In praise of moderation

St. Francis of Assisi would leave Canada in a month. But so would Adolf Hitler

GEORGE JONAS November 1 1974

In praise of moderation

St. Francis of Assisi would leave Canada in a month. But so would Adolf Hitler

GEORGE JONAS November 1 1974

In praise of moderation

St. Francis of Assisi would leave Canada in a month. But so would Adolf Hitler


People who know little find it difficult to appreciate the Canada I know. Naïve people find it difficult. Pretentious people, learned in nothing but current jargon and skimming in blissful innocence along the surface of history, politics, geography and human nature, find it difficult to appreciate it. Because my Canada is a deceptively perfect country in an obviously imperfect world.

Exceptionally talented people find it difficult to appreciate my Canada. Very ambitious people find it difficult. Highly sensitive people, keenly aware of nuances of injustice, individual human misery, the potentials of a utopia and the possibilities of excellence in human thought and culture, find it difficult to appreciate it. Because the Canada I know is a blatantly flawed country in a world that frequently projects the mirage of perfection.

There is nothing contradictory here, nothing mutually exclusive. In the music of logic these two statements flow into each other with some degree of harmony. Canada is a balance achieved by shedding an equal amount of the top and bottom extremes of the human condition. St. Francis of Assisi and Adolf Hitler would both leave this country within a month. The splendor of the Taj Mahal and the squalor of a village in East Bengal are equally unknown here. We have no Sistine Chapel and no Sicilian slums.

Of course, Canada may yet catch up with the civilized and uncivilized world. We may yet have a national theatre in Ottawa to equal the Abbey in Dublin, and riots in Montreal to equal anything we have seen in Belfast. We may yet have a strong and independent publishing industry and forced labor camps in the north for Canadian residents of American descent. (And in case this seems farfetched let us recall the mass relocation of native Canadians of Japanese extraction during the war.) Our possibilities for getting out of our stagnant backwater of history and into the mainstream of the 20th century are indeed unlimited.

Having never been unduly enamored of the mainstream of the 20th (or any other) century, the prospect does not fill me with joy. I feel that in her quiet and unspectacular way Canada has done pretty well. Moreover, she has done pretty well not only for herself and her own citizens but for the world, which today more than ever needs a few islands of relative sanity. Traditional Canada, the Canada of Protestant work ethic, of the petit bourgeois values, of Anglo-Saxon supremacy, of considerable majority and might, has conducted herself with remarkable restraint, patience and understanding. I only hope that her assailants, reformers and eventual successors can conduct themselves with half as much tolerance when they are faced with the historical prospect of fundamental and inevitable change. And I predict that they will be able to do this only if they have managed to incorporate into their brave new society some of the values of traditional Canada.

The art of life is compromise, the method of survival is accommodation. Compromise and accommodation — rather than surrender or fighting to the bitter end — have been characteristic of Canadian social and political thought up to and including the present day. As a result, a society has emerged that, without pretending to have solved the philosophical problems of social inequality, poverty or the economically underprivileged, has nevertheless achieved (second only to the United States and, lately, Sweden) the highest general standard of living anywhere in the known world, past or present. A society has emerged that, without pretending to have solved the imperfections of parliamentary democracy, allows for its citizens as high a degree of participation in the business of its government as I have ever seen anywhere in the world. A society has emerged that, without claiming to have resolved all contradictions inherent in the conflicting rights and interest of the political, social, religious or national groups of which it consists, still provides justice and protection, as well

Waxing lyrical over an imperfect country

as freedom of thought, speech and action, as much or more than any other country and any political system in the history of mankind.

