Do Councillors Dream of Electrified Rail?

Typical morning on the TTC. Image via BlogTo.

Typical morning on the TTC. Image via BlogTo.

1. Each morning, I board the 24 Victoria Park bus, which I take to Victoria Park station. At the station, I’ll take the westbound train to Bloor/Yonge station and then transfer lines to take the train southbound to Union. Alternatively, I may take the 95 York Mills bus to York Mills station and go straight down to Union.

All in all, it can take an hour. In the peak of morning rush hour, it can take even longer. At times, this can be blamed on traffic. Many times, in fact more and more, it has to do with mechanical failures on the train itself or perhaps signal issues. Often, it’s because busses take ages to show up and when they do, they may be so overcrowded that I have no choice but to wait for the next one. The same applies when waiting for a train.

Once I board, the experience does not improve much. Spending an extended amount of time in a claustrophobic environment is not a good way to start one’s day. Nor is standing on a platform that due to delays in trains arriving becomes so dangerously overcrowded that it is actually life threatening. There are places on a train where you are forced to stand during rush hour where there is nothing you can hold on to for safety. This is a reality for countless residents; unnecessarily long and unpleasant commutes that require multiple transfers.

I manage to get by because I am an able-bodied man in his 20s. Were I disabled or a parent trying to get a stroller across the city in the morning or evening rush hour, I couldn’t imagine how I’d survive. Many stations remain inaccessible and wait times have consequences that cause ripples into all aspects of our lives.

We are easily approaching the point, or perhaps have passed it, when there is more that is wrong with our transit than is right. If Toronto’s working class, its disabled, its low-income citizens, its students, and so many more, can’t rely on our public transit, then it has surely failed in its mission. With each trip I take on the TTC, I fear we are approaching that point.


Transit has been talked about endlessly throughout this current election cycle. Every mayoral candidate has had their opportunity to share their vision, or lack thereof, for what transit in this city should look like. So too have most councillors. Much of the substance of the conversation, or again lack thereof, left me with a lingering question, namely, “WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME ANY OF THESE PEOPLE ACTUALLY TOOK PUBLIC TRANSIT IN THIS CITY?” (more…)


What’s Really Truly Absurd About Rob Ford…

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is saying a lot of insane things. The entire month of November, which began with Ford’s admission that he had indeed smoked crack-cocaine during his tenure, while in a drunken stupor no less, has essentially turned Toronto into a city-wide version of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room for a global audience, an absolute gong-show fiasco that people will turn their attention to again and again simply to revel in its awfulness.

Torontonians know that our city is more than this bumbling idiot of a mayor, but there is no denying that the man’s mouth is out of control. For someone who was known throughout most of his reign as hostile to the media and constantly refusing to address matters head on, the valve seems to have suddenly opened, spewing forth copious verbal versions of a ten car pile-up.

Toronto Life has helpfully compiled a list of the most outrageous things said by the Mayor. No doubt that the list has grown since its initial publication.

Most of the items on that list concern persona rather than politics, reflective of Ford’s volatility and outrageous behaviour rather than his actual beliefs or worldview as a politician. That, it seems to me, potentially gives way to what might be the greatest tragedy for Toronto in the midst of this grand farce, that Rob Ford might be treated simply as a trivialized cartoon and gaffe-machine and not as a perpetrator of a cynical and divisive brand of politics that is ultimately good for politicians, but devastating to those they govern.


Trolling and Free Speech (What the First Amendment Says About the Seedier Side of Reddit)

1. Everything and Nothing

Like economics, language can operate on a principle by which scarcity determines preciousness. Words or phrases that are used too liberally can lose prestige and all meaning. In cases of a political debate, a phrase can be used so often, each party giving it a meaning all their own, that it comes to mean everything and nothing.

The same dynamic operates in everyday language. Usain Bolt’s performance in two Olympic Games was epic. The several keg stands that your frat-boy buddy performed last Tuesday night? That too was epic. The athlete who has a mere two seasons under his belt without breaking a single record and yet to show any longevity is just as legendary as his predecessor who has achieved countless milestones and has led his team to several championships.

