Thursday, August 21, 2008


MSNBC quotes a Jason Goldtrap as calling the practice of locking up people with mental illnesses and neurological variations “ important element of trying to maintain civility." They then go on to quote him as saying "There is a place for mental institutions.”

Obviously, I disagree. I hope most people disagree. While I agree that many people with neurological variations such as autism need and benefit from supportive communities, those communities exist to serve and support those who live in them, not maintain what Mr. Goldtrap calls civility. I do not just disagree with what Mr. Goldtrap reportedly wants to do with people who have neurological variations and mental illnesses; I disagree with his very notion of civility. Long ago, my mother taught me that true civility has nothing to do with some magical realm where nobody ever harshes your mellow; civility, at its base, means concern for other people. When people make noises or act strangely out of neurological variations, they haven't behaved uncivilly themselves, since they have little if any control over their behaviour. But they do need us to act civilly, with concern and empathy, toward them. If we do that, we will have no need to institutionalize people with neurological or cognitive disabilities. If, on the other hand, we adopt a version of civility that makes comfort more important than empathy, we will all find ourselves under the care of big nurse (or big nanny) in time.

Monday, August 18, 2008

A Bad Idea Makes for Worse Policy

The early nineteen eighties saw the rise of a phrase to public prominence that most of us had not heard before: moral equivalence. Over the years, the users of the phrase back-formed it into a verb: moral equivalencing. Whatever form it takes, I consider this term one of the worst examples of the political abuse of language.

Moral equivalence, in its current sense, arose as a scornful label for the notion that moral standards apply to everyone equally, and therefore the crimes in the name of "anti-communism" ought to concern us. In the late 1970s, the phrase had a coherent idea behind it; some neo-conservatives developed the idea that Marxism had a uniquely corrupting effect that eliminated the possibility of any reform. This meant nations ruled by corrupt despots who took the American side could evolve into democracies, while nations ruled by despots who favoured the Soviets could not, and therefore we should not judge "friendly" dictatorships, and the atrocities they commit, by the standards we apply to "hostile" rulers. The events of 1989 to 1991 pretty well refuted this claim, but just as the Cheshire Cat disappeared leaving nothing but the grin, the idea behind moral equivalence has left the phrase as its only trace.

The phrase has persisted mainly as an indirect way of reinforcing or enforcing political identities. It implies, since a direct assertion would make the absurdity of the proposition unavoidable, that "we", however the speaker defines "we" cannot err. This kind of expression abuses words to prevent, rather than express, thought. It has serious effects on the quality of decision making in politics wherever people use it. Historically, the assertion of the moral equivalence of individuals and their actions underpins the rule of law, which asserts the wrongness of an action such as murder, regardless of who commits it and against whom they commit it. As a result, the use of the phrase "moral equivalence" when speaking of international relations denies the possibility of the rule of law in an international context, and more broadly denies the possibility of a coherent international policy at all. After all, to make a rational guess at what the government of another country may do, you have to first appreciate that they belong to the same species you do, with motives and calculations you can in principle understand. But I can see no clear boundary between a recognition of common humanity and the dreaded "moral equivalencing".

We can see the results all around us. In 2003, Canada's Prime Minister Jean Chretien warned that he could see no legal basis for the United States to invade Iraq. An international system can only work on one of two basis: the rule of law or power politics, and we have recently seen what power politics looks like, as the Russian government moved to quash what they saw as a threat from the Republic of Georgia. If the policy makers involved had kept a clear view of international relations, they might have seen that absent a consensus based on international law, extending NATO to all the borders of Russia would look very aggressive, and risk provoking a violent reaction. Nothing, perhaps, could blind decision makers as effectively as a complacent sense of moral superiority, exactly the sort of outlook I would expect the unthinking acceptance of a phrase such as "moral equivalence" to foster.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Bob Deluce Conquers Cool

I like Robert Deluce. The few times I have met him, he has struck me as shrewd, genial, competent, and a businessman who does something, in this case aviation, because he cares about it.

Bob Deluce has done a lot of things right recently. When he started Porter Airlines, he gambled that buying the most modern and fuel efficient turbo-prop planes available would enable him to offer attractive service from Toronto City Centre Airport. The recent rise in fuel costs has hobbled his competitors, especially Air Canada, who suddenly find the cost of feeding their jet fleet growing at an unexpected, and uncompetitive rate. Porter Air has steadily expanded, and looks set to fly to Boston as well as New York, and possibly Chicago. Robert Deluce has built something; he has moved a great many people while burning less fuel and emitting less pollution than most of his competitors. He has helped make a superb, and superbly efficient aircraft design viable.

