Another Never Ending Story

March 31, 2015

Not having a Plan B, Our Strength.

Mayor John Tory holds yet another press conference to inform us what most of us already know. It’s becoming something of a tiresome pattern, quite frankly. The media gathers. The mayor stands behind a podium that bears a action-denoting placard. He states the obvious. Questions dutifully ensue, invariably winding up with some take on, Yes but, Mayor Tory, what about Plan B?

Or in other words:

anexitstrategy

Yesterday, the mayor told us about the crisis at Toronto Community Housing. Did you hear? There’s a state of good repair backlog, billions of dollars long, threatening to shutter thousands of units in less than a decade and send that many+ of our most vulnerable residents looking for affordable housing in a squeezed environment where there’s already a waiting list, tens of thousands of people long, lined up to get into the very housing that’s in jeopardy of being board up. (See the start of this paragraph.)

Yaddie, yaddie, yaddie. This is news only if not new news counts as news. Why, during last year’s municipal election campaign, David Hains raised a red flag in his Torontoist article. Betsy Powell painted a similarly grim picture in the Toronto Star. tellussomethingwedontknowEarlier this year, the mayor established a task force to examine the crisis.

We know all this already. What are you going to do about it, is what we’re waiting to hear. What’s the game plan? What’s the frequency, Kenneth?

To urge the other two levels of government to get back into funding social housing. Mayor Tory has both ‘moral and business’ cases to make why this should be. We can get a return on our investment and feel good about ourselves while doing it. A win-win. What the hell’s everyone waiting for?

He’s not wrong. The problem is, he’s not the first person to make this point, not even the first mayor to make it. As Ed Keenan points out today, this is a thing nearly a quarter of a century in the making. (An irony sidebar: the man named to head the aforementioned TCHC task force, Senator Art Eggleton, a former Toronto mayor and member of the Liberal government that initiated this crisis when it began divesting itself of the social housing file, offloading to the provinces, and as with any shit stream, it continued to make its way downhill to municipalities. The circle remains unbroken.)iffisheswerewishes

If wishes were fishes, and all that. Yes, it would be fantastic if the federal and provincial governments came on board and began pulling their weight on housing, public transit. It’s an easy argument to make, that they should feel morally obligated to do so. Ditto economically prudent, such investments in key factors for better functioning communities and cities.

Unfortunately, here we still are. All the stamping of our feet, holding of our breath, tubthumping, begging, pleading, blustering hasn’t changed the dynamics. We ask. The feds and Queen’s Park shrug.

So, what’s the Plan B, Matt Galloway asked the mayor on Metro Morning.

Ever the savvy negotiator, Mayor Tory said that he’s not going to talk about any ‘Plan B’ because then the other governments would just tell us to get stuffed and proceed with Plan B. A little game of chicken we’re watching play out.

Except that, as Brian Kelcey pointed out on the Twitter, that’s not how things work, there’s no negotiation. Municipalities make demands, or if they are more politely inclined, ‘asks’. asifNot for nothing, Ottawa and Queen’s Park are referred to as ‘senior’ levels of government. “They either give, or they don’t.”

And if our mayor sees some sort of spirit of giving at either level of government, well, he’s got better eyes than most of us. Just yesterday, in fact, Oliver Moore reported in the Globe and Mail that the province has informed Toronto and Vaughan that the money it pledged to build the Spadina subway extension is going be a tiny bit short, by about $85 million or so. You two make up the difference, would you? And make sure that thing opens up on time or else!

It’s difficult to the point of snapping any optimistic streak in half to see the province pulling out a wad of dough to put in the TCHC pot, moral persuasion and sound business case be damned. Right now they seem much more interested in drawing cash from Toronto rather than make a deposit. The quicker Mayor Tory accepts that fact, the better. Pretending otherwise will only deepen the crisis and make the work that has to be done even more expensive.

It must be difficult for him, this early in to his term, to come to the realization that his influence, his ability to work with the other levels of government might not be as awesome as he thought it was, convinced Toronto voters he possessed. anofferyoucantrefuseI’m certainly not blaming him for believing that other politicians, regardless of where they plied their trade, would want to do the right thing, the smart thing, the moral thing. Keep. Hope. Alive.

