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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.

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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.

The Proportional Representation weenies get their shot.

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

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

It’s time to fix BC’s broken democracy

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

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

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

bc election results 2017

2017 BC election results.

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sounds like a job for strategy.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

M.

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

 

I take a stand!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

M.

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

Movie bad guys, by the numbers.

Warning: This post mentions major plot points from the 2017 movie Unlocked.

Last summer, in a rambling post inspired by a scene from Robert Altman’s The Player, I wrote about my friend who’d been complaining that Muslims were stereotyped as the bad guys in Hollywood films. I demurred that

even after a decade and a half of Middle Eastern war and unrelenting media attention to Middle Eastern terrorism, in the movies Middle Easterners were stalled in the number four bad guy spot behind Russians, Nazis, and rich WASPs – maybe even five, after Latin American drug lords. But my friend seemed to doubt me.

I went on to wonder whether our argument could be settled by numerical analysis. Could one analyze a large volume of films, determine who were “the bad guys”, and prove scientifically that Hollywood had been treating certain groups unfairly?

I attempted to define the parameters of the experiment:

One would need to examine all movies (caveat: define “movie”) over a given period, identify the main bad guys (caveat: by what criteria?) and somehow sort them (caveat: actors, or characters?) by ethnicity and religion.

I now realize I was understating the difficulty. Consider only my first caveat, defining the data set. Do you limit your investigation to American-made films, and if so, in the era of international co-productions what constitutes “American”?…or for that matter, in the era of Netflix and video-on-demand, a “film”? You could make a case for restricting your analysis to big-budget movies, as they more accurately represent studio conventional thinking. Or you could ignore budgets, and focus on the highest-earning movies, as they’re likeliest to reflect audience prejudices. Or you could include as many movies as possible, including little-seen indies, as they represent the widest possible sample of filmmakers.

Your choice will skew the results. If your sample is heavy on big-budget, theatrically released movies, you’re going to find a lot more superheroes shooting Nazis with laserbeams; the more you expand it to cheapo direct-to-DVD fare, the more Mexican cartel members you’ll see getting kicked in the face by guys in blue jeans.

But suppose you cracked all the above problems and carried out an accurate and objective census of bad guys: what percentage would qualify as “unfair”? What does science tell us is a proportionate depiction of Middle Eastern villainy?

***

Netflix recently made available a pretty generic spy thriller called Unlocked, starring Noomi Rapace, Orlando Bloom, Toni Collette, John Malkovich, and Michael Douglas. It’s ostensibly about Islamic terrorism, but none of the main actors plays a Muslim. In the end we discover that the evil mastermind is one of the top-billed stars – a CIA agent secretly helping advance a jihadi plot in order, he rants, to awaken America to the threat of biological weapons.

I’d seen enough movies of this type – i.e., more than one – to predict that it would be something along these lines: the only question was, would it be Douglas, Malkovich, or Collette who turned out to be the villain? This insight didn’t rely on parsing Hollywood’s racial politics; only awareness of Roger Ebert’s Law of Economy of Characters.

I could use Unlocked as a data point against my friend’s argument that Middle Easterners are negatively stereotyped: all the main bad guys, even the leader of a jihadi cell, are white men; of the five non-white Muslim characters, one is clearly good, three are ambiguous but portrayed sympathetically, and only one (fairly minor) is an outright villain.

But if I wanted to make the opposite case, those three ambiguous Muslims could easily be roped into the “bad guy” column; and it’s true that all the Muslims in the movie, good and bad, are defined by their relationship to Islamic extremism.

In short, like many movies on this theme, Unlocked could be pigeonholed – stereotyped, if you will – equally well as anti-Muslim paranoia or anti-American paranoia.

Poking around for reviews of Unlocked I came across this one by a writer who thought it was not just a good but a “great thriller”, and who was “pleasurably surprised more than once by sudden twists in the plot”. But even this credulous viewer found something to roll his eyes at:

The only real flaw it has is in following a very hoary cliché. Cynical viewers would guess from the beginning that the heroine’s black friend is marked for death.

As soon as we see his happy home life, and watch him playing with his beloved infant daughter, we know his fate is sealed…

This “flaw” didn’t even register for me. Is “black sidekick with happy home life is doomed to die” more or less of a cliché than “CIA heroine’s mentor is secretly the bad guy”? Could we conduct a numerical analysis and find out?

I doubt it. Movie-watching isn’t a science. We see the stereotypes we’re interested in seeing.

***

Pursuing the line of thought described in my earlier post, last summer I downloaded ten years of box office returns from the website Box Office Mojo and attempted to answer what I believed was a straightforward question: In the previous decade, had there been more movies about the “Global War on Terror” (henceforth GWOT), or about World War II?

I predicted that WWII would be the clear winner. In spite of (or because of) the ubiquity of real-life Middle Eastern violence in our newsfeeds, and the central place of Islam in our current ideological squabbles, in our fictions we prefer to go on reliving the clear-cut ideological and military triumphs of our grandparents.

I started with the top 200 movies, by North American box office receipts, from each year 2007-2016.

I threw out all documentaries and animated movies.

