Amidst the darkness, self-congratulation
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 18 August 2003)

As Thursday's blackout shut down almost all activity and the Toronto streets fell silent, the loudest noise in town was the sound of a city patting itself on the back. For Torontonians, the failure of the power grid quickly became an excuse to indulge in mass self-congratulation. We love to tell ourselves we are pretty terrific, and this provided the perfect opportunity. How good we are, how resourceful! And we don't even riot!

In less time than it takes to shut down a power station, we developed Blackout Pride. But this wasn't original with us. In the intensity of our narcissism we were re-enacting a now familiar ritual of civic vanity. We were using an international style of rhetoric that was born after Sept. 11, 2001, when people who were desperate for something to feel good about began lavishing praise on fire-fighters, police, health workers and other public servants, many of whom committed acts of uncommon bravery. The next stage was praise for the people of New York, who showed (it was said many, many times) unsuspected resources of courage and tenacity.

These attitudes have now become our framework for discussing anything that resembles disaster. In a way that no one predicted, Sept. 11 altered not only our feelings about public security but also the way we talk and think about calamity. In the last two years we have developed a self-stroking mechanism that switches on at the first sign of trouble. We have now reached the point where the temporary withdrawal of electricity even makes us start talking like Second World War Londoners enduring the blitz (that was, let's see, three years of bombing, with much death and maiming).

On Thursday night, every time I groped toward a new station on the radio dial someone was congratulating us. Premier Ernie Eves said, early on, that he wanted to thank us for doing so well. When I first heard him saying something like that, I'd barely located the radio batteries in the basement, much less thought about my fellow citizens. But the Premier was already telling us how well we were working together.

Eves performed like the rest of the politicians and public servants. They were all speaking out of nearly perfect ignorance, which is why many were so slow to speak at all. They didn't know what had broken or why, and they had no idea when it would be fixed, but they nevertheless insisted we were all cheerful (we weren't) and good-hearted.

The media knew what stories they were expected to produce, heart-warming stories of good Samaritans and neighbours discovering each other. These stories were quickly manufactured and delivered, again and again, at first over the radio, later in print and on TV. Everyone was working from a script.

The radio people often forgot to give the time (though electric clocks were dead and there often wasn't enough light to read a wristwatch) but they knew what they were doing. They were in the business of valorizing (as the academic critics say) the public and its employees. They were creating heroes. And if the journalists didn't do it, you could count on the public servants themselves to look after it. The fire chief, Bill Stewart, said of his firefighters:"They've done a great job." The Toronto Star spread the word that "paramedics, too, coped magnificently." Who didn't?

Mayor Mel Lastman, as always, went right over the top. "The public has been outstanding," he said, just four hours or so after the grid failed. He didn't say how he knew this (he was speaking from within the city's emergency headquarters, at an undisclosed address) but he also claimed that people were having a good time.

As with the SARS crisis, our leaders declared victory when the war had barely started. Pretty soon Lastman was announcing that "Toronto is a city of heroes." On Friday he said we had "once again stepped up to the challenge, with the greatest spirit I have ever seen."

Well, perhaps we weren't perfect. By Saturday we Toronto heroes, as represented by the Mayor, were claiming we deserved a special deal. Lastman added a powerful strain of self-importance to our municipal orgy of self-admiration. Toronto, he declared, should be spared the rolling blackouts that may afflict Ontario in the next few days, as the grid pulls itself together. He explained why: We are more important than other cities. Toronto, he said, is "the engine that drives the whole province, the whole country in fact." (The Premier said no.)

It was a great relief when the Star on Sunday revealed the existence of a 26-storey Davisville Avenue building full of grumps. Their part of Toronto was still without power far into the weekend, long after most of the city was switched on. "This is bloody ridiculous," declared one resident. "I'm angry as hell." She blamed the Premier, the Mayor, and the Deputy Mayor, just for starters. Reading about her warmed my heart. She proved that somewhere in good, brave Toronto you could still hear a few honest words.

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