But surely the scales have fallen from the mayor’s eyes by now. The current state of our politics is a dog-eat-dog fight for every public dollar out there. We, cities, the province, the federal government, are not partners. We’re rivals, at best agreeing to a you-scratch-my back and I’ll-scratch-yours relationship, not collaborating but always trying to get the upper hand. Unless Mayor Tory is engaged in a much more elaborate and veiled dance, he’s wasting valuable time, blue-skying it and wishing a wish upon a star.

The mayor’s painted himself into a corner, and I’m trying really hard not to think it was deliberate. Maybe he just believed in the rightness of his cause. outofideasIf a fine upstanding citizen like himself saw the moral and business case for billions of dollars of reinvestment in the TCHC, who could possibly disagree? It’s simply a question of doing the right thing.

The alternative is more disheartening, with the best case scenario having Mayor Tory claiming his hands are tied, he has no other choice but to raise the necessary revenue for the city to invest in TCHC itself. He’s been pretty adamant that the property tax base can’t afford the hit, and he wouldn’t be entirely wrong except for the fact the property tax base is funding the Scarborough subway extension and somehow the property tax base came up with nearly half a billion dollars to speed up repairs on the Gardiner Expressway. So yeah, priorities.

Taxes are a necessary evil. Don’t blame me. It’s not my fault.

The darker turn, though, is all this being a pretext for yet another assault on TCHC. A firesale. testedWe can’t afford to maintain these homes anymore, and we’ve been left to our own devices by Queen’s Park and Ottawa. Only the private sector can save us now. By turning the stock over, Mayor Tory can later claim he kept true to the pledge he made to Matt Galloway earlier today that TCHC buildings would not be boarded up under his watch.

Probably sooner rather than later, we’re going to see just how much of a moral issue social housing is to Mayor John Tory.

wearily and warily submitted by Cityslikr


Big Money. Little Love.

March 30, 2015

Many of us, including yours truly, we’re rightly criticised for arrogantly dismissing the bloc of supporters that brought Rob Ford to power 4+ years ago. holdyournoseReactionary, low-information voters who simply didn’t understand what’s good for them, if I can sum up the sentiment pithily. Inchoate ragers, even more pithily.

Sure, Ford Nation also consisted of the fanboy social media types and members of some traditional media organizations on the far right of the political spectrum that supported Rob Ford right down to the bitter, crack and booze fueled end. What flummoxed many of us, however, was the continued allegiance to the Ford brand of a solid segment of the more marginalized communities of the city. Lower income, first and second generation residents, people of colour. Those most adversely affected by the policies Rob Ford pursued during his decade and a half at City Hall. Many held on tightly to a conviction that Rob Ford was always looking out for the little guy, them.

Even when his health forced him from seeking re-election, his brother Doug, a one-term councillor and not nearly the retail politician Rob was, rode the populist wave of dissatisfaction to a 2nd place finish last October, tying up more than a third of the popular vote, a mere 6 points behind the eventual winner, John Tory. acloseoneHoly hell. That was a close one. Imagine if Rob had been able to remain in the race, goes the thinking. He might’ve won.

Standing between that result and what we actually wound up with was John Tory money John Tory, no, money. As the deadline came last week for candidates to file their 2014 campaign financials with the city, we learned “…that John Tory ran the most expensive mayoral race in Toronto’s history, with a list of contributors that reads like a who’s who of the city’s movers and shakers,” according to Oliver Moore of the Globe and Mail. The affluent and influential dug deep into their pockets to quiet the clamour of Ford Nation.

I think it’s safe to assume that this story is far from settled.

Never mind for the moment the ironies running rife through this tale. familycompactBoth John Tory and the Ford brothers are full on rich, white privileged men. It was pretty much a race between old money versus new, the establishment versus the nouveau riche, a question of competing country clubs. (Toronto’s very own version of Caddyshack!)

Or ignore the fact many of these same ‘movers and shakers’ (including then private citizen John Tory) initially supported the Rob Ford experiment at City Hall. Only after he became an international embarrassment on the public stage did this dynamic change. And then, only grudgingly, and when it became politically expedient and/or advantageous to do so.

