Monthly Archives: December 2014

Musing about Probes and Deep States

The late Marshall McLuhan liked to use the word “probe” to describe his favoured forms of intellectual and conversational exploration. Meditation on this word led me to look it up, and then to look at other words that might in some sense be related. In particular I looked at words beginning with “prob”, and relish the resulting association with words such as probity, problem, probable, probability (in the mathematical sense), probate (that is, to prove or verify),  probation, pro bono (a small stretch there), and proboscis. Some of these, including “probe”, have their roots in the Latin verb probare, meaning “to test”, and some do not.

So much for the dictionary of meanings. Then I reached for my book of rhymes: daube (meat stew, a favourite meal of mine), Job, globe, robe (along with enrobe, or even better in appropriate contexts, disrobe), strobe, aerobe, microbe, saprobe (an organism living in putrefied water, also perhaps air or earth), and various applications of the suffix “-phobe” signifying systematic fear or loathing. Well well well, such an intriguing list.

I am particularly struck by probe’s association with proboscis. I think the nose is a highly undervalued sensory organ. We are told that the human olfactory sense is weak, compared with other creatures. We live in a world of sight, sound, taste, and touch. I wonder. Is it that we cannot smell things, or simply that our sense of smell is but weakly connected with our capacity to articulate our sensory findings? We pick up obvious smells, of course, but not the subtle ones. Is that a sensory deprivation, or simply an intellectual or verbal one? Most people can see, hear, taste, and feel not only the obvious, but also the subtle, if they take the trouble. Is a sensory experience not there just because we cannot connect it with words, or because we don’t take the trouble to pay attention?

Perhaps our bodies are constantly picking up all kinds of signals and reacting to them in ways of which we are unaware simply because they are not connected to our powers of speech. Do I respond to my natural surroundings, or to my lover, because of what I see and hear, which I can describe if I make the effort, but also because of what I smell? Does the real wonder and joy lie there? What about a “sixth sense”? Could that be working too?

I am gradually working my way around to a tentative probe into the sense or senses with which we detect and articulate our cultural (in the anthropological sense) surroundings, the totality of the social, economic, physical, and political environment in which we live. We undoubtedly grasp the obvious phenomena, but do we get them all? What happens to us if the most critical, the most rewarding, the most dangerous parts of that environment live in the subtleties that we perhaps detect subliminally but cannot make articulate, or perhaps do not even detect?

This musing began when I read this morning an article by Mike Lofgren published on Truthout (www.truth-out.org). He wants us to be aware of the “Deep State – the hybrid association of key elements of government and parts of top-level finance and industry that is effectively able to govern the United States with limited reference only to the consent of the governed as it is normally expressed through the formal political process.” Are we in Canada governed by a pervasive, powerful “Deep State”? Its ways, although not necessarily its effects, would be subtle if we were. How would we sense it? By the smell, perhaps?

“Ideas matter; education matters; morality matters and justice matters in a democracy.” That’s Henry A. Giroux, in a different article in the same source.

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On the Conveyance of Metaphors

Last week I received a questionnaire from the New Democratic Party asking me to express my views on the following:

In my community, the most important issues to organize for action on are:

• Childcare

• Health care

• Minimum wage

• The environment

• Jobs and the economy

• Retirement security

• Canada Post and home mail delivery

• Other

Resisting the urge to scream with frustration, I went along with this exercise, but under “Other” I added the need to fight over-simplification in political discourse, of which this list is an excellent example.

In the first place, I presume that the NDP is preparing for a federal election in 2015, or at least should be. The question should be directed therefore at the most important issues in Canada, not only in my community, important as that is to me. I like to think, however, that other people’s communities are just as important, and that some larger ones are more so. Mine, after all, is very small and rural, enjoying, thanks to Nature, a rich quality of life. Those who live in cities, towns, or even villages rely much more on human institutions, of which the most important are governments at all three (sometimes four) levels.

If you want to try to convince me that private enterprise, production and consumption are more vital to quality of life than the activities of governments, then you will need to work very hard. One can make an ideological case that that ought to be so, but if you want to make a practical case that it is so, then you will have to show me the place where it is. I think there are places where private interests are indeed more powerful than governments, but I do not envy their quality of life, at least insofar as the wider population is concerned. The people on the inside of those interests, of course, do very well for themselves.

In a democracy we are obliged to consider the wider interest. That is a solemn obligation, and I believe that in this country a majority of voters of all persuasions take it seriously and believe they are acting on it in good faith. About our massive southern neighbour I am not as sure, although no doubt many do there too, which makes what is happening there very sad.

I believe also that the vast majority of our citizens have minds that are quite equal to the challenge of democratic thinking. The NDP, in its simple-minded list, is assuming that we are all simple-minded, or at least are prepared to vote as if we were. Of course, the Conservatives, Liberals, and Greens do it too, in their differing styles. If they all believe it, must it be so? And my goodness gracious, how our beloved news media love to do it!

But some simplification is necessary or we would all go mad at the complexity and inter-relatedness of it all. We achieve that, often without thinking about it, by employing the wonderful human art of creating metaphors. We make “the economy” a metaphor of general well-being. We make “health care” a metaphor of physical and mental well-being. We make “the social safety net” a metaphor of protection against misfortune and exclusion. We make “the climate” a metaphor of Nature’s health. Political parties would have us make their leaders, or the images of their leaders, a metaphor of governmental reliability and competence.

Metaphors, if I may use a simile to discuss them, are like aircraft, conveying us above the inconveniences and complexities of the grounds on which we live and offering us a wider view. But we are very careful in the design and choice of aircraft on which we are willing to fly, and we make strenuous and expensive efforts to make sure that the people who operate them for us are fully up to the complexities and difficulties of the work. Do we do the same for the flights of metaphor that surround us?

Are we being careful, for example, to make sure that people who use the stock market index as a convenient metaphor in the daily business report are conveying us safely to an understanding of what business is doing and how it works? Are we careful to make sure that the people who use waiting lists as a convenient metaphor in health care are conveying us safely to an understanding of the quality of that essential service? Are we careful to make sure that the people who use gun control, whether for or against it, are using the metaphor appropriately and in our best interests? What about wind turbines? What about Vimy Ridge? Stephen Harper? Thomas Mulcair? Justin Trudeau? Elizabeth May?

Metaphors are powerful and convenient, therefore both inevitable and dangerous. What do we do with other things that we need and can hurt us? We treat them very carefully indeed. We think hard about them, and discuss them at length. We educate ourselves and others about them. We train in their use. Sometimes we even regulate them.

I am not suggesting regulation of metaphors. I do think there is room for rather more thought, discussion, education and training before we commit ourselves to any one of them.