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.


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