The old, illogical morality: The Kindly Ones and Darkness at Noon.

Note: This is the third in a cache of old abandoned blog posts I recently recovered from a rarely-used laptop. The “project” I allude to below is the novel I’m currently wrapping up, about which more soon.

In preparation for a project I’m thinking of attempting, I’ve been doing some research on life behind the Iron Curtain. To this end I was recently reading Anne McElvoy’s The Saddled Cow: East Germany’s Life and Legacy, in which she interviews Wolfgang Leonhard, a “former comrade” of longtime East German ruler Erich Honecker. Leonhard recalls of the leader-to-be:

He had the main characteristic I would consider essential for success as a young functionary: absolutely average intelligence. In a communist party on the Stalinist model, you have to have a good memory and an ability to absorb reams of resolutions and turn them into directives, so you need a certain basic intelligence. You can’t be plain dumb, as was required under the Nazis, because the ideology is much more complicated. But you can’t be too intelligent, because people of above-average intellect have a tendency to challenge the arcana, to spot its flaws, which makes them disobedient.

Did the Nazis require their members to be “plain dumb”? To some degree we must defer to the old comrade’s experience. As a youth in the Third Reich, Leonhard must have met many Nazis, and maybe they were on the whole dumber than his Communist acquaintances – although one doubts his impartiality. Certainly Nazism and its Fascist sister-governments had their share of intelligent sympathizers, from Martin Heidegger to Robert Brasillach to Ezra Pound; and I suspect if those governments had remained on the scene longer, they would eventually have accumulated a body of Western intellectual fellow-travellers like those that forgave and justified all Communism’s “mistakes” and “excesses”. But it’s hard to say.

Leonhard’s comment brought to mind a scene in The Kindly Ones, Jonathan Littell’s disturbing novel of World War II. Our narrator and “hero”, the intelligent and cultured SS officer Dr. Maximilian Aue, as punishment for having displeased his superior, is transferred to Stalingrad just as the Germans are losing control of that city to the Soviet counterattack. There, amid the rubble and sickness and squalor, he interviews a captured enemy politruk – a Communist Party member assigned to a Soviet army unit to build morale and ensure obedience to the party line. Their conversation runs for several pages and makes a useful crib sheet on the differences and similarities between the two totalitarianisms. Here’s how the politruk sums it up:

“[O]ur ideologies have this basic thing in common, which is that they are both essentially deterministic; racial determinism for you, economic determinism for us, but determinism all the same. We both believe that man doesn’t freely choose his fate, but that it is imposed on him by nature or history. And we both draw the conclusion that objective enemies exist, that certain categories of human beings can and must legitimately be eliminated not for what they’ve done or even thought, but for what they are. In that, we differ only in the definition of the categories: for you, the Jews, the Gypsies, the Poles, and even, I believe, the mentally ill; for us, the Kulaks, the bourgeois, the Party deviationists. At bottom, it’s the same thing; we both reject the homo economicus of the capitalists, the egotistical, individualistic man trapped in his illusion of freedom, in favor of a homo faber: Not a self-made man but a made man, you might say in English, or a man yet to be made, since communist man must still be constructed, educated, just like your perfect National Socialist. And this man-to-be-made justifies the pitiless liquidation of everything that is uneducable, and thus justifies the NKVD and the Gestapo, gardeners of the social body, who tear out the weeds and force the good plants to follow their stakes.”

This politruk, like Aue, has been sent to the front after falling out of favour with his superiors. He bears a passing resemblance to Rubashov, the main character in Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, a high-ranking commissar and veteran of the Revolution who is imprisoned on trumped-up charges and tried as a “Party deviationist”. In his diary Rubashov writes:

We [Communists] have learnt history more thoroughly than the others. We differ from all others in our logical consistency. We know that virtue does not matter to history, and that crimes remain unpunished; but that every error has its consequences and venges itself unto the seventh generation. Therefore we concentrated all our efforts on preventing error and destroying the very seeds of it. Never in history has so much power over the future of humanity been concentrated in so few hands as in our case. Each wrong idea we follow is a crime committed against future generations. Therefore we have to punish wrong ideas as others punish crimes: with death.

History put me where I stood; I have exhausted the credit which she accorded me; if I was right I have nothing to repent of, if wrong, I will pay.

Following this logic, Rubashov convinces himself of the historical necessity of his own annihilation. He willingly confesses to the absurd charges against him and abases himself at his show trial.

Just as Darkness at Noon illustrates the thought processes by which an intelligent man can arrive at the conclusion that his own life must be sacrificed to the vaunted triumph of the Classless Society, The Kindly Ones shows how an intelligent man can convince himself of the necessity of exterminating whole ethnicities deemed inconvenient to the security of the state. At one point Dr. Aue accepts an invitation to dinner at Adolf Eichmann’s apartment and finds himself instructing his host on the finer points of their shared ideology – specifically, how it can be reconciled with Kant’s categorical imperative. (At his 1961 trial in Israel, Eichmann would arouse indignation by proclaiming, as Hannah Arendt recounts in Eichmann in Jerusalem,

that he had lived his whole life according to Kant’s moral precepts, and especially according to a Kantian definition of duty.

Arendt expresses surprise that Eichmann, questioned by a judge on this point, is able to supply “an approximately correct definition of the categorical imperative”.)

At his dinner party, Eichmann listens eagerly as his educated guest explains how Kant’s philosophy of individual will can be reconciled with the Führerprinzip, the principle that in the Third Reich “the Führer’s words have the force of law”:

“You have to live out your National Socialism by living your own will as if it were the Führer’s … Whoever only obeys orders like an automaton, without examining them critically to penetrate their inner necessity, does not work closer to the Führer; most of the time, he distances himself from him. … All law must rest on a foundation. Historically, this has always been a fiction or an abstraction – God, the King, or the People. Our great advance has been to base the legal concept of the Nation on something concrete and inalienable: the Volk, whose collective will is expressed by the Führer who represents it. When you say Frei sein ist Knecht sein [To be free is to be a vassal], you have to understand that the foremost vassal of all is precisely the Führer, since he is nothing but pure service. We are not serving the Führer as such, but as the representative of the Volk, we serve the Volk and must serve it as the Führer serves it, with total abnegation. That’s why, confronted with painful tasks, we have to bow down, master our feelings, and carry them out with firmness.”

It’s possible that the mental convolutions necessary to overcoming the evident contradictions of Communism and National Socialism make those ideologies more appealing to intelligent people; it is precisely their affront to common sense that make them attractive to those, like Rubashov and Dr. Aue, who justly perceive themselves as uncommon. No particular genius is necessary to observe that mass murder is wrong. It takes a nimble mind to argue that the grand march of history dictates the necessity of submitting to this distasteful duty.

