23 January, 2013

"A Gatsby among municipalities."

Edward Keenan's "Some Great Idea" (Coach House, 2012) is a highly readable, engaging and lucid primer to Toronto's post-amalgamation politics. Assembled from a decade of Keenan's writing about Toronto culture and politics, S.G.I. argues that the city's greatest political strength is its diversity, and the best way to exercise this strength is for all the city's voices to engage, engage, engage.

Keenan's currently a senior editor at The Grid and also writes/has written for Eye Weekly (what The Grid used to be called), Spacing, Yonge Street, and other city-based publications. If you follow Keenan then a lot of this book will be familiar; parts are lifted verbatim from stuff he's previously published, a corpus stitched together into four long-ish essays. The book offers a potted history of Toronto's self-identity and then maps this (loosely) onto the city's three post-amalgamation mayors: Mel Lastman, David Miller and Rob Ford. The map reads as follows:
Lastman blustered through the chaos of the post-amalgamation identity crisis; Miller began projecting a self-confident identity onto the new city; and Ford declined to accept that identity in favour of something scrappier and less ambitious.
The book's best line is clipped for this review's title, and fairly summarizes the problem - circumstances - Keenan's trying to decoct; viz, how Toronto manages to have any kind of civic identity given its history, especially recently, of extreme municipal narratives. Keenan's argument is that the city favours - and suffers - perpetual re-imagination, and that this is the only sensible way for so many different kinds of people to get along and prosper.

Keenan wears his politics on his sleeve: he's a Jane Jacobs disciple, loves David Miller and loathes Mike Harris (whom Keenan calls "a villain in the modern story of Toronto"). This matters, the obtrusiveness of his bias, because S.G.I.'s nowhere near long enough to be editorially balanced. (I read its 171 pages in an afternoon.) It also underlies the book's most and least compelling arguments.

The most interesting part of S.G.I. investigates the difference between Ford Nation and everyone else (the latter, basically, people who live downtown and struggle to understand Ford's popularity). Keenan's claim is that the relevant binary here isn't urban vs sub-, middle class vs upper, folks vs elites - or, more uncomfortably, immigrants vs nationals, minorities vs whites - even though each of these has some explanatory force. Rather, the critical opposition is taxpayer vs citizen, a shorthand for two very different stories of civic engagement. 

Whereas "citizens" view themselves as active participants in government, interacting with neighbors and local businesses, having a stake in their local community, "taxpayers" view themselves as isolated from the larger city. A taxpayer's major form of civic interaction is their property tax cheque, which they send far away, literally, then wait to see visible improvements back where they live. 

Keenan's primary example is Woburn, the community where he grew up, around the intersection of Markham Road and Lawrence Avenue. Woburn is one of Toronto's "inner suburbs", where roughly 70% of the city's residents live, and is best characterized as a non-community: Keenan notes, "if you ask people who live near Markham and Lawrence what life in Woburn is like, they will not recognize that you are talking about their home." Wide roadways, heavy traffic, strip malls with copious parking, bungalows and high-rise apartment towers. Keenan says his parents still live near Markham and Lawrence, but "near in the sense that people in Scarborough mean it", meaning 2km away. And so:
[I]f the city services in your area are thin on the ground, parks far away, transit inconvenient and unreliable, you might reasonably think the government is not working for you. If you live in a place like Woburn, where residents say a lack of any sense of 'community' or 'neighborhood' is one of its defining characteristics, talk of empowering residents... might just seem wacky and out of touch.
It's no coincidence that "wacky and out of touch" is also what a lot of people living downtown - outside Ford Nation - think about Rob Ford. Keenan's argument is that the best way to understand Ford's popularity, at least initially, is to understand his appeal to "taxpayers" as directly oppositely David Miller's appeal to "citizens"; a sort of retrenching of the city's entire identity, a very loud shout from the upper decks that We're still here. The challenge for Toronto's next mayor will be, as it's always been, to reconcile the extremes of post-amalgamation Toronto living.

Speaking of which, maybe the least compelling argument in S.G.I. is Keenan's take on Rob Ford's conflict of interest trial. Keenan's description of the proceedings is close to riveting: I was physically uncomfortable reading excerpts from Ford's testimony where he (=Ford) claims to have made  statements without understanding what he was saying at the time. While it's no surprise Keenan's pleased with Ford's subsequent removal from office (currently pending appeal), what is surprising is Keenan's view of this result as being a victory for citizenship: 
The court case began when a private citizen named Paul Magder found a pro-bono lawyer and filed a complaint about Ford's behaviour with the courts. A citizen was inspired to activism by the actions of a mayor. And that citizen changed the course of the city. If I were imagining the story, I could not have written a better ending.
At the level of first principles, Ford's removal from office via court process is terrible for democracy. Both the Mayor and his brother, Councillor Doug Ford, have been relentless in pointing-up the court case as undemocratic, and they're right: everyone can vote, but not everyone can understand, let alone afford access to judicial process. (Keenan elides any real description of Madger's lawyer, Clayton Ruby, one of the city's wealthiest criminal attorneys, and elsewhere in S.G.I. states that both Madger and Ruby were recruited to the case by another complainant, Adam Chaleff-Freudenthaler.) On a practical level, though, what's really strange is that Keenan totally fails to appreciate how conflict of interest lawsuits - and other kinds of legal action - are now an established tool in Toronto politics. Rest assured, the residents of Ford Nation are taking notes on this new approach to evicting the next incarnation of David Miller. Madger's victory, if upheld on appeal, is almost certainly and entirely Pyrrhic.

The reason many elected officials are immune from prosecution is that having to defend allegations is a major distraction for everyone: the official, other officeholders, the press, voters. And, again, it's a mode of civic engagement only available to a very small group of savvy, well-funded citizens, which is why most processes for removing elected officials are handled by other elected officials. (Like impeachment.) For someone exceptionally keen on the power of civic engagement, on bringing all of Toronto's diverse voices to the table, Keenan's view on the Ford trial is kind of incoherent.

Still, there's no doubt S.G.I. is useful and stimulating. It's also worth reiterating the book's readability, because that's not the first thing I think of when I hear "primer on Toronto's post-amalgamation politics". Keenan writes like the good journalist that he is, and if you disagree with him, at least you'll never wonder why.