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The Nogoodnik Rule.

Part II of The Immigration Heresies.

This was begun in early 2016 and revised in mid 2017. I’m finally publishing it now as part of my Decennial Fridge-Cleaning series.

Let me tell you everything I know about two asylum claimants, “Carl” and “Veedu”. (Their stories are from a June, 2017 article by Nina Shapiro in the Seattle Times.)

Veedu and his family are from Pakistan. Veedu declines to explain why they fled their home country. They arrived in New York City on tourist visas and applied for asylum. It seems they were permitted to live freely in the city while their claim was adjudicated. Veedu says they’d still be in New York – pending the outcome of their asylum claim, presumably – if Hillary Clinton had won the last presidential election. But Donald Trump won instead. Sensing that the atmosphere had grown unwelcoming, Veedu and his family decided they’d have a better chance in Canada.

Under the Safe Third Country Agreement between the U.S. and Canada, if Veedu and his family had attempted to claim asylum at a legal border crossing, they’d be turned away. However, due to a weird loophole, if they were already inside Canada when they made their claim, they’d be permitted to stay. So they flew to Seattle, asked a taxi driver to take them to Blaine, Washington, and walked across the unfenced border into British Columbia. Canadian border agents picked them up a few minutes later. They’re now living in Vancouver while their claim is decided.

Now here’s Carl. He’s a Kurd from northern Iraq, who had long felt oppressed in his homeland because he likes to drink alcohol and listen to music, activities frowned on by conservative Muslims. After working for an aid organization helping refugees from ISIS, Carl began receiving ominous texts calling him “an infidel, a spy, a tool of the Americans”. Feeling endangered, he finagled a tourist visa to visit a friend in Seattle – but he had no intention of hanging around there. Like Veedu, he’d heard that the Canadian border was an easy cab ride away. Unlike Veedu, when he arrived in Blaine he found himself unable to proceed. There was no physical barrier to stop him. He just couldn’t bring himself to cross. He’d never broken the law before. He took a taxi back to Seattle and filed an asylum claim with the United States.

I don’t know whether Veedu and Carl are legally entitled to receive asylum, let alone whether they “deserve” it. I don’t know whether they’d be genuinely threatened if they were returned to their home countries, or how likely they’ll be to obey the rules, to fit in, to prosper, if they are permitted to stay. I don’t have enough information – not nearly enough – to attempt to make judgements like that.

But there is one fundamental difference that emerges from these brief portraits. Veedu and his family were okay with violating the law to get to Canada. Carl wasn’t. On that basis, I’d prefer to have Carl.

But we got Veedu instead.

***

In my view, the purpose of immigration policy is straightforward.

    • Settle on the number you want to bring in.
    • Impose a screening process that will
      • Select applicants with desirable attributes, and
      • Reject those with undesirable attributes.

Of course, after you’ve settled on the number, you need to decide how much weight to give various positive qualifications like education, job background, language proficiency, and so on. Is an unmarried English-speaking college dropout tradesman more or less desirable than a married mining engineer with a shaky command of the language and four kids?

By contrast, while we might argue about the definition of “undesirable”, most people would at least agree on the necessity of screening known criminals out of our potential immigrant pool. There are always going to be borderline cases – criminals who have reformed, or those whose crimes were committed in protest against their repressive governments. But in general, the number of deserving non-criminal applicants is so great you can afford to err on the side of caution. There will be no difficulty filling your quota.

An immigration system functioning under the above rules should result in an immigrant population more productive, and more law-abiding, than the native-born population, because of what I’ll call the Nogoodnik Rule:

In the immigrant population, nogoodniks are screened out. Native-born nogoodniks you’re stuck with.

functioning immigrant selection system

This doesn’t mean immigration is an unqualified benefit to the host society. Apart from the occasional nogoodnik who sneaks through the screening system, there are hard-to-quantify social costs to linguistic confusion and cross-cultural misunderstanding. But so long as most immigrants are seen to be pulling their weight and playing by the rules, native-born citizens will pay those social costs with a minimum of grumbling.

But I’m proceeding on the assumption that the immigration system should prioritize the security and well-being of existing citizens. Open borders advocates reject this assumption. They say we coddled citizens of the west have done nothing, besides accidentally being born here, to deserve our good fortune, and we should grant the full rights of citizenship to anyone else who shows up.

As I said, I think this is a terrible idea. You’re asking citizens to forgo the right to determine the size and composition of the immigrant population, and to rule out known criminals and troublemakers.

Even so, an optimist might argue that immigrants under an open borders system should be no less productive, and no less law-abiding, than the native-born population.

This optimistic view assumes an identical distribution of productiveness and law-abidingness in the countries of origin and destination. It also assumes that immigrants constitute a purely random selection of the originating population. If nogoodniks are likelier than others to immigrate – say, in order to mooch more generous welfare benefits in the destination country – then the optimistic view falls apart. But who knows? Maybe those willing to immigrate are more hard-working, on average, than the destination population. Presumably you’d have to be fairly ambitious to go to the trouble of relocating.

In short, under open borders, citizens have no idea what kind of immigrants they’re going to get. But at least they can hope for the best.

What no-one in their right mind would ever suggest is a reverse selection system, one that actually favours criminality over law-abidingness. Or so you’d think. And yet that seems to be exactly the system that Angela Merkel imposed on Germany in 2015 in response to the Syrian refugee crisis.

Remember, Merkel never threw open the border with Syria, for the obvious reason that Germany doesn’t share a border with Syria. Those seeking asylum in Germany had to,

  1. Make it out of Syria alive,
  2. Survive a risky boat journey to the Greek islands, and
  3. Trek on foot halfway across Europe.

After all this, if they arrived safely, they were permitted to stay until their asylum claim was decided (rather than being shipped back to the country where they’d first entered the European Union, as the law had previously stipulated).

Now, as you’d expect given the physically demanding selection system she’d imposed, the resulting migrant population was overwhelmingly young, male, and single. In other words, right off the bat she had selected for a population more likely than the average to be criminally disposed.

Additionally, by announcing that Syrians would receive favoured treatment over equally desperate Iraqis, Afghanis, and others, Merkel created an incentive for unfavoured migrants to “lose” their documentation, or acquire fake documentation, and pass themselves off as Syrians. Anecdotally, this seems to have happened a lot. Willingness to fudge your citizenship is not in itself proof of antisocial tendencies, but it selects for those who are comfortable fibbing to authorities.

Most importantly, instead of merely presenting themselves at a controlled border crossing, migrants had to enter Europe by sea, which usually involved paying human smugglers for a nighttime boat ride from the coast of Turkey to one of the nearby Greek islands. Again, seeking out and haggling with smugglers is the kind of requirement that tends to put off the law-abiding while doing nothing to discourage rulebreakers.

reverse immigrant selection system

I don’t mean to imply that most or even many of the migrants are criminals. In any large population a tiny minority are habitual nogoodniks. How tiny a minority? It’s hard to say.

To use my home country as an example, at any given time about 125,000 people, or 0.35% of all Canadians, are either in jail or on probation. But obviously there are other nogoodniks out there, or else the crime rate would be zero. 0.35% is much too low. [1]

In 2008, the Toronto Star reported that “more than 2.9 million people” had records in CPIC, Canada’s national crime database. Half a million of them had never been convicted of anything. That leaves 2.4 million convicted criminals – 7.2% of Canada’s population at the time – but a fair chunk of those records must refer to one-time, forgivable idiocies like DUIs and barroom scuffles. 7.2% seems way too high.

I’ll take a wild guess that our real nogoodnik rate is only one or two percent – higher among men, higher still among unmarried young men. These are the 1-2% of Canadians whom, if they were trying to immigrate here, we would unhesitatingly reject.

But Merkel invited in a million or so migrants. Assuming the Middle East’s nogoodnik rate is comparable to Canada’s, a purely random selection of a million Middle Easterners could be expected to include ten or twenty thousand criminal types.

That’s bad enough. But Merkel actually designed a system that favoured those most comfortable skirting the law.

So it’s no wonder her countrymen are bucking. Media figures have reported worriedly on the rise of anti-immigration sentiment in Germany. In 2016 the centrist foreign affairs columnist Matthew Fisher had an article on “The Face of the Far Right” in Canada’s National Post. He spoke with Tatjana Festerling, unsuccessful Dresden mayoral candidate and the “darling” of a new party called Pegida, or “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West”. Fisher wrote:

Surprisingly, Festerling regards Canada’s points-based immigration system as a model.

“What we need,” she says, “are Canada’s immigration rules.”

“I see Toronto as a wonderful melting pot. You are a Canadian, no matter where you are from. You have put the barriers to getting in so high for immigrants and you have kept them there. There is a sense of freedom and respect for yourselves that does not exist here.”

This shouldn’t be that surprising. If mainstream parties abandon commonsense policies, people who support those policies have no-one to vote for except extremists. If the darling of Germany’s “far right” looks to Canada’s fairly moderate immigration rules as an improvement, maybe the designation “far right”, in an international context, is not actually all that useful.

I’m too far removed from the scene to say whether there’s any real danger in movements like Pegida. I will observe that you don’t need to be on the far right to be appalled by Angela Merkel’s decision to impose, without democratic debate or any apparent foresight, the flat-out dumbest immigrant selection system ever conceived.

M.

1. It was while researching prison statistics for this post back in 2017 that I realized I was suffering, as we all do, from Gell-Mann Amnesia.

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Selective indignation.

Part I of The Immigration Heresies.

This was written in September 2018, then put on ice. I’m posting it now as part of my Decennial Fridge-Cleaning series.

Let me start with what I think will be an uncontroversial statement: I hate cigarettes.

When I was a kid my dad would send me to the corner store to pick up his smokes. Back then a sixth grader could ask for two packs of Number 7 Reds and the clerk would hand them over, no problemo. I must’ve burned out a couple million alveoli hanging around my dad for the first fourteen years of my life; not to mention all the restaurants, buses, and malls where I was obliged to bathe in strangers’ fumes. I hated the reek of the stuff then and I hate it now.

Being a premature old man, nearly every day I walk to one of a few nearby coffee shops to read the paper and do the crossword. I like to sit outside – but smoking is still permitted on some patios, and even where it’s not, the prohibition is rarely enforced. So I have to pay careful attention before I take a seat. Even if the folks at the next table aren’t smoking, are there clues I can use to predict whether they might light up?

Are they male or female? Young or old? Proles, hipsters, or yuppies? And perhaps the most reliable clue of all – foreign or Canadian-born?

In my neighbourhood the main immigrant groups are Ukrainians, Chinese, and Middle Easterners. In my experience, roughly 100% of Ukrainian men smoke. Chinese and Middle Eastern men smoke a little less, but still at a rate far higher than among the Canadian-born.

My observations are backed up by the data. Here’s Wikipedia’s world map, based on a 2008 World Health Organization report, showing male smoking rates by country:

male smoking rate by country 2008

Source: Wikipedia

(Female tobacco use is much lower – Chinese and Middle Eastern women barely smoke at all, but Ukrainian women still smoke at a higher rate than Canadians.)

Considering that the rate for Canada includes all those chain-smoking immigrants, and that the foreign-born make up over 20% of the population, the smoking rate for native-born Canadians must be lower even than that map indicates.

Suppose I were a single-issue voter dedicated to putting an end to smoking in Canada. A good way to do it would be to reduce the number of immigrants from Ukraine and China, and replace them with immigrants from Ethiopia and Sweden.

