The overcoat: a musical tailoring – a review

Just over 57 years ago on a cold winter evening in 1961, I sat with Herb Whittaker, the theatre critic for the Globe and Mail, in a basement theatre on 47 Fraser Avenue created and developed by George Luscombe’s new theatre company, Workshop Productions. Herb Whitaker was a genteel, positive reviewer, an enthusiastic supporter of theatre even as he appeared so conventional. I even wondered as I watched the overcoat: a musical tailoring last evening whether the main character, Akakiv, performed by Geoffrey Sirett, had been modelled on Herb since Herb’s first job had been an office clerk with the Canadian Pacific Railway in Montreal’s Windsor Station. Herb’s review of Hey Rube which we saw that evening over half a century ago, in contrast to my own unboundaried enthusiasm, was gentle and uplifting, full of plaudits and supports, but without my emotional excess.

Workshop Productions in 1961 was not the Bluma Appel Theatre. Nor was it the Royal Alex on King Street or even the Crest Theatre, that had been the only professional theatre in Toronto on Mt. Pleasant north of the tony area of Rosedale; that theatre had just gone broke. This was a theatre put together out of industrial leftovers, not with a curtain or proscenium, but a thrust stage. It was the precursor to the flowering of theatre in Toronto led by Theatre Passe Muraille, Factory Lab Theatre and the Tarragon.

Workshop Productions was set in the heart of Toronto’s old industrial district made up of factories and spillovers from Toronto’s garment district just east on Spadina Avenue. I had worked for several years in the early fifties as an apprentice cutter in Hollywood Children’s Wear just north of that theatre. When I reviewed Hey Rube, I was a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Toronto and the junior drama critic then writing for the Toronto Daily Star under the supervision of the entertainment editor, Nathan Cohen. There were two other patrons in the bleacher seating, both friends of the cast who had been given free tickets. As tiny as the theatre was, it felt totally empty.

Both Herb and I wrote rave reviews. Hey Rube ran for months with full houses every evening. The play blew my mind, even though the only actors on stage that I recognized were George Sperdakos and Joan Ferry. At the University of Toronto as a young pre-med student, Sperdakos had recruited me as part of a small band of students in the fall of 1956 to volunteer to re-fight the Spanish Civil War in Hungary, this time against the Soviet empire rather than a fascist one. Fortunately for us, the Russians had been very efficient in crushing the uprising and our romantic gesture went up in a whiff from one of George’s then ever-present cigarettes.

Hey Rube was a very different type of revolutionary experience, one inspired by the left, but in the realm of art and theatre. Strongly influenced by Joan Littlewood’s experimental theatre in London in Britain, George had returned to Toronto to introduce a form of theatre that avoided the drawing room dramas of Anton Chekhov and Henrik Ibsen or even the kitchen sink theatre of the new upstart playwrights in London such as John Osborne. This was theatre more focused on movement than on words, on feelings more than ideas, on acrobatics more than Shakespearian enunciation, and on visual creativity more than auditory stimulation. It seemed to have more to do with the circus and vaudeville than the plays I had learned to read. Hey Rube was heavily influenced by the commedia dell’arte Italian tradition of theatre.

The theatre notes in the Canadian Stage co-production with Tapestry Opera of the overcoat: a musical tailoring which I saw it the Bluma Appel Theatre last evening made no mention of that tradition or any influences from it. Yet in its movements, in its use of mime and the traditions of the world of clowns and circuses, in its swift and sudden changes of perspective, it is strongly linked to these roots. Most of all, the overcoat avoids subtlety in favour of word play and tricksters. It is minimalist theatre in its design, but very intricate yet overflowing with exuberance and gusto in its staging.

Unlike Hey Rube, which was a rough work, ragged on the edges though full of vitality at the core, the overcoat is a bespoke production, an intricately detailed piece of material artistry, an operatic play. Instead of being based on the premise that, “I think therefore I am,” cogito ergo sum, the clear and distinct idea at the core is emotional rather than cognitive. It is based on physical theatre of movement more in tune with Cirque du Soleil. The production insists that since I sing and move, therefore I am.

But it asks a basic question. What am I when I sing and move? A zero, a nothing, someone who does not count at all, who cannot count and put numbers in order and does not count because he is not recognized as a person by anyone else? Am I a zero suited only to live in a loony bin? Or am I a one? Can I even be a two or even a three and rise, not just above the ordinary worker, but to the raised walkways of the upper middle class? To answer that question, we in the audience have to see and hear and get beneath the tailor-made outerwear that both disguises the self and transforms it into an artistic artifice.

This is an example of physical theatre as the lining of an opera, but it is still primarily a well-crafted opera. Usually I hate opera, though this is a judgement based only on attending three, a judgement made though two of my best friends were ardent opera buffs and one was an opera critic. But I have too much of a tin ear. Even last evening, as enthusiastic and entranced as I was by what I saw and heard, in my ignorance I am sure I missed the playfulness, the patchwork of the tapestry, that borrowed and layered from a history of music. For the first time in my life, I deeply regretted that I was a musical ignoramus, though I could at least pick up the repeated melodies associated with and allowing identification of the different characters.

Jill Lepore’s first lecture in her Priestley series that I wrote about recently was called, “Numbers.” The keynote speaker at the Walter Gordon symposium addressed the issue of counting. But the topic Deborah Stone addressed and analyzed was the ethics of counting. The opera on stage last evening dramatized a time in the industrial revolution in the nineteenth century when the foundation stones of modernity were established in the dual supports of numeracy and being counted, being recognized. If I just count, do I count? Do I matter?

The opera opens with a mime playing off Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker as he offers a brief plaintive tune on an accordion that ignites the stage with its perkiness. Immediately, I snapped to attention and remained mesmerized for the whole production. I was reminded of Joan Littlewood’s dictum that if you have to choose between god and the clowns, choose clowns. At first, I thought the setting would be an asylum, but that simply framed the opera. The centrepiece was the office of bookkeepers working in the industries of the nineteenth century.

In the simplicity, there was never a moment of confusion where you had to think about what anything meant. In a whirlwind of athleticism counterpoised against rigid men working as accounting clerks in the nineteenth century of Nikolai Gogol, the predecessors to men in grey flannel suits, we encounter both loneliness and alienation of the central figure in the production evoked by what my untrained ears heard as a pitch-perfect score. (Nathan Cohen had taught me to write theatre criticism with full conviction even if I was ignorant, but I have been too steeped in the Socratic philosophic tradition to follow suit.)

It was as if I were watching an adult and musical version of a Dr. Seuss book written where the rhymes are fantasy-filled and full of kinetic energy. The clerks may ride to work hanging onto the straps and bars of their tram or subway cars, but they are forced to move together to reflect and express the rhythm of the era, operatic music brought onto the stage of a music hall. In part agit prop and Charlie Chaplin, in the scene where the main character, Geoffrey Sirett, a baritone singing the part of Akakiv, gets totally drunk and wasted, probably for the first time in his life, I was taken back to the days of Brendan Behan and his plays, The Quare Fellow and The Hostage written under the inspiration of Joan Littlewood’s ideas. The Irish poetry of these plays of everyday speech were undercut by Behan’s alcoholism. A year before he died in the mid 1960’s from his drinking, I remember when he stayed with us – or really did not stay for he was always about town carousing – and I went looking for him. His pessimistic vision of the world, unlike the false optimism of the hero of the overcoat, turned him into a zero instead of the great artist that I believed he had been destined to become.

Thank goodness that Morris Panych, as the director and writer of the libretto, and James Rolfe, as the composer, have been more disciplined and have been able to turn out such a bespoke overcoat to make any member of the cloth trade on Spadina Avenue proud. The work is simply brilliant, enhanced by a wonderful set by Leslie Dala that evokes the steel rigidity of the iron gating of those old nineteenth-century original “skyscrapers” with the mobility and flexibility of a three-ring circus. Together with the lighting director and other talented musicians and actors, instead of witnessing the destruction of well-ordered and considered complacent middle-class theatre, we experience traditional middle-class theatre raised to a whole new level. And the audience with its standing ovation expressed their absolute delight with such a wonderful work of art. The pathos and wit were clever without being ribald. Grandiosity and down-to-earth story-telling, gentility and a satire of that gentility, exuberant energy and repressed and mechanical motion, poetic verse and music, had been combined without any need to dip into vulgarity.

In an era of celebrity politics where the main concern of the president of the United States is his ratings even as his personal character is revealed to be more deplorable even that anyone expected, where counting becomes more important than being counted for what you do and achieve, where selfies become more significant than recognition by others, the overcoat is a rendition which goes back to the roots and foundations of our current disorder, in counting in order to be counted. When presented with such poetry and music, with clever versifying and impressionistic costuming, vitality and intelligence, the nuttiness of the contemporary world is given depth, beauty and resonance. Wit and zaniness are grounded in a critique of reality and we see and hear magic.

