A Prescient Passage Edward Abbey’s ‘Desert Solitaire’?

The cover of the 1998 illustrated edition of Edward Abbey's book 'Desert Solitaire'In 1968 author Edward Abbey published Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, a first-person nonfiction travelogue chronicling two summers spent working as a park ranger at Arches National Park in the rugged canyonlands of Southeastern Utah. The memoir is considered a classic of literary travel writing and is filled with effervescent prose and sharp, irreverent musings on the desert, nature, the environment, mass tourism, and the need for conservation in the United States. Given its message and tone, and its release in the late 1960s protest era, Desert Solitaire was viewed as a counter-culture work at the time, even something of a pseudo-revolutionary environmental manifesto.

However, like many things whose qualities have fallen out of vogue in these fast-changing times, Abbey and Desert Solitaire are nowadays looked upon with askance. Younger readers drawn to the book for its appealing subject matter – fueled by fashionable culture war attitudes – attack Abbey in their Amazon and Goodreads reviews for his white male brusqueness. This general shift in attitude towards his book is worthy of a separate discussion. But I mention it here because one particular passage in Desert Solitaire, misread and misunderstood by his polarized detractors for an extremist right-wing rant, begs mention on its own terms for its seemingly strange prescience.

Abbey more than once argues for the need to preserve wilderness and national parks, in part for the psycho-spiritual spiritual benefits nature confers upon humans. During one such musing he says it is also essential to conserve wild places to have venues from which to mount a defence of democracy against a future homegrown American dictatorship:

“The wilderness should be preserved for political reasons,” Abbey writes. “We may need it someday not only as a refuge from excessive industrialism but also as a refuge from authoritarian government, from political oppression. Grand Canyon, Big Bend, Yellowstone, and the High Sierras may be required to function as bases for guerrilla warfare against tyranny. What reason have we Americans to think that our own society will necessarily escape the world-wide drift the totalitarian organization of men and institutions?”

It’s easy to forget, but 1968 was only just over two decades since the end of World War Two and the struggle against the Nazis (timewise roughly as far as we are today from the 9/11 attacks). The United States was deep in the throes of the Cold War, the divisive Vietnam conflict and domestic military conscription, and the struggle with the Soviet Bloc. The American democratic edifice was creaking and straining under the weight of its domestic and foreign conflicts, and the decisions of its warmongering leadership.

A landscape or rock in Arches National Park in Utah.
Arches National Park, where Edward Abbey spent two summers and which were the basis of his book ‘Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wlderness’

It’s highly doubtful that Abbey wrote this passage, and others in the book, in the vein of rightist white ethno-nationalism (evidenced also by his praise and references to left-leaning popular liberation struggles that similarly used wild nature to fight governments). Instead he based his idea – hard to conceive of then, but somehow easier to envision now – that all democracies experience entropy and decay, and that the United States would not itself be spared this inevitability.

Abbey writes: “This may seem, at the moment, like a fantastic thesis. Yet history demonstrates that personal liberty is a rare and precious thing, that all societies trend toward the absolute until attack from without or collapse from within breaks up the social machine and makes freedom and innovation again possible. Technology adds a new dimension to the process by providing modern despots with instruments far more efficient than any available to their classical counterparts. Surely it is no accident that the most thorough of tyrannies appeared in Europe’s most thoroughly scientific and industrialized nation.”

Abbey’s musings, including a subsequent list of hypothetical behaviours of a future dictatorial American regime, might sound like the ramblings of those we might today call ‘conspiracy theorists.’

Yet at the same time given all that has come to pass since Desert Solitaire was published, chiefly:

  • the rise and influence of big tech over our lives;
  • the coming disruptive permutations of AI;
  • the explosion in government regulation and bureaucracy, and the co-opting of AI into its machinery;
  • the polarized culture wars and the dissolving of the social fabric of American society,

…Abbey’s passage strikes as far more relevant today than when the first book appeared.

Leaving the question aside of how sound it is to wage guerrilla war campaigns from such places as the Grand Canyon, Abbey raising the spectre of a future American autocracy even when done so with the hyperbolic literary flare of the writer trying to be controversial, is still enough to give pause today, considering where we seem to be headed.

Ten Quotes by Goethe from ‘Maxims and Reflections’

A portrait painting of Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe by Gerhard von Kügelgen.

Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe (1749-1832) was a German polymath and renaissance man. Often referred to as the last universal genius of the West, there were few subjects or fields he didn’t explore. Goethe was a prolific writer, multi-disciplinary scientist, a naturalist, an artist, musician, poet, classicist, traveller, fictional novelist, and philosopher. The German scholar and savant drew deep inspiration from the wellsprings of global literary wisdom that preceded him. He was also driven by an uncompromising search for truth, and sought to understand and explain the world and its deeper undercurrents and interconnections.

Although his name cropped-up here and there in books I read during my life, I first truly became aware of Goethe after reading The Invention of Nature by German-British historian Andrea Wulf. The book is a biography about the life and work of the Prussian naturalist and explorer, Alexander von Humboldt. Goethe, who appears frequently in Wulf’s story, is a close friend and interlocutor to Humboldt.

I recently picked up Goethe’s Maxims and Reflections, a collection of over 1,400 of his aphorisms on seemingly every topic imaginable. I thought it would be a good first book of his to read, and a primer on his other writing and ideas. Many of his aphorisms demonstrate, upon reflection, a mind committed to unveiling the hidden nature of things.

Here are ten of Goethe’s quotes in his Maxims and Reflections that struck a chord:

– “Difficulties increase the nearer we get to the goal.”

– “The phenomenon is not detached from the observer, but intertwined and involved with him.”

– “Imaginary equality: the first way to show inequality in action.”

– “Just as in Rome, besides the Romans, there was also a people of statues, so, too, apart from this real world, there is also an illusory world.”

– “Truth is a torch, but a monstrously huge one; which is why we are all just intent on getting past it, our eyes blinking as we go, even terrified of getting burnt.”

– “Scholarly knowledge is greatly retarded by our preoccupation with what is not worth knowing and with what is unknowable.”

– “Truth is contrary to our nature, not so error, and thus for a very simple reason: truth demands that we should recognize ourselves as limited, error flatters us that, in one way or another, we are unlimited.”

– “Error is related to truth as sleeping is to waking. I have observed that when one has been in error, one turns to truth as though revitalized.”

–  “There is now a really bad habit of being abstruse in the sciences; one gets away from ordinary sense without opening up a higher meaning, one transcends, fantasizes, dreads live perception, and when at last one wants and needs to enter the practical sphere, one suddenly becomes atomistic and mechanical.”

–  “Everything is simpler than one can imagine, at the same time more involved than can be comprehended.”

Why Canadians Say ‘Sorry’ So Often

A long list of sorries.

It’s one of the great head-scratching mysteries about Canada, that both Canadians and visiting foreigners raise with troubling frequency: why do Canadians use the word ‘sorry’ so often in the course of their day-to-day lives?

I’m a Torontonian and can tell you it’s true: Canadians have a conditioned reflex to apologize for even the smallest and most insignificant infractions—most of which barely count as violations and are thus unworthy of an apology.

This tendency to sorry-monger for virtually anything, occurs in all sorts of situations: from barely getting into a person’s physical space, to asking for the smallest favour or assistance—even if it’s from someone who’s job it is to help you, to airing a complaint, to catching oneself making tiny errors in judgement  or perception in the course of a conversation. No misstep is small enough to escape sorry-fication.

Contrast this with the more brusque and unapologetic people in other countries for whom such niceties as apologizing for normal behaviour is a luxury gone too far. When someone lightly bumps my shoulder in the Toronto subway as the train suddenly lurches and offers their regretful “sorry,” I  chuckle to myself and think of the unapologetic mass rush of people cramming onto Tokyo subway trains that is stuff of real nightmares. Or the uncaring elbows in the head I often suffered in the most crowded places in Cairo. Or having an onion at a vegetable market in Eastern Europe yanked out of my hand by someone hell-bent on taking that same piece of produce.

I’ve written about an American anthropologist named Edward T. Hall, who penned books about the differences in such unconscious, or intangible, cultural behaviours around the world. He used the term “hidden culture” to describe the non-verbal actions and habits-of-thought that operate below human awareness, and which vary between cultural groupings. They include things like perception of space, awareness of time, implicit and explicit communication habits, rhythms and body movements, and other types of signalling.

