Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward: “A definite opinion has been established.”

I should start by explaining that Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward is about a cancer ward. The reviewers, like this one in the New York Times, 1968, are going to tell you that the ward symbolizes the Soviet Union, and the cancer the moral rot eating away at the souls of the Soviet people:

As “One Day [in the Life of Ivan Denisovich]” stands for the agony of all Russia under Stalin, so “The Cancer Ward” irresistibly conveys an image of the immediate post-Stalin period when both victims and executioners were confined, all equally mutilated, in the cancer ward of the nation.

…and that Solzhenitsyn was just being cagey when he told the secretariat of the Union of Soviet Writers – who had declined to approve his book for publication – that,

The fact is that the subject is specifically and literally cancer, a subject avoided in literature, but nevertheless a reality as its victims know only too well from daily experience.

cancer ward alexander solzhenitsyn

In that meeting (a transcript is included as an appendix in the Bantam paperback edition of Cancer Ward), whenever Solzhenitsyn was invited to speak he made a point of disavowing his earlier, more explicitly political play Feast of the Conquerors, which had particularly upset the bigwigs. He told them that he now regarded his play as “very dangerous”. [1] He could’ve told them to stuff it – one kind of wishes he had – but at this point he still had hopes of pestering them into greenlighting his new novel.

(They never did. They kicked him out of the union a couple years later.)

So sure, he was being cagey. But I think he meant what he said about Cancer Ward. He must have known that his subject would invite all kinds of speculation about its symbolic significance, but it really is a book about life in a cancer ward. That seems to have been a big part of what annoyed the commissars from the Union of Soviet Writers. Why cancer, comrade? Isn’t it just kind of gratuitously depressing? As a member of the secretariat named Kerbabaev put it,

Why does the author see only the black?

This line of criticism echoes one of the debates within the novel, which begins when a patient named Podduyev, a man of rude and unreflecting vitality, is given a book of short stories. To his surprise, one of the stories seems to answer a question that’s been haunting him for weeks, as he has grappled with the reality of his disease. He decides to share his revelation with the others in the cancer ward:

“Listen, here’s a story,” he announced in a loud voice. “It’s called ‘What Men Live By’.” He grinned. “Who can know a thing like that? What do men live by?”

Treating the title as a riddle, he challenges the other patients to offer their speculations. One suggests that men live by air, water, and food. Another, by their pay. Another, by their professional skill.

In the bed across from Podduyev is a self-satisfied little man called Rusanov, a person of some political influence – for instance, rather than wearing the ill-fitting pyjamas assigned by the hospital, he’s been allowed to bring in his own. Later we’ll learn that Rusanov has acquired his position through the strategic denunciation of neighbours and co-workers.

Relaxing his customary aloofness toward the other patients, Rusanov decides to settle the debate:

“There’s no difficulty about that,” he said. “Remember: people live by their ideological principles and by the interests of their society.”

Discomfited by Rusanov’s tone of certainty, Podduyev attempts to summarize the story in his own words. It’s a fable about a poor cobbler who takes as an apprentice a mysterious beggar who, it soon emerges, may have the power of prophecy.

Rusanov has no patience for such mystical nonsense. He interrupts Podduyev, demanding that he skip to the end and tell them what, in the author’s opinion, men live by.

“What do they live by?” He could not say it aloud somehow. It seemed almost indecent. “It says here, by love.”

“Love? . . . No, that’s nothing to do with our sort of morality.”

Upon being demanded to tell who wrote this sentimental tripe, Podduyev haltingly enunciates the author’s name: “Tol . . . stoy.” Not, it soon emerges, Alexei Tolstoy, winner of the Stalin Prize, but “the other one” – that old pious fraud whose ideological errors had been settled long ago by Lenin, who wrote in 1908 that,

The contradictions in Tolstoy’s works, views, doctrines, in his school, are indeed glaring. … On the one hand, the most sober realism, the tearing away of all and sundry masks; on the other, the preaching of one of the most odious things on earth, namely, religion[.]

Having reminded his listeners of these facts, Rusanov retires complacently from the debate.

But the topic comes up again some days later. Along with Podduyev and Rusanov the ward contains a romantic character called Kostoglotov, a former political prisoner subsequently exiled to a remote village in Central Asia. (The location of the hospital is never spelled out, but is presumably Tashkent, where the author was treated for cancer after his stint in prison.)

A cynic with a long scar on his cheek from a brawl with urkas in the Gulag, [2] Kostoglotov inevitably winds up at odds with the doctrinaire Rusanov. But they have in common a sermonizing bent, which one evening inspires Kostoglotov to hold forth on the healing properties of optimism:

“So I wouldn’t be surprised,” Kostoglotov continued, “if in a hundred years’ time they discover that our organism excretes some kind of cesium salt when our conscience is clear, but not when it’s burdened, and that it depends on this cesium salt whether the cells grow into a tumor or whether the tumor resolves.”

[Podduyev] sighed hoarsely. “I’ve mucked so many women about, left them with children hanging round their necks. They cried . . . mine’ll never resolve.”

“What’s that got to do with it?” [Rusanov] suddenly lost his temper. “The whole idea’s sheer religious rubbish! You’ve read too much slush, Comrade Podduyev, you’ve disarmed yourself ideologically. You keep harping on about that stupid moral perfection!”

“What’s so terrible about moral perfection?” said Kostoglotov aggressively. “Why should moral perfection give you such a pain in the belly? It can’t harm anyone – except someone who’s a moral monstrosity!”

“You . . . watch what you’re saying!”

[Rusanov] flashed his spectacles with their glinting frames; he held his head straight and rigid, as if the tumor wasn’t pushing it under the right of the jaw. “There are questions on which a definite opinion has been established, and they are no longer open to discussion.”

“Why can’t I discuss them?” Kostoglotov glared at Rusanov with his large dark eyes. […]

“If you wish to state your opinion, at least employ a little elementary knowledge.” [Rusanov] pulled his opponent up, articulating each word syllable by syllable. “The moral perfection of Leo Tolstoy and company was described once and for all by Lenin, and by Comrade Stalin, and by Gorky.”

“Excuse me,” answered Kostoglotov, restraining himself with difficulty. He stretched one arm out toward Rusanov. “No one on this earth ever says anything ‘once and for all’. If they did, life would come to a stop and succeeding generations would have nothing to say.”

[Rusanov] was taken aback. The tops of his delicate white ears turned quite red, and round red patches appeared on his cheeks.

In a realistic twist, Kostoglotov soon finds himself contradicting himself – he started out arguing for optimism and now finds himself arguing for facing up to the grim facts:

“Why stop a man from thinking? After all, what does our philosophy of life boil down to? ‘Oh, life is so good! . . . Life, I love you. Life is for happiness!’ What profound sentiments. Any animal can say as much without our help, any hen, cat, or dog.”

And as the other patients jump in with their own opinions, and Rusanov is distracted by a twinge in his tumor, the discussion veers off in another direction.

***

One of the ironies of this scene is that the more sympathetic figure in the quarrel is arguing for what we would now describe as some kind of holistic “alternative medicine” approach to cancer treatment – the kind that many of us, myself included, would wave off as pseudo-scientific quackery. Shortly after proclaiming his right to think and speak freely, Kostoglotov is invited by another patient to elaborate on a folk remedy to which he’d previously alluded:

“Friends!” he said, with uncharacteristic volubility. “This is an amazing tale. I heard it from a patient who came in for a checkup while I was still waiting to be admitted. I had nothing to lose, so straightaway I sent off a postcard with this hospital’s address on it for the reply. And an answer has come today, already!”

Kostoglotov’s correspondent is a country doctor near Moscow, who (the letter explains) observed that cancer was rare among the peasants he treated. Deducing that this immunity was derived from their consumption of a tea made from a birch tree fungus called chaga, the doctor now promotes the fungus as an anti-cancer remedy. His letter contains a recipe for drying the fungus and preparing the tea: Kostoglotov reads the instructions aloud, and the other patients eagerly copy it down.

The catch is that the chaga can only be found on certain birches in northern forests, far from the Central Asian plain:

“He says here there are people who call themselves suppliers, ordinary enterprising people who gather the chaga, dry it and send it to you cash on delivery. But they charge a lot, fifteen roubles a kilogram, and you need six kilograms a month.”

Rusanov is, of course, outraged by such profiteering:

“What sort of a conscience do they have, fleecing people for something that nature provides free?”

But his Communist principles don’t prevent him from joining the other patients in importuning Kostoglotov for the address of the supplier of the miracle cure. Kostoglotov, however, resolves to share the secret only with a few of his closest friends among the patients.

After this, the chaga is mentioned only in passing; one of the patients gets his hands on some, but we never find out whether it helps him.

Equally unknown is whether Solzhenitsyn tried chaga in the treatment of his own cancer – though some seem to think he did. Lately chaga, which also grows in Canadian forests, has been promoted as a “superfood”, leading to overharvesting of the rare fungus. Whether it actually does anything is open to question.

There is another herbal treatment mentioned in Cancer Ward – “the root from Issyk Kul”, an infusion of aconite in vodka. When Kostoglotov’s doctor discovers that he’s been treating himself with the highly poisonous compound, acquired from a medicine man in the country, she insists that he hand the bottle over to her. He resists:

“When I leave the clinic I’ll want the root extract to treat myself with. I don’t suppose you believe it works?”

“No, of course I don’t. It’s just a lot of dark superstition and playing games with death. I believe in systematic science, practically tested. That’s what I was taught and that’s the way all oncologists think. Give me the bottle.” […]

“Oh, I know about your sacred science,” he sighed. “If it were all so categorical, it wouldn’t be disproved every ten years!”

Former president of the American Cancer Society Vincent T. DeVita described how in the early 1970s one of his patients, a former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, was told by Solzhenitsyn that he credited a similar infusion – not of aconite, but of mandrake root – for the remission of his cancer.

The ambassador, suffering from advanced cancer of the pancreas, brought Dr. DeVita a handful of mandrake root and some 80-proof vodka and asked for his help preparing the medicine per the author’s recipe. DeVita declined – this wasn’t “systematic science, practically tested” – but gave the ambassador leave to try it on his own.

After the ambassador’s death – from cancer, not self-medication – his wife brought DeVita the remainder of the medicine they’d prepared, and asked him to have it analyzed:

I called the chief of our natural products branch, told him the story, and asked if he would do it. His interest was piqued. “Sure,” he said.

A month later he called me, expressing his amazement: “Vince, this stuff contained two cancer drugs we have had under development, VP-16 and alpha peltatin.” […]

“Not only that,” he continued, but the exact concentration of alcohol needed to extract the alkaloids from the roots is the concentration in 80 proof vodka. “And, you’re not going to believe this, but there is enough drug in eight grams of root to provide a therapeutic dose of VP-16,” he said. In other words, Solzhenitsyn’s root-and-vodka recipe had neatly created a version of the medication strong enough to treat cancer.

***

There are two ways to read Solzhenitsyn – well, there are hundreds, I suppose, but let’s stick to the two. You can read him as an uncompromising evangelist for Truth – the Truth that goes on happening while academics and bureaucrats squeak contrary pronouncements from within their clockwork models of ideological clarity. This is the reading typified by the social conservative author and blogger Rod Dreher, who has named his upcoming book Live Not By Lies after an essay Solzhenitsyn wrote in 1974 – shortly before he got kicked out of his country:

If we did not paste together the dead bones and scales of ideology, if we did not sew together the rotting rags, we would be astonished how quickly the lies would be rendered helpless and subside.

That which should be naked would then really appear naked before the whole world.

So in our timidity, let each of us make a choice: Whether consciously to remain a servant of falsehood … or to shrug off the lies and become an honest man worthy of respect both by one’s children and contemporaries.

Whereas I tend to read Solzhenitsyn as an evangelist of Uncertainty. The last time I wrote about him I quoted this passage from The First Circle. The setting is a prison – once again, Solzhenitsyn’s own experiences formed the basis of the story – and the character being described is the prison’s security officer, Major Shikin:

If Shikin had been told – though he never was – that he was an object of hatred because he maltreated people, he would have been genuinely indignant. He had never found pleasure in any form of cruelty or thought that it was an end in itself. It was true that there were such people: he had seen them on the stage and in films. But they were sadists who loved to torture people, and had lost all human feeling. In any case they were always White Guardists or Fascists. Apart from doing his duty, Shikin was concerned only to prevent people committing wrongful acts or thinking harmful thoughts.

Like Major Shikin, Rusanov in Cancer Ward is secure in his own well-meaningness: he only wants to protect his fellow patients from being exposed to dangerous falsehoods. We might scoff at his statement that “There are questions on which a definite opinion has been established, and they are no longer open to discussion” – and yet few of us would argue for absolute open-mindedness. The idea that Tolstoy’s supposed ideological errors, as defined by Lenin, should be one of those undiscussable questions strikes us as absurd, just as it would strike Rusanov as absurd that – well, choose your own article of contemporary dogma.

I’m afraid that if I were in that Tashkent cancer ward listening to Kostoglotov prattle on about herbal remedies, I would react much as Rusanov did: “If you wish to state your opinion, at least employ a little elementary knowledge.” (Although I wouldn’t say it out loud.) While Kostoglotov dosed himself with mysterious rural potations, I would defer to the scientific opinions of the doctors. And if I’d been brought up believing that Lenin had scientifically settled the question of Tolstoy’s literary merit, I suppose I’d defer to that opinion too.

M.

1. If Solzhenitsyn’s Feast of the Conquerors has ever been translated into English, it seems not to be online. Nowadays it usually goes by the name Feast of the Victors or The Victors’ Feast. Russian readers can find it here: Пир победителей.

The author made a triumphant appearance at the play’s belated world premiere in Moscow in 1995.

2. The urkas or urki were thieves (my edition of Cancer Ward translates the term as “hoods”) who, as “socially friendly” elements – enemies of private property – were given an easier ride in Soviet prison than the “politicals”. As Solzhenitsyn explains in Part III of The Gulag Archipelago:

Here is what our laws were like for thirty years – to 1947: For robbery of the state, embezzlement of state funds, a packing case from a warehouse, for three potatoes from a collective farm – ten years! (After 1947 it was as much as twenty!) But robbery of a free person? Suppose they cleaned out an apartment, carting off on a truck everything the family had acquired in a lifetime. If it was not accompanied by murder, then the sentence was up to one year, sometimes six months.

