On damaging and defending public property (in Hobsons Bay)

IMG_5614.jpgCall me ‘old school’, but I’m really not very tolerant when it comes to damaging public property. Places such as parks, public libraries, schools, rivers, parliaments, etc. are, in my view, sacrosanct, and when such places undergo vandalism the damage is done to us all. More specifically, when such damage is undertaken for the economic gain of a few, there really can be no acceptable defence at all.

The assumption here, of course, is that there really is such a reality called ‘public’, and that such a reality requires such things as ‘public spaces’, and that there is an obligation upon the public to honour such spaces. (For the purposes of this post I will not explore this matter further here.)

It is entirely unacceptable, therefore, for commercial enterprises to destroy public property. One way that this is happening is by such enterprises securing their signage to our footpaths. In the area near my home, which is in Melbourne’s Hobson’s Bay region, real estate businesses such as Williams Real Estate, Gunn & Co. and others, repeatedly screw their signage into the footpath, indifferent to the destruction done.

Rather than remove the screws – which would, in my view, be a publicly-responsible action to undertake – I have thus far taken the less aggressive route of writing, on a number of occasions now, to the Hobsons Bay City Council about this matter, and included documentary evidence to support my complaint. Thus far, they have been polite and responsive, and I have been assured that a ‘relevant officer’ has been assigned to investigate the complaints. I don’t know what the outcome has been, but I do notice that the vandalism is still happening, that the boards continue to be erected upon and secured to the footpath. (That the footpaths in my area in already in poor form is hardly the point.)

The Council’s ‘Community Signboards Policy’ stipulates that not-for-profit community groups who wish to erect temporary signs to promote community events must ensure that ‘the physical and visual amenity on the natural and built environment’ is maintained, and that such signs are not allowed to ‘damage Council infrastructure’. And yet when it comes to commercial ventures, it appears that no such rule exists. Why?

A Council that judges graffiti to be ‘vandalism, “wilful damage” and a criminal offence’ ought, in my view, to not only be fining such real estate agents in order to repair the damage done, but also pursuing legal action against them for vandalism and wilful damage. (For the record, I do not share Council’s judgement about graffiti, for I believe that graffiti can be a way of honouring public space. But that discussion too is for another post. Neither am I suggesting that this matter ought to be a priority for Council. In the scheme of things, it’s a relatively small matter indeed.)

And here endeth my wee rant.


Democracy, responsible citizenship, and the politics of resistance

the-ethics-of-authenticity‘Because the only effective counter to the drift towards atomism and instrumentalism built into market and bureaucratic state is the formation of an effective common purpose through democratic action, fragmentation in fact disables us from resisting this drift. To lose the capacity to build politically effective majorities is to lose your paddle in mid-river. You are carried in eluctably downstream, which here means further and further into a culture enframed by atomism and instrumentalism.

The politics of resistance is the politics of democratic will-formation. As against those adversaries of technological civilization who have felt drawn to an elitist stance, we must see that a serious attempt to engage in the cultural struggle of our time requires the promotion of a politics of democratic empowerment. The political attempt to re-enframe technology crucially involves resisting and reversing fragmentation.

But how do you fight fragmentation? It’s not easy, and there are no universal prescriptions. It depends very much on the particular situation. But fragmentation grows to the extent that people no longer identify with their political community, that their sense of corporate belonging is transferred elsewhere or atrophies altogether. And it is fed, too, by the experience of political powerlessness. And these two developments mutually reinforce each other. A fading political identity makes it harder to mobilize effectively, and a sense of helplessness breeds alienation. There is a potential vicious circle here, but we can see how it could also be a virtuous circle. Successful common action can bring a sense of empowerment and also strengthen identification with the political community.

This sounds like saying that the way to succeed here is to succeed, which is true if perhaps unhelpful. But we can say a little more. One of the important sources of the sense of powerlessness is that we are governed by large scale, centralized, bureaucratic states. What can help mitigate this sense is decentralisation of power, as Tocqueville saw. And so in general devolution, or a division of power, as in a federal system, particularly one based on the principle of subsidiarity, can be good for democratic empowerment. And this is the more so if the units to which power is devolved already figure as communities in the lives of their members.

In this respect, Canada has been fortunate. We have had a federal system, which has been prevented from evolving towards greater centralization on the model of the United States by our very diversity, while the provincial units generally correspond with regional societies with which their members identify. What we seem to have failed to do is create a common understanding that can hold these regional societies together, and so we face the prospect of another kind of loss of power, not that we experience when big government seems utterly unresponsive, but rather the fate of smaller societies living in the shadow of major powers.

This has ultimately been a failure to understand and accept the real nature of Canadian diversity. Canadians have been very good at accepting their own images of difference, but these have tragically failed to correspond to what is really there . It is perhaps not an accident that this failure comes just when an important feature of the American model begins to take hold in this country, in the form of judicial review around a charter of rights. In fact, it can be argued that the insistence on uniform application of a charter that had become one of the symbols of Canadian citizenship was an important cause of the demise of the Meech Lake agreement, and hence of the impending break-up of the country.

But the general point I want to draw from this is the interweaving of the different strands of concern about modernity. The effective re-enframing of technology requires common political action to reverse the drift that market and bureaucratic state engender towards greater atomism and instrumentalism. And this common action requires that we overcome fragmentation and powerlessness – that is, that we address the worry that Tocqueville first defined, the slide in democracy towards tutelary power. At the same time, atomist and instrumentalist stances are prime generating factors of the more debased and shallow modes of authenticity, and so a vigorous democratic life, engaged in a project of re-enframing, would also have a positive impact here.

What our situation seems to call for is a complex, many-levelled struggle, intellectual, spiritual, and political, in which the debates in the public arena interlink with those in a host of institutional settings, like hospitals and schools, where the issues of enframing technology are being lived through in concrete form; and where these disputes in turn both feed and are fed by the various attempts to define in theoretical terms the place of technology and the demands of authenticity, and beyond that, the shape of human life and its relation to the cosmos.

But to engage effectively in this many-faceted debate, one has to see what is great in the culture of modernity, as well as what is shallow or dangerous. As Pascal said about human beings, modernity is characterized by grandeur as well as by misère. Only a view that embraces both can give us the undistorted insight into our era that we need to rise to its greatest challenge’.

– Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity

Thoughts in the Presence of Fear

What Wendell said.