Tag Archives: Kingston

Rob Ford is an Effect, Not a Cause, and We’ll Survive Him

Rob Ford

AS I WRITE this it is impossible to say whether the drama surrounding Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s alleged new high constitutes an actual new low, but drama does seem to be the word of the moment. Exactly one year ago I moved to this city, and in the time since I have witnessed the restless strut and fret of local municipal politics, the principal player of the stage forever availing himself to fresh tales full of sound and fury.

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Furniture, of the Mental and Physical Varieties


IT MAY BE that you are aware of a weekly program of mine called “The Roundtable.” The table to which this title refers, and at which the show is recorded, was purchased in 1992 at a Kingston, Ontario antique store called Turk’s. Over the decades many have sat and drank and discussed and argued over this late 19th century furnishing. But even these twenty years are as nothing measured against the life which had similarly transpired (or perhaps dissimilarly: I shall likely never know) over this same table before I arrived to Princess Street one Spring afternoon, the requisite ninety dollars in my pocket.

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Ulysses, Bloomsday, and the Best of All Literary Parties

James Joyce

IN AN AGE which commends novels by citing their “accessibility,” one praises James Joyce’s Ulysses before a good many deafened ears. This singular 1922 work demands much from the reader, but the reward of one’s efforts is enormous. The highest tribute I can pay is this: I derive pleasure beyond what I can describe from the time I’ve lived among the fictional citizens of Dublin on June 16, 1904. I feel a bit sorry for anyone who doesn’t, or can’t, understand why I say this.

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The Compulsion to Write (pt. 2)

In his essay, “Why I Write,” George Orwell identifies the following: 1. Sheer Egoism (“desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc”), 2. Aesthetic enthusiasm (“perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their arrangement”) 3. Historical impulse (“desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity”), and 4. Political purpose (“desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after”). Knowing that I would be writing this essay, I tried to improve upon this list, but to no success. There is only one conceivable addition, approaching the matter as a male heterosexual writer: 5. To bed women. Continue reading The Compulsion to Write (pt. 2)

Kingston, Ontario, in the 1990s

One’s lasting impression is of the old-world feel of the place, ivy growing on limestone and so on. The city, especially its gentrified regions, has a distinct charm. Kingston is Loyalist and wants you to know it: even the garbage cans bear a slogan, pro rege, lege, et grege [for king, for law, and for the people]. Throw a rock and the plaque you’ll hit reads, In this house Sir John A. Macdonald (or perhaps his sister-in-law, or brother) once lived. Walking in Sydenham Ward, among the portes cochère and the gothic churches, the North American feels somehow to have been transported to the Old World, which partly discloses the appeal of the place. For whatever else the Old World may be, it at least is not the same old same old. It is an anachronism which offers both to the conservative and progressive imaginations an escape from the Here and Now. Living in Kingston one learns that architecture is full of metaphor and allusion. The Old World is a mental construct which points us somewhere. That somewhere is by definition an anachronism, and anachronism is itself the dominant Kingston motif. Go to a pub, the Wellington for instance, and you’ll discover Mississaugans drinking Guinness and singing nostalgic Irish songs (Irish songs always mourn that which is lost, for obvious historical reasons). A handful will boast an Irish grandparent, but in any case what you have is a gathering of misplaced souls, and a textbook instance of Freudian cathexis.

Kingston represents nearly everything which is anathema to the contemporary technocrat. This is its chief merit among the artistic. It is not efficient (until about 1 month ago, tall buildings were prohibited), but rather is set out roughly on a human scale and to a good degree with human needs, and not the needs of the automobile, foremost in mind. Business is not its chief legacy, but instead it is dominated by the public sector. Its historical figures are all first and foremost politicians. There are, I think, more parks than shopping malls. Prior to the triumph of the Open For Business agendas of Messrs Harris and Chrètien, the hospitals, schools, and military college were principal employers. Since the triumph, our many prisons have become a growth industry – a warden told me once that the bank granted without further questions his mortgage when told his occupation – but like other public functions the prisons are likely to be privatised, large profits being virtually guaranteed. Only tourism rivals the public sector as a source of economic activity, but it’s questionable whether tourism isn’t in many ways simply an extension of the public sector. I’ve noted, for instance, that the Japanese adore having themselves photographed before our city hall, and not before the Chamber of Commerce. They are fascinated by our squirrels. It is noteworthy that these simple human facts elude our economic experts, who talk as if technology and the modern corporation were the only things that matter. As for private enterprise, it exists, but mostly on the small scale we’re told simply won’t do in the global economy. Kingston business, that is, locally-owned Kingston business, is Mom-and-Pop in scale, which means politicians will praise it as the hope of our future while undermining it at every opportunity.

