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.

Too many cooks might be the motto of this council. The fish is ruined because too many people poke at it, spice it their own way. In the metaphor of the orchestra, there are too many people trying to conduct their own personal music at the same time as everyone else. But there is only one orchestra, only one audience. And the results – the performance the audience is watching and hearing – have been horrendous. Disharmonious. In opera, this term would be called tragicomic.

Harmony is one of the core themes in the Tao Te Ching, the classic 2,500-year-old work of Chinese philosophy. It’s sometimes vague, sometimes frustratingly confusing, sometimes obfuscatory in its short 81 verses, but it is also a guide for rulers, with a naturalistic theory of government and the relationship between ruler and ruled. Nothing similar about governing was published in the West until Machiavelli wrote The Prince (although, in China, there were other, competing works by sages like Confucius and Han Fei Tzu).

There are many translations of this little book (the Web Archive offers 112 in English alone!) and it is easily available in modern editions at any bookstore. Perhaps the most challenging thing is to sort through the various translations and interpretations – these can often seem to contradict those in other editions. *

Can you care for the people and rule the country and not be cunning?
Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching, verse 10

In part, the problem stems from the simple fact that The Block have no interest whatsoever in the welfare or wellbeing of the people who elected them. The residents served their purpose by electing The Block, and now have no role in the process. We have been shut out, not consulted, not engaged, not even informed this term. But The Block stumble ahead, intent on destroying everything in their path. They have lied to us consistently and continually this term as they pursue private agendas and personal vendettas. And, yes, they have been very cunning this term, those who managed to stay awake during the meetings.

For those who regard themselves as part of a greater whole,
Praise and blame no longer elicit unease.
Undivided from environment,
They care about the world as much as they care about themselves.
Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching, verse 13 (Oliver Benjamin trans.)

Considering themselves above the rest, better than the rest, entitled to more than the rest, The Block craft policies and pursue goals that benefit only them. Consider that their greatest public and intellectual achievement has been a bylaw to prohibit throwing birdseed on your deck or driveway. Otherwise they have shown no inclination to do anything for the community. They have far too big egos to think of anyone else.

…he who wants to rule the people,
Must act with the greatest humility.
He who intends to be the face of the populace,
Must be utterly self-effacing.
To lead, he must place his ego behind.
Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching, verse 66 (Benjamin trans.)

As Lao Tzu wrote in verse 57, “The more restrictions and prohibitions there are, the poorer the people will be.” The Block have put restrictions, roadblocks and prohibitions on our hospital, our airport, our electrical utility, staff, even on local developers trying to enhance our community. And, of course, they have burdened everyone with more unnecessary and oppressive taxes and user fees this term. They have made us all poorer. Except, of course, themselves: they raised their own salary three times.

There is no consideration for the consequences of their acts. They have broken faith with the public, with the hospital, with our neighbouring municipalities, with our own utilities, staff and businesses. And they have made no attempt to make amends for their numerous missteps and gaffes, but rather blame others for the problems The Block themselves have created.

Whereas he sage focuses on making amends,
The ignorant are concerned with assigning blame.
Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching, verse 79 (Oliver Benjamin, trans.)

This is also translated as:

Those with virtue go by the rules of the contract;
Those without virtue go by what they can get away with (William Scott Wilson, trans.)

Think of how The Block arbitrarily broke the contract with Collus-PowerStream, destroying the shared services agreement, breaking apart the partnership with our water utility that served us for 150 years, then hiring sole-sourced lawyers and consultants to spread dirt and conspiracy theories about the utilities, their staff, and the previous council. Think of how The Block arbitrarily broke the contract with Collus’ IT services, which provided efficient and cost-effective service to all departments at a fraction of the cost the new, separate IT service provides.

And think, too, how The Block has done almost everything in secret, plotting, scheming and conniving against us, against the public interest, behind closed doors. Is that ethical? Is that honest? Is that virtuous?

Lin Yutang translates these lines as: “The virtuous man is for patching up/The vicious is for fixing guilt.” One only need consider The Block’s and the administration’s transparent attempts to blame the hospital for the acerbic confrontations between the town and the hospital board, instead of taking responsibility to work out a collaborative solution. Instead, they hire high-priced, sole-sourced lawyers and consultants to attack the hospital and its volunteer board. DM Saunderson and Councillor Jeffrey went to Oakville hospital on a “secret” mission this month to try and uncover some dirt to use against our own hospital’s plans. They failed (because there was none to find, I’m told), but they will probably charge the costs to taxpayers in their expense claims because they are entitled.

