Monthly Archives: January 2015

Stephen Leacock, the Turbid Crystal Ball, and the 1911 Canadian Election.

The Canadian election of 1911 was fought largely on the issue of “Reciprocity” (a mixed bag of free and inhibited trade) with the United States. It saw the defeat of the Liberals under Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier, in office since 1896, who favoured Reciprocity, and the victory of the Conservatives under Sir Robert Borden, who was to hold office until 1920, and opposed it.

Anyone who thinks it a recent phenomenon that corporate Canada can influence elections and policy by flooding campaigns with money and propaganda should study this election. Corporate Canada, largely centred in those days in Toronto and Montreal, was opposed to Reciprocity, having grown accustomed to the shelter of Sir John A. Macdonald’s “National Policy” and its protective tariffs. Money and propaganda flowed in buckets into the anti-reciprocity campaign.

Prominent among the opponents was none other than our crotchety friend Stephen Leacock. In his Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, written in 1912, he described the election in this way:

I only know that it was a huge election and that on it turned issues of the most tremendous importance, such as whether or not Mariposa should become part of the United States, and whether the flag that had waved over the school house at Tecumseh Township for ten centuries should be trampled under the hoof of an alien invader, and whether Britons should be slaves, and whether Canadians should be Britons, and whether the farming class would prove themselves Canadians, and tremendous questions of that kind.

That about sums it up. There are advantages to fighting elections based on predictions of how things are going to turn out. Prejudice, self-interest and imagination can be allowed free rein. Leacock captures this principle perfectly in his description of Josh Smith’s approach to trade statistics. He does not however tell us anything the following incident, described in Canada 1911: The Decisive Election that Shaped the Country, by Patrice Dutil and David MacKenzie (Dundurn, 2011), page 123:

Earlier in the night [Clifford] Sifton [described by the authors as the eminence grise of the anti-reciprocity movement] gave a speech at McGill University where he was frequently interrupted by a crowd of pro-reciprocity students. The plan was for Sifton then to be escorted to the nearby Windsor Hotel in a carriage pulled by some friendly students, followed by a band and torchlight demonstration. Accompanying Sifton was a fellow speaker for the night, Stephen Leacock, the McGill economist and a founding member of the Anti-Reciprocity League. Showing no respect for one of their university’s most respected faculty members (or for Clifford Sifton, for that matter), another group of McGill students attacked and overturned the carriage, forcing Sifton and Leacock out onto the muddy street. The carriage was filled with wood, torched, and then dragged as it burned through the streets of Montreal, while the students smashed store windows and broke into automobiles. The police arrived … [t]he student riot was quelled and a few arrests were made. … Sifton and Leacock, meanwhile, walked the rest of the way to the Windsor Hotel.

Stephen Leacock was basing his anti-reciprocity rhetoric not on economic analysis but on quite understandable pro-British prejudice. There is nothing wrong with that, unless he was pretending to be an economist while he was doing it. The profession of economics, when validly pursued, is of course based on the rational analysis of data, not the emotional articulation of prejudice. The art of prognostication is, of course, something else entirely.

As we now know, the much vaunted British tie turned out to be worth little in the long term, costing us much in lives and treasure, and we have “reciprocity” with the United States, which has not moved to annex us yet, at least not formally. The ghost of Sir Wilfred Laurier must have laughed at the 1988 election. For more, too many more, of my thoughts on on Stephen Leacock and Sunshine Sketches, see https://mariposabyconway.wordpress.com.

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A Plea Against Simple-Mindedness

A conspiracy is abroad to convince us that cold is colder than it really is. I write this in January. In August I would say we are being told that warm is warmer than it really is. This trick is done by the use of calculated index numbers made to look like thermometer readings: “wind chill”, and “humidex”. The calculators always explain carefully that these are index numbers, and hence unit-less, that is, measuring in their own terms and not in degrees. News-readers are not always as careful to be correct, and even the professional weather reporters will sometimes slip.

