Posts Tagged 'diversity'

Managing diversity.

Part IV of The Immigration Heresies.

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

percent foreign born canada usa uk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

M.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Phase transitions.

Part III of The Immigration Heresies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

In consequence, these writers argued, American culture offered

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

Trilling observes however that

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

foreign born canada 1871-2011

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

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

canada immigrants rural vs. urban 1921

Click image for data.

canada immigrants cities 2016

Click image for data.

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

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

M.

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

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.

Movie bad guys, by the numbers.

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

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

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

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

I attempted to define the parameters of the experiment:

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

I threw out all documentaries and animated movies.

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

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

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

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

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

war movies wwii versus gwot 2007-2016

Click for PDF.

Movies marked red take place primarily in a war zone.

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

Movies marked orange could have gone either way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

M.

Because. That. Happens.

In Robert Altman’s Hollywood satire The Player, Richard E. Grant’s pretentious screenwriter runs into the titular studio exec and seizes the opportunity to pitch a script. It’s a crazy melodrama about a district attorney who falls in love with the woman he prosecuted for murder, only to discover on the night of her execution that she’s actually innocent:

“The D.A. breaks into the prison. Runs down death row. But he gets there too late. The gas pellets have been dropped. She’s dead.”

robbins grant stockwell the player

Tim Robbins, Richard E. Grant, and Dean Stockwell in The Player.
Screen capture by Alchetron.com

The screenwriter insists that the film be cast with unknown actors, because his story is “too damned important to be overwhelmed by personality.” He’s going for gritty European-style realism here. “There are no stars. No pat happy endings. No Schwarzeneggers, no stick-ups, no terrorists. This is a tough story. A tragedy. In which an innocent woman dies. Why? Because. That. Happens.”

I thought of that line a few nights ago while watching, of all things, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the teen drama about a high school dork who (spoiler) angers the male portion of the audience by losing his virginity to Emma Watson. The hero is a typical brainy introvert who’s picked on by the meatheads until he falls in with a gang of proto-hipsters who do stuff like host live performances of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and publish zines about punk rock. I guess it’s mandatory that the hero have a tragic past, so they give him a best friend who committed suicide – which is alright, I guess – it explains why the cool kids feel sorry for him and take him in. But then at the end we learn (another spoiler) that as a child he was sexually molested by his aunt.

I found this twist plenty annoying. The movie captures the head rush of high school angst pretty well, even if its signifiers are teen-movie relics worn smooth by over-fondling – bullying jocks and tragic gays and a sympathetic English teacher who, I swear to god, gifts the kid his tattered copy of Catcher in the Rye. The molestation angle at least comes as a surprise. But why couldn’t the kid have just been an ordinary introverted dork? With a non-tragic past like the vast majority of dorks?

Of course, there really are dorks out there who’ve experienced both suicide and sexual abuse. Lots of them, probably. So the screenwriter could legitimately answer my complaint with: Because. That. Happens.

***

I once wrote a script for a short film which a director pal of mine agreed to help me make on an ultra-low budget. One scene had the main character visiting the grave of his recently-deceased girlfriend, so I did some location scouting at a local cemetery, looking for a grave with a shiny headstone and newly-turned sod.

I strolled among the trees, seeing mostly grassy graves and eroded headstones. Here and there I found a freshly-disturbed plot where some old person had been interred alongside a long-dead spouse – but where were those who’d died tragically young?

Finally, after a half hour of wandering, I spotted a row of unweathered stones out past the edge of the treeline, overlooking the freeway. Of course, I realized – young people don’t have plots set aside in expectation of their death. Their loved ones take whatever’s available, in the sparsely treed, unlovely outskirts of the cemetery. I picked out a grave at the end of the row which I thought would make an interestingly desolate shot for the film.

When it came time to shoot, the director disagreed. He wanted a visual that was immediately identifiable as a graveyard, and he worried that the shot I was advocating would look like a few prop headstones erected in an empty field. So we roamed among the trees and settled on a ten-year-old grave nestled among other graves in the shade of a venerable elm.

