Conservatives To Cities: We’re Just Not That Into You

February 3, 2011

Trying to shake free of the grip events in Egypt have had on me for the past couple days and get on with life… even writing that makes me squirm in embarrassment. Sorry about all that repression and killing of unarmed civilians, Egyptians, but I’ve got a post to write. Hold tight. I’ll be back in a jif.

I was struck while watching the situation unfold in Cairo’s Tahrir Square by the thought that governments, especially authoritarian ones, must hate cities. All those millions of people, gathering together, plotting, resisting, café latteing. While it may make for some easy turkey shoots, exerting control in cities of millions can ultimately prove impossible. Thus, unlawful assembly edicts tend to be urban oriented. Country rabble rousers are easily rounded up with a quick visit to the closet highway exit Tim Hortons location.

In between paroxysms of outrage and despair, I came across a series of articles yesterday that suggested even non-dictatorial states aren’t really that crazy about cities. It either began here or here or, quite possibly, here (which is why I love the internet. Stories nested within stories, allowing you to read about a subject for hours on end without so much as a bathroom break. Just strap on your Depends and wallow in the informational overload.)

Now, much of this has a very American slant and is not entirely relevant to us in Canada especially the views on the U.S. Senate being, at heart, an anti-urban institution due, in part, to the power wielded by the many smaller populated states. Although we have had a variation on that argued here recently about the under-representation of the more populous regions in both our federal and provincial legislatures. This discrepancy has allowed our current Prime Minister to piece together a workable minority government over the last 5 years without any representation in the country’s 3 largest cities. And all his machinations to build a winning majority have not included attempts to garner increased urban support.

Which brings me to the pertinent point of all these articles: the politics at the centre of this anti-urbanism. Conservatives seem to take a dim view of cities. Or at least, the higher density, public transit depending, non-car loving, artsy-fartsy, (you know where I’m going with this), downtown, pinko elitist parts of cities. On the surface you could argue, why wouldn’t they? Downtowners are not their kind of people and don’t tend to vote Conservative. So, fuck `em. Conversely however, it could be pointed out that Conservatives don’t stand for anything much that downtowners might get behind.

It’s a thought we touched upon a little last August when we reviewed Tim Falconer’s book, Drive.  After talking to the Sierra Club’s Transportation Committee chair, John Holtzclaw, who believes that higher density living creates a more open-minded, tolerant society, Mr. Falconer concludes that, “People who live closer together and are less dependent on the automobile develop a different attitude toward citizenship and activism.” A different attitude from one that prizes individualism over the collective as the surest vehicle toward achieving well-being.

Conservative antipathy toward urbanism is nothing new nor is it something they possessed exclusively. E. Barbara Phillips noted in City Lights the early 20th-century perception of city life was largely negative. “Alienation. Rootlessness. Superficial relationships. The loss of human connections. Materialsim. Money instead of personal relations as the bond of association among people.” One moved to the city out of necessity while pining for the simplicity of small town life.

Understandable as we still saw ourselves as a largely agrarian country. A century later, however, and that is no longer the case. Despite our wide open spaces and iconic national images of the Rocky Mountains, prairie wheat fields and (formerly) frozen tundra, we are now an urban nation, like it or not. As of 2006, nearly 14 million Canadians lived in cities with populations of 500,000 or more. That’s almost half of us and the percentage over the last 5 years certainly won’t have declined.

It’s all part of a global urban trend which makes our anti-urbanism somewhat archaic and more than a little self-destructive. As cities go, so goes their countries, and if we insist on knee-capping them with outdated approaches to planning, transit, sustainability and infrastructure, we will make ourselves less competitive and less economically viable. Aren’t those the core of conservative values?

He asks, living in a city that just elected a mayor who needs space, his own driveway and backyard. A mayor that thought it necessary to build parking for a new proposed waterfront aquarium site that the developer’s chose “… because of the (pedestrian and transit) options…” and that “… parking made the project not financially viable…” A mayor whose administration is eyeing with suspicion sustainable and green initiatives as something outside of a city’s “core services”.