This scenario of big money buying the election is hardly one to placate any sense of frustrated alienation with City Hall that remains strongly lingering out there. Money’s money, right, regardless of whether it comes from union fat cats or titans of industry. unimpressedWhile it is entirely understandable why Mayor Tory declined the invitation to a fundraiser being held to pay off Doug Ford’s mayoralty practice, it only will help feed into that outsider sense of those who voted for Doug Ford. Personal is personal but this is politics, and this snub certainly isn’t going to help engender any feeling of goodwill toward the mayor from those who have very little of it to start with.

And it’s a sizeable chunk of the population. Three out of five voters didn’t cast a ballot for John Tory last October. His approval ratings have settled into a range only slightly above that. Revel as we might in the calm that has descended upon our local politics, do not mistake it for any sort of widespread contentment. The fact that the well-connected and monied helped reclaim the mayor’s office for one of their own should hardly be cheered and taken as a sign that all is well in Toronto. The restoration of civic order and propriety is not the same as facing the challenges that contributed to the unrest and anger sitting at the base of Ford Nation.closeddoormeeting

We ignored and diminished it the first time a warning flare was fired. Into the reaction space created by our unwillingness or, simply, inability to respond to the legitimate demands made by those disaffected and disenfranchised by the direction the city was headed, stepped the usual suspects. Connected civic players who view Toronto as much of a personal asset as they do a place to live and work. Don’t worry, folks. They’ve got this covered.

We’re in good hands now, warmed by an overweening sense of noblesse oblige, if we want to take a sunny view of it.  I remain unconvinced, however, hearing the quiet not as any sense of calmness but as the future of Toronto being plotted out of earshot. Like it or not, the unruliness of the last 4 years was, among many other things, a sign of heightened civic engagement. When all is said and done, I’d take that over the silence of backroom influence any day of the week.

dancingly submitted by Cityslikr


Shooting The Messengers

March 27, 2015

What the fuck is up with city council?

Just days away from yet another sanctioned apology from Rob Ford by the Integrity Commissioner for yet another ethical lapse on his part while serving as mayor wtf– What for this time? The use of ethnic/racial slurs – and a lobbyist registrar’s report of improper lobbying of then Mayor Rob Ford and his brother, then conuncillor, Doug, by one of their family business’ clients, a couple freshman councillors are bringing a motion to next week’s council meeting that would diminish the oversight of all four accountability offices through amalgamation.

It’s as if, seeing the slime trail left behind by the Fords (and a few other councillors) from last term, the response is to lessen the ooze by checking the investigative process instead of changing the greasy behaviour.

What exactly these new councillors, motion mover, Stephen Holyday, and seconder, Justin Di Ciano have against the accountability officers is difficult to fathom. They’ve been in office for less than four months. Some sort of pre-emptive axe grinding? Who knows. metooBut it is another full frontal attack on the accountability offices that began at the last budget committee meeting with a Councillor Michelle Berardinetti walk on motion to reject all increased funding requests by the Ombudsman and Integrity Commissioner. A motion supported by Councillor Di Ciano and another rookie Etobicoke councillor, John Campbell (not to mention the budget chief himself, Gary Crawford).

Mayor John Tory managed to walk that one back ever so slightly, pushing a motion at the following council meeting to partially restore the funding request a slight fraction. A gesture which amounted to little more than seeing the Ombudsman, Fiona Crean, announce she would not be seeking reappointment, fearing the `divisiveness’ would do long term harm to the office itself. Good job, Creanie, is essentially how the mayor greeted that news, and then his Executive Committee passed a motion to keep future Ombudsman’s gigs to just one, 7 year term, replacing the current 2 term, 5 years each, the 2nd, renewable at council’s pleasure, thereby reducing the politicking of the appointment process to just a one-time thing. Probably pragmatic politics but for the absolute wrong reasons.

I mean, what reason is there to resist strengthening oversight of the operations at City Hall, both the public service and elected officials? There’s been no credible criticism of the job any of the accountability officers have done. Report after report from them has been accepted by city council and city staff, many recommendations implemented. pokeintheeyeThis has never been a question of competence or performance.

So, what then?

There is no good or satisfying answer to that. Various councillors, including one currently under criminal investigation for accepting $80,000 from a fundraiser back in 2013, have seen the accountability investigations as some sort of witch hunt. During the hyper-partisan years of the Ford Administration, the work done by the Ombudsman, Integrity Commissioner, Lobbyist Registrar became characterized as some sort of left-right issue, non-elected bodies trying to undermine the democratic will of the voters of Toronto. These weren’t misdeeds or missteps being committed, but acts running contrary to the sore losers on the left.

Such were dynamics of the day.

Yet these motions seem intent on dragging this past fractiousness forward, keeping the matter alive. The mayor, councillors Campbell, Di Ciano, Holyday had nothing to do with any of it. Now they seem to want to join the fray. (Matt Elliott has his usual excellent insight into the seemingly passive-aggressive role Mayor Tory’s playing in this sad melodrama.) suffocateIt’s not even clear whether the motion will be in order, if it contravenes the City of Toronto Act, which had established the accountability offices or would require changing that act.

With so much else that needs tending to in Toronto, we all know the list: infrastructure, affordable housing, transit, why are councillors wasting their time, as well as ours, and, undoubtedly, threatening to further dig a partisan divide, by attacking and diminishing the accountability offices?

We need to listen very carefully to each and every councillor who rises to speak in favour of this motion next week at city council. They must spell out clearly and concisely why they think folding 4 offices into 2, 4 offices which overlap only in the function of providing oversight, will help to increase transparency and public scrutiny of the job City Hall is doing. Because, right now, I can’t think of one compelling reason to do what councillors Holyday and Di Ciano are proposing to do. Not one.

Moreover, Mayor Tory needs to step up to the plate and lead the charge killing this thing. He is too back-roomed up, too chock full of potential conflicts of interest through his continued affiliation with the likes of Rogers, brooma senior staffer of his and former lobbyist already tsked tsked by the Registrar for a lobbying transgression back in 2012 and raising eyebrows in his current capacity for talking up a Toronto Library Board candidate for the chair, to be seen as anything other than unequivocal in his opposition to any potential weakening of the accountability offices. The mayor cannot shy away from this this time around. Otherwise, he will establish the tone at City Hall that oversight is negotiable.

dubiously submitted by Cityslikr


More Casino Dreams And Other Long Shot Gambles

March 26, 2015

I am agnostic, in the noncommittal kind of way, about a casino project going in at Woodbine Racetrack. whateverBack last debate on the issue – what? 1, 2, 3 years ago now? – I was fairly adamant in my opposition to a waterfront/downtown casino as something that would bring no value with it. In fact, it might even detract from the new development going on from the Ontario Place site east through the Don and beyond.

With Woodbine? I don’t know. Gambling’s bare bones are already there. I haven’t heard any other ideas for enhancing the area. Reasonable people are making reasonable sounds about a casino helping to bring about jobs to an area hammered hard by lack of opportunities.

So, with the Executive Committee requesting a report on the prospects of a casino at Woodbine expect to hear renewed debate about the quality of those jobs, the positive and negative effects a casino will have on the area, new revenue windfall pouring into city coffers. Pretty much, the same old, same old. Essentially the same cast of characters, saying the same words only about a different location.

“This is not a pot of gold for Toronto,” Councillor Shelley Carroll said during the meeting (in all likelihood a refrain she made at the last casino debate). rollthedice“It’s a sustainability strategy for the province.”

That’s one absolute we can make about a casino in Toronto. The city’s cut of casino money will not build us affordable housing. It will not build SmartTrack. It won’t even make much of a dent into the $86 million operating budget shortfall we’ve borrowed money to pay.

Whatever leverage Toronto had with the province to up the percentage take for hosting a casino somewhere downtown will not be in place for Woodbine. Location, location, location, am I right? We will take what the province offers and, if recent interactions are any indication, somehow the city will wind up owing Queen’s Park money in return for hosting a casino at Woodbine.

At best, I imagine, if a Woodbine casino does comes to pass, we’ll be left debating whether or not the revenue it generates for the city covers the social costs inherent in expanding gambling.