Which brings me to Maxime Bernier.

Under Canada’s last Conservative government, Bernier was for a time Minister for Foreign Affairs. He lost that role due to a dumb screw-up, served a stint in the backbenches, ran last year for the vacant Conservative leadership, lost by a hair, and made little attempt afterward to mask his disgust at the new leader’s ideological waywardness.

A while back, Bernier published on Twitter a few lines critiquing Justin Trudeau and his Liberal government’s “cult of diversity”. I thought that, adjusting for Twitter’s standards of argumentation, his comments were pretty reasonable. But the reference to the cult of diversity predictably enraged disciples of the cult, one of whose tenets is that it is not a mere opinion but a scientifically established fact that Diversity Is Good. Bernier was denounced by all right-thinking Canadians; his party was half-hearted, at best, in his defense; shortly afterward, the heretic announced that he was abandoning the Conservatives to launch a new, more principled right-wing party, with himself as leader. We’ll see how that goes.

The day before the big launch, National Post columnist John Ivison nitpicked Bernier’s foray into the “murky topic” of multiculturalism:

But when I suggested his references to “diversity” led many people to assume he is referring to people of colour, his denial ends up sounding like an affirmation.

“They are misinterpreting what I am saying. When I talk about diversity, I am talking about diversity of opinion, diversity of values, diversity of what you believe,” he said. “I’ll give you an example, if you have two people coming to Canada and one of them wants to kill Jewish people and the other one doesn’t, are we better to have two people who believe in different things or two people coming to Canada who don’t want to kill Jewish people?”

A charitable interpretation is that Bernier is musing aloud, that he hasn’t really thought it through and the example quoted came to him in the moment.

Since Ivison doesn’t bother to explain what the uncharitable interpretation would be, we must work it out for ourselves: I think Ivison means that when Bernier refers to people who “want to kill Jewish people” he’s really talking about Muslims, who by the Rules of Diversity are counted as “people of colour”, and that therefore Bernier’s explicitly anti-racist comment is actually racist.

But the uncharitable interpretation of Ivison’s interpretation is that Ivison thinks, in glaring opposition to reality, that A) there are no prospective immigrants who want to kill Jews, or that B) the occasional immigrant who might want to kill a few Jews isn’t that big a deal, really, when balanced against the sacred value of Diversity.

Let’s run with Bernier’s example, but maybe dial down the heat level a bit. Suppose I were a single-issue voter dedicated to putting an end to anti-Semitism in Canada. I’d probably be very attentive to what kind of people – male or female, young or old, prole or yuppie, foreign or native-born – were likelier to express anti-Semitic beliefs. I might look online to see if any research had been done to confirm my observations:

anti-defamation league global 100 results 2014

Percentage “harboring anti-Semitic attitudes”.
From the Anti-Defamation League’s Global 100 survey, 2014. [1]
Image source: Reddit

 …But I’m pretty sure all right-thinking Canadians would condemn me for thinking that, you know, there are a lot of people all over the world who’d like to immigrate to Canada, and maybe instead of trying to collect one of each type in order to maximize our Diversity, we should pick the ones who are likeliest to get along with the ones already here.

***

A few months back a suspect was arrested in the murder of a 13-year-old girl whose body was found in Burnaby’s Central Park last summer.

Since this is a park I regularly stroll through, and since I have a close female friend who at the time lived in the neighbourhood, and since the lack of specifics about the how-and-why of the murder gave rein to the community’s darkest imaginings, I had naturally been anxious that the killer be caught.

He hasn’t been convicted, so I’ll leave out his name. But the suspect is a 28-year-old Syrian refugee who arrived in Canada shortly before the murder.

As always when an immigrant is accused of a crime, there was a panic within the Cult of Diversity that unbelievers would seize on the incident to cast doubt on the tenets of the faith. Sure enough, a crowd of protesters gathered outside the courthouse on the day the suspect made his first appearance, waving signs attacking Justin Trudeau’s immigration policies.

Angry rednecks? Torch-wielding alt-righters? No; judging by appearances, and by the language on their signs, most of the protesters were Chinese immigrants – as were, I should mention, the family of the young victim. [2]

protester marrisa shen murder trial

Image source: Global News

Local English-language reporters didn’t seem all that interested in trying to figure out what these immigrants’ beef with the immigration system might be. My crazy guess? They were miffed that while their families had had to jump through many hoops to prove their worthiness to enter one of the world’s most peaceable countries, refugees from the world’s most violent countries had been waved in with the scantiest of vetting.

In an article shortly after the suspect’s arrest, local professor of criminology Neil Boyd was quoted:

We can’t predict with unfailing accuracy who will or will not commit crime, all we can say about immigration is that people who come to Canada as immigrants have lower crime rates than native-born Canadians.

I’d read this a thousand times before – every time an immigrant commits a high-profile crime, I’d wager – but it had never occurred to me to wonder: how does the Cult of Diversity explain this bizarre fact? Do they ever question why native-born Canadians commit more crimes than immigrants?

The racist explanation would be that Canadians are hereditarily predisposed to criminality. Perhaps on average we are born with lower intelligence, poorer impulse control, or greater aggressive tendencies than non-Canadians.

I personally find that unlikely, and I’m sure that the Cult of Diversity would reject the notion with an elaborate show of disgust. They’d say that criminality has nothing whatever to do with one’s genes, but is caused solely by social factors: poverty, lack of education, exposure to violence, and so forth.

Therefore if native-born Canadians are more crime-prone than immigrants, it must be because we were brought up amid greater chaos and poverty. Right? We lawless urchins of the tundra, who grew up scratching a living among the suburban slums of Brampton and Burnaby, understandably exhibit less self-discipline than immigrants raised amid the placid prosperity of Port-au-Prince, Lugansk, and Baghdad.

