If you’re bored or desperate enough to return here on a semi-regular basis, then you know about this little corner’s pedantic obsession with the quality of conversation and with the meanings of words. It’s not just because I like to wank on about abstractions (well, maybe not entirely — ed.). If I go on about it (you do, boychik, you do — ed.), it’s because rational discourse and critical thought are the most basic currency of citizenship and civic engagement. If we can’t have mature and intelligent conversations, then how can we make sensible decisions?
Two essential bits of reading this morning from two thoughtful and and indispensible observers of the contemporary political scene: Matt Elliott and Steve Munro. (Actually, Matt’s piece is from this morning; Steve’s is a bit older than that. I’m just slow.) I skim the tops of the waves and attempt to summarize, but they go into the detail and provide better context and analysis than I’m capable of. (Disclosure: they’re both friends as well.)
So I won’t waste time trying to improve on or filter their work. They’ve already made the case for LRT over subways and why it makes sense in this particular context; go and read them today. My observation is more about that tiresome obsession of mine: discourse.
It’s no secret, of course, that if you can control the discourse and frame the issues, you’re halfway to winning the argument. If you can control the conversational turf and force your opponents to accept your definition and argue on your terms, you’ve essentially won the discussion before it’s even begun; you’ve picked the battleground, you’ve positioned the goalposts, and you’ve dictated the terms whereby the conversation will take place and the decisions will be made.
And there are numerous ways whereby political operators, ethical and not so ethical, attempt to control the discourse; they can obscure meanings, they can cloud issues, they can drag the conversation from the realm of rationality and civility into emotional and volatile terrain and use that to manipulate people. One of the most notorious, but unfortunately successful techniques, is the Big Lie. Or more prosaically, the attempt to confuse the issue with clouds of bullshit. Witness, for example, the seemingly endless repetition of the misleading, cynical, and factually baseless “St. Clair Disaster” meme, and the continuing attempts to conflate it with LRT technology.
Add to that the reframing of the subway / LRT debate as a question of who “deserves” a subway, and you’ve got two essential elements in the colonization and subversion of the discourse; as a result of the endless drumbeat of “disaster” and “deserve,” we’re not talking about which transit solutions make the most sense for the most people, but rather “second-class citizens” and “Scarborough getting screwed.” The subway fetishists have succeeded in investing a workable, rational, and sensible solution, for which the funding is already there, with negative emotional connotations. So much so, in fact, that people who should know better are seemingly afraid of even using the term “LRT.” It’s become political poison.
Well, in the words of The Dude, this will not stand.
It is not merely misleading; it is a lie. Plain and simple. And it is a lie advanced by people who do not care about Scarborough, about Toronto, about rational and sensible transit or city building, about spending infrastructure resources wisely, or about serving the public good.
Which is why it’s so important to push back against it. I’m not a transit expert or a planner and I don’t pretend to know everything there is to know about infrastructure, about ridership, about engineering, or about density. There are arguments for LRT and for subway. There are priorities to be set, funding strategies to consider, and opportunity costs to evaluate. In my naivete, I’d like to think we’re all committed to approaching those guided by a shared dedication to achieving the greatest good for the greatest number. I’m not sure how to accomplish that.
What I am sure of, however, is that we need to be able to have an intelligent and thoughtful conversation about it, and that when smart, dedicated professional public servants like Joe Pennachetti, Jennifer Keesmaat and Andy Byford are stressing the urgency of addressing our congestion problems, we need to listen. We need to be able to discuss it like adults. And we can’t do that when the discussion is continually and repeatedly poisoned.
A modest proposal, then: let’s reframe the discourse. Let’s talk about LRT without emotional baggage, without manipulation, without cynicism, and without lies and pandering. And let’s leave those who can’t do that out of the conversation.