Atwood, VanSickle, and the silly season

August 2, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

The summer is generally described as the “silly season” in the media: that part of the year, according to Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, “when Parliament and the Law Courts are not sitting,” during which not much happens and any news is frivolous or uninteresting. A propitious time, in other words, for TSR to take a much-needed hiatus.

Unfortunately, life intrudes. The silly season has turned out to be silly indeed, although not in the expected manner.

Anyone who follows municipal politics in Toronto will be familiar with last Thursday’s marathon session at City Hall, during which the council’s executive committee heard from a pantheon of stakeholders who appeared to voice their concerns over possible cuts to city services. Mayor Rob Ford, who won a landslide victory last October by promising to “stop the gravy train” of waste at City Hall, faces a daunting $774-million operating budget deficit, and has been looking for areas to save money (the much heralded “gravy” having failed to materialize). Those areas include garbage collection, public transit, and, perhaps most contentiously, libraries.

It might seem strange that libraries are the most contentious issue on the table, given that police services and public health nurses also face the potential axe, except for the fact that one of Toronto’s most visible and influential citizens, novelist Margaret Atwood, decided to take the fight to Twitter. On Thursday, July 21, Atwood retweeted a message that read, “Toronto’s libraries are under threat of privatization. Tell council to keep them public.” There was a link to a petition set up by the Toronto Public Library. Some of Atwood’s 225,200 followers (as of July 21, by the Toronto Star‘s count) took up the challenge, driving so much traffic to the server hosting the petition that it crashed for about 30 minutes. On July 22, Atwood followed up by tweeting: “Here is direct link to the @torontolibrary petition to stop closure & privatization. Thanks to all, pass it around.”

And that, indeed, might have been the end of it. Except, you will recall, it was not just any citizen who chose to enter the fray. It was a writer with enough clout to get the attention of Doug Ford, the mayor’s brother and right hand on council, who was quoted in the National Post as saying, “I don’t even know her, she could walk by me I wouldn’t have a clue who she is … But she’s not down here, she’s not dealing with the problem. If she did, tell her to go run in the next election, and get democratically elected. And we’d be more than happy to sit down and listen to Margaret Atwood.”

That’s when all hell broke loose. On one side, Atwood’s supporters began howling about the philistines on city council, and on the other, supporters of the Brothers Ford started yelling about entitled elites and their artistic pretensions.

Now, on one level, this is all quite silly. What does it matter, really, if Doug Ford would recognize Atwood on the street? Does this say anything about his relative ability to govern Canada’s largest city? Well, perhaps, if you believe that someone entrusted to such a position should be familiar with the municipality’s more lauded figures. But for the moment, let’s give Ford the benefit of the doubt. What’s more problematic is his evidently dismissive attitude toward Atwood and her concerns, as well as his suggestion that for her to be taken seriously, she must run for public office. This flies in the face of our democratic principles, which are based on the idea that government works for us, not the other way around. It also flies in the face of Rob Ford’s own campaign slogan, “Respect for Taxpayers.” Whatever else Atwood may be, she is a taxpayer. So where is the respect?

To give Doug Ford his due, the (grudging) respect came the following day, when after a storm of criticism, he conceded, “What I was saying is, everyone knows who Margaret Atwood is. But if she were to come up to 98% of the people, they wouldn’t know who she was. But I think she’s a great writer and I look forward to her input.” The respect came from other quarters with the inauguration of a “Margaret Atwood for mayor” campaign backed by a Facebook page and various venues around the city.

Today, Atwood herself responded, saying, “I am not running for mayor yet. But if it comes to be true that people cannot voice an opinion unless they have been elected, then we are no longer in a democracy.” And here, Atwood has hit on what is decidedly not silly about this whole tempest in a teacup: the way in which our municipal leaders are trampling all over the idea of democracy while pursuing an ideologically driven program of tax cuts and smaller government.

Mayor Ford touted last Thursday’s executive meeting as “something this city has never done,” that is, allow upwards of 300 people to directly voice their concerns. The meeting began at 11:00 a.m., and Ford decreed that it would continue without a break until everyone who had registered to speak got his or her chance. Each speaker was given three minutes to address the executive committee, and the committee was allowed time to question the speakers. If a speaker missed his or her spot in line, he or she was not allowed another chance to speak. What this effectively meant was that a large group of citizens, some undoubtedly with families and other responsibilities, were stuck in City Hall, waiting their turn at the mic, in some cases for hours on end. The meeting finally adjourned after 6:00 a.m. the following morning.

When all was said and done, despite all the hurdles put in their way, some 168 speakers (and singers, and puppeteers) had made their voices heard. One of those was children’s writer Vikki VanSickle, author of Words That Start with B. VanSickle spoke in the wee hours of the morning, around 4:30 a.m. When she was asked about her book, she said, “Words That Start with B. Like budget.” Which prompted the mayor to mutter, “I can think of another ‘b’ word for her.” It was late, the executive committee had been through a gruelling ordeal. But for that, Rob Ford had no one to blame but himself. And his comment was definitely not silly.

You can hear Ford’s version of “respect for taxpayers” at the 0:20 mark in the video below.