Archive for the 'Arguments' Category

Faulty ventriloquism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey,” he said. “Where are you?”

“I’m by the office. Where are you?”

“In the back alley.”

“What back alley?”

“Behind my house.”

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

“Did you read all my texts?”

“Yes, I read all your goddamned texts.”

“I thought you could tell I was joking.”

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

(Note: Matt Bruenig never said this.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surely, as reasonable people, we could democratically decide–

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

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

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

That was a threat! You all heard it!

THROW THEM TO THE BEARS!

M.

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Terror and nerd appeal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

M.

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

Muddle and melancholy.

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

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

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

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

…is not news. This is:

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

So is this:

Black Guys Get Arrested For Loitering At Starbucks

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

M.

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

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

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

Rude, how?

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

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

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

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

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

“I know, huh.”

“That’s unacceptable.”

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

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

“Well,” I said, “we’ll see.”

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

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

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

M.

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

The Proportional Representation weenies get their shot.

Last month I participated in the Province of British Columbia’s online survey about changing the voting system. The results will be considered in the design of an upcoming referendum to swap out our musty old wig-wearing Westminster-style system for a shiny, enlightened, progressive…er, I mean proportional alternative.

I bailed on the survey after a couple questions when I remembered that I don’t give a crap what voting system we use. An op-ed in the Vancouver Sun illustrates why I can’t take the issue seriously. It’s by three well-meaning nerds from an organization called Make Every Vote Count:

It’s time to fix BC’s broken democracy

The day after an election, a majority – usually six out of 10 voters – effectively find themselves with a government in Victoria they didn’t choose.

The result? The majority must live with what the minority has chosen. Not terribly representative or democratic.

I should explain why this is an issue at all. In last year’s election, the governing BC Liberals – a right-leaning alliance of inoffensive pro-business types, with a few carefully screened social conservatives riding quietly at the back of the bus – won more seats, and a fraction more of the popular vote, than the New Democratic Party.

bc election results 2017

2017 BC election results.

However, the NDP claimed power by negotiating an arrangement with the third-place Greens, who promised to prop them up subject to certain conditions…including this referendum on bringing in a proportional representation system.

The Greens believe, probably correctly, that PR would be to their advantage in future elections: if last year’s popular vote, for example, had been translated into seat count on a purely proportional basis, the Greens would have elected 14 or 15 members, rather than the 3 they eked out under our first-past-the-post system.

How should us non-Greens feel about it? Would PR benefit the left side of the political spectrum exclusively, or would it lead to a complete upheaval of our current party system? Would it increase voter enthusiasm, solving the problem – if it is a problem – of “voter apathy” that the editorialists claim is on the rise?

I’m one of those apathetic voters whose enthusiasm for democracy will supposedly be rekindled by PR. I’ve been living in BC for five and a half years, the whole time under a government in Victoria I didn’t choose: I skipped the 2013 election and spoiled my ballot in 2017.

Perhaps I would have cast a vote for some hypothetical third or fourth or fifth party representing my idiosyncratic views, which under a PR system might have elected one or two members to gripe from the backbenches.

I might be slightly happier under this scenario. But my slightly greater happiness would be offset by the irritation of the many British Columbians wondering, “Who let those goddamned cranks into the legislature?”

***

Looking back at previous provincial elections, it appears that under a PR system the perennially second-place NDP, providing they were able to count on Green support, would have had a lock on government for the last decade. (Though this is accepting the implausible scenario where party alignments and voter preferences remained static under a changed voting system.) Which is why it’s lefties and progressives currently pushing PR, while the Liberals vow to fight it.

But back in the 1990s, before the rise of the Green Party, it was the right side of the political spectrum that was fragmented, allowing the NDP to rule with popular vote totals around 40%.

I suspect that even now there are at least as many social conservative voters in BC as there are Greens, but it has been the Liberals’ luck (perhaps augmented with a little backroom skulduggery) that a viable right-wing alternative hasn’t emerged since the collapse of BC Reform in the early 2000s.

Paradoxically, lefty media bias might be one of the factors helping the right-wing coalition hang together. The more talented conservative politicians, knowing that their Twitter and Facebook feeds will be mercilessly examined for any hint of sympathy with taboo ideas – Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, whatever-the-next-thing-is-phobia – opt to keep their heads down and settle for second-class status in a winning centre-right coalition, rather than try to launch a true right-wing alternative.

When Canada’s unimpeachably progressive prime minister Justin Trudeau retreated from his election promise to bring in PR at the federal level, this was precisely the rationalization he offered: that a new voting system might enable far-right ruffians to sneak past the gatekeepers and into parliament.

You can laugh at the hypocrisy of Trudeau’s discovery that the system was working at the exact moment the system elevated him to power. But there’s something to his analysis. Under first-past-the-post, coalition-building takes place before the election, as the mainstream parties jostle for position on the ideological spectrum; enabling the parties to act as a cartel, filtering out viewpoints that are popular with the electorate, but unpopular with our ruling class.