I know Fm waxing lyrical over the political system and social institutions of a country that has been known to mistreat its Indians, has invoked in the fall of 1970 a piece of legislation called the War Measures Act, and has right now a disturbingly high degree of unemployment and consequent poverty in the midst of a frivolous and often artificially induced affluence of 400-cubic-inch car engines and self-adjusting color television sets. I am actually singing the praises of a country that has been selling its national resources along with much of its economic and political independence to . . . well, not just any old foreign country but to America, the home of those ugly loudmouthed people who are addicted to checkered shirts and middle-class values and indulge in the pollution of lakes and rivers and the election of corrupt megalomaniacs as their leaders. Fm being laudatory about Canada — Canada that until recently did nothing for its writers and ballet dancers and poets, and still has no national feature film industry, in spite of being one of the richest countries in the world.

I think I have good reason. A glance at the map tells me that Canada is situated immediately north of the United States along a border of several thousand miles; a glance at the calendar tells me that it is the year 1974. These two pieces of information, rather easily anyone, seem to provide me with some inescapable conclusions. I think that in 1974 (and not for the first time in history either) the world is split into two camps. I am not thinking of the Communist camp and the capitalist camp, or the camp of the white world and the nonwhite world, or the technological world and the world of the Third Consciousness. I am thinking of the people who believe they have all the answers and the people who don’t.

The people who have all the answers come in many sizes, shapes and colors. Their answers may be contradictory but they have one thing in common: they believe truth has been revealed to them and they are ready to bury anyone who doesn’t accept it immediately, fully, without doubt and without hesitation. They believe that all the complex problems of the world — poverty, exploitation, ignorance, competitiveness, pollution, war, aging, or unrequited love — can be reduced to a single cause and

This country has the courage of its doubts

they know what that cause is. That cause is capitalism. That cause is Communism. That cause is the white man. That cause is all those long-haired freaks. That cause is the pigs.

On the other side there are people whose thinking has not led them to such impressive results. They don’t feel they have all the answers. They don’t know the first cause of all the world’s problems, and they suspect that there are probably many causes. They work hard at trying to cure as many ills as they can but they don’t claim to be witch doctors or magicians. They often make mistakes, sometimes pretty horrible ones, when they may not only pull the wrong tooth but cut off the wrong leg. But at least in such cases they assume responsibility instead of blaming the patient for having maliciously shifted the sarcoma from one leg to the other, or a bystander for having given them the evil eye. They can face responsibility more easily because they have not claimed infallibility in the first place. These people try to live in an open society, offering fewer miracles, taking fewer things for granted, having fewer sacred cows and far fewer concentration camps. Such people attempt to create societies that imitate nature’s capacity for change and self-repair, instead of artificial, inorganic, mechanical structures that function only in a single direction and for a single purpose without taking into account the multiplicity and flexibility of life. They try to consider the majority as well as the minority, the healthy as well as the sick, the strong and ambitious as well as the weak and inert. They don’t quite believe they have the right to proclaim the happiness of one group as intrinsically more valuable than that of the other, and instead of suppressing the complexity of existence try to find, sometimes without success, reconciliation and harmony.

This indeed is the system of human community with which my sympathies lie, and this is the type of community Canada has been for some time. It is a community that may have the courage of its convictions but, far more importantly, also has the courage of its doubts. It is a community that is ready to change, but does not take kindly to being pushed. It is a community that accepts compromise, but has so far surrendered to no one.

Canada has accepted the reality of the pressure of a superpower in her immediate proximity along the 49th parallel. Instead of butting her head against a geographical stone wall, she has tried to make the best of it. Nor has she been

Canada has behaved with dignity, wisdom

completely unsuccessful if we consider that her alliance with the United States has helped her win complete independence from Great Britain in the last few decades; it has raised the standard of living of her citizens; and for the present at least it has given her political and military security no alternate alliance could possibly have provided. It is quite true that Canada had to give a great deal in return, but the United States has never claimed to be a charitable institution.

At the time Canada made her deal, the world in general and the United States in particular were considerably different from what they seem to be today. Perhaps the deal is not nearly as advantageous anymore, and it may be time to pull out of it. Perhaps we have sold more than we could comfortably afford, and perhaps in a market of changing values an American dollar is no longer fair exchange for a gallon of natural resources or an ounce of cultural identity. If so, as long as we retain our common sense, diversity and flexibility, none of our deals are irreversible.

