Posts Tagged 'crime'

The first draft of history is often the last.

A few days ago I discussed an Ottawa pizza waitress I identified as SL, who was fired after sharing a Snapchat video which supposedly showed her sister and her sister’s boyfriend flippantly reenacting George Floyd’s death.

That’s what the headlines alleged, anyway. SL claimed that the video merely showed the couple innocently rasslin’ on the floor, and that the George Floyd connection had never occurred to them.

I argued that the media companies that tarred these young people as racists probably ought to have actually confirmed the contents of the video before composing their inflammatory headlines, which might well dog their subjects for the rest of their lives.

Even assuming the worst about SL’s video – that it really was intended to mock and minimize George Floyd’s sad death – it was only a tasteless joke, the kind that young idiots make all the time. In a sane world they would get a stern lecture, suffer some minor punishment, and after a few months and a suitable show of contrition be accepted back into polite society.

But the internet and social media, along with the ever-mounting moral panic over racism, have made such a proportionate response impossible. There are no longer any intermediate punishments available; it’s either ignore the offense, or call down upon the offenders the full wrath of Twitter.

The media seems to have lost interest in SL’s story – just as it threatens to become interesting. Six months, a year, ten years from now, how will she make her way through life with the first page of her Google results identifying her as a racist?

We’ll never find out. SL will carry on, at a somewhat lower trajectory than before, maybe for another seventy, eighty years. But her story is over. It consists of a dozen or so news articles and blog posts, a few hundred tweets, maybe a couple thousand words of text altogether.

The first rough draft of her history has been written, and it’s unlikely to be revised.

***

Ten years ago I looked into another case that was a media sensation for a couple days. At that time I wrote,

I’m going to set myself a reminder to look into this topic again in a month. Maybe some more facts will have emerged by then.

But it slipped my mind.

The story is described in my post, “The MetaFilter sex slavery story: can anyone actually verify this?”

To quickly summarize, in the summer of 2010 two Russian girls signed up with a job placement agency that promised to arrange “cultural exchange” visas and jobs as lifeguards in the United States. When they arrived in Washington, they were told that the lifeguard positions were no longer available, and that they should instead travel to New York City, where they would be given jobs as hostesses in a nightclub.

It all sounded kind of shady, and when someone who knew the girls posted about it to the then-mighty internet forum MetaFilter, a posse quickly emerged to divert the girls from what everyone was sure was an appointment with sex traffickers. And they were successful! The girls wound up staying in the apartment of a New York MetaFilter user, while the media lit up with feel-good stories about how a bunch of selfless internet heroes had put the boot to wicked Russian mobsters.

As I wrote shortly afterward:

So far so good. The situation was clearly dodgy, and the girls had been rescued from possible peril. I awaited the follow-up investigations into the travel agency that had brought the girls to America and the bar that had attempted to hire them.

A week passed, and no follow-ups have appeared. Meanwhile this bar and this travel agency have been nationally publicized as front operations for an international sex slavery ring.

The bar was called Lux Lounge. Usually, in order to minimize my impact on the blind wanderings of the search spiders, I try to avoid using the real names of non-famous people and small businesses. In this case there’s little harm in referring to it by name because:

On June 14 [2010], Lux Lounge closed its doors. The closing came about three weeks after the [MetaFilter] saga began, and about four months after the club’s grand opening. (The Daily Beast tried to contact the former owners of Lux Lounge and also the landlord listed for the property, but never got a reply.)

That’s from a (paywalled) Daily Beast story from 2011, which seems to be the most recent mention of the case in the media. The implication is that the mobbed-up characters behind Lux Lounge slunk away into the shadows after the media shone a light on their misdeeds.

Maybe. Or maybe an innocent business was sabotaged by a gang of overwrought internet do-gooders. Or maybe it would’ve shut down anyway, because bars in that neighbourhood are failing all the time: since 2010 there have been at least four different restaurants and bars at its former address on Coney Island Avenue – Mexican, Georgian, Tajik, and most recently Moroccan.

As for Lux Lounge, the Daily Beast writer makes a big deal of the smutty flyer for its “Ass-travaganza Grand Opening” in February, 2010, featuring “a bronzed, near-naked woman wearing bright-yellow thong panties, and just one boot”:

lux lounge coney island grand opening

…And purses her lips over “the club’s Facebook page, full of photos of women in lingerie and fishnets, dollar bills stuffed into their panties.”

Okay, it’s not the kind of joint where I’d like to hang out, as evidenced further by this video of an ear-hammering performance there by a rapper named Akay Stacks in April, 2010. Seriously, turn down your volume before clicking on this.

The club was around for such a short time that after a decade there’s little surviving evidence of what it was like. In the original MetaFilter thread, a user named Bingo suggested that in lieu of lurid speculations, maybe someone should pop by the place and scope it out. Other users warned him off:

[Y]ou’re poking at the Russian Mafia. And they’re probably already aware that at least one of the authorities is watching them.

But Bingo went anyway, and in what strikes me as a pretty level-headed assessment that nevertheless enraged many of his fellow posters, he reported that,

It’s a nice, clean, fairly upscale place in a safe neighborhood. It seems to be popular with 20-something Russian kids.

It is absolutely not a strip club.
It is absolutely not a brothel. […]

Q: Does this mean that the organization(s) that brought these girls over were necessarily on the level?
A: No.

Q: Does this mean that the person who wanted to meet these girls at Cafe Lux was, de facto, an honest person, with their best interests at heart?
A: No.

…And so on. In response, another poster named Astro Zombie gathered some comments from now-defunct MySpace pages indicating that strippers and escorts were present at various events at Lux Lounge, which…look, I’m neither a member of the Junior Anti-Sex League nor an apologist for “sex work”, as we’re supposed to call it these days. But as far as I can tell, this is the closest anyone has come to producing damning evidence against Lux Lounge, and it’s pretty weak sauce.

My 2010 blog post got a comment from someone named Kim W:

Speaking as a MeFite who has been tangentially involved – one of the members who have been more closely involved is on the U.S. State Department anti-trafficking squad, and got involved very early on. There are details about the case that he CANNOT reveal because they now pertain to an ongoing investigation. That may explain why you haven’t heard any further details on the MetaFilter site – for the same reason that the police do not regularly release updates about current ongoing investigations (think about it).

