@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.
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Politics, decency, and finding common ground: the restoration of civility | #TOpoli #cdnpoli
So I was listening to Matt Galloway talking to Karen Stintz on Metro Morning Friday. The interview isn’t up on the CBC web site yet, but as you might imagine, the topic was the future of public transit in Toronto in the wake of Thursday’s decision by council to opt for LRT on Sheppard East.
It wasn’t long before the conversation turned to the extent to which the debate had been polarized. And what struck me more than anything else at the time was the care Councillor Stintz was taking not to apportion any blame for that:
As some of the subsequent Twitter talk shows, it’s not as if Ms. Stintz has undergone a wholesale conversion and been born again as a progressive. That’s not really the point. It’s not about where she or anyone else falls on the political spectrum. Nor is it about transit any more. No, the lesson here was about civility.
As someone much smarter than me remarked subsequently, so what? She’s conducting herself and and dealing with civic affairs the way it’s supposed to be done. That’s a baseline. Team Ford is below that. And in an ideal world, it should be a matter of course rather than something to be remarked upon. Unfortunately, in today’s world, where mud is flung and insults are a regular part of political discourse and everything is venomous and nasty and personal, a resolve to rise above it is something worthy of celebration, regardless of politics. Pour encourager les autres.
I’m lingering on this because it touches upon some of my favourite themes: public discourse, citizenship, and civic engagement. In the long term, those are all enhanced by a collective effort to restore a measure of civility and goodwill to the way we do things. It benefits us all, individually and as a community and a society, no matter who we are or what we think.
Imagine that: disagree with people but still acknowledge that they’re decent human beings. A mark of genuine conservatism, IMHO.— Sol Chrom (@sol_chrom) March 23, 2012
That brief reference to genuine conservatism reflects a much wider concern: the long-term project of reclaiming and reinvesting the conservative tradition with its honourable and time-proven roots. It’s what I like to think of as the Tory sensibility: decency, camaraderie, and a willingness to reach out to one’s opponents, set partisanship aside, and recognize that at the end of the day, we’re all committed to the same things. Our differences needn’t set us at each other’s throats.
So how did we get here? From a spirit of community, bipartisanship and the occasional beer with the other side to an era of dirty tricks, robocalls, electoral fraud and handbooks for disrupting the work of parliamentary committees?
It wasn’t by accident, and as with many things, it starts with words, their connotations, and their rhetorical effect. More than two decades ago, Newt Gingrich and Frank Luntz worked with a group of U.S. Republican operatives to craft a linguistic strategy for controlling conversation and framing discourse; the idea was to demonize and smear opponents as much as possible by using loaded words like “sick,” “pathetic,” “traitor,” “grotesque,” and other verbal hand grenades. We’ve seen the effect that’s had on politics and popular culture down there. Public discourse has been poisoned and the body politic has been damaged to a point from which it may never recover.
Fast forward to Canada today, where we’re hearing words like “turncoat,” “backstabber,” “stand with the child pornographers,” and so on. This is born of a desire not just to defeat one’s opponents, but to destroy them. Win at any cost. No substitute for victory.
Is it hyperbole to suggest that the Gingrich/Luntz disease has infected us up here?
And then let’s go back even farther, to a contrast between realpolitik and “amateurism” set in the 1930s. (Yes, it’s from a work of fiction but we can still learn from it …)
Idealism? Nostalgia? Naivete? All of the above? Perhaps. But surely we’re all better off when we can acknowledge legitimacy in viewpoints with which we disagree.
(And let’s acknowledge, of course, that there’s an element of classism in this. When you discuss values like decency, honour, and gentility, you’re betraying a certain way of looking at the world. Notions like noblesse oblige stem from a privileged background. I have to keep reminding myself that the lens through which I look at things is a product of that. It’s a luxury not everyone has.)
Yes, it’s nostalgia for a gentler time. There’s no shortage of people willing to remind us that the world isn’t like that any more, and that things have changed.
And this is where the need to push back gets thrown into stark relief. The events of the last few decades — the growing inequality gap, the hollowing-out effects of “free trade,” the vapid coarsening of popular culture, and the continuing assault upon the social safety net, for starters — should demonstrate the moral vacuum at the heart of the agenda to which we’ve all been subjected. Now more than ever, it’s time to push the goalposts back, reclaim public discourse, redefine genuine principled conservatism, re-Occupy the public sphere and win back the words.
We can start with a commitment to civility. Listening to your neighbours and giving your opponents the benefit of the doubt isn’t a sign of weakness, and it isn’t a class thing either. And by the same token, demonizing, misrepresenting, name-calling and smearing isn’t a civic virtue. It contaminates public discourse and lowers us all, and it needs to be called out for what it is.
Ultimately, we can have whatever kind of conversation we want. Do we want something that reflects well upon us, or do we want to sound like isolated mayors and tabloid columnists? I know which way I’d go.