This is not a curmudgeonly lament about the current state of language. Language is constantly evolving and most attempts to hold on to old customs as the world around us changes in turn changing the way we communicate are futile at best.

When it comes to political discourse, however, there must be at least some set of agreed upon premises at the core of any debate. If both sides are able to provide their own definitions and deny any facts presented by opponents, we are left with nothing but the worst kind of political double-speak that has caused so many to sour on the political process.

2. Trolling and the First Amendment

“Free speech” has lately become one of those catchall terms used to defend wildly variant actions whenever it proves convenient. In some cases of hate speech – which I personally believe to be worthy of protection, though this is not the topic I wish to address here – the purveyors of such content are quick to point to the First Amendment, not necessarily to remind us of their right to such speech, but to avoid addressing any criticism toward their message.

While one may have a right to hateful speech, such a right does not entail a freedom from criticism or response, which might very well lead the original speaker to revoke their initial message. This is the very essence of discourse most famously laid down by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty. The cure for bad speech, which is not to be banned, is more speech, which ideally corrects errors and surpreses hateful messages through reason and discourse.

It’s a lofty ideal easier in theory than in practice, but it is the reality of the First Amendment drafted in the US Constitution and fleshed out by key judicial decisions, and one that has served America well as David Cole eloquently argued recently in the New York Review of Books.

Reddit Logo (via Wikipedia)

Similarly, a broader and broader scope of actions seem to be falling under the umbrella of free speech. The free speech defence was employed to one of its greatest degrees of absurdity when internet “trolling” was brought back into the mainstream subsequent to Gawker writer Adrien Chen’s outing of Violentacrez, the most notorious troll on Reddit.


Not Off the Hook (Ontario’s Bedford Decision and Questions of Social Justice)

1. Emancipation for Some

That the Ontario Court of Appeal’s recent Bedford v. Canada decision, which effectively legalized brothels in Ontario, was going to provoke heated debate and trigger intense emotional reactions was a foregone conclusion. Prostitution is an issue so charged with moral implications for some and questions of freedom and safety for others that it’s not surprising that it was hailed as both an important legal victory as well as the embodiment of ultimate evil for women working as prostitutes.

Valerie Scott, one of the litigants, remarked upon the decision being made official, “I feel like a citizen.” Similarly, Terri-Jean Bedford, a working dominatrix and the namesake for the case, offered the especially jubilant comment, “It’s like emancipation day for sex-trade workers.”

On the other hand, detractors have lambasted the decision as exacerbating certain evils. Women Against Violence Against Women (WAVAW), a rape crisis centre located in Vancouver, stated in a press release concerning the decision,

We continue to see courts, discussions, and society at large shift away from addressing the real and underlying problem: men’s demand for sex from women. The changes from the court decision will not provide more respect from women.

Women will continue to go missing and be murdered, if there is no real work being done to aid women. Social programming and funding into women’s services are what is needed. Hiding women from plain sight to create a false sense of safety in community is not the answer.

Bedford has also in some cases made adversaries out of current and former sex workers. The National Post shared the story of Bridget Perrier, a former prostitute:

Bridget Perrier, 35, tearful and angry, held up a metal coat hanger that was twisted into a baton, saying it is known on the street as a “pimp stick” — often heated up under a flame and used to whip and beat prostitutes.

If Ms. Bedford represents the sophisticated end of the sex trade, then Ms. Perrier the bottom of it — coerced into the sex trade at the age of 12, recruited from a group home, she was flown around Canada by her pimp to service men hungry for child sex, she said.


Democratic Pains (The Long-Term Battle for Public Services)

1. Voting Pains

A seasoned public relations professional recently told me, in a refreshingly honest way, that pain plays a central role in selling an idea, product, or service. In crafting a message that will resonate with an audience, those pitching their product will be most successful if their message is couched in a framework that appeals directly to the anxiety being felt by the audience, all while demonstrating, however honestly or dishonestly, how you will remedy that anxiety.

It’s a maxim that represents both the  best and worst of messaging where any kind of sale is concerned. One can offer something that honestly and genuinely remedies a problem for individuals or a community by zeroing in on a problem and creating and distributing something that will alleviate it. On the other hand, and this is perhaps most prominent in the fashion, cosmetic, or beauty industry in general, it is possible to create pain and subsequently offer the product that will supposedly cure that pain.

In the latter case, the pain comes from expectations of beauty and aesthetics that are always set just high enough that they are unattainable without expensive surgery or advanced photographic technology, in turn allowing products to be continually manufactured and sold by appealing to a pain that was constructed and may never really go away so long as those pushing the message command such a strong presence in the media we consume daily. Here we have the most cynical dimension of advertising.

The principle of appealing to pain is not lost among politicians. Whether or not it makes for good policy is irrelevant. So long as one can spot the moral, cultural, or safety related anxieties, just to name a few, any idea that appears to confront any such type of pain can gain traction among the electorate. The objective once again is to couch the message in a set of values that speaks directly to the pain or fear of voters and citizens in general. Such a dynamic operates in the ongoing and now resurgent culture wars.

Currently, the sharpest pain among the electorate concerns finance, both their own pocketbooks and the government purse. Perhaps we are just more individualistic than we used to be. Perhaps the financial squeeze on government at all levels coupled with our own individual anxieties concerning personal debt and finance in addition to an unpredictable job market has elevated fiscal discipline to the top of our list of priorities with regard to our personal lives as well as our government.


The Mask of Statesmanship (The Expansion of the Culture Wars in American Politics)

1. Hot Button Politics

Rhetoric is a dirty word in politics. Though its original meaning concerns the art of effective speaking, discourse, and argument, we are more likely today to hear the term bandied about as a pejorative directed at politicians. Terms or phrases such as “…that’s just rhetoric,” or “empty rhetoric” are usually employed to imply that a policy or speech is entirely without substance. There is occasional praise of eloquence in public figures and politicians, but on the whole “rhetoric” is something that is rather looked down upon.

The modern home of this type of rhetoric is what have come to be known as the “culture wars,” characterized by the clash between poloar opposite views around the “hot button” issues of gay rights, abortion, gun control, etc. At their most hyperbolic, and these debates are often nothing less than hyperbolic, appeal to the electorate is made not on the basis of substance or finer policy points, but on appeals to moral values. Each position, on whatever end of the spectrum, rests on a moral vision for a nation.

Whether its preserving the sanctity of marriage or standing up to government and preserving the vision of the Founding Fathers, which everyone seems to interpret differently, there is little appeal to what is really a better policy position. For example, is there a really a connection between the sexual orientation of parents and the well-being of a child? In the case of the drug war, is prohibition of narcotics really deterring individuals from using them or trafficking in them or just wasting resources and leading to needless incarceration? I’m not going to attempt to answer these questions here because they are not important or relevant.

What matters here is that the culture war is based on a certain type of identity politics. A position is sold to the voter not on its sensibility, but based on a sense of moral identification or the values represented by a position. It is Christian to align oneself with a particular party or platform. It is imperative as freedom loving individuals that any type of government expansion be opposed. Party alignment for workers is non-negotiable, no matter how much their supposed party of choice may continually screw them over.


Just a… (The Mistreatment of Theory by Journalists and Politicians)

1. You Decide

Objectivity is a prized concept in journalism. While it’s easy to point toward a dictionary definition of the term, it’s not quite clear how it is to be applied to reporting. Not being a professional journalist, perhaps there is something I don’t know. Nonetheless, hearing from those who tout their brand of reporting and journalism as superior for being objective, it seems that the term is geared more toward defining how a news outlet does not what to define itself and the type of accusations against which they would like to shield themselves.

The ultimate insult to level at journalists it seems is to accuse them of bias or being in bed with a political party or large social organization, perhaps labour unions or major corporations. In a story that brings forth two opposing viewpoints, for example whether or not a large government stimulus is an effective means by which to create employment, no organization wants to be seen as actively touting the viewpoint of one side.

Sometimes the consequences are downright absurd. In order to maintain the facade of objectivity and neutrality, journalists completely remove themselves from the debate, taking on the role of mouthpieces rather than analysts. In the talking-head circus that pervades at least the major cable news networks, what we’re left with is a platform for various political consultants and representatives of think-tanks to climb up on their soapbox and spew their respective talking points.

