Look, This Is us
We have lived foolishly . . we have worshipped wealth and it has not bought us happiness
author of "The Unknown Country"
IN THE universal argument about what is wrong with Canada I invite your attention to three witnesses: (1) my millionaire friend who, for
the sake of originality, we shall call John Smith; (2) Marshal Petain, of Vichy; (3) Captain Ramsay, member of the British House of Commons for Peebles, now in Brixton Jail. For reasons which I hope will become apparent, these witnesses suggest what is wrong with Canada.
The first witness, Mr. Smith, is the only millionaire I know well, and you will pardon a certain interest in him as a specimen of a rare and rapidlydeclining species, perhaps a species about to become extinct. Now to my way of thinking Mr. Smith, until recently, has been a notable failure in life, but that is only a matter of opinion. The undisputed fact is that Mr. Smith, who had an income of about a million dollars last year, had only $14,000 left to live on after he had paid his taxes and various charitable contributions. To his amazement he lived quite happily. Probably you and I would not be amazed if we could live happily on $14,000 a year, but it was a new experience for Mr. Smith.
At present Mr. Smith is working for the Government at a dollar a year, doing a big job for Canada and having the time of his life. Not since he was a
poor, struggling boy has he been so happy. But something else—on a dollar a year he is more powerful, more important in his own eyes and the eyes of his fellows, and more respectable in the best sense, than he was on a million dollars a year.
In a minor way, each according to his degree and opportunity, we have all made something like the same discovery. Poverty seems honorable and right in wartime and gives the good citizen a warming inward feeling of rectitude. If the war lasts long we may yet see our captains of industry proudly wearing patches on their trousers as badges of patriotism, our limousineless statesmen happily
plodding up Parliament Hill in moth-eaten silk toppers.
But why should this discovery be confined to wartime? We need it just as badly in peacetime, and right there is where we find the first real thing that is wrong with Canada.
It is not a matter of economics, though it relates to our method of making a living. It is a matter far deeper than economics, because it concerns also our method of living, which is a different thing entirely. For we have been living foolishly.
Ever since the Industrial Revolution, we in Canada, like all the people of North America, have been living by a false standard of values. Our standard has been the standard of John Smith, even though his income has been a million dollars a year and ours a thousand.
When the Industrial Revolution suddenly unloosed upon the world the possibility of goods in unlimited quantity, we concluded that the acquisition of goods was the chief end of life, the true aim of society and the only object of economics. A clever man like John Smith took to the struggle naturally, piled up his fortune and thought he had succeeded. We all tried to do the same thing. But, as it turned out, John Smith was unhappy until they reduced his wages to a dollar a year.
All America, in fact, was unhappy. The goods piled up. The luxuries, and the impedimenta of living, cluttered life on every side. The cars cluttered the highways. The mobs of people, released from the toil of the frontier, cluttered the cities. Finally the whole whirling clutter collapsed in the depression of 1929, which was still going strong when an armament boom brought back a false sense of prosperity—but brought back no real happiness.
New Type of Success
THUS TO thoughtful men it began to appear some time ago that you could not measure human success in terms of goods—first, because goods in the mass did not seem to produce mass or even individual happiness, and second, because some of the dullest men succeeded in piling up goods while some of the cleverest remained poor. Thus the old frontier conception of society, and of success, was badly dinged before this war began and now, i suggest, is on the way to being demolished.
The Government everywhere is making sure of that by taking most of the rich men’s money away from them, and doubtless will take more yet. The successful men are losing most of their success— success, that is, reckoned in the old coin. What, thinks John Smith, is the use of struggling most of your life to pile up an income of a million a year if you are going to have only $14,000 for yourself?
Now all this will be very sad for the successful men unless they can find a substitute for their old brand of success. It is important to all of us that they find a substitute, for on the efforts of men of superior ability all society moves forward. If we offer no rewards for great achievement we shall not achieve much because, human nature being what it is, men will not struggle without hope of reward. We must find, in fact, a new form of reward, as
Mr. Smith has found it. We have built up our aristocracy in North America almost solely on wealth. What we need, what we must have if we are to survive, is an aristocracy of ability, devoted to the good of society as a whole. We shall never have equality so long as one baby is born smarter than another, but we can establish true ability instead of wealth, service to society instead of selfish accumulation, as the public mark of success, the aim of every ambitious boy.
