"The Uses of Controversy"
by Robert Fulford

(Walter Gordon Forum in Public Policy, Massey College, March 4, 1997)

In past years the Walter Gordon Forum in Public Policy has been a platform for the discussion of controversial issues, such as the future of feminism, the economics of peace, and the appropriate way to protect the environment. But my talk tonight, rather than pursuing an argument, focuses on controversy itself, and its place in our lives. There can be few subjects more appropriate for an event honoring the memory of Walter Gordon. He was a quiet-spoken man, conservative in style, but he was also the great argument-starter of his generation in Canada. In the 1950s, he chaired the Royal Commission on Canada's Economic Prospects, which directed our attention to foreign ownership of Canadian business. In the 1960s, as finance minister in Lester B. Pearson's government, he was at the centre of that same controversy, by then a raging battle within the Liberal Party and beyond; and before he left government he oversaw the work of the Watkins task force on the structure of Canadian industry, which pursued the same subject. Walter Gordon was often unpopular, notably with his old friends on Bay Street, but the arguments he initiated, particularly as applied to culture, are with us to this moment and show no signs of disappearing.

In Canadian public life, he was a great exception, a man who willingly embraced dangerous arguments. But for most Canadians of a certain age, the word "controversy" still carries ambiguous overtones; a faintly disagreeable aura surrounds it. When I began working as a journalist, a few years after the Second World War, there was a feeling that Canadian society was moving toward a consensus on the important issues. In this atmosphere, controversy was to be avoided whenever possible. It was unusual, and conceivably dangerous. Someone described as "controversial" was to be treated with caution.

In important ways, we Canadians are not talkative. Something inhibits us. Several anthropologists, including Claude Lévi-Strauss, have developed the notion that certain cultures are loquacious and reward the outspoken among them, while others spend their language like misers, and hoard their words like seed corn. I think Canada probably falls into the second category. We can often be heard "speaking out," as we say, on radio and television, but I believe we spend much of our time not saying what is on our minds. And, of course, we have our reasons.

It happened that the beginning of my working life in the suburbs of journalism co-incided with the last years of Mackenzie King. He was the principal Canadian statesman of my childhood and adolescence, and the leading enemy of controversy. He believed with all his heart that what he and his fellow Liberals did was not only right but inevitable, and he regarded criticism as unfair and personally hurtful. Many of his contemporaries avoided debate through elaborate obfuscation, but King raised this technique to the level of an art form. On the most dangerous issue of his career, conscription, he uttered a slogan that went down in history: "Conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription." In all the Dominion of Canada there wasn't one voter who could find a way to debate that one.

To the extent that a prime minister can affect the intellectual atmosphere of a nation, Mackenzie King helped make Canada a controversy-fearing society, a country that prided itself on avoiding fuss. He was ever on the alert for potential trouble. Sad experience had taught him that almost anything might explode into controversy, so he treated every subject with the utmost caution. He didn't ignore issues. He surrounded them from all sides and smothered them to death.

If it had come to Mackenzie King's attention that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, he would not only have announced this fact, he would have insisted on it, belaboured it, and declared his intention to defend it against whatever opposition he might encounter. Later, though, he would have slyly suggested that it was not necessarily, in all cases and all circumstances, the final truth, and that men of goodwill could agree to disagree on such matters. In any case, he was not prepared to sacrifice his government for the sake of a proposition that was unproven.

After his death F. R. Scott wrote about Mackenzie King:

He blunted us.

We had no shape
Because he never took sides,
And no sides
Because he never allowed them to take shape.

He skillfully avoided what was wrong
Without saying what was right,
And never let his on the one hand
Know what his on the other hand was doing.

That has always seemed to me both true and evocative, of King and of our public life generally during much of this century. But King was not a fool. He was genuinely and understandably afraid of the expression of honest sentiments, like many Canadian leaders since. King knew, as we all know now, that Confederation was fragile. He understood that an argument bravely faced could become an argument lost. He tiptoed through national politics because under the circumstances he could imagine no other way that both he and the country could survive. And he made sure that federal agencies followed the same course. The wartime version of the National Film Board, created by John Grierson under King, appears in our cultural history as an exemplar of all that is best in documentary films. But I believe you could watch every foot of film issued by the board in the 1940s and never guess that the central political problem obsessing Canada during those years was the struggle between Quebec and the other nine provinces over the military draft. The attitude of the Film Board was, The less said the better--so they said nothing at all.