My answer to the question of why Canadians use the word “sorry” so much is inspired by Hall’s lens of hidden culture, which I now apply to my own countryfolk. As with most things, there is no single cause. It is most likely a combination of several factors working together, and which are concealed from obvious view. Here are a few:

Self-consciousness is a hallmark of Canadian cultural psychology that makes us predisposed to being ‘sorry.’

Our relative lack of cultural identity means we don’t have a deep or confident sense of who, or what, we are. The “sorry” is a kind of tick reflecting the resulting self-consciousness, self-doubt, and awkwardness that resides in us. It’s also the source of Canadian passive-aggression, for which we are famous amongst ourselves.

Protestant Christian guilt, apology (“sorry”), and repentance are early foundations of Anglophone Canadian culture.

I suspect the propensity to say sorry is an old one, stemming from Protestant moralism, and has endured as a more watered-down cultural reflex. That need to demonstrate good behaviour also manifests in our very famous Canadian politeness, which also contributes to the sorry impulse. Polite people go out of their way to apologize, even if they may not need to. Canadian virtue signalling, whether expressed by individuals or the collective (the Trudeau government’s evangelical do-good policies, for example), also has its roots in this constant need for public penitence, ie: a sort of Godless Protestantism.

Canada is a nation of rules, regulations, and strict boundaries between things, which makes Canadians culturally more “transgression-minded.”

We’re more predisposed to the ‘sorry’ also because our existence is so ordered, linear, controlled, and rational. When we feel we are veering from the rules—that perfectionism—even so slightly as a hiccup, we reach for the apology that smooths everything over.

Canadians enjoy the luxury of physical space, which makes us extremely susceptible to saying “sorry” when getting too close.

You may notice that many, perhaps even most, Canadian ‘sorrys’ occur around accidental or happenstance transgressions of spatial boundaries. Take, for example that awkward moment when two people walking down the sidewalk toward each other shift sideways to get out of each other’s way, but end up mirroring each others’ movements, and thus block each other momentarily until they pass. In Canada, that’s a couple of sorrys you can take to the bank.

The Canadian spatial violation threshold is exceedingly low. We occupy the second largest country in the world, after Russia. Even though most Canadians live in the southernmost tier of the country, our landscape remains large and vast—even in the south. There is a large amount of space per person. This great expanse is why Old World Europeans settled here to begin with, and part of the reason why people still immigrate to Canada from other more crowded parts of the world.

Simply put: Canadians enjoy the luxury of space. We’re conditioned to that. And so the sorrys pour forth when Canadians find they have drifted too near to one another.

In countries and cultures where population density is exceedingly high, such as in big and densely crowded cities in Asia and Africa, people have no such spatial sensitivities. They have adapted to their circumstances by accepting physical boundaries that are a great deal less than ours.

The relative affluence, comfort and safety of Canadian life, translates into an exceptionally low tolerance for adversity and inconvenience. “Sorry” becomes a diplomatic tool.

Canadians live in a safe-haven by global standards. Theirs is an affluent, comfortable, contented, and even complacent society. Most Canadians are not exposed to the types and degrees of challenge and adversity that many people living in less fortunate parts of the world regularly face. Put another way: we’re more than a bit soft.

That softness means our threshold for adversity and inconvenience is low. In our own minds this gives us more to be sorry for. We tend to project that when we say “sorry” in advance for the slightest infringements upon another’s time and energy—such as when approaching a stranger for directions or information. “Sorry” is a diplomatic device when dealing with others.

One young woman in her late teens accidentally tapped my foot while walking past me as I was sitting on the bus. She was so horrified by what she had done that she stopped in her tracks and proceeded to apologize profusely and repetitively as if she had committed a deep moral outrage that had done me great harm. Our new culture of fragility amplified the number and intensity of her sorrys.

I did what I suggest others do in such situations, when a sorry, especially a Canadian “sorry”, is both overwrought and unnecessary—as courteous as it may be:

I smiled and replied back in a gentle but firm tone, “Don’t be.”

Hiking in Ikaria, Greece

A warning sign about getting lost on a trailhead on hiking trail on the island of Ikaria in Greece.

This past spring I travelled to Ikaria, a traditional Greek island in the Aegean near the Turkish coast. The island has become famous in recent years for its so-called “blue zone” status—it was one of five places, twenty years ago, deemed to have the most centenarians per capita in the world. Less well-known is that Ikaria is a quintessential nature island among Greek islands. Its north and south coasts are subdivided by a rugged mountain range covered in forests and rent by steep rocky river canyons. Scores of old village walking trails, some that have been used for many centuries, criss-cross the mountains in every direction, creating a veritable web of paths.

Ikaria is a hiker’s paradise. I was drawn to the island largely for that reason. Most of the foreigners I met on my trip were also there to hike. So numerous, varied, and bucolic are Ikaria’s trails, that most of the travellers I met there were back for their double-digit consecutive hiking visit to the island. One couple had returned for their 30th trip that spring.

Because I travelled alone to the island, I was hiking solo. I chose as my first ramble a 3-hour out-and-back trail that begins from the mountain village of Profitis Ilias, and follows the slope of a steep river gorge to the Chalaris Dam, a water reservoir a few kilometres below. In spite of the relative shortness of the hike, I didn’t cover much distance that day.

A view from the Chalaris Dam hiking trail in Ikaria, Greece.The trail, like many on Ikaria, was not as straightforward a proposition as many hikes are in other places. Some route-finding skills were required, which I had. But  I still became quickly disoriented in sections.

To begin with the path, like many trails on Ikaria, was not well marked. The hiking map of the island, an otherwise informative and comprehensive chart published by Anavasi Maps and Guides, was too general to answer my more specific navigational questions at a smaller scale (I didn’t want to use an app and be glued to a screen). And not only was the trail hard to see along certain stretches owing to the uniformly dry and rocky conditions, but often the path veered up or down at very hard angles suddenly and invisibly. I often missed those hidden turns and I overshot as a result—following, instead, the trail made by others before me who also missed the switchback, until it petered out and I was left scratching my head.

In one instance I backtracked after getting lost, and picked-up what I took to be the trail forward—only to realize, after hiking through what I thought was new scenery, I was back to where I started! That epiphany was a humbling jolt: I was certain that I was in one place, only to realize I was somewhere else completely.

I took that initial experience as a warning to be as careful as possible while on my other hikes in Ikaria.

I do as much wilderness hiking as I can when I am at home in Canada, and consider myself to be a fairly good route finder for an intermediate-advanced level hiker. Given all of the things that can go awry when recreating in the backcountry, this issue of possibly getting lost is usually top of mind for me when I’m in the wilderness.

Because of that I have written posts on this blog, and others, about the psychology of wilderness survival, on getting lost in the backcountry, and on search and rescue (SAR) operations for lost and injured hikers. Which is why when I found myself seriously disoriented for the first time on a subsequent hike in Ikaria, I was completely taken aback.

A view of the Chalaris Canyon and the mountains of Ikaria, GreeceThat hike, the Chalaris Canyon high route, is another out-and-back trail that connects the seaside town of Nas with the community of Raches in the mountains. The hike was beautiful, rugged, and scenic. There were some moments of confusion at the start, similar to the previous hike I had done; but because the trail was more visible and because I was deliberately moving slowly and methodically, I made good progress that day.

The problems began when I was on the return leg of the hike.

As I walked across the high rocky slope of the canyon back towards the trailhead, I found my way suddenly barred by cliffs. The trail had once again vanished. I did what I taught myself long ago to do in those situations: I backtracked until the trail reappeared again, then I resumed my hike forward. But again, I found myself back to where I had gotten lost—by those cliffs. I repeated the backtrack maneuver over and over again just to be sure, but I only achieved the same result. The trail kept leading me to a dead-end. How was that possible?

In retrospect, what had actually happened was I strayed onto a false fork off the main path and that led to the cliff. Every time I kept retracing my route back to pick up the trail to begin again, it was the fork I was finding. I needed to backtrack further to where the false fork branched from the real path—and then continue along the correct trail from there. Not realizing that, I second-guessed myself into thinking I was actually on the right path at the cliffs—and that it was just hidden somewhere beside the bluffs. So, I decided to find it.

An obscure hiking trail in the mountains in Ikaria, Greece.I climbed and clambered and scrambled, expending loads of energy and sweat in the process. First upwards, and then further down the slope, and then back up again towards a high crag I recognized and remembered hiking below. But I still couldn’t find the trail. And the general way remained barred by rock. I had exhausted myself looking, sweating profusely, and having to drink too much of my water as a result.

My heart began to race, the first palpitations of panic set in. I saw a chain-link fence above me that seemed to run parallel with where I thought the trail rain. I thought if I climbed up to the fence and followed it back, I could just walk down the slope further back and hit the trail perpendicularly. But when I did that and descended to the pine forest below where I last seemed to be on the trail, I could not find the path. I was now even more lost, more out of fuel, more water depleted. I was just spinning my wheels.

Although I wasn’t ‘hopelessly lost’ and maintained a sense of general direction given that Chalaris Canyon led to Nas where I had started, I still felt sufficiently disoriented, flustered and worried because of it. I sat down on the soft bed of pine needles that covered the slope and considered my options.

The bright side was it wasn’t raining, and there was still several hours of daylight left. So, I wasn’t under pressure in either of those senses. Everything else seemed more iffy. Even though I was on the finite and compact territory of Ikaria, a mere Island, and could technically go down to the river at the bottom of the gorge and try to follow the water out to where I started, the terrain was still incredibly steep, rocky and treacherous to attempt that gambit (search and rescue professionals advise against following waterways out in rugged environments). The spring river ran fast and high and was full of boulders and high waterfalls. Injury, or worse, was a possibility with that option. Climbing straight up was impossible as a crown of rocky cliffs barred the way up for quite some distance in both directions.

A hiking map of Ikaria, Greece showing part of the Chalaris Canyon trailWhen I checked my phone I noticed I was getting a cell tower signal—I wasn’t getting one further back. I flipped on my data roaming and fired up Google Maps to see how I could get to the closest road using its GPS. The map showed a nearby dash-line, indicating another hiking trail (not the one that I had lost), leading to the village of Agios Dimitrios. I used my GPS position to move towards that pathway. Getting there wasn’t as straightforward as it appeared on my screen as I had to go around some very difficult terrain, scrambling along steep drops at points. But I eventually found my way to that pathway, and then the village, walking past numerous hidden homes in the hills, where I encountered many of these elder local residents, working in their palatial vegetable gardens. It was an indescribable relief to know I was back on some manner of grid.

In Agios Dimitrios I took a gravel backroad down to Nas, my point of embarkation.

Though the experience of getting lost in Ikaria was far from the potentially lethal situation others have found themselves in in bigger and more expansive backcountry, I got a valuable taste of how easy it is to lose your way (and your mental equilibrium), under such circumstances. It’s made me doubly careful in the outdoors as a result.

The Blandification of Toronto

Crews on a construction site in the Corktown district of downtown Toronto
Photo: John Zada

The city of Toronto is in the middle of a demolition-construction boom. To be a resident here is to experience something of what it was like to live in Dubai during the first decade of its 21st century building explosion. Cranes vie with high-rises across the cityscape. Entire city blocks of older, architecturally iconic two-story mixed commercial-residential buildings are being demolished to make way for stands of utilitarian beehive glass condos. Road intersections are being barricaded for years to build underground subway stations.

In my own neighbourhood of Corktown, on the eastern flank of Toronto’s downtown core, such crucial amenities as a large affordable supermarket, drugstore, and gas station have been, or will be, demolished to create evermore space for this aesthetically bland repertoire of overpriced and unimaginative structures.

There are reasons, of course, for this bullishness in the construction sector.  There is an acute housing shortage in Canada and a need to update a simplistic transit and subway system in Toronto. And, of course, there is money to be made. The companies at the forefront of these city reconstruction schemes are undoubtedly raking in profits.

A construction application notice sign in Toronto
Photo: John Zada

Ontario premier Doug Ford’s uncomfortably close ties to the construction industry combined with the City of Toronto’s desire to claw-in evermore property tax revenue, has resulted in a seemingly unlimited number of projects being green-lit across town simultaneously. You can’t walk anywhere in Toronto now without seeing a notice board beside a building announcing a pending demolition-construction in a pre-existing structure or block.

Of course, it’s unreasonable and unrealistic to expect, or advocate for, no change. With vision, creativity, and forethought such projects could aesthetically and functionally improve the city. The prospect of urban renewal and the creation of new spaces could even be exciting. The effort to convert the moribund Toronto Port Lands industrial district into somewhere liveable is one attempt in that direction.