As you know, collaboration is not in The Block’s vocabulary. But blame certainly is. For The Block, it’s always someone else’s fault. Who here is the vicious man that Lao Tzu describes?

Good leaders reach solutions, and then stop. They do not dare to rely on force.
Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching, verse 30

Sadly, force is the only language spoken by The Block. They bully, they demand, they break things, they hurt others. Like the partnership with our utility co-owner, PowerStream. Like the partnership with our hospital, or the relationships with our neighbouring municipalities. All of them damaged, reduced to tatters by a group insensitive to solutions, caring only about their own good or ideologies. The Block severely damaged staff morale at Collus and our water utility, so much so that several staff quit. But do they care? Not a whit.

The Block have no interest in solutions reached with others, only in what they dictate. But they mouth empty platitudes about “due diligence,” procedures and process. The deputy mayor calls for a report on tightening codes of conduct, fully aware that The Block have always ignored them. They love to play act the rules, but don’t like to actually follow them.

The rules of conduct
are just an outer show of devotion and loyalty –
quite confusing to the heart.
And when men rely on these rules for guidance –
Oh, what ignorance abounds.
Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching, verse 38 (Star, trans.)

To be fair, The Block are not interested in actual leadership, as one might define it in management or governance. Power, yes they care about that. Entitlement, of course they feel they deserve it. But they have shown no interest in leading. Can you think of a single, pro-active, positive thing The Block stand for, have championed or advocated for at the table? But they have given themselves a raise three times this term already, and granted Councillor Jeffrey an unlimited expense account to pursue personal political goals around the country – for no benefit to you – at your expense. Is that leadership? Or just greed?

The more you know, the less you understand.
Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching, verse 47

To the inquiring mind, this is clear: the more you attempt to know, the more study and examine and explore, the bigger the world appears, with more and more in it to learn about. You realize that your own knowledge is but a small part of what can be known. Wilson translates this as, “When you go out and travel further and further away,/ What you know for certain diminishes.”

This doesn’t mean you stop inquiring, just that you recognize that each discovery opens worlds upon worlds. Frontiers open in front of you. There is no end to learning for the inquiring mind. You keep going, you keep exploring.

The Block don’t have inquiring minds. They hate to read and learning is anathema to them. They came to the table already knowing everything and have steadfastly refused to even contemplate anything that could diminish their certainty that they – and only they – are right about everything. One of their first acts was to cancel their subscriptions to Canada’s leading municipal magazine, Municipal World – a source of knowledge, inspiration, commentary, new ideas and challenges to old thinking. The Block brook no challenges to their rigid ideology, hence no informative magazines are permitted that might question their faith. They took at face value consultants’ reports that were clearly flawed, incorrect and factually wrong. One report generated more than 100 pages of corrections and counterpoints – but this was not read by The Block. In fact, after several months being hidden by the administration, it was put in a single binder with a warning not to remove it from the council room, and then the council room was closed down and turned over to the IT services. It has since disappeared, unread, of course.

The Master has no mind of her own.
She works with the mind of the people.
She is good to people who ae good, she is good to people who aren’t good.
This is true goodness.
Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching, verse 49 (Stephen Mitchell trans.)

This is our mayor, Sandra Cooper. She has been dedicated to the public’s interest, to the good of the town, to the greater good, through her career in politics. She has suffered under the autocratic mayorship of Chris Carrier, and now labours to counter the scheming of Saunderson, his Blockheads and the interim CAO. Yet despite the nastiness, the whispered attacks, the negativity, she maintains her calm. She never stops working for the people who elected her. A refreshing change from The Block.

Wilson translates this as “The sage does not have an unchanging mind/He makes the mind of the people his own.” Lin Yutang ends this verse with, “The sage dwells in the world peacefully, harmoniously/The people of the world are brought into a community of heart/And the sage regards them all as (her) own children.” I can’t think of a better phrase to describe the way Mayor Cooper feels about the town, about how inclusive and engaging she is: a community of the heart.

