Archive for August, 2011

August 11, 2011

Rob Ford, the civil service and the rest of us….

After my article about Wheel-Trans and the amazingly inefficient and customer alien service they provide I felt badly that some people might interpret this as an attack on civil servants.

I want to be clear. The basis of a decent and humane civilization is a quality civil service.

We need to pay the taxes necessary to maintain a professional, disinterested (in the best possible use of the word) and empathic civil service. There is no gravy in paying people well to provide quality service to us. The Right is just simply anti-labour and wish to maintain their privileged positions when they claim that good civil service wages are gravy.

But, there is a real problem with the service we are receiving. Too many bureaucrats are arrogant toward and power tripping on ordinary citizens who come to them for help or are trying to access services which they have paid for and, appropriately, feel entitled to. There has been a growing disconnect between the citizenry who pay taxes and the civil servants who provide services.

My best example of this is to look at the Manager of City Parks, Brenda Patterson, who has led the attack on local community run ice arenas in opposition to local groups who want some say in their services. The excuse Ms Patterson gives is that she is trying to equalize services across the City, when in reality the service provided by the very Arenas she is trying to destroy are higher than those run directly by her own (and I think that is how she sees it) bureaucracy. No wonder people balk at taxes when bureaucrats are left to run amok and build their own fifedoms.

There are a number of reasons for this. With the constant attack on public employees (ie: the gravy train), many politicians have sewn dissension between public employees and the citizenry. Too many citizens are snarly toward civil servants and in return they are getting poor service. As the service degenerates citizens begin to wonder why they are paying these people (civil servants) so much money when they get so little back.

It is a revolving door sentiment and the Right is laughing all the way to their ideological nesting places as they then developed the needed public support to cut services. Underfunding and continual attack on the nature of government services has led to deterioration and stultification in the bureaucracy which then ends up in an inadequate service that people figure isn’t worth paying for.

The Right then says we need to run government efficiently …. just like a business. They start talking about citizens as ‘customers’ and civil servants as ‘service providers’. Only problem is, business isn’t so good at providing services either. Take John Tory who ran for Mayor of Toronto and wanted to bring in more business sense to the management of services. Now, if memory serves, wasn’t he the CEO of Rogers? You know that company that provides exemplary services to customers?

I mean, just what company do the Ford brothers want the City to emulate? Would that be Bell, or Rogers? Or perhaps Futureshop is a better model? No, wait, I want my company run like Air Canada or General Motors or Chrysler. Well, I’m sure there is a consumer oriented company worth emulating somewhere.

The problem with the Left is that they have no creativity or critical thought left in them, except to criticize the Right… which people like Adam Vaughan do very well.

Too often the Left simply fights all cutbacks which they see as an attack on the social service network. And while that is what cutbacks usually are about, a simple defence of the status quo won’t cut it. There is something wrong with the status quo and the people can see it.

When Leftish politicians comment on maintaining civil services they often have little credibility. Either they are defending a system that needs real reform (and people aren’t so stupid they can’t see that) or else they are simply too chicken shit to come right out and state they support the collection and spending of taxes to fund a real civil service.

Where the gravy train really lies is in the number of studies and position papers and discussion groups and all the bullshit that goes on. In my field, medicine, there is a paper a day published that talks about the effects of second hand smoke. Who the hell is funding this stuff anymore? We all know second hand smoking is bad for you. It’s been proven already. To find out that it is also bad for brain development in addition to being implicated in bladder cancer, kidney cancer, lung disease and heart disease is not of much further value as far as I am concerned. Enough study. All the money should go toward ways to decrease smoking.

There is a medical/public health/academic ‘research’ industry out there sucking up valuable resources that could be better spent in implementation.

Similarly, there is a huge amount of money spent in the bureaucracy on consultants, studies, papers, discussions, meetings. There is an industry in all bureaucracies established for the sole purpose of maintaining itself. Government and business share this bizarre culture. And they often feed off each other. And with the constant attacks from the Right (as well as ideological concerns from the Left) the bureaucracy has developed a culture of stagnation and a fear of looking at new ideas.

Rob Ford has hired a slew of consultants (the only difference from the Miller administration is that these are his boys) and pissed away huge sums just like all the others. He is riding the same gravy train he claims to despise.

