At the Stampede last week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper got up in front of his adopted hometown crowd and proclaimed Calgary the greatest city in Canada. This being the political climate where no off-the-cuff comment goes un-deconstructed en masse (and Harper being the veteran politician who says nothing that hasn’t been poll-tested), cries of favouritism erupted from his opposition. In my best mood on my best day I’m hard-pressed to say anything positive about the guy, but this is one instance in which critics just make themselves look silly by raising a public ruckus. The man is standing in front of a crowd in Calgary – he’s hardly going to tell them that “well, you guys are pretty awesome but Whitehorse totally rocks my socks.” Does anyone believe that when Bono drops the name of the city U2 is playing in he’s doing it out of a genuine conviction that his time spent in this metropolis has been the most rewarding of his life, or do they recognize that it’s merely an applause line? I’ve been to Calgary once, for a weekend, and what I saw of it seemed very nice, as did its people, but I’m not sure that it would qualify for this ambiguous concept of greatness anymore than any other Canadian city, town or backwater burg it’s been my fortune to pass through. The problem isn’t a lacking on Calgary’s part, it’s more a general unease about how to qualify something as great.
“Great” is a word we’ve tossed around so often that it’s become meaningless. “What a great movie.” “She’s such a great girl.” “These are the greatest cookies I’ve ever tasted.” Yet despite its overuse, the concept of greatness is one that we value greatly. I remember reading a book in Philosophy 101 called God, the Devil and the Perfect Pizza. I may get the details wrong – I wasn’t quite the seasoned thinker I am now (snicker) when I first ploughed through it and was distracted by the gorgeous blonde in the very short black miniskirt seated two rows ahead of me. But the concept was basically a more plain-spoken rehash of the ontological argument that one could prove the existence of God through logic, if one accepted the premise that God was the greatest conceivable being, and that existence being a necessary component of greatness (the idea that a God who did not exist would not, in fact, be the greatest conceivable being), God must therefore exist. Where the book has fun with this is twisting the argument around to prove by a similar method, the existence of the Devil (hypothesized as the worst conceivable being) and the greatest conceivable pizza. I don’t think I ever quite grokked the logical twists that validated this line of thinking – I suppose if you’re religious and looking to disprove an atheist it could come in handy. But the idea of the greatest conceivable anything stuck with me. “Greatness,” like beauty, is so totally subjective – one man will vomit up in disgust the meal the gourmand thinks is the greatest thing he’s ever eaten – that who I picture as the greatest conceivable being will differ completely from yours, and the next guy’s, and the next guy’s after him. (Mine might look like that blonde. I swear, her toned legs in that black mini were a wonder to behold.)
We see this daily in the critical sphere: endless top ten lists recounting beloved movies, music, literature, artwork, key lime pies. Quality can be agreed on universally to a point – certainly few can put forth defensible arguments that Plan 9 from Outer Space is a better movie than 2001: A Space Odyssey. But beyond that point lies the uncanny valley where opinion takes over and cements the final determination, as individual as the person offering it. It’s also why people usually react badly to self-proclaimed greatness, like when folks who haven’t ventured over their county line announce that America is the greatest country in the world. Opinions about one’s own greatness are the least valued, especially when one cannot walk the walk, as it were. Muhammad Ali’s boasts are the stuff of sports legend, but he could back it up in the ring. How though, do you determine the relative greatness of a more abstract concept like a city, especially if you’re predisposed to bias because you live there (or represent it in the House of Commons)? Do you base it on hard statistics, like crime, transportation, wealth, homelessness and pollution, or on the equally abstract idea of character? How do you say with certainty that one city’s character is better than another’s? The people are nicer, there are more interesting restaurants, the tourist attractions are less cheesy, you can always find a place to park? Woody Allen once observed that the primary cultural advantage of Los Angeles was the ability to turn right on a red. It seems that any judgment on the relative greatness of anything is fated to be equally pithy, given that ultimately, the criteria used to make this determination are so esoteric as to defy classification.
Or, in English, there is no such thing as “the greatest.” There are things that are great and things that are even greater than those first great things. But “greatest” is forever elusive. And that is probably great in itself, because it will force us to continue to aim for it. Declaring oneself the greatest is admitting that not only can you go no further, you don’t even want to try. You’re entirely satisfied. You’re done. And lack of ambition, of aspiration, of the dream of progress, is not a quality associated with greatness in any way.
Besides, everyone knows that the greatest city in Canada is <404 error file not found>