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  • Community is perishable

    Gene Miller

    And somebody should definitely do something about this sometime.


    I’M GREATLY ATTRACTED TO “imperishable,” a word loaded with dimension, promise, futurity…the next best thing to a 100-lifetime written guarantee. Of course, the word deserves an entry in the Book of Unintended Paradoxes, since neither the progress of ends nor the end of ends is known. Everything breaks, eventually, so it takes manic optimism to conceive a word that so bravely contradicts logic and the facts of life, and whose opposing truth is “here today, gone tomorrow.”

    I recently brushed against the word reading a reminiscence of Romanian keyboard phenomenon Dinu Lipatti who died in 1950, at age 37, from a burst abscess in his lung caused by then-always-fatal Hodgkin’s Disease.

    His last concert performance included the 14 Chopin Waltzes (his legendary Chopin is treasured by music-lovers). He finished 13 of the demanding works, but was drained by his exertions and could not summon the energy to play the fourteenth. He ended the recital not by abruptly rushing from the stage but by heroically, stoically substituting Bach’s less taxing Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring:

    Lipatti’s illness crushed his defenses and he expired 12 weeks after this recital. The critics call his Chopin “imperishable” to honour his pianism and memorialize his short life.

    Imperishable, Mr Lipatti. It wasn’t for nothing; it was forever.

    I remember an early, if less hallowed, lesson in such matters when, as a kid, wide-eyed and shocked, I witnessed my grandfather, Mendel, throw objects within reach—food items, tableware, bric-a-brac—at other adults who, daring to talk nearby, distracted his rapt communion with the New York Times-owned classical music radio station WQXR. At other times, he would pace the parquet floor of his Bronx Park East apartment and madly gesticulate like a man receiving God, lecturing me that Vladimir Horowitz was incomparable, simply the greatest pianist ever, or that Arturo Toscanini was the finest conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and that Toscanini’s successor, John Barbirolli, was “just a woodchopper.” His certainty was fortified, made unassailable, by his passion, and I was too young then to understand that every belief system begins as an opinion.

    My current interest in imperishability, though, isn’t rooted in story or nostalgia. No, this is clear-eyed, reasoned worry about the tenure of the future, significantly intensified by the election of a psychopathic narcissist-liar as US president, and his selection of the likes of climate change-denying Scott “Jesus told me so” Pruitt to run the Environmental Protection Agency; which invites anthropologist and systems theorist Gregory Bateson’s famous remark in Steps to an Ecology of Mind: “The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think.”

    A sentiment ominously echoed in Charles Bowden’s Desierto, Memories of the Future: “I don’t think silence lends protection any longer. I don’t think anything lends protection any longer. And I’m not sure that protection is as important as knowledge at this date. It is time to know because soon it may be too late to learn. All space is now temporary as the vise grip of our appetites tightens against it.”

    For me, it’s impossible to see Trump’s ascendancy as anything but a perverse re-expression of the jagged mess and residue of previously unmanaged, or unsuccessfully managed, social projects—grand-scale failures of equality, security, comity, well-being—coming back to haunt America…and all the rest of us.

    Or maybe history, without explanation, just deals the ace of spades every so often.

    And locally in the letters section of the daily newspaper: “I took family Downtown to do our annual [Christmas] walk. I was let down. The Downtown experience has decayed. There was an unbelievable number of invasive and aggressive panhandlers, open smoking of dope and injecting, two fights, and sidewalks being taken up with sleeping bags, loitering and camping. I am tired, absolutely tired, that our city is left to this zombie apocalypse...we need to get our streets back.”
    While you may want to parse these perceptions or disagree entirely with the writer’s sentiments, the condition he describes, in its entirety, remains our local unsuccessfully-managed social project.

    Look, leaving moral resonances or questions of social obligation aside, the sheer economic costs of homelessness and empty-pocketed poverty—homeless management, addiction management, health care and emergency response services, social services, poverty and addiction-driven crime, policing, legal and court services, Downtown business impacts, property value impacts within the war-zone parts of Downtown and nearby halo areas—are mountainous. These are the costs passed on to the rest of us: the current and very real price tag of an unsuccessful social response. It’s an irony and an economic indictment that they vastly outweigh the costs of housing provision and effective social management.

    There is also another potent and very real, if un-priceable, cost: the social poisoning of our civic community, damage to its self-image. Reading local newspapers these days can feel like reading a report from the front: fentanyl deaths, a seeming epidemic of small-time criminality and violence, a sense of diminished safety, and a pernicious eating away at Victoria’s identity, social coherence and sense of mission.

    And while I won’t beat it to death, yes, homelessness and soul-crushing poverty are our community’s shame. I mean, what else does the outraged letter-writer imagine he’s really describing when he demands a better response—the need for more enforcement?

