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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.

Urban rethink.

If there’s one thing the pandemic has proven, it’s that we were right about everything all along.

Those of us who admired the Chinese government have found new reasons for admiration. Those of us who distrusted the Chinese government have found new reasons for distrust.

Those of us who fretted about deficits now have even bigger deficits to fret about. Those of us who favoured bigger government are certain that the current crisis has vindicated our arguments.

And those of us who argued for “taking space away from cars and using it for people” are more committed than ever to the cause…

I happen to like density, public transportation, and walkable neighbourhoods. So I’m not too vexed by the news that the City of Vancouver is using the pandemic as an excuse to do more of what it was doing already:

[T]he pandemic is creating opportunities, council heard Wednesday, like the massive reduction in cars driving and parking, allowing the city to make strides on long-standing goals of promoting active transportation for a more healthy, happy, environmentally friendly city.

But I had to laugh at the headline of the above story as it appeared in the print version of Thursday’s Sun:

pandemic forces urban rethink vancouver sun

“Pandemic forces urban rethink”, by Dan Fumano, Vancouver Sun, May 14, 2020.

What would an “urban rethink” actually look like?

Richard J. Williams argued in the New York Times earlier this month that the mid-20th century trend towards sprawl and suburbanization was driven largely by still-fresh memories of poor sanitation and plague in overcrowded big cities:

If density was disease for modernists, it followed that their cities were about keeping people apart. Look back at the utopian schemes for cities of the first half of the 20th century, and the same hygienic preoccupations come up again and again: There must be light and space and fresh air. The Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier wrote about these things in his book “Vers Une Architecture” (translated as “Towards a New Architecture”). Parts of the book read like comedy now – the author’s attempt to turn his own obsession with hygiene into an avant-garde manifesto. But it was serious when it was published in 1923, the Spanish flu pandemic having just run its course.

As the new millennium approached, and concern about hygiene receded, the old wisdom that crowded sidewalks were dirty and unsightly was supplanted by the conviction that density was terrific, that every family should be grateful to live in an 800 sq. ft. townhouse and ride the subway to work, and that the previous generation of planners who had pulled down tenements to build freeways and public housing projects were frauds and bullies and probably racists to boot.

But now, of course, it looks like hygiene is something we have to worry about again, so planners may drift back to sprawl and suburbanization:

The dense city might not turn out to be responsible for the virus when all is said and done – but as it did a century ago in relation to the Spanish flu, it might well start to feel like a cause. After months of social distancing, are we going to want to go straight back into the crowd? Even if we are allowed to, I doubt it.

With arguments like these gaining traction – here’s Steve Sailer elaborating on the Times article, and Joel Kotkin and Marshall Toplansky making a similar case in Quillette – I wonder if Vancouver city staff will be forced to re-evaluate their priorities.

Take the Broadway subway that finally got the go-ahead last year, which will, upon its planned completion in 2025, fill an annoying gap in Vancouver’s SkyTrain network. Might it be postponed or cancelled outright when politicians are forced to grapple with the deficits that have been piling up during the shutdown?

There is a trendy line of thought that says – I hope I’m getting this right – that deficits don’t matter, that since governments control the supply of money they can print more whenever they need it, and that inflation can be controlled by simply regulating prices. Therefore we should spend our way back to prosperity with massive public works projects like subways and bridges, the costlier the better.

But if it turns out that public transit was a significant vector of infection – which at the moment looks plausible, though far from proven – then it may be foolish to continue building hugely expensive subways that no-one will be very eager to ride. There are more hygienic megaprojects that can be bumped to the top of the to-do list.

In BC’s Lower Mainland, a region of rivers and inlets, there’s always a demand for more bridges and tunnels:

  • Work had already begun in 2017 to replace the antique and overcrowded Massey Tunnel under the Fraser River with a new bridge, before the project was booted back into consultations with the change of government. It would be easy to get it back on track.
  • The new government also squashed hopes for a bridge to the Sunshine Coast, with the district’s MLA saying “it would not provide value for money”. But the study he was referring to specifically excluded “consideration of economic development benefits”, which could always be factored back in to justify reviving the idea.
  • If those projects aren’t ambitious enough, we could always take another look at the old, old dream of a fixed link between Vancouver Island and the mainland.

Over in the UK there’s the so-called Boris bridge. In 2018 Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s idea for an English Channel bridge came to nothing, but now that he’s prime minister, civil servants are obliged to take his whims seriously – so they’re at least going through the motions of considering a 20-mile-long, £20 billion bridge over the Irish Sea to join Scotland and Northern Ireland. Last I heard, the Scottish government was bitching that London hadn’t consulted them before undertaking the study.

boris bridge northern ireland scotland

“Boris bridge”, as visualized by The Sun.