Yet somehow that explanation too seems a little off.

Might there be some other reason for immigrants’ lower crime rates?

Maybe something to do with the stringent immigrant selection process which those Chinese-born protesters went through, and which many of our more recent newcomers bypassed?

***

At this point my argument would seem to require that I post a third global map, this one depicting national crime rates, to illustrate that Canada is in fact much more law-abiding than most of the countries from which our immigrants hail. But I’m not sure such a map exists, or at least one I’d be willing to put my trust in.

As criminologist Neil Boyd could tell you, we can’t measure the crime rate directly; all we can do is infer it from arrests, police reports, and crime victim surveys. Many, perhaps most crimes go undetected. What’s more, the definition of crime varies from country to country, and from year to year: marijuana was recently made legal in Canada, and a large number of technical criminals ceased to be criminals overnight.

Criminality is determined not just by the law, but by the social environment. While many foreigners will go on objecting to dope-smoking whatever Canada’s laws might say, those same foreigners will shrug at practices we consider antisocial: a Nigerian businessman might consider it perfectly harmless to bribe a government official, because that’s just how things are done in his country; likewise, a Ukrainian might feel no compunction about blowing smoke in a stranger’s face, or a Pakistani about broadcasting his dislike of Jews. In Canada, as immigrants discover, these practices are frowned on; though the more time they spend in neighbourhoods full of fellow Nigerians or Ukrainians or Pakistanis, the longer it will take for alien habits to die.

Now, I dislike crime even more than I dislike smoking and anti-Semitism. But I’m not a single-issue voter: I recognize that when devising an immigration policy there are a ton of factors to consider.

For instance, it’s widely believed by economists that without a steady inflow of new workers to step in for the baby boomers as they begin keeling over, our economy will collapse. I’m a bit skeptical of this assertion, but it should definitely be taken into account.

Compassion also needs to be weighed in: are we willing to stand by while people are murdered, tortured, and starved by their brutal or incompetent governments, when we can rescue them at minimal inconvenience to ourselves? How many are we willing to rescue, and at how much inconvenience? And is “make your own way here and maybe we’ll give you asylum” really the smartest way to go about it?

Even the most rabid xenophobes will concede that diversity has its upsides – that it’s nice to have a choice of cuisine besides burgers and fish-and-chips, for instance. And even the most starry-eyed supporters of mass immigration must occasionally become frustrated when trying to explain their needs to civil servants and customer service reps whose English language proficiency is around the level of Tarzan’s.

Balancing upsides and downsides: that’s the basic task of democracy. Or you can join the Cult of Diversity and save yourself the trouble of thinking about it.

M.

1. Regarding that global anti-Semitism map: I have some strong reservations about the ADL’s methodology and conclusions. Still, their Global 100 studies do provide a useful way to compare countries’ attitudes toward Jews.

2. The young victim’s name was Marrisa Shen. I recently was puzzled by a prominent graffiti on the side of a hand dryer in a public washroom: “TRUDEAU POLICY RESPONSIBLE FOR MARRISASHEN”. I wondered what word the illiterate vandal had been trying to spell: Marrisation? What on earth could that mean? It was the cloud of replies surrounding the original graffiti, accusing the first vandal of racism and declaring “HATE NOT WELCOME HERE”, that finally clued me in.

The immigration heresies.

I. Selective indignation.
II. The Nogoodnik Rule.
III. Phase transitions.
IV. Managing diversity.

These four essays, all on the topic of immigration, were written at intervals over the last three years. I’m finally posting them as part of my Decennial Fridge-Cleaning series.

It would annoy me if readers came away with the impression that I’m opposed to immigration, let alone (as the media will lazily slur anyone who expresses reservations about the subject) “anti-immigrant”.

As I see it, I’m pro-immigrant: I want immigrants to do well. My fear is that struggling newcomers will coalesce into a resentful ethnic underclass – as seems to be happening in parts of Western Europe. The way to avoid this is to select the applicants who are likeliest to thrive, and to give them, once they’re here, every opportunity to do so.

Taking in any and all who wish to come, however downtrodden and ill-educated, may lead to feelings of universal brotherhood and plaudits from the Toronto Star editorial board, but such newcomers are more likely to struggle – and their descendants to wonder why they and all their relatives have incomes below the Canadian median.

I try as a rule to avoid stridency in my writing, but let me give vent to my exasperation for a moment. Here in the west, a couple generations back, we discovered the exception to what Robert A. Heinlein in 1950 described as “the basic theorom of population mathematics”:

Life is not merely persistent … life is explosive. The basic theorem of population mathematics to which there has never been found an exception is that population increases always, not merely up to the extent of the food supply, but beyond it, to the minimum diet that will sustain life — the ragged edge of starvation.

Happily, that turned out not to be true: in advanced human societies the combination of birth control and female emancipation will not only arrest population growth, but actually reverse it. What luck! It turns out we have the flexibility to undo some of the more damaging decisions made by our ancestors as they rushed pell-mell to clear space for the apparently unstoppable surge of civilization. Forests clear-cut, wild prairies tamed and fenced, wildlife driven into preserves, urban streams buried in metal pipes: a shrinking population leaves room for us to rethink these short-sighted actions – not only for the good of wolves and bison and migrating salmon, but for the good of our children and grandchildren, who can enjoy living in proximity to the natural world that, with the best of intentions, we and our parents mutilated. This needn’t mean everyone retiring to thatched-roofed huts and hoeing their gardens by hand. It might mean fewer, bigger, denser cities, with clusters of high-rises overlooking newly-replanted forests where subdivisions once sprawled.