    We are fond of intoning locally (as the sun sets on this vestige of the British Empire), somebody should definitely do something about this sometime. Harumph!

    As in, our mayor.

    What I sense about Victoria’s Mayor Lisa Helps is that she journeys between two shores of thought in her ideas about how to act toward certain civic challenges: that is, between institutional responses and community responses, between use of the formal, structural tools of government and an abstracted desire (or hope) for something more people-based, energetic and publicly engaging. It’s the poorest of analogies, but I mean the difference between conventional garbage pickup and recycling. Yes, both are social responses, but they start from different places and lead to different outcomes. Obviously, edict is more politically legible and efficient, social engagement more transformative but more challenging to pull off.

    Revisiting that outraged Downtown visitor’s letter, note how emotional hyperbole like “Our city is left to this zombie apocalypse” and “we need to get our city back,” in spite of “our” and “we,” really means “You.” “You: do whatever it takes to get this human crud off Downtown streets.”

    People feel stymied, powerless, on thin ice. Community is a slipping value, its meaning and practices abstracted in these times. We’re between what we were and what we will be, and it’s not a stable or comfortable place. The very grounds for well-being and social utility are made uncertain as we flounder through a time of massive structural and cultural change. Faced with threats large and small, real and imaginary, folks want to hunker down, retreat to communities of protection, to friends, to family, to the like-minded—all perfect prerequisites, by the way, for the installation of a big-daddy/soft dictator.

    Charles Eisenstein, author and speaker, writes: “We are exiting an old story that explained to us the way of the world and our place in it. We are entering a space between stories.” We are now in a phase favouring various temporary and “retrograde versions of a new story.”

    This is the definition of social crisis.

    Pope Francis spoke recently: “Crisis provokes fear. After the crisis of 1930, Germany is broken, it needs to get up, to find its identity, it needs a leader, someone capable of restoring its character, and there is a young man named Adolf Hitler who says: ‘I can, I can.’”

    Maria Konnikova, writing in Politico about America’s new “flagrant liar-in-chief,” postulates: “When we are in an environment headed by someone who lies so often, something frightening happens: We stop reacting to the liar as a liar. His lying becomes normalized. Trump is creating a highly politicized landscape where everyone is on the defensive: You’re either for me, or against me; if you win, I lose.”

    So, thinking of our Downtown “zombie apocalypse,” let me, in all seriousness, pose a question bracketed by the quotes above: Are you ready for the future? Readily available news stories predict that by 2030, robotics and AI will have eliminated 50 percent of jobs everywhere, rendering a lot of men and women jobless and with too much time on their hands.

    2030—that’s 14 years from now. Think of your age and add 14. Putting aside whistle-in-the-dark fantasies of a universal basic income, or the fiction of the newly “free-time-endowed” turning to environmental restoration, or personal growth, or other kumbayah social initiatives, the social management challenges are going to be vast and overwhelming, making the zombie apocalypse of 2017 seem like the good old days.

    In “How Do Systems Get Unstuck?” Rex Weyler, Canadian-American journalist and co-founder of Greenpeace International, notes: “a real, living system—including a society at risk—must keep its detection tools sharp and functioning.”

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Somebody should do something about all of this sometime. Harumph.

    Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an affordable housing concept and, with partner Rob Abbott, has launched the website FUTURETENSE: Robotics, AI, and the Future of Work.

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    Gene Miller’s rambling article “Community is Perishable” seems incoherent to me; his commentary on the declining phase of urban life lacked both substance and analysis. Without getting into heavy-duty philosophy, I think most can agree that the space and time continuum is a paradox, reflecting both a temporal and eternal state, a limited and fathomless quality.


    It seems to me that we’re living in a homo-sapien centered world—a modern technological age where there exist no limits to “growth” or “progress.” “Might makes right,” and the rule of law claims that “the rich are winners and entitled to get richer, whereas the poor are losers and deserve to become undeniably poorer.”


    Cities, hubs of humanity, are designed to facilitate economic production and distribution by providing a range of public and private services to inhabitants:  jobs, housing, education, health care, transportation, justice, urban support and government services.


    The landscape is filled with settlements of all sizes, shapes, and structures. A precious few have survived for centuries with little change in form or function. Many have been decimated in wars or damaged as a result of natural disasters. Others serve a time-limited or single-industry purpose. When their environment becomes soiled or unable to serve their masters profitably, they are abandoned.


    Although the urban community as phenomenon has evolved differently over the globe, it survives the shifting tides of its life. It’s safe to say that not all tides lift all boats at the same time in each place. Some benefit from the rising tide—in protected harbours, where boats adapt to ebb and flow. Still others eschew the need to plan ahead and become overwhelmed, causing devastating consequences during the inevitable storms of change.