- Frank Graves poll: The beginning of the end of progress | iPolitics | #cdnpoli
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- … there is a particular political movement that has refined misdirection in the form of smear campaigns to an art form
- On Rob Ford and generosity of spirit | #TOpoli #Jack
- @Cityslikr, @NickKouvalis, and the need for civility in public discourse | #TOpoli #TeamFord
@AdamCF and @JM_McGrath talk governance, institutional reform, and #TOpoli
I’ll say it again: two of the smartest fellas on #TOpoli.
I’ve already linked to JM’s thoughtful and well-argued piece, but for those of you who haven’t read it, it’s here.
It sparked a bit of Twittertalk last night (really sad, what passes for Saturday-night fun among #TOpoli tweeps), and while I won’t pretend I managed to capture the full discussion, I did note that it deserves a more thoughtful and considered response than the 140-character limit on Twitter allows.
Adam Chaleff-Freudenthaler’s Facebook response, subsequently reproduced by John over at his place, is probably the most thorough rejoinder I’ve seen so far. Both these guys deserve thanks for a worthwhile contribution to the debate.
While JM suggests that the state we find ourselves in stems, in part, from the competing mandates accorded to the mayor on one hand and to individual city councillors on the other, I’m not so sure I’d go along with the conclusion he appears to draw: namely, that we’re in a crisis of governance, and that said crisis isn’t merely a function of personality, but of flawed institutional design. (JM, as always, if you think I’m misrepresenting your arguments, please feel free to post comments, on my Posterous space or my Tumblr or both. You have my word that they’ll be published.)
To some extent, we managed to expand on this last night, so I won’t try to recap it all. While I’m not so sure it’s a crisis - after all, we’re witnessing ad hoc coalitions of councillors finding ways to work around the mayor on various files - JM does make a valid point in suggesting that we can’t just dismiss the fact that any mayor’s going to have a much wider-ranging mandate than any individual councillor.
While it’s not exactly a revelation to note the dysfunctions inherent in the way municipal governance in Toronto works, JM’s post last night is noteworthy in that it doesn’t lay those dysfunctions expressly or exclusively at the door of the current mayoral incumbent. Indeed, the problems stemming from amalgamation predate the ascension of Rob Ford, and JM’s right to point out the institutional flaws in the way the megacity was designed, and how they continue to fester. Those flaws are in the provincial enabling legislation and in the way it’s been implemented, and ultimately how well any municipal administration functions depends largely on how the officials of the day manage to navigate them. Some will do it better than others …
Anyway, if I’ve read Adam’s essay properly, his main point of disagreement with JM is that this is a crisis of one mayor, rather than every mayor. (Adam, what I said to JM above? Same goes for you.) As Adam argues:
This isn’t a rogue council exploiting the system; this a council seeking leadership but finding that he whose job it is to provide leadership has abdicated his responsibility.
The question John then seems to ask of someone from my perspective is, If you’re going to ignore the mayor then what’s the point of having one? What we’re in now is possibly the most extreme case one could think of in this model of governance given that it has worked for mayors of all political stripes dealing with councils that were frequently more moderate in their views than the mayor of the day. In my mind, redesigning a system of governance in response to an extreme situation is a recipe for bad governance. We should continue to view our mayor as the person responsible for thinking in city-wide terms …
In the best Matlovian tradition, I’m going to come down somewhere in the middle, and suggest that they’re both right. Admittedly I’m being somewhat simplistic, and I won’t assume I’ve fully addressed their arguments, but on reflection, much depends on how you define mandates.
“Mandate.” It’s a loaded term. Whatever we may think of Rob Ford, he’s sincere enough in contending that his election gives him a mandate to pursue a transit vision based on subways rather than surface rail. (Whether that vision makes economic sense is another argument. And it would be nice if he and Doug stopped mischaracterizing LRT as “trolleys” or “streetcars” or whatever, and stopped talking about the “St. Clair disaster,” but that, too, is another argument.) And JM’s right in pointing out that a citywide election gives Rob Ford a democratic mandate broader than that enjoyed by any individual councillor. Just how much weight that mandate should carry, however, is another question.
And this is where my elitist bias (bring it on, anti-snooty-downtown-elite-pantywaisters …) comes into play. In my respectful submission, your mandate is only as good as the discussion it’s based on. You can pretty much guess where I’m going with this: a mandate based on shallow, thoughtless, bumper-sticker catchphrases like ”Stop the Gravy Train” or “Respect for Taxpayers” or “Stop the War on the Car” or “no service cuts, guaranteed” (bit awkward, that one) doesn’t really carry much weight (indeed, Ed Keenan’s already pointed out that Rob Ford seems to govern by catchphrases). Certainly less so than one based on thoughtful, respectful engagement, and a reasonably thorough conversation about the issues of the day.
