Saturday, January 19, 2013

Review of Ron Dart's 'Keepers of the Flame' - by Robert Williams

Keepers of the Flame: Canadian Red Toryism (2012) – A Short Review
Professor Ron Dart’s latest book, Keepers of the Flame: Canadian Red Toryism, a collection of Dart’s essays written over a period of about 15 years, was published by Fermentation Press out of Quebec in the closing days of December 2012. For those of us who’ve read Dart’s earlier work, the content of the book should come as no surprise. Within the pages of Keepers of the Flame, many a familiar topic is discussed, pondered and thought about:

  • Red Toryism (its roots and new routes, to play off the title of an earlier text by Dart) 
  • Liberalism (its matrix, principles, prejudices and short-comings) 
  • American Imperialism and its impacts on Canada 
  • Canadian nationalism and compradorism.

I first met Professor Dart in the Fall of 2002 while still a student at what was then known as the University College of the Fraser Valley (UCFV). His teaching style is what I would call “open” – encouraging dialogue and debate with and between his students on the texts and topics under consideration; encouraging students to critically examine and interrogate the ideological underpinnings of texts, thus identifying both the positives and the short-comings of ideological and philosophical positions and, in that way, moving students beyond being mere uncritical “boosters” and “knockers”; and, finally, opening students’ eyes to the differences between techne and paideia, the implications of these two terms and what they can and do mean within the realms of education, public and political life.

The above personal reflection also hints at what Brad Jersak has referred to as Ron Dart’s “Red Tory Alternative.” It is this Red Tory Alternative that is “unpacked and unraveled” within the pages and essays that make up Keepers of the Flame.

The title of the text is, I think, significant. First, as “Keepers” is plural, it speaks to the role of Fermentation Press and Dart – especially Dart – in helping to keep the flame of Red Toryism alive amidst a smoldering and darkening cloud of liberalism, anarchism and postmodernism. Ron Dart has seen, perhaps more than most in the world of academia, the faults, failings and contradictions of the liberal project as he has stood on the shoulders of those who have gone before him – Sir John A Macdonald, Susanna Moodie, Stephen Leacock, John Diefenbaker and George P. Grant, to name a few – and heeded their call. He has thus learned from the best and brightest from within the Red Tory Tradition in Canada and is now “patiently stoking and carefully keeping alive the flame” of Red Toryism (1). For its part, Fermentation Press, in recognizing the work of Professor Dart, has contributed “to help build a fuller flame” (1). Second, I would suggest that the title of the text is also important for a practical reason: In housing the many essays on Red Toryism that it does, its binding and cover pages are, in and of themselves, very much “Keepers of the Flame.”

Keepers of the Flame is divided into four overlapping sections: “Section I: The American Empire and Canada;” Section II: Canadian Compradors and Colonialists;” “Section III: Canadian Nationalism;” and “Section IV: Beyond Conservatism and Liberalism: God’s Peculiar Peoples.” Each of these sections, in their own ways, addresses the four topics mentioned above, asking critical questions along the way in relation to our modern liberal ethos. Is there an alternative – a way to think outside of the matrix of liberalism? Or are we fated, as the colonials and compradors would gladly have it, to genuflect to the American Republic to the south?

Red Toryism is, without question, the unifying theme of all the essays contained within the book. What is Red Tory Conservatism? How has it shaped, molded and formed the country we live in? How has it acted as a sort of corrective and interrogator of the liberal agenda? What is the difference between the Conservatism of Sir John A Macdonald and Stephen Harper? What can the deeper principles of Red Toryism teach us if we are willing to heed its call? It is tough questions such as these that Ron Dart seeks to answer in relation to Red Toryism and, in answering such questions, Dart provides readers clear and concise direction “by warning against the dangers of ideology, the pernicious influence of American imperialism, the temptation to sell-out to American liberalism and the pit-falls in neglecting to answer a higher calling” (1). In short, professor Dart is calling on readers to awaken from their “advanced amnesia” and remember their Canadian “intellectual and political history [so] that we can defend ourselves against its distortions” (56). It is only as we seriously unearth our past and study the wisdom of the “ancients” that we become open-minded in any substantive way and thus learn “all sorts of possibilities of what it truly means to be human” (181).

Indeed, it is as we become more human and question the core principles of liberalism – the ruling ideology of our day – that we begin to see within Canada our own unique philosophical, political, cultural and literary traditions. We also begin to recognize, sometimes within ourselves, the existence of a colonial and comprador class which, previously, may have been all but invisible to the uncritical eye. The ability to have readers reflect critically about some of the larger questions both in terms of the Canadian community and the self is the genius of Ron Dart. As readers dive deeper into treasure trove of the Red Tory ideology (see the “Red Tory Manifesto” on pages 7-13 in Dart’s book for a quick overview of 11 key principles of Red Toryism), he or she cannot help but marvel at what’s been lost in the shift from the classics to the modern liberal project. As we have moved from “contemplation-virtues-wisdom-commonweal-memory-covenant-self as gift-hierarchy” to “activism-values-knowledge-individualism-immediacy-contract-self as project-equality” (189), all has become relative: education is largely about a gathering of facts; there are no Ultimate truths to be had; the formal political process and parties are viewed with the utmost cynicism while protest and advocacy politics is held high; value has become the dollar; nationalism is frowned upon; and the language of conservatism has become distorted almost beyond recognition. That is not to say we haven’t gained much from modernity (we have, and Dart explicitly recognizes this), but we have lost much, also.

Keepers of the Flame, then, should and must be viewed within the larger context of Ron Dart’s work. In 1999 he published The Red Tory Tradition which was, as he states himself, “a small attempt” to give careful attention and consideration to what “had been lost in the academy, culture and politics by the hegemony of liberalism at a variety of subtle and crude levels” (3). Some thirteen years later, Keepers of the Flame, albeit in a more thorough and substantive way, has continued the revival of Red Toryism, ensuring that a valuable part of the Canadian history and heritage is not lost and erased from political, cultural and social memory.

I do, however, have some minor criticisms of the text. While I readily acknowledge that the book is a collection of past essays, I think it would have been nice to include at least one new piece touching on the relation between Red Tories and First Nations. There is passing mention of this relationship via reference to an article published jointly by Professor Anthony Hall and First Nations activist Splitting the Sky, but nothing beyond that. To include such a piece, I think, would help to provide a fuller historical picture of the Red Tory Tradition.

The only other criticism I have to offer is aesthetic. The collection of essays is bound in an attractive volume; however, it seems the editors at Fermentation Press did not read or edit very carefully. There are a number of typos that, individually, are small, but taken together add up over the course of the book. The book also suffers from some formatting issues: For example, page 165 is numbered “V”; Section II, Chapter 4, is written as “Chapter 5,” resulting in two Chapter 5s in this section; Section III, Chapter 4, is written as “Chapter 6;” and Section III, Chapter 6, is written as “Chapter 9.” Small issues such as this give the impression that the collection was rushed to print, and they do take a little away from what is otherwise a fine volume.

In summary, Keepers of the Flame: Canadian Red Toryism, is a valuable contribution to the literature of Red Toryism. It clearly meets its key objective of explaining the characteristics and philosophy of Red Toryism within Canada and what sets it apart from the Republican brand of Conservatism currently practiced by the Conservative Party of Canada and Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Thanks to Professor Dart’s accessible style, the content is fairly easy to grasp and points the eager student and scholar in many fine directions across ideologies for future research in the area of political philosophy.

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