The Politics Of Driving

May 9, 2016

Last week, I wrote about my self-diagnosed case of SUV-induced driving madness. The act of transforming into another, more horrible person while operating a motorized vehicle. gentlemenjekyllTurns out, that actually might be a thing, an ailment.

In response to the post, @trapdinawrpool sent me a 1950 National Film Board short film, Gentlemen Jekyll and Driver Hyde. Seems this has been a nasty condition afflicting drivers pretty much from the get-go of the auto age. Road rage.

We also received in our comments section a couple very interesting and pertinent links. A Wikipedia page to ‘Traffic psychology’, most of it not good or healthy. Also, a Guardian article from August 2013, Bad driving: what are we thinking?

Aside from pointing out that I’m not very original or breaking new ground here, it did feed into something that’s been percolating in my noggin for a bit now, accelerated significantly during my time spent down in Los Angeles earlier this year. Is there a link between our driving and our politics? Not necessarily big P politics but the way one approaches (or doesn’t) the political process, the expectations we hold of our elected officials and the demands we make of them.

Decades of research in traffic psychology suggests that poor driving is shaped by far more than carelessness or a subset of “problem drivers”. Even the most skilled road users are subject to loss of social awareness, intuitive biases, contradictory beliefs, and limits in cognitive capacity.

Decades of research in voting psychology suggests that political beliefs are shaped by far more than carelessness or a subset of “problem voters”. drivefreeEven the most skilled voters are subject to loss of social awareness, intuitive biases, contradictory beliefs and limits in cognitive capacity.

Strategically replace a couple words and phrases, and that paragraph still makes some sense.

In Fighting Traffic, Peter D. Norton’s book on the rise of the private automobile to the top of our transportation system heap, he points out how, in the early days when car makers were fighting for legitimacy and pushing back on the public perception of drivers as a dangerous menace on city streets, personal freedom and individual rights were evoked. Driving as a noble act, the logical outcome of the scientific age of reason, everything the Founding Fathers envisioned. I drive, therefore I am.

The automotive city arose in part from an attack on the old customs of street use and an effort to let individual liberty and free markets rule there too. From American ideals of political and economic freedom, motordom fashioned the rhetorical lever it needed.

Nearly a century later and this appeal to the spirit of individualism remains strong in the selling of cars. TV ads full of open roads, running through empty country, trekking deep into the wild frontier. getofmylawn“Long live the pioneers!”

The ascendancy of car travel and commuting contributed, not in a minor way, to the spread of the suburban design of cities that we contend with today. Detached, single-family homes on large lots, single-use building codes strictly maintained, industry here, commercial there, residential over that way, fed by and dependent upon car travel. The accentuation of private space enabled, ironically, by massive public spending in road and freeway infrastructure.

Can the leap be made, though, connecting the triumph of the car, and its emphasis on individual convenience and “freedom” (I just had to put that into quotes), to the rise in political conservatism, especially of the modern conservative type? Certainly not by me, not in this post. roadrageAnd certainly not as the sole culprit, the…a-hem, a-hem…driving force behind a political movement.

It is a concept worth contemplating further, I believe. Look, at the political dynamics here in Toronto, amalgamated Toronto. Consider those areas of the city where the residents are more car dependent and underserved by public transit. Etobicoke, North York, Scarborough, for example. What wards do some of the most conservative city councillors represent, your Fords, Holydays, Minnan-Wongs, Norm Kellys? Where there is access to public transit and driving isn’t a necessity? Downtown, the old legacy city, essentially. That’s where you’ll find your most ardent left wingers, your Perks, Laytons and McConnells.

