Canada Entering a Cultural Dark Age

Margaret Sutherland: Emperor Haute Couture

This delightfully mischievous nude portrait of Canada’s sitting Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, is appropriately entitled Emperor Haute Couture, a wry statement on Mr. Harper’s vulgar pretensions toward caesarism and self-aggrandising patriarchalism (he once tried to officially rebrand “Government of Canada” as “The Harper Government”). Some of Mr. Harper’s admirers have complained that Margaret Sutherland’s portrait is “disrespectful”. On the contrary, she has respectfully endowed his portrait with a more modest paunch than its actual size and flabbiness.

The subject of Mr. Harper’s tenure as Prime Minister is an often inflammatory one. In my opinion, the present government is one of the great misfortunes this country has suffered in its short history. The present slash-and-burn policies of the ruling party against Canada’s liberal and social democratic traditions, institutions, and values, slyly conducted under the pretense of “austerity”, will eventually be judged as having been one of the great historical tragedies of this country, I believe.

The late Canadian author Jane Jacobs penned a book shortly before her death called Dark Age Ahead. I’ve had occasion to mention it in the past, but it now seems prescient of our current situation. Canada, under the reactionary administration of the Harperites, appears to be entering into a cultural dark age, one in which political corruption is tolerated, official hypocrisy and prevarication are accepted as normal, double-talk, double-think, and groupthink are expedient winning ways. Publicly funded scientists are being muzzled and even assigned state “minders” when attending scientific conventions and conferences. Important long-established research programmes, particularly and especially environmental ones, are being gutted or eliminated, leaving one to anticipate a resumption of the great “brain drain” that occurred in Canada during and after another former Conservative Prime Minister, John Diefenbaker, was in office.

The anti-intellectualism of reactionary right-wing populism is like suffering a cultural drought, and the great victim of the current administration is fast becoming democracy itself. The contempt of the ruling party for democratic values and traditions, let alone for the free public exercise of intelligence and reason now dismissed as “elitism” (the irrational and the merely emotive now being considered the “virtuous”) is hard to miss. Here’s a statement by a sitting Conservative Senator, Hugh Segal, which reveals the mindset of the ruling party towards freedom and democracy, and which describes the meaning of “conservatism” today

“We are an open society with the free movement of people, goods, services and capital. This has always been the goal of those of us who are free traders at heart. Limiting this freedom for charitable foundations would be a destructive and retrograde step.”

Mr. Segal (who I once considered to have some smarts. I no longer do) helpfully provided this Conservative Party definition of freedom and democracy by way of justifying a crackdown on political dissidents and critics, particularly environmentalists, for which the Conservative government appears to have an especial petty-minded hatred (after “liberals”). But you might notice something odd about this definition of “freedom”. There is no mention whatsoever of political rights. That’s because the ruling party does not consider historical and traditional political rights relevant to their vision of Canada. It’s the very definition of “reactionary”.

The peculiarity of Mr. Segal’s definition is that it is a perfect description of an ideal of Newtonian-Galilean motion through space — frictionless motion. Dissent, opposition, criticism, protest, even prudence are all considered to be friction. The ideal here is of an economy and democracy as a free market perpetual motion machine liberated from the constraints of friction, and perhaps even of the limits of modesty, hybris, or all manner of self-governance.

What the Conservatives are effecting with such a revaluation of the meanings of “freedom” and “democracy” is an inversion of the relationship between economy and democracy. If the economy, at one time, had to be accountable to democratic principle and scruple, now it is the democracy that must account instead to a narrow calculating economism. All value is reduced to price. All quality is reduced to a quantity. This vulgar reductionism by which the higher value is reduced to the lower is a certain sign that a culture is descending also into quantification — into a dark age. It’s an example of Nietzsche’s formula for nihilism — “all higher values devalue themselves”. And in Mr. Segal’s statement, we have an example of value nihilism. Decadence means the reduction of the higher to the lower

Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty striking a Mephistophelian pose.

