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Aspects of the Novel and the limits of readers’ memories.

Midway through his famous discussion of “flat” versus “round” characters in Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster asks us to:

Suppose that Louisa Musgrave had broken her neck on the Cobb.

Forster has been evaluating the roundness of Jane Austen’s characters, so we can deduce that an incident from one of Austen’s books is being referred to; and toward the end of the next sentence, that book is disclosed as Persuasion.

I’ve read maybe a quarter of the books mentioned in Aspects of the Novel, and Persuasion happens to be one of them. Thinking hard, I reconstructed the scene: an excitable girl demands that her gentleman friend “jump her down” from the harbour wall to the pavement below; she miscalculates her jump, the gentleman misses, and (Austen females having the approximate constitution of ninety-year-old rheumatics) she spends the next few chapters on death’s door.

Aspects of the Novel was originally delivered, in 1927, as a series of lectures at Trinity College, Cambridge. Forster was confident not only that his hearers would recognize the allusion to Louisa on the Cobb, but that they would process it rapidly enough to give their attention to the fairly involved sentence that follows. Was he realistically gauging his audience’s recall – here, and on the many other occasions in Aspects where he takes for granted what I would consider a remarkable level of intimacy with these books?

Obviously, modern folks would be intimate with a different set of books than a 1927 crowd. Jane Austen remains well-known, though not so well that “Louisa Musgrave on the Cobb” will ring many bells. Henry James is still read; Oliver Goldsmith, less so; George Meredith, not at all.

No-one would today pick Walter Scott as an example of a novelist with “a trivial mind and a heavy style” whose continued fame relies on “happy sentimental memories” of having encountered him before our judgement had matured. Maybe Jack Kerouac or William S. Burroughs occupy a cultural space today comparable to Walter Scott’s circa 1927 – middlebrow relics evoking a bygone era of freedom and adventure, with enough residual literary cred that teenage readers are willing to pretend they’re not bored to death by them. But I doubt that Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty are one-tenth as widely known to modern readers as Lucy Ashton and Edgar Ravenswood would have been to Forster’s audience.

Perhaps Tolkien is a closer modern parallel to Scott. But before Peter Jackson’s movie adaptations came out, I don’t recall the names Gandalf or Aragorn being known to anyone outside nerd circles. In fact, when I try and think of literary non-title characters famous enough that a modern Forster could confidently drop their names – Tom Joad, Scout Finch, Mr. Rochester – most of them are famous at least in part because of the movies.

The 21st century schmoe remembers as many fictional characters as a 1927 Cambridge lecture-goer, but the memory slots that would once have held the members of Fagin’s gang or the murderers of Julius Caesar have been filled instead with Mos Eisley background freaks and Hogwarts house-elves.

***

The Introduction to my edition of Aspects quotes two esteemed Cantabrigians who in their youth attended the talks upon which the book was based: theatre director George Rylands, who was charmed by Forster’s undogmatic appeal to “the Common Reader”; and the critic and generally acknowledged lemon-sucker F.R. Leavis, who was “astonished at the intellectual nullity” of Forster’s ideas, and dismissed his fawning audience as “sillier dons’ wives and their friends”. Forster himself, in his Author’s Note, all but begs forgiveness for his unrigorous tone.

At any rate, it seems he wasn’t trying to be obscure. I wonder whether a modern lecturer would make such breezy assumptions about the Common Reader’s cultural literacy. Or would it be safer to aim at the level of the dull students imagined by Kingsley Amis in a 1967 essay on the consequences of dumbing down the education system:

You will use up less of your allotted time, and thus enable yourself to cover that much more ground, if you can say “As Eliot wrote”, instead of “As Eliot wrote…What’s the trouble? Oh, sorry. As T.S. Eliot – ee ell eye oh tee – the poet, dramatist, playwright, that is, and critic wrote…” While the thicks get what they need, the bright people doodle. [1]

Put aside whether we modern readers are more shoddily educated than our great-grandparents. Even if we’d been equally well-schooled in literature, and spent as much of our recreation time reading, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of additional novels have appeared in the past ninety years. Granting that most of those novels were worthless and quickly forgotten, the pool of “important” novels from which to choose is enormously larger now than it was then.

