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The North American High Tory Tradition

The North American High Tory Tradition

The North American High Tory Tradition. Ron Dart. New York: American Anglican Press, 2016.


In his 1965 book, Lament for a Nation, political philosopher described the disappearance of Canada as a sovereign nation-state and went so far as to declare “the impossibility of Canada” in the modern age. Indeed, his use of the word “lament” provides conclusive evidence that for him Canada as a political alternative to the United States was truly finished. The word comes from the Latin lamentum, referring to a condition of wailing or grieving. To lament is express grief for something lost and beyond retrieval, but still remembered. There is no suggestion in the word that something can be saved or revived.

The line from Vergil’s Aeneid with which Grant ends his book – “Tendebantque manus ripae ulterioris amore (They were holding their arms outstretched in love toward the further shore)” – reinforces Grant’s judgement. The phrase occurs in Book VI where Aeneas follows the Sibyl of Cumae into Hell and encounters Charon, the ferryman of the Underworld who transports the shades of the dead across the river Styx. Charon refuses to carry those shades who remain unburied after death. They are left “a hapless host” that “may not pass the shore . . . until their bones have found a home and rest.” Grant’s choice of this scene as the concluding statement in Lament implies that he sees post-Canadians as lost souls who will be unable to reconcile themselves to a new political order until they bury the bones – the flag, Parliament, Canada Day, etc. – of their former life.

Ron Dart, a political scientist at the University of the Fraser Valley in British Columba, may not be ready to bury Canada, but his new book, The North American High Tory Tradition, partakes of this Grantian sensibility in lamenting the all-but-forgotten discourse and values of High Toryism in the English-speaking world as a countervail to the deprivations of extreme liberalism. As he writes in the Introduction: “The purpose of this book is to introduce the reader to the deeper philosophical prejudices and principles of Toryism . . . and the consequences of banishing such a way of thinking and being from the public square.”

Why bother, you might ask, considering that liberalism in its various manifestations – diversity, pluralism, multiculturalism, tolerance, etc. – has largely colonized the Western mind and, in the process, delegitimized alternative philosophical views. Dart responds, observing that liberals, enfolded in the magic circle of their ideology, seldom critique liberalism itself or question its prevailing assumptions. His task, he says, is to awaken to the uniqueness of the Tory legacy with a view to helping people “see through the ideology and dominance of liberalism in all its crude and subtle shapes, sizes and chameleon-like guises and colours.” In this sense, Dart, like Grant, wants to stir Canadians from their ideological slumbers even if he doesn’t hold out imminent hope for change.

But then Dart has long been in lament mode. Dart has made himself the doyen of High Tory scholarship over the last two decades, producing three previous books on the subject, including The Red Tory Tradition: Ancient Roots, New Routes (1999), The Canadian High Tory Tradition: Raids on the Unspeakable (2004), and Keepers of the Flame: Canadian Red Toryism (2012). This latest book, published by American Anglican Press, looks to be Dart’s magnum opus, taking the High Tory tradition beyond the borders of Canada and giving it a North American context. At the heart of this project is the desire to introduce Canadians and Americans to an alternative – and older – way of being “North American,” a way of being that sidesteps the intellectual confinements of left-right politics, liberal universalism and even republican exceptionalism.

Dart begins his 337-page tome with a primer on the basic principles of Toryism, suggesting that the philosophical and political roots of historic Toryism remain latent in Western culture and can be restored if there is a will. He offers ten key principles: (1) Tories respected the “wisdom of tradition,” seeing in the past long-standing truths about the human condition that must be respect; (2) Tories are concerned with the general good of society and the nation as a whole, believing that individuals achieve their highest fulfillment in finding their place in the whole; (3) Tories maintain a link between ethics and economics, resisting the notion that questions of profit and loss are the dominant criterion for judging the wealth and health of a society; (4) the Tory tradition maintains an abiding respect for the land and, thus, is “most ecologically minded”; (5) Tories seek to balance the claims of the state against the necessities of society, recognizing that both are necessary to good order; (6) Tories respect notions of private property and personal possession, but also acknowledge the need for commonly shared public space; (7) Tories even have an Arnoldian educational ethos, believing that citizens need to be educated to “the best that has been thought, said and done in the past” in order to be more than skillful slaves of technology; (8) Tories believe that politics involves the give and take of respectful dialogue over ideological rigidity; (9) Tories are convinced that the foundation of a good state rests on “bricks of ethical firmness and religious depth,” and, therefore, society cannot cut itself off from religious institutions ; (10) and, finally, Tories believe in the just discrimination between good, better, and best – which is to say, “reality cannot be dumbed down to the lowest common denominator.”

