Stephen Leacock on the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, Chapter VII

Stephen Leacock called the last chapter of The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice “What Is Possible and What Is Not”, although he starts with what is not. Socialism is not, neither is individualism, or, he hastens to qualify, “at least the older individualism that we have hitherto made the basis of the social order.” He did not qualify his judgement of socialism. He could have said, but did not, “at least the all-encompassing socialism presented by Edward Bellamy in Looking Backward.” He gives no evidence that he knows anything about Marx or Engels, although he probably knew something. He mentions Marx in his 1903 Ph.D. thesis on The Doctrine of Laissez Faire, without suggesting he has read him. By the time he wrote his textbook on Political Science (published 1906), however, he certainly had. One could speculate on the reasons why he chooses Edward Bellamy as the spokesman for socialism and not Marx or the English, French, or German socialists he writes about elsewhere, but this is not the place. He is prepared to qualify individualism, but leaves the socialist alternative in an extreme state, forgetting his textbook admission that “the greater number of socialists now favor the amelioration of present conditions rather than their complete overthrow.”

He makes another extreme statement as he sets up for his recommendations in The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, written you will recall, in 1919, when he refers to “principle of selfishness that has been the survival instinct of existence since life first crawled from the slime of a world in evolution”. So much for the sharing ethic so prevalent among people living in aboriginal conditions on the edge of survival. Leacock himself is a convinced “sharist”,  however, as the recommendations themselves show.

A legislative code that starts from sounder principles than those which have obtained hitherto can do a great deal towards progressive betterment. Each decade can be an improvement upon the last. Hitherto we have been hampered at every turn by the supposed obstacle of immutable economic laws. The theory of “natural” wages and prices of a supposed economic order that could not be disturbed, set up a sort of legislative paralysis. The first thing needed is to get away entirely from all such preconceptions, to recognize that the “natural” order of society, based on the “natural” liberty, does not correspond with real justice and real liberty at all, but works injustice at every turn. And at every turn intrusive social legislation must seek to prevent such injustice.

Progressive betterment. An incremental approach, at least once the accumulated injustices of the past century have been mitigated, and the lessons of the latest Great War incorporated, jobs to be done through legislation. After all, he insists, if the legislative hammer and taxation can be used to fight a war, as they had so forcefully so recently, then they can be used for the positive betterment of people’s lives. The principle has been established.

What is radical in Leacock’s approach as laid out in this last crucial chapter, is not the content, but the cast of mind. What he recommends is, in brief, simply a comprehensive social safety net in the context of a liberal democracy that values individual creativity and enterprise and restrains individual greed and abuses of power.

The safety of the future lies in a progressive movement of social control alleviating the misery which it cannot obliterate and based upon the broad general principle of equality of opportunity.

Put into the plainest of prose, then, we are saying that the government of every country ought to supply work and pay for the unemployed, maintenance for the infirm and aged, and education and opportunity for the children.

The war had shown that social enterprise on the necessary scale was feasible in practical, legislative, productive, and financial terms. The external foe had been defeated. It was time to vanquish the internal enemy. It could be done. Q.E.D.

Leacock’s nation is a Both-And place, both individualistic and socialistic. The two ideologies may be poles apart, but they can mix perfectly well. The Unsolved Riddle is in our minds, in our belief, defiant of all experience, that one ideology is right and the other is wrong, that they cannot be mixed. Nothing but disaster, he insists, can follow the pure pursuit of one or the other. To believe in a perfect world or no world at all is ridiculous, even insane. The modern industrial system, even in his day let alone ours, is simply too complex for ideology. Pragmatism is the only way. That is what he believed, and that is what we believe. Enjoy the Muddle, he says. It works. Understand it. Cherish it. Laugh at it. Improve it. That is The Cause.

When we look broadly across his writings we see constant reference to four ways in which we can and must tune our minds, a quadruple Both-And, using Knowledge, Imagination, Compassion, and Humour. I am not going to suggest that Stephen Leacock pulled that off. In fact, I am not sure that any one person, however powerful the mind and wide the reading, can pull it off. That’s why we don’t like dictators. We do it together. Improvement is a collective act. The Muddle may be messy, and frighteningly verbose, but that’s how the magic happens.

