Among the most glorious fruit of the harvest of freedom seeded by Stephen Harper’s overturning of the Chretien/Martin tyranny is the undeniable fact that most Canadians, in the year 2013, have as little thought of meaningfully interfering in their own political lives as had Yorkshire ploughmen under the Plantagenets.
What makes this a good thing for America, and really, the rest of the world, is that once conservatives are fully engulfed in the bubble of right-wing ideology, something remarkable happens: They forget. They forget they’re in a bubble. They forget to hide their hatred of blacks. They forget to hide their disgust for strong, independent women. They forget to pretend they’re against abortion when really they want women to suffer for having sex. Basically, they forget to act like decent human beings.
I’m sorry, but this is not conservatism. This is just atavistic fuckwittery.
@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
Going after new revenues really must be a joint municipal-provincial project. Whether this is possible with an anti-tax Mayor in Toronto and a provincial government afraid to mention new revenues is quite another matter. Somebody has to start this discussion on a broad public scale, not just in workshops preaching to the converted.
So hard to pick just one point from this excellent and thought-provoking piece from Steve Munro. Anyone interested in transit, and not just the stale LRT vs. subway debate, really needs to read it.
I guess I settled on this paragraph because it underlines the need for us to be able to have an adult conversation about taxes. Given the extent to which public conversation’s been hijacked, that’s a lot more difficult than it should be, but, you know … hope is better than fear and all that.
In defence of the public sphere | #TOpoli #TeamFord
There’s been some kerfuffle in the cybersphere about “radical conservatives” over the past couple of days, specifically in the context of Toronto politics, the city budget discussions, and the overall philosophy apparently motivating Team Ford. (Caveat: that’s assuming that you can call whatever’s behind their approach a “philosophy” at all. I’m not so sure it’s sufficiently coherent or well-thought-out to merit such a description.)
It’s prompted some good discussion, both in the blogosphere and on the Tweeter. You could probably do an entire dissertation on the precise delineations among “conservatism,” “principled conservatism,” “and radical conservatism;” indeed, I’ve been wrestling with this a fair bit over the past few days, but to some extent it’s been overshadowed by real-time events. It’s certainly a discussion worth having (and @cityslikr makes a good start), but for the moment I don’t want to get too hung up on labels. Ultimately, there’s something more fundamental at stake here, and that’s the very notion of the public good itself.
By no means do I want to reduce the definition of conservatism to a pissing match about labels. I’ve been quite adamant (some might even say obsessive, and they wouldn’t be entirely wrong) about the need for vigilance when it comes to the meanings of words, but it’s an argument I’ve made already. The last couple of days have made it clear that arguments over definitions are only part of the battle.
So, what are we talking about when we talk about “the public good?” I’ve been meaning to address this ever since running across this piece by Robert Reich last week on the Tumblr. A sample:
What defines a society is a set of mutual benefits and duties embodied most visibly in public institutions — public schools, public libraries, public transportation, public hospitals, public parks, public museums, public recreation, public universities, and so on.
God knows that’s been under attack, not just lately, but over the past three decades or more. Anyone with any appreciation of history can survey the intellectual currents dominating public discussion since the days of Reagan and Thatcher and draw the connections from those dark times to the current days of Harper, Ford, et al. And it doesn’t take much to discern the source for those currents, and whose interests they favour. (Anyone remember the so-called “tax revolts” of the mid to late 1970s? And their more recent echo in manufactured controversies like the “Tax Rage” so beloved of certain right-wing media organs, coupled with an unending drumbeat aimed at enshrining selfishness, insularity and resentment as civic virtues? You see where I’m going.)
Much as I love graduate-level seminars, though, there are more immediate triggers. The need for a spirited defence of the public good occurred to me again this past Sunday during an episode of the Josh Matlow show on NewsTalk 1010. (Yeah, yeah, I know. But Dave Meslin and Shelley Carroll were featured as guests. Disclosure: I didn’t listen to the show from beginning to end.) I won’t even try to recapture some of the arguments from people who called in, but I did post a somewhat intemperate message to @meslin and @shelleycarroll urging them to resist the contemporary framing and defend the public good. Easy for me, of course. I wasn’t there and I wasn’t on the spot. To his credit, Mez asked me to elaborate, and I followed up with:
While discussion of that principle has been pre-empted, to some degree, by the travesty visited upon the public library system by Team Ford over the past day and a half, that same travesty underlines the need for a reassertion of the public good more strongly than ever.
As is often the case, we can start by challenging the discourse, looking critically at the underlying assumptions, and changing the framing. For longer than anyone can remember, conversations about the public sphere have been dominated by relentless bashing of everything public per se as inefficient, wasteful, and corrupt — public transit, public services, public education, public infrastructure, public-sector unions, and so forth. Such bashing, accurate or otherwise, has invariably been coupled with the corollary assumption that the private sector is inherently better and more efficient. If the last couple of years have accomplished anything, they ought to have put the lie to that. The financial and industrial elites have been remarkably efficient at lining their own pockets (much of the time with our money), but at advancing the public good? Please.
