Empathy versus scorn

Pelham Street and Hwy 20, in quieter times.

How to improve your hometown

Special to the VOICE

Had the Progressive Conservative party won a majority in 2014 and installed then-MPP and party leader Tim Hudak as premier, Niagara-West Glanbrookians of all political persuasions would have found themselves in the centre of provincial politics, even if only by association.

Instead, Niagara made its mark in a different way two years later. We elected the youngest MPP in Ontario’s history: 19-year-old Sam Oosterhoff. In fact, the MPP will turn 20 in August, meaning he was barely past 18 when elected last autumn.

Whether this electoral distinction is a positive one is, evidently,  dependent upon who’s doing the distinguishing. The voters who sent Oosterhoff to Queen’s Park would likely call it an honour. Others, such as writer Julie Mannell, apparently see it as a horror.

In “The Comfort Maple myth,” which ran in the Voice on February 8 and is surely one of the most debated articles in the paper’s history, Ms. Mannell is grim about what Oosterhoff’s election signifies. “Something is going awry in the community,” she writes. “Something ugly.” This is not the first time Mannell has written about her hometown. In 2016, in the online magazine The Puritan, she published, “Small Town A**hole,” a confessional memoir that focuses primarily on her relationship with Fonthill. Mannell is nothing if not a persistent provocateur. To understand more fully how she feels about Pelham, and why she is so critical of it, “Small Town…” should be read alongside “The Comfort Maple myth.”

(Fair warning: “Small Town…” runs 42,000 words. Novels start at 50,000 words. If every page of this issue of the Voice—including the front page—were covered only in text, with no ads, and no photos, you would still need an additional two full pages to fit 42,000 words. In short: brew a pot of coffee, generously dilute with Irish whiskey, and settle in for a long evening.)

The myth of the Comfort Maple is common to the two essays. This is fitting, since Mannell argues in both that the tree is symbolic of greater ills plaguing Pelham. She was uncomfortable with the state of our town while growing up here, and now, when she returns from the outside world, feels compelled to expose Pelham’s ugly truths. But contrary to Mannell’s argument, the real lesson of the Comfort Maple is not that its story—Pelham’s story—is outright false. No, the real lesson of the Comfort Maple is this: Not all facts are true, and not all truths are facts. To survive as a community, we need to understand how the truth can, and cannot, be factual. Let’s start by comparing cities and towns.

Cities, in general, are built on facts. It’s the only way they’re physically possible—the only way that so many people can fit into skyscrapers and subways. As she says in, “Small Town…,” Mannell is “a city girl now.” This is why her writing about Pelham sounds condescending to some ears (though, to her credit, it’s a painfully self-aware condescension in “Small Town A**hole,” as the title might suggest). It’s as if she’s returned from the city to set straight those who haven’t made the leap to real-world truth.

Towns, in general, are not built on facts, at least not in the way Mannell understands them.

The Comfort Maple is probably not the oldest sugar maple in Canada. It is factually false to say that it is. But this doesn’t mean that the claim is untruthful. Since people don’t mechanically process facts like computers, there’s another form of truth that’s more powerful, and this form of truth is exemplified in religion.

It may not be factually true to say that in the garden of Eden, a snake spoke aloud and convinced the “first woman” to convince the “first man” to eat an apple, and that this is the reason that, “the scales fell from our eyes,” and we lost forever blissful ignorance. This story, like the Comfort Maple myth, is not something that can be factually confirmed. Even the most devout Christian would agree. Even the Comfort Maple’s own website can’t confirm that it’s the oldest in Canada.

But facts are only important as parts of ideas, and ideas are what make up real, meaningful, truth.

An evolutionary anthropologist named Lynne Isbell wanted to understand why humans have such incredible eyesight—vision that is second only to birds of prey. By studying primates, Isbell found that those that evolved in locations with the greatest number of predatory snakes had vastly superior vision to those that evolved elsewhere. She also argues that our capacity to see in complex colour—a rare ability—is due to our ancestors being fruit eaters, since colour vision is a great advantage in determining the ripeness of fruit.

Isbell concludes that snakes and fruit gave us our superior vision and allowed us to see our surroundings clearly—a proposition familiar to anyone acquainted with the book of Genesis.

