All posts by Glenn

From Reputation to Celebrity in Half a Century

Exactly fifty years ago, in June of 1965, two men now almost unremembered each had a moment of ‘stellar’ importance, in two very different senses of that adjective. One was a former federal Canadian MP named Hector Dupuis, the other an American astronaut named Edward White.

Dupuis had started his federal political career in 1935 in in the now-forgotten Reconstruction Party, more arch-conservative than the R. B. Bennett Tories, which briefly drew a fairly substantial popular vote, but which soon faded. He was afterwards an undistinguished backbench Liberal MP , for the now extinct east-end Montreal riding of Sainte-Marie, An insurance broker and businessman, his main form of loyal service was probably as a writer of cheques to his party. He had been awarded an O.B.E., but his moment of fame came when he sent it back. He was outraged because the Queen, advised by Harold Wilson, had awarded M.B.E. decorations to the Beatles, whose astronomical overseas record sales were substantially improving the British balance of payments. Dupuis commented bitterly that “British royalty has put me on the same level as a bunch of vulgar numbskulls.” A few other British public figures joined in outraged returns.

Nine days earlier, Edward Higgins White, a USAF Lieutenant-Colonel and aeronautical engineer, had stepped from a Gemini space rocket to become the first American to walk in space, just three months after a Soviet cosmonaut had achieved this. Two years later, White and two of his fellow astronauts were killed in a test of the projected Apollo mission. Only 37, he was one of 17 astronauts who had died in such accidents, all posthumouly awarded a Congressional Medal.

The complaint of Dupuis today looks snobbish and comic, but in its time, many people were at least greatly surprised at the idea of giving a royal honour to a pop singing group. It was only beginning to dawn on them that the great sea change of 1965-1975 was not only going to be about baby boomer arrival, Vietnam War opposition, and cultural revolution; it was changing the public conceptions of fame, devaluing traditional concepts of hard-won reputation and exalting instant celebrity. The shift brought the end of military achievement in the two World Wars in establishing long-familiar hierarchies of prestige and respect for public figures.

In Britain, the newly-arrived Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, a civil service statistician in World War II, was a symbol of the new era. Labour’s most fondly-remembered leader, Clement Attlee, had fought at Gallipoli in World War I. Wilson’s Conservative predecessor, Harold Macmillan, had fought in that war on the Somme, and been badly wounded. Before him, Anthony Eden had been another decorated veteran of that war. He had been preceded by Winston Churchill, greatest of warriors, who died earlier in 1965.

In the U. S., Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Military Commander in WW II, had been succeeded as President by John Kennedy until his 1963 assassination; he had been a young torpedo boat commander in the Pacific theatre. In Canada, Lester Pearson had been a medical orderly and then pilot in World War I. John Diefenbaker had not had distinguished service in that war, but his Ministers of National Defence, a key Cabinet position in the 1960s, included George Pearkes, who had won the Victoria Cross in the First War, Doug Harkness, who had won the George Cross in the Second, and Gordon Churchill, who had fought in both wars.

The war veterans did not dominate politics purely out of respect for their past achievements, but because of the intensity of the post-1945 Cold War between the Western powers and the Soviet Union. Not just the U. S., but all the powers of the NATO alliance, including Canada, maintained large land, sea, and air forces. Men of military experience looked best-suited to direct these; most were far from bellicose, but cautiously determined to avoid any actions that might end in nuclear apocalypse. However, both the West and the Soviets engaged in constant exercises in threat and counter-threat, constantly modified by advancing war technology. Even the space programs, despite some gestures toward international co-operation, were inseparable from this overall militarization. Rocketry, after all, had started with the German World War II V-2s that had rained on London, and the later still larger space rockets fired from Cape Canaveral made the same advances that made possible nuclear-armed ICBMs.

But there was another aspect of the two decades of warrior political dominance, which overlapped with the dangerous adventures of the astronauts. Men as different as ageing English aristocrats like Eden and Macmillan and young USAF space pioneers like Neil Armstrong and Ed White had not only, like millions of others of their respective generations served in some branch of the military; they had done so with outstanding courage.

When James Boswell once asked Samuel Johnson if there was a virtue that should be given a highest standing, Johnson had immediately replied, “Courage – because it is the security of all the other virtues.” This principle can still be grasped intuitively, and it had its claims in peaceful politics. It applied to both the recognition of leaders in democratic societies and to individual dissenters in oppressive states. While some of the young always fail to understand this, it does not apply to the brazen but largely safe bellicosity of street or campus mobs Granted, even serious democratic politics is seldom a very brave affair; at worst it can be submission to various kinds of mass cowardice and childishness. But men tested in the fire at least inspire a ready initial confidence. Decorated veterans did not always make great or even good political leaders, but even those recalled for postwar failures, like Anthony Eden, could not be written off for easily-assumed failures of character; more for deficiencies in the skill with which they met political crises calling for different talents.

Today, Hector Dupuis still appears snobbish and ridiculous, although anyone who imagines that John Lennon, as well as being a gifted musician, was all that astute a critic of war and international relations merely indulges in a different kind of inverted snobbishness and superficiality. On the other hand, the relative faded fame of Ed White is more depressing to contemplate. It must especially be so for Marc Garneau, a sort of Canadian Coriolanus. The first Canadian to do a space walk, over thirty years ago, Garneau, like Ed White, combined distinguished military service with a scholarly background in engineering physics. Had the federal Liberals under Ste’phan Dion let him contest Outremont in 2006, he might have won it, and denied it as a federal launching pad for Tom Mulcair. Had Justin Trudeau not successfully exploited a FaceBook Nation of pop celebrity to gain the leadership of the Liberal Party, that party might now be able to confront Mulcair and Stephen Harper with a leader with reputation in the old sense. As it is, Mulcair is a capable man leading a party of eternal adolescence, while Justin Trudeau looks more like an eternal adolescent leading a once-impressive party that has lost its way. Stephen Harper may be no hero of war or space, but at least looks good in this company.

PAH Sixth 2015 Article. Submitted to PAH May 29, 2015.

Hegel, Hobbes, and the Dialectical Wisdom of Billy the Kid

The 1965-75 salad days of the baby boomers brought much political excitement on university campuses, but seldom of a very learned kind. Liberal and radical professors tried to breathe new life into the thought of Karl Marx, or of Marx’s own mentor, Hegel, but radical students mostly preferred simpler stuff, finding the Hegelian dialectic a secret well-kept. But various Canadian scholars continued to expound its mysteries. Charles Taylor, having first terrified undergraduates with a 600-page 1975 book on Hegel, took pity on them four years later with a less painful 150-page compression called Hegel and Modern Society. Starting earlier, George Grant managed a rather overpowering synthesis of Christianity, conservative traditionalism, Hegelian Marxism, existentialism, anti-American nationalism, and Spenglerian gloom, and achieved all this in little monographs of very modest size.

Perhaps he noted that large books of political philosophy by professors are mostly read by other professors. His little 1965 bombshell, Lament for a Nation, covered a huge waterfront in only 97 pages, encapsulating all of Canadian history from the 18th century to what he saw as the failures of both the Diefenbaker Conservatives and Pearson Liberals. Despite his bleak pessimism, he had a large public influence for the next couple of decades, affecting all three federal political parties.