My version of the scene would have been more authentic, in the sense of being faithful to reality. The director’s version better communicated authenticity. My version would have caused the audience to wonder, “Waitasec, where are we?” The director didn’t want the audience wondering that, because he believed there were other, more relevant things for them to be thinking about at that point in the story.

If I’d insisted on my definition of authenticity, the director could easily have argued that plenty of young people must be buried under shady trees. And he’d have been right.

***

A couple months back, Steve Sailer linked to coverage of this speech by the actor Riz Ahmed, in which he claimed that young Brits from Muslim backgrounds (like him) were at risk of being seduced into Islamic radicalism because their ethnicity was insufficiently “represented” in British movies and TV shows. Muslims unable to locate sympathetic portrayals of their culture in the mainstream media, he suggested, had nowhere else to turn except to the head-lopping wildlands of the internet.

Frankly, the speech doesn’t paint a very flattering picture of Ahmed’s community. No doubt Welsh-speakers and ethnic Chinese and exiled Russian oligarchs would also like to see more shows about their unique contributions to modern-day Britain, but for some reason their alienation never seems to lead to killing sprees.

Presumably to help thwart the radicalization of Muslim youth, Ahmed had been attempting to find good roles for himself on British TV. But he complained that he kept being turned away because the show would turn out to be set in, say, 17th century Cornwall, and there was no call for minority actors.

Frustrating, no doubt. But then, if the rule is that Muslim actors must be represented on TV in numbers equal to their share of the British population, the result will be fewer shows set in the period before mass Muslim immigration – a period which happens to constitute the bulk of British history. By imposing on TV producers one narrow definition of “representation” – to authentically represent modern Britain’s racial diversity – Ahmed would limit their ability to pursue another, equally valid definition – to authentically represent the diverse eras of Britain’s past.

Ahmed might argue that the racial version of representation ought to supersede the historical version. He might argue that it’s more urgent that the British see themselves as they are than as they once were. But “representation” is the beginning of the argument, not the end.

***

Last night I watched the 1950s sci-fi flick It Came From Outer Space and was struck by how often the heroine shrieked in terror at the sight of aliens, shadowy shapes, unexpected trees, in a way I’ve heard no real-life woman shriek, and as no female character would shriek in a modern movie. My first thought was, how phony. But then, for all I know the shrieking women in old movies reflected the reality of the time. Maybe women really shrieked a lot back then.

I’ve heard it theorized that the reason women are always falling into swoons in novels from the Victorian era is that in those days women’s breathing was restricted by tight corsets – excessive excitement really did make them light-headed.

Maybe. Or maybe women fell into swoons because it was socially acceptable, because their fictional heroines were doing it all the time.

Fifties moviemakers may have modelled their heroines after real-life shrieking women, while real-life women learned from movies that society expected them to shriek in scary situations.

What behavioural quirks might our modern-day fictions be amplifying and feeding back to us?

***

A while back I suggested that the worthiness of any piece of writing, from the script of The Perks of Being a Wallflower to the Iliad to this essay, could be evaluated using just two criteria – truthfulness and originality.

Truthfulness, I said, isn’t necessarily a matter of factual accuracy, although in certain contexts – reporting, history, essays – sticking to the facts is pretty important. Truthfulness can also include the telling of lies – fictions – that convey truths about human nature, how society is ordered, how society might be ordered if aspects of human nature were to change, how humans might change if society were differently ordered, and so on.

My definition leaves a lot of leeway for artists to fudge the truth, and for critics to call them out for fudging. Artists can create fictions where people they dislike are shown saying silly or vicious or hypocritical things, which their targets will protest as malicious distortions of their true beliefs, to which the artists can justly reply but that really happens. There really are head-lopping Islamic zealots. There really are hypertouchy social justice warriors. There really are right-wing politicians who cloak their avarice under family-values rhetoric.

But the complainers have a point. Stories that are individually truthful can be cumulatively misleading – as anyone will acknowledge after looking at a media source whose ideological slant is opposite to theirs:

LIBERAL LOOKING AT BREITBART: Does every article have to be about illegal immigrants raping and murdering pretty white girls?

