Book Club XII

July 22, 2015

After reading Lewis M. Schneider’s 1965 book, Marketing Urban Mass Transit, the good news is, Toronto is not a special snowflake when it comes to the politicization of public transit planning. marketingurbanmasstransitThat seems to be a factor transcending time and place. The bad news is, the politicization of public transit planning transcends time and place.

In many ways, fifty years on, it’s something of a miracle that in our car-obsessive manner of building and servicing cities, public transit survived at all. Schneider wrote the book (a ‘shortened version’ of his Ph.D. thesis, Management Policy in a Distressed Industry: A Study of Urban Mass Transit) at the height of the automobile’s ascendancy, almost a decade into the interstate expressway explosion that helped create our suburban sprawl. He was a transit advocate facing a very strong school of thought that believed the notion of public transit was a relic of the past. It was an era of vigorous optimism for the future. Median family incomes were booming upward. Lower income families had more than halved in number during the previous decade.

America was Going Places, to paraphrase a 1962 book, and it wasn’t taking the bus to get there.

In the face of this onslaught of onward and outward, the general acceptance of the “a homogeneity of land use” in suburban development where the private automobile would luxuriously move people between home and work, home and the mall, and back again, vintagecarcommercial2Schneider and his ilk believed a more balanced approach to moving people around the city and region to be necessary. Even as early as the 1960s, he noted an insatiable need for road capacity. Urban expressways alone had grown from 2875 miles in 1960 to 9200 miles just a few years later. Estimates suggested more than 13000 more miles would be needed.

The selling of public transit faced the steepest part of its uphill battles. With an unsurprisingly precipitous decline in ridership, a plunge to Depression level ridership in 1953 after its peak just 7 years earlier, service suffered, creating a vicious circle of declining ridership and antipathy to public transit providers. Such a weakened constituency made public transit a tough political sell. In fact, as Schneider suggested, “a politician gets far more ‘political mileage’ out of attacking a transit company than of supporting it.”

Sound familiar?

This helped feed the biggest obstacle public transit faced, in Schneider’s opinion. commutingThat of a bad public perception of it, bad P.R. Advocates and management needed to “make transit attractive and desirable to the public, and thereby remove the stigma of unpleasantness which has haunted the industry almost since its inception.”

How to do that?

First, build a better product. For Schneider that meant exploiting ‘technological advances’, from “Jet Age” modes of transit that involved almost exclusively rapid heavy rail subways and commuter trains to basic modern conveniences like the new-fangled air conditioning. Like many people of that age, he saw no place for olde time transport like streetcars and trolleys, going as far as to predict that the future of public transit depended on cities converting their feeder system entirely to buses.

Schneider was no Pollyanna about the realities the public transit industry faced. Whether public or private, profits for companies were always razor thin, government support grudging and whimsical. There was little margin for big capital investments or research and development or marketing the product.vintagecarcommercial

This was the second aspect, and the crux of the book really. Even with a sellable product, Schneider felt that the industry didn’t concentrate nearly enough time, money or energy, out there pitching it to the public, politicians, planners. Public transit was an operations-oriented industry, focusing on getting things right. Marketing and P.R. consisted mostly of ‘putting out fires’, according to Schneider.

While there’s certainly some truth to that but how do you justify spending marketing money and energy, let’s call it, when making the product appealing through providing better service takes up so much of your funds? The automobile industry thrives on the hundreds of millions of dollars it spends annually on advertising, creating dreamy brand loyalty and a belief system in the freedom and individuality of the driver. How do public transit advocates compete with that?

“The basic marketing problem of mass transit is to provide a service which is more attractive to the consumer than his automobile,” Schneider writes. Fifty years on, and I have to ask is that even possible? badbusrideIt seems every year, while driving around the city might not be getting better, certainly the ride is much more comfortable. Air conditioning? Ha! I’ll chill your seats for you, heat them up in the winter. Better sound systems than in many homes.

