Is it getting crazier out there?

A month or so ago I witnessed an incident of bullying at my local coffeeshop which, if the ethnicity of the victim had been different – and if anyone had pulled out a phone to record the kerfuffle – might have made the national news. But the person being told to fuck off back to his own country was a white American, so it was a non-event.

The bully, a loud-mouthed, working-class white guy in his twenties, was picking on a smaller, older, better-dressed gent who was standing at the counter waiting to pay for his cappuccino. The younger guy must have noticed the greenbacks in the older guy’s wallet. Or maybe I missed some quieter words that were exchanged before the shouting began. What I heard was a tirade of astonishingly crude and dim-witted chauvinism – “Fuckin’ Americans, you think you’re so fuckin’ great, flashing your fuckin’ money like you own the fuckin’ place,” and so on – that drove the visibly shaken American right out of the shop.

After his victim had fled, the bully turned to a bystander (who, like me, had done nothing to intervene) and apologized, kind of, for his behaviour: “Sorry ’bout that. I just can’t stand fuckin’ Americans.”

As I said, a non-event. In fact it had slipped my mind until I was reminded of it the other day when, in the same coffeeshop, an aggressive panhandler barged in and went from table to table asking for money. When an employee told him to leave, he stomped past the counter and made a lunge for the tip jar, which the cashier barely snatched out of his grasp. Scowling at her, he seized a couple of brownies from a countertop display and shambled unhurriedly to the door, passing right by my table. Again I did nothing.

It got me wondering how many other incidents of low-level craziness I’d witnessed, and forgotten about, over the last couple months. No point trying to enumerate all the vagrants I’ve seen hollering or staggering around on the street. But there was at least one vagrant whose craziness was directed at me – who, when he noticed me walking behind him, turned and growled, “You followin’ me, you fuckin’ twerp?” (I was struck by “twerp” because the guy wasn’t any bigger than I am.) I ignored the provocation and luckily our paths soon diverged.

Just last week I was accosted on the SkyTrain by a gang of drunk and rowdy high school kids – an ethnically diverse and gender-integrated gang which any Hollywood casting director would be proud to assemble – one of whom showed me the fresh scrapes on his knuckles which he said he’d acquired knocking out some “nigga” a few minutes before. (This wasn’t a racial slur. He called me and all his friends “nigga”.) I disembarked at the next stop and made my way to an adjacent car.

It was some hours afterward, riding home, that I noticed a sign advising riders who felt “unsafe” to text their concerns to such-and-such a number. Had I felt unsafe? A bit. But it hadn’t occurred to me to report the rowdies. I suspect they rode around all night, making their fellow passengers uneasy, but doing nothing that would rise to the level of police attention.

***

All the above was written several weeks ago. But I hesitated to share it until I’d had a stab at addressing the objection that has surely occurred to most readers already:

Okay, Grampa, so you got spooked by a couple minor cases of thievery and public transit hooliganism. Are you aware that the crime rate has been falling for most of your adult life?

Yes, I’m aware. I thought I’d take a closer look.

The Statistics Canada website has two main crime-related stats going back to the late 1990s. First we have the Uniform Crime Reporting System, or UCR, which covers all criminal incidents reported to and “substantiated by” Canadian police agencies. It shows no particular pattern up to around 2004-05, then a steady, decadelong drop, stabilizing in the mid-2010s around 40% below the late 1990s level.

The crime rate varies quite a bit from province to province, but the trend is consistent. Here’s how it looks in British Columbia:

british columbia property crime rate 1998-2018

Property crime in BC, 1998-2018. Data and sources.

british columbia violent crime rate 1998-2018

Violent crime in BC, 1998-2018. Data and sources.

Another way to measure crime is to call people up randomly and ask them, “So, experienced any crime lately?” This is the method used by the General Social Survey, or GSS, conducted by Statistics Canada every five years. As you’d expect, it picks up a whole lot of incidents that never get reported to police. (Why don’t they get reported? We’ll come back to that shortly.)

Unfortunately, the GSS only asks about certain categories of crime, and it aggregates them a little differently than the UCR, so the results aren’t directly comparable. But the overall trend is similar, if slightly delayed: stable from 1999 through 2009, then a big drop for the 2014 survey. Here’s my province again:

british columbia self-reported property crime rate 1999-2014

Self-reported property crime in BC, 1999-2014. Data and sources.

british columbia self-reported violent crime rate 1999-2014

Self-reported violent crime in BC, 1999-2014. Data and sources.

My Canadian readers might have noted that that ten-year decline in the violent crime rate matches up suspiciously well with the decade, 2006-15, when the Conservative Party under Stephen Harper was in power.

I know the progressive consensus is that tough-on-crime policies have no conceivable bearing on the behaviour of criminals, except to breed more crime by subjecting innocent poor folks to the dehumanizing scrutiny of the justice system. But comparing the graphs above with the incarceration rate over the last twenty years, there seems to be a correlation between “more prisoners” and “less crime”:

canada incarceration rate 1998-2018

Canadian incarceration rate, 1998-2018. Data and sources.

Is the correlation meaningful? You don’t have to be so crude as to imagine that criminals might respond to the threat of longer sentences by cutting back on their illegal activities. Let’s stipulate that there’s no such thing as “criminals”, only (as the euphemism has it) Justice-Involved Individuals who, through no fault of their own, somehow wind up on the wrong side of the law.

As the progressive consensus would point out, and as common sense would concede, the Justice-Involved are disproportionately poor, beset with addiction and mental issues, or disadvantaged in some way.

With more of those unlucky folks locked away in prison, there are fewer of them out on the streets offending quaint old fusspots like me with their liberated manners and relaxed views about property rights. Hence, lower crime rates.

The increase in the incarceration rate through the Harper years might explain why one subcategory of violent crime went up over the same period:

british columbia assaults on peace officers rate 1998-2018

Assaults on peace officers in BC, 1998-2018. Data and sources.

The same hard-ass mentality that led to an increase in the prison population must have meant more cops stopping suspicious people on the street, more charges laid, more trips to and from court, more overcrowded prisons – more interactions, hence more opportunities for violence, between the Justice-Involved and the agents of the justice system.

The trouble with attributing the decline in crime to the stern wisdom of Stephen Harper is that the property crime rate appears to have been dropping already before he took office, and begun creeping upward again several years before the reversal could be plausibly attributed to the return of Justin Trudeau’s squishy-on-crime Liberals.

For a reality check, here’s what the incarceration rate looked like in the United States over the same period:

united states incarceration rate 2000-2016

U.S. incarceration rate, 2000-2016. Data and sources.

As in Canada, a change of government – Obama’s inauguration in 2009 – heralded a reduction of the prison population. But down there, the change didn’t have any obvious impact on the crime rate, which went on falling, albeit with a slight reversal in violent crime (but not property crime) beginning in 2015:

united states property crime rate 1999-2018

Property crimes in the USA, 1999-2018. Data and sources.

united states violent crime rate 1999-2018

Violent crimes in the USA, 1999-2018. Data and sources.

It may be that, with our cultures and economies so closely linked, Canada’s crime rate simply echoes America’s, whoever is running things in Ottawa.

So why the drop in crime?

People who’ve spent their whole lives studying the justice system can’t agree on an answer to that question. I don’t suppose I’m going to crack it based on a couple days of half-assed research.

My theory – which is not original – is that the share of the population in the high-crime demographic of 15-to-24-year-old males has gone down, while at the same time greater obesity, readily available marijuana, and immersive video games have made young men less interested in spending time on the streets where they have the chance to get into trouble.

In years past, those teenage rowdies I met riding around on the SkyTrain would eventually have run into another gang of rowdies and the resulting fracas might have come to the attention of the police. But their opportunities for mischief were limited by the fact that most kids their age were at home dissipating their aggression in Fortnite.

***

Speaking of SkyTrain rowdies, I witnessed at least one incident within the last couple months that probably did generate a police report – a fight that broke out at the far end of an overcrowded SkyTrain car. I didn’t get a clear view of what happened, but when we pulled into the next station security had to clear everyone out so the pool of blood could be mopped up. It was a surprising amount of blood.

I’ve seen a lot of crazy stuff while riding the SkyTrain. But prior to this, the last time I’d seen a fight – an actual, physical fight, with punches thrown – was way back in the 1990s, near the high point on all these crime rate graphs.

According to the graphs, I was substantially less safe back then than I am now. But it didn’t feel that way. Perhaps after twenty-odd years I’ve simply forgotten all the instances of rudeness, rowdiness, and public disorder that I must have witnessed in the months surrounding that earlier SkyTrain fight. Perhaps such events were so routine that they barely registered. But I don’t think so.

Even if I could reconstruct my impressions of that era – if I’d kept a diary, say – what would it prove? I lived in a totally different part of the city back then. (And I lived in a totally different province for many years in between.) If I’ve noticed an uptick in craziness lately, it may be merely the effect of relocating from a one-percent-crazy to a two-percent-crazy neighbourhood. There may have been a net increase in sanity citywide, and I’ve just had the bad luck to wind up in an area of concentrated craziness.

Or maybe the change is in me. I was in my late teens, early twenties in the 1990s. It wouldn’t be wholly inaccurate to say that at that age I approved of rudeness, rowdiness, and public disorder. (As illustrated by the tour de force of teenage snottiness transcribed here.) At any rate I wasn’t as bothered by them as I am now.

