The Unsolved Riddle of the SNC-Lavalin Affair, Part II

If you read recent posts on this blog you will notice that they all talk about Unsolved Riddles. Those are situations, commonly found in the social-economic-environmental-cultural-political domain, where the truth lies not at one pole or another, but at both poles. We have a humdinger on our hands right now, as was pointed out by Althia Raj of the CBC’s “At Issue” panel last night (Wednesday, February 27th). None of the others on the panel caught on, however, preferring to stress the contention of the matter. In fact, the CBC News web site this morning blazoned a headline announcing that the matter “forces Liberals to take sides.” Of course it does nothing of the kind, although it may present them with that opportunity. To take sides in an Unsolved Riddle is exactly the wrong way to treat it.

Ms. Jody Wilson-Raybould did indeed an admirable job of telling “her truth”. She is a formidable advocate. The Prime Minister then told his, doing a less admirable job. He is a formidable advocate too, but in a different style. As we think about these competing truths, however, we should remember that she is advocating for a point of view, just as he is. Her point of view is a legal one, but also inescapably a political one. His is an economic point of view, also a social one because of the jobs involved, also inescapably a political one. So far they are equal.

I am not here to argue the merits of these poles, although I was interested to see an article last night discussing the Canadian practice of combining the jobs of Minister of Justice (political) and Attorney General (legal). (https://theconversation.com/is-sir-john-a-macdonald-to-blame-for-the-wilson-raybould-affair-112594) Ms. Wilson-Raybould is of course perfectly within her rights to be more comfortable with the latter, but as long as they are combined, and she had the job, she had to do them both. She held the inherent Unsolved Riddle in her hands, as did the Prime Minister. We should perhaps be more sympathetic, because these people are both our agents, solemnly obliged to do the best they can to accommodate both points of view. I believe that to argue that legalism ought to out-weigh social and economic justice would be an idea that Canadians, in general, do not accept. It is certainly an idea vigorously contested when legalism in a criminal case reaches a conclusion contrary to our sense of justice.

The confusing aspect of this one, of course, is that in promoting social and economic justice for the employees and multipliers of SNC-Lavalin, we appear to be easing up on the corporation itself and their misdeeds. There may be no way around that. We rely on corporations to create and sustain jobs, which makes us dependent on them. A man who shoots his horse because it puts a foot wrong had better enjoy walking.

Once we take in all the complexities in this affair we come down simply, I believe, to a row between two well-intentioned politicians over what should be done with a difficult case. Both Ms. Wilson-Raybould and the Prime Minister believed they were doing the right thing. She did not like being pressured, and he did not like being defied. An Unsolved Riddle with poles rooted in conflicting ideas of justice, becomes an Unsolved Riddle involving personalities, which is too bad.

Here we have fine drama. Politicians, news media, and social media are all undeniably excited. But is exploiting drama good politics, good journalism, or good citizenry? It is tempting to do so, no doubt. But despite the drama, this episode raises difficult legal, economic, and political issues which require careful thought. The issue is not really whether to believe Ms. Wilson-Raybould or the Prime Minister, or neither, or both, the last being the Unsolved Riddle course. The issue is what should be done about SNC-Lavalin. That’s a tough one, replete with hard legal, economic, and political questions that have  become very public. So let’s talk about them.

Let’s talk also about whether the offices of the Minister of Justice (political) and Attorney General (legal) should be held by the same official, and whether the latter should be in Cabinet.

 

 

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The Unsolved Riddle of the SNC-Lavalin “Affair”

As affairs go this is a pretty sorry one, but instructive nonetheless. We should thank our lucky stars that in times like these, the best Canada can do for political scandal is an argument among senior politicians concerning the fate of an important corporation allegedly caught in the act of bribing people in a corrupt foreign regime, a criminal act in this country. It should go without saying that the crime lies in getting caught, because I am sure that all corporations who deal with corrupt regimes do it. Pay bribes, that is. Not get caught. As long as we like the jobs and the stock price gains that come from such practices, we are hardly in a position to cast stones. But we do it anyway.

There are two aspects to this affair. One is the behaviour of the politicians. The other is the behaviour of the media reporting it.

Before I resoundingly object to the behaviour of the CBC, where I get most of my Canadian news, I tip my  hat to Chantal Hébert and Neil Macdonald who at least tried to tell us that there is more going on here than meets the eye, and that the interpretations of the political opposition need not be taken as Gospel. Fortunately yesterday (February 21st) the Clerk of the Privy Council, Michael Wernick, threw some light where before had been only suspicion, and all became clear to the intelligently imaginative eye.

My interpretation: There was an argument among senior politicians about an important domestic matter, and one of them didn’t like it. She, the Hon. Jody Wilson-Raybould, Minister of Justice and Attorney General at the time, was the one who had to make the decision. She in fact made it her way, but unfortunately she expressed her indignation at the argument to such effect that someone in her entourage — I doubt very much that she did it herself — blatted to The Globe and Mail. That august press organ failed to ask itself or discern what was really going on, printed the story, the opposition weighed in, other media took up the cry, and a tiny morsel of hell broke loose.

Ms. Wilson-Raybould MP, then spoke in the House of Commons, looking forward to the opportunity to tell “her truth”. That was graceful of her. She could have said “the truth”. It was also the moment when the affair became instructive, and not merely intensely irritating.

She has her truth. Her former colleagues have their truth. I hope both will find clear articulation, and the sooner the better. Both these truths will be true to those who hold them. It may even be that both are true objectively, and that we have here a clear example of what Stephen Leacock called an Unsolved Riddle, a situation where The Truth lies at both poles simultaneously. Stephen Leacock was of course one of those who could do justice to the absurdity of the discussion, as politicians, the media, and the public try to come to grips with one of these things. The phenomenon itself is not absurd, but simply a part of the human condition with which we ought to be entirely familiar but to which we never seem to become accustomed.

I wish the Prime Minister had told his truth right off the bat. Of course it is a terrible thing if SNC-Lavalin with all its experience, expertise, and legions of employees were to fail, if the allegations are well founded, as a result of common practice carried out with clumsy stupidity. They will have learned their lesson, and it is only right that it should hurt. But not fatally. He and his people were entirely within their rights and their jobs to argue so. Ms. Wilson-Raybould was entirely within her rights and her job to want to throw the book at them, to resent the intrusion of political or economic considerations into a legal matter. Let Justice be done, though the heavens fall. Two truths, both true. The jurisprudential art will consist in finding a way to respect both. I think our rule of law will be able to do that, if the hordes stop howling and let the juris bring their brains and skill to bear in pursuit of the best possible mixture of justices.

In my schoolyard many years ago, when combat broke out between two boys, or more rarely between two girls, the cry would go up: “Fight fight fight!” And everyone would rush over to form a circle around the combatants and urge them on, some cheering for one, some for the other, most simply enjoying the spectacle. A teacher would then come along and break it up before anyone got hurt very much. A bloody nose or two, perhaps, or some pulled hair. We are at no loss these days for people to form the circle and cheer as we did, but who will act as the teacher? Where is the voice of calm common sense in this absurd affair and others like it, the voice who knows how things happen in the huge complex conflicted highly-pressured governments of our time, and how we should think about them.

Stephen Leacock, on his good days, had that kind of voice. Of course he had his bad days too. Who of us does not? This year we celebrate the 150th anniversary of  his birth, the 75th of his death, and the 100th of his book The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice. It’s time to re-write that book.

 

The Unsolved Riddle of Pluralism

The great prophet of Pluralism in our time (in anybody’s time?) is Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997), born in Latvia, exiled to England at a young age by the fortunes of revolution, nurtured at Oxford, and embraced by students and colleagues alike as a great sage. He began as an analytical philosopher, but eventually carved out his own academic discipline in the history of ideas and their application to the conundrums of the post-war era.

I don’t want to sound more knowledgeable about him than I am. I have only begun to read, beginning with Michael Ignatieff’s biography, Isaiah Berlin: A Life. From there I derived a reading list of Berlin’s own works, and I am working my way through them. I sense a connection between the Pluralism of Berlin and the Unsolved Riddle-ism of Stephen Leacock, and I am looking forward to exploring it in the months ahead, not only for the fun of it, but as a way of thinking about our own time and particularly about the political polarization we see around us and are likely to see even more emphatically in next year’s election, which is going to fall right in the midst of the Stephen Leacock Sesquicentennial. A happy coincidence.