As Jill Lepore opined in her lecture, the essence of the world of numbers and counting is discernment.

With the help of Alex Zisman


Police and Data: Responsa

I would never have expected to receive responses to a dry-as-dust piece on police and data. The blog must have touched a sensitive button. Not so much on the big issue of data, data crime and surveillance, but on issues with which the reader could easily identify – such as controlling vehicle speeds on residential streets.

Some responses were matters of additional information. With respect to traffic calming methods rather than enforcement, I believed that I had provided an extensive list. The techniques I listed were just a drop in the bucket. I could have added the following measures to the list: speed humps (wider than bumps) and tables (wider still) as well as speed trays (bumps arranged like an inverted ice cube tray); mid-block barriers; raised crosswalks and intersections; cobblestone streets; circles, roundabouts, centre islands, chicanes (I had never heard the word before; they narrow a road at strategic places to slow traffic), chokers and neckdowns – chicanes at intersections; and, most interesting of all to me, illusory markings. It is worth writing a blog just to learn about the creativity of traffic engineers.

I was informed that in Norway and Britain, automated digital photo radar is used extensively. In Alberta, photo radar is used. However, without driver identification, unless an officer manning the radar can stop and identify the driver, only the owner of the vehicle can be held responsible for the fine. But without driver identification, no demerit points can be issued.  So why man the camera? I was also informed by another reader that reduction in speeds (say from 30 to 25 mph or 40 to 35 kph) actually reduces speeds to only 29 mph or 39 kph. Signs which show your speed do not work in decreasing that speed, but when accompanied by memes, that frown if you are speeding and smile if you go under the speed limit, do work. Another reader informed me of the opposite – that signs showing speeds without memes do indeed work. I did not do my research to ascertain which claim was correct. Does any reader know?

However, the greater the number of signs, evidently the less effective any of them are. Warning signs are evidently ineffective and, surprising to me, stop signs are counter-productive – drivers speed up to make up for lost time at the intersection. Four way stops also contribute to increased car pollution with every additional stop and go.

Of course, we could simply build the technology into a vehicle to prevent it from going over a posted speed limit. But in our world prioritizing individual rights, such a simple and inexpensive device belongs to a sci-fi world.

In the responses on a whole different level, I was chastised for being too lost in the clouds of philosophy and principles with little practical experience of the way cops behaved on the street. Cases of cops readily killing civilians were cited, most recently the case of the Sacramento police shooting and killing a young Black American in his grandmother’s backyard because they believed his cell phone was a gun pointed at them. Twenty shots were fired by the two police officers. One writer cited this as another case of American racism without noting that the police chief in Sacramento is Black. So was one of the two police officers doing the shooting.

Interestingly, the evidence for the shooting came from the body cameras on the police used for surveillance of police activity. Unfortunately, and questionably, the police afterwards turned off the audio and video recording by pressing mute when other officers arrived. This incident may have more to do with the readiness to use guns in the gun culture so central to America than with the deep-seated racism of America. Further, instead of police having as their priority protecting the safety and security of members of civil society and their property, the police adopt the values of a military culture where fear for their own safety and protecting their own security sets the priority for their responses.

I want to defend myself against the charge of innocence about life in the streets as I get lost in the clouds of abstract principles and philosophy. When I was a teenager, we lived a block away from a police station. We often heard the shrieks of those arrested as they were supposedly beaten by police. “Supposed” is a euphemism for lack of direct evidence through witnessing. However, when some of the police joined the crowd next door to peer at the small television screen, they would often boast about how they dealt out “justice’ to “criminals.” However, when I was indicted for a criminal offence as a young teenager (for scalping tickets) and was convicted, when I was arrested, I was treated fairly and with respect.

This was not true of two of my sons much later. One was arrested and handcuffed in his own home for evidently going through a stop sign three blocks from his home and failing to stop when signalled to do so by a police car following him which he had failed to notice. Another was arrested at the age of 13 or 14, cuffed and taken upstairs for hours of interrogation when we brought him into the police station because another youth had named him as the perpetrator of an assault and robbery of Halloween candies. The fact that my son was six inches taller than the description provided to the police by the accuser, the fact that he had five witnesses to testify that he was elsewhere on Halloween night nowhere near the alleged offence, seemed of no consequence as the detectives seemed committed to getting him to confess and undertook no investigation. After eight months, three appearances in court and huge legal bills, the charges were withdrawn.

Most recently, when I was assaulted physically in my own home, the police were very considerate and patient and went out of their way to be helpful, but they did advise that I not press charges, for the assailant claimed that I had attacked him. They would have to charge us both if I insisted on pressing charges. Better, they suggested, to let it drop, especially since my alleged assailant would likely just get off with his wrist slapped.

I am well aware that police are not paragons of virtue or the best expressions of the principles they are purportedly committed to uphold. But my issue was the theory of policing and its functioning in a society of large data, data crime on a large scale, and taking place in an increasingly surveillance culture. Nor am I unaware of the use of surveillance in the days pre-dating the collection of large scale data.

When I was a student at the University of Toronto and a leader in the nuclear disarmament movement, one of my philosophy professors asked me to come to his office. In that meeting he told me that he had been asked to come to speak to the RCMP. As it turned out, they wanted to question him about me.

On the desk of the detective was a file about 4” thick with material on my activities. He told them nothing because he knew nothing. But he was kindly and wanted to warn me.

I was not surprised. At our demonstrations, there was always a plain-clothed police officer – so evident, he might as well have worn a uniform – who, while participating in or observing the demonstration, took notes and pictures. I always made a point of welcoming him and asking him if I could do anything to help or involve him. After all, no one else was interested in recording my life for posterity. Later on, when the RCMP was running amuck to stop the Quebec separatists, they also torched our research institute on Huron Street, but only after collecting the files and sending them to the then editor of the Sun newspaper.

I could go on with other stories. I merely want to indicate that I am far from innocent of what takes place on the ground. I do not know the extent of the failure of police to uphold the principle of protecting and serving civil society, but I do recognize the discrepancy between practice and principles. The fact that practices fail to live up to principles is not a reason for cynicism or for failing to attempt to articulate what the role and principles of policing should be in the new large data world of algorithms and wide-scale electronic surveillance. Personal untoward experiences should not shade one’s eyes to the fact that the police, and other civil service policing establishments, are extremely underfunded and undertrained to combat the rapidly increasing criminality in this sphere, a criminality that even threatens the fundamentals of our democratic institutions.

Corruption of police on both the local level and on a national level in the U.S. is pervasive. Readers of my blog know that I winter in San Pancho in Mexico. It is an area that is very safe and up until two years ago did not even have a police force. However, many areas of Mexico are unsafe; the numbers of killings recorded are more similar to war zones like Iraq and Syria. Recently, two police officers received 25-year prison sentences for killing newspaper owner Moisés Sánchez in Veracruz, Mexico, in 2015. The local mayor – who allegedly ordered the murder – is a fugitive. Six police officers, believed widely to be part of a drug gang under the control of the mayor, have not been prosecuted even though the entire police force (36 officers) of Medellín de Bravo were questioned. Perhaps, the six were not charged because of the common conspiracy of silence practiced among members of the police.

However, I believe the situation is 25% as dangerous in the U.S., yet we rarely consider not travelling to the U.S. because of violence. In Mexico in 2017, almost 30,000 people were murdered by guns and other means in a population of 130 million at a rate of about 23 for each 100,000 in population. The U.S. total of homicides by guns alone was about 35,000 of a population of 326 million or just over 10 per 100,000 population. However, over half were self inflicted suicides. On the other hand, if non-gun violence is included, the total of violent deaths rises to almost 41,000, and the rate of killings is about 5 per 100,000. Compare that to Canada with just over 600 violent murders for a population of 37 million. Given the American experience, we could expect over 4,000. If Mexico has a violent death rate of almost 5 times that of the U.S., the U.S. has a violent death rate of over 7 times that of the peaceable kingdom to the north.

Mexico has its violent gangs and drug cartels concentrated in specific areas; the actual rate of violence in those high-risk areas is much higher. On the other hand, gun violence in the U.S. is far less unevenly distributed. More significantly, the rate of violence in the U.S. is directly correlated with its gun culture far more than the degree of criminality. Take the example of the billionaire, Robert Mercer, the backer of Breitbart News, heavy contributor to the Trump presidential campaign and the financier behind Cambridge Analytica. He is not only the owner of gun companies (Center Firearms and PTR Industries in South Carolina), but is himself a voluntary police officer for at least six days a year in the Town of Lake Arthur with a population of only 433. Such a position allows him to carry a concealed weapon virtually anywhere in the U.S. because a Congressional law passed in the Bush junior administration in 2004, the Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act, allows police to carry concealed weapons anywhere in the U.S without any need to acquire a local license. In the U.S., as discussed in previous blogs, any civilian can shoot another person if they have a reasonable belief that his or her life was at risk.

