Posts Tagged 'covid-19'

Schedule Bare Back.

With President-Elect Joe Biden qualifying his earlier call for a national mask mandate, it seems an appropriate time to revisit the last attempt to alter American sartorial customs by presidential order.

I’m speaking, of course, of 2007, when in response to a grave biological threat the president addressed a joint session of congress:

When the President took the rostrum, he waited until he got dead silence. Then slowly, calmly, he started taking off clothes. He stopped when he was bare to the waist. He then turned around, lifting his arms. At last he spoke.

“I did that,” he said, “so that you might see that your Chief Executive is not a prisoner of the enemy.” He paused.

“But how about you?

Despite the president’s challenge, the assembled senators and congresspeople remained seated, reluctant to sacrifice their dignity – until Senator Gottlieb, a survivor of the contagion, shakily rose and removed his shirt, exposing a back still raw with the “scarlet mark of the parasite”.

Pulling out a gun, the senator then ordered his colleagues to start stripping.

robert a. heinlein the puppet masters

Fortunately for the sanity of C-SPAN viewers, this disturbing scene unfolded not in our recent past, but in the fictional future of Robert A. Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters.

The brain-hijacking alien parasites of that 1951 novel are able to blend in perfectly among uninfected humans – as long as their hosts are fully dressed. With the citizenry stripped naked to the waist in accordance with the president’s order, it’s easy to spot the pulsating slug-like creatures latched to the spines of the infected.

But will the country comply with Schedule Bare Back?

In the uncontaminated areas people took off their shirts, willingly or reluctantly, looked around them and found no parasites. They watched their newscasts and wondered and waited for the government to tell them that the danger was over. But nothing happened, and both laymen and local officials began to doubt the necessity of running around in sunbathing costumes.

Other skeptics go further, fulminating that the supposed invasion is actually “a tyrannical Washington plot”. In the areas of the country already controlled by the slugs, TV stations pump out propaganda accusing the central government of having gone crazy. Meanwhile, back in the capital, those with direct experience of the danger are plotting geometric growth trajectories of the kind with which we have lately become all too familiar:

Assume a thousand slugs in that space ship, the one we believed to have landed near Kansas City; suppose that they could reproduce when given opportunity every twenty-four hours.

First day, one thousand slugs.

Second day, two thousand.

Third day, four thousand.

At the end of the first week, the eighth day, that is—a hundred and twenty-eight thousand slugs.

After two weeks, more than sixteen million slugs.

What’s worse, one of the fundamental assumptions behind Schedule Bare Back – that the slugs must attach themselves near the base of the skull in order to control their hosts’ brains – proves to be untrue. In fact, they can attach themselves to any bit of flesh, including all of it still hidden below people’s beltlines.

This discovery leads before long to the imposition of the even more exacting Schedule Sun Tan. [1]

***

In a book review from 1978, Clive James echoed the conventional critical line on Robert A. Heinlein, that he was a hairy-chested keyboard-basher “whose politics were largely indistinguishable from those of John Wayne”: [2]

His Starship Troopers and The Puppet Masters, quite apart from their unarguable virtues as adventure stories, have the additional quality of representing the authoritarian instinct in its purest form and thereby helping us to comprehend it. [3]

James died last year, before the emergence of Covid-19 and the unprecedented measures hastily implemented to contain it. Would he have characterized our past nine months of lockdowns, shutdowns, travel restrictions, masks, queues, and one-way shopping aisles as manifestations of the “authoritarian instinct”?

Perhaps they are. The question, as always, is whether unprecedented measures are justified by the circumstances, and how they are modified as circumstances change. (The income tax, as libertarians like to remind us, was introduced to Canada as a temporary measure during World War I.)

In The Puppet Masters, after the imposition of Schedule Sun Tan, people adjust with surprising swiftness to the abolition of the nudity taboo:

Ugly bodies weren’t any more noticeable than ugly taxicabs; the eye ignored them. And so it appeared to be with everybody; those on the streets seemed to have acquired utter indifference. Skin was skin and what of it?

the puppet masters robert heinlein don sibley illustrator

The introduction of Schedule Sun Tan. Illustration by Don Sibley in Galaxy Science Fiction, 1951. Scan by Rafeeq McGiveron.