Rubashov, on the eve of his execution, begins to doubt the result to which his reasoning has led him:

For forty years he had lived strictly in accordance with the vows of his order, the Party. He had held to the rules of logical calculation. He had burnt the remains of the old, illogical morality from his consciousness with the acid of reason. … And where had it landed him? Premises of unimpeachable truth had led to a result which was completely absurd … Perhaps it was not suitable for a man to think every thought to its logical conclusion.

Perhaps not, but how are we to know when to abandon logic except by logically analyzing the problem? Some like to imagine there’s an invisible thread wound around our hearts that will, if we let it, guide us back to the light when logic leads us astray. Call this thread God, or conscience, or common humanity. But the history of the last century demonstrates that the thread, if it exists, is easy to sever, and that far from feeling lost without it, we gloat over our freedom.


Over-noticing minorities.

Note: Instead of updating my blog, I’ve been busy writing my first novel, about which more soon. However, I recently rediscovered on a little-used laptop a cache of abandoned blog posts which I’ll be publishing over the next few days. Some, like this one, refer to news stories that are now a couple years out of date, but I hope you’ll still find them relevant. Here’s the second one…

I can’t remember what chain of links I followed, but the other day I wound up re-reading Ron Unz’s 2012 article The Myth of American Meritocracy in The American Conservative. Unz begins by setting out to prove that Ivy League and other elite universities’ admission policies supposedly designed to reflect America’s diversity have the perverse effect of discriminating against Asian applicants. But in the course of his very long (22,000 words) article he brings in numerous other examples of bias, corruption, and carpetbagging to illustrate his argument that current policies are “selecting future American elites which are not meritocratic nor diverse, neither being drawn from our most able students nor reasonably reflecting the general American population.”

Unz makes the case for replacing the current opaque and arbitrary admissions system with one where the majority of places are assigned by lottery. He calls his scheme “the Outer Ring and the Inner Ring”: the Outer Ring of (say) 80% of each year’s incoming class would be selected randomly from the huge pool of applicants who met basic academic standards, while the smaller Inner Ring would be admitted strictly on academic merit. Unz thinks this system would be fairer, lead to more genuine diversity, and as a bonus, by distributing talented students more evenly across the nation’s campuses, would deal a blow to “the sort of arrogance found among too many of today’s elite college graduates”.

I have no comment on the article, except to say that it seems reasonable and it holds up on a second reading. Incidentally, it’s essential background information for understanding a recent news item from California, where lawmakers in spring 2014 declined to revisit the state constitutional amendment (passed by ballot initiative in 1996) that forbids consideration of race in admissions to state universities. The Democratic majority, heavily dependent on minority voters, would like to bring back racial preferences to increase enrolment of blacks and Latinos, but Asians, another significant Democratic constituency, are worried any attempt to tweak the campus ethnic mix would come chiefly at their children’s expense. (At present Asians are hugely overrepresented in California state universities, relative to their share of the college-age population, while blacks and Hispanics are significantly underrepresented.)

University of California Freshman Enrollees By Race 2010

University of California Freshman Enrollees By Race 2010

So thanks to the lobbying of several Asian state senators, California’s current race-blind admissions policy will continue unchanged, at least for now.

Anyway, though all that is interesting, it’s not what I wanted to write about. I was struck by this sentence, buried down around the 18,000-word mark:

So perhaps many college administrators may have little idea about which ethnic groups are already enrolled above parity and which are below, instead taking their marching orders from an amorphous academic narrative which valorizes “racial diversity.”

To support this conjecture, Unz points to a 2001 Gallup poll that asked Americans to estimate what percentage of the country’s population was black and what percentage Hispanic. The correct answer at that time was 12.3% for blacks and 12.5% for Hispanics. (Since then the black percentage has stayed about the same, while Hispanics have crept up to around 17%.) How accurate were people’s guesses?

[S]lightly less than one in 10 Americans can accurately identify that the population of either blacks or Hispanics in this country falls between 10% and 14%. The typical American estimates the percentages of blacks and Hispanics in this country to be more than twice as high as they actually are.

On average, Americans say that 33% of the U.S. population is black. In fact, a majority of Americans (56%) estimate that the percentage of blacks in this country stands at 30% or higher. As many as 17% of Americans say the percentage of blacks is 50% or greater. Only 7% accurately state that the percentage of blacks falls between 10% and 14% of the entire population.

Americans’ impressions about the percentage of Hispanics in this country are somewhat more accurate … Americans, on average, say that 29% of the U.S. population is Hispanic.

This confusion wasn’t limited to the poor and ill-educated. Even among holders of postgraduate degrees, the mean estimate for the black population was 25%. A couple years ago Razib Khan looked at another survey (from the year 2000) with similar results. This survey included questions about Asians and Jews, whose numbers college graduates exaggerated by a factor of four.

To repeat, these polls were taken over a decade ago, but I can’t see any reason to believe people are better informed today. I was curious to see whether we were equally confused about the number of gays and lesbians in our midst, and it turns out, yup, Gallup asked that question too, back in 2011. The headline says it all: U.S. Adults Estimate That 25% of Americans Are Gay or Lesbian. Twenty-five percent! Of course defining who is or isn’t gay is even harder than drawing borders around the different races, but as Gallup points out, most statisticians put the number of gays, lesbians, and bisexuals together at under 5% of the population. Even in Alfred Kinsey’s famously loosey-goosey data set, gathered by more or less seeking out the kinkiest people he could find then asking them to send round all their kinkiest friends, only 10% of men were willing to admit they’d had a homosexual experience.

At first blush, you might expect this extraordinary evidence of our statistical ignorance to explain a lot about the way people think about race and sexual orientation. But on further reflection, it’s not obvious that it tells us much of anything, besides that people are terrible at counting.

To illustrate: All three of the surveys broke out the results by respondent’s political persuasion, showing that liberals and conservatives were about equally likely to overestimate the numbers of minorities. Conservatives tended to be a shade more realistic in their guesses, but there’s no way to tell if that’s because conservatives are better acquainted with demographics or just that they tend to live in districts where fewer minorities are around, mitigating their tendency to over-notice. Either way, it seems that liberals and conservatives, working from the same faulty assumptions, arrive at opposite policy conclusions – just as better-informed thinkers working from actual demographic data reach opposite conclusions about contentious issues around race and sexual identity.

