This week I was described as a “seal” by NOW magazine, for allegedly being an “unlikely supporter” of Rob Ford, blinded by the “fish” that have been thrown at me by our mayor. The end result, says NOW, is that I “love” the mayor – along with all the other trained seals.
Wow. Where to begin?
I could begin by pointing out that the whole story is mostly fabricated. At least two other ‘seals’ have angrily accused NOW of misquoting and/or misrepresenting them. D-Sisive says his song has “nothing to do with the Mayor” and Reg Hartt denies his quote, saying it was “created out of air” by a previous NOW writer (not by this week’s writer, Joshua Errett).
Or I could begin by pointing out that Ford hasn’t actually thrown me any ‘fish’. Is there some new bikelane being built that I don’t know about? Has Rob Ford promised to introduce legislation to reform our voting system? Is there a new policy from the Mayor’s office to replace all billboards with public art? I honestly have no idea which “fish” have been thrown to me, or any of my colleagues.
Or maybe I should start by explaining how I was quoted out of context, how my views were misrepresented and how I’m simply a non-partisan organizer who believes in respectful politics and developing relationships with those I disagree with.
Or should I begin by taking a step back, and pointing out that this is the third time in one year that NOW has singled me out and criticized me for not jumping on the infantile “Ford is the Devil” bandwagon? Yes, I believe I’ll start there.
One year ago, NOW placed me on their ‘barometer’ and declared that I had a “bad week” because I was “caught” wearing a Rob Ford visor at the mayoral campaign launch near the airport. Actually, I wasn’t “caught” doing anything. I was proudly photographed at the event by my own friends, many of whom attended the event with me. As a community organiser and political geek, I attended as many campaign events as possible – for all candidates. I went to Adam Giambrone’s campaign launch at Revival, and I went to Smitherman’s campaign launch at his Esplanade office. I had lunch with Rocco Rossi, coffee with Joe Pantalone and I met twice with Sarah Thomson. I also spent time talking with underdog mayoral candidates like Rocco Achampong and Keith Cole. That’s what I do. I like politics, and I like meeting other people who like politics. And I like going to events and learning by watching. I also like going outside of my own comfort zone, to talk to people who I don’t always agree with. That’s how you learn. That’s how you grow. And that’s how you escape political ‘bubbles’ that are essentially echo chambers for the people who stay inside.
NOW referred to Ford’s launch as a “free wine-and-cheese” event, implying that it was some kind of upscale, snooty, rich-folk gathering. This is just another illustration of how the left misunderstood Ford’s campaign. He wasn’t connecting with the rich. He was connecting with Toronto. With working class people, tenants, immigrant communities, and people of all backgrounds. It was probably the largest event of the entire election – and quite diverse.
[note: NOW has pointed out that Ford himself promoted the event as a Wine and Cheese, so I’m happy to retract that statement.]
For NOW to suggest that it was in any way inappropriate or scandalous for me to be at Ford’s launch is a sad reflection of how we’ve come to view democracy. And to place me on the “Bad Week” side of their barometer along with Nestle (for eroding the Indonesian rainforest) and the Vatican (for covering up sex scandals involving children) simply leaves me speechless.
Fast forward to November. The election is over, Ford has won, and NOW magazine again highlights me on their Newsfront page. This time they call me “Rob Ford’s new best friend”. Why? Because I had the audacious nerve to publicly declare on CBC’s Metro Morning that Rob Ford “might end up being a real good mayor in terms of listening to people’s ideas.” For this, they were terribly upset. He might be a good mayor, in terms of listening to people. That’s how strict the rules are in the Lefty Handbook. No one is allowed to have a shred of optimism about anyone who doesn’t carry an NDP card in their pocket. As George Bush said, either you’re with us or you’re against us. They went on to say that they “liked” me better when I was more of an activist, and even added a list of their favorite activist things I had done – most of which I’m still doing (more on that later). They finished off by accusing me of “rehearsing for a bit part in big-city politics”. So patronizing, and so arrogant. First of all, I’m not rehearsing. I’m engaging. Second, if you think I’m playing a ‘bit part’ in politics – why do you keep writing about me?
Then, this week, they accuse me of being a trained seal. Up until now, I had mostly ignored these attacks and criticisms, but this time I got fed up – and here I am ranting. I’m ranting because I’m thin-skinned and annoyed. But I’m also ranting because I think this is a really important issue, and I’ve been meaning to write about it anyway.
Let me break my thoughts down into a few parts:
1) My relationship with Rob Ford.
2) Working across political lines.
3) Political tactics.
