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


Book Club III

January 9, 2015

You want to know the kind of white privilege I live with? Back a few weeks ago, listening to the Sunday Edition interview with Tony Award winning dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones talking about James Baldwin, jamesbaldwinI actually had to Google James Baldwin. I had an inkling. I’d heard of his novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain. But it was pretty much blank after that.

It says as much about the shallowness of my literary knowledge as it does my literary racial bias, I hope. Still. Given the shit that’s going on currently, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Toronto’s ongoing race based debate over police carding, it struck me that now might be a very good time to get to know a little more about James Baldwin.

The Fire Next Time is where I started and, man, what a place to begin. It is a book of sheer fucking beauty. Divided into two essays, My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation and Down At The Cross: Letter From a Region in My Mind, it’s a quick read even allowing for the time you inevitably take to stop to fully appreciate both the content and style of the book.

“God gave Noah the rainbow sign/No more water, the fire next time” the book’s epigraph (h/t Twitter people) states. We were drowned once for our wickedness. Without repentance, eternal fire awaits us now.thefirenexttime

That is, if you’re reading it literally in a Biblical sense. Written in 1963, The Fire Next Time now seems prescient about the burning of cities that commenced the following year, from July to August, in New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia and Chicago. And in 1965. And in 1966. And in 1967. 1968. 1969. 1970…

Of course, you probably didn’t need to be clairvoyant to see the blaze coming. A hundred years of alleged freedom is a long time to wait for justice and equality. When your patience finally runs out, shit will burn. “The most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose,” Baldwin said. And if you’re the easily dispirited type, the last 50+ years since the book’s publication will have done little to convince you much improvement has been made along racial lines.

Ferguson, Missouri, 2014.

The amazing aspect of Baldwin’s writing in The Fire Next Time is how lacking in bitterness it is. Hope runs throughout the book. Angry? You bet. But not self-annihilatingly so.

This to his young nephew:

This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish. Let me spell out precisely what I mean by that, for the heart of the matter is here, and the root of my dispute with my country. You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity. Wherever you have turned, James, in your short time on this earth, you have been told where you could go and what you could do (and how you could do it) and where you could live and whom you could marry. I know your countrymen do not agree with me about this, and I hear them saying, “You exaggerate.” They do not know Harlem, and I do. So do you. Take no one’s word for anything, including mine – but trust your experience. Know whence you came. If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go.

In a paragraph with 13 sentences, the first 12 unrelentingly bleak in their analysis of what it’s like to be black in America, Baldwin turns and detonates the entire construct. That’s how it is. Fuck that.  “And if the word integration means anything,” Baldwin continues to his nephew, “ this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.”jamesbaldwin1

Gut punch writing that somehow doesn’t leave you gasping for breath but simply marveling at the optimism, the courage, the empathy and understanding. All wrapped up in a conversational style that makes you wish your life was filled every moment of every day with such talk. That I’m just discovering this now is nothing more than an embarrassment. A happy embarrassment, for sure, an embarrassment nonetheless.

Given the events of the past couple days with the shootings in Paris and the international reaction to it, I was immediately reminded of the bit in the book’s 2nd essay, Down At The Cross where Baldwin is summoned to meet Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam. While the two men agreed on the 2nd-class status of blacks in the U.S.A., they clearly differed on approaches to changing that. Baldwin’s account of their meeting and then his dissection of the impracticality and undesirability of self-imposed segregation was firm but generous, decisive without ever stooping to dismissiveness. Not to mention, glorious. Have I said recently how much I liked this book?

I wonder if we, those of us suffering under the burden of white privilege, possessed even a fraction of Baldwin’s ability at self-criticism jamesbaldwin5– and by that I mean, criticizing the group of which we are part of – Baldwin and Elijah Muhammad weren’t both just black, they were, to use the parlance of the day, uppity blacks who didn’t know their place, yet they couldn’t have possessed more divergent ideas about how to battle that – if we were nearly as brave or bold in our willingness to dismantle the beliefs and societal constructs some of us maintain, things might be a whole lot more peaceful and pleasant around the world. But, of course, we don’t have to, do we. We’re the ones who’ve set the table.

I could go on and on (like that last paragraph) but I’ll spare you. Except to say that, if you haven’t already, it’s never too late to discover James Baldwin. Need more proof? I’ll leave you with the passage that left me in tears.

