Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Knowing What You Are Doing

Sorry for the lack of posts in the last few days. I threw a dinner party for twenty people on the weekend and that kind of took up my attention. Plus, I've been processing the results of the US election. I have to say that, most of the time, US elections are much more entertaining than Canadian ones--especially if you don't have to live with the results.

The only recent Canadian election that I can recall that was as dramatic as last week's US one, was the federal election in 1993. Canada, as most of you will know, uses the British Parliamentary system where the leader of the party with the largest number of seats becomes the Prime Minister. Elections are not set, but are called by the Prime Minister (with the approval of the Queen's representative, the Governor General) at his discretion, but must be called before five years are up. One consequence of this is that Canadian elections are not the long, drawn-out torture that US elections can sometimes be. The last Canadian federal election was held last year and the whole campaign, from start to finish, was over in a few weeks.

Going back to that '93 election, which I recall quite well as I was resident in Canada at the time, at dissolution of Parliament, the Progressive Conservatives had a majority of 156 seats out of 295 in the House of Commons. (The Canadian Senate is rather less important than the US one. It consists of appointed members and has little power other than to veto legislation coming from the House of Commons.) Due to a number of factors (the popular Prime Minister resigned and the election was called by a new and inexperienced one, the Progressive Conservatives had been in power since 1984 and the voters were tired of them, plus, any party named the "Progressive Conservatives" obviously has issues) over half of their supporters ended up voting for someone else, including some new political parties.

The results were beyond astonishing: from a majority of 156 seats out of 295, the Progressive Conservatives were reduced to two, TWO, seats! The Liberal Party returned to power with 177 seats. There were no Progressive Conservative members in the whole Western half of the country. The husband of one of the remaining members, holding a seat in Nova Scotia, joked that he was sleeping with half the Progressive Conservative caucus. Yes, they retained their sense of humor, at least.

Canadians sometimes lose patience with provincial parties as well and consign them to the dustbin. The Progressive Conservatives never recovered from this disaster and disappeared entirely a few years later. The current Conservative party is an alliance between the remnants of the Progressive Conservatives, the Canadian Alliance and the Reform Party. They did return to power, but it took four federal elections.

I have often wondered at the remarkable stability (or is it stasis?) of the US system where senators can be re-elected over and over and over for thirty or forty years and where elections are finely balanced with only a couple of percentage points between the popular vote. Third parties are few and far between. I wonder if anyone has done a really detailed comparison of the Canadian and American systems? Maybe we should swap for a couple of decades and see how that goes?

This American election has been, given the differences, as earth-shaking as the '93 Canadian one. Remarkably nine out of the eleven most prominent polls had it wrong as did nearly all the mass media. Just days before the election the New York Times, among others, was giving Hillary Clinton an 86% chance of willing. Election night, from nine o'clock on, things started looking very different. Donald Trump, who always said he was going to win, turned out to be right. Ann Coulter suffered a gale of laughter from her fellow panelists and the studio audience when she predicted he was going to win many months ago. Everyone said that Donald Trump would never be president.

Why was that? I guess the post-mortem analyses will be going on for a while. I can't figure out what, if any, difference it is going to make for classical music or culture generally. It is said that politics is downstream from culture, but I can't see that this election substantiates that.

The point I want to make is that people that supposedly know what they are doing, pundits, political marketers and campaigners, media, academics, and so on, sometimes haven't got a clue, sometimes are wildly wrong! I think we should all learn one lesson from this election: don't put trust or faith in those folks that are always telling you what to do and think. They are frequently wrong. For years they treated Donald Trump as a distasteful clown and now they are paying the price.

Thinking that you know what you are doing is often just self-deception. The wisest people I know rarely act that self-assured. They treat life as an exploration, full of surprises. One interesting example I just ran across is Leonard Cohen talking about religion:

As a composer, I know mostly that I don't know what I am doing. Every new piece is an exploration of the unknown. How can you possibly know what you are doing? Perhaps we can all just be a tiny bit humbler about all those things that we think we know. After all, Socrates' real claim to fame was that he was the only one in Athens who knew that he knew nothing.


Marc Puckett said...

I indulged in a few days of mirth at the expense of the politicos and media apparatchiks who were so violently dumbfounded by the electoral results-- but only time will tell if that was more or less justifiable Schadenfreude or me revealing myself to be blind to the approaching terror. We'll see.

Christine Lacroix said...

Thank you for not dipping into politics during this particularly repugnant election. I'm glad you enjoyed it. I didn't. Your website was my go-to safe place for the duration. So glad it's over! The famous curmudgeon H.L. Mencken said: “As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” His other quotes on democracy : https://www.aei.org/publication/on-election-day-some-quotes-from-h-l-mencken-on-elections-voting-and-democracy/

My only hope now is that Donald Trump will once again prove everyone wrong and be a good president. And thanks for not bringing the mud into your website.

Christine Lacroix said...

I finally googled Kardshians. Their names keep popping up on various websites and I wasn't really sure. So they are reality stars, whatever that means. Guess they might turn up in four years for the next Presidential campaign. Got to stay informed! Bryan you've often commented that we should distrust 'experts' of various stripes, scientists, meteorolgists, political pundits. For my part I'm grateful that these people keep plodding along trying to find answers to questions that I find fascinating. Of course they make mistakes: Apparently even the Apollo moon rockets were off course 97% of the time. There is one 'pundit' who was right in this election:
Maybe he was just lucky?

Christine Lacroix said...

Sorry, this is probably a better link the the Lichtman explanations:

Bryan Townsend said...

I was very glad to keep the website free of any partisan vitriol. Thanks for noticing! I think the best thing I have heard so far was from Tom Hanks, who rather surprisingly said that he hopes the Donald Trump turns out to be such a good president that he will be happy to vote to re-elect him in four years.

Thanks for the links! Mencken is the very model of a curmudgeon.

I think that not knowing who the Kardashians are signals your virtue!

I have a bit of a complex position on "experts". On the one hand I distrust them, but on the other hand I am a kind of elitist. I think I can explain this by noting that there are different kinds of experts. There are those that really do know their stuff, like Richard Taruskin in music. But the majority of those who we might call public intellectuals are deeply invested in the culture war. Their testimony, corrupted as it is by their often hidden agenda, is not to be trusted. Yes, there are lots of people plodding along behind the scenes doing good work. But there are lots of others who are engaged in manipulating public opinion to ends that I often find very questionable indeed. This election provides a wealth of examples. The amount of sheer lies that were put on display every day was astonishing.

Christine Lacroix said...

Living so far away I didn't even know who Trump was until his stint as Birther in Chief. Do I need to say I wasn't impressed? But I'll second Tom Hanks. Nothing would make me happier than to have Trump surprise us all and be as good a president as he is a bullshit artist. Don't get me wrong. One of my dearest friends is a bullshit artist!

Again from my favorite curmudgeon: "The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary." and "A national political campaign is better than the best circus ever heard of, with a mass baptism and a couple of hangings thrown in." H. L. Mencken

And yes, we love experts until they start to say what we don't want to hear and contradict our most cherished beliefs. Then we suddenly become very suspicious. We're all guilty of that.

Bryan Townsend said...


Actually, my very favourite kind of expert is the one that shows me where I have been mistaken. My second favourite introduces me to something I didn't know. My third favourite is the kind that confirms what I believe to be true.