4) Who’s the mayor?
1) My relationship with Rob Ford.
The part that hurts the most from these accusations, is the implication that I’m trying to kiss ass in order to access power. The first online comment on this week’s story says it best: “Mez: … Your desperation to be relevant and have access to power is becoming sad to watch. I say this as someone who used to admire you.” Haha. I’m friendly with Rob Ford because I want access to power? Really? Well let me ask you this: if that’s the case, why was I friendly with Rob Ford in 2006, when he was a fringe rogue City Councillor in northern Etobicoke? Was I trying to “access power” then? What power? He had none. No, the reason I had a good relationship with him in 2006 was because he was supportive of my work and seemed to have a genuine appreciation for some of the projects I was working on – particularly City Idol. When Adam Vaughan (the journalist) invited the City Idol contestants onto his CityTV show and asked me to assemble an expert panel, I invited the following people: Royson James, Kehinde Bah, Deanne Taylor and Rob Ford:
That’s 2006 folks. Four years before he ran for mayor. So to anyone who says that I’m an opportunistic seal, trying to get friendly with Ford because he’s the mayor – well, you’re wrong. I’ve always been friendly with the mayor – because he’s been friendly with me and because we have mutual respect. I don’t agree with a lot of his policies, but I respect him as a person, and he has always reciprocated. That’s a lot more than I can say for some of my lefty pinko colleagues.
2) Working across political lines.
I’ve always believed in doing political work based on issues – not based on people. I’ve never recognized party lines, and I’ve always enjoyed working with people across the political spectrum. In fact, one of the campaigns that I’m most proud to have worked on, was a collaboration with Guy Giorno – who has served as Chief of Staff to both Mike Harris and Stephen Harper. I was campaigning against provincial legislation that changed our municipal term from three years to four. The amendment was buried in a budget bill with no debate or consultation and, in my opinion, greatly eroded our local democracy. I found little support on the left, since I was essentially opposing both our Liberal premier and our NDP mayor. So I decided to pull together a multi-partisan group that would oppose the legislation together. I recruited a brave Liberal named Josh Matlow who was prepared to oppose his own party, and I also asked a prominent conservative to join the fight – Guy. The three of us wrote an op-ed together, held a joint press-conference and made a joint deputation at Queen’s Park. It was a proud moment, and I’m sad that we lost that campaign. I have kept in touch with both of them since.
Five years later, I continue to work across party lines, issue-by-issue. I find it more interesting and more engaging. I don’t see politics as a sport with teams fighting each other. I see a multitude of human beings with different ideas and backgrounds trying to develop solutions that make our lives better.
So to anyone who is accusing me of suddenly working with the Mayors office, just to catch a few fish, all I can say is: you know little about my work, and you have a narrow view of what politics can be.
3) Political tactics.
This is the part that made me particularly disappointed about my quote in this week’s NOW. I allegedly said “If I want to be a community leader, I have one option, and his name is Rob Ford.”
First of all, that isn’t even a sentence. It’s a fragment of a sentence, that is taken out of context from a series of sentences. More importantly, it seems to imply that all community leaders should be working with the mayor, and that we are indeed somehow obliged or forced to.
I want to very clear about this. There are lots of ways to be a community leader. And very few of them involve working with the mayor. I have full respect for anyone who decides to engage in local politics – in whatever way they want. Street protest, partisan organising, political theatre, public space interventions, viral videos, political blogging, whatever. It’s none of my business how you choose to organize, and a healthy city is one in which ALL of these forms of protest and politics exist. When I co-edited Local Motion last year, I made sure there were at least two chapters on street-based protest activism.
This week’s NOW article states that “Meslin made his name in muckraking activism, from guerrilla anti-cigarette-advertising campaigns to public space initiatives. Lately, though, protests are a smaller part of his work.” This is the second time this year that NOW has implied that I used to do good ‘activist’ or ‘protest’ work, but now they don’t like me as much because I’m working within the system. This is a dangerous way to view political organizing, and it unnecessarily divides us into ‘good’ activists and ‘bad’ activists. ‘Revolution’ vs ‘reform’. ‘Outside’ vs ‘inside’. ‘Real change’ vs ‘incrementalism’. These are all false dichotomies, and do nothing to further our work as citizens.
Here’s the kicker: What happened to “diversity of tactics”? This is the infamous phrase that is used by the left to condone violent protest tactics like smashing windows. “Solidarity!” they scream. But does Diversity of Tactics only apply to those wearing masks? What about those who choose to organize at City Hall without masks on? Does the Left really respect strategic diversity, or just use it as a cover to support violence while attacking those, like myself, who choose other tactics.
