The Madness of King Us: Liberty

A recent article by John Stoehr on the web site Agence Global (https://agenceglobal.com/2020/07/27/are-americans-rethinking-who-they-are/) talks about that moment in recent history when Americans began to “think of themselves more as consumers and taxpayers, instead of free and responsible citizens.”

“Thinking of themselves as consumers and taxpayers — instead of citizens endowed from birth with rights, liberties and responsibilities — lent itself to thinking about the federal government as separate from the citizenry. “Government” was something done to people. It wasn’t of, by and for them.”

Mr. Stoehr believes that the present “crisis” may be presenting the opportunity for Americans to revert to an earlier, more generous vision of themselves, as “citizens who consume and who pay taxes” because, “as citizens, we are much more than consumers and taxpayers … we are the ultimate sovereign. … The confluence of national and constitutional crises seems to be forcing some people, perhaps most people, to rethink how they think about themselves.” Americans will be fortunate people indeed if subsequent events reveal that Mr. Stoehr knows what he is talking about.

The ideal of “smaller government” is less popular in Canada, although certainly not absent. We have a highly developed sense of governments at all levels as engines that ought to be doing things for us: providing us with goods and services, protecting us from the myriad evil effects of our economic and social practices, and even changing people’s minds on basic issues of social justice. I live in a deeply conservative part of the country. I often marvel at how quickly my neighbours demand government action when something occurs that they don’t like. I even recall one entrepreneurial person who insisted that the government, having provided infrastructure that made the family enterprise possible, now “owes us a return on our investment.” That is a sweeping assignment of responsibility indeed!

We in Canada are blessed indeed with the range and variety of political and social ideals we have inherited through our diverse ancestry. We can, quite legitimately in accordance with our history, pursue the American ideals of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”. Stephen Leacock himself urged these upon us in his probe into The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, and quite justifiably so in my opinion. These are noble pursuits. The British bequeathed us with “Property, Stability, Conformity”, perhaps not exactly in those words, but quite effectively. The French gave us Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, perhaps not as effectively. We ourselves added Peace, Order, and Good Government. All these add up to a fine portfolio of ideals for individual and collectual well-being, and we would be ill self-served if we ditched any one of them.

If anyone pointed out to me that we do not live up to those ideals,—and someone would surely do that,—I would reply, as I said earlier, that ideals are made to be flawed. The virtue lies in believing in them, and striving for them. The grotesque short-comings that we see all around us come from those who do not believe and do not strive. The outcry against “systemic racism” and all movements of similar weight seem to centre on demands that governments do something about them. I put “systemic racism” in quotation marks not in any judgement against the movement, quite the contrary, but because I have quibbles about definitions that are of no importance to the victims. They may have importance when it comes to taking action.

The late prophet Isaiah Berlin opened our minds to an understanding of two types of Liberty, or Freedom,—he explicitly used the two words interchangeably. He called the two types “Negative Liberty” and “Positive Liberty”, complex ideas encapsulated briefly and respectively by Michael Ignatieff, in his biography of Isaiah Berlin (p. 275) as “freedom of action or thought”, and “the capacity to develop [one’s] innermost nature to the full”.

When I was a young research director working for a government and agency that I will not name, I commissioned what came to be called “the problems study”. This was a deliberately naive piece of work, viewed only as a starting point, arising from the frequently voiced observation that the people in the field where I was working faced many problems. Exactly what are those problems? I asked, and was authorized to find out, as systematically as possible within the budget approved. After a duly diligent process of selection, I sent two qualified people out into the field to find out what the problems were by asking people whose job it was to deal with them. Fortunately for my reputation, career prospects, and self-respect, I added a sufficient number of in-person household interviews to verify the perceptions of the professionals.

The results were consistent: the doctors and nurses said that illness was a huge problem; the addiction workers said that addiction was a huge problem; the police said that crime was a huge problem; the child protection workers said that too many children were being abused or neglected; the social workers said that family life was problem-ridden, and the schools backed them up; the financial counsellors said that money problems were everywhere; the clergy said that spiritual problems were rife. And so it went, through the entire panorama of the helping professions. Everyone said their agencies needed more money. The households interviewed, on the other hand, while acknowledging that not everything was rosy for everybody, said that on the whole life was pretty good, and that most people coped well enough with the hardships of the region, which was a northern one. Later on, in some subsequent research, we were able at least to sense the situation accurately. The number of people on the wrong side of the “problem” divide ranged from 5% to 15%, depending on situation and demographics, and appeared to be distributed randomly. It was the visibility of the “problem-laden”, especially to their articulate helpers, not the number, that created the perception of a society in serious trouble.

I am wondering how to apply the lessons of that research, and its successors, to the two big demands of our immediate present: that the authorities conquer the Covid-19 virus and mitigate its effects, and that they do away with “systemic racism”.

In trying to think and talk about all that, I am finding that Isaiah Berlin’s terminology, while admittedly useful to the understanding of what he meant, inhibits a clear conception of what it means we should do. Both terms contain double negatives. To speak of expanding or contracting negative liberty is confusing. Is it the negative or the liberty that is being expanded or contracted? Positive liberty in any social situation clearly must connote a strong element of moral choice and self-constraint. It is time, I believe, to invent some words, and for that it is traditional in the English language to turn either to the Latin, or to the Greek.

In this case the honours go to the Greek, I believe. I propose that negative liberty be called “adeia”, or more simply “adea”, from the Greek word for “permission” and related things, and that positive liberty be called “eleutheria”, or “elutheria”, from the Greek word for “liberty-freedom”.

This adjustment in terminology will allow us to consider dealing with Covid-19 unambiguously and positively through pursuit of a higher rather than a lower “adealism”, and “systemic racism” through “elutherial” rather than punitive measures. In both cases we would therefore be talking about mitigating evils through positive instead of negative measures, by expanding rather than contacting something, by moving forwards rather than backwards. If we think and pursue that way, we are less likely to incur harmful side-effects, or to emerge from the endeavour with our society in even worse shape than it was before.

As to what all this might mean in practical terms, I promise that I will continue along these lines and report progress as I go along.

I write this article as part of the Fourfold Visions Projectile (see http://www.voyageurstorytelling.ca), out of my beliefs in complex thinking about complex matters, and in the positive usefulness of diverse points of view, openly expressed.

Paul Conway, July 31 2020

 

The Madness of King Us – Covid-19

I am trying to  imagine what Cast of Mind we should cultivate to get us through the Covid-19 outburst. Although by no means sure, I am not convinced that the cast of mind being thrust upon us by those in authority, their advocates, and the news media is the best one for the job.

I have been suggesting, in other places, that a Fourfold (or Morefold) Cast of Mind might constitute a better way. By that I mean, most simply, that we should cultivate the capacity to look rigorously at any situation, in this case the new corona virus, in more than one way with equal degrees of rigour. The idea is a little more complicated, in that a truly Morefold Cast of Mind would think in all relevant ways simultaneously. A simple sequential algorithm will work well enough for today.

