Friday, September 3, 2010

As the World "Spins"

A scene from A Corner in Wheat 1910, D.W. Griffith's masterpiece. I think that is Mack Sennett (or Mack Senett as written on bill). He was from Richmond and born right around the same time as Edith.

I'm continuing to deconstruct the December 1, 1910 Montreal Gazette as found on the Google Archives. I've used the Gazette archives a great deal on this blog, for background and perspective.

This edition has a report on a speech given by a Dr. Dyde of Queen's at McGill to the men of the Arts Society. "Canada," said Dyde, "was taking a step forward in the national life.. was passing out of the period of childhood and 'putting on longpants', so to speak." He continued," Responsibility must follow. There can be no nationhood unless among the people there is a great sense of the responsibility of nationhood...And yet Canada is not a united Canada; still we hear of French-Canadians,Irish Canadians, Scotch-Canadians, English-Canadians. "

"There is room," he continued, "for one great people in Canada, but not for two or three angry suspicious, obstructive nationalities." (Ironically, this man is described as "Canadian-born" at the beginning of the report, as if that term gives him authority to speak on "Canadian Nationality, 1867 and Now."

Well, it's the old Canadian unity issue... Laurier had already figured it out, as it happens. He could dance the dance and every Prime Minister since has had to learn the steps.

My husband and I don't agree on too much, but we agree on this, Hockey is the only thing that keeps Canada together, otherwise, we are as polarized as the US, in much the same way, rural/city, educated/non-educated, coast/inland.

But enough of my opinion. In 1910, Canada was experiencing a huge influx of immigrants, coming to work in the factories in Montreal and Toronto and to work the farms out West. 1912 would see the biggest proportional flow of immigration into Canada ever. Herb Nicholson, who journeyed out West in 1910, wrote home about the different ethnic groups he saw around him, which included Scotchman who 'talked so broad' he couldn't understand them.

The Powers That Be had a highly ambivalent attitude towards these 'new Canadians' - much as they do today. They actively sought American Immigrants out West so as to avoid having to let in 'those others.'

This speaker, Dyde, was more open-minded, apparently. In this McGill speech he says "Canada for the Canadians is a narrow, bigoted, miserable cry. Let it be "Canada for the world and the world for Canada." His message may have been lost on this particular audience: in a mock parliament around that time McGill students voted to keep Orientals out of Canada.

In a 1907 speech to Parliament, J W Robertson, the head of the Royal Commission on Technical Training and Industrial Education, spoke thus:

Some of the problems we Canadians have to face and solve for ourselves are common to all self-governing nations, but others of them are peculiar to us. For instance, there are special problems due to our youth; to our size; to the character, vastness and potential values of our undeveloped resources; and to the large amount of foreign blood pouring into our citizenship. The large inflow of foreigners who come to mix with our people adds difficulties to the ordinary problems of agriculture and education. These people bring in not merely different methods of doing things but different social standards and ideals. The traditions they have inherited, the conditions under which they have been brought up, their outlook on life, these are all different from ours. For our safety and their welfare it is necessary that these people should be educated, so led and so guided by competent leaders that they will be inclined to live on the land and not to herd to the cities; that they will be able to live on the land with profit and contentment to themselves and thus join our own people in making our civilization progressive and wholesome for the whole of us. "

Mixed messages, you see. No different from today. (And mixed messages are very different from a mix of opinions.)

But do fat speeches by big men to elite groups influence the general populace. I don't think so.

Let's look at another article in another part of the December 1, 1910 Montreal Gazette: a crime report. It tells how a little boy was burned to death in a Montreal tenement while his mother was out of the house. She supposedly left the house and locked two older girls in an outer room and the boy in an interior room and the boy set himself on fire somehow and the older girls couldn't save him. The authorities were deciding whether to take her children from her. (There's no mention of a father.) The report says the mother is Mrs. Tolkiuk, a Pole. (Odd, she has a Ukrainian name.)

Even to this day, crime reports on TV do the most to undermine democracy for they feed the irrational and baser appetites.(and the evening news is often just a jumble of accident and crime reports (cheap to produce and of lowest common denominator value). That's tabloid journalism, in essence. (We all like tabloid trash like the National Enquirer, but we shouldn't base our decisions as citizens in a democracy on what it contains. Well, now, most of the news media is tabloid, so it's happening.)

The message boards for seedy crime reports on online newspapers are often the most commented on and often filled with angry, irrational remarks. One incident takes on the intensity of a trend or epidemic.

And then the government has no trouble passing law and order legislation not based on statistical evidence but on people's perceptions or building prisons for 'an anticipated influx of inmates'. (How scary is that?)

In a Single Man, Colin Firth's character, a jaded university prof who is planning to committ suicide, gives a speech on the politics of fear. It's the best speech in the film. (Back in 1910, the new motion picture medium, was starting to have a huge impact on the public's perceptions of right and wrong, all the while taking power away from the pulpit. However, this century old entertainment medium seems to have lost its power, somehow. How many pictures have been produced in the past couple of years warning about the imminent arrival of a police state? Many. And no one cares. (Indeed, I think it was Nora Ephron, recently interviewed on BBC Radio Four, who said that the film medium only influences people to buy this pair of sunglasses over the other pair. Pity, I say.) Of course, mainstream movies generally have no teeth anyway.

It's not like so many people don't see the danger in all these media mixed messages, all this spin, implying danger danger everywhere and preying on our basic fears and prejudices: so why are governments (why is our government, voted in by a mere 30 percent of the population) getting away with wholesale changes to the way our country works?

My son would say because we are all too tired out deciding which brand and type of shampoo to buy, which would make the motion picture industry part of the problem (as it promotes consumerism to the nth power) and not part of the solution.