As long as car travel remains more convenient and ultimately quicker to get around places, all other things being equal, mass public transit will never be ‘more attractive to the consumer than his automobile’. Aside from maybe cost, it’s hard to see how you entice people to use public transit approaching them as consumers. Until you decide to level the playing field, and make public transit as convenient and quick to use as a car, it will remain an uphill struggle, regardless of how good your transit system is.

That’s not a criticism of Schneider. Fifty years ago when he wrote this book, it wasn’t as obvious the social and financial costs automobile dependence would exact on cities as it is (or should be) to us. They and the lifestyle they promised presented a rosy looking future, a future public transit could help augment but never supplant. Jet packs and teleporting were on the horizon. vintagecarcommercial1What possible need would we have then of public transit?

That’s not to say there’s nothing to learn from Marketing Urban Mass Transit. With the advantage of half a century of hindsight, we now know cities will not thrive without moving past auto dependency. To help do that, we need to pursue the public transit goals Schneider proposed, provide a better service and convince people that it is a better service. The details of doing that have changed slightly although I marvelled at Toronto’s deathly slow roll out of the Presto card while reading Schneider’s excitement about the prospect of automated fare collection in the form of “a credit or validation card” of some sort. Fifty years ago!

Marketing Urban Mass Transit concludes:

“The challenge to management to make changes in its existing practices seems critical at the present time. For it appears that its marketing strategies will largely determine whether the industry enjoys a renaissance marked by modernization and growth, or whether it takes a final plunge to the status of an unpleasant tax-supported public service, providing spartan, cheap transportation (primarily for those who cannot drive) in urban communities designed for and dominated by the private automobile.”

Depending on your perspective and the day you’re asked, it’s difficult not to admit that we blew it, and Lewis Schneider’s dire second prediction has come to pass. Public transit as second-rate transport and public transit users as second-class citizens. The dream of a better non-car future is not dead yet, and the dreamers are multitude but it remains an uphill battle.

packedpublictransit

bookishly submitted by Cityslikr


A Terrible Plan Made Even Worse

July 17, 2015

Adding insult to injury that is the oozing sore of transit plans, the Scarborough subway, the Toronto Star’s Jennifer Pagliaro reported today that, according city council rules, the vote to revert from the already underway LRT eastern extension of the Bloor-Danforth line to a subway never should have occurred in the first place.

In the end, [Speaker] Nunziata ignored advice from city staff and ruled the motion [to re-open the LRT/subway debate] was properly before council. It passed with a 35-9 vote — opening the door for Ford and others to ultimately cancel plans for the LRT in favour of the more expensive subway option.

This, after a 24 hour scramble that had seen the speaker first stop the motion’s mover, Councillor Glenn DeBaeremaeker, from moving the motion on procedural grounds, then agreeing to rule on it later and seeking help from the mayor’s office in wording the ruling she would subsequently give that ultimately re-opened the debate.

But city clerk Watkiss told the Star the speaker is only permitted to give rulings she herself or the clerk has written. She also said the city’s procedural bylaws set out that the Speaker must give procedural reasons for her ruling.

“The [then mayor Rob Ford’s then chief of staff] Towhey ruling was not a proper procedural ruling, but a policy ruling, and the Speaker needs to give procedural rulings,” Watkiss wrote in an email. “She should not be ruling on the basis of policy as she needs to maintain a measure of independence.”

Still Speaker Nunziata’s response to that?

“Council procedures dictate that while the speaker may consult with the Clerk prior to ruling on a matter, it is ultimately the speaker who decides the way in which he/she will rule.”

Rules? M’eh. Whatever.

While it should not be overlooked that, despite the very questionable manner in which it came about, city council could’ve voted to keep the Scarborough subway debate closed, and chose instead to re-open it , overwhelmingly so, we should perhaps be even more alarmed at how easily rules and procedures at city council can be discarded and ignored.

