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We may prate of toleration: Saint Joan and the Inquisition.

I’m pretty wishy-washy. I’ve changed my mind often enough that I no longer delude myself about the permanency of my opinions. Much of what I now believe I might well have second thoughts about tomorrow, or next year, or on my deathbed.

The one opinion I would regard as impregnable – the one that, for all my wishy-washiness, I doubt I’ll ever renounce – is that society and the law ought to permit the widest possible scope for freedom of thought. That the Overton Window ought to be thrown open to its maximal extent, and that those visionaries and lunatics who insist on considering possibilities beyond its frame ought to be left free to preach their aberrant ideas. That however troubling or even dangerous those ideas may be, the petty tyrants who stir up mobs to persecute deviant thinkers are much more to be despised.

I have at least the normal human complement of cowardice and muddleheadedness, but I do try and apply these principles consistently. To take a couple recent examples from the archives of Spectator columnist Dominic Green, I agree with him that the British far-right ex-thug Tommy Robinson ought to be free to speak to any audience willing to listen, but disagree that a Boston College “queer theorist” ought to be smeared as a pedophile based on his turgid ruminations on Henry James and “the erotic child”. [1]

I don’t dispute that Robinson’s and the professor’s ideas are potentially harmful. In my view the benefit of being free to consider those ideas – all ideas – outweighs the real risk of harm. I would believe this even if I hadn’t noticed that the people we appoint to police our dangerous ideas eventually and unfailingly end up policing our songs, jokes, and poems.

However: in the spirit of wishy-washiness, which is also the spirit of engaging with uncomfortable ideas, let me consider the possibility that my one impregnable opinion is dangerous, and ought to be suppressed.

***

One of the problems I’ve been grappling with over the last few years, during the rise of what I’ll non-judgementally call Social Justice ideology, is at what point a person of conservative temperament is obliged to defer to the incoming set of taboos.

(When I speak of a “conservative temperament” I’m referring not to a set of political opinions, but to an outlook we might call Burkean, or Chestertonian: an attitude of modest deference to long-established traditions, on the grounds that, however silly they might appear, they must have some social utility in order to have been adopted in the first place, and passed down through the generations.)

If it’s true (as I’m far from the first to observe) that Social Justice is essentially a religious movement, with its own saints, sacred objects, and acts of devotion – and if that creed is in the process of supplanting or has already supplanted Christianity as the dominant creed in the West – then is it disrespectful and petty for a non-believer like me to publicly violate its taboos, in the same way it would be disrespectful and petty of me to disrupt a church service, profane a temple, or masturbate with an icon?

This is quite apart from the question of whether it’s physically safe for me to violate those taboos: I would obviously prefer, in accordance with my belief in maximal toleration, that believers of whatever faith deal gently with taboo-breakers, non-violently ejecting them from the holy precincts but otherwise ignoring their provocations. But I’m not concerned here about the responsibilities of believers: I’m about as likely to embrace Social Justice as I am to convert to Hinduism. The question I’m asking is, how much deference do I, as a resident non-believer, owe to the majority religious community? – particularly when it’s not clear whether that community is in the majority, or whether it’s a religion at all?

***

It was with the above questions in mind that I found myself reading George Bernard Shaw’s 1924 play Saint Joan, which depicts the brief military career, trial for heresy, and posthumous rehabilitation of Joan of Arc.

As Shaw explains in the Preface, the play was written to correct the audience-flattering mythologies that had gained currency in the intervening centuries – namely, that Joan had been done in by a conspiracy of villainous and superstitious buffoons of the type that we, in our sophistication, would see through today. In Shaw’s view, the Inquisition was no more inhumane in stamping out Medieval blasphemies than an English court would be in stamping out their 20th Century equivalents. Shaw shows the prosecutors extending every opportunity for Joan to save herself by denying that the voices which had guided her were divinely inspired; which she finally does, to their relief. But when she discovers that this petty lie won’t gain her her freedom, merely save her from the bonfire, she recants her recantation, and chooses martyrdom.

As Shaw tells it, Joan was tried fairly, and found guilty “strictly according to law”. Her prosecutors, however we might scoff at their certainty that the Catholic church was alone capable of interpreting God’s will on earth, were correct enough in their estimation of where heresies such as Joan’s might lead: first to Protestantism – the dissolution of Western Christendom into a jumble of warring sects – and then to Nationalism – the collapse of the feudal political order – and the diminution of religion to a minor handmaiden of the state.

Before Joan’s trial begins, the Inquisitor gives a lengthy speech – two and a half pages of solid text, in my Penguin edition – imploring the members of the court to “cast out” both anger and pity, while bearing in mind the unseen consequences of their verdict:

God forbid that I should tell you to harden your hearts; for her punishment if we condemn her will be so cruel that we should forfeit our own hope of divine mercy were there one grain of malice against her in our hearts. But if you hate cruelty – and if any man here does not hate it I command him on his soul’s salvation to quit this holy court – I say, if you hate cruelty, remember that nothing is so cruel in its consequences as the toleration of heresy.

Nothing is so cruel in its consequences as the toleration of heresy: a sentiment that any modern Inquisitor, of whatever ideological stripe, could get behind. If a demagogue like Tommy Robinson is permitted to say mean things about Islam, it will lead to discrimination and violence against Muslims. If a professor is left free to muse about the ethics of sex with minors, it will lead to the sexual abuse of real-life children.

Of course, dire real-world outcomes can be imagined for any controversial opinion. A famous playwright helps sway a generation of idealistic intellectuals into sympathy with Stalinism and millions of unlucky Third Worlders wind up living under Communist regimes. A group of disaffected ex-leftists cobble a new political philosophy out of their reading of an esoteric classics professor and tens of thousands wind up dying in futile Middle Eastern wars. A minor YouTube celebrity, to annoy his girlfriend, uploads a video of her pet pug dog giving the Hitler salute and – well, who knows what genocidal consequences might follow?

Shaw writes in the Preface to Saint Joan:

We may prate of toleration as we will; but society must always draw a line somewhere between allowable conduct and insanity or crime, in spite of the risk of mistaking sages for lunatics and saviors for blasphemers. We must persecute, even to the death; and all we can do to mitigate the danger of persecution is, first, to be very careful what we persecute, and second, to bear in mind that unless there is a large liberty to shock conventional people, and a well informed sense of the value of originality, individuality, and eccentricity, the result will be apparent stagnation covering a repression of evolutionary forces which will eventually explode with extravagant and probably destructive violence.

