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

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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

Populism

Yesterday was very busy. I attended the lunch hour talk at Massey College by Cliff Orwin on “Populism.” I then went to my dentist and heard the disappointing news that my implants were not yet fused solidly enough to my jaw bones to put on crowns; I would have to wait another two months. I then returned to the University of Toronto and attended the J.F. Priestley lecture delivered by Jill Lepore on “Facts.” Today and tomorrow I will attend the second and third of these lectures by Jill Lepore on “Numbers.” And “Data” respectively. The three-part series is called, “The End of Knowledge.” In the evening I returned to Massey College to listen to a panel discussion on “Religion and Conflict.” I will report on each in turn in this and subsequent blogs as a way of gaining an understanding of the university as a Social Service Station.

Cliff is a brilliant scholar who was educated at Cornell University under the aegis of Allan Bloom and at Harvard in the sixties and then, like many American academics, migrated north. He is a professor of political philosophy renowned for his work on Thucydides (The Humanity of Thucydides), but is also engaged with modern, contemporary and Jewish thought. In his own bio, he writes that his main current concerns are compassion and the emergence of justice or righteousness in the Torah. Coincidentally, at the panel on “Religion and Conflict,” Rabbi Yael Splansky, one of the panelists, handed out a drash (an interpretation of religious text) from the Talmud, Bereishit Rabbah 8:5, that dwelt on the interplay of kindness or compassion, truth, justice and peace. As is customary, it is written in the form of “on the one hand” and then “on the other hand” in an argument among the angels over whether God should create humans. Because humans will be bestowed with compassion and justice – Cliff’s two current topics – in the angel’s eyes, this argues for human creation. However, humans will also be characterized by the propensity to lie rather than seek the truth and with the propensity for conflict and dissension rather than peace, the arguments offered for not creating humans.

These will be the four themes that run through the next series of blogs – the expression of compassion and the quest for justice offset by the propensity to lie rather than seek the truth and the propensity for dissension or conflict rather than peace. What does God do after listening to the debate amongst his angels? He “took truth and flung him to the ground. Thus it is written: ‘You will cast truth to the ground.’ (Daniel 8:12)” “Why did you do that?” asked an angel. Why would you despise your seal of truth since truth must rise from the ground? “Truth will grow from the earth.” (Psalms 85:12)

Two historians of the past and a rabbinic scholar on the same day are really all mesmerized by the issue of truth in juxtaposition with developments in the external world. The scholarship of the two professors is used to offer different reasons for the current passion to denigrate “truth” and to explain why this is so. They are not addressing abstract topics, but issues we now confront daily. They may be political philosophers or scholars in modern intellectual history or preoccupied with the Talmud, but the issue before them all is explaining the current widespread disdain for truth and assessing the significance of this turn of events. They are esteemed thinkers, two of them working in a university still characterized as a Social Service Station focused on and guided by the current problems of the day which they use their scholarship to address. In addition to their scholarship, Orwin, Lefore and Splansky are all prolific contributors of op-eds.

Populism is certainly on the rise. In the past ten days we witnessed Doug Ford, a local populist, being elected to lead the Conservative Party of Ontario, an event reported by Foreign Affairs in its coverage of the noteworthy issues around the world. In the Italian elections on 4 March, populist parties emerged triumphant, Matteo Salvini’s Northern League (Lega Nord), the far-right Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia), Luigi di Maio’s Five Star Movement (MoVimento 5 Stelle or M5S) and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forward Italy (Forza Italia), the latter now portrayed more as a traditional centre-right party than a populist one. Together, they won a majority of the seats in Parliament with M5S winning a much greater proportion of the votes than expected. Then, of course, there was the latest flood of news from the strongest label in the populist arena, Donald Trump himself and his shenanigans.

Trump’s initiative to meet with North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, first unconditionally, then conditionally, then quasi-conditionally, that is, unconditionally with some conditions, his firing of Rex Tillerson as his Secretary of State via a tweet, his protectionist trade policies and imposition of duties on imported steel and aluminum, at the same time as he was embroiled in the suit be Stormy Daniels, the porn star with whom he allegedly had an affair and to whom he indirectly paid $130,000 to shut her up just before the elections. Yesterday, Trump reviewed the design prototypes in San Diego of his long-promised wall along the Mexican border, one of the main planks of his populist program that won him the presidency. The cup of populism runneth over.

