Saturday, October 18, 2014

The ISIS Crisis

In the op/ed columns of newspapers and on blogs on the internet and in commentary on television and radio, a debate is raging over the necessity of “boots on the ground”. The question is one of how to deal with ISIS – not the ancient Egyptian goddess but the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria – the Sunni jihadist organization that has seized control of a large chunk of territory on both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi border and which earlier this year proclaimed itself to be a caliphate. We have been hearing news stories about the atrocities this group has perpetrated, from the ethnic cleansing of the Yazidi to the mass kidnapping of Christian girls to the beheading of Western journalists, for months and for those carrying out the aforementioned debate, it is a matter of whether air strikes would be a sufficient response or whether a ground invasion is necessary. It is taken as a given by both sides that military intervention of some sort or another is necessary..

That military action against ISIS is necessary is certainly the position of our Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Last month he declared the Islamic State to be “a direct threat to the security of this country” and promised that Canada would not “stand on the sidelines and watch” in the fight against ISIS but that we would “do our part”. What doing our part entails, apparently, is the sending of Canadian CF-18 Hornet fighter jets, along with support vehicles and military personnel, to take part in an international coalition fighting against ISIS in Iraq. The House of Commons approved this action by a vote of 157-134 on October 7th and polls indicate that it has broad support among Canadians.

That support is not universal, of course, and while Prime Minister Harper’s rhetoric does raise the interesting question of what he would have proposed to do about this “direct threat” to Canada’s security if an international coalition had not already existed and neither the USA, UK, not UN showed any interest in fighting ISIS, perhaps the best argument in favour of the government’s position is to contrast it with the alternative position of the vapid and vainglorious leader of the Liberal Party, Justin Trudeau. Trudeau insists that Canada’s role in this conflict should be one of providing “humanitarian assistance” rather than combat, i.e., providing food, shelter, and other necessities to the victims of ISIS rather than helping to take out the terrorist organization that is victimizing them. This is rather akin to the man in the old anecdote about the insane asylum who proves that he is worthy of abiding in that institution by continuing to mop up a floor flooded by an overflowing sink rather than turn off the tap.

Recently, former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien weighed in on the matter, supporting Trudeau’s position, pointing to all the thankful remarks he still receives from Canadians for keeping us out of the 2003 Iraq War and saying that providing humanitarian assistance has been Canada’s way for fifty years. That is somewhat of an oversimplification, which ignores the fact that Canadians had a combat role in the War on Afghanistan authorized by Mr. Chretien himself or that we had a combat role in the original war against Saddam Hussein in 1991.

Yes, Jean Chretien was right to keep us out of the 2003 Iraq War. It was probably the only time in his life he was ever right about anything but you know what they say about a stopped clock. The invasion of Iraq began in the March of 2003, one year and a half after the attack by Islamic terrorist organization Al Qaeda upon the United States on September 11, 2001. It was this latter event that took the administration of then American President George W. Bush down a militaristic path. Now the United States, at least to any sane person, had in the 9/11 attack a clear justification for retaliation. It seemed odd, therefore, that so soon after 9/11, while its broadly supported efforts to take out the terrorist organization responsible for the attacks and the Taliban regime that sheltered them were still underway and incomplete, the Bush administration would concentrate so much effort on taking out the Saddam Hussein regime which had no plausible connection to the attacks.

The Bush administration’s official reason for toppling the Hussein regime was their claim that Hussein was developing Weapons of Mass Destruction which it was cleverly hiding from UN inspection teams. That seemed then as it seems now to be an excuse, a pretence that hid the Bush administration’s real motives. At the time those of us, left and right, who thought the Iraq War was a mistake, did so because a costly war of regime change in Iraq did not make sense when the War in Afghanistan was still underway and because we suspected that the actual motives of the Bush administration were less than noble. Whether those suspicions were warranted or not, now, looking on it from the perspective of eleven years of hindsight, another reason for considering the Iraq War to have been utter folly is apparent. Namely, that it is the removal of Saddam Hussein that made the rise of ISIS possible.

The Ba’ath government of Saddam Hussein was reprehensible in many ways, of course, but what it had going for it was that it was capable of keeping jihadist groups like the one that eventually became ISIS down. If what Iraq needed was a stable government, with something vaguely resembling law and order if you looked at it from far enough away, where Muslims other than those of the predominant sect, Christians, and other groups would enjoy a degree of protection and not be completely trampled on, then Saddam Hussein was the best of all possible bad options.

Whatever the non-ideological motivations of the Bush administration might have been, two overarching ideological principles can be seen to have guided its military actions. The first is the idea of “taking the fight to the enemy”, i.e., going overseas to take out the terrorists before they can attack us in Western countries. The second is the idea is that terrorism is the product of and supported by non-democratic governments which should therefore be replaced by democratic ones wherever possible. If the “War on Terror” was an expression of the first idea, the Iraq War embodied the second.

The current President of the United States has been criticized by many for his handling of international affairs. Frequently this takes the form of comparing him negatively to George W. Bush – whereas the latter was decisive, firm, and strong, Obama is indecisive, wishy-washy, and weak. However much truth there may be in this, I would suggest that with regards to international affairs, Obama deserves the most criticism for the area in which he and Bush are most alike, namely their naïve belief in democracy as a universal force for good.

By removing the dictator who kept such forces at bay in Iraq, in the name of democracy, Bush created the conditions that led to the rise of ISIS there, just as his insistence upon democratic elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip only empowered and gave a sort of pseudo-legitimacy to the terrorist organization Hamas. Obama received much criticism for not following through on the “line in the sand” rhetoric he directed against the government of Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian Civil War, but, while this did cause the United States to lose a great deal of “face”, perhaps the bigger problem was that he had thrown his support behind the rebels, when the weakening of the Assad regime is precisely what led to the rise of ISIS on the Syrian side of the border. Consistently, Obama like Bush before him, has supported rebel groups against strongman governments in Egypt, Libya and all across the Middle East and, as with Bush before him, the largest benefactor has been Islamic jihadists.

Indeed, if you are looking for a sound case against Canada’s involvement in the coalition against ISIS, ignore the twaddle coming out of the mouth of the son of our worst ever Prime Minister, the fact that Barack Obama is the leader of the coalition is a good place to start. To that, we could add that the coalition includes the biggest jihad-sponsoring countries in the Middle East but none of the governments that have effectively kept down and contained jihadist terrorism in the past. The same was true of the coalition George W. Bush put together for his War on Terror which is why that War was for the most part a sad and sick joke. Finally, we could make the case ironclad by pointing out that while our opponents, by establishing a caliphate, have sought to stoke the fire of zeal among their followers by conjuring up imagery from the earliest history of Islam when it was united, strong, and a virtually unstoppable juggernaut, we are once again marching into battle against them not under the aegis of the faith that defeated their fathers at Tours and the Gates of Vienna, but in the name of liberalism, the disease that is killing us from the inside.