This is the pragmatic argument for toleration: it’s not that we should leave people free to speak their own minds because it’s the right thing to do, but because if we clamp down too tight, the reaction may lead to anarchy and societal collapse.

But it’s no easy thing, calibrating the level of toleration; and reckless thinkers like me, smuggling our arguments for unfettered speech under the cover of “temperamental conservatism”, should be properly wary that we might, by sanctioning the miscalibration of the social machinery, accidentally bring about the end of civilization.

M.

1. The essay characterized as pedophilic by Dominic Green was subsequently extended by its author to book length: I attempted to read the section on Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw but found it impenetrable.

Surprisingly, it seems I haven’t mentioned G.B. Shaw on this blog before. An anecdote I shared in 2010 about the farcical fact-finding mission of a “great Humanist” author to a Soviet work camp in the Arctic could have involved Shaw, who was similarly duped on his visit to the USSR; but that anecdote actually concerned Maxim Gorky. In my discussion last year of John Updike’s The Coup I lamented that “the skill of entertaining opposite possibilities” was increasingly neglected, and a couple months back I took issue with William Hazlitt’s attack on wishy-washy writers.

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Prophylactic planning: Rapid transit in the era of cost disease.

A couple years back, Slate Star Codex published a widely-discussed article about what the author called “cost disease” – not the disease identified and explained by William Baumol, but a distinct and poorly-understood condition where prices in certain industries rise at a rate much faster than inflation.

This condition is particularly acute in the case of rapid transit infrastructure.

Since Slate Star Codex had limited itself to American data, I wondered whether Canadian rapid transit projects might be suffering from the same ailment. It’s difficult to compare infrastructure costs over time, as no two projects are identical. But looking at projects in Toronto and Vancouver, I found a noticeable upward tick since the 1990s, suggesting the presence of cost disease in Canada.

toronto vancouver rapid transit costs

(Click image for data and sources.)

(To emphasize, these are per-kilometre, inflation-adjusted prices that appear to be rising.)

Accepting that this wasn’t just a mirage created by staring too hard at a limited data set, I went on to argue that we should hurry up and start digging subways now, while it’s only shockingly expensive, instead of putting it off into the future, when it’s likely to be cripplingly so.

(But one could also argue that we’ve already missed our window, and that instead of blowing money on huge infrastructure projects that are unlikely to prove cost-effective, we should invest in a better bus network, or fleets of autonomous cars, or the latest Elon Musk fever dream, or what-have-you.)

For now, let’s assume what I can’t prove: that at least some rapid transit megaprojects are still worth the inflated price. If we want that to continue being true in the future, we need to smarten up the way we plan our rapid transit network.

In my earlier essay I mentioned four factors contributing to the spread of cost disease:

1. In the big cities where rapid transit gets built, land values have been rising at a rate far exceeding inflation, leading to higher property acquisition costs.

vancouver west side housing prices versus inflation rate

(Click image for data and sources.)

2. The accumulation of buildings, pipes, and wires – what I called infrastructure clutter – around potential rapid transit corridors makes construction ever more complicated.

3. We’re more safety-conscious these days, which means we build more slowly, carefully, and expensively than they did in the rough-and-ready 20th century.

4. We’re willing to spend more to protect our natural and architectural heritage from the negative side effects of construction, and to ensure full access for handicapped people.

Since then, other factors have occurred to me:

5. Population growth means there are ever more residents and business owners to object to the inconvenience of construction, the noise of passing trains, lowlife transit riders invading their fancy neighbourhoods, and other blights of public transportation. The internet has made it cheaper and easier for obstructionists to organize and demand pricey compromises.

6. We’ve gradually used up or sold off the most promising rights-of-way that came available in last century’s shift from rail to road as the primary transportation mode, leaving us no choice but to dig tunnels.

7. Related to point 6, for political reasons earlier city planners prioritized easy-(and therefore cheap)-to-build projects, leaving the most challenging (and pricey) pieces of the network to be dealt with by future generations – i.e., us. Look at Toronto, which has spent the last half-century pushing its subway ever further into the lightly-built suburbs, ignoring the pressing need for a new line downtown.

8. Related to points 6 and 7, modern planners may be more choosy than their predecessors about where to place their routes. Vancouver’s original 1986 Expo Line was built on an abandoned rail right-of-way four or five blocks from Kingsway, the busy road it parallels. Thirty years later, many Kingsway commuters continue to take the bus. Compare the current plan to extend the Millennium Line, which disregards the out-of-service rail line a few blocks to the north for a brand-new tunnel directly under Broadway.

millennium line broadway extension

Not coincidentally, the per-kilometre cost of the Millennium tunnel is expected to be over five times higher than the Expo Line.

skytrain construction costs

Millennium Line extension (6 stations, 5.5 km.) estimated at $2.57 billion (2018 Canadian dollars), completion date 2025. Source.

Of the above list – which I fear is far from comprehensive – most of the factors are driven by population growth, which means they’ll only get worse.

We could conceivably save money by skimping on factors 3 and 4 – by building more recklessly, noisily, and uglily. As an example, Surrey mayor Doug McCallum has suggested that the proposed Langley extension of the Expo Line could be built more cheaply if crews worked round-the-clock. Maybe so, but I suspect they’d only run up against factor 5: angry opposition from residents living near the construction zone.

This doesn’t mean we’re helpless against cost disease. Since the choices of today’s planners determine where future residents will live, we can predict where demand for transit should grow. And by thinking about why costs go up, we can predict which routes will be most expensive to build in the future and should therefore be prioritized, and which can be affordably postponed.

Some basic principles of cost prophylaxis. All else being equal…

1. Extending existing lines is cheaper than building new ones.

2. Building all in one go is cheaper than building in fits and starts.

3. Building where there’s nothing is cheaper than building where there’s something.

4. Coordinating with other infrastructure projects lowers costs. (Toronto’s 1966 Bloor-Danforth subway saved a bundle thanks to the farsighted inclusion of a lower deck on the Bloor viaductfifty years earlier.)