But the question of balance—how much development is enough at any given time and what is the correct planning and aesthetic that would improve quality of life—seems to not be under discussion. Beyond the chaos on the ground owing to these innumerable and uncoordinated projects, there are deeper issues and questions that seem invisible to the city’s bureaucrats and the passive screen-distracted masses. They likely apply to other cities going through the same convulsive growing pains. I want to bring some into awareness.

This rash of condo building in Toronto is resulting in the slow, piecemeal blandification of the downtown area.

When these new buildings go up, in some cases replacing older commercial brick structures with small storefronts, independent businesses are being forever driven out of the community. The ground floor commercial spaces in the new condos, large and exceedingly expensive to rent or sell, become occupied by franchise and chain businesses, or smaller high-end businesses. These alter the feel and experience of living in a neighbourhood. They include: dentist offices, nail salons, bank branches, pet stores, expensive boutique grocers and the usual suspects that are Starbucks, Circle K, A&W, Cobbs Bread, Subway et al. The list goes on.

Although being touted as “urbanization,” The Yonge-Sheppard corridor in the Willowdale district of north Toronto has been rendered into the perfect hi-rise condo-meets-chain store community—a clinically sterile development model which is now being implemented downtown. Even with tall residential buildings that mimmic the downtown, its commercial spirit remains deeply suburban.

As this Dubai-zation or Vancouver-ization of Toronto (also happening in other world cities) proceeds at a clip, whole sections of commercial storefronts are being turned to rows of what I call “mini big box stores.” Gone are the smaller, quirkier, businesses: the indie bookstores, family groceries, small restaurants, antiques shops, bakeries, clothing boutiques, novelty stores, butchers, indie coffee shops, small bars—places that are more likely to be staffed by owners and which are more conducive to human conversations and interactions that define community living. To find these people and their wares, we increasingly have to go online.

There is little recourse for citizens to understand or be involved in the development decisions that alter Toronto’s neighbourhoods.

New hi-rise condos under construction in Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Photo: John Zada

Ask anyone how these real estate development decisions are made, who approves them, what is the entire process from A to Z, and chances are you’ll get a blank stare and shrugged shoulders. Beyond the requisite and largely ritualistic town-hall type “community consultation” meetings held for locals to express their gripes or misgivings about proposed neighbourhood construction projects, there is not much knowledge about the stages of development green-lighting, and where the citizen can be involved. Not only is the process not transparent to the commoner, but even the local news media, whose job it is to hold municipal officialdom to account, seem to be entirely in the dark and/or largely uncaring about questions of urban planning.

There has been, as far as I know, little tradition of robust investigative journalism that looks closely at the business practices around construction, development and real estate. The need to sell lucrative advertising to these companies has likely precluded making them the targets of news stories or investigations.

It’s also laborious journalism. It requires very good scoops and much digging. Well-paid bureaucrats are reluctant to be sources, or whistle-blowers. With the exception of some good reporting done in recent years around foreign money laundering schemes in the real estate market in Vancouver (something that also reputedly occurs in Toronto and has impacted the national housing market), there has been little word from our media.

Nowadays, publications like The Toronto Star and the increasingly gossip mag-like Toronto Life would much rather publish more sensational local stories about the adventures and misadventures of home buyers and home renovators in an inflated real estate market.

Will a runaway Ontario construction sector continue to demolish Toronto in piecemeal to maintain its mass building contracts ad infinitum?

Will we see Toronto’s inflated construction sector—given carte blanche by politicians and driven by evermore profits—continue to wantonly buy up and demolish whole sections of older city blocks to erect their glass and concrete mediocrities that block out the sky and force-feed us the bland storefronts that neutralize our more human interactions?

A demolition and construction site for condos in the Corktown neighbourhood of Toronto
Photo: John Zada
Commercial storefront space being turned into dentist offices in Toronto.
Photo: John Zada
Commercial storefront space being turned into dentist offices in Toronto.
Photo: John Zada


Articles for The Human Journey Project

The Human Journey webiste's blog pageI’ve written some articles for The Human Journey project that touch upon cultural psychology and unconscious human behaviour. The online initiative, a project of the Institute for the Study of Human Knowledge (ISHK), a California non-profit founded by psychologist Robert E. Ornstein, makes available scientific knowledge and research about human nature—especially its less well-known cultural and psychology dimensions.

