Posts Tagged 'justin trudeau'

Is it getting crazier out there?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

british columbia property crime rate 1998-2018

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

british columbia violent crime rate 1998-2018

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

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

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

british columbia self-reported property crime rate 1999-2014

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

british columbia self-reported violent crime rate 1999-2014

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

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

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

canada incarceration rate 1998-2018

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

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

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

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

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

british columbia assaults on peace officers rate 1998-2018

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

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

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

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

united states incarceration rate 2000-2016

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

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

united states property crime rate 1999-2018

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

united states violent crime rate 1999-2018

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

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

So why the drop in crime?

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

canada percentage of crimes reported to police, 1999-2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t know. I really don’t know.

***

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

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

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

british columbia homicide rate 1998-2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

british columbia most severe violent crime rate 1998-2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

M.

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

The Far Country: The case for (and against) emigration.

With its generic title and un-grabby premise – English girl goes to Australia, falls in love – I doubt anyone besides Nevil Shute completists is reading his 1952 novel The Far Country these days. I enjoyed it, but I concede that it’s a tad lacking in dramatic incident. When in the 1980s it was made into an Australian TV miniseries – which I haven’t seen – the writers seem to have thought it necessary to crank up the melodrama by adding controversy over the Czech love interest’s wartime service as a doctor with the German army.

In the book, no-one is the least bit bothered about this. The English girl’s Aussie relatives express some misgivings about her gadding about with a dark-complexioned older man, but only because they’re afraid her folks back home will be prejudiced against foreigners. It’s strange. In the immediate aftermath of the war, when ordinary Brits and Aussies would have had ample justification for hating their former foes, it didn’t occur to Shute that his hero would be affected by such resentment. Thirty-odd years later, the creators of the miniseries assumed that the doctor’s Nazi guilt needed to be addressed.

Like In the Wet, Shute’s epic of electoral reform from the following year, The Far Country contrasts the war-exhausted, ration-stinted Old World with the optimism and expansiveness of the Antipodes. The heroine’s destitute grandmother receives £500 from a well-off niece in Australia, but it arrives too late to save the old lady from the effects of her meagre diet. On her deathbed she conveys the money to her granddaughter, Jennifer, with the stipulation that she should use it to emigrate from dreary, declining Britain.

Jennifer is inclined to ignore her grandmother’s directive and return the money to its sender. A few days later, at the government office where she’s employed as a typist, someone mentions a nephew who is prospering in Canada. A socialist co-worker gripes about the consequences of permitting such emigration:

“It’s not right, the way these young chaps go abroad,” said Sanders. “If it goes on, the Government will have to put a stop to it.”

I wasn’t sure about this character. Even in idle break-room chit-chat, would an idealistic leftist of the early 1950s have entertained the idea of restricting emigration? Or was this just Shute venting his ire at socialist control-freakery? [1]

But it wasn’t only those on the left who were concerned at the loss of British manpower. From an article by Murray Watson, co-author of a book on English immigrants to Canada: [2]

In the years after the war more than 2 million people emigrated from the United Kingdom. Such was the scale of population loss that wartime leader Winston Churchill feared those leaving would hamper post-war recovery. He issued a patriotic appeal on the BBC:

“I say to those that wish to leave our country, ‘Stay here and fight it out.’ If we work together with brains and courage, as we did in days not long ago, we can make our country fit for all our people. Do not desert the old land.”

Shute’s break-room socialist gives Churchill’s appeal an internationalist twist:

“[W]hat this country has tried to do, and what it’s doing, is to plan a new form of government and put it into practice, a new form of democracy where everyone will get a square deal. When we’ve shown it can be done, the world will copy it, all right. You see. But it can’t be worked out if people are allowed to run away to other countries. It’s their job to stay here and get this one right.” [3]

A level-headed accountant named Morrison joins the debate, asking Jennifer to consider the cost of her upbringing:

“For eighteen years somebody in this country fed you and clothed you and educated you before you made any money, before you started earning. Say you cost an average two quid a week for that eighteen years. You’ve cost England close on two thousand pounds to produce.”

Somebody said, “Like a machine tool.”

“That’s right,” the accountant said, “a human dictaphone and typewriter combined, all electronic and maintains itself and does its own repairs, that’s cost two thousand quid. Suppose you go off to Canada. You’re an asset worth two thousand quid that England gives to Canada as a free gift. If a hundred thousand like you were to go each year, it would be like England giving Canada a subsidy of two million pounds a year. It’s got to be thought about, this emigration. We can’t afford to go chucking money away like that.”

She said, puzzled, “It’s not really like that, is it?”

“It is and all,” said Morrison. “That’s what built up the United States. Half a million emigrants a year went from Central Europe to America for fifty years or so. Say they were worth a thousand quid apiece. Right – that was a subsidy from Central Europe to America of five hundred million quid a year, and it went on for fifty years or so. Human bulldozers.”

He leaned forward on the table. “Believe it or not,” he said, “Central Europe got very poor and the U.S.A. got very rich.”

Jennifer is so annoyed by the whole discussion that she decides to take her grandmother’s advice after all. She books passage for Australia.

Is it true that the Old World is poorer for the loss of generations of human capital to Australia, Canada, and the United States? Unsurprisingly, things were tight just after the war, when most of Europe’s savings had just been spent on obliterating much of Europe’s infrastructure. But by the 1970s or thereabouts, the continent – at least the half of it that wasn’t stuck under Communist rule – had rebuilt, living standards had rebounded, and the emigration slowed to a trickle.

Would Europe have recovered more quickly if emigrants like Shute’s hero and heroine had remained, their “brains and courage” helping to increase productivity? Or did their departure contribute to the rising standard of living, bleeding off surplus population and thus helping to keep the cost of housing low and wages high?