Those with a preference for old notions of modesty soon learn to keep their objections to themselves. In 2020 the most zealous enforcers of mask-wearing have limited their reprisals to shaming the unmasked or, at worst, siccing the cops on them; in the more hysterical atmosphere of Heinlein’s novel, naked, heavily-armed vigilantes can be found loitering on street corners, scanning their surroundings for an inch of uncovered flesh, prepared to fire without warning on “any unexplained excrescence on a human body”.

Whatever “authoritarian instinct” might have motivated the author, the hero of The Puppet Masters is far from enthusiastic about such impingements on his liberty. As he and his team celebrate their discovery of a biological agent that they hope will kill the aliens without harming their human hosts, the hero allows himself to muse about returning to the good old pre-parasite social order. A colleague disillusions him:

“Mr. Nivens, as long as there exists a possibility that a slug is alive the polite man must be willing to bare his body on request—or risk getting shot. Not just this week and next, but twenty years from now, or a hundred. No, no!” he added, “I am not disparaging your plans—but you have been too busy to notice that they are strictly local and temporary. For example, have you made any plans for combing the Amazonian jungles, tree by tree?” …

“Are you trying to tell me it’s hopeless?” I demanded.

“Hopeless? Not at all. Have another drink. I’m trying to say that we are going to have to learn to live with this horror, the way we had to learn to live with the atom bomb.”

As we toast our arrival at a comparable stage in humanity’s war against Covid-19, our health authorities have taken to issuing similarly deflating pronouncements. The other day Timandra Harkness vented in UnHerd:

But I do remember very clearly that when I heard that Health Person solemnly say that, vaccine or no vaccine, we would still be wearing masks and social distancing and so on for the next 18 months, my response was not fit to print.

Even after the vulnerable have been immunized, even after herd immunity has been reached – indeed, as long as Covid-19 is circulating out there among bats, cats, and muskrats, building strength in preparation for another wave – the Health People will insist that we must keep up our defenses. We’re already wearing the masks, the Health People will say. We’ve already gotten in the habit of queuing and distancing. Easier to keep up habits we’ve already learned than give them up and have to learn them all over again.

It’s possible we won’t be free of the Health People’s nagging until the disease has been wiped from the face of the earth. Here are two of Timandra Harkness’ UnHerd colleagues arguing that Covid probably isn’t eradicable – but that we should make it our mission to attempt to eradicate it anyway:

Once the first wave of mass Covid vaccination begins, we shouldn’t rest on our laurels. We should do our very best to free ourselves of this virus forever.

As The Puppet Masters draws to a close, the heroes’ biological weapon has succeeded, but the victors aren’t content with the reconquest of the American heartland. Apart from whatever slugs might be out there clinging to the spines of forest creatures, there are who knows how many millions swarming on the slug homeworld, still intent, for all anyone knows, on enslaving the human race.

The last we hear from the hero, he is putting the final touches on his memoir before blasting off to take part in the counterinvasion. “Puppet masters—the free men are coming to kill you!” he declares. “Death and Destruction!

That must be one of the lines Clive James had in mind when he spoke of Heinlein’s “authoritarian instinct”. The Health People will probably want to dream up a less blood-chilling slogan for the next stage of their crusade.

M.

1. As I’ve already discussed at length, Heinlein – a nudist – wasn’t shy about shoehorning his personal and political obsessions into his stories.

Although The Puppet Masters is the only one of his books in which nudism is a major theme, in practically all his output from the late 1960s onward you’ll find at least one scene where the characters, as soon as they’re out of sight of the rubes, happily shuck their clothes.

Even where Heinlein eschewed overt nudist propaganda, his fictional futures were often characterized by a laid-back attitude towards the display of flesh. It’s always a bit jarring – deliberately, I’m sure – when the hero, whom you’ve been vaguely picturing dressed in trousers and jacket, or maybe a jumpsuit, makes some offhand comment like, “I was wearing tights myself (unpadded) and sometimes oil my upper body on social occasions.” (From The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.)

