College Quarterly
Spring 2006 - Volume 9 Number 2
Reviews Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism, 40th Anniversary Edition
George Grant
Montréal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

Forty years ago, George Grant won an enduring place in the memory of attentive Canadians when he published Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism.

It was as odd a book as the phenomenon it attempted to describe and to mourn. It satisfied the reader on at least three levels.

Superficially, it was a contemporary commentary on the failed leadership of John George Diefenbaker, the prairie populist who grandly stared down John Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but soon became befuddled not only about international relations and defence policy, but about domestic affairs and inter-provincial relations as well. Grant never overestimated Diefenbaker, and so he was not disillusioned; he was simply saddened that “the Chief” was not up to the job and that, upon his defeat, there would never be another chance for a leader to drive Canada toward any destiny other than continental integration.

Beneath the surface, but still palpable, Grant offered a reflection on the nature of technology and society. He had already imported the ideas of men like Jacques Ellul and Martin Heidegger. He understood Nietzsche very well. In his lament, he began to apply the insights of these philosophical critics of modernity to the specific Canadian context. He tried to adapt and apply their wisdom as well. What emerged was the beginning of a thoroughly devastating analysis not only of Canadian society, but also of the inevitability of a homogenous global culture based on the principle of human domination, the commitment to technological mastery and the abandonment of any sense of proportion. The mantra of modernity, he used to say, was this: “If it can be done, then it should be done and, indeed, it must be done.” Unfettered human freedom, abetted by the cleverest minds, turned to the most sophisticated machinery that would allow us to become masters of nature and masters of ourselves. The consequences, he profoundly believed, would be hideous.

Deeper still, there was a meditation on justice, wherein Grant spoke eloquently of the pathology of possessive individualism, of progress and of human life guided by nothing other than unholy freedom—the frantic pursuit of thoughtless happiness wholly located in the specious present. Grant had his eye on better things. Platonic words such as the “good” and “justice” came easily to him, and did not sound hollow and hypocritical when he spoke.

Reactions to the book were as peculiar as the book itself. Liberals detested it. It was, they cried, not a lament for a nation but for a man and the obsolete social class he represented. Grant, they noted, was connected by blood or by marriage to the old establishment. His ancestors and his in-laws were highly placed. Counted among them were politicians and diplomats, university presidents, one former governor-general (Vincent Massey) and, even now, one potential prime minister; but, his antique social order was being overtaken by robust entrepreneurs and members of the new managerial elite who would soon displace wooly-minded old colonials whose attachment to Britain was horribly passé. They contemptuously dismissed Grant’s bombast as the bile of impotence, the gurgling of a living corpse. This much was predictable, if not altogether pleasant and, as far as Liberals and liberalism were concerned, Grant gave as good as he got.

Much more bizarre was the response of the left, and especially the 1960s student radicals who took George Grant as something of a saint, or at least a crazed prophet. Grant did not approve, but neither did he rebuff the admiration of the young. At the Toronto International Teach-in in 1965, he declared a sentimental solidarity with the “new left” and its passionate denunciation of the technocratic multiversity. But, his solidarity had limits. Moral outrage, he cautioned, was too valuable a commodity to be spent in the service of anything but reality. He did not find the students realistic. Their dreams of revolution were infantile. Hope for the future was their opiate and both their hope and their courage would, he feared, wither away.

This did not stop the likes of Jim Laxer, soon to become an influential force for socialism and nationalism and a temporary political threat to the establishment within the New Democratic Party. At the annual summer meeting of the student left, Laxer is famous for striding into the assembly and shouting out: “This is a book you should all be reading!” It was the conservative lament of a rumpled professor of religion, George Grant.

Liberals held him in contempt. Socialists read only the parts that they wanted to read and thus limited themselves to his critique of American imperialism and of technological hegemony while passing quickly over the allusions to God and Plato.

And conservatives? Well, they were uncertain what to say or to do. Grant’s book was admiring of Diefenbaker’s spirit, but not of his political acumen. But it was precisely Diefenbaker’s romanticism, populism and loyalty to the Commonwealth that unsettled the Progressive Conservative party. They wanted to rid themselves of their troublesome orator and visionary and get on with the job of running the country efficiently in the interest of the business class they truly represented. If Diefenbaker (and Grant) wished to dawdle over questions of loyalty and integrity, then they must be jettisoned. The professional politicians had learned their lesson and had recognized Canada’s place in North America. Nostalgia unnerved them. Philosophy frightened them. Grant was not someone with whom they could deal, nor did they have to.

