Effective Civic Action, Inside and Outside the System

I read Teardown by Dave Meslin for a book club here in Ottawa, and it is the weirdest thing that I’ve read in some time. I’ve described it to some friends as the most milquetoast call to radicalism that I’ve ever read. But a more charitable interpretation, perhaps, is that it is a book that excludes all theory to focus single-mindedly on praxis, and how to do it well in the Canadian political context. Meslin has a wealth of experience as an activist, and his book reflects that.

Would I recommend the book? Yes, especially if you’re Canadian. The tactics that he describes does have their limitations, and don’t try to look for any sort of coherent ideology (but again…. pracccssisssss is where the book shines), but there are enough nuggets of wisdom to mine that I think it’s likely worth your time overall.

I took lots of notes during my read-through, but of course focused on the chapters that are most useful and insightful for me personally. Key takeaways:

Useful ideas for local planning/advocacy:

  • 4 rules to create engaging public notices: be pretty, highlight important info, highlight engagement opportunities, finish with a call for action: “Your voice matters.” “This is your chance to be heard.” “We want your opinion.”

  • Use less planning jargon. Specifically called out examples: “podium”, “mechanical penthouse”, “below grade”, “amenity space” (be more specific – what’s going in that amenity space?)

  • City hall should have open doors (literally), council chambers should have open doors (literally).

  • Dress codes should be loosened, requiring ties in 2019 is ludicrous

  • Spontaneous consultation meetings on transit buses, giving free bus tickets as incentive

  • Providing pizza to citizens who want to host informal focus groups in their own homes

  • Interesting awareness campaign idea: put price tags on everything. Fire hydrants, bus stops, playgrounds. Show cost to build and to maintain/operate. Could be in lead-up to public budgeting session.

  • Paper newsletters in people’s physical mailboxes are still an incredibly powerful way to involve community

A very well thought out section on ways to clean up campaign money and the relative strengths and weaknesses of each solution:

(going in, it should be recognized that governments are already in the habit of giving out rebates, so none of these solutions are like, unrealistically radical)

  • tax incentives by way of rebates
    • Toronto already does this, you get a 75% rebate on all small donations
    • One drawback is that since the refund is delayed, you discriminate against lower-income donors.

  • matching grants
    • 1:1 ratio used in presidential primary elections: if you give $50, govt will kick in $50
    • 6:1 ratio for first $175 of each contribution in NY program, i.e. govt will give $6 per every $1 you donate – completely changed culture of campaign finance in the city. Before, 30% of popn donated, after introduction in 2009, 90% donated. Jump concentrated in neighbourhoods w higher poverty rates, higher concentrations of minority residents. System credited w electing a much more diverse council. In 2018, ratio raised to 8:1.

  • per-vote subsidy
    • annual allowance given to party based on how many votes they got in the last election.
    • introduced in Canada in 2004, each party got flat 1.75/vote in prior election
    • all voters (not just the 1% who donate) help direct funds
    • strategic voting becomes more meaningful
    • honestly a pretty decent option, but they get cancelled and don’t stick around because politicians hate them

  • democracy dollars
    • “bold experiment” in Seattle, each voter is mailed 4 coupons worth $25 each. tripled number of campaign donors; 84% of donors were new to political process, donors were more reflective of general popn (e.g. more donations coming from youth, women, PoC, low-income residents). % funding from small contributions went from under 50% to 87%
    • provides candidates large incentive to knock on doors, talk to voters
    • amplifies new and emerging voices
    • allows all voters, regardless of disposable income, to participate

Misc takes:

  • In runoff elections, things get friendlier because if you’re nice to another candidate then their supporters might vote for you second

  • Billboards erode our sense of collective ownership and social identity. Neighbourhoods gain their character from small businesses, public art, local architecture, and historic landmarks. Billboards create a monolithic aesthetic. It’s kind of ridiculous when neighbourhoods allow billboards but don’t allow local postings from actual people.

