Author Archives: voyageur2014

Moving Forward With Walking Notwithstanding

Fifth Week of the Leacock Anniversaries, April 25, 2019

The various parties to this quest, having sorted out their metaphors, are now on their respective ways, or almost, which is just about where they should be at this stage. We are in the fifth week of forty. We expect the hunt for the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice to take more time, and the taming of the creature even longer than that. I regret that I am unable to be more precise.

To summarize: In the Stephen Leacock blog Olde Stephen (Stephen Leacock’s ghost) and I (whoever “I” may turn out to be in this particular instance) are contemplating our final approach to the Dark Tower, which stands in a fog-bound plain echoing with a bewildering cacophony of strident voices. We confront the possibility that we may have to dig our way across, like moles, our route among the roots a radical one to be sure. Whether we can talpidagate the subsurfacial wasteland without plugging up the slug-horn remains to be seen.

In the Mariposa blog our earnest little band of unsolved riddle hunters are talking in circles, as they would do, although in labyrinthine fashion. This process divides itself into sixteen stages, or “rings”, with a sharp turn the other way at the end of each ring. A labyrinth, however intestinal its form, does have a destination. As they complete the second ring they are exactly where they should be.

In this blog I decided last week to assume the metaphorm of a centaur, with two hands, four feats, and a flowing tale, in order to confront the yottapede who has, I believe, for the time being consumed the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice along with much else, but I haven’t done that yet. I will start next week. For this week I am going to give you a progress report from all three fronts, as I have already done, and then remind you of some of the realities faced by those who undertake the difficult hunt for the particular Unsolved Riddle that was described by Stephen Leacock one hundred years ago.

First, Social Justice, a complicated enough animal in 1919, as he amply demonstrated, has become immeasurably more so in the succeeding century. We have to a considerable extent done the things that Stephen Leacock and other like-minded people wanted us to do, and yet remain insecure in our belief that we have achieved Social Justice, or that we can hang onto it. Old issues have reasserted themselves, and new ones have joined. Social Justice, which presented itself in 1919 as largely corresponding to economic justice for individuals and families, now leads us into an inter-woven tangle of social, economic, environmental, cultural, and political considerations none of which can be denied. “Let us have holistic science!” we cry, without having the slightest idea how to do that.

Second, the world for which we wish Social Justice is inevitably pluralistic. It was so in 1919, of course, but individual communities, cities, provinces, and even nations, were considerably simpler in composition than they are now. Now pluralism, in one form or several, is with us at all levels, from nations and inter-nations to families. An axiom of Pluralism is and always will be that actions taken to benefit one aspect of the Pluris are very likely to harm another. We are persistently demanded to take sides in the resulting disputes, to view our neighbours as adversaries. From adversary to enemy is a very short jump.

Third, we cannot have Social Justice without a sufficient measure of material prosperity. From a technical point of view the reasons are complicated, and we will deal with them, but not today. The political ones are much simpler: the majority of people in our democracies, who ultimately determine the cast of mind of our governments and the broad thrust of their policies, will not tolerate anything else. The idea that Social Justice requires a regression into a lesser state of real material prosperity is simply not acceptable. Perhaps it should be, but it isn’t. Lest you think the situation is therefore hopeless, however, let me remind you that there is plenty of room to re-imagine what we mean by “real material prosperity”. We have done that before, and we can do it again.

Fourth, and lastly for today, if we truly desire Social Justice, we must be prepared to think differently, by which I mean not only to think different thoughts, but to use the tool that is our minds, and the tools that derive from our minds, in entirely unaccustomed ways. That will be very difficult, and will evoke huge resistance.

I do not believe that Reason, as we have known it, whether employed by Karl Marx, or the Fabians, or Ayn Rand, or any of the other ideologues of Social Justice, or even the ideological non-ideologues like Stephen Leacock, is going to track down the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, or tame it for us when we have it in the corral. That is why I am taking a metaphorical approach, or rather several of them. If I can ever figure out what a poetical approach means, I will take that too.

I make a daily discipline of thinking about the key words: Social Justice, Unsolved Riddles, Both-And; Knowledge, Imagination, Compassion, Humour; Talk, Drink, Laugh. I believe that we will have located the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice when we can both understand these words in the customary ways as they have evolved through the ages, and find new understandings for them. Both new wine in the old bottles, and new bottles for the old wine. At the same time. Not easy.

 

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Amidst Dark Towers and Labyrinths, a Yottapede

The tumbling metaphors are beginning to sort themselves out. Two probes are under way: the Dark Tower probe of Olde Stephen and me in the Stephen Leacock Blog, and the Labyrinthine probe of the Mariposa group in that one. Olde Stephen and I are ready to blow the slug-horn as soon as we arrive at the Dark Tower, if we can find it, and the Mariposans have walked the first ring which is also the middle ring, so considered both because it is the third of seven geometrically, and contains the half-way point by distance for each phase of the walk.

All that remains is for me to decide what approach I will take myself, because I am in this Hunt too, working the Dark Tower with Olde Stephen, walking the labyrinth with the Mariposans, and seeking my own way. But what way is that?

I think I will go back to what I was taught, all those years ago, and the idea that complex relationships in the human world can be effectively “modelled” in some useful sense of the word. I learned about mathematical models, econometric models, statistical models, deterministic models, stochastic models, and I can’t remember what all else. I even built a three of these things, two of which worked (a linear programming produce-mix model, and a set of provincial economic accounts) and the other (a regional holistic social-economic-environmental-cultural-political model) most emphatically did not and never would have done. But is the latter not precisely what we need, or at least may reasonably dream of, for the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice? I think it is, and although it may not be possible to build it in any practical way, perhaps I can imagine it. Perhaps if I put this together with the Dark Tower and the Labyrinth, maybe I can achieve some useful effect, even if that is only to add some intelligibility to the whole confused prospect.

To do that I am going to adopt two ideas from my quantitative modelling days, as I remember them (an important qualification). First: that the variables in this model are primarily stochastic, not deterministic. In other words, they are governed by probabilities, by probability distributions. This does not mean they are random. A probability distribution has shape, centre (variously defined as its mean, average, median, etc.), and dispersion, or variance. It may have other attributes too, but for the time being I have forgotten what they are. I must bone up on that and, wondrous to relate, I still have the books! There may be newer ones I should read.

Second idea: that relations among the variables are simultaneously influenced (I don’t say ‘determined’); that is, that variable A influences variable B, and vice versa. Of course since we are dealing with multiple alphabets of variables, so these influences become highly complicated, which does not mean we cannot aspire to distill out their essence or some approximation of it.

Stephen Leacock’s standard for a model (he didn’t call them that) was whether it worked. Socialism, which is one model, doesn’t work, he judged. He still has plenty of company. He judged also that laissez-faire-ism doesn’t work, at least not in pure form as ideological capitalism or marketism. His ‘model’ was a mixed one, in those terms. The model we use today is even more mixed. The airwaves pulse with alternatives, which I will examine briefly. The ideologies and pragmatisms of the whole social-economic-environmental-cultural-political creature that we must find and tame if we are to have anything remotely satisfactory as a model for Social Justice indeed constitutes a wilderness of the most wilder kind.

As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a den, and I laid me down in that den to sleep, and as  slept I dreamed a dream. I dreamed, and behold, I saw a Yottapede, an immense worm-like creature with more legs than I could count, who crawled across the landscape absorbing all in its path, becoming larger and more yottapedic all the time. And a voice cried out from Heaven lamenting that the Yottapede was unstoppable, that it had absorbed so much, that it wanted to absorb the wilderness and everything it had not already absorbed, that it wanted to absorb the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice too, but had not quite succeeded, at least not yet. “Turn, turn,” cried the voice, “turn the Yottapede, before it’s too late!” I called out to the voice, how can I do that? “You must cast about to find all those bits of the Unsolved Riddle that the Yottapede has not already absorbed, and yottapede-proof them.” Oh, I replied, is that all. Okay, I will. But for that I am going to need a model, a simulation, of the world, of the wilderness, of the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, of the Yottapede itself. “Go for it,” said the voice.

 

Apotheosis! To Be a Metaphor.

Week Three, Wednesday, April 10th, 2019. A sunny, not especially warm day on Bruce Peninsula, where birds do sing “hey ding-a-ling-a-ling” (not really) and everybody,—not just sweet lovers,—is ready for Spring. The yard is clear of snow so that I can walk the short labyrinth. The bush remains snow-congested, enough so that the long one is open only to perambulation of the mind. My mind, that is, because I am the only one who knows where it is. But this blog posting is not about labyrinths. Another one is (see the Mariposa blog linked alongside). The labyrinth there is being used to metaphorialize (there’s a word and then some!) the mental processes that might be used to hunt down and tame the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice.

Please don’t be put off by the ersatz vocabulary, which has its place. If we can have ‘memorialize’ we can have ‘metaphorialize’. In fact, in certain situations they may be closely related phenomena.

There was a little girl who had little curl right in the middle of her forehead;
When she was good she was very very good, but when she was bad she was horrid.

I am being quite Leacockian in quoting that verse. By that I mean, that I am doing it by memory, not looking it up to make sure I have it exactly right. Stephen Leacock did that often. As an habitual misquoter he may have no equal in Canadian letters.

I finished off my Stephen Leacock blog posting this week (also linked alongside) by asking whether Marshall McLuhan, Northrop Frye, or Stephen Leacock, could be treated as metaphors. I started my recent lengthy discourse into The Unsolved Riddle(s) of Stephen Leacock with a quotation of my own, as follows:

How should we remember the flawed giants of our past? Do we focus on their accomplishments and gloss over the flaws, or do we focus on their flaws and gloss over the accomplishments? Our history abounds in men and women who worked wonders, amply recognized in their day, who held opinions, or did deeds, or were the kind of people we no longer want to celebrate. How do we do justice to them?

This Unsolved Riddle leads me, for complicated but quite respectable reasons, to consider the life and career of William Wilfred Campbell, 1860-1918, Canadian man of letters and occasional poet. I sit on the board of the annual William Wilfred Campbell Festival, a body charging itself with the task of memorializing him for his own sake, to diversify the amour-propre of the town of Wiarton too long reliant only on white groundhogs, to effuse the spirit of poetry into the young of Bruce and Grey Counties, and to celebrate poetry generally and local poets in particular. I support all these causes, which is why I am on the board. I am also watching, with interest, the memorizializing turn into metaphorializing, which is of course exactly what I am doing with Stephen Leacock. I am therefore one in spirit with the whole enterprise.

If one considers the poetry only, which is tempting because poets are rare birds and even more so in Wiarton, or even his whole literary oeuvre, it is difficult to make of William Wilfred anything but a metaphor of assertive and gritty mediocrity. But I am finding there is a lot more to the man than that, and I am hoping I can convince the board and the local public to take a wider view. I believe this will be up-hill work, because metaphorializing him along these lines will be much more complicated than to pursue the simpler story of a local boy with poetical aspirations who made good on the national literary stage. The problem there is with the “made good” part of the story, because poor William Wilfred was firmly forgotten almost as soon as he was dead, and one cannot be said to have “made good” in the literary pantheon if that happens.

Did Leacock and Campbell know each other? I think it entirely possible they did.  They moved in the same Empire-loving circles at the same time and, when Leacock was lecturing in Ottawa, in the same place. Leacock once placed the main character of a story in Wiarton, and gave him a clergyman for a father. That sounds to me as if he knew something of William Wilfred’s story, the kind that could be picked up in post-lecture social conversation. They both liked good company and conversation, and could have got along very well.

What has all this to do with the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice? Not much, perhaps, except one deep thing. Those who believe in Social Justice and are prepared to work for it come with a deep faith that things can be better than they are, and a deep frustration that so many people, including those who would benefit, do not share that faith, are not prepared to make much effort, or indeed are even prepared, if not to work against it, at least to think against it, subsiding too easily into negativity, pessimism and inertia. They thus withhold support from those “of good will whose hearts are in the cause”, as Leacock called them in his final published words, and passively encourage those who are of the opposite persuasion who were then, as now, powerful, aggressive, articulate, well-placed, well-financed, self-interested, and self-satisfied. Leacock pilloried them in Aradian Adventures with the Idle Rich, but the lesson did not stick.

I am beginning to believe, as I read more about him, that William Wilfred Campbell was on Leacock’s side, bringing his heart and his pen to the struggle, and paying the price. He brought a wealth of Knowledge and Compassion to the cause. He worked hard, and is forgotten. Stephen Leacock brought those too, and worked just as hard. He also brought Imagination and Humour. He is remembered. They both deserve to be made metaphorical, although not perhaps in the same metaphor.

