Reading as a forgotten art

ReadingEarlier this month (February, 2018), the Globe & Mail published an essay by author Michael Harris titled, “I have forgotten how to read.” In it, he recounted how he recently tried to read a single chapter of a book, but failed. Frustrated, instead turned to TV:

Paragraphs swirled; sentences snapped like twigs; and sentiments bled out. The usual, these days. I drag my vision across the page and process little. Half an hour later, I throw down the book and watch some Netflix.

Which, I think, is the poor choice of alternatives. Giving up doesn’t improve the skill set or fix the problem. As the American politician Claude Pepper is alleged to have said, “Life is like riding a bicycle: you don’t fall off unless you stop pedaling.” Harris, it seems, stopped pedalling before he was even through a mere chapter.

If, as Harris also writes, “mind is plastic,” and he believes his reading skills have diminished, then I would think the solution would be to retrain his mind, to relearn those skills, to strengthen the neural pathways associated with reading and comprehension, rather than continue to encourage them to atrophy. Get back on the bike and pedal harder. Read more, not less. As Groucho Marx quipped: *

I find television very educational. The minute somebody turns it on, I go to the library and read a good book.

Harris hadn’t become illiterate or dyslexic: his reading habits had changed as he immersed himself deeper into today’s social-media-driven technology; a medium that encourages short, emotion-filled, reactive – even knee-jerk – content, the stuff of immediate response, outburst and instant memes, rather than the stuff of deep thought. It’s a self-inflicted wound:

When we become cynical readers – when we read in the disjointed, goal-oriented way that online life encourages – we stop exercising our attention. We stop reading with a sense of faith that some larger purpose may be served. This doesn’t mean we’re reading less – not at all. In fact, we live in a text-gorged society in which the most fleeting thought is a thumb-dash away from posterity. What’s at stake is not whether we read. It’s how we read… The words I write now filter through a new set of criteria. Do they grab; do they anger? Can this be read without care? Are the sentences brief enough? And the thoughts? It’s tempting to let myself become so cynical a writer because I’m already such a cynical reader.

I think the many of us who share part of our lives online and are in constant communication with the social media world through devices understand. Even a passing attempt to keep up with the sheer volume of material on a Facebook timeline or Twitter feed runs in opposition to depth and focus. It becomes the Red Queen’s Race – you run as fast as you can in order to simply stay in the same place. But surrendering to it isn’t the answer.
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Thoughts on local municipal governance

Representation?A popular political theory presents two basic and often contradictory models of how elected officials should (or do) behave as representatives. One is as a delegate: solely acting as a representative of the people who elected them. The other is as a trustee, serving (or attempting to serve) everyone under their governance. In practice, these are not absolutely discrete, but are practiced in combination with one another, as situations dictate or according to how vocal the electors are.*

How is this practiced here, in Collingwood? Yes, I know, the notion of The Block actually having or understanding a theory of anything, much less putting one into practice, is ludicrously surreal. That would, first and foremost, require they do the thing they despise most: read. Instead, they govern by blunder, bluster and blame, mostly the former, without any nod to conventional political theory. But bear with me.

In the delegate model, Wikipedia tells us,

…delegates act only as a mouthpiece for the wishes of their constituency, and have no autonomy from the constituency. This model does not provide representatives the luxury of acting in their own conscience. Essentially, the representative acts as the voice of those who are (literally) not present.

An example of the delegate model – albeit not a shining example of governance by any stretch of the imagination – was when Coun. Bob Madigan made a motion for council to supersede proper planning process, and ignore expert opinion and advice in favour of uninformed council opinion, in order to satisfy the NIMBY desires of a small, special interest group opposed to a nearby development. He thus acted as the mouthpiece of this group; i.e. their delegate at the table, rather than a representative of the greater community.

But what if you are your own constituency? What if the people who elected you are not those you choose to represent? What if you and your group’s interests are all that matters?
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Wasaga pulls airport support

facepalmAnother post where I get to say “I told you so.” Wasaga Beach pulled its support for the Collingwood Airport just like Clearview did a little earlier. Told you they would.

Why? Simple: because of The Block. Seven of our councillors resolutely stand in the way of growth, business, development, jobs, a better community, our healthcare – everything except their own wellbeing and personal advantage. I warned you that the combination of the roadblocks and the wall of secrecy erected by The Block would drive our regional partners away. And it did.

Even before this, I warned you the shoddy, hostile way our town and our council treated the hospital would infuriate and alienate our neighbours who are also regional partners in the hospital. And it did.

Wasaga Beach’s mayor, Brian Smith is quoted in the Connection blaming it on “Collingwood council’s apparent lack of support for the proposed aviation business park beside the airport.”

Apparent” lack of support? What a weasel word. I suppose I can’t expect better from local media.

The lack of support from Collingwood was EVIDENT to everyone on the airport board, in the public, on the councils of Wasaga Beach and Clearview. It was even pointed out to me by several people in the county council from other communities not connected to Collingwood. EVERYONE knew who on Collingwood Council didn’t support the airport, or the development, or the jobs it would bring in.

The writer lamely notes, “Collingwood’s position is council and staff are acting on legal advice to not sign an agreement,” without actually citing the source for that claim (and, curiously, not slavishly quoting his buddy, our deputy mayor, as he is wont to do). I would question whether any reputable lawyer would advise elected representatives NOT to explain their position to the voters who put them there. The reporter, doesn’t question the party line, though.