Such a standard of success has been established before in some of the best periods of human history. It existed for a time in the democracy of Athens and the democracy of early Rome, and when it disappeared Athens and Rome began their decline. It begins to exist in wartime Britain. It is beginning to appear here in such phenomena as Mr. Smith.
In a society of this kind the able man loses
nothing of importance. As Mr. Smith has proved, a man with $14,000 a year and a worth-while public job can be happier and more important than a man with a million and no one to think of but himself. Even with half $14,000, or half that, or less than half, the same principle will hold good—but only if the principle is publicly acknowledged.
Man is a creature of company and a great part of his happiness depends on the approval of his fellows. If a millionaire is more respected than the doctor who discovers an important new curative drug, or an engineer who builds a great bridge, relatively lew men will strive to become research scientists or engineers. A great majority will strive to be millionaires, even if they only succeed in a minor fashion. But if the doctor or the engineer holds a greater place in society than the millionaire the average man will prefer to be the doctor or engineer, even at lower wages.
That is the first thing wrong with Canada. John Smith is not wrong because he obeyed the laws of the society in which he was born. Society was wrong in creating the erroneous laws, standards and values. Out of these errors, of course, sprang the brutal inequalities of our civilization and so long as money is the chief, almost the sole criterion of success, that struggle will continue with brutality no matter what political or economic measures are taken to curb it.
Now at last in this war society has a chance to alter the old standards as it is altering John Smith’s wealth. But will society recognize this as a permanent change, part of a revolution in our whole estimate of life?
It is not impossible. I am hopeful enough to look forward to the day when the most notable man in Canada will be a scientist who has unearthed some great fact of science; or an artist who paints the best pictures; or a writer who pens the finest poem; or a statesman who lias resigned his office and lost
his political life on a question of principle. I look forward to the day when every Canadian child will know as much about Banting as about Joe Louis; when the face of a Canadian architect, agronomist, sculptor or civil servant will be as familiar as that of Clark Gable; when a man making some large, quiet contribution to our happiness, our knowledge or our safety will be rewarded as highly as John Smith who, up to this war, has contributed nothing but his own pile of money.
Before the war you might say that these ideas were fit only for children’s pious copy books. The war has made them pretty real and urgent. If you doubt it, look at the income-tax schedules, look at our newlydeveloping economic system, look at your own pocketbook.
So we leave our first witness, John Smith, ex-millionaire, and turn to our second, Marshal Petain.
No Electric Clock
THE MARSHAL, thank heaven, is a long way from Canada, but he represents a fact as close to us as the nearest polling booth. He represents better than any living man the collapse of world democracy, for he became a dictator in one of the most powerful democracies of all time. His rise—or his fall, as you please—to the leadership of French fascism shows in one ghastly flash that our whole assumption about democracy in Canada and everywhere else has been wrong and dangerous.
In this country we have treated political democracy as if it were an electrical clock which, once started, would run on forever. We assumed because we were born into it that democracy was the normal state of intelligent men; that, once
achieved, it would always continue without help from us. We took our democracy so completely for granted that a large part of the population didn’t even bother to vote.
Then, in about a month, a democracy much older than hours, much more experienced, born out of the Bastille and the Terror—the conquering democracy of France—bursts like a bubble and is replaced by Petain. Democracy is suddenly seen to be not an inevitable thing even among men who are accustomed, like the French, to freedom, who are individualistic as we are. Democracy is proved by the case of France and some smaller nations to be a very rare and unlikely thing, an organism which can only be healthy if its constituent parts, its human beings, are functioning vigorously.
Democracy is seen to be not an easy way of life, but the most difficult way of all; not a way for lazy people, but for active people; not a system to operate automatically by itself, but a system which must be supported, changed and improved all the time, and perhaps reconstructed every generation or so. Lacking this support and reconstruction, democracy has never lasted long in the world — a few years in Greece, a brief spell in Rome. And this modern democratic age, hardly a century old yet, already is fighting for its life.
