Posts Tagged 'steve sailer'

Yielding results.

I’ve been trying without much success to write an essay about Francis Fukuyama’s widely misunderstood 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man, and how it’s more ambivalent about the apparent triumph of liberal democracy than its conservative critics tend to recognize.

This article in City Journal, “A Primal Struggle for Dominance”, seemed to promise an engagement with Fukuyamian themes. (One of the chapters in The End of History is titled “In the Beginning, a Battle to the Death for Pure Prestige”.) But it was less relevant than I’d hoped. The author, Robert Henderson, rounds up some research illustrating the unsurprising fact that the breakdown of status hierarchies tends to lead to violence – and predicts that, given the ongoing delegitimization of police and other authority figures, the current spasm of leftist street brawling is likely to continue.

As part of his discussion of the stability of hierarchies, Henderson observes that while animals of unequal size are unlikely to do each other much harm when scrapping over food or territory – because the smaller one will quickly submit – in cases where the animals are evenly matched the fight may drag on, leading to serious injury.

In human society our methods for determining dominance are a little more subtle, but size still plays a part. Henderson points to a Dutch study showing that when two pedestrians of the same sex and approximate age approached each other in a narrow passageway partially blocked by scaffolding, the shorter one gave way to the taller 75% of the time.

In a variation of the above experiment, the Dutch researchers enlisted subjects of various heights to walk against the flow of pedestrian traffic and record how often oncoming pedestrians altered course to avoid them. They determined that people were more likely to alter their course to avoid, and less likely to bump into, taller subjects of either sex.

Reading this study, I was reminded of a post from Steve Sailer’s blog last year that highlighted complementary articles from the world of Grievance Journalism.

First there was Greg Howard, a black man writing for the New York Times, who complained about white women crowding him off the sidewalk by declining to make room when they saw him approaching:

Why haven’t I ever just walked headlong into a rude white woman? What lessons tug at me, force me off the sidewalk, tell me that my personal space is not necessarily mine? Because explicit in every white woman’s decision not to get out of my way is the expectation that I’ll get out of theirs.

Then there was Charlotte Riley in The New Statesman, complaining that it was men who “have been socialized, for their entire lives, to take up space” who were crowding women off the sidewalk, and that to even the score she now refused to give way:

You need to really commit to Patriarchy Chicken: don’t let your social instinct to step to the side kick in. Men are going to walk into you: that isn’t your fault.

Sailer imagined a game show called Intersectional Intersection in which various minority, gender non-conforming, undocumented, differently-abled, and otherwise marginalized people would approach each other from opposite directions to see who yielded to whom.

These articles stuck in my memory because around the same time, after spending the afternoon in a heavily Chinese neighbourhood here in Metro Vancouver, I was temporarily convinced that Chinese women were obnoxiously hogging the sidewalk.

Three, maybe four times that afternoon, as I approached Chinese women walking singly or in small groups, rather than scooching over to make room for me to pass, they barrelled straight ahead like I wasn’t there, obliging me to step off the pavement onto the muddy grass.

The next day, back in my own neighbourhood, it happened again, and I found myself thinking, maybe Chinese women just don’t know how to bloody well walk.

Luckily, I was familiar with the concept (although I had to Google the term) of apophenia – the natural human tendency to perceive patterns in random data.

Otherwise I might have done something truly embarrassing, like publish a clickbait article about how insufferably privileged Chinese women were, and how I was therefore entitled to retaliate with antisocial behaviour of my own.

***

I’d watch Intersectional Intersection: I’d be curious to see who’d win. But the results wouldn’t have much scientific validity.

It’s certainly possible that different nations, different subcultures, different genders, have different attitudes to sharing public spaces. Maybe men, maybe white people, really do tend to hog the sidewalk. As a white guy, I’d be the last to notice.

The Dutch height study gives us some ideas for the design of an experiment that might settle the question:

• We’ll need a location with a large number of pedestrians passing each other in a narrow space, while unaware that they’re under observation.

• The pedestrians will have somehow to be categorized by race, gender, or other relevant demographic category. In the Dutch study, there was no interaction with the subjects – the observers assessed their height, gender, and approximate age from a concealed position across the street. With race – nowadays even with gender – this would obviously present problems. Perhaps we could chase people down after they’ve cleared the observation zone, and ask which race, gender, or marginalized group they identify with. I imagine we’ll get a lot of rebuffs from impatient or irritable subjects, whose data will then have to be thrown out. Will this skew the results?

• We’ll need to grade each interaction according to who yielded, which will mean agreeing on how much lateral movement counts as “yielding”. The Dutch study cleverly took advantage of an obstacle that allowed only one pedestrian to pass at a time.

• And ideally, unlike the Dutch study – conducted in a single “mid-size city in the north of the Netherlands” – our experiment should be conducted at multiple locations, with different population mixes, to see how each group’s YQ (Yieldingness Quotient) varies in majority, minority, and evenly-mixed situations.

Alternatively, we could simply ask subjects to report who tends to crowd them off the sidewalk, and discover – what a scoop! – that it’s members of the group against whom they already have a grudge.

M.

My old post on whether crosswalk timers cause car accidents seems vaguely relevant to today’s theme; likewise this more recent entry on the social pressure to turn right on a red light. In 2019 I described an incident of cross-cultural confusion on a crowded bus that could, if I were a maniac, be spun into a generalization about racial privilege.

Dumb Yanks and witty Brits.

A while back I found myself getting nettled by a video posted to the comment section of Steve Sailer’s blog. Given the number of kooky conspiracy theories and racist rants to be found there, it might surprise you that the cause of my irritation was this clip of British TV personalities Jeremy Clarkson and Michael McIntyre joking about crosswalk signals.

I’d never heard of McIntyre, and Clarkson’s name I only vaguely knew – it seems he is the former host of a long-running TV show about automobiles. In view of the hundreds of cars of various makes and national origins which he must have driven, I suppose I must defer to Clarkson’s expertise when he asserts that,

American cars always have the words for what it is written on it, on the switches – it says “cigarette lighter”, “horn”, “lights” – whereas everywhere else in the world, where there are other languages, it’s symbols.

I’ve never noticed this, but I can’t say I’ve paid all that much attention to the labels on the dashboards of the various cars I’ve driven over the years – except when I’ve had to consult the owner’s manual for an explanation of a baffling warning light.

But what I found irritating was Clarkson’s crack that the use of written words instead of pictograms was an illustration of “how stupid [Americans] are”.

I know, I know. The two Brits were only indulging in a bit of mild national stereotyping: Germans are control freaks, Frenchmen are pretentious and chic, and Americans are dim-witted boobs. If it were the Americans who used pictograms, while the rest of the world used text, that too would be adduced as evidence of their dim-wittedness. “Americans – too simple to read four letter words,” Clarkson would declare, and the audience would cackle happily.

My fellow Canadians are equally happy to pass rude comments about our southern neighbours, and it annoys the hell out of me – especially since, unlike the Brits, proud possessors of a rich and largely self-sufficient national culture, we import most of our TV, movies, music, and literature from the States. That jackass you overheard at Second Cup sneering about Walmart-shopping, Big Mac-addicted American morons probably spent the weekend watching Better Call Saul, listening to Lana Del Rey, and reading Slate.

***

In a recent essay I discussed a very politically incorrect old story by G.K. Chesterton, featuring his amateur sleuth Father Brown.

The story, “The God of the Gongs”, concerns a Jamaican boxer who is secretly the chief priest of a voodoo murder cult. When we first encounter the boxer he’s done up in fancy attire and swanking out the door on his way to a big match. Chesterton comments,

And in the way he carried his cane in one hand and his cigar in the other there was a certain attitude – an attitude we must always remember when we talk of racial prejudices: something innocent and insolent – the cake walk.

This “attitude” is so provoking to Father Brown’s friend and sidekick Flambeau that he comments, “I’m not surprised that they lynch them.” (The priest gently rebukes him.) You see what I mean about the story being politically incorrect.

Anyway, in my earlier essay I glossed over the bit about the cake walk. Nowadays the expression is usually used as a synonym for “a piece of cake” – a task so unchallenging that you don’t even break a sweat.