Degeneracy and decadence are seldom perceived for what they actually are. Social and cultural decadence is one of the four “diseases” of the social order that Rosenstock-Huessy described, the other three being war, anarchy (chaos) and revolution. They all are diseases of the circulation of vital speech. But instead of vital speech, today, you have “talking points”, propaganda, coercion, “perception management”. Hypocrisy, double-talk, duplicity in word and deed are the chief features of a society in the throes of degeneracy. “Democracy” or “transparency and accountability” are on everyone’s lips, even as the reality and the truth of the matter are somewhat different from the empty rhetoric.

The “new” conservatism is a mendacious affair. Lately, it has occurred to me just how mendacious and duplicitous it really is. To account for the troubles in society, conservatives resort, by way of explanation, to something they call “human nature”, which they pretend to know thoroughly. Usually, “human nature” is a debased and fallen state of being which is a universal affliction that must be managed by “morality” or “law & order”, from whence arises the authoritarianism.

But these new righteous conservatives don’t consider themselves to have this “human nature”. They have, instead, what they call “principle” — as in “principled conservatism”. This redemptive “principle” is what distinguishes them from mere “human nature” and which marks them off as an elect — in effect, a righteous elite amongst themselves and others. This sense of being elevated above a sordid and base “human nature” through the possession of “principle” is a kind of alchemy by which the lead of human nature is transformed into the gold of self-righteousness, and which justifies a sense of entitlement.

This is magical thinking. It’s irrational, of course, for being a piece of deception and self-deception. For when you probe into the meaning of “principled conservatism”, you soon discover that this principle is nothing other than disguised self-interest and will to power justified by the most devious and deceitful means. In other words, “principle” is itself the very “human nature” that conservatives pretend to know thoroughly in others, but which they have transcended through possession of the “principle”, which now serves as a kind of magical talisman or amulet, underscoring their sense of noble and transcendent righteousness..

It’s extremely devious. All this principle really amounts to is a disguised self-interest. For having determined that all others are ruled by their ignoble “human nature”, and that “moral absolutes” and “law & order” are required to manage this “human nature” (authoritarianism), the “new” conservative, by virtue of his transcendent “principle”, does not consider himself subject to the same moral absolutes or law & order necessary to manage and control “human nature” in others, for he has no “human nature” himself. He has a redeeming “principle” that has lifted him or her beyond the fallen state of “human nature”.

There is historical precedent for this vain conceit in the Late Middle Ages and early Reformation. It prevailed amongst a libertine Christian sect called “The Brethren of the Free Spirit” who, having determined they were saved and redeemed already from mankind’s general fallen state (ie “human nature”), believed this gave them absolute licence to indulge themselves in whatever desire or whim they fancied. Morality was for the unredeemed masses.

I’ll speak more of the Brethren later. But their sense of self-justification and self-righteous entitlement and privilege bears a considerable resemblance to the rationalisations of “new right” conservatism.

14 responses to “Canada Entering a Cultural Dark Age”

  1. LittleBigMan says :

    There isn’t a week that goes by here in America without us hearing about the events of the south of the border, the crimes of the drug cartels, and what Felipe Calderon is doing or not doing about it. We are bombarded with this news stuff that focus on social ills that are rooted on the outside of the Mexican government, justifying an ever increasing budget for the govermnetal security apparatus in Mexico, while sending us a subliminal message that we should do the same here if we are to prevent similar events from spilling over to us. No mention or investigative reporting of the corruption of the Mexican government itself in the American media, however.

    By the same token, there is absolutley nothing in the American media about what goes on in the Canadian politics. Not even the Robocall scandal broke the spell. For whatever reason, the media in the United States has wrapped a shroud of secrecy over the politics in Canada. In fact, before I got to “Publicly funded scientists are being muzzled” I was thinking how “muzzled” American media has been about our giant neighbor to the north. If it wasn’t for your posts, I would’ve never heard of the Robocall scandal. The only thing we ever hear about out of Canada is Justin Beiber.

    It’s very surprising to me, and it makes no sense to me at all, that a vast and extremely resourceful country like Canada, with a relatively tiny and well educated population, has a government that’s pushing for “austerity.” There’s no doubt in my mind this is part of “the assault on public” that’s going on all around the world. It was the unethical practices of private banks that brought us the harsh economic times. Yet, the fat cats of the financial world get the “rescue package”, all of which is funded with public tax dollars, while the public itself gets the “austerity measures” handed down to it. All of it ratified by the respective parliamentarians! Officials elected by the public! How bizarre!This is the death of the democracy itself.