With these principles embedded in the reader’s mind, Dart proceeds through five interwoven sections to offer a variety of perspectives – historical, philosophical, cultural and theological – that bring forth the submerged significance and presence of the Tory tradition in North America. The first set of essays – the tale of two North Americas, as Dart puts it – focuses on the different philosophical visions at issue in the “First American Civil War” (otherwise known as the American Revolution of 1776) and the breakup of Britain’s North American colonies. As Dart says, “The American republic was founded, consciously and deliberately, on a graphic and clear break from historic English Toryism.” With victory of American republicanism – drawing on the classical liberalism of John Locke, Adam Smith, Thomas Paine, Thomas Hobbes – the older conservative Tory tradition was forced to retreat north with the United Empire Loyalists, providing the country that eventually became Canada with its “Tory touch.” Or, as Dart puts it, unlike Americans, Canadians “did not make a conscious break from English Toryism and the deeper principles that define and shape the Tory vision of the commonwealth.”

This notion of Canada’s “Tory touch” is a commonplace in Canadian intellectual history, with political science departments across the country assuring students that this tincture of Toryism has fostered a collectivist impulse in Canada absent from the southern republic. This is why Canadians have a socialist party and the Americans don’t. This Tory touch, so the story goes, has given Canada everything from Medicare to multiculturalism, and, some have claimed, made Canadians more caring than Americans. As Dart writes in one essay comparing Gad Horowitz’s socialism and George Grant’s Red Toryism: “It is true that both liberalism and conservatism emanated from England, but our nation, as its founding vision congealed, maintained a tension with toryism-conservatism in a way the United States did not. It is this tension that we, as Canadians are quite different, but as we become more American and liberal, this tory touch and this Red Toryism is dissolving like a cloud.”

One of the most valuable essays in Dart’s book explores how Canadian conservatism was increasingly taken over by the “blue tories” during the 1980s. “Many of those who use the time-tried language of conservatism today are fiscal liberals, cheerleaders for free trade and, more to the worrisome point, fans for ever-greater annexation to the United States and the global market,” he says, adding: “It must be admitted at the outset . . . that historic Canadian conservatism has been hijacked by an American form of reactionary liberalism.” The chapter is entitled, appropriately enough, “The Trojan Horse of Liberalism in the Tory Camp.”

With this kind of historical and philosophic background available to the reader, Dart devotes much of his book setting various thinkers and ideas against each other. These juxtapositions and intellectual probes not only produce surprising insights, but also reveal the abiding, if deeply submerged, appeal of High Toryism. We see Tory Anglicanism linked to Red Toryism; an examination of the unquestioned assumptions and ignored contradictions of liberalism; the linkage of High Toryism and the Anglican Church; the conservative Loyalism of Bishop John Strachan against the liberalism of Thomas Paine; conservative historian Donald Creighton set against socialist Eugene Forsey; the influence of C.S. Lewis on Grant; T.S. Eliot compared to Stephen Leacock.

Consider, for example, the chapter examining the connection of Eliot and Leacock. The poet and the novelist/political scientist were “kindred spirits” and their “High Tory Anglican affinities cannot be denied,” says Dart, citing Eliot’s laudatory review in the New Statesman of Leacock’s 1916 collection Essays and Literary Studies. Like ancient Biblical prophets, both spoke against the prevailing cultural ethos of their times, denouncing the deracinated ideological liberalism that cut down older traditions like a lumber company clear-cutting a forest. “Eliot thought that Leacock was one of the few writers and activists in North America that still embodied an older and deeper grasp of the important things,” Dart concludes.

Elsewhere, Dart bumps America’s best-known – or most notorious – intellectual, Noam Chomsky, against the much more obscure Canadian socialist thinker Robin Mathews to make the argument that the latter possesses a worthier social conscience than an anarchist like Chomsky. “There are many ways Canadians have been and continue to be colonized,” he writes. “Those who uncritically bow to Chomsky perpetuate this worrisome trend. Those who have taken the time to heed and hear Mathews might just see an old way, a way that is much older and more nuances that the American way.”

Another contrast, surprising and illuminating, was that of George Grant and Allan Ginsberg. Both the poet and the political thinker howled and lamented the same enemy, the Moloch of technological capitalism, in the name of human freedom and dignity. But Ginsberg, for all his anti-establishment and anti-authoritarian attitudes, still expressed a notion of freedom that emphasized autonomous individuality. Grant, says Dart, “saw through this charade. Ginsberg was just the other side of the corporate elite. They just used their liberty and freedom in different ways, but neither disagreed about the priority of the American vision and dream: life, liberty, choice and individualism. Grant dared to question the very philosophic principles of American liberalism.”

