Book Club IX

March 22, 2015

As I was finishing up James Baldwin’s Nobody Knows My Name, an African-American man was found hanging by a white sheet from a tree near his home in southwestern Mississippi. nobodyknowsmynameNot yet ruled a homicide, the very fact that it could be, it might be, in 2015, is nothing short of shocking. “Life matters. I commit to you, as the sheriff of Claiborne County, that I will not allow the shadows of the past to cast a shadow on the future,” said Marvin Lucas Sr.

Much of James Baldwin’s writing dealt with those past shadows in America. While certainly not pollyannish about the chances of putting those shadows finally in the past, Baldwin was remarkably optimistic (if inconsistently so), all things considered, such a possibility existed. But it would require a frank, unsparing discussion of that past, an honest appraisal not only of what happened but the lasting effects of America’s racist history on the present, and going forward into the future. Whether that would happen in Baldwin’s view, fluctuated from essay to essay.

Certainly, Baldwin was willing to have that frank and unsparing discussion about anything and everything including himself. Nobody Knows My Name chronicle’s his “return” of sorts to the U.S. from his self-imposed exile in Europe. He never did repatriate permanently. “In America, the color of my skin had stood between myself and me; in Europe, that barrier was down,” Baldwin writes in the book’s introduction.

What it came to for me was that I no longer needed to fear leaving Europe, no longer needed to his myself from the high and dangerous winds of the world. The world was enormous and I could go anywhere in it I chose – including America: and I decided to return here because I was afraid to.

We read about Baldwin’s first trip to the American south, the ‘Old Country’ as northern African-Americans (like Baldwin was) referred to it. jamesbaldwin2Early into desegregation, he talks to one of the first black students who crossed murderously hostile white lines in order to attend previously white-only schools. His empathy is on full display with the white principal who personally made sure that black student safely crossed those lines.

After the principal tells Baldwin he doesn’t believe it’s ‘right’ that black students attend white schools just because they’re white, he proclaims it’s not because he doesn’t like it or approve of it. “… it was simply contrary to everything he’d ever seen or believed,” Baldwin writes.

He’d never dreamed of a mingling of the races; had never lived that way himself and didn’t suppose that he ever would; in the same way, he added, perhaps a trifle defensively, that he only associated with a certain stratum of white people. But, “I’ve never seen a colored person toward whom I had any hatred or ill-will.”

Rather than simply write this man off as a hopeless racist, Baldwin sees him as ‘gentle and honorable’, and attempts to understand him.

But I could not avoid wondering if he had ever really looked at a Negro and wondered about the life, the aspirations, the universal humanity hidden behind the dark skin.

This is what makes James Baldwin such essential reading, especially to entitled, white, straight guys like I am. jamesbaldwin1For the opportunity to settle into the skin of someone who is none of that, and see the world through their eyes, a perspective almost entirely at odds with ours, and a world in need of fundamental change rather than simply a cosmetic, Benetton make-over. While Baldwin talks about a ‘universal humanity’, it is not one based exclusively on western European/Anglo-American ideals and aspirations.

Not that I’m suggesting Baldwin is some required, dry academic reading. As expressed in a previous book club entry, I remain firm in my belief James Baldwin is truly a magnificent writer, perhaps one of the best I have ever read. He can stop you dead with both his ideas and his style. Rarely do a couple pages go by where you don’t pause to re-read a sentence or a passage, marvelling at the place he brought you to and how he brought you to it.

In Nobody Knows My Name, Baldwin not only travels and explores the American south for the first time but he attends the Negro-African Writers and Artists conference (Princes and Powers) where he dissects the notion of some monolithic black identity, exploring the differences between Africans, north and south American blacks, American blacks living abroad. He writes of his encounters with other famous artists, Norman Mailer, Ingmar Bergman. Baldwin eviscerates William Faulkner’s ‘middle of the road’ attitude to southern desegregation and his plea to give southern whites, Faulkner’s people, time to adjust to the new reality.  jamesbaldwin“But the time Faulkner asks for does not exist – and he is not the only Southerner who knows it.”

Perhaps the most moving part of the book comes in the 3 essays Baldwin writes in the wake of the death of another self-exiled black writer, Richard Wright (Alas, Poor Richard, i, ii and iii). A decade and a half younger, Baldwin saw Wright as a mentor, the two having met in New York just as Baldwin set about on his writing career with Wright already well established. Theirs was a fractious relationship, splitting regularly along political lines and that of the role of the artist in society and as part of a ‘cause’. Baldwin is ruthless in his examination of the dynamic between the two men, unafraid to tear to shreds his own inability to overcome the obstacles both threw in the way between them. What becomes crystal clear is the burden a writer (or artist) of colour (or any other differentiation from the established white male heterodoxy) bears to represent their community, their ‘people’. Another privilege, us straight white guys operate freely of.

50+ years after the publication of Nobody Knows My Name, and nearly 30 years after Baldwin’s death, with another black man found, hanging in a tree in Mississippi – the possible appalling cause of death still hanging there with him – it’s difficult to share his belief that such a shameful, repugnant history can somehow be reconciled and overcome. Yet, contemplating an alternative is even less attractive. We should, however, attend to Baldwin’s view of how we must go about hopefully approaching such a reconciliation.

