Thursday, March 01, 2007

Mark Steyn: Requiem for the counterculture

Given the way the Canadian media write about, say, Alberta's oilpatch as if they're on an anthropological expedition to a remote corner of Papua, it's always interesting to note the things they don't feel the need to explain. Earlier this month, the Globe and Mail ran a front-page lead headlined "Attraction To New Orleans Turns Tragic For Canadians."

This was the story of Paul Gailiunas, raised in Edmonton, and his wife Helen Hill, whom he met at Harvard. On January 4th, at their home in the Big Easy's Faubourg Marigny neighbourhood, Ms. Hill was shot and killed, and Dr. Gailiunas was wounded by four bullets while shielding their two-year-old son. The couple had moved to New Orleans from Dalhousie in 2001 because the doctor, according to the Globe, "wanted to work in a Third World environment." His wife was a filmmaker who showed her work at the Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center. Dr. Gailiunas also has his artistic side, as a vocalist and guitarist with a band called the New Orleans Troublemakers. According to the paper, "his lyrics explore universal health care, flag burning and early anarchist Emma Goldman." One gets the strong impression the doctor was in favour of all three.

But here's what caught my eye:

"In a city that has become accustomed to tragedy and to an endless string of crimes--there have been a dozen homicides in the past two weeks--this latest outrage was just too much.

"'I'm so aggravated and angry,' said Helen Gillet, an experimental cellist who gathered with about two dozen other friends of the couple outside their modest frame house."

Whoa, hold on a minute. An "experimental cellist"? Do you know what that means? Alan Freeman, the lead writer on the report, evidently thought it required no further elaboration, and neither did the three other reporters who contributed to the piece, and nor did any of the Globe's multiple layers of editors. So "experimental cellist" is apparently an expression entirely familiar to the overwhelming majority of the paper's readers.

So what does it denote? According to Lexis-Nexis, there have been only 12 uses of the phrase in the entire English-language print media, three of them from the same concert listing in London's Time Out magazine. The earliest citation is from a 1996 Montreal Gazette review--"Flemish Ensemble Makes Up For Missing Piece"--so perhaps it's a rare example of a genuinely Canadian neologism. Alas, digging up the yellowing clipping from the archives leaves one none the wiser. Although Arthur Kaptainis, the Gazette's music critic, refers to "the putative star attraction, the experimental cellist Claude Lamothe," come the big night M. Lamothe never showed up. In that sense he is perhaps the apotheosis of the experimental cellist, for what could be more experimental in terms of cello technique than simply leaving an empty chair on stage all evening?

Lest you think an "experimental cellist" is someone who can't play the thing, Google turns up a few more examples, and with added Canadian content! From the music website, I learn that Buried Inside's early Grindcore album Suspect Symmetry "features Mark Molnar (an experimental cellist from Ottawa) on many of the tracks."

So I have no idea whether Helen Gillet is an "experimental cellist" of the Grindcore or the Flemish ensemble variety. And nor, I'll bet, do Globe and Mail readers, nor Globe and Mail editors, nor whichever of the four reporters on the story typed those words into the computer. It sums up the piece. The paper has a sufficient nose for a local angle to plaster the "Canadian" slaying all over the front page, yet is so uncurious it took almost everyone involved at their own estimation. Apart from the Bush administration, of course. But otherwise, if you told the Globe's pavement pounders you were an experimental cellist or made films shown at the Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center or wrote paeans to early 20th century anarchists, they nodded politely and asked how many "i"s in "Zeitgeist." How about this extraordinary sentence from Mr. Freeman's cool reportorial pen? Dr. Gailiunas and his late wife belonged to "the community of artists, poets and other creative types, refugees from the rest of the United States and elsewhere."

"Refugees"? There are refugees from Sudan and Chechnya and Rwanda and whatnot, but does even the Globe and Mail believe one can plausibly be "refugees" from Harvard? And, if you're fleeing to a city which hundreds of thousands have fled from, ought not such apparent perversity to come under a little more journalistic scrutiny?

The population of New Orleans has never recovered, demographically speaking, from the hurricane. Pre-Katrina, the city proper had about half a million inhabitants. Evacuated and scattered across the land in September 2005, 50 per cent or so decided they had no urge to return. So New Orleans currently has some two hundred-and-something thousand residents--or about what it had in the 1880s. What segment of the citizenry was it that opted to go home? You can glean a clue from one intriguing statistic: although the population has halved, the number of murders in the city each month has stayed pretty much the same. Which means, in effect, the murder rate has doubled. Presumably because the kind of people who find a one-party welfare swamp conducive to perpetrating crime came back to New Orleans, while the kind of folks who'd been on the receiving end were grateful to have gotten out.

But is the city, as the Globe says, "outraged"? Certainly, a lot of people are concerned about rocketing murder rates among a shrunken victim base. Some suggest the National Guard be sent it, or that the Justice Department take over the city's police department. But it's hard to believe Dr. Gailiunas or his late wife would have endorsed such proposals. They ran a charitable enterprise called "Food Not Bombs," and Ms. Hill led "filmmaking bees" in agitprop documentary production. And, while their friends in "the community of artists, poets and other creative types" might be "outraged" by the murder, those in less "creative" occupations than experimental cello playing seem to have collectively rolled their eyes at the Gailiunas' famously "trusting" nature. As a neighbor of theirs told The Times-Picayune, "They would never do it, but they should have answered the door with a gun."

Underneath the ton of clapped-out countercultural clichés, Dr. Gailiunas and Ms. Hill are real people and what happened to them was monstrous and evil. I would rejoice if her killer were found, tried and hanged like Saddam--though I doubt whether the experimental cello-playing community feels the same. But, if this is (as the Globe's headline says) a "tragedy," it's in the proper sense of the word--of a fatal flaw leading inexorably to disaster. In the face of the obvious all around them, the dopey naiveté of the couple was indestructible. Their wish to help "the community" was no doubt sincere, though what would really help New Orleans is a non-corrupt city administration and an end to multi-generational welfare. Instead, like most "nice" people, the Gailiunas were most agitated about Bush, Republicans, capitalism, the military, et cetera. They were so eternally worried about phantom threats they were blind to the genuine ones out there. The real "New Orleans Troublemakers" were not playing in Dr. Gailiunas' Emma Goldman nostalgia band.

This couple were educated liberals from comfortable backgrounds. They went to Harvard, which would make them "smart" at least for the purposes of job application. They had the finest education money can buy, yet they were wholly deluded about the nature of the world they lived in. I read these stories every few months somewhere or other, and they always end the same way: a few years back, a couple of screwed-up Vermont teens decided they were going to kill somebody just for a giggle. They knocked on doors in neighboring towns demanding to be let in and cranky old plaid-clad coots told them to get lost and not to come back or they'd get it with both barrels. Dumb as they were, eventually the kids figured out that the one place where they'd be bound to find a couple of suckers who'd let 'em across the threshold was . . . an Ivy League college town! So they went across the river to Dartmouth in New Hampshire, were admitted by a couple of professors, and murdered them. The professors were also admirably "progressive": the last e-mails they sent that morning were impeccably anti-Bush.

Few Ivy League liberals meet such a bloody end. Even in "violent" America, it's easy to insulate oneself from the darker pathologies. But most members of the elites subscribe to all the same delusions, as is surely illustrated by the mawkish sentimentalized respect the Globe and Mail accorded Ms. Hill's cobwebbed "progressive values." It is a little disturbing that the class which ought, by virtue of privilege and opportunity, to be the most worldly has made a cult of unworldliness. This is the way the world ends, with childish jingles of "Food Not Bombs," the anarchist chic of Emma Goldman anarcho-rock, and a mournful experimental cello obbligato.

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