“I ask myself: Wouldn’t I be better off, if we gave up speaking French? This is a question that my children, and everyone in Quebec should ask themselves every day.” The question was not entirely rhetorical. Like many French-Canadian intellectuals, Georges favors secession but broods over the price he and his people had to pay for insisting on an independent Quebec. Although it was really none of my business, I told him that he was only asking Esau’s question. Was his French birthright worth more to him than an Anglophone mess of pottage?
For the majority of French-Canadians in Quebec, the answer is unequivocally “yes,” even for those who voted “non” in the last referendum on independence. The Québécois are an older race than either the Anglo-Canadians or the Anglo-Americans of North America, and, in some respects at least, they are haunted by the same memories that bedevil American Southerners. Quebec’s national motto, printed on every license plate, might have been drafted by Mel Bradford: “Je me souviens,” I remember. In the course of several days in Quebec just before Christmas, I met a lawyer who had voted no, because she did not like Jacques Parizeau’s leftist polities, and a businessman who voted yes, but refuses to join the PQ, because it is too much part of the “establishment.” I spoke with Québécois who opposed secession from Canada but only if the province could acquire virtual sovereignty over internal affairs—a position that is hardly different from that of many PQ supporters, who would like to see an independent Quebec as a member of a Canadian confederation.
Most of the formal arguments put forward by the PQ are constitutional and economic, but the real ease for independence was put to me by a lady who told me that she enjoyed visiting the United States, but wherever she found herself in the rest of Canada, she knew that she was looked down on for speaking French, for being Québécois. One of the themes of Francis Parkman’s histories of the French in North America is the contrast he makes between New Englanders and French Canadians: the one, outward-looking and willing to accept hardworking newcomers who would contribute to the colony; the other, inward-looking and suspicious of all those who were neither Catholic nor French. The contrast is exaggerated, but while the ‘Yankees have long ago lost their identity’, the French have maintained and strengthened theirs. They have given up their old hyphenated minority style of French-Canadians and taken on the name Québécois, making themselves the only nonhyphenated people of Canada. In their cultural island of six million Francophones, the people of Quebec have learned to be content with their anomalous condition: French speakers on an English-speaking continent.
I had not been in Quebec for 20 years, and I was once again surprised by how French the people really are: the faces, the gestures, the attitudes, the cautious manner that disguises a kind heart. Georges, who wondered if he was not paying too high a price for speaking French, insisted that apart from language the Québécois were simply North American, hardly different from the people of Ontario or of the United States. But language is not like an overcoat that we put on or take off, depending on the weather; it is the primary mode of being (not just expressing) who we are. To grow up speaking a language is to become a living artifact of the culture produced by the speakers of that language. An American who lives abroad long enough to learn a new language begins to realize that he can think and speak things in, say, Russian or French, that he simply cannot say in English. For generations immigrants to the United States have had to watch their children growing up as foreigners, not so much because they were adopting American customs and attitudes as because in failing to speak Italian or Polish, they could never develop the patterns of thought that would enable them to communicate with their parents.
The Québécois would like to remain who they arc, and are not particularly interested in the liberal English view of fair play or reciprocity. They would not be satisfied by a single federal law guaranteeing each province the right to determine its own language. In the first place, there are millions of French-speakers in Ontario, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia, and for them bilingualism is the only protection against British Canadian arrogance. More importantly, Canada is the result of an agreement between French Quebec and English Ontario. Now there are ten provinces, and by the language and theory of liberalism, the nine Anglophone provinces have the right to veto not just independence but virtually any move toward self-determination taken by Quebec. The Québécois reject the premise.
Mv last day in Quebec City, it is snowing, and I go with my shibering Southern friends to the Plains of Abraham, where I ruin my shoes walking the ground where Montcalm and Wolfe had their fatal encounter more than 200 years ago. On the way, we pass the Quebec parliament building, where only the fleurs-de-lys of French Quebec is flying, with no sign of the Maple Leaf rag. As years went by, the English were mild conquerors, perhaps because we Americans taught them a few lessons about empire in the 1770’s. But there is something about the Englishman that does not like foreigners, does not see the need for their existence. General Wolfe had been at Culloden, where the hope for Scottish liberty was extinguished, and in the years after Culloden, the English practiced cultural genocide against the Scots, a game they had been playing in Ireland since the 15th century, at least. By a cruel irony, it was the Scots Highlanders who gave Wolfe his victory at Quebec. The humor of the Auld Alliance was maintained by the Chevalier Johnstone, Montcalm’s Jacobite aide.