This illusion owes everything to the great American illusion that our state is a state to be envied by other people: we are powerful, and we are rich. But our power makes us uncomfortable and we handle it very ineptly. The principal effect of our material well-being has been to set the children’s teeth on edge. If we ourselves were not so fond of this illusion, we might understand ourselves and other peoples better than we do, and be enabled to help them understand us. I am very tempted to believe that this illusion is all that is left of the great dream that was to have become America; whether this is so or not, this illusion certainly prevents us from making America what we say we want it to be.

jamesbaldwinstamp

bookishly submitted by Cityslikr


Book Club VIII

March 15, 2015

What does it say about us that we’re operating under a political-economic framework that doesn’t work, at least, not for the overwhelming majority of us? isthisthingworkingMoreover, what does it say that we know categorically that that political-economic framework isn’t at all sound, that it’s based on ideology rather than evidence, and what evidence is provided can be (and has been) thoroughly debunked? We know there is a better route to take, one that does have a proven track record of success but one that runs counter to the prevailing narrative of the past 30 years, an approach challenging an established orthodoxy that’s pretty much faith-based, a faith based on little more than class and status.

These are thoughts I thought while reading Mark Blyth’s Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea. It’s a short book, considering the subject matter it covers, from the intellectual roots of economic austerity theory through to its current application post-2008 financial crisis. Spoiler alert! Blyth quite emphatically declares austerity does not work.

Austerity is more of a philosophical outlook than it is a working economic model. At its heart lies a distrust and dislike of the state. austerityGovernment, from an austerity point of view, serves only as an impediment, all red tape and interventionist bullying. Every dollar in public spending or investment translates into one less dollar in private sector spending or investment. Stated as if that is inherently a bad thing, based purely on an anti-statist philosophy, and one made, as with much of austerity economic thinking, without much evidence to back its case up.

Blyth traces modern austerity’s dim view of government back to the origins of liberal thought, the late 17th/early 18th-century and John Locke. That state, such as it was then, was represented by an authoritarian monarchy, subject to no rules but its own. Representative government was in its infancy. Locke foresaw a liberal, market-oriented society, free from the regular financial assaults on the state’s treasury by an anointed single family of misrule. Locke, and later others like David Hume and Adam Smith (the father of the free market’s Invisible Hand) wrote as champions of what grew to be the middle-class of merchants, bankers and small enterprise.

As unnecessary as it might seem to write that much has changed in the 300+ years since, to austerity proponents, evidently, it hasn’t.

Not This John Locke

Not This John Locke

In order for their economic case to be taken seriously, austerians must work to convince us that our representative form of government is as self-serving, antagonistic to free enterprise and willfully whimsical to the needs of its subjects citizens as any form of dynastic royalty. Unfortunately, they’ve succeeded in doing just that.

Forget for a moment such success at the wider, international level and simply look at our local politics currently. Toronto elects a new mayor in John Tory who almost immediately goes to work vilifying city staff, proclaiming that he’s confident, despite evidence to the contrary, there remains plenty of fat to trim. The solution to the city’s revenue problems lies in cutting its public sector spending.

Austerity in a nutshell.

Perhaps the more disturbing aspect of the success of austerity is that the economic underpinnings are highly suspect and when it has been trotted out by accommodating governments, as we’re watching right now in Europe, it hasn’t worked. In fact, it’s made the problems it sets out to solve even worse. fellforit1Government debt levels increase rather than drop. Ditto unemployment. Austerity exacerbates the economic upheaval and insists the only way to fix that is to implement more austerity.

Even here in North America, where pro-austerity governments reacted to the 2008 economic meltdown in a very non-austerity, very pro-Keynesian way via stimulus spending, at the first sign of, if not recovery, an easing of further cratering, the reins were quickly tightened and austerity pursued. All eyes turned to the public sector debt and we were told to quiver. This will dampen investor and consumer ‘expectations’ for an economic turnaround.

In an influential 2010 paper, Growth in a Time of Debt, economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff suggested that once a government’s debt exceeds a point of 90% of a country’s GDP, it kills economic growth. This was all many governments and economic bodies needed to hear as they set out to slash debt. tightenyourbeltAusterity, in other words.

Turns out Reinhart and Rogoff’s numbers might’ve been a little off, an Excel spreadsheet error. Disturbing in and of itself but hardly the first time austerity advocates have pursued their agenda using faulty assumptions. Blyth goes into detail of the ‘expansionary austerity’ movement stemming from Milan’s Bocconi University and especially the work of two economists, Francesco Giavazzi and Marco Pagano. In essence, their theory goes, by cutting spending (and theoretically, its debt), governments signal two things: tough times ahead and decreased competition for the private sector for investment dollars from the public sector.

Both rely on the very imprecise notion of expectations and a predictable, rational response to them. Turns out, according to Blyth, reactions vary and, almost entirely in a way the theory doesn’t predict. richierichCertainly here in Canada, consumers haven’t responded to the federal government’s austerity measures by spending less while the private sector remains on the sidelines, sitting on ‘dead money’. Canadians pile up personal debt, propping up a shaky economy that shows little more than anemic growth, and the bigger players look on idly, waiting for an economic idea with no history of working anywhere to work this time.

So how to explain such obstinacy? I’ll let Mark Blyth answer that:

When government services are cut because of “profligate spending,” it will absolutely not be people at the top end of the income distribution who will be expected to tighten their belts. Rather, it will be those who lie in the bottom 40 percent of the income distribution who haven’t had a real wage increase since 1979. These are the folks who actually rely upon government services and who have taken on a huge amount of debt (relative to their incomes) that will be “fiscally consolidated.” This is why austerity is first and foremost a political problem of distribution, and not an economic problem of accountancy.

