Category Archives: One Voice

The Madness of King Us – Covid-19

I am trying to  imagine what Cast of Mind we should cultivate to get us through the Covid-19 outburst. Although by no means sure, I am not convinced that the cast of mind being thrust upon us by those in authority, their advocates, and the news media is the best one for the job.

I have been suggesting, in other places, that a Fourfold (or Morefold) Cast of Mind might constitute a better way. By that I mean, most simply, that we should cultivate the capacity to look rigorously at any situation, in this case the new corona virus, in more than one way with equal degrees of rigour. The idea is a little more complicated, in that a truly Morefold Cast of Mind would think in all relevant ways simultaneously. A simple sequential algorithm will work well enough for today.

You will perhaps have noticed that I did not call Covid-19 a crisis, or even a pandemic, but an outburst. I am searching for a neutral term, but not too neutral. I am trying to keep my mind clear of all preconceptions, especially those cultivated by people who might be cultivating some other cast of mind. Is Covid-19, or the virus that causes it, the “crisis”, or is the “crisis” our reaction? In other words, is our reaction proportionate to the phenomenon itself, or are we marching to the beat of some other drummer?

In order to clarify further before I get into specifics, I draw your attention to three examples of Fourfolding that I have encountered so far. Obviously I will be more content when I have a fourth, which ought to come from William Blake, who called our attention to the “supreme delight” of “Fourfold Visions”. His concept however is so complex that I do not yet have the pleasure of understanding it. I have found three more mundane others. I call them Tetrads:

Stephen Butler Leacock, 1860-1944, in his copious and varied writings on education: Knowledge + Imagination + Compassion + Humour;

John Maynard Keynes, 1883-1946, in his tribute to Alfred Marshall, written in 1924: Mathematics + History + Statecraft + Philosophy;

Isaiah Berlin, 1909-1997, who, according to his biographer Michael Ignatieff, sought a cast of mind that is: sceptical, ironical, dispassionate, and free.

A fourth might well be Northrop Frye, 1912-1991, who certainly liked to organize his thoughts in fours, although I am not sure what the full list would be. I am nearly certain that “Literary”, or “Poetic”, would appear on it.

What happens if we approach Covid-19 with a cast of mind somehow consistent with these casts of mind? How would we react?

First of all, I think we would require that whatever we are reacting to ought to be a fact and not merely a belief. Is our reaction itself a fact? No doubt it is, but too far downstream for this analysis. I submit that the “facts” at the root of most of the excitement are (a) statistical, and (b) historical. Other “facts” or perceptions, are augmenting the excitement, I submit, but those are the roots. I will start with the statistics. I am looking at two statistical web sites with coronavirus pages: https://ourworldindata.org, and http://www.worldometers.info.

The result is a blizzard of statistics, far too many for the mind to grasp, no matter what cast of mind one brings to the task. These sites, but particularly the former, are very, very, very, very informative, if you have the time and numerical literacy to make use of them. The natural human need, however, is somehow to distill the essence of what they are saying. This is where we get into trouble, because it is almost impossible to distill the essence without imposing prior judgements or biases. To distill without bias takes one into a realm of sophisticated analysis inaccessible to the citizen-reader who is simply trying to become well informed.

To illustrate how biassed distilling might work, what would I do if I wanted to convince you that some phenomenon, measured in numbers, is larger rather than smaller? First of all, I would look for the largest numbers available and draw your attention to them. For example, given a list of countries and their Covid-19 data, I would first make sure that whatever statistic I was reporting would be as wide as possible. “Cases” does that admirably, and I would make sure that I made any discovery of what I meant by a “case” as difficult as possible. It appears to me, in this instance, that a “case” includes everything from a positive test with no symptoms right through to mortal illness.

What about death? Is that not a more precise phenomenon? For a younger population I believe it is, because death is not generally expected there. But for the very old? People over eighty are at high risk of dying, and usually have more than one condition which, if put under sufficient pressure, can kill them. Is an octogenarian with a weak heart who contracts Covid-19 killed by the weak heart or the virus? Common sense would conclude: by both. In the midst of a panic, what happens to the idea that octogenarians are at high risk of dying, no matter what is flying around, and that they die primarily from being old?