This past, the Negro’s past, of rope, fire, torture, castration, infanticide, rape; death and humiliation; fear by day and night, fear as deep as the marrow of the bone; doubt that he was worthy of life, since everyone around him denied it; sorrow for his women, for his kinfolk, for his children, who needed his protection, and whom he could not protect; rage, hatred, and murder, hatred for white men so deep that it often turned against him and his own, and made all love, all trust, all joy impossible – this past, this endless struggle to achieve and reveal and confirm a human identity, human authority, yet contains, for all its horror, something very beautiful. I do not mean to be sentimental about suffering – enough is certainly as good as a feast – but people who cannot suffer can never grow up, can never discover who they are. That man who is forced each day to snatch his manhood, his identity, out of the fire of human cruelty that rages to destroy it knows, if he survives his effort, and even if he does not survive it, something about himself and human life that no school on earth – and indeed, no church – can teach. He achieves his own authority, and that is unshakable. This is because, in order to save his life, he is forced to look beneath appearances, to take nothing for granted, to hear the meaning behind the words. If one is continually surviving the worse that life can bring, one eventually ceases to be controlled by a fear of what life can bring; whatever it brings must be borne. And at this level of experience one’s bitterness begins to be palatable, and hatred becomes too heavy a sack to carry. The apprehension of life here so briefly and inadequately sketched has been the experience of generations of Negroes, and it helps to explain how they have endured and how they have been able to produce children of kindergarten age who can walk through mobs to get to school. It demands great force and great cunning continually to assault the mighty and indifferent fortress of white supremacy, as Negroes in this country have done so long. It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck, and an even greater miracle of perception and charity not to teach your child to hate. The Negro boys and girls who are facing mobs today come out of a long line of improbable aristocrats – the only genuine aristocrats this country has produced.

 

reverently submitted by Cityslikr


Left To Their Own Devices

December 9, 2014

From Jon Caulfield’s The Tiny Perfect Mayor (1974):

This fatalism was shared by many reform leaders and candidates themselves. For the press, at fund-raising parties, at rallies and public meetings, they were mostly all capable of bursts of optimism…But pressed privately in ones and twos, they were often unsure, their confidence watery. Because their movement was, at root, a fragile marriage of convenience drawn together only by informal networks of key individuals, communication among them was haphazard, and fragmentary, in some cases nearly non-existent; for the most part they had no way of knowing about the progress of campaigns outside of their own parts of town.

Forty years on, this passage struck me as still wholly relevant when looking back through the ashes of the 2014 municipal election campaign, an election where the old guard of all political stripes ran roughshod over its competition.steamroll

Nobody who seriously throws their hat into the ring to become a political candidate can do so without at least a sliver of belief they can win. No matter how small a sliver, how big the odds, how steep the uphill climb to victory might be, there’s always a chance, remote, outside or not. Otherwise, you wouldn’t dedicate the time and energy necessary to mount even the most basic of campaigns.

In late October, I heard through the grapevine that such-and-such a candidate was, according to internal polls, within striking distance of such-and-such an incumbent. Candidate X had jumped into an improbable lead in Ward Y. In the end, neither rumour of glory came close to being true. A respectable showing would be the best one might claim of the results. Pretty much throughout the entire city.

By their very nature, election campaigns are built on hard work and false hopes. rubbertreeplantThere will always be more losers than winners but for a democracy to remain vibrant, everyone thinking about a run for office has to believe that that this time is their time. You can apply other metrics to what constitutes a successful campaign – increased voter turnout, say, — in the end though? Well, close only counts in horseshoes and grenades. Or, as a springboard to another crack at it four years hence.

Perpetual optimism mixed with battle worn realism.

When I met up with Idil Burale a couple weeks back, pretty much a month after her run for a city council seat in Ward 1 Etobicoke North, there was a lot more realism than optimism in her take on how things had gone. A very promising challenger to one term councillor deadweight, Vincent Crisanti, Burale finished a disappointing 5th place in race where Crisanti increased his plurality from 2010 simply by being the Fordest of Ford supporters in one of the Fordest of wards in the city.

It should’ve been so easy. A terrible, do-nothing incumbent versus a brand new voice of the community. Faced with such a clear option, how could Ward 1 voters not jump at the opportunity to make a change?

