The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Lessons of Poetry: Part One - The Crisis of Modern Education

In Mazo de la Roche’s Morning at Jalna, set in 1863, the second generation of the Whiteoaks are still children. Philip, the future heir of the estate and the father of the family’s entire third generation is still a baby, but his older siblings Augusta, the future Lady Buckley, and Nicholas and Ernest, familiar as the old uncles in most of the volumes of the series, are all in their formative years. Plans are made for them to be educated in boarding schools in England but in the mean time they have tutors at Jalna. At the start of the novel an Irishman named Madigan is their tutor but when, after being snared into marrying the daughter of a neighbour he jilts his bride on their honeymoon and disappears, she takes over his position. Shortly after the following ensues:

Lessons began the following morning and Mrs. Madigan declared that never in her life had she met with such ignorance. “Mr. Madigan really taught us nothing but Latin and poetry,” said Augusta.

“It’s what you call a classical education,” added Nicholas.

“And what good will such an education be to you in this country, I’d like to know?” asked Mrs. Madigan, her eyes piercing him like gimlets.

No answer is given to this question, alas, and Ernest then proves himself to be a poor advertisement for the merits of classical education by confusing the date of the year of Columbus’ discovery of America with that of the Battle of Hastings and confidently asserting Charles Lever’s authorship of the works of Shakespeare.

The best answer to those who, like Mrs. Madigan, question the good of classical education is to contrast it with that which has replaced it. Nobody could put that contrast better than the late Joseph Sobran who was fond of saying that “in one century we went from teaching Latin and Greek in high school to offering remedial English in college.” Today in North America and indeed throughout the Western world the law requires that all young people attend school up to a certain age and for most children this means attendance at a taxpayer-funded, bureaucrat-controlled institution. These institutions, which have been laboratories for progressive experimentation for decades now, have become increasingly standardized as more and more control over school curricula and activities has been taken from parents and local trustees who answer to them and placed in the hands of bureaucrats in the Ministry of Education. The more complete the standardization, the more the state schools seem to exist for no purpose other than to churn out the kind of people Nietzsche would have described as “die letzten Menschen”. Those parents who, understandably, want something better than this for their children have the limited options of home or parochial schooling, or, if they have the means, private schooling. Only in these alternatives is classical learning - or at least a near approximation - available today.

That there is a serious problem with the present educational system is widely recognized. As with any illness, however, if it is not properly diagnosed, the proposed treatment may be as bad or worse than the disease. There are many who rightly object to the way the public schools are being used to indoctrinate children with egalitarian dogma and socialize them into the new, hypersensitive, politically correct, multicultural, order who can visualize an alternative only in terms of vocational training. In other words they think that the sole or primary purpose of the schools ought to be to prepare students to get jobs and earn their living or, a variation on this theme, to get better jobs and earn a higher living than they would be able to otherwise. Important as learning a trade or profession undoubtedly is, an educational system that makes this its primary goal is no real alternative to the present system. It, as much as the other, would merely prepare its students to be unthinking cogs in an economic and social machine.

Classical educators had very different goals. They attempted to instil wisdom and not just facts, to train their students to make qualitative and not just quantitative judgements, to develop virtue and good character and not just useful sets of skills. They sought to prepare their students, not for places within a mass society that functions like a machine, but to be free subjects of their Sovereign – or free citizens of the republic if they had the misfortunate to live in a polity of that nature – by forming through its disciplines the habits of mind essential to mature, responsible, freedom. This is why the traditional subjects of a classical education are called the liberal arts. That is “liberal” in the sense of “appropriate for a freeman” not in the sense of “progressive egalitarian democrat”. These were more than just “Latin and poetry”, of course, although “Latin and poetry” can be taken as a fair way of summarizing grammar, the first and most basic of the three elements that comprise the trivium, the foundation of classical education. (1)

The idea that learning dead tongues like Latin and classical Greek and the memorization and recital of poetry ought to be central to the most basic stage of the education of the free subject will strike many today as being quaint and archaic. Let us leave an inquiry into the importance of Greek and Latin for another time, (2) and for now we will consider the importance of the lessons which poetry has for us.