Neither the police in America nor American civil society endorse the principle that police enforcement is directed at serving and protecting civil society. Quite the reverse; in many areas the doctrine is that police and civilian self-protection are the priorities. Given this focus, it is unlikely that police agencies will be funded or encouraged to combat data crimes. The privacy of individuals and the right to self-protection takes precedence. The public is also jaundiced against the police in many western and eastern seaboard states just when the internet, once associated with anonymity, is now associated with surveillance, and distrust of that surveillance. Putting the police in charge of supervising that surveillance appears to many a risk that they are not willing to take to fund police to protect and to serve.

The principles governing police activity are actually very simple. Police enforcement, though administered by governments, exists to serve and protect civil society. To the extent that police are turned into government enforcers, or to the extent they are viewed as militant members of an individualist Wild West, in neither case can they serve their primary function. That primary function requires educating police in this ethos, and funding and equipping and training them to fight the most extensive and threatening criminality now extant, that of large scale data crimes.

With the help of Alex Zisman


With the help of Alex Zisman


Next: Data and Health

Police and Large Data

The first item on the CBC radio news last evening concerned criminality, the criminal use of data in elections. Not the issue of Russian interference to facilitate the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States. Instead, CBC reported on the four hours of testimony that Canadian whistleblower, Chris Wylie (a data scientist who helped found Cambridge Analytica and an advocate for Britain leaving the EU), gave before a committee of the British parliament on the role of data aggregating firms hired by Vote Leave with respect to Brexit and led by Cambridge Analytica funneling money illegally to the Canadian company, AggregateIQ (AIQ), to collect Facebook data and, in the last days of the Brexit vote, influence “persuadables.” Further, he opined that it was reasonable to conclude that the effort altered the outcome of the Brexit vote.

Two criminal acts were allegedly involved. First, aggregate data was illegally collected. Second, money, significantly in excess of that permitted to be used by Vote Leave, was funneled through several data collection companies in order to appear to fall within the limits permitted. On this charge, Wylie backed up the testimony of another whistleblower, Shahmir Sanni, who provided concrete evidence of the breach of spending limits to Parliament. Of course, the companies continued to insist that they had complied with all legal and regulatory requirements.

Wylie testified that the British vote was but one instance of such efforts. The activities ranged around the world, from the Trump election to the Kenyan presidential race, clearly implying that Cambridge Analytica and its parent and related companies were systematically involved in manipulating voters illegally and undermining the democratic electoral process. This past Friday, the Walter Gordon Symposium dealing with “Making Policy Count: The Social Implications of Data-Driven Decision Making” in its first panel took up the issue of Contemporary Policing and Surveillance.

One message came through loud and clear. Police departments are barely into the computer age and are ill-equipped, to say the least, to deal with law enforcement related to abuses in the use of data analytics. Electoral Commissions do not have people on staff that even comprehend let alone are trained to counter such efforts, whether used by Russian hackers or domestic cheats.

Rosemary Gartner, the chair of the panel and a Professor Emeritus from the University of Toronto program on Criminology & Sociolegal Studies zeroed in on how the issue of large scale counting can be unfair when it comes to individual cases of blood alcohol levels, meting out punishments, or even deciding on what is considered a crime worthy of police attention. In light of the big news items, these concerns, however significant, seemed picayune when our whole faith in democratic institutions has been under attack.

Paul Sloly, former Deputy Chief of the Toronto Police Force, who now works for Deloitte, did zero in on mass surveillance and digital crime at its broadest, from cyberfraud to cyberbullying. However, police lacked the most basic servers to do their work let alone counter such criminality. At the same time, there has been an exponential increase in surveillance. The ethical issue of most concern seems to be privacy. In the name of privacy, cameras cannot be used to record and charge speeders who race down our residential streets endangering the lives of children. Automatic Speed Cameras (photo radar) were phased out in the mid-90s. When the Conservatives regained power in Ontario in the mid-1990s under the leadership of Mike Harris, the experimental use of such cameras was phased out.

A report by Drive Safely Michigan stressed improving safety on residential streets by proposing alternatives to surveillance, that would decrease speed or reduce through traffic on local residential streets and in general developing a “traffic calming program” (stop signs, speed limit signs, turn prohibitions, one-way streets, warning and portable signs, speed bumps, rumble strips, street closures, traffic diverters and even road narrowing) to control speeds, but, at the same time, warning or “advising” drivers with permanent markings or signs about the cautions introduced. We have all seen the huge multiplication of these techniques, but I personally – and this is clearly anecdotal – have only observed increased speed on my residential street.

Why not assign officers to monitor traffic? How many? When? Use warnings or tickets? Two problems – the large cost and the effectiveness is restricted to only those periods and places where officers are deployed. What about Automated Speed Enforcement Devices, that is, speed radar and a 35 mm camera interfaced with a computer that could or could not be equipped with issuing automatic tickets? If a vehicle travels down a residential street over a preset threshold speed, the camera photographs the vehicle and its license plate. Tickets could be automatically sent out indicating the date, time location, posted speed and travel speed of the vehicle. Instead, in most jurisdictions, only warning letters are issued. Enforcing speed limits by general surveillance is viewed most frequently as an unwarranted expansion of surveillance. The fact that such surveillance might be significant in analyzing traffic problems that induce speeding and suggest intervention measures, gets slipped to one side in the debate.

There seems to be a misfit between the ethical principles at stake and the nature of contemporary crime. When I interview people on the issue, their concern is not privacy per se, but theft and fraudulent use of private information. They are not so much concerned with keeping their personal information private as preventing its misuse and criminal use. Perhaps, instruments to build in “Privacy by Design” might be helpful, but detection and intervention with actual criminality might be a greater issue.

Professor Akwasi Owusu-Bempah from the Department of Sociology raised the issue of race and the criminal justice system with the old issue of carding, collecting information on “suspicious” individuals, a process that disproportionately, and significantly so, focused on visible minorities, a practice evidently detrimental to policing itself and the integrity of the criminal justice system. Surveillance of what police do in their interactions with the public has undermined almost completely the practice of carding. I thought I had received a double message. On the one hand, traditional values, such as fairness and privacy were critical. On the other hand, in order to protect those values, the police themselves had to be continually subjected to surveillance.

Dr. Valerie Steeves, Associate Professor in the University of Ottawa Department of Criminology, directly addressed the issue of big data and the search for patterns using algorithms to both prevent crime and apprehend criminals. For one, big data can and has been used to undermine the thesis that harsh measures of incarceration cut down criminal activity and to establish that the decline in traditional crimes has taken place independently of such efforts. As far as prevention is concerned, using large data sets and algorithms have not proven to be useful in identifying potential criminality. The feeding frenzy accompanying the mastery of large data and analytics seems to her to be misguided and one must be humble in presenting proposals, implementing them and evaluating the results. Relying on efforts to create smart cities with monitoring sensors everywhere may also be misguided. Steeves was very wary about the process of privatizing the public sphere.

My sense was that the panelists were more concerned with traditional ethical concerns of privacy, transparency and fairness – valuable as those concerns may be – but totally out of touch with the need to understand and be equipped to counter the pervasive kinds of criminality in the use of big data now given almost free reign by the absence of both tools and training to even detect let alone interfere with this raging epidemic. Just because individuals generally are not being killed does not mean that enormous harm is not being carried out – from the pervasive fears that someone will steal my identity and hack into my financial accounts to the undermining of the very political structure on which the health of our society depends.

Hegel in his writing on police in the Philosophy of Right noted that the police were part of civil society and not the state, that they were given exceptional powers of coercion, but only to serve and protect the members of civil society, including, and most importantly, their right to vote in fair elections. The administration of justice is first and foremost needed to ensure that offences against property and persons are negated and the safety of persons and property sustained.

Police and the system of justice more generally were created in a modern nation-state first and foremost to deal with a subjective willing of evil – whether that evil be predatory sexual behaviour, racist victimization or criminal mischief-making. The latter activities, quite aside from a myriad of other pressures and influences, undermine the ability of individuals to make rational choices. Private actions outside of our individual or collective control that either do or could injure others and wrong them must be prevented and offset or compensated for when offences are committed. This is why traffic cameras to monitor speeding and automatically issue tickets should be instituted – not because they are perfect instruments, but because the benefits to personal safety and well-being far outweigh risks to privacy or error.

For the issue is not merely countering injury, but reducing the possibility of injury to as close to zero as is feasible given the need and desire to protect other norms. If police lack the training, if police lack the tools – and I use police in the broadest sense to include institutions such as an electoral commission – if police lack the budgets to counter both actual and possible offences of this order, instead of preventing and limiting harm, the system of justice will be abetting such harm.

