Category Archives: Social Justice

January Chapter: Forward with Social Justice into the Backwardness of Blogs

January 2021 (first draft, subject to revision):

Since this article begins as the first in a year-long monthly series, and in the natural unfolding of a blog will end up as the last, it is perhaps worthwhile to begin with some conclusions and let the text evolve towards its natural beginning. Where would preoccupation with the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, Fourfold Vision, and Complex Thinking for Complex Times take us if we gave it free rein? How would it be if we hypothesize the following and see if it stands up as we fill in both articulation and rationale month by month on a weekly schedule of revision?

To clarify: I intend to start a new chapter each month, progressing backwards from conclusions and recommendations through analysis and examples to first principles. I will review the current chapter each week and make whatever additions, subtractions, clarifications, and revisions seem necessary. This means that you, the reader, if you wish to keep up with me, will read each chapter four, occasionally five, times. (April, July, September, and December are the fivers this year, since Thursday is the official (not necessarily the actual) posting day.) I see no harm in that, even some good, as repetition assists retention, more profound thought, and creativity.

Here goes:

CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS:

(1) Make a Mantra of Social Justice. At present, at least before Covid-19 came along, it seemed that the words we heard most often in public discourse were “The Economy”, meaning economic growth of the common, quantitative kind, measured by a very small number of indicators, such as GDP, the stock market indices, or (un)employment. We should elevate ‘Social Justice’ into that dominant position, and think of economic affairs as simply one tool in the box.

An anecdote of natural regression from more complex to simplistic thinking: You are perhaps familiar with the phrase, “It’s the Economy, stupid!” sometimes believed to have originated with Bill Clinton, campaigning for the presidency of the United States in 1992. In fact, the idea began one of a triad that came from one of his campaign strategists, James Carville, and the actual phrases were: “1. Change vs. more of the same. 2. the economy, stupid. 3. don’t forget health care.” The transition from a three-idea proposal to a one-idea slogan was apparently immediate.

I propose that one of the fundamental tetrads in our eventual Social Justice portfolio could be: Prosperity + Health + Security + Freedom.

(2) Nature As Our Partner Not Our Servant. We need to consider, and act on, the possibility, which looks more and more like a reality, that Nature in some holistic sense is feeling her survival threatened by our actions, particularly by our dumping of garbage and effluents. These are causing her systems to clog and her regulatory systems to weaken or fail. A fundamental drive of Nature is survival, and her pursuit of survival can be ruthless and cruel by our standards. We need to be afraid of what she can do if we abuse her. On the other hand, she is generous and forgiving. She will cooperate with us if we cooperate with her.

A sense of partnership with Nature, much closer to what humanity has always respected under aboriginal conditions (not having any choice), needs to be infused into our industrial, commercial, technological, and consumer cultures, as a fundamental condition of Social Justice. We need a tetrad for that, but don’t have it yet. Ideas?

(3) Complex Thinking for Complex Reality. The cumulative effect of democratic, industrial, and commercial progress in the past few centuries has been a hugely complex, interactive society, or set of societies, seeking to satisfy individual, local, national, regional, and global imperatives. In order to make those our servants rather than our masters we need to think as complexly as they are. Simplicities, however consoling, cannot do the job.

(4) Resolute, Sane, Orderly, and Continuous Social Reform. There is no magic formula. If something needs improvement, work to improve it. If we try something that works, we should do more of it. If we try something that doesn’t work, we should try something different. We may in fact work that way naturally. We need to trust the process, and distrust those who are impatient, dogmatic, or authoritarian.

(5) Education. All advancement of any kind begins here, and not only with schooling, important as that is. The humanaculture of learning and teaching needs to permeate public discourse and private aspiration.

(6) Social Safety. We cannot call ourselves socially just as long as anyone is in distress through no fault of their own, and we need to be very careful in our judgements about fault. What looks like fault is often our lack of understanding. In particular children should not inherit the misfortunes of their parents.

One of the lessons of Covid-19 is surely the importance of governments in responding to emergencies, and the importance of their infrastructure in tools, expertise, and legislation when the emergency strikes.

