Grasping in the dark: Self-taught Chinese.

My recent interest in the Chinese language was sparked by the appearance last spring of an unusual volume of news reports out of China. At that time I realized to my vexation that I knew almost nothing about Chinese geography.

I’d at least heard of Wuhan. It gets a few paragraphs in Paul Theroux’s 1988 travel book Riding the Iron Rooster. He’d visited there years before and remembered it as “a nightmare city of muddy streets and black factories, pouring frothy poisons into the Yangtze”. By his second visit it had cleaned up and sprouted new towers, but its lurches into modernity, Theroux grumbled, “were not necessarily improvements”.

I learn from Wikipedia that Wuhan played a major role in 20th century Chinese history, as the seat of the 1911 rebellion that ended the Qing Dynasty and brought Sun Yat-sen’s Kuomintang to power. The septuagenarian Mao Zedong’s famous exhibition of his vitality – swimming 15 kilometres in the Yangtze River (with the assistance of the current) – took place at Wuhan in 1966.

Nowadays metropolitan Wuhan has almost 10 million people, about the same as Chicago. And up until last year, I couldn’t have told you even roughly where it was.

Embarrassed by my ignorance, I began looking at maps of China. As some of those maps included the Chinese names for cities and other geographical features, I began to notice the recurrence of certain characters: the hai in Shanghai and Hainan; the an in Anhui and Xi’an; the bei in Beijing, Hubei, and…Taipei?

beijing hubei taipei 北京 湖北 臺北

On the other hand, the jiang in Xinjiang was not to be confused with the one in Jiangsu and Heilongjiang.

jiangsu heilongjiang xinjiang 新疆 江蘇 黑龍江

Intrigued, I began drawing a map, labelling it in English and Chinese, looking up the meaning of the characters as I went.

Most Chinese placenames, I learned, are surprisingly straightforward. The provinces of Shandong and Shanxi are, respectively, “mountain east” and “mountain west”. Shanghai is “upon the sea”. Beijing is “northern capital”. (The kanji characters for Tokyo, “eastern capital”, are in Mandarin pronounced Dongjing.)

beijing dongjing tokyo 北京 東京

It didn’t take me long to learn the dozen or so characters that reappear again and again in Chinese placenames – words like river, lake, sea, mountains, forest, and the four cardinal directions.

As a strategy for actually learning Chinese, my map studies weren’t that effective. Suppose you were a foreigner trying to learn English from the names of English towns. You’d learn a handful of useful geographical words like the ones above, a few of limited everyday utility like “ford” and “shire”, and a bunch more that are fossils of long-extinct words, like “wich” and “caster”.

Nevertheless, my efforts weren’t entirely wasted. Most Chinese characters are built out of smaller pieces, most of which started as simple pictograms – a hand, a tree, an elephant, and so on.

chinese seal script 手 木 象

Once you start to recognize these smaller pieces and their variant forms, the characters become less baffling – you can discern order in what appears at first glance to be a pile of squiggles.

***

I try to be explicit, whenever anyone asks: I’m not “learning Chinese”. As I explained in a post early last year, I was daunted by the prospect of absorbing a new vocabulary and grammar, plus a new writing system, plus the “tones” without which (we are told) any attempt at enunciating their language will be met with puzzlement or laughter from Chinese-speakers.

I wondered instead whether I could break out the most immediately useful of the above challenges, learning the meaning of the characters alone, with the goal of being able to decipher the signs on local Chinese storefronts.

Like most westerners, I had a vague idea that Chinese writing is purely pictographic – that it conveys sense only, not sound. This isn’t really true. Many characters are pictograms – simplified pictures of things. Others are ideograms – graphical representations of concepts. Anthony Burgess in his 1992 book on language, A Mouthful of Air, described the character , or “not”, as

a sort of plant with a line above it. The plant is trying to grow, but the line is stopping it. This is a little poem of negativeness, a metaphor of notness.

不 not

Still other characters are ideogrammic compounds – two or more ideograms combined to illustrate a concept. Take , which means “idea”.

chinese character idea 音 心 意

On top is the character meaning “sound”: it depicts some mysterious force emitting from an open mouth (with a horizontal line in the mouth, just in case you’re unclear on the source of the phenomenon). Beneath it is the character for “heart”. An idea, then, is a “heart-sound”.

You don’t need to speak Chinese to absorb the meaning of characters like “not” or “idea”. If the ancient scribes had stuck to pictograms, ideograms, and ideogrammic compounds, written Chinese might have evolved into a truly universal language – something like what the 20th-century inventor Charles Bliss had in mind with his quirky system of Blissymbolics. (Which was inspired by his own experiments in self-taught Chinese.)

But despite the ingenuity of the ancient scribes, it was impractical to compose a little visual poem for every word. To make headway, they devised another, more efficient method of invention – mashing together two existing characters, one to define the broad sense of the new character, and another to suggest how it should be pronounced. These so-called phono-semantic compounds now constitute the bulk of the Chinese character set.

Here’s one. On the left side is the “foot” character, indicating that the compound will have something to do with feet. (The semantic component is usually, but by no means always, on the left.) On the right side is the character bao, meaning “to roll up”. (Yes, it also refers to the steamed bun.)

foot roll run 足 包 跑

The bao part is semantically irrelevant – in fact means “to run”. But the Chinese-speaker will guess, correctly, that it should be pronounced something like bao: in Mandarin, pao.

Because at this point I’m not trying to learn to speak Chinese, these phonetic components aren’t very useful to me. I usually don’t bother trying to remember how the characters are pronounced – aside from those whose pronunciations are mnemonically useful. For instance, , which combines the semantic component “rice” with the phonetic component for the Tang Dynasty.

米 rice 唐 tang 糖 sugar

The syllable tang naturally makes me think of astronauts and orange-flavoured juice crystals, and from there it’s a short leap to the meaning of “sugar”.

Luckily, it’s rarely necessary to smuggle in English words to make sense of phono-semantic compounds. The ancient scribes weren’t completely indifferent to the poetic reading of their new character mashups. Take , or “night”. The semantic component is “sun” and the phonetic component means “to remove”.

remove sun night 免 日 晚

Even where the phonetic component was chosen solely for its sound, it’s usually possible to construct a little mnemonic story to help cement the compound in your mind. A well-known example is , “to search”, which joins the semantic “hand” with a phonetic component representing a ge, or dagger-axe: just picture a hand grasping in the dark for a weapon.

hand dagger-axe search 手 戈 找

I was always being stumped by the rather impenetrable glyph , meaning “to use”…until I realized that the same shape, with a little handle on top, is the phonetic component of “bucket”: a “use”-ful item.

bucket wood use 桶 木 用

I should reiterate that the phonetic components are only hints to pronunciation. Since the characters are so old, and the spoken language has drifted so much over the millennia, many of these hints are completely misleading. Which brings me to…

An aside about Japanese.

Prior to writing this essay, I hadn’t given any thought to how the Japanese pronounce the kanji that make up around half of their writing system. (Kanji, by the way, just means “Han characters”. The Chinese call them hanzi.)

kanji hanzi 漢字

I suppose I assumed they were reading the characters for semantics only, just as I have been; that when they spoke the words aloud, they were using “native” Japanese words; and that the Chinese phonetic clues were therefore just as irrelevant to them as they are to me.

Leave it to the Japanese to do things in the most complicated possible way. It turns out that nearly every kanji has at least two readings – one for its original Chinese pronunciation and another for its “native” Japanese equivalent.

Suppose that every English word based on a Greek root was not only spelled using the Greek alphabet, but could be read either as Greek or as an equivalent term derived from Old English: “psychology”, say, would be spelled ψυχολογία and could be pronounced either as “psychologia” or as “soul-learning”. That’s sort of how the Japanese have elected to treat their Chinese loanwords.

For a foreigner trying to learn Japanese, these multiple readings must be awfully frustrating. But native Japanese learners don’t need to memorize the various readings from textbooks or flashcards – they pick them up effortlessly through speaking and listening. The kanji merely bundle together, under one symbol, various words they already know.

Perhaps the Japanese are onto something. Why not have a single symbol to represent two or more English words with the same meaning – “sight” and “vision”, for instance? Something like…oh, I dunno, , maybe. If nothing else, it would save space – and one of the main arguments for kanji seems to be its efficiency.

Still, it’s hard to blame the Japanese girl in this video who says of kanji, “I don’t want to learn them anymore. We can just use hiragana.”

The trouble with simplified Chinese.

As you may be aware, there are two main varieties of Chinese characters: the traditional ones, nowadays used mainly in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and the simplified ones used in mainland China. Up till now I’ve been showing the traditional characters in this essay.

communist party mao zedong traditional 共產黨 毛澤東 simplified 共产党 毛泽东

The simplified characters were introduced in the 1950s, not long after the Communists took over. Around the same time, the Japanese introduced their own, less comprehensive kanji simplification scheme. Many characters simplified by the Communists kept their traditional forms in Japan. Others were simplified in a slightly different way.

Most of the characters are the same in all three writing systems. But a few, including many of the most common ones, have two, sometimes three different forms.

Here in Vancouver you mostly see the traditional characters. But the simplified versions have gained ground as immigration from mainland China has increased.

When I started dabbling in Chinese I figured I’d stick to the simplified characters because, well, they were simpler. Then as I started being able to recognize the characters on storefront signs I realized that if I ever wanted to be able to read anything around here, I should learn both varieties.

richmond bc skytrain chinese language signs steve bosch vancouver sun

SkyTrain and Chinese language signs, Richmond, BC.
© Steve Bosch / Vancouver Sun.

Then I discovered something surprising. The traditional characters were easier to learn.

***

Let me talk about nostrils for a second. The word “nostril” comes from the Old English word “nosthyrl”. The “nos” part means “nose”. “Thyrl” is an extinct word meaning “hole”. (It’s related to the word “through”.)

nostril nose thyrl

So a nostril is just a nose-hole. Makes sense. But for English learners it must be pretty confusing. Why “nos” instead of “nose”? What the heck is a “tril”?

I imagine English learners must memorize “nostril” the way I’ve been memorizing Chinese characters – by way of mnemonics. Maybe something like this: a “trill” is a high-pitched sound, like you make when you whistle through your nose: a “nose-trill”.

Now, suppose that in the wake of a future Communist revolution, our new government were to decree, “Henceforth, in the name of simplicity, nostrils will be called nose-holes.” This would be sensible enough. Immigrants and schoolchildren would happily adopt the new word. In fifty years or so, after most of us old-timers had died off, “nostril” would be as extinct as “thyrl”. Good riddance!

But most linguistic reformers have less totalitarian aims. Knowing that it’s difficult to change the spoken language by decree, and that it tends to make old-timers grumpy, they concentrate on tinkering with the written language.

So the Peeple’s Kommittee Too Standerdize Inglish probably wouldn’t abolish “nostril”. They’d just change its spelling to “nawstrel”, to conform with “jaw” and “law” and “raw”.

“Nose”, obviously, would become “noze”.

And future English learners would lose a vital clue to the relationship between the two words.

***

Looking at many Chinese characters, it’s easy to see why you’d want to simplify them. Have a squint at the traditional character for “medicine” or “medical”: . Unless your browser is set to an unusually large font size, it looks like a squashed bug. Here it is, magnified:

arrow liquor shu medical 矢 酒 殳 醫

Now you can see that it includes the “arrow” character, which is easy to remember because it looks like a guy with an arrow through his head. The bottom rectangle comes from the “liquor” character, because how do you treat a guy with an arrow in his head? Obviously, with booze.

The shu at top right unnecessarily complicates my mnemonic story. Did my imaginary arrow victim also get stabbed with an antique spear?

Lucky for me, the bureaucrats who overhauled the writing system in the 1950s agreed that the shu didn’t fit: the simplified (also Japanese) character for “medicine” is just an arrow in a box. In this mnemonic story, the guy got shot with an arrow and now he’s lying on a bed in a modern, uncluttered medical facility. (Wishing he had some liquor, no doubt.)

medical 医 japanese and simplified chinese

Okay! Good job, simplifiers. But let’s look at another traditional character, , which means “long” – as in Chang Jiang, the “Long River”, known to us as the Yangtze.

chang jiang yangtze river 長江

The strokes on the bottom appear kind of random, but actually they’re a standard stroke-shape that shows up in other common characters, like the ones for “clothing” and “to eat”. The three horizontal strokes at the top are from a character meaning “hair” – because 長 originally referred to long hair.

hair long clothing to eat 彡 長 衣 食

Not too busy. Easy to remember. The Japanese simplifiers had enough sense to leave this character alone. But the mainland Chinese turned it into this:

長 japanese and traditional 长 simplified

Much quicker to draw, true: it requires half as many pen-strokes. But now the top part is missing the three horizontal lines that clue you in to its meaning, while the bottom part no longer matches the “clothing” and “to eat” characters – which weren’t simplified.

The new character is nothing but an abstract shape which must be drilled and memorized, without reference to other shapes already learned – just as westerners must learn the abstract shapes A through Z. But we have only 52 such shapes (counting lower- and upper-case) to worry about.

Did simplification make Chinese characters easier for schoolkids to learn? Having fewer strokes to memorize seems like it would be a plus, but I’d argue that the elimination of visual cues for mnemonic association cancels out the advantage. That’s been my own experience, anyway, and it’s why I’ve switched to concentrating on the traditional characters in my own haphazard studies.

***

Have I gained anything by my self-directed Chinese studies? Not much. After more than six months of, admittedly, not very conscientious efforts, I still can’t read a primary-level Chinese text. I recognize many, sometimes most of the characters, but they remain stubbornly isolated from one another. I translate each one to its likeliest English equivalent and glare suspiciously at the resulting string of nonsense.

Imagine a foreigner tackling a simple English sentence: “I am going to the state fair.” The sentence begins straightforwardly enough. But where is the speaker going? What’s this “state fair”? A condition of beauty? An administrative district of moderation? A spoken-word exhibition?

Knowing the meaning of all the words isn’t enough. Knowing all the meanings of all the words may actually add to your confusion. You need to know the most plausible ways for the words to pair up.

(And obviously, when it comes to Chinese, I’m nowhere near knowing all the meanings of all the words.)

If I’d followed a curriculum I’d likely be a little further along. On the other hand, going my own way has allowed me to skip some of the off-putting stuff – like the tones – that might have caused me to dump the project entirely.

Perhaps once I’ve achieved fluency in reading Chinese – which at my current rate of progress could easily take a decade or more – I’ll try learning to speak it as well. But probably not. I’m not that enthusiastic about conversing in Chinese. I can barely be bothered to converse in English.

M.

My last attempt to explicate the Chinese writing system roped together an essay by Hillaire Belloc, a novel by Robert Graves, and the elephant of Han Fei. Nine years ago I took issue with Paul Theroux’s interpretation of the American bombing of Hanoi. It seems I’ve never mentioned Anthony Burgess before – except in a footnote to last month’s essay on Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters.

Schedule Bare Back.

With President-Elect Joe Biden qualifying his earlier call for a national mask mandate, it seems an appropriate time to revisit the last attempt to alter American sartorial customs by presidential order.

I’m speaking, of course, of 2007, when in response to a grave biological threat the president addressed a joint session of congress:

When the President took the rostrum, he waited until he got dead silence. Then slowly, calmly, he started taking off clothes. He stopped when he was bare to the waist. He then turned around, lifting his arms. At last he spoke.

