The Clamshell’s @DavidHains on elitism, #TeamFord, and critical thought | #TOpoli
David Hains honours me by devoting an entire post on his thoughtful and engaging blog to my little meditation Thursday on elitism and the need to win back the discursive turf. (Full disclosure: I’ve met him in real life and had a beer with him.)
Indeed, he’s addressed the same themes that informed my post and added several degrees of detail and context. Particularly noteworthy in this regard: his discussion of the Evil Word Alchemist Frank Luntz and the coarsening, anti-intellectual effect of organizations like Sun Media. I won’t try to reproduce his arguments word for word; they can stand on their own, and if you haven’t read them, I urge you to do so. His post can be seen here.
David and I are in agreement, I think, about the essential emptiness of the language Team Ford used to capture the mayor’s office. The conversation last fall wasn’t about numbers or facts or policy, because it was clear from the get-go that Ford’s platform couldn’t stand on those. Instead, it was about shallow empty memes like “gravy trains” and “respect for taxpayers” and “mad as hell and not gonna take it any more.” None of those expressions required any thought or reflection. That they had no basis in reality didn’t matter; they had a clear emotional appeal, and with their overtones of divisiveness and resentment and faux populism, they resonated with enough voters to put Rob Ford in office.
The problem is that without them, Team Ford really doesn’t have anything else. There’s nothing new or original in that observation. Name-calling and making assertions without knowing what you’re talking about are bad enough when they’re the basis of your electoral strategy, but they’re that much worse when they’re all that informs your approach to governing. All the sound and fury from Rob and Doug and their minions, gleefully and spitefully echoed by the derisive braying of former hockey coaches and certain columnists in the tabloid press, can’t mask the fundamental truth about them. They have no grasp of facts. Their numbers don’t make any sense. They have no coherent vision for government at all. They go on the basis of ignorance, resentment and “statistics” they make up as they go along. They’re all about gut instinct and visceral reaction.
We’ve all seen the results of that, of course. No point in rehashing the no-service-cuts guarantee or fearmongering about 35-per-cent hikes in property taxes. The revelation this week that there aren’t any private investors lining up to throw bags of cash down the Sheppard subway tunnel should be the last pin in the balloon of Team Ford’s “straight-talking, authentic, regular guy” cred.
Once again: this isn’t about partisanship. If the assumptions underlying your statements don’t stand up, the rational thing to do is re-evaluate, rethink, and change direction. That’s what reasonable adults do. They don’t resort to insults, falsehoods, bullying, or misdirection. It’s not about right or left, it’s about maturity. Nothing new there either, and I think we’ve all seen the folly of expecting that from Team Ford.
All of this is background for my argument Thursday about elitism. The complexities of democratic governance do not lend themselves to gut reaction. They need to be approached in a spirit of thoughtful reflection and careful consideration of alternatives and implications. When billion-dollar decisions that affect the future of my city and my province and my country are being made, I want them made by thoughtful, intelligent people who can have clear, coherent and respectful debates with one another. I want them made by people who take the obligations of citizenship seriously. Hands up all those who think that’s a fair characterization of Team Ford.
David’s post goes one better than mine in its examination of the extent to which language is debased and disfigured in the service of Team Ford’s anti-intellectual bullying approach to governance, and in its enablers’ celebration of insularity, disengagement and belligerence. It’s what I referred to yesterday as the deliberate cultivation of stupidity. It’s how terms like “elitist” have been turned into epithets.
It’s in his discussion of elitism, however, that I think David mischaracterizes my argument, so for the sake of clarity, I’m offering this response. It’s not meant to be the definitive answer, of course, and I welcome further discussion.
Firstly, the folks I listed in the introduction to Thursday’s piece (also not meant as an exhaustive list, and you can certainly argue that it’s not fully representative) weren’t cited as examples of “elitists.” I don’t want to put words in David’s mouth, so I’ll quote him directly:
Instead, the people who Chrom cites in his post … are far from elitist. To the contrary, these individuals are driven by a concern with promoting the quality of life for the average citizen and the city as a whole.
David, if you feel that I’m mischaracterizing your words, please feel free to correct / clarify. In fact, I couldn’t agree more with you about our motivations, but I don’t see them on a spectrum with elitism at one end and quality of life for all at the other. The writers, analysts, observers, and bloggers I cited Thursday were mentioned because I felt that cumulatively, they give a good overview of the day-to-day goings-on in Toronto’s civic life. Follow the tweets, blog posts and articles from these people, I suggested, and you’ll be well informed; whatever the details of any given issue or story are, chances are one or more of these people will be on it. They’re plugged in. They’re worth your time. Read their stuff and you’ll come away with insight, analysis and detail you might not have had otherwise.
(Incidentally, many of them are linked under Sites I Like on the Posterous version of my blog. You can’t see them on the Tumblr side.)
The reason I cited them was to set up a contrast. Collectively, they’ve got a good handle on day-to-day Fordian foolishness. My goal was to view that foolishness through the lens of a much longer time frame. I wanted to examine the historical developments and anti-intellectual currents that have turned “elitism” into a dirty word and established the context within which the Fords, Hudaks, and teabaggers of today function. Examination of that history is essential in winning back the words; at the end of the day, I want to be able to blunt the inevitable accusations of elitism and / or partisanship.
The folks cited Thursday and I are on common ground, I think, in our commitment to the things that make our city livable, and to the bonds, relationships and connections that hold our communities together. We’re not carrying water for any political party or union or special-interest group. We’re fighting to protect the programs, institutions and services threatened by Team Ford’s ideological blunderbuss and cultivated uncompetence (h/t Ivor Tossell). They’re part of the social fabric, and if working to preserve them makes us “partisan,” so be it. Call us all the names you want.
By the same token, I think we’re in accord regarding the need for public decisions to be informed by reasoned, careful and respectful discussion. Responsible government flows from education, civility, open-mindedness, genuine intellectual curiosity, and thorough evaluation of facts and evidence. It does not arise from ignorance, anger, resentment, or gut instinct. If pointing that out makes me an “elitist,” so be it. Call me whatever names you like.
Once again, I don’t really think David and I are at odds. We’re in agreement, I think, about the need to be vigilant about the meanings of words. This battle is all about clarity and precision in language; if we let others strip words of their meanings and add their own pejorative connotations, the language becomes less and less useful. It becomes a means of division and demarcation of tribes, rather than a means of effective communication. To the extent that we differ, I think it’s about tactics rather than strategy. When I talk about the need to reclaim the notion of elitism, I’m talking about bringing a rational, comprehensive, thoughtful, and reflective approach to decisionmaking. You don’t need a Ph.D. or a string of degrees; all you need is the ability to think critically, a commitment to patience and civility, a resolve to evaluate issues on the basis of factual evidence, and an insistence on respect for the meanings of words. For me, that’s the essence of engaged citizenship.
I don’t want to turn the word “elitist” into a badge or a label. I want to strip it of its pejorative connotations so that it’s no longer a rhetorical weapon.
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