Posts Tagged 'rod dreher'

Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward: “A definite opinion has been established.”

I should start by explaining that Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward is about a cancer ward. The reviewers, like this one in the New York Times, 1968, are going to tell you that the ward symbolizes the Soviet Union, and the cancer the moral rot eating away at the souls of the Soviet people:

As “One Day [in the Life of Ivan Denisovich]” stands for the agony of all Russia under Stalin, so “The Cancer Ward” irresistibly conveys an image of the immediate post-Stalin period when both victims and executioners were confined, all equally mutilated, in the cancer ward of the nation.

…and that Solzhenitsyn was just being cagey when he told the secretariat of the Union of Soviet Writers – who had declined to approve his book for publication – that,

The fact is that the subject is specifically and literally cancer, a subject avoided in literature, but nevertheless a reality as its victims know only too well from daily experience.

cancer ward alexander solzhenitsyn

In that meeting (a transcript is included as an appendix in the Bantam paperback edition of Cancer Ward), whenever Solzhenitsyn was invited to speak he made a point of disavowing his earlier, more explicitly political play Feast of the Conquerors, which had particularly upset the bigwigs. He told them that he now regarded his play as “very dangerous”. [1] He could’ve told them to stuff it – one kind of wishes he had – but at this point he still had hopes of pestering them into greenlighting his new novel.

(They never did. They kicked him out of the union a couple years later.)

So sure, he was being cagey. But I think he meant what he said about Cancer Ward. He must have known that his subject would invite all kinds of speculation about its symbolic significance, but it really is a book about life in a cancer ward. That seems to have been a big part of what annoyed the commissars from the Union of Soviet Writers. Why cancer, comrade? Isn’t it just kind of gratuitously depressing? As a member of the secretariat named Kerbabaev put it,

Why does the author see only the black?

This line of criticism echoes one of the debates within the novel, which begins when a patient named Podduyev, a man of rude and unreflecting vitality, is given a book of short stories. To his surprise, one of the stories seems to answer a question that’s been haunting him for weeks, as he has grappled with the reality of his disease. He decides to share his revelation with the others in the cancer ward:

“Listen, here’s a story,” he announced in a loud voice. “It’s called ‘What Men Live By’.” He grinned. “Who can know a thing like that? What do men live by?”

Treating the title as a riddle, he challenges the other patients to offer their speculations. One suggests that men live by air, water, and food. Another, by their pay. Another, by their professional skill.

In the bed across from Podduyev is a self-satisfied little man called Rusanov, a person of some political influence – for instance, rather than wearing the ill-fitting pyjamas assigned by the hospital, he’s been allowed to bring in his own. Later we’ll learn that Rusanov has acquired his position through the strategic denunciation of neighbours and co-workers.

Relaxing his customary aloofness toward the other patients, Rusanov decides to settle the debate:

“There’s no difficulty about that,” he said. “Remember: people live by their ideological principles and by the interests of their society.”

Discomfited by Rusanov’s tone of certainty, Podduyev attempts to summarize the story in his own words. It’s a fable about a poor cobbler who takes as an apprentice a mysterious beggar who, it soon emerges, may have the power of prophecy.

Rusanov has no patience for such mystical nonsense. He interrupts Podduyev, demanding that he skip to the end and tell them what, in the author’s opinion, men live by.

“What do they live by?” He could not say it aloud somehow. It seemed almost indecent. “It says here, by love.”

“Love? . . . No, that’s nothing to do with our sort of morality.”

Upon being demanded to tell who wrote this sentimental tripe, Podduyev haltingly enunciates the author’s name: “Tol . . . stoy.” Not, it soon emerges, Alexei Tolstoy, winner of the Stalin Prize, but “the other one” – that old pious fraud whose ideological errors had been settled long ago by Lenin, who wrote in 1908 that,

The contradictions in Tolstoy’s works, views, doctrines, in his school, are indeed glaring. … On the one hand, the most sober realism, the tearing away of all and sundry masks; on the other, the preaching of one of the most odious things on earth, namely, religion[.]

