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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- Guest post from @timfalconer at AFUITBS, and a response | #TOpoli #bikeTO
- #Unions and the Life of Brian | h/t @RickTelfer
Winning back the words: reclaiming ‘elitism’ in the age of Rob Ford | #TOpoli #onpoli
Never a dull moment in the civic life of our city, as they say. It’s been fascinating to watch, albeit in a slow-motion-train-wreck sort of way, and if at any time you’re overwhelmed and have to avert your eyes, there’s a terrifically energetic corps of observers to analyze, summarize and skewer.
Folks like @cityslikr, David Hains, Matt Elliott, Mike Smith, Dave Meslin, Tim Falconer, Ivor Tossell, Hamutal Dotan, Andrea Houston, Jonathan Goldsbie, R. Jeanette Martin, Justin Stayshyn, Justin Beach, Ed Keenan, Tabatha Southey, John Lorinc, and others (just take a look at the Sites I Like over to the left) have been doing an invaluable job standing up to, chronicling and picking apart the day-to-day indignities Team Ford’s been visiting upon us. Perhaps in the years to come, we’ll be able to look back on them, shake our heads, and surround them with ritual incantations, much in the way the Ten Plagues are recited at Passover. (I could live without the sweet wine, though.)
Every day it’s something. If it’s not the attack on libraries, or the rejection of provincially funded public-health nurses, then it’s inexplicable all-night committee meetings seemingly calculated to provide the appearance of public consultation while in fact making participation almost impossible. The latest bit of Ford Math has seen the mayor knocking on the door at Queen’s Park, demanding money from the province after blowing holes in the city’s revenue stream.
The list above isn’t exhaustive, of course, and the purpose of this little meditation isn’t a comprehensive detailing of the damage, actual or potential, that this administration has done or can conceivably do to the fabric of our communities or our public institutions. The observers I’ve cited are already doing a terrific job documenting that. At some point, however, it’s worth stepping back and viewing it in a larger context, and examining some of the historical and intellectual currents that have brought us to this. People like Rob Ford are symptoms of a much larger pattern. They don’t rise to power in a vacuum.
I’ve written previously about the need to cultivate critical-thinking skills as a necessary component of engaged citizenship. The logical extension of that, though, is that there’s a widespread critical-thought deficit. It’s not a pleasant thing to contemplate, and it carries all sorts of unpleasant connotations, but the evidence is there. It was clear all through last summer and last fall that Rob Ford’s numbers made no sense.
That’s not a partisan argument, either. Anyone willing to look at things like a rational adult rather than a petulant four-year-old could have seen that, and known that Ford couldn’t possibly guarantee no service cuts. His numbers didn’t add up. His grasp of the facts didn’t stand up to even the most basic scrutiny. His antipathy to certain sectors of the community was obvious. His transportation policy, to the extent he had one, amounted to little more than chasing cyclists off the road and flushing millions of dollars earmarked for Transit City down the toilet. His approach to delivering municipal services, his views about arts and culture … well, you see where I’m going. And yet, people bought into the rhetoric of rage and resentment, the laughably simplistic clichés about gravy trains, and the bumper-sticker slogans about Respect for Taxpayers, and voted for him anyway.
Again, back to the question of critical thinking and the lack thereof. It’s the most basic and indispensable ingredient for meaningful civic engagement, but apparently it wasn’t part of the process for a substantial number of our fellow citizens; rather than doing a few minutes of math and considering the implications, they were prepared to disregard the obvious faults in Rob Ford’s platform and just go along with the resentment, the vindictiveness, and the lazy, mindless desire to kick ass at City Hall.
But why? How did we get here?
Back to the larger pattern, and those historical currents alluded to above. It goes beyond class, the issues of the moment, or shallow explanations like the downtown / suburban divide. In fact, I’d submit that it’s a direct result of the deliberate cultivation of stupidity.
Those of us who were around in 1980 might remember the defining moment of the Reagan-Carter debates in the U.S. presidential election.
It’s instructive: Jimmy Carter is giving a thoughtful, well-researched and succinct listing of the policy areas wherein he and the Gipper disagree, and Reagan just smiles, and in that folksy, likeable manner, shrugs off the whole argument. Aw, there you go again with your facts and policy and numbers. Who cares?
