Getting past the ‘War on the Car’ | #TOpoli #ClimateChange

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(This grew out of a Facebook discussion with the divine Septembre Anderson, so it’ll be a little abrupt. Indulge me. Tips of the chapeau are also due to Rosalind Robertson, Breeyn McCarney, and Daniel Cowans.)

A lot of this is boilerplate, and it’s already been tackled by folks like Daren Foster and Ed Keenan, but what the hey. I’d also recommend a necessary and illuminating piece by the indispensible Steve Munro, who’s forgotten more about transit than I’ll ever know.

The context was a juxtaposition of revenue from city recreational programs, and a proposal that those programs should be free, and the loss of municipal revenue from the Vehicle Registration Tax, regularly caricatured as part of the Leftie Downtown Elitist War on the Car. This isn’t really intended to get into the specifics of that; it’s more of a step back, let’s look at the big picture and try and see this in historical context (oh Christ, there he goes again — ed.) kind of thing.

Anyway, someone on Septembre’s FB feed was talking about the way we “penalize” car owners whenever the city needs revenue. I jumped on it, perhaps a little more intemperately than I might have:

The idea that you’re being “penalized” by having to pay a tax is where the debunking begins. I’d suggest a review of Alex Himelfarb‘s Tax is Not a Four Letter Word for starters. And if you do something as fundamentally self-centred, anti-social and environmentally destructive as driving a private automobile on a regular basis, then quite frankly I don’t have a problem with you being required to pony up more …

I’ve never met a group of people more obsessed with their own privilege — and less willing to acknowledge it — than motorists. Their sense of entitlement to absolute primacy on the roads is boundless. I don’t care about other users, and why do I have to stop for that goddamn streetcar, and get the fuck out of my way cyclists because I just wanna go wherever the fuck I want as fast as I can. And it’s my god-given right to park my private car directly in front of my destination, as opposed to actually having to walk a block or two from a bus stop or something. Angry, aggressive, impatient, and selfish. Ford is just an extreme and grotesque example.

Bluntly, I’m out of patience. Don’t like gridlock? Don’t like road tolls? Don’t like scrambling for parking spots (which are also heavily subsidized, BTW)? Get out of your fucking car and take transit. Or ride a bike. Honestly, just stop whining and grow up.

The discussion continued, with the same participant arguing, not without justification, that he couldn’t rely on public transit to get where he needed to go in a timely manner. He also complained, again with some reason, about the wasted time and lost productivity due to service interruptions, overcrowding, poor service, and all the other problems besetting public transit in Toronto. (I’m paraphrasing, and in truth, it would be fairer for me to allow him to speak for himself, so in that regard, if he wants to respond here, I’ll commit to publishing whatever he wants to say, unedited, at as much length as he wants.)

At any rate, that prompted this additional outburst of sanctimonious wankery:

… if you find public transit inefficient, perhaps you should work to improve it, and support public initiatives that will do the same. (Ruinously wasteful subways that will never justify themselves in terms of ridership might be a good place to start.) Honestly, where is it written that public transit has to be slow, inefficient, dirty, overcrowded, poorly maintained and unreliable? It doesn’t have to be that way at all. There are jurisdictions all over the globe where a well-maintained and functional public transit system is recognized as the Public Good that it is, and in fact it’s the preferred method of getting around. Private cars are well down the list.

Now, I’ll grant you that it’s not necessarily the best or fastest way to get around in the GTA. It’s no secret that our current urban form has been built around private automobiles: large highways, single-family homes on large lots, huge malls with large parking lots, low population density have all combined to make public transit very difficult to operate efficiently. And we’ve structured our lives and jobs and communities accordingly. You drive to work, you drive the kids to school or daycare, you drive to the mall to get groceries, you shlep all your stuff around in a car. It’s just the way it is.

