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From The Bookshelf: John Ralston Saul, “A Fair Country”

January 8, 2010

John Ralson Saul, A Fair CountryA couple of days ago I wrapped up my annual Christmas holiday in Victoria by flying to Vancouver and then Beijing, untroubled (since I wasn’t US-bound) by any paranoid nonsense about not using the washroom during the last hour of the flight. While in transit I finished reading one of the books I’d received for Christmas, John Ralston Saul’s A Fair Country.

I have to admit that my expectations were not high, based on my disappointing perusal several years ago of Saul’s On Equilibrium. I don’t remember that earlier work in any detail, but I certainly recall my overall impression, which was of an erudite but haphazard stew of wide-ranging quotations, facts and anecdotes that rarely coalesced into coherent and persuasive arguments.

By this standard, A Fair Country was actually a pleasant surprise, in that large parts of the book turned out to make perfect sense. Unfortunately, the part that largely fails to make sense is the one that seems to have received the most attention, namely Saul’s insistence that Canada is “a métis civilization” inhabited by “people of Aboriginal inspiration”. This is a tough argument to make about a Westminster-style democracy whose people overwhelmingly speak European languages, profess either Christianity or no religion at all, and have little or no aboriginal blood.

So what on Earth can Saul possibly mean when he asserts that Canada is a métis civilization? Well, he thinks that some fairly subtle traits that are supposedly characteristic of Canada, such as acceptance of “non-monolithic” racial and cultural diversity, are the result of aboriginal influence. In virtually every case the supporting evidence is vague and unconvincing, and the arguments sometimes drift off into weird little eddies of self-contradiction.

In a chapter on environmentalism, for example, Saul argues that aboriginal culture includes “a philosophy in which humans are a part of nature, not a species chosen to master it”, and that our inheritance of this mindset might explain why Canada has produced environmental champions like David Suzuki and Greenpeace. This is plausible, but hard to demonstrate conclusively, and in fact Saul barely tries. Worse yet, the chapter goes on to chide Canadians for partly ignoring the aboriginal perspective and, as a result, developing the tar sands in a fundamentally irresponsible “European-style, nineteenth-century, mid-Industrial Revolution way”. Gasp – those horrid Europeans, so unlike virtuous aboriginals! Continuing to harp on the tar sands, however, Saul warns that “environmentally sensitive countries such as Norway, Sweden and Denmark will classify us with the Russians as unreliable, perhaps even dangerous custodians.” It seems to have escaped his notice that environmentally sensitive Norwegians, Swedes and Danes are, well, Europeans.

However, A Fair Country improves as it moves away from aboriginal matters. In the second major section of the book Saul explains how the verbal formula “peace, welfare and good government”, which was a staple of early documents such as the Royal Proclamation of 1763, evolved in meaning over many years only to be abruptly replaced by the “peace, order and good government” of the British North America Act. It’s hardly surprising that Saul has a clear preference for welfare, which he insists on interpreting primarily as fairness, over the more authoritarian concept of order.

The book’s last major section is amusingly entitled “The Castrati.” This is an unflattering reference to Canada’s elites, whom Saul regards as insecure, dysfunctional and incapable of taking decisive action for the good of the country. They are supposedly “colonial” in their excessive deference to outside powers, particularly the United States, although in my opinion a word like “subservient” would better describe this unfortunate mindset. However, it’s hard to argue with Saul when he says that we are too passive in allowing foreigners to gain control of strategically important Canadian industries and that our leaders live in a pathetic fear of being perceived as anti-American, besides being “terrified of the sort of intelligent debate the citizenry long for”.

Saul’s diagnosis of the malady behind these symptoms, however, is less convincing. He puts primary blame on “the belief in order not welfare” and “the incapacity to recognize the aboriginal core of our civilization”, throwing in for good measure our “utilitarian economic ideology” (which seems to refer more to globalization than to capitalism per se) and the rise of Quebec separatism. I’ll give him the last two, but welfare in its various senses has an enormous role in our public discourse and I simply don’t believe that the core of our civilization is aboriginal at all. If we want a stronger, more self-confident Canada that stands taller in the world and expects better of its leadership, we might do better to seek our inspiration in precisely those European traditions and habits of thought that Saul seems so strangely desperate to repudiate. Perhaps the Castrati ought to read more Nietzsche.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. corsullivan permalink*
    January 20, 2010 10:31 am


    Responding to your last post below…

    I haven’t read much of Karl Popper’s work – but as I understand it, he was providing a description of how he thought science ought to be done. Some critiques of Popper seem to get hung up on the fact that the way science is done by fallible humans can never live up to Popperian ideals of empiricism and objectivity, but I’m sure Popper would have acknowledged this. The point, he would probably have said, is to get as close as possible.