Coincidence? I don’t think so. Correlation versus causation? That’s a tougher nut to crack, for sure. But I do think the overlap between how we get around our city and how we view the city is an important angle to explore. asamatteroffact(It probably has been already, extensively, and I’m just behind in my reading.) When the most significant public space to you during the course of an average day is that spot where you can park your car cheaply, your politics may be vastly different than those of somebody looking for a nice quiet spot in the sunshine to have a bite to eat during their lunch hour.

curiously submitted by Cityslikr

<


The Defeat Device

September 29, 2015

The basis of the appeal of the private automobile has always been a kind of mystically perceived total freedom. In practice, it is the freedom to go wherever one wants to go (wherever the roads go, which opens up another socioeconomic can of worms), whenever one desires to go (whenever the car is ready, when one has paid the price in preparation and maintenance, in taxation and legal qualification, whenever one has the wherewithal simply to feed the machine), at whatever rate one desires to go (assuming the traffic will allow, that congestion eases – and at rates up to but not beyond the arbitrary standards established to protect one from the dangers of excessive use of his own freedom).

Never mind the cavils, however; mobility, or the illusion thereof, has indeed been the prime attraction, the dream for which we have so cheerfully paid all those other costs. The tragedy is that if mobility alone had been the single goal in the development of the modern private automobile, we could have achieved a better measure of it for a fraction of a percentage point of the cost we have paid.

— John Jerome, The Death of the Automobile, 1972

It should be unsettling to all of us that we have built our lives around, designed the places we live and work to, hinged an unhealthy segment of our economy on this “mystically perceived total freedom” of the private automobile. deathoftheautomobileSo engrained is this perception of the individual life enhancing power of the car that we cannot imagine a future without one, a future, like the past two generations, of unimodal transportation policy revolving entirely around our use of private vehicles. Anything else is inconceivable.

Our mayor will be pursuing an item at city council this week that will, if successful, drain $350 million from the capital budget in order to speed up repairs on the Gardiner Expressway, shrinking the timeline from 20 to 8 years. So important to our local economy that people not be hampered in getting around the city in their cars, Mayor Tory believes this to be a wise and prudent expense of public dollars. Just like spending hundreds of millions more money to keep a small eastern section of the same expressway elevated makes sense to him.

The primacy of the automobile is simply self-evident. As it was so it shall ever be. carad5Stopping such madness only serves to reveal it was madness from the very beginning.

While you can certainly accuse the mayor of lacking much imagination and even less foresight, you can’t necessarily fault him. The car mythology has been deeply engrained in us, sold to us unrelentingly, in 30 second spots during the Super Bowl, filling up magazine pages, providing regular content in pop culture. Little Deuce Coup to the Fast and Furious. Baby, you can drive my car and we’ll have fun, fun, `til your daddy takes the T-bird away. (That makes no sense but nothing about car adulation does).

We have been bamboozled by marketing and PR. In this way, the automotive industry has much in common with Big Tobacco. Actually, in another important way as well. Mass deception and perfidy resulting in a steady march of hundreds of thousands to the graveyard.

Truth in advertising.

We laugh now at the outrageous claims of pretend doctors pitching their favourite brand of cigarettes. Cool menthol. Lucky Strike. It’s Toasted! Low tar and nicotine. I’d Rather Fight Than Switch. carad4Come To Where The Flavour Is, you Marlboro Man Men, a succession of pitchmen dying of lung cancer.

But how much more realistic is your everyday car commercial? Mostly, drivers and their freedom-loving passengers, tearing it up along the open road, nary another car in sight, even in the most populous of cities. Ads highlighting the new features that a company has developed to keep your family safe deny the obvious. Your family would be much safer not travelling around the city in a car.

One of the most cynical spots on TV right now is one featuring the band X Ambassadors, touring America in a Jeep, writing lyrics, listening to music on the radio, taking in the sights. And where do they wind up for a gig? At a venue that says ‘Portland’ on its marquee. Portland, Oregon. Perhaps the leading North American city committed to reducing its dependence of private automobiles.

Renegades, my ass, you TV jinglemakers. Fuck you, X Ambassadors. Fuck you, Jeep. Fuck you, car industry.

A little over-the-top? An unfair comparison, cars and cigarettes? One is a delivery system for an addictive, toxic virulence which was well-known but hidden and denied by corporations and the other…

Volkswagen: The scandal explained. ‘Diesel dupe’. ‘Defeat device’. carad2A mammoth multinational company consciously working to defy regulations in order to sell their product which dumps untold amounts of dangerous, deadly shit into the atmosphere. Yeah, that’s the other.