The other Canadian quasi-Marxist scholar who had some impact in the same era was the U. of T. philosopher C. B. Macpherson, mentor of NDP Leader Ed Broadbent, and many other eternally hopeful Platonists. His favourite theme was the meaning of ‘democracy’, and his magnum opus was The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, which stretched Thomas Hobbes and John Locke on a Procrustean bed of Marxian analysis, with Hobbes emerging less bruised. Unlike Locke, Hobbes may not have had much influence on ordinary politics in his own time or since, but his relentless logic and fine 17th century prose has always attracted intellectuals, including many on the left like Macpherson, much as that would probably have surprised Hobbes himself.

Hobbes (1588-1679) left some thoughts for the ages, although not necessarily the ones that most interested Macpherson, like his useful caution to all pundits in all times: “For such is the nature of man, that howsoever they may acknowledge many others to be more witty, or more eloquent, or more learned; Yet they will hardly believe there be many so wise as themselves: For they see their own wit at hand, and other men’s at a distance.” But the two Hobbesian concepts most often retained by both scholars and the wider educated public are these: that without the authority of the state, man ‘in a state of nature’ is condemned to a life that is ‘nasty brutish and short’, and his accompanying distinctive defence of human equality: any man can kill another.

Critics of Hobbes, past and present, have argued that both these claims can be disputed in terms of anthropology and history. The ‘state of nature’ of Hobbes, Locke, and other social contract thinkers has always been an abstract model, not an intended description of early human society. But his argument about ‘an equality of potential killers’ is more suggestive, and has turned up in surprising times and places, far from lecture halls and learned journals.

Consider the example of William Bonney, born William McCarty Jr., but best-known as Billy the Kid (1859-81). As a mythic Western outlaw and folk hero, inaccurately portrayed in countless Hollywood movies, it is not easy to separate the real Billy from many imagined ones. The only existing photographs of him, for example, appeared to show that he was left-handed, packing his gun on his left hip, but the photo was eventually proved to be a reversed print from the negative. There is also no agreement on his height and weight, true of many other mythic historical figures. Wikipedia gives his height as a fairly normal 5′ 8”, but many other sources claim he was much smaller. Some claiming he was as little as 5′ 2”, weighing only a little over 100 lbs. There is no disagreement, however, that he struck everyone who knew him as being slight and slender, and he undoubtedly had smaller hands than average; he once made a famous jail escape because he was able to slip his small wrists through his handcuffs.

There was additional evidence about his small hands. He claimed to have killed ’21 men, not counting Mexicans and Indians’, a likely exaggeration, although four can be identified by name, and another nine or twelve are quite possible, mostly in the course of the Murphy-Chisum ‘Lincoln County War’ of the late 1870s. However, while all the movie versions of Billy shows him using the famous 1873 single-action Colt .44 or 45, he did not do so. He was known to favour a less familiar 1877 .41 double-action, which he found necessary because he couldn’t fit his small hand around the larger guns.

The New Mexico territory of the 1870s was not a bad approximation of the ‘state of nature’, and Billy’s life, like that of several men who crossed his path, was ‘nasty, brutish, and short’. But before his early demise, shot by his former friend Pat Garrett, Billy, an untutored disciple of Hobbes, left behind one memorable assertion, “All men are the same size, back of a Colt.”

This profundity would be demonstrated and improved on through the following century-and-a quarter. The first major users of the Thompson submachine gun, on its appearance just after the end of World War I, were not soldiers or police officers, but members of the Irish Republican Army and big-city American gangsters. Tommy guns were also popular with Depression-era American bank robbers. That led to the arming of F.B.I. Agents and state police with the same ‘equalizing’ Thompsons. During World War II, British aircraft made night drops of boxes containing thousands of much cheaper Sten submachine guns to resistance groups on the Nazi-occupied Continent. Mass-produced for 18 schillings, they gave lots of short-range firepower to their recipients. A few years later, AK-47 Kalashnikovs became the murderous equalizers of irregular fighting groups worldwide.

These could all be called examples of the ‘Hobbes-Bonney Theorem’. But they also suggest a less fatal future variation, say a ‘Jobs-Zuckerberg Theorem’. For what Billy’s .41 did for him until he ran into Pat Garrett’s .44 one night, is almost what i-phones and social media can now do for everyone. All human beings are ‘the same size’ back of a Tweet, from presidents, prime ministers, and billionaires to giddy adolescents. Fierce men with firearms can still readily disperse even the largest assemblies of Facebook Nation, showing this lately from Egypt to Ukraine. But not all political tests reach Hobbes-Bonney denouements. Here in Quebec, it was fascinating to observe how rapidly Pierre-Karl Peladeau, a legend in his own mind, found himself reduced to a figure of province-wide comic ridicule in a matter of hours. Similar instant transformations will surely follow over the coming decades. They may even engulf and devour radical Hegelian professors.

PAH Fifth 2014 Article


The Thwack of the Beaver’s Tail

Pauline Marois, in the thick of an election fight, has been unable to resist her fondness for talking complete nonsense. I especially liked her declaration that an election was no time to be talking about the future of Quebec, almost coincident with an assurance that it would soon be ‘sovereign, but without borders, exchanging tourists with British Columbia, and looking for a seat at the Bank of Canada. An enraged Bob Rae has commented that anyone claiming a Quebec departure from Canada would not cause ‘extraordinary pain’ was ‘simply lying’.

Both the Marois fog and Rae’s attempt to penetrate it reminded me of the days when I was a Quebec MNA in 1989-1994, the years of uproar that unfolded after the 1990 failure of the Meech Lake Accord, culminating in the 1994 election of the Jacques-Parizeau-led PQ, with the second Referendum following a year later. The most instructive part of this experience came to me as a voting member of the committee formed to hear evidence from various learned authorities on ‘the implications of Quebec sovereignty’, from January 1991 to January 1992. I read depositions from, and debated with, a long series of jurists, geographers, economists, and bond traders. I also wrote a lengthy minority report, called Imagining Sovereignty/Souveraineté d’Esprit, which I sent to all Members of the Quebec Legislature and all federal Members of Parliament.

We deliberated in a time in which Ontario was still dominant in the overall Canadian economy, and when Quebec was accustomed to many years of heavy Liberal or Progressive Conservative representation in the federal House of Commons. These conditions no longer apply, but even so, almost everything discussed has scarcely changed in twenty years. Since the PQ has found itself another colourful egomaniac in Pierre-Karl Péladeau, the Canadian mass media have been full of the same topics and speculations to which I diligently applied myself for a year.

Much detailed debate, past and present, has been composed of superfluous verbiage wrapped around two enduring confusions. The first is a hazily undefined difference between ‘sovereignty’ (widely assumed to be desirable) and ‘independence’ (not so much). The second is that whether somewhat deviously ‘sovereign’ or somewhat terrifyingly ‘independent’, an entirely new legal and constitutional definition of Quebec could be established by ‘self-determination’ alone, without regard to the response of the rest of Canada, or ‘ROCland’.

On our very first day, Bernard Landry, then not an MNA, but President of the PQ, actually argued that nothing very new was being contemplated, since both Ontario and Quebec had signed the 1988 Free Trade Agreement between Canada and the U. S. I did not treat this claim with much respect, but also heard it countered by the other main witness of the first day, Gordon Ritchie, a senior Ottawa bureaucrat who had himself been one of the main negotiators of that very FTA. He startled both the Liberals and Péquistes on the committee with a comment worth reproducing at length:

We are talking about a political crisis of extraordinary proportions… a situation in which the rest of Canada will be obliged to reconstitute itself, It would have no national government, it would have no national institutions, it would have nine provincial governments… operating from entirely different points of view… And just in terms of the uncertainty of that, the economic and financial impact upon the creditworthiness of Canada and Quebec, upon the attractiveness of this region of the continent as a place to invest, the impact of this would be truly, truly, horrendous to even contemplate… it would be a very serious mistake to consider that somehow, we can take for granted, here in Quebec… that there will exist some wise and knowledgeable rest of Canada, which will see it as being in its interest to quickly and expeditiously reach agreement, to put in place almost exactly what we have just dismantled.  – Deposition before the Committee on the Implications of Quebec Sovereignty, July 28, 1992.