In his podcast last year, John Derbyshire scoffed at Nancy Pelosi’s contention that a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border was “immoral”. Pointing to news reports indicating that “There are more Ethiopian doctors in Chicago than in Ethiopia” and that “Half of Romania’s doctors left the country between 2009 and 2015”, he wondered:

Don’t those people’s home countries need their bright, educated, accomplished citizens way more than we do? Could someone please ask moralist-in-chief Nancy Pelosi about this?

I doubt that Derbyshire, a cantankerous immigration foe, really worries that the United States is enriching itself at the developing world’s expense. He would probably argue that migration is a lose-lose proposition: it weakens the source countries by robbing them of their smartest and most ambitious citizens, and weakens the destination countries by afflicting them with overcrowding, linguistic confusion, and interethnic squabbling.

One could also argue that migration is win-win: that teeming poor countries benefit by sending abroad workers who are unlikely to find an outlet for their talents at home, and that rich countries benefit by the infusion of energetic, ambitious young people. This would presumably be Nancy Pelosi’s view.

My own view is somewhere in between. Some people – habitual criminals, mental defectives, and unemployables – are a drain on whichever country they live in. If a poor country can guilt some rich country into taking these people off its hands, why not? For the rich country, it might be worthwhile to take in ninety-nine slackers and thugs on the chance of nabbing a single undiscovered genius whose ideas will generate enough wealth to maintain all the others. But if you can figure out how to get the one genius without taking the other ninety-nine, why not try that instead?

But why does the west feel it necessary to import Ethiopian and Romanian doctors at all? Medicine is a high-paying, high-prestige career, yet for some reason we can’t turn out enough young doctors to meet demand. Are salaries too low? Working conditions too gruelling? Is the high cost of education putting young people off? It can’t be the last: more people are getting advanced degrees than ever before. Wouldn’t it be less trouble to Tiger Mother an extra two or three percent of those high-achievers into med school than to relocate the finest young minds of Addis Ababa and Bucharest halfway around the world to tend our aging, flabby selves?

As it happens, Romanian doctors come up in The Far Country. The Czech hero, Zlinter, is unable to practice medicine in Australia as his credentials aren’t recognized. He can’t afford the three years of additional schooling he’d need to re-qualify, and as he’s happy enough doing manual labour, he’s resigned himself to never being a doctor again. Jennifer protests:

“But what an idiotic regulation!” the girl said.

He looked at her, smiling at her indignation for him. “It is not so idiotic,” he said. “There must be some rule. The doctors from some countries are ver’ bad. I would not like you to be treated by a Roumanian doctor, or a doctor from Albania.”

Working as a lumberman deep in the bush, Zlinter steps up to perform an emergency operation when two of his co-workers are injured in a gruesome accident. This incident attracts the attention of the authorities, who investigate the foreigner for practicing medicine without a licence. His friends and colleagues, resenting this intrusion by big-city bureaucrats, come to the Czech’s defence, but an Australian doctor named Jennings puts the case for caution:

“You’ve got to have a rule,” Jennings said. “Most of these D.P. doctors are crook doctors, oh, my word. You’d be the first to scream if some of them got loose on your family. …Take this Zlinter, for example. He seems to be a careful sort of chap, and since he qualified he’s had a very wide experience of surgery in front-line conditions with the German army. You’ve seen him at his best. He certainly knows a lot about these sort of accidents. But that’s not general practice. Ninety per cent of the general practitioner’s job is trying to decide if an old lady’s pain is heart trouble or wind, or whether a kiddy’s got scarlet fever or a sore throat. Zlinter may be useless at that sort of thing – probably is.”

He paused. “I don’t want you to think I’m against Zlinter,” he said. “I think he’s a good man. If he was qualified I’d like to see him practice in this district and take some of the work off me. But not before he’s been checked over at the hospital and been passed out as competent.”

Seems sensible enough. But I suspect no modern doctor would speak so forthrightly. Shute was writing in the unenlightened age before the benefits of diversity had been revealed to our governing class. As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has put it:

[O]ur diversity isn’t a challenge to be overcome or a difficulty to be tolerated. Rather, it’s a tremendous source of strength. … Canada has succeeded – culturally, politically, economically – because of our diversity, not in spite of it.

If such assertions are meant to be taken literally, it follows that even if your Romanian or Albanian doctor turns out to be a bit “crook” (by which Dr. Jennings meant incompetent, not dishonest), the workforce-enriching effects of added diversity should more than compensate for any niggling increase in miscommunication, misdiagnosis, and malpractice.

As for Romania and Albania, today’s wisdom would tell them that instead of vainly attempting to coax their disillusioned professionals into remaining, they should look to even poorer countries – say, Mali or Mozambique – for doctors willing to bring to Eastern Europe the tremendous strength of their diversity. Meanwhile, Australia and Canada will go on sending their idealistic young doctors to do aid work in Mali and Mozambique, completing the cycle.

M.

1. Although Britons were never prevented from transporting their expensively-nurtured selves abroad, the Exchange Controls Act limited how much of their wealth they could take with them. At the time Shute was writing, emigrants to the United States and Canada could bring along only £1000; the remainder of their fortune had to be invested with an “authorised depositary” in the U.K. Even vacationers could take just £25 a year across the border. These rules wouldn’t have impacted Jennifer’s Australia trip, as they didn’t apply to the countries in the “sterling area” that used the pound as a reserve currency. (See the Bank of England’s “The U.K. Exhange Control: A Short History”.)

2. Invisible Immigrants: The English in Canada since 1945, by Marilyn Barber and Murray Watson.

3. I can find no evidence that the U.K. has ever entertained the idea of restricting emigration. But earlier this year the Guardian reported the results of a European Council on Foreign Relations poll showing that majorities in Spain, Greece, and Italy – and near-majorities in Poland and Hungary – would support their citizens being “prevented from leaving the country for long periods of time”.

I’ve written about, let’s see…four of Nevil Shute’s books now. John Derbyshire I last mentioned in an essay on the 2015 Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack. Justin Trudeau came up just a few weeks ago, when I compared him to a “second-rate game show host”.

Pretty / fair assessment.