Under PR, the ruffians needn’t win over a plurality of voters anywhere, only enough here and there to scrape past whatever arbitrary popular-vote threshold – usually 5 or 10% – the gatekeepers have imposed. Once the ruffians tumble through the door, ululating and firing their pistols in the air, there’s a risk ordinary people will start paying attention to them, and then – why, anything might happen.

Consider the UK where, despite about half the electorate wanting out of the EU, the suits in the mainstream parties successfully banished the issue to the fringes for a generation. When a single-issue anti-EU party emerged – UKIP – it wasn’t in Westminster but in the proportionally-allocated European Parliament that it managed to gain a toehold…whereupon the embargo began to fall apart.

***

No matter what voting system is used, a ballot is a blunt instrument for registering your democratic choice. It doesn’t indicate your level of enthusiasm – a grudging preference for candidate A and a rabid hatred for candidate B result in the exact same mark on the ballot.

The do-gooders seem to imagine some ideal system where no-one ever casts a negative vote:

[M]any feel pressured to vote for the lesser of two evils. They feel compelled to vote “strategically”.

Instead of voting for someone they believe in, they vote for a different candidate to prevent the election of yet another. Not coincidentally, a growing number feel cynical about politics.

Apparently a proportional system will somehow obviate the need for strategic voting. But no matter what process is used, the endgame is the same: to enact the policies you support, while blocking the policies you oppose. All PR does is expand the gameboard. Instead of strategizing at the level of a single electoral district, you have to strategize at the provincewide or nationwide level.

This may actually make voting less satisfying, as it’s hard to predict what the parties will do when it comes time to dole out roles in a coalition government. How many Germans are likely to be thrilled by the result of their most recent election, run under a version of PR, which saw Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats returning to power yet again with the support of her supposed opponents, the Social Democrats?

This mashup of the two biggest parties, centre-right and centre-left, happens so often in Germany it has a clunky abbreviation, GroKo. For fans of mushy centrism and technocratic tinkering, a GroKo probably sounds peachy. But suppose you’re a left-leaning German whose main issue is a burning detestation of Angela Merkel. Do you vote for the Social Democrats whose policies you generally support, in the hope that this time around they’ll spurn the chancellor’s power-sharing blandishments? Or do you take a flier on the populist Left Party, who are a bit nutty for your tastes, but whom you can rely on to give Mutti Merkel the finger?

Sounds like a job for strategy.

***

What will happen if the do-gooders get their way, and bring some form of PR to British Columbia?

I’d expect the current Liberal Party to fracture into its constituent ideological parts. A renewed BC Conservative Party might yield 10-15% of the vote, while freeing the remaining Liberals to run on a more explicitly centrist platform, stealing some votes from the NDP, who will meanwhile be losing votes on their left to the energized Greens.

I could imagine the NDP fracturing as well, with the meat-and-potatoes labour types and the nose-ring contingent going their separate ways. And who knows what other blocs might be able to grab enough votes to sneak into the legislature. Maybe the Libertarians could burrow out a little nook in the centre of the political spectrum. Maybe Trump-style conservative populism will overleap the ramparts of yuppie disdain and become an electoral force in Canada.

We might easily wind up with a GroKo-style alliance of moderate New Democrats and moderate Liberals, opportunistically cobbled together to freeze out populist insurgents. I’m not so sure the authors of this op-ed – two of whom (going by their Twitter feeds) are the kind of lefties that dismiss Trudeau as a wishy-washy sellout – will be thrilled with that result.

At least under PR the makeup of the coalitions would be overt, rather than disguised, as it is now, under vague party labels.

Would this really do anything to win over cynics like me? It’s hard to say. Would I rather vote for a big mainstream party, representing an ungainly hodgepodge of interest groups, that has a real shot at winning, but once in power will pay little attention to my concerns? Or for a niche party that might elect one or two members who’ll faithfully but impotently articulate my viewpoint from a remote corner of the legislature?

I’m pretty sure I’ll find something to moan about, no matter what. But that’s what a cynic would say.

M.

Speaking of idealistic electoral reform schemes, I am striving to become the internet’s number one resource on Nevil Shute’s multiple voting system. Elsewhere on this blog I have declared that there is no God-given system under which elections would be perfectly fair and expressed mild support for sovereigntist movements like Brexit.

 

I take a stand!

(An early draft of this essay bore the cheeky title, “Come to think of it, I guess I am a Nazi sympathizer”. But why invite needless trouble?)

The other day I removed, from a telephone pole by my building, a sticker advertising the white nationalist website Stormfront.org. The first time I passed by I thought, “Meh, none of my business”; but on second thought I decided I ought to do what I could to forestall the inevitable media meltdown when someone else noticed it – “Community Rallies To Oppose Wave Of Racism” – so on my way home I stopped by the pole and, after checking to make sure no-one was watching, scraped off the sticker. I assume it was left by one of the little jackasses from the nearby high school who pass under my window hooting and swearing every day at three o’clock.

