Thursday, May 20, 2004

Comforted By Corruption

Much of my media and activist energy in Hamilton, Ontario, had to do with local government. I wrote articles. I produced and hosted radio shows. I wrote policy briefs. I helped organize some and attended more protests and actions. I contributed to a major project focused on identifying and addressing barriers to the participation of racialized people in local political life. I was involved in other research and report writing about social issues in the city, and even if those did not have a focus specifically relevant to municipal government, they involved me having to understand, write about, and function in the local institutions (broadly understood) of and around the state.

In other words, through both deliberate choice and random chance, the local came to play a much larger role in my experien ce of the world than I ever expected. In the process of preparing myself for the move to LA, and then actually moving, I have gotten the sense that this has meant a greater attachment to place -- or perhaps a greater interlinking of identity and locality -- than many other (urban-dwelling young) people experience, outside the inevitable kinship and social links in which we are all emeshed.

It is, therefore, important to me to develop a connection to LA, and not treat it solely as a temporary storage location for my carcass and belongings. Sure, it is twenty times the size of Hamilton and we expect to be living here for one-fifth as long, but it is important to me that I avoid using temporariness as an excuse for detachment. (My first years in Hamilton were as an undergraduate university student, and I largely avoided and faintly disliked the city in which I was living. I also did an eight month stint in Ottawa, and though I really liked the city, I still remained somehow aloof from it. I don't want to repeat that.)

I am still in the very early stages of exploring what that means, obviously. To the extent that carlessness and adjusting to full-time childcare responsbilities allow, I'm trying to be in the city, to ride the transit system, to walk the streets. I intend to go to political events and actions, and learn about the local political cultures. I'm being deliberate about consumning local media: LA Indymedia, the LA Weekly and other free weekly papers, and, yes, even the LA Times. I don't feel that mainstream news media are worth my time and money unless I have a specific reason to be consuming them -- in this case, taking in as much information as I can about my new city is reason enough.

And I've reaped an unexpected benefit. Just from reading the local section of the Times on Sunday and yesterday, I have come to feel more at home.

Let me explain.

Hamilton has a reputation as being a corrupt sort of place. It has historically been a big Mafia city, and even today there are indications that such activity is present at some level. Local dissidents will occasionally trot out vague and unsubstantiated allegations that it is really "the boys" (as a former working-class Italian-Canadian colleague referred to the Mafia in the only occasion during our acquaintance when he referred to them at all) who run things. In my years of observing and reporting on the local power structure, I never saw any serious evidence of this. Of course, I never really looked that hard, either. Personally, I see a good analysis based on such concepts as hegemony, elite consensus, media filtering, and all the various manifestations of what bell hooks calls "imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy" to be more compelling in this regard than bad rip-offs of Sporanos plots.

However, political life in Hamilton is under the sway of unaccountable power, no doubt about that. The majority of city councillors are rabidly in favour of rapacious, unsustainable development and, what do you know, the single largest source of money for municipal election campaigns has traditionally been the development industry. Untendered contracts are signed with disturbing frequency, including one that privatized the operation of the city's sewer and water system and has proven absolutely disastrous. A construction company owned by the brother of a city councillor has done well from public contracts. The municipal government's push to build a particular piece of expressway in the face of fierce public opposition has involved many instances of deception, secrecy, and dirty tricks.

So what made me feel more at home in LA? Dedspite having read only two editions of the LA Times, I have already come across articles indicating my new home is really not so different from the one I have left behind. There is an ongoing federal investigation of some muncipal contracts. As well, there has been a sharp rise in city use of external legal counsel, and the firms who have been getting the biggest pieces of work also happen to have given large chunks of cash to the election coffers of the mayor and the attorney general of LA, who happen to be the people who have control over how much legal work is contracted out. The politicians in question, of course, insist there is no connection.

I may have to get used to all of the paper money being the same colour, but at least I can count on servility to money and power on the part of the local state.

Of course, one big difference between Hamilton and LA is that I actually read about some of this stuff in the local newspaper of record. Sure, the Times remains a mainstream newspaper, and I have no illusions about what that means, but it appears that media competition and/or popular struggle have opened at least some space for investigating and covering some of this stuff, a stark contrast to the complacency and largely uncritical or even absent coverage of analagous issues by the Hamilton Spectator.

No comments: