The timing of “greatness”

Our family has had some fairly long drives recently, and my husband and I have been enjoying listening to National Review‘s The Great Books Podcast in the car, hosted out of Hillsdale College in Michigan by John J. Miller. Every week Miller hosts a guest — generally a professor of English from somewhere or other — and they talk about one of the great books of the Western Canon. We’ve listened to podcasts on Beowulf, Pride and Prejudice, Augustine’s City of God, Macbeth, Jane Eyre, The Aeneid, and many others. As far as tech/sound goes, there are occasional volume-balance issues, particularly when Miller is being joined via telephone, but overall it’s been a pretty enjoyable listen. I’ve made mental notes of books that I’ve never gotten around to but would now like to pick up, as well as some, like Farenheit 451, that I read long ago and didn’t enjoy — but which would probably read very differently to me fifteen years on. It’s definitely spurred some great conversations, and we will often pause the podcast to discuss a guest’s interpretation of a work versus our own. I dig it.

The whole thing, though, has made me think about the idea of a “great book” or a canon of literature, both of which seem to have fallen rather out of fashion. I had an English teacher in high school who railed against the very existence of a Western Canon — “It’s nothing but dead white men!” — as well as the idea that we should be studying it with any seriousness. It is true that The Western Canon as we have inherited it is overwhelmingly the words of said dead white men. Do we regret the lost voices and perspectives from the years when they were either going unplublished, or not receiving enough reader traction to have survived the intervening years? Of course. But to my mind, that makes the canon a candidate for supplementation rather than destruction; if it is a shame to have lost those other, unknown voices then surely it would be a shame to lose the ones we still have. We don’t need to stop reading The Odyssey just because we also want to read Their Eyes Were Watching God.

But what most interests me is the charge of being dead. Well, the poor dears can’t help that, can they? Death may have snuck up on them decades or centuries or eons ago, but they were all living and writing on the razor-thin edge between their present and the future, just as we are now. Refusing to read authors simply because they lived before we did strikes me as particularly foolish, and smacking of what C. S. Lewis and Owen Barfield called chronological snobbery. In effect, it is the assumption that the past is inferior to the present simply because it is the past. It is easy to look at the ideas and assumptions of the past and think ourselves well past all that — and in many cases, we may be right. But if we assume that the present is always superior to the past, we end up in the intellectual weeds. Lewis writes,

Barfield never made me an Anthroposophist, but his counterattacks destroyed forever two elements in my own thought. In the first place he made short work of what I have called my “chronological snobbery,” the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also “a period,” and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them. (Surprised by Joy, ch. 13)

Miller opens every podcast with the same question: “So, Professor So-and-So, what makes XYZ a ‘great book’?” Naturally, the answers vary, although there are some common themes: the books highlighted on the podcast have something profound to say about the universal human condition, or give us a clear window into a particular time and place, or were influential on another author or a country or a movement, or what have you.

(Aside: Giving us a window into a particular time and place is not always seen as a positive quality; many books are challenged and pulled from library shelves because they are seen as too different from our more enlightened age, too rooted in their contemporary mores. The American Library Assosciation recently struck Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from a prestigious children’s book award because her books contain “dated cultural attitudes” — nevermind that Wilder’s portrayal of the conflict between American Indians and white settlers is a nuanced once, overwhelmingly steered by Pa’s good-hearted acceptance. Chronological snobbery has won that particular battle. End of aside.)

But a great book isn’t a Great Book just because it shows us something about humans or influenced a movement — there’s a larger link between them, which is that these books have all stood the test of time. Something about them means that they have stayed in print, that readers are still buying and reading and enjoying them, and not just because they can be found on university syllabi (although I’m sure that helps!). Despite their temporal and cultural remove from us, there is something compelling about them, some quality that has ensured their survival even while other books from the same periods have been lost. They have survived the literary sorting contest that, over decades and centuries, removes the dross from the gold.

