Over the past few days we’ve seen Team Ford apply its magic touch to transit, to labour relations, and in a more overarching way, to our whole sense of civic pride. I can’t sum it all up in the scope of a single blog post, but then in this context there’s no need. Anyone following the conversation through All Fired Up or Ford For Toronto or via the Tweeter already knows what’s been going on.
It’s useful, at times like this, to take a step back and try to see things in their proper historical context. Understanding how we got here from there is the first step in learning from our mistakes, and, god willing, avoiding a repetition of those mistakes.
Fortunately, in this case we don’t have to look back that far. It’s reasonably easy, I’d submit, to connect the dots between the 2010 mayoral campaign and the mess we find ourselves in today.
Let’s set out the founding assumptions so that our biases are clear: we start, as always, with the affirmation of civil discourse and civic engagement as the most basic currency of citizenship. Effective public policy and democratic governance depend — always — upon thoughtful, respectful discussion. It doesn’t mean we all have to agree with each other and start singing ‘Kumbaya.” It just means hearing each other out and applying our critical-thinking faculties.
Now, hands up all those who think that’s a fair characterization of the 2010 municipal election, never mind Team Ford’s approach to governance.
Really, don’t all jump at once.
No. If we’re honest with ourselves, we have to acknowledge that the 2010 campaign wasn’t about thoughtful conversation, mutual respect, or sober, reasoned evaluation of competing visions for the city. The overarching theme was one of lingering resentment and sourness resulting from the labour disruption of 2009. And it was that toxic sludgestream of resentment that the Ford campaign tapped and rode all the way into the mayor’s office.
Really, it’s not that complicated. There wasn’t any reasoned discussion going on there — just a handful of thoughtless, simplistic memes calculated to appeal to that resentment and trigger a visceral emotional response. War on the Car. Stop the Gravy Train. Respect for Taxpayers. Nothing we don’t already know, but if I might add one more simplistic pop-culture meme: I’m Mad as Hell, and I’m Not Going to Take it Any More. Rephrase that, and it might just as well read: I’m Belligerent, Stupid, and Too Lazy to Think Things Through.
The damaging effects of that campaign are still with us — not just in the seemingly endless series of shit sundaes Team Ford’s made out of public consultation, the city budget, transit planning, and labour relations, but in the very tenor of public conversation itself. The 2010 mayoral race did real and lingering damage to our ability to talk to each other like mature rational adults, and it’s a big part of the reason we’re in the mess we find ourselves in today.
Once again, it goes back to the difference between campaigning and governing. Simplistic slogans that fit on bumper stickers and lapel buttons may be good at provoking emotional responses or channelling inchoate rage, but they’re no basis for effective democratic governance. Nothing new there either, but it bears repetition: effective and responsible government is an intricate beast. It involves multiple interests, finding balances among competing and sometimes contradictory objectives, allocating resources, analyzing options in a rational and comprehensive way, looking at issues from a variety of different perspectives, building consensus wherever possible, and above all, crafting public policy in a way that advances the public good. Bottom line: it’s complicated. It can’t be reduced to sound bites, bumper stickers or lapel buttons.
Now, contrast this high-minded talk of thoughtful reflection and rational discourse with the state of public conversation in Toronto today. As Ed Keenan argued last week, Rob Ford doesn’t seem capable of discussing ideas:
No matter what the question, Ford has a bumper-sticker response that doesn’t really address it at all, and he’ll recite it aloud to you, again and again, as if the problem were your hearing rather than his failure to explain himself.
As Ed suggests, it’s the equivalent of clapping his hands over his ears and repeating “subways, taxpayers, subways, taxpayers … ” to himself until everyone else just shuts up. If he has the intellectual wherewithal for a genuine exchange of ideas, this is no way to show it. In an atmosphere like this, one fears that even the most thoroughly considered and non-partisan attempt to bring reason back to the debate over transit planning will be wasted.
(A brief nod to political realities: of course the province isn’t blameless in this either. But let’s be clear: if Rob Ford hadn’t declared Transit City dead the minute he took office, we wouldn’t be in this mess — regardless of how you feel about organized labour or Karen Stintz’s stewardship of the TTC.)
Back to the wider context. Anyone who follows the energy / environment debate or reads George Monbiot knows about Peak Oil and the state the planet is in, and understands the need to invest — at municipal, provincial and federal levels — in sustainable and energy-efficient public infrastructure, and in shaping our communities in ways that facilitate and take advantage of that. In the most prosaic terms, that means public transit. It is simply no longer possible to design cities and transportation policy around the private automobile. That’s not a matter of ideology or class warfare or right or left — it’s a matter of survival. Misrepresenting it with a stupid meme like The War on the Car is not only short-sighted — it is irresponsible, wasteful and incredibly destructive.
I can’t say for certain, but I wouldn’t bet much on Rob and Doug Ford’s ability to grasp that. To this observer, their approach to transit policy appears based on little more than “get the fuck out of my way” resentment. They’re appealing to anyone who just doesn’t like streetcars or bikes or buses or anything else getting in the way of driving their cars Wherever and Whenever The Hell They Want, Goddamnit. As John Lorinc puts it, however, it’s pointing toward
One really wants to believe that a more sensible consensus is emerging at city council, regardless of what Team Ford says or does. I’m not counting those chickens just yet, but it seems that one of their most effective operators might be thinking the same thing:
We’ll have to wait and see, of course. But this is what comes of basing campaign strategy on such wrongheaded and selfish thinking, let alone using it as the rationale for billion-dollar decisions.
Anyway, enough about transit. It’s more important, at this point, to wonder whether there’s any way to get these guys to see reason.
It’s easy, in that regard, to take shots at their simplistic and clumsy approach to government, and I’ve been just as guilty of that as the next guy. This piece from Hamutal Dotan should be required reading for everyone who’s concerned about Team Ford, not just for its insight and celebration of the public good, but for its laudable generosity of spirit. As she argues:
The problem isn’t that the Fords are heartless, in other words. It’s that they have run up against the limits of their own experiences and don’t know how to get past them. It’s that they respond to the personal, to the individual case, and can’t see that the social programs they want to cut are made necessary by a large set of individual cases, all clumped together in one place and time. Put much more bluntly: the Fords want for insight, not empathy.
Ok, so they’re not heartless or evil, just a little … uninformed about the role of the public sphere and how democracy works. So let’s cut them some slack. But dear god, can’t anyone get them to see that winning an election doesn’t mean you just get to do whatever the hell you want?
Can’t anyone talk sense to these guys?
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