Archive for the 'Arguments' Category

’Cide by ’cide.

Last year in an essay on Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions I quoted a comment the author made years ago in an interview. The subject was suicide:

As a problem-solving device, it’s in the forefront of my mind all the time. It’s like walking along the edge of a cliff. I’m in the country and the pump stops. What’ll I do? I know: I’ll kill myself. The roof is leaking. What’ll I do? I know: I’ll blow my brains out.

It made me think of a bit in Nicholson Baker’s Box of Matches where the narrator, who often eases himself into sleep by imagining ludicrous methods of killing himself, visualizes a Rube Goldberg suicide apparatus:

If you kill yourself, you are being inconsiderate, because others must deal with the distasteful mess of your corpse. The self-filling grave solved that.

The self-filling grave involves a shotgun, a tripwire, and a “complicated system of pulleys and weights” that releases a load of earth over your corpse as you fall. This passage stuck in my memory because I’d had a similar fantasy, except with a vat of acid.

When I was twenty or so and sad and aimless and lonely, in emails to my friends back home I would occasionally crack wise about my upcoming suicide. Until one day the phone rang and it was a friend who feared I was about to hurl myself off a bridge.

I tried to explain: No, I have no intention of killing myself. I’m just saying it’s comforting to know that it’s in my back pocket, so to speak, as a fallback in case things get really bad. Don’t worry, I’m fine. Please can we stop talking about this. Really I’m fine.

And I learned to stop talking about it: no point freaking out my friends and family. I’m twenty years older now, and perhaps a shade wiser; less prone, anyway, to hyperdramatizing every slight and setback. But I’ve been carrying the old suicide charm around in my back pocket this whole time, and even now, every so often I’ll pull it out and give it a wistful caress.

I’ve got this buddy – let’s see; I’ve used X. and Y. already in recent months, so I guess I’ll call him Z. – who’ll fall sometimes into a state of deep apathy. He was in a highway accident years back – he calls it sheer bad luck, but I’d guess reckless driving played a part – where if his tumbling vehicle had tumbled an inch to the right or left, he would now be dead. Since then, he says, he hasn’t much cared whether he lives or dies. He’s flirted with suicide more than once: had a rope around his neck, had a gun barrel in his mouth; and in between, snarfed chemicals of uncertain provenance in the vague hope he’d be spared the trouble of waking up next morning.

When he muses about killing himself, I find myself echoing that friend who called me twenty years ago to dissuade me from jumping off the bridge: I tell Z. he’s got a lot to live for – things are gonna start looking up any minute – his friends and family would be heartbroken if he died – and so on and so forth. He just shakes his head in frustration. “You can’t understand,” he tells me. “If you haven’t been through it, you can’t possibly understand.”

Maybe on these occasions it would help if I shared with Z. my own daydreams of self-obliteration. Maybe it would lend my platitudes the sheen of authority. But I’m afraid he wouldn’t take me seriously – he’d conclude that to me suicide is, so to speak, a conversation piece: an antique blunderbuss to hang above the fireplace; while to him it’s something you keep loaded and ready by the door for when the wolves get too close.

But then, maybe like me and Kurt Vonnegut (who died at age 84 of “injuries sustained in a fall at his Manhattan home”), Z. really has no intention of killing himself. He just likes to fantasize about it.

Much of our opinionating these days consists of declarations that you, the privileged reader, couldn’t possibly understand what I, the long-suffering author, have been through. If you’re not gay you can’t know how discouraging it is to grow up in a world where heterosexual marriage is held up as the endpoint of romantic fulfilment. If you’ve never been homeless you can’t imagine what it’s like to feel the indignant stares of middle-class people when you blemish their parks and sidewalks with your untidy existence. If you’re not a person of colour you can’t conceive how much emotional labour goes into merely standing up under the daily bombardment of racist microaggressions.

In a sense this is all very true: I can’t know what it’s like to be anyone other than myself, a straight white male middle-class Gen-Xer from the Canadian prairies. It’s certainly easier to project myself into the mind of a fellow straight white male middle-class etc. etc. than to imagine life as a Lapp reindeer-herder, or a Sentinel Islands hunter-gatherer, or a minor party functionary in Pyongyang, or a black female multimillionaire tennis superstar.

But even being a fellow straight white male middle-class etc. etc. doesn’t entitle me to pretend to know what my friend Z. is thinking. Even if like him I’d been in a car accident, gotten divorced, tried coke and heroin, felt the barrel of a gun in my mouth, we’d still be separated by a billion little experiences, every one of them big enough to contain a Russian novel’s worth of suffering and self-blame.

I suspect if people could read each other’s novels they’d discover that we all have more in common than we realized. We’ve all felt belittled and condescended to. We’ve all suspected we were being judged not on our personal qualities, but on our reputations, our appearance, or the company we keep. We’ve all lain awake thinking, “No-one would even miss me if I vanished off the face of the earth.”

The most universal experience of all is knowing that no-one else could possibly understand what we’ve been through.

M.

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Apartment hunting in Vancouver.

I drove my friend X. to the open house. The usual routine: a mob of displaced renters waiting by the entrance for the building manager to appear; a two-minute tour of a bare apartment; a dozen people jostling for room in the lobby to squat and fill in the application form.

Returning to the car, X. grumbled at the absurdity of the building manager’s salesmanlike spiel, as if the mob could afford to be choosy. “Just tell me who I have to blow to get the place,” she said.

I drove her back to the tiny suburban bachelor suite that had been her home since 2014. It was clean enough and pretty quiet. The floor was noticeably tilted; I poured myself a glass of water and the fridge door swung open and banged on the wall, deepening the dent there.

The main thing her building had going for it was its location, a block from the SkyTrain. Alas, this had made it a prime candidate for redevelopment. She’d been given a year to find a new home.

