Why read?

I’m coming up on a milestone. Sometime in the next few weeks I will have read every book I own.[1]

That might not seem impressive to those of you who assembled your libraries in the ordinary way – by buying books you were interested in reading, reading them, then sticking them on the shelf when you were done. Which is how I assembled most of my own collection.

But of the 750 or so volumes on my shelves, maybe a fifth were passed down to me by my father – most when I was a teenager and he purged his possessions in preparation for a big cross-country move, the rest upon his death five years ago. My “dad books”.

These weren’t books I wanted to read, exactly. They’re books I thought, at the time I received them, I ought someday to read. So I kept them around through numerous downsizings. Each time I moved, or each time my shelves got too crowded for new purchases to be squeezed in, I would dispose of some fraction of my collection – books I’d read once and doubted I’d ever want to read again, books I realized I would probably never read at all. But most of the dad books I retained, for a variety of reasons, sentimentality being one – the knowledge that these had been some of my father’s favourite (or at any rate longest-held) possessions:

  • His copy of East of Eden, its cover more tape than paper, which he plucked off some drugstore magazine rack a half century ago.
  • His copy of David Niven’s Hollywood memoir Bring On The Empty Horses which, when I finally got around to cracking it open, split in half like a year-old pita. (I inexpertly glued and taped the halves back together.)
  • His copy of Jean Bowie Shor’s travel adventure After You Marco Polo, an oft-repaired library discard with the title handwritten in black marker on the spine, so embarrassingly ugly that I Photoshopped and printed a new dustcover for it.

Through the years, I picked away at this unasked-for cache of old books. Some of them, against expectations, I wound up loving – I’ve come around to an equivocal admiration for my dad’s favourite author, John Steinbeck. Others did nothing for me, and after giving them a good-faith try I moved them with reluctance to my discard pile. But it was a project of decades. Taking priority were all the newly-bought books that I was actually excited to read.

A couple years ago I decided – as much for space-saving as cost-saving reasons – to scale back my book purchases until I’d read all the ones I already owned. And at last I began to make rapid progress through my dad books. Soon the unread were few enough that I could tag them all on the spine with coloured Post-It placemarkers. Now, scanning my shelves, I count just four remaining Post-Its.

I already know which one I’m saving for last: Robert A. Heinlein’s final novel, To Sail Beyond the Sunset, with its title borrowed from Tennyson’s “Ulysses”:

The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.

***

What does it mean to have “read” a book? To select an example at random, from my desk I can see John Cheever’s Falconer, which I read seven or eight years ago. If you’d asked me shortly afterward, I could have supplied a sketchy summary of its plot, stammered for a minute or two about its “themes”, and maybe hazarded some half-formed speculations about its place in the canon of 20th century American literature.

Seven or eight years later, what do I remember about Falconer? Practically nothing.

Did I enjoy Falconer? I can’t remember. Apparently I found it interesting enough to keep around, with the idea I might want to crack it open again in another decade or two. Did I learn anything from it? Maybe it helped me form some hazy ideas about the American penal system, or about upper-middle-class attitudes toward homosexuality in the 1970s. Maybe I picked up a couple bits of trivia, or quirks of English usage, that helped me better understand books and news stories I’ve read subsequently.

Most likely, Falconer passed through me without leaving a trace. As will To Sail Beyond the Sunset.

If so, why read at all? Just to kill time? But if it was only time-killing, why did I bother to advance beyond Mad Magazine and Encyclopedia Brown? Why did I torment myself with Chaucer and Plutarch and Pynchon? Am I a happier or better person for it?

***

I recall in my early twenties being so taken with a certain line of William of Baskerville, the proto-scientist hero of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, that I quoted it to friends:

We are dwarfs, but dwarfs who stand on the shoulders of […] giants, and small though we are, we sometimes manage to see farther on the horizon than they.

I was chastened to learn, some years later, that this is a paraphrase of a comment by Isaac Newton so well-known that it appears on the British two-pound coin; and it’s only now, via Wikipedia, that I learn Newton was himself paraphrasing earlier thinkers.

Perhaps one advantage of being widely-read – if there is any – is that it enables you to recognize a wider range of references.

  • When Lord Peter Wimsey, prodding a slow-witted witness to recollect various details of a crime scene that he was unaware of having noticed, compares the witness to Socrates’s slave;
  • When Emma Bovary, basking in an uncharacteristic moment of maternal feeling, imagines herself as Sachette in Notre Dame de Paris;
  • When the unexpressed love of Tom Jones for Sophia Western is described as eating him alive from inside, “like the famous Spartan theft”;

…I understood what the author was getting at.

But this advantage only goes so far. First off, it’s quite possible to read and enjoy Whose Body?, or Madame Bovary, or Tom Jones, without picking up every allusion. What’s more, these days if an unfamiliar name or phrase leaves you puzzled, you can reach for the phone on your bedside table and resolve the mystery with a quick internet search.

(This is in fact what I had to do when I came across Flaubert’s reference to “Sachette” – an epithet which doesn’t appear in my translation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, where Sister Gudule is instead referred to familiarly as “Sacky”.)

Midway through Tom Jones, Henry Fielding semi-facetiously apologizes for padding his novel with quotations (some translated, some not) from classical literature:

To fill up a work with these scraps may, indeed, be considered as a downright cheat on the learned world, who are by such means imposed upon to buy a second time in fragments and by retail what they have already in gross, if not in their memories, upon their shelves; and it is still more cruel upon the illiterate, who are drawn in to pay for what is of no manner of use to them.

He goes on to compare authors who sprinkle their stories with Latin and Greek to auctioneers who “confound and mix up their lots [so] that in order to purchase the commodity you want, you are obliged at the same time to purchase that which will do you no service.”

Though by Fielding’s standards I would be lumped among the illiterates, I don’t mind paying a little extra for the classical padding. My paperback Tom Jones was bought (by my dad) at a secondhand store for 25¢ – I can tell because it’s written in black marker on the cover – so the cost per unwanted quotation seems reasonable. A bigger obstacle to modern enjoyment of Tom Jones is its labyrinthine 18th century syntax. Luckily, after slogging through Dryden’s translation of Plutarch, Fielding’s windiness barely ruffles my hair.

Which is great – at age 41 I can read for pleasure books that at 21 I would only have finished out of a sense of duty. But this doesn’t answer the question I posed at the top of this essay. The purpose of reading cannot be merely to expand the range of texts one is capable of reading.

***

Via Richard Carroll’s blog Everything Is Oll Korrect I recently encountered C.S. Lewis’s comment that “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.” While Lewis (in his introduction to a translation of De Incarnatione by Saint Athanasius) was referring particularly to books of theology, his advice is applicable to readers of all faiths, or none:

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.

(He later adds, “To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.”)

All contemporary writers [Lewis continues] share to some extent the contemporary outlook – even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united – united with each other and against earlier and later ages – by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century – the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?” – lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H.G. Wells and Karl Barth.

A couple months back, Alan Jacobs posted on his blog a similar passage by the anthropologist Loren Eiseley, arguing that scientists should acquaint themselves with the history of scientific prejudice and closed-mindedness, because:

The man who learns how difficult it is to step outside the intellectual climate of his or any age has taken the first step on the road to emancipation, to world citizenship of a high order.

Lewis and Eiseley (and the bloggers approvingly quoting them) would seem to agree that by stepping outside the mainstream of present-day thought, by taking a longer, cooler perspective, we can, if not identify the unexamined assumptions that warp and maim our reasoning, at least recognize that those assumptions are probably present – in short, that by reading widely we can become humbler, more perceptive thinkers, and therefore better citizens and human beings.