  • Disclosure of donations to politicians need to have more information than just a name and address, because that makes it harder to connect the dots between where lobbyists work and what the donate as “private citizens”. But possibly more importantly, we absolutely have to stop releasing them as useless PDFs, and instead release them as actually usable data sets

  • Lobbying is a good thing, as long as there’s a level playing field. Maybe the government should provide lobbyists to community groups, the same way that courts appoint lawyers to low-income defendants. They can do this by providing direct funding to community orgs that cross a support threshold, or corps can be forced to pay for opposition’s lobbying costs, or govts can create an office of public lobbyists staffed w full-time advocates. (That last one sounds a lot like Davidoff’s advocacy planning which I’m a large fan of)

“War stories”:

Olifas Marketing Group (OMG) offered city council thousands of free garbage cans. In exchange, all OMG wanted was permission to put advertising on the cans. The sign bylaw, of course, doesn’t allow advertising to be installed directly on our sidewalks, so the company was asking for an exemption. But OMG couldn’t simply offer the city millions of dollars in exchange for that exemption. Imagine how that would have looked! The optics would have been terrible because everyone knows that policy shouldn’t be for sale. But because OMG offered “free” street furniture, no one saw it for what it is: a company getting special treatment in exchange for financial incentives. Institutionalized bribery. Under this new financial model, the advertising was more important than the garbage can. So the free bins were themselves pieces of garbage, built with the structural integrity of an empty pop can. They began breaking down as soon as they were installed, metal doors flinging open and blocking the sidewalk or a bike lane. And the bins were often installed perpendicular to the curb, which blocked pedestrians but made the advertising more visible to drivers. These weren’t really garbage cans with ads on them at all; they were billboards with lousy garbage cans attached. (216)

[Toronto] has a donations policy that is explicitly designed to ensure that “donations occur at arm’s length from any City decision-making process.” But “when I filed a complaint with the city’s integrity commissioner, she ruled that no rules were broken because the ten-year-old policy regulating donations and community benefits astonishingly doesn’t include a definition of “donations” or “community benefits.” Without clear terminology, no one can actually break any rules. It’s the wild west. (218)

Tribar created the ultimate bundle: if the city gave permission to install a two-storey television screen above one of North America’s largest urban green spaces, the company would (are you ready for this?) contribute $3.5 million towards the construction of a suicide barrier on the same bridge. When the proposal was presented at city hall, the two items were bundled together, so if you were against the video screens (which I was, of course), then you were portrayed as also being against the suicide barrier. Politically, it was a nightmare situation. And that was intentional. (219)

Groups with charitable status are required to follow strict rules that limit their ability to do advocacy, while non-profit groups (without charitable status) can be much more innovative, politically vocal and effective when it comes to advocacy and community organizing. So why would any group choose to be a charity? Because charitable donations are tax-deductible. Under the existing rules, certain kinds of non-partisan advocacy are permitted, as long they account for less than 10 percent of a charity’s resources. But because board members often don’t understand these rules, they tend to take a risk-averse approach. “We have weak and confused sector organizations,” explains charity law expert Mark Blumberg, who’s calculated that more than 99 percent of charities conduct far fewer political activities than are allowed under the current rules. In fact, Blumberg estimates that the sector as a whole is spending only one-thousandth of its permitted threshold. (248)

When Ford went to rehab for two months, we literally had no mayor. As a community activist, I noticed a big difference during those strange years. Before and after Ford, it was absolutely necessary to secure the support of the mayor’s office in order to get any proposal approved by council. But during the Ford years, I was able to win significant political victories both with and without the mayor’s support. The councillors were in charge—as they should be but rarely are. (276)

Rants I won’t attempt to summarize because they are things of beauty you just kinda had to be there for:

  • “Tricks of the trade”, how politicians hide things from public eye

  • The one on billboards

  • The one on the increasing legibility of campaign running, and especially Get Out the Vote (GOTV)

    …Okay, fine, a small quote, because this very specific type of Ra-driven (archive) driven institutional rot is exactly my jam:

    “If they don’t trust their own caucus members to serve as ambassadors to the public, can you imagine how terrified they must be of having random volunteers knocking on doors and saying something that might be off message? This leaves campaigns with a dilemma: how do you distract dozens, if not hundreds, of volunteers and make sure they aren’t trying to talk to voters about issues?” (156-157)

Articles of Interest, June-July 2019

Articles of Interest is a bi-monthly retrospective on the five or so most interesting things I’ve read during the titular two-month period. The intent is for there to be a few weeks of “lag” time between when I first read the articles and when I curate this collection, so that my selection isn’t biased by ongoing hype or sensationalism. The articles aren’t necessarily published during this period, although many of them are – I choose my collection from what I’ve bookmarked over the two months. Here are my picks for June and July:

The Privilege of Property (Kondo and the Bibliophibans, Part 2a) (archive)

(The other parts of the sequence are also very worth reading; they are linked at the top of the post.)

