Category Archives: Stephen Leacock

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 I and II

For the next four weeks I am going to walk you lightly through The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, as written by Stephen Leacock 100 years ago, syndicated chapter by chapter from late August to early October 1919, and published by S.B. Gundy in Toronto, the John Lane Company in New York, and John Lane, The Bodley Head in London in January 1920. This book has seven chapters; I am going to cover them at the rate of two per week for the first six, treating the last (“What Is Possible and What Is Not”)  by itself. This approach is easily justified, because much of Leacock’s analysis is dated, although his recommendations are not, at least in principle.

Certainly NOT dated is Leacock’s insight that Social Justice is an Unsolved Riddle, requiring an appropriate cast of mind and set of intellectual and policy tools. The cast of mind of an autocrat and the tools of a mechanic are not appropriate. He took these ideas as far as he could at the time. We may regret that he did not take them further. Better late than never. So here we go.

First we look at his ideas.

Chapter I. “The Troubled Outlook of the Present Hour”.

“These are troubled times.” So  he begins. He describes the troubles, beginning with industrial unrest due to the lingering turbulence of the World War One and all the post-war adjustments. “The world seems filled with money [inflated by war-time financial measures] and short of goods, while even in this very scarcity a new luxury has broken out.” The danger of revolution looms, as in Russia. He sees “a vast social transformation in which there is at stake, and may be lost, all that has been gained in the slow centuries of material progress and in which there may be achieved some part of all  that has been dreamed in the age-long passion for social justice.”

The surrounding “appalling inequality” is intolerable, and no longer necessary. Scarcity has been confronted by “the age of machinery and power”. Humanity entered a real “new world” when “the sudden progress of liberated science bound the fierce energy  of expanding stream [he may have written ‘steam’] and drew the eager lightning from the cloud.” Production steadily increased and would go on increasing, replacing want with surplus, becoming “an unconscious element in the thought and outlook of the civilized world.”

The story of material progress is well known, its “perplexing paradox … lies concealed within its organization.” “The essential contrast lies between the vastly increased power of production and its apparent inability to satisfy for all humanity the most elementary human wants; between the immeasurable saving of labor effected by machinery and the brute fact of the continuance of hard-driven, unceasing toil.” Why, he asks, does production of essentials expand and then, while scarcity still remains for some, re-direct itself to inessentials and on to the colossal human and material wastes of war and the frivolous wastes of luxury? And what should be done?

Chapter II: Live, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

Leacock begins the second chapter, after tipping his hat to Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence, by summarizing the teaching of the first:

It has been shown that the age of machinery has been in a certain sense one of triumph, of the triumphant conquest of nature, but in another sense one of perplexing failure. The new forces controlled by mankind have been powerless as yet to remove want and destitution, hard work and social discontent. In the midst of accumulated wealth social justice seems as far away as ever.

That’s the first part the Unsolved Riddle. He then turns his attention to the cast of mind arising from this, what he calls the “outlook”, giving us a brief and interesting lecture on classical economic theory (Adam Smith and his 19th century followers)  and its understanding of the (somewhat qualified but still fundamental) importance of “[private] property, contract and the coercive state”, and the “further assumption of a general selfishness or self-seeking as the principal motive of the individual in the economic sphere.” He identifies this as “an unpalatable truth”, none the less “the most nearly true of all the broad generalizations that can be attempted in regard to humankind.” Earlier, however, he has drawn attention to one effect of industrial production, which has been the entanglement of people with their fellow citizens, until a person is “no longer an individualist …  [but] has become by brute force of circumstances a sort of collectivist, puzzled only as to how much of a collectivist to be.” Aha. Another dimension of the Unsolved Riddle.

Here, I think, we see Leacock floundering with the dilemma he does not really shake for the rest of his life. He wants to believe, insists on believing, on the idea of “every man for himself and his family”, of that kind of individualism, as a foundation of his ideology. And yet he recognizes that the “entanglement” caused by modern methods of production makes inevitable a kind of collectivism that requires a different way of thinking. He sees the Unsolved Riddle, but he doesn’t like it. He doesn’t want to embrace it. Perhaps he fears the raw power of unchecked collectivism. He certainly fears that the “bosses” in a collectivist society (‘socialism’) will use their power for individualistic benefit, just as the oligarchs of finance and industry use theirs. The lash may pass into other hands; it will remain a lash, even possibly a worse one, and will be used as such. This is not an idle fear, as subsequent history has shown.