Journalists and broadcasters in the generations after Grierson would like to believe we are not so inhibited, but in some ways we are. We still treat the most important event in our history, the battle on the Plains of Abraham, as a family scandal that can't be discussed. No one--or almost no one--makes films or TV plays or novels about it. Because it creates discomfort, we act as if it didn't happen. The battle sits there in the history books, but permanent anxiety prevents us from building mythology around it. The result is that Canada lacks what anthropologists call a "foundation myth." In our attitude to the past we differ sharply from the Americans. Their Civil War, a century more recent and a thousand times bloodier, nevertheless stands at the core of their national mythology.

Reading Mackenzie King's life now, we watch him carefully putting off for future generations the conflict between French and English. His evasions were infuriating, but he had other problems, notably the Depression and the war. So on Quebec issues he made silence and cunning his style, and left the rest to us. He also left us with a nervous habit of mind, an almost panicky fear of the indecorous. This fear reaches far beyond the French-English issue and burrows into every corner of our life--even, perhaps especially, our cultural life. Artists being what they traditionally are, they should in theory be individualists, providing they operate in a democratic country where freedom of speech is everyone's right. But in matters of cultural politics, such as state support for the arts, artists and their supporters tend to develop a set of standard opinions from which no one is expected to deviate. At times, in fact, the artists find a way to create a mood of totalitarian uniformity without the support of a totalitarian government.

In national politics, to return there for a moment, King casts a long shadow; and some of his successors have done their best to maintain and extend his tradition. Unless I misunderstand our current prime minister, he plans to prevent national unity from being an issue in the 1997 federal election. Perhaps it won't be, on a conscious level. Perhaps we'll talk about health care and the CBC. Perhaps we'll talk about freight rates, or the Toronto airport. But the prime minister knows, and we all know, what we'll be thinking about.

Last summer I realized that Mackenzie King's habit of reticence had mutated into a new and more absurd form. I was invited to take part in a conference called Scenarios for the Future, run by several leading citizens, with the $800,000 cost paid by several corporations. I declined the invitation, but not before the man inviting me said that it concerned the future of "people living north of the 49th parallel." He explained that he put it that way (not with strict geographical accuracy, of course) in order to avoid offending sovereigntists. In other words, it was a conference about the future of Canada that would use the word "Canada" as seldom as possible. The literature of the conference described the subject delicately, as the "possible futures we face in the northern part of North America..." Surely this was a new level in political reticence. It occurred to me that Canada was becoming the land that dare not speak its name, the country that wants to be known by good taste alone. (2)

This style of evasion has persisted over the generations and has survived even the radically different approach of Pierre Trudeau. It has sometimes made me feel temperamentally a stranger in Canada. My inclination, however well or badly realized, has been to define, sharpen, and heighten controversy. I think one of my jobs is to call into question government programs, such as multiculturalism, which I once thought admirable. I've also found it necessary to severely criticize the Writers' Union of Canada, of which I'm a founding member, for running a racially exclusive conference. While a lifelong listener to the CBC, and a sometime contributor, I have nevertheless felt called upon to criticize some of its most fundamental decisions. In these matters I have tried my best to separate ideas and arguments from loyalties imposed by friendship, profession, political history, or some other shared connection. The writers who have inspired and shaped me have all been great arguers--Frank Underhill, Rebecca West, George Orwell, Edmund Wilson, and Arthur Koestler.

Much of what they wrote remains full of life, but now, some decades after their deaths, what matters most about them is their example. They all taught, implicitly, that a certain kind of disloyalty is essential to writers and thinkers, controversialists of every kind. All of them discovered, at certain moments, that ideas they disliked most, ideas they felt they must attack, were the very ideas held most dear by their close friends and associates. Frank Underhill turning against the unthinking and poisonous anti-Americanism that he saw as a major characteristic of his colleagues on the Canadian left, or Arthur Koestler declaring that some of his closest friends were deluded by communism--these actions were controversial, they were perhaps costly in personal terms, yet they were necessary.

