Waiting for the Circus to Leave: 2010 Vancouver Civics Lesson
Just about everyone I know in Vancouver, can't wait for the 2010 Olympics to be over in Vancouver. There has been such a saturation of the airways and opportunity cost associated with hosting these Games, that many of us can't wait to talk about other more pressing issues in the city. The period in Vancouver has been rattled by the imposition of state institutions on the rights of the citizenry and on free speech rights in general - for example, home and workplace visits of social activists, the detaining of American journalist Amy Goodman at the border, the use of undercover police to infiltrate activist networks and a general chilling effect on dissent in the city. Recently, the Chief of the Victoria Police Department bragged to a private audience that protestors going to Victoria had rented a bus driven by an undercover police officer.
We are imagining a kind of sanitized, Canadian version of a McCarthyist witch hunt happening - "Are you now, or have you ever been, a 2010 Olympics critic?"
But why aren't people angry? Why aren't people in the streets? Why is this situation so normalized?
The state of exception that has been created by the Olympic circus could not be conceivable except for the unfortunate qualities of our society that it reflects - a series of relationships and systematic interactions which normalizes the practice of limiting the rights of certain citizens arbitrarily. The tools of public relations and corporate communications have covered up the practices of publicly funded government institutions like the Integrated Security Unit and VANOC with words like 'balance,' 'sustainability', ' brand protection' and the need for 'security.' The citizenry is in slumber - most people are deactivated spectators unable to intervene or exert pressure on the endless web of political and bureaucratic systems of inertia that have been created by the Olympic machine. A culture of governmentality has, unfortunately, taken over.
In the process of organizing something as large as the 2010 Olympics, it certainly provides a kind of snapshot of a country's political culture and its society. Below are some early observations, diagnoses and characteristics that have been identified about Vancouver's political and social culture over the Olympic years by friends, acquaintances and researchers, informally over beer and coffee in random conversations in the city over the past eight years:
1) An Underdevelopment of the Public Sphere
For some reason, we can't seem to have considered and complex debates on public policy matters without devolving in to ideological boilerplate, partisan bickering or without framing critics as frothy-mouthed neo-Marxist traitors to the country. Increasingly, it appears that there are fewer and fewer spaces to have these critical discussions. The media, political parties, academic institutions, art and cultural institutions and civil society have all failed the public in developing a space where ideas can be contested, where debates can be shaped and where dialogue can happen in a rigorous way.
The 2010 Olympics, particularly, have led to a contamination of the public sphere to such a degree, that it isn't possible to have a rational conversation about them until they are over. In contemporary Vancouver, the Olympics have become the opium of the masses and have distorted the central role of many institutions in society which are meant to act as critical safeguards for society.
2) The Epidemic of Politeness
As outsiders visit Vancouver and see the stark contrasts of a downtown filled with condominiums and intense poverty mere blocks away, they become angry. They don't understand why people are not on the streets clamouring for change. This culture of politeness does more harm than good. It masks the urgency of a situation that is costing lives. We should fear this culture of politeness and the damage that it causes.
3) The Deference to Public Institutions
Canada does not have a questioning culture - even in Britain and United States, the heaviest influences in historic political development of Canada, there are more considered debates on public policy. Canada is a colonial country that basically has no history of revolutions. Sadly, the people only rise up during intense hockey games. The development of a liberal democratic order of government has largely been contracted out to an elite class of politicians and bureaucrats without very much participation from Canadian citizens. When those same institutions do not keep up with contemporary norms, trying to change them is an arduous task.
In most places around the world, the phenomenon of police investigating police wouldn't even be considered, but we are still having that debate today in British Columbia.
Canada has signed on to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. In a country where we should be talking about the right to adequate housing for everyone, we are still having debates in the Supreme Court about the right of citizens to sleep outside.