…But as I stated in my earlier post, planners are already well aware of the above strategies. If they fail to implement them, it’s only because it’s difficult: to anticipate which projects future politicians might prioritize; to coordinate between multiple agencies, levels of government, and private entities; to resist political pressure to cut corners and push expenses into the future.

I doubt I can offer any insights that haven’t occurred already to the experts. But I think they might give points 5 and 6 a little more weight:

5. Every project will stir up opposition. But well-off residents, because they rely on transit less, and because they tend to own their homes, have less to gain and more to lose from transit expansion. Their money, education, and well-groomed spokespeople make them more effective obstructionists. Therefore, try to put rapid transit into a neighbourhood before it fills up with yuppies.

6. If you’re hoping to preserve a corridor for future use, you’d be better off building now: to prevent future politicians from selling it off piecemeal; to prevent infrastructure clutter along the route; and to prevent residents from getting emotionally attached to it in its virgin state.

(Here I’m thinking of Vancouver’s Arbutus corridor – the rail line shown on the map above – stretches of which were colonized by gardeners from neighbouring properties during its years of disuse. When the city, after acquiring it last year from CP Rail after much haggling, tried to convert it to a paved bike path, nearby residents protested the despoliation of what they viewed as their private rambling grounds. I can just see the outcry in the future when the city attempts to pursue its vision of running a streetcar down the line…)

Vancouver’s new mayor, Kennedy Stewart, has been advocating for the Millennium Line extension – currently set to terminate at Arbutus Street – to continue down Broadway and West 10th Avenue all the way to UBC.

millennium line broadway extension potential phase 2

…Which, don’t get me wrong, would be terrific: I’d use it a lot.

However, looking at it from a cost-prophylactic perspective:

1. The corridor is already densely built-up: infrastructure clutter is therefore unlikely to worsen.

2. The properties for future stations, if they haven’t already, can be acquired now, and held onto until needed. (Astonishingly, if this Daily Hive article is to be believed, as late as March of last year the site of the Millennium Line’s planned Broadway & Granville Street station hadn’t yet been sewn up.)

3. The West Side can’t be any further yuppified. The locals have already secured all the compromises they’re likely to dream up: instead of a noisy elevated train like their poor cousins in East Van, they’re getting a tunnel; and not a cut-and-cover tunnel, like the one that enraged Cambie Street merchants during the construction of the Canada Line a decade back, but a fully bored tunnel.

If the Millennium Line can be extended all the way to UBC in a single go, then it absolutely should: it would be far more cost-effective.

If (as seems likely) it can’t, this corridor presents only a moderate inflationary risk. The UBC extension can affordably be postponed.

Meanwhile, down at the southern end of the Arbutus corridor the homely neighbourhood of Marpole, containing one of the few concentrations of affordable apartments still left within the city’s borders, is seeing a surge of new construction. Would it make sense to move the Arbutus streetcar plan forward, while there are still a few students and working class people living along its route who might benefit from it? [1]

The Arbutus corridor is wide enough that property acquisition costs for future streetcar stops should be minimal. But have they figured out yet how to bridge the 2-kilometre distance between the end of the corridor and Marine Drive station on the Canada Line? That could be an expensive gap to fill.

marpole map arbutus streetcar canada line

And if the city is seriously contemplating rapid transit along 41st Avenue, even in the “extremely long term”, they’d better start locking things down now. With the lower-middle-class enclave near Joyce-Collingwood station doomed by encroaching condo towers, and the futuristic “micro city” about to begin construction at Oakridge, 41st Ave. is extremely susceptible to cost disease.

vancouver 41st ave rapid transit

I’d nominate Marine Drive and East Hastings as two other yuppifying streets where rapid transit would make sense, and where the risk of cost disease is acute. I hope to have more to say about the latter corridor in a follow-up post.

M.

1. This isn’t an endorsement of the Arbutus streetcar scheme, by the way. To me it seems as misbegotten as the now-abandoned Surrey LRT plan I discussed last month: why spend a bajillion dollars laying rail for “rapid transit” that’s not significantly faster than a bus? You might as well make a bigger up-front investment in a tunnel or elevated tracks and enjoy the benefits of higher speed and driverless operation.

If I’d been benevolent dictator, on the day the Arbutus corridor was acquired I would have turned it into a trench two SkyTrain cars wide, put a roof over it, and left the resultant tunnel until it was needed. Instead, the city elected to fancy up the corridor with walking paths and flowerbeds from one end to the other, guaranteeing an infestation of sign-waving old ladies in sunhats whenever they attempt to alter it.

Casting aspersions.

This post, written back in 2017, is the last in my Decennial Fridge-Cleaning series. After today it’s back to our regularly scheduled, completely uncontroversial programming.

Recently, in my hometown paper, I read about a local production of the play Belfast Girls, by Jaki McCarrick. The accompanying photo showed five young women in 19th century period costume, four of them white, one kind of brownish.

belfast girls peninsula productions 2017

Belfast Girls, Peninsula Productions, 2017. Image source: Vancouver Sun.

“Hmm,” I thought. “Must be that ‘race-blind casting’ you sometimes hear about.”

But on skimming the article, I found that the casting had in fact been acutely race-conscious: one of the Irish characters has a Jamaican mother. “[T]rying to find someone to fill that role here in Vancouver wasn’t as easy as it might have been,” the director commented.

According to Wikipedia, in 2016 white people made up a tad under half of Metro Vancouver’s population, with East Asians a further quarter and the remainder a hodgepodge of the world’s other ethnicities – mostly Indo-Canadian, with a smattering of Middle Easterners, Latin Americans, blacks, and others.

If the goal were merely to cast someone who could convincingly portray a half-Irish, half-Jamaican woman, then many Indo-Canadians, Middle Easterners, and Latinos ought to have fit the bill. But I suspect the director was further constrained by the necessity of finding someone with a mixed-race black-white background. There seems to be an elaborate unwritten code governing which actors are allowed to take which roles, variously and contradictorily justified by the primary imperative of maximizing racial diversity:

1. A white person should not portray a character who was written to be, or customarily has been performed by, or was in real life, or in another medium, a person wholly or partly or arguably of another race. (See controversies over Exodus: Gods and Kings, The Martian, A Mighty Heart, and Aloha.)

