Posts Tagged 'immigration'

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.

The Nogoodnik Rule.

Part II of The Immigration Heresies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But we got Veedu instead.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

functioning immigrant selection system

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

reverse immigrant selection system

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

M.

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

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 immigration heresies.

I. Selective indignation.
II. The Nogoodnik Rule.
III. Phase transitions.
IV. Managing diversity.

These four essays, all on the topic of immigration, were written at intervals over the last three years. I’m finally posting them as part of my Decennial Fridge-Cleaning series.

It would annoy me if readers came away with the impression that I’m opposed to immigration, let alone (as the media will lazily slur anyone who expresses reservations about the subject) “anti-immigrant”.

As I see it, I’m pro-immigrant: I want immigrants to do well. My fear is that struggling newcomers will coalesce into a resentful ethnic underclass – as seems to be happening in parts of Western Europe. The way to avoid this is to select the applicants who are likeliest to thrive, and to give them, once they’re here, every opportunity to do so.

Taking in any and all who wish to come, however downtrodden and ill-educated, may lead to feelings of universal brotherhood and plaudits from the Toronto Star editorial board, but such newcomers are more likely to struggle – and their descendants to wonder why they and all their relatives have incomes below the Canadian median.

I try as a rule to avoid stridency in my writing, but let me give vent to my exasperation for a moment. Here in the west, a couple generations back, we discovered the exception to what Robert A. Heinlein in 1950 described as “the basic theorom of population mathematics”:

Life is not merely persistent … life is explosive. The basic theorem of population mathematics to which there has never been found an exception is that population increases always, not merely up to the extent of the food supply, but beyond it, to the minimum diet that will sustain life — the ragged edge of starvation.

Happily, that turned out not to be true: in advanced human societies the combination of birth control and female emancipation will not only arrest population growth, but actually reverse it. What luck! It turns out we have the flexibility to undo some of the more damaging decisions made by our ancestors as they rushed pell-mell to clear space for the apparently unstoppable surge of civilization. Forests clear-cut, wild prairies tamed and fenced, wildlife driven into preserves, urban streams buried in metal pipes: a shrinking population leaves room for us to rethink these short-sighted actions – not only for the good of wolves and bison and migrating salmon, but for the good of our children and grandchildren, who can enjoy living in proximity to the natural world that, with the best of intentions, we and our parents mutilated. This needn’t mean everyone retiring to thatched-roofed huts and hoeing their gardens by hand. It might mean fewer, bigger, denser cities, with clusters of high-rises overlooking newly-replanted forests where subdivisions once sprawled.

Admittedly we have the short-term problem of funding a comfortable retirement for the baby boomers. But once that demographic lump has passed through, it should be possible to run a productive economy with a stable or gradually decreasing population, kept in balance by modest, selective immigration from the parts of the world that haven’t yet stepped off the Malthusian treadmill.

It’s true that it would be more profitable to go on basing our economy on cheap labour and galloping population growth. It may even be true that my idyllic vision of the future is unachievable, and that the only route to sustainability requires mass immigration for the foreseeable future. For many people, the fact that free market eggheads and social justice mushheads fall back on the same open-borders gospel proves the gospel must be true: for cynics like me, the question is which side has co-opted which.

Maybe I’m wrong. It’s not that I think that mine is the only acceptable vision for Canada’s future. It’s just that I resent like hell being dismissed as a Nazi for holding it.

M.

Apartment hunting in Vancouver.

I drove my friend X. to the open house. The usual routine: a mob of displaced renters waiting by the entrance for the building manager to appear; a two-minute tour of a bare apartment; a dozen people jostling for room in the lobby to squat and fill in the application form.

Returning to the car, X. grumbled at the absurdity of the building manager’s salesmanlike spiel, as if the mob could afford to be choosy. “Just tell me who I have to blow to get the place,” she said.

I drove her back to the tiny suburban bachelor suite that had been her home since 2014. It was clean enough and pretty quiet. The floor was noticeably tilted; I poured myself a glass of water and the fridge door swung open and banged on the wall, deepening the dent there.

The main thing her building had going for it was its location, a block from the SkyTrain. Alas, this had made it a prime candidate for redevelopment. She’d been given a year to find a new home.

When she moved in, rent was around $700. With provincial law restricting annual rent increases to 2% above inflation, it had risen to a bit over $800 – a bargain. Bachelor suites in her neighbourhood were now starting at $1250, in buildings likely to be torn down in a few years.

