Great minds don't always get it right

By 
  • March 6, 2008

{mosimage}The Lost Massey Lectures: Recovered Classics from Five Great Thinkers, introduction by Bernie Lucht (Anansi, 399 pages, $24.95 softcover).

In 1965 a single computer filled the space of a commodious living room. In 1966 we had not yet landed on the moon, let alone invented the Internet. In 1967 rock icons Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison were still alive, though not for much longer. In 1979 reality TV was the evening news. In 1983 there was such a thing as a Cold War and we were still fighting it.

All five of these years are now history, bygone eras of different ideas, ways of living, realities. People always say we must learn the lessons of history or we are doomed to repeat our mistakes. Yet those lessons are not straightforward. They don’t often offer blueprints for future action, or exact parallels with our own times. They are, instead, oblique, cautionary. They tell us that even the wisest minds of a particular era are just as inclined to be wrong about the future as they are to be right.

{sa 0887842178}At least that is the impression left by a reading of The Lost Massey Lectures. In this volume, the publishers and the CBC have collected five out-of-print talks by some of the most heralded intellectuals of their time in one of Canada’s most prestigious public forums. The CBC Massey Lectures, founded in 1961, have, over almost five decades, continuously presented on national radio some of the foremost ideas of the times by the world’s leading thinkers.

This particular collection includes Canadian-born economist John Kenneth Galbraith (1965), American writer, self-described anarchist and man of letters Paul Goodman (1966), civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King Jr. (1967), urban activist Jane Jacobs (1979) and Canadian economist and politician Eric Kierans (1983). Their topics and references illustrate well the preoccupations of their times.

Galbraith is rightly a giant of economics, who in his many works elegantly and persuasively pointed out the follies of mass consumption and the tragedy of global poverty. In this lecture, “The Underdeveloped Country,” he described the different factors that complicate the task of understanding what kind of development aid would truly help poorer countries.

His lecture underscores how little-developed scholarship on this topic was in 1965. Though he outlined the factors that made it impossible to create a one-size-fits-all formula for foreign aid, his talk still comes across as a very early foray into this subject. It is brimming with confidence and optimism that a little North American know-how is all it will take to whip global poverty.

Goodman reminds us of some of the arrant nonsense stuffed into the heads of university students back in the ’60s. His talk is full of bravado, cynicism and contradictions. He extols anarchy and the libertarian impulse at the same time as he prescribes grandiose state-enforced solutions to urban poverty, such as shipping large segments of the population of cities off to the countryside to reduce overcrowding.

King’s lecture is the only one of the five that still brings us to attention with its moral clarity and righteous anger. Its principles withstand time and are as persuasive today as they were 40 years ago. An eloquent preacher, Rev. King grounds his call to action in the New Testament, giving it a timeless resonance.

At first blush, Jacobs seems to be venturing far from her usual turf, with a reflection on Quebec’s looming referendum on sovereignty-association in 1980. Yet she does get back to familiar terrain, focusing her analysis on the development of Canada’s two major metropolises — Montreal and Toronto — to offer a well-reasoned discussion of why Quebec’s separation from Canada would actually be an improvement.

Unfortunately, Jacobs has the vantage point of the detached. She doesn’t really care whether Quebec stays or leaves. Canada to her is an intellectual construct and her only concern is whether it operates efficiently. She accepts that most Canadians do not feel that way, but fails to recognize it is those emotions, rather than rational argument, that will carry the day. Nor does she seem aware that the debate over Quebec separatism was an argument largely between two factions of Quebeckers, with the rest of us as worried onlookers.

Kierans was a left-wing minister in the Liberal cabinets of Pierre Trudeau who resigned because he thought the government was taking the country too far into the American orbit. This particular lecture is vintage Kierans, challenging long-standing Canadian dependency on the U.S. economy and railing at American hegemony.

It must be recalled that this talk was given at the height of Ronald Reagan’s first term as president, when the United States aggressively challenged the Soviet Union and often bullied its allies into line. Kierans feared economic globalization, but based on the notion that it would become simply another tool in Washington’s arsenal that could be used for world domination.

Well, things have changed. We still fear globalization, but not because of anything the White House is going to do with it. The rise of the economic might of China and India are starting to become more worrisome, while the U.S. government leads its nation into one crisis after another. Today the left clamours for more international control while the right fights for freedom from any state intervention.

If these lectures should teach us anything, it is humility. Yes, we can solve some of our problems and there is nothing to be gained in fateful resignation. But the human condition is an imperfect state, one that often remains impervious to the best laid plans of mice — and intellectuals.

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