A star is born

Some people — percentage-wise not very many, but some — make money off of their YouTube channels. A very few become rich. According to Forbes magazine the highest earner is 7-year-old Ryan, the star or “host” of Ryan ToysReview. In the past year he generated over $20 million in income, which was up 100% from last year (the site has only been existence since 2015).

This is yet another of those things that make me feel horribly out of touch. I get that if, by whatever strange alchemy, you become a YouTube star or celebrity you can make a lot of money through ad revenue and selling merchandise. I understand that this mainly happens through the channels of people who play video games. I don’t play video games, but I know that many people do. I also accept that some people — if I can say it without sounding judgmental, mainly lonely people — will sit and watch someone else play a video game and just talk for hours.

I get all that. I don’t get the success of Ryan’s channel. I watched as much as I could of one episode and saw that it was mainly being presented by Ryan’s parents, with Ryan appearing to be little more than a prop being played with like one of the toys (upon reading about this phenomenon some more I discovered that Ryan has, in fact, been turned into an action figure being sold at Walmart for $9 each). His mother does most of the talking on the videos and her voice is excruciating. The production and presentation are crude. They really are awful in every way. But even if it had been well done, or if I was missing something, I still don’t understand how something like this can appeal to so many people or influence sales so much. Who watches it? Kids? Parents? Just people who want to enjoy the thrill of rampant consumerism (“unboxing”) daily? Apparently the “reviews” eschew any kind of evaluation or analysis of the toys in question but just offer up moments of sheer enjoyment.

Is this the end of the world as know it? Probably not. It’s not really that different from the story of any child star in years gone by. And I guess there is a universal appeal to voyeuristically and vicariously experiencing a child’s joy, however artificially stage managed it may be. Not to mention the fact that with daily updates, even given the simplicity of the videos the family is obviously putting a lot of time and effort into this project. There’s something about this story though, and more broadly about the Internet economy, that strikes me as both profoundly weird and probably unhealthy. If nothing else, such success stories guarantee an endless stream of imitators, just as Ryan’s channel was cloned from other unboxing sites. I wonder how much of this is just a fad, like viral fame itself, and how much of it is a real glimpse of things to come.



Beware, I bear more grudges than lonely high court judges. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court this past weekend caps one of the strangest performances of political theatre I’ve seen in some time.

I say this without taking sides on the main issue at the hearings. Let us assume that Kavanaugh was guilty of all the crimes and other forms of misbehaviour he was accused of: that he was an angry drunk while a student and had a history of sexually assaulting women. What then followed was still bizarre from a strategic standpoint.

In the first place, the Democrats must have known that there would be no way they could prove such charges. The main complaint was of an event that took place some 35 years previously, with no corroborating witnesses or evidence. This was always going to be a case of “he-said, she-said,” and no matter how credible the complainant (and she was) or how big a train wreck Kavanaugh turned out to be (and he was), we weren’t going to be left with any clearer idea of what really happened.

Added to this was the fact that the nomination was a lock. The Democrats had no way of stopping Kavanaugh’s appointment. This, in turn, made the Republicans’ “victory lap” at the vote for confirmation baffling. It seems a strange thing to pat oneself on the back over.

In short, none of the wall-to-wall cable coverage seemed to be very much concerned with Christine Blasey Ford’s complaint, which was left in the air. Nor did it seem to be about the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh, which was a foregone conclusion even after his manic and disingenuous performance. Instead it was all about turning out the vote. Both sides were jockeying for position, trying to co-opt a spirit of outrage. Winning!

The new victimology

In late August 2018 the news wires had a field day with a story that seemed designed to trigger a public backlash, or at least light up Twitter for 24 hours.

During a sentencing hearing for Christopher Garnier, who had murdered an off-duty police officer and dumped her body in a compost bin, the convicted killer’s psychologist revealed that Garnier suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition brought on by his crime. It was then argued that said condition should be a mitigating factor in determining Garnier’s sentence.

