Excavations

In truth, it is always possible, often urgent, to displace oneself, with the risk of becoming that passerby, that wanderer, that flaneur, that vagabond, stray dog that our fragmented contemporary culture both sets in motion and paralyzes.

- Paul Ricoeur


... nothing is more essential to public interest than the preservation of public liberty

- David Hume


Was being an intellectual in Auschwitz an advantage or a disadvantage?

- Primo Levi

The friends of liberty in the Tribunate were still trying to struggle against the ever-increasing power of the First Consul, but public opinion gave them no support.

-Madame de Staël

Response to good leadership is part of becoming a good leader. And conversely a good leader is always teaching his followers to become leaders in their turn.

- R.G. Collingwood


'West' signifies freedom of spirit. All its virtues and some of its vices follow from this.

- Emmanuel Levinas

Thursday, June 18, 2009

"A Fair Country"? Just ask John Ralston Saul: A Review

John Ralston Saul has finally written a thoughtful and interesting book – A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada (2008). However, I am not certain he is always telling “truths”, and I have my doubts that Canada is a fair country.

Saul begins with a provocation that sets the tone for the whole book: “We are not a civilization of British or French or European inspiration. We have never been .” Elsewhere he writes, repeating his central theme: “... we are a métis nation ... the underlying currents of this country are more indigenous than imported ...” And towards his conclusion he winds up, rather breathlessly over two jumbled pages:

"... ours is not a civilization that emerged out of the Judeo-Christian line. ... If the central inspiration of our country is Aboriginal, then we are not, and never have been in the European or U.S. sense, a Christian country."

This is postcolonial thinking in full form, and despite his trenchant critique of the Canadian university system, Saul shares this particular vogue, having forgotten that the idea of colonizing a space like Canada probably began with the Crusades. Does he really mean Canada is not (or was not) at all a “Christian” country because “we have never been” English, French or European in inspiration? Apparently he has never been to a shopping mall in December. Or does he mean that Canada’s “Christianity” is just different from that of other Western nations? This appears as an effete compromise to the promise of a striking thesis. Do the Indigenous peoples form a kind of "great code" (if we may put Northrup Frye aside), a native Canadian enchantment that pervades our culture unlike any other?

The Canadian, multicultural ability to imagine the other, according to Saul, comes primarily from our contact with Indiginous peoples, and their understanding of “minimal impairment”, “the ever-enlarging circle” and the “common bowl”, not from our “bipolar” English-French fact. If our “central inspiration” is Aboriginal, this frees us, like the Chinese, from uncomfortable notions of “guilt” and “original sin”. The Aboriginal condition, the métis as proto-multicultural – or, better yet, intercultural - finds common expression in the untainted space of “the Land” where, however, relatively few actually settle, or live, considering the trinity of our metropolitan cities, Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. The idea of the North figures highly in Saul’s analysis, and rightly so: the more the Canadian government wants to lay claim to Arctic sovereignty, the more we need to reinvent our sad history with the Aboriginal peoples. As well, the more we attune ourselves to the demands of the changing environment, the more we need to pay heed to Aboriginal culture, overturning Descartes’ classic claim of man as the “masters and possessors of nature.”

But Saul offers a Canadian myth shy of fact. It is a thesis that is only possible in “a secular age” (to borrow from McGill philosopher Charles Taylor), where there is disenchantment, no transcendence and no intrinsic cohesion. Where no common faith prevails, officially-speaking, and where a diverse people are in want of social glue, Saul creates a story of “national” origins, befitting his former vice-regal relationship, making an intuitive leap backwards (to the “state of nature”) and forwards (to civil society), and from the Crown rightly to the first Nations peoples. We were allegedly multicultural before - there exists a métis current – and we appear so today: the link is the act of an intellectual associating ideas, but the focus is too narrow and Voltairean. Oddly, I see shades of that famous anti-clerical cry: “Ecrasez l'infame.” Indigenous practices have substituted for everything else, including religion, as “nation” building prevails over all (something Voltaire would not tolerate), and the “imagined community" is just that: imagined, taking a postmodern leap of faith today, guided by his own spousal example. Is it wise, in this vast and diverse country to dispense summarily with all residual religious notions, as Christian “guilt” has considerable social utility, for what prevents us from habitual jay walking, or worse? Importantly, the Christian notion of “conscience” (and with it the sense of the responsible individual) is linked to the advent of Democracy which arose first from the West, with its successes - and some evident failures (especially with respect to Indigenous populations). Similarly he neglects ancient Judaic notions of “social justice” (to which he owes a debt) and “moral freedom”, again notions that had a powerful influence on the shaping of Western values.

In a political sense the larger problem is that Saul moves us away from the tradition of parliamentary democracy which is in need of proper tending and attention – badly. If we have never been British or French or European in inspiration, then we might have a problem, politically speaking. If “the Indians were our Greeks – our Athenians, our Spartans,” then Saul (the former vice-regal consort) makes it all the more easy in 2008 for prime minister Harper, in an unprecedented move, to ask the current governor general for a prorogation of Parliament with a so-called constitutional “time off”. Parliament can be closed on the fly, representative democracy can be made a mockery of, Western populism can confront Quebec all because parliament has no deep roots in Canada: it is pitched on postcolonial turf. That Adrienne Clarkson has written a forward to Peter Russell and Lorne Sossin’s stimulating collection "Parliamentary Democracy in Crisis" (2009), which deals with the heat and smoke of the late months of 2008, only adds to the irony.

