Week Two of LEACOCK 150~100~75!
“We live in troubled times.” So Stephen Leacock began his book The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, written one hundred years ago. I think, when the time comes, I could just as easily start our re-write of the book in exactly the same terms, and perhaps I will. The troubles of our times may or may not be the same as Leacock’s, but we certainly have them. Whether the times are troubled, or we are, or both, may not be an unsolved riddle in the technical sense, but it’s a good question.
Before I tackle it, I want to answer some other questions that may or may not crop up to trouble you. First, when I say “play Stephen Leacock”, as I do in the name of this blog, I do not mean that I am pretending to be him. I mean that I am trying to make a valid and pleasing interpretation, for people of my time not his, out of the score he left behind, even where it consists only of a confusing jumble of notes. Secondly, I am no scholar, and although I could claim to have once had the makings for some credentials that way, they are now worth approximately the paper they are written on. In the fifty years since the last one I have turned them into something quite different from their original intention. Thirdly, this blog is one of three I am using for my interpretive purpose, each picking through the jumble of notes, mingled with the noises of our own time, from its own point of view. The point of view in this one is that of Stephen Leacock’s ghost, Olde Stephen, who did indeed shimmer up from the vasty deep last Thursday, March 28th, when I did call for him. He has a agreed to stand by for the duration.
I greeted him warmly. He had accompanied us on our re-tracing of his tour of western Canada in 2017, and we had parted on the best of terms. I was anxious to get down to business, however, and he more than willing.
“Olde Stephen,” I began, “I am not going to ask you what you meant by ‘troubled times’ in 1919, because you describe them succinctly, if not always with the explicit support of data. I am wondering what you think of our times, whether they are indeed as troubled as they appear to be, and in particular what you make of two specific current troubles: the SNC-Lavalin controversy, and Britain’s agonies over its relationship with Europe.”
“If the people are troubled, and are doing something negative about it, especially with violence, then the times are indeed troubled. If they are doing something positive, then the times are in good heart, just where they should be.”
“What if they are doing some of both?”
“Then that is a trouble of its own, which needs to be addressed before the underlying trouble can be approached positively. Unfortunately the ectoplasmic reverberations of which we consist do not receive signals from the electronic news and related media, but only from human hearts, all human hearts, all at the same time. The result is what I believe is called ‘white noise.’ I am not informed about the controversies you mention. Give me the gist of them. I can’t handle much detail.”
“That’s okay, because my readers will either know the issues, or can easily find out. The gist, you say. Well, in the SNC-Lavalin affair, I think it is an example of the Unsolved Riddle of Corporate Malfeasance, including whether politics should play a role in unravelling the riddle. In the case of Britain,—it would be mockery to describe the country as ‘Great’ these days, or as a ‘United’ Kingdom,—it is the Unsolved Riddle of Europe: so near, and yet so far.”
“Oh dear. Again. Or still. Any shooting yet, or bombing?”
“Not yet, although the verbal sniping is pretty intense. It may come to that in Britain, where feelings run very deep on the matter. In Canada, on the other matter, it appears to be roiling the press and political opposition much more than the people themselves. The government thinks corporate malfeasance is both a political and a legal matter, where the voice of the elected government can legitimately be heard; the former Attorney General and her followers think it is a legal matter, where only the voices of lawyers and judges have a place.”
“That sounds to me like a ‘Both-And’ situation par excellence. And the Attorney General, is she not still the Minister of Justice also, and thus the two-hatted embodiment of an Unsolved Riddle?”
“Indeed she was, and her successor still is. But on this issue she took off one of the hats, and set it aside, then she took off the other and used it to swipe the Prime Minister. Opinions are divided on whether she should have done that.”
“You mean you have a politician, taking political action, claiming to be a jurisprudent, acting on legal principle.”
“I think that is the essence of what this Unsolved Riddle has become. The Unsolved Riddle of Corporate Malfeasance is underneath, now submerged by the more superficial controversy.”
“Then if you want to celebrate what I was when I was still alive,—for death has reduced my powers significantly,—I think you should try to unsubmerge it. Try to look at it in the whole complex of government-corporate relations, and not just this one incident, which is probably trivial itself except as one example in a very large phenomenon.”
“It’s none of your business. Sit back and watch the fun. For the rest, trust to the inspired collective wisdom of the people. You may think I am being satiric when I say that, but the historical evidence, on the whole, says I am not. Systems may fail, leadership may fail, but the wisdom of the people does not, although it can be temporarily overwhelmed, especially by loud noise.”
“Okay. So the Unsolved Riddle of Corporate Malfeasance is on the agenda. Good, because I think it’s a crucial part of the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice. We demand that our corporations fulfill social purposes that do not come naturally to them. When they fail in those we see social injustice. Governments have their own litany of potentials and frailties. The whole situation is extremely complicated, and almost any simplistic generalization is inevitably wrong.”
“Call it the Unsolved Riddle of Righteousness.”
“All right. I will. See you next week.” He gave me a nod, and shimmered away, positively.