(7) Fitting Taxation. In order to provide the public services and protections so essential to Social Justice, we need to tax whatever creates or manifests material wealth for individuals and corporations, using a set of largest possible bases and at steeply progressive rates.

(8) Guaranteed Incomes. The Big Four pillars of Social Justice are, or ought to be: Income, Housing, Health Care, Education. If people have incomes they can help with the other three. If we don’t guarantee the income we pay a huge price trying to provide the others.

(9) Right Œvirsagas. Œvirsagas are the macro-stories we tell ourselves in order to know who we are, where we are, where we have been, and where we ought to be going. They are the propaganda we generate for ourselves, in order to keep us focussed and energized.

HOW GOOD WE ARE WILL DEPEND ON HOW WE THINK!

A Tetrad of Post-Covid19 Specific Measures based on lessons learned:

(1) A Guaranteed Annual Income. If we had had that from the beginning the social safety net it would represent would kick in automatically for those in need.This measure would require higher taxation of the progressive redistributive kind.

(2) Massive Reform of Elder Care. Towards Home Care and minimally institutional forms of residence; away from large institutions especially those of the warehousing kind.

(3) Sophisticated Understanding of Risk. Covid19 is a new risk and we don’t know how to think about it. We take risks all the time in our daily lives, especially with disease and accidents, and we know how to think about them. We need to apply the same kind of understanding.

(4) Journalism for Our Time. The present whip-saw oscillation between sensationalism and sentimentalism, along with grotesquely inadequate expertise in statistical interpretation on the part of journalists, is making any kind of contextual thinking extremely difficult for those who rely on regular journalism for understanding.

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

 

 

Saluting “A Balanced Response” to Covid-19

Today a magnificent development in Covid-19 discourse: A new web site has appeared with an Open Letter and a Statement endorsed by a bevy of senior medical and academic people, advocating “A Balanced Response” towards the virus. The web site is http://www.balancedresponse.ca, and I highly recommend it.

I have for several days been contemplating a blog post about that, but these people have spoken far better than I could have done. Responding to their invitation, I spoke to them as follows.

Dear Balanced Responders:

I am absolutely delighted to learn of your initiative and to read your web site. Many, many thanks for them.

You asked for feedback and here is mine. I apologize for its wordiness, but I am immensely excited and encouraged by what you have done and that tends to stimulate my thoughts and make me verbose.

Please extend my particular congratulations to the person or people who drafted the text. I have done that kind of writing professionally and I can recognize good work when I see it. Your letter and statement are the best I have seen in a long, long time, and certainly the best that has come out of Covid-19 discourse, if it can be called that.

We have been subjected to far too much “discourse” that is technically propaganda, well-intentioned propaganda no doubt, but still propaganda. I believe that decisions were taken at very high official levels deliberately to frighten the general public into compliance, a strategy enthusiastically augmented by the CBC, which is my main source of news, and which can only backfire eventually. Your Statement says, “Our leaders and public health authorities had to use strong language to support universal acceptance of these measures.” I believe the same effect could have been achieved by much less dubious rhetoric and abuse of statistics.

I am concerned that one serious side-effect of Covid-19 has been to stimulate the authoritarian dreams of some politicians and senior officials. “My goodness,” I hear them chortling, “we are ordering people around for their own good and they are obeying. Isn’t this fun!” It is but a short hop to, “Let’s do more of it!”.

Another has been to stimulate the finger-pointing and shaming instincts of some of our fellow citizens. Now that masks have emerged as a visible sign of compliance, this kind of anti-social behaviour will have every opportunity to prosper.

I agree entirely with your recommendation that: “Any requirements for mandatory masks must be based on strong evidence with clear specification of where they are most appropriate.” I am not yet seeing any real evidence (as opposed to guesswork) that a piece of cloth, or a flimsy piece of whatever medical-looking material is used, hooked behind the ears, is a protection against anything, let alone an extraordinarily crafty virus. It does protect against intrusive finger-pointing and shaming, I suppose, but forcing protection against that can only lead to rising levels of anger, which are bad for mental health. I support the intent of your Recommendation 12, but would add that we need to be not only responsive, but preventive. We should not trade one epidemic for another.

