Friday, December 23, 2011

Rob Ford: My New Year Wish List

I like Rob Ford, as a person, quite apart from his performance as mayor. I did not vote for him, and in fact I worked fairly hard for his principal competitor. But on a personal level, I like him, and I respect his philosophy of government as a servant, a philosophy expressed in his constituency work, work that even some of his harshest detractors grudgingly admire. That bears remembering as we look back on the past year, with its mixed record of some success for Rob and his brother, some failure, and a touch of outright farce.

A little less than three years from now, the voters will have an opportunity to pass judgment on Rob Ford's work as mayor. I expect we will pass a fair judgment, and I also suspect that if things do not change, we will decide that someone else would do a better job as mayor. Whatever we choose in the end, I want Toronto to have the best mayor we can have, not just a suitable butt for the sneers of the Toronto Star.

So here we have the top four requests from me to Rob Ford:

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Modesty and ambition

Hugo Schwyzer, a writer and teacher from California, recently resigned from the web site "Good Men Project". He gave as his reason a conflict between his support of  liberal feminism and what he perceived as a growing hostility to feminist ideas in the project. In particular, he cited the refusal of the site to publish a comment he had written on a specific dispute between the site founder and a number of women.

While I believe Hugo has told the truth about the specific reason he left the "Good Men Project", I perceive an underlying problem in his relationship with the project. Hugo has never hesitated to reveal himself on the Internet: I find his courage admirable even when the extent of his extroversion leaves me uncomfortable. He has frequently written of his belief in twelve step culture, with its emphasis on taking things one day at a time, sometimes on simply doing one right thing at a time. I respect Hugo's embrace of ethical modesty, particularly when it restrains the grand gestures that his writing suggests come naturally to him.

Since I can think of few ambitions more sweeping than an attempt to define the "good" for the three and a half billion men and boys on this planet, it seems to me, in hindsight, that Hugo's attraction to this project would  clash with a more modest ambition. In the event, Hugo made the right choice in leaving the Good Men Project to protect his integrity.

I believe that we underestimate the value of modesty. Looking at the collective achievements of our civilization, we forget too easily what small steps led us to our current position, how far we have to go. We find it too easy to avoid considering the tenuous nature of our position, or even the possibility we seriously overrate what we have accomplished. When choosing between integrity and ambition, even the ambition to achieve on behalf of other people, it makes sense to choose integrity.

Friday, September 09, 2011

A for idea, D- for execution

As an idea, you can't argue with it: cyclists shouldn't kill pedestrians. Moreover, cycling culture should take the obligation not to kill pedestrians very seriously indeed, and jurisdictions, from the city to the province, with responsibility for traffic safety should frame a comprehensive strategy to ensure the cyclists who do not understand our shared responsibilities get the message.

So how did the recent Globe and Mail editorial, which tried to make these simple points, do such a bad job? The answer partly lies in the atrocious phrasing the editorial claims cyclists should "know our place". And if we don't, do y'all have a rope, a tree and a bunch of good ole boys to teach us? Some phrases just bring up too many bad memories, and editorial writers should leave such phrases out of their tool boxes. Whoever wrote this particular editorial then added pomposity to their list of rhetorical blunders by writing this: "We do not occupy a planet where cyclist safety trumps all else." I get it: cyclists don't have a right to risk other people's lives to stay safe ourselves.

But this editorial does more than just break most of the rules of effective writing. It asserts a double standard and dares the reader to ignore it. Because anyone who spent much of last year in a conscious state has probably noticed quite a few very public decisions that paid no heed to the safety of cyclists. Fear of traffic doesn't cut it as an excuse for cycling on sidewalks. I don't cycle on sidewalks, and I ride my share of fast roads and heavy traffic. But consider the decision that Michael Bryant's fears absolutely justified all of his actions the night of his fatal encounter with Darcy Alan Sheppard, or the decision to tear out downtown bike lanes so a few residents of Moore Park can get downtown a few seconds faster, not to mention the frequent failure to file dangerous driving charges in many cases where pedestrians or cyclists get killed. I can't help getting the feeling that maybe my fears don't matter, but other people seem to think their fears, and even their resentments, do matter.

I know where I belong when on my bicycle: the bike lane or else somewhere between a meter and a meter and a half from the kerb in a lane wide enough to share in safety, secondary position (the right-hand tire track) in a lane too narrow to share, and primary position (lane center) in a lane to narrow to share where cars cannot pass safely. I ought not to cycle on the sidewalk, and I don't. But in a wider sense, I do not have a "place" any different from anyone else because I option a healthy, non-polluting option for some of my travels. I have exactly the same rights and obligations as anyone else, however I move around. And that sums up the underlying for the failure of the Globe editorial to make what should have been a simple point. Everyone, however we travel, has a moral responsibility to avoid harming other people, and the law should hold us all to account. But that raises a troubling reality: in many if not most cases where errant drivers have killed off cyclists, pedestrians, or even other drivers, the law has failed to apply the standard the Globe's writer proposes for those who bicycle on the sidewalk. Choosing not to deal with this basic contradiction, the writer of this editorial blends some very inappropriate rhetoric with pomposity to produce a very bad editorial.

I consider that sad, because I consider the underlying proposition valid. Indeed, I have seldom if ever seen the truth dressed up as such nonsense.

(Cross posted at I Bike TO; thanks to Yvonne Bambrick for pointing out the editorial)

Friday, August 05, 2011

The ends and means of culture wars

The current battle over library funding marks a skirmish line in a culture war. A culture war develops when people who hold a series of attitudes, often incoherently,  perceive themselves as a group and develop strong feelings of solidarity combined with hostility to others who hold competing attitudes. In Toronto, the culture war lines we all acknowledge include the Gay Pride parade and Mayor Ford's refusal to attend, bicycle lanes, and libraries. Less acknowledged but very real conflicts revolve around the word industrial, and the corresponding attitudes to the presence of actual industry in Toronto, and to existing industrial sites.

Because culture wars tend to involve incoherent clusters of beliefs, lines in culture wars can shift abruptly and without warning, propelled by the whims of popular culture and commercial media. I have written elsewhere of the growing acceptance of Toronto City Centre Airport and the corresponding collapse of the movement against it. In 2003, people calling for the closure of the airport belonged to a juggernaut that handed the mayor's chair to David Miller; a few years later, Toronto Life referred to them as a group of "aging hippies".

I hope I have conveyed my own belief that drawing lines in a conflict of cultures only damages the integrity of everyone's position, and even worse, makes compromise into a dirty word, coherent thinking about policy more difficult, and generally sabotages the process of effective self government. When a substantial number of people  choose to validate themselves by joining or supporting arbitrarily defined factions, the ability of everyone to participate in effective self government will suffer. Over the next while, I hope to produce a series of posts on how to avoid and diffuse cultural conflicts.