We need to commit to a new approach to the civil bureaucracy. One that provides services to citizens in a manner that is open and transparent, but most importantly useful and what people have been asking for. And we need to have people providing these services who are blessed with less than petty minds. We need to instill a sense of importance in the civil service and re-connect it to the citizenry.

And then we need to ask people to be prepared to pay the taxes to fund the City they want to live in, a situation they should be better prepared to buy into when they appreciate that the real gravy train has stopped.

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August 10, 2011

Bateman’s Bicycle Company: a little local treasure

Unpaid advertising for Rob Bateman’s little bicycle shop. He rents space just beside Stanley’s variety store at 29 Baron St (southwest corner of Barton and Bathurst). The actual store is a tiny affair and he has the adjoining two garages that he uses as a workshop.

While Rob sells some new bikes, I haven’t ever bought one from him. But I have had him do some work on my bikes. About two years ago I put together a single speed for myself from a beautiful Jamis Sputnik frame (with Easton carbon fork) and a number of parts I bought off eBay and other places. After assembling it I went to Rob to let him give it a once over to make sure I didn’t screw up.

Since then I’ve had him look at a few things on my bikes and friends’ bikes.

Rob is very reasonably priced and knows about customer service. He is always happy to help out and is meticulous about the work he does. If you ask him to fix a chainring, he is just as likely to disassemble your bottom bracket to check that out. And while you think this may just be a money making attempt on his part, his rates are so reasonable that you really appreciate it.

And, as I mentioned, Rob is not the typical arrogant techie.

Bateman’s is a real community gem. His site:  http://www.batemansbikeco.com/

August 8, 2011

Rob Ford is right about something: Wheel-Trans….

No. Seriously. I’m not kidding.

It’s not so much that there is a gravy train. It’s that the civil service in this City really is not run with the citizen’s needs in mind. I really do think we’ve got to the point where I am personally ready to break the entire bureaucracy up and start again.

I do admit that I am just very frustrated from a recent encounter with Wheel-Trans (at TTC).

My parents are 91. My mother can no longer walk without the aid of a walker. My father, although much better, has for the past month required a cane.

So they applied for Wheel-Trans at the TTC.

Do you know that you cannot apply over the phone or on the Internet? You cannot even get a doctor’s note (like for a handicapped parking space). No, amazingly, you must attend an interview in person at one of 5 TTC offices in Toronto. I presume they need to see you crawl in the door personally to admit you to the privilege of their services.

Now, if you need Wheel-Trans, it’s because you cannot get on the regular TTC on your own. And you cannot afford to take taxis everywhere. But the TTC makes you show up in person.

So my parents did finally take a very expensive taxi ride to show off their infirmity. My mother qualified but my father did not. So he can only use Wheel-Trans if he is accompanying her.

Fine. So she is signed up.

Well, my father calls to book the first trip… a doctor’s appointment at a downtown hospital. Fifteen minutes of constant redial and more than that on hold and he books his trip. He was very happy with the service the driver provided but said he could no longer do the phone part.

He asked me this past week to sign up for on-line trip booking. Now my parents, as many elderly, do not have a computer or access to the Internet. As a result, I will need to book for them every time they want to travel. That can be a bother for me but it’s the least I owe them.

So, I sit down to sign up for Wheel-Trans on-line booking. Whooo…. not for the faint of heart.

I enter their registration number, my mother’s date of birth, choose a password (yeah, this site is just like so many others….you choose a password, confirm it, complete the page and when you hit ‘enter’ only then are you told that it has to be ‘x’ number of characters plus a digit, etc. One day I want to invite all software writers over to my house and put them all on a hamster wheel….. but I digress).

So, when all this is done and I hit ‘register’ I get a message that the computers are down due to upgrading!

Ok, that’s not going to work today.

I tell my father that the computer system is down and that I will try after August 7, the date the recording said all would be ok.

On August 7 I cheerfully try again. I try to register and am told that the number I am using is already registered. Ok, I think, it did register me the previous attempt. Looking good.

I then try to login. The message says something like ‘account not validated’. Nothing I can think to do gets me by that.

I get on the phone to call them. I use automatic redial and on about the 25th attempt I manage to get past the busy signal to the machine that tells me that they are having a high volume of calls. But, I am told, if I am calling to book a Wheel-Trans trip, I can call another number right now and there will be no line up to get through. Wow! I’m finally on my way.

I call that number. Then set my phone to automatic redial. After 12 attempts I get to a machine that tells me they are very busy but if I dial the number I have just dialed, then I will get right through.

Hmmmm….

I stay on hold. And on hold. And on hold. I am not going to lose my sequence in line for anything at this point.

About 17 minutes later a very tense and unhappy woman comes on and basically says ‘what do you want’? I say I want to book a trip. She puts my on hold. However, only 1 minute later she returns. Bruskly, ‘what is your registration number’. Given. ‘When do you want to travel’. I was calling Sunday evening to book for Wednesay am. Can’t do it. ‘We only book 24 hours ahead’. ‘But the computers are down, can’t you do this, please’? No can, or will, do. End of conversation.

So Monday am I try the computer. They are up and I can log in! Ok. I put in the date my parents want to travel. It is now August 8 and I put in August 10. It accepts. I put in the time: 9:30 am. I press ‘enter’. It tells me the time is invalid because it is after 1:30 am.

Huh? I try several times to no avail.

Ok. I will call tech support. Cannot find the number. I go through about 8 or 10 screens and searches and cannot find the number. So I call back the main line. Only 20 minutes to get through this time. We’re cooking. I ask to book the trip. Cannot because it is more than 24 hours ahead. Ok, then give me tech support. I get the number. I call. Busy. I redial, busy.

After a further 10 minutes I give up.

I’ll take a break for now and try on Tuesday to book Wednesday am. My father is rather anxious that I won’t get through in time. I’m worried I will kill someone at work today because I’m so frustrated. It’s these difficulties that make the human experience so rich and full.

So, Rob Ford, if you want to send the entire current Wheel-Trans office workers (the drivers seem nice) packing go ahead. But you have to make sure you re-hire unionized replacements. This is a valuable service. If only the people working there would remember why the service exists.

I believe in a strong and healthy civil service. We need to re-install a sense of pride in our public service. I suspect that as long as people like Ford refer to the entire bureaucracy as a gravy train the people who work there will respond in the worst possible way. And they are doing that. So while I started off by saying I am ready to relieve the entire bureaucratic infrastructure, what I really mean (when I am in a more thoughtful mood….ie: when I haven’t dealt with them in a while) is that I would like citizens and government employees to enter a social contract of mutual trust and respect. I respect civil servants and the work they have to do. And I am prepared to pay the taxes necessary to pay them well. But then I want them to work efficiently and with care and a level of professionalism. Right now we aren’t getting value and no one is happy.

August 2, 2011

Judaism, Zionism and the Left

As a progressive I have wondered why every other national liberation movement has found support among my peers and yet the national liberation movement of my people is often distained.

Given my background as a child of Holocaust survivors I struggle to understand elements of anti-Semitism.

Although secular I am profoundly Jewish in my world outlook. And while some Christians find that difficult to understand, my Jewish friends don’t at all.

What drives me most to write is the assumption by non Jewish, and some Jewish, friends that as a progressive I must by fact be opposed to everything Israeli or as a Jew blindly supportive of Israel. And since I must be opposed to all things Israeli, they can make any specious comment about Israel, support any anti-Israeli cause and often find common bedfellows in anti-Semites and I will understand.

I don’t understand and I won’t accept treating Jews and Jewish aspirations as different in kind and intent from other national groups or political entities. I will not accept the intellectual blinkers that often accompany the discussion of my people’s desires as compared to others. And I think there are some very dark underlying reasons why this often happens.

There are many nationalist/liberation/independence movements around the world, from Quebec nationalism to the IRA, from the Tamils to ETA. Most of them receive relatively unqualified support from the Left.

While there were historic wars of independence fought by Jews in Palestine since biblical times, only with the advent of Christianity did the issue become seriously ideological. Anti-Semitism is embedded in Christianity in many ways but the two most injurious ways might be the Jew as Christ-killer and the concept of Christianity as a supercessionist religion vis a vis Judaism.

Islam has issues with Judaism as well. Both religions struggled in their early days to supercede Judaism as the one true monotheistic faith and, as a result, sought to degrade Judaism theologically from the beginning. Judaism, having come first, has little to say about the other two monotheistic religions (as opposed to its strict antagonism toward paganism).

The point here is that as a result of these theocratic (and other) concerns anti-Semitism was born, not just as a national antagonism but an ideological one.