And what do we become as a community and society, if we routinely hide our faces from each other? How do you smile at someone from behind a mask? What does a mask say, if not, “I am afraid of you, and I think you are entitled to be afraid of me”?

The key to the approach you are recommending is in Recommendation 10: “Canadians must be better informed about their true level of risk from COVID-19. An accurate accessible risk assessment tool is a priority. This will help empower people to make informed decisions about how they choose to lead their lives. Help people understand and manage their fear and anxiety.” The questions that I ask myself continuously when I am out and about is, “What is the probability that the people I am going to meet will have the virus and will pass it on to me? What is the probability that I have the virus, and will pass it on to them? What is the probability of severe consequences, either way?” I study the data available to me, which are most distressingly incomplete, and I keep coming up with the the same answer: Those probabilities are very, very small, not negligible of course, but within the range of normal human existence or very close to it.

Development and cultivation of the risk assessment tool you recommend, even in the face of incomplete data, is within the scope of simple application of statistical decision theory, accessible to anyone who can do basic arithmetic and understands the meaning of odds. If the formula is out in the open it can be easily up-dated as new data come in.

I believe that development of a more sophisticated understanding of the term “case” would help enormously to prepare the ground, and also even crude demographic partitioning of the data, as you have done in your first Statement paragraph.

People in official positions need to be careful about the precision of their language. A nearby care home suffered a positive test in one of its elderly residents, causing enormous upheaval, distress, and cost not only monetary. The test turned out to be a false positive, but the incident was nevertheless referred to by the authorities as an “outbreak”.

I have published my recommendations for policy arising from Covid-19, although I do not pretend to have a wide audience. I have had them up on my web site (www.voyageurstorytelling.ca) for some time, ever since the patterns became clear. I pass them on to you for what they are worth:
(1) A Guaranteed Annual Income. If we had had that from the beginning the social safety net it would represent would kick in automatically for those in need.This measure would require higher taxation of the progressive redistributive kind.

(2) Massive Reform of Elder Care. Towards Home Care and minimally institutional forms of residence; away from large institutions especially those of the warehousing kind.

(3) Sophisticated Understanding of Risk. Covid-19 is a new risk and we don’t know how to think about it. We take risks all the time in our daily lives, especially with disease and accidents, and we know how to think about them. We need to apply the same kind of understanding.

(4) Journalism for Our Time. The present whip-saw oscillation between sensationalism and sentimentalism, along with grotesquely inadequate expertise in statistical interpretation on the part of journalists, is making any kind of contextual thinking extremely difficult for those who rely on regular journalism for understanding.

I think these sketchy ideas are compatible with your thinking, although I don’t think you addressed the first or, explicitly, the fourth. The latter is in line with your Recommendation 10, however. Understanding of context is extremely important for the kind of informed decisions you are talking about there.

I will indeed do as you ask, to spread word of your Open Letter and Statement on my social media sites and blogs. I look forward to further developments on your web site.

Again thanks, and all best wishes for wide acceptance of your ideas and advice.

Signed …

The whole response to Covid-19, up until recently, as been an almost unprecedented (at least since WW II and maybe not even then) application of onefold vision (single vision) to our macro-societal life. We have been under a form of authoritarian rule, supported by our own fears and lack of information (as such rule always is), justifiable only in a drastic emergency. It was possible in the early stages that we were in one of those, but has also been clear for at least two of the four months that this epidemic was no such thing unless we chose to make it one. We did. Now, finally, we have authoritative people expressing, with all the weight of their knowledge and experience, an alternative point of view. We need to celebrate that. They have given us a Fourfold Vision of how we should think and what we should do.

PWC, July 9 2020

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

We Have Let the Virus Fire Us in New Ways That Are Old

An Up-Date for those who read this blog and are wondering what has happened to it. Answer: It has been temporarily pushed aside by KnICH Magazine, whose needs were more immediate and pressing. They still are. A little TLC for this blog is, however, long overdue. I have managed each week to refresh the Voyageur Storytelling web site (www.voyageurstorytelling.ca) and my Twitter page (@conwaypaulw) with a new pictoverbicon and a few musings which don’t add up to much. A framework for thinking about Social Justice and its Unsolved Riddles is beginning to emerge on the web site, where I have also estabished a link and introduction to KnICH Magazine. The principal use for this blog in the months ahead will be to expand on that and bring it to life.