As always, it comes down to the difference between campaigning and governing. While my view of the current administration at City Hall is a matter of record, this isn’t just about Rob Ford. Democratic governance and a healthy civil society depend on active civic engagement. If we allow shallow catchphrases to dominate public discourse, then we end up with lapel-button slogans instead of carefully considered public policy, and that’s true regardless of who’s proffering them. And that’s got more implications for municipal governance than any debate over “treachery,” or whether Team Ford’s capable of compromise or not.
Anyway, both Adam and JM have made healthy and remarkably snark-free contributions to the debate. Thanks, guys. There’ll be more about this in the next few days, I’m sure.
- Winning back the words: reclaiming ‘elitism’ in the age of Rob Ford | #TOpoli #onpoli
- The Clamshell’s @DavidHains on elitism, #TeamFord, and critical thought | #TOpoli
- @JohnLorinc and @thekeenanwire on the city budget, and dealing with Team Ford | #TOpoli
- In answer to @graphicmatt – no, this isn’t conservatism | #TOpoli
- On Rob Ford and generosity of spirit | #TOpoli #Jack
- Democratic governance and that troublesome ‘deserve’ thing | #TOpoli #cdnpoli
Transit City isn’t a perfect plan. Gary Webster wasn’t a perfect manager. There’s room for improvement and innovation across every city department. But council hasn’t been able to work on the things that lead to improvement and innovation because they live in a constant state of defensive readiness. The entire political discourse in this city is dominated by strategy designed to preempt and contain the damage coming out of the mayor’s office.
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.
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Every now and then you want to pause and re-evaluate. Is this working? What am I trying to do here? Is this the best way to go about it? Is it producing the results I want?
Now seems as good a time as any. Last night on FB, I offered this:
Aspiration for 2012: win back the words, reclaim the public sphere, raise the tone of civic discourse, make citizenship something to which we can all rededicate ourselves with pride. In other words, carry on being an insufferably sanctimonious wanker.
While I’m not worried about the sanctimonious wanker thing, I’m curious about the larger picture. It’s sometimes helpful to cast off the intellectual equivalent of yellow-wax buildup and go back to first principles. Going through the reasoning will, I hope, help clarify some things.
In brief, I’ve tried, in this little corner at least, to avoid engaging directly with people whose sole purpose seems to be filling cyberspace with specious bullshit. It’s an arbitrary, personal judgment on my part, naturally, but there’s a clear difference between honest disagreement and empty sophistry. Until now, my attitude toward the latter has been “don’t bother. You’re wasting your time and energy,” or “paying attention to them just gives them the validation they’re looking for,” or “don’t get into a pissing match with a skunk,” or perhaps most vividly, “never get into a mud-wrestling fight with a pig. You’ll ruin your clothes, and the pig will just enjoy it.”
Then I saw this.
So while there’s much to be said for the “don’t engage” approach, @wicary’s elegant scalpel work is a pretty eloquent argument for taking the opposite tack. And in truth, it feeds into the larger project of reclaiming public conversation. There’s a persuasive argument for not letting this kind of nonsense go unchallenged; lies, astroturf, propaganda and manufactured controversies have to be addressed, because if not, they’ll just keep being propagated and amplified and eventually they’ll come to dominate the conversation.
Again, it goes back to fundamental critical-thinking skills. Who’s advancing this storyline? Whose interests are being served? Does it make sense? Do the underlying assumptions hold up in the face of the evidence? Why is this narrative being advanced? What else is going on? Is it meant to draw attention away from anything else?
As always, the first question has to be: what are we trying to accomplish? It can’t be to make the other side shut up; a., that’s never going to happen, and b., we don’t want to give them an excuse to whine about censorship and act like victims.
No. Ultimately it has to be about reclaiming the discursive turf, about re-framing the way we approach issues of public policy and what kind of society we want, and about not letting the noise machine and echo chamber hijack the conversation and / or drown everything else out.
It’s a long and exhausting undertaking. No illusions here; it takes a lot of time and energy going through things over and over again, especially when they’re things that ought to be obvious, and when the other side’s devoted so many resources to its own insidious and calculated framing. We’re facing a disciplined, focused campaign that’s willing to advance untruths, to smear, to misdirect, to take things out of context, and to drag the conversation into the gutter every day if that’s what it takes. The buffoonish antics of some of its mouthpieces haven’t made it any less effective.
Strong arguments both ways, and thus far I haven’t found either way definitive. What say you, internets?
- The #EthicalOil meme is pathetic PR bullshit | #cdnpoli #tarsands
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- Far-right wackjobs: they’re not just tedious - they’re a genuine threat | via AlterNet | #uspoli
- @Cityslikr, @NickKouvalis, and the need for civility in public discourse | #TOpoli #TeamFord
- @GraphicMatt dismantles @TOMayorFord on transit | #TOpoli #TTC #TeamFord
- @GeorgeMonbiot on the subversion of ‘freedom’ | #winningbackthewords
- Why conservatism needs to be rescued | #cdnpoli
- From @alexhimelfarb on Harper’s omnibus crime bill / #C10 #cdnpoli
- Corporations are getting better and better at seducing us into thinking the way they think