Letters

July/August 2007

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• 2,916 words

Tough Nut
Stephen Williams is to be commended for “Life on Nut Island” (May), in particular for drawing attention to the social costs of fateful police decisions and practices and for raising the point that bad apples are dispatched more expediently than rotten barrels. (Was it not somewhat contradictory, though, to use knowledge generated by the Mollen Commission to support his case, while objecting to the extraordinary expense of the Ipperwash Inquiry?)

Policing is an extension of the executive function of government and its capacity to act against individuals and groups for the common good. However, where interests are uncommon (outstanding native land claims, for instance), the police’s authority to act is ambiguous. Caledonia is the latest example: in the absence of a political or constitutional solution, police are the visible targets and will be criticized for the action they take.

Since Ipperwash and Oka, police have attempted to retreat as far as possible from such events, but politicians and judges would prefer that police absorb the heat in their stead. At the same time, as those who framed our system of liberal government (John Locke among them) knew, the executive sometimes takes prerogative power to act outside of the norms or rule of law, using police as the domestic instrument of that power. This power animates the occupational culture of policing, stimulating the bureaucratic double-talk we hear from police executives.

As a consequence of the tension inherent in policing, both its occupational culture and its leadership require a certain amount of justification. Enter well-paid lawyers, who defend beyond the expected limits of the law the rights of police organizations and individ­ual police officers to persist in practices that are deemed necessary according to the logic of liberal political philosophy but aberrant to common justice.

I agree with Williams that there is a systemic problem, but I would extend his analysis. Given the reliance of our political system on what might be called original theft, it is convenient for not only police managers, bureaucrats, and unions but also politicians and captains of industry to ignore the underlying causes of “one dead Indian” and one defunct Tactical and Rescue Unit.

Willem de Lint
University of Windsor
Windsor, Ontario

I applaud Stephen Williams for labour­ing for police reform of some sort, but I am unconvinced by the lessons he draws from Constable Ron Heinemann’s humiliations. Williams posits a gulf between the Ontario Provincial Police management’s conceptions of reputational risk and front-line officers’ conceptions of operational risk; in a nutshell, the bigwigs are playing politics while little guys like Heinemann are getting shot at. From this, Williams concludes that the force needs more and better management in the Harvard style and that Standard Operating Procedures should not be second-guessed. These suggestions, typical of the case for internal reform (and the “bad apple” inquiries Williams derides), assume that the police are generally well adapted to policing themselves and that the opp’s existing system of self-regulation is amenable to meaningful reform. They further assume that rulebooks are a relevant part of police operational culture.

In asking readers to choose between the priorities of tactically minded officers on the ground and those of strategy-minded commanders off-site, Williams is forcing the issue of police oversight into a binary. For him, tactics are rule governed and good, strategy is arbitrary and bad. However, one of the great truisms of policing is that there is a rule for just about everything, and as Heinemann’s story and forty years of policing research indicate, there is a way around every rule. This is as true for Incident Commanders as it is for line officers. In Williams’s own account, Standard Operating Procedures broke down when Heinemann delivered a personal “fuck you” to a suspect by way of a few pen strokes. A freak, bad apple moment? One wonders…

These problems will be solved not by importing business management models or by giving more credence and discretion to line officers, but rather by investing toothless civilian oversight bodies with more authority – the type of authority that can probe secret church-basement meetings where some cops collude to cover things up.

Myles Leslie
Toronto, Ontario

Jacobs’s Ladder
It feels almost churlish to critique Alex Mazer’s article on Jane Jacobs (“City Limits,” May), in which he asks whether it is time to rethink our view of her as a visionary. His dismissal of the visionary status of Toronto’s secular saint is so gentle that he seems almost sorry to be asking the question. But ask it he does, and his answer is baffling.

How can anyone attempt to dismiss Jacobs as a one-book-wonder and forget Cities and the Wealth of Nations, a reinvention of economics almost as revolutionary, persuasive, and appealing as her masterwork, The Death and Life of Great American Cities? And why would Mazer skip over that compelling book to devote so much ink to deriding a minor work like The Question of Separatism?

These books share a core vision that was central to Jacobs’s work and the driving force behind her activism. She knew from relentless observation that vibrant, dense networks produce more good ideas than the brightest indivi­d­ual, that chaotic and engaged inter­action evolves those ideas better than most costly think tanks, and that diversity really is our strength. That’s why she favoured the creativity of communities over the dictates of demagogues. And that’s why she so forcefully argued, before it was popular to believe it, that cities had taken hold as the most important socio-political unit despite the dominance of the nation-state. Her subsequent work enriches that legacy with increasingly complex views of the forces that condition the dynamic inter­play of communities, ideas, and initiative and the impact of those forces, for good or ill, on the world.

Mazer concedes that Jacobs’s vision produced great achievements, but even then, he underestimates them. For example, while he credits Jacobs’s reshaping of Toronto’s politics with the stunning electoral victory of David Miller in 2003, he overlooks her impact on what were, at the time, equally surprising victories by David Crombie, John Sewell, and Barbara Hall. He also minimizes the significance of the expressway victories in New York and Toronto, which were critical to the success of those cities and inspired the revitalization of inner cities across North America.