2. Clive James’ comment on Heinlein appears as an aside in a pan of Anthony Burgess’ dystopian satire 1985. I came across it in the essay collection From the Land of Shadows.

3. Heinlein fans are used to seeing Starship Troopers dismissed as an emanation of the fascist id. While that’s unfair, at least you can see where the book’s critics are coming from – it can be read as an apologia for imperialism, militarism, and (human) racial supremacism. It’s unusual to find it lumped together with The Puppet Masters, which apart from some passing swipes at communism isn’t even noticeably right-wing, let alone “authoritarian”.

(Coincidentally, those two are among the disappointingly small handful of Heinlein stories that have been turned into movies; here one of the screenwriters of the 1994 adaption of The Puppet Masters explains why it turned out such a botch.)

In his 1980 collection Expanded Universe Heinlein defended Starship Troopers against some of its lazier attackers. In that novel, the right to vote is granted only to those who have fulfilled two years of voluntary federal service; what really irked his liberal critics, Heinlein speculated, was

the dismaying idea that a voice in governing the state should be earned instead of being handed to anyone who is 18 years old and has a body temperature near 37°C.

He mulled a few other ideas for ensuring a “responsible electorate”, including:

[S]tep into the polling booth and find that the computer has generated a new quadratic equation just for you. Solve it, the computer unlocks the voting machine, you vote. But get a wrong answer and the voting machine fails to unlock, a loud bell sounds, a red light goes on over that booth—and you slink out, face red, you having just proved yourself too stupid and/or ignorant to take part in the decisions of the grownups. Better luck next election! No lower age limit in this system—smart 12-yr-old girls vote every election while some of their mothers—and fathers—decline to be humiliated twice.

I quoted the above passage before, in a footnote to my post on Nevil Shute’s “multiple voting” scheme.

Covering Vancouver.

If I still lived in Saskatchewan, around this time of year I’d be waking up irritable and apprehensive, expecting each morning to discover, when I peeped through the blinds, a blanket of white concealing my car.

In my hometown the snow usually arrives around Halloween and stays on the ground well past Easter. On shady lawns you’ll find patches of sooty snow lingering into May.

Some of my ex-Saskatchewan friends – there are a lot of us out here – tell me they miss winter. A rime-crusted scarf pulled up to just under your eyeballs. A line of ankle-deep footprints guiding you along an unshovelled sidewalk. Fog billowing around you as you stumble through the front door. Numb fingers fumbling with frozen bootlaces. Reddened cheeks defrosting over a mug of hot tea.

Me, I’d be fine if I never saw snow again.

Granted, it snows in Vancouver, too. Sometimes the stuff even sticks around for a month or so. I don’t care for it, but it’s nothing like Saskatchewan. I never wake up apprehensive even on the gloomiest winter mornings.

The perception in the outside world is that winter in the Pacific Northwest means non-stop rain. But that’s not really so. Sure, there will be whole weeks where the sun never peeks through the clouds. But it rarely rains all day long. In the soggy depths of January the clouds will occasionally part, the mercury will climb into the low teens, and for a couple hours it feels like early autumn again. With a light jacket and maybe a toque you can sit comfortably on a bench and read the paper.

You can, at least, if you don’t mind a damp behind. The benches are usually wet from the rain.

***

Since moving out here I’ve noticed a few peculiarities about Vancouver, odd things that seem to go uncommented on by the natives. Like the blinking green lights that identify pedestrian-controlled traffic signals – very distracting to drivers who aren’t used to them. Like the absence of sidewalks in so many swanky neighbourhoods – a frugality that might be justified in an auto-centric place like Saskatoon, and yet in Saskatoon you’ll find every snowy, wind-swept street lined on both sides with sidewalks, as all streets should be.

Another thing that perplexes me about Vancouver is the rarity of sheltered outdoor spaces. I’m talking about canopies, verandas, gazebos, pavilions, and covered patios.

In Saskatchewan such amenities are equally rare – but there they aren’t very useful. During the half of the year it’s warm enough to sit outside, it’s also dry. When the wintry winds sweep down from the Beaufort Sea, a gazebo won’t do much to keep them out.