CONSERVATIVE LOOKING AT SALON: Does every article have to be about alt-right thugs queer-bashing transgender asylum seekers?

A different selection of stories results in a different picture of the world. And that’s sticking to true stories. When our fiction-makers overwhelmingly share a similar background – a background that is largely white and male, yes, and also largely urban, university-educated, liberal, irreligious (the demographic can be sliced any number of ways to prove one’s point) – their fictions can wind up misrepresenting other people’s beliefs without their even intending it.

But the pursuit of representation doesn’t end with, or even necessarily entail, the elimination of misrepresentation. A British TV industry devoted exclusively to the production of shows about life in 17th century Cornwall needn’t be untruthful in any way. It could explore every aspect of human experience – the tragic, the comedic, the spiritual, the horrific – with sensitivity and nuance. It could in fact be vastly more truthful than British TV as it currently exists. But it would almost certainly be less Muslim, so Riz Ahmed wouldn’t register the improvement.

***

I was chatting about movies with a friend not long ago – a white Canadian girl, if it matters – who made a sarcastic comment about Middle Eastern actors always being typecast as the bad guys in modern action movies. Being fairly certain that I’d seen a lot more movies of that type than my friend, I replied that, while she might be right, in my observation the main bad guy usually wound up being a WASPy guy in a suit. I offered the Iron Man franchise as an example. Parts I and III involved terrorist threats, but the boss villains were Jeff Bridges and Guy Pearce, respectively. In between was Mickey Rourke as a vengeful Russian.

I speculated that this was partly due to commercial concerns – there aren’t many bankable Middle Eastern actors to fill the role of Muslim Terrorist Mastermind – and partly due to cultural sensitivity – filmmakers being leery of contributing to the supposed climate of intolerance towards Muslims.

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

I started to wonder – could my speculation be proven? Was it even susceptible to data analysis? One would need to examine all movies (caveat: define “movie”) over a given period, identify the main bad guys (caveat: by what criteria?) and somehow sort them (caveat: actors, or characters?) by ethnicity and religion.

According to boxofficemojo.com, there were over 700 movies released theatrically in North America in 2016. You’d want to look at more than a single year’s releases – easily thousands of movies – and analyze each storyline in sufficient detail to figure out who was the “bad guy”. This is straightforward enough in a thriller or action movie but gets tricky when you start looking at serious dramas, comedies, cartoons, and the various hybrids. Should you treat You Don’t Mess With The Zohan as a movie about Middle Eastern terrorism? (It ends, by the way, with Zohan teaming up with the main terrorist to take out a WASP in a suit.)

As an experiment, I thought I’d attempt to answer a much simpler question. Does modern-day Hollywood churn out more movies about World War II, or about America’s wars in the Muslim world?

I predicted that World War II would come out on top. Audiences and filmmakers are drawn to clear-cut conflicts where we can guiltlessly celebrate heroes dispatching bad guys, and the Nazis still lead the list of hissable villains.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been playing with the data, and the main thing I’ve learned is that objectively sorting works of art (generously defining “art” to include things like Captain America and You Don’t Mess With The Zohan) into tidy, countable categories is impossible. There are any number of ways I could have tweaked the definitions and the dataset to tip the results in favour of my hypothesis.

But I want to put my results at the top of a new post, where people might actually see them.

[Update, Feb. 27 2018: Finally posted this. Movie bad guys, by the numbers.]

In any case, do the results of my investigation really matter? Should Hollywood be more interested in the Middle East, or less? When the last surviving World War II veteran is laid to rest, will that excuse us from any further interest in the struggle against Nazism?

For the overwhelming majority of us, our day-to-day reality has nothing to do with war or terrorism – or for that matter with spying or bank-robbing or serial-killing or any of the other exciting pursuits that dominate our movies, TV shows, and books.

It’s reasonable to ask that our fictions be truthful. If they must be representative as well, one might wonder – what’s the point of having fictions at all?

M.

I published this post last year about how advocates of “representation” sometimes seem a bit fuzzy about the demographics they claim to be attempting to replicate.

My friend and I never finished the short film discussed above, but I later recycled some of the footage into this homemade music video for my band, Sea Water Bliss.