Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Auster on modernity

Lawrence Auster is in good form here in discussing modernity, modernism and traditionalism:

To repeat and sum up: modernity consists of the increasing articulation of society in terms of the individual, the equal freedom of all individuals, and the increasingly efficient and embracing technical organization of life to meet every human need. Modernism consists in making modern society, organized according to these principles, our principal authority and guide in spiritual, philosophical, and cultural matters.

Traditionalism consists of consciously resisting and counterbalancing these desolating trends.

So, for example, a priest who makes the eternal message of the Gospels and salvation the main thing, and not the attitudes and concerns of modern society, is a traditionalist. A country that takes its historic nationhood seriously and makes an effort to conform such values as non-discrimination and economic efficiency to it, rather than conforming it to those values, is traditionalist. A movie maker who situates his characters within an existing society and a transcendent moral framework, rather than portraying his characters as disconnected bundles of desire and aggression in a Brownian universe of clashing egos, is a traditionalist.

Traditionalism is a counter-movement to what appear to be overwhelming and irresistible forces. But since those forces, notwithstanding their spectacular achievements, are leading progressively to the dissolution of all human connection to the past and to the transcendent, and indeed to the dissolution of the human itself, they cannot be as irresistible as they seem. That is the faith and the conviction on which traditionalism is based.


  1. I have been reading Oz Conservative for a few weeks now, and waiting for right time to comment; and I guess this is it.

    The stream of "traditionalism" has been very strong in Canada (my country) over the centuries. It even has a name: Red Toryism. This was essentially a pre-capitalist philosophy of the natural leadership class wisely directing the nation for the common good.

    The "Red" aspect reflects the essentially communitarian and egalitarian nature of Canada. Red Tories supported efforts to raise the condition of the people, which in the 20th century meant support of unions, income redistribution and so forth.

    The Red Tory exemplar in Canada was George Grant (1918-1988), one of Canada's greatest philosphers. He was certainly our greatest critic of modernity (through Nietzche), and wrote the quintessential Canadian nationalist work Lament for a Nation (1963). This was a polemic directed against Canada's absorption into continental industrial system centred on American capital.

    The one thing I have not been able to understand is the Australian/American traditionalist aversion to non-European immigration. To a Canadian, this seemed like a jarring note in a body of ideas that one might otherwise be very sympathetic too.

    It says in your quote:

    A country that takes its historic nationhood seriously and makes an effort to conform such values as non-discrimination and economic efficiency to it, rather than conforming it to those values, is traditionalist.

    I guess this is where the historical experience of Canada is just different than others in the West. Our "tradition" includes what you might call non-discrimination. Democracy, responsible government, an entire country from sea to sea was achieved by two cultures, French and English, working together in the 19th century. Before that both French and English were allied with various aboriginal groups (to control the fur trade), who were essentially equal in terms of martial prowess.

    So, in Canada at least, non-European immigration does conform to the traditional idea or experience of the country, in that various cultural groups (even non-Western ones), work together for the common good. Modern ideas of tolerance or non-discrimination are not add-ons to the Canadian experience, but have roots that go back to its very formation.

    Of course, there are always tensions with settlement and adaption; but our cities are peaceful, and the public accepts high levels of immigration. The soul-searching you see in Europe, the US or Australia just does not exist here.

    (Note that the one place in Canada where there is some concern about newcomers is the French-speaking province of Quebec, who are worried about immigrants adapting themselves to the dominant English North American culture, rather than living and working in French. But the tension here is not that immigrants won't adapt to Canada, but that they adapt to the majority English culture).

  2. The Canadian commenter is making two mistakes, one historical, one logical.

    First, the non-discriminatory equality he finds in historic Canada in reality dates from the Trudeau period when Canada re-made itself (or rather was re-made by a liberal elite) into an officially bi-cultural country and altered its national symbols, national song, flag, its very definition of itself. Prior to that time, Canada was and saw itself as a British, English-speaking country with a significant French-speaking minority. There was the majority culture, and there was the minority culture. They were not equal.

    Must reading on this subject is Peter Brimelow's "The Patriot Game."

    Second, the commenter is reasoning from the non-discriminatory equality between Anglo-phone and Franco-phone to a radically different situation in which every nation and culture on earth Are admitted into Canada. His thinking goes like this: Canada equally includes the English- and the French- speaking cultures; therefore Canada should equally include every culture on earth, including the cultures/religions that are the most incompatible with a Western society, Islam. And he calls this abstract, unreal, liberal logic traditionalism!

    One could just as easily, and with more logical consistency, say: Canada is a Western country that includes the Anglo culture and the French culture. Since these two cultures define Canada, we are going to keep it that way, and not let in South Americans and Chinese and Muslims.

    That would be a traditionalist way of thinking about it, a way of thinking based on the actual concrete composition of Canada rather than on abstract syllogisms. With syllogistic thinking, one takes just one abstract aspect of a situation (e.g. Canada is based on "non-discrimination" between different cultures) and turn that abstract formula into the organizing principle of the society.