Tied in to the deference of public institutions, is the series of relationships that define decision-making processes in the City of Vancouver. The culture of parochialism that has infected the city amongst its various partisan interests has led to a de facto seniority system in the processes of political will formation. Civil society is largely dead in the city, nor is there an economy that could resurrect it as an independent watchdog of society. The myriad funding relationships needed to build robust institutions has meant that organizations which traditionally played this role, have largely become appendages of the government, the health board or other institutions. When those closest to the ground are no longer in a position to speak out, we are all diminished - the public sphere becomes restricted, voices of dissent wither, conversations that need to happen don't occur. The life of the city is no longer a public conversation in the public domain.
5) The Rise of Central Communications and Lack of Public Engagement by Political Parties
Post-war political communications has spread like a terrible disease that by end of the 20th century, content has become a casualty. The rise of central communications, polling and positioning on issues has resulted in marketing campaigns to capture market share in the independent, undecided areas of the political map, largely in the center of the political spectrum. This has unfortunately driven out those looking for more substantive policy reforms and has resulted in a lower voter turnout at every level of government elections. Party discipline and caucus solidarity also take away those who colour political life with independent directions and new ideas. By cultivating a culture of spin and media grandstanding, politics is no longer viewed as a place of big ideas, interesting discussions or a place of rigorous debate. It is viewed by the vast majority of the public as an overmanaged stageshow operated by communications hacks.
Politics as a profession is viewed as terribly as being a lawyer or a journalist.
6) Academic Disengagement from the Issues of the Time
In Vancouver particularly, academic institutions like SFU and UBC have been profoundly disappointing in engaging with the public on the issues of our time. Particularly striking is the fact that the geographic separation of the institutions from the City with UBC in Point Grey and SFU on Burnaby Mountain, it is particularly noticeable. Despite a presence downtown at UBC Robson Square and SFU Harbour Centre, both institutions have not harnessed their capacity in bringing reasoned debate, dialogue and research in to the public realm.
While homelessness has more than doubled in the city since the Olympic bid process began, very few academics have waded in to the debate with analysis nor have they played the kind of substantive role they should have with civil society organizations in the city.
7) Economic Development as the Highest Value of Society, More Important Than Other Values Like Human Rights
As the city's engineering department takes the belongings of homeless people and moves them along every morning, it is difficult not to look at the systems and practices of everyday life which have become codified and normalized. The assumptions that are built in to these practices are as complex as the intent is to be practical. A human rights audit needs to be done of city practices because it says something about the kind of society we unfortunately are - that the need for economic development has a higher value than human rights. The planning for security, the city's bylaw package for the Olympics and the police ticketing of Downtown Eastside residents in the lead up to the Olympics are only some of the examples of this form of poverty cleansing that happens below the radar.
8) The Need for Democratic Reform
The City of Vancouver has no election spending limits. Right now, it's the best democracy money can buy. That tends to mean developers. Successive political parties have promised change and nothing has happened. Until citizens rise up and demand democratic reform, we will be left with the illegitimate, corrupt and unsustainable system we have today.
9) The Proliferation of Inoperative Forms of Political Engagement
Vancouver has a great reputation as a place of progressive politics. This is where Greenpeace started, where the Downtown Eastside Residents Association fought for community assets in the 70's and 80's and the fight for a safe injection site was successfully waged.
Vancouver has increasingly become a place of political posturing, hipster disengagement and a fetishizing of spirituality that borders on flakiness. The substance behind the politics has eroded and real progressive gains have been limited. Though there is a place for yoga, meditation and doggie biscuit bakeries, there is still work left to be done on the ground.
10) An Illogical Fracturing of Social, Environmental and Labour Movements
At a time when climate change is putting civilization at risk, when homelessness is doubling and there is mass unemployment, one would think it would be rational for these movements to work together and set differences aside. Unfortunately, these movements are as fractured as ever.
The 2010 Olympics have been treated with kid gloves by the labour movement. Civil society has felt betrayed by the silence and underfunding by the labour movement. The climate change movement has not been inclusive in their processes and methods of organizing.
Without real sustained work to break down these divisions, all three will continue to suffer setbacks in the coming years.