Three recent pieces of mine there include: “Escaping the Either/Or Thinking Trap,” which looks at the conundrum and impact of dualistic thinking in our culture.

Finding the Right Way Home” is about cults and the ubiquity of cult behaviour in our day-to-day lives.

A third piece, entitled “Edward T. Hall: Culture Below the Radar” explores the work of an American anthropologist who mapped the hidden cultural behaviours and patterns that lie mostly out of human awareness.

Why Cancel Culture Hasn’t Come for Larry David

Larry David talking on the phone in an episode of 'Curb Your Enthusiasm.'Early last year I started watching the HBO comedy series Curb Your Enthusiasm. Several long-time fans of the show finally convinced me to give the series a spin after years of praising it to the heavens. For those uninitiated: the show’s producer, Larry David (the co-creator of Seinfeld), also stars in the series and plays himself—a neurotic, obsessive-compulsive and socially awkward Jewish comedian and producer living in Los Angeles who gets into all sorts of trouble for the inappropriate things he says and does.

I wasn’t that attracted to Curb at first. It’s an unusual sort of sit-com with a strange, vacuous, molasses-slow feel. It’s not made in a studio. It doesn’t move at a clip. Nor does it use an audience or employ laugh tracks. It’s shot reality-show style with lots of camera shake and with the actors often semi-improvising their dialogue—a lot of which is plain silly, or slapstick in nature. By way of Larry’s numerous gaffes and blunders, the series pokes fun at nearly every social, ethnic and professional grouping in society, including some to which Larry belongs: from his co-religionists, to Hollywood actors, to entertainment producers, and the moneyed classes of L.A. No one is spared. The scenes are often awkward and cringeworthy.

Yet, over time I’ve discovered that Curb‘s irreverent and politically incorrect humour makes for some of the best comedy out there. The show is a deep breath of fresh air and I’m unapologetically hooked. Two decades of seasons now running in the double-digits is testament to its continued popularity. At one level Curb Your Enthusiasm is a satire about “political incorrectness,” which uses our own deeply conditioned and nervous reactions to it to fuel our laughter as an audience. Humour, an age-old form of political subversion, has always been the bane of dogmatists and demagogues everywhere.

And yet most people who appreciate the series are also aware that it lives, at least theoretically, on a knife’s edge. There is a recurring refrain I hear among nearly all Curb aficionados who at some point in the conversation always say: “Larry David gets away with murder.” That comment is seldom not followed by, “I have no idea know how he pulls it off.” Apparently, Larry David still doesn’t know either.

Indeed, given the extent of blinkered and ideological thinking run amok nowadays, why Larry David doesn’t find himself embroiled in controversy, or even cancelled over the humour in his shows, ranks as one of greatest unsolved mysteries out there. Only such questions as the fate of Jimmy Hoffa and the construction methods of the Giza pyramids place higher.

And yet, I think I’ve come up with something approximating an answer—or rather an answer in multiple parts—that could finally put this daunting riddle to rest. I’ll start with the simpler and more mundane quotient of the explanation first.

One answer may be that the show is simply not appealing or popular enough across the board to draw in a critical mass of detractors. Curb Your Enthusiasm is a niche, cult-comedy series hidden behind the CRAVE/HBO paywall that speaks to people who appreciate a certain brand of humour (think Mel Brooks jokes, but a slightly broader appeal). Those not prone to becoming outraged won’t go anywhere near it in the first place. Perhaps, because of this, the show isn’t discussed enough among the chattering classes for some of those conversations to go viral. The fact that Larry David isn’t online playing the Twitter game definitely helps in that sense. Thus he and Curb may just lack the requisite “stickiness” as a topic.

That explanation may illuminate part of it, but alone doesn’t entirely wash given the show has been running for so long and all you need is a few troublemakers online to start an avalanche of scandal. It seems too lucky. There has to be something else at play.

Instead, I believe the main answer lies in psychology. Two elucidations stand out, after much thought on the matter, both of which overlap. I’ll start with the first:

People don’t try to cancel Larry David because he’s likely not considered by most people to be a sufficiently worthwhile target. Let me explain.