Ritchie let the cat out of the bag, or rather, a furious assaulted beaver, making a loud thwack of its tail. For the entirety of the ‘sovereignist’ movement, from the days of René Lévesque’s original proposal of ‘Sovereignty-Association’ through to Pierre-Karl Péladeau’s announcement that he intended to create a ‘republic of Quebec’ for his grandchildren, we have been told by political nationalists that they can demolish the existing province of Quebec and the existing Canadian state, without ceasing, in some strange attenuated way, to leave either an existing Canada or a future new ‘Sovereign ROCland’ rolling on much as usual.

That was surely the reason that, from 1970 to 1995, both the ‘associationist’ Lévesque and the ‘sovereignty straight’ Jacques Parizeau kept hoping that they could win over at least a substantial minority of non-francophone leading citizens, and a substantial, even if minority, proportion of non-francophone voters. Rare anglo PQ supporters have been welcomed with open arms, and anyone from the old anglo elite making friendly noises produced giddy exaltation. At a 1970s press conference in which Lévesque proudly displayed his acquisition of upper-crust Westmount anglo Kevin Drummond, almost a foot taller than he was, Lévesque gazed fondly upward at his prize, looking for all the world like a racehorse owner who had just acquired a handsome breeding stallion. But Drummond remained a freakish exception, as, two decades later, Guy Bertrand, Péquiste-turned-federalist-later-turned-Péquiste-again, was briefly for the opposing side.

Jacques Parizeau’s public reputation has never entirely recovered from his woeful ‘money and the ethnics’ explanation of the 1995 Referendum defeat. English-speaking Canada readily took this as evidence of unpardonable ‘racism’, not really one of Parizeau’s previous or subsequent faults. But Parizeau’s moment of bitterness was less an outburst of xenophobia than the mournful wail of a rejected suitor. “I will never give up on my anglos,” he had once declared in the early 1990s, but had finally been forced to do so.

All past PQ leaders had good reason for stressing the notion of an ‘inclusive’ political project, whatever private resentments some might have retained from the old order in Quebec. It was not only because of surviving, although weakening, sentimental francophone attachment to Canada. Even Parizeau, and certainly Lucien Bouchard, understood a more fundamental difficulty. A Quebec that entered into some kind of new and more remote constitutional arrangement with the rest of Canada needed internal English-speaking support, even if demographic changes might produce a future majority ‘Oui’ vote without it.

A ‘Sovereign Quebec’, however defined, that remained at least partially successful in maintaining a grumbling but more or less quiescent and productive anglo population, just might still keep its existing borders and still regard itself as remaining a sort of historical and geographic component of an enduring ‘Canada.’ But a Quebec in which a decisive referendum majority were to be won almost exclusively with francophone votes would not then enter a polite divorce, but inaugurate the horrendous kind of coast-to-coast upheaval warned of by Ritchie. That would not just mean a ‘difficult five years’, as Pauline Marois has put it. The Canada that has now existed for a century and a half would endure a mortal blow, with ‘Sovereign Quebec’ universally recognized as the parricide. What the most intelligent and tolerant nationalists realized a long time ago remains true now, whether or not a narrow ‘Yes’ referendum majority could some day be obtained. Canadian society, outside the fantasies of college lecture halls, is not much involved in ‘movement’; it has permanent concerns, like making a living, raising families, taking for granted geography and history, and avoiding dangerous and unnecessary leaps into the unknown. That is why most Canadians of whatever mother tongue mostly prefer the steady industry of the beaver to the stirring cry of the loon.

PAH Fourth 2014 Article

Professor Hare and Madame Tortoise

When Maurice Duplessis died in 1959, Pauline Marois was ten years old, living in a working-class and devoutly Catholic family. Jacques Parizeau, who came from one of the wealthiest families in Canada, already had his Ph.D. from the London School of Economics, and had been teaching at HEC for four years. He was then a federalist, remaining one for another decade, and spent most of that decade as an influential economic adviser in the Quiet Revolution. He would teach continuously at HEC from 1955 right up to 1976; Marois herself took a couple of courses from him in the early 1970s, on her way to an MBA.

Throughout his adult life, Parizeau has been above all an advocate of statist centralization, complacently immovable. Although Harold Laski, who had actually taught Pierre Trudeau at LSE in the 1940s, was dead by the time Parizeau got there, he seems to have formed his ideas in Laski’s long quasi-Marxist shadow. He often compared himself with Trudeau, whom he liked personally, once saying that the only difference between them was that Trudeau wanted ‘only one centre’, while Parizeau thought there should be two.

Even his own often-described 1969 conversion from federalism was one he imagined as being a consequence of his purely logical reasoning. He observed that Quebec was ‘never going to give back’ the governmental powers it had acquired in the 1960s, almost sounding as if he regretted the frustration this would cause all future would-be centralizing federalists. He would later often use this argument in trying to appeal to English-speaking Canadians, declaring that ‘Quebec had become a problem for Canada, as Canada had for Quebec’. Quitting his Finance Ministry post in the PQ government of the early 1980s as an opponent of the equivocal policies of Rene Levesque and Pierre-Marc Johnson, his subsequent 1985-95 decade as the leader of the temporarily small rump of fellow hardliners was less the climax of an ordinary career of political ambition and multiple offices – the necessary route for Pauline Marois – than because his utopian ‘technocrat’ convictions had make him a model of firm and inflexible purpose.

Marois began as a politically ambitious social worker, but by 1978, with an MBA from HEC now in hand, she briefly went ot work in Parizeau’s Finance Ministry office, but soon complained that he did not use her ‘to her full potential’. She made her own first failed bid for PQ leadership in 1985; in 1988, she attacked Parizeau’s leadership, among other things for his ‘archaic attitude towards women’, and threatening to quit the party, but Parizeau managed to reconcile her.

The 1989 election that brought both of them new seats also brought me to Quebec City as one of four Members of the anglo protest Equality Party. So I spent five years daily watching Parizeau serve as Chief of the Official Opposition, Marois sitting right next to him on the front bench. She was responsible for the official party platform, which at first led me to have an exaggerated notion of her unworldliness. The platform assured francophone federal civil servants that a Sovereign Quebec would simply rehire them all, and integrate them into the existing Quebec departments. paying for this with all the money saved by no longer sending any to Ottawa. This stunned me, but I later came to realize that Marois cheerfully talks and writes complete nonsense with bland confidence that it will have no effects in the real world, and not do her much harm.

Jacques Parizeau fascinated me. He had already become famous for dropping verbal bricks, as often falling on the toes of his own party as on anyone else’s. Probably the most remembered one was his comment of a decade earlier, that a ‘Oui’ would win a referendum if it were held at three a. m., after the bars had all closed, while failing in the daytime. He was still dropping them when I was in Quebec City, mainly because, even when most serious, he presented hopeful speculations as if they were pontifical certainties. When the Meech Lake Accord permanently failed in June of 1990, Parizeau immediately declared “I or Bourassa will lead Quebec to sovereignty,” and he has continued to predict such non-events ever since.