It’s not like this is some singular event by an outlier. Car companies have been slipping and dodging government environmental regulations for, well, probably since the advent of environmental regulations. “Manufacturers have long been accused of using specially prepared cars to produce the best possible [miles-per-gallon performance] figures.”

The entire Age of the Automobile has been predicated on lies and slick, misleading advertising. Like all advertising, it’s based on a perceived lifestyle with the promise of easy, economical and efficient mobility at its core. Like all advertising, it’s not entirely true. Not even close.

This is not news, particularly. There’s nothing revelatory in that statement. Car dependence is killing us, and disfiguring our cities and communities in the process. But we’re too far in, it seems, to do much about it. carad1We just continue to dig the hole deeper, tossing more money after bad, hoping to find a solution somewhere in that deep, dark pit.

The denial sits heavily. We can’t possibly have been this stupid to have bought so whole-heartedly into such a fantasy, spun by corporate entities. Can we? No. Let’s just keep doing what we’ve been doing.

More than 40 years on, we refuse to accept the reality of what we’ve done.

Technology isn’t evil, but the uses of technology often are. The car is a bad machine – and the solution is not to build a better bad machine, but rather not to build bad machines. Yet this huge, wealthy nation is trapped with what is virtually a single transportation system, and to suggest simply abandoning that system is to suggest paralyzing the nation. We have become addicted to automobiles; they have become literally a necessity to sustaining life.

autohatingly submitted by Cityslikr


Book Club VI

February 16, 2015

It’d be easy to write Harry Smith off as a novelty. He’s the 91 year-old fresh-faced author of Harry’s Last Stand and internet phenom, ‘This year, I will wear a poppy for the last time’. harrysmithAhhhh. Isn’t that cute. Great grandpa knows how to use a computer!

Certainly, Smith’s style, how he strings his story together, would hardly disabuse you of viewing him as a novice. His prose is no nonsense, straight forward if at times meandering. A reader reads often of how Smith sees himself and his life, all things considered, as a lucky man, in constant awe of how he’s lived so long, survived what he survived.

There’s almost something childlike about him and his take on the world he’s lived in. He possesses a seemingly bottomless faith in the goodness of people, a belief in their ability to turn even the most hopeless of situations around. Sure things look bleak but Harry’ll tell you they’ve been bleaker. The answers to our problems are as plain as the noses on our faces. All we need is a little resolve and a big dose of collective action.

It’s startling to read something so lacking in guile and free of cynical spin. Harry’s got an agenda, no question about it. But he wears it right out there on his sleeve. This is how it was. This is how it is. This is how to fix it.

His answers to the problems that plague us – essentially Harry’s angry at the unravelling of the welfare state – are not new or particularly ground breaking. margaretthatcherHow do you simply reverse a generation of anti-government sentiment and private sector veneration? The collective will has taken an awful beating since Margaret Thatcher (one of Smith’s bete noires) declared society as not a thing. Taxation isn’t a means to an end these days. It’s just mean.

The golden days of the post-war welfare state come across as a little too golden in Smith’s telling. He glosses over the period in the 70s when it hit a serious snag. The oil crisis, stagflation, perceived union militancy, everything that paved the way for the neoconservative coming of Ronald Reagan and Maggie Thatcher.

In one telling scene, Harry recounts meeting up with some old mates during the long hot summer of 1977 to have a few drinks and watch a football match. He keeps quiet during a heated political conversation of the state of affairs. Afterward, a friend asks why.

I was just thinking that things are bad today, but not for me. Not like how it was in the past. I’m worried about how everything is changing and getting mucked up. But I feel lucky. I can pay my mortgage, I can pay for our groceries. I can even take holidays with my wife. Besides, my lads are healthy and my oldest is at uni – that’s more than we could have ever hoped for. And I know it is a bit of a worry for you, but your house is paid for and retirement is nearby. Your daughter’s done her schooling and now has a right good job. It weren’t like before, because we have better housing, the NHS and real universities that the working class can attend and make something of themselves in.

