Archive for the 'Arguments' Category

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.

Epshtine, Bernsteen, Volfervitz.

As I write this, the results of the British election are rolling in. The question of Jeremy Corbyn’s alleged antisemitism will soon be falling off the front pages and down into the depths of the international section, where the two-paragraph dispatches from Burma and Bougainville languish unread.

Having paid little attention to the campaign, it was only today that I learned of one of the more trivial flurries of indignation stirred up by Corbyn’s clumsiness. In the leaders’ debate, when asked about Prince Andrew’s friendship with the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, Corbyn pronounced his name as “Epshtine” – in order, claimed his critics, “to emphasise the fact Epstein was Jewish”. To quote a Twitter user named Catherine Lenson:

I’ve seen people call it a microaggression. But this is no microaggression. This is a deliberate provocation. This [is] a man showing his truest colours. It’s taunting. This is racism, pure and simple. And we see it.

I make no claims to knowing what is in Corbyn’s mind. But I’m inclined to judge his gaffe forgivingly, as I do the unnamed BBC interviewers accused by Christopher Hitchens (in his memoir Hitch-22) of microaggressing against his friend Paul Wolfowitz – or, as the name came out after they’d put their “sinister top-spin” on it, “Volfervitz”:

How hard could it be, I would inquire icily … to pronounce the name phonetically or as it was spelled? “Oh all right,” one of them said grudgingly: “this fellow Wolfervitz who seems to be the power behind the scenes, with his neo-con cabal…” I made him stop and begin all over again.

I’ve referred to this anecdote before. As I wrote then:

This might have been, as Hitchens believed, a “clumsy innuendo” on Wolfowitz’s Jewishness; or it might merely have been a misplaced straining for cultural sensitivity. (Compare for instance the German-born composer Kurt Weill who, after moving to the States, was annoyed by Americans who took the trouble to pronounce his name in the German fashion rather than, as he preferred, anglicizing it to “Curt While”.)

That’s from my June essay on Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, who was frequently irritated when people, including President Kennedy, referred to him as “Diefenbawker”. Most of these incidents were innocent mistakes; some of them, in the earlier part of his career when the war was fresh in people’s minds, may have been deliberate attempts to draw attention to Dief’s German background.

Diefenbaker was in turn accused by the journalist Peter C. Newman, whom he detested for reporting critically about his government, of antisemitically mispronouncing his name as “Kneeman” or “Noyman”. Newman claimed that Dief would go further in private and refer to him outright as “that Viennese Jew”. I can’t find any independent source for these claims; they certainly contradict Dief’s carefully cultivated reputation as a combatter of racial prejudice.

Catherine Lenson, in the Twitter thread linked above, links to an old William Safire column that lists the composer Leonard Bernstein among the famous Jews who pronounced their last name steen. But Safire was mistaken – as I knew already. [1] When I heard of the “Epshtine” flap, I immediately thought of Radical Chic, Tom Wolfe’s hilarious account of a 1970 cocktail party hosted by Bernstein and his wife to raise funds for the Black Panthers. Bernstein was known for boisterously correcting anyone who got his name wrong, for instance when the Panthers’ lawyer rose to thank “Mrs. Bernsteen” for her hospitality:

“STEIN!”–a great smoke-cured voice booming out from the rear of the room! It’s Lenny! … For years, twenty at the least, Lenny has insisted on -stein not -steen, as if to say, I am not one of those 1921 Jews who try to tone down their Jewishness by watering their names down with a bad soft English pronunciation.

Re-reading Radical Chic reminds us that Corbyn isn’t the first leftist to be stymied by the impossibility of reconciling the interests of well-to-do Jewish liberals on one side and angry proletarians on the other. Wolfe depicts the Bernsteins’ elite set nodding along as Black Panther “Field Marshal” Don Cox declares the United States to be “the most oppressive country in the world, maybe in the history of the world”. But there are stirrings of unease when Cox refers to the “donations” his party receives from “exploiters of the black community”, i.e., small business owners:

For God’s sake, Cox, don’t open that can of worms. Even in this bunch of upholstered skulls there are people who can figure out just who those merchants are, what group, and just how they are asked for donations, and we’ve been free of that little issue all evening, man–don’t bring out that ball-breaker–

The film director Otto Preminger pipes up with some impertinent questions about Israel, which the Panther delegation would prefer to avoid discussing. Later, when the New York Times prints an article about the soirée (a term Bernstein resents; it was merely a “meeting”, he says) which quotes the composer replying “I dig it!” to some of his guests’ more uncompromising assertions, the backlash from his fellow Jews is so disconcerting that he is forced to issue a public statement clarifying his position. While he supports the Panthers’ right to freedom of speech and assembly, Bernstein explains,

it is reasonably clear that they are advocating violence against their fellow citizens, the downfall of Israel, the support of Al Fatah and other similarly dangerous and ill-conceived pursuits. To all of these concepts I am vigorously opposed and will fight against them as hard as I can.

Bernstein stumbled trying to negotiate what Wolfe called “the delicious status contradictions and incongruities that provide much of the electricity for Radical Chic”. But Bernstein had to go well out of his way to make such an ass of himself. Fifty years later, we all live permanently in that electrified realm, risking a shock every time we utter an unfamiliar name. Which is the safer bet: stein (which looks like you’re drawing attention to the name’s Jewishness) or steen (which would imply that the anglicized version is somehow normative)? Either way you run the risk of being accused of “othering” someone.

My suspicion is that the people who say “Volfervitz” or “Epshtine” or for that matter “Bern-STEIN!” are the same ones who go overboard on the pronunciation of foreign place names like Budapesht and Ibeetha and Lesootoo, refer to Iranians as Ee-rawn-ians, and correct you if you refer to Bombay or Canton. [2] In Kingsley Amis’s unforgettable formulation, these people would be overly pedantic “wankers”, as distinguished from “berks” who mispronounce things out of ignorance. I’m attentive to this division because I have to work hard to suppress my own wankerish tendencies.