Conscious of their privileged status, the urkas would rob and tyrannize the political prisoners while the guards did nothing:

[I]t was much better for the business of oppression; the thieves carried it out much more brazenly, much more brutally, and without the least fear of responsibility before the law.

Much like convicts in American prisons who take it upon themselves to dole out extra punishment to sex offenders, the urkas regarded their abuse of the politicals as a matter of honour. Solzhenitsyn quotes an ex-convict:

I was even proud that although a thief I was not a traitor and betrayer. On every convenient occasion they tried to teach us thieves that we were not lost to our Motherland, that even if we were profligate sons, we were nevertheless sons. But there was no place for the “Fascists” on this earth.

The “Fascists” included reprobates like Kostoglotov in Cancer Ward, sentenced to eight years, followed by permanent exile to Central Asia, for participation in a non-approved university discussion group.

For more on the urkas, this undergrad thesis by Elizabeth T. Klements is worth reading: “Worse Than Guards:” Ordinary Criminals and Political Prisoners in the GULAG (1918-1950)

There must be something about that “Major Shikin” passage from The First Circle that really speaks to me. I first used it in a discussion last year of Jordan Peterson, and a few months later I trotted it out again in a critique of the movie It: Chapter Two. Having used it three times, it’s probably time for me to retire it.

 

Two literary eunuchs.

In this retrospective on the 20th anniversary of Gladiator, that film’s co-star Djimon Hounsou says something odd:

The initial script had me being the head of slaves during that time and I said, “I shouldn’t be the definition of slavery.” Slavery didn’t exist back then, so, what are we talking about, really? We’re talking about using humans to do that sort of fighting entertainment and all those people were considered slaves.

Now, English isn’t Hounsou’s first language, so he might have misspoken, or been misheard. Or perhaps he subscribes to some esoteric definition of “slavery” that somehow excludes the Roman variety. But on the surface it appears that one of the stars of Gladiator­­ – a movie about slavery in ancient times – came away from it believing that there was no slavery in ancient times.

Speaking of fictional depictions of slavery…

***

“Two literary eunuchs” would be a good title for a bitchy essay about a pair of insufficiently virile male authors. Tolkien and Lewis, maybe? Auden and Isherwood? These nerds? But I’m not sufficiently virile to write such an essay.

Instead I’ll be talking about two actual eunuchs from literature – and from history – the narrators of Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy and Robert Graves’ Count Belisarius.

the persian boy mary renault

Between 1969 and 1981 Mary Renault wrote a biography and a loose trilogy of historical novels about Alexander the Great. I can recommend them all, but especially the middle chapter of the trilogy, The Persian Boy, from 1972, which describes the most eventful period of Alexander’s career from the perspective of a eunuch slave boy who is taken into his personal service.

In Renault’s telling, Bagoas is the child of a Persian aristocrat who, during the dynastic manoeuvrings that brought King Darius to the throne, was killed on the orders of the previous king’s vizier (also named Bagoas, to the confusion of later students of history). Marked for death, the handsome ten year old is instead carried off by one of his father’s murderers:

He did not keep me long, being in need of money. In the dealer’s courtyard at Susa, city of lilies, I stood stripped naked, while they drank date wine out of little cups, and haggled over my price. […]

The dealer’s house was strong as a prison, with courtyard walls fifteen feet high. On one side was a shed, where they did the gelding. They had purged and starved me first, which is thought to make it safer; I was led in cold and empty, to see the table with the knives, and the frame with splayed-out legs to which they bind you, with old black blood on it and dirty straps. Then at last I threw myself at the dealer’s feet and clasped them crying. But they made no more of it than farmhands of the bawling bull-calf.

The newly-made eunuch spends two quiet years as a page-boy to the wife of a local merchant, but as he grows older and his good looks attract the eyes of the men in the bazaar, his owner decides to make a little extra cash pimping him out to his customers. The boy proves so popular that he comes to the attention of the agents of the royal household, and at age thirteen Bagoas is sold again, to begin his training in “the rites of the bedchamber”.

I wonder whether Renault’s book could be published in the current climate of hypersensitivity about depictions of underage sexuality. While Bagoas begins his royal service traumatized by his experiences as a child prostitute, he reluctantly finds himself enjoying his “training” at the hands of an older eunuch. He soon graduates to service in the royal bedchamber, where the ageing Darius handles him gently, kissing and dandling him “like a doll”, but:

In all the time I was with him, he gave no sign of knowing a eunuch can feel anything. One does not tell such things to the King of Kings, if he does not ask.

***

In an Author’s Note, Renault adds that while the real Bagoas’ backstory is unknown,

the conjecture that he was of good birth is not fanciful. Such boys, whose looks had been taken care of and not spoiled by malnutrition or hardship, once enslaved were always at the highest risk of prostitution. Sokrates’ disciple Phaidon (Phaedo) is the best-known case.

the last of the wine mary renault

Phaedo – the namesake of one of Plato’s best-known dialogues – appears in Renault’s earlier novel The Last of the Wine, set among the young followers of Socrates during the Peloponnesian War. She makes Phaedo a native of Melos, an island besieged in 416 BC after defying Athenian demands for tribute. Wounded in the defense of his city, the boy is recuperating in bed when starvation obliges the defenders to submit:

[T]he gates were opened and the Athenians marched in. Presently he heard a great shrieking of women, and the death-cries of men. Soldiers ran in, dragged him from his bed to the Agora, and threw him down among a crowd of young lads and children, who had been herded into the sheep-pound. Just across the square was a pile of corpses newly killed, and still being added to; sticking out of the midst of it was his father’s head. [1]

Purchased in the slave-market by the manager of an Athens bathhouse, Phaedo soon “learned the arts of his calling, and commanded a high price”.

The narrator attempts to befriend the shy, skittish boy who is accustomed to sit in silence at Socrates’ feet. (In the dialogue named for him, Phaedo describes himself sitting on a low stool while Socrates “stroked my head and pressed the hair on the back of my neck, for he was in the habit of playing with my hair at times”.) Phaedo’s new friends are unaware that he is a slave, a fact he conceals not only out of shame, but to protect others from the ignominy of being associated with a bathhouse boy. When he reveals his secret, he is careful to explain that he met Socrates not as a client, but while on an unauthorized break from his trade – he has learned the trick of locking the door so that his manager will think he has a customer, and going out through a window to roam the city.

Later some members of Socrates’ circle send one of their number to the bathhouse to invite Phaedo to a dinner party. This leads to an awkward moment:

“In due course I knocked, and Phaedo opened. All he had on was the paint on his face. I knew then I shouldn’t have come. The next moment he slammed-to the door. He was almost too quick for me, but being rather stronger I managed to hold it. ‘Next room,’ he said through the crack, ‘I’m engaged’ – ‘Wait, Phaedo,’ I began. Suddenly he flung open the door so that I nearly fell inside. He stood there laughing. He looked like something you might come upon in a dark wood. ‘Come in, Lysis,’ he said. ‘Honour the threshold. Who am I to turn away trade?'”

Phaedo is eventually bought by one of Socrates’ friends and set free. He never discusses his past clients, but occasionally the narrator will notice him “watching with irony in his dark eye” as some citizen pontificates about morality.

Luckily for Phaedo, at this time it wasn’t the Greek custom to make eunuchs of their slaves, a practice they regarded with disgust – though as Bagoas states in The Persian Boy, set almost a century later,

[S]o long as they sold boys young into the brothels, I did not think the Greeks had so much to boast of.

***

To resume the narrative of The Persian Boy: After King Darius ignominiously flees Alexander’s army at Gaugamela, Bagoas joins his slow retreat northward through the mountains, faithfully serving his master while his generals and courtiers scheme to depose him. When the coup comes, and the remnants of Persian resistance scatter, the boy finds himself masterless and alone, with no choice but to offer his services in the camp of the pursuing Macedonians:

I waited by the fidgeting horses, while the Macedonians looked at me. Among Persians, the eunuch knows himself marked out at sight by his lack of beard; it was most strange to be in a crowd where no young man had one. Alexander had shaved from his youth, and liked his fashion followed. Persian soldiers would have had any man’s blood, who told them to make themselves like eunuchs; but I don’t think this had even occurred to the Macedonians. They had no eunuchs. I was the only one.

Accustomed to the formal rigours of the Persian court, Bagoas is at first repelled by the easy manners of the Macedonians – “uncouth westerners” who drink heavily, banter playfully with their king, and exercise shamelessly in the nude. They in turn detest him as a “spayed catamite” and resent his “fawning barbarians ways”.

The young king, whom Bagoas find surprisingly courteous “for someone reared in the wilds”, is more receptive to eastern customs. Appreciating his new servant’s elegant manners and remarkable beauty, he employs him as a personal attendant, and later as a Persian language instructor, but declines to invite him to his bedchambers. It is Bagoas who first falls in love with Alexander, and eventually succeeds in seducing him.

funeral games mary renault

Bagoas appears again in Renault’s Funeral Games, set amid the struggles for succession at the time of Alexander’s death. The general Ptolemy watches as Bagoas tenderly nurses the dying king:

At first Ptolemy had disliked this exotic presence haunting Alexander’s living-quarters, encouraging him to assume the trappings of Persian royalty and the manners of a Persian court, having his ear day and night. But he was a fixture one had grown used to.

In Renault’s telling Bagoas became not only Alexander’s lover but one of his nearest confidantes, inspiring his vision of his new empire as a synthesis of the best of eastern and western civilizations. In practice this meant that the relatively democratic norms of Macedonia were supplanted by the pomp and rigidity of Persia.

As word got back to Greece about Alexander’s eastern pretensions – like expecting visitors to prostrate themselves before him – his political enemies began to incorporate Bagoas, in the character of a conniving oriental courtier, into their “anti-Macedonian agitprop”. In her 1975 biography The Nature of Alexander, Renault compellingly refutes the story that Bagoas fabricated a charge of tomb-robbing against a satrap who had insulted him. As relayed by the Roman historian Quintus Curtius:

On one side Bagoas, on the other those whom he had suborned, filled the king’s ears with false charges. Before Orsines suspected that he was being accused he was delivered into bondage. Not content with the punishment of an innocent man, the eunuch laid his hand on him as he was about to be executed. Orsines with a glance at him said: “I had heard that women once reigned in Asia; this however is something new, for a eunuch to reign!”

In The Persian Boy Renault makes Orsines genuinely guilty of various crimes, including complicity in the murder of Bagoas’ family.

***

count belisarius robert graves

Unluckily for generations of boy slaves, Alexander’s policy of fusionism led to the adoption of many Persian practices in the west. In a 1937 poem Robert Graves imagined some soldiers of the Byzantine Empire, posted on the eastern frontier, sneering as Alexander’s uncouth Macedonians might have at the decadence of big city customs:

We can know little (as we care little)
Of the Metropolis: her candled churches,
Her white-gowned pederastic senators,
The cut-throat factions of her Hippodrome,
The eunuchs of her draped saloons.

By the time of the Emperor Justinian – we’re now in the 6th century AD – eunuchs were an integral part of Byzantine court life. Eugenius, the narrator of Graves’ 1938 novel Count Belisarius, though a slave himself, takes a certain pride in the influence of his fellow eunuchs:

It is a principle first learned by our Emperors from the Persian Court that eunuchs, since they are ineligible for sovereignty and incapable of founding dangerously powerful families, can safely be honoured with the royal confidence and used as a bulwark against the possible usurpation of the Throne by a conspiracy of powerful nobles. Eunuchs on the whole make milder and more loyal and more industrious officials than their unstoned colleagues, and their pettiness in routine matters – I do not deny the pettiness – is a strong conservative force. It has therefore long been the practice of rich middle-class families who have enough male children to carry on the line, deliberately to castrate one of the younger ones and dedicate him to a profitable career in the Civil Service. The bastard sons of Emperors too, or of their sons and daughters, are regularly castrated, in order to make useful citizens of them and prevent them from aspiring to the Throne. […]

Thus, to be a eunuch is, in the worldly sense at least, more of an advantage than a disadvantage, as may also be seen by a comparison of slave-market prices. A eunuch house-slave fetches three times the price of an unstoned one; he is worth only a little less than a trained house-physician or a skilled artisan. But a eunuch is seldom a happy man, because the operation has almost always been performed on him before the age of puberty, and he secretly imagines that to be a whole man is something very fine; if only because whole men are apt to jeer at eunuchs and to swear that they would rather be blind or dumb or deaf, or even all three of these things together, than debarred from the sweet and wholesome act of love. Naturally, the eunuch has a ready answer to such boasting: that sex is a madness and never brought anyone much luck. But secretly, as I confess, he is apt to envy the man who can take a woman to bed with him and do more than embrace her as a sister and chastely kiss her eyes.

Unlike Mary Renault, Graves evinces not the slightest interest in the sex life of his eunuch narrator. The passage above occurs during the introduction of the eunuch court chamberlain Narses – another real historical figure – who despite appearing in only a handful of scenes emerges as a more complete character than Eugenius.

When we meet him, Narses is already well advanced in years, a survivor of innumerable palace intrigues, a “dwarfish and repulsively ugly figure” acutely sensitive to slights, who harbours an unlikely aspiration to be taken seriously as a warrior. Antonina, wife to the celebrated general Belisarius, is one of the few to humour the ugly little man when he prattles about military tactics.

To widespread amusement, Narses later convinces the flighty Emperor Justinian to send him as general to Italy, to reinforce Belisarius in his war there against the Goths:

That he was dwarfish and big-buttocked and had a squint and a twisted lip had not seemed very ridiculous when he was gliding along the Palace corridors. … But to see Narses, who had already long passed the grand climacteric of his years, strutting about in the latest fashion of plate-armour … trailing a full-sized sword which was continually catching between his legs and tripping him up – that I assure you was a sight to raise a smile on the face of a man dying of the cholera.

The level-headed Antonina foresees that Narses might prove “a capable officer in spite of his age”, but warns her husband that his touchy personality will demand delicate handling. Her warning proves justified: the eunuch promptly quarrels with Belisarius and sows contention among the other generals, until Justinian is forced to recall him.