Then, I would make sure that if I did present any ratios, for purposes of comparison and context, I would choose the largest denominator possible. Cases, or death, per million produces numbers ten times larger than per hundred thousand, for example, ten thousand times larger than percentages, and a million times larger than the raw rate which is a measure of the probability of occurrence. Thus, for Canada (today’s figures) 110,000 cases in a population of 38,000,000 sounds a lot more impressive than a probability of occurrence equalling .0029.

Third, I would avoid any comparisons with other comparable statistics, which might make mine look small. For example, according to Our World in Data (these people seem to be very thorough), 56 million people died in 2017, world-wide. Covid-19 has been active for about five months, with 607,000 ascribed deaths (see above caveat about multiple causes of death). The total number of deaths in five months of 2017, well before Covid-19, was somewhere around 23 or 24  million; call it 25 million by 2020. This gives Covid-19 only 2.5% of the world’s deadly effect, considerably smaller than other causes such as heart failure and cancer, and that is before adjusting for the complications of age and the possibility that people are dying from neglect, postponed medical care, over-doses, suicide, etc., causes which come not from the disease itself but as side-effects of our response to it.

If I went on with this purposeful exercise any further, I would bring in the practice of focussing on the larger countries, because they have larger numbers, and neglecting the small ones. I would talk about the U.S.A., Brazil, India, and Russia, with their dramatically large numbers of cases, not about San Marino and Belgium, where the death rates per capita far exceed any other place. San Marino is small, of course, and needs a different kind of analysis, but what on earth was going on in Belgium? When journalists were going on endlessly about Italy, Spain, the U.K., the U.S.A., I do not remember anyone talking about Belgium.

Then there is the whole testing phenomenon. How does that work, and what effect does it have on careful interpretation of the numbers?

Most of all, however, I would make sure that statistics were presented to the public in the grossest possible way, without sensitive geographic or demographic partitioning, so that no one would possibly be confident about what they meant without delving into the detailed tables themselves which, as I have already pointed out, the citizen-reader, trying to become informed, would have neither the time nor possibly the know-how to do.

I am not suggesting for a minute that Covid-19 is not a serious matter, or that some kind of unusual reaction would be inappropriate. Clearly this time is not “life as usual”. Nor am I questioning the reactions taken in the early stages, when no one knew what this virus was or what it might become. For us to be concerned that it might be as terrible as the so-called “Spanish” flu was entirely understandable. What do worry me, however, are the continuing efforts to keep us in a high state of apprehension, even fear, even as the virus becomes much better understood, and as the side effects of our response become increasingly apparent. We are being constantly urged to be afraid of Covid-19. I think we need to be a little more fearful of our reactions.

For me personally, two aspects of our reactions loom very large. The first is the encouragement of isolation from each other. This concern is very real to me, who in my situation could easily, and comfortably, turn into a rural solitaire. What do we become if we act habitually as if we were afraid of each other, are able to interact only under severe constraint, and are not allowed to see each other’s faces? How do you smile at someone through a mask?

The second is the encouragement given to “experts” to beak off in the public media without once telling us what their evidence is. Maybe they have some, but they aren’t saying. I get particularly concerned when these beakings come in the form of predictions, which must be based either on hunch or on statistical models extrapolated from other diseases. We simply cannot have the data yet for valid extrapolation from the history of Covid-19 itself. The broadcasting of “worst-case scenarios” based on untested statistical “models”,—the usual term for sets of equations based on theory or historical data,—was a terrible phenomenon in the early stages of the outburst and a contributor to panic.

Thirdly, I worry about the stimulation being given to the authoritarian tendencies of governments and their officials. In Canada we are, and strive mightily to be, a liberal democracy. We are entirely within our rights as citizens to question every rule imposed on us by our governments, without exception. I do not mean that we have the right to disobey it, but we may and should question it, and press for it to be changed if we think it harmful or unnecessary.

I have seen some talk recently about “metrics”. The only metric that makes any sense to me is the probability that I will catch Covid-19 if I go about my life and business in the normal way, and the probability that I have it already and will give it to someone else. I would like to see that probability adjusted sensitively for different parts of the country, and for different settings.

If I had the data for that calculation I would be able to perform a proper “risk assessment” and make reasonable decisions about what I should do and what I should protest. For example, it seems clear that the risk, the probability of harm and its consequences, would be higher if I were going into a care home or other residential institution, although I would like to see that calculation adjusted for management practices. Anyone who has been in care homes knows that they vary in their facilities, ventilation, and practices, perhaps crucially. What I have been able to learn with a reasonable amount of digging, puts the level of risk in the normal activities of life far lower than is being generally assumed, except perhaps in congested settings.