I didn’t pay all that much attention to the recently concluded Canadian election campaign. It was only on voting day, while scraping together links to give the illusion of substance to my hot take on the outcome, that I learned about Maxime Bernier’s one-sided feud with Greta Thunberg.

Thunberg’s name you already know – she’s the sixteen year old Swede who skipped school to protest government insouciance toward what she believes is a looming global warming apocalypse, thus sparking an international campaign of climate truancy.

Bernier is the leader of the conservative splinter faction the People’s Party, who, after eliciting torrents of outrage from Canadian commentators about the infection of our heretofore pristine politics by an alien strain of right-wing populism, managed in the end to nab 1.6% of the vote.

A week before the election call, referring to an Instagram post in which Thunberg had discussed how her Asperger’s made her “a bit different from the norm”, Bernier tweeted:

@GretaThunberg is clearly mentally unstable. Not only autistic, but obsessive-compulsive, eating disorder, depression and lethargy, and she lives in a constant state of fear.

She wants us to feel the same: “I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I fear every day.”

For this and other offenses to propriety he was challenged by a questioner at the English language leaders’ debate, who wondered whether a politician willing to express such thoughts had the “character and integrity” to serve as prime minister.

Now, I don’t think Bernier’s tweet was so horrible. I guess the idea is that Thunberg, as a mere child, is too precious to be exposed to such a vicious partisan attack.

Putting aside the question of why, then, we ought to be taking seriously the opinions of the wee dainty thing, pretending to worry about a political foe’s mental stability strikes me as a more gentlemanly way to discredit her than the customary tactic of questioning her decency or honesty.

Compare Nancy Pelosi’s comment, after a noisy meeting with Donald Trump, that the president was losing his grip and that we all ought to “pray for his health”. I mean, sure it was cynical and sanctimonious. Still, it was a refreshing change from calling him a racist liar like she does every other day of the week.

But I suppose I’m defending Bernier because, when I saw that famous picture of Thunberg at the climax of her speech at the UN – the “How dare you” speech – I couldn’t help thinking, “The poor kid looks nuts.”

greta thunberg how dare you

Jason Decrow, AP Images.

Speaking of unflattering pictures, a couple months back this letter to the editor appeared in the print edition of the Vancouver Sun:

I was struck by the rather telling body language in the photo of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Donald Trump on Page NP1 of Monday’s Sun. Trudeau smiles and extends a hand in conventional diplomatic greeting while Trump looks away with a disdainful expression and keeps his hands clasped together. The picture neatly summarizes our two countries’ relationship and shows Trump has no tact.

When I got home that evening I looked up the photo, which was taken at the G7 summit in Biarritz, France:

trump trudeau handshake g7 meeting 2019

“In my considered opinion as a professional photojournalist, the key moment of this encounter occurred just after the leaders’ handshake, as the president turned to look for his chair.” – Nicholas Kamm, Agence France-Presse.

No doubt the author of that letter would deny that his political opinions are so malleable that a photograph could alter them. He wouldn’t despise Trump a jot less if the Sun had opted to publish this more conventional shot, taken a few seconds earlier:

trump trudeau handshake g7 meeting 2019

Carlos Barria, Reuters.

I’m not so confident that I’m immune to the effects of media image manipulation. Suppose I’d never seen that memorable photo of Thunberg with her face twisted in rage – suppose the Vancouver Sun had instead gone with the more complimentary angle favoured by the Toronto Star:

greta thunberg how dare you

Spencer Platt, Getty Images.

In that case, when I later came across Bernier’s ruminations about Thunberg’s mental health, they would have struck me as entirely out of left field.

I don’t mean to imply that the Sun, or the many other newspapers that published the rage-face photo, were trying to discredit Thunberg. It’s definitely the more interesting image, just as the image of Trump appearing to snub Trudeau is more interesting than a customary grip-and-grin would have been.

But even when we all see the same image, we don’t. For those already panicky about global warming, Thunberg’s emotionalism seems appropriately modulated: she should be that outraged. Why aren’t the rest of us?

While to cynical geezers like me and, I suppose, Maxime Bernier, she just looks like an overwrought kid who needs a hug.

Looking again at that Trump-Trudeau handshake, to me it’s not the president but the PM who comes off poorly. With his camera-ready grin Trudeau has always struck me as glossy and artificial, like a second-rate game show host; while Trump, for whom I have a grudging fondness, seems appealingly rumpled and unrehearsed.

Obviously this has nothing to do with the two men’s respective policies. Just as obviously, it colours the way I perceive those policies. A news media intent on subtly shifting my political sympathies could probably do so, over the course of many months, by showing me photos of Trudeau looking less like an airbrushed phony, and Trump like more of one.

They’ve been doing that kind of thing – making Personality A look like a saint and Personality B like a shifty weirdo – since the invention of the news. But until quite recently the media’s efforts at thought manipulation have been limited,

First, by the temptation of profits, which created an incentive to publish visually arresting but off-message pictures;

Second, by the diversity of the media market, which meant there was usually a competing newspaper or TV network to serve as a reality check for skeptical audiences;

Third, by the fact that a substantial minority of the audience would always turn out to be perversely attracted to whatever the majority found ugly.

But media consolidation has reduced the salience of the first two factors, while the third – the glorious, ridiculous unruliness of individual human judgement – may turn out to be algorithmically tameable.

Soon media companies will have the power to fine-tune their image delivery to individual readers: to show me Trudeau with a frown and five-o’clock shadow where my neighbour sees him grinning with baby-smooth cheeks; to show me Thunberg cool and scientific where my neighbour sees her bawling for our doomed planet; and we’ll both arrive, by seeming serendipity, at exactly the same set of opinions.

M.

Election 2019: This crank says nay.

This year I officially became a nonvoter.

The last couple elections I dutifully crossed the street to the local seniors’ centre and stood in line for the privilege of spoiling my ballot. I don’t claim this chore was terribly onerous, but it brought me neither pleasure nor reward, and I wondered why I bothered.

Last time, I considered scribbling a penis or a bunny rabbit on my ballot, to at least provide a moment of levity to the poor schmuck tallying the votes. But the line-up, while brisk, was lengthy enough that I felt guilty lingering behind the partition to doodle, and after a brief hesitation I simply refolded the ballot unmarked.

So this year I skipped it. It was raining anyway.

An NDP-supporting friend encouraged me to vote, vote for anyone – even the Conservatives – just so long as I registered my opposition to “the Christian party”, by which I gathered she meant the ex-Tory Maxime Bernier’s reified fit of pique, the People’s Party of Canada.

I didn’t bother explaining that I have about as much or little enthusiasm for the dreaded Bernier as I have for the other leaders; and that if my vote amounted to a die roll, one name was as likely to come up as another; and that if a single vote for the PPC mattered so much to her she should prefer, to be on the safe side, that I abstain. I just grunted and changed the subject.

***

In an earlier essay I advanced a theory of what I might call, if I were a lefty academic, a systemic bias favouring conservative parties:

Young journalists, freshly escaped from the progressivist petri dishes of the North American higher education system, might sincerely intend to give conservatives a fair shake; but they unconsciously communicate their disdain and disbelief through their word choices, their headlines, the photos they choose to illustrate their articles, and of course, through which stories they cover, and which they ignore.

In a multi-party system like Canada’s, this bias affects which parties get taken seriously. Populists and social conservatives, in order to avoid the taint of association with icky “far-right” ideas, self-protectively cluster with libertarians and Bay Street types under a single big conservative tent; while politicians from the lefty fringe, emboldened by their friendlier media coverage, feel free to flake off into purist micro-parties which splinter the left-wing vote – helping the unified conservatives take power.

That’s the paradox: that left-leaning media might, in clumsily putting their thumb on the scales, accidentally be tipping elections to the right.

Yesterday’s election illustrates the paradox. The Liberals, New Democrats, and Greens – whose platforms appeared, to this untrained eye, as scarcely distinguishable shades of pale pink – together commanded the allegiance of 55% of the electorate. In Quebec yet another left-leaning party, the Bloc Quebecois, was in contention, so that in some ridings the progressive vote was split four ways.

This five-way split is the only reason the Conservatives were in the running at all. Although by international and historical standards they’re about as right-wing as a kindergarten teacher bottle-feeding a baby goat, apparently it’s enough to terrify an outright majority of the population. Against a unified left the Tories would long ago have been winnowed to a handful of farmers fulminating in an Alberta curling rink. Yet somehow they carry on, to the outrage of all decent-minded Canadians, cobbling together a majority every quarter century or so.

Plainly it’s in the interest of said decent-minded folks that a further-right alternative should emerge – one capable of siphoning off five or ten percent of the Tory vote, to give progressive candidates a bit more breathing room.

And yet when Maxime Bernier, miffed at his loss of the Tory leadership contest to hollowed-out marshmallow Andrew Scheer, declared his intention to launch just such a further-right alternative, did the media give him a respectful hearing? No, they went promptly to work re-installing the limits of acceptable discourse just this side of Bernier’s podium, appointing the nation’s most acute offense-detectors to guard the ramparts.

(Of course Scheer’s Conservatives were happy to give clandestine assistance to this project.)

Although there’s little in the People’s Party platform to support the accusation that it is, as my friend put it, a “Christian party”, it has emerged as a safe harbour for former Tories tired of being angrily shushed by their colleagues whenever they admitted to discomfort with the latest advance in the ongoing sexual enlightenment. Also for those drummed out of respectable society for doubting the reality of climate change, or the sanctity of immigration.

I suspect Bernier doesn’t care a fig about these cranky causes. Given his druthers he would have built his platform around laissez-faire economics of perfectly stodgy think-tank pedigree: ending supply management in the dairy industry, for example. But knowing that such a party would appeal only to a handful of bow-tie-wearing statistics profs, he welcomed his fellow ex-Tory refugees, believing (in the manner of the multiculturalists he now affects to disdain) that their diversity would prove to be a source of strength.

Was this realistic? Putting aside taxes and spending, and focussing on the culture-war issues, according to recent opinion polls:

  • 25% of Canadians remain opposed to gay marriage; [1]
  • 33% are leery of letting trans women use women’s bathrooms; [2]
  • 36% would support at least some restrictions on abortion; [3]
  • 18% are unworried about or doubt the reality of climate change; [4]
  • 55% would like to see immigration reduced. [5]

I imagine there’s a large degree of overlap on the gay marriage, transgender, and abortion issues: let’s say around 30% of Canadians are, on questions of marriage and sexuality, more or less socially conservative.

Bernier probably assumed, contemplating the tastes of this recalcitrant 30%, that they must also be angry about immigration, in denial about climate change, and ready to take the knife to taxes and social services. As many of them surely are.

But although it’s convenient for partisan head-counters, there’s no inherent reason these attitudes should cluster. One of the main lessons of the twin Brexit and Trump upsets of 2016 was that when voters are shaken loose from their customary political allegiances, they’ll reassemble in ways that are confusing to metropolitan observers: working-class Labour and Democratic Party voters, it turned out, weren’t as enthusiastic about mass immigration, cultural dislocation, and the affordable wares of Shenzhen as the folks in the capital thought they ought to be.

***

I think social conservative cranks, climate cranks, and immigration cranks should all feel welcome to air their views. This is probably because I’m an immigration crank myself. Which is to say I share with the majority of Canadians the opinion that immigration should be reduced.

The latest polling on the subject is from June, when 63% of respondents agreed that “the government should prioritize limiting immigration levels because the country might be reaching a limit in its ability to integrate them”. (Of course “limiting” immigration is not necessarily the same as “reducing” it.)

As you’d probably expect, the highest support for this proposition – 81% – came from Conservative voters. (People’s Party supporters weren’t broken out.) But the pattern beyond that is counterintuitive: 57% of Greens, 44% of New Democrats, and 41% of Liberals also favoured “limiting”.