X. has good references, good credit, works steadily. She took time off between contracts so she could concentrate on the apartment hunt. She soon realized that was a mistake. With a dozen, two dozen applicants to choose from, why would a landlord take a flier on someone technically unemployed? Just skip to the next person in the pile.

Eventually she snagged an even tinier place in Marpole, a fifteen minute walk from the Canada Line. The building is a bit crummier, the commute a bit longer, but it’s only $1050 a month – a 29% rent jump. Not bad, considering.

***

I mentioned my friend Y. in an essay a couple months back. He’s in in his early forties, tidy and quiet, but with a spotty employment record, bad credit, and a history of drug use.

I’ve known Y. since we were in sixth grade, but we’d fallen out of touch until he moved here last year. I put him up in my apartment for six weeks and loaned him some money while he looked for a job and a place of his own.

He wound up in a rented one-bedroom in a house in Vancouver’s east side. It’s on the ground floor, with a private entrance leading to the backyard. Around here these are advertised as “garden suites”.

Y.’s garden suite has no stove, no fire alarm, and is separated from an adjacent suite by the flimsiest of partitions. The sound insulation is so poor that he can hear when his neighbour cracks his knuckles.

When Y. informed his landlord, who lives with his family upstairs, that his neighbour had invited a guest to crash on his sofa, doubling the noise problem, the landlord replied that he was aware of the extra occupant, and had upped the neighbour’s rent by a hundred bucks in response.

For this pleasant living arrangement Y. pays $1000 a month. He’d like to move; but if sober, responsible X. had so much trouble finding a place to live, what chance is there for Y., with his history of unpaid bills and far-from-glowing references?

***

Why doesn’t Y. just go back where he came from – in his case, the Canadian prairies?

If you’ve ever spent a winter in Saskatchewan, you’ll understand why he doesn’t want to go back. But even disregarding the west coast weather, balmy only by Canadian standards, Vancouver is still a pretty attractive place to live. Low crime, good infrastructure, clean air, lovely parks, mountain and ocean views – but I don’t need to enumerate its charms. Vancouver is, objectively speaking, attractive: it attracts people. Another million or so by 2041, if Metro Vancouver’s projections are to be believed.

That’s why I’m skeptical of all promises by politicians to somehow solve the problem of high rents and near-100% occupancy rates. If housing were cheaper and easier to find, that would only make Vancouver a more attractive place to live – which would attract even more people, putting more pressure on the housing supply.

If it weren’t for stressed-out renters losing hope and moving back to Moose Jaw, there would be no reasonably-priced apartments here at all. I’m not gloating over their departure. I may be forced to follow their example one day.

High demand imposes a sorting process: those who can imagine better uses for their money, like raising children or saving for retirement, will gradually drift away, leaving a helot class of rootless perma-adolescents to scrape a living pouring the cappuccinos and mowing the lawns of the rich and beautiful.

The various levels of government keep vowing to ease the helots’ lot by getting more affordable homes built. While socialist and free-market factions squabble over whether governments should build the homes directly, or tweak regulations to make building quicker and cheaper for private developers, the future sneaks up on us: dumpy apartment blocks like X.’s are flattened and glass towers arise; poorer people are displaced and wealthier people ushered in.

There are plenty of neighbourhoods near transit where it seems new homes could profitably be added without displacing anyone: ground floors that could be turned into garden suites, garages that could be turned into laneway houses, one-story retail and industrial buildings that could be rebuilt with a couple floors of rental on top – if regulations didn’t make it too pricey and time-consuming to bother.

But the more red tape you cut away to facilitate new housing, the more slumlords you’ll get renting out rickety suites to suckers like my friend Y., streaming in starry-eyed from the rest of Canada and the world.

Maybe, then, governments should take the lead in building affordable rental units. But they’re naturally focussed on helping the most desperate first. I’m pretty sure that the modular, supposedly temporary homes for the homeless currently going up around Vancouver will, in the short term, be trashed by their drug-using, unstable residents, and in the longer term be colonized by better-adjusted folks with an aptitude for navigating bureaucracy who will defy all attempts to relocate them when the modulars are due for removal.

Maybe I’m wrong; I welcome the experiment in any case. But many hard-working renters must have had the same thought Y. had, when he saw pictures of the inside of one of those modulars: hang on a second, that welfare crashpad is way nicer than the dump I’m paying a thousand bucks a month for.

If municipalities started throwing those modulars on empty lots along major transit routes, and renting them out to all comers at a shade below market rates, it would go a long way toward easing the crisis. I have no idea why no-one has proposed this. Maybe it would just be too pricey. (The units are about $110,000 apiece to build – excluding the cost of land.)