But by the time the Daily Beast article came out the following year,

The police aren’t investigating. Detective Cheryl Crispin of the Deputy Commissioner’s Office in New York City says the case was closed after the two Russian women were interviewed the evening of their original arrival in New York, because they said they didn’t feel threatened at the time.

If a case was opened up at the federal level, apparently nothing came of it. We are asked to be realistic about this:

Explains Ken Franzblau, a trafficking expert who has worked with the human-rights group Equality Now and the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services: “In a perfect TV world of law enforcement, sure, the police would bust open an international trafficking ring.” But that’s not the real world, he says, where police departments are understaffed and overworked. “In this case, the D.A. and the police ensured that these two women were safe.” That, he says, is a triumph.

A triumph? If you believe, as the Daily Beast evidently does, that the girls were about to be forced or blackmailed into prostitution, then the job placement agency that brought them over was knowingly linked to brutal pimps. Both the agency and the girls’ contact in Brooklyn, a person of unknown nationality called George, felt sufficient sense of impunity to continue hassling the girls – no, battering them – after they’d blown off their meeting at Lux Lounge:

The next day, the Russian company battered the women with calls on their cell phones, telling them they were breaking a contract and threatening lawsuits that would cost their families thousands of dollars. The women were told to fly to Texas immediately for new jobs as housekeepers. Or to go to San Diego to be pedicab drivers. Details on housing arrangements were uncomfortably vague.

George called the Russian women, too, asking where they were.

This was after the girls had already been interviewed by two policemen, who left because the girls said they “didn’t feel threatened”. Did anyone pass George’s contact info on to the cops? Or how about the name and number of the dodgy job placement agency? It was still in business a year later:

The two women’s travel plans involved two separate companies in Russia: One is a regular partner of CETUSA [the nonprofit organization that sponsored the women’s visas in the U.S.] but the other company was unknown to the U.S. organization. The latter is the company the women worked closely with. When contacted by The Daily Beast, that company denied knowing George. […]

The Russian company eventually stopped calling, thanks to the efforts of Ksenya’s boyfriend, the Russian lawyer. He managed to get the company to sign a contract saying the women were free of obligation.

In mid-June, the two women flew home to Moscow, having had no luck getting jobs.

By the time someone gets around to compiling the complete history of sex trafficking in 21st century America, it’ll be pretty much impossible to locate George, or the owners of the job placement agency, or the former owners of the Lux Lounge, or the cops who interviewed the Russian girls, or anyone else who might have added some solidity to this vaporous case. So the historian will probably just copy-and-paste the first-draft version: “The Internet Rescues Two Russians From Sex Slavery”.

M.

The theme of today’s essay is reputation, a topic which interested Max Beerbohm, who attempted to reconstruct the character of an 18th century clergyman from a few lines in the Life of Samuel Johnson. I seem never to have blogged about prostitution, but I once shared my surprise at how freely Nancy Mitford threw around the word “whore”. As for Russian mobsters, I’m less bothered by the remote threat of organized crime than I am by the petty misbehaviours of the mentally deranged.

Is it getting crazier out there?

A month or so ago I witnessed an incident of bullying at my local coffeeshop which, if the ethnicity of the victim had been different – and if anyone had pulled out a phone to record the kerfuffle – might have made the national news. But the person being told to fuck off back to his own country was a white American, so it was a non-event.

The bully, a loud-mouthed, working-class white guy in his twenties, was picking on a smaller, older, better-dressed gent who was standing at the counter waiting to pay for his cappuccino. The younger guy must have noticed the greenbacks in the older guy’s wallet. Or maybe I missed some quieter words that were exchanged before the shouting began. What I heard was a tirade of astonishingly crude and dim-witted chauvinism – “Fuckin’ Americans, you think you’re so fuckin’ great, flashing your fuckin’ money like you own the fuckin’ place,” and so on – that drove the visibly shaken American right out of the shop.

After his victim had fled, the bully turned to a bystander (who, like me, had done nothing to intervene) and apologized, kind of, for his behaviour: “Sorry ’bout that. I just can’t stand fuckin’ Americans.”

As I said, a non-event. In fact it had slipped my mind until I was reminded of it the other day when, in the same coffeeshop, an aggressive panhandler barged in and went from table to table asking for money. When an employee told him to leave, he stomped past the counter and made a lunge for the tip jar, which the cashier barely snatched out of his grasp. Scowling at her, he seized a couple of brownies from a countertop display and shambled unhurriedly to the door, passing right by my table. Again I did nothing.

It got me wondering how many other incidents of low-level craziness I’d witnessed, and forgotten about, over the last couple months. No point trying to enumerate all the vagrants I’ve seen hollering or staggering around on the street. But there was at least one vagrant whose craziness was directed at me – who, when he noticed me walking behind him, turned and growled, “You followin’ me, you fuckin’ twerp?” (I was struck by “twerp” because the guy wasn’t any bigger than I am.) I ignored the provocation and luckily our paths soon diverged.

Just last week I was accosted on the SkyTrain by a gang of drunk and rowdy high school kids – an ethnically diverse and gender-integrated gang which any Hollywood casting director would be proud to assemble – one of whom showed me the fresh scrapes on his knuckles which he said he’d acquired knocking out some “nigga” a few minutes before. (This wasn’t a racial slur. He called me and all his friends “nigga”.) I disembarked at the next stop and made my way to an adjacent car.

It was some hours afterward, riding home, that I noticed a sign advising riders who felt “unsafe” to text their concerns to such-and-such a number. Had I felt unsafe? A bit. But it hadn’t occurred to me to report the rowdies. I suspect they rode around all night, making their fellow passengers uneasy, but doing nothing that would rise to the level of police attention.

***

All the above was written several weeks ago. But I hesitated to share it until I’d had a stab at addressing the objection that has surely occurred to most readers already:

Okay, Grampa, so you got spooked by a couple minor cases of thievery and public transit hooliganism. Are you aware that the crime rate has been falling for most of your adult life?