Everyone who lives in Kingston is a part of a clique. Hugh MacLennan might well have written a book about the place called Many Solitudes. To the north, in what is known as the Heights, you will find many of Kingston’s GWA recipients. The Fruit Belt, still to the north but much closer to downtown, is mostly proletarian ‘townies,’ but elements of the middle class have been moving in. Sydenham Ward is upper-middle, or perhaps lower-upper class, but here also you will find student apartments and some middle class professionals. Going north-west of the downtown you’ll encounter everything from shoebox bungalows, built between the wars, to middle class Tudor houses, neo-colonial mansions, and neighbourhoods where residents sit shirtless on their porches, dining straight from the pot. But these people of course are not mixed up together, and I assume prefer not to be. Class affiliations are too deeply ingrained. The divisions are, appropriately enough, determined by Division Street, which runs roughly north-south, and Princess Street, which runs east-west. The Ghetto, in the south-east, is nastiest of all for sheer aesthetic ugliness – but it’s only student housing, Put-On ugliness, like a Hallowe’en costume. The Ghetto houses are shabby and sordid Victorian monstrosities, at least eight persons to each, and their studied dilapidation is a matter of great pride. I’m unable to say how the name, The Ghetto, has come about, but it is in any case an instance of camp. The idea is to pay homage to the working man, as he’s conceived by the middle classes, until graduation into the Real World. This imitation underscores the essential fact of Kingston life, that the classes barely encounter one another except in the imagination. If you are a student, it means by definition you never socialize with the Fruit Belt proletariat, and vice versa. Perhaps your paths cross. You may both find yourselves at 3 in the morning eating poutine at Bubba’s, but that’s about it. The middle class student will at most learn from Judith Thompson’s play, The Crackwalker, that the lower classes of Kingston enjoy Hockey Night in Canada and hanging-out at Lino’s. The upper classes of Kingston are invisible, as they are everywhere. I have only one personal anecdote concerning them, from my days as a hospital employee, and it involves the annual Hotel Dieu Hospital food drive, a butler, and a can of sardines. As for the so-called lower classes, they will probably never see up-close either Queen’s student life or Old Money society, which they mistakenly conflate. Many BMWs pass within feet of the ‘Hub’ subculture, where Division and Princess intersect, with neither party coming within a million miles of the other.

These of course are largely abstract socio-economic groupings, but there are other sorts of cliques, or perhaps sub-cliques, as well. There are the teenagers who occupy downtown Princess Street doorways, smoking cigarettes and panhandling. There’s nothing distinctively Kingstonian about them, but they are almost a part of the local architecture, like body-pierced gargoyles, one feels. There’s a women’s community which, if you’re part of it, you know intimately. Literally everyone knows everyone else, or has at least heard something specific of her. The culture is organised around Take Back the Night marches, women’s dances, and women-centred agencies like the Sexual Assault Crisis Centre of Kingston and Kingston Interval House. There’s a gay and lesbian community centred on Club 477. If you wish to be seen as a member of long-standing, as they do in the commercials for American Express credit cards, you’ll refer to the club as Robert’s, its former name. There are more narrowly political groups, each with its own history and culture and favoured enemy. (A favoured enemy is essential to group cohesion.) And no list would be complete without Kingston’s itinerant, the many homeless who are well-known by sight. But don’t they form a socio-economic group? No, I suspect they live outside such categories. They aren’t even a clique, being necessarily of a mostly solitary nature. I have heard some of their life stories, which no doubt are embellished if not made-up entire, but the only thing that makes them a distinct group (besides their poverty) is that they all have fallen outside the system. A few of them are clearly mad and you’ll hear it said for that reason ‘they shouldn’t be on the street’ (as if others should), but most are entirely sane. My first year in Kingston, 1990-1991, I read all of Beckett’s novels; his characters’ predilection for bicycles struck me as uncanny, for such people were, and are, a common Kingston sight. Why, I wondered, the bicycle? Why not a yo-yo or a pet? Years later I bought a bicycle myself, and it occurred to me that a bicycle gives one a compelling sense of momentum, which must be a great comfort if you sense your existence is pointless. It’s easier to feel you’re going somewhere on a bicycle. Beckett nowhere makes this explicit, but I doubt the fact escaped him. I’m thinking of one Kingston indigent who I often saw travelling about in a grand arc, like Haley’s comet, taking in not only the city but much of its environs. He collected bits of refuse which he then affixed to his bike, using other bits of refuse. It would have seemed mad if not for the fact that his acquisitiveness simply reminded me of my own. We are all busily engaged in the accumulation of stuff, and whether or not it’s junk is a matter of opinion. This is not however to trivialize deprivation by putting all consumption on a par. The principle characteristic-in-common among the homeless, as I’ve said, is their poverty, for which they are treated as criminals and swept from public view. Their consumption is judged non-economic and hence is subject to treatments alien to the better-off. I dwell on these people (they are always ‘those people’) because they are a highly visible feature of Kingston. No tourist is encouraged to consider them – quite the opposite, in fact – but they exist and speak volumes of the sort of place Kingston is. As a group with an almost exclusively public existence, they constitute a unique category of person. The poor are in a sense always with us, and yet we understand them least of all. On the topic of social groupings I could go on and on (religious affiliations, men’s clubs, Chamber of Commerce, artists’ groups, etc.), but the point is always the same. The members of these cliques rarely if ever interrelate, even in cases where a clear overlapping of interests would lead us to expect them to. This is perhaps typical of any city, but it’s remarkable given Kingston’s geographically-determined physical intimacy. Nowhere are so many solitudes packed into so little real estate.

