It’s hard to be engaged in a world with so many distractions
In the aftermath of one of the greatest crimes of the 21st century, President George W. Bush gave directions to citizens still in shock from watching planes fly into and bring to the ground the Twin Towers in New York City.
“Go shopping, more!” he said.
His advice was condemned as trite, a laugh line, and W was dismissed by critics for his moral vacuity.
A dozen years after his unusual edict, Peter Feaver, a former member of Bush’s National Security Council, asked in Foreign Policy, “How dumb can someone be to think that shopping is a response to terrorism?” His question was rhetorical, and he quickly answered: Bush’s message was, in a way, profound. Feaver said not giving into terrorists was sage advice. Don’t let the nihilistic purveyors of hate stop you from doing what you’ve always done. Bush said the time was now to man the parapets, go over the top, and CHARGE ahead. He followed up his shop-till-you-drop pronouncement by urging consumers to go to Disneyland and book a flight on an airplane.
But what if shopping isn’t an escape hatch, or ripe with profundity? What if it was the natural default mechanism for an entire population, now rendered somnolent by a total give-over to consumerism? What if shopping is now seen as another form of nihilism, a way to disengage from public discourse – like spending half your day watching TV, surfing the net, scanning Instagram or hitting golf balls into a screen?
And what if the consumerism that’s now won includes an all-in approach to consumption? Don’t explore the world to experience its beauty for internal wonderment and self-growth, consume these places to reproduce them later, on screen, to elevate your status, the same feeling you get when showing off a new luxury car or $1,000 pair of shoes.
Don’t view your home as a place of comfort that brings family together in a warm, safe, nurturing environment filled with the memories that soul-sustaining experiences create. No, it is a palace to be filled with marble and gold for those who enter infrequently to admire.
Of course, there’s an obvious response to all the righteous criticism. So what? So what if I like what I like, if living to consume makes me happy? So what if I’m driven by desire, they’re mine, not yours?
Luckily, there are others who will clean up your mess and fight to keep society on the rails so you can keep doing what you do, just like that generation of men and women who went to war and went to the factories night and day to make sure the future was secured for peace and prosperity for all.
There’s a perfect line to be drawn from the Greatest Generation, who lived through and survived the Great War, the Depression and Nazism and raised their children through The Red Scare of the 1950s and ‘60s when the possibility of a nuclear conflagration was very real, to wipe out the very generation they had died to protect, the baby boomers, the richest and most pandered demographic in the history of the planet.
This slide from those who sacrificed all to those who sacrificed nothing, the “us” versus the “me” generations, has had enormous consequences.
The planet’s eco-system is supercharged with CO2 gases; our water is dirty and rising to extreme levels due to climate change, and everything in society is now disposable, from plastic bags and water bottles to the lives of young child labourers in far-off lands who make the clothes worn across the ocean, and by the wealthy in their midst. The difficult part is that those consuming the sweat of this labour today, remain conveniently removed from the consequences of their decisions; as long as your shirt or blouse has the right designer label, it’s all worth it.
Even our institutions have an off-putting impermanence about them. The mainstream media, as an example, is no longer interested in establishing deep roots in communities where vital journalism serves as a connecting fibre. Now, it treats the public as consumers, trying desperately to trick their attention by using noise as news to keep them from flipping the channel in a second-by-second cycle of information.
It might take generations to clean up the physical, societal, economic, and psychological mess left by this extending period of suspended adolescence that’s been created: The me era.
This orgy of excess is also manifested in a growing divide between the .01 percenters and all the others, a broad-based group that might be ripe for a revolutionary response.
Paralleling all this, is the massive movement of people from rural to urban and from continent to continent. The waves of immigration that began in earnest under Pierre Trudeau in the late 1960s, continues unabated now under the leadership of his son, Justin.
These demographic shifts are near complete, and the result are super cities like Brampton, now basking in its diversity and what its vast spaces offer.
It is the ninth largest city in Canada, and the second fastest growing. We have one of the youngest median ages in all of North America (36) and among the most diverse mix of cultures on the planet – 74 percent of us are visible minorities.
There is a collective sense of drift here, a yawning feeling that this is a city in name only.
• Every morning, 64 percent of residents leave here to work somewhere else. Brampton is the very definition of a “bedroom community.”
• Recently, a two-man panel of governance experts, held an open discussion at Peel regional council in Brampton to discuss Premier Doug Ford’s plan to revamp a governance model and possibly change the identity of the city for decades. Not one delegation bothered to show up from here to discuss Brampton’s interests.
• A special meeting of Brampton council was held recently and offered residents an opportunity to express their opinions on the Ford plan. The public gallery was barely occupied.