Is that simply the price that gets paid living in a free-wheeling democracy? gavelOur elected officials are the ultimate decision-makers and the civil service, the bureaucracy, sits in place merely to advise not instruct? When the chips are down, a true democracy cannot be hamstrung by the rules and procedures — not put in place but adjudicated by – unelected officials?

I don’t have an answer to any of these questions. It seems to me that if rules and procedures are being contravened, those in charge of upholding them, in this case the city clerk staff, should be in a position to, at the very least, make loud noises that the rules and procedures are being violated, if not stop the violations dead in their tracks. You can’t do that, Madam/Mister Speaker.

Does that overstep unspoken boundaries, undercutting the democratic process?

More clear, perhaps, is that the position of Speaker (and Deputy Speaker, natch) at city council ought not to be left in the hands of the mayor’s office to appoint. As it stands now, like chairs of standing committees, the Speaker of city council is put forward by the mayor and pretty much rubber-stamped by a city council vote. It is extremely difficult to remove them once they’re in place.

If, as the current speaker believes, it is the role of the speaker to ultimately decide “the way in which he/she will rule”, maybe their allegiance shouldn’t be owed to the one person who put them in place, the mayor, but to the wider body, city council itself. “In order to maintain a measure of independence,” as city clerk Ulli Watkiss suggested, the speaker needs to answer directly to city council not via the mayor’s office. youcantdothatWhy not have city council truly elect a speaker (and deputy speaker, natch) rather than simply sign off on the mayor’s recommendation?

It’s hard to imagine how anyone in the position of speaker could ‘maintain a measure of independence’ while looking over their shoulder at the mayor who put them in the job, a mayor who can assume the speaker’s chair whenever the fancy strikes them. So it should come as no surprise that, in this particular case, the speaker actually went to the mayor’s office for help in writing a ruling. If your view of the job you’re doing is to act as a mouthpiece, why not get your instructions directly from the horse’s mouth?

Whose interest does the speaker of city council represent, the mayor’s office or city council itself? The answer to that will determine who you think should really be running the city.

searchingly submitted by Cityslikr


Book Club XI

June 19, 2015

There are times while reading Alan Redway’s Governing Toronto where it’s difficult to dismiss that niggling voice chirping away in your head. Alright already, Mr. Crankypants! governingtorontoMr. Back In My Day Everything Was Better! We need to get back to the garden of Metro Council.

Yes, our current form of government in Toronto is not functioning properly. Yes, we need an overhaul. Yes, amalgamation, as implemented, has failed us by almost every measure. Yes, yes, yes.

But simply turning back the clock is rarely the solution to circumstances going forward. So called Golden Ages seldom shone as brightly as supporters remember. The idea that returning to an earlier form of government – Metro council, perhaps not directly elected, as part of a wider set of separate municipalities – would restore our lost luster strikes me as hopeful rather than practical. It suggests that many of the intractable problems the city faces now, affordable housing and transit to name two, came packaged up with amalgamation. They didn’t. A restoration of a form of pre-amalgamated governance in Toronto alone ignores the other variables at play the city’s faced since the mid-90s or so. The sharp decrease in funding by both the provincial and federal governments for many of the services we provide for one, funding which was integral to our earlier Golden Age.

This is not to dismiss Governing Toronto. It is a good read for at least 3 reasons. One is the history it provides especially for a non-native Torontonian like myself, toting around all my ignorance. fredgardinerAlan Redway served for 6 years as mayor of the pre-amalgamated borough of East York, which put him also as a member of the Executive Committee on Metro Council. He later became Member of Parliament as part of the Mulroney Progressive Conservative government.

So the city’s politics run deep with Mr. Redway. He tells the history of Toronto governance with the passion of someone who lived it. Governing Toronto is full of the personal partiality you would expect from a participant in the proceedings. Rather than off-putting, it brings the story to life.

The book serves up two other very important points that are definitely worth exploring.