“I did that,” he said, “so that you might see that your Chief Executive is not a prisoner of the enemy.” He paused.

“But how about you?

Despite the president’s challenge, the assembled senators and congresspeople remained seated, reluctant to sacrifice their dignity – until Senator Gottlieb, a survivor of the contagion, shakily rose and removed his shirt, exposing a back still raw with the “scarlet mark of the parasite”.

Pulling out a gun, the senator then ordered his colleagues to start stripping.

robert a. heinlein the puppet masters

Fortunately for the sanity of C-SPAN viewers, this disturbing scene unfolded not in our recent past, but in the fictional future of Robert A. Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters.

The brain-hijacking alien parasites of that 1951 novel are able to blend in perfectly among uninfected humans – as long as their hosts are fully dressed. With the citizenry stripped naked to the waist in accordance with the president’s order, it’s easy to spot the pulsating slug-like creatures latched to the spines of the infected.

But will the country comply with Schedule Bare Back?

In the uncontaminated areas people took off their shirts, willingly or reluctantly, looked around them and found no parasites. They watched their newscasts and wondered and waited for the government to tell them that the danger was over. But nothing happened, and both laymen and local officials began to doubt the necessity of running around in sunbathing costumes.

Other skeptics go further, fulminating that the supposed invasion is actually “a tyrannical Washington plot”. In the areas of the country already controlled by the slugs, TV stations pump out propaganda accusing the central government of having gone crazy. Meanwhile, back in the capital, those with direct experience of the danger are plotting geometric growth trajectories of the kind with which we have lately become all too familiar:

Assume a thousand slugs in that space ship, the one we believed to have landed near Kansas City; suppose that they could reproduce when given opportunity every twenty-four hours.

First day, one thousand slugs.

Second day, two thousand.

Third day, four thousand.

At the end of the first week, the eighth day, that is—a hundred and twenty-eight thousand slugs.

After two weeks, more than sixteen million slugs.

What’s worse, one of the fundamental assumptions behind Schedule Bare Back – that the slugs must attach themselves near the base of the skull in order to control their hosts’ brains – proves to be untrue. In fact, they can attach themselves to any bit of flesh, including all of it still hidden below people’s beltlines.

This discovery leads before long to the imposition of the even more exacting Schedule Sun Tan. [1]

***

In a book review from 1978, Clive James echoed the conventional critical line on Robert A. Heinlein, that he was a hairy-chested keyboard-basher “whose politics were largely indistinguishable from those of John Wayne”: [2]

His Starship Troopers and The Puppet Masters, quite apart from their unarguable virtues as adventure stories, have the additional quality of representing the authoritarian instinct in its purest form and thereby helping us to comprehend it. [3]

James died last year, before the emergence of Covid-19 and the unprecedented measures hastily implemented to contain it. Would he have characterized our past nine months of lockdowns, shutdowns, travel restrictions, masks, queues, and one-way shopping aisles as manifestations of the “authoritarian instinct”?

Perhaps they are. The question, as always, is whether unprecedented measures are justified by the circumstances, and how they are modified as circumstances change. (The income tax, as libertarians like to remind us, was introduced to Canada as a temporary measure during World War I.)

In The Puppet Masters, after the imposition of Schedule Sun Tan, people adjust with surprising swiftness to the abolition of the nudity taboo:

Ugly bodies weren’t any more noticeable than ugly taxicabs; the eye ignored them. And so it appeared to be with everybody; those on the streets seemed to have acquired utter indifference. Skin was skin and what of it?

the puppet masters robert heinlein don sibley illustrator

The introduction of Schedule Sun Tan. Illustration by Don Sibley in Galaxy Science Fiction, 1951. Scan by Rafeeq McGiveron.

Those with a preference for old notions of modesty soon learn to keep their objections to themselves. In 2020 the most zealous enforcers of mask-wearing have limited their reprisals to shaming the unmasked or, at worst, siccing the cops on them; in the more hysterical atmosphere of Heinlein’s novel, naked, heavily-armed vigilantes can be found loitering on street corners, scanning their surroundings for an inch of uncovered flesh, prepared to fire without warning on “any unexplained excrescence on a human body”.

Whatever “authoritarian instinct” might have motivated the author, the hero of The Puppet Masters is far from enthusiastic about such impingements on his liberty. As he and his team celebrate their discovery of a biological agent that they hope will kill the aliens without harming their human hosts, the hero allows himself to muse about returning to the good old pre-parasite social order. A colleague disillusions him:

“Mr. Nivens, as long as there exists a possibility that a slug is alive the polite man must be willing to bare his body on request—or risk getting shot. Not just this week and next, but twenty years from now, or a hundred. No, no!” he added, “I am not disparaging your plans—but you have been too busy to notice that they are strictly local and temporary. For example, have you made any plans for combing the Amazonian jungles, tree by tree?” …

“Are you trying to tell me it’s hopeless?” I demanded.

“Hopeless? Not at all. Have another drink. I’m trying to say that we are going to have to learn to live with this horror, the way we had to learn to live with the atom bomb.”

As we toast our arrival at a comparable stage in humanity’s war against Covid-19, our health authorities have taken to issuing similarly deflating pronouncements. The other day Timandra Harkness vented in UnHerd:

But I do remember very clearly that when I heard that Health Person solemnly say that, vaccine or no vaccine, we would still be wearing masks and social distancing and so on for the next 18 months, my response was not fit to print.

Even after the vulnerable have been immunized, even after herd immunity has been reached – indeed, as long as Covid-19 is circulating out there among bats, cats, and muskrats, building strength in preparation for another wave – the Health People will insist that we must keep up our defenses. We’re already wearing the masks, the Health People will say. We’ve already gotten in the habit of queuing and distancing. Easier to keep up habits we’ve already learned than give them up and have to learn them all over again.

It’s possible we won’t be free of the Health People’s nagging until the disease has been wiped from the face of the earth. Here are two of Timandra Harkness’ UnHerd colleagues arguing that Covid probably isn’t eradicable – but that we should make it our mission to attempt to eradicate it anyway:

Once the first wave of mass Covid vaccination begins, we shouldn’t rest on our laurels. We should do our very best to free ourselves of this virus forever.

As The Puppet Masters draws to a close, the heroes’ biological weapon has succeeded, but the victors aren’t content with the reconquest of the American heartland. Apart from whatever slugs might be out there clinging to the spines of forest creatures, there are who knows how many millions swarming on the slug homeworld, still intent, for all anyone knows, on enslaving the human race.

The last we hear from the hero, he is putting the final touches on his memoir before blasting off to take part in the counterinvasion. “Puppet masters—the free men are coming to kill you!” he declares. “Death and Destruction!

That must be one of the lines Clive James had in mind when he spoke of Heinlein’s “authoritarian instinct”. The Health People will probably want to dream up a less blood-chilling slogan for the next stage of their crusade.

M.

1. As I’ve already discussed at length, Heinlein – a nudist – wasn’t shy about shoehorning his personal and political obsessions into his stories.

Although The Puppet Masters is the only one of his books in which nudism is a major theme, in practically all his output from the late 1960s onward you’ll find at least one scene where the characters, as soon as they’re out of sight of the rubes, happily shuck their clothes.

Even where Heinlein eschewed overt nudist propaganda, his fictional futures were often characterized by a laid-back attitude towards the display of flesh. It’s always a bit jarring – deliberately, I’m sure – when the hero, whom you’ve been vaguely picturing dressed in trousers and jacket, or maybe a jumpsuit, makes some offhand comment like, “I was wearing tights myself (unpadded) and sometimes oil my upper body on social occasions.” (From The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.)

2. Clive James’ comment on Heinlein appears as an aside in a pan of Anthony Burgess’ dystopian satire 1985. I came across it in the essay collection From the Land of Shadows.

3. Heinlein fans are used to seeing Starship Troopers dismissed as an emanation of the fascist id. While that’s unfair, at least you can see where the book’s critics are coming from – it can be read as an apologia for imperialism, militarism, and (human) racial supremacism. It’s unusual to find it lumped together with The Puppet Masters, which apart from some passing swipes at communism isn’t even noticeably right-wing, let alone “authoritarian”.

(Coincidentally, those two are among the disappointingly small handful of Heinlein stories that have been turned into movies; here one of the screenwriters of the 1994 adaption of The Puppet Masters explains why it turned out such a botch.)

In his 1980 collection Expanded Universe Heinlein defended Starship Troopers against some of its lazier attackers. In that novel, the right to vote is granted only to those who have fulfilled two years of voluntary federal service; what really irked his liberal critics, Heinlein speculated, was

the dismaying idea that a voice in governing the state should be earned instead of being handed to anyone who is 18 years old and has a body temperature near 37°C.

He mulled a few other ideas for ensuring a “responsible electorate”, including:

[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.

I quoted the above passage before, in a footnote to my post on Nevil Shute’s “multiple voting” scheme.

Vulgar envy and spite: Cleon, Socrates, and Aristophanes.

In 425 BC, seven years into the Peloponnesian War – far nearer the beginning than the end of that sprawling contest – Cleon, “a popular leader of the time and very powerful with the multitude”, stood up in the Athenian assembly and damned his city’s generals as a bunch of slackers and cowards.

thucydides complete writings modern library

A small force of Spartan and allied infantry was being blockaded by the Athenians on a tiny island near Pylos, on the far side of the Peloponnese. In an effort to retrieve their men, the Spartans some months before had come to Athens to offer a peace treaty; but the assembly, thanks in part to Cleon’s influence, had sent the envoys packing, hoping by the outright capture of the Spartans to extract more favourable terms.

However, despite being short of food and fresh water, the men on the island had shown no inclination to surrender, and the blockade was proving to be ruinously expensive to maintain. Now, with winter coming on, it appeared that the operation would soon have to be abandoned, the Spartans permitted to escape, the Athenian advantage squandered.

Just as the assembly seemed ready to bow to this necessity, Cleon hopped up, and

pointing at Nicias, son of Niceratus, then general, whom he hated, he tauntingly said that it would be easy, if they had men for generals, to sail with a force and take those in the island, and that if he had himself been in command, he would have done it.

Nicias, despising his accuser in turn, primly replied that Cleon was welcome to step up and lead the expedition himself. Cleon dismissed this as mere rhetoric, until Nicias upped the stakes by publicly resigning his generalship. The assembly, out of faith in Cleon’s competence or delight at the prospect of his humiliation, roared him into accepting the command.

Making the best of it, he blustered that within twenty days he would take the island and bring the Spartans home as prisoners. “The Athenians,” we are told, “could not help laughing at his fatuity.”

Yet after a brief and triumphant campaign – whose success Thucydides attributes to a combination of dumb luck and the talent of Cleon’s co-general Demosthenes – Cleon fulfilled his promise, returning from Pylos with 292 prisoners, among them 120 members of the Spartan elite who could be used as hostages to deter future hostile actions.

It ought to be remembered that Thucydides, the source of the above account, had himself been a general in the war, and was banished from Athens, during the period of Cleon’s greatest influence, for his botched defense of Amphipolis. So perhaps he can be forgiven for the apparent tone of satisfaction with which he recounts Cleon’s death a few years later in the attempt to recapture the very town he’d lost. As he describes it,

Cleon, who from the first had no thought of fighting, at once fled and was overtaken and slain by a Myrcinian targeteer[.]

Yet it’s unclear why, if Cleon “had no thought of fighting”, he kept on volunteering for these extremely high-risk missions, when he could easily have stayed home, talking tough in the assembly.

***

Any attempt to rehabilitate Cleon’s reputation will of necessity focus on his actions at Pylos and Amphipolis – his second and third appearances in Thucydides’ narrative. His first appearance the modern reader will find harder to defend.

This concerns his participation in the debate over the fate of Mytilene, a city which had revolted from Athenian rule, finally surrendering after a long siege. Cleon’s faction, insisting that the Mytileneans must be punished brutally to deter revolts by other subject cities, called for all the adult males to be put to death, and the women and children sold into slavery.

The Athenian assembly at first agreed, and then, having second thoughts, reconvened the following day to reopen the debate. Cleon condemned their soft-heartedness and argued strongly against the reversal of the death sentence.

In light of his reputation, you might expect Cleon’s speech to have been a mere thuggish cry for revenge. Thucydides introduces him into his narrative as “the most violent man at Athens”; Plutarch, writing four centuries later, would dismiss him as “a fellow remarkable for nothing but his loud voice and brazen face”, and deplore his lack of refinement:

Among other things, he destroyed all the decorum of public speaking; he was the first who ever broke out into exclamations, flung open his dress, smote his thigh, and ran up and down whilst he was speaking[.]

It must therefore be admitted, in support of Thucydides’ objectivity, that he put in the hated Cleon’s mouth a clear-headed, even compelling justification of rule by terror. The Mytileneans, he pointed out, had revolted willingly:

Consider therefore! if you subject to the same punishment the ally who is forced to rebel by the enemy, and him who does so by his own free choice, which of them, think you, is there that will not rebel upon the slightest pretext; when the reward of success is freedom, and the penalty of failure nothing so very terrible?

Perhaps with a bit more thigh-smiting and running up and down, Cleon might have won his point; but despite his efforts, Athens voted to execute only a thousand or so of the “prime movers in the rebellion”.

As the war dragged on, hearts grew harder. Six years after Cleon’s death, when the Athenians captured Melos – a town heretofore neutral – they did to its defenders what they had recoiled from doing at Mytilene.

***

The Peloponnesian War is perhaps the greatest refutation of the cliché that history is written by the victors. With characteristically Laconic disdain for fine words and braggartry, the Spartans left no account of their triumph. Our knowledge of the war comes almost exclusively from Thucydides and Xenophon, both men of Athens, although not overly partisan ones: Thucydides is archetypally even-handed, while Xenophon, if anything, had pro-Spartan sympathies.

In his introduction to the 1951 edition of The Complete Writings of Thucydides, John H. Finley mentions that,

It is on first glance astonishing that the Athenians, who invented democracy, on the whole speak so badly of it.

Xenophon and Plato openly preferred Sparta’s militarized aristocracy. Aristotle’s view was more nuanced, but hardly an endorsement of letting the yokels have their way. The three great tragedians, fixated on the legendary deeds of kings and heroes, addressed the dramas of modern Athenian statecraft allegorically, if at all; while Aristophanes, in The Knights, portrayed the demos as an easily duped old gentleman:

Proud, O Demus, thy sway.
Thee, as Tyrant and King,
All men fear and obey,
Yet, O yet, ’tis a thing
Easy, to lead thee astray.
Empty fawning and praise
Pleased thou art to receive ;
All each orator says
Sure at once to believe ;
Wit thou hast, but ’tis roaming ;
Ne’er we find it its home in.

