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Pat MurphyTo most Canadians, George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) may be a quaint figure whose primary distinction is having a popular southern Ontario theatre festival named after him. However, he was a big wheel during the first half of the 20th century.

A self-described “downstart,” Shaw was born into an impecunious Protestant Ascendancy family in Dublin, Ireland.

Leaving genteel poverty behind, he moved to London as a young man and embarked on a career that made him famous.

As a playwright and critic, Shaw became one of the English-speaking world’s major literary figures. His 1925 Nobel Prize in literature and his 1938 Academy Award (for the screenplay adaptation of his play Pygmalion) speak to the status he enjoyed.

As a polemicist, he was a prolific pamphleteer for the socialist Fabian Society. In concert with the likes of Sidney and Beatrice Webb, he became an important influence in British left-wing circles.

And he was also what’s known as a public intellectual, that curious category of people whose opinions command attention on subjects far removed from their demonstrated areas of expertise.

It was in that latter role that Shaw was most controversial.

Eugenics was one of his enthusiasms. Emphasizing the need to improve the quality of the population by breeding out hereditary deficiencies, eugenics appealed to a wide swath of educated opinion.

But perhaps the oddest aspect of Shaw as public intellectual was the propensity he developed for cuddling up to dictators. Benito Mussolini in Italy, Adolf Hitler in Germany and Josef Stalin in the Soviet Union all had periods where Shaw viewed them benignly.

Indeed, on an early 1933 visit to the United States, he didn’t mince words: “You Americans are so fearful of dictators. Dictatorship is the only way in which government can accomplish anything. See what a mess democracy has led to. Why are you afraid of dictatorship?”

The range of Shaw’s admiration may seem weird, but it shouldn’t really. Rather than being polar opposites, fascism and communism were more akin to ideological and temperamental first cousins. They were close relatives jealously vying for the same audience.

Mussolini, after all, started his career as a left-wing journalist. And the official name for the Nazis was the National Socialist German Workers’ Party.

On close inspection, the similarities are compelling.

Both fascism and communism embraced the cult of the visionary leader who’d brook no interference or opposition; both subordinated the individual to the collective; both set out to transform human nature, creating a ‘new man’ in the process; both claimed to raise the material prospects of the working class; and both exhibited an instinctive flair for brutality.

In fairness to Shaw, though, his early political manifestation was that of a gradualist reformer. Socialism would come in increments.

Then he apparently lost patience.

When that happened, he was spoiled for choice. If you had a taste for dictators, they were in abundant supply.

By its very nature, democracy can be messy. It can also move slowly, requiring a reasonable degree of social consensus in order to effect change. For those convinced of the urgent correctness of their views, the righteousness of their morality and the superiority of their intelligence, this can be a trial.

Hence the attraction of the dictator. When you strongly approve of the cause, it becomes easier to endorse the necessary coercion. And if things get downright nasty, there’s the axiom about not being able to make omelettes without breaking eggs.

Is it feasible to separate political views and private behaviour from artistic merit?

In what’s been tagged the “post-Weinstein present,” there are those who wonder whether we should even try.

For instance, a recent Wall Street Journal review of a book on the 1906 Stanford White murder case pondered the question of whether an artist’s moral character should influence how we value his work. A celebrated architect who created some of New York City’s most elegant buildings, White was also a “notorious voluptuary” with a penchant for teenage girls.

But, to my mind, that bears no relevance to the quality of the architecture. And the same applies to Shaw’s writing.

So if plays like Pygmalion, Major Barbara or Saint Joan catch your fancy, by all means enjoy them. Just don’t look to the author for general political guidance.

Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.

dictators, intellectual, Bernard Shaw

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