Barry Cooper on George Grant: Laurentian laments and oddly sympathetic to the Soviets

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Barry Cooper, C2C Journal, June 28, 2024

Canadian conservatism boasts few intellectual giants like George Grant. As a philosopher and theologian – a rare combination today – his particular contributions shaped a uniquely Canadian vision of the politically-conservative tradition. Appropriately, a recently published book of essays assesses Grant’s work within today’s context: Reading George Grant in the 21st Century. It is edited by Tyler Chamberlain, who is a part-time instructor at Trinity Western University in Langley, B.C. But before considering some of the interpretations offered by the book’s contributors, it is worth putting in context the increasingly neglected George Grant, formerly a household name and once taught or at least referred to in every Canadian school classroom from grade 6 onward.

First, Grant (1918-1988) was part of a distinguished Upper Canadian (i.e., Ontario) academic aristocracy. His father and maternal grandfather were principals of Upper Canada College, which long functioned as the shaping institution for Ontario’s (male) elite, and which Grant himself attended during the 1930s. After high school, Grant enrolled at Queen’s University in Kingston, where his paternal grandfather had been principal. Grant then went on to Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship; his maternal grandfather was also head of the Rhodes Trust. Among his nephews and nieces were three distinguished academics: siblings Ed and Caroline Andrew, and Michael Ignatieff (who was also leader of the federal Liberals from 2008-2011).

Second, Grant reminded many who knew him (including me) of the historical Socrates, the rough-hewn person lurking behind the polished and ironic philosophy of Plato. The two men looked remarkably alike, that is to say, entirely unlike anything resembling a marble statue of a Greek god. Much as did Socrates, Grant combined a naïve but penetrating curiosity with a highly sceptical attitude towards contemporary sophists. Today such people mostly inhabit and run our universities. Again as with Socrates, Grant’s directness and bluntness regarding such types did not endear him to most of his academic colleagues, though it greatly appealed to me when I was a new assistant professor.

Following the Second World War, Grant published a pamphlet, The Empire, Yes or No? that defended the British Empire as a force for good in the world and a bulwark against America’s hegemony in the English-speaking world. “Our membership in the British Commonwealth has been, is, and will be the only basis on which our nation can be built and its unity maintained,” he wrote. A few years later he began an association with the CBC that ended only with his death.

Grant’s later writings were more philosophical, more complex and more difficult to summarize. The essays in Reading George Grant in the 21st Century are even more demanding. Indeed, they are in many cases downright scholastic and doctrinal and some are expressed in an even more Latinate rhetoric than Grant himself used. As part of a series of publications that seeks to recover the tradition of classical liberalism, the turgid language of several of the authors has not made their task any easier.

Grant’s most famous book, Lament for a Nation, was published in 1965. It is often characterized as a foundational document of Canadian conservatism and as evidence-in-chief that Grant himself is “the father of English-speaking Canadian nationalists.” This designation has been most vehemently proclaimed by English-speaking Conservative Canadian nationalists, which doesn’t make it untrue. While nationalism is today often equated with narrow-minded bigotry, one and two generations ago it was mostly considered harmless if not laudable, as it centred on maintaining the distinctions between the two North American countries. A last gasp of Grant’s version can be watched on YouTube: “I am Canadian”, aka the Molson Rant.

Grant’s identification of nationalism and conservatism makes sense as a first approximation and many of the contributors to Reading George Grant in the 21st Century would agree with it because in Grant’s mind the two things – nationalism and conservatism – were connected. As he put it in Lament, “The impossibility of conservatism in our era is the impossibility of Canada.” Canadians, he said, “Attempted a ridiculous task in trying to build a conservative nation in the age of progress, on a continent we share with the most dynamic nation on earth.”

So, what should we do? Roll over and play dead?

Here one must enter a dissent. Given that Grant often spoke of the Canadian heartland as the “Great Lakes region,” it would be more accurate to speak of him and many of the contributors to this volume as English-speaking conservative Laurentian nationalists. To offer a personal anecdote, I recall discussing with Grant in Halifax the statement from his 1969 book, Technology and Empire, that, “There may be gods in the [Rocky] mountains, but they are not [Canadian] gods.” I pointed out to him that he was not a climber so couldn’t know what gods might be found above 10,000 feet. Maybe they were Albertan, I said. He was amused.

In this same vein, Lament defended the Saskatchewan-born Progressive Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker not in terms of his core identity and image as a Western populist but as the Canadian leader who stood up to U.S. President John Kennedy. Kennedy had pressured Canada to mount a robust defence against the threat of Soviet nuclear-armed bombers flying across the North Pole to attack both countries. Specifically, the Americans wanted Canada to deploy Bomarc surface-to-air missiles armed with nuclear warheads (missiles of the day being too inaccurate to strike fast-flying aircraft directly; proximity nuclear explosions were to do the trick). But Howard Green, Diefenbaker’s minister of external affairs, was strongly in favour of nuclear disarmament.

