A columnist wants reaction, which is harder and harder to get unless you regularly say things that are vicious, insane, demonstrably untrue or—the sweet spot—a combination of the three! As someone who has difficulty with any of those fertile fields, my work has a tendency to shuffle onto the public stage, tap the microphone with its finger, tentatively, and then be yanked off by the Hook of Time. Except when maligning other cities. Sunday's look back at my gentle prod at Toronto would not be complete with this companion piece, about the howl of pain that emanated from our neighbor to the north. The wonder is I ever write anything other than tart critiques of other cities. I suppose because then I'd lose what readers I retain in this one.
It was right after the Wall Street Journal reporter called Thursday afternoon, asking for my reaction to Toronto mayor Rob Ford's comments about my column, which at that point hadn't even been printed yet, that I began to suspect we had strayed from the usual daily vaudeville into something odder.
The column, posted online Wednesday, was nothing extraordinary. An editor had shot me an email, sharing a news item about Toronto surpassing Chicago in population—who knew? —and asking whether I could scrape together a few thoughts about it.
Well, yeah, sure, happy to.
The column was done in an hour, posted the next. By the third I was hearing from Canadian television. Then the Toronto Star—the biggest paper in Canada—posted an article that began, "Someone in Chicago has finally noticed Toronto . . . "
Then Twitter opened up, in salvos, like anti-aircraft fire.
"Neil Steinberg is everything that is wrong with America," wrote Richard Guy. "Self-centred, ego-driven and uneducated."
"PLEASE DO NOT LET HIS UNEDUCATED PRESENCE INTO OUR WONDERFUL CITY!" wrote another, to my obvious delight. You have to have lived my life, mocked since grade school as an effete Poindexter rolling out his $5 words, to grasp just how happy that accusation made me.
But that's the Internet, right? People who think they've been insulted violently lashing out at others they know nothing about.
Certain words were used again and again; not only "uneducated" but "bitter." A lot of "bitter" coming from Canada, and considering there's nothing remotely bitter in my column —an avuncular chuckle, a mild teasing—I had to wonder whether I was witnessing the common human trait of condemning in others what you can't recognize in yourself. ("Douche" was also used a lot, a word I hadn't heard as an insult since junior high).
What struck me about most replies was the gravity. Their city under attack! Their nation scorned! Many lunged at Chicago's murder problem—dipping their fingers into the fresh blood of slain children to dab out a reply to a lighthearted essay on civic pride.
But I hate to generalize—I heard from the nasty and the nice. For every six aggrieved lunkheads, there was a thumbs up from a Canadian who got it, a grateful American expat, or a Vancouverite who assured me the rest of the country isn't too keen on Toronto either.
I should be grateful; outrage boosts humor. The Marx Brothers would be just a group of strange men lurching around fancy apartments were it not for Margaret Dumont, fluttering her fingers at her throat in dismay.
Yet somehow, plowing through this reaction, I started to feel bad, in the way I felt bad for ridiculing Jay Mariotti, after it dawned on me that this wasn't merely a person worthy of scorn, but someone who was deserving of pity.
So there, there, Canada. It's OK. We all look to others for validation. Chicago's own Richard M. Daley, our former mayor, was desperate for some Eurotrash committee of international leeches to tap the city on the nose with their magic wand and declare it "World Class" by saddling it with the Augean Stables labor of hosting the Olympics. We all stood around in public places, numb, gazing at our feet, arms limply at our sides, confetti dribbling out of our slack fingers, when the honor danced past us and into the embrace of that South American slum, Rio de Janeiro.
No malice here. I'll be candid about what informed my Toronto column. A bit of bleak memory. I took my family to Toronto in August 2006, for five days. Some fun was had. A big Greek food festival. The $91 elevator ride to the top of CN Tower. But much was a let-down. The Ontario Science Centre—so cool and futuristic when my family visited from Cleveland in the 1970s—now threadbare and creaky (though it did have an actual Jacquard loom, so important to the history of computing, and, to me, a thrill to see).
But by the time we left, however, a certain suffocating ennui set in, a get-us-the-hell-out-of-this-place feeling that has lingered.
I've also worked for, and with, Canadians, when Conrad Black owned the paper. To a man —and woman—they exhibited a contempt for this hardship post, Chicago, and a narcissism that most Americans would be ashamed to show in public.
Granted, it was a self-selective group—Lord Black's underlings—but it taught me that Canada was not all Molson beer TV commercial friendliness.
The Internet will waste your life in empty jousting, so best to limit oneself. I'm turning down Canadian TV requests now, and, moving on, leave you with the truest words ever written about U.S./Canada relations, penned by scholar and Toronto native J. Bartlet Brebner: "Americans are benevolently ignorant about Canada while Canadians are malevolently well informed about the United States." Don't hate me for pointing it out.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 10, 2013