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 it 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 where 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 that 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.

 

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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.

 

Toward a (the?) Canadian Enlightenment

I write this on the eve of the launch of formal preparations for a Stephen Leacock Sesquicentennial, a 277 day celebration to take place in 2019 from March 28th to December 30th, these dates being the 75th anniversary of his death and the 150th anniversary of his birth. If you want to plug into this event, the place to start is http://www.voyageurstorytelling.ca.

In my most recent post I came down on the side of a humanistic approach to economics, part of my belief in a humanistic approach to everything. I am not always sure that some of our ways of thinking about huge issues are as humanistic as they need to be. For example, spokespeople for the indigenous point of view often advocate on behalf of Mother Earth, and they are right so to do. But over the course of history certain decisions have been taken about our relationship with Mother Earth, decisions which cannot be reversed without wholesale destruction of humanity, either in the crude mortal sense, or in regression to a primitive state of poverty, hardship and brutality. While I do not believe that a high level of material prosperity, a high “standard of living”, should be the limit of our aspiration, I am not prepared to sneeze at it either.

Our relationship with Mother Earth is often brutal and exploitative and wasteful to a degree that our descendants, if we have any, will find difficult to believe. They will turn away from it with the same kind of revulsion that we feel towards slavery, child labour, gratuitous massacre, the gorier forms of capital and corporal punishment, rape, physical abuse, and other practices that we believe to be conspicuously evil. But our relationship with Mother Earth has another dimension too, which has allowed us to sustain ourselves and to prosper wonderfully despite our burgeoning population which, relatively speaking, is not a new phenomenon. We have been actively manipulating Mother Earth to increase her productivity for our benefit for quite a number of centuries, even millennia, and doing very well out of it. Irrigation works, the torching of countryside to encourage new growth, the breeding of plants and animals, the damming of streams, these are all blatant intrusions into the natural realms of Mother Earth, and they go back a long time. Our power to make such intrusions destructive has increased enormously in the past 200 years, but so too has our power to make them productive and beneficial.

It is this kind of worry, for which I claim no originality, that makes me so interested in the Stephen Leacock trope of the Unsolved Riddle. I think that our relationship with Mother Earth is an Unsolved Riddle and that any person or point of view claiming to have the answer and with the power to impose it is likely to do us great harm. The truth, as one Charles Simeon said years ago, does lie at one extreme or the other, nor half-way between, but at both extremes. The question of how to do that is an Unsolved Riddle.

But we can’t simply run around wringing our hands. We have to find ways to think, and act. Stephen Leacock said of his Great Detective that to think was to act and to act was to think—frequently he could do both together. That is what we need to learn to do.

When we have found a way, a new way, or an old way reinvented, then we call it, or the ideas behind it, an Enlightenment. I am interested in the question of whether something has percolated through the pages of our history that could be called a Canadian Enlightenment, and if so, who lit it. I think it quite possibly has, incomplete and imperfect as the application has been. Obviously it must have several strands and that the application is a species of weaving. I think that the European Enlightenment wove the strands of Knowledge and Imagination to an unprecedented degree. I think that Compassion was soon added, because Knowledge and Imagination by themselves can lead too easily lead into darkness. To make them work in a Canadian context, however, we need something else, because our context is inherently uncongenial and maybe even impossible. But here we are, and we have to do our best. Humour becomes the necessary fourth strand for us. I believe that that discovery belongs to Stephen Leacock.

Knowledge, Imagination, Compassion, and Humour: the four strands in the Canadian Enlightenment, woven and perpetually re-woven by investigation, conversation, experimentation, and negotiation, the next step forward forever an Unsolved Riddle. That, at any rate, is my hypothesis. Pursuit ho!

Ahoy! Have you seen the Canadian Enlightenment?

Toward a Truly Humanistic Economics

January 17, 2018

When I was a pale young graduate student I drifted by a peculiar path into the study of economics, or rather into the study of ways of thinking about economics and describing economic realities and relationships. I didn’t really study those phenomena, I simply studied how to study them, and in particular, how to think about them, leading into ideas about how to measure them.

This led me into many a merry adventure, the stories of which I may tell some day. Most recently, through an intensive immersion in the ideas of Stephen Leacock even as I watch carefully what is going on in the world around me, I have come to the conclusion that the field of economics needs thorough overhaul in its ways of thinking. This is not a new idea. Stephen Leacock had the same one back in the 1930’s.

I have come to believe that economics, properly conceived, is a field of the humanities, quite possibly the most important one. It’s as if the world today has become an extraordinarily complex work of art — verbal, literary, visual, sonorous — that needs to be examined and understood by methods appropriate to its nature. Economics are not rational, although they contain some rational elements, nor are they natural, although they contain elements that science can illuminate. They are human, and thus potentially within the embrace of the humanities.

This work of art is of course not an artifact in the usual sense, however. It is organic. Perhaps the best analogy is a garden. If we could imagine a garden, a work of art, that is at the same time partly wild and partly cultivated, that includes not only all the plants contained therein but all the creatures that live among them and the natural forces at work on them which are also built into the work of art — if we had a rigorous way to think about that work of art then we might have begun to find a way to think about economics. I put no limits on the potential of the human intellect. I think we can do it. But we have to think properly about the job, and not underestimate it, or pretend that by taking on only part of it — inevitably the easy part — and treating it as if it were the whole wonderful creation we can properly understand it.

Stephen Leacock never wrote a book called The Unsolved Riddle of Economics, although he certainly said much on the subject. He did write one called The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice. I think that economics are about the Unsolved Riddle of Individual and Social Justice, the Unsolved Riddle of how to pursue both at the same time and with the same energy, and the myriad sub-riddles all unsolved that constitute the whole.

I have a lot of reading to do, and as I do it I will talk about it here. Thank you for paying attention, and please stay tuned.

Personal Thoughts for July 1 2017

I run two other blogs besides this one, identified as http://mariposabyconway.wordpress.com/ and https://playstephenleacock.wordpress.com/. The other two are associated with the Stephen Leacock Project, and will evolve as it does. This one is more personal.

I like the idea of celebrating the country, although I will do so today in my own way. When the rain lets up I will take a celebratory walk. The rest of the day I will enjoy my family in a quiet way and attempt to contribute to their enjoyment. That should be enough. Normally, or even obsessively, I avoid crowds. When they gather I will not be there. And as for fireworks, for me they add nothing to the beauties of the silent darkness.

I have been following the comments, both for and against, about our Sesquicentennial. I understand the negativity, although I do not share it. I think that, on balance, Canada’s story is remarkable and well worth celebrating. That there remains much work to be done, and that there are no guarantees about the future unless we work very hard for them and with somewhat more of the enabling virtues than we customarily display, does not for me detract at all. The story remains remarkable, and I will always tell it that way.

I view Canada as a political entity, in the best sense. Our politics are an expression of our community and I am proud of what they have accomplished over the years. Not uncritically proud, of course; that would be stupid. In a country as diverse and multi-point-of-viewed as this one politics are bound to be messy. Maybe that’s as they should be. A man I know likes to say that Nature likes a mess. Maybe Humanity likes a mess too, because mess leaves room for creativity. Too much order stifles the spirit. Canada is a spirited country, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

At some point in the colonial past we stopped being administered and became political, that is, began to generate important decisions out of our own conversations and processes instead of having them generated for us from head office or its appointees. It is difficult to pin-point a date. From the time when two people faced each other on the distant shore some kind of negotiation began, explicit or tacit, and that is always a political act regardless of the context. That process continued between local and authoritative voices throughout the colonial era. At some point, however, the balance of power shifted and the local voices became too strong to deny, regardless of the preferences of the formal authorities and their friends. I would put that point somewhere in the movement towards Responsible Government, and thus in the  1840’s. It became obvious in 1848, first in Nova Scotia, then in the Province of Canada.

What Responsible Government created, however, was not a country, or even the intention of a country. These colonies — Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Canada East (Lower Canada), Canada West (Upper Canada) — were separate entities, each with its own history and intentions, although the situation in the Province of Canada was more complex. If it was not a country it was, at least in some respects, beginning to behave like one, and had been since 1841.