Others, including some intellectuals and people in the arts, would continue to pay attention. He continued to write about technology, justice and education. He spoke out against the American war in Vietnam and against abortion. He was not an easy man for any partisan of the left or the right to endorse wholeheartedly.

What Grant made clear were the cultural consequences of a process that was already nearly complete. Kari Levitt, in her 1970 book Silent Surrender, showed plainly that Canada had been taken over economically by the United States as early as 1914. It was a matter of investment. British portfolio investment (the bonds that built the railway) had been displaced by American direct investment (the shares that built the factories). Everything else was piffle.

Occasionally, an English professor might liken Grant to reactionaries such as D. H. Lawrence, whose Studies in Classic American Literature castigated the illusion of freedom in poets such as Walt Whitman and inventors like Ben Franklin. “Henceforth be masterless!” Lawrence chorted: “henceforth be mastered.” Nothing else remained.

Grant was wrong about a number of things, and we have been wrong about Grant. His technological determinism can certainly be questioned, for it is as easy to claim that technology is a product of capitalism as it is to hold that the relationship is the reverse. Andrew Potter, who introduces this edition, says that “Grant has a very crude understanding of nationalism.” If, however, leftist enthusiasts ignored Grant’s genuine religiosity, they at least did him no great injury. That part of his thought with which they felt comfortable was fairly treated and sensibly discussed. They may have committed a sin of omission but they did not wantonly distort.

Today, people who call themselves conservatives, when they speak of George Grant at all, do distort his meaning. What Grant called the impossibility of conservatism in North America gets twisted by Potter into a claim that “a tory form of social conservatism [is impossible] in a multicultural, pluralistic society.” He adds elsewhere that Grant’s opposition to abortion means that his sympathies today would be with the American religious right. In this view, Grant is little more than a snow-bound Pat Buchanan.

This is abominable, and is shown to be so by Potter’s own claims. He says that Grant’s assertion that the Liberal Party seeks only power while Canadian “sovereignty disappears is, if anything, even more brutally accurate today.” I am sure that George Grant would be less than pleased with another of his more distant relatives, Michael Ignatieff, as he beats the drum—though somewhat more softly at this stage of his Liberal leadership campaign—for George W. Bush’s foreign policy. To imagine, however, that George Grant would be supportive of Stephen Harper and his Canadian version of the US Republicanism is too much to endure in silence. Granted that American neoconservatives and the University of Calgary group led by men like Barry Cooper share with Grant an affection for Leo Strauss, it does not immediately follow that such affection necessarily leads to bloodshed in Baghdad, nor does Grant’s explication of English-speaking Justice lead to “culture wars,” either domestically or in the Middle East. The slogan “they hate us for our freedom” might have sent George Grant into a paroxysm of mirth, for it is just the kind of absurdity he found repulsive about a society so devoid of justice. Yet this is what neoconservatism is all about.

George Grant was something of a paradox when he lived, but he compelled those around him to think. His widow Shiela, who contributed the “Afterword” to this edition, reminds us of one of George Grant’s “simplest statements, repeated throughout his life, ‘It always matters what each of us does.’”

Whatever our thoughts on an obsolete colonialism, an emerging “postmodern” Canada, the American Empire or (for that matter) God, the conservative concept of justice to which Grant was devoted is utterly disconnected from the liberal idea of progress. The liberal idea of progress, taken to a pathological extreme, is what we now call neoconservatism. It is confusing, but it needs to be understood. Grant, were he alive today, would do an excellent job of sorting the matter out.

All we have, however, is what he left us and it will have to do. I am happy to say that re-reading Lament for a Nation is both a pleasure and a duty, especially if the cause to which his wisdom is now being attached is even farther from what he might actually have wanted as was the vision of the “new left” that foolishly tried to recruit him four decades ago.


Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at <howard.doughty@senecac.on.ca>.

Reviews

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