Yes, I’m aware. I thought I’d take a closer look.

The Statistics Canada website has two main crime-related stats going back to the late 1990s. First we have the Uniform Crime Reporting System, or UCR, which covers all criminal incidents reported to and “substantiated by” Canadian police agencies. It shows no particular pattern up to around 2004-05, then a steady, decadelong drop, stabilizing in the mid-2010s around 40% below the late 1990s level.

The crime rate varies quite a bit from province to province, but the trend is consistent. Here’s how it looks in British Columbia:

british columbia property crime rate 1998-2018

Property crime in BC, 1998-2018. Data and sources.

british columbia violent crime rate 1998-2018

Violent crime in BC, 1998-2018. Data and sources.

Another way to measure crime is to call people up randomly and ask them, “So, experienced any crime lately?” This is the method used by the General Social Survey, or GSS, conducted by Statistics Canada every five years. As you’d expect, it picks up a whole lot of incidents that never get reported to police. (Why don’t they get reported? We’ll come back to that shortly.)

Unfortunately, the GSS only asks about certain categories of crime, and it aggregates them a little differently than the UCR, so the results aren’t directly comparable. But the overall trend is similar, if slightly delayed: stable from 1999 through 2009, then a big drop for the 2014 survey. Here’s my province again:

british columbia self-reported property crime rate 1999-2014

Self-reported property crime in BC, 1999-2014. Data and sources.

british columbia self-reported violent crime rate 1999-2014

Self-reported violent crime in BC, 1999-2014. Data and sources.

My Canadian readers might have noted that that ten-year decline in the violent crime rate matches up suspiciously well with the decade, 2006-15, when the Conservative Party under Stephen Harper was in power.

I know the progressive consensus is that tough-on-crime policies have no conceivable bearing on the behaviour of criminals, except to breed more crime by subjecting innocent poor folks to the dehumanizing scrutiny of the justice system. But comparing the graphs above with the incarceration rate over the last twenty years, there seems to be a correlation between “more prisoners” and “less crime”:

canada incarceration rate 1998-2018

Canadian incarceration rate, 1998-2018. Data and sources.

Is the correlation meaningful? You don’t have to be so crude as to imagine that criminals might respond to the threat of longer sentences by cutting back on their illegal activities. Let’s stipulate that there’s no such thing as “criminals”, only (as the euphemism has it) Justice-Involved Individuals who, through no fault of their own, somehow wind up on the wrong side of the law.

As the progressive consensus would point out, and as common sense would concede, the Justice-Involved are disproportionately poor, beset with addiction and mental issues, or disadvantaged in some way.

With more of those unlucky folks locked away in prison, there are fewer of them out on the streets offending quaint old fusspots like me with their liberated manners and relaxed views about property rights. Hence, lower crime rates.

The increase in the incarceration rate through the Harper years might explain why one subcategory of violent crime went up over the same period:

british columbia assaults on peace officers rate 1998-2018

Assaults on peace officers in BC, 1998-2018. Data and sources.

The same hard-ass mentality that led to an increase in the prison population must have meant more cops stopping suspicious people on the street, more charges laid, more trips to and from court, more overcrowded prisons – more interactions, hence more opportunities for violence, between the Justice-Involved and the agents of the justice system.

The trouble with attributing the decline in crime to the stern wisdom of Stephen Harper is that the property crime rate appears to have been dropping already before he took office, and begun creeping upward again several years before the reversal could be plausibly attributed to the return of Justin Trudeau’s squishy-on-crime Liberals.

For a reality check, here’s what the incarceration rate looked like in the United States over the same period:

united states incarceration rate 2000-2016

U.S. incarceration rate, 2000-2016. Data and sources.

As in Canada, a change of government – Obama’s inauguration in 2009 – heralded a reduction of the prison population. But down there, the change didn’t have any obvious impact on the crime rate, which went on falling, albeit with a slight reversal in violent crime (but not property crime) beginning in 2015:

united states property crime rate 1999-2018

Property crimes in the USA, 1999-2018. Data and sources.

united states violent crime rate 1999-2018

Violent crimes in the USA, 1999-2018. Data and sources.

It may be that, with our cultures and economies so closely linked, Canada’s crime rate simply echoes America’s, whoever is running things in Ottawa.

So why the drop in crime?

People who’ve spent their whole lives studying the justice system can’t agree on an answer to that question. I don’t suppose I’m going to crack it based on a couple days of half-assed research.

My theory – which is not original – is that the share of the population in the high-crime demographic of 15-to-24-year-old males has gone down, while at the same time greater obesity, readily available marijuana, and immersive video games have made young men less interested in spending time on the streets where they have the chance to get into trouble.

In years past, those teenage rowdies I met riding around on the SkyTrain would eventually have run into another gang of rowdies and the resulting fracas might have come to the attention of the police. But their opportunities for mischief were limited by the fact that most kids their age were at home dissipating their aggression in Fortnite.

***

Speaking of SkyTrain rowdies, I witnessed at least one incident within the last couple months that probably did generate a police report – a fight that broke out at the far end of an overcrowded SkyTrain car. I didn’t get a clear view of what happened, but when we pulled into the next station security had to clear everyone out so the pool of blood could be mopped up. It was a surprising amount of blood.

I’ve seen a lot of crazy stuff while riding the SkyTrain. But prior to this, the last time I’d seen a fight – an actual, physical fight, with punches thrown – was way back in the 1990s, near the high point on all these crime rate graphs.

According to the graphs, I was substantially less safe back then than I am now. But it didn’t feel that way. Perhaps after twenty-odd years I’ve simply forgotten all the instances of rudeness, rowdiness, and public disorder that I must have witnessed in the months surrounding that earlier SkyTrain fight. Perhaps such events were so routine that they barely registered. But I don’t think so.

Even if I could reconstruct my impressions of that era – if I’d kept a diary, say – what would it prove? I lived in a totally different part of the city back then. (And I lived in a totally different province for many years in between.) If I’ve noticed an uptick in craziness lately, it may be merely the effect of relocating from a one-percent-crazy to a two-percent-crazy neighbourhood. There may have been a net increase in sanity citywide, and I’ve just had the bad luck to wind up in an area of concentrated craziness.