Having reminded his listeners of these facts, Rusanov retires complacently from the debate.

But the topic comes up again some days later. Along with Podduyev and Rusanov the ward contains a romantic character called Kostoglotov, a former political prisoner subsequently exiled to a remote village in Central Asia. (The location of the hospital is never spelled out, but is presumably Tashkent, where the author was treated for cancer after his stint in prison.)

A cynic with a long scar on his cheek from a brawl with urkas in the Gulag, [2] Kostoglotov inevitably winds up at odds with the doctrinaire Rusanov. But they have in common a sermonizing bent, which one evening inspires Kostoglotov to hold forth on the healing properties of optimism:

“So I wouldn’t be surprised,” Kostoglotov continued, “if in a hundred years’ time they discover that our organism excretes some kind of cesium salt when our conscience is clear, but not when it’s burdened, and that it depends on this cesium salt whether the cells grow into a tumor or whether the tumor resolves.”

[Podduyev] sighed hoarsely. “I’ve mucked so many women about, left them with children hanging round their necks. They cried . . . mine’ll never resolve.”

“What’s that got to do with it?” [Rusanov] suddenly lost his temper. “The whole idea’s sheer religious rubbish! You’ve read too much slush, Comrade Podduyev, you’ve disarmed yourself ideologically. You keep harping on about that stupid moral perfection!”

“What’s so terrible about moral perfection?” said Kostoglotov aggressively. “Why should moral perfection give you such a pain in the belly? It can’t harm anyone – except someone who’s a moral monstrosity!”

“You . . . watch what you’re saying!”

[Rusanov] flashed his spectacles with their glinting frames; he held his head straight and rigid, as if the tumor wasn’t pushing it under the right of the jaw. “There are questions on which a definite opinion has been established, and they are no longer open to discussion.”

“Why can’t I discuss them?” Kostoglotov glared at Rusanov with his large dark eyes. […]

“If you wish to state your opinion, at least employ a little elementary knowledge.” [Rusanov] pulled his opponent up, articulating each word syllable by syllable. “The moral perfection of Leo Tolstoy and company was described once and for all by Lenin, and by Comrade Stalin, and by Gorky.”

“Excuse me,” answered Kostoglotov, restraining himself with difficulty. He stretched one arm out toward Rusanov. “No one on this earth ever says anything ‘once and for all’. If they did, life would come to a stop and succeeding generations would have nothing to say.”

[Rusanov] was taken aback. The tops of his delicate white ears turned quite red, and round red patches appeared on his cheeks.

In a realistic twist, Kostoglotov soon finds himself contradicting himself – he started out arguing for optimism and now finds himself arguing for facing up to the grim facts:

“Why stop a man from thinking? After all, what does our philosophy of life boil down to? ‘Oh, life is so good! . . . Life, I love you. Life is for happiness!’ What profound sentiments. Any animal can say as much without our help, any hen, cat, or dog.”

And as the other patients jump in with their own opinions, and Rusanov is distracted by a twinge in his tumor, the discussion veers off in another direction.

***

One of the ironies of this scene is that the more sympathetic figure in the quarrel is arguing for what we would now describe as some kind of holistic “alternative medicine” approach to cancer treatment – the kind that many of us, myself included, would wave off as pseudo-scientific quackery. Shortly after proclaiming his right to think and speak freely, Kostoglotov is invited by another patient to elaborate on a folk remedy to which he’d previously alluded:

“Friends!” he said, with uncharacteristic volubility. “This is an amazing tale. I heard it from a patient who came in for a checkup while I was still waiting to be admitted. I had nothing to lose, so straightaway I sent off a postcard with this hospital’s address on it for the reply. And an answer has come today, already!”

Kostoglotov’s correspondent is a country doctor near Moscow, who (the letter explains) observed that cancer was rare among the peasants he treated. Deducing that this immunity was derived from their consumption of a tea made from a birch tree fungus called chaga, the doctor now promotes the fungus as an anti-cancer remedy. His letter contains a recipe for drying the fungus and preparing the tea: Kostoglotov reads the instructions aloud, and the other patients eagerly copy it down.

