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Monday, May 20, 2013

Dangerous addictions: Toronto, right wing hypocrisies and Rob Ford

Another week in Toronto, and another scandal involving our sideshow of a mayor, Rob Ford.

This latest one, in case somehow you have not heard, involves an apparent video of the mayor allegedly not only smoking crack cocaine but also using homophobic language to disparage Justin Trudeau and describing the players of the high school football team he coaches as "just fucking minorities".

It really is one thing after another with Ford. For example, very shortly after entirely credible claims were made regarding apparent drunken sexual misconduct by Ford by Sarah Thomson back in March, new allegations that the mayor, prior to this, was asked to leave a different public social function also due to apparent intoxication burst onto the headlines.

Despite the overwhelming and constantly mounting evidence to the contrary, Ford himself and many of his allies have continued to insist that all the allegations are simply a fabrication of his enemies and the "liberal media", most especially the Toronto Star.  (In the specific case of the latest alleged video, this is especially silly given that the story was first published by an online American publication). This is almost humourously delusional for a bunch that presents itself as hard-headed, no-nonsense "realists".

Even before this latest and extremely serious allegation and regardless of its specific veracity, however, Ford has to be seen as having come to symbolize the basic unfairness of our society. If there has ever been a more obvious personification in the Canadian context of the reality that rich white men can get away with actions and behaviour that absolutely no one else would be able to, I am not aware of it. And, not just get away with the behaviour, but get elected to office and defended by otherwise self-described "law-and-order" right wing types despite it! From drug possession, to driving under the influence, to repeated domestic assault calls (and, indeed, charges), to not being held to account for violating campaign finance laws, to avoiding any repercussions for having violated conflict of interest rules, to seemingly using staff payed by the public inappropriately, it goes on and on and on as outlined in this Google doc. And nothing really happens to him as a result. The one and only time he was punished, the punishment was reversed on appeal.

There is an understandable temptation to regard all of this as a bad joke and an irrelevance or to see it as merely fodder for the international press and late night satirists to sneer at Toronto; which is already happening and is richly deserved. A temptation to see it as a distraction from the truly pressing issues facing the city.

But that, I think, is a mistake. First, if this is a distraction that has derailed the city's agenda, there is only Rob Ford to blame for that. But more importantly, the fact that this farce has played out for so long with so little consequence for Ford cannot help but to foster and reinforce entirely warranted cynicism in many communities about our society's claim, such as it is, to the equality of all before the law. It also emboldens the forces on our Far Right who have an essentially anti-democratic notion that their partisans are above the law and that the actions of their heroes, like Ford, should be dealt with and viewed in ways entirely different to how they would view them were they to be committed by citizens who are not white or wealthy and who are not populist folk icons.

Let us recall that many of the same Toronto media outlets, talk radio devotees and reactionary politicians  who are turning a blind eye to this pattern of both proven and alleged behaviour or pretending that it is all an invention of the media, were the same people who were driven to self-righteous rage when a TTC employee on medication for a serious illness (he has since died) and who was, in fact, an actual hero, fell asleep in a ticket collection booth during a shift and had the misfortune to be photographed. They regularly take sadistic glee in pillorying and publicly humiliating public employees and officials for far more minor transgressions than those Ford has been accused of, charged with and, in the case of campaign finance rules, found guilty of having violated.

In fact, of course, much of their whole narrative and vision of the world is based around lies about "wealthy" and "lazy" union workers, the supposed immorality or criminality of immigrant and minority communities, that the poor or people on welfare are the authors of their own misfortune and are usually scam artists, and so on.

How ingrained these ugly and racist views are in right wingers of Ford's ilk can be seen from the mayor's own false and derogatory comments about the young men on the football team he coaches. He has, completely insultingly and erroneously portrayed his coaching as some kind of heroic and charitable act that keeps the players out of jail and gangs (and, ironically, off drugs) and that keeps them in school. His comments so infuriated the parents and teachers of the high school (Don Bosco Catholic Secondary in Etobicoke) that many feel he should no longer be allowed to coach.

Yet, the irony is that it is Ford who has never had to work for anything, who has been caught in possession of drugs in the past, who treats his job as a joke, skipping meetings to coach football or leaving the floor of a council meeting to watch playoff hockey, and so on. Far from being "one of us" Ford is proof that rich and powerful men are not us at all. They get to play and live by an entirely different set of rules.

