Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Today's City Journal column

Clive Doucet is a man of his time and place.
He’s the eco-friendly city councilor representing the trendy Glebe and Ottawa South neighbourhoods. He’s also a poet of some reputation, and his skills in that regard are outside my expertise.
And Doucet’s now a published urban thinker. His latest book, Urban Meltdown, is an attempt to tackle the problems facing the North American city.
When Doucet talks about cars, the costs of roads, and the value of downtown neighbourhoods, he’s on fairly solid ground. I don’t agree with Doucet that light rail and streetcars are much of an answer to urban problems, but I’m willing to concede the point that traffic and expressways are neighbourhood killers. Unlike Doucet, though, I’d add a few more, like poverty, large-scale public housing (as opposed to mixed), taxes and the shift of political power and public spending from downtowns to suburbs.
Quite a few times, Doucet reminds us that he’s a “poet” and a “poet-politician”. Then he comes out with a clunker like this:
“If you are still unconvinced that the electoral donations by private interests don’t control how cities grow and determine the policies of national governments, then I’ve got some shares for a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.”
Getting past the tortured syntax and the utterly shopworn cliché, the sentence isn’t even true. The donations don’t control anything. The people who make the donations do.
Most of the mistakes in the book come from sloppy thinking and lack of real research. Parts dealing with some very important and topical issues were obviously slapped down on paper without the benefit of a second read-over. The book is riddled with punctuation errors and there’s a major writing flaw on Doucet’s bio page.
But I’m left wondering what to think when I see things that are obvious misrepresentations. For example, when Doucet talks about the Harper government’s five policy priorities, he removes the plank on military funding and substitutes it with “Child Care: No National Daycare.
Harper didn’t run on an anti-daycare plank. No political party would. In fact, lame as it was, he did promise $100 per child under six, and he delivered.
Doucet hits bottom, though, when he talks about history and world politics. He gives a little sermon on the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 and then outbreak of World War I. Doucet appears to have no concept of historical context, that a “trigger” is not a “cause”. He also, rather frighteningly, blames the Treaty of Versailles for the subsequent war and its horrors, a line of argument first put forward by the Nazis and, unfortunately, repeated by every lame high school history teacher since then.
Doucet writes about living through the FLQ “bombings” in Montreal in 1970. There weren’t any bombings during the October Crisis. Later, when he talks about his life in the 1960s and in Montreal during the October Crisis, he’s always a spectator, and a rather uninformed one at that.
Then there are the niggling little errors. Most of them are trivial, but when you see them, page after page, they add up. For example, Honorius was not the last Roman emperor, and Doucet’s version of the fall of Rome is simply wrong.
On modern history and politics, he’s just as bad. Here’s a gem, this one from p. 30:
“Two planes flying into large buildings in one city should not have thrown North American society into catalytic shock. Some 350 million people live in North America and less than 3,000 people were killed in New York. The effect should have been minimal.”
Doucet doesn’t get it. It wasn’t about the numbers of dead, the value of the buildings, or the lost businesses. It was about being attacked, and not knowing when the next attack would come, or what form it would take.
(And Doucet doesn’t bother mentioning the attack on the Pentagon, and the second, thwarted attack of Flight 93.)
Here’s another beauty, one that I’m glad my name’s not on:
“I have no idea what the moment was that triggered the series of events that resulted in four planes loaded with high-octane fuel being flown towards four buildings, but I am sure there was a single moment when it all began.”
Again, there’s no responsibility. The planes were not hijacked. They were “flown toward” some buildings by persons unknown for reasons unknown. And there were no people – passengers or hijackers – inside, just a load of high octane fuel.
But turn to pages with local issues, and the guy starts to make sense.When he’s talking about Ottawa urban issues, Doucet shows intellectual depth that’s missing from almost all of his talk on world politics.
For example, Doucet trashes the provincial government decision to close the Grace Hospital and move its services to the Civic and the General. The Grace was a good, small hospital that served its neighbourhood well and had one of the best natal care units in town.
Now, it’s been demolished and re-built as a senior’s residence. The care that cost $349 at the Grace is now sold by the Ottawa Hospital for $849.
(At least, I hope those numbers are right, since Doucet did get the latter hospital’s name wrong.)
And he’s right about the need to draw developers downtown to rehabilitate, renovate and build on vacant land, rather than have them go to the suburbs to carve up corn fields into 50-ft. lots.
This is the only book I’ve ever read where the author thanks the publishers who turned him down. Some very good publishers took a pass on the book, and it was issued by a house called New Society Publishers, headquartered on one of the oh-so-chic, supposedly eco-friendly gulf islands in BC.
He doesn’t thank an editor. I think I know why.


Anonymous said...

Your prose is unimpressive. Sorry.

Ottawa Watch said...

OK. Ya get what ya pay for. See ya.