I share this belief, but part of me fears it’s self-flattery. Those who’ve devoted a large part of their lives to reading – among whom I’ll include myself, though my activities in this vein have been laughably tiny beside Eiseley’s or Lewis’s – would like to believe their efforts have amounted to something.

***

In Bring On The Empty Horses, David Niven describes being enlisted, among other movie stars, to act as host during Soviet Premier Khrushchev’s 1959 goodwill visit to Hollywood. After dinner, the group visited a soundstage at 20th Century Fox where Shirley MacLaine was shooting a big dance number from Can-Can. Khrushchev watched silently as the dancers swirled their skirts and saucily exposed their frilly pantalettes. When filming was complete, the Premier was asked for his opinion of the proceedings. He replied – presumably through a translator, but I like to imagine him speaking with a thick Boris Badenov accent – “Deesgustink!”[2]

The story is amusing because, even by the standards of Hollywood under the Hays Code, Can-Can was hardly risqué. Khrushchev’s reaction must have seemed to Niven’s contemporaries as absurdly old-fashioned as someone in 2017 declaring himself shocked by Elvis Presley’s hip-shaking.

Now imagine the response of, say, a twenty-four year old op-ed writer at Salon to some other amusing David Niven anecdotes:

At a banquet to celebrate his impending wedding, a huge serving dish is placed in front of James Stewart. The lid is lifted to reveal “a midget dressed as a baby”.

Deesgustink!

Socialite Dorothy di Frasso, separated from her Italian nobleman husband, takes a series of handsome young American men on glamourous trips to Europe, inspiring one wit to remark, “The best way to cross the Atlantic is on the Countess di Frasso.”

Deesgustink!

Errol Flynn drops by one afternoon and invites Niven to come take a gander at “the best-looking girls in L.A.” Thinking they’re off to see some showgirls, Niven hops in the car and is surprised when Flynn pulls up across from Hollywood High School just as classes are letting out. Watching the teenagers spill onto the sidewalk, Flynn lauds the charms of the “jail bait…San Quentin quail” until a cop leans in the window and tells the aging perverts to take a hike.[3]

Deesgustink!

Here’s a good reason to proceed cautiously along Loren Eiseley’s “road to emancipation”. Thanks to my acquaintance with mid-20th century British writers like Nancy Mitford – I refer you to the discussion of the “Lecherous Lecturer” here – I can project myself into the forgiving humour with which David Niven would have regarded his friend Errol Flynn’s pedophilic effusions. Our fictive Salon editorialist would not see such forgiveness as broad-minded, but as deluded, dangerous – deesgustink.

“Perhaps from my emancipated perspective,” I say, “I see the question more clearly than you.”

“If you can defend such monstrous behaviour,” says my progressive critic, “the only thing you’ve emancipated yourself from is common decency.”

“I’m not defending it. I’m just saying…”

…What am I saying? Reading Mitford and Austen and Thackeray seems not to have made me any quicker-witted. Tongue-tied, I give up the argument. Abandoned by their last defender, the films of Errol Flynn are tossed onto the ash-heap beside the Cosby Show DVDs and the Greatest Hits of Rolf Harris. I comfort myself that in a hundred or a thousand years, a less censorious people will excavate the ash-heap and wonder at the 21st century Puritans who were so quick to disclaim everything their parents and grandparents had created; the Salon editorialist is confident that our cultural successors will applaud her moral firmness while treating her as-yet-undiscovered moral failings with more lenity. The issue won’t be settled until long after we’re both dead, and it won’t really be settled then, because the generation that comes after the ash-heap-excavators will drop napalm on the excavation site and blame their parents for unleashing the evil juju buried therein.

My own experience is that taking the long view, rather than spurring me to exhibitions of enlightened world citizenship, just makes me too depressed to go outside.

Why read? I genuinely have no idea.

M.

1. Let me clarify my opening statement. Sometime in the next couple weeks I will have “read” (in the minimal sense of having passed my eyes over every constituent word of) every novel and at least part of every anthology, omnibus, collection of stories, essays, poems, or plays, or non-fiction book I own.

Most of my books are novels, so the percentage of unread pages will be pretty small. Even counting my small shelf of reference books it should be under ten percent.

I’d wager I’ll get to most of the stories and essays eventually. But my shelves will always include a certain amount of dead weight. Will I ever read all 750-odd pages of the Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Milton? Probably not. One of these days I mean to take another crack at Paradise Lost and that’ll be it.

2. Niven’s book is not renowned for its perfect fealty to the facts. Here’s a more detailed account of Khrushchev’s 1959 Hollywood visit, and here’s a clip of the Premier having what looks to be a pretty good time watching the Can-Can dancers.

3. I should mention that in 1943 Errol Flynn was prosecuted for statutory rape – and acquitted. But he’s known to have had affairs with underage girls, including Beverly Aadland, who at age seventeen accompanied him on his fatal 1959 trip to Vancouver.

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The Gell-Mann Amnesiac’s guide to Canadian penal statistics.

Earlier today I was doing some research for an essay I’ve been working on. I was trying to answer what I thought was a straightforward question: what percentage of Canadians have served time in prison?

Turns out it’s not that easy a question after all. (If you happen to know the answer, I encourage you to leave a link in the comments.)

As a starting point I took the dummy route and simply typed into Google.ca the phrase, “Percentage of Canadians who’ve been in prison”.

The #2 result was a page from Statistics Canada – a pretty dependable source – and while it doesn’t quite answer my question, it does at least tell me roughly how many adult Canadians are in prison right now. Here are the daily average prison populations for the year 2014-15:

Remand: 13,650
Sentenced (provinces and territories): 10,364
Sentenced (federal): 15,168
Total: 39,182

I had to extract these numbers from a somewhat confusing table, and they require a little glossing:

“Remand” means that the prisoner is being held awaiting trial. (In the United States, the phrase “pre-trial detention” is more typically used.) These prisoners are in the custody of the provincial or territorial justice systems.

Upon conviction, prisoners sentenced to any term under two years will remain in the provincial or territorial system, while those sentenced to two years or more will be transferred to a federal prison. (Hence a term of “two years less a day” is common in Canadian sentencing.)

As you can see from the above numbers, within the provincial system, in 2014-15 more prisoners were in remand than had been convicted of any crime. But in the justice system overall, unconvicted prisoners were about 35% of the total.

(The 2015-16 stats are also available, showing that the share of prisoners in remand has since risen to over 37%.)

Going back to my internet search, the #6 result was a 2015 editorial from the Globe and Mail – Canada’s equivalent of the New York Times – with this headline:

Most of Canada’s prisoners have never been convicted of anything. Why are they in jail?

The second paragraph proclaims that:

Across the country, 55 per cent of prisoners in provincial and territorial jails are not behind bars because of a conviction.

And the editorial ends with the question:

Is there a politician in Canada with the courage to take up the cause? Someone who won’t pander to fears whipped up by the tough-on-crime crowd, but will instead build a better system based on evidence, enlightened self-interest and a genuine respect for the right to liberty? Or will we continue to be a country where two out of three people behind bars haven’t been convicted of anything?

There’s no explanation, by the way, for how the anonymous editorialist managed to get from 55% at the top of the page to “two out of three” at the bottom.

In any case, neither the headline nor the closing peroration is in any conceivable sense accurate. And the second paragraph, while technically true, leaves out the important information – probably unknown to the majority of readers – that there are separate federal and provincial jail systems. With federal prisons included, “most” Canadian prisoners – in 2014-15, just under two out of three – have indeed been convicted of something.

I read this deceptive editorial in “Canada’s newspaper of record” and shook my head. “Well, that’s why I buy the National Post,” I thought, resuming my research.

Oh, wait:

More than half of Canadian adults in jail awaiting trial rather than serving sentences in 2014 and 2015: StatsCan

For over a decade, jails across Canada have held more adults awaiting trial than convicted offenders serving sentences…

Thus begins the National Post’s version of the same story. Once again, the lede is technically true – but the phrase “jails across Canada” misleadingly neglects to mention the difference between provincial and federal prisons.

At least – small comfort – the very final paragraph of the Post’s article acknowledges that:

The numbers do not include the approximately 15,168 prisoners who were serving sentences of two years or more in federal custody over the same period.

***

At a talk he gave in 2002, author Michael Crichton introduced the concept of Gell-Mann Amnesia (named in honour of his friend, physicist Murray Gell-Mann, with whom he had formulated the idea):

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward – reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

That is the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. I’d point out it does not operate in other arenas of life. In ordinary life, if somebody consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you soon discount everything they say. In court, there is the legal doctrine of falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, which means untruthful in one part, untruthful in all. But when it comes to the media, we believe against evidence that it is probably worth our time to read other parts of the paper. When, in fact, it almost certainly isn’t. The only possible explanation for our behavior is amnesia.

Unlike Murray Gell-Mann on physics, or Michael Crichton on showbiz, I’m not an expert on the Canadian penal system. If I hadn’t happened to be researching the subject when I came across these articles, I would have assumed their numbers were accurate. Our most respected national news sources wouldn’t lie to us, would they?

But what’s particularly galling about these misleading articles is that the number of people in Canadian jails is pretty easy to count. There is little argument about what constitutes a “prison” or a “prisoner”. Accurate figures aren’t hard to find – they’ve been made available on the internet by our government. The National Post article actually links to the Statistics Canada website that was my source for the table above.

If our national media can make such a hash of readily calculated, easily accessible statistics, how badly are they scrambling the statistics that aren’t so easy to pin down?

And what about me? The next time I read an op-ed piece confidently quoting reams of numbers at me – will I remember this incident?

M.

Because. That. Happens.

In Robert Altman’s Hollywood satire The Player, Richard E. Grant’s pretentious screenwriter runs into the titular studio exec and seizes the opportunity to pitch a script. It’s a crazy melodrama about a district attorney who falls in love with the woman he prosecuted for murder, only to discover on the night of her execution that she’s actually innocent:

“The D.A. breaks into the prison. Runs down death row. But he gets there too late. The gas pellets have been dropped. She’s dead.”

The screenwriter insists that the film be cast with unknown actors, because his story is “too damned important to be overwhelmed by personality.” He’s going for gritty European-style realism here. “There are no stars. No pat happy endings. No Schwarzeneggers, no stick-ups, no terrorists. This is a tough story. A tragedy. In which an innocent woman dies. Why? Because. That. Happens.”

I thought of that line a few nights ago while watching, of all things, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the teen drama about a high school dork who (spoiler) angers the male portion of the audience by losing his virginity to Emma Watson. The hero is a typical brainy introvert who’s picked on by the meatheads until he falls in with a gang of proto-hipsters who do stuff like host live performances of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and publish zines about punk rock. I guess it’s mandatory that the hero have a tragic past, so they give him a best friend who committed suicide – which is alright, I guess – it explains why the cool kids feel sorry for him and take him in. But then at the end we learn (another spoiler) that as a child he was sexually molested by his aunt.

I found this twist plenty annoying. The movie captures the head rush of high school angst pretty well, even if its signifiers are teen-movie relics worn smooth by over-fondling – bullying jocks and tragic gays and a sympathetic English teacher who, I swear to god, gifts the kid his tattered copy of Catcher in the Rye. The molestation angle at least comes as a surprise. But why couldn’t the kid have just been an ordinary introverted dork? With a non-tragic past like the vast majority of dorks?

Of course, there really are dorks out there who’ve experienced both suicide and sexual abuse. Lots of them, probably. So the screenwriter could legitimately answer my complaint with: Because. That. Happens.

***

I once wrote a script for a short film which a director pal of mine agreed to help me make on an ultra-low budget. One scene had the main character visiting the grave of his recently-deceased girlfriend, so I did some location scouting at a local cemetery, looking for a grave with a shiny headstone and newly-turned sod.

I strolled among the trees, seeing mostly grassy graves and eroded headstones. Here and there I found a freshly-disturbed plot where some old person had been interred alongside a long-dead spouse – but where were those who’d died tragically young?

Finally, after a half hour of wandering, I spotted a row of unweathered stones out past the edge of the treeline, overlooking the freeway. Of course, I realized – young people don’t have plots set aside in expectation of their death. Their loved ones take whatever’s available, in the sparsely treed, unlovely outskirts of the cemetery. I picked out a grave at the end of the row which I thought would make an interestingly desolate shot for the film.

When it came time to shoot, the director disagreed. He wanted a visual that was immediately identifiable as a graveyard, and he worried that the shot I was advocating would look like a few prop headstones erected in an empty field. So we roamed among the trees and settled on a ten-year-old grave nestled among other graves in the shade of a venerable elm.

My version of the scene would have been more authentic, in the sense of being faithful to reality. The director’s version better communicated authenticity. My version would have caused the audience to wonder, “Waitasec, where are we?” The director didn’t want the audience wondering that, because he believed there were other, more relevant things for them to be thinking about at that point in the story.

If I’d insisted on my definition of authenticity, the director could easily have argued that plenty of young people must be buried under shady trees. And he’d have been right.

***

A couple months back, Steve Sailer linked to coverage of this speech by the actor Riz Ahmed, in which he claimed that young Brits from Muslim backgrounds (like him) were at risk of being seduced into Islamic radicalism because their ethnicity was insufficiently “represented” in British movies and TV shows. Muslims unable to locate sympathetic portrayals of their culture in the mainstream media, he suggested, had nowhere else to turn except to the head-lopping wildlands of the internet.

Frankly, the speech doesn’t paint a very flattering picture of Ahmed’s community. No doubt Welsh-speakers and ethnic Chinese and exiled Russian oligarchs would also like to see more shows about their unique contributions to modern-day Britain, but for some reason their alienation never seems to lead to killing sprees.

Presumably to help thwart the radicalization of Muslim youth, Ahmed had been attempting to find good roles for himself on British TV. But he complained that he kept being turned away because the show would turn out to be set in, say, 17th century Cornwall, and there was no call for minority actors.

Frustrating, no doubt. But then, if the rule is that Muslim actors must be represented on TV in numbers equal to their share of the British population, the result will be fewer shows set in the period before mass Muslim immigration – a period which happens to constitute the bulk of British history. By imposing on TV producers one narrow definition of “representation” – to authentically represent modern Britain’s racial diversity – Ahmed would limit their ability to pursue another, equally valid definition – to authentically represent the diverse eras of Britain’s past.

Ahmed might argue that the racial version of representation ought to supersede the historical version. He might argue that it’s more urgent that the British see themselves as they are than as they once were. But “representation” is the beginning of the argument, not the end.

***

Last night I watched the 1950s sci-fi flick It Came From Outer Space and was struck by how often the heroine shrieked in terror at the sight of aliens, shadowy shapes, unexpected trees, in a way I’ve heard no real-life woman shriek, and as no female character would shriek in a modern movie. My first thought was, how phony. But then, for all I know the shrieking women in old movies reflected the reality of the time. Maybe women really shrieked a lot back then.

I’ve heard it theorized that the reason women are always falling into swoons in novels from the Victorian era is that in those days women’s breathing was restricted by tight corsets – excessive excitement really did make them light-headed.

Maybe. Or maybe women fell into swoons because it was socially acceptable, because their fictional heroines were doing it all the time.

Fifties moviemakers may have modelled their heroines after real-life shrieking women, while real-life women learned from movies that society expected them to shriek in scary situations.

What behavioural quirks might our modern-day fictions be amplifying and feeding back to us?

***

A while back I suggested that the worthiness of any piece of writing, from the script of The Perks of Being a Wallflower to the Iliad to this essay, could be evaluated using just two criteria – truthfulness and originality.

Truthfulness, I said, isn’t necessarily a matter of factual accuracy, although in certain contexts – reporting, history, essays – sticking to the facts is pretty important. Truthfulness can also include the telling of lies – fictions – that convey truths about human nature, how society is ordered, how society might be ordered if aspects of human nature were to change, how humans might change if society were differently ordered, and so on.

My definition leaves a lot of leeway for artists to fudge the truth, and for critics to call them out for fudging. Artists can create fictions where people they dislike are shown saying silly or vicious or hypocritical things, which their targets will protest as malicious distortions of their true beliefs, to which the artists can justly reply but that really happens. There really are head-lopping Islamic zealots. There really are hypertouchy social justice warriors. There really are right-wing politicians who cloak their avarice under family-values rhetoric.

But the complainers have a point. Stories that are individually truthful can be cumulatively misleading – as anyone will acknowledge after looking at a media source whose ideological slant is opposite to theirs:

LIBERAL LOOKING AT BREITBART: Does every article have to be about illegal immigrants raping and murdering pretty white girls?

CONSERVATIVE LOOKING AT SALON: Does every article have to be about alt-right thugs queer-bashing transgender asylum seekers?

A different selection of stories results in a different picture of the world. And that’s sticking to true stories. When our fiction-makers overwhelmingly share a similar background – a background that is largely white and male, yes, and also largely urban, university-educated, liberal, irreligious (the demographic can be sliced any number of ways to prove one’s point) – their fictions can wind up misrepresenting other people’s beliefs without their even intending it.

But the pursuit of representation doesn’t end with, or even necessarily entail, the elimination of misrepresentation. A British TV industry devoted exclusively to the production of shows about life in 17th century Cornwall needn’t be untruthful in any way. It could explore every aspect of human experience – the tragic, the comedic, the spiritual, the horrific – with sensitivity and nuance. It could in fact be vastly more truthful than British TV as it currently exists. But it would almost certainly be less Muslim, so Riz Ahmed wouldn’t register the improvement.

***

I was chatting about movies with a friend not long ago – a white Canadian girl, if it matters – who made a sarcastic comment about Middle Eastern actors always being typecast as the bad guys in modern action movies. Being fairly certain that I’d seen a lot more movies of that type than my friend, I replied that, while she might be right, in my observation the main bad guy usually wound up being a WASPy guy in a suit. I offered the Iron Man franchise as an example. Parts I and III involved terrorist threats, but the boss villains were Jeff Bridges and Guy Pearce, respectively. In between was Mickey Rourke as a vengeful Russian.

I speculated that this was partly due to commercial concerns – there aren’t many bankable Middle Eastern actors to fill the role of Muslim Terrorist Mastermind – and partly due to cultural sensitivity – filmmakers being leery of contributing to the supposed climate of intolerance towards Muslims.

In fact, I went on, even after a decade and a half of Middle Eastern war and unrelenting media attention to Middle Eastern terrorism, in the movies Middle Easterners were stalled in the number four bad guy spot behind Russians, Nazis, and rich WASPs – maybe even five, after Latin American drug lords. But my friend seemed to doubt me.

I started to wonder – could my speculation be proven? Was it even susceptible to data analysis? One would need to examine all movies (caveat: define “movie”) over a given period, identify the main bad guys (caveat: by what criteria?) and somehow sort them (caveat: actors, or characters?) by ethnicity and religion.

According to boxofficemojo.com, there were over 700 movies released theatrically in North America in 2016. You’d want to look at more than a single year’s releases – easily thousands of movies – and analyze each storyline in sufficient detail to figure out who was the “bad guy”. This is straightforward enough in a thriller or action movie but gets tricky when you start looking at serious dramas, comedies, cartoons, and the various hybrids. Should you treat You Don’t Mess With The Zohan as a movie about Middle Eastern terrorism? (It ends, by the way, with Zohan teaming up with the main terrorist to take out a WASP in a suit.)

As an experiment, I thought I’d attempt to answer a much simpler question. Does modern-day Hollywood churn out more movies about World War II, or about America’s wars in the Muslim world?

I predicted that World War II would come out on top. Audiences and filmmakers are drawn to clear-cut conflicts where we can guiltlessly celebrate heroes dispatching bad guys, and the Nazis still lead the list of hissable villains.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been playing with the data, and the main thing I’ve learned is that objectively sorting works of art (generously defining “art” to include things like Captain America and You Don’t Mess With The Zohan) into tidy, countable categories is impossible. There are any number of ways I could have tweaked the definitions and the dataset to tip the results in favour of my hypothesis.

But I want to put my results at the top of a new post, where people might actually see them.

In any case, do the results of my investigation really matter? Should Hollywood be more interested in the Middle East, or less? When the last surviving World War II veteran is laid to rest, will that excuse us from any further interest in the struggle against Nazism?

For the overwhelming majority of us, our day-to-day reality has nothing to do with war or terrorism – or for that matter with spying or bank-robbing or serial-killing or any of the other exciting pursuits that dominate our movies, TV shows, and books.

It’s reasonable to ask that our fictions be truthful. If they must be representative as well, one might wonder – what’s the point of having fictions at all?

M.

I published this post last year about how advocates of “representation” sometimes seem a bit fuzzy about the demographics they claim to be attempting to replicate.

My friend and I never finished the short film discussed above, but I later recycled some of the footage into this homemade music video for my band, Sea Water Bliss.

The Odyssey: Mostly non-odyssey.

It was with some embarrassment that last month, a few weeks shy of my forty-first birthday, I finally got around to reading the Odyssey. I feel a little better after finding in the New Yorker this account of how Daniel Mendelsohn’s father encountered the poem at the age of eighty-one, sitting in on a fifteen-week undergraduate seminar taught by his son.

I’m sure the elder Mr. Mendelsohn, having been educated in a more rigorous age, was better acquainted than I was with the storyline going in. I recall learning about Odysseus’s adventures as part of an overview of Greek mythology lasting two weeks or so in in ninth grade English. Of those two weeks we spent maybe a day discussing the highlights of Homer’s epic – the lotus-eaters, Polyphemus, Circe, the Underworld, the sirens, Scylla and Charybdis. Just enough to enable us to pick up the most common references pop culture might throw at us in later life.

I knew that, just as the Iliad consists of a fairly brief episode in the Trojan War, the Odyssey covers a few weeks at the end of the hero’s wanderings, with the most exciting incidents already behind him. But I didn’t realize how small a part of the big-O Odyssey – at most a third, maybe as little as 20% or so – is devoted to Odysseus’s little-O odyssey.

The poem consists of 24 books of generally equal length, most running between 400 and 500 lines. The titular hero doesn’t really appear in books 1-4, which concern the activities of his wife and son. Odysseus is introduced in book 5 and arrives home in Ithaca midway through book 13. Which means that the odyssey part of the Odyssey – that is, the part concerning Odysseus’s voyages – consists of just eight books, with most of the seafaring action compressed into books 9-12, where Odysseus recounts his misfortunes at the court of King Alcinous, the last stop on his homeward journey.

Post-seminar, Mendelsohn and his dad took an educational cruise around the Mediterranean, visiting the purported sites of the events Homer describes. During their stop on the island of Gozo, site (per local legend) of Odysseus’s imprisonment by the nymph Calypso, the claustrophobic son elected not to descend into Calypso’s cave:

“What are you talking about?” my father exclaimed when I told him. “You have to go! Seven-tenths of the Odyssey takes place there!”

“Seven-tenths?” I had no idea what he was talking about. “The epic is twenty-four books long–”

“Math, Dan! Math. Odysseus spends ten years getting home, right?”

I nodded.

“And he spends seven years with Calypso, right?”

I nodded again.

“So, in theory, seven-tenths of the Odyssey actually takes place there! You can’t miss it!”

According to the unabridged Oxford Dictionary at my local library, the word “odyssey” in the figurative sense of “a long series of wanderings to and fro; a long adventurous journey” dates back only to the late 19th century in our language. The French “odyssée” goes back another hundred years, with a usage recorded in 1798.

Did the Greeks ever use “odyssey” to mean a long voyage? Not as far as I can tell (based on an hour of clumsily searching the Perseus Digital Library database). But my Oxford Companion to Classical Literature mentions that Odysseus’s tale in books 9-12 “became proverbial among later Greeks for a long story”. That seems to be how it’s used in Plato’s Republic, where Socrates introduces the lengthy fable of Er, which closes book 10, with the comment “Mind you, I’m not going to tell you an Alcinous’s tale…”

So it’s possible to imagine a world where “odyssey” came to mean “a long-winded story”. But I think any reader who came to the Odyssey without preconceptions, if asked to summarize what it was about, would say not “a voyage” but “a homecoming”.

***

A summary of the non-odyssey parts of the Odyssey:

Books 1-4. On Olympus, the gods are feeling sorry for Odysseus, stranded far from his wife and son. They decide that while Poseidon is away doing god-business on the far side of the world – Poseidon being the one who holds a particular grudge against the hero – they’ll take the opportunity to help Odysseus get home.

Although it’s unclear how this is at all relevant to the objective, Athena flies down to Ithaca and convinces Odysseus’s grown son Telemachus to go on a journey for news of his missing father. Telemachus sails to the Greek mainland to visit Nestor, Menelaus, and Helen, who reveal what they’ve been up to since the events of the Iliad. Meanwhile the suitors – the young rowdies who, believing Odysseus to be dead, have taken up residence in his palace to compete for the attentions of his wife, Penelope – devise a plot to intercept and murder Telemachus on his way home from the mainland.

Book 5. Back to Olympus. Athena frets that not only is Odysseus still stranded, now Telemachus’s life is in danger too. Zeus reminds her that they’re gods and they already know how this story is going to play out. But to get his daughter off his back he sends Hermes down to earth to order the nymph Calypso, who’s been holding Odysseus captive in her desert island sex cave, to let him go. Which Hermes does. Calypso grudgingly assents, and strolls out to give Odysseus the news.

Here we finally meet our hero, sitting on a rock, staring moodily out to sea. Calypso tells him he’s free to go and directs him to a grove of trees suitable for raft-building. Odysseus builds his raft and pushes off, but by bad luck Poseidon, happening that moment to return from his business trip, notices his impertinent escape and summons a storm to smash the raft. However, a passing sea-nymph takes a shine to the drowning hero and helps him get to shore.

Books 6-8. The daughter of the king of Phaeacia finds Odysseus naked on the beach. Attracted to the stranger – whose natural sex appeal Athena has magically enhanced – the princess gives him clothes and brings him home to her parents. King Alcinous takes in the unlucky traveller, tactfully declines to press him for his identity, and promises to help him on his way. At a festival thrown in his honour, the stranger out-discus-throws a local loudmouth, proving his superior quality. Afterward, during the feast, Alcinous notices his guest weeping into his cloak while his minstrel sings a song about the legendary Odysseus’s exploits in the Trojan War. The king stops the music and asks his guest outright – who are you?

Books 9-12. Odysseus announces himself and tells the tale of his wanderings – cyclops, sirens, and all the rest – concluding with the death of his crew and his arrival on Calypso’s island.

These four books contain practically everything the average person thinks of as “the Odyssey”.

Book 13. Alcinous arranges a ship to take Odysseus back to Ithaca. It arrives without incident, and Odysseus is deposited – in his sleep! – on his native shore, along with all the pricey gifts the Phaeacian nobles bestowed on their famous visitor. The ship heads back to Phaeacia. Poseidon wants to punish the kingdom for assisting Odysseus, but Zeus haggles him down to merely turning the ship and its crew to stone.

Odysseus wakes up on an unfamiliar beach and, prickly after years of mistreatment by the gods, assumes he’s been robbed and marooned on yet another desert island. Athena shows up and tells him he’s home on Ithaca, but he can’t return to his palace because the suitors might kill him. She disguises him as an old beggar and directs him to the hut belonging to his trusty swineherd.

Books 14-16. Odysseus is taken in by the swineherd, but once again elects not to reveal his true identity. He spins an elaborate fake story about how he’s definitely not Odysseus but he did run into Odysseus and knows he’s still alive. The swineherd assumes the old beggar is pulling his leg.

Athena visits Telemachus, who’s been dallying in Menelaus’s palace this whole time, and tells him to head home. Arriving safely at Ithaca, Telemachus stops by the hut to see what’s been going on since he left. He doesn’t recognize his father in his old beggar disguise, but Athena drops the enchantment temporarily and Odysseus reveals himself to his amazed son. They make plans to murder the suitors.

Books 17-21. Odysseus installs himself as a beggar in his own hall, where the suitors mock and abuse him. Penelope is kind to him, but he makes no attempt to confide in her, instead spinning another elaborate deception about how, no, he’s positively not Odysseus, although now that she mentions it people have told him they look alike, and by the way he happens to know Odysseus is alive and headed home at this very moment.

Penelope gives directions for her guest to be bathed by an old slavewoman who, by chance, recognizes her master by a scar on his thigh. The old woman turns to shout the good news but Odysseus roughly warns her to put a sock in it before she blows his whole operation. The old woman agrees to keep quiet, and to rat out any servant girls who’ve been consorting with the suitors.

Penelope, resigning herself to marrying one of these jerks, brings out her husband’s old bow and challenges the suitors to an archery contest with herself as prize – but not one of the soft-living suitors can so much as string the bow. The old beggar proposes to take a crack at the challenge himself. The suitors make nervous wisecracks but Penelope is willing to indulge him. Telemachus tells her to pipe down, he’s the man of the house and he’ll decide who gets to take part in the contest to marry her. His mother trots obediently off to her chambers, where Athena puts her to sleep until the massacre is over. Telemachus orders that the bow be given to the beggar.

Odysseus strings the bow and, to the amazement of all, nails the trick shot. Bow in hand, he turns to confront the suitors.

Books 22-24. With the backing of Telemachus, the swineherd, and one other trusty servant – and with Athena providing magical protection – Odysseus butchers everyone. The slavegirls that have been fingered as untrustworthy are forced to haul out the corpses and mop up the gore before being killed by Telemachus. Penelope and Odysseus are tearfully reunited.

Down in the Underworld, Achilles and Agamemnon are swapping tales about their Trojan War days. Seeing a crowd of healthy young souls come shuffling in, Agamemnon asks the newcomers what happened, was there a shipwreck or something? The suitors moan about how badly they were treated first by Penelope, who kept them dangling for years, and then by Odysseus, who was entirely uncool about them crashing at his place while he was away. Remembering his own less-than-warm welcome home, Agamemnon says Odysseus is lucky to have such a faithful wife.

Back in Ithaca, Odysseus goes to see his aged father, where for no reason at all – he just can’t help himself! – he launches into yet another lie about being Odysseus’s friend visiting from overseas. He feels guilty and drops the lie quickly enough though.

Odysseus and his father, son, and allies fend off an attack by the suitors’ aggrieved relatives, before Athena appears to put a stop to the fighting. Abruptly, The End.

M.

Anti-demons.

In my little suburb not long ago, some local leftists organized an “anti-fascist” demonstration. Or, as the flyers put it:

ANTI-FASCIST AND ANTI-RACIST
DEMONSTRATION

The flyers were decorated with a cartoon of a masked thug stomping on a giant swastika. The demonstration must have gone down without any actual Nazi-stomping, because I didn’t hear anything further about it. Later the posters disappeared, except for one near my apartment which had been affixed to a transformer box with some kind of glue. The city worker assigned to remove it had only managed to peel off a vertical strip, leaving:

ANTI-
DEMONS

***

In the wake of the white nationalist Richard Spencer getting punched in the face by a demonstrator on the day of President Trump’s inauguration, I noticed a bunch of articles in the popular press more or less openly celebrating physical attacks on Nazis. Here for instance is the AV Club describing a Nazi-punching video game as “constructively violent”, and here is Comics Alliance approvingly quoting the left-wing comics writer Warren Ellis on one’s moral obligation to punch not only Nazis but those who support Nazis’ right to go out in public without being punched. (If I’m understanding the purport of the comic excerpted at the bottom of the page, Comics Alliance endorses the tossing of Nazis off balconies, too.)

Many articles of this type were illustrated with the famous cover of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s Captain America #1, with Cap braving a hail of bullets to sock Hitler in the jaw – a tad more glorious than the reality of a thug in a mask sucker-punching an unprotected private citizen then darting off into the crowd. My own apparently quaint view is that physical assault is a crime for very good and very obvious reasons, and that people who commit that crime ought to be prosecuted, and their actions condemned, however outrageous the speech they claim to have provoked them. I guess this makes me a reactionary nowadays.

***

Toward the end of his recent, widely-shared review of the book Days of Rage, about left-wing anti-government terrorism in the 1970s, David Z. Hines speculates about whether the current glamorization of anti-fascist street brawlers might mark the start of a new cycle of leftist violence:

Lefties said Ted Cruz was a Nazi, Mitt Romney was a Nazi, George W. Bush was a Nazi. I’ve done human rights work that had me working in proximity to the U.S. military, so at a professional meeting a Lefty called me a Nazi.

So if you tell me that I’m a Nazi, and tell me people I respect are Nazis, and tell me you’re in favor of going out and beating up Nazis, guess what? I am suddenly very interested in the physical safety of Nazis.

That was posted (originally to Twitter) a week before Spencer was assaulted. About two weeks later came the outbreak of hooliganism at UC Berkeley over an appearance by the alt-right-orbiting provocateur Milo Yiannopolous. Another month passed between the Milo riot and the mobbing of Charles Murray at Middlebury College, Vermont, where a female faculty member who’d had the temerity to interact respectfully with the visiting speaker wound up in a neck brace. It took the anti-fascists less than a month and a half to expand the circle of Nazidom from the white identitarian fringe to a libertarian who’d endorsed Hillary Clinton in the last election – and to those unlucky enough to be in his vicinity.

Maybe the anti-fascists will stop there. Maybe they won’t. Maybe it’s time for the rest of us to start worrying about the physical safety of Nazis.

***

My repulsion over incidents like these has made me take a fresh look at a Nazi-punching scene in a favourite movie of mine. In William Wyler’s post-World War II homecoming drama The Best Years Of Our Lives we find Homer, the armless ex-Navy man, dropping by the workplace of his buddy Fred, a former Air Force captain reduced to pushing sundaes at a drugstore soda counter.

Another customer notices Homer’s prosthetics and extends his sympathy: “It’s terrible when you see a guy like you that had to sacrifice himself. And for what?” Homer, good natured but none too bright, doesn’t grasp what the stranger is driving at. “We let ourselves get sold down the river,” the guy elaborates. “We were pushed into war.”

The only people pushing for war, says Homer, were the Japs and Nazis. But the stranger tells him no, the Axis powers had no quarrel with America: “They just wanted to fight the limeys and the Reds. And they woulda whipped ’em, too, if we didn’t get deceived into it by a bunch of radicals in Washington. Just read the facts, my friend,” he says, thumping his newspaper for emphasis. “Find out for yourself why you had to lose your hands.”

Homer takes issue with this guy’s interpretation of the “facts”, leading to the fight. Now, in my recollection of the scene, it was the stranger who struck the first blow. But watching it again, I observe that the guy grudgingly complies when Fred, overhearing their conversation, leans in to tell him to take a hike. It’s Homer who escalates things by tearing off the stranger’s American flag lapel pin. Then Fred leaps over the counter and floors the man with one punch, knocking him into a glass display case. When the manager scurries over to attend to his customer moaning in a pile of broken glass, Fred preemptively hands over his apron. “Don’t say it, chum. The customer’s always right, so I’m fired. But this customer wasn’t right.”

I’ve only seen this movie on home video, never in a theatre, but I suspect in the current climate the punch would draw a round of applause. Serves ‘im right, that loudmouth so-and-so, riling up the good citizens with his anti-American B.S.!

But rewatching it, it occurs to me how the loudmouth with his anti-government paranoia sounds an awful lot like the left-wingers I used to hear spieling in coffeeshops around the time of the invasion of Iraq. Radicals in Washington. Pushed into war. Just read the facts.

And it occurs to me how an older Fred could easily be the right-wing galoot who gets into a scuffle with disillusioned Vietnam vet Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July.

born on the fourth of july bar scene

Why, that lousy hippie, undermining our patriotic resolve with his anti-American B.S.!

Of course, Ron Kovic was a good guy, while that America Firster in the drugstore was a bad guy, so the situations are totally unrelated.

***

As the Days of Rage review indicates, we’re still a long way from the kind of chaos that emanated from American campuses a half-century ago. In his 1987 book The Closing of the American Mind Allan Bloom, a professor at Cornell during the last outbreak, describes how his colleagues were beaten, held hostage, and intimidated into compliance with the demands of student radicals aroused by a moralistic fervor:

But what was meant by morality has to be made clear. There is a perennial and unobtrusive view that morality consists in such things as telling the truth, paying one’s debts, respecting one’s parents and doing no voluntary harm to anyone. Those are all things easy to say and hard to do; they do not attract much attention, and win little honor in the world. … This was not the morality that came into vogue in the sixties, which was an altogether more histrionic version of moral conduct, the kind that characterizes heroes in extreme situations. Thomas More’s resistance to a tyrant’s commands was the daily fare of students’ imagination. … It was not, of course, the complexity of such cases that was attractive but their brilliance, the noble pose. Somehow it was never the everyday business of obeying the law that was interesting; moreso was breaking it in the name of the higher law.

Bloom’s thesis – which I can’t claim to fully understand, but indulge me for a moment while I pretend – is that the root of this anarchy was a “cheapened interpretation” of Nietzche’s critique of Enlightenment values, transmitted and distorted via Heidegger’s acolytes on the European left. This critique had earlier been associated mainly with the right, until Heidegger had embarrassed himself by embracing Nazism in a period of German campus disorder not unlike the later American one:

The fact that in Germany the politics were of the Right and in the United States of the Left should not mislead us. In both places the universities gave way under the pressure of mass movements, and did so in large measure because they thought those movements possessed a moral truth superior to any the university could provide. … The unthinking hatred of “bourgeois society” was exactly the same in both places. A distinguished professor of political science proved this when he read to his radical students some speeches about what was to be done. They were enthusiastic until he informed them that the speeches were by Mussolini.

I linked above to Rod Dreher’s discussion of the Middlebury College uprising because along with Charles Murray’s first-person account it includes a link to this op-ed in the campus newspaper articulating the anti-speech position:

Indeed, when I first arrived at Middlebury I was clueless to the systems of power constructed around race, gender, sexuality, class or ability, and found that when I talked about these issues as I understood them – or rather, as I didn’t – I was met with blank stares and stigma rather than substantial debate. As a young bigot, I can recall thinking: “I thought at Middlebury I would get to have intellectual discussions, but instead it feels as though my views are being censored.” However, as a first-year I had failed to consider a simple, yet powerful component of debate: not all opinions are valid opinions. I had fallen into the trap of false equivalence.

False equivalence is simple: just because two sides are opposed does not mean they are equally logically valid.

Having embraced the Truth, you see, this student can’t risk repolluting his mind by engaging with what he now knows to be falsehoods. Furthermore, it’s his responsibility as a possessor of the Truth to shout down those falsehoods to protect other, weaker-minded people from being influenced by them.

As it happens, the Truth the student has newly embraced is the truth of what we currently call Progressivism, or Social Justice, or the Right Side of History. It might as easily have been Mussolini’s truth, or Mao’s, or Mullah Omar’s. One more quote from Allan Bloom:

Rousseau noted that in his time many men were liberals who a century earlier would have been religious fanatics. He concluded that they were not really reasonable, but, rather, conformists.

But the student would no doubt say that Rousseau and Bloom were themselves only conforming to the “systems of power” designed to keep women and minorities in their places, so why should anyone listen to them?

Now, it’s possible this kid with his Middlebury education really has sussed out the eternal, immovable, logically unanswerable truth about race, class, and the heritability of IQ. But the moment he steps off campus he runs the risk of finding himself in a crowd of less enlightened souls, equally committed to suppressing what they see as falsehoods, who might mistake his empyrean proclamations for the blitherings of an anti-democratic kook.

I can picture him now, thumping his student newspaper like that drugstore noodge in The Best Years Of Our Lives – “Just read the facts, my friend” – while the good citizens watch him through narrowing eyes.

M.

PS. In naming this post I had in mind Dostoevsky’s Demons – translated previously (and better known to old-timers like me) under the titles The Possessed or The Devils – which I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never read. I was going to delay publishing this until I’d finished the novel, but I thought I’d better stay ahead of events. How many others might get punched between now and then?

I haven’t read Dostoevsky’s The Devils but in 2010 I was confused by a remark in Tolstoy’s The Devil. In 2012 I blogged about Allan Bloom as remembered by Saul Bellow as related by Martin Amis. It appears I’ve name-checked Charles Murray once before, in this 2015 post about Bertrand Russell’s prescriptions for overcoming conformism.

Sooner or later: Cost disease and Canadian transit.

Back in 2015, in the wake of Metro Vancouver’s failed referendum campaign for a 0.5% sales tax to fund an ambitious list of regional transit upgrades, I argued that the big-ticket items on the list should be scaled back or postponed while we focussed our limited dollars on improving bus service. Subways and LRTs are great, I said, but a couple big rail projects will eat up all the money we could instead use to make the whole network faster, less crowded, and more enticing to commuters.

I still think my argument makes sense. I occasionally take the bus during rush hour, and I seethe at being stuck behind lines of idling cars when I can see how a simple bypass lane, costing a paltry few million bucks, would save thousands of straphangers five or ten minutes out of their commute each way, every day. Many roads wouldn’t even have to be widened – simply sacrificing a few on-street parking spots would do the trick. There must be dozens of such chokepoints around the region, and they could all be unchoked for a fraction of the cost of putting a subway down Broadway. Though I’d like us to build the subway too.

But a post last month on Slate Star Codex – Scott Alexander’s estimable blog, to which I lately find myself linking with unseemly frequency (see here and here) – makes me wonder if my sensible, fiscally-prudent argument was in fact completely wrong.

Alexander discusses something called Baumol’s cost disease, a phenomenon in economics where increasing efficiency in one industry counterintuitively leads to increasing costs in an entirely unrelated industry.

Suppose new manufacturing methods save an auto plant part of the cost of building a car. Profits rise, allowing the company to boost its workers’ wages by a couple bucks an hour. Meanwhile the meat processing facility across town hasn’t seen any improvement in productivity, but if they don’t offer an equivalent wage hike they’ll lose their best workers to the auto plant. They pass the higher costs along to their customers, and suddenly the price of meat goes up because the cost of manufacturing cars has gone down.

That’s Baumol’s version of cost disease, anyway. Alexander wonders whether it’s a sufficient explanation for the perpetually increasing costs in four different sectors of the U.S. economy – education, health care, housing, and public transportation infrastructure. Even after adjusting for inflation, costs in these four sectors have gone up in my lifetime by factors of two, five, even ten, without commensurate improvements in outcomes. Life expectancy is flat. University grads are as semiliterate as ever. Apartments aren’t appreciably nicer. And subway tunnels are pretty much the same as the ones our forefathers dug for a fraction of the cost.

Alexander is American, and in his brief section addressing ever-pricier subway construction he restricts himself to American data. In fact one of the questions he asks is why the U.S. seems to be more susceptible to cost disease than other countries. So my first question was – does this disease afflict Canadian public transportation infrastructure as well?

Let’s look at the costs – adjusted for inflation – for a half-century’s worth of rapid transit projects in the two big cities I know reasonably well, Vancouver and Toronto:

toronto subway costs

vancouver skytrain costs

(Click on images for data and sources.)

Some caveats and observations:

  • With so few data points to work with, the trendlines are susceptible to being skewed by one or two pricey outliers, like Toronto’s bonkers Line 1 extension to Vaughan.
  • Reported final costs are questionable, since governments tend to find ways to obscure overruns. Vancouver’s 2016 Evergreen extension, for instance, is known to have blown past its budget, but we’ve been assured that the unanticipated costs will be eaten by the contractor. The true cost, therefore, is higher than the figure shown.
  • The graphs are to the same scale, but the cities’ rapid transit systems shouldn’t be compared directly since they use totally different technologies. Vancouver’s light, high-frequency, mostly-elevated SkyTrain permits smaller stations and (for the 20% or so of the system that’s underground) narrower, cheaper-to-build tunnels than Toronto’s heavy-rail subway. (I’ve left Toronto’s SkyTrain-like Scarborough RT and under-construction Eglinton light-rail project out of the analysis for this reason.)
  • Even within each city, these aren’t apples-to-apples. In the Toronto graph there are visible discontinuities between the early cut-and-cover subways in the city core, with stops every 500-600 metres and relatively low per-station costs; the 1970s extensions into suburbia, often at surface level and with fewer, more widely-spaced stops; and more recent bored tunnels where the costs shoot into the stratosphere.

In any case, both graphs show a discernible upward tick since the 1990s or so, suggesting that cost disease may indeed have spread to Canada. But if so, what are the causes?

The libertarianish Megan McArdle waves away Alexander’s data on the rising cost of subways as merely “union featherbedding combined with increasingly dysfunctional procurement and regulatory processes”. Maybe those are worsening the problem – I don’t know enough to comment – but off the top of my head I can think of four other possible contributing factors:

1. The cost of land acquisition goes up at a rate faster than inflation (because they keep making people but they aren’t making more land).

2. The ground beneath and alongside city streets is ever more crowded with pipes, cables, parking structures, and so on, which must either be relocated or awkwardly worked around.

3. An increased emphasis on worker and bystander safety slows and complicates construction. (Some of this probably falls under the definition of “union featherbedding” as mentioned by McArdle.)

4. Projects now include the expenses of mitigating environmental damage, preserving historic neighbourhoods, averting noise pollution, accommodating the handicapped – all that touchy-feely stuff previous generations didn’t give a rip about.

Doubtless there are other causes I haven’t thought of, but I’ll stop at those four because they pair off neatly into two groups I’d like to examine a little more closely. When you think about it, all four are side effects of growing wealth:

  • Causes 1 and 2 – the rising cost of land and the build-up of clutter along possible transit routes – accelerate as a city becomes more populous and its taxpayers demand more and better services.
  • Causes 3 and 4 – worker safety and the mitigation of environmental and social externalities – might be thought of as perks, which previous generations were willing to forego in their pursuit of progress but which we in our prosperity don’t mind splashing out on.