    The more important criticisms of Popper, to my mind, revolve around his insistence that experiments and observations can falsify hypotheses but never confirm them. In his formulation, a strong hypothesis was simply one that survived all attempts at falsification. At least some scientists, including me, find this asymmetry unconvincing – but to go into the issue would require a long essay in itself.

    I approve of long essays on the nature of science, and I wish more practising scientists would take that kind of thing seriously. Even hard-nosed empiricists benefit from stopping now and then to think about what they’re really doing, and what it all means in the grand scheme of things.

    To a large extent, mathematics and science are different kettles of fish. Mathematics is a discipline that really can be pursued in total ignorance of the outside world – as soon as you have a number system, you can begin to discover mathematical truths. But yes, China, India and ancient Greece all made amazing strides in the area of mathematics, and Greek learning in particular was inherited and developed further by the Arabs (“algebra” and “algorithm” both come from Arabic words). I believe the mathematical zero was actually an Indian concept that the Arabs also picked up, but it did indeed arrive in Europe from their direction.

  2. reneethewriter permalink
    January 17, 2010 9:40 pm

    Thank you for reading my discursive comment – much appreciated. One quibble, re “scientific method” – wasn’t that more a Chinese/Arabic process, fluid, evolving? Although as soon as I write this, I feel, yup, queasy – probably dangerous and inaccurate to ascribe to historic processes, to ideas and their evolution, fixed/stable geographic/ethnocultural/national identities or provenance?

    • corsullivan permalink*
      January 18, 2010 9:22 am

      Some ideas evolve mostly within individual nations (and may eventually be disseminated), while others evolve as part of a dialogue among different nations. I don’t think investigating the provenance of an idea inevitably leads us into either danger or inaccuracy, as long as we’re aware of the potential complexities.

      There was certainly a lot of detailed knowledge of the natural world floating around in ancient and Mediaeval civilisations, including China and the Arab world, but I would argue that the scientific method in its modern form evolved in Europe (and to some extent North America, although I believe the philosophical epicentre was always European) from the around the 17th century to the 20th. Early in this period, the idea of systematically looking for evidence in the natural world decisively supplanted older approaches that relied more on the weight of previous authorities (all the way back to Aristotle), on pure thought unencumbered by data, and even on scripture. Later on, the philosopher Karl Popper became famous for codifying the formal process of proposing hypotheses and then testing them by trying to falsify them with empirical data, which is what the term “scientific method” usually refers to today.

      Most scientists and philosophers of science would probably now say that Popper’s specific formulation was a bit rigid and simplistic, but this doesn’t touch on the basic concept of using verifiable evidence as the ultimate arbiter of claims about nature. This approach to science really did evolve within Europe, while scholars elsewhere were still trying to understand nature at least partly on the basis of what the ancients had said, what was morally or aesthetically pleasing, and/or what made intuitive sense.

      • reneethewriter permalink
        January 19, 2010 12:08 pm

        Fascinating…i need to learn more about The Scientific Method – thanks for the reply.

        Sorry to quibble again, but on Karl Popper – he’s quite controversial isn’t he? Don’t many in the World of Science kinda deride him for “empricism” (?sp) gone amuck,but maybe I’ve got it all wrong?

        I can’t stress how much I don’t know (certainly i stopped “doing chem/physics/geometry” at about Grade 11 – my dear, my teachers, i think, relieved to be rid of me) – just a mind filled with too much NewYorkRreview of Books stuff – long essays on the nature of “Science.”

        Also a long ago essay from my favorite Canadian scientist, Maggie Bentson, and her paper, on “Rational Scientific Man.” (eek!).