When she moved in, rent was around $700. With provincial law restricting annual rent increases to 2% above inflation, it had risen to a bit over $800 – a bargain. Bachelor suites in her neighbourhood were now starting at $1250, in buildings likely to be torn down in a few years.

X. has good references, good credit, works steadily. She took time off between contracts so she could concentrate on the apartment hunt. She soon realized that was a mistake. With a dozen, two dozen applicants to choose from, why would a landlord take a flier on someone technically unemployed? Just skip to the next person in the pile.

Eventually she snagged an even tinier place in Marpole, a fifteen minute walk from the Canada Line. The building is a bit crummier, the commute a bit longer, but it’s only $1050 a month – a 29% rent jump. Not bad, considering.

***

I mentioned my friend Y. in an essay a couple months back. He’s in in his early forties, tidy and quiet, but with a spotty employment record, bad credit, and a history of drug use.

I’ve known Y. since we were in sixth grade, but we’d fallen out of touch until he moved here last year. I put him up in my apartment for six weeks and loaned him some money while he looked for a job and a place of his own.

He wound up in a rented one-bedroom in a house in Vancouver’s east side. It’s on the ground floor, with a private entrance leading to the backyard. Around here these are advertised as “garden suites”.

Y.’s garden suite has no stove, no fire alarm, and is separated from an adjacent suite by the flimsiest of partitions. The sound insulation is so poor that he can hear when his neighbour cracks his knuckles.

When Y. informed his landlord, who lives with his family upstairs, that his neighbour had invited a guest to crash on his sofa, doubling the noise problem, the landlord replied that he was aware of the extra occupant, and had upped the neighbour’s rent by a hundred bucks in response.

For this pleasant living arrangement Y. pays $1000 a month. He’d like to move; but if sober, responsible X. had so much trouble finding a place to live, what chance is there for Y., with his history of unpaid bills and far-from-glowing references?

***

Why doesn’t Y. just go back where he came from – in his case, the Canadian prairies?

If you’ve ever spent a winter in Saskatchewan, you’ll understand why he doesn’t want to go back. But even disregarding the west coast weather, balmy only by Canadian standards, Vancouver is still a pretty attractive place to live. Low crime, good infrastructure, clean air, lovely parks, mountain and ocean views – but I don’t need to enumerate its charms. Vancouver is, objectively speaking, attractive: it attracts people. Another million or so by 2041, if Metro Vancouver’s projections are to be believed.

That’s why I’m skeptical of all promises by politicians to somehow solve the problem of high rents and near-100% occupancy rates. If housing were cheaper and easier to find, that would only make Vancouver a more attractive place to live – which would attract even more people, putting more pressure on the housing supply.

If it weren’t for stressed-out renters losing hope and moving back to Moose Jaw, there would be no reasonably-priced apartments here at all. I’m not gloating over their departure. I may be forced to follow their example one day.

High demand imposes a sorting process: those who can imagine better uses for their money, like raising children or saving for retirement, will gradually drift away, leaving a helot class of rootless perma-adolescents to scrape a living pouring the cappuccinos and mowing the lawns of the rich and beautiful.

The various levels of government keep vowing to ease the helots’ lot by getting more affordable homes built. While socialist and free-market factions squabble over whether governments should build the homes directly, or tweak regulations to make building quicker and cheaper for private developers, the future sneaks up on us: dumpy apartment blocks like X.’s are flattened and glass towers arise; poorer people are displaced and wealthier people ushered in.

There are plenty of neighbourhoods near transit where it seems new homes could profitably be added without displacing anyone: ground floors that could be turned into garden suites, garages that could be turned into laneway houses, one-story retail and industrial buildings that could be rebuilt with a couple floors of rental on top – if regulations didn’t make it too pricey and time-consuming to bother.

But the more red tape you cut away to facilitate new housing, the more slumlords you’ll get renting out rickety suites to suckers like my friend Y., streaming in starry-eyed from the rest of Canada and the world.

Maybe, then, governments should take the lead in building affordable rental units. But they’re naturally focussed on helping the most desperate first. I’m pretty sure that the modular, supposedly temporary homes for the homeless currently going up around Vancouver will, in the short term, be trashed by their drug-using, unstable residents, and in the longer term be colonized by better-adjusted folks with an aptitude for navigating bureaucracy who will defy all attempts to relocate them when the modulars are due for removal.

Maybe I’m wrong; I welcome the experiment in any case. But many hard-working renters must have had the same thought Y. had, when he saw pictures of the inside of one of those modulars: hang on a second, that welfare crashpad is way nicer than the dump I’m paying a thousand bucks a month for.

If municipalities started throwing those modulars on empty lots along major transit routes, and renting them out to all comers at a shade below market rates, it would go a long way toward easing the crisis. I have no idea why no-one has proposed this. Maybe it would just be too pricey. (The units are about $110,000 apiece to build – excluding the cost of land.)

But if the public sector can’t manage to slap up no-frills, reasonably-priced rental units on a break-even basis, there’s not much cause to hope that private developers can ever build affordable rentals and turn a profit.

***

While the media focusses obsessively on how to increase housing supply, ways to reduce demand are rarely considered.

The easiest way to reduce demand is to make Vancouver a crummier place to live.

Anti-gentrification activists understand this intuitively. All that’s keeping hordes of yuppies from moving into Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and sprucing up the place is the many unbathed, mentally disturbed, petty-crime-prone people who make their homes there currently. The neighbourhood must be kept unpleasant enough that the number of yuppies stays low, so the down-and-outers can afford to remain.

The obvious problem with making Vancouver crummy enough to repel new residents is that the rest of us will have to live in the mess we’ve created. The strategy might not work, anyway: rich people, unlike you and me, have the means to insulate themselves from ugliness and disorder. They might decide high walls and private guards are a worthwhile tradeoff for sunset views of English Bay.