It might be going too far to say that I never met a controversy I didn't like, but certainly it seems to me that argument is crucial to intellectual life. On our best days, we grow in understanding as we argue. Controversy, properly appreciated, can be our best teacher. Argument brings data to life and makes dreary facts significant. In my experience, there is no better way to learn than being proven wrong. In controversy we not only learn the views of others, we reveal ourselves to ourselves. When I first heard someone remark, "I don't know what I think till I say it," I imagined it was a joke. Somewhat later, I realized it was a profound truth.

What would life be like without controversy? We don't need to wonder. We need only look into the textbooks used in our high schools, colleges, and universities. Every year for generations, publishers have produced hundreds of new textbooks, and yet in all my life I have never heard anyone utter the following words: "You must read this textbook--it's really good." My four children have gone through the education system without once reporting pleasure or excitement found in a schoolbook. Nor, so far as I know, has any textbook ever emerged from the school market and successfully entered ordinary bookstores. Stephen Jay Gould, the paleontologist, says that in his corner of the academic world, textbook authors are "faceless servants of a commercial machine that shuns anything unique." (3)

Even so, the law of averages might seem to dictate that the writing of many thousands of books would produce at least a dozen or so that were admirable, and perhaps even, once in a long while, a masterpiece. But nothing like that ever happens. The reason is that the author of a textbook sits down to work with a crippling handicap--the need to avoid controversy. Textbooks must not take sides on anything significant. Before the first syllable goes into the word processor, the writing is dead, its blood drained away by official decree. Textbooks, as we create them now, encapsulate our generation's pusillanimity and pass it on to our children and grandchildren.

At the higher levels of the academic world, controversy is governed by an unwritten code: one does not, except in very unusual circumstances, overtly criticize a colleague by name. The object of this rule, so far as an outsider can see, is to make the discussion so abstract that no one but the participants will know what is being said. Recently at MIT they've had a little scandal involving two economists, both of them generally liberal in their approach.

One of them, Paul Krugman, is a habitual controversialist who says he gets his ideas across by finding "an influential person who is saying something quite silly because he does not grasp the idea. That jolts people into trying to grasp the idea, and avoid sounding silly themselves." Unfortunately for academic decorum, the people saying things he Krugman regards as silly include certain other MIT economists--notably the department's most famous scholar, Lester Thurow. Put plainly, Thurow doesn't like the way Krugman writes about him. Krugman moved to Stanford University for a couple of years, and when he decided he wanted to return, Thurow (according to the New York Times) "requested that Mr. Krugman refrain from disparaging his M. I. T. colleagues--a request that Mr. Krugman has honored so far." Thurow was quoted as saying, "He is too personal," but Krugman remains a sharpener of debate, a thinker who likes to draw lines, sometimes brutally. The MIT economics department is not the place to go for a quiet life. (4)

Journalists are of course professional controversialists when dealing with the world they cover. But within our profession controversy tends to be bloodless, mainly because it is considered bad form for one journalist to write seriously of another by name. It is fine to condemn journalism in general--or, better still, "the media"--for almost any imaginable general sin. But when one journalist writes critically of another you can almost hear the profession's collective breath being sucked in. And the journalist whose work is discussed will be, at best, aggrieved. In my experience the toughest critics of politics and business are the journalists mostly to become sullen and resentful when their own failings are pointed out. Journalists want to be taken seriously; for the most part they do not want to be discussed seriously.

Many years ago, the American poet Robert Lowell, in the course of a public argument with Diana Trilling, remarked: "Controversy is bad for the mind and worse for the heart." Mrs. Trilling replied, "I have never thought controversy bad for either the mind or the heart."

She thought it good for both. Where she lived, the intellectual world of New York, argument was a way of life. W. H. Auden captured that atmosphere in a poem--

Lone scholars, sniping from the walls
Of learned periodicals,
Our facts defend
Our intellectual marines,
Landing in little magazines,
Capture a trend.

