Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Conrad Black’s Canada: a country for old men

A retreating empire and its retreating ideology made Canada. For a shelter, it’s been a brilliant success. Along with living peacefully beside the Number 1 success of the last two centuries, Canadians with over-sized ambitions have built an enviable place to live. A few have even overreached abroad. Conrad Black demonstrates that you can come home after experiencing a world of misfortune. Unfortunately, he wants us to join him in his retreat.

After affirming their enduring personal association, Black dismisses Diane Francis’s Merger of the Century as farfetched. In his review No Sale, Black doesn’t quarrel with her strategic case to Americans, as I do. Indeed, for an instant, he embraces her vision with trademark Black extravagance:

“In strategic-resource terms, the United States would be a born-again country, acquiring a well-educated, relatively law-abiding addition of up to 34 million people.”

But then he demurs. The merger can’t happen: the Americans wouldn’t pay; Canadians wouldn’t — and Quebecers couldn’t — accept American terms.

The cosmopolitan conservative who could sketch global alliances on paper napkins, the lover of words who tried to persuade Americans that FDR wasn’t the greatest liberal but instead the most effective conservative of the last century, despairs at the possibility of one more extension of America’s highly decentralized federation.

Apparently, neither side has the wit to pull it off. The calculations and prejudices in the way are as hard as diamonds. Besides, the dominant partner hasn’t the competence to do win-wins anymore. America couldn’t tolerate a vibrant Quebecois nation within their brittle union, and Quebecers wouldn’t knowingly “fast-track” their cultural assimilation.

In closing, he joins that polite mob of Canadian thinkers who’ve decided that we’re too superior even to be bought. “Canada is, by every measure,” Black coos, “a better-governed country than the United States.”

Mordecai Richler — the only other postwar English-speaking Quebec writer with the courage and brilliance to outrage Canadian nationalists — would turn over in his grave. Black seems to have given up the lofty illusions of the British House of Lords for invitations to wine and cheese at Hart House.

Black won’t lose any friends in the minuscule annexation movement. However, it’s a pity that such a savvy, resourceful mind has adopted small, fixed positions on a set of issues he must know inside out.

The past, as Black the historian knows, and the future that he loved as an entrepreneur aren’t taking us anywhere in particular. Business and politics are played at the margins by those who break what’s fragile and exploit what’s green. Consequently, making and writing history is for young minds.

Black seems to have confused growing up with thinking like a reactionary. There is zero reason to declare that the Americans would be less sensible, less flexible, and less intelligent about Quebec than we have been or that — with one less futile border — Quebec’s sense of itself would shrivel.

Black refuses to rule out the possibility that the US will yet again overcome its strategic shortcomings. Yet he can’t imagine that we could participate in that political drama.  Rather, we should simply hope for their success as economic beneficiaries.


Too often ordinary old men disguise their loss of political influence by suggesting that they have already led us as far as we will go. Young adventurers shouldn’t press their luck. Fortunately, Black cannot be ordinary for long.

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