Not far from the monument to the Marquis de Montcalm, there is an equestrian statue of Joan of Arc. Joan, too, had lived under English domination, and she had rallied her people to drive out the conqueror and recover their identity. The English, not content with capturing and executing the maid, smeared her as a strumpet and burned her at the stake as a witch. In years to come, they would give Napoleon the same treatment, and British propaganda during World War I—a campaign in which many leading English writers played a shameful part—demonized the Germans as savages. Not all Englishmen have been chauvinists. When Walter Scott (albeit a Scot) wrote a fair-minded biography of Napoleon, English public opinion went along, and Thomas Hardy was not the only English writer to point out that English farmers were Anglo- Saxon kinsmen of the Germans they were told to kill. It is time for Anglo-Americans, in Canada and the United States, to make up their minds once and for all that the French are in Quebec to stay, because it is their country, and they have the right to do anything they like in it and with it, and if they want to ruin themselves with socialism, that is also their right.
In America, we talk a good game about cultural diversity, but only when it is some Third World culture that can be used to undermine the ruins of our own. In other cases—Serbs and Croats, Ulster Catholics and Ulster Protestants—we are horrified by any vigorous expression of national character. Even the Québécois, whose national party is far to the left of our own Democrats, have not been immune to the accusations of xenophobia, and when Jacques Parizeau made a completely accurate statement that Quebec would have been independent, but for the votes of immigrants and Indians, he was forced to resign as Premier of Quebec, for fear of offending international opinion. Apparently, we moderns do not like to think that there is any group from which we might be excluded. When I was a child, I went through phases of wishing I were Jewish or Greek, but in later years I began to appreciate the otherness of other people, realizing that with some hard study and an indifference to ridicule I might hope to become a welcome alien among the peoples I admired. But I also came to realize that the vain ambition to join, if only temporarily, another society was tantamount to wishing the extinction of that society. No amount of study or legal paperwork could turn me into a genuine Frenchman, and our own mass naturalizations have all the efficacy of a Moonie wedding.
Hell, according to the solipsist, is other people. The world would be a perfect place without all those aliens, those rivals for attention, who interrupt my thoughts with their greedy striving to take some bit of what is mine, with their bigoted insistence on having a perspective that is not perfectly congruent with my own. The Creator’s big mistake (or should I say my mistake?) was in not leaving well enough alone, once He had created the perfect man. Eve—the original other person—spoiled the garden of Eden by introducing an alternative point of view. What the Puritan wrote in jest.
Two paradises ’twere in one
To live in paradise alone
solipsists can say in earnest, and some of them, not content with shutting their eyes to the reality of other people, have taken the practical step of eliminating the evidence that contradicts their point of view. Murder is the refutation of contradiction, an annihilation of the other that leaves one less first-person singular in the world.
The social analogue for solipsism can be found in all the ideologies, whether national, political, or religious, that deny existential status to their rivals. If one belongs to a master race, then all other races must be subjugated or eliminated; if progress depends on class consciousness and industrial development, as Marx and Engels believed, then the extermination of regressive nations, such as the Highland Scots or the Jews, is justifiable; and if paradise is a San Diego shopping mall, then no effort or expense should be spared in dragging less developed cultures into the global marketplace, “less developed” being an elastic term that can cover a !kung bushman, who has nothing to trade for the electronic glass-beads that multinational businessmen would like to sell him, an Albanian shepherd, who believes that it is a man’s business to revenge insults to his family, or a Slavophile Russian mathematician, who, at the funeral of Russian civilization, refuses to join the dry-eyed mourners spitting on the corpse. Each of these exotic points of view—the artifacts of ancient traditions, as delicate as sculptured crystalline—must be gathered up with the old fruit jars and nonreturnable bottles of Middle America—and ground into roadbed material for the interstate highway system.