2. A non-white person, however, may portray a character who was written to be, or customarily has been performed by, or was in real life, or in another medium, a white person. (See Miss Moneypenny, the cast of Hamilton, and various comic book characters.)

3. The definitions of “white” and “non-white” are subject to change without notice.

Is it acceptable for a non-white actor to portray a character of a different non-white race? Hard to tell. But the director was probably smart to be cautious.

My own view is that race-blind casting is more or less appropriate where the mise-en-scène already acknowledges the artificiality of the medium, as theatre productions generally do. No-one watching Troilus and Cressida really imagines they’ve been transported back to Anatolia in the 12th century BC. If Troilus is black and Cressida is Chinese, it shouldn’t throw us any further out of the play than when either character launches into a high-flown speech in English.

However, if Troilus is black and his father, King Priam, is Chinese, we may wonder if we’re meant to infer that Troilus was adopted, and devote concentration to puzzling out their relationship that the director would prefer we focussed elsewhere.

Contarily, a production might wish to highlight the divisions between Greeks and Trojans by casting the two groups with actors of different races – a logical creative choice that race-blind casting forecloses.

Unlike in theatre, in film and television we generally demand a greater degree of “realism” – which nevertheless accepts conventions like foreigners who speak to one another in foreign-accented English, or space aliens who are just humans with bumpy foreheads, or action heroines who somehow maintain their bouncy hair and smooth-shaved legs through every adventure. There’s no obvious reason we couldn’t adapt just as well to the convention of race-blind casting.

And yet the conventions just mentioned aren’t generally seen as good things in themselves, but as necessary concessions to audience prejudices, the limitations of special effects, or the demands of the marketing department. Now that technology has made it cost-effective, we increasingly see directors opting to create aliens who look genuinely alien. I’ve noticed a similar trend in favour of foreign characters actually speaking their native languages, with subtitles, and even lowbrow flicks are more likely to contrive an in-story reason for the foreigners to switch to English. (I doubt movies will ever tire of depicting beautiful actresses with bouncy hair, but who knows.)

The old convention of white actors portraying people of other races is now demonized as racist, but it got started for similar pragmatic reasons. A lot of youngsters don’t seem to realize how small the pool of, say, Asian-American actors would have been in mid-20th century Hollywood. [1] Blacks and non-Hispanic whites together made up 97.5% of the U.S. population in 1950; Asians were less than a tenth of the remainder. In the absence of a taboo against the practice, casting directors naturally wished to expand their options beyond the tiny number of actual Asians available to play Charlie Chan or the King of Siam or whoever. Generally they tried to find people who looked vaguely Asian already, creating openings for mildly exotic actors like Peter Lorre and Rita Moreno. [2]

peter lorre mr. moto

Peter Lorre as Mr. Moto.
Image copyright Fox Home Video.

rita moreno deborah kerr the king and i

Rita Moreno (and Deborah Kerr) in The King and I.
Image source: Pinterest.

Sometimes they piled on makeup instead, and the results look pretty outlandish to us.

mickey rooney breakfast at tiffany's

Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Image source: Wikipedia.

Now that there’s a sizable population of Asians around, of course it makes sense to cast Asians in those roles – if realism is what you’re going for. But lately realism seems to have been elevated from a guiding principle, to be balanced against other principles, to an unbreakable commandment that actors must be a perfect genotypic match for the roles they take on. So you wind up with absurdities like the mixed-race Zoe Saldana being condemned for putting on a prosthetic nose to portray Nina Simone. Meanwhile…

robert de niro raging bull

Robert De Niro, Academy Award for Best Actor, 1980. Image source: Zimbio.com.

nicole kidman the hours

Nicole Kidman, Academy Award for Best Actress, 2002. Image source: The Makeup Gallery.

charlize theron monster

Charlize Theron, Academy Award for Best Actress, 2003. Image source: The Makeup Gallery.

steve carell foxcatcher

Steve Carell, Academy Award Nominee for Best Actor, 2014. Image source: Tribute.ca.

I suppose you could classify that as “white privilege”.

M.

1. I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a young Chinese-Canadian actor here in Vancouver years ago. He complained that when he went out for roles in locally-filmed TV shows, he was unlikely to be chosen even for parts that had specifically been listed as “any race” – because casting directors worried that the writers might decide to make the character a regular, which might necessitate casting the character’s parents or grandparents – and they might then be hindered by the tiny number of older Asian actors available. My acquaintance seemed to view this as a nuisance, but an understandable one. Nowadays it would be a crisis requiring immediate mobilization across all social media.

The bias has probably diminished as more Asian actors like my acquaintance have grown to an age suitable for parent roles.

2. In case you missed the link above, it’s worth watching this video of Rita Moreno discussing her casting as Tuptim in The King and I. Apparently there was a half-Vietnamese actress up for the role, but unlike Moreno she had no musical background; also, unlike Moreno, she wasn’t a contract player whom the studio was eager to promote.

My recent post about transtextuality included some thoughts on race-swapped superheroes; in 2017 I observed that screenwriters could justify every implausible story development with the mantra because that happens; and way back in 2008 I defended the movie 300 against one of its more unhinged critics.

Provocation, martyrdom, and Muhammad.

I’d planned to wrap up my Decennial Fridge-Cleaning series by New Year’s, but I prolonged it so I could publish this old essay in time for the fourth anniversary of the event it was written to commemorate: January 2015’s Charlie Hebdo massacre.

In 1994 my teenage punk rock band performed a song called “Pee on Jesus” at a battle of the bands at our high school in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.

As a co-writer of the song I can attest that it had no coherent satiric agenda. It was pure juvenile provocation. The first verse began,

Pee on Jesus, pee on me
How I love the taste of pee

This was one in an escalating series of futile attempts to achieve some kind of high school martyrdom, all of them thwarted by the indifference of the authorities and my fellow students. True, halfway through our song, the vice-principal jumped from his seat and hustled backstage with the intention of unplugging the speakers. But the song was only a minute and a half long, and ended before he could censor us. Afterward our singer was given a mild lecture. Nothing at all happened to the rest of us. The singer went on to be elected senior class valedictorian.