Or maybe the change is in me. I was in my late teens, early twenties in the 1990s. It wouldn’t be wholly inaccurate to say that at that age I approved of rudeness, rowdiness, and public disorder. (As illustrated by the tour de force of teenage snottiness transcribed here.) At any rate I wasn’t as bothered by them as I am now.

Craziness could be on the decline, and I’ve failed to notice because my uptightness is simultaneously on the ascent.

***

Looking at that graph of assaults on peace officers, I suggested that such offenses might have gone up in the Harper era because cops and prosecutors were more proactively arresting and imprisoning criminals. But that explanation can be spun two ways:

  1. When criminals spend more time in or on their way to prison, a relatively small number of cops, sheriffs, and prison guards bear the brunt of their antisocial impulses, which would otherwise be diffused throughout the wider population. The graph reflects an increase in actual incidences of violence against peace officers.
  2. Or maybe, knowing that the tough-on-crime Tories would have their backs, peace officers became more likely to press charges over minor scuffles that they previously would have shrugged off. The level of violence hasn’t changed, but the threshold for defining an incident as a crime has dropped.

In an earlier I essay I referred to the story told by former B.C. premier Christy Clark, who as a fourteen year old in the 1970s was accosted by a pervert who tried to drag her into the bushes. Wriggling free, she ran off and carried on with her day, never reporting the attack. She believed – wrongly, I think – that no grown-up would take her complaint seriously. I doubt a teenage girl today would come to that conclusion.

I’ve also mentioned how in junior high school a few of my dimwit friends vandalized some playground equipment with, among other half-understood symbols of rebellion, the letters KKK. These days a police investigation would be launched.

The conservative blogger Rod Dreher shared an email a while back from an unnamed reader, a university professor, describing how his students have begun elevating classroom disagreements into criminal complaints:

Last semester, I had to deal with cops three times because my students are reporting each other to the police over threatening behavior in the classroom. “How would you describe the incident?” “There was no incident I am aware of”. Was the violent encounter a glance, a raised eyebrow, a corroboration/correction of somebody else’s statement? Who knows? The cops are nonplussed by this. They are getting dozens of anonymous reports like this a week.

The above anecdotes would tend to suggest a lowering of the threshold, in recent years, of what ordinary people consider important enough to justify hassling the police.

But they’re only anecdotes. According to the GSS, Canadians have become slightly less likely, over the last twenty years, to call the cops when they’ve been victimized:

canada percentage of crimes reported to police, 1999-2014

Source: “Criminal Victimization in Canada, 2014”, Table 1 and Table 9.

The most common reasons people gave for not reporting an incident were “Crime was minor and not worth taking the time to report” and “Police wouldn’t have considered the incident important enough”. “No-one was harmed” and “Incident was a private or personal matter” also scored high.

If the threshold for “police-report-worthiness” has risen slightly, so that more crimes are going unreported, that could be another factor explaining the decline in police-recorded crime.

On the other hand, maybe it’s the threshold for “survey-worthiness” that has fallen. In this case, previously unrecognized crimes – which might not have been considered crimes in the 1990s – are raised to the attention of the Statistics Canada survey-givers, while remaining below the threshold of police-report-worthiness.

The decline in crime would then be even more dramatic than the survey results indicate. If we were to subtract all the newly elevated crimes – shoving matches, barroom ass-grabbings, offensive comments, all recategorized by cultural consensus as “assaults” – we might realize that we’re sheltered from violence and disorder to an unprecedented degree. It’s this very lack of day-to-day danger that makes us freak out over incidents our grandparents would have laughed off.

Hence I felt unsafe encountering a handful of mildly rowdy kids on the SkyTrain – an encounter a 1980s New York subway rider would scarcely have noticed.

I don’t know. I really don’t know.

***

I’m not exactly the first to discover that when comparing crime rates year-to-year, or jurisdiction-to-jurisdiction, the comparisons can be skewed by variations in police behaviour, media attention, cultural awareness, and a dozen other things I haven’t thought of.

Partly because these complications are dimly known to everyone, and partly because we’re naturally excited by rare but sensational crimes, the media tend to use the murder rate as a crude proxy for the overall crime rate. Murder, of course, is the one crime that pretty much always gets reported and investigated.

Here in British Columbia murder is so infrequent that the numbers tend to jump up and down from year to year, making for a spiky graph. But the general trend is encouraging:

british columbia homicide rate 1998-2018

Murders in BC, 1998-2018. Data and sources.

Presumably the main factor affecting the murder rate is how often people try to murder each other. If there are fewer murders, it’s reasonable to conclude that people have become less violence-prone.

But the murder rate will also vary according to the quality and promptness of medical treatment. Better trauma care reduces some murders to assaults, while delayed treatment elevates some assaults to murders.

Here in Vancouver there’s been concern lately over slower ambulance response times. But this was the side effect of a decision a few years back to redirect resources toward the most urgent calls. While lower-priority cases are waiting longer, the most severe emergencies are treated a little more quickly than before – impressive, considering the ever-worsening traffic snarls ambulances have to weave through.

Moreover, with everyone having a phone in their pocket these days, most emergencies are now called in almost immediately. The spread of cell phones between, say, 1990 and 2010, from rich wanker accessories to bare-level essentials for participation in modern life, probably reduced overall wait times for medical treatment. This may have contributed to the drop in violent deaths.

Certain public safety measures might also reduce murders without altering the underlying propensity to commit violence. If it’s harder to get a gun, criminals might resort to stabbing or clubbing each other, resulting in a higher survival rate and lower homicide rate.

Since the prospect of a near-fatal clubbing is, if anything, more terrifying than the prospect of a quick death by gunshot, I don’t find such improvements all that comforting.

With the above factors in mind, I wonder if we could create a more meaningful statistic for worrywarts by combining homicides, attempted homicides, and the most severe or aggravated levels of assault and sexual assault into a single “scariness index”.

