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 Student Essay   (click here for information about submitting a Student Essay)
 Title

George Grant's Lament for a Nation: The Impossibility of Red Conservatism in the Modern Technological Age

 Synopsis

A review of Grant's famous conservative tract lamenting the passing of Canadian nationalism. Writing in the 1960's, Grant correctly predicts the ascendence of of the cult of neo-liberalism (read neo-conservatism) and the assesses the overwhelming, globalizing force of technology. These two forces, he argues will have rendered the nation-state powerless to manage its own affairs as exemplified in the downfall of the Diefenbaker Consevative nationalist government in the early 1960's. This essay was orginally written for an undergarduate course entitled "Thinking about Politics," taught by the Hon. Bob Rae, former Premier of Ontario.

 Author

Peter McGillivray

 Author Notes

University of Toronto, Departments of History and Political Science

 Essay - 10/18/1996

Although George Grant's Lament for a Nation appears to be a reactionary exhaust of frustration at the events surrounding the collapse of the Diefenbaker regime, its explicit observations about the state of Canadian sovereignty then are increasingly relevant today. The book is a passionate meditation on the demise of Canadian conservative, nationalist traditions and on the rise of the globalizing, homogenizing forces of modern American-style liberalism that have caused their floundering. What makes Grant's account most poignant is his insistence that the disappearance of the Canadian nation and union, although unwanted by the vast majority of people, is a necessary and inevitable thing.

Grant's main arguments deal with the forces manipulating Canada's destiny both in a North American perspective and in a global perspective. He argues that the nineteenth century ideological conflict between liberalism and conservatism still resonates today in the forces that are shaping Canada's fortune. Liberalism, the ideology of the free market and American republicanism, is putting pressure on all nations and cultures to unify and homogenize into a global, universal state. Conservatism, on the other hand, is attempting to cling on to traditional values, languages, and cultures through nationalism, tribalism, and restraint. In Grant's Canada of the 1960's, Those espousing a liberal viewpoint were generally accordant, either consciously or not, with the American continentalist ideology that is inconsistent with the survival of Canada as an independent nation. Those who see themselves as conservative and nationalist generally ally themselves with the customs and ideology of the British conservative tradition espoused by the Fathers of Confederation in an earlier era.

It is Grant's thesis that Canada as a separate, distinct,conservative society on the northern half of the continent is doomed to be cast into the melting pot of American homogenization. In Grant's view, a conservative nation is impossible to maintain in the modern Age of Progress where technology, consumption, and individual liberty are the virtues we value most. He postulates that:

"The argument that Canada, as a local culture, must disappear can, therefore, be stated in three steps. First, men everywhere move ineluctably toward membership in the universal and homogenous state. Second, Canadians live next to a society [the U.S.A.] that is at the heart of modernity. Third, nearly all Canadians think that modernity is good, so nothing essential distinguishes Canadians from Americans." (68)

What makes his lament for Canadian nationalism so ardent is that he structures all his arguments around a thinly-veiled condemnation of universalism and homogeneity. (96)

The other contributing factor to English Canada's identity shift is the eclipsing of the old conservative British empire by the new libertarian American empire. French Canadians, in a more formidable, nationalist tradtion with their strong desire not to be assimilated, are faced with a dilemma. In Grant's words:

"Those who want to maintain separateness also want the advantages of the age of progress. These two ends are not compatible, for the pursuit of one negates the pursuit of the other. Nationalism can only be asserted successfully by an identification with technological advance; but technological advance entails the disappearance of those indigenous differences that give substance to nationalism." (88)

Grant asserts that the traditional source for English Canadian nationalism in their "inherited determination not to be Americans," allowed itself to be allied "with the more defined desires of the French." (82) His personal argument for conservatism is summarized at the end of the lament when he writes:

"If one cannot be sure about the answer to the most important questions, then tradition in the best basis for the practical life." (106)

These are the foundation of Grant's arguments which still resonate today perhaps louder than ever.

Lament for a Nation is not just an antiquated political rant from the 1960's. Grant's diagnosis of the challenges facing Canada and his seemingly clairvoyant predictions about the consequences of the demise of nationalism as a political force are both timeless.


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