Incidentally, until learning about the “Epshtine” controversy today, I had no idea whether Epstein was a steener or a steiner. Going by Jeremy Corbyn’s beard and demeanour, I suspect that he, like me, gets most of his news from printed matter rather than from TV or online videos; it’s possible therefore that when he first saw Epstein’s name he wankerishly defaulted to the more foreign-sounding, ergo “authentic” pronunciation, and his flunkies never bothered to correct him.

M.

1. You can put your trust in Michael Stipe.

2. A friend reports that she was told by an Australian expatriate that the “correct” pronunciation of Melbourne is “Melbin”. I guess we Canadians could begin insisting on “Tronna”, but we’re too polite. We’re happy when someone gets Saskatchewan more or less right.

A couple months back I shrugged at the results of the Canadian election. Last year in a post on immigration I referred to an Anti-Defamation League study on the global distribution of antisemitic beliefs. Way back in 2009 I discussed Jewish overrepresentation in Hollywood.

 

Astigmatisn’t.

On visits to my local coffeeshop I like to sit outside, to enjoy the fresh air and to escape the obnoxious pop soundtrack.

The downside of sitting on the patio is that you’re exposed to the nuisance of passing cigarette smokers, noisy motorbikes, and muttering headcases. The last are harmless enough, but they can be scary as they tromp past, eyes downward, zigzagging unpredictably and cursing at invisible enemies. Occasionally they glance around, and if their eyes catch yours you might be drafted temporarily into their gallery of devils.

Not long ago I made the mistake of failing to ignore a pair of filthy sweatpant-clad legs that shuffled to a stop alongside my table. Looking up from my newspaper I saw that the sweatpants belonged to a vagrant of unusually revolting appearance who, until he felt my eyes on him, hadn’t been aware of me at all. He asked if he could join me, though there were empty tables nearby.

My instinct was to call for a policeman to turn a high-pressure hose on this creature and sluice him down the street and out of my sight. As a civilized person, I obligingly pushed out a chair.

He introduced himself as – I can’t remember – let’s call him Joe. He had stringy grey hair and a pockmarked face and looked about seventy but may have been scarcely older than me. Some combination of drugs and booze had addled his mind until his speech was a half-coherent rasp of mumbles and fucks. He wore headphones and carried a ratty knapsack which he lowered into an empty chair and a paper Starbucks gift bag which he dropped on the table and which, I pointed out politely, appeared to be leaking. He blinked at it but made no attempt to arrest the leak, which slowly spread across the table’s surface. I shifted position to keep my elbow clear of the unknown liquid.

***

This was back when the weather was still nice, just before the launch of the recent Canadian election campaign. Around the same time, I came across this editorial in the Vancouver Sun:

We must make drug decriminalization a federal election issue
By Dr. Derek Chang

As an addiction-medicine physician, I work regularly with patients who suffer from the illness of addiction. Over the years, I observed two important things. First, addiction doesn’t discriminate. I have worked with patients in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. I have also treated many who were established professionals: professors, lawyers, accountants and doctors, to name a few. They were men and women, gay and straight, Indigenous and Caucasian, Christian and Muslim, etc. Addiction can affect anyone, just like any other chronic illness.

The other thing I observed was that addiction does not kill a person on its own. Stigma does. Insite, the first supervised injection site in Canada, is the proof. Since its opening more than a decade ago, zero fatal overdoses occurred in that facility even after the overdose crisis started.

Anyone watching me read this would have suspected, from the way my eyes kept rolling back into my head, that I too was suffering from “the illness of addiction”. But the fact that an opinion is clotted with trendy jargon doesn’t make it untrue. Maybe decriminalizing hard drugs would, as Dr. Chang contends, bring some relief to the denizens of the urine-reeking, syringe-littered alleys of the Downtown Eastside.

Consider Insite, the “safe injection facility” lauded by Dr. Chang. In Vancouver you can bring your illegal drugs to a discreetly marked storefront on Hastings Street and shoot up under sanitary conditions with a team of trained medics standing by to prevent your act of temporary self-obliteration from tipping into permanency.

A scroll through Insite’s Google reviews is illuminating. This slumming out-of-towner may or may not be for real – the morbid joke in the final paragraph makes me suspect the work of a subtle satirist – but the details match up with what can be found elsewhere:

God bless Canada! This place really made my vacation. First of all its easily accessible from the light rail, it is a short walk from the waterfront station (most people don’t pay for the light rail, so don’t be a chump) … Once you get within a one to two block radius of Insite you probably want to score your drugs. I chose to go on a heroin bender while I was there. And you should have little trouble finding what you want just ask someone who looks high …

Just knock and they should buzz you in. Now from what I understand once you have made it inside you will not be busted at all. And even outside you have to try pretty hard to get hassled. I’ve seen people passed out with the tourniquet on and the needle in their arm still and the cops did nothing. …

Once at your booth you should know what your doing. But if you don’t that’s OK the staff is there to help, the nurses can do everything except push the plunger down. That’s means they’ll cook, tourniquet you, find a vein, draw back Blood, but it is up to you to do the deed. Then the world will melt around you.

This is a good time to go to the chill room. A. They serve juice, coffee, and snacks, and B. This opens a booth up for the next person. Dispose of your waste and sharps/hypos accordingly. You will still be observed for ODing in the chill room, I seen multiple people get oxygen or taken out by paramedics. Once you feel fine you can leave whenever you would like. I enjoyed it so much I literally got sick when I stopped going. Vancouver is awesome and this is the only place like it in north America. I highly recommend crossing it off your bucket list.

Another reviewer mentions that there’s also an after-hours number “for mobile nurses who will drive to you and drop off any supplies.” This mobile needle delivery service, like all the services described above, is of course provided absolutely free of charge.