It appears we may be inching towards a regime where that kind of conclusion prevails, although I believe we are not yet well protected against a return of panic, if the numbers increase abruptly and they continue to be interpreted as grossly as they have been so far. We are certainly not well protected against authoritarian measures thrust upon us without proper explanation. By proper I mean explanations accompanied by statement of the evidence, not the unsupported assertions of people identified as experts, nor anecdotes taken out of context. Explanations of this kind would make the evening news more useful, albeit perhaps more confusing, and less exciting.

I write this article as part of the Fourfold Visions Projectile (see http://www.voyageurstorytelling.ca), out of my beliefs in complex thinking about complex matters, and in the positive usefulness of diverse points of view, openly expressed.

For the next several days I will be reviewing this text each morning, and striving to improve it. I apologize for its flaws. Thank you for reading.

Paul Conway

 

 

New Directions, New Projects, Maybe Even the Occasional New Idea

Leslie and I completed, on September 20th, our 15th and final summer season of Country Supper Storytelling Concerts. In all we performed 573 of these, served and entertained 3,917 people along the way, many of whom became good friends. This whole experience was an almost unalloyed pleasure, the only alloy being occasional exhaustion. As such episodes grew in number and intensity with our advancing age, we decided we should find something new, preferably something where we could do a lot of the work sitting down.

We have always been interested in touring, especially in forms of touring that involved community participation. The Chautauqua model intrigued us, and we experimented with it one year, but it proved too big and too conflictual with our other activities. Now these are reduced, and we are about to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday with our Stephen Leacock’s “My Discovery of the West” Re-Tour 2017 — from 15th to 150th in one fell swoop, or swell foop. Our ports of call will be: Orillia (for a Launch at the Leacock Museum), Thunder Bay (Port Arthur and Fort William in Leacock’s day), Sioux Lookout (Leacock didn’t go there but the train does now), Winnipeg, Regina, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Calgary, Medicine Hat, Vancouver, and Victoria. We will launch on October 20th 2017 and end November 28th. We will tell that story, if you would like to follow it, as it evolves on: www.voyageurstorytelling.ca & https://mariposabyconway.wordpress.com/

We are also becoming the home of a Leacock Database in which we will catalogue every piece that he wrote and every public speech that he spoke to the extent that we can locate them and with as much detail as we can find. The extent is considerable thanks to the bibliographical prowess of Carl Spadoni and his predecessors. Details are bounteous in some cases, sparse in others. We will complete the first round of that project in another month. Right now the database has about 2,400 records, including 1,300 pieces and about 800 speeches. When it came to verbiage, Stephen Leacock was a prolific man.

When that project settles in for the long pull, looking for details, we will start a database for the Canadian writers of magazine articles from Confederation to World War II. This grew out of our efforts to gather Leacock articles from Canadian literary magazines like the magnificently named The Canadian Magazine of Politics, Science, Art and Literature (1893 to 1938) and Maclean’s Magazine (1896 to the present). We started asking ourselves who these people were, many of them obviously amateurs, who wrote for these magazines with such dedication and spirit. Where did they live? How did they live? What are their stories? We are going to find out. We have seen enough already to know that their stories are enchanting, diverse, often up-lifting, occasionally tragic, invariably interesting. Stay tuned.

Then there is politics. This blog began out of my interest in writing about political matters. Other projects have interfered with the flow, but my interest persists. In particular, I am concerned about what I believe to be immaturity and sloppiness in our political discourse, particularly as reported in our beloved news media, but also in the pronouncements of both government and opposition. At the top of my list of immaturities is their, and our, perpetual carping negativity in discussion of public affairs. The political oppositions whom we hire to find fault with our governments seem to find it very difficult to get their eyes up out of the mud, after the manner of worms, in which course they are followed with mindless glee by the news media. A close second is both of their, and our, addiction to sensational anecdotes without any regard for the context or relative frequency of these episodes. Thirdly, I have a particular grief with the news media for their lust for reporting predictions without regard for the quality of the data behind them, the rigour of the analysis, or the often highly self-interested perspective of the person making them. And fourthly, I believe that maturity requires us to stop thinking of the stated intentions of our governments as “promises” and cultivate a more sophisticated understanding of what politicians are saying to us when they campaign.