The basic arguments for having children memorize poetry are that it trains the memory, builds vocabulary and syntax, and, in the words of Susan Wise Bauer, author of The Well-Trained Mind, through it students “internalize rhythmic, beautiful patterns of English language” which become “part of the student’s ‘language store,’ those wells of language that we all use every day in writing and speaking”. (3) It is also the way in which poets are made. This is true regardless of which side you come down on in the old classical v. romantic debate about whether good poetry is defined by rules and forms or springs up from inspiration within you. Learning poetry by heart is both an excellent way of mastering rules and forms and, if poetry is something that bubbles up from the heart like water from a flowing well, of filling that well in the first place. The irrefutable evidence for this assertion is the dearth of good poetry written since the advent of modern, progressive, technological education. Bilge, like that written by the late Maya Angelou, does not count.

Learning poetry is important for another reason, however, and it is this reason which I wish to emphasize. Tradition, by which I mean the wisdom distilled from the accumulated experience of past generations and passed down to us that we may benefit from it ourselves, hopefully add to it, and pass it on to future generations, is a rich heritage containing many valuable lessons. Poetry is an indispensable vessel for the transmission of this wisdom. Michael Oakeshott pointed out years ago that although the modern rationalism that now permeates all disciplines tries to reduce all knowledge to the technical and living tradition to rigid ideology, the greater part of human wisdom cannot be reduced to either the technical or ideological. In a similar vein it can be said that much wisdom can be communicated in verse which simply cannot be adequately expressed in prose. The ancients knew this which is one of the reasons why from the very beginning of the Great Tradition, its language has so often been that of poetry, from that of the epics of Homer and Virgil to that of the odes of Pindar and Horace, from that of the Psalms of David to that of the tragedies of Sophocles and Seneca.

To say that the greater, more valuable, part of human knowledge and wisdom can only be expressed in the metric language of poetry rather than the technical language of the natural sciences is to expose the vastness of the gulf that exists between the classical and the modern mind. Technically-oriented training produces minds that seem incapable of viewing goodness, truth, or beauty except through the lens of utility or usefulness, something which could hardly have been said of the kind of education that formed the minds of Shakespeare and Jonson, Donne and Herbert, Pope and Johnson, Scott, Coleridge, Southey, and Wordsworth, Hunt and Tennyson, Pound, Yeats and Eliot.

In Part Two we will consider a popular interpretation of an important historical conflict of the last century and the adverse effects this interpretation has had by creating a paradigm into which many have sought to fit subsequent conflicts and we will hold that interpretation up to be judged by the light of the lessons of the poetry of the Great Tradition.

(1) Logic and rhetoric are the other two. The quadrivium, consisting of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy, with the trivium, form the seven classical liberal arts.

(2) You can find arguments for the study of classical languages and literature in Victor Davis Hanson’s Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom (New York: Encounter Books, 2001) and E. Christian Kopff’s The Devil Knows Latin: Why America Needs the Classical Tradition (Wilmington: ISI Books, 1999). Or, if you want it in a nutshell, Dorothy L. Sayers put it this way: “I will say at once, quite firmly, that the best grounding for education is the Latin grammar. I say this, not because Latin is traditional and mediaeval, but simply because even a rudimentary knowledge of Latin cuts down the labor and pains of learning almost any other subject by at least fifty percent. It is the key to the vocabulary and structure of all the Teutonic languages, as well as to the technical vocabulary of all the sciences and to the literature of the entire Mediterranean civilization, together with all its historical documents.” That is from her “The Lost Tools of Learning” which can be read online here:


Saturday, March 14, 2015

Equality is not Justice and Justice is not Equality

Western civilization in its classical and Christian manifestations saw the Good as being the chief end for which human beings, individually and as a collective whole, were to strive. Goodness, like the closely related ideas of Truth and Beauty, was what it was in itself rather than whatever we decided it to be, and it was something we were to seek after and discover. Justice, the condition and act of being and doing what is right, was the particular aspect of Goodness that was the end for which man organized his societies politically, that is to say under law and government.