Above all, greatness takes time. I read a lot of books that have been published within the last decade or two, many of which have been bestsellers. Will they become Great Books, in time? Some will; many won’t; popularity today does not mean popularity tomorrow, never mind in 50 or 100 or 250 years. I love John Grisham’s novels. Will people be reading John Grisham in 2218? I don’t know, but I bet they’ll still be reading Charles Dickens and Jane Austen and Dante and Homer. I certainly hope they’ll still be reading Laura Ingalls Wilder, despite the ALA’s recent smackdown. We certainly shouldn’t abandon all contemporary reading in favour of exclusively browsing the past (that’s the other side of chronological snobbery, the fetishization of what’s gone before), but neither should we abandon these older books. Instead of challenging them, let us allow them to challenge us — to illuminate the unquestioned mores of our own age even as they expose their own. To do otherwise is to lose a great deal of our ability to understand the world in which we live today (as well as to understand the past), and that would be to lose something very precious indeed.

The pleasures of competence

I read an article recently about social media and its effect on the growing brains of children and teenagers (look for it first on the list of Weekend Reading tomorrow). One of the minor points that stuck out to me was a line about the brain — particularly the adolescent male brain, but of course it applies more broadly — being naturally driven to accumulate competencies, and the danger of video games and their ever-more-rewarding levels replacing the real-world competencies necessary to living as a functional adult.

Now, I’m not anti-video game. I played a lot of computer games growing up, and there are a couple that I still play from time to time when the mood strikes (Roller Coaster Tycoon 3 and West of Loathing) and one that I play daily (Kingdom of Loathing). I enjoy playing them; it’s pleasant and rewarding to beat a level or solve a puzzle I’ve never been able to before, or to get faster at my runs through the game. I’ve been playing KoL on and off for more than twelve years now — longer than some of its player base has been alive — and it still provides enough interest for me to keep coming back. Video games are not inherently the problem; as with most (or perhaps all) tools and technology, it’s not the thing in itself, but how we use it.

This is equally true in the analog world, as we know. A hammer can be used to build a table or to knock down a wall. A water hose can be used to irrigate a garden or to flood a basement. A knife can be used to take a life, or in a surgeon’s hands, to save it. Like they used to say about fire, all of our tools and technologies — whether analog, digital, or some combination of both — are good servants, but bad masters.

Video games are no exception. They are amusing servants but bad masters, and the trouble with virtual achievements is threefold. First, they are too easy, which is a big part of what makes them so seductive. It doesn’t take much mental effort to progress in a video game — not zero effort, certainly, but not much compared to, I don’t know, learning to knit, or moving from algebra to calculus, or writing a technically correct sonnet, or becoming fluent in a second language. And humans are lazy. Calculus is hard; why work to master it when I can just build another virtual roller coaster or finally beat my Tetris high score? Video games offer us constant ways to measure our progress and to master our skills, hitting those dopamine centres in the brain and keeping us engaged with the game for as long as possible. The brain naturally wants to achieve competence in what it’s doing; video games provide a way to do just that, but one that I can only describe as counterfeit.

The second problem is that video game competencies are ephemeral. As I grow older I have come to value more and more the tangible labours of my mind and of my hands: real writing on a page, real dinners on the table, real yarn transformed into real blankets. I spent around two years writing a 130-page thesis for my master’s degree, and outside of parenting my children it may have been the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It involved countless hours of research, writing, revisions, and brainstorming; as I worked I swung wildly between elation and tears depending on how the work was going and how exhausted I was (for the record, I recommend writing theses and having babies consecutively, instead of concurrently like I did). But I wrote it, and defended it, and now I can hold a library-bound copy in my hands. It was a tangible achievement, and I learned and I grew a lot in that process in ways that translate fairly directly to other areas of my life. I can’t say the same for getting more efficient at farming KoL’s in-game currency.

Finally, video game competencies are designed to encourage total mastery rather than just “good-enough-ness”. I will admit that this doesn’t sound like much of a problem — but hear me out and I will try to explain my thinking here. In my life I have achieved what I would call a basic or partial competence in a lot of different areas. I can sight-read music quite well if I’m singing, and with difficulty (but eventually) if I’m on the piano. I can put a dinner on the table that is reasonably healthy and basically tasty without too much stress. I’m not a brilliant housekeeper but I can keep things around here more or less clean. I’m competent. I’m not a master, but I’m good enough. That’s actually a surprisingly comfortable place to be.

With video games, however, competence isn’t good enough. They work more on an all-or-nothing model: if you’re not the best, then you’re not good enough, end of story. Think about a high score table: it tabulates not only the highest scores, but by implication, whether or not we are measuring up to the standard that the best players set. The goal isn’t even to have fun; the goal is to get to the top of the board, and then to defend your slot there. Competence doesn’t matter. Winning matters.

I will never completely master most of my skill areas, not by a long shot. Take cooking, for example: I do most of the cooking at home, but it’s not something I particularly relish — I cook because we need to eat, and that’s pretty much the end of the story. I don’t think “oh boy!” when the time to start dinner comes around every afternoon. I will never be a brilliant cook, having neither the passionate interest nor the culinary imagination necessary. But even though I won’t achieve mastery in cooking, or maybe even ever start looking forward to it every afternoon, I have discovered nonetheless that building my competencies in cooking is pleasant and rewarding. I like tinkering with an ingredient until I know exactly what to do with it. I like having go-to recipes under my belt, being able to make biscuits or meatballs or a basic roux from scratch without needing to look anything up. Being the best at cooking is not on the table, but that shouldn’t detract from what I am achieving in the kitchen. There are no levels or high scores here, but there is the pleasure of competent good-enough-ness.

Unlike in a video game, as well, a competency that I’ve achieved is mine forever, barring dementia or some sort of traumatic brain injury (and granting that practice may be needed to maintain it). If the fine folks at KoL pulled the plugs on all of their servers tomorrow morning, I’d be left with some memories of a game I used to play and not much more than that. But in the mean time, I know how to read a crochet pattern, test a cake for done-ness, translate French, drive a car, read a map, and remember five verses of Abide with Me. I may not be running up high scores, but nobody can take those things away from me either. I’ll take that over a virtual accomplishment any day.

Video game achievements can supplement our real-world competencies; let us just take care that they do not substitute for them instead.

In which I come out of a particularly Canadian closet

Although my husband and I have been living in the United States for about five years now, we are Canadian, and occasionally manage to get back home to Ontario to see family and all that jazz. We just got back from a lovely week-long visit, seeing various people in various cities, and it’s given me some things to mull over.

I had forgotten the strong undercurrent of anti-American sentiment that runs through Canadian culture. Or not forgotten, exactly, but I had been able to put it aside for a time while living in this country that, for all its faults and for all that I remain exquisitely conscious of being foreign, I do very much enjoy. But when people found out that we live in the US, the questions immediately followed as to why we were living there and what we thought of the current president — mostly from strangers, and seeming less from curiosity than with an interest in having us prove our credentials. (I was also reminded that geographical ignorance runs both ways, when a parking lot attendant in a border city asked us where our State is located, while completely butchering its pronunciation.) Strangers felt comfortable saying things about America and Americans to us because those things are generally comfortable to say in Canada. We can rattle off the stereotypes pretty easily: Americans are loud, boorish, arrogant, jingoistic, outrageously fat, ignorant, racist, monolingual, radically capitalist gun nuts.

It’s amazing to me both how pervasive and how subtle this can be. When we moved to the US five years ago, one of the things that surprised me was how nice everyone was. The Americans we were running into were, on the whole, pretty kind people. They were easygoing, open, and friendly. Many of them have been extraordinarily generous to us. Are there Americans who display some of the stereotypical qualities outlined above? Of course there are. But in my experience, they’re not the majority, not by a long shot. I shouldn’t have been surprised that I was running into pleasant Americans. I should probably have been more surprised at my surprise.