(By the way, “aggravated” doesn’t mean – as I supposed until embarrassingly recently – that the assault is punished more lightly because the victim did something to aggravate his or her assailant. In the Canadian criminal code an aggravated assault is one that “wounds, maims, disfigures or endangers the life” of the victim – or, to put it another way, one that might just as easily have been a murder.)

british columbia most severe violent crime rate 1998-2018

BC “scariness index” – most severe violent crimes, 1998-2018. Data and sources.

Aggregating the most severe offenses this way, the scariness level doesn’t seem to have dropped much since my youth. But my index could be misleading since it’s driven mainly by that unexplained bulge in incidents of aggravated assault, cresting in 2010. Even now the aggravated assault rate is at or above late 1990s levels.

Since aggravated assaults seem to have waxed and waned in concert with assaults on peace officers, the bulge might have been a consequence of more aggressive charging, rather than an increase in violence. Or maybe there was a wave of vicious beatings that escaped my attention. Who knows.

As for the murder rate, I don’t pay it much mind. Around here most of the murders seem to consist of rival gang members assassinating each other. (They don’t have any trouble getting hold of handguns.) Occasionally an innocent bystander gets gunned down, but for law-abiding people the risk of death is low.

I worry more about random loonies like this fentanyl-crazed idiot who crushed an old lady’s skull with a garden ornament in the course of robbing her apartment. He got eighteen years.

Or this guy, who hacked a couple to death with a hatchet for no reason at all. His defense is that he was overstimulated by video games.

I have a hard time imagining a connection between drive-by gang shootings and mentally unbalanced vagrants disrupting the peace of coffeeshops.

But that a rise in the number of mentally unbalanced vagrants might portend a rise in the number of mentally unbalanced hatchet murderers seems worryingly plausible.

M.

Regular readers might be forgiven for thinking I spend all my time at the neighbourhood coffeeshop. That establishment has turned up in my ruminations on the usefulness of stereotypes, on the “stigma” of drug addiction, and on the irresistible collapse of modern manners. I mention the difficulty of measuring the crime rate in this essay on immigration and crime – and, yup, the coffeeshop makes an appearance.

Astigmatisn’t.

On visits to my local coffeeshop I like to sit outside, to enjoy the fresh air and to escape the obnoxious pop soundtrack.

The downside of sitting on the patio is that you’re exposed to the nuisance of passing cigarette smokers, noisy motorbikes, and muttering headcases. The last are harmless enough, but they can be scary as they tromp past, eyes downward, zigzagging unpredictably and cursing at invisible enemies. Occasionally they glance around, and if their eyes catch yours you might be drafted temporarily into their gallery of devils.

Not long ago I made the mistake of failing to ignore a pair of filthy sweatpant-clad legs that shuffled to a stop alongside my table. Looking up from my newspaper I saw that the sweatpants belonged to a vagrant of unusually revolting appearance who, until he felt my eyes on him, hadn’t been aware of me at all. He asked if he could join me, though there were empty tables nearby.

My instinct was to call for a policeman to turn a high-pressure hose on this creature and sluice him down the street and out of my sight. As a civilized person, I obligingly pushed out a chair.

He introduced himself as – I can’t remember – let’s call him Joe. He had stringy grey hair and a pockmarked face and looked about seventy but may have been scarcely older than me. Some combination of drugs and booze had addled his mind until his speech was a half-coherent rasp of mumbles and fucks. He wore headphones and carried a ratty knapsack which he lowered into an empty chair and a paper Starbucks gift bag which he dropped on the table and which, I pointed out politely, appeared to be leaking. He blinked at it but made no attempt to arrest the leak, which slowly spread across the table’s surface. I shifted position to keep my elbow clear of the unknown liquid.

***

This was back when the weather was still nice, just before the launch of the recent Canadian election campaign. Around the same time, I came across this editorial in the Vancouver Sun:

We must make drug decriminalization a federal election issue
By Dr. Derek Chang

As an addiction-medicine physician, I work regularly with patients who suffer from the illness of addiction. Over the years, I observed two important things. First, addiction doesn’t discriminate. I have worked with patients in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. I have also treated many who were established professionals: professors, lawyers, accountants and doctors, to name a few. They were men and women, gay and straight, Indigenous and Caucasian, Christian and Muslim, etc. Addiction can affect anyone, just like any other chronic illness.

The other thing I observed was that addiction does not kill a person on its own. Stigma does. Insite, the first supervised injection site in Canada, is the proof. Since its opening more than a decade ago, zero fatal overdoses occurred in that facility even after the overdose crisis started.

Anyone watching me read this would have suspected, from the way my eyes kept rolling back into my head, that I too was suffering from “the illness of addiction”. But the fact that an opinion is clotted with trendy jargon doesn’t make it untrue. Maybe decriminalizing hard drugs would, as Dr. Chang contends, bring some relief to the denizens of the urine-reeking, syringe-littered alleys of the Downtown Eastside.

Consider Insite, the “safe injection facility” lauded by Dr. Chang. In Vancouver you can bring your illegal drugs to a discreetly marked storefront on Hastings Street and shoot up under sanitary conditions with a team of trained medics standing by to prevent your act of temporary self-obliteration from tipping into permanency.

A scroll through Insite’s Google reviews is illuminating. This slumming out-of-towner may or may not be for real – the morbid joke in the final paragraph makes me suspect the work of a subtle satirist – but the details match up with what can be found elsewhere:

God bless Canada! This place really made my vacation. First of all its easily accessible from the light rail, it is a short walk from the waterfront station (most people don’t pay for the light rail, so don’t be a chump) … Once you get within a one to two block radius of Insite you probably want to score your drugs. I chose to go on a heroin bender while I was there. And you should have little trouble finding what you want just ask someone who looks high …

Just knock and they should buzz you in. Now from what I understand once you have made it inside you will not be busted at all. And even outside you have to try pretty hard to get hassled. I’ve seen people passed out with the tourniquet on and the needle in their arm still and the cops did nothing. …

Once at your booth you should know what your doing. But if you don’t that’s OK the staff is there to help, the nurses can do everything except push the plunger down. That’s means they’ll cook, tourniquet you, find a vein, draw back Blood, but it is up to you to do the deed. Then the world will melt around you.