Problem being, that’s simply not sustainable. I don’t need to get into greenhouse gases or climate change or emissions control; suffice it to say that our addiction to private automobiles is one of the biggest sources of smog and air pollution in North America, so there’s the impact on health and productivity to consider, never mind the environmental impact. Factor in the advent of peak oil and it becomes clear: we simply can’t structure our cities and our lives around cheap gasoline and abundant energy and inefficient land use any more. Sadly, we’re stuck with infrastructure and urban form that’s built around that, so it makes efficient and low-impact transit that much harder to achieve. But that also makes it that much more imperative. It’s not a question of cars being evil so much as a recognition that reliance on them as the primary means of getting around simply doesn’t work any more. And part of fixing that includes getting motorists to assume a greater share of the costs they’ve been offloading onto the rest of us. Whether you want to admit it or not, private automobiles are subsidized up the yingyang. As those subsidies are phased out, more and more people will make the rational economic choice of opting for other ways of getting around.

What I’ve impatiently characterized as selfishness and entitlement on the part of motorists, in that context, has to be seen for what it is: privileged distress. When you have a group of people who’ve enjoyed preferential treatment for so long that they’ve come to see it as the natural order of things, they’re going to see any revisiting of the arrangement as an attack on themselves. Suddenly they’ve become victims. It’s like MRAs who see feminism as a giant conspiracy to attack men, or bigots who whine about Political Correctness. It’s where you get idiotic memes like the “War On The Car.”

And so on. Again, nothing that hasn’t already been said, previously and more eloquently, by better people than me, but given the way things are likely to be framed over the next twelve months, worth emphasizing.

Related posts:

Cycling in Toronto and the toxic effect of consistent anti-bike rhetoric | #TOpoli #BikeTO

https://twitter.com/kiwinerd/status/349540526325903360

Bit of a change-up here, folks.

Usually it’s Daren who gets into the specifics and applies his wonderful witty blend of deconstruction, observation and analysis, while yours truly drops in every now and then with the windy, sententious “let’s all take a step back and put this into a bit of historical context,” yada yada yada.

Bit different today. I had some friends over yesterday, and one of them, a far more committed cyclist than I, was describing a confrontation she recently had with a motorist. She brought video. Because the matter’s still before the legal system, I won’t name names or get into specifics.

In brief, she had words with a guy in a van who yelled at her to get off the road, arguing that “roads are for cars.” Now where have we heard that before? She retorted, quite correctly, that as a cyclist she had just as much right to be on the road as him. Next thing you know, the son of a bitch literally ran her off the road with his truck. On purpose. She had to be hospitalized. She needed stitches. Thank god she didn’t break any bones.

But there’s a lesson here, and it goes beyond the specific circumstances of this one incident. Anyone who rides a bike in Toronto’s more than likely to have had words with a hostile motorist or gotten the door prize or any of a number of hazards that cyclists have to face on a regular basis.

Now, recall one of Daren’s recent posts about some of the people who drive private automobiles and their sense of entitlement:

There’s no war on the car going on. It’s the exact opposite. This is all about the over-weening sense of entitlement and primacy in the minds of those using their private vehicles as their sole source of getting around the city. … a car driver’s sense of their right to the road is boundless.

That’s part of the context. Add to that the consistent drumbeat of hostility and vindictiveness toward cyclists from certain sectors of Toronto’s political sphere and it’s not too hard to draw the connection to my friend’s experience. In brief, as I’ve argued previously,

it’s become more socially acceptable, among a certain segment of the population, to abuse, threaten and even assault cyclists and other users of the road.

Now, maybe it’s just me and my white male privilege talking, and / or my middle-class upbringing, and / or my fetish for principled conservatism, and / or maybe even just my bourgeois nostalgia for civility, but how is this making our city better? Isn’t it in all our interests to push back against this? We’re all in this together.

Happy Canada Day, y’all.

Related posts:

Why I left news – Sticky Valentines

Major news outlets are no better than bloggers if they adopt a policy of getting it out first and correcting it later. They don’t have the money to fend off the resulting lawsuits, and they don’t have the circulation numbers to allow people to lose faith in their product.

via Why I left news – Sticky Valentines.