Picture what it was like at the other end of literary history. Taking Aristotle to task for his comment in the Poetics that “All human happiness or misery takes the form of action”, Forster forgivingly mentions that Aristotle “had read few novels and no modern ones – the Odyssey but not Ulysses“.

(…Which contradicts Forster’s earlier definition of a novel as “a fiction in prose of a certain extent”; but never mind, the Odyssey functions very much like a novel.)

Granting that the Odyssey and Iliad are novels – and that there then existed a handful of other verse epics, now lost – it was ordinary for a Greek gentleman of Aristotle’s time to have read one hundred percent of all the novels ever written in his language; and with a little more effort, that gentleman might familiarize himself with most extant plays, poetry, philosophy, and history as well. Thus it was easy to carry on a literary conversation with a fellow educated gentleman. You could be confident that when you mentioned Nausicaä doing her washing, or Hector’s frightening helmet, he’d get the reference.

By Forster’s day it was no longer possible, let alone desirable, for an educated Englishman to be familiar with every novel in his language. But avid readers had, of necessity, at least peeked into a broad sample of all the ones that mattered: there weren’t that many, and there wasn’t that much else to do. The odds of two people having read any given book were lower than in Aristotle’s day, but still high enough that Forster didn’t have to worry about the sillier dons’ wives losing the thread.

Forster in 1927 is nearer in time to us than he was to Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe; let’s say chronologically he’s at roughly the two-thirds point in the 300-year history of the English novel. But if you imagine him standing alongside a row of all the books ever published, laid end to end in order of publication, he’s surprisingly close to the beginning of the row. Because the earliest books have been around longest, and have had more time to influence the ones that came after, their importance is disproportionate to their small number; and Forster has read most of the books that, even now, matter the most; which is why we can still read him with interest. But with every passing year, the likelihood decreases that a lecturer and his audience – or any two readers of similar taste and educational background – will have peeked into the same books. The Common Reader has less and less in common.

At some point, as the frontiers of the subject recede further and further beyond the horizon, it may become impractical to talk broadly about literature in the way that Forster in 1927 still could. In an empire so vast, a single obscure province – young adult sci-fi by British women authors, say – will be spacious enough that a reader need never leave it; and the critic who presumes to generalize will, like a foreign correspondent who claims familiarity with a place based on a couple days hanging out in the hotel bar, risk exposing the breadth of his ignorance.

M.

1. “Why Lucky Jim Turned Right”, in Amis’s collection What Became of Jane Austen? And Other Questions.

Just a few weeks ago I built a long, depressing essay around a passage from E.M. Forster’s collection Two Cheers For Democracy and his favourite word, muddle. I shared my embarrassingly belated first impressions of the Odyssey last year. My negative opinion of the critic F.R. Leavis comes mainly from some sarcastic remarks directed at him by Clive James, mentioned in my 2012 discussion of the entangled afterlives of Allan Bloom, Saul Bellow, and Christopher Hitchens.

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Faulty ventriloquism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey,” he said. “Where are you?”

“I’m by the office. Where are you?”

“In the back alley.”

“What back alley?”

“Behind my house.”

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

“Did you read all my texts?”

“Yes, I read all your goddamned texts.”

“I thought you could tell I was joking.”

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

(Note: Matt Bruenig never said this.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surely, as reasonable people, we could democratically decide–

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

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

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

That was a threat! You all heard it!

THROW THEM TO THE BEARS!

M.

Terror and nerd appeal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

M.

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

Muddle and melancholy.

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

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

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

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

…is not news. This is:

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

So is this:

Black Guys Get Arrested For Loitering At Starbucks

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

M.

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

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

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

Updike’s The Coup: Opposite possibilities.

