Category Archives: Pluralism

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

 

 

The March of the Fourfold Visions Continues: Who’s In the Band?

This morning I made two efforts to extend the conversation. Each Thursday I refresh the content on the Voyageur Storytelling Web Site (www.voyageurstorytelling.ca) with a new pictoverbicon and sometimes, although not this morning, with new content. Then I put the pictoverbicon on Twitter (@conwaypaulw), with the allowed amount of text, and sometimes on Facebook, on the Paul W Conway and Voyageur Storytelling pages.

The text I put on Facebook, which enlarged what I put on Twitter, is:

July 2nd. A Pictoverbicon for the day after Canada Day and onward. I remain unconvinced about the idea of picking one day to mark a country that grew-grows-will grow incrementally even organically. Each increment has its birthday, which is also the country’s. Pluralism in all dimensions: a Multidimensional Continuum. It is difficult to get the head around this. Let’s start with a set of four four-dimensional continuums (“Tetrads”) and see if we can work with them. My set, so far?:
God + Nature + Person + People
Prosperity + Society + Environment + Culture
Wealth + Health + Wisdom + Courage
Knowledge + Imagination + Compassion + Humour
Your set?

Then, being obliged to respond to a feminist publisher who asked to be removed from the mailing list, being willing but sad to do that, and wanting to offer some explanation for my sadness, I replied with the following e-mail:

Of course we will remove you from our mailing list as you request, but with regret. We are anxious to include feminist voices in our conversation about Fourfold Visions in Public Affairs, and had hoped that you would be interested in being one of them, or at least linking us with others. So far the nominations for Fourfold Prophets, with one exception, have been men, even those coming from women. I am sure that is not a valid reflection of the pool.

Is it valid, do you think, to articulate which might be called “The Unsolved Riddle of Justice for Women” around a Fourfold Vision that might look something like this?:

As an individual person, entitled to life, liberty, well-being and contentment, with responsibilities to herself;
As a person with an intimate circle,—family and friends,—to whom she has particular responsibilities;
As a person in society, to which she has a general responsibility that translates into particulars;
As a person with a potential assigned by Nature,—child-bearing,,—
which if felt or realized creates another set of particular responsibilities.

Of course all these responsibilities are shaped and interpreted within the woman’s own culture, and the culture around her. If that culture changes, or she moves from one to another, a whole new layer is added to the Unsolved Riddle.

If the Unsolved Riddle of Justice for Women does indeed look something like this, or even if it doesn’t,–in which case I would be keen to have the vision corrected,–then the specific questions I am asking in the Fourfold Visions Projectile are (a) how the riddle presents itself in public affairs, and (b) whether a “Literary Cast of Mind” has anything to offer in dealing with it, and if so how. The alternative casts of mind I am listing, for the time being, are the Mariposan, the Ideological, and the Scientific.

I think you at [press] and at least some of your authors will have interesting and useful answers to those questions. That is why I will act on your request with regret.

I assure you, however, that we will keep searching for feminist perspectives in our conversation, which is all it is at the moment. We will find them too, because we know they are alive.

A little clarification and extension:

Why am I calling this whole thing a “projectile” instead of a project, or a probe, or an initiative, or any more conventional term. I shot an arrow into the air,/ It fell to Earth, I knew not where; … If I am interpreting the Automatistes properly, the work of art (or in this case, of enquiry) is the arrow, the projectile. The painting, or dance, or play, or manifesto (“Refus Global“) or whatever results from it is mark it made on the place where it landed. This one is still in flight; in fact, it is still on the upward slope of its parabola, or whatever shape its trajectory may take given the wind conditions.

I am trying to imagine what Tetrational thinking would look like. Clearly it won’t be a picture or object occupying space, even the relativistic space of Einstein and others. If my set of four tetrads can be taken as a crude working model (can it?) then we are dealing with sixteen elements, arranged as either a sixteen-dimensional continuum, or four four-dimensional continuums either fused, or a nesting set. We cannot see such a complex Vision; our eyes, while amazing organs, are not able. Our minds, however, even more amazing, are able, if we so develop them. I use the term “cast of mind” to mean the lines along which a mind has developed.