Few commentators could resist invoking the classic definition of chutzpah: the kid who kills his parents and then begs the court for leniency because he is an orphan. There were also howls of outrage that Garnier should even be receiving veteran’s benefits (including his therapy for PTSD), which he was only eligible for because his father had been in the armed forces.

People were right to be upset, but while Garnier’s case is egregious there is nothing out of the ordinary about his desperate claim to victim status. This has become not just a shrewd tactical move but an imperative in many legal proceedings. As Lewis Lapham once explained, to be a victim is to be “Always and forever innocent.” But even outside the courtroom being credentialed as a victim has real benefits. In general these fall into two categories. Being a victim means:

(1) You aren’t personally responsible (or, worse, liable) for anything.
(2) Somebody owes you — at least a special duty of care and quite possibly a lot of money.

What this has led to has been described as the “victimhood Olympics” or, in the words of Todd Gitlin in his book The Twilight of Common Dreams, a race for the crown of thorns.

There have long been critics of this development, usually from the political right. They are quick to label those claiming to be victims as whiners looking for special treatment. Today these people are sometimes mocked as snowflakes, but the diagnosis of the victim condition goes back well before this, to the first wave of political correctness in the 1990s and books like Charles J. Sykes’s A Nation of Victims (1992), Robert Hughes’s The Culture of Complaint (1993), and Alan Dershowitz’s The Abuse Excuse: And Other Cop-Outs, Sob Stories, and Evasions of Responsibility (1994).

What concerned Sykes was, as his subtitle puts it, “the decay of the American character” through the cultivation of an ideology of the ego and the rise of therapeutic culture. He has a whole theoretical framework explaining how this “fundamental transformation of American cultural values and notions of character and personal responsibility” happened. Along the way he gets to mine some funny headlines that help to make the larger point. Here’s just a sample of where things were heading twenty-five years ago:

Men have sued diet clinics because they sponsor female-only weight-loss programs; the San Francisco Giants are sued for giving away Father’s Day gifts to men only; a psychology professor complains that she has been victimized by the presence of mistletoe at a Christmas party, and claims sexual harassment. In the current legal climate, even an attempt to uphold civil rights can become a source of claimed victimization: In Miami, a court ruled that a woman be paid forty thousand dollars in worker’s compensation benefits after she complained that she was so afraid of blacks that she was unable to work in an integrated office.

Two Marines alleged they had been unconstitutionally discriminated against because the Marine Corps had discharged them for “being chronically overweight.” A postal clerk who is left-handed accused the U.S. Postal Service of discriminatory bias in setting up filing cases “for the convenience of right-handed clerks.” A twenty-four-year-old Colorado man sued his mother and father for what he called “parental malpractice.” In Hawaii, a family of tourists who had been shunted to “less desirable lodgings” by their overbooked hotel not only sued for their economic losses, but were awarded cash for their “emotional distress and disappointment.”

It’s not such a big stretch to get from here to Garnier’s PTSD.

I mentioned that this was all being said at the time of the first wave of political correctness. As I’ve written before, what we’re currently going through is PC’s second wave, which has in turn given rise to its own critical voices challenging the victimhood Olympics. Here, to take only one prominent example, is anti-PC warrior Jordan Peterson being interviewed by Christie Blatchford:

There’s an epidemic of self-diagnosis among young people, there’s a race to multiply pathology, there’s a glorification of disorders like borderline personality disorder, which is rare. When being the most oppressed victim gives you the highest status, then it’s a race to the bottom.

We’re not helping young people figure out a noble and difficult pathway forward, where they bear responsibility and march forthrightly into adulthood. Quite the contrary. We’re saying, ‘Well, the system is corrupt and there’s no point in taking part in it. You’re going to be victimized no matter what you do.’ And so the race is on for who gets to play the victim card with the highest degree of status.

I’ve said this is a critique most often coming from the right, but it’s a vice we find at both ends of the political spectrum. After facing blowback for posting a picture of herself holding the severed head of Donald Trump, comedian Kathy Griffin tearfully claimed victim status, as did right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos after having his book deal canceled when reports of some of his earlier comments about sex with minors were made public. Hillary Clinton has always cast her political failings in terms of something done to her, but nobody tops Donald Trump in his role as Victim-in-Chief, whining that no politician in history has been treated more unfairly. As Katy Waldman puts it: “Trump has always played the victim, never more so than when he’s occupied the highest perch in the land. He could be sitting on an ocean of gold like Smaug in The Hobbit and still demand sympathy, moaning that the haters and the liars were robbing him blind.”