Earlier today I put the following four paragraphs into a letter to a friend. I apologize to him for double-using them, should he happen to read this. They summarize what I am thinking these days, and will do to keep this blog alive for the time being. I have not enclosed them in quotations, because I will no doubt keep fiddling with the wording.

In my naturally self-isolated spot, I entertain the hypothesis that things are not really as strange as we think they are, at least not at the heart of them. We have become accustomed to obsessing on one single threat-and-cause and organizing our entire lives around it, at the behest of “experts”, who are often stakeholders, and their receptive politicians who take upon themselves the burden of telling us what to do using some mixture of carrots and sticks. The threat-cause used to be “The Economy”. Now it is “The Virus”. The threat used to be that “The Economy” would leave us out, the cause that complete devotion to its imperatives would lead us into universal prosperity and social justice. “The Virus” has a somewhat different twist, but is fundamentally the same, the threat being that it will embrace us, the cause being the utter banishment of risk and death. Under this hypothesis the “new normal” becomes like a photographic negative of the old normal.

William Blake argued that “single vision” was something we should avoid. He called it a form of sleep. He recommended “fourfold vision”, but was prepared to settle for “threefold” or “twofold” if necessary. For me the principal outcome of the Stephen Leacock project was his framework for a four-fold vision, the Tetrad of Knowledge + Imagination + Compassion + Humour that emerges from his copious writings on education. That is essentially what Northrop Frye meant, I think, by arguing in favour of a “literary” or “poetic” cast of mind. Of course it’s one thing to mean along those lines, quite another to translate them into policy. In order to do that we must learn not only to think four-fold-edly, but to act that way. The very best politicians know how to do that, unedifying as their apparent contortions may sometimes appear. Most, even some of the most successful, choose a single vision and exercise their art by subordinating all others effectively while embracing them verbally. The democratic public go along with that way, by yelling either in support of that single vision, or in favour of another one they want to put in place as the new global subordinator.

What a relief it must have been to such-minded politicians to be handed a single vision that so effectively subordinated everything else, at least for a time. Almost no one was yelling at them to do anything except to pursue more single-mindedly and ruthlessly the single vision and to subordinate all others. That is changing now, of course, and they are back in the hot seat once more. The public were prepared to be single-mindedly ruled for a little while. Now they are becoming democratically unruly once more.

My own incremental pursuit of four-fold-edness was most conveniently served by Stephen Leacock for three years. He remains in my thoughts, but has been joined by a wider cast: Isaiah Berlin, Northrop Frye, George Eliot, Ethel Wilson, Jules Verne, and a fine array of arctic explorers and eccentrics. I am working on three arenas where all these can sport in public display: the Voyageur Storytelling web site (www.voyageurstorytelling.ca), a thing called KnICH Magazine, and my blog. You might be interested in KnICH Magazine, which is linked through the web site if you are curious. It is a joint venture with my son Patrick. This is all work in progress of course, as everything always is with me, and will take shape gradually.

That’s where the letter ended, the effort to think in complex ways in the midst of complex times, and to articulate those thoughts even while they are evolving, goes on.

Ringing in the Tetrads

I have not posted here for some time. I apologize. I have been running three blogs during the months of the Leacock Anniversaries, with different postings. This week, for a change, as I swing into yet another break, this one for two or even three weeks, I am posting the same text on all three. When you have read one you have read them all.

This week’s pictoverbicon, as displayed on the Voyageur Storytelling web site (www.voyageurstorytelling.ca), the Leacock’n Bulletin linked thereto, and my Twitter page (https://twitter.com/conwaypaulw) introduces the Idea of Tetrational Thinking:

Leacock Post 10-31.jpeg

I have occupied much of the past two months in writing a book called The Marriage of Social Justice and Unsolved Riddles, in which I am attempting to convince readers that Social Justice and Unsolved Riddles belong together. The narrative approach that I adopted for this task I find subsequently to be consistent with Northrop Frye’s intention which was, according to his biographer John Ayre, “to spread imaginative poetic thought throughout society to soften and cancel the effects of procrustean logic and ideology.” This is most satisfying, because for a Canadian of my generation who graduated from the University of Toronto, to be consistent with Northrop Frye is always consoling.