A Mariposan Cast of Mind, as I conceive it, would approach a sixteen-dimensional continuum in a severely pragmatic way, navigating through it incrementally, using trial-and-success or -error, and learning as it went.

An Ideological Cast of Mind would simplify the continuum by reducing the number of elements given status.

A Scientific Cast of Mind would strive to understand the continuum by rigorous study of its elements and their relationships, reducing them eventually, if at all possible, to mathematical formulations.

My question is, what would a Literary Cast of Mind do, and does it offer more than any of these others?

God + Nature + Person + People
Prosperity + Society + Environment + Culture
Wealth + Health + Wisdom + Courage
Knowledge + Imagination + Compassion + Humour

Sixteen words, each one a label for an element of what is good, or is good for what is good, or a source. All can be discussed for what they mean, but none can be dismissed out of hand because too many people associate them, in some way, with “a good life”.

Literary Casts of Mind: Confronting the Onefold Imperative in Public Affairs

I would a fourfold vision see, and a fourfold vision be granted to me. I myself am a long way from getting all the way there, although I think I do pretty well at avoiding the onefold trap. I struggle day by day to reach at least two-fold, and damned hard work it is too. I wish I could say the same for the discourse that swirls around me. A maelstrom of competing onefolds, each stridently promoted, is not a fourfold, but only a maelstrom of onefolds, each often insisting on its superior validity and the dire consequences that will follow from the others. Fourfold, the “supreme delight” of William Blake who is the great prophet of multifold perception, involves, in the words of Isaiah Berlin, “a measure of inefficiency and even muddle”, inevitable in a pluralistic society such as we enjoy, for which we routinely excoriate our politicians. They are our professional fourfolders. Many of us make it our onefold mission to make their job as difficult as possible, calling that “holding governments to account”, or “speaking truth to power”. This is all self-indulgent nonsense of the intellectually lazy kind, of course, and fully apparent as such, which does not mitigate its prevalence.

I am calling our foe the “Onefold Imperative”, not because we have no choice except to follow it, but because its instinct is imperious. We have had that amply demonstrated recently, as we became convinced that the new corona virus is a threat of such magnitude that all other considerations (“The Economy”, “The Environment”, the normal comforts and pleasures of family, social, and commercial life), no matter how important we may have thought them in the past, must be set aside while we fight this battle of all battles. This fight, urged on us by everything that expert opinion and official propaganda can hurl into it, has been accompanied by an outburst of authoritarianism such as Canadian society has, I believe, never seen and would not normally tolerate. Isaiah Berlin, in the same paragraph of his essay “Political Ideas in the Twentieth Century” (1950), warns us: “We must not submit to authority because it is infallible but only for strictly and openly utilitarian reasons, as a necessary evil.” It appears that the Canadian general public has accepted that the Covid-19 meets that standard, and perhaps it does. Or perhaps it did only in the early stages, when the disease was new and unknown. The medical authorities were desperately afraid of what it might be, and they passed that fear on to us. Fair enough. We know a lot more now, however, and the costs of that onefold obsession are showing their teeth. We are returning willy-nilly to the multifold world to which Fate and our own cumulative choices have consigned us, with its concomitant need for robust multifold conversations.

Robust multifold conversations. Strident onefold advocacy. These are the polarities of public discourse in a democracy. Both are legal, subject only to rules about hate speech and slander. Robust multifold conversations are the everyday, internal, sub-articulate experience of individual human beings in all complex societies or situations, provided they are minimally healthy in their minds and emotions, as they wrestle with the choices, benefits, costs, and unknowns before them, the unknowns usually and widely out-numbering the knowns. They are the everyday articulate or tacit experience of healthy families and friendships. They should be the everyday experience of discourse on public affairs, but if they are, the evidence is difficult to see in the conspicuous media. And the conspicuous media are what we have to inform us about what is going on in the world outside our immediate range of vision. These can be received first-hand, through actual viewing or listening, or second-hand (or third-, or more) from others. These methods are all highly imperfect, but they are what we have. The important question concerns not their flaws, but the judgements we bring to the information we thus receive. I am going to the common term “cast of mind” to label the faculty we use to shape those judgements.