This is a good time to go to the chill room. A. They serve juice, coffee, and snacks, and B. This opens a booth up for the next person. Dispose of your waste and sharps/hypos accordingly. You will still be observed for ODing in the chill room, I seen multiple people get oxygen or taken out by paramedics. Once you feel fine you can leave whenever you would like. I enjoyed it so much I literally got sick when I stopped going. Vancouver is awesome and this is the only place like it in north America. I highly recommend crossing it off your bucket list.

Another reviewer mentions that there’s also an after-hours number “for mobile nurses who will drive to you and drop off any supplies.” This mobile needle delivery service, like all the services described above, is of course provided absolutely free of charge.

Also worth skimming is this 2012 master’s thesis by Jennifer Vishloff, “Striving for Connection: A Phenomenological Examination of Nurses’ Experience Supervising the Injection of Illicit Drugs”. [1]

It’s impossible to come away unimpressed by the bravery and compassion of the Insite nurses, mostly female, that Vishloff interviewed. It’s equally hard not to notice the cultishness of their devotion to the philosophy of harm reduction, which asks them to believe that they are “providing medical care” to their patients as they help them inject unknown concentrations of potentially deadly chemicals into their bloodstream.

One nurse recalls her early experiences providing such care:

It’s a little, kind of scary with the fact that you don’t want to mess it up because you know that people have spent a lot of their day and money and time and effort to get what they’re injecting, like their drugs. So you just don’t want them to like spill it, or you don’t want them to miss their shot, so there’s that pressure when you initially start working there.

Another describes her satisfaction in helping educate a user about safe injection practices, an act Vishloff characterizes as “empowering”:

They just go, “Wow, that worked!” And you’re like “Yeah! Try and do that next time. You can do it on your own, if you have trouble ask for my help again.” And they haven’t asked for help since. And it’s just, being able to have that kind of impact and provide that independence to people.

“The excitement [the nurse] shared,” Vishloff chirpily observes, “is in response to bringing something valuable to her client’s life.”

I assume that Vishloff’s interviewees would agree with Dr. Chang that “addiction does not kill a person on its own. Stigma does.” And it’s unquestionably true that through Insite’s efforts, hundreds of drug users are alive today who would otherwise not be.

What’s harder to quantify is how many people who would otherwise be leading happier lives have ended up as mumbling vagrants because fearless, compassionate advocates like the nurses of Insite have helped destigmatize drug use.

***

It eventually became apparent that Joe had sat down in order to change the batteries in his Discman. The operation took over twenty minutes as he kept forgetting what he was doing, stopping now to light a cigarette, now to harass some customers at another table, now to untie his sweatpants and piss against the wall in the doorway of an adjacent drugstore.

Finally he returned and rummaged in his knapsack, removing four crumpled beer cans and tossing them to the ground one by one, until he found a pack of fresh AAs. The dead batteries soon joined the beer cans under the table.

As Joe gathered his things to go, his sodden Starbucks gift bag gave way, and the source of the mysterious leak – a plastic cup half-full of water – splashed to the ground. He left the cup and the busted bag among his other litter and shuffled away without a farewell.

I sat feeling conspicuous among Joe’s trash. When it came time to leave, I resignedly gathered it all up and carried it to the bin along with my own.

As I hope is clear, I’m not without sympathy for Joe. I’m less confident than you might think that I could never end up living as he does. He may have been deprived of certain advantages that I’ve enjoyed; or he may merely be somewhat further along in the squandering of his advantages.

At some point he began pissing in doorways because business owners wouldn’t let him use their bathrooms, for the very sensible reason that once he got in there, they couldn’t be sure he’d leave. Now he pisses in doorways because no-one is bold enough to tell him not to.

I suppose it’s fair to say Joe is stigmatized. Go ahead, let him use your bathroom.

***

I’m not crass enough to say “destigmatization kills”. I leave such shallow sloganeering to politicians and Vancouver Sun editorialists. While I’m pretty sure there’s a correlation between the decline of the addiction stigma and the growth of addiction, I wouldn’t presume to say that the first factor is the cause of the second.

But it’s easy enough to imagine a scenario where the two trends are mutually reinforcing. With more addiction around, we’re likelier to have personal knowledge of its effects – either because we’ve suffered them ourselves, or because a friend or family member has – making it harder for us to sustain crude generalizations about the moral unworthiness of addicts.

Meanwhile the weakening of the stigma means people who would otherwise have been scared off from experimenting with drugs are willing to give them a go. Which leads to more addiction, more addicts, and more wishy-washy thinking from the rest of us that our friends and family members aren’t really responsible for the consequences of their terrible decisions.

This wishy-washiness, which is just as crude in its own way as the stigmatization that it has supplanted, filters up to professionals like Dr. Chang who pretend that it is the ever-less potent stigmatization, and not the ever-more potent drugs, that is killing addicts.

I have a simpler theory for why drug addiction is on the rise. As I argued last year in an essay about the impossibility of permanently defeating terrorism:

The perpetrators keep innovating cheaper and easier methods of mass destruction; every innovation, once introduced, becomes part of the permanent repertoire.

Likewise, every new drug, once invented, is added to an ever-expanding repertoire. Alcohol and opium date to prehistoric times; heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine to the 19th century; LSD to 1938; carfentanyl to 1974. Chemists are continually tweaking the formulas of these and countless other drugs to make them more potent and cheaper to produce.

Therefore, all else staying constant – “all else” embracing such minor details as law enforcement, the justice system, and the culture – we should expect addiction to increase year over year, as the drug peddlers keep discovering better ways to hook us.

Law enforcement agencies, in their turn, are continually innovating new tactics – though their adoption is hindered by the innate creakiness of big bureaucracies. But the emerging progressive consensus aims to rule out certain avenues of enforcement altogether. We should decriminalize drug possession, we’re told, and at the same time forego incarcerating non-violent dealers. In other words, remove or neuter all statutory obstacles to the spread of drugs.