Maybe those 57% of Green supporters fret about immigration for the same reason I do: they fear it’s pushing up the cost of housing and accelerating urban sprawl.

Maybe a few of them also believe, as I do, that a nation ought to be something more than a bunch of unrelated people scrabbling furiously to drive up the gross domestic product; that citizens should share some common values, common heroes, even a common language, so they can have a chat in the intervals between acts of commerce.

Regardless, there’s no particular reason that the above beliefs must be paired with, say, opposition to gay marriage or abortion. (In fact, someone concerned about overpopulation might logically be in favour of both.)

Or, to look at the pairing from the opposite angle, many of those Canadians who remain unembarrassed to profess social conservative views are themselves immigrants from places where the penalties for incorrect speech are far graver than being called out by some Twitter scold. They may see four more years of declarations from Justin Trudeau that their beliefs are un-Canadian as an acceptable tradeoff for the chance to bring their relatives over from the old country.

Suppose that there were no correlation at all between social conservatism, climate skepticism, and wanting less immigration. In that case the likelihood that a randomly selected Canadian would hold all three opinions would be 30% × 18% × 55% = 3%.

The People’s Party couldn’t manage even that: their final share of the popular vote was 1.6%.

But if there is a correlation, it may simply be that all three of the above opinions are currently deemed unsayable. A citizen accustomed to feeling that his beliefs have been twisted, traduced, and ignored by the media is bound to begin to mistrust coverage of other topics; if they’re willing to mischaracterize my viewpoint, the dissident realizes, how can I trust what they say about anyone else’s?

***

I’m not terribly surprised by Justin Trudeau’s victory, by the way. I don’t think the election really had much to do with pipelines, or taxes, or SNC-Lavalin, or blackface dance routines, or any of the other things pundits thought were important.

I believe what it came down to was that Trudeau makes Canadians feel special. Since he’s been prime minister, the rest of the world pays attention to us sometimes. Andrew Scheer could strangle Elizabeth May on the floor of the House of Commons and it would be reported somewhere around page 9 of the New York Times. Trudeau puts on funny socks and it’s retweeted around the world.

As the singer Nanette Workman enthused after performing at Justin’s dad’s retirement gala, “I’m not very political, but I love Trudeau. He’s a star. Like Mick Jagger.”

I have a feeling that, as we did with his father, we’ll be putting up with Justin for as long he decides to stick around.

M.

1. Same-sex couples…

64% “should continue to be allowed to legally marry”
15% “should only be allowed to form civil unions and not marry”
10% “should not have any kind of legal recognition”
11% “not sure”

Source: Research Co., July, 2019

2. Transgender Canadians…

33% “definitely” should be allowed to use the public bathroom of their choice
19% “probably” should be allowed to use the public bathroom of their choice
16% “definitely” should use the public bathroom based on their biological sex
17% “probably” should use the public bathroom based on their biological sex
16% “not sure”

Source: Research Co., July, 2019

3. Abortion…

53% “should be permitted whenever a woman decides she wants one”
24% “should be permitted in certain circumstances, such as if a woman has been raped”
7% “should only be permitted when the life of the mother is in danger”
5% opposed “under any circumstance”
11% “not sure”

Source: Ipsos, March, 2017

4. Climate change or global warming is…

47% “an extremely serious problem”
35% “a serious problem”
13% “not that serious problem”
5% “not a problem at all”

Source: Abacus Data, Summer, 2019

5. “I would like to see tighter border controls that allow fewer immigrants into Canada.”

30% “strongly agree”
25% “tend to agree”
27% “neither agree nor disagree”
11% “tend to disagree”
8% “strongly disagree”

Source: Ipsos, January, 2019

 

The media vs. the populists.

In June I published a long essay inspired by the memoirs of John Diefenbaker, Canada’s prime minister from 1957-63.

It’s kind of rambling and haphazard and I wouldn’t say it has a thesis, exactly. But to my mind its various digressions share a common theme, which is how in many ways Diefenbaker presaged modern populist conservatives like Trump, FarageLe Pen, Salvini, Orban, etc. – not in his policies, which were particular to mid-century Canada, nor in his rhetoric, which was pompous and long-winded by modern standards, but in the intense allergic reaction he provoked in the establishment, especially the media.

For those unfamiliar with Diefenbaker’s career (and not quite up to tackling my 6,000-word essay): in 1957 his Progressive Conservatives edged out a Liberal government that had been in power seemingly forever; the following year he won what was up to then Canada’s largest ever parliamentary majority; and in 1963, fatally wounded by a mutinous cabinet, a hostile media, and an opposition Liberal Party openly in cahoots with the U.S. administration of John F. Kennedy, he was defeated.

He made many unforced errors during his six years in office, and his bristly, paranoid personality alienated many allies. But the specific issue that led to his downfall was his resistance to accepting American nuclear warheads for the Bomarc missile system his government had over-hastily purchased a few years earlier to contribute to continental defence against Soviet bombers.

Diefenbaker seems initially to have been happy to take the nukes, subject to negotiations to ensure that Ottawa would have a meaningful say if it ever came to launching them. He dragged his feet for a few years, attempting to reconcile his cabinet’s hawks and doves, but was finally won over to his foreign minister’s position: that there was no formula for hosting U.S. nukes that would preserve Canada’s military sovereignty, that a nuclear-armed Canada would lose the moral authority to argue for disarmament, and that the Bomarcs were pretty much useless anyway, with or without nukes.

I’m neutral on the nuclear issue. I can see how Diefenbaker might have accepted the need to sacrifice a degree of sovereignty in order to preserve a strong NATO front against the Soviets. I can also see how nuking up might have seemed to him a provocation more likely to lead to war than to deter it.

But as a Generation Xer who has spent his whole life steeped in a media culture that portrayed the arms race as little better than a case of collective hysteria, and the pro-nuclear side as a mob of sinister psychopaths and spittle-spraying buffoons, I was surprised by the consistently negative spin mid-’60s journalists put on Diefenbaker’s anti-nuke stance. They called it incoherent, divisive, anti-American, and most of all, the word that shows up again and again in nearly every account of the Diefenbaker years, indecisive.

