Book Club III

January 9, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ferguson, Missouri, 2014.

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

This to his young nephew:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

reverently submitted by Cityslikr


C Is For ‘Conservative Country Mouse’

April 24, 2012

Hardly equipped to wade into the fallout of last night’s Alberta election except to say that both pollsters and more right wing types from the ‘Calgary School’ and on the interwebs must be feeling a little glum today.

“In Alberta yesterday, voters were given a choice between Principled Conservatism and Unprincipled Conservatism,” The Clown At Midnight wrote. “And Unprincipled Conservatism – populism — won the day. Boy, did they ever win the day…We can stop pretending that just because our views are principled, people will share them.”

The day before the election, University of Calgary economist Frank Atkins established what exactly was at stake on a segment of the CBC’s Sunday Edition. “This is the big question right now. What do Albertans want? Do they want to be true conservatives on the right or are Albertans actually drifting to the left?”

Apparently a majority of Albertans aren’t principled or true enough conservatives for some. But I’ll leave them to battle that one out.

What did jump out at me, though, from a city perspective was a glaring urban-rural/moderate-right wing divide. Once again, cities proved to be the righter wing’s Waterloo. The Wildrose Party won only two ridings in Calgary and none Edmonton. Since more than half the Albertan provincial seats are located in those two places, that’s a mountain the party’s going to have to scale at least partially if they ever want to form the government.

Which isn’t really the strong suit of the more hardcore conservative ideologues. Cities and true, principled conservatives seem to go together like oil and water, birds of different feathers or, in terms that a Wildrose supporter might understand, the Hatfields and McCoys. They don’t quite get us. They scare us.

At the federal level, Conservatives were able to pick off enough suburban ridings especially here around Toronto to form their majority government. What did we get in return? A pedestrian tunnel to our second, smaller airport. How about a national transit strategy? Yeah, no. We’re not that close.

Conservative city love (CCL) has traditionally never really been a thing. All those great unwashed huddled there, causing trouble back in the olden days. Now, joined by champagne sipping socialists demanding we scale back car use and pay $9 for free trade coffee. What’s with these people? Cities are just somewhere you go to work and get the hell out of at 5pm.

While it may be politically advantageous at this point to exploit those antiquated divisions, it’s simply becoming bad policy, and not just at the local levels, but provincially and federally as well. Senior levels of government neglect of public transit is threatening the economic well being of the region, the province and country. A ‘national tragedy’ according to Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi. A little overwrought perhaps but certainly a national crisis.

“Gridlock and congestion impede our mobility and productivity on a daily basis,” claims the not unconservative Toronto Board of Trade. Red Tory John Tory and the Greater Toronto CivicAction Alliance are spearheading a regional transportation initiative. “Making it easier to move people, goods and services across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area is critical to our region’s economic, social and environmental prosperity.” “We have far outgrown our existing transportation infrastructure, which is not meeting the current or future needs of our growing region. This outdated system is hampering our ability to realize the rich potential of our region.”

Cities matter. Overwhelmingly, Canadians are living in cities. To ignore that fact and use outmoded electoral distribution to subvert the changing demographics is ultimately undercutting the country’s future.

It also may be self-defeating in the long run for politicians who exploit it.

In our review of Tim Falconer’s book, Drive, way back when, (an aside here: come out to the launch of his latest book next Monday. There will be drinking involved.) we excitedly noted one of the conclusions he came to after driving his way across the good ol’ U.S. of A.  “People who live closer together and are less dependent on the automobile develop a different attitude toward citizenship and activism.”

We become more liberal, shall we say?

If that’s so, politicians continue to ignore us, defy us, demonize us at their peril. As more and more voters get wise to city ways, it will pay fewer political dividends to cast them as the enemy within. Just ask the Wildrose Party today.

urbanely submitted by Cityslikr


PR PR

November 22, 2010

Lazily listening to the CBC’s Sunday Edition (at 40’15” of hour 2) yesterday morning, I found myself out-lazied by the show’s host, Michael Enright, during his segment on proportional representation in our voting system. “One of the reasons the public campaign to switch to proportional representation has never gained steam is that it’s about as simple to explain as quantum physics. And boring as well,” Enright opined.

Your public broadcaster at work, folks, shining a light of knowledge seeking into the dark recesses of our democracy. From such a promising premise, the segment then presented two 30 second (or so) ‘commercials’ that attempt to sell the idea of proportional representation. The supposition being, of course, that if you can’t sell an idea to the public in 30 seconds, what’s the sense in trying.

The concept of proportional representation is actually pretty simple and easy to explain. Here’s one from the group Fair Vote Canada: When each vote has equal value, election results are proportional. A party that receives 40% of the votes will receive close to 40% of the seats in the legislature, not 60% or more. A party which receives 20% of the votes will win close to 20% of the seats, not 10% or none at all.

How a democracy goes about implementing such a system is, admittedly, a little more complicated than merely defining it but hardly insurmountably so. That is, unless a democratic institute like, say, the Liberal led provincial government at Queen’s Park saw no benefit to its own electoral well-being by bringing in proportional representation, and deliberately muddied the waters of understanding in the referendum it presented to voters on the issue, thereby sinking whatever prospects it had under a wave of self-interest. Over 80 countries around the world already operate under some variation of proportional representation, and just because the perpetually sad-sack Italy is one of them does not mean the system cannot work.

My suggestion here is to begin with baby steps, and hell, it isn’t even truly proportional representative! Let’s begin the push to have a ranked ballots system for Toronto in time for the next municipal election. Once we get used to voting that way and see how invigorating an experience it can be, it’ll pave the way toward demanding actual proportional representation at the provincial and federal levels with what’s called a Single Transferable Vote.

Ranked ballots (or Instant Runoff Voting [IRV] or Ranked Choice Voting or Alternative Vote or Preferential Ballots), you say. What’s that?

Well, RaBIT does a much more thorough job explaining it but, the short version, a ranked ballot system ensures that candidates must be elected with no less than 50% of all votes cast. Voters are given the chance to list their candidate preference for a particular office, 1st, 2nd, 3rd. If someone wins 50% or more of the vote, they are declared the winner and the election is over. However, if no one receives more than 50% the candidate with the least votes is eliminated from the race…If your preferred candidate is eliminated from the race, your vote is automatically transferred to your second choice. Again, the votes are counted and if someone has a majority, they are declared the winner. If not, another candidate eliminated and it repeats until there is a majority winner. This is all done without voters having to re-vote as happens during leadership conventions. One vote albeit, 1, 2, 3 in order of preference for each office that you’re casting a ballot for.

Like I said, ranked ballots aren’t true proportional representation and work much better at a party-less municipal level like we have in Toronto. Chances are, Rob Ford with 47% of the vote would’ve become mayor even under a ranked ballot system. But only 23 of our 44 councillors won their wards with over 50% of the vote with some truly eye-poppingly low numbers among those who didn’t. 25% for Gary Crawford in ward 36. 28% for Kristyn Wong-Tam in ward 27. 27% for Frank Di Giorgio in ward 12. 19% for James Pasternak in ward 10!!! Not to mention the handful of other council races that were settle by mere percentage point with the winner pulling in just 40% of votes.

That’s not representative democracy. That’s… disgraceful, is what it is. It breeds disregard for the will of the people, makes them contemptuous of a process that needs to be inclusive and participatory. Simply settling for our ingrained first-past-the-post method of electing candidates because anything else is too complicated or boring to contemplate reveals a hollowness at the core of citizenship. If we can’t be bothered to do our part in shoring up democracy, how dare we expect those we elect to do or be any better.

dutifully submitted by Cityslikr