Book Review

Please read my review of Ron Dart’s The North American High Tory Tradition (New York: American Anglican Press, 2016)

Published in the Regent College academic journal, Crux:

Two articles have captured my attention, and I read recently with interest. The first was published in The Economist, “Liberty Moves North: Canada’s example to the world” (Oct. 2016). The second, “The Canada Experiment: Is this the world’s first ‘post-national’ country?” (Jan. 2017) was published in The Guardian. These essays continue to interest me, as they stand against the backdrop of Ron Dart’s The North American High Tory Tradition. They stand out as pieces that are wrestling to understand the particularity of Canada and Canada’s socio-political ethos on the global stage—a particularity that is championed and beloved also in this tome of Dart’s. Yet, for Dart, such particularity must be discovered again and against the allure of modern Western liberalism.

For Dart, the great danger that lurks not in the shadows but in the light of daily Canadian life is one that reflects the influence of the great empire of American political and intellectual power and cultural mechanics—power forged by the continued folding and hammering of the irons of modern Western liberalism and the concomitant mechanics driven by the ubiquitous culture industries of American media. This concern is raised most poignantly when Dart also labours to caution a particular ease of hearing the dissidents from within the American empire—for these persons too are “forged and formed on the anvil of liberty, individualism, conscience, and equality” (p. 23). Dart’s concern here is not of the risk for crude internment by the colonial power. Rather, it is a concern for the way in which one might be swayed to “doff the cap and bow the head to individualism and liberty rather than the common good and order” (p. 24). To be sure, anarchy against the state and the exercise of dominance to overthrow the powers under suspicion is not representative of the Canadian political ethos that is represented by the High Tory tradition—the tradition Dart observes as indicative of a Canadian (conservative) political ethos and thoroughly constructive for achieving both functional governance and a thriving polis. Thus establishing a sense of the two North Americas is critical at the outset of the volume—establishing the content for the first part of this far-ranging and important volume. 

As the volume proceeds, Dart endeavours to illuminate the content and contours of Canadian conservatism (High Toryism) in juxtaposition to the redundant contemporary expressions of conservative politics and liberalism. To begin Dart stresses the deep concern for the common good and the welfare of all (i.e., the commonweal) as a central principle for Canadian conservatism that sees in such aims a coinherence of ethics and economics, among other markers. But he is quick to note that such a conservatism might be an unfamiliar form. Instead, Dart suggests that a persistent and vocal assault from a different conservative variety has all but eclipsed the legacy of Canadian conservatism. The “mutation and distortion” (p. 51) of Canadian conservatism must be attended to by way of a thorough retelling of the conservative tradition, whose roots might be found in the Anglican ecclesial tradition and were deftly defended by the late George P. Grant—one of the great Canadian philosophers and public intellectuals. It is here, in its Anglican foundations and the lament of its wardens, that one might discover, again, a concerned suspicion for “American republican ideals and American expansionist and imperial tendencies” (p. 52; c.f. p. 81-4), which are incumbent to contemporary conservative expressions. So it is with great emphasis that Dart implores his readers to become students of Canadian political and intellectual history, if for nothing else than to identify and to defend against the distortions that emerge. But such a history requires one to have a thoroughgoing knowledge of the various traditions that have cultivated the Canadian political and intellectual mind—including English, French, and First Nations traditions. Yet this is a significant ask, and it is one that Dart recognizes in the construction of his book. Nevertheless, he does charge forward with diligence and with intimate familiarity of such history. In so doing, Dart introduces his reader to a range of vital contributors to the particular Canadian conservatism of High Toryism, drawing us to listen afresh to the life and legacy of its many originators, advocates, and allies.

For Dart, such persons are united by the grounding principles that guide the Ango-Canadian High Tory tradition. The manifesto of Toryism that follows the introduction illuminates a set of principles that serve as signposts to an alternative political and intellectual history in Canada. As a signpost, it raises a necessary caution to heed the problem that complicates and confounds the contemporary reading of such history in Canada. The problem concerns the penultimate embrace of a liberal reading of history and the validation of corresponding principles, which Dart highlights and expounds upon in the fourth part of the volume: The principles of liberalism include “liberty (freedom), individualism, equality, fraternity (solidarity), conscience, historicism, and the quest for meaning, happiness, or authenticity” (p. 177). Although the list of principles is succinct, and well-known by many, Dart argues the principles of liberalism are not prioritized in any manner and remain semantically neutered. Thus one might suggest that the principles themselves are important as the unassailable “dogma and creed” (p. 181), which persons are to champion and to confess. Yet their meaning and content, unlike the content laid out in the Tory manifesto, is of secondary importance to be determined ad hoc and prima facie.