Collingwood got a staff report about the future of the airport, Feb. 12. The ever-unctuous Collingwoodliving.com notes the Deputy Mayor called it an “apparent” breakdown without taking responsibility for the EVIDENT breakdown The Block has caused:

Deputy Mayor Brian Saunderson expressed his concern with the situation surrounding the possible sale of the airport and the apparent breakdown of the regional cooperation with the Town of Wasaga Beach in addition to the withdrawl (sic) of support by the Township of Clearview…. he has been frustrated with the actions of neighbouring municipalities, namely the town of Wasaga Beach and Clearview Township.

He was so frustrated that none of The Block ever bothered to speak with our neighbours, with our airport board and explain themselves. So frustrated they never even informed them officially about the sale of the airport. And now he’s blaming someone else. What a hypocrite.*

Why aren’t local reporters pointing the finger at what everyone else sees, and asking the hard questions about Collingwood’s secret motives? About why so many closed door meetings on the airport? About why The Block are opposed to creating jobs and economic growth here? Why are local reporters letting The Block weasel their way out of responsibility? Oh right: they don’t want to embarrass their friends.
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Honderich’s hypocrisy

Honderich and GodfreyIn late January, the Toronto Star published a lengthy opinion piece by board chair John Honderich, titled, “We should all be very concerned by the crisis facing quality journalism.” But just in case you thought this was really just about journalism and not a political screed, there’s the telling subhead: “The Trudeau government has either ignored or rejected virtually all the recommendations proposed to help support newspapers. What particularly stings is that the vast majority would not cost taxpayers anything.”*

Honderich is the chair of the board of the TorStar corporation. His Wikipedia page says he worked at the Ottawa Citizen a year or two after I left. He was a reporter at the Star – the publisher then was his father, Beland Honderich, so no stench of nepotism there, eh? – around the same time I worked for the corporation. He rose in the ranks to become publisher, and, despite being the “author of the largest layoff, at the time in print media history,” he was awarded the Order of Canada in 2004 and the Order of Ontario in 2006. Savvy Canadian readers will recognize those years for the Conservative governments in both Ottawa (Harper) and Ontario (Eves). Conservatives recognizing a plutocrat for laying off a record number of workers was not out of step with the party line.

And, of course, the piece re-appeared in dozens of TorStar-controlled publications, like our own Collingwood Connection. Whether this was rammed down the editorial throats of local papers – a dictate to publish or else – I can only suspect. But replacing local content with this screed is very hypocritical and self-serving (especially when it appeared as it did here on the front page: opinion is not news).

Community papers have limited space that should be dedicated to local news, opinions and events, not to the bloviation of the big cheese. (Even more ironically, in late 2015, Honderich himself penned a criticism of Postmedia for dictating what political endorsements its chain would carry)

I remember the umbrage in the media community in the mid-1990s when Conrad Black demanded a letter of his – a much shorter letter than Honderich’s piece, but no less a personal political opinion – on the editorial or op-ed pages of papers he controlled under Hollinger. The outcry over corporate control, over media independence, over freedom of the press and editorial rights. Anyone see a difference here? Neither do I.
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Fire and Fury reviewed

Trump and BannonDysfunctional. Childish. Self-centred. Narcissistic. Ideologically myopic. Illiterate. Cranky. Capricious. Arrogant. Scheming. Petty. Ill-educated. No, I’m not writing about our local council (although, yes, all those words apply equally to The Block). These are some of the words that came to mind as I read Michael Wolff’s book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.

Dysfunctional popped into my mind most often as Wolff described the lurching, staggering, fumbling and bumbling of Trump’s staff and family advisers after their unexpected – and for some unwanted – victory. (I know: curiously coincidental how that description also echoes our own council’s meandering, aimless and destructive governance, but let’s not talk about The Block right now…). Not that it’s surprising: the amount of political experience among the core group and family that stuck together through Trump’s campaign combined was less than an hour’s worth.

It’s like reading about a train wreck described in excruciatingly minute detail: the trajectory of every rivet and bolt as it shakes loose from the engine and flies off into space is chronicled, measured and examined. Or perhaps it’s better described as reading about the antics of an entire kindergarten class where cranky children fed on high-sugar treats are not given sufficient nap time.

And despite my initial expectations, the book is less about Trump than about his minions and the limpets who cling to him. While it’s not flattering about the Ignorati-in-Chief, it scorches the hangers-on. There’s a point made that American democracy could survive Trump and manage well enough if the White House had a competent, experienced, educated and literate staff of professionals to mitigate his inabilities. But with its cast of amateurs and grasping opportunists it hasn’t a chance.

I had already read much of what Wolff described online and in newspapers and magazines (such noteworthy publications as the Washington Post, New York Times, Maclean’s, Harper’s, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone and others which Trump labels ‘fake news’ because they fail to tug their collective forelocks and genuflect to his self-described “very stable” genius). The madcap antics, the sordid affairs, the flailing and failing of Trump’s staff are already as well documented as the president’s own erratic bumbling governance and noxious tweets. But I’ve not had it all served in a single dish before, nor had I been aware of the backgrounds of many of the players. That’s the strength and delight – and fright – of this book.

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