Category Archives: Politics General

Excursing in the Public Realm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

A Plea Against Simple-Mindedness

A conspiracy is abroad to convince us that cold is colder than it really is. I write this in January. In August I would say we are being told that warm is warmer than it really is. This trick is done by the use of calculated index numbers made to look like thermometer readings: “wind chill”, and “humidex”. The calculators always explain carefully that these are index numbers, and hence unit-less, that is, measuring in their own terms and not in degrees. News-readers are not always as careful to be correct, and even the professional weather reporters will sometimes slip.

To be clear, a “wind chill” reading of -30 is -30, not -30°C. The temperature that goes into the formula is measured in Celsius degrees, the wind speed in kilometres per hour. One could give the resulting index its own units (“chillies” or “hotties”, perhaps). The commentators fudge the numeracy by saying that the index tells us what temperature the weather “feels like”. This is an example of false quantification, casting an illusion of scientific accuracy by forcing the expression of qualitative judgements into numbers, which appear precise. We should be wary of such tricks.

Of course a given winter temperature feels colder if it comes with a brisk wind, and a given summer temperature feels warmer as the humidity rises. Whether these changes are accurately measured by the reported indices, however, is entirely a different matter.

This numerical obfuscation, while irritating to those of us with respect for numbers, would be harmless or even trivial were it not an example of a larger and much more dangerous expedient, which is the reduction of complex phenomena, usually economic, into simple numbers, often index numbers, stock market indices being the most prominent example. The misuse and over-reporting of these indices has become a disease that is catching politically, to the detriment of rational perception and action.

The most important idea that I learned from the study of econometrics, which I was fortunate enough to undertake at institutions of world renown, was that modern advanced economies are extraordinarily complicated organisms, packed with multi-dimensional, simultaneously determined relationships, churning away interactively at their multifarious tasks of production, consumption and investment. To reduce this to any simple set of numbers, especially numbers contrived by some hidden process of indexing, regardless of the felt need, is to engage in an act of deliberate deception. When we pay attention, we are deceiving ourselves.

And yet, every evening my news source, which is CBC radio, offers me the daily “business report”, which tells me inevitably about the stock markets, and perhaps about certain currencies and commodities if they are doing anything exciting that day. This is the entirety of “business”? This accurately represents the lives and livelihoods of millions upon millions of people and institutions making decisions about what to produce, consume and build for the future, making agreements out of their personal relationships to buy and sell in order to give substance to those decisions, and getting on with the job of producing, consuming and building? What is the stock market index to all that, or the relative value of the dollar, or the price of oil or gold? Well, I’ll tell you: it is an incomplete, blurred impression of a small footprint left by the multifarious beast in the soft, muddy shoreline of the river of time. Lazy reporters snap its picture at 5:40 in the afternoon and pretend they are showing us the beast itself. How irresponsible!

Who benefits from all this? Well, first of all the news-media organizations benefit, because they get away with reporting on the cheap. The stock marketeers and commodity traders benefit, because they are made to appear more important than they really are, and there’s money in that. Politicians benefit, because they become encouraged to present with simple-minded interpretations of reality, and there are votes in that, or they think they are. I like to think that voters, on the whole, are not fooled.

Do we benefit? No, we do not. To the extend that we depend on news media, politicians, and other self-appointed interpreters of our reality, we are kept uninformed, and often worried, which inhibits our capacity to make our own rational decisions about what to produce, consume, and build, and keeps us perpetually off balance. There’s no benefit in that, in wealth or enjoyment of life.

If you want to know what is happening in the economy, look around you, at what people, enterprises and institutions are doing. It’s harder work, and sometimes confusing, but at least you are looking at some portion of the beast itself and not at its footprints in the loose mud. Be skeptical of all generalizations and forecasts. Ask yourself who is making them and how much of their money or power is at stake. Be an engaged observer.

Similarly, if you want to know what the weather is like, look outside; read the temperature; check with Environment Canada or your own weather station (if you have one) for wind direction and speed, and relative humidity; consult your own constitution, experience and wardrobe. Then you will know how cold or warm you are going to feel when you step outside. You don’t need some contrived index.

