Rock, Paper, Scissors: Gravel pits, bureaucracy and how to win at Three Card Monte
Confronted with enough complexity most of us shut up.
The rational elites, obsessed by structure, have become increasingly authoritarian in a modern, administrative way. The citizens feel insulted and isolated. They look for someone to throw stones on their behalf. Any old stone will do. John Ralston Saul
The shills, confederates and co-conspirators
I've been writing about the experience with the Traffic Authority that introduced me to the labyrinth of Nova Scotia politics and bureaucracy over 20 years ago.
I was reminded of all this when I was reading the piles of details and talking with citizens about a new rock quarry being resisted by people in Fall River. It’s a shell game, the municipality says they’re on the people’s side but there’s nothing they can do, the provincial government has decreed, and they want this quarry to facilitate bringing in Federal highway money that will mean jobs, jobs, jobs, which is always the justification for everything even when we know the profits are distributed unfairly, the jobs are not sustainable, or the kinds of work people want in the future... or even employing people who live in Nova Scotia.
In the case of the quarry, citizen activists, dismissed and misdirected by all three levels of government are talking about going to the UARB, the Utilities Review Board, a new twist on the Three Card Monte, a kind of judge that relieves provincial government of responsibility for the biggest and most important decisions.
Confronted with enough complexity most of us shut up. The media directs our eye to the names and numbers those in authority want us to use to name and measure so that they can control the game. We are told and taught in subtle ways that people asking to stop and start again, in some new way, experimenting with bold new ideas, daring to fail and admit it, in order to create a freer, less anxious, happier place are not serious - they're dangerously idealistic, naive, or worse... they are naysayers who hate all we've accomplished.
But the truth is, there is no shortage of gravel in Nova Scotia. Nova Scotia is made of stone. It's one of our most abundant resources and suppliers are selling at near zero profit commodity prices. These quarries are part of the shell game, tied in with road building, big government, big money, big power and big influence.
There was also talk from the anti-quarry folks about going to the Ombudsman, or the courts. If they’re lucky there could be some agency, board or commission to do some review or study. And so it goes. The dealer in Three Card Monte enlists shills, observers, encouragers, other players, lookouts, who are a lot like the victims themselves, but by including them in the con the dealer gets control over them and uses them to his advantage. Likewise, some of the smartest and most engaged citizens, thinking it a matter of duty, volunteer. They offer up help to the authorities, joining agencies, boards, commissions, becoming councilors and back bench MLA’s, or jetting off to Ottawa and the ‘big time’ issues, never realizing that their civic commitment is the very chains of their enslavement.
Adm. H G Rickover USN spoke about this kind of managed organization and where it leads,
“A major reason why so large a majority is smugly docile is that it has accepted the unwritten rules of the game: Don't rock the boat as long as you get your cut. Why become worked up over corruption as long as there are enough benefits of the fallout to go around? Once the acceptance of corruption becomes sufficiently widespread, effective exposure seems threatening to too many people and interests. Clamor for closing loopholes declines in direct proportion to the number of people who benefit from loopholes of their own. Freedom of speech seems less important when the majority persuades itself that it is not likely ever to want to speak out to complain...”
We're polite. We never say the word corruption in Nova Scotia. But, this quote is certainly describes our system of government today. A system of social control that holds society in stasis for the benefit of those who call loudest for change but ensure nothing ever does.
How To Win At Three Card Monte
There is no easy way. There is no short cut. For every complicated problem there is an answer that’s simple, quick and wrong.
The key is education. Getting informed about how the larger systems work in Nova Scotia... and the world. It involves reading, math, talking and, yes, arguing... that's the process by which ideas are made whole.
Education is not necessarily paying for more school… that’s part of the scam. Real education. Where you learn about people. Where you learn about how to decide who and what to believe. Where you learn how the world works; how to read statistics and understand probabilities. Real education starts within yourself. It's an admission - that you are imperfect and lacking in every regard. Then it's a journey that only you can take. Though the internet surrounds us with facts we are desperately always lacking the tools to organize, understand and use them.
The great news is the journey doesn't need to be completed and it doesn't even matter where you start or which direction you go. A first question is all it takes. Just one real question followed through to its end will reveal everything.
The first step is to be able to stand back. Where there is argument or opportunity there is also room to stand back. Don’t dive in and pick a side. Work to understand the nature of the argument and opportunity itself. Take the broadest possible view. Imagine life as theatre. Who are the actors? Who is directing the play? What is the message? How does the theatre itself work?
Just like in Three Card Monte, the key is to just stand back and observe. You learn to observe by every day checking the “X” on some small, incremental self improvement. We build a better society by building better citizens, by fitting ourselves better to a greater purpose. By improving ourselves physically (to be healthier), emotionally (to be around smart, positive people), mentally (to be idea machines who design the future) and spiritually (to be grateful for the world and everything in it).
It’s ignorance that makes Three Card Monte work. A lack of knowledge about the game, the dealer and players, the rules and environment in which it exists. Once we’re educated. Once the game, is revealed, it, and the people who trade in it, the whole thing becomes laughable. The dealer and the shills become ridiculous in their own ignorance that people might be so stupid.
It’s a lot of work. The first step is a step back. Step out of the argument – the traffic, the quarry, whatever the quarrel of the day and see how things are organized, see how decisions are made, see the game and who is in on it. Then with its power laughably lost in revelation, we will begin again with a clear end goal in mind.
The citizen's job is to be rude - to pierce the comfort of professional intercourse by boorish expressions of doubt. John Ralston Saul
Writing about life, citizenship, and Nova Scotia.