The symphony of government

A good government in operation is like a symphony: disparate parts, dozens of different instruments and performers, each in their own space and place, all working together under the benign management of a conductor. When working in harmony, they are a delight to hear and see. There’s no “me” in a symphony: it’s the result of a remarkably efficient collaboration and trust of everyone involved.

To be good, to sound good, they all have to watch the baton, to play and move in syncopation and in harmony. They all need to be tuned to the same pitch (A440). Singers need to listen to the cadence, the pitch, and sing in tune and on time. There’s a lot going on in every bar, so they all pay attention. They all need an implicit trust in one another that – without each one having to oversee his or her neighbour – they all work together to achieve a common goal. It is a remarkable experience.

But a symphony is not simply an auditory experience: it’s something to be seen, to be felt, to be experienced. That is quadrupled if it is an opera, or choral piece. In the video above, the metaphor shines: here is Verdi’s familiar Anvil Chorus from his opera, Il trovatore, performed by the The Royal Opera Company. It’s a stunning production that looks as lovely as it sounds. Who can help but be moved by it?

That’s what good, effective and efficient government should be like: hundreds of pieces moving together towards a common goal under a single conductor. A symphony, metaphorically speaking.

Life coach Michael Hyatt has a blog post on why life is like an orchestra, but it applies to government as well. He says there are five components to an orchestra:

  1. Diversity;
  2. Space;
  3. Pace;
  4. Common purpose;
  5. A plan.

Ultimately an orchestra is judged by its results: the musical performance, and for that performance to achieve its goal (that is: audience appreciation), all those parts have to be in synch. Most of the audience pay little attention to the individual performers, to the space or diversity or the parts listed above: it’s the music that they attend to. It’s the final result that matters.

This is equally true of government: most people pay little attention to the processes, the procedures, the codes of conduct, the staff reports, the flatulent ruminations of sole-sourced lawyers or the dreary pontifications of CAOs. They see only the result: whether the community is working well. Is it safe? Clean? Are there places to work and play? Schools? Are taxes affordable? Are sidewalks and roads in good condition? Can I drink the water from my tap? Is there housing? Are there jobs?

Imagine for a moment the conductor in the performance above waving his or her hands randomly. Imagine different parts of the orchestra trying to play different songs. Imagine the performers striking the anvils at will, each on his or her own time. Imagine the instruments playing at different time signatures. Or different sheet music entirely. It wouldn’t be a symphony: it would be a cacophony.

Such is the state of Collingwood’s municipal politics today. While council should be the collective conductor acting through the mayor, we instead have multiple conductors, each trying to force the orchestra (staff) to play their own tune. While Mayor Cooper tries to wave the town baton in time with the municipal music, the deputy mayor has gone rogue, madly waving his own baton to a tune only he can hear, while behind him the interim CAO props up Brian’s arms to control the motions according to his own corner-office theme song. And there are sole-sourced lawyers and consultants brought in to wave their batons at the same time. It’s chaos.

Ruling a great country is like cooking a small fish.
Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching, verse 60.

This is also translated as an imperative: “Rule a big country as you would fry a small fish.” (Lin Yutang translation). In other words: delicately. With subtlety and attention. Carefully. Not the hamfisted stumbling and fumbling of The Block. Not with the flailing clumsiness of the deputy mayor and interim CAO duo.
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The Dude, the Tao and the Dharma

The DudeI suppose it all began with Benjamin Hoff. Hoff was one of the first contemporary writers to attempt to distill Taoism in a lighthearted form for Westerners when he wrote The Tao of Pooh in 1981, a very successful book still in print. It was on the New York Times bestseller list for 49 weeks. A decade later, he followed with The Te of Piglet, less successful (its message somewhat diluted by Hoff’s extraneous political and social commentary) but also still in print.

Not that Hoff was the first Westerner to attempt to explain Asian philosophy and religion. That goes back to Marco Polo. However, it really got a head of steam in the late 19th century when there was a flurry of translations of almost all of the Asian classics, from the Vedas to Zen stories. A lot of these translations are still in print, although newer, better ones are available. And in the 1950s and 60s came a second wave, first as the beatniks, then the hippies adopted some of these beliefs. Sometimes even seriously and sincerely.

But not everyone was Jack Kerouac. Most of these books were serious stuff: the work of scholars and translators determined to open the intellectual doors for Western minds. Similar efforts were undertaken to Anglicize Greek, Roman, Hebrew, Sumerian and other classics. It was an intellectual exercise, which often only confounded the average worker.

In 1971, Be Here Now, a seminal work by Baba Ram Dass (aka Richard Alpert) presented the ideas of Asian philosophy in a graphically entertaining manner (it’s still in print). It did a remarkably good job of clarifying and distilling a lot of ideas and practices. However, it was still stuffier than Hoff in its presentation of those ideas.

Hoff made it fun, made it easy to read. He disarmed readers by explaining everything in comments and discussions by the lovable A. A. Milne characters, and who can’t love a cuddly teddy bear discussing the meaning of life with a stuffed toy pig? The dialogues went like this:

Rabbit’s clever,” said Pooh thoughtfully.
“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit’s clever.”
“And he has Brain.”
“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit has Brain.”
There was a long silence.
“I suppose,” said Pooh, “That that’s why he never understands anything.”

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Thrasymachus and The Block

ThrasymachusThere’s a character in Plato’s Republic called Thrasymachus who acts as a foil to Socrates by presenting a series of comments and arguments the old philosopher has to debate and counter. He (Thrasymachus) is based on an actual historical figure, a Sophist from the fifth century BCE. It’s unknown if the views Plato has him voice are those of the real person, or simply a literary device to advance Socrates’ (and thus Plato’s) arguments.