* * * * * * *

This ends my explicit consideration of Leacock’s book. I have now begun to write my 100-years-later extension of his approach and cast of mind, my version of his book, the Preface to be released on Saturday of this week, a chapter a week thereafter for seven weeks. I am following his model slavishly, although in my own style. In this blog, from now until the end of December when the Anniversaries time ends, I will tell stories of My Discovery of Stephen Leacock, which continues, and gossip about his life and ideas. But I think I have delighted you enough with his economic and social ideas. It’s time to get back to the humour.

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Stephen Leacock on the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, Chapters V and VI

Today’s chapters from The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice are: V. The Land of Dreams: The Utopia of the Socialist; and VI. How Mr. Bellamy Looked Backward. They could be taken as one chapter, because Leacock segues explicitly from the first to the next, using Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, published in 1887 and immensely popular in its day,—you can find it on-line at https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/624,—and still listed as in print by Penguin Random House with an introduction by Cecelia Tichi, the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of English and Professor of American Studies at Vanderbilt University. So you see, Bellamy’s book can still attract the attention of a serious scholar of literature, if not of political economy. It is in fact a fascinating work of fiction and I am pleased to have read it.

Looking Backward (the title refers to the perspective of the narrator, who is looking back on 1887 from the year 2000 in which he finds himself after a sleep of 113 years) quickly made a Canadian footprint, albeit a faint one. In 1891 some people wanted to found a community to be called Bellamy Village in Scarborough Township, Ontario, just east of Toronto. They got as far as negotiations with the township council. The idea ran into resistance and died, its only legacy being the name of Bellamy Road in Scarborough, which beginning at Kingston Road proceeds northward with only one break for railroad tracks finally to meld perpendicularly into Corporate Drive. But I digress.

Stephen Leacock’s views on socialism, as they stood in 1919, are neither sophisticated nor interesting today, although clearly stated. What is important is the cast of mind he brings to them:

For in the whole program of peaceful socialism there is nothing wrong except one thing. Apart from this it is a high and ennobling ideal truly fitted for a community of saints. And the one thing that is wrong with socialism is that it won’t work. That is all. It is, as it were, a beautiful machine of which the wheels, dependent upon some unknown and uninvented motive power, refuse to turn. The unknown motive force in this case means a power of altruism, of unselfishness, of willingness to labor for the good of others, such as the human race has never known, nor is ever likely to know.

He does not doubt that those he later called people “of good will, whose hearts are in the cause”, who embrace a spirit of “righteousness”, can be found, even among officials. What he doubts is the human capacity to sustain that kind of virtue in a system where officials,—even if elected under the best possible rules,—are given the raw power literally to decide everything to do with economic life.

Mr. Bellamy pictures his elected managers,—as every socialist has to do,—as a sagacious and paternal group, free from the interest of self and the play of the baser passions and animated only by the thought of the public good. Gravely they deliberate; wisely and justly they decide. Their grey heads—for Bellamy prefers them old—are bowed in quiet confabulation over the nice adjustment of the national production, over the petition of this or that citizen. The public care sits heavily on their breast. Their own peculiar fortune they have lightly passed by. They do not favor their relations or their friends. They do not count their hours of toil. They do not enumerate their gain. They work, in short, as work the angels.
Now let me ask in the name of sanity where are such officials to be found?

“With perfect citizens any government is good,” he claims towards the end of the chapter. “In a population of angels a socialistic commonwealth would work to perfection. But until we have the angels we must keep the commonwealth waiting.”

