Sunday, October 11, 2015

George Grant on my Mind

Today I got into a bit of an educational moment about George Grant.  The discussion began on Facebook when I posted this article from the National Post by Conrad Black:

Conrad Black on the Canadian election

Bear with me!  Religion will enter soon.....

I wrote in my explanatory comments for posting this on Facebook:

"Conrad Black writes in a strange, Victorian style. In this analysis he is all succinct business. I find nothing to disagree with here, finding clearly spelled out reasons why a George Grant Tory such as myself cannot vote Conservative this time."

Then I wrote in the thread spun off from this:

"... he was anything but cloistered in the 50s, 60s and 70s - despite his essential (and true) 'Toryism' - unlike every Conservative government after Diefenbaker's, he was a public intellectual. He wrote for non philosophers and non academics in a clear and engaging style. No doubt if he were alive today he would be active on social media. Though he was in some ways the very image of an absent minded professor. I wrote two medical histories for a doctor who had retired from family practice in the small town Dundas Ontario where Grant lived while at McMaster. He told me that one time he was called out to make a house call at the Grant home for a sick child. Grant himself was rushing out the door, late for a class. The professor was wearing his usual tweed jacket etc but my doc friend noticed that pyjama trousers poked out of the bottom of his regular trousers! He had just pulled them on over his pyjamas..."

Then I decided to surf around to see what the internet had on Grant and I came across an old, uncredited interview of Grant - by someone I don't know, in colour, but noted as occurring in 1973. In it a largely incoherent and beardless Grant answered questions about his public philosophy. Then I turned to an episode of the Agenda with Steve Paikin done as far as I can tell just a few years ago as President Obama was referenced once, but ISIS not at all.   Here it is as this discussion interested me in that the discussants missed the point.  That is, some of them, sometimes came close to the central element of Grant's idea, but then missed still. They were brought together to discuss his seminal book, Lament for a Nation. I suppose that could excuse their missing the mark, ... but no, it can't.  They seemed unable to get away from purely political discussion and from short term thinking.

Still Lamenting for a Nation

(now I see the date - 2011)

George Grant's essential point was that we have become a civilization that sees everything as 'object'. He ascribes this to 'science', that we look at nature, at animals, at our own bodies, at ideas, at societies, at everything in short,  as 'object' - something to be manipulated, altered, improved, added to, taken away from, .... manipulated. He calls this technique - the attitude that comes from a civilization based on technology and science. His lament for Canada, written in 1963 has this view at its core. It was indeed focussed on the Canadian election of that year, and the defeat of a Conservative government by a Liberal party - but this was just an illustration from the political life of the time for his underlying thesis.  He used the United States  in those days as the exemplar of civilization based on technique - as the paragon of this. These were, however,  temporal and temporary examples of a permanent principle. He believed there must be some eternal ideas lying at the heart of existence, or all was a nonsense. In this view Grant also saw a past that was holistic and not manipulative in that sense.  In this, he saw Christianity as being in opposition to this technique, this technological attitude.

One criticism raised in the video linked above was the case of China.  Here the discussants opined was a case of a civilization that took this capitalist civilization of technique and bent it to its own purposes.  What they missed was contained in the 18 minute clip where Grant said he saw more similarities between Marxist approaches and capitalist then differences. Both implicitly accepted technique. One, the Marxist he compared to George Orwell's dystopian fantasy, 1984. The other, the American paragon exemplar of capitalism he compared to Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, an equally but differently dystopian fantasy. Both required the same mentality however.

In another of Grant's essays he talks about religion in schools in Ontario in the 1960s - back when 'public' elementary schools were still following Egerton Ryerson's model of generic Protestant Christianity.  He saw the religion taught in these schools as dead because their true religion was technique.  Only the Catholic schools were genuinely Christian because they still believed Christianity to be true. The Catholic church he saw still had one foot in the premodern, pre-technique world.

As an historian I would say that George Grant's error was not in predicting the eventual victory of technique driven civilization, but in not going far enough back to find its roots. He mentioned John Locke, but a civilization based on technique is older. He needed to go back to Gutenberg. Print technology changed the way we think, the way we perceive reality and led to our current state of worshipping at the altar of technique. Grant was also wrong in seeing some possibility of light in political systems. Light, in my view, comes from the undercurrent of attention paid to holistic views.  First Nations' peoples are beginning to recover their own connection to this, people who choose to live in small scale communities, Prince Charles and his experimental communities, the organic movement, the work of Jane Goodall, the fact that the Catholic church is 2000 years old and has never been entirely able to forget this, the caring and sharing communities of evangelical Christians, the ethnic communities of large cities - all speak to the survival of an older, saner holistic conception and reception of reality. This exists as a hidden current running silently, but alive below the notice of a world worshipping the manipulation of objects.

Quite some time ago, I took a photograph with my phone of a small flower growing in a crack in pavement.  Therein lies hope.