And what of our governments? What share do they deserve of the obloquy? Well, obviously, they deserve all they get when they “spin” at our perceptions for the purpose of making themselves look good or make mistakes out of incompetence or dishonesty. I believe also, however, that the business of government is extraordinarily complicated and difficult, often because we the people make it so, and that a mature and sophisticated understanding requires recognition that things will often go wrong for reasons other than incompetence or dishonesty. In a huge multitude of instances they also go right, or at least well enough, and we need to celebrate from time to time all the people who make it so, at all levels, elected and hired, federally, provincially and municipally. These hard-working people are our employees, at least indirectly, and we collectively carry an employer’s responsibility, which does not consist in ignoring them when they do well, defecating on them from a great height when things go wrong, and generally thinking of them in the worst and most simplistic way we can find.

All this should keep me busy enough to hold boredom at bay. As for the inevitable decay of mind, well, maybe it will slow that down too.

Toward the Heart of Lightness, Step by Step

January 4, 2016

2016 ho! Here we go! Whither this blog?

The Detroit writer Anna Clark (http://annaclark.net/blog/) has proposed that the purpose of blogging should be “to practise the public art of writing and reflection”. That makes good sense to me, as long as it means that the writing and the reflection go hand in hand in mutually reinforcing support.

While retaining my freedom to tack hither and yon as circumstances suggest, I would like, in this spirit, to explore these themes in the months ahead:

  1. What does it mean to “do politics differently”? Who should do it? The present government says it wants to do it. What if it tries, but everybody else—opposition parties; journalists; voters—carries on in the old accustomed way? What happens to that good intention then? (We, in our old accustomed way, would not call it an “intention”, rather a “promise” with all the weight that word carries.)  I predicted last year, before the election, that we would be governed by the “mind-set” of the government, not by the platform or the “promises” or any such ephemera. We certainly were with the last lot. We will learn much more about the new mind-set in the months and years ahead.
  2. As I read more and more political journalism, I think I am noticing some common themes in the mind-set there, and despite all the undeniably good work, I too often see examples of what I think is poor practice: over-simplification of complex public affairs, particularly economic ones; careless use of terminology; an unhealthy appetite for the making and reporting of predictions, coupled with an uncritical attitude; a primitive notion of what “balanced reporting” means, particularly when coupled with a somewhat confused notion of what it means to “hold the government to account”; a naive attachment to the idea that journalists are, or should be “storytellers”. We rely on journalists to report on and interpret what is happening, which they assume, quite rightly, to be an important public role.
  3. During the election campaign one expression on many lips was “the economy”. Good grief, that it has come to this! Down, I say, with the prevailing hideous over-simplification, ill-informed misconception, weak understanding, unsupportable prognostication, and slipshod interpretation on all sides. If “the economy” is so important, then why do we tolerate such persistent misinformation and vacuity of conversation, from governments, journalists, and commentators of all kinds, and in our own minds and ways of speaking? Enough!
  4. One particular issue on which I intend to say much, and in as many directions as I can find, has to do with electoral reform. But not here. This post is getting long enough as it is.
  5. Another has to do with the policy outwash from the recent climate conference in Paris, and the apparent international resolve to stop dumping our garbage into the air. Would that we could come up with the same wide resolve concerning water and land, but one step at a time, I guess. We will have to find new ways of producing and consuming, which means new cultures. This would be easier if we could discover new and appropriate ways of thinking and believing or, even more richly, new ways of being. We have made these kinds of transitions before, and we can do it again.
  6. I intend to explore the idea of “multiculturalism” (a good idea, as far as it goes, but a terrible word) which I believe to be not the same thing as pluralism, which is the higher ideal.
  7. All these themes, and any more that may emerge from events, have to do with my advocacy for Comprehensive Justice, by which I mean Social Justice, Economic Justice, Environmental Justice, and other forms, with their inter-relationships intact. Both “comprehensive” and “justice” are packed words that need to be unpacked in practical ways. We’re not talking philosophy here, we’re talking politics.
  8. As did, interestingly enough, Stephen Leacock, which takes us over into the other blog: https://mariposabyconway.wordpress.com/

All this should keep me busy enough.

A good year to all!