What did Thucydides have to say about populism? As Cliff noted, the pattern of lying is not unique to populism. Look at the big lie of the George Bush presidency about nuclear weapons in Iraq that justified the American invasion. As Thucydides wrote (Book VI of The Peloponnesian Wars), the Athenians based their invasion of Sicily, ignorant of the deep divisions within that population, on advancing their imperial and pecuniary interests, but based on misinformation and downright lies as revealed by Nicias who had been appointed general against his will. Nicias thought that the decision to go to war was based “upon slight and specious grounds.” Nicias warned of the many existing enemies that would arise from such an expedition and the new ones that would emerge from within Sicily.

One populist response to these lies and historic consequences was a rejection of global overreach and a propensity towards neo-isolationist policies. The imperial elites that populists subsequently rejected in the name of self-determination and the opposition to bringing more foreigners to Athens because the needs of Athens’s own population were being neglected, were the same problems pointed to by liberals. Neo-cons were the enemies of both liberals and populists as were the mandarins who supported those imperialist adventurers.

The populists simply marked all bureaucrats with the same brush. The populists were correct in at least one sense – liberals had lost touch with the people. And Cliff is driven by a need to reconnect intellectual elites with the people in the pattern of his hero, Thucydides, who he claims always displayed a sympathy for the victims of power. Trump went further along another path and insisted, “Let us have no more allies such as ours have often been to whom we are expected to render aid when they are in misfortune, but from whom we ourselves get no help when we need it.” (Thucydides, Book VI)

Further, as with Athens, America is an innovative state that has always been dedicated to imperial expansion and glory in pursuit of its own interests at the expense of others. Populists simply insist, contrary to fact, that it is the U.S. that has been suckered. Further, the populism of Athens, and any other city-state in the ancient Greek world, preferred safety even at the cost of justice. So wherein comes justice, wherein comes compassion, in a world torn between imperial passions and defensive self-concern? Even Sparta, rooted in conservatism, moderation and the old-fashioned virtue of justice, was motivated by fear, fear of the helots on whose labour the city-state depended. States are caught between imperial overreach (such as that of the neo-cons) that expresses a willingness to sacrifice for a larger cause, and an obsession with safety of self characterized by populism. Liberals must manage the two diverse and rival passions of glory versus safety, ambition versus self-determination, and must do so by a reverence for candor and truth.

Cliff made the same point that Thucydides did – the need to make liberalism more populist. In order to reinvigorate a democracy that had abandoned its roots, its foundations in self-determination and in democracy. The problem, of course, is that populism and liberalism, whatever their overlaps, are very different. Populism embraces a politics of resentment, of negativity rather than offering a positive program based on a canonical text outlining core beliefs. Further, populism is anti-elitist where the elites are NOT defined by their wealth, but by their failure to identify with the problems of ordinary people. The elites are journalists, academic intellectuals and mandarins who speak what to them is a foreign language and who substantively appear to be hypocrites in their ostensible concern for resolving social problems while neglecting the decline in jobs, the decline in hopes and the general distress of a working class displaced by globalism.

Localism, anti-mandarinism, neo-isolationism in both trade and foreign affairs, mark them off from liberals. In Europe, populist parties have tended to don a liberal dress to attract a wider appeal. In North America, they market themselves as anti-liberal. In both cases, populists regard the position of these academic elites as consisting entirely of lies and responsible for the dissension in society because they do not attend to “the core values” that once purportedly characterized the nation. To top it off, these liberals lacked compassion towards their own and a determination to deliver on the promise of justice. Barack Obama bailed out the banks but not the people who were underwater because of the history of the banks disregard of the impact of their policies on small homeowners.