But if the criticism of what Sykes calls “victimism” and its attendant race to the bottom – where we are all, in his words “competitors for the honor of most downtrodden” – has remained constant, some of the events in the victimhood Olympics have changed. In particular, two new labels have recently grown so common and widespread in the last twenty years that today they dominate the field of victimology. They are PTSD and the autism spectrum.

Now before I go any further I want to be clear on this: PTSD and autism are real conditions. The point I want to focus on is their co-option: the way they’ve been adopted and exploited by opportunists. As Sykes put it: “Criticism . . . of the distortions of what it means to be ‘handicapped’ does not apply to the genuinely disabled. It merely highlights the gross cynicism of a culture of victimism that encourages and allows others to latch onto the moral and legal standing of the disabled for their own advantage.”

The reason PTSD and autism have become so popular is precisely because of their diagnostic fuzziness. Of course in extreme and perfectly valid cases diagnosis is so obvious one needn’t have any professional qualifications to determine that something is wrong. But any healthy person so inclined (and the incentives are there) can easily find the correct checklist of symptoms to evidence just by heading to Wikipedia. The problem then becomes how you prove someone doesn’t have PTSD or how you can establish that someone is not on the autism spectrum.

It is a spectrum, after all, and once you get to the place where it borders whatever you want to define as non-autistic who can draw the line? Recent years have seen numerous celebrities testing the waters. Jerry Seinfeld, perhaps most famously, initially speculated that he might be on the autism spectrum and then backed down in the face of public backlash. Meanwhile, autism has come to signify not a disability at all but a gift of superhuman powers. Shakespeare, we are told, must have been on the spectrum. Einstein too. And just about every Silicon Valley tycoon. Pity the billionaires!

One can appreciate the resulting confusion among the general public. I know individuals who struggle with autism but I also know men (they have always been men in my experience) who use the label as an excuse for some other failing or deficiency. But I don’t want to get into personal anecdotes. Instead I’ll let some professionals describe what is going on.

In 2012 Benjamin Wallace wrote a long piece that was published in New York Magazine talking about how the diagnosis of Asperger’s has been experiencing significant clinical mission creep. It’s worth quoting some of what he has to say at length:

The diagnosis is everywhere: Facebook’s former head of engineering has stated that Mark Zuckerberg has “a touch of the Asperger’s.” Time suggested that the intensely awkward Bill Gates is autistic; a biographer of Warren Buffett wrote that the Oracle of Omaha, with his prodigious memory and “fascination with numbers,” has “a vaguely autistic aura.” On Celebrity Rehab, Dr. Drew Pinsky deemed Dennis Rodman (selectively hyperfocused, socially obtuse) a candidate for an Asperger’s diagnosis, and the UCLA specialist brought in to make it official “seemed to concur,” Pinsky told viewers. On the Asperger’s community site Wrong Planet, threads like “Real life celebrities who have or probably have Asperger’s” include Jim Carrey, Adolf Hitler, Daryl Hannah, Slash, Billy Joel, J. K. Rowling, and Adam Carolla, who makes the cut because “I’ve heard guests on his podcast remark on his lack of eye contact.” “Kanye Probably Has Asperger’s,” BuzzFeed recently declared.

Still others are seeing it in themselves. David Byrne: “I was a peculiar young man—borderline Asperger’s, I would guess.” Craigs­list founder Craig Newmark, noting his poor eye contact and limited social competency, blogged that Asperger’s symptoms “feel uncomfortably familiar.” Dan Harmon, the volatile creator of NBC’s Community, told an interviewer last year that he had boned up on Asperger’s symptoms when researching the character Abed: “The more I looked them up, the more familiar they seemed.” Dan Aykroyd told NPR’s Terry Gross that he was diagnosed with Asperger’s as a child (a puzzling claim given that the diagnosis didn’t exist prior to 1981, when Aykroyd turned 29); Aykroyd insisted he was being serious, and as evidence of his continuing symptoms he noted his “fascination with law enforcement and the police.”