Also worth skimming is this 2012 master’s thesis by Jennifer Vishloff, “Striving for Connection: A Phenomenological Examination of Nurses’ Experience Supervising the Injection of Illicit Drugs”. [1]

It’s impossible to come away unimpressed by the bravery and compassion of the Insite nurses, mostly female, that Vishloff interviewed. It’s equally hard not to notice the cultishness of their devotion to the philosophy of harm reduction, which asks them to believe that they are “providing medical care” to their patients as they help them inject unknown concentrations of potentially deadly chemicals into their bloodstream.

One nurse recalls her early experiences providing such care:

It’s a little, kind of scary with the fact that you don’t want to mess it up because you know that people have spent a lot of their day and money and time and effort to get what they’re injecting, like their drugs. So you just don’t want them to like spill it, or you don’t want them to miss their shot, so there’s that pressure when you initially start working there.

Another describes her satisfaction in helping educate a user about safe injection practices, an act Vishloff characterizes as “empowering”:

They just go, “Wow, that worked!” And you’re like “Yeah! Try and do that next time. You can do it on your own, if you have trouble ask for my help again.” And they haven’t asked for help since. And it’s just, being able to have that kind of impact and provide that independence to people.

“The excitement [the nurse] shared,” Vishloff chirpily observes, “is in response to bringing something valuable to her client’s life.”

I assume that Vishloff’s interviewees would agree with Dr. Chang that “addiction does not kill a person on its own. Stigma does.” And it’s unquestionably true that through Insite’s efforts, hundreds of drug users are alive today who would otherwise not be.

What’s harder to quantify is how many people who would otherwise be leading happier lives have ended up as mumbling vagrants because fearless, compassionate advocates like the nurses of Insite have helped destigmatize drug use.

***

It eventually became apparent that Joe had sat down in order to change the batteries in his Discman. The operation took over twenty minutes as he kept forgetting what he was doing, stopping now to light a cigarette, now to harass some customers at another table, now to untie his sweatpants and piss against the wall in the doorway of an adjacent drugstore.

Finally he returned and rummaged in his knapsack, removing four crumpled beer cans and tossing them to the ground one by one, until he found a pack of fresh AAs. The dead batteries soon joined the beer cans under the table.

As Joe gathered his things to go, his sodden Starbucks gift bag gave way, and the source of the mysterious leak – a plastic cup half-full of water – splashed to the ground. He left the cup and the busted bag among his other litter and shuffled away without a farewell.

I sat feeling conspicuous among Joe’s trash. When it came time to leave, I resignedly gathered it all up and carried it to the bin along with my own.

As I hope is clear, I’m not without sympathy for Joe. I’m less confident than you might think that I could never end up living as he does. He may have been deprived of certain advantages that I’ve enjoyed; or he may merely be somewhat further along in the squandering of his advantages.

At some point he began pissing in doorways because business owners wouldn’t let him use their bathrooms, for the very sensible reason that once he got in there, they couldn’t be sure he’d leave. Now he pisses in doorways because no-one is bold enough to tell him not to.

I suppose it’s fair to say Joe is stigmatized. Go ahead, let him use your bathroom.

***

I’m not crass enough to say “destigmatization kills”. I leave such shallow sloganeering to politicians and Vancouver Sun editorialists. While I’m pretty sure there’s a correlation between the decline of the addiction stigma and the growth of addiction, I wouldn’t presume to say that the first factor is the cause of the second.

But it’s easy enough to imagine a scenario where the two trends are mutually reinforcing. With more addiction around, we’re likelier to have personal knowledge of its effects – either because we’ve suffered them ourselves, or because a friend or family member has – making it harder for us to sustain crude generalizations about the moral unworthiness of addicts.

Meanwhile the weakening of the stigma means people who would otherwise have been scared off from experimenting with drugs are willing to give them a go. Which leads to more addiction, more addicts, and more wishy-washy thinking from the rest of us that our friends and family members aren’t really responsible for the consequences of their terrible decisions.

This wishy-washiness, which is just as crude in its own way as the stigmatization that it has supplanted, filters up to professionals like Dr. Chang who pretend that it is the ever-less potent stigmatization, and not the ever-more potent drugs, that is killing addicts.

I have a simpler theory for why drug addiction is on the rise. As I argued last year in an essay about the impossibility of permanently defeating terrorism:

The perpetrators keep innovating cheaper and easier methods of mass destruction; every innovation, once introduced, becomes part of the permanent repertoire.

Likewise, every new drug, once invented, is added to an ever-expanding repertoire. Alcohol and opium date to prehistoric times; heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine to the 19th century; LSD to 1938; carfentanyl to 1974. Chemists are continually tweaking the formulas of these and countless other drugs to make them more potent and cheaper to produce.

Therefore, all else staying constant – “all else” embracing such minor details as law enforcement, the justice system, and the culture – we should expect addiction to increase year over year, as the drug peddlers keep discovering better ways to hook us.

Law enforcement agencies, in their turn, are continually innovating new tactics – though their adoption is hindered by the innate creakiness of big bureaucracies. But the emerging progressive consensus aims to rule out certain avenues of enforcement altogether. We should decriminalize drug possession, we’re told, and at the same time forego incarcerating non-violent dealers. In other words, remove or neuter all statutory obstacles to the spread of drugs.

Meanwhile, on the cultural side, we are instructed to regard addiction exactly as we regard psoriasis or kidneystones – as a matter of pure bad luck, for which the sufferer bears no blame.

As for the externalized costs of addiction – the measurable costs of sanitation, policing, health care, and housing, and the immeasurable ones of ugliness, anxiety, and petty irritation – we should pay up, and smile. To complain would be to contribute to the stigma which, as Dr. Chang has medically established, is more deadly than the disease itself.

***

It’s getting chilly. The other day on my visit to the coffeeshop I perched on a stool by the window, overlooking the passing crowd. I noticed a scruffy-looking guy had climbed over the railing of the patio and was using a metal implement to peel long strips of bark off a tree. Some mentally disturbed junkie, I thought.

