BOOKS

Campaign follies

Is monkey see, monkey do, what guides voters?

ROSS LAVER October 9 1989
BOOKS

Campaign follies

Is monkey see, monkey do, what guides voters?

ROSS LAVER October 9 1989

Campaign follies

BOOKS

Is monkey see, monkey do, what guides voters?

ONE HUNDRED MONKEYS: THE TRIUMPH OF POPULAR WISDOM IN CANADIAN POLITICS By Robert Mason Lee (Macfarlane, Walter & Ross,

285 pages, $26.95)

On the Japanese island of Koshima, in 1953, a group of scientists observed a 16-month-old macaque monkey named Imo dipping her sweet potato in a stream and washing the dirt off it with her other hand. Over the next nine years, the practice spread to all of the other macaques in the colony. Exactly what that demonstrates is open to debate. Perhaps the scientists who conducted the study had simply come across empirical evidence of a principle already familiar to most schoolchildren: monkey see, monkey do. It is doubtful, however, whether most observers, left to their own devices, would discern a relationship between the eating habits of macaques and the behavior of Canadian voters in the 1988 federal general election. Robert Mason Lee does, and he bravely sets forth his thesis in One Hundred Monkeys-. The Triumph of Popular Wisdom in Canadian Politics, the first of at least four books on the 1988 campaign to be published this fall.

In fact, Lee expounds not just one thesis but several, none of them entirely consistent with the others. A parliamentary correspondent for The Ottawa Citizen, Lee, 33, is a talented reporter and a gifted stylist. His book is, for the most part, entertaining, original and thoughtprovoking. Regrettably, One Hundred Mon-

keys is also marred by muddled thinking and contradictory conclusions. In the end, the book appears to fit Lee’s description of the Meech Lake constitutional accord: a document, he says, that means so many things that it is questionable whether it means anything at all.

Lee’s account of the monkey experiment is a case in point. The author first heard about the Koshima findings while interviewing former Liberal MP Donald Johnston, who did not run in the 1988 election. In Johnston’s apocryphal version of the study, the habit of washing potatoes spread not only among other macaques on the island, but also to macaques on other islands that had never had any contact with Imo and her colony. To Johnston, the lesson seemed to be that ideas and opinions could spread, by some unexplained and mysterious form of learning, among disparate groups of voters, enabling them to see through the muddle of political advertising slogans.

Lee seizes on the monkey story—a popular New Age philosophy—to help explain the wild shifts of public opinion during last year’s campaign. In the process, he borrows the concept devised by French Jesuit Joseph-Pierre Teilhard de Chardin that there is some unseen layer of thought, the “nöosphere,” that envelops the planet and binds humanity— which explains the “popular wisdom” in the title. Lee’s ability to weave together those strands—while also touching on the Ben Johnson scandal, the 1987 stock market crash and the 1988 heat wave—is impressive, but ultimately there is much less to his findings than might appear at first glance. He concludes that

voters made up their minds on the basis of “rational and enlightened selfinterest.” In general, he says, those who expected to gain from the Free Trade Agreement sided with the Tories; those who expected to suffer voted for the Liberals or the NDP.

That, in itself, is hardly surprising. But Lee contradicts himself when he asserts that the FTA was “a document whose acceptability seemed predicated less on substance than on presentation”—in other words, that voters were influenced not by the content of the deal, but by the manner in which it was sold. And he abandons his thesis entirely when he writes that the 1988 election was about many things, “but free trade ... was not one of them.” For all of its shortcomings, One Hundred Monkeys is a fascinating study of a tumultuous campaign. At times, his engaging prose style careers out of control: describing the heat wave that engulfed Toronto during the run-up to the campaign, he writes of subway riders whose bloated feet “are sliced like steamed hotdogs on the uppers of shoes.” But Lee also produces amusing—and, in some cases, devastating—portraits of several of the campaign’s also-rans, including the NDP’s Paul (The Butcher) Vachon. It is in those chapters that Lee’s journalistic talents shine. Sadly, his efforts to find some higher meaning in the campaign are not nearly so successful.

ROSS LAVER