Last week I drew attention to Leacock’s own dream of a “sane, orderly and continuous social reform”, yet in the peroration to his chapter on Mr. Bellamy he scorns the figure of “the gradualist, in whose mind lingers the leaven of doubt, [who ]frames for himself a hazy vision of a prolonged preparation for the future, of socialism achieved little by little, the citizens being trained as it goes on till they are to reach somehow or somewhere in cloud land the nirvana of the elimination of self.” Suppose I were to rephrase that just a little, imagining:

a gradualist, in whose mind lingers the leaven of doubt, framing for his country a hazy vision of a prolonged preparation for the future, of social reform achieved little by little in a sane, orderly and continuous process, the citizens being trained as it goes on till they reach by this means and in this land a practical, muddled, benign kind of nirvana where the valid claims to well-being of both self and others are accommodated in a humane way.

I don’t think Stephen Leacock would disagree with that. I think that’s where deep down he wants to go. I think it’s where he was, almost, in 1912 when he wrote Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, a little town that for all its muddled thinking and living achieves a kind of organic unity and spirit of accommodation if not reform. It’s where Isaiah Berlin, prophet of Pluralism, arrived in 1950.

Did Stephen Leacock get there in 1919? Muddled or otherwise, we’ll find out next week when we look into Chapter VII of The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice. What Is Possible? What is Not?

 

Stephen Leacock on the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, Chapters III and IV

The two chapters I am going to cover today are:

III. The Failures and Fallacies of Natural Liberty; and

IV: Work and Wages.

Stephen Leacock begins his lecture on the failures and fallacies of natural liberty with the following sentence, as true in our day as in his: “The rewards and punishments of the economic world are singularly unequal.” He then contrasts them for the manual labourer, the stock market speculator, the unemployed person, the landlord, the lucky, the loafer. He then goes on:

Yet all are free. This is the distinguising mark of them as children of our era. They may work or stop. There is no compulsion from without. No man is a slave. Each has his “natural liberty,” and each in his degree, great or small, receives his allotted reward.

But is the allotment correct and the reward proportioned by his efforts? Is it fair or unfair, and does it stand for the true measure of social justice?

This is the profound problem for the twentieth century.

He then addresses, and goes on to trash, a central economic doctrine of his day, which he states as follows: Under perfectly free competition the value or selling price of everything equals, or is perpetually tending to equal, the cost of its production. In other words, “there is a ‘natural price’ of everything, and that all ‘natural prices’ are proportionate to cost and to one another; that all wages, apart from temporary fluctuations, are derived from, and limited by, the natural prices paid for the things made; that all payments for the use of capital (interest) are similarly derived and similarly limited; and that consequently the whole economic arrangements, by giving to each person exactly and precisely the fruit of his own labor, conforms exactly to social justice.”

He has earlier drawn attention to the effect on simple apparent truths of the “perfect labyrinth of complexity” that governs actual economic life. He now goes after the heart of the logic, pointing out that “the trouble with the main proposition … is that each side of the equation is used as the measure of the other. … It is a  mere argument in a circle.” In other words,—and unfortunately he does not use these words despite the title of the book,—the cost and the price of something are both an Unsolved Riddle, because each is a function of the other. Something else is going on to set their levels, and that something grows out of the “perfect labyrinth of complexity”. The idea that “every many in this just world gets what is coming to him, … gets what he is worth, and is worth what he gets” offers no explanation beyond the tautology that he gets what he gets.

He concludes the chapter with this promise:

If one knocks out the keystone of the arch in the form of a proposition that natural value conforms to the cost of production, then the whole edifice collapses and must be set up again, upon another plan and on another foundation, stone by stone.

Is it possible that the distribution of rewards in our complex world is effectively random, or would be if it were left to its own devices? Is that what a world governed by Unsolved Riddles means? If so, is that tolerable? If not, what are we going to do about it? What are we doing, and is it working? Stephen Leacock puts a great deal of stock in what works. Socialism is misguided because it doesn’t work. Laissez-faire-ism is misguided because it  doesn’t work. What does work? Or must we just muddle along, doing our best in a world we don’t really understand because, in the face of its complexity, we cannot?

In Chapter IV,—Work and Wages, he follows his thread further: “Prices, wages, salaries, interest, rent and profits do not, if left to themselves, follow the simple law of natural justice. To think so is an idle dream.”

The real truth is that prices and wages are all the various payments from hand to hand in industrial society, are the outcome of a complex of competing forces that are not based upon justice but upon “economic strength.”