All modern ideologies—international socialism, national socialism, democratic globalism—are inherently genocidal, because they exclude the possibility of a legitimate alternative. This is what makes the language of American liberals and neoconservatives so frightening, their smug determination to turn the world into a hall of mirrors in which they will see nothing but their own reflection.
Any universal creed, including Christianity in its various forms, may be tempted to treat its competitors not only as inferior or illegitimate but as abominations to be eliminated. Some early Christians were naive enough to regard their pagan neighbors as demons in human form, and even Augustine—who certainly knew better—dwells lovingly on all the legendary crimes of the Romans, while ignoring the barbarities and abominations of the Old Testament. Missionaries going to convert the heathen have sometimes identified the Christian gospel with the philosophical and material culture of their native land, the greatest exception being the Jesuits who recognized that the Chinese and Japanese or even the Iroquois, in converting to Christianity, did not also have to become mock-Europeans.
Christian nations have been aggressive in proselytizing, and on occasion they have expelled or persecuted competing sects and other faiths, most often for reasons of state. It is all too true that Christian universalism, when carried to an extreme by Calvinist zealots or fanatical Catholics, is responsible for much human misery, because the zealot, in identifying his own limited point of view with that of his Creator, feels justified in going to any lengths to carry out the divine will.
It is no paradox to say that the only restraints on Christian universalism derive from Christian faith in a supernatural creator. Stripped of its belief in Heaven and Hell, in the God who became man and suffered all that a man can suffer, the Christian point of view saps ordinary human affections of their vitality and annihilates the individual as thoroughly as Buddhism or Islam. The proper name for this denatured Christianity is liberalism.
By liberalism, I mean the tradition of modern philosophy, from Montaigne and Descartes to Hobbes, Locke, and the classical liberals of the 19th century, all the way down to the libertarians and socialists whose battles over gun rights, school vouchers, and Food Stamps comprise the principal distraction from the political reality in which we live. This liberalism is based on a lie; the lie is individualism. This is not to say that liberals have not made a good case for individual rights, but even more basic to the creed of liberalism than the doctrines of natural rights is the assumption that liberals are individualists who speak for the individual and in defense of the first-person singular point of view. This is a bare-faced lie: built into the very core of liberal philosophy is a radioactive poison that rots out all peculiarities, reducing individual men and women to ciphers, erasing national frontiers, and destroying all distinctive institutions that reflect and transmit differences of culture, religion, and—for want of a better word—formation.
Even other liberals are aware that socialists despise the individual and want to grind him into the dust of social classes and oppressed minorities, but, at the other extreme, most libertarians become livid whenever some little group of individuals wants to defend its distinctive point of view against the great undifferentiated mass of hypothetical individuals.
If liberals were really individualists, they would embrace the dictum of Dr. Johnson (the greatest anti-liberal of his day); “Every man has the right to speak his mind, and every other man has the right to knock him down for it.” One of the most original of liberals did say something about defending to the death your right to say what he disagreed with, and another declared that error of opinion (that is, a non-liberal position) could be tolerated so long as reason (that is, liberal rationalism) was free to combat it. But, paradoxically, it is the liberals’ commitment to defending other points of view that is responsible for their anti-individualism, because to privilege (in theory, of course, never in practice) all points of view is to deny all of them, except the point of view that tolerates and therefore trumps the rest.
In liberal societies there is little toleration of dissent on fundamental questions. A writer who impugns the legitimacy of a democratic regime will be declared either a fascist or an anarchist and shunned by the decent godless people who work at think tanks and live off foundation grants. In America alone, there is a long list of peoples whose points of view are treated as illegitimate: black and white separatists. Christian reconstructionists (who, if they constituted a majority, would reimpose Biblical law), people who want to wave the Stars and Bars, parents who want their children to pray in school, people who join social clubs in order to be with “their own kind,” if their definition of kind involves ethnicity, sex, or religion. Milovan Djilas once said of Marxists that they wanted to eliminate all forms of property except their own, but this is only one example of a more general rule, that liberals wish to eliminate all points of view except their own.