Perhaps one day Western leaders will awaken to the fact that the best strategy for dealing with groups like ISIS is the reverse of the Bush doctrine. Instead of taking the fight to the terrorists overseas in the hopes of averting terrorist attacks on Western soil it would make much more sense to close the borders of the West to the Islamic world so that we do not have to involve ourselves in their conflicts over there. Despite the disturbing number of “Western” youth being recruited by organizations like ISIS, however, this strategy is less acceptable to progressive liberals and leftists like Justin Trudeau and Thomas Mulcair than outright war. In the meantime, we should be thankful that Prime Minister Harper, however grandiose his rhetoric, placed very careful and specific limits on the military action for which he sought and obtained Parliamentary approval. The United States is not so fortunate. Their president is clearly in over his head and in the long run could potentially have them bogged down in a quagmire that would make George W. Bush’s look like a little mud puddle in comparison.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

A Couple of Deadly Sins

In the traditional moral theology of the Christian Church, seven “sins” were identified as being particularly deadly. These were Pride, Envy, Wrath, Sloth, Avarice (Greed), Gluttony and Lust. I place “sins” in quotations not because I question the Church’s judgement of these as being wicked, but because they are actually vices rather than sins. A sin is an evil act like murder, robbery, or lying. A vice is an evil character trait or habit – the opposite of a virtue which is a good character trait or habit. These seven obviously fall within the vice category, and in classical Christian moral theology are ordinarily contrasted with seven Christian virtues, but the name “Seven Deadly Sins” somehow became attached to the list, has the weight of centuries of prescription behind it, and, if it comes down to that, has a better ring to it than “Seven Deadly Vices.”

Dorothly L. Sayers, who was a mystery writer, Christian apologist, and medieval scholar in the early to mid twentieth century, gave an address to the Public Morality Council at Caxton Hall in Westminster, in 1941, entitled “The Other Six Deadly Sins.” The text of her address can be found a number of collections of her essays, including Creed or Chaos? and The Whimsical Christian. The six which are the topic of her talk are those other than Lust and the point of her discussion was that these six had come to be neglected and Lust overly emphasized in popular Christian teaching. “Perhaps the bitterest commentary” she said “on the way in which Christian doctrine has been taught in the last few centuries is the fact that to the majority of people the word ‘immorality’ has come to mean one thing and one thing only.”

Ironically, in traditional Christian theology, as reflected in Dante Aligheri’s Divine Comedy - of which, incidentally, Sayers produced a translation – Lust was considered to be the least of the seven. Pride – the sin of Lucifer and the original source of all other sin - was considered to be the worst. The order in which I listed them in the first paragraph of this essay goes from worst to least – traditionally, the Church would list from least progressing to worst, beginning with Lust. As Virgil leads Dante up the mountain of Purgatory in the Purgatorio, they encounter the faithful being purged of their vices in order of their seriousness, beginning with lust and ending with pride.

If Dorothy L. Sayers was right in saying that popular Christian ethics had come to focus too heavily upon Lust to the exclusion of other sins, and she was, there is now a tendency in certain circles to make Avarice into the sum and total of all evil. Sayers used the term Covetousness for this vice. Both terms are now rather archaic but they are also more precise than the most common contemporary equivalent, Greed, which in its ordinary, everyday usage, includes Gluttony as well as Avarice. Avarice was the third least of the Seven Deadly Sins in traditional Christian ethics but those who seek to wed Christian theology to socialism often seem to consider it to be the worst. This is because they see Avarice as the driving force behind the capitalism they hate so much.

Whether Avarice actually is the force behind capitalism is debatable – much depending, of course, on how one defines capitalism. We will return to that momentarily. What is indisputable, however, is that Envy – traditionally, the second worst of the Seven Deadly Sins - is the force behind socialism. Nobody put it better than Sir Winston Churchill who said “Socialism is a philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy, its inherent virtue is the equal sharing of misery”. Envy is hate and resentment of other people because of what they have. It is the very essence of socialism.

Now to be fair a distinction needs to be made here. In North America an unfortunate tendency has developed to lump every law and every government program that is aimed at - whether effectively or not - bettering the conditions of the less advantaged under the label of socialism. This is not what the word socialism has historically meant and it is certainly not what Churchill meant by it in the above quotation. Indeed, laws and programs intended to better the conditions of the less advantaged have historically, often been introduced by conservatives, like Otto Von Bismarck in Germany, Benjamin Disraeli in the United Kingdom, and R. B. Bennett and John G. Diefenbaker in Canada for the purpose of combating socialism. In an interview with the Paris Review in the early 1970s, Anthony Burgess remarked that “to take socialism seriously, as opposed to minimal socialization (which America so desperately needs), is ridiculous”. This is the necessary distinction so let us borrow Burgess’ apt terminology for it. The laws and programs that comprise minimal socialization are not based upon Envy, but Envy is the essence of true socialism.

Socialism began in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and has been formulated in many different ways and has spawned many different movements which often bear little resemblance to one another.. Some socialists were anarchists who wanted to get rid of the state, others saw the state as the instrument by which their goals would be achieved. Some believed violent revolution was the path to their collectivist utopia, others insisted upon working peacefully and lawfully within the established system. Beneath all of these differences, what the various socialists had in common, is the idea that the private ownership of property is itself evil and unjust and that it is the source of most or all other evils and injustices in society. Originally, socialists proposed as a “solution” to this “problem” that private ownership be replaced by some form of collective or common ownership. Today, many, perhaps most, socialists have abandoned the advocacy of collective ownership in favour of a combination of confiscatory taxation, a heavily regulated market and an expansive welfare state that is far beyond anything that could be described as “minimal socialization”. What they have not abandoned is the basic idea of socialism that blame for the ills from which society suffers is to be placed on the “haves” for having so much. This hatred of the “haves” for having, continues to permeate all socialist rhetoric and it is precisely this attitude which the Church has traditionally condemned as the cardinal vice of Envy.

The relationship between socialism and Envy, therefore, is undeniable. Socialism is an ideology, and its basic concept reduces to Envy. If there is a relationship between capitalism and Avarice it is by no means as clear as this. Capitalism is an economic arrangement in which people own property on or in which commercial goods are produced (farms, mills, mines, factories, etc.), hire other people to work on or in that property, and market the goods, living off of the profit, that which they receive for the sale above what is necessary to cover the costs of operating their property. If some or even most capitalists (property owners) show Avarice in overcharging for their goods or underpaying their employees this does not mean that capitalism itself is based upon Avarice in the way that socialism is based upon Envy. (1)

Not only is the connection between socialism and Envy clearer and more fundamental than the connection, if any, between capitalism and Avarice, Envy is in the traditional teachings of the Christian Church the worse of the two vices. Let us consider why the Church traditionally ranked these vices in this way.

Avarice is similar to Lust and Gluttony in that it is a natural, God-given desire that has been perverted by excess into a vice. God, the Bible tells us, created man male and female, and ordered him to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth. Sexual desire, therefore, in and of itself, cannot be the bad thing that the Bible and the Church condemn as Lust. Lust is sexual desire taken to a vicious excess. Similarly God created us so that we require sustenance and gave us an appetite for food. If we did not have that appetite we would starve to death, but when that appetite is indulged to excess it becomes the vice of Gluttony. If Lust is the perversion by excess of the good, natural, and God-given sexual appetite and Gluttony is the perversion by excess of the good, natural, and God-given appetite for food, Avarice is the perversion by excess of the good, natural, and God-given appetite to have material possessions.

Jesus said that all of God’s commandments could be summarized in the greatest two – to love God and to love our neighbour. It follows from this that all vices and sins must be defects in our love for God and other people. This tells us how the vice of Avarice is to be distinguished from the natural, God-given, desire for material possessions. It is not sinful to want “things”. If however, we put our trust in material wealth, looking to our possessions as our source of personal security, then we have failed to love God properly because we have committed idolatry by giving to our material possessions the faith that we owe our Creator. The desire to have – even to have more – is not in itself Avarice. It becomes Avarice when we look at others and think “I don’t want them to have any, I want it all for myself”.

Envy is a different sort of vice altogether. It is not a twisting or a perversion of a natural desire but consists entirely of ill will towards others.. Envy resents another for what he possesses. The resentment is based upon the fact that it is his and not mine regardless of whether I actually want it for myself or not. Envy wants to see what the other person has taken away from him even if oneself is not thereby enriched or benefited in any way. As Dorothy L. Sayers said of Envy:

Envy is the great leveller: if it cannot level things up, it will level them down; and the words constantly in its mouth are “My Rights” and “My Wrongs.” At its best, Envy is a climber and a snob; at its worst, it is a destroyer-rather than have anybody happier than itself, it will see us all miserable together.

It is closely related to Pride, which in the traditional view is the only one of the Seven worse than itself. Pride is the worst of the Seven because it is the true “Original Sin” in the sense that it was the first sin, the sin of Lucifer, the root from which all other sin sprang. If Pride is the root sin, Lucifer’s sinful attitude towards himself, the second sin, the first to grow out of the root of Pride in the heart of Lucifer was Envy, his sinful attitude towards his Creator.

The Church’s traditional ranking of the vices seems entirely right and sensible. Envy is the second worst after Pride because the two are inseparably intertwined, almost the same sinful attitude in two different aspects, Pride looking inward and Envy looking outward. They are satanic in the most literal sense of the word – the sins that brought about Lucifer’s fall – and thus the spring from which the tainted river of sin and vice flows. Avarice, like Gluttony and Lust, is a lesser vice, a natural, God given desire that has been twisted and taken to excess, by the corrupting influence of the root sins of Pride and Envy.

Thus traditional Christian theology sheds much light on the kind of modern theology that looks more sympathetically towards socialism, the heart of which is Envy, than towards capitalism, which socialists claim promotes Avarice. (2)

(1) This essay will probably come across as an apology for capitalism, which I suppose it is if we associate no other connotations with capitalism beyond the definition in the eighth paragraph. The term usually has other connotations of course. These include mass production, industrialization, urbanization, technology, progress, and basically all the concepts that are wrapped up in the word “modern”. I make no apology for a capitalism that includes these concepts, each of which I look upon with varying degrees of suspicion and disgust. These are as much a part of socialism, however, as they are of capitalism.

(2) Dorothy L. Sayers, whose speech “The Other Six Deadly Sins” I have referred to throughout this essay, said that “If Avarice is the sin of the Haves against the Have-Nots, Envy is the sin of the Have-Nots against the Haves.” While I understand why she would say this, I question it. Anybody who has worked or volunteered for an organization that distributes food, clothing, etc. to the Have-Nots and has had to try and prevent those who are ahead in the distribution line from hoarding everything from those who are behind them in the line, will know that Avarice or Greed is hardly an unknown vice among the Have-Nots. On a somewhat related note, V. S. Naipaul has the narrator of one of the stories in his In a Free State comment “But no, like all poor people they want to be the only ones to rise. It is the poor who always want to keep down the poor.” I would also suggest that if one wants to observe Envy, on a truly spectacular scale, one has to look among the Haves.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Independence Movements

On Thursday, September 18th, Scotland voted in a historical referendum on the question of whether or not they wanted independence from the United Kingdom. The devolution of power to the Scottish assembly under Labour governments in the last four decades and the growth of the Scottish independence movement under the leadership of a small but organized group of zealots had made the referendum inevitable. The referendum had a very high voter turnout – 84.59% and in the end the no side won with 55.3% of the votes.

This outcome is pleasing to those, such as myself, who did not wish to see the United Kingdom break up. It was also not particularly surprising. Here in Canada, the Quebec separatist movement failed twice to win their independence in referendums. Quebec is far more culturally distinct from English Canada than Scotland is from the rest of the United Kingdom. Quebec is a French speaking province – the rest of the country speaks English, Quebec is traditionally Roman Catholic, English Canada is traditionally Protestant, and so on. Yet despite this, the secession movement lost twice, albeit by a much narrower margin the second time around than the Scottish independence movement, and is now basically dead. When the Parti Quebecois made it an issue in the last provincial election earlier this year their overwhelming defeat by the Liberals sent the message loud and clear that no further such referendums were welcome.

The unity of England and Scotland goes back much further than that of English and French Canada. The English and the Scots have had the same sovereign since 1603, the year that the King James VI of Scotland inherited the English throne from the last English monarch, Queen Elizabeth I, becoming King James I of England. Note that the Scottish king inherited the English throne. This can by no means be construed as England conquering Scotland. In 1707, during the reign of Queen Anne, the parliaments of the two kingdoms that had shared a monarch for a century voted to unite and form a single country. England and Scotland were both better off for it and the union thus formed proved greater than the sum of its parts. The idea that after three centuries as a united whole one part of this whole should be able to unilaterally vote on whether to break or maintain the union is perverse.

There are some who might charge me with holding to double standard on the matter of secession. When the subject of the war the American states fought between themselves from 1861 to 1865 comes up I ordinarily put forward as my opinion that the South was in the right. In that conflict it was the Southern states that had seceded from the American union to form the Confederate States of America. Recently, when the anti-European Union nationalist parties scored major gains all across Europe in the European Parliamentary election, while progressives were wringing their hands and gnashing their teeth in frustration I was rejoicing.

My answer to the charge would be to say that it is unreasonable to insist that if someone supports one independence movement he must therefore support all independence movements or that if he opposes one he must therefore oppose all. “A foolish consistency”, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” To insist that secession must be either supported or opposed across the board is surely to insist upon a foolish consistency.

If independence movements arise in different countries their reasons for wanting to secede are unlikely to be identical and even less likely to be equally valid. Surely the question of whether we favour or oppose these movements should be more influenced by our evaluation of the reasoning behind these movements than some abstract ideal that supposedly settles the question of independence at a general level.

