So far, I’ve stayed fairly quiet regarding Hamilton’s casino debate. This isn’t due to indifference – like most downtown, I have absolutely no desire to see a casino in our core, but I didn’t feel there was much I could add which others hadn’t. Opposition, so far, has been incredibly well organized, featuring an “everybody who is anybody” assortment of characters from downtown and the arts community, slick printed signs and a horrendous amount of legwork. Matt Jelly, Ned Nolan and others should be proud of the work they’ve done to put this all together, win or lose, they’ve fought a very good fight.

Hamilton does not need a casino. Hamilton needs to break the cycle of totally disregarding the social and environmental consequences of its projects then wondering why we have an “image problem”. Gambling fetishizes unearned wealth in a way which sickly mirrors capitalism, with the odds of success reversed. It thrives in the poorest communities not because they have money, but because there’s no other options. For many, it’s the only retirement plan they can imagine having access to. Cloak it in pseudo-socialist rhetoric about funding social programs if ya like, but we all know who the real winners will be, and PJ Mercanti isn’t exactly “poor”…

All of which brings me to the latest dust-up between our city’s leading opinionators. Yesterday, Matt Jelly put up a blog post calling Bill Kelly, Larry DiIanni and others on their “bullshit” for their attacks on the “CasiNO” activists and other “usual suspects”. I’m bringing this up both because these are absolutely standard responses to criticism from community members, and because, in this case, they’re hilariously misapplied.

Usual suspect. Rabblerouser. The Vocal Minority. Nimby. Obstructionists. The Anti-everything crowd. This is the dogwhistle language of civic engagement in Hamilton, Ontario.
The first time you speak up, as a citizen, you’re rightly considered a concerned citizen. But if you then continue to pay attention, attend meetings, write councillors regularly or make citizen delegations to City Council, you’re branded by one of the above terms, or worse. While I’ve gotten used to this treatment and it doesn’t bother me, I do worry about uninitiated citizens who may be confronting it for the first time.

The comments in question are pretty routine, both for Hamilton’s lackluster tradition of “engagement” and from individuals like Kelly and DiIanni in particular. They include standard classist invectives, implying that opponents are unemployed, broke and live in their parents’ basements. They equate grassroots groups (with social media!) and paid lobbyists (like DiIanni). And, as usual, they throw around a lot of language like “usual suspects” and “vocal minority” in order to marginalize the movement.

Contrast this picture with my earlier description of CasiNO activists, “everybody who is anybody”. I’ve seen their meetings – lawyers, businesspeople, trend-setters, musicians, etc it’s the kind of crowd that makes an anarchist squirm. If people want to characterize this crowd as unemployed, I’m going to have to ‘call bullshit’ as well.

One has to ask, of course, why unemployment would disqualify somebody from free speech rights, especially on an issue which so obviously relates to poverty? Why take anything said by such bigots seriously?

As for the allegation that a “vocal minority” has undue influence on city politics, that’s true. It includes radio hosts like Bill Kelly and lobbyists like Larry DiIanni who sell their experience on council to the highest bidder, and are paid to chime in on almost every issue. They don’t have to worry, as most of us do, about balancing their day job and political involvement, since it is their day job.

That must be nice.

I won’t deny, of course, that some members of the public have a lot more influence than others. Over the last few years, the ‘James North’ artist community and associated groups/individuals have become one of the most prominent voices in public discussions, and they’ve made their share of enemies (even among activists). Class plays an important role here, too, and we should always cast a critical eye on the kinds of privilege which allow some voices to speak louder than others.

This wouldn’t be the first issue where pundits and trolls have feigned blue-collar sentiment in the hopes of portraying urban activists as “different” and “alien” from “ordinary” Hamiltonians. This plays on a lot of very real frustrations felt by those who, thanks to class and geography, almost never get that kind of voice. It’s hard to take though criticisms seriously, though, when they come along with shouts of “get a job”.

If I had seen anything resembling authentic, grassroots, local organizing in favour of a Casino I might be more sympathetic. Instead I’ve seen a familiar parade of old-guard elites. Most of the “yes” side Thursday night seemingly hailed from Carmen’s, a suburban banquet centre owned by PJ Mercanti, who’s seeking to build the casino in question. Carmen’s serves as one of the main meeting places for Hamilton’s upper crust, a crowd which makes James North gallery owners look like Labourready temps in comparison. Public support seems to come mainly from the suburbs at this point, which itself says worlds. On this issue, at least, I wouldn’t characterize the “usual suspects” as a vocal minority.

What’s being said about Hamilton’s “dissidents” absolutely pales in comparison to what’s now being said about Idle No More or Quebec’s striking students last year, but it reflects many of same strategies. Central to these schemes is portraying “activists” as different from the general public and as an unwelcome, outside influence on the proper functioning of the political system. Not that long ago, the word “foreign” was a standard part of this picture, which shows pretty blatantly what kind of picture they’re trying to paint. Now terms like “special interest”, “NIMBY” or “extremist” are used. Implied, is a unified “normal” public which totally supports those now in power – that’s “democracy”, and it has to be protected from free speech.

Frankly, I’ll take “rabble rousers”, “obstructionists”, “radicals”, and “extremists” over “pundits”, “trolls” or “shills” any day.