    To suggest that our City, unlike other man-made agglomerations around the planet, should be immune to problems of poverty, pain, and social turmoil—sounds naïve, like wishful thinking. If Victoria resembles a “zombie apocalypse,” that “we need to get our streets back,” it begs the question, what should be done? Would placing an authoritarian at the helm with a few hired henchmen to eradicate vermin and vagrants ensure a happy-ever-after life in paradise?


    Cities are not consumer products. Cities are not stamped with ‘best before dates” in order to be flogged to well-heeled tourists. Neither do they come with money-back guarantees demanded by affluent baby-boomers who purchase plots in downtown glass towers as a real estate investment to rent out on Airbnb. Yes, hotel room nights are perishable products, which is why they’re popular with the ‘home-sharing’ crowd who adore the fact they’re unregulated and untaxed money-machines.
    On the other hand, cities exist as complex living environments, home to students, young families, and working people as much as a place to gather for vulnerable and marginalized members of society, those with physical ailments and mental illness, those with no roof over their heads.


    No ticket to success is refundable should the urban experience not deliver anticipated consumer results or outcomes identified in the Official Community Plan. Risks and rewards are part of the community building-process. Anyone who tells you he or she can guarantee the outcome knows the odds and has rigged the game. So before you buy into the fairy tale of unintended consequences, ask what your “winning” ticket will really cost you.


    What’s the Mayor’s 21st century vision of Victoria? An exclusive enclave for wealthy home-owners and tourists flush with cash. Her recipe for success obliges us to ask—what really matters, who truly counts, and what is the full cost of building this playland for people of privilege? Is Victoria a diverse and inclusive place that recognizes, sustains and protects all members of society? Or is that just a figment of my imagination? Does this new picture of Victoria and its narrative include me? Do the actions and decisions of Mayor and Council advance the interests of only the chosen few—at the expense of the many?


    Every citizen has a right to participate actively in creating a common vision of the City, and contribute to turning a worthwhile dream into reality. It is up to us to think critically about key issues, not only what will be in the best interests of our present generation and our planet, but also what kind of legacy we leave the next generation. Our civic duty is to hold each other to account as much as we hold to account those whom we elect to govern our City. Unless we act with dignity and regard for each other, and take responsibility for our part in harming as well as healing our environment, we cannot ask others to do what we are unwilling to do for ourselves.


    It’s easy to blame a panhandler for disturbing one’s peace of mind while strolling down the street. But, before calling for a new government of billionaires, bullies, and blowhards to demand Victoria streets be paved in gold—without buskers or brouhaha—ask what premium you’re prepared to pay for the privilege. Remember. Every Faustian bargain comes with an expensive, and often unpalatable, price-tag.


    You don’t like the suffocating strings attached?  Harumph! Shame on you!


    Victoria Adams
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    Thanks, Victoria Adams, for an entertaining and energetic response to my column, but if your intellectual excursion is intended as a counter-argument, if it takes issue with what I’ve written, instead of just being a riff of its own, I’m at a loss to understand your points.

    In a lengthy, almost-Darwinian (and hopefully ironic) narrative, you go on about the rich and powerful setting the rules for urban development and appear, at one or more points, to paint a picture of our mayor, Lisa Helps, as the tool of such interests, eager to sanitize Victoria’s streets, or at least complicit with that objective. Your words: “What’s the Mayor’s 21st century vision of Victoria? An exclusive enclave for wealthy home-owners and tourists flush with cash.”

    Helps, of course, is nothing of the sort. She deservedly celebrates the triumph of a new, emergent, thousands-strong downtown residential population (just count the development sites!) which will invigorate (read: save) downtown’s shops and services, but also communicates (and practices) nothing but concern and care for the street population and its challenges and hardships. She’s a tireless advocate.

    Ditto this column, which advocates for a greater and more successful response to the basic needs of the homeless and rootless. It’s my read of social history that such problems, if left to grow, do so at broader society’s peril—a point that I thought I made explicit when I wrote: “Look, leaving moral resonances or questions of social obligation aside, the sheer economic costs of homelessness and empty-pocketed poverty...are mountainous;” and “There is also another potent and very real, if un-priceable, cost: the social poisoning of our civic community...a pernicious eating away at Victoria’s identity, social coherence and sense of mission;” and “Yes, homelessness and soul-crushing poverty are our community’s shame.”

    I’m not trying to suggest that Victoria, in your words “should be immune to problems of poverty, pain and social turmoil.” We’re a city, this is life. I’m simply proposing that we can do a better, more effective job of alleviating poverty, pain and social turmoil—not to sanitize the city, but to humanize it.

    Please, re-read my column (less reactively and judgmentally), take in its values and sensibilities, and give me a call. Coffee’s on me.

    Gene Miller, 250-514-2525

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