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The Article

While it is true that people become bewildered by “the complexity of the modern world,” I have long thought we are even more bewildered by the simplicities.

I notice this in almost any media or web discussion of a public issue: the tendency to become distracted by statistical and technical questions, which are themselves vexed and ultimately indeterminable. “Experts” are called in by every side; and that side prevails which can give the appearance of a plurality of experts, whether by publicity for its own, or by suppressing publicity for the others.

The late Canadian sage, George Grant, and many others of a philosophical outlook, have regretted what they call “technology”—not in the specific sense of high-tech gizmos everywhere we look, but in the more general sense of a cast of mind that depends utterly on “expertise.” To put it another way: the inability to see the forest for all the trees.

Conversely, the “liberalism” Grant (and others) detested was not of the kind my reader might recognize on first auditing that term. It was not Whiggishness or leftishness of disposition in itself—though I think that worth condemning in its own right. (As Doctor Johnson said, “The first Whig was the Devil.”)

Nor was it, exactly, the old-fashioned, “classically liberal” habit of focusing on process—on making sure whatever is done is done in the proper legal, constitutional and moral way. There is a place for this, and government “of laws not of men” is not to be despised, for all it has accomplished.

Instead, the “liberalism” we are despising this morning is a mindset that reduces everything to a technical problem, requiring a technical solution. It is, if you will, a twisting of that classical liberalism into something almost demonically machine-like and machine-driven; into something that takes its ends for granted, and focuses only upon the means. And which, in turn, demonizes every human thing that gets in its way.

Curiously, for the reader of today, Grant (and others) associated this twisted liberalism with “imperialism.” In the course of the last couple of generations, and from minds addled by progressive slogans, we may have lost the ability to see the connection. It was much clearer little more than half-a-century ago, when the (very liberal) London School of Economics was still the training ground for elite colonial administrators, and when the gilded, progressive types were gung-ho (both in France and America) to put troops in places like Vietnam. (We have since conveniently forgotten that Vietnam was Kennedy’s war.)

Grant, in particular—whom I insist is still worth reading today, though he is more and more in need of a commentary—may even appear a leftist himself in retrospect.

He had been, for instance, quite opposed to fighting the war in Vietnam. I had the honour of arguing with him over this, a quarter-century ago, in the beautiful peace of his Halifax home, over tea and cookies, under walls lined with the Anglican divines. I was less interested in prevailing, than in discovering where on earth he was coming from. Did he really think American “technology and empire” was worse than Communism? Did he think John Locke was worse than Karl Marx? George Washington worse than Ho Chi Minh?

“Obviously not,” was the answer to each such question. Goaded, he even found nice things to say about American military technology, and the clever lads who knew how to work it. He denied that he was a politician, and said if he’d ever been saddled with that responsibility, he would have studied the very practical questions he had all his life socratically eschewed. That task was for other people, and by no means would he sneer at their best efforts.

Nor was he, even in principle, opposed even to a war of conquest, if that should become “morally inevitable,” given the circumstances that follow from “the Fall of Man.”

He was opposed instead to a Power in this world that could not recognize a moral inevitability if it came up and slapped us in the face; to a Power that looked upon man himself as part of a machine, consecrated to the pursuit of material progress. In this respect he saw Locke, Hume, Immanuel Kant, Marx, Ho and Richard Nixon as ultimately playing on the same side; disputing among themselves not where we were going, but how we should get there.

It was an exhilarating conversation: I’d never really had the chance to sit down with a philosopher before.

For all the clutter of the intervening decades, this issue remains: What are we fighting for?

Today’s sermon poses, but will not answer, this question. It was inspired by reading a number of reports from Afghanistan, where our troops are fighting to sustain a regime that becomes less and less distinguishable from our “Islamist” or Taliban enemy; whose own constitution is founded ever more squarely on Shariah.

Somewhere along the line, complexity yielded to a simplicity we were unable to confront.

David Warren
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