Wise Old Owls or Crazy, Nasty-ass Honey Badgers Who Just Don’t Care?

Suppose your institution has suffered quite a drubbing in the press. Maybe you run a university or a hospital or a labour union or an industrial standards regulatory board — something that provides an important service to a community and has a role to play in that community’s continued well-being. But something terrible has happened. There has been one or more ugly scandals, and your institution’s reputation has suffered.

You need to do some damage control because, damn it, people deserve industrial standards regulation or access to medical care or collective bargaining, etc. I mean, this isn’t about selling widgets, by God. Your institution is important, and it’s really getting it in the slats these days.

So, naturally, you write a children’s book.

[Needle Scratching Across a Record] Well, that’s what Canada’s “house of sober second thought” thought. See, The Senate, an appointed body of 105 more-or-less esteemed Canadians whose primary function is to ensure fair regional representation in legislation, is an essential part of the Canadian parliamentary system, but recently some issues have come to light that reflect poorly on the nation’s Upper House. Because senators hold their jobs until the age of 75, those issues have the potential to persist in the public imagination for decades. Unless, that is, the Senate itself deals with its issues directly.

Well, how bad can it be? Suppose the union leader is skimming from the treasury; a lab tech has been diluting medicine & selling it on the black market; the University’s dean is dating a student in his class at a local motel. That’s the sort of trouble the Senate is in. All of those. At the same time. From Mike Duffy, Nigel Wright and teen-dating Don Meredith to (my personal fave) Senator “Residential Schools Weren’t So Bad” Lyn Beyak, the Upper House is looking a little low these days.

I know what you’re thinking: so plug the hole. Impeach the union leader; fire the lab tech; promote the Assistant Dean and send the creepy Dean on sabbatical until his term ends. That’s how other worthy institutions handle stuff like this. But not the Canadian Senate.

They reach out not to the news-reading adults whose taxes have funded their debacles, but to the children of those tax payers. Check it out: you can download a free pdf of The Wise Owls and read it with your toddler to teach them what the Senate is supposed to do. So what’s wrong with that? Nothing! Kids ought to learn about how government works if they’re going to grow up to be contributing citizens. But you’re going to get a little extra propaganda with that lesson.

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What a bunch of rubes these forest creatures (Canadian voters & their elected reps) are!

As a delivery mechanism for a lesson in how government works, it’s it’s a bit of a blunt instrument: “people are whimsically malleable; they elect reps for all the wrong reasons.” But as a propaganda tool for dissuading young minds from ever questioning the role of the ruling class in the state’s private affairs, it’s also a disappointment. And that’s not just because of the concept. The art’s kinda bad, too.

The compositions seem rushed and uneven; some of the characters are more detailed than others for reasons unrelated to the story. And I don’t understand the illustrator’s aesthetic choices (those textures look like masked drop-ins and unfinished at that). But, hey. I get it: they didn’t write it for me. It’s for the kids. Or is it?

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Quiet? QUIET? It’s a safe bet most Canadians wish they could forget the Senate was there. We would gladly do so but for their prolonged, incessant disruptions involving $90,000.00 cheques, teenage girlfriends in tax-payer-funded hotel rooms, and pondering of the good that might very well have come from schools that kept an electric chair for blasting the nativeness out of native kids. Oh, it’s many things “up in the trees” of the Red Chamber, but “quiet” ain’t one of them.

The further you get into The Wise Owls, the harder it is to read it as an educative children’s story rather than an imperative alternate reality — one in which the Senate functions like The Providers in a SciFi dystopia. It becomes a sort of inverse Animal Farm where the allegory works to diminish the local forest creatures who are incapable of governing themselves because they suffer from the sort of self-interested shortsightedness that makes scorpions sting the frog they’re floating on.

But there’s good news, kids. A crowned lioness appears from abroad [unlike the other forest creatures, we don’t get lions in Canada] and “roars her [royal?] assent” (pg 20) to an Upper House of Alpha Owls. These magnificent creatures will watch over the miserably deluded average rodents (i.e., Canadian voters and the Members of Parliament they vote for) from a great height with the permission of their colonial master, The Lioness.

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The elected animals are totally not qualified to govern. They got their jobs not because they’re good at them, but because they’re “tall” or “sly” or, generally “popular” (pg 7). I mean, why even bother voting? So it’s just a good thing for them there’s a lioness from away who knows how to get things done in a forest. Conversely, the “guardian class” owls have no individuality beyond what the artist gives them: they lack any differentiating features in the script, further removing them from the plane of mundane electoral politics. They are inscrutable and untouchable.