“MA’AM” – MEN AGAINST ASSHOLES & MISOGYNY: Let’s Get It Started

Follow this tumblr, everyone.

menagainstassholesandmisogyny:

I started MA’AM – MEN AGAINST ASSHOLES and MISOGYNY because it’s a really good idea and I needed to do it myself. I hope this doesn’t live as an empty space on the internet.

I want to hear from all of you guys.

This is the post that started it all for me. This is how I feel. This is what I am…

“MA’AM” – MEN AGAINST ASSHOLES & MISOGYNY: Let’s Get It Started

On Ralph Lean, fundraising, and civic engagement | #TOpoli #thepublicgood #TeamFord

It’s not exactly a revelation to note that political campaigns cost money. Lawn signs, bumper stickers, phone calls, communication strategy, polling, consultants, and the ground game — they all add up. Naturally, you need a team of dedicated volunteers as well — and working on campaigns is a wonderful way of involving yourself in the civic life of your community — but the kind of strategic professional expertise that can co-ordinate all those factors effectively isn’t all that common, and it doesn’t come cheap. 

There’s always been a degree of tension between that and classical (and admittedly idealistic) notions of democracy. The idea that one person’s voice and vote carry just as much weight as anyone else’s is intuitively appealing, and it’s tied to the equally appealing notion that reasoned and respectful discourse can influence one’s fellow citizens and persuade them to make public choices in the service of the greater good.

Lined up against that, of course, is the cynical observation that in contemporary politics, you can have as much democracy as you can buy. I can’t possibly list, comprehensively, everything that’s been written about the influence of money and lobbying on the electoral and legislative processes, both here and elsewhere, but any discussion like this has to be informed by the corrupting effect of money on democratic politics.

Exploring that tension is beyond the scope of a single blog post, but it’s part of the context for any discussion of people shaking trees on Bay Street to finance mayoral campaigns.

It’s not as if I’ve made any secret of my disagreement with Rob Ford and his approach to governance. His thoughtlessness, his demonstrated inability to build coalitions, his reduction of everything to taxpayers and gravy trains, his elastic approach to the truth, and his overall coarsening effect on public discourse and civic life are a matter of record. If he’s got any notion of what the public good is, let alone any commitment to advancing it, he’s got a funny way of showing it.

However, there are people who think otherwise. Regardless of what I think, they have that right. I can disagree, and try to convince them that they’re misguided or worse, but the fact is, no matter how much damage Rob Ford does to the community and to the body politic, there will always be people who, for whatever reason, cheer him on. It sucks, but that’s democracy. 

Which brings us to Ralph Lean. Earlier this week, the Globe reported that he’s decided to back Ford in 2014. A senior counsel at a Bay Street law firm, Ralph helped raise more than $2-million for George Smitherman in 2010. While it’s amusing to read the potshots between him and John Laschinger, the story is noteworthy for quoting him as saying he thinks Ford’s gotten the big things right.

The Globe’s story isn’t the only take, of course. Over at the Grid, Ed Keenan suggests that Ralph’s decision may not be as weighty as it appears when you consider the way he makes his decisions. According to Ed, who cites an earlier piece from John Lorinc, Ralph just sniffs around, tests the wind, and then lines up behind whoever he thinks is likely to command the most support among the money boys. 

And at Toronto Citizens, my friend David Hains cites a recent Toronto Life piece wherein 

Marci McDonald points to conservative fundraising elites as telling Ford they won’t support him in 2014.

However you read it, it’s hard to discern much in the way of ethics or principle in the way some of these decisions are made. It’s just my inference, but it seems to me that they’re informed more by instrumental considerations than by anything else.

Now, I’m not saying guys like Ralph aren’t ethical or principled, nor am I suggesting that he’s not entitled to support whomever he likes. It’s a free country after all, and he’s got just as much right to back the candidates of his choice as anyone else. Whether I think his choices advance the public good is irrelevant.

But it raises some uncomfortable questions about the nature of civic engagement. This little corner’s gone on at some length about its importance. Indeed, it’s one of my favourite hobbyhorses; god knows I can get a little sanctimonious (really, Sol? no shit … ) when we’re talking about the citizen’s obligation to participate in the civic life of his or her community.

