A biting indictment of shiftless citizenship—a clarion call for constructive “followership.”
M. GRATTAN O’LEARYDecember151924
Don’t Curse Our Politicians—Help Them!
A biting indictment of shiftless citizenship—a clarion call for constructive “followership.”
M. GRATTAN O’LEARY
WHAT is wrong with politics? Everywhere there is a challenging of public life. Representative government is said to be on trial. Parliamentarianism. the chief agency of democracy, is held up to contempt. An interrogation mark is everywhere written after parties. Millions of electors proclaim indifference or apathy by abstinence from the polls. The word "politician” has become a term of reproach.
Why is this?
How comes it that politics, the science and art of government, the process by which freemen assert their right to liberty, thus falls into disrepute?
A partial answer, I think, is the growing propensity to question, criticize, misrepresent and vi'ify politicians, as a class. Carlyle, many years ago, spoke of politicians as fools in frock coats. But that was the opinion of a jaundiced rebel, shared by few: and it is historically accurate to say that, until recent years, Parliaments and public men had the respect and confidence of the people. The reverence in which such names as Gladstone, Disraeli,
Campbell-Bannerman, Macdonald and Laurier were held, illustrated the public attitude.
The war brought a change. Why, or how, it is difficult to say. But, whatever the basis, the fact is that to-day politicians, as a class, are held up to ignominy everywhere. To be a public man is to be a shining mark. In the press, in reviews, in the popular novel, upon the stage, in the corner grocery, even in the pulpit, the politician is either fool or knave. There is not a young man one year out of university, there is not a youthful parlor Bolshevik, a law'yer, preacher, journalist or plumber, who does not believe that he could run the country better than those who are running it.
How much of this criticism is warranted or actually deserved? What are its effects?
Untruthful, Exaggerated, Unjust
T HAVE been watching Parliament and politicians for thirteen years. I have sat in the Parliamentary Press Gallery at Ottawa through fourteen sessions. I have observed the functioning of five parliaments; have seen the rise and fall of four ministries; have had a personal knowledge of most of the men of all parties, from Sir Wjlfrid Laurier to Mr. King. In consequence of what I have seer,, as a result of continuous and critical scrutiny of men and facts from a vantage ground offering every opportunity for detection of wrong, I am convinced that current criticism of politicians is mostly untruthful, nearly always exaggerated, and frequently cruelly unjust.
There are people who talk as though politics and dishonesty were synonymous terms. Yet what are the true facts? Since Confederation politicians have administered between four and five billions of public money. How many of them have been found guilty of dishonesty? How far back into political history does one have to go to find a public man of note who actually used his position for his personal gain? In the federal field, more than a quarter of a century.
Last session E. Gu.ss Porter, a few days ago defeated in Hastings, rose in parliament to impeach a member of the ministry. In making his accusation he said a very wonderful thing. He said that he labored under some difficulty in framing an indictment, because, although he had searched the records, he could find no precedent in Canadian politics for the wrong-doing of the minister in question. And Mr. Murdock, be it remembered, was not charged with anything like tampering with public funds. The sole crime alleged against him was that he used information secured in the cabinet to avoid personal financial loss.
One wishes that those who talk so glibly and ignorantly about the crookedness of politicians would ponder over that passage by Mr. Porter.
And. as in Canada, so, it may be observed in passing, in other English-speaking countries. When Mr. Asquith discussed the question of British cabinet ministers, charged with trading in Marconi shares, he said there was no precedent for such a thing in the history of British ministries. And last year, when the Teapot Dome scandal involved members of the Coolidge cabinet, it was the
—Drawn by Sam Hunter, especial for MacLcan's.
first time that such a thing had occurred since the administration of President Garfield.