Dart, therefore, points out that the priorities given to one or another of the liberal principles creates significant differences in the formation of policies and practices. Yet such differences are but an illusion of difference—a mere illusion of difference in each instance as the foundation is the same (i.e., a devotion to the principles of liberalism). It is this plastic nature of liberalism that is contrasted to the elasticity of the High Tory tradition. To be clear, when considering material properties, plasticity regards the permanence of deformation as stresses are applied whereas elasticity regards the capacity for a material to resume original form as stresses cease. Given the particularity of High Toryism, there is a sense that its foundation and content, introduced by the manifesto, offers a clear ground from which to understand the meaning of the principles that undergird the political philosophy—which Dart observes as giving integrity and strength while remaining flexible for the contextual nature of human life in society. Yet the plasticity of liberalism, because of its meaning-less principles awaiting delimitation and order, demonstrates an inherent weakness. And Dart’s arguments in this regard are convincing. However, the ubiquity of liberalism in all of its forms, along with its defenders including the leading Canadian public intellectual and philosopher of global note Charles Taylor, has effectively enframed all social and political discourse in our late modern milieu. Thus, even if weak, liberalism is not brittle. Rather, its ductility across the political spectrum has also made it quite difficult to speak out in opposition—although difficult, for Dart, it is necessary.

Those who Dart introduces his readers to within the pages of this volume attend to such necessity. There are many who have spoken and who are speaking out against the modern liberal moral-political milieu. As Dart illuminates, such persons from within or influenced by the High Tory tradition present thoughtful and content-rich apologies for political discourse and practice that aim to cultivate fruitful governance, social agency, and a flourishing state—characteristics that exemplify, in part, the political ethos and praxis highlighted in the opening manifesto. Yet the volume also laments both a failure to heed such principles and the tendency to find political inspiration elsewhere. Indeed, the twenty-five chapters of this volume accomplish both of these positive and negative aims. Moreover, the many conversations contained in these essays about thinkers and concepts across the political spectrum provide the reader with a sense that Dart has been deeply immersed in such conversations and devoted to preserving the legacy of the High Tory tradition in and for North America. The pithy essays and inviting narratives that Dart constructs, often with personal accounts, is the strength of Dart’s volume. Indeed, Dart demonstrates his versatility as a scholar, communicator, and cherished Canadian intellectual with a significant knowledge of the traditions that have formed and deformed the Canadian political landscape.

The limits of this volume are few. One might note that the essayist approach to the volume cultivates a compendium but not a systematic argument, per se. That is, it requires some degree of sustained attention to trace the threads that hold the essays together. Such work, however, is mitigated by the inclusion of the manifesto and to some of the themes raised above. So, for some, this limitation will be a hinderance; for others, such as myself, it will be appreciated. A second limit might be the relative absence of theological engagement. Although the Anglican tradition and Radical Orthodoxy are prominently featured, there is little theo-political engagement in this volume. Of course, the aims in this volume are much more rooted in the historical and socio-political. Moreover, the fractional glimpses into the theological do goad anticipation that Dart might in fact continue his examination of the High Tory tradition in North America with more theological scrutiny—in fact, knowing the work of Dart, I think one can expect such a volume to follow.

In all, what the many essays in this volume offer its readers is a careful examination of Canadian High Toryism in juxtaposition to other political interactions, including deviant forms of contemporary ‘conservatism’ and their parent formula, liberalism. It is the critical examination of the contoured ways and shifting silhouettes of liberalism in this volume that might help one to observe the significance and difference of the political tradition of, among others, John A. Macdonald, Stephen Leacock, and George Grant. And to observe such differences so starkly through the writings of Ron Dart in this volume is what makes The North American High Tory Tradition a vital addition for those interested and engaged in political philosophy and theology. Additionally, this volume should be read widely among both North Americas as described above—especially now when global political tides have turned leaving particular forms of nationalism, populism, and protectionism lapping upon the shores of late modernity and the ideology of Western secular liberalism. It should be read by Canadians, and for many not as a reminder but as an introduction to an Anglican political way that goes against the stream of current political schema yet whose foundation is both deep and wide. It should also be read by our American neighbours so that they might be encouraged to consider a middle way; an alternative to the partisan barriers and increasingly combative tone of the disparate modes of liberal politics, right and left, incumbent to the current US political climate.