So I can’t very well chide Ralph or anyone else for taking an active part in the electoral process. I can’t say civic engagement is something to be encouraged, as long as you do things I agree with, and then turn around and discourage it in people who do things I don’t like. In my naivete, I’d like to think that genuine, thoughtful engagement will naturally lead folks to make reasoned, considered, and intelligent choices, and that anyone genuinely committed to the public good can’t possibly support Ford, but that’s just me.

Is it cynical to wonder, though, whether it has a different meaning to folks like Ralph and the well-heeled and privileged circles within which they move? Deteriorating infrastructure and disintegrating social fabric may not be as much of a concern when you’ve got the resources to buy your own infrastructure and insulate yourself from the larger community. I’m not saying that’s what motivates Ralph or his friends, of course. But it does underline a profound difference in perspective and one’s approach to civic engagement, and it would be naive not to acknowledge the extent to which money and privilege inform that difference.

Related posts:

 

Shit heads. Wow. Sounds like the same ol’ girl hate to me. Of course I understand the intentions behind this Tumblr. I know the frustration of being lumped into a group. I mean, don’t we all? Isn’t that what this meme is all about, Shit Girls Say? It isn’t Shit Some Girls Say or even Shit Some White Upper-Middle Class Women Say. And while I believe it’s still necessary to remind the world that yes, women are smart, and yes, we talk about lots of different things—I also think it’s wrong to do this at the expense of other women. —Emma Wolley

http://sodisarmingdarling.tumblr.com/post/14511994735/on-shit-girls-say-and-girl-hate-from-everyone

Well said, Emma. When I started this blog I never thought it’d reach an audience of over 200 followers – and counting. Might be time for a name change. Suggestions, anyone?

(via shit-girls-say)

OK, I think it’s getting clearer which side is right and which is wrong … 

Why making fun of Rob Ford’s weight isn’t cool | #TOpoli

20100617_rob_ford

If you don’t mind the idea of a straight white guy talking about marginalizing people and then enhancing it with trite “analysis,” that is.

It was one of those late-night beer-enhanced conversations that seemed like a deep intellectual exercise: is it OK to target Rob Ford for his girth? At the time, I thought, it wasn’t as clearcut as it sounds.

In truth, analyzing Rob Ford’s appeal is something I approach with mixed feelings. Thousands of trees and trillions of electrons have died in that pursuit; whether that’s been in vain is a judgment I leave to others, and to history. Either way, though, it’s not something you can seriously address without bringing in questions of education, of class, of income, and of authenticity. You need to talk about emotion versus reason, and the downtown/suburban divide, regardless of whether you believe it’s a valid construction or not. You also need to consider how messages are transmitted, through which channels, how they’re framed, and how they’re received; in short, the context seems too complex to permit reducing the question to a simple yes or no.

Not everyone follows the news with the same level of detail. Not everyone reads the same story. Not everyone reads the same newspapers or watches the same newscasts or checks the same web sites or listens to the same radio station. And even those who do read the same stories don’t necessarily read them the same way or get the same message from them. It’s in light of those considerations that we need to think about Rob Ford’s message, how it’s conveyed, and how it’s received.

So why would his weight be relevant? Again, the answer depends on the context and what you’re trying to achieve; political analysis might suggest one train of thought, whereas satire and/or standup comedy might direct the conversation in another direction. It’s with the first track that I’m concerned here.

For as long as I’ve watched Rob Ford, he’s made a big deal out of “standing up for the taxpayer.” It’s why the Sun loves him; it dovetails with their own posturing about being the voice of the little guy, the ordinary hard-working lunch-bucket types fetishized by former hockey coaches who make megabucks spouting off during hockey-game intermissions. Rob Ford’s whole political currency is based on that supposed ordinary, regular, working-class street cred.