The Ontario government used to study and tinker with governance models of Toronto and the region on a very regular and, quite possibly, intrusive basis. “When the Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto was established on January 1, 1954,” Redway writes, “the provincial government of then Premier Leslie Frost promised to review its experience within five years.” lesliefrostIn fact, it was back at it 3 years later. And then again 5 years after that. And again in 1975. And in 1986. 1995 brought us the Greater Toronto Area Task Force. In 1996, Mike Harris commissioned his own report plus a study, ‘Who Does What’ with David Crombie at the helm.

Since amalagamation? Nada, unless you count the reduction of councillor numbers from 56 to 44 in 2000. So this unwieldy and, at times, dysfunctional form of government gets imposed on Toronto in 1997, and there’s not so much as an official follow-up to see what’s working, what’s not, how we might iron out the kinks?

Just simple neglect or is there something more at work here?

The cynic in me looks askance and says, Of course there’s something at work here. A divided, squabbling Toronto is like a circular firing squad. Too busy shooting itself rather than aiming their fire at Queen’s Park. Whether or not we’re talking just 416 or on a wider, GTA regional level, the idea of a united Toronto area, “an emergent political jurisdiction” as the 1995 Golden report called it, has to be an uncomfortable scenario for a provincial government. johnrobartsAs far back as the mid-60s, when the exploration of establishing a borough system for Toronto was entertained, it was sent back for further study because it “would stir up too much opposition to the government which would not be desirable at this time.”

Bringing us to Redway’s third and (arguably) most important point. Regional governance. Hey, Queen’s Park! You’re not the boss of me!

Well, yes they are. Creatures of the province and all that. In the absence of any other organized body, as it stands right now the provincial government represents is the GTA regional government. And there’s lots to be concerned with about that. This, from the Golden Report in 1996:

The Task Force believes that, regardless of how the government of Ontario is structured, it is inherently unable to meet Greater Toronto’s co-ordination needs effectively. The region must develop its own identity and focus as a city-region if it is to compete with other city-regions internationally. The provincial government, by definition, cannot achieve this focus because it defines its constituency Ontario-wide. It also lacks the capacity to advocate freely and effectively on behalf of the city-region, a function that is essential to the GTA’s ability to influence federal and provincial policies affecting the region.

You might even argue that the province as a regional government has a fundamental conflict at its core. Whether or not it’s playing off the 905 against the 416 or meddling with the plans of its own regional transit body – Metrolinx — like it did with the Scarborough subway for its naked political interests, there is a perception of not being an honest broker. nathanphillipsWhat’s more, regardless of party stripe, any government at Queen’s Park has to maintain a credible anti-Toronto bias to keep some semblance of support in other parts of the province. That’s an unhealthy dynamic to have as a governance model.

If you want to see that funky relationship in all its fraught action, just follow along with the proceedings of the Ontario Municipal Board [OMB] in the politics of Toronto. It is very much a can’t-live-with-it-can’t-live-without-it state of affairs. Imagine this city without any sort of OMB oversight. You came up with a quick, pleasing picture? You probably weren’t looking closely enough.

Aaron A. Moore’s Planning Politics in Toronto examines the influence the provincial body plays on urban planning in very, very dry, academic detail. It is a policy wonk’s book, for sure, but accessible enough for the likes of me to establish some thought-provoking ideas. Covering a handful of cases between 2000-2006, Moore lays out how the presence of the OMB affects developers, city politicians and staff, residents’ associations positioning around development.

Some of the conclusions he draws may surprise a few of you.

Moore’s research suggests that the OMB is not the land of Mordor ruled by developer Saurons (I hope I have that right. I really don’t now Tolkien at all.) planningpoliticsinTO“The OMB significantly contributes to a politics in the city that simultaneously pushes actors towards compromise while fanning conflict,” he writes. Often times, the mere threat of an OMB appeal will compel those involved in a development process toward an acceptable compromise.