The solitudes make generalisation about the character of Kingstonians difficult. Nonetheless, at first glance Kingston does at present appear to be a ‘progressive’ community. Progressive here designates a promotion of cultural and political diversity. The positive feature of multiple solitudes, at least in principle, is its advancement of tolerance. You can be anything you wish, and folks will leave you alone. This impression derives from the sheer variety of culture and lifestyle on display, most of it but not all organised for tourist consumption. It’s true that Kingston is more progressive than most Ontario cities, if we’re careful about what this means: many kinds of ‘ethnic’ restaurants, and a diverse set of goods in the stores. This is of course banal, but it does make an impression. A disproportionately large number of writers settle here because it appears to them that Kingston is cosmopolitan and hence ‘civilized’ – that is, it supports Bohemianism. Since many Canadian writers come from small towns and are in flight from orthodoxy and parochialism, this logical error is understandable. In a more narrowly-political sense of diversity, there is plenty of theatre and art which characterises itself as a ‘celebration of alternative lifestyles,’ meaning gay and lesbian. So support for diversity does appear to be part of the local character.

Behind the scenes however one should note Kingston’s managerial monoculture, its solidly Open-for-Business political ideology. To some there’s a contradiction here, but since diversity sells well, the contradiction can be easily resolved. Everything is judged according to the market, including heresy. Window dressing aside, Kingston’s character may be inferred from its current municipal government, elected in 1997. 16 of its 17 members are white males, almost unanimously conservative and middle class, and the lone female was acclaimed. Debate the significance of this if you will, but at least it’s clear that the city is run by the same sort of persons who advise the provincial Harris Tories, and this as the result of a democratic election. [-June 1998]

The Grassroots Always Look Greener

In the 90s, the word grassroots was used a great deal by Newt Gingrich to explain the success of his colleagues, the victorious 104th Republican congress, who were elected by the American People — that is, the 15-or-so percent of the public who had voted for one of them.

Gingrich’s enthusiasm over the triumph of the American People over Washington was, I think, sincere. It was not based in fact, by which I mean voter turn-out, but enthusiasm rarely if ever is. The idea that The People have been independently working toward a better society while Washington was employed elsewhere is a reassuring fiction, or at least a gross exaggeration of what is indeed happening in the world. The purpose of this essay is not to dismiss the prospect of a so-called grassroots campaign, but to populate that prospect with some really-existing folk. For I have seen the grassroots up close.

Some time ago I was canvassing on behalf of a local Catholic hospital which had been ordered to close by an agency of the Ontario government. (This was during a period of provincial and municipal restructuring.) My job was to go out among the grassroots and gather the signatures of ordinary folk who, presumably, were opposed to the order. I was sent out with a lapel button, a clipboard, and printed hospital propaganda into an area of Kingston known as the Fruitbelt, a mixed region of low-income manual labourers, welfare recipients, poor retirees, middle-class shop owners, and hospital employees. The houses were all rather modest, but were distributed across the class spectrum more broadly than you will find in most Kingston neighbourhoods. Community volunteer work allows you the privilege of seeing something that is unknown to most politicians: the way people actually live. Many people do not see into the houses of other social and economic classes, or even into the houses of their own neighbours, a fact which is probably debilitating to democratic politics. Here is an example of what I mean. Some of the houses I went into had a smell or appearance I felt to be repulsive; some others felt instantly welcoming. Each house projected a social class I couldn’t help but instantly recognize, by the power of acquired intuition. At some point my ‘progressive views’ had to admit houses and people that I find instinctively repulsive, otherwise those views would be so much chatter. Well, this fact rarely enters into the discussions of democracy and grassroots campaigns, which are always presented as a matter of jolly folks getting together to fight Big Brother. That they will have to get together in the queer livingrooms of people they find smelly, and who anyway are not one of their kind, is conveniently ignored. So it was in the hospital campaign.

