The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, whose fidelity to left-wing politics never diminishes while its share of the Canadian television audience diminishes steadily, will present tomorrow and Monday its version of the man it has proclaimed “The Greatest Canadian.”
That man is Thomas Clement Douglas, “Father of Canadian Medicare,” the leader of the first socialist government elected in North America and founding leader of the socialist New Democratic Party. A CBC contest, conducted among the 10 percent of Canadians who watch the federally funded network, bestowed the “Greatest Canadian” title upon Tommy Douglas two years ago.
Pre-broadcast reviews of the CBC’s four-hour television portrait of the man – unintriguingly titled “The Tommy Douglas Story” – were far from universally ecstatic. The chief criticism was that the show is boring, the central hazard of all hagiography.
It didn’t need to be boring. To make it interesting, all the CBC had to do was describe the evolution of the real Tommy Douglas, instead of the legendary one. That show would have instantly become the talk of the country, while devotees of the legend would have been carted away with heart palpitations, spluttering expletives and threatening violence.
But the facts are the facts, and so far the Canadian left has been able to keep them away from the major media, which probably wouldn’t run them anyway on the grounds that the legend has become unassailable.
But the truth is that “the Greatest Canadian,” up to his mid-30s, like many others of the Canadian and American left, was a passionate believer in eugenics. After Hitler showed the world how eugenics would work out in practice, the left made a panic-stricken flight from the cause, often adopting new organizational names, such as eugenicist Margaret Sanger’s “Planned Parenthood of America.”
However, some were unfortunate enough to leave inextinguishable tracks behind them, and one of these was the CBC’s “Greatest Canadian.” Douglas’s thesis for a master’s degree in sociology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, published in 1933, the year of his 30th birthday, reads like something out of “Mein Kampf.”
Applying good eugenics doctrine to his chosen land, the Scottish-born Douglas described at length and in painful detail his solution for Canada’s economic problems. Canadians must be bred scientifically, he said. People of lesser intelligence or deficient morality – natives, criminals, adulterers are specifically designated – should be sterilized. Homosexuals who persist in their perverse conduct should be incarcerated in insane asylums.
On and on it went, and 11 years after it was published its author headed in the province of Saskatchewan North America’s first socialist government. All of this embarrassing past, judging from the reviews, was delicately omitted from the CBC’s panegyric.
Yet here was an opportunity to raise several interesting questions. For one, why were so many people drawn into the eugenics movement, in fact still are drawn into it? Because, of course, it appears to have the indispensable (if unauthentic) ratification of “science.” After all, we breed plants and livestock to achieve satisfactory results. Why not breed people in the same way?
The answer – that while we may know what kind of plants and cows we want, who is to decide what kind of people we want?was given short shrift back in the ’30s, particularly in Germany and among the forerunners of the Planned Parenthood movement in America. The Catholic church vigorously opposed eugenics, but so what? It took Auschwitz and the Nuremberg trials to make the case more clearly.
Second, would those who were so swift to distance themselves from the movement after the Nazi experience began to unfold, have done so if the Nazis had won the war? Would the victors, perhaps having read Tommy Douglas’s thesis, likewise have hailed him as “the Greatest Canadian,” the ideal man to run the country?
Third, does the fact we are able to achieve something through applied science necessarily entitle us to do it? That is, should science always have the authority to trump morality? This, incidentally, was the principle at the heart of the Galileo trial, nearly 400 years ago, as author Wade Rowland points out in his fascinating “Galileo’s Mistake: The Archaeology of a Myth,” (Thomas Allen, Toronto, 2001). Galileo lost the case, but won the war for societal approval, a fact we may yet have profound cause to regret.
Such questions could have been explored, if the CBC undertook a real portrayal of Tommy Douglas. As usual, it has evaded the opportunity and instead gives us what Macleans magazine called “the stuff ’em and mount ’em mold of historical drama.”