For instance, these surveys explain why liberals find it so galling that straight white men continue to clog up Congress, corporate boardrooms, university faculties, news anchor desks, and movie screens. Take this article in the Hollywood Reporter a couple years back, which complains that “black actors have been losing ground. In the early 2000s, blacks played 15% of roles in film and TV. Today, it has fallen to 13%.” If you start from the assumption that a third or more of Americans are black, well, then yes, this modest decline does seem outrageous. If you recognize that blacks were in fact slightly overrepresented before the decline, the outrage is harder to sustain.

On the other hand, based on the same survey results I suppose it’s fair to condemn conservatives – most of whom, remember, also believe the inflated minority numbers – as insufficiently concerned over minority underrepresentation.

Liberals and conservatives alike (though in different contexts) evoke the name of Science, or Data, or The Facts, and imagine that their ideological opponents would come around if they were only exposed to them. But I doubt it would make much difference. People are quite adept at finding in the facts confirmation for whatever they already believe.



Tipping isn’t going anywhere soon.

Note: Instead of updating my blog, I’ve been busy writing my first novel, about which more soon. However I recently rediscovered on a little-used laptop a cache of abandoned blog posts from a couple years ago, which I’ll be hammering into shape and publishing over the next few days. Here’s the first one…

I should start by saying that I agree with much of this article by Elizabeth Gunnison Dunn in Esquire, “Why Tipping Should Be Outlawed“.

Tipping is an illogical custom. Why do we tip a percentage of the bill? As Dunn writes, “Did a server work less because I ordered a $40 bottle of wine than if I had ordered a $400 one?” Why do we tip some servers but not others, bartenders but not Burger King button-pushers? Many of the services we tip for are things average folks don’t have much experience with – I didn’t encounter a parking valet until I was in my late twenties, and when I did, I had no idea when or how much to tip him. Luckily I muffed it on the side of over-tipping, because otherwise I might have made that valet surly without knowing why. Do we need additional opportunities in our lives for confusion, apprehension, and resentment?

Still, I think Dunn too airily waves away the many strong reasons for tipping to persist. For instance, consider her assertion that “Better service doesn’t actually beget better tips.” To back this up, she claims that “perceived service quality only accounts for two percent of the variation between tips” and links to a study by Michael Lynn that includes that figure.

But what does “two percent of the variation” actually mean? You need to go to an earlier paper by the same author, “Restaurant Tips and Service Quality: A Tenuous Relationship“, to see the original statistical analysis, which is beyond me. But here Lynn provides some concrete examples, like:

Increasing service ratings from 3 to 5 (on a 5 point scale) raises the median tip by less than 3 percent of the bill in all four of the studies where sample sizes make this comparison meaningful and by less than 1 percent of the bill in two of those studies.

So according to these four studies, on a $100 bill, the server who gives 5-star service will be tipped roughly $1-3 more than the one who gives 3-star service. That’s not much, but it adds up over the length of a shift. The question is, how easy is it for a server to improve her service ratings from 3-star to 5-star?

Lynn establishes that there’s little relationship between the size of the tip and the perceived quality of the service:

Consumers who rated the service as excellent sometimes left tips of 0 to 5 percent, so small tips do not always mean that the tipper was dissatisfied with service. Furthermore, consumers who rated the service as poor sometimes left tips of 20-25 percent, so not everyone who is dissatisfied with the service leaves small tips. In general, the weak relationship between tips and service evaluations means that tips are a poor indicator of customer satisfaction or dissatisfaction.

That’s true. But he doesn’t address whether some servers are consistently able to receive 5-star service ratings and therefore consistently claim that 1-3 percentage point 5-star service premium.

I know from my own behaviour that even in cases of exceptionally bad service I’m loath to tip below 15%, and that unless extremely inebriated I’m unlikely to tip as high as 25%. Most of the variation in my tipping comes from two factors. One, I’m not that good at doing math in my head, so every once in a while I accidentally give a $3.50 tip on a $35 bill. Two, when I pay with cash, the tip may depend on what bills I happen to have in my wallet. When splitting a bill with friends, I’d be annoyed to think that our server’s performance was being evaluated on the basis that when it came time to settle the bill, none of us had a five.

That doesn’t mean our interactions with the server have no impact on whether or not we ask her to break a twenty. I think Dunn is confused by Lynn’s custom of differentiating between what he calls “service quality” and “server behaviours”. The latter are the little tricks servers use to elicit more generous tips, like introducing yourself to the customer by name, making physical contact, and drawing a smiley face on the cheque (which apparently works for female servers only). I think I understand what Lynn intends by separating these two categories – “service quality” would include the server’s ability to accurately describe menu items and give directions to the bathroom, while “server behaviours” would be stuff like smiling, joking, flirting, and being nice. In other words, “service quality”, as defined by Lynn, excludes a whole lot of things that you or I would consider fundamental to good service.

Now as we’ve seen, “service quality” doesn’t make much difference to the size of the tip. “Server behaviours“, however, make a huge difference. For instance, introducing yourself by name adds 8 percentage points to a tip. Touching a customer’s arm adds 5 percentage points. So when Dunn says “Better service doesn’t actually beget better tips”, all she means is that memorizing the specials won’t help a server pay her student loans. Flirting, smiling, and joking will.

And it seems that – at least if you’re white – “service quality” does make a significant difference. In another study co-authored by Flynn, we learn that at one southern restaurant over one lunch hour, white servers who received a perfect 5/5 rating on “service quality” enjoyed tips 6.6 percentage points higher than those who received a less-than-perfect rating. Black servers, meanwhile, were tipped a few fractions of a percentage point below the less-than-perfect white servers even when they had perfect ratings. Lynn et al interpret this to mean that the black servers were tipped more poorly than their perfect service warranted. (They don’t address the possibility that it was the low tips, and not the high ratings, which accurately measured the customers’ true opinion of the black servers’ performance.)

Despite the small sample size of this study, the authors consider the results robust enough to draw the conclusion that the “disparate impact” of tipping on black employees could constitute a violation of the Civil Rights Act. If so, perhaps the results are robust enough for us to observe that, for a white server, the difference between 5-star and non-5-star service could be almost $7 on a $100 bill.

What would happen if restaurants got rid of tips – say if they followed Dunn’s suggestion that a service charge be “rolled into the cost of the meal”?

Obviously the restaurant that makes this change needs its service charge to be high enough for its servers to earn as much as they were making before in tips, but not so high that customers wind up paying more than the 15-20 percent they would otherwise have tipped. In other words, the service charge needs to be set at about the level of the average tip.