Musing about Probes and Deep States

The late Marshall McLuhan liked to use the word “probe” to describe his favoured forms of intellectual and conversational exploration. Meditation on this word led me to look it up, and then to look at other words that might in some sense be related. In particular I looked at words beginning with “prob”, and relish the resulting association with words such as probity, problem, probable, probability (in the mathematical sense), probate (that is, to prove or verify),  probation, pro bono (a small stretch there), and proboscis. Some of these, including “probe”, have their roots in the Latin verb probare, meaning “to test”, and some do not.

So much for the dictionary of meanings. Then I reached for my book of rhymes: daube (meat stew, a favourite meal of mine), Job, globe, robe (along with enrobe, or even better in appropriate contexts, disrobe), strobe, aerobe, microbe, saprobe (an organism living in putrefied water, also perhaps air or earth), and various applications of the suffix “-phobe” signifying systematic fear or loathing. Well well well, such an intriguing list.

I am particularly struck by probe’s association with proboscis. I think the nose is a highly undervalued sensory organ. We are told that the human olfactory sense is weak, compared with other creatures. We live in a world of sight, sound, taste, and touch. I wonder. Is it that we cannot smell things, or simply that our sense of smell is but weakly connected with our capacity to articulate our sensory findings? We pick up obvious smells, of course, but not the subtle ones. Is that a sensory deprivation, or simply an intellectual or verbal one? Most people can see, hear, taste, and feel not only the obvious, but also the subtle, if they take the trouble. Is a sensory experience not there just because we cannot connect it with words, or because we don’t take the trouble to pay attention?

Perhaps our bodies are constantly picking up all kinds of signals and reacting to them in ways of which we are unaware simply because they are not connected to our powers of speech. Do I respond to my natural surroundings, or to my lover, because of what I see and hear, which I can describe if I make the effort, but also because of what I smell? Does the real wonder and joy lie there? What about a “sixth sense”? Could that be working too?

I am gradually working my way around to a tentative probe into the sense or senses with which we detect and articulate our cultural (in the anthropological sense) surroundings, the totality of the social, economic, physical, and political environment in which we live. We undoubtedly grasp the obvious phenomena, but do we get them all? What happens to us if the most critical, the most rewarding, the most dangerous parts of that environment live in the subtleties that we perhaps detect subliminally but cannot make articulate, or perhaps do not even detect?

This musing began when I read this morning an article by Mike Lofgren published on Truthout (www.truth-out.org). He wants us to be aware of the “Deep State – the hybrid association of key elements of government and parts of top-level finance and industry that is effectively able to govern the United States with limited reference only to the consent of the governed as it is normally expressed through the formal political process.” Are we in Canada governed by a pervasive, powerful “Deep State”? Its ways, although not necessarily its effects, would be subtle if we were. How would we sense it? By the smell, perhaps?

“Ideas matter; education matters; morality matters and justice matters in a democracy.” That’s Henry A. Giroux, in a different article in the same source.

On the Conveyance of Metaphors

Last week I received a questionnaire from the New Democratic Party asking me to express my views on the following:

In my community, the most important issues to organize for action on are:

• Childcare

• Health care

• Minimum wage

• The environment

• Jobs and the economy

• Retirement security

• Canada Post and home mail delivery

• Other

Resisting the urge to scream with frustration, I went along with this exercise, but under “Other” I added the need to fight over-simplification in political discourse, of which this list is an excellent example.

In the first place, I presume that the NDP is preparing for a federal election in 2015, or at least should be. The question should be directed therefore at the most important issues in Canada, not only in my community, important as that is to me. I like to think, however, that other people’s communities are just as important, and that some larger ones are more so. Mine, after all, is very small and rural, enjoying, thanks to Nature, a rich quality of life. Those who live in cities, towns, or even villages rely much more on human institutions, of which the most important are governments at all three (sometimes four) levels.

If you want to try to convince me that private enterprise, production and consumption are more vital to quality of life than the activities of governments, then you will need to work very hard. One can make an ideological case that that ought to be so, but if you want to make a practical case that it is so, then you will have to show me the place where it is. I think there are places where private interests are indeed more powerful than governments, but I do not envy their quality of life, at least insofar as the wider population is concerned. The people on the inside of those interests, of course, do very well for themselves.