• An online survey off a tele-town hall asked residents about changes to Brampton’s governance system and also spawned a survey, with only 6 percent of respondents reporting they wanted their city to become independent and stand on its own two feet.
• In the hotly contested 2018 municipal vote for mayor, only 34.5 percent bothered to cast a ballot, which was down slightly from the 2014 vote (36 percent). The votes in 2010 and 2006 managed only 33 and 31 percent.
• The ambivalence borne out by all the skimpy numbers exists as Brampton faces an ongoing healthcare crisis, our public schools are bursting beyond capacity and a $90 million claw-back by the PC government has thrown plans for a first full-size satellite university campus into disarray. As the apathy spreads, further cuts by the province could impact everything from early childcare in the city to affordable housing and crucial preventative healthcare.
This is all rather puzzling if you believe in Brampton’s destiny as a city. The 6 percent who responded to the online survey and favoured independence, might be the most troubling stat of all. It shows a decided lack of confidence in a city that some 650,000 call home.
We are in the midst of a massive, speeded-up, and oh-so political re-do – with Ford, the autocratic premier of the province holding the joystick.
Ford’s regional review will dictate the path of Brampton’s future, and answer these critical questions: Will Peel region survive? Will we (and/or Mississauga) be given full independence? Will the two large cities amalgamate, virtually ending the 150-plus year history of Brampton as a unique pioneering community in Ontario?
We don’t know, but even more critically, most don’t seem to care. Why?
Yes, metaphorically speaking, we have gone shopping.
As we tumble down to new levels of ennui, The Pointer understands that much of this might have something to do with our newness – the vast influx of people over the past few decades.
Consider: between the 2011 and 2016 census, Brampton grew by over 13 percent, outpacing Mississauga (1 percent), Toronto (4.5 percent) and checking in a full 8 percent above the national average. If those percentages persist, Brampton will overtake Mississauga in a generation, and perhaps top 1 million. In 1971 the city’s population sat at 41,000.
But pure population does not complete a community. Livability does. Civic engagement does.
The voting numbers, and the lack of response to political issues that could impact the very foundation of this city, reveal a truth: There is little sense of place for many in this city.
Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy and associate chair at the University of Toronto's Department of Philosophy who specializes in theories of politics and culture. He once said we have created a world of “manufactured desire.” It’s a world of “stuff,” once mocked by comedian George Carlin, but embraced by almost everyone else. Author Jonathan Franzen calls this “the age of apathy and distraction” – the distraction being the embrace of extreme consumerism and a society drunk on social media and all the technology that follows behind it.
It’s arguable that having lots of great stuff shows the slow separation between rich and poor. Actually, the separation hasn’t been slow, but seems to have occurred overnight. It has also softened us up from fully embracing the world around us.
Kingwell once wrote a book called Concrete Reveries, and his publishers touted it as a thoughtful answer to Socrates’ injunction about the life worth living, using the urban experience to illustrate the dynamic between concreteness and abstraction that operates within us all. His vision of the city remains grounded in the ancient Greek ideal of public spaces that are meant to foster political engagement, reflection and the pursuit of a just society, said John Lorinc, in a book review published in the Globe and Mail. It was written when the book appeared a decade ago. He adds that the book, is a “neatly tailored metaphor for the defining paradox of the city: a complex (and man-made) invention capable of rendering durable the inevitably fleeting nature of human consciousness.”
He also writes how Kingwell tells us not to forget what constitutes a livable city. It is not just a question of architecture, or economics, but also philosophy.
Yes, the journey into the inner sanctum to find out what makes a city a city, is philosophical, and other giants in that sector, say some of what has been happening to cities more recently has to do with a creeping narcissism, even nihilism.
One of the sharpest minds to ever take on the question of human engagement, and how our society has been on a downward slide since the 1980s, was a must-read on university campuses around the world. Christopher Lasch was an American historian, moralist, and social critic who was a history professor at the University of Rochester. He passed away in the early 1990s, but his thoughts linger, and what he’s written in the past helps decipher the disengagement now plaguing our city.
The Culture of Narcissism, his most revered tome, is described by writer Lee Siegel in a contribution to the New York Times as a diagnosis on the pathology of self-love that seems to infest our world. This extreme individualism is far removed from the 'us' world of bound-community that led the west to victory of the Nazis, and a standoff with the authoritarian forces in the former U.S.S.R.. Narcissism is when people fall into a malaise, fueled by self-absorption. It is also characterized by deep insecurity and a lack of self confidence that manifests in an outsized need to project the self outward, instead of sitting back and listening while becoming connected to all that surrounds.