She, in contrast to The Block, has a heart. She cares.

Heart and mind are both written as the Chinese character “hsin” (radical 61). The phrase here, “wu ch’ang hsin,” means an unprejudiced or impartial heart (or mind) which “enables one to perceive the ‘essence,’ the true nature of the universe.’ (Star, p. 195). It doesn’t mean uncaring or mindless. Those are the traits of the block, not the mayor.

(In his book, Tao Te Ching, the Definitive Edition, Jonathan Star translates these lines as, “The sage has no fixed heart of his own/Those who look at him see their own hearts.” That also strikes me as a good definition of Mayor Cooper: someone in whom we see our own hearts.)

When taxes are too high,
People go hungry.
When the government is too intrusive,
People lose their spirit
Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching, verse 75 (trans. Mitchell)

The Block have raised property taxes THREE TIMES this term, despite accumulating a surplus (i.e. more money taken in than the town can spend) from doing so. They also gave themselves a salary raise every time they raised taxes.

They don’t care that these tax hikes hurt seniors, people on fixed incomes, people with low incomes, the youth, young couples trying to buy a home, or people who rent. All that mattered to The Block is that the administration told them to hike the property taxes, so they did. They also raised water utility rates. Why not? When you don’t give a damn about people, it’s easy to gouge them. And you can cover any increases in your own taxes by giving yourself a raise at taxpayers’ expense (plus: a third of their salary is TAX-FREE!).

But I’m sure you’re asking by now, “Ian, why bother? Why beat your head against the wall when they will all be kicked out of office next year?”

Yes, we all know I can ramble on and on, quoting lines from Plato, Lao Tzu, Han Fei Tzu, Marcus Aurelius, Machiavelli, Montaigne and other great thinkers who put years of thought into their contemplations of human life and behaviour. Yes, I can be a pompous git about it, at times. You must also be saying to yourself, “The Block won’t read them.” Which is true. They despise reading and learning almost as much as they despise the electorate. Imagining them reading even a short classic like the Tao Te Ching is risible. They don’t even read their own agendas!

So why bother? Why write about the impossible? Why rail on about the collective idiocy and ignorance that is The Block? Surely everyone sees it by now…

Because it matters. This community, its governance and its reputation are in ruins. Someone has to speak out. Someone has to write about the destructiveness of The Block, and remind readers that there are better alternatives coming in 2018 when the municipal election returns. Because our local media don’t say anything about the abuses of power, authority and privilege we’ve shouldered under The Block’s management so as to not annoy their friends on council.

Because there are good ways to govern, and there is The Block’s way. Because they ignore two-and-a-half millennia of advice, knowledge, debate and explanation and instead crash ahead like the proverbial bull in the china shop. Someone has to point out the better way for those who will step into The Block’s shoes next year. Someone has to point out that others before them might know something about governing.

Because we deserve better than this group. Much better. We deserve ethical, moral politicians who work for the greater good not just themselves. Because we deserve proper governance, not chaotic bumbling and snoozing at the table. Because we deserve honesty, openness and accountability instead of lies, secrecy and closed-door scheming.

Because it has to start somewhere: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” (verse 64, Star trans.). if I can get any potential candidate to eschew personal agendas and instead to think about governance, to consider how to lead instead of fumble, then I will have accomplished at least one thing. One single step is how it begins.

And because Collingwood deserves better. You, dear reader, are going to make sure we get it next election.

And besides, I read a lot, and I like to share what I read.
* You have to be careful when reading – and cherry-picking from – the Tao Te Ching. The vast number of translations makes it difficult to find a single source that encompasses all the concepts in digestible form. There are also many interpretations on the market, written by people who don’t speak Chinese, but rather rewrote the work of others, apparently fit their own views rather than promote an actual Taoist view. The concepts of Chinese philosophy are often not clear to Western readers and not always translatable into English, especially in the sparse poetic form in the verses. Plus, the book was written (and subsequently edited) during a time of rancour and confrontation between the philosophical schools of naturalism (Lao Tzu) and legalism (Confucius), so it contains comments that are politically motivated; based on ideological views, hence cannot be considered ‘universal’ aphorisms, but rather parts of an ancient feud between these schools. It’s not simply a work to read, but to study in several editions, preferably with good background and explanatory notes.

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