“The argument of the classicists (he means the classical economists) ran thus. If there is everywhere complete economic freedom, then there will ensue in consequence a régime of social justice.” He knows that doesn’t work; he knows that ‘socialism’ doesn’t work; he distrusts power in the hands of individuals no matter what system they work under. Just as did Tolstoy (according to Isaiah Berlin) he sees the complexity and multiplicity and fundamental unruliness of the human condition, which he seeks to moderate in the cause of Social Justice. Yet he distrusts (with good reason) all ideologies invented for the purpose. He does not see, or at least does not integrate the fragments of his vision into, the explicit idea that ‘Unsolvedriddleism’ as an ideology could be just what the doctor ordered. It may even be what we practise in our lives and politics.

He was surrounded by tidy thinkers and feared their scorn. He himself was an untidy thinker, and believed in the humanity and democracy of such an outlook. We will see more of his untidy thinking and what it may mean for us in the weeks ahead.

Next week: Chapters III and IV: The Failures and Fallacies of Natural Liberty; Work and Wages.

 

Apotheosis! To Be a Metaphor.

Week Three, Wednesday, April 10th, 2019. A sunny, not especially warm day on Bruce Peninsula, where birds do sing “hey ding-a-ling-a-ling” (not really) and everybody,—not just sweet lovers,—is ready for Spring. The yard is clear of snow so that I can walk the short labyrinth. The bush remains snow-congested, enough so that the long one is open only to perambulation of the mind. My mind, that is, because I am the only one who knows where it is. But this blog posting is not about labyrinths. Another one is (see the Mariposa blog linked alongside). The labyrinth there is being used to metaphorialize (there’s a word and then some!) the mental processes that might be used to hunt down and tame the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice.

Please don’t be put off by the ersatz vocabulary, which has its place. If we can have ‘memorialize’ we can have ‘metaphorialize’. In fact, in certain situations they may be closely related phenomena.

There was a little girl who had little curl right in the middle of her forehead;
When she was good she was very very good, but when she was bad she was horrid.

I am being quite Leacockian in quoting that verse. By that I mean, that I am doing it by memory, not looking it up to make sure I have it exactly right. Stephen Leacock did that often. As an habitual misquoter he may have no equal in Canadian letters.

I finished off my Stephen Leacock blog posting this week (also linked alongside) by asking whether Marshall McLuhan, Northrop Frye, or Stephen Leacock, could be treated as metaphors. I started my recent lengthy discourse into The Unsolved Riddle(s) of Stephen Leacock with a quotation of my own, as follows:

How should we remember the flawed giants of our past? Do we focus on their accomplishments and gloss over the flaws, or do we focus on their flaws and gloss over the accomplishments? Our history abounds in men and women who worked wonders, amply recognized in their day, who held opinions, or did deeds, or were the kind of people we no longer want to celebrate. How do we do justice to them?

This Unsolved Riddle leads me, for complicated but quite respectable reasons, to consider the life and career of William Wilfred Campbell, 1860-1918, Canadian man of letters and occasional poet. I sit on the board of the annual William Wilfred Campbell Festival, a body charging itself with the task of memorializing him for his own sake, to diversify the amour-propre of the town of Wiarton too long reliant only on white groundhogs, to effuse the spirit of poetry into the young of Bruce and Grey Counties, and to celebrate poetry generally and local poets in particular. I support all these causes, which is why I am on the board. I am also watching, with interest, the memorizializing turn into metaphorializing, which is of course exactly what I am doing with Stephen Leacock. I am therefore one in spirit with the whole enterprise.

If one considers the poetry only, which is tempting because poets are rare birds and even more so in Wiarton, or even his whole literary oeuvre, it is difficult to make of William Wilfred anything but a metaphor of assertive and gritty mediocrity. But I am finding there is a lot more to the man than that, and I am hoping I can convince the board and the local public to take a wider view. I believe this will be up-hill work, because metaphorializing him along these lines will be much more complicated than to pursue the simpler story of a local boy with poetical aspirations who made good on the national literary stage. The problem there is with the “made good” part of the story, because poor William Wilfred was firmly forgotten almost as soon as he was dead, and one cannot be said to have “made good” in the literary pantheon if that happens.