Today, Western civilization has passed through its Modern era into what is called the Postmodern age, although Übermodern would probably be a more apt term for it as it takes the traits of the modern and magnifies them to the nth degree. In these eras, Justice has been supplanted by a usurper. The name of this usurper is Equality although it sometimes tries to steal the name of Justice as well as its position. Whenever, for example, you hear “Justice” spoken of with “Social” as a modifier then you can be sure that it is this modern Pretender that is being spoken of and not true and legitimate Justice.

The superficial similarities between Equality and certain aspects of Justice are such that the differences between the two need to be made absolutely clear so as to avoid confusion. Equality is the idea that in some way or another people either are or ought to be all the same and therefore should be treated the same way. Justice is the idea that all people ought to be treated right.

It is easy to see how the confusion between the two concepts can arise. If we start with Justice’s assertion that all people ought to be treated right we can see that it is saying in a sense that all people ought to be treated the same way, that is to say, rightly. It is when we start with Equality’s assertion that all people ought to be treated the same way that a problem becomes apparent because we cannot from this assertion derive any sense of the idea that all people should be treated right. This is because treating people right and treating people the same are not identical concepts. Often to treat two people right means to treat each differently.

Allow me to illustrate what I mean by this. If you were to come across a stranger in need and welcome him into your home, treating him as if he were a member of your family, your actions would meet with widespread acclamation and you would find yourself toasted for your generosity, liberality, warm-hearted humanity, and countless other virtues. If, however, your own father, who begat you and lovingly raised you, who provided you with everything you need and gave you your start in life, were to come to you and you were to turn him aside and treat him as a perfect stranger, you would find yourself rightly condemned as a cold-blooded ingrate. In the latter instance as in the former you will have treated people the same way whether they were family members or strangers. In the second instance, however, you will not have done right by doing so.

This, by the way, is the difference between the image and the reality of Equality. Equality projects the image of treating strangers like they were family, but its reality is the treating of family members as if they were strangers.

Equality is sometimes confused with the idea that within a country the law should be the same for all people, governors and governed alike. This idea is a fundamental principle of our legal tradition. Although the principle is often spoken of as isonomy or “equality under law” there is an important difference between it and the concept of Equality. The difference is that whereas the latter asserts that all the people under the law are the same, the principle asserts that the law is the same for all people. This is not a matter of semantics. When we say that the law is the same for all people we are saying that the law is one and it is this, the unity of the law, that is the essence of the principle. To assert that it is the people, who are many, that are the same is to assert nonsense.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident”, Thomas Jefferson wrote in the preamble to the American Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal.” No greater statement of utter tripe and poppycock has ever been penned. To say that all men are created equal is to say that all men are created the same. Apart from the most peripheral and trivial of matters – that we are all born and all die, that we all have two eyes, one nose, one mouth, two arms, two legs, ten fingers, ten toes, etc. - this is patently untrue. In matters of ability, both physical and mental, personality, quality, and character human beings are like the proverbial snowflake – no two are identical. Nor would any sane person want them to be.

“We are all equal”, those who have been conditioned to accept without question the doctrine of Equality might object to my reasoning above, “in terms of our worth or value.” While that sounds very nice and may give us warm, fuzzy, tingly feelings inside, it does not bear up under scrutiny. The words “worth” and “value” are marketplace words. They can refer to the amount that you are willing to pay for something if you are a prospective buyer, or the amount that you are willing to receive in exchange for something if you are a prospective seller. They can also refer to the intrinsic qualities of the objects upon which the buyer and seller base their decision as to how much they are willing to pay or accept. (1) To say that all people are of equal value, therefore, is either to reduce all people to the level of commodities for sale in the marketplace, which is hardly in keeping with the humanitarianism professed by most egalitarians who in other contexts would most strenuously object to the objectification of people, or to assert them to be equal in terms of some intrinsic quality that is unobservable to ordinary human beings for in all observable intrinsic qualities people are definitely not equal.