The subsequent twenty pages of combined analysis and rhetoric amplify that statement and make, for me at least, tedious reading. I am running out of space today, and will leave you to look it up for yourself if you are curious. I want to get on to where he is going:

By what means and in what stages can social progress be further accelerated? This I propose to treat in the succeeding chapters, dealing first with the proposals of the socialists and the revolutionaries, and finally with the prospect for a sane, orderly and continuous social reform.

Sane, orderly, and continuous. That sounds wonderful! But suppose that we, due to the nature of the world we are given and the one we have created, in all their complexities and Unsolved Riddles, are stuck with social reform that is disorderly, discontinuous, and even sometimes apparently insane, as for example when we take great leaps of imagination and faith to do things that have never been done before? How do we act in that case? Where is Social Justice in that case? How do we think properly in that case?

This is the profound problem for the twenty-first century.

Leacock’s next two chapters deal with Socialism, the spectre that haunted his dreams, the hope that illuminated those of many in his day. We will look next week at how he dealt with it, to see whether we can learn anything we could apply to the hard-edged ideologies of our day, such as the “corporatism” and “technologism” and “fossil-fuel-ism” so prevalent in the dreams of today, and I don’t mean only those of self-interested corporatists, technologists, and fossil-fuel-ists. The ideologies whose primary approach is to oppose these, are they effective for Social Justice? What ideology would be, in a positive way?

In his last chapter he turns to “What is Possible and What Is Not”. We’ll get there two weeks from today. After that we get to work on our own.

 

Stephen Leacock on the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice: Chapters I and II

For the next four weeks I am going to walk you lightly through The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, as written by Stephen Leacock 100 years ago, syndicated chapter by chapter from late August to early October 1919, and published by S.B. Gundy in Toronto, the John Lane Company in New York, and John Lane, The Bodley Head in London in January 1920. This book has seven chapters; I am going to cover them at the rate of two per week for the first six, treating the last (“What Is Possible and What Is Not”)  by itself. This approach is easily justified, because much of Leacock’s analysis is dated, although his recommendations are not, at least in principle.

Certainly NOT dated is Leacock’s insight that Social Justice is an Unsolved Riddle, requiring an appropriate cast of mind and set of intellectual and policy tools. The cast of mind of an autocrat and the tools of a mechanic are not appropriate. He took these ideas as far as he could at the time. We may regret that he did not take them further. Better late than never. So here we go.

First we look at his ideas.

Chapter I. “The Troubled Outlook of the Present Hour”.

“These are troubled times.” So  he begins. He describes the troubles, beginning with industrial unrest due to the lingering turbulence of the World War One and all the post-war adjustments. “The world seems filled with money [inflated by war-time financial measures] and short of goods, while even in this very scarcity a new luxury has broken out.” The danger of revolution looms, as in Russia. He sees “a vast social transformation in which there is at stake, and may be lost, all that has been gained in the slow centuries of material progress and in which there may be achieved some part of all  that has been dreamed in the age-long passion for social justice.”

The surrounding “appalling inequality” is intolerable, and no longer necessary. Scarcity has been confronted by “the age of machinery and power”. Humanity entered a real “new world” when “the sudden progress of liberated science bound the fierce energy  of expanding stream [he may have written ‘steam’] and drew the eager lightning from the cloud.” Production steadily increased and would go on increasing, replacing want with surplus, becoming “an unconscious element in the thought and outlook of the civilized world.”

The story of material progress is well known, its “perplexing paradox … lies concealed within its organization.” “The essential contrast lies between the vastly increased power of production and its apparent inability to satisfy for all humanity the most elementary human wants; between the immeasurable saving of labor effected by machinery and the brute fact of the continuance of hard-driven, unceasing toil.” Why, he asks, does production of essentials expand and then, while scarcity still remains for some, re-direct itself to inessentials and on to the colossal human and material wastes of war and the frivolous wastes of luxury? And what should be done?