But it originated as a dance performed by black slaves in the American south, supposedly in mocking imitation of the dances of white folks. These slave dances were organized into contests where the winner would receive a cake.

The dance survived at least into the 1920s – jazz fans may be familiar with the old Louis Armstrong number “Cake Walking Babies From Home”. How well-acquainted an English audience would have been with the cake walk, I’m not sure. I suspect Chesterton used the term to vaguely signify all kinds of energetic black dancing.

If I’m understanding him correctly, when Chesterton refers to the “attitude we must always remember when we talk of racial prejudices” he means that racial prejudices are rarely wholly false. In this case, the “innocent and insolent” attitude of the boxer is illustrative of some widely shared racial characteristic of black people, also exhibited in the cake walk.

Before you get too mad at Chesterton, I’d point out that back in his day, German and French were also considered “races”, and that he’d use a similar argument to defend the ethnic stereotyping in that BCC talk show clip.

I have no idea, by the way, whether Chesterton believed that racial characteristics were inborn or culturally transmitted. At that time, remember, it was progressives who were obsessed with harnessing the new science of heredity, while fusty old reactionaries like Chesterton (and, over in America, William Jennings Bryan) insisted that all men were equal in the eyes of God.

(But I’m sure whatever Chesterton’s opinion, it would have been expressed in terms that would outrage the same audience that found Michael McIntyre’s stereotyping of Germans and Frenchmen hilarious.)

Nowadays nearly everyone, besides a few dissidents like Steve Sailer, professes to believe that behaviour is determined solely by culture. I’m sure Jeremy Clarkson would be appalled if anyone interpreted his comments about the stupidity of Americans to mean that he thought Americans were hereditarily predisposed to have lower IQs.

No no no, he’d say, it’s their stupid culture that makes Americans stupid.

***

There’s a shortcut I sometimes take that passes by the side of the library. Often you’ll see groups of homeless guys hanging out on the benches there.

One day a few weeks back, the homeless guys were amusing themselves by heckling the passersby. “Hey, watch out,” one of them said as I approached. “This guy’s gonna beat us up. Are you gonna beat us up?”

“I’ll try and restrain myself,” I replied genially, walking past them.

Then one of them came up with a heckle that was surprisingly on-the-nose. “D’joo do the – the – the New York crossword puzzle?” he yelled after me.

I just kept walking. I was, in fact, on my way to the coffeeshop to read the paper and do the crossword.

Maybe the guy had noticed me before doing a crossword. I can often be spotted on coffeeshop patios around here doing just that.

But the fact that he specified the “New York crossword puzzle” – by which presumably he meant the New York Times crossword – made me wonder. In this guy’s mind, what did the New York Times crossword signify?

I have a friend who used to watch the filmed-in-Vancouver fantasy show Supernatural. As near as I can tell, it’s like Buffy the Vampire Slayer if you replaced all the cute girls with dreamy floppy-haired boys, then made the scripts about 50% dumber.

My friend told me about an episode where a character called Sam was working undercover as a bartender. A co-worker was intrigued when she noticed Sam doing a crossword puzzle – “the notoriously difficult New York Times Saturday crossword”, as Supernatural Wiki glossed the scene – from which she concluded that this mysterious stranger was “obviously highly educated”.

My friend scoffed because she knew that I did the Saturday puzzle all the time, and she also knew that – well, first off, that I’m far from highly educated; but more to the point, that I’m kind of a dummy.

I’m trying to be delicate about this because there are people out there who’ve never managed to finish the Saturday puzzle – I used to be one myself – and who will be annoyed if I disparage it as an unworthy intellectual challenge. They’ll assume that I’m snobbishly flaunting my high IQ.

So listen: I’ve never taken an IQ test. I assume that if I did I’d score around the middle of the pack.

I read a lot. I have a decent memory for certain kinds of trivia. But I struggle with tasks requiring the most elementary math, like doing my taxes, or figuring out which size of M&Ms package has the lowest per-M&M price.

I can’t tell a joke to save my life. I can’t give an intelligible account of the plot of a movie ten minutes after I’ve finished watching it. I’m hopeless at games of strategy like chess or Risk. Words and names I remember. It’s sequential thinking that trips me up.

Which is probably why so many of my blog posts – including this one – consist of a series of short, disconnected thoughts, thrown together with only the most half-hearted attempt at organization.

The point is that my extremely middling intelligence is sufficient for me to solve the “notoriously difficult” Saturday New York Times crossword, usually in about twenty minutes.

And if I’m feeling smug after this feat, all I have to do is flip over to the London Times cryptic to be reminded again how stupid I am.

saturday new york times crossword july 4 2020 sunday times cryptic crossword july 26 2020
Compare for yourself: the New York Times crossword and Sunday Times cryptic in the Vancouver Sun, Saturday, Aug. 8, 2020.

***

I have a theory. If you don’t like it, don’t worry, there’s another one coming along in a few paragraphs.

My theory is that outsiders tend to think American culture is dumb because we’re subjected to so much of it. Hollywood so dominates the global entertainment racket that we can’t escape from its products – from middlebrow costume dramas to CGI superhero epics right down to the latest direct-to-Netflix masterpiece Adam Sandler farted out over the long weekend.

It’s not that American culture is dominated by dumb garbage. Every culture is dominated by dumb garbage. (Sturgeon’s Law: “90% of everything is crud.”) It’s just that no other culture has so much power to sluice its garbage directly into foreigners’ brains.

The British produce all sorts of garbage – tawdry reality shows, formulaic sitcoms, vapid pop music. On this side of the Atlantic, we see only a trickle of it. It’s crowded out by American garbage, which is no better or worse than the British variety, just easier for us to absorb, because it speaks to us in homey accents and familiar slang.

When we in North America think of British culture, we’re not thinking of the whole of British culture. We’re thinking only of the small selection of it that American media companies thought we’d be interested enough to pay to see. It’s not all great – a lot of it, like the Harry Potter books, is in fact pretty dopey. But most of the low-quality, instantly forgettable junk has been filtered out.

It’s like how when we think of movies from Hollywood’s golden age we tend to think of immortal classics like Casablanca or All About Eve, rather than the hundreds of movies Hollywood churned out every year that were forgotten before the stars’ names came down from the marquee. If we were to travel back to the 1940s and go to the pictures a couple times a week we’d quickly realize that, actually, most of those pictures were crap. But time has filtered the crap out.

There’s a similar filter hanging across the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Most of Britain’s crap gets caught in the filter. But America’s crap is projected with so much force that a fair bit of it squeezes through.

(I’d add that American cultural products that are projected less forcefully – by which I mean those that don’t have big money behind them – get caught in the same mid-Atlantic filter. Thus a lot of the more idiosyncratic stuff that might force snooty Brits to adjust their stereotypes about America, they never get a chance to see.)

Okay, that’s one theory. Here’s an alternative one: Brits think American culture is dumber because American culture is, in fact, dumber.

This isn’t necessarily because Americans are dumber than Brits – though it should be mentioned that, both in comparisons of international test scores and in estimates of mean national IQ, the UK comes out a little ahead of America.

However, the same Brits who sneer at American stupidity are likely to be made extremely uneasy by the presence of a bunch of Third World countries at the bottom of the international test score rankings: that’s not the kind of stereotyping that gets big laffs from BBC talk show audiences.

So let’s throw out all that nasty psychometric data and concentrate on what’s really at issue here: creationist theme parks, non-socialized health care, the Second Amendment, and other such cultural manifestations which we shall prove scientifically to be, you know…dumb.

***

A few years back I embarked on what I thought was a straightforward project to determine whether, in the previous decade, there had been more movies made about World War II or the Global War on Terror.

I spent countless hours skimming the Wikipedia plot summaries of obscure films and recording my results in a tidy spreadsheet. Eventually I came to the conclusion that my question was meaningless. Depending on how I defined “movie”, how I defined “about”, and how I defined the conflicts in question, I could jigger my data to achieve whichever result I preferred.

If I wanted to tilt my results in favour of World War II, I could limit my database to the kind of big-budget productions that could afford period costumes and special effects. If I wanted to include more War on Terror movies, well, that conflict was usefully amorphous – any number of vaguely terrorist-themed shoot-’em-ups could be lassoed in.

