A conversation with a student about the book Lament for a Nation by George Grant led me to pen this piece:
Lament for the Present: How a 52 year old book about Canada can help explain Trump
In 1965 George Grant, a McMaster University philosophy professor, published a short book destined to make him a CBC television personality and a figure of controversy in Canadian academe. That book, Lament for a Nation: the defeat of Canadian nationalism, argued that Canadian nationalism was dead, Canada’s sovereign existence was finished, and that modern life made political conservatism impossible. In a lyrical style marked by flights of outrage and sorrow, Lament proved a surprise bestseller and won Grant admirers and enemies alike.
It is unlikely that you will hear the name George Grant mentioned in a Conservative Party leadership debate or see him praised in print as an intellectual godfather of Canadian conservatism. The reason is simple: Grant was a political heretic: in Lament he argued that to be a true Canadian conservative the time had come to embrace socialism. Grant was able to espouse such apostasy because he was a moral critic of capitalism and believed socialism to be a conservative force capable of restraining private greed in the name of morality and public good. The preservation of communities and the guarding of traditional values required a reigning in of capitalism, so Grant accepted that a powerful State was necessary to impose economic planning and restrictive trade to curb the encroachment of American corporate and consumer capitalism. Just like today, these were not mainstream political positions in 1965, except perhaps within certain corners of the NDP.
In 2017, in this so called “age of Trump,” heterodoxy is all the rage in politics. Voters have demonstrated an appetite for unconventional -even renegade- politicians who do not tow the party line. In Lament for a Nation, Grant’s hero was one such pol: the controversial prairie populist Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, a man who hailed from small town Saskatchewan, was reviled by the Press, alienated his own party’s leadership, and who prided himself on possessing a deep bond with the people of small town and rural Canada. He preferred the hustings and campaigning to policy-making and excelled at verbal spats. During his prime ministerial tenure, Diefenbaker remained an isolated figure in Ottawa who neither cultivated friendships nor socialized with diplomats, civil servants or dignitaries. This “Rogue Tory” and “Renegade in Power,” as he was called, even precipitated a diplomatic crisis with Washington when he balked at meeting Canada’s defence obligations under NORAD and NATO by allowing nuclear warheads installed atop Canada’s Bomarc missiles. George Grant admired this apparent willingness to “stand up to Washington,” and embraced Diefenbaker’s quixotic campaign to pull Canada away from American influence by renegotiating a powerful and independent British Commonwealth (not even Britain supported it).
But what is most relevant about Lament for a Nation is not Grant’s admiration for an odd duck prime minister, but his passionate disdain for Canada’s liberal elite. He accuses Canadian liberals in government, business, finance and the press of betraying Canadian sovereignty by pursuing closer financial, diplomatic, and military ties with the United States and by embracing an emerging global diplomatic and financial order led by Washington. Grant not only hated globalism, he believed that liberalism was the philosophy of global governance. If liberals succeeded in building this international order, it was only a matter of time before “the universal and homogeneous state” would take hold and destroy Canada and conservatism.
2017 is a time of existential fear among many voters in the United States, Britain, France, Germany and the Netherlands. Observers of contemporary politics have been treated to dire warnings about what globalism and global immigration will do to the culture and values of the West. These warnings have been laced with xenophobia, bombast, and racism. But beneath the rhetoric is an older fear of the influence of the cosmopolitan and foreign not limited to a populist fringe. George Grant, scion of one of Canada’s old imperialist families, expressed fear of the foreign better than most when he tied the fate of a morally traditional Canada to an emerging international cosmopolitan order that threatened the ability of smaller states to make laws and govern themselves according to their values. The time has come for Grant’s little book to be taken down from the shelf and read again. Grant’s readers may find that in this time of crisis, he has more insightful and trenchant things to say about globalism and illiberalism than the headline and prime time grabbing antics of politicians. Surprisingly, they may find that Canada has something to teach us all about contemporary American and European politics.
–Jeremy Nathan Marks