Saturday, August 31, 2013

Duncan Campbell Scott: Good Poet, Bad Person?

The other day Bernie Farber had an op-ed in the Ottawa Citizen where he wrote:

[Duncan Campbell Scott] was considered one of Canada’s preeminent poets, a writer whose verses sang of Canada’s natural beauty, whose poems painted pictures of Canadian wilderness that brought pride to a nation. He was also a heartless civil servant, the first superintendent of Canadian residential schools and a deputy minister of Indian Affairs in the early part of the 20th century whose policies targeting First Nations, many believe, meet today’s definition of the UN genocide convention.

The next day U-of-0's Gerald Lynch fired back with a defense of Scott.  He claimed that: vilifying Scott, Farber implicates the whole of our history and its prime actors. There were few in Scott’s time who did not think as he did, and many who thought cruelly (some even genocidally, though that is a ludicrous charge to level so recklessly at Scott and most). Former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Ovide Mercredi himself said in a TV Ontario documentary on Scott that he did not blame the man but the culture and time he represented, which is fair. In castigating Scott and by implication the whole glorious past of Canada, Farber commits the present’s rampaging sin of asking the bad past always to bend the knee to our enlightened times.

Perhaps one day a hundred years from now some socio-historian will castigate someone like Farber for blithely going about his business while animals were being butchered and rendered extinct. Or perhaps the future will charge Farber with some other crime that he (and we), in the necessarily blinkered present, cannot recognize.

Well, there are a couple of things we need to think about here.  One is the simple fact that our artists are often  monsters, and we are left to make what we will of their creations in light of this.  V.S. Naipaul is, by all accounts, a horrible man.  T.S. Eliot wrote a number of openly anti-semitic poems, and some of the parts of The Wasteland that Pound edited out are filled with a rancid misogyny.  Louis-Ferdinand Céline was anti-semitic to the point of lunacy, and in addition collaborated with the Nazis.  Even the wonderful Hergé was capable of racism in his Tintin in the Congo.  In each case, the potential reader must judge whether these facts are enough to turn them off the authors' work.

But to excuse behavior and beliefs because they were "of their time" is simply an appeal to the lowest common denominator.   There are always some who are unblinkered, and I don't see why we are not free to judge their historical peers in light of their example.  Furthermore, its hard to see how Lynch's argument. when applied consistently, would not invalidate any attempt at moral judgement. After all, we are all of our time and submerged in our culture. Can we not, for example, condemn execution by stoning though it is  accepted practice in some milieus?


Maxamillion said...

A fascinating account of a man who use to be heralded as a great poet. It is no wonder that Indigenous people feel that genocide is a proper characterization of Canadian historical policy.

Holly Stick said...

Book by E. Brian Titley looks at DC Scott's record as an Indian Affairs employee.
I just ran across this very interesting review of the book: