2019, Books, Non-Fiction

Teardown: Rebuilding Democracy from the Ground Up (2019, Dave Meslin)

Full disclosure: I live in Toronto. I have met the author, Dave Meslin, at least once and possibly up to three times. Moreover, I used to volunteer for a group he founded (but no longer ran when I was a volunteer). So that both makes me likely biased in favour of his ideas and part of his ideal audience. The real test of his ideas, I should think, is a reader from a different city in Canada who has never heard of Meslin and who is skeptical of democratic reform. Anyway, I just wanted to mention that.

This is, for the most part, and excellent survey of potential practical democratic reforms for Canada – and, potentially, other countries – which could help fix the various issues with our system (low participation, distrust of politicians, growing inequality, etc). One of the things that is most impressive about this book is how practical every idea is, and how Meslin nearly always has a real world example of a success for the idea. It’s the practicality – the potential for real world success – which is most inspiring. Reading his ideas, I think some of them -perhaps many of them – could conceivably be accomplished in my lifetime. Years ago, I wrote a book about changing Canadian government, and Meslin’s book makes mine look so impractical it’s embarrassing. It’s Meslin’s multiple decade long interaction with various governments in Canada that makes his ideas so feasible. And these ideas make the book really worth reading.

Where he loses me is when he gets to one of his bete noires, billboards. I get that Meslin is passionate about eliminating corporate advertising from public spaces, but this is not the book for it. The link between eliminating advertising and improving democracy is tenuous – and Meslin doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to convince you of the link because he seems to think it’s somewhat self-evident – but even if there is a good case for the idea, I don’t think it belongs in Chapter 8, before at least one of the more important chapters, the one on the idea that we need to end single-leader politics, as its placement undermines the flow of the book. (If there is a case to be made, I think it’s probably this: Circumstances influence human behaviour. A public space in which only citizens create public art would, in theory, help normalize participation in public spaces which, in theory, could lead those people to want to participate in other aspects of public life. As I said, it’s tenuous.)

But my bigger problem with the chapter is that he loses me, someone who has met him personally and who already supports at least one of these reforms – and has spent time volunteering to try to get that reform enacted – what is some other Canadian, in a city that is not Toronto, going to think about the billboard chapter? Personally, I think they’ll believe he’s one of these ridiculous downtown Toronto activists who are left of left and don’t understand how things “really work”. This chapter reminds me so much of so many activists I’ve met or listened to or read in my life – they have a hard time distinguishing between the stuff they can sell to those who don’t agree with them and those they absolutely cannot sell to those who disagree with them because the idea will get them dismissed. For me, that’s what this chapter on billboards is – it’s going to strike many Canadians as batshit crazy and it will allow them to write off the entire rest of the book, which would be a huge shame. I sincerely hope I am wrong about this.

And I hope so because otherwise the book is mostly wonderful, and I want to say it’s mandatory reading for every Canadian. Because these ideas are not only mostly very good, but they are mostly attainable, if we’d all get off our asses. And I sincerely believe that if our country enacted even a plurality of these reforms – see what I did there? – that we would have a better country, not just for people who live in downtown Toronto, but for every one of us.

So I hope you’ll read it. I hope you won’t react as negatively as I did to Chapter 8, and I hope you too will become more engaged in trying to make Canada better.


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