leacock anniversaries- by Paul Conway

This year is huge for admirers of Stephen Leacock. I would like to say “the many admirers” but am no longer confident about the assumption. Memories are fading, and confusion grows because some of his many opinions, particularly concerning women and race, are now considered deplorable.

How should we remember the flawed giants of our past? Do we focus on their accomplishments and gloss over the flaws, or do we focus on their flaws and gloss over the accomplishments? Our history abounds in admired men and women who held opinions or acted in ways we no longer want to celebrate. How do we do justice to them?

I say that 2019 is a big year for Stephen Leacock buffs because it is the 150th anniversary of his birth (on December 30, 1869), the 75th of his death (on March 28, 1944), and the 100th of his climactic book, The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice (published serially from August to October 1919 and fully in January 1920).

Are you surprised that I call this book ‘climactic’? You may think the honour belongs to Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, written in 1912. If we examine Stephen Leacock’s entire oeuvre, however, we see a progression in his massive life-long list of books, articles, and speeches.

It begins with his Ph.D. thesis in political economy (1903) and his textbook on political science (1906), where his approach is academic. It becomes progressively more out-reaching, culminating in his series of articles on "Practical Political Economy" (1910). In the same year he emerges as a popular writer of humour. He therefore adds that dimension to his serious preoccupations in Sunshine Sketches and Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich (1914). The progression effectively comes to an end with The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice where he identifies the trope that captures the essence of his view of the human political-economic condition. In that sense the book is climactic. After that he coasts.

These are milestone titles; his total flow of books, articles, and public lectures is gigantic, on top of his teaching and other duties as head of his department at McGill University.

I am going to celebrate his anniversaries by re-writing The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, using a “probe” that began March 28th and will end December 30th. I call this probe “peninsular” because I live on Saugeen-Bruce Peninsula. If you want to give it metaphorical weight, go right ahead. Although no man is an island, we are told, a writer can be a peninsula, perhaps should be.

This enterprise faces difficulties, primarily that Social Justice, complicated enough in 1919, has become immeasurably more so. Its pursuit now leads us into an inter-woven tangle of social, economic, environmental, cultural, and political considerations none of which can be denied. The world for which we wish Social Justice is now inevitably pluralistic, with huge implications for both content and conversation. We may not even know what it is any more.

I believe we must be prepared to think differently, meaning not only to think different thoughts, but to use the tool that is our minds, and the tools we derive from them, in entirely unaccustomed ways. That will be very difficult, and will evoke huge resistance, even in ourselves. We dream of “evidence-based” approaches. Evidence is good, as far as it goes, but that is not far enough against all the complexity. We will need, I believe, to reason metaphorically, even poetically.

The true legacy of Stephen Leacock lies not in opinions both defunct and otherwise, but can be summarized in some key words: Unsolved Riddles, Both-And; Knowledge, Imagination, Compassion, Humour; Talk, Drink, Laugh. Especially Both-And, which must be key to any Pluralistic Social Justice.

I believe we will have located the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice when we can both understand these words in the customary ways as they have evolved through the ages, and find new understandings for them.

Both new wine in the old bottles, and new bottles for the old wine. At the same time. Not easy.

You are welcome to join the probe. I suggest you start with and follow its ramifications.


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