 

The Unsolved Riddles of Equality and Fairness, Principle, Perfection and Truth

Week Two of LEACOCK 150~100~75! Wednesday, April 3rd, 2019.

I left off last week casting hesitant doubt on the words Equality and Fairness in our conversations about Social Justice and, even more hesitantly, on Perfection, Principle, and even Truth, in our wider political conversations. We have heard a lot recently about Principle and Truth in the brouhaha about SNC-Lavalin. Jody Wilson-Raybould’s reference to “her truth” at least left the door open to the idea of a place for other people’s truths. The brayings of the political opposition and some journalists for “the truth” do not. When I hear the word “principle” in democratic political conversations I always remember Lord Peter Wimsey’s dictum in Dorothy L Sayers’s Gaudy Night that “the first thing a principle does, if it really is a principle, is to kill someone.” Or at least do a lot of damage. For “perfection” I remember W.H. Auden’s

“In our bath, or the subway, or in the middle of the night,
We know very well we are not unlucky but evil,
That the dream of a Perfect State or No State at all,
To which we fly for refuge, is a part of our punishment.”

For my rhetorical purpose, which is not Auden’s, and for any practical discussion of the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, I would rephrase the second line more awkwardly. We are not, in this context, unlucky, but lazy, narrowly preoccupied, and open to manipulation by half-truthers. The third and fourth lines I would let stand.

For my purposes I am going to re-word Charles Simeon’s seminal dictum about the truth, and I am going to keep repeating it, because it has become, and maybe always was, one of the easiest verities to forget:

THE ‘S0LUTION’ IS NOT AT ONE OR ANOTHER POLE OF AN UNSOLVED RIDDLE, NOR HALF-WAY BETWEEN THEM, BUT AT BOTH POLES.

For clarity this statement assumes only two poles. Of course there could be multiple poles. If you are conversant with n-dimensional geometry, which most of us are not, you will be able to visualize the more complex possibility. I use ‘poles’ rather than ‘extremes’ because I am not sure they are extremes in many if not most cases. They are often simply different ways of looking at the same situation. Calling them ‘extremes’ simply intensifies a conversation that badly needs to be moderated.

I also want to drag into the conversation George Orwell’s concept of “doublethink”. I have written about this elsewhere, as follows:

“Doublethink,” said he in 1984, “means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.” He presents it as an intellectual prop to tyranny. I believe that in a great many circumstances it thinks the truth, that to think double enables creative engagement in the necessary deliberations and conversations of our time. We are a two-handed species. On the one hand and on the other hand are built right into our bones.

I could cite dozens if not hundreds of examples; I will mention one, which is current: the law of assisted suicide. On the one hand, it is a terrible thing to aid in the extinction of a human life. I hold that truth to be self-evident. On the other hand, it is a terrible thing to let a person suffer extremely without hope of relief. I hold that truth to be self-evident. I hold these truths simultaneously and accept both of them. I am a double-thinker on this issue, as on many.

Of course my double-thoughts may be offensive to a person of single-minded beliefs. I recognize the offense, I regret it, but I don’t know what to do with it. I do know what to do about assisted suicide, what was in fact done with it, and wisely continues to be done: a long tortuous process of conversation and negotiation, leading to an experiment accepting something from both hands and feasible within our institutions. We are in the middle of that experiment now, and the conversation continues. In other words, we have met one aspect of the Unsolved Riddle of Extreme Human Suffering, we have worked on it with both hands, we have done our humane best to accommodate both hands, and we have recognized that further adjustment may lie ahead before we achieve Social Justice. We have somewhat mitigated contention on this matter, at least for the time being.

We have two examples in front of us right now, both stubbornly resisting that kind of conversation: the SNC-Lavalin affair, which I have discussed earlier in this blog, and ‘Brexit’, which as Olde Stephen observed on Monday of this week (see the Leacock Blog), is none of my business but fun to watch.

On SNC-Lavalin the words ‘principle’ and ‘truth’ play in and out of the conversation like flashes of lightning, and with about as much lasting illumination. ‘Perfection’ will so play, at least conceptually, when we come to consider whether the two roles of Justice Minister and Attorney General should be combined in the same person in the cabinet. We will find valid arguments on both sides, and the conversation will be long and tedious. Perhaps the bi-polar solution is to separate the two roles while keeping the Attorney General in the Cabinet. That way, legal decisions that have little political weight can be dealt with at the discretion of the office-holder, while those with substantial political weight (using ‘political’ in the governmental, non-pejorative sense), can be resolved through normal cabinet processes. .

I am reaching the end of my self-imposed tether for this or any posting. Next week I will start to probe the real substance of the matter for this blog in this year of Leacock Anniversaries: if conversation, negotiation, and double thinking are the ‘solutions’ to Unsolved Riddles in general, and the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice in particular, then what kind of institutions can we create to enable and encourage them, how do our present institutions stack up, and how can we educate ourselves appropriately? Education always preoccupied Stephen Leacock. Where does his tetrad of Knowledge, Imagination, Compassion, and Humour work itself in?

I also have a notion that theoretically, in all our parliamentary legislatures, our ‘government’ is not the top-party uni-polar institution that we think it is, but a bi-polar one intended to incorporate both ‘the government’ and ‘the opposition’. We know that excessive partisanship is dysfunctional for public well-being in a government. We tolerate some of it because we know we must. Perhaps it is equally so for a political opposition. Perhaps because we have been propagandized to believe that ‘government’ is about power, more than service, we are being fooled, or fooling ourselves.

Pluralism comes into this somewhere too. We mustn’t forget that.

Please keep in mind that we find ourselves always drawn to one book among Stephen Leacock’s fifty-three, that being Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, probably because we sense in some way that the people of Mariposa are just like us. Please note also that they were forever being fooled, or fooling themselves. Are they any less prone today? You can find out in the Mariposa blog (see right-hand panel for link), add your ideas to any of the three Leacock Anniversaries blogs, or even to the eventual All-Weather Sketches of a Middling City.

Enough for this week.

 

 

The Unsolved Riddle of Unsolved Riddles

Wednesday, March 27th 2019: First Posting here, Third Posting overall. (Posts will flow weekly here on Wednesdays.)

I am resolved to hunt down and tame the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice. I am resolved to do this in time to replicate Stephen Leacock’s publication schedule of one hundred years ago: seven chapters individually from late August to early October, and a book in mid-January. I am hoping that by performing this project on-line, I can engage many people,—you in particular,—in the search for ideas that will effectively domesticate this elusive and slippery creature once and for all. If we must make like Lord Ronald to begin with, riding madly off in all directions, so be it.

I am not sure when Unsolved Riddles were first spotted. Perhaps you know. If so, please tell me. I believe that the first step towards identification and classification was taken by the English clergyman Charles Simeon in 1825 when, in a letter to a friend, he said: “For you I can say in words, what for these thirty years I have proclaimed in deeds, that the truth is not in the middle and not in one extreme; but in both extremes. I see you are filled with amazement, and doubting whether I am in my sober senses.” The particular species of the genus Unsolved Riddle that he had in mind had to do with theology, or perhaps ecclesiastics. Our species is Social Justice. Later on, in 1855, Walt Whitman boasted of  his particular species: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then . . . . I contradict myself ; I am large . . . . I contain multitudes.” He thus makes a virtue of riding off in all directions. The social world boasts to us: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then . . . . I contradict myself. To deal with me justly, you must be large . . . . you must contain multitudes.” This is a tall order, the one served up however by all pluralistic regimes, contradictions and all.

There may be some out there who think we should not live in a pluralistic regime, that somehow or other we can return, or ought to be able to return, to the days of relative singularism, when we in Canada were four solitudes: a British, English-speaking solitude that believed in itself and knew where it stood; a French-speaking solitude that believed in itself and knew where it stood; an immigrant solitude or complex of solitudes grudgingly offered a place but little standing; and an indigenous solitude pushed out of its place with its standing brutally cut off. I am sorry for those nostalgic people. I could in fact be one of them, although I am not, because I grew up in the English-speaking British one, but it just won’t do any more. Stephen Leacock’s final chapter in The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice is called “What Is Possible and What Is Not”. Singularism of the old kind is no longer possible, and should not be possible. We have pluralism, we will have even greater pluralism, and we must find some practicable form of social justice that is suited to pluralism.