A Prism on Isms

Holy smoke! Was my most recent post on this thing really over five weeks ago? My most abject apologies to my legion of followers. Not that I have any reason to believe you will have missed my opinions, however. I think most lives tick along very nicely without those. Just ask Leslie. Hers most certainly would, but alas, poor girl, she has to put up with them. But you, by the merest flick of the mouse or sweep of the finger, can dismiss me instantly.

I have been pondering on “isms”, stimulated by our prime minister’s insistence on the evils of “militant jihadism”. He uses the phrase in the same style, and for much the same purpose, as a previous generation of politicians used “communism”. The style is propaganda; the purpose is to fabricate and convince us to fear an enemy without, in order to distract us from the enemy within, which is him, his brand of politics, and the interests he is determined to serve.

His efforts are in part successful with me: he strikes fear in my heart, all right, but not for “militant jihadism,” whatever it may be. I would be the first to admit that my knowledge of the history is patchy, but it occurs to me that the current phenomenon in Iraq and Syria is nothing new, seeming quite similar to the efforts of the Mahdi in the Sudan and Mohammed Abdulla Hassan in Somalia not a large number of decades ago. It seems possible to me that all these movements were fed, and perhaps caused, by the clumsy machinations of western imperial powers pursing their own selfish interests in lands that didn’t belong to them. A little knowledge of and respect for the well-grounded fears and resentments of those people might help to put ours to rest.

As for barbarism, I deplore the beheading of innocent people as any humane person must, but I am not sure it is more barbaric than, for example, bombing homes from the air. Killing is killing, no matter how it’s done.

But that’s not what I am writing about today. Isms. I am wondering about the value and possibility of a generally accepted hierarchy of isms, that would help us keep our heads clear and our compass lenses unfogged amidst the multifarious forces that batter us. I think that I would put “Humanism” at the top, at least by the second definition in my dictionary (the Canadian Oxford): “a belief or outlook emphasizing common human needs, seeking solely rational ways of solving human problems, and being concerned with humanity as responsible and progressive intellectual beings”, to which I would add something about sympathy and understanding as foundational attitudes. Obviously the idea is too big for few-word definitions.

I think that numbers of my friends would put “Naturism” up there too, by which I do not mean nudism, but rather the belief that Nature should be viewed like Humanity, as something whose well-being should be pursued as a highest good, for its own sake and not merely for its utility. I am not sure that I can go whole hog on that one, but the idea is attractive. If we say that we should not destroy Nature lest we destroy ourselves, which is no doubt true, then we are making Nature subordinate to Humanity. If we cultivate Nature for our good, then we are doing the same thing. On the whole I think that a properly conceived Humanism will allow us to care properly for Nature too, and that if we keep things in that order we’ll be less confused.

The same goes for Individualism, Commonism, Producerism, Consumerism to mention others I would put high up the list. Maybe others, but I can’t think of them today. I hope that not too many others turn up in the top echelon, because it’s confusing enough already. Even as it is, I would have to put Balancism up there too, à la Stephen Leacock and Henry Mintzberg (cf. www.mintzberg.org), both of McGill University.

Of one thing I am sure: Militarism, Powerism and Exploitism show up on an entirely different list.

I think that for a time in the post-WWII period Canadian Liberalism, Conservatism (Progressive Conservatism it was then), and Social Democratism all were making quite reasonable stabs at Balancism, with some differences of emphasis of course. These are allowed, Balance in a complex world being what it must be.

I think the Conservatives have lost that voice and have taken on another that is not balanced at all. I read a lot from the Progressive side of the political debate, which is where I think the NDP would like to be if they dared to go there. I see too much simple anti-Conservatism there, which I find agreeable and entertaining, but not constructive, and not Balanced. I think the Liberals may be, or were, trying to achieve Balance by taking all the pans off the scale. They are re-building; we need to see their full platform before we can reasonably form a judgement. I believe that traditional Liberalism was quite Balanced, within reasonable tolerances, which is why it did so well electorally for so many  years.

I find Elizabeth May the most Balanced politician in the country right now, at least in her writings if not her sound bites, which lean towards anti-Conservative stridency. I wish the Green Party as a whole, federally and provincially, were more like her.

Balance is a practical goal, achieved through the day-to-day slog of research and practical politics.