But the central characteristic that I take to be typical of populism is a total disregard of the truth that they project onto elites. It is they who sell out their heads for what they feel. It is they who base policy on sentiment in response to a deep need for compassion and justice directed toward themselves. In The New Yorker (5 March 2018), there is an investigative report by Mike Spies on the famous or infamous gun lobbyist in Florida, Marion Hammer who earns US$316,000 a year for her efforts. Florida witnessed the second-deadliest mass shooting by a single shooter in the attack of a killer with assault weapons on a largely Latino gay nightclub in Orlando on 12 June 2016. 49 were killed and 58 others were injured, a fatality toll only surpassed by the attack in Las Vegas a year later. But the killer was Omar Mateen, a follower of radical Islam.

This was not the case in Las Vegas. This was not the case of the 17 killed most recently at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. A majority of Americans may support increased gun control, but a populist-rooted NRA and its lobbyists have been behind a series of efforts to expand the access to weapons by Americans, including the unique privilege of carrying firearms by the ordinary public, bills that punish officials who even attempt to establish gun registries, the right to carry concealed weapons and, more fundamentally, for overturning 100 years of American judicial interpretations of the second amendment of the American constitution that protects the rights of states to arm militias and converting it to a policy that insists on the natural-born right of every individual in America to bear arms. Not only to bear them, but to use them if they have a reasonable belief that they are acting to defend themselves. “Subjective feelings of fear were grounds to shoot someone even if there were other options available.” (p. 28)

Law and order displaces the rule of law and a respect for due process. It is no surprise that subsequent to the passage of such legislation, “the number of homicides ruled legally justifiable had increased in Florida by seventy-five percent.” “Such killers need provide zero evidence of self-defence to avoid not only being convicted but being prosecuted at all.” (p. 31) On 26 February 2012, George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida killed an unarmed black man, Trayvon Martin, and was found innocent. Since the law took effect, seventy percent of those who invoked it (the belief in a justified fear of danger) as a defense had gone free.” (p. 28)

Behind it all is not a politics of informed debate, but a politics of lies and threats, of coercion and manipulation. The NRA has 300,000 members in Florida. It is Marion Hammer, a non-elected lobbyist, who writes bills and oversees their passage and who prevents ANY and ALL legislation that would limit access to and the use of guns to even come up for vote. She controls a politically very active voting bloc that she manipulates with provocative language, paints even her most loyal legislative supporters as traitors if they deviate one iota from the line she establishes. Their miniscule attempts at deviation are marked as “unforgiveable betrayals.”

The basic position is that she is not just defending the right to both bear and use weapons, but a way of life under attack defended by a large “number of fanatical supporters who will take her word for almost anything and can be deployed at will.” (p. 26) She sends out 2-3 million e-mails on an issue and there are 4.6 million registered Republicans in the state. Hammer refused to be interviewed for Mike Spies’s story and in response to queries insisted that, “facts are being misrepresented and false stuff is being presented as fact.” But she offers no proof. She offers no rebuttals. As a complete fabrication based on no offered or available data, Hammer contended that “before the law (the one allowing the use of a weapon if you had a reasonable belief that you were in danger) was enacted, innocent people were being arrested, prosecuted and punished for exercising self-defence that was lawful under the Constitution.“ (p. 28) Ask for even one example and the answer is, “Not relevant.”

Mandarins who supply objective and disinterested “facts” are called liars propelled by the political intent to kill the legislation she supports. Anyone who does not support the positions she advocates, no matter what their past activity and support had been, become enemies. “(I)f you cross me once, even if the issue doesn’t involve the Second Amendment, I will take you out.” In defence of a Hobbesian state of nature in opposition to responsible government, any lie is permissible, any libel justified.

Though truth is thrust on the ground and covered with dirt and filth, truth will still grow from that earth, but it will take courage, commitment and compassion to protect those tender shoots against the assaults of populism. The duty of academics in a Social Service Station is to launch a full-scale attack on behalf of truth against these purveyors of lies and manipulators of voters. The dilemma, as Cliff points out in his book on Thucydides, is that reason and truth are weak in dealing with fears; hypocrisy must be employed to win support. Both liberalism and democracy need to be reclaimed by ensuring that truth can grow and thrive and that compassion rather than coercion, justice rather than injustice, can prevail. But it won’t come without costs.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Tomorrow: Jill Lepore on Facts