I think the country of Canada was born, that is, popped out of the egg and started to breathe on its own on September 7, 1864, when those delegates from Maritime Provinces met in Charlottetown to discuss a union and were joined by delegates from Canada with a proposal for a wider one. If you think September 7th is premature, then try October 27th when the subsequent Québec Conference closed, having adopted the Seventy-Two Resolutions that became the British North America Act.

There sit the delegates, and f they are enjoying the contemplation of the fruits of their labour it would be hard to tell from their faces. And not a woman or an indigenous person or a black or brown face among them. I wonder what the Seventy-Two (or more) resolutions would have looked like if they had been there? Something quite different, no doubt. Better, no doubt, although that’s no reason to despise what we have. These men did the best they could with what they had, and that accomplishment is never to be despised.(Photo from Library and Archives Canada under the reproduction reference number C-006350 and under the MIKAN ID number 3623086 through Wikepedia: Quebec Conference 1864.)

QuebecConvention1864.jpg

Therefore: Sorry, all you celebrating folks. The sesquicentennial birthday, if we must have one, was over three years ago. Say October 27, 2014. I, for one, missed it. But I won’t miss the 153rd this Fall. If all goes well, Leslie and I will be in Winnipeg that day. For the reason why, try http://www.voyageurstorytelling.ca

It took another 67 years to sever the umbilical cord completely by means of the Statute of Westminster, or rather, the negotiations that produced it, but that’s another whole raft of stories, all worth telling. (I know that hatchlings from eggs don’t have umbilical cords, of course. A mixed birthing metaphor is appropriate. Call it an umbilical chord: the tune and rhythm matter more than the words.)

And the work continues. The women and indigenous are now at the conference table for sure, along with the more recently arrived peoples from the four corners of the Earth. It’s high time. What Confederation looks like from now on will be something quite different, no doubt. Better, no doubt. Needing improvement, no doubt. That’s Canada. That’s what I celebrate today, and every day. All of it.

More Unsolved Riddles

A recent article on iPolitics by Alan Freeman under the headline “Governing is a lot harder than you think, Mr. O’Leary”  :: http://ipolitics.ca/2017/02/24/running-a-government-is-a-lot-harder-than-you-think-oleary/ :: provoked the following comment from me:

Mr. Freeman makes an extraordinarily important point, worth noting not only by Mr. O’Leary, but by all of us who would over-simplify political discussion. All governments, however small, are complex organisms comprised of PEOPLE who know, and are learning, who think, and feel, and act within their means. They are not machines to be manipulated from the top, although they can be led. But changing their direction takes time. They are inherently conservative, much more easily stalled by negative forces than motivated by positive ones. The culture of anecdotally-fed carping negativity that permeates so much of our contemporary political discourse fastens a huge drag on our government organizations and their leadership. We indulge ourselves in strident expressions of polarized over-simplified opinions, and expect our public servants, elected or not, to sort out the mess. Then we yell at them from all sides no matter what they do. Stephen Leacock advised us to think of complex issues of social justice as unsolved riddles, to be addressed, not by the simple-minded application of ideology or formulas derived from theory, but by groping our collective humane way forward, guided by Knowledge, Imagination, and Compassion. Anyone got a better idea?

Recent discourse on Electoral Reform and Immigration illustrate this concern very clearly. Discourse on electoral reform became so poisoned that to persist towards change could only make things worse. The government therefore made a decision to postpone. As Mackenzie King said, more or less, when confronted about a broken “promise”: “In politics you do what you can, not what you want.” The voice of experience. The Liberal Party “promise” on electoral reform was perhaps the voice of inexperience. But since when is it a sin to be inexperienced?

Immigration policy is another kind of unsolved riddle. When we engage with the peoples of the world for the purpose of trade and investment, which we yearn to do, then we engage with them also as people. From a practical and moral perspective we cannot have one without the other. We could, of course, adopt the role of brutal exploiters, as colonial powers did and do, but that is not for us, not for the whole us. Deep down we know, in our heart of hearts, that if the money is global, then so are the people, and so is the land. We’ll struggle with that reality, and with its cost, but we will keep trying not to ignore it. So will the Americans, decent people that they are, as they begin to see what the alternative looks like.