(Then they praised Liberal leader and secular saint Lester B. Pearson for, uh…decisively repudiating his previously held position, and announcing that he would take the nukes Dief had refused.)

It’s not searchable on Google Books and I’m too lazy to confirm by re-reading the whole thing, but I’d guess that the words indecision and indecisive appear on every fifth or sixth page of Peter C. Newman’s bestselling critical account of the Diefenbaker years, Renegade in Power; and that if I threw in synonyms and near-synonyms like hesitate, prevaricate, waffle, etc., I’d find a reference to Diefenbaker’s indecisiveness on every other page.

Indecision was to the Diefenbaker years what chaos has been to the Trump years – the lens through which journalists observe their subject, bringing certain events and narratives into focus while reducing others to an irrelevant background blur.

Take this editorial by John Ivison in the National Post back in June, in which President Trump’s reluctance to blame the Iranian leadership for an attack on oil shipping in the Persian Gulf was cast as an instance of Trumpian chaos:

Trump had his own theory about what might have happened. “I may be wrong but I may be right and I’m right a lot,” he said, positing that someone down the chain of command had ordered the strike. “I find it hard to believe it was intentional.”

It was a classic example of Trump’s political improv – a stream of consciousness, informed by his own narrow experience, based on evidence that conforms to his own prejudices and rejects evidence that contradicts them. War and peace; life and death, all governed by the chaos theory that permanent destabilization works to America’s advantage.

While there are any number of U.S. actions in recent years to which the description “permanent destabilization” might reasonably apply, surely declining to launch missiles at Iran isn’t one of them. But when evaluating Trump, Ivison’s instruments of punditry are permanently set to “chaos”, so that’s all he’s capable of seeing.

***

Speaking of Ivison, I chuckled at his quixotic attempt a couple weeks ago to paint Canada’s relentlessly progressive prime minister as a populist:

[T]here are few more capable exponents of populist techniques than Justin Trudeau. He is clearly not an authoritarian right-wing demagogue, playing on the insecurities created by cultural competition that have left many voters feeling estranged from the predominant values in their own country.

But even if his causes are more cosmopolitan – globalism, diversity, women’s empowerment – they are similarly tribal and, at times, equally disdainful of divergence from their orthodoxy.

Trudeau and his team have been adept at using polarizing rhetoric, symbolism and identity issues, even while accusing his opponents of adopting “the politics of division.”

What is a populist, anyway? In his memoirs Diefenbaker recalled challenging a Conservative Party bigwig who’d dismissed him as a “western populist” to explain what he meant by the phrase:

He thought it was some kind of erratic radicalism. When pressed further, he wasn’t certain what his new term encompassed, except that it did encompass those things he disapproved of.

Diefenbaker’s “western populist” government relaxed immigration rules, expanded social welfare programs, made liberal reforms to the criminal justice system, and took modest steps to make government more accessible to linguistic and ethnic minorities. But none of that mattered. What mattered was that Diefenbaker refused to go along with the agenda of a glamorous Democratic president who was beloved by the media. Therefore he could be dismissed as an uncultured bigmouth from the sticks.

(I suspect that if Diefenbaker had stayed in office long enough to quarrel with the unloved Lyndon Johnson, he’d have a much better reputation today.)

Nowadays, the populist agenda includes restricting immigration, using targeted tariffs to protect blue-collar jobs, and bringing the troops back home. These are currently associated with Donald Trump and the American right, but until a few years ago the latter two causes were largely the province of the left.

(Through the Bill Clinton era, the left also harboured a significant anti-immigration constituency; Bernie Sanders was playing to this vanished audience as recently as 2015.)

In 2016 Hillary Clinton won more votes than Donald Trump; her agenda was, arguably, more popular than his. And yet it was Trump, and not Clinton, who was labelled a populist. Clearly this had less to do with Trump’s popularity than with his unpopularity among those with the power to label him.

As Diefenbaker put it, populism encompasses all those things the influential people disapprove of. Or to be more precise, it’s whatever is currently popular among ordinary folks and unpopular among the elite.

***

At the local level, populism often entails citizens rebelling against plans imposed by a remote and unresponsive city hall – plans like paving over beloved green spaces, plunking social housing in sleepy suburbs, and rezoning low-density neighbourhoods to permit apartment blocks. Such rebellions also tend to jumble left-right ideological alignments.

Think of the writer Jane Jacobs, who rose to local fame organizing the opposition to a planned Lower Manhattan Expressway. As described by Alex Mazer in The Walrus,

Backed by her own lack of formal training (she left Columbia University after two years of undergraduate study) and her grandmotherly demeanour, she cast herself as an underdog in a world of credentialed experts – be they economists, traffic engineers, civil servants, or professors – and her attacks on them could be unrelenting. Like a populist politician, she cast her opponents as out of touch with reality, ignorant of plain facts, and dismissive of regular folks.

The urban model Jacobs advocated – bustling, pedestrian-friendly mixed-use streets like those of her beloved (1960s-era) Greenwich Village – is now generally associated with the progressive left, and opposed by the kind of populists who rail against bike lanes and gas taxes. And yet her most famous book, 1960’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is a paean to small businesses and bottom-up organization.

Nowadays she’s as likely to be lauded in right-wing publications like The American Conservative and City Journal as in left-wing ones like Salon and Slate; if anything, she gets rougher handling on the left, where the woke vanguard kvetches that she was white and out-of-touch.

Death and Life lambastes the practices of her era’s urban planners, under whose guidance cities were diligently bulldozing poor but functioning “slums” and replacing them with brand-new public housing projects that quickly became cesspits of crime and decay.

They pursued these ruinous policies in the name of an academic fad Jacobs mocks as “radiant garden cities”, combining aspects of Le Corbusier’s Ville radieuse and Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities of To-Morrow into a glossy vision of urban life with all its noise and disorder banished to the margins.