Craziness could be on the decline, and I’ve failed to notice because my uptightness is simultaneously on the ascent.

***

Looking at that graph of assaults on peace officers, I suggested that such offenses might have gone up in the Harper era because cops and prosecutors were more proactively arresting and imprisoning criminals. But that explanation can be spun two ways:

  1. When criminals spend more time in or on their way to prison, a relatively small number of cops, sheriffs, and prison guards bear the brunt of their antisocial impulses, which would otherwise be diffused throughout the wider population. The graph reflects an increase in actual incidences of violence against peace officers.
  2. Or maybe, knowing that the tough-on-crime Tories would have their backs, peace officers became more likely to press charges over minor scuffles that they previously would have shrugged off. The level of violence hasn’t changed, but the threshold for defining an incident as a crime has dropped.

In an earlier I essay I referred to the story told by former B.C. premier Christy Clark, who as a fourteen year old in the 1970s was accosted by a pervert who tried to drag her into the bushes. Wriggling free, she ran off and carried on with her day, never reporting the attack. She believed – wrongly, I think – that no grown-up would take her complaint seriously. I doubt a teenage girl today would come to that conclusion.

I’ve also mentioned how in junior high school a few of my dimwit friends vandalized some playground equipment with, among other half-understood symbols of rebellion, the letters KKK. These days a police investigation would be launched.

The conservative blogger Rod Dreher shared an email a while back from an unnamed reader, a university professor, describing how his students have begun elevating classroom disagreements into criminal complaints:

Last semester, I had to deal with cops three times because my students are reporting each other to the police over threatening behavior in the classroom. “How would you describe the incident?” “There was no incident I am aware of”. Was the violent encounter a glance, a raised eyebrow, a corroboration/correction of somebody else’s statement? Who knows? The cops are nonplussed by this. They are getting dozens of anonymous reports like this a week.

The above anecdotes would tend to suggest a lowering of the threshold, in recent years, of what ordinary people consider important enough to justify hassling the police.

But they’re only anecdotes. According to the GSS, Canadians have become slightly less likely, over the last twenty years, to call the cops when they’ve been victimized:

canada percentage of crimes reported to police, 1999-2014

Source: “Criminal Victimization in Canada, 2014”, Table 1 and Table 9.

The most common reasons people gave for not reporting an incident were “Crime was minor and not worth taking the time to report” and “Police wouldn’t have considered the incident important enough”. “No-one was harmed” and “Incident was a private or personal matter” also scored high.

If the threshold for “police-report-worthiness” has risen slightly, so that more crimes are going unreported, that could be another factor explaining the decline in police-recorded crime.

On the other hand, maybe it’s the threshold for “survey-worthiness” that has fallen. In this case, previously unrecognized crimes – which might not have been considered crimes in the 1990s – are raised to the attention of the Statistics Canada survey-givers, while remaining below the threshold of police-report-worthiness.

The decline in crime would then be even more dramatic than the survey results indicate. If we were to subtract all the newly elevated crimes – shoving matches, barroom ass-grabbings, offensive comments, all recategorized by cultural consensus as “assaults” – we might realize that we’re sheltered from violence and disorder to an unprecedented degree. It’s this very lack of day-to-day danger that makes us freak out over incidents our grandparents would have laughed off.

Hence I felt unsafe encountering a handful of mildly rowdy kids on the SkyTrain – an encounter a 1980s New York subway rider would scarcely have noticed.

I don’t know. I really don’t know.

***

I’m not exactly the first to discover that when comparing crime rates year-to-year, or jurisdiction-to-jurisdiction, the comparisons can be skewed by variations in police behaviour, media attention, cultural awareness, and a dozen other things I haven’t thought of.

Partly because these complications are dimly known to everyone, and partly because we’re naturally excited by rare but sensational crimes, the media tend to use the murder rate as a crude proxy for the overall crime rate. Murder, of course, is the one crime that pretty much always gets reported and investigated.

Here in British Columbia murder is so infrequent that the numbers tend to jump up and down from year to year, making for a spiky graph. But the general trend is encouraging:

british columbia homicide rate 1998-2018

Murders in BC, 1998-2018. Data and sources.

Presumably the main factor affecting the murder rate is how often people try to murder each other. If there are fewer murders, it’s reasonable to conclude that people have become less violence-prone.

But the murder rate will also vary according to the quality and promptness of medical treatment. Better trauma care reduces some murders to assaults, while delayed treatment elevates some assaults to murders.

Here in Vancouver there’s been concern lately over slower ambulance response times. But this was the side effect of a decision a few years back to redirect resources toward the most urgent calls. While lower-priority cases are waiting longer, the most severe emergencies are treated a little more quickly than before – impressive, considering the ever-worsening traffic snarls ambulances have to weave through.

Moreover, with everyone having a phone in their pocket these days, most emergencies are now called in almost immediately. The spread of cell phones between, say, 1990 and 2010, from rich wanker accessories to bare-level essentials for participation in modern life, probably reduced overall wait times for medical treatment. This may have contributed to the drop in violent deaths.

Certain public safety measures might also reduce murders without altering the underlying propensity to commit violence. If it’s harder to get a gun, criminals might resort to stabbing or clubbing each other, resulting in a higher survival rate and lower homicide rate.

Since the prospect of a near-fatal clubbing is, if anything, more terrifying than the prospect of a quick death by gunshot, I don’t find such improvements all that comforting.

With the above factors in mind, I wonder if we could create a more meaningful statistic for worrywarts by combining homicides, attempted homicides, and the most severe or aggravated levels of assault and sexual assault into a single “scariness index”.

(By the way, “aggravated” doesn’t mean – as I supposed until embarrassingly recently – that the assault is punished more lightly because the victim did something to aggravate his or her assailant. In the Canadian criminal code an aggravated assault is one that “wounds, maims, disfigures or endangers the life” of the victim – or, to put it another way, one that might just as easily have been a murder.)

british columbia most severe violent crime rate 1998-2018

BC “scariness index” – most severe violent crimes, 1998-2018. Data and sources.

Aggregating the most severe offenses this way, the scariness level doesn’t seem to have dropped much since my youth. But my index could be misleading since it’s driven mainly by that unexplained bulge in incidents of aggravated assault, cresting in 2010. Even now the aggravated assault rate is at or above late 1990s levels.

Since aggravated assaults seem to have waxed and waned in concert with assaults on peace officers, the bulge might have been a consequence of more aggressive charging, rather than an increase in violence. Or maybe there was a wave of vicious beatings that escaped my attention. Who knows.

As for the murder rate, I don’t pay it much mind. Around here most of the murders seem to consist of rival gang members assassinating each other. (They don’t have any trouble getting hold of handguns.) Occasionally an innocent bystander gets gunned down, but for law-abiding people the risk of death is low.

I worry more about random loonies like this fentanyl-crazed idiot who crushed an old lady’s skull with a garden ornament in the course of robbing her apartment. He got eighteen years.

Or this guy, who hacked a couple to death with a hatchet for no reason at all. His defense is that he was overstimulated by video games.

I have a hard time imagining a connection between drive-by gang shootings and mentally unbalanced vagrants disrupting the peace of coffeeshops.

But that a rise in the number of mentally unbalanced vagrants might portend a rise in the number of mentally unbalanced hatchet murderers seems worryingly plausible.

M.

Regular readers might be forgiven for thinking I spend all my time at the neighbourhood coffeeshop. That establishment has turned up in my ruminations on the usefulness of stereotypes, on the “stigma” of drug addiction, and on the irresistible collapse of modern manners. I mention the difficulty of measuring the crime rate in this essay on immigration and crime – and, yup, the coffeeshop makes an appearance.

Reclassifications: Parasite, The Million Pound Note, and My Man Godfrey.

Since I cancelled Netflix a couple months back I’ve been keeping myself busy watching old movies for free on YouTube. You can find quite a few, once you know where to look.

Among the vaguely recognized names to whom I’ve finally been able to assign faces are two that have always blurred together in my mind, Hedy Lamarr and Dorothy Lamour. I’ve now watched three or four movies starring each, and I’ll have no trouble identifying Lamour in future: she had a very distinctive face.

But I’m still not sure I’ll recognize Hedy Lamarr.

Nowadays Lamarr is more famous for her side career as an inventor, which led (in collaboration with some other fellow, whose name is politely deprecated) to a radio dingus that anticipated the development of modern wireless technology. Hardly anyone watches her movies any more, but she’s lately become a figurehead for women in science, a twist that would no doubt have surprised audiences in the 1930s who knew her primarily for, as she put it, standing still and looking stupid.

She’s gorgeous, of course. The problem is she doesn’t really look like anything in particular. She’s so flawless that there’s no one feature for your eye to rest on. Watching her movies, I find that only when she opens her mouth – she had a pretty heavy Austrian accent – can I say definitively, “Oh, there’s Hedy Lamarr.”

hedy lamarr weight loss ad life magazine 1952

Hedy Lamarr, in a 1952 issue of Life, promotes a “safe, healthful” weight-loss solution called – no joke – Ayds.

I have this trouble a lot watching old movies. I think I’m only averagely bad at telling faces apart, but when a movie is full of square-jawed, clean-shaven, dark-haired white guys wearing hats, if there’s not some quirky mannerism or distinctive article of dress to differentiate them, I tend to forget which is which. It’s somewhat less difficult with women, because more variety was permitted in their hair and clothing; also, there were usually fewer females in the cast, so fewer opportunities for confusion.