During the War
TOURING the war-Canadian governments spent something like two billions of dollars. It was expenditure made in desperate haste, surrounded by complex difficulties, and without chance for public scrutiny which'time and deliberation permit: never was there a richer field for the grafter or the crook. Yet despite the most minute post-war dissection by rival parties, despite that practically every item was subjected to microscopic examination by partisans all too anxious to find wrong, every investigation vindicated the honesty of politics. Only in one solitary case—a very insignificant one—was an obscure politician condemned; and the verdict was open to reasonable doubt. Yet during all of those years, when Canada’s war effort was being prosecuted with an integrity, a resolution, an intelligence and a patriotism that was a glorious tribute to democracy, the critics of the politicians, the retailers of cloak-room gossip and of slander, flourished like green bay trees. It mattered not that inquiry after inquiry revealed charges to be lies! It mattered not that accusations and innuendoes were successively run down the evil tongues continued.
' I 'HERE are four classes of persons who constantly ^ assail politicians.
yere are the merely malevolent, motived by partisan, or financial, or political reasons.
I here are the well-meaning but unthinking people who
are seemingly ready to swallow anything told them to
the detriment of politicians, as a class.
There are the people who are incapable of distinguish-
ing between gossip and demonstrated facts.
And there are certain journalists who, either belonging to the underworld of newspaperdom, or oblivious to the responsibilities and traditions of their calling, are more concerned with being smart or sensational than with the well-being of the government of their country.
I have often wished that some tribunal existed before which these cocksure writers, and these other retailers of scandal, could be haled to substantiate their charges. I believe it would be a strong deterrent to scandal-mongers;
that the rapid puncturing of the bubbles of rumor which are blown into the air would make sensible people much slower to give credence to the back-biting and malicious whisperings and unfounded hints and veiled accusations by which men in public life are made to suffer.
During the war a certain eminent divine preached a sermon in which he made accusations of graft against the ministry at Ottawa. When he was brought before a committee of parliament and invited to tell what he knew, the only justification he could offer was that some person, whom he did not even know, and whom he encountered in the smoker of a Pullman, had told him there was graft.
Obscure Lobby Rumors
TOWARD the close of last session Ottawa reeked with a story involving the honesty of Charles Stewart, and of the Right Hon. Arthur Meighen. No one who knew anything about either of .these gentlemen would ever think of questioning their honor— but the rumor persisted. It was hinted at in hotel lobbies, whispered in clubs, passed along at dinners, bandied about the streets. When, finally, it was investigated, it was found to rest entirely on a crude and brazen forgery.
Last year a certain Mr. Vanderlip arose in New York to utter a sweeping charge against the late President Harding. It sounded magnificent at the time; for a day Mr. Vanderlip was a hero; but when he was put on oath in Washington he was forced to acknowledge that he knew nothing whatever, and could not cite a responsible witness for the truth of the libels to which he had given wings.
The great trouble is that for every lie that is nailed there are scores that go unanswered. They are rolled as choice morsels on the tongues of thousands; they are seized upon by every Bolshevist and misfit in the country; they are paraded eagerly by evety defective, glad to balance his own shortcomings by the alleged errors of others; they are swallowed by the gullible; and they do infinite harm.
Critics of the Press
“T KNOW of no life,” says Mr. Arabin in “Barchester Towers,” “that must be so delicious as that of a writer for some newspaper—to thunder forth accusations against men in powrer; show up the worst side of everything that is produced; to pick holes in every coat; to be indignant, sarcastic, jocose, moral, or supercilious; to damn with faint praise or crush with open calumny.”
These delights, or many of them, are enjoyed by too many of the writers in the press. To informed criticism,
honest criticism, fearless criticism, no one can take exception. But too many of our best newspapers open their columns to writers who mistake abuse for argü-
ment, who have little or no regard for the ethics of controversy, who prefer an epigram to a truth, who
would rather enjoy the shallower and more ignoble
occupation of detecting faults than of discovering
virtues. Thus, day after day, we find writers dipping
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Don’t Curse Our Politicians—Help Them!
Continued from page 14
their pens in gall to assail politicians, to sneer at politics and parties, to belittle Parliament, to tell with effortless ease how much better they themselves could run the country. These are the cheapest, if the most pernicious, of the critics. Byron hit them off well in his day—
“A man must serve his time in every trade
Save censure—critics all are ready made.