Chapter II: Live, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

Leacock begins the second chapter, after tipping his hat to Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence, by summarizing the teaching of the first:

It has been shown that the age of machinery has been in a certain sense one of triumph, of the triumphant conquest of nature, but in another sense one of perplexing failure. The new forces controlled by mankind have been powerless as yet to remove want and destitution, hard work and social discontent. In the midst of accumulated wealth social justice seems as far away as ever.

That’s the first part the Unsolved Riddle. He then turns his attention to the cast of mind arising from this, what he calls the “outlook”, giving us a brief and interesting lecture on classical economic theory (Adam Smith and his 19th century followers)  and its understanding of the (somewhat qualified but still fundamental) importance of “[private] property, contract and the coercive state”, and the “further assumption of a general selfishness or self-seeking as the principal motive of the individual in the economic sphere.” He identifies this as “an unpalatable truth”, none the less “the most nearly true of all the broad generalizations that can be attempted in regard to humankind.” Earlier, however, he has drawn attention to one effect of industrial production, which has been the entanglement of people with their fellow citizens, until a person is “no longer an individualist …  [but] has become by brute force of circumstances a sort of collectivist, puzzled only as to how much of a collectivist to be.” Aha. Another dimension of the Unsolved Riddle.

Here, I think, we see Leacock floundering with the dilemma he does not really shake for the rest of his life. He wants to believe, insists on believing, on the idea of “every man for himself and his family”, of that kind of individualism, as a foundation of his ideology. And yet he recognizes that the “entanglement” caused by modern methods of production makes inevitable a kind of collectivism that requires a different way of thinking. He sees the Unsolved Riddle, but he doesn’t like it. He doesn’t want to embrace it. Perhaps he fears the raw power of unchecked collectivism. He certainly fears that the “bosses” in a collectivist society (‘socialism’) will use their power for individualistic benefit, just as the oligarchs of finance and industry use theirs. The lash may pass into other hands; it will remain a lash, even possibly a worse one, and will be used as such. This is not an idle fear, as subsequent history has shown.

“The argument of the classicists (he means the classical economists) ran thus. If there is everywhere complete economic freedom, then there will ensue in consequence a régime of social justice.” He knows that doesn’t work; he knows that ‘socialism’ doesn’t work; he distrusts power in the hands of individuals no matter what system they work under. Just as did Tolstoy (according to Isaiah Berlin) he sees the complexity and multiplicity and fundamental unruliness of the human condition, which he seeks to moderate in the cause of Social Justice. Yet he distrusts (with good reason) all ideologies invented for the purpose. He does not see, or at least does not integrate the fragments of his vision into, the explicit idea that ‘Unsolvedriddleism’ as an ideology could be just what the doctor ordered. It may even be what we practise in our lives and politics.

He was surrounded by tidy thinkers and feared their scorn. He himself was an untidy thinker, and believed in the humanity and democracy of such an outlook. We will see more of his untidy thinking and what it may mean for us in the weeks ahead.

Next week: Chapters III and IV: The Failures and Fallacies of Natural Liberty; Work and Wages.

 

The Unsolved Riddle of Prediction

I have been promising to talk about prediction, and today I will.

First, however, I will bring you up to date on last week’s discussion, about Canadian “over-sagas” as I then called them. Terminology is evolving. Since “saga” is an Old Norse word, I decided for consistency to use the term”yfirsaga”, pronounced very much like “over-saga” except with an Old Norse twang. The English translation, I think, would be “over-epic” or, more weakly, “over-story”. I would recommend an Old Norse form of plural if I knew what was correct. As things stand, I will use “yfirsagas”.

Without going into details, I am now convinced that Canada certainly has four yfirsagas, and probably five. The three I identified last week I am now calling the Aboriginal Yfirsaga, the Colonial Yfirsaga, and the Urbanial Yfirsaga. I have since added the Political Yfirsaga, and am beginning to think that a Social Yfirsaga is in there too, doing its thing with the others. I hope that nobody thinks of any more, although of course each of these has many lesser sagas in its train. We enjoy an abundance of sagas, or at least we should enjoy it. Pluralism is both a wonderful gift and a pain in the neck. Another Both-And.