Similarly, such fiscal pros and cons will be front and centre with the TTC Chair Josh Colle’s Executive Committee motion about going the public-private partnership route when it comes to building the Scarborough extension of the Bloor-Danforth line. “It is our basic responsibility to look at other ways to manage these,” Mayor Tory said, as part of the administration’s scrambling response to the reports earlier this month about cost overruns and delays with the Yonge-University-Spadina subway extension. rouletteThe TTC, it has been concluded, is no longer up to the task of managing and overseeing these big capital builds.

Maybe…Maybe…

Another way to look at this particular situation is that maybe the city should shy away from building subways where subways aren’t warranted, building subways for purely political reasons. Let’s stop pursuing bad ideas with similarly bad ideas. Start following best practices and expert advice instead of the ideology of ‘deserve’.

If Mayor Tory and TTC Chair Colle were truly worried about money and excessive costs to the city, the latter would never have supported replacing the LRT extension of the Bloor-Danforth line with a subway in the first place and the first thing the former would’ve done after becoming mayor is reopen that debate and reverse the outcome. Colle did and Tory didn’t, so neither really is in any sort of position to caution us about fiscal responsibility or whatever reasons they’re touting for pushing the P3 model to finance subway construction that shouldn’t even be on the table.

So, whatever. Go nuts. Pursue the P3 dream. Everything else about the Scarborough subway is based on a finger-crossed wing and a prayer. nomoneydownWhy not throw P3s onto that particular vanity bonfire.

But please don’t tell us it’s a sure bet. The jury is still out on the efficacy of the P3 model, just like it is on the benefits a casino delivers to municipalities.

The only thing we should know for certain is that politicians championing casinos and P3s are pitching us the lure of easy money and easy answers. We can have whatever it is we want and not pay the full freight. Nothing upfront, interest to be paid eventually, by somebody else.

feeling luckily submitted by Cityslikr


Don’t Hoist Up The Mission Accomplished Just Yet

March 25, 2015

wetblanketNot to rain on anybody’s parade, and get their blanket wet in order to dampen out their enthusiasm, but a ranked ballot system of voting is not some silver bullet that’s going to singularly slay our election and governance woes.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a big fan of ranked ballots. Any improvement on the corrupted first-past-the-post manner in which we currently elect our politicians will be a good one. A system is fundamentally broken that allows a person/party with the support of less than 2-in-5 voters to make 5-out of-5 of the decisions.

And I heartily applaud Mayor John Tory for his enthusiastic endorsement of the ranked ballot initiative currently awaiting final approval at Queen’s Park. It’s one thing for a politician, elected the old fashioned way, to mouth platitudes about an electoral system that will possibly make it more difficult for them to get re-elected. Another thing entirely for that politician in power to actively push for that change.

Still…

I worry about our collective sigh of relief if ranked ballots do come to pass for the 2018 municipal election. There, that’s now done with. magicwandEverything will immediately be better.

While I have absolutely no reason to doubt the immediate impact the move to ranked ballots had on the municipal election in Minneapolis in 2013, I’d warn against any assumption of an automatic transference of similar success in Toronto. Variables between cities are many, starting with a big size differential between Minneapolis and Toronto. Toronto’s city council is 3 times the size of the Minneapolis council. Does that make implementation easier there than it would be here?

My guess is ranked ballots will have an instant effect in places of the city with an already highly engaged resident base. They know the issue. Some have helped fight to make it a reality. Ranked ballots will be an easy take in these places.

But as anyone who’s knocked on doors during an election campaign will tell you, such a heightened level of civic engagement is not uniform throughout the city. fallowgroundIn many spots, disengagement is the norm, and much of it has little to do with how we elect our members of city council. Indirectly, it’s not even about who we elect to city council. It’s about the low level of expectations residents have about what City Hall does to make their lives better.

Any notion that an improved voting system will suddenly re-engage a deeply disengaged citizenry is nothing short of wishful thinking. To imagine the voter who can’t tell you the name of their sitting city councillor will enthusiastically embrace a list of names to pick three from seems, I don’t know, overly optimistic. Just more names and more choices of do-nothing politicians who will only make an appearance when they want your vote.

