Disengage From Disengagement

August 13, 2013

The problem with democracy is elections.

Maybe I should re-phrase that.imdone

The problem with democracy is elections as markers for civic engagement. Voting every 4 years, give or take, represents the full extent of involvement in the democratic process. Politicians claim a mandate. You don’t like it? Well, vote them out next election.

Democracy becomes solely about elections not governing.

It’s easy for both sides of the equation, the electors and the elected. We voted. Our job’s done. They voted. Talk to you again in 4 years.

That’s not engagement. That’s advertising, really. Pick a product. Try it out. If you don’t like it, pick another.

That’s not participation. That’s shopping. productA consumer rather than a contributor.

I mull this over, having read through Sherry Arnstein’s 1969 tract, A Ladder of Citizen Participation. (h/t @elcostello and @HearsnMindsTO) While the language and 60s revolutionary sentiment comes across as somewhat dated, its take on civic engagement is wholly relevant. “There is a critical difference,” Arnstein wrote, “between going through the empty ritual of participation and having the real power needed to affect the outcome of the process.”

This goes beyond just voting. Here in Toronto over the course of the past three years, we have experienced a very real uptick in citizen participation. Remember that 24 hour+ public deputations at an Executive Committee meeting back in July 2011 in reaction to the proposed budget and service cuts? The first of many intense exchanges between the public and their elected representatives.

But is it anything more than ‘empty ritual’?deputations

There were certainly push backs on the 2012 budget with some $20 million restored to the budget on the council floor a few months later. Vocal citizen dissent hasn’t gone completely unheard in the halls of power but it’s been drowned out at times by the voices the mayor and his councillor-brother hear on the street and in Tim Horton’s. You could argue the administration’s been neutralized, its mandate for massive rollbacks has itself been rolled back to something of a standstill.

It would be difficult to deny, however, that the process is far from inclusive. In terms of something as important and vital as budgeting at the city level – more open and transparent than either the feds or province, mind you – citizen input is the last to be considered. The mayor and his budget chief demand on overall direction which staff, led by the city manager,deputation then shape into preliminary budget form. By that time, it is the document that has to be deviated from in terms of input by both city council and the general public.

Nothing’s set in stone but the tone is definitely established. It’s now all about asks and trade-offs instead of contributions and ideas that build the document from the ground up. The public doesn’t really participate in constructing a budget. It adds colour commentary.

Even something as open and ground floor-ish as the city’s Feeling Congested TO roll out, public consultations about transit expansion throughout the city and region, had something of a pre-packaged feel to it. Here are the choices we are giving you. What are your thoughts?

It was especially notable in the revenue tools part of the process. At the one public meeting I attended up in York this spring, an immediate question some in the crowd had for staff was about the absence of a corporate taxes box for them to check. We’d been given a whole host of revenue tools with which to generate the necessary money to build new transit but corporate taxation was off the table.pickone

Whose decision was that?

A good question that we should ask at every point of contact between the public and its elected officials. Whose decision was that? If the answer is, Yours, John Q. Public, when you voted me into office, we should start questioning just how vibrant and robust our democracy actually is.

In the comments section here at All Fired Up in the Big Smoke, it isn’t unusual to get the occasional response that basically suggests that if we think we’re such smarty-pants, why don’t we run for office. (Happened just this week, in fact.) As if that’s the only avenue of participation open to anyone. You’re either on the inside or you’re on the outside, looking in with no recourse other than trying to get inside.

Councillor Doug Ford exhibited that mentality back in 2011 when he got into a virtual spat with author Margaret Atwood over proposed library cuts. “Tell her to go run in the next election and get democratically elected,” the councillor said. Until then, folks, let the politicians make all the decisions.

getinvolved

When engagement and participation end with the casting of a ballot, and only re-visited next election campaign, that’s the mere appearance of democracy. Citizen participation needs to be a full time gig. Otherwise politics simply gets left to the professionals and very few of us wind up happy with that state of affairs. That current state of affairs.

exhortingly submitted by Cityslikr


The Age of Ralph Kramden

July 27, 2011

A wise person (with a tendency for using somewhat salty language) once said to me: If you want people to stop calling you a dick, stop being a dick and stop saying dickish things. Ahhh, granny. Never one to pull her punches.