I consider this abandoned project to have been an invaluable use of my time. It has taught me to be extremely skeptical of any study whose results might be used to prove a political point and whose data set the researchers have the leeway to define.

terrorism falling furniture graph slate star codex

Image source: “Terrorists Vs. Chairs: An Outlier Story”, Slate Star Codex, 2016.

Imagine that one were to attempt to prove the statement, “British culture is more sophisticated than American culture”. Every single term in that statement is open to interpretation – even, to get Clintonian about it, “the meaning of the word is”.

After all, a national culture doesn’t consist only of the literature, music, and art that a nation is producing at this very moment. It extends backwards into time. The modern Greeks, by virtue of having had Homer and Plato and the Parthenon passed down to them from their distant ancestors, enjoy a far more elevated culture than they would if they were forced to fill up their libraries and museums from scratch.

Likewise, modern Britain gets a good deal of elevation from having Shakespeare in its past, even if the average Brit can quote more lines of Love Actually than of Hamlet.

Since we tend, when we think of culture, to think first of symphonies, poems, and cathedrals, rather than advertising jingles, taqueria menus, and big box stores – although in fact culture comprises the chintzy and transient as much as it does the glorious and immortal – Britain’s culture appears richer than America’s simply because of its thousand-year head start.

Does the UK enjoy an unfair advantage from having all those monuments and leatherbound books lying around radiating classiness?

Or does all that mossy old junk actually disincentivize achievement, by making young people feel that everything’s been done already, so why bother trying?

***

Forget the past. Let’s stick to what’s being churned out right now. How might we go about comparing the sophistication level of modern-day British and American culture?

One approach might be to estimate the level of intelligence needed to comprehend cultural products that occupy a similar niche in each country. Is it true, as my own experiences would lead me to suspect, that you have to be substantially smarter to solve the Times cryptic crossword than you have to be to solve the Saturday New York Times crossword?

If so, does this prove that British crossword puzzlers are smarter than American ones – or merely that British puzzle page editors are more elitist than American ones?

Whichever it is, crossword fans and puzzle page editors are hardly a representative sample of the wider population. Let’s expand the scope beyond the puzzle page. Suppose you were to conduct a textual analysis of a year’s worth of stories from the ten highest-circulation newspapers in each country, comparing vocabulary, grammatical complexity, the frequency and type of literary allusions, and so forth. Would this analysis be more meaningful?

us versus uk newspapers by circulation

Top newspapers by paid circulation, USA and UK.

The Yanks might easily come out ahead in such a contest: many of the biggest papers in the UK are lowbrow tabloids, a market niche that is served in the States primarily by magazines.

However, a motivated researcher could easily widen or narrow the data set to give the British side a leg up. Maybe instead of circulation figures, you could look at the most influential newspapers – defining “influential” by incoming links, or Twitter mentions, or journalism prizes, or whatever.

And if that still doesn’t lead to the results you want, well, who pays any attention to newspapers these days? Maybe a side-by-side comparison of primetime TV lineups would be more pertinent…or the most popular podcasts…or the most-followed celebrities’ Twitter feeds…

***

Suppose an unimaginably powerful A.I. could somehow hoover up and analyze all the text, speeches, tweets, Instagram captions, comic books, signage, infographics, computer code, mathematics, movies, music – every product of human intelligence emitted by each country over a clearly defined period – average it all out, and assign a numerical grade. Would even this number be meaningful?

Consider music. Some of the most “sophisticated” stuff – at least measured by the apparent IQ level of the people who claim to enjoy it – is uncomplicated to the point of banality: droning classical of the Philip Glass and John Adams variety; purposely sloppy art-rock in the tradition of the Velvet Underground and Captain Beefheart; even the swaggering rap lyrics whose untutored exuberance our cultural betters swoon over.

I can’t understand their enthusiasms, but then, neither can I understand people who are into Wagner. My best guess is that some people regard music-listening much as I regard solving the crossword puzzle – it’s only rewarding if there’s some level of difficulty. Any bozo can hum along to a Beatles tune, but to enjoy Tristan und Isolde or Trout Mask Replica you must conquer your body’s natural resistance – boredom in the first case, annoyance in the second – in order to discover the patterns and variations that, in “easier” compositions by Bach or Duke Ellington, are apparent at first hearing.

Apply this logic to other cultural artifacts and it leads to hilarity. Sure, Boris Johnson can quote from memory, in the original Greek, sizeable chunks of The Iliad – but only a middlebrow would be impressed by such virtuosity. Any bozo can learn a few lines of verse in a foreign language – heck, I’ll trot over to the mall food court and round up a half-dozen Chinese immigrant kids who know all the words to “W.A.P.”

On the other hand, the genius of a Trump rally speech, assembled on the fly out of schoolyard taunts, self-promotion, and Seinfeldian observations about life’s minutiae – that’s visible only to the cognoscenti.

***

But I’m getting off track. After piling up a couple thousand words attempting to disprove the proposition that British culture is in any way more conducive to sophistication than American, I might as well admit that deep down I suspect that the proposition is actually true.

It’s not that Brits are smarter. It’s just that British culture seems to offer a bit more headroom in the upper range of the upper middlebrow – the area somewhat above my own browline, where you’ll find perfectly ordinary, unpretentious, bright folks like the ones who solve the Times cryptic crossword.

I can’t prove this proposition. It’s just a rough guess, based on intuition and anecdotal evidence – the kind of shaky conclusion you’d expect from a guy down here in mid-middlebrow territory, among the other New York Times crossword people.

M.

Speaking of pictograms as a marker of intelligence, a few weeks back I pondered the meaning of the elephant of Han Fei. In 2018 I considered the role of the thesaurus in helping authors create the illusion of effortless verbal fluency. And in 2015 I contrasted Bertrand Russell and G.K. Chesterton’s opinions on the “narrowness” of small-town life.

 

Urban rethink.

If there’s one thing the pandemic has proven, it’s that we were right about everything all along.

Those of us who admired the Chinese government have found new reasons for admiration. Those of us who distrusted the Chinese government have found new reasons for distrust.

Those of us who fretted about deficits now have even bigger deficits to fret about. Those of us who favoured bigger government are certain that the current crisis has vindicated our arguments.

And those of us who argued for “taking space away from cars and using it for people” are more committed than ever to the cause…

I happen to like density, public transportation, and walkable neighbourhoods. So I’m not too vexed by the news that the City of Vancouver is using the pandemic as an excuse to do more of what it was doing already:

[T]he pandemic is creating opportunities, council heard Wednesday, like the massive reduction in cars driving and parking, allowing the city to make strides on long-standing goals of promoting active transportation for a more healthy, happy, environmentally friendly city.

But I had to laugh at the headline of the above story as it appeared in the print version of Thursday’s Sun:

pandemic forces urban rethink vancouver sun

“Pandemic forces urban rethink”, by Dan Fumano, Vancouver Sun, May 14, 2020.

What would an “urban rethink” actually look like?

Richard J. Williams argued in the New York Times earlier this month that the mid-20th century trend towards sprawl and suburbanization was driven largely by still-fresh memories of poor sanitation and plague in overcrowded big cities:

If density was disease for modernists, it followed that their cities were about keeping people apart. Look back at the utopian schemes for cities of the first half of the 20th century, and the same hygienic preoccupations come up again and again: There must be light and space and fresh air. The Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier wrote about these things in his book “Vers Une Architecture” (translated as “Towards a New Architecture”). Parts of the book read like comedy now – the author’s attempt to turn his own obsession with hygiene into an avant-garde manifesto. But it was serious when it was published in 1923, the Spanish flu pandemic having just run its course.

As the new millennium approached, and concern about hygiene receded, the old wisdom that crowded sidewalks were dirty and unsightly was supplanted by the conviction that density was terrific, that every family should be grateful to live in an 800 sq. ft. townhouse and ride the subway to work, and that the previous generation of planners who had pulled down tenements to build freeways and public housing projects were frauds and bullies and probably racists to boot.

But now, of course, it looks like hygiene is something we have to worry about again, so planners may drift back to sprawl and suburbanization:

The dense city might not turn out to be responsible for the virus when all is said and done – but as it did a century ago in relation to the Spanish flu, it might well start to feel like a cause. After months of social distancing, are we going to want to go straight back into the crowd? Even if we are allowed to, I doubt it.