If we’re not prepared to trash our city to preserve it, we might consider erecting legal barriers to make it more difficult for non-Vancouverites to buy property or move here.

Taxes on foreign buyers, which the previous provincial government imposed and the new government has expanded, strike me as the very least we could do to constrain demand.

But as progressive conventional wisdom is cohering around the idea that everyone in the world should have the right to live anywhere for any reason, even these modest barriers have been decried as discriminatory, and are under legal challenge.

Alternatively, the federal government could simply lower immigration targets. Unlike the previous immigration peak in the 1910s, when Canada was still largely empty and agricultural, nearly all of today’s new arrivals wind up settling in a handful of crowded cities, where they compete with the native-born for housing.

foreign born canada 1871-2011

Source: Statistics Canada, 150 years of immigration in Canada.

canada immigrants rural vs. urban 1921

Click image for data.

canada immigrants cities 2016

Click image for data.

Yet I’ve seen no signs that burned-out big-city renters have begun to turn against mass immigration. At all education and income levels, unhesitating xenophilia remains an essential marker of right-thinkingness; anyone who suggests that immigration ought to be curtailed in order to protect the attractive features of Canadian urban life – modest houses with spacious yards in quiet, tree-lined neighbourhoods – is quickly shouted down as a nativist bigot.

Partly this is self-serving propaganda. Realtors, developers, and homeowners all benefit from having the largest possible pool of eager bidders driving up the price of local properties.

But it’s at least equally a product of liberal guilt. Many Vancouverites who (like me) moved here from elsewhere would feel hypocritical denying anyone else a boon that we enjoy, for no reason other than that we showed up first.

On this principle the ten-millionth arrival will be as welcome as the two-millionth; and I hope that ten-millionth resident will enjoy his three-hour commute from somewhere in the vicinity of Chilliwack.

M.

PS. A big part of the reason my friend Y. moved here is the easy availability of cheap, high-quality weed. Maybe Canada’s impending marijuana legalization will make Vancouver a bit less attractive to a certain kind of young slacker, and take some of the pressure off.

Tukhta.

A while back I met up for coffee with an electrician friend who happened to be in my neighbourhood for work. Half an hour after we sat down, his work iPad beeped with a message from HQ. He apologized and gave the gadget his attention.

A minute later he chuckled. He noticed that he’d neglected to click “Save” in the program that logs his working hours, and as far as his iPad was aware he was still on the clock for that morning’s job. My friend didn’t correct his error. He seemed to think a little looseness about his hours was fair recompense for the various indignities his employers subject him to. Maybe he’s right.

There’s a useful word I picked up from Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago – “tukhta”, Soviet-era slang meaning something like “padding”. This was a necessary adaptation for prisoners expected to meet quotas set by officials who had only the dimmest awareness of conditions in the Gulag:

[A]ll state work norms are the same: they are calculated not for real life on this earth, but for some kind of unearthly ideal on the moon. A human being dedicated, self-sacrificing, healthy, well nourished, and energetic is incapable of fulfilling these norms! And so what are you going to get out of a fagged-out, weak, hungry, and downtrodden convict?

To meet these impossible quotas, prison work foremen would claim fictitious output – ten percent more lumber than their teams had actually cut, say. Camp administrators were subject to the same quotas, so they’d go along with the fiction. Their higher-ups would pass along the tukhta, and so on, up to the top levels of government, who’d trumpet the unprecedented lumber yield as a triumph of socialist planning.

How were the gaps papered over? Solzhenitsyn tells the story of an educated prisoner named Vlasov, in charge of a logging camp in Siberia, who signed off on paperwork showing that during a particularly harsh winter his team had surpassed the quota by 25%, when in fact they’d fallen far short. When the missing timber was noticed, Vlasov pointed out to his supervisor that their fates were now bound together: if the discrepancy were exposed, Vlasov’s sentence could only be extended, while the supervisor, for his negligence, would be liable for a five-year term. Vlasov proposed a plan, to which the supervisor could only agree:

And the time came when the winter roads had all dissolved completely, and the summer logging trails were still impassable too. And at this point Vlasov brought the chief a detailed and watertight report for his signature, to be sent on to the administration higher-up. In it he proved that because of the highly successful timber-felling operations of the past winter it had been quite impossible to move 10,500 cubic yards out of the forests on the sledge trails. Neither could this timber be hauled out through the swampy forests. Next he gave estimates for the cost of a corduroy road to get the timber out, and he proved that the haulage would cost more than the timber was worth. So that in a year’s time, because the logs were going to be lying there in the swamp for a whole summer and autumn, they would be unsuitable for lumber and acceptable to any possible customer only for firewood. And the administration agreed with these literate conclusions, which they were not ashamed to show any other commission – and therefore the whole 10,500 cubic yards of timber were written off.

Eventually the whole Soviet economy was built on a shaky edifice of tukhta – but in the meantime, the prisoners met their quotas and received their scanty rations:

And so it was that the trees were felled, and eaten up, and written off – and stood once again erect and proud in their green coniferous garb. And in fact the state paid very reasonably for these dead cubic yards: a few hundred extra loaves of black, gluey, watery bread. The thousands of trees and the hundreds of lives which were saved were of no account on the profit-and-loss sheet.

It strikes me how the proponents of our artificially intelligent future are a bit like old-school communists in their mania for efficiency. For instance, my electrician friend is often called out to jobs in the furthest reaches of the Lower Mainland, more than an hour’s drive from his home base in Vancouver. Meanwhile competing companies are sending electricians in from Maple Ridge or Aldergrove to visit customers in Vancouver. A communist or a software engineer would say: how wasteful, all this driving to and fro! – as of course it is – and propose a central dispatching system, or a mobile app, that would match up customers with the nearest electrician, saving man-hours, reducing waiting time, conserving fuel, easing congestion, and so on.