But Bob Deluce has done more than that. He has conquered cool. When he first proposed flying from Toronto City Centre Airport, he stirred up strong opposition from an articulate and wealthy downtown community. The airport he proposed to fly from turned into a political issue. His opponents basked in their media depiction as a group of hip players, pivotal in the election of a new mayor. What a difference success, branding and time have made! The opponents of Bob Deluce's airline still gather that the foot of Bathurst Street on a Friday evening for protests, but media reports dismiss them with one of the ultimate kisses of death: ageing hippies.

I have no sympathy for Bob Deluce's opponents, because under their counterculture exterior I see a hard-edged elitism. One of their proposals artlessly referred to park they hoped would (at great expense) replace the airport as a place for "people in Tilley hats". I found it telling that anyone could, with complete lack of any apparent self-consciousness, call for the city to build a park specifically for the tiny fraction of the world's population that can spend fifty dollars on a hat. Worse, the opponents of Toronto City Centre Airport and Bob Deluce bolstered their claim that Toronto should concentrate air traffic at Toronto's main airport, Pearson International, with the claim that no residential neighbourhoods exist in the vicinity. At one public meeting, when I showed picture of the neighbourhoods that sit directly across from Pearson Airport, and a map showing the noise these neighbourhoods experience, I heard a wave of nervous laughter from the benches behind me where the opponents of the airport and Bob Deluce sat.

So expect no sympathy from me for the opponents of Bob Deluce. Still, I cannot help but wonder what "cool" has done to the process of debate. The opponents of Bob Deluce and his airline ought to lose, I believe, because they have a bad case, not because of branding, or cool, or because of their ages. I congratulate Mr. Deluce on a well earned success, and I believe in celebrating his achievement as something more than fashion and branding.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Mass: With All Its Faults, Still Critical to Cyclists

Sergeant Mark Tonner of the Vancouver Police force asks a number of questions of his readers on the subject of the Critical Mass bike ride. I think all cyclists, whether they ride Critical Mass or not, have their own answers. I thought I would give mine. What I have to say pertains to Toronto and not other cities with a critical mass ride; as a cyclist who sometimes rides with Toronto Critical Mass, I can comment on the things I have seen. I only know about events around Critical Mass in other cities from news reports and comments.

Sergeant Tonner repeats two arguments against Critical Mass: that "corking" cross streets to keep the ride together violates the law, and cyclists on the ride engage in various forms of aggression against motorists. I don't accept the first argument; often when a large number of people take to the roads at once, private individuals or the authorities direct traffic to assure orderly and safe movement. Since cyclists have the right to use the roads in Ontario (under the highway traffic act) and the right to assemble (under the Canadian Charter of Rights), I believe we can, and should, direct traffic to make sure we can ride as safely as possible and with minimal disruption. However, on recent Critical Mass rides I have seen deliberate halts at major intersections, that do not make the ride safer or more comfortable. Those actions celebrate bicycle culture and the freedom to ride; they protest against automotive culture by disrupting it.

I have no objection to civil disobedience. I have engaged in a number of acts of civil and religious witness in which I risked arrest. And I believe a reasonable person can see in automotive culture, with its social isolation, environmental pollution, and careless carnage, something badly in need of protest. But I would not advise anyone to bring pre-teen children on a civil disobedience action, and I would strongly advise anyone at Critical Mass wishing to engage in civil disobedience to allow a clear separation between their challenge to the law and the families out for a ride and a celebration.

With all its faults, all the tension at the corks, all the push and pull about whether to turn Critical Mass into a full anti-automobile and anti-pollution demonstration, or into a celebration of cycling, the mass remains a critical celebration of the cycling community, and a reminder of its solidarity and strength. Because the cost of riding a bicycle on the streets of Toronto includes an endless round of daily, petty, and often dangerous harassment: the motorists who feel free to honk their horn and tell you what to do, the driver who tries to take your right of way at a four way stop and curses you out, the automobile passenger who thinks it a great joke to yell at you out of a window to see if you'll jump. We need reminding, and our tormentors need reminding too, that we belong to a community. We stand for something. They can make us angry, they can make us frightened, but they cannot make us give up. And as long as an ugly minority of motorists keep trying to push us off the roads, the celebration of Critical Mass will include an element of defiance; it will celebrate endurance and survival as well as all the things we gain for ourselves through that simplest of machines we choose to add to our lives.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Shania the cat...

Biking down Bloor on the way home, I saw a young cat step out into the side street. A Jeep Cherokee approached. The car stopped, the cat looked at the car. The driver honked. The cat remained still, as if to say: "So you got a car... that don't impress me much." After another moment, the driver gave up and drove around the cat, and a moment after that, the cat moved on across the street.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

From such roots

...does cyclist militancy grow.