Yeah well, funny story…davidandgoliath1

First, a declaration of interest on my part.

I met Idil a couple (three?) years ago, at some event or another that led to us hosting an evening to talk about the urban-suburban divide. I (along with a few hopeful others) gently encouraged her to consider a run in 2014 election. When she finally decided to take the plunge, I was involved early on in the campaign, helping with content, messaging. I even timidly and awkwardly knocked on doors as part of two or three canvasses.

Everybody was cautiously optimistic, I think. Winning the thing wasn’t the be-all. If Idil could even just affect the conversation during the campaign or get out the vote in a ward that had the lowest turnout in 2010, it could still be considered a success.

In the end, I don’t know if even those modest goals were achieved. Like every other ward in the city it seems, the only conversation people wanted to have was about the mayor’s race. rollingrockI’m not alone in asserting that the 2014 campaign was essential a mayoral referendum. Rob/Doug Ford, yes or no? Everything else at city council could be fixed in editing.

That said, I don’t think it’s an unfair assessment of the Burale campaign to suggest that it never really gelled into a smooth running operation. There were personnel problems, mostly of the kind that there were never enough people to do the jobs that needed to get done. In the end, Burale thinks they knocked on about 80% of the doors in the ward which, as impressive as it sounds, isn’t nearly enough.

The general rule of thumb is that a successful campaign needs to hit every door at least 2 times, maybe 3 when all is said and done. Despite our hope and belief in advanced technology, campaigns are still won and lost on the ground, real live bodies going out to meet real live people, once, twice, three times, driving them to the polling station on election day if need be to make sure they vote. Without those troops, there isn’t the necessary voter outreach. Candidates unable to swamp doors in their wards remain unknown entities with no name recognition factor.

This points to perhaps the biggest problem the Burale campaign faced. There simply wasn’t enough community support at the local level at the beginning of the campaign. trekDowntowners (like me) formed a large part of her team in the early going.

It’s an especially acute problem for wards in the inner suburbs. Ward 1 sits in the most north-westerly spot in the city. Without local support, people able to get to a canvass meeting spot in 15 minutes, half an hour rather than an hour and a half, 2 hours, it’s difficult to amass a regular, reliable team of volunteers. Without a regular, reliable team of volunteers, well, you tend to finish in 5th place.

Idil also picked up very little ‘institutional’ help. By this I mean the party and riding association machines that always play an integral part even in officially non-party municipal campaigns. For whatever reasons (and I am certainly privy to none), there was no backing from either the ward’s Liberal MPP or MP thrown her way. Despite receiving the labour council backing, Burale found herself competing against an unofficial NDP candidate.goodluck

There may well have been good reasons for that situation but the fact can’t be ignored if an outsider candidate remains on the outside, the odds of them running successfully remain very long.

No amount of social media adoration is going to change that. Burale was one of a number of challengers, especially out in the suburban wards, who garnered a lot of Twitter attention along with endorsements from both old and new media, only to see it not translate into electoral success. Martyrs to the progressive cause, fueling our sense of wonder at what’s wrong with people out in the suburbs.

Turns out, you can’t just flick on the civic engagement switch come election year. Wards like Etobicoke North aren’t imbued with a history of strong citizen activism in their local governance. What groups there are don’t seem particularly connected or, in the words of Jon Caulfied in describing the early-70s City Hall reformers, ‘informal networks of key individuals’.diy1

There was no fertile grassroots base for a challenger like Idil Burale to draw on. Without enough outside or institutional help to make up for that, she was left to fend for herself against the power of incumbency. Even an incumbency of a second rate city councillor who has subsequently been appointed the deputy mayor of Etobicoke and York.

So pick yourself up, dust yourself off and chalk it up as a valuable learning experience?

Not exactly.

There was certainly something of a personal toll on Burale. Parts of the 7 month run were miserable, not at all fulfilling. So much so, at this juncture, fresh off the loss, she’s not considering another run.

A casualty to an electoral process that promotes the power of insiders and the well-connected? Change or reform doesn’t come about through the sheer strength of individual effort. We can’t pat hopefuls on the head, slap them on the back and send them out into the fight with only our high hopes and fingers crossed. overthetop1Challenging the status quo needs to be a group enterprise, uncoloured by partisan brand or parochial interests.

