Reviewed by George Elliott Clarke
Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism. 1965. Montreal-Kingston: McGill-Queen's UP, 2005.
Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism (1965) is—as it was fifty years ago—a curious work to consider as a catalyst for English-Canadian nationalism. George Parkin Grant (1918-88), a professor of religion—really, Christianity—and/or philosophy, presents seriously the figure of John George Diefenbaker—Canada’s thirteenth prime minister—as heroic. Why? The Progressive Conservative had proven less of a Cold Warrior than the Camelot Liberals then occupying the White House: Diefenbaker had rejected the request—or demand—of Pretty-Boy JFK, the US prez, that Canada equip itself with nuclear missiles.
Context is everything. Despite electoral triumphs in 1957, 1958 (a historic landslide), and 1962, Dief-the-Chief lost to Liberal Leader Lester Bowles Pearson in 1963 in a campaign that saw the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate (the inventor of UN peacekeeping), with his bowties and bureaucratic panache, argue that Canadian alliance with the US and NATO, entailed our acceptance of nuclear weapons.
So appalled was Pierre Elliott Trudeau by Pearson’s feckless, electioneering hypocrisy that he labelled his future cabinet-mate the “defrocked priest of peace.” However, Grant viewed Pearson’s stance—plus Kennedy’s impatience with Canadian sovereignty—as symptomatic of a deeper problem, namely, the inability of any nation—socialist or conservative, liberal or theocratic, to withstand the prevailing wisdom of our era: the slow “progress” of humanity to incorporation in “a universal and homogeneous state” that will be technologically advanced, capitalist in economics, and liberal-democratic in supposed values, but actually tyrannous against dissenters and oppressive of the marginalized (or demonized). Grant asserts that “if” economic and political globalization leads to “the most complete tyranny imaginable,” then the “disappearance” of Canada as a sovereign state merits lament as “the removal of a minor barrier on the road to that tyranny.” Thus, Dief is heroic—perhaps witlessly so—for withstanding “a torrent of abuse” from Canadian elites—“the establishment”—who did not care to construct “an alternative to the American republic … on the northern half of this continent.” For Grant, Diefenbaker “had a conception of Canada that threatened the dominant classes,” those who look across “the border for [their] final authority in both politics and culture.” In articulating Canadian defiance of US defence demands, Diefenbaker becomes, for Grant, a version “of Milton’s Abdiel: ‘Unshaken, unseduced, unterrified.’”
So, Lament is a j’accuse: it portrays liberal leaders from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Lyndon Baines Johnson, William Lyon Mackenzie King to Pearson, as pursuing “continentalism,” i.e., the absorption of Canada within the razzmatazz capitalism, gung-ho militarism, and rah-rah showbiz of “the American Empire.” Moreover, by vaunting technological dynamism over traditional, moral constraints, liberals lead humanity to the construction of a Brave New World, emphasizing pleasures, profit, and pervasive policing, even genetic folderol, i.e., “man tampering with the roots of his humanity.” While Grant concedes that liberal modernity has helped to “drastically reduce” the evils of “disease and overwork, hunger and poverty,” its assumptions may yet be, he muses, “basically inhuman.” The proof is the Vietnam War—“a veritable Expo … of the American empire,” Grant writes in 1970, which saw liberal intellectuals—humanitarians (on paper at least)—agree that it was fine to bathe Vietnamese peasants in napalm so as to inoculate them against the Iron-Curtain Red Menace and the Red-China Yellow Peril.
Significantly, Lament for a Nation appeared in 1965—right alongside The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited. It is an equivalent counter-culture statement through, weirdly, the outpouring of an Upper-Canadian, upper-crust WASP, thoroughly bourgeois, right-stuff Establishment. Lament is a work that Timothy Leary could have written had he gone in for classical philosophy rather than LSD, or that Jack Kerouac might have penned had he been less On the Road and much more an Ivory Tower inmate. Then again, the pessimism of Grant’s tome aligns well with Barry McGuire’s apocalyptic, 1965 hit, “Eve of Destruction.” The English-Canadian eccentricity of Lament is that it validates Progressive Conservatism (as oxymoronic as the name of Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party)—or Red Toryism—as the single legitimate political philosophy that can oppose the Vietnam War, American imperialism, capitalism, “branch-plant economies [and] branch-plant cultures,” and “planetary destruction and planetary tyranny.” Not only that, but Grant’s Red Toryism protests scientific-technological tinkering rooted in notions that “The human good is what we choose for our good,” which results in environmental despoliation; doctoring plants, animals, ourselves; destruction of local cultures; and erections of Sci-Fi police-states. No wonder, then, that my father, a Halifax social worker in the early 1970s, could ponder both Grant’s Lament and Saul Alinsky’s Reveille for Radicals (1946), even if “lamenting” and “awakening” seem very different actions.