Knowing Dave Meslin, the prime mover behind RaBIT, I can confidently state that he doesn’t view ranked ballots in this magic solution manner. I’m just afraid that too many of us will see its implementation and get complacent, figuring the deadweight city councillors that sit heavily on Toronto’s politics will be swept aside by the tides of history. Here’s a hammer, people. RaBITFinish building the house with it.

It’s fantastic to offer up the possibility of how to change the system. There’s little reason to expect ranked ballots won’t deliver the opportunity to shake things up. But true civic engagement lies with convincing those not yet convinced why they would want the system changed. The how to won’t fully work without the how will. How will electing new faces, more diversity on city council, improve the lives of residents, their streets, neighbourhoods and communities?

Answering that question will take a lot more than changing the way we vote.

not unenthusiastically submitted by Cityslikr


A Matter Of Accountability

March 24, 2015

If John Tory, upon taking over the mayor’s office, had really wanted to signal a break with his predecessor’s administration, he’d have gone all in in supporting City Hall’s accountability offices. hulksmashSerious breaches of city council’s code of conduct were numerous and investigated by the Integrity Commissioner. Public complaints about ‘the administration of city government’ to the Ombudsman’s office skyrocketed. Both offices were overwhelmed with work and requests without the proper resources to fully respond.

Yet, he didn’t. His support for both offices through his first budget process was tepid, at best, calculated at worst. At the budget committee wrap up meeting, a motion was passed to cut requests for increased staff in the Ombudsman and Integrity Commissioner’s offices to zero, none, zip. Public pushback resulted in Mayor Tory’s motion at city council the following week to restore, ever so slightly, a fraction of those requests, including 1 new staffer (of the 6 asked for) for the Ombudsman. Just enough to be able to say publicly, We love the work these offices do! while still being able to keep a straight face.

The current Ombudsman, Fiona Crean, was so grateful and impressed by the gesture that she subsequently decided not to seek reappointment to her post in the fall, a reappointment that should’ve happened two years ago, a full reappointment denied her by city councillors not happy with some of her findings. thanksfornothing(That is another sad, sordid story completely.)

“Council is not living up to the commitment of fairness and independent oversight that was promised in the City of Toronto Act,” the Ombudsman said during yesterday’s announcement. “The debate on my reappointment next week promises to be divisive, and I feel this will hurt the office, and its efforts to ensure fairness for the city’s residents.”

Mayor Tory could’ve stepped up and championed the Ombudsman, tried to dampen the divisiveness. He didn’t, only applauding Ms. Crean for a job well done with “gusto and determination”. Don’t let the door hit you… Here’s your hat. What’s your hurry?

Now, I’m not going to impugn the mayor with questionable motives for his lukewarm support of the Ombudsman but I will say, just in terms of optics, you’d think Mayor Tory would want the perception of his defending of the city’s accountability offices rock solid and airtight. whatsyourhurryGiven the number of potential conflicts of interest he might be subject to, largely through his connections to Rogers, (I mean how many votes did he sit out for that very reason at last council meeting?), the last thing he’d want is to appear lackadaisical in his views of the oversight officers. Last term was beset with the tumult such an attitude from the mayor’s office established. Mayor Tory could’ve delivered a real break with that.

He didn’t, and my best guess is that he (or his staff) is listening to all the wrong people on the issue. Councillors with an axe to grind with either or both the Integrity Commissioner or Ombudsman. Councillors unhappy with being under the oversight microscope, and taking their findings personally rather than professionally. Thin-skinned public servants unhappy with public scrutiny of their performance.

The company you keep, am I right?

“I had hoped, following the recent election, that the political climate surrounding the ombudsman’s office would have changed,” the Ombudsman said. stainedshirt“When I saw the divisive nature of the debate at budget committee, I made the decision over the past week that I would not seek reappointment.”

Mayor Tory had an opportunity to change the tone between city council and its accountability officers, from adversarial to a more cooperative one. He didn’t. He merely shrugged, unwilling to spend any political capital on the matter as if it wasn’t really that important to him. Now he gets to wear the Ombudsman’s departure because it’s all on him.

warily 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