  3. Lawrence, in what you say, there are a few good points; but, with due respect, most of it is grossly distorted.

    Canada has been officially bicultural for over 300 years, depending on how you define bicultural. In 1774, the colonial authorities guaranteed French-speaking Quebeckers the right to hold political office as Catholics, the right to French civil law (criminal law remained English common law), and the right to collect taxes to support Catholic clergy (including the Jesuits).

    Then starting in the 1830's, French and English politicians in Upper and Lower Canada (Ontario and Quebec), co-operated to gradually push through a democratic system of government in the face of British intransigence. Both French and English were used as the language of politics as a matter of course. When British officials tried to outlaw French, the English politicians refused to co-operate, and French remained a part of public life.

    This English-French relationship culminated in 1867 with Confederation. The constitution of 1867 states that both French and English are the official languages of Parliament and of the federal courts and records. And just like previously, the main political parties continued to be made up of French and English politicians. Perhaps Canada's greatest pre-war politician was the first French Prime Minister Sir Wilfred Laurier, who actually settled the Canadian West with immigrants from Ukraine and Russia.

    You do make a valid point that Trudeau was a liberal in the sense used on this blog. His version of bilingualism was tailored to the individual francophone, not the collective i.e. a French-speaking Canadian could be served in French no matter where he was in the country. In the province of Quebec, in the 1970s, they took a more collective approach to protect the language. For example, advertisements by law have to be predominately French, with English text noticeably smaller (curtailing free speech). Businesses are fined if they do not comply. Trudeau would have no truck with this. Trudeau also brought in the bill of rights (the Charter of Rights and Freedoms), that lead to recent "autonomous" decisions by our Supreme Court, such as same sex marriage and the striking down of the abortion laws. George Grant, the philosopher mentioned in the first comment, called Trudeau a "slick bastard."

    Your talk about the national symbols is off the mark as well. The national flag (the Maple Leaf) was adopted by Trudeau's immediate predecesor, Pearson. The Maple Leaf is anything but a new creation. Its use as a Canadian symbol goes back to at least WWI (soldiers had it on their caps and uniforms). The colour red in the flag, is also a traditional Canadian colour since at least that time, identified by whoever was King then (George?) as symbolizing the Canadian sacrifice in WWI.

    Before the national flag, we used the Red Ensign, which had the Union Jack in the corner and a crest in the middle. But what was on this crest? It certainly wasn't uniformly British. It had the coast of arms of the English, Scotch, Irish, and French. And what about the national anthem, O Canada, is this another modern creation? Nope, it was written in 1880. Old, traditional symbols weren't jettisoned during this period, as you suggest. There was just a choice to use a different combination of the ones we already had. (Though, no offence to the British, I'm glad we don't sing God Save the Queen anymore).

    If you're getting your information from Brimelow, then he is not a reputable source. I would suggest reading John Ralston Saul's Reflections of a Siamese Twin (the Siamese Twin being the French and English -- more intesting together, than separated). Saul himself is actually a critic of some aspects of modernity as well (primarily the over-reliance on instrumental reason), though he considers himself a "humanist". Saul's most famous book is Voltaire's Bastards.

  4. Anonymous, Auster's basic argument stands. In your comments you seem to proceed from one claim (a level of acceptance of the French presence in Canada) to another more radical claim (Canadian identity being founded on non-discrimination).

    I've read a bit of Canadian history, enough to know that Canada's immigration policies followed a similar trajectory to those of Australia's.

    Australia and Canada both:

    1) Limited non-European immigration in the early 1900s.
    2) Extended the European sources of migrants after WWII.
    3) Moved toward a non-discriminatory policy from the later 1960s.

    Canada definitely had a discriminatory immigration policy for much of the twentieth century, the purpose of which was to avoid, in Prime Minister Mackenzie King's words, "a fundamental alteration in the character of our population".

  5. I'm a bilingual Canadian who has lived in both English and French Canada. Until recently, I self-identified as left-wing and belonged to the United Church of Canada, one of the bulwarks of Canadian "progressivism."

    I should be the kind of person who would agree with the first commentator. I don't. In fact, only a "doctrinaire Canadian" could have written such a piece of correct thinking. It's one thing to rewrite the present. It's quite another to rewrite the past.

    Until the 1960s, Canada identified itself as a British dominion that tolerated the French language and culture in one province, i.e., Quebec. Even there, English had a special status. It was overwhelmingly the language of big business and predominated even in areas, like Montreal, where Francophones were numerically predominant.

    Canada's policy of multiculturalism dates back only to the 1960s. Similarly, immigration policy discriminated openly against non-Europeans until 1961-62 and then unofficially so until 1967.

    Yes, Canada once had a Red Tory tradition, which emphasized collective values of nation and family, in contradistinction to modern neoconservativism, which emphasizes individual players within an increasingly international marketplace. Very little of this earlier tradition remains, except the term itself (which has been usurped by conservatives who believe in state intervention). I remember attending a lecture by George Grant and he had nothing but contempt for both strains of modern Canadian conservatism.

    So please. Be a liberal. Be a socialist. Be whatever you wish. Change the future. Change the present. But don't lie about the past. It's all that we really own today, here in Canada.

  6. To "A Canadian", an excellent comment, thank you.