Candidates like Idil Burale should be applauded and congratulated for trying to roll that rock up the hill. We just have to stop thinking they can do it on their own and then expect a different, a better result in the end. That’s the definition of crazy. Crazy and lazy.

discontentedly submitted by Cityslikr


Building A Machine To Defeat The Machine

December 1, 2014

This week all the post-election hypotheticals begin to collapse into reality. The very long, drawn out, seemingly at times without punctuation chapter of the Ford Era closes. quantumdecoherenceJust the chapter, alas. We’re pretty sure that book remains open.

The 2010-2014 term of Toronto city council makes way for 2014-2018, leaving behind a mess of crises, to paraphrase the incoming mayor. To use some sprots terminology, this city is in rebuilding mode. Nothing’s been fixed over the last four years, hyperbolic protestations to the contrary. Everything’s got a little more frayed around the edges.

Worst case scenario, we begin having rational discussions again about how to get our civic shit together. (Actually, a late addendum. Worst case scenario? Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong.) Best case? City council actually coalesces in a meaningful way and starts implementing concrete plans to do just that.youagain

It’s hard to imagine how the proceedings will be any worse than they were last term, although perhaps too many of us have misplaced expectations in the change that’s happened at the top. (Exhibit A: the new mayor’s choice for Executive Committee.) Most of the main offenders, enablers, deadweights and flat out crackpots who contributed to the mayhem and dysfunction at City Hall last term are back for yet another kick at the can. Maybe a semblance of sanity in the mayor’s office will help rein in their worst instincts but can it really make them better city councillors?

We can hope for the best but I’m fairly confident that before long we’re going to realize our local government is terribly broken. How we elect and who we elect to represent us fails miserably in reflecting the people of Toronto. exactlythesame2Despite a very strong group of challengers throughout the city in October’s election, council managed to get whiter and more male. Even most of the newcomers felt like the usual uninspiring suspects.

Jonathan Goldsbie wrote an exhaustive piece last week in NOW about the seemingly status quo entrenchment that’s occurred. There’s no end of ideas on how to combat it and to contend with the overwhelming power of incumbency. Some possibly right around the corner (ranked ballots, permanent resident voting), others still up for debate (formation of municipal parties, term limits). None, I believe, even enacted all together, would serve as any sort of magic bullet and transform our democracy.

That’s going to take a whole lot more hands on engagement. If we learned nothing else from this past election, it should be that best wishes and high hopes contribute nothing more to a campaign than… best wishes and high hopes. exactlythesame1Too many strong candidate challengers were left to their own devices, lots of them out in our poorly represented inner suburbs, without much institutional help for the all essential ground game, ultimately picked off by lesser opponents who’d garnered party-friendly, unofficial backroom support.

As much as we hear about our municipal campaigns being too long, for most council candidates the 10 months is not long enough. Too often, candidates enter a race unprepared, under-financed and without enough human resources to get their names and faces out there in time to established themselves as legitimate contenders. No amount of social media adoration or late in the game endorsements will unseat an incumbent, even the worst of the worst incumbents, even incumbents under criminal investigation.

The reality — the sad, sad reality – is the 2018 race for city council starts right now. Sitting city councillors cannot be allowed 3 years of unchecked governance. Shadow opposition must commence immediately. Challengers popping up onto the scene in year 4 of a term, telling residents that change is needed, and that they are the needed change are seen as interlopers, opportunists. perpetualmotionmachineWhere were you when all this so-called bad shit was happening around here?

Unfortunately, very few people can just set aside 4 years to campaign, monitoring their city councillor or get themselves a Monday-Friday AM talk radio gig to maximize their exposure. Hell, not everybody knows 4 years out if a run for city council is even in the cards. The incumbents’ advantage is like a perpetual motion machine.

City council challengers need to be nurtured not just encouraged. As importantly, a campaign apparatus needs to be established, free of political party-ship, that will develop off-season electoral muscle. Create an active community throughout the city that starts to learn the doors to knock on, the phones to ring, the meetings to attend, connect to and organize.

The best city councillors are always out there, engaging with their respective neighbourhoods and communities. fix1Any prospective candidate needs to be doing exactly the same thing. Those of us discouraged by the results of our last election must pitch in to help create a system that makes that possible.

