Once you grasp the concept of privileged distress, you’ll see it everywhere: the rich feel “punished” by taxes; whites believe they are the real victims of racism; employers’ religious freedom is threatened when they can’t deny contraception to their employees; English-speakers resent bilingualism — it goes on and on.
And what is the Tea Party movement other than a counter-revolution? It comes cloaked in religion and fiscal responsibility, but scratch the surface and you’ll find privileged distress: Change has taken something from us and we want it back.
Confronting this distress is tricky, because neither acceptance nor rejection is quite right. The distress is usually very real, so rejecting it outright just marks you as closed-minded and unsympathetic. It never works to ask others for empathy without offering it back to them.
At the same time, my straight-white-male sunburn can’t be allowed to compete on equal terms with your heart attack. To me, it may seem fair to flip a coin for the first available ambulance, but it really isn’t. Don’t try to tell me my burn doesn’t hurt, but don’t consent to the coin-flip.
The Owldolatrous approach — acknowledging the distress while continuing to point out the difference in scale — is as good as I’ve seen. Ultimately, the privileged need to be won over. Their sense of justice needs to be engaged rather than beaten down. The ones who still want to be good people need to be offered hope that such an outcome is possible in this new world.
As the author points out, a tricky balance, but really, the only tenable response. The fact that we’ll all fall short from time to time just makes re-commitment that much more important.
Respectful discourse. This is the way to build a city. Sometimes we learn, sometimes we teach.
Urban form: neighbourhoods, NIMBYs, and nuance | #TOpoli
Nuance is, by definition, an elusive thing.
It’s easy, in an age where discourse is so frequently defined by extremes, by over-the-top appeals to gut instinct, by recourse to lowest-common-denominator catchphrases, to go with the flow and channel our thinking, to the extent that we bother to think at all, in line with those extremes.
It’s easier to adopt and repeat shallow memes that fit on lapel buttons than it is to think critically. It’s easier to adapt and paraphrase, or even repeat verbatim, simple and facile arguments that can be expressed in 300 words or two minutes than it is to analyze, to gather information from a variety of sources, and to compare arguments, evaluate evidence, and arrive at a considered view of things.
Nothing new in any of this, of course. It’s why so much of what passes for public conversation is reduced to binary either/or terms. And it’s why so much of that conversation seems to find expression in simple manufactured narratives; no matter what the issue, no matter what the facts, just pass everything through a predefined ideological lens and bingo, you’ve got your storyline.
Civic engagement demands more. Yes, we’re all busy, and yes, there’s more information than ever coming at us, and yes, there are more demands on our time. But that makes the filtering imperative more important than ever; recognizing the worthwhile information and distinguishing it from bullshit is what makes us active citizens rather than passive consumers. And it’s no great insight to suggest that there’s a lot invested in keeping us in the latter camp; the more passive and less analytical we are, the easier we are to manage.
The Ford ascendancy has crystallized this for the last couple of years, of course, but the City Hall gong show isn’t what prompts today’s argument. Bike lanes, football, casinos, subways, cuts to community programs … whatever. Those are city-wide conversations that started before the current administration and will almost certainly survive it. What concerns us today is a little more local: it’s about neighbourhood planning and land-use disputes, the language used in conducting them, and the way they’re characterized.
There aren’t many things packing more emotional freight than neighbourhood land-use discussions. Their impact is immediate, tangible and visceral. They’re an exemplary illustration of the dynamics described above; anyone who’s attended a public meeting or taken part in a public-consultation process knows just how charged things can get.
The planning process in Toronto isn’t perfect, of course, and neither are the mechanisms for resolving disputes, building consensus, or balancing interests and arriving at solutions that reflect the public good. That’s not the fault of the current administration, or the city planning department, or any group of municipal officials. The dysfunctions inherent in our systems of governance go deeper than that. Minimizing the effect of those dysfunctions requires a commitment to balance, to civility, and to embracing exactly the kind of nuance described above; it requires a recognition that things aren’t black and white, and that most of the issues we have to wrestle with have aspects that lean more than one way.