Now, there’s much to be said for suits and hats – they’re more flattering to the male figure than the cargo shorts and flip-flops that fellows slouch around in these days – as well as much to be said against them, at least in the heat of summer. But one of the side effects of living in a society where everyone has pretty much the same wardrobe and hairstyle, I imagine, is that you become more attentive to distinctions that would be invisible to outsiders. Where everyone wears the same suit, you learn to pay attention to the tie.

As I’ve discussed before, I’m not sold on the many miracles attributed to the modern-day holy trinity of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. But there is at least one concrete benefit to populating our movies with a wider range of physical types. It’s not that racial diversity is necessary to helping audiences tell the characters apart: watching Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, with its 100% Korean cast, I never had a problem keeping track of who was who. But Parasite is an unusually well-constructed film. If Diverse, Equitable, and Inclusive casting makes it easier for Hollywood hacks to project their overcaffeinated visions onto the screen in a way that still lets us tell at a glance which henchman is hanging off the side of the helicopter firing a machine gun at our jetski-riding hero, then I’m for it.

But diversity can increase confusion, too. My favourite of the recent Star Wars movies, Rogue One, was hard enough to follow with its dialogue full of pronouncements like, “We have to go to [random alien planet] to give the [random sci-fi gadget] to [random alien name].” Then someone made the decision to cast a number of non-native-English speakers to garble these nonsense words.

If for some reason it was deemed essential that the Star Wars universe contain not only the full range of earth’s skin tones, but the full range of its foreign accents, at least they could have taken care to assign the bulk of the space gibberish to the Brits and Americans in the cast.

***

Recently Robin Hanson wondered why last year’s arty supervillain origin story Joker was reviewed so much more negatively than Parasite, even though both are well-made, well-acted films that deal with themes of poverty and class rebellion.

Among other theories, Hanson proposed that left-leaning critics resented being asked to sympathize with Joker’s “white male lower class” antihero:

[H]e just appears culturally too close for comfort to their max disliked prototype of loud resentful gun-loving smoking “incels”, 4chan fans, Trump supporters, etc.

Whereas the poor family of Parasite, who insinuate themselves into the lives and household of a rich family, are articulate, well-mannered, upwardly-mobile Asians of the type that media folk are likely to be personally acquainted with. Although lower-class, to Western eyes the Parasite family are not culturally lower-class: in fact their apparently self-disciplined habits raise the question of how they wound up poor in the first place, as Steve Sailer pointed out in his commentary on Hanson’s post:

I really didn’t understand why the poor family in Parasite was inept at doing simple jobs like folding pizza boxes, but then suddenly turned into the Mission Impossible squad when they got a chance to edge in on the rich family.

This inconsistency is hardly unique to Parasite. Off the top of my head I can think of three famous American movies where poor people are elevated serendipitously into the realm of the upper classes:

  • My Man Godfrey, from 1936, in which William Powell’s garbage-dump-dwelling hobo gets a job butlering for a rich family;
  • The Million Pound Note, from 1954, in which Gregory Peck’s penniless American, granted temporary custody of the titular banknote, is promptly embraced by London’s upper crust;
  • Trading Places, from 1983, in which Eddie Murphy’s homeless grifter is installed in Dan Aykroyd’s cushy home and investment banking job.

In all these comedies, as in the semi-comedic Parasite, the poor folks prove themselves adept at mimicking the manners and customs appropriate to their new social positions. By contrast, when a movie concerns a rich person tumbled by fate down among the working classes – say, Ally Sheedy’s narcissistic scenester in Maid To Order – the role usually proves more challenging than he or she expects.

In My Man Godfrey the hero’s effortless mastery of upper-class etiquette is explained when we discover that he is a formerly wealthy man who let himself go after a messy divorce. The movie ends with Godfrey leveraging his recovered social standing to open a fancy nightclub on the site of the former dump, where all his homeless friends are taken on as bartenders and waiters and valets. As he puts it when pitching his scheme, “The only difference between a derelict and a man is a job.”

In a sense that’s true, but if solving poverty were as simple as offering poor people jobs, we’d have licked it long ago. (See point #5 here.) Joker is more realistic in this respect. Arthur Fleck, the mentally damaged hero of that film, can barely maintain the level of decorum appropriate to riding public transit, let alone butlering or investment banking. When Arthur confronts arrogant plutocrat Thomas Wayne, whom he blames for his poverty, we might wish the rich man were more sympathetic, but it’s hard to blame him for being standoffish when accosted by a twitchy stalker in the men’s room.

Like the poor family of Parasite and the dump-dwellers of My Man Godfrey, many of the men and women who spend their days slumped along the storefronts of Vancouver’s Granville Street would prove to be competent and valuable workers, if anyone would take a chance on hiring them. However, employers are understandably reluctant to gamble their reputations, their physical assets, and the safety of their other workers on the ability of their HR personnel to sort out the merely ungroomed from the drug-addled and deranged.

Like Arthur Fleck, these hard cases might feel, with some justice, that they were never really given a fair shot. Many of their problems could be mitigated with the right combination of therapy, medication, and cash freely disbursed. But even with their psychological and financial burdens eased, they’d still be stuck with all the unconscious habits, built up over years of scraping by, that would remind potential employers of the scuzzy, scary subculture to which they belonged.

***

Prejudice gets a bad name, probably because in many people’s minds it’s conflated with race prejudice. Most race prejudice these days is really prejudice against cultural markers like dialect, clothing, customs, and so on; when such prejudices don’t cross racial lines no-one worries too much about them. I can safely flaunt my contempt for mullet wearers, sozzled St. Patrick’s Day revellers, and inbred yahoos from West Virginia, but the rules are different for dreadlocks wearers, Puerto Rican Day parade-goers, and inbred yahoos from Waziristan.

Going by how often I find myself suppressing the urge to roll my eyes at my fellow citizens’ appearance and manners, I’m as prejudice-ridden as anyone. I try to override my prejudgements where they concern superficial traits like garish hair, outlandish clothes, or visible tattoos: I remind myself that, as a middle-aged person among the young, I’m a tourist in a foreign country, where the rules of fashion are different from my own. But where manners are concerned, it’s harder to know where to draw the line. Should I merely shrug and mutter à chacun son goût when I encounter someone littering, or pissing on a wall, or hollering obscenities – or should I adhere to my prejudgement that such a person is likely to be prone to other antisocial and criminal behaviours?

While I know that my prejudgements about the aforementioned denizens of Granville Street are, in many individual cases, wrong, it would be foolish to say that I can deduce nothing about a man’s habits and manners from the fact that I find him stretched out in a sleeping bag in front of Starbucks. People likewise make prejudgements about me. I was approached by two young women in a coffeeshop not long ago. “Would you settle a bet for us?” one asked me. “What do you do?”

“Do?” I said, puzzled.

“Are you a librarian or a professor?”

Based on my appearance – greying beard, rumpled cardigan, pen poised over a crossword puzzle – it would have been surprising if they’d taken me for an up-and-coming rap star, or a corporate lawyer, or a long-haul trucker. No doubt they could have ventured other guesses about my habits and personal history, some correct: I am a vegetarian with an interest in old movies who maintains an obscure blog; others flat wrong: I have only a high school education, my politics lean more right than left, and as for what I do…

“I’m unemployed,” I said through a tight smile.

“You’re a what?”

Un-em-ployed,” I icily enunciated. I could have told the girls (who giggled nervously and hurried away) that I was a writer, which would have been just as true and less embarrassing for all of us; but like most people I resent being stereotyped, even when I have invited it by knowingly presenting myself as a stereotype.

The world is marvelously variegated, and somewhere out there is an aspiring rapper who wears rumpled cardigans and enjoys crossword puzzles. In our daily lives we leave some wiggle room in our prejudgements to allow for such anomalies. Those who leave insufficient wiggle room, who draw conclusions too broad from outward appearances, will soon get a reputation for cloddishness; but those who leave too much wiggle room, who ignore or overlook the signals sent by strangers’ accents, clothes, and manners, will wind up stuck in a lot of pointless and frustrating interactions, and occasionally get themselves into danger.

***

Besides the practical matter of figuring out who’s who, it’s sometimes hard, when watching old movies, to tell what subtleties of behaviour and social class are being communicated by a character’s wardrobe and accessories. Why is the doorman giving that guy’s overcoat the cocked eyebrow? Is that dame’s low-cut gown meant to appear glamourous, or tawdry? What is the meaning of that hat?

When we’re introduced to Gregory Peck in The Million Pound Note he’s clean-shaven, with slightly shaggy hair, and dressed in faded blue jeans, an open-collar shirt, and a black pea coat. Something like this:

robert redford three days of the condor pea coat

Some fella in a pea coat. Image source.

You caught me: that’s not Gregory Peck, it’s Robert Redford in Three Days of the Condor. Redford plays a low-level CIA analyst, a “desk-bound ex-military bookworm” who gets swept up in a spook civil war. He looks so sharp getting chased around Manhattan in his pea-coat-and-sideburns combo that a half-century later the film still gets referenced in fashion blogs like the ones linked above.

In The Million Pound Note Peck plays a hobo. Granted, his coat is somewhat shabbier than Redford’s, and he has neglected to flip up its collar, as pea coat suavity requires:

gregory peck the million pound note

Gregory Peck in The Million Pound Note. Image source.

