Category Archives: Unsolved Riddles

The Unsolved Riddle of Pluralism

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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.

Once More Into the Voting Booth, Dear Friends!

The up-coming election here in Ontario has not yet been formally declared, but the noise is picking up, so I might as well join in. I started by reviewing my Manifesto, which appears as a separate page on this site, for the purpose of up-dating.

It says what I thought needed to be said at the time, in a way appropriate to that time, while we were still being governed federally by the Harper Gang. I think the tone is wrong for today, however, that I should not have spoken with such carping negativity even when I was railing against carping negativity. I will revise it, although I fear that it may not make such lively reading when I get finished.

It will take a little while to do that, because I want to get both tone and wording right.

I am also revising the Official Platform of my Party of One, first published here on November 14, 2014. Here is the new order and wording.

  1. Explicit recognition that the pursuit of Social Justice is the proper broad Goal of our politics, the cause in which we are all engaged together. The fact that that Goal remains riddled and elusive must not be offered as an excuse for us to abandon the cause. But since positive Social Justice is such a vexed concept, then let us settle for a collective resolve against obvious social injustices, such as blatant inequalities: in prosperity, in opportunities, in basic services, in all the blessings that those of us who are reasonably well-off take for granted.
  2. Explicit recognition that all our governments, as they strive for prosperity and Social Justice, must provide competent administration and reasonable care in management of the money we pay to them for our public services.
  3. Explicit adoption of a search for Balance as the means by which we grope our way forward. This means respect for the complexity of all public affairs and refusal to reduce them to simplicities. It means seeing the issues before us simply as Unsolved Riddles which we can address through conversations where Knowledge, Imagination, Compassion, and Humour (the Stephen Leacock Tetrad) are constantly in play, guiding us towards the following, all of which are equally important (please pay no attention to the order of presentation):
  4. Strength to the Social Fabric: languages, cultures, communities, enterprises, arts, opportunities, employments, governments, public services.
  5. Strength to Parliamentary democracy, including electoral reform, and to democratic institutions at all levels.
  6. Strength to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and related elements of our inherited constitution.
  7. Strength to the Social Safety Net.
  8. Prosperity, vigorous and justly shared; respect for the complexity and difficulty of this goal.
  9. Stewardship, resolute, protective and far-seeing, of our air, land and waters.
  10. Internationalism in foreign affairs, pursuing peace, prosperity, justice and the rule of law.
  11. Vigilance in the protection of our own territory and sovereignty, extreme reluctance in foreign adventures.
  12. Reconciliation as the fundamental principle applied to disputes, contentions, and criminal justice.

I believe that the vast majority of Canadian voters are liberal in their generosity to one another and especially to those less fortunate than themselves, progressive in their ideas about public policy and services, and conservative in how they want public funds to be managed. I think that the inherent difficulties in even understanding the complexity of such an agenda, let alone providing for it, spook many of us, and that our political parties in their vicious partisanship and self-interest are only too ready to prey upon our uncertainties.

Fie upon all such predators! We the voters have sovereignty over a very complicated state of affairs, where easy answers whether from right, left, or middle are almost certain to be wrong or at least tragically limited. Let’s talk about it, and force our political parties to address it, in the light of that obvious truth.

 

Toward a (the?) Canadian Enlightenment

I write this on the eve of the launch of formal preparations for a Stephen Leacock Sesquicentennial, a 277 day celebration to take place in 2019 from March 28th to December 30th, these dates being the 75th anniversary of his death and the 150th anniversary of his birth. If you want to plug into this event, the place to start is http://www.voyageurstorytelling.ca.

In my most recent post I came down on the side of a humanistic approach to economics, part of my belief in a humanistic approach to everything. I am not always sure that some of our ways of thinking about huge issues are as humanistic as they need to be. For example, spokespeople for the indigenous point of view often advocate on behalf of Mother Earth, and they are right so to do. But over the course of history certain decisions have been taken about our relationship with Mother Earth, decisions which cannot be reversed without wholesale destruction of humanity, either in the crude mortal sense, or in regression to a primitive state of poverty, hardship and brutality. While I do not believe that a high level of material prosperity, a high “standard of living”, should be the limit of our aspiration, I am not prepared to sneeze at it either.

Our relationship with Mother Earth is often brutal and exploitative and wasteful to a degree that our descendants, if we have any, will find difficult to believe. They will turn away from it with the same kind of revulsion that we feel towards slavery, child labour, gratuitous massacre, the gorier forms of capital and corporal punishment, rape, physical abuse, and other practices that we believe to be conspicuously evil. But our relationship with Mother Earth has another dimension too, which has allowed us to sustain ourselves and to prosper wonderfully despite our burgeoning population which, relatively speaking, is not a new phenomenon. We have been actively manipulating Mother Earth to increase her productivity for our benefit for quite a number of centuries, even millennia, and doing very well out of it. Irrigation works, the torching of countryside to encourage new growth, the breeding of plants and animals, the damming of streams, these are all blatant intrusions into the natural realms of Mother Earth, and they go back a long time. Our power to make such intrusions destructive has increased enormously in the past 200 years, but so too has our power to make them productive and beneficial.

It is this kind of worry, for which I claim no originality, that makes me so interested in the Stephen Leacock trope of the Unsolved Riddle. I think that our relationship with Mother Earth is an Unsolved Riddle and that any person or point of view claiming to have the answer and with the power to impose it is likely to do us great harm. The truth, as one Charles Simeon said years ago, does lie at one extreme or the other, nor half-way between, but at both extremes. The question of how to do that is an Unsolved Riddle.

But we can’t simply run around wringing our hands. We have to find ways to think, and act. Stephen Leacock said of his Great Detective that to think was to act and to act was to think—frequently he could do both together. That is what we need to learn to do.

When we have found a way, a new way, or an old way reinvented, then we call it, or the ideas behind it, an Enlightenment. I am interested in the question of whether something has percolated through the pages of our history that could be called a Canadian Enlightenment, and if so, who lit it. I think it quite possibly has, incomplete and imperfect as the application has been. Obviously it must have several strands and that the application is a species of weaving. I think that the European Enlightenment wove the strands of Knowledge and Imagination to an unprecedented degree. I think that Compassion was soon added, because Knowledge and Imagination by themselves can lead too easily lead into darkness. To make them work in a Canadian context, however, we need something else, because our context is inherently uncongenial and maybe even impossible. But here we are, and we have to do our best. Humour becomes the necessary fourth strand for us. I believe that that discovery belongs to Stephen Leacock.

Knowledge, Imagination, Compassion, and Humour: the four strands in the Canadian Enlightenment, woven and perpetually re-woven by investigation, conversation, experimentation, and negotiation, the next step forward forever an Unsolved Riddle. That, at any rate, is my hypothesis. Pursuit ho!

Ahoy! Have you seen the Canadian Enlightenment?