The catch is that the chaga can only be found on certain birches in northern forests, far from the Central Asian plain:

“He says here there are people who call themselves suppliers, ordinary enterprising people who gather the chaga, dry it and send it to you cash on delivery. But they charge a lot, fifteen roubles a kilogram, and you need six kilograms a month.”

Rusanov is, of course, outraged by such profiteering:

“What sort of a conscience do they have, fleecing people for something that nature provides free?”

But his Communist principles don’t prevent him from joining the other patients in importuning Kostoglotov for the address of the supplier of the miracle cure. Kostoglotov, however, resolves to share the secret only with a few of his closest friends among the patients.

After this, the chaga is mentioned only in passing; one of the patients gets his hands on some, but we never find out whether it helps him.

Equally unknown is whether Solzhenitsyn tried chaga in the treatment of his own cancer – though some seem to think he did. Lately chaga, which also grows in Canadian forests, has been promoted as a “superfood”, leading to overharvesting of the rare fungus. Whether it actually does anything is open to question.

There is another herbal treatment mentioned in Cancer Ward – “the root from Issyk Kul”, an infusion of aconite in vodka. When Kostoglotov’s doctor discovers that he’s been treating himself with the highly poisonous compound, acquired from a medicine man in the country, she insists that he hand the bottle over to her. He resists:

“When I leave the clinic I’ll want the root extract to treat myself with. I don’t suppose you believe it works?”

“No, of course I don’t. It’s just a lot of dark superstition and playing games with death. I believe in systematic science, practically tested. That’s what I was taught and that’s the way all oncologists think. Give me the bottle.” […]

“Oh, I know about your sacred science,” he sighed. “If it were all so categorical, it wouldn’t be disproved every ten years!”

Former president of the American Cancer Society Vincent T. DeVita described how in the early 1970s one of his patients, a former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, was told by Solzhenitsyn that he credited a similar infusion – not of aconite, but of mandrake root – for the remission of his cancer.

The ambassador, suffering from advanced cancer of the pancreas, brought Dr. DeVita a handful of mandrake root and some 80-proof vodka and asked for his help preparing the medicine per the author’s recipe. DeVita declined – this wasn’t “systematic science, practically tested” – but gave the ambassador leave to try it on his own.

After the ambassador’s death – from cancer, not self-medication – his wife brought DeVita the remainder of the medicine they’d prepared, and asked him to have it analyzed:

I called the chief of our natural products branch, told him the story, and asked if he would do it. His interest was piqued. “Sure,” he said.

A month later he called me, expressing his amazement: “Vince, this stuff contained two cancer drugs we have had under development, VP-16 and alpha peltatin.” […]

“Not only that,” he continued, but the exact concentration of alcohol needed to extract the alkaloids from the roots is the concentration in 80 proof vodka. “And, you’re not going to believe this, but there is enough drug in eight grams of root to provide a therapeutic dose of VP-16,” he said. In other words, Solzhenitsyn’s root-and-vodka recipe had neatly created a version of the medication strong enough to treat cancer.

***

There are two ways to read Solzhenitsyn – well, there are hundreds, I suppose, but let’s stick to the two. You can read him as an uncompromising evangelist for Truth – the Truth that goes on happening while academics and bureaucrats squeak contrary pronouncements from within their clockwork models of ideological clarity. This is the reading typified by the social conservative author and blogger Rod Dreher, who has named his upcoming book Live Not By Lies after an essay Solzhenitsyn wrote in 1974 – shortly before he got kicked out of his country:

If we did not paste together the dead bones and scales of ideology, if we did not sew together the rotting rags, we would be astonished how quickly the lies would be rendered helpless and subside.

That which should be naked would then really appear naked before the whole world.

So in our timidity, let each of us make a choice: Whether consciously to remain a servant of falsehood … or to shrug off the lies and become an honest man worthy of respect both by one’s children and contemporaries.

Whereas I tend to read Solzhenitsyn as an evangelist of Uncertainty. The last time I wrote about him I quoted this passage from The First Circle. The setting is a prison – once again, Solzhenitsyn’s own experiences formed the basis of the story – and the character being described is the prison’s security officer, Major Shikin:

If Shikin had been told – though he never was – that he was an object of hatred because he maltreated people, he would have been genuinely indignant. He had never found pleasure in any form of cruelty or thought that it was an end in itself. It was true that there were such people: he had seen them on the stage and in films. But they were sadists who loved to torture people, and had lost all human feeling. In any case they were always White Guardists or Fascists. Apart from doing his duty, Shikin was concerned only to prevent people committing wrongful acts or thinking harmful thoughts.

Like Major Shikin, Rusanov in Cancer Ward is secure in his own well-meaningness: he only wants to protect his fellow patients from being exposed to dangerous falsehoods. We might scoff at his statement that “There are questions on which a definite opinion has been established, and they are no longer open to discussion” – and yet few of us would argue for absolute open-mindedness. The idea that Tolstoy’s supposed ideological errors, as defined by Lenin, should be one of those undiscussable questions strikes us as absurd, just as it would strike Rusanov as absurd that – well, choose your own article of contemporary dogma.

I’m afraid that if I were in that Tashkent cancer ward listening to Kostoglotov prattle on about herbal remedies, I would react much as Rusanov did: “If you wish to state your opinion, at least employ a little elementary knowledge.” (Although I wouldn’t say it out loud.) While Kostoglotov dosed himself with mysterious rural potations, I would defer to the scientific opinions of the doctors. And if I’d been brought up believing that Lenin had scientifically settled the question of Tolstoy’s literary merit, I suppose I’d defer to that opinion too.

M.

1. If Solzhenitsyn’s Feast of the Conquerors has ever been translated into English, it seems not to be online. Nowadays it usually goes by the name Feast of the Victors or The Victors’ Feast. Russian readers can find it here: Пир победителей.

The author made a triumphant appearance at the play’s belated world premiere in Moscow in 1995.

2. The urkas or urki were thieves (my edition of Cancer Ward translates the term as “hoods”) who, as “socially friendly” elements – enemies of private property – were given an easier ride in Soviet prison than the “politicals”. As Solzhenitsyn explains in Part III of The Gulag Archipelago:

Here is what our laws were like for thirty years – to 1947: For robbery of the state, embezzlement of state funds, a packing case from a warehouse, for three potatoes from a collective farm – ten years! (After 1947 it was as much as twenty!) But robbery of a free person? Suppose they cleaned out an apartment, carting off on a truck everything the family had acquired in a lifetime. If it was not accompanied by murder, then the sentence was up to one year, sometimes six months.

Conscious of their privileged status, the urkas would rob and tyrannize the political prisoners while the guards did nothing:

[I]t was much better for the business of oppression; the thieves carried it out much more brazenly, much more brutally, and without the least fear of responsibility before the law.

Much like convicts in American prisons who take it upon themselves to dole out extra punishment to sex offenders, the urkas regarded their abuse of the politicals as a matter of honour. Solzhenitsyn quotes an ex-convict:

I was even proud that although a thief I was not a traitor and betrayer. On every convenient occasion they tried to teach us thieves that we were not lost to our Motherland, that even if we were profligate sons, we were nevertheless sons. But there was no place for the “Fascists” on this earth.

The “Fascists” included reprobates like Kostoglotov in Cancer Ward, sentenced to eight years, followed by permanent exile to Central Asia, for participation in a non-approved university discussion group.

For more on the urkas, this undergrad thesis by Elizabeth T. Klements is worth reading: “Worse Than Guards:” Ordinary Criminals and Political Prisoners in the GULAG (1918-1950)

There must be something about that “Major Shikin” passage from The First Circle that really speaks to me. I first used it in a discussion last year of Jordan Peterson, and a few months later I trotted it out again in a critique of the movie It: Chapter Two. Having used it three times, it’s probably time for me to retire it.