I think of “Pee on Jesus” whenever someone gets killed or threatened with death over some supposedly insulting depiction of Muhammad or the Muslim religion. A few years back, during the flap over the Danish cartoons, it occurred to me that I ought to put up some Muhammad cartoons of my own, out of solidarity with the persecuted cartoonists. I didn’t, because first off, I couldn’t think of anything witty to say. Also, as you’ll see, I can’t draw. I’m the last person who should be making cartoons for any reason.

Secondly, I was hindered by a residual sense of white guilt. Who am I to be taking a dump on Islam? I don’t really know what it’s all about. My familiarity with Muhammad is limited to a couple brief biographical sketches in western history books. Based on those sketches, and compared with what I know about founders of other world religions, Muhammad has never struck me as an especially admirable guy. I don’t know much about Jesus either, or Buddha, but their reputations aren’t burdened with stories of child brides, assassinations, and mass executions. But some of the stories in the Old Testament are pretty bloodthirsty, too, and I don’t hold those against modern Christians or Jews. Who knows, maybe Jesus would’ve taken a bunch of wives and slaughtered a bunch of people if he hadn’t gotten himself killed so early in his messianic career.

Anyhow, it struck me as kind of gratuitous, drawing a Muhammad cartoon I didn’t really care about, merely to spite some zealots I was unlikely ever to interact with. Prior to the Danish cartoon controversy I don’t recall feeling the slightest interest in drawing Muhammad. In a more peaceful world I might go my whole life without the temptation once arising. If Islamist violence stopped today, as I hope and believe it someday shall, I would return within weeks to my default state of not giving a hoot one way or another about Muhammad, and thinking about Islam maybe once or twice a year, if at all.

So I can understand, in the wake of atrocities like the murder of the editor and much of the staff of the French satirical paper Charlie Hebdo, why western political leaders would prefer if we’d all just please stop saying provocative things about Islam. If you and I could refrain from making inappropriate Muhammad jokes, the logic goes, maybe the more humourless Muslims would lose their enthusiasm for sawing our heads off, and after a few decapitation-free years we’d forget about Muhammad and go back to making inappropriate jokes about rape and the Holocaust like we used to, and the cycle of provocation and counter-provocation would finally be broken.

I don’t know, though. What keeps striking me is how not-terribly-provocative most of our side’s supposed provocations are. Take a look at those Danish cartoons again. Only five or six of the dozen could even be considered critical of Islam, and pretty mildly, at that. Or rewatch that hilariously incompetent YouTube trailer that was blamed for the death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya. Hillary Clinton called that trailer “disgusting and reprehensible”. Is it really? I mean, as the co-writer of “Pee on Jesus” and half a dozen other punk rock songs whose titles I am literally too embarrassed to reproduce here, I know a thing or two about disgusting. I think I could come up with some disgusting things to have Muhammad do in a cartoon. Nasty, blasphemous, deviant, scatological things. I’m imagining some pretty hair-raising cartoons right now. You’ll have to take my word for it.

But it’s not just those disgusting imaginary cartoons that the guardians of sanctity would like me not to draw. It’s stuff like Muhammad petting a kitty cat:

kitty cat

…Or licking an ice cream cone:

ice cream cone

…Or receiving word that he’s been awarded a Nobel Prize:

nobel prize

That’s how easy it is to be edgy nowadays.

***

After scratching out the above masterpieces I checked out Peter Hitchens’s blog to find out how he would tweak our liberal pieties about the Paris massacre. He didn’t disappoint, reminding readers that the free-speech heroes of Charlie Hebdo were quite willing to enlist the power of the state to muzzle those whose opinions they found offensive:

The French Leftist newspaper Libération reported on September 12, 1996, that three stalwarts of Charlie Hebdo (including Stephane ‘Charb’ Charbonnier) had campaigned in their magazine to collect more than 170,000 signatures for a petition calling for a ban on the French National Front party [the right-wing, anti-immigration party of Jean-Marie Le Pen]. They did this in the name of the ‘Rights of Man’.

In his Radio Derb podcast this weekend John Derbyshire mentioned an incident a few years back where a gang of leftist protesters assaulted some white nationalists who were meeting in a restaurant in suburban Chicago. Maybe I’d have heard of this event if the victims had died, instead of merely being hospitalized, but I’m pretty sure there wouldn’t have been much in the way of “I am a white nationalist” social media sloganeering afterward. Derbyshire’s point is that our culture has taboos too, and we’re willing to look the other way when our own hotheads act up, including in violent ways, in defense of those taboos.

In light of that, is it hypocritical of me to belatedly clamber onto the Muhammad cartoon bandwagon? While acknowledging it was brave of Charlie Hebdo to provoke Muslims as it did, Hitchens asks:

And what was the purpose of this bravery? What cause, anywhere in the world, was advanced by it?

It’s a question that deserves answering. I don’t claim any allegiance to, or knowledge of, whatever idiosyncratic and contradictory cause the Charlie Hebdo artists thought they were pursuing. Let alone a share of their undoubted bravery. My own cause is merely that a kid in Mogadishu or Damascus or Peshawar or Prince Albert ought to be able to get up onstage at his high school battle of the bands and sing “Pee on Muhammad”, or something equally stupid, and nothing gets burned, and no-one gets killed. I honestly don’t know if drawing Muhammad is helpful to that cause. But our current strategy, repressing and censoring ourselves in deference to Islamic sensibilities, doesn’t appear to be yielding great results either. I think we should try the alternative: free expression and open debate.

M.

April 2018’s Toronto van attack made me reflect on how my teenage surliness might have taken a dark turn in the internet age; also last year I tried to take an empirical approach to Hollywood’s purported stereotyping of Muslims; and in 2017, re-reading Kurt Vonnegut prompted some thoughts on the blurry line between principled free expression and just being an a-hole.

Managing diversity.

Part IV of The Immigration Heresies.

Most of what follows was written in October 2016. This is the last of four old immigration-related posts which I’m belatedly sharing as part of my Decennial Fridge-Cleaning series.

Some months back I boarded an overstuffed bus with my seventy-year-old, hard-of-hearing, unsteady-on-her-feet mother. As we threaded our way among the straphangers I noticed an empty window seat and steered my mother towards it. “Excuse me,” I said to the woman in the aisle seat. She looked at me uncomprehendingly. “Could you…?” I said, gesturing to the empty seat she was blocking. She didn’t move.