But he could also be impressive and even admirable. Despite his notorious emotional outburst on referendum night, I have never believed that Parizeau was racist or xenophobic. He made many speeches, not just before anglo audiences, but in the legislature, that were entirely generous and fair-minded in what they said about the English-speaking minority in Quebec. I once heard him give a long legislature address, summarizing what he saw as English Canada’s view of Meech Lake and other attempts at constitutional accord, which was one of the most intelligent and fair-minded accounts I ever encountered from anyone on that subject.

But he was no star in Question Period; it was House Leader Guy Chevrette and Party Whip Jacques Brassard who gave the Bourassa Liberals most cause for alarm. Parizeau, always ‘Monsieur’ to his not especially adoring colleagues, almost seemed like a stage actor, ‘playing’ his carefully-tailored role of affluent, anglophile, cultivated grand bourgeois. and not only very much a lifelong HEC doctrinaire, but a very ‘professorial’ professor. He was not quick-witted, but always a lucid, if unpersuasive reasoner, amiable, but visibly contemptuous of the ordinary game of politics. The 1995 referendum campaign finally brought his most intense emotions to the surface, moved to tears when joining in a PQ songfest. But he soon retreated to his usual sublime complacency and assurance of logical and ideological rectitude.

His desperate eventual alliance with Lucien Bouchard in the 1995 referendum provided a painful reminder of just how remote his professorial statism was from emotional nationalism. Nationalist crowds would greet Bouchard with cries of “On est avec toi, Lucien!”, inconceivable for him. He knew, well before dropping his ill-received ‘money and the ethnics’ line, that a referendum failure meant he had run his political course to its end. Not for him any late second coming in the manner of Bourassa, or continuance in a secondary role like Claude Ryan. Even if he had been willing to accept such a role in a post-Bouchard cabinet, he had no powerful PQ allies who would have made such a place for him.

Certainly Pauline Marois would not have been one. Tortoise-like, pushing past several temporary falls in fortunes, she has rolled on, her arguments of substance getting worse all the time, her determination and adaptability still carrying her forward. She will turn 65 at the end of March, probably little worried her chances of achieving a majority electoral victory will be much reduced by Parizeau’s recent attack on the ‘Charter of Values’, or even by his endorsement of the HEC report on Quebec’s dire future economic prospects. She will be almost exactly the same age he was when he unhappily ended his formal political career. Remaining a spectre at every PQ feast, rattling the chains of Quebec’s economically failing statist vision, trapped forever in his dogmatic and superannuated progressivism, it is now his fate to be largely ignored, even as he finally gets a couple of things profoundly right.

PAH Third 2014 Article

Hydro Quebec and Henry Adams

Pauline Marois included in her almost Stephen-Harper-like determination to fulfil election promises, the immediate closing of the ageing nuclear power facility at Gentilly. While nuclear power has become unfashionable again since the Fukushima disaster, this final writeoff in Quebec is still an ironic reversal for the PQ, compared to how its leaders once sounded. Especially as long as conventional hydroelectric expansion was associated with Robert Bourassa, the Pe’quistes once smiled warmly on nuclear power. They were oddly allied with several Canadian federal governments; Atomic Energy Canada had pressed for large-scale nuclear development ever since the days of Lester Pearson. Jacques Parizeau, some years before he became Premier, once told Le Devoir that “We don’t have to dam every single river just because they’re French Canadian and Catholic”.

Nonetheless, in power the PQ let the dams continue to multiply, Bernard Landry’s government signing another agreement with waterlogged northern natives in 2002. The Charest Liberals took the same route. The one example of a slightly less rosy view of has been Francoise Legault’s claim that it is overstaffed, and that he could get rid of several thousand expensive employees.

He has a case; Hydro has one of the lowest numbers of clients served per employee of any power-generating enterprise, in all of North America. It can claim with some justification that the location of the generating plants, unusually remote from their main Quebec and New England markets, and imposing harsh climatic conditions on workers, explain this. But it is no mere ordinary state monopoly.

I always found it a fascinating one. When I was an Equality Party Member of the Quebec legislature in 1989-1994, I served on the committee then considering the future of the James Bay project, and was the usual critic on Hydro issues in Question Period. I learned a fair amount about the economics of hydroelectricity in general, especially by making detailed comparisons of Hydro’s annual reports with those of B. C. and New Brunswick. Quebec was far more secretive than they were,, always pleading the need to keep ‘competitive’ information confidential., Sometimes I found this comic. In one Question Period, I asked why ‘our’ utility could not provide us with the same kind of output breakdowns readily available in the case of B. C. Electric. Jacques Parizeau slapped his desk and bellowed, in English, “Damned good question!” Even more memorable was a comment made to me in the hallway later by Lise Bacon, then the Liberal Minister responsible for Hydro. “That was a good question,” she agreed, “but you know, they’re not the easiest people to get information from… “

It was my colleague and EP Leader, Robert Libman, however, who enjoyed a moment in the sun in April of 1991, becoming a hero for a while for the general francophone public, who repeatedly congratulated us on the streets of Quebec City. A useful contact in the U. S. had passed on to us information being openly debated in an American Congressional committee, but which Hydro had tried, with a court order, to keep out of Canadian newspapers and TV news. Robert, using his parliamentary immunity, broadcast in Question Period the embarrassing news that Hydro was secretly selling electricity to selected customers at 40 per cent below cost.

The power was being sold to big aluminum and magnesium smelting firms, which use huge amounts of electricity to extract metal from ore, Norsk Hydro had been identified as a typical example, paying 1.5 cents a kilowatt hour, a lot less than the 2.4 cents it cost to produce, and much less than the 4.2 cents then being paid by ordinary Quebec residents. Then as now, electricity was still very cheap here, costing less in Montreal than any cities in North America but Winnipeg and Seattle. But the public had not much previously realized that low electricity bills were more than counterbalanced in taxes.

The characteristically arrogant attempt to muzzle the Canadian media had become ludicrous several days before Robert belled the cat, since Washinton was openly discussing the exact size of the subsidies. Pressed to respond, Hydro’s VP of industrial marketing admitted that 13 big industries, those for which electricity made up 30 per cent or more of their costs, benefited from what Hydro liked to call ‘risk and profit sharing contracts’, but which everyone else called subsidies. Supposedly, the lowered rates would be provided for the initial stages of poor profits, then raised when the company started making money, with the price ‘evening out’ over the life of the contract. This claim was met with scepticism by several economists, one estimating that Quebecers were paying well over $100,000 for each job actually being created by the policy.

Everyone really interested in Hydro knew that Hydro made its real money in two quite different ways. First of all, to the fury of Newfoundlanders, unable to break a disastrously long-term contract going back to 1949, Hydro was getting several thousand Megawatts from the shared project at the Little Churchill, for which they had to pay only a quarter of a cent per kilowatt hour, conveniently mixed in with the much higher James Bay costs. Secondly, they were exporting power to the northeastern U.S., charging New York State, for example, 6.5 cents a kilowatt hour, 5 cents more than what it was charging the favoured 13 companies, 2 cents more than Quebec consumers paid. These comparisons enraged American and Canadian environmentalist groups, not only objecting to all the flooding in northern Quebec, but seeing the cheap power as a disincentive to conservation measures in both Quebec and New England.