Clearly this is a process requiring a hands-on effort by a committed group, getting the proverbial boots on the ground. As we discovered once again to our dismay (and are re-learning as the new administration begins to take shape this week), we can’t hope and wait for change. It’s not going to be wondrously legislated for us. It’s going to take all sorts of people, working to make the change.

determinedly submitted by Cityslikr


Reshaping Toronto’s Future

November 19, 2014

In the quiet before the hubbub of the new administration at City Hall starts up again next month, retiring city councillor Gloria Lindsay Luby penned an opinion piece in the Toronto Star this week about what could be, arguably, the most important piece of governance business that will emerge next term: ward boundary review.waiting4

By provincial mandate, ward resident populations must be relatively uniform across the city. Toronto’s already been challenged by the Ontario Municipal Board as, I think, the requirement stipulates that no ward can have a population 15% higher than the city-wide average. As it stands right now, a couple wards have grown 30-45% above the average number. On top of which, the current wards and governance structure have been in place since 2000. So a review is overdue.

The process is already underway, with background research beginning last summer. Public consultations start in early December. Final recommendations will go to city council sometime in the first part of 2016.

Why is this so important?

For starters, we should try our best in a democracy to make sure everyone is represented equally. review1As it stands right now (or, at least, as of the 2011 census), Ward 23 Willowdale is home to over 88,000 people. That’s almost double the nearly 45,000 people living in Ward 18 Davenport. Such a glaring discrepancy must affect the relative performance of the respective councillors in those wards to the detriment of residents living in the more heavily populated ward.

Councillor Lindsay Luby is bang on dismissing the nonsense demand to use this review to cut the council number in half. How does it serve anybody to tilt things in the direction of less representation, putting a greater burden on city councillors? It guarantees more of a top down democracy and creates an even greater distance between residents and their local representatives. The city has grown by some 700,000 people since amalgamation. That’s more than 3 Windsors. Having fewer councillors simply waters down local democracy.

In a more abstract vein, given the entrenched parochial sensibilities that have so strongly emerged the past 4 years (Scarborough Deserves A Subway!), it might do us a whole lot of good to look hard at the geographical component of the boundary review. reviewWill it be possible to disrupt the politically exploitable divisions that are based on little more than what are former municipalities? While it would be fun to try, obviously you can’t take a knife and extract, say, Ward 38 and plunk it down on the Mimico lakeshore but is there a way we can shape wards based on current realities rather than previous history? That’s a genuine question. I don’t have an answer but I think it’s worth exploring.

Since 2000 Toronto’s wards have been aligned with federal and provincial riding boundaries, 22 cut in half to make 44. Lindsay Luby suggests that this is ‘less confusing for the electorate’. On that point, I’d differ with the councillor. I think, in fact, it adds an added layer of confusion for the electorate. During this recent municipal campaign, I talked to numerous candidates, and heard it myself at the few doors I knocked on, voters wanting to know what candidate X was going to do about healthcare or the grade 7 curriculum or to stop that damned Stephen Harper. None of which a municipal politician has much of a hand in dealing with.

Such an easy overlap of jurisdictional boundaries can’t help but contribute to an easy confusion in the minds of voters. haveyoursayIt’s a situation that might’ve been exacerbated during this term since the 2010 municipal election we had one federal and two provincial general elections and a host of by-elections throughout the city. Still, I don’t see how aligning local wards with the ridings of the other two levels of government at all helps clarify the roles each play in the lives of the city’s residents.

More cynically, I’d suggest such a configuration only really serves the purposes of the political parties operating at Queen’s Park and in Ottawa. It makes for easy compiling of voters’ lists and helps them in establishing ground games and footholds in areas of the city they’re looking to take runs at during their own election campaign. It encourages backroom party involvement in municipal elections for reasons not always beneficial for the city but very much in the interests of the parties.

What we need from this ward boundary review is a made in Toronto, for Toronto solution. The city needs to establish new political turf (if not an entirely new governance model), free from past grievances and fiefdoms, free from outside interference. buildingblocksGiven the fact that we may have a new voting system in 2018, ranked ballots, if both the province and new council push it through, this is an ideal time to attempt to completely remake the city’s political landscape. The future starts next month.

Have your say. Help redraw the lines. The opportunity to take control of local democracy here in Toronto is soon upon us.

hopefully submitted by Cityslikr


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