What is happening?

This is not a story about Asperger’s, autism, or the spectrum—those very real afflictions that can bring untold hardship to the people who suffer from them and to their families. It is, instead, a story about “Asperger’s,” “autism,” and “the spectrum”—our one-stop-shopping shorthand for the jerky husband, the socially inept plutocrat, the tactless boss, the child prodigy with no friends, the remorseless criminal. It’s about the words we deploy to describe some murky hybrid of egghead and aloof.

[Psychologist Bryna] Siegel, who has been running her clinic since the eighties, says she’s seeing “more false-positive assessments than ever before.” Of the roughly ten new assessments she’s asked to do every week—kids showing up with spectrum diagnoses from another therapist—six of them might not have an autism-spectrum disorder. This isn’t to say that they may not have psychological issues, only that those are either other disorders or they don’t rise to an impairing level. “A lot of kids are just delayed in development, slow to talk, or anxious, or hyperactive, and a lot of kids are just terribly parented.”

Siegel sees overdiagnosis and misdiagnosis as driven largely by economic and social priorities rather than medical ones. Some adults who might be very high-functioning seek a formal diagnosis because it enables them to, in Siegel’s words, “wallow” in their symptoms rather than “ameliorate” them, because they’re “a lunch ticket.” Poor parents want diagnoses serious enough to merit state-funded school services, and rich parents want the least stigmatizing diagnoses. (“When you say a kid is mentally retarded,” Siegel says, “parents try to talk you out of it.”) And some parents are simply flummoxed by their own kids’ irrational mood swings, refusal of food, or inability to express emotion. When these parents come to Siegel, they get a surprise: She diagnoses their children as suffering from childhood.

“We see a lot of diagnosis-of-childhood kids, whose parents have never set limits, plus kids who are temperamentally difficult to raise.”

Also temperamentally difficult: husbands. Put-upon spouses have seized on the autism rainbow as a simple, esteem-boosting way to pathologize what used to be called “a typical guy.” Simon Baron-Cohen, a leading expert on Asperger’s at Cambridge (and, as it happens, the cousin of Sacha), has theorized that the autism spectrum represents the “extreme male brain,” turned up to eleven. Hence the ubiquity of spectrum references in the coastal power centers where Nora Ephron spent most of her time. And the Internet abounds with unhappy married women diagnosing their callous workaholic husbands with Asperger’s, whether or not a clinician has seconded their opinion. In a forum called Asperger Divorce Support Group, posters share war stories, some less harrowing than others: “My ex … did not GET a sunset. He took pictures of fall color trees last year and said, ‘I guess its cool looking, right?’ ”

“It’s become more frequent in the last five years,” confirms a Connecticut divorce lawyer who says she has represented parties in several cases where a wife accused the husband of being on the spectrum. “It’s women complaining, ‘He lines up my towels perfectly. He complains if his shoes aren’t lined up right.’ ”

Men have caught on and, in a kind of inverted gaslighting, begun to describe themselves as having Asperger’s as a way of controlling their spouses. “Having Asperger’s-like syndrome does not give you Asperger’s,” says David Schnarch, a Colorado-based couples therapist. “Having a big belly does not make you pregnant. I’ve not seen a single case of what I would consider to be diagnosable Asperger’s. But I have seen any number of cases of wives accusing husbands of it, any number of cases of husbands claiming to have it.” It’s the new ADHD, he says. “The wife doesn’t want to accept that the husband knows what he’s doing when he’s doing something she doesn’t like.” Schnarch recalls a man who phoned him the day before a scheduled initial couples session and announced that he’d just been diagnosed with Asperger’s. “As soon as this happened,” Schnarch says, “I knew I had difficulty.” He contacted the referring therapist, who said he’d suspected the man had Asperger’s because he said things to his girlfriend that were so cruel he couldn’t possibly understand their impact. As far as Schnarch was concerned, it was an all-too-familiar instance of sadism masquerading as disability. “If you’re going to perp, the best place to perp from is the victim position.”

