Monday, March 20, 2006

It is quite fashionable to trash holidays, either for becoming overly commercial or being the product of flawed or unjust origins, but to my knowledge St. Patrick's Day is relatively immune to long polemics of any sort. It is perplexing, given that St. Patrick's Day has to be the single shallowest, dullest instance of mass cultural conformity in this country, other than maybe New Year's Eve. The point of St. Patrick's Day, aside from wearing green, appears to be nothing more than mindless, thoughtful, egregiously stupid drinking. It is a cultural event with all the significance and poorly-conceived circular logic of, oh, I don't know, the MuchMusic VJ search. Such celebrities are celebrities solely by virtue of being famous and on television; St. Patrick's Day is a holiday when people go drinking because it's St. Patrick's Day.

It is an act of immense and pathetic conformity to mass culture, not in virtue of statistic attesting to the proportion of Canadians between a given age who drank alcohol, but in the undeniably large number who find themselves compelled to drink on March 17, conveniently falling on a Friday this year. Of course, you might say, these people just want to have a good time, or that it's a Friday night. Granted, those who do get trashed, smashed, or whatever euphemism we wish to substitute for someone whose idea of a good time is the obliteration of any memory whatsoever of that good time, on St. Patrick's hardly require a rationale to do so. However, that the seventeenth day of March is a good time to do so rather than the eighteenth (a Saturday) is purely arbitrary. The vacuous nature of dullards all around downtown (and elsewhere) is simultaneously comical and tear-inducing. It is astonishing to observe that people of all sorts, or so they say at least, all do the same thing on any given night. Despite the fact that St. Patrick's Day lacks the cultural centrality of Christmas or even New Year's, it is quite common to ask someone, "what're you doing on St. Patty's?".

The hundreds lined up outside the Irish Embassy Pub on Yonge Street are a testament to the mind-numbing conformity we see on St. Patrick's Day, but maybe a larger testament to the irony of liberalism. Given that all are now free to pursue whatever it is they please, so long as it does not impinge upon the freedom of others to do as they please, most actually do the same things. The degree of choice for middle-class Torontonians on a night such as Friday, or any other Friday for that matter, seems to be where and how they will choose to get drunk.

Regardless of whether your cred is Bay Street, Queen Street, Bloor Street or elsewhere, the only difference will be the predictable way in which you try to be unique. Will it be the life of an honour-lover, aspiring to Model UN conferences and boasting earnings of "160 clean!" or that of a faux-hipster who wears thrift-store clothing and bug-eyed sunglasses just like everyone else? Will you drink at the Green Room or Jump?

The sad reality is that the absence of values, not of the familial or religious sort, but the sort by which we can say that something is good or bad, has created a woeful state of conformity. As economist and philosopher E.F. Schumacher once wrote, we know how to do a lot of things, but not what to do. So, we do what everyone else does; there is no reason not to given that everything is acceptable, though not good as that term implies an essentialist pronouncement. Of a school with tens of thousands of students, there is a strong likelihood that the overwhelming majority spent the weekend either 'partying', an intentional equivocation, or 'studying', another intentional equivocation, depending on various factors. How many, then, engaged in a good conversation, read a book, watched a movie, learned something or generally did something for itself rather than for its perceived instrumentality?

There is also a strong likelihood that you are thinking something along the lines of "it's my life and I have the right to what I want, so shut up". I'm delivering a haymaker to a straw man when I say that my argument is not a legal one or one of rights, but merely one of living a somewhat thoughtful and principled life. The conformity of which I speak and criticize so sharply is the product of simply living your life; falling back to an exercise of rights or some other argument in the tradition of liberalism is no defense at all, not to mention the admission of there being no possible defense.

It requires no eloquence or jargon to issue the imperative of thinking about the life you lead and the actions you take rather than simply doing them because of convention. The distinction I am making is that of knowledge and opinion. We may have been inculcated with the best beliefs, be they the ones that bring us the most pleasure or the ones that are considered most acceptable, but beliefs are just that: flimsy opinions that stand in stark contrast to knowledge or any sort of understanding.

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