The trouble was that in the real world, banishing noise and disorder also entailed banishing street life and economic diversity, creating at best well-manicured dead zones, and at worst unfenced reservations for street punks to roam.

While some of Jacobs’ modern fans would like to believe that her foes were villains “oozing arrogance and reptilian cunning”, she’s clear in Death and Life that the “radiant garden city” vision was pursued by intelligent men with a sincere desire to improve the lives of the people whose neighbourhoods they were wrecking. Jacobs compares them to an earlier movement of self-confident blunderers:

And to put it bluntly, they are all in the same stage of elaborately learned superstition as medical science was early in the last century, when physicians put their faith in bloodletting, to draw out the evil humors which were believed to cause disease. With bloodletting, it took years of learning to know precisely which veins, by which rituals, were to be opened for what symptoms. A superstructure of technical complication was erected in such deadpan detail that the literature still sounds almost plausible.

However, Jacobs goes on, the practice of bloodletting was “tempered with a certain amount of common sense”, until in the United States it was pushed to new levels of recklessness by the brilliant and revered Dr. Benjamin Rush, under whose instruction the technique was applied “in cases where prudence or mercy had heretofore restrained its use”:

He and his students drained the blood of very young children, of consumptives, of the greatly aged, of almost anyone unfortunate enough to be sick in his realms of influence. His extreme practices aroused the alarm and horror of European bloodletting physicians.

And yet, as late as 1851, a committee appointed by the State Legislature of New York solemnly defended the thoroughgoing use of bloodletting. It scathingly ridiculed and censured a physician, William Turner, who had the temerity to write a pamphlet criticizing Dr. Rush’s doctrines and calling “the practice of taking blood in diseases contrary to common sense, to general experience, to enlightened reason and to the manifest laws of the divine Providence.” Sick people needed fortifying, not draining, said Dr. Turner, and he was squelched.

Jacobs doesn’t mention that Dr. Turner’s opposition to bloodletting derived from his adherence to a then-trendy form of alternative medicine known as the “chrono-thermal system”, brainchild of the Scottish doctor Samuel Dickson.

Dr. Turner wrote the introduction to the American edition of Dickson’s jeremiad The Principles of the Chrono-thermal System of Medicine, which had been ridiculed in the British and Foreign Medical Review:

The plain truth is, as every one must see, the whole book is a farrago of nonsense; a hash of a few old truths and many fantastic speculations, made piquant by the most amusing self-laudation on the part of its author, and the most extravagant abuse of his professional brethren and imagined rivals.

I’m no doctor, but from what I can glean of his system, Dickson was indeed some kind of crank. However, if you submitted to his treatment, the worst that was likely to happen was he failed to cure you; whereas a doctor who stuck to the conventional wisdom as represented by the British and Foreign Medical Review might very well open your vein and kill you.

The 1960s urban planning consensus has held out a little better than the 1850s medical consensus. While doctors rarely bleed their patients these days, planners continue to blight cities with roads that hinder the movement of pedestrians while doing little to improve the movement of cars. Still, Jacobs’ critique has been so successful that it no longer qualifies as populist: it has been absorbed into the establishment against whom the anti-density, pro-freeway rabble hoist their pitchforks.

I won’t make a fool of myself by attempting to predict which wacky idea currently disdained by the academy, the media, and most of the people reading this essay will in a half-century be seen as so obvious that only fools and villains could ever have opposed it. Today’s populism will become tomorrow’s establishment, and a new populism will burble up to be snickered at and hand-wrung over.

M.

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 Proportional Representation weenies get their shot.

Last month I participated in the Province of British Columbia’s online survey about changing the voting system. The results will be considered in the design of an upcoming referendum to swap out our musty old wig-wearing Westminster-style system for a shiny, enlightened, progressive…er, I mean proportional alternative.

I bailed on the survey after a couple questions when I remembered that I don’t give a crap what voting system we use. An op-ed in the Vancouver Sun illustrates why I can’t take the issue seriously. It’s by three well-meaning nerds from an organization called Make Every Vote Count:

It’s time to fix BC’s broken democracy

The day after an election, a majority – usually six out of 10 voters – effectively find themselves with a government in Victoria they didn’t choose.

The result? The majority must live with what the minority has chosen. Not terribly representative or democratic.

I should explain why this is an issue at all. In last year’s election, the governing BC Liberals – a right-leaning alliance of inoffensive pro-business types, with a few carefully screened social conservatives riding quietly at the back of the bus – won more seats, and a fraction more of the popular vote, than the New Democratic Party.

bc election results 2017

2017 BC election results.

However, the NDP claimed power by negotiating an arrangement with the third-place Greens, who promised to prop them up subject to certain conditions…including this referendum on bringing in a proportional representation system.

The Greens believe, probably correctly, that PR would be to their advantage in future elections: if last year’s popular vote, for example, had been translated into seat count on a purely proportional basis, the Greens would have elected 14 or 15 members, rather than the 3 they eked out under our first-past-the-post system.

How should us non-Greens feel about it? Would PR benefit the left side of the political spectrum exclusively, or would it lead to a complete upheaval of our current party system? Would it increase voter enthusiasm, solving the problem – if it is a problem – of “voter apathy” that the editorialists claim is on the rise?

I’m one of those apathetic voters whose enthusiasm for democracy will supposedly be rekindled by PR. I’ve been living in BC for five and a half years, the whole time under a government in Victoria I didn’t choose: I skipped the 2013 election and spoiled my ballot in 2017.

Perhaps I would have cast a vote for some hypothetical third or fourth or fifth party representing my idiosyncratic views, which under a PR system might have elected one or two members to gripe from the backbenches.

I might be slightly happier under this scenario. But my slightly greater happiness would be offset by the irritation of the many British Columbians wondering, “Who let those goddamned cranks into the legislature?”