Of late, I’ve been reading Alan Bloom’s translation of The Republic. At the same time, I’m listening to the Great Courses 36-lecture series on Why Evil Exists, in which Thrasymachus is discussed (in only one of the lectures so far, mind you). He seemed very familiar to me, perhaps a stereotype of people we know of locally.

Thrasymachus seems to me like he would make the perfect member of The Block on Collingwood Council. His rigid views, his refusal to be swayed by reason, his disdain for others who have different ideas – at least as Plato describes them – are remarkably similar to those held by The Block. Or at least by its leader, since most of the rest are merely meat puppets with no real thoughts of their own. Thrasymachus states:

Listen, then. I say justice is nothing other than what is advantageous for the stronger.

The basic argument Plato has him make is against Socrates’ assertion that justice is important in a society, that justice is served for the greater good. Thrasymachus, in Book I, counters by saying justice is nothing more than the advantage of the strong over the weak. What’s good for those in power equals justice. In other words: might makes right.

…in all states there is the same principle of justice, which is the interest of the government; and as the government must be supposed to have power, the only reasonable conclusion is, that everywhere there is one principle of justice, which is the interest of the stronger.

Which is exactly how The Block govern. They have the might (a majority of seven out of nine council members), so they vote in rigid lockstep to accomplish subversive goals and further their private agendas regardless of the impact on the public, on residents, on taxpayers. Regardless of whether what they do is actually the right thing for the community. Their concept of right is simply what is good for them. They don’t care a whit for justice unless it empowers or entitles them. Might even allows them to continue to pursue personal vendettas at the public expense. Great expense, too.
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The strange life of Bobby Fischer

Bobby FischerForty five years ago this month, a momentous event took place in Iceland that shook the world. After 21 games spread over almost two months, the eccentric American chess master, Bobby Fischer, ended 24 years of Soviet dominance in chess after beating Soviet grandmaster, Boris Spassky. It shook the world at the apex of the Cold War. I watched it unfold, a memory I will always  carry.

Many years later, former Russian grandmaster, Garry Kasparov, commented,

…in the Soviet Union, chess was treated by the Soviet authorities as a very important and useful ideological tool to demonstrate the intellectual superiority of the Soviet communist regime over the decadent West. That’s why the Spassky defeat […] was treated by people on both sides of the Atlantic as a crushing moment in the midst of the Cold War.

Back in those days, I played chess with more enthusiasm, skill and grace than I can muster today. Bobby Fischer was one of my early chess idols whose games I followed (I still have books of his games on my shelves). I remember very clearly that year when he was playing Boris Spassky in Iceland. 

I was working in a bookstore in Toronto back then, in that summer of 1972. Every day after a game had been played, I would go out at lunch and get a newspaper. With my chess-playing co-workers, we would go over the match move by move. Try variants, explore alternatives, discuss the results. And look in awe at what masterpieces he wrought on the chessboard.

It wasn’t just the game or the skill of the moves that fascinated me (not all of those games are great, I admit). It was the sudden appearance of chess in the forefront of Cold War geopolitics and the larger implications of the match on the world stage. If you didn’t live through the era, it’s hard to explain how the Cold War affected international and domestic politics, or how a chess match could be the fulcrum of boisterous nationalism on both sides of the divide.

But in the summer of 1972, chess was newsworthy, gaining front page status, and time on the evening TV broadcasts. Chess was cool, chess was sexy, chess was in – not just for me, but for all of pop culture. Chess sets sold faster than they could be stocked. And 29-year-old Bobby Fischer was its golden boy. 

Last week, I started reading Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall, by Frank Brady. It is the most comprehensive biography of Fischer yet and reminds me somewhat of Walter Isaacson’s bio of Steve Jobs: both subjects were troubled, difficult but brilliant men. Both ran off the rails, but Jobs always managed to get back. Fischer never did. It’s a heart-rending, troubling, but fascinating story.

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Assholes part two: Trump and his local mimics

Asshole: A Theory of Donald TrumpBack in 2014 I reviewed a book by philosophy professor Aaron James called Assholes. A Theory. I discussed how his study related to politics and politicians, particularly those who call themselves “A-type” personalities (including one or two on the local council).

Well James wrote another book, really an addendum to this one, titled Assholes. A Theory of Donald Trump. It was smaller than your average paperback, and a mere 130 pages, perhaps 20,000 words long. And since it came out just before the 2016 presidential election, it really doesn’t deal with the startling number of asshole things – the many, many asshole things – Trump has done since then. Perhaps that might come in a sequel. A much larger, longer sequel. A multi-volume work it would have to be, to really do him justice.

I picked the book up this weekend during my visit to Toronto, and read it cover to cover. Sure, it’s a bit dated but it still has meaning in today’s politics. And it relates to our own local council even more than the first book. (Check out the author’s website, too.)

James didn’t merely pen a screed against Trump. That’s been done, is still being done by savvy media and political commentators worldwide. Trump is an easy target for so many reasons, not least of all because he lies often and aggressively and is both ignorant and a clown. Nothing you don’t already know about him. Nothing the whole world doesn’t know about him.

No, this is much deeper than a single asshole, even one that big and that pompous. It – like his earlier book – is reflective of a whole culture of the ignorati that has risen worldwide. Trump is merely the most visible icon of darkness as the intellectual lights go out.

James examines a trend in politics that has seen the rise to dominance of similar assholes in numerous nations. And along with the asshole in charge comes a parallel government and bureaucracy that sees the ignorati, the illiterati, and the anti-intellectuals elevated to power. As we see in the USA, bigoted, theocratic, right-wing dictatorships and oligarchies are emerging in what were once democratic nations. More and more of them are looking and acting more and more like North Korea or Iran these days.
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