I recall an elderly woman who lived in a tiny, hot bungalow. Her walls were covered with religious paraphernalia, photos of the Pope and so on. A sure ally, I decided. I explained why I was in her house and offered the clipboard for her signature. With a knowing shrug she offered her support and told me the hospital was being closed because, as she put it, “the Jews want their land back.” At another house an eager defendant of the Free Market didn’t care much for the Canadian health care system. Another person was a Seventh-Day Adventist who “didn’t believe in doctors or medicine” and who consequently saw no reason to support a hospital with his taxes. Others reasoned that, since the people in charge thought the closure was a good idea, it must be. In the end, there was no common theme, no general view, no shared aspiration which I could infer as the public interest. Why should there have been? These people had never considered the matter among themselves, and likely never would. Probably a majority signed my petition in the end, some perhaps in ignorance of the issues, some just to be polite. From a statistical point of view The People had spoken. Only, in private very few said what the hospital management wanted to hear.

I don’t conclude from my experiences of grassroots politics that public consensus is impossible. It is at several steps’ remove from impossible, somewhere in the vicinity of Bloody Hard. It must be negotiated face-to-face, and inevitably divisive matters will get in the way: resentment, racism, class- and gender-based hostility, fear, anti-semitism, complacency. As I’ve suggested however, the debate is usually precluded by the lack of a physical place in which to get things going. Democracy needs wood and concrete at least as much as it needs ‘information.’ There is no shortage of shopping malls, but shopping malls probably won’t do. Neither will going door to door to collect signatures, which results in nothing more than an opinion poll. I hear a good deal of well-meant but idle talk about ‘public debate,’ again without any reference to the actual conditions under which it must necessarily take place. In any case, debate reminds me of church attendance – decent and wholesome, but avoided whenever possible. In my experience, both are typically a burdensome affair whose chief accomplishment is to drive away honest, thoughtful people.

It is possible that democracy is one of those ideas that work admirably so long as they are never practiced. Think of democracy, for a moment, not as a system but as a lifestyle. To live the democratic life you would be required not only to vote once every few years but to keep yourself well-informed in the meantime and to show up regularly for public meetings. You would be required to maintain social relations with a diversity of persons and to perform certain duties in the public interest. You would be required to get involved when something goes wrong, which it often does. In short, your life would be less your own. It takes little reflection to realize this is precisely the sort of arrangement many of us labour to avoid. As many others, my family long ago withdrew from the burden of church attendance. It seems to me that membership in all sorts of civic organizations is declining. Public life today means going to the movies, which folks do less than in previous years because the VCR has privatized the theatre. ‘Home entertainment’ is almost redundant these days. And be honest: don’t you generally prefer it that way? Every one of us complains about the politicians, but at least they are doing the dirty work we prefer not to do. Democratic participation, whatever its philosophical merits, is a pain.

Social interaction is becoming unnecessary for an increasing number of tasks. Computers will soon replace most (perhaps all) of the human beings with whom you would have dealt in the past, by which I mean not your friends and family, but bank tellers and ticket sellers and salespeople and so on. Most of the things you need to do in person will soon be available ‘on-line’ from your house, if this is not the case already. I am not suggesting that social interaction will disappear, but only that it will be less necessary for certain purposes. Nor is this evidence of the inevitable direction of affairs. Public life will not disappear because there is less need for human bank tellers. A life with a smaller public aspect will however be possible, if you prefer. Deal with other human beings, or not; it’s your choice. Social interaction is becoming less a matter of necessity and more a matter of consumer choice. Although we tend not to think of politics as a matter of lifestyle, consumerism plays its role here as well. When is the last time you voted for an inconvenience?

Grassroots work has shown me how rational and functional contemporary democratic politics really is. There is no reward and much disappointment for the progressive individual who is informed and politically active. Many uninformed (or ill-informed) and inactive citizens may do democracy a disservice, but they have no compelling reason to behave otherwise. A detachment from civic life and electoral politics makes a good deal of sense to those who choose such a course. Do I conclude that politics is useless? No, but I understand the reasoning of those who do. The pursuit of the public good at private expense is perhaps after all a sucker’s game, whatever its supposed virtues. There is a further point to be inferred from my experiences: only among the grassroots does one discern that we in fact have the Government we want, regardless of complaints about particular governments. The system runs nicely without the necessity of public effort, and if things get intolerable enough there are public polls to convey our discontent. Government has evolved toward a state of technocratic efficiency as has everything else. Here ‘efficiency’ means ‘with minimal public intervention.’ Our reward for accepting the system is that most of the time we are left alone. This is often true also of what politicians designate a grassroots campaign. The Contract with America, after all, was delivered to the people via the couch potato’s bible, TV Guide. A place more ill-suited to negotiating a social contract could not be imagined, but the irony went mostly unnoticed. Perhaps that’s because there was no irony: it was Government as usual, conveniently arranged for the citizen who prefers to stay home. [April 1999.]