Social Injustice of course permeates them all, although perhaps the hunt for Social Justice appears most conspicuously in the last two, the Political and the Social. That’s an interesting question, however, begging for further cogitation. Arching over all is the question of how to tell them, because understanding that they exist is one thing, telling them properly quite another.

Since I am determined not to abandon my promise to talk about prediction and its role, or lack thereof, in pursuit of Social Justice, I am going to let the yfirsagas dangle for  the nonce, in order to muddle along that way.

We have no facts about the future. Our facts about the present are, for purely practical reasons, almost entirely anecdotal. We have access to some facts about the past, all fragmented, incomplete, and inconclusive, but not a complete set. This drives us crazy, because we really want to know what is going to happen. Alas, we do not know, and cannot know. All we can do is estimate probabilities. We can live with that, if we keep our wits about us. When we start treating estimates of probabilities as if they were calculations of certainties, however, we have lost touch with reality, and that is a form of insanity.

In other words, we do not have the gift of perfect foresight, except towards the simplest possible questions, such as whether the sun will rise, or we will each die one day, and even those are conditional on continuation of certain natural laws. We do have imaginations, however, which enable us to estimate probabilities shrewdly, although not precisely, and to govern our behaviour accordingly. For example, when I drive to town I implicitly estimate the probability that I will arrive safely. I know, because both statistics and factual anecdotes tell me, that my safe arrival is not certain. They also tell me that the probability of safe arrival is very high. I imagine what will happen to that probability if I drive very fast while drunk, passing on corners while texting. I imagine what will happen if I drive at a moderate speed, sober, in the right lane, keeping my eyes on the road. I realize then that the probabilities are under my control, and according to my own predilections about risk to myself and others, I make my decision whether to go. This exercise in imagination and estimation we make all the time, so frequently that we have “hard-wired” it into our brains and don’t even think about it.

When we are required to make decisions where we do not have frequent experience or where the considerations are complex, we find ourselves in difficulties, because the necessary analysis becomes difficult, time-consuming, and uncertain. We start cutting corners, either simplifying our perception of the situation, or selecting one part of it and ignoring others, or delegating the decision to someone else. Thus, in the political sphere, we have the “It’s The Economy, stupid!” approach, or “It’s Climate Change!” or “It’s Social Justice!” or “It’s Capitalism!” (for or against), or “It’s Socialism!” (ditto). We adopt these approaches, or listen to them uncritically, to save us from having to deal with the complicated reality that in the society we have created it’s all of them, and many more besides.

To cut a long story short, being myself of the Social Justice persuasion and realizing the complexities, I make such a fuss over Stephen Leacock’s emphasis on the fusion of Knowledge, Imagination, Compassion, and Humour. Knowledge is essential, and the more the better, but it cannot be treated as sufficient when we know that so much  is unknowable. We need Imagination to work with knowledge to estimate probabilities and assess consequences, especially in circumstances we have never met before, or where the things we have tried don’t seem to be working. We need Compassion to bias our thinking in ethical ways, to protect us from the temptations of barbarism. We need Humour, by which I do not mean mockery, to keep our sense of perspective as we muddle our way along. We need to learn the art of Doublethink, for effective recognition of the undeniable fact that the kind of life we yearn for is full of inherent contradictions, and that to hold conflicting views is sanity, not hypocrisy. We need to learn more about Both-And as a useful, even sometimes brilliant, form of practical measure. Shades of grey do very well sometimes, but black and white together offer the brightest hope for a humane kind of pluralism.

The most powerful integrative tools we have are stories. They are the power tools of these complex social arts and crafts. We need to know how to use them properly in pursuit of Social Justice. We need to know how to recognize when they are not being used properly for destructive or anti-social purposes. We need to know how to use them to clarify and focus our minds amidst all the distracting clutter and noise.

That’s why the yfirsagas are important. If we learn to tell them and hear them properly, they will offer us shape and context for all the other judgements we simply must make together if we are to avoid the path of insanity and diminishment. Things are getting a little weird, and may even have spun out of control,—temporarily, we trust,—in other places, some nearby or closely related. But not everywhere, not here, not yet.