Admittedly we have the short-term problem of funding a comfortable retirement for the baby boomers. But once that demographic lump has passed through, it should be possible to run a productive economy with a stable or gradually decreasing population, kept in balance by modest, selective immigration from the parts of the world that haven’t yet stepped off the Malthusian treadmill.

It’s true that it would be more profitable to go on basing our economy on cheap labour and galloping population growth. It may even be true that my idyllic vision of the future is unachievable, and that the only route to sustainability requires mass immigration for the foreseeable future. For many people, the fact that free market eggheads and social justice mushheads fall back on the same open-borders gospel proves the gospel must be true: for cynics like me, the question is which side has co-opted which.

Maybe I’m wrong. It’s not that I think that mine is the only acceptable vision for Canada’s future. It’s just that I resent like hell being dismissed as a Nazi for holding it.

M.

A little tokenism.

This was written a couple years ago, then put aside. I’m publishing it now as part of my Decennial Fridge-Cleaning series.

I lived with a woman for a couple years. I’m single now, for reasons that will emerge.

Once we were doing the New York Times crossword together and my girlfriend wondered aloud about the origin of the phrase “honest Injun”. I speculated that it started with an Indian on a variety-show stage avowing his trustworthiness to a white man – thumping his buckskin-clad chest and declaring in broken English, “me honest Injun!”

When my girlfriend snorted at the racism of that imaginary skit, my eyebrow went up slightly. That eyebrow movement contained a number of half-formed thoughts. Was it racist to imagine an Indian speaking broken English? Or trying to convince a skeptical white man to trust him? Ordinarily I would have put aside these heretical questions for later consideration, but my eyebrow betrayed me. Damn my naturally expressive face! Now we had to have a long uncomfortable argument about it.

Most days she was as willing as I was to steer wide of these conversational pitfalls. But sometimes, in order to verify that I wasn’t a total Cro-Magnon, she found it necessary to test me. She was almost always unhappy with the results. Like on the question of whether I was or wasn’t a feminist.

I was too inarticulate, but I should have said in reply to my girlfriend’s probing that as I see it there are two contradictory and logically incompatible streams in modern feminism.

The first stream, which I generally endorse, is the idea that women have something distinctive to contribute to the various spheres of life which were once closed to them. This is the line of feminist thought that says, If women ran the world, they would put a stop to war. I’m not sure this particular platitude is true, but the idea behind it is sound. Women and men have, on average, different priorities, interests, and aptitudes – more different in some areas than others. Often the female viewpoint will illuminate a problem in a way that would never have occurred to a man – and vice-versa. Sometimes this different angle of illumination is helpful. Sometimes not. There may be times when it’s harmful – that is, when tilting too far toward the female or male viewpoint actually reduces the ability of a group to see a problem accurately. But it’s hard to generalize about when and how each viewpoint will be helpful or harmful, especially since men and women will arrive at different conclusions about what constitutes help or harm.

Perhaps, then, the fairest and safest method of organizing the world would be the feminist ideal of equal representation in every field. In some areas the added female or male perspective will hinder operating efficiency, but in other areas it will enhance it, and the result should be a wash.

But this strategy isn’t without risk. Suppose that men are likelier to make bad decisions about child-rearing. If in that case we insist that fifty percent of nannies, pediatric doctors, and day-care operators be male, the result might be generations of maladjusted children. Or suppose that women are even slightly worse than men at waging war. A half-female military might perform perfectly well in peacetime, but in the event of a death struggle with a competing empire, its competitive disadvantage would be quickly revealed. Gender parity might modestly improve outcomes ninety-nine times and fail catastrophically only once: that’s a failure.

As I was saying, that’s the stream of modern feminism I agree with. The other and, I think, far less defensible stream is the one that says there are no innate differences between man and woman, that any apparent differences are socially constructed, that those artificial differences are baleful to our collective happiness, and that any deviation from a 50/50 sex ratio must be corrected in the interest of eliminating those baleful differences.

So if little girls prefer playing with dolls, and little boys with transforming robots, the girls should be made to play with transforming robots and the boys with dolls. The children may be less happy with their toys, but this unhappiness is a consequence of their unconscious adherence to the gender roles imposed on them by our sexist society. If we force children to play in a gender-neutral manner, they’ll grow into adults less inclined to harbour and enforce sexist assumptions, and the next generation of children will happily select gender-neutral toys of their own free will.

As you can probably tell, I think that’s nonsense. But more than that, I hope it’s nonsense. I’m no more eager to live in a world where girls and boys play with the same toys than I am to live in a world where Frenchmen and Russians speak the same language, or where Indians and Chinese eat the same foods, or where you and I think the same thoughts. If every group were identical there’d be no point getting to know anyone new. Group differences are interesting for the same reason that individual differences are interesting.

Now, if men and women do think alike, any gender imbalance can only by explained by the corrupting presence of sexism. If women are underrepresented among mathematicians, it must be because A) the academy is deliberately or unconsciously hindering women from advancing in math careers, or B) because math teachers are deliberately or unconsciously discouraging girls who would otherwise be interested in math, or C) because girls themselves are absorbing sexist stereotypes about their supposed inaptitude for math and thus not bothering to pursue it as a career.

If A, B, or C is true, then one solution is to artificially create more women mathematicians in order to undo our damaging stereotypes about girls and math. Artificial is probably the wrong word, because I don’t mean to imply that they won’t be real mathematicians, only that they’ve been assisted down a career path they might not have been motivated to pursue on their own. Let’s call them, non-judgementally, in vitro.

Once a sufficient number of in vitro role models is established, the theory goes, the next generation of female nerds will no longer be subtly discouraged from pursuing their love of numbers, and the innate sameness of male and female math aptitudes will be revealed.

But what about the possibility that D) girls tend not to pursue mathematics because they’re not all that interested? I won’t say it’s because they’re bad at math, although I assume being interested in math makes it easier to become good at it. (I wouldn’t know, being both bored by and bad at math.) On the other hand, being good at something tends to help one develop an interest in it; interest and aptitude are linked in a mutually-reinforcing way.

