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2007 02 27
Toronto Culture and Multiculture, Part III

Being Torontonian means having nothing to declare. Took me a long time discovering it.

My second year in Toronto, there was this particular boy in school. Particularly self-assured and a little scary. Had an inscrutably hazardous Stone Cold Clint Eastwood character mix to him. Nobody knew who he was. Everyone knew not to ask. Anyhow, one day he showed up with a rather nice tennis racket. Nothing extraordinary – but all the other boys acted like it was. Acted like that tennis racket was some kind of holy grail. They kept on and on about it. Where’d he get it? How much did it cost? How was it different from their tennis rackets? How was it different from his old tennis racket? On and on.

Me, I didn’t get what the racket was. Like, who gave a flying tennis ball? Most of them didn’t even play tennis. What was so spectacular about it? Why did it matter? Was it supposed to make him more special, somehow? What annoying nonsense. Got so irritated I blurted out: “Yeah, he got it at the Household Finance.”

One moment’s utter silence. Next, like every pin and second shoe dropping at once, the entire class cracked up. In hysterics. Falling out of chairs, rolling on the floor. That’s how hard they were laughing. All but two. Stone Cold Clint of the new racket was alternating glaring at me as if his food had turned poisonous bugs – and muttering to all else that alright already, it hadn’t been entirely that funny. Sure didn’t help him any. Between gasping, all kept assuring him that it had, indeed, been that funny. Funnier. Funniest. Laughing all harder at his expression. Laughing in his face. Laughing at him like they’d never stop.

And I wasn’t laughing either. Not for fearing getting my head bashed in by that damned tennis racket. However likely and totally deserved, getting bashed seemed relatively trivial. I wasn’t laughing because I still wasn’t getting it. Sure, when anyone looked my way I plastered what I hoped would appear a roguish, knowing grin on my face. Like I’d meant it all along. Like I might do it again whenever whim breezed. Anytime at all. Better watch out for me, boys and girls. But I hadn’t a clue.

Reason I’d blurted out “Household Finance”? Between not having yet mastered reading English, struggling with bouts of agoraphobia and flipping over 13 television channels – I was fast becoming a T.V. vegetable. A strange plant, hydroponically nourished by cathode rays. And possibly most overplayed, right then, was the “Household Finance” commercial. Couldn’t get that “Household Finance” jingle out of my head. That’s why I blurted it. No other reason. I’d gotten so irritated I had to blurt something – that’s just what came out.

Hadn’t a clue back then. Decades later, though, recalling the episode, it was obvious what happened. Clear as aquarium glass. That damned racket was nothing extraordinary. Stone Cold Clint was. Extraordinarily inscrutable character. And all those other boys would start asking themselves who to be – not when they’d grow up, but right away whenever Stone Cold Clint was around. Reasonably enough – he was so mysteriously extraordinary, couldn’t help but make them feel inadequate in who they were by contrast. Couldn’t help but make them question themselves – they certainly weren’t about to start questioning him. What wasn’t reasonable was those boys expecting to become more like Stone Cold Clint if only they got themselves tennis rackets just like his.

Not reasonable at all. Absurd. Pathetic. Too pathetic to put up with. But what could I say? That Stone Cold Clint’s new racket was nothing special? No way. Those boys figured Stone Cold Clint was so special, his gear had to be special too. Would have been heresy, questioning their faith in the sympathetic voodoo of product placement. Nor could I have asked if they truly believed superficial emulating – regardless how special he was – would really make them be somebody. Somebody really special. Coming from a nobody like me, that would only have served as confirmation.

But blurting out that Stone Cold Clint’s clan had to finance that tennis racket? Wow. Had I known then what I do now – and were I cleverer – I might have added that they got it no money down. Nevermind. The absurdity was punctured. Not knowing who he was, the mere suggestion he might be an overcompensating, posturing nobody got those boys wondering whether Stone Cold Clint’s new tennis racket didn’t better belong with the emperor’s new clothes. Got them realizing most likely it did. Got them realizing how preposterously they’d been fawning. Soon as absurdity burst, realizing flooded.

So – what’s the point? This: it was absurd those boys believing they could get personal character superficially emulating Stone Cold Clint’s behaviour; and it’s no jot less absurd us Torontonians believing we can get cultural character by merely – superficially – sharing experience. Those boys were either too childish or had uncritically bought into the voodoo of product placement. Us (not only) Torontonians are too behaviouristic, positivistic, materialistic in our beliefs to know better. Different reasons – identical absurdity.

That’s the point. That’s why I say being Torontonian means having nothing to declare. We are completely fallen into materialism. But, culture isn’t material. Culture is a kind of understanding. And there’s no getting any kind of understanding by transitive osmosis of experience – shopping all the right places. Getting any kind of understanding requires appreciating the meaning – the significance – of experience. It requires getting the cultural principles entailing and entailed by significant interpretation of experience. So I say being Torontonian means having nothing to declare as reminder how completely we discount understanding the significance of experience – whether or not shared – while believing culture is merely sharing experience.

That’s why so many repeat that Toronto lives in no-one’s imagination. We’ve discounted understanding – and imagination – to such extent, we don’t believe there’s anything like cultural principles to declare when it comes to who we are. We’ve got nothing to declare. Nothing to understand. Nothing to imagine. We expect getting to know each other – even to agree with each other – merely by making small-talk and eating each other’s food. Admiring each other’s tennis rackets.

That’s why, finally, (not only) Toronto fragments into monocultural communities. There are no over-arching cultural principles for us to agree on. Since we so absurdly believe culture is not entailed by and does not entail principles in the first place. There’s nothing to understand. Nothing to imagine. Nothing to declare. There’s just lots of different menus to order from. Thus, much as most all of us would like to discuss, debate, agree or even disagree what in principle makes us Torontonian – too bad. Nothing to discuss. Nothing more in principle than small-talk. So, sooner or later, of course we fragment. How are we to get to know each other? Learn about each other? Figure out who we are and what we stand for ourselves? No way. Not through small-talk. It’s not through small-talk we learn and get to know each other. And while small-talk makes not knowing bearable, insisting on nothing but small-talk is insisting not knowing. That can’t go on forever. Remain strangers long enough, sooner or later we won’t bother talking at all any more. Happening as we – don’t – speak.

Interestingly, Amy Lavender Harris ceaselessly demonstrates the wealth of Toronto literature. However, I don’t see Toronto’s literary wealth enlivening Toronto in our imagination. Just the contrary. So long we persist with nothing but small-talk, Toronto literature vanishes without cultural trace. Like stones dropped in a lifeless, inert lake – making neither splash nor ripples. Unless it’s in a classroom, on a talk-show or some publicly mandated forum, we don’t discuss, debate or celebrate meaning and significance of our literature. Literature? We don’t even discuss implications of newspaper articles outside the sports section. So much for imagination. So much for understanding. We’ve resigned all that to remaining strangers. Not good enough any more.

Coexisting as strangers can’t do indefinitely. The more diverse we become multiculturally, the less we can depend on culturally impoverished coexisting. We must discover those principles most significant to reversing fragmentation. We must discuss, debate and eventually celebrate understanding significance of those principles. And there is one (not only) I consider most significant: the principle of tolerance. We hold to this principle like nobody’s business. Unfortunately, we don’t realize it. It has precious little life in our imagination or understanding. It is my hope we will begin appreciating it –start understanding how it informs who we are. Perhaps even, eventually, celebrate how it pulls us together.

To be continued …

[Tennis ball image by Adam Mulligan and used via Creative Commons license.]
[email this story] Posted by Peter Fruchter on 02/27 at 01:03 PM

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