Seems straightforward enough but I guess some people can’t help themselves. Being a dick is just part of who they are, it’s in their DNA. Dickish by nature.

On a completely unrelated note, what a past few days for Mayor Ford and Brother Doug, eh? The mayor driving around, talking on his cell phone, and may or may not have given another driver the finger when confronted about his illegal activity. Not to be outdone Councillor Ford continued his War on Books, slagging Margaret Atwood (who he may or may not know of), making up any old shit about the usefulness and numbers of libraries in his neck of the woods and just generally running neck-and-neck with his brother in a race to earn the biggest WTF?! headline.

Most people might be a bit, I don’t know, embarrassed by such glowing for the wrong reasons behaviour. But embarrassment doesn’t seem to be a particular Ford family trait unless it’s foisted upon them and then reluctantly mouthed because there is no other way to worm out of it. Enforced contrition, let’s call it, rarely worth the paper it’s printed out on.

Back in my day, such willful disregard of the truth, criticism and civility was greeted with a large degree of disdain and righteous mockery. I’ll even use a big word here. Opprobrium. In fact, such displays on my part might mean me, granny and a switch meeting behind the woodshed. People were not celebrated or esteemed for ignorance. Well thought out, well articulated ideas weren’t scorned as being elitist or out-of-touch egghead-y.

Or is that just me, looking back foggily through misty nostalgic eyes?

I don’t remember anyone arrogantly touting their know-nothingness. Except, of course, for the actual Know-Nothings, and they were a little before my time. We didn’t shy away from leaders who were smarter than we were. We didn’t resent them for their knowledge, education or erudition. Even the inveterate liar and all-round snake, Richard Nixon, knew stuff although it should be noted that he was a trailblazer in stirring up and appealing to the resentment that fueled his Silent Majority. Nixon was many things but a dummy was not one of them.

Not so, our current crop of politicians. They stumble over themselves to prove that they are as ill-informed, myopic and just-one-of-youse as the part of the electorate they successfully woo. We’re no politicians, they assure us, as they seek public office. Elect me and I’ll see to it that nothing smart, innovative or progressive is ever enacted while I’m in charge.

Let me confess at this point that I am not a Margaret Atwood reader, having never recovered from the imposition of Surfacing upon me against my will as a schoolboy. In fact, my fiction reading over the last few years has been in shockingly short supply. Neither do I attend the theatre much anymore. Atom Egoyan be leaning on my last nerve, yo. I’ve never been a fan of dance, modern or classic. And don’t get me started about opera.

I tell you this with no sense of pride or in boast. In fact, I consider it a serious character flaw on my part. Something I should try and rectify if only I could stop watching so much baseball on these sultry summer nights.

But I am not suspicious of those who are fiction fans or opera enthusiasts. On matters that I am interested in, I seek out those who know more about subject than I do. I want to learn from them to increase my own knowledge. To better myself as a thinker and citizen. Sure, it can be intimidating and you have to let go a little of the ego that keeps telling you you’re the smartest guy in the room. I’d like to think it’s worth it, though, in the long run. How can striving to be more intelligent or, at least, informed be a bad thing?

Or wanting that inclination in our elected officials? Where exactly does dumbing down get us? Into a litany of quagmire wars and occupations throughout the world. An economy teetering on the brink of insolvency. Anti-innovation. Antiquated urban development. Regression, regression, regression at every level of public policy.

This jonesing for anti-intellectualism is seemingly impenetrable too. Any questioning of it is seen as an attack from snobby elites. It’s not a debate or discussion. It’s denigration. You think you’re smarter than me? Yeah well, go fuck yourself. I knows what I knows and nobody’s going to convince me otherwise.

So being bull-headed and mentally intransigent is not a vice but a virtue. Honest deliberation and compromise is a weakness to be exploited. Gut beats brains, hands down. Dickish behaviour is now a proven winning formula. Girls swoon. Boys emulate. A Nation forms behind it.

Where once we succeeded in sending a man to the moon, we now endeavour only to send Alice to the moon. One of these days, Alice. One of these days.

gleasonly submitted by Cityslikr