@Cityslikr, @NickKouvalis, and the need for civility in public discourse | #TOpoli #TeamFord

Ah, nuance.

What a thing it is to contemplate. It’s so bracing. Complication. Reflection. Complexity. It’s what puts the real in real life.

My friend @cityslikr, who on his worst days is ten times more eloquent and compelling than I will ever be, was involved in one of those Twitter conversations the other night. Initially it was with some tabloid scribbler, but as the evening went on, he was joined by Nick Kouvalis.

Mr. Kouvalis, you may recall, was widely credited as the brains behind Rob Ford’s election victory. And full marks to him for that; a lot of people, including me, never thought it would be possible for a guy like Rob Ford to win the mayor’s chair. Regardless of what we may think of it, Mr. Kouvalis ran an effective and successful campaign. Whatever’s happened in the ensuing year can’t change that.

But watching that exchange and reviewing the duelling tweets prompted a couple of related observations: perhaps not especially original, but no less relevant for that, especially given the state in which Toronto now finds itself. The first concerns the difference between electioneering and governing; the second, perhaps more subtle but no less important, concerns the importance of framing (for which I’m also indebted to Trish Hennessy. If you haven’t bookmarked her blog, do it now).

Back to @cityslikr and Mr. Kouvalis. Rather than put words in their mouths, I’ll let them speak for themselves (guys, if I’ve left anything out, or if you feel I’m taking your words out of context, please feel free to write. I’ll publish your comments as you submit them).

To the extent that you can have a compelling policy debate via 140-character bursts, that’s what appears to be going on. And I can’t help but contrast that with the themes that dominated last year’s mayoral contest, thanks in large part to Mr. Kouvalis: Gravy Train. Respect for Taxpayers. Wasteful spending. We don’t have a revenue problem. War on the Car. Those of you bored or desperate enough to read my stuff regularly know what I think of those memes, but that twitter exchange illustrated, beautifully, the gulf between electioneering and governing.

Admittedly, this isn’t a new lesson, but it’s no less worthwhile for the repetition. Democratic governance, whether it’s at the local, provincial, or federal level, is a complex, multifaceted exercise. It involves balancing of multiple interests, looking at issues from both a long-term and short-term perspective, analyzing costs and benefits, identifying opportunities and stakeholders, allocating resources in accordance with needs, recognizing that community is evaluated not just in fiscal terms, but also in terms of aesthetics, cohesion, and sense of common purpose, and above all, trying to fashion public policy in a way that produces the greatest good for the greatest number. Ideally, it’s informed by devotion to things like citizenship and stewardship, a resolve to enhance the public good and leave the public sphere just a little better than we found it. In sum, it’s complicated. It’s not something that can be reduced to sound bites, lapel buttons and bumper stickers.

It’s been instructive, watching the direction the conversation’s been taking, most notably with the recent comparisons likening Toronto’s municipal finances to the impending cataclysm in Greece. Do we really have to go there? We’re not Greece. Greece itself isn’t Greece, at least not in the apocalyptic way the tabloid brayers have been portraying it. But that’s the problem with caricature, hyperbole and simplistic thinking. It may play well on the campaign trail or in tabloid columns written by or aimed at people with limited attention spans and cognitive faculties, but it rarely translates into effective and responsible governance.

Simplistic narratives depend on fudging the truth, on omission of nuance, on leaving out and glossing over anything that complicates things or gets in the way of delivery of an easily digested and manipulative message, like … oh, like “public-sector workers are lazy overpaid unionized thugs. Unions are to blame for the mess. David Miller left the city on the verge of bankruptcy because he was their puppet. Who the hell are these greedy bastards?” It plays right into prevailing attitudes of envy and intellectual laziness. Why bother to think things through? Certainly, it’s easier to be a disengaged dullard who gets information from tabloid headlines and Don Cherry’s yargle-bargle, if that’s the extent of your civic engagement.

Which brings us to the source for most of those simplistic narratives: the city workers’ strike of 2009.

It’s no great secret that Ford’s strategy was to tie it to Miller. (Indeed, he wasn’t the only one.) It’s also not much of a revelation to suggest that much of Ford’s mayoralty is predicated on payback for that, most apparent in the drive to privatize or contract out waste collection. Once again: Respect for Taxpayers. Stop the gravy train. Greedy unions. An easily digested, simplistic message which may be short on facts but resonates emotionally with the target audience. Truth and reality are just a bit more complex than that, but you won’t read about that in the tabloid press. It’s much easier, and a more effective means of manipulating people, to keep recycling spite, hatred, misdirection and disinformation.

Good for campaigning, no doubt, which may be why the tabloid press seems to be in permanent campaign mode. Not so good for citizenship or governance.

It’s all in how you frame things, really. Not to take anything away from Nick. Guy ran a successful campaign, based largely on his ability to frame things. Can’t argue with it. He won. His boy’s the Chief Magistrate now, ably backed by the drooling cheering section in the tabloid press. But at what cost? I’d argue that it’s been at the cost of reasonable intelligent discourse, and of effective and responsible governance. The very tone of public conversation has been debased by the constant flow of bullshit and sloganeering. To the extent that we can, it’s worth considering the way issues are framed nowadays, because that’s how the stage is set for public discourse.

This isn’t about elitist sneering at coarse, loutish, vulgar behaviour any more. At the end of the day that’s a matter of personal taste, and that’s not what this is about.

Public conversation and civil discourse are the currency of citizenship. They are the means whereby we conduct public business and ourselves as citizens. Maintaining standards for them is in everyone’s interest, regardless of whether we’re left or right or liberal or conservative or socialist or whatever. Allowing them to degenerate to the level currently practiced by the Ford administration and enabled by the tabloid press (half-truths, distortion, misdirection, name-calling, screeds) makes it that much harder to have civil conversations with one another. Our ability to talk to each other like sane, intelligent and reasonable human beings is undermined.

Effective, responsible governance has suffered as well. (No point in rehashing the cam
paign-trail guarantee of no service cuts, except to contrast it with current fiscal discussions, dominated as they are by the song of the chainsaw.) The Port Lands clusterfuck may be the most high-profile example, but it’s not an isolated one. When you consider the underhanded, sandbagging way that Team Ford does things, it’s hard to see how things are better than they were under the previous administration.

Again: framing. It isn’t even about whether Rob Ford can grow into the job any longer. If we allow tabloid screed-writers and astroturfing operatives to set the terms of the discussion, we’re screwed. We’ll waste God knows how much time and energy distracted by Shiny Objects and manufactured controversies (polar bear versus beaver, anyone?) instead of having the conversations we really need to have.

Let’s move beyond slogans.

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