    Your mention of the “Late Middle Ages and early Reformation” reminded me of one of your excellent recommendations: “From Dawn to Decadence.” I will start it as soon as I finish Tacitus.

  2. Scott Preston says :

    For whatever reason, the media in the United States has wrapped a shroud of secrecy over the politics in Canada

    Nothing new there, although “for whatever reason” seems to be the only reason. I just spent a kind of grueling evening arguing the very thing you mention about prosperity and austerity above and realised I was making no headway against entrenched attitudes. “death of democracy” is the symptom; the illness is the breakdown of reason. This was even with people that had been hurt badly by the meltdown of 2008. Yet, for some bizarre reason, they believe the system that nearly ruined them will save them. I realised it’s not possible to navigate the turbulence of this kind of thinking, which is self contradictory — for one thing, to believe religiously in “the free market” while at the same time saying that “the state must take a greater role in managing the economy”. I’m afraid that this kind of thing is the disintegration of reason.

    Presently in Vancouver, but I’ll try to check in on The Chrysalis while I’m here.

    • LittleBigMan says :

      Oh, Wow! Staying in Vancouver, eh? The most beautiful city on earth, I hear. I hope you enjoy your stay there.

      I hear you on the economic debate. An economist colleague of mine tells me that the Chicago School of Milton Freedman is now officially dead, giving more credence to the Keynesian school. But that doesn’t even make any sense, because I don’t think Keynes meant: 1) Governmental spending spree to be funded with borrowed money from China, and 2) For all the government spending to end up either in a Pentagon war chest, or in the lap of some private banker on Wall Street. The middle classes are being entirely ignored or crushed here.

      BTW, I have been trying to catch up with your posts on the Guardian, and I just read your comment about “Abraham’s turning away of the knife from his first born.”

      I have been hearing the story of Abraham putting the knife at the throat of his first born and then removing it, without ever really understanding what that episode must have meant to convey. Following your comment, it was the first time that it all made sense to me, given the tradition of scarificing the first born along the ancient Mediterranean.

      • Scott Preston says :

        Oh, Wow! Staying in Vancouver, eh? The most beautiful city on earth, I hear

        As they say, “in the eye of the beholder”. It’s always interesting to me that only the eye, not the ear, the nose, or the other senses, is given the authority to determine what is beautiful. If you include the ear and the nose, though, things might appear a little differently. For my part, the most beautiful place is The Shuswap in the interior of BC, Salmon Arm, Sorrento, Sicamouse, Chase — but then, it has all become a bit touristy for that.

        The Friedman School (the Chicago School) might now be considered discredited amongst a greater number of economists, and Keynes rehabilitated somewhat (via “stimulus spending” versus “austerity” — this really is the controversy between Keynes and Friedman, respectively, all over again) but both are finally dead branches on the tree. What is needed now is what has never been attempted yet — the political, economic and cultural arrangements we find suggested in Schumacher, Steiner, Leopold Kohr, which is probably the only viable path for the Planetary Era. I’ve brought also Karl Polyani’s famous book The Great Transformation with me, and will be reading it while I’m here in my spare time. In many sociology and economics courses, I hear, it’s a mandatory text.

        Every once in a while, a truly interesting article appears on the Guardian’s CIF and might even develop into an intelligent comment thread that collectively advances some particular understanding of the author’s piece. Those are, sadly, very rare.

        • LittleBigMan says :

          Lol! Lol! One of the foulest-to-the-senses places I’ve ever been to was the city of Tacoma, Washington. What an utterly horrible place! There are gigantic planes that constantly fly over every 30 seconds because of the Sea-Tac airport, polluting the air with their deafening noise; there is the vast industrial harbor of gigantic rusty cranes and morbid concrete shipyards which, by the way, had been key to importing and introducing the unsightly huntsman spider from Australia into the American northwest; there is the chronically bottle-necked stretch of I-5 freeway that has the worst traffic of any kind I’ve experienced in my entire life; there is the ever present gloomy cloudy weather; and finally a tap water that is so saturated with pharma-chemicals that affects the psyche of the people who are born and raised in the area to such an extent that they are some of the most neurotic people I’ve met in my entire life. No wonder the state of Washington has some of the highest suicide rates in the US.

