Yesterday I wrote a Missive for the on-rushing Stephen Leacock Sesquicentennial, in part as follows:
When what is plural about us becomes perceived as an entanglement of identities and tribes, then we are in trouble. When the institutions that we have created to realize our hopes yearn for the simplicity and powers of monism and act accordingly, then we are in trouble. When we cannot or will not converse with each other in humane ways across the intermedia of our plural beings, then we are in trouble. When we think we cannot afford to be what we are, then we are in trouble. When we cannot remember how we got here and why we set out in the first place, then we are in trouble. I am not sure how much trouble we are in, but I worry about the trends.
What are we, and what do we want to be? A liberal democracy? A social democracy? An institutional democracy? A communitarian democracy? All of the above: a pluralistic democracy? I think so, but the traditions of collective reflection and conversation and accommodation that we need to make that work are under pressure from monistic interests and simplistic misunderstandings on all sides, and the sheer difficulty of the combination.
If we can’t find some way forward we will eventually find ourselves with no democracy at all, or only the pale shadow of one in the form of representatives duly elected to parliaments largely powerless. Of course the journey will be difficult, but why should we blinch at that? We are, on the whole, a thoughtful, articulate, educated, humane people, who can handle a complex conversation if only given the opportunity. Such a process is hard work, of course, and we are, on the whole, also humanly lazy. But we constantly prove ourselves quite capable of working hard in a good cause. Why not this one?
It would be helpful if those who aspire to inform us were not so eager to climb onto and sustain the simplistic bandwagon itself. Off the top I can think of two unhelpful illusions that are regularly presented to our credulity. First, and most ludicrously: that “the economy” is a singular thing that is and can be “managed” by our governments. Nonsense! Economic life is a tremendous organism of mind-boggling complexity. Those who claim to understand it — and they are many and vociferous — need to retain a just measure of humility, and to remind us, and themselves, as they spin their informative webs, that what they are able to see and describe on any one occasion is only a tiny slice of the reality. Such blatant absurdities as the CBC’s nightly “business report” consisting of a few stock market indices and a couple of spot market prices should be hooted off the stage. Likewise any politician or journalist who talks about “the economy”. Such talk is pure bamboozlement.
It would be helpful if those who aspire to inform us would abandon the idea that the identity of a political party can be expressed in the person of its leader. I think that our political parties are complex organisms in their own right, and that all the main ones, those who try to embrace a wide perspective and have any hope of being elected, have something wise to say. They also indulge themselves and try to tempt us with much twaddle and intellectual candy floss borrowed from consumer marketing and branding. It would be helpful if our journalists would not go along so lazily with these unhelpful habits. I think that if we put all the platforms of all the parties together, after cutting out the candy floss, we would see the mind of the body politic in all its colour and richness.
I believe also that we would have a manifesto for the pluralistic democracy that collectively we hope for, that is a liberal democracy, a social democracy, an institutional democracy, and a communitarian democracy, all rolled into one. A monumental Unsolved Riddle perhaps, but a good one.
You may well ask whether I have done such a thing. The answer is that I tried, at the time of the last federal election, and made some progress. I tried to capture it in the persona of the Muddle Party. Some of the platforms were so incredibly verbose and disorganized that I was unable to finish in time. A vision of pluralistic democracy did indeed emerge, a flickering shadow glimpsed through the partisan fog. I have not tried for the Ontario election soon to come, for reasons peculiar to this particular occasion. I am going to try again for the federal election in 2019, which may, if we are fortunate, be more about ideas than personalities, or can be made so.
And guess what? It will coincide with the height of the Stephen Leacock Sesquicentennial. He gave us the Great Election in Missinaba County. A fitting precedent for an election conversation chock full of Knowledge, Imagination, Compassion, and Humour, just as he would want.