In his book The Status Game, British author and journalist Will Storr writes that much social media behaviour, including attempts to cancel others online, is driven largely by status motivations. People who virtue signal by calling out other people online are not only trying to score points to elevate their own status, but they are also working to take down people they deem to hold too much status. Other social psychologists, like Jonathan Haidt, have argued similar things. This is evolved primate behaviour seen in more than one species, including humans, whereby group members often combine forces to knock down leaders who become too big for their britches.

It’s true that Larry David is a very big celebrity and a high-status guy in real life. But on the show, in which he plays himself, his alter ego is profoundly self-deprecating and he comes off as a kind of a loser who’s always getting into trouble with family, friends, colleagues and strangers. The show, I suspect, may inadvertently create the illusion that Larry David himself is a low status guy in real life who stands on no serious pedestal from which he can be knocked off. His goofiness may make him difficult for anyone to take seriously enough.

And this relates to what I suspect is the main reason we don’t see more people go after him: Larry, who again, plays himself, suffers serious consequences in each episode for the politically incorrect things he says and does.

Other people attack him, yell at him, get angry with him, or lash out at him for his faux pas. He loses money, opportunities, and jobs as a result. This again possibly creates the illusion in the mind of viewers that the real-life Larry David, by way of the alter ego, has received his just punishment—and doesn’t require further berating.

In other words: Larry getting in trouble on the show might also deactivate, or discharge, peoples’ bloodlust to try and cancel the real life guy.

The late Idries Shah, a writer and thinker whose work has influenced some of our understandings of human behaviour, and who wrote many books about the traditional psychologies of the East, illustrated a similar phenomenon in his book Knowing How to Know.

Shah described being at a press conference in London, where an unpopular businessman accused of improprieties was about to address a group of journalists who were intent on grilling him. Before the businessman arrived at the venue, a bystander loitering among the journalists began to viciously harangue the tycoon in his absence. The rabble rouser attacked him at such length, and with such conviction, that some of the reporters began to feel uncomfortable—even though they themselves had intended to do the same thing.

When the businessman finally arrived at the presser, the journalists, whose bloodlust and emotional excitement were discharged by the bystander’s raving attacks, treated him kindly and fairly. Their write-ups and media coverage later also demonstrated fair-handedness.

Similar dynamics might have protected Larry David from the sorts of criticism and cancellation that have plagued other less fortunate entertainers, who weren’t deserving of that fate.

‘TraumaZone’: a BBC Series by Adam Curtis

A still-frame from the BBC documentary series "TraumaZone" by Adam Curtis

I’ve just watched a 7-part BBC documentary series on Russia, entitled TraumaZone: What it Felt Like to Live Through the Collapse of Communism and Democracy. I can’t recommend it enough—as not just the bizarre and spellbinding romp through recent history that it is, but as an object lesson in how collective trauma can impact the perceptions and behaviour of the masses.

For most of us who’ve never visited, lived-in, or studied in Russia, trying to understand Vladimir Putin and the cultural psychology of the nation he and his inner circle control can feel almost futile. Not only does Russia embody both Eastern and Western cultural mores in a way that few, if any nations do, but it has also experienced a degree of tumult that is unimaginable without having lived through it.

In TraumaZone, Director Adam Curtis presents a collage of random story vignettes drawn from old BBC archival new footage to give us a sense of what it was like to live through Russia’s turbulent and destructive emergence from the Cold War years, between 1985-1999. The old video montages are a cross between Instagram video reels, and the ‘No Comment’ segments from Euronews. There is no formal narration per se—only sparse titling marking important milestones in the story.

Curtis implicitly shows us, masterfully, the devastating experiences that have shaped the Russia we see—behaving as it does—on the world stage today. By doing so, he complicates the simplistic idea that Russian political hostility towards the West either has no basis, or is entirely due to great power antagonism.

TraumaZone ends with the instalment, by Russian Oligarchs, of a much younger and more spritely Vladimir Putin into the country’s presidency—a final desperate act to stave off collapse caused by a fast-and-furious embrace of liberal democracy which was ill-suited to Russia, and promulgated by the West.

You can watch TraumaZone on BBC’s iPlayer in the UK, or on YouTube where the episodes also run.

Polarization Op-Ed in the Globe

We have another opinion piece running in the Globe and Mail today about increasing polarization in Canada, ritualistic opposition in politics, and the misuse of the party system to those ends. We argue that political parties have a beneficial cooperative function, too, beyond the tools they’ve become for senseless bickering.

You can read the piece here.