Then my anti-stigmatization reflexes kicked in. How do I know what he’s up to? Maybe he’s an off-duty arborist who detected signs of disease in the bark, which he has taken it upon himself to remove.

I considered stepping outside to ask the guy what he was doing but – look, there were any number of ways that encounter could have gone badly, okay? I buried my nose in my newspaper.

By the time I finished my coffee there was a sizable heap of kindling at the guy’s feet. Pedestrians streamed by, paying the tree abuser no mind. I joined the flow.

It’s a beautiful tree. In the summer it provides shade for the patio and a refuge for the sparrows that hop charmingly among the tables, scavenging for crumbs. It would be a shame if it were seriously wounded. But who am I to interfere with a stranger’s pleasures?

M.

1. I found my way to Vishloff’s thesis by way of Tristin Hopper’s op-ed in the National Post, “Vancouver’s drug strategy has been a disaster. Be very wary of emulating it.”

Pretty / fair assessment.

I didn’t pay all that much attention to the recently concluded Canadian election campaign. It was only on voting day, while scraping together links to give the illusion of substance to my hot take on the outcome, that I learned about Maxime Bernier’s one-sided feud with Greta Thunberg.

Thunberg’s name you already know – she’s the sixteen year old Swede who skipped school to protest government insouciance toward what she believes is a looming global warming apocalypse, thus sparking an international campaign of climate truancy.

Bernier is the leader of the conservative splinter faction the People’s Party, who, after eliciting torrents of outrage from Canadian commentators about the infection of our heretofore pristine politics by an alien strain of right-wing populism, managed in the end to nab 1.6% of the vote.

A week before the election call, referring to an Instagram post in which Thunberg had discussed how her Asperger’s made her “a bit different from the norm”, Bernier tweeted:

@GretaThunberg is clearly mentally unstable. Not only autistic, but obsessive-compulsive, eating disorder, depression and lethargy, and she lives in a constant state of fear.

She wants us to feel the same: “I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I fear every day.”

For this and other offenses to propriety he was challenged by a questioner at the English language leaders’ debate, who wondered whether a politician willing to express such thoughts had the “character and integrity” to serve as prime minister.

Now, I don’t think Bernier’s tweet was so horrible. I guess the idea is that Thunberg, as a mere child, is too precious to be exposed to such a vicious partisan attack.

Putting aside the question of why, then, we ought to be taking seriously the opinions of the wee dainty thing, pretending to worry about a political foe’s mental stability strikes me as a more gentlemanly way to discredit her than the customary tactic of questioning her decency or honesty.

Compare Nancy Pelosi’s comment, after a noisy meeting with Donald Trump, that the president was losing his grip and that we all ought to “pray for his health”. I mean, sure it was cynical and sanctimonious. Still, it was a refreshing change from calling him a racist liar like she does every other day of the week.

But I suppose I’m defending Bernier because, when I saw that famous picture of Thunberg at the climax of her speech at the UN – the “How dare you” speech – I couldn’t help thinking, “The poor kid looks nuts.”

greta thunberg how dare you

Jason Decrow, AP Images.

Speaking of unflattering pictures, a couple months back this letter to the editor appeared in the print edition of the Vancouver Sun:

I was struck by the rather telling body language in the photo of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Donald Trump on Page NP1 of Monday’s Sun. Trudeau smiles and extends a hand in conventional diplomatic greeting while Trump looks away with a disdainful expression and keeps his hands clasped together. The picture neatly summarizes our two countries’ relationship and shows Trump has no tact.

When I got home that evening I looked up the photo, which was taken at the G7 summit in Biarritz, France:

trump trudeau handshake g7 meeting 2019

“In my considered opinion as a professional photojournalist, the key moment of this encounter occurred just after the leaders’ handshake, as the president turned to look for his chair.” – Nicholas Kamm, Agence France-Presse.

No doubt the author of that letter would deny that his political opinions are so malleable that a photograph could alter them. He wouldn’t despise Trump a jot less if the Sun had opted to publish this more conventional shot, taken a few seconds earlier:

trump trudeau handshake g7 meeting 2019

Carlos Barria, Reuters.

I’m not so confident that I’m immune to the effects of media image manipulation. Suppose I’d never seen that memorable photo of Thunberg with her face twisted in rage – suppose the Vancouver Sun had instead gone with the more complimentary angle favoured by the Toronto Star:

greta thunberg how dare you

Spencer Platt, Getty Images.

In that case, when I later came across Bernier’s ruminations about Thunberg’s mental health, they would have struck me as entirely out of left field.

I don’t mean to imply that the Sun, or the many other newspapers that published the rage-face photo, were trying to discredit Thunberg. It’s definitely the more interesting image, just as the image of Trump appearing to snub Trudeau is more interesting than a customary grip-and-grin would have been.

But even when we all see the same image, we don’t. For those already panicky about global warming, Thunberg’s emotionalism seems appropriately modulated: she should be that outraged. Why aren’t the rest of us?

While to cynical geezers like me and, I suppose, Maxime Bernier, she just looks like an overwrought kid who needs a hug.

Looking again at that Trump-Trudeau handshake, to me it’s not the president but the PM who comes off poorly. With his camera-ready grin Trudeau has always struck me as glossy and artificial, like a second-rate game show host; while Trump, for whom I have a grudging fondness, seems appealingly rumpled and unrehearsed.

Obviously this has nothing to do with the two men’s respective policies. Just as obviously, it colours the way I perceive those policies. A news media intent on subtly shifting my political sympathies could probably do so, over the course of many months, by showing me photos of Trudeau looking less like an airbrushed phony, and Trump like more of one.

They’ve been doing that kind of thing – making Personality A look like a saint and Personality B like a shifty weirdo – since the invention of the news. But until quite recently the media’s efforts at thought manipulation have been limited,

First, by the temptation of profits, which created an incentive to publish visually arresting but off-message pictures;

Second, by the diversity of the media market, which meant there was usually a competing newspaper or TV network to serve as a reality check for skeptical audiences;

Third, by the fact that a substantial minority of the audience would always turn out to be perversely attracted to whatever the majority found ugly.

