Lament for the Present

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

Detroit Treasures

I had a tremendously positive experience conducting research at the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University this past Thursday.

Detroit has some tremendous educational and cultural resources, especially in/around the Wayne State campus. Not only is the glorious Detroit Institute of the Arts located there, but so is the Detroit Public Library Main Branch (built in the 1860s), the Detroit Historical Society & Museum, the Michigan Science Center, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, and the libraries of Wayne State University.

This is a tremendous resource that is actually easier to get to (from London) than the museums of downtown Toronto (quicker & with better parking). I don’t know how many people know of these institutions, but I would suggest checking them out. The atmosphere around the university campus is lovely and there is good eating, too.

 

Talking water, water infrastructure & history

I had a great discussion with James Shelley about water, water infrastructure, and history back in January.

James is a local thinker, writer, researcher, podcaster and host of London’s Wolf Hall Debates. In other words, James is one of the people in our city who helps make London a vibrant, thoughtful community. You can catch the conversation here as well as check out his excellent website which is filled with other thoughtful content:

http://jamesshelley.com/2017/04/10/talking-canadians/

An outstanding link for studying the past & present

I am posting a link to the Studs Terkel radio archive. http://studsterkel.wfmt.com

This archive includes broadcasts Terkel did over his long and distinguished journalistic and broadcasting career.

As a teacher of history and the humanities I am thrilled to be able to use this resource with my students but also to use it as a means of expanding my understanding of the American past and present.

Jeremy Nathan Marks

Ecological Imperialism

I am currently studying environmental history with a student. The book, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 (by Alfred W. Crosby) is an eye-opening examination of the growth of European imperialism from the standpoint of botany, epidemiology, agriculture, animal husbandry and also includes a fascinating study of climate and sailing.

The book requires readers to rethink how they understand and imagine the meeting of cultures. All too often we’ve been led to believe that one civilization colonizes another because it has superior technology, belief systems and a more sophisticated cosmology. Crosby challenges all of that. He also challenges the idea that European colonization of the globe was an inevitable result of the sophistication of European cultures.

But one of the most interesting questions his book raises is how the Europeans themselves were suited to new and alien environments and how well they did or did not adapt their thinking, mores and habits. In this age of globalization and global tourism where a person can go to the tropics, stay in an air conditioned villa, eat imported cuisine and traverse the landscape in familiar vehicles, it is all-too-easy to forget that even in the most easily settled of European colonies (e.g. Canada, Australia) colonists were often ill-suited to their circumstances and held to belief systems and aesthetic values which not only did not serve them but often led to a violent relationship with the land itself.

One of the finest examples of this in literature and film is the novel and movie “Picnic at Hanging Rock” about a turn-of-last-century picnic gone horribly wrong in the state of South Australia. The tension between the daughters and matrons of British culture and the ancient, un-English landscape of the Australian continent is palpable in Joan Lindsay’s novel and in Peter Weir’s cinematic adaptation. What stands out for me is the difference between the children of the wealthy, whose parents made money in international business, and those labourers who appear to be the descendants of the original English colonists. The question of adaptation, acclimation and acculturation cuts across the matter of social class:

Jeremy Nathan Marks 

Taking ideas seriously

I am looking forward to my upcoming sessions with a local “philosophy group” comprised of teenagers who have spent some months studying the works of many important historical thinkers.

Beginning this Friday we will be having five Socratic sessions which cover a range of books including The Communist ManifestoThe God That FailedTo Kill A MockingbirdWinnipeg’s General Strike and Utopia.

It is always exciting to see students taking ideas seriously and embarking upon the work of unpacking systems of thought. Like many critics, I also believe that all too often ideas are being turned into soundbites and quotes which are divested of intellectual, socio-economic and historical context. Therefore it is a pleasure to be invited to be part of a group that is working hard to educate itself and is not afraid of an intellectual challenge.

Jeremy Nathan Marks