Little is done after the fact to assess which side’s worldview is indeed correct. After all, for example, it cannot be the case that same-sex marriage has no effect at on the well-being of children and that it does prove detrimental to their welfare. There must be data and the potential to investigate both claims that will confirm one argument or at least illuminate the reality of the matter at hand.


Organization as Liberation (Power and Occupy Wall Street)

“Political freedom, generally speaking, means ‘the right to be a participator in government,’ or it means nothing at all. – Hannah Arendt

1. Conflicts of Interest

The legendary political scientist Arthur Fisher Bentley (I suppose a political scientist can be legendary) was among the first to boil politics down to a matter of conflict. Despite our distaste for “interest groups” or “partisanship” in government, Bentley, to present his theory in a rather crude manner, put forth the notion that the political process was indeed nothing more than partisan bickering. In all our talk about kicking out the “special interests,” Professor Bentley, were he alive today and assuming he still held to his original theory of the political process, would likely laugh at us for being so oblivious to the fact that partisan bickering or special interest groups were not just part of the game but politics itself. This theory of pluralism, as it came to be called, did not hold that terms such as interest groups or partisanship were dirty words. In fact, we all have interests and politics is just a matter of seeing that our interests rather than conflicting ones become law.

From such a perspective, several things are key. Interest groups require organization, financial capital, a clearly articulated agenda, the means to sell it, and perhaps most importantly, access to lawmakers. Access to relevant lawmakers or influential figures, whether in Ottawa, Washington, or any other capital, is essential in pushing one’s interests. It’s no coincidence that high ranking legislators and civil servants often fall into similarly high ranking and lucrative positions in lobbying organizations upon leaving government. This being the case, it’s difficult to deny that there is some reality to theory of pluralism as so many organizations and interest groups clamour for funding and access.

This too is the lens through which the great majority of media outlets cover the political process. The penchant for horse-race style coverage of elections, which I’ve moaned about constantly, and the constant drawing of analogies to sport, particularly brutal ones, are vivid illustrations of the fact that we love a good fight when it comes to politics. Who has the best PR? Who presented and articulated their ideas most clearly and in a manner that resonated emotionally with their audience or “the base”? Who landed the knockout punch? These are the big questions. The process as it is, whether legislative or electoral, is accepted as given and analysis, if it can be called that, is devoted to which “interest” can best exploit those systems. Certain ideas or groups, whatever their merit of their interests, are dismissed if they are unlikely in the eyes of analysts and pundits to gain traction.

In all the talk of “damn dirty hippies” or the “low budget” and wildly disorganized nature of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which by now has moved to several other cities and reached across the border to here in Canada and even overseas, this “conflict of interest” framework remains firmly intact. Because protestors lack a single coherent message or any contingent in Washington, or because some of them may like to play bongo drums, they are dismissed as nothing more than the very fringes of the population worthy of scolding and ridicule.

This is, needless to say, incredibly lazy journalism. The fact that a movement has managed to amass so many followers while spreading to so many locales, and according to some polls find support from a majority of Americans, yet still be dismissed by most mainstream news outlets as having no legitimacy and not being worthy of any deeper examination is absurd. Though Occupy Wall Street does not possess the conventional markings of an interest group, and though it is indeed a diverse movement, does not at all entail that it is meaningless. Moving away from this type of framework and choosing to see the democratic process as more than just a battle over who is more organized and affluent reveals that the Occupy movement is about something very significant and ill in the political process.


The Creative City (Insite’s Victory in British Columbia)

1. The Federalism Question, or Lack Thereof

Scholars and students of Canadian politics and government are fixated on federalism. They should be, federalism being one of the founding pillars of Canadian democracy. That being said, however, I feel that we are fixated on federalism in a very Canadian way.

Specifically, when interrogating the question of “why Federalism?”, we as students of federalism find the answer in the form of federalism that surrounds us. It’s just self-evident that federalism is a matter of reconciling differences within a united national framework. The goal, as it is, aims for a unified and stable nation-state forged from distinct regional identities that are in turn granted a certain degree of autonomy within that national framework.