I disregarded country of origin but excluded a few foreign-language films for which there was little information online.

Then, using Wikipedia plot summaries for the 1686 movies remaining in my sample, I attempted to identify and categorize every war movie.

Finally, having devoted many evenings to this time-consuming project…I chucked the whole thing out.

I realized that my survey was absurdly susceptible to manipulation. Depending on how I defined “war movie”, I could make the case that WWII movies greatly outnumbered GWOT movies…or the exact opposite.

Here’s a table – which should not be regarded as in any way scientific – illustrating what I mean:

war movies wwii versus gwot 2007-2016

Click for PDF.

Movies marked red take place primarily in a war zone.

Movies marked yellow include one or two battlefield scenes, or explore the causes or consequences of war, or deal with war in a comedic or fantastic way…but most people wouldn’t think of them as “war movies”.

Movies marked orange could have gone either way.

Using a strict (red) definition of “war movie”, there were more than 1.5 times as many WWII movies as GWOT movies. (16-10)

Using a loose (yellow) definition, the GWOT movies outnumbered the WWII movies by an even greater proportion. (43-25)

But those results are next to meaningless. I could have expanded the definition of “war movie” still further by hauling in the innumerable action flicks about ex-Green Berets fighting bad guys on U.S. soil. Or limited GWOT movies to only those involving declared wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I could have applied a higher or lower box office cutoff, or used some arbitrary criteria to exclude “non-Hollywood” films, or performed any number of subtle manipulations, to get whatever results I wanted.

My effort wasn’t entirely wasted. It has made me even more skeptical about dubious claims of scientific objectivity, and the journalists, bloggers, and social media stooges who unquestioningly pass those claims along.

Having said that, I can scientifically prove that there is a shortage of movies about the surprisingly busy sex lives of struggling middle-aged male writers. My study is forthcoming.

M.

A shameful habit exposed.

I don’t tweet and I don’t face-beak, but I do carry on a desultory back-and-forth with an email list consisting of a dozen or so of my oldest friends. Every month or two I’ll update them on my doings and they’ll update me on theirs, and we’ll chat a bit about uncontroversial topics.

The list used to be livelier, in part because I would share thoughts about politics and society that I now reserve for this blog. In fact I used to be something of a blowhard, replying to my friends’ terse comments with rants of a thousands words or more. Now I confine my rants to the overlooked corner of the internet where they belong. My blog was never a secret, but I haven’t advertised it to my friends. I believe some of them were unaware it existed.

The other day, one of my list buddies followed a trail of links from one of my music videos back to this blog. He then emailed the group some flattering comments about the essays he’d found here, linking to several of them. I found myself mildly annoyed. I started to compose this reply, but luckily recognized in time that I was falling back into my old ranting habit.

Why should I be annoyed that my friend drew attention to my blog? I suppose I’m ashamed of it. In olden days there was a kind of flinty dignity in self-publishing: humping your crudely photocopied comix around to the hippie bookstores; flogging your homophobic tracts on street corners; or, like high-school-age Michael, selling an ad under false pretenses to the management of the Lawson Heights Mall to finance your underground student newspaper. The self-evident futility of it limited participation to a few doughty eccentrics.

Nowadays any lazy schmoe (like grown-up Michael) can set up a free WordPress blog in five minutes, and Google will supply a steady trickle of visitors to validate his dronings, and incidentally to glance at the Google ads seeded ever more densely around his site, each glance reaping Google a fraction of a penny. At least Uber and its imitators, when they eventually destroy the taxicab business, will still be obliged to pay their drivers some bare percentage of what a taxi driver once earned; no-one drives random strangers around town as an act of self-expression. But narcissists like me are happy to undercut our professionally employed brethren by churning out copy for nothing. Then we bitch about the deteriorating quality of journalism.

So why do I keep it up? I have no illusions about the urgency of my contributions to human knowledge. When I was twenty I thought I was awfully smart; now I realize what I thought were carefully reasoned-out opinions were really only attitudes I’d picked up from the magazines and books I was reading at the time. Since then I’ve reversed nearly every one of those opinions, but I’m pretty sure that’s just a matter of reading a different set of magazines and books. It’s highly possible that I’ll revert to my earlier opinions by the time I’m sixty.

Often I forget exactly why I believe what I believe, and when I try to trace an opinion back to its foundations I realize it’s balanced on a lattice of worm-eaten two-by-fours: I don’t really know how national wealth is calculated, or how reliable crime statistics are, or how much I’m personally to blame for whatever’s going on in Syria. Occasionally I’ll attempt a bit of research to try and shore up the structure, but these topics are contentious, there are ten conflicting answers, and each one needs to be traced back to its foundations before you can decide which to put your trust in. In short, thinking is exhausting, and I’m a lazy man. To my credit, unlike most people who opine on the internet – including those who opine for money – I’m pretty upfront about my ignorance. But that doesn’t excuse my recklessly broadcasting arguments that I’m aware are no better than 50% likely to be true.

I should therefore probably shut this blog down, and maybe I will someday, once I’ve dialled my ego down another notch or two. In the meantime, strangers and friends are welcome to poke around.

M.