That unobservable intrinsic quality is sometimes further described as being our “worth in God’s eyes”. This is tautological, providing us with no new information about what that quality might be, for if it is unobservable to the human eye, who else can see it but God? More importantly, one would be hard pressed to find evidence for this concept in authoritative divine revelation.

The God Who revealed Himself in the words of the Christian Scriptures and in the Person of Jesus Christ is a God of Justice not of Equality. While He holds men accountable to the single standard which is His Law, He holds them accountable in varying degrees in accordance with whether they have received His Law in full or only partly through their consciences. (2) He has given men One mediator through Whom grace, mercy, and salvation can be received because it is only through the cross of Jesus Christ that He can be “just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.” (3) In the Church which is His body, there is “neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female”, not because these distinctions are unimportant or are to be eliminated but because “ye are all one in Christ Jesus”. (4) As with the concept of the “one law for all” in our legal tradition, it is unity – the unity of God’s Law, His Gospel, and His Church and, of course, of the One True and Living God Himself – that is taught in those passages and verses that are sometimes misconstrued as teaching egalitarianism. The God of the Christian Scriptures created people differently, giving each their own abilities, qualities, talents, and gifts, and while He holds all people accountable to one Law, He holds each person accountable for the use made of what was given him in particular. That is the difference between Justice and Equality.

(1) The difference between these two meanings of value is what Oscar Wilde alluded to in his famous quip about the cynic who “knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”.
(2) Romans 2
(3) Romans 3:26
(4) Galatians 3:28

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Give Up Freedom To Gain Perpetual War? No Thank You!

In times of conflict, when our country is at war, we are willing to tolerate such inconveniences, burdens, and abridgements of our rights and freedoms as are deemed to be necessary for the war effort. We recognize, in such times, that the good of our whole country must come first and that we must come together in support of those who are fighting on our behalf. Implicit in all of this, however, is the understanding that war is an exceptional circumstance and that the conditions of peace in which our rights and freedoms are not so curtailed are the norm.

This long-standing traditional consensus served us well down through the ages but in the last century it was torn apart by attacks coming from two different directions. While there have always been those who have defected from their society’s collective efforts in wartime in post-World War II conflicts these have occurred on a much larger scale as part of organized movements that have been driven by ideologies such as pacifism. From this direction the tradition that tells us to come together in unity when our country is at war has come under attack. The attack from the other direction is upon the tradition that tells us to make the conditions of peace the norm and it is this attack, and especially one particular form of this attack, that I wish to discuss here.

If the tradition under attack says that the conditions of peace in which the public are not overly burdened with rules and taxes and their customary rights and freedoms are not abridged are to be the norm then to attack this tradition is to say that the conditions appropriate for wartime are to be the norm instead. One way in which this occurred in the last century was that liberalism, the ideology that started in the so-called “Enlightenment” and came to dominate the Western world in the period known as the Modern Age, changed, at least in North America, in the period between the two World Wars. Until the First World War the ideas of John Locke, in which the need to protect the rights and liberties of the individual from the state was stressed, formed the most prominent strain in liberal thought. After the war the ideas of Jeremy Bentham, in which the role of the modern democratic state as the agent and instrument of utilitarian progress was emphasized, eclipsed those of Locke. The basis of this shift in liberal thought was the reasoning on the part of many liberals who served in administrative positions in the First World War that if the government can mobilize and organize society for the sake of the war effort in times of war then surely it can mobilize and organize society to achieve a better, more just, society in times of peace. This has certainly taken the liberty out of liberalism.