Among the major Athenian writers, says Finley, the one who wrote most sympathetically of democracy was Thucydides. But his idea of democracy was the forty-year supremacy of the “Olympian” Pericles, who by his personal charisma restrained and guided the Athenian mob. After his death, vain adventurers like Alcibiades and social climbers like Cleon arose and led the city to catastrophe.

donald kagan thucydides the reinvention of history

In his 2009 book Thucydides: The Reinvention of History, Donald Kagan makes the case that Pericles’ hypercautious strategy could only have led to bankruptcy and defeat in a war lasting more than a couple years, and that populist leaders like Cleon were probably correct to push for a more aggressive posture after his death. Right or wrong, Kagan says,

we must understand that in each case Cleon won the support of the Athenians, and that he spoke to them honestly and directly, without deception or deviousness. Though he is often referred to as the first of the Athenian demagogues, he did not flatter the masses but addressed them in the severe, challenging, realistic language sometimes used by Pericles himself. Moreover, he put his own life on the line, serving on the expeditions he recommended and dying on the last one. [1]

Cleon’s sleazy reputation was cemented thanks to Thucydides and, especially, Aristophanes, who in The Knights portrayed him as a slave, “the greatest rogue and liar in the world”, who rules his master Demus through promises and flattery. Cleon’s fellow slaves Nicias and Demosthenes, tired of his antics, enlist a passing sausage-seller, even more coarse, stupid, and unscrupulous, to win over Demus and put an end to their rival’s tyranny.

It wasn’t for his ruthlessness that Cleon was despised: Mytilene is mentioned just once in The Knights, in reference to a bribe he supposedly elicited from the citizens of that city. Why they were bribing the man who’d been advocating their mass slaughter a couple of years before is unknown.

Pylos, however, is alluded to more than a half-dozen times. Aristophanes’ main complaint against Cleon, apart from his being an uncouth arriviste who came up through the leather trade, is that he dishonourably claimed credit for another man’s victory: Demosthenes complains that when he “baked a rich Laconian cake at Pylos”, Cleon snuck in and stole it, presenting it to their master as his own.

To his contemporaries, Cleon’s offenses were ill breeding, rapacity, and self-aggrandizement. His “kill all the Mytileneans” policy, though a tad audacious, was well within the Overton window.

At any rate, Aristophanes’ dung-flinging did nothing to diminish the popularity of Cleon and other so-called demagogues. As John Williams White concedes in his introduction to the Loeb edition of Aristophanes’ plays,

he drove no one of them from power; there is little evidence, indeed, that he damaged their influence or even disturbed their brazen self-confidence.

Perhaps that’s because Athenian playgoers knew not to take his attacks quite seriously.

Quoting some slanderous wisecracks made against Pericles by the comic writers of his time, Plutarch observes,

And how can one wonder at any number of strange assertions from men whose whole lives were devoted to mockery, and who were ready at any time to sacrifice the reputation of their superiors to vulgar envy and spite […] ? So very difficult a matter is it to trace and find out the truth of anything by history, when, on the one hand, those who afterwards write it find long periods of time intercepting their view, and, on the other hand, the contemporary records of any actions and lives, partly through envy and ill-will, partly through favour and flattery, pervert and distort truth.

In fact, there is reason to believe that Plutarch, in his Life of Pericles, mistook the plot of a lost farce by Hermippus for an account of a real-life court case involving Pericles and his lover Aspasia – a mistake which has ever since distorted our understanding of the beginnings of the Peloponnesian War. [2]

If Plutarch could make such a boner after the passage of a mere four centuries, are we likely to have more luck digging out the truth after the passage of an additional twenty, when many of the writers to whom the ancient historians refer are now lost to us, except through the snippets said ancients chose to preserve? At best, we can reassess the limited and contradictory facts available to us in light of our own assumptions about what constitutes vulgarity and respectability, cravenness and courage, virtue and wickedness.

***

It’s curious that so many readers have been prepared to accept as basically truthful Aristophanes’ caricature of Cleon in The Knights, while balking at accepting his caricature of Socrates in The Clouds.

The difference is that in the latter case we have, to place alongside Aristophanes’ satire, Plato and Xenophon’s worshipful depictions, whereas our opinion of Cleon has been shaped exclusively by the writings of those who detested him. A volume of Cleon’s Table Talk, if any of his partisans had taken the trouble to produce one, would no doubt prove edifying – maybe even entertaining: Plutarch, no sympathizer, alludes to the demagogue’s “nimble wit” and “bold jests”, contrasting them with Nicias’ more plodding style. [3]

i.f. stone the trial of socrates

Says I.F. Stone in his 1988 book The Trial of Socrates,

[T]he bits and pieces that survive from the Old Comedy, as it is called, of fifth-century Athens indicate that to his fellow citizens [Socrates] was long regarded as an odd — even lovable — eccentric, a town “character”. This is how his contemporaries saw him, and not as we see him in the golden haze of the Platonic dialogues.

In The Clouds, a father harassed by creditors determines to take his son to Socrates to be taught “the unjust Logic / That can shirk debts”.

Arriving at the school, we discover the students with their faces pressed to the earth to “seek things underground” while their assholes, turned to the heavens, simultaneously study astronomy. Socrates descends in a basket from above, where he has been walking on air, he says, and contemplating the sun. He informs the father that there is no Zeus, and that in his school only three gods are acknowledged: Chaos, the Clouds, and the Tongue. [4]

After a great many fart jokes and yet more abuse of Cleon, the son completes a course in Socratic “humbug and circumlocution”. The father, confident now in his son’s ability to win any lawsuit that might arise, insults and chases away his creditors.

Alas, he soon discovers that the verbal tricks of Socrates can be turned just as easily against him – the son assaults the father, and then blandly justifies his violence, declaring:

How sweet it is these novel arts, these clever words to know,
And have the power established rules and laws to overthrow.

Plutarch tells us that Socrates took this raillery in good humour, comparing it to being roasted at a dinner party. [5] Plato, too, depicted Socrates and Aristophanes as pals sharing a boozy all-night bull session in The Symposium.

And yet in the Apology, which depicts Socrates’ defense at his trial on charges of impiety and corrupting the young, Plato has his hero complain that his most formidable opponents are not the accusers who have brought the charges against him, but his “first accusers” – those who years earlier taught the public to sneer at him:

You have seen this yourself in the comedy of Aristophanes, a Socrates swinging about there, saying he was walking on air and talking a lot of other nonsense about things of which I know nothing at all.

I.F. Stone doubts that the Athenians were so simple as to take Aristophanes’ absurdities literally:

But only a humorless pedant can believe that the joshing of the comic poets led to the trial of Socrates. … To blame Socrates’ fate on the comic poets is like blaming a politicians’ defeat today on the way he has been “misrepresented” by newspaper cartoonists.

Stone’s argument is not that Socrates’ prosecution was deserved – Stone was a leftist of the old school who believed in protection even for subversive or dangerous speech – but that in their fictionalized accounts of his trial, Plato and Xenophon deliberately obscured the real and justified reasons the Athenians had for fearing his influence on the youth. The Trial of Socrates was written, Stone says,

to give the Athenian side of the story, to mitigate the city’s crime and thereby remove some of the stigma the trial left on democracy and on Athens.

***

Anytus, the most prominent among the three accusers who brought Socrates to trial, had like Cleon derived his modest fortune from the leather business. No doubt like Cleon he had rankled at snobbish comments about his being tainted with the stench of the tannery.

mary renault the last of the wine

In her 1956 historical novel The Last of the Wine, Mary Renault imagines her protagonist, a young man of Socrates’ circle, being buttonholed by Anytus and scolded for his association with the philosopher:

“That man,” said Anytos, “ever since I remember, has been seen about with rich young idlers, flaunting their privilege of leisure, and frittering away their best years when they might have been mastering an honest trade. Can you deny that Kritias was his pupil? Or perhaps you would rather say his friend? What is more, ever since the democracy was restored, he has mocked at it, and undermined it.”

Critias was the former follower of Socrates who, after the fall of Athens at the the close of the war, headed the short-lived oligarchical dictatorship known as the Thirty. In I.F. Stone’s view, it was Socrates’ association with Critias and his followers – who, even after Critias’ death and the restoration of democracy, were still regarded as a threat – that led to his prosecution.

This was what was meant by the indictment in which Socrates was accused of “corrupting the young”: not that he had turned idle upper-class Athenians against their fathers or the gods, but that he had turned them into dangerous anti-government radicals. Stone has no trouble digging out quotes from Plato and Xenophon to illustrate that Socrates’ acolytes, or at least some of them, were contemptuous of Athenian democracy. [6]

Whether Socrates shared his acolytes’ views is less clear. In Xenophon’s (and Mary Renault’s) telling, it wasn’t political differences that had caused Critias and Socrates to fall out, but Critias’ habit of groping attractive boys: Socrates had publicly scolded him once for rubbing himself up against a certain youth like a pig against a stone.

In revenge, Critias when in power passed a law making it illegal “to teach the art of words”; which in practice meant, he oilily informed his former mentor, that it was forbidden for Socrates to “hold any converse whatever with the young”.

The prosecution of Socrates may likewise have had its roots in a personal grudge. Here Renault’s fictional Anytus, while barking down an attempt to explain how he has misunderstood the philosopher’s teachings, lets slip the real cause of his animus:

“Quibbles!” he said. “Everlasting quibbling, eating away the decent principles every man’s instinct should tell him are true. How does he get this hold over young men? By flattering them, of course; making them think they have a mission in life to be something out of the way, like that head-in-the-air young fellow [Plato] who was sneering at the Demos just now: teaching them that to work at a good trade, where they could learn the meaning of true democracy in give-and-take with their mates, is a waste of their precious souls; that unless they can dawdle about with him all day in the colonnades, talking away everything sacred, they will turn to clods—just like their poor fathers, who have only sweated blood that they might live as citizens and not as slaves.”

It seems that Socrates had at one time been acquainted with Anytus’ son – a boy “not lacking in firmness of spirit”, and therefore worthy in the philosopher’s eyes of elevation above the “servile occupation” that was the source of his father’s wealth.

Ever after, Anytus resented Socrates for commenting that he “ought not to confine his son’s education to hides.”

***

In Plato’s Apology, Socrates tells the jury that he believes it to be his duty to fulfill his “philosopher’s mission” and go on making a public nuisance of himself, even at the risk of his own life – just as it was his duty to remain where his generals placed him during the battles of Potidaea, Amphipolis, and Delium.

There are well-known anecdotes concerning Socrates’ heroics at Potidaea and Delium, but nothing is known about his involvement at Amphipolis – where, if you’ll recall, he would have served under the doomed generalship of Cleon.

Judging by the percentage of the comedians’ barbs that were directed at them, Socrates and Cleon must have been two of the most famous men in Athens. The Clouds had been produced the year before Amphipolis, The Knights the year before that. In their off hours, did these two soldiers ever get together to compare Aristophanic arrow wounds?

We don’t know anything about Cleon’s leadership style – Thucydides doesn’t give him a pre-battle speech, as he does the opposing Spartan general – but we can speculate that, as a radical democrat, he would have striven for an easy camaraderie with his troops. If so, it’s far from clear that the hoplites – many of them aristocrats who would have looked down on their “new money” commander – would have responded with warmth to his egalitarian outreach.

As for Socrates, I’m sure he would have made a show of friendliness. How could he have resisted the opportunity to poke a few finger-holes in Cleon’s sense of self-satisfaction? He might easily have driven his thin-skinned general into a rage, if not by philosophizing rings around him then by dropping some jerky comment about his background in the trades. But it’s just possible that Cleon with his “nimble wit” would have held his own.

***

If it’s not quite true that history is written by the victors, it’s obviously true that history is written by those who write the histories. They tend not to be pragmatic middle-class men like Cleon and Anytus, who are busy tending to their affairs, but the kind of dreamers condemned by Anytus as “rich young idlers, flaunting their privilege of leisure”.

We see ancient Athens through the eyes of the men who had the time and inclination to fritter away their days yakking about the nature of justice and virtue. They weren’t all rich, by any means, and they weren’t all idle, at least as far as their intellects were concerned. Nevertheless, their writings tended to reflect the preoccupations and prejudices of their social class: they had a high regard for their own intelligence, they scoffed at the commonplace, and they resented the system that subordinated their preferences to those of the working stiffs who kept their city running.

The commonplace men who elevated Cleon and Anytus to positions of influence would be startled, no doubt, at the topsy-turvy picture of their society communicated to the future by men they dismissed as zanies. No doubt our own zanies are busily compiling a history of our own times which would startle us, too, if we lived long enough to see it accepted as truth.

M.

1. Kagan mentions that Cleon’s great rival Nicias, after his death in the misbegotten Sicilian expedition of 415-413, was omitted from the stone commemorating the war dead because, Pausanias tells us, he had surrendered in what the Athenians deemed an ignominious manner. Cleon’s name, however, his countrymen continued to honour, placing it “at the head of those who fought at Amphipolis”. (So says Kagan. As far as I can tell, Pausanias only specifies that that “those who marched with Cleon” were thus honoured. The Greek version can be consulted here.)

2. The likelihood that Plutarch mistook the plot of a lost satire on Pericles for actual history is mentioned by I.F. Stone in The Trial of Socrates. He refers us to this note in the 1927 edition of the Cambridge Ancient History.

3. Unfortunately, Plutarch provides just one example of Cleon’s humour: showing up late to a sitting of the Athenian assembly, a garland perched ostentatiously on his head, Cleon mock-piously informed the crowd that he’d been kept busy with his sacrifices and was now late for a dinner date, so would they mind adjourning till tomorrow? – “Whereupon the Athenians, laughing, rose up, and dissolved the assembly.” That the gag isn’t all that funny bespeaks the fondness the people must have held for him.

4. I find it helpful, reading Aristophanes, to have multiple translations of the play open: one in verse, for euphony; one in modern prose, for comprehension; and one with detailed notes. Which is why I’ve quoted from three different versions of The Clouds.

5. Regarding Socrates’ broad-minded reaction to Aristophanes’ abuse, Todd M. Compton writes in Victim of the Muses:

[Plutarch’s anecdote] does portray a Socrates unruffled by Aristophanes’ play. But it also portrays a friend of Socrates who is clearly shocked at the extent of the abuse (“all manner of abuse … in every possible way”) directed at his friend. In addition, this fits into the familiar genre of Socratic stories in which he is seen as an extraordinarily wise man (it is prefaced by an explanation that wise men can control their anger). The point of the story is that one would expect Socrates to be upset, but he reacts with wisdom, self-control, and urbanity.

6. I.F. Stone knows enough not to take Aristophanes’ lampoons too seriously, yet he elects to interpret Plato’s thought experiments as literal blueprints for the design of a functioning state. He dismisses in an incredulous aside the view held by, among others, Allan Bloom, that the regimented, thought-controlled, eugenic state described in The Republic is, as Stone puts it, “a satire by Plato on his own utopianism!”

Here’s Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind expressing the viewpoint that Stone finds so risible:

What is so intolerable about The Republic, as Plato shows, is the demand that men give up their land, their money, their wives, their children, for the sake of the public good, their concern for which had previously been buttressed by these lower attachments. The hope is to have a happy city made up entirely of unhappy men. Similar demands are made today in an age of slack morality and self-indulgence. Plato taught that, however laudable justice may be, one cannot expect prodigies of virtue from ordinary people. Better a real city tainted by selfish motives than one that cannot exist, except in speech, and that promotes real tyranny.

As I mentioned in my essay on literary eunuchs, Mary Renault in The Last of the Wine makes Socrates’ real-life disciple Phaedo a survivor of the Athenian massacre at Melos. I’ve never written about Aristophanes before, but I did drop a reference to Lysistrata into this exploration of accents, clothing, and class in the movies. And, oh yeah – Cleon, meet William Jennings Bryan: “He was born with a roaring voice, and it had the trick of inflaming half-wits.”