One thing you’d expect to happen over time is that the more successful servers, the ones who were able to reliably attract bigger than average tips – the ones who combine proficiency with a personable manner, the good-looking ones, the ones who know how to flirt, and, disproportionately, the white ones – will all migrate to restaurants where tipping is still allowed, where they can use their tip-eliciting expertise to make more money. The ones left behind will have little motivation to strive to provide 5-star service, let alone to offer those little extras, like calling us by our first name or drawing smiley faces on our bill, that we evidently find so tickling. The restaurant with its enforced average tip will wind up with a below-average staff.

This will tend to mitigate any spontaneous shift in the restaurant industry toward service charges. It would require a really committed social movement to get restaurant managers to overcome their sensible fear that service charges alienate customers and lead to indifferent employees. Frankly I don’t think anyone’s passionate enough to get such a movement started.

So what about Dunn’s idea that tipping should just be banned by law? Well, as she admits,

Between 1909 and 1915 six states passed anti-tipping laws, all of which were repealed by the mid-1920’s as unenforceable or potentially unconstitutional.

There’s no reason to suppose a similar law would be any less unenforceable (or any more constitutional) now than it was then. Tipping may just be one of those pernicious practices we have to live with. Sorry, servers, you must continue at the mercy of our terrible math skills.


PS. I previously discussed Orwell’s comments about tipping in Homage to Catalonia.

Planners versus riders: Metro Vancouver transit after the referendum.

So the results are in from Metro Vancouver’s recent mail-in transit referendum. (Technically a plebiscite, but I’m fuzzy on the distinction.)

The issue on the ballot was a proposed 0.5% sales tax hike to help pay for the so-called Mayors’ Plan, a raft of regional transportation improvements. Specifically:

  1. A tunneled extension of the Skytrain rapid rail line through the busiest stretch of Vancouver’s Broadway corridor;
  2. Two new LRT lines in the fast-growing suburb of Surrey;
  3. A replacement for the past-its-expected-lifespan Patullo bridge between New Westminster and Surrey;
  4. 11 new “B-Line” high-frequency express bus routes;
  5. More trains for Skytrain, more sailings for the Seabus to North Vancouver, more buses, more late-night service – just more transit in general;
  6. Improvements to cycle and walking paths throughout the region.
metro vancouver transit map mayors plan

The Mayors’ Plan.

To the surprise of approximately no-one, the Mayors’ Plan was roundly rejected, by majorities ranging from about 51-49% in Vancouver proper up to 75% in the more distant exurbs.

I voted Yes, as the proposal would have benefited me personally: I take transit regularly, and spend very little, so I would have enjoyed the improved service while barely feeling the pain of higher taxes. However, I sympathize with No voters who objected to that extra fraction on their sales tax on top of the already staggering cost of living in the Lower Mainland.

Since voting ended, the federal government has announced a substantial new fund to support large transit infrastructure projects, and both Surrey and Vancouver have pledged to look into this and other means of achieving their respective rail ambitions. Which means a very possible outcome is that in a decade or so we’ll end up with items 1, 2, and 3 from the list above, but none of the small-beer improvements that would actually have made getting around the region more efficient in the short term.

metro vancouver mayors plan rail proposals

The Mayors’ Plan, big-beer version.

This is a little annoying to me, because although the Broadway subway and Surrey LRT are worthy projects, and the new bridge is probably a necessity, they’re going to suck up all the funds we could have used to make less flashy but far more useful upgrades.

Problem: Rapid transit doesn’t take you to places you want to go.

Transit serves two very different purposes, and it’s easy to forget that those reasons are actually in conflict. The first purpose, the one riders prioritize, is to take you to places you want to go. To your home, your job, your school, a bar, a doctor.

The second purpose is to shape growth – to redirect investment and development to underdeveloped areas – to remake the city. Which is why cities are constantly building rail lines to precisely the places riders don’t want to go. Where there are no homes, no jobs, no schools, no bars, no doctors. Not yet, anyway.

Ideally there should be a balance between serving the first purpose and the second; between the short-term needs of riders, and the long-term goals of city planners. But the planners tend to win out, because they have a pretty strong argument on their side: It’s expensive to build where stuff already is. It’s cheap to build where there’s nothing.

So you wind up with a project like the Skytrain’s Millennium Line, which at the time of its opening in 2002 connected a string of down-at-heels suburban malls and light-industrial zones.

Meanwhile, over a decade later, riders wanting to go to the University of British Columbia, or Stanley Park, or Granville Island, still have to ride the bus.

The two big-ticket transit items in the Mayors’ Plan are a decent balance of short-term and long-term. The Surrey LRT would stop at many a weed-choked lot, but the communities at the extremities of its three arms – Newton, Guildford, and Langley – are already busy, built-up suburban centres. And Vancouver’s Broadway corridor is a thriving business district abutting a dense residential population heavy on renters and students.

The ultimate objective is for the Broadway subway to extend all the way to UBC. Maybe I’ll get to see that before I die, though I wouldn’t bet on it. In the meantime, the plan has the line terminating at Arbutus Street, or not quite halfway.

metro vancouver mayors plan broadway subway

Millennium line subway down Broadway.

Which means that, barring other improvements, taking transit to school from the middle part of the corridor – say, the intersection of Broadway and Oak – will actually be slightly less convenient than it is at present. Instead of boarding an overcrowded express bus that takes you all the way to UBC, you’ll have to travel a couple subway stops and then transfer to an overcrowded express bus. Much of the time you save from having bypassed a few dozen blocks of traffic will be eaten up in transferring and waiting.

Let’s forget about the rail proposals for a second and consider only the express bus routes – the B-Lines – laid out in the Mayors’ Plan.

Metro Vancouver transit map - Mayors' Plan - proposed B-Lines

The Mayors’ Plan, small-beer only.

Absent the subway, the existing Broadway B-Line would remain in operation, but be supplemented by another one along 41st Avenue, creating a more direct route to UBC for students coming from the south and southeast, and alleviating the ridiculous congestion on Broadway.

Two new routes would head east out of downtown Vancouver, helping to relieve the overcrowded Expo/Millennium Line. Another would lead up through the West End and Stanley Park to the North Shore.

What’s missing is an all-day express route directly linking downtown and UBC via the Burrard Bridge and 4th Avenue West, to take further pressure off the Broadway B-Line. [1]

metro vancouver mayors plan b-lines

Proposed B-Lines – with my suggestion (green).

