Tuesday, June 29, 2010


That will show them. We burned two police cars and smashed the windows at American Apparel. Now they'll dismantle the whole apparatus of the capitalist system and then we can...uh...become farmers and start growing our own food. Except I don't know how to farm, so I guess I'll buy my food from...oh, wait...

We elect our leaders (well, some of us do) and it’s good that they meet, but judging from some peoples’ reaction we shouldn’t have leaders at all, and, if we do, they shouldn't have meetings. There’s a certain appeal to this, I admit. Government is too big and tries to do too much. A large percentage of our elected leadership has a very marginal mandate, is demonstrably incompetent, and is almost entirely self-interested. These facts tend to discourage people, but it’s actually precisely because of them that it’s so important for people to get involved. Politics, by definition, involves the exercise of power, and it’s vital that people use such influence as they have to ensure that governmental authority is exercised by consent, justly, and with restraint.

As citizens of a liberal democracy, we have the right to alter the calculus of costs that go into governmental decision making. We can make our views known, we can vote, we can get involved in politics, we can peacefully protest. In ancients Athens, they had a word for people disinclined to do so: the politically uninvolved were called “idiots” - hence the origins of the word. So I have no objection in principle to those who demonstrated at the G20 summit, inexplicably held in downtown Toronto last weekend. I doubt that the marches had an particular impact on the decision making that went on within (the leaders didn’t see the protests and the media didn’t report on the agenda of the various peaceful demonstrators) and I doubt, too, that many of the marchers were particularly well informed about the issues about which they were marching. Indeed, something is seriously bonkers with the leader of a major union who says, “Working people have never been given anything” when the rank-and-file union membership he represents earn, on average, nearly $60 per hour when pension and benefits are factored in.

But let me put the following case to you: supposing that you’re a member of an organization that’s concerned about the ecology or the women’s rights in developing countries. Here are two courses of action open to you: in one, you can go to the G20 summit and peacefully demonstrate, in the small hope of making your views known, or you attend the same demonstration, don a mask, and throw bricks through windows and at the police. Which of these two actions are more likely to garner public sympathy and support for your position?

It’s not even a question that needs to be posed. Tim Horton’s franchises were vandalized in downtown Toronto over the weekend, and to most Canadians that’s an act that falls below spray-tagging the exterior of a cathedral on the list of things that are likely to get you sent to hell. And the acts of violence committed by various thugs claiming to be demonstrators reveal rather conclusively that the members of the “Black Bloc” aren’t interested in politics at all. They’re interested in pointless violence. Oh, they claim to be “political anarchists.” Very well: take ten of them are random. How many of the ten, do you think, could engage you in learned discourse about the philosophies of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Mikhail Bakunin, Pyotr Kropotkin, Emma Goldman, and Rudolph Rocker?

“We’re living in police state!” I keep reading on internet chat boards and hearing on Youtube. Was the police response overzealous at times? Of course it was. The police are an organization like any other, and amongst their ranks there will be a measure of bullies. There are also bullying garbage collectors and mail carriers and librarians and teachers. Given a slightly different trajectory in life, they might have been members of the Black Bloc. The difference, of course, is that your typical librarian doesn’t have legal powers of arrest and an assortment of weapons with which to take out their grievances on others. But for my students with a head full of steam and inclined to be more in sympathy with the Black Bloc and their ilk than with the police – who are themselves working people, remember – here’s something to bear in mind. The first sign that you’re not living in a police state is that you survive the experience when you say that you are.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


We’re from London, so Amanda and I spend quite a bit of time in Toronto, which is where the culture is. In fact, I propose that Tourism London should adopt the motto, “London: Just Two More Hours to Toronto.” About the only thing we dislike about the place is the traffic, and anyone who has ever driven on the Gardiner knows the tedium of interminable gridlock on a road that is incongruously called an “expressway”. They will also have fantasized about what it would be like to go hurtling down the Gardiner without any other cars in sight. As I don’t drive, I picture myself on my bicycle, instead. On Saturday, I realized this rather modest dream. Let me explain.

It was on Saturday that me, my wife Amanda, my friend Alison, and her brother Colin (that's us, above) participated in the Ride to Conquer Cancer, a 200 KM bike ride from Toronto to Niagara Falls in support of the Princess Margaret Hospital. We departed the CNE around 8 AM with 3,100 other cyclists, and headed for the Gardiner Expressway, closed for the time being in order to accommodate the riders. About four minutes into ride, Alison and I were side-by-side when we both heard the unmistakable sound of her tire blowing. A flat, after four minutes! We pulled over. Within a few minutes, an official Ride support vehicle arrived, and the ride volunteer, a remarkable fellow named Don Ryan, trailed that day by a CBC news-crew, went through one faulty tube after another trying to get the bike fixed. (An aside: for our first-ever television appearance, Alison and I will be seen wearing form-fitting bicycle shirts and shorts, and I’d like to remind everyone that the camera, as is well known, adds thirty pounds.) After about twenty minutes or so, I was told that I should ride on, while Alison would be taken forward to the first rest stop with her bike in the truck.

I therefore was the last – the very last – of 3,100 riders. I positively hurtled down the Gardiner, propelled by a hefty tailwind and by the sudden and rather terrifying realization that, behind me, they were starting to let cars back on. But for about four or five minutes, it was just me and the empty lanes, and as I left onto Lakeshore (also temporarily closed), it occurred to me that I was experiencing something that very, very few of Toronto's perpetually frustrated commuters ever have. Then the terror started – fast cars re-entering Lakeshore (a vehicle ahead of me was picking up the pylons that they had laid down to demarcate where riders should be), and I actually went through a tunnel with a very considerable dump truck beside me, the driver no doubt puzzled and angry as to what I was doing out there, where no cyclist should be at all.

After another minute of frantic pedaling, a police-car pulled up beside me. The officer said, “You are last. I will be your escort.” Last! Last of 3,100. There was no time for explanations. I felt quite humiliated, and did my best to put in a credible performance for the next fifteen minutes, or as creditable as a rather dumpy middle-aged academic can be expected to put in. So, while I pedaled furiously to catch up with the back of the pack, I was followed by this slow-moving police car, its lights going the whole time, in what bewildered onlookers must have thought was some sort of bicycle-car equivalent of the O.J. Simpson “car chase”.

But it was there, at the back of the pack, that I had my most humbling experiences of the weekend. It was not the gifted competitive cyclists who impressed me the most that weekend (on Sunday, one such rider crossed the finish line in Niagara, then, announcing he was from Hamilton, turned about, and headed back). The people who impressed me most were a variety of differently-abled individuals, at the back of the pack but undaunted. There were no fewer than two one-legged cyclists, and several who were legally blind, accompanied by other cyclists as guides. And there were an assortment of people who did not meet the expected standards of what distance-cyclists ought to be: elderly, riding beaten-up bikes, they nonetheless pressed on, motivated, no doubt, by some personal grievance against the most dread of all diseases.

Those first moments of the first day were frustrating, at times humiliating, at times scary, and above all humbling; the last moments of the first day, as we ascended the Niagara Escarpment at Hamilton in the driving rain, were cold, wet, exhausting, and actually painful. In short, it was everything that a ride against cancer ought to be, and in the many moments that I felt like quitting on that steep, long, and winding hill, I thought of my mother, who never, never did.