This is why the in vitro solution could be damaging if it turns out (as I suspect; and as I suspect many feminists, deep down, also suspect) that D is the real cause of the dearth of female mathematicians. Prodding students to pursue math careers they’re not all that keen on may not be in their interest.

However, I think a certain amount of in vitro sex integration – tokenism, if you will – is beneficial in nearly every profession. Even if your “token” male nanny (for instance) isn’t up to the standards of his female colleagues, his presence in the playground will give heart to future gender-non-conforming men who are genuinely enthusiastic about nannying and might have something valuable to bring to the job.

If a certain field is likely to benefit by sex integration at all, you probably want to keep the minority contingent above a certain level – say, five or ten or fifteen percent; high enough that prospective geniuses of the minority sex aren’t discouraged from pursuing their dreams.

M.

While I don’t believe I’ve had cause to use the word “Injun” before, a few months back I used the 1982 novel Flashman and the Redskins as a springboard for a discussion about high housing prices. In a 2016 essay I used my own undistinguished career as an illustration of how different preferences lead to different outcomes, and in 2011 I speculated that our sensitivity about violence toward women made it awkward for female comedians to do slapstick.

Decennial fridge-cleaning.

I recently concluded, god forgive me, my tenth year of blogging. For most of those ten years – excluding a three-year dry spell where I concentrated on writing a novel – I’ve kept up an undemanding pace of a post every month or so.

Why so slow? Every time I write something, I ask myself,

A) Is this argument true?
B) Considering the high likelihood that it’s untrue, is it interesting enough to be worth sharing anyway, as a well-meaning contribution to public debate?
C) Does the risk that my argument, misinterpreted or taken out of context, might corrode public manners or morals, outweigh whatever negligible benefit there may be in sharing it?

A, B, and C are tests of conscience, which I alone can answer. If an argument passes all three, I apply a fourth, exoteric test:

D) Will this argument get me in trouble if it comes to light in some future internet search or social media controversy?

I live in a left-wing town. I move in left-wing circles. My opinions about Brexit or The Benedict Option aren’t relevant to the kind of jobs I’m likely to be paid to do; but employers are free, and in my view should be free, to hire people they feel will fit into their company culture – which around these parts means saying “hear, hear!” when the boss tweets out the latest anti-Trump meme.

In what’s left of 2018, I’ll be publishing a half-dozen or more posts – I haven’t quite decided how many – that I’ve held back over the past few years out of caution, or if you prefer, cowardice. I always intended to buff up these abandoned posts and publish them someday. But as the backlog grew, it became evident that even salting them into my posting schedule, one every few months, would leave casual visitors with the impression I was far more of a right-wing crank than I really am.

No harm resulted from my circumspection. The world hasn’t suffered for want of these opinions. But I’ll feel less chicken-hearted having shared them; and I might as well do it while I still have hair on my head and a little money in the bank. Afterward I can bury them under discussions of old books and movies, and resume my customary pose of inoffensive boringness in time to start worrying about my retirement.

M.

Faking fluency.

A couple years back Martin Amis described re-reading Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, a book he’d admired as a younger man:

I looked at Catch-22 not long ago and I was greatly embarrassed – I thought it was very labored. I asked Heller when I interviewed him if he had used a thesaurus. He said, “Oh yes, I used a thesaurus a very great deal.” And I use a thesaurus a lot too, but not looking for a fancy word for “big.” I use it so I can vary the rhythm of what I’m writing – I want a synonym that’s three syllables, or one syllable. It’s a terrific aid to euphony, and everybody has their own idea of euphony. But the idea of plucking an obscure word out of a thesaurus is frivolous, I think. [1]

Nicholson Baker is even more fastidious. In U and I he objects to the “deracinated adjacency of the thesaurus” and says he refuses to touch one; but he concedes that this prejudice is snooty and absurd, and admires John Updike and Donald Barthelme for forthrightly admitting that, yeah, sometimes they dig impressive-sounding words out of the thesaurus. [2]

Me, I consult my thesaurus not to find new and astonishing ways to say “big” but to recover unflashy middle-school vocabulary words that, when I summon them for occasional use, get bogged down on the journey between memory and forebrain. It happens to everyone. Here’s Charlie Citrine, narrator of Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift, suffering what we would today call a brain fart (though brain constipation would be a better image):

My brain was disintegrating. The day before, in the bathroom, I hadn’t been able to find the word for the isolation of the contagious, and I was in agony. I thought, whom should I telephone about this? My mind is going! And then I stood and clutched the sink until the word “quarantine” mercifully came back to me. Yes, quarantine, but I was losing my grip.

At one time I would, like Charlie Citrine, fume and grind my teeth when a word like “quarantine” failed to arrive at my command. Then I realized that there was no shame in going halfway to meet it; that’s what the thesaurus is for. It’s not a Wunderkammer for browsing exotic words, but a filing cabinet for storing everyday ones, so that you can find them when you need them, and get on with your writing.

Citrine has little cause to worry about his “disintegrating” brain. A lauded author, playwright, and journalist possessed of a preposterously, even aggravatingly high degree of verbal fluency, he’s happy to oblige when visitors challenge him to demonstrate that he has actually absorbed the contents of the dense tomes he leaves on his coffee table:

“Take this monster – The Hastings Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics – Jesus Christ, what the hell is that! Now Charlie tell us, what were you reading here?”

“I was checking something about Origen of Alexandria. Origen’s opinion was that the Bible could not be a collection of mere stories. Did Adam and Eve really hide under a tree while God walked in the Garden in the cool of the day? Did angels really climb up and down ladders? Did Satan bring Jesus to the top of a high mountain and tempt him? Obviously these tales must have a deeper meaning. What does it mean to say ‘God walked’? Does God have feet? This is where the thinkers began to take over, and–”

“Enough, that’s enough. Now what’s this book say, The Triumph of the Therapeutic?”

For reasons of my own I wasn’t unwilling to be tested in this way. I actually read a great deal. Did I know what I was reading? We would see. I shut my eyes, reciting, “It says that psychotherapists may become the new spiritual leaders of mankind. A disaster. Goethe was afraid the modern world might turn into a hospital. Every citizen unwell. The same point in Knock by Jules Romains. Is hypochondria a creation of the medical profession? …”

…And so on. I assume that Citrine, like Bellow’s other first-person narrators, is a barely veiled version of Bellow himself: did Bellow talk like this? It’s easy for writers to create the illusion of fluency by polishing, double-checking, reaching for the thesaurus: characters therefore are nearly always more articulate than their creators.

It’s much harder in real time. With practice you can learn to fake fluency by speaking confidently and grammatically – which is already more than most of us can manage – and, when you find yourself out of your depth, by edging around to a topic you do know well. Honest-to-god verbal fluency requires high intelligence, which is rare.

Those of us who have a brain for certain kinds of trivia – who remember names or dates or numbers – have an unfair edge, when faking fluency, over those who forget such details: but it can hobble us, too. We become overconfident, imagining that because we can name something, we’ve mastered it. I do the Sunday crossword puzzle with a friend sometimes, and she’ll quiz me, when I’ve impressed her by hauling out some unfamiliar name:

“And who is Thomas à Becket?”

“He was Archbishop of Canterbury. He was murdered by…somebody…because…because some English king, can’t remember which, said, ‘Will someone’…no, ‘Will no-one rid me of this troublesome priest?’”

“Why’d he say that?”

“Come to think of it, I’m not really sure. Wait, meddlesome priest. Meddlesome.”

The other day I found myself trying to describe to this same friend the events of the English civil war. I got the names and order of the kings right, and correctly named the decade of Cromwell’s rule. But checking my facts afterward, I was wrong about nearly everything else: the various parties’ motives, the sequence of events, the religious underpinnings of the conflict. All the stuff, in other words, that would demonstrate actual comprehension.

Looking at the various nonfiction books on my shelves, I wonder – if my friend plucked up one of these books at random, and asked me to summarize its contents in the manner of Charlie Citrine, how well would I do?

Suppose her hand fell on C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, a slender book which I’ve read at least twice, most recently a couple years ago, and which influenced my thinking during the writing of my own novel.

I remember Lewis’s starting point being some contemporary government report – or was it a newspaper article? – on reforms to the British educational system.

I remember him using the word Tao in a non-denominational way to refer to, uh, our innate universal sense of morality, I think.

And of course I remember “men without chests”, Lewis’s phrase for the regrettable products of modern education, although I couldn’t say now how he introduces the phrase or exactly what it means. [3] [4]

That’s about it. Given a half hour I think I could, even without access to my library or the internet, spin around these fragments an extremely vague but passably coherent précis of Lewis’s argument. Off the top of my head? Fat chance.

Whenever I come across a reference to The Abolition of Man I’ll nod knowingly: Ah, yes, a text I too have mastered. Carry on, fellow educated person. But in fact my multiple readings of that book have left only a series of faint impressions, like the ghostly roadways of an extinct jungle civilization, detectable only in satellite photos.

Which brings up the question, why do I read at all? But that’s a subject I’ve delved into already…in an essay that, I find upon revisiting it, also references C.S. Lewis. One of the symptoms of declining intelligence is that you start repeating yourself.

M.

1. In a review in his collection The Moronic Inferno, Amis eviscerated Joseph Heller’s God Knows for “[w]riting that transcends mere repetition and aspires to outright tautology.” A sampling: “‘lugubrious dirge’, ‘pensive reverie’, ‘vacillating perplexity’, ‘seditious uprising’” …etc.

I identified the same tic re-reading Catch-22 nine years ago and complained that Heller’s prose “clops along like a three-legged horse”.

2. U and I, written in 1991, is about Nicholson Baker’s “obsession” with, and debt to, his literary hero and fellow psoriasis-sufferer John Updike. The digression about the thesaurus now inevitably and unfortunately summons to mind the anonymous slur quoted by David Foster Wallace in a harsh review a few years later: that Updike was nothing more than “a penis with a thesaurus”.

3. To return to U and I, one of the charms of that book is that Baker resolved when writing it to forgo the “artifice of preparation”: in order to preserve his pure, spontaneous, un-fussed-over impressions of Updike’s work, every line he quotes, every story he describes was retrieved from his own, frequently faulty memory. (“I remember almost nothing of what I read,” he admits.) Where Baker misquotes he appends the correct quotation in square brackets.

4. Checking my memories of The Abolition of Man: Lewis begins with a discussion of a newly-published elementary school text; Tao is the term he uses for the alignment of one’s desires with objective reality, necessary to human thriving; and men without chests refers to people governed by reason alone, lacking the guidance of sentiment or magnanimity, which, according to the Medieval theologian Alanus, is seated in the chest.

Speaking of Nicholson Baker, in September I quoted a whimsical suicide fantasy in his A Box of Matches and last year I talked about his “intensely fine-grained” debut novel The Mezzanine.

Music for pigeons: A taxonomy of noise pollution.

Years back I wrote a blog post called “Noise pollution and negative externalities” where I made the point that noise is unlike other pollutants: many noise polluters actually enjoy their noise; which makes it harder to shame them into curtailing their pollution.

But I had an experience the other day that reminded me that there are at least three different types of noise pollution, each of which must be combatted differently.