With arguments like these gaining traction – here’s Steve Sailer elaborating on the Times article, and Joel Kotkin and Marshall Toplansky making a similar case in Quillette – I wonder if Vancouver city staff will be forced to re-evaluate their priorities.

Take the Broadway subway that finally got the go-ahead last year, which will, upon its planned completion in 2025, fill an annoying gap in Vancouver’s SkyTrain network. Might it be postponed or cancelled outright when politicians are forced to grapple with the deficits that have been piling up during the shutdown?

There is a trendy line of thought that says – I hope I’m getting this right – that deficits don’t matter, that since governments control the supply of money they can print more whenever they need it, and that inflation can be controlled by simply regulating prices. Therefore we should spend our way back to prosperity with massive public works projects like subways and bridges, the costlier the better.

But if it turns out that public transit was a significant vector of infection – which at the moment looks plausible, though far from proven – then it may be foolish to continue building hugely expensive subways that no-one will be very eager to ride. There are more hygienic megaprojects that can be bumped to the top of the to-do list.

In BC’s Lower Mainland, a region of rivers and inlets, there’s always a demand for more bridges and tunnels:

  • Work had already begun in 2017 to replace the antique and overcrowded Massey Tunnel under the Fraser River with a new bridge, before the project was booted back into consultations with the change of government. It would be easy to get it back on track.
  • The new government also squashed hopes for a bridge to the Sunshine Coast, with the district’s MLA saying “it would not provide value for money”. But the study he was referring to specifically excluded “consideration of economic development benefits”, which could always be factored back in to justify reviving the idea.
  • If those projects aren’t ambitious enough, we could always take another look at the old, old dream of a fixed link between Vancouver Island and the mainland.

Over in the UK there’s the so-called Boris bridge. In 2018 Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s idea for an English Channel bridge came to nothing, but now that he’s prime minister, civil servants are obliged to take his whims seriously – so they’re at least going through the motions of considering a 20-mile-long, £20 billion bridge over the Irish Sea to join Scotland and Northern Ireland. Last I heard, the Scottish government was bitching that London hadn’t consulted them before undertaking the study.

boris bridge northern ireland scotland

“Boris bridge”, as visualized by The Sun.

Now, assuming it’s technically possible, I don’t think the bridge is such a bad idea. But it’s unlikely to be built, not just because of the eye-popping price tag but also because, with the UK’s devolved parliaments in Edinburgh and Belfast, the project would be scuppered by the same kind of grandstanding, blame-shifting, and legal obstructionism that make it nigh-impossible to build any infrastructure across an interprovincial border in Canada.

But if in the aftermath of the virus London is looking for something big, bold, and labour-intensive to lift British spirits – and to put a ton of potential Tory voters to work – then a massive bridge that travellers cross in their own hermetically-sealed automobiles might look better than, say, a £106 billion high-speed rail network that could end up whooshing half-empty trains past idling queues of resentful auto commuters.

M.

Speaking of bridges and tunnels, the BC government has embarked on yet another study of a rapid transit link to the North Shore; I touched on one of the previous studies last year when looking at some abandoned SkyTrain schemes. A couple weeks back I wondered whether, given the current difficulties getting infrastructure built, an un-building project might be an easier sell. I’ve mentioned Le Corbusier once before, in an essay that attempted to extract a consistent definition of that perennial media bugbear “populism”.

Reclassifications: Parasite, The Million Pound Note, and My Man Godfrey.

Since I cancelled Netflix a couple months back I’ve been keeping myself busy watching old movies for free on YouTube. You can find quite a few, once you know where to look.

Among the vaguely recognized names to whom I’ve finally been able to assign faces are two that have always blurred together in my mind, Hedy Lamarr and Dorothy Lamour. I’ve now watched three or four movies starring each, and I’ll have no trouble identifying Lamour in future: she had a very distinctive face.

But I’m still not sure I’ll recognize Hedy Lamarr.

Nowadays Lamarr is more famous for her side career as an inventor, which led (in collaboration with some other fellow, whose name is politely deprecated) to a radio dingus that anticipated the development of modern wireless technology. Hardly anyone watches her movies any more, but she’s lately become a figurehead for women in science, a twist that would no doubt have surprised audiences in the 1930s who knew her primarily for, as she put it, standing still and looking stupid.

She’s gorgeous, of course. The problem is she doesn’t really look like anything in particular. She’s so flawless that there’s no one feature for your eye to rest on. Watching her movies, I find that only when she opens her mouth – she had a pretty heavy Austrian accent – can I say definitively, “Oh, there’s Hedy Lamarr.”

hedy lamarr weight loss ad life magazine 1952

Hedy Lamarr, in a 1952 issue of Life, promotes a “safe, healthful” weight-loss solution called – no joke – Ayds.

I have this trouble a lot watching old movies. I think I’m only averagely bad at telling faces apart, but when a movie is full of square-jawed, clean-shaven, dark-haired white guys wearing hats, if there’s not some quirky mannerism or distinctive article of dress to differentiate them, I tend to forget which is which. It’s somewhat less difficult with women, because more variety was permitted in their hair and clothing; also, there were usually fewer females in the cast, so fewer opportunities for confusion.

Now, there’s much to be said for suits and hats – they’re more flattering to the male figure than the cargo shorts and flip-flops that fellows slouch around in these days – as well as much to be said against them, at least in the heat of summer. But one of the side effects of living in a society where everyone has pretty much the same wardrobe and hairstyle, I imagine, is that you become more attentive to distinctions that would be invisible to outsiders. Where everyone wears the same suit, you learn to pay attention to the tie.

As I’ve discussed before, I’m not sold on the many miracles attributed to the modern-day holy trinity of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. But there is at least one concrete benefit to populating our movies with a wider range of physical types. It’s not that racial diversity is necessary to helping audiences tell the characters apart: watching Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, with its 100% Korean cast, I never had a problem keeping track of who was who. But Parasite is an unusually well-constructed film. If Diverse, Equitable, and Inclusive casting makes it easier for Hollywood hacks to project their overcaffeinated visions onto the screen in a way that still lets us tell at a glance which henchman is hanging off the side of the helicopter firing a machine gun at our jetski-riding hero, then I’m for it.

But diversity can increase confusion, too. My favourite of the recent Star Wars movies, Rogue One, was hard enough to follow with its dialogue full of pronouncements like, “We have to go to [random alien planet] to give the [random sci-fi gadget] to [random alien name].” Then someone made the decision to cast a number of non-native-English speakers to garble these nonsense words.

If for some reason it was deemed essential that the Star Wars universe contain not only the full range of earth’s skin tones, but the full range of its foreign accents, at least they could have taken care to assign the bulk of the space gibberish to the Brits and Americans in the cast.

***

Recently Robin Hanson wondered why last year’s arty supervillain origin story Joker was reviewed so much more negatively than Parasite, even though both are well-made, well-acted films that deal with themes of poverty and class rebellion.

Among other theories, Hanson proposed that left-leaning critics resented being asked to sympathize with Joker’s “white male lower class” antihero:

[H]e just appears culturally too close for comfort to their max disliked prototype of loud resentful gun-loving smoking “incels”, 4chan fans, Trump supporters, etc.

Whereas the poor family of Parasite, who insinuate themselves into the lives and household of a rich family, are articulate, well-mannered, upwardly-mobile Asians of the type that media folk are likely to be personally acquainted with. Although lower-class, to Western eyes the Parasite family are not culturally lower-class: in fact their apparently self-disciplined habits raise the question of how they wound up poor in the first place, as Steve Sailer pointed out in his commentary on Hanson’s post:

I really didn’t understand why the poor family in Parasite was inept at doing simple jobs like folding pizza boxes, but then suddenly turned into the Mission Impossible squad when they got a chance to edge in on the rich family.

This inconsistency is hardly unique to Parasite. Off the top of my head I can think of three famous American movies where poor people are elevated serendipitously into the realm of the upper classes:

  • My Man Godfrey, from 1936, in which William Powell’s garbage-dump-dwelling hobo gets a job butlering for a rich family;
  • The Million Pound Note, from 1954, in which Gregory Peck’s penniless American, granted temporary custody of the titular banknote, is promptly embraced by London’s upper crust;
  • Trading Places, from 1983, in which Eddie Murphy’s homeless grifter is installed in Dan Aykroyd’s cushy home and investment banking job.