Strategic capitulation and the Last Man.

In Second Game, a 1958 novella by Charles V. De Vet and Katherine MacLean, a human spy visits an isolationist alien planet to see what he can learn about the natives. He discovers a prideful, scrupulous, single-minded race who resent the human federation’s poking around in their star system uninvited.

robert silverberg editor great short novels of science fiction

When the spy is captured, his interrogators are unable to grasp his protestations of peaceful intentions. Their honour has been insulted. To refrain from war now would dishonour both sides.

Escaping captivity, the spy spends some time wandering around the aliens’ capital city. He comes to admire the natives:

I felt kin to them, as if these people had much in common with myself. And I felt that it was too bad that life was not fundamentally so simple that one could discard the awareness of other ways of life, of other values and philosophies that bid against one another, and against one’s attention, and make one cynical of the philosophy one lives by, and dies for. Too bad that I could not see and take life as that direct, and as that simple.

It is a “universal law”, declared Friedrich Nietzsche, that “a living thing can only be healthy, strong, and productive within a certain horizon.”

In “The Use and Abuse of History” he describes a man bounded by the assumptions and prejudices of his own time and place, ignorant of broader trends in history, philosophy, or aesthetics, his horizon “as narrow as that of an Alpine valley” – yet nevertheless standing forth “in unconquerable health and vigor, to the joy of all who see him”.

He compares that ruddy-cheeked yokel with his effete, cosmopolitan counterpart, who, with all his subtlety and refinement, is too discombobulated by his “continually changing and shifting” historical horizon to summon the courage to accomplish great things. For, says Nietzsche,

No artist will paint his picture, no general win his victory, no nation gain its freedom, without having striven and yearned for it under those very “unhistorical” conditions.

In his widely mocked, widely misunderstood book The End of History and the Last Man, Francis Fukuyama elaborated on Nietzsche’s meaning:

For history teaches us that there have been horizons beyond number in the past—civilizations, religions, ethical codes, “value systems.” The people who lived under them, lacking our modern awareness of history, believed that their horizon was the only one possible. Those who come late in this process, those who live in the old age of mankind, cannot be so uncritical. …

The last man at the end of history knows better than to risk his life for a cause, because he recognizes that history was full of pointless battles in which men fought over whether they should be Christian or Muslim, Protestant or Catholic, German or French. The loyalties that drove men to desperate acts of courage and sacrifice were proven by subsequent history to be silly prejudices.

The spy in Second Game is, in effect, an envoy from the End of History. Realizing that war would be pointlessly devastating to all sides, he announces to the surprised aliens his intention to return home and advise his own government to surrender unconditionally.

But the Last Man has the last laugh. The spy has foreseen that the aliens will be judicious overlords. With their vastly smaller population their culture will soon be softened and tamed by contact with their new imperial subjects.

And so it comes to pass. The aliens are turned into Last Men indistinguishable from the humans who submitted to their overlordship.

Fatal enervation.

When I was putting together my Bibliography page a couple months back I was surprised to find that in the twelve years I’ve been blogging, I’ve never mentioned Francis Fukuyama – even though several of my posts deal with Fukuyamian themes in Fukuyamian ways.

francis fukuyama the end of history and the last man

I have mentioned Nietzsche, from whose Thus Spake Zarathustra Fukuyama borrowed half the title of his most famous book. I should confess that despite several valiant efforts I’ve never made it all the way through Zarathustra, which hasn’t stopped me from quoting (in a review of a C.P. Snow novel) the passage where the paradise of the Last Men is described:

One no longer becomes poor or rich; both are too burdensome. Who still wants to rule? Who still wants to obey? Both are too burdensome.

No shepherd, and one herd! Everyone wants the same; everyone is the same: he who feels differently goes voluntarily into the madhouse.

“Formerly all the world was insane,” — say the subtlest of them, and they blink.

They are clever and know all that has happened: so there is no end to their derision. People still quarrel, but are soon reconciled — otherwise it upsets their stomachs.

They have their little pleasures for the day, and their little pleasures for the night, but they have a regard for health.

“We have discovered happiness,” — say the Last Men, and they blink.

Writing in 1992, Fukuyama wondered whether the collapse of the Soviet Union marked the final triumph of the Last Men. As Rod Dreher put it in a blog post reflecting on “the victory of liberal capitalist democracy over communism”:

It turns out that liberal democracy is not an end point, but a means to an end. What is that end? Freedom? Okay, but freedom for what? Progress? Fine, but where are we going? Towards a world of radical individualism, of self-actualized hedonistic shoppers?

For thirty years, critics of Fukuyama’s book – many of whom seem not to have actually read it – have caricatured it either as a self-satisfied blurt of American triumphalism, or as a woolly-minded declaration of the dawning of a yuppie Age of Aquarius. Here’s the conservative polemicist Mark Steyn unflatteringly comparing it to P.D. James’ The Children of Men, which came out in the same year:

While Fukuyama was cooing that the collapse of the Soviet Union marked “the end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”, Lady James discerned, at the very moment of triumph, a fatal enervation in the “free world”.

Three decades on, The End of History is too ridiculous to read, while The Children of Men endures as a meditation on the west at sunset.

Actually, far from “cooing”, Fukuyama’s tone is sombre, even fatalistic:

When Nietzsche’s Zarathustra told the crowd about the last man, a clamor arose: “Give us this last man, O Zarathustra!” “Turn us into these last men!” they shouted. The life of the last man is one of physical security and material plenty, precisely what Western politicians are fond of promising their electorates. Is this really what the human story has been “all about” these last few millennia? Should we fear that we will be both happy and satisfied with our situation, no longer human beings but animals of the genus homo sapiens? Or is the danger that we will be happy on one level, but still dis-satisfied with ourselves on another, and hence ready to drag the world back into history with all its wars, injustice, and revolution? [1]

Thymotic anger.

“In the Beginning,” – to quote one of Fukuyama’s chapter titles – was “a Battle to the Death for Pure Prestige”.

Fukuyama wonders whether the liberal-democratic doctrine of equality can fully satisfy man’s desire for recognition, a drive he traces back to Hegel’s “first man” – a kind of aristocrat in animal skins, ready to go club-to-club with his fellow first men to force them to acknowledge his superiority. [2]

The strain of liberalism descending from Hobbes and Locke emphasized the necessity of constraining men’s sanguinary urges through the adoption of a social contract – a mutual agreement among the combatants to lay down their clubs and submit to be governed. In exchange they would enjoy security and the freedom to engage in mutually profitable economic activities. The desire for recognition – the cause of wars and civil disorder – would wither away, or be redirected into benign pursuits, like science, the arts, and the piling up of material wealth.

Fukuyama stresses the radicalism of this line of thought:

In the civil society envisioned by Hobbes, Locke, and other early modern liberal thinkers, man needs only desire and reason. The bourgeois was an entirely deliberate creation of early modern thought, an effort at social engineering that sought to create social peace by changing human nature itself.

As attempts to engineer human nature go, the liberal experiment was unusually successful. We live amid its results; hence, its radicalism is invisible to us. The bourgeois revolution has nevertheless provoked opposition over the years from thinkers like Hegel who believed that it had severed us from an essential part of our humanity.

Fukuyama discusses several of these thinkers, most of them familiar already to anyone who browses the kind of websites where the neuroses of modern liberalism are diagnosed. The Czech dissident Vaclav Havel, for instance, who in his essay “The Power of the Powerless” imagined an apolitical greengrocer signalling his conformity to communist doctrine by hanging a sign in his shop window declaring “Workers of the World, Unite!”:

Let us take note: if the greengrocer had been instructed to display the slogan “I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient,” he would not be nearly as indifferent to its semantics, even though the statement would reflect the truth. The greengrocer would be embarrassed and ashamed to put such an unequivocal statement of his own degradation in the shop window, and quite naturally so, for he is a human being and thus has a sense of his own dignity.

Havel goes on to imagine that “one day something in our greengrocer snaps” and he begins to express his true feelings. He is swiftly demoted from manager to warehouse drudge, his children’s futures are threatened, he is persecuted by co-workers who care no more than he does about the unity of the workers of the world.

Nevertheless, by his rebellion the greengrocer has “enabled everyone to peer behind the curtain. He has shown everyone that it is possible to live within the truth.” A regime is propped up by the willingness of ordinary people to accept its baloney; when enough greengrocers rebel, the regime totters. As Fukuyama points out,

The man of desire, Economic Man, the true bourgeois, will perform an internal “cost-benefit analysis” which will always give him a reason for working “within the system.” It is only … the man who feels that his worth is constituted by something more than the complex set of desires that make up his physical existence … who is willing to walk in front of a tank or confront a line of soldiers.

In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis regretted the emergence of “Men without Chests” – men governed by their brains and their bellies, lacking that intermediating element, seated in the chest, which is the source of magnanimity, and sentiment, and virtue, and courage:

It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal.

In Fukuyama’s view, it is this irrepressible “middle element” – borrowing a term from Plato’s Republic, he calls it thymos – that drives history in the direction of democracy. Ultimately, people won’t put up with being kicked around by communists or fascists or theocrats. They’ll rise up, kick back at the bullies, and set up a government that respects the dignity of each individual citizen – which is to say, a liberal democracy.

But the thymotic anger of greengrocers was only half the story of communism’s collapse in Eastern Europe. The other half was the unwillingness of the communist leadership to follow the example of their predecessors in unleashing the army against uppity demonstrators:

Once the Soviets indicated they would not intervene to prop up local allies in Eastern Europe, the only surprising outcome was the totality of the demoralization of the communist apparatuses in all of the Eastern European countries, and the fact that hardly anyone in the old guard was willing to lift a finger in self-defense.

Fukuyama implies that the communists’ horizons had been widened through exposure to contending ideas of the good. Like the risk-averse future humans in Second Game, they were no longer willing to engage in “pointless battles” over what form of government should prevail.

But communists share with Fukuyama the belief that history has a direction – that it moves inexorably towards a more just and rational form of social organization. They merely disagree about what conditions constitute justice and rationality.

Those communists who pragmatically switched sides in 1989, reinventing themselves as democratic socialists, might easily have rationalized their apostasy as a strategic capitulation. Perhaps they saw Eastern Europe’s apparent repudiation of their beliefs as nothing more than a switchback on the winding path leading onward and upward to the End of History.

equitable treatment means we all end up at the same place

30 years on from “the decisive collapse of communism as a factor in world history”. Source.

“History is bunk.”

Turning my copy of The End of History and the Last Man edgewise, I notice that the little coloured Post-Its I use to mark interesting passages – including most of the ones quoted in this essay – are concentrated in the last third of the book.

That’s the section where Fukuyama wonders whether the End of History would be a fit place for humans to live, or whether its inhabitants might “drag the world back into history” out of sheer exasperation.

Jumping back, the first section lays out Fukuyama’s argument that history has a direction – that however events play out in different parts in the world, in the long run all human societies will converge toward a single outcome, determined by innate human psychological drives and by the possibilities opened up by scientific advances.

In the second section, the one I find shakiest, Fukuyama lays out the conjecture that liberal democracy is the final form of government towards which history has been moving.

No doubt this seemed more plausible in 1992. But Fukuyama’s own thesis posits technological change as one of the factors that determines historical progress. Why shouldn’t future advances in technology drive new forms of social organization?

Consider the big-data-driven Social Credit system coming into shape in China, which will permit the government to pry ever more deeply into its citizens’ communications, financial dealings, and private thoughts, and penalize whatever the Party deems to be antisocial activities. Those with high Social Credit ratings will find their way through life smoothed, while those who persist in visiting the wrong websites, or interacting with the wrong friends, will be inconvenienced in subtle ways whenever they attempt to find work, to travel, or to make everyday purchases.

Fukuyama brings in another old friend from the anti-Woke comment threads, Alexis de Tocqueville, to predict how a democratic people – “an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives” – might submit willingly to a novel form of tyranny:

Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood. … [I]t provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?

Rod Dreher has been arguing that such a despotism is under construction in the western democracies – not, or not yet, under the direction of the state, but bit by bit through the actions of gigantic corporations devoted to “protecting” their users from contentious ideas. He calls this “soft totalitarianism”, and compares it to the antiseptic, chemically-pacified, sexually liberated future described in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World:

In fact, a college literature professor told me that when he teaches Brave New World, few of his students recognise it as a dystopia at all.

aldous huxley brave new world

I can believe that. I recall how, as a teenage leftist in the early 1990s, I first encountered the chapter in which World Controller Mustafa Mond extolled the virtues of the society over which he ruled. I thought, “This all sounds okay, actually:”

“The world’s stable now. People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can’t get. They’re well off; they’re safe; they’re never ill; they’re not afraid of death; they’re blissfully ignorant of passion and old age; they’re plagued with no mothers or fathers; they’ve got no wives, or children, or loves to feel strongly about; they’re so conditioned that they practically can’t help behaving as they ought to behave. And if anything should go wrong, there’s soma.”

When John the Savage, refugee from one of the few remaining domains of unconditioned humanity, contends that such a narcotized, conflict-free life seems to him unbearable, the World Controller cheerfully concedes his point:

“Of course it does. Actual happiness always looks pretty squalid in comparison with the over-compensations for misery. And, of course, stability isn’t nearly so spectacular as instability. And being contented has none of the glamour of a good fight against misfortune, none of the picturesqueness of a struggle with temptation, or a fatal overthrow by passion or doubt. Happiness is never grand.”

Compassionate Mustafa Mond. His punishment of the novel’s heroes for instigating a riot is not imprisonment, not torture, merely banishment to an island where, he reassures them, they’ll dwell comfortably among others of their own kind – “people who aren’t satisfied with orthodoxy, who’ve got independent ideas of their own”. John the Savage he permits to live freely, despite his violent tendencies; the stability of the regime is not threatened by the presence of a lone Shakespeare-quoting madman.

Fair-minded Mustafa Mond. Even as he censors a “dangerous and potentially subversive” scientific theory, he reflects that it is a “masterly piece of work”, and quite possibly true. A pity; but the happiness of the people must be considered.

Clear-eyed Mustafa Mond, who in the well-known words of Our Ford proclaims that “History is bunk”, and waves his hand:

and it was as though, with an invisible feather whisk, he had brushed away a little dust, and the dust was Harapa, was Ur of the Chaldees; some spider-webs, and they were Thebes and Babylon and Cnossos and Mycenae. Whisk, whisk — and where was Odysseus, where was Job, where were Jupiter and Gotoma and Jesus?

What is there in the above to offend the 21st-century progressive sensibility? True, we haven’t yet abolished family, though modern sentiment encourages us to apply the word to any close-knit group, related or not. We don’t yet sneer at love, though the high priests of progressivism declare that one can love any number of partners, successively or concurrently. We haven’t yet arrived at the free distribution of soma, though we do have cheap and ever-more potent marijuana; and for those who get themselves addicted to the harder stuff, enlightened opinion declares that the state should supply their substances free of charge, to ensure the addicts’ well-being.

Most importantly, we continue to exalt individuality – up to the point that an expression of individualism interferes with a less privileged individual’s feeling of security.