The difference is that there’s a risk the software engineer can actually deliver on that promised efficiency – and then we discover that all the electrical work the city requires can be delivered by half as many electricians. In that case I’m not sure my friend, with his cavalier approach to timekeeping, would be among the ones to make the cut.

But I suspect humans will figure out ways to steal back a fair amount of the time the software manages to save. I hope so, because without a little tukhta there probably won’t be room in the workforce for slackers like my electrician friend – or me.

M.

In 2016 I poked fun at pundit Andrew Coyne’s optimistic belief that workers displaced by robots would find new and better jobs. Earlier this year the descriptions of Russian peasant villages in Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914 made me think of modern suburban sprawl. And in 2010 I read The Gulag Archipelago and discovered that Solzhenitsyn was, surprisingly, pretty funny.

Faulty ventriloquism.

I hadn’t heard from Y. in over a month, and when he finally texted I was at the computer with headphones on. The next morning I noticed his texts. The last one said, “Well, I’m off to bed. Hope you’re not dead in a ditch or strung out on drugs.”

I texted back that I was fine and I hoped he wasn’t dead or strung out on drugs. He replied that he was alive, but as for “drugs”, that was a question of definitions.

Y. has tried every mind-altering substance known to chemistry, but after some scary experiments with fentanyl last year he had, as far as I was aware, limited himself to a few daily puffs of marijuana. Therefore I found his comment mildly ominous, but I declined to follow it up via text. I invited him for breakfast the following day.

He said that I’d have to come pick him up at a campground on the outskirts of town.

After a kung fu showdown with his landlord, Y. explained, he’d been obliged to abandon his ground-floor suite on short notice. Knowing about his money troubles, his past run-ins with his landlord, and his habitual difficulty suffering those he deemed to be fools – and discounting the hyperbole about the kung fu – I found this development all too unsurprising.

Still, his jaunty tone made me wary. “Can’t tell if you’re joking,” I texted, “but I’ll come get you wherever you are.”

He replied with the name of the campground and said to meet him “at the usual spot”.

The usual spot? I assumed he was under the mistaken impression I’d visited him at the campground last spring, the last time he’d wound up living in a tent. In any case we could figure it out when I arrived. I said I’d be there at 10.

I slept badly, worrying that I would have to put Y. up in my spare room again, as I did for six weeks last year. The next morning I checked my lease agreement to see what it said about long-term visitors, then texted that I was on my way.

The campground was a half-hour drive across the river to Surrey, an area I barely know. When I found it I pulled up next to the office and texted that I was there.

Five minutes. Ten minutes. It was a warm day; I got out of the car, removed my jacket, strolled in circles. I pictured Y. sprawled on his foam mattress, too zonked to tie his shoes, and wondered whether I’d have to cruise around looking for his tent. I realized my phone was ringing.

“Hey,” he said. “Where are you?”

“I’m by the office. Where are you?”

“In the back alley.”

“What back alley?”

“Behind my house.”

It took me a moment to assimilate this. Then I exploded. “Oh, very funny, jackass. What a goddamned hilarious prank.”

“Did you read all my texts?”

“Yes, I read all your goddamned texts.”

“I thought you could tell I was joking.”

It didn’t take me long to recover my temper. First off, I was relieved that Y. was okay, and that he wouldn’t be pitching his sleeping bag in my spare room.

If anything, I realized, the joke was on him: his real life was so chaotic that his leg-pulling had seemed entirely plausible to me. As I drove back to the city to pick him up, I wondered how much further he could have taken the gag. Would I have met him at a hobo encampment beside the railyard? Probably. In a syringe-strewn alley in the Downtown Eastside? Yup.

Here’s the thing. Y. and I have known each other since sixth grade – that’s 30 years. We’re the same age, same race, same social class, grew up in the same neighbourhood, and became friends in the first place because we share a similar sense of humour.

Despite all that, I still can’t reliably tell, reading his text messages, when he’s cracking a joke.

***

Midway through Kevin Williamson’s story in the Wall Street Journal about the Twitter mob that harried him out of his very brief gig at The Atlantic, he discusses an earlier incident of social media misrepresentation:

In 2014, I got a call from a friend who was disturbed by my public support for Donald Sterling, the owner of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers, who had gotten himself into trouble for some racist remarks. I had, at that time, never heard of Mr. Sterling, but there was a quote from me right there on Twitter: “‘Looks like the antiracist gestapo are already lacing up their jackboots for Donald Sterling,’ National Review’s Kevin Williamson commented.”

I mention that one mainly because I know the source of it: It was invented by Matt Bruenig, a left-wing blogger … That quote was not a distortion; it was not “taken out of context” or anything of the sort. It was a pure fabrication. (Mr. Bruenig says that the quote, produced in its entirety above, was intended as “satire.”)

You can sort of see how this would have felt like satire to Bruenig. As he saw it, any defense of Donald Sterling would be preposterous; to illustrate this, he put the defense in the mouth of the most preposterous person he could think of, right-wing commentator Kevin Williamson. His point was, This opinion is so far outside the bounds of good taste that only a Kevin Williamson could argue it. Here’s an analogous piece of satire:

“The people who write for National Review are so contemptible that the rules of fair play shouldn’t apply to them,” commented Matt Bruenig.

(Note: Matt Bruenig never said this.)

As for the comment that got Kevin Williamson fired – his four-year-old Twitter quip about having “hanging more in mind” as a penalty for women who had abortions – I’ve now read his own clarification, as well as those of several sympathetic social conservatives, and I still don’t really understand, if Williamson didn’t mean to be taken literally, what he did mean. He concedes that he was being “trollish and hostile” but still seems to think the remark made sense in the context where it occurred. It probably did, to those who already shared Williamson’s background, political orientation, and sense of humour; just as Bruenig’s satirical intentions must have been clear to those already on his wavelength; just as regular readers of Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams must have grokked what he was getting at when he wrote in 2011:

The reality is that women are treated differently by society for exactly the same reason that children and the mentally handicapped are treated differently.