I met the top executives of Hydro in their presentations before the legislative committee, all highly articulate. Robert and I had also flown up to James Bay, talking to the Cree leader, Chief Bill Diamond, but also touring one of the giant facilities. I couldn’t help but be impressed by its grandeur, and the engineering talent that had gone into the construction. The James Bay project alone, costing well over $20 billion to build, and spread over an area as large as New York State, is one of the largest electricity generating systems in the world. It produces 16,000 megawatts, three times more than all the plants at Niagara Falls, and eight times the power of the colossal American Hoover Dam.

Nonetheless, I was not at all overwhelmed by the economic claims for the monopoly. Hydro appeared to me as having an opaque and imperial magnificence, not so much a sacred cow as a giant sacred cattle ranch. From the 1980s on, a few free-market economists were already making heretical sounds about the disadvantages of state monopoly ownership, and by 2009, Claude Garcia, writing for the conservative Montreal Economic Institute, even provided a detailed plan showing how a gradual privatization could take place, offering some calculations that this could bring several billion dollars of real increase in wealth for the people of Quebec. I did not have comparable detail available to me two decades ago, but what I could see led me to think then, as I still do, that privatization would serve the public interest, not just private industry developers.

I must admit, however, that I suspect that only a great general crisis in Quebec finances could lead to effective political thinking about the unthinkable. All the fuss I observed in the 1990s did have some consequences: Matthew Coon Come, the young lawyer who had become the new Grand Chief of the Cree, successfully blocked the Great Whale project. But overall, the great sacred cattle ranch grazed on unchanged, as it still does. Outside the pur et dur IEM libertarian economists, there is litle talk of privatization, or even some small steps like raising domestic rates to correspond to real costs. The worldwide drive to privatization and market discipline that began in the mid-1970s lost much of its force with the 2008 Crash, even in far less ‘collectivist’ milieux than this one. Watching the world of Hydro close up, I was strangely reminded of Lenin, who was himself so intoxicated by technological dreaming that he once wrote that ‘soviets plus electrification = Communism!” Slightly more modestly, those linked visionaries, Rene’ Le’vesque and Robert Bourassa, created our own local variant: ‘State monopoly + electrification = Le project collectif. Jacques Parizeau, as usual better at amusing utterance than government, had it right. Hardly anyone remembers any more how much the whole vast creation started as the work of that tough anglo engineer, Sir Herbert Holt, and every new river dam remains one more expression of nationalist public identity. Henry Adams would be stunned: the Virgin has married the Dynamo.

Constitutional Ghosts

Halloween, apparently now lasting for weeks, is supposed to recognize a brief rising of the dead from their graves. This year, some of us are bound to hear the moaning and rattling of chains of two particularly gruesome corpses: the Meech Lake Accord, proclaimed a quarter of a century ago in 1987, and its more quickly extinguished successor, the proposed Charlottetown Accord, slain by a failed national referendum, held exactly twenty years before this October 26. Both creatures owed their brief lives to Brian Mulroney, manufactured during his two Conservative majority governments from 1984 to 1992. Sickly at best, each took fatal blows from the opposition of Pierre Trudeau, who demonstrated that, with no remaining political office at all, he retained as much clout on constitutional issues as Mulroney did as sitting Prime Minister. The decaying remains continue to haunt us still.

The constitutional upheavals of 1982-95 came about mainly because of the large political changes in Quebec in the 1960s and 1970s, especially the winning of a majority provincial government by the Parti Que’be’cois in 1976, and its own failed ‘sovereignty-association’ 1980 referendum. The conduct of the provincial Liberals, returned to power from 1985 to 1994, was also an important factor. But the whole story was shaped above all by the personal character and ambitious of Trudeau and Mulroney. By the 1980s, Trudeau was already something of a Canadian national institution, even to those who were not fond of him or his policies. He had been in power uninterruptedly from 1968 to 1979, those years including his use of the War Measures Act to deal with the 1970 FLQ crisis. The Joe-Clark-led Conservatives had defeated him in 1979, but had won only a minority government, which soon fell and brought back Trudeau from 1980 to 1984. He began those final years with his successful fight against the 1980 Quebec referendum, in which he had included a vague promise that he would soon provide a new Canadian constitution. He also turned sharply to the left, but the nationalist economic policies he introduced crashed badly on the double-digit interest rates of the early 1980s.

That brought Mulroney, newly chosen by the Conservatives to replace the ineffectual Joe Clark, to majority power in 1984. His most powerful argument at the 1983 Conservative leadership convention was that he was the man who could remedy the longtime weakness of his party in Quebec. By that time, Trudeau had carried out the ‘patriation’ of the constitution from the last powers held by the British Privy Council, combining that with the federal-provincial negotiations that led to the Constitutional Act of 1982. Trudeau gained the support of nine of the provinces, but the Act and its attended Charter of Rights and Freedoms was rejected by Rene’ Le’vesque, and also by the Quebec Liberals. However, the Canadian Supreme Court ruled that neither Quebec nor any other province had the power to veto the patriation, or to claim that they were not bound by the new constitution.

In his 1984 landslide election victory, Mulroney indeed ‘delivered’ Quebec, filling its seats with conservative nationalists, including his then close friend and adviser, Lucien Bouchard. But few Canadians in other provinces, who voted largely against the Liberal economic record, had much idea what Mulroney had meant in his promise of constitutional ‘reconciliation’. Trudeau’s own 1980 promise to Quebec had actually led, in the 1982 Act, to a reduction of previous provincial powers; Mulroney was aiming at some kind of undoing of Trudeau’s handiwork. Three years later, Mulroney used all his considerable negotiating skills to gain the temporary agreement of all ten provinces, including Bourassa’s Quebec, and even the now John-Turner-led opposition Liberals, to his 1987 Meech Lake Accord, ambiguously recognizing Quebec as a ‘distinct society’.

New provincial Liberal governments in New Brunswick and Newfoundland soon showed that they did not with to preserve this fragile harmony, Manitoba was also discontented. Anglo Quebec, fearing its fate as part of the ‘distinct society’ also rebelled; while the 1989 provincial election gave another term to the Bourassa Liberals, four predominantly anglo seats abandoned them for the upstart Equality Party. Mulroney tried, sometimes in crude and bullying fashion, to steamroller over all these disparate problems. But when Trudeau subjected the agreement to an elegant and merciless assault in both the French and English press, that gave heart to the Newfoundland Liberal premier, Clyde Wells, and to an unbending native member of the Manitoba legislature, Elijah Harper, and they killed Meech Lake dead in June of 1990..

Much sound and fury followed for the next five years. The mercurial Lucien Bouchard, given major input in crafting Meech Lake, greeted its failure by resigning from the Conservative Party, taking with him a group of followers to form the Bloc Que’be’cois. Bourassa created the huge Be’langer-Campeau Committee, which included Jacques Parizeau and other PQ Members, Bouchard, and representatives of muncipalities, unions, and other groups. This mouutain laboured for a year and brought forth two mice: a smaller ‘Expert Committee to Consider the Implications of Sovereignty’, and another less lively one to consider new constitutional offers. Not much came of either. Mulroney, by then so personally unpopular that he pushed Joe Clark to the fore for new negotiations, cobbled together another accord at Charlottetown. But this time ratification depended on a national referendum, which not only failed in Quebec itself, but also in most other Canadian provinces. In the 1993 federal election, the Conservatives, now led by Kim Campbell, were almost annihilated, replaced by the Bloc in Quebec and the new Reform Party in Western Canada. The PQ under Jacques Parizeau won the 1994 Quebec election, and Parizeau tried yet another provincial ‘sovereignty’ referendum, but again narrowly failed to win a majority, despite drawing on the assistance of the much more personally popular Lucien Bouchard, who then replaced Parizeau as PQ Premier.