I wonder what happens if we throw out two words that appear often in conversations about social justice: equality, and fairness. I hasten to say that I am not suggesting we should throw out what those words intend to promote. I am raising the possibility that the words themselves, either inherently, or in what has become of them, are now in the way. In other words, when we battle against inequality and unfairness, as evils which Social Justice ought to overcome, we may not want to replace them with equality and fairness. We may want to replace them with something else. I wonder what that is.

I am determined that these postings will not become too long, and this one is getting there. I will therefore simply prime the pump for next week with my doubts about those two words, Equality and Fairness. And I may then add two more: Perfection, and Principle. Even Truth, perhaps? If you think of others, please let me know. voyageur@bmts.com is the e-mail address; http://www.voyageurstorytelling.ca has all the links.

I have a strong urge to keep writing. I am going to suppress it until next week.

Thank you for reading. Please bear with me.

Posted by Paul Conway, Voyageur Storytelling

 

The Unsolved Riddle of the SNC-Lavalin Affair, Part II

If you read recent posts on this blog you will notice that they all talk about Unsolved Riddles. Those are situations, commonly found in the social-economic-environmental-cultural-political domain, where the truth lies not at one pole or another, but at both poles. We have a humdinger on our hands right now, as was pointed out by Althia Raj of the CBC’s “At Issue” panel last night (Wednesday, February 27th). None of the others on the panel caught on, however, preferring to stress the contention of the matter. In fact, the CBC News web site this morning blazoned a headline announcing that the matter “forces Liberals to take sides.” Of course it does nothing of the kind, although it may present them with that opportunity. To take sides in an Unsolved Riddle is exactly the wrong way to treat it.

Ms. Jody Wilson-Raybould did indeed an admirable job of telling “her truth”. She is a formidable advocate. The Prime Minister then told his, doing a less admirable job. He is a formidable advocate too, but in a different style. As we think about these competing truths, however, we should remember that she is advocating for a point of view, just as he is. Her point of view is a legal one, but also inescapably a political one. His is an economic point of view, also a social one because of the jobs involved, also inescapably a political one. So far they are equal.

I am not here to argue the merits of these poles, although I was interested to see an article last night discussing the Canadian practice of combining the jobs of Minister of Justice (political) and Attorney General (legal). (https://theconversation.com/is-sir-john-a-macdonald-to-blame-for-the-wilson-raybould-affair-112594) Ms. Wilson-Raybould is of course perfectly within her rights to be more comfortable with the latter, but as long as they are combined, and she had the job, she had to do them both. She held the inherent Unsolved Riddle in her hands, as did the Prime Minister. We should perhaps be more sympathetic, because these people are both our agents, solemnly obliged to do the best they can to accommodate both points of view. I believe that to argue that legalism ought to out-weigh social and economic justice would be an idea that Canadians, in general, do not accept. It is certainly an idea vigorously contested when legalism in a criminal case reaches a conclusion contrary to our sense of justice.

The confusing aspect of this one, of course, is that in promoting social and economic justice for the employees and multipliers of SNC-Lavalin, we appear to be easing up on the corporation itself and their misdeeds. There may be no way around that. We rely on corporations to create and sustain jobs, which makes us dependent on them. A man who shoots his horse because it puts a foot wrong had better enjoy walking.

Once we take in all the complexities in this affair we come down simply, I believe, to a row between two well-intentioned politicians over what should be done with a difficult case. Both Ms. Wilson-Raybould and the Prime Minister believed they were doing the right thing. She did not like being pressured, and he did not like being defied. An Unsolved Riddle with poles rooted in conflicting ideas of justice, becomes an Unsolved Riddle involving personalities, which is too bad.

Here we have fine drama. Politicians, news media, and social media are all undeniably excited. But is exploiting drama good politics, good journalism, or good citizenry? It is tempting to do so, no doubt. But despite the drama, this episode raises difficult legal, economic, and political issues which require careful thought. The issue is not really whether to believe Ms. Wilson-Raybould or the Prime Minister, or neither, or both, the last being the Unsolved Riddle course. The issue is what should be done about SNC-Lavalin. That’s a tough one, replete with hard legal, economic, and political questions that have  become very public. So let’s talk about them.