This toxicity and anti-social attitude on the part of the right has grown more shameless in direct correlation to the rightward drift of our politics and the mainstreaming of what used to be extremist ideas and viewpoints. Moreover it is gripped by a stunning hypocrisy in that many right wing commentators, politicians and voters feel entitled to make sweeping generalizations about the moral conduct and fiber of different communities, and to espouse social philosophies and narratives centered around the necessity of personal morality and "restraint" and the primacy of personal conduct in the determination of social outcome, disparaging notions of systemic oppression and denying the reality that there does not, at all, exist a level playing field or equality of opportunity in Canada, and yet they are completely unwilling to apply to these "principles" to themselves or those they support. It is meant for the "other", not for those in the club.

Otherwise how is Conrad Black, a non-citizen and convicted felon, who was sent to jail in the country that the right idolizes, the United States, in Canada at all? One need only ask oneself if a person-of-colour without the bank account and the lordships would also have been allowed this great courtesy by our supposedly tough-on-crime government to know the answer to that.
Punishment, mandatory minimums and prison are for ordinary people, people who cannot afford fancy lawyers, and people who they see as not really "Canadian". Compassion, understanding and second chances are for their own.

Did Rob Ford smoke crack cocaine with drug dealers while spouting off homophobic and racist comments. Who knows? That it seems completely believable says a lot, but it is, of course, possible that it is not true. It is also possible that the video will never see the light of day. It is possible that the allegations will be proven and that Ford, with near certainty should they be, will be forced finally to resign in disgrace.

But in some respects no matter the outcome the salient fact remains that the system that created Ford, that allowed his rise and that excused and forgave his many transgressions will survive him either way. While Ford may be an unusually buffoonish and ignorant child of social privilege there can be no doubt that a different set of rules are applied to all the other children of the rich and powerful as well, especially if they are male and white.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Rob Ford's confederacy of dunces: Doubling down on dumb on transit in the GTA

If it were not so terribly serious, one could almost be amused by the latest sad battle cry of Toronto's deeply confused politicians, calling on the province to give them subways that they ultimately want no one, at all, to pay for. To paraphrase Dire Straits, they seem to want to get their money from nothing and their transit for free.

And dire straits are exactly what transit plans for Toronto are in, now depending on a minority Liberal austerity government, whose only potential de facto budget "partners", the NDP, have outright rejected the proposed dedicated transit taxes and whose Hudak Tory opponents would no doubt cancel most existing transit plans, just as their 90's equivalent Mike Harris did. While the Liberals have indicated a willingness to support what is known as the "Big Move", the $50 billion long term  plan to expand and integrate transit in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) and beyond, they have also made it clear, very recently, that they are open to rethinking it.

In the midst of this already negative political context for transit advocates and funding,  Toronto City Council this past Thursday (May 9) has voted to ask the province to reject thirteen potential revenue tools for the Big Move, and refused to actually endorse the two revenue tools that it did not ask to be outright rejected!  They have also muddied the waters even further by changing their mind, yet again, after signing a legal agreement just a year ago, on whether or not they support a Sheppard St. subway expansion or LRTs. This development is a complete fiasco and a truly serious setback given that the council meeting and vote itself were held against the wishes of Mayor Rob Ford and his Executive Committee and was expected to have been a moment of triumph for the pro-transit wing of council.
But, with a handful of notable exceptions, many councillors got cold feet. In a move of almost unbelievable political short-sightedness and cowardice, the council has all but handed the Wynne Liberals, who thanks to a generation of tax cuts dating back to the mid-90's find themselves cash strapped, the perfect way out of future dedicated funding commitments should they chose to seize the opportunity.

In a shocking and explicit admission that what had transpired was an outright manifestation of crass gutlessness, we have one of Toronto's least principled elected officials, Josh Colle, speaking of his role in this farce:

Centrist councillor Josh Colle said he proposed councillors vote against, rather than for, specific levies to give tax-shy colleagues “cover” to leave some on the table, in effect endorsing them.
“We as a council endorsed revenue tools as something to use. Obviously when it got down to the specifics there was less willingness to cite them,” he said, adding the province will view the vote as endorsing a regional sales tax and one-time development charges.
The city manager’s report estimates the two levies together could generate up to $1.5 billion per year.
What neither the article nor Colle note is that even if this estimate is true, it is at least $1 billion short per year of what is required for the Big Move.