Now, assuming it’s technically possible, I don’t think the bridge is such a bad idea. But it’s unlikely to be built, not just because of the eye-popping price tag but also because, with the UK’s devolved parliaments in Edinburgh and Belfast, the project would be scuppered by the same kind of grandstanding, blame-shifting, and legal obstructionism that make it nigh-impossible to build any infrastructure across an interprovincial border in Canada.

But if in the aftermath of the virus London is looking for something big, bold, and labour-intensive to lift British spirits – and to put a ton of potential Tory voters to work – then a massive bridge that travellers cross in their own hermetically-sealed automobiles might look better than, say, a £106 billion high-speed rail network that could end up whooshing half-empty trains past idling queues of resentful auto commuters.

M.

Speaking of bridges and tunnels, the BC government has embarked on yet another study of a rapid transit link to the North Shore; I touched on one of the previous studies last year when looking at some abandoned SkyTrain schemes. A couple weeks back I wondered whether, given the current difficulties getting infrastructure built, an un-building project might be an easier sell. I’ve mentioned Le Corbusier once before, in an essay that attempted to extract a consistent definition of that perennial media bugbear “populism”.

“Pardon me, madame, my name is Tarzan.”

As you might guess, The Return of Tarzan is the second book in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan series.

If you jump right in thinking, “I know all about this Tarzan guy. Swings from vines. Wears a loincloth. Speaks broken English. I don’t need to bother with the first book,” you’re likely to be confused. The Return of Tarzan starts with Tarzan moping on an ocean liner in the manner of a disaffected earl in a Dorothy L. Sayers story:

Tarzan entered the smoking room, and sought a chair a little apart from the others who were there. He felt in no mood for conversation, and as he sipped his absinth he let his mind run rather sorrowfully over the past few weeks of his life….

He’ll do a good deal more moping in the course of the novel, but he’s never more than a page or two from having to leap into action to protect some innocent damsel. Before long he’s in Paris, thwarting a Russian spy ring and then enlisting in the French secret service.

tarzan hal foster

From the Tarzan comic strip, by Hal Foster.

2019 was the 20th anniversary of Disney’s Tarzan. Last summer a friend and I went to a special presentation at a theatre here in Vancouver, with one of the co-directors doing a Q&A before the movie.

My friend had never read any of the novels, so I told her some of the plot points that were abandoned during the adaptation from print to film, like the fact that Tarzan teaches himself to read and write (from his dead parents’ library) before he encounters any other humans – and that when he is finally taught to speak, his first language is French. So she skimmed the Wikipedia plot summary while we were waiting in line.

During the Q&A she stuck up her hand and said, “I was just reading the plot of the novel, and there’s some crazy stuff in there, like how Tarzan teaches himself to read, and how he goes to Wisconsin. Also I never realized Jane Porter was originally an American.”

“No, she–” said the director.

“Yeah, she–” said my friend.

“Was she? Well, anyway,” said the director, and then launched into a speech about how they’d resolved to disregard the books because of their racist depiction of Africans. My friend sank back into her seat. There was an awkward silence as the audience gauged how long they had to sit there deploring Edgar Rice Burroughs’ racism before they could safely change the subject to Rosie O’Donnell’s performance as a wacky gorilla.

I like Disney’s Tarzan, but it’s pretty morally simplistic compared to Burroughs’ version. The point of the books is that there’s a tradeoff between the harshness and purity of nature and the comforts and corruption of civilization. In the Disney world there’s no tradeoff – the gorillas are just as intelligent as the humans, and more civilized to boot. In the end Jane and Professor Porter decide to stay with Tarzan in the jungle, and why shouldn’t they? It looks like a lot of fun.

Burroughs’ Tarzan spends a good deal of his time brooding over how he fits into neither the savage nor the civilized world. He’s kind of a downer, but he beats up some bad guys every few pages so it’s okay.

M.

 

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

hedy lamarr weight loss ad life magazine 1952

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

“Do?” I said, puzzled.

“Are you a librarian or a professor?”

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

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

“You’re a what?”

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

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

***

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

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

robert redford three days of the condor pea coat

Some fella in a pea coat. Image source.

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

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

gregory peck the million pound note

Gregory Peck in The Million Pound Note. Image source.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

M.

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

Max Beerbohm’s “A Clergyman” and posterity.

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

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

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

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

robert graves i claudius

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

time capsule 2000-2025

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

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

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

***

max beerbohm selected prose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If only we all could believe the same…

M.

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

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

Michael A. Charles is a jerk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

M.


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.

Michael isn't on LinkedIn or Facebook or Twitter and won't be on whatever comes along next. If you need to reach him here's his contact info.

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