A dozen years later, after Belisarius has retired to Constantinople, Narses is again sent out by Justinian against the Goths, and by a series of brilliant victories reconquers Italy. Still later, annoyed once again over private slights, Narses intrigues with the Lombards, who go on to invade northern Italy, putting an end to Byzantine rule there.

***

Whereas Narses has plans and ambitions of his own, the narrator Eugenius is defined primarily by his utter devotion to Antonina, whose servant he has been since she was a child.

In creating his narrator, Graves had even less material to work with (or to constrain his imagination) than Renault did with Bagoas. In fact Eugenius appears only once in the historical record, in the lurid Secret History written by Procopius, who served as private secretary to Belisarius.

In that episode, Eugenius is enlisted in avenging an insult by some unfaithful slaves:

And they say that [Antonina] first cut out all their tongues, and then cut them up bit by bit, threw the pieces into sacks, and then without ado cast them into the sea, being assisted throughout in this impious business by one of the servants named Eugenius…

Note that Procopius never identifies Eugenius as a eunuch – that was Graves’ extrapolation. In fact, in the early stages of the writing of Count Belisarius, Antonina was intended as the narrator. Graves was convinced by his mistress and sometime collaborator Laura Riding to rewrite the early chapters in the slave’s voice, inspiring some prurient eyebrow-waggling over the parallels to the author’s own sex life:

It is often observed that Graves was in effect the devoted slave of Riding, which raises the possibility that he was Eugenius to her Antonina. … [I]t is known that Graves had embraced a life of celibacy for Riding. [2]

At any rate, Eugenius in Graves’ telling, like Bagoas in Mary Renault’s, is innocent of the atrocity attributed to him. Just as Alexander was libelled by jealous Greeks, so was Belisarius by his jealous secretary, Procopius:

Sometimes he told the truth, sometimes he distorted the facts, sometimes he lied – according to his vindictive purposes. (Even I, Eugenius, was introduced into this farrago: for example, I was supposed to have assisted my mistress in the murder of the maid Macedonia: whose tongue, he said, was cut in little pieces and cast into the sea.) [3]

However, Eugenius makes no bones about his involvement in another murder – that of a bishop, whose assassination he succesfully pins on an old rival of Antonina’s. In gratitude, Antonina offers to give him his freedom and a hefty reward besides. He humbly demurs:

“What is money but bodily comforts, which I already possess? What is ‘freedom’ but to be well considered, as I already am?”

Eugenius should have taken his freedom and retired somewhere far from the capital’s “cut-throat factions”; for not long afterward, the scandalous manuscript of Procopius comes to light, full of vile gossip not only about Belisarius and Antonina but about the Emperor Justinian. (In Graves’ interpretation, all the tales about his hero and heroine are malicious distortions, but all those about Justinian are true.)

To save his own skin, Procopius is induced to give false evidence against Belisarius, whom the emperor detests for his own petty reasons. Belisarius is charged with treason, and his household servants are seized and put to torture.

For a slave in such a situation, Eugenius knows, defiant silence is not a winning strategy:

Andreas died under the torture, but in order to vex [the public prosecutor] he did not utter a single cry. I yelled and screamed without ceasing. I knew that to do so would either satisfy the officer of the torture chamber or else disconcert him, so that he would say to the slave: “Enough for the moment, fellow: relax the cords, unscrew!” All my cries were: “Long life to his Gracious Majesty!” and “I know nothing, nothing.” So I escaped. Of the bodily injuries I received that day I shall not trouble you. I am a person of no importance.

M.

1. The real Phaedo, known as Phaedo of Elis, was – as you might suppose – from Elis, which fell to an alliance of Sparta and Athens a few years before Socrates’ death in 399 BC. In The Last of the Wine Renault moves Phaedo’s enslavement over a decade backward in time, to the middle of the Peloponnesian War, and makes him a victim of the most famous instance of Athenian ruthlessness in that conflict.

2. For more about Graves’ decision to make Eugenius and not Antonina his narrator, see “Count Belisarius – Genesis, Gender, and Truth” by Shaun Tougher. For Graves’ turbulent relationship with Laura Riding – “a woman of gargantuan and zany self-esteem who rivals the best of Dickens’ comic monsters in the splendor and variety of her awfulness” – this snappy book review by Thomas M. Disch covers the essentials.

3. Elsewhere in Count Belisarius, Eugenius denies his involvement in the murder of Antonina’s servant in slightly different words:

That my mistress with my help pulled out Macedonia’s tongue, cut her in pieces, and threw the pieces into the sea is a lie told many years later by the secretary Procopius to discredit her.

Whereas in the passage quoted above, it’s only Macedonia’s tongue that is chopped up. I can’t read the original Greek – which you can consult here – but I gather there’s some ambiguity in Procopius’ phrasing on this point. I can find three translations online:

It is said that she first cut out their tongues, and then ordered them to be hewn in pieces, put into sacks and thrown into the sea.
Athenian Society, 1896

She first cruelly cut out their tongues, it is said, and then cut their bodies into little bits which were put into sacks and thrown into the sea.
Richard Atwater, 1927

And they say that she first cut out all their tongues, and then cut them up bit by bit, threw the pieces into sacks, and then without ado cast them into the sea…
H.B. Dewing, 1935

In January I referred to Robert Graves’ I, Claudius in a discussion of Max Beerbohm and posterity. Years ago while reading The Last of the Wine I noticed that Mary Renault seemed to be the only person puzzled (like me) by the story of the Spartan boy and the fox. And speaking of “depictions of underage sexuality”, in 2018 I had some surprisingly deep thoughts about the Netflix cartoon series Big Mouth.

The first draft of history is often the last.

A few days ago I discussed an Ottawa pizza waitress I identified as SL, who was fired after sharing a Snapchat video which supposedly showed her sister and her sister’s boyfriend flippantly reenacting George Floyd’s death.

That’s what the headlines alleged, anyway. SL claimed that the video merely showed the couple innocently rasslin’ on the floor, and that the George Floyd connection had never occurred to them.

I argued that the media companies that tarred these young people as racists probably ought to have actually confirmed the contents of the video before composing their inflammatory headlines, which might well dog their subjects for the rest of their lives.

Even assuming the worst about SL’s video – that it really was intended to mock and minimize George Floyd’s sad death – it was only a tasteless joke, the kind that young idiots make all the time. In a sane world they would get a stern lecture, suffer some minor punishment, and after a few months and a suitable show of contrition be accepted back into polite society.

But the internet and social media, along with the ever-mounting moral panic over racism, have made such a proportionate response impossible. There are no longer any intermediate punishments available; it’s either ignore the offense, or call down upon the offenders the full wrath of Twitter.

The media seems to have lost interest in SL’s story – just as it threatens to become interesting. Six months, a year, ten years from now, how will she make her way through life with the first page of her Google results identifying her as a racist?

We’ll never find out. SL will carry on, at a somewhat lower trajectory than before, maybe for another seventy, eighty years. But her story is over. It consists of a dozen or so news articles and blog posts, a few hundred tweets, maybe a couple thousand words of text altogether.

The first rough draft of her history has been written, and it’s unlikely to be revised.

***

Ten years ago I looked into another case that was a media sensation for a couple days. At that time I wrote,

I’m going to set myself a reminder to look into this topic again in a month. Maybe some more facts will have emerged by then.

But it slipped my mind.

The story is described in my post, “The MetaFilter sex slavery story: can anyone actually verify this?”

To quickly summarize, in the summer of 2010 two Russian girls signed up with a job placement agency that promised to arrange “cultural exchange” visas and jobs as lifeguards in the United States. When they arrived in Washington, they were told that the lifeguard positions were no longer available, and that they should instead travel to New York City, where they would be given jobs as hostesses in a nightclub.

It all sounded kind of shady, and when someone who knew the girls posted about it to the then-mighty internet forum MetaFilter, a posse quickly emerged to divert the girls from what everyone was sure was an appointment with sex traffickers. And they were successful! The girls wound up staying in the apartment of a New York MetaFilter user, while the media lit up with feel-good stories about how a bunch of selfless internet heroes had put the boot to wicked Russian mobsters.

As I wrote shortly afterward:

So far so good. The situation was clearly dodgy, and the girls had been rescued from possible peril. I awaited the follow-up investigations into the travel agency that had brought the girls to America and the bar that had attempted to hire them.

A week passed, and no follow-ups have appeared. Meanwhile this bar and this travel agency have been nationally publicized as front operations for an international sex slavery ring.

The bar was called Lux Lounge. Usually, in order to minimize my impact on the blind wanderings of the search spiders, I try to avoid using the real names of non-famous people and small businesses. In this case there’s little harm in referring to it by name because:

On June 14 [2010], Lux Lounge closed its doors. The closing came about three weeks after the [MetaFilter] saga began, and about four months after the club’s grand opening. (The Daily Beast tried to contact the former owners of Lux Lounge and also the landlord listed for the property, but never got a reply.)

That’s from a (paywalled) Daily Beast story from 2011, which seems to be the most recent mention of the case in the media. The implication is that the mobbed-up characters behind Lux Lounge slunk away into the shadows after the media shone a light on their misdeeds.

Maybe. Or maybe an innocent business was sabotaged by a gang of overwrought internet do-gooders. Or maybe it would’ve shut down anyway, because bars in that neighbourhood are failing all the time: since 2010 there have been at least four different restaurants and bars at its former address on Coney Island Avenue – Mexican, Georgian, Tajik, and most recently Moroccan.

As for Lux Lounge, the Daily Beast writer makes a big deal of the smutty flyer for its “Ass-travaganza Grand Opening” in February, 2010, featuring “a bronzed, near-naked woman wearing bright-yellow thong panties, and just one boot”:

lux lounge coney island grand opening

…And purses her lips over “the club’s Facebook page, full of photos of women in lingerie and fishnets, dollar bills stuffed into their panties.”

Okay, it’s not the kind of joint where I’d like to hang out, as evidenced further by this video of an ear-hammering performance there by a rapper named Akay Stacks in April, 2010. Seriously, turn down your volume before clicking on this.

The club was around for such a short time that after a decade there’s little surviving evidence of what it was like. In the original MetaFilter thread, a user named Bingo suggested that in lieu of lurid speculations, maybe someone should pop by the place and scope it out. Other users warned him off:

[Y]ou’re poking at the Russian Mafia. And they’re probably already aware that at least one of the authorities is watching them.

But Bingo went anyway, and in what strikes me as a pretty level-headed assessment that nevertheless enraged many of his fellow posters, he reported that,

It’s a nice, clean, fairly upscale place in a safe neighborhood. It seems to be popular with 20-something Russian kids.

It is absolutely not a strip club.
It is absolutely not a brothel. […]

Q: Does this mean that the organization(s) that brought these girls over were necessarily on the level?
A: No.

Q: Does this mean that the person who wanted to meet these girls at Cafe Lux was, de facto, an honest person, with their best interests at heart?
A: No.

…And so on. In response, another poster named Astro Zombie gathered some comments from now-defunct MySpace pages indicating that strippers and escorts were present at various events at Lux Lounge, which…look, I’m neither a member of the Junior Anti-Sex League nor an apologist for “sex work”, as we’re supposed to call it these days. But as far as I can tell, this is the closest anyone has come to producing damning evidence against Lux Lounge, and it’s pretty weak sauce.

My 2010 blog post got a comment from someone named Kim W:

Speaking as a MeFite who has been tangentially involved – one of the members who have been more closely involved is on the U.S. State Department anti-trafficking squad, and got involved very early on. There are details about the case that he CANNOT reveal because they now pertain to an ongoing investigation. That may explain why you haven’t heard any further details on the MetaFilter site – for the same reason that the police do not regularly release updates about current ongoing investigations (think about it).

But by the time the Daily Beast article came out the following year,

The police aren’t investigating. Detective Cheryl Crispin of the Deputy Commissioner’s Office in New York City says the case was closed after the two Russian women were interviewed the evening of their original arrival in New York, because they said they didn’t feel threatened at the time.

If a case was opened up at the federal level, apparently nothing came of it. We are asked to be realistic about this:

Explains Ken Franzblau, a trafficking expert who has worked with the human-rights group Equality Now and the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services: “In a perfect TV world of law enforcement, sure, the police would bust open an international trafficking ring.” But that’s not the real world, he says, where police departments are understaffed and overworked. “In this case, the D.A. and the police ensured that these two women were safe.” That, he says, is a triumph.

A triumph? If you believe, as the Daily Beast evidently does, that the girls were about to be forced or blackmailed into prostitution, then the job placement agency that brought them over was knowingly linked to brutal pimps. Both the agency and the girls’ contact in Brooklyn, a person of unknown nationality called George, felt sufficient sense of impunity to continue hassling the girls – no, battering them – after they’d blown off their meeting at Lux Lounge:

The next day, the Russian company battered the women with calls on their cell phones, telling them they were breaking a contract and threatening lawsuits that would cost their families thousands of dollars. The women were told to fly to Texas immediately for new jobs as housekeepers. Or to go to San Diego to be pedicab drivers. Details on housing arrangements were uncomfortably vague.

George called the Russian women, too, asking where they were.

This was after the girls had already been interviewed by two policemen, who left because the girls said they “didn’t feel threatened”. Did anyone pass George’s contact info on to the cops? Or how about the name and number of the dodgy job placement agency? It was still in business a year later:

The two women’s travel plans involved two separate companies in Russia: One is a regular partner of CETUSA [the nonprofit organization that sponsored the women’s visas in the U.S.] but the other company was unknown to the U.S. organization. The latter is the company the women worked closely with. When contacted by The Daily Beast, that company denied knowing George. […]

The Russian company eventually stopped calling, thanks to the efforts of Ksenya’s boyfriend, the Russian lawyer. He managed to get the company to sign a contract saying the women were free of obligation.

In mid-June, the two women flew home to Moscow, having had no luck getting jobs.

By the time someone gets around to compiling the complete history of sex trafficking in 21st century America, it’ll be pretty much impossible to locate George, or the owners of the job placement agency, or the former owners of the Lux Lounge, or the cops who interviewed the Russian girls, or anyone else who might have added some solidity to this vaporous case. So the historian will probably just copy-and-paste the first-draft version: “The Internet Rescues Two Russians From Sex Slavery”.

M.

