Tuesday, September 30, 2008


I have no particular objection to responsible long gun ownership. Hunting isn't my thing but I know that some hunters do important work in wildlife conservation, and I consider killing your own food to be far more responsible than getting somebody else to do your dirty work for you.

Advocates of less restrictive gun control laws in Canada are remarkably vocal, but polls show that most Canadians disagree. In this poll, two-thirds of respondents believed that the general public shouldn't be allowed to own guns at all, whereas just 6 percent want fewer regulations on gun ownership. People argue about the government's ridiculously expensive registry, but the general idea of rigid gun control is widely supported here.

It's no business of mine what Americans choose to do with regards to their gun laws (and it is no business of yours, my American readers, what Canadians choose to do, either) but I wish that Canadian advocates of less restrictive gun ownership could give me a straight answer on a basic question that I've been asking for about twenty years now.

According to the United States department of justice, between 1995 and 2005 a period of declining homicide rates there were 125,678 gun murders in the United States. In the same period, in Canada, there were 6,417 homicides total. Firearms were the weapon of choice in about half of those cases. In short, the United States has nine times Canada's population but about forty times as many gun-related homicides. Even demographically similar regions of the two countries have hugely divergent homicide rates. Montreal, with a population of about 1.8 million, had 48 homicides in 2005. Philadelphia, with a population of about 1.6 million, had 380 that year. In 2005, Toronto had a record 78 murders in what its panicked citizens called the "year of the gun." Chicago, only slightly larger, had 459, and they practically turned cartwheels for having fallen below the 500 mark. In Canada, the city with the highest homicide rate is Edmonton, Alberta, with about 4 murders per 100,000 population in 2006. Now, examine this list of American murder rates, and consider that, if Edmonton were in the mix, it would rank 62nd.

So it goes, year after year, and in city after city, and my question is this: why? I've heard obfuscations ("but the rate of other crimes in Canada is higher...") and diversions ("but in Switzerland, lots of people own guns...") but I've never heard anyone explain what the source of the difference is. I'm far too much of an empiricist to say that it's solely because of less restrictive gun ownership rules in the United States than in Canada, but there is a crude correlation there nonetheless, and Canadian advocates of gun decontrol should be able to explain why. Do they really wish me to believe that I would be even safer from violent crime if Canada had less restrictive laws in this regard?

Part of their problem is that they continually overstate the extent of the threat posed to ordinary Canadians by violence. The belief that society is trembling on the brink of a precipice is common to every era in part because sooner or later every generation gets around to hating the young — but the statistical fact of the matter is that Canadians today are about a third less likely to be murdered than thirty years ago, and they weren't very likely to be murdered even then. I don't wish to be dismissive — one murder is one murder too many — but if murders in Canada were evenly and randomly distributed, which they most certainly are not (young males involved in criminal activity are the most at risk), Canadians would, on average, have a one-in-fifty thousand chance of getting killed in any given year, which is about one-quarter their odds of dying in a car accident. (Strange that there isn't a lobby trying to force people to wear helmets while in cars.) Moreover, it's estimated that in about 80 percent of cases the victim of a violent crime knows their attacker; statistically, the most dangerous people in your life are your family members. I can see a certain point to lounging around the house packing heat ("I was watching that show") but the point is that most Canadian suburbanites need guns for personal protection from random violence about as much as they need to carry around a snakebite kit. People are afraid of the wrong things.

I don't know what the solution to societal violence is — probably reverse engineering our DNA so that we're not primates anymore would be involved — but I do know that the possibility of sudden and tragic death is one of the unfortunate byproducts of being alive. Given the alternative, I'll take the risk.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


Dr. Broad, I presume.

Well, yes, although nothing else about me changed between 11 AM and 1 PM on September 12th, 2008. I wasn't smarter than before, nor a better writer, researcher, or teacher, but I did emerge from my defense astoundingly more credentialed.

Anyway, I'm not even going to get into that. Rather, my immediate concern is to make an important distinction: I have a PhD now, but I should not be mistaken for an educated person. In my case, the completion of the dissertation involved nothing more than devoting several years to becoming the world's leading authority on a point of trivia. (I sag slightly when I consider that my career-path dictates that I spend several of the coming years to publishing about it.) I know something less than nothing about art, music, moral philosophy, epistemology, classics, theatre, poetry, comparative religion, life sciences, physical sciences, economics, and mathematics, not to mention African, Asian, Middle-Eastern, Latin-American, and great swaths of European history; I am poorly travelled and depressingly monolingual, and I still haven't read Northanger Abbey, but, hoo-boy, can I talk up a storm about the operations of the Consumer Branch of the Wartime Prices and Trade Board ca. 1943-1945. In terms of my intellectual development — and, more to the point, the development of my abilities as a teacher of history — I might as well have spent the last five years learning to speak Klingon.