Simon Fraser University, Capilano University, and BCIT would all enjoy all-day express service under the plan. So would Burnaby Heights, Kerrisdale, Hastings Park, Park Royal, White Rock…all places people either already live or might actually want to go.

The initial capital cost for all eleven proposed B-Lines would be a shade under $100 million. On top of that the plan proposes $193 million in “transit priority” upgrades – things like queue-jumper lanes and traffic signal priority for buses. That’s $300 million, total – or about 1/6th of the cost of the Broadway subway.

And unlike the subway, we could be enjoying at least some of these improvements immediately.

Problem: Buses are the worst.

It’s strange, but some folks out in the suburbs aren’t too keen on getting around by bus. Why could this be?

  1. Waiting like a schmuck in the rain or in the sun.
  2. Time listed in the schedule is only an approximation. Did I miss it? Should I just start walking?
  3. Inscrutable notice tacked to bus stop seems to be saying on certain days I have to wait at a different stop two blocks away.
  4. Not sure how to use unfamiliar payment system, driver vaguely hostile when I make a mistake.
  5. Nowhere to sit. Packed shoulder to shoulder with the plebes, swinging from a strap, broiling in summer heat.
  6. Bus stuck in rush hour traffic along with all the idiots in their cars. At least those idiots have air conditioning.
  7. Never been on this route before, not sure when to pull the cord.
  8. Shouldn’t we be turning here? Am I even on the right bus? [2]

Some of these drawbacks are shared by trains. You’re as likely taking a train to be confused at first by the payment system. You’re as likely to be wedged in between a wheelchair and a sweaty hiker’s backpack (although at least on a train the aisle is wider and the ride smoother). There’s still a chance of getting on the wrong train, though the maps conveniently placed above the doors, and the big signs on the wall when you pull into a station, make it easier to recognize when you’ve made a mistake.

It seems to me the main advantages of taking the train are that your waiting area is sheltered from the elements, your route will be clearly mapped and easy to follow, and – of course – the speed and frequency of service.

City planners, with their emphasis on long-term goals over short-term needs, will say: People hate to take the bus. Let’s build new rail lines and attract those people.

Whereas an emphasis on currently existing riders would say: People hate to take the bus. Let’s make the bus-taking experience better.

Let’s build clearly-marked, well-lit, fully-covered platforms instead of rinkydink shelters. Let’s have an electronic timer counting down the minutes till the next departure. Let’s put the payment system at the entrance to the platform so they can board the bus itself more smoothly. Let’s have dedicated bus lanes so that citizens who elect to leave their cars at home actually enjoy a time advantage over drivers of single occupant vehicles. Most importantly, let’s have more and more frequent buses.

The best thing about this strategy is that the cost-savings advantage swings from planners to riders.

If we tripled the $300 million B-Line investments described in the Mayor’s Plan, we could make getting around by bus almost as attractive as taking the train. And it would still cost only half as much as a new rail line. [3]

Specific suggestions for Metro Vancouver in the wake of the plebiscite’s defeat.

I’m not saying let’s not build rail lines. I love rail lines. They’re fast, they move a lot of people, and yes – they attract a lot of new riders to the system. Rail is worth building – when you can afford it.

But if we have to pick and choose which improvements we can afford to make right now, maybe let’s put a little more emphasis on the needs of existing transit riders than the needs of the possible future riders of 2040.

If there are federal infrastructure funds available, instead of blowing them on a couple big rail projects, use them to build platforms and dedicated lanes for express buses. [4] They’re not very glamourous but they’ll get people moving.

Start with the B-Lines proposed in the Mayors’ Plan. Maybe we don’t do all of them right away – I’m not sure we need two separate express buses trundling along Marine Drive in North Vancouver, as the plan proposes. Maybe for now we focus on the most congested corridors.

If there’s a little money left over, get to work on extending the Millennium Line as far as the new Emily Carr University campus scheduled to open in 2017. Then, stop.

Pause to think about whether it’s worthwhile to continue tunneling on down Broadway. Maybe it would make more sense, and be less expensive, to close the gap between the Millennium and Canada Lines by building along 1st Avenue, the old rail corridor, to Olympic Village Station.

Vancouver Skytrain - Millennium Line extension options

Millennium Line extension options.

Maybe a system of east-west express buses down, say, 4th, Broadway, and 41st could do the job of keeping students flowing to and from UBC while relieving congestion on Broadway.

If we choose trains over express buses, I can live with that too. I’m sure I’ll enjoy riding the Broadway subway in 2025 or so. On my not-too-frequent trips out to Guildford, I’ll happily take the LRT.

But when I go to Stanley Park? I’ll drive.


1. My proposed 4th Avenue B-Line would be a slight augmentation of the existing 44 express, which already runs every 10 minutes at peak times on weekdays.

2. Recent technological improvements have made the bus-taking experience significantly better. TransLink has a website that will tell you based on GPS tracking data when your next bus is due to arrive. Smartphones allow you to follow your progress on a map to make sure you’re going where you think you’re going. And the little digital display at the front of the bus showing the next stop makes riding an unfamiliar route much less stressful.

3. To be fair, the ongoing operating costs for the B-Lines would be quite a bit higher. Operating the 11 new proposed routes would cost about $50 million a year, twice as much as the completed Broadway subway.

4. We’ll also need to put aside some money for new off-street parking lots. This is to appease local business owners when we start taking away street parking for bus lanes.

Bertrand Russell and the conquest of narrowness.

I’ve been reading Bertrand Russell’s The Conquest of Happiness, which discusses eight common causes of unhappiness and why we so often succumb to them, and six sources of happiness and how we can attain them. As a person prone to most of the types of unhappiness he explores, I’m finding it a useful and thought-provoking little book.

It was written in 1930, and is therefore a bit dated in its examination of the outward or socially-imposed causes of unhappiness. For instance, I doubt too many men or women nowadays are afflicted with the particular sexual hang-ups Russell identifies as major sources of human misery; we’ve evolved a brand-new set of sexual dysfunctions to be immiserated by. Another cause of unhappiness that has changed somewhat since Russell’s day is what he calls fear of public opinion. Essentially, and commonsensically, he argues that the cure for this fear is to seek out a social milieu where you feel comfortable expressing yourself freely, and in your dealings with hostile outsiders to cultivate a cheerful indifference to their opprobrium. He explains how moderate non-conformity with society’s expectations can improve our collective happiness:

[A] society composed of men and women who do not bow too much to the conventions is a far more interesting society than one in which all behave alike. Where each person’s character is developed individually, differences of type are preserved, and it is worth while to meet new people, because they are not mere replicas of those whom one has met already.