Undoubtedly, this will favour those with the deepest pockets. OMB appeals don’t come cheap. Yet, Moore suggests that isn’t the usual outcome in. Conflict looms. Peaceable resolutions tend to prevail.

One of the reasons Moore suggests this may happen is that the OMB seems inclined to favour expert opinion in making its decisions. Advice, a thumbs-up or thumbs down from city planning staff is crucial in building an appealable case for or against a development in front of the OMB. Which is why it’s ludicrous for a city, any city, but especially a city like Toronto under extreme development pressure, to leave a planning department understaffed. Any developer or city councillor worth their salt will do the utmost to figure out how to bring city planning staff on board. A city can really strengthen its hand when it comes to development by having a top-notch, non-desiccated planning department.

The emphasis on expert opinion at the OMB also takes away what could be the petty power of a local politician which is both bad and good, I guess. Should planning a city be left exclusively in unpredictable, political hands? stopspadinaWe can’t build sensible, proper public transit because of that. Can you imagine trying to build an entire city that way? Moore points out that Ontario municipalities have a greater freedom than many jurisdictions to regularly change and amend official plans and zoning bylaws. The OMB’s presence helps to insure there’s some “rhyme or reason to planning decisions…beyond municipal councillors’ political calculations.”

So our local politicians will tend to use the OMB as either a shield to protect themselves from their constituents when unpopular developments arise, punt blame over onto the OMB, or a gentle cudgel to tap away at their residents’ resistance to said development. Let’s take what we can now or we might get nothing at an OMB hearing. If you aren’t given ultimate authority over planning and development decisions, why assume the responsibility when they get made?

Still, beware the city councillor decrying the undemocratic nature of the OMB and demanding its abolition. mordorIf you think developers have undue influence over city council now, imagine if final decisions lay in their hands? On the other side, we all know about the density creeps and the village atmosphere maintainers amongst us. City councillors bound to the demands of their local residents and neighbourhood associations – “agents against change” in Moore’s words — in terms of city planning are not city builders.

“The neighbourhoods most involved with City Council [on planning and development issues] are those with the most to protect; that is those in areas with higher median incomes… higher home values… and higher proportions of professionals,” Moore writes. This winds up “enforcing a conservative stance towards neighbourhood change.” NIMBYs, in other words, attempting to keep the future at bay.

Ridding cities of the OMB would leave city planning to the tug of war between developers and the more affluent residents and neighbourhoods, attempting to keep their communities exactly as they found them. That would make for an uneven future, let’s call it, an unhealthy check and balance between unfettered greed and reactionary time stoppers. nimbyNo city could prosper under those conditions.

Reform the OMB? Sure. Moore questions the “vagueness and ambiguity of [its] powers.” That might be a place to start but, like Alan Redway’s demand to de-amalgamate in his book Governing Toronto, a call to get rid of the OMB is an easy and annoyingly populist reaction that ignores the complexity of how Toronto really functions. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater and all that. Let’s sit down and figure out how to make it better, how to govern ourselves better. That’s a conversation we need to have.

bookishly submitted by Cityslikr


Here’s To You, Councillor Robinson

June 15, 2015

Last weekend, the weekend before last weekend actually, Councillor Jaye Robinson, the Public Works and Infrastructure Committee chair, mrsrobinsonreached out over social media to ask to meet up ahead of the Gardiner east debate at city council to discuss the issue. I’d been jabbing at her, in the virtual sense, over the pro-“hybrid” stance she’d taken during a press conference a few days earlier. I wondered aloud how she could have rushed to the defence of waterfront development when Doug Ford had concocted his ferris wheels-and-monorail plan a few years back but was perfectly willing to plop a newly rebuilt expressway down to inflict similar damage on the area. She also, to my mind, was brushing aside well-researched evidence that suggested the traffic chaos “hybrid” supporters predicted would happen if the Gardiner came down wouldn’t happen.