Diana Trilling believed in argument as the visible sign of the life of ideas--good for the heart, and good for all minds save the lazy. I submit that she, not Lowell, was embracing one of the central traditions of our civilization, a tradition that extends back to antiquity.

But at the moment I want to look back just 120 years, to a favorite controversy of mine. This is the civil action involving two great figures in Victorian London, James McNeill Whistler and John Ruskin. It illustrates how controversy can bring to light a crucial artistic idea--in this case an idea that even today arouses fierce argument. The dispute began in 1877 with the showing of Whistler's "Arrangement in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket," a hazy nighttime view of the Thames. John Ruskin, the leading critic of the day, didn't much like it. He composed his review in the resplendent language of rage:

"I have seen and heard much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face."

When Whistler read Ruskin's review he sued for libel, asking damages of one thousand pounds. The trial became one of the great media events of the 1870s. Witnesses discussed the moral force of art, which Ruskin believed in and Whistler didn't. They talked about criticism and its value, and about workmanship in a painting. When Whistler testified, Ruskin's barrister asked him: "How long do you take to knock off one of your pictures?" Whistler said this one had taken him a day or two. Barrister: "The labor of two days, is that for which you asked two hundred guineas?" Whistler: "No, I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime."

Whistler's art looked too easy, like abstract art today. He tried to define for the court what made his paintings valuable. He articulated the still new idea that a painting was about nothing but itself. Subject matter was irrelevant. He said an artistic work "is an arrangement of line, form and color first." He tried to explain that the picture is throughout a problem he attempted to solve. He won the case but was awarded only one farthing in damages. His legal bills bankrupted him, but eventually he had a kind of revenge, of the sort familiar in art history. He later sold the painting for 800 guineas, four times what Ruskin said it was not worth. Today it's in the Detroit Institute of Arts.

That was the beginning of the long critical see-saw over what we might call the subject of subject matter. Is "subject matter" in art important? Well, in my own lifetime the critical world has absolutely accepted Whistler's main contention, that art is autonomous, its values existing independently of subject matter--and later much of the critical world has turned right around and absolutely rejected the same idea. Today we critics can say for certain that Whistler either was or was not right, which is all that could be said in 1877. (6)

This is not to suggest that the debate was futile. All to the contrary: it usefully expanded the discussion of art, and helped to open the way for the modernist revolution that was then in its early stages.

But when a controversy becomes specialized, and to some extent technical, it sometimes recedes from the public gaze, to no one's eventual benefit. In the years that followed Whistler v. Ruskin, controversy in the arts took an unfortunate turn. In a sense, it went underground. Because the products of modernism sometimes baffled the public, those who discussed them eventually abandoned the idea of a genuinely public debate and began conducting their critical business more or less in private.

Perhaps that's one reason why, in 1990, Barnett Newman's Voice of Fire created the angriest and most intense debate about art in the history of Canada--a controversy which explosively mixed money, politics, and taste. Voice of Fire is a huge painting, about three times the height of a fairly tall man. It was made for installation in Buckminster Fuller's geodesic dome, the U.S. Pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal. Voice of Fire went to Ottawa in 1988, on loan from Newman's widow, for the opening show in the new National Gallery. It hung there for two years, arousing no hostile comment. Apparently nobody objected to having it around, as long as it was free. But in the spring of 1990 the gallery announced it had purchased the painting for 1.76-million dollars.

The timing was unfortunate. This happened to be a moment when there was anger everywhere about the GST, the economy was stalled, and everyone's income tax was coming due. Politicians, editors, columnists, cartoonists and private citizens apparently united in their shock and horror at the idea of handing over this much money for what were, as honest folk could clearly see, only some stripes. The chairman of the parliamentary culture committee offered the opinion that he could produce just as good a striped painting as Newman, and at a lower cost. As you'll recall, several citizens said they could too, and they made paintings to prove it, paintings which were duly shown in the newspapers and on TV. The deputy prime minister announced that the sale would be reviewed by a cabinet committee and perhaps rescinded--which would have been difficult, since the money had long since been paid to Mrs. Newman. Politicians loudly demanded financial accountability, as if someone at the National Gallery had spent all that money on a whim. In fact, the purchase had gone through the curatorial committee, then the gallery's board, and then the cabinet-appointed trustees of the National Museums of Canada. But that wasn't really the point.