This does not mean that surveillance need become ubiquitous. Rather, careful judgement and weighing of ethical norms as well as effectiveness are required to mediate between suspicion and commission of criminality, between suspicion and surveillance, between suspicion and inquiry, between suspicion and what is actually injurious as distinct for what is believed to be injurious, and between what is supposedly suspect and what is claimed to be injurious but is really innocent.

Let me give an example of a failure of policing and the justice system having nothing to do with large scale data and analytics. It was the second item on the CBC 6:00 p.m. radio news last evening. The issue had to do with the case of sexual predatory behaviour at Michigan State University. Yesterday, a former dean of the university, William Strampel, was charged for not preventing a sports doctor, Larry Nassar, from sexually harassing students. It had already been proven that Larry Nassar had for years violated girls and young women, particularly gymnasts, with his finger examinations. This once world-renowned sports physician was sentenced to 175 years in prison.

William Strampel was the dean of the College of Osteopathic Medicine and was responsible for oversight of the clinic where Nassar worked. Strampel failed to enforce orders by, at a minimum, not allowing Nassar to examine students unchaperoned. Nassar was eventually fired in 2016, but between 2014 and 2016, when Strampel had been fully apprised of the risk Nassar posed to students, he failed to set up procedural safeguards thereby allowing Nassar to commit a series of additional sexual offences.

However, in the process of the investigation, evidence turned up that Strampel’s computer had 50 photos of female genitalia, nude and semi-nude women, sex toys and pornography. Further, Strampel himself had solicited nude photos from at least one student and had harassed and demeaned, propositioned and even sexually assaulted students. Strampel insisted in his defence that he was not guilty of any of the charges, but that the problem of enforcing Nassar’s practices rested with the university’s Title IX investigators and not himself. Whether true or not, why was the university itself not charged with negligence with respect to its duty to serve and protect its students?

This is an old-fashioned case of an injustice, though one involving the accumulation of data as evidence. But it is not a case of analytics and large data. The question it raises is that if existing institutions are so grossly negligent in ensuring protection and safety for those for whom they are directly responsible, how can they be tasked with the much larger goal of preventing and inhibiting the epidemic of crimes committed through the use of analytics and large-scale data?

The root of the problem, in my estimation, is the widespread belief in untrammelled individualism. It is why Mike Harris pushed the policy cancelling the use of automatic speed cameras in Ontario. The belief is widespread that personal conscience is the supreme judge of morality precisely at a time when the consciences of individuals are being subjected to widespread manipulation. It is why sexual predators complain that their rights to privacy are being abrogated. It is why they argue that laws should only be introduced to which the individual consents explicitly to bind his or her will. The source of justice, in this misguided view, is seen to be each individual’s unrestricted and unguided conception of virtue and the common good. The result – the diminution of inherited practices of order and good governance that not only respect the individual’s rights to consent and freedom, but reinforce them precisely by also respecting community values and norms already developed to defend our institutions against new assaults. That now entails relatively minor investments in items like automatic ticketing speed cameras, which save money (and lives). Such initiatives also entail massive investments in the technology and skills necessary to counter cyber-criminality.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri – Guilt and Vengeance

DO NOT READ THIS BLOG UNLESS YOU HAVE SEEN THE FILM. The film is brilliant, but even more brilliant than most critics perceived.

How would you feel if you, a mother, had an argument with your teenage daughter, Angela – not exactly an archetypal angel – about whether to let her use your car to go out on a date on a Saturday evening? What if your daughter stormed out of the house saying she would walk and if she got raped it was your fault? What if you, as she fled out the door, called after her in anger that she should get raped for the foul language and insults hurled at you? What if you said this really to get back at her because you had just learned that she was exploring moving out and moving in with her father, Charlie, who used to beat you and whom you divorced when he ran off with a 19-year-old bimbo?

And then she was raped that evening. Not only raped, but murdered. Not only murdered, but raped while she lay dying. Not only murdered and raped, but her corpse burned. As much as you might live in a modern world and knew that, in this case, what happened was not a consequence of your words, the guilt you bore would go so deep and be so mutilating that you wanted, that you needed, to displace any responsibility onto another. What do you do with the ugly and agonizing pain, with the weight of that ton of guilt, with the deep burning embers of a searing grief? What better place to displace that responsibility but onto a club of cracker cops unable to find the murderer and rapist?

This is NOT a film about an enraged, unrelenting, uncompromising woman of steel, determined to ensure justice for the murder and rape of her child. It is not even a film about righteous vengeful fury. There is no righteousness whatsoever. And there certainly is no desire for justice. When Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) insists that she wants the government to set up a database with the DNA of every male so that it can be matched with the DNA on her daughter’s burnt corpse, it is not to obtain and exact justice, but to obtain and exact vengeance.

“Be sure and kill ‘em.” She is a hard-hearted woman so deeply frozen and dead on the inside and so full of fire and brimstone and steely edges on the outside, that we as the audience are sucked into applauding her devil take all attitude if only because the language of both sympathy and bureaucracy is so cold that we welcome, indeed applaud, someone who talks without thinking and fires away with little if no concern for or empathy with her targets. What magic when a writer/director can make such a detestable woman so tremendously likeable that we offer her our deepest sympathies. The chief target of her rage is Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), a man of affection and sensitive attachment, like his predecesor in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. He is intelligent, sensitive and conscientious rather than an indifferent oaf.

The film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, begins with a distraught but very determined mother bent on displacing that guilt in the ostensible pursuit of justice, with which we as viewers easily identify. Especially since her method of embarrassing the police is so public. She pays for putting up signs on three obsolete titular billboards to express her rage and frustration. The motive is unbeknownst to everyone, except her son who witnessed the altercation between mother and daughter. The billboards are used to displace that deep and very painful guilt. Critics who look at Mildred as “morally unimpeachable” are truly blind and deaf.  She is a harridan, immensely likeable and sympathetic, but still a vicious harridan.

Gradually as the film unfolds, we learn of the source and depth of that guilt. But we learn much more. For Ebbing is a town where the use of foul language is the norm, where the mistreatment of Blacks is the norm, especially by one police officer, Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) who has never been held responsible for his violent and outrageous behaviour. It just so happens that this violent cop is a mama’s boy, his mother is a virulent bitch and he is probably a repressed homosexual. He gradually wins our sympathy.

It is a town in which a happy family of a couple, a police chief (Willoughby), his wife and two children, play a game by a stream whereby the two young girls are required to fish for stuffed animals around the blanket on which they are sitting without leaving the blanket, while the parents go off for some nookie. But the instructions to the girls are delivered in the foulest language imaginable. As Mildred says at the beginning of the film when discussing the wording with her son on the proposed billboards, you may address your children in the foulest language, but on public billboards you “can’t say nothin’ defamatory.” It is a world of deep hypocrisy.

The sin permeating this town goes much deeper. When a priest, Father Montgomery, comes to the home of the distraught mother to try to persuade her to take down the billboards that are causing such stress to the popular police chief, the mother kicks him out, but not before reducing him to quivering silence by accusing him of complicity for doing nothing, just as he did nothing when his altar boy was seduced or raped by another priest. And in guilt, we sit silent in the theatre oblivious to the fact that this is a tale of raw vengeance and shame rather than of justice and guilt. The male secretive self-protective clubs of the town are now under attack by one enraged woman and her wild jeremiad. And the moral universe is inverted in McDonagh’s view when priests become priests and cops become cops because they want to do good, but are perceived now as sinister simply because of the costumes they wear, whether a clerical collar or a police uniform.

Unequivocally, Ebbing is a town in which sin has raged like a wildfire so that it permeates the language and behaviour of ordinary citizens and officers of the law alike. It is a town where the rule of impulse outweighs the rule of law. It is a town in which any efforts to purify the town had fallen by the wayside and became as obsolete as those billboards did when the new highway was built to bypass the old road. Bad behaviour had become the norm in this town in the heartland of America and sin is everywhere. The town is morally polluted. Not even the torching of the billboards and then the police station, and the scorching of the dumb and distasteful racist Constable Dixon, can even expurgate the sin. Dixon is, of course, the antithesis of Dixon of Dock Green (Jack Warner), the archetypal London bobby of the twenty-year long-running BBC series about a police officer full of common sense and empathy,

But that is just the background, the setting, very important but not the central theme of the movie. The town ceremonies and rituals and rites provide no opportunity any longer to expiate that sin, to cleanse the society of its moral pollution. Moral pollution has become the norm. There is no ritual whereby the town, its leaders and its ordinary citizens can acknowledge their responsibility for the sins. Everyone is complicit. Everyone “stands by.” For the movie is about guilt transmuted into shame, and sin transformed into vengeance.