As I indicated, the truly alarming thing is that almost no university would hire me as a professor if I did not have a PhD (or was not very near to completing one), even though nothing in the dissertation-writing phrase of the process contributed in any way to my ability to teach. except for the actual opportunity to teach while writing the dissertation, which was the one thing that I was repeatedly advised not to do. Of course, most university departments insist that's because they're hiring researchers first and teachers second, but academics who regard students as obstacles in the path of their research agenda need to remind themselves that in the absence of undergraduates their departments simply wouldn't exist to hire researchers in the first place.

Now that my dissertation is at long, long last complete, I look forward to the resumption of my education. I have an immense backlog of reading to catch up on, but the first and most urgent task is the conquest of a second language. In Quebec over the summer, I met a parrot whose French was better than mine, and everywhere I went I was embarrassed by my lack of facility in even the most basic of declarative phrases in a language other than my own. Fortunately, Quebec is, despite what some of the more prejudiced English Canadians believe, the only authentically bilingual province in Confederation, and everyone from cab drivers to waitstaff to ordinary people on the street, readily conversed in English for the benefit of people who grew up in such places as London, Ontario.

The purpose of an education is to expand the range of one's knowledge and to cultivate the ability to go on learning without teachers. In short, the goal is to get smarter. "Never let your schooling interfere with your education," Twain often told his audiences, and I would add that one should never assume that getting credentialed is the same as getting smarter.

Monday, September 8, 2008


So, there's Graham, aged seventeen, and, yup, that's what twenty years can do to a guy. I wouldn't want to go back that is a yellow tie I'm wearing, after all but I sometimes miss those heady days. I say this in spite of the fact that, being quite bald now, I can claim to know something that those who have hair can only suspect: that being bald saves a lot of time and money. In my teens, my hair was far more important to me than my brain; I indulged the former at the expense of the latter. Hours that might have been spent in the cultivation of my intellect with who knows what long-term benefits were reallocated to hair-care related concerns, with no long-term benefits whatsoever. By my mid-twenties, when I began to lose my hair in earnest, I developed a habit of running my fingers through it, stroking it, as one would a beloved old pet on its last legs. Now all that remains is a fuzz one-eighth of an inch deep, not unlike three day's accumulation of stubble. In general, I don't shave on weekends and by Monday morning my face and head take on a rather symmetrical appearance imagine a dirty ostrich egg and you've got the picture.

Probably the most unfortunate thing about baldness is that one becomes the object of all manner of unimaginative and unfunny jibes. "I'd take a group photo, but the flash will bounce off Graham's head! Ha! Ha! Ha!" (Whew - never heard that one before.) "Who is your barber, Graham? Sweeney Todd?" (Hoo-boy. Stop. Please. You're killing me.) I wouldn't mind so much if somebody came up with something new, an authentic baldness zinger, but the bald are themselves the ones most prepared to mock their own condition. We actually have a secret stash of bald jokes really good ones but we don't share them with outsiders.

I did, for a time, seek out cures, or at least methods of arresting the loss. The phrase "hair loss" brings up 17,300,000 hits on Google, compared to, say, 13,600,000 for "Sarah Palin" as of this writing (curiously, the Boolean search "Sarah Palin" AND "hair loss" brings up 13,400 hits, as in: "When McCain selected Sarah Palin as his running mate, my hair loss became the least of my worries"); glancing down the list, I find that most of the links are related to various miracle cures and in some cases rather grisly forms of surgery that promise to restore hair to one's head. But three things have persuaded me of the nonsense of any effort to retard or roll back my baldness. The first is the recognition that the minor social stigma attached to baldness is, like almost all prejudices, the fault of the person holding it; second, while I'm no advocate of slovenliness in personal appearance I've read too many accounts of POWs who fell apart both physically and emotionally once they stopped caring about their appearance to do that I realize that my baldness is the consequence of the unfolding of a harmless genetic program that was imprinted in my DNA at the moment of my conception. In short, to fight this would be to acknowledge that there's something wrong with me, which, in this one instance, at least, there is not. And the third and most salient reason is the fact that my late mother's baldness was the consequence of a battle with cancer and three or four courses of chemotherapy. She wore her bald head like a badge of honour and defiance, and since then my own baldness has seemed a piffling concern by comparison.

Still, I admit to flashes of irritation now and again. Not long ago, visiting the ROM, I noticed that their mummy still retained a considerable mane, some thousands of years after his departure, and for a moment I caught myself thinking, "how fair is that?" But, then, I considered this fellow creature, denied, in all probability, the afterlife he anticipated, dug up and stuck, without his consent, under glass, in a far-off region of the world, to be gawked at by museum patrons and their sticky-fingered children. I decided to allow him his hair without complaint. "Time himself is bald and therefore to the world's end will have bald followers," Shakespeare wrote in The Comedy of Errors. Well, not always. And maybe Time hasn’t heard of the Hair Club for Men, either.