In “The Use and Abuse of History” Nietzsche described the attractive life of a herd of grazing animals, well-fed and content, knowing nothing of “the meaning of yesterday or today”:

Man cannot see them without regret, for even in the pride of his humanity he looks enviously on the beast’s happiness. He wishes simply to live without satiety or pain, like the beast; yet it is all in vain, for he will not change places with it.

The horror that we might someday abandon the human “pride” that sets us apart from the animals, and regress to a state of herbivorous contentment, has been a recurring theme of the dystopian imagination from Nietzsche to Wells to WALL-E. Some of these fictions portray a rebel arising to jolt humanity out of its rut; others conjecture that once we’ve bartered away our thymos, it’s gone for good.

In the non-fiction realm, the Russian-born French philosopher Alexandre Kojève – whose Introduction to the Reading of Hegel seems to have been Fukuyama’s main source of inspiration – thought that the diminishment of humankind to a species of domesticated animal was really nothing to worry about, if you took a sufficiently broad view:

The disappearance of Man at the end of History, therefore, is not a cosmic catastrophe: the natural World remains what it has been from all eternity. And therefore, it is not a biological catastrophe either: Man remains alive as animal in harmony with nature or given Being. What disappears is Man properly so-called—that is, Action negating the given, and Error, or in general, the Subject opposed to the Object. …

(Fukuyama suggests he’s being ironic there, but who can tell?) In Kojève’s view, the End of History meant the end of war – but also the end of art, the end of philosophy, even the end of wisdom. He was fine with it. After the Second World War he gave up the academic life and spent the remainder of his years, as Fukuyama puts it,

working in that bureaucracy meant to supervise construction of the final home for the last man, the European Commission. [3]

Fighting dragons.

Fukuyama was never a radical. These days he seems to be a resolute centrist, happy to help a Guardian reporter fulfill his weekly quota of anti-Trump gibes. Although in The End of History and The Last Man he’s ambivalent about liberal democracy’s prospects for delivering human satisfaction, he never really entertains the possibility that some other form of government might prove to be superior.

But suppose you’re a bit gloomier. Suppose you look ahead and foresee democracy degrading either into factional chaos or into “soft totalitarian” torpor.

Suppose you start to wonder whether Lincoln’s “government of the people, by the people, for the people” is actually all it’s cracked up to be. As Curtis Yarvin puts it (dismissing the “of the people” part of the phrase as a mellifluous redundancy):

Suppose government by the people cannot actually deliver government for the people? Suppose we just have to choose?

What would government for the people look like? We, the people, seem to desire the life of Zarathustra’s Last Man – nothing more than the assurance of our “little pleasures for the day”. But is a government that satisfies all our lazy desires really governing for us?

We see that early in a democratic period, the real power of democracy (the power of the mob) greatly exceeds its formal power. Late in the cycle, this disparity inverts: the formal power of democracy exceeds its real power. Its peaceful, apathetic voters are not only not a mob—they are not even a crowd. These “last men” are too soft to even lift the swords of the primitive and violent ancestors who created their powers.

So those powers must and will be taken from them. In a monarchy where the king is weak, the king will be managed. In a democracy where the voters are weak, the voters will be managed.

In the next paragraph, he goes on to quote Tocqueville: “No form or combination of social polity has yet been devised, to make an energetic people out of a community of pusillanimous and enfeebled citizens.” As you can see from the above, Yarvin – better known under his old pseudonym Mencius Moldbug – works from many of the same sources that inspired Fukuyama. But he arrives at the conclusion (premature, I hope) that liberal democracy is beyond saving; that it is incapable of securing our freedom either in the narrow sense – our freedom to think, speak, and worship as we please – or, more broadly, our freedom to be fully human beings.

Therefore we might as well start planning for whatever will replace it after its inevitable collapse. I’m a little fuzzy on what that’s supposed to be: Gray Mirror, the book which will supposedly lay out Yarvin’s political philosophy, is still being released, one long, long, loooong chapter at a time.

In the most recent installment, Yarvin riffs on Cicero’s dictum “Salus populi suprema lex”, or the health of the people is the supreme law

the original and correct principle of all government, famous for millennia, never changed and never improved on.

But what is this slippery thing, the salus populi? Does it refer only to physical health – the guarantee of ample food, warm clothing, and medical care?

Or should the definition be expanded to include psychological health – in which case, perhaps, the government would be justified in removing statues, books, ideas, and if necessary, disagreeable people, if by their presence other people are made unhappy?

Or is there a still more comprehensive definition of salus? One that encompasses not only the stomach and the mind, but C.S. Lewis’ “middle element”?

Yarvin indulges in a sci-fi thought experiment that might be held up against other dystopian visions of the End of History. He imagines the bored, aimless citizens of the near future voluntarily migrating into “sealed villages” – windowless buildings which might be located anywhere – therein to spend the remainder of their lives participating in fully immersive virtual reality adventures. These adventures would be characterized by their intensity:

It is not a coincidence that virtual worlds so often select premodern European social, political and technical parameters—and the older and more fantastic, the better. The most basic human sociology is that all human beings prefer, all things being equal, to live in guilds that fight dragons for a living.

The game designer, in this scenario, bears much the same responsibility for the salus of the virtual villagers as a government bears for its citizens. Yes, bug burritos could be pneumatically delivered to the villagers’ haptic VR pods to keep them in good physical health; drugs could be squirted into their nostrils to keep them pacified. But if their virtual lives are to be an improvement over their unsatisfying real-world lives, the villagers must be enabled to live in a fully human way – which entails the possibility of enduring setbacks, experiencing physical pain, even dying, in the course of their virtual adventures:

When we accept the realization that humanity is not and cannot be in a healthy, manlike condition in the absence of pain, violence and death—not a new revelation, not even a Nietzschean revelation, but one of the oldest ideas in Western philosophy—we are forced to accept the general realization that the human experience is in every way shaped by essential difficulty. In hedonomic jargon, humans need disutility. … According to the principle of salus, our bodies must be exercised; our minds must be challenged; our characters must be tested; or we will be less human than we could be.

This thought experiment implies that if humanity should ever conquer all its difficulties, it may be necessary for whoever governs us – whether in virtual villages or in the real world – to devise artificial difficulties, to test our characters and give our lives meaning.

But what chance is there, really, that we’ll ever conquer our difficulties? Even in the unlikely event that all the world’s remaining tyrannies are overthrown, all the banana republics raised to western levels of democratic stability, all the pirates pacified, all the terrorists successfully won over to the doctrine of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion – how long will that happy state endure? One last quote from Fukuyama:

Experience suggests that if men cannot struggle on behalf of a just cause because that just cause was victorious in a previous generation, then they will struggle against the just cause. They will struggle for the sake of struggle. They will struggle, in other words, out of a certain boredom: for they cannot imagine living in a world without struggle. And if the greater part of the world in which they live is characterized by peaceful and prosperous liberal democracy, then they will struggle against that peace and prosperity, and against democracy.

Is that not exactly what we’ve been seeing of late? Conservatives like Rod Dreher are right to observe that their values and beliefs are under attack. Young people are no longer willing to live within the cultural horizon that bounded and oriented their ancestors’ imaginations.

Once the rebels have successfully smashed down the boundary markers and levelled the landscape, we’ll begin to discern the outlines of the new horizon, which will shape the deeds and imaginations of the next generation – their morality, and their sense of beauty, and their acts of courage.

This is the horizon which future rebels will struggle to transcend – and in struggling, we can hope, prove themselves human.

M.

1. If you missed the link above, Aris Roussinos’ article in UnHerd says everything I would’ve liked to say about Fukuyama’s conservatism, if I weren’t handicapped by my own discursiveness:

In his aristocratic distaste for the world summoned into being by the temporary triumph of liberalism, his Nietzchean disgust at the Last Man it has created, and his awareness of the stronger and more meaningful passions aroused by the prospect of struggle, sacrifice and glory, Fukuyama is widely at variance with the worldview ascribed to him. Were he writing in today’s more hysterical climate rather than in the early 1990s, he would more likely be accused of meandering towards fascism than of liberal triumphalism.

2. I should clarify that Fukuyama’s take on Hegel is, as he admits, heavily influenced by Alexandre Kojève, who uses the snappier “first men” in place of Hegel’s “modes of Consciousness that have not risen above the bare level of life”.

3. This essay is already bloated with quotes, but I can’t resist cramming in this fine piece of invective from the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton. The subject is the respected interpreter of Hegel and engineer of European unity, Kojève:

This man was, in my view, a dangerous psychopath, who brought with him from Russia the same kind of nihilistic fervour that had inspired the Bolsheviks, and who took an exhilarated joy in the thought that everything around him was doomed. He could not set eyes on any human achievement without relishing its future ruin. He lived in a Götterdämmerung of his own imagination, wishing meanwhile to create the kind of post-historical, universal and bureaucratic form of government that would extinguish all real human attachments and produce the only thing he really cared for: the last man, the loveless and lifeless homunculus which he knew in intimate detail since he knew it in himself.

Last month, a bit of fruitless research for this essay led me to consider how the desire for recognition might manifest in a willingness to crowd fellow pedestrians off the sidewalk. Some months earlier, H.G. Wells’ dystopian classic The Sleeper Awakes inspired some thoughts on 19th, 20th, and 21st century morality. Since I’ve elected not to pass comment on today’s American presidential election you might be interested in what I was thinking on the eve of the previous one.

Covering Vancouver.

If I still lived in Saskatchewan, around this time of year I’d be waking up irritable and apprehensive, expecting each morning to discover, when I peeped through the blinds, a blanket of white concealing my car.

In my hometown the snow usually arrives around Halloween and stays on the ground well past Easter. On shady lawns you’ll find patches of sooty snow lingering into May.

Some of my ex-Saskatchewan friends – there are a lot of us out here – tell me they miss winter. A rime-crusted scarf pulled up to just under your eyeballs. A line of ankle-deep footprints guiding you along an unshovelled sidewalk. Fog billowing around you as you stumble through the front door. Numb fingers fumbling with frozen bootlaces. Reddened cheeks defrosting over a mug of hot tea.

Me, I’d be fine if I never saw snow again.

Granted, it snows in Vancouver, too. Sometimes the stuff even sticks around for a month or so. I don’t care for it, but it’s nothing like Saskatchewan. I never wake up apprehensive even on the gloomiest winter mornings.

The perception in the outside world is that winter in the Pacific Northwest means non-stop rain. But that’s not really so. Sure, there will be whole weeks where the sun never peeks through the clouds. But it rarely rains all day long. In the soggy depths of January the clouds will occasionally part, the mercury will climb into the low teens, and for a couple hours it feels like early autumn again. With a light jacket and maybe a toque you can sit comfortably on a bench and read the paper.

You can, at least, if you don’t mind a damp behind. The benches are usually wet from the rain.

***

Since moving out here I’ve noticed a few peculiarities about Vancouver, odd things that seem to go uncommented on by the natives. Like the blinking green lights that identify pedestrian-controlled traffic signals – very distracting to drivers who aren’t used to them. Like the absence of sidewalks in so many swanky neighbourhoods – a frugality that might be justified in an auto-centric place like Saskatoon, and yet in Saskatoon you’ll find every snowy, wind-swept street lined on both sides with sidewalks, as all streets should be.

Another thing that perplexes me about Vancouver is the rarity of sheltered outdoor spaces. I’m talking about canopies, verandas, gazebos, pavilions, and covered patios.

In Saskatchewan such amenities are equally rare – but there they aren’t very useful. During the half of the year it’s warm enough to sit outside, it’s also dry. When the wintry winds sweep down from the Beaufort Sea, a gazebo won’t do much to keep them out.

But here on the balmy coast – well, for instance, here’s Westminster Pier Park, where in summertime I’ll often sit and watch the trains passing back and forth on the SkyBridge. There are dozens of benches arrayed along the riverfront, and on sunny days most of them are occupied.

westminster pier park new westminster bc

Image source: Pinterest / BuyRIC.

Notice the wooden pavilion in the foreground, which covers a concession stand and the entrance to the public washrooms. Here’s a better view:

westminster pier park pavilion new westminster bc

Image source: Pinterest / PWL Partnership.

As you can see, there’s a plexiglass roof suspended from part of the pavilion, which is otherwise open to the sky. The roof shelters an area of a few square metres directly in front of the concession stand on the lower level. It also covers – just barely – one of the two benches on the upper level.

On rainy days this bench is the only spot in the park – and one of a handful of public spaces in all of New Westminster – where you can sit outside while remaining mostly dry.

Of course, on rainy days you’ll usually find this bench already occupied.

***

One of the more encouraging as well as infuriating results of the current pandemic – infuriating because it makes you wonder why we weren’t doing this all along – was the way local city governments expedited the approval of outdoor patios this summer, to allow restaurants to seat customers in the antiseptic open air.

It was great. With the sacrifice of a few parking spots and the placing of a few cheap tables and chairs, businesses were able to partially compensate for the government-ordered slashing of their seating capacity.

But now, just as the long-predicted Second Wave of infections rolls in, those patios have ceased to be of much use. I’d be perfectly happy to button my coat, pull my toque down over my ears, and sit at an outdoor table to sip my Americano – but I’m not going to sit there and get soaked.

I scan the interior for an unoccupied table, but they’re all occupied by hipsters hunched over their laptops who appear to be dug in till closing time. So I skip the coffee and head home.

We’ll see in springtime how many of my favourite coffee shops are still in business. [1]

***

Although I blog now and then about transit issues, I’m really only well acquainted with two big-city transit systems, Vancouver’s and Toronto’s.

I may be biased in comparing them, but my feeling is that Vancouver’s system provides at least equal value for money – which, given the challenges imposed by its geography, is something of a triumph. Vancouver is much less populous than Toronto, much more fragmented by geographic barriers, and much “lumpier” – that is, its population density varies widely, so that many bus routes traverse wide stretches of near-rusticity between one teeming town centre and another.

Vancouver has one great cost-saving advantage, however – its mild weather. Climate has consequently shaped the design of the two systems. In Toronto, for example, when you emerge from the subway you’ll usually find yourself in a big hall enclosed against the elements where you can wait until your bus arrives. In summer it swelters and sometimes stinks, but at least in winter it’s slightly above freezing.

In Vancouver, when you disembark at a suburban SkyTrain station, you’ll descend to an uncovered bus loop, where in summer you can stroll about in the breeze and perhaps take in a view of distant mountains. In winter the mountains are likely to be hidden by the mist. You’ll join a queue of passengers huddled miserably beneath their umbrellas. If you’re lucky there may be a simple plexiglass shelter, wide enough to protect the first dozen or so people in line – fewer, under social-distancing rules. Everyone else gets wet.

You’d think these stations would have been planned with the comfort of bus passengers in mind. It wouldn’t have been hard to design them with eaved roofs or cantilevered floors to overhang the adjacent waiting areas. Even now, at some stations, by repositioning the bus bays, the queues could be sheltered under the SkyTrain guiderails.

Listen, Vancouver, you’re blessed. You don’t need four walls out here. You only need a roof. The least you can do is supply that.

