January 26, 2006
The Urban Angle

By David Warren

It’s when you no longer know where your milk comes from, let alone where you got your opinions, that you have become over-urbanized. I note, with Allan Gregg, that the Conservatives did not win a single seat in Montreal, Toronto, or Vancouver -- our three largest cities. Let me enlarge on remarks I have made in many previous columns, applying the famous Red State/Blue State division in the U.S. to circumstances in Canada. I disagree with Mr Gregg that the inner urban constituencies should be assuaged. The future of Canada, as the U.S., is -- if we are lucky -- “ex-urban”. (As opposed to “rural”.)

Canada is different from the States in fewer ways than any of our city-borne media realize. We have the same basic Left/Right division, with the same sorts of views on both sides (both in English and French). The difference between countries is geographic -- and derives from the fact that so little of Canada is habitable. We lack the vast, occupied, American outdoors. Against the wind blowing from the Arctic, we are huddled together more densely in cities. A much higher proportion of our population is therefore to be found in typical “Blue State” environments -- where people have lost all contact with nature, and by increments, with the realities of life.

The over-urbanized are the willing clients of the nanny state. They are loathe to take responsibility for anything; they assume when anything goes wrong, some specialist or expert will fix it. Even when they have children they expect “child-care facilities”. They are salaried people; few have ever taken a risk on their own dime. Their taxes are lifted from them at source. They are easily frightened when a Paul Martin or a Jack Layton warns that a bogeyman from Alberta is going to take their entitlements away.

They think of the city and the government as something that was always there -- as a second nature. They are defenceless when primary nature reasserts itself (as we saw, poignantly, in New Orleans). Like isolated and primitive peoples elsewhere, they develop superstitions -- “urban myths” -- that account for the mysterious provision of their public services, and they worship their “rainmaking” urban political gods. Their lives are regulated by principles of “political correctness” bound in on every side by taboo.

I am giving you the profile of a “Blue State” voter, but it is not different in kind from a “Red Province” voter up here. In neither case do we have the boundaries right. Upstate New York can be as Republican as Texas; the difference between Vancouver and the B.C. interior is night and day. The attitudes that animate Toronto diminish, in concentric rings, as you move away from the CN Tower.

Canada was not built by the government; it was built by men and women taking responsibility for things. Yet the over-urbanized have lost this sense that anyone could take responsibility. The postmodern conurbation is vast, and the person who lives in the middle of it, lives 10 or 20 or 30 miles from the nearest open space. He walks or drives past thousands on his way to work. He participates in what used to be called a “rat race”. He adapts quickly in neighbourhoods subject to constant inundation by strange new people -- often speaking languages he can’t understand. His home is something that can be quickly exchanged, more likely rented than owned. He develops a profound sense of personal powerlessness, together with the compensating vanity -- that as an adaptive urbanite, he is especially clever. He assumes people who live away from the second nature of the city are stupid. For after all, they don’t know what living in the city is like; they couldn’t cope with it if they tried.

Now, the funny thing, today, is that “they” do know what life is like in the city, and that is why they left -- in the process, leaving the city to become even more Liberal and New Democrat. Indeed, the Liberals have done a superb job of buying out traditional rural strongholds (such as the fishing Maritimes or the mining Ontario northland) with urbane welfare programmes. Whereas ex-urbans move, not there, but to places where the opportunities are, such as Alberta.

It is not for Alberta, per se, but for these ex-urban people, that Stephen Harper speaks. They know why they left, and they’re damned if they’re going to let Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver rule them.

Copyright 2006 Ottawa Citizen

David Warren

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