But if the public sector can’t manage to slap up no-frills, reasonably-priced rental units on a break-even basis, there’s not much cause to hope that private developers can ever build affordable rentals and turn a profit.

***

While the media focusses obsessively on how to increase housing supply, ways to reduce demand are rarely considered.

The easiest way to reduce demand is to make Vancouver a crummier place to live.

Anti-gentrification activists understand this intuitively. All that’s keeping hordes of yuppies from moving into Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and sprucing up the place is the many unbathed, mentally disturbed, petty-crime-prone people who make their homes there currently. The neighbourhood must be kept unpleasant enough that the number of yuppies stays low, so the down-and-outers can afford to remain.

The obvious problem with making Vancouver crummy enough to repel new residents is that the rest of us will have to live in the mess we’ve created. The strategy might not work, anyway: rich people, unlike you and me, have the means to insulate themselves from ugliness and disorder. They might decide high walls and private guards are a worthwhile tradeoff for sunset views of English Bay.

If we’re not prepared to trash our city to preserve it, we might consider erecting legal barriers to make it more difficult for non-Vancouverites to buy property or move here.

Taxes on foreign buyers, which the previous provincial government imposed and the new government has expanded, strike me as the very least we could do to constrain demand.

But as progressive conventional wisdom is cohering around the idea that everyone in the world should have the right to live anywhere for any reason, even these modest barriers have been decried as discriminatory, and are under legal challenge.

Alternatively, the federal government could simply lower immigration targets. Unlike the previous immigration peak in the 1910s, when Canada was still largely empty and agricultural, nearly all of today’s new arrivals wind up settling in a handful of crowded cities, where they compete with the native-born for housing.

foreign born canada 1871-2011

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

canada immigrants rural vs. urban 1921

Click image for data.

canada immigrants cities 2016

Click image for data.

Yet I’ve seen no signs that burned-out big-city renters have begun to turn against mass immigration. At all education and income levels, unhesitating xenophilia remains an essential marker of right-thinkingness; anyone who suggests that immigration ought to be curtailed in order to protect the attractive features of Canadian urban life – modest houses with spacious yards in quiet, tree-lined neighbourhoods – is quickly shouted down as a nativist bigot.

Partly this is self-serving propaganda. Realtors, developers, and homeowners all benefit from having the largest possible pool of eager bidders driving up the price of local properties.

But it’s at least equally a product of liberal guilt. Many Vancouverites who (like me) moved here from elsewhere would feel hypocritical denying anyone else a boon that we enjoy, for no reason other than that we showed up first.

On this principle the ten-millionth arrival will be as welcome as the two-millionth; and I hope that ten-millionth resident will enjoy his three-hour commute from somewhere in the vicinity of Chilliwack.

M.

PS. A big part of the reason my friend Y. moved here is the easy availability of cheap, high-quality weed. Maybe Canada’s impending marijuana legalization will make Vancouver a bit less attractive to a certain kind of young slacker, and take some of the pressure off.

The Know-Nothing.

If I had to choose a passage to introduce you to Scott Alexander’s terrific blog Slate Star Codex, this isn’t the one I’d go with. But it happens to be one I want to riff on, so here it is…

Imagine a space-time rift brings a 19th-century Know-Nothing to your doorstep. He starts debating you on the relative merits and costs of allowing Irish people to mix with the rest of American society. And you have a hard time even getting the energy to debate him. You’re like “Yeah, there are some Irish people around. I think my boss might be half-Irish or something, although I’m not sure. So what?” And he just sputters “But…but…Irish people! It’s not right for Irish and non-Irish people to mix! Everyone knows that!” And not only do you not think that Irish people are a Big Deal, but you’re about 99% sure that after the Know-Nothing spends a couple of months in 21st-century America he’s going to forget about the whole Irish thing too. There’s just no way someone seeing how boring and ordinary Irish-Americans are could continue to consider worrying about it a remotely good use of their time.

The rest of this old post (from 2013) has nothing to do with the Irish. Alexander is a practitioner of polyamory, you see, which is some kind of modern offshoot of what used to be called free love, and he’s making a point about how unthreatening polyamory is, once you get to know the people who practice it. That subject doesn’t interest me at all – I endorse wholeheartedly his title (if not necessarily his argument): Polyamory Is Boring. But his analogy got me wondering. Would the Know-Nothing really come around as easily as Alexander imagines?