***

Although I have few regrets about moving here, there are things I don’t like about Vancouver. The cost of housing is absurd. The daffy left-wing political culture gets on my nerves. And of course, not unrelated to the first two points, there are the vagrants staggering about in their hundreds, drunk or strung out or insane, sleeping on sidewalks, pissing in doorfronts, strewing litter, mumbling, shouting, and making life uncomfortable for the rest of us.

It’s hard to tell whom to blame for their predicament. In some cases it’s the vagrants themselves, for making what they knew full well to be terrible choices. In some cases it’s the rest of us, for failing to take action to prevent them from making choices they don’t have the capacity to make.

The daffy left-wing politics, which make it impossible to clamp down on tent cities, open drug use, and petty crime, are no doubt partly to blame for the proliferation of vagrancy. The absurd rents are another huge factor. But the main reason so many people live on the streets here is that they can. You’d have to be very crazy or desperate to attempt to live in a tent in Winnipeg or Prince George in January. In Vancouver it’s a viable option for the merely half-crazed and semi-desperate. Many of the tent city inhabitants claim reasonably enough that they prefer camping to being cooped up in shelters with all their rules, smells, and overcrowding.

I’m pretty sure I know the reason that Vancouver is so stingy with the provision of canopies, verandas, gazebos, pavilions, and covered patios. Every one constitutes an invitation to homeless people. Right now there’s little reason for anyone not waiting for a bus or flogging religious tracts to hang around outside a SkyTrain station. As soon as you put a roof over the bus loop, it becomes a magnet for scary-looking, foul-smelling vagrants whom the transit police will be obliged to spend half their time shooing away, leaving them less time to deal with graver crimes.

That’s my theory, anyway. Given the taboo against speaking ill of the homeless, I doubt any public official would admit that this is the real reason there are so few covered outdoor spaces out here.

Maybe I’m wrong, though, and it’s just that no-one beside me really cares that much about it. Enjoy being wet, Vancouver.

M.

1. I’m pleased to learn that the City of Vancouver will be permitting restaurants and bars to “winterize” their pop-up patios “by adding a cover supported by posts”.

I’ve written about the Toronto transit system before, notably last month when I discussed the ever more outlandish cost of building subways, and a couple years back when I recalled a moment of cross-cultural confusion on an overcrowded Toronto bus.

Yielding results.

I’ve been trying without much success to write an essay about Francis Fukuyama’s widely misunderstood 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man, and how it’s more ambivalent about the apparent triumph of liberal democracy than its conservative critics tend to recognize.

This article in City Journal, “A Primal Struggle for Dominance”, seemed to promise an engagement with Fukuyamian themes. (One of the chapters in The End of History is titled “In the Beginning, a Battle to the Death for Pure Prestige”.) But it was less relevant than I’d hoped. The author, Robert Henderson, rounds up some research illustrating the unsurprising fact that the breakdown of status hierarchies tends to lead to violence – and predicts that, given the ongoing delegitimization of police and other authority figures, the current spasm of leftist street brawling is likely to continue.

As part of his discussion of the stability of hierarchies, Henderson observes that while animals of unequal size are unlikely to do each other much harm when scrapping over food or territory – because the smaller one will quickly submit – in cases where the animals are evenly matched the fight may drag on, leading to serious injury.

In human society our methods for determining dominance are a little more subtle, but size still plays a part. Henderson points to a Dutch study showing that when two pedestrians of the same sex and approximate age approached each other in a narrow passageway partially blocked by scaffolding, the shorter one gave way to the taller 75% of the time.

In a variation of the above experiment, the Dutch researchers enlisted subjects of various heights to walk against the flow of pedestrian traffic and record how often oncoming pedestrians altered course to avoid them. They determined that people were more likely to alter their course to avoid, and less likely to bump into, taller subjects of either sex.

Reading this study, I was reminded of a post from Steve Sailer’s blog last year that highlighted complementary articles from the world of Grievance Journalism.

First there was Greg Howard, a black man writing for the New York Times, who complained about white women crowding him off the sidewalk by declining to make room when they saw him approaching:

Why haven’t I ever just walked headlong into a rude white woman? What lessons tug at me, force me off the sidewalk, tell me that my personal space is not necessarily mine? Because explicit in every white woman’s decision not to get out of my way is the expectation that I’ll get out of theirs.

Then there was Charlotte Riley in The New Statesman, complaining that it was men who “have been socialized, for their entire lives, to take up space” who were crowding women off the sidewalk, and that to even the score she now refused to give way:

You need to really commit to Patriarchy Chicken: don’t let your social instinct to step to the side kick in. Men are going to walk into you: that isn’t your fault.

Sailer imagined a game show called Intersectional Intersection in which various minority, gender non-conforming, undocumented, differently-abled, and otherwise marginalized people would approach each other from opposite directions to see who yielded to whom.

These articles stuck in my memory because around the same time, after spending the afternoon in a heavily Chinese neighbourhood here in Metro Vancouver, I was temporarily convinced that Chinese women were obnoxiously hogging the sidewalk.

Three, maybe four times that afternoon, as I approached Chinese women walking singly or in small groups, rather than scooching over to make room for me to pass, they barrelled straight ahead like I wasn’t there, obliging me to step off the pavement onto the muddy grass.

The next day, back in my own neighbourhood, it happened again, and I found myself thinking, maybe Chinese women just don’t know how to bloody well walk.

Luckily, I was familiar with the concept (although I had to Google the term) of apophenia – the natural human tendency to perceive patterns in random data.

Otherwise I might have done something truly embarrassing, like publish a clickbait article about how insufferably privileged Chinese women were, and how I was therefore entitled to retaliate with antisocial behaviour of my own.

***

I’d watch Intersectional Intersection: I’d be curious to see who’d win. But the results wouldn’t have much scientific validity.

It’s certainly possible that different nations, different subcultures, different genders, have different attitudes to sharing public spaces. Maybe men, maybe white people, really do tend to hog the sidewalk. As a white guy, I’d be the last to notice.

The Dutch height study gives us some ideas for the design of an experiment that might settle the question:

• We’ll need a location with a large number of pedestrians passing each other in a narrow space, while unaware that they’re under observation.

• The pedestrians will have somehow to be categorized by race, gender, or other relevant demographic category. In the Dutch study, there was no interaction with the subjects – the observers assessed their height, gender, and approximate age from a concealed position across the street. With race – nowadays even with gender – this would obviously present problems. Perhaps we could chase people down after they’ve cleared the observation zone, and ask which race, gender, or marginalized group they identify with. I imagine we’ll get a lot of rebuffs from impatient or irritable subjects, whose data will then have to be thrown out. Will this skew the results?

• We’ll need to grade each interaction according to who yielded, which will mean agreeing on how much lateral movement counts as “yielding”. The Dutch study cleverly took advantage of an obstacle that allowed only one pedestrian to pass at a time.

• And ideally, unlike the Dutch study – conducted in a single “mid-size city in the north of the Netherlands” – our experiment should be conducted at multiple locations, with different population mixes, to see how each group’s YQ (Yieldingness Quotient) varies in majority, minority, and evenly-mixed situations.

Alternatively, we could simply ask subjects to report who tends to crowd them off the sidewalk, and discover – what a scoop! – that it’s members of the group against whom they already have a grudge.

M.

My old post on whether crosswalk timers cause car accidents seems vaguely relevant to today’s theme; likewise this more recent entry on the social pressure to turn right on a red light. In 2019 I described an incident of cross-cultural confusion on a crowded bus that could, if I were a maniac, be spun into a generalization about racial privilege.

Dumb Yanks and witty Brits.

A while back I found myself getting nettled by a video posted to the comment section of Steve Sailer’s blog. Given the number of kooky conspiracy theories and racist rants to be found there, it might surprise you that the cause of my irritation was this clip of British TV personalities Jeremy Clarkson and Michael McIntyre joking about crosswalk signals.

I’d never heard of McIntyre, and Clarkson’s name I only vaguely knew – it seems he is the former host of a long-running TV show about automobiles. In view of the hundreds of cars of various makes and national origins which he must have driven, I suppose I must defer to Clarkson’s expertise when he asserts that,

American cars always have the words for what it is written on it, on the switches – it says “cigarette lighter”, “horn”, “lights” – whereas everywhere else in the world, where there are other languages, it’s symbols.

I’ve never noticed this, but I can’t say I’ve paid all that much attention to the labels on the dashboards of the various cars I’ve driven over the years – except when I’ve had to consult the owner’s manual for an explanation of a baffling warning light.

But what I found irritating was Clarkson’s crack that the use of written words instead of pictograms was an illustration of “how stupid [Americans] are”.

I know, I know. The two Brits were only indulging in a bit of mild national stereotyping: Germans are control freaks, Frenchmen are pretentious and chic, and Americans are dim-witted boobs. If it were the Americans who used pictograms, while the rest of the world used text, that too would be adduced as evidence of their dim-wittedness. “Americans – too simple to read four letter words,” Clarkson would declare, and the audience would cackle happily.

My fellow Canadians are equally happy to pass rude comments about our southern neighbours, and it annoys the hell out of me – especially since, unlike the Brits, proud possessors of a rich and largely self-sufficient national culture, we import most of our TV, movies, music, and literature from the States. That jackass you overheard at Second Cup sneering about Walmart-shopping, Big Mac-addicted American morons probably spent the weekend watching Better Call Saul, listening to Lana Del Rey, and reading Slate.

***

In a recent essay I discussed a very politically incorrect old story by G.K. Chesterton, featuring his amateur sleuth Father Brown.

The story, “The God of the Gongs”, concerns a Jamaican boxer who is secretly the chief priest of a voodoo murder cult. When we first encounter the boxer he’s done up in fancy attire and swanking out the door on his way to a big match. Chesterton comments,

And in the way he carried his cane in one hand and his cigar in the other there was a certain attitude – an attitude we must always remember when we talk of racial prejudices: something innocent and insolent – the cake walk.

This “attitude” is so provoking to Father Brown’s friend and sidekick Flambeau that he comments, “I’m not surprised that they lynch them.” (The priest gently rebukes him.) You see what I mean about the story being politically incorrect.

Anyway, in my earlier essay I glossed over the bit about the cake walk. Nowadays the expression is usually used as a synonym for “a piece of cake” – a task so unchallenging that you don’t even break a sweat.

But it originated as a dance performed by black slaves in the American south, supposedly in mocking imitation of the dances of white folks. These slave dances were organized into contests where the winner would receive a cake.

The dance survived at least into the 1920s – jazz fans may be familiar with the old Louis Armstrong number “Cake Walking Babies From Home”. How well-acquainted an English audience would have been with the cake walk, I’m not sure. I suspect Chesterton used the term to vaguely signify all kinds of energetic black dancing.

If I’m understanding him correctly, when Chesterton refers to the “attitude we must always remember when we talk of racial prejudices” he means that racial prejudices are rarely wholly false. In this case, the “innocent and insolent” attitude of the boxer is illustrative of some widely shared racial characteristic of black people, also exhibited in the cake walk.

Before you get too mad at Chesterton, I’d point out that back in his day, German and French were also considered “races”, and that he’d use a similar argument to defend the ethnic stereotyping in that BCC talk show clip.

I have no idea, by the way, whether Chesterton believed that racial characteristics were inborn or culturally transmitted. At that time, remember, it was progressives who were obsessed with harnessing the new science of heredity, while fusty old reactionaries like Chesterton (and, over in America, William Jennings Bryan) insisted that all men were equal in the eyes of God.

(But I’m sure whatever Chesterton’s opinion, it would have been expressed in terms that would outrage the same audience that found Michael McIntyre’s stereotyping of Germans and Frenchmen hilarious.)

Nowadays nearly everyone, besides a few dissidents like Steve Sailer, professes to believe that behaviour is determined solely by culture. I’m sure Jeremy Clarkson would be appalled if anyone interpreted his comments about the stupidity of Americans to mean that he thought Americans were hereditarily predisposed to have lower IQs.

No no no, he’d say, it’s their stupid culture that makes Americans stupid.

***

There’s a shortcut I sometimes take that passes by the side of the library. Often you’ll see groups of homeless guys hanging out on the benches there.

One day a few weeks back, the homeless guys were amusing themselves by heckling the passersby. “Hey, watch out,” one of them said as I approached. “This guy’s gonna beat us up. Are you gonna beat us up?”

“I’ll try and restrain myself,” I replied genially, walking past them.

Then one of them came up with a heckle that was surprisingly on-the-nose. “D’joo do the – the – the New York crossword puzzle?” he yelled after me.

I just kept walking. I was, in fact, on my way to the coffeeshop to read the paper and do the crossword.

Maybe the guy had noticed me before doing a crossword. I can often be spotted on coffeeshop patios around here doing just that.

But the fact that he specified the “New York crossword puzzle” – by which presumably he meant the New York Times crossword – made me wonder. In this guy’s mind, what did the New York Times crossword signify?

I have a friend who used to watch the filmed-in-Vancouver fantasy show Supernatural. As near as I can tell, it’s like Buffy the Vampire Slayer if you replaced all the cute girls with dreamy floppy-haired boys, then made the scripts about 50% dumber.

My friend told me about an episode where a character called Sam was working undercover as a bartender. A co-worker was intrigued when she noticed Sam doing a crossword puzzle – “the notoriously difficult New York Times Saturday crossword”, as Supernatural Wiki glossed the scene – from which she concluded that this mysterious stranger was “obviously highly educated”.

My friend scoffed because she knew that I did the Saturday puzzle all the time, and she also knew that – well, first off, that I’m far from highly educated; but more to the point, that I’m kind of a dummy.

I’m trying to be delicate about this because there are people out there who’ve never managed to finish the Saturday puzzle – I used to be one myself – and who will be annoyed if I disparage it as an unworthy intellectual challenge. They’ll assume that I’m snobbishly flaunting my high IQ.

So listen: I’ve never taken an IQ test. I assume that if I did I’d score around the middle of the pack.

I read a lot. I have a decent memory for certain kinds of trivia. But I struggle with tasks requiring the most elementary math, like doing my taxes, or figuring out which size of M&Ms package has the lowest per-M&M price.

I can’t tell a joke to save my life. I can’t give an intelligible account of the plot of a movie ten minutes after I’ve finished watching it. I’m hopeless at games of strategy like chess or Risk. Words and names I remember. It’s sequential thinking that trips me up.

Which is probably why so many of my blog posts – including this one – consist of a series of short, disconnected thoughts, thrown together with only the most half-hearted attempt at organization.

The point is that my extremely middling intelligence is sufficient for me to solve the “notoriously difficult” Saturday New York Times crossword, usually in about twenty minutes.

And if I’m feeling smug after this feat, all I have to do is flip over to the London Times cryptic to be reminded again how stupid I am.

saturday new york times crossword july 4 2020 sunday times cryptic crossword july 26 2020
Compare for yourself: the New York Times crossword and Sunday Times cryptic in the Vancouver Sun, Saturday, Aug. 8, 2020.

***

I have a theory. If you don’t like it, don’t worry, there’s another one coming along in a few paragraphs.

My theory is that outsiders tend to think American culture is dumb because we’re subjected to so much of it. Hollywood so dominates the global entertainment racket that we can’t escape from its products – from middlebrow costume dramas to CGI superhero epics right down to the latest direct-to-Netflix masterpiece Adam Sandler farted out over the long weekend.