Meanwhile, on the cultural side, we are instructed to regard addiction exactly as we regard psoriasis or kidneystones – as a matter of pure bad luck, for which the sufferer bears no blame.

As for the externalized costs of addiction – the measurable costs of sanitation, policing, health care, and housing, and the immeasurable ones of ugliness, anxiety, and petty irritation – we should pay up, and smile. To complain would be to contribute to the stigma which, as Dr. Chang has medically established, is more deadly than the disease itself.

***

It’s getting chilly. The other day on my visit to the coffeeshop I perched on a stool by the window, overlooking the passing crowd. I noticed a scruffy-looking guy had climbed over the railing of the patio and was using a metal implement to peel long strips of bark off a tree. Some mentally disturbed junkie, I thought.

Then my anti-stigmatization reflexes kicked in. How do I know what he’s up to? Maybe he’s an off-duty arborist who detected signs of disease in the bark, which he has taken it upon himself to remove.

I considered stepping outside to ask the guy what he was doing but – look, there were any number of ways that encounter could have gone badly, okay? I buried my nose in my newspaper.

By the time I finished my coffee there was a sizable heap of kindling at the guy’s feet. Pedestrians streamed by, paying the tree abuser no mind. I joined the flow.

It’s a beautiful tree. In the summer it provides shade for the patio and a refuge for the sparrows that hop charmingly among the tables, scavenging for crumbs. It would be a shame if it were seriously wounded. But who am I to interfere with a stranger’s pleasures?

M.

1. I found my way to Vishloff’s thesis by way of Tristin Hopper’s op-ed in the National Post, “Vancouver’s drug strategy has been a disaster. Be very wary of emulating it.”

Selective indignation.

Part I of The Immigration Heresies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

male smoking rate by country 2008

Source: Wikipedia

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

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

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

Which brings me to Maxime Bernier.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

anti-defamation league global 100 results 2014

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

protester marrisa shen murder trial

Image source: Global News

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet somehow that explanation too seems a little off.

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

M.

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

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

The Gell-Mann Amnesiac’s guide to Canadian penal statistics.

Earlier today I was doing some research for an essay I’ve been working on. I was trying to answer what I thought was a straightforward question: what percentage of Canadians have served time in prison?

Turns out it’s not that easy a question after all. (If you happen to know the answer, I encourage you to leave a link in the comments.)

As a starting point I took the dummy route and simply typed into Google.ca the phrase, “Percentage of Canadians who’ve been in prison”.

The #2 result was a page from Statistics Canada – a pretty dependable source – and while it doesn’t quite answer my question, it does at least tell me roughly how many adult Canadians are in prison right now. Here are the daily average prison populations for the year 2014-15:

Remand: 13,650
Sentenced (provinces and territories): 10,364
Sentenced (federal): 15,168
Total: 39,182

I had to extract these numbers from a somewhat confusing table, and they require a little glossing:

“Remand” means that the prisoner is being held awaiting trial. (In the United States, the phrase “pre-trial detention” is more typically used.) These prisoners are in the custody of the provincial or territorial justice systems.

Upon conviction, prisoners sentenced to any term under two years will remain in the provincial or territorial system, while those sentenced to two years or more will be transferred to a federal prison. (Hence a term of “two years less a day” is common in Canadian sentencing.)

As you can see from the above numbers, within the provincial system, in 2014-15 more prisoners were in remand than had been convicted of any crime. But in the justice system overall, unconvicted prisoners were about 35% of the total.

(The 2015-16 stats are also available, showing that the share of prisoners in remand has since risen to over 37%.)

Going back to my internet search, the #6 result was a 2015 editorial from the Globe and Mail – Canada’s equivalent of the New York Times – with this headline:

Most of Canada’s prisoners have never been convicted of anything. Why are they in jail?

The second paragraph proclaims that:

Across the country, 55 per cent of prisoners in provincial and territorial jails are not behind bars because of a conviction.

And the editorial ends with the question:

Is there a politician in Canada with the courage to take up the cause? Someone who won’t pander to fears whipped up by the tough-on-crime crowd, but will instead build a better system based on evidence, enlightened self-interest and a genuine respect for the right to liberty? Or will we continue to be a country where two out of three people behind bars haven’t been convicted of anything?

There’s no explanation, by the way, for how the anonymous editorialist managed to get from 55% at the top of the page to “two out of three” at the bottom.

In any case, neither the headline nor the closing peroration is in any conceivable sense accurate. And the second paragraph, while technically true, leaves out the important information – probably unknown to the majority of readers – that there are separate federal and provincial jail systems. With federal prisons included, “most” Canadian prisoners – in 2014-15, just under two out of three – have indeed been convicted of something.

I read this deceptive editorial in “Canada’s newspaper of record” and shook my head. “Well, that’s why I buy the National Post,” I thought, resuming my research.

Oh, wait:

More than half of Canadian adults in jail awaiting trial rather than serving sentences in 2014 and 2015: StatsCan

For over a decade, jails across Canada have held more adults awaiting trial than convicted offenders serving sentences…

Thus begins the National Post’s version of the same story. Once again, the lede is technically true – but the phrase “jails across Canada” misleadingly neglects to mention the difference between provincial and federal prisons.

At least – small comfort – the very final paragraph of the Post’s article acknowledges that:

The numbers do not include the approximately 15,168 prisoners who were serving sentences of two years or more in federal custody over the same period.

***

At a talk he gave in 2002, author Michael Crichton introduced the concept of Gell-Mann Amnesia (named in honour of his friend, physicist Murray Gell-Mann, with whom he had formulated the idea):

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward – reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

That is the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. I’d point out it does not operate in other arenas of life. In ordinary life, if somebody consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you soon discount everything they say. In court, there is the legal doctrine of falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, which means untruthful in one part, untruthful in all. But when it comes to the media, we believe against evidence that it is probably worth our time to read other parts of the paper. When, in fact, it almost certainly isn’t. The only possible explanation for our behavior is amnesia.