Because Asperger’s lives on the outskirts of normal, and because its symptoms can resemble willfully antisocial behavior, there’s now a presumption of excuse-making whenever someone invokes it to get out of a pickle. Last October, South Park aired an episode in which the people at an Asperger’s group-therapy center turn out to be faking their symptoms and not even to believe in the reality of the disorder. (Cartman, meanwhile, mishearing Asperger’s as “Ass Burgers,” tries to fake it by stuffing his underwear with hamburgers.) “You’re not autistic,” a doctor tells Hugh Laurie’s abrasive character in an episode of House. “You don’t even have Asperger’s. You wish you did; it would exempt you from the rules, give you freedom, absolve you of responsibility, let you date 17-year-olds. But, most important, it would mean that you’re not just a jerk.”

But, and the question demands to be asked, what if you are just a jerk? What if, instead of having Asperger’s, a condition that calls for support and sympathy, all you are is an asshole? In online forums too numerous to count this is a possibility that must never be entertained: we must always and absolutely believe and support victims in everything. Yet professionally it does seem to be an issue.

A similar problem is being encountered by therapists looking to deal with the explosion in cases of PTSD, another condition that can be very difficult to define and diagnose. Here’s a piece from the Los Angeles Times by Alan Zarembo headlined “As disability awards grow, so do concerns with veracity of PTSD claims”:

The 49-year-old veteran explained that he suffered from paranoia in crowds, nightmares and unrelenting flashbacks from the Iraq war. He said he needed his handgun to feel secure and worried that he would shoot somebody.
The symptoms were textbook post-traumatic stress disorder.

But Robert Moering, the psychologist conducting the disability examination at a Veterans Affairs hospital in Tampa, Fla., suspected the veteran was exaggerating. Hardly anybody had so many symptoms of PTSD so much of the time.

As disability awards for PTSD have grown nearly fivefold over the last 13 years, so have concerns that many veterans might be exaggerating or lying to win benefits. Moering, a former Marine, estimates that roughly half of the veterans he evaluates for the disorder exaggerate or fabricate symptoms.

Depending on severity, veterans with PTSD can receive up to $3,000 a month tax-free, making the disorder the biggest contributor to the growth of a disability system in which payments have more than doubled to $49 billion since 2002.

“It’s an open secret that a large chunk of patients are flat-out malingering,” said Christopher Frueh, a University of Hawaii psychologist who spent 15 years treating PTSD in the VA system.

Again I have to stress that PTSD is a real condition. It is, however, uncommon, and traditionally has its roots in extreme traumatic shocks. Being caught in an artillery bombardment, for example, or surviving a violent sexual assault. And yet one reads today of people claiming PTSD for what are scarcely more than the common disappointments of everyday life, just as one hears of people claiming to have autism simply because they don’t like other people or have become bored with their jobs or sick of their wives. And then there is Christopher Garnier.

Commentators seem unsure of whether there really is an increase in the rates of autism and PTSD or whether it is just being diagnosed more. The problem is that with no clear diagnosis both conditions have been adopted as all-purpose excuses for any sort of misbehaviour or disability claim. In general, I think professional therapists understand what is going on and want to push back. If you are committed to getting properly credentialed as a victim, however, there’s nothing stopping you from shopping around until you finally get the diagnosis you want. One would hope that the communities involved would try to do more to police this abuse, but so far I’ve seen little evidence of that happening. Instead, the labels continue to expand their reach. Garnier may not be where all this ends.

Billion dollar babies

A recent cover story in Forbes Magazine heralds Kylie Jenner, who is a month shy of turning 21, as being the world’s youngest self-made billionaire.

Some have criticized Forbes for their definition of “self-made,” arguing that Jenner was born into wealth and celebrity. This is true, but today she is apparently worth more than the rest of her extended family combined, so I guess she must have done something on her own. I wouldn’t deny her the title.