The very heart of liberalism is the principle of indifference. A good liberal, in making ethical decisions, is supposed to look at himself and his friends from the same objective perspective from which he would view the actions of strangers. Some used the language of the impartial spectator; others have spoken of the veil of ignorance; William Godwin speaks of taking the perspective of an angel; and Thomas Nagel (echoing Godwin two centuries later) thinks we should try to view our decisions from the perspective of an extraterrestrial.
To view all humanity from the Martian point of view is to reduce human beings to the level of the microbes found in allegedly Martian rocks. From the divine (or angelic) perspective, no other point of view is tolerable. Error of opinion may not be tolerated, because no alternative point of view is conceivable, much less permissible.
The liberals’ nonjudgmental world is a nightmare, in which mothers love all children as well as their own; where soldiers fight not for the honor and interest of their country but to stabilize the political situation 5,000 miles away; where the children of aliens are given privileges at the expense of the children of native-born citizens; where all the little differences of tradition—in religion, in culture, in ethnic folkways—are abolished; where men—in the name of individual rights—may marry other men and adopt male children and where parents are taxed to pay for public schools in which everything they love is derided.
If liberalism in all its political forms from Adam Smith to Karl Marx is wrong, then what is the alternative? That would be telling. It goes without saying that I have my point of view, which I regard as superior to all others—it is mine, after all. As much as I might wish to convert my friends and readers to my views on the sacraments or a commitment to Latin and Greek, I have no wish to delegitimate other perspectives (or, at least, most other perspectives). While I might pray for the conversion of the Buddhists, I most decidedly do not want them to become more like me, any more than I want women to become more like men. The multiplicity and variety of created things reflects the glory of the Creator who transcends all of them. To reduce all moral life, as Lawrence Kohlberg and John Rawls do, to the moral reasonings of white, middle-class, Euro-American males is to diminish the qualities of life.
Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brindled cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim.
There are abstract and unchanging truths, as Plato once proved, mathematical and logical rules for example, but they have no meaning for us unless they are embedded in some human tradition. We can talk about love or patriotism or civic virtue all day, and we might even end up in the Leo Strauss Chair of Political Abstraction, but we know nothing important about love until we have loved someone or something, and we understand nothing of virtue until we have formed our character in practicing it. The virtues themselves are interpreted differently in different countries. Those who understand anything about natural law know that it is not a universal abstraction. Justice is not, Aristotle observes, like fire that burns the same in Persia and in Greece. It is a tendency (like right-handedness) that is colored and altered by experience.
Natural law tells us that it is right for children to honor parents; it does not tell us that Eskimos were wrong to allow aged grandparents to leave the igloo and freeze to death in order to save food for the children. A stranger in a foreign land does not have the right to an opinion on the local wine or the relative merits of political candidates. If he does open his mouth to take sides, he may find that people on the side he has chosen have turned against him. Nobody likes to have his little tastes and prejudices judged by a censor. Love me, love my dog. If I happen to prefer pistachio ice cream, no one can tell mc that strawberry is better. There are standards of quality and workmanship of course, in ice cream as in art, but if I tell you I prefer Haydn to Beethoven, you had better not try to deny me the right to say that I do not or can not or may not, because I am not too old to knock you down for it.
This is the privilege of speaking in the first-person singular, but there is also the privilege of the first-person plural as in “we French,” or “we Buddhists,” or “we birdwatchers.” Whatever privileges I demand for my point of view—the right, for example, to think my own thoughts and associate with my own kind—I must accord to others. Let the Québécois be the Québécois.
Taking the angelic or extraterrestrial perspective gives us the illusion of power—the illusion the great tempter created when he took our Lord up onto a high place—but not the reality. No matter how much we worry about human rights violations in China, famine in Africa, war in Bosnia, there is nothing practical we can do about it, unless we choose to give up our own lives (with all the commitments we have incurred) and move to China or Zaire. It is a question of leverage. Everyone knows that Archimedes said, “Give me a lever long enough, and I shall move the earth.” What they sometimes forget is that Archimedes said he needed not just a lever but “a place to stand.” Without a place to stand—a family, a neighborhood, a people and its language—we move nothing, we do nothing, we are nothing. The first task of a moral human being is not to play the stranger to our friends and judge the world as if we were gods; our obligation is—to use the language of Martin Luther and the Nashville Agrarians—to take our stand. We may not move the earth, but we might stiffen our backbones.