Occupiers come up against the status quo
In Charles Dickens’ book Great Expectations its central character Pip claims that “there is nothing so finely perceived and finely felt, as injustice.” Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen puts a finer point on injustice arguing that people don’t expect perfect justice, simply that we act to “remove clear injustices.”
For all those fretting about what exactly the Occupiers want, I suggest that at its root Occupy is about the removal of clear injustices. All the more distressing and disappointing then is the knee-jerk response to Occupy Calgary on the part of our leaders and opinion-makers. Three examples from print media, local radio and city hall illustrate the point.
The first is the repeated assertion of Deborah Yedlin in her regular CBC Radio business column that perhaps the New York Occupiers have a legitimate grievance but here in Calgary, the booming petro-state, things are fine. Yedlin and her circle have been living too long in the rarified air of the oil and gas industry bubble of privilege. On the ground, in the shelters, at food banks, and in the poor households and neighbourhoods of Calgary, things are much different. Alberta can now boast the lowest minimum wage in Canada — a single parent with two kids would have to work 83 hours a week just to reach the poverty line; a recent report found that disparity across neighbourhoods is growing faster in Calgary than any other Canadian city; the top ten per cent of Calgarians earn 37 times what the bottom ten per cent earns — an income gap that has been growing for 30 years and is now at levels not seen since the great depression; 4,000 Calgarians, many of them children, the working poor or those battling mental illness, are homeless — up from 450 in the early 1990s; and food bank usage is at historic high levels. This is what injustice looks like.
Then there is the response of media pundit Licia Corbella. Rather than use her column to probe these issues, she chooses instead to demonize the Occupiers in true shoot-the-messenger style. In an October 19 column, Corbella shows no compassion, no empathy, no attempt at dialogue — her visit to the camp is nothing more than trolling for mud to sling.
Corbella smugly reports that the camp is “one of the funniest things I’ve witnessed in months,” where the “inarticulateness is spectacular,” where “you can cut the phoniness with a knife” and “barely literate” protesters engage in “a lot of bellyaching.” “spouting their nonsense.” Corbella contrasts the Occupiers with the Famous Five immortalized at Olympic Plaza.
Well, go back to the early 1900s, the days of the Famous Five, and you will find the same status quo media treatment of the courageous women’s rights activists — a time when no “woman, idiot, lunatic or criminal” was eligible to vote. In magazines such as Saturday Night, “plainly abnormal women” protesting their legal status as non-persons were described as an “ungrateful menace,” talking “fantastic and hysterical bunkum,” and “suffering from much mental disorder, hysteria and moral deficiency” with their supporters labelled as “cranks.” The truth is then, as now, don’t expect change or even sympathy from the comfortable status quo.
In a follow-up column, Corbella enlists Jack Mintz, “tax expert,” to debunk the Occupiers claims. In fact her expert is a perfect illustration of the Occupier grievances. I am sure Mr. Mintz is an accomplished economist, but surely, in the interests of transparent and informed debate, the fact that he sits on the board of directors of Imperial Oil (average board compensation $178,000) and Brookfield Asset Management should have been disclosed by Ms. Corbella. I intend no personal disparagement of Mr. Mintz, but anyone who has seen the documentary Inside Job will know that there is a systematic problem with the cosy relationship between economists in the academy and corporate interests. The Occupiers may not be able to debate the finer points of derivatives and tax law but they know injustice when they see it.
Finally, in her public announcements, the ever-entertaining Alderman Diane Colley-Urquart displays a disdain for anyone who doesn’t fit her description of a legitimate citizen. Waving a trumped up poll on her personal website, she is prepared to stamp out the rights and freedoms of some Calgarians with a show of hands from other Calgarians, who have maybe never even set foot on the Plaza to see for themselves what is happening.
The alderman compares talking to the protesters to “negotiating with hijackers.” She seems to view access to the public realm as a privilege rather than a right — one requiring the “filling out of permits.” The alderman agitates for a sanitized version of the public realm where only bake sales and idle chatter is allowed, political expression and debate is considered uncouth and the right to speak is given and taken away at the whim of authorities.
For activists such as Jane Jacobs, the public realm was the most sacred element of a city, where citizens mingle, bump into each other, debate issues of the day and air their differences. Elaine Silverman, writing in The Canadian Historical Review, wrote that the Famous Five in effect “agitated for the public realm” where up to then women were expected to be absent. Amartya Sen in A Theory of Justice argues that justice requires robust democracy where citizens deliberate, exchange views and publicly debate political questions. Or if you prefer in the words of Mayor Nenshi, politics in full sentences.
In The-Emperor-Has-No-Cloths fashion Yedlin, Corbella and Colley-Urquart seem to think their role is crowd control where any unruly little boys pointing out the obvious get shouted down so the parade can roll blissfully along.
Occupiers are simply saying the status quo is patently unfair — and we need to talk about that out in the open, not in the back rooms, behind the closed doors of the rich and powerful. We should applaud the Occupiers for the initiative they have taken, but beyond the recognition of blatant injustice analysis becomes harder. As local author Chris Turner ably argues in The Leap, the climate crisis, the financial crisis, the tar sands, peak oil, ecological collapse and injustice are all part of the same systemic dead end, and a serious public debate about what to do about it is long overdue.
The mayor refers to city hall as Calgary’s living room. That makes the plaza our front lawn, so what better place to come together to engage our fellow citizens on how to remove clear injustice.
Mayor Nenshi is a champion of civic engagement and in the plaza there are enthusiastic citizens yearning for engagement — so much so they are willing to camp out and endure the cold and the scorn of the comfortable status quo. Come on Calgarians, don’t shoot the messenger. Come down to the cities front lawn, bring your barbeques and join in the conversation. Be part of the solution.