Did Leacock and Campbell know each other? I think it entirely possible they did.  They moved in the same Empire-loving circles at the same time and, when Leacock was lecturing in Ottawa, in the same place. Leacock once placed the main character of a story in Wiarton, and gave him a clergyman for a father. That sounds to me as if he knew something of William Wilfred’s story, the kind that could be picked up in post-lecture social conversation. They both liked good company and conversation, and could have got along very well.

What has all this to do with the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice? Not much, perhaps, except one deep thing. Those who believe in Social Justice and are prepared to work for it come with a deep faith that things can be better than they are, and a deep frustration that so many people, including those who would benefit, do not share that faith, are not prepared to make much effort, or indeed are even prepared, if not to work against it, at least to think against it, subsiding too easily into negativity, pessimism and inertia. They thus withhold support from those “of good will whose hearts are in the cause”, as Leacock called them in his final published words, and passively encourage those who are of the opposite persuasion who were then, as now, powerful, aggressive, articulate, well-placed, well-financed, self-interested, and self-satisfied. Leacock pilloried them in Aradian Adventures with the Idle Rich, but the lesson did not stick.

I am beginning to believe, as I read more about him, that William Wilfred Campbell was on Leacock’s side, bringing his heart and his pen to the struggle, and paying the price. He brought a wealth of Knowledge and Compassion to the cause. He worked hard, and is forgotten. Stephen Leacock brought those too, and worked just as hard. He also brought Imagination and Humour. He is remembered. They both deserve to be made metaphorical, although not perhaps in the same metaphor.

 

The Unsolved Riddle of Unsolved Riddles

Wednesday, March 27th 2019: First Posting here, Third Posting overall. (Posts will flow weekly here on Wednesdays.)

I am resolved to hunt down and tame the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice. I am resolved to do this in time to replicate Stephen Leacock’s publication schedule of one hundred years ago: seven chapters individually from late August to early October, and a book in mid-January. I am hoping that by performing this project on-line, I can engage many people,—you in particular,—in the search for ideas that will effectively domesticate this elusive and slippery creature once and for all. If we must make like Lord Ronald to begin with, riding madly off in all directions, so be it.

I am not sure when Unsolved Riddles were first spotted. Perhaps you know. If so, please tell me. I believe that the first step towards identification and classification was taken by the English clergyman Charles Simeon in 1825 when, in a letter to a friend, he said: “For you I can say in words, what for these thirty years I have proclaimed in deeds, that the truth is not in the middle and not in one extreme; but in both extremes. I see you are filled with amazement, and doubting whether I am in my sober senses.” The particular species of the genus Unsolved Riddle that he had in mind had to do with theology, or perhaps ecclesiastics. Our species is Social Justice. Later on, in 1855, Walt Whitman boasted of  his particular species: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then . . . . I contradict myself ; I am large . . . . I contain multitudes.” He thus makes a virtue of riding off in all directions. The social world boasts to us: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then . . . . I contradict myself. To deal with me justly, you must be large . . . . you must contain multitudes.” This is a tall order, the one served up however by all pluralistic regimes, contradictions and all.

There may be some out there who think we should not live in a pluralistic regime, that somehow or other we can return, or ought to be able to return, to the days of relative singularism, when we in Canada were four solitudes: a British, English-speaking solitude that believed in itself and knew where it stood; a French-speaking solitude that believed in itself and knew where it stood; an immigrant solitude or complex of solitudes grudgingly offered a place but little standing; and an indigenous solitude pushed out of its place with its standing brutally cut off. I am sorry for those nostalgic people. I could in fact be one of them, although I am not, because I grew up in the English-speaking British one, but it just won’t do any more. Stephen Leacock’s final chapter in The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice is called “What Is Possible and What Is Not”. Singularism of the old kind is no longer possible, and should not be possible. We have pluralism, we will have even greater pluralism, and we must find some practicable form of social justice that is suited to pluralism.

I wonder what happens if we throw out two words that appear often in conversations about social justice: equality, and fairness. I hasten to say that I am not suggesting we should throw out what those words intend to promote. I am raising the possibility that the words themselves, either inherently, or in what has become of them, are now in the way. In other words, when we battle against inequality and unfairness, as evils which Social Justice ought to overcome, we may not want to replace them with equality and fairness. We may want to replace them with something else. I wonder what that is.

