Confederation-Becomes-Official Day Thoughts of Stephen Leacock

We can safely assume that Stephen Leacock would have been happy to celebrate July 1 2017, although it is not certain what he would have called it. He might have approved the Conundropian choice of name and approach, or he might not. He was a man of Unsolved Riddles. He himself might have been prepared to solve this one; we cannot, because he is not here to give us the answer.

I think we can assume he would have approved most of what the country has become in the 73 years since his death, some aspects perhaps more whole-heartedly than others. We cannot assume that he would have held the same opinions that he did away back when. He may have have entertained some wistful regret for some of the changes, but his views concerning the country were both romantic and realistic. He formed his opinions as best he could according to the realities and hopes of his time, which is not our time. He might well have re-invented himself as he went along if he had lived to be 147.

For example, he was a romantic about being British, and about Canada being a country of British and French collaboration, and about the potential of massive immigration (100,000,000 people!) in the future along the same lines as the past. He viewed Canada as a prosperous sanctuary for the surplus population of Great Britain, as it had been in the 19th Century and the first half of the 20th. The second half of the 20th revealed that Great Britain had no such surplus, and that the refugees of the world would come from elsewhere, including those parts of the former British Empire that he would have preferred to exclude.

He would have rejoiced if a British-French two-pillared Canada had further evolved as it did evolve during his lifetime. We can only guess what he would have thought of the multicultured four-pillared Canada that has evolved and is evolving since, but by looking at the essence of his thought we can make that guess a shrewd one.

I think he would have easily accepted as a practical economic necessity the emergence of immigration from the Caribbean, India, Pakistan, and other parts of the old Empire. He was an Empire tribalist, and once the need had been established, Empire immigration would certainly have seemed better than none. He might have jibbed at the ensuing social changes, including official multiculturalism, but he would not have been alone in that, even today. I think he would have got over it. I wish everybody else would too. It’s long past time.

He would have accepted further waves of immigration, of whatever kind, because he would have seen the economic benefit, which he would have tied to the continued search for social justice. He believed that a decent level of material prosperity and equality of opportunity were necessary to social justice by any modern standard, and if we believe he was wrong about that we must prove it by finding any part of our world where that is not so.

His ideas about economic development, although romantic, were not fossilized. In 1936 he concluded an article about industrial development of the North by saying: “We, speaking collectively, have for the present at least made a mess of the rest of the world. Our contriving wits and calculating selfishness ha[ve] somehow cheated us of what seemed our inheritance. Man struggles in the grasp of his own machinery. … For the North let us make it different. Let us see to it that in the new trust of the future of the North we make fewer errors than in the old.” These are not the thoughts of a mindless economic booster.

He would have had acid things to say about some side-effects of the opening of wider economic and professional opportunities for women. He might well have accepted that women should have those opportunities if they wanted them. Although he preached otherwise in his writing, even sometimes rudely, there is no sign that he ever acted otherwise in his classroom. He would not have seen any social justice in large numbers of women being effectively forced to choose between wage-labour and child-raising. He viewed maternal child-raising as valuable both economically and in the pursuit of social justice, as part of equality of opportunity.

I must admit that I am having trouble imagining what he would have thought about the search for a reconciled accommodation with indigenous people. That is a quest of such complexity, both historically and under contemporary conditions, and such a challenge to our habitual ways of thinking, that any effort to project his ideas there becomes purely speculative. We know that he craved social justice, and that he believed economic progress of some humane kind was necessary to it. We know that he believed fervently in equality of opportunity, and in education as a principal means. We know that he believed in the role of governments as balancing agents and regulators, that private enterprise and initiative, however vital and necessary, are not sufficient. We know that he valued Knowledge, Imagination, and Compassion in the pursuit of progress, and that Conversation, Negotiation and Accommodation are the tools. We also know that he held some of the prejudices of his time, and did not live long enough to see them challenged as they are nowadays.

In other words, what he might thought here is an Unsolved Riddle. Fortunately we have no need to solve it. We have an acute need to solve that Riddle as we ourselves are concerned.

We have Confederation, and have had for 150 years. It has proved durable. We are going to need more of it, and differently, before the next big celebration in 2067.

 

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The Unsolved Riddle of Free Trade and Globalization

We in Canada are singularly fortunate, because when we embrace free trade and a global economy, we do not need to strain ourselves to make it an imperial project. We are simply too small. The Brits tried it until it became too expensive and too immoral to be tolerated, but still struggle to recover the glory. The Americans are thoroughly entangled, the price of the profits asserting itself constantly in lives, treasure and cancer in the soul. The Chinese will get there eventually. The Russians are clawing their way back, with moral and financial bankruptcy probable outcomes. The European experiment is an interesting one: to create an economic empire as a kind of cooperative with members instead of subjects or colonies. It’s too early to write that off; the quest for internal balance is going to be a long one.