Lasch said this “decadent defiance of nature and kinship” had long-term societal impacts, devaluing the wisdom of the ages and brought all forms of authority (including the authority of experience) into disrepute.
Lasch talked about his contempt for the way commercial appeal accommodates the liberal ideal of personal freedom.
He blamed both the forces from the right and left of the political spectrum with the veneration of market forces and the weakening of the bonds of family and community — and thus deforming the growth of solid character. And long before Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness,” Siegel said it was Lasch who saw the world and a narcissists place in it, as a mere extension of her or his desires. This extension of desires left little room for community involvement, even 15 minutes to vote. Or for any real concern about the consequences of living for these desires, even if they encroach on other people’s freedoms. Of course, the ultimate desire, to have a healthy planet for all to live on, is an afterthought, as long as moment-by-moment pleasures are met.
In Minimal Self: Psychic Survival in Troubled Times, Lasch steps it up by trying to answer how social conditions create impoverished souls caught up in the lifelong pursuit of stuff. The genesis of our disquiet can be found in mass consumption and mass production, which are the hallmarks of advanced industrial capitalism.
Lasch said the crowning indictment of industrial civilization is not merely that it has ravaged nature, but that it has undermined confidence in the continuity and permanence of the man-made world by surrounding us with disposable goods and with fantastic images of commodities.
People should have independence and confidence in their own judgment, said Lasch, and it should be driven by time and experience. Knowing the ways of the world makes it easier to get things done. Clearly, however, as social change speeds up and cuts deeply, one stops moving through a world whose boundaries are familiar.
The narcissism of the politician is thwarted by the narcissism of the voter, said Lasch.
New York City recaptured its mojo after 9/11. George W. Bush’s plea to go shopping while government agencies cleaned up the physical and emotional mess left behind by the terrorists, was a good one, because it got people moving again and it sent a message to the murderers that their acts didn’t work.
But the consumerism has continued unabated.
And the drumbeat that draws citizens towards public engagement, has gone silent in some places like Brampton over recent years.
Abraham Lincoln once said: “With public opinion, nothing can fail. Without public opinion, nothing can succeed.”
He lived in a slower world, where families and communities were closely knit, with few distractions, and eager to embrace togetherness. It was a world of family, church, public involvement.
It’s that kind of public buy-in that’s needed now in Brampton, as the forces of change sweep over this community and others throughout Ontario.
Yes, the feedback from the public has been spotty at best, and at its worst, non-existent.
Louis Lapham, the erudite former editor of Harper’s magazine, wrote Gag Rule: On the Suppression of Dissent and the Stifling of Democracy. He argued that democracy only works if everyday people raise a voice against the mighty and powerful. It’s a joint venture between voters and candidates.
Urbanologist Joe Berridge’s book Perfect City, recently reviewed on The Pointer, said immigrants bring a vitality to a city, and the more of their involvement, the closer a city comes to perfection.
For many years, this has not happened in Brampton. It’s land-use model separated the downtown from the ‘burbs, and neighbourhoods from neighbourhoods.
Many immigrants now arrive with the same desire for improving the family’s lot in life, often struggling at first. But unlike the pattern of settlement established more than a century ago, many newcomers now quickly associate arrival in a consumer sense. They have arrived once a large home is secured with a gleaming German sedan sitting in the driveway. Engaging in community and establishing deep roots in a “place” isn’t a priority for many.
Perhaps the current City Council can help change this. It is a more accurate reflection of the diverse makeup of the community. If the city can slow down the exodus of residents travelling to jobs in other communities each morning by building up its business sector, then this city might grow closer together, to participate in political discussion, and vote. If we stop dividing residents in isolated, sprawled out subdivisions and organizing them physically as consumers, with big-box stores and other retailers set up in each quadrant, maybe a more organic, accidental form of urban planning will allow residents to collide into each other and start shaping a sense of community.
Today’s urban environment is in flux. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest distractions – shopping, social media, working in another city, a lousy downtown core, bad transit, and a political ruling class that treats voters as consumers, not partners. All of it plays a part in creating disengagement.
Bush’s advice to go shopping in the days after 9/11 was really a shout-out to, ‘stay involved’. Don’t go home and pull the sheets over your head or hate all the baddies of the world. Go outside. Walk. Ride your bike. Visit an art gallery or museum. Talk to your neighbours. Hang out at the pub. Visit a local library. Attend a council meeting. Take up a cause, talk to your local councillor, and get involved in city building.
As Kingwell once said, consciousness shapes cities, and cities shape consciousness.
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