The point was that at a moment of fiscal difficulty, serious money had been paid for an object that seemed alien and even perhaps hostile. As Bronwyn Drainie wrote in The Globe and Mail, "To put it crudely, Canadians don't like Voice of Fire because it doesn't like them. In fact, it wants nothing to do with them. It is an imposing symbol of one of the haughtiest, most elite art movements in world history." She wrote that Newman and other New York abstract expressionists defined art as self-referential, unrelated to most other human beings. As the art critic John O'Brian wrote in a book about this controversy, the public was bewildered by the simplicity of the painting, or by its extreme assertiveness, or both--in any case, the issue became "elite accountability."

Robert Murray, a distinguished Canadian sculptor who once worked with Newman, said that Newman's art had after all been around for decades and there had been plenty of time for the public to catch up. He suggested it wasn't all that daring for a museum to purchase a Newman today. He also said, correctly, that much of the criticism came from people who hadn't seen the painting and were mainly interested in the price tag. And finally he asked the most painful question of all: "Should their opinions carry any weight?"

Clearly, that question embodies all the elitism that Drainie and other commentators find so odious--and of course Murray didn't bother discussing whether this kind of art deserves to be valued by a large public. But he was merely saying that people should know what they are talking about or not talk, a fairly good idea.

Perhaps now I'm, like Mackenzie King, not letting my on the one hand know what my on the other hand is doing. I should acknowledge that I was on the side of Newman and the National Gallery. Even so, I was conscious, as I have been on many occasions, that we who write about art and teach it live much of our intellectual lives in a self-enclosed world that seems not at all interested in the larger public.

This time, the public was heard--and perhaps everyone learned something. And I agreed with a member of the audience at a National Gallery symposium who said Voice of Fire was worth every nickel of the $1.76 million because it generated a debate that helped put make the National Gallery and the painting famous. In other words, controversy of any kind is healthy if it directs our attention to important matters. If Barnett Newman can't get on the CBC National news as a great painter, and he certainly can't, then getting him on as part of a money-driven news story is better than never hearing about him. (7)

This view has much to be said for it, but does it apply in other spheres, such as politics? If we consider only the amount of debate, and its apparent heat, then perhaps we'll conclude that the state of public debate in Canada in 1997 is exceptionally healthy. Certainly the present moment is politically the most contentious time that any of us can remember. In Quebec, the fierce struggle between nationalists and federalists, the struggle we tried to ignore for so long, now touches every corner of society. In English Canada, particularly Ontario and Alberta, the division between right and left has been transformed from a side show of public life, which it was for many years, into the main event.

In an astonishingly brief period, roughly the first few years of this decade, neoconservatism pushed aside the liberal, mildly socialist consensus that governed Canada for many years and installed itself as the main organizing principle of government.

In theory, the emergence of an alternative point of view should gladden the hearts of those, like me, who believe in the creative results of controversy. But our current political debate, while loud and furious, has quickly become sterile. We have made a habit of dividing every discussion into two opposed positions, one right and one left, as if no other were possible. In place of one orthodoxy we now have two, a small improvement. The newspaper columnists of 1997 are if anything even more predictable than they were a decade ago. Many columnists earn a living by saying, in effect, "Remember what I thought last week? Well, on due consideration, I think the same thing this week."

Many private citizens, for their part, have begun expressing themselves through buttons worn on their chests. This is a way of avoiding debate before it's in any danger of starting. The button-wearer says: I support my team, and I'm against your team, and don't talk to me about it. The iconography is borrowed from sports, where the alignment of the fan is everything. At a football game it's appropriate, but in public affairs it's a deterrent to thinking.