It’s not that American culture is dominated by dumb garbage. Every culture is dominated by dumb garbage. (Sturgeon’s Law: “90% of everything is crud.”) It’s just that no other culture has so much power to sluice its garbage directly into foreigners’ brains.

The British produce all sorts of garbage – tawdry reality shows, formulaic sitcoms, vapid pop music. On this side of the Atlantic, we see only a trickle of it. It’s crowded out by American garbage, which is no better or worse than the British variety, just easier for us to absorb, because it speaks to us in homey accents and familiar slang.

When we in North America think of British culture, we’re not thinking of the whole of British culture. We’re thinking only of the small selection of it that American media companies thought we’d be interested enough to pay to see. It’s not all great – a lot of it, like the Harry Potter books, is in fact pretty dopey. But most of the low-quality, instantly forgettable junk has been filtered out.

It’s like how when we think of movies from Hollywood’s golden age we tend to think of immortal classics like Casablanca or All About Eve, rather than the hundreds of movies Hollywood churned out every year that were forgotten before the stars’ names came down from the marquee. If we were to travel back to the 1940s and go to the pictures a couple times a week we’d quickly realize that, actually, most of those pictures were crap. But time has filtered the crap out.

There’s a similar filter hanging across the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Most of Britain’s crap gets caught in the filter. But America’s crap is projected with so much force that a fair bit of it squeezes through.

(I’d add that American cultural products that are projected less forcefully – by which I mean those that don’t have big money behind them – get caught in the same mid-Atlantic filter. Thus a lot of the more idiosyncratic stuff that might force snooty Brits to adjust their stereotypes about America, they never get a chance to see.)

Okay, that’s one theory. Here’s an alternative one: Brits think American culture is dumber because American culture is, in fact, dumber.

This isn’t necessarily because Americans are dumber than Brits – though it should be mentioned that, both in comparisons of international test scores and in estimates of mean national IQ, the UK comes out a little ahead of America.

However, the same Brits who sneer at American stupidity are likely to be made extremely uneasy by the presence of a bunch of Third World countries at the bottom of the international test score rankings: that’s not the kind of stereotyping that gets big laffs from BBC talk show audiences.

So let’s throw out all that nasty psychometric data and concentrate on what’s really at issue here: creationist theme parks, non-socialized health care, the Second Amendment, and other such cultural manifestations which we shall prove scientifically to be, you know…dumb.

***

A few years back I embarked on what I thought was a straightforward project to determine whether, in the previous decade, there had been more movies made about World War II or the Global War on Terror.

I spent countless hours skimming the Wikipedia plot summaries of obscure films and recording my results in a tidy spreadsheet. Eventually I came to the conclusion that my question was meaningless. Depending on how I defined “movie”, how I defined “about”, and how I defined the conflicts in question, I could jigger my data to achieve whichever result I preferred.

If I wanted to tilt my results in favour of World War II, I could limit my database to the kind of big-budget productions that could afford period costumes and special effects. If I wanted to include more War on Terror movies, well, that conflict was usefully amorphous – any number of vaguely terrorist-themed shoot-’em-ups could be lassoed in.

I consider this abandoned project to have been an invaluable use of my time. It has taught me to be extremely skeptical of any study whose results might be used to prove a political point and whose data set the researchers have the leeway to define.

terrorism falling furniture graph slate star codex

Image source: “Terrorists Vs. Chairs: An Outlier Story”, Slate Star Codex, 2016.

Imagine that one were to attempt to prove the statement, “British culture is more sophisticated than American culture”. Every single term in that statement is open to interpretation – even, to get Clintonian about it, “the meaning of the word is”.

After all, a national culture doesn’t consist only of the literature, music, and art that a nation is producing at this very moment. It extends backwards into time. The modern Greeks, by virtue of having had Homer and Plato and the Parthenon passed down to them from their distant ancestors, enjoy a far more elevated culture than they would if they were forced to fill up their libraries and museums from scratch.

Likewise, modern Britain gets a good deal of elevation from having Shakespeare in its past, even if the average Brit can quote more lines of Love Actually than of Hamlet.

Since we tend, when we think of culture, to think first of symphonies, poems, and cathedrals, rather than advertising jingles, taqueria menus, and big box stores – although in fact culture comprises the chintzy and transient as much as it does the glorious and immortal – Britain’s culture appears richer than America’s simply because of its thousand-year head start.

Does the UK enjoy an unfair advantage from having all those monuments and leatherbound books lying around radiating classiness?

Or does all that mossy old junk actually disincentivize achievement, by making young people feel that everything’s been done already, so why bother trying?

***

Forget the past. Let’s stick to what’s being churned out right now. How might we go about comparing the sophistication level of modern-day British and American culture?

One approach might be to estimate the level of intelligence needed to comprehend cultural products that occupy a similar niche in each country. Is it true, as my own experiences would lead me to suspect, that you have to be substantially smarter to solve the Times cryptic crossword than you have to be to solve the Saturday New York Times crossword?

If so, does this prove that British crossword puzzlers are smarter than American ones – or merely that British puzzle page editors are more elitist than American ones?

Whichever it is, crossword fans and puzzle page editors are hardly a representative sample of the wider population. Let’s expand the scope beyond the puzzle page. Suppose you were to conduct a textual analysis of a year’s worth of stories from the ten highest-circulation newspapers in each country, comparing vocabulary, grammatical complexity, the frequency and type of literary allusions, and so forth. Would this analysis be more meaningful?

us versus uk newspapers by circulation

Top newspapers by paid circulation, USA and UK.

The Yanks might easily come out ahead in such a contest: many of the biggest papers in the UK are lowbrow tabloids, a market niche that is served in the States primarily by magazines.

However, a motivated researcher could easily widen or narrow the data set to give the British side a leg up. Maybe instead of circulation figures, you could look at the most influential newspapers – defining “influential” by incoming links, or Twitter mentions, or journalism prizes, or whatever.

And if that still doesn’t lead to the results you want, well, who pays any attention to newspapers these days? Maybe a side-by-side comparison of primetime TV lineups would be more pertinent…or the most popular podcasts…or the most-followed celebrities’ Twitter feeds…

***

Suppose an unimaginably powerful A.I. could somehow hoover up and analyze all the text, speeches, tweets, Instagram captions, comic books, signage, infographics, computer code, mathematics, movies, music – every product of human intelligence emitted by each country over a clearly defined period – average it all out, and assign a numerical grade. Would even this number be meaningful?

Consider music. Some of the most “sophisticated” stuff – at least measured by the apparent IQ level of the people who claim to enjoy it – is uncomplicated to the point of banality: droning classical of the Philip Glass and John Adams variety; purposely sloppy art-rock in the tradition of the Velvet Underground and Captain Beefheart; even the swaggering rap lyrics whose untutored exuberance our cultural betters swoon over.

I can’t understand their enthusiasms, but then, neither can I understand people who are into Wagner. My best guess is that some people regard music-listening much as I regard solving the crossword puzzle – it’s only rewarding if there’s some level of difficulty. Any bozo can hum along to a Beatles tune, but to enjoy Tristan und Isolde or Trout Mask Replica you must conquer your body’s natural resistance – boredom in the first case, annoyance in the second – in order to discover the patterns and variations that, in “easier” compositions by Bach or Duke Ellington, are apparent at first hearing.

Apply this logic to other cultural artifacts and it leads to hilarity. Sure, Boris Johnson can quote from memory, in the original Greek, sizeable chunks of The Iliad – but only a middlebrow would be impressed by such virtuosity. Any bozo can learn a few lines of verse in a foreign language – heck, I’ll trot over to the mall food court and round up a half-dozen Chinese immigrant kids who know all the words to “W.A.P.”

On the other hand, the genius of a Trump rally speech, assembled on the fly out of schoolyard taunts, self-promotion, and Seinfeldian observations about life’s minutiae – that’s visible only to the cognoscenti.

***

But I’m getting off track. After piling up a couple thousand words attempting to disprove the proposition that British culture is in any way more conducive to sophistication than American, I might as well admit that deep down I suspect that the proposition is actually true.

It’s not that Brits are smarter. It’s just that British culture seems to offer a bit more headroom in the upper range of the upper middlebrow – the area somewhat above my own browline, where you’ll find perfectly ordinary, unpretentious, bright folks like the ones who solve the Times cryptic crossword.

I can’t prove this proposition. It’s just a rough guess, based on intuition and anecdotal evidence – the kind of shaky conclusion you’d expect from a guy down here in mid-middlebrow territory, among the other New York Times crossword people.

M.

Speaking of pictograms as a marker of intelligence, a few weeks back I pondered the meaning of the elephant of Han Fei. In 2018 I considered the role of the thesaurus in helping authors create the illusion of effortless verbal fluency. And in 2015 I contrasted Bertrand Russell and G.K. Chesterton’s opinions on the “narrowness” of small-town life.

 

Quick and dirty: Once more on cost disease.

After stumbling across my old blog post on “Cost disease and Canadian transit”, the writer and transportation researcher Stephen Wickens sent me a link to a study he authored earlier this year:

Station to Station: Why Subway-Building Costs Have Soared in the Toronto Region

It’s an in-depth look at the question I asked, and failed to answer, in my original post and its 2019 follow up: why are modern rapid transit projects so ridiculously expensive – even after you adjust for inflation – compared to similar projects from as recently as the 1990s?

Subways cost far more now in real dollars than they did decades ago, even though the latest projects have had fewer stations per kilometre and traverse simpler, less-dense contexts. The new lines are projected to cost more despite being delivered during an extended period of record-low borrowing costs. Further, these projects will be delivered using the province’s public-private partnership (P3) program, which is supposed to offer better value for the money.

Although this topic is old news to me and many of my readers – and to readers of Slate Star Codex, whose 2017 post “Considerations On Cost Disease” brought it to my attention – Wickens mentions that the extent of the problem has yet to be recognized by some of our decision-makers:

When asked why we were more efficient at delivering infrastructure in the 1950s and ’60s, the president and chief executive of Canada’s Infrastructure Bank, Pierre Lavallée, smiled and asked: “Is that actually true?” Moments later, SNC-Lavalin executive vice-president, Dale Clarke, responded with: “I think that [greater efficiencies in an earlier era] may be more of a perception than a reality.”

I wish I could say that Wickens’ study had cracked the question of why cost disease took off so dramatically around the turn of the millennium, but I’m afraid that, despite the impressive breadth of his research, his conclusions aren’t much more definitive than mine. Essentially, he concludes (as I did) that it’s the result of the convergence of a number of trends.

From Wickens’ summary of his study at BlogTO:

The biggest factors in these skyrocketing costs, the study finds, are station depths—some stations on the Toronto-York Spadina Subway Extension, completed in 2017, go seven storeys into the ground—as well as things like rising labour costs and reduced construction productivity, corridor clearing and maintenance, and the cost of delays and “political meddling in the planning process.”

Many of Wickens’ Key Recommendations line up with cost drivers I identified in my earlier posts: rising land values, “infrastructure clutter” complicating construction, and the short-sighted selling-off of disused rail corridors forcing planners to default to pricier alternative routes.

Others, like Wickens’ suggestion to “reuse excess soil beneficially”, would never have occurred to me.

I’m a little skeptical about at least one of his recommendations, “Expand the cost-crisis conversation beyond the usual transit experts”.

I’ve argued that one of the factors driving rising costs is that it’s easier these days for ordinary schmucks (like me) to keep on top of construction plans whose details, in the past, would have been known only to a handful of insiders.

As I wrote in 2019, “The internet has made it cheaper and easier for obstructionists to organize and demand pricey compromises.” Whether the compromises are for the better or the worse, they lead to expensive reversals of already-made plans – in other words, to “political meddling in the planning process”.

I’m not saying “let’s just leave it to the experts” – only that soliciting a wider range of opinions is unlikely to result in greater consensus, and may well lead to more expensive dithering over the drawing board.

If we’re looking for an honest answer to the question, “How were they able to build so cheaply in the 20th century?” part of it is that they had 20th-century ideas about how to get things done – with less community engagement and more guys in suits barking orders into telephones.

***

The above reference to budget-busting seven-storey underground stations is just one of many in Wickens’ study, which began as an attempt to figure out whether overruns on the Line 1 extension to Vaughan were driven by overly grandiose station designs.

Wickens repeatedly draws our attention to the added expense of bored subway tunnels – necessitating bigger, deeper stations – over the cheaper, shallower cut-and-cover construction used in the last century. Cut-and-cover has been ruled out in more recent projects because it tends to rile up residents and businesses along the affected corridors.

Vancouver readers will be interested in the discussion of the construction of the Canada Line, and subsequent lawsuits brought by Cambie merchants over the effects of having a huge trench outside their storefronts for three years.

canada line construction vancouver cambie street

Cambie Street in 2007. Source: Whatever2009, Wikimedia Commons.

Observing that the choice of cut-and-cover rather than a bored tunnel shaved $400 million from the Canada Line project budget, Wickens writes that:

Courts have awarded three merchants compensation for “injurious affection” totalling $181,040 (though that decision has been appealed), with 97 more cases still to be ruled upon. Even if the $60,000-plus payout average were to hold, a cumulative $6 million would still be a good tradeoff for a $400-million saving. [1]

True, but (as Wickens concedes in the following paragraph) many Cambie residents and business owners would raise a holler at that cold-blooded calculation. The root of the dilemma can be glimpsed in this comment, which occurs in a discussion of “under-investment” in Toronto’s 1959 University-Bloor-Danforth subway project:

Nine construction workers lost their lives and many more were injured on the job. Protecting lives adds costs, but it is not something we should ever economize on.

Never? Never ever? I mean, there’s always going to be some level of risk wherever you have soft, fleshy humans working in the vicinity of enormous metal teeth tearing into the earth. Today we’re willing to accept far less risk than we were in 1959, and in another sixty years our grandchildren may shudder at today’s level of unsafety. Imagine, workers standing out in the sun without OHS-mandated parasol-holders shielding them from harmful UV rays! They were a foolhardy breed, those cancer-ridden hardhats of 2020…

What if future planners decide that protecting the psychiatric well-being of people living in construction zones “is not something we should ever economize on”? What are we, monsters, knowingly exposing children, the elderly, and neurodivergent individuals to dust-filled air, the sound of jackhammers, and burly men using gendered language, just to save a few hundred million bucks?

Forgive me if my facetious tone makes it sound like I’m scoffing at the unnecessary deaths of those 1950s construction workers. I’m not – but it’s easy to imagine them scoffing at the level of safety-consciousness that has taken hold in recent years. In any case I suspect that that safety-consciousness is a big factor in the “rising labour costs and reduced construction productivity” mentioned by Wickens above, and if we’re not going to resist it – which, perhaps, we shouldn’t – then we’re going to have to find somewhere else to cut back. Don’t ask me, I’m all out of ideas.

M.

Update, Sept. 9, 2020: Stephen Wickens kindly emailed to suggest that I’d “misconstrued” one of his Key Recommendations. He’s right. Here’s his recommendation in its entirety:

1) Expand the cost-crisis conversation beyond the usual transit experts. Even people who never ride public transit benefit hugely from its existence and, with constraints on our ability to add more road space, the benefits of expanded transit will increasingly be more important than ever. The infrastructure cost crisis is growing, and without prompt and appropriate responses it will damage the long-term competitiveness of the [Greater Toronto Area], with harmful knock-on effects for all of Canada. Cities that make wise transit planning decisions will have major competitive advantages in the 21st century. Merely building will not be enough. If we spend foolishly, we undermine the public’s willingness to fund future projects, no matter how urgent they might be.