Yet, Lament was a wake-up call—for English-Canadian nationalists, pacifists, environmentalists, anti-imperialists, and socially conscious artists. Thus, Grant had a huge impact on poet Dennis Lee, whose Civil Elegies (1968, 1972), in its very title, alludes to Grant’s metaphysical polemic. Margaret Atwood’s first novel, Surfacing (1972), and her landmark, critical volume, Survival (1972), also descend from Grant’s teaching. The English-Canadian “Sixties”—anti-war, anti-American, anti-pollution, anti-establishment, anti-consumerism—derived in part out of Grant’s extended pamphlet, half-political history and half-philosophical rant. Perhaps it is a sign of Canada’s elitist “pop culture” that a trenchant meditation, catalyzed by the then-tragicomedy of Dief’s defeat, could serve to galvanize youths to want more Can-Con in Lit and Rock, march against the Vietnam War and stand with the Waffle, and go back to the land and get right with Christ.
Indeed, even more peculiar for a Pop-Art, Hippy Era author is the truth that Grant is a Christian, who is certain that Christ, Aristotle, and Plato were (and are) more authoritative in their understandings of “human nature” than are (or were) “modern thinkers”: “Machiavelli and Hobbes, Spinoza and Vico, Rousseau and Hegel, Marx and Darwin….” For Grant, “the ancients” remain unsurpassed: they had “reached the true doctrine concerning human excellence”; they did not believe that it was a positive aspiration that “Man will conquer man and perfect himself.” Imagine Che Guevara as a cigar-chomping, white-grizzled, retro-oratorical evangelist. That’s Grant.
Certainly, Lament for a Nation is a tour-de-force of quips: “To be a Canadian was to be a unique species of North American”; “Memory is never enough to guarantee that a nation can articulate itself in the present”; “capitalist imperialism is much harder to resist than Communist imperialism”; “liberalism is the perfect ideology for capitalism. It demolishes those taboos that restrain expansion”; “To be progressive in Canada is to be nationalistic”; “No small country can depend for its existence on the loyalty of its capitalists”; “We find ourselves like fish left on the shores of a drying lake. The element necessary to our existence has passed away”; etc. Read as a series of aphorisms, Lament foreshadows Herbert Marcuse’s unorthodox, Marxist paean to the joys of revolution, An Essay on Liberation (1969).
In truth, Lament follows the French Jewish intellectual Julien Benda’s La Trahison des clercs (1927), whose 1928 American translation bore the title, Treason of the Intellectuals (a title which helped influence P.E. Trudeau’s 1962 anti-Quebec-nationalism screed, “La Nouvelle trahison des clercs” or “New Treason of the Intellectuals”). Benda rails against European intellectuals who have, circa 1920s, embraced fascism, nativism, and racism as sophisticated political programmes. He lambastes allegiance to nationalism as permitting anti-progressives to restrict human rights and civil liberties. Grant’s Lament takes the opposite position, of course, attacking “universalism” as leading to the destruction of “human excellence”—and thus, in a kind of collateral damage, to the disappearance of “local cultures,” such as that represented by Canada. Yet, Grant may have felt that he was merely correcting Benda, for both works conclude with a warning against the rise of a global, unified and tyrannous state—and with the same quotation from Hegel, “Die Weltgeschichte ist das Weltgericht” (which Grant renders as “World history is the world’s judgement”).
Today’s headlines suggest that Grant’s avant-garde thought remains timely. Our current concerns regarding climate change, mass surveillance, “the increasing outbreaks of impersonal ferocity,” “the banality of existence in technological societies,” genetic modification, the disappearance of nations due to literally rising tides or the collapse of nations due to unsustainable debt, the extinctions of creatures and of human languages, the plague of “terrorism” here and undeclared, and vicious wars “over there,” all suggest that Grant was not—completely—wrong in his insights and prophecies.
Nevertheless, Lament is—well—lamentable in its propagandizing of Grits as bad, nuke-loving continentalists and Tories as righteous defenders of the Red Ensign. Also lamentable is the flattening of English-Canadian identity into a British-is-better mentality and of French-Canadian identity into Catholicism. Seldom does Grant imagine a robustly multicultural Canada, and he absents Indigenous peoples, holus bolus, from his treatise. Grant values Dixie as a “local culture,” yet, these US states were vastly oppressive of African Americans. Grant is a card-carrying Christian, yet he never mentions Martin Luther King, Jr., who was the Christian pacifist of the day (though, in fairness, Grant opposed the Vietnam War years before King did the same). Later in his life, Grant’s disenchantment with the liberal doctrine of “rights” led him to oppose abortion, thus costing him his leftist constituency, while bringing him fresh Christian disciples.
Though Grant is a stoic curmudgeon and Lament may be viewed as a bizarre amalgam of ideas, it was deservedly influential and remains the greatest English-Canadian, mass-circulating polemic. Though Grant would have hated their music, the careers of Drake and Justin Bieber owe something to the accidental call-to-arms (well, border defence) that is Lament for a Nation…
The 4th Poet Laureate of Toronto (2012-15) and the 7th Parliamentary [National] Poet Laureate (2016-17), George Elliott Clarke is an Africadian (African-Nova Scotian). A prized poet, his 14th work is Extra Illicit Sonnets (Exile, 2015). Now teaching African-Canadian Literature at the University of Toronto, Clarke has taught at Duke, McGill, the University of British Columbia, and Harvard. He holds eight honorary doctorates, plus appointments to the Order of Nova Scotia and the Order of Canada.
Click here to return to the current issue