Canadian Modernity and Its Discontents

by Christopher Berger

George Grant’s Lament for a Nation remains a seminal treatment of the state of the Canadian national identity more than four and a half decades after its initial publication. Perhaps even timelier now in the twenty-first century in light of events following its first appearance, Grant’s book addresses the highly controversial and divisive issue of Canadian nationalism in an age in which nations and cultures are homogenized, as boundaries are blurred and ultimately dissolved, and as group and spiritual identities attempt to re-assert themselves in response with varying degrees of success (and violence). Specifically concerned with the relationship between Canada and the United States of America, Grant, as the book’s title indicates, laments the “continentalization” of Canada within the context of the modern progression toward the universal homogeneous state (see G.W.F. Hegel and Alexandre Kojeve for the most powerful and sophisticated treatments of this idea). Grant presents readers with what he calls, not an argument, but a “meditation”, which, while drawing frequently and deeply from the tradition of philosophy, is “not based on philosophy [as such] but on tradition” as such (Lament for a Nation, pp. 4 and 94). What explicit argument there is in the book limits itself to showing “that Canada’s disappearance was a matter of necessity” (p. 7). This remains a timely book insofar as the diagnoses and predictions of Lament for a Nation have been vindicated in the decades between its publication and the twenty-first century, and it should be of interest to any conscientious Canadian – or American, for that matter.

Introducing George Grant
Despite all this, George Grant’s name is surprisingly little-known amongst Canadians, so he requires some introduction. A controversial and often idiosyncratic figure in Canadian political, philosophical, and theological scholarly circles, Grant obtained his education from Queen’s University, Upper Canada College, the University of Oxford, and Dalhousie University. Grant has been honoured with the Order of Canada and was a Rhodes Scholar. Born in Toronto, Grant spent his life in the Upper Canada region, allowing him to bear witness to the profound and integral effect the United States had upon the Canadian cultural and political community. These observations would have a great impact upon his political thought. However, aside from his political concerns (brought out most explicitly in Lament for a Nation), Grant is a remarkable figure in theological and philosophical scholarship, espousing a take on the role and substance of both philosophy and religion that generated a good deal of controversy in the Canadian academy. Articulating a critique of modern Western prejudices stemming from Enlightenment liberalism (the fact-value distinction and relativism among them) and a diagnosis of modernism as tending dangerously toward a universal homogeneous state, Grant reflected from a Canadian stand-point similar concerns to those voiced by the German-American thinker Leo Strauss.

Like his equally controversial German émigré colleague, Grant made the examination and criticism of liberal modernity – including its scientific and technological aspects – the focus of his life’s work. His major works, which include Philosophy in the Mass Age, Time as History, Technology and Justice, Technology and Empire, and, of course, Lament for a Nation, all grapple with the problem of Western modernity, which he argues to be inherently self-destructive. Grant thought and wrote during a time period that saw the increasing democratization of the university – ushering in the “multiversity” – and the rapid spread of Western modernity across the globe in the form of liberal democracy and its technology. Events in Canada that indicated a beginning of the era of continentalism – particularly the defeat of Diefenbaker’s nationalism (symbolized most vividly by the placement of American missiles on Canadian soil) – confirmed for Grant the political/practical realities of this ostensibly strictly philosophical/theoretical crisis.

The Meditation
Grant begins Lament for a Nation with a discussion of his reasons for lamenting “the end of Canada as a sovereign state” (p. 4). That this end is worth lamenting implies that the existence of Canada as a sovereign state was a good thing, and that not only the end of Canada in particular but also the broader problems of the end of indigenous sovereignties are deeply troubling. An exploration of the implications of what the end of Canada signifies constitutes the substance of the book. Grant begins with the particular and moves toward the general through the course of the meditation, demonstrating what the particular ultimately signifies.

The fall of the government of John Diefenbaker in 1963, which he calls the “tragedy of Diefenbaker,” is said by Grant to signal the death of the distinct Canadian identity. Grant calls Diefenbaker’s prior election in 1957 the “Canadian people’s last gasp of nationalism” (p. 7). Despite much misguidance in Diefenbaker’s nationalism, he was nonetheless the last nationalist leader in Canada who made “revivifying the Canadian nation” his mission (p. 13). The cause of the death of nationalism in Canada is the reshaping of the Canadian ruling class which “found its centre of gravity in the United States” following the evaporation of British power in the aftermath of the Second World War (p. 10). This was largely due to the empowering of market liberalism which intimately linked Canada with the United States. The challenge of this industrial, corporate capitalist economy is what Diefenbaker failed to meet with his mix of populism and “small-town free enterprise” (p. 15); in turn this failure was due to Diefenbaker’s failure to “understand the economic implications of Canadian nationalism” which would necessarily entail anti-corporatism (p. 17).

While economics was one stumbling block for Diefenbaker’s nationalism, cultural factors presented an entirely different problem in the form of French Canadian culture. Commonly seen to be a threat to a unified Canadian nationalism, the “French Fact” was indeed central to maintaining the distinctiveness of the Canadian nation, and ironically Diefenbaker’s dedication to a united Canada (united in its English heritage) made Diefenbaker’s nationalism “repugnant to thoughtful French Canadians” (p. 21). In order to satisfy the French element of Canada, group rights would require recognition alongside individual rights, and that Diefenbaker overlooked this fact by failing to differentiate these two classes of rights showed him “to be a liberal rather than a conservative” (p. 23). As Grant puts it, “the impossibility of conservatism is the impossibility of Canada;” the concept of Canada is essentially conservative (p. 67). Thus Diefenbaker’s revivification of nationalism was doomed to failure.

The Liberal party of Lester B. Pearson, according to Grant, is responsible for allowing Canada to disappear as a nation by making Canada a branch-plant of the American economy and by pushing for the acceptance of American nuclear weapons on Canadian soil, which subjected Canada to NATO as a tool of the American empire. These two factors are linked, as “branch-plant economies will have branch-plant cultures” and the entrenchment of American industry in Canada meant that voting for “an independent defence policy” was impossible (p. 41). American capitalism is thus the death of Canadian nationalism; for Canada to have retained independence would have required that Canada retain its conservatism in what Grant understands to be the classical sense of adherence to moral virtue, and it is in this sense that Grant understands himself to be a conservative (p. 40). The almost exclusive dedication to prosperity, comfort, and technological progress that is essential to liberalism has eroded Canada’s conservatism (p. 46).

In a progressive age, a nation such as Canada is redundant, largely because it does not conduce to the modern project of the relief of man’s estate through the conquest of human and non-human nature (p. 52). It is in this sense that those who advocate the project of modernity make the case that conservative nations such as Canada belong to a bygone time and must inevitably disappear in the wake of progress. Classical conservatism has been supplanted by a rendition of progressive modernity that is in fact a preservation of first-wave liberalism (i.e. Hobbes, Locke), which is grounded in the postulate of natural right, though distinct from classical natural right (e.g. Aristotle). First-wave liberalism is the “conservatism” of the United States, and thus proper conservatism as the upholding of order, tradition, and virtue ethics is irrecoverable in contemporary society (pp. 60-61 and 63-64).

Canada is impossible and must disappear within continentalism, but necessity and desirability are two entirely different things for Grant (p. 86). We may be moving toward a world of “continental empires”, though this “does not in itself mean that we are moving to a better and more peaceful world order” (p. 90). Prospects for combatting universalization and homogenization are bleak for Grant, though the troubling question with which we are confronted in meditating on this problem is that which asks whether combatting liberalism is even entirely desirable in light of its undeniable accomplishments (p. 92). Grant offers no direct answers in concluding his lament, though there is a strong indication that critiquing progress may offer more human benefits that outweigh non-human costs (to technology, for example) when he suggests that “modern assumptions may be basically inhuman” (p. 92). In a similar vein to that of one of his influences, Leo Strauss, Grant concludes with the implication that resisting homogenization may ultimately be more viable as a personal, private effort of reflection rather than as a public project of sweeping political reform.

Lamenting for a Nation Today
George Grant’s predictions regarding continentalism have shown themselves to be eerily astute and accurate from the perspective of the twenty-first century. Contemporary integration on the North American continent is nowhere more obvious than in the consumption of American entertainment and the mass exodus of Canadian consumers across the border in search of retail deals, vindicating Grant’s assertion that “as consumption becomes primary, the border appears an anachronism, and a frustrating one at that” (p. 88). Cross-border traffic is today commonplace, and for many people crossing the Canadian-American border is a daily event for the sake of shopping, work, and visiting friends and relatives, particularly in the Great Lakes region and on the Pacific coast between Vancouver and Seattle. Grant’s observation that these two regions in particular are bound to homogenize themselves has been seen in recent decades to be prophetic (p. 73). It is not inconceivable that this homogenization will come to extend further into the interiors of these two nations; many wealthier Canadians keep vacation homes south of the border and live in them for extended periods, with many more retiring to the south permanently. (Not that I want to give the impression that this is condemnable; I could think of worse fates than living in Hawaii.)