I missed this controversy the first time around, but Adams brought it up again last week in a post devoted to swatting down media attempts to dismiss him as “far right” or “alt-right”. He elaborated:

What my devious critics cleverly leave out of the quote is the context of the blog post and the punchline of the joke. The context was about debates on important gender-related topics, and the punchline was “It’s just easier this way for everyone.”

He then devotes most of a paragraph to explaining this punchline which, even after reading the explanation multiple times, I still didn’t get.

However, unlike his critics who had only that isolated sentence to go on, I’d read enough of Adams’s writing that I thought I could draw a dotted line from his failed joke to the idea it vaguely gestured toward. Obviously Adams doesn’t think of women as naïfs whose precious utterances should, like those of children and the mentally handicapped, be exempted from the rigours of grown-up criticism; therefore his point must have been that it is society, not him, condescendingly demanding that women be protected that way.

A plausible interpretation…but a wrong one. Looking up the original post, Adams does appear to argue that women’s opinions should be exempted from criticism; or rather, that men’s rights activists (the intended targets of his barbs) should just back off and let women have their little perquisites.

Apparently I misread the joke as badly as Adams’s most hostile critics. But why should this be surprising? I don’t know Adams. I’ve never even seen him on TV, or listened to his podcast. If I have only a fifty-fifty chance of decoding my friend Y.’s dicey attempts at humour, what are the odds of decoding a total stranger?

***

My father died in 2013. I can’t ask him what he thinks about President Donald Trump or the prosecution of Bill Cosby or the new Avengers movie.

But I have a dummy that I talk to all the time. The dummy looks exactly like my father, though its face gets a bit blurrier every day. It speaks in my father’s voice, though sometimes I suspect it sounds more like old audio recordings than it does like the original.

There are other ways the dummy falls short. Sometimes when I ask it a question it just sits there. Sometimes it comes back with gibberish. But even when it seems lucid and reasonable, I can’t help wondering if my real father wouldn’t have found its answers ridiculous.

When I’ve finished interrogating the dummy, I put it back in the cupboard with the others. It’s a crowded cupboard. My grandparents are in there, dusty because I take them out so rarely, their answers being too vague to be of much value. My friend Y. is in there too, a far cruder dummy than my father’s. If I want to know what Y. thinks about a topic, I just ask the real-life version. But occasionally, when real-life Y. says something whose meaning I can’t make out, I haul out his dummy for clarification.

On the upper shelf is a jumble of unfinished dummies representing people I know only through the media. Trump and Cosby are up there, and the cast of the Avengers, and Scott Adams, and Kevin Williamson. There’s even a Matt Bruenig dummy, shapeless and faceless.

When one of those people is reported as having done or said something outrageous, I take down the corresponding dummy, hoist it onto my knee, and ask it for an explanation.

And here’s the funny part. If the dummy can’t give a convincing account, I get mad at the real person.

***

In the blog post linked above, Adams complains that his feminist critics have damaged his reputation and reduced his income by about a third. If true, I’m sure that was annoying, but Adams is a multi-millionaire; he could afford the hit. If anything, the incident seems to have liberated him to speak his mind about other issues, which I consider a net gain for society: I find his opinions, even the kooky ones, pretty interesting.

But a one-third hit to my income would leave me literally living on the street. I’m sure I’ve said things on this blog, joking or otherwise, that would be as likely to offend strangers as anything Adams has written. Unlike him, I’m a nobody. But I’ve seen my fellow nobodies roughed up over unpopular opinions, misunderstood jokes, or nothing at all. The list of unsayable things is constantly growing. Likewise the population of potential offendees. Every one of my old posts is still online and searchable. Every new post is another tuna can left open in a forest prowled by hungry bears.

Why, then, do I keep exposing my opinions? Why does anyone, given that the likelihood of contributing anything novel or constructive to the conversation is outweighed by the likelihood of being misunderstood, stirring up fury, and upping the general level of pointless noise?

I wrote a couple weeks back about my self-published high school newspaper, and how it was inspired in part by a yen for martyrdom; an attempt to prove my valour by provoking a reaction from the school administration. Maybe it’s a similar instinct that keeps me blogging now, despite the world’s indifference. Maybe deep down I want to stir up a mob, to liven things up, to prove that I matter. A pretty contemptible motivation.

But then, it would be easy to post a stream of outrageous comments, if outrage was all I really wanted. If some part of me seeks to be misinterpreted and martyred, another part of me really longs to be understood, to help carve out a colony of mutual trust amid the howling wilderness.

The colony would be a place for grown-ups to thoughtfully, respectfully, good-humouredly bounce around controversial ideas, without fear of triggering a bear attack. We wouldn’t expect to agree about everything: that would defeat the purpose. We wouldn’t ask anyone to refrain from joking, or from vigorously defending their opinions, or from saying things that might annoy their fellow colonists.

Such a colony couldn’t function without trust. We would have to trust, when we encountered speech that seemed hostile or belittling, that the speaker didn’t really intend to harm us. Rather than reacting with name-calling or threats of violence, we would…hmm? Yes, you in the back?

So when Kevin Williamson threatens to hang women who’ve had abortions, doesn’t that constitute a threat of violence?

Uh…well, he didn’t exactly threaten anyone, did he? He argued that abortion should be punished under the law as if it were homicide.

So if I argue that men who endanger women’s reproductive freedoms oughta be put up against a wall and shot, is that a threat of violence?

Fair question. I suppose I’d say there’s a difference between rhetoric and…hey, hey! Settle down, everybody! Let’s keep things civil around here! Yes, the gentleman in the third row…?

It seems to me that rather than a vague commitment to “trust” we need a speech code that spells out explicitly–

Oh yeah, jackass, and who gets to write the speech code?