We don’t suddenly now have “maker spaces” because people are suddenly more interested in making things. I promise you that is not the case. We have “maker spaces” because makers need space – both space to work, and space for their works, and their tools and materials – and don’t have it in their homes any more. Indeed, I’d go so far as to float the hypothesis that the very reason we have seen the rise of the weird idiom of “maker” in the last two decades is because prior that, somebody who made things was not particularly remarkable such that we needed a term for it, but as urban living quarters became smaller, we needed a term for all these people of disparate avocations that required they have more space than presumed-normal people required. We needed a marked term for these weirdoes that needed some place to put their band saws and sewing machines and welding torches and curing lumber and four-heddle looms and capacitor collections.

This piece gave me a lot of feelings. In the beginning was the especially ugly type of anger that comes from feeling entitled to something you’ll never have. From knowing that twenty years ago, people who were making less than you got away with having expensive hobbies that you can’t afford and living in spacious homes in the middle of dense, lively American cities, and that you’ll never, ever be able to do that, so you were being cheated in some way.

And after that burnt away I was left with a lot of sadness and resignation. This thing that was good for us was taken away for some incredibly shit reasons, and there’s no way of talking about it that makes me not come off as a spoiled, entitled millennial, that allows me to be taken seriously. I feel like this is a thing that more people should know about because not knowing your history means that you have a worse grasp on what’s possible to change. But fat chance of that happening on a large scale, yeah?

But it also left me kind of hopeful? To know that this kind of lifestyle was possible at all, as recently as the nineties. It’s not a pipe dream.

Brought to mind a professors’ lecture tangent, about how if Japanese couples were able to raise a family in cramped Tokyo one-bedrooms then we should re-examine our desire for large amounts of space, because maybe it was just some American extravagance that has no place in a warming planet. Suddenly that doesn’t sound like the entirely correct reasoning. Smaller spaces won’t give you enough room to build a more self-sufficient, sustainable lifestyle and a community. Space is necessary for us to plan and prepare. Space is necessary for us to thrive.

“The Minnesota Diet” (archive)

There’s a new etiquette, which spreads via people’s Savants and Flings. Don’t talk about food in front of other people. But if someone else talks about food in front of you, don’t lose your shit at them. Don’t try to make anyone watch a movie, or Virtual Immersive Scenario, in which people are eating. Talk quietly, and above all don’t yell. Don’t be fatalistic. Don’t proclaim false hope, or insist that everything is going to be fine. Don’t judge other people’s weird food rituals: the way they hold food in their mouths for a long time before swallowing, mix it with water, or even cradle a piece of food in their arms like a baby. Don’t blame your partner(s) for lacking sex drive, or for being uninterested in romance. If people need to be alone, leave them alone. Most of all, don’t judge people for listlessness or apathy, or the inability to get out of bed—but do try to keep other people moving, at least enough to avoid muscle atrophy.

A short story about a food shortage in a post-scarcity smart city. I haven’t really gotten the hang of summarizing fiction pieces yet, but I really liked it. It got me thinking about how like, the word “hunger” has a place in our vocabulary still, right? But when was the last time that you’ve seen it to mean the actual, bodily sensation of starvation, instead of some dumb “be wanting things” precariat/consumerist slogan? The story hangs in an interesting space, in the space of the nine meals that it takes for society to collapse.

Why Privilege Discourse Predominates (archive)

Today, privilege discourse is the dominant framework for discussing racism. It’s a multi-million dollar industry, as universities, corporations, and the US military institute privilege courses. The dominant position this discourse occupies—especially its patronage by white supremacist institutions like the military and big business—indicates that large segments of the ruling class find the overwhelming focus on privilege discourse to not only be non-threatening, but valuable.

A good piece from 2016 that outlines where the Social Justice Brigade is probably heading in the next decade.

The Phantom Men-ness (archive)

Most men have an inarticulate understanding, way down in their guts, that this is how things work for them. I think most women don’t. Just as it’s hard to really get the feeling of being constantly objectified, when you’re not, it’s hard for a valued person to get the feeling of being completely disposable.A man can do things to make himself valuable.  He can become strong, wise, rich, accomplished, creative, charming, lots of options.  He can fill any of a thousand roles.  But doing so will always require talent or effort or luck or some combination of the above.  And it’s always very, very contingent on demonstrated success.  It is not a default.  It cannot be a default.

And a man who can’t call upon a substantial degree of excellence, in something, is worthless. There’s nothing he can offer. There’s no role for him to play. There’s no real reason for anyone to show him any respect. If you want to get anything at all out of this life, you have to earn it, you have to carve it out for yourself. No one will love you, or even pity you, just for being yourself.