But here on the balmy coast – well, for instance, here’s Westminster Pier Park, where in summertime I’ll often sit and watch the trains passing back and forth on the SkyBridge. There are dozens of benches arrayed along the riverfront, and on sunny days most of them are occupied.

westminster pier park new westminster bc

Image source: Pinterest / BuyRIC.

Notice the wooden pavilion in the foreground, which covers a concession stand and the entrance to the public washrooms. Here’s a better view:

westminster pier park pavilion new westminster bc

Image source: Pinterest / PWL Partnership.

As you can see, there’s a plexiglass roof suspended from part of the pavilion, which is otherwise open to the sky. The roof shelters an area of a few square metres directly in front of the concession stand on the lower level. It also covers – just barely – one of the two benches on the upper level.

On rainy days this bench is the only spot in the park – and one of a handful of public spaces in all of New Westminster – where you can sit outside while remaining mostly dry.

Of course, on rainy days you’ll usually find this bench already occupied.

***

One of the more encouraging as well as infuriating results of the current pandemic – infuriating because it makes you wonder why we weren’t doing this all along – was the way local city governments expedited the approval of outdoor patios this summer, to allow restaurants to seat customers in the antiseptic open air.

It was great. With the sacrifice of a few parking spots and the placing of a few cheap tables and chairs, businesses were able to partially compensate for the government-ordered slashing of their seating capacity.

But now, just as the long-predicted Second Wave of infections rolls in, those patios have ceased to be of much use. I’d be perfectly happy to button my coat, pull my toque down over my ears, and sit at an outdoor table to sip my Americano – but I’m not going to sit there and get soaked.

I scan the interior for an unoccupied table, but they’re all occupied by hipsters hunched over their laptops who appear to be dug in till closing time. So I skip the coffee and head home.

We’ll see in springtime how many of my favourite coffee shops are still in business. [1]

***

Although I blog now and then about transit issues, I’m really only well acquainted with two big-city transit systems, Vancouver’s and Toronto’s.

I may be biased in comparing them, but my feeling is that Vancouver’s system provides at least equal value for money – which, given the challenges imposed by its geography, is something of a triumph. Vancouver is much less populous than Toronto, much more fragmented by geographic barriers, and much “lumpier” – that is, its population density varies widely, so that many bus routes traverse wide stretches of near-rusticity between one teeming town centre and another.

Vancouver has one great cost-saving advantage, however – its mild weather. Climate has consequently shaped the design of the two systems. In Toronto, for example, when you emerge from the subway you’ll usually find yourself in a big hall enclosed against the elements where you can wait until your bus arrives. In summer it swelters and sometimes stinks, but at least in winter it’s slightly above freezing.

In Vancouver, when you disembark at a suburban SkyTrain station, you’ll descend to an uncovered bus loop, where in summer you can stroll about in the breeze and perhaps take in a view of distant mountains. In winter the mountains are likely to be hidden by the mist. You’ll join a queue of passengers huddled miserably beneath their umbrellas. If you’re lucky there may be a simple plexiglass shelter, wide enough to protect the first dozen or so people in line – fewer, under social-distancing rules. Everyone else gets wet.

You’d think these stations would have been planned with the comfort of bus passengers in mind. It wouldn’t have been hard to design them with eaved roofs or cantilevered floors to overhang the adjacent waiting areas. Even now, at some stations, by repositioning the bus bays, the queues could be sheltered under the SkyTrain guiderails.

Listen, Vancouver, you’re blessed. You don’t need four walls out here. You only need a roof. The least you can do is supply that.

***

Although I have few regrets about moving here, there are things I don’t like about Vancouver. The cost of housing is absurd. The daffy left-wing political culture gets on my nerves. And of course, not unrelated to the first two points, there are the vagrants staggering about in their hundreds, drunk or strung out or insane, sleeping on sidewalks, pissing in doorfronts, strewing litter, mumbling, shouting, and making life uncomfortable for the rest of us.

