Pubdate: Sunday, August 22, 2004
Source: Calgary Herald (CN AB)
Author: Nigel Hannaford
Should the Famous Five be on the $50?
They were remarkable: Honour their victory
"The great thing about history is that it is adaptable," wrote Peter
Ustinov, describing the Soviet view of past events in his classic satire
Romanoff and Juliet. Certainly, the Communists understood very clearly that
the past can be suborned to the needs of today's power elite; their history
books were about as good as their automobiles.
Same with the Nazis, and all the "ists."
Even societies we respect tend to have an official version of events that
stresses virtues they admire, and plays down episodes they'd rather forget.
Thus, the Yanks wrote a song about the Battle of New Orleans which they won
over the British, and have little to say about a naval action during the War
of 1812 in which they lost the frigate Chesapeake to an inferior British
vessel. The Brits know all about it, though.
But then, I believe the French still think they won the Battle of Waterloo.
And so it is that today's mavens of political correctness try to adapt
history to promote their faction, by taking cheap shots at people who were
once admired, because the attitudes they once held are now unfashionable.
Destroy your heroes and I destroy you.
Hence, the minor foofaraw over the suitability of five Alberta women to
adorn a bank note. In 1929, the Famous Five won the Persons Case, the burden
of which was that the word "person" in the legislation defining Senate
eligibility could indeed apply to women. It was a milestone in the women's'
Well, actually a half-milestone. If one wanted to diminish their status, one
might point out that women already had the vote, served in legislatures and
Parliament, and on the judiciary, roles assumed by some of the five
themselves. They also drove cars, something they still can't do in some
parts of the Muslim world. So, if becoming a senator is the top of the
mountain, they weren't far from the summit already. What's the big deal?
Instead, they stand accused of being typical products of their day. They
held racist attitudes. Well, yes they did. But then, 100 years ago, that was
common. This very newspaper, for example, warned its readers of the "yellow
They also believed in eugenics, a sort of dog-breeding program applied to
humanity to better the species. In its name, morons -- yes, that's what they
called the mentally deficient back then -- could be sterilized to prevent
them transmitting their defective genes.
Today, we recoil from the notion as an affront to human dignity. But, a
century ago, Darwin's theory of evolution was still hot. Smart people
understood we were just highly evolved animals, after all. Now, we were
smart enough to control our evolution. Bring on the supermen.
The Second World War got us past that.
The fact remains these women were remarkable, and among the first to fight
for ideas which today seem obvious, but then required brass nerve to
advocate. Must we condemn them because in walking a mile, they failed to
In any case, who are we to talk today? Most of us accept conventional
wisdom. Want to know what it feels like to buck the trend? Just for fun,
argue for two-tier health care. Defend any conservative cause. Say something
nice about George W. Bush.
And wisdoms change, anyway. For all we know, our great-grandchildren may
think everything this generation did was utterly wicked. "You mean they used
to save seals and abort babies? Get that guy off the postage stamps."
That alone makes judging people of another era by the standards of the
present pointless, at best. They thought differently than we did -- quelle
surprise. At worst, we become the grave robbers of reputations, kicking out
the foundations of our society to the detriment of the whole house.
I never thought I'd be the one on this board defending feminist icons, and I
am mildly amused at the confusion among the politically correct caused by
this clash of values. However, fair's fair. They did all right for their
day. And if we should manage to do as much, let's hope nobody adapts us off
our pedestal because -- horrors -- we drove SUVs.