The Bad in Each Other

14 Dec

T.O. City Hall, 1895-1905. Arthur Beales / Library and Archives Canada / PA-800242

How on earth did Rob Ford come to be the mayor of Toronto?

I know, I know: that Ford is an unlikely mayor for Canada’s most populous city is not a new thought. And yet it’s still baffling. It’s still very much unresolved.

But in a Canada where people are increasingly jaded about formal politics, where citizens don’t trust politicians as far as they can throw them, where fewer and fewer of us show up to slide a ballot into the box because we don’t feel like it makes a lick of difference, the truly baffling thing is that anyone ever gets elected at all.

Our lack of trust in politicians, and in the efficacy of our participation in electoral politics, represents the ultimate challenge for people who long for a revival of the civil sphere.

Trish Hennessy of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives touched on this theme in a recent blog post about authenticity, based on a lecture on the same topic by pollster Allan Gregg. Over the course of his career as a political analyst, Gregg witnessed the Canadian polity slide “from a culture that was once deferential to our political leaders to one that is now disdainful.” In experiential terms, Gregg says, we’ve moved from the society of William Kilgour and John Porter, which “looked to our leaders – and especially government – not simply to broker the public good, but if need be, to create and provide it,” to the society of Jon Stewart, which looks at our leaders and laughs incredulously at everything they say.

Somehow, in this climate, ruddy, unpolished, inarticulate everyman Rob Ford appealed to something in the voting public. Hennessy, drawing on Gregg, argues that it is precisely because he is so “unvarnished” that he won the trust, however ephemeral, of jaded Torontonians.

I think Gregg and Hennessy are both right; but there’s something else going on too.

The larger issue here is that we don’t trust each other. And we tend to think politicians who do trust others are naïve.

UK Social theorist Anthony Giddens has been warning of the erosion, or at least the revision, of trust in late modern life for over a decade. His writing on the topic sheds light where Gregg’s assessment does not.

Giddens argues that, in our late modern world, people are increasingly “disembedded” from the trappings of time and place, and the static, stationary institutions of tradition, including churches, families and bounded communities. At the same time, they’re irretrievably thrust into the “global” world, in which (for those of us who aren’t pressed out to its margins) connections are immaterial and divorced from our physical co-presence, through Facebook and Twitter and other real-time communications. In other words, the possibility of connection with others is so diffuse that it ceases to be meaningful. Giddens puts trust at the centre of this shift, arguing that while we are increasingly “in touch” with wider networks of far-away people, our connections are impersonal and devoid of what we’ve come to know as intimacy. The problem is, we are now only inclined to trust those with whom we are intimate.

Now, Giddens writes, “trust can be mobilized only by a process of mutual disclosure. Trust, in other words, can by definition no longer be anchored in criteria outside the relationship itself – such as criteria of kinship, social duty or traditional obligation.”

If we cannot establish an intimate relationship, we cannot trust, at least not in the way we think trust should feel.

I saw this unfold first-hand in several places.

First, two years ago, I volunteered for Clive Doucet’s mayoral campaign in Ottawa. (Doucet was the progressive front-runner, taking 17% of the vote in the end) in a race of conservatives and centrists.) When people weren’t tearing up campaign pamphlets in our faces, they would tell us they liked Clive, they loved his ideas, and they thought he was a genuinely good person – but they couldn’t vote for him, because they figured he’d never be able to combat the corruption and negativity in city politics. He was a dreamer, they said – not because his ideas weren’t feasible on their own, but because surely other people, with bad intentions, would get in the way or take advantage of them. They needed a mayor who wouldn’t try to change very much, but rather stay the course toward mediocrity. They needed a mayor whose own lack of imagination would keep them safe from the baddies.

Tommy Douglas, ca. 1971 - Murray Mosher Photography

The same thing helped keep the Orange Wave of 2011 from reaching Tsunami proportions. Those who, if the NDP was elected, would spend the day after the election sourcing good rope for a noose, did everything they could to expose the cracks in Layton’s morality. The trolls on internet comment boards were obsessed with the rumour that Layton and his wife had lived in subsidized housing while raking in public servant salaries; the smuttiest newspapers were thrilled when they unearthed the story of Jack’s illicit massage.