But media consolidation has reduced the salience of the first two factors, while the third – the glorious, ridiculous unruliness of individual human judgement – may turn out to be algorithmically tameable.

Soon media companies will have the power to fine-tune their image delivery to individual readers: to show me Trudeau with a frown and five-o’clock shadow where my neighbour sees him grinning with baby-smooth cheeks; to show me Thunberg cool and scientific where my neighbour sees her bawling for our doomed planet; and we’ll both arrive, by seeming serendipity, at exactly the same set of opinions.

M.

Election 2019: This crank says nay.

This year I officially became a nonvoter.

The last couple elections I dutifully crossed the street to the local seniors’ centre and stood in line for the privilege of spoiling my ballot. I don’t claim this chore was terribly onerous, but it brought me neither pleasure nor reward, and I wondered why I bothered.

Last time, I considered scribbling a penis or a bunny rabbit on my ballot, to at least provide a moment of levity to the poor schmuck tallying the votes. But the line-up, while brisk, was lengthy enough that I felt guilty lingering behind the partition to doodle, and after a brief hesitation I simply refolded the ballot unmarked.

So this year I skipped it. It was raining anyway.

An NDP-supporting friend encouraged me to vote, vote for anyone – even the Conservatives – just so long as I registered my opposition to “the Christian party”, by which I gathered she meant the ex-Tory Maxime Bernier’s reified fit of pique, the People’s Party of Canada.

I didn’t bother explaining that I have about as much or little enthusiasm for the dreaded Bernier as I have for the other leaders; and that if my vote amounted to a die roll, one name was as likely to come up as another; and that if a single vote for the PPC mattered so much to her she should prefer, to be on the safe side, that I abstain. I just grunted and changed the subject.

***

In an earlier essay I advanced a theory of what I might call, if I were a lefty academic, a systemic bias favouring conservative parties:

Young journalists, freshly escaped from the progressivist petri dishes of the North American higher education system, might sincerely intend to give conservatives a fair shake; but they unconsciously communicate their disdain and disbelief through their word choices, their headlines, the photos they choose to illustrate their articles, and of course, through which stories they cover, and which they ignore.

In a multi-party system like Canada’s, this bias affects which parties get taken seriously. Populists and social conservatives, in order to avoid the taint of association with icky “far-right” ideas, self-protectively cluster with libertarians and Bay Street types under a single big conservative tent; while politicians from the lefty fringe, emboldened by their friendlier media coverage, feel free to flake off into purist micro-parties which splinter the left-wing vote – helping the unified conservatives take power.

That’s the paradox: that left-leaning media might, in clumsily putting their thumb on the scales, accidentally be tipping elections to the right.

Yesterday’s election illustrates the paradox. The Liberals, New Democrats, and Greens – whose platforms appeared, to this untrained eye, as scarcely distinguishable shades of pale pink – together commanded the allegiance of 55% of the electorate. In Quebec yet another left-leaning party, the Bloc Quebecois, was in contention, so that in some ridings the progressive vote was split four ways.

This five-way split is the only reason the Conservatives were in the running at all. Although by international and historical standards they’re about as right-wing as a kindergarten teacher bottle-feeding a baby goat, apparently it’s enough to terrify an outright majority of the population. Against a unified left the Tories would long ago have been winnowed to a handful of farmers fulminating in an Alberta curling rink. Yet somehow they carry on, to the outrage of all decent-minded Canadians, cobbling together a majority every quarter century or so.

Plainly it’s in the interest of said decent-minded folks that a further-right alternative should emerge – one capable of siphoning off five or ten percent of the Tory vote, to give progressive candidates a bit more breathing room.

And yet when Maxime Bernier, miffed at his loss of the Tory leadership contest to hollowed-out marshmallow Andrew Scheer, declared his intention to launch just such a further-right alternative, did the media give him a respectful hearing? No, they went promptly to work re-installing the limits of acceptable discourse just this side of Bernier’s podium, appointing the nation’s most acute offense-detectors to guard the ramparts.

(Of course Scheer’s Conservatives were happy to give clandestine assistance to this project.)

Although there’s little in the People’s Party platform to support the accusation that it is, as my friend put it, a “Christian party”, it has emerged as a safe harbour for former Tories tired of being angrily shushed by their colleagues whenever they admitted to discomfort with the latest advance in the ongoing sexual enlightenment. Also for those drummed out of respectable society for doubting the reality of climate change, or the sanctity of immigration.

I suspect Bernier doesn’t care a fig about these cranky causes. Given his druthers he would have built his platform around laissez-faire economics of perfectly stodgy think-tank pedigree: ending supply management in the dairy industry, for example. But knowing that such a party would appeal only to a handful of bow-tie-wearing statistics profs, he welcomed his fellow ex-Tory refugees, believing (in the manner of the multiculturalists he now affects to disdain) that their diversity would prove to be a source of strength.

Was this realistic? Putting aside taxes and spending, and focussing on the culture-war issues, according to recent opinion polls:

  • 25% of Canadians remain opposed to gay marriage; [1]
  • 33% are leery of letting trans women use women’s bathrooms; [2]
  • 36% would support at least some restrictions on abortion; [3]
  • 18% are unworried about or doubt the reality of climate change; [4]
  • 55% would like to see immigration reduced. [5]

I imagine there’s a large degree of overlap on the gay marriage, transgender, and abortion issues: let’s say around 30% of Canadians are, on questions of marriage and sexuality, more or less socially conservative.

Bernier probably assumed, contemplating the tastes of this recalcitrant 30%, that they must also be angry about immigration, in denial about climate change, and ready to take the knife to taxes and social services. As many of them surely are.