As Russell describes it, the most common threat to individuality comes from small-town prudes and ignoramuses enforcing their prejudices on the young:

A person born, let us say, in some small country town finds himself from early youth surrounded by hostility to everything that is necessary for mental excellence.

Fortunately, he says, big cities provide concentrations of enlightened folk among whom oppressed country youngsters can feel at home, while even in more rural areas, swift modern transportation allows them to range further in their search for sympathetic souls:

The idea that one should know one’s immediate neighbors has died out in large centers of population, but still lingers in small towns and in the country. It has become a foolish idea, since there is no need to be dependent upon immediate neighbors for society. More and more it becomes possible to choose our companions on account of congeniality rather than on account of mere propinquity. Happiness is promoted by associations of persons with similar tastes and similar opinions. Social intercourse may be expected to develop more and more along these lines, and it may be hoped that by these means the loneliness that now afflicts so many unconventional people will be gradually diminished almost to vanishing point. This will undoubtedly increase their happiness … for it is essential to happiness that our way of living should spring from our own deep impulses and not from the accidental tastes and desires of those who happen to be our neighbors, or even our relations.

Prophetically, he concedes that escaping their narrow-minded neighbours won’t always protect freethinkers from the scorn of the majority:

[T]here is a new kind of fear, namely, the fear of what newspapers may say. This is quite as terrifying as anything connected with medieval witch hunts. When the newspaper chooses to make a scapegoat of some perhaps quite harmless person, the results may be very terrible. Fortunately, as yet this is a fate which most people escape through their obscurity; but as publicity gets more and more perfect in its methods, there will be an increasing danger in this novel form of social persecution.

What Russell would have made of social media, one can only guess. He predicts vaguely that libel laws may someday have to be extended to forbid any commentary “that makes life intolerable for innocent individuals”, though he is happy to leave it to the jurists of the future to define what is intolerable and who is innocent. He concludes:

The only ultimate cure for this evil is, however, an increase of toleration on the part of the public. The best way to increase toleration is to multiply the number of individuals who enjoy real happiness and do not therefore find their chief pleasure in the infliction of pain upon their fellow men.

My sense is that while the modern ease of forming “associations of persons with similar tastes and similar opinions” may have increased happiness by allowing isolated people to escape their loneliness, it has done very little to increase toleration. In fact, while we’re undoubtedly more “tolerant” in the modern sense – tolerant of ethnic minorities and sexual experimenters of various types – we’re as likely as ever to anathematize and despise those whose opinions are slightly different from ours. Why make uneasy friendships with our neighbours when we can make easy friendships with people whose beliefs we already know we share? – and if there’s any doubt, we can check their Twitter feed to confirm their beliefs as the correct ones. The modern tendency is to segregate ourselves into ever more exclusive castes based on education and political alignment, so there’s little risk of being forced into an awkward conversation with someone whose ideas might make us uncomfortable. I believe this point has been discussed at book length already by Bill Bishop and Charles Murray, so I won’t belabor it here.

Russell’s comments about the supposed narrowness of small-town life reminded me of a 1905 essay by G.K. Chesterton (reprinted in the 1958 Penguin collection of his Essays and Poems) called “On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family”:

It is not fashionable to say much nowadays of the advantages of the small community. We are told that we must go in for large empires and large ideas. There is one advantage, however, in the small state, the city, or the village, which only the willfully blind can overlook. The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized societies groups come into existence founded upon what is called sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery. There is nothing really narrow about the clan; the thing which is really narrow is the clique. The men of the clan live together because they all wear the same tartan or are descended from the same sacred cow; but in their souls, by the divine luck of things, there will always be more colours than in any tartan. But the men of the clique live together because they have the same kind of soul, and their narrowness is a narrowness of spiritual coherence and contentment, like that which exists in hell. A big society exists in order to form cliques. A big society is a society for the promotion of narrowness. It is a machinery for the purpose of guarding the solitary and sensitive individual from all experience of the bitter and bracing human compromises.

Unlike Chesterton, Bertrand Russell can only imagine the compromises of right-thinkers oppressed by wrong-thinkers: the young person whose parents “believe the doctrine of evolution to be wicked”, for example, or the aspiring actor stifled by the convention that a career on the stage is “socially inferior”. If Chesterton’s “solitary and sensitive individual” has to flee to the big city to escape the influence of clods like these, what’s the downside? Russell doesn’t consider the possibility that the young person might leave behind his narrow provincial background only to take up with a new, even narrower pack of clods.


Nevil Shute’s multiple vote: Would it do any good?

Last month Noah Millman linked to Damian Linker’s overblown argument that the modern Republican Party is actively plotting to disenfranchise the poor. To Linker, a liberal, it goes without saying that this supposed plot, if successful, would have monstrous results. Millman, judicious as always, took a moment to analyze what those monstrous results would actually be.

Millman summarizes two “Randite arguments” he claims to hear on the right for excluding non-taxpayers from the franchise – both of which he goes on to dismiss as “transparently absurd”.

The first argument, as he puts it, is “that it’s unfair for one’s representation to be less than proportional to one’s contribution (therefore people who don’t pay income taxes should not be allowed to vote).”

The second is “that it’s dangerous to give power to the unpropertied (because they don’t have a sufficient stake in stable property rights that promote productive enterprise).”

Having done a bit of browsing on the kind of websites where such sentiments are current, I suspect Millman has phrased these specimens of the “two most common forms” of right-wing anti-democratic thinking in a manner that makes them easier for him to undermine. Even so, I’m not sure he quite does the job.

Taking the points out of order, Millman’s criticism of Randite argument #2 is that we should “read [our] Livy”, and “take a look at the history of Latin America”, to see what chaos can result from entrenching the division between rich and poor. I’m sure Millman knows far more about both those subjects than I do, but in any case it seems obvious that there are a lot of intermediate steps between 21st century America and, say, the late Roman Republic; to argue that we may have extended voting rights a shade too far is not to say they must be rolled back to the days of the Gracchi. We might wish to go only as far as that notorious Randite John Stuart Mill, who conceded in an 1861 treatise in favour of universal suffrage that:

It is important, that the assembly which votes the taxes, either general or local, should be elected exclusively by those who pay something towards the taxes imposed. Those who pay no taxes, disposing by their votes of other people’s money, have every motive to be lavish and none to economize. [1]

On these grounds the compassionate anti-democrat might argue that, even if contracting the franchise does inevitably lead to some social instability, it will compensate by helping ensure the solvency of our institutions; the poor would be better off under a stingier but sounder government than they would be scrabbling in the ruins of a failed republic. (Obviously your receptivity to this argument depends on how much faith you have in the sustainability of the welfare state.)