I believe we also limit authentic debate because we pay too much attention to the more dubious research of the social scientists. Their ideas that opinions are held in predictable clusters has become part of nearly everyone's world view. We have come to believe that if we know one of an individual's responses to the world, we can easily guess the others, and sometimes that's altogether true. Last week, when I was debating on TVOntario with a leading Toronto actress, she told me how she personally decides all provincial issues. If Premier Harris favours it, she said, then she's against it. This neatly eliminates doubt--and, I would argue, prevents any possibility of thinking.

That's an extreme case, but we tend to think that one glimpse of an individual's ideology will reveal everything. Tell me what you think of the deficit and I will tell you what you think of abortion. Explain your views of the Alberta government and I will know what you think about gay rights, the Gulf War, using animals in medical research, and the tax on American magazines. The oracles of this approach to opinion are the pollsters, who love to gather us like radishes into convenient bunches that be easily manipulated.

Unfortunately, polling results indicate that, in far too many cases for comfort, we do fit predictable patterns. This was most famously demonstrated by Theodor Adorno and the other researchers whose work in the 1940s led to their influential study of racist and fascist tendencies in the United States, The Authoritarian Personality, published in 1950. I've heard a leading pollster call that the finest piece of research ever done. True, perhaps, but it is also the most depressing. It concludes: "The most crucial result of the present study ... is the demonstration of close correspondence in the type of approach and outlook a subject is likely to have in a great variety of areas, ranging from ... family and sex adjustment through relationships to other people in general, to religion and to social and political philosophy." (8)

From that acorn, a forest of polling companies has grown, each of them dedicated to proving that through their cleverness they know the secrets of our hearts. The professional pollster has done more to destroy controversy, and its outlet, journalism, than any other force--which makes it ironic that publishers and broadcasters have done so much to subsidize polling. With the power of statistics and pseudo-science behind it, polling has become a way of foreclosing real debate: at certain key moments a poll becomes a more potent element in the news than anything said by politicians or journalists.

It works like a kind of alchemy: it collects opinions or whims and magically transforms them into facts. To social science, an individual's opinion is worth little or nothing, but when combined with a thousand other opinions, suitably sampled and weighted, it becomes a saleable and influential piece of information. Since I've come to believe that polling presents a limited and limiting view of human possibilities, I of course cherish every event that embarrasses the pollsters, such as the last British election; and I'm always delighted to meet someone who undercuts the stereotype--the fiscal conservative who campaigns for gay marriage, the feminist who argues in favour of pornography, the black leader who opposes affirmative action. When I began reading about such things, in the 1950s, it was often said that routinely dividing opinion into left and right was old-fashioned and simple-minded. But instead of disappearing, that tendency has grown even more widely accepted, particularly since its enthusiastic adoption by cable television. Crossfire on CNN and its Canadian simulacrum, Face-off, on Newsworld, have set this principle in concrete: these programs permit two, and only two, positions, diametrically opposed, and the representative of each is expected to fire away at the representative of the other. When Michael Kinsley worked on Crossfire, he always described himself as "Michael Kinsley, on the left." He must have said it hundreds of times, and it was a lie every time. As his readers have long known, he disagrees with standard left opinions far more often than he agrees. But at the same time, he certainly wasn't on the right. So where was he? We couldn't have him saying, "Michael Kinsley from the thinking, uncommitted middle." For the purposes of public debate as television conceives it, there was no place for him except on the left.

In this reflexive and largely arid debate, it appears to be essential for each side to claim that the advantage lies with the other. The left says neoconservatism now dominates opinion in the newspapers and political parties. The right claims that the left has so infiltrated all our institutions, from the public schools to the courts, that its influence has entered the bloodstream of society. Neither side will admit for a moment that it is anything like as influential as the other claims. Each aspires, in the style of the 1990s, to the status of victim. But they have one thing in common. Both sides appear to believe that it is essential in political debate to show the bad faith or self-delusion of one's opponent.

What robs these debates of meaning is that the participants know at the beginning precisely where they will be at the end. They appear to think on autopilot. The idea that they might learn something from these encounters would be regarded by almost everyone concerned as outlandish. The notion that one of them might suffer a change of heart or mind as a result of such a debate is barely conceivable.

