A Lament for a Nation: then and now. Ron Dart, 2015, New York. American Anglican Press
A Review by Henk Smidstra
In this little book of 38 pages, Author Ron Dart explicates important Canadian political philosophical issues as he leads us through the events and ideas contained in George Grant’s pivotal book, Lament for a Nation, originally written in 1965. Perhaps Dart’s contribution could be called: “Dart’s Notes” on George Grant’s important book, a work acknowledged being a masterpiece of Canadian political theory. Dart provides us with timely, much needed, insights and perspectives on Canadian political history and philosophy, which not only help our understanding as we read, or reread, George Grant’s book, but the booklet of itself sketches the groundwork of an alternative philosophical path for us as we ponder our political choices this election year amidst the din of political rhetoric and spectacle of absurd attack adds. “It is my hope,” Dart writes in his Preface, “that this little book will highlight the perennial significance of Lament, both when it was published in 1965 and for 2015 and beyond….”
The body of the booklet contains four essays relevant to disclosing the main points of Grant’s reflections on the political philosophical situation of his time. There is repetition and overlap in the essays, but in each Dart explores different aspects and perspectives, of the political historical context, and of the political philosophical context. As well, Dart compares Grant’s affinities and differences with others such as Ernest Manning and Alan Ginsberg who were also writing and critiquing liberalism at that time. Dart writes passionately but plainly about a topic familiar to him. He has thought about the topics at hand deeply and has put much work into them before, namely, the concern about the waning of Canadian Nationalism and the rise of American liberalism. From our cultural political situation in 2015, one might wonder how a book written fifty years ago can still be relevant to Canadians.
In his Preface Dart indicates that Grant’s prophetic political stance rooted in a form of High Tory Conservatism was lamentably under threat of extinction in 1965, if not nearly extinct now, being negated by the rise of Harperism today. With the demise of the Progressive Conservative Party in Canada, we have essentially a populist neo-liberal form of Government that has strayed far from the political ideals and vision of the good held by Grant. Dart explains that that there certainly was an English and American liberal tradition [Whig] hostile to the older organic High Tory way in Canada. “But,” he notes encouragingly of Grant’s belief for us today, that, “Canada, unlike the USA, still had a memory of an older, more ordered tradition with an abiding concern for the commonweal”; And, no, Grant was not simply a “Red Tory” in the sense of being a disguised socialist; “…he was committed to the lived tension of state and society working together for the common good…”
In the first essay, Dart explains the political history that surrounds the writing of Lament, namely the 1963 federal election in which Prime Minister Diefenbaker was defeated by the aggressive liberal alliance of Person and Kennedy, and notes the implications that had on Canadian political theory and practice. The second essay leads us through the political philosophy of George Grant as expressed by Grant in Lament for a Nation. The lament is not only the loss of Canadian Nationalism in the 1963 election, but the loss of an older organic form of Conservatism in Canada due to Canada’s corporate leadership being besotted narrowly with liberalism. Possessive individualism and liberty to pursue personal happiness eclipsed the older organic sense of social responsibility, order, and the common good. Dart writes, “The roots of Canadian conservatism (English and French) are much older and go much deeper into the Western Classical tradition of thought, culture and political theory than does modern liberalism (which finds its fullest expression and embodiment in the USA).” In the third Essay Dart charts the affinities and polarities between Grant and the Beat tradition of the anti-institutionalism of the late fifty’s and sixty’s in the USA; a main comparison and contrast is between Grant and Allen Ginsberg in their political philosophy. Both are critical of American type of Liberalism, but Grant takes a different path because had taken his inspiration and practical wisdom from different classically oriented sources of philosophy and spirituality. Unlike Ginsberg and the emerging New Left of the ‘60’s in the US and Canada, Grant dared to differ with the liberalism’s philosophic roots and values of individualistic liberty and negative freedom. Grant was not iconoclastically critical of society’s institutions, for him, both the social order and institutions are equally important, including the church, for working together for the common good. Grant depended on alternative, deeper and higher sources for his notion of the social and political good than those grounded in modern liberalism writes Dart.
In the fourth short essay, Dart reflects on Sheila Grant’s insights that her husband, was not a pessimist without hope, though he lamented the course of history as driven by Hegel’s dictum that liberalism was the necessary intellectual way of thinking and being for today; that history must go with the flow. But Grant was neither a fatalist nor a pessimist, Dart suggests that he listened not to Hegel and the modern prophets of liberalism’s historicism and progressivism, but rather he listened to the ancients such as Plato, Augustine, Hooker and others who followed in that contemplative philosophical tradition. Their classical notions differed from the mind of liberalism in what it meant to be human in society, doing justice to the concept of the commonweal. Following in the genre of Lament in the tradition of the Biblical prophet, Jeremiah, Grant grieved over the Canadian political scene, but not as one without hope. Despite his lament and critique of the liberal establishment, Grant got involved and did what he could to make a difference for the alternative High Tory Conservative way, not paralyzed by despair, but was inspired by his vision, Grant ever pointed to the Good….” Regarding those of the anti-institutional left who are critical of the liberal establishment Dart notes Grant suggesting that they, “…step out of the formal political process [and] merely facilitate by their absence the very thing they protest against. What might seem the high moral ground can in fact be a form of grave digging.” Action born of contemplation is better than apathy according to Grant and suggests that, “…if history teaches us nothing else, it is that all ideologies have their day.” Lament for a Nation contained seven chapters; the use of seven, a divine number and symbolic of the fullness of God’s creation, is considered a stylistic reminder where Grant put his ultimate hope.
Neither Dart, not Grant before him, give a template for specific political action today, but both espouse the contemplative approach to doing philosophy. If Lament for a Nation is a contemplative manifesto for us in 2015, as Dart implies it is, we must first look deeply into ourselves for self-awareness of our political and philosophical and religious values and assumptions that ground our political agendas, and learn from the older, organic, and higher concept of the political good. Not that those of the High Tory tradition always got their social political cognition aright. Dart pictures Diefenbaker, for instance, as a conflicted personality; but he “dipped from a deeper well”, from a different well of political philosophy than those of modern liberalism. Dart provides for us a reminder that there is an alternative tradition of thought for our pondering about the Canadian federal election this year; and that is empowering. Our alternatives may seem to vary little between perhaps three variations of liberalism. But there is this older, more organic conservative way. Reading Ron Dart’s little book may motivate us to dust off that copy of Lament for a Nation, already on our bookshelf; or, motivate us to go out and buy a copy of Grant’s book. Assuming the reader already has purchased and read Ron Dart’s Lament for a Nation Then and Now, the readers can use Dart’s notes as a guide. Dart suggests that a couple of chapters of Lament for a Nation are “must read” chapters. Nevertheless, he provides us with an insightful interpretive guide to Lament that by itself points to different grounds for a different way of thought and action about national governance for life flourishing of eirene/shalom for all; especially well-being for the very least - the marginalized and oppressed of our nation (and global society). Because, under the influence of American Liberalism in Canada, the consequences are of an inordinate exaltation of possessive individualism and a private and corporate faith that places ultimate trust in the market forces which apparently know best. Tragically, thus, the commonweal will have to fend for itself, and as it is believed, a vibrant economy will of necessity simply have winners and losers.
Henk Smidstra, June 4, 2115