You don’t need a week to feel at home in Chicago.
Like home, Chicago sprawls along the flatlands of another cold lake. It has been a mecca ever since North America opened up for American and unauthorized adventurers. It has prospered within an extraordinarily productive agriculture and manufacturing region. The city finances and designs spectacular buildings and supports excellence in arts and higher education.
Chicago has been a great city for over a hundred years. Toronto was designated as such about 10 years ago.
Chicago has been forced to re-skill several times. Both cities now face the same challenge of creating wealth with fewer high income jobs in manufacturing and financial services. Both are rather utilitarian places; they both work by being useful.
Just as at home, people ask you whether you like the place.
A tour guide suggested carefully that we could be “twin cities.” Its theater audiences are as generous as they are in Toronto; its joggers, laptop entrepreneurs, panhandlers, noon strollers all look familiar. The traffic is actually quieter and no one looks like a master of the universe. Neither city has much of a leisure class. Everyone resents the approaching winter and measures their success against New York.
However, a Torontonian can’t get inside its greatest drama: the political fate of their “sitting President” and his efforts to pull the economy out of recession. On that story a Canadian is a foreigner. People are actually careful about what they say.
At first, this carefulness surprises you. After all, Canadians are unfailing Obama fans and are flooded by stories about America’s hyper-partisanship. You’d think they’d talk our heads off like they do on television.
Here’s a sample of the hysteric picture of America that has formed in the minds of many influential Canadians. JL Granatstein, senior fellow at the Canadian Defense and Foreign Affairs Institute, throws this out as fair comment:
“Maybe the idea of an American built wall along the Canada-U.S. border is not such a bad idea after all. Not to keep our 'terrorists' out of the Republic, but instead to keep the Americans and their dysfunctional governmental ideas, their wild-eyed politicians, their preachers, and their rabid Fox commentators out of Canada. Canadians have become used to the idea of believing that we are dull and boring and that everything exciting happens south of the 49th Parallel. It is certainly true that there is some excitement in watching a great nation flush its substance away, but I'll take dull and boring any day, thank you very much. “
The reticence of individual Americans to say anything to further harm the good name of the United States, even to a friendly guest, may be nothing more than the other side of America’s deep uncertainty about the future.
The side of American politics we find entertaining in Canada is reckless and awkward: it is dominated by a handful of loudmouths, the rise and fall of want-to-be Republican presidential candidates, and volatile opinion polls. Laughing at that side of US political culture is enough for Granatstein to be cool with undergraduates and at home with his prejudices.
The political uncertainty in Chicago that sets you apart as a Canadian, however, is not necessarily defeatist. It is likely an expression of that foul born Nixon phase: “silent American.” It likely reflects resolution and a serious concern to not make matters worse, and to be good citizens in next year’s election.
Whether Obama wins as the “adult in the room” or dresses down as Harry Truman, the voters that decide whether he gets a second term will be thinking like adults next year.