“It weren’t like before…”

Yes, things were bad in 1977 for a lot of people but nowhere near as bad for the likes of Harry Smith who’d lived through the worst of the Great Depression, gone off to fight in World War II, witnessed first-hand the destruction it wrought. texaschainsawmassacreHe was a middle-aged man in 1977. He’d fought his fight. How much more was expected from him?

Besides, who could imagine such a full frontal assault on everything good that had been built from the ashes of the war? Housing. Health care. Affordable education. A genuine sense of equality of opportunity and meritocracy.

That’s the world nearly 40 years on that Harry Smith sees. A regression to the meanness of the age he was born into. The long, slow surrender of liberalism, to paraphrase the title of a March 2014 Harper’s I just happened to read after finishing Harry’s Last Stand. (Faithful readers will know of my own long, slow slog with a handful of magazine subscriptions that keeps me roughly a year behind current issues.)

The left has no particular place it wants to go. And, to rehash an old quip, if you have no destination, any direction can seem as good as any other…It lacks focus and stability; its metier is bearing witness, demonstrating solidarity, and the event or the gesture. Its reflex is to “send messages” to those in power, to make statements, and to stand with or for the oppressed.

This dilettantish politics is partly the heritage of a generation of defeat and marginalization, of decades without any possibility of challenging power or influencing policy. So the left operates with no learning curve and is therefore always vulnerable to new enthusiasm. It long ago lost the ability to move forward under its own steam…

As political scientist professor Adolph Reed Jr. sees it, Harry Smith isn’t wrong or off the mark in his ideas of what’s happened. nothingleftThe left got thumped in a couple of elections, and rather than stand up, dust itself off and wade back into the fray, it caved, adopting the harsh, 19th-century narrative of the right, attempting to merely soften the sharp edges of the ascendant ideology. Big government and welfare became dirty words. Greed was good. A rising economic tide did raise all boats.

Blah, blah, blah, and despite all evidence to the contrary.

Reed Jr. is more critical and damning of both the Clinton and Obama administrations than any of the Fox News inpired crazies on the right. They both continued the Republican led attacks on the public sector, expanded the war-mongering international forays and assault on civil and human rights, loosened the restraints on the out-of-control financial industrial complex. “It’s difficult to imagine that a Republican administration could have been much more successful in advancing Reaganism’s agenda [than Clinton did]”, Reed Jr. writes. “We’re Eisenhower Republicans here,” Clinton declared. “We stand for lower deficits, free trade and the bond market. Isn’t that great!”fellforit

Liberal acquiescence to the neoconservative war on liberalism was not just some American exceptionalism. Think Tony Blair’s Labour triangulation in the U.K. and his ultimate cuddling up to George W. in their post-9/11 Iraq fiasco. Here in Canada, the left’s reshaping of itself as just a softer, gentler manager of the triumphant neoliberal project, concerned with pocket book issues rather than grander collective ideals. Electability, we are told, depends on a public declaration that there are limits on what government can do for us.

For 35 years now, all the ‘vaporous progressive politics’ can claim is how awful it would be if conservatives were still in charge/came back to power. There’s nothing about how much better things could be. Just, how much worse they would be. You think you’ve got it tough now? fellforit1Yeah well, this is as good as it gets in this system we’ve heartily endorsed in order to remain politically relevant.

Both Harry Smith and Adolph Reed Jr. agree on the damage done but disagree, not on the causes, but on the culprits. If we just pull together like we did back in the day, Smith essentially says, we can beat back this neoconservative scourge. Reed Jr., on the other hand, senses a more difficult path forward. “The crucial tasks for a committed left…now are to admit that no politically effective force exists and to begin trying to create one.”