Wrap it up in as glitzy a package as you want, sell it as the only viable alternative to improving our economy, backed up with proof of concept from various “schools” — Austria to Chicago to Bocconi – but at its very tiny, cold, cold heart, austerity is nothing more than the weapon of choice in the class war that’s been waged for over 30 years now. A lopsided affair that the rich, by getting richer and richer, are winning handily. It’s a situation, if history can provide any sort of guidance on the matter, that never turns out well for anyone.

austerely submitted by Cityslikr


Book Club VII

March 6, 2015

You really have to read between the lines of Richard Harris’ Unplanned Suburbs to understand exactly what he’s getting at with the book’s subtitle, Toronto’s American Tragedy 1900-1950. How exactly ‘American’? American as in, North American versus European, rugged individualism versus a collective sensibility? unplannedsuburbsOr American as in, the postwar sprawling, autocentric land devouring suburbs that haunt us to this day?

In fact, ‘tragedy’ seems a bit of an overstatement unless I’m missing something, and I could be missing something since this book may be one of the more wonkish I’ve sat down with in some time. Unlike the scattered and ad hoc development of the early suburban push of Toronto it describes, Unplanned Suburbs is painfully detailed in its methodology and analysis. Harris wants no one doubting how he arrived at the conclusions he arrives at. The dude shows his work.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just, like an Atom Egoyan film, the story Richard Harris endeavours to tell gets obscured by the author’s attempt to show you how he put that story together. The people in it are rendered as little more than statistics, data points.

A bit unfair, perhaps. After all, I shouldn’t pick up an academic book and demand some ripping historical yarn. Harris does have to go through century old land value assessments to help piece his tale together. Unplanned Suburbs wasn’t intended as a page turner.

It does, however, provide enough interesting information about a specific period of time in this city’s past for a non-native Torontonian like myself to be a worthwhile earlscourt(if dry) read. At the turn of the 20th-century Toronto was experiencing one of its boom periods. The population, if not exploding, grew mightily. Places like ‘Forest Hill’, ‘Leaside’, ‘Swansea’ and ‘Mimico’ sat outside the city borders. Etobicoke, York, Scarborough were townships.

In what is something of a familiar story to modern readers in Toronto, land in the city was at a premium. Even then, the idea of buying a house was something of a pipe dream for many families. Rents were high and the city in its Victorian xenophobic prudery frowned on living arrangements like boarders and rooming houses. (Hello, Councillor Karygiannis!)

So intrepid newcomers, many at the time from the British Isles, headed north-northwest, to exotic locals with names like ‘Earlscourt’ and ‘Weston’, outside of Toronto’s boundary, to establish a homestead for themselves. outskirtsoftoWhile some were following factories and industry that had set up shop in those areas, others simply wanted their own stake in the city, an opportunity very few had in their countries of origin or even in the established city of Toronto.

For most, this meant spending whatever money they had to buy a plot of land, build a makeshift dwelling and then add to it when there was extra money to spend and time to do it themselves. Being beyond the official lines of Toronto, there were little to no regulations about how and what to build. There were no services to speak of. People sludged to wells for water. They walked to school and work.

This was true urban pioneering.

What made the situation in Toronto fairly unique for a largish city at the time was this unregulated growth at the outer fringes. Having found itself uncomfortably (at least for its parsimonious British blood) indebted due to previous annexations of underserviced municipalities, by 1913 the city refused any further moves in that direction. unplannedsuburbs1So ‘owner-builders’, as Harris calls them, were largely left to their own devices for two or three decades. York Township was in no shape to finance any infrastructure development. These homeowners couldn’t afford the taxation necessary for such an undertaking.

In addition to which, Toronto’s public transit situation inhibited a concentrated effort at wider spread, organized development. Up until 1921, there was a private transit monopoly that, despite city efforts to force it to expand past the city’s 1891 boundaries when the agreement was signed, refused to budge. Nor was there, like in various municipalities in the U.S., any risk-taking real estate types willing to build transit to largely unoccupied areas of the region in order to spur development. (A loss-leader, I believe it’s called.)

So, for a while it was a bit like the wild west in early suburban Toronto. januarythawThe opportunity for home ownership was open to anyone with a few bucks to spare and the sweat equity to get ‘er done. Basic ingredients to the (North) American Dream narrative.

Perhaps that’s the easiest explanation for the ‘tragedy’ in the book’s subtitle. Like many aspirational myths, the reality didn’t always measure up. What opportunity there actually was didn’t last that long. While some succeeded in building permanent homes, some serving as the foundations for neighbourhoods that are still with us, more failed to make any sort of lasting impression. Families trying to get by on a shoestring were vulnerable to even the slightest breeze of economic uncertainty, and there were a few of those in the early part of the 20th-century. A nasty recession in 1907. World War I and the ensuing downturn afterwards. The Depression.

As pressure to introduce service upgrades like water and sewage increased to these communities on the fringes increased, so did tax rates. silverthornThis too could and send a family packing elsewhere. The homes many had built weren’t valued at the levels they were being later assessed at.

When ‘planned’ suburban development did come in the wake of World War II, it was not directed toward the lower income brackets. Where Silverthorn Park had been designed for the workingman in mind, modest homes near local factories, back in 1912, post-World War II development had different demographics in its sights. 2000 square foot houses costing in the neighbourhood of $5000 were intended for the middle-class, pricing lower income families out.

