Sorry for the lack of activity around here the last few days. “Would you please stop telling the whole internet when you’re going to be out of town? It’s foolish,” my friends tell me, and they’re probably right. But now I’m back, and the truth can be told: We were in Toronto, the last KWF trip of the year. We were there for fact-finding, eye-opening and, as always when KWF travels, many toasts to international friendship.
Yes, even with Canada. Because it turns out — it really is a different country! Not America Junior, as Homer Simpson calls it. (For that it would have to have many more handguns.) If liberals could have their dream country, could pick it out of a catalog or custom-build it on the internet, it would be a lot like Canada (minus the hockey). Universal health care, much back-patting on its proud multicultural heritage, respect for authority and the sort of primness that made a few anti-Quebec japes by Triumph the Insult Comic Dog front-page news across the country. (More on that in a minute.) Bathroom posters give five good reasons to wash your mitts after a pee. Every trash container has three mouths, so you can do your part for recycling. “If a politician discussed his relationship with Jesus, people would be baffled,” the locals tell you. For the first 24 hours, you can’t believe your eyes: I love this place! Everything I’ve been saying is true! It really works when you do it this way! Then it starts to drive you crazy. Me, anyway.
Oh, but I’m oversimplifying to a preposterous degree, but when you try to cram an entire country into a blog entry, well, that happens.
It is a beautiful place, Toronto. “New York as run by the Swiss,” one writer famously said, and that’s about right. You’ve got your culture, your architecture, your funky shopping, your expensive coffee, a whole city’s worth of walkways underground, so you can walk around downtown when it’s -11 (Celsius) and not freeze your ass off. There’s a Chinatown, great restaurants, sports, an excellent, intelligent newspaper. Am I leaving anything out? An international film festival. Taxi drivers who don’t try to kill you. Drivers who, generally, respect traffic lights. This I liked.
What I didn’t: The Canadosity. This really is a country that couldn’t get behind the American Revolution. Its constitution promises not life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but “peace, order and good government.” It seemed to be best summed up by the Conan O’Brien business. The American TV star was in Quebec and Toronto for a week’s worth of shows, to try to drum up a little tourism in the wake of last spring’s SARS scare. He sent the guy with the rubber dog on his hand around some winter carnival in Quebec, where he yelled at passersby: “You’re in North America! Learn the language!” He stopped a couple and asked if they were separatists; when they said they were, he said, “Hear that? That’s the sound of no one giving a shit!” And so on.
You’d have thought Osama bin Laden had come to Washington, burst into the State of the Union speech and set fire to the American flag, before extinguishing the flames by peeing on it. At least, the media treated it that way. “Hateful and yes, racist,” huffed the Toronto Star, before indicating there may be a glimmer of hope: What is truly appalling, however, was the reaction of the audience at Toronto’s Elgin Theatre. Most members laughed wildly at the crude anti-French jokes.
I don’t mind a big, safe, non-war-mongering country full of beautiful cities, single-payer health care and even the accompanying high taxes. What got on my nerves was the smugness. I said before that if liberals could have the country of their dreams, it would be Canada. If conservatives could have theirs, it would be Iran by way of Texas. Because we smash these two groups together like pieces of flint, and don’t so much seek consensus between them as we do the appearance of consensus (while we shiv the other guy between the ribs), we strike the flames under the the messy, imperfect, rancid stew of a melting pot full of mixed metaphors we call these United States. The subways smell much worse, but it is mine.
Besides, they say all the same things about us, and they’re right, too.
But we had a great time. If I had a son who didn’t want to fight the next pointless war we get into, I’d be happy to visit him in Toronto. I’m just not sure I’d like to live there.