It’s hard to tell whom to blame for their predicament. In some cases it’s the vagrants themselves, for making what they knew full well to be terrible choices. In some cases it’s the rest of us, for failing to take action to prevent them from making choices they don’t have the capacity to make.

The daffy left-wing politics, which make it impossible to clamp down on tent cities, open drug use, and petty crime, are no doubt partly to blame for the proliferation of vagrancy. The absurd rents are another huge factor. But the main reason so many people live on the streets here is that they can. You’d have to be very crazy or desperate to attempt to live in a tent in Winnipeg or Prince George in January. In Vancouver it’s a viable option for the merely half-crazed and semi-desperate. Many of the tent city inhabitants claim reasonably enough that they prefer camping to being cooped up in shelters with all their rules, smells, and overcrowding.

I’m pretty sure I know the reason that Vancouver is so stingy with the provision of canopies, verandas, gazebos, pavilions, and covered patios. Every one constitutes an invitation to homeless people. Right now there’s little reason for anyone not waiting for a bus or flogging religious tracts to hang around outside a SkyTrain station. As soon as you put a roof over the bus loop, it becomes a magnet for scary-looking, foul-smelling vagrants whom the transit police will be obliged to spend half their time shooing away, leaving them less time to deal with graver crimes.

That’s my theory, anyway. Given the taboo against speaking ill of the homeless, I doubt any public official would admit that this is the real reason there are so few covered outdoor spaces out here.

Maybe I’m wrong, though, and it’s just that no-one beside me really cares that much about it. Enjoy being wet, Vancouver.

M.

1. I’m pleased to learn that the City of Vancouver will be permitting restaurants and bars to “winterize” their pop-up patios “by adding a cover supported by posts”.

I’ve written about the Toronto transit system before, notably last month when I discussed the ever more outlandish cost of building subways, and a couple years back when I recalled a moment of cross-cultural confusion on an overcrowded Toronto bus.

Urban rethink.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pandemic forces urban rethink vancouver sun

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

What would an “urban rethink” actually look like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

boris bridge northern ireland scotland

“Boris bridge”, as visualized by The Sun.

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

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

M.

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

The rectification of names.

The Chinese government seems to have been successful in its campaign to guilt us into replacing the logical, easy-to-remember “Wuhan virus” with the turgid, clinical “Covid-19”.

Apart from everything else, it strikes me as a blown marketing opportunity for the city of Wuhan. When international travel picks up again, western tourists who would otherwise hop straight from the Great Wall to the giant panda sanctuary at Chengdu might be convinced to add a stop at Wuhan Virusland. The mascot could be a pangolin wearing a surgical mask. Ozzy Osbourne could star in a promotional video where he dips into a bowl of delicious bat soup.

But if Beijing has its way, in a year or two Wuhan – that insignificant provincial town, home to a mere nine million souls – will recede into the obscurity it enjoyed before the virus made it briefly famous.

We in the west are pretty clueless about Chinese geography. It’s partly because China was closed to the outside world for 30 years, partly because their language looks so forbiddingly strange, and partly because, in a test-run of the Wuhan/Covid guilt trip, we went meekly along with their decree that we should junk our old, familiar names for their towns and provinces and replace them with hard-to-pronounce Chinese versions – so Tsingtao became Qingdao, Canton became Guangzhou, Amoy became Xiamen, and so on.

(In his 1988 travel book Riding the Iron Rooster, Paul Theroux is corrected by a government flunky when he refers to Peking and Canton. “I’m giving you their English names, Mr. Zhong,” he replies. “We don’t say Hellas for Greece, or Roma for Rome, or Paree, if we’re speaking English. So I don’t see the point–” But the flunky smoothly changes the subject.) [1]

Speaking of under-publicized tourist destinations, Zhengzhou is another huge city – almost six million people – that I couldn’t have placed on a map before the other day. That’s probably why I was unaware of this monument to the ancient semi-mythical emperor-heroes Huang and Yan carved into a mountain outside of town. Their faces are three times as big as the ones at Mount Rushmore.