Yesterday, riding down High Park Boulevard, I stopped at the four-way stop at Sunnyside Avenue. I stopped, the vehicle to my left went through the intersection, then I started across in turn. The vehicle on my left, second in line, pulled into the intersection. At first I thought he intended to turn left, but he made straight for me. I rang my bell, and he slowed, shouting something that sounded like "you're not a motorcycle". I replied sharply telling him to pay attention. He passed through the intersection behind me, yelling an obscenity at me, to which I replied by giving him the one-fingered international salute.

Every cyclist who uses public roads has to worry about encounters like this, and we can only hope we get out of it with nothing more than a minor feeling of irritation. Most of us have experienced much worse things than this. The whole experience left me feeling three things:

  1. Cyclists have a right to use the road. If motorists don't feel like waiting for us, as the law requires, tough. I don't always feel like sharing the road with cars.
  2. No motorist has any business taking the behaviour of some other cyclist out on me. I try to keep the rules as a cyclist and a driver. I expect others to do the same.
  3. I have no patience left with anyone who tells me I can solve the problem by giving up my right to mobility, or by driving and adding to the pollution problem like a "normal" person.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Safety first!

The Ontario Highway Traffic Act covers a lot of detail, but neglects to state its prime objective clearly. Does Ontario regulate traffic to ensure the safe movement of people, goods and vehicles on Ontario roads, or do we regulate traffic to facilitate speedy movement? The Highway Traffic Act should clarify this, first because of the number of influential voices insisting that we have roads so that cars and trucks can move fast on them, and because those voices, coupled with the lack of clarity in the Highway Traffic Act, lead to the harassment of lower speed traffic; not only bicycles, but as anyone who does it knows, cars that actually obey the speed limit.

In aviation, the laws make a clear statement: safety comes first. The pilot has absolute responsibility for the safety of the passengers and the flight, and nothing moves until and unless everyone with a responsibility for safety agree that the flight can proceed. I strongly suggest the Highway Traffic Act should say the same thing. It won't change the attitude of the drivers who believe they have a right to push their cars to the limit on public roads, but it may affect enforcement if the rest of us can point to a law that says, without ambiguity, that our safety comes first.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Blind drivers, invisible cyclists

Driving my kid into Toronto from Mississauga, I turned southwards at a major intersection. I saw three or four pedestrians at the corner to the right of me, checked the cross walk and the traffic, and turned. As I headed south, I looked in the mirror and saw three bicycles in the cross walk. It brought home to me how quickly a bicycle can travel from outside the range of a driver's scan, and how cyclists make it difficult for drivers to see us when we act as pedestrians do.

It put me in mind of another time, driving through a wall of rain in the late evening, straining to see, a shadow passed in front of me. I braked. Of course, I had come close to a cyclist riding at night and in filthy weather without a light or much of a reflector. Once again, when cyclists do that, we make it very difficult for drivers to see us.

Of course, cyclists have to worry that even when we do everything right (lights on, signalling) drivers will either not see us, or else act as though they do not. This affects me as a cyclist most when I go to change lanes; when I signal for a lane change, I always have to wonder if the cars behind me in the lane I want to change to will slow down for me. I have certainly had cars speed past me while I signalled and tried (in vain) to shift lanes.

As cyclists, we need to make ourselves visible in traffic. As drivers, we need to make an effort to see all road users.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Unexpected blessings

We vacationed last week at a resort at Honey Harbour. On the last night of our holiday, I went out on a canoe with a guide to learn a bit more about the history, human and natural, of Georgian Bay and its 30,000 islands. I had expected to see birds; Georgian Bay has huge flocks of Geese. The loons who let us see them up close as they beat the water with their wings on takeoff came as an unexpected gift. So did the mallards as they slipped off a rock into the water of an inlet colourful with water-lily blossoms. Then a Great Blue Heron surprised us taking off from the shallow waters of the inlet, and at the end of the evening, we came upon a group of turkey vultures picking the skeleton of a fish.

Today, home in Toronto, I went on the everyday errand to buy a gallon of milk. The sun had sunk behind the clouds, and filled the streets of Bloor West with golden light. The houses, with the tapered porch pillars that distinguish the architecture of Bloor West, stood out beautifully. The light somehow gave the neat houses, their lawns and brick pathways and even their parking pads a special beauty and distinctiveness. It took no more than a time of day and some dust and clouds, to turn the city I see passing by nearly every day into an unexpected beauty.