To us in Canada Petain should be a terrible warning, a symbol of our basic political mistake. This mistake is far more important than any mere blunder of government. It is the mistake of assuming that our democracy is safe without our help, our intelligence, our active participation.
This brings us directly to our third witness, now in Brixton Jail. Captain Ramsay, M.P. for Peebles, was arrested two years ago by the British Government for his pro-German activities, which were of the most absurd, childish and obvious sort. What, you will ask, was such a man doing in the British House of Commons? The question is answered by the able Economist, of London, thus: “He is M.P. for Peebles because he comes of the right sort of family, because he married a daughter of the peerage and the widow of a very rich man, because he went to the right school and joined the right regiment. If his father had been a bank clerk . . . if he had made his way to a moderate competence, then he might have bombarded every political association on the books and every time the odds against his getting into the House would have been 1,000 to 1.”
Now, of course, says The Economist, the case of Captain Ramsay would be unimportant if he were the only silly ass elected on account of his social position but, in fact, “the intellectual level of the Commons has been, since 1931, deplorably low.” This level, The Economist thinks, is responsible for much of Britain’s recent tragedy.
In Canada we do not elect men because of their social position, and happily we have found no Ramsays in our Parliament; but will any Canadian deny what everyone in Ottawa admits— that the intellectual level of our Parliament also is deplorably low? Will any Canadian say he is satisfied with the composition of our House of Commons?
Quite obviously our elections in Canada have not been bringing out the best men in the country to seek office. There are several superficial and obvious reasons for this. First, there is the reason of party mechanics. Just as the Conservative candidate in Britain has been nominated too often by a tight little group of the “right people,” so in Canada the candidate, though chosen ostensibly by an open convention, is usually hand-picked in advance by a group of political managers. Viscount Bryce, an acute observer, even declared that: “Party (in Canada) seems to exist for its own sake. In Canada ideas are not needed to make parties, for these can live by heredity and, like the Guelphs and Ghibellines of medieval Italy, by memories of past combats.”
If a democratic parliament is to remain healthy its parties must be continually rebuilt, reformed or replace 1. Naturally, the party fights this process of revitalization, because the men at the top intend to stay there, and in both our major parties control
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has remained with the old men, and the young men have been successfully kept down. The young man seldom chooses such a barren field.
But all these deterrents—the small financial rewards of politics, the discouragement, the frustration, the rule of the machine, the law of seniority, reward and patronage, the dull scum of mediocrity over everything—would not be sufficient to keep the best men of Canada out of Parliament if Parliament had occupied a leading place in our esteem and a contrast place in our interest.
Politics Catches Up
THESE feelings have been lacking.
Politics to us has been a thing apart, a kind of distant priestcraft with its own practitioners and mysteries, not for the understanding of the common man. Like Mr. Smith, we have been too busy with our individual fortunes to worry much about our joint fortunes, the fortunes of society.
Now of a sudden, in the war, we have seen that this arrangement will not work. We have also realized a fact which should have been obvious long ago—the politicians have caught up on us. No longer are politics a minor aspect of our life, to be subordinated to the ordinary concerns of private business. They have become the core and centre of life from which everything stems. We must master the state or it will crush us. We must make politics work better or life under its hand will become intolerable. All of us must go into politics for self-preservation.
Why is it that as a people we are in deep and dismal ignorance of the art of government? Whyisit thatour best men don’t go into Parliament? I believe it is largely because we have generally followed the philosophy of Mr. Smith. We try to make money because money is the recognized standard of success, and there is no money in political office. Worse— there is in it no adequate spiritual satisfaction, no inward reward.
A member of our Parliament is generally less known and acclaimed than a man of means; a cabinet minister administering a vast public service is less respected in general than a businessman administering a department store. The practice of politics is regarded with suspicion, mixed with contempt, as if it were a kind of necessary evil. So long as the old Smith standard endures, so long as money is our criterion of success, you will get no real improvement in politics.
Well, I turn the three witnesses over to you for cross-examination. I do not think you will shake their testimony. Their testimony, I submit, shows that the things wrong with Canada are not the superficial things usually mentioned—not just the economic system or the political system, or the errors of a few men, nothing as simple as that. The things that are wrong with Canada are simply the things that are wrong with you and me.