Organized Discontent

February 15, 2012

Despite what I think to be the George Hamilton like tone I carefully nurtured with a secret combination of cooking oil, mesquite rub and deet during my weeklong absence, there seems to be rumours a-swirling about the “real” reasons I went awol during what The Grid’s Edward Keenan called “The most significant week at City Hall in a generation” (probably just to taunt me). Dudes. Check out the tan lines. I went somewhere sunny and warm because it was February here. I thought February was going to provide some downtime at City Hall. No one circulated the Special Once In A Lifetime Special Council Meeting memo in my direction. It was merely bad timing.

So no, I am not a Team Ford double-agent — working from the inside to try and discredit the opposition with my ludicrous and often times illogical rantings about the mayor — who simply couldn’t stand to be around during his darkest hours to date. I’dve given my eye teeth to be here but, Expedia being Expedia, the whole she-bang was non-refundable. And no, it was not a clandestine rendezvous with a certain councillor from Etobicoke whose seat in the council chambers also went unoccupied last Wednesday. I admire the lady. She’s got, what do you call it, the moxy. It’s just, we come from such different backgrounds. We’d never get past that whole urban-suburban chasm.

Also, there was no slipping away for some discreet elective surgery. While I acknowledge a certain none-to-subtle ageism within the ranks of those covering City Hall (witness the cutesie, self-satisfied back-slapping of the young in yesterday’s tweets between the aforementioned Edward Keenan and writer David Hains), I stand proudly by my 28 years of age and wouldn’t think of furtively seeking some desperate attempt to look even younger than I already do. Why no, sir. I am not an unpaid intern at an unnamed publication. But I am flattered you thought I might be. How old do you think I am?

The fact of the matter is, last week was the first of a semi-annual, enforced Magazine Catch-Up Retreat week. Get out of town, get out of your work head and get reading those damn magazines that are littering the place up. Either that or cut back. What?! And do without my McCall’s?! I’m sorry, what? It’s been called Rosie since 2001?! I thought that was my gardening magazine. And it hasn’t been published in 10 years!?!

You see what I’m saying here?

Thus, I found myself cracking into the first of the 2011 issues of a couple subscriptions at the same time I was already receiving March 2012 issues. I knew Lewis Lapham had stepped away from his Notebook in Harper’s but was unaware that Thomas Frank had become the permanent resident in that space with his Easy Chair. I’m not yet sure how I feel about that. Lapham wasn’t so overtly political. It rarely felt like you were reading a screed. It was patrician subtle. Frank is as partisan as they come right now. I don’t want that from my Harper’s. I can read my own stuff if that’s what I was looking for.

That said, I’m hardly appalled reading Frank’s stuff and did come across an interesting tidbit in his January 2011 entry, The Fatal Middle. He quoted Howard Phillips, one-time director of The Conservative Caucus, saying way back during the early Reagan era that the job, the role, the genius of the right wing was its ability “to organize discontent.” Hello? What was that again? To organize discontent.

Some thirty years on and nothing much has changed. Perhaps it took a little longer up here in our cosy little corner north of the 49th because true, visceral discontent first needed to be stirred up amongst the hoi polloi before it could be organized into a viable voting bloc. A recession or two. Draining of the manufacturing sector. The general gestation period needed for the seeds of subversive disinformation to come to flower.

But, good goddamn, has our right wing learned how to organize discontent. We now believe ourselves to be over-taxed to the max with all our money being spent on greedy, self-interested politicians, unions and the undeserving poor. The rest of us are all the struggling middle class unless, of course, you don’t share our particular discontent. Then, you are a downtown, champagne-sipping, latte lapping elitist/socialist, two steps left of Joe Stalin who reads, well, Harper’s or The Walrus (up to April 2011 issue currently) or that Toronto Star rag.

Discontent. Resentment. Division.

In three words, Rob Ford’s victorious campaign and modus operandi since becoming mayor. This city does not have a revenue problem. It has a spending problem. (Discontent). The War on the Car. (Resentment). Those in the suburbs pay for everything and get nothing in return. (Division with a little factual incorrectness thrown in for good measure).

It’s the Holy Right Wing Trinity and fits in perfectly with their views on government as a destructive force that needs to be reigned in and shrivelled down to size except for its law and order, enforcement side. The beauty of it too is that it is self-fulfilling because the more ineffectual you make government, the more discontent, resentment and division you breed. Almost like a political perpetual motion machine.

The remarkably depressing thing about this is that it’s neither new nor particularly covert. This has been a staple in North America since at least Richard Nixon and his Silent Majority. That’s 44 years ago, folks. And somehow we haven’t found a way to counteract it. When conservatives stumble and fall out of favour, it’s usually to do with their own missteps not some brilliant and uplifting piece of political theatre by their opponents.

Look at what’s happening here in Toronto. The mayor is not really being out-manoeuvred or out-played. He’s simply fucking up, left and centre, his setbacks washing out any steps forward. The very notable victory he can claim with the CUPE 416 settlement has been lost in the noise of his illogical transit plans. It’s not a question of contesting but containing him and all the damage his ideology wants to inflict on the proper governance of this city.

The easy appeal to voter discontent, resentment and division means right wing politicians have a leg up when it comes to campaigning. It’s the only thing really that keeps them in the game at all. If conservatives were judged on what they do once elected, they’d never get near the levers of power again. They couldn’t even present a perception of competency. Our system and beliefs in it suffer because of that.