 

 

 

Exploring the Sagacities

I have decided not to do what I said last week I was going to do this week, which is talk about prediction. Maybe I will do that next week, because it’s an important matter to the cause of Social Justice. Stephen Leacock was right about some things, wrong about others. One of the former was his skepticism about “social planning”. I am going to suggest, not today but later on, that policy and practice should develop incrementally, based on observations about the present, not in great leaps, based on predictions, as planning does. Incrementally is how policy and practice do in fact evolve, which is a good thing. I am going to suggest that we learn to accept and even like the reality that we have. The Inertia I talked about last week, and the Incrementalism I am recommending today, are all part of a robust democracy. The cause of Social Justice requires only that we manage the Inertia and craft the Increments in consistent ways.

But that is not what I want to write about today. I have been reading Diamond Jenness’s book Indians of Canada, having just completed Peter Farb’s Man’s Rise to Civilization. I hasten to say that I am fully cognizant of the objections that indigenous people and their advocates might raise to these books, and agree with them whole-heartedly. These objections apply if the stories told by these books are taken as “The Truth”. If they are taken, however, as honest and scholarly attempts to use the imagination to interpret the stories using the data at hand, then I think the objections weaken. Both these authors are telling stories. Both have taken immense trouble to research the stories conscientiously, and to interpret them as fairly as they possibly can. Their interpretations are works of the scholarly imagination, which is not to say they are fiction. They are stories. We do ourselves a grave disservice if we throw out such interpretations because they are not “the whole story” or would be told differently by indigenous people themselves. No one knows, or can know, “the whole story”, whatever it might be. Every historical story is an interpretation.

Both Jenness and Farb give their stories an epic sweep. They tell not merely stories, but sagas, Jenness of Canada, Farb of North America. They chose the prose of scholarship over the ringing lines of Homer or the Icelanders, although they must have known that their sagas deserved them, probably because prose was what they could do, what their readers would expect, and what the huge mass of their observations would allow.

Canada, in my interpretation, boasts three great Over-Sagas, each encompassing many, many sub-sagas, all still unfolding. First came the Over-Saga of of the indigenous peoples of this land, which Jenness is trying to sketch in great broad sweeps of his scholarship as it had unfolded up to his time. He is our Homer for that saga, in his own style, and we should read him as such. Second is the Over-Saga of settlement and exploitation of the land and resources, the one that so entranced Stephen Leacock. Third is the Over-Saga of our cities, which is the dominant one today.

I call them the Sagacities, because their “wisdom”, whatever one makes of it and however diverse it may be, governs how we think and how we act when we do so collectively. We are largely in the midst of that Over-Saga. Even the most cursory look at the population statistics shows that this must be so. Some of us may not live in our cities, although most of us do or in intimate proximity with them; some of us may fancy ourselves as not city people at all. We are all beholden to our cities nevertheless, one way or another, usually in many ways.

If the Over-Saga of our cities has yet been attempted, except perhaps in The Canadian Encyclopedia, I have not yet seen it. Who will be our Virgil?  I think B.W. Powe is trying to get at the essence in his recent The Charge in the Global Membrane. Perhaps a fragmented, incomplete, and inconclusive account, as with Stephen Leacock’s Mariposa, is the best anyone will ever be able to do.

I believe that the cause of Social Justice is alive and well in our cities, and that they are fertile ground for more of it. The cause is impeded by persistent unsolved riddleness, and by the volume of static in the Charged Ooze that permeates its surroundings. Stephen Leacock spoke of people “of good will whose hearts are in the cause”. A few people with loud voices, and some prosperous institutions, are not there, however, and we will have to deal with them. Our challenge is to do that without undermining our purpose. The over-Unsolved Riddle may be that some of the forces undermining Social Justice are also essential to its survival. I am thinking particularly of those that provide jobs and contribute to our material prosperity.

 

Among other matters: The Joy of Inertia

The day approaches when I will have to pull together all the ramblings and suggestions of the past fifteen weeks in order to make some sense of the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice. I have perhaps three more weeks to go rambling on, before the fell day arrives.