I am determined that these postings will not become too long, and this one is getting there. I will therefore simply prime the pump for next week with my doubts about those two words, Equality and Fairness. And I may then add two more: Perfection, and Principle. Even Truth, perhaps? If you think of others, please let me know. voyageur@bmts.com is the e-mail address; http://www.voyageurstorytelling.ca has all the links.

I have a strong urge to keep writing. I am going to suppress it until next week.

Thank you for reading. Please bear with me.

Posted by Paul Conway, Voyageur Storytelling

 

The Unsolved Riddle of the SNC-Lavalin “Affair”

As affairs go this is a pretty sorry one, but instructive nonetheless. We should thank our lucky stars that in times like these, the best Canada can do for political scandal is an argument among senior politicians concerning the fate of an important corporation allegedly caught in the act of bribing people in a corrupt foreign regime, a criminal act in this country. It should go without saying that the crime lies in getting caught, because I am sure that all corporations who deal with corrupt regimes do it. Pay bribes, that is. Not get caught. As long as we like the jobs and the stock price gains that come from such practices, we are hardly in a position to cast stones. But we do it anyway.

There are two aspects to this affair. One is the behaviour of the politicians. The other is the behaviour of the media reporting it.

Before I resoundingly object to the behaviour of the CBC, where I get most of my Canadian news, I tip my  hat to Chantal Hébert and Neil Macdonald who at least tried to tell us that there is more going on here than meets the eye, and that the interpretations of the political opposition need not be taken as Gospel. Fortunately yesterday (February 21st) the Clerk of the Privy Council, Michael Wernick, threw some light where before had been only suspicion, and all became clear to the intelligently imaginative eye.

My interpretation: There was an argument among senior politicians about an important domestic matter, and one of them didn’t like it. She, the Hon. Jody Wilson-Raybould, Minister of Justice and Attorney General at the time, was the one who had to make the decision. She in fact made it her way, but unfortunately she expressed her indignation at the argument to such effect that someone in her entourage — I doubt very much that she did it herself — blatted to The Globe and Mail. That august press organ failed to ask itself or discern what was really going on, printed the story, the opposition weighed in, other media took up the cry, and a tiny morsel of hell broke loose.

Ms. Wilson-Raybould MP, then spoke in the House of Commons, looking forward to the opportunity to tell “her truth”. That was graceful of her. She could have said “the truth”. It was also the moment when the affair became instructive, and not merely intensely irritating.

She has her truth. Her former colleagues have their truth. I hope both will find clear articulation, and the sooner the better. Both these truths will be true to those who hold them. It may even be that both are true objectively, and that we have here a clear example of what Stephen Leacock called an Unsolved Riddle, a situation where The Truth lies at both poles simultaneously. Stephen Leacock was of course one of those who could do justice to the absurdity of the discussion, as politicians, the media, and the public try to come to grips with one of these things. The phenomenon itself is not absurd, but simply a part of the human condition with which we ought to be entirely familiar but to which we never seem to become accustomed.

I wish the Prime Minister had told his truth right off the bat. Of course it is a terrible thing if SNC-Lavalin with all its experience, expertise, and legions of employees were to fail, if the allegations are well founded, as a result of common practice carried out with clumsy stupidity. They will have learned their lesson, and it is only right that it should hurt. But not fatally. He and his people were entirely within their rights and their jobs to argue so. Ms. Wilson-Raybould was entirely within her rights and her job to want to throw the book at them, to resent the intrusion of political or economic considerations into a legal matter. Let Justice be done, though the heavens fall. Two truths, both true. The jurisprudential art will consist in finding a way to respect both. I think our rule of law will be able to do that, if the hordes stop howling and let the juris bring their brains and skill to bear in pursuit of the best possible mixture of justices.

In my schoolyard many years ago, when combat broke out between two boys, or more rarely between two girls, the cry would go up: “Fight fight fight!” And everyone would rush over to form a circle around the combatants and urge them on, some cheering for one, some for the other, most simply enjoying the spectacle. A teacher would then come along and break it up before anyone got hurt very much. A bloody nose or two, perhaps, or some pulled hair. We are at no loss these days for people to form the circle and cheer as we did, but who will act as the teacher? Where is the voice of calm common sense in this absurd affair and others like it, the voice who knows how things happen in the huge complex conflicted highly-pressured governments of our time, and how we should think about them.