Guilt goes deeper than sin. It is at the root of sin. It is the failure to take responsibility for one’s actions. At the end of the film, the most vicious police officer becomes a burnt offering and seems to repent (following the guiding note of his now deceased chief of police to learn about guilt, confession and love), owning up to one’s responsibilities and learning to love oneself and others as a good Christian should. It is clear that the members of the town, especially this police officer and his ardent accuser, the mother of the raped girl, go off to possibly murder a suspect who they now know could not have killed the daughter. The town and the people of the town have no rite, no ritual, no religious practice through which they can expiate their guilt and accept responsibility for what they did and what they do. For the fundamental moral code of the town has become displacement of responsibility. The town is awash not only in sin but in guilt. There is no act of reparation available to them. Instead, they get a rifle and ostensibly set out possibly to murder an innocent man. They will decide en route whether they will do it.

There is no redemption. There is no means of redemption. Guns and violence as the answer to problems have so permeated the value structure, have so displaced any real moral code, that the only answer to any action is revenge, not understanding and certainly not any acceptance of responsibility for what has taken place. There is no mechanism to sharpen any individual’s conscience. Paganism has returned to occupy central stage in the heartland of America. It is a Manichean world in which demonic forces seem to continually defeat any divine force. It is a world which has lost most of its humanity where each human, every male and every female, assumes responsibility for him or herself to ensure a divine presence on earth and the expulsion of the demonic.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri is about the demonic taking control of a town in the heartland of America just as it has taken over the White House. Any rituals to contain and dispose of moral impurities have largely been sacrificed to cowardice, to ambition and to complicity. We have returned to an age in which a young teenage girl is raped, is murdered, is raped while dying, is offered as a burnt offering, but not to a divine order of a healthy, responsible life, but to a demonic order of guns and irresponsibility, of anarchy rather than the rule of law, of impulse rather than thoughtful consideration. It is a world in which the police station as the central symbol of the rule of law has been burnt to the ground. It is a world in which we who watch cheer this act of revenge and pseudo expiation, thrilled at the violence rather than discomfited by the phenomenal moral deterioration in our human moral code.

God is death. Humans must be wedded to life. The rituals of death, of sin and guilt need a place, a temple, where they can be disposed of. If a rabbi reminds me of the sensuousness, the incense and the smoke, the vibrancy and the flavours of a place of temple sacrifice, then that rabbi is totally out of touch with the function of the temple and the meaning of its absence. For without a temple, all responsibility rests on each and every one of us to be accountable for the commissions of sinful acts that thrust shards of guilt deep into our souls. The destroyed temple does not simply belong to a more primitive past in the sense of appealing to our basic sensuality as if it is simply an outdoor food market.

Why do we need to significantly reduce and limit a gun culture? When do we need blood prohibitions – when the police chief vomits up blood from his cancer, we must recognize the symbolic significance. After all, as McDormand says, “When you croak, the billboards won’t be as effective.” When the sadistic dentist is forced to drill into his own fingernail rather than into the not quite frozen tooth that needs removal, we get a glimpse of a place where inflicting pain has become a way of life and not a place where we try to make pain as painless as possible. So even the police chief’s self-sacrifice to minimize the pain to be inflicted on his family comes across as a positive but largely meaningless gesture, for the core meaning of what this hero did for the town is lost in a miasma of meaningless vengeance totally detached from justice.

Death is now totally intertwined with life instead of hived off and restricted so that life can thrive and blossom. The billboards ask a question intended to embarrass the police. But they are a sign of a society reduced to a shame rather than a guilt culture, a society in which out of helplessness and hopelessness conflicts are resolved by either coercion or shaming rather than by acknowledging guilt and assuming responsibility.

When a movie can put such a profound theological and social commentary before our eyes, and do so with humour and wit, when it so deliberately and cleverly misleads us into a failure to recognize who the hero and who the villain is, when a movie takes us into the bypassed rural routes of the heartland of America to unveil the miasma of sin and the absence of guilt and the rule of law that pervades the town, and when the acting by Frances McDormand , Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell are all so brilliant, the writing and direction of Martin McDonagh so nuanced, the movie deserves every reward it received even though it appears that most commentators missed its religious and social profundity.

The land needs to be cleansed, especially the heartland Only then can positive mitzvot and proper ethics once again rule in the land of milk and honey.

Numbers: From the Sanctuary of Method to the Social Service Station

Yesterday was a numbers day. When I first went out, I went to the bank with an installer to whom I had given a cheque that bounced. I had deposited a money order – that alone shows that I belong to an older obsolete age – from another account in another bank to cover the amount of the cheque to the service company. I did not know that banks could or would hold off certifying a deposited money order because I thought that a bank money order was the equivalent of cash. I learned that I should have just taken cash out of one account in one bank and deposited it in the other; after all, the banks were directly across the street from one another. For I was wrong. Banks can hold back crediting money orders to your account. Instead of cash, I could also have obtained a cashier’s cheque or implemented a direct electronic transfer.

That chore resolved, I then went to the dentist to have a crown put on one tooth. Talk about numbers and dollars!

I had a time gap where it did not pay to go home because I was going on to hear the keynote speaker for the Walter Gordon Symposium that I planned to attend the next day (today) on: “Making Policy Count: The Social Implications of Data-Driven Decision-Making.” The subject of the keynote address was, “The Ethics of Counting.” The presenter was Professor Deborah Stone. In the interval between the dentist appointment and the lecture, I was reading the 26 March 2018 issue of The New Yorker and, as I sat in the auditorium waiting for the lecture to begin, totally coincidentally, I was nearing the end of the magazine and was reading the section on “The Critics.” It was an essay called, “The Shorebird: Rachel Carson and the rising of the seas.” The writer was Jill Lepore whom I had gone to hear deliver the three Priestley lectures the week before on, respectively, “Facts,” “Numbers,” and “Data” and about whom I have already written extensively.

As we all know, Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring (1962), first published as a three-part series in The New Yorker, alone is credited with launching the environmental movement. Jill Lepore took a different tack. Though mentioning the revolution in science and policy of correlating data on the use of DDT and the disappearance of birds, the focus of Lepore’s essay began with Carson’s personal biography and her lyrical writing about birds, fish, shad and the sea. Why? Because Sandra Steingraber, editor of a collection of essays called, Silent Spring and Other Writings on the Environment, had omitted any reference to that lyrical oeuvre because, though sometimes alluding to environmental threats, those essays failed to call for any specific social action. Lepore was determined to balance the books in her review essay for, as she claimed, Carson could not have written Silent Spring unless she had clambered down rocks and waded in tidal pools and written about what she saw and studied. For her earlier books were not just about molluscs or turtles or, a major concern, shad, or about kingfishers and redstarts, but about placing those creatures within an environmental context. Those earlier books, The Sea Around Us and Under the Sea-Wind became national best-sellers.

Those studies and writings led Rachel Carson to question government policy and the practice of eliminating “career men of long experience and high professional competence and their replacement by political appointees.” There seemed to be some correlation, not only between DDT and aerial spraying and the death of species, but between the emerging practice of dealing with social problems through the lens of power politics rather than the microscopic analyses of the skilled work of the products of The Sanctuary of Method. The mistreatment of the natural environment and of the research environment had similar roots, a concern with exploitation rather than exploration and understanding as we find ourselves located “in an instant of time that is mine…determined by our place in the stream of time and in the long rhythms of the sea.” Very soon after the publication of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson died of cancer before she could write a new envisioned book on the rising and warming of the oceans.

Deborah Stone’s most famous book is her classic study, Policy Paradox: The Art of Political Decision Making. Her lecture on counting was intended to introduce those attending to the question of how to build policy in a data-driven, more than simply a numbers-driven, world, a world of proprietary and indecipherable algorithms and not just numerical correlations. For an earlier stage in the stream of intellectual time, a key issue, which Stone played a significant part in unpacking, was the hidden assumptions and built-in norms behind the statistical evidence and correlations used to produce policy. In a previous blog, I had offered a simple narrative example of the time I got on the university pension committee to question the use of the gender category to doll out different pensions to women than men. Based on such false categorization, Blacks and handicapped professors should get higher pensions.

Other works have driven home similar points: Michael Wheeler’s (1976) Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics: The Manipulation of Public Opinion in the United States. The clever phrasing allegedly went back to Mark Twain who viewed statistics as the greatest source of lies for he had lived in the nineteenth century rather than at the end of the twentieth when data-driven analyses prevailed and superseded statistics in that accusation. In history, however, the reference was initially made in the context of allocating pensions in 1891 in Britain. A more recent work, Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy (2016), carries the argument forward into a data rather than simply statistical-driven age. Mathematical algorithms can be tweaked and formulated to serve interests and power as she illustrated the effects on the financial crisis of 2007-08.

In yesterday’s Washington Post, I read an article on how polling itself – who is ahead and who is behind – influences voting patterns. Reporting that Hillary Clinton was highly favoured to win, rather than data of the percentage of the vote she would likely get, tended to decrease the incentive for supporters to go out and vote. However, Deborah Stone was dealing with an earlier version of such distortions, with numbers and statistics rather than data and algorithms, for the latter are ethically charged models built into the sophisticated mathematics.