So we met on Tuesday, the day before the city council meeting began for a very amiable 15 minutes. Councillor Robinson came across as deeply conflicted on the issue, trying to figure out a better solution than was on the table in front of her and colleagues to decide on. scratchmyheadWhy she had chosen to spend time chatting it out with me – whose tear the fucker down preference was up front and centre – remains something of a mystery. While my arrogance might suggest otherwise, I am fully aware of my limited reach and ever so slight standing in the local political scene. It struck me as strange the councillor would waste her time talking to some asshole with a blog.

Despite unhealthy outbursts of political naïvete that catch me by surprise, I had no illusions about the meeting. There was no way Councillor Robinson was going to change her mind, having so publicly come out in favour of Mayor Tory’s “hybrid” stance. Still, I thought, maybe, some compromise might be in the works, an attempt to perform a tactical retreat.

You can only imagine my disappointment, let’s call it, over the course of the following few days, watching as Councillor Robinson displayed little propensity toward any sort of compromise on the Gardiner east. When she spoke, she varied little from the “hybrid” hymnbook the mayor was preaching from, the one he used in a speech to the Empire Club, the speech the Torontoist referred to as “full Ford”, full of “at least 36 falsehoods or misleading statements”. whipWhen she wasn’t speaking, Councillor Robinson could be seen with a clipboard, conversing with the mayor’s staff and other councillors, presumably helping out to get the vote count right in favour of the “hybrid” option.

She did. The Gardiner east “hybrid” won out, narrowly, setting in motion a period of uncertainty that often times follows bad decisions. Are we really going to do this? Really? (I remain sceptical. But again, what the fuck do I know?)

Sitting here, a few days on, and I still can’t figure Jaye Robinson out. The cranks and the kooks you get. Vainglorious, idiotic and imbecilic. Dummies gonna be dum, am I right? You can only hope to minimize the damage they try to inflict.

But Councillor Robinson is different. She seems like she wants to do the right thing, to leap toward a more enlightened kind of governance, a better city. ignorefactsYet she can regularly be counted on to come down on the wrong side of important issues like the Gardiner.

And by the ‘wrong’ side, I don’t necessarily mean the ones I disagree with her on. I’m talking about the one like the Gardiner that defy facts, evidence and the future, settling for easy, mindless catch phrases like common sense. “Why have experts if politicians care little for their expertise?” Matt Elliott asks today. There was a deliberate attempt by the pro-“hybrid” council gang to muddy the waters of debate by disparaging and disbelieving city staff and other expert opinion, elevating lone voices of dissent to positions of authority far beyond the reality of the situation, to put opinion before thoughtful reasoning.

Gut feeling prevailed once again at City Hall. Councillor Jon Burnside revealed the height of the “hybrid” hypocrisy when he rose to speak in defence of it, saying that his heart wanted the boulevard but his head told him the “hybrid” was the way to go. thetruthThe fact is, very little thinking went into the “hybrid” argument. It was pure obedience to a mayor who had made his decision known well before the debate had truly begun. Again.

Life’s too short, I concluded over the weekend. Having been at this now for over 5 years, I find myself tired and bored covering the ins-and-outs of a city council that seems determined to work against the best interests of the city. This isn’t one mayor’s problem. It’s endemic to the institution itself, the people constantly returned to office to govern.

I don’t get paid to do what I do. (Most days I don’t think I deserve to be.) There are far better people doing a far better job than I could ever do. I’m contributing largely noise.

I’m not a city councillor. I don’t have to figure out how to deal with such monumental nonsense and duplicity on a daily basis. whyamidoingthisWhy keep inflicting it on myself?

The city works pretty well despite its ill-governance. Not everywhere certainly and not for everyone obviously. We could be, should be doing a whole lot better. It’s not for a lack of tools at our disposal. Just a lack of political will. The DenzilMinnanWongization of City Hall.

Where things work, how they work is an area I’d like to further examine. How do we build a better sense of public good, the public common? One of the aspects I’ve learned about municipal politics is the potential for affecting change is right there not somewhere in the vague distance. Although it doesn’t seem like it at times, your voice can be heard. todolist1We saw it just recently with Desmond Cole and the issue of police carding.