Dart even dares to question that most prestigious of Canadian philosophers, Charles Taylor. Weaving through Taylor’s extensive oeuvre, he concludes that while Taylor is unquestionably an important intellectual figure in modern liberalism, “he does not summon forth its deeper premises and question them.” Indeed, Dart points out that with his defence of the modern Hegelian project – the same project that Grant saw as responsible for the “impossibility” of genuine Canadian sovereignty – “Taylor has given himself to progress as defined by Hegel and accepted by the power elite and ruling mandarin class in Canada and the United States. He was offered his laurels (including, as Dart notes, the prestigious Templeton Prize) for serving the spirit of the age, and the Sanhedrin that guard such a weltgeist.” Dart goes on to compare Taylor to Grant in terms of their respective intellectual courage in challenging the shibboleths of liberalism. Taylor, Dart decides, is “the dutiful and faithful servant of the magus.” Grant, on the other hand, attempted to break out of the magic circle of the modern project.

Over the course of the book Grant emerges clearly as Dart’s intellectual hero, as well as his favorite High Tory. (At least 11 of the books 25 essays have Grant as the main interlocutor.)  This is certainly understandable, and it warrants devoting some time to Grant himself. Grant was a constant critic of liberalism and the modern project throughout his career. Lament for a Nation was widely credited with stirring Canadians from their nationalist slumbers of Canadians and prodding them to develop policies and practices that might sustain a national identity. There is much irony in this since Grant denied any nationalistic motives in writing Lament. “Because people quite rightly want finite hopes, people have read a little book I wrote wrongly. I was talking about the ‘end’ of Canadian nationalism,” he said in 1985. “I was saying that this is over and people read it as if I was making an appeal for Canadian nationalism. I think that is just nonsense. I think they just read it wrongly.” (Did Grant have in mind the free trade negotiations between Canada and the United States that were getting underway in 1985?)

Grant’s claim about Canada’s “disappearance” can obviously be challenged. Fifty years after Lament’s publication the flag still flies on Parliament Hill (albeit the Liberal Party’s Red Maple, not the Red Ensign), Canadians still celebrate Canada Day (not Dominion Day), we still have a border (albeit one made porous by free trade agreements and continental security concerns), and, instead of a president, we still have a prime minister (albeit one who denies the existence of a core Canadian national identity). So, what was Grant on about?

Essentially, Grant held that Canada had become an “impossibility” because the Tory principles upon which the country was founded had given way to those of the American Republic. These ‘American’ principles promote social and political arrangements that made particular cultures and nations like Canada redundant. And because Canadians on the whole believe the principles of modernity are right and proper, they have little reason to maintain an independent political existence. In ascribing to the goods of modernity exemplified by the ‘American way of life,’ Canadians effectively surrendered those characteristics that once distinguished Canada from the United States.

Thus, for Grant, the character of modernity meant the end to a truly sovereign and independent Canada, and that this removal of what makes Canada ‘other’ to the United States is but one example of the erasure of alternatives resulting from the fulfilment of the modern project. This was not anti-Americanism on Grant’s part by any means. He simply recognized that because of certain geo-political and economic realities Americanization was the way modernization is unfolding. Americans were the first members of the planet to be modernized. Canadians were to be second. The rest of the world would follow, however bloodily and reluctantly.

By Grant’s argument, then, we now dwell in a post-Canadian order, or, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently stated, a post-modern state. Grant recognized the strangeness of this reality. In a 1964 letter to friends, he referred to Lament for a Nation, expressing the puzzling sense that while everything has changed, nothing is different, at least on the surface. “It is finally true that one’s home must lie in the transcendent, but what a business it is putting off one’s finite hopes. Otherwise life goes on for us quite pleasantly day by day.” Interestingly, Donald Creighton once said much the same thing: “It’s still a good place to live, but that’s all Canada is now — just a good place to live.” While the formal trappings of nationhood linger, little of “national” substance remains.

Dart may not be ready to bury the Canadian dream but he certainly shares Grant’s lamentation regarding the modern liberal project. He recognizes that the liberal worldview dominates the modern mind to the point where other ways of thinking and living are at best marginalized. Nevertheless, he follows Grant in an act of remembrance. “In one sense there is a counter to cultural amnesia in my work,” he says. “I’m putting the historical pieces of the drama (of High Toryism) back together again.”

No wonder Dart adopts the same epigraph for his book that Grant drew on in Lament – a phrase of the 16th century Anglican divine Richard Hooker from Of the Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie: “Posterity may know we have not loosely through silence permitted things to pass away as in a dream.” Like Grant, Dart refuses, in his passing, to be silent.

Robert SibleyRobert Sibley

Robert Sibley

Robert Sibley is an award-winning journalist and adjunct research professor at Carleton University, where he obtained a Ph.D. in Political Science. Among other books, he is the author of Northern Spirits: John Watson, George Grant and Charles Taylor-Appropriations of Hegelian Political Thought (McGill-Queen’s, 2008).

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