Anyone who buys even a bit of the idea that history is dialectical knows that, sometimes, the quicker and more utterly you hit rock bottom, the sooner the cycle turns.
By Jeff Mahoney
Published December 14, 2004
This town can suck the smile off a happy face button. It skins optimism alive. I saw optimism running down King Street the other day; it had no skin. It was begging people to finish it off. People just laughed.
Hamilton is a butcher of hope. It has blood on its apron. And hope in Hamilton is a frightened pig in a tractor-trailer, pressing its nose against the grate holes in its pen; it knows it's not going to Canada's Wonderland.
But, things could be worse. Okay, no, they couldn't. Yes, they could. Have you seen Baghdad? No, they couldn't. I don't know. Hi, how are ya? For as long as I've been in Hamilton - since just before they started cutting the trees down in Gore Park - people here have been urging each other to keep up hope.
Things then looked grim. This was the early '80s. There was a bad recession and Stelco had just come off an ugly strike. Everyone was talking about the future, but not in an excited, "are-we-there-yet?" kind of way. People were saying that Hamilton better diversify its economy - and quick. Or else.
Soon our various bids to bring an NHL team here started to tank. But when it looked as though people were getting a little too down, too dire, too panic-stricken, the empower-ers (and you know who you are) would remind us of all the good things there are about Hamilton. And they would rhapsodize about new cadres of civic leadership and the novel ways in which Hamilton could reshape itself.
This was a time when the downtown still had a faint pulse, when Stelco pensions still seemed rock-solid, when the expressway was not yet a fait accompli. Now look.
When DiIanni won the election, there was a visible sag in the left and centre of the city's political spirits. I heard people at city hall on election night talking about leaving the city. They couldn't stand to stay and watch. It was like a preview of what happened just a few weeks ago in the U.S.
But soon the empowerers were saying, "Yes, there are serious challenges, but Hamilton's got too much potential for us to throw in the towel." They were saying that even though WestJet was leaving the Mount Hope airport and Stelco went into receiversip.
Like the U.S., Hamilton seemed to split itself in two. The winners, in both cases, would deny this picture of a polarized body. But the "losers" feel as though they are outsiders in their own homes. Whether that feeling is self-imposed or a reflection of reality is for the two sides to debate. But either way the feeling is there.
So now the empowerers on the progressive left and centre are still putting on a brave face in Hamilton, as they are in the U.S. But even they have had to shift the hash marks of hope, so to speak. Now pessimism is the new optimism, and fatalism is the new pessimism.
The best that anyone with even an ounce of realism can hope for is that Hamilton will get a lot worse before it gets better but that it will, somehow, at some point, get better. If that's where you are, then I guess you could call yourself a pessimist with a parachute, which is, one could argue,a kind of optimist. Just hope it opens.
Alternately you could be a fatalist, secure in the conviction that this city will totally, irrecoverably destroy itself. And the bleakest among you think it already has, and that the new empowerers on the progressive left and centre are just fresh kill for the butchers of hope. The fatalists don't think the city is being run by idiots so much as by the puppets of idiots, perhaps even the flunkies of the puppets of the idiots.
I think I used to be one of those empowers. But how many times can you watch your puppies drown before you stop breeding them?
I know there are signs of hope. Locke Street. Some of the restaurants and art galleries. The new Imperial Cotton Centre project. The Staircase on Dundurn. Other bright spots. And, of course, the forum you're reading now; this new internet journal, which I welcome with the greatest enthusiasm and congratulations for its founders.
We've pinned our dreams on flickers like these before and seen the city continue to slide. Of course, I wish us well. But I'm not betting the farm. Or maybe I am. I'm not leaving. Get real - I can't leave. But even if I could, I wouldn't. I guess that makes me a pessimistic optimist or an optimistic pessimist.
Anyone who buys even a bit of the idea that history is dialectical knows that, sometimes, the quicker and more utterly you hit rock bottom, the sooner the cycle turns. That's why people like Nader are secretly happy Bush won again. Then more glaringly will the contradictions and frictions in the system become apparent and play the system out.
So here's to a quick demise and a steady recovery. Hear that scratching sound? That's the kitten in the poster letting go of the branch. "Hang in there"? Good luck. But maybe, just maybe, the kitten's wearing a parachute, or it can grab onto a branch below.
I hope so.
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