As for Randite argument #1, the “transparently absurd” notion that representation should be “proportional to one’s contributions” to the state, all Millman really tries to prove is that such a change would be difficult to implement. Apart from taxpayers, any number of interest groups could argue that their non-monetary contributions gave them a moral claim to a greater say in government; Millman identifies soldiers, mothers, and the descendents of slaves as citizens who, whatever their contribution to the treasury, might justly make such a case. And on what principle would we adjudicate these competing interests?

But to say it would be difficult isn’t to say either that it’s impossible or that it shouldn’t be done. We’ve already demonstrated our ability to democratically negotiate various deviations from the ideal of one-person-one-vote. In both the United States and Canada, residents of rural and more remote districts usually have greater weight apportioned to their votes than those who live in urban or more central areas. For instance, the 170,000 residents of the riding of Brampton West, in suburban Toronto, elect as many Members of Parliament – one – as the 26,000 residents of Labrador, making the Labradorian vote roughly six and a half times as weighty as the West Bramptonian. Regardless of whether you think this is fair, few would argue that a parliament elected under such rules was illegitimate, much less that it was incapable of debating whether Labradorian and West Bramptonian votes should be made either more equal or still less so.

In short, there’s no reason a legislative body elected under existing voting rules couldn’t debate and vote on the merits of changing the rules to favour certain voters in subsequent elections. This is in fact what Nevil Shute imagined in his 1953 novel In The Wet.

The novel is set in the then-near future of the early 1980s, mainly in a post-World War III England that is exhausted, impoverished, and stifled by rationing and central planning – not unlike the post-WWII England with which Shute and his contemporary readers were familiar. The hero is an Australian pilot who lands the plum job of captaining the Queen’s personal airplane. In contrast to the mother country, Australia is vibrant, prosperous, and growing, conditions which the author attributes to its adoption some years earlier of a system of “multiple voting”. Citizens can acquire up to seven votes, in any combination, according to the following criteria:

  • The first vote is given to every citizen on reaching the age of 21.
  • The second vote is for university graduates and commissioned military officers.
  • The third vote is earned after living and working abroad for at least two years.
  • The fourth vote is for raising two children to the age of fourteen without divorcing.
  • The fifth vote is for earning at least £5000 in the year before the election. (This is a pretty elite-level income. A newly-built three-bedroom house, we are told, costs four or five thousand Australian pounds.)
  • The sixth vote is for officials in any of the recognized Christian churches.
  • The seventh vote is given only at the discretion of the monarch. (At the novel’s climax our hero, a “three-vote man”, saves the Queen’s life, earning the rare and prestigious seventh vote.)

Shute is a little fuzzy on how this cockeyed scheme managed to get implemented. Apparently it began in the state of Western Australia, which, the protagonist explains, “was always pretty Liberal” (in the Australian and European sense of pro-free-market). As to what happened next:

“Aw, look,” said David. “West Australia was walking away with everything. We got a totally different sort of politician when we got the multiple vote. Before that, when it was one man one vote, the politicians were all tub-thumping nonentities and union bosses. Sensible people didn’t stand for parliament, and if they stood they didn’t get in. When we got multiple voting we got a better class of politician altogether, people who got elected by sensible voters.” He paused. “Before that when a man got elected to the Legislative Assembly, he was an engine driver or a dock labourer, maybe. He got made a Minister and top man of a Government department. Well, he couldn’t do a thing. The civil servants had him all wrapped up, because he didn’t know anything.”

“And after the multiple voting came in, was it different?”

“My word,” said the Australian. “We got some real men in charge. Did the Civil Service catch a cold! Half of them were out on their ear within a year, and then West Australia started getting all the coal and all the industry away from New South Wales and Victoria. And then these chaps who had been running West Australia started to get into Canberra. In 1973, when the multiple vote came in for the whole country, sixty per cent of the Federal Cabinet were West Australians. It got so they were running every bloody thing.”

“Because they were better people?” asked the captain.

“That’s right.”

I’m not going to try defending this as a piece of writing. Much of In The Wet concerns the boring romance of the pilot and his English girlfriend. There’s a lot of long-distance flying. I think we’re supposed to be awed by descriptions of the futuristic aircraft in which the Queen travels from Canada to Australia with just one refueling stop on Christmas Island, but in this respect Shute was too prophetic for his own good; what once seemed fantastical is now mundane. The voting scheme is by default the most interesting thing about the novel. Luckily, it’s fairly central to the plot. At the end of the book, the Queen essentially blackmails the UK into adopting the multiple vote by threatening to relocate permanently to Australia.

I am, to put it mildly, unconvinced A) that Shute’s scheme would ever pass in the first place, and B) if it somehow did, that it would have anything like such a dramatic effect on the quality of our legislators. Shute, like most political commentators, believes that if “sensible” voters were in charge, they’d elect the kind of governments he happens to favour – in his case, pragmatic, pro-monarchist, moderately right-wing ones. Just like Thomas Frank, who is convinced that the Matter With Kansas is that its citizens don’t share his left-of-centre outlook, and Bryan Caplan, who believes the properly informed Rational Voter must necessarily adopt libertarian views like his, Shute assumes that where he  has convictions, his political foes have only prejudices; where he reasons dispassionately, they are swayed by cheap emotionalism; where he considers the common good, they selfishly pursue their own trivial fancies. [2]

I don’t hold a much higher opinion of the electorate than Frank or Caplan or Shute. But I can’t help noticing that intelligent, thoughtful, idealistic people (like, for instance, Frank and Caplan and Shute) manage to hold widely divergent opinions on every imaginable topic of contention. John Derbyshire in an article somewhere made the point that if in the 1930s or ’40s the franchise had been restricted to university professors, the United States would probably have wound up with a Communist dictatorship. His point being that highly intelligent people often support stupid ideas. Why? For the same reasons stupid people do. Because those stupid ideas become fashionable. Because they’re emotionally appealing. Because they flatter our sense of self-importance. Because it’s not obvious how stupid they are until you see them put into practice.

So if you’re going to extend or limit the franchise, it’s not enough to say you’ll favour “sensible” voters. You need to work backwards from what kind of government you want to create. Shute desires a certain set of policies; he knows that wealthy people, parents of teenage children, military officers, and clergymen tend to support those same policies; so he gives their votes extra weight. In his day, no doubt, it also seemed reasonable to gamble on the conservative instincts of university graduates and those who’d worked abroad. The resulting electorate might not usher in an age of philosopher-princes, but it would probably stick up for Queen, country, and low taxes.

