Category Archives: Pluralism

Exploring the Yottapede, Part I

Leacock Post 05-09.jpg

The Yottapede Saga evolves in the eighth week of the Leacock Anniversaries, on May 15th.

Normally I don’t hang images in these blog posts, although there is no reason why I should not, the mechanics being simplicity itself. I do so this time simply to show you the apotheosis of my riffing on words that begin with “M”, as it appeared in last week’s social media posts. I think it’s an interesting list. So too is the observation that “M” and its mate “N” are the middle two letters in the English alphabet. “N” for No, Negative, Nothing, Nihilist, Nemesis, Number, etc. “MN” for Mnemonics, related to Mind, Mindful, and Memory. “MN” for Mnemosyne, Goddess of Memory and Mother (by Zeus) of the nine Muses, one of whom,—I am not sure which one,—has Unsolved Riddles in her portfolio. Perhaps it’s all of them.

“N” for Nematode, a kind of worm, a parasite, a worm within. My centaurian companion and I are about to confront the Yottapede, also a parasite, also possibly an host for us who are its parasites. It’s a poor parasite that kills its host, as I was instructed when studying the phenomenon, although we might consider, if not killing this one, at least putting it in perspective.

I need to explain a couple of things about my equine-feminine companion, whose name I soon learned is Mnemochiron, descended from Mnenomsyne, with all the associations entailed thereby, and from the centaur Chiron, renowned according to Bullfinch not for carousing and mayhem (another “M” word!) like other centaurs, but “for his skill in hunting, medicine, music, and the art of prophesy.” I can’t imagine a better lineage for the purposes of our hunt for the wild Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice. I also need to explain, in case you are concerned for her ability to carry my weight, that Mnemochiron, though fully as shapely and shining in both her feminine and equine aspects as I described her last week, has some of the draught horse in her bloodline. Not the big hulking breeds like Clydesdales, Shires, Belgians, or even Percherons, but the smaller, more graceful ones, like Canadians. John La Farge, in his depiction (see below), makes his Centauress more delicate than is Mnemochiron, at least in her equine portions.

Being carried by such a creature, however, is a delicate matter. A gentleman could hardly put a saddle on her, a bridle would be entirely out of the question. Bare-back it must be, but how to hang on? La Farge Centauress.jpgBy gripping with the knees, of course. To wrap one’s arms around her waist for greater stability might be considered fresh; any jostling could cause extreme embarrassment. When all blushingly I put the problem to her, she gave me permission to grip her by the shoulders, with a request that I should massage the muscles from time to time, as the effort of constantly considering Unsolved Riddles first on the one hand and then on the other was often tiring. I did offer to walk alongside, but she thought that we would travel more quickly if I rode, and if matters came to combat we would gain from her speed and manoeuvrability. As we approached the Yottapede we soon learned the wisdom of this arrangement.

The creature before us was a huge gape-mouthed blobby arthropod with a truly astonishing number of feet, not arranged in pairs as with some, but forming a dense mat underneath. Each foot was human in form. Even at the first scanning glance we could see that these feet did not all point in one direction. Rather, they pointed in all directions of the compass and some no compass ever considered. All were in motion, striving to advance forward as it appeared to them. The Yottapede, therefore, stayed put, unable to advance on the whole, in a state of constant internal struggle. Its flexible outer covering, a carapace of loosely linked plates domed in umbrella shapes, did however ripple variously, sometimes even bulging out in one way or another, as if the whole creature were about to displace itself. It never did, or at least, only so slowly that its progress was almost undetectable. As it rippled and bulged, the colours and shadows of its iridescent carapace shifted and changed under the plural illuminations of the heavens, all quite unobserved, as we found out later, by the urges governing the feet.

The Yottapede was far too large to encircle, but we rode back and forth for some time, surveying its exterior, before we approached the gaping mouth. It was here we found out the wisdom of our arrangements. I thought it would be more fitting if I dismounted, in order to greet the Yottapede in courteous form. As soon as my feet hit the ground I was subjected to a mighty sucking wind that threatened to pull me right into the hungry mouth. It was almost irresistible. Fortunately, I am tall and long-armed; I still had my hands on Mnemochiron’s shoulders. Using my grip for lift I flung myself once more onto her back. Immediately the wind died, at least from me. If it was sucking at her, she was completely unaffected. I scrambled back into proper mounted posture, and we both looked around.

That’s enough words for today. Next week I will tell you what we saw, and what we found when we willingly entered the great black mouth to explore the Yottapede from within. Jonah, after all, would have learned nothing of whale anatomy if he had stayed on shore.

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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.

 

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.

 

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 Pluralism

The great prophet of Pluralism in our time (in anybody’s time?) is Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997), born in Latvia, exiled to England at a young age by the fortunes of revolution, nurtured at Oxford, and embraced by students and colleagues alike as a great sage. He began as an analytical philosopher, but eventually carved out his own academic discipline in the history of ideas and their application to the conundrums of the post-war era.