In short, if we are to resolve local planning disputes in a way that produces the greatest good for the greatest number, we must first recognize and embrace their complexity. And that means being conscious of the language we use and the messages we adopt; not merely the words we choose, but the assumptions and values implicit in those words. This is essential not just for discussions of contemporary urbanism, but for larger political and social conversations as well.
That’s the context that makes contemporary discussions of local land-use and planning issues so disturbing. Frequently, those discussions seem to fall into the kind of facile and binary narratives described above; read some of our more prominent columnists and it’s easy to think that most neighbourhood land-use disputes are battles between innovative and forward-thinking developers on the one hand and selfish, insular NIMBYs on the other.
… more often than not, the NIMBYites’ real problem is with change itself. Perhaps such a fear makes sense, or is at least understandable at a time when the future looms dark and scary. On the other hand, it’s hard to understand what’s not to like about a condo that would bring new investment, money and people into a neighbourhood.
… NIMBYism runs rampant. On Ossington, where misguided locals are fighting a six-storey condo project that would replace a used-car lot, it has reached the point of self-destructiveness. It is an appalling spectacle, a civic embarrassment.
In the spring a planned six-storey midrise condo near the bottom of Ossington caught the ire of a small group of local residents who said that the new residents, who hadn’t yet materialized, would be frat-boy partiers, disrupting the neighbourhood. Pity the people who move into a neighbourhood that has already decided what they’re like and that they’re not wanted.
Most NIMBYs share this allergy. Whenever a new apartment or condo tower threatens to go up anywhere in Toronto, residents swarm out with torches and pitchforks to get it cancelled - or at least cut it down to size. It’s a weird vestige of small-town thinking.
These caricatures do a disservice both to the specific instances and the larger urban discussion. A recent meeting in Etobicoke is a good example; reading popular mainstream accounts, it’s easy to think that the controversy over a development proposal in Humbertown is reducible to that. I’m not familiar with the details, but I don’t want to think people are as selfish and narrow-minded as some of the accounts suggest. Maybe I’m just naive that way.
It’s not just Etobicoke, of course. There are local land-use disputes all over the city: in the Beaches, in Cabbagetown, in North Toronto, and of course on the Ossington strip. (Disclosure: I live just a block off Ossington, and I’ve been involved in the neighbourhood meetings and consultation process.) While I can’t speak from the basis of a comprehensive understanding of every local land-use dispute, I doubt that any of them are reducible to this kind of simplistic binary representation — and suggesting that they are isn’t just inaccurate. It plays into the hands of those who want to reduce every conversation to simplistic soundbites and shouting matches.
There’s no question about growth and intensification imposing new pressures upon Toronto’s infrastructure and neighbourhoods (a recent piece by John Lorinc in that regard is particularly instructive). How we manage those pressures has profound implications for the kind of city we want to live in and the kind of people we want to be. In fact, the impacts can be beneficial: increasing foot traffic, reducing dependency on cars, ensuring a population density that makes transit economically viable, enhancing a streetscape’s visual appeal, and ramping up neighbourhoods’ economic pulse and social mix are all desirable goals. Properly managed, they can have a positive impact, both locally and cumulatively.
It’s in that context that thoughtful discussions of streetscape, built form, design and planning principles need to play out. There are no rules that say condos are bad or single-family dwellings are good. Nor, obviously, is there a one-size-fits-all formula applicable across the city. Nor is there a clearcut way of balancing the official plan, zoning by-laws, land-use regulations, and design guidelines, but that’s what makes reasoned dialogue so important.