Meanwhile in Changsha (population five million) there’s an oddly sexy 100-foot-tall bust of Mao Zedong. Or if you like your colossi a little shaggier, the 1200 year old giant Buddha statue near Leshan (a quaint village of 1.2 million) gives a preview of how Mao will look in a millennium or so, when the elements have done their work.

I was watching The Neverending Story with a friend a while back and when I saw the Ivory Tower – the fortress sprouting like a pistil from the shell of a hollowed-out mountain – I said, “How come our multibillionaires all live in boring suburban mega-mansions when they could be using their fortunes to erect cool fantasy architecture like that?”

But even if Jeff Bezos yearned to live in a hollowed-out mountain, he would never get away with it. For that matter, Mount Rushmore wouldn’t get the go-ahead nowadays. The local Native Americans would raise a fuss, protesters would converge, lawsuits would be launched, and after a few years the whole thing would be quietly dropped, as happened to that “grandiose” (actually, by Chinese standards, rather understated) statue of “Mother Canada” the Tories were talking about building in Cape Breton.

The Chinese, poor rubes, lack the sophistication to realize that enormous monuments to their heroes and heritage are gaudy and wasteful, and that developed countries have more important things to spend their money on, such as…wait a second, what are we spending our money on? Our infrastructure is rickety and inadequate. Our streets are full of homeless drug addicts. Our homes are full of cheap made-in-China crapola. Is it possible that all our extra wealth is going into inflated university degrees and pipeline litigation?

***

Ever since I moved to Vancouver from the Canadian prairies, I’ve had the vague intention of learning a little Chinese. Not enough to actually talk to people – I figure that’s unrealistically ambitious – but maybe enough to make out the gist of signs outside the many local Chinese businesses.

As I understand it – and I’m aware this is a gross oversimplification – Chinese characters, or hanzi, are built from ideograms representing ideas rather than sounds. Two quick strokes make a person; a few extra strokes denote a woman; two women side-by-side, hilariously, represent a quarrel. The concept of “big” is communicated by a little man, arms thrown wide, going “it’s this big!

Thus speakers of mutually unintelligible Chinese languages – Mandarin, Cantonese, Fujianese, etc. – can still communicate by scrawling characters on a piece of paper. Chinese travellers in Japan and Korea can also get along, to some degree, without knowing the local languages because hanzi (or kanji, or hanja) form part of the Japanese and Korean writing systems.

I’ve heard mixed reports as to whether Chinese languages are especially difficult for westerners to learn. I assume they are: on top of the usual challenges of learning a foreign A) vocabulary and B) grammar, you’ve also got C) a completely alien tone system and D) at a bare minimum, a few hundred non-phonetic characters to memorize.

Maybe if your goal is to become a fluent Chinese speaker you need to learn A, B, C, and D together. But I’ve often wondered if it wouldn’t be useful to disaggregate the various off-putting features of learning Chinese. Maybe you could, for instance, acquire a basic vocabulary without worrying about tones.

Consider English: every word has a stress that falls on one syllable or other, sometimes according to a predictable rule but often not. We say “AUTomobile”, “autoMOtive”, and “auTOMoton”, which is just something foreigners have to learn – but we can still understand those words if all the syllables are stressed equally, even if the result sounds funny and robotic to us.

The go-to example for the Chinese tone system is the sound “ma”, which in Mandarin can mean “mother”, “horse”, “hemp”, and “scold”, depending which tone is used. But those are pretty distinct concepts – couldn’t the listener figure out by context which is intended, the same way we do with “be” and “bee”, or “high” and “hi”?

This Mandarin language teacher pretty much concedes my point:

[B]elieve it or not, people can mostly understand when foreigners speak without tones. Why? Because of context.

But before you become tempted to take this “shortcut” yourself…don’t! It’s a big mistake! You see, even though people might still be able to understand you if you don’t use tones, it’s not accurate Chinese. And the other person may have to try much harder to catch what you’re trying to say.

You’re basically limiting yourself to “complete beginner”.

But if “complete beginner” is all you’re aiming for – why not? There are a lot of people who, like me, might be interested in acquiring just a smattering of Chinese, who would be happy to take this shortcut if they knew it existed.