My Canada is a liberal country. Now it may be perfectly natural that, from time to time, the Zeitgeist of the world becomes impatient with the slow progress of liberalism and begins to favor more extreme solutions. It may be perfectly natural that in Aesop’s fable of the 1970s the grasshopper becomes the hero instead of the ant. It may be perfectly natural'that people who have marched against the idea of white supremacy suddenly find themselves side by side with people who are marching for black supremacy, or even people who are marching against the supremacy of the cerebral cortex. But the Zeitgeist is not invariably right. A fascist is a fascist whether his name is Batista or Castro. The Nuremberg rallies were supported by a great many university students. Innocence and morality are not necessarily synonymous. And the vanguard may be leading the Charge of the Light Brigade, with massed cannon fire waiting at the end of the undefended valley.

My Canada, cautious, industrious, immense and benign, has so far behaved with dignity and wisdom. She might have refused asylum to American resisters to the Vietnam war, but she didn’t. She might have granted asylum to the one American who hijacked an airplane to get here, but she refused. She might have reacted to the kidnapping of James Cross and the murder of Pierre Laporte with the atrocities that characterize similar conflicts in Belgium, Ireland or Pakistan, but she didn’t. She might have

I am grateful Canada has the courage to remain moderate, and I hope she will always, even if surrounded by oceans of lunacy

given in to the kidnappers but she didn’t. We take it for granted that she didn’t do any of these things, but how many countries are there in the world outside of Canada where we could take it for granted? I can’t think of many.

I’m not hoping that Canada will be fossilized in her present state — or in some mythical golden age of her past —

because that would be senseless and impossible. But 1 am hoping that she will retain some of the virtues of her past and present, while accommodating herself to the future. 1 have no objection to Canada acquiring new virtues — or assets — either, and 1 think it’s possible to have a national theatre like the Abbey in Dublin without necessarily having to ac-

cept the riots of Belfast into the bargain. Nor do I believe that freaking out on acid or sticking knives into traffic cops or insurance salesmen are the only ways to get a fair deal for the Eskimos or the poor. (And 1 can’t help hoping that one day the ancient and venerable Jean-Paul Sartre will try to kill a flic all by himself, instead of advising young, agile, trusting and literal-minded university students to do so, while talking about the inevitability of revolution in Quebec.)

If, as writers and philosophers are fond of claiming, the pen is mightier than the sword, it would be nice to see some of them exercise half the caution when writing about human affairs that they customarily employ when shaving with a safety razor. If they truly believe in the power and value of words, it would be nice to see them use words with some accuracy and discrimination. When they say — and 1 have heard many of them say it — that our society is more oppressive and dehumanizing than any society in history, I’d like them to reflect and see if they would include in this statement the Spanish society of the 15th century, the Russian of the 17th, the Austrian of the early 19th, and, say, the Chinese, Greek and Polish societies of our own. When they say that our unhappiness, regimentation, frustration and, indeed, poverty are due solely to capitalism and/or technology, I’d like them to reflect on the examples of unhappiness, regimentation and. especially, poverty of certain preindustrial, agricultural, or Communist societies. When they say that our freedom of thought and action is more restricted in North America today than it was in Nazi Germany, all I can say is I hope it will not be personal experience (hat teaches them the full measure of their mistake.

Today, when it takes little courage to be extreme, I am grateful that Canada has the courage to remain moderate. I hope that she will always have that courage and, even if she were surrounded by oceans of lunacy, left or right, east, west or south, would not abandon it. Extremes are always rigid, and what is rigid is dead. Life is pliable, moving, wise, fluid and moderate; it resists everything partly and nothing completely; extracts and absorbs the best even from the worst; it is easy to deflect but impossible to defeat. It is often said that extremes are militant and moderation is passive, but is there anything more militant than the slow, cautious, conservative force of life? As long as she remains aggressively moderate Canada will survive.^