I also wasn’t too surprised at her age. We’ve been hearing about boy billionaires for years now, and the tech industry in particular has already thrown up more than a few. If Jenner does become a billionaire in the next year or so — and once you’ve accumulated that amount of wealth, increasing it becomes almost inevitable — then she’ll be beating out Mark Zuckerberg, who became a billiionaire at the age of 23. These things happen in our lottery economy.

What I did find surprising was just how lucrative the cosmetics industry is. When Lilian Bettencourt died last year she was said to have been the richest woman in the world, due to her having inherited the L’Oréal fortune from her father. But Kylie Jenner only launched her own cosmetic brand in 2016 and Forbes today values it at nearly $800 million (it did an estimated $330 million in sales last year). That’s amazing growth. Markups and profit margins in cosmetics I know are high, but this sounds like a license to print money.

There doesn’t seem to be a huge difference between cheap and very expensive cosmetics, either in terms of what they cost to produce or how well they actually work, so marketing is very important. Jenner has taken her name and fame and successfully branded herself, as is often recommended to young entrepreneurial types. Her stunning success, in other words, is another example of the triumph of celebrity in our time, as if any more were needed after the 2016 U.S. presidential election. This is something that I think we really need to be more concerned about.

Election round-up

Thoughts on the 2018 Ontario provincial election.

(1) They changed the location of my polling station from a hotel that’s just down the street to a public school out in the boonies. I didn’t appreciate this at all. Kids are still in school so the hallways were filled with ankle-biters. I arrived just before the poll opened so I sat on a bench outside the principal’s office. They told me I had to wait outside the building. I didn’t move. Bad enough they had to change the location to such an unsuitable place. I wasn’t going to be inconvenienced any more.

(2) I really hate the first-past-the-post system. The PCs got a resounding majority with just barely over 40% of the total vote. But I no longer wonder how much longer this bullshit will go on. I know it’s never going to end.

(3) Province-wide the voter turnout was considered very good, at around 58%. This was up significantly from the 2014 election when it had been 51%. This underlines a depressing reality: that in most elections, federal and provincial, here and in the U.S., roughly 40% of the electorate are never going to vote. Never. You can’t make them.

(4) In his victory speech Doug Ford declared Ontario now “open for business.” Why does that sound so threatening? It shouldn’t, but it does. It also reinforces the widening gulf between what are the two main party positions, again both here and in the U.S.: the party of business and the party of the state, private vs. public sector.

(5) Ford gets compared to Trump a lot. I think he’s smarter. Plus he can actually deliver a speech. But he may be an even nastier guy.

(6) The collapse of the Liberals isn’t that surprising. Basically what happened was a re-run of what happened to the PCs federally in the 1993 election, when the party was wiped out nation-wide. This was because the PCs had unexpectedly won a majority in the previous (1988) federal election, at a time when they were deeply unpopular. The spring of resentment against them was then pressed even tighter for another five years before it could finally be unleashed. Similarly, the provincial Liberals won an unexpected majority in 2014, despite being widely disliked, mainly due to the hopelessness of the PC leader Tim Hudak. Again, the spring of resentment was pressed tight, and when it came to be released the party was swept away.

(7) Of course the Liberals will be back. After fifteen years (or whatever it’s been) voters just wanted to punish them with a time out.

(8) In my own riding the Greens got their only seat, which was their first ever. I’m glad they’ll have a voice at Queen’s Park but I don’t know where they go from here. At some point the party has to make the case for a green economy and get people to buy into it. We seem so far from that now.

(9) I don’t know where the NDP go either. Their “success” was only to inherit the Liberal’s doomed position. Now they can’t do much, given their seat total, and are probably just going to be placeholders until people go back to the Libs. How do the NDP make the case for being a real opposition? I can’t think of anything other than aligning themselves even more with public sector unionism.

(10) Justin Trudeau should be happy. Ford is a perfect foil for him to play off, and since Canadians tend to like divided provincial and federal government a Ford majority in Ontario should keep the province’s federal seats with the Liberals. Especially since . . .

