|MY WORLD HAS GOTTEN SMALLER. A statement that needs clarification, of course, and the next thousand or so words, I hope, will do precisely that. I'm not trying to justify myself, or make a case that everyone should view the world the same way that I've come to, but rather to make a case for a kind of enlightened provincialism.
"Provincial". In England, it's an almost unbeatable put-down,
an implication of the essential lack of real sophistication anywhere except
in certain districts of London. In America, the use of the word as a pejorative
defines the user as that most un-American of things: a cosmopolitan urbanite,
a europhile East Coast snob who, all told, would much rather be abroad.
("If you like it so much over there, why don't you leave?") I understand
that, in French, the word's equivalents can create a confused line in the
sand. Some people are quite happy to be called provincial, since the heart
of France is supposed to reside outside the big cities. In any case, "provencal"
is not only the name of a place, but also of a kind of lifestyle that millions
of people, even in Paris, aspire to enjoying at least once in their lives.
Amazingly enough, perhaps the French have it right, for once, in a twisted
kind of way.
My world has gotten smaller, despite the fact that I have
friends in the Bay Area, Oslo, New Orleans, London, Kenosha, Ohio, Barcelona
and New York. I used to think that any worthwhile success was only to be
had outside of Toronto, away from Canada, in a place like New York or London.
Everything I did was meant to culminate in the moment I left Canada, and
found real appreciation for my talents elsewhere. I voted, I have to admit,
because of something a friend in high school once said: "If you don't vote,
you have no right to complain about the results." (Thanks, Pete. It turned
out to be one of the most valuable things I ever learned in school.) Still,
I barely understood the issues, voted out of instinct, and probably couldn't
name my MPP, never mind my city councillor.
I was a provincial, in the worst sense of the word.
I was certain that a creative person, an "artist", had
no obligation to occupy themselves with awful, compromised things like
money or politics, except in the most idealistic way. I had forgotten that
my first abiding passion was for history, and that my earliest memory of
being intellectually challenged was a TV documentary about the history
of economics. Almost every "creative" type I knew felt the same way, and
political discussions took an inevitable form -- exchanges of statements
notable for their cynicism or disgust, escalating into shouting matches
where the most indignant voice was the winner. Moral outrage could trump
reasoned opinions every time. Without knowing it, we were using the same
rhetorical formula as the politicians we professed to despise.
At a certain point, the rhetorical pendulum began to swing
towards anyone who could prove their superior victimhood, who could profess
to speak more authentically for the "oppressed". A white male from a working
class family could be beaten, inevitably, by a person of colour, even if
they came from money and privilege. A woman, even one who had never experienced
abuse in any form except a father's spanking, could draw on the legacy
of male beastliness, of which it was an unspoken assumption that poor men
were particularly guilty. This is, no doubt, a caricature of the "politically
correct" tone of my college years and beyond, but I remember those times
with a deep, growing sense of unease. I recall that the only reasonable
stance a white male could take was one of cowed, implicit shame. It was
a stance I learned to imitate, at least for the duration of one particularly
stressful, cherished, long-term relationship.