He’s not arguing, as I lazily implied, for “ordinary schmucks (like me)” to have greater input into the transit planning process. He’s merely saying that a wider range of decision-makers need to be made aware of the fact that cost disease, or the “cost crisis”, as he prefers, is a problem at all.

In fact, you could read a later Key Recommendation as advising that we ordinary schmucks be kept in our place:

9) Approve long-term transit plans based on real evidence. Politicians have hugely important roles to play in ensuring contracts are fulfilled and in choosing service-policies (ridership growth versus broader network coverage for example). They should also retain the best and most powerful role in the process: choosing which projects get approved and funded, but only from a menu of options prepared by transit experts who have been freed to exercise professional independence and publicly speak truth to power. The GTA’s multidecade descent into a transit crisis is rooted at least partly in an ethical breach that needs to be sealed off immediately. When politicians can interfere in preparing the menus of options, we inevitably waste and misuse experts by having them engage in “decision-based evidence making.” Planners and consultants need to be able to safely raise and study good options even if those options are seen as threats to projects promised by politicians in power, or seeking office. Often, the only options that make it to the table are unnecessarily costly and of questionable worth, while more practical solutions receive little or no consideration.

(In a democracy, the rules of polite discourse preclude us from saying, “Keep those uninformed plebes out of the planning process, they inevitably mess everything up”. We must instead direct our ire at the politicians elevated to power by those same uninformed plebes.)

Anyway, I have mixed feelings about Key Recommendation #9. I’m not sure I have much more faith in the wisdom of supposedly impartial transit experts than I do in the squabbling mayors, premiers, and prime ministers who continually rip up and rearrange their tidy plans.

Ideally the two sides offset each other’s worst tendencies – with the experts providing some ballast to politicians’ pie-in-the-sky promises, while the politicians rein in the experts’ tendency to prioritize current fashions in urbanism over the preferences of real, unruly humans. Perhaps the sides were better balanced in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, when Toronto constructed the bulk of its subway system at what now seem impossibly modest prices – but I’m not sure. Were experts really more independent back then? Were politicians really more deferential?

However we apportion the responsibility, the politicians and experts of 20th-century Toronto made a lot of what are now generally regarded as dumb decisions – a lakefront expressway; the Scarborough RT; subways stretching ever deeper into the suburbs while downtown stations became dangerously overcrowded. But they made those dumb decisions quickly. In 21st-century terms, they moved fast and broke things.

20th-century infrastructure was cheaper, in part, because decision-makers were willing to risk breaking things. They could take those risks because everything was cheaper – hence, the financial stakes for each decision were lower.

This update is now nearly as long as the original post. You should ignore my blethering and, if you haven’t already, go read Wickens’ study.

1. That $180,000 award to three Cambie businesses affected by Canada Line construction was later overturned by the BC Supreme Court.

Stephen Wickens hasn’t updated his blog for a while, but his 2019 article advocating a commuter rail “Smart Spur” to Scarborough Town Centre (instead of the planned $4 billion subway extension) makes a lot of sense to me. I haven’t been writing much about transit issues either, in part because I fear that, in light of recent events, mass transportation has become passé. If you’re looking for a more literary variation on how they used to do things better back in the 20th century grumble grumble goddamn rap music, I’ve got you covered.

And this grave gent lives on.

Early in The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe’s 1979 account of the pioneering days of the U.S. space program, the original seven Mercury astronauts are introduced to the American press.

tom wolfe the right stuff

Although not unpossessed of healthy egos, the seven are taken aback by the universal hosannas with which they are greeted. After all, they haven’t done anything yet, besides endure a gruelling series of physical and psychological tests, an inordinate number of them involving having things inserted up their butts. Most of the seven are test pilots and fighter jocks, but the space program has selected them less for their skill than for their obedience, their unflappability under pressure – and their below-average height, in order to squeeze into the cramped Mercury capsule.

At their introductory press conference, they’re invited to hold forth on their patriotism, their churchgoing habits, their bravery – subjects they’ve been accustomed to avoid discussing in their flying careers, where manly laconism is the rule. Only one of the seven, future first-American-to-orbit-the-earth, senator, and presidential candidate John Glenn, is adept at spinning this type of self-promoting schmaltz. (“Glenn had not gotten this far in his career by standing still in a saintly fashion and waiting for his halo to be noticed.”) The other astronauts do their best to keep up.

But it hardly matters what they say. The ladies and gentlemen of the press know how to spin it:

It was as if the press in America, for all its vaunted independence, were a great colonial animal, an animal made up of countless clustered organisms responding to a single nervous system. In the late 1950’s (as in the late 1970’s) the animal seemed determined that in all matters of national importance the proper emotion, the seemly sentiment, the fitting moral tone should be established and should prevail; and all information that muddied the tone and weakened the feeling should simply be thrown down the memory hole. In a later period this impulse of the animal would take the form of blazing indignation about corruption, abuses of power, and even minor ethical lapses, among public officials; here, in April of 1959, it took the form of a blazing patriotic passion for the seven test pilots who had volunteered to go into space. In either case, the animal’s fundamental concern remained the same: the public, the populace, the citizenry, must be provided with the correct feelings! One might regard this animal as the consummate hypocritical Victorian gent. Sentiments that one scarcely gives a second thought to in one’s private life are nevertheless insisted upon in all public utterances. (And this grave gent lives on in excellent health.)

Shortly afterward, the famed pilot and breaker of the sound barrier Chuck Yeager – who was disqualified from the astronaut search due to his lack of a university degree – makes the mistake of responding forthrightly to a reporter who asks if he’s disappointed at not being among the Mercury seven.

The thing was, he said, the Mercury system was completely automated. Once they put you in the capsule, that was the last you got to say about the subject.

Whuh!

“Well,” said Yeager, “a monkey’s gonna make the first flight.”

A monkey?

The reporters were shocked. It happened to be true that the plans called for sending up chimpanzees in both suborbital and orbital flights, identical to the flights the astronauts would make, before risking the men. But to just say it like that! . . . Was this national heresy? What the hell was it?

Fortunately for Yeager, the story didn’t blow up into anything. The press, the eternal Victorian Gent, just couldn’t deal with what he had said. The wire services wouldn’t touch the remark. It ran in one of the local newspapers, and that was that.

In those days, the press had the ability to bury comments that undermined the preferred narrative. Nowadays, of course, some self-appointed upholder of the “fitting moral tone” would pick up on Yeager’s impolitic comment and tweet it to the outraged masses, forcing the media to cover the story. Every outlet from the Washington Post down to Teen Vogue would rush out a thinkpiece explaining why Yeager’s comparison of astronauts to monkeys was divisive, irresponsible, and Not Who We Are – or, as they would have phrased it in the Eisenhower era, downright un-American.

M.

I referenced Tom Wolfe’s Radical Chic while reflecting on Jeremy Corbyn’s alleged antisemitism last year. As for the media’s determination to dress up our diet of bare facts with a side-order of the correct feelings, I’ve alluded to it in my discussions of Gell-Mann AmnesiaTonypandy, and Greta Thunberg’s unphotogenic snarl.

The lessons of three elephants.

In the Chinese and Japanese writing systems, the character 象 (in Mandarin, xiàng) represents an elephant. The trunk and head are at the top, legs on the left, tail at the bottom. [1]

Curiously enough, this character also represents representation. To steal some examples from the 象 Wiktionary page:

意象 (yìxiàng) is a mental impression or conception: a thought-representation.
血象 (xuèxiàng) is a hemogram: a blood-representation.
象形 (xiàngxíng) is a pictogram: a representation-shape.

The character (also pronounced xiàng), which is the elephant crammed together with a lopsided man (人), means a picture or image, or (as a verb) to resemble.

How did a squiggle of an elephant come to represent representation? Wiktionary quotes the 3rd century BC philosopher Han Fei, who hypothesized:

Men rarely see living elephants. As they come by the skeleton of a dead elephant, they imagine its living form according to its features. Therefore it comes to pass that whatever people use for imagining the real is called 象 .

This page about the Da Xiang (大象 – a famous commentary on the I Ching) proposes a less fanciful theory:

The meaning “symbolism” for 象 is sometimes said in traditional Chinese lexicography to be an extension from this primary meaning [of “elephant”], relating to the carving of ivory.

In other words, the mental process may have been elephantivoryivory sculpturesculpture in generalrepresentation in general.

But most likely, the character for “elephant” was simply borrowed for a similar-sounding word meaning “image”. Many Chinese characters originated that way.

Suppose that we English-speakers had never inherited our alphabet from the Romans. Instead, like the Chinese, we had evolved a writing system out of basic pictograms. For our word “elephant” we might now have a character like:

But way in the past, some scribe noticed that we needed a character for “elegant”, and after messing around for a while with stickmen wearing bow-ties he figured, screw it, I’ll just use the “elephant” character, and let readers figure out from context which I’m referring to.

No doubt after a few hundred years, when the origins of the characters were lost in the mist, our equivalent of Han Fei would come up with a story about how, since elephants were the most dapper and refined of creatures, it made perfect sense for them to share a character with the word “elegant”.

And foreigners would wonder why, whenever an elephant appeared in an English-language cartoon, he always had a posh accent and wore a monocle.

***

In Robert Graves’ 1938 historical novel Count Belisarius, the narrator (the eunuch slave Eugenius) mentions a certain landmark in ancient Constantinople – the elephant of Severus.

Graves learned of this elephant from the Parastaseis Syntomoi Chronikai, an 8th century guide to the sights of the Byzantine capital. It is, as its modern-day editors have described it, “a confused and often inaccurate survey of some classical monuments and statues” that had survived from the pagan era to awe and befuddle later generations of Christians.

According to the Parastaseis, in a colonnade near the Basilica (a civic building located opposite the “Great Church”, i.e. the Hagia Sophia) there stood a huge statue of an elephant, erected in days of yore by the pagan emperor Severus:

For in the same golden-roofed Basilica they say the elephant lived, an extraordinary spectacle. … And they say that in the same place as the elephant lived Carcinelus, a silversmith who used rigged scales. They say he threatened the elephant’s keeper because his house was being damaged, and he frequently vowed that he would kill the keeper if he did not keep the animal in check. But the keeper would not consent to control the elephant with reins. The user of rigged scales killed him and offered him to the elephant as fodder, but the animal, being wild, killed him too. And when Severus heard this he offered many sacrifices to the beast, and they were at once commemorated in statues in that place.

The editors add that,

Severus honours the elephant for its innate wisdom in thus punishing the hot-headed money-lender. The story turns out to have a moral: statues, if old and with pagan connections (here imported by the mention of Severus), or even if simply not understood in a conventional Christian context, nearly always [in the Parastaseis] have a hidden meaning[.]

Recognizing in this muddle the bones of a good story, Graves tidies it up, upgrading the elephant from savage beast to deliberating avenger:

The elephant of Severus is commemorated by a statue close to the Royal Porch, nearly opposite the main entrance to the Hippodrome. It had waited twenty years to catch a certain money-changer on whose evidence its master had been committed to a debtor’s prison, where he had died. At last, while taking part in a procession, it had recognized the money-changer in the crowd lining the street and had seized him with its trunk and trampled him to death. Investigations proved clearly that the money-changer had been a thief and a perjurer, so the elephant was honoured with this statue, which represents it with its master seated upon its neck. The motto is: “It will be avenged at last.” Many who labour under private and public injustice comfort themselves with the elephant’s message.

Later, when Graves’ narrator plans a conspiracy for the overthrow of an old enemy, he arranges his initial rendezvous by the elephant statue.

***

In Graves’ telling, the elephant of Severus represents not only justice, but patience – it waited twenty years to take its revenge.

On the floor of the Cathedral of St. Front in Périgueux, France, there is a mosaic celebrating patientia and its allied virtue, fortitudo. This mosaic once caught the eye of Hilaire Belloc, who, when recalling it years later in an essay called “On Fortitude”, described it rather inaccurately, exaggerating its size, placing it “on a side altar of the northern transept”, and erasing the reference to patientia. [2]

elephant mosaic périgueux cathedral

Belloc’s elephant in Périgueux Cathedral.
Source: The Girl Who Went To Paris.

If the mosaic had celebrated another attribute customarily associated with elephants – memoria – Belloc’s faulty description would have been ironically apt. But perhaps it’s for the best that he was unable to verify his facts with a quick Google search. The elephant as he misremembered it, with its “quiet eye” and “immovable expression” and one-word motto, set off a “whole train of contemplation” which might have gone off the rails if he’d consulted a photo of the real thing.

Fortitude (and her elephant) were here set up in a Christian church because fortitude is entitled one of the great virtues. Now what is fortitude? It is primarily Endurance: that character which we need the most in the dark business of life. But if fortitude be endurance, it is also creative endurance, and at the same time it involves some memory of better times and some expectation of their return. It involves, therefore, fidelity and hope; and, without those two, fortitude would be of little use: but above all fortitude is endurance.

Fortitude is the virtue of the menaced, of the beleaguered. It is the virtue of those of them that man the wall, or that are called upon to last out. This thing, Fortitude, is the converse to and the opposite of aggressive flamboyant courage, yet it is the greater of the two, though often it lacks action. Fortitude wears armour and holds a sword, but it stands ready rather than thrusts forward. It demands no supplement; it is nourished not from without but from within. It is replenished of its own substance. Fortitude does not envisage new things; rather does it tenaciously preserve things known and tried. It builds, but builds unwittingly, not following an inspired plan nor a mere vision, but of necessity; and from stone to stone of daily conservative achievement.

Sometimes fortitude will earn fame, but not often. Always, however, it will earn reward; for even when the defensive fails at the end, if it has been of an efficient sort it makes an air and a name surrounding and enshrining itself. So have the great sieges of history done. So will our time of trial today, if we use it aright.

Belloc’s time of trial was, of course, World War II. Happily, our time of trial is far less all-consumingly urgent. Indeed, it’s possible for intelligent people of all political stripes to wonder whether today’s emergencies are emergencies at all, or mere smokescreens fanned by our enemies to distract our attention while they divide, demoralize, and fleece us.

With that uncertainty in mind, all three of today’s elephants have virtues to teach us:

The elephant of Périgueux advises fortitude and patience, which are essential in any age.

The elephant of Severus illustrates the virtue of a long memory, to help us put our problems in the proper historical perspective.

And the elephant of Han Fei reminds us that our knowledge of the world consists of a bare skeleton of second-hand reports, and that the picture we build up from that skeleton is unlikely to be as marvelous and strange as the real thing.

M.

1. Take everything I say concerning Chinese language and culture with a grain of salt. Not only am I not an expert, I’m barely a dabbler.

2. I came across “On Fortitude” in Hilaire Belloc’s Selected Essays, but it appeared originally in a 1941 collection called The Silence of the Seawitheringly dismissed by Vladimir Nabokov in the New York Times Book Review.


Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

You can find a selection of his cartoons, music videos, and ads on the Gallery page.

Michael isn't on LinkedIn or Facebook or Twitter and won't be on whatever comes along next. If you need to reach him here's his contact info.

Garson Hampfield, Crossword Inker