There’s an argument to be made that his size is a big part of that because, regardless of aesthetic considerations, it gives him authenticity. It’s tied into his I’m-not-a-politician-like-all-the-others, what you see is what you get, plain-speaking, genuine, from-the-heart shtick. And that whole I-say-what-I-think, I’m-not-politically-correct, I’m-not-filtered-through-handlers, hard-scrabble, self-made-man image is what he uses to reach out to working-class voters. It’s the basis for a connection based on emotion rather than reason. It taps into resentment of those snooty condescending downtown elites. It’s not hard to imagine the message: “I’m not perfect. Sometimes I open my mouth without thinking, or drink too much, or flip the bird at people in traffic. And yeah, I’ve got a big gut, and they look down their fucking noses at me for it. I’m just like you!

As we all know by now, however, that’s not entirely accurate. The Ford boys come from money. The whole regular-guy shtick is manufactured. It’s an artificial narrative, created and cultivated for political purposes, and it’s a load of crap. Rob Ford and Doug Ford have about as much in common with ordinary regular working-class folk as Louis XVI. They ignore the rules, they bully and browbeat city staff and other councillors, they meet behind closed doors with deep-pocketed developers, they waste money on expensive and futile consultants’ reports, they dismiss public sentiment, and they wouldn’t recognize the truth if it jumped up and smacked them in the forehead. In light of that, does the fat thing become fair game when it’s so obviously part of that whole contrivance?

There are some who will argue that it’s never OK to make fun of someone’s appearance. It’s an easy position to defend, because it doesn’t need any nuance or shading, and for that reason I was initially a little reluctant; I’m usually suspicious of anything that’s framed in such black-and-white terms. But if you’re going to argue the other way, you need to be able to tie the weight to the artificial narrative as explicitly as possible, and frame your argument, as I’ve suggested above, in the context of class, reason versus emotion, and the downtown / suburban dynamic.

That’s the way I started, at least. But as I’ve been reminded this week, I see things from a relatively privileged viewpoint, so I asked around for a few other perspectives.

The most compelling, for me, was the question of language, perhaps because it’s tied to one of my favourite hobbyhorses: the meaning and power of words, and the quality of public discourse.

There are plenty of reasons to oppose Rob Ford. His appeal to ignorance and shallow thinking, his apparent immaturity and vindictiveness, his divisive and destructive agenda, his threat to our quality of life, his obvious disdain for the city, for culture, for expertise, for people who don’t look and think like him, for complexity itself. All of these are valid grounds for criticism, and they have nothing to do with his weight. Bringing his girth into it detracts from the message; it risks making the discussion about that, and about whether it’s kosher to even discuss his waistline in the first place, rather than about policy or the kind of city we want.

As someone suggested, it’s got parallels in discussions of gender and sexuality. If you don’t like a female politician, one of the worst things you can do is call her a bitch; if you don’t like a gay politician, one of the worst things you can do is call him a faggot or some other derogatory sexualized term. Instantly, the conversation becomes about that, rather than about policy or values or the substance of whatever you’re trying to discuss. Worse, it drags the whole conversation out of the realm of reason and into emotionally volatile terrain where people and ideas are much more susceptible to manipulation and misdirection.

There’s more, however, and it has to do with power and with inclusion. Making fun of Rob Ford for being fat suggests that it’s OK to make fun of anyone else for being fat, and that’s just not somewhere I want to go. Never mind the societal expectations around body image and the collateral damage they do in terms of eating disorders, emotional impact, and self-esteem.

And I don’t even want to try listing the marginalized and disempowered groups that have been targeted, historically; first by exclusion, then by mean-spirited “humour,” then by bullying, and then by … well, you see where I’m going.

I’m not suggesting that we need to engage in pre-emptive self-censorship for fear of offending people. It’s almost a given these days that regardless of the issue or your viewpoint, you’re going to risk offending someone. But there’s a big difference between being willing to address complex issues and being recklessly hurtful. Why alienate people needlessly?

It’s in light of that that I’m coming down on the “it’s not OK” side. Words have power, including the power to hurt. Straight white guys like me can stand to be reminded of that now and then.

Update: Thanks to Emma Woolley for this.

Upperdate: Daren responds.

Upperdupperdate: From John Lorinc. Can’t believe I missed this.

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