Surely, as reasonable people, we could democratically decide–

Translation, you’re confident that your side has the numbers to–

Don’t puts words in my mouth, you goddamn–

Well don’t wag your finger in my face if you want to–

That was a threat! You all heard it!

THROW THEM TO THE BEARS!

M.

Terror and nerd appeal.

When I was sixteen or so, my friends and I self-published a one-off student newspaper to protest, in the mildest and geekiest terms imaginable, censorship of our school’s annual talent show.

If I’d written the paper all by myself, it would have been far more scurrilous; but I enlisted my sober, university-bound friends, who subdued my rabble-rousingest instincts. The paper was anodyne. The administration I’d intended to provoke rightly considered the provocation beneath its notice.

Shortly afterward, I read in the local media that police were seeking a kid who’d been circulating his self-published newsletter at a local high school. Not me: this teen had printed instructions for making bombs. I recall feeling jealous that this heedless radical had succeeded in riling up the authorities where I’d failed.

To be clear, my desire for martyrdom was of the purely non-violent kind. But when a few years later and a thousand miles to the south two greasy, long-haired, trenchcoat-wearing teens pulled off one of the most famous acts of mass violence in American history, I felt an unwelcome pang of identification. Trenchcoats, long hair, and grease had been my exact look; I’d often joked with my nerdy friends about sparking an uprising against the popular kids; in social studies essays I’d quoted approvingly from New Left thinkers on the righteousness of armed revolt.

My information on the Black Panthers and the Weathermen came from books I found at the downtown library. If those books had inspired me to commit acts of terror, I suppose I might have pieced together a plan of attack by consulting the chemistry and military history sections. But to self-radicalize back then would’ve taken a lot of hard studying. Even if I’d gone to the school where that bomb-making pamphlet was passed around, even if by chance a copy had fallen into my hands, if I’d wanted an elaboration of the pamphleteer’s manifesto, or suggestions on whom to target with my bomb, there was nowhere else to go but back to the library.

Human nature hasn’t changed since the nineties. Young men are just as confused, as self-pitying, as full of indignant rage as ever. What’s changed is the technology that allows them to find a philosophical framework, and step-by-step instructions, for acting on their resentments.

***

I’d already written most of the above when I heard about Monday’s van attack in Toronto. Reading the perpetrator’s Facebook post about launching an “Incel Rebellion” to “overthrow all the Chads and Stacys”, I once again felt that unwelcome pang, having indulged in similarly absurdist sloganeering in my high school days.

I don’t mean that under different circumstances I might have wound up piloting a rental van down a crowded sidewalk – though who knows how my teenage morbidity might have evolved under the 21st century pressures of mood-altering pharmaceuticals and online immersion. But I might easily have been one of the trolls celebrating violence in what I believed to be a noble tradition of pitch-black humour. And if some mentally disturbed loner took my facetious posts for a plan of action…hey, it might as easily have been hidden messages from Taylor Swift that set the nutcase off, so my conscience is clear…

My assumption is that these acts of attention-seeking violence will only become more and more frequent. The perpetrators keep innovating cheaper and easier methods of mass destruction; every innovation, once introduced, becomes part of the permanent repertoire. If rental truck attacks continue, new restrictions will be placed on renting vehicles, and the attention-seekers will switch to something else.

Their professed motivations will mutate along similar lines. I doubt the cause of Involuntary Celibacy will ever really take off, because it asks its martyrs to immortalize their sexual hopelessness. To appeal to rage-filled nerds, a cause needs to sublimate that rage into something cool, sexy, and dangerous.

Some causes by definition have limited appeal. In western countries the allure of Islamic extremism was never going to extend much beyond the relatively tiny Muslim community; it’s been possible, barely, for authorities to contain it by keeping tabs on every Muslim who ever shopped online for a pressure cooker. By contrast, white nationalism and (in the United States) black radicalism have millions upon millions of potential recruits: far too many to monitor.

(Black radical terrorism hasn’t received much attention because we don’t really have a mental category for it yet, despite the surge of BLM-inspired attacks on cops a couple years back. But black culture is basically a machine for generating cool, sexy, and dangerous memes. The limiting factor is that any persuasive black radical meme will immediately be appropriated, and rendered uncool, by non-blacks.)

As yet, white nationalism hasn’t evolved a rhetoric as irresistible to white losers as Islamist propaganda has proven to be to Muslim losers. But there are tens of thousands of alt-right geeks out there, larkily churning out memes; eventually they might strike on the secret formula. I expect I’ll recognize it when it arrives: it will be something I would have found cool, sexy, and dangerous, as a sixteen-year-old loser.

M.

In a similar vein of self-critical nostalgia, in March I shared the story of my cowardly interaction with a high school anti-Semite; in February I drew an unflattering parallel between my youthful stint as an indie newspaper editor and my current life as an obscure blogger; and way back in 2003 I gave a full account of that newspaper, “my lamest act of teenage rebellion”. (It appears that at age 27, embarrassingly, I still harboured a grudge against my high school vice-principal.)

Muddle and melancholy.

I told a friend recently that I was running out of things to write about. I have only a handful of non-trite ideas, I said, they’re not that hard to explain, and it’s a struggle to come up with new ways to express them.

One of the ideas I keep returning to is representativeness. Not in its narrow modern sense of balancing ethnic grievances, but as a vast and under-explored domain of epistemic muddle.

We base our opinions about the world partly on direct observation, but mostly on the news we receive – through conversation and gossip, through the media, and lately through social media, though these three sources are increasingly blending together. But the news that gets passed on is, by definition, newsworthy – which is practically synonymous with out-of-the-ordinary.

