Wednesday, August 3, 2011

David (Margaret Atwood) vs Goliath (the Ford brothers) on Toronto's Libraries

From the Editorial, Globe and Mail, July 27, 2011
Put aside the question of whether or not Toronto Councillor and mayoral confidant Doug Ford knows what Margaret Atwood looks like or has read her books. What is shocking is his suggestion that a great literary icon should “go run in the next election and get democratically elected” if she is concerned about funding for libraries.

Ms. Atwood has an unquestioned right to stand for libraries. Every citizen does. As she says, “This is about what sort of city the people of Toronto want to live in.”

Presumably, they, like people in other Canadian cities, want a city that aspires to the best. And, in fact, Toronto’s public library system is among the best. Not only the best in Canada, but in North America.
Toronto’s system is the second largest, by number of branches, and the busiest by circulation, on the continent. New York City public libraries lent out 24 million volumes in 2010; Toronto’s lent out over 32 million. The system has innovated, offering music and e-book downloads, making Internet access widely available, delivering materials to local branches, and lending out cards that give free access to local museums.
Mr. Ford’s attack is ironic, because no public service puts democracy on display more than libraries. Toronto and other cities that have invested in them foster a learning and reading culture. How? By democratizing knowledge. And the value of the system is inseparable from its density. Yet Mr. Ford attacked that too, complaining about the number of libraries in his own ward.
The mayor, Rob Ford, has a brother, Doug, on city council. And the councillor commented that he would not recognize Ms Atwood if he met her on the street. That, by itself, without the additional, "go and get elected and then we will talk to her" idiocy demonstrates that the Philistines have taken over the henhouse in Toronto.
What the Globe editorial did not mention is that, while the circulation in Toronto libraries exceeds that of New York, the population using those libraries is about one third that of New York, depending on the number of boroughs or suburbs included in the calculation.
The Ford's represent an anti-intellectual, anti-arts, anti-culture slice of the demographic in Toronto that finds it both easy and politically effective (catering to their base) to trash libraries in their quest for cost-cutting in the city budget deliberations.
Or, could they even be engaged in "deliberations"? Did they not have such easy targets in mind prior to their election? Most likely.
Atwood, on the other hand, is a globally recognized author, poet and sometime social activitist (she was active in the "save the prison farms" issue in Kingston prior to the last federal election). When she quips that she is not "running for mayor yet," immediately there is a Facebook page "Atwood for Mayor" that springs up and there is more than a little legitimacy in the effort.
Whether or not she throws her hat into the ring for the next municipal election, she has both a razor-sharp mind, and a biting sarcastic wit that is evident in everything she writes, and in every interview she gives. The Ford brothers have no idea the kind of debate they would be in, should she throw her immense public reputation and even more profound intellectual and creative powers against them. Until now, this has been a mere skirmish, and no political blood has been spilled. But rest assured that if Margaret Atwood bares her knuckles and fully enters the fray to stop the pillage of Toronto libraries, it will be a national, if not an international story. And I'm betting on the libraries and Atwood at the end of the day.
There are too many reasons for Toronto to resist the scorched earth policy of the Ford's including two gigantic, world class universities with multiple campuses, a world class museum and science centre, vibrant music, opera, ballet and art gallery communities, global conventions of a variety of professional and academic associations and affiliations as well as many global issues. People from every country in the world live in Toronto, and people from every country visit Toronto. It is Canada's premier city, and its libraries are one of the many jewels in its crown.
Atwood's entry into the fray for their protection is an act of both courage and foresight, of which only a person of her stature and timbre is both capable and worthy.
This is not a class war, as the Ford's would like to make it. This is a conflict between visions of a contemporary, complex and inspiring metropolis in the twenty-first century. And the library is at the heart of the vision, on both sides of the political aisle.
Let there be no confusion as to which side of the aisle we are on. The Ford's undoubtedly have never read even one of Ms Atwood's several manuscripts, and they are not likely to start now. Pity!
Go, Ms Atwood, Go!

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