The difference is that The Million Pound Note is set not in laid-back mid-1970s New York but in uptight Edwardian London. We can readily discern Peck’s lowly social standing by how much less natty he is than all the other gents in the movie.

A couple years back, in another extremely discursive post inspired by Hollywood, I made the mundane point that a story is not a solid object but a cloud, whose shape varies when viewed from the perspectives of different cultures and eras.

When we repurpose old stories we gather in armfuls of cloud, believing we’re taking the parts that matter; but the further we are from wherever and whenever the story was created, the likelier we are to remake the cloud into forms the creator would find unrecognizable.

I gave as an example Spider-Man, who, whatever else may change about him – his costume, his superpowers, his skin colour – has thus far always been a New Yorker:

We intuit that New York means something to the Spider-Man mythos. What it means depends on our distance from and familiarity with New York. I’m sure Chinese audiences couldn’t care less which American city Spider-Man swings through, any more than we worry about where exactly in China the Monkey King’s adventures take place.

Like his pea coat, Gregory Peck’s accent means something to the plot of The Million Pound Note: when he flashes his banknote, waiters and shop clerks conclude that the shabbily-dressed foreigner must be an eccentric American millionaire, of the kind they’ve read about in the papers.

To the modern viewer, Peck’s American accent is obvious, if a little antique-sounding. (I have a friend, a native English speaker not much younger than me, who claims to have trouble following the dialogue in Hollywood movies from the 1940s and earlier.) But future film historians may have to resort to creative subtitling to get the point across, just as translators of Lysistrata or Cyrano de Bergerac must find ways to deal with characters speaking in Doric or Gascon dialect: should their speech be recast into hillbilly or Scots, or is that likely to confuse matters even more, by forcing new and incompatible stereotypes to stand in for old and incomprehensible ones?

M.

In November I gazed across the class divide on the patio of my neighbourhood coffee shop. Last May I chuckled as the hero of Michael Frayn’s Towards the End of the Morning mangled the vocabulary of yuppie enlightenment. In 2018 I discussed Steve Sailer’s Dirt Gap and one harried mommy blogger’s Trail of Tears.

Max Beerbohm’s “A Clergyman” and posterity.

Every man illustrious in his day, however much he may be gratified by his fame, looks with an eager eye to posterity for a continuance of past favours, and would even live the remainder of his life in obscurity if by doing so he could insure that future generations would preserve a correct attitude towards him forever. This is very natural and human, but, like so many very natural and human things, very silly. [The dead] need not, after all, be pitied for our neglect of them. They either know nothing about it, or are above such terrene trifles.
–Max Beerbohm, “A Clergyman”.

A funny word, posterity. When we picture ourselves in relation to the flow of time, it’s with our faces thrust toward the future – toward posterity – and our posteriors toward the past. Those we describe as “backward” we imagine gazing adoringly at their antecedents while they retreat, as it were, into the future.

Posterity has two meanings, and it’s not always clear which is intended. It can refer to one’s direct descendants – children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and so forth – or it can refer more vaguely to everyone who comes after us, whether related to us or not.

Thus the conservative blogger Steve Sailer observes that when the Founding Fathers wrote in the preamble to the U.S. constitution that their intention was to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity”, they had in mind chiefly the descendants of people then living in the United States; while the modern tendency is to interpret the passage as referring to the well-being of the people of the future more generally, including all those who aren’t Americans, but whose children or grandchildren might be, should one of them endeavour to splash across the Rio Grande.

Claudius, the narrator of I, Claudius by Robert Graves, seems to have the more expansive definition in mind when he imagines his readership of the inconceivably remote future. The stuttering Roman emperor, puzzled by a prophetic couplet declaring that he will “speak clear” in nineteen hundred years, concludes that the prophecy is

an injunction to write the present work. When it is written, I shall treat it with a preservative fluid, seal it in a lead casket, and bury it deep in the ground somewhere for posterity to dig up and read. If my interpretation be correct it will be found again some 1,900 years hence.

(On second thought, he reflects that his memoir may have a better chance of survival if he simply leaves it lying around unprotected: “Apollo has made the prophecy, so I shall let Apollo take care of the manuscript.”)

Knowing from the same prophecy that Rome is destined to fall long before his manuscript is recovered, Claudius writes not in Latin but in Greek, which he believes “will always remain the chief literary language of the world”. I have no idea what Greek word or phrase would be translated as “posterity”, but Google suggests απόγονοι (apogonoi), which I gather is the modern form of classical Greek επίγονοι (epigonoi), a word that carries its own hint of a double meaning: the Epigoni, meaning “later-born”, were the offspring of the legendary heroes known as the Seven Against Thebes. From them we derive the English word “epigone”, meaning an unworthy successor or imitator – a rather inapt commemoration for the Epigoni, who unlike their fathers actually succeeded in conquering Thebes. (Apparently a 19th century German novel was responsible for the shift in meaning.)

***

It’s common to observe that those with children of their own are more invested in the future than those without. That’s probably true, and yet I suspect it’s childless folks like me who spend more time thinking about posterity, precisely because we’re more self-absorbed: we’re more inclined to brood (because we have more free time in which to brood) over why we’re here, what was the point of it all, and what will survive of us after we’re gone.

As a backward-gazing person, I’ve always been interested in messages from the past to the future: time capsules, that sort of thing. My life has been too uneventful to make journal-keeping worthwhile, but for one whole calendar year – the year 2000 – I kept a journal, in which I looked back on the quarter of a century I’d then been alive, and speculated on what the next quarter-century would bring. On the last working day of the year I printed the journal, sealed it in a big envelope along with some photographs and letters (sealed already in smaller envelopes) that I’d solicited from friends, and mailed it to myself, to be opened in the year 2025.

time capsule 2000-2025

At the time, 2025 seemed nearly as remote to me as the 20th century must have seemed to Claudius – and yet here I am, already four-fifths of the way there. I’m curious to see what messages my friends enclosed for me, but I’m not exactly looking forward to re-reading my journal. I expect it to be quite depressing. Although I can’t remember precisely what in my mid-twenties I expected to achieve by my late forties, I know it was far more than I will actually have achieved. And I fear I have achieved so little precisely because I’m the kind of person who worries more about what the younger version of me would think of the current version, than about what the future version will think of himself.

As for what future generations will think of me: if for some reason you are reading this 1900 years in the future, I can only assume something has gone terribly wrong – an asteroid or nanobot swarm has wiped out all of earth’s literature, except for the contents of a single hard drive recovered from a tide-powered offshore server farm, kept in working order by a hereditary priesthood that has elevated my writings to the status of holy scripture. In that case, it’s only through my blog that knowledge of Shakespeare, Robert Heinlein, and Max Beerbohm has been preserved.

Sorry, 40th century digital monks: I know you’re dying to hear more about what a schmuck I was in my twenties, but I feel it’s my duty to preserve a few more fragments of Beerbohm…

***

In his touching essay from 1918, “A Clergyman”, Beerbohm draws our attention to a very peripheral character in James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson.

Johnson and his amanuensis are visiting friends at their country villa when Boswell solicits the doctor’s opinion on “what were the best English sermons for style”. On this question, as on most, Johnson has strong opinions, and there follows a brief scene of Boswell lobbing out the names of then-celebrated ecclesiastics – Atterbury, Tillotson, Jortin, Smalridge – and Johnson flicking them aside with a word or two.

Finally another, previously unmentioned member of the party, whom Boswell describes merely as “a Clergyman, whose name I do not recollect”, pipes up to wonder, “Were not Dodd’s sermons addressed to the passions?”

To which Johnson replies, “They were nothing, Sir, be they addressed to what they may.”

On that abrupt note, the conversation ends, and the clergyman is never heard from again. Beerbohm alone marks his departure:

I know not which is the more startling – the debut of the unfortunate clergyman, or the instantaneousness of his end. Why hadn’t Boswell told us there was a clergyman present? … We may assume that in the minds of the company around Johnson he had no place. He sat forgotten, overlooked; so that his self-assertion startled every one just as on Boswell’s page it startles us. …

I see him as he sits there listening to the great Doctor’s pronouncement on Atterbury and those others. He sits on the edge of a chair in the background. … He has no positive intention of speaking. Very much, nevertheless, is he wishing in the back of his mind that he could say something – something whereat the great Doctor would turn on him and say, after a pause for thought, “Why yes, Sir. That is most justly observed” or “Sir, this has never occurred to me. I thank you” – thereby fixing the observer for ever high in the esteem of all. And now in a flash the chance presents itself. “We have,” shouts Johnson, “no sermons addressed to the passions that are good for anything.” I see the curate’s frame quiver with sudden impulse, and his mouth fly open, and – no, I can’t bear it, I shut my eyes and ears.

A sad fate for the unlucky clergyman; and yet thanks to Boswell’s and Beerbohm’s combined attentions, his sole recorded utterance still rouses the imaginative sympathies of 21st century readers. Can as much be said for whole volumes of Atterbury, Tillotson, Jortin, or Smalridge? They rose to the top of their profession, they inspired and instructed the rich and the worthy, their reputations were so great that Dr. Johnson could summarize their achievements in a word. And yet 150 years later their names communicated nothing but, as Beerbohm puts it, “a dim, composite picture of a big man in a big wig and a billowing black gown”.

He looks forward another 150 years and foresees readers being similarly unedified by a discussion of the famous authors of his own time – and indeed, of the seven names he mentions (Wells, Galsworthy, Mrs. Ward, Caine, Miss Corelli, Upton Sinclair, and Mrs. Glyn) as being comparable in stature, in his era, to Atterbury et al. in Johnson’s, I recognized only three. And it’s barely been a century. Another fifty years should see off the survivors.

By that time Beerbohm will also be forgotten, and with him the flickering shade of that nervous clergyman. But of the latter at least we can assume that he went to his rest confident that a more enduring afterlife awaited him – that he was “above such terrene trifles”.

If only we all could believe the same…

M.

“A Clergyman” inevitably brings to mind Beerbohm’s marvellous short story “Enoch Soames”, in which a talentless author of that name sells his soul to the devil to be transported a hundred years into the future – to the year 1997 – to see how posterity has treated him. I have previously referred to Dr. Johnson in a postscript to my reflections on growth vs. fixed mindset in 2017, and to Max Beerbohm in a discussion of the Italian actress Eleonora Duse a few weeks ago.

Michael A. Charles is a jerk.

My name is Michael A. Charles. I have a blog: you’re reading it.

In all probability you arrived here, like most of my visitors, through a Google search. Most such visitors, I believe, skim only the first few lines of whichever article they land on, before clicking away in quest of less long-winded sources of information. If you are one of those visitors, no hard feelings, thanks for dropping by.

I’m grateful for my obscurity. I have little conviction that most of my arguments are true or, if true, useful, and a real fear that they might do someone harm. Nevertheless, some narcissistic mania compels me to share them. Luckily I’m boring enough that there’s little chance of their infecting too many strangers.

My boringness isn’t entirely accidental. I tend to deliberately avoid subjects that might have mainstream appeal. This is mostly defensive. If I ever became interesting enough to attract a wide readership, I might feel pressured to go on being interesting, which would involve a lot of hard work. As a habitual bore I can go on idly amusing myself, and the ten or a dozen people out there who share my esoteric interests, without feeling like I’ve let anybody down.

And yet some part of me wants to be noticed. Among my many posts about forgotten old books and movies you’ll sometimes find me blethering about hot-button political and social issues. Most of my blethering is, by online standards, fairly polite. Not coincidentally, it has been almost completely ignored. I’ve been lucky so far.

If you’re reading this on a computer you’ll notice in the right sidebar an automatically-generated selection of my most popular posts. (On a mobile device the list appears, I believe, at the bottom of the page.) This list varies from day to day, and from year to year, as different search queries cycle in and out of prominence, and as Google tunes its mysterious clockworks to elevate or deprecate certain responses to those queries. On quiet days a mere handful of visits is enough to raise a post into my top ten.

My most popular posts are generally pretty old. It takes a while, sometimes years, for a post to accumulate enough incoming links for Google to deem it worthy of a high ranking. As I write this – but not necessarily as you read it – one of my top posts concerns the science-fiction writer Peter Watts, whose novel Blindsight I commented on, quite favourably, almost a decade ago. This item regularly appears among my top ten, and has become a regular source of embarrassment to me.

You see, at the time I wrote it, it seemed a good idea to give that post the inflammatory and unkind title “Peter Watts is a jerk”.

If you read the whole thing you’ll find that it’s less about Watts’s abrasive personality (as exhibited in his blog; I’ve never met the man) than it is about how my awareness of his abrasive personality affected my response to his writing. (To wit: despite enjoying Blindsight a great deal, after ten years I still haven’t attempted to read another of his books.)

As when I occasionally refer to myself as a crank, I had in mind, when choosing that title, a certain light-hearted, even affectionate colouration to the word “jerk”. But I can’t blame readers for failing to detect the subtle undertones in a phrase which seems pretty black-and-white. The vast majority of those who see the title in a web search, or in the sidebar of my blog, will never click through to the essay. They’ll simply conclude that there is a guy named Peter Watts who is a jerk; or, if they’re more skeptical, that some random blogger, not necessarily reliable, thinks that some guy named Peter Watts is a jerk; or, if they happen to know already who Peter Watts is, that some random blogger is making a jerk of himself by hurling insults at a perfectly harmless Canadian sci-fi writer.

I wasn’t thinking about any of that a decade ago. I realized that my title was a little overbearing, yes, like a blinking neon sign on the side of a hotel; but I figured customers would forgive the sign once they got inside and saw how tasteful the lobby was. I didn’t consider the effect on passersby – how my blinking neon would contribute to the increasingly tacky and low-class appearance of the whole neighbourhood.

Granted, I didn’t kick off the descent into tackiness, and tearing down my sign will do little to reverse it. And if I did tear it down, the nature of advertising being what it is, I might get somewhat fewer customers. But do I really want the sort of customers who’d respond positively to such a vulgar inducement?

On the other hand, while we should certainly be cautious about blighting our neighbourhoods with eyesores, perhaps once they’re in place it’s better to let them stand, to commemorate the fashions and ideologies that erected them. I believe that there’s value in being constantly reminded that our notions of good taste change from decade to decade.

Besides, if we tear down yesterday’s blunders all at once, we’ll inevitably end up replacing them with a whole new set of blunders, which the next generation will have to deal with. Rather than demolishing our eyesores we should recontextualize them by gradually assembling around them new, hopefully more attractive structures that complement and soften their ugliness.

That’s what I’m trying to do here. I could go back into my archives and blot out my past misjudgements – but only at the risk of propagating my current misjudgements. Better to keep on adding to my cityscape, while hoping that the whole amounts to more than the sum of its ungainly parts.

I realize this seems an absurdly grandiose justification for not changing the title of an old blog post. And I’m not even finished! To abandon my elaborate metaphor, I don’t approve of people going into old webpages and editing away their mistakes to make themselves look better.

One of the things I hate about the internet is how it has not only muddled chronology (often it’s impossible to figure out when a webpage was published, let alone how often it’s been edited since then) but made chronology irrelevant by overwhelming us with the transient and immediate. While it’s a pain in the butt schlepping down to the library to scroll through old newspapers on microfilm, at least when you head home you know the contents of the spools will be in the same order when you resume your search tomorrow, or fifty years from now.

Whereas the modern-day spool-keepers shuffle their contents from day to day based on what other people are scrolling, what you’ve previously chosen to scroll, and what opinions the spool-keepers have determined should no longer be scrollable. Under these conditions it’s hard to reconstruct the arguments people were making as recently a decade ago. Most of us no longer bother to try. There are plenty of brand new controversies to get excited about today, and there’ll be a whole new set tomorrow.

Well, damn it, my contributions to the intellectual climate of 2010 might have been asinine and destructive. But I made them. Therefore I shall, as far as I’m able, preserve them under their original titles and at their original URLs, so that future internet historians can find them, read them, and shake their heads at what a jerk their author must have been.

M.

Assimilating strangeness.

Perhaps you saw or heard of a movie that came out earlier this year called Yesterday, directed by Danny Boyle from a script by the noted schmaltzeur Richard Curtis.

Don’t worry if you missed it. The movie never lives up to its intriguing setup, wherein an obscure singer-songwriter gets bonked into an alternate universe where the Beatles never existed. He passes their songs off as his own, playing them at local pubs where at first they’re ignored and yelled over by indifferent yobs; but before long their greatness is recognized, and our hero shoots to Beatles-scale superstardom.

I realize it’s a romantic fantasy. It wouldn’t be much of a movie if the hero just went on getting yelled over by yobs until in frustration he gave up on the Beatles and resumed strumming his own mediocre stuff.

And yet I suspect that’s how the scenario would actually play out. In a world where the Beatles never happened, where popular music carried on evolving for another half-century unaffected by their influence, who knows what strange noises people would be listening to by now.

If by good luck the hero were as charismatic as the Beatles – and, um, he isn’t – he’d still have to overcome the disadvantage of sounding hopelessly out-of-fashion.

***

In Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence a middle-aged London stockbroker abandons his wife and children to move to Paris and take up painting. The established Bohemians sneer at Charles Strickland’s clumsy experiments, but he is as indifferent to their opinions as he is to the feelings of his discarded family and friends.

In his early years of self-exile, Strickland’s sole supporter is a fellow artist named Dirk Stroeve, who convinces a local gallery to display a few of the Englishman’s paintings. Stroeve reminds the skeptical proprietor that Monet, too, struggled at first to find buyers. The proprietor finds the parallel unsatisfactory:

“True. But there were a hundred as good painters as Monet who couldn’t sell their pictures at that time, and their pictures are worth nothing still. How can one tell? Is merit enough to bring success? Don’t believe it. Du reste, it has still to be proved that this friend of yours has merit. No-one claims it for him but Monsieur Stroeve.”

“And how, then, will you recognize merit?” asked Dirk, red in the face with anger.

“There is only one way – by success.”

Stroeve is convinced that Strickland’s genius will someday be recognized – and he turns out to be right. Merit shines through! However, Paris must be full of art lovers proclaiming this or that obscure painter a genius. Since no-one bothers to write books about the unfulfilled geniuses, only a few insiders, like the gallery owner, ever realize how many wrong predictions there are for every lucky strike.

Is it only by chance that Strickland’s paintings, and not those of one of his garret-dwelling rivals, caught the eye of some influential critic or tastemaker? Or was Stroeve right – was Strickland’s merit bound to be acknowledged eventually? We can’t see the paintings and judge for ourselves, but the narrator, when he is finally permitted by the moody artist to see them, tells us:

They seemed to me ugly, but they suggested without disclosing a secret of momentous significance. They were strangely tantalising. They gave me an emotion that I could not analyse. They said something that words were powerless to utter.

But he’s recording these impressions years afterward, by which time Strickland’s influence has diffused throughout the art world, making his aberrations commonplace, his crudities the new model of refinement. How many other ugly paintings has the narrator been strangely tantalized by, over the years, whose creators’ fame never glowed hotly enough to blast his formless impressions into solidity?

The Moon and Sixpence is loosely based on the scandalous life of Paul Gauguin. For the 1942 film version, which follows the novel fairly faithfully, the artist Dolya Goutman was hired to create Gauguinesque murals for the walls of Strickland’s cabin in Tahiti.

Here’s one patterned after Gauguin’s “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?”

dolya goutman the moon and sixpence painting

Artwork by Dolya Goutman for The Moon and Sixpence.

We glimpse these murals for only a few moments, from the perspective of a doctor summoned to the bedside of the reclusive artist. Originally this scene was shown in Technicolor, in an otherwise black-and-white movie, to reflect the doctor’s awe and bemusement.

After Strickland’s death, his Tahitian mistress (in the movie, his legitimate wife; a detail altered to evade censorship) abides by his instructions and torches the cabin, destroying his final masterpieces. Maugham’s narrator isn’t surprised:

“He had achieved what he wanted. His life was complete. He had made a world and saw that it was good. Then, in pride and contempt, he destroyed it.”

***

Maugham’s unsettled reaction to Strickland’s paintings – “strangely tantalising” – reminded me of Harold Bloom, in his 1994 bestseller The Western Canon, attempting to single out the quality that elevates a work of literature to canonical status:

The answer, more often than not, has turned out to be strangeness, a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange.

Indulge me as I make a fool of myself attempting to argue with Harold Bloom. As I understand it, his primary contribution to the lexicon of literary criticism was “the anxiety of influence”, the theory that great writers produce great art by an “agonistic” process (“agon” being Bloom’s favourite word) of “creatively misreading” their great predecessors:

Tradition is not only a handing-down or process of benign transmission; it is also a conflict between past genius and present aspiration, in which the prize is literary survival or canonical inclusion.

So, in Bloom’s view, it’s not enough for us to pluck up some obscure minority writer of the 19th century and declare her to be canonical. The canon was built up by generations of writers grinding the works of earlier writers through their own imaginations, depositing the results in new layers of sediment which subsequent writers then sifted and rearranged.

The canon isn’t set by professors of literature, let alone by education bureaucrats; all they can do is poke around in the mound with the rest of us and argue about whether this bit of Bellow is two-thirds Dickens and one-third Whitman or the reverse.

In the above metaphor, inclusion in the mound may be decided in large part by chance. That minority writer of the 19th century might have been read more widely, might have influenced slightly younger writers, who might have passed her influence down through the years to us – but she was overlooked; maybe because people of her era were terrible racist snobs, or maybe because they just didn’t think she was very good. If a single critic had descried genius in her work, and swayed others to the same view, the mound might have taken a slightly different shape, and our notions of genius would today be subtly different.

But Bloom doesn’t care for contingency. He prefers to believe that when 17th century audiences elevated Shakespeare over his peers as the preeminent English dramatist, and that when over subsequent centuries the non-English-speaking world was gradually convinced of Shakespeare’s primacy, they were responding to some innate greatness in his writing. He dismisses as “resentment” the argument that another figure could have occupied the central place in the canon:

Clearly this line of inquiry begins to border on the fantastic; how much simpler to admit that there is a qualitative difference, a difference in kind, between Shakespeare and every other writer, even Chaucer, even Tolstoy, or whoever.

Well, maybe. As I’ve previously admitted, I have a hard time following Shakespeare at his knottiest, and am probably therefore missing a lot. But the parts that I can follow, while written in what even a dope like me can recognize as wondrously inventive English, seem nevertheless to dissipate an awful lot of their wonder in absurd plots, wearisome digressions, and prolonged anticlimaxes.

To repeat, I’m a dope. But even Harold Bloom, no dope, acknowledges the weaknesses in what he considers Shakespeare’s greatest play, King Lear:

[Edgar] maintains all his disguises long after they could have been discarded. His refusal to reveal himself to Gloucester until just before he anonymously goes forth to cut down Edmund is as curious as Shakespeare’s refusal to dramatize the scene of revelation and reconciliation between father and son. We hear Edgar’s narrative of the scene, but we are denied the scene itself.

If you haven’t read Lear in a while, Gloucester is the credulous old duffer who gets his eyes plucked out through the connivance of his wicked bastard son Edmund. His legitimate son, Edgar, a fugitive hiding in plain view as a crazy homeless guy, takes up with his father when he finds him wandering eyeless on the heath, but keeps up the crazy act even when there’s no-one else around – for no apparent reason, other than to crank up the pathos.

gloucester and edgar by h.c. selous

Edgar and Gloucester in King Lear.
Illustrator H.C. Selous, engraver Frederick Wentworth.
From The Plays of William Shakespeare, Cassell & Company, 1864-68.

At the climax of the play Edgar turns up, still incognito, and fatally wounds Edmund. His speech afterward, explaining where he’s been and what became of their father, takes up nineteen lines, concluding:

…some half-hour past, when I was arm’d:
Not sure, though hoping, of this good success,
I ask’d his blessing, and from first to last
Told him my pilgrimage: but his flaw’d heart,
Alack, too weak the conflict to support!
‘Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief,
Burst smilingly.

So the old man died offstage, and that’s the last we hear of him.

Bloom attempts to justify this unsatisfying development as an instance of Shakespeare’s dramatic subtlety:

Perhaps Shakespeare kept the death of Gloucester offstage so that the contrast between the dying Lear and the dying Edmund would retain all of its pungency.

Look, there may be a slight gap in talent separating me from Shakespeare – but I, too, am an author. I wrote a whole novel. It took me the better part of three years, and it was unpublishable. A year later it occurred to me that I’d failed to flesh out several vital scenes, and I devoted additional weeks to revisions. It ended up just as unpublishable as before.

As Bloom mentions, Shakespeare never bothered to proofread most of his works before publication. There are two distinct texts of King Lear, which later editors mashed together into the play we’re acquainted with. If after writing Lear Shakespeare had had nothing better to do than brood over its shortcomings, he might have been inspired to do as I did: go back in and smooth over the lumpy bits. But he was busy writing Macbeth.

Probably, Shakespeare being Shakespeare, any revisions he made would have been for the better. But suppose we were bonked into the alternate universe where, rather than dashing off thirty-seven plays, [1] heedlessly flicking the finished pages over his shoulder, Shakespeare had crafted a mere dozen, pouring every ounce of his energy and concentration into perfecting each one.

In that case he probably wouldn’t have gotten around to Lear, or for that matter Hamlet or Othello or Macbeth. He’d have been too busy polishing Romeo and Juliet to an unfathomably high gleam. Audiences hungry for fresh content would have turned to some other, less fastidious author – Ben Jonson, maybe – to supply their wants, with who knows what effects on the shape and composition of the canonical mound.

High-gleam Shakespeare might turn out to be a bit of a bummer, anyway. The absurdities and anticlimaxes that strike me as byproducts of haste may after all have been deliberate choices. Even on a second look, Shakespeare might have left them untouched, and spent his time polishing away all the hijinks and rude humour that modern audiences love.

M.

1. My Collected Works of William Shakespeare, inherited from my father, contains thirty-seven plays. Since my dad’s youth five additional titles have crept into the oeuvre: two lost plays and three previously unrecognized collaborations. This is very annoying. I have elected to ignore the latecomers.

H.C. Selous, illustrator of the Edgar and Gloucester scene above, was previously featured in my post on scary pictures in Pilgrim’s Progress. I don’t seem to have mentioned Harold Bloom before, but I have written about that other curmudgeonly defender of the Western cultural heritage, Allan “no relation” Bloom.

Right, and right again.

Months ago I clipped out this National Post article about how our society is increasingly “consumed by loneliness”.

One of the experts quoted is Dr. Fay Bound Alberti, “cultural historian of gender, emotion and medicine”, who identifies neoliberalism, individualism, and nationalism as isolating trends that have severed people from the support of their traditional communities – “whether that was good or bad”.

This gives the author her opening for the ritual denunciation of you-know-who:

The rise of populism can further pit people against others – blacks, Mexicans, immigrants – while at the same time creating a seeming sense of belonging.

The “Make America great again” rallying campaign slogan “theoretically represents a common purpose – or a new ‘religion’, given how evangelical Trump’s rallies can appear,” Bound Alberti said. “But it’s based on exclusion, division and difference.”

You’d think a topic like loneliness would be safely remote from the realm of partisan finger-jabbing. Turns out, no. I had the exhausted reaction once described by Alan Jacobs: “Is there any chance of my getting through a recent essay, an article, a story, an interview, without a reference to That Man?

I have a less self-contradictory theory for how loneliness is connected to “the rise of populism”. We retreat from human interaction because we fear that if we shared our unguarded opinions with co-workers, family members, and friends, we’d end up scratching each other’s eyes out.

***

Dashiell Hammett’s The Dain Curse is about a private eye protecting a troubled girl who believes that, under the influence of the title curse, she’s responsible for a rash of murders that have occurred in her vicinity. She cites her oddly-shaped face and ears, and the “fog” that prevents her from thinking “even the simplest thoughts”, as evidence that the sins of her parents have corrupted her bloodline.