In a democracy we are obliged to consider the wider interest. That is a solemn obligation, and I believe that in this country a majority of voters of all persuasions take it seriously and believe they are acting on it in good faith. About our massive southern neighbour I am not as sure, although no doubt many do there too, which makes what is happening there very sad.

I believe also that the vast majority of our citizens have minds that are quite equal to the challenge of democratic thinking. The NDP, in its simple-minded list, is assuming that we are all simple-minded, or at least are prepared to vote as if we were. Of course, the Conservatives, Liberals, and Greens do it too, in their differing styles. If they all believe it, must it be so? And my goodness gracious, how our beloved news media love to do it!

But some simplification is necessary or we would all go mad at the complexity and inter-relatedness of it all. We achieve that, often without thinking about it, by employing the wonderful human art of creating metaphors. We make “the economy” a metaphor of general well-being. We make “health care” a metaphor of physical and mental well-being. We make “the social safety net” a metaphor of protection against misfortune and exclusion. We make “the climate” a metaphor of Nature’s health. Political parties would have us make their leaders, or the images of their leaders, a metaphor of governmental reliability and competence.

Metaphors, if I may use a simile to discuss them, are like aircraft, conveying us above the inconveniences and complexities of the grounds on which we live and offering us a wider view. But we are very careful in the design and choice of aircraft on which we are willing to fly, and we make strenuous and expensive efforts to make sure that the people who operate them for us are fully up to the complexities and difficulties of the work. Do we do the same for the flights of metaphor that surround us?

Are we being careful, for example, to make sure that people who use the stock market index as a convenient metaphor in the daily business report are conveying us safely to an understanding of what business is doing and how it works? Are we careful to make sure that the people who use waiting lists as a convenient metaphor in health care are conveying us safely to an understanding of the quality of that essential service? Are we careful to make sure that the people who use gun control, whether for or against it, are using the metaphor appropriately and in our best interests? What about wind turbines? What about Vimy Ridge? Stephen Harper? Thomas Mulcair? Justin Trudeau? Elizabeth May?

Metaphors are powerful and convenient, therefore both inevitable and dangerous. What do we do with other things that we need and can hurt us? We treat them very carefully indeed. We think hard about them, and discuss them at length. We educate ourselves and others about them. We train in their use. Sometimes we even regulate them.

I am not suggesting regulation of metaphors. I do think there is room for rather more thought, discussion, education and training before we commit ourselves to any one of them.

Party of One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One Voice: Onward if not Upward

If you are paying any attention to the trappings of this site—I hope you are paying more to the content—you will perhaps notice that I have changed the sub-title, because I have been thinking about voices, about those I hear, and my own voice.

My concern for my own voice is primarily professional: I use it for artistic purposes and to make my summer living. (If you want to know more, I refer you to www.voyageurstorytelling.ca.) I therefore care about its well-being. My concern goes further, however. I also write, and like everyone who raises his or her voice in this medium, I would like to be heard, that is, read. I would like to be understood. I do not aim to persuade, although agreement is a warm gift. My voice, when I am writing, comes from some interplay between my thinking and imagining. I hope it will stimulate the thoughts and imaginations of my hearers. That is all. (I will explain some other time why I describe my voice as “adjective”.)

My concern today is more with the voices I hear around me. I am not referring to those in the woods and neighbourhood outside, myriad and stirring though they be. I am not referring to the voices in my house: the dog announcing a passing car, my lady  appraising the passing day. I am referring to the voices of “the media” that I allow within my field of notice, or intrude whether I allow them or not. I am not particularly worried that these voices will persuade me to something unwise, because I am a stubborn old coot and I make up my mind carefully when the stakes are important. I am worried at the consistency with which these voices are lying. I don’t like it when people lie to me.

Lies, half-truths, distortions, egregious errors, misnomers, unsubstantiated opinions: these and other abuses are what constitute the daily deluge of propaganda and crude efforts to manipulate we inevitably confront in our media-saturated age, and which we must separate, using our own knowledge, instincts and common sense, from the intermingled truths, facts, clarities, and valid understandings.