After this vote the Liberal austerity government can simply say that Toronto's elected officials have flip-flopped so many times on the nature of the transit that they wish to see built, and are so clearly unwilling to have a serious discussion about dedicated funding sources for it, that no consensus exists to get anything done. Who, they could note, are they to implement a plan against the will of the people's representatives in Toronto?

This was all very predictable in a way. Why, given the fantasy world our political leaders and, obviously, the business "community" seem to live in when it comes to taxes, would we expect anything different to happen?

The Toronto Region Board of Trade, while finally becoming a rare business group to acknowledge the reality that new revenue tools were required for the government to achieve an objectively necessary investment in infrastructure, went about it in a totally self-serving way. While all of their specific proposals are worthy of consideration, and three of the four primary revenue generating proposals would also aid in the critically important environmental objective of creating a disincentive to driving, they notably leave out corporate and personal tax increases. (To be fair, in the case of personal tax increases, no one else is remotely proposing them either).

The provincial NDP eschews the dedicated revenue tools altogether, and has, as I have written of previously, chosen to propound a "Gravy Train" style fiction that it can all be paid for by closing corporate tax loopholes; a claim that is demonstrably and manifestly false. Sadly, some left-leaning councillors like Maria Augimeri, possibly looking towards a future in provincial politics, have parroted this line to the detriment of their constituents.

The "left wing" case, such as it is, against some of the revenue tools proposed is that they are regressive. For example, opponents of the idea of a fuel or gas tax have a farcically retrograde tendency to wax poetic about "poor" car drivers in the suburbs of Toronto who have to drive to work to survive and who will, presumably, be impoverished further by this.

Yet when it comes to consumption taxes, such as the fuel tax, that also achieve a completely obvious social and environmental objective both in terms of how the revenue accrued  will be spent and how it will impact on the driving behaviour of those paying it, this anti-tax narrative is dangerously misguided. Instead of talking about the "poor" car drivers, insofar as they exist, one might note the enormously positive impact of putting the fuel tax revenue into public transit, an investment from which far more poor and working class commuters, if that is who we are actually worried about, will benefit.

Further though, and equally apparent, is the fact that if we had an extensive and efficient, properly funded transit system in Toronto, with low or even no fares, maybe that "poor" driver would leave their car at home and take the subway, bus or LRT. And what, exactly, would be wrong with that? In fact, well beyond the borders of Toronto, the future of the planet may well depend on such changes.
In reality, however, these politicians are not really talking about the poor at all. The "poor", in this case, are being used as a transparently flimsy excuse to oppose a socially and environmentally progressive tax as they wish to avoid being seen as advocating for something that they are worried will alienate middle class suburban convenience drivers.  And convenience drivers are what almost all GTA drivers who do not car pool are.

This is a textbook case of how "progressives" joining into phoney notions of how taxes "hurt" working people are the best allies the Right has. They soft sell a reactionary message.
As to Toronto's Right, they are are now feeling greatly emboldened. And so they should. Some of their number have been somewhat circumspect, perhaps realizing the potential backlash to celebrating an attack on essential transit expansion too publicly.

Typically Rob Ford, however,  is loudly hailing what has transpired as a victory for "taxpayers", that mythical person that the Right has created to replace the more civic minded sounding "citizen" of bygone eras. Veritably gushing with enthusiasm that any serious commitment to funding desperately needed transit in the city he is mayor of has now been repudiated by the city government itself, Ford, with his usual lack of coherence or grip on reality, effused:

“I’d advise her [Wynne] to not even talk about revenue tools any more,” said a jubilant Ford. “I feel fantastic. We fended off the wolves today and saved the taxpayers at least $1,000 a family, a household, and I couldn’t be happier."
“This is one of the greatest days in Toronto history,” said the mayor who had earlier chided councillors for daring to support taxes he said the provincial government couldn’t be trusted not to stick in a “slush fund.”
Given that what the councillors had just voted against was supporting dedicated funding for transit, the "slush fund" that the mayor is referring to is, in fact, public transit.

He may get his wish. Wynne may yet stop talking about revenue tools. If she does, the city's transit expansion plans will be stalled and stymied yet again.

And maybe that was the point all along.