In all these comedies, as in the semi-comedic Parasite, the poor folks prove themselves adept at mimicking the manners and customs appropriate to their new social positions. By contrast, when a movie concerns a rich person tumbled by fate down among the working classes – say, Ally Sheedy’s narcissistic scenester in Maid To Order – the role usually proves more challenging than he or she expects.

In My Man Godfrey the hero’s effortless mastery of upper-class etiquette is explained when we discover that he is a formerly wealthy man who let himself go after a messy divorce. The movie ends with Godfrey leveraging his recovered social standing to open a fancy nightclub on the site of the former dump, where all his homeless friends are taken on as bartenders and waiters and valets. As he puts it when pitching his scheme, “The only difference between a derelict and a man is a job.”

In a sense that’s true, but if solving poverty were as simple as offering poor people jobs, we’d have licked it long ago. (See point #5 here.) Joker is more realistic in this respect. Arthur Fleck, the mentally damaged hero of that film, can barely maintain the level of decorum appropriate to riding public transit, let alone butlering or investment banking. When Arthur confronts arrogant plutocrat Thomas Wayne, whom he blames for his poverty, we might wish the rich man were more sympathetic, but it’s hard to blame him for being standoffish when accosted by a twitchy stalker in the men’s room.

Like the poor family of Parasite and the dump-dwellers of My Man Godfrey, many of the men and women who spend their days slumped along the storefronts of Vancouver’s Granville Street would prove to be competent and valuable workers, if anyone would take a chance on hiring them. However, employers are understandably reluctant to gamble their reputations, their physical assets, and the safety of their other workers on the ability of their HR personnel to sort out the merely ungroomed from the drug-addled and deranged.

Like Arthur Fleck, these hard cases might feel, with some justice, that they were never really given a fair shot. Many of their problems could be mitigated with the right combination of therapy, medication, and cash freely disbursed. But even with their psychological and financial burdens eased, they’d still be stuck with all the unconscious habits, built up over years of scraping by, that would remind potential employers of the scuzzy, scary subculture to which they belonged.

***

Prejudice gets a bad name, probably because in many people’s minds it’s conflated with race prejudice. Most race prejudice these days is really prejudice against cultural markers like dialect, clothing, customs, and so on; when such prejudices don’t cross racial lines no-one worries too much about them. I can safely flaunt my contempt for mullet wearers, sozzled St. Patrick’s Day revellers, and inbred yahoos from West Virginia, but the rules are different for dreadlocks wearers, Puerto Rican Day parade-goers, and inbred yahoos from Waziristan.

Going by how often I find myself suppressing the urge to roll my eyes at my fellow citizens’ appearance and manners, I’m as prejudice-ridden as anyone. I try to override my prejudgements where they concern superficial traits like garish hair, outlandish clothes, or visible tattoos: I remind myself that, as a middle-aged person among the young, I’m a tourist in a foreign country, where the rules of fashion are different from my own. But where manners are concerned, it’s harder to know where to draw the line. Should I merely shrug and mutter à chacun son goût when I encounter someone littering, or pissing on a wall, or hollering obscenities – or should I adhere to my prejudgement that such a person is likely to be prone to other antisocial and criminal behaviours?

While I know that my prejudgements about the aforementioned denizens of Granville Street are, in many individual cases, wrong, it would be foolish to say that I can deduce nothing about a man’s habits and manners from the fact that I find him stretched out in a sleeping bag in front of Starbucks. People likewise make prejudgements about me. I was approached by two young women in a coffeeshop not long ago. “Would you settle a bet for us?” one asked me. “What do you do?”

“Do?” I said, puzzled.

“Are you a librarian or a professor?”

Based on my appearance – greying beard, rumpled cardigan, pen poised over a crossword puzzle – it would have been surprising if they’d taken me for an up-and-coming rap star, or a corporate lawyer, or a long-haul trucker. No doubt they could have ventured other guesses about my habits and personal history, some correct: I am a vegetarian with an interest in old movies who maintains an obscure blog; others flat wrong: I have only a high school education, my politics lean more right than left, and as for what I do…

“I’m unemployed,” I said through a tight smile.

“You’re a what?”

Un-em-ployed,” I icily enunciated. I could have told the girls (who giggled nervously and hurried away) that I was a writer, which would have been just as true and less embarrassing for all of us; but like most people I resent being stereotyped, even when I have invited it by knowingly presenting myself as a stereotype.

The world is marvelously variegated, and somewhere out there is an aspiring rapper who wears rumpled cardigans and enjoys crossword puzzles. In our daily lives we leave some wiggle room in our prejudgements to allow for such anomalies. Those who leave insufficient wiggle room, who draw conclusions too broad from outward appearances, will soon get a reputation for cloddishness; but those who leave too much wiggle room, who ignore or overlook the signals sent by strangers’ accents, clothes, and manners, will wind up stuck in a lot of pointless and frustrating interactions, and occasionally get themselves into danger.

***

Besides the practical matter of figuring out who’s who, it’s sometimes hard, when watching old movies, to tell what subtleties of behaviour and social class are being communicated by a character’s wardrobe and accessories. Why is the doorman giving that guy’s overcoat the cocked eyebrow? Is that dame’s low-cut gown meant to appear glamourous, or tawdry? What is the meaning of that hat?

When we’re introduced to Gregory Peck in The Million Pound Note he’s clean-shaven, with slightly shaggy hair, and dressed in faded blue jeans, an open-collar shirt, and a black pea coat. Something like this:

robert redford three days of the condor pea coat

Some fella in a pea coat. Image source.

You caught me: that’s not Gregory Peck, it’s Robert Redford in Three Days of the Condor. Redford plays a low-level CIA analyst, a “desk-bound ex-military bookworm” who gets swept up in a spook civil war. He looks so sharp getting chased around Manhattan in his pea-coat-and-sideburns combo that a half-century later the film still gets referenced in fashion blogs like the ones linked above.

In The Million Pound Note Peck plays a hobo. Granted, his coat is somewhat shabbier than Redford’s, and he has neglected to flip up its collar, as pea coat suavity requires:

gregory peck the million pound note

Gregory Peck in The Million Pound Note. Image source.

The difference is that The Million Pound Note is set not in laid-back mid-1970s New York but in uptight Edwardian London. We can readily discern Peck’s lowly social standing by how much less natty he is than all the other gents in the movie.

A couple years back, in another extremely discursive post inspired by Hollywood, I made the mundane point that a story is not a solid object but a cloud, whose shape varies when viewed from the perspectives of different cultures and eras.

When we repurpose old stories we gather in armfuls of cloud, believing we’re taking the parts that matter; but the further we are from wherever and whenever the story was created, the likelier we are to remake the cloud into forms the creator would find unrecognizable.

I gave as an example Spider-Man, who, whatever else may change about him – his costume, his superpowers, his skin colour – has thus far always been a New Yorker:

We intuit that New York means something to the Spider-Man mythos. What it means depends on our distance from and familiarity with New York. I’m sure Chinese audiences couldn’t care less which American city Spider-Man swings through, any more than we worry about where exactly in China the Monkey King’s adventures take place.

Like his pea coat, Gregory Peck’s accent means something to the plot of The Million Pound Note: when he flashes his banknote, waiters and shop clerks conclude that the shabbily-dressed foreigner must be an eccentric American millionaire, of the kind they’ve read about in the papers.

To the modern viewer, Peck’s American accent is obvious, if a little antique-sounding. (I have a friend, a native English speaker not much younger than me, who claims to have trouble following the dialogue in Hollywood movies from the 1940s and earlier.) But future film historians may have to resort to creative subtitling to get the point across, just as translators of Lysistrata or Cyrano de Bergerac must find ways to deal with characters speaking in Doric or Gascon dialect: should their speech be recast into hillbilly or Scots, or is that likely to confuse matters even more, by forcing new and incompatible stereotypes to stand in for old and incomprehensible ones?

M.

