NPF: PULLING RANK

Posted in No Politics Friday on June 19th, 2009 by Ed

My longtime friend and reader Scott pointed me toward this Daily Telegraph list of the 10 best and worst cities on Earth according to Mercer, Inc., a company which apparently gets paid to come up with really, stunningly obvious (and elitist) information for the corporate titans. Such lists appear regularly and spark time-killing message board debates. I'll save you the trouble of clicking through the list: Europe is good. South America does not exist. Nor does the U.S. Africa is bad. Very, very bad.

Did someone really need to pay Mercer, Inc. to tell us that Bangui, Baghdad, Kinshasa, Khartoum, and most of the Congo are sweltering, violent, and pestilent shitholes? Likewise, did we need yet another slide show-style affirmation of the awesomeness of Vancouver, Auckland, Vienna, Frankfurt, and other places with 99.7% white populations and exorbitant costs of living? I have not yet been in a position to be a world traveller, but I always have a hard time imagining these places to be either as great or as awful as magazine rankings suggest. People tend to see these lists and picture themselves living in the World's #1 Metropolis where the streets are paved in candy and fairies grant one's every wish. At the same time we are to imagine the untold horrors of living in the average African superslum with curiosity and revulsion. Would I bet that Bern, Switzerland or Auckland or Frankfurt are great? Would I bet that Africa's conurbations of 10,000,000 people with no effective government are shitty? Yes and yes. But rather than turning me on or off of these places, such rankings always make me want to go. To find out what it's really like.

More importantly, the cultural and class biases inherent in these lists are interesting. I have a very hard time believing, for instance, that Lahore, Pakistan or any of India's obscenely crowded asylums are any better than N'Djamena or Port-au-Prince. Everything I have ever heard from travellers to the subcontinent suggests that its megacities have everything the suicidal tourist could want: crime (both petty and violent), unfathomable pollution, ineffective governance, oppressive heat, diseases that opportunistically attack our Western constitutions, and an overpowering sense of filth and crapulence. But India is a "good" non-Western country now, ripe with investment and job-siphoning opportunities. Mercer can't say anything bad about Calcutta to its rich, outsource-happy Western clients. That would be rude.

My India-travelling friends also report in the same breath the many things they loved about India or Pakistan. That's why I always greet these lists with skepticism. People live in and travel to "the worst" places every day and it is not always clear to me in what way these cities are supposed to be inferior to the dozens of other shitty cities dotting the globe. These lists feel like little more than periodic reminders of the unfettered glories of teutonic, Aryan European outdoor museums like Vienna and the sweaty, barbaric other-ness of Africa. Coincidentally, the "worst" lists conveniently omit some countries renowned for their horrendous urban ghetto-cities – China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Southeast Asia, etc. – when they happen to be our latest low-cost trading partners of convenience.

All that said, I do find the topic fascinating. What are the best and worst places you've been?