The Best of Times

Tale of Two CitiesI was overcome this weekend with an urge to re-read Charles Dickens’ masterpiece, A Tale of Two Cities. I suspect it’s because of its brilliant, powerful opening. That opening epitomizes for me Collingwood’s municipal election and the dichotomy between the two camps: positive versus negative. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

I was downtown Saturday, shopping in the farmers’ market and local stores when the urge came over me. Ducking into Sandra’s little used-book store on Ontario Street, I found a copy. I sat on a bench downtown and read the first two chapters while Susan browsed in a nearby store. Wonderful stuff.

I carried it home (where it joins a couple of other editions of the same title). It’s actually a nice edition (shown in the cover image on the right); paired with another superb novel by Dickens: Great Expectations. Which title might also be said to reflect the overall tone of this election: all the expectations every candidate and his or her followers have for the outcome (I’m sure Terry Fallis would do it justice…).

The opening paragraph of Dickens’ novel reads:

IT WAS the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way- in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

That could easily be said reflect claims and counter-claims this election. It doesn’t need to be changed at all to be framed in a modern context.*

What with the incumbent candidates praising our economic growth, excellent financial management and openness, the contenders claim the sky is falling, flapping on about non-existent debt, facilities allegedly collapsing about our ears or imaginary “back room deals,” it surely seems like we have a choice between the “best of times” and the “worst of times” candidates.

The epoch of belief? In the accomplishments of council this term. Incredulity? The angry bloggers.

Light and darkness? Hope and despair? Everything versus nothing? Heaven and Hell?

Doesn’t that sound like some of the election speeches and literature you’ve encountered this campaign season? The polarized opposites present in this campaign are all there, albeit in somewhat stylized form. Insert the glass half-full versus glass-half-empty metaphor.

Chicken LittleI’ve said from the beginning this election is a choice between the positive and the negative attitudes, between those with a vision for the future and those who can only despair over our present. Between the high road and the personal attacks Between factual accomplishment and Chicken Little’s dire warnings of an incipient collapse of sky.**

I, of course, am one of those on the positive side, among the incumbents shouting out this term’s accomplishments and achievements, trying to spread the light and the hope. I want to believe you agree, and have voted for us, rather than succumb to the darkness, the despair and the insidious, creeping negativity.

It’s a choice between four more years of cooperation, effective governance and progress – as we’ve had this term – or four years of squabbling, dissension and chaos (as we had in a previous term)..

The poet Miller Williams asked, in Of History and Hope,

…how do we fashion the future? Who can say how
except in the minds of those who will call it Now?

We fashion the future by our choices today. We set the height of tomorrow’s governance bar and the standards by which we measure our community’s successes by marking a little box on today’s ballot.

What future did you choose? Did you vote for the best of times, or for the worst?


* As the description on the Penguin Books site notes, the story is all about the juxtaposition between opposites, just as our election is:

Beginning and ending with some of English literature’s most famous lines, Charles Dickens’s novel of the French Revolution thrives on tensions—the tensions inherent in those lines, tensions among people and conflicting beliefs, tensions that drive the forces of history. Much of the tension in A Tale of Two Cities is embodied in pairings, in comparisons and polarities: in that opening passage (best, worst; wisdom, foolishness; belief, incredulity; Light, Darkness; and so on), in political unrest (France, England; England, America), in social and economic strife (French aristocrats, underclass), and in characters, most notably the lookalikes Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton, but also numerous other confrontations and encounters. Tensions large and small give this powerful historical novel a sense of both urgency and intimacy.

** Sometimes the negativity voiced against council’s accomplishments strikes me remarkably like this Monty Python skit…

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