I felt a little conflicted about what I’d done, because I’m pretty much a free speech absolutist; I think even the most imbecilic speech ought to be tolerated, even in sticker form. It never crossed my mind to tear down the many posters I saw around town this winter, put up by local socialists, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Russian revolution; but then, I’m pretty sure the local media won’t be reporting worriedly on the Wave of Communism that all decent people must stand against. My removal of the Stormfront sticker was purely self-serving; as someone who harbours mildly subversive thoughts, I was trying to prevent the more dimwitted of my fellow subversives from making the rest of us look bad. So it seems I’m not all that committed to free speech after all.

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

I don’t think I’ve ever met an actual Nazi. There was an older kid – eighteen, but no bigger than a fourth grader, with leather jacket, long hair, and a wispy moustache – who when we were introduced by a mutual friend greeted me with, “Are you a Jew?”

“N-no,” I replied. Only then did he extend his tiny hand to shake mine, in the “clasped-thumbs” style favoured at that time and place by stoners, longhairs, and cool kids. (Sometimes the clasped-thumbs shake would be combined with a finger snap, a trick I never mastered.)

How sincere was his anti-Semitism? We lived in a part of Canada where you could greet a hundred people a day with “Are you a Jew?” without much danger of encountering an actual Jew. It was a low-risk, low-effort way for that physically unprepossessing kid to stake out the most outrageously antisocial position in a subcaste where antisocial attitudes were celebrated and rewarded.

I fantasized afterward about standing up to the shrimp: “Sure, I’m a Jew. You wanna make something of it?” (I’m not a Jew.) But what would that have accomplished? Despite his weirdly high status among the longhair crowd, it’s obvious in retrospect that the kid was mildly mentally retarded. I think his friends played along partly because he was known to be unstable and maybe dangerous, but also out of something akin to pity. To defy him would’ve meant risking a shanking; but even if he’d backed down, it would’ve meant humiliating him in front of the only group of weirdos who’d tolerate him.

That’s the only incident of overt anti-Semitism I can recall from my youth in small-town Saskatchewan in the 1980s and ’90s; though for a time it was a fad with some of my high school friends to use “jew” as a verb meaning “to rip off” – “that vending machine jewed me out of a loonie” – which got on my nerves, but I was too cowardly to say anything. I’m quite conflict-averse, and I was as uncomfortable defending an unpopular position at sixteen, when I was the most bleeding-heart among my redneck friends, as I am at forty-one, when I’m the most redneck among my bleeding-heart friends.

I used to feel ashamed of my cowardice, but looking back I’m glad I never took an off-puttingly self-righteous stand over what I now realize was harmless posing. It only took a couple years of university for most of my redneck friends to turn into censorious progressives of the modern type; and if the pendulum ever swings back, and mild homophobia and racial slurs again become signals of coolness, my friends who’ve conveniently forgotten the then-fashionable things they claimed to believe in high school will forget the fashionable things they claim to believe now. My beliefs, too, have mutated over time, in response to the changing political climate, and it’s probably some quirk in my character that makes me feel like I always wind up wearing a fur coat on a sunny day.

But to return to my small Saskatchewan town: the one time I recall speaking up was in junior high when I learned that a few of my friends, in my absence, had spent the evening drinking Slurpees and vandalizing the playground equipment at a local elementary school with symbols of rebellion: heavy metal band logos, anarchy signs, and KKKs. “Mmm,” I responded mildly, when my friend told me what he’d been up to the night before. “I dunno. I mean, what if people think you’re serious about all that KKK stuff?”

“Yeah,” my friend agreed – a little abashed, I believe – and we never spoke of it again. Back then people kept incidents like this in perspective. The newspapers weren’t notified, the graffiti was painted over a few days later, and probably only one or two little native kids, as opposed to every native person in the city, decided based on my friends’ asinine prank that white society was irredeemably prejudiced against them.

My preference is to refrain from throwing gasoline on fires. Groups scrape along best when there’s a consensus that we should ignore, rather than amplify, each other’s idiocies; and the idiots themselves, I feel, are likelier to respond to quiet reason than angry howling. But then, I’m pretty sheltered. I recall chatting with a Scottish visitor who told me and my friends about the low-level conflict between Catholics and Protestants in her country, and how brawling among sectarian gangs was an ordinary rite of passage for working-class males. “Gosh, I’m glad we don’t have anything like that in Canada,” I said; and a fellow Canadian piped up that, well, actually, his older brother and his cronies had regularly gotten into rumbles with native gangs back in the day. I’ve never heard directly from anyone who participated in such rumbles. Maybe, as I rather supect, my friend was exaggerating; or my friend’s older brother was exaggerating; maybe even our Scottish visitor was exaggerating. But such violence does happen, whether or not I find it believable; and having gone through it would probably make one snigger at the impotent finger-wagging of armchair geezers like me.

Why am I sharing any of this? I guess I’m hoping that, since I did my small part to Oppose a Wave of Racism, the Commies will cut me a bit of slack when they take over.

M.

Last year, inspired by a poster left on another nearby piece of urban infrastructure, I worried about progressives’ ever more flexible definition of Nazism; and the year before that, I wondered whether pre-war German Nazi Party members were really as dumb as their opponents claimed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The second paragraph proclaims that:

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

And the editorial ends with the question:

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

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

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

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

Oh, wait:

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

M.