We have to learn to confront them before they get the keys to office instead of always having to clean up their mess on the way out. That means appealing to people’s better nature not their worst, instilling hope rather than despair and anger. It’s a tall order, for sure, especially since the public well has been so poisoned by ugly rhetoric and anti-social policies. But the alternative is continued degradation of our public institutions and way of life.

imploringly submitted by Cityslikr


The Wrecking Crew

January 11, 2011

My apologies for borrowing the title of this post from Thomas Frank’s book from a couple years ago, but I use it consciously as I think it bears repeating. Why? Because of the pathological danse macabre we insist on performing regularly with our neo-conservative partners and the corresponding amnesia that accompanies it which renders us oblivious to the resulting ugly outcome.

How’s the step go again, you ask forgetfully?

Decrying the state of affairs, politically, economically and/or socially, brought on by overweening and ineffectual (not to mention, elitist) liberal rule, conservatives roll into power on a magic carpet of faux-populism, complete with an easy to remember and entirely meaningless slogan or two. Once there, they proceed to trash the joint, politically, economically and/or socially before the citizens fully comprehend what’s happening and chase them from office. They then “retire” to the private sector (which in all likelihood they’ve helped to enrich) where they lick their wounds, change their outfits and, sooner or later, head back to the political ball for another twirl around the floor.

There was Reagan’s Morning in America where he enticed a weary populace to join him in a foxtrot. Twelve years later, victorious in the Cold War but already mired into increased conflict in the Middle East, the country was eye-deep in debt and much of the FDR New Deal/LBJ Great Society accomplishments, gutted and left for dead, and the political environment toxic. Enter centrist Democrat Bill Clinton who managed to wrestle the burgeoning deficit bomb into a more manageable shape (largely on the back of his most vulnerable base) while, if not fully restoring social programs directed at the most vulnerable of his base, got them back onto life support. A semblance of order restored, give way to George W. Bush, neocon sweetheart, and 8 years later, Iraq, Afghanistan, surpluses ballooned into huge deficits, tax cuts galore and everybody for themselves. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

Up here, a very similar pattern. Early-90s, Conservative debts and deficits reign (although to some eyes, strangely, it’s all because of Pierre Trudeau despite 9 years of PC majority rule), the country faces a constitutional crisis. Liberals are elected in a landslide and over the course of the next decade+, they bring the fiscal unruliness to heel (largely on the back of their most vulnerable base) and establish a semblance of political and social order. Hello neocons and… you know where this is going, right? Unnecessary tax cuts, financial crisis hits, here we are again, back in the red and the public sector’s going to have to tighten its belt and prepared to make do with less. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

Ditto in Ontario with a slight variation. Left of centre government hit with a nasty recession seeks to spread the pain around (some of it on the back of their base) and is summarily drummed from office, crushed under the pleasingly simply Common Sense Revolution. These fiscally prudent Conservatives (some key members who go on to lay waste to Ottawa) don’t really clean up the economic mess they claimed to have found. They just sort of move it around a little, cut taxes (natch) and eviscerate provincial and municipal infrastructure for good measure. As usual, they’re chased from office two terms later having inflicted maximum public damage. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

Now comes Rob Ford to Toronto. A career politician who never saw a tax increase he couldn’t rail about or a government expenditure that didn’t taste like gravy, he bellowed for months on the campaign trail about waste and fiscal mismanagement at City Hall. (Sound familiar?) Citing big numbers with little context and oodles of anecdotal evidence of ‘corruption’, he got himself elected on a vow to Stop the Gravy Train and to usher in an era of Respect for Taxpayers. Meaning? Cutting and/or freezing taxes. ‘Trimming the fat’ and uncovering ‘inefficiencies’ in the system. No more nickel and diming taxpayers to death.

But an altogether predictable thing happened on his way to his first budget proposal. The supposed fiscal ineptitude of his predecessor left Mayor Ford with a shit load of money in which to fill the cavernous gaps left exposed by all the tax freezes and cuts riddling the budget document. So much money, in fact, that any major slashing and burning of services could wait a year. Only a year, mind you. There would be a serious reckoning. You’d be foolhardy to think otherwise.

We know how this story plays out, people. We’ve seen it enough. The ending’s never happy and expecting this time it’ll be different, well, you’ve just defined ‘crazy’. Neoconservative politicians are incapable of leaving a place looking better than when they found it. It’s not in their nature. In fact, they can’t help doing the exact opposite of good stewardship. They are terrible tenants. So let’s stop expecting them to be anything but.

It’s almost as if we’re trapped in some lurid abusive relationship with neo-conservatism. It constantly lies to us, takes our money and spends it on its rich girlfriends. Whenever we speak up and complain, it smacks us around some to keep us in our place and issues threats about how good we have it. You think you got it bad, huh? How’d you like to be living somewhere in Africa instead? Huh?

Even when we break free of its grip for awhile, we’re eventually lured back in with its sweet song of contrition and promises of better behaviour in the future. I’ve learned my lesson, baby. Trust me. I won’t ever hurt you again.

We really have to break free of such a self-defeating and sadistic cycle before the damage inflicted becomes irreparable.

once more with feelingly submitted by Cityslikr