The theme of today’s essay is reputation, a topic which interested Max Beerbohm, who attempted to reconstruct the character of an 18th century clergyman from a few lines in the Life of Samuel Johnson. I seem never to have blogged about prostitution, but I once shared my surprise at how freely Nancy Mitford threw around the word “whore”. As for Russian mobsters, I’m less bothered by the remote threat of organized crime than I am by the petty misbehaviours of the mentally deranged.

Jokesters and Wokesters.

In the 1960s, when my dad was in his early twenties, he worked in the marketing department of a big insurance company. He and his co-workers would occasionally squander their employer’s time and stationery by producing jokey greeting cards that they passed around among the office staff.

One of those greeting cards consisted of a picture of Jackie Kennedy with John Jr. – possibly the one below:

jackie kennedy with john kennedy jr.

William C. Allen / AP. Image source.

…to which my dad and his buddies had added the caption, “Look, John-John! Somebody just shot daddy!”

I don’t find this particular joke all that funny, but that’s an impeachment of my father’s jokewriting skills, not his sense of propriety.

As readers of this blog’s sidebar will notice, I am a former musician whose folk-rock band never rose even to the level of small-town fame. Before I took to acoustic guitars and major seventh chords, I started out in high school playing gross-out punk-rock comedy songs about incest, necrophilia, aborted fetuses, and so on.

At that time the internet was still an arrangement of pipes and vacuum tubes in Al Gore’s garage. My bandmates and I circulated our dumb songs on hand-labelled cassette tapes to a few friends, much as my dad had circulated his dumb greeting cards among his office pals thirty years before.

Are any of my tapes still out there? If I ever rose to media prominence, how long would it take before one of them reappeared to scuttle my career? Luckily I’m not important enough for enemies to go riffling through old shoeboxes to discredit me.

But in the age of social media, you don’t have to be important. When your shoebox is the entire world, anyone might decide to riffle through it.

***

Among the countless “cancellations” that have marked the current orgy of purification, you may not have heard of an incident a few weeks ago in Ottawa. A woman there, whose name I will abbreviate to SL, used to work as a waitress at a pizza place, until…well, as the Toronto Star reported it:

Woman loses job after video posted on social media mocking death of George Floyd

This Vice headline refers not to SL, but to her sister, also currently unemployed:

Canada Border Services Fires Employee After Racist Video Mocks George Floyd

I’ll call the sister JL. It was JL and her boyfriend who appeared in the video, subsequently shared to Snapchat by the pizza waitress, SL.

JL was (or, at some time in the unspecified past, had been) a “casual”, “non-frontline” employee at Canada Border Services. The agency was prompt to issue a statement saying that she “no longer works at the CBSA”.

So, at least one and possibly two of the three people involved in the video have lost their jobs as a direct result. It’s unclear how the boyfriend managed to get off unscathed. (Maybe he got a pass because, as SL told Vice, in an aside deemed unworthy of further exploration, he “isn’t white”.)

So what actually happens in this racist video? According to Vice,

The white people in [the Ottawa suburb of] Orleans allegedly tried to recreate Floyd’s final moments.

Yes, yes, “allegedly”. But what actually happens in the video? First paragraph of the Toronto Star story:

An employee at an Ottawa pizzeria has lost her job after a video was called out on social media for depicting what many users believed to be a re-enactment of George Floyd’s death.

Okay, they “believed” it to be a re-enactment. Is that what it was? In the screen capture which now seems to be the only extant evidence of this video, the boyfriend has JL pinned down with his knee on her back. Did this have anything to do with George Floyd?

In an apology posted to her now-deleted Instagram account, SL claimed:

In the video, they were play fighting as they always do and in retrospect I can see how the video could be taken out of context given the current situation and I now see how insensitive it is. It was wrong of me to be inconsiderate of the sensitive times at hand and by no means did I use this as a representation of what happened with George Floyd.

According to the woman who first rallied the forces of Social Justice against the pizza waitress,

On Sunday May 30th I was saddened to see a disturbing snapchat screenshot video of 3 non-black Canadians who mocked the death of George Floyd.

I immediately posted the screenshot on my instagram … and asked the public to share my post and message me if anyone had any information on what was said in the video. And to help me identify who these 3 non-black Canadians (from my city Ottawa) were. The post instantly went viral, and witnesses who seen the video and know them personally came forward and messaged me confirming “police brutality” was said in the video.

The Vice story mentions that another news source had claimed the video was itself captioned “police brutality”. SL denied that there had been a caption on her post.

Maybe SL was lying about the caption, but it seems plausible that the “police brutality” tag was added sometime during the screenshot’s spread from her presumably limited Snapchat following to the wider world.

It appears that SL’s Instagram inquisitor didn’t see the video herself. Assuming that her “witnesses” were reliable, I’m guessing that the original video showed JL and her boyfriend tussling playfully on the floor. When JL wound up restrained in a position reminiscent of Floyd’s death, she (or maybe SL, holding the camera) jokingly yelled, “Police brutality!”

To be sure, that’s only my conjecture. It seems to be about as grounded as the conjecture that JL and her boyfriend had been intentionally “mocking” Floyd.

The difference is that my conjecture isn’t going to get anyone fired.

I learned about this incident from Howard Levitt’s column on workplace law. He concluded that Boston Pizza were well within their rights to can their suddenly radioactive employee. The video might or might not have been intended to belittle Floyd’s death, but:

That’s irrelevant as the video damaged her employer’s brand.

Levitt doesn’t give any thought to whether Boston Pizza, or CBSA, or the handful of news organizations that reported this incident, might be obliged to consider the effect of their statements on SL’s “brand”. Here’s what a search for her name currently turns up:

ottawa pizza waitress police brutality

Google results for SL’s name, mid-June, 2020.

Maybe the media’s thirdhand interpretation of the meaning of the video is correct, in which case I suppose you could argue that SL and her sister reaped what they sowed – years of severely curtailed career opportunities as punishment for a tasteless joke.

Or maybe that interpretation is totally wrong. Howard Levitt and Vice and the Toronto Star don’t seem to give a crap either way.

***

I held off on publishing the above for about a week, waiting to see if a more sympathetic media outlet would take a crack at SL’s story. Not so far. [1] Meanwhile, the purification continues.

The latest report comes courtesy of the Washington Post, which shares the horror of a Halloween party held by one of its employees two years ago which was attended by a white woman in blackface.

This was in 2018, shortly after NBC talking head Megyn Kelly had been fired for saying she didn’t think blackface was that big a deal. The blacked-up partygoer wore a nametag saying “Hello, My Name is Megyn Kelly”.

Unlike the Ottawa “police brutality” video – which, if my interpretation of events is correct, wasn’t even really a joke, let alone one at George Floyd’s expense – the Megyn Kelly costume was clearly meant as a diss. To Megyn Kelly.

Now, if you accept, as everyone involved seems to, the premise that Kelly’s firing was deserved – that for a white person to darken his or her face is so inherently offensive that only a racist could defend it – then it follows that mockery of Megyn Kelly can be no excuse for blacking up.

An analogous faux pas would be to attend a party in a half-open bathrobe with your junk hanging out and call it a Harvey Weinstein costume. Funny or not, it would be, by the rules of D.C. polite society, indecent.

So it’s not surprising that a couple of non-white partygoers took offense, and loudly reproached “Megyn Kelly”, who soon afterward fled, “in tears”.

“Megyn Kelly” later called the host to apologize for having contributed to an awkward scene at his party.

And there things stood, until two years later one of the offended partygoers decided that the white lady hadn’t been humiliated enough over her tasteless costume. They got in touch with the Post, which determined that this two year old spat was front page news.

And now “Megyn Kelly”, like Megyn Kelly before her, is out of a job.

Robby Soave struggles to find an adequate level of witheringness with which to summarize this affair:

It’s astonishing that this article – a story about a long-ago Halloween party attended by the Post‘s own staff and principally involving three private persons – made it to print, and everyone involved in its publication should be deeply ashamed.

Well, sure. The actions of the woke viragos at the center of this story strike me as self-evidently insane. Any reporter unlucky enough to be cornered by such a kook ought to have pulled out a phone, said, “Sorry, gotta take this,” and scurried for the nearest exit. Any editor pitched such a story ought to have sternly advised the reporter to reconsider his or her career choice.

But what seems self-evident to me is far from evident to a sizable percentage of the population. And it’s those people, not I, who have the power to decide who gets their grudges splashed across the front page of the Washington Post, and who is unworthy of unemployment as a pizza waitress.

***

Let me return to my own background as a teenage punk rocker. I’ve previously told the story of our sole public performance, at a 1994 high school Battle of the Bands in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, of our song “Pee on Jesus”. It began:

Pee on Jesus, pee on me
How I love the taste of pee

As I wrote in that earlier essay, the song “had no coherent satiric agenda. It was pure juvenile provocation.”

And how did the school authorities respond to the provocation? The singer got a perfunctory dressing-down from the principal. Later that year he was elected senior class valedictorian.

My anecdote was meant to illustrate how, in contrast to Islamic societies – where you could whip up an angry mob with the rumour of an insult to Muhammad halfway around the world – in Canada you could be as vile as you liked about Jesus and the people sitting ten feet away could scarcely stir themselves to object.

How pleasant it was, I implied, to live in a civilization so highly evolved that it could afford to shrug off attacks on its most sacred idols.

It didn’t occur to me that my comparison was nonsense because by 1994 Jesus had already been demoted from the top rank of our civilization’s idols.

Of course there were other taboos we might have violated that would have gotten us hauled off the stage forthwith. In our naïve way, we calibrated our level of offensiveness very carefully. We were just obnoxious enough to cause a mild stir, but not enough to really piss anyone off…except a few religious weirdos, whose feelings didn’t count for much anyway.

A quarter century later, those religious weirdos are more irrelevant than ever. But these religious weirdos

At a park in New York City, I witnessed something odd. A group of women silently formed a circle in the middle of a large lawn. Their all-black outfits contrasted with the surrounding summer pastels, and they ignored the adjacent sun bathers as they began to kneel and slowly chant. They repeated a three word matin.

The words of their chant were, of course, “black lives matter”.

It’s become commonplace lately to point out that wokeness has many of the characteristics of a religion. John McWhorter wrote up the most influential treatment of the idea back in 2017 – three years before those videos emerged of white people weepily repenting of their racial sins; three years before every media organization in North America simultaneously agreed that henceforth Black (but not white) would be spelled with a capital letter.

But the idea had been circulating in right-wing circles for far longer than that: in the early 2000s Paul Gottfried was characterizing progressivism as an “altered religious consciousness” which (as a book reviewer paraphrased it)

seeks for its elites a species of visible immanent grace that will mark them out from all others as delivered from the damning, fallen consciousness (of racism, sexism, and so forth) that predisposes men to evil.

The trouble with defining Antiracism or Wokeness or Social Justice as a religion is that it leaves non-believers like me conflicted about how to go about registering our dissent. It’s one thing to make rude jokes about a daffy and dangerous list of policy goals. It’s a totally different thing to blow raspberries at someone’s sincerely held religious beliefs.

In 1994 I wouldn’t have seen this as a conflict: I had no compunctions about hurting the feelings of whatever religious believers happened to be in our audience at the Battle of the Bands. Not coincidentally, I was aware that those believers had neither the will nor the means to retaliate against me.

I didn’t see myself as bullying those mild-mannered Christians. As I saw it, they were the bullies, the ones with all the cultural power, which they used to suppress ideas and books and music they didn’t like (all of which were somehow still readily available to me) and to force people to accept their belief system (which my friends and I could mock with no consequences whatsoever).

Nowadays I’m mildly embarrassed by our performance. Not by “Pee on Jesus”, which was harmless idiocy, but by the self-absorption that inspired us to inflict it on an auditorium full of unsuspecting strangers. But what the hell. We were only dopey kids.

In my supposedly mature middle age, I tend to look on religious believers sympathetically. Why should I care if they abstain from pleasures I regard as harmless? Why should I be offended by their attempts to warn me away from what they regard as acts of severe self-harm? However, I’m aware that my adult broadmindedness is as cost-free as my teenage pugnacity; believers lately have been too focussed on preserving their shrinking privileges to worry much about the private activities of the godless.

Wokeness is a different thing. The Woke in 2020 are becoming as powerful, and as intolerant of slights, as I imagined Christians in 1994 to be.

If my friends and I were snotty teenagers again, in the current year, would we have the stones to get up on stage and blow a raspberry at the holy martyrs of Black Lives Matter? Knowing that it would probably lead to outrage, expulsion, and enduring Google infamy?

Of course not. At most we’d indulge in private expressions of irreverence.

But that’s fine, right? As long as we kept our voices down, and chose our friends carefully, and took care to destroy all physical and electronic evidence of our conversations, we’d still have complete freedom to whisper our blasphemies in private. So what, really, am I complaining about?

M.

1. Double-checking my links before posting this, I discovered that the GoFundMe page for the young woman who first publicized SL’s “police brutality” video has been updated (or maybe I missed this comment when I first looked at it) to indicate that SL and JL’s family lawyers had:

sent me a document stating that if I do not make a public apology with their specific script they will sue me 200,000 each … I stand behind what I said and I will not be apologizing.

So perhaps a lawsuit will be launched and we’ll see more coverage of this controversy. I’ll try and remember to keep an eye out for it.

 

The rectification of names: Wakash Island.

After moving to Vancouver in 2012 I occasionally saw references in local media to something called the “Salish Sea”. I thought it must be an obscure body of water somewhere up the coast.

Finally I bothered to look it up, and it turned out the Salish Sea was the new name for what I grew up calling the Strait of Georgia. Or rather, as the inventor of the name explains, the Salish Sea encompasses the Strait of Georgia along with other adjacent bodies of water:

[T]he ecosystem science … showed clearly that the inland marine waters of Washington State along with the inland marine waters of British Columbia formed a single integrated estuarine ecosystem.

salish sea boundaries and watershed

Salish Sea boundaries and watershed. Map by Kris Symer, Puget Sound Institute.

Though some are under the impression that it predates European contact, the word “Salish” has no connection to the area – it comes from a Montana tribe whose name was borrowed by linguists to describe their whole language family. The term “Salish Sea” dates only to the 1980s, and didn’t come into widespread use until the 2000s, when some aboriginal groups began lobbying for its adoption. In 2009 the name was officially accepted by the Geographical Names Board of Canada, and it was swiftly taken up by politicians, academics, and the media.