Both Trudeau and Mulroney were dealing with a singularly difficult province at a singularly difficult time, but they did a lot themselves to make both the time difficult. They are bound to be regarded as men who made a desert we now call peace. Both put the country at risk with ambitious gambles. Trudeau advanced his own centralist vision with so contemptuous a disregard for provincial nationalist emotions as to help revive quasi-separatist politics he once claimed to have vanquished. But Mulroney managed to be worse, using bungling attempts to use the separatist threat as a club to batter both recalcitrant provincial Canadian politicians and the wider public into accepting first Meech and then Charlottetown out of simple fear.

Mulroney simply could not demonstrate the supreme intellectual self-confidence and clarity of purpose that Pierre Trudeau could. Rather than successfully making the case for the traditionally more decentralized Conservative vision of Canada, he sounded more like a hired Quebec advocate than a Canadian Prime Minister. Trudeau was respected even by many Canadians who were not fond of him personally and did not at all like his political ideas. Mulroney was nearly the exact opposite, much better-liked by his own political rank and file, and much better at maintaining amiable relations with professional politicians generally than Trudeau. But overestimating the value of the professionals’ concord.

Much closer to the business world in which he had served as an executive, Mulroney was highly effective in leading the fight for the Free Trade Agreement with the U.S., winning his second majority government with that fight in 1988. But even his political supporters never saw him as an intellectually commanding small-c conservative alternative to Trudeau’s small-l left-liberalism. Worse, he did not seem to realize this, never seeing that a lawyer’s negotiating triumph with the politicians was an inadequate basis on which to redefine a nation. Trudeau, lofty authoritarianism and all, had an instinctive grasp of mass politics in the mass media age, which he continued to exploit without elected office. He could always provide at least the illusion that he commanded events; Mulroney never gave a similar impression, looking more like a man who had tried to set up a conjuring trick, only to have his stage apparatus collapse, with rabbits and doves fleeing in all directions. In the process, he had done more than any Quebec provincial politician to persuade the Quebec public that they had some large legitimate grievance against Canada, and he had helped demolish the once large reservoir of goodwill in the rest of the country toward this province. Now that the federal Liberals appear to be putting their hopes in Justin Trudeau, he may be tempted to propose another grand national reconstruction in the manner of his father, and it is conceivable that some successor to Stephen Harper will respond with a revived version of what Mulroney failed to do. Bad idea. Better to allow the ghosts out only on Halloween.

A Lincoln at the End of his Tether

Abraham Lincoln is for Americans, something like a demigod. One or two other Presidents have achieved their own mythic status, but never anything like that of Lincoln. From his own time to the present, he has been an incarnation of the the American Union, a new and singular Founding Father, four score and seven years after the earlier ones. For the America that is as much a religion as a nation, he is a Christ-like figure, full of courage, wisdom, and humour; a suffering penitent who took on his shoulders the Original Sin of slavery, entrenched in the country’s founding document, and redeemed the nation from it; a writer and orator who captured the meaning of the moral struggle and bloody conflict of his time in poetic and Biblical language; at the Civil War’s end, the assassinated martyr. His Presidential years alone, coinciding exactly with the 1861-65 War, could scarcely be fitted into anything like a conventional cinematic biography.

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln tries to cope with this challenge with a compressed character portrait covering only the last four months in Lincoln’s life, and the intimate and sometimes squalid details of his last political struggle. This was his fight to achieve a broader and more enduring fulfilment of the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, to be accomplished by ramming through the House of Representatives the 13th Amendment to the Bill of Rights, permanently abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude throughout the United States. While the North had clearly won the war by then, Lincoln saw the task as both urgent and difficult. A Confederate delegation was approaching Washington with a peace offer. They might be unwilling to negotiate if finding slavery permanently outlawed, while if Congress became fully aware that a peace offer was at hand, its unpredictable mixture of conservative and Radical Republicans with wavering War Democrats might refuse to pass the Amendment. So Lincoln, portrayed brilliantly by Daniel Day-Lewis, had to engage in a certain amount of manipulation and subterfuge to carry out his grand design.

He needed the assistance of his friend, Secretary of State William Seward, well played by David Strathairn, and his critic but occasional collaborator, Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), the firebrand leader of the abolitionist Radical Republicans in Congress. He also needed the help of a sleazy Democratic Party backstairs fixer, William Bilbo (James Spader). At the same time, he had to deal with his private grief at the loss of a son to typhoid, and the nagging of his neurotic wife Mary Todd (Sally Field), both of them terrified of losing their oldest son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), to the war. The fast-moving narrative about these and a host of minor characters was taken by Spielberg from the 2005 bestseller book about the Lincoln cabinet by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals, and Goodwin collaborated with the playwright Tony Kushner on the script. But it is the sheer virtuosity of Day-Lewis that brings the story to life.

Spielberg’s talent in filming spectacular action sequences is almost absent from Lincoln. The President is shown visiting the Union commanding general, Ulysses Grant (Jared Harris) at the battlefront, but only the film’s first few minutes, a grisly scene of soldiers dying in mud, brings home the savagery of the Civil War. That scene quickly gives way to a conversation between Lincoln and two black Union soldiers, and almost all of the rest of the film is rather stagey dialogue in darkly-lit rooms.

In those scenes in which Lincoln is not present, the dialogue is not always as impressive as it is clearly intended to be, with hints frequently provided by rising chords of background music. Sally Field is supposed to be irritating as Lincoln’s wife, and is only too successful. Tommy Lee Jones is also something of a mixed blessing. The real Thaddeus Stevens was dogged and humourless to the edge of fanaticism. But Jones pretty much plays the character he usually does, never quite able to conceal his amiable small-town Texas origins just below the surface of a gruff and scowling exterior. It is a little hard to see him as a blazing-eyed passionate Northern slavery abolitionist. Tommy Lee Thaddeus is, however, so much fun to watch that few will complain. In fact, all the acting is fine, only put in the shade by Day-Lewis, whose Lincoln is not a mythic icon, but a complex, clever, resourceful, fallible, and sometimes tormented man, splendidly achieved.

But Spielberg, who in recent years has clearly burned with an ambition not just to make fine entertainments, but to embrace ‘History’ with a capital H, tends to hit that large nail firmly on his thumb, and has done it again in Lincoln. It just might have been possible to convey the whole sense of Lincoln’s larger importance to his era within the narrow confines of Kushner’s script, but to do that would have required at least a bit more context, something more than a recapitulation of backstage political games. Because Spielberg and Kushner take for granted modern popular attitudes about the evil of slavery and the necessity of ending it, they show little interest in why not all Republicans were Radical ones, or why not all War Democrats were merely opportunist or timid. They take no interest at all in why Southerners were so confident of the justice of their own cause. By excluding all these considerations, studied by many of the best American historians for many years, they have helped give their story its rapid pace, but have robbed it of much of its tragic dimensions. Entirely successful in making an exciting story out of Lincoln’s ingenious politicking, they have removed any sense at all of why and how slavery had not only produced so complete a regional political division in one country, but eventually something like a clash between two rival civilizations, with the total defeat of one of them changing all of world history thereafter.