 

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.

Shame wizards.

In the second season of Netflix’s kid-centric, definitely-not-for-kids cartoon Big Mouth, the pubertal protagonists are haunted by a Professor Snape-like spectre called the Shame Wizard, who slides out of the shadows to remind them what revolting little sex-obsessed freaks they are.

Eventually the kids come together to share their feelings, admit their imperfections, and drive away the Shame Wizard – a victory they celebrate with an ecstatic spree of public masturbation, homosexual experimentation, pants-free hoverboarding, and so on.

Now, in Big Mouth’s progressive worldview, sexual hangups are ludicrous and outdated, and for the main characters, emancipation from shame leads to nothing more harmful than a little exhibitionism. But we’ve seen the Shame Wizard lambasting the children not only for mouldy old sins like horniness and homosexuality, but for evergreen ones like hypocrisy, dishonesty, and gossip-mongering; and in the wake of his departure we get glimpses of the supporting cast exploring their freedom in darker ways – setting the school gymnasium ablaze, starting up a fight club, enacting a scene from Lord of the Flies.

In a subsequent episode, this more nuanced take on shame is affirmed when obsessive masturbator Andrew runs across the Shame Wizard in the halls of the Department of Puberty. This time he stands up to his tormentor:

Andrew: Yeah, I get it. I jerk off quite a lot. But why do you have to be such an asshole?

Wizard: Ah…perhaps I’m too harsh sometimes. But I only want you to be a better person.

Andrew: You do?

Wizard: Of course! I don’t want you to grow up to be one of those men who waits six months for a customized sex doll.

Big Mouth speaks in the inherited vocabulary of sexual liberation, in which shame is a musty old prude scolding us for touching our privates; a destructive inner voice that must be silenced in order to release our truer, better selves. But the show’s creators seem to realize that, while we can afford to tune out that voice now and then, we need to hear it when our self-indulgence threatens to lead us into folly: when we find ourselves eating the whole bag of Oreos, or putting off our work to binge-watch Netflix cartoons, or thinking about placing an order for a customized sex doll.

However, it’s probably time to update the mental image that goes with that pestering little voice. The modern Shame Wizard won’t look like Professor Snape, but like purple-haired cool chick Nymphadora Tonks:

nymphadora tonks

Nymphadora Tonks, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

She swears, she has tattoos, she doesn’t give a f**k what you do with your genitals (so long as all parties are consenting); but she’s as vigilant as ever, because if she lets up for a minute, the kids might break out in behaviour the creators of Big Mouth wouldn’t hesitate to characterize as shameful: victim-blaming, whitesplaining, deadnaming, voting Republican…

***

As a lonely occupant of the zone of intersection on the Venn diagram “Watches Big Mouth / Follows American Conservative blogger Rod Dreher”, I’m probably the only who thought of the Shame Wizard while reading this review of Dreher’s book The Benedict Option.

In a characteristically way-too-freakingly long chapter-by-chapter analysis, the neoreactionary blogger known as Handle takes on Dreher’s argument that if traditional Christians want to preserve their lifestyle in the coming secular age, they must, like Saint Benedict, find new ways to set themselves apart from mainstream culture. While Dreher is usually attacked as a gloom-monger, Handle thinks he’s far too upbeat about Christianity’s prospects for survival.

The Benedict Option was inspired in part by Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, whose premise Handle questions:

Ask whether it makes sense that virtue is being undermined to critically low levels at the same time that “virtue signaling” is exploding in frequency of usage. … One can’t signal arbitrary, individualized virtues.

Dreher has been taken in, he argues, by all that obsolete sixties jive about finding your own path and letting your freak flag fly. From a Christian viewpoint it may seem like the rules are dissolving into a free-flowing state of (one of Dreher’s catchphrases) liquid modernity. Whereas in fact:

[Christianity is not] being eroded by a neutral, empty, nothing of relativism with … individualist secularism as the end point. Instead, it is simply being replaced by a new ideology … with its own mythologies, orthodoxies, and an endless efflorescence of sacred norms, rules, and regulated status relations.