I am pondering a progression that goes something like this: Diversity is the fact, the characteristic of our society that we can observe and even measure; Pluralism is one of the ideologies that we can apply to it; Unsolved Riddles are what we will meet when we do that. It is important for us to think of them like that, as questions that we must think about enjoyably (which is the purpose of riddles) rather than protest against as “problems”, or “contradictions”, or “conflicts”, because that kind of terminology declares that we don’t like them and think they should go away, or at least become considerably less prevalent. The committed Pluralist makes no such protest, believing either that Diversity is inevitable and therefore might as well be enjoyed, or that it is desirable and ought to be encouraged. I am of the latter kind.

I think that to be a Pluralist is to embrace Diversity as one of Nature’s and Humanity’s great strengtheners. Diversify your portfolio, my professor of finance used to say to me, backed up by elegant probabilistic analysis. As consumers we believe in the benefits of wider choice. Isaiah Berlin reminds us, however, that when we make choices we not only receive benefits, we also incur costs, and when people are being hurt by the choices that benefit us then we can hardly expect them not to resist. When we empower people to make their resistance effective, which we do for good democratic and human-rights reasons, then the choice to avoid making the choice becomes increasingly attractive, and carries costs of its own. As we wrestle with these riddles, our voices become louder, our conversations become confrontations, and we become a polarized society. These effects too are choices, and carry costs, one of which may be the cultivation of a taste for authoritarian governments.

As I come out of  my brain break and embark upon the contemplations and conversations of the next sixteen months, and am going to use this blog to explore the issues of the day in a Pluralistic way. Right now three of the most prominent are Free Trade, the Trans Mountain Pipeline, and the arrival of the latest wave of refugees. I will start with them.

 

The Unsolved Riddle of “Multiculturalism”

Oh dear! “Multiculturalism”! From an aesthetic point of view, what a terrible word. I much prefer “Pluralism”; if we want to be more explicit we should call it Cultural Pluralism, or Ethnic Pluralism, or Linguistic Pluralism, or Land-of-Birth Pluralism, or Religious Pluralism, or even Racial Pluralism, or whatever we mean. Because whether we like it or not — and we should like it — we are surrounded by plurals of all kinds — natural plurals, human plurals, economic plurals, social plurals, plurals without end — and we might as well enjoy them.

I recently found a beautiful poem called “Snow” by Louis MacNeice in which he says, “The world is crazier and more of it than we think,/Incorrigibly plural.” And so it is. We all need to feel “the drunkenness of things being various.”

I am still on my brain break (for another two weeks), but the recent brouhaha about “extreme multiculturalism” and immigration triggered by Maxime Bernier and the Progressive Conservative Party’s exploitation of the “immigration crisis” or “refugee crisis” (which isn’t a crisis at all, merely a surge in migrations of distressed people to which we can easily adjust if we put our minds and our resources and our copious good will to it, as we are in fact doing) has brought the whole matter into my mind and I might as well spill some of  it out.

I am going to talk a lot about pluralism during the Stephen Leacock Sesquicentennial and its run-up, because I consider him a kind of proto-pluralist, not necessarily in his specific beliefs, but in his cast of mind and way of thinking, the intellectual tools that he brought to the task of understanding and discussing human affairs. That he did not always use these tools in ways we now consider acceptable, particularly when it came to matters of women and race, says nothing about the quality of the tools. Within his academic field of political economy and often in his humour he demonstrates them quite well enough for us to acquire them for ourselves. Our job is to learn them, put them to use, and pass them on to the coming generations.

These tools for the comprehension of and navigation through the ambient plurals, the landscapes of various things in which we live, Stephen Leacock labels as Unsolved Riddles, which is a way of thinking about them, and his tetrad of Knowledge + Imagination + Compassion + Humour  which he urges us to apply to them. Education, his favourite subject, is about learning how to do that, and is life-long.

I would say, therefore, to Maxime Bernier and anyone else who suggests we should be less plural than we are: “There is nothing Canadian about monism, or even small-set-ism, in any sphere. We have always been plural. That is who we are. We may have clashed occasionally over our varieties, or been made uncomfortable by them from time to time, and some of us may have sometimes yearned for a more simple national landscape, but we have never embraced it as an ideal. Why should we do that now? Why should we believe that now we must become less than we are, and always have been? What has changed to make such diminution desireable?”

Think of the variety of our natural landscapes, and how we glory in them. Why should we treat our human landscapes any differently?

That will do for now. More of this in the Fall and next year.

On the Trail of Unsolved Riddles

Yesterday I wrote a Missive for the on-rushing Stephen Leacock Sesquicentennial, in part as follows:

When what is plural about us becomes perceived as an entanglement of identities and tribes, then we are in trouble. When the institutions that we have created to realize our hopes yearn for the simplicity and powers of monism and act accordingly, then we are in trouble. When we cannot or will not converse with each other in humane ways across the intermedia of our plural beings, then we are in trouble. When we think we cannot afford to be what we are, then we are in trouble. When we cannot remember how we got here and why we set out in the first place, then we are in trouble. I am not sure how much trouble we are in, but I worry about the trends.
What are we, and what do we want to be? A liberal democracy? A social democracy? An institutional democracy? A communitarian democracy? All of the above: a pluralistic democracy? I think so, but the traditions of collective reflection and conversation and accommodation that we need to make that work are under pressure from monistic interests and simplistic misunderstandings on all sides, and the sheer difficulty of the combination.

If we can’t find some way forward we will eventually find ourselves with no democracy at all, or only the pale shadow of one in the form of representatives duly elected to parliaments largely powerless. Of course the journey will be difficult, but why should we blinch at that? We are, on the whole, a thoughtful, articulate, educated, humane people, who can handle a complex conversation if only given the opportunity. Such a process is hard work, of course, and we are, on the whole, also humanly lazy. But we constantly prove ourselves quite capable of working hard in a good cause. Why not this one?

It would be helpful if those who aspire to inform us were not so eager to climb onto and sustain the simplistic bandwagon itself. Off the top I can think of two unhelpful illusions that are regularly presented to our credulity. First, and most ludicrously: that “the economy” is a singular thing that is and can be “managed” by our governments. Nonsense! Economic life is a tremendous organism of mind-boggling complexity. Those who claim to understand it — and they are many and vociferous — need to retain a just measure of humility, and to remind us, and themselves, as they spin their informative webs, that what they are able to see and describe on any one occasion is only a tiny slice of the reality. Such blatant absurdities as the CBC’s nightly “business report” consisting of a few stock market indices and a couple of spot market prices should be hooted off the stage. Likewise any politician or journalist who talks about “the economy”. Such talk is pure bamboozlement.

It would be helpful  if those who aspire to inform us would abandon the idea that the identity of a political party can be expressed in the person of its leader. I think that our political parties are complex organisms in their own right, and that all the main ones, those who try to embrace a wide perspective and have any hope of being elected, have something wise to say. They also indulge themselves and try to tempt us with much twaddle and intellectual candy floss borrowed from consumer marketing and branding. It would be helpful if our journalists would not go along so lazily with these unhelpful habits. I think that if we put all the platforms of all the parties together, after cutting out the candy floss, we would see the mind of the body politic in all its colour and richness.

I believe also that we would have a manifesto for the pluralistic democracy that collectively we hope for, that is a liberal democracy, a social democracy, an institutional democracy, and a communitarian democracy, all rolled into one. A monumental Unsolved Riddle perhaps, but a good one.

You may well ask whether I have done such a thing. The answer is that I tried, at the time of the last federal election, and made some progress. I tried to capture it in the persona of the Muddle Party. Some of the platforms were so incredibly verbose and disorganized that I was unable to finish in time. A vision of pluralistic democracy did indeed emerge, a flickering shadow glimpsed through the partisan fog. I have not tried for the Ontario election soon to come, for reasons peculiar to this particular occasion. I am going to try again for the federal election in 2019, which may, if we are fortunate, be more about ideas than personalities, or can be made so.