This stream of thought being the dominant one, discussions and examinations of federalism as a system of governance in Canada appears to maintain an almost exclusive focus on the sharing of power between the two levels (provincial and federal) of government and reconciling differences. The Québec question occupies the lion’s share of scholarly attention within this field, followed by the aforementioned attempt to understand how powers can be most effectively shared between the federal and provincial levels of government and precisely how the regional, economic, and cultural diversity present among Canada’s provinces can be maintained within a unified national framework. There’s also the emerging concern (and by emerging I mean over the last few decades) over devolution and decentralization of power to the provincial governments.

Just as important as where the attention goes is where it is absent. There has been little of the American approach to federalism, namely one which assesses this form of governance from a standpoint of political philosophy rather than reconciling diversity. There is little to no attempt to consider whether or not federalism is simply a better manner of governing that yields better policy outcomes through decentralization and autonomy of subnational units.  Without the question of irreconcilable cultural and ethnic differences, is federalism still to be the preferred system of governance and management?

The case is also made that federalism fosters innovation through granting autonomy to subunits. Not being confined to a single manner of developing and implementing policy, states, provinces, etc. are accorded the freedom to take on bold ventures in various policy areas. Should these ventures succeed, they are likely to be imitated in other parts of the federation. In Canada, our go to example of such an instance is the adoption of universal healthcare in Saskatchewan, which later became a national policy. It is curious, however, that this aspect of federalism remains underemphasized among students of Canadian government. It will likely get a passing mention in undergraduate courses during the compulsory federalism lecture, but when we approach supposedly in-depth examinations of Canadian federalism, scholars revert back to the conventional questions and issues.

Also absent, though gradually less so in recent years, is the place of Canadian cities within this broader framework. Historically, Canadian cities have primarily been treated as service providers or administrative bodies, carrying out delegated tasks handed down from their provincial overlords. There is little real policy-making at this level of government and it is typically not to be expected that municipalities will carry out any of the potentially innovative solutions and ideas alluded to in the previous paragraph. It is only recently, as major urban areas become more populated and begin to significantly drive economic growth that their place within greater frameworks of governance has been reassessed, though we still have a long way to go.


War Without Feeling

1. Ten Years Later

History, as they say, has a dastardly tendency to repeat itself, especially if we are not cognizant of it. Those who do not know history, after all, are condemned to repeat it. The past is supposedly replete with warnings about the actions that brought men to their demise and sent imperial giants crashing toward the ground, in some cases vividly pinpointing the moment that such a downfall began. When the narrative is simple and straightforward as it tends to be in some cases, history serves as something of a Grimm’s Fairytales for those of a political stripe.

In the decade since September 11th, 2001, our culture – Western Civilization if you would like to call it so – led by the United States, has been a warring one. It began with Afghanistan, where we Canadians followed our allies, and shortly gave way to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and now sees the chaos in Libya enter the picture. Forces are stretched thin, no doubt, and despite the constant talk of exit strategies, to the man on the street there appears to be no end in sight. Costs also must encompass the increased security measures that have been devoted to protecting America at and within its own borders as well as the human costs of seemingly perpetual occupation and engagement in foreign territory.

Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War places its origins in 432 BC, when delegates from Corinth approached the Lacedaemonians, aka the Spartans, with grievances against the city-state of Athens. While it was agreed generally that Athens was indeed guilty of certain injustices, it remained a matter of contention whether or not Sparta would take up arms against Athens, though Thucydides posits that general opinions supported doing so.

The ultimate decision resulted from a debate between the Spartan King Archimadus and Sthenelaïdas, an Ephor, the highest ranking decision makers in the city. It is this debate that illuminates a striking lesson from history concerning the nature and culture of war. Specifically, what questions and imperatives are to be considered prior to engaging in military conflict and what sacrifices should be made and by whom? In their strikingly adversarial viewpoints, the two orators illustrate two contrasting views of the aforementioned question, inviting the reader to ponder those same questions in light of our contemporary warring civilization.


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