Posts Tagged 'john derbyshire'

Provocation, martyrdom, and Muhammad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

kitty cat

…Or licking an ice cream cone:

ice cream cone

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

nobel prize

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

M.

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

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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.