This created a fairly unique trend, as Mr. Harris sees it, in the theory of housing in these early unplanned suburbs of Toronto. unplannedsuburbs2The standard idea is that housing filters down, as families prosper and grow out of their homes, they move on to green, bigger pastures. In this case, housing filtered up. Economic necessity had compelled the economically marginalized to, well, the margins of the city and they forged space and established communities that would later be populated by a more monied class, looking to escape the city.

Early gentrification, you might call it, the reverse of what we’re witnessing now, the inner city attracting wealth back to it.

Unplanned Suburbs is not a breezy read. It falls somewhere in between a slice of history and a textbook. But it does put some faces to places in Toronto that, even today, can go largely unnoticed by everyone except those living there.

– bookishly submitted by Cityslikr


Transit Treachery

March 4, 2015

Our list of municipally elected transit villains is well known. Why, just in the past 4+ years alone, names fly off the top of your head. villainRob Ford, Karen Stintz, Glenn De Baeremaeker, and all the subway lovers who enabled them. We elected them. We re-elected them. They are our responsibility, our bad.

Yet, I am going to make a bold, perhaps controversial assertion here.

They are but bit players in this sad, sad drama we call transit planning here in Toronto. Supporting actors in our mad tragi-farce, farcedy. Wilfully self-unaware fall guys, the lot of them. Patsies. Patsies, not pasties. Mmmmmmm… pasties.

The real culprits here, the progenitors of this city’s — the region’s — diseased public transit, Ian McShane’s Teddy Bass to Ben Kingsley’s Don Logan, is undoubtedly the provincial government. Ultimately, Queen’s Park pulls all the strings, fiscally, jurisdictionally. Theirs is the final yea or no although they would demur, preferring to project an image of sage partnership with its municipalities. Who us? We’re just sitting here minding our business, happily signing the cheques. Are you sure you don’t want a subway with that?

Follow the timeline with me on our current misadventure.benkingsley

In 2007, the city and province announced a grand plan, Transit City, as a step in the right direction to dealing with Toronto’s increasingly problematic congestion. We often forget that the project was more than just new LRT lines, 7 of those in total, running some 120 kilometres. New bus rapid transit routes were also in the mix along with increases to existing services. Looking at the original Transit City map, what is immediately apparent is the plan’s scope of bringing better transit into the long under-served inner suburban areas of the city.

Back then, the provincial government was picking up the tab for Transit City as part of their bigger regional transit vision, MoveOntario 2020. Unfortunately, the economic crisis and meltdown got in the way and, more attentive to politics than good governance, it scaled back Transit City to just 4 LRT lines. villain7Argue as we might about if the move made any economic sense but what we can say with a fair degree of certainty is that this change of plans instilled in Transit City a sense impermanence, assailability. Just more lines drawn on a map.

December 10th, 2010. Newly elected mayor, Rob Ford, unilaterally declares Transit City dead. That noise you heard coming from Queen’s Park? **Crickets**

Again, we can debate in hindsight whether or not city council should’ve stepped in and demanded the mayor bring the matter to a vote. Ford was as popular as he would ever be at this point. Had city council pushed, he may well have received the go-ahead to rip up the master agreement with Metrolinx and officially bury Transit City. Whether through wisdom or pure shocked inertia, city council stood pat, allowing the mayor enough time and rope to leave himself dangling.

The inaction on Queen’s Park in defense of Transit City is equally opaque and open to question. Remember though, they are the big bosses, the final arbiters, the holders of transit plans in their hands. They could’ve stepped in and stopped the insanity in its tracks. That power was theirs.villain1

Instead, they blinked. Deeply unpopular in the polls and facing almost certain defeat in the general election to be held the following year and not looking to have to face down the self-proclaimed Ford Nation flank in Toronto, the Liberal government shrugged and told the mayor and city council, Whatever you want to do. (It probably also didn’t hurt that any delays to the transit plan formerly known as Transit City would save the deeply indebted Liberals from immediately having to spend any money.)

Unsurprisingly, Rob Ford stumbled and fell flat on his face. City council seized control of the transit file from him. With only a 2 year delay to show for it, some semblance of order seemed to be on the horizon. Of course, it wasn’t. City council, led by a TTC commissioner eyeing the mayor’s office in a couple years, began dialogue on another transit plan, mostly pie-in-the-sky, unfunded schemes called One City. More lines on a map including – what the hell was that? – another Scarborough subway, this one a replacement for the proposed Transit City LRT extension of the Bloor-Danforth line.

It bears repeating at this point that, once more, the Liberal government could’ve put their foot down and put an end to the discussion. villain3They have the power to do that, rule by fiat pretty much. That is the nature of our municipal-provincial relationship. They didn’t, thereby perpetuating the farcical shitshow.

They’d been reduced to a minority status and their grip on power was tenuous. No false moves that might embolden the opposition to trigger an election. So just more of the, Whatevs.

But this is where the provincial government’s motives get really, really murky. During a by-election in Scarborough-Guildwood, the Liberals dubbed their candidate, Mitzi Hunter, the ‘subway champion’. Sorry, what?! Increasingly, Scarborough MPPs (many of whom were former Toronto city councillors) went public with their preference for extending the Bloor-Danforth line with a subway rather than LRT. Everybody now had picked up the Rob Ford chant of Subways! Subways! Subways! Scarborough deserves a subway!