I’ve got a stack of books about yay-high, scattered in piles around the house. Books about cities, how they work, how they don’t work, how to fix those that don’t work, great cities, bad cities, cities on the move, cities bogged down in the past. I want to read those books, learn from them, write about them. I just keep letting myself get interrupted by the terrible goings-on at City Hall.

We also need to figure out a way to elect better local politicians. If it wasn’t obvious before, it should be now. It doesn’t happen magically as we learned last October. Deadweight is lying heavily on this city, crushing the breath of life out of it. This is something that can wait until 2018. Organizing must start now.

These are the things I want to explore and write about. The basic nuts and bolts of civic life. I’ve focused far too much on the… a-hem, a-hem… the nuts and dolts. (Thank you. Try the veal.)

Near the end of the Gardiner debate last Thursday, Councillor Robinson, in her role as chair of Public Works and Infrastructure, spoke last on the issue. Using that time, she introduced a series of motions that might offer some workable alternatives to the “hybrid” option as it currently stands. closingdoorWhy this didn’t happen at the beginning of the meeting, or days, weeks before the debate even went to council is the disheartening thing about all this for me.

It was about crass fucking politics, winning optics for the mayor. The exact opposite of good governance, of practical, sensible, common sense governance Mayor Tory is always trying to assure us he’s all about. It’s bullshit and, ultimately, impossible to continue watching without hollowing out your core a little.

Councillor Robinson could’ve taken a different path. She chose instead to play along with the game and diminish the process just a little bit more. I’m tired. I don’t want to write about Councillor Jaye Robinson anymore.

resignedly submitted by Cityslikr


Book Club X

April 21, 2015

Purely by coincidence I followed Tony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land with Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces in my book list reading, I mean, as far as coincidences can be considered to happen with book lists. illfaresthelandWe all have our preferences and areas of interest. Even – especially? – with the books we read.

While wildly different in many aspects, these two books share what you might call an inciting incident. Ill Fares the Land is a lament for the loss of the post-World War II consensus of collective well-being, the welfare state as it was also known. Think an academic version of Harry’s Last Stand.

As the subtitle of Lipstick Traces suggests, A Secret History of the 20th-Century, Marcus’s book casts something of a wider net. In fact, all told, he covers terrain that touches upon the better part of a couple of millennia. You want early Christian mystics? Marcus’ll give you early Christian mystics. Carthars, The Brethren of the Free Spirit, the French Revolution, Marxism, all before touching down in the 20th-century.

But the two books converge on their jumping off point, the mid-to-late-1970s. For Judt, it was the rise of Anglo-American neoconservative movement, Thatcherism in Britain, Reaganism in the States. Marcus is a couple years earlier, the advent of punk rock, but the book heads off in its multitude of directions with the Sex Pistols final concert, capping off their first and only American tour in 1979 with a show in San Francisco. Marcus Greil was in attendance and it was a transformative moment for him.

The punk movement wasn’t about any real sense of rebellion or revolution. There was no answer to the question What Do We Want. lipsticktracesAlthough, as it evolved some of the early pioneers, and I’m thinking largely of The Clash here, tried to make some sense of it, give it some political direction. A branch of punk became synonymous with anti-Thatcherism.

But for The Sex Pistols, The Ramones and hundreds if not thousands of other bands who came and went with one record, rebellion was impossible because there was nothing to rebel against. The whole rotten (ha, ha) edifice of post-war, post-60s society stunk to high heaven and needed to be knocked down, put out of its misery.

This was more a spirit of negation, as Marcus sees it. Denial. Something without existence. Contradiction. Refutation. Rebuttal.

What are you rebelling against, Johnny? Whadda got?