On the other hand, if you want more liberal policies, it helps to spread the franchise as far and wide as you can. Here in Canada there is occasional talk about lowering the voting age to sixteen; it won’t surprise you to learn that the New Democrats, Canada’s most left-wing mainstream party, have been the most enthusiastic proponents of this change. In the States, the Democratic Party is fighting to extend citizenship to a few million illegal immigrants who, by a funny coincidence, are highly likely, once enfranchised, to vote for Democratic candidates. This isn’t to say the NDP or Dems are cynically supporting these policies solely with an eye to their vote share. Like conservatives in the US and Canada who are pushing to tighten ID requirements to vote, on the probably spurious grounds that voter fraud is a widespread problem, they fully believe their own rhetoric, and get sincerely indignant when you challenge it. They believe they’re acting disinterestedly in the name of justice. You’d think intelligent people would be quicker than others to notice when they’re deceiving themselves, but their facility for self-deception is correspondingly more nimble.

People who put their faith in modern democracy make two assertions that strike me as debatable. The first is that the existing system is fairer than a system that would limit the franchise to those deemed, by whatever inevitably imperfect method, to be the most responsible citizens. Whether or not it’s fairer, it’s certainly easier to say “To heck with it – votes for everyone!” than embark on the awkward task of telling some of us we’re less qualified to bear the burden of governing. The second dodgy assertion is that our system is more effective at producing good government. This assertion of course depends on everyone agreeing beforehand on what constitutes good government, which it’s not in our nature ever to do; that’s why we resort to democracy in the first place. We can probably agree that avoiding outbreaks of anarchy is a good, objective measure of effectiveness; by which metric, universal suffrage has so far performed pretty well. But the experiment is less than a hundred years old. There’s no guarantee that fairness and effectiveness, in the end, must go together.


PS. I might be the only person you’ll ever hear arguing against universal suffrage who doesn’t believe under a “better” system he’d enjoy a couple well-deserved extra votes. Under Nevil Shute’s rules I’m a one-vote man, and almost certainly always will be.

1. That John Stuart Mill passage is from Chapter 8 of Reflections on Representative Government, which advocates extending votes to “the very lowest ranks of the people”:

[I]t is a personal injustice to withhold from any one, unless for the prevention of greater evils, the ordinary privilege of having his voice reckoned in the disposal of affairs in which he has the same interest as other people.

However, “the prevention of greater evils” permits – in fact, requires, “by first principles”, Mill says –  the disenfranchising of tax evaders and parish relief recipients, as well as the uneducated: he advocates a “simple test” for voters in the presence of the registrar to determine literacy and numeracy. This reminds me of Robert Heinlein’s scheme, half-jokingly proposed in his 1980 collection Expanded Universe:

[S]tep into the polling booth and find that the computer has generated a new quadratic equation just for you. Solve it, the computer unlocks the voting machine, you vote. But get a wrong answer and the voting machine fails to unlock, a loud bell sounds, a red light goes on over that booth – and you slink out, face red, you having just proved yourself too stupid and/or ignorant to take part in the decisions of the grownups. Better luck next election! No lower age limit in this system – smart 12-yr-old girls vote every election while some of their mothers – and fathers – decline to be humiliated twice.

In the same essay Heinlein recommends Mark Twain’s The Curious Republic of Gondour, which outlines a voting scheme very much like the one in In The Wet.

2. Full disclosure: I haven’t read Thomas Frank or Bryan Caplan’s books. Maybe they’re not as simplistic as their back-cover copy makes them sound.


Jim Jarmusch: Rock-n-roll vampires are just like you and me!

The rock-n-roll vampires of Only Lovers Left Alive are among the most explicit audience wish-fulfilment surrogates in the history of fantasy filmmaking. Usually we have to exercise our imagination to vault ourselves into the exalted realm of our superhuman heroes. In our self-flattering daydreams we are always the mutants of the X-Men, the aliens of Avatar, the wizards of the Harry Potter world, never the ordinary clods who misunderstand and persecute them. It’s the fantastic element that prevents our identification with these demigods from becoming embarrassing. We feel a bit sorry for people who take their hero-worship so far as to actually learn Na’vi or participate in real-life Quidditch matches.

But Adam and Eve are exactly the sardonic, sexy misfits that the kind of people who go to Jim Jarmusch movies imagine themselves already to be. They make a fetish of old audio equipment and accoutre themselves in fabulous thrift-store chic. They’re saddened by pollution and they sneer at the anti-intellectualism of common rubes. They’re totally cool with gays. I’m pretty sure given more time with these characters we would eventually hear them endorse open-source software, the 100-mile diet, and public funding of the arts. Somehow these immortals have lived for at least half a millennium without accumulating any wisdom, or on the other hand carrying forward a single prejudice, that would challenge the belief system of the modern-day indie moviegoer. Isn’t that kind of boring? In the food court outside the theatre I could’ve found a dozen real people more fascinatingly estranged from the modern world than these ostensible relics of Elizabethan England.

In one of the latter, lesser-read chapters of Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver finds himself in the land of Luggnagg, where he is told of the existence of certain people called Struldbrugs. These citizens, born now and then to ordinary mothers, have marks on their faces that indicate they will never die. Gulliver exclaims that these Struldbrugs must be the happiest people alive. When asked by his surprised hosts to elaborate, Gulliver paints a picture of wise and temperate sages passing their eternities in philosophical conversation with their fellows and freely offering the King the benefit of their accumulated knowledge. This discourse provokes much laughter. He learns that in fact the birth of a Struldbrug is regarded as a terrible omen. That these unfortunates age and suffer from disease just as we do, only they persist forever in their decrepit state, resenting and envying their countrymen who can look forward to the relief of death. The Struldbrugs are “opinionative, peevish, covetous, morose, vain, talkative, but incapable of friendship and dead to all natural affection”. After the age of eighty or so they lose interest in the world and stop learning new things, and eventually, as the language mutates and they fail to keep up, they find themselves unable to communicate even with their fellow citizens, let alone Struldbrugs born in earlier ages.

Jonathan Swift’s insight here was that even in the course of an ordinary lifespan, the world changes so much that a senior citizen finds himself feeling like a stranger in his own country. The vampires of Only Lovers Left Alive are no more alienated than the average struggling art student, but they wear their wisp of outsiderdom like a burqa. This happens to be one of the behaviours that old people find most irritating in young people. Am I incriminating the movie, then, or myself, when I say its immortals strike me as rather callow?



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