Revanchist Review

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Charmed by Our New GG - But What Did She Really Say?

The popular Canadian press fell over itself with adulation for Michaelle Jean after her installation speech on Tuesday. "Her promise is the promise of what we almost are, of what we want to be. She is the becoming Canada" wrote John Ibbitson breathlessly and somewhat incoherently on the front page of the Globe and Mail. The National Post's resident libertarian Andrew Coyne threw himself and not just his coat onto the Ottawa curbside with this paean - "Madam, I surrender. Let us forget past criticisms. Let us put aside old quarrels. Your speech has collapsed my defences. You are my Commander-in-Chief."

Now I admit I did not see the speech read nor did I see any film footage of the day's events but I did read and re-read the text of her speech. I was spared the emotionalism that appeared to have been carefully choreographed into the program (as it always is in ceremonial events such as this). Paul Martin may have regretted the gospel music bit as by most accounts he looked a bit awkward and chagrined as he tried to boogie along with Michaelle in accompaniment to the music. Pity poor Stephen Harper if it had been he who was called upon to show some rhythm, but I am sure nothing more will written of Mr. Martin's discomfort.

Much was made by these journalists about her theme of freedom. She said, "I know how precious that freedom is, I know what a legacy it is for every child, for every citizen of this country. I whose ancestors were slaves, who was born into a civilization long reduced to whispers and cries of pain, know something about its price, and I know too what a treasure it is for us all...the freedom that is ours unites us all."

Now who can argue that Canadians are blessed with freedom, particularly in contrast to the conditions in Ms Jean's native country of Haiti. But what is the nature of the freedom which Ms. Jean is holding up as the great unifying force for all Canadians? I don't know how to parse coherent meaning out of her words - "Freedom has marked our history and our territory, it has marked our summer breezes and our howling winter winds. It has helped create the spirit of adventure that I love above all in this country, this country where each and every one of us is able to participate fully in the ongoing task of building it."

It appears she is praising Canada's growing reputation for elevating individual freedoms, likening them to a freedom she observes in nature that allows the summer breezes and winter winds to do what they do without apparent constraint. It is a freedom that she believes nurtures a spirit of adventure for which she seems to think Canadians are famous.

I was prepared to give her the benefit of the doubt, that she was merely trying to be inspirational - then I read this. "More than four centuries ago that spirit of adventure drove women and men to cross the ocean and discover a new world elsewhere. That spirit also led the First Nations to pass on to those new settlers the essence of this generous land. And it encourages people from all over the world to share in our prospects or to take refuge here and make a fresh start, safe from tyranny and violence. It inspires our artists, our scientists, our peacekeepers and our institutions as they work to spread our know-how and our message of hope. Today, we are the sum of those adventures."

These are the words of a muddled mind. Not satisfied with attributing to Canadians a spirit of adventure born of a natural abundance of individual freedom, she says this same freedom led the First Nations to do something I don't undertand in either temporal or metaphysical terms - that is to "pass on the essence of this generous land". Now if the First Nations at the time of discovery did this under the inspiration of freedom and a spirit of adventure, why is it we spend tens of millions of dollars every year paying them and their lawyers a lot of money to figure out how they can get it back from us.

By this point in her speech she had hit many hot buttons for the feel good fans and observers - she was proud to have been chosen, she hoped her story could inspire hope in others, she called Canadians adventuresome and freedom lovers, she invoked praise for naturalism and referred to a sort of wisdom on the part of First Nations folk.

But she was only warming up it seems. She went on to place her appointment neatly at the cusp of "a turning point in our civilization, and more than ever before our future rests on those who are forcing us to imagine the world of tomorrow." Who are these people I ask myself - the people who "are etching upon our memories the breadth of our aspirations." Would I recognize those people if I saw them? Would I be aware that they are fine tuning my memories? Like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, I can only wonder - who are those guys?

Oh yes those folks (I assume they are the same folks) are also "holding up a mirror that reveals a gap between what we are and what we aspire to be." Now this must be some sort of CBC creative writing code. When I hold up a mirror it tells me what I look like at this moment, and with every passing day cruelly reminds me of how little I resemble who I used to be. It tells me nothing about what I might look like in the future if my aspirations were to be fulfilled. Unless I was just about to have a botox injection or some hair plugs inserted.

And then it hit me. Ms. Jean is a firm believer in individual freedoms, and in a society where if individual freedoms are maximized, society will be free. Her Montesquieu quote sealed the deal for me as she interprets the Englightenment philosopher to declare that individual freedom is the paramount freedom in any civilized state.

And if she believes that, then she believes that today's heroes, the holders of the mirror - are the Liberal politicians and the activist judiciary who increasingly and without any constraints, find ways to elevate individual freedoms to the status of rights, thus forever enshrining them into the fabric of Canadian society.

As I read Ms. Jean's speech I caught a glimpse into the modern liberal mind, the ascendant mind of the Canadian elites, more Rousseau than Montesquieu I suspect. Flowery references to freedom and adventure and the noble savage and a confidence that if only everybody could be nicer and more respectful toward one another, what a wonderful world this would be.

A liberal such as Ms. Jean is star-struck by this ascendancy of individual freedoms and as such is blinded to the absence of justice in this riot of freedom.

I long for the day when a GG or a Prime Minister delivers a speech where he or she quotes Irving Babbitt instead of Montesquieu. "Civilization must be willed first of all by the individual in his own heart...barbarism is always as close to the most refined civilization as rust is to the most highly polished steel" said Babbitt.

Babbitt believed that what a civilized society needed was justice not freedom. At the individual level justice "limits desires that are in themselves insatiable and imposes upon them the law of measure".

The freedom-based society advocated by Ms. Jean and her appointer Mr. Martin, is one where the measures to be imposed on individual freedom are few.

She will be, because of her position, her physical attractiveness and her poised delivery (even if it is of incoherent thoughts) a powerful advocate of this new Canada. Note that she is proud not humbled by her appointment and she sees her elevation to this position as an opportunity to effect even more change, all in the name of freedom and self-fulfilment for each individual Canadian.

Sober reflection might lead one to ask if such a society as this is the one described by contemporary philosopher David B. Hart when he writes:

"A society that can no longer conceive of freedom as anything more than limitless choice and uninhibited self-expression must of necessity progressively conclude that all things should be permitted, that all values are relative, that desire fashions its own truth, that there is no such thing as nature, that we are our own creatures. The ultimate consequence of a purely libertarian political ethos, if it could be taken to its logical end, would be a world in which we would no longer even remember that we should want to choose good, as we would have learned to deem things good solely because they have been chosen."

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Rediscovering Flannery O'Connor

We are now living in an age which doubts both fact and value. It is the life of this age that we wish to see and judge. Flannery O'Connor - In the Devil's Territory

As proof of the proposition that education is wasted on the young, it took me almost 35 years to rediscover the works of Flannery O'Connor. My wife Nancy reminded me that in our last year at university we took a Modern American Literature course together. O'Connor was one of the authors we studied though I confess to remembering very little of what I learned of her writing.

Our tenured professor's idea of a stirring lecture was to address us for about 5 minutes then turn on a 40 minute tape recording of an actor reading Mark Twain. I would walk out and go back to the law library to study something more interesting like the Sale of Goods Act or the principle of subrogation in Insurance Law. That I was able to earn a better mark in the final than Nancy did (despite missing 75% of the lectures) serves as both a tribute to her fine note taking and as proof of the inherent unfairness of life.

What I missed 35 years ago was an exposure to a remarkable mind - though I have serious doubts that this dull and lazy professor would have been much help to me in unearthing the richness of thought and belief that lies beneath her writing.

A reference to her understanding of the Christian concept of grace, delivered in a recent Sunday morning homily, led me back to her writing.I knew she was from the southern U.S., I associated her writing with that of Carson McCullers and Nathaniel West, but beyond that I knew little of her work.

O'Connor's writing is, on one level bleak and dark. Her short story, "A Good Man is Hard to Find" centres around a family of 6 that through bad fortune stumbles upon an escaped convict and his henchmen. There is no happy ending in the conventional sense of the fictional genre.

But one has to remember that O'Connor's writing is based on her belief that "for the last few centuries we have lived in a world which has been increasingly convinced that the reaches of reality end very close to the surface, that there is no ultimate divine source, that the things of the world do not pour forth from God in a double way or at all. For nearly two centuries the popular spirit of each succeeding generation has tended more and more to the view that the mysteries of life will eventually fall before the mind of man."

O'Connor suffered from the disease of lupus and died in 1964 at the age of 39 from complications arising from the disease. In 1956 she wrote, " I have never been anywhere but sick. In a sense sickness is a place, more instructive than a long trip to Europe, and it's always a place where there's no company, where nobody can follow. Sickness before death is a very appropriate thing and I think those who don't have it miss one of God's mercies".

A mind and spirit that could think that way and write as beautifully as she did, is one worth learning more about.