I generally disapprove of changing names for ideological reasons – for instance, because some hero of the past has fallen out of political favour. However, I do approve of changing names for reasons of clarity.

The Strait of Georgia was named after King George III. The year was 1792, and Captain George Vancouver had just arrived in the Pacific Northwest after surveying the coast of Australia, where he’d already left behind a King George Sound. Needless to say, King George never set foot in either corner of his domains.

There was nothing to prevent Captain Vancouver from coming up with a more distinctive name for the strait. There were any number of geographical features along the coast which had already been given ear-catching names by their native inhabitants, which he might have adapted to the purpose. But thinking up memorable, non-sycophantic names wasn’t how he got to be captain.

So I don’t think demoting the name Strait of Georgia is a great loss. But it’s confusing that the part of the Salish Sea that most resembles a sea – the broad part between Vancouver Island and the mainland – is still known officially as the Strait of Georgia; and that while the sea includes all the narrow appendages of Puget Sound to the south, for whatever reason it includes only some of the narrow appendages to the north.

Also I see that on Google Maps, the Strait of Georgia and Puget Sound are still prominently shown, while the new name has taken the place of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

salish sea google maps

Salish Sea, as shown on Google Maps.

So, as often happens, the result of the new name has been to increase confusion. Wikipedia links to a 2019 survey showing that only 9% of Washingtonians and 15% of British Columbians, when shown the body of water on a map, could correctly name it.

***

Lately I get most of my international news from the Daily Mail. Don’t judge me. When I get too irritated by the idiocy of the headlines I can always cast my eye over to the sidebar and take in some starlet modelling her signature swimsuit line.

I’m not very invested in the dramas of the British royal family, but I couldn’t help being annoyed, during the “Megxit” perturbations that dominated headlines earlier in the year, at the way Daily Mail writers kept referring to the “Vancouver” mansion where Harry and Meghan holed up during their retreat from their royal duties.

The mansion in question is actually located on Vancouver Island, a 90-minute ferry ride from Vancouver.

meghan markle vancouver island

Meghan Markle in Horth Hill Regional Park, Vancouver Island, January, 2020. Source: Daily Mail.

This lack of precision is extremely irritating to British Columbians, just as it must be irritating to upstate New Yorkers when outsiders assume they live in the vicinity of Manhattan, or to Welshmen when outsiders refer generically to the UK as “England”.

But in all these cases the errors are understandable. Who would predict that Vancouver would not be on Vancouver Island?

Captain Vancouver has done pretty well for himself. He’s remembered by a big island, a world-famous city, a less famous city, a peninsula (in Australia’s King George Sound), a couple mountains, and numerous statues and monuments.

Unlike King George and some of the other bigwigs celebrated in BC place names – Queen Victoria, Prince Rupert, Prince George, and, oh yeah, Christopher Columbus – Vancouver actually visited most of the places named for him.

I have no wish to take anything away from his legacy. And yet I feel that he can afford to lose a Wiki page or two in the interest of reducing geographical misunderstandings.

The city of Vancouver wasn’t called that until 1886, when it was chosen as the terminus for the Canadian Pacific Railway. Previously, when residents of the British Empire referred to “Vancouver” it was assumed they were talking about the island, which had been known by that name for half a century.

So in fairness the island ought to keep the name, and the city to come up with a more original one. But realistically I think if either is going to change, it must be the island. It would be different if there were many small islands off the BC coast, all of roughly equal size, one of them known as Vancouver. In that case people would be used to calling it by its full name to distinguish it from the rest.

But in fact there’s one big island, which most British Columbians refer to as “the Island”. Even residents of the smaller islands, Pender and Saltspring and Mayne and so forth, will say, “I’m headed over to the Island for the afternoon”.

So as with the Strait of Georgia, Vancouver Island can be renamed without creating too much friction in ordinary conversations. The downside is that precisely because the name doesn’t come up every day, it would take a while for people to get used to the change.

***

I wouldn’t be thinking about this at all except that – speaking of confusing names – I’ve been trying to familiarize myself with the various First Nations along the BC coast.

There are a lot of them, and it’s not always clear whether we’re talking about a single community, like the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, population 257; or an entire culture, like the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, population 3,500, comprising six band governments and dozens of reserves.

Additionally, many of them have changed their names – like the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, which used to be called the Broman Lake Band; or adopted more “authentic” versions, like the Kwakwaka’wakw, who used to go by the less tongue-punishing Kwakiutl.

It was while reading up on the Kwakiutl and their near neighbours the Nootka – sorry, the Nuu-chah-nulth – that I learned about a name that appeared on some old maps of the Pacific Northwest: the Wakash Nation. [1]

wakash nation quadra and vancouver's island

The Wakash Nation shown on 1840 Oregon Territory map. Image source: Walmart.com.

The Wakash name was bestowed by Captain James Cook during his 1778 encounter with the people of what we now call Nootka Sound (which, of course, Cook called King George’s Sound):

Were I to affix a name to the people of Nootka, as a distinct nation, I would call them Wakashians; from the word wakash, which was very frequently in their mouths. It seemed to express applause, approbation and friendship. For when they appeared to be satisfied, or well pleased with any thing they saw, or any incident that happened, they would, with one voice, call out wakash! wakash!

As it happened, the name Nootka, from a phrase meaning “sail around” – as in, “Come park your boats over here, strangers” – was extended from the village to the entire culture. But in the early years, Cook’s suggestion was followed: the Wakash Nation appeared on maps well into the 19th century, and Wakashan was eventually adapted as the name of the family to which the Nootka and Kwakiutl languages belonged.

Wakash Island strikes me as a pretty good name. I’m not sure if any of the native peoples of the region had a word that referred to the entirety of what we call Vancouver Island; but even if they did, there were two major language families and at least a dozen different dialects there. Rather than privilege one over the others, it would be fairer to use a hybrid word that emerged through cross-cultural interaction.

Those who recall their Heritage Minutes will recall that the name “Canada” came about in a similar way:

There are a few hits if you search for “Wakash Island”, including this letter to the mayor of Victoria reported by the Daily Colonist in 1943:

james skitt matthews wakash nation victoria mayor andrew mcgavin

Vancouver archivist J.S. Matthews proposes a name change. From the Daily Colonist, February 21, 1943.

The letter writer wasn’t some random crank – that’s Major James Skitt Matthews, founder and longtime head of the Vancouver Archives. (Nor was he some soppy liberal seeking to make amends for Canada’s imperialist past: “a staunch patriot, he once fell out of his chair with rage upon glimpsing Canada’s new maple leaf flag”.) [2]

The only trouble with Wakash is that I’m not sure how to say it. I’m guessing “WAH-kawsh” – but the Catholic Encyclopedia offers the variant spellings wakesh and waukash, which makes me uncertain.

The danger is that some influential person suggests Vancouver Island be renamed Wakash Island, all the nice white people nod and say, “Yup, sounds good to me,” and then some indignant First Nations activist jumps up and declares that if we’re going to use a Nuu-chah-nulth word we have to use a Nuu-chah-nulth spelling, with two apostrophes, three diacritics, and a number 7 in the middle. Of course all the nice white people are too scared to say no, and we wind up with a name no-one can spell or pronounce, and more confusion than ever.

Maybe it’s safer to stick with Vancouver Island.

M.

1. Many of these old maps place the Wakash Nation on “Quadra and Vancouver’s Island”. Poor Quadra’s name would soon be dropped, but as David Paget points out, it’s still linked with Captain Vancouver’s in the name of a federal electoral district – appropriately, as the two captains’ relationship was built on diplomatic haggling over ownership of the coast.

2. It doesn’t really matter how Wakash is pronounced, as long as everyone agrees about it. Looking up archivist J.S. Matthews I came across this anecdote from the poet John Pass, who worked briefly with the elderly Major in the late 1960s:

I liked hearing him fulminate, for example, on the universal mispronunciation of Burrard, that the man for whom the street was named would be livid to hear us put the accent on the last syllable, Burrard. It was Burrard.

My previous post on the “rectification of names” touched on Chinese characters, the “Wuhan flu”, and The Neverending Story. I’m a big fan of the City of Vancouver’s online archive, which I consulted for a post last year on abandoned rapid transit plans and which was the source of many of the out-of-copyright film clips used in this music video.

Urban rethink.

If there’s one thing the pandemic has proven, it’s that we were right about everything all along.

Those of us who admired the Chinese government have found new reasons for admiration. Those of us who distrusted the Chinese government have found new reasons for distrust.

Those of us who fretted about deficits now have even bigger deficits to fret about. Those of us who favoured bigger government are certain that the current crisis has vindicated our arguments.

And those of us who argued for “taking space away from cars and using it for people” are more committed than ever to the cause…

I happen to like density, public transportation, and walkable neighbourhoods. So I’m not too vexed by the news that the City of Vancouver is using the pandemic as an excuse to do more of what it was doing already:

[T]he pandemic is creating opportunities, council heard Wednesday, like the massive reduction in cars driving and parking, allowing the city to make strides on long-standing goals of promoting active transportation for a more healthy, happy, environmentally friendly city.

But I had to laugh at the headline of the above story as it appeared in the print version of Thursday’s Sun:

pandemic forces urban rethink vancouver sun

“Pandemic forces urban rethink”, by Dan Fumano, Vancouver Sun, May 14, 2020.

What would an “urban rethink” actually look like?

Richard J. Williams argued in the New York Times earlier this month that the mid-20th century trend towards sprawl and suburbanization was driven largely by still-fresh memories of poor sanitation and plague in overcrowded big cities:

If density was disease for modernists, it followed that their cities were about keeping people apart. Look back at the utopian schemes for cities of the first half of the 20th century, and the same hygienic preoccupations come up again and again: There must be light and space and fresh air. The Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier wrote about these things in his book “Vers Une Architecture” (translated as “Towards a New Architecture”). Parts of the book read like comedy now – the author’s attempt to turn his own obsession with hygiene into an avant-garde manifesto. But it was serious when it was published in 1923, the Spanish flu pandemic having just run its course.

As the new millennium approached, and concern about hygiene receded, the old wisdom that crowded sidewalks were dirty and unsightly was supplanted by the conviction that density was terrific, that every family should be grateful to live in an 800 sq. ft. townhouse and ride the subway to work, and that the previous generation of planners who had pulled down tenements to build freeways and public housing projects were frauds and bullies and probably racists to boot.

But now, of course, it looks like hygiene is something we have to worry about again, so planners may drift back to sprawl and suburbanization:

The dense city might not turn out to be responsible for the virus when all is said and done – but as it did a century ago in relation to the Spanish flu, it might well start to feel like a cause. After months of social distancing, are we going to want to go straight back into the crowd? Even if we are allowed to, I doubt it.

With arguments like these gaining traction – here’s Steve Sailer elaborating on the Times article, and Joel Kotkin and Marshall Toplansky making a similar case in Quillette – I wonder if Vancouver city staff will be forced to re-evaluate their priorities.

Take the Broadway subway that finally got the go-ahead last year, which will, upon its planned completion in 2025, fill an annoying gap in Vancouver’s SkyTrain network. Might it be postponed or cancelled outright when politicians are forced to grapple with the deficits that have been piling up during the shutdown?

There is a trendy line of thought that says – I hope I’m getting this right – that deficits don’t matter, that since governments control the supply of money they can print more whenever they need it, and that inflation can be controlled by simply regulating prices. Therefore we should spend our way back to prosperity with massive public works projects like subways and bridges, the costlier the better.

But if it turns out that public transit was a significant vector of infection – which at the moment looks plausible, though far from proven – then it may be foolish to continue building hugely expensive subways that no-one will be very eager to ride. There are more hygienic megaprojects that can be bumped to the top of the to-do list.

In BC’s Lower Mainland, a region of rivers and inlets, there’s always a demand for more bridges and tunnels:

  • Work had already begun in 2017 to replace the antique and overcrowded Massey Tunnel under the Fraser River with a new bridge, before the project was booted back into consultations with the change of government. It would be easy to get it back on track.
  • The new government also squashed hopes for a bridge to the Sunshine Coast, with the district’s MLA saying “it would not provide value for money”. But the study he was referring to specifically excluded “consideration of economic development benefits”, which could always be factored back in to justify reviving the idea.
  • If those projects aren’t ambitious enough, we could always take another look at the old, old dream of a fixed link between Vancouver Island and the mainland.

Over in the UK there’s the so-called Boris bridge. In 2018 Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s idea for an English Channel bridge came to nothing, but now that he’s prime minister, civil servants are obliged to take his whims seriously – so they’re at least going through the motions of considering a 20-mile-long, £20 billion bridge over the Irish Sea to join Scotland and Northern Ireland. Last I heard, the Scottish government was bitching that London hadn’t consulted them before undertaking the study.

boris bridge northern ireland scotland

“Boris bridge”, as visualized by The Sun.

Now, assuming it’s technically possible, I don’t think the bridge is such a bad idea. But it’s unlikely to be built, not just because of the eye-popping price tag but also because, with the UK’s devolved parliaments in Edinburgh and Belfast, the project would be scuppered by the same kind of grandstanding, blame-shifting, and legal obstructionism that make it nigh-impossible to build any infrastructure across an interprovincial border in Canada.

But if in the aftermath of the virus London is looking for something big, bold, and labour-intensive to lift British spirits – and to put a ton of potential Tory voters to work – then a massive bridge that travellers cross in their own hermetically-sealed automobiles might look better than, say, a £106 billion high-speed rail network that could end up whooshing half-empty trains past idling queues of resentful auto commuters.

M.

Speaking of bridges and tunnels, the BC government has embarked on yet another study of a rapid transit link to the North Shore; I touched on one of the previous studies last year when looking at some abandoned SkyTrain schemes. A couple weeks back I wondered whether, given the current difficulties getting infrastructure built, an un-building project might be an easier sell. I’ve mentioned Le Corbusier once before, in an essay that attempted to extract a consistent definition of that perennial media bugbear “populism”.

“Pardon me, madame, my name is Tarzan.”

As you might guess, The Return of Tarzan is the second book in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan series.