It’s like the boss, when you ask if you can cut out early to take your kid to soccer practice, tells you ‘no’ while winking and nodding his head ‘yes’. villain2No. *wink, wink, wink, wink* Quitting time is 5pm. *wink, wink, wink, wink* You cannot take your kid to soccer practice. *Nodding ‘yes’*

So it went. City council took the bait, cancelled plans for the fully funded by the province Scarborough LRT, taking upon itself all the risks and liabilities of building a subway instead, beginning with about $75 million it was on the hook for for cancelling the LRT plan, the plan the province covertly encouraged them to cancel. The Liberals scored a majority government last June and then pretty openly expressed its preference for who Toronto should elect as its next mayor, John Tory, a candidate with transit plans of his own, SmartTrack which, just so coincidentally, meshed nicely with the province’s own regional rail plans, and a candidate with no plans to reopen the Scarborough subway debate if elected.villain4

Why do I feel the need to revisit this recent, sordid history now?

On Monday at the Executive Committee’s budget meeting, buried oddly near the bottom of the 2015 Water and Waste Water Rate Supported Budget, a budget that doesn’t usually get the same spotlight its operating and capital budget brethren receive, a report surfaced revealing that the city and Metrolinx (the provincial transit body) had been negotiating a $95 million bill Toronto was expected to pay for infrastructure upgrades that were happening along the Union-Pearson-Georgetown rail link. Hey! You want out-of-town visitors and commuters moving smoothly around your city? Pay up. That shit don’t come for free.

So, a city struggling to balance its operating budget (which it is provincially mandated to do) and with limited access to revenue to do that (and an even more limited propensity to access the tools it does have, admittedly) villain5is being told to come up with nearly $100 million to help pay for infrastructure improvements that will ultimately more directly benefit another level of government with increased taxation through economic growth. Oh, and the cost overruns on the main terminal of that rail link? You’re on your own, Toronto.

It is clearly evident that this city is more than capable of fucking itself. What’s becoming less apparent is why we have to continue putting up with a second fucking from a senior level of government more concerned about its own well-being than the municipalities it is purportedly looking out for. As my good friend MookieG77 said on the Twitter yesterday, this is just another form of provincial downloading onto cities.

While the idea of pushing for provincial status for the GTA remains quixotically out on the fringes of political discourse, it’s just not seeming that crazy an idea currently. For 20 years now, Queen’s Park has not acted much like a partner, albeit a senior partner in its relationship with Toronto. The dynamic is more like an occupier. villain6Happy to take our money but less interested in providing sound oversight or reasonable leadership unless it provides some tangible gain for them in return.

If we’re going to go down in some sort of ignominious flame out, let it at least be one of our own making and not imposed by a government who views us as little more than a liability, a vote rich and money laden liability.

rebelliously submitted by Cityslikr


Book Club VI

February 16, 2015

It’d be easy to write Harry Smith off as a novelty. He’s the 91 year-old fresh-faced author of Harry’s Last Stand and internet phenom, ‘This year, I will wear a poppy for the last time’. harrysmithAhhhh. Isn’t that cute. Great grandpa knows how to use a computer!

Certainly, Smith’s style, how he strings his story together, would hardly disabuse you of viewing him as a novice. His prose is no nonsense, straight forward if at times meandering. A reader reads often of how Smith sees himself and his life, all things considered, as a lucky man, in constant awe of how he’s lived so long, survived what he survived.

There’s almost something childlike about him and his take on the world he’s lived in. He possesses a seemingly bottomless faith in the goodness of people, a belief in their ability to turn even the most hopeless of situations around. Sure things look bleak but Harry’ll tell you they’ve been bleaker. The answers to our problems are as plain as the noses on our faces. All we need is a little resolve and a big dose of collective action.

It’s startling to read something so lacking in guile and free of cynical spin. Harry’s got an agenda, no question about it. But he wears it right out there on his sleeve. This is how it was. This is how it is. This is how to fix it.

His answers to the problems that plague us – essentially Harry’s angry at the unravelling of the welfare state – are not new or particularly ground breaking. margaretthatcherHow do you simply reverse a generation of anti-government sentiment and private sector veneration? The collective will has taken an awful beating since Margaret Thatcher (one of Smith’s bete noires) declared society as not a thing. Taxation isn’t a means to an end these days. It’s just mean.

The golden days of the post-war welfare state come across as a little too golden in Smith’s telling. He glosses over the period in the 70s when it hit a serious snag. The oil crisis, stagflation, perceived union militancy, everything that paved the way for the neoconservative coming of Ronald Reagan and Maggie Thatcher.

In one telling scene, Harry recounts meeting up with some old mates during the long hot summer of 1977 to have a few drinks and watch a football match. He keeps quiet during a heated political conversation of the state of affairs. Afterward, a friend asks why.

I was just thinking that things are bad today, but not for me. Not like how it was in the past. I’m worried about how everything is changing and getting mucked up. But I feel lucky. I can pay my mortgage, I can pay for our groceries. I can even take holidays with my wife. Besides, my lads are healthy and my oldest is at uni – that’s more than we could have ever hoped for. And I know it is a bit of a worry for you, but your house is paid for and retirement is nearby. Your daughter’s done her schooling and now has a right good job. It weren’t like before, because we have better housing, the NHS and real universities that the working class can attend and make something of themselves in.

“It weren’t like before…”

Yes, things were bad in 1977 for a lot of people but nowhere near as bad for the likes of Harry Smith who’d lived through the worst of the Great Depression, gone off to fight in World War II, witnessed first-hand the destruction it wrought. texaschainsawmassacreHe was a middle-aged man in 1977. He’d fought his fight. How much more was expected from him?