It’s not like I hadn’t had contact with the United States before coming to live here. Good grief, half my family is American. My mother was born in Maryland; surely that means I am partly American myself, by heritage if not by citizenship. But it’s something I’ve tended to downplay, because admitting that you like Americans or that you are one is often met in Canada, if not with hostility, at least with a certain degree of suspicion. My mother, emigrating with her parents in the early 1970s, was met by her classmates with cries of “Yankee go home!” In forty or so years, I’m not sure how much has changed.

But this is where I live if not for the long term, then at least for now. Some of our dearest friends are American, as our three quarters of our children’s godparents. I have a Canadian brother-in-law who took American citizenship. Half my extended family lives here or is from here — and of course, our children were born Stateside and so are dual citizens (Canadian through us, American by birth). I like America. I like Americans. There, I said it.

This is not to say that I think the United States is problem-free. Do I think that a two-party system of government is completely bananas? Do I think that American healthcare is deeply broken ? Are America’s lingering racial wounds sometimes all too obvious? Yes, yes, and yes. We have run into our fair share of cultural differences here, some of which have been truly head-scratching. But just like you can love a family member without loving all of the decisions they make, you can love a people without loving all of the institutions under which they abide. I don’t think there is any inherent conflict there (after all, many Americans don’t love all of the institutions that shape their country either). Liking Americans shouldn’t have to mean approving of everything about America. Similarly, disapproving of certain things about America shouldn’t have to mean automatically disliking Americans.

And so I’m coming out of this particular Maple-emblazoned closet: My name is Christine. I am Canadian. And I think that Americans are pretty ok.

Babes in the Digital Woods

I’m a millennial — and older one, not quite a “digital native”, but close. We got the internet at home when I was eleven or twelve, and I got my first email address (hotmail, of course) shortly thereafter. My friend Fiona made the address for me since I didn’t know how to do it yet, and our class set off exploring the wonderful world of email, learning lessons as we went, like “anything you put in an email can be forwarded to anyone else” and “you really should change your password if your friends know it.” We discovered chat rooms (a/s/l?). We discovered Napster, and then Limewire, and debated the ethics of downloading music in our high school philosophy class. We discovered how easy it was to sign up our peers for spam email lists (sorry, Geoff). This was before Google Search had really taken off, so we Asked Jeeves — or just typed in URLs at random and hoped we landed somewhere interesting and not pornographic. We played Neopets. We forwarded chain emails that promised us an unexpected windfall or to reveal the name of our crush. In short, we were early adopters of the internet and all its wonders.

The pattern continued, of course. My generation used MySpace, Xanga, Livejournal, and other relics of the early digital age. I’ve been blogging off and on since 2003 — that’s a long time in internet terms. We sent gmail invitations to our friends, back when you needed one to sign up for an email address. And in the early 2000s, we got to college and university, received an official school email, and promptly signed up for Facebook. I started using Facebook in late 2005, about a year and a half after it launched. That was back when you needed an official school or work email address, or a personal invitation if you were still in high school. Our parents weren’t using it yet, and neither were our younger siblings. This was back before timeline, when users had “walls” where we could post. It was back before you could comment on posts, so if you wanted to follow a conversation you would have to flip back and forth between the walls of the people in question. Back then, every status you wrote had to begin with “[Name] is” and so we would write convoluted sentences to get around it: “Christine is saying ‘Good morning! to all of you!”

Gradually, all of these things changed. Facebook eventually opened itself up to any user over the age of 13 (or willing to input a fake birthday saying that’s what they were). Facebook finally got rid of the static “is” in our posts, and made it easier to comment on what other people had written. They launched timeline, which meant that you could find someone’s profile and very easily see all of their activity in one place, going back years, just by using your scroll-wheel (back then we were using wired mice, of course). The site went through the usual redesigns of its user interface, all of which were met with grumbling… but we still kept using it.

It was so easy, so friendly, so benign. We could tell our friends what we were thinking and doing, “check in” with Facebook so that they knew where on the earth we were, list our favourite media, “like” our favourite artists, look through each other’s vacation pictures, and on it went. We got older; we shared engagement and wedding pictures, pregnancy announcements, birth stories, baby pictures. We discovered memes. The rule of thumb for using the internet gradually morphed from “always stay anonymous” to “always use your real name”. We told Facebook when we started dating, and when we broke up. Our list of friends expanded wildly, starting with our university classmates and moving backwards in time to pick up our elementary school classmates, childhood friends we had lost track of, people with whom we used to share some aspect of a common life. We added our relatives and told Facebook exactly how we were related. We added our current and former coworkers, our coreligionists, members of our academic and social clubs. We shared posts, liked pages, sent messages.

We thought we were participating in a vast social network, but we were wrong. This wasn’t a social network. This was a social experiment, and we have been its unwitting subjects.

While we were using Facebook we were creating a free, immense dossier on ourselves, ripe for harvesting: our real names, our relationships and connections, our likes and dislikes, our real birth dates, our geographic locations, our political and religious affiliations, our purchases, the causes we supported, our hashtagged thoughts on a thousand different things, our social activities, our hobbies, our jobs, our milestone celebrations, our children. We became complicit in our own surveillance. And all of this data was being collected, collated, analysed, sold to advertisers, used to program powerful algorithms that increasingly controlled what we saw and not only how we used it, but how we felt about it all. It was designed to be addictive, to seduce us with those precious dopamine hits of likes and shares, to get us to give up all of this information without a second thought. We started receiving attention-eroding notifications whenever something happened — our phones dinging and urgent red icons popping up with every comment and tag — to get us to check, and check, and check the website throughout the course of our days. It’s not a coincidence that so many Silicon Valley insiders have backgrounds in behaviourism.

About a week ago I wrote a post about my growing discomfort with social media in general, and Facebook in particular. Since then I’ve been reading more, and I’ve decided to take the plunge. I’m deleting my Facebook account. Maybe you should think about deleting yours.

Not that Facebook makes it easy. I started clearing my profile out even before I made the decision to leave entirely: downloading any pictures I want, un-tagging myself from posts and photos, deleting albums, deleting my own status updates and shared articles, hiding things from my timeline. It’s taken many hours to do these things, even with the help of a chrome plug-in that will do it automatically. Deleting a post or untagging a photo takes several clicks. There is no way to do batch deletions — every post must be dealt with, one at a time, by hand. Facebook doesn’t show you everything in your timeline and so I’ve had to scroll through over and over again to make sure I’ve gotten everything. Frankly, it’s a pain in the butt. And I have zero doubts that it is a pain in the butt on purpose.  But I’m still going, and I suppose you can consider this post my #deletefacebook manifesto.

I’m not going today. I will need some time to comb through my contacts, to make sure that I have people’s email addresses and that they have mine. I don’t want to lose the genuine connections that have been maintained through this site — which is exactly the fear Facebook counts on, that we won’t be able to leave because of what we think we’ll miss out on. Well, last time I checked phone numbers and email still exist. We were all able to keep in touch with each other fifteen years ago through other means. We can do it again. I’ve downloaded a few news apps to my phone so that I won’t be relying on finding articles through my newsfeed. I’m not aiming to replace Facebook with an alternative social media app or account. I’m aiming to replace it with nothing. With email, with texting and phone calls, with personal conversations. Maybe some friendships will fall by the wayside. Maybe that’s ok.

So here’s the question: what difference is this going to make? To Facebook, not much of one. The site has over two billion users, it’s not going to feel me going. But I’m not doing this to try and affect Facebook. I’m doing this because of its effect on me, on my life, on the life of my family. I’m doing this because I believe this is the right thing for me to do, whether it ripples out into something larger or not. I’ve given over a decade of my life to Facebook, and it’s time for us to break up.

For further reading:

‘Our minds can be hijacked’: the tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia (The Guardian)

Be a pioneer — delete facebook (The Guardian)

#deletefacebook (

Commentary: #DeleteFacebook Is Just the Beginning. Here’s the Movement We Could See Next (

#deletefacebook (trending on Twitter)

How Technology Hijacks People’s Minds — from a Magician and Google’s Design Ethicist (

Tech Companies Design Your Life, Here’s Why You Should Care (

Ex-Facebook president Sean Parker: site made to exploit human ‘vulnerability’ (The Guardian)

In the Depths of the Digital Age (New York Review of Books)

Slowly leaving social media

Sometimes I feel like Facebook is the terrible boyfriend I just can’t bring myself to leave. We’ve split up now and again, sometimes for weeks or months at a time, but somehow we always end up back together. I don’t even like him that much anymore, but somehow his arguments seem convincing and we give it another go despite my misgivings. It’s a problem.

This is something I’ve been broadly thinking about for a while — way back in August 2017 I posted about smartphone use and what it seems to be doing to us. The technology itself is part of that picture, but what I’m coming to see is that social media is a huge piece of the puzzle. And we know this, right? The CEO of Facebook got hauled up in front of the US Senate to be grilled on things like privacy concerns. Facebook’s algorithms are geared to showing us whatever it thinks will keep us on the site the longest, whether that’s puppy memes or outrage-inducing fake news stories. The algorithm increases the opacity of the bubbles we live in, forming everyone a nice little echo chamber. Facebook is a hotbed for scams and urban legends. It gives us unrealistic pictures of how good everyone’s lives are compared to our own (seeing their highlight reel but living our B footage, as it were). There’s so much pressure to share more and more details of our personal lives — as if we haven’t already given out enough. And of course, we must remember that Facebook’s revenue is ad-driven; if we’re not paying for it, that’s because we are in some sense the product being sold.

My concerns are piling up:

… need I go on? (Facebook: “Baby, come on. Most of that stuff was years ago. Don’t hold a grudge. I’ll do better, I swear. You need me.”)

And that’s the kicker, isn’t it? We do need social media — or at least, we feel as if we do. It’s where I learn my friends’ big news: births and deaths, moves and graduations, marriages and divorces. It’s where I can share pictures of our kids with our extended families. It’s a place where we can connect to our donors when we’re fundraising. It’s an easy way to stay at least loosely in touch with people in the three cities I’ve left behind. It’s an easy way to connect and coordinate with people who live where I live now. I enjoy seeing what’s going on in the lives of people I know. And since I’m blogging, a post shared on facebook can go a long way in terms of boosting my traffic. These are all good and useful things.

I’m starting to ask myself, though — at what cost?

I’m concerned about the massive mine Facebook is for social engineering. If you had the patience to dig through my profile and timeline, you’d have my birthday; my mother’s maiden name; the name of my high school; the city and neighbourhood I grew up in; where I went to elementary school; when I graduated with my degrees and what they were in; my children’s full names and birthdates; my maiden name; the names of my extended family members and how we’re related; my political, religious, social, and academic interests; and probably two or three dozen other things I haven’t thought of yet. I mean, I’ve been using the site since 2005. It’s been a long time. There’s a lot on there.

I’m concerned about how very vested Facebook is in keeping me around as a product consumer. It’s notoriously difficult to permanently delete your account, especially since the words “permanent” and “delete” seem to mean different things in Facebook-land than they do to the rest of us.  Users who try to delete their profiles can accidentally re-activate/un-delete them by doing something like using their Facebook login to access another website. It can take up to three months to actually get all of your data off of Facebook’s servers.

I’m concerned about the way we — and I include myself in this, absolutely — share so freely and frequently about our children. My kids are too young to sign up for their own social media accounts, but what happens when they turn thirteen and find out that their entire lives have already been curated and displayed to their parents’ entire friends list? I try to be sensitive to what I’m putting up and not post anything that would be potentially embarrassing — and on the blog I don’t show their faces or even use their real names — but I know people who put up pictures of their kids crying, pictures of their kids doing foolish things, pictures of their kids naked. None of these children are consenting to any of this. Will they thank us for what we post? Somehow I doubt it.

Above all, I’m concerned about how reluctant I am to ditch Facebook, even considering all of the above. It’s hard. The social dimension of using or not using social media is very real, as this article from Vox points out:

This final issue with deleting Facebook is the hardest to quantify, but one that’s fundamentally true for most of us: If you delete Facebook, you lose touch in ways that have subtle but tangible emotional repercussions. Your aging Great-Aunt Sally will fret because she has one less way to keep track of you, your high school English teacher will be mad because you never write on his Facebook wall anymore, and your friend will be annoyed because you can no longer see the drama happening with his girlfriend’s ex. You’ll be annoyed because your other friend issued a general Facebook invite to her birthday party and you missed it.

And while the infuriating barrage of polarizing opinions that make Facebook so difficult for many of us to deal with will disappear, so will connections to people you didn’t realize you wanted to keep in touch with until you moved on.

For many, this complicated web of emotional stakes only exists on Facebook, because Facebook is the only social platform on the web where who we are now, in adulthood, converges with the past life we had as a teen or a college student. On Facebook, the many friend networks we’ve made along our paths through life converge and create a unique kind of emotional infrastructure that’s impossible for some people to fully separate from, because it means cutting off the only remaining ties to parts of their pasts, or to previous places they have lived, and even to some family members and friends. To many of the Facebook users you leave behind, walking away from Facebook will send a message that you don’t want to cultivate ties with them — because for many people, Facebook is the only place those ties can be cultivated.

Like it or not, this platform is how I connect with a lot of people. I want to leave… but also, I don’t. I resent its hold on me but I’m not ready to quit (even though anecdotal evidence suggests it would be a positive step and I wouldn’t really miss it). So I’m working on slowly decoupling myself. I installed a browser extension that blocks my newsfeed, so that I’ll have to check peoples’ individual profiles if I want to know what’s going on with them. I’ve been going back and deleting my posts, untagging myself in things, and hiding items on my timeline — all the way back to 2005. Facebook doesn’t make it any easier to delete individual content than it does your account: it all has to be done one at a time and if I sort my timeline by year it still takes up to four or five passes before I’ve seen all of the content that should be there. It’s taken hours so far and it will take more before I’m done. But… baby steps. Baby steps. We’ll see what happens.

Fact Check: Pensioners vs. Refugees

This graphic crossed my facebook feed recently:

This sounds alarming, as it’s designed to. But before we forward, let’s stop and ask ourselves: is it true? (Spoiler alert: it’s not.)

First, let’s look at the money available for refugees.

I went digging a bit to see where these numbers came from. This is an interesting one in that we can actually pinpoint exactly where the misunderstanding starts (with thanks to the fine investigative team at Snopes): a Toronto Star article back in 2004 profiling the government’s plan to re-settle Somali refugees referenced an “$1,890 start-up allowance” as part of that plan. The wording there was unclear; the “allowance” is not a monthly payment, but a one-time start-up payment meant to cover things like very basic (used) furnishings: pots and pans, linens, and the like. But a reader wrote back to the author of the piece expressing indignation at the idea that refugees would be receiving over $2,000 in support per month — and also sent a similar email to about a hundred other people. There was also a letter to the editor expressing similar outrage published in the Star. From there, the misinformation ball was rolling.

So, this misunderstanding has been circulating for nearly fifteen years now. It’s bad enough that Citizenship and Immigration Canada has a statement addressing it on their website:

Do government-assisted refugees get more income support and benefits than Canadian pensioners do?

No. Refugees do not get more financial help from the federal government than Canadian pensioners.

A commonly shared email makes this false claim. The email falsely includes the one-time start-up payment as part of the monthly payment.