I will note, in passing, but without elaboration, that I believe collective casts of mind to be possible and observable. For example, I have said before on this site that each political party has a cast of mind, to which we should pay close attention, and so can any specific corporation (using the term most broadly). Whether a society can truly have one is a complicated question which I will leave until later.

I am interested right now in imagining those human beings I referred to above, engaging in their internal, even sub-articulate, robust conversations, and wondering what cast of mind they would need to cultivate in order to become truly and effectively multifold, especially when aggregated into public policy for the benefit of the common weal, the advancement of social justice, and the personal contentment of the individual. Any such aggregation will be, of course, an almost infinitely complex process. I do not know how it works, but have no doubt that it does, and that in a democracy it grows, however imperfectly, out of public discourse, whatever that may be.

I am going to suggest, hypothetically at least, that we commonly observe three different casts of mind in public discourse, all of them diverse, one of which we ought to cultivate, in order gradually to supplant, or at least constrain, the other two. I will, with some nervousness, label these casts of mind as Mariposan, Ideological, and Literary. For purposes of this article I simply toss these into view, pending more thorough study and, I hope, wider participation in the conversation.

Mariposan Casts of Mind. I chose this label in order not to use the word “muddled” because I want to preserve that one for more constructive, Berlinian usage, as a creative rather than pejorative idea. “Mariposan” comes of course from Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (1912), characterized by Professor Ed Jewinski as a “supreme achievement of fragmentation, incompleteness, and inconclusiveness”. Jewinski was describing the book; Leacock imagined a town, and people, whose minds roil in fragmentation, incompleteness, and inconclusiveness and who manage, nevertheless, to get on with their lives and and make their collective decisions, rightly or wrongly, possibly both. The question, indeed the necessity for our time is that those decisions should be made more rightly, a matter of increasing complexity and urgency, as recent events clearly demonstrate. The trend, however, is not new.

Ideological Casts of Mind. Many of these are familiar, in particular those considered “left-wing” and those considered “right-wing”. These are great ideologies, wide in their scope and powerful in their attraction to large numbers of people with the best of intentions. They are also embraced by more questionable people interested in the acquisition of power or the accumulation of financial wealth, possibly both. I do not believe, however, that we should judge an ideology according to the worst people who adhere to it, or according to the best, but by its broad effect on the common weal, its capacity to advance social justice, and its contribution to individual contentment. Both-and, or middle, or pragmatic ideologies, incorporating elements of both great ones, have much appeal in public affairs, although they may not be ideologies at all, but rejections thereof. We must entertain the possibility that rejection of ideology is itself an ideology. A more recent one becoming more articulate, although perhaps not as powerful as it wants to be (and ideologies always want to be powerful) is the ideology of “evidence-based decisions”. It is not yet clear however, at least to me, whether this represents a genuine ideological breakthrough or simply a more up-to-date form of Mariposanism.

I want to suggest that in pursuit of what me might call ‘multifoldarity”, neither Mariposan nor Ideological casts of mind are going to serve us well, one being too confused, the other not confused enough. I want to expand the potential of the third set, or at least to explore what it might mean, because very clever people have suggested it. I am referring of course to:

Literary Casts of Mind. I want to make it clear immediately that I do not mean simply the minds of people who read books. I mean people who are innately attracted to multifoldarity, and who deliberately cultivate the capacity to practise it intellectually and even bring it into the realm of public affairs. I mean people who, when I mention the Leacock Tetrad of Knowledge + Imagination + Compassion + Humour, as I do often, perhaps even ad nauseam, are at least prepared to pause reflectively and ask if there might be something in it, instead of dismissing it as silly or inconsequential. (Saddest of all are those who do do that simply because they have stereotyped Stephen Leacock himself.) I mean people who grasp, at least intuitively, the nature and prevalence of complexity and want to understand how to deal with it creatively and constructively. I believe such people exist, that they are of excellently benign intention, and that their voices need to be heard respectfully in public affairs.

In 2019 I announced and undertook an organized hunt for the wild Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, for the purpose of taming and putting it to use. The hunt was successful, the taming and putting to use are works in progress. The quest that I am launching with this article is related, but not exactly the same. To celebrate the Summer Solstice of 2020, which I am sure is a significant date, I invite you and all who cultivate, aspire to, or are prepared to believe in a Literary Cast of Mind, to engage in a great collective enterprise to track it down, study its ways, articulate its value, and invent tools and processes through which it can be made effective in the public affairs of this country and beyond.

To what purpose? For the benefit of the common weal, the advancement of social justice, and your own personal contentment.

This quest, or pilgrimage, or whatever you choose to call it, will play out here on this blog, on the web site of Voyageur Storytelling (www.voyageurstorytelling.ca), and somewhat tangentially in the pages of KnICH Magazine (https://www.patreon.com/knichmagazine). By tangentially I mean that the four KnICH threads and Sunday Serial display the editors’ exercise of certain aspects of the Literary Cast of Mind. Call it an illustrative approach, using etymology (explorations among old words), archeology (ditto old magazines), labyrinthine girdling (in geographic circles), and random ramification (in search of œvirsagas). The Sunday Serial, currently a translation of Jules Verne’s Le pays des fourrures (Land of Furs), illustrates pleasant reading of the entertaining kind, so important to the Literary Cast of Mind.

Please join in. We are going to have a most enjoyable time, and maybe do some good.

Paul Conway

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can find Mr. Grenier’s story at https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/cbc-election-poll-1.5188097. The CBC has published others since, but I haven’t read them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Social Justice and Reconciliation: First Essay

The Trans-Mountain Pipeline, of which I wrote last week, has become entangled in the question of what I am going to call Our Indigenous Social Justice, by which I mean the way we accommodate, or don’t accommodate, indigenous people who share this land with us. Their Indigenous Social Justice includes the way they accommodate, or don’t accommodate, us and each other, and is none of my business. And by “us” I mean the rest of us, ranging from recent immigrants to those who have lived here for centuries.

In my own case, just to set the record straight, the final immigrants in my family chain came here from the US over a century ago, to join some others who had been here somewhat longer. Immigration to the US, in my family, began much earlier. Before the US and Canada my ancestors came from the British isles and Sweden. The stories of their “settler colonial” adventures dwell more on stores and factories than on farms. We have been business people for the most part. The current generation is the first in which the young mothers worked outside the home, although their activities were always wider. My father was a tanner, my mother a dietician and a piano teacher. His father was a banker and then a tanner; her father an electrical engineer. Both my grandmothers raised children and ran households, and very well too. If they and theirs were “settler colonials”,—and I don’t wear the label with any comfort,—they were of a particular kind.

I myself have never walked even one pace in the moccasins of an indigenous person, although my work in research and social service has enabled me to walk beside them sometimes, and I hope I have learned from the experience. It has certainly made me extremely wary of judgements of any kind, except to agree that the sometimes aggressive migratory instincts of humanity, the mobility of germs, and the imperial urges of great nations, have given indigenous people an extremely raw deal. In this country they can take some comfort, but probably not much, from the realities that they were not annihilated, and that their particular imperial great nation accorded them a limited framework of legal rights, which it then proceeded to abuse, but did not cancel. The rewards of these realities, if they can be called that, are beginning to accrue to new generations. These are what make the idea, or some idea, of “Reconciliation” possible.

