Cities: Democracy’s Shadow Side

by Glen

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ONLY THREE MONTHS AGO, MOST OF US WERE TAKEN UP with the plight of over 200 girls abducted by Boko Haram militants in Nigeria. The number of celebrities, politicians, and average citizens who used the hashtag #Bringbackourgirls numbered in the hundreds of thousands – the majority of whom lived in cities around the world. Today very few us know what happened to those abducted, in part because what had become something of a brief fad couldn’t really compete with some dedicated criminals and militants who simply outlasted the outcry.

Just for clarity, here’s what we know now. The girls haven’t been returned, despite much talk and some action about securing them. Some sources now say their whereabouts is now totally unknown. And Boko Haram is now stronger and more belligerent than a few months ago, despite all the public outcry that once was. Perhaps tragically, we’ve moved on.

It remains a very difficult thing to maintain an interest in problems when our lives are so busy and transitional. Cities can easily add to that pace because of the speed at which they move and the crowding of issues that can get at us from so many venues.

In fact, some of our most entrenched human problems are intensified in our cities, more than anyplace else. There comes a point where realities like homelessness, poverty, mental health and addictions, pollution, and joblessness can no longer be hidden behind some institution or in some policy manual. In fact, cities often become the breeding grounds of despair and cynicism. And we just let it continue, despite the occasional awareness campaign, because … well, what can you do?

For many of us, cities come to mean home and work, friendship and prosperity. But for others it becomes the exact opposite of these things. For all their potential, cities can not only make such problems worse by ignoring them, but by permitting them to fester so that they multiply and become embedded in city life. It is a reality, as Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi noted, that, “Cities have inequality and wealth by definition: the reason they are cities is because people come from different parts of the income scale.” That is clearly true, but entrenched civic problems can often take on a different face – isolation, racism, depression, feelings of alienation, and feelings of helplessness.

It is often for this reason that candidates in civic elections fail to focus on such difficulties in their campaigns – there are no simple solutions to such things. And yet any good mayor comes to understand that cities also carry within them the capacities to combat and overcome such complications. No municipality can be successful if it doesn’t house such agents for change and a shrewd political leader will incorporate them into any plan to improve a city.

At the time of this writing, one black Muslim man, Mo Salih, who by all accounts has run an energetic and fully respectful effort, found himself the object of negative chicanery and personal attacks in the London civic campaign. Opponent’s signs were placed directly in front of his own, but such things sadly happen in campaigns by dubious organizers and volunteers. It was much worse than that, however, as his faith, colour, and country of origin all came in for some kind of innuendo. For a time he kept it respectfully to himself, but when the practice didn’t cease, he finally went public, as when he told the London Free Press:

“I didn’t want the youth — a young black Muslim boy or girl — thinking they’d face these kinds of things” in politics, he said. “In the unlikely event that I lose, I didn’t want them to think I lost because of my faith.”

This story reveals what all cities often attempt to conceal. A good candidate running for mayor should immediately be all over it, speaking out against such practices. The amount of support generated for Mo Salih has now become significant – a clear sign that a dynamic might exist to counter racism or innuendo and that could overpower such negative characteristics. That should be heartening for any good mayoralty candidate, for it represents the very mandate he or she could plumb in efforts to move the city along a more progressive path.

The task of restoring public faith in institutions, fellow citizens, and meaningful values might well be said to be one of the chief tasks of any elected official. As this recent case in London has revealed, a rather sinister action can result in an opposite and sometimes greater reaction that can put a city on a sounder footing. Often such moments are never capitalized upon because political leaders, often mayors, miss the opportunity.

The worst human traits are most often revealed in cities. The fact that campaigns can take place with little mention of such issues likely means that candidates are proving they aren’t up to the task of governing. Such negative influences exist to be tackled, overcome, and eventually minimalized as a city moves forward. If a candidate doesn’t have the courage or imagination to tackle the worst in our community, then it’s likely they’ll never bring out the best.