The leaders of the independence movement among the American colonies in the eighteenth century expressed their intention of seceding from the British Crown in terms of accusations of tyranny and oppression levelled against King George III and lofty sounding ideals about natural rights and democracy drawn from liberal philosophy. The accusations of tyranny were completely bogus and would have been so even if they had been levelled against the elected Parliament that had deliberated and decided upon all the acts to which the American colonists objected. The liberal philosophy behind the lofty ideals was unsound. At any rate, the accusations and ideals both concealed the real reasons for the drive for American independence, not least among which was the fact that the King’s guarantee of the French language and Roman Catholic religion in Canada interfered with their goal of creating a united, English speaking, Protestant, North America. My opinion, of the American independence movement of three centuries ago, is therefore rather low.

When the leaders of the Southern states declared their secession from the American republic a little less than a century later they justified their decision on the grounds of “states’ rights” a phrase which expressed both their objection to federal interference in what they regarded as the domestic affairs of the states and their theory of the American constitution, i.e., that it was a federal union of sovereign states which retained the right to secede at any time. This was one of two constitutional theories that had been competing with each other since the founding of the American republic. Ultimately, the argument was settled in favour of the other side by a bloody internecine war but a strong case can be made that by the terms of the American charter, the South was in fact in the right and that constitutionally, the members states of the federal republic of the United States had the right to secede. (1)

Of course, although the matter was decided by the war, at least from a historical perspective, the states did not divide and fight each other over a disagreement in constitutional theory. Nor did they divide and fight each other over slavery, despite what the politically approved history of the day will tell you, or over tariffs as pro-Confederate libertarians will tell you. Slavery and tariffs were both peripheral issues.

The antebellum Southern states comprised a society with an agrarian economy and an Old World culture with traditional codes of honour and chivalry, presided over by a landed patrician class. By contrast, the society of the north-eastern states was a dynamic society, with an economy that was rapidly being modernized and industrialized, a culture shaped by Puritanism, presided over by a class of wealthy merchants and factory owners. When the latter society succeeded in unilaterally electing a Republican president the leaders of the former society could see the handwriting on the wall – the forces of innovation, modernization, and industrializing now had complete control of the United States and their older style, more rooted, traditional society would be swept away. Secession was a last ditch effort to prevent this, albeit one that ultimately failed and resulted in their society being ravaged by the merciless war machine of the North.

The South, therefore, politically correct propaganda about race and slavery be damned, fought for their independence over what I would regard as a worthy cause – the preservation of a traditional, honourable, chivalrous, rural, society against “the Modern Age at arms” to borrow a phrase from Evelyn Waugh. By contrast, the separatist movement in Quebec arose precisely at the time when that province had thrown off most of its traditional elements and embraced modernity.

As for the Scottish independence movement, it sought to break up a kingdom that has been united for centuries, that was united peacefully by mutual acts of the English and Scottish parliaments a century after the Scottish king inherited the English throne, the union of which has stood the test of time. Let us hope that after this defeat at the polls it will soon be as dead as Quebec separatism.

(1) The case is based upon the ninth and especially the tenth amendment to the US Constitution.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Triumph of Power over Authority

“Order without liberty”, Theodore Roosevelt once remarked, “and liberty without order are equally destructive”. Libertarians of an anarchist bent tend to respond to statements like this by scoffing and saying that they are nothing more than sugar to disguise the taste of statist oppression and make it palatable to the masses. This is more or less what Karl Marx said about religion and both judgements, that of the libertarian anarchist and that of Marx, have about the same worth, i.e., none whatsoever. I think, however, that it would be more accurate to say with Samuel P. Huntington that “Men may, of course, have order without liberty, but they cannot have liberty without order”. (1)

The two men were talking about different things of course. The American President of a little over a century ago was talking about the necessary middle territory between tyranny and anarchy, whereas the Harvard political scientist was commenting upon modernization in societies that were not ready for it. His next words were:

Authority has to exist before it can be limited, and it is authority that is in scarce supply in these modernizing countries where government is at the mercy of alienated intellectuals, rambunctious colonels, and rioting students.

While I generally agree with what Huntington was saying here, I note that the wording of his comments assumes that liberty is the result of the limitation of authority. I would be more inclined to say that liberty is the result of the limitation of power and that furthermore it is authority that most effectively limits power and therefore authority that is the source and protector of liberty. This is the difference between the perspective of the classical conservative and the neoconservative and it is not a mere matter of semantics. Authority and power are different things. Authority commands obedience, power compels obedience. Authority is a matter of right, power is a matter of ability. People obey authority out of respect and power out of fear. Authority must be backed by power to ensure a stable order but the litmus test of the genuineness, strength, and security of authority is the extent to which it must rely upon the exercise of power. The more genuine, firm, secure, and stable authority is, the less it needs to exercise power. (2) The converse is also true and thus the “order without liberty” of which Roosevelt and Huntington speak, which is the reality of tyrannical states, is also “order without authority”, order that is enforced entirely by power.

Classical conservatives recognize that true authority, which limits and humanizes power, is the sine qua non of the kind of order which is the precondition of liberty. Liberalism, of which neoconservatism is a somewhat more realistic variety, is based upon the idea that liberty is the natural condition of man in a pre-order, pre-society, state and it has historically and erroneously regarded authority as the enemy of liberty. Is it perhaps, this mistaking of the true relationship between power, authority, and liberty, that produced the dark irony of the twentieth century in which so many liberal intellectuals, who regarded themselves as the champions of human enlightenment, prosperity, and freedom, were blinded to the reality of the oppression that existed in societies where traditional authority had been eliminated and replaced by regimes of sheer, naked, power, and so were duped into praising and practically worshipping, the least free society the world has ever known, the Soviet Union, precisely at the time when the worst tyrant in its history, Joseph Stalin, was at the height of his career of brutality and violence? (3)

The Modern Age, which give birth to liberalism and saw it grow, culminated in the twentieth century with liberalism triumphant everywhere in the Western world. The triumph of liberalism was at the expense of her old enemies, the established, institutional Church and the ruling houses of Europe. The kings and emperors of Christendom ruled with traditional authority, based upon ancient prescription and divine consecration. By weakening or eliminating them, in either case replacing their government with that of elected assemblies, liberalism replaced the authority it despised with naked power, for democracy is a form of power – the strength of numbers – rather than of authority. In countries where the traditional authorities were eliminated altogether, there were monstrous consequences. In the 1790s, the revolution against the king and Church in France, brought about the Reign of Terror. (4) In the twentieth century, when the Allies at the instance of liberal American President Woodrow Wilson, broke up the Austria-Hungarian and Prussian empires and deposed the houses of Hapsburg and Hohenzollern they removed the roadblock that had stood in the way of nineteenth-century pan-German nationalism, paving the way for a power-mad Austrian demagogue to be elected into office in Germany, unify the German-speaking peoples into a single power, and plunge the world into a second bloody conflict after creating the only twentieth-century regime to rival those of the Communist world in terms of sheer statist terror. (5)

Countries which retained their traditional ruling houses, albeit in a weakened, mostly ceremonial role, were spared having to go through this ordeal. A few Western statesmen, like that wise old Tory Sir Winston Churchill, acknowledged this correlation. (6) Most, however, attributed the survival of liberty in the English-speaking world and its ultimate triumph over the Third Reich – and later over Communism – to modernization, democracy, and liberalism. This continues to be the conventional understanding to this day, an understanding that involves a large degree of wilful blindness to the fact that in modern, liberal, democracies too, power has eclipsed authority. In Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Sweden, the United States, et al, it is soft power that is exercised domestically rather than the hard power of the Soviet and Nazi regimes. The vast difference between the two types of power – that of sensitivity and diversity re-education and “political correctness” on the one hand versus that of secret police, concentration and work camps, show trials and execution squads on the other – should not be taken lightly, of course. The boundry between the two, however, has a tendency to get fuzzy over time, a fact of which those who have followed our government’s attempts to squelch “hate speech” in recent decades are well aware. (7) This is inevitable, because, different as soft power and hard power are, and indisputably preferable as the former is over the latter, the gulf between power and authority is even greater and those who truly love liberty, ought always to rank authority over power.