In November I gazed across the class divide on the patio of my neighbourhood coffee shop. Last May I chuckled as the hero of Michael Frayn’s Towards the End of the Morning mangled the vocabulary of yuppie enlightenment. In 2018 I discussed Steve Sailer’s Dirt Gap and one harried mommy blogger’s Trail of Tears.

Max Beerbohm’s “A Clergyman” and posterity.

Every man illustrious in his day, however much he may be gratified by his fame, looks with an eager eye to posterity for a continuance of past favours, and would even live the remainder of his life in obscurity if by doing so he could insure that future generations would preserve a correct attitude towards him forever. This is very natural and human, but, like so many very natural and human things, very silly. [The dead] need not, after all, be pitied for our neglect of them. They either know nothing about it, or are above such terrene trifles.
–Max Beerbohm, “A Clergyman”.

A funny word, posterity. When we picture ourselves in relation to the flow of time, it’s with our faces thrust toward the future – toward posterity – and our posteriors toward the past. Those we describe as “backward” we imagine gazing adoringly at their antecedents while they retreat, as it were, into the future.

Posterity has two meanings, and it’s not always clear which is intended. It can refer to one’s direct descendants – children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and so forth – or it can refer more vaguely to everyone who comes after us, whether related to us or not.

Thus the conservative blogger Steve Sailer observes that when the Founding Fathers wrote in the preamble to the U.S. constitution that their intention was to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity”, they had in mind chiefly the descendants of people then living in the United States; while the modern tendency is to interpret the passage as referring to the well-being of the people of the future more generally, including all those who aren’t Americans, but whose children or grandchildren might be, should one of them endeavour to splash across the Rio Grande.

robert graves i claudius

Claudius, the narrator of I, Claudius by Robert Graves, seems to have the more expansive definition in mind when he imagines his readership of the inconceivably remote future. The stuttering Roman emperor, puzzled by a prophetic couplet declaring that he will “speak clear” in nineteen hundred years, concludes that the prophecy is

an injunction to write the present work. When it is written, I shall treat it with a preservative fluid, seal it in a lead casket, and bury it deep in the ground somewhere for posterity to dig up and read. If my interpretation be correct it will be found again some 1,900 years hence.

(On second thought, he reflects that his memoir may have a better chance of survival if he simply leaves it lying around unprotected: “Apollo has made the prophecy, so I shall let Apollo take care of the manuscript.”)

Knowing from the same prophecy that Rome is destined to fall long before his manuscript is recovered, Claudius writes not in Latin but in Greek, which he believes “will always remain the chief literary language of the world”. I have no idea what Greek word or phrase would be translated as “posterity”, but Google suggests απόγονοι (apogonoi), which I gather is the modern form of classical Greek επίγονοι (epigonoi), a word that carries its own hint of a double meaning: the Epigoni, meaning “later-born”, were the offspring of the legendary heroes known as the Seven Against Thebes. From them we derive the English word “epigone”, meaning an unworthy successor or imitator – a rather inapt commemoration for the Epigoni, who unlike their fathers actually succeeded in conquering Thebes. (Apparently a 19th century German novel was responsible for the shift in meaning.)

***

It’s common to observe that those with children of their own are more invested in the future than those without. That’s probably true, and yet I suspect it’s childless folks like me who spend more time thinking about posterity, precisely because we’re more self-absorbed: we’re more inclined to brood (because we have more free time in which to brood) over why we’re here, what was the point of it all, and what will survive of us after we’re gone.

As a backward-gazing person, I’ve always been interested in messages from the past to the future: time capsules, that sort of thing. My life has been too uneventful to make journal-keeping worthwhile, but for one whole calendar year – the year 2000 – I kept a journal, in which I looked back on the quarter of a century I’d then been alive, and speculated on what the next quarter-century would bring. On the last working day of the year I printed the journal, sealed it in a big envelope along with some photographs and letters (sealed already in smaller envelopes) that I’d solicited from friends, and mailed it to myself, to be opened in the year 2025.

time capsule 2000-2025

At the time, 2025 seemed nearly as remote to me as the 20th century must have seemed to Claudius – and yet here I am, already four-fifths of the way there. I’m curious to see what messages my friends enclosed for me, but I’m not exactly looking forward to re-reading my journal. I expect it to be quite depressing. Although I can’t remember precisely what in my mid-twenties I expected to achieve by my late forties, I know it was far more than I will actually have achieved. And I fear I have achieved so little precisely because I’m the kind of person who worries more about what the younger version of me would think of the current version, than about what the future version will think of himself.

As for what future generations will think of me: if for some reason you are reading this 1900 years in the future, I can only assume something has gone terribly wrong – an asteroid or nanobot swarm has wiped out all of earth’s literature, except for the contents of a single hard drive recovered from a tide-powered offshore server farm, kept in working order by a hereditary priesthood that has elevated my writings to the status of holy scripture. In that case, it’s only through my blog that knowledge of Shakespeare, Robert Heinlein, and Max Beerbohm has been preserved.

Sorry, 40th century digital monks: I know you’re dying to hear more about what a schmuck I was in my twenties, but I feel it’s my duty to preserve a few more fragments of Beerbohm…

***

max beerbohm selected prose

In his touching essay from 1918, “A Clergyman”, Beerbohm draws our attention to a very peripheral character in James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson.

Johnson and his amanuensis are visiting friends at their country villa when Boswell solicits the doctor’s opinion on “what were the best English sermons for style”. On this question, as on most, Johnson has strong opinions, and there follows a brief scene of Boswell lobbing out the names of then-celebrated ecclesiastics – Atterbury, Tillotson, Jortin, Smalridge – and Johnson flicking them aside with a word or two.

Finally another, previously unmentioned member of the party, whom Boswell describes merely as “a Clergyman, whose name I do not recollect”, pipes up to wonder, “Were not Dodd’s sermons addressed to the passions?”

To which Johnson replies, “They were nothing, Sir, be they addressed to what they may.”

On that abrupt note, the conversation ends, and the clergyman is never heard from again. Beerbohm alone marks his departure:

I know not which is the more startling – the debut of the unfortunate clergyman, or the instantaneousness of his end. Why hadn’t Boswell told us there was a clergyman present? … We may assume that in the minds of the company around Johnson he had no place. He sat forgotten, overlooked; so that his self-assertion startled every one just as on Boswell’s page it startles us. …

I see him as he sits there listening to the great Doctor’s pronouncement on Atterbury and those others. He sits on the edge of a chair in the background. … He has no positive intention of speaking. Very much, nevertheless, is he wishing in the back of his mind that he could say something – something whereat the great Doctor would turn on him and say, after a pause for thought, “Why yes, Sir. That is most justly observed” or “Sir, this has never occurred to me. I thank you” – thereby fixing the observer for ever high in the esteem of all. And now in a flash the chance presents itself. “We have,” shouts Johnson, “no sermons addressed to the passions that are good for anything.” I see the curate’s frame quiver with sudden impulse, and his mouth fly open, and – no, I can’t bear it, I shut my eyes and ears.

A sad fate for the unlucky clergyman; and yet thanks to Boswell’s and Beerbohm’s combined attentions, his sole recorded utterance still rouses the imaginative sympathies of 21st century readers. Can as much be said for whole volumes of Atterbury, Tillotson, Jortin, or Smalridge? They rose to the top of their profession, they inspired and instructed the rich and the worthy, their reputations were so great that Dr. Johnson could summarize their achievements in a word. And yet 150 years later their names communicated nothing but, as Beerbohm puts it, “a dim, composite picture of a big man in a big wig and a billowing black gown”.

He looks forward another 150 years and foresees readers being similarly unedified by a discussion of the famous authors of his own time – and indeed, of the seven names he mentions (Wells, Galsworthy, Mrs. Ward, Caine, Miss Corelli, Upton Sinclair, and Mrs. Glyn) as being comparable in stature, in his era, to Atterbury et al. in Johnson’s, I recognized only three. And it’s barely been a century. Another fifty years should see off the survivors.

By that time Beerbohm will also be forgotten, and with him the flickering shade of that nervous clergyman. But of the latter at least we can assume that he went to his rest confident that a more enduring afterlife awaited him – that he was “above such terrene trifles”.

If only we all could believe the same…

M.

