Montaigne and The Block

MontaigneI do love reading Michel de Montaigne.  And writing about him. In 2014 alone, I wrote ten separate posts about him and his famous book, Essays. But since then, my reading habits moved on to other writers and topics. I hadn’t actually been reading Montaigne in the past few years, but recently while sorting some of my books, I found him again. I started re-reading the Essays last week (and reading his travel journal, included in the Everyman edition – Frame translation, which I had not read previously).

He is such an inspiration at times. Witty, observant, genteel, curious, passionate, learned, and wise. And seemingly prescient, too.

Consider this, from Chapter 27, Book I (M.A. Screech trans):

It is not perhaps without good reason that we attribute to simplemindedness a readiness to believe anything and to ignorance the readiness to be convinced…

Consider when you read this today’s “alternate facts” being spread online, and con artists like Alex Jones, David Avocado Wolfe, the Food Babe and Gwenyth Paltrow who make their living by lying and scamming the gullible. Consider US President Donald Trump, who seems incapable of telling even simple truths, yet managed to fool millions into electing him – who still are fooled by him after his deceptions have been revealed over and over. 

Consider the anti-vaccination, anti-GMO, anti-fluoride, anti-climate change movements. Consider the people who believe in chemtrails, bigfoot, UFO abductions, angels, New Age magic, Niburu and pyramids in the Antarctic. Consider televangelists like Joel Osteen who prey on their flocks and make themselves millionaires off the backs of the weak and hard of thinking.

Consider, too, The Block on our own Collingwood Council falling for all the bizarre, paranoid conspiracy theories about the hospital, Collus-PowerStream, and the share sale. Simple minds, all. Montaigne continues:

…belief is like an impression stamped on our soul; he softer and less resisting the soul, the easier it is to print anything on it… The more empty a soul is and the less furnished with counterweights, the more easily its balance will be swayed under the force of its first convictions.

Substitute soul for mind if you, like me, don’t believe in them. How soft and unresisting the minds of The Block when the administration or Brian feeds them patent nonsense. And they believed, wholeheartedly and unreservedly, in every wild and wacky idea from day one. They still do.

Montaigne really had their number, eh? Pretty remarkable for a guy writing more than 440 years ago and half a world away. But Montaigne had no stomach for fools. Three centuries later Henry David Thoreau warned,

No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof. What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true today may turn out to be falsehood tomorrow, mere smoke of opinion… (Walden, Ch. 1)

Yet The Block have continued blind faith in their paranoid conspiracy theories even without the suggestion of a hint of a shred of proof. Nothing will sway their pure, unquestioning faith in either Brian or the interim CAO. Like Trump’s fanatic fans, they cannot be dissuaded from their beliefs by reason or truth. They are the True Believers, foot soldiers who march into battle never questioning their orders (a la Eric Fromm’s classic work).

Donald Frame translates Montaigne as continuing:

The novelty of things incites us more than their greatness to seek their causes.

By which he means people are easily distracted by baubles, by glitter, by bling, and seldom look beyond to uncover the truth behind the glitter. Again, just like The Block: they never once attempted to verify a single claim, or uncover actual facts about them. Actually, they have consistently done the opposite: avoided or prevented every opportunity for truth and facts to be made public. I’ve written about this before, many times. It’s all part of a deeply embedded culture of secrecy in town hall.

In Chapter 10, Book III, he writes,

Just watch people who have been conditioned to let themselves be enraptured and carried away… They become involved indiscriminately wherever there is a task and obligations…

Well, Collingwood Council watchers get to see The Block enraptured with themselves every meeting, drunk on power and indiscriminately handing out sole-source contracts like party favours. Simply because the administration tells them to. No questions asked, even by those who remain awake at the table.

It is a dangerous and fateful presumption, besides the absurd temerity that it implies, to disdain what we do not comprehend. (Chap. 27, Book I, Frame trans.)

Disdain is a regular affliction among The Block. They did not comprehend the efficient working relationship between our electrical and water utilities, so they disdained – and ended – it. At greater expense to the taxpayers, too. They didn’t understand the airport development, the water pipeline, the hospital redevelopment, the sale of the share of Collus, the new recreational facilities, the code of conduct, the Municipal Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, dividends, conflict of interest, ethics, openness and transparency – so many things they disdained.

In C.10 B.III, Montaigne also writes of his father, who was asked to be the mayor of Bordeaux (as was Montaigne himself, many years later),

He had heard it said that we must forget ourselves for our neighbour, and that the individual was not to be considered at all in comparison with the general.

In other words, before his father (and in his turn, Montaigne) took the job, he understood that it entailed elevating the greater good over his own selfish wants and needs. There was no place for a personal agenda in municipal politics. Montaigne said of his father, “…there was never a more kindly and public-spirited soul.”

How very unlike Saunderson’s Block. In our council, personal agendas and private vendettas have dominated the time at the table. The greater good has no place because The Block have no public spirit. They raised our taxes three times in order to pay themselves more each time. They voted Councillor Jeffrey an unlimited expense account to fly around the country pursuing her personal political goals (yes: unlimited expenses, with no oversight or need to justify them).

But what have they done for the rest of the community? For the greater good? Nothing, of course. They ruined the town’s reputation, ruined our relationships with our municipal neighbours and partners, they alienated the hospital, destroyed staff morale, incurred enormous new expenses and hired unnecessary staff, delayed an airport development with hundreds of jobs, and created a rift with the Ministry of Health – all to serve their personal agendas.

The brave public spirit of Mayor Cooper and Councillor Lloyd are no match for the power of the selfishness and the unrelenting nastiness of The Block.

In this chapter, Montaigne also makes a salient point that relates well to all those sole-sourced consultants and lawyers the interim CAO has spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on:

For it is not new for the sages to preach things as they serve, not as they are.

Screech translates sages as “clever men,” but the meaning is the same: these people tell you what you pay them to say and their advice is as valuable as the ink and paper wasted to print it. As the old saw goes, a consultant is someone who borrows your watch to tell you the time. And a lawyer is someone who keeps the watch. They’ve been bought to reinforce the administration’s preconceptions, and reinforce the conspiracy theories, nothing more.

There is one quotation in Ch.10 in which The Block align perfectly with Montaigne. It involves his municipal administration:

I am accused of doing nothing when almost everyone else was guilty of doing too much! (trans. Saul Frampton)

The public continues to compare the many, community-minded accomplishments of the last council with the utter lack of them in this term.

I could go on, picking up lines to quote and comment on, but I will stop for now. My point, I think has been made here and in previous posts: authors have been writing about politics, about human behaviour, about morality and ethics and responsibility since writing was first invented. Little good it has done us, in no small part because The Block Don’t Read. And even if they did, their ideology doesn’t allow them to accept anything that contradicts or informs them otherwise. Facts have as little place in their ideology as ethics or the greater good.

But some of you, dear readers, are considering running for council next election (I already know a half dozen who have made this claim). For all our sakes, I encourage you to read about politics, ethics, laws, morality, responsibility and, yes, philosophy. There is always something to be learned by those – unlike The Block – with an open mind.

I hope you will also choose – because it’s always a choice how we act – to put the community first in all your decisions. To break the culture of secrecy and be open, honest, transparent and engage the public. To ask questions, to use reason and to assess all options and get facts before deciding. What a difference that would be from this term.

Collingwood deserves better and you have a chance to be helps us get it back.

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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