When we deal for free trade under modern, enlightened terms of reference, we accept the necessity that the relationship must be balanced. When one or more of the parties is significantly poorer than others, then that necessity is going to bite hard, because economic imbalance within an area of free trade cannot be tolerated. It simply becomes another way to exploit, eventually just as brutal as the old ways. Hence the thrust of would-be American policy towards Mexico.

If we don’t want economic refugees from our trading partners, then we had better start investing and working for prosperity where they are, and not just for our own. And some of our own people are going to be hurt in the process. We had better look after them decently, or they will vote with their votes and the result will be a sorry spectacle. Do we really need anything more than the lessons of the recent US election?

Reflections on the Jewinski Triad, also on “Best” Canadian Writers

Today I wrote to Professor Ed Jewinski, retired from Wilfrid Laurier University, concerning an article he wrote 30 years ago: “Untestabled Inferences: Post-Structuralism and Leacock’s Achievement in Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town”, published in Stephen Leacock: a reappraisal by the University of Ottawa Press in 1986, as follows:

I have long been puzzled by the common perception that Sunshine Sketches is about Orillia, or about small Ontario towns, or anything except a figment of Leacock’s imagination. Leacock knew nothing about small towns, never having lived in one except for 6 months in Uxbridge, although he had visited and spent summer holidays in Beaverton and Orillia when his mother lived there. Six years on a failed farm in maximally unhappy circumstances can’t have made him a farm boy in any real sense, and from the age of 12 onwards he was primarily city. I could never believe he would have had the gall to write a satiric book about Orillia on the strength of 4 years of experience as a nearby summer cottager. About Sutton maybe, after the unhappy farm experience. And besides, I grew up in a small town and have worked in many more, and I couldn’t recognize any of the characters. The people in my small town, which was Huntsville, weren’t anything like the people of Mariposa.

Your article entirely changed the way I thought about the book, and as I read more of Leacock’s works, going back all the way to his Ph.D. thesis, I become increasingly convinced that the idea that we navigate perpetually through a maze of unresolved and theoretically unresolvable issues permeates not only Sunshine Sketches but his entire social, economic and political outlook. I think he is saying, over and over again, that while we must act in pursuit of humane ideals of social and economic justice, we are fated to do so without knowing whether we are doing the right thing, morally or practically, beforehand or afterwards. Whichever way we turn, the unsolved riddle remains unsolved. although progress is possible nevertheless. That’s where the laughter comes in. It is when we start taking solemn faith in certainties that we regress. Recent history would suggest he is right.

Keynes wrote The General Theory of Employment Interest and Money. I think Stephen Leacock wrote The General Theory of Fragmentation, Incompleteness and Inconclusiveness, although he never pulled it all together in such a form, leaving it appropriately fragmented, incomplete and inconclusive.

I want to play Leacock with that triad, which I will call the Jewinski Triad, in order to give continuing credit to the man who coined it. But it could also be called the Leacock Triad, and it shows up everywhere in his works. The “unsolved riddle” refers to Leacock’s 1920 book The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice.

On another front, I stumbled over this page earlier today: https://theculturetrip.com/north-america/canada/articles/writing-canada-ten-of-the-best-canadian-literary-voices/, written by one Ellen Von Weigand. On her list are Michael Ondaatje, Eden Robinson, Joy Kogawa, Joseph Boyden, Margaret Laurence, Margaret Atwood, Mordecai Richler, Alice Munro, Yann Martel, and Gabrielle Roy. Not to invest Ellen Von Wigand’s list with more importance than it deserves, and although I have absolutely nothing against any of those fine Canadian writers, I nevertheless thought it should not go unchallenged. I commented as follows:

I am astonished that this list does not include Stephen Leacock (1869-1944), who was far and away the most read and heard Canadian writer of his day, and whose best work retains all its vitality. He published, by latest count, 1,498 short pieces in a writing career lasting 50 years (1894-1944), 622 of which were collected into books. He wrote another 23 books of history and social-economic-political commentary. He is widely celebrated as a humorist, some say Canada’s greatest, but that is only part of what he was. No Canadian writer comes anywhere close to matching the range of subjects on which he expressed ideas richly informed, intelligent, eloquent and often amusing. At his best, where he was often, he wrote extraordinarily well. Some of his opinions have not aged well, it is true, because he held some of the prejudices of his time and did not always rise above them. But on many questions of continuing importance he did, and remains, 73 years after his death, a lively source of interest and even inspiration for writers, readers, and citizens. And he himself lived a most interesting life.

A good storyteller, and a good story, as we always say at the end of our Leacock performances.