04/20/12

Horwath needs to read her Machiavelli


Andrea HorwathAndrea Horwath needs to do some more reading before she decides to negotiate further with Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty. Specifically, she needs to read more Machiavelli. The Prince, in particular.

This week the Globe & Mail reported that Horwath announced that, “…NDP Leader Andrea Horwath (is) now abandoning another major proposal in return for her party’s support of the governing Liberals’ budget, it will be easier for the two sides to strike a deal.”

Her “proposal” – actually a demand in exchange for the NDP’s support of the Liberal budget – was to remove the provincial portion of the harmonized sales tax from home heating bills. Her plan would have given tax relief to millions of Ontario homeowners.

Instead, she chose to drop that demand and decided to push for the government to tax the rich more.

Wrong, wrong, wrong strategy. The rich are few. The people are many. Horwath has not read her Machiavelli otherwise she would have chosen differently. She chose to abandon her strength (the people) while attacking those few (the rich) who are not her supporters anyway. Bad choice. Start the countdown to the NDP leadership review…

In Chapter IX of The Prince, Machiavelli wrote what Horwath should be reading:

“…a prince can never protect himself from a hostile people, because there are too many of them. But he can secure himself from the nobles, as they are few in number.”

McGuinty will balk, because the Liberal party (as well as the Conservative party) get much of their financial support from the upper-middle to upper class. The NDP, however, get their financial backing from unions, and working class families, who are the majority of voters. The working class families will be hurt by the HST on fuel bills, but not helped at all by the tax on the rich.

McGuinty doesn’t want to tax the rich, probably because he HAS read Machiavelli, who wrote:

“The worst that a prince may expect from a hostile people is to be abandoned by them; but from hostile nobles he has not only to fear abandonment, but also that they will rise against him. The nobles have more foresight and cunning. They always act in time to save themselves, and to seek favours from him whom they expect to win.”

Working poorEven if the rich are taxed more, they won’t care because it’s a temporary annoyance. The NDP will never get into power, so the rich will back the party that promises to repeal those extra taxes next election – and odds are McGuinty will promise that next campaign if he is forced to concede that demand to Horwarth to save his rule.

McGuinty surely realizes that the worst he can lose is an election. But if he saves his backers, he will still have a chance to rise again with their funding. Horwath doesn’t get it. Pushing for a new tax bracket for the super rich doesn’t matter to the public except as a token gesture. It doesn’t help the average homeowner, the working stiff, the seniors and those people struggling on a small fixed income.

The NDP had the power to gain a significant concession from the minority Liberals and bend the budget to their alleged goals as the party of the working class. Plus a chance to win huge accolades and public affection. Instead, Horwath dropped the ball and has left the Liberals to continue to pummel working class taxpayers.

Damn. Who will stand up for us now the NDP have betrayed the working class? My recommendation for NDP supporters: deduct the amount of the provincial portion of the HST on your home heating bills from any future donation you make to the party. That will send an unmistakeable message to the NDP’s leaders who chose to pursue this strategy.

04/14/12

Psychiatric help would be better than exorcism


The ExorcistThe headline reads, “Exorcist Expertise Sought After Saskatoon ‘Possession’” At least the editors of the CBC News story had the good sense to put the word possession in quotes to indicate it is alleged, not a fact. As did the Toronto Star.

However, both news agencies took the story seriously enough to write it up. And then it got picked up by the Huffington Post. Must have been a slow news day (surely there was something about the F35 or robocalls to fill the space…)

Like ghosts, spirits, pixies, goblins and other imaginary beings, demons are figments of our own minds. If people believe they are real and controlling their actions, then they need medical and psychiatric help.

As the Catholic Encyclopedia describes exorcism:

Exorcism is (1) the act of driving out, or warding off, demons, or evil spirits, from persons, places, or things, which are believed to be possessed or infested by them, or are liable to become victims or instruments of their malice; (2) the means employed for this purpose, especially the solemn and authoritative adjuration of the demon, in the name of God, or any of the higher power in which he is subject.
…exorcism is a strictly religious act or rite. But in ethnic religions… exorcism as an act of religion is largely replaced by the use of mere magical and superstitious means, to which non-Catholic writers at the present day sometimes quite unfairly assimilate Christian exorcism. Superstition ought not to be confounded with religion, however much their history may be interwoven, nor magic, however white it may be, with a legitimate religious rite.

I find it a bit disingenuous to suggest that everyone else’s exorcism is superstitious bunk, but their is legitimate. Outsiders may not see much difference between them. I see this statement as circular reasoning: “…the conclusion of an argument is assumed implicitly or explicitly in one of the premises.”

Sure, an exorcism may have a placebo effect. But like “faith healing” the effect is usually temporary and not a cure. A lot of con artists like this one prey on gullible people by pretending to cure them this way, usually bilking them of considerable cash along the way.

Placebo effects work because people have faith in them, which means that the placebo is as much a part of the problem as the solution. In other words, you can’t get help from an exorcism unless you believe in demons, hell, and all the trappings of the religion in the first place. An atheist cannot be possessed by something he or she does not believe in, any more than a conservative can be possessed by socialism.

The placebo effect itself is problematic. Most studies that have examined it are inconclusive because they begin with the assumption that the placebo itself effected a cure, and other potential causes are ignored. These are “false impressions of placebo effects.” More recent studies have also found “little evidence in general that placebos had powerful clinical effects.” The effect is, at best, inconclusive.

Things like natural regression of a disease, or the “natural history of a disease (that is, the tendency for people to get better or worse during the course of an illness irrespective of any treatment at all)” are overlooked in many studies.

The preconception of a result plays a big part in both placebo and medicine, which is how “faith healers,” palm readers, homeopathists, psychics, crystal “therapists” and other New Age wingnuts manage to con people.

One study of the effect of Prozac concluded that “…the expectation of improvement, not adjustments in brain chemistry, accounted for 75 percent of the drugs’ effectiveness.”

Thus if someone believes he or she is possessed, then he or she will also believe that an exorcism will be a cure because the two are emotionally and psychologically linked in the user in same casual relationship as a painkiller is with pain.

As noted in the Skeptics’ Dictionary article:

A person’s beliefs and hopes about a treatment, combined with their suggestibility, may have a significant biochemical effect, however. Sensory experience and thoughts can affect neurochemistry. The body’s neurochemical system affects and is affected by other biochemical systems, including the hormonal and immune systems. Thus, it is consistent with current knowledge that a person’s hopeful attitude and beliefs may be very important to their physical well-being and recovery from injury or illness. But it does not follow from this fact that if the patient has hope will she recover. Nor does it follow from this fact that if a person is not hopeful she will not recover.

There’s an ethical question here, too. Is it ethical for a doctor to deliberately deceive patients by providing a placebo? If a priest has any doubts about the actuality of demons or possession, is it ethical to perform a medieval ritual as a cure for mental disorders?

I was somewhat mollified to read that the whole thing isn’t just a Hollywood-style exercise in spectacle and ritual, but rather the church has a more cautious approach. Apparently a commission has to first determine “…whether there’s some kind of psychological or psychiatric explanation to a situation.” The commission’ however, remains “open to the possibility of demonic possession.”

Anglican priest Colin Clay told the CBC that “…the topic of exorcism touches on questions that go back centuries. The issues revolve around the nature of evil and how to respond to people who claim they have the devil in them.”

Evil as an external force rather than an internal one is, for me anyway, very problematic. It requires some outside agency to establish what is evil, which therefore implies an outside agency also establishes what is good. And that suggests some absolute good and evil, rather than a situational one: good and evil are not based on our own actions or value judgments, or measured by the circumstances but rather by what an outside force has established a priori to the act.

Let me provide an example. Is is evil to kill a child? Most people would say yes, of course. But is that always true? What if that child is in a hospital full of other children and strapped with enough C4 to kill hundreds of people? Is it evil NOT to kill that child before it pushes the trigger and kills many more people? Are both acts inherently evil? Or is one heroic?

As Machiavelli wrote in The Prince, you need to learn to be good or bad depending on the necessity of the circumstances. Good and evil are not simply the creation of external agencies, they are choices we make according to the situation. This has been explored in many great works of literature – Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (when is it right to kill a tyrant?), Les Miserables (is it right to steal to feed starving children?) come to mind.

No one in the article ever seems to ask what the circumstances are that would cause someone to believe in possession so deeply that he acted it out. Let’s face it: if he had not been inculcated with the belief in demons and possession before hand, he would not need an exorcism. The cure is part of the problem.

Clay said some churches will say, “Well that’s the devil, and the devil is at work in the world and we’ve got to deal with it,” while others would say “there’s certainly evil in the world, whether there’s an actual Satan or devil, there’s certainly evil in the world, and it has a terrible effect on people’s lives,’ and so we’ve got to respond to it.”

Yes, by all means respond, if that response is part of a larger program that includes psychiatric and medical help, counselling and observation. If the placebo effect will help the patient, then use it, but not by itself. No “faith healer” has ever cured a broken bone or cancer – it still needs medical treatment and monitoring. By itself, I see exorcism as unethical and deceptive.

04/10/12

This time it’s a Machiavellian mis-quote.


Machiavelli, The Prince, Ch. XVWhilst perusing the Net for some material for my book on Machiavelli, I came across this maxim: “Never attempt to win by force what can be won by deception.”

It’s attributed on many, many sites to Machiavelli in his most famous work, The Prince.

Sounds pretty Machiavellian, doesn’t it? Well, it isn’t. Machiavelli never wrote those words.

Sun Tzu wrote that, “All warfare is based on deception.” (Book 1, 18), which is close. Sun Tzu went on to add in the next two lines (19 and 20),

“Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.
“Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him.”

In The Art of War, Book 4, Machiavelli wrote, “It may also be well to do with cunning that which happened to Fabius Maximus at home,” which follows with the example of Fabius’ cunning use of cavalry to beguile an enemy encampment.

And in Book 7, he wrote, “Those who are besieged must also guard themselves from the deceit and cunning of the enemy, and, therefore, the besieged should not trust anything which they see the enemy doing continuously, but always believe they are being done by deceit, and can change to injure them.”

Neither quote is close to the one at the top.

In his History of Florence, Machiavelli wrote, “If you watch the ways of men you will see that those who obtain great wealth and power do so either by force or fraud, and having got them they conceal under some honest name the foulness of their deeds.” Close, but still no cigar.

In The Prince, Ch. 18, he wrote, “Nevertheless our experience has been that those princes who have done great things have held good faith of little account, and have known how to circumvent the intellect of men by craft, and in the end have overcome those who have relied on their word.” Cunning is not used here as a counterpoint to force. I was sure Machiavelli never penned those words in The Prince.

In The Discourses, BK. II, Ch. 32, Machiavelli even described how deception was problematic when trying to capture a town:

“The capture of towns by stratagem combined with force is effected, as by the Romans at Palæopolis, through a secret understanding with some within the walls. Many attempts of this sort have been made, both by the Romans and by others, but few successfully, because the least hindrance disarranges the plan of action, and because such hindrances are very likely to occur.
“For either the plot is discovered before it can be carried out, as it readily may, whether from treachery on the part of those to whom it has been communicated, or from the difficulties which attend its inception, the preliminary arrangements having to be made with the enemy and with persons with whom it is not permitted, save under some pretext or other, to hold intercourse; or if it be not discovered while it is being contrived, a thousand difficulties will still be met with in its execution.”

Nowhere in any of the various translations I have does the phrase “Never to attempt to win by force what can be won by deception” appear.

In Book III, Chap. XL, titled “That Fraud is Fair in War,” Machiavelli writes,

“Although in all other affairs it be hateful to use fraud, in the operations of war it is praiseworthy and glorious; so that he who gets the better of his enemy by fraud, is as much extolled as he who prevails by force.”

And in Book II, Chapter XIII, titled, “That Men rise from humble to high Fortunes rather by Fraud than by Force:”

“We see, therefore, that the Romans, from the time they first began to extend their power, were not unfamiliar with the art of deceiving, an art always necessary for those who would mount to great heights from low beginnings; and which is the less to be condemned when, as in the case of the Romans, it is skilfully concealed.”

Which is the closest that I can come to that saying.

I’ve searched both online and through my printed copies of The Prince, Discourses and Art of War for the exact phrase. Nada.

It might be a from a translation of a work I don’t own (and I own many), but if so I would be hard pressed to figure where it should be found. Chapter XVIII of The Prince, is the only possibility I can imagine, but then it would change the message of the entire chapter. It doesn’t fit, at least as I read Machiavelli.

I believe it can be traced back to a 1982 article on disinformation by Edward Jay Epstein, in which he paraphrases Machiavelli but does not identify any source for the comment. In an email to me this week, Epstein himself suggested it may have been a paraphrase. And I suggest it comes as a paraphrase from The Discourses, not The Prince.

I chalk it up as another of the thousands of bad mis-quotes floating around online.

04/8/12

Machiavelli in popular art: Don MacDonald’s graphic novel


Don MacDonaldA graphic novel about Niccolo Machiavelli… who woulda thought? It’s not like the Florentine was exactly the X Men or Mr. Natural as a comic book hero.

Artist Don MacDonald has put together a graphic biography of Machiavelli on his blog, stretching more than 150 pages (so far) ranging through the entire span of Niccolo’s life.

He even includes footnotes for some of the historical material he has drawn on, with sources listed. It does help to read his notes, and even more to have some familiarity of Machiavelli’s life. But even without it, it’s captivating.

Well, of course I find Machiavelli fascinating because I’m a politician and a student of political theory. besides, I’m almost 40,000 words into my book on Machiavelli for municipal politicians. But even without that interest, the period also intrigues me – it’s the time of Henry VIII and one of the most fascinating periods of English history. I’ve always been fascinated by the Tudors.

You really need to start reading Don’s tale from the beginning to appreciate the depths of his work.

I have only one complaint: it’s difficult to go to a specific page to pick up where you left off. So bookmark your last page, then start again from there. I’m looking forward to getting a printed or PDF copy of his complete work so I can read it offline at my leisure.

PS. There are also some posters of Machiavelli’s quotes on the site. I have a couple of Machiavelli’s quotes I might suggest to him as well…

03/26/12

Scribble, scribble, eh what?


Typing cartoonJust passed the 13,000 word mark on my current book about Machiavelli and municipal politics, this weekend. So far, I have gone through explanations of Chapters 1-10 of The Prince. The Prince has 26 chapters, so I’m about 40% of the way through my analysis, more or less on track for a 35,000-40,000 word book.

It’s a little tough in places trying to fit Machiavelli’s words and ideas to modern issues and themes, but so far I think I’ve done a fair job of finding relevant metaphors, issues and events. The next chapter, on ecclesiastical states, might be a bit of a stretch, since their relevance today is minimal, so I suspect I’ll need to conflate a couple of chapters here.

It’s a little tough in places trying to fit Machiavelli’s words and ideas to modern issues and themes.

I hope to have the core material written over the next two weeks.I’m working with several translations of The Prince, but the core material I’m quoting comes from the public domain Marriott translation. It’s a bit of a stodgy version and isn’t broken into paragraphs for easy reading. Fortunately for me, I have a print version that is, so it’s a bit easier to find material and to read.

Once the basic overview of The Prince is complete, I’ll bring in selections from The Discourses to bolster my arguments, as well as throwing in some quotes from Sun Tzu, Han Fei Tzu and one of my favourite books on leadership – Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power. Then I’ll try to add a few examples from Canadian municipal politics to it. Toronto these days seems to have a wealth of stories.

I want this to be about the same size as my last two books, so I have to try to focus and not be too long-winded.

One of the books I’ve been reading recently while doing this is Maurizio Viroli’s Niccolo’s Smile, an excellent and highly entertaining biography of Machiavelli. Understanding the events that shaped his life makes it easier to understand Machiavelli’s political theories.

I’ve also been reading books and online essays/articles about Machiavelli’s political theories, ethics, and morals. Some have been a bit densely pedantic (is that an oxymoron?), but others have given me some material to consider.

Well, back to work… 1,000 words a day is my minimum target and the day’s not getting longer.

03/20/12

Is Machiavelli relevant to today’s municipal politicians?


Niccolo MachiavelliAre the political theories of a 16th-century Italian diplomat relevant to today’s municipal politics? Yes, assuming you know and have read his works, not just the bumper-sticker over-simplification that says, “The end justifies the means.”

Actually, Machiavelli never wrote those words. That’s a modern condensation. It’s also an erroneous paraphrase of what he wrote in The Prince, because it overlooks a lot of his comments on the effect of some types of behaviour on the honour and reputation of the ruler. Machiavelli stressed the cause and effect of a ruler’s actions on his power, his honour and his reputation. He had little interest in rulers who abused their power.

Machiavelli did not advocate cruelty or violence towards subjects, and was highly critical of rulers who abused their power. He argued that mistreatment of people would not win loyalty, trust, or obedience. But, he said, expedient methods could be justifiable if there are clear and measurable benefits from those acts.

Machiavelli today is also known from the adjective “Machiavellian,” which suggests something evil, underhanded, and sneaky in politics. But that, too is a false impression.

Shortly after its publication, both the Catholic and Protestant churches condemned The Prince. It was even banned in Elizabethan England and the Pope placed it on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (List of Banned Books) in 1559. The churches believed Machiavelli’s works fostered political and moral corruption because presented politics outside the church’s control and influence. Machiavelli did not believe in the divine nature of power, and this challenged the churches’ authority. Hence the demonization, and the attribution of duplicity to the term “Machiavellian.”

Many people recognize that he wrote Il Principe, (in English: “The Prince,”) but few municipal politicians can lay claim to actually having read it. More’s the pity because it has a lot of lessons for today’s politicians.

In Canada’s municipal landscapes, all municipalities are like Machiavelli’s principalities: they are ruled by a hierarchy that is similar to that of medieval nobility, with the mayor at the top and the nobility squabbling of their portion of the power below. The mayor plays the role of Machiavelli’s ruler of Florence: a strong state trying to control the client states, some of whom are allies, others are resentful and want their independence. Uppity or subservient… doesn’t that sound like many on today’s municipal councils?

Machiavelli wrote, “…the hereditary prince has less cause and less necessity to offend; hence it happens that he will be more loved; and unless extraordinary vices cause him to be hated, it is reasonable to expect that his subjects will be naturally well disposed towards him; and in the antiquity and duration of his rule the memories and motives that make for change are lost, for one change always leaves the toothing for another.”

In Canada’s municipal landscapes, all municipalities are like Machiavelli’s principalities: they are ruled by a hierarchy that is similar to that of medieval nobility.

Sounds a lot like political incumbents, doesn’t it? One estimate suggests incumbents have a 40 percent better chance of getting re-elected than newcomers have of getting elected. Every one of us knows of incumbents who stay in office from inertia, rather than by great acts or by taking brave and principled stands. But Machiavelli warned against complacency and stresses the need to win the public’s love and gratitude. Never take the electorate for granted is a subtext message in The Prince.

Machiavelli’s principalities – indeed most of the nations of Europe – were in constant conflict, often open warfare with one another. Aren’t today’s municipalities also in conflict with one another? Not through armies and war, of course. We’re more subtle than that.

Sure municipalities have regional agreements, share some resources, and cooperate where it is expedient to do so. But every municipality is competing for visitors, for growth, for provincial funding, for new industries and businesses, and for reputation. There isn’t a municipality in Canada that wouldn’t see its neighbours plowed into the ground if it meant the municipality was able to attract a major automobile plant.

Yes, I think Machiavelli has a lot of relevance for today’s municipal politicians. I have a new book in the making about this, so stay tuned.