Thomas Jefferson, in the preamble to the American Declaration of Independence, wrote that governments “derive their just powers from the consent of the governed”. In keeping with the foregoing discussion, it could be said that it was well that he used the word “powers” here, for it is power and not authority that governments derive from the governed through democratic election. Jefferson’s use of the adjective “just”, however, indicates that what he had in mind by “just powers” is something closer to what we have here called “authority”, in which case he got things backwards. If a government truly possesses “just powers” or “authority”, i.e., the right to command obedience to its laws in the territory and from the people over which it governs, it is this which produces consent among the governed, and not the other way around. Authority is something which, when it exists in an institution, is recognized by those under that authority, and either obeyed or rebelled against. It is the authority that produces the recognition and not consent which produces the authority.

Although we have been considering the authority and power of governments, government is not the only institution to possess authority, and if we consider the example of the most basic institution in which authority is vested, the family, we find a helpful illustration. There is no rational way in which it could be argued that parents, who are the authority figures in the family, derive their authority from the consent of their children. Their authority over their children arises out of the natural relationships within the family. It is recognized by the children and either obeyed or rebelled against. When rebellion occurs, and it always does, parents must enforce their authority with discipline – an exercise of power. If taken to excess, however, discipline will not reinforce parental authority but have the opposite effect. Children will cease to respect and love their parents, will obey them only out of fear, and ultimately will rebel more. When this happens parents have lost their authority. This is not because authority is something children give to their parents and can revoke if misused, but because authority can only survive in an atmosphere of respect which it generates. If it ceases to generate that respect it shrivels up and dies.

A government derives this respect-generating authority from such things as history, custom, tradition, constitutionality, and ancient establishment. It cannot obtain it from seizing power by force in a coup or revolution and it certainly cannot obtain it from winning a popularity contest. All it can obtain from these things is power. It needs power to reinforce its authority and as a source of power, elections are generally to be preferred over violent coups, which is one reason why a government in which an elected assembly is combined with a hereditary monarchy – the government institution best suited for and most likely to be vested with time-honoured, prescriptive authority – is the best possible government (8). We have that combination today, but liberalism, the prevalent and triumphant ideology of the day, insists that it be democratic in essence and monarchical merely in form, which, as we have seen, is another way of saying that power must trump authority. Liberalism believes that it is safeguarding liberty, but the order that makes liberty possible, is an order in which authority limits power and not the other way around. This means that the longer liberalism prevails, the more liberty itself, like the authority of the sovereign, will be reduced to a mere form. (9)

(1) Samuel P. Huntington, Political Order in Changing Societies (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1968) p. 7.

(2) This condition, of authority that is backed by power which it has little need to exercise because it is firmly grounded in prescription (ancient usage) and tradition is what Roger Scruton calls “establishment” in The Meaning of Conservatism, (South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine’s Press, 1980, 2002)

(3) For an account of just how deluded some of these were, see the final chapter “Who Whom?” in Malcolm Muggeridge’s The Green Stick: Chronicles of Wasted Time Vol. 1,(London: William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd, 1972), which chapter covers the years Muggeridge spent in Moscow as correspondent for the liberal/radical newspaper, the Manchester Guardian, in the 1930s. For the full details on what was going on in the Soviet Union at the time see Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror: A Re-Assessment (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990). This edition of a book Conquest originally put out in 1968 was revised when material from the Soviet archives became available at the end of the Cold War. The material vindicated Conquest’s original assessment.

(4) Alexis de Tocqueville, the French aristocrat who visited the United States in the early 1830s and recorded his observations of that society in his Democracy in America, in his later discussion of own country’s revolution (The Old Regime and the French Revolution) noted that the revolutionaries seized the apparatus of state power from the Bourbon monarchy and turned it to their own ends. An argument could be made that this, and not the lofty ideals they proclaim, is the true goal of all revolutionaries. At any rate, revolutions are usually carried out against governments whose authority has grown weak, requiring them to rely more and more upon the exercise of power, which in turn generates the popular discontent that revolutionaries exploit against the government. Revolution is no solution, however, because it can only replace a government whose authority has weakened with a government that has no authority at all but only power, for authority arises out of prescription, i.e., long accepted and established usage. Revolutions may be started in response to real problems but they are never the solution to that problem. Francis Schaeffer, writing in response to the international student revolution of the 1960s and the rise of the New Left, was right when he said that these movements were correct in identifying the predominant culture as “plastic” (artificial and cheap), but he was very wrong when he said, in The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1970) that orthodox Christianity must teach its young people to be revolutionary in a Scriptural, Christ-like manner. (pp. 29-30, 40-41) There is no such thing. Joseph de Maistre had it right when he said “What is needed is not a revolution in the opposite direction, but the opposite of a revolution.” The contemporary use of “revolutionary” as an adjective of praise is a sign of the degradation of our culture, thought and language.

(5) John Lukacs in his The End of the Twentieth Century and the End of the Modern Age (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1993), written in response to the end of the Cold War and Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History”, contrasts the old Austria-Hungarian Empire, a civilization of the highest order in which people of various nationalities (such as “Austrian” and “Hungarian”) were united by a common loyalty to the Hapsburg monarchy with the Third Reich as the outcome of nineteenth century German nationalism. He discusses at length a theme that runs through all his writings - the difference between the older concept of patriotism and the modern phenomenon of nationalism, the superiority of the former, and the perversity of the latter. There is a similarity between Lukacs’ praise of the Hapsburg monarchy in the old empire (he, it should be noted, is an Hungarian Catholic who emigrated to the United States after the land of his birth was overrun first by the Nazis then by the Soviets) as the unifying object of loyalty in a multinational polity to the role of the monarchy in Canada as described by W. L. Morton, a Canadian historian of the old Tory school, in The Canadian Identity (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1961, 1972) p. 85. Contradicting the progressive notion that monarchy is an outdated institution, and in words quite pertinent to the theme of this essay, Lukacs writes “A hereditary (as distinct from an electoral) constitutional monarchy is especially suited to modern democracy, when masses of people are not only avid for the symbols of royalty but when, more than ever before, they need the visible presence and consequent authority of a compassionate father (or mother) figure, the presence of a respectable reigning family, with their children. Such authority ensures not fear and perhaps not even power, except that kind of intangible power that is the result of decent, honest, human respect. A constitutional and hereditary monarchy in the twentieth century is more than an instrument for continuity and tradition. Its function is historical, but also political and social”. (p. 70).

(6) Churchill is frequently quoted as having said “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” He did indeed say this, although he also said “the best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.” More to the point he said “This war would never have come unless, under American and modernising pressure, we had driven the Habsburgs out of Austria and the Hohenzollerns out of Germany. By making these vacuums we gave the opening for the Hitlerite monster to crawl out of its sewer on to the vacant thrones” and on another occasion “If the Allies at the peace table at Versailles had allowed a Hohenzollern, a Wittelsbach and a Habsburg to return to their thrones, there would have been no Hitler. A democratic basis of society might have been preserved by a crowned Weimar in contact with the victorious Allies.”

(7) See my “The Long War Against Free Speech in Canada” for details:

(8) Aristotle and Polybius foresaw this millennia ago. As Stephen Leacock put it this combination has joined “the dignity of Kingship with the power of Democracy.”

(9) High Tory journalist, Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, gave an excellent talk to the Athenaeum club about how liberalism failed in its emancipation project and brought enslavement instead in 2006. An abridgement of his remarks can be found, ironically enough at the Guardian’s website, here:

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Triumph of the Philistine

I have recently been reading The Chronicles of Wasted Time, the memoirs of the curmudgeonly British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge. I was first introduced to Muggeridge over twenty years ago by my maternal grandmother, who lent me his Jesus Rediscovered a few months after I announced my intention to study theology. Muggeridge, who had been raised in an agnostic, socialist home – his father was a Labour MP – and who married into the leading family of the Fabian Left – his wife was the niece of Beatrice Webb – grew disillusioned with Marxism, seeing the reality of Stalinist state-terrorism first hand as correspondent for the Manchester Guardian in Moscow in the early 1930s and later in life converted to Roman Catholicism. I picked up a copy of his memoirs in a used book store over ten years ago and was inspired to finally read them when I came across Anthony Powell’s recollections of Muggeridge in his own four volume autobiography, To Keep the Ball Rolling. In The Green Stick, the first volume of The Chronicles of Wasted Time, I found the following interesting observation:

As I see it, in the twentieth century the genius of man has gone into science and the resultant technology, leaving the field of mysticism and imaginative art and literature almost entirely to charlatans and sick or obsessed minds. The result has been that, whereas in the last half century more progress has been made in the exploration of man’s material circumstances, and in the application of the knowledge thereby gained, than in the whole of the rest of recorded time, the corresponding contribution to art and literature has been negligible and derisory. The circumstances of the age are just not conducive to such activities, and those who nonetheless pursue them tend to become unhinged or junkies or alcoholics, if not all three. (pp. 208-209)

Muggeridge does not elaborate further on this at any great length – unless the theme of belonging to a doomed civilization in its dying days that underlies his entire autobiography is regarded as such an elaboration. It seems to me that it is an observation that deserves further consideration.

There are those, of course, who would contest Muggeridge’s assessment of the state of art and literature in the twentieth century. I am not one of those, and would say that if anything, he understated his case and that in the twenty-first century in which we now live, things are abysmally worse. Consider poetry, as just one example. English poetry of all sorts and levels flourished in the nineteenth century. It was the century of Coleridge, Southey and Wordsworth, of Shelly, Keats and Byron, of Scott and the Brownings, of Swinburne, Macauley, and Tennyson. Kipling and Housman survived into the twentieth century, the early decades of which gave us Auden and Owen, Pound, Eliot, Yeats and Frost. Since World War II, however, English poetry has come to resemble nothing so much as the title of Eliot’s most famous poem, “The Wasteland”. The fact that the late Maya Angelou is today considered to be a great poet is all the evidence we need to show that English poetry has gone from its zenith to its nadir within less than a hundred years.

If man’s twentieth century achievements in the realm of science and technology are linked, as Muggeridge suggests, with the decline and degradation of arts and literature, the question that then arises is one of how the two are related to each other. Are science and art somehow mutually incompatible with one another? Are the mental facilities of man so limited as to allow him to only achieve in one of these two areas at a time?

I think that it is to be explained by the shift in the way the Western world understands civilization. Traditional Western civilization was built upon the idea that human activity is directed towards certain ends. Some of these ends are defined by material needs and desires such as the need for food, clothing and shelter. Others are goods which are transcendent, which exist in a higher realm beyond that perceived through the senses. The ends of human activity are not equal but arranged in a hierarchy of importance in which the transcendent goods – goodness itself, truth, beauty, justice, etc., are higher and more important than the lower, material goods. Therefore, whether a society is civilized or not, and the level of its civilization, is determined by the extent of its pursuit of these higher goods, of which its arts and literature are indispensable indicators.

The foundation of this way of looking at things – the idea that there is something beyond the world as perceived through the senses – has been subjected to a steady process of erosion for almost a thousand years beginning with William of Ockham’s denial of the reality of universals. The less men came to believe in a world beyond the material, the less important the higher goods became to them and the more important the lower goods. Hence man turned his efforts more and more towards science, the means whereby he gains knowledge of and mastery over the physical world and so obtains his every material desire.

In a very real sense, the eclipse of art and literature by science and technology represents the triumph of the spirit of the philistine. I do not mean philistine in the literal sense of the people that ancient Israel fought against but in the metaphorical sense. The metaphorical philistine is the man who looks for nothing in life, beyond material security, other than the comforts and amusements, themselves material, that distract him. He sees no purpose in schooling beyond getting a job, and no purpose in higher education beyond getting a better paying job. He sees no need for a higher life of the mind and spirit for himself, and responds to those who seek such for themselves, with scorn and derision.

In previous centuries, philistinism was associated with certain versions of Protestantism. The Protestant Reformation had begun with Martin Luther re-asserting the Pauline doctrine that salvation is God reaching down to man in Christ and giving us His grace to be received through faith. Some Protestants drew from this the conclusion that all human pursuit of higher goods was “religion” and offensive to God and sought to purge their churches and often their lands of it. English Puritanism, which cancelled liturgy, smashed church organs, and stripped churches of beauty and decoration in the name of “simplicity”, which judged art not by the standards of aesthetics but of a very Pharisaic morality, is an obvious example of this.

The basic essence of philistinism, however, is materialism rather than Protestant theology. That human intellect has been poured into science and technology in the twentieth century at the expense of the arts and literature represents the ultimate triumph of philistinism, its having conquered its ancient enemy, the life of the mind, and forced it to pay tribute. Meanwhile, the world of arts and literature has been taken over by those so aptly described by Muggeridge as “charlatans and sick or obsessed minds” as to make the philistine seem more appealing. While the man who sees no point in the paintings of Michelangelo, El Greco, Titian and Poussin, the plays of Shakespeare and Racine, or the verse of Donne, Dryden, Goethe and Baudelaire, and treats those who do as objects of ridicule, was obviously a fool, there is something to be said for the man who sees no point in trying to read the unreadable verse of Angelou, the woman who cannot sit through a production of an Ensler play, and the person, man or woman, who, unable to make the insane equation of nihilistic subversion with aesthetic value, walks away in disgust from most of which is produced as “art” today. So perhaps even the cloud of the triumph of philistinism has its silver lining.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Portrait of a Canadian Storyteller

Robertson Davies: Man of Myth by Judith Skelton Grant, Toronto, Penguin Books, 1994, 788 pp.

First published twenty years ago, Judith Skelton Grant’s Robertson Davies: Man of Myth is the definitive biography of its subject. Written in the last decade of its subject’s life and with his co-operation is an exhaustive portrait of the man who is usually and deservedly thought of as our country’s most distinguished man of letters.

It is as the author of three popular and critically acclaimed trilogies of novels that Robertson Davies is most widely known. His career was a multi-faceted one, however, and Grant presents us with each facet in intricate detail. From his childhood, Davies’ earliest ambition was to be a stage actor, an ambition he actively pursued through participation in many and various amateur productions during his student days and which was ultimately rewarded with Tyrone Guthrie invited him to join the Old Vic Company after his graduation from Balliol College in Oxford with a Bachelor of Letters degree. It was during his two years with the Old Vic Company, where Australian Brenda Newbold, later Mrs. Robertson Davies, was stage manager, that Davies’ realized that his future did not lie in acting and turned his ambition towards playwriting.

It was with the intention of becoming a playwright that Davies returned to Canada with his new bride in 1940 and over the course of his life he did write, direct, and produce many plays. To pay the bills, he began writing columns for his father’s newspapers, the Kingston Whig-Standard and the Peterborough Examiner, under the pen-name Samuel Marchbanks. He created this nom de plume by combining the first name of his great-grandfather with the maiden name of his great-grandmother. Under this name, Davies’ wrote the column which ostensibly dealt with literary, artistic, and other cultural criticism, as a witty and erudite, eccentric curmudgeon. The column became very popular and during the years Davies’ wrote it the journalistic facet of his career expanded as he became literary editor of Saturday Night and then the editor of the Peterborough Examiner.

Davies continued to edit his father’s newspaper until 1962 when he took on a new and more illustrious position as Master of the newly founded Massey College at the University of Toronto. During his time as editor, however, he had also written his first trilogy, the Salterton trilogy. He had been writing plays all along but his efforts had not met with the response he was looking for, either in Canada or abroad, and he decided to try his hand at a new genre. He drew inspiration from his stage experience for the first novel, which is the story of an amateur production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and from his experience as an editor for the second novel, which tells of the consequences than ensue when a man submits a false engagement announcement to the newspaper in a malicious effort to embarrass both the editor and the couple named. The trilogy is named after Salterton, the city in which the first two novels and much of the third are set. Salterton is a fictional depiction of Kingston, to which Davies’ family had moved after living in the villages of Thamesville and Renfrew, and where Davies’ had studied at Queens College after graduating from “Canada’s Eton”, the Upper Canada College (1) and before applying to Balliol. Each of these places and institutions makes its way into Davies’ novels in one form or another – Thamesville becomes the “Deptford” of his second trilogy, Renfrew becomes the “Blairlogie” of the third trilogy, while Upper Canada College becomes the Colborne College that appears in the second and third trilogies.

Although the first trilogy sold well and firmly established his reputation as a novelist it was the second trilogy that won him international acclaim. Davies had a recurring vision in which two boys on a village street in winter, one throwing a snowball that contained a rock. In his novel Fifth Business, this vision becomes an incident in which the snowball hits a pregnant woman instead of the intended target, and the narrator of the novel, the boy who the snowball missed, traces the impact of the snowball through his own life and the lives of the woman hit, her son, and the boy who threw the snowball. Further consequences of the incident are discussed in the second novel, in which the son of the boy who threw the snowball undergoes Jungian psychoanalysis in Switzerland, and the third in which the son of the woman hit by the snowball, tells the story of his life and how he became the master magician Magnus Eisengrim.

Davies’ wrote this trilogy while he was Master of Massey College, a position for which he was personally chosen by Vincent Massey, life-long Canadian diplomat, the first Canadian born Governor General, and heir of the family that had made its fortune in farm equipment. Massey and Davies, both of whom had been to Balliol, had similar ideas as to what the residential graduate college should be. Davies was a popular Master and remained in the position for twenty years until his retirement in 1982 after which he wrote his third and final trilogy, in which Massey College appears as “The College of St. John and the Holy Ghost”, or “Spook.”

It was during the years that Davies wrote this third trilogy that Grant researched and wrote his biography and this influenced both the trilogy and the biography. In Grant’s biography, the Salterton and Deptford trilogies have a chapter each, whereas the Cornish trilogy is given one chapter per novel. Meanwhile in the trilogy itself, the character of Simon Darcourt is engaged in writing the biography of the late Francis Cornish.

In her biography of Davies, Grant explores the man Robertson Davies, and the influences that made him who he was. His father, Rupert, had left his native Wales while a young man, and came to Canada where, starting out as a typesetter, he became a successful newspaper publisher and editor, and eventually a Senator. In Canada, Rupert met and married Florence McKay, a descendant of United Empire Loyalists, ultimately of Scottish and Dutch extraction. Grant gives a detailed account of both family lines, including the ancestral stories that later made their way into Davies’ writings, as well as the strained relationship between Rupert and Florence, and later between mother and son, that was to have a huge impact upon his writing – think of the relationships Solly Bridgewater and Dunstan Ramsay have with their mothers in the first two trilogies.

Rupert and Florence, who met in a Congregationalist Church and later brought their family up in the Presbyterian Church, practiced a severe, Puritan, form of Calvinism. Robertson rejected this form of theology and was confirmed in the Anglican Church at Christ Church Cathedral by the Bishop of Oxford while he was a student at Balliol. The Calvinism he rejected while acknowledging its lingering influence, the traditions and ceremonies of Anglicanism, and his own idiosyncratic and somewhat heterodox theology, can be found throughout his writings, both under his own name and as Samuel Marchbanks.

He was not a very political person, especially in the partisan sense of the word. At various times Grant describes him as a “small l liberal” and a “small c conservative” and he came from perhaps the last generation in which it would make sense to apply both of these terms to the same person simultaneously. His father, who was appointed to the Senate upon the recommendation of Mackenzie King, was a Liberal, the party for which Davies usually voted. His liberalism can be seen in the anarchistic individualism on display in his writings as Samuel Marchbanks, and his conservatism in his love for ceremony, ritual, and tradition, as well as his contempt for the cult of the “common man”. Through his father’s press credentials he was able to be present at the coronation of King George VI, which took place in his Oxford days, and Grant quotes him as having written in the Whig-Standard that the event made him “a Monarchist for life” commenting that “He is still a monarchist, valuing the Crown as a tradition and symbol of permanency that stands above temporary governments”, an admirably conservative sentiment.

