and thoughtless memes like the “gravy train.”
So when we discuss bridging the chasm of perspective, we’d do well to remember some fundamental truths: namely, that you can’t get something for nothing. Anyone who says you can is peddling bullshit, but anyone who buys into it is guilty of something even worse. Ed Keenan’s already made the argument more eloquently than I ever will, but this is one of those rare occasions when the answer is actually quite easy, if not especially palatable: Toronto voters need to Grow The Fuck Up.
- @JohnLorinc and @thekeenanwire on the city budget, and dealing with Team Ford | #TOpoli
- @thekeenanwire, road tolls and maturity | #gridlock #TOpoli
- On CBC this morning: @meslin and @metromorning on #citizenship
- Civic evolution, in retrograde: @thekeenanwire tries to help me understand
- While we’re on the subject of civic virtue …