But although it’s convenient for partisan head-counters, there’s no inherent reason these attitudes should cluster. One of the main lessons of the twin Brexit and Trump upsets of 2016 was that when voters are shaken loose from their customary political allegiances, they’ll reassemble in ways that are confusing to metropolitan observers: working-class Labour and Democratic Party voters, it turned out, weren’t as enthusiastic about mass immigration, cultural dislocation, and the affordable wares of Shenzhen as the folks in the capital thought they ought to be.

***

I think social conservative cranks, climate cranks, and immigration cranks should all feel welcome to air their views. This is probably because I’m an immigration crank myself. Which is to say I share with the majority of Canadians the opinion that immigration should be reduced.

The latest polling on the subject is from June, when 63% of respondents agreed that “the government should prioritize limiting immigration levels because the country might be reaching a limit in its ability to integrate them”. (Of course “limiting” immigration is not necessarily the same as “reducing” it.)

As you’d probably expect, the highest support for this proposition – 81% – came from Conservative voters. (People’s Party supporters weren’t broken out.) But the pattern beyond that is counterintuitive: 57% of Greens, 44% of New Democrats, and 41% of Liberals also favoured “limiting”.

Maybe those 57% of Green supporters fret about immigration for the same reason I do: they fear it’s pushing up the cost of housing and accelerating urban sprawl.

Maybe a few of them also believe, as I do, that a nation ought to be something more than a bunch of unrelated people scrabbling furiously to drive up the gross domestic product; that citizens should share some common values, common heroes, even a common language, so they can have a chat in the intervals between acts of commerce.

Regardless, there’s no particular reason that the above beliefs must be paired with, say, opposition to gay marriage or abortion. (In fact, someone concerned about overpopulation might logically be in favour of both.)

Or, to look at the pairing from the opposite angle, many of those Canadians who remain unembarrassed to profess social conservative views are themselves immigrants from places where the penalties for incorrect speech are far graver than being called out by some Twitter scold. They may see four more years of declarations from Justin Trudeau that their beliefs are un-Canadian as an acceptable tradeoff for the chance to bring their relatives over from the old country.

Suppose that there were no correlation at all between social conservatism, climate skepticism, and wanting less immigration. In that case the likelihood that a randomly selected Canadian would hold all three opinions would be 30% × 18% × 55% = 3%.

The People’s Party couldn’t manage even that: their final share of the popular vote was 1.6%.

But if there is a correlation, it may simply be that all three of the above opinions are currently deemed unsayable. A citizen accustomed to feeling that his beliefs have been twisted, traduced, and ignored by the media is bound to begin to mistrust coverage of other topics; if they’re willing to mischaracterize my viewpoint, the dissident realizes, how can I trust what they say about anyone else’s?

***

I’m not terribly surprised by Justin Trudeau’s victory, by the way. I don’t think the election really had much to do with pipelines, or taxes, or SNC-Lavalin, or blackface dance routines, or any of the other things pundits thought were important.

I believe what it came down to was that Trudeau makes Canadians feel special. Since he’s been prime minister, the rest of the world pays attention to us sometimes. Andrew Scheer could strangle Elizabeth May on the floor of the House of Commons and it would be reported somewhere around page 9 of the New York Times. Trudeau puts on funny socks and it’s retweeted around the world.

As the singer Nanette Workman enthused after performing at Justin’s dad’s retirement gala, “I’m not very political, but I love Trudeau. He’s a star. Like Mick Jagger.”

I have a feeling that, as we did with his father, we’ll be putting up with Justin for as long he decides to stick around.

M.

1. Same-sex couples…

64% “should continue to be allowed to legally marry”
15% “should only be allowed to form civil unions and not marry”
10% “should not have any kind of legal recognition”
11% “not sure”

Source: Research Co., July, 2019

2. Transgender Canadians…

33% “definitely” should be allowed to use the public bathroom of their choice
19% “probably” should be allowed to use the public bathroom of their choice
16% “definitely” should use the public bathroom based on their biological sex
17% “probably” should use the public bathroom based on their biological sex
16% “not sure”

Source: Research Co., July, 2019

3. Abortion…

53% “should be permitted whenever a woman decides she wants one”
24% “should be permitted in certain circumstances, such as if a woman has been raped”
7% “should only be permitted when the life of the mother is in danger”
5% opposed “under any circumstance”
11% “not sure”

Source: Ipsos, March, 2017

4. Climate change or global warming is…

47% “an extremely serious problem”
35% “a serious problem”
13% “not that serious problem”
5% “not a problem at all”

Source: Abacus Data, Summer, 2019

5. “I would like to see tighter border controls that allow fewer immigrants into Canada.”

30% “strongly agree”
25% “tend to agree”
27% “neither agree nor disagree”
11% “tend to disagree”
8% “strongly disagree”

Source: Ipsos, January, 2019

 

The media vs. the populists.

In June I published a long essay inspired by the memoirs of John Diefenbaker, Canada’s prime minister from 1957-63.

It’s kind of rambling and haphazard and I wouldn’t say it has a thesis, exactly. But to my mind its various digressions share a common theme, which is how in many ways Diefenbaker presaged modern populist conservatives like Trump, FarageLe Pen, Salvini, Orban, etc. – not in his policies, which were particular to mid-century Canada, nor in his rhetoric, which was pompous and long-winded by modern standards, but in the intense allergic reaction he provoked in the establishment, especially the media.

For those unfamiliar with Diefenbaker’s career (and not quite up to tackling my 6,000-word essay): in 1957 his Progressive Conservatives edged out a Liberal government that had been in power seemingly forever; the following year he won what was up to then Canada’s largest ever parliamentary majority; and in 1963, fatally wounded by a mutinous cabinet, a hostile media, and an opposition Liberal Party openly in cahoots with the U.S. administration of John F. Kennedy, he was defeated.

He made many unforced errors during his six years in office, and his bristly, paranoid personality alienated many allies. But the specific issue that led to his downfall was his resistance to accepting American nuclear warheads for the Bomarc missile system his government had over-hastily purchased a few years earlier to contribute to continental defence against Soviet bombers.

