Thursday, February 14, 2013

Ron Dart's Keepers of the Flame - Response by Brad Jersak

Ron Dart, Keepers of the Flame: Canadian Red Toryism (Fermentation Press, 2012).

It may seem redundant to follow up Robert Williams' fine review of Keepers of the Flame (below), but having recently completed three years of Grantean studies under Dart's supervision, I would like to voice my own response while the experience is still fresh. 

In this book, we get the sort of 'best-of' material that has put Ron Dart at the forefront of Red Toryism in Canada. With Williams, I see Ron standing among the ranks of the 'Keepers of the Flame' discussed in this book. The capacity to scan the landscape from 30,000 feet enables him to see very broad patterns and connections, as well as significant discontinuities and contrasts. I would argue that this eagle-eye perspective makes Dart one of Red Toryism's premier analytical historians today, taking up the torch from giants like William Christian.

This book in particular was helpful for Grant scholars who want to learn about the other great Canadian Red Tories. I recognized names like Leacock, Mathews and Acorn, but there were a number of names that I had not encountered previously. For example, Catherine Parr Traill, Susanna Moodie and Marya Fiamengo were women important to the movement that had completely escaped my notice (and shouldn't have!). 

What struck me too was how many Red Tories were not primarily politicians or political scientists, but significant poets whose words are a heartbeat that one simply cannot capture when tied to the deceptive binary of political right or left -- they transcend the culture wars with a higher vision of the Good and of truth and justice. None of this escapes Dart. He peruses the landscape, then sets these characters over against popular counterparts in literature (Atwood), activism (Chomsky), politics (Manning) and theology (Pinnock). I am challenged to ponder the ease with which I jump on bandwagons and cautioned against simple either-or thinking. The Canadian Red Tories call us to be at once more prophetic and more nuanced in our engagement. Just when I believe I have 'nailed it,' Ron and his heroes apply the brakes. They also serve to slow the pendulum swings of our (my) reactive nature, noting that at any given moment, someone like Grant could be the darling of the New Left or their greatest disappointment, opposing abortion or promoting public health care on 'any given Sunday.' 

In all of this, Ron Dart's book provides a sense of quality control. What is the Canadian vision? What is a conservative? And what is a Red Tory? Perhaps this is easier in Canada, where Red Toryism has become extinct enough such that it's easier to define. Less so in the UK, where a revival of Red Toryism proves dynamic and slippery. This is of concern to Ron, because newcomers (like me) are prone to emphasize similarities between George Grant and the new UK Red Tories like Philip Blond. Blond's book, Red Tory, looks familiar to me. He shares Grant's Christian Platonism; his call to restore 'the virtues' and identify 'the Good' in education; and even the moniker 'Red Tory.' Meanwhile, Ron is able to see problematic differences--he sees a distortion and a loss. This is not entirely clear to me yet, and I had hoped for something substantive in this book that lays out the differences plainly. For now, I will look forward to that in Ron's future articles and books, satisfied that Keepers of the Flame has established a standard on the Canadian front.

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