And guess what? It will coincide with the height of the Stephen Leacock Sesquicentennial. He gave us the Great Election in Missinaba County. A fitting precedent for an election conversation chock full of Knowledge, Imagination, Compassion, and Humour, just as he would want.

 

Once More Into the Voting Booth, Dear Friends!

The up-coming election here in Ontario has not yet been formally declared, but the noise is picking up, so I might as well join in. I started by reviewing my Manifesto, which appears as a separate page on this site, for the purpose of up-dating.

It says what I thought needed to be said at the time, in a way appropriate to that time, while we were still being governed federally by the Harper Gang. I think the tone is wrong for today, however, that I should not have spoken with such carping negativity even when I was railing against carping negativity. I will revise it, although I fear that it may not make such lively reading when I get finished.

It will take a little while to do that, because I want to get both tone and wording right.

I am also revising the Official Platform of my Party of One, first published here on November 14, 2014. Here is the new order and wording.

  1. Explicit recognition that the pursuit of Social Justice is the proper broad Goal of our politics, the cause in which we are all engaged together. The fact that that Goal remains riddled and elusive must not be offered as an excuse for us to abandon the cause. But since positive Social Justice is such a vexed concept, then let us settle for a collective resolve against obvious social injustices, such as blatant inequalities: in prosperity, in opportunities, in basic services, in all the blessings that those of us who are reasonably well-off take for granted.
  2. Explicit recognition that all our governments, as they strive for prosperity and Social Justice, must provide competent administration and reasonable care in management of the money we pay to them for our public services.
  3. Explicit adoption of a search for Balance as the means by which we grope our way forward. This means respect for the complexity of all public affairs and refusal to reduce them to simplicities. It means seeing the issues before us simply as Unsolved Riddles which we can address through conversations where Knowledge, Imagination, Compassion, and Humour (the Stephen Leacock Tetrad) are constantly in play, guiding us towards the following, all of which are equally important (please pay no attention to the order of presentation):
  4. Strength to the Social Fabric: languages, cultures, communities, enterprises, arts, opportunities, employments, governments, public services.
  5. Strength to Parliamentary democracy, including electoral reform, and to democratic institutions at all levels.
  6. Strength to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and related elements of our inherited constitution.
  7. Strength to the Social Safety Net.
  8. Prosperity, vigorous and justly shared; respect for the complexity and difficulty of this goal.
  9. Stewardship, resolute, protective and far-seeing, of our air, land and waters.
  10. Internationalism in foreign affairs, pursuing peace, prosperity, justice and the rule of law.
  11. Vigilance in the protection of our own territory and sovereignty, extreme reluctance in foreign adventures.
  12. Reconciliation as the fundamental principle applied to disputes, contentions, and criminal justice.

I believe that the vast majority of Canadian voters are liberal in their generosity to one another and especially to those less fortunate than themselves, progressive in their ideas about public policy and services, and conservative in how they want public funds to be managed. I think that the inherent difficulties in even understanding the complexity of such an agenda, let alone providing for it, spook many of us, and that our political parties in their vicious partisanship and self-interest are only too ready to prey upon our uncertainties.

Fie upon all such predators! We the voters have sovereignty over a very complicated state of affairs, where easy answers whether from right, left, or middle are almost certain to be wrong or at least tragically limited. Let’s talk about it, and force our political parties to address it, in the light of that obvious truth.

 

Onward to a Toward Canadian Enlightenment

Did you know that “toward” is an adjective as well as a preposition? Meaning, among other closely related ideas: in process, promising, auspicious? I think I would have known that if I had thought about it, but I didn’t. Until today. I am trying to probe, or grope, toward (or equally towards) a toward notion of Canadian Enlightenment, hoping that nothing untoward happens on the way. Onward, upward, forward, outward, grasping the wheel and turning windward, and all that good stuff. Excelsior-ward!

An early result from the first e-mailings of our Stephen Leacock Sesquicentennial — in fact a Sesquiettriaquatariacentennial (both 150th and 75th) — has been a firm pulse of interest in Canadian Enlightenment, be it “a” or “the” or without prior article.

This stimulated me to reply, along these lines: I think we have some plausible form of Canadian Enlightenment, although there are those who would sneer at the idea I am sure. There always are. My hypothesis is that it is organic, evolutionary, incremental, cumulative, with all manner of people contributing their fragmentary, incomplete and inconclusive bits which seep their way into the national consciousness or subconsciousness and gradually influence our behaviour for the better. Instead of the “dream of a perfect world or no world at all” deplored by W. H. Auden we have a dream of a world or a country that becomes better in stages. This process becomes first visible and memorable in what people wrote, not just the Big Writers, but all kinds of lesser ones. In what they spoke too, of course, but that is ephemeral. This view makes me particularly interested in what shows up in literary magazines down through the ages, and not only in published books. I am fascinated by The Canadian Magazine of Politics, Science, Art and Literature (1893-1944), also Andrew Macphail’s University Magazine, as an early witnesses to this whole project. I look down the list of names in the early volumes and I ask myself, who are these people? I intend to find out, but it’s going to take a while. I think many of them will turn out to be “folk writers” adding their little osmotic bits to the whole creature in almost complete anonymity.

Of course there is another osmotic creature out there too, that I call the Yottapede, a beast of quite a different hue. If we are looking for an epic struggle on which to build a national epic — and we should be looking for one — we could set Canilluminia against the Yottapede and let them slug it out. Canallumina has not yet triumphed, but she is still in the game, represented not by any of our favourite polarities, but by those who seek to reconcile them. That is Unsolved Riddle territory.

I am wondering if “osmotic” in this context is the opposite of “apocalyptic”, in the sense that B.W. Powe uses the latter in his recent book Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye. Powe sees those two as apocalyptic writers (i.e. revelatory, prophetic) and no doubt they qualify. Who else? Expanding on Matthew Arnold I think we would find Canadian Enlightenment in the best that has been thought, written, and voiced in memorable ways by Canadian writers and about Canada. I think the question of who is a Canadian writer and who is from somewhere else and writing about Canada depends on how much he or she has imported or learned here, and needs to be handled delicately. We owe much to our immigrants, but possibly not the automatic right to define us. I think that comparable care must be taken with the word “Canada”. When does “Canada” emerge from “pre-Canada”? In the political context, which is extraordinarily important in any useful concept of enlightenment, I think it comes some time in the 1840’s, when local leaders began to assert themselves against the pipe dreams of the colonial authorities. I would be prepared to find that the process began even earlier in the Maritime Provinces, but I am not as familiar with the history. It was certainly mature in some practical sense by the time of Confederation.

I do not think we need to own the unenlightened policies of the colonial authorities or the practices condoned by them, nor should we try to claim credit for the enlightened ones, until after the time when we had grasped the political initiative to some effective extent. By 1837 that extent was not effective, as the rebellions showed. When Responsible Government arrived, it was. The date when “Canada” emerged for Enlightenment purposes probably came somewhere in between.

Whether Stephen Leacock is “apocalyptic” or “osmotic” in this whole process remains for me an unsolved riddle, at least for the time being, and perhaps forever. In any case, I think he is perhaps the most interesting figure in the early stages of the Canadian Enlightenment creature’s evolution, because he emerged from folk writing into a position of such literary prominence which has to some extent endured, and because he lays out — fragmentarily, incompletely, and inconclusively — his tetrad of Knowledge, Imagination, Compassion, and Humour, and because so many people read him and thus were subjected to his osmotic influence, and because he himself was so thoroughly also in the grip of the Yottapede impelling him to a life of comfort, security and academic mediocrity. His intense absorption in it and equally intense struggles against it make his life story a parable, compelling in its own way. He becomes an Unsolved Riddle of a man.

The people of Mariposa don’t struggle. They embrace the Yottapede, and when they become successful and assume they know the answers to the riddles (as in The City of Arcadian Adventures) they become childishly foolish and morally monstrous. That is why I believe both those books to be prophetic, and why he abandoned that stream, because the next prophetic work was going to be too painful to write, a black hole of nihilism fed by successive waves of war, speculative madness, economic depression, and political insanity. No wonder he drank.

That’s enough for today. Thanks for reading.