Unlike Murray Gell-Mann on physics, or Michael Crichton on showbiz, I’m not an expert on the Canadian penal system. If I hadn’t happened to be researching the subject when I came across these articles, I would have assumed their numbers were accurate. Our most respected national news sources wouldn’t lie to us, would they?

But what’s particularly galling about these misleading articles is that the number of people in Canadian jails is pretty easy to count. There is little argument about what constitutes a “prison” or a “prisoner”. Accurate figures aren’t hard to find – they’ve been made available on the internet by our government. The National Post article actually links to the Statistics Canada website that was my source for the table above.

If our national media can make such a hash of readily calculated, easily accessible statistics, how badly are they scrambling the statistics that aren’t so easy to pin down?

And what about me? The next time I read an op-ed piece confidently quoting reams of numbers at me – will I remember this incident?

M.

The MetaFilter sex slavery story: can anyone actually verify this?

Last week a bunch of bloggers linked to this now-famous Ask MetaFilter thread where a guy enlisted the online community to help him save two Russian friends from “a dangerous situation”.

The young women had paid a travel agency 3000 bucks to set them up with jobs on their arrival in Washington, DC. The job placements failed to appear and they were redirected to a late-night meeting at a bar in New York, where they were promised “hostessing” jobs.

A commenter named nadawi summed up what everyone was probably thinking:

if they get to nyc tomorrow, they are signing up to be prostitutes. they will get their passports taken, they will probably be beaten, and the only way to get out will be to die or to become too old to be of use to them anymore.

After much discussion, a MetaFilter user agreed to meet the girls at the bus station in NYC and talk them out of going to the bar. The intervention was successful, and as of last Friday the girls were housed snugly in the apartment of the MetaFilter samaritan.

So far so good. The situation was clearly dodgy, and the girls had been rescued from possible peril. I awaited the follow-up investigations into the travel agency that had brought the girls to America and the bar that had attempted to hire them.

A week passed, and no follow-ups have appeared. Meanwhile this bar and this travel agency have been nationally publicized as front operations for an international sex slavery ring.

Clearly if they are front operations someone should shut them down. But maybe they’re not. Maybe they’re just ill-organized immigrant-run businesses. Maybe the travel agency found itself unable to deliver on the jobs it had promised, and called in a favour from the friends or relatives who ran the NYC bar. Maybe the meeting was scheduled for the middle of the night because, you know, it’s a nightclub, and the manager wouldn’t be around earlier in the evening.

I can’t say whether this is true or untrue. But after confidently blaring headlines like MetaFilter Saved My Pals From Sex Traffickers and The Internet Rescues Two Russians From Sex Slavery, I would like to see bloggers and news organizations invest some effort into verifying the calumnies they’ve directed against these business owners.

But my suspicion is that the story will quietly fall into obscurity. It’s too good to fact-check.

***

I’m about as remote from the world of human trafficking as a person can be. I have no idea how often immigrant girls in New York are really stripped of their passports, beaten, and forced into prostitution. Sex slavery, like serial murder or child abduction or snuff filmmaking, is such a lurid and exotic crime that it overwhelms the imagination. Our grown-up cynicism disappears and we become children, listening in fascination to stories of witches and bogeymen.

Some crimes at least are susceptible to statistical analysis. We can calculate the real risk of having your kid abducted by a stranger; we can add up the number of annual axe murders. “Sex trafficking” is a fuzzy concept by definition – it encompasses gradations of coercion and consent that are impossible for outsiders to suss out. It can be stretched to include any prostitute who crosses an international border. And of course, we can only count the sex trafficking rings that are successfully broken up by police. This means that people are free to make up statistics:

In the run-up to the 2006 World Cup in Germany, some British journalists reported that thousands of women from across the world were going to be trafficked into Germany to work as sex slaves for football fans. The Independent reported that Germany was about to experience a “sex explosion”. In the Guardian, Julie Bindel said “Germany’s pimps are casting their eyes on poverty-stricken countries… in their search for women for the Cup”. As it turned out, German police uncovered just five cases of “human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation” during the World Cup – and one of the victims was a German. This did not stop Mary Honeyball from claiming two weeks ago that “thousands of prostitutes were drawn to Germany during the last World Cup” and that “trafficking is on the rise in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics, which like all other international sporting events is predicted to effect a steep rise in prostitution”.

In the case of the MetaFilter story, precaution surely justified the effort that went into diverting these girls from their rendezvous at the bar. Whether or not the meeting was dangerous, it certainly sounded dangerous. But note how quickly the story changed from “We have to protect these girls from a sketchy situation” to “We have rescued these girls from a life of sex slavery.”

On a separate MetaFilter thread, when a commenter named bingo made the sensible offer to swing by the bar in question and check it out, other commenters immediately disparaged the plan on the grounds that,

[Y]ou’re poking at the Russian Mafia. And they’re probably already aware that at least one of the authorities is watching them.

Bingo made the trip anyway and wound up having a drink at the bar in question. He described it as “a nice, clean, fairly upscale place in a safe neighborhood.” He went on to point out:

A place of business with a previously small online footprint will soon have this thread associated with it as a primary search result.

***

As far as I can tell, the most complete listing of resources on what MetaFilter users have dubbed “The Russian Incident” can be found on this Wiki page.

I’m going to set myself a reminder to look into this topic again in a month. Maybe some more facts will have emerged by then. In the meantime if anyone happens by who can point to actual evidence – as distinct from speculation – that the businesses in question are involved in sex trafficking, that would be great. Or actually, I guess it would be awful. Anyway, it would be helpful to know, one way or the other.

M.

Update, June 1 2010: Somehow in my initial browsing of this story I overlooked this blog post by Mike Cohn, AKA bingo, the guy whose skeptical take on the proceedings upset so many MetaFilterites. Definitely worth reading for the splash-of-cold-water perspective.

Update, June 7 2010: Re-linked Mary Honeyball’s name (in the Spiked article quoted above) to the Guardian editorial where her comment appeared. Previously the link pointed to her blog, which is here.

Update, June 24 2020: Ten years later, a superficially similar media rush-to-judgement reminded me to look into this old story again: “The first draft of history is often the last”.


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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