She was middle-aged, conservatively dressed, dark-haired with olive-coloured skin. She might have hailed from anywhere in an arc from Portugal to Palestine to Pakistan. In any case she didn’t seem to speak English. I pointed to my mother and again to the empty seat, making a “swinging gate” gesture with my hands to demonstrate the tiny amount of movement we were asking of her. She stared back with an oddly frightened expression while my own, no doubt, betrayed mounting exasperation.

Finally, shaking her head, the woman rose. I guided my mother into the window seat and turned to the woman with a nod of thanks, but she was pushing her way up the aisle. Apparently she had thought I was demanding that she vacate both seats. I tried to summon her back but the throng had already closed in behind her. Sighing, I plopped down in the aisle seat and put my arm around my mother’s shoulders.

***

There’s a memorable riff in John Derbyshire’s book We Are Doomed about a paper presented by the American sociologist Robert Putnam to a conference in Uppsala, Sweden in 2006. Putnam’s research revealed that, in Derbyshire’s words, “[i]n places with more ethnic diversity, people have fewer friends, watch more TV, are less inclined to vote, trust local government less, and rate their personal happiness lower”. As Putnam put it, they “hunker down…pull in like a turtle”.

Knowing that this would be unwelcome news to his audience of Swedish academics, Putnam did what he could to play down his results. Derbyshire writes:

[The] paper has a very curious structure. After a brief introduction (two pages), there are three main sections, headed as follows:

  • The Prospects and Benefits of Immigration and Ethnic Diversity (three pages)
  • Immigration and Diversity Foster Social Isolation (nineteen pages)
  • Becoming Comfortable with Diversity (seven pages)

I’ve had some mild amusement here at my desk trying to think up imaginary research papers similarly structured. One for publication in a health journal, perhaps, with three sections titled:

  • Health benefits of drinking green tea
  • Green tea causes intestinal cancer
  • Making the switch to green tea

Putnam’s efforts to soft-peddle his findings were a flop. Over a decade later, that “pull in like a turtle” line seems to pop up every other day on the right-wing internet: at the paleocon American Conservative, at the Trumpist Breitbart, at the neoreactionary Jacobite; not to mention deep down in the far-right message boards where the mean kids trade their frog memes. (No doubt Putnam resents it, but it’s not altogether crazy to label him “the alt-right’s favourite academic”.)

We Are Doomed (published in 2009) gives the general flavour of all this commentary:

The happy-talkers tell us that diversity is a boon, making our society stronger and better. Our own lying eyes tell us that it is the source of continual trouble: not merely the solitary “hunkering down” that Robert Putnam discovered, but rancor, disorder, litigation, and violence.

Putnam would disagree. But eight times in his Uppsala paper he refers to diversity as a “challenge” to be addressed “by creating a new, more capacious sense of ‘we'”, or by “redraw[ing] more inclusive lines of social identity”, or by “focus[ing] on the reconstruction of ethnic identities, reducing their social salience without eliminating their personal importance”. Sounds good…whatever it means. But Derbyshire zeroes in on what I think is the key point:

Oh, so it’s a challenge. Well, there’s no avoiding the challenge of diversity. It’s been with us from the start. … It is, though, hard to see why a sane people would be so intent on making the challenge bigger.

***

I was brought up in a smallish city, mostly monocultural, on the Canadian prairies. I moved to Vancouver because I prefer the climate, I enjoy the energy and anonymity of big city life, and I’m not bothered by the chattering of alien tongues. Actually I kind of like it. Noisy English-speakers in public places are a distraction – you can’t help overhearing them, making it difficult to concentrate on your crossword puzzle, your book, your thoughts. While Mandarin or Punjabi or Ukrainian is simply background noise, like the whoosh of traffic.

Still, nearly every week since moving here I’ve encountered some minor vexation stemming from linguistic and cultural confusion. I’ve learned unconsciously to speak a kind of simplified English when interacting with customer-service people. I use hand gestures a lot more than I used to. No doubt this comes across as “microaggressive” when, as often happens, a foreign-looking barista turns out to speak perfect English. I have a small but distinct feeling of relief when I visit a doctor, a dry cleaner, a tax preparer for the first time, and discover that they were raised anglophone. It means I can turn off my polite smile, unhobble my vocabulary, and use irony in the assurance that I won’t be misunderstood. No doubt a similar feeling of relief keeps immigrants returning to the comfort of their ethnic enclaves. Who can blame them? If I were part of a Canadian diaspora in Beijing or Bombay I’d probably spend most of my time in that city’s Little Toronto.

Most analysis of the downsides of diversity devolves into futile squabbles about lawbreaking foreigners and racist natives – Trumpian blither about illegal immigrant rapists and retaliatory blather about how only irredeemable Ku Kluxers would dare to notice the existence of illegal immigrant rapists. These ugly sinkholes in our multicultural harmony mark the hidden nodes of a vast network of tiny stress fractures deep beneath the surface. Individually the fractures aren’t overly alarming. They aren’t caused by ill will. They’re the natural outcome of groups of people with different interests and different assumptions rubbing against each other. Most of them are the product of simple communication failures – missed nuances, misread gestures, muffed jokes – and the friction will decrease as the next generation picks up English. Some of them, like the apparent Islamic antipathy to Enlightenment-derived laws protecting blasphemous speech, [1] may continue to cause tremors far into the future.

In any case it seems obvious that the more diversity you add, the more invisible fractures you get, the greater the likelihood of sudden collapses at points of particular stress. A society can tolerate a given number of fractures before the first big crack appears.

percent foreign born canada usa uk

Foreign-born population. (Click for sources and footnotes.)

The cracking point varies from one society to another. As shown above, Canada’s percentage of foreign-born residents is higher than America’s or Britain’s. Yet there’s little sign here of an incipient Trump- or Brexit-style backlash. Why?

Maybe the type of immigrants we bring in, generally middle-class and university-educated, assimilate more readily than the unskilled Latin Americans who have poured into U.S. border states, or the Pakistanis and Bangladeshis who have established Muslim ghettos in some British cities.

Or maybe it’s the phase transition effect I advanced in the previous essay: although Canada’s percentage of immigrants is higher than in the U.S. or U.K., the outright number is lower, so there are fewer communities here where the immigrant population is large enough to coalesce into a monocultural ghetto.