To be clear, a “wind chill” reading of -30 is -30, not -30°C. The temperature that goes into the formula is measured in Celsius degrees, the wind speed in kilometres per hour. One could give the resulting index its own units (“chillies” or “hotties”, perhaps). The commentators fudge the numeracy by saying that the index tells us what temperature the weather “feels like”. This is an example of false quantification, casting an illusion of scientific accuracy by forcing the expression of qualitative judgements into numbers, which appear precise. We should be wary of such tricks.

Of course a given winter temperature feels colder if it comes with a brisk wind, and a given summer temperature feels warmer as the humidity rises. Whether these changes are accurately measured by the reported indices, however, is entirely a different matter.

This numerical obfuscation, while irritating to those of us with respect for numbers, would be harmless or even trivial were it not an example of a larger and much more dangerous expedient, which is the reduction of complex phenomena, usually economic, into simple numbers, often index numbers, stock market indices being the most prominent example. The misuse and over-reporting of these indices has become a disease that is catching politically, to the detriment of rational perception and action.

The most important idea that I learned from the study of econometrics, which I was fortunate enough to undertake at institutions of world renown, was that modern advanced economies are extraordinarily complicated organisms, packed with multi-dimensional, simultaneously determined relationships, churning away interactively at their multifarious tasks of production, consumption and investment. To reduce this to any simple set of numbers, especially numbers contrived by some hidden process of indexing, regardless of the felt need, is to engage in an act of deliberate deception. When we pay attention, we are deceiving ourselves.

And yet, every evening my news source, which is CBC radio, offers me the daily “business report”, which tells me inevitably about the stock markets, and perhaps about certain currencies and commodities if they are doing anything exciting that day. This is the entirety of “business”? This accurately represents the lives and livelihoods of millions upon millions of people and institutions making decisions about what to produce, consume and build for the future, making agreements out of their personal relationships to buy and sell in order to give substance to those decisions, and getting on with the job of producing, consuming and building? What is the stock market index to all that, or the relative value of the dollar, or the price of oil or gold? Well, I’ll tell you: it is an incomplete, blurred impression of a small footprint left by the multifarious beast in the soft, muddy shoreline of the river of time. Lazy reporters snap its picture at 5:40 in the afternoon and pretend they are showing us the beast itself. How irresponsible!

Who benefits from all this? Well, first of all the news-media organizations benefit, because they get away with reporting on the cheap. The stock marketeers and commodity traders benefit, because they are made to appear more important than they really are, and there’s money in that. Politicians benefit, because they become encouraged to present with simple-minded interpretations of reality, and there are votes in that, or they think they are. I like to think that voters, on the whole, are not fooled.

Do we benefit? No, we do not. To the extend that we depend on news media, politicians, and other self-appointed interpreters of our reality, we are kept uninformed, and often worried, which inhibits our capacity to make our own rational decisions about what to produce, consume, and build, and keeps us perpetually off balance. There’s no benefit in that, in wealth or enjoyment of life.

If you want to know what is happening in the economy, look around you, at what people, enterprises and institutions are doing. It’s harder work, and sometimes confusing, but at least you are looking at some portion of the beast itself and not at its footprints in the loose mud. Be skeptical of all generalizations and forecasts. Ask yourself who is making them and how much of their money or power is at stake. Be an engaged observer.

Similarly, if you want to know what the weather is like, look outside; read the temperature; check with Environment Canada or your own weather station (if you have one) for wind direction and speed, and relative humidity; consult your own constitution, experience and wardrobe. Then you will know how cold or warm you are going to feel when you step outside. You don’t need some contrived index.

Implicit Memory and the Art of (Dis)Connection

I regret that the ruminations necessary to sustain my two blogs (this one and www.mariposabyconway.wordpress.com), not to mention the larger projects to which they contribute, have become entangled in the complexities of Memory. Because I am, in a very real sense, a professional memorizer, I am quite conscious of my memory. I think about it. I worry about it. I cultivate it. I panic when I find myself forgetting, as I do from time to time. I am filled with delight when it works well, as it often does. I try to understand how it works, so that I can help it improve. Mine is a good, stolid, workmanlike kind of memory, not brilliant, not really quick but sufficiently retentive, a companion, steady, reliable, but with sometimes an apparent mind of its own that can surprise me.