Deborah Stone focused on a more fundamental problem characteristic of the transition from the Sanctuary of Method to the Social Service Station in which symbol and numbers were tied to causes and interests depending on the categories used. The latter led to interpretations and decisions dependent often on the negative or positive connotation of the category. Stone in her lecture went back to basics. We can learn to count by focusing only on identicals or by focusing on differences united by a single category, such as counting different kinds of cookies and not just identical glasses of milk. Counting is, thus, not just about identicals, but about categorizing what is different as an identical. In the case of the pension issue that I discussed, instead of treating all professors as equals, they were divided by gender to allocate pensions. In the name of distributive justice, namely that women retirees needed the same money each year as male retirees, such a principle of distribution was unethical.

Deborah offered a ream of illustrations of such a misuse of statistics that led to and supported unjust policies. In collecting numbers on violence against women, the collection depended upon what was classified as violence, who did the counting and for what purpose. For example, did relegating a second wife and child to a small room in the back of the house, expulsion from the house as a form of punishment, rebukes for giving birth to female babies, count as violence as Bangladeshi women contended? Or were European and North American models of violence predominant in the counting. Think before counting was one mantra. Take into consideration the language and concern of those counted was another. Always take into consideration what people wanted to accomplish by collecting such statistics. For numbers carry clout.

Interestingly, Stone referred, but in greater detail, to the same illustration that Lepore used in her lecture, the three-fifths rule for counting slaves built into the American constitution by James Madison in an early attempt to reconcile the paradox that slaves were, on the one hand, property that could be bought and sold, and were, on the other hand, sentient human beings who were held accountable and punishable for their actions. Tax policies and the distribution of votes depended on how slaves were counted.

Numbers count, whether referring to the numbers attending President Trump’s inauguration or to back whether you should take Lipitor to deal with your cholesterol level. Do we ask questions whether you believe immigrants take your jobs in undertaking a survey, or do you ask whether they contribute to create jobs by starting businesses?

Let me take up both issues of the application of statistics and their creation. On the recommendation of my heart specialist, I use Lipitor, the brand name of Pfizer Pharmaceutical that has earned the company $130 billion in sales since the drug was approved for human use in 1996, to lower my cholesterol level and, therefore, to introduce a preventive measure against blood clots. (I once developed a 2.5 inch-long blood clot in a leg vein that went just above my knee.) This in turn would reduce the risk of a heart attack and stroke by lowering plaque build-up in my veins. I have never investigated the categories or methods used in the research behind the drug. I take the drug based on the authority of my physician.

However, when you disaggregate the issue of cholesterol, you find there are different types, some “good” cholesterol and some “bad” – low density lipoproteins (LDL). Further, based on research paid for by the drug companies, what counts as a high cholesterol level has been gradually lowered over the years to the great benefit of the bottom line of Pfizer. Given associated risks – to kidneys and liver, to diabetes and muscle diseases, as Lipitor, a statin, reduces the amount of cholesterol made by and stored in the liver – the lecture implied that research funded by Pfizer based on its economic interests should be questioned.

It was clear that Deborah Stone did not favour collecting stats based on supply and demand and she was sceptical about stats collected by economic interests or those interested in perpetuating their political power. Good stats should be based on building a community and social well-being, on fostering empathy and minimizing exploitation. As the lecture progressed on the ethics of numbers, it became clear that Stone was not just interested in issues, where injustice was perpetuated by the use of statistics, but was positively selling an alternative ethic as the basis for statistical analysis. She was a bleeding heart rather than a possessive individualist. She wanted statistics that fostered empathy and undermined the use and abuse of some people by others. Categories used in statistics can and are used to change hearts and minds – though other stats that she collected indicated that prior prejudices meant that information did not work in changing hearts and minds since biases are almost immune to change by numbers. This was readily apparent in a CBC radio show yesterday on the introduction of a cap-and-trade tax on carbon to combat environmental degradation; a Progressive party defender of the tax dealt with calls, mostly by conservatives, who opposed the tax. Statistics were central to the argument but seemed useless in getting anyone to change their mind.

What Stone did not do was disaggregate areas in which numbers were collected ostensibly to foster care and concern for the displaced resulting in a very different origin of distortion. I had an occasion to audit statistics on those made homeless by the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Originally, I went to undertake an actual count, but upon arrival in Lebanon during the war, I had found that there had been twelve different counts of those made homeless, so I simply performed an audit rather than a count. The whole project was stimulated by competing numbers. The Israeli government had issued a report that 27,000 Palestinians had been made homeless by the invasion. OXFAM Britain had published full page ads that 600,000 had been made homeless. The discrepancy was too huge to ignore for a research unit determined to establish objective and accurate figures in dealing with refugees.

As it turned out, the original figure of 600,000 was produced by the International Red Cross, but it was not of those made homeless, but of “those affected” by the invasion. OXFAM Britain had switched the stat to refer to a very different category. Further, of the twelve counts on the ground, all were carried out very objectively with an intention of producing accurate figures. The Israeli figures were too low (40,000 Palestinians had been made homeless in southern Lebanon.) The corrected figure of 40,000 rather than the original Israeli figure of 27,000 was more accurate because the Israeli figure was a product of an arithmetical error combined with missing some enclaves where the displaced had taken shelter.

The most thorough count was undertaken by the Palestinian school teachers who wrote down every name of every person who had lost their homes in typical elementary school ledgers. The figure arrived at was considered too high by about 10% because Palestinians whose homes had been destroyed had been counted even when they had not lived in those homes for years and instead rented them out to others, mostly Bangladeshi itinerant workers. None of the other counts had considered that these Bangladeshis had been made homeless by the war, a bias not only of both sides, but of the humanitarian international community.

Using measures to arrive at a common definition, the city engineers’ counts and all the others could all be reconciled to result in a common figure. The interesting irony was that the tool based on the “worst” systematic method, that of the International Red Cross, which arrived at its figure by counting kitchenware packages that had been distributed and multiplying by three, turned out to be the most accurate even though the IRC was clearly ashamed of using such a rough tool to determine the result.

I want to illustrate two points by this story. First, not only can private economic interests or political power interests produce distorted statistics, but so can the collection of statistics motivated by empathy and bleeding hearts. Second, statistics can and do provide objective information based on agreed categories and even different methods of collection and analyses. When the ethics of counting closely correlated with the Sanctuary of Method as a fundamental methodological tool is distorted for social purposes, either for profit, for power or even for humanitarian purposes, that is, for solving a specific set of social problems, the determination of the problem and the bias of a belief in correcting the problem can produce distortions by the use and abuse of categories and the resultant numbers.

I do not have the time and space to illustrate other more serious cases – the count of the alleged numbers killed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1996 based on a distortion of the base reference figure that fed a narrative of a second genocide, this time against Hutu rather than Tutsi from Rwanda. For years, until corrected by scholars from both sides, the original figure of the numbers of Palestinians uprooted from their homes in 1948 varied from 520,000 (the standard Israeli figure) and 940,000, the UNRWA figure. Later systematic analysis resulted in a figure of 720,000-740,000 which became an objective reference number for both sides. Objective stats can be collected even in war zones when conflict provided agendas are bracketed and systematic means are used to critique categories and correct for errors.

Stats in themselves are not corrupting, but when we begin to suggest that they be collected to solve a social problem in one direction, say for profit or power, rather than another – enhance aid for refugees or enhance compassion for them – then subjectivity begins to displace objectivity as the critical category and the Sanctuary of Method is undermined as an institutional norm in favour of the Social Service Station. Should the latter be used to enhance wealth accumulation in society or for fostering social justice? For stats are not just correlated with power, as Lepore contended, or with economic interests and power, as Stone contended, but to enhance humanitarian causes. The presumption of subjective bias is partly responsible for the expansion of the idea of post-truth.

To be continued



Everywhere I turn, articles, seminars, news reports and scheduled seminars focus on the issue of data. The article Sunday morning in The Washington Post by Craig Timberg entitled, “Trump campaign consultant took data about millions of users without their knowledge,” begins with Facebook’s recent suspension of Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics firm that evidently played a key role in President Trump’s 2016 election campaign. Cambridge Analytica had claimed that it was at the pinnacle of marrying the art of political persuasion to the science of big data by tailoring advertising to the psychological traits of voters, in this case, political messages and fundraising requests married to political dispositions through psychographic targeting. The company boasted of possessing 5,000 data points on every American.

