City workers dismantle the encampment at Trinity Bellwoods Park. Image: Paul Salvatori/Used with Permission

There is an esthetic dimension to the clear out of the small encampment at Trinity Bellwoods Park this week — versus medical and other rationales we heard for that massive, military-style exercise. I mean esthetic in the sense of having to do with the sensual and sensory. With the senses.

You won’t hear that from Mayor John Tory or other officials. You have to turn to some of those getting tossed. One said, “I would rather go live under a bridge, or wherever it is that they’re not going to see me much. I understand, people pay millions of dollars for nice lavish condos that look over the park here and I’m doing it for free…you want me to leave? Fine, I’ll leave, I get it.”

He’s speculating about sensory reactions of those looking on: specifically to what they saw. In fact, I wish there’d been more interviews with people living nearby or watching onscreen about how they felt, rather than with “campers.”

There’s a splotchy, unsettling literature on ways that the better-off feel about outsiders and have-nots in terms of their visceral responses. George Orwell wrote in his 1937 book The Road To Wigan Pier that the “real secret” of class divisions lay in “four frightful words…The lower classes smell.” He called it an “impassable barrier” because many deep differences can be bridged, “but physical repulsion cannot.” Orwell was fascinated by smells; there’s even a recent book about it called Orwell’s Nose.

Mao Zedong (to shift gears) said in an aside to the 1942 Yenan Forum on Literature and Art that as a student, he abhorred physical work and felt workers and peasants were “dirty.” He would never consider putting on their clothes. But he gradually learned they were “cleaner” than intellectuals, “though their hands were soiled and their feet smeared with cow-dung.” It’s not his analysis I’m emphasizing; it’s how rare it is to explicitly reference sensory reactions.

Now take the Oscar-winning film Parasite. The young rich guy sniffs at his driver, the dad of the crafty deprived family who work for him. It’s his class sense, literally. In the final, over-the-top scene, when he sniffs again in disgust at the crazed killer, the dad stabs him in a wild reaction to his reaction.

It’s not that “they” don’t want “them” living that way. It’s that they don’t want to see, hear or smell them living that way. So back to the bridges it is.

They’re perfectly willing to pay the costs of hotel rooms, but that’s the point, at least in part: get them out of sight, of earshot, of sensory range.

I don’t mean to equate Orwell’s working class or Mao’s peasantry with two dozen homeless at Trinity Bellwoods. In fact, the park serves a special purpose in Toronto. Those few homeless deflect attention from the massive affordable housing issue here, affecting vast numbers, especially the young. So you spend relentlessly on a small group of people camped in a park to show you’re dealing with housing, dammit, and willing to pay what it takes. They become proxies, and the discussion veers off into minutiae about their safety, their needles, etc.

It becomes a version of the truism that the real test of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable. Sure it does. But the real real test of a society is far more how it treats its underserved demographics, while continuing to privilege the privileged. If you can sidetrack and avoid that debate with a sideshow, it hardly matters if you come out as the hero or the villain.

On vaccine hesitancy. The federal government has a video that boldly takes this on. It begins skeptically, “How were COVID-19 vaccines developed so quickly?” But it gives a bad answer to that good question: they “were developed quickly without skipping any safety steps thanks to advances in science, international collaboration and increased funding.”

How’s that for bureaucratic downtalking? What about instead: Because in the past most diseases requiring vaccines were in the poor world and didn’t have high profit potential. COVID, however, offered a profit bonanza — plus public subsidies. Thus incentivized, Big Pharma solved the problems fast. That’s credible, direct and takes the skepticism seriously. Outta my way, say the skeptics, gimme one.

Rick Salutin writes about current affairs and politics. This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Image credit: Paul Salvatori/Used with Permission


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.