I don’t want to sound more knowledgeable about him than I am. I have only begun to read, beginning with Michael Ignatieff’s biography, Isaiah Berlin: A Life. From there I derived a reading list of Berlin’s own works, and I am working my way through them. I sense a connection between the Pluralism of Berlin and the Unsolved Riddle-ism of Stephen Leacock, and I am looking forward to exploring it in the months ahead, not only for the fun of it, but as a way of thinking about our own time and particularly about the political polarization we see around us and are likely to see even more emphatically in next year’s election, which is going to fall right in the midst of the Stephen Leacock Sesquicentennial. A happy coincidence.

I am pondering a progression that goes something like this: Diversity is the fact, the characteristic of our society that we can observe and even measure; Pluralism is one of the ideologies that we can apply to it; Unsolved Riddles are what we will meet when we do that. It is important for us to think of them like that, as questions that we must think about enjoyably (which is the purpose of riddles) rather than protest against as “problems”, or “contradictions”, or “conflicts”, because that kind of terminology declares that we don’t like them and think they should go away, or at least become considerably less prevalent. The committed Pluralist makes no such protest, believing either that Diversity is inevitable and therefore might as well be enjoyed, or that it is desirable and ought to be encouraged. I am of the latter kind.

I think that to be a Pluralist is to embrace Diversity as one of Nature’s and Humanity’s great strengtheners. Diversify your portfolio, my professor of finance used to say to me, backed up by elegant probabilistic analysis. As consumers we believe in the benefits of wider choice. Isaiah Berlin reminds us, however, that when we make choices we not only receive benefits, we also incur costs, and when people are being hurt by the choices that benefit us then we can hardly expect them not to resist. When we empower people to make their resistance effective, which we do for good democratic and human-rights reasons, then the choice to avoid making the choice becomes increasingly attractive, and carries costs of its own. As we wrestle with these riddles, our voices become louder, our conversations become confrontations, and we become a polarized society. These effects too are choices, and carry costs, one of which may be the cultivation of a taste for authoritarian governments.

As I come out of  my brain break and embark upon the contemplations and conversations of the next sixteen months, and am going to use this blog to explore the issues of the day in a Pluralistic way. Right now three of the most prominent are Free Trade, the Trans Mountain Pipeline, and the arrival of the latest wave of refugees. I will start with them.

 

The Unsolved Riddle of “Multiculturalism”

Oh dear! “Multiculturalism”! From an aesthetic point of view, what a terrible word. I much prefer “Pluralism”; if we want to be more explicit we should call it Cultural Pluralism, or Ethnic Pluralism, or Linguistic Pluralism, or Land-of-Birth Pluralism, or Religious Pluralism, or even Racial Pluralism, or whatever we mean. Because whether we like it or not — and we should like it — we are surrounded by plurals of all kinds — natural plurals, human plurals, economic plurals, social plurals, plurals without end — and we might as well enjoy them.

I recently found a beautiful poem called “Snow” by Louis MacNeice in which he says, “The world is crazier and more of it than we think,/Incorrigibly plural.” And so it is. We all need to feel “the drunkenness of things being various.”

I am still on my brain break (for another two weeks), but the recent brouhaha about “extreme multiculturalism” and immigration triggered by Maxime Bernier and the Progressive Conservative Party’s exploitation of the “immigration crisis” or “refugee crisis” (which isn’t a crisis at all, merely a surge in migrations of distressed people to which we can easily adjust if we put our minds and our resources and our copious good will to it, as we are in fact doing) has brought the whole matter into my mind and I might as well spill some of  it out.

I am going to talk a lot about pluralism during the Stephen Leacock Sesquicentennial and its run-up, because I consider him a kind of proto-pluralist, not necessarily in his specific beliefs, but in his cast of mind and way of thinking, the intellectual tools that he brought to the task of understanding and discussing human affairs. That he did not always use these tools in ways we now consider acceptable, particularly when it came to matters of women and race, says nothing about the quality of the tools. Within his academic field of political economy and often in his humour he demonstrates them quite well enough for us to acquire them for ourselves. Our job is to learn them, put them to use, and pass them on to the coming generations.

These tools for the comprehension of and navigation through the ambient plurals, the landscapes of various things in which we live, Stephen Leacock labels as Unsolved Riddles, which is a way of thinking about them, and his tetrad of Knowledge + Imagination + Compassion + Humour  which he urges us to apply to them. Education, his favourite subject, is about learning how to do that, and is life-long.

I would say, therefore, to Maxime Bernier and anyone else who suggests we should be less plural than we are: “There is nothing Canadian about monism, or even small-set-ism, in any sphere. We have always been plural. That is who we are. We may have clashed occasionally over our varieties, or been made uncomfortable by them from time to time, and some of us may have sometimes yearned for a more simple national landscape, but we have never embraced it as an ideal. Why should we do that now? Why should we believe that now we must become less than we are, and always have been? What has changed to make such diminution desireable?”

Think of the variety of our natural landscapes, and how we glory in them. Why should we treat our human landscapes any differently?

That will do for now. More of this in the Fall and next year.