Humanism at the top, supported by carefully cultivated Naturism, Individualism, Commonism, Producerism and Consumerism, all in Balance. That’s where I stand. I think a lot of people stand there too, or would like to stand there if they could find the words to say where it is. If we had a real Balance Party with the rhetorical skill to bring itself to life, then I think it would win at a walk.

But of course, as we all see every day, there’s a lot more money in Powerism, Corporatism, Militarism, Exploitism and Fearism. Money talks. Violence talks.

Chatter talks too. Oh, how it talks! On and on and on and on! Rampant Cacophonism! Rampant Sensationalism! There’s no Balance to be found in that.

Ideas and Ideals can talk too, but only through human voices, people with the right words and the right flair. Where can we find them? How can we support and encourage them? How can we prevent them from being dragged into the world where Money and Violence talk, where Cacophony rules? That, as I see it, is the substance of the practical political problem for us, the people.

Putting the Propaganda Cart before the Foreign Policy Horse

A Letter to Larry Miller, MP for Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound

Good morning MP Larry,

I am writing to protest about the public face that the Government, and the Prime Minister in particular, is putting on Canadian foreign policy in four distinct areas: Ukraine-Russia, Iran, Iraq-Syria (“ISIS”), and Israel-Palestine. I am prepared to find that the actual policy is more complex than than the public face, but the public face is what we are allowed to see.

I am particularly concerned that the propaganda forming much of the public face has started to drive the policy, rather than the other way around.

Let me explain how I think this works. I am assuming that the affairs of most countries, and our relationship with them, admits of very substantial and important patches of grey, that such matters are very seldom black and white. I can believe that most competent governments start by working intelligently with the grey. I believe, however, that for reasons that it thought sufficient, the present Canadian government began to tilt towards a more black-white world view. In order to sell that approach to the Canadian public, it began to paint the view somewhat more black and white than it could possibly be. At some point, in this process, it crossed the line between explanation of policy, which is legitimate, and propaganda, which is not. That was the first mistake. Then the second was to start believing its own propaganda, and tailoring the policy to conform to it.

In one case—Iraq-Syria (ISIS), we are now tailoring domestic policy in order to match the propaganda driving our foreign policy. I refer to the recent proposal to expand the powers of our security agencies, who operate under entirely inadequate parliamentary oversight—and please don’t try to tell me that non-parliamentary oversight is just as good, because it is not, for obvious democratic reasons. The truth, in fact, appears to be that our security forces are doing very well with the powers they have now. I do not believe that the kind of attacks we have experienced can be prevented by expanding the powers of security agencies. They were not the right kind of attack for that. They were carried out by disturbed individuals acting alone, and the answer to that, to the extent that there is one, lies in improvements to our mental health system, not in more vigilant policing. And preventive policing is a very dubious concept indeed, under our constitution, in any circumstances.

But I am straying from my  main point, which is the Government, with the enthusiastic encouragement of Mr. Harper and Mr. Baird, has tipped over the propaganda cliff and is falling faster and faster into the black-white void where intelligent understanding of complex situations and careful diplomacy are no longer allowed to operate. Let me be specific:

Ukraine-Russia: Here we have a small country and nascent democracy whose history with its much larger neighbour is long and troubled, and having its own difficult ethnic divide between west and east, and where every nuance of the situation is washed in grey, and we have decided that for our purposes the previous elected government was black; that the demonstrators and their armed assistants who overthrew that government were white; that the pro-Russian people in the east and the south are not entitled to their point of view and that the Russian government is very black indeed for supporting them; that Russia is not entitled to express any strategic interest in its neighbouring country; and that the only just solution to the problem is the one that happens to serve the strategic interests of the United States, at least as aging and emerging Cold Warriors might choose to define them.

Do we think that the United States has no valid strategic interest in us, or in Mexico? I bet we do not think that, and I am sure the United States does not think so either. Small countries who live beside big ones and who also want to reach out into the wider world must balance their policies carefully, as we have learned to do in 150 years. We have also learned much, starting even further back, about the sensible conduct of a country with an ethnic divide. Ukraine is a new democracy. Surely our contribution to them should be to pass on what we have learned and to support them in a balanced policy. Climbing on the black-white bandwagon does not do that.