An African official, in the act of organizing the non-violent coup which culminates John Updike’s The Coup, slyly invites the complicity of some visiting Americans:

“The channels of the mind, it may be, like those of our nostrils, have small hairs – cilia, is that the word? If we think always one way, these lie down and grow stiff and cease to perform their cleansing function. The essence of sanity, it has often been my reflection, is the entertainment of opposite possibilities: to think the contrary of what has been customarily thought, and thus to raise these little – cilia, am I wrong? – on end, so they can perform again in unimpeachable fashion their cleansing function. You want examples. If we believe that Allah is almighty, let us suppose that Allah is non-existent. If we have been assured that America is a nasty place, let us consider that it is a happy place.”

The official is advertising to the Americans his ideological flexibility, in contrast to his country’s dictator, the prophet of a macaronic anti-Western creed called “Islamic Marxism”. Putting aside the speaker’s cynical intentions, is there something to be said for entertaining challenging thoughts to activate the cilia in the “channels of the mind”?

It’s not a fashionable idea at present; witness (to pluck three examples from as many weeks of escalating Social Justice puritanism) the firing of Kevin Williamson by The Atlantic for carrying his anti-abortion beliefs to their logical conclusion, or the conviction of a Scottish YouTuber over a gag about his girlfriend’s Nazi pug dog, or the preposterously overheated responses to Jordan Peterson’s mild conservative nostrums.

Some of us are old enough to remember when the Left represented resistance to mob freakouts over sacrilege and indecency; we imagined this was a question of principle, not opportunism. Now it’s obvious that my young adulthood happened to coincide with a period of uncertainty between the collapse of one set of taboos, and the rise of another. For a half century or so, the skill of entertaining opposite possibilities was valued, idealized. Those of us who grew up during that half century assumed that keeping our cilia well-lubricated and flexible was healthy in itself. But maybe rather than the cilia, the fontanelles of the infant skull are a better analogy: they’re soft and yielding during the time of transition – the passage from one state to another, from pre- to post-natality – and then protectively harden. If taboos are a natural condition in human societies, thick-skulled acquiescence may be the healthiest option.

The Coup is a cilia-stimulating exercise in opposite possibilities, asking us to sympathize with the despot who, among other atrocities, burns alive a well-meaning American diplomat on a pyre of food crates intended for famine relief. His overthrow is possible because he takes leave of the capital to tour his country’s remote north, where he discovers an oil refinery, complete with an American-style suburb to house the native workers, has sprung up without his knowledge. He incites the locals to rise up and smash “this evil visitation, this malodorous eruption” of Western greed that is despoiling their pristine desert; his wavering mob is seduced away by the management’s offer of a free beer apiece at the refinery’s canteen.

Deposed, ignored, the ex-dictator winds up working as a short-order cook in a luncheonette, slinging burgers for the refinery workers. “[I]mmersed…relaxed at last” in the homogenizing, bourgeois End of History he had struggled to resist, he discovers subtle virtues in his deracinated countrymen:

There was no longer, with plenty, the need to thrust one’s personality into the face of the person opposite. Eye-contact was hard to make … The little hard-cornered challenges – to honor, courage, manliness, womanliness – by which our lives had been in poverty shaped were melting away, like our clay shambas and mosques, rounded into an inner reserve secret as a bank account; intercourse in Ellelloû moved to a music of disavowals that new arrivals, prickly and hungry from the bush, mistook for weakness but that was in fact the luxurious demur of strength.

I think in 1978 Updike assumed the reflexive anti-Westernism of the newly decolonized Third World was a last gasp, fated to be swept under in the inundation of pop culture and fast food and cheap consumer goods. I used to think so too; now I’m not so sure. Forty years on, Muslim opposition to the soft, seductive, soulless West of their imagination is more widespread, more entrenched than Updike could have foreseen; while in the West itself, impatience with the unevenness of our prosperity gives rise to new fanaticisms.

It remains to be seen whether we inheritors of the bourgeois order will prove to have reserves of unexpected strength on which to call.

M.

Shabby Russians, tidy Prussians.