I think the “perk factor” actually explains much of the cost disease in the sectors Alexander identifies. As we’ve grown wealthier we’re willing to spend more on things that are orthogonal to the actual missions of health care, education, housing, and public transportation – things like prioritizing the physical and mental well-being of our workforces, or ensuring that their gender and ethnic compositions are representative of the wider population. These perks require added layers of administration that do nothing to improve the outcomes we’re attempting to measure. Those layers aren’t failing – they’re doing what they’re meant to do – but those things aren’t captured in graphs like the ones in this post.

As a taxpayer I suspect we could afford to do without much of this extra padding. But I don’t want construction workers risking their necks, or rivers recklessly diverted, or noisy trains rattling people’s cupboards, just to save a few bucks. I know next to nothing about health care or university administration or housing construction, but I suppose the people who are familiar with those matters have equally strong objections to cutting what may strike me as frivolous perks.

In any case, sticking to transit infrastructure, there’s no reason to suppose we’re likely to care less about safety, or the environment, or architectural heritage in the future. In fact those concerns will almost certainly grow, making construction ever less affordable.

To return to causes 1 and 2 – land costs and infrastructure clutter – it should be possible to mitigate cost disease through better planning – say, through more farsighted property acquisition, and coordinating with other agencies to ensure that future transit corridors aren’t obstructed. But I assume we’re already trying to do those things, and my suggestion of “Okay, well, just do them better” is not too helpful.

Sooner, or later?

One way to avert cost disease might be by preemptive surgery – building rapid transit today, at today’s comparatively reasonable prices, in anticipation of tomorrow’s needs. Metro Vancouver’s overall outline is pretty well established by geographic barriers like mountains and rivers, and more recently by the imposition of an urban containment boundary meant to preserve nearby farmland.

metro vancouver urban containment boundary

Source: Metro Vancouver. (Click for original.)

Therefore we can assume that the Vancouver of the future will be much the same shape as the Vancouver of today, only a lot denser. We should be able to predict with fair accuracy where future demand for transit will lie, and build in anticipation of that demand.

However, of the four causes of cost disease mentioned above, preemptive surgery really only targets the first one – rising land costs. It sidesteps the cost of infrastructure clutter only by transferring that cost to future generations who will have to spend more to build around the clutter we create today. And while it might seem thrifty to thwart the next generation’s opportunity to waste money on what we consider silly perks – by using construction methods that they’ll see as barbarously unsafe, maybe, or by bulldozing some architectural monstrosity before it’s declared a heritage monument – who are we to say what the future’s priorities should be?

I’m grateful for much of the infrastructure earlier generations of headstrong builders bequeathed me, but I wish they’d been more cautious about what they smashed in the process – like the whole blocks of Vancouver’s Strathcona neighbourhood destroyed in the sixties to make room for the Georgia viaducts, which planners are now preparing to remove. Building preemptively means we risk building unnecessarily, as the future evolves new habits of getting around that we can’t anticipate.

Still, being made aware of cost disease has tipped me in favour of building rapid transit now, while it’s still barely affordable, rather than putting it off as demand grows and grows. Spending sooner rather than later may actually be the sensible, fiscally-prudent thing to do.

M.

Realism vs. fatalism, diligence vs. delusion.

I recently answered a wide-ranging reader survey for my current favourite blog, Scott Alexander’s Slate Star Codex. One of the questions was whether I had more of a “fixed” or a “growth” mindset, as defined here. I had to follow the link to figure out what Alexander was asking – I thought maybe it had something to do with economics – but it turns out in this context, “fixed” and “growth” mindset refer to whether you think talents are things you’re naturally born with, or things you acquire through effort.

Obviously no-one believes 100% that they’re born with all the talent necessary to play professional basketball, say, or write prize-winning short stories. Some effort must be exerted. On the other hand, despite what they may say to the contrary, no-one really believes 100% that anyone can, with enough practice, play in the NBA or become an acclaimed writer. Some people have physical or mental handicaps that could never be overcome, no matter how much effort they put in. The rest of us fall on a continuum between “could never do it in a million years” and “with the slightest effort could excel”.

I placed myself right in the middle on the five-point sliding scale – because I believe that in most cases both natural aptitude and effort are necessary. But in retrospect, the survey wasn’t really asking “what do you believe, for the range of imaginable talents, is the overall ratio of natural aptitude to applied effort?” It was asking, “where do you stand in the ideological dispute between those who think talent is inborn and those who think anyone can, with sufficient effort and encouragement, become good at anything?” And since no-one – literally not one single person in the entire world – says that talent is 100% inborn, while millions proclaim – at least via their t-shirts and coffee mugs – that the reverse is true, I probably should have answered that, relative to the weighted average of those two positions, I’m on the side of the “fixed” mindset.

Each mindset comes with its own pitfalls. An extreme “fixeder” might conclude there’s no point putting effort into anything, since if he’s not already good at it, it can only be because he lacks the natural genius for it. While an extreme “growther” could squander her life pursuing some futile dream, in the belief that success was just a little more effort away, while neglecting more attainable goals.

The “growther” tragedy is more visible – we’ve all winced at some deluded fool stubbornly flailing away in a pursuit he’s manifestly unsuited for. But we can never know how many invisible “fixeder” tragedies are happening in our midst – how many of our apparently unremarkable friends might have dazzled the world if only they’d put in that extra bit of effort. If “growtherism” seems to be more zealously propagandized than common sense would dictate, it may be because most of us secretly suspect, and some of us with good reason, that if only we’d more diligently pursued our dreams, if we hadn’t been distracted by the need to keep gas in the car and our families fed, we too might have joined the immortals.

M.

 

Update, June 6 2017: I discover that Samuel Johnson, in The Rambler No. 129, addressed this theme – but using the elevated language of 18th-century moral exhortation, rather than the stunted terminology of social science (“growth mindset”, “fixed mindset”) within reach of the modern essayist.

Dr. Johnson believed that thinkers of his time placed undue emphasis on the dangers of over-reaching one’s abilities:

Among the favourite topics of moral declamation, may be numbered the miscarriages of imprudent boldness, and the folly of attempts beyond our power. Every page of every philosopher is crowded with examples of temerity that sunk under burdens which she laid upon herself, and called out enemies to battle by whom she was destroyed.

But if the same attention had been applied to the search of arguments against the folly of presupposing impossibilities, and anticipating frustration, I know not whether many would not have been roused to usefulness, who, having been taught to confound prudence with timidity, never ventured to excel lest they should unfortunately fail.

The cult of self-esteem had not yet been invented; anything-is-possibilism had not yet taken hold. Johnson lived in an extremely fixed-mindset century, when it was mildly provocative to suggest that the barriers imposed by custom, “frigorific wisdom”, and our own over-fearful imaginations, might be surmounted with sufficient effort. Well-intentioned moralists had inculcated a “timorous prudence” in their followers, which restrained them from doing all they might do to further the progress of mankind:

There are qualities in the products of nature yet undiscovered, and combinations in the powers of art yet untried. It is the duty of every man to endeavour that something may be added by his industry to the hereditary aggregate of knowledge and happiness. To add much can indeed be the lot of few, but to add something, however little, every one may hope; and of every honest endeavour, it is certain, that, however unsuccessful, it will be at last rewarded.

Those are the final words of the essay. The reward that “every honest endeavour” will enjoy, Johnson implies but feels no need to spell out, might arrive not in this lifetime, but in the life beyond. For non-believers, the danger of unsuccessful, unrewarded endeavour remains daunting.

Last year I used Scott Alexander’s parable about a time-travelling Know-Nothing as a launching point for this discursive post about immigration, Brave New World, and the end of history.