Take hackney’d jokes from Miller, got by rote,
With just enough of learning to misquote;
A mind well skilled to find or forge a fault;
A turn for punning call it Attic salt;
Fear not to lie, ’twill seem a lucky hit;
Shrink not from blasphemy, ’twill pass for wit;
Care not for feeling—pass your proper jest,
And stand a critic, hated yet caress’d.”
Yet these writers do harm. The printed word has an authority that frequently it does not deserve; people who read published strictures on public men do not know the motives, personalities, or intellectual calibre of the writers; and the consequent effect is to bring politics into contempt, to undermine confidence in parliament, to create disrespect for authonty, to impress the younger generation with the notion that public life is corrupt.
There are other critics. There is the man who sneers at the “talking shop on the Hill”; the man who assures you there is “no difference between the parties”; the fellow who tells you that all the statesmen are dead; the chap who, thinking it splendid to appear sophisticated and cynical, hints darkly at inside knowledge of corruption. I have no space to deal with these here—but they are frauds to a man. They are of the type that like to repeat the commonplaces of smoking-rooms; the oracles of golf clubs; the envious; the smart Alecs, who like to appear blase; the people Disraeli had in mind when he said that “defects of successful men are the consolation of dunces.”
Wanted: More Voters, Fewer Critics
I AM not persuaded that the average intellectual calibre of Parliament is as high as it might be—with one-half of the people too indifferent to vote, let alone to take an interest in politics, that is no miracle. But of this I am satisfied: that politicians, taken as a whole, are at least equal to their constituents, whether the standard be morality, honesty, capacity or intelligence. Nine times out of ten, indeed, foolish parliamentary or party policy, or foolish acts by individual politicians, are momentumed by some section, or clique, or faction, or group, outside Parliament altogether. Times Vithout number I have known members ofParliament to vote for measures against their better judgment because of pressure from outside.
But it is the politician that is always damned. Always the politician—and
with serious results: because unbridled, reckless criticism is reducing the efficiency of politics. It is making it hard to get good men to serve in public life. It is creating disrespect for Parliament. It is undermining confidence in democratic, representative government. Sensitive men not unnaturally shrink from the lash of fault-finding. Young men grow up with the belief that public life is crooked. Politics, the noblest and greatest of professions, becomes a term of reproach.
I am not arguing against just criticism. Fair criticism, fearless criticism, informed criticism, help to safeguard democracy. What must be condemned is ignorant criticism, carping criticism, muck-raking, character-assassination, the peddling of innuendoes and of gutter gossip. What Canada needs to-day is more voters and fewer uninformed critics. More men and women who will study politics, reflect upon national issues and problems, become better acquainted with realities and difficulties. More men and women to play the game, fewer to hurl epithets from the bleachers. More of disposition to help the politician, less of disposition to belittle him.
Above all, we need truer understanding of what parliament is, deeper respect for what it stands for. A few years ago I read an address on Westminster, “the Mother of Parliaments,” by that gifted writer, Rebecca West. One passage in it I shall never forget:
“These Houses of Parliament are the symbol of a real miracle, a real mixture of ramshackleness and nobility. Here has been developed a system of government which bears witness to the extraordinary nature of the human soul, and the hopefulness of the prospects that are before human society. Here again and again assemblies have gathered in all honesty, have matured to power, have fallen to disaster, have miraculously assembled again, glorious with the honesty of a new generation and a new movement. Here men of all sorts who seemed utterly selfish and corrupt have to an extraordinary extent, that the most cynical interpretation of history cannot dispute, showed that they cared at least a little for the common good.”
Canada’s past history should also give us hope. There have been good men and bad at Ottawa and there are pages in the history they have made for us that we would willingly blot out, but on the whole the good has outbalanced the bad. “Men of all sorts ... to an extraordinary extent, that the most cynical interpretation of history cannot dispute, showed that they cared at least a little for the common good.”
So it is to-day. Those who hold otherwise confess either ignorance or malice, and invite peril. They invite the peril of loss of one of the birthrights of our breed, beckon the menace which has overtaken the Great Republic, where, largely because of scandal-mongering and public cynicism and inertia, Congress has sunk to tbe lowest level of good within a half a century.
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