Book review: Libby Davies – Outside In (A Political Memoir) – 2019

Libby Davies is now 66. She was the NDP Member of Parliament for Vancouver East from 1997 to 2015, and during that time also served as House Leader of the NDP and Deputy Leader of the party. I admire her. Not only for how she has lived her life but also for what she lived her life for. Her contribution has been vast. The infamous Vancouver Downtown Eastside is the heart of her former riding. It is a chronic pit of misery fuelled by the despair of those who are trapped there and those in power who for decades have shown little more than indifference. I live not far from it, and have never had the misfortune to have to live in it. Her political memoir, Outside In, was published this year. It relates the thinking and actions of a social activist, and how to navigate the political system, with its male hegemony, to move towards and achieve progress. Presence in the community, and what it stands for, is what matters. Throughout human history, transformative activism to effect meaningful social change begins at the grassroots. It is not a process that begins at the top: that is the end, not the beginning. The process concerns not only the outcome desired but also, no matter how difficult to attain, how to fashion and develop trustworthy relationships with others. Gather your strength, because the creative energy and stamina needed to mobilize and sustain involvement and inclusion are prodigious. And heroic. She recounts her relations with Bruce Eriksen, Jack Layton, the residents of the Downtown Eastside, and with persons who understand that people in distress need care, support, and attention to retain their self-worth. That collaboration is required for progress, and the misplaced sense of personal importance is nothing more than its impediment. Women, she adds, are more pragmatic about success and failure than men, especially aged white men sentimental and protective of their privilege and prerogative, with their promotional inclination to accumulate wealth and the facilitation of its context. The difference is leadership through empowerment rather than power driven by male ego. Which is why gender parity, for starters, is essential and important. East Hastings Street, Downtown Eastside, Vancouver, 19 April 2018 (Photo: Hendrik Slegtenhorst) East Hastings Street, Downtown Eastside, Vancouver, 19 April 2018 (Photo: Hendrik Slegtenhorst) The bigger picture is needed to guide the small. A basic political truism she recognizes is that one must learn how to use and not evade institutions of power, even when you are the object of their oppression. She nonetheless contends that personal integrity, principle, and honesty are vital and that one should never love power for its own sake; otherwise, it is impossible to participate or engage in the political sphere without corrupting oneself. That elected officials, surrendering to the enmeshment of their immediate political environment, discard the constituents they are elected to support and serve; which is, of course, the priority that public service should hold above all others. Hence, the anger and cynicism directed at government and its politics as they recurrently fail the citizens they claim to represent. The typical dynamic that is a consequence of this abdication sees politicians raging about individual deteriorations, including drug and alcohol misuses, due to inadequate housing and services, and the grief and upheaval the lack of these induce, and then descend to the perpetual, often ideological, trickery of exploiting fear and ignorance, dividing those who are fearful, and then calling upon shallow solutions such as more law enforcement and more incarceration. And if this is insufficient, resort to a constancy of attacks upon personal integrity. Ideology ignores the actuality and realities of community. Powerlessness for those who trudge and stumble in the lower ranks of society is not their failure, but the failure of those in power. My own years of involvement in municipal government have taught me unmistakably that love of power is endemic and love of integrity and social purpose astonishingly rare. And that political exploitation by means of fear is so common that often it seems to be tolerable. Vancouver's West End and its Seawall. 31 January 2018. (Photo: Hendrik Slegtenhorst) Vancouver’s West End and its Seawall. 31 January 2018. (Photo: Hendrik Slegtenhorst) A second is that municipal politicians are the fulcrum of power in the creation of massive wealth through control of land; that is, by the use of zoning to override the public interest to the benefit of property developers. Decades of municipal councils in Vancouver have destroyed the quality of neighbourhoods, including the one I have the good fortune to live in, because they have forfeited the good of citizens for the enrichment of developers and corporations. Neoliberalism has made the ordinary needs of the ordinary people slavishly subordinate to trade agreements, the endless and pointless pursuit of profit and the tyranny of capital. Profit destroys social cohesion for the good of the community, and the constant flow of capital destroys the viability of affordable housing. The defeat of the killing of people and the destruction of their communities that comes from hate, misogyny, racism, and xenophobia, in forms both surreptitiously quiet and blatantly warring, is, she says, both possible and realistic. “When we work together, we have the power to change everything and anything.” I want to hope that she is right.