A measure of a man

A brief digression into politics and philosophy, both moral and realpolitik.

The science fiction and fantasy genres were once viewed a pulp fiction on par with true crime novels and supermarket tabloids; not serious, substantial, literary fiction with social import. Perhaps that was true across the board, once. It isn’t any more. It stopped being true much longer ago in the fantasy genres. (There’s these books called the Old & New Testaments that at least some of you have heard of. Whatever else it is, Revelations is well written fantasy.)

But that’s an old fight.If we begin with the nearer past,  choosing but four examples, just limiting ourselves to books published originally in English, books such as James Blish’s A Case of Conscience, Ursula K Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969),  David Gerrold’s The Man Who Folded Himself (1973), and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale” (1985), all of which are not unique in their quality are proof enough.

Of course, there’s also that highly regarded by critics genre called (cough) magic realism. Then, going just a bit farther back into the past, we have more than one play by, (cough cough) writers somewhat more well-known and well-regarded (even in many places in the heart of Trumpland): George Bernard Shaw and William Shakespeare

Even lesser books contain useful insights into the human condition. The insights might not be foot-noted and referenced, as they would be in an academic text but then neither are similar insights in books considered serious fiction.

For example, consider these excerpts from Gordon R Dickson’s The Genetic General (1969). I can’t give you published page numbering because I’m using an electronic copy that doesn’t have the page references immediately at hand. My copies (sigh) are sitting in a library in the basement of my sister’s home in Vancouver, Canada. As it happens, that basement is also occupied – some of you might be able to guess where this is going: it’s a tangent I’ll stop riding in a moment – my nephew.

Dickson wrote:

“Certainly,” …. “any man can be judged by the character and actions of the people with which he surrounds himself. …

… “But having such intellectual capabilities, a man must show proportionately greater inclinations toward either good or evil than lesser people. If he tends toward evil, he may mask it in himself— he may even mask its effect on the people with which he surrounds himself. But he has no way of producing the reflections of good which would ordinarily be reflected from his lieutenants and initiates—and which, if he was truly good-he would have no reason to try and hide. And by that lack, you can read him.”

That may sound like pop psychology. Perhaps it is expressed in that stark form. But if you agree that the sentiments are correct, then (unless one is writing a text where citations matter because plagiarism could be an issue) that’s sufficient for the purpose of the text. After all, Shakespeare is rightly viewed as a master at capturing the human condition, including frailties, in words. I can’t recall ever hearing or reading of anyone criticising Will for not adequately referencing his sources.

It’s a moot point, now, but I’ve long thought that this passage was far too applicable than I’d have wished to too many of the cast of subordinates that former PM Stephen Harper subjected Canada to during his time as Prime Minister of Canada. The Duffy mess was merely final, stark, undeniable proof. One might merely ask oneself this question: would any of them deny, if answering honestly, their belief that Mr. Harper (if he did not know in advance of and at least in general what they planned) would have approved of their conduct? Even if your answer is ambivalent about the Duffer, what about Nigel Wright?

In the U.S. we have the legion of Nixon confederates who were convicted of felonies (serious crimes) that, in fact, occurred and Nixon, himself, who required a presidential pardon in advance to avoid being convicted of a felony. Your mileage may vary regarding Bushes I and II. My guess is that the situation may be worse, in the United States, under President-elect Trump. It certainly is if one looks at the legion he has surrounded himself with, to date.

You might compare, if you wish (regardless of what you think of their politics) the people who flocked to former Canadian Prime Ministers Lester Pearson and Pierre Elliott Trudeau and a man who may have been the best leader to never have been prime minister the now-defunct Canadian Progressive Conservative party ever produced: Robert Stanfield. And then consider the group that eventually collected around former Prime Ministers Brian Mulroney and Joe Clark.  Flora MacDonald’s position is different. She didn’t have enough time in power.

I recall using the passage from Dickson’s The Genetic General in a brief, mid-term paper I had to submit in a “serious literature” humanities course in either first or second year university. I suspect I’ve conflated the consequences of that use with other similar events but the kernel of the story I’m about to tell is accurate enough. The professor’s response sounded like a bit of a “harrumph” when asking me why I hadn’t chosen something better to make that point. (The context was his valid complaint that the paper was a bit too heavy on the style and too light,  for him from me, in content. He might have used the term “facile”.) In any event, my response was “no, not really, here”. I recall a smile and what I took to be a some extent of a nod of agreement. (I received an A minus on the paper with a note beside the mark to the effect that “you can do better”. He was right.)

For those who might take up arms against my use of the not-intended-to-be-gender- specific “man”, there’s at least this: the alliteration. As well, there is some evidence supporting an inductive-reasoning based conclusion that Trump is of the male gender.

A final point. The last sentence from the first of the quoted excerpts – I removed it from the excerpt – is: “And this William has an entourage of thwarted and ruined people.” The “and”, here, likely has to be understood as explicitly meaning “or”, too.


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