(11) I think Ford will be a lousy premier. Though I suppose his “ready to govern” cabinet might help him avoid the worst of it. He’s going to say the province’s financial situation is worse than anyone knew, which I can actually believe. This is going to lead to cuts in services and other belt-tightening measures. Round and round we go.

What did we do to deserve this?

Not as bad as the other one?

The rise of populist leaders and parties in many Western democracies has led to much hand-wringing over the fate of democracy itself. There may be grounds for concern, but it seems to me that another point, one which all sides might agree on, is being ignored. The quality of our leaders has gone into the toilet.

The 2016 presidential election in the U.S. was a negative affair. What I mean is that it was decided by people who were voting not for but against a particular candidate. Donald Trump (after clearing out the entire leading rank of the Republican party, who proved to be imbeciles) and Hillary Clinton (who simply bought the Democratic party wholesale) entered the campaign with the highest negative poll ratings of any candidates in history. Neither one should have had any chance of winning. Unfortunately, one of them had to.

I was reminded of this with the election of Doug Ford as head of the Ontario Progressive Conservative party heading into the upcoming provincial election. By any normal reckoning, or at any other time, I think this would be considered a disastrous choice. The supposedly smart Ford has the public persona of a loud-mouthed, ignorant boor. He is often compared to Donald Trump, and the comparisons are not all to his advantage. The idea of him being premier makes no sense. But opposing him is Kathleen Wynne, not just one of the most hated politicians in Canada but a thoroughly incompetent one as well. The only reason she is still in power is because her last opponent was Tim Hudak, who campaigned as an utter moron. Hudak was then replaced by Patrick Brown, who may be innocent of the charges of sexual harassment leveled against him but who still proved to be a complete idiot in thinking that he was going to come back and lead the party after they ran him out on a rail.

What did we do to deserve this? How did politics reach the point where such creatures have risen to the highest offices in the land? Presumably the provincial election will play out along what are becoming disturbingly familiar lines: with citizens voting against the candidate they find the most reprehensible rather than for anyone or anything in particular. Something has clearly gone wrong with democracy. That doesn’t mean that it’s doomed, but it does mean that things are moving in a bad direction.

Checking privilege

There’s recently been a bit of fuss in the news over a series of poster campaigns in British Columbia and Ontario challenging the notion of certain groups having a special social privilege. If you are male, able-bodied (“physically and mentally,” though I’m not sure what being mentally able-bodied means), Christian, a Canadian citizen at birth, heterosexual, or (most damning of all) white, then you are privileged, defined as having “unearned access to social power based on membership in a dominant social group.” For some reason being rich or coming from a wealthy family isn’t included, though I would have thought it mattered more than the rest of the markers combined. In any event, to become aware of your own level of privilege is considered a good thing, not because it becomes a source of shame or guilt, as unavoidable as that seems, but because it will lead to awareness and allow you to join in building “a more just and inclusive world.”

I’m a member of almost all of the aforementioned “dominant social groups.” And I’m aware of the fact that I’m better off in many (though not all) ways for being so. But what of it? I didn’t choose being any of these things, and I couldn’t not be any of them now without extreme difficulty. So what follows from this awareness?

In one poster a picture of Superintendent of Schools Teresa Downs appears alongside a quote: “I have unfairly benefitted from the colour of my skin. White privilege is unacceptable.” If this isn’t just empty virtue signaling, then what is Teresa Downs going to do about the unfair and unacceptable benefits she has received? Is she going to resign? Or does building a more just and inclusive world only mean getting other people to make restitution for your sins? I think it’s safe to assume the latter.

Luckily, this kind of rhetoric tends to go through cycles. Tom Wolfe satirized it in a pair of essays in 1970, later collected in Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers. In the mid-1990s radical chic became political correctness and hit another peak. It then went into remission but has since come back again. I’ve written about this before here, and my own sense is that we’ve entered into the late, silly stage of the current phase, which has resulted in the rise of such prominent anti-PC warriors as Donald Trump and Jordan Peterson. It seems the two sides depend on one another. Whatever results from all the sound and fury, I doubt it will be a more just and inclusive world.