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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Can we stop talking about taxpayers?

I know, I know. It's not going to be easy to push back against 30 years of right-wing stupidity. And I think I recall someone saying, once upon a time, that an election campaign is no time for a discussion of serious issues.

But we're coming down to the home stretch of the Toronto civic election, and Rob Ford's still the odds-on favourite. Don't know whether it's too late to keep this particular bus from going off the cliff, but either way, there's a lot of damage to undo, and it's not going to get undone unless we start the pushback.

I've written in some detail about why Ford's message seems to be resonating with so many voters. Nothing's changed in that regard: both he and they are idiots (h/t thwap). But let's look a little more deeply at the essence of his message: spending is out of control, the city is falling apart, and people are sick and tired of their taxes going to waste.

Breaking down a message like that isn't easy, because it sounds so simple. The simplicity, however, is deceptive, because it's based on a number of assumptions that just don't stand up once you look past the ideological and discursive constraints. So, let's begin with the most basic and easily digested component of that message: the whole notion of "taxpayers' money."

First off, let's stop calling it that. As Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, taxes are what buy us civilization. We get to have roads, public health departments, electricity, clean water, hockey rinks, fire departments and schools because we pay taxes. They are the mechanism whereby the citizens of any society pool their resources to accomplish things they can't do on their own. They are the means whereby we act for the common good. They are part of the fabric that holds communities together. It gets more than a little tiresome hearing people bitching about them.

That's part one. Part two: it's not Your Money, Mr. and Ms. Pissed-Off Taxpayer. It is the price you pay for living in a civilized society instead of a state of savagery. It is a collectively owned resource, to be used in the pursuit of the public good and in accordance with publicly determined priorities. You get to participate in that determination through your inherent right to participate in the public decision-making process: by voting, by talking to your elected representatives, by exercising your rights of free speech and free assembly, and by having conversations with your fellow citizens. And once that determination is made, you live with it. You don't get to take your ball and go home just because you didn't get what you wanted.

Thirdly, it's time we stopped talking about ourselves as "taxpayers." That kind of discourse is based on a very limited and restrictive view of our relationships to our community, to our government, and to one another. When you reduce your view of those relationships to just "me" versus "the government that takes my hard-earned money," you're setting yourself up for nothing but anger and resentment – the very things that Ford's tapping into. Take those away and he's really got nothing else.

That's the way public discourse has been drifting for at least 30 years, ever since our southern brethren decided to send a second-rate Hollywood has-been to Washington. And setting out the resultant damage could be the work of an entire career, never mind a blog post. But perhaps the worst aspect of that damage has been the vandalism done to language and public discourse; if words and ideas are degraded and stripped of their meanings, we can't even have productive conversations any more. If all we can do is throw around tired clichés and discredited tropes, then there goes any hope for meaningful and effective communication – the first step in fixing things.

Therefore, a challenge to both fellow progressives and anyone else: let us, henceforth, resolve to stop talking about "taxpayers" or "shareholders" or "consumers," and instead embrace and revitalize the notion of "citizenship."

Yes, citizenship. A privilege, a badge of honour, an indicator that you're something more than an apathetic disengaged dullard. Citizenship carries rights, but it also carries obligations to your community and to your fellow citizens. In return for the rights conferred by citizenship, you assume certain responsibilities – critical thought and active civic engagement most of all.

It means thinking beyond clichés.

It means recognizing that there's an entity out there larger than yourself.

It means resisting the atomizing influence of corporations and manufactured narratives that seek to distract us from genuine issues and turn us against one another.

And it means participating in the civic life of your community.

This goes beyond labels like "right" or "left" or "conservative" or "liberal" or "socialist." Citizenship is a proud and honourable idea, organically developed through centuries of patience, care, learning, and preservation of intellectual and moral traditions. And it's been disfigured almost beyond recognition by decades of misdirection, lies, and bullshit. It's time to reclaim it.

(Tomorrow: that "elitist" thing.)

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