“A Clergyman” inevitably brings to mind Beerbohm’s marvellous short story “Enoch Soames”, in which a talentless author of that name sells his soul to the devil to be transported a hundred years into the future – to the year 1997 – to see how posterity has treated him. I have previously referred to Dr. Johnson in a postscript to my reflections on growth vs. fixed mindset in 2017, and to Max Beerbohm in a discussion of the Italian actress Eleonora Duse a few weeks ago.

Update, July 29, 2020: Added cover images and linked to Bibliography page.

A powerful heap of room.

In George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman and the Redskins, [1] the seventh installment in the memoirs of the self-serving, sexually predacious Victorian mountebank Harry Flashman, we find our hero leading a wagon-train over the Santa Fe trail, joining John Gallantin’s gang of scalp hunters, [2] being adopted into a band of Apaches, escaping to civilization with the help of Kit Carson…and that’s just the first half, which sets off a chain of events leading eventually to Flashman’s scalping (non-fatal) at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

george macdonald fraser flashman and the redskins

In the wake of his narrow escape from the Apaches Flashman is understandably cynical about Indians, but big-hearted Kit Carson can wax sentimental over their impending dispossession:

“They’ll go, as the buffalo go, which it will, with all the new folks coming west. I won’t grieve too much for the ’Pash [Apaches]; they have bad hearts, and I wouldn’t trust a one of ’em. Or the Utes. But I can be right sorry for the Plains folk; the world will eat them up. Not in my time, though.”

I observed that the land was so vast, and the Indians so few, that even when it was settled there must surely be abundant space for the tribes; he smiled and shook his head, and said something which has stayed in my head ever since, for it was the plain truth years ahead of its time.

“An Injun needs a powerful heap of room to live in. More than a million white folks.”

***

The conservative blogger and columnist Steve Sailer, prolific coiner of grabby yet neglected catchphrases for underrecognized social phenomena, likes to refer to the Dirt Gap that contributes to the ongoing political polarization of the United States. [3]

The premise is that, while coastal cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and New York are hemmed in by oceans, mountains, or both, limiting their potential for geographic expansion, cities in the middle of the country, like Phoenix, Dallas, and Atlanta, are surrounded by dirt on all sides, and thus free to sprawl in every direction.

This simple observation predicts that, all else being equal, it will be easier in inland cities to find an affordable house within commuting distance of downtown. Young couples who’d like a yard for the kids to romp in will therefore tend to move inland, while childless singletons who don’t mind investing vast sums in one-bedroom condos are likelier to remain on the coast.

The inland dwellers will tend to vote for low-tax, pro-growth policies they see as sustaining their family-centred lifestyle, while the coastal dwellers will vote for high taxes to fund the generous welfare state they expect to care for them in their childless old age. These voting patterns will exacerbate the cost differences, driving more and more families away from the ever-pricier coast to affordable inland cities, accelerating the sorting process.

Hence, the Dirt Gap.

In last weekend’s Vancouver Sun I came across a good illustration of the Dirt Gap at work here in Canada. Freelance writer Lee Abrahams has been scraping by in the outer suburbs:

In the Fraser Valley, about an hour and a half or so from Vancouver, my husband and I live in a tiny home. We occupy 400 square feet with two young children and three pets, and pay a low rent to our family for occupying their property. My husband commutes more than two hours to work, each way, five days a week. …

In addition to the difficulties of tiny living, we face the same issues everyone else here does: astronomical gas prices, tax on goods and income, car insurance and the price of food. Car insurance in B.C. is on track to be the highest in Canada, according to the Insurance Bureau of Canada as reported by Global BC. The price of gas in B.C. was the highest ever in North America this year, according to Gas Buddy.

Despite the challenges, they enjoy the perks of coastal living. But lately those perks are under threat:

[M]y husband and I take comfort in knowing we have beautiful scenery and abundant mountain hikes to relieve our stress. Nothing calms us more than crisp air and stretching our legs in the quiet forest. Except, the forest isn’t quiet anymore. The Fraser Valley has been flooded by more people having to move further east from the city for the reasons noted above.

So they’re giving up and relocating to dirt-rich Calgary.

Now, one modification I’d make to Sailer’s Dirt Gap theory is that while in the short term it seems to predict a balanced sorting of tax-’n’-spend subway-riders to coastal cities and guns-’n’-sprawl SUV-owners to dirt cities, in the longer term it winds up spreading coastal-style policies to every big city.

In the early stages of the process, when the price differential is small, it’s only the most rabid clingers to the low-density lifestyle who flee to the dirt cities. As the sorting accelerates, it’s not only dedicated sprawlers, but coast-culture folks like Lee Abrahams – mommy blogger, “tiny home” dweller, unironic user of the phrase “safe space” – who are priced out of their native environment and driven inland.

As more coast people settle in dirt cities like Calgary, bringing their culture and voting habits with them, the dirt cities become more welcoming to coastal refugees, who pour inland in ever-greater numbers, driving up prices, forcing the dirt-culture people further and further from the city centre, and eventually to smaller cities as yet unaffected by the Dirt Gap.

Now, I know it’s a bit gauche to compare these non-violent migrations to the conquest of the Plains Indians. I’m not trying to portray tax-harried suburbanites moving to Medicine Hat as the new Trail of Tears. But there’s an important insight contained in the observation that the Indians needed “a powerful heap of room”: one of the ways in which cultures vary is density.

The Indians couldn’t simply scooch over and make room for the white immigrants. Their lifestyle was based on following the wild buffalo around the wild prairie; even a smattering of settled farmers and ranchers made that untenable. In the early stages of the inundation the Indians could move further from the frontier, but no matter how far they retreated, the frontier snuck up behind. So they resisted; and the pioneers, who only wanted a little more elbow room than the overcrowded east could supply, couldn’t see why these backward savages struggled so desperately to preserve their old and inefficient ways.

“We’ve set aside reservations for them. We’ve offered to teach them how to farm. All we’re asking them to do is live as we do. Is that so terrible?”

But the Indians didn’t want to give up their low-density ways and take up farming, any more than Greg and Terri in Abbotsford want to swap their four kids, three dogs, and two-car garage for a used Prius and 700 square feet in Yaletown.

The Dirt Gap separating pioneers and Plains Indians was vastly wider than the one separating our modern cultural tribes. But the history of the Old West gives us a guide to how current trends will play out, as population growth drives migration from high-density regions into low-density ones: expect misunderstandings, conflict, and the ongoing retreat of the dirt culture into poor and isolated enclaves.

M.

1. Millennial readers who somehow get past the “redskins” in the title will no doubt be turned off by Flashman’s casual racism. They might not notice that for all his rough language one of the hero’s endearing traits, along with his good-humoured awareness of his own dastardry, is his readiness to see the good side of the alien cultures he encounters (usually accidentally, through recklessly pursuing some exotic trim). In our era, Flashman’s hypocrisy would manifest itself as prompt re-tweeting of the latest #MeToo meme; but in the 1840s it’s the superiority of Anglo-Saxon manners and morals that he publicly avows, while admitting to his readers that under the surface there’s not much to choose between his island tribe of ruddy-faced empire-builders and whichever rabble of cannibals he’s been kidnapped by this week.

2. “John Gallantin” is better known as John Glanton, driver of the remorseless sun to its final endarkenment and leader of the murderous gang in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.

3. Re Sailer’s “grabby yet neglected catchphrases”. As he accurately predicted around the time he invented the term:

I fear, though, that despite the explanatory power of the Dirt Gap, the concept will not be widely discussed. The problem is that it’s too morally neutral. What people want to hear are explanations for why they are morally superior to their enemies.

Update, July 28, 2020: Added cover image and linked to Bibliography page.

In a post this summer I talked about the impact of Vancouver’s high rents and low vacancies on ordinary working folks. Last year I mentioned the rising cost of land acquisition as one of the factors making rapid transit infrastructure so prohibitively expensive to build.

Sergeant, erect that flagpole.

nicholas monsarrat the cruel sea

Early in Nicholas Monsarrat’s Second World War novel The Cruel Sea, newly commissioned Sub-Lieutenant Ferraby, serving on his first ship, is given an order he doesn’t understand:

“Single up to the stern-wire,” Bennett had said, and left it at that – though not forgetting to add, by way of farewell: “And if you get a wire round the screw, Christ help you!”