I have talked before about Stephen Leacock’s Tetrad of Knowledge + Imagination + Compassion + Humour as a form of quadruple-thinking Both-Andian (or All-Andian) cast of mind able to work us toward Social Justice. When we pursue the Tetrational Way we find ourselves of course in a forest of Unsolved Riddles, that is, inherently conflicting or contradictory goods, but what is the alternative? How difficult would it be to tune our collective minds in all four of these directions at once? Quite difficult, I think, but possible with practice. Both Northrop Frye and Stephen Leacock insisted on Imagination as the linchpin of this whole way of thinking. That seems obvious, because the Tetrad demands that we step outside our normal, simplified, linear ways of thinking, the ones that enable us to get on with our lives from day to day without going mad, and view our lives together, our society, in a much more complicated way. In order to do that we have to free our imaginations from the “procrustean logic and ideology” which powerful forces press upon us so insistently.

One of the great Unsolved Riddles of our time declares the possibility that the simplified, linear thinking which helps us individually to avoid going mad from day to day, when applied collectively, to our social situation, constitutes itself a form of madness. I am convinced that Tetrational Thinking would ease the collective madness. We might too find that it creates an even higher form of sanity for us individually.

Reading Northrop Frye’s biography (by John Ayre) I learned that he set down a Tetrad of his own in a letter to one Betty Cole in April of 1974: “I think there has to be an assumption that life is better than death, freedom better than slavery, happiness better than misery, equality better than exploitation, for all men everywhere without exception.” (In the interests of exact quotation I leave in Frye’s “all men” and do not substitute “all people” or “everyone” as I feel strongly inclined to do, because that is obviously what Frye meant.) Is his assumption perhaps the irreducible first principle of Social Justice?

As an exercise in Tetrational Thinking, I invite you to stare fixedly at the following tetragammon (Is it a mandala? I’m not sure.) keeping in mind the four elements simultaneously. I have tried it, and find that it does in fact tend to break apart the procrustean logic and ideology.  When I have time I’ll create one for Frye’s Tetrad of Life + Freedom + Happiness + Equality, as well as its antipode, the Death + Slavery + Misery + Exploitation that is the tragic lot of so much of humanity and that we must never willingly accept.

tetrad-138-1.jpg

Stare at that Tetrad for a long time. Think about the words and what they mean both individually and for each other. Weave circles around them and close your eyes in holistic dream. Imagine them becoming more than they are, more than you ever dreamed they could be. Don’t become discouraged if nothing magic happens the first time you try. It will come.

When I resume posting here later in November I will take up these ideas more fully, both theoretically and practically. I shall strive to integrate the Tetrads of Stephen Leacock and Northrop Frye with B.W. Powe’s “attentive sensitivity to multi-dimensional meaning”, Isaiah Berlin’s “loose texture  and a measure of inefficiency and even muddle”, Marshall McLuhan’s gnomic utterance that “The Medium is the Message” (which I think means that how we think or communicate determines, or at least heavily influences,  what we think or communicate), and George Eliot’s celebration, in one of her characters, of a benign influence that is “incalculably diffusive”.

We are not machines. Our minds are not governed by sequential cause and effect. They can leap.

In the meantime I leave you with the following jingle:

The Mud between the Minds
Like muds of other kinds,
Constitutes a kind of wealth
Or viscous form of filth :
This is the Unsolved Riddle
Of the Muddle.

 

Social Justice and Unsolved Riddles I: Wednesday

When I am writing intensely, as I most certainly am these days, I don’t read any new books. I read the old, familiar ones. The aging brain can take only so much. Last night I plucked from the shelf Fifth Business by Robertson Davies. As with all familiar books I did not begin at the beginning. I read some scenes that I like, including the one where Dunstan Ramsay re-encounters Paul Dempster performing as a magician in Mexico City. In the run-up to that life-changing event, Ramsay is sitting in a church watching the people who have come to see and experience a famous robe displaying a miraculous picture of the Virgin Mary, “the goddess of mercy, the Holy Mother, the figure of divine compassion” and admires the beauty of their faces. He then asks himself where mercy and divine compassion will come from for these poor people, when they have received the “inestimable benefit” of modern education? He goes on to muse:

Or are such things necessary to people who are well fed and know the wonders that lie concealed in an atom? I don’t regret economic and educational advance; I just wonder how much we will have to pay for it, and in what coin.