Diefenbaker seems initially to have been happy to take the nukes, subject to negotiations to ensure that Ottawa would have a meaningful say if it ever came to launching them. He dragged his feet for a few years, attempting to reconcile his cabinet’s hawks and doves, but was finally won over to his foreign minister’s position: that there was no formula for hosting U.S. nukes that would preserve Canada’s military sovereignty, that a nuclear-armed Canada would lose the moral authority to argue for disarmament, and that the Bomarcs were pretty much useless anyway, with or without nukes.

I’m neutral on the nuclear issue. I can see how Diefenbaker might have accepted the need to sacrifice a degree of sovereignty in order to preserve a strong NATO front against the Soviets. I can also see how nuking up might have seemed to him a provocation more likely to lead to war than to deter it.

But as a Generation Xer who has spent his whole life steeped in a media culture that portrayed the arms race as little better than a case of collective hysteria, and the pro-nuclear side as a mob of sinister psychopaths and spittle-spraying buffoons, I was surprised by the consistently negative spin mid-’60s journalists put on Diefenbaker’s anti-nuke stance. They called it incoherent, divisive, anti-American, and most of all, the word that shows up again and again in nearly every account of the Diefenbaker years, indecisive.

(Then they praised Liberal leader and secular saint Lester B. Pearson for, uh…decisively repudiating his previously held position, and announcing that he would take the nukes Dief had refused.)

It’s not searchable on Google Books and I’m too lazy to confirm by re-reading the whole thing, but I’d guess that the words indecision and indecisive appear on every fifth or sixth page of Peter C. Newman’s bestselling critical account of the Diefenbaker years, Renegade in Power; and that if I threw in synonyms and near-synonyms like hesitate, prevaricate, waffle, etc., I’d find a reference to Diefenbaker’s indecisiveness on every other page.

Indecision was to the Diefenbaker years what chaos has been to the Trump years – the lens through which journalists observe their subject, bringing certain events and narratives into focus while reducing others to an irrelevant background blur.

Take this editorial by John Ivison in the National Post back in June, in which President Trump’s reluctance to blame the Iranian leadership for an attack on oil shipping in the Persian Gulf was cast as an instance of Trumpian chaos:

Trump had his own theory about what might have happened. “I may be wrong but I may be right and I’m right a lot,” he said, positing that someone down the chain of command had ordered the strike. “I find it hard to believe it was intentional.”

It was a classic example of Trump’s political improv – a stream of consciousness, informed by his own narrow experience, based on evidence that conforms to his own prejudices and rejects evidence that contradicts them. War and peace; life and death, all governed by the chaos theory that permanent destabilization works to America’s advantage.

While there are any number of U.S. actions in recent years to which the description “permanent destabilization” might reasonably apply, surely declining to launch missiles at Iran isn’t one of them. But when evaluating Trump, Ivison’s instruments of punditry are permanently set to “chaos”, so that’s all he’s capable of seeing.

***

Speaking of Ivison, I chuckled at his quixotic attempt a couple weeks ago to paint Canada’s relentlessly progressive prime minister as a populist:

[T]here are few more capable exponents of populist techniques than Justin Trudeau. He is clearly not an authoritarian right-wing demagogue, playing on the insecurities created by cultural competition that have left many voters feeling estranged from the predominant values in their own country.

But even if his causes are more cosmopolitan – globalism, diversity, women’s empowerment – they are similarly tribal and, at times, equally disdainful of divergence from their orthodoxy.

Trudeau and his team have been adept at using polarizing rhetoric, symbolism and identity issues, even while accusing his opponents of adopting “the politics of division.”

What is a populist, anyway? In his memoirs Diefenbaker recalled challenging a Conservative Party bigwig who’d dismissed him as a “western populist” to explain what he meant by the phrase:

He thought it was some kind of erratic radicalism. When pressed further, he wasn’t certain what his new term encompassed, except that it did encompass those things he disapproved of.

Diefenbaker’s “western populist” government relaxed immigration rules, expanded social welfare programs, made liberal reforms to the criminal justice system, and took modest steps to make government more accessible to linguistic and ethnic minorities. But none of that mattered. What mattered was that Diefenbaker refused to go along with the agenda of a glamorous Democratic president who was beloved by the media. Therefore he could be dismissed as an uncultured bigmouth from the sticks.

(I suspect that if Diefenbaker had stayed in office long enough to quarrel with the unloved Lyndon Johnson, he’d have a much better reputation today.)

Nowadays, the populist agenda includes restricting immigration, using targeted tariffs to protect blue-collar jobs, and bringing the troops back home. These are currently associated with Donald Trump and the American right, but until a few years ago the latter two causes were largely the province of the left.

(Through the Bill Clinton era, the left also harboured a significant anti-immigration constituency; Bernie Sanders was playing to this vanished audience as recently as 2015.)

In 2016 Hillary Clinton won more votes than Donald Trump; her agenda was, arguably, more popular than his. And yet it was Trump, and not Clinton, who was labelled a populist. Clearly this had less to do with Trump’s popularity than with his unpopularity among those with the power to label him.

As Diefenbaker put it, populism encompasses all those things the influential people disapprove of. Or to be more precise, it’s whatever is currently popular among ordinary folks and unpopular among the elite.

***

At the local level, populism often entails citizens rebelling against plans imposed by a remote and unresponsive city hall – plans like paving over beloved green spaces, plunking social housing in sleepy suburbs, and rezoning low-density neighbourhoods to permit apartment blocks. Such rebellions also tend to jumble left-right ideological alignments.

Think of the writer Jane Jacobs, who rose to local fame organizing the opposition to a planned Lower Manhattan Expressway. As described by Alex Mazer in The Walrus,

Backed by her own lack of formal training (she left Columbia University after two years of undergraduate study) and her grandmotherly demeanour, she cast herself as an underdog in a world of credentialed experts – be they economists, traffic engineers, civil servants, or professors – and her attacks on them could be unrelenting. Like a populist politician, she cast her opponents as out of touch with reality, ignorant of plain facts, and dismissive of regular folks.