Ferraby wanders aft and looks despairingly at the mooring ropes leading off in various directions, not knowing how to proceed, sweating under the gaze of the old salts under his command. Then he has an inspiration:

He nodded to Tonbridge and said, simply:

“Single up to the stern-wire.”

Tonbridge said: “Aye aye, sir,” and then, to the nearest seamen: “Take off those wrappings,” and then, to the hands waiting on the jetty: “Cast off breast-rope and spring.” Men moved: the wires splashed in the water, and were hauled in: the moorings quickly simplified themselves, to one single rope running aft. It was easy as that.

Although relieved, Ferraby feels that he has “cheated” – disguising his ignorance by fobbing the responsibility onto his men. But perhaps he has actually demonstrated good military leadership. Steve Sailer, in his obit for his friend, the sci-fi author Jerry Pournelle, shares a lesson he learned from the Korean War vet:

He once recalled a question from the Army Officer Candidate School test:

Q. You are in charge of a detail of 11 men and a sergeant. There is a 25-foot flagpole lying on the sandy, brush-covered ground. You are to erect the pole. What is your first order?

The right answer is:

A. “Sergeant, erect that flagpole.”

In other words, if the sergeant knows how to do it, then there’s no need for you to risk your dignity as an officer and a gentleman by issuing some potentially ludicrous order about how to erect the flagpole. And if the sergeant doesn’t know either, well, he’ll probably order a corporal to do it, and so forth down the chain of command. But by the time the problem comes back up to you, it will be well established that nobody else has any more idea than you do.

M.

Update, July 28, 2020: Added cover image and linked to Bibliography page.

Twelve years ago, in an essay inspired by the premise of Mike Judge’s barely-released movie Idiocracy, I summarized the climax of Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s apocalyptic sci-fi classic Lucifer’s Hammer: “Ultimately the army of property rights and technological progress prevails in a bloody battle against the army of cannibalistic former welfare recipients.”

Owning (some) blame.

Saturday night here in Vancouver I went to a screening of the silent classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with live electro-hypnotic-avant-garde accompaniment by the Oliver-Film Ensemble, conducted by Mark Oliver, a grandson of one of the film’s producers. It was excellent. I encourage you, if the Ensemble ever brings its act to your neighbourhood arthouse, to check it out.

Oliver introduced Caligari as the story of a sideshow barker who hypnotizes people to perform wicked acts against their will. He proposed that it remains eerily relevant today – particularly, he added, in light of the events of the past week. It was an overwhelmingly lefty-artistic crowd so he didn’t need to stage-whisper Caligari is Donald Trump for us to get his drift.

At the risk of spoiling the ending of a film that’s closing in on its hundredth birthday, Oliver’s synopsis was a little incomplete. In the final moments we discover that the narrator is an inmate in an insane asylum, and that the nightmarish tale he’s just finished telling us is a delusion into which he’s woven his fellow patients and the hospital staff, with the head doctor in the role of the sinister puppetmaster Caligari. [1]

I can’t have been the only one thinking, as Mark Oliver returned to the podium for the post-show Q&A, Hang on, doesn’t that ending kind of invert the moral of your Trump analogy? But I wasn’t about to risk the crowd’s wrath by suggesting a different parallel between Caligari and our anxious post-election mood – the possibility that progressives have been kicking and spitting at an enemy partly of their own invention.

***

There’s been a lot of encouragingly thoughtful talk since last Tuesday about media bubbles, epistemic closure, ideological silos…I went with “cocoons” in my last post so I’ll stick with that.

We’re all in cocoons. Some of our cocoons are tight and cozy, while others are roomy enough to permit a degree of shouting back and forth. But all of them muffle and distort outside voices.

We couldn’t stay sane uncocooned. The amount of data in the world is overwhelming. State elections in India, minor disasters in Africa, run-of-the-mill atrocities just one town over – our cocoons filter out all this useless information. We’re aware, dimly, that the five or ten or twenty stories being talked about inside the cocoon are only a tiny sample of all the events that have occurred outside in the last few weeks. But we believe they’re a meaningful sample.

When we run into those weirdos from the next cocoon over, it’s hard to get a conversation going. Inside our cocoon we all share the same basic beliefs, so we can compress a lot into a few words. You and I know what we mean by justice. We don’t have to trace the philosophical threads all the way back to Plato. When we talk to outsiders all our certainties are set adrift. Justice? Diversity? Progress? You can spend all night trying to figure out where your definitions diverged, before you can even begin to argue about how those concepts apply to the latest celebrity tweet crisis.

It’s less stressful to simply avoid awkward conversations with outsiders. And they’re easy to avoid these days, when you can build an ever more exclusive cocoon with far-flung people you meet on the internet. Our cocoons are getting ever cozier, their walls ever thicker. With a little effort, we need never go anywhere there’s a chance of having to converse with someone who doesn’t share our beliefs.

But we still have to share our countries with them. And when they win elections, and threaten to impose policies we think are deranged because we’ve never heard them objectively let alone sympathetically described – it’s terrifying.

***

You sometimes hear progressives arguing that speech isn’t just a right, it’s a responsibility. They say conservatives shouldn’t go around making reckless and dishonest claims and then yelling “Freedom of speech!” when they’re challenged.

I agree one shouldn’t make reckless and dishonest claims. But if everyone agreed on the definition of recklessness and dishonesty there would be no need for speech protections. Person A thinks it’s irresponsible to talk about illegal immigrant rapists and drug dealers; Person B thinks it’s irresponsible to euphemize illegal immigrants as “undocumented citizens”. Okay, each side started out thinking the other was wrong, and all we’ve added with this irrelevant talk of “responsibility” is that each side can now accuse the other of being illegitimate, not even worth listening to. The slim chance of mutual understanding, therefore of intelligent argument, has been made even slimmer.

However, maybe there’s another responsibility that free speech entails – the responsibility to try, wherever possible, to increase understanding. And it occurs to me that, during the just-ended U.S. election, those of us in the broad middle-of-the-road – those of us whose cocoons overlapped supporters of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump – shirked that responsibility.

Take my own case. Along with a plurality of anti-Trump opinions ranging from the right to the centre-left, my cocoon takes in a handful of pro-Trump voices of the centre (Mickey Kaus, Scott Adams) and the right (Mark Steyn, Steve Sailer). Which means that I’ve seen some of the more simplistic anti-Trump narratives challenged. And I’ve been exposed to some anti-Clinton narratives that my left-cocooned friends have been shielded from. But most importantly, I got a more accurate picture of what Trump support looked like than most of my friends, who could dismiss it as a remote upwelling of inarticulate white male resentment unlikely to be present in any intelligent lifeform they’d encounter. I learned more about the mood of America from occasionally skimming the comments on Sailer’s blog than I ever did from reading the National Post‘s editorial page – but, primed by the media to regard those commenters as uncouth barbarians who’d soon be slouching back to their wattle-and-daub huts beyond the Rhine, I gave their observations less weight than they deserved.

So I kept my mouth shut even when I heard my progressive friends denounce Trump and his base in ways that struck me as, in either sense of the word, unbalanced. I figured, Ah, what does it matter – he’s gonna lose anyway – why make stress by arguing.

My influence is infinitesimal. I never had the power to sway a single vote. I’m not even American. But there must have been millions of Americans – undecideds and independents and miscellaneouses like me – who felt there was something off about the media’s election coverage, who found themselves questioning the non-stop Madman Trump narrative, and who chose to remain aloof. In retrospect, that was irresponsible of us. In the role of neutral envoys we might have insinuated a few Trump-sympathetic messages into our progressive friends’ awareness, helping to disabuse them of the smug belief that their cocoon encompassed all thinking people. Which might have forced their candidate to come up with a more compelling argument than “Fall in line, losers”.

M.

1. Apparently Caligari’s writers protested the insertion of the framing story, which they felt negated the film’s anti-authoritarian message. They had a point – but without that last-minute twist, their one-note plot would scarcely have held filmgoers’ attention for ninety-odd years.

In a post last year I discussed Bertrand Russell’s and G.K. Chesterton’s constrasting takes on ideological cocooning.


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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