Wonder no more, dear Ramsay, at least about the coin. We do not yet know how much of it we will pay. The coin is “economic and educational advance” run amok in an orgy of consumption, commodification, technological displacement, financial speculation, and violence. What was, briefly, benign and even meritorious in this advance, turns rapidly into a nightmare. The coin is alienation from Nature, whom we now treat, not as the beloved mother of Humanity and all Life, but as a property, a colony, a servant or even a slave, a commodity, a garbage dump, a thing to be exploited, an expendable. The coin is alienation from each other, a disintegration of nations, regions, cultures into tribes who eye each other in degrees of separation ranging from indifference to open hostility. Tools for communication on a scale hitherto unimaginable have become weapons in inter-tribal rivalries, assertiveness, and violence. The coin is incessant noise, so that we can no longer hear each other speak or ourselves think, let alone the “choir invisible whose music is the gladness of the world”, as George Eliot described it. The coin is alienation from our own individual and collective humanity to the point where everything good in human nature, in our selves and others, becomes, one way or another, something to be exploited for base or trivial purposes, or distrusted, or abandoned as irrelevant. In short, the coin is the perversion of everything holy, everything benign, everything that natural and cultural evolution and human creativity have achieved. This perversion is not yet complete, has not yet become irredeemably grotesque, although the situation is grave. To steal a phrase from W.H. Auden, a little but not entirely out of context: This is the Abomination. This is the wrath of God.

I do not make or believe any predictions, because the future is in principal unknowable. I am however prepared to assign probabilities, based on knowledge and experience, not only my own. I am even prepared, with all humility and caution, to extrapolate a little, given the necessary data and rigorous estimation of relationships. I was highly trained to do that, and have spent my working life practising. I perform these intellectual and imaginative exercises as conscientiously as I can. I look at the results, and they are full of menace.

Not all is doom and gloom, however. We can still talk, and we can still listen. We can still write, and we can still read. We can still create, and we can still absorb. We can still use our five senses and our brains, our hands to reach out, our feet to cross divides. We do not have to tag along. Stephen Leacock, over the whole of his wide career as a writer, speaker, and teacher, advised us to bring to bear a creative melange of Knowledge, Imagination, Compassion and Humour. We can still do that. We do not need to stop or reverse the economic, educational, and other long list of advances that have done us so much good. We have evolved wonderful tools. They remain wonderful. They are being perverted by vicious self-serving people and our own appetites for consumption, comfort, security,  convenience, and entertainment. We do not need to disavow the advance. We need to recognize the perversion for what it is, and put a stop to it.

* * * * *

P.S. I am now writing my Leacock Anniversaries book, The Marriage of Social Justice and Unsolved Riddles. The Preface was released quietly on Saturday, August 24th, and the first chapter will be released on Saturday, August 31st, one hundred years to the day since Stephen Leacock published his first chapter in the New York Times, the Toronto Star, and other newspapers. If you want a copy, e-mail me at voyageur-at-bmts.com and you shall have it. There’s no charge, but there is a condition: I am looking for feedback, and reserve the right to beg you for it.

Stephen Leacock on the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, Chapter VII

Stephen Leacock called the last chapter of The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice “What Is Possible and What Is Not”, although he starts with what is not. Socialism is not, neither is individualism, or, he hastens to qualify, “at least the older individualism that we have hitherto made the basis of the social order.” He did not qualify his judgement of socialism. He could have said, but did not, “at least the all-encompassing socialism presented by Edward Bellamy in Looking Backward.” He gives no evidence that he knows anything about Marx or Engels, although he probably knew something. He mentions Marx in his 1903 Ph.D. thesis on The Doctrine of Laissez Faire, without suggesting he has read him. By the time he wrote his textbook on Political Science (published 1906), however, he certainly had. One could speculate on the reasons why he chooses Edward Bellamy as the spokesman for socialism and not Marx or the English, French, or German socialists he writes about elsewhere, but this is not the place. He is prepared to qualify individualism, but leaves the socialist alternative in an extreme state, forgetting his textbook admission that “the greater number of socialists now favor the amelioration of present conditions rather than their complete overthrow.”

He makes another extreme statement as he sets up for his recommendations in The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, written you will recall, in 1919, when he refers to “principle of selfishness that has been the survival instinct of existence since life first crawled from the slime of a world in evolution”. So much for the sharing ethic so prevalent among people living in aboriginal conditions on the edge of survival. Leacock himself is a convinced “sharist”,  however, as the recommendations themselves show.

A legislative code that starts from sounder principles than those which have obtained hitherto can do a great deal towards progressive betterment. Each decade can be an improvement upon the last. Hitherto we have been hampered at every turn by the supposed obstacle of immutable economic laws. The theory of “natural” wages and prices of a supposed economic order that could not be disturbed, set up a sort of legislative paralysis. The first thing needed is to get away entirely from all such preconceptions, to recognize that the “natural” order of society, based on the “natural” liberty, does not correspond with real justice and real liberty at all, but works injustice at every turn. And at every turn intrusive social legislation must seek to prevent such injustice.

Progressive betterment. An incremental approach, at least once the accumulated injustices of the past century have been mitigated, and the lessons of the latest Great War incorporated, jobs to be done through legislation. After all, he insists, if the legislative hammer and taxation can be used to fight a war, as they had so forcefully so recently, then they can be used for the positive betterment of people’s lives. The principle has been established.

What is radical in Leacock’s approach as laid out in this last crucial chapter, is not the content, but the cast of mind. What he recommends is, in brief, simply a comprehensive social safety net in the context of a liberal democracy that values individual creativity and enterprise and restrains individual greed and abuses of power.

The safety of the future lies in a progressive movement of social control alleviating the misery which it cannot obliterate and based upon the broad general principle of equality of opportunity.

Put into the plainest of prose, then, we are saying that the government of every country ought to supply work and pay for the unemployed, maintenance for the infirm and aged, and education and opportunity for the children.

The war had shown that social enterprise on the necessary scale was feasible in practical, legislative, productive, and financial terms. The external foe had been defeated. It was time to vanquish the internal enemy. It could be done. Q.E.D.

Leacock’s nation is a Both-And place, both individualistic and socialistic. The two ideologies may be poles apart, but they can mix perfectly well. The Unsolved Riddle is in our minds, in our belief, defiant of all experience, that one ideology is right and the other is wrong, that they cannot be mixed. Nothing but disaster, he insists, can follow the pure pursuit of one or the other. To believe in a perfect world or no world at all is ridiculous, even insane. The modern industrial system, even in his day let alone ours, is simply too complex for ideology. Pragmatism is the only way. That is what he believed, and that is what we believe. Enjoy the Muddle, he says. It works. Understand it. Cherish it. Laugh at it. Improve it. That is The Cause.

When we look broadly across his writings we see constant reference to four ways in which we can and must tune our minds, a quadruple Both-And, using Knowledge, Imagination, Compassion, and Humour. I am not going to suggest that Stephen Leacock pulled that off. In fact, I am not sure that any one person, however powerful the mind and wide the reading, can pull it off. That’s why we don’t like dictators. We do it together. Improvement is a collective act. The Muddle may be messy, and frighteningly verbose, but that’s how the magic happens.

* * * * * * *

This ends my explicit consideration of Leacock’s book. I have now begun to write my 100-years-later extension of his approach and cast of mind, my version of his book, the Preface to be released on Saturday of this week, a chapter a week thereafter for seven weeks. I am following his model slavishly, although in my own style. In this blog, from now until the end of December when the Anniversaries time ends, I will tell stories of My Discovery of Stephen Leacock, which continues, and gossip about his life and ideas. But I think I have delighted you enough with his economic and social ideas. It’s time to get back to the humour.