The private eye reassures her that she’s perfectly normal:

“Nobody thinks clearly, no matter what they pretend. Thinking’s a dizzy business, a matter of catching as many of those foggy glimpses as you can and fitting them together the best you can. That’s why people hang on so tight to their beliefs and opinions; because, compared to the haphazard way in which they’re arrived at, even the goofiest opinion seems wonderfully clear, sane, and self-evident. And if you let it get away from you, then you’ve got to dive back into that foggy muddle to wangle yourself out another to take its place.”

Whether the private eye believes this, who knows. He’s a hard-boiled type who’ll say anything to manipulate the squirrelly mooks and screwy dames he encounters. And whether Hammett believed it, again, who knows. He spent the last thirty years of his life as an unwavering follower of the Communist Party line, holding tight to his goofy opinions even when they led to prison and the blacklist during the McCarthy era.

Anyway, I believe it. Life is a half-waking stagger through a crowded underlit arcade with neon flashing, klaxons wailing, jabbering teenagers jostling you on all sides, and you’re lucky if you can focus your attention on anything for two seconds consecutively, let alone accurately describe your perceptions afterward. That’s how I feel most of the time, anyway. I assume everyone else is going through the same thing, so I try to cut them some slack when they spill their drinks down the back of my shirt.

At his trial, Socrates claimed that if he was wiser than other men, it was only in being wise enough to realize how little he knew. I’ll go Socrates one further: I’m wise enough to admit that those supposed wise men in the newspapers, on TV, on Twitter, who to me seem such overconfident know-it-alls, are probably wiser than me after all.

The trouble is, the wise men all contradict each other, so I’m forced to rely on what scraps of wisdom I can retrieve from the foggy muddle.

***

Best I can remember, I started paying serious attention to public affairs sometime in my mid-teens, which would be the early nineties – let’s say around the start of the Clinton administration in the US, and Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government in my native Canada. Since then I’ve lived through four presidents – two Democrats and two Republicans – and four prime ministers – three Liberals, one Conservative.

That’s not much of a sample, but it’s enough that I’ve begun to notice that right-wing and left-wing governments affect my beliefs in different ways. Namely, when right-wingers are in power, either in Washington or Ottawa, I become more sympathetic to conservative ideas; but when left-wingers seize the helm there is no compensating effect on my philosophical orientation.

Thus I find myself becoming more and more right-wing.

It’s not because I have an “authoritarian personality” which makes right-wing arguments somehow seem more convincing when backed by the iron fist of the ruling party. It’s actually kind of the opposite. I live almost entirely in a left-wing milieu. My friends and nearest family are left-wingers. The restaurants I eat in, the neighbourhoods I hang out in, are populated mostly by left-wingers. And the media I consume – apart from conservative news sources I’ve sought out deliberately in the interest of balance – is produced largely by left-wingers.

When leftists are running things, the left-wing masses are content. Sure, they’ll still bitch about the horrible things those fascist pigs are planning to do if they ever take over, but there’s a complacent undertone to their bitching. They’re convinced of the long-term inevitability of their victory – the arc of the moral universe bending toward what they regard as justice. Aren’t all the cool young people left-wing? Aren’t all the high-birthrate immigrants left-wing? Aren’t all the old fascists dying off, their communities withering, their perks sustained only by anachronisms like the electoral college and first-past-the-post voting? We’ll be rid of ’em soon. Just a few mopping-up operations, that’s all.

But when the fascists upset their sense of destiny by actually winning elections, left-wingers go absolutely nuts. Where before they might have lobbed the occasional snide comment into the opposing trenches, in the spirit of keeping the enemy on their toes, now the barrage becomes nonstop and desperate. You flip open the arts section and every book review includes an irrelevant swipe at the uncultured rednecks occupying the capital. You sit down in a coffeeshop and the kiddies at the next table are bewailing some half-remembered social media listicle about the government’s viciousness. You attend a dinner party and sit biting your lip through a series of wisecracks made in the assurance that no-one present could ever support those ignoramuses who have tricked and slandered and demagogued their way into power.

Now, I’m pretty sure that in a right-wing milieu, the masses act out just as annoyingly when left-wingers are in charge. Never having lived in such a milieu, it’s never concerned me. Living the lifestyle I do, it’s pretty easy for me to tune out right-wing idiocy. Left-wing idiocy I simply can’t escape. And I react to it by sympathizing with the targets of left-wing ire.

It may seem silly to think of Donald Trump and George W. Bush and Stephen Harper as underdogs. Objectively, they aren’t. But from my perspective, in the milieu I inhabit, when left-wingers are on the attack, right-wing ideas appear harried, besieged, bombarded with disproportionate force. Which makes them sympathetic. So I migrate rightward – until left-wingers resume power and call off the siege, and I resume my state of indecisive stasis.

(I have also considered the idea, of course, that I’m simply getting older, and older people tend to be more right-wing – maybe because of growing wisdom, or aversion to change, or because we hold on to the same middle-of-the-road opinions we held in our youth and discover to our surprise that they’re now considered conservative.

There’s also the possibility that left-wing ideology, at least in its popular form, is becoming more unhinged with each passing decade, and older people are the only ones who’ve been around long enough to notice.)

***

During the last provincial election I read an op-ed about British Columbia’s log policy. I had been unaware of the elaborate system of rules governing when unprocessed logs can be shipped abroad and when they must be retained locally in order to provide work for our own sawmills. I can’t remember if the op-ed was pro-log policy or anti-log policy. My reaction was something like: ugh, yet another goddamn thing to think about.

I’m pretty dumb and lazy – maybe dumber, definitely lazier than the average. But I doubt all my intelligence and effort could add much to the log policy debate. The many, many British Columbians who are smarter than me, and the practically all of them who are more energetic than me, for all their deep thought and careful analysis haven’t managed to arrive at a consensus yet. Instead, unsurprisingly, they’ve clustered around two viewpoints which we might tag (however arbitrarily) as left-wing and right-wing – with the right-wingers, in this case, supporting the liberty of logging companies to market their logs abroad in pursuit of higher prices, while the left-wingers want to keep the logs here to preserve blue-collar jobs.

(A hundred years ago, the “left” side of this argument would have been for free trade, while the “right” would have favoured a mercantilist National Policy. With Trumpist protectionism ascendant on the right and “open borders” the rallying cry on the left, the two sides appear to be in the process of swapping places again.)

I’m not sure how I’d balance those two values – economic liberty for all, versus job security for a few – assuming that the anti-traders are even correct that limiting exports helps preserve local jobs. I recently spent an hour reading up on the subject, bashing my head on jargon like the Surplus Test and Fee-In-Lieu Of Manufacture, and I’m no wiser than when I began.

But if BC’s log policy for some reason became a topic of heated national debate – with my left-wing friends all reposting conspiracy theories about how this or that pundit was in the pocket of Big Logging; with John Oliver and Samantha Bee snarking about those halfwit Log Denialists; with websites supposedly dedicated to movies or comics sanctimoniously trumpeting their participation in the International Day Without Logs – well, that would clarify things enormously. The surest way to align my sympathies with the right is for the left to decide that no intelligent person could disagree with them.

It appears I’m as susceptible to brainwashing as the most credulous left-wing dunderhead. Turn bien-pensant opinion against something and I soon start seeing the good points in it.

M.

I’m afraid this is all ground I’ve covered before, for instance in my discussions of Jordan Peterson and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Jane Jacobs and the flexible definition of “populism”, and why I can’t be bothered to vote.

The Hastings SkyTrain alternate reality.

Having a couple leftover maps and newspaper clippings from my researches into Vancouver’s unrealized rapid transit plans, I thought I should find an excuse to share them.

Here it is: a commenter on my post on the Edmonds-Cariboo SkyTrain extension quibbled with my assessment that this widely hated late ’80s proposal might have been a better deal than the Millennium Line that was built instead.

This is a reasonable quibble. I’m not all that sure myself. Although I’ve hinted here and there, I’ve never really spelled out my conjecture that the Millennium Line was a wrong turn, and that Vancouver might have been better off sticking to its earlier plan for four routes radiating from the Central Business District:

vancouver ultimate transit network 1990 study

Source: Vancouver Richmond Rapid Transit Project, N.D. Lea Consultants / Reid Crowther and Partners, 1990.

A. North to the North Shore.
B. East along Hastings Street.
C. Southeast to New Westminster and Surrey.
D. South to Richmond.

Routes C and D are today’s Expo and Canada Lines.

Route A still gets a flutter of interest now and then, most recently in 2017 when the outgoing mayor of North Vancouver pitched a tunnelled Waterfront Station-Lonsdale Quay SkyTrain to take some pressure off the overloaded bridges.

And though it’s largely been forgotten now, as late as the 1990s transit officials had hazy notions of going ahead with route B, which would have entailed extending the Expo Line eastward from its current terminus at Waterfront Station to a Park & Ride at the PNE.

There appear to be no technical obstacles to extending SkyTrain beyond Waterfront. [1] In fact the idea was considered in the early stages of planning for what became the Canada Line. In this study from 1990, the routes marked G1-5, H1-5, and I1-5 would have looped the Expo Line southward toward Richmond via a tunnel entrance just east of Waterfront Station:

vancouver-richmond rapid transit downtown route options 1990

Source: Vancouver Richmond Rapid Transit Project, N.D. Lea Consultants / Reid Crowther and Partners, 1990.