You will perhaps have noticed that I did not call Covid-19 a crisis, or even a pandemic, but an outburst. I am searching for a neutral term, but not too neutral. I am trying to keep my mind clear of all preconceptions, especially those cultivated by people who might be cultivating some other cast of mind. Is Covid-19, or the virus that causes it, the “crisis”, or is the “crisis” our reaction? In other words, is our reaction proportionate to the phenomenon itself, or are we marching to the beat of some other drummer?

In order to clarify further before I get into specifics, I draw your attention to three examples of Fourfolding that I have encountered so far. Obviously I will be more content when I have a fourth, which ought to come from William Blake, who called our attention to the “supreme delight” of “Fourfold Visions”. His concept however is so complex that I do not yet have the pleasure of understanding it. I have found three more mundane others. I call them Tetrads:

Stephen Butler Leacock, 1860-1944, in his copious and varied writings on education: Knowledge + Imagination + Compassion + Humour;

John Maynard Keynes, 1883-1946, in his tribute to Alfred Marshall, written in 1924: Mathematics + History + Statecraft + Philosophy;

Isaiah Berlin, 1909-1997, who, according to his biographer Michael Ignatieff, sought a cast of mind that is: sceptical, ironical, dispassionate, and free.

A fourth might well be Northrop Frye, 1912-1991, who certainly liked to organize his thoughts in fours, although I am not sure what the full list would be. I am nearly certain that “Literary”, or “Poetic”, would appear on it.

What happens if we approach Covid-19 with a cast of mind somehow consistent with these casts of mind? How would we react?

First of all, I think we would require that whatever we are reacting to ought to be a fact and not merely a belief. Is our reaction itself a fact? No doubt it is, but too far downstream for this analysis. I submit that the “facts” at the root of most of the excitement are (a) statistical, and (b) historical. Other “facts” or perceptions, are augmenting the excitement, I submit, but those are the roots. I will start with the statistics. I am looking at two statistical web sites with coronavirus pages: https://ourworldindata.org, and http://www.worldometers.info.

The result is a blizzard of statistics, far too many for the mind to grasp, no matter what cast of mind one brings to the task. These sites, but particularly the former, are very, very, very, very informative, if you have the time and numerical literacy to make use of them. The natural human need, however, is somehow to distill the essence of what they are saying. This is where we get into trouble, because it is almost impossible to distill the essence without imposing prior judgements or biases. To distill without bias takes one into a realm of sophisticated analysis inaccessible to the citizen-reader who is simply trying to become well informed.

To illustrate how biassed distilling might work, what would I do if I wanted to convince you that some phenomenon, measured in numbers, is larger rather than smaller? First of all, I would look for the largest numbers available and draw your attention to them. For example, given a list of countries and their Covid-19 data, I would first make sure that whatever statistic I was reporting would be as wide as possible. “Cases” does that admirably, and I would make sure that I made any discovery of what I meant by a “case” as difficult as possible. It appears to me, in this instance, that a “case” includes everything from a positive test with no symptoms right through to mortal illness.

What about death? Is that not a more precise phenomenon? For a younger population I believe it is, because death is not generally expected there. But for the very old? People over eighty are at high risk of dying, and usually have more than one condition which, if put under sufficient pressure, can kill them. Is an octogenarian with a weak heart who contracts Covid-19 killed by the weak heart or the virus? Common sense would conclude: by both. In the midst of a panic, what happens to the idea that octogenarians are at high risk of dying, no matter what is flying around, and that they die primarily from being old?

Then, I would make sure that if I did present any ratios, for purposes of comparison and context, I would choose the largest denominator possible. Cases, or death, per million produces numbers ten times larger than per hundred thousand, for example, ten thousand times larger than percentages, and a million times larger than the raw rate which is a measure of the probability of occurrence. Thus, for Canada (today’s figures) 110,000 cases in a population of 38,000,000 sounds a lot more impressive than a probability of occurrence equalling .0029.

Third, I would avoid any comparisons with other comparable statistics, which might make mine look small. For example, according to Our World in Data (these people seem to be very thorough), 56 million people died in 2017, world-wide. Covid-19 has been active for about five months, with 607,000 ascribed deaths (see above caveat about multiple causes of death). The total number of deaths in five months of 2017, well before Covid-19, was somewhere around 23 or 24  million; call it 25 million by 2020. This gives Covid-19 only 2.5% of the world’s deadly effect, considerably smaller than other causes such as heart failure and cancer, and that is before adjusting for the complications of age and the possibility that people are dying from neglect, postponed medical care, over-doses, suicide, etc., causes which come not from the disease itself but as side-effects of our response to it.

If I went on with this purposeful exercise any further, I would bring in the practice of focussing on the larger countries, because they have larger numbers, and neglecting the small ones. I would talk about the U.S.A., Brazil, India, and Russia, with their dramatically large numbers of cases, not about San Marino and Belgium, where the death rates per capita far exceed any other place. San Marino is small, of course, and needs a different kind of analysis, but what on earth was going on in Belgium? When journalists were going on endlessly about Italy, Spain, the U.K., the U.S.A., I do not remember anyone talking about Belgium.

Then there is the whole testing phenomenon. How does that work, and what effect does it have on careful interpretation of the numbers?

Most of all, however, I would make sure that statistics were presented to the public in the grossest possible way, without sensitive geographic or demographic partitioning, so that no one would possibly be confident about what they meant without delving into the detailed tables themselves which, as I have already pointed out, the citizen-reader, trying to become informed, would have neither the time nor possibly the know-how to do.

I am not suggesting for a minute that Covid-19 is not a serious matter, or that some kind of unusual reaction would be inappropriate. Clearly this time is not “life as usual”. Nor am I questioning the reactions taken in the early stages, when no one knew what this virus was or what it might become. For us to be concerned that it might be as terrible as the so-called “Spanish” flu was entirely understandable. What do worry me, however, are the continuing efforts to keep us in a high state of apprehension, even fear, even as the virus becomes much better understood, and as the side effects of our response become increasingly apparent. We are being constantly urged to be afraid of Covid-19. I think we need to be a little more fearful of our reactions.

For me personally, two aspects of our reactions loom very large. The first is the encouragement of isolation from each other. This concern is very real to me, who in my situation could easily, and comfortably, turn into a rural solitaire. What do we become if we act habitually as if we were afraid of each other, are able to interact only under severe constraint, and are not allowed to see each other’s faces? How do you smile at someone through a mask?

The second is the encouragement given to “experts” to beak off in the public media without once telling us what their evidence is. Maybe they have some, but they aren’t saying. I get particularly concerned when these beakings come in the form of predictions, which must be based either on hunch or on statistical models extrapolated from other diseases. We simply cannot have the data yet for valid extrapolation from the history of Covid-19 itself. The broadcasting of “worst-case scenarios” based on untested statistical “models”,—the usual term for sets of equations based on theory or historical data,—was a terrible phenomenon in the early stages of the outburst and a contributor to panic.