I am not here concerned with the ethics of privacy (improperly sharing data and failing to destroy private information), the ethics of spying given the covert character of data, the tactics, the accuracy of using five selected basic traits such as openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism, to develop correlations, the lack of regulation of this Wild West frontier of human knowledge or the effectiveness of these correlations, however valid any one of those questions may be. Quite aside from the immoral and probably illegal use of data from tens of millions of Facebook users without their permission or knowledge, and using that data for nefarious political purposes, the specifics are even more frightening with tales of Alexander Nix, the recently suspended CEO of Cambridge Analytica, and his cohorts caught openly claiming to have used shadow companies as fronts, using bribes, sex workers as traps and a host of other unethical practices to advance the position of the company.

My focus is the significance of the effort in gaining access to the psychological profiles of an estimated 50 million Americans and equivalent numbers in other countries. For example, on the issue of effectiveness, Cambridge Analytica claimed that its data modeling and polling showed Trump’s strength in the industrial Midwest and shaped a homestretch strategy that led to his upset wins in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. The actual as well as potential for undermining Western democracies is important and leaders of populist parties, like the Five Star Movement in Italy, which won 33% of the Italian vote in the 4 March elections and has been the first major digital political organization in the world, boasted that the dawn of electronic populism has come ending the era of liberal representative democracy. Luigi Di Maio: “You can’t stop the wind with your hands.” Digital means and digital data are combined to revolutionize politics and supposedly return power to the people.

This morning, I also received an email inviting me to attend the Walter Clarkson Symposium.  The keynote address by Deborah Stone addresses the “The Ethics of Counting” and the day-long symposium itself will focus on: “The Social Implications of Data-Driven Decision-Making.” The issue: how data is collected to result in policies based on evidence-based decisions to produce statistical methods and models relied upon for policy decisions. The advocates promote such data for the ability to reduce complex realities to objective and comparable metrics. Critics suspect the evaluations.

The effects on humans clearly extends into the economic sphere. Last evening, I attended a symposium of top Canadian applied economists focused on prognostication or prophecy, the core purpose of the data age according to Jill Lepore. The economists looked at the tea leaves of fiscal and monetary policy, housing and taxation as well as trends and forces affecting the value of the Canadian dollar to paint a relatively bleak picture of the Canadian economy based on each of the economist’s efforts at large data crunching.

The reliance on data as a primary form of knowledge and determinant of policy has a definite history which Jill Lepore argued began with photography in the nineteenth century. Initially, I found this ironically to be counter-intuitive, but her point was that the era of facts correlated with the Sanctuary of Truth, of numbers correlated with the Sanctuary of Method, was succeeded by the primacy of large data that, in my argument can be correlated with the university as a Social Service Station. The reason Jill pointed to film was because photography in the late nineteenth century was used as evidence. This was coterminous with the decline in faith of eye-witnesses in identifying individuals involved in crimes. As our senses were undermined, though data had not yet filled the vacuum, the first steps had been taken to displace our senses and prepare the ground for the empire of data.

Ironically, according to Jill, these first efforts were used for utopian reasons – to undermine the case for the ill-treatment of the Negro in the U.S. At the same time, the effort established the pathway to indirect evidence and that a “picture was worth a thousand words.” James Frye developed the lie detector in the 1920s to show that a compilation of data in one’s body, of which we were not consciously aware, could be a more reliable detector of lying than that of any so-called expert at “spotting” lies. Orson Wells radio broadcast, “War of the Worlds,” seemed to prove that in the age of radio one could no longer rely on one’s ears any more than one’s eyes.

The negative efforts to disenfranchise the senses had prepared the ground for the age of data which began in 1948 with the invention of the computer following the secret work at Bletchley Park in Milton Keynes in Britain during WWII. Bletchley Park has been commemorated in a number of films, especially Enigma in 2001 with Kate Winslet, Saffron Burrows and Dougray Scott, but even more effectively in The Imitation Game (2014) staring Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing. The government code and cypher codebreakers learned to penetrate the German and Enigma ciphers, an impossible task without the use of a proto-computer. The “Ultra” intelligence produced undoubtedly shortened the war.

UNIVAC was put on display in 1951. It was used in a Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn film, Desk Set (originally a William Marchant 1955 play), in 1957 to show how facts could be established using such a device far faster than relying on human observations and analyses. Spencer Tracy plays the “electronic brains” engineer who manages EMERAC (the Electromagnetic MEmory  and Research Arithmetical Calculator). Katherine Hepburn plays what will become an obsolete “fact checker.”

JFK would become the first television-age politician when “The Simulation Project” was launched in 1958 to determine what policy positions would turn on voters and which would turn them off. Data had entered the age of political manipulation. But numbers still reigned even as data sciences rose in academe to claim not only that data knew faster, but that it knew better and, even more importantly, that only data could tell us some things – such as the key elements of sociology – demographical distributions – and economics – such as the material I heard last night correlating falling single house prices in the GTA with rising condo prices with speculative investing with numbers of overseas investors to create a graph of demand and supply correlated with market prices. This was not just a matter of adding and correlating numbers, but of employing algorithms to knit the data together and produce a formula for predicting shifts in market pricing.

It was no surprise, in line with Gauchet’s analysis, that these economists all seemed at heart to be committed to neo-liberalism. When you marry a Trump regime that seems to have no respect for a balanced budget and engages in redistribution of wealth to the rich – quite aside from is impulsive, unpredictable and shape-shifting character – with the Trudeau regime in Canada also based on deficit financing and a redistributive rather than growth budget, but one dedicated to serving the middle class rather than plutocrats, then the outlook has to be pessimistic and even more pessimistic for Canada that is in such a vulnerable position, exacerbated when it does not cut corporate and individual tax rates to compete with the Americans.

However, economic suicide is not the same as political enslavement. In 1989, a London think tank gathered vast quantities of data about an audience’s values, attitudes and beliefs, identifying groups of “persuadables,” and targeted them with tailored messages. In the 1990s, the technique was tested on health and development campaigns in Britain and then extended to international political consulting and defence. Those were efforts at control at the same time as data was being collected and spliced and diced to careen everything out of control.

An algorithm invented in 1999 by a graduate student at the University of Waterloo was used to bundle mortgages together and sell them as tranches, a system which began to reel out of control in 2003 as salesmen and bankers promoted the products without an iota of understanding or even any ability to develop such an understanding, of precisely what they were selling. For it was based on a computer projection and different taxonomic tools to create a new species of monetary instruments. The economic bust of 2007-08 that followed almost brought down the whole international economic order. As indicated above with the story of Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, privacy, so critical to the age of the Sanctuary of Truth and the age of facts but also to the world’s public in general, became a major casualty. The world of data seemed to produce greater calamities than benefits, especially for the ordinary man or woman.

As also indicated above, we are entering a new age in which evidence-based medicine in numerous fields can be handled better by the computer than by highly trained individuals. But, at the same time, as data is crunched and analyzed in ways no ordinary human can do, falsification becomes barely detectable until the economic house comes crashing down. As also indicated above, the data predators have emerged out of the woodwork who, like termites, are currently eating through the foundations of our homes. It should be no surprise that paranoia increases, which in turn can be exacerbated by the complexity, inaccessibility and control over parts of our lives and its overall trend towards decontextualizing. History itself gets thrown into the waste bin of history. As the speakers said at last evening’s symposium, Canada has the highest proportion of its population with tertiary degrees but also the highest level of unemployed educated individuals. In a day of data, who needs historians or philosophers.

What is the link to data as a new foundation stone of evidence for a university. Some believe the issue is not evidence, but the wearing of blinkers to ward off unwanted information. As Heather MacDonald noted, we not only educate large numbers who cannot get jobs comparable with their degree of education, but we also bring up our children without the appropriate values of character and resilience (characteristic of the teaching in the Sanctuary of Truth) needed in such circumstances. “Instead, we merely validate them. From their earliest days of school, we teach them that they are weak individuals in need of constant therapeutic support. In England, the ‘safe space’ pedagogy was introduced in elementary schools long before students began to demand safe spaces at universities. High school students were told that they didn’t have to listen to lectures about suicide or other difficult subjects because they were likely to be traumatized. So by the time they enter university, students have become entitled to this kind of protection and validation. They actually feel that they have a right not to hear words that jar or challenge them, and that speaking these words is a cultural crime.”

It is the world of the data-based university as a Social Service Station that I will explore tomorrow.

Tomorrow: The Primacy of Data and the end of the Social Service Station

A Historical Intellectual Frame

In September, Jill Lepore’s book, These Truths: A History of the United States, will come out as a Norton publication. Yesterday, I heard the last of her three Priestley lectures at the University of Toronto respectively on Facts, Numbers and Data, the core material that went into that book. The lecture yesterday was on data. The volume offers an account of the history of the United States in terms of shifts in what counts as the key evidence for establishing what we can believe in successive eras – the Era of Truth, the Era of Numbers and the Era of Data. It is a bold neo-Hegelian thesis, and, in that very mode, runs counter to what is accepted as history by most historians.

