When Toronto's police chief more or less confirmed last week the existence of a video showing Mayor Rob Ford smoking crack, the reaction was mostly the same as it would be anywhere -- a collection of disappointment, anger and condemnation. But mixed in was something more telling: a pervasive concern about what the world would think.
"He's embarrassed [Toronto] in a world class manner," read a typical tweet; variations on that theme included "He's making Toronto look bad" and "He has been an ongoing embarrassment to the city, at home and abroad." A city councilor worried that "this is getting spread globally," while the Canadian Press published a compendium of damning foreign coverage.
That concern says more about Toronto, and by extension Canada, than Ford's crack video. Canada's largest city, where I grew up, is a sprawling, crowded, diverse, fabulously wealthy and increasingly exciting place. It's Canada's New York City (the nation's finance capital), San Francisco (technology) and Los Angeles (entertainment) put together, and is by almost every measure a world-class city. There's only one thing holding it back: An adolescent's obsession over what other people think of it.
Toronto's enduring insecurity stems in great part from the city's proximity to New York, inviting a comparison that inevitably leaves it looking dull and gray. A friend who returned to Toronto after living in Manhattan once told me that for the first year he was back, he thought he was dead.
Torontonians have developed a range of defenses in response, emphasizing (perhaps a little too loudly) their city's cleanliness, safety and affordability; its multiculturalism; and its general niceness. And beneath that veneer, we not-so-secretly long to be granted an equal footing, to be seen among the first tier of cities
So it isn't surprising that residents worry their mayor's indelicate personal habits might complicate Toronto being recognized as part of that group. But they're also being goaded by Ford's opponents, who have tried to take advantage of the city's, and the country's, fear of international opprobrium.
How so? As anyone who grew up in the shadow of bigger countries can tell you, there are three types of provincialism: fawning ("I wish they would notice us!"), scornful ("We're obviously better than them"), and scolding ("If we don't do this, they'll think poorly of us"). Those who disagree with Ford's policies have embraced the third tendency -- let's call it weaponized provincialism -- warning their fellow Torontonians that failing to renounce Ford will further jeopardize their standing in the eyes of others.
Thus columnists who dislike Ford's pomposity, his disdain for the city's downtown core and his hostility to critics (all fair points) latched onto the drug revelations -- and their effect on the city's image -- as a new front in their argument.
The scandal "poses a threat to the success of Canada's biggest city," wrote Globe and Mail columnist Marcus Gee. Only once Ford is gone can Toronto "start rebuilding its image at home and abroad," added the Toronto Star's Royson James.
Even new Torontonians have caught on. Richard Florida, the "Creative Class" maven whose decision to live in Toronto validates the city's aspirations, cut to the heart of Torontonians' status anxiety, warning when the drug allegations first surfaced that "The collateral damage to the city's once-vaunted reputation will sting for years to come."
There are plenty of good reasons to wish that Rob Ford weren't Toronto's mayor, which Florida and others have persuasively catalogued. But if those reasons aren't enough to change the minds of his supporters, there's no sense resorting to ominous warnings about global censure. Toronto is too great a city to go on being shackled to that kind of insecurity.
Instead of surrendering to their fear of being judged, maybe Torontonians should look at the Ford mess as an opportunity to embrace the final status marker of a truly global city: no longer caring what other people think. What could be more New York than that?
(Christopher Flavelle is a member of Bloomberg View's editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)