99.95% of Americans Went About Their Day Untroubled By Violence Or Controversy

…is not news. This is:

Illegal Immigrant Uber Driver Rapes Passenger, Skips Bail, Flees Country

So is this:

Black Guys Get Arrested For Loitering At Starbucks

Why do people get worked up about incidents of violence or injustice or gross idiocy? Because they believe those incidents to be representative, to have some meaning beyond “stuff happens”. If the Starbucks story had been written up as This One Philadelphia Coffee Shop Manager Is Weirdly Anal About Sharing The Bathroom Code, it would have gone nowhere. The story took off because people believe it’s about something more than one coffee shop and one manager.

It’s impossible to tell, based on a sampling of media accounts, necessarily skewed toward sensation and controversy, how representative a news event really is. Especially when what excites people isn’t the event itself, but how it suggests a whole category of events, which might or might not themselves attain the threshold of newsworthiness. “So what, I saw a white lady get arrested for loitering just last week” isn’t going to change anyone’s mind about the Starbucks story. If one could examine the records of everyone ever arrested for loitering in a Philadelphia Starbucks, or in any Starbucks, or in any public space, and prove that blacks had been treated fairly, it still wouldn’t change anyone’s mind – because the story isn’t solely about Philadelphia or Starbucks or loitering or even black people.

Nor will arguing that immigrants have lower crime rates than native-born Americans change anyone’s mind about the Uber rapist story: the outrage isn’t about law-abiding immigrants, but illegal immigrant criminals, or liberal judges’ coddling of illegal immigrant criminals, or the mainstream media’s suppression of stories about liberal judges’ coddling…and so on.

There are 325 million people in the United States; another 140 million or so in the wider Anglomediasphere. Every week, tens of thousands of them experience some kind of injustice. If all the injustices committed last week were ranked from most to least egregious, would either of these instances be in the top 1000? The top 10? I have no idea.

Suppose the Starbucks story turned out to be the number one injustice of the week. That would make it more newsworthy…but less representative.

***

Okay, maybe instead of freaking out over whatever tumbles down the media’s outrage-powered conveyor belt, we should conserve our outrage for statistically significant problems. But statistics can be gamed, deliberately or unconsciously, and few of us have the inclination, let alone the mathematical chops, to scrutinize the underlying data. No surprise, then, that shoddy but headline-grabbing statistics proliferate – more widely, I’m tempted to say, than sound ones, although once again, maybe I’ve been misled by an unrepresentative handful of outrageously bad studies.

Most areas of social science defy statistical analysis anyway, being based on fuzzy concepts like privilege or equality, or on legal terms whose definitions keep mutating, like obscenity or sexual assault. Rarely do the terms stay constant; rarely is there consistent collection of data across jurisdictions or time periods; rarely is it possible to count actual occurrences rather than just reports of those occurrences. Usually researchers are in much the same position as news consumers – building rickety edifices of speculation on a foundation of incomplete data. The more intellectually honest researchers acknowledge this, humbly unveil their squat little constructs timbered with ifs, maybes, and neverthelesses, and watch as the mob streams past to gawk at flashy towers of popsicle sticks and cellophane. Or so it appears, from the vantage point of my own shaky stepladder.

It was this Slate Star Codex post, in which Scott Alexander dissects the results of his recent reader survey on sexual harassment in different professions, that got me thinking along these lines again. (He alludes to immigrant crime rates in an aside.) Scott wonders whether the STEM fields report less harassment than others not because there’s less of it going on but because the kind of people who pursue STEM careers define harassment more narrowly than, say, people who go into the media. (He characterizes this as, basically, “STEM nerds are too oblivious to know when they’re being harassed” but it could equally be phrased as “media snowflakes think every awkward interaction constitutes harassment”.) But Scott recognizes that his blog’s relatively small female readership may be selected in ways that distort the survey results.

As I see it, while there are a handful of smart folks out there, like Scott Alexander, trying to build up little neighbourhoods of reason and goodwill, they’re isolated in a megalopolis of muddle that sprawls from horizon to horizon and becomes more rundown and anarchic every day. But do I see the cityscape accurately, or have I blundered into a cul-de-sac that I’m mistaking for the whole? And if the residents assure me that they’re very happy here – who am I to contradict them?

It’s a line of thought that leads to fatalism and inertia.

***

I recently marked this passage in a 1940 essay by E.M. Forster called “Does Culture Matter?” [1] Forster wonders whether the practical, forward-looking generation then coming into power with the decline of the old English aristocracy will have any use for the kind of culture he was raised to deem valuable. He thinks of his upstairs neighbour, who “judging by the noises through the floor … doesn’t want books, pictures, tunes, runes, anyhow doesn’t want the sorts which we recommend. Ought we to bother him?” And if we do, is there any likelihood the neighbour will be grateful?

It is tempting to do nothing. Don’t recommend culture. Assume that the future will have none, or will work out some form of it which we cannot expect to understand. … Out of date myself, I like out of date things, and am willing to pass out of focus in that company, inheritor of a mode of life which is wanted no more. Do you agree? Without bitterness, let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings, ourselves the last of their hangers-on. Drink the wine – no-one wants it, though it came from the vineyards of Greece, the gardens of Persia. Break the glass – no-one admires it, no-one cares any more about quality or form. Without bitterness and without conceit take your leave. Time happens to have tripped you up, and this is a matter neither for shame nor for pride. [2]

Forster eventually decides against lying down and letting the barbarians take over – but I’m not convinced that he’s convinced by his rallying conclusion. [3]

As I peer around at the shanties thick on every hillside, unable to see a way through the maze, unsure whether my own actions are adding to the confusion, like Forster I’m tempted to plop down in the shade with a glass of wine and let the future take care of itself. I’m descended from that vulgar upstairs neighbour, after all – provincial, uncultured, borderline illiterate, at least by Forster’s standards – and yet I’ve had a pretty comfortable time of it. It’s reasonable to suppose that the next generation will manage to extract about as much pleasure out of their debased pastimes as I have from mine. While I feel increasingly out-of-place in their world, a few sheltering nooks of the older world should survive as long as I do.

