From Roosevelt to LBJ
It is hard to contemplate the U.S. with calm these days. The society of comfort and mental health has not its air-conditioned war, presented to us nightly on colour TV. (Air-conditioned, that is, for all Americans except the rural and small-town youngsters who have to do the ground fighting.) At least we did not see Auschwitz till it was over, and anyway it was not English-speaking people who were doing it. Nor can we look at the great republic as outsiders. Go to Stratford, Ontario to hail Canadian drama, but ask on the way which of the factories in Galt or Preston or Kitchener are making the anti-personnel pellets. “With Expo Canada came of age,” but (please, Mr. Drury) how much does the swinging city of Montreal make out of the defense sharing agreement? (How absurd anyway to have a fair in praise of twentieth century man without a pavilion on the achievements of technological war.) To think of the U.S. is to think of ourselves – almost.
To think of the U.S. is to remember one’s own life. My first political memory is Roosevelt’s inaugural in 1933 – being called in from playing in the spring floods and told by my father to listen to the great man on the radio. The creed of the schoolteacher’s family was optimistic liberalism, and, oh, with what hope and excitement one listened to FDR in the next decade. The patrician voice called out for a world in which the injustices of the European past would be overcome. It was liberalism which made a deep appeal to Canadians, partly because underneath its universalism lay the call to the English-speaking peoples to rule the world. Decades later with what nausea one now listens to Roosevelt’s inheritors – the Kennedys, the Rockefellers, and Johnson. Yet one knows that these are the true inheritors of that siren voice, both in the society they have built at home and in the empire they have built abroad. The liberal journalists always maintain that America is sound at heart, and it is only the know-nothing reactionaries who lead it astray. Each liberal generation wins its victory over the isolationists, the Nixons, the Goldwaters, etc., etc. But it is those liberal victors who have, more than any others, been responsible for the society as it now is. To try to understand that fact is for me to try to understand the full measure of what it has been to be alive in this era – that is, to make a judgment of the age of progress.
The old platitude must be repeated once again: the United States is the society with the least history prior to the age of progress. (Other societies rush fast to kill what they have, but they still have something to kill.) The basic moral teachers of the United States from Locke to Franklin and from Jefferson to Dewey have been morally shallow. To speak about religion, it is too long and complex a part of European history to describe here why Protestantism’s moral teachings have so readily served the deeper springs of modernity. Suffice it to say that the Protestantism of the U.S. became increasingly a legitimizer of the age of progress and its liberalism. And look what that liberalism has done to the older religions of the later immigrant groups – Catholicism and Judaism. (The forlorn hope of Canada once was that from earlier European traditions, British and French, we would maintain moral roots which would allow us to deal more deeply with existence.) Indeed, the highest public hope in the United States was the belief in pluralism – that their society would be made of many streams and that as the society matured these streams would deepen beyond the shallowness of the pioneering moment. But the many streams have all been shallow, and instead of deepening they have been taken up into one great flood. The many shallow streams have widened into one great lake, the defining element of which is belief in affluence through technology.
How can this society of affluence and freedom (freedom about any issue which does not question the basic assumptions) be responsible for the monstrous occurrences in Vietnam? It used to be said: American society may be banal and vulgar, but this at least saves it from the terrible perversions and romantic nihilism of a decaying Europe. But this argument will no longer do, because in the last years the society of affluence and freedom has shown itself capable, not of the maniacal genocide of Auschwitz, but of the bland, impersonal wiping out of an Asian people who could not otherwise be brought to do what American leaders deemed necessary. This is the hardest thing for liberals to understand: how this could arise out of the progressive society they had built. Here I would assert the ancient and forgotten doctrine that evil is, not the opposite, but the absence of good. If your moral roots lead you to exalt affluent technology as the highest end, out of the consequent vulgarity will come a use of power, when deemed necessary to comfortable self-preservation, which perpetrates evil from its very banality. For example, years of accepting manipulative social science have led Americans to seek solutions in pacification programs, the attendant cruelties of which are hardly evident to those who plan them. The emptiness of a moral tradition that puts its trust in affluence and technology results in using any means necessary to force others to conform to its banal will.
To think ill of the dominant American tradition must not allow one to forget that which remains straight and clear among Americans themselves. Living next to them, Canadians should know better than most how incomplete are the stereotyped gibes of Europeans. The cranes and the starlings still fly high through their skies; sane and wise families grow up; people strive to be good citizens; some men still think. Above all, many Americans have seen with clarity the nature of that which chokes them and seek for ways to live beyond it.
Grant, George. “From Roosevelt to LBJ.” The New Romans: Candid Canadian Opinions of the U.S. Ed. Al Purdy. Edmonton: Hurtig, 1968. 39-41.