There’s no ‘we’ to currently pull together, Reed Jr. believes, at least not in any official, political capacity. That may be the most successful aspect of modern conservatism, this obliteration of any sense of ‘we’, replacing it with just the individualistic ‘you’ and ‘me’. hollowmenAll the king’s horses and all the king’s men…

Certainly, as a society, more adverse conditions have been overcome. Harry Smith can attest to that. The will to do it has to be there, though, and Adolph Reed Jr. doesn’t see much evidence of that in the traditional places we used to look for it. That absence will make for a tougher battle to win.

bookishly submitted by Cityslikr


Post Mortem Mea Culpa

October 28, 2014

John Tory will be the next mayor of Toronto. It says something about the rest of the results from yesterday’s municipal election that, this morning, on the day after, I’m largely ambivalent about our new mayor-elect.rosecolouredglasses

Throughout the campaign people I respect told me John Tory would be just fine. Give him a chance, they said. Let him find his sea legs and see what he can do before passing judgement.

So be it.

This morning I’ll choose to believe the John Tory we’ll see emerge as mayor of Toronto will be the John Tory his supporters told us he’d be. Sensible and a consensus builder. Moderate. A healer of our self-inflicted civic wounds.

I say that without a hint of sarcasm or mockery. If John Tory proves to be any of those things, Toronto will be better for it.

I am far less sanguine about the new shape of city council. And by ‘new shape’ I mean the exact opposite, of course. whitelayercakeIf anything, city council got whiter and maler, suggesting that the racist and sexist outbursts we witnessed throughout the campaign and summed up perfectly this week in one cartoon of Olivia Chow by the Toronto Sun’s Andy Donato, weren’t really outliers so much as a reflection of systemic attitudes that belie our municipal motto of Diversity, blah, blah, blah. Electing a white guy mayor was merely the strawberry slice on top of our white bread, penis shaped, white layer cake council we settled on, answering in the affirmative (at least on the political level) Colin Marshall asked in The Guardian yesterday, Has Toronto’s great multicultural project failed?

A resounding number of terrible, terrible, terrible incumbents were re-elected last night with no refreshing or inspiring newcomers figuring into the mix. changeplacesIt’s as if the voters of this city believed that all the trouble and turmoil we went through over the past 4 years could be exorcised simply by switching out mayors. Nobody else was held responsible for the bad decisions that were made. The circus, it was deemed, only had one ringleader, one two-headed ringleader. Remove one of those heads and order would be restored.

Wishful thinking, I think. Pitched battles, I imagine, are already being dreamed up over the fate of rapid transit throughout Scarborough, the island airport expansion, the 2015 budget. Ohhh, the 2015 budget. While the discourse should become more civil around the council chambers, expect little elevation in content, judgment or common sense. I fear we’ve entrenched parochialism not diminished it.meaculpa1

In case you think I’m sitting here, pointing fingers at others, assigning blame in that direction, that is not my intention. Perhaps the most egregious bit of wishful thinking over the past 4 years was perpetrated by people like me. People who thought that simply by highlighting and talking and writing about the bad behaviour and decisions being done by our local representatives, a wave of change would be fomented. The need for it would simply be self-evident. I mistakenly assumed the clamour for change at the mayoral level would permeate down through the council ranks and sweep out a few of the worst offenders.

You’d think by now I’d be aware enough to know that change doesn’t happen easily. When it comes, if it comes, it comes reluctantly, grudgingly, obstinately. Change is an active not passive verb.

So to imagine that voters would simply be in the mood to throw the bums out with very little prodding was beyond hopeful. It was beyond magical subways for free thinking. duginWe had a record turnout at the polls this time out and, aside from at the mayoral level, the status quo was overwhelmingly endorsed. We want to change that? There’s no waiting until 2018. It’s a conversation that happens today, tomorrow. (OK. Maybe in a couple weeks after everybody catches their collective breath.)

How many times have we heard the complaint around these parts, Where is our Nenshi? To use the parlance of our transit debates, Nenshis don’t sprout up out of nowhere from magic beans. The ground has to be fertile from many hands working the soil. If we learn no other lesson from this municipal election of ours, it should be the change we want will never be delivered from the top down with only some urging by us from the sidelines. It’s only going to happen bottom up.