Iran: I am not sure what is driving our policy towards Iran. It cannot be our own strategic interests, or any principle except possibly nuclear non-proliferation, a principle about which we have shown considerable flexibility in the past. Certainly it shows little knowledge of or regard for the history of that country, its strategic interests, or its complex relationships with its neighbours. I think perhaps that the Government thinks it is showing support for Israel. Israel has nothing to fear from healthy bilateral relations between its friends and Iran, and much to fear, in the long term, from its own unhealthy bilateral relations with that influential country. A more sophisticated policy on our part could do much to serve the interests of the whole Middle East, and the rest of the world.

Iraq-Syria (ISIS): Here we see the Government’s propaganda machine in full cry these days, with the Prime Minister’s minatory warnings about “violent jihadism”. That kind of language is pure propaganda, and it bothers me to hear our Prime Minister using it. I agree that ISIS shows no sign of being the kind of government that we like to see, but the same could be said for Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and a host of other governments, including all the autocratic ones. Iraq and Syria were blatantly the creations of oil-seeking imperialism in 1919, and have proved themselves ungovernable except by brutal repression. I think that an indigenous effort to create a new state out of the mess should at least be studied carefully before it is judged, and in judging we should use the same standards as we apply to other autocratic Islamic states. And we should avoid taking sides in any Sunni-Shia conflicts. The legacy of western imperialism in the Middle East is a tangled one, which must be sorted out locally.

Israel-Palestine: I have written to you before with my concerns about the one-sidedness of our policy towards this conflict. Of course Mr. Baird was correct to say that the matter can be solved only by negotiation, which is obviously in the best interests of both sides. The problem is that the two parties are so grotesquely out of balance in their military and economic strengths that any suggestion of fair negotiation is absurd. The Israelis are unenthusiastic about negotiation because they think they can go along very well without it. And the Palestinians are unenthusiastic because they know that under the present imbalance they are going to be on the losing end. I think that our diplomacy therefore has to be extremely sensitive in the pursuit of what is in our interest, and everybody’s interest, which is a balanced negotiating environment leading to a settlement.

It cannot be in Israel’s long-term or even medium-term interest to be so thoroughly hated by its neighbours. How can the country survive forever, which is what we would want it to do, in the face of that hatred?

In conclusion, I think that the departure of the belligerent Mr. Baird gives us an opportunity for a thorough review of our foreign policy, in pursuit of a balanced approach in all parts of the world, an approach that is not driven by our own or other people’s propaganda, and which does not have to be sold by means of propaganda. Our population is well educated and could, with proper presentation, become complexly informed. The present propaganda-driven approach can thrive only if the Canadian people are deliberately kept uninformed and worked upon. Surely that would be bad policy in any field.

No black hats, no white hats, just grey hats, a humane understanding of people’s circumstances and difficulties, and a lot of diplomatic skill and patience.

Sorry this is so long, and thank you for your attention. I hope that you are wintering well, and in good health.

Warm regards,

Excursing in the Public Realm

This morning I set forth to the village of Lion’s Head, to run some errands and spend the fruits of my pensions, provided (old age pension), administered (Canada Pension Plan), or enabled (RRSP) by the people of Canada, through their government. Before I even left the house, therefore, my journey was already anchored in public services.

I turned out of my driveway onto the road, ploughed, also constructed and maintained, by the Municipality of Northern Bruce Peninsula, in which I reside. I paused to check for mail, brought to me through the efforts of a chain of public servants employed by a Crown Corporation, Canada Post, delivered to my rural box by the last links in the chain, who are also a couple of my neighbours.

At the end of my road I turned onto a highway constructed, recently re-paved and maintained by contractors hired by the Province of Ontario, and then onto a road similarly provided by the County of Bruce. Along the way I passed an ambulance, speeding to some emergency, and a member of the Ontario Provincial Police, on patrol for malefactors, hazards to public security, or people in need, both these vehicles and their personnel being provided by a collaborative arrangement among levels of government the exact details of which escape me.

When I got to Ferndale I stopped at the recycling depot, another municipal service, and then on to the Lion’s Head Public Library, a service of the County. The bank where I went for some cash is a public company, sternly regulated by the Government of Canada to ensure it remains solvent for my benefit and reasonably honest in its dealings. The local grocery store is a private enterprise, of course, but I was aware that I could read lists of ingredients on labels, and rest reasonably assured that my groceries were bug-free, not only because my grocer runs a clean operation, but also due to the efforts of regulators and inspectors perhaps both federal and provincial, and had been washed in clean water from the new water treatment plant operated by the Municipality and paid for by three levels of government.