Thirdly, I worry about the stimulation being given to the authoritarian tendencies of governments and their officials. In Canada we are, and strive mightily to be, a liberal democracy. We are entirely within our rights as citizens to question every rule imposed on us by our governments, without exception. I do not mean that we have the right to disobey it, but we may and should question it, and press for it to be changed if we think it harmful or unnecessary.

I have seen some talk recently about “metrics”. The only metric that makes any sense to me is the probability that I will catch Covid-19 if I go about my life and business in the normal way, and the probability that I have it already and will give it to someone else. I would like to see that probability adjusted sensitively for different parts of the country, and for different settings.

If I had the data for that calculation I would be able to perform a proper “risk assessment” and make reasonable decisions about what I should do and what I should protest. For example, it seems clear that the risk, the probability of harm and its consequences, would be higher if I were going into a care home or other residential institution, although I would like to see that calculation adjusted for management practices. Anyone who has been in care homes knows that they vary in their facilities, ventilation, and practices, perhaps crucially. What I have been able to learn with a reasonable amount of digging, puts the level of risk in the normal activities of life far lower than is being generally assumed, except perhaps in congested settings.

It appears we may be inching towards a regime where that kind of conclusion prevails, although I believe we are not yet well protected against a return of panic, if the numbers increase abruptly and they continue to be interpreted as grossly as they have been so far. We are certainly not well protected against authoritarian measures thrust upon us without proper explanation. By proper I mean explanations accompanied by statement of the evidence, not the unsupported assertions of people identified as experts, nor anecdotes taken out of context. Explanations of this kind would make the evening news more useful, albeit perhaps more confusing, and less exciting.

I write this article as part of the Fourfold Visions Projectile (see http://www.voyageurstorytelling.ca), out of my beliefs in complex thinking about complex matters, and in the positive usefulness of diverse points of view, openly expressed.

For the next several days I will be reviewing this text each morning, and striving to improve it. I apologize for its flaws. Thank you for reading.

Paul Conway

 

 

Saluting “A Balanced Response” to Covid-19

Today a magnificent development in Covid-19 discourse: A new web site has appeared with an Open Letter and a Statement endorsed by a bevy of senior medical and academic people, advocating “A Balanced Response” towards the virus. The web site is http://www.balancedresponse.ca, and I highly recommend it.

I have for several days been contemplating a blog post about that, but these people have spoken far better than I could have done. Responding to their invitation, I spoke to them as follows.

Dear Balanced Responders:

I am absolutely delighted to learn of your initiative and to read your web site. Many, many thanks for them.

You asked for feedback and here is mine. I apologize for its wordiness, but I am immensely excited and encouraged by what you have done and that tends to stimulate my thoughts and make me verbose.

Please extend my particular congratulations to the person or people who drafted the text. I have done that kind of writing professionally and I can recognize good work when I see it. Your letter and statement are the best I have seen in a long, long time, and certainly the best that has come out of Covid-19 discourse, if it can be called that.

We have been subjected to far too much “discourse” that is technically propaganda, well-intentioned propaganda no doubt, but still propaganda. I believe that decisions were taken at very high official levels deliberately to frighten the general public into compliance, a strategy enthusiastically augmented by the CBC, which is my main source of news, and which can only backfire eventually. Your Statement says, “Our leaders and public health authorities had to use strong language to support universal acceptance of these measures.” I believe the same effect could have been achieved by much less dubious rhetoric and abuse of statistics.

I am concerned that one serious side-effect of Covid-19 has been to stimulate the authoritarian dreams of some politicians and senior officials. “My goodness,” I hear them chortling, “we are ordering people around for their own good and they are obeying. Isn’t this fun!” It is but a short hop to, “Let’s do more of it!”.

Another has been to stimulate the finger-pointing and shaming instincts of some of our fellow citizens. Now that masks have emerged as a visible sign of compliance, this kind of anti-social behaviour will have every opportunity to prosper.

I agree entirely with your recommendation that: “Any requirements for mandatory masks must be based on strong evidence with clear specification of where they are most appropriate.” I am not yet seeing any real evidence (as opposed to guesswork) that a piece of cloth, or a flimsy piece of whatever medical-looking material is used, hooked behind the ears, is a protection against anything, let alone an extraordinarily crafty virus. It does protect against intrusive finger-pointing and shaming, I suppose, but forcing protection against that can only lead to rising levels of anger, which are bad for mental health. I support the intent of your Recommendation 12, but would add that we need to be not only responsive, but preventive. We should not trade one epidemic for another.

And what do we become as a community and society, if we routinely hide our faces from each other? How do you smile at someone from behind a mask? What does a mask say, if not, “I am afraid of you, and I think you are entitled to be afraid of me”?

The key to the approach you are recommending is in Recommendation 10: “Canadians must be better informed about their true level of risk from COVID-19. An accurate accessible risk assessment tool is a priority. This will help empower people to make informed decisions about how they choose to lead their lives. Help people understand and manage their fear and anxiety.” The questions that I ask myself continuously when I am out and about is, “What is the probability that the people I am going to meet will have the virus and will pass it on to me? What is the probability that I have the virus, and will pass it on to them? What is the probability of severe consequences, either way?” I study the data available to me, which are most distressingly incomplete, and I keep coming up with the the same answer: Those probabilities are very, very small, not negligible of course, but within the range of normal human existence or very close to it.

Development and cultivation of the risk assessment tool you recommend, even in the face of incomplete data, is within the scope of simple application of statistical decision theory, accessible to anyone who can do basic arithmetic and understands the meaning of odds. If the formula is out in the open it can be easily up-dated as new data come in.

I believe that development of a more sophisticated understanding of the term “case” would help enormously to prepare the ground, and also even crude demographic partitioning of the data, as you have done in your first Statement paragraph.

People in official positions need to be careful about the precision of their language. A nearby care home suffered a positive test in one of its elderly residents, causing enormous upheaval, distress, and cost not only monetary. The test turned out to be a false positive, but the incident was nevertheless referred to by the authorities as an “outbreak”.

I have published my recommendations for policy arising from Covid-19, although I do not pretend to have a wide audience. I have had them up on my web site (www.voyageurstorytelling.ca) for some time, ever since the patterns became clear. I pass them on to you for what they are worth:
(1) A Guaranteed Annual Income. If we had had that from the beginning the social safety net it would represent would kick in automatically for those in need.This measure would require higher taxation of the progressive redistributive kind.

(2) Massive Reform of Elder Care. Towards Home Care and minimally institutional forms of residence; away from large institutions especially those of the warehousing kind.

(3) Sophisticated Understanding of Risk. Covid-19 is a new risk and we don’t know how to think about it. We take risks all the time in our daily lives, especially with disease and accidents, and we know how to think about them. We need to apply the same kind of understanding.

