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”  :: :: 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.

New Directions, New Projects, Maybe Even the Occasional New Idea

Leslie and I completed, on September 20th, our 15th and final summer season of Country Supper Storytelling Concerts. In all we performed 573 of these, served and entertained 3,917 people along the way, many of whom became good friends. This whole experience was an almost unalloyed pleasure, the only alloy being occasional exhaustion. As such episodes grew in number and intensity with our advancing age, we decided we should find something new, preferably something where we could do a lot of the work sitting down.

We have always been interested in touring, especially in forms of touring that involved community participation. The Chautauqua model intrigued us, and we experimented with it one year, but it proved too big and too conflictual with our other activities. Now these are reduced, and we are about to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday with our Stephen Leacock’s “My Discovery of the West” Re-Tour 2017 — from 15th to 150th in one fell swoop, or swell foop. Our ports of call will be: Orillia (for a Launch at the Leacock Museum), Thunder Bay (Port Arthur and Fort William in Leacock’s day), Sioux Lookout (Leacock didn’t go there but the train does now), Winnipeg, Regina, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Calgary, Medicine Hat, Vancouver, and Victoria. We will launch on October 20th 2017 and end November 28th. We will tell that story, if you would like to follow it, as it evolves on: &

We are also becoming the home of a Leacock Database in which we will catalogue every piece that he wrote and every public speech that he spoke to the extent that we can locate them and with as much detail as we can find. The extent is considerable thanks to the bibliographical prowess of Carl Spadoni and his predecessors. Details are bounteous in some cases, sparse in others. We will complete the first round of that project in another month. Right now the database has about 2,400 records, including 1,300 pieces and about 800 speeches. When it came to verbiage, Stephen Leacock was a prolific man.

When that project settles in for the long pull, looking for details, we will start a database for the Canadian writers of magazine articles from Confederation to World War II. This grew out of our efforts to gather Leacock articles from Canadian literary magazines like the magnificently named The Canadian Magazine of Politics, Science, Art and Literature (1893 to 1938) and Maclean’s Magazine (1896 to the present). We started asking ourselves who these people were, many of them obviously amateurs, who wrote for these magazines with such dedication and spirit. Where did they live? How did they live? What are their stories? We are going to find out. We have seen enough already to know that their stories are enchanting, diverse, often up-lifting, occasionally tragic, invariably interesting. Stay tuned.

Then there is politics. This blog began out of my interest in writing about political matters. Other projects have interfered with the flow, but my interest persists. In particular, I am concerned about what I believe to be immaturity and sloppiness in our political discourse, particularly as reported in our beloved news media, but also in the pronouncements of both government and opposition. At the top of my list of immaturities is their, and our, perpetual carping negativity in discussion of public affairs. The political oppositions whom we hire to find fault with our governments seem to find it very difficult to get their eyes up out of the mud, after the manner of worms, in which course they are followed with mindless glee by the news media. A close second is both of their, and our, addiction to sensational anecdotes without any regard for the context or relative frequency of these episodes. Thirdly, I have a particular grief with the news media for their lust for reporting predictions without regard for the quality of the data behind them, the rigour of the analysis, or the often highly self-interested perspective of the person making them. And fourthly, I believe that maturity requires us to stop thinking of the stated intentions of our governments as “promises” and cultivate a more sophisticated understanding of what politicians are saying to us when they campaign.

And what of our governments? What share do they deserve of the obloquy? Well, obviously, they deserve all they get when they “spin” at our perceptions for the purpose of making themselves look good or make mistakes out of incompetence or dishonesty. I believe also, however, that the business of government is extraordinarily complicated and difficult, often because we the people make it so, and that a mature and sophisticated understanding requires recognition that things will often go wrong for reasons other than incompetence or dishonesty. In a huge multitude of instances they also go right, or at least well enough, and we need to celebrate from time to time all the people who make it so, at all levels, elected and hired, federally, provincially and municipally. These hard-working people are our employees, at least indirectly, and we collectively carry an employer’s responsibility, which does not consist in ignoring them when they do well, defecating on them from a great height when things go wrong, and generally thinking of them in the worst and most simplistic way we can find.

All this should keep me busy enough to hold boredom at bay. As for the inevitable decay of mind, well, maybe it will slow that down too.

Back After the Break: Parties, Tweets, Polls and iPolitics

My last entry here, three months ago, asked: Whither this blog? It might appear, on the surface, to have whithered away entirely, which is only partly true. The blog has been silent, indeed, but I have not. My somewhat sparse political observations have been directed through the comments sections of some stories that caught my attention.