Finally, and inexplicably, Mazer questions Jacobs’s visionary status on the basis of her active role in everyday affairs. This is historically wrong; Jacobs’s impact was almost always through ideas and rarely through direct mobilization. More importantly, it is philosophically indefensible. What are visionaries for if not to guide real action? It is an affirmation of Jacobs’s visionary status that the foundation that took up her legacy chose to call itself Ideas That Matter. Would that more of our thinkers assumed their ideas should.

Sean Meagher
Toronto, Ontario

Alex Mazer asks, “does [Jane Jacobs’s] vision still hold true for the world today, or is her work the remnant of the politics of an era – the 1960s and 1970s – whose relevance has passed?” My answer is both yes and no. Yes, her vision holds true today, and no, her relevance hasn’t passed.

In the sixties and seventies, Torontonians were inspired by charismatic national and local leaders – Jacobs among them – who believed in sustainable communities. This leadership, supported by strong environmental and community-level policies, led us to innovation through broad, citizen-based democracy. In the 1980s, governments responded with policies that supported a cleaner, greener, and more community-relevant way of life: greenbelt and escarpment protection, waste mini­mization, cleaner air through pollution prevention, waterfront trails, and the globally recognized concept of sustainable development.

But, with the early-nineties recession, political momentum flagged, ideas fizzled, and our innovative policy-makers became voices in the wilderness, waiting patiently for the next green wave. We forgot (and now claim we didn’t know) the costs of the consumer lifestyle. Now, after fifteen years of inertia, the threat of global warming has parachuted us once again into a “new” era of consciousness.

Ontario’s new Places to Grow plan, which recently won the American Planning Association’s coveted Daniel Burnham Award, rests on the foundation of Jacobs’s vision – vibrant, self-sustaining communities connected by efficient transportation corridors and surrounded by green. And many of the solutions put forward by this May’s meeting of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a network of hundreds of scientists and experts, can be found in Jacobs’s 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Hopefully, one day soon, her vision of the future will come to fruition.

Sally M. Leppard
Founder and ceo
Lura Consulting
Toronto, Ontario

Even if Alex Mazer can be forgiven for one or two appalling assertions (most notably, that Jacobs’s advocacy of lower-level government was appropriate up until the end of the Cold War, but that, post 9/11, it appears “naive and even irresponsible”), he has squandered the opportunity to give a substantive critique of an icon who he quite rightly complains seems immune.

The problem is that Mazer confines his criticisms to Jacobs’s four minor, non-urban works, tacitly endorsing her most consequential ideas even as he claims to be reappraising her. In fact, there are plenty of reasons for doubting the accuracy of Jacobs’s beliefs about urban decline and renewal, most famously outlined in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. For example, many argue that her prescriptions are in part responsible for the dis­appearance of affordable housing in Jacobs’s own Toronto neighbourhood and, more generally, the suburbanization of poverty that Canadian cities have witnessed in recent decades. A generation of councillors and planners deployed her ideas in the name of neighbourhood preservation, and the result was social cleansing.

Mazer’s missed opportunity is even clearer in light of Michel Arseneault’s Field Note about French architect Roland Castro (“Suburban Renewal,” May). Among Castro’s considerations in rebuilding a notorious public housing project in the Parisian suburbs are some of Jacobs’s most prominent “dos and don’ts” for urban renewal: yes to short block lengths and the preservation of old buildings; no to mixed primary use and buildings abutting the sidewalk. Castro’s project is exactly the kind of thing Jacobs’s ideas should be evaluated against. She originally claimed her observations were only applicable to a small number of “great American cities,” but they’ve been employed (without her protest) far more widely than that, and the results need to be considered when assessing her legacy. A world, even a First World, of Greenwich Villages is an impossibility, and Jacobs’s vision can only really be appraised in the context of a world of banlieues and tract suburbs.

Mazer calls Jacobs’s book The Question of Separatism “a rather unusual product: a refutation of some of the weaker arguments against secession.” By this reckoning, Mazer’s essay is also a rather unusual product – a timely critique of Jacobs, but one composed, unfortunately, of the weaker arguments.

David Wachsmuth
Toronto, Ontario

The Hole in the Doughnut
As an American reader of The Walrus, I am struck by the extent to which your contributors will evoke the United States in efforts, it seems, to forge concepts of Canadian national identity.

In the May issue, Deborah Kirshner (“A Pianist in Rwanda”) notes: “I also couldn’t find a McDonald’s, which is more significant than it sounds, because I discovered that the absence of images from corporate America has a dramatic affect on the psyche…. I felt, for the first time in a long while, a stretch along my own borders and as uninvented as the landscape.” The implication is, of course, that “images from corporate America” exercise a restrictive and unpleasant stranglehold in Canada, where Kirshner lives. Yet the existence of a McDonald’s in Toronto, for instance, is as emblematic of Canadian corporatism as it is of American corporatism; the same can be said of the existence of a Tim Hortons doughnut shop in a suburb of Chicago.