(4) Journalism for Our Time. The present whip-saw oscillation between sensationalism and sentimentalism, along with grotesquely inadequate expertise in statistical interpretation on the part of journalists, is making any kind of contextual thinking extremely difficult for those who rely on regular journalism for understanding.

I think these sketchy ideas are compatible with your thinking, although I don’t think you addressed the first or, explicitly, the fourth. The latter is in line with your Recommendation 10, however. Understanding of context is extremely important for the kind of informed decisions you are talking about there.

I will indeed do as you ask, to spread word of your Open Letter and Statement on my social media sites and blogs. I look forward to further developments on your web site.

Again thanks, and all best wishes for wide acceptance of your ideas and advice.

Signed …

The whole response to Covid-19, up until recently, as been an almost unprecedented (at least since WW II and maybe not even then) application of onefold vision (single vision) to our macro-societal life. We have been under a form of authoritarian rule, supported by our own fears and lack of information (as such rule always is), justifiable only in a drastic emergency. It was possible in the early stages that we were in one of those, but has also been clear for at least two of the four months that this epidemic was no such thing unless we chose to make it one. We did. Now, finally, we have authoritative people expressing, with all the weight of their knowledge and experience, an alternative point of view. We need to celebrate that. They have given us a Fourfold Vision of how we should think and what we should do.

PWC, July 9 2020

The March of the Fourfold Visions Continues: Who’s In the Band?

This morning I made two efforts to extend the conversation. Each Thursday I refresh the content on the Voyageur Storytelling Web Site (www.voyageurstorytelling.ca) with a new pictoverbicon and sometimes, although not this morning, with new content. Then I put the pictoverbicon on Twitter (@conwaypaulw), with the allowed amount of text, and sometimes on Facebook, on the Paul W Conway and Voyageur Storytelling pages.

The text I put on Facebook, which enlarged what I put on Twitter, is:

July 2nd. A Pictoverbicon for the day after Canada Day and onward. I remain unconvinced about the idea of picking one day to mark a country that grew-grows-will grow incrementally even organically. Each increment has its birthday, which is also the country’s. Pluralism in all dimensions: a Multidimensional Continuum. It is difficult to get the head around this. Let’s start with a set of four four-dimensional continuums (“Tetrads”) and see if we can work with them. My set, so far?:
God + Nature + Person + People
Prosperity + Society + Environment + Culture
Wealth + Health + Wisdom + Courage
Knowledge + Imagination + Compassion + Humour
Your set?

Then, being obliged to respond to a feminist publisher who asked to be removed from the mailing list, being willing but sad to do that, and wanting to offer some explanation for my sadness, I replied with the following e-mail:

Of course we will remove you from our mailing list as you request, but with regret. We are anxious to include feminist voices in our conversation about Fourfold Visions in Public Affairs, and had hoped that you would be interested in being one of them, or at least linking us with others. So far the nominations for Fourfold Prophets, with one exception, have been men, even those coming from women. I am sure that is not a valid reflection of the pool.

Is it valid, do you think, to articulate which might be called “The Unsolved Riddle of Justice for Women” around a Fourfold Vision that might look something like this?:

As an individual person, entitled to life, liberty, well-being and contentment, with responsibilities to herself;
As a person with an intimate circle,—family and friends,—to whom she has particular responsibilities;
As a person in society, to which she has a general responsibility that translates into particulars;
As a person with a potential assigned by Nature,—child-bearing,,—
which if felt or realized creates another set of particular responsibilities.

Of course all these responsibilities are shaped and interpreted within the woman’s own culture, and the culture around her. If that culture changes, or she moves from one to another, a whole new layer is added to the Unsolved Riddle.

If the Unsolved Riddle of Justice for Women does indeed look something like this, or even if it doesn’t,–in which case I would be keen to have the vision corrected,–then the specific questions I am asking in the Fourfold Visions Projectile are (a) how the riddle presents itself in public affairs, and (b) whether a “Literary Cast of Mind” has anything to offer in dealing with it, and if so how. The alternative casts of mind I am listing, for the time being, are the Mariposan, the Ideological, and the Scientific.

I think you at [press] and at least some of your authors will have interesting and useful answers to those questions. That is why I will act on your request with regret.

I assure you, however, that we will keep searching for feminist perspectives in our conversation, which is all it is at the moment. We will find them too, because we know they are alive.

A little clarification and extension:

Why am I calling this whole thing a “projectile” instead of a project, or a probe, or an initiative, or any more conventional term. I shot an arrow into the air,/ It fell to Earth, I knew not where; … If I am interpreting the Automatistes properly, the work of art (or in this case, of enquiry) is the arrow, the projectile. The painting, or dance, or play, or manifesto (“Refus Global“) or whatever results from it is mark it made on the place where it landed. This one is still in flight; in fact, it is still on the upward slope of its parabola, or whatever shape its trajectory may take given the wind conditions.

I am trying to imagine what Tetrational thinking would look like. Clearly it won’t be a picture or object occupying space, even the relativistic space of Einstein and others. If my set of four tetrads can be taken as a crude working model (can it?) then we are dealing with sixteen elements, arranged as either a sixteen-dimensional continuum, or four four-dimensional continuums either fused, or a nesting set. We cannot see such a complex Vision; our eyes, while amazing organs, are not able. Our minds, however, even more amazing, are able, if we so develop them. I use the term “cast of mind” to mean the lines along which a mind has developed.

A Mariposan Cast of Mind, as I conceive it, would approach a sixteen-dimensional continuum in a severely pragmatic way, navigating through it incrementally, using trial-and-success or -error, and learning as it went.

An Ideological Cast of Mind would simplify the continuum by reducing the number of elements given status.

A Scientific Cast of Mind would strive to understand the continuum by rigorous study of its elements and their relationships, reducing them eventually, if at all possible, to mathematical formulations.

My question is, what would a Literary Cast of Mind do, and does it offer more than any of these others?

God + Nature + Person + People
Prosperity + Society + Environment + Culture
Wealth + Health + Wisdom + Courage
Knowledge + Imagination + Compassion + Humour

Sixteen words, each one a label for an element of what is good, or is good for what is good, or a source. All can be discussed for what they mean, but none can be dismissed out of hand because too many people associate them, in some way, with “a good life”.

Literary Casts of Mind: Confronting the Onefold Imperative in Public Affairs

I would a fourfold vision see, and a fourfold vision be granted to me. I myself am a long way from getting all the way there, although I think I do pretty well at avoiding the onefold trap. I struggle day by day to reach at least two-fold, and damned hard work it is too. I wish I could say the same for the discourse that swirls around me. A maelstrom of competing onefolds, each stridently promoted, is not a fourfold, but only a maelstrom of onefolds, each often insisting on its superior validity and the dire consequences that will follow from the others. Fourfold, the “supreme delight” of William Blake who is the great prophet of multifold perception, involves, in the words of Isaiah Berlin, “a measure of inefficiency and even muddle”, inevitable in a pluralistic society such as we enjoy, for which we routinely excoriate our politicians. They are our professional fourfolders. Many of us make it our onefold mission to make their job as difficult as possible, calling that “holding governments to account”, or “speaking truth to power”. This is all self-indulgent nonsense of the intellectually lazy kind, of course, and fully apparent as such, which does not mitigate its prevalence.

I am calling our foe the “Onefold Imperative”, not because we have no choice except to follow it, but because its instinct is imperious. We have had that amply demonstrated recently, as we became convinced that the new corona virus is a threat of such magnitude that all other considerations (“The Economy”, “The Environment”, the normal comforts and pleasures of family, social, and commercial life), no matter how important we may have thought them in the past, must be set aside while we fight this battle of all battles. This fight, urged on us by everything that expert opinion and official propaganda can hurl into it, has been accompanied by an outburst of authoritarianism such as Canadian society has, I believe, never seen and would not normally tolerate. Isaiah Berlin, in the same paragraph of his essay “Political Ideas in the Twentieth Century” (1950), warns us: “We must not submit to authority because it is infallible but only for strictly and openly utilitarian reasons, as a necessary evil.” It appears that the Canadian general public has accepted that the Covid-19 meets that standard, and perhaps it does. Or perhaps it did only in the early stages, when the disease was new and unknown. The medical authorities were desperately afraid of what it might be, and they passed that fear on to us. Fair enough. We know a lot more now, however, and the costs of that onefold obsession are showing their teeth. We are returning willy-nilly to the multifold world to which Fate and our own cumulative choices have consigned us, with its concomitant need for robust multifold conversations.

Robust multifold conversations. Strident onefold advocacy. These are the polarities of public discourse in a democracy. Both are legal, subject only to rules about hate speech and slander. Robust multifold conversations are the everyday, internal, sub-articulate experience of individual human beings in all complex societies or situations, provided they are minimally healthy in their minds and emotions, as they wrestle with the choices, benefits, costs, and unknowns before them, the unknowns usually and widely out-numbering the knowns. They are the everyday articulate or tacit experience of healthy families and friendships. They should be the everyday experience of discourse on public affairs, but if they are, the evidence is difficult to see in the conspicuous media. And the conspicuous media are what we have to inform us about what is going on in the world outside our immediate range of vision. These can be received first-hand, through actual viewing or listening, or second-hand (or third-, or more) from others. These methods are all highly imperfect, but they are what we have. The important question concerns not their flaws, but the judgements we bring to the information we thus receive. I am going to the common term “cast of mind” to label the faculty we use to shape those judgements.

I will note, in passing, but without elaboration, that I believe collective casts of mind to be possible and observable. For example, I have said before on this site that each political party has a cast of mind, to which we should pay close attention, and so can any specific corporation (using the term most broadly). Whether a society can truly have one is a complicated question which I will leave until later.

I am interested right now in imagining those human beings I referred to above, engaging in their internal, even sub-articulate, robust conversations, and wondering what cast of mind they would need to cultivate in order to become truly and effectively multifold, especially when aggregated into public policy for the benefit of the common weal, the advancement of social justice, and the personal contentment of the individual. Any such aggregation will be, of course, an almost infinitely complex process. I do not know how it works, but have no doubt that it does, and that in a democracy it grows, however imperfectly, out of public discourse, whatever that may be.

I am going to suggest, hypothetically at least, that we commonly observe three different casts of mind in public discourse, all of them diverse, one of which we ought to cultivate, in order gradually to supplant, or at least constrain, the other two. I will, with some nervousness, label these casts of mind as Mariposan, Ideological, and Literary. For purposes of this article I simply toss these into view, pending more thorough study and, I hope, wider participation in the conversation.

Mariposan Casts of Mind. I chose this label in order not to use the word “muddled” because I want to preserve that one for more constructive, Berlinian usage, as a creative rather than pejorative idea. “Mariposan” comes of course from Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (1912), characterized by Professor Ed Jewinski as a “supreme achievement of fragmentation, incompleteness, and inconclusiveness”. Jewinski was describing the book; Leacock imagined a town, and people, whose minds roil in fragmentation, incompleteness, and inconclusiveness and who manage, nevertheless, to get on with their lives and and make their collective decisions, rightly or wrongly, possibly both. The question, indeed the necessity for our time is that those decisions should be made more rightly, a matter of increasing complexity and urgency, as recent events clearly demonstrate. The trend, however, is not new.

Ideological Casts of Mind. Many of these are familiar, in particular those considered “left-wing” and those considered “right-wing”. These are great ideologies, wide in their scope and powerful in their attraction to large numbers of people with the best of intentions. They are also embraced by more questionable people interested in the acquisition of power or the accumulation of financial wealth, possibly both. I do not believe, however, that we should judge an ideology according to the worst people who adhere to it, or according to the best, but by its broad effect on the common weal, its capacity to advance social justice, and its contribution to individual contentment. Both-and, or middle, or pragmatic ideologies, incorporating elements of both great ones, have much appeal in public affairs, although they may not be ideologies at all, but rejections thereof. We must entertain the possibility that rejection of ideology is itself an ideology. A more recent one becoming more articulate, although perhaps not as powerful as it wants to be (and ideologies always want to be powerful) is the ideology of “evidence-based decisions”. It is not yet clear however, at least to me, whether this represents a genuine ideological breakthrough or simply a more up-to-date form of Mariposanism.

I want to suggest that in pursuit of what me might call ‘multifoldarity”, neither Mariposan nor Ideological casts of mind are going to serve us well, one being too confused, the other not confused enough. I want to expand the potential of the third set, or at least to explore what it might mean, because very clever people have suggested it. I am referring of course to:

Literary Casts of Mind. I want to make it clear immediately that I do not mean simply the minds of people who read books. I mean people who are innately attracted to multifoldarity, and who deliberately cultivate the capacity to practise it intellectually and even bring it into the realm of public affairs. I mean people who, when I mention the Leacock Tetrad of Knowledge + Imagination + Compassion + Humour, as I do often, perhaps even ad nauseam, are at least prepared to pause reflectively and ask if there might be something in it, instead of dismissing it as silly or inconsequential. (Saddest of all are those who do do that simply because they have stereotyped Stephen Leacock himself.) I mean people who grasp, at least intuitively, the nature and prevalence of complexity and want to understand how to deal with it creatively and constructively. I believe such people exist, that they are of excellently benign intention, and that their voices need to be heard respectfully in public affairs.

In 2019 I announced and undertook an organized hunt for the wild Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, for the purpose of taming and putting it to use. The hunt was successful, the taming and putting to use are works in progress. The quest that I am launching with this article is related, but not exactly the same. To celebrate the Summer Solstice of 2020, which I am sure is a significant date, I invite you and all who cultivate, aspire to, or are prepared to believe in a Literary Cast of Mind, to engage in a great collective enterprise to track it down, study its ways, articulate its value, and invent tools and processes through which it can be made effective in the public affairs of this country and beyond.

To what purpose? For the benefit of the common weal, the advancement of social justice, and your own personal contentment.

This quest, or pilgrimage, or whatever you choose to call it, will play out here on this blog, on the web site of Voyageur Storytelling (www.voyageurstorytelling.ca), and somewhat tangentially in the pages of KnICH Magazine (https://www.patreon.com/knichmagazine). By tangentially I mean that the four KnICH threads and Sunday Serial display the editors’ exercise of certain aspects of the Literary Cast of Mind. Call it an illustrative approach, using etymology (explorations among old words), archeology (ditto old magazines), labyrinthine girdling (in geographic circles), and random ramification (in search of œvirsagas). The Sunday Serial, currently a translation of Jules Verne’s Le pays des fourrures (Land of Furs), illustrates pleasant reading of the entertaining kind, so important to the Literary Cast of Mind.

Please join in. We are going to have a most enjoyable time, and maybe do some good.

Paul Conway

We Have Let the Virus Fire Us in New Ways That Are Old

An Up-Date for those who read this blog and are wondering what has happened to it. Answer: It has been temporarily pushed aside by KnICH Magazine, whose needs were more immediate and pressing. They still are. A little TLC for this blog is, however, long overdue. I have managed each week to refresh the Voyageur Storytelling web site (www.voyageurstorytelling.ca) and my Twitter page (@conwaypaulw) with a new pictoverbicon and a few musings which don’t add up to much. A framework for thinking about Social Justice and its Unsolved Riddles is beginning to emerge on the web site, where I have also estabished a link and introduction to KnICH Magazine. The principal use for this blog in the months ahead will be to expand on that and bring it to life.

Earlier today I put the following four paragraphs into a letter to a friend. I apologize to him for double-using them, should he happen to read this. They summarize what I am thinking these days, and will do to keep this blog alive for the time being. I have not enclosed them in quotations, because I will no doubt keep fiddling with the wording.

In my naturally self-isolated spot, I entertain the hypothesis that things are not really as strange as we think they are, at least not at the heart of them. We have become accustomed to obsessing on one single threat-and-cause and organizing our entire lives around it, at the behest of “experts”, who are often stakeholders, and their receptive politicians who take upon themselves the burden of telling us what to do using some mixture of carrots and sticks. The threat-cause used to be “The Economy”. Now it is “The Virus”. The threat used to be that “The Economy” would leave us out, the cause that complete devotion to its imperatives would lead us into universal prosperity and social justice. “The Virus” has a somewhat different twist, but is fundamentally the same, the threat being that it will embrace us, the cause being the utter banishment of risk and death. Under this hypothesis the “new normal” becomes like a photographic negative of the old normal.

William Blake argued that “single vision” was something we should avoid. He called it a form of sleep. He recommended “fourfold vision”, but was prepared to settle for “threefold” or “twofold” if necessary. For me the principal outcome of the Stephen Leacock project was his framework for a four-fold vision, the Tetrad of Knowledge + Imagination + Compassion + Humour that emerges from his copious writings on education. That is essentially what Northrop Frye meant, I think, by arguing in favour of a “literary” or “poetic” cast of mind. Of course it’s one thing to mean along those lines, quite another to translate them into policy. In order to do that we must learn not only to think four-fold-edly, but to act that way. The very best politicians know how to do that, unedifying as their apparent contortions may sometimes appear. Most, even some of the most successful, choose a single vision and exercise their art by subordinating all others effectively while embracing them verbally. The democratic public go along with that way, by yelling either in support of that single vision, or in favour of another one they want to put in place as the new global subordinator.

What a relief it must have been to such-minded politicians to be handed a single vision that so effectively subordinated everything else, at least for a time. Almost no one was yelling at them to do anything except to pursue more single-mindedly and ruthlessly the single vision and to subordinate all others. That is changing now, of course, and they are back in the hot seat once more. The public were prepared to be single-mindedly ruled for a little while. Now they are becoming democratically unruly once more.

My own incremental pursuit of four-fold-edness was most conveniently served by Stephen Leacock for three years. He remains in my thoughts, but has been joined by a wider cast: Isaiah Berlin, Northrop Frye, George Eliot, Ethel Wilson, Jules Verne, and a fine array of arctic explorers and eccentrics. I am working on three arenas where all these can sport in public display: the Voyageur Storytelling web site (www.voyageurstorytelling.ca), a thing called KnICH Magazine, and my blog. You might be interested in KnICH Magazine, which is linked through the web site if you are curious. It is a joint venture with my son Patrick. This is all work in progress of course, as everything always is with me, and will take shape gradually.

That’s where the letter ended, the effort to think in complex ways in the midst of complex times, and to articulate those thoughts even while they are evolving, goes on.

The Unsolved Riddle of Everything: Thoughts on the withdrawn Teck Resources Oil Sands Project

Today, when I heard about the company’s withdrawal, I wrote an e-mail to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Alberta’s Premier Jason Kenney. It said:

Dear Prime Minister and Premier,

I am writing to congratulate you both on the happy outcome of this matter. It is difficult to see how it could possibly have worked out better for both of you.

Mr. Trudeau, you have been saved from the need to make a decision about a project that did not yet exist except as an idea. It is difficult to see how you could possibly have made any decision that would not have caused trouble. I did think it odd that you and your colleagues, on behalf of the Canadian people, were being asked to approve a project that was entirely hypothetical. What could you possibly have said, except that years from now, when the company provides details, you, assuming you are still the government of the day, promise to look at them very carefully with due regard for benefits, costs, and the net public interest? I am delighted you been rescued from this necessity, although possibly not as delighted as you are.

Mr. Kenney, while I sympathize with your loss of this particular dream, I am sure you are aware that the people of Alberta have many dreams that you can help them pursue. They may not be as big as this one, but they are within reach as this one never was. I speak from experience, because I was an Albertan myself for twenty-five years, as my children and grandchildren remain. I always found Alberta to be fertile soil for my dreams, which took me from the Cypress Hills to the Crowsnest Pass, from Rainbow Lake to Fort Chipewyan, and just about everywhere in between, talking to people in their communities as they tried to understand what was happening and to make decisions.

I make no judgement as to whether there should or should not be another massive oil sands project on the lower Athabasca. I was there for Syncrude, and know something of the complexities: technical, economic, environmental, social, cultural, and political. It was my job at the time to know them. Of course circumstances may have changed, but I suspect the underlying reality has not: that the benefits of these massive projects are immediate and ephemeral, and some of their very real costs slow to reveal themselves and possibly permanent. I also believe that they bring opportunity costs with them that may never be directly observed, because they are the things that did not happen as the massive project took all the attention and money, and did not leave them room.

I believe there will always be an oil economy in Alberta, because that’s where the oil is, and because oil, in some form, is such an amazing gift of Nature that people will always be able to find uses for it, no matter what happens to specific uses along the way. My experience tells me, however, that producing raw bitumen and shipping it elsewhere in bulk for low margins is an extreme form of the Old Oil economy, and that dreaming, and inventing, and investing, ought to focus on the New Oil economy and all the potential it offers. I don’t pretend to know exactly what the New Oil economy looks like, but I suspect it will be more creative, more value-added, more human-scale, more beneficial, with fewer costly externalities, than any mining and shipping of raw bitumen can ever be.

The people I met in the resource industries of Alberta were very smart people indeed. I suspect they know that the Old Oil economy and way of thinking is going to be replaced by New Oil, and they passionately want to be part of it. I respectfully urge both of you, Prime Minister and Premier, to get behind those people and to help them put Old Oil out to pasture, along with the people who cannot see beyond it. We can argue about the past merits of Old Oil, and whether its huge accomplishments out-weigh its ultimate costs, but the evidence now seems overwhelming, for many different kinds of reasons, that its day is done.

Out with Old Oil, Old Politics, Old Journalism, Old Thought. In with New!

Thank you for listening.

A few subsequent thoughts:

1. I do not blame the company for this decision, but I do for having kited this project in the way they did, and getting Premier Kenney and others all worked up about it. I do congratulate them on having the grace to withdraw it. I suspect, however, there is a strategy of some kind being played out. I have no reason to believe that a company of this stature would truly offer Canadians a pig in a poke, and expect anyone (except Premier Kenney perhaps) to want us to buy it. Teck Resources has done us all a favour. I wonder what the quid pro quo will look like, when they present that.

2. I see no future in massive energy projects. They are intensely political, and the politics have become bad. They have always worked on the assumption that their short-term economic benefits matter, and that their environmental and social costs do not. Anything and anyone that gets in their way can be pushed aside. They hold governments and peoples hostage: do what we want, or we’ll pull the plug. Fortunately this company did that long before they had even started to fill the tub. That is refreshing and unusual. The usual phalanx of loud supporters who would have invested in expectation can surely not have got around to it yet, at least on any large scale. Few should be hurt by yesterday’s decision.

3. We should not get trapped into thinking that huge projects are the only possible channel for investment, even in energy projects. While controversy may swirl around large projects, making them highly visible, smaller ones are going on all the time. We just don’t notice them. Statistics Canada does. We need to pay more attention to the macro-statistics and to understand what they are saying.

4. We should not get trapped into thinking that there are pat solutions to the Unsolved Riddles of our time, which are legion. A recent CBC opinion column spoke of people’s impatience with the inability of the Federal Government to articulate a policy that would occupy the space between the contradictory extremes of our Unsolved Riddles. Policy can clarify the extremes, and specify their relative importance. The space between them cannot be generalized. It is discovered, issue by issue and project by project, through the application of human ingenuity and conversation, a continuous creative process.

5. A little patience and understanding would go a long way towards lowering the pressure, on all sides.

Not Yet a Voice of Fire, but Working On It

I published this image today, as it says, on the Voyageur Storytelling web site. Much of what happens here for the next few months will evolve from the new rendition of Leacock’s title, which itself evolved from last year’s writing of The Marriage of Social Justice with Unsolved Riddles, which itself evolved from the previous year’s writing of The Unsolved Riddle(s) of Stephen Leacock, which itself evolved from the “My Discovery of the West” Re-Tour of 2017, which itself evolved from performing Stephen Leacock’s stories in our Country Supper Storytelling Concerts, which themselves evolved from the wondrous unfolding of my life.

During the Leacock Project I wrote fairly regularly on two blogs, which are linked on the margins of this one. Now they have served their purpose, and need a new one. Four principal channels opened during the writing of last year’s book. First, if we want Social Justice as we must if we intend to remain human in the sense that has evolved over the centuries, if we wish, that is, to be something more than highly sophisticated scavengers, then we must elevate the idea to top spot in our hierarchy of political goals. Second, in order to cope with the Unsolved Riddles, the complexities and internal contradictions that come with Social Justice, we must learn to think in new ways, which we must frame both analytically, that is with our minds, and narratively, that is with all the sensory, mental, emotional, and spiritual resources that come into play when we create, hear, read, or watch stories. The third channel has to do with Tetrads and Labyrinths, heuristic devices that may help us to think in the new ways required. The fourth has to do with the Œvirsagas, the super-stories that we use to frame and shape the plethora of stories we are told or tell about ourselves, and thus to create our notion of who we are. I don’t want to get bogged down in an explanation of those last two today. They will take weeks or months to work out, and I am just getting started.

To begin, I think I will devote the “Playstephenleacock” blog to the Tetrads, Labyrinths, and associated ideas, calling it the Tetrads Blog for short. The “Mariposabyconway” blog can suitably become the Œvirsagas Blog, because there is a sense in which Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town was intended by Stephen Leacock to represent a particular telling of the Canadian National Œvirsaga, or perhaps a prophetic demi-œvirsaga intended to serve as a warning,—in any case the fact that careless reading turned it into a petty undirsaga of no great importance beyond casual amusement makes Mariposa an interesting element in the CNŒ and forms a link that I might as well use.

This blog, then, which I have tentatively calling the Politico-Literary Blog, will serve I think to keep the whole thing grounded in the reality of events and practices both historical and current, in all their absurdity and potential for instruction.

In other words: one blog for how we think; one blog for stories; one blog for what we are doing and have done. The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice may then evolved beyond today’s image into something that will really do justice to the title of Leacock’s book.

The renaming, describing, and linking of all this may take a week or two. I apologize for any confusion caused by uneven adjustment.

PWC; January 16, 2020

Stephen Leacock’s 150th Birthday!!! December 30, 2019

Leacock Post 12-30.jpgStephen Butler Leacock was born on December 30th, 1869, in southern England. His parents emigrated to Ontario six years later and he, as he put it, decided to go with them. He lived on a farm south of Lake Simcoe, then in Toronto, then in Chicago (as a graduate student), then in Montreal for the rest of his life, except in the summers (after 1908) when he migrated to his cottage on Lake Couchiching just outside Orillia.

By profession he was first a teacher, first in Uxbridge, Ontario, for six months, then at Upper Canada College in Toronto, for ten years, then at McGill University, for 35 years. His academic field was Political Economy.

By profession he was also a writer, first of academic texts, then as a humorist and popular historian, then as an essayist writing without fear about anything he chose. His production is, or ought to be, legendary, although largely forgotten.

By profession he was also a public lecturer, beginning with learned propaganda concerning the British Empire, and expanding eclectically from there.