Lincoln is made to remark briefly at one point that the war cost 600, 000 lives, a figure he would be unlikely to know at the time, but permissible dramatic license. However, that horrendous figure is given little context. For example, for every six slaves freed, approximately one soldier was killed. For every ten white Southerners ultimately kept in the Union, one Union and one Confederate soldier died Furthermore, however appalling it now appears to think of human beings as property, emancipation with no compensation to slaveholders was one of the largest economic expropriations in the whole of human history, technically larger in scale than the expropriation carried out in the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

The utter ruin of the South was not just felt by the slaveholders, but by the suddenly ‘freed’. propertyless, largely illiterate, and henceforth only uncertainly employed ex-slaves. Lincoln’s Vice-President and unhappy successor, the Tennessee War Democrat Andrew Johnson, is entirely absent from the Spielberg film, but his difficulties in trying to apply Lincoln’s relatively mild policies of “Presidential Reconstruction’, only weeks after Lincoln was killed, came partly because Stevens and Seward were breathing hotly down his neck, eventually producing the crisis of Johnson’s near-impeachment, and from 1869 a near-decade of harsher ‘Radical Reconstruction': the South was occupied by Union troops and flooded with Northern carpetbaggers buying up everything in sight from bankrupt Southerners. Almost another century of racial subordination, segregation, and lawless violence followed. Even if the war itself was unavoidable, it remains conceivable that had Lincoln chosen an earlier, messier, but less absolute and devastating end, a more gradual ending of slavery would have been better, even for the slaves. Lincoln’s ‘new birth of freedom’ came at terrible cost, not hinted at by the film.

Canadians of the time were driven to their own Confederation by the revolutionary explosion to their south. The British Empire had abolished slavery three decades earlier, and Canadians for the most part disapproved of its continuation in the American South. However, in the Civil War years themselves, Montreal and Toronto, irritated by rude Yankees and charmed by well-mannered and free-spending Southerners, largely came to favour their cause in the War. We still look back to that decade through the eyes of the practical and cynical John A. Macdonald, rather than those of his prophetic contemporary. Less moral grandeur, but less agony; our usual option.

Prince Arthur Herald Christmas Song 2012

Investors watched their stocks with fright, as Greece more broke was found;
While Brits thanked God on island tight that they still had the pound.
The Queen drew lots of broad applause, in Diamond Jubilee;
Her stoic calm made adults pause, in common memory.

Republicans sent candidates, to primaries galore;
They left a pile of broken plates, and fratricidal gore;
Mitt Romney struggled with the fates, but stayed a pleasant bore.
Obama thus still rules the States, but not the Congress floor.

Petraeus is now daubed with mud, the stone man turned to jelly;
Biographer who’d found him stud, had threatened one Jill Kelley.
The Harper Tories spent the year in pushing to the right;
For CBC they shed no tear, while greens with rage turned white.

In Montreal, a student mass, resisted fee increase;
Pauline Marois adored their brass, Charest slipped on the grease;
Corruption in construction trades, is being now unveiled;
Police are making frequent raids, but no one yet is jailed.

The end of Tremblay’s failing grades: an anglo mayor is hailed;
Toronto’s mayor now somewhat fades; a court may have him nailed.
McGuinty too, just chose the door,
Out West, two women have the clout, where only men once trod.

The great and good all rise and fall, like stocks and interest rates;
But all end in the same bus haul, that goes to Pearly Gates.

– Merry Christmas & Happy New Year from Neil Cameron, December, 2012.

Davos and the Spectre of David Hume

This year’s just-completed World Economic Forum at Davos had as its theme ‘resilient dynamics’. According to its executive chairman, Klaus Schwob, ‘resiliency in the ability to adapt to changing circumstances and withstand sudden shocks,’ while ‘dynamism’ is required as well, to assure future growth through ‘bold vision and even bolder action.’ Don Tapscott, a Canadian economist and business guru, who has been a gratingly cheery booster of the Davos meetings for years, also brought the news to readers of the Globe & Mail that what began as only a series of meetings has now evolved into ‘a massive research organization’, a ‘do-tank’.

2,500 participants from over 100 countries came to Davos this January: government and corporate leaders, economists, and wealthy world-improving entertainers like Bono. Almost all of them were provided with a great deal of comfortable personal insulation from ‘sudden shocks’ of any kind, and many were also accustomed to being generously compensated for producing lots of bold visions; Paul Krugman provides one every month or two in his NY Times columns, and the megabankers can be counted on as often for clever new derivatives. Tapscott argued that Davos remained ‘the foremost creative force for engaging leaders in collaborative activities focused on shaping the global, regional, and industry agendas.’ This may very well be true, but over a decade after 9/11 and five years after the World Crash, the Davos assembly, which still observes the pious reverence for economic forecasting that existed two decades ago, resembles a conference of men’s hat makers, congratulating each other on their new plastic bowlers.

Of course, discussions and papers gave solemn attention to tottering banks and flowering sovereign debts, but nothing really much disturbed the equanimity of this new in-crowd as they inhaled the brisk Swiss mountain air. Since 2006 the Forum has released an annual ‘Global Risks Report’, examining 50 global risks in terms of ‘impact, likelihood, and the extent to which they are connected’, based on a survey of ‘more than 1000 experts from industry, government and academia’. And how could 1000 such experts be wrong? Indeed, a special report on ‘national resilience’ proposed that countries could be assigned a ‘resilience rating’, with annual reports of this kind of progress. There is also a year-round WEF working group, of which Tapscott proudly claims membership, ‘that includes many of the world’s leading thinkers about global governance’, excited by ‘new non-state networks of civil society’, addressing ‘every conceivable issue facing humanity’. The group is ‘trying to understand their potential for improving the state of the world’, which should keep them busily occupied for some time.

Although ‘resilience’ has now been around for a decade as an economists’ buzzword, it is just possible that this year’s Davos theme was a vague nod of sorts to the heretical arguments about statistics and forecasting made in recent years by gifted ‘outliers’ like Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Nate Silver. Neither of these are mere flavour-of-the month popular pundits in the manner of Malcolm Gladwell or the authors of Freakonomics. In fact, both are presenting their own kind of fresh versions of an old, powerful, and very alarming philosophical position.

Silver, who trumped all more conventional political pundits by accurately predicting, state-by-state, the results in both of the last two American Presidential elections, has already had an enthusiastic reception for his new book, The Signal and the Noise. He is not so much a grand theorist as an individual who understands how to analyze statistics with a special personal skill, this in itself casting great doubts on the validity of purely standardized statistical models.. Taleb is a great deal more egomaniacal and bombastic, but while he can sometimes be irritating, especially in his latest book, Antifragile, he has something important to say, as he did in his previous books, Fooled by Randomness (2001) and The Black Swan (2007). The latter book was a best-seller and a public sensation, at least in the business and financial worlds. He had already become a recognized financial guru; as a onetime options trader on Wall Street, he not only saw in advance the likelihood of the 2008 Crash, but placed, to use a favourite expression of his, ‘skin in the game’, shorting the collapsing real estate derivatives early enough to make himself some tens of millions of dollars. He has not repeated this success, but can now afford quite a few more modest plunges.

But then his whole argument against academic economists, statisticians and Wall Street rocket scientists is that neither he nor anyone else can predict the future at all, since stunningly unexpected ‘Black Swans’ are not just very rare exceptions, but frequent enough to ruin all persuasive-looking futurology. This is not a new idea; it was classically demonstrated by David Hume over two centuries ago, and Taleb also explicitly acknowledges his debt to two great Hume-influenced sceptical thinkers of the 20th century, Friedrich Hayek and Karl Popper. But just as it used to be said that many of the purely philosophical arguments advanced by Nietzsche had been made earlier by Hume, Nietzsche differing mainly by yelling them at the top of his voice, Taleb has a similar method in his madness. Hume not only undermined traditional notions of causality, but was just as devastatingly sceptical about the limits of confining study to ‘relations’ instead, these including the statistical ones that have become more and more universal today. He turned his own empirical reasoning against even itself, so thoroughly that ambitious futurists have been averting their eyes from this terrifying Scot ever since.

