John Ralston Saul - Matt Nippert, New York

Sunday, May 29, 2005

UPFRONT: Matt Nippert talks to John Ralston Saul [non-rationalist]

Caught in limbo between photo shoot and interview, chitchat with John Ralston Saul ranges from drink orders to preferred titles. Either "Your Excellency" (his wife, the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson, is the Governor-General of Canada), "Dr. Saul" (Ph.D. from Kings University), or just plain John. He prefers a flat water, and John. Why flat water? "There is this assumption everywhere in the world that you're going to want artificially carbonated French water. It's a sign of advertising that you'd actually want water from the most polluted continent in the world because the advertising tells you it's chic."

In their 1995 listing of 100 visionaries, the Utne Reader described Saul as "An erudite Toronto gadfly whose bete noire is the abuse of thought and language at the hands of arrogant elites". Recognition for Saul came from his pair of savagely critical essay collections, Voltaire's Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West, and The Doubter's Companion: A Dictionary of Aggressive Common Sense. He only made it to 86 on the list, but considering those above him - Fritjof Capra (18), Noam Chomsky (20) and Spike Lee (56) - he wasn't in bad company.

Saul is here promoting his most recent book, On Equilibrium. The book represents a break from his past work, he says. "Voltaire's Bastards, The Unconscious Civilisation and The Doubter's Companion are about twelve to fifteen hundred pages of critique - just saying look, this is the problem, this is the way it works, this is where it counterfeits. I've told you why I think reason has gone off the tracks, and why it doesn't work, and how it leads to corporatism. So, what are the mechanisms that we have that we can use to think about something different?

"I think you can basically say that globalisation is dead. Period. It's just dead." Saul wonders why we judge our fellow citizens more harshly than free market policies. "It's failed three times, with enormous social costs; in the lead-up to World War I, the Great Depression, and in the last twenty years ... Even economic theories die when they fail enough." For a social construction - and "globalisation", he points out, is neither a force of nature nor a scientific law - social disbelief is nothing short of a mortal blow.

If globalisation is dead, then, we must be watching the wake. "They [the elites] just can't figure how to get out of it, can't figure out new language yet, new ways of handling things. It's an interim period."

These days, Saul is more interested in where the tide takes us, whether the vacuum of power is filled by nationalism, or a cogent, public, discussion. Like an optimistic Orwell, he seeks to move debate away from pro- and anti-globalisation rhetoric, and toward the creation of a new language to describe the future.

On Equilibrium* promotes the importance of ineffable, non-rational, human qualities such as common sense, ethics, imagination, intuition and memory, in addition to reason. Not too many intellectuals use sporting analogies in their analysis, but Saul aptly quotes ice hockey great Wayne Gretzky on the importance of intuition: "you must skate to where the puck is going, not to where it is."

The marginalisation of non-rational knowledge is the problem, Saul argues. "We do use our intuition, we do have a memory - but we have to dress it all up as if it's rational. So we completely waste all this time lying to ourselves, and often can't do it well because the lie takes us off track, so we do something intuitional - reach into our imagination or intuition to decide something. Then we desperately have to call management meetings to come up with paperwork to justify what we've just done."

Economic rationalism, he says, is hardly the clinically rigourous sciecne it pretends to be. "Think about over-the-top romantic comedies - that's the marketplace. It throws itself into enthusiasm, it falls madly in love, and throws money desperately in one direction and gets itself way overextended and collapses."

Democracy, Saul argues, is threatened by the strictly "rational" view that it should be efficient. What it should be, he contends, is a mattress (or padded walls, depending on your perspective) for the market to operate within, providing stability and insulation from its extremes. It may not be efficient, but it is effective. "Government can deliver effectively, but the process of democracy is supposed to be slow, inefficient, repetitive, overlapping, expensive, time-wasting. That's what it is supposed to be, that's what democracy is. Dictatorships are efficient." Mussolini made the trains run on time, but democracies laid the tracks.

So Saul advocates a slow, meandering approach to decision making. Take the debate on genetic engineering, he says. “\"The uninformed public wish to have an open, relaxed, unclear conversation about the pros and cons, listen to what people think and gradually, bit by bit, make up their minds. Not because they understand it, but because they've heard a debate, and they've found their place in the debate...I'd like to slow down, because I think I have a right to a long, slow, open public debate. It may turn out to be the best thing since sliced bread. But since we haven't had the chance to talk about it, who knows?"

The lack of such open, public talk is due to what Saul calls the "employment contract" - "the single largest limit today on freedom of speech."

"When people come out of universities and get jobs, particularly if they're in any kind of managerial, scientific, [or] specialist areas ... they end up working for governments, corporations and universities. And really what the employment contract says is that in return for paying you a salary, we get total ownership of your knowledge, your understanding in your area of specialisation.

"In other words, they're basically getting from you ownership over the area where you have the most to contribute as a citizen. It becomes virtually impossible in our societies to have sensible conversations about complicated issues because the people who have some interesting things to say can only feed the information through interest groups."

Debate deteriorates into "opaque salvos" from competing corporate groups, in the form of self-interested press statement, supported by a work-force of experts removed from the public sphere. This is doubly ironic, as Saul points out, when these specialists have been educated in the public system for the public good.

I point out to Saul that the lack of nuclear physicians in New Zealand hasn't stopped it from forming clear views on the implications of nuclear power and technology. "There's a feeling outside of New Zealand of, 'how dare they make an uninformed decision. Are they experts? We are experts!' It is this feeling of ownership that corporations or governments own understanding of nuclear fission and no democratic society is allowed to make up their mind about it. ...[Thus] the ability to have a really open and relaxed conversation about nuclear fission is very, very difficult, so we've never been able to have one."

A waiter delivers drinks to the table. Bottled water. Bottled French water. Foreshadowing, synchronicity, or mere coincidence?
"You see now there you are. No." Saul says firmly.
The waiter is taken aback. "No?"
"Just some water," Saul insists.
"Some plain tap water?"
"This is my joke, you see. Here you are in a country filled with clean water tables, clean water literally spurring down mountainsides, unpolluted and nuclear free. Nuclear free," he says with emphasis. "And here," pointing to the plastic French bottle, "is water from the most nuclear dependent country on earth."

* ON EQUILIBRIUM, by John Ralston Saul (Penguin $24.95)

Published June 22, 2002, New Zealand Listener.