So last night at the ISI honors program (after a long and luxurious dinner at a great restaurant), we actually had a speaker from CANADA—a brilliant professor of political philosophy (who, with a beautiful, booming voice, is also an opera star). His topic was the view of America from Canada. (As usual, this post contains my reflections on the most instructive presentation–not so much a presentation of what the speaker actually said.)
Canada, from the nation’s beginning, embodies conservative criticism of America’s revolutionary tradition. The Tories who opposed our revolutionaries and remained loyal to the British government (aka the Loyalists) often went to Canada. And Canada’s founding—authorized by an act of Parliament—was sort of the antithesis of a revolution.
The Canadians have traditionally been a lot less about individual liberty and more about humane order and good government. So the stock Canadian criticism of America is that we’re selfish, imperialist, chaotic individualists who aren’t attentive to the details that make civilized social life possible. In Canada, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police went West before many settlers, insuring that law and order would show up before the people who needed to be governed. Our West, of course, was pretty wild and lawless there for a while, which was good for John Ford and John Wayne. These days we can see that this line of Canadian criticism retains much truth; all we have to do is compare, say, Toronto with any major American city.
Probably the best Canadian thinker—George Grant—published the deservedly highly influential Lament for a Nation (1965). Grant lamented the disappearance of Canadian distinctiveness; his nation had become more or less Americanized. To be American, Grant thought, was to be technological, to be all about the mastery of nature for human convenience and the unlimited satisfaction of our material desires. All that was left to remind us of the Canadian and, more generally, pre-technologoical past were “intimations of deprival,” We long for what we’re missing, but we’ve lost even the words to express what’s true about the goodness of human life and the goodness of being.
Grant’s understanding of America as the most modern part of the modern world owed a lot to the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. Heidegger’s polemic against reducing knowing and being to technology has had a huge influence on both the American left and right. Grant was also indebted to the great philosopher Leo Strauss, who once called the fundamental modern or technological impulse “the joyless quest for joy” (aka the pursuit of happiness). And he, finally, was indebted to the Russian/French thinker Alexandre Kojeve, who wrote that the end of history is here and all that’s left to do is work out the details of the universal and homogeneous (and so dehumanizing) state that’s enveloping us all.
This kind of Canadian line of criticism of America has sometimes been called RED and TORY. (I realize I’m using RED TORY loosely—and the phrase has a somewhat different meaning in Canadian politics today). It’s RED because it’s based on the thought that a decent nation has strong political institutions, and that among these are, for example, the national provision of medical care for everyone. The Canadian view is that the exteme economic inequality and the extreme insecurity of the unfortunate in our country are both most uncivilized.
But this criticism is also TORY because a decent society depends on strong traditions—encouraged by government—that support the family, churches, and the perpetuation of particular communities—including some social hierarchy. The RED TORY can’t be confused with a Communist or even an American socialist.
The American LIBERTARIAN, we can say, is the opposite of RED TORY so understood. That means, of course, the Canadian conservative as described by Grant is not much like most American conservatives. An American RED TORY would be a kind of mixture of liberal/progressive on the economic front and a tough cultural conservative. It would be really hard to be such an American conservative—given that we fought so hard at different different times in our history to defeat both the REDS and the TORIES.
Canada has changed a lot since 1965, but I’ll pass over that fact for now.
I’ll conclude, instead, by telling you that our Canadian speaker concluded by emphasizing that Grant was wrong or at least a big-time exaggerator about America. It’s far from the case that everything has been subordinated to technology here. And a Canadian conservative can observe much about our country that is more conservative, even from a Canadian point of view, that Canadian life today. He called attention to the enduring strength of American religion, the admirable loyalty of the Americans to their Founders and their Constitution (and their corresponding willingness to die for the nation that secures their rights), and the constitutionalist foundation of much of our relatively intense political participation (yes, he did mention the Tea Party). In their devotion to the American tradition, American localism, and the duties of American citizenship, most members of the Tea Party can’t be confused with libertarians (or, of course, Red Tories).