If you jump right in thinking, “I know all about this Tarzan guy. Swings from vines. Wears a loincloth. Speaks broken English. I don’t need to bother with the first book,” you’re likely to be confused. The Return of Tarzan starts with Tarzan moping on an ocean liner in the manner of a disaffected earl in a Dorothy L. Sayers story:

Tarzan entered the smoking room, and sought a chair a little apart from the others who were there. He felt in no mood for conversation, and as he sipped his absinth he let his mind run rather sorrowfully over the past few weeks of his life….

He’ll do a good deal more moping in the course of the novel, but he’s never more than a page or two from having to leap into action to protect some innocent damsel. Before long he’s in Paris, thwarting a Russian spy ring and then enlisting in the French secret service.

tarzan hal foster

From the Tarzan comic strip, by Hal Foster.

2019 was the 20th anniversary of Disney’s Tarzan. Last summer a friend and I went to a special presentation at a theatre here in Vancouver, with one of the co-directors doing a Q&A before the movie.

My friend had never read any of the novels, so I told her some of the plot points that were abandoned during the adaptation from print to film, like the fact that Tarzan teaches himself to read and write (from his dead parents’ library) before he encounters any other humans – and that when he is finally taught to speak, his first language is French. So she skimmed the Wikipedia plot summary while we were waiting in line.

During the Q&A she stuck up her hand and said, “I was just reading the plot of the novel, and there’s some crazy stuff in there, like how Tarzan teaches himself to read, and how he goes to Wisconsin. Also I never realized Jane Porter was originally an American.”

“No, she–” said the director.

“Yeah, she–” said my friend.

“Was she? Well, anyway,” said the director, and then launched into a speech about how they’d resolved to disregard the books because of their racist depiction of Africans. My friend sank back into her seat. There was an awkward silence as the audience gauged how long they had to sit there deploring Edgar Rice Burroughs’ racism before they could safely change the subject to Rosie O’Donnell’s performance as a wacky gorilla.

I like Disney’s Tarzan, but it’s pretty morally simplistic compared to Burroughs’ version. The point of the books is that there’s a tradeoff between the harshness and purity of nature and the comforts and corruption of civilization. In the Disney world there’s no tradeoff – the gorillas are just as intelligent as the humans, and more civilized to boot. In the end Jane and Professor Porter decide to stay with Tarzan in the jungle, and why shouldn’t they? It looks like a lot of fun.

Burroughs’ Tarzan spends a good deal of his time brooding over how he fits into neither the savage nor the civilized world. He’s kind of a downer, but he beats up some bad guys every few pages so it’s okay.

M.

 

The Saskatchewan Evacuation Party belatedly endorses Andrew Scheer.

In the 6th century BC, as the Persian Empire expanded under Cyrus the Great, the citizens of the various Greek settlements of Ionia, along the coast of Asia Minor, gathered to debate how the invaders could be resisted.

A famously canny fellow called Bias of Priene stepped forward with (as Herodotus puts it)

a most admirable suggestion which, had they taken it, might have made them the most prosperous people in the Greek world. The proposal was that all the Ionians should unite and sail for Sardinia and settle together in a single community; there, living in the biggest island in the world, they would escape subjection, rule over their neighbours and be rich and happy.

But the Ionians didn’t bite. Sentimentally attached to their homelands, they stayed where they were, and were conquered one by one by the Persians.

This wasn’t such a terrible fate. The Persians were fairly laid-back overlords. Many of those Ionian towns are still there, 25 centuries later, still populated by the descendants of those stubborn Greeks.

Most towns in the Canadian prairies date back no further than 150 years. How many of them will still be there in the year 4500?

***

The Saskatchewan Evacuation Party is an internet joke that – until now – never made it as far as the internet.

I came up with the idea years ago, when I lived in Saskatoon. My intention was to produce a mock political ad in time for the 2007 provincial election in which the leader of the party – me – would lay out a plan for the province’s million or so residents to relocate to a newly-built city in British Columbia’s sunny Okanagan region.

The trouble was that my supposedly whimsical evacuation plan struck me as a pretty good idea. Whenever I tried to write a script for my mock ad, I wound up getting bogged down in practical details, and it turned out more pedantic than funny.

As I saw it, the relocation would be funded by continued exploitation of the province’s mineral resources, leaving the bulk of the landmass to return to nature. By the time the petroleum, potash, uranium, and other reserves were exhausted – as they someday will be – our descendents, instead of lapsing gradually into poverty on the bleak and windy prairie, would be happily established in a big and growing city in one of Canada’s most attractive regions.

In the meantime, over the course of the multi-decade plan, outlying towns and villages, most of them withering already, would be deliberately wound down – their residents given priority relocation to the Okanagan, or else moved to more central locations, into homes vacated by those who had already headed west to help erect the new metropolis.

In the end, only a few small cities would remain at key points on the main east-west transport corridors – perhaps Regina, Moose Jaw, and Swift Current on the Trans-Canada highway; Yorkton, Saskatoon, and North Battleford on the Yellowhead. A few other towns could be maintained along roads leading to summer tourist spots like the Qu’Appelle Valley, Cypress Hills, and Prince Albert National Park. Elsewhere the buffalo would roam.

saskatchewan evacuation plan

Saskatchewan, after the Evacuation Plan.

I saw my vision as an extension of the American geographer Frank Popper’s Buffalo Commons proposal to restore most of the Great Plains to their natural state. The idea, which dates back to the 1980s, seems to have enjoyed a brief surge of media interest in the early 2000s, which petered out as the fracking boom brought new population growth to the northern Great Plains.

While I daydreamed about turning out the lights on my home province, I failed to notice that we were in the process of shifting from perpetual “have-not” to “have” status.

For my entire life – for pretty much its entire history – Saskatchewan had been a farm-based backwater whose finances heaved and yawed with the whims of the sun and rain, dependent on equalization payments from Ottawa to stay barely solvent. Overnight we became a swaggering energy superpower, airily tithing a fraction of our boundless fossil fuel wealth for redistribution to the less lucky provinces.

It was no longer the weather upon whose whims Saskatchewan’s fortunes would balance, but the international energy market. My newly prosperous province gloried in the boom times for perhaps a decade before the price of oil collapsed in 2014.

(The disaster had little effect on me. I had already instituted a small-scale Saskatchewan evacuation plan, by relocating in 2012 to Vancouver.)

From its nadir in 2016, the price of oil gradually recovered – before collapsing again this year, floored by the one-two punch of a Saudi-Russian price war and reduced gasoline use due to coronavirus. I don’t pretend to understand the intricacies of the fossil fuel trade, but I’m told that Saskatchewan and its neighbour Alberta failed to reap the full benefit of the four-year recovery because of a lack of pipeline capacity. The federal government, wary of agitating environmentalists and First Nations, dithered over the approval of new pipelines, and continues to offer far less than full-throated support for the construction of those already approved.

The maligned fossil fuel industry was championed in the recent federal election by the Conservative Party, led by a bland, good-natured Saskatchewanian named Andrew Scheer, who, despite whittling Justin Trudeau’s governing Liberals to a minority, was nevertheless deemed to have blown an easy win, and has since been nudged out of the leadership.

I didn’t vote for Scheer’s party. I didn’t vote at all. As far as I could tell, none of the leaders shared my peculiar viewpoint: that in the short term the federal government should help Saskatchewan and Alberta by making it easier to build pipelines, and that in the longer term Saskatchewan and Alberta should cease to exist.

***

I will come back to Andrew Scheer eventually. First let me take a detour through the 2015 election – the one that saw the previous Conservative leader, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, defeated by Justin Trudeau.

In that election, strange as it may seem to foreigners, one of Trudeau’s winning campaign themes was his promise to airlift 25,000 Syrian refugees into Canada within the year. This was 15,000 more than the frosty-hearted Harper had promised to bring in. Trudeau didn’t quite meet his deadline, but he didn’t turn off the tap afterward – as of 2019, more than 50,000 Syrians had resettled here.

I can’t find any data on where those Syrians ended up living. Assuming they’re distributed in roughly the same pattern as other immigrants, about 60% of them went to Toronto, Montreal, or Vancouver; another 30% were divided among Canada’s other thirty or so Census Metropolitan Areas, ranging in size from over a million down to 100,000; and the remainder of less than 10% went to smaller cities and towns.

I’d wager that no Syrians were resettled in Natuashish, or Attawapiskat, or Pikangikum – three northern communities known (to the degree that they’re noticed by the outside world at all) as sites of epic dysfunction.

There are dozens of tiny, isolated native villages dotted across Canada’s north, most in somewhat better shape than the ones mentioned above, others equally if less infamously afflicted with squalor, substance abuse, and suicide. Six months of winter. Six months of blackflies. Run-down, overcrowded houses. Unsafe drinking water. No paved roads. No jobs. Nothing for the kids to do but huff paint behind the general store.

I’m not sure it’s fair or accurate to say that growing up in such a village is worse than being stuck in a refugee camp. But I doubt that a family of dispossessed Syrians, evacuated from a camp in Turkey or Lebanon to a fly-in village in the Canadian Shield, would feel their situation had materially improved.

With respect to the Syrians, we had very little to do with their misfortunes. Whereas – while I’m skeptical of the narrative that places all the blame for First Nations dysfunction on the sins of colonialism – the least Canada can do for the populations it dispossessed is provide them the same opportunities the rest of us enjoy.

So why don’t we airlift the populations of Natuashish, Attawapiskat, and Pikangikum to Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver?

We took in 50,000 Syrians in a few years – many of them traumatized, lacking skills useful to a modern economy, and unable to speak either of Canada’s official languages. 50,000 is probably a decent guess at the number of aboriginal Canadians living in settlements unconnected to the highway or rail networks. I’d venture that the savings from consolidating them in a few big cities, rather than having to provide infrastructure and social services at dozens of remote locations, would in a few years more than cover the relocation costs. Throw in a guaranteed annual trip home to their traditional territories to indulge in some culturally enriching wilderness activities, and the government would still come out ahead.

There’s a chance my guesstimate is totally wrong, of course. As with my fanciful Saskatchewan Evacuation Plan, I haven’t actually run the numbers, nor would there be any point attempting to. However fiscally prudent depopulating the Canadian Shield might be, if the government were to actually propose it, the people affected would riot. They’d see it as a continuation of Canada’s various clumsy attempts over the years to relocate native people for their own good.

So the people of Natuashish, Attawapiskat, Pikangikum, and dozens of other places just like them, will continue to complain about failing infrastructure, high prices, and lack of access to services that big-city folks take for granted. And every few years, when the complaints get especially noisy, Ottawa will lay out just enough money to address the worst of the deficiencies. And things will grind on much as before.

***

If the Saskatchewan Evacuation Plan has a mirror image, it’s the Mid-Canada Development Corridor.

richard rohmer mid-canada development corridor

Richard Rohmer and a map of “Mid-Canada”. Source: Maclean’s.

Conceived in the late 1960s by Toronto lawyer Richard Rohmer, a politically-connected former fighter pilot who has been called “the most interesting Canadian alive”, the idea was to cultivate a chain of boreal cities in an arc from Labrador to the Northwest Territories, to “add a second tier to the country”:

What’s the alternative? Canada will have 100 million extra people a century from now. Where are they going to live? Do we just make every southern city as big and impersonal as Toronto? Or do we try to build a different kind of civilization farther north?

That quote is from 1969, when Canada had 21 million people. Even maintaining our present historically high immigration numbers, we’re going to fall at least 50 million shy of Rohmer’s forecast.

But Paul Ehrlich had just dropped The Population Bomb into the Johnny Carson-watching, Time­ Magazine-reading Middle American consciousness. In those days, everyone accepted that a future of overcrowding and scarcity was inevitable. If Canada couldn’t be bothered to populate, protect, and harvest the wealth of its underutilized north, some hungry neighbour would march in and take it away from us.

In the 1970s, as the Mid-Canada hype petered out, Rohmer began a profitable side career as a writer of bestselling bad novels, many of them concerning the American government scheming to take our stuff. 1974’s Exxoneration was (as he put it)

an attempt to point out and emphasize the growing need for vigilance and concern over Canada’s relationship with its good friends, the Americans, whose demands for our natural resources, especially natural gas, are increasing dramatically.

I came across my dad’s old copy of Exxoneration in the 1980s as a pre-teen already sophisticated enough to recognize that it was terrible. Still, for anyone with a boyish interest in maps, diagrams, and far-fetched what-if scenarios, Rohmer’s premises are hard to resist. What if the United States invaded Canada? What if Quebec separated and then the United States invaded Canada? What if Canada went bankrupt and had to sell British Columbia to the United States?

Plainly, Rohmer had a bit of a sci-fi streak. (It seems vaguely relevant to mention here that Flin Flon, Manitoba, the small mining town he identified as a gestational Mid-Canadian metropolis, is named for a character in a sci-fi novel.) His northern vision naturally attracted fellow visionaries, who would arrive bearing sketches of domed cities and atomic-powered dirigibles, which critics were happy to depict as representative of the whole. But this was caricature. I just spent an hour poking around in Essays on Mid-Canada (“Presented at the first session of the Mid-Canada Development Conference, August, 1969”), trying to find some harebrained predictions to make fun of. Nada. It’s all pretty tame.

In the 2000s I looked ahead and saw the gradual abandonment of the prairies. In the 1960s Rohmer looked ahead and saw roads and pipelines creeping into the Canadian Shield to carry its mineral and energy wealth southward. It might appear that our forecasts were in conflict. But not necessarily: the future might entail both a general abandonment of Canada’s less hospitable regions and a concentration of the remaining population in a few profitable corridors.

Therefore I’m fully on board with the Canadian Northern Corridor described by the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy. It’s Rohmer minus domed cities, plus buzzwords:

The guiding principle behind the corridor concept is the establishment of a shared transportation right-of-way, in which multiple modes of transportation can co-locate in order to realize economies of agglomeration (i.e. the benefits obtained from locating near each other, share costs such as those associated with surveying and negotiating land use agreements), mitigate environmental risks within a contained footprint and reduce the emissions intensity of transportation in Canada’s north and near-north.

The right-of-way could accommodate roads, rail, energy pipelines, electrical transmission and fibre-optic lines. It would hook in dozens of remote population centres – lowering freight costs and hence the cost of living – and create thousands of new jobs constructing the route, monitoring and maintaining its component parts, and providing services for the workers, truckers, and tourists who would travel on it.

canadian northern corridor population distribution

Population distribution, with potential Northern Corridor. Modified from “Planning for Infrastructure to Realize Canada’s Potential: The Corridor Concept”.