The book, and the lectures, argue that societies change as the technologies change as the concepts embedded in those technologies change and offer new ways through which to view the world. Thomas Jefferson called “these truths” upon which the U.S. republic was founded political equality, natural rights and the sovereignty of the people. I will map onto her lectures the development of these truths, each as the primary core of the three eras she discusses and to which she only alluded in the lectures. I will not offer the political, economic and social dimensions of society arbitrarily. Instead, I will superimpose on her intellectual framework the core thesis of a French philosopher and intellectual historian, Marcel Gauchet, another rare neo-Hegelian. His ideas were put forth in his four volume, Avènement de la démocratie (The Advent of Democracy) published between 2007 and 2017, the same ten years in which Lepore developed her thesis.

If that is not complicated enough, I will superimpose my own institutional history of the university on that intellectual framework and use the Lepore and Gauchet frames to elaborate on the emergence of successive ideas of the university over the same period. As any Hegelian will do, Lepore writes of a nation that begins in contradiction and the fight over the meaning of history informed by the central preoccupation of the United States with race that brings about the special anxieties and anguish that trouble America. Given Gauchet’s work and my own, my thesis will be broader in one sense but narrower in another since my prime reference will be the emergence and development of the university worldwide but primarily by reference to that institution as it develops in Canada.

To make matters more difficult, I will first work backwards by initially discussing the third of her Priestley lectures on data that she gave yesterday and then move backwards to discuss numbers and facts. In that context, I will put forth the core idea of the university as a Social Service Station (SSS) first and then go back to discuss the idea of the University as a Sanctuary of Method and, previous to that, as a Sanctuary of Truth. Before I offer that intellectual guide map, I will present a triptych of Lepore’s, Gauchet’s and my framework in a static mode of simple succession. Only then will I go back and move forward to depict the dynamic progression of contradictions that plague each era and help yield the next stage. I will include the final stage of the university as a supermarket of ideas and a post-truth world in a separate discussion at the end of the series.

Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American history at Harvard. She is also a staff writer for The New Yorker and I may have referred to those writings on such varied subjects as barbie dolls and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in previous blogs. Relatively speaking, Lepore is a rising bright star in the intellectual heavens having received her BA in English in 1987 from Tufts, her MA in American culture in 1990 at the University of Michigan in 1990 and her PhD at Yale in 1995. In just over two decades, this sprightly and down to earth historian of popular culture has cut a swath through academe. The triptych presented below, without the additions of Gauchet and my own conceptions, is what she presented in her Priestley lectures as the character of three very different ages of determining what we know, how we know it and why we know to explain the character of these shifts.

Stages (what?) Facts Numbers Data
Modes (how?) Discernment Measurement Patterns
Goals (why?) Truth Power Prediction
Rough dates 1800’s 1900-1960 1960-2020
Primacy People Science Progress
Realms Civil Society Economics Neo-liberalism
University Sanctuary of Truth Sanctuary of Method Social Service Station

In one sense, the above depicts the stages of the birth and development of historical consciousness in modernity. For modernity itself since the development of the nation-state in the sixteenth and seventeenth century has prioritized change over stasis, a vision of dynamic transformation over pre-existing truths. In the mediaeval period, the dominant idea of the polity was of the King’s Two Bodies that provided the essential characterization of the politics of a society built on the divine right of kings, the very conception that gave rise to the notion of a ‘body politic.’ (Cf. Ernst H. Kantorowicz The King’s Two Bodies: A Study of Mediaeval Political Theology; the book was first published in 1957 and was one of the seminal works that informed my own thinking – a revised edition, which I have not read, was published recently by Princeton University Press) The core thesis, which I quote, is the following:

The king’s natural body has physical attributes, suffers, and dies, naturally, as do all humans; but the king’s other body, the spiritual body, transcends the earthly and serves as a symbol of his office as majesty with the divine right to rule. The notion of the two bodies allowed for the continuity of monarchy even when the monarch died, as summed up in the formulation “The king is dead. Long live the king.”

As in the contemporary era, the university went through four stages in the mediaeval period with its own version of a Sanctuary of Truth, A Sanctuary of Method, a Social Service Station and a Supermarket of Knowledge. (See Howard Adelman, The Holiversity) In that period, there were two radically different realms, the eternal one above that ruled over the changing one below, the realm of eternal and the realm of transience.

Gauchet dubs it the state of heteronomy in contrast to modernity governed by the concept of autonomy, the capacity for self-determination and the ability to make one’s own laws and self-legislate. According to Gauchet, in the period of modernity, democracy emerged as the prime political system and the nation-state the prime political unit to express this idea. In my view, not elaborated in this series, what we find is the rediscovery of the ancient Israelite conception of the nation-state via the Dutch thinkers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries now wedded to a revised version of the Greek concept of democracy.

In Gauchet’s version, modernity begins the process of leaving religion behind in the dustbin of history. Gauchet is an avowed French secularist. In my own view, in modernity the divine re-enters history as a process of self-revelation rather than the view of an unchanging deity ruling from a transcendent perch on its wayward and contentious empire below. On the surface, and on the surface only, modernity gives the appearance of leaving religion behind but really re-incorporates religious notions in a sense of spiritual revelation over time. The religion left behind is that of the totem of hunter-gatherer societies in which fate lies in the hands of the supernatural Other, either embedded in a world of natural spirits or disembodied from the natural world first by nomads who are not hunter-gatherers but move their domesticated flocks alongside them.

To jump to the present, we have entered a period in which democracy is in crisis, in which the university is in crisis and in which a sense of powerlessness has become the defining notion in radical contrast to the original vision of autonomy and self-determination. The symptoms include an obsession with an apocalyptic outcome and destruction of the natural world that lies at the core of environmentalism and the predominant mode of the new fiction and sci-fi movies. Instead of individual self-determination, politics has become for us liberals identity politics. Instead of politics as a collective enterprise of communal self-realization, it has become the realm in which personal fulfillment is the dominant mode. As a consequence, the core of a democracy, has been sucked from the plum to leave behind a dried and wrinkled prune. As privacy disappears, so ironically does the sense of the public.

One final note on Hegel and neo-Hegelian thought. Hegel has been radically misinterpreted through a Marxist lens and my own scholarship on Hegel focused on a reinterpretation to unpack the central religious themes of Hegel. While the dominant populist intellectual belief was that Hegel was convinced that history led to a terminus, to a final point of unity. I, and the rest of the Toronto Hegelian school, contended that history was not about the absolute as the end of history, for the absolute was always with us from the start. At each stage of historical self-revelation, the absolute takes on a new chimera and projects a new illusion of unity that will soon be fractured by its internal contradictions. Rather than coming to the end of history, rather than Hegel pronouncing on the character of that end, he wrote that, “The Owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.”

Contrary of the current character of the world of data preoccupied with its positivist emphasis on prediction, in history, we can only understand it backwards. That is the perpetual tragedy of history. As soon as we recognize the contradictions of an era we have moved on to a different age with its own internal contradiction. Hence, not a new unity but new forms of fragmentation and forces of dissolution.

I will begin next week with describing the age of data, the process of its emergence and the forces within it of dissolution with a focus on the dissolution of the Social Service Station that is in the process of being transformed into a supermarket of knowledge. Let me try to be clear. Each stage is not a discrete unit separate from the previous stage. It emerges out of the contradictions of that early stage out of elements of technology, of communication and of a mind-set emerging in that earlier stage. In this alliance of convenience of two successive stages, the defined enemy is always, not the previous stage, but the stage prior to that. It is a way of covering up current contradictions while displacing blame on that which has already been cast into the dustbin of history.

I will go back to trace the series of crisis that develop out of the contradictions in each stage to try to provide the background of why, when we have accumulated not only more knowledge than at any previous time, but the means to access even much more while, at the same time, we perhaps have never felt so impotent accompanied by the feeling that society has careened out of control. What happened to the idea of autonomy and self-determination. In the film Annihilation that I wrote about in the last blog, the central conceit hidden behind the martial mission film genre and the horror film genre was a conception of alien forces, not only taking possession of our selves and our brains in the world of big data, but of the very DNA of life in the whole of the living natural realm by becoming the ultimate body snatcher and controlling the central messaging system of our DNA to create new monsters, hybrids and mutations.

It is the roots of this dystopia of impending doom and its emergence that we need to come to understand. Just when we seem to have become the masters of our destiny, society is more than ever pervaded by a sense of helplessness and hopelessness in spite of the bursts of volcanic energy from high school students in America and women in America. Is it possible and how can we recover the original bold claim that we are masters of our destiny?

One last caveat. After Lepore’s lecture, which one of my grandsons attended with me, we went out to dinner together. He expressed an unbridled confidence in the wonders and indeed miracles that reside in the new realm of data. In my account, I will have to explain this overwhelmingly utopian vision in juxtaposition to the dystopic one that I sketched above.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Sunday: Facts, Numbers, Data: The Social Service Station


With the help of Alex Zisman