A man can do things to make himself valuable.  He can become strong, wise, rich, accomplished, creative, charming, lots of options.  He can fill any of a thousand roles.  But doing so will always require talent or effort or luck or some combination of the above.  And it’s always very, very contingent on demonstrated success.  It is not a default.  It cannot be a default.

The opposite of objectification is subjectification, the idea that you alone are responsible for every single thing in your life. This is an interesting dive into how that feels, and as someone who is AFAB, it sounds frankly terrifying.

The Show Horse and the Work Horse (archive)

At a comfortable distance from the country club set and elegant homes on leafy hillsides there’s a working class town where I accidentally stumbled on a flea market the day before. It’s composed of an old asphalt parking lot, tents, and portable shipping containers. There isn’t anything about the place that cost much to build or maintain yet it functions like a traditional human scaled Main Street lined with mom and pop shops.

Granola Shotgun does really great photo essays about urbanism for the non-yuppie set. E and I had an interesting discussion over whether or not Johnny was right about why cities don’t encourage these sorts of flea markets more (not enough tax revenue for city hall even if it’s good for city citizens), but as usual, we got sidetracked and started talking about Seeing Like a State instead.

Interestingly enough, although I’ve bookmarked maybe three times the amount of content than usual during these two months, I didn’t really have a harder time picking out my faves, nor do I feel like the overall quality of these links are higher than previous links posts. I think some of this comes down to the fact that this bookmarking increase is more “bookmarking a greater % of what I’ve read” than “reading a greater number of things than usual”, although that happened too.

Books for Autistic People

So like I said in the last Articles of Interest post, in the spirit of putting my money where my mouth is I’ve spent the last few months reading books on autism, social skills, and coping mechanisms for living with neurotypicals.

So I read around a dozen books in total. I intended to write a short and sweet review paragraph for each, but some of them said some really useful things so I took notes, and then that became a whole thing. In order to not clog up my blog, I’m going to turn this post into more of a directory – click through to read an excerpt, my review, and a summary of useful concepts for my more extensive reviews.

In order of reading:

A Field Guide to Earthlings – Ian Ford

Women and Girls with Autism Spectrum Disorder – Sarah Hendrickx

Nonviolent Communication, 2nd ed. – Marshall B. Rosenberg

Nerdy, Shy, and Socially Inappropriate – Cynthia Kim

Other books I’ve read but weren’t interesting enough to merit a full review

Miscellaneous thoughts

Because I’m insufferable, here is a quote from my boi michel foucault that aptly summarizes the underlying sentiment of the books that I liked the best:

The definition of disease and of the insane, and the classification of the insane has been made in such a way as to exclude from our society a certain number of people… Nobody is more conservative than those people who tell you that the modern world is afflicted by nervous anxiety or schizophrenia. It is in fact a cunning way of excluding certain people or certain patterns of behaviour.

In other words, having trouble coping with the rhythms and patterns specific to our society doesn’t mean that you’re defective as a human being. It means that society has not cared to make in itself a place in itself for you, because sometimes society flat sucks.

This is disability activism in a nutshell, and a good lens for self compassion. If you take nothing else away from this post, take that.

Major kudos to the r/aspergirls wiki, where I sourced many of these books. And once again a huge thanks to @mykola for writing the twitter thread that started it all.

It has also occurred to me during this binge that there are probably decent guidebooks for people who are neurodiverse in other ways as well, and I should probably hunt them down and give them a read. With decent curation, that doesn’t seem like the worst way to discover universal human experiences that I don’t have (perma). Further reviews possibly to come.

Articles of Interest, April-May 2019

Articles of Interest is a bi-monthly post on the five or so most interesting things I’ve read during the titular two-month period. The intent is for there to be a few weeks of “lag” time between when I first read the articles and when I curate this collection, so that my selection isn’t biased by ongoing hype or sensationalism. The articles aren’t necessarily published during this period, although many of them are – I choose my collection from what I’ve bookmarked over the two months. Here are my picks for April and May:

Fandom for Robots by Vina Jie-Min Prasad

Computron feels no emotion towards the animated television show titled Hyperdimension Warp Record (超次元 ワープ レコード). After all, Computron does not have any emotion circuits installed, and is thus constitutionally incapable of experiencing “excitement,” “hatred,” or “frustration.” It is completely impossible for Computron to experience emotions such as “excitement about the seventh episode of HyperWarp,” “hatred of the anime’s short episode length” or “frustration that Friday is so far away.”