I remember one occasion when I was reciting The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock to a paying audience in the Northern Arts and Cultural Centre in Yellowknife. (If you think that was an odd thing to be doing, and an odd place to be doing it, then think again. Or even better, read the poem. Speak the poem. Then you will understand.) The poem was thoroughly embedded in my memory; I did not need to think about the coming words, but only about how to speak them. At some point, however, I lost my grip, and allowed myself to wonder what the next line might be. Immediately I was lost, because I could not deliberately remember it. Fortunately I was near the beginning of the line where I was, and thus was able to converse with myself—silently, of course—to the following effect: “I know that line. My memory has it lodged firmly. I must stop thinking about it, and let my memory do its job.” So I did, and it did, with complete accuracy, right on time, although the conversation and resulting effort no doubt affected my delivery, or even may have shown on my face, with perhaps puzzling results for the audience. Still, they did not complain.

Which brings me to Karyn L. Freedman, who has written a book called One Hour in Paris: A True Story of Rape and Recovery, reviewed in November’s Literary Review of Canada by Dr. Clare Pain, who in the course of a lengthy summary and analysis of the book, says: “… the traumatic event is taken in by implicit memory, a system that registers knowledge such as how to ride a bike. Subsequent access to the traumatic memory is not available as an ordinary memory, but only as body sensations and actions.” On her web site Dr. Freedman (http://karynfreedman.com) speaks of her philosophical interest in “recalcitrant emotions: fear in the acknowledged absence of danger”, possibly related to “epistemic akrasia: believing against one’s better judgment”.

Implicit memory. Recalcitrant emotions. Epistemic akrasia. Hm. These are deep waters, in which I am not equipped to swim. I do like boating on them, however. “O ma ole canoe, wat’s matter wit’ you, an’ w’y was you be so slow?” Good question.

I wonder if implicit memory is not perhaps a deeply embedded form of ordinary memory, so deeply embedded that it can be called forth involuntarily, in response to any suitable stimuli, and not only deliberately. Dr. Freedman’s hour in Paris is a terrible, complicated experience, laden with an unimaginable cacophony of sensations in all dimensions—physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, personal—an ultimate challenge to one’s sense of order in the world. Such a memory could conceivably be triggered by any recurrence of any of these sensations. My memory of Prufrock’s Love Song is a simple, linear one, line i being automatically triggered by line i-1 successively through 130 iterations. If I wanted to break the connection in order to control the memory, I would need to memorize a whole set of alternative line i’s, embedding them deeply so that I had to think about which one I wanted. This would be a silly thing to do, of course, under the circumstances, but that’s what it would take.

I wonder also if implicit memory does not also work positively in our relations with people we love, the memories of our joyful, complicated, diverse experiences with them being called forth involuntarily as body sensations and actions, and in other ways, in response to associated sensations, the i-1 lines of our coexistence. And what happens if those connections are disrupted? Is that not also a profound disordering of the world, possibly traumatic?

Traumatic connections between unarticulated sensations and experiences embedded in implicit memory; traumatic disconnections between unarticulated sensations and experiences, similarly embedded: Would the art of Recovery be the same, either way?

But what on earth have these meanderings to do with Mariposa? Not much, perhaps, except by free association between thought i and thought i+1. The connection with memory, however, may be more clear, because if Stephen Leacock is satirizing anything in Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town—he is certainly not satirizing Orillia, or any other “real town”, or “seventy or eighty of them”, or Ontario small town life, or anything like—his target is the way he believes we remember the places we were raised. And because he does not remember his own up-bringing that way (see The Boy I Left Behind Me), he has nothing but contempt for such nostalgia. The contempt shows through, which is why the book should not be revered, only enjoyed for what it is.