The point here is that facts alone are not enough to explain how the world—or our town—operates.

When Mannell writes that MPP Sam Oosterhoff is “anti-women,” she is surely referring to the fact that access to abortion is directly correlated with the economic success of women. But what’s essential to understand is that Oosterhoff’s opposition to abortion does not mean he is opposed to women being successful. It means that he believes that there are some things that are more important than economic success.

By now, we’ve all received the MPP’s first newsletter. It’s ironic, coming on the heels of Mannell’s assertions, that we find an all-female cast in his constituency office, photos and brief bios included.

These women must have been surprised to learn from Mannell that, by virtue of their employment, they, too, are “anti-women,” rather than women supportive of a particular view of justice.

The question for Oosterhoff’s staff isn’t, “Does legalized abortion improve the status of women?” but, “Is a fetus a human being?” We can assume that they wouldn’t be working for Oosterhoff if they didn’t believe that fetuses were human, and that aborting the lives of these humans is wrong.

This belief supersedes whether access to abortion improves the lives of one gender—or both genders, for that matter. The debate between Mannell and Oosterhoff is not, as Mannell frames it, between justice and injustice. It’s between definitions of justice.

According to Mannell, Oosterhoff’s reality is defined by an “archaic ideology,” one intolerant and false, despite any comfort it provides to its believers. Like the Comfort Maple, it’s a version of the world that on its own would prefer to die, but is kept alive by those who stubbornly maintain its myths. Yet seen through Oosterhoff’s eyes, Mannell’s reality is untested by time and lacks transcendent truth, a world literally (and literarily) without meaning. How can such opposite concepts of truth, of justice, coexist?

Mannell’s rhetorical road is riddled with potholes. Sam Oosterhoff is not “the embodiment of a teen-movie villain.” He is a respectful young man, in whom a majority of those who chose to vote last autumn placed their faith. We could reasonably argue that these voters are ignorant of what justice truly is, and this is likely Mannell’s point. But scorn is insulting, and tends not to advance any cause of justice.

Many responses to “The Comfort Maple myth” showed that when attacked for their beliefs, people will defend themselves with those beliefs—and, in many cases, attack right back.

This sort of circular combat degenerates to the point that those who see justice differently can’t even speak reasonably with each other. People you can’t talk to become your enemies. And enemies don’t live together; they fight. Neighbours who are fighting instead of talking are wasting the tremendous potential for understanding that exists in small towns.

Accepting the possibility that you may be wrong is essential to living in civilized society. Nobody knows everything. This is accepted by religious people when they use faith to fill the void in their knowledge. They believe that something exists which transcends the knowable. Non-religious members of society must accept that they, too, do not have a comprehensive understanding of all that is good and true, what is right and just.

Absolutism in any form is dangerous. Sam Oosterhoff owes the majority of this riding’s residents, the 83% who did not vote for him—or for anyone, having failed to show up at the polls—the same respect as the 17% who did. He must listen to his opponents in good faith. Julie Mannell makes the case for poetry as a source of truth. But poets aren’t infallible. They are as prone to prejudice and dogmatism as the rest of us.

If you want to improve your hometown, you have to accept that perhaps, just maybe, you don’t know what’s wrong with it. And then go to public meetings; get politically involved; go to the churches; go to the poetry slams of those you disagree with; don’t refuse to engage with those whose vision of justice is starkly different to yours. Participate in public life as if our individual lives depended on it, because in the end they probably do.

It may be that the Comfort Maple is not the oldest sugar maple in Canada. Or maybe it is. Stories that survive for centuries usually do so for a reason. Either way, before we tear down the tree and open up the earth, we ought at least to discuss, if not agree on, what could occupy the hole its absence would create. ♦

Samuel Piccolo has lived in Pelham for 15 years, attending E.W. Farr, Pelham Centre, and E.L Crossley. He has spent a substantial amount of time in Ottawa and Toronto, and is fascinated both by big cities and small towns. He is finishing a degree in Political Science and Economics at Brock University. He shortly will be moving away from Pelham for a while, but hopes that it won’t be forever.

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The Voice of Pelham
Pelham's independent news source from the heart of Niagara.