He was a dutiful son to his mother Agnes, eventually a hostile son to his father Peter, a conscientious brother to his ten siblings, a loving but somewhat overbearing husband to  his wife Beatrix (who died in 1925) and father to his son Stevie (born in 1915), a generous sponsor and employer to his niece Barbara Ulrichsen, and a good friend to many.

He died of throat cancer in Toronto on March 28, 1944.

His legacy, viewed in the best way: He planted seeds, in particular, a perception of Social Justice as embedded in Unsolved Riddles, and tools for thinking about them embracing Knowledge + Imagination + Compassion + Humour. He left to us the rich satisfactions of cultivation.

My tribute to him:

The Ballad of Stephen Butler Leacock

Come, readers and writers and I’ll sing you the song
Of a man who could write even when he was wrong;
He wrote his way to money and fame :
You’d best remember if you want the same;
He wrote, and he thought, and he talked, and he read,
Up early in the morning and early to bed :
A hard-working, hard-reading, hard-talking, hard-thinking,
Hard-smoking, hard-drinking, hard-writing man,—
Stephen Leacock! the name of this man of fame;
Stephen Leacock! Remember if you want the same.

He wrote in the morning when the day was new;
He wrote the words that he thought were true;
He wrote in the hope that people would laugh,
But of all that he wrote that was never more than half;
He wrote of the rich, and he wrote of the poor,—
Social Justice and a whole lot more:
A hard-working, hard-reading, hard-talking, hard-thinking,
Hard-smoking, hard-drinking, hard-writing man,—
Stephen Leacock! the name of this man of fame;
Stephen Leacock! Remember if you want the same.

He preached prosperity, he cursed at graft,
He teased their foibles and the people laughed;
He told the stories of the present and past—
Much that he wrote wasn’t fated to last;
He wrote for his time, and he wrote for his place,
He wrote stupid things about women and race :
A hard-working, hard-reading, hard-talking, hard-thinking,
Hard-smoking, hard-drinking, hard-writing man,—
Stephen Leacock! the name of this man of fame;
Stephen Leacock! Remember if you want the same.

He wrote his country, and the Empire wide,
He wrote his people and he wrote with pride,
He wrote through depression, and he wrote through war,
He wrote for peace, and romance, and more;
He wrote for laughter, and he wrote to touch;
He wrote for money, and he wrote too much :
A hard-working, hard-reading, hard-talking, hard-thinking,
Hard-smoking, hard-drinking, hard-writing man,—
Stephen Leacock! He had his moment of fame;
Stephen Leacock! Enjoy it if you get the same
As much as he did.

With a little effort he can serve to inspire English Canadians who read, write, explore, create, think, care, and laugh. Our cultural lives will be richer if we remember him well.

Approaching Stephen Leacock’s 150th Birthday

Leacock Post 12-19.jpeg

In less than two weeks, on Monday, December 30th, we will celebrate Stephen Leacock’s 150th birthday with a party of friends, a cake, and an unveiling of the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice as manifested in 2019. Stephen Leacock wrote a book about that in 1919, one hundred years ago, making 2019 another significant Leacock anniversary. The third was the 75th anniversary of his death, on March 28th. I have been celebrating his Anniversaries since that day, an endeavour that did not, I regret to say, go viral. It appears that Stephen Leacock, if not absolutely dead, is well along that way. Leslie and I know, of course, from our 2017 western tour, that there remain people who still find him interesting, rather more who still find him amusing, at least when he is at his best.

The writer of Ecclesiastes pronounced, many years ago, quite accurately as it turns out, that there is no end to the writing of books, and new writers can be forgiven if they prefer that the number of old books in circulation should be kept to a minimum. We can remember an old writer for his books, of course, if they are good enough, but perhaps a worthy alternative for some writers is to remember them for the seeds they planted. I think it entirely likely that I will never read another Leacock book, having read a great many during the several phases of this project. There are fifty-three of them; I have not read them all. From now on I will remember him, not for the few favourites that I find worth remembering, but for two seeds that he planted in my mind. I have been cultivating those seeds, and intend to continue, for their own sake, not for his, but primarily for the sake of my children, grand-children, and beyond, and for everyone else’s.

The two seeds are, first, the title of the book whose 100th anniversary I am celebrating:

The UNSOLVED RIDDLE of SOCIAL JUSTICE

It’s the title that matters most to me, not the book. I consider that Social Justice, widely conceived, is the greatest cause that humanity can and does pursue. Stephen Leacock identified it as an Unsolved Riddle, a type of ideal that is not to be answered with some pat “solution”, but to probed and wrestled with endlessly in the cause of improvement, or “progress” as it used to be called, and should continue to be called. Because when the world’s store of poverty, pain, misery, alienation, exploitation, oppression, violence, unnatural death, and other ills has been lessened, then that is progress, even if these ills persist. To identify Social Justice as an Unsolved Riddle is a huge, brilliant insight, a creative response to idealogues of all kinds, whose prescriptions have a nasty habit of increasing the ills, not the reverse. It is unfortunate that Stephen Leacock himself did not enlarge upon his insight, even in his book. That work remains.

The second seed grew out of my efforts to summarize the lessons he was trying to drum home to us in his fifty-three books, numerous individual pieces, public lectures, and lifetime of teaching about economics, politics, education, culture, and ways of life. The tools that he brought to his quest, and that he recommends to us, form a Tetrad:

KNOWLEDGE + IMAGINATION + COMPASSION + HUMOUR

One of my favourite passages in all of the literature I know is the opening to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress where the narrator, walking through “the wilderness of this world”, falls asleep and dreams of a man with “a great burden on his back”. Our burden comes with the benefits we have created for ourselves in our adoption of the industrial, commercial, technological, scientific, intricately interconnected way of life that brings us such a range of benefits. The burden is the costs that come with them, and the duty to deal with them for our own and the futures’ sakes. There is nothing wrong with wanting our lives to be prosperous, comfortable, secure, convenient, richly informed, and entertaining. We fool ourselves tragically when we can assume they can be that way without cost.

The Leacock Tetrad does not remove the burden, but has the capacity to lighten the carry, because these tools, taken together, will help us work to alleviate the costs without adding new ones, and to reassure us that we are doing the best we can. We are fated to muddle our way through the muddle we have ourselves created, because that is the nature of our creation. We all crave Social Justice, although we may vary somewhat in our definitions. Social Justice is an Unsolved Riddle. We cannot make it otherwise. Stephen Leacock is one of those people who gives us tools we need to work with it.

Who else? My current list: William Blake, Henry Thoreau, Herman Melville, George Eliot, Henry George, Northrop Frye, Marshall McLuhan, B.W. Powe, and newly arrived to my notice this week: Marilynne Robinson. More about them in the weeks and months ahead. I will also tell you about the œvirsagas and where they fit. Stephen Leacock had something to do with them too, or one of them at least. In Canada they are four in number, another Tetrad: Aboriginal, National, Political, and Urbanismal. They too are tools to grapple with the Unsolved Riddles and lighten the burden.