I’ve been in fandom for half my life, and it’s a delight to see it so lovingly represented – not just the love of a piece of media, but the familiar intercommunity dynamics that spring up around the love. The friendships that emerge, the petty squabbles between fan factions. The way your burning desire to get a smidge of extra insight into this universe you love will force you down multiple rabbit-holes of topics relevant to the fandom in question, until, say, your historical cdrama discord server also becomes your de-facto place to ask about the interplay between Taoist and Confucian philosophies in the Southern and Northern Dynasties and yell about traditional silkworm cultivation. A short and beautiful piece of fiction.

Heaven or High Water: Selling Miami’s last 50 years by Sarah Miller

I asked how the flooding was.

“There are pump stations everywhere, and the roads were raised,” he said. “So that’s all been fixed.”

“Fixed,” I said. “Wow. Amazing.”

I asked how the hurricanes were.

He said that because the hurricanes came from the tropics, from the south and this was the west side of Miami Beach, they were not that bad in this neighborhood. “Oh, right,” I said, as if that made any sense.

I asked him if he liked it here. “I love it,” he said. “It is one of the most thriving cities in the country, it’s growing rapidly.” He pointed to a row of buildings in a neighborhood called Edgewater that were all just three years old. “That skyline was all built in the last three years.”

4000 words of pure “thanks, I hate it” energy, if you’re into that sort of thing. Also in general Popula’s a cool website which is Doing Things On The Blockchain if you’re into things like that and you should go check it out!

Susan Sontag Was a Monster of the Very Best Kind by Lauren Elkin

You won’t find Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Hume or György Lukács nonchalantly dotting the page in criticism today; it is supposed that readers aren’t up for it. But Sontag charges in and dares to distinguish between their good and mediocre work. She isn’t afraid of Jean-Paul Sartre. Writing on his book on Jean Genet, she notes: ‘In Genet, Sartre has found his ideal subject. To be sure, he has drowned in him.’ She stood up to men held up as moral giants. Albert Camus, George Orwell, James Baldwin? Excellent essayists, but overrated as novelists.

Until this article mentioned it, I kinda… never really thought about how you can dunk on well respected thinkers of previous generations? I mean, an in-group kind of dunking, a skewering of their work by people who also exist in the same space. Like, I don’t care about any critique that stemlords care to launch because they’re very, very bad at engaging in good faith with philosophers. But I didn’t realize until Elkin pointed it out, that I want to read more about the thoughts that other women/PoC/queer folk/disabled people/members of the subaltern in general had, doing close readings Locke and Rousseau and Marx. So, for now, I’ve picked up a copy of On Photography, and I’ll let you know how it goes.

Comrade Vine died for Workers Rights™

I once attributed the death of Vine to executives shrugging at the popularity of Black youth comedy, foolishly saying, “we can’t monetize this!”

Nope. They just refused to share.

A very welcome reminder as we all watch YouTube and Twitter fail time and time again at kicking Nazis off their platform, and an interesting look into what labour activism can look like in digital spaces.

“Hey, how’s this for autism ‘awareness’ month: some percentage of you who are reading this tweet are #actuallyAutistic and aren’t aware of it.” A very long twitter thread by @mykola

When you think about interacting with people, how much effort do you put into being understood? Are you compensating, without realizing it, for the fact that nobody understands you unless you reframe it in terms you’ve slowly learned they grok?

When you see a complex system, does your brain get excited? Do you just automatically find that your awareness can easily flow through the system, consider its many parts in relation to each other and the whole, etc? Do you understand more than you can say in this context?

When you first entered ‘society’ (for me it was kindergarten) did you have a sense that everyone else must have somehow already known each other? That they all somehow knew the rules and you didn’t, or something? Did you spend 5, 10, 15 years playing catch-up?

Look: a lot of people can say yes to a lot of these questions and not be at all disabled, right? And because Autism is often spoken of as a disability in and of itself, anyone who has a ton of autistic traits but is doing fine in life doesn’t get diagnosed.

There’s a common refrain on parts of tumblr that I’ve taken to heart, about how people should use assistive devices more. Even if they don’t “need” it, even if they “aren’t disabled”. I’ve been mentally referring to this as “the shower chair creed”, after this thread (perma). So I decided that since I recognized enough of myself in this thread, as well as this other very pointed tumblr post (perma), I should go ahead and pick up some books on autism, social skills, and coping mechanisms for living in neurotypical society. It’s been an ongoing thing, interesting and scary in turns. But all in all, it’s been pretty rewarding to explore myself in this new light, and I think if you recognize yourself in the thread you should do it too.