***

Looking back at previous provincial elections, it appears that under a PR system the perennially second-place NDP, providing they were able to count on Green support, would have had a lock on government for the last decade. (Though this is accepting the implausible scenario where party alignments and voter preferences remained static under a changed voting system.) Which is why it’s lefties and progressives currently pushing PR, while the Liberals vow to fight it.

But back in the 1990s, before the rise of the Green Party, it was the right side of the political spectrum that was fragmented, allowing the NDP to rule with popular vote totals around 40%.

I suspect that even now there are at least as many social conservative voters in BC as there are Greens, but it has been the Liberals’ luck (perhaps augmented with a little backroom skulduggery) that a viable right-wing alternative hasn’t emerged since the collapse of BC Reform in the early 2000s.

Paradoxically, lefty media bias might be one of the factors helping the right-wing coalition hang together. The more talented conservative politicians, knowing that their Twitter and Facebook feeds will be mercilessly examined for any hint of sympathy with taboo ideas – Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, whatever-the-next-thing-is-phobia – opt to keep their heads down and settle for second-class status in a winning centre-right coalition, rather than try to launch a true right-wing alternative.

When Canada’s unimpeachably progressive prime minister Justin Trudeau retreated from his election promise to bring in PR at the federal level, this was precisely the rationalization he offered: that a new voting system might enable far-right ruffians to sneak past the gatekeepers and into parliament.

You can laugh at the hypocrisy of Trudeau’s discovery that the system was working at the exact moment the system elevated him to power. But there’s something to his analysis. Under first-past-the-post, coalition-building takes place before the election, as the mainstream parties jostle for position on the ideological spectrum; enabling the parties to act as a cartel, filtering out viewpoints that are popular with the electorate, but unpopular with our ruling class.

Under PR, the ruffians needn’t win over a plurality of voters anywhere, only enough here and there to scrape past whatever arbitrary popular-vote threshold – usually 5 or 10% – the gatekeepers have imposed. Once the ruffians tumble through the door, ululating and firing their pistols in the air, there’s a risk ordinary people will start paying attention to them, and then – why, anything might happen.

Consider the UK where, despite about half the electorate wanting out of the EU, the suits in the mainstream parties successfully banished the issue to the fringes for a generation. When a single-issue anti-EU party emerged – UKIP – it wasn’t in Westminster but in the proportionally-allocated European Parliament that it managed to gain a toehold…whereupon the embargo began to fall apart.

***

No matter what voting system is used, a ballot is a blunt instrument for registering your democratic choice. It doesn’t indicate your level of enthusiasm – a grudging preference for candidate A and a rabid hatred for candidate B result in the exact same mark on the ballot.

The do-gooders seem to imagine some ideal system where no-one ever casts a negative vote:

[M]any feel pressured to vote for the lesser of two evils. They feel compelled to vote “strategically”.

Instead of voting for someone they believe in, they vote for a different candidate to prevent the election of yet another. Not coincidentally, a growing number feel cynical about politics.

Apparently a proportional system will somehow obviate the need for strategic voting. But no matter what process is used, the endgame is the same: to enact the policies you support, while blocking the policies you oppose. All PR does is expand the gameboard. Instead of strategizing at the level of a single electoral district, you have to strategize at the provincewide or nationwide level.

This may actually make voting less satisfying, as it’s hard to predict what the parties will do when it comes time to dole out roles in a coalition government. How many Germans are likely to be thrilled by the result of their most recent election, run under a version of PR, which saw Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats returning to power yet again with the support of her supposed opponents, the Social Democrats?

This mashup of the two biggest parties, centre-right and centre-left, happens so often in Germany it has a clunky abbreviation, GroKo. For fans of mushy centrism and technocratic tinkering, a GroKo probably sounds peachy. But suppose you’re a left-leaning German whose main issue is a burning detestation of Angela Merkel. Do you vote for the Social Democrats whose policies you generally support, in the hope that this time around they’ll spurn the chancellor’s power-sharing blandishments? Or do you take a flier on the populist Left Party, who are a bit nutty for your tastes, but whom you can rely on to give Mutti Merkel the finger?

Sounds like a job for strategy.

***

What will happen if the do-gooders get their way, and bring some form of PR to British Columbia?

I’d expect the current Liberal Party to fracture into its constituent ideological parts. A renewed BC Conservative Party might yield 10-15% of the vote, while freeing the remaining Liberals to run on a more explicitly centrist platform, stealing some votes from the NDP, who will meanwhile be losing votes on their left to the energized Greens.

I could imagine the NDP fracturing as well, with the meat-and-potatoes labour types and the nose-ring contingent going their separate ways. And who knows what other blocs might be able to grab enough votes to sneak into the legislature. Maybe the Libertarians could burrow out a little nook in the centre of the political spectrum. Maybe Trump-style conservative populism will overleap the ramparts of yuppie disdain and become an electoral force in Canada.

We might easily wind up with a GroKo-style alliance of moderate New Democrats and moderate Liberals, opportunistically cobbled together to freeze out populist insurgents. I’m not so sure the authors of this op-ed – two of whom (going by their Twitter feeds) are the kind of lefties that dismiss Trudeau as a wishy-washy sellout – will be thrilled with that result.

At least under PR the makeup of the coalitions would be overt, rather than disguised, as it is now, under vague party labels.

Would this really do anything to win over cynics like me? It’s hard to say. Would I rather vote for a big mainstream party, representing an ungainly hodgepodge of interest groups, that has a real shot at winning, but once in power will pay little attention to my concerns? Or for a niche party that might elect one or two members who’ll faithfully but impotently articulate my viewpoint from a remote corner of the legislature?

I’m pretty sure I’ll find something to moan about, no matter what. But that’s what a cynic would say.

M.

Speaking of idealistic electoral reform schemes, I am striving to become the internet’s number one resource on Nevil Shute’s multiple voting system. Elsewhere on this blog I have declared that there is no God-given system under which elections would be perfectly fair and expressed mild support for sovereigntist movements like Brexit.

 


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

You can find a selection of his cartoons, music videos, and ads on the Gallery page.

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