          I have added The Great Transformation to my list of books to read. Thank you.

        • Scott Preston says :

          I have added The Great Transformation to my list of books to read. Thank you.

          I just finished Richard Holloway’s Between the Monster and the Saint, which seems to speak to what Gebser called the “inner division of contemporary man” in The Ever Present Origin. Oddly, Holloway doesn’t once mention the great modern myth on this question, Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I’m not sure Holloway, who is a Scottish Episcopal Bishop of the liberal persuasion, really has fully captured the real duality and duplicity of the Late Modern soul — the disintegrate character of this presently, (which is very gruesome). He does make an excellent stab at it, though, and it’s a good contribution. I’m just about to dive into John Ralston Saul’s The Unconscious Civilization, which was originally delivered as a series of CBC radio lectures in 1995. Afterwards, I’m going to try to bring the condition described by Holloway, Saul, Gebser (and Stevenson) into relationship with current events.

  3. LittleBigMan says :

    Thank you for the further references. In times like these, I always regret about not having participated in any of the “speed reading” seminars that were offered in my college days. I look forward to your analysis of the works you mention.

    • Scott Preston says :

      I started into John Ralston Saul’s The Unconscious Civilization last evening, having more spare time than I thought I might here. Fantastic book! I regret I did not come to it earlier because the very title, and the state of unconsciousness, implies “dark age” and/or a post-Enlightenment condition, the themes we pursued in the earlier Dark Age Blog.

      And although the lectures (and the book based upon the lectures) were delivered in 1995 (Saul has a 10th Anniversary update in 2005), the topics remain relevant to today. In fact, Saul is very prescient about the direction of the trends and even the impending disasters lurking within them — such as materialised in 2008.

      I’ld say that this is the book you might consider delving into next, if you are looking for new reading material. It certainly accounts for what his happening presently in the Canadian context, but is quite relevant in the broader global context.

      • LittleBigMan says :

        I’m always very curious to know more about consciousness and its implication/connection to what we experience as “reality.” So, I shall definitely order The Unconscoius Civilization and delve into it this summer and very soon. I have to admit, though, “From Dawn to Decadence”, which I already have got on my shelf for at least a year now, is also a book that I’m eager to start on for I know it will fill in many of the gaps I have in my understanding of history and therefore, consciousness. I intend to read anything that will help me comprehend what you write with more accuracy and facility. It is a joy.

        • Scott Preston says :

          Barzun’s tome is, for the most part, a chronological survey of the Modern Era. He more or less only gives his views in the last chapter of the book, and those views are not well framed, in my view. What he has done there, though, is to put his finger on the fact that the “malaise of modernity” (Charles Taylor’s phrase) is decadence, or post-Enlightenment decadence. But he seems not to understand the why and wherefore of it. His take, though, is a necessary counter-point to such celebratory triumphalism as Fukuyama’s “end of history”. That’s the value I find in reading Barzun’s book.

          This is why I turn to thinker’s like Ralston Saul, who demonstrate greater insight into the nature of this decadence and malaise. I just came back from purchasing his Voltaire’s Bastards because I was so impressed with The Unconscious Civilization. I’ve read a couple o other of Saul’s books (On Equilibrium and The Colllapse of Globalism) but it seems these earlier two are really the foundation for fully appreciating the latter two.

  4. LittleBigMan says :

    I shall read them in that order. Thank you.

    • Scott Preston says :

      If you prefer, John Ralston Saul’s 1995 Massey Lectures on The Unconscious Civilization are available in audio format on the CBC Ideas website. They can be accessed at

      • LittleBigMan says :

        Thank you. I remember you had once mentioned this web site before. But I lost the web site. I just bookmarked the web site so I don’t lose it again. I did listen to his first lecture there – twice – back the first time, which was good but a little complex and vague for me. I definitely need to get more background on all of this in order to keep up. I much appreciate the online reference.

  5. LittleBigMan says :

    Sorry! Just noticed this link to the website is new, and it’s different than that other website you had posted weeks earlier of some other lectures.

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