Another way in which governments, addicted to wartime powers, have resisted the tradition of reverting to the conditions of peace as the norm, has been to make conflict the norm rather than peace. About the time that liberalism underwent the shift described in the preceding paragraph liberals of the older type, including American historians such as Charles Beard and Harry Elmer Barnes, began to see a tendency in the foreign policy of the liberal American Presidents of the ‘30s and ‘40s towards holding up “freedom”, “democracy”, and “peace” as ideals while constantly mobilizing the country for war on behalf of those ideals. “Perpetual war for perpetual peace” was how Beard described this policy to Barnes, who borrowed the title for a anthology of essays he edited in 1953 that took a hard, critical, look at the policies of the Roosevelt and Truman administrations. (1) Another of these older type liberals, who now called themselves libertarians, Murray N. Rothbard, observed that a “welfare-warfare state” had developed that both practiced the policy of perpetual war for perpetual peace and employed high levels of taxation, spending, and regulation for non-belligerent, progressive purposes in the Benthamite manner we have discussed. That a policy of perpetual war for perpetual peace could be used as a cover for collusion between military leaders and arms manufacturers for the sake of war profiteering on a whole new level made possible by the advent of mass production was a danger against which American President Dwight Eisenhower warned in his Farewell Address.

In the last decade and a half events have transpired that our governments have exploited to take the policy of perpetual war for perpetual peace to a whole new level.

Since the end of the Second World War the acknowledged leading country of the Western world has, for better or worse, been the United States of America. After the Cold War came to an end America and the West have become increasingly entangled in the conflicts of the Middle East. When, on September 11, 2001, the United States found herself the victim of a terrorist attack the American President at the time declared a “War on Terror”. As part of this “War on Terror” the American government created a powerful new agency, the Department of Homeland Security, charged with the task of preventing terrorist attacks on American soil, and the USA PATRIOT Act, which enhanced the investigatory powers of law enforcement and security agencies by removing such impediments as the need for a court order to search records, was rushed through Congress. Here in Canada Jean Chretien’s Liberals rushed similar legislation through Parliament in the form of the Anti-Terrorism Act of the fall of 2001.

The supporters of bills like these argued that they were necessary to remove obstructions that got in the way of security agencies and hindered them from doing their job of protecting us from the violence of terrorism. Critics and opponents of the same bills argued that these so-called obstructions were actually safeguards that protected Canadians and Americans against the misuse of government power and that to get rid of these safeguards is to abandon centuries of tradition, stretching back to before the founding of either the United States or Canada, in which these safeguards evolved to protect our rights and liberties, lives and persons. These critics were, of course, right. If we were to interpret every crisis that occurs as indicating a need for either enhanced government powers or a loosening of constitutional, prescriptive, and legal restraints on the use of government powers, very soon we would have an omnipotent state and no rights and freedoms worth speaking of.

Nobody made this case better than the late paleoconservative columnist Sam Francis, who in column after column took the administration of George W. Bush to task for such things as trying terrorism suspects before military tribunals rather than real courts, eavesdropping on confidential communications and issuing national id cards, creating the Department of Homeland Security, and putting police surveillance cameras throughout federal buildings in Washington D. C., as creating a slippery slope, whereby Americans would become accustomed to less rights, liberties, and constitutional protections and to being spied on by their government. Noting that the powers granted to the American government by the Patriot Act “are far larger than the government of any free people should have and that whatever powers this administration doesn’t use could still be used by future ones”, he pointed out that this “is how free peoples typically lose their freedom—not by a dictator like Saddam Hussein suddenly grabbing power in the night and seizing all the library records but by the slow erosion of the habits and mentality that enables freedom to exist at all” and concluded that the Bush administration was writing the last chapters in the story of American liberty.

Chretien’s Anti-Terrorism Act was no better. This Act utterly abandoned our country’s traditions of liberty and justice and allowed for people to be arrested and detained without charges, denied basic legal protections, and tried in secret without being guaranteed the opportunity to hear and respond to all the evidence against them, if the government were to determine them to be a threat to national security. This Act expired several years ago – legislation of this nature can only be enacted for five year periods – but, contrary to Kelly McParland’s claim in the National Post on February 2nd of this year, it did not expire without having been used. Among its other provisions was an amendment to the national security certificate provision of the Immigration Act that made possible an incident that was a shameful disgrace to our country.