The Conservative Party found this idea compelling enough that they floated a version of it during the last election campaign. Andrew Scheer emphasized the benefit of getting all those wearisome reviews and consultations out of the way in one go:

With a single corridor, industry wouldn’t need to submit complicated route proposals for every new project. With a single corridor we could minimize environmental impacts, lower the cost of environmental assessments, without sacrificing quality, increase certainty for investors, get critical projects built, and create good-paying jobs.

In the months since Scheer’s defeat, we’ve seen energy projects hobbled by uncertainty at both ends of the mooted corridor. On the west coast, protesters stalled the construction of a liquid natural gas pipeline to Kitimat, BC. On the east coast, Warren Buffett’s company backed out of a planned $4 billion investment in an LNG facility in Saguenay, Quebec, reportedly due to “the recent challenge in the Canadian political context”.

Clearly there’s room for a politician with more charisma than Andrew Scheer to make a renewed case for the Mid-Canada Corridor. It needn’t be a Tory:

  • In 2003, northern Saskatchewan Liberal MP Rick Laliberte, inspired by Rohmer’s ideas, wangled $134,280 from Ottawa for a Mid-Canada Research Institute to develop “national policies and programs for the resource-rich Mid-Canada region”. (The institute no longer seems to exist. I hope the consultant who nabbed that $134,280 spent some of it up north – re-roofing his cottage, maybe.)
  • In 2016, the same year the School of Public Policy made its pitch for a Northern Corridor, the Northern Policy Institute published a parallel case – lighter on the pipelines and heavier on the aboriginal consultation – for a Mid-Canada Boreal Corridor. The author was left-leaning urban planner John van Nostrand.
  • In 2016-17 the Senate’s all-party Banking, Trade, and Commerce Committee held hearings on the Northern Corridor, agreed that it was a nifty idea – “[t]he federal government must seize this opportunity” – and recommended the establishment of a task force to study it further.

However many institutes and task forces get launched, I’m not holding my breath for a Mid-Canada Corridor. Forget about vast nation-building projects – between lawsuits and protests and blockades, at the moment Canadians seem incapable of building anything at all.

Perhaps an un-building project would be more in tune with the zeitgeist. On that note: if any aspiring politician is interested, the Saskatchewan Evacuation Party is looking for a leader.

M.

Last week’s essay about First Nations sovereignty and pipeline protests started out as a long-winded digression in the middle of this one. A couple weeks before that I wondered whether those attempting to preserve Canada’s aboriginal languages might be better off cutting their losses. Digging deeper into the archives, my one previous mention of Herodotus, in a reluctant defense of the movie 300, predates the creation of this blog.

Nation-to-nation.

Okay, it’s time to accept that this essay I left untouched for two months – a characteristically logorrheic three-parter that was going to touch on everything from E.O. Wilson’s Half-Earth Project to leaky sewer pipes in Granville Lake, Manitoba – is not getting finished. The issues that animated it – particularly the anti-pipeline protests that were all over the Canadian news back in February – no longer seem terribly pertinent.

Update, May 19 2020: It turned out that all I needed to do to get past my writer’s block was carve out the bloated middle section – which became the present essay. The remainder became “The Saskatchewan Evacuation Party belatedly endorses Andrew Scheer”.

Nearly every day I pass by the provincial courthouse in New Westminster. It’s an unlovely 1980s judicial fortress looming over a courtyard called Begbie Square, until recently presided over by the effigy of its namesake, the first Chief Justice of the Colony (and subsequently of the Province) of British Columbia, Matthew Begbie.

It’s a pretty elegant statue, by Canadian standards, created by the Hungarian refugee Elek Imredy. I persist in using the present tense because I presume it still exists, crated up in a warehouse somewhere. Here’s Begbie Square after its cleansing:

begbie statue removal new westminster record september 12 2019

Let us all gather before our new idol. Image source: New Westminster Record.

Begbie’s crime, to modern minds, is to have tried and sentenced to death five members of the Chilcotin tribe (now more usually called, with varying degrees of diacritic fealty, the Tŝilhqot’in First Nation) found guilty for the murder, over the course of a few months in 1864, of about twenty whites – roadbuilders, settlers, and prospectors – who had penetrated their territory. This spasmodic series of butcheries, ambushes, and skirmishes, entailing the deaths of perhaps thirty men on all sides (including those executed), came to be known somewhat grandiosely as the Chilcotin War. [1]

As recently as 2017, the debate about Begbie’s statue concerned whether it should be “balanced” by the addition of a monument to the six Chilcotin martyrs (the five tried by Begbie at the town of Quesnel, and a sixth tried later at New Westminster). But as the wave of monument-toppling accelerated, this reasonable compromise was forgotten. By 2019 nothing less than complete obliteration of the villain’s name and image was deemed sufficient.

Whether the hanged men were tried fairly, according to 1860s rules of jurisprudence, I don’t claim to know. Certainly there were colonists who, inflamed by early reports of the massacres, would have sidestepped the formalities of the legal process:

[A]re we to stand idly by when dozens of Victorians are being murdered, and make no effort to avenge them or prevent further atrocities? The blood of our murdered countrymen calls loudly for signal and sweeping vengeance. It is mere folly to await the tardy action of the authorities. Let the citizens take the matter in hand at once – to-day! There are hundreds of bold, hardy spirits who would at once volunteer to march against the savage murderers; hundreds of rifles in the hands of Government, and hundreds of citizens who will cheerfully contribute liberally to charter a steamer to convey the volunteers to the scene of the thrice repeated atrocities, where let them not stay their hands till every member of the rascally murderous tribe is suspended to the trees of their own forest – a salutary warning to the whole coast for years to come.

But the trials, although brisk by modern standards, were not the judicial lynchings that might be suggested by lizard-brain emanations like the above. Of the eight Chilcotins who surrendered and were brought to Quesnel for trial, two were released by Begbie without charges, another was found not guilty on insufficient evidence and escaped before he could be tried on a different charge, and five were convicted based largely on witness testimony. One of the five was found guilty only of attempted murder – a crime, Begbie conceded, for which in England he would not have been hanged – but he was implicated in other killings for which no witnesses had survived.

As the judge wrote in a letter outlining the outcome of the trials to the colonial governor, Frederick Seymour,

All the 5 convicts have confessed their guilt of capital offences generally & of the offences for which they have been convicted in particular.

There’s little question that the five hanged men were all active participants in the killings, though it was difficult to assign responsibility for each specific gunshot or hatchet blow. As the killers saw it, they were resisting uninvited aliens who were deliberately spreading smallpox in their community. Begbie believed that an unidentified white man had tried to exploit the Chilcotins’ fear of the disease – which had wiped out as many as two-thirds of their tribe only a few years earlier – by threatening to unleash it on uncooperative natives.

The belief that Europeans introduced smallpox into native communities intentionally – rather than through negligence, as is generally admitted – used to be regarded as an unfortunate but forgivable misunderstanding on the part of traumatized plague survivors. Lately the revisionist view – that settlers, with the support of the colonial administration, in fact engaged in a policy of premeditated biological warfare, a crime that was successfully covered up for a hundred and fifty years – has gone mainstream.

Here for instance is Tom Swanky, author of Canada’s “War” of Extermination on the Pacific (his scare-quotes, not mine), arguing that to dissent from the deliberate-infection theory puts one in the company of…well, guess who:

[I]f Canadians truly seek reconciliation and not to be seen as hypocrites, then educators who demonstrate “anti-indigenous-ism” should be treated just as we treat those who show “anti-semitism.” The rule of law requires us to treat genocide-deniers equally.

I haven’t read Swanky’s book. I’m not being dismissive when I call him a conspiracy theorist – which, by definition, he is. Like many such theorists, he knows more about his subject than most experts, let alone dabblers like me, whose research amounted to reading a couple of books and doing some Googling.

As a dabbler, I lack the wherewithal to investigate every 10,000-word, painstakingly-sourced webpage purporting to prove that, say, John McCain covered up evidence of POWs left behind in Vietnam, or that Israeli intelligence knew in advance about the 9/11 attacks, or (if I may be forgiven a timely parallel) that Covid-19 was stirred up in a lab and spritzed around Wuhan on the personal orders of the CIA or Bill Gates or whoever.

While theorists like the ones above must swim against a strong current of public skepticism, those claiming to stand up for indigenous rights are whisked along on wakeboards of cultural sensitivity. [2] For example, in his most recent post Swanky mentions that,

While exonerating the “Chilcotin Chiefs,” the Crown acknowledged, as a matter of historical fact based on reliable evidence, that settlers did spread smallpox intentionally to set in motion the colonization of Tsilhqot’in territory.

I scoffed when I read this. Surely Swanky was tendentiously misrepresenting BC Premier Christy Clark’s 2014 statement clearing the hanged men? Not really:

Many newcomers made their way into the Interior. Some of those came into conflict with the Tsilhqot’in, and some brought with them an even greater danger. That was smallpox, which by some reliable historical accounts there is indication was spread intentionally.

I didn’t realize that BC’s former premier had, on the floor of the legislature, endorsed the theory that her province was founded on acts of genocide. It’s not quite Swanky’s assertion that the colonial government deliberately infected natives under the guise of inoculating them, but it’s at least halfway there.

***

Some years after the trials, in a memorandum submitted to Canada’s Minister of Public Works, H.L. Langevin (another long-dead nation-builder lately demoted from respectability), Judge Begbie pinned the blame for the Chilcotin War on the white interlopers:

There has never, since 1858, been any trouble with Indians except once, in 1864, known as the year of the Chilcotin Expedition. In that case, some white men had, under color of the pre-emption act, taken possession of some Indian lands ( … their old accustomed camping place, and including a much-valued spring of water), and even after this, continued to treat the natives with great contumely, and breach of faith. The natives were few in number, but very warlike and great hunters. They had no idea of the number of the whites, whom they had not seen. They shot down every white whom they did see, twenty-one I think, including a trail party of Mr. Waddington’s – one or two escaped their notice. Six Indians were induced to surrender, and were hung.

The surrender of the Chilcotin rebels was brought about through a combination of threats and deceit; they apparently thought they were there to parley. Feeling some unease that this “annoying circumstance” might throw doubt on the justice of the verdict, Begbie went afterward to the leader of the rebels to clarify the sequence of events. The judge convinced himself that they would have come in eventually – they had been harried into the mountains and were short of food – and that the confusion over the terms of their surrender had no bearing on the fairness of their trial.

Mentioning this and other mitigating circumstances in his letter to Governor Seymour, who would decide whether the executions should proceed, Begbie concluded, “I do not envy you your task of coming to a decision.” (The governor did reprieve one of two Chilcotins who a year later “surrendered” under similarly dubious circumstances, and were tried at New Westminster under a different judge.)

In 1977, a few years before his courthouse statue went up, Begbie was the subject of a full-length biography, The Man For A New Country, by David R. Williams. In his telling, Begbie was an erudite, humane, and broad-minded jurist who stood up for the rights of the colony’s non-British population in general and for BC’s aboriginal people in particular.

A practicing lawyer, Williams looked closely at Begbie’s judgements and where possible reconstructed his reasoning from his handwritten trial notes. Summarizing his handling of the Quesnel trials – and particularly his allowing into evidence statements that were elicited as a result of the suspects’ “induced” surrender – Williams concludes:

At a trial today, it is unlikely any admissions of guilt obtained under these conditions would be admitted into the evidence, but in the nineteenth century, in spite of the existence of the exclusionary rule, the courts did not so often apply it to the protection of accused persons; Begbie, in ruling that the evidence could be heard by the juries, perhaps correctly as the law then stood, experienced nonetheless twinges of conscience.

And on a wider examination of Begbie’s record:

Begbie had such influence with the Indians that he could confidently assert: “I have never known the Indians deny the justice of a sentence arrived at in a Court of Assize of which I approved myself.” This influence stemmed not only from his fair dealing and from his admiration of the race but also from a genuine sympathy for the cause of preserving the Indians’ “rights” against the intrusion of white settlers.

This is – to put it mildly – no longer the received view. No new evidence has arisen: the old evidence is simply seen through a different lens. What new offenses the lens will uncover in a further forty-odd years, I won’t attempt to predict.

Ahan, the Chilcotin hanged at New Westminster, whose name and likeness may be installed in Begbie’s place, claimed in his testimony that he had acted under duress – that another Chilcotin had threatened to shoot him if he didn’t participate in the ambush of a group of prospectors en route to the Cariboo gold fields.

This was a reasonable and plausible defense, as the rebels appear to have acted out of varying degrees of zealotry, peer pressure, and fear of retaliation from their fiercer comrades. But such ambiguities have been scrubbed away in the urgency to elevate the martyrs to hero status. They are all granted the honorific “Chief”. Their less inspiring deeds, like the murder of Mr. Waddington’s road-building crew – slaughtered in their tents in the early morning by men they’d welcomed to their camp and chatted amiably with the night before – are simply left out of the picture.

This doesn’t make Ahan (who wasn’t present at the massacre of the road-builders) unworthy of commemoration. I hope his statue lasts longer than forty years. In any case, I look forward to the return of a human figure to blunt the hard edges of that concrete courtyard – though, given trends in the art world, I will be surprised if the replacement is as artful and attractive as Imredy’s depiction of Begbie.

***

I bring this all up in the context of this winter’s Canada-wide protests over a natural gas pipeline in northern British Columbia. The controversy began with attempts by some hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en people to block the construction of a pipeline to carry natural gas from Alberta to Kitimat, on the BC coast, along a route passing through their traditional territory.

The elected councils of the five Wet’suwet’en communities nearest the pipeline, along with those of fifteen other northern First Nations, have given their consent to the project and negotiated a share of the jobs and revenues it will create.

But the protesters claimed that the elected councils are responsible only for administering the few dozen reserves which together constitute a tiny part of the sprawling Wet’suwet’en lands over which, as they see it, the hereditary chiefs retain sovereignty.

In this view, the pipeline builders are foreign invaders, like the workmen who a hundred and fifty-odd years ago began building their road without securing, as we say nowadays, social license from the Chilcotin people.

I don’t say this view is wrong. In any case my opinion is irrelevant beside those of the judges and politicians who have, over the last quarter century or so, issued various rulings, resolutions, and misty-eyed avowals that Canadian First Nations retain some unspecified degree of sovereignty over their traditional territories.