They remind me of the worst debates we see in our time, those involving heads of government and their would-be successors. Whether we speak of the Canadian or American leaders' debates, the best we can say for them is that they seemed like a good idea at the time they began. The Americans, ahead of us in these matters, have carried televised debates a stage further, by persuading the candidates for vice-president that they, too, should pretend to debate. Since a vice-presidential candidate is by definition committed to saying nothing in public except what the presidential candidate says, the vice-presidential debates achieve a purity of form unmarred by substance--a case of debate for debate's sake.

Another kind of debate has actually taken place at one moment in history, not between political leaders but between leading citizens, and I cite it tonight as a kind of model. In 1911 George Bernard Shaw gave a speech, touching on religion and related matters, that many of his listeners found distressing. G. K. Chesterton was asked to reply on a later occasion, and did so. Then Shaw and Chesterton appeared together. This began a series of debates in various public halls across England that lasted 16 years--debates touching on evolution, sex, God, personal honour, and of course the proper organization of the British economy. They radically disagreed, yet they had enough poise and intelligence to debate with goodhearted wit, neither of them disparaging the motives of the other. In debating, they educated themselves as well as their audiences, and they took it for granted that each could, if eloquent enough, change the mind of the other. Chesterton, a fervent Christian, once said: "Mr. Shaw is living in a comparatively Pagan world. He is something of a Pagan himself and like many other Pagans he is a very fine man." After Chesterton's death, Shaw remarked, "I enjoyed him and admired him keenly, and nothing could have been more generous than his treatment of me." (9)

Chesterton, incidentally, understood the value of mythology to a country, and at one point suggested how Canada's should develop. He visited the Plains of Abraham in the 1920s, and noted that on the monument to Wolfe and Montcalm the lettering was in Latin. A few years later, he remarked on how delighted he was "That these two great heroes are celebrated together in the universal language of Europe ... upon the battlefield. That is what I call a legend, and that should be the beginning of literature." Chesterton was not, in this case, a prophet. Today the monument is gone, Latin is gone, and for all the reasons I've mentioned, the legend has never been allowed to take meaningful shape. (10)

In what I've been saying, the Shaw-Chesterton debates occupy a unique place. These are the only examples I've cited this evening in which I've found no flaw. That may be attributed to the fact that I witnessed none of them and know them only through reading. Perhaps it's in the nature of faraway debates to seem more enticing. But I hope I've made clear that for the success of a debate or a public controversy, we do not require optimum conditions. My view is that if we can't have controversies that are passionate, honest, and at the same time good-hearted (and clearly we can't, most of the time), then half-serious, slightly dishonest and somewhat mean-spirited controversies are a great deal better than none at all. Because, whether it makes us proud or ashamed, energized or enervated, controversy is the principal means by which we discover, in public, who we are.

1. Scott, F.R. and A. J. M. Smith, eds., The Blasted Pine (Toronto: 1967), page 36.
2. Fulford, Robert, The Globe and Mail, July 17, 1996.
3. Gould, Stephen Jay, the New York Times, June 26, 1996.
4. Uchitelle, Louis, New York Times, February 16, 1997.
5. Auden, W. H., Collected Shorter Poems, 1927-1957 (New York: 1966), p.221.
6. Merrill, Linda, A Pot of Paint: Aesthetics on Trial in "Whistler v. Ruskin" (Washington, D.C.: 1992).
7. Barber, Bruce, et al, Voices of Fire: Art, Rage, Power, and the State (Toronto: 1996). O'Brian on p. 19, Drainie on p. 75, Murray on p. 181.
8. Adorno, T. W., et al, The Authoritarian Personality (New York: abridged edition, 1982), p. 475.
9. Holroyd, Michael, Bernard Shaw, Volume II, 1898-1918, The Pursuit of Power (London: 1989), p. 214-219.
10. Chesterton, G. K., The Chesterton Review, November, 1996.

Return to the List of Robert Fulford's Lectures

Return to Robert Fulford's Home Page
typewriter image