Canada (along with Britain) is increasingly in the hands of a “court government”; we are witnessing “the collapse of accountability” and noted scholar Donald J. Savoie (the author of these apt phrases and a lengthy book published in 2008) suggests that we develop the (higher) civil service as a check on prime ministerial abuses of powers, a notion I find rather wrongheaded (and undemocratic, inclined toward the mandarin classes), too focussed on the history of public administration (for which one finds a corrective in the political science offerings of Russell and Sossin). Saul – long an opponent of rational linearity, bureaucracies and the like, which he makes amply clear in his book - goes very much in the opposite direction and develops the aboriginal culture as “central”, undermining some of the roots of our own – indeed sometimes rather oppressive – Western political traditions.

Saul’s worry is that “we have been irrevocably separated from our foundation” whereas I would suggest in offering only one “foundation” he has lost all texture to Canadian history – and to “the middle way” which he claims is rooted exclusively in our Aboriginal culture. (It might also have something to do with historic religious roots where Christ “mediates” between God and men, if we are to consider St. Augustine). Would not an open-ended and more commonplace “foundation trilogy” – Aboriginal, French and English – serve us better, politically and historically speaking? Britain had its Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings (and Normans) who are in much more favour today after being historically put down by Christianity but that does not mean we (or they) should not nourish the light of Athenian democracy. Dragons, elves and wizards were not just the stuff of J.R. Tolkien (and J.K Rowling): the ‘magic’ of Middle Earth and the Dark Ages is finding a postcolonial revival today, but does that mean we should repress Solon and Pericles? Saul borders on making Canada a non-Western country with his single-minded emphasis on the Aboriginal and on throwing off the colonial yokes – both European and American.

For Saul the aboriginal people are the ultimate “other” which accepted “others”. He explains: “Civilizations are normally judged by that central philosophical tenet - the ability of citizens to imagine the other.” Here he comes across as his own quintessential Canadian, but is ahistorical, and rather out of touch, perhaps because he laments the detours of fact from his thesis, the advent of homelessness and the like. Contrast the above quotation with: “So the natural state of being in an organized society, certainly in the Western, Judeo-Christian, rational tradition, is likely to be one of division and the celebration of disadvantage.” To sum up: Canada represents an intentional “civilization”; Europe (and presumably the U.S.) does not meet the Canadian standard of inclusiveness, yet he is careful to claim that “Canada has no model for the world.” Even more significantly, Saul warns that our Indiginous-induced egalitarianism “is not a natural state of organization” (an important point on which he hardly dwells) but at the same time he trumpets a Canada outside the European tradition.

We are apparently a métis civilization, deeply shaped by the first Nations cultures into which European newcomers (and here we see an expression of postcolonial revisionism – and perhaps some self referencing by Saul) ‘married up’, a dubious claim which considers early white male settlers free from racial taints and sexist bigotry. Not all marital unions, métis or not, can be likened to that of the philosopher Saul and constitutionally privileged Adrienne Clarkson whose intercultural (and – most significantly - childless) relationship, is considered a prime example of “recreating” Canada’s métis foundations. Apparently 4 percent of couples in Canada are mixed race (a dubious statistic), and this is hardly what I would call what Saul refers to as approaching “critical mass”. The apparent fact that some mixed race couples in some professional circles might be approaching 50 percent - another dubious figure - might have something to do with the demographic shifts (immigration) and with it international perspectives, and with the postmodern prevalence of the “hybrid” – more so than with some “unconscious civilization.”

There is much that is “unconscious” in Saul’s work. “Peace, order and good government” was supposed to be “Peace, welfare and good government.” Peacekeeping comes from a First Nations example. Lester Person’s Nobel Peace Prize has its roots in aboriginal culture. The idea the “individualism and group interests must be balanced” – an agreeable notion – somehow comes from an Aboriginal idea, but Saul offers no proof. Even though 40 percent of Canada’s immigrants end up in Toronto, what will matter most in 50 years (according to novelist Joseph Boyden) is “The Land,” an appreciation that is not necessarily exclusive to First Nation’s peoples. The core principle of being Canadian is apparently “fairness” but Saul adds: “How successful we are at embracing that principle is another matter.”

If Canada is considered a fair country, why is it not successful at being fair? Does the self-image of fairness make it a fair country? Do we have a mythology that is really just a myth? Do Indigenous people think Canada has been fair? Do the métis? Could there possibly be other groups – and individuals, new and old in our multicultural matrix–that think Canada is actually fair – or, rather, not fair? Is Canada so fair that it is no longer sociological? Canadians are (or were) internationally known as fair, but are Canadians really fair to others in their own country? We need only travel as far as Vancouver’s Downtown East Side to get a whiff of this “fairness.” The myth of fairness is just that – a myth. It is how Canadians prefer to be identified, for lack of anything else; it is part of our collective imagination, foisted on often underemployed newcomers grateful to have a semblance of democracy (with little sense of history), but it does not necessarily correspond with social fact. Saul deals well with a number of “truths” but his notion of “fairness” brims with misplaced self satisfaction. Overall "A Fair Country" makes for a good read, but the central theme rings too much like an "idée fixe."

1 comment:

Rodney said...

The fairness of Canada can easily be diminished with the knowledge of our failings, but when compared to other nations, we shine.

We lack many of the rampages and bloody conflicts that other nations have, in their history or present.