Yeah, some points of view die hard and when they rise up to take control of the levers of power, all we can do is resist mightily and try to mitigate the damage until we regain our civic senses. We can also take solace in the fact that at least so far here in Canada, anti-urbanism hasn’t achieved conspiracy level status where light rail transit, sustainable development and smart growth are seen as some U.N. plot to pry right thinking Americans out of their “personal mobility machines” and into tiny, cramped “human habitation zones”. It’s a sci-fi, dystopian view of cities that conservatives seem bound and determined to make a reality.

city mousedly submitted by Cityslikr


To Not Defend Democracy Everywhere Is To Not Defend Democracy Anywhere

February 2, 2011

Maybe it’s the winter blahs. Maybe it’s the disappointment over the lack of an actual, real life snowstorm that failed to descend upon us last night. Maybe it’s just the lull before the budgetary storm, between the committee meetings and public deputations and flutter of indecision in the Ford administration about what and how deep to cut, and when the thing goes before the full council to be voted on in the last week of February…

I’m sorry. Where was I going with that? I’m a little distracted and been finding it difficult to concentrate on the goings-on around the city over the last few days. You see, there’s this little life-and-death struggle for democracy happening over there in Egypt, a country located smack dab between Syria and Iran if I’m to believe the good people over at Fox News.

It’s difficult, almost impossible actually, to summon up enthusiasm for the political battles here on the home front, whether its attacks on public transit or our libraries or public sector employees, not because they aren’t important to defend but right now they seem, not insignificant, just minor compared to what people are fighting for (and against) in Egypt.

I step out onto less parochial political terrain here very, very tentatively. My knowledge of Egypt specifically and the Mideast in general is nowhere near what it should be. Yet it does seem to be undeniable that what we’re witnessing there is a genuine democratic movement finally bucking up from under a horrifically repressive regime that has had the very explicit backing of western democracies for a very long time now.

This should be a cause for much rejoicing and enthusiastic support on our part, shouldn’t it? Cheers certainly went up when the Tunisian strongman, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was chased from the country he’d ruled for over 20 years last month. But in Egypt, well, things aren’t as simply clear-cut as all that.

The thing is, they never are. That’s just a fact of life. If choices were always easy, always starkly black and white, any knucklehead could make them. We probably wouldn’t even need to elect governments to do our thinking for us.

But when a people regardless of where they are, regardless of their religion, regardless of their… politics, let’s call it, coalesce under the banner of democracy to demand all those things we blithely take for granted like free speech, freedom of assembly, freedom from want, our first and only instinct should be nothing short of, absolutely. We are with you. What can we do to help?

The tepid responses so far from our governments, the western world, the developed democracies, to the situation in Egypt have been, while certainly not shocking or surprising, dispiriting and deflating. If we had reputations in the Arab world that could be damaged, it would also be damaging. Our humming and hawing while revolution and violent reaction rip through Egypt reveal, once more, that our commitment to democratic ideals are fickle and transparently arbitrary. No more so than when it comes to Muslim countries in the Mideast.

Every time we hesitate to embrace those in the region who put their lives on the line in the fight for a more fair, equitable and democratic society (usually in tandem with our refusal to jettison a relationship with a despotic autocrat who has helped maintain our ‘interests’ there with an iron fist), we cleave another wedge into the possibility of rapprochement with the wider society. We show ourselves to be hypocritical and undependable when defending the free wills of all people. Democracy is good. For some. It’s negotiable not essential for everyone. What’s in it for us, your democracy?

To deem a democratic movement inconvenient, inopportune or destabilizing suggests that there are certain conditions that have to be met before democracy can be granted which sort of undercuts every principle of democracy, doesn’t it? It’s as if the concept comes with an asterisk that takes you to pages and pages of fine print. Watching events in Egypt transpire in real time, it looks like one of those clauses reads: Some Muslims May Not Qualify.

Continued resistance to the Egyptians demanding justice and freedom suggests that we’re not, in fact, all that married to democracy. We’ve forgotten its true meaning and, ultimately, are no more deserving of it than those we’re watching die for it in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and throughout the country right now.

submitted by Cityslikr