Davies was a man of broad classical and humanist learning, with immense knowledge of many arcane subjects. This provided him with ample resources, in addition to his own experiences and those of his forebears, to draw upon as a writer. It also formed his view of what constituted civilization that it was something more than what laws and markets provide. Grant quotes him as saying “Only greatness in the things of the mind and spirit brings lasting reputation” and describes both his belief in Canada’s artistic and cultural potential and his frustration that so few of his countrymen shared his vision. Nevertheless, he continued to do what he could both as writer and educator, to contribute to the artistic and cultural life of Canada and we are a richer nation for it.

Robertson Davies’ novels are well worth reading and for those who wish to know more about the man behind them, there is no better place to turn than to Judith Skelton Grant’s marvelous biography.

(1) The principal of Upper Canada College at the time was W. L. Grant, the son-in-law of another famous Canadian educator George Parkin, brother-in-law of Vincent Massey whom Davies would come to regard as a kind of spiritual father, father of conservative philosopher George Grant and grandfather of liberal philosopher Michael Ignatieff. I do not know if Judith Skelton Grant is related to this family, but she writes of W. L. Grant as being very influential on and supportive of Davies. She also records a dance to which Davies took Grant's daughter Allison (who would become Michael Ignatieff's mother) as his date.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

A Cave of Our Own Construction

Addicted to Distraction by Bruce G. Charlton, Buckingham, United Kingdom, University of Buckingham Press, 2014, 163 pp., £10

Among traditionalists, reactionaries, paleoconservatives and the rest of us who comprise what is usually called “the Right” it is customary, when the mass media is discussed, to maintain that it is heavily biased towards the Left. Our progressive opponents deride this claim, pointing to the television news channels, radio talk shows, and printed publications that offer an editorial perspective that is widely thought of as being “conservative”. In response we might point out that such media outlets offer a “neoconservative” perspective which is actually a form of liberalism – it is all about how democracy, capitalism and individualism are the hope and salvation of mankind, to be brought to the uttermost corners of the world by the force of the American military if necessary. A defense of actual conservative ideas and institutions, from a perspective that is critical of the modern assumptions that neoconservatives shared with the progressive and liberal Left is avoided by the media like the plague.

Recently, however, I encountered the following sentence which offers a rather different assessment of the relationship between the mass media and the Left:

Leftism is the Mass Media, and the Mass Media is Leftism, inseparable, the same thing: this of course means that Leftism (in its modern form) depends utterly on the continuation of the Mass Media (depends on itself!), stands or falls with the Mass Media. (bold indicates italics in original)

This remarkable sentence can be found on pages 26 to 27 of a fascinating new book entitled Addicted to Distraction. The author is Dr. Bruce G. Charlton, a physician and psychiatrist who is Professor of Theoretical Medicine at the University of Buckingham. He is also a Christian and a prominent blogger in that right-wing sector of the internet known as the “Orthosphere” in the broader sense of the term that includes not just the website by that name but various others with a similar right-wing, traditionalist Christian perspective, including Dr. Charlton’s own site, where the term was originally coined, and this one.

The quoted sentence would elicit from many, probably most, people the response that it confuses the distinction between that which is neutral – in this case the technology of large-scale communication – and that which is charged – the thoughts and words conveyed by that technology. This is a conditioned response, one which is made without much if any thought being put into it, and it raises the question of how valid this distinction actually is. Canada’s greatest conservative philosopher, George Grant, did not think it was valid and devoted much of his thought and writing to demonstrating that technology was anything but neutral. It was another Canadian of Grant’s generation, a pioneer in the study of media communications named Marshal McLuhan, who famously remarked that “the medium is the message” and it is from the launching pad of this insight of McLuhan’s that Dr. Charlton’s own reflections on the nature of the mass media take off.

This does not mean that the mass media that he equates with the Left consists merely of communications technology. Dr. Charlton distinguishes between two senses of the expression mass media. There is the technology itself – print, radio, television, internet, etc – and then there is the system into which all this technology is integrated, the “unified network of communications”. It is the latter which is the focus of his discussion.

Another important distinction he makes is between the Old Left and the New Left. The Old Marxist Left of the trades unions and socialist parties was revolutionary but it was also utopian and visionary. It sought to overthrow the institutions of the existing order but with the idea that it would replace them with a new order that would be a Paradise on earth. The New Left is the Left of “Permanent Revolution” or “perpetual opposition”, which Dr. Charlton describes as the idea that:

The true revolutionary – such as the avant garde artist or radical intellectual – was intrinsically subversive; and would always be in revolt against whoever was in power, changing sides as necessary to achieve this. (p. 18)

If the New Left is always seeking to subvert, oppose, and to overthrow then its agenda is entirely negative. It seeks nothing but destruction and is essentially nihilistic. This, Dr. Charlton argues, is also the essential nature of the mass media.

He describes several specific techniques by which the mass media subverts the good. For example, when Anders Brevik killed all those kids in Norway a couple of years ago the media initially reported that he was a right-wing Christian. Brevik was not a professing Christian at all but the initial reports that contained the falsehood created a far deeper impression than subsequent retractions. Dr. Charlton calls this “first strike framing”, a technique whereby the media subverts something positive – in this case Christianity – by creating a false association in the first reports of an atrocity from which the lasting visceral response is derived. (pp. 71-75)

The subversiveness of the mass media does not lie merely in certain techniques, however. Nor is it to be found in some cabal of conspirators who pull the levels of the media behind the scenes, Dr. Charlton insists, but in the very nature of the system itself. The mass media, as he describes it, is an integrated network of communications technology that has so permeated society that it envelops and surrounds us. It generates a pseudoreality of image and opinion that distracts us from the real world in which we live. The images and opinions it generates are subject to change at any moment and may completely contradict those that preceded them but are presented to us as absolute truths disagreement with which renders a person a dangerous, crazy, outsider. This combination of short-term absolutism with long-term complete relativism, Dr. Charlton labels “Opinionated Relativism”. By distracting us from the real world, common sense, and personal experience and bombarding us with dogmatic but ever-changing opinions and images it subverts our confidence in that which is true, good, and beautiful. His characterization of it as evil and demonic seems entirely appropriate.

So what do we do about it?

While Dr. Charlton does not proffer a plan as to how the mass media system can be defeated as a whole – he indicates that the system will have to collapse on its own before there can be a large scale return to reality – he offers some helpful suggestions as to how we can deal with it as individuals. We are addicted to the false reality the mass media presents us, he argues, and rather than try to wean ourselves off of it, for those who think that they can pick out what is good from the mass media are the most deceived and deluded, we ought to quit it cold turkey. While the process of “detoxing”, by which we stop seeking out, paying attention to, and believing the media and turn our attention back towards reality is one that will involve failure – for we are immersed in the media in societies where everybody is an addict – there is hope, he says, at least for the Christian, because reality is superior to the falsehoods of the media.

Addicted to Distraction is a short book but one that is packed with insights the surface of which I have only begun to scratch in this review. I heartily recommend it.