Besides, who could imagine such a full frontal assault on everything good that had been built from the ashes of the war? Housing. Health care. Affordable education. A genuine sense of equality of opportunity and meritocracy.

That’s the world nearly 40 years on that Harry Smith sees. A regression to the meanness of the age he was born into. The long, slow surrender of liberalism, to paraphrase the title of a March 2014 Harper’s I just happened to read after finishing Harry’s Last Stand. (Faithful readers will know of my own long, slow slog with a handful of magazine subscriptions that keeps me roughly a year behind current issues.)

The left has no particular place it wants to go. And, to rehash an old quip, if you have no destination, any direction can seem as good as any other…It lacks focus and stability; its metier is bearing witness, demonstrating solidarity, and the event or the gesture. Its reflex is to “send messages” to those in power, to make statements, and to stand with or for the oppressed.

This dilettantish politics is partly the heritage of a generation of defeat and marginalization, of decades without any possibility of challenging power or influencing policy. So the left operates with no learning curve and is therefore always vulnerable to new enthusiasm. It long ago lost the ability to move forward under its own steam…

As political scientist professor Adolph Reed Jr. sees it, Harry Smith isn’t wrong or off the mark in his ideas of what’s happened. nothingleftThe left got thumped in a couple of elections, and rather than stand up, dust itself off and wade back into the fray, it caved, adopting the harsh, 19th-century narrative of the right, attempting to merely soften the sharp edges of the ascendant ideology. Big government and welfare became dirty words. Greed was good. A rising economic tide did raise all boats.

Blah, blah, blah, and despite all evidence to the contrary.

Reed Jr. is more critical and damning of both the Clinton and Obama administrations than any of the Fox News inpired crazies on the right. They both continued the Republican led attacks on the public sector, expanded the war-mongering international forays and assault on civil and human rights, loosened the restraints on the out-of-control financial industrial complex. “It’s difficult to imagine that a Republican administration could have been much more successful in advancing Reaganism’s agenda [than Clinton did]”, Reed Jr. writes. “We’re Eisenhower Republicans here,” Clinton declared. “We stand for lower deficits, free trade and the bond market. Isn’t that great!”fellforit

Liberal acquiescence to the neoconservative war on liberalism was not just some American exceptionalism. Think Tony Blair’s Labour triangulation in the U.K. and his ultimate cuddling up to George W. in their post-9/11 Iraq fiasco. Here in Canada, the left’s reshaping of itself as just a softer, gentler manager of the triumphant neoliberal project, concerned with pocket book issues rather than grander collective ideals. Electability, we are told, depends on a public declaration that there are limits on what government can do for us.

For 35 years now, all the ‘vaporous progressive politics’ can claim is how awful it would be if conservatives were still in charge/came back to power. There’s nothing about how much better things could be. Just, how much worse they would be. You think you’ve got it tough now? fellforit1Yeah well, this is as good as it gets in this system we’ve heartily endorsed in order to remain politically relevant.

Both Harry Smith and Adolph Reed Jr. agree on the damage done but disagree, not on the causes, but on the culprits. If we just pull together like we did back in the day, Smith essentially says, we can beat back this neoconservative scourge. Reed Jr., on the other hand, senses a more difficult path forward. “The crucial tasks for a committed left…now are to admit that no politically effective force exists and to begin trying to create one.”

There’s no ‘we’ to currently pull together, Reed Jr. believes, at least not in any official, political capacity. That may be the most successful aspect of modern conservatism, this obliteration of any sense of ‘we’, replacing it with just the individualistic ‘you’ and ‘me’. hollowmenAll the king’s horses and all the king’s men…

Certainly, as a society, more adverse conditions have been overcome. Harry Smith can attest to that. The will to do it has to be there, though, and Adolph Reed Jr. doesn’t see much evidence of that in the traditional places we used to look for it. That absence will make for a tougher battle to win.

bookishly submitted by Cityslikr


Book Club V

January 30, 2015

For John Barber & Jamie Bradburn

Unless it’s Miss Shirley Bassey and the Propellerheads block-rockingly telling me, I’m not one to embrace the history repeats itself trope. It gives too much agency over to this beyond our control notion of fate, of the march of time blindly spinning its wheels, oblivious to any sense of direction from us. revengeofthemethodistbicyclecompanyWe’re absolved of responsibility. Hey. Authoritarianism is on the rise again. Oh well. It’s just history repeatin’!

I’d argue that any sense of déjà vu we may experience in terms of current affairs is the result of our obstinate inability to learn from the past, from the mistakes we made, grievances we hold, just all `round stupid-head pettiness we cannot, will not let go of. We make history. If we keep doing what we’ve been doing, yeah, history does seem like it might be repeating itself.

So you wanna talk endless Scarborough subway debates? Let me tell you about the late-19th-century struggle to run streetcars on Sundays in Toronto. We do have a way here of turning public transit decisions into pitched, prolonged battles.

The Revenge of the Methodist Bicycle Company by Christopher Armstrong and H.V. Nelles tells the story of the almost decade long back-and-forth it took to bring streetcar service into operation on the Lord’s Day. There are very few good guys in the book. Corruption runs rampant. Vested business interests infect almost every level of public life. Religious fervor masks class divisions. Toronto the Good? Maybe not. Toronto the good yarn?

Huh? Huh?

Horse-drawn trolley/streetcars started up along Toronto streets in 1861. A 30 year franchise to run the service was granted to a private consortium, Toronto Street Railway Company. horsedrawntrolleyAs will surprise very few people these days, the relationship between the company and the local government wasn’t always smooth. There were constant disputes over who was obligated to do what (maintain the street tracks, for one) and who was owed what as a slice of the farebox. Your basic P3 dynamics.

Sunday streetcar service was one item rarely put on the table for discussion. It was a no-go from the outset. A deal breaker.

The grip of religion on the city as portrayed in the book was a revelation to me. The City of Churches, Toronto was sometimes dubbed. I vaguely remember the Sunday shopping brouhaha, back when I first moved to the city in the mid-80s. Sunday blue laws were deep and long abiding.

Religion also delineated much of the class structure of the city at the time. Protestantism was where the power lie, with well over 75% of the population swinging in that direction. torontorailwaycompanyticket1As Armstrong and Nelles point out in the book’s postscript, the fight over Sunday streetcar service was really about maintaining control of the city levers of power as much as it was keeping the Sabbath holy.

The fight too served to shine a light on just how corrupt politics in the city was at the time. How corrupt? Giorgio Mammoliti, by a few fold. Almost anyone and everyone, involved in this story, had a price and could be bought. Even among the proclaimed faithful money changed hands to sway decisions and elections. Christian values remained in the church, to be unsullied by everyday affairs. Unto Caesar and all that.

How corrupt are we talking?

In the 3rd and final vote on the Sunday streetcar issue (the one finally won by the pro side), there were allegations some men – pluggers, they were called, professional voters – cast as many as 25 ballots. Newspapers were paid to run favourable coverage. torontowards1890You might even call them advertorials. Somewhere in the neighbourhood of $11,000 was paid by the Toronto Street Railway Company to the various city newspapers to win that last vote.

Corruption hung so heavily around the workings of local politicians that, in 1891 when the company’s streetcar franchise lease was ending, any notion of making public transit a publicly run system was largely dismissed out of hand. Let the politicians make their fortunes from it? Leave that to private enterprise.

The devious doings surrounding the awarding of the new streetcar franchise told in all the gory detail in The Revenge of the Methodist Bicycle Company led to the McDougall Investigation and the beginnings of a reform movement in the structure of Toronto’s governance. But not before another class struggle between those wanting fewer, ‘right thinking’ men appointed to an executive style board of control whose decisions could only be overturned by a 2/3s majority of city council and those looking to further expand democracy beyond the current restrictive bounds. horsedrawntrolley1An agreement was reached with a board of control appointed by council from amongst their elected ranks. The hope was to take the big decisions, especially those ones involving big infrastructure projects, out of the clutches of pure ward based horse-trading.

Sound familiar?

There was also the hope that civic reform might result in more fresh blood being elected to council. Again, modern readers will recognize such a thing is easier said than done. The first mayor and 3 man board of control established after the change were all very familiar faces on the scene.

Other feelings of things never changing crop up throughout the book. Penny-pinching Presbyterians certainly rings familiar right now during yet another budget debate over how to do things without spending any money. Although, back then, residents were rightly concerned about being fleeced by their politicians. Today we’re just more miserly minded, I think.

Privilege and private interests imposing itself on the public will also remain constant over the past 125 years or so. Then it was about the streetcars. Today, look to the island airport expansion clash. torontorailwaycompanyticketWealth and control hovering around the city business is timeless, I guess.

Late Victorian Toronto also comes across in the book as unrecognizable to those of us living here now. Never mind the coming of electricity or the receding of religious rule. The city was abuzz with political engagement. Elections were held annually with short campaigns run over the Christmas holidays. Rallies were well-attended. One during the 3rd plebiscite on Sunday streetcar service had 5400 people show up. On election nights, crowds gathered outside newspaper offices to wait for the results.

Yes, only a small segment of the population officially “counted”. It was during this time that the right to vote was extended beyond merely property owning men to, well, men. Still, politics didn’t come across as a chore like it sometimes feels today. It seemed to be woven into the fabric of daily, civic life.

Or seen another way, maybe this was just an early display of Torontonians rallying around something they didn’t want. electrictrolleyNo to Sunday streetcars! No to Spadina Expressway! No to a bridge to the island airport! No to good governance (2010 edition). Toronto, a town, a city in spite of itself.

The Revenge of the Methodist Bicycle Company is a quick, interesting read through a tumultuous time in the city’s history, as the pressures of industrialization and urbanization come down to bear on this otherwise sleepy, God-fearing borough. It does suffer from some repetition of election campaigns that didn’t really change all that much. And while it’s quaint to read about an era where satire and pointed political commentary came in the form of poetry, dreadfully bad poetry, there may be too many examples of it in the book.

It does leave one lingering question though. Has Toronto grown beyond the expectations English writer Rupert Brooke had of it when he travelled here a decade and a half after streetcars began running on Sundays? “It [Toronto] is all right,” the first chapter of the book opens with.  “The only depressing thing is that it will always be what it is, only larger…” Prophetic? It all depends on what day you ask.

historically submitted by Cityslikr


Book Club IV

January 17, 2015

Entering this world at the very, very tail end of the baby boom, I’ve constantly felt that I just missed out on something special. whatdidimissThe party ended moments before I got there, pot still stinking up the room, a little cold beer remained at the bottom of the keg. Embers glowing in the campfire outside.

Subsequent generations, the Ys and the Millenials, well, it might as well have been Mount Vesuvius. Ancient history, told by their smug and self-satisfied elders. Man, you just had to be there. Yeah, yeah. Thanks, gramps.

I was this close. So my life is haunted by The Wave passage in Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Strange memories on this nervous night in Las Vegas. Five years later? Six? It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era — the kind of peak that never comes again. San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run…but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant…

History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time — and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.

My central memory of that time seems to hang on one or five or maybe forty nights — or very early mornings — when I left the Fillmore half-crazy and, instead of going home, aimed the big 650 Lightning across the Bay Bridge at a hundred miles an hour wearing L. L. Bean shorts and a Butte sheepherder’s jacket …booming through the Treasure Island tunnel at the lights of Oakland and Berkeley and Richmond, not quite sure which turn-off to take when I got to the other end (always stalling at the toll-gate, too twisted to find neutral while I fumbled for change)…but being absolutely certain that no matter which way I went I would come to a place where people were just as high and wild as I was: No doubt at all about that…

There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda…You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning…

And that, I think, was the handle — that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave…

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

What was it like to be to be part of a moment that seemed like everything could change, could change for the better? To be in the grips of a truly revolutionary era. To believe whole-heartedly in “…a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning…”? Instead of this slow playing out of counter-insurgency, fearandloathingthe golden age of reactionism, a half-century roll back?

Why did the ‘high and beautiful wave’ of upheaval break and how come it did before I could get me some of it?

I think the only way to answer that is to settle the still lively debate over who was better, the Beatles or the Stones?

(Wow. That was a long set-up for something of a limp punchline.)

Yes, John McMillian’s Beatles vs. Stones was my holiday, kick back and don’t think much read. And I will tell you that while I was reading it, the unfulfilled promise of the 60s did feature prominently in my thinking. These two bands probably best reflected the mainstream zeitgeist of the era. What was interesting is that both of their images they projected were largely manufactured. beatlesvsstonesThe Beatles were the scrappy, working class bunch the Rolling Stones would morph themselves into. While certainly not the squeaky clean lads the Beatles portrayed, most of the original Stones, save perhaps Keith Richards, were largely middle-class.

That’s not to say the music was inauthentic or any less vital. It’s just got me to thinking about the bigger picture.

None of the original members of either band was, by the strictest definition, a baby boomer. Most were all wartime babies, born to parents of the great depression. In England, they grew up during a time of severe rationing.

These were part of a demographic who knew only a sense of the collective, pulling together to defeat the Nazis, to sustain themselves through the depravation of the pre-war depression and post-war rationing. It would be logical to imagine this kind of perspective to continue through their coming of age in the 60s. Together, we can change the world!

Certainly, when it was advantageous to their careers, both bands embraced the youthful call for change. That was the Stones’ trademark, their schtick. “Hey! Think the time is right for a palace revolution.”

But it’s hardly surprising that that’s what most of it was, schtick, a pose. beatlesvsstones2Ultimately, these guys were all about money and fame, fame because it meant more money. And that’s the other side of it. We were looking to people to lead the charge who were really in it for themselves. Finally, prosperity, crazy, crazy prosperity, was within their reach after a lifetime, generations of doing without. Their time was now.

The Beatles and Stones provided the soundtrack to rebellion. They weren’t going to risk being on the losing side if it all went to shit.

By 1968, John Lennon sang about changing minds and heads not constitutions and institutions. The Me Generation of the 70s had begun. Revolution was left to the crackpots.revolver

Martin Luther King dead. Bobby Kennedy dead. Vietnam kicking into gear. Richard Nixon back from the political grave. With the right kind of eyes, you saw the wave break.

And me, puberty still a few years off. Oh come on! You have to be kidding me.

How did we get here?

No, I mean here, on this particular train of thought. The mind does wander so when you get to a certain age.

Oh right.

Beatles vs. Stones is a pleasant enough read, probably revealing nothing new on the topic. It’s one of those books that you wind up feeling was either too long or too short. I could’ve done without a lot of the gossipy aspects of it or put up with it in a more substantial recounting. The sidelining, firing and death of Brian Jones is a defining story of the Stones and it almost gets lost in McMillian’s telling. thebeatlesalbumYou could see it coming, building and then, it’s just happened. Sort of like the book.

As for my preference, the Beatles or the Stones?

Well frankly, the Beatles were finished before I turned 10, the Rolling Stones’ best work done just after that. By the time I hit my musical stride, they both represented my dad’s music. (Actually, not my dad’s music. He discovered the joys of Lennon-McCartney by listening to Percy Faith’s The Beatles Album. But that’s another story.) We didn’t need the Rolling Stones. We had Aerosmith!

Decades later, I conducted my own retrospective and found myself to be more of a Stones guy. I appreciate the Beatles, understand they were the real trailblazers in many aspects of the industry. Without them, I think it’s safe to say, there would be no Rolling Stones. In McMillian’s telling of it, disturbingly so. I own Rubber Soul, Revolver and the White Album but rarely listen to them.exileonmainstreet

The Stones’ 4 album run from 1968-72, Beggars Banquet to Exile on Main Street, is perhaps the greatest successive output of pop music ever. The only rival I can think of off the top of my head is The Clash, eponymous debut to Sandinista. Forget the old guys still out on tour, waxing Jumpin’ Jack Flash nostalgic. Sympathy for the Devil through to Soul Survivor, 47 songs that, to me, stand for an era in all its glory and ultimate disappointment.

A glory I missed out on. The disappointment continues to resonate.

still bitterly submitted by Cityslikr


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