The amount of monthly financial support that government-assisted refugees gets is based on social assistance rates in each province and territory. It is the minimum amount needed to cover only the most basic food and shelter needs.

You know a rumour has unfortunate staying power when a government entity has to leave up a permanent corrective notice.

So the big number is wrong: refugees aren’t receiving over two grand a month. They are eligible for a few hundred dollars of government support on a monthly basis — which provides an income that is well below the poverty line. I couldn’t find precise numbers for this because it varies slightly by province, but in any case, refugees aren’t exactly pulling in the big bucks here. Furthermore, refugees often arrive in Canada already in debt to the Canadian government for their travel and medical expenses — which they must repay, with interest.

But what about that monthly support? Is it permanent? Not at all — according to the CIC website, government-sponsored refugees receive support for 12 months or until they find employment, whichever comes first. If we assume that the $580/mo. referenced in the graphic is accurate and that a refugee remains eligible for the full twelve months, that still brings them to a yearly income of only $6,960. That’s not milking the system. That’s desperate poverty.

What about benefits for pensioners?

Canadian seniors are eligible for something called the Old Age Security (OAS) payment after they turn 65, and low-income seniors are also eligible for a Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS). The amount received for these depend on income and marital status, but let’s use as our example our closest analogue to a refugee. We’ll call him George. George is a Canadian citizen who has lived in Canada all of his life. He is not married and he has no other income. When George turned 65 he applied for the OAS and he is eligible to receive $589.59 a month from that. (All figures taken from the government benefits table provided online.) George is already doing very marginally better than our refugee — but since George has no income, he is also eligible for the GIS. George will receive $880.61 from the GIS every month, which brings him to a total monthly benefit of $1,470.20, or $17,642.40 per year. Now, this isn’t break-the-bank money. But it’s still 2.5x the amount available to a refugee, and it’s not going to cut off after a year; it will last until George dies.

Remember, too, that George is an outlier, since I’ve arbitrarily decided that he has somehow never contributed to the Canada Pension Plan (which would otherwise provide him with an additional average income of $691.93 monthly and perhaps quite a bit more) and doesn’t have a Registered Retirement Savings Plan or any investments. Yes, there are definitely seniors who live in poverty in Canada — but most are going to be better off than our poor friend George, who is himself, let us remind ourselves, still significantly better off than a refugee.

Now — what about the moral claims?

We’ve sorted out the money. Now let’s look at the moral argument our graphic makes. To sum it up:

  1. Canadian seniors have contributed to Canada for decades
  2. Canadian seniors therefore deserve government benefits
  3. Refugees have not contributed to Canada and therefore do not deserve (as many / any) government benefits
  4. Canada should strip refugees of their benefits in order to redistribute them to pensioners

I mean… yikes. Now, I have no problem with senior citizens collecting old age supplements. In thirty or forty years I will likely be doing that myself. Let’s allow assertions one and two to stand. But that’s where the reasonableness ends.

First of all, if we think that the government of Canada should be providing more benefits and income supplements for senior citizens, there are surely other places to find those funds. There is zero reason to pit two vulnerable groups against each other.

Secondly, though, if the government gave refugees $50,000 a year I still wouldn’t envy them because being a refugee is terrible. Nobody wants to be a refugee. If someone is a refugee that means they are fleeing extremely traumatic circumstances, have more than likely spent some years living in tent shanties in a refugee camp, and that they now have to try and rebuild their lives from nothing in a country where they’re simultaneously trying to cope with a new language, culture, government, and climate. Oh, and let’s throw in some probable PTSD on top of that. People don’t become refugees so that the government will throw them some of that sweet benefit cash. People become refugees so that they can live and not die. If we’re going to bring in the language of “deserving” here, then surely refugees deserve our compassion and aid.

So if you chance to run across the same graphic I did making the rounds on social media, remember that it is (to use its own words) “AN INCREDIBLE NONSENSE !!!” and consider sharing this post or the graphic I found below as a response.