According to Handle, that old conservative bogeyman moral relativism had its heyday

during what we can now appreciate to have been merely an intermediate phase of our political evolution. It characterized an early stage of the diffusion of a minority elite ideology into the cultural mainstream, until that ideology established sufficient levels of adoption and dominance to encourage its proponents to switch gears.

Or as I put it (somewhat more concisely) in a book review a while back:

Some of us are old enough to remember when the Left represented resistance to mob freakouts over sacrilege and indecency; we imagined this was a question of principle, not opportunism. Now it’s obvious that my young adulthood happened to coincide with a period of uncertainty between the collapse of one set of taboos, and the rise of another.

I’m beginning to realize how lucky I was to grow up in that period of uncertainty between the old order and the new. With the two sides evenly balanced, the lines stable, the true believers dug into their respective trenches, life away from the front could proceed largely undisturbed. In fact there was a lively trade in the intellectual surplus of both sides: the classics of the beleaguered Christian civilization, whose beauty was still universally recognized, as well as the products of the encroaching army, crass and potty-mouthed but with a certain tacky vitality. But now the lines have been breached, Christians are in full flight, progressive armies are blitzing across the countryside, and anyone who doesn’t show the proper flag risks being shot on sight.

No doubt progressives who arrived here expecting a discussion of the show Big Mouth will reject the above take on current events. They’ll say either (or sometimes both) that Dreher is cherry-picking isolated incidents of Social Justice craziness to exaggerate the threat to traditional Christianity, or that traditional Christianity is the real threat and needs to be crushed by doubling down on Social Justice.

I’d remind them that the right-wing positions they find most enraging – that illegal immigrants are lawbreakers, that marriage should be between a man and a woman, that freedom of speech means defending speakers you don’t agree with – were only declared out of bounds a couple years back, and weren’t even considered especially right-wing while I was growing up. Progressives have overrun a vast amount of territory in a short period of time, and if they feel vulnerable right now it’s only because the 2016 Trump breakthrough made them realize their forces are spread pretty thin. I think Dreher’s right, though: the traditionalists’ occasional victories on the political front are irrelevant when the cultural rout is ongoing.

The war will be wrapped up in time, and there’s no reason to think we won’t adapt to the victors’ “sacred norms, rules, and regulated status relations” just as non-believers adapted to the previous ones. Those who mouth the new pieties will be tolerated; those who don’t will be scorned as unrefined buffoons, or shamed out of their careers, or who knows, maybe tossed in jail. Most art will go on being terrible, but some artists will find ways to create beauty despite the restrictions imposed by the guardians of morality: whether you or I, if we lived long enough, would find their creations beautiful or even comprehensible, is harder to say.

Now, there’s a real chance that the new order will prove to be inferior to the old older it’s replacing: but lacking the convictions of either group of believers, I don’t really know what I mean by “inferior”. Will people be happy under progressive rule? Will their lives be enjoyably peaceful, or stimulatingly chaotic? Will they be fruitful and multiply? Will their offspring go forth and colonize the uncivilized parts of the world?

So you can see why I’m sitting out the fight. I don’t want the traditionalists to win, anyway, I just want them to take back enough ground to re-establish the uneasy stalemate that characterized my earlier years. I doubt that’s in the cards.

Despite the paranoid fantasies of some progressives, Christians will never again have cultural supremacy in the west – which, again, is fine with me – but personally, I hope Dreher and his followers manage to carve out a few retreats where they can keep on doing their own weird thing.

M.

On the other hand, a dozen years ago I worried that religious conservatives’ high birthrates would lead to their demographically overwhelming secular civilization. Six years later I began to wonder what would happen if the West’s low birthrates spread to the rest of the world. By 2016 it had dawned on me that I’d been ignoring a growing habit of insularity and obliviousness within my own urban, irreligious tribe.


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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