Let me extend the scenario. After your fruitless conversation with the time traveller, you part ways. A few months later, after he’s had time to settle in, read the newspapers, catch some TV, strike up conversations with cab drivers and strangers in bars, you run into him again. “Well, what do you think now?” you say. “The Irish aren’t so scary, are they?”

He shakes his head sadly. “You poor fool,” he says. “Everything we warned you about has come true. Irishness has completely overwhelmed the country. It surrounds you. And you can’t even see it.”

Of course, you ask the Know-Nothing to elaborate. But here my imagination fails – I have no idea what he’s observed in the intervening weeks to make him so depressed. I, like you, grew up in a culture so marinated in Irishness that its effects are totally invisible to me.

If you or I were to shimmer across the invisible space-time boundary that separates us from the alternate-history 2016 where the Know-Nothings successfully kept out the Irish, who knows what we’d find. I suspect we wouldn’t much care for the place. We’d find it stuffy, and exclusionary, and most importantly, in some indefinable way, insufficiently Irish.

But the fact that we prefer having been brought up in our own universe doesn’t mean that our side’s arguments (I mean, the arguments of the 19th century folks who took what we interpret to be “our side” in this long-dead dispute) were correct.

It just means our side won.

***

A few years back, in a post about cratering American birthrates (which I somehow tied in with a discussion of Robert Heinlein’s 1950 sci-fi novel Farmer in the Sky), I wrote that

If America wants to stay productive, it’s hard to see how it (and other developed countries in the same demographic boat, like Canada) can avoid taking in more newcomers.

I then went on for a few paragraphs about the downsides of large-scale immigration – problems of assimilation, mainly. But, I brightly concluded,

Eventually, most likely, the West will absorb and be fortified by the immigrant wave, as it has previous waves.

Recently I re-read that passage and I thought – wait, what? Do I have any empirical reason for believing that we will be “fortified” by new immigrants? What does that even mean?

I suppose I was making the same assumptions that underlie Scott Alexander’s parable of the time traveller. Strength in diversity! A nation of immigrants! The cultural mosaic! Irish, Ukrainians, Jews, Chinese – they’ve all successfully integrated, so why shouldn’t the next batch?

Only…if I were to extend the above list of immigrant ethnicities I would pretty quickly arrive at a few that have, as yet, integrated noticeably less well. (Depending where you live, you probably have a different unsuccessfully-integrated group in mind.) Maybe these groups aren’t to blame for their exclusion; maybe they’ve been discriminated against by the native-born. Maybe “integration” isn’t even a desirable goal. I’m not interested in arguing those points right now. I only mean there are differences between Irish immigration in the 1850s and Jewish immigration in the 1910s and (say) Syrian immigration in the 2010s. Differences in “them”, obviously, but just as importantly, differences in “us” – how many of us there are, what kinds of communities we live in, what jobs are available, and perhaps most of all, what we believe.

Some of those differences should make integration less painful. We’re certainly less overtly racist than we used to be, and we pay lip-service (sometimes without knowing exactly what we mean) to tolerance and diversity and so forth. On the other hand, we’ve adopted views on things like public displays of sexuality, and sacrilegious speech, and gender norms, that increase our cultural separation from some of the immigrants we’re welcoming. The observant Muslim parents of a teenage girl in 1950s Toronto might have worried about their daughter being picked on because of her headscarf, but they wouldn’t have had to worry about her being exposed to Snapchat or Keeping Up With the Kardashians or the new Ontario sex ed curriculum.

People who demonize conservative immigration skeptics like Mark Steyn and Steve Sailer as racists and Islamophobes and so forth tend not to actually read what they write, so it doesn’t register that their skepticism might be rooted in a concern for the fragility of our common liberal values – basic things like freedom of speech, religious toleration, and the right of uncovered women to go for a walk without getting harassed. Perhaps their paranoia is overheated, but at least it acknowledges that integration works both ways. The Irish didn’t just come to America and become more American; America became more Irish. And the same will happen with today’s immigrants.

Maybe we’re cool with that, or maybe we’re just confident that the changes in “us” will all be for whatever we define as the better. But in the long run, it hardly matters what we think. The citizens of the future will uncritically adapt to the culture we bequeath them, and find arguments like this one as unfathomable as we find the frettings of the Know-Nothings.

***

I went off on a bit of a tangent there – I didn’t set out intending to write about immigration, not exactly. What got me thinking about Scott Alexander’s Know-Nothing was this passage in Brave New World.

