In the Eighteenth Week of the Leacock Anniversaries in 2019, on Monday, July 22nd, we bid a partial farewell to our merry band, consisting of Astranasus the Star-Nosed Mole, Mnemochirianne the Centaur, Vulphystrix the Both-Andian, and the Yottapede wallowing in its Charged Ooze. They have done their bit to tame and put to work the wild Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice. They are now going to set about the rest of the work, with others, in another place. Their role will be to add the necessary Metaphorical Dimension.
Starting next week this place will be taken by Stephen Leacock himself. We are after all in the midst of his anniversaries. The first of these, the 75th of his death in 1944, passed by on March 28th and launched this whole celebration. The middle, the 100th of his book The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, is about to crescendo, leading, beginning in late August, to chapter-by-chapter release of a new treatment of the subject, quite possibly to be called The Unsolved Riddles of Social Justice. Reporting on progress there will pass to the Wednesday Blog, a.k.a. “Paul W Conway’s Blog”, a.k.a. the Talking Blog. The third, the 150th of his birth, much the most important one, will bring the celebration to an ecstatic close.
Thanks to this, the Monday, or Stalking Blog, we have identified the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice as an organic thing, a human creation, making its way through a medium which is also a human creation. I have called them, respectively, the Yottapede and the Charged Ooze. The first barrier to be overcome in the taming and putting to work is the temptation to treat these creatures as if they were forces of Nature, outside our control. Every aspect of their behaviour traces back to human beings, individually or in groups, making decisions, each and every one of which could be made differently. The key lives in the cast of mind, and I’m sorry, you are going to hear a lot about casts of mind if you stick with this conversation.
The three “scouts” who have tracked down these creatures for us, represent my beliefs about what it will take to adjust the Inertia of the Yottapede and the Charge in the Ooze in order to advance Social Justice: to extend our powers of sensation, of apprehension, following the precedent of the Star-Nosed Mole; to expand our strength and fortitude to achieve in the social and moral realm what the Centaur does by combining the intellect and heart of a human with the strength and speed of a horse; to adapt our cast of mind by adopting the ingenuities of both Fox and Hedgehog (or Porcupine), tempering our natural either-or, single-minded tendencies with hearty doses of Both-And and Doublethink.
I am not suggesting any of this will be easy, given how attached we have become to the old ways, and how strong the resistance will be from those who are profiting from them. Some effective notion of fair-sharing, however, must lie at the heart of Social Justice, not unfair-profiting. We have not always been as obsessed with narrow concepts of “profit” as we are these days, however. The distance we must travel is truly not all that great. A relatively small measure of adjustment to our collective cast of mind will take us a long way. We will meet many unsolved riddles on our journey, however, and will have to overcome them one by one.
Stephen Leacock set out on the same journey about 120 years ago, and wrote about about it in 1919. He proposed a Canadian political economy pursuing National Development and Social Justice through a liberal, creative, enterprising economy and society, regulated in the public interest by democratic politics and institutions to smooth out its excesses, fill any gaps it might leave, deal with its harmful side-effects, and provide for its future. He imagined a contented, creative, fulfilled Canadian population, meeting their own needs, caring for each other, enjoying life, and expanding its possibilities. In pursuit of Social Justice he embraced the ideals of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” without denying the complications and difficulties thereof. They could be transcended, he believed, by people “of good will whose hearts are in the cause.”
I suspect that we would find very few Canadians who would disagree with that vision, very few indeed, no matter what their political persuasion. What we would find, I think, are disagreements about means, varying degrees of fear about what might be put at risk if we reached for it in a whole-hearted way, and distractions in our political discourse that weaken our common resolve, many of them concerning single or narrow issues.
The Canadian Yottapede will have somewhere around 75,000,000 feet by the time we vote in October 2019. These walk in many different directions. Since we are a pluralistic country, have been from the beginning and are determined to remain that way, that is how it should be. The intention of Social Justice is not to make us monistic, simply to bias us effectively in a socially just direction, and away from contrary ones. We have come a long way in the past 100 years, and have substantially established the regime that Stephen Leacock proposed. But the standards of 1919 are not the standards of today. We have elaborated our concept of Social Justice to keep up with the many other elaborations we have embraced. Good for us. One result, however, is that Social Justice remains an Unsolved Riddle. Furthermore, some quite nasty forces are chewing away at its foundations.
The principal foes of Social Justice are fear, unkindness, and a diminished sense of our own collective possibilities. We can find no justification in our own circumstances, if we look at them roundly, for any of these. But we may need help from Astranasus, Mnemochirianne, and Vulphystrix to overcome them.
Beginning here next week and running until Monday, December 30th: The life, times, and works of Stephen Butler Leacock, 1869-1944. Was he really “fragmented, incomplete and inconclusive”? Or was his vision so wide, his creative ambition so large, that that was the best he could be?