The urban model Jacobs advocated – bustling, pedestrian-friendly mixed-use streets like those of her beloved (1960s-era) Greenwich Village – is now generally associated with the progressive left, and opposed by the kind of populists who rail against bike lanes and gas taxes. And yet her most famous book, 1960’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is a paean to small businesses and bottom-up organization.

Nowadays she’s as likely to be lauded in right-wing publications like The American Conservative and City Journal as in left-wing ones like Salon and Slate; if anything, she gets rougher handling on the left, where the woke vanguard kvetches that she was white and out-of-touch.

Death and Life lambastes the practices of her era’s urban planners, under whose guidance cities were diligently bulldozing poor but functioning “slums” and replacing them with brand-new public housing projects that quickly became cesspits of crime and decay.

They pursued these ruinous policies in the name of an academic fad Jacobs mocks as “radiant garden cities”, combining aspects of Le Corbusier’s Ville radieuse and Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities of To-Morrow into a glossy vision of urban life with all its noise and disorder banished to the margins.

The trouble was that in the real world, banishing noise and disorder also entailed banishing street life and economic diversity, creating at best well-manicured dead zones, and at worst unfenced reservations for street punks to roam.

While some of Jacobs’ modern fans would like to believe that her foes were villains “oozing arrogance and reptilian cunning”, she’s clear in Death and Life that the “radiant garden city” vision was pursued by intelligent men with a sincere desire to improve the lives of the people whose neighbourhoods they were wrecking. Jacobs compares them to an earlier movement of self-confident blunderers:

And to put it bluntly, they are all in the same stage of elaborately learned superstition as medical science was early in the last century, when physicians put their faith in bloodletting, to draw out the evil humors which were believed to cause disease. With bloodletting, it took years of learning to know precisely which veins, by which rituals, were to be opened for what symptoms. A superstructure of technical complication was erected in such deadpan detail that the literature still sounds almost plausible.

However, Jacobs goes on, the practice of bloodletting was “tempered with a certain amount of common sense”, until in the United States it was pushed to new levels of recklessness by the brilliant and revered Dr. Benjamin Rush, under whose instruction the technique was applied “in cases where prudence or mercy had heretofore restrained its use”:

He and his students drained the blood of very young children, of consumptives, of the greatly aged, of almost anyone unfortunate enough to be sick in his realms of influence. His extreme practices aroused the alarm and horror of European bloodletting physicians.

And yet, as late as 1851, a committee appointed by the State Legislature of New York solemnly defended the thoroughgoing use of bloodletting. It scathingly ridiculed and censured a physician, William Turner, who had the temerity to write a pamphlet criticizing Dr. Rush’s doctrines and calling “the practice of taking blood in diseases contrary to common sense, to general experience, to enlightened reason and to the manifest laws of the divine Providence.” Sick people needed fortifying, not draining, said Dr. Turner, and he was squelched.

Jacobs doesn’t mention that Dr. Turner’s opposition to bloodletting derived from his adherence to a then-trendy form of alternative medicine known as the “chrono-thermal system”, brainchild of the Scottish doctor Samuel Dickson.

Dr. Turner wrote the introduction to the American edition of Dickson’s jeremiad The Principles of the Chrono-thermal System of Medicine, which had been ridiculed in the British and Foreign Medical Review:

The plain truth is, as every one must see, the whole book is a farrago of nonsense; a hash of a few old truths and many fantastic speculations, made piquant by the most amusing self-laudation on the part of its author, and the most extravagant abuse of his professional brethren and imagined rivals.

I’m no doctor, but from what I can glean of his system, Dickson was indeed some kind of crank. However, if you submitted to his treatment, the worst that was likely to happen was he failed to cure you; whereas a doctor who stuck to the conventional wisdom as represented by the British and Foreign Medical Review might very well open your vein and kill you.

The 1960s urban planning consensus has held out a little better than the 1850s medical consensus. While doctors rarely bleed their patients these days, planners continue to blight cities with roads that hinder the movement of pedestrians while doing little to improve the movement of cars. Still, Jacobs’ critique has been so successful that it no longer qualifies as populist: it has been absorbed into the establishment against whom the anti-density, pro-freeway rabble hoist their pitchforks.

I won’t make a fool of myself by attempting to predict which wacky idea currently disdained by the academy, the media, and most of the people reading this essay will in a half-century be seen as so obvious that only fools and villains could ever have opposed it. Today’s populism will become tomorrow’s establishment, and a new populism will burble up to be snickered at and hand-wrung over.

M.

Opinions for dummies.

1. No matter how moronic the opinion, there is someone much more intelligent than you who holds that opinion.

2. No matter how sensible the opinion, it can be expressed in a way so moronic that it seems to discredit everyone who holds that opinion.

***

See also:

Dwarf descending. “Before I was old enough to reason, I absorbed from my elders, my friends, and the media certain preconceptions about what intelligence looked and sounded like. I accepted the arguments made by the people who looked and sounded that way, and sneered at the arguments of those that didn’t.”

A sympathetic reaction: C.P. Snow’s The Light and the Dark. “People are capable of believing any implausible thing, and clever people are both better than the rest of us at coming up with good arguments for implausible beliefs, and more likely to be attracted to beliefs that give them the scope to demonstrate their cleverness.”

The old, illogical morality: The Kindly Ones and Darkness at Noon. “It’s possible that the mental convolutions necessary to overcoming the evident contradictions of Communism and National Socialism make those ideologies more appealing to intelligent people; it is precisely their affront to common sense that makes them attractive to those … who justly perceive themselves as uncommon.”

I take a stand! “While I have no sympathy for Nazism, an idiotic creed, I do sympathize with Nazis; or rather, I sympathize with people who believe all manner of idiotic things, having believed various idiotic things at various times in my life; and being unable to declare with certainty that I don’t believe one or more idiotic things right now.”

Muddle and melancholy. “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.


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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