I do not like to use the term “Reconciliation” for what needs to be done now, because I believe it lies at the end of a long process that begins with pursuit of Social Justice. Social Justice is a practical thing, an Unsolved Riddle no doubt, but one that can be addressed with practical means. Reconciliation is in the spiritual realm, and will occur naturally when we have achieved a sufficient measure of Social Justice and have become accustomed to living with each other under its influence. Now we live together under other influences, which inhibit Reconciliation or render it merely a word amidst waves of arid political verbosity.

I think it both wise and useful to consider Our Indigenous Social Justice under the Four Fields I have proposed elsewhere: Economic Justice, Environmental Justice, Cultural Justice, Opportunital Justice, all of these having elements of Unsolved Riddles, or the full-blown kind, by themselves and all together. I have been proposing for some time that these may yield,—whatever that means,—to application of the Stephen Leacock Tetrad of Knowledge, Imagination, Compassion, and Humour. More recently I have begun to suggest that the way to do that involves Creative Doublethink and Bi-Polar (Both-And) Accommodation. The process of working out these suggestions continues.

At this stage I will only present some hypotheses concerning Our Indigenous Social Justice and the Four Fields, leaving more complete discussion for later. It seems possible to me that any kind of Indigenous Social Justice, ours or theirs, is going to be extremely difficult if not impossible without a hefty degree of economic assimilation. In our economic system, most of us receive economic justice by allowing ourselves to be absorbed by the Yottapede (see the Monday Stalking Blog for more about it), or by voluntarily excluding ourselves from it; in the latter case the resulting inevitable poverty is not unjust because we chose it. To be involuntarily excluded is to be denied economic justice. A few people of supreme talent can find economic justice, even high prosperity, on their own terms. Most of us have to accept the terms dictated by the Yottapede. Economic justice is a necessary, but no longer sufficient condition for Social Justice. That’s one hypothesis.

Environmental justice and cultural justice, in several dimensions, hold immense importance for indigenous people in this country, and appear to gain more as their physical survival becomes assured. This is a poser for us. We are no longer sure that we can support environmental justice for our society as a whole, let alone for parts of it. Some parts may even be particularly deprived, as it appears the people of the Arctic, primarily indigenous, may well become or have already. I think our present Canadian government, and a few provincial ones, are trying their best to apply Creative Doublethink and Both-And Accommodation to environmental justice, thus opening themselves up to charges of hypocrisy. The NDP and the Greens are at best wobbly both-anders; the Conservatives still seem to believe in magic, as that kind of ideology often does and not only in environmental matters. If you want to see a touching faith in magic, just try trickle-down economics.

I will stick my neck out and say that I believe we are doing not too badly these days with cultural justice, at least of the superficial kind encompassed by what we awkwardly call multiculturalism. I believe that indigenous people mean something deeper, something outside the Yottapede yet enabling intra-yottapedal economic benefits. We may support such an idea in principle, but I do not believe we have a clear idea how to bring it about, for indigenous people or any others,—such as artists,—who may dream such dreams. A guaranteed minimum annual income has been suggested as one possibility.

I am not quite sure what I mean by Opportunital Justice, except that I am trying to preserve Stephen Leacock’s emphasis on equality of opportunity, which in his day meant economic opportunity, and in ours is more complicated. I promised last week that I would consult Olde Stephen, his ghost, for this week. I did, and that’s what he said.

Of course there are other dimensions of justice that cannot be entirely excluded, such as political justice and legal justice, the former being of great interest to politicians, and the other of concern to those whose desire to remain extra-yottapedal brings them into court or jail, both intra-yottapedal places par excellence. It’s uncomfortable enough trying to broaden Social Justice beyond the purely economic. Adding political and legal justice to the mix, in any except their strictly environmental, cultural, and opportunital dimensions, renders Social Justice a meaningless ideal. It becomes equal to Justice on the whole, which has been an Unsolved Riddle since Socrates, and maybe longer.

That’s enough for this week. Sorry about the length. These are deep waters, as P.G. Wodehouse would say.

 

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.

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.