And that’s set the stage for more than three decades of backlash against “elites.” From that wellspring, we got all kinds of ridiculous and damaging memes: government is the problem, more freedom through less government, drown government in the bathtub, the private sector is more efficient, taxes are theft, social programs just rob the hardworking taxpayer and ladle handouts to the lazy and undeserving, government bureaucrats telling us what to do, crime is out of control because of soft-headed liberal elites, yada yada yada … Just check the tabloid press sometime.
All this contrived backlash and resentment of “elites,” of course, just helped to feed manufactured narratives in which posing as the ally of the little guy against the snooty liberal elites masks an agenda that just happens to serve the real ruling interests: deregulation, “free trade,” tax cuts, anti-labour initiatives, and a furious suspicion and resentment of education or independent thought. They don’t want people to see the connections, or evaluate the evidence, or draw the analogies or conclusions. It’s all part of a decades-long anti-intellectual current designed to keep people from seeing what’s happening. And it’s why there’s so much invested in persuading people to deny the evidence and to ignore the obvious: that climate change is happening, that we can’t keep building communities designed around private cars and cheap energy, that cutting taxes hamstrings government’s ability to act and hurts everyone except the wealthy.
It used to be that education, intelligence and expertise were things to be respected. They were desirable qualities, things to aspire to. Now they’re practically liabilities. It’s an illustration of just how badly public discourse has degenerated. These days, allowing yourself to be portrayed as an “elitist” is political death. It suggests that you’re arrogant, out of touch, that you think you’re better than everyone else. Remember Karl Rove’s description of Barack Obama as the guy at the country club with the martini and the cigarette, sneering condescendingly at everyone else?
And the reverse is just as clearcut, to the detriment of politics, culture, and civic discourse. Once upon a time, being uneducated, insular or uninformed was something you wanted to hide, something you worked to overcome. Nowadays, it’s a badge of honour. Rob and Doug virtually trumpet their ignorance every day.
There’s a historical context for this, too. A few years ago, a former government of Ontario rose to power on just this sort of dynamic, and under the rubric of the “Common Sense Revolution,” pursued one of the most divisive and backward agendas in nearly a generation. Again, this goes beyond labels like left or right or liberal or conservative or socialist or whatever. What’s left over from that era, above all else, is a measurable diminution in the quality of life and the level of civic discourse, and damage to the social fabric that still hasn’t been repaired.
That’s what we’re up against, my friends. Thirty years, if not more, of this atavistic bullshit. Again, it goes way beyond labels like left or right or capitalism or socialism or whatever. It’s not a partisan observation. This kind of toxic effect’s been at work at all levels of government, and not just in Canada. And when ignorance, gut instinct, pandering to resentment, and mob rule become the yardsticks for the evaluation of governance, well, you can see the effect.
So how do we push back? I’d suggest that we can begin by reclaiming the language, and being vigilant about the meanings of words. One of the most damaging effects of this thirty-year march to stupidity has been the separation of words from their meanings. Terms like “liberal,” or “socialist,” or “elitist,” for example, are so fraught with baggage and negative connotations now that they’re almost impossible to use in rational discourse. They’ve ceased to function as effective means of communication, and have become rhetorical brickbats. They’re weapons used to shut down debate by dragging it out of the realm of rationality and into emotionally volatile terrain where people are far more susceptible to manipulation. Want to end a discussion? Call your opponent an elitist.
That’s what has to change. Discourse is the turf. If we allow the terms to be defined by other people, the battle is over before it’s even begun.
So let’s begin by reclaiming some of those terms, and reinvesting them with their original meanings. Elitism, for example. When decisions are being made about the future of my community and how billions of dollars in public monies are spent, I want them made carefully and thoughtfully. I want them made by educated and intelligent people, capable of reflection and balancing of interests, and willing to deal with complexities. I don’t want them made on the basis of anger, ignorance, resentment and gut instinct.
Stupidity is not a civic virtue. It’s past time we stopped pretending otherwise.
Update: Now playing at OpenFile.