The result is more than a little condescending. If your toddler doesn’t ask what makes the Owls so damn infallible, they’re not toddling right. And when the book peters out in a glitchy, illegible graphic/text collision (pg 22), the reader may be forgiven for wondering if the committee responsible for The Wise Owls wasn’t actually interested in teaching or impressing anybody with this project.

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It’s like they just don’t give a damn. “We’re ancient, omniscient, our authority is a metaphysical imperative, and you miserable lot will do as we damn well please” is the closest to a happy ending you’re going to get in The Wise Owls. What can you say about an institution that should play a pivotal role in the equal distribution of justice in your country when it tolerates corruption, cronyism, racism, and more from its members while crafting a book to tell your kids about how awesomely untouchable it is?

No, this is not the act of some Wise Owls. This book is the work of some bad ass, crazy nastyass Honey Badger Senators who are crazy and just don’t give a shit and take what they want.

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Charting without prejudice: is it even possible?

As if it ain’t hard enough to slog through a wet, cold & gritty Canadian early Spring, Maclean’s Magazine published Cary Wu and Rima Wilkes’ article, “The stats bear it out: In Quebec, trust is low” on March 30th of 2017 just to bum us all out even further. Well, that, and to present statistically defensible quantification of Andrew Potter’s incendiary assertion, in an earlier Maclean’s article, that “Quebec is an almost pathologically alienated and low-trust society, deficient in many of the most basic forms of social capital that other Canadians take for granted.”

That’s pretty strong stuff. It remains to be seen what will become of Potter’s career at McGill, but I’m less concerned with the message of the article or its veracity than I am with the graphics that accompanied it initially and, rather conspicuously, the graphics which hastily replaced them. Below, the dreary picture of pathological Francophone hyper-vigilance with which the article was initially published. When asked, “Who do you trust?” Canadians responded:


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Note the vertical scale. All of the data is presented in percentiles, of course, but the actual range of each graph varies. Some start at the absolute bottom of 0% and go to 25%, while others pick up halfway and terminate at 75%. The reason, or rather, the reason I’m assuming the graphic artist would cite for laying out the data this way, is to feature the relative difference between the Rest Of Canada (ROC) and Quebec rather than featuring the absolute difference between all or none. While the former is pertinent to the question of comparing Canadians, the latter means defining a scale between…

  1. a hypothetical, idiotically gullible rube who trusts everybody all the time, and
  2. a hypothetical, cripplingly paranoid hermit.

I mean, that’s what “100%” and “0%” would represent on an absolute scale, and such naifs / Tolkienian Gollums are not pertinent to the point the authors want to make. At least, that’s how I’d have made this mistake.

And I would be mistaken because there are in this story characters other (and more important) than the those hypothetical extremes described above. In the graph presented as above, the ROC positively towers over Quebec’s trust-score in all but the “members of family” category. Why, just look at that great, amicable red stripe of mostly English-speaking friendliness dwarfing those tiny, paranoid blue stubs of Quebec. As you might expect, people complained.

Maclean'sGraphTweet(Les Perreaux)
And the magazine reacted. They replaced the relative-scale graph with one which showed the same data in an absolute scale:

QuebecTrustChartAFTER01

Well, that puts things in a different light. Even the printer can see this is a fairer representation just by looking at the ink reservoirs when the job finishes.

What can we learn from this? Was the first chart an attempt to deceive or obfuscate the facts? Edward Tufte sagely observed that “data graphics are no different from words [in so far as] any means of communication can be used to deceive.” Indeed, he cites as an example of such deception a graph using non-zero Y-axis values in Visual Display of Quantitative Information (2001), but he does so because the graph at issue compares quanta from two dissimilar Y-axis starting points (dirty pool!). More to the point, he laments later in the chapter that he finds it “particularly disheartening […] that the reported perception of something as clear and simple as line length depends on the context and what other people have already said about the lines.” Or, as Donald Rumsfeld famously put it, even the most elemental data visualization is subject to distortion from “that which we don’t know we don’t know.”

So: know. That’s the lesson. Know, or know that if you don’t know, somebody smarter than you will let you know. I don’t believe the graphic designer who produced the initial graph for Maclean’s was “deceptive,” nor intentionally trying to dwarf Quebec with cloying Anglophonic bonhomie. But the fact that the graph had to be replaced shows they did that anyway, which must have been mortifying, and for which they have my deepest sympathies.

But with the article already hot like a hot potato in the world of Canadian letters (having just got Andrew Potter dealt the Spanish Archer* at McGill), the editor should have known that their position just might be read graphically as a bit defensive concerning their accuracy in assessing how trusting are Quebeckers relative to the rest of Canada vs. Quebeckers relative to Tolkein’s Gollum.

If they didn’t, it’s safe to say they do now.

*El Bow