Why care about George Grant?

This article originally appeared at Pith and Substance, 3 June 2006.

The literatus, long-time devotee of doomed nationalist causes, writes:

‘Sweird I never really encountered George Grant. He seems like my patriot species and so on. Just at fourth hand, I’m troubled by his Lamenting for a Nation he seems to have already coffin’d round the time you and I were born.

The literatus has a point. How can Lament be of contemporary interest if Grant gave up the struggle before either of us were born? It is, however, a point that invites an essay, so the literatus has no cause for complaint if that's what he gets. 

It all depends, I think, on how we interpret Grant's dictum that "the impossibility of conservatism in our modern era is the impossibility of Canada". The dominant interpretation, present in Lament, but which Gad Horowitz really deserves the blame for, is that Canada, as originally conceived, was at least partially conservative in the pre-modern, throne and altar, anti-liberal capitalist sense. Horowitz turned this "Tory touch" theory into an apologia for NDP-style socialism, and it was quickly picked up my every manner of Trudeau-era statist paternalist. Canadians were supposedly natural social democrats because of the Loyalists' and Family Compact's alleged Jacobite hostility to the society of contract. 

This narrative has the plot arc of a bodice ripper. The original virtue of organic conservatism is always threatened by the liberal individualism of the United States. With the collapse of pro-British anti-American Conservatism, Canada's collectivism loses its maidenhood to nasty capitalist America. Somehow this maidenhood repeatedly revives itself, to be ravished not only by the unlikely figure of Dalton Camp pointing out the onset of Mr. Diefenbaker's dementia, but then by the Free Trade Agreement and finally, most farcically, by the dim Peter Mackay tricking the still-dimmer David Orchard into letting the liquidation sale of the old Progressive Conservative party go forward. 

It is a highly demeaning story for any red-blooded patriot, and while I cannot acquit Grant of responsibility for it entirely, that narrative is not why I would ask anyone interested in theorizing Canada's current crisis to pay attention to him. We are much better off recognizing that the Fathers of Confederation, especially the Anglo ones, were Victorian devotees of technology and individualism. They loved railways because they were the biotechnology, the Internet stock bubble and the space race all put together. They believed the British race to be obviously superior to all others, and the contract-oriented common law to be the pearl of British civilization. They would undoubtedly have condemned Mike Harris as a dangerous radical soft on Fenianism. Macdonald read the Federalist Papers, admired Hamilton and was a conservative in a thoroughly bourgeois, Victorian sense, and alternated between supporting protection and reciprocity, caring about such economic questions no more than did Pierre Trudeau or Jean Chrétien. English Canada was always part of liberal Protestantism, and Grant knew this. He knew too that the Canadian people, including the Protestant farmers of Pictou County, while conservative enough in the value they placed on Church, work, family, order and allegiance to the Crown, were hardly enemies of social egalitarianism and making a buck.

Anyway, the "Tory touch leads to sensible social democracy" story is precisely the kind of self-congratulatory approach to the past that pushed Grant's buttons. 

So, if we reject the Tory touch theory, what does it mean to say that the "impossibility of conservatism" entails the "impossibility of Canada"? What is living in the work of George Grant? Plenty, but in order to get to it, we have to entertain (not accept, but entertain) a slightly embarrassing proposition, one that would undoubtedly put him on the wrong side of the multi-cultis, but also of Christopher Hitchens, the latest hero of the Canadian right. We have to entertain the possibility that a state needs a single public religion. 

A religion, for Grant, is not just a set of supernatural or theistic beliefs (although he, of course, believed that the true religion was Christianity -- but we don't need to spoil the ending quite yet). It is a way of looking at the world, a set of stories and of virtues and vices, held on a pre-philosophical basis and capable of being understood by the mass of humanity. A religion is what Rawls would call a "comprehensive conception of the good." But where Rawls believed that the lesson of modernity was that it is possible for comprehensive conceptions to co-exist, providing that they are "reasonable" and accept an "overlapping consensus" of political and legal institutions, Grant was not so sure. As far as Grant was concerned, what had happened to traditionally Protestant countries is that they had adopted a version of the "religion of progress" as the real ideology that "binds together." In Grant's day, that religion came in two opposing forms -- Marxism and Kennedy-style technocratic liberalism. Today, neither of these strands continue (except in the reactionary laments of intellectuals), but new forms -- a libertarian/neoconservative free-market technophilia and a feminist, "anti-racist" social constructionism -- battle it out, leaving their respective Jewish, Protestant and Catholic camp followers to pick over the inherited assets and liabilities of their denominations to see what might be useful in the "secular" battle.

And Grant may be right. It may, in fact, be impossible for religions to coexist, except if the sub-dominant ones are willing to be confined to dhimmi ghettoes, or to be private hobbies. The great weakness of liberals like Rawls occurs when it comes to education. It is impossible to teach the young without inculcating a more comprehensive conception of the good and the true than Rawls would allow in the public sphere. To take a matter of current controversy, a school system cannot be neutral about whether homosexuality or homophobia is a sin, even if the law, in principle, could.

I won't get into all of Grant's objections to the religion of progress. Some of them I share; some I don't. But one objection is important for the literatus' project of maintaining a nationalist movement in this country. To the religion of progress, which is the national religion, Canada is an embarrassment.

Why? It seems like such a progressive place, n'est-ce pas? It is because the religion of progress is ultimately a Christian heresy (perhaps in encounter with a Jewish one). From Christianity, it derives the idea that natural divisions of race (Jew or Greek), gender (male or female) and class (slave or free) are of no spiritual significance. But, unlike Christianity, it places its heaven in a future acquired without supernatural help. It therefore reacts with hostility to the particular loyalties that may arise out of these concrete situations. The leftist version of the religion of progress is prepared to accept the particular loyalties of the oppressed, since they theorize that such loyalties will ultimately lead to the overthrow of the distinction. The rightist version (neo-conservatism) is just hostile to any expression of difference at all. But either way, Canada has no reason to live. At best, it is a preparation for something more universal -- either an Anglosphere or the world federalist rule of the United Nations, depending on one's political proclivities. 

Against this is the natural reaction of normal people to love their own. Grant was a conservative in the sense that he approved of this reaction, and saw it is a bulwark against the universal, homogenizing tyranny of a global, super-state. This love of one's own does not depend on one's own having a "history before the age of progress". If it did, Canadian nationalism or the regionalist particularisms of the United States, would be absurd. Grant is complex enough that he sometimes seems to treat them as absurd. But what he notices in Diefenbaker (and in Lévesque, for that matter) is this normal, natural love of one's own and consequent willingness to put the boots to the universal super-state, however inevitable and logical its triumph might seem. 

Of course, as a Christian and an Augustinian, Grant would have seen any historical state as of only relative significance, no matter how great his loyalty to it. If even the Roman Empire must not be mourned too much, then Canada shouldn't either, if we in fact lose it altogether. But we needn't follow Grant in accepting that the battle is lost. As long as we possess a legal fiction of sovereignty, and as long as ordinary people retain their stubborn attachment to what is theirs and particular, rather than what is abstract and universal, then there is a chance to give all the social engineers a poke in the eye once in a while.