Stephen Leacock on the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, Chapters V and VI

Today’s chapters from The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice are: V. The Land of Dreams: The Utopia of the Socialist; and VI. How Mr. Bellamy Looked Backward. They could be taken as one chapter, because Leacock segues explicitly from the first to the next, using Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, published in 1887 and immensely popular in its day,—you can find it on-line at https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/624,—and still listed as in print by Penguin Random House with an introduction by Cecelia Tichi, the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of English and Professor of American Studies at Vanderbilt University. So you see, Bellamy’s book can still attract the attention of a serious scholar of literature, if not of political economy. It is in fact a fascinating work of fiction and I am pleased to have read it.

Looking Backward (the title refers to the perspective of the narrator, who is looking back on 1887 from the year 2000 in which he finds himself after a sleep of 113 years) quickly made a Canadian footprint, albeit a faint one. In 1891 some people wanted to found a community to be called Bellamy Village in Scarborough Township, Ontario, just east of Toronto. They got as far as negotiations with the township council. The idea ran into resistance and died, its only legacy being the name of Bellamy Road in Scarborough, which beginning at Kingston Road proceeds northward with only one break for railroad tracks finally to meld perpendicularly into Corporate Drive. But I digress.

Stephen Leacock’s views on socialism, as they stood in 1919, are neither sophisticated nor interesting today, although clearly stated. What is important is the cast of mind he brings to them:

For in the whole program of peaceful socialism there is nothing wrong except one thing. Apart from this it is a high and ennobling ideal truly fitted for a community of saints. And the one thing that is wrong with socialism is that it won’t work. That is all. It is, as it were, a beautiful machine of which the wheels, dependent upon some unknown and uninvented motive power, refuse to turn. The unknown motive force in this case means a power of altruism, of unselfishness, of willingness to labor for the good of others, such as the human race has never known, nor is ever likely to know.

He does not doubt that those he later called people “of good will, whose hearts are in the cause”, who embrace a spirit of “righteousness”, can be found, even among officials. What he doubts is the human capacity to sustain that kind of virtue in a system where officials,—even if elected under the best possible rules,—are given the raw power literally to decide everything to do with economic life.

Mr. Bellamy pictures his elected managers,—as every socialist has to do,—as a sagacious and paternal group, free from the interest of self and the play of the baser passions and animated only by the thought of the public good. Gravely they deliberate; wisely and justly they decide. Their grey heads—for Bellamy prefers them old—are bowed in quiet confabulation over the nice adjustment of the national production, over the petition of this or that citizen. The public care sits heavily on their breast. Their own peculiar fortune they have lightly passed by. They do not favor their relations or their friends. They do not count their hours of toil. They do not enumerate their gain. They work, in short, as work the angels.
Now let me ask in the name of sanity where are such officials to be found?

“With perfect citizens any government is good,” he claims towards the end of the chapter. “In a population of angels a socialistic commonwealth would work to perfection. But until we have the angels we must keep the commonwealth waiting.”

Last week I drew attention to Leacock’s own dream of a “sane, orderly and continuous social reform”, yet in the peroration to his chapter on Mr. Bellamy he scorns the figure of “the gradualist, in whose mind lingers the leaven of doubt, [who ]frames for himself a hazy vision of a prolonged preparation for the future, of socialism achieved little by little, the citizens being trained as it goes on till they are to reach somehow or somewhere in cloud land the nirvana of the elimination of self.” Suppose I were to rephrase that just a little, imagining:

a gradualist, in whose mind lingers the leaven of doubt, framing for his country a hazy vision of a prolonged preparation for the future, of social reform achieved little by little in a sane, orderly and continuous process, the citizens being trained as it goes on till they reach by this means and in this land a practical, muddled, benign kind of nirvana where the valid claims to well-being of both self and others are accommodated in a humane way.

I don’t think Stephen Leacock would disagree with that. I think that’s where deep down he wants to go. I think it’s where he was, almost, in 1912 when he wrote Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, a little town that for all its muddled thinking and living achieves a kind of organic unity and spirit of accommodation if not reform. It’s where Isaiah Berlin, prophet of Pluralism, arrived in 1950.

Did Stephen Leacock get there in 1919? Muddled or otherwise, we’ll find out next week when we look into Chapter VII of The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice. What Is Possible? What is Not?