        And re Arabic/Chinese “roots”for “science” I guess I was thinking of the role of mathematics/algebra (the notion of “zero” was Arabic, right?) in Science, and then that got me thinking of all that literature out there about the interstices (?sp) between the greeks and the arabs around the time of Aristotle and how the greek and the arab worlds were interwined. As well as the Chinese.

  3. reneethewriter permalink
    January 10, 2010 12:03 pm

    Hi Cor and Happy New Year,

    Sorry to have missed you in Vancouver (!), and thanks for the interesting post on this book – didn’t our own greenjenny write about this one as well a while back? I’ve been reading A Fair Country, on and off, since it first came out; can’t seem to read a book straight through these days because I’m still held captive by Roberto Bolano’s 2666.

    I appreciate your review and analysis. Not sure, however, that I’m on the same page with you re order, colonialism, or aboriginal roots. (er, see Roberto Bolano on all of that plus Mexico!) Would it surprise you at all that it’s precisely those views of Ralston Saul that I find most compelling?

    Only fair to lay that out, and then wheedle in with, so, which “European traditions and habits of thought” do you think worked/work well for Canada? I’m kinda in love with the common law and The Rule of Law but funnily enough, don’t think of those “traditions/processes/frames (gasp!)” as “European.” And truth be told, pace to all my United Churchy upbringing, I’m secretly a high church Anglican at heart and well, rather think spinsters riding their bycicles in the mist down country lanes (misquote of Orwell), is splendid. Hah! Give me V.S. Naipal over “world poetry” anyday.

    What the heck is “E”(e)ur/pean” anyway? You mean like Belgrade? Austria? Like Austro-Hungarian? Like Albanian? like Swedish/Finnish – whoa, big difference. I’m contemplating a series of prose poems on the way we in the world use the giant E for european, almost always as a kind of code for The Best, The Most Cultured, top drawer, skilled, Olde Worlde; you know, like local shops and services, from cabinet makers to hair stylists, use the word; actually, especially women’s hair salons and spas, the way their services and products, always advertise the merit of these things with that capital E.

    Did I mention a while back that in my haphazard way (er, Bolano, again, is the excuse – my brain can hold only his work and no others) I’m reading about “order v welfare, colonialsim, and aboriginals plus other Others (irony), in books such as Patricia Roy’s (UVIC historian) – A White Man’s Province and The Triumph of Citizenship; also, George Melynk’s Moon Over Batoche; also a long literary essay by George Elliot Clarke (sp?) just excoriating the idea of Canada as a “benign, non colonial place.”

    Anyway, as always, look forward to your patient disquistion (word?) over my ramblings. Your Queen of Parse.

    • corsullivan permalink*
      January 15, 2010 7:32 am

      Thanks as ever for the detailed parsing. For the record, I wouldn’t look for the pinnacle of European culture in a women’s hair salon, and I agree with you about the potential pitfalls of lumping Serbs, Finns, Greeks, etc. under the common label “European”. Of course there are lots of differences among the various European peoples, which is one reason I suspect the EU is basically a misguided project – but that’s another story. Equally, however, it’s important not to lose sight of the commonalities. Those many-splendoured European nations did in a very real sense “grow up” together, first as the core of the Roman Empire and then, more comprehensively, as “Christendom”.

      By “European traditions and habits of thought” I meant ideas and practices that were invented and developed within that community of interrelated peoples as they moved through history. A list of the big ones might include Platonic philosophy, the scientific method, Catholicism, Protestantism, atheism, the Gothic aesthetic, capitalism, socialism, fascism and anarchism – along with lots of others. Not all of these ideas are particularly good ones, and not all of them are exclusive to Europe, but I would argue that they were all developed to a far greater degree in Europe than elsewhere. Some of them, of course, have since been adopted almost universally. But if we’re looking for the wellsprings of the ideas that underpin Canadian society, we need to look in Europe’s intellectual history.

      I wouldn’t rush to defend the concept of Canada as a “benign, non-colonial place”. Canada’s benignity (I think that’s a real word) is a matter of perspective, and of course Canada does have colonial roots. However, colonialism in Canada was based on a massive transfer of people, not on domination of an indigenous population by a few representatives of a foreign power (the situation in India and Malaysia, for example). This is why I believe it’s more accurate to think of Canada as an overseas extension of Europe, for better or worse, than as a country of “aboriginal inspiration” that somehow threw off colonial European shackles.

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