These tangible instances of homogenization and continentalism point to deeper and more profound trends in our era in late modernity. North American continental trends aside, the empire of liberal modernity, largely driven forward by American exercise of both hard and soft power, is succeeding profoundly in philosophic expansion. It is helpful in considering the accuracy of Grant’s diagnosis of universal homogenization to refer to the essay “Faith and the Multiversity” in his book Technology and Justice. In assessing the state of higher education – not only in Canada, but in North America more broadly – Grant argues that the university is on the decline and is rapidly being supplanted by the “multiversity”, which is an institution that artificially divides “higher learning into faculties of natural science, social science and humanities” (Technology and Justice, p. 37); vocational schools have now added themselves to this list of disciplines virtually everywhere. This outcome is a result of the progress of modern science, which is inseperable from the progressivism of modern politics, and the important consequence of this scientism and technocracy in the academy has been that the world and everything in it is literally objectified. The world or nature as object is something human beings stand outside of or ought to strive to stand outside of by means of conquest through science, both social and natural. Humans are no longer understood to be part of this whole, as both the corporate capitalist and the “progressive” environmentalist implicitly agree; the liberal capitalist conquers nature for profit while the “progressive” critic of capitalism conquers nature by presuming to have the power to preserve it while trying to engineer equality within it in the same breath. The “liberal/progressive” and the “capitalist/conservative” can only disagree based upon a deeper tacit but nevertheless fundamental agreement on the ends of the modern project; both are moderns that seek the alleviation of man’s estate by technology and material well-being; there is no meaningful difference between Stephen Harper and Elizabeth May, for instance. What the two share is the concept of “progress”; two seemingly opposed poles in fact embody the same paradigm, which is the liberal faith in science for the sake of manipulating nature for other ends. Politically, the problem with liberal scientism and its intrinsic fact-value distinction is that it cannot tell us anything about why something is good or preferable, because that would be a value judgment (p. 64).

Thus, the imperialism of liberal America is exercised as soft power in the form of the propagation of the “value” of freedom and individual autonomy. Grant, as a conservative in what he takes to be the classical sense, objects on the ground that the modern version of natural right posits freedom for its own sake, when, for the sake of good politics according to the classical understanding, we should ask what freedom is for the sake of. What are we free to do? What are the alternatives, how do we choose, and why should we choose as we do? Specialized and fragmented knowledge spawned from the anarchical equality of ideas and values cannot provide guidance, and so the notion of nationalism has no basis upon which to claim any inherent worth over against any alternative. Without the possibility of claiming worth, there are, properly speaking, no alternatives at all; the world becomes homogeneous. In order for Canada to survive, claims must be made for its worth for its own sake, and imperial liberalism, propagated in relativistic multiversities, deny the possibility of making such claims. Grant’s fear of what universal homogenization will do, not only to Canada, but to the human ability to choose and act well as such, thus appears vindicated. More fearful still is the realization that, as far as the marginalization of conservative virtue-oriented politics is concerned, Grant’s diagnosis and predictions are accurate.

George Grant’s Lament for a Nation is an eerily accurate meditation upon what lies ahead for Canada as a nation, for Western civilization more broadly, and for the range of human alternatives more broadly still. Canada’s washing away under the waves of modernity may be a necessity, though it is by no means an event to be celebrated. The book’s strength lies in its call to thoughtful and concerned Canadians, and, for that matter, to human beings who suspect that something worthwhile may have been lost on the road to progressive modernity, to reassess for themselves their reasons for embracing modern liberalism and its trappings. Fittingly, Grant does not insult readers’ intelligence by proffering easy answers; rather, he raises the problems in their most daunting manifestations and leaves readers to struggle with them, regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with the details of his argument. While I am not so sure that Canada, even pre-Diefenbaker, was ever as essentially different from America and other modern liberal democracies as Grant seems to portray it, I remain impressed by his argument’s power to illuminate the problematic character of modernity and to reinvigorate the necessity of making ourselves aware of the fundamental questions and their alternatives.


Related posts: