Lament for a Nation (Grant)

Grant, George.  Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism. Montreal, Canada: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1965 [reprint] 2007.

I can’t vouch for how accurate Grant’s summary of Canadian nationalism (more on that term later) is.  As Americans, we don’t know much about Canada.  Before we should begin we should clear up what we mean by “nationalism.”  Nationalism doesn’t mean “my country is great and everyone else is stupid,” nor does it mean use the American military to invade (and then invite) the world.  That is Neo-Conservatism, and it is the enemy of nationalism.  Nationalism means that linguistic, geo-political entities are real and have a real right to exist.  If we reject this view, then the nation will then be subject to other forces, such as the United Nations, international corporations, or Communist China (or all three, as controlled by Communist China). 

Grant’s argument is that Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker formally and culturally lost Canada around 1963, as non-liberals in Canada couldn’t give a good reason to deny Kennedy’s demand to place nuclear warheads on Canadian soil (the implication, among other things, is that if you can’t make your own military decisions, you really aren’t a sovereign country).

Moreover, Canada found itself involved in the Michigan-Ohio manufacturing economy.  This meant that Canada had to agree to economic decisions made that would primarily benefit those states.  That is another implication:  if you can’t make your own economic decisions, are you really a sovereign country?

The bottom line is that by the end of the decade, corporations, and not the average citizen, were in charge of the country.  (This is basically America today.) Of course, someone could counter: 1) wasn’t it necessary to oppose Soviet threats?  That’s a good point and one not easily brushed aside.  We should all fight to the death against Communism.  I’m not sure exactly how Canadian nationalists can answer that question.  

2) Doesn’t increased integration into the American economy lead to a higher standard of living for Canadians?  Maybe.  I really can’t answer that question, except to defer it to a later discussion of virtue and liberalism.

3) Isn’t this inevitable?  Probably.  Grant hints as much, hence the “Lament” in his title.

The book pivots at Chapter Five. Grant shifts from discussing Diefenbaker to the nature of techno-liberalism, and here is where he shines.  His thesis is “This state will be achieved by means of modern science–a science that leads to the conquest of nature” (Grant 52).  Marx, unlike Democratic Socialists today, knew that scarcity was a real phenomenon.  He simply believed that technology would end it.  That, of course, didn’t turn out.  Liberals, also, believe in technology, but more along the lines of mastering nature.  That might not seem to follow, but consider: the essence of liberalism is to reject any conception of the Good that imposes limits on human freedom” (55).  Technology will help man overcome the built-in limits that threaten his freedom.  In other words, it is “the faith that can understand progress as an extension into the unlimited possibility of the future” (56).

Does this mean society will be socialist or capitalist?  The larger point is not that the elites think one system is better than the other.  Rather, they have seen that capitalism better facilitates technological expansion.  And by capitalism, we mean late capitalism.  As Grant notes, early capitalism was full of moral and Puritan restraints.  Later capitalism as manifested by the Playboy culture, is not

All of this, of course, is a far cry from earlier conceptions of the good and serves to illustrate Grant’s contrast between post-Lockean liberalism and older Toryism.  Earlier liberals, such as the American founders, did believe in a “Good” of sorts, but it was a good for all practical purposes to safeguard the individual, not the individual safeguarding the Common Good. This means that American conservatives, no matter how well-intentioned, in wanting to get back to the Founding, can never rise above the limitations of John Locke.

The alternative to Locke, as Grant notes, is the organic, hierarchical society of Richard Hooker.  I say Grant “notes” this point; he never really develops it.  The various writers of the forewords to this book, however, do develop it.  I say “various writers.”  This book has close to 80 pages of introduction.  I kid you not.  

Andrew Potter notes that liberalism, whether that of Madison or Roe v. Wade, lets “Freedom” close off “any public conception of the Good” (Potter xxv).  Goods are not values, and values are private.  Remember, I as the individual am ultimately committed to my freedom.  External focus on the Good might hinder might freedom.

By contrast, those following in the line of Hooker see society as an organic unity, “in which each part is responsible for the welfare of the whole” (xxxi).  To use a modern application: the anti-masker during Covid is legitimately expressing his freedom.  Liberals have attacked the idea of a transcendent Good for decades, and now they want to arbitrarily apply it.  Of course, the student of Hooker should wear the mask, but he only has a good argument if he subsumes it to the common good.

Potter offers another way to look at it.  Aristotle’s ethics looked for a positive theory of human excellence.  Locke only sought a negative view of what was evil (xl).  If the state of nature is one of inevitable death, then the government has only one goal: securing my life, liberty, and property. It might be nice if I wanted to help someone, but that is utterly irrelevant.  Grant doesn’t fully develop the point, but this might be one of the reasons American conservatism has always been anemic.

As a whole, the book is well-written.  I can’t attest to the historical conclusions, but his analysis of modern liberalism is on point.

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