These routes were ruled out as they would have required burrowing under architecturally sensitive Gastown.

Suppose the Expo Line had instead been extended eastward. Rather than undermining Gastown, the line might have followed the harbourfront at surface level or on elevated rails, and crossed south to Hastings in one of the less-cherished neighbourhoods to the east. From there it might have proceeded either overhead or via tunnel to Hastings Park and the PNE.

At some later date, whenever it came time to replace one of the two existing Second Narrows crossings, the line could be affordably extended across the new bridge to the North Shore – as in this map from a 1994 study: [2]

north shore transit options second narrows

Source: North Shore Transit Options, BC Transit, 1994.

But let’s assume that the extension terminated at the PNE. In that case the whole length would be about six kilometres. Travel time would be roughly ten minutes, versus twenty by express bus.

In the 1990s, BC Transit might easily have scrimped and built the whole thing on elevated rails, for around $60 million per kilometre, $360 million overall. [3] It would have been damned as a blot on the skyline, of course, but by now everyone would be used to it. And imagine the views from the train windows!

In recent decades, Vancouver’s centre of gravity has been drifting eastward, bringing wealthy new residents and rising prices to the East Hastings area. If TransLink (BC Transit’s successor agency) were to attempt a Hastings SkyTrain now, they’d be obliged to defer to concerns about community impacts and tunnel the whole way, at a cost approaching the half-billion dollars per kilometre budgeted for the upcoming Broadway extension.

Therefore I’m afraid that by the time such a line becomes necessary it’ll be too pricy to build. (See my post on rapid transit in the era of cost disease.)

In any case, the construction of the Millennium Line on a parallel route a couple kilometres further south has made the prospect of a future Hastings SkyTrain quite remote. A pity, because:

  • As shown in the maps below, the Hastings extension would have linked a number of densely-populated, rental-heavy, and transit-dependent neighbourhoods;
  • It would have serviced the eastern edge of Gastown, the Port of Vancouver, the Pacific Coliseum, and the PNE – all potential high-volume destinations;
  • It would have brought rapid transit to a new region of the city, instead of concentrating service in a narrow triangle of Vancouver’s east side;
  • Consequently it would have enjoyed high ridership from day one, rather than underperforming as the Millennium Line did in its early years. [4]
vancouver skytrain stations population density

Based on a map by Anthony Smith.

skytrain hastings extension population density

Based on a map by Anthony Smith.
For the assumptions behind this fanciful map, see [5].

Okay, okay, I foresee your objection: my maps conveniently cut off everything east of Boundary Road, while the Millennium Line extends clear across Burnaby and into Coquitlam. Which brings us to…

The Edmonds-Cariboo SkyTrain alternate reality.

I don’t begrudge the residents of central Burnaby and East Vancouver the speed and convenience of the Millennium Line. I rode it for a while myself.

But SkyTrain wasn’t built through those neighbourhoods in response to demand from existing residents. It was built there because Lougheed Highway was a big, wide road with nothing much on either side of it – meaning construction would be cheap, and the new line would spur the profitable redevelopment of low-density residential and light industrial properties along its route.

As I discussed in my 2015 post on planners versus riders, there’s nothing wrong with using rapid transit to shape the growth of the city. The downside is that in the short term, while your new line is used only by the few pioneers willing to live along its largely barren route, commuters who elected to live in already-developed neighbourhoods are stuck riding overcrowded buses.

This is particularly annoying because on a busy corridor like, say, Hastings Street, buses are constantly having to slow down for red lights, pedestrians, and cars backing into tight parking spots. Meanwhile a road like Lougheed, with its mile-long blocks, empty shoulders, and lack of pedestrians, is a perfect spot for high-speed bus service. For the cost of a single SkyTrain station an express bus lane could have been built clear across Burnaby.

Of course, the Millennium Line wasn’t built solely to spur development along Lougheed Highway. The goal was always to connect busy downtown Coquitlam, in the far northeast, with the even busier Broadway corridor.

skytrain millennium line history

For cost-saving reasons the lightly populated middle section was built first. Then the more technically challenging Lougheed Mall-Coquitlam stretch. Now, a couple decades into the new millennium, we’re getting serious about extending it to West Broadway – the neighbourhood whose population density and employment opportunities will at last justify the line’s existence.

The Millennium Line’s defenders will say that without the middle stretch the route would make no sense. But the Edmonds-Cariboo extension proposed in the late 1980s was meant as a cheap-and-easy shortcut to Coquitlam.

Under this option a Coquitlam-downtown Vancouver trip would have been just as quick as it is today, and wouldn’t have required a transfer. Because the route was substantially less costly to build, it could have been in service years sooner.

skytrain proposed edmonds-cariboo extension

The route was ruled out in 1991 by the incoming NDP government, who in opposition had derided SkyTrain as a “big white elephant”. [6] They may have had a point! But after a few extra years of dawdling the NDP decided they liked the technology after all, and the Millennium Line was born.

Suppose the Edmonds-Cariboo route had been chosen, and the line subsequently extended from Lougheed Town Centre to Coquitlam, as in the above map. The advantages I’ve already outlined. What about the drawbacks?

  • Several neighbourhoods that have enjoyed an economic boost from the proximity of the Millennium Line would instead have remained neglected. (Some residents might see this as benign neglect.) [7] However, much of that development would have been redirected to stops on the Edmonds-Cariboo route.
  • The network would have lacked the redundancy that the Millennium Line provides. Currently when a train breaks down on the central portion of the Expo Line commuters can bypass the obstruction via the Millennium Line. This is no small thing! (The completion of the Broadway extension will add another sorely needed bypass route.)
  • The overcrowding that currently afflicts the Expo Line between downtown and Commercial-Broadway Station (where it intersects with the Millennium Line) would instead persist all the way to Royal Oak. This might be mitigated by turning around some percentage of eastbound trains at Edmonds Station, but it is a serious shortcoming of the Edmonds-Cariboo design.
  • Without the middle stretch of the Millennium Line there would be no obvious way to link a future Broadway extension to the original SkyTrain network. It would have to be built as an independent line (like the Canada Line) with its own train yard and maintenance facility.

I see these drawbacks as serious but not decisive. I suspect that over in the alternate reality where the Edmonds-Cariboo and Hastings routes were completed there are transit nerds speculating about the missed opportunity of the Broadway-Lougheed SkyTrain, with similarly equivocal results.

M.

1. The option of extending the Expo Line beyond Waterfront Station will be closed off if the City of Vancouver ever follows through on its plans for a pedestrian plaza over the train platforms there. Although the plans leave a contingency for an additional commuter rail platform, they appear to rule out any future rapid transit line – tunneled or aboveground, north or eastbound – that might terminate there.

2. The 1994 BC Transit study North Shore Transit Options examined three different corridors by which SkyTrain could be brought to North and West Vancouver – via the First Narrows, Second Narrows, or a tunnel directly connecting Waterfront Station and Lonsdale Quay. The authors’ verdict:

[R]ail based transit was considered not to be a viable alternative in either the short or long term for the following reasons:

Low Ridership: … For ridership to reach the level that would make it cost-effective, a single rail link would be required to capture over 75% of all peak period, peak direction travel across Burrard Inlet. Given the distinct market areas for travel across Burrard Inlet, there is no single corridor which is likely to achieve this level of demand….

Minimal Travel Time Savings: … Most users of a rapid transit link to the North Shore would be required to travel to a rail station by bus and then transfer to the rail system. Transferring has been shown to be a deterrent to increasing transit ridership. With a relatively short trip across the inlet, it is likely that any travel time savings of a rail system would be offset by the need to transfer.

High Cost: … In 1989, a SkyTrain link between Waterfront Station and Lonsdale Quay was estimated to cost over $400 million…. There would also be a cost in getting rail transit to and from a new crossing.

Since (unlike the other routes discussed in this post) a North Shore rapid transit link remains a live, if remote, possibility, the study is still worth a read. You can find a copy at the downtown library.

3. My extremely crude cost estimate for the Hastings extension is based on the per-kilometre price of the mostly elevated Millennium Line, built in 2002.

4.Second SkyTrain line lags behind predictions,” Surrey / North Delta Leader, May 20, 2005. Three years after the opening of the Millennium Line, TransLink officials were putting an optimistic spin on ridership figures that were well below projections.

5. In mapping my hypothetical Hastings extension I’ve tried to stick to what might actually have been approved in the 1990s. If I’ve cheated it’s by being unrealistically generous in the spacing of stations: I’ve located them at Main Street, Clark, Nanaimo, Renfrew, and Highway 1.

A real-world version might easily look like Exhibit IX, above, with one crummy stop (at Commercial Drive) between Main Street and the PNE.

6.NDP calls SkyTrain big white elephant,” Vancouver Sun, May 4, 1988. Opposition MLA Bob Williams complains about a 3-cents-per-litre gasoline tax to pay for SkyTrain; Finance Minister Mel Couvelier points to how many construction jobs were created and says the project “met all our objectives”.

7.Transit Studying East Van Link,” Vancouver Courier, April 17, 1991. From a moment in history when Vancouver’s city council and a significant bloc of its citizens were united in resistance to what would become the Millennium Line. To quote a member of HASTE (Homeowners Against SkyTrain Effects): “SkyTrain is a raucous, screeching, horrible machine that has no place in residential neighbourhoods.”


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

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

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