Early in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel of World War I, August 1914, the Russian army advances into East Prussia, which has been evacuated in expectation of the invasion. Lieutenant Kharitonov and the men of his platoon marvel at the neatness and efficiency of the German farmlands they march through unopposed:

To think that there were farms supplied with electricity and telephones, and that even in this hot weather there were no flies and no stink of manure! Nowhere had anything been abandoned, scattered, or thrown down at random – and the Prussian peasants were hardly likely to have left their farms in such parade-ground order just because the Russian troops were coming! The bearded peasant soldiers were amazed. How, they asked, could the Germans keep their farms so tidy that there were no traces of work to be seen, everything put away in its place, ready for use? How could they live in such inhuman cleanliness, where you couldn’t even throw your coat down?

…And the uncannily spick-and-span towns and villages:

Soldau, like all German country towns, did not sprawl and take up good farmland as Russian towns do; it was not surrounded by a derelict belt of rubbish dumps and waste land; wherever you entered it, you at once found yourself passing neat, closely built rows of tiled, brick houses, some of them even three or four stories high, with roofs pitched to half the height of the house. The streets in these towns, as neat as corridors, were closely paved with flat, smooth setts or flagstones … Then equally suddenly the town would come to an end, the streets would stop, and only a few paces beyond the last house there would be a tree-lined highroad and precise, carefully marked-out fields.

Seeing all this evidence of German prosperity, they wonder:

And with so rich a country as this, what could have induced Kaiser Wilhelm to make a bid to conquer and take filthy, backward Russia?

As a Vancouverite, I’m used to hearing American visitors discussing my city in terms much like Solzhenitsyn’s Russian soldiers would’ve used to describe East Prussia – as a sterile tomorrowland of unlittered sidewalks and rational planning.

But every big city has a few neighbourhoods that seem to have been tidied by anal-retentive Prussians – along with a great many others, rarely shown to tourists, that appear to have been recently occupied by the Russian army.

I’m sure my city has some streets that would be up to Prussian standards. But imagine those Russian invaders transported a hundred years into the future and halfway around the world, and marched up the Fraser Valley into Vancouver. What would they think of the vast tracts of good farmland converted into empty parking lots? The suburban roads lined with used car lots, pawn shops, and run-down motels? The Downtown Eastside with its urine-reeking doorways, tents pitched in empty lots, alleys littered with used hypodermics?

Perhaps the invaders would wonder at the maniacs who, given all the extraordinary wealth and resources at their disposal, had built a metropolis as ugly, sprawling, and unclean as a pre-Revolution Russian peasant village.

Or perhaps they’d wonder how a society to all appearances as feckless and disorganized as tsarist Russia had managed to become so unfathomably wealthy.

Either way, they’d be just as surprised if they were transported back to modern-day Russia, and found its cities and towns looking pretty much like their North American equivalents. The blights afflicting Vancouver are in large part symptoms of modernity – cheap mass-produced goods, auto dependency, ever more potent narcotics, ever fewer opportunities for the non-brainy.

In Solzhenitsyn’s novel, after the Russians move into an abandoned town Lieutenant Kharitonov notices that it’s being “Russianized”:

A few men were rolling a barrel of beer. Others had obviously found poultry in the town, as bloodstained feathers from a plucked chicken were being blown along a pavement by the breeze, mixed with coloured wrapping papers and empty cartons. Spilled sugar and shattered glass crunched underfoot.

Soon looting breaks out, and buildings are set afire. But there’s no real malice to the occupiers’ destructiveness. The town is despoiled through boredom and drunken high spirits and the awareness that someone else will have to clean up the mess…an attitude hardly exclusive to Russian peasants.

M.

2011 vancouver stanley cup riot

Post-Stanley Cup riot, June 2011, Vancouver.
© Arlen Redekop / Pacific News Group.

Rude, how?

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

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

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

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

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

“I know, huh.”

“That’s unacceptable.”

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

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

“Well,” I said, “we’ll see.”

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

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

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

M.

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