Thursday, October 23, 2014

George Grant: Amnesty International and Edward Said - Ron Dart

George Grant (1918-1988) is considered by many to be one of the most significant Canadian public intellectuals in the latter half of the 20th century---Grant was also a High Tory of the highest calibre. Grant was a prolific writer and many have commented upon his wide ranging renaissance breadth. There has, of yet, been no essays on Grant and Amnesty International and Grant and Edward Said.
Amnesty International published The First Torturer’s Trial in 1975. Grant did a review of the book in the Globe and Mail (June 14 1977). 
The focus and reason for the publication of The First Torturer’s Trial was the trial in Greece in 1975 of 32 Greek police officers and military men who had tortured opponents in the junta from 1967-1974. The junta finally collapsed because of the courageous work of Archbishop Makarios (1913-1977) in Cyprus who had been elected as president in 1959, 1968 and 1973. Grant did a sustained commentary on the report, and, in many ways, Grant argued torture was the crudest form of the will to power of ideologues.
There are those on the political right that argue that it is the left that uses torture to inflict their will and way, and the left has argued that the right often uses torture to silence opposition. There can be no doubt that both totalitarian and authoritarian states of the left and right often use their wills to end meaningful civic and civil dialogue. Grant’s meditation on The First Torturer’s Trial brings this obstinate fact to the fore again and again.
Grant argues that “Torture is obviously the central crime against justice”. This means that central to Grant’s understanding of political thought and life is the quest for justice and the good—torture undermines both the good and justice. Grant makes it clear that to only focus on the 32 Greek military and police officers that did the torturing misses the deeper causes of those back of the torturers who justified and commanded the officers to engage, from 1967-1974, in torture as a state practice. The means was subverted for a dubious end and dissenters became disposable objects.
It is one thing to track and trace the chain of command from torturers to those higher up the military ladder that approved such actions. Is the state then to be blamed? But, who supported the Greek junta? The ideological will to power can go from the crude to the often invisible chain of command beyond even the Greek state.
It is significant that Grant, in his reflections, also pondered how such willing detached and isolated from the good (which shapes and defines the meaning of justice) also turns on the environment and animals. “Our torture of non-human species grows and is taken for granted”. Grant was, in many ways, decades ahead of his time with such a statement----the animal rights movement have, in the last few decades, caught up with Grant as have many in the environmental movements.
The point to note here is that Grant has enucleated the core of the problem of modernity: power and will often trump justice and the good---torture is just the most graphic and obvious form this takes.
Grant concluded his insights by stating that “Amnesty International does a notable service in opposing torture in whatever regime it arises. One aspect of that opposition is bringing out books such as this which keep the reality before us”.   
Edward Said (1935-2003) was, until his untimely death, probably, the most prominent spokesman for the Palestinian cause in North America. There is a tendency to assume that conservatives are pro-Israel, Grant was a Tory conservative, therefore, he would be contra Said. Said’s probing book, The World, The Text and the Critic was published in 1982. Grant reviewed the tome in the Globe and Mail in 1983 (May 7 1983). Grant began the review by stating, “Since the decay of philosophy and theology, literature has become the means whereby the educated masses are being introduced to many forms of knowledge which may not be given through the study of the modern sciences”. Grant further argued that the insights of literary critics such as Edward Said are needful guides into the process of reading a text—what is the relationship between the world we live in, the text read and the role of the critic? Such is the heart and core of Said’s book and Grant saw the pure and burnished gold in it. Grant suggested that Said’s chapters, “Islam, Philology, and French Culture: Renan and Massignon” and a chapter on Derrida and Foucault were the real keepers and charmers.
We can certainly see Grant engaging the postmodernists, Islam and Oriental thought decades before it became popular and trendy—Said was a fine portal into such an ethos given his Middle Eastern and Palestinian background and family upbringing.
It is a delight to hear Grant affirm Said because of “his presence in the wonderful world of Islamic learning”---hardly the position many conservatives take these days. Said, like Chomsky, has seen through the crude and subtle nature of western imperialism (its obvious military and economic forms, but more insidious, its cultural forms).
Grant’s review of The World, The Text and the Critic does more than cheerlead, though. He does call Said to task for his limited read and understanding of Plato---neither Derrida nor Heidegger truly entered the “enrapturing” vision of Plato and Grant suggested that Said was much more indebted to Derrida than a significant read of Plato. Grant does, though, give the nod to Said at a variety of levels that most conservatives never will nor do—this is Grant, once again, pondering the perennial issues with deeper probes and a fully catholic mind.
Most in 1983 knew little about Islam, the Middle East or Comparative Literature---Said did, and Grant did what he could to point the way to Said’s insights while offering mild criticisms.
It is most understandable why Grant is viewed as one of the most significant Canadian public intellectuals in the latter half of the 20th century----his insights on torture via the Amnesty International report and his reflections on Edward Said do point the way to spacious mind and nimble imagination that engage substantive public ideas and issues.
 Ron Dart          

1 comment:

  1. A thank you to Brad (and Chris Faiers initially) for introducing me to this wonderful blog dedicated to the writings/insights/blessings of George Grant. I was privileged to have met and attended some of his seminars in the 70s at McMaster University in Hamilton.