Archive for the 'Arguments' Category

The first draft of history is often the last.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

But it slipped my mind.

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

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

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

As I wrote shortly afterward:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

lux lounge coney island grand opening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

M.

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

Jokesters and Wokesters.

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

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

jackie kennedy with john kennedy jr.

William C. Allen / AP. Image source.

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

Canada Border Services Fires Employee After Racist Video Mocks George Floyd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ottawa pizza waitress police brutality

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

M.

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

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

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

 

The rectification of names: Wakash Island.

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

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

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

salish sea boundaries and watershed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

salish sea google maps

Salish Sea, as shown on Google Maps.

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

***

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

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

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

meghan markle vancouver island

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

wakash nation quadra and vancouver's island

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

james skitt matthews wakash nation victoria mayor andrew mcgavin

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

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

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

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

Maybe it’s safer to stick with Vancouver Island.

M.

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

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

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

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

The Saskatchewan Evacuation Party belatedly endorses Andrew Scheer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

saskatchewan evacuation plan

Saskatchewan, after the Evacuation Plan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

richard rohmer mid-canada development corridor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

canadian northern corridor population distribution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

M.

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

Nation-to-nation.

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

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

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

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

begbie statue removal new westminster record september 12 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And on a wider examination of Begbie’s record:

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

M.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

british columbia six wet'suwet'en bands

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

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

 

The rectification of names.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Mandarin language teacher pretty much concedes my point:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

blissymbolics charles bliss

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

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

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

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

squamish language road sign

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

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

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

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

M.

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

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

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

 

Is it getting crazier out there?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

british columbia property crime rate 1998-2018

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

british columbia violent crime rate 1998-2018

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

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

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

british columbia self-reported property crime rate 1999-2014

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

british columbia self-reported violent crime rate 1999-2014

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

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

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

canada incarceration rate 1998-2018

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

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

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

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

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

british columbia assaults on peace officers rate 1998-2018

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

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

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

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

united states incarceration rate 2000-2016

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

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

united states property crime rate 1999-2018

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

united states violent crime rate 1999-2018

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

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

So why the drop in crime?

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

canada percentage of crimes reported to police, 1999-2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t know. I really don’t know.

***

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

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

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

british columbia homicide rate 1998-2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

british columbia most severe violent crime rate 1998-2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

M.

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

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.

tom wolfe radical chic

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.

Update, July 29, 2020: Added cover image and linked to Bibliography page.

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.”


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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Garson Hampfield, Crossword Inker