Monthly Archives: July 2019

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.

Never send to know for whom the CBC polls; it polls for thee, or thinks it does

What has the recent Canada Day “poll” commissioned and being massaged daily by the CBC to do with Social Justice? A great deal, as a matter of fact, because it serves as an example of abuse of statistical methods to create journalistic fodder, and thus to misrepresent our perceptions of our country’s beliefs and attitudes. It is an exercise in misinformation and misleading. It is not fake news, because it is reporting something that actually happened, but it is sloppy news. Canadians on the whole may or may not be “conflicted and worried”, as the July 1st headline would have it, but you can’t prove it by this “poll”, one way or the other.

This piece of work is not a “poll”, but a “survey”. A survey becomes a poll when rigour is applied to the size and composition of the sample, the wording of the questions, and the nature of the questioning. This survey meets none of the relevant standards, and therefore cannot be generalized. It is valid for what it is, a survey of 4,500 (3,000 + 3×500) Canadians not randomly selected who were asked slanted questions over the internet and confined to multiple-choice answers. It has no capacity to speak to the larger outlook. Éric Grenier, the reporter who wrote the first story, and who with his background presumably knows better, as he tries to reassure us on the reliability of his reportage, makes the following, startling statement:

Because the sample is based on those who initially self-selected for participation in the Maru Voice panel rather than a probability sample, no estimates of sampling error can be calculated. However, a comparable probabilistic national sample of 3,000 voters would have a margin of error of +/- 1.8 percentage points, 19 times out of 20, while samples of 500 voters have a margin of error of +/- 4.4 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Logically this is exactly the same as saying, “Since this animal before us is an ass we can’t expect it to do the same work as a horse. But if it were a horse, we could get it to do the work. So even though we know it’s an ass, we’ll put it to work as if it were a horse.” We may judge the work accordingly.

By the way, in my day we didn’t have “probability” or “probabilistic” samples. We had random samples, representative samples, small samples, large samples, etc. all of which use probabilities, each of which performs very differently. Mr. Grenier is trying to baffle us into overlooking his horse-ass problem. The CBC survey, by the way, uses a very small, even minuscule, not random, not remotely representative sample.

You can find Mr. Grenier’s story at The CBC has published others since, but I haven’t read them.

Let’s look at the questions. I propose to increase the sample to 4,501, a .022% (that is, 2.2 one-hundredths of one percent) increase, by answering some of the questions myself. I realize this percentage is small. It’s considerably larger than the CBC’s .016% of the adult Canadian population, however. To have any chance of supporting the generalizations the CBC wants to make they would need something closer to 450,000 respondents, randomly selected and personally interviewed, at least by telephone. I am not saying they don’t learn anything from their almost infinitesimal, biased, internetted sample, only that it provides no support for conclusions about the adult population as a whole, especially considering the questions asked. These are not simple, like “How would you vote?” or “Do you have a job?” They are complicated questions, inviting nuanced answers. The answers are pre-set, however, thus depriving the respondents of the right to say what they believe or how they feel in their own words.

On to the questions, as described in Mr. Grenier’s story. I have enough respect for his integrity to assume he is reporting them accurately.

When you think of you and your family, are you worried or optimistic about the future?” (Answers provided: Worried, somewhat worried, somewhat optimistic, optimistic.) My answer: I am neither worried nor optimistic. These words do not apply to me as I squint my way towards the future. Some good things are happening, and some not so good. In the future I expect that some good things will happen, and some not so good. Whether these will be the same things remains to be seen. I am reasonably sure, based on my age, that I will die some time in the next twenty-five years. I am not worried about that.

“What, if anything, are you most worried about?” (My health/health of a family member, cost of living, climate change, crime and public safety, terrorism, my job/finding a job, immigration, international relations/trade agreements, truth in the media, racism, social inequality, none of these issues worry me). I see reason for concern in what is happening and has happened in several of these areas, some more than others, but I know good people are working on them and trust their efforts will be fruitful at least to some extent. Progress is necessarily gradual. Ill-informed and self-interested opposition to those efforts is of course always a concern, but can be overcome by people of good will whose hearts are in the cause. The cause, for me, is Social Justice, which enters into all these fields and defies simplistic formulas of any kind.

I am going to skip over the next group, which concern specific issues or points of view. Besides, I am running out of room.

“In general, do you think Canada is on the right track or on the wrong track?” (Right track, wrong track). What a stupid question! Canada is a pluralistic country, moving through time in a way compatible with both its nationhood and its pluralism, neither confined to one track nor unconstrained in its modes of travel. All human possibilities, for good or ill, are within our potential, although I believe our potential for good exceeds the other.

Thinking about the upcoming federal election in October specifically, which issues are most concerning to you?” (Health care, climate change, cost of living, jobs/the economy, housing affordability, home ownership, government mismanagement, deficit spending, gun control, nobody to vote for, immigration, terrorism, trade negotiations, rascism, the quality of life in Indigenous communities, women’s equality) I see progress and reason for concern in all these areas. When I look at the parties and their leadership (always more than one person) I am more interested in their casts of mind than the specifics of their “programs” let alone their “promises”. I will vote for whichever party appears to have the most favourable cast of mind for the cause of Social Justice in all its pluralistic, multi-faceted ways.

It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if a hefty percentage of the other 4,500 people agree with me, or will agree when we have had a good conversation about the meanings of the words we are using. Alas, I do not expect the CBC to sponsor anything like that kind of conversation, or to support it by the necessary kind of social-political journalism.

By the way, if anybody knows what a cross between a fox and a hedgehog (or a porcupine) looks like, or how it behaves, please let me know. I think we may need one to tame the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice and put it to work. Isaiah Berlin, echoing Archilochus, tells us: “The fox knows many things,  but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” I think that’s a Both-And, which may not really be all that hard to do.

Maybe Canada is such a cross: BOTH one big thing, AND many things,