I read those again this morning, and will up-date and post them here when I have time. They talk about some of the issues I specified in my post of January 4th.

The past few days offered three stories that I think are worth passing comment, perhaps more.

The first concerns the Liberal Party’s continuing efforts to turn itself from a political party in the old style to a “movement” in a new one. See I take this as an initiative under the general heading of “doing politics differently”.

An anonymous comment suggests the story is “unbalanced”, because it contained no “critical comments” and made “snide remarks” about the Conservatives, who appear to be moving in a contrary direction for what appear to be good reasons. Under the general heading of “doing political journalism differently”, might we ask whether “balance” means that every story must contain both positive and negative comments? If our government, or a party, or politician, does something good, may we not say so? Must we always add a negative comment, in the interest of balance? If we do take that as a standard, then are we not perhaps encouraging a general political culture of carping negativity, and what is the large effect of that?

Obviously we don’t care for seemingly objective news media who simply become propagandists for the government or any side of the political debate. One could hardly accuse iPolitics of being that, especially given Michael Harris’s column yesterday, blasting current policy on some parts of the Plethora of Middle Eastern Questions. See

I think I would interpret the first target of Harris’s rage—Global Affairs Minister Stephane Dion’s tweet—somewhat differently. Presumably the minister was under some pressure from somewhere to make that kind of statement. Can any form of ministerial statement be more trivial than a tweet? If M. Dion had wanted his opinion to be taken seriously, he would have used a more serious mode of expression. A tweet is an insignificant verbal gesture. The medium is the message.

As for the rest of Harris’s column, I think it states one side of a couple of questions well enough, and is fair comment. I would suggest, however, that the Plethora of M.E.Q.’s constitutes one of the most complex and difficult of conundrums that our or any government has to face, both morally and practically, and that actions put in place by the previous government, wrong-headed though they may have been in some respects, cannot brusquely be set aside without consequences. Was it Bismarck who said, of some foreign policy issue, that only two people ever understood it: he himself, who had forgotten it, and a professor, who went mad thinking about it? Thinking about the Middle East these days could definitely become fodder for madness. These are the murkiest of waters, and when we try to see through them, or comment on policy, we should treat them accordingly.

My third issue concerns another recent iPolitics story, coming out of the EKOS polling firm. I am referring to The story itself, by Elizabeth Thompson, seems fair enough, but the headline is terrible, because it reflects one of the two polls reported—concerning the “direction Trudeau is taking Canada”—and not the other—concerning how people would vote at present. And the whole “direction” question respondents were asked, with the method used (a “high definition interactive response poll of 2,019 respondents”) must make this one of the most useless polls ever taken. What kind of statistical nonsense is that?

Ms. Thompson assures us that the poll is “considered accurate within 2.2 percentage points (I love the specious precision!) 19 times out of twenty”! Well folks, I will put my statistical credentials up against hers any day, whatever hers may be, and I don’t consider this stupid poll accurate within the maximum possible number of percentage points even once, nor worthy of any comment except instant dismissal. And as for the regional comparisons, yikes!

Surely if we want to see politics “done differently” we should ask our polling companies to get on board, and stop obfuscating the conversation by glib and careless work. A little training for the iPolitics headline writers wouldn’t hurt either.

I think iPolitics does a good job within a few percentage points most of the time, and I appreciate their work. But the quest for “politics done differently” must include them, and all journalists. There, am I being balanced?

Toward the Heart of Lightness, Step by Step

January 4, 2016

2016 ho! Here we go! Whither this blog?

The Detroit writer Anna Clark ( has proposed that the purpose of blogging should be “to practise the public art of writing and reflection”. That makes good sense to me, as long as it means that the writing and the reflection go hand in hand in mutually reinforcing support.