An elderly man, who immigrated to Canada from Germany in the 1950s, who had never committed any violent crime here or elsewhere although he was the victim of terrorist attacks on the part of the followers of Rabbi Kahane, but who was repeatedly dragged through our courts for the “crime” of trying to spread the idea that accounts of atrocities committed by the other side in the Second World War still need to be revised to less resemble wartime propaganda, moved to the United States in order to escape this persecution. He married a woman there, applied for citizenship, and was arrested by United States Immigration who handed him over to our authorities, who issued a national security certificate against him. He was placed in solitary confinement and tried behind closed doors by a judge who refused to recuse himself, despite his obvious bias, and found guilty on the basis of evidence he was not allowed to hear in full, and was then sent to Germany, with our government knowing full well that the German government would arrest him upon landing, and sentence him to five years in prison for mere words that he said. This man, Ernst Zündel, was a noted admirer of a rather odious historical regime, but that did not make him a terrorist any more than Pierre Trudeau’s admiration for the even more odious Maoist regime in China, which, as was not the case with Zündel, was still around when Trudeau was doing the admiring, made the former Prime Minister a terrorist. It is certainly no excuse for treating the man with such blatant injustice.

Chretien’s Anti-Terrorism Act has, as we have noted, expired but our current Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, wishes to pass another one. Bill C-51, which has passed its second reading and been referred to the Standing Committee in the House, has several parts to it. The first, and the one most emphasized by the bill’s advocates and defenders, is the Security of Canada Information Sharing Act which tells other government agencies to share their information with those charged with protecting national security. This sounds reasonable at first, until you think about why government agencies were prevented from doing this in the first place. The fourth part is the one the bill’s detractors prefer to emphasize because it greatly enhances the powers of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). The bill’s supporters say this is to reduce threats to Canadian security, its detractors say that it is to enable CSIS to better spy on Canadians. Other parts of the bill include the Secure Air Travel Act, which authorizes the creation of a no-fly list and otherwise ensures that airport security will be even more of an obnoxious pain in the buttocks than it already is, and various amendments to the Criminal Code including one that makes mincemeat out of the traditional right to confront and challenge your accuser in court in the euphemistic name of the “protection of witnesses”.

This bill is an abomination and the vote on it should be a pretty good litmus test as to how much respect for Canadians and their traditional rights and freedoms our Members of Parliament and Senators possess. The present government was elected by supporters who were sick and tired of the way the Liberal Party was overtaxing and overregulating Canadians while showing complete disregard for our traditions, rights, and freedoms. Why then is it determined to establish a surveillance state? It is rather ironic that the most active opposition to this bill in the House seems to be coming from the party whose members can never speak about freedom without sounding like a Cold War era apparatchik spouting off about “the freedom loving people of the Soviet Union”.

The fact of the matter is that the “war on terrorism” is the ultimate form of “perpetual war for perpetual peace”. The enemy in this war is not a foreign government, with its own territory, that can be decisively conquered, defeated, or destroyed. No matter how many Cato the Elders we may find to punctuate their speeches with “terrorismo delenda est”, we will never be able to produce a single Scipio Africanus to conclusively defeat terrorism, or an Aemilianus to raze its stronghold to the ground, and sow its fields with salt, that it may never rise again. It is not that kind of an enemy. Terrorism can pop up anywhere at any time. A war against terrorism is a war that can never end. A government that wishes to constantly retain its wartime powers and abandon the traditional understanding that peace is to be the norm, not war, could find no better means of accomplishing this end, than by declaring a war on terrorism, and passing bills like C-51.

(1) The title was reused by the late, left-libertarian novelist and essayist Gore Vidal, for a collection of essays similarly criticizing the policies of more recent administrations in 2002.