It is this force Lipstick Traces charts. A certain human impulse The Sex Pistols didn’t invent. They were just a manifestation of it.  “A conflict,” Marcus writes in reference to the May 1968 student uprising in Paris May 1968, “between organized forces of orderly protest and the presence of dissolution.”

There’s nothing orderly in negation. Just messy dissolution. thewildoneAnd our history is rife with the striving toward a messy dissolution.

Much of the focus in Marcus’ book is taken up with his examination of the Dada movement, springing up into existence in reaction to the horrors of the first World War. In the beginning of the modern world, there was Dada. The old orderly world of the 19th-century, the logical outcome of the Age of Enlightment, was in the midst of illogically destroying itself to no particular end. There was no ‘good’ war to this, only senseless slaughter.

So if the world itself was senseless, without any meaning, why should art have to make any sense? The Dadaists cavorted up on stage, making no sense, at the Cabaret Voltaire, mocking the world as it went up in flames, hopefully to survive and dance on its grave. Talking about his own experience nearly 50 years after the Dadaists, 1964 at Berkeley during the Free Speech Movement, Marcus writes: “It was a period of doubt, chaos, anger, hesitation, confusion, and finally joy – that’s the word. dadaYour own history was lying in pieces on the ground, and you had the choice of picking up the pieces or passing them by.”

Lipstick Traces unfolds like that, moving from era to era, epoch to epoch, back and forth throughout history, sometimes on the same page, trying to grab hold of that urge, that drive, that need to tear the whole fucker up, burn it down, bring it down. Whether or not it was in opposition to early religious doctrine, the ancien régime, World War I, World War II, post-war consumer society, seethed a powerful undercurrent of negation. “I wanna destroy passerby,” yelped Johnny Rotten.

Such fury doesn’t have much of a half-life. As Marcus notes, all these movements burned out quickly, disappearing without leaving much evidence behind. “Fugitive footnotes,” he suggests, “to a chronicle of possibility and failure.” protestAll that remains are “unfinished stores, unfinished business.”

Dada collapsed and 40 years later up sprang the Letterist and Situationsist International. While they may not be well remembered, the uprisings they inspired and plugged into most certainly are. 1968 represented the high point “when everything seemed possible, everything was interesting.” All across the west, the status quo was being rocked, things were breaking apart. Hunter S. Thompson described it a few years later in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:

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…

There was madness in any direction, at any hour. 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.

This, in many ways, represents the core idea of Greil Marcus’ Lipstick Traces. That one magic moment that seemed the world was about to change for the better. It didn’t, at least not then and there. 1968 brought Richard Nixon to power. sexpistolsSimilarly, the impetus behind punk rock crashed and burned, and in its wake came Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

Read (or scream) the lyrics to The Sex Pistols No Feelings and tell me they don’t sound like the anthem to our current neoconservative age. “I got no emotions for anybody else/You better understand I’m in love with myself/Myself, my beautiful self/A no feelings/A no feelings/A no feelings/For anybody else…”

Defenders of the welfare state like Tony Judt certainly admitted to the problems it faced in the 70s but there were fixes that could’ve been applied that weren’t tantamount to a full-fledged dismantling, its negation. That’s the problem with a complete gut. Without a plan how to rebuild, you never know what you’re going to get, and we’re left “damning the fact that the world is more like it is now than it ever was before…”situationist1

Malcolm McLaren, often thought of as the brains behind The Sex Pistols, was part of group called King Mob that, feeding off the unrest going on throughout western Europe in 1968, took to the streets of London rampaging against what Marcus describes as ‘the spectacle-commodity society’. One of the acts of vandalism created by this group was to graffiti the walls of the city. One particular piece of graffiti caught my attention.

I CAN’T BREATHE

It said.

I can’t breathe.

For those of us currently bemoaning ‘the fact that the world is more like it is now than it ever was before’, take heart. The spirit depicted in Lipstick Traces hasn’t died. It’s merely gone underground, waiting to burst up through the cracks of a dilapidated, tired structure.

bookishly submitted by Cityslikr


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


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