Hume, Bertrand Russell, and Taleb are all fond of pointing out the flaw in the reasoning of an empiricist turkey. The turkey becomes accustomed to the daily appearance of the farmer with food, and hence experiences an unpleasant surprise one day when the farmer arrives with the sharp blade that will soon convert the turkey into someone’s dinner. Even a turkey who has observed another turkey’s misfortune can not predict when the blade will replace his own meal. Taleb’s own prescription for business, financial, and political action is, behind the bombast, a highly conservative one, recommending the cautious use of rules of thumb and a spirit of trial and error. Hence he is full of loathing for most academic economists, and for bankers inventing financial models whose failure does not affect them because they have ‘no skin in the game’. He suggests that it would have improved the body politic to behead a few such bankers on the pavement outside their ATMs, an idea unlikely to be well-received at Davos even as a joke.

In his new book, he insists on the utility, even the necessity, of his ‘antifragile’ neologism, which he argues, using several examples from a wide range of human activities, is not simply a synonym for ‘robust’ or ‘resilient’, but has a special and different meaning: a kind of thinking and action which can actually find benefits in turbulence and volatility. Not, of course, as an exact science; for Taleb, in all empirical experience, there is no exact science, certainly not in academic economics or the design of Wall Street investments. But he thinks there are sometimes real-life counterparts of the mythological Hydra, which sprouted two new heads every time one was cut off. The Hydra-like, in his view, include weightlifters, Mafiosi, entrepreneurs, street fighters, and the author of Antifragile. He likes bottom-up, diversified, and small enterprises, allowing uncatastrophic withdrawal when things go wrong.

Taleb is nonetheless willing to be grand enough in his own level of epistemological ambition. Arguing less about specifically statistical reasoning in his new book than in the previous two, he turns to the very founding arguments of Greek philosophy. In the 1930s. Karl Popper attacked ‘the spell of Plato’ as the first ancestor of the totalitarian thought and politics of his time. Taleb goes after Plato somewhat differently. Noting that The Republic opens with an attack on merchants and money lenders, Taleb takes the side of these moneymakers. But he remains like Popper in recognizing the permanent utopian attraction of a top-down rule of enlightened philosopher-king guardians. At least Plato’s were supposed to be schooled in wisdom, not just in knowledge, much less in data. Taleb is offering more insight to the world than it is likely to obtain from all 1000 of the Davos-selected ‘experts from industry, government, and academia’. The world may even come to prefer his shouted wisdom to the bland and optimistic annual groupthink counsel from Switzerland.

Real and ‘Counterfactual’ History: The Zhukov Factor

In courses as different as creative writing and historiography, there is a standard simple argument. If one writes, ‘The king died, and then the queen died’, either in fiction or in history, this is only chronicle. If one writes, ‘The king died, then the queen died of grief’, you have the basis of a novelist’s plot, or of a historical explanation. The novelist, however, is godlike and omniscient, and can be quite firm about the cause of the queen’s death. The historian has a larger problem, and will need plenty of supporting evidence to be confident about the second clause. After all, there can be few queens in history who showed more grief at the death of her consort than Victoria, but she managed to go on grimly mourning in constant black attire for decades after the death of Albert.

In the case of a queen’s quick death after the death of a king, she conceivably was so shattered, so unconcerned with eating, sleeping, or turning her mind from her agony, that the explanation of her literal death from grief may be a real possibility. But she might have discreetly committed suicide with a drug overdose, concealed from the world, or more dramatically, been as discreetly murdered by some ambitious courtier or member of the royal family. Or a historian might succeed in finding medical documents unequivocally demonstrating that the queen had been in the course of dying from some ailment like an intestinal cancer well before the king died. In some cases, the true explanation can actually be found, with near-total certainty; in others, alternative explanations can go on forever, although with some more probable than others.

Furthermore, sometimes a very good explanation can be provided that event A caused event B, and it may even have been published more than once, yet never really entered the assumptions and imaginings of most historians, never mind the broader public. It is sometimes made strikingly clear that, as Dr. Johnson remarked, we are more in need of being reminded than being instructed. This thought came back to me with great force as I was reading a review article (‘The Truth About World War II’) in the October 11, 2012 New York Review of Books, by Richard J. Evans, of two new books on the War, a new history, The Second World War, by Antony Beevor, and a new biography, Stalin’s General: The Life of Gyorgy Zhukov, by Geoffrey Roberts. This is the first I have heard of the latter, although he apparently did a solid job on Zhukov. However, both Beevor and Evans are two of the best living historians about WW II, which makes the whole review an unusually authoritative one.

Yet it contained a couple of paragraphs about events in 1939 that I know I and other history teachers had been more or less familiar with, but which I doubt many of us thought through as consistently as both Beevor, and Evans, who agrees with him, have. Those of us familiar with the history of the era knew that there was a short Russo-Japanese war in 1939, and we also knew that the Japanese cabinet had once considered a ‘strike north’ strategy to expand and acquire raw materials by attacking the U.S.S.R., rather than a ‘strike south’ on the British and Dutch colonial empires in Asia, co-ordinated with the attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor. But I don’t think I have ever seen before, or thought through before, this condensed version of the equivalent of why ‘the queen died’, as described by Evans:

‘The book [Beevor’s] opens with a description of the Battle of the Khalkin Gol River, which began in May 1939 with a minor border clash between Red Army and Mongolian forces on the one side, and Japanese and Manchurian forces of the other. Unlike previous clashes, this one escalated as the local Japanese commander ordered an air strike against Soviet bases behind the front line, and Stalin called in the cavalry commander Gyorgy Zhukov to deal with the situation. Zhukov prepared his mission with all the tactics that later made him famous, assembling massive reinforcements under cover of darkness and concealing them during the day, while deceiving the enemy with misleading and badly encoded messages into believing he was digging in when he was actually preparing to go on the offensive.

On August 20, 1939, his tanks powered forward behind the Japanese lines in a large encircling movement, inflicting 60,000 casualties on the enemy and resolving the border issue in favor of the Soviet Union. Another of Zhukov’s characteristics came to the fore in the conflict too: his disregard for casualties among his own troops, nearly 8,000 of whom were killed and more than 15,000 wounded. An attempt by his superior officer to stop the carnage was brusquely dismissed as “indecisiveness”.

Beevor brings out well the larger significance of this minor clash. Surprised and dismayed by the defeat, the Japanese military was forced to abandon its plan to strike first against the Soviet Union and give way to the naval faction, who wanted instead to ‘strike south’ in the Pacific. The decision had far-reaching consequences; bolstered by a Soviet-Japanese nonaggression pact signed in April 1941, it would give Stalin a free hand to counter the German invasion of the Soviet Union in the months following the launching of Hitler’s ‘Operation Barbarossa’ in June 1941.’

So there it is; a whole card deck of not especially far-fetched counterfactual histories of the 1940s, of several different Second World Wars and outcomes, all to be traced to what might have happened if Stalin had not had the ruthless but capable Zhukov available to deal with the Japanese in the spring of 1939.

Neil Cameron