Even some of those who saw through these pathetic attempts, and believed Jack Layton was a good person with the sort of moral grain we’d be proud to live by, nevertheless thought he’d be eaten alive as Prime Minister. In an ideal world, they said, they’d elect a dreamer. But they figured we live in Hobbes’s universe, where dreamers are killed in their sleep. They accepted that only the beady-eyed narcissist, always on guard, could lead them through the darkness.

In 2009 I co-conducted a series of in-depth interviews with young unemployed (and some houseless) people in Ottawa. My colleague and I heard horrendous stories of abuse, by people and systems, learned the unfathomable things a person will do when they’re deprived of a basic level of dignity, and were privy to the dark and deep thoughts that creep into the minds of people cast aside like garbage. But the answers to one question in particular were of a higher order of sadness. Specifically, we asked each interviewee what the number one lesson they learned from their parents or caregivers was. And you know what the overwhelming majority said? Trust no one.

In his lecture, Gregg argues that our trust in others, and our faith in ourselves, is a foil for the fact that we don’t trust our political leaders and civic institutions. Zeroing in on the US, and on Jimmy Carter’s 1979 “Crisis of Confidence speech” in particular, Gregg proposes that Carter “disastrously misread” his country’s “changing mindset”, which apparently could have been happening in Canada as well:

“His miscalculation was that voters – whether in Canada or the United States – had not lost faith in their country or themselves. What they were losing was their faith in their leaders and their embrace of old solutions to problems that the electorate clearly believed to be new.”

I’m sure Gregg’s interpretation of the swing in Canadian and American political life is partly right, but it doesn’t help us fully understand the present. Recent events, rather, make more sense if one assumes that the average person is operating with the belief that most other people – especially the “generalized other” – are out to deceive, screw and harm them.

Take the niqab controversy, which Jason Kenney so helpfully brought out of semi-retirement this week. Listening to a call-in segment on CBC Radio’s Ontario Morning, I was surprised and appalled by the level and spread of support for Kenney’s decision. But I was also struck by just how irrationally afraid people seemed to be. One caller, asked what she thought about a 30-year-old Muslim woman’s decision to wear the niqab in her Ottawa restaurant, said “I wouldn’t go into her business. I wouldn’t associate with that person. You don’t know what she’s hiding under there! IT COULD BE A MAN UNDER THERE! HE COULD ATTACK YOU!”

I shit you not.

The same doubt in the goodness and honesty of others – and the corresponding assuredness of the bad in each other – underlies attitudes toward the whole gamut of divisive political issues.

Welfare and disability payments? Those who oppose them don’t often oppose redistribution as a well-reasoned matter of principle. They simply don’t trust other people not to abuse the system of entitlements.

Occupy? Every attempt by their critics, who already didn’t trust them, was made to discredit Occupiers and diminish public trust in their authenticity. Ezra Levant brought infrared cameras into the camps to see if people were actually sleeping in the tents (cameras which were later proven to be incapable of seeing through most tent walls). Rumours flew about how many Occupiers were receiving (and thus, apparently, abusing) social assistance. The presence of iPhones, laptops, winter jackets, brand-name clothing and other excesses was seized upon and held up as a sign that these people were faking their deprivation.

Restorative justice? It’s a lack of faith in the propensity of human beings to turn themselves around, to put their lives back on track, to change their ways, that makes so many people prefer the “lock them up and throw away the key” model to the preventative and rehabilitative models proven to be much more effective at stemming crime. (Oh, and crime rates are actually ‘down’, you say? Can’t be. The experts are lying to us. Lock them up too.)

And unions – the biggest backstabbers of them all. The skeptics tell us they don’t stand up for our interests. They just take money off our paycheques and line their pockets with it. It’s risky putting your own self-interest on the line in order to stand united with your coworkers, they say. You might get screwed.

Trust no one.

What does this all have to do with Rob Ford? Quite simply, we liked Rob Ford because Rob Ford doesn’t trust people either. He doesn’t trust Marg Delahunty not to shiv him, on camera, in front of his home. He didn’t trust his predecessors in City Hall. He certainly doesn’t trust “urban elites” to look out for the interests of (in his brother, Doug’s words) the “real people who shop at WalMart.” He doesn’t trust the Toronto Star not to smear him if he so much as makes eye contact with a reporter.

He believes that, with the exception of those in his immediate personal orbit, most people, given the chance, will knife him in the back. And we think (or at least, we thought) that makes him a reasonable person. And that should make us sad.

Here’s Canada’s own Leslie Feist performing “The Bad in Each Other.” It has nothing to do with this post except the title.

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