But sometimes I fear Canadians’ famous diffidence and emotional reserve are causing us to repress thoughts that would be better expressed openly, and that the crack, when it comes, will be even more violent.

It would be nice if we could return to the level of civilized debate that existed in  my youth, when everyone accepted that immigration was a tap the government could turn either way, for any number of valid policy reasons – including, “old-timers seem to think there are too many funny accents around, maybe let’s ease up for a while”.

Instead, those old-timers are dismissed as bigots whose opinions shouldn’t count, and anyone with a more substantive argument has to waste half his column inches proving his anti-racist bona fides before he can get to the point. However thoughtful and fair-minded the immigration restrictionist pretends to be, the discerning progressive eye peers through the veil to the ugly, irrational fear lurking behind.

I’ll be upfront about it. I am afraid – afraid that we’re reducing the overall level of trust in our society, which depends on the ability of citizens to communicate in a common language. Afraid that we’re growing our cities at a reckless pace, driving up the cost of housing and paving over the surrounding open spaces. Afraid that we’re inviting the rise of an ethnic-based politics that will further fracture what was already an imperfectly unified confederation.

***

And so, we reach the end of my Immigration Heresies…and, I hope, the end of my commentary on the topic for a long, long time to come.

My preferred policy, as spelled out in the introduction to this series, would be for Canada to gradually reduce immigration to a level that would offset our below-replacement birthrate, while aiming for zero population growth overall. But I don’t feel strongly enough about it to make a nuisance of myself. I’m entering middle age; I don’t have kids; immigration is only one of dozens of issues that might affect my happiness in the few decades I have left; and it’s quite possible that all my misgivings are unwarranted, and the magic of diversity will only, as its promoters assure me, make my life more and more wonderful, until the day I keel over in a nursing home, cheerfully pondering my nurse’s Kyrgyzstani accent.

Since I don’t feel that strongly about it, and since there’s a real risk that publishing these essays will reduce my already tenuous employability, why not keep my trap shut?

Well, as I wrote in the wake of Donald Trump’s election victory, those of us in the mushy middle bear a unique and rather tiresome responsibility: it’s up to us to talk soothingly to the howling partisans on either side, to try to explain to them that their foes are not stupid, not insane, not bent on wrecking civilization, that in fact both sides share many of the same concerns; they just frame them differently.

Based on private comments they’ve let drop from time to time, I’m pretty sure that many of my progressive friends are far less gung-ho about our marvellous multicultural future than they’d be prepared to publicly admit.

This worries me. When widely held opinions [2] are excluded from public discussion, they’re forced deep, deep down into the subterranean realm of rumbles and creaks. We go merrily about our business, oblivious to what’s happening below…until the inevitable Trumpian earthquake occurs.

M.

1. “78% of [British] Muslims thought that the publishers of the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed should be prosecuted, 68% thought those who insulted Islam should be prosecuted and 62% of people disagree that freedom of speech should be allowed even if it insults and offends religious groups.” — From a summary of a 2006 NOP / Channel 4 poll of British Muslims.

A 2016 Channel 4 / ICM Unlimited poll (page 612 of PDF) compares British Muslims with a “nationally representative sample of all GB adults”:

In your opinion, should any publication have the right to publish pictures of the Prophet?

Muslim % All British %
Yes 4 67
No 78 20
It depends on the nature of the pictures 12 9
Don’t know 5 4

And in your opinion, should any publication have the right to publish pictures which make fun of the Prophet?

Muslim % All British %
Yes 1 47
No 87 44
It depends on the nature of the pictures 8 7
Don’t know 4 3

Of course, the methodology of the above poll has been challenged.

2. According to this poll by the left-leaning Broadbent Institute, which was spun by its sponsors as proving that Canadians want their government to do more to resist President Trump:

  • 69% “strongly” or “somewhat” support stricter rules on immigration that would allow in fewer immigrants and emphasize proven job qualifications.
  • 67% “strongly” or “somewhat” support screening immigrants for Canadian values as a condition of entry.

In the last Conservative Party leadership race, candidate Kellie Leitch was treated by our pundits as some kind of moral leper for attempting to appeal to those two-thirds of Canadians – and as near as I can tell even she never actually advocated reducing overall immigration numbers.

(For what it’s worth, I wasn’t too keen on “Canadian values” screening myself, which in practice would just be a test of immigrants’ ability to memorize and recite the pieties mentioned on Kellie Leitch’s website: “the equality of men and women, freedom of religion, and equality of all under the law”.)

Way back in 2006 I fretted about the long-term consequences of low-birthrate liberalism and high-birthrate social conservativism. In 2012 I wondered what would happen when birthrates in the developing world plunged to the levels prevailing in the west. And in a 2016 post inspired by Huxley’s Brave New World I previewed my argument about immigration, assimilation, and social phase transitions.

Phase transitions.

Part III of The Immigration Heresies.

This was written sometime in mid-2016, then shelved. I’m publishing it now as part of my Decennial Fridge-Cleaning series.

It often helps me get started when I have someone else’s ideas to bounce off. By luck, this morning I plucked at random a book off my shelf that touches on a theme I’ve been struggling to define.

It was Lionel Trilling’s collection The Liberal Imagination. In an essay from 1947 entitled “Manners, Morals, and the Novel”, Trilling wonders why American novelists seem to “have a kind of resistance to looking closely at society” – by which he means the existence of social classes. He writes:

Consider that Henry James is, among a large part of our reading public, still held to be at fault for noticing society as much as he did. Consider the conversation that has, for some interesting reason, become a part of our literary folklore. Scott Fitzgerald said to Ernest Hemingway, “The very rich are different from us.” Hemingway replied, “Yes, they have more money.” I have seen the exchange quoted many times and always with the intention of suggesting that Fitzgerald was infatuated by wealth and had received a salutary rebuke from his democratic friend. But the truth is that after a certain point quantity of money does indeed change into quality of personality: in an important sense the very rich are different from us. So are the very powerful, the very gifted, the very poor. Fitzgerald was right…

Earlier American writers, says Trilling, had proposed explanations for this blind spot in the national literary imagination:

There is a famous page in James’s life of Hawthorne in which James enumerates the things which are lacking to give the American novel the thick social texture of the English novel – no state; barely a specific national name; no sovereign; no court; no aristocracy…

In consequence, these writers argued, American culture offered

no sufficiency of means for the display of a variety of manners, no opportunity for the novelist to do his job of searching out reality, not enough complication of appearance to make the job interesting. Another great American novelist of very different temperament had said much the same thing some decades before: James Fenimore Cooper found that American manners were too simple and dull to nourish the novelist.