Early on we’re introduced to Helmholtz Watson, lecturer at the College of Emotional Engineering. Helmholtz is troubled by an inchoate sense that, despite the state of universal contentment society has achieved in the year 632 After Ford, something vital is missing. He tries to explain to a friend what he means:

He was silent, then, “You see,” he went on at last, “I’m pretty good at inventing phrases – you know, the sort of words that suddenly make you jump, almost as though you’d sat on a pin, they seem so new and exciting even though they’re about something hypnopaedically obvious. But that doesn’t seem enough. It’s not enough for the phrases to be good; what you make with them ought to be good too.”

“But your things are good, Helmholtz.”

“Oh, as far as they go.” Helmholtz shrugged his shoulders. “But they go such a little way. They aren’t important enough, somehow. I feel I could do something much more important. Yes, and more intense, more violent. But what? What is there more important to say?”

I shut the book and reflected how in every generation, people complain that things are getting worse – morals are deteriorating, the scope of personal freedom is shrinking, tastes are coarsening, the best and highest works of our culture gather dust while the mob lavishes praise on ephemera. Optimists point to the fact that pessimists have been tolling the same doleful themes since at least Plato’s time as proof that the pessimists can be safely ignored: According to those old farts we’ve been driving off a cliff for two and a half millennia. Yet here we still are!

I share their optimism much of the time. Indeed, here we are! We’ve got it pretty good! Food is cheap, yoga pants are amazing for all sorts of reasons, and it appears euthanasia-on-demand will win the race against my accelerating decrepitude. Go toll your bell somewhere else, Gloomy Gus!

But reading Helmholtz’s report from the distant future, it occurred to me that perhaps the Gloomy Guses have been right all along. Every one of them.

In every generation things are lost. Some of those things are deliberately buried, because manners change, and people will no longer put up with blackface dance routines or teen sex comedies where the boys spy on the girl’s locker room. Often, in an excess of scrupulousness, good stuff gets buried with the bad. But most of the good stuff isn’t even deliberately buried, it just gets left behind and forgotten. And the people who’ve forgotten it don’t even know what they’re missing.

You might say it’s nothing to worry about. Our culture keeps generating new stuff to replace what’s lost, and if that new stuff isn’t as good as the old stuff, that’s fine, the culture will just adjust its definition of quality and future folks won’t know the difference.

Assuming, that is, that the conditions enabling us to generate new stuff will always prevail. But what if they don’t? What if historical progress actually has an end point?

Brave New World illustrates one way we could put a stop to history: we could actually bio-engineer creativity out of the human race. Helmholtz Watson, with his vague urges toward individual expression, is an aberration in the world of 632 A.F. – a genetic mistake of a kind society is working to eliminate. Another hundred years of tweaking the mix in the test tubes, and socially destabilizing brooders like Helmholtz might be done away with entirely.

I wish I could say confidently that we’ll never elect to bio-engineer our humanity away like that. But even if the human race remains inwardly human, external conditions might impede our creativity. Overcrowding. Technological dependency. The sheer bulk of our past achievements has already made it impossible to be a generalist in the manner of Newton or Goethe or Ben Franklin; if you want to add anything significant to the corpus of cultural knowledge, you now have to specialize. We might reach a point where the number of ideas you have to know already in order to conceive a new idea is so immense that no human brain can handle it; we’ll have no choice but to turn the process of ideation over to computers. Even demoralizing reflections like this one, the fear that all the good ideas have already been thought up, might increasingly lead to torpor and civilizational paralysis.

In the worst case, humanity might go the way of the famous mouse utopia experiment at NIMH – mouse decadence, then mouse apathy, then mouse barbarism, then total population collapse. But I suspect we’ll settle instead into something not far removed from Aldous Huxley’s prophetic satire – maintained by robots, pacified by porn and marijuana, stimulating the atrophied remnants of our thymos with virtual status-seeking – unlocking special achievements in video games and the like. I mean, we in the West aren’t too far from that already, except that the robots haven’t taken quite all the jobs yet so some of us still have to work. And you know what, it’s not that bad. We can’t regret what we don’t know we’ve lost.

When the Know-Nothing time-traveller arrives on our doorstep, we’ll listen with raised eyebrows to his crazy harangue. “The arts? Philosophy? The struggle for distinction? Geez, it all sounds awful. Why don’t you go for a walk, old man, take a look around. You’ll see how much better we have things now.”

M.

PS. I was re-reading Brave New World to celebrate the recent wrapping-up of my own novel on a similar theme. More about this soon…