Let’s talk also about whether the offices of the Minister of Justice (political) and Attorney General (legal) should be held by the same official, and whether the latter should be in Cabinet.

 

 

The Unsolved Riddle of the SNC-Lavalin “Affair”

As affairs go this is a pretty sorry one, but instructive nonetheless. We should thank our lucky stars that in times like these, the best Canada can do for political scandal is an argument among senior politicians concerning the fate of an important corporation allegedly caught in the act of bribing people in a corrupt foreign regime, a criminal act in this country. It should go without saying that the crime lies in getting caught, because I am sure that all corporations who deal with corrupt regimes do it. Pay bribes, that is. Not get caught. As long as we like the jobs and the stock price gains that come from such practices, we are hardly in a position to cast stones. But we do it anyway.

There are two aspects to this affair. One is the behaviour of the politicians. The other is the behaviour of the media reporting it.

Before I resoundingly object to the behaviour of the CBC, where I get most of my Canadian news, I tip my  hat to Chantal Hébert and Neil Macdonald who at least tried to tell us that there is more going on here than meets the eye, and that the interpretations of the political opposition need not be taken as Gospel. Fortunately yesterday (February 21st) the Clerk of the Privy Council, Michael Wernick, threw some light where before had been only suspicion, and all became clear to the intelligently imaginative eye.

My interpretation: There was an argument among senior politicians about an important domestic matter, and one of them didn’t like it. She, the Hon. Jody Wilson-Raybould, Minister of Justice and Attorney General at the time, was the one who had to make the decision. She in fact made it her way, but unfortunately she expressed her indignation at the argument to such effect that someone in her entourage — I doubt very much that she did it herself — blatted to The Globe and Mail. That august press organ failed to ask itself or discern what was really going on, printed the story, the opposition weighed in, other media took up the cry, and a tiny morsel of hell broke loose.

Ms. Wilson-Raybould MP, then spoke in the House of Commons, looking forward to the opportunity to tell “her truth”. That was graceful of her. She could have said “the truth”. It was also the moment when the affair became instructive, and not merely intensely irritating.

She has her truth. Her former colleagues have their truth. I hope both will find clear articulation, and the sooner the better. Both these truths will be true to those who hold them. It may even be that both are true objectively, and that we have here a clear example of what Stephen Leacock called an Unsolved Riddle, a situation where The Truth lies at both poles simultaneously. Stephen Leacock was of course one of those who could do justice to the absurdity of the discussion, as politicians, the media, and the public try to come to grips with one of these things. The phenomenon itself is not absurd, but simply a part of the human condition with which we ought to be entirely familiar but to which we never seem to become accustomed.

I wish the Prime Minister had told his truth right off the bat. Of course it is a terrible thing if SNC-Lavalin with all its experience, expertise, and legions of employees were to fail, if the allegations are well founded, as a result of common practice carried out with clumsy stupidity. They will have learned their lesson, and it is only right that it should hurt. But not fatally. He and his people were entirely within their rights and their jobs to argue so. Ms. Wilson-Raybould was entirely within her rights and her job to want to throw the book at them, to resent the intrusion of political or economic considerations into a legal matter. Let Justice be done, though the heavens fall. Two truths, both true. The jurisprudential art will consist in finding a way to respect both. I think our rule of law will be able to do that, if the hordes stop howling and let the juris bring their brains and skill to bear in pursuit of the best possible mixture of justices.

In my schoolyard many years ago, when combat broke out between two boys, or more rarely between two girls, the cry would go up: “Fight fight fight!” And everyone would rush over to form a circle around the combatants and urge them on, some cheering for one, some for the other, most simply enjoying the spectacle. A teacher would then come along and break it up before anyone got hurt very much. A bloody nose or two, perhaps, or some pulled hair. We are at no loss these days for people to form the circle and cheer as we did, but who will act as the teacher? Where is the voice of calm common sense in this absurd affair and others like it, the voice who knows how things happen in the huge complex conflicted highly-pressured governments of our time, and how we should think about them.

Stephen Leacock, on his good days, had that kind of voice. Of course he had his bad days too. Who of us does not? This year we celebrate the 150th anniversary of  his birth, the 75th of his death, and the 100th of his book The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice. It’s time to re-write that book.