But that doesn’t mean those administrative frameworks can be overlooked or ignored, nor does it mean they should be ritually or rhetorically dismissed as antiquated. Toronto’s new chief planner says that
if the city focuses on building midrise buildings along the avenues — streets planners have designated as ripe for growth — Toronto can meet the province’s growth targets without 80 storey buildings, and with “significant amount of room to spare.” (source)
We needn’t resolve, at this point, questions about avenues versus main streets, or low-rise versus mid-rise, or mixed-use versus neighbourhood, in order to acknowledge their far-reaching implications for our quality of life. But it’s important to remind ourselves that those questions are best addressed in an atmosphere of civility, mutual respect, and appreciation for nuance. If growth targets and positive impacts can be met within existing guidelines, then it’s legitimate to wonder why those guidelines should be exceeded in any particular instance, and it’s unfair and inaccurate to reduce it all to NIMBYism. It’s no better than demonizing developers as carpetbagging money-grubbers out to make a quick buck. Name-calling and accusations aren’t going to help us build a liveable community.
That cities evolve is a given. If that evolution is to happen in a manageable and positive way, then it’s in everyone’s interest to ensure that it happens in an atmosphere conducive to mature, rational and civil discussion. Avoiding caricatures would be a good start.
Here we are, in 2012, the 21st century, and a man is running for president whose views on women, morality, sexuality, and reproductive rights are well over 100 years behind the times. In our mainstream discourse, this country can continue to re-fight all the lost battles and factual errors the modern right wing is obsessed with arguing about - the right to birth control, the fact of evolution, marriage equality, universal health care. If so, we will continue to ignore, to our peril, the very real problems our country faces in the early decades of the 3rd millennium. The alternative is to find ways to marginalize these loons, hunker down, and fashion some semblance of a rational discourse.
Conservatism: is it a label? Is it a brand? Or maybe just a little bit more? | #TOpoli
That smartypants fancypants @Cityslikr is forcing me to put on my crankypants. I warned you youngsters what would happen if you didn’t get off my lawn!
All right, all right, so I telegraphed that one. Indulge me.
The #TOpoli twittersphere / blogosphere / wankersphere (my usual preserve) has been all lit up over the past few days, thanks to John Michael McGrath and his thoughtful essay about legitimacy. We’ve heard from several folks in response, among them Ed Keenan, Hamutal Dotan, John Lorinc, and Adam Chaleff-Freudenthaler, for starters. All worthwhile reads, and I’d encourage you to click on every one of these links.
But it’s today’s post from Cityslikr that’s prompting this grumpy-old-man lecture, admittedly because he’s all but dared me to correct him. Dude may be surprised, therefore, to learn that I agree with most of his argument today (probably because it’s substantially similar to the one I made yesterday). I think we’re all in agreement that while what’s been going on at City Hall over the past few weeks isn’t ideal, it’s a reasonable and workable response to a mayor who can’t or won’t work and play well with others. And it’s important to stress, as Ed and Hamutal have, that this isn’t a case of unworkable dysfunction. There’s a great deal invested, I’d submit, in advancing a narrative which paints all politicians as a bunch of fussy children squabbling in a sandbox, and in prompting exasperated voters to blow off the obligations of citizenship because, what the hell, they’re all crooks and liars.
Indeed, I seem to recall some young whippersnapper taking exception to that kind of talk some time ago. Where was it? Oh. Yeah.
But that’s not what the young scamp’s called me out about. And it’s here that I have to confess, it’s this particular debate that’s fuelled many late-night beer-enhanced conversations.
I’ll admit to a pedantic, perhaps even obsessive focus on the meanings of words. (One of my many annoying qualities, I know. Too much education and not enough wisdom, perhaps? Whatever.) But I fixate on it for a reason: words are the foundation of public discourse, and public discourse is the most basic currency of citizenship and civic engagement. If we’re to converse with each other like rational adults, we have to be able to agree on the definitions of the terms we’re using.
And by the same token, when we allow others to strip words of their meanings and repurpose them for their own ends, we’ve given away the game before it’s even started. It’s why I keep harping on winning back the words.
