Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Municipal Narcissism

How we choose to describe ourselves can tell others a lot about us, especially things we don't necessarily intend - like how I call myself a "scientifictionist," rather than "dude who writes science fiction," out of a desperate attempt to seize some small piece of a vanished past by using an archaic term with which few people are familiar. It happens with places just as much as people. Most places have mottos, and the phrase they choose to symbolize themselves can reveal a lot of things - inadvertent things.

I used to think that the city of Vaughan's motto, "The City Above Toronto," was rather overweening; technically true, if you consider north to be up, but rather smug-seeming. Since moving to British Columbia, I no longer think of it that way, because I've seen what mottos there are out here.

I mean, take the current branding motto of British Columbia: "The Best Place on Earth." When I first encountered that stamped on the side of a new model SkyTrain, I couldn't believe it - couldn't believe, to be blunt, the sheer arrogance that must have gone into that motto. I mean, sure, I like British Columbia. If I didn't I wouldn't have moved out here. I like how the sky seems bigger and the mountains on the horizon and the evergreens that make it look not quite as horrid out when it's overcast. But if this is the Best Place on Earth... why the hell does it rain so much? Why is it right next to a megathrust earthquake zone? Why is its largest city within a hundred kilometers of a potentially active stratovolcano? Are we to believe that these are qualities required to achieve excellence?

Sure, I haven't been everywhere on Earth, so I can't use my own personal experience to dispute the claim that this province is the best place on it... but it's a fair bet that the people who did decide on this motto did not have personal experience of everywhere on Earth. Every once in a while I see hints of an earlier motto - "Super, Natural British Columbia" - which I think is far better in every respect. It displays pride in one's home without being insufferably proud. I know I'm not alone in this; back in 2008, an unscientific poll conducted by the Vancouver Sun found that nine out of ten disapproved of it.

Really, the "Best Place on Earth" motto is no surprise from a government that's had a majority in Victoria for nearly ten years. What grumbles me is that this isn't an isolated incident.

There is no way you can convince me that the placement of these two logos was not completely intentional.

Canada Line trains remind me of a child's sticker album; there are tons of logos on the cars, and every time I walk across the Waterfront platforms there seem to be new ones pasted on. I found the above last night on an out-of-service train... and really? Richmond's motto is seriously "Better in Every Way"? I can disprove that just by citing geology! Hell, I can claim that Vancouver is better than Richmond because there is only one other city called Vancouver and at least three named Richmond, so it's more creatively named! Sure, maybe I'm going about this all wrong, but I was always under the impression that mottos are not supposed to be statements of arrogant superiority! Really... when did mottos change from a way to show common pride to municipal masturbation contests?

I mean, look at Toronto's motto. If it followed the same philosophy as British Columbia or Richmond, you'd expect it to be "The Centre of the Universe" or "The Best Part of Canada" or "Toronto is So Awesome That to Comprehend It Would Be to Reduce Yourself to Charred Ashes." Instead, what is it? "Diversity Our Strength." Something meek. Something unassuming. Something that says why the city thinks it's good without making the implicit claim that everywhere else is worse.

What we say about ourselves says a lot. What we don't say says even more.

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