Trying to accommodate the intense pressures from all sides, Diefenbaker agreed to accept the missiles but refused the warheads, thus drastically reducing the Bomarc system’s effectiveness. Grant lauded this decision but did not mention that the Royal Canadian Air Force, which had for years been deployed as the first echelon of interceptors to hunt incoming Soviet bombers, and which the Bomarc missiles were intended to replace, also carried nuclear warheads. In Grant’s mind, Diefenbaker’s refusal to comply with the Americans’ wishes cost him the 1963 election, when he was replaced by a Liberal, Lester Pearson, whom Grant knew and despised. Grant attributed Diefenbaker’s loss to what we nowadays call election interference.

The 1963 election also had a more general symbolic importance to Grant. It seemingly illustrated that one of the reasons a conservative Canada was doomed was due to the great appeal of the United States, which Grant identified with both liberalism and technology. In Lament and in later writings, Grant understood liberalism to entail an absence of pre-given restraints on all human activity. As he put it – and is quoted by several of the commentators – for liberalism, “man’s essence is his freedom.”

More specifically, as Scott Staring, who teaches at Georgian College in Barrie, Ontario, describes Grant’s view, we are free “to make the world as [we] choose.” This is possible because “we ourselves are the result of that free act of making.” And our freedom to make the world is provided by technology. In his later writing, Grant saw the U.S. not so much as a threat to Canada’s British connection but as the source of the technological dynamism that dissolved all particularities in the name of a homogeneous and well-managed universal order.

Grant’s early reflections on technology built on the arguments of the prolific mid-20th-century French philosopher and lawyer, Jacques Ellul. Though he is best remembered for the slogan “think globally, act locally,” Ellul’s most insightful observation concerned the “autonomy” of what he called la technique taking on a life of its own and influencing human life in ways extending far beyond the process of fabrication. Today the autonomy of technique is evident to anyone who has ever heard of artificial intelligence or reflected on the malign consequences of birdbrains twittering on their screens.

Grant’s later analysis of this problem, which he called “technology”, was based on the more opaque arguments of German philosopher Martin Heidegger. Grant’s conclusion, which was expressed in several Heideggerian formulations, was that technology was a “package deal” embracing religion, culture, politics and education. It was a new, post-Max Weber iron cage. The attraction of Heidegger over Ellul, as Don Forbes, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Toronto, points out is that Heidegger recognized that technology spawned new ways of thinking as well as new ways of doing.

In his Introduction to Reading George Grant in the 21st Century, Chamberlain argues that reading Grant at any time would clarify the significance of what several commentators and Grant call “technological modernity”. Reading him in our century would allow contemporaries to reflect on the applicability of Grant’s critical insights from two generations ago to the current version of technological modernity, particularly its ability to dissolve “local cultures, political freedom and equality, and the public awareness of an objective or transcendent moral order”. The 20th century was, no doubt, dark; the 21st could be even darker, not least because we are unaccustomed to see the darkness as darkness.

Here it is worth emphasizing that, with the exceptions of prolific author Ron Dart, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of the Fraser Valley, whose first book on Grant appeared in 2006, and Forbes, whose major study appeared in 2007, the contributors are all younger scholars, 21st-century PhDs, some with regular teaching positions, some without. They all seem familiar with Grant’s works, which is no small achievement. Grant read extensively from Western and non-Western sources and voiced his opinion regarding the contentious policy options of the day for over 40 years. There is simply a huge amount of material to read; his Collected Works, published by the University of Toronto Press, run to four thick volumes and 3,000 pages.

According to several contributors, many of Grant’s 20th-century positions translate well enough into a 21st-century context. Many of the younger scholars strongly agree with Grant’s observation that Canada was “more ordered” than the United States. This claim is often expressed in the clichéd contrast of the U.S. Declaration of Independence’s “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” against the 1867 British North America Act’s proclamation that “peace, order and good government” are all the responsibility of the central government.

Such a claim to superior Canadian orderliness is at least questionable when one recalls it was George Washington who coined the phrase “ordered liberty”. Then again, American independence was only achieved via war, the U.S. required a bloody civil war to avoid splitting in two, and western settlement was more tumultuous there than in Canada. Perhaps most important for both Grant and the authors is that the U.S. was and arguably still is the “spearhead of progress”, particularly technological progress, the only kind that matters. For those who point to China as the new centre of technology, ask yourself: how much intellectual property do the Americans, British, French, Germans, etc., steal from them?

At his best, Grant was a critic of common technological practices and conventional technological thinking that considered every difficulty in life not as a mystery to be contemplated so much as a problem to be solved. In Technology and Empire, he wrote that it was always easier to see the benefits of technology than the ways it may have deprived us of meaning in our lives because “technique” has been so seamlessly internalized to the way we think. What Grant later in life had in mind as a practical matter were abortion and euthanasia as technologically mediated conveniences. It doesn’t take much imagination to understand what Grant would have thought about Bill C-7, now Canada’s euphemistically named “medical assistance in dying” law.

Likewise, he would very likely have judged the response by Ottawa and the provinces to the Covid-19 event as a gross usurpation of power. As Mehmet Çiftçi argues in his chapter, because technology has deprived us of finding meaning in ill health, suffering and death, “Our response to the pandemic was driven by an exclusive focus on reducing harm to bodily health.” This was an important consideration but should not have become the most important or exclusive element of public policy, especially when it was achieved by the direct application and imposition of medical technologies to manage a complaisant population.

At the centre of technological thinking, Grant argued in his later works, were the arguments of the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel and the understanding of Hegel offered by the Russian-French commentator and government technocrat (or haut fonctionnaire) Alexandre Kojève. Grant wrote one of the best short discussions of Kojève’s dispute with the American political philosopher Leo Strauss, and contributors refer to it several times in this book. The problem is that these comments will be comprehensible (in my opinion) only to scholars already familiar with both Strauss and Kojève – of whom there are precious few.

As noted above, Grant was both a philosopher and a theologian. Accordingly, at the centre of his thinking were the experiences associated with philosophy, chiefly Plato, and with his own idiosyncratic Christian faith (despite his being by confession an Anglican), which he described as an openness or receptivity to Divine truth. These are enormous topics, of course, and none of the commentators would claim to have provided an exhaustive account of Grant’s thinking on major questions implicit in philosophy and Christianity. Indeed, many of the contributors have instead penned complex (and hard to follow) philosophical and theological meditations that, as with Grant’s discussion of Kojève and Strauss, would appeal only to academic specialists already familiar with Grant’s writing and the sources upon which he drew.

Not until the final chapter, which discusses Grant’s response to 20th-century totalitarianism, is there any serious criticism – as distinct from a nuanced and polite dissent – of Grant’s position. Here, Ryan McKinnell (PhD, 2015 and assistant professor at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia) discusses Grant’s ethical “myopia” in seriously comparing American behaviour in Vietnam to the Nazi death camp Auschwitz, or in charging that the New Left followers of Herbert Marcuse and the directors of General Motors “sail down the same [technologically modern] river in different boats.” McKinnell also explains why Grant would do such things: for all his insights and rhetorical brilliance, he failed to understand politics, which clouded his judgment. That is, Grant’s deep commitment to “ideas” of various kinds eclipsed his commonsensical ability to deal with political realities.

Hence Grant’s arguing for a moral equivalence between liberal democracy and Soviet Communism. Indeed, in a letter to Alice Boissonneau written when Grant was still at Oxford, he said he preferred the Soviet Union to American capitalism. (This at a time when Lenin and Stalin had already seen to the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens.) Grant later expressed his deep admiration for Fidel Castro’s Cuba. One might wonder how such views were possible from a person so many thought of as “conservative”.

The answer, it seems to me, is something like this: for Grant the interconnection among liberalism, technology and empire meant that any dissent from that complex was, by default, conservative. That is an infantile fallacy, of course, and idiotic for an intellectual giant to rely upon. In more respectable terms, Grant considered the Soviet and the American empires to be but variations on what he later discussed as Kojève’s version of the “universal and homogeneous state”. Or as Heidegger famously put it, the two superpowers were “metaphysically” the same. Whatever that might have meant to Heidegger, it certainly defied common sense as well as political prudence – as did Heidegger himself on more than one occasion.

Grant might have responded by arguing that our current and flawed social, economic and political reality can be understood only: (1) by looking at theoretically flawed arguments in its favour, such as Kojève’s account of the universal and homogeneous state; (2) by considering the actual policy implications, such as the 1963 election, Vietnam or assisted suicide; and (3) by opposing both on the grounds of pre-modern and non-technological thinking. Even so, such a program is an intellectual exercise and not a practical proposal suitable for a party platform and a vote, which to common-sense readers makes the book of questionable practical value. The arguments for the most part are intellectual or theoretical. But that is what professors do.

I will conclude by revisiting the observation that Grant was a kind of contemporary Socrates. Just as Socrates knew that the myth of the Greek polis (the self-contained city-state) was no longer persuasive and that, as Plato later showed, had been replaced by the myth of the Socratic soul, so Grant remarked in Technology and Empire that “what is worth doing in the midst of this barren twilight is the incredibly difficult question.” But in the last paragraph of Lament for a Nation, he had already provided a kind of answer that expressed a myth of the Grantian soul. He paraphrased the 16th-century Anglican divine Richard Hooker who famously criticized the Puritans of his day. In a similar mood, Grant observed that compared to Hooker’s problems dealing with the “ancient faith”, the losses embodied in Canada’s tribulations were insignificant.

The last line of Lament for a Nation is a quote in Latin from Virgil’s Aeneid that dealt with dead souls in Hades: “They were holding their hands outstretched in love of [or for] the further shore.” Sheila Grant, George’s wife, provided a gloss: George would quote the line while standing on a rock in the Atlantic off the Nova Scotia coast while looking west to Canada and searching for what was beyond his immediate present. His “incredibly difficult question” did have an answer but it was mediated by hope.

Famous Nova Scotia-based painter Alex Colville, one of Grant’s good friends, designed Canada’s Centennial 50-cent coin depicting on its reverse a wolf howling in the wilderness. Colville compared the image to Grant. If nothing else, the essays collected in this book indicate that Colville may have been wrong.

Barry Cooper is a senior fellow at the Aristotle Foundation for Public Policy and a professor of political science at the University of Calgary.

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