The irony here, of course, is that I’m still doing the same kind of work I’ve always done: grassroots, non-partisan, community organizing. My tactics have barely changed at all over the last 13 years. My earliest campaigns involved sitting down with City Staff or Councillors to try and advance an issue. The Toronto Public Space Committee was founded on the principle of NOT just protesting, but rather putting forward constructive positive policy ideas and mobilizing people to actually go to City Hall and make deputations and lobby their Councilors. Which isn’t to say I don’t believe in protest. I’ve spent much of the past week protesting against Elizabeth May’s exclusion from the leader’s debate, and I’m helping the Green Party organise a protest rally for Thursday night.
Do I work more within the system now, than I did 15 years ago? Of course! I’m 36! Joshua and I talked about this during the NOW interview, and I explained that it has little to do with my personal views on political strategy and more to do with the fact that when I was teenager I had no idea how to connect with politicians, or the media, or with ANYONE other than my friends. So obviously I’m going to talk to politicians more, as a 36 year old, since I know many of them – and am older than some of them. It’s not a strategic shift. It’s just part of getting older. People take you more seriously, which means you don’t have to yell as loud to be heard. There’s no story there, folks.
I work my ass off as a community activist. I’m currently running a dozen projects, from RaBIT to We Like to Watch, mostly unpaid. 90% of my work is pro-bono. I recently spent months co-editing a book about civic engagement, and got paid the same amount that a City Councillor makes in a week. I spend almost every day, and most evenings, engaged in politics. Yeserday I spent an hour on a conference call, organized by Judy Rebick, to plan an ‘Activist Day’ in Toronto. I didn’t get paid for helping to organize, and I’m not being paid to spend an entire day at the conference. I do this work because I care, and because I enjoy it. So please, NOW. Don’t challenge my activist credentials, or my credibility as a community leader. I’m working hard, trying to make a difference in my own way. If you don’t like my work, that’s fine. But why waste ink criticizing a volunteer activist, when there are more important issues to deal with in this city?
4) Who’s the mayor?
Answer: Rob Ford. That’s not a matter of opinion, it’s just a fact. And that’s all I was saying, when I told Joshua that “If I want to be a community leader, I have one option, and his name is Rob Ford.” My entire sentence was something like this: “If I want to organise in a collaborative way that includes working with the mayor, than I have one option: and his name is Rob Ford”. My point was simply that I didn’t choose the mayor and if I want to work with Toronto’s mayor, I can’t pick a different one. Would I rather work with Mayor Tommy Douglas? Sure. Mayor Nelson Mandela? Yes, that would be a blast. But there is only one mayor I can work with “and his name is Rob Ford”. I don’t even know how that ended up in an article. I was just stating a fact. A fact that everyone has known since October 25th. Rob Ford is the Mayor. There is no other Mayor in Toronto, and there won’t be until at least 2014, if not 2018.
The quote had nothing to do with the entirely separate theme of political tactics.
To wrap this up, let me just say that I can’t believe any of this was considered newsworthy. It’s a horribly sad reflection on our city that anyone would consider multi-partisan work to be scandalous. But this is how low the debate has fallen.
I strongly urge people to move beyond the polarisation and realise that you don’t have to vilify those who you disagree with. Let me pull a few examples off the cover of NOW: “Ford’s Cronies, Reformers and Creeps”. Really? Are we in grade two? Why are Ford’s colleagues and staffers “cronies”? Did Miller have “cronies”? Oh, no. There were Policy Assistants and Strategic Advisors. And what about this: “His Evil Plot to Rule the Right”. Why is it evil to have electoral ambitions? Did Jack Layton have an “evil plot” to rule the left? After all, he started out as a Councillor too (and once ran for Mayor).
Let’s raise the quality of debate in this town. Let’s foster a political culture that is respectful of opposing views, with more collaboration and less back-stabbing. More policy-based propositions and less personal attacks. More listening and less preaching inwardly to ourselves.
I earlier quoted a negative comment from NOW’s online forum. So I’ll end with a positive one. In response to NOW’s public criticism of my willingness to work with the mayor, Emily Van Halem wrote:
“Maybe Mez was trying to bridge the very deep divide that was made so obvious during the last election. Not like I’m siding with the “right” or anything, but sometimes NOW’s blatantly narrow political agenda gets a bit old. A city under Ford is going to need to take some real banding together here, not more divide and snub.”
I agree. We can gain so much, as a city, by raising the level of respect in our political dialogue. Between right and left, and (clearly) between left and left.