While retaining my freedom to tack hither and yon as circumstances suggest, I would like, in this spirit, to explore these themes in the months ahead:

  1. What does it mean to “do politics differently”? Who should do it? The present government says it wants to do it. What if it tries, but everybody else—opposition parties; journalists; voters—carries on in the old accustomed way? What happens to that good intention then? (We, in our old accustomed way, would not call it an “intention”, rather a “promise” with all the weight that word carries.)  I predicted last year, before the election, that we would be governed by the “mind-set” of the government, not by the platform or the “promises” or any such ephemera. We certainly were with the last lot. We will learn much more about the new mind-set in the months and years ahead.
  2. As I read more and more political journalism, I think I am noticing some common themes in the mind-set there, and despite all the undeniably good work, I too often see examples of what I think is poor practice: over-simplification of complex public affairs, particularly economic ones; careless use of terminology; an unhealthy appetite for the making and reporting of predictions, coupled with an uncritical attitude; a primitive notion of what “balanced reporting” means, particularly when coupled with a somewhat confused notion of what it means to “hold the government to account”; a naive attachment to the idea that journalists are, or should be “storytellers”. We rely on journalists to report on and interpret what is happening, which they assume, quite rightly, to be an important public role.
  3. During the election campaign one expression on many lips was “the economy”. Good grief, that it has come to this! Down, I say, with the prevailing hideous over-simplification, ill-informed misconception, weak understanding, unsupportable prognostication, and slipshod interpretation on all sides. If “the economy” is so important, then why do we tolerate such persistent misinformation and vacuity of conversation, from governments, journalists, and commentators of all kinds, and in our own minds and ways of speaking? Enough!
  4. One particular issue on which I intend to say much, and in as many directions as I can find, has to do with electoral reform. But not here. This post is getting long enough as it is.
  5. Another has to do with the policy outwash from the recent climate conference in Paris, and the apparent international resolve to stop dumping our garbage into the air. Would that we could come up with the same wide resolve concerning water and land, but one step at a time, I guess. We will have to find new ways of producing and consuming, which means new cultures. This would be easier if we could discover new and appropriate ways of thinking and believing or, even more richly, new ways of being. We have made these kinds of transitions before, and we can do it again.
  6. I intend to explore the idea of “multiculturalism” (a good idea, as far as it goes, but a terrible word) which I believe to be not the same thing as pluralism, which is the higher ideal.
  7. All these themes, and any more that may emerge from events, have to do with my advocacy for Comprehensive Justice, by which I mean Social Justice, Economic Justice, Environmental Justice, and other forms, with their inter-relationships intact. Both “comprehensive” and “justice” are packed words that need to be unpacked in practical ways. We’re not talking philosophy here, we’re talking politics.
  8. As did, interestingly enough, Stephen Leacock, which takes us over into the other blog:

All this should keep me busy enough.

A good year to all!

Starting from some Thoughts on “Big Government”

December 16, 2015

A recent article in iPolitics by the (politically) late Alberta MP Brent Rathgeber, concerning the ambitions of the Alberta Wildrose Party (“Can Brian Jean unite the right in Alberta? Don’t bet on it.”), asserted as follows:

“It’s a myth that Alberta is built on conservative bedrock. For decades, from Lougheed through Getty and Klein, Albertans demanded the best of everything — the widest highways, the best schools and hospitals. When resource revenues were plentiful, governments could keep taxes low. When natural gas and crude prices tanked, governments racked up huge deficits. But at no time did Albertans lose their appetite for big, expensive government.”

I lived in Alberta for 25 years, raising my family and making my living, and because of the nature of my work, I probably got around more than most. I don’t think Albertans have any appetite for “big expensive government”. I think they have an entirely commendable appetite for excellent public services, or at least those public services the majority of them use. Their appetite for paying for them may not be quite as keen, nor for those services used by the less fortunate minority among them, but do they thus set themselves apart from the main stream of Canadians? I am not sure than anything much sets Albertans apart from the main stream of Canadians except their particular regional history and the extraordinary wealth of their land. But that is not what I am writing about today. No, it’s Mr. Rathgeber’s use of the term “big government”.

Big government. Its undertones of tyranny and oppression rattle the ganglions of anyone with even a teaspoon of libertarian blood. But surely it belongs more in the language of propaganda than of reasonable political conversation.

When I am driving down a good highway, I do not feel the heavy hand of government oppression, only the productive hand of basic infrastructure. When I visit the doctor or am admitted to hospital, I do not feel the tread of an iron boot, only the concern of my fellow citizens wishing me well and helping me get there. And so it is with a whole range of common experiences where I feel the beneficent hand of public service. And when I feel myself regulated, which I do not to any inconvenient extent, I feel my community protecting itself, and me, and my descendants, from the harm of abuses and damage.

Of course our government is big. We expect it to do a great deal of work to support and improve our lives, and to do that in ways that are fair and equitable. And we know perfectly well, when we think about it, that if we left these responsibilities to private initiative, the apparent “efficiency” would come at the expense of  “comprehensive justice”, if I may so roll social, economic and environmental justice into one term. And while we may squirm under the need to pay for comprehensive justice, we have no desire to abandon it as a standard. Our voting in the recent election proved that.

All big organizations are to some extent inefficient. If you think governments are exceptionally that way, take a close look sometime at big oil, or big finance, or big transportation, or big anything else. And as for big military, good grief! The illusion of efficiency in big organizations, public or private, comes not from some kind of economic virtue, but from their power to do the work that we want done.

Power is always a two-edged sword, and in an imperfect world both edges are going to cut. We do our part when we, as voters and as consumers, work to sharpen the edge that does the work, and blunt the edge that does the harm.

What does all this mean, in the specifics before us these days? I think it means, first of all, being a little patient with our new government—both the executive side and the opposition—to give them time to do what we elected them to do. If we jump all over them, telling them, after a few short weeks on the job, that they are doing it all wrong and should be doing something different, then we are being the very worst kind of bosses, the kind that breeds inefficiency. I think we need to slap down the people who are talking that way, and notice where they are coming from.

We have elected ourselves a government of people who say, no doubt with some sincerity, that they want to “do politics differently”, and an opposition that wants to find “a new tone”, which also means doing politics differently from their side of the fence. But what does it do to their resolve, and their capacity, if we come at them in the same old way? Perhaps the idea of “doing politics differently” applies also to us and to the journalistic folks on whom we rely for much of our data.

In particular, perhaps we should ask ourselves whether all the carping criticism, so pervasive in our politics, journalism, and conversation, is good for our body politic, or our personal mental health for that matter. I won’t say any more, because I don’t want to be carpingly critical even of carping criticism, but I for one would prefer that we find a healthier, more balanced way to judge the performance of our elected officials and “hold them to account”, to use the fashionable phrase.

Holding them to account. Accountability. We hear these words all the time. They are spoken as if self-explanatory, and self-justifying. In the fields of politics and public service, however, they are full of rich technicality. Do we ever think much about what they mean, or the kind of data we need to realize them in a balanced and correct way? Or the kind of clear thinking required to make them just and expedient?

In other words, how can we hold to account the people who are holding “them”—whoever they are—to account on our behalf? How can we do that justly and fairly, in a balanced way, with good data? How can we do it without indulging in carping criticism? And if we are glib and careless in how we do it, ought we to be held to account? And by whom?

Doing politics differently: Quite a challenge, on all sides. A good one, worth answering.

On Being “Walled” In by Risk-Averse Politicians

November 16, 2015

So, Premier Brad Wall of Saskatchewan wants Prime Minister Trudeau to “suspend your current plan to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by the end of the year and to re-evaluate this goal and the processes in place to achieve it.” Is this the spirit that built the West? I don’t think to-day’s people of Saskatchewan are nearly that risk-averse, any more than were their ancestors.

Just how risk-averse do we need to be, in the present circumstances? Just how risk-averse are we? The fact of 129 deaths in Paris last week stimulated the CBC into a corporate paroxysm that has not yet run its course, and our newly-minted Opposition, and many others, into pleas for more lethal violence for our war on lethal violence in Iraq and Syria. The fact of two (2) deaths of soldiers in Canada earlier this year caused Parliament to ratchet up “security” to new records on the draconian scale. The imagination of similar danger arising from among 25,000 hapless Syrians agitates Premier Wall into nervous correspondence. Clearly the appetite for risk-aversion remains keen, at least in some circles.

Keen, but perhaps a trifle selective. The fact of 3,500 to 4,000 deaths annually in Canada by suicide evokes some gentle hand-wringing, but not much pouring of energy and money into a war on lethal despair and its causes. The fact of 2,000 to 3,000 deaths annually in motor vehicle accidents does not stimulate us to ruthless pursuit of lethal bad driving or ruthless anything,—just the usual routine persistence, not accepting these deaths but taking them in stride,—nor the 700 to 1,100 deaths from workplace accidents, nor even the 500 to 700 deaths from homicide. That’s 8,000 deaths per year, on average, arising from deplorable, often preventable phenomena that do not cause the CBC to foam at the mouth, nor columnists to rage, nor Parliament to pass draconian new laws, nor Premier Wall to write minatory letters, nor Canadians as a whole to set aside our humane and generous instincts.

A few years ago, after I was unexpectedly thrust into the task of managing a family counselling agency, I learned of a school of therapy called “Solution Focused”, invented by the late Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. As I remember, it counselled according to three guiding rules.

  1. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Before he can convince me that our system of security is so “broke” that it cannot manage the speedy arrival of 25,000 waifs of the mad world, Premier Wall is going to have to show me more deaths than two, in this country, or even 129 in France. Right now I am prepared to believe that our police and security services do very well against potential terrorist acts, and will stay so prepared even if we suffer a tragic episode or two. I accept these as risks of modern life, as we all do in the face of suicides, traffic accidents, industrial accidents, murder, and the rest. They are causes for persistent dedicated effort, but not for panic.
  2. If you try something that works, keep doing it. I think that we, here in Canada, in the face of our statistical evidence, must conclude that our approach to the threat of “terrorism” is working. Either that, or the threat itself is very small. We do not need to direct more energy to that threat, but could reasonably apply the same levels of commitment, singleness of purpose, skill, energy, time and money to other threats that have proved numerically much more significant. Go for it, Premier Wall! You and your colleagues have my full support for an all-out assault on the causes of suicides, mangled corpses in cars and work-places, and murders of all kinds.
  3. If you try something that does not work, don’t keep doing it. Do something different. Premier Wall and his hench-voices would have us keep doing it, perhaps even do more of it, if we can merely imagine that some day it might not work. Never mind the facts, just give us the dire possibilities: we’ll act on those. At what point may we begin to call this cowardice?

No, Premier Wall! say I. Bring on the 25,000 Syrians, as we did before—speaking of something that worked—for the Hungarians in their need, and the Vietnamese boat people in theirs, and the Kosovars in theirs, not to mention the settlement of Western Canada in earlier times. And let us also not forget the continuing disgrace and shame of our deplorable brushing aside of Sikhs, Jews, and others when they called to us out of their darkness.

And as for addressing something that’s obviously not working, how about ramping down the violence in the Middle East, or at least, if we can’t do that, ceasing to be part of it. Ground the bloody planes. Find a better way. That would be doing something different, indeed.

Faced with insanity, don’t join in. Become Solution Focused. Take a deep breath. Take two. Think. Remain sane. Remain humane.

A Plea for Sanity and Moderation in Response to Violence

Letter to the Rt. Hon. Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister, November 16, 2015

Respected Sir:

I believe, as do many others, that when dramatic events such as the attacks in Paris take place, voices of sanity, moderation need to be heard. I intend that mine should be one of them. We are already hearing plenty of the other kind, not to mention the disgraceful act of criminal violence in Peterborough.

Based on what I know of you and your hopes for the government you lead, I believe that your own instincts will be towards sanity and moderation in response. I hope you know that a great many Canadians, myself among them, will support you fully and as loudly as we can, as you try to work things out along those lines.

In principle, I believe your wish is correct, that Canada should stop bombing people in Iraq and Syria. Bombing people, whoever does it and for whatever reason, is always an act of barbarism. It is like capital punishment: it is never a moral response to any situation. It is done for reasons of revenge, frustration, weakness, and the desire to wage war without taking much risk. It is a despicable way to fight, and I wish we were not fighting that way in Iraq and Syria. The sooner we can stop, the better.

On the other hand, if NATO decides to fight that way in support of the French, then we might well be stuck for the time being. But our advice should be to find a better way. If we end up having to go along with our allies, so be it, but I hope we will find a way that is not despicable.

ISIS is not the only force for barbarism that we need to purge from the world. We don’t get very far that way if we act barbarously ourselves. Waging war in the proper way and for the proper cause is not barbarous, although always mournfully regrettable and an admission of failure. I hope you will be able to find a better way, not only consistent with our international obligations, but also with morality.

Somebody recently referred to our bombing in Iraq and Syria as an important “symbolic act”. I do not believe in killing people for symbolic purposes. If we have to use killing for purposes of symbolism, then our imaginations have become impoverished indeed. We can, we must, learn to do a lot better than that.

I will support any efforts that Canada might make to bring peace, stability and prosperity to the Middle East. I do not believe that a state of continuous warfare and the violent cultivation of hatred can do the job.

Domestically, I hope that we will not over-react or listen to the voices of hysteria. We have all the tools we need in our police and security forces to respond to criminal risks and acts, perhaps even too many. We do not need further measures of repression. We simply need to use the ones we have.

And, most emphatically, I continue to support your plan to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees by year end, or at least to approve them. The attacks in Paris should not change our resolve to help those people, which is based on humanitarian generosity and a practical recognition that we are rich and resourceful enough to welcome them, and we should do it.

Thank you.