The Holocaust, which formed the final crucible in which the international community finally formally recognized the Jewish right to self determination, was only the culmination of two thousand years of prolonged oppression and attempts at extermination. From the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290, the Iberian Inquisition and expulsion from Spain and Portugal in 1492 and 1497 to the Chmeilnicki massacre of the 17th Century to the post 1948 flight of hundreds of thousands of Jews from Arab countries, the concerns of Jewish liberation have been urgent and profound. This might be contrasted with, for example, the struggle of an ethnicity such as the Quebecois for language rights within a democratic and tolerant Canada

The different nature of Jewish identity and nationalism is also confounding. Judaism is at once ethnic and religious. No one can doubt that there is a body of learning and tradition that defines a Jewish civilization. And yet almost 50% of Jewish Israelis (and, I would think a similar percentage of Jews in the Diaspora) consider themselves atheist… or at least see no reason to believe in a god.

So theism alone is not the binding factor. And yet, of course, the concept of religion is indeed central to Judaism. I would argue, though, that this is a concept based more on moral concerns than theistic ones.

Recent attempts in Israel to legislatively define it as a ‘Jewish’ state is raising concerns around the world. These concerns are, I think, valid. But they are no more troublesome than, say Egypt’s official name: The Arab Republic of Egypt or The Islamic Republic of Iran or numerous other examples. One of these designations gathers great international concern. The others don’t. Is this a double standard? I think so.

All nationalist movements have tendencies of concern. By its nature nationalism is exclusionist. We all know about ‘pure laine’ Quebecois. What about the IRA and Catholicism? These are very difficult issues and many more learned and intelligent people have written about them than myself.

Within nationalist movements there are conservative, more exclusionary tendencies and more liberal expansive and accepting tendencies. It behooves people of good will to struggle to make room for all ‘non members’ within their national struggle’s final outcomes.

With regard to Palestine (which by the way is considered by some to have been the preferred name for the Jewish provinces in the Roman Empire as a means of reducing Jewish recognition (re: Judea) in an attempt to suppress Jewish nationalism) there have been Jewish inhabitants of the area for about 3000 years. Jews were the majority population until the second Jewish uprising against the Romans which finally led to a massive massacre and expulsion. Nevertheless there was a significant Jewish population right up to the Crusades in the 13th Century. While a continuous Jewish community has always existed in Palestine, it remained a minority overall subsequently.

I think all this is important because opponents of Zionism characterize it as a European colonial movement of displacement of an indigenous Arab population. While there is no doubt that some Zionists are anti-Arab and exclusionary, most progressive Zionists believe that Israel, as the expression of Zionism, is an unfinished project that will only be fully achieved by the peaceful co-existence of Jews and their Arab neighbours in mutual respect and harmony. Of interest,  about 50% of the Jewish population of Israel are  Sephardic Jews, most of whom are what are often referred to as Arab Jews.

There is no doubt, however, that most Jews are Zionist if that expression means that Jews are entitled to a home of their own like any other nation. That simple statement is made only more urgent and real given the history of the people and the current prevalence of anti-semitism. It should be noted that according to reported statistics in the United States, as one example, there are many more instances of anti-semitic incidents than of anti-Muslim incidents annually.

From Biblical and Talmudic writings, to festival and traditional celebrations, Israel has been an important theme in the Jewish imagination. Once, on a trip to Portugal, I visited a small village family of Marano Jews. These were people who had pretended to be Christians since the Portuguese Inquisition at the end of the 15th Century. Yet in discussion they expressed their one day longing to see the land of Israel.

Had Israel existed at the time of the Holocaust, I can only guess how many Jews may have been saved. As the first President of Israel, Chaim Weizmann said in 1946, prior to the establishment of the State: ‘We feared too little and we hoped too much. We underestimated the bestiality of the enemy; we overestimated the humanity, the wisdom, the sense of justice of our friends’. It is for this reason that, while having many disagreements with Israeli government policy, I believe firmly in the importance and centrality of Israel to the Jewish people, even while firmly believing in the importance and contribution of the Diaspora to Jewish existence.

Now having said all this, many readers may be wondering why I would bother documenting all this. No one is questioning Isreal’s right to exist….well no one except for a few hundred million Muslims who believe that the existence of Israel is an insult to the Umma (the community of Muslims of which many consider Israel/Palestine as an integral part). And many on the Left are now talking about a bi-national state rather than a Jewish state, or repatriation of all the Palestinian refugees of 1948, essentially the same thing.

However, with a just peace proposal one can only hope that the majority of Arab governments can come to grips with a new reality.