Likewise, maybe it would be useful to learn Chinese characters without learning a word of Chinese. Maybe we could absorb a limited set of hanzi into our language, which we could use to communicate across language barriers not only with Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans, but with Germans, Russians, Indonesians, and so forth.

You might say, why import a bunch of antique, abstract, overly complicated ideograms from a foreign country? Why not devise a brand new set of simple, rational ideograms of our own?

Well, consider the fate of Blissymbolics, the hanzi-inspired, hyperrational universal language invented by a disillusioned Eastern European Jew during World War II. (It was introduced in a book called Semantography: A Logical Writing for an Illogical World.) Blissymbolics caught on in a limited way as a method of teaching writing to handicapped kids in Canada, and nowhere else.

blissymbolics charles bliss

From The Book to the Film “Mr. Symbol Man”, by Charles K. Bliss. Image source. You can watch Mr. Symbol Man on YouTube.

That’s how it goes with a constructed language: absent a pre-existing population of speakers and a pre-existing body of texts, there’s little reason, apart from ideological enthusiasm, to learn it. With no-one to talk to and nothing worth reading, students grow bored and chuck it over. Whereas with Chinese you can just take the bus down Kingsway and every third or fourth storefront will present a new opportunity to test your vocabulary.

If our descendants ever do wind up adopting hanzi into the English language, it won’t be through the efforts of armchair theorizers like me. Attempts to benevolently direct linguistic evolution tend to backfire. For instance, the Chinese government “simplified” their writing system in the 1950s, reducing the number of pen strokes needed to draw many common hanzi. But in Hong Kong and Taiwan they ignored these directives, so that now many readers of “simplified” Chinese have trouble reading the “traditional” forms, and vice versa. Meanwhile the Japanese adopted some, but not all, of the simplified forms. (See also.)

This reminds me of the various ineffective attempts to preserve Canada’s endangered aboriginal languages. I can appreciate that aboriginal people would like to hang onto those languages. I think it’s a laudable goal. But to take a local example, there are 14 different Coast Salish dialects on or near the southern BC / Washington coast, distributed over an area smaller than Ireland. (The modern convention is to call them “languages”, but it seems that adjacent tribes could understand one another, though more distant ones couldn’t.)

squamish language road sign

The “7” stands for the number of people who can actually read this. Image source.

Left unmolested by Europeans, a single dominant dialect would eventually have emerged – or maybe the Coast Salish would have been conquered by some other, more unified tribe and had an alien language imposed on them, as happened to the Irish.

My point being, in my imaginary Coast Salish Republic, there’d still be at least 13 dialects regrettably falling into disuse, with old-timers in the sticks grousing that their grandkids didn’t know the words to the old folk songs anymore. But Coast Salish as a whole would stand a chance of survival. It would have enough speakers to sustain newspapers, a publishing industry, radio, TV, and so on.

My further point being, if there’s any chance of preserving Coast Salish now that its surviving dialects are mumbled by a handful of codgers each – it will be by picking one. But then, how do you get the 14 or more Coast Salish-speaking communities to agree to a strategy that involves 13 of them euthanizing an essential part of their culture for the good of the rest?

M.

1. Re Peking/Beijing, Kingsley Amis grumbled in The King’s English: A Guide to Modern Usage, under the heading “Didacticism”:

[T]hat right of the English language, as of any other, to devise its own forms for foreign names is under constant erosion. Peking was an English word for centuries before it was suddenly replaced by Beijing, however you pronounce it; Ceylon has notoriously been replaced by Sri Lanka; Lyons has reverted to Lyon (Lee-on(g)) and Marseilles (pronounced Marsails) to Marseille (MarSAY, often with an attempt at the French uvular trill in the middle); Seville and Genoa have come a step nearer being pronounced in the native fashion. What about Brussels and Brussels? Ah, that I predict will go on as before. The British/English form conveniently steers between Bruxelles and Brüssel, the Walloon and Flemish versions of the name of the Belgian capital.

Mark Steyn once referred to this trend as “the reflexive multicultural cringe that automatically assumes any new, less familiar (and thus less ‘western’) name must be more ‘authentic'”.

 


Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

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