Stephen Leacock, on his good days, had that kind of voice. Of course he had his bad days too. Who of us does not? This year we celebrate the 150th anniversary of  his birth, the 75th of his death, and the 100th of his book The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice. It’s time to re-write that book.

 

The Unsolved Riddle of “Multiculturalism”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the Trail of Unsolved Riddles

Yesterday I wrote a Missive for the on-rushing Stephen Leacock Sesquicentennial, in part as follows:

When what is plural about us becomes perceived as an entanglement of identities and tribes, then we are in trouble. When the institutions that we have created to realize our hopes yearn for the simplicity and powers of monism and act accordingly, then we are in trouble. When we cannot or will not converse with each other in humane ways across the intermedia of our plural beings, then we are in trouble. When we think we cannot afford to be what we are, then we are in trouble. When we cannot remember how we got here and why we set out in the first place, then we are in trouble. I am not sure how much trouble we are in, but I worry about the trends.
What are we, and what do we want to be? A liberal democracy? A social democracy? An institutional democracy? A communitarian democracy? All of the above: a pluralistic democracy? I think so, but the traditions of collective reflection and conversation and accommodation that we need to make that work are under pressure from monistic interests and simplistic misunderstandings on all sides, and the sheer difficulty of the combination.

If we can’t find some way forward we will eventually find ourselves with no democracy at all, or only the pale shadow of one in the form of representatives duly elected to parliaments largely powerless. Of course the journey will be difficult, but why should we blinch at that? We are, on the whole, a thoughtful, articulate, educated, humane people, who can handle a complex conversation if only given the opportunity. Such a process is hard work, of course, and we are, on the whole, also humanly lazy. But we constantly prove ourselves quite capable of working hard in a good cause. Why not this one?

It would be helpful if those who aspire to inform us were not so eager to climb onto and sustain the simplistic bandwagon itself. Off the top I can think of two unhelpful illusions that are regularly presented to our credulity. First, and most ludicrously: that “the economy” is a singular thing that is and can be “managed” by our governments. Nonsense! Economic life is a tremendous organism of mind-boggling complexity. Those who claim to understand it — and they are many and vociferous — need to retain a just measure of humility, and to remind us, and themselves, as they spin their informative webs, that what they are able to see and describe on any one occasion is only a tiny slice of the reality. Such blatant absurdities as the CBC’s nightly “business report” consisting of a few stock market indices and a couple of spot market prices should be hooted off the stage. Likewise any politician or journalist who talks about “the economy”. Such talk is pure bamboozlement.

It would be helpful  if those who aspire to inform us would abandon the idea that the identity of a political party can be expressed in the person of its leader. I think that our political parties are complex organisms in their own right, and that all the main ones, those who try to embrace a wide perspective and have any hope of being elected, have something wise to say. They also indulge themselves and try to tempt us with much twaddle and intellectual candy floss borrowed from consumer marketing and branding. It would be helpful if our journalists would not go along so lazily with these unhelpful habits. I think that if we put all the platforms of all the parties together, after cutting out the candy floss, we would see the mind of the body politic in all its colour and richness.

I believe also that we would have a manifesto for the pluralistic democracy that collectively we hope for, that is a liberal democracy, a social democracy, an institutional democracy, and a communitarian democracy, all rolled into one. A monumental Unsolved Riddle perhaps, but a good one.

You may well ask whether I have done such a thing. The answer is that I tried, at the time of the last federal election, and made some progress. I tried to capture it in the persona of the Muddle Party. Some of the platforms were so incredibly verbose and disorganized that I was unable to finish in time. A vision of pluralistic democracy did indeed emerge, a flickering shadow glimpsed through the partisan fog. I have not tried for the Ontario election soon to come, for reasons peculiar to this particular occasion. I am going to try again for the federal election in 2019, which may, if we are fortunate, be more about ideas than personalities, or can be made so.

And guess what? It will coincide with the height of the Stephen Leacock Sesquicentennial. He gave us the Great Election in Missinaba County. A fitting precedent for an election conversation chock full of Knowledge, Imagination, Compassion, and Humour, just as he would want.