Trilling observes however that

life in America has increasingly thickened since [Henry James’s time]. It has not, to be sure, thickened so much as to permit our undergraduates to understand the characters of Balzac, to understand, that is, life in a crowded country where the competitive pressures are great, forcing intense passions to express themselves fiercely and yet within the limitations set by a strong and complicated tradition of manners. Still, life here has become more complex and more pressing.

Seventy years on, America has become much more crowded, its competitive pressures greater, its social rules more complex, in a way that, if Trilling was right, should have led to an improvement in the quality of American literature. But would anyone say the American novel circa 2017 is in better shape than it was in Trilling’s time? I doubt it. But perhaps that’s because Americans’ creative energies have shifted to other media, with movies and TV shows jostling for room at the pinnacle of the culture where novels once lorded it alone.

***

But what interests me is the phase transition alluded to by Fitzgerald in his comment about the rich, and by Trilling when he contrasts the easy manners of 19th century New England with those in “a crowded country where the competitive pressures are great”, like France or England.

In chemistry, matter undergoes a phase transition when heat is added – ice turns to water, water turns to water vapour – and that just about exhausts my knowledge of chemistry. In the social realm, phase transitions are fuzzier and harder to define, but no less real and important.

If Fitzgerald was correct that the rich really are different from us, the phase transition might occur at the point one has accumulated enough wealth to no longer have to worry about money. This gives one a certain immunity to caring what the rest of us think. Society might still condemn your nonconforming behaviour, but there’s no risk of it getting you fired.

There must be a corresponding phase transition at the bottom of the economic scale, between those with barely anything – who are desperate to preserve what little they have – and those with nothing – who have no further reason to give a damn.

Another obvious social phase transition occurs when population is added. When two individuals are brought together, social interactions that were previously nonexistent suddenly become possible. When a third person is added, the possibility of allegiances is introduced – two of the three might team up against the third. Another phase transition occurs when the group grows large enough that comfortable face-to-face conversation is no longer possible, and it splits into subgroups.

At this point we’re moving beyond the size of a family unit or social gathering and into the realm of what we would call society. The next major limit is marked by Dunbar’s number, with a phase transition occurring when the population grows beyond the number of personal relationships that the human brain is capable of managing – 150 or so, according to Robin Dunbar.

To elaborate on my highly scientific analogy, just as the boiling and freezing point of water vary according to atmospheric pressure, social phase transitions are sensitive to other pressures besides simple population growth. For instance, the Malthusian limit – the point at which a society outstrips its available food supply – varies depending on location, climate, and level of technology. Given enough agricultural, transportational, and organizational know-how to keep its population fed, a society can go on cramming in people, probably not forever, but at least until some as-yet unencountered phase transition is reached – like the “behavioural sink” brought on by overcrowding that doomed the colonies in the NIMH mouse utopia experiments.

***

Imagine a newly-arrived immigrant family in a small town in the Canadian prairies circa 1910. Wishing to preserve their ancestral customs, whatever those customs might be – Ukrainian, German, Chinese, it doesn’t matter – they reach out to nearby families of the same background with whom they can gather on traditional holidays to chat in their native language, sing their native songs, share their native recipes. But those other families live a long, rattling buggy-ride away. Between holidays our newcomers eagerly scan the international news for rare mentions of their homeland. They wait weeks for replies to their letters home. Once in a while a parcel arrives with precious canned goods unavailable in Canada, wrapped in a weeks-old newspaper. They nurture a slim hope of someday saving enough to make a trip to their home country, knowing that in all likelihood they’ll never see it again.

At work, by necessity, they speak only English. Their children attend school and make friends with Canadian-born kids who are at best politely bemused by the newcomers’ quaint customs. Within a year or two the children, now speaking unaccented English, are mildly embarrassed by their parents’ devotion to the old ways. The children switch easily between English at school and their ancestral language at home, but as they reach adulthood and move out, marry native English-speakers, see their parents less often, their sense of ethnic identity fades. The next generation picks up from its grandparents only a few proverbial expressions and snippets of nursery songs.

Contrast a Chinese immigrant family arriving in Vancouver in the 2010s. They arrive in a metropolis where roughly a third of the population is ethnically Chinese. Very likely they settle in a neighbourhood where Chinese are an outright majority, where their children attend schools surrounded by fellow Chinese-speakers. The community supports multiple Chinese-language newspapers and radio stations. The more popular Chinese movies are playing at the local multiplex. Chinese TV shows can be streamed online. Not only canned goods but fresh fruits and vegetables from back home are available in most grocery stores. And if in spite of all this the new arrivals get homesick, for a few thousand dollars the whole family can take a week’s vacation in China.

Supporters of mass immigration point out that at various times in Canada’s history, the percentage of foreign-born residents has been as high or higher than it is at present. Those earlier immigrants integrated quickly enough, so why shouldn’t these?

foreign born canada 1871-2011

Source: Statistics Canada, 150 years of immigration in Canada.

But they’re overlooking the phase transition that separates a small, spread-out population from a large, densely-concentrated one. A minority of a hundred thousand people can support economic activities like newspapers, radio stations, and specialty grocery stores that a minority of a hundred can’t.

canada immigrants rural vs. urban 1921

Click image for data.

canada immigrants cities 2016

Click image for data.

And that’s not to mention changes in trade, travel, and technology that together have reduced the pressure to integrate.

I’m not overly gloomy on Canada’s prospects in the era of mass immigration. After all, I elected to leave my small city on the prairies and relocate to hyperdiverse Vancouver, and I like it here. But it’s a matter of taste. Native-born Canadians are as entitled as newcomers to be partial to the way of life they grew up with, and it’s not crazy of them to notice that that way of life is being displaced at an ever-increasing rate.

M.

PS. I previously used the above graphs in a post this summer about high housing prices in Vancouver.

The Nogoodnik Rule.

Part II of The Immigration Heresies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But we got Veedu instead.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

functioning immigrant selection system

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

reverse immigrant selection system

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

M.

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