The sentiment is echoed in a May letter by John MacLachlan Gray (in response to Charles Foran’s “An Amer­ican Type of Sadness,” March): “The fact is that in Canada, our discomfort with consumerism and its cultural byproducts is accompanied by the know­ledge that these demons are not of our own creation or evocation – that they grew out of a management vat in New York and Los Angeles.” How consumers, in this case Canadian, are not somewhat responsible for the “creation or evocation” of their own consumerism is beyond me, for consumer culture is not created by producers alone, and even if that were so, Canada produces plenty to consume. The desire for cultural independence from America is understandable, but the influence of American culture on Canada should not be discussed in hegemonic terms, however understated.

So it is in Rebecca Addelman’s “The Last Laugh” (May): “Canada is famous for birthing satirists who have gone on to take down the American establishment. How did we get to the point of needing Jon Stewart to make fun of our politicians for us?” The underlying anxiety of this quotation is betrayed in the hyperbole of its first sentence. Where is Canada famous for birthing satirists? Can a satirist bring down an establishment? If so, can a satirist bring down an establishment that is unaware of this satirist’s existence? The remark suggests further that the US is forcing its comedy into Canadian living rooms. However, Canadians do not “need” American comedians to mock Canadian politicians – that American comedians do so is beside the point. What they need, as the article points out, are fewer regu­lations on public speech.

Like Canadian culture, American culture is not monolithic, though your writers are apt to fashion it as such, again, to give definition to their notions of Canadian identity. This preoccupation detracts, however slightly, from the intellectual quality of your magazine and supports the stereotype, widespread among Americans, of Canada’s marginality.

Valentine A. Pakis
Minneapolis, Minnesota

I Object!
Your coverage of International Conscientious Objectors Day in the May Outlooks betrays a fundamental mis­understanding of conscientious objection. COs are not asking for their individual rights to “trump the collec­t­ive resolution of state interests.” Rather, they assert that the resolution cannot be accomplished by war.

COs neither deny the existence of conflict nor wish to accept subjugation as a result of inaction. They believe we need to work toward a more robust peace, which addresses the root of the conflict rather than tearing off limbs and branches.

In fact, COs are some of the most committed patriots; they believe that establishing more stable international relationships will allow our countries to develop more freely.

Scott Kroeker
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Pick Your Poison
I have just taken the opportunity to read John Lorinc’s very thoughtful arti­cle, “Driven to Distraction” (April). I would have read it sooner, but I’ve been preoccupied reading a rather long book, talking to my delightful sister on the telephone, and visiting friends across town. They make a mean pasta and serve wine. We always have a few hearty laughs and part in good humour. But I digress. (Life is full of these kinds of distractions, too.)

Technology has succeeded where centuries of work have failed in keeping us chained to the workplace 24/7, 365 days of the year. Mobile devices like the BlackBerry are contributing to the work pandemic that is running rampant in our society. The false sense of urgency – and self-importance – conveyed by these devices is driving us nuts. We must keep them in their place.

One of Lorinc’s most important find­ings is that we need “more time and fewer distractions, even if that means less information.” If there’s one thing that’s overhyped in the Information Age, it’s information. To everyone who’s speeding headlong down the path to information overload: if we put our minds to it, we can choose our distractions! Turn off, tune out, drop out.

Alan Gummo
St. Catharines, Ontario

Dead Cred
Joshua Knelman’s Field Note “Better Red, Then Dead” (April) is wonderfully evocative of Biblical times, fluttering kaffiyehs, and the sunset days of the British Empire in the Middle East. Knelman also correctly sketches out the ecological tragedy of the Dead Sea, dropping fast as a result of managed overextraction of water for human consumption, agriculture, and industrial prowess. However, the proposed solution – diverting water from the Red Sea via a canal system – is more problematic than he suggests.

Far from there being consensus on the Red/Dead project, regional en­vironmentalists, development specialists, and cooperation practitioners have expressed concern about mixing different sea waters, the ecological impact on protected areas in the Arava, and the economic and political implications of constructing a “canal for peace.” Rather than asking how to save the Dead Sea, we might ask how we can meet human needs while avoiding large-scale intrusion into the local ecology.

Eric Abitbol and Stuart Schoenfeld
Alternative Visions of Water in the Middle East (avow)
York University
Toronto, Ontario

Tusk, Tusk
Millions of mountain pine beetles ori­ginating in the Nechako Valley region soared 400 kilometres and infested forests east of the Rockies in BC and Alberta in 2006, not 2002, as claimed in “Red Rush” (April). There was an airborne outbreak in 2002, but it was smaller in scale. The Walrus regrets the error.

“The time has come,” The Walrus said, “to talk of many things.” Send us a letter, an email ([email protected]), or a tweet, or post on this website. Comments may be published in any medium and edited for length, clarity, and accuracy. Mail correspondence to: 411 Richmond St. E., Suite B15, Toronto, Ontario, Canada  M5A 3S5