How much sovereignty is up in the air, although one can’t help noticing that each new ruling, resolution, and avowal seems to concede a little more. From the Liberal Party’s winning 2015 platform:

It is time for Canada to have a renewed, nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous Peoples …

We will immediately re-engage in a renewed nation-to-nation process with Indigenous Peoples to make progress on the issues most important to First Nations …

Maybe the authors of the above intended “nation” in the way it’s sometimes used to refer to the two cultural nations, English-speaking and French-speaking, that were once extolled as the founding races of Canada. It’s this limited definition of “nation” that most Canadians probably had in mind when they acquiesced to the use of the term “First Nations” starting in the 1980s – a symbolic acknowledgement that there were folks here already when the French and English showed up. [3]

Outside of the narrow realm of Canadian constitutional wonkery, most people hearing the phrase “nation-to-nation relationship” will visualize, say, Donald Trump stepping across the North Korean frontier to shake hands with Kim Jong-Un.

It turns out to mean the government of Canada begging to negotiate on equal terms with a handful of chiefs claiming to speak for five communities totalling perhaps 3,400 people. [4]

By the same logic that vilifies Matthew Begbie – that a minority of the Chilcotin were justified in using deadly force to resist an invasion by foreigners – surely the Wet’suwet’en protesters can’t be blamed for their non-violent resistance to the pipeline builders. You or I might prefer to ignore the hereditary chiefs and deal only with the elected councillors, who are far more amenable to democracy, capitalism, and the rule of law – our law.

But if we are foreigners, then whom the Wet’suwet’en appoint to speak for them is none of our business. They, or any other of the dozens of little sovereign entities that cover much of British Columbia, or any minority within any one of those sovereign entities who can convincingly claim the right to speak for their people, are free to tell us to take our pipelines, roads, rails, bulldozers, and personal selves, and bugger off.

I hope that this winter’s ructions will encourage parliament or the courts to mark out unambiguously who’s in charge of these entities, and to what degree their mystical utterances override Canadian laws. It wouldn’t bother me much if the courts declared that the First Nations were in fact honest-to-god nations all along, and that what we grew up believing to be the world’s second-largest country is actually a vast patchwork quilt of Tuvalus, Palaus, and San Marinos. If it comes to it, we can weave our roads and pipelines through the gaps between the little independent entities – but first we need to know where the entities end.

M.

1. How many died in the Chilcotin War? According to Judge Begbie, the death toll (not counting those later executed) amounted to “21 white men and 3 Indians”. Seems like he ought to have known.

However, I count only 19 white men – 14 road-builders, 3 prospectors, a settler named Manning, and a member of the expedition hunting the Chilcotin rebels. On the Chilcotin side were one warrior killed during the ambush of the prospectors and two others who later committed suicide – or perhaps one killed the other, then himself. Finally there was one Chilcotin woman, wife or concubine to one of the prospectors, who was in some versions of the narrative murdered by her own people for betraying their plans to the whites.

2. Almost a decade ago I spent days researching another controversy concerning put-upon indigenous people – in that case, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Guatemalan activist Rigoberta Menchú, whose inflammatory accusations were being passed along uncritically by the media. In the end I decided that, lacking the time and expertise to properly weigh the evidence, I had better keep my big yap shut. I must be getting reckless in my old age.

3. Former Conservative prime minister John Diefenbaker vigourously objected when his own party endorsed the “two nations” usage back in the 1960s. He saw it as a threat to national unity. His objections were, of course, chalked up to anti-French bigotry.

But as Dief correctly foresaw, when you tell people they are a nation, they start to believe you.

4. How many Wet’suwet’en bands are there? What is their total population? Which of them do the hereditary chiefs claim to represent?

One site says the Office of the Hereditary Chiefs represents two bands, another site says four; their official website says five. Confusingly, one of their constituent bands is itself called the Wet’suwet’en First Nation. I made a spreadsheet to help sort things out.

british columbia six wet'suwet'en bands

British Columbia’s six Wet’suwet’en bands. Click for full size.

The council of Hagwilget Village, the one Wet’suwet’en band that didn’t sign an agreement with Coastal GasLink, is about 120 kilometres from the pipeline route. One source implies that Hagwilget was left out of the negotiations because it wasn’t directly affected, another says the band council was approached by the company but rebuffed them.

 

The rectification of names.

The Chinese government seems to have been successful in its campaign to guilt us into replacing the logical, easy-to-remember “Wuhan virus” with the turgid, clinical “Covid-19”.

Apart from everything else, it strikes me as a blown marketing opportunity for the city of Wuhan. When international travel picks up again, western tourists who would otherwise hop straight from the Great Wall to the giant panda sanctuary at Chengdu might be convinced to add a stop at Wuhan Virusland. The mascot could be a pangolin wearing a surgical mask. Ozzy Osbourne could star in a promotional video where he dips into a bowl of delicious bat soup.

But if Beijing has its way, in a year or two Wuhan – that insignificant provincial town, home to a mere nine million souls – will recede into the obscurity it enjoyed before the virus made it briefly famous.

We in the west are pretty clueless about Chinese geography. It’s partly because China was closed to the outside world for 30 years, partly because their language looks so forbiddingly strange, and partly because, in a test-run of the Wuhan/Covid guilt trip, we went meekly along with their decree that we should junk our old, familiar names for their towns and provinces and replace them with hard-to-pronounce Chinese versions – so Tsingtao became Qingdao, Canton became Guangzhou, Amoy became Xiamen, and so on.

(In his 1988 travel book Riding the Iron Rooster, Paul Theroux is corrected by a government flunky when he refers to Peking and Canton. “I’m giving you their English names, Mr. Zhong,” he replies. “We don’t say Hellas for Greece, or Roma for Rome, or Paree, if we’re speaking English. So I don’t see the point–” But the flunky smoothly changes the subject.) [1]

Speaking of under-publicized tourist destinations, Zhengzhou is another huge city – almost six million people – that I couldn’t have placed on a map before the other day. That’s probably why I was unaware of this monument to the ancient semi-mythical emperor-heroes Huang and Yan carved into a mountain outside of town. Their faces are three times as big as the ones at Mount Rushmore.

Meanwhile in Changsha (population five million) there’s an oddly sexy 100-foot-tall bust of Mao Zedong. Or if you like your colossi a little shaggier, the 1200 year old giant Buddha statue near Leshan (a quaint village of 1.2 million) gives a preview of how Mao will look in a millennium or so, when the elements have done their work.

I was watching The Neverending Story with a friend a while back and when I saw the Ivory Tower – the fortress sprouting like a pistil from the shell of a hollowed-out mountain – I said, “How come our multibillionaires all live in boring suburban mega-mansions when they could be using their fortunes to erect cool fantasy architecture like that?”

But even if Jeff Bezos yearned to live in a hollowed-out mountain, he would never get away with it. For that matter, Mount Rushmore wouldn’t get the go-ahead nowadays. The local Native Americans would raise a fuss, protesters would converge, lawsuits would be launched, and after a few years the whole thing would be quietly dropped, as happened to that “grandiose” (actually, by Chinese standards, rather understated) statue of “Mother Canada” the Tories were talking about building in Cape Breton.

The Chinese, poor rubes, lack the sophistication to realize that enormous monuments to their heroes and heritage are gaudy and wasteful, and that developed countries have more important things to spend their money on, such as…wait a second, what are we spending our money on? Our infrastructure is rickety and inadequate. Our streets are full of homeless drug addicts. Our homes are full of cheap made-in-China crapola. Is it possible that all our extra wealth is going into inflated university degrees and pipeline litigation?

***

Ever since I moved to Vancouver from the Canadian prairies, I’ve had the vague intention of learning a little Chinese. Not enough to actually talk to people – I figure that’s unrealistically ambitious – but maybe enough to make out the gist of signs outside the many local Chinese businesses.

As I understand it – and I’m aware this is a gross oversimplification – Chinese characters, or hanzi, are built from ideograms representing ideas rather than sounds. Two quick strokes make a person; a few extra strokes denote a woman; two women side-by-side, hilariously, represent a quarrel. The concept of “big” is communicated by a little man, arms thrown wide, going “it’s this big!

Thus speakers of mutually unintelligible Chinese languages – Mandarin, Cantonese, Fujianese, etc. – can still communicate by scrawling characters on a piece of paper. Chinese travellers in Japan and Korea can also get along, to some degree, without knowing the local languages because hanzi (or kanji, or hanja) form part of the Japanese and Korean writing systems.

I’ve heard mixed reports as to whether Chinese languages are especially difficult for westerners to learn. I assume they are: on top of the usual challenges of learning a foreign A) vocabulary and B) grammar, you’ve also got C) a completely alien tone system and D) at a bare minimum, a few hundred non-phonetic characters to memorize.

Maybe if your goal is to become a fluent Chinese speaker you need to learn A, B, C, and D together. But I’ve often wondered if it wouldn’t be useful to disaggregate the various off-putting features of learning Chinese. Maybe you could, for instance, acquire a basic vocabulary without worrying about tones.

Consider English: every word has a stress that falls on one syllable or other, sometimes according to a predictable rule but often not. We say “AUTomobile”, “autoMOtive”, and “auTOMoton”, which is just something foreigners have to learn – but we can still understand those words if all the syllables are stressed equally, even if the result sounds funny and robotic to us.

The go-to example for the Chinese tone system is the sound “ma”, which in Mandarin can mean “mother”, “horse”, “hemp”, and “scold”, depending which tone is used. But those are pretty distinct concepts – couldn’t the listener figure out by context which is intended, the same way we do with “be” and “bee”, or “high” and “hi”?

This Mandarin language teacher pretty much concedes my point:

[B]elieve it or not, people can mostly understand when foreigners speak without tones. Why? Because of context.

But before you become tempted to take this “shortcut” yourself…don’t! It’s a big mistake! You see, even though people might still be able to understand you if you don’t use tones, it’s not accurate Chinese. And the other person may have to try much harder to catch what you’re trying to say.

You’re basically limiting yourself to “complete beginner”.

But if “complete beginner” is all you’re aiming for – why not? There are a lot of people who, like me, might be interested in acquiring just a smattering of Chinese, who would be happy to take this shortcut if they knew it existed.

Likewise, maybe it would be useful to learn Chinese characters without learning a word of Chinese. Maybe we could absorb a limited set of hanzi into our language, which we could use to communicate across language barriers not only with Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans, but with Germans, Russians, Indonesians, and so forth.

You might say, why import a bunch of antique, abstract, overly complicated ideograms from a foreign country? Why not devise a brand new set of simple, rational ideograms of our own?

Well, consider the fate of Blissymbolics, the hanzi-inspired, hyperrational universal language invented by a disillusioned Eastern European Jew during World War II. (It was introduced in a book called Semantography: A Logical Writing for an Illogical World.) Blissymbolics caught on in a limited way as a method of teaching writing to handicapped kids in Canada, and nowhere else.

blissymbolics charles bliss

From The Book to the Film “Mr. Symbol Man”, by Charles K. Bliss. Image source. You can watch Mr. Symbol Man on YouTube.

That’s how it goes with a constructed language: absent a pre-existing population of speakers and a pre-existing body of texts, there’s little reason, apart from ideological enthusiasm, to learn it. With no-one to talk to and nothing worth reading, students grow bored and chuck it over. Whereas with Chinese you can just take the bus down Kingsway and every third or fourth storefront will present a new opportunity to test your vocabulary.

If our descendants ever do wind up adopting hanzi into the English language, it won’t be through the efforts of armchair theorizers like me. Attempts to benevolently direct linguistic evolution tend to backfire. For instance, the Chinese government “simplified” their writing system in the 1950s, reducing the number of pen strokes needed to draw many common hanzi. But in Hong Kong and Taiwan they ignored these directives, so that now many readers of “simplified” Chinese have trouble reading the “traditional” forms, and vice versa. Meanwhile the Japanese adopted some, but not all, of the simplified forms. (See also.)

This reminds me of the various ineffective attempts to preserve Canada’s endangered aboriginal languages. I can appreciate that aboriginal people would like to hang onto those languages. I think it’s a laudable goal. But to take a local example, there are 14 different Coast Salish dialects on or near the southern BC / Washington coast, distributed over an area smaller than Ireland. (The modern convention is to call them “languages”, but it seems that adjacent tribes could understand one another, though more distant ones couldn’t.)

squamish language road sign

The “7” stands for the number of people who can actually read this. Image source.

Left unmolested by Europeans, a single dominant dialect would eventually have emerged – or maybe the Coast Salish would have been conquered by some other, more unified tribe and had an alien language imposed on them, as happened to the Irish.

My point being, in my imaginary Coast Salish Republic, there’d still be at least 13 dialects regrettably falling into disuse, with old-timers in the sticks grousing that their grandkids didn’t know the words to the old folk songs anymore. But Coast Salish as a whole would stand a chance of survival. It would have enough speakers to sustain newspapers, a publishing industry, radio, TV, and so on.

My further point being, if there’s any chance of preserving Coast Salish now that its surviving dialects are mumbled by a handful of codgers each – it will be by picking one. But then, how do you get the 14 or more Coast Salish-speaking communities to agree to a strategy that involves 13 of them euthanizing an essential part of their culture for the good of the rest?

M.

1. Re Peking/Beijing, Kingsley Amis grumbled in The King’s English: A Guide to Modern Usage, under the heading “Didacticism”:

[T]hat right of the English language, as of any other, to devise its own forms for foreign names is under constant erosion. Peking was an English word for centuries before it was suddenly replaced by Beijing, however you pronounce it; Ceylon has notoriously been replaced by Sri Lanka; Lyons has reverted to Lyon (Lee-on(g)) and Marseilles (pronounced Marsails) to Marseille (MarSAY, often with an attempt at the French uvular trill in the middle); Seville and Genoa have come a step nearer being pronounced in the native fashion. What about Brussels and Brussels? Ah, that I predict will go on as before. The British/English form conveniently steers between Bruxelles and Brüssel, the Walloon and Flemish versions of the name of the Belgian capital.

Mark Steyn once referred to this trend as “the reflexive multicultural cringe that automatically assumes any new, less familiar (and thus less ‘western’) name must be more ‘authentic'”.

 


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