And permeating this discourse, always, like a bad smell: the assumption that whatever we do in the pursuit of the public good must be done in as cheap, grudging, and utilitarian a manner as possible. Usually it’s wrapped up in empty sanctimonious rhetoric like, oh … Respect for Taxpayers (coincidence? mais, bien sur!), and we saw a good illustration of it recently when Councillor David Shiner complained about the cost of the Fort York Bridge. Matt Elliott’s discussed the intricacies of its revival, but let’s linger for a moment on the implications.
What kind of statement are we making when we insist that public undertakings have to be as cheap and mingy as possible? To some extent, I’ve telegraphed the punch, but for the benefit of the so-called “budget hawks” out there, might as well be as explicit as possible: we’re saying that they don’t matter, that they’re not important.
So, for instance, while in one breath we talk about the value of public education (there’s a whole subplot there about whether it’s supposed to be about job training or enhancing citizenship and teaching critical-thinking skills, but we’ll just leave that aside for the moment), in the next breath we convey our disregard for it by attacking teachers, cutting the funding for education at all levels, and leaving schools’ physical plant dingy, dilapidated, antiquated and poorly maintained. We’ve even elected governments determined to precipitate a crisis in the system, for Christ’s sakes. If those are the value choices we’re going to make, fine, but then we’ve got no right to complain about whatever conclusions our kids draw from those choices.
We can talk about the importance of maintaining public infrastructure, but in the next breath we’re attacking public-sector workers as lazy overpaid unionized thugs, looking for ways to contract their jobs out, and precipitating labour strife. And what do we get? Chunks of concrete falling off the Gardiner Expressway. Sinkholes. Ruptured sewer mains. Potholes. TTC vehicles held together with baling wire and chewing gum. Again, our choice, expressed through the ballot box, but then we’ve got no right to complain about the consequences of that choice.
Again, we’re back to first principles, specifically the whole “taxpayer versus citizen” dynamic. If we want to think of ourselves as nothing more than taxpayers, then naturally our whole relationship with the larger community is going to be shot through with resentment. If, on the other hand, we embrace the invigorating notion of citizenship, with its attendant rights and obligations, then we can reject the toxic demands of the race to the bottom. We can assert a preference for a healthy city wherein public-sector jobs carry decent benefits and pay a living wage, thus setting an example for the private sector to follow. Lord knows, that’s an example that needs to be held up these days.
(And incidentally, could we dispense with empty talk about “the market?” In the first place, it’s a rhetorical contrivance, because there are no unfettered markets in operation anywhere. In the second place, even if it’s not just a contrivance, when was it elevated to the status of an end in itself? If the precious “free market” can’t ensure a living wage and decent benefits and a healthy community, then what fucking good is it? It’s a hollow concept, long past its shelf life.)
It’s time to reclaim the discursive and intellectual turf by promoting and defending the public sphere as something having value in and of itself. It is intrinsically good — not because some well-connected insider can make a buck from it, not because it advances certain private interests, but because it benefits society as a whole. It enhances our sense of community, it facilitates our connections and the things that hold our society together, and it contributes to our collective well-being. It’s the concrete realization that we are part of something that’s greater than ourselves, that we can accomplish more by pooling our resources than we can on our own.
Healthy community or resentful atomized individuals? I know which way I’d go.
- Austerity’s Targets « Framed In Canada | #cdnpoli #classwarfare
- Why conservatism needs to be rescued | #cdnpoli
- The Sixth Estate on who pays for Canada’s right-wing think tanks | #cdnpoli
- Chris Hedges: No Act of Rebellion Is Wasted | #classwarfare #OWS
- Beyond the Port Lands: Dragging Swamp Ford for the remnants of civic engagement
- Revisiting #FordNation: some hard truths | #TOpoli @cityslikr @trishhennessy
- @JohnLorinc and @thekeenanwire on the city budget, and dealing with Team Ford | #TOpoli
@GeorgeMonbiot on the subversion of ‘freedom’ | #winningbackthewords
Modern libertarianism is the disguise adopted by those who wish to exploit without restraint. It pretends that only the state intrudes on our liberties. It ignores the role of banks, corporations and the rich in making us less free. It denies the need for the state to curb them in order to protect the freedoms of weaker people. This bastardised, one-eyed philosophy is a con trick, whose promoters attempt to wrongfoot justice by pitching it against liberty.
Every now and then, you run across something that underlines the need to be vigilant about the meanings of words. Tonight it’s this essay from Monbiot.
One of the reasons public discourse has become so debased, I’d submit, is because that vigilance hasn’t been there. It’s because of this that it’s become so easy for words to be stripped of their meanings and then repurposed in the service of destructive and antisocial agendas. This, in turn, enables the anti-intellectual and authoritarian currents so much in evidence everywhere from City Hall to Ottawa and beyond.
The antidote, one can only reiterate, is a recommitment to traditional notions of citizenship, civic engagement, and enhanced public discourse. Redefining and reclaiming the linguistic turf makes it that much harder for those who would debase the conversation or reduce it to mindless sloganeering.
In that light it’s worth noting, once again, that we needn’t apologize for wanting public affairs conducted in an intelligent, thoughtful way by educated people capable of seeing nuance, of deliberate reflection, of holding complex and occasionally contradictory thoughts. It starts with a commitment to accuracy and clarity.
I’ll say it again: elitism in the conduct of civic affairs isn’t a bad thing. And by the same token: stupidity is not a civic virtue.
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.