Politicians would like us to believe them; sometimes what they say is believable, sometimes not. Their own interests often become so entangled in the analysis that our task of separation becomes difficult indeed. When two of our most senior politicians label an act as “terrorism”, and another calls it “criminal”, which are we to believe, and on what grounds? The matter will never come to court, where the act can be judged by due process in the light of the definition in the Criminal Code, because the perpetrator is dead. Common sense therefore tells us that these judgements are opinions, not facts or legal judgements, of no real weight unless we choose to give it to them.

Scientists would like us to believe them, because they are professionally bound to be careful in what they say and to base their conclusions on data, which are measurements. And yet they routinely make predictions, for which they can by definition have no data, because the future is unmeasurable. Extrapolations, however sophisticated and well grounded in the facts of the past, are always opinions, and should be received as such. And like opinions of all kinds, they can be biassed, or even self-interested. We should always ask who is making the prediction, and what is at stake for them.

Since when did predictions uncritically reported become “news”? I remember some years ago, after a period of wild speculation in gold, the CBC reporting with great solemnity the prediction of some “expert” that the price would reach $2,000 per ounce, it being on the way down at that point. “How much gold does that guy own,” I demanded of my car radio, “and at what price and on how much margin did he buy it?” Answer came there none.

Don’t get me wrong. I love opinions: expressing them, hearing them, and arguing about them. But I don’t confuse them with facts. Nor should anyone.

Unfalling the Sky

Earlier this week I recognized Chicken Little (or Chicken Licken as she is sometimes named), gamely undertaking the work of telling us that we have a problem, or even several of them. Climate change and other assaults on Nature, lop-sided inequality, persistent violence, hideous prejudice and discrimination: these evils appear on most thinking people’s lists, along with others too numerous to mention here. Not everyone agrees about the lists, of course, and some people espousing some lists have tremendous power. That too is part of the problem.

The term “Balance of Power” shows up frequently in discussions of international strategy. It might make a good slogan for domestic strategy too.

This week I encountered four ideas that are perhaps relevant to the pursuit of such an aim. The first came from the Canadian writer Naomi Klein in an interview concerning her latest book (http://billmoyers.com/2014/09/16/naomi-klein-only-a-reverse-shock-doctrine-can-save-our-climate/). I won’t quote her because I don’t have room and you can better read it for yourself. The essence of her prescription is a drastic overhaul in our ideology and societal practice. Fair enough.

The second came thanks to the CBC, who on Ideas Wednesday evening introduced me to the Degrowth Movement. You can read about that at Degrowth / Decroissance Canada (http://degrowthcanada.wordpress.com/), where they advocate a “steady state” economy instead of the mindless pursuit of growth. Fair enough.

The third is attributed by Alan Ryan (On Politics, p. 267) to Dante, whose “premise is that the purpose of life in society is to allow the human species to manifest all distinctively human perfections; the two most important are the capacity of the individual to attain the life of reason and to govern himself by moral law. These perfections cannot be achieved in the absence of peace, and the preservation of peace is the fundamental duty of rulers.” Fair enough, or even more. I write this on the day that our Prime Minister has announced that we are once again going into a war, albeit a bit tentatively.

The fourth I found in The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes, generally edited by Clifton Fadiman (1985), where Aldous Huxley is quoted as saying (p. 295-6): “It is a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human problem all one’s life and find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than ‘Try to be a little kinder.’ ”

I wonder if that prescription is not the most profound of them all, because it is so obviously within reach for every one of us and all our agents and institutions, whereas I don’t think the others are, or at least not quickly enough. What would happen if we all, in our own lives, took that gently incremental approach, and applied it widely. We might be astonished at the magnitude of the cumulative effect.

Try to be a little kinder. Try to be a little wiser. Try to be a little more aware. Try to be a little more involved. Try to consume a little less. Try to burn a little less. Try to waste a little less. Try to borrow a little less or pay off a little more. Try to be a little less impatient. Try to be a little (or even a lot) less addicted to violence. Try to be a little less gullible. It doesn’t sound all that difficult, because it isn’t.

We might be amazed.