Of course, there’s a self-protective motive for staying engaged. The consequence of ceding the streets to the barbarians is that our nooks will be overrun all the faster, so that the youngest of the old fogeys may find themselves with no place to shelter. Likewise, if muddle-headed melancholics like me try to duck out of the ideological fray, there’s no guarantee that the true believers won’t trample us as they lunge for each other’s throats.

And yet…even as I type these words, I worry that my reflections, well-intended though they may be, will dishearten and enervate the few readers they manage to reach. Am I sapping our civilization’s fragile spirit? If I can’t stand up forthrightly for truth, any truth, mightn’t the responsible thing be to lie down and (metaphorically) die?

M.

1. Of course, it’s reading Forster that has made me think of “muddle”, one of his favourite words.

2. “Does Culture Matter?” is in the 1951 collection Two Cheers For Democracy.

3. “[T]he higher pleasures,” Forster argues, “are not really wines or glasses at all. They rather resemble religion, and it is impossible to enjoy them without trying to hand them on. … What is needed in the cultural Gospel is to let one’s light so shine that men’s curiosity is aroused, and they ask why Sophocles, Velasquez, Henry James, should cause such disproportionate pleasure.” And if our evangelism for these dry old names should fail, as seems likely, to ignite the upstairs neighbour’s curiosity? Forster changes the subject.

Rude, how?

I paid for my coffee and doughnut and sat at my customary place near the entrance, on a bench facing the window. Immediately in front of the door is an alcove; in the middle of that alcove is a pillar; and on that pillar is a sign, clearly legible through the window, declaring that, in accordance with the city bylaw forbidding smoking within 7.5 metres of business entrances, smoking in the alcove is forbidden. Shortly after I sat down, two very fat men emerged from the coffeeshop, stood in the alcove between me and the sign, and began to smoke.

If it had been summertime, the door would have been propped open, and their smoke would have offended my nostrils; but it was a rainy spring day, the door was closed, and even when it swung open briefly as customers passed through, the wind luckily blew the smoke away. The offense was purely visual. I thought about tapping on the window and pointing to the sign. Instead I harrumphed and tried to concentrate on my newspaper.

I’m old enough to remember when non-smokers were grateful for a little section at the back of the restaurant where they might, if they were lucky, be spared from having smoke blown directly in their faces. I should be grateful, I thought, for the victory of having banished those fat men out into the chill. Let them shelter from the rain, I thought. The fat men smoked away, unconscious of my generosity.

A young man sat down at a table a little behind me and began watching videos on his phone. I was aware of this because he didn’t use earbuds; the scratchy sound of laughter and music was annoyingly audible through the phone’s tiny speakers. I turned to look but his back was to me; even if he’d been facing me, however, I wouldn’t have said anything, or even given him a glare. I had looked only to verify my hope that the kind of person who’d play videos on his phone without using his earbuds must be visibly aberrant in some way: a bearded biker with swastika patches on his jean jacket, maybe. But no, as I’d expected and feared, he was an ordinary-looking young man. I harrumphed again and returned to my paper.

A few months back a friend and I were at a diner, eating breakfast side by side at the counter, when a guy – an ordinary-looking young man – took the open seat beside me, pulled out his phone, and began watching a sitcom. Again, no earbuds. I said nothing, to him or to my friend; if I’d muttered what a jerk! the stranger couldn’t have helped overhearing, as his elbow was only a few inches from mine. Although I tried to ignore it, the sound of his sitcom disturbed me, and I rushed what would ordinarily have been a leisurely meal. Driving home it was my friend who brought it up. “Could you believe that guy? Watching TV on his phone?”

“I know, huh.”

“That’s unacceptable.”

“Is it?” I said. “I mean, I’m glad you think so, and I agree. But is that universally considered bad manners, or only by old cranks like us?”

“No,” my friend declared. “It’s not just us.”

“Well,” I said, “we’ll see.”

The young man at the diner obviously hadn’t heard the news that his behaviour was unacceptable. If my friend or I had spoken up, he might have apologized and changed his ways. But I didn’t speak up, not only because I’m shy, but because I had no idea whether I had a right to complain. What, after all, did I find so objectionable? The noise his phone was making? But I’m pretty sure if he’d whipped out a decibel meter he could have proven that he was far from the noisiest person in the diner; my conversation with my friend was just as loud, and the family with small children in the corner booth many times louder. Smartphone speakers have a particular tinny, penetrating quality that some of us find annoying, but I suspect the reason we find it so annoying is because we object to hearing it at all, because we consider it rude not to use earbuds when other people are around, because why would you do that? But it appears that for many people the answer is, why wouldn’t we do that? – to which, what more can be said?

Those of us who object could attempt to shame or intimidate the rest into compliance. We could, but we won’t, because we’re quiet, contemplative, conflict-averse – the very reasons we instinctively recoil at the thought of subjecting bystanders to unnecessary noise. But if we don’t speak up, the consensus will form that not using your earbuds is fine, and more and more of us will start leaving our earbuds at home on the grounds that, well, everyone else is doing it, so…

Perhaps in the coffeeshop today an old gent noticed my far-from-clean sneakers, or my elbows propped on the counter, or the untidy way I stuffed doughnut pieces into my mouth, and shook his head sadly at how standards have declined. If he’d chastised me, I would have listened with quiet amusement, nodded, and after he’d gone away, thought nothing more about it.

M.

In 2011 I complained about noise pollution and negative externalities. In 2010 I empathized with John Howard Griffin (author of Black Like Me) as he suffered the harangity hangity hangity hangity oomp oomp oomp of ’50s jazz music. And in 2016 I imagined Scott Alexander’s Know-Nothing time-traveller shaking his head at our modern nonsense.