***

Nearly every day I walk to one of the handful of coffeeshops in my neighbourhood to read the paper and do the crossword. A few years back a new place opened up and I added it to the rotation. It’s spacious and tastefully appointed, with glass on two sides looking out on a busy intersection. Due to all the windows and its south-facing orientation it gets ridiculously warm when the sun is shining, but on rainy days it’s comfortably cool and flooded with grey Vancouver light.

How this place stays in business, I don’t know; maybe it’s a money-laundering operation. Most of the time when I drop in I’m the only customer there. It’s run by a Chinese immigrant family; when I walk in the teenage daughter, who’ll be sitting at one of the tables doing her homework, will hop up to man the counter. When the daughter is absent I’ll find the shop completely empty, and half a minute will pass before her middle-aged mother emerges from an office at the back.

What I like best about the place is that there’s no pop music. Sometimes elevator-style classical music will be playing quietly. Other times, nothing at all. I’ll order my $2.75 Americano – they don’t have drip coffee, I suppose because there are too few customers to make it worthwhile – and sit by the window skimming the news, watching the umbrellas bob by.

On this occasion I found the place empty and silent, and as usual I had to wait a moment before the mother appeared. She knows me: “Americano?” she said. Things get a bit sloppy when the daughter isn’t around: the mother had to dig in a supply closet when I pointed out that only low-calorie sweetener packets were left in the sugar basket. Then she had to double back to the fridge to retrieve the cream, which the daughter knows to bring out when I appear.

Daughter and mother are both friendly and accommodating, but I feel a bit guilty making them bustle around to serve me; as though I’m interrupting their real business – homework in the daughter’s case; in the mother’s, whatever she gets up to in the back office. My occasional $2.75 can’t be making much of a dent in their operating costs.

It was this feeling of guilt, plus my natural slow-wittedness, that made me hesitate when the mother, after restocking the sugar supply and plopping the cream carton on the counter, hit the button to turn on the stereo. The silence was marred by a plinky, PlaySkool-mobile instrumental version of “We Wish You A Merry Christmas”. After a moment’s consideration, she upped the volume by a couple notches, and vanished back into her office before I had a chance to raise an objection. I imagine she thought she’d done me a favour: white people love Christmas music, don’t they? Luckily she didn’t have to sit out there and listen to it.

If she’d set off a stink bomb it wouldn’t have done more to wreck my visit. “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” was succeeded by “Jingle Bells” then “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”. I soon gave up trying to concentrate on my paper. Somewhere in the middle of “All I Want For Christmas Is You” I slurped down the last of my coffee and fled. I’d been there barely twenty minutes; hardly worth the walk.

Now, I realize that people expect different things from coffeeshops. Some lead busy lives and need to get their caffeine fix on the go. I can make perfectly good coffee at home, at a price far more reasonable than $2.75 per cup. What my apartment lacks is a cozy chair by a window where I can watch pretty girls and funnily-dressed dogs go by.

I’ve tried out a lot of coffeeshops over the years – I’ve explored all over Metro Vancouver – and among all those businesses I’ve found only this one where the stereo wasn’t constantly playing. I don’t know why music is considered a necessary accompaniment to coffee drinking, dining, shopping, bowling, everything, but I’ve come to accept that I’m a bit of a weirdo on this subject.

I’ve learned from experience which places play musical genres that are less likely to annoy me, and can be relied on to keep the volume at a reasonable level. I look forward to spring, when once again I can sit on patios where there’s no music at all – though such refuges are becoming rarer and rarer. Often on cool summer days I’ll walk by empty patios blasting pop music for an audience of pigeons and crows.

***

But the title of this post promised a taxonomy of noise pollution. As I see it, there are three categories.

First there is what you might call extrinsic noise pollution. This is the type that best fits our stereotypical idea of pollution. Think of smog, toxic waste, microplastics: accidental byproducts of modern convenience. No-one is excited about spewing poison or scattering garbage, but stopping it would cost us money or effort.

Traffic noise, power tools, and construction all fall under the category of extrinsic noise pollution. Everyone, including the polluters, would agree that these noises should be reduced: the challenge is that no-one is willing to put themselves to any trouble to do it.

The second category is the opposite of the first: intrinsic noise pollution, where making noise is the whole point. Loud motorcycles, obnoxious car stereos, and teenagers whooping it up outside your window at night would all fall into this category.

With intrinsic noise pollution, the challenge is that citizens disagree about what constitutes an acceptable level of noise. One person’s unbearable racket is another’s harmless high spirits. Even if you can get a bylaw passed that sets out noise limits, cops will often shrug off violations; they’re as likely to see the complainer, and not the polluter, as the nuisance.

The third category I’ll call unconscious noise pollution, as exemplified by the stereo blasting on an empty restaurant patio. The polluters in this case aren’t making noise for fun: they’re either literally unable to hear it – because they’re not physically present – or they’re so inured to the noise that it doesn’t even register.

Much of the music we hear in public falls into this category: business owners who click on the stereo out of pure habit.

Unconscious noise pollution is annoying, but it actually offers the easiest target in the battle against excessive noise: the polluters are unaware that they’re polluting, and it would be very little trouble for them to curtail their pollution.

All I had to do the other afternoon was work up the nerve to ask the coffeeshop proprietor to shut off the Christmas music. It would’ve cost her nothing while gaining her the goodwill of at least one customer.

Of course, it’s often hard to tell the difference between intrinsic and unconscious noise pollution. The restaurant proprietor may sincerely believe that blasting music onto an empty patio draws in more customers; this would be difficult for an outsider to disprove.

But the first step, for those of us bothered by the noise, is to say something about it. We may be suffering unnecessarily.

M.

Speaking of unconscious noise pollution, a lot of people seem to think it’s acceptable to watch videos on their phone, in public, without headphones. If we don’t complain, how will they ever know better?