Which brings us to the term “conservatism.” Cityslikr’s already tried to anticipate where I’m going with this, with his fancy-shmancy Edmund Burke references. (Geez louise. You cite Reflections on the Revolution in France once, and the rest of your life, you’re shlepping around this giant freakin’ statue on your back.)
But I’m not going there tonight, because for the purposes of this argument, there’s no need to get all academic and elitist-like.
What is conservatism, at its heart? The way I’ve always understood it, it’s about identifying the best and most worthwhile parts of our history and our tradition, and working to preserve and enhance them. It’s informed, I’d submit, by a devotion to the principles of stewardship. We want to leave things the way they were when we found them, or preferably a little bit better, for the next group to come along. If that’s conservatism, and I believe that it is, then sign me up.
In Canada (pardon me while I get mythic), that carries elements of generosity, civility, caring, and community spirit. It’s something that we’ve worked for generations to build, to advance, and to extend to as many of our neighbours and our fellow citizens as possible. It hasn’t come without struggle, and it’s sometimes easy to gloss over some of the less savoury aspects of our history in honouring that, but the bottom line is: we’ve got something here - a culture, a national character, a way of relating to and caring for one another - that’s taken years to build, to develop, to foster. This is our identity. This is who we are. You don’t get to come along and sweep that all away for the sake of some ideological or financial agenda.
And that’s why it’s so important to reclaim the mantle of conservatism from those who have hijacked it over the past few decades. Because whether you’re talking about think tanks pushing the austerity agenda and lecturing us about tightening our belts, or tabloid screed-writers fulminating about waste and mismanagement and cultures of entitlement and gravy trains, what’s at work here is a focused and disciplined campaign to dismantle, to tear things apart, and to weaken the bonds of community. If these folks are conservatives, then I’m two steps left of Joe Stalin.
So, while my pal Cityslikr is right about the sort of autocratic bullying we’ve seen from Team Ford passing for conservative orthodoxy, I think he’s wrong in the way he’s set it up. (But he’s such a nice boy. He means well.)
In his opening paragraphs, he gives a vivid description of the anti-democratic impulse, and the bare tolerance of democracy. You can see that at work every day, whenever people complain about how messy and inefficient it is and then vow to keep its practitioners away from their kids’ lemonade stands. Where I differ from him is in his characterization of it as conservative. Disdain for democracy or popular sovereignty has nothing to with liberal or conservative or right or left; fundamentally, it’s about power and privilege. In that context, those are just labels. And it’s because I don’t want to see honourable traditions and intellectual currents stripped of context and meaning, and reduced to mere labels, that I’m arguing against the misuse and misappropriation of the term “conservative.”
The folks currently losing their shit because Team Ford’s losing its grip aren’t conservatives. They’re not valiant culture warriors, and they’re not courageous champions of Joe Lunchbucket Subway-Wanting Beleaguered Taxpayer. They’re just part of the noise machine, and they don’t merit any more respect or attention than that.
- Winning back the words: reclaiming ‘elitism’ in the age of Rob Ford | #TOpoli #onpoli
- In answer to @graphicmatt – no, this isn’t conservatism | #TOpoli
- Team Ford goes Godzilla on the waterfront: this ain’t your grandpa’s conservatism
- Not Your Grandaddy’s Conservatism
- Why conservatism needs to be rescued | #cdnpoli
… there is a particular political movement that has refined misdirection in the form of smear campaigns to an art form. There is a particular group that consistently tries to push bigotry and eliminationism into the mainstream. The accusations of treason or support for child pornography come primarily from one side of the aisle. If the only response is to say that we need to be on guard and prepared to engage with this nonsense then all we’re doing is feeding the trolls. If that’s all we’ve got, then the trolls win because while we allow them to suck up our time in endless debates about civil discourse, they’ll finish dismantling democracy and looting the economy.
A worthwhile observation about the pitfalls of misguided devotion to “balance.”
@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.
@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