My feelings about how some of this relates to anti-semitism is as complicated as the subject. But let me express some of my thoughts.

After the Holocaust there was a revulsion and guilt among Christians that this sort of event could ever have happened… and that the world stood by to let it happen. That guilt made the United Nations partition vote (Palestinian partition into  Jewish and Arab states) possible.

All was dandy. The Christian world had atoned for its sins against the Jews.

But something weird happened. Israel armed itself and fought off a couple of attempts at Arab invasion. Then it actually acquired Arab land by conquest. The Jewish nation of Israel was militarized and strong. Suddenly Jews were no longer victims. The guilt of Christian Europe was no longer necessary. But the crucible of the Holocaust had left a Jewish nation with little trust in international organizations and good words and kind thoughts. Israel had become a nation where Jews were unwilling to say please but rather felt a bit belligerent and defensive and aggressive and all kinds of complicated things. Something like what you might expect from a child who had been raised in an abusive environment. The fact that survivors are still alive makes the Holocaust a contemporary memory and it is of major psychological importance to Jews worldwide.

Well, the world was ok with the Jew as victim but hardly with the Jew as strong and armed. Yes, I do believe that some of the problem the world has with Israel is the old anti-semitic fear/loathing of a strong Jew.

The Left, unfortunately, is often just as simplistic as the Right. And so, post 1967 in particular, the rhetoric of a European colonizer of a Third World Culture (ie: Jew vs Arab) is an attractive and easy stereotype to many, never mind that early Jewish settlers struggled against British colonial rule.

The support of the Right for Israel also propels anti-Israel/anti-Zionist feelings. The Right has its own reasons for supporting Israel from neo-colonialism to a spiritual interpretation by fundamentalist Christians of the need for a resurrected Israel to preceed the second coming of Christ. And some Israeli politicians and Jewish organizations, feeling beleagured and willing to accept support from any source, willingly work along with both these tendencies, in complete rejection of traditional Zionism. Politics does make strange bedfellows.

But one really has to wonder why the United Nations spends such an inordinate amount of energy and passes so many resolutions in opposition to anything Israeli. Why is the Left so pre-occupied with Israel? Why is ‘the Jewish question’ still so much on the agenda?

Why do Western Leftists push for academic boycotts of what are often Leftist and pro-peace Israelis in an effort to isolate Israel from the mainstream of political life when those efforts far outweigh the population statistics, the physical urgency and the economic importance of the actors at play in this tragi-drama?

Is Israel Apartheid? Of course not by any definition of that word that doesn’t simultaneously insult South African blacks and Israeli Jews. But using that appellation effectively ends debate through vilification. To me it as if by characterizing Israelis/Jews as Nazi-like (which Apartheid is the new term for…and indeed one sees swatikas linking Israelis to Naziism at demonstrations) one can undo Western/Christian guilt for the Holocaust. As if to say ‘you see, they can be evil too, not just us’. It is a de-legitimization of Zionism and the State of Israel. The fact that some Jews support these slogans is an enigma of sorts to me. To be sure there have always been Uncle Toms in every culture. Whether it is the need to belong to a particular sub-culture or other cultural/psychological reasons I don’t know.

I honestly find it hard to separate the bitter vilification of all things Israeli from the ancient and worldwide historic feelings about Jews in general. Even as Leftists worry about anti-Muslim sentiments, acts of anti-Semitism continue to be more prevalent than anti-Muslin acts in the West.

As historian Colin Shinder put it:

‘The Zionist saga as understood by many Jews in Israel did not end with the establishment of the state in 1948…… Zionism will have completed its task only when it repairs the past and refurbishes the present… and when a just society arises in Israel.’

I say all of the above without getting into an analysis of rights and wrongs and mistakes made by both sides from the 20th Century to today. A discussion of the history of the Jewish re-settlement of Palestine and the post 1967 Occupation of the West Bank and Jewish settlements there are all beyond this article.

Yes, by all means, criticize Israel (as I do) and drive it towards a greater justice and toward peace (with, one hopes, a neighbour who will one day accept the concept of a Jewish state in its midst, not just make a cynical and practical deal for temporary redress). But that should not call into question the concept of a liberation movement of an historically oppressed people which grew out of an abyss unlike others. Israel is just over 60 years old. And it lives in a pretty tough neighbourhood. Give it a break.

Why can’t justice be expansive instead of simply au courant?

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