Actually, there’s one more thing.changeishard

Probably the most striking visual for me from last night’s post-election coverage was Rob Ford’s speech in which he warned us that the Ford’s ‘never, ever, ever give up’. I think that may be the most truthful thing I’ve ever heard the man say. The status quo is relentless. The forces of white privilege, racism and exclusion are relentless. The apple cart is heavier than it looks and isn’t flipped with a simple gesture. We have to push back, and push back hard.

2018 doesn’t start in 2018. It starts now. Rob Ford has warned us. This time we better be ready.

unsagely submitted by Cityslikr


Rightward Ho!

December 15, 2013

As someone not a stranger to undercutting my own arguments with grand overstatement – overreactionRemember that doozy of mine when I criticized our mayor by stating that the guy must be on crack or something? – I’m not prepared to write off the entire premise of Matthew Hays’ Guardian article because he suggested Canada has ‘devolved into some rightwing hellhole’. I imagine the state of Mississippi to be the model of a righwing hellhole. We’ve crept closer to that fiery crevasse than I would’ve imagined a few years ago but we’ve still got a ways to go in my estimation.

Still, I believe Mr. Hays offers up a useful mirror to peer into especially those of us of a certain age who grew up basking in the beneficent warmth of the Pearson Peace Prize-Trudeau Just Society. We were peacekeepers not warriors. Reasonable stewards of the earth. Beloved by all nations. We proudly attached maple leafs on our backpacks as we roamed the planet, spreading the gospel of hockey and our tolerant non-judgement all over the world.goodolddays1

It was never all that, of course, but it’s hard to dispute that there’s been a drift away from what we believed were Canadian ideals of fairness, justice, compassion and collective cooperation. Hardly the ‘welfare state in the worst sense’, our current Prime Minister once claimed it was, we have though tilted a fair bit rightward from the days when our Tory blue glowed a little redder. It’s worth noting on this day when Nelson Mandella is laid to rest that it was our then Progressive Conservative prime minister who broke ranks with many of the rightwing luminaries of the time in his calling for an end to apartheid in South Africa.

Maybe, I don’t know, it’s just a case of youthful rebellion. Children, growing up to petulantly reject the beliefs of their parents, spreading their wings to cover new territory. It’s not so much that we disagree in principle with what we were taught. We just need our own space to evolve, grow.

So in electing the likes of Stephen Harper and Rob Ford we’re doing nothing more than acting out, establishing our own personalities distinct from our predecessors. It’s a phase. We’ll grow out of it.

If we have become, as Mr. Hays asserts, “…crude, swaggering, bungling, irrational and mendacious”, who else would those adjectives describe? ignoramusAmericans. Yeah, sure. Remind you of anybody else? Teenagers! Exactly. Self-indulgent know-it-alls prone to exuberant mood swings of wild proportions. We’re still developing, trying out different personas to see which one fits us best.

As any good parent or guardian should be, I think Mr. Hays is rightly concerned at some of our more excessive outbursts of anti-social behaviour. We have embraced a love of irrationality, eliminating from our diet anything that might challenge our firmly held beliefs. The long form census? TMI. We’ve rejected the notion of consensus-building in favour combativeness. It’s now a black-and-white world out there, populated by potential enemies not allies. Israel, good. Iran, evil. The country’s maintained a teenager’s love of a messy bedroom, however, comfortably promoting a dirty agenda of fossil fuel exploitation and ignoring pleas to try and clean up, just a little, like we promised to back in the day.

These are worrisome inclinations on our part if a loss of what some of us believe to be positive Canadian ideals matters at all. crudeandswaggeringWhile Matthew Hays might be a little over the top in his reaction to our current pattern of bad manners, there’s nothing wrong in sitting us down and trying to get some sort of explanation about why it is we’re doing what we’re doing. The warning signs are all there.

I mean, if Rob Ford and Conrad Black are the type of people others think about when they think about Canadians, there can be little question that this place has become unrecognizable to many of us.

sadly submitted by Cityslikr