Passing the school, of the kind that served me and my children so well in the past and continues to serve my hopes for the future, I stopped at the hospital where I left a sample of blood, skillfully drawn in a public hospital by a public person, in response to the prescription of a doctor working in a public medical system. I visited the drug store to collect some pills and left without paying a dime, thanks to the Provincial pill-paying provision for people my age, topped up by my own medical insurance.

My last errand took me to the Liquor Store, a service of the Government of Ontario, perhaps not essential but certainly convenient and lucrative.

I drove home thinking how irritated I would be when, sometime in June, some band of tunnel-visioned pin-heads would assure me that I should rejoice because we had arrived at “tax freedom day”.

I write this little travelogue not only to celebrate our wealth of public services, for which we must pay if we wish to maintain their quality and allow them their just measure of improvement, but to remind you that our “government” does not consist in the petty and partisan bickering of our legislators and their henchmen, followed so obsessively by our news media, but in the skilled work of legions of our neighbours and the thousands upon thousands of operations and transactions in which they engage every day for our benefit. And because we are a democracy we can be reasonably assured that they are working for our benefit, and not for the benefit of some authoritarian power. If we think they are not we can do something about it.

Such being the case, to speak and act as if our government as a burden which we are obliged to support whether we like it or not constitutes wilful self-deception. Tax freedom day forsooth! Of course we want our public services to be efficient and not wasteful. But most of all we want them to be there when we need them.

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.

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.

Party of One

“I am a member of a party of one, and I live in an age of fear.” E.B. White wrote that, in 1947, as McCarthyism gathered its strength. What new “ism” slouches toward Ottawa to be born or adopted? What old “ism” deserves to die, or be revived?

I have come to believe that I should join a political party, something I have never done. I vote in every election; I vote variously, usually positively although occasionally strategically, often for the candidate, occasionally for the party. I am, in that limited sense, an engaged citizen-participant in politics.

I believe this not very taxing approach is no longer good enough. Parties are preparing for the 2015 election and their ideas and plans are evolving day by day. These ideas and plans are going to matter when the writ falls. At least I hope they are going to matter, that the whole issue will not be decided on personalities, fear, a few selected symbols with emotional weight, and the fall-out from attack ads. I would like to help make the ideas and plans matter.

I have decided to make the decision based on a political platform summarizing my own beliefs, which I can then compare to others. I think of this as a “shadow” platform, the platform of my own party of one, that I fully recognize may not be adopted in full by the party I will join (although why should it not?), but from which I can perhaps negotiate in the process of merger between my party and that one. I hasten to add, however, that my sense of arithmetic is quite clear, and I know perfectly well the role of one among the many in a democratic system, although I would not diminish the weight of that one by even the slightest jot, and might even conspire to augment it.

So here, most briefly stated, is my Platform, for which I make no claim of originality:

  1. Explicit respect for the complexity of all public affairs and refusal to reduce them to simplicities.
  2. Policy to be made based on data, discussion, and negotiation.
  3. Strength to the Social Fabric: languages, cultures, communities, enterprises, arts, employments.
  4. Strength to Parliamentary democracy, including electoral reform.
  5. Strength to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and related elements of our inherited constitution.
  6. Strength to the Social Safety Net, including related universal public services.
  7. Prosperity, vigorous, justly shared; respect for the complexity and difficulty of this goal.
  8. Stewardship, resolute, protective and far-seeing, of our air, land and waters.
  9. Internationalism in foreign affairs, pursuing peace, prosperity, justice and the rule of law.
  10. Vigilance in the protection of our own territory, extreme reluctance in foreign adventures.
  11. Reconciliation as the fundamental principle applied to disputes, contentions, and criminal justice.
  12. Sound public administration and responsible fiscal management.

You will, I am sure, readily detect some contrast between this list and current policy, and perhaps predict that I am likely to find little encouragement in the Conservative Party of Canada. That may be, although not, I believe, inevitably. True, contrary spirits are dominant there now, but we enjoy in this country a tradition of progressive conservatism that is a long way from dead. Many if not most of my neighbours vote Conservative, and they are good people. I believe they would generally share at least some of my principles. I fear they are being deliberately misinformed on behalf of a narrow vision and set of interests.

I also believe that any party which presented such principles to Canadians with courage, conviction and eloquence would be easily elected. That is the party I want to join.