Last week I excoriated the CBC for shoddy journalism in its misinterpretation and misapplication of a very bad poll. The issue is important, because whether we should or not we, by whom I mean the body politic, are paying attention to polls and perhaps even using them to help us decide how to vote. If the polls are statistically flawed, as last week’s was, and the interpretations technically invalid, then we are being systematically misled. I think that is a problem. Fortunately it is one we can solve.

Today I am going to draw attention to some other journalistic practices that cause me concern. Again I am going to pick on the CBC, not only because it is probably the most important source of politically important information in the country, but also because of its pretensions.

First, for today, I will focus on the phrase, “The system is broken.” We hear this from time to time when a “system” (we need to scan that word thoroughly but I am not going to do it today) has made a decision that someone didn’t like. The CBC will interview that person, and report on the interview or broadcast the quote as “news”. Fair enough, as far as it goes. In some cases however that is as far as it goes. In others perhaps they will interview someone else who thinks the system is not broken, or perhaps a reporter will  try to add some balance. Usually these efforts will not yield any phrase nearly as catchy as “the system is broken” and that is what sticks in the mind. Sometimes it is taken up by a politician, and reinforced. The idea that “the system is broken” is thus implanted without any equally effective counter-idea.

I believe it to be true in fact, and fully verifiable by empirical research, that not one of our important public “systems” is broken, although every one of them can be improved, every one of them is staffed by people who can make mistakes, and every one of them operates under constraints and must occasionally, or often, make difficult decisions or choices under conditions of uncertainty or risk. People are sometimes hurt by these decisions. If they were made differently, somebody else would be hurt. These situations are evidence of the human condition in complex circumstances, not of broken systems.

A recent, particularly egregious example of this kind of journalism was the recent CBC study of medical implants. We were treated therein to a small number of blood-curdling accounts of what instances when things went terribly wrong and to some statistics on the number of occasions when they went wrong but without any indications of severity. On no occasion were we ever told how many of these implants were in fact being carried around by people. The study provided no calculation of risk, nor any data that  would allow us to make our own calculations. Is it possible that someone might react to these lurid reports by refusing to receive an much-needed implant?

Another bad phrase: “That is a worthy enough measure but does not go far enough.” Or words to that effect. Can we point to even one example, in the whole history of human progress, when perfection was achieved in one mighty bound? Real progress evolves incrementally, and so does regress. The cause in the hearts of people of good will (I am paraphrasing the dying Stephen Leacock) is not perfection, but steady improvement. It will be incremental, whether we like it or not, because that is how the democratic world wags, and should wag. Those who believe in immediate perfection are always authoritarians.

One of the realities that I believe to be fundamental to the pursuit of Social Justice is the tremendous inertia we have built into our human world, or has been built in for us, and a jolly good thing that is too. It may slow down progress, although we continue to make some so this inertia cannot be said prevent it. It also slows down regress, giving time to people of good will whose hearts are in the cause, time to slow down the regression or even reverse it. This tremendous inertia, that I have elsewhere called the Yottapede, imagined as a living organic presence, is both friend and enemy. That is part of the Riddle of Social Justice. This one becomes an Unsolved Riddle only if we don’t believe in it.

I am not finished with the CBC and its journalism yet, but I will leave my next gripe for next week. It has to do with predictions, forecasts, auguries, divinations, and other forms of articulated anticipation that pop up on the news under the guise of information. I believe it was a woman in one of O. Henry’s stories about the gentle grafter who offered the public “a dollar’s worth of honest prognostication”. We don’t need any of that, or even the dishonest kind, to pursue Social Justice. Facts and intelligent understanding about the present and the past will serve us quite well enough.

As we move forward, please keep our evolving set of key words in mind: Knowledge; Imagination; Compassion; Humour;—these comprise Leacock’s set, evolved in his lifetime;—Pluralism; Doublethink; Both-And;—these are evolving. Social Justice needs them. No Unsolved Riddle can stand up to them when they work together.