John Ralston Saul: The Comeback

Over the next few weeks I’m reading all the books that have been selected as finalists for the Shaughnessy Cohen prize for political writing (not including my own), and writing up my reactions — mainly to promote conversation. Today we have John Ralston Saul’s The Comeback: How Aboriginals are Reclaiming Power and Influence.

I must admit that I have always struggled with John Ralston Saul’s books. I own several. My biggest problem is that I never know what the hell he’s talking about. It could be him, or it could be me, but something tells me it’s him. I’m constantly getting pulled up short. He’ll be writing along, and he’ll say something like “you know how whenever you do blah-blah, someone will come up to you and say blah-blah,” and I’ll be like, “um, er, no actually, that never happens to me.” It’s always like that.

Reading Saul reminds me of the episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, where a transporter malfunction leaves Geordi and Ensign Ro “out of phase” with everyone else on the ship. They inhabit the same world as everyone else, but they cannot interact with it. I feel like that with Saul, like he is out of phase with our world. Like he inhabits a world that contains all the same books as the world that we live in (Hobbes, Rousseau, etc.) but in his phase-shifted state they say something completely different from what they say in our world. Or where history unfolds in the same way, but it means something totally different to him.

The Comeback has helped me to put my finger on part of the problem, which is that Saul never really explains himself, or what he’s talking about. This is an issue that I’m actually quite self-conscious about, because I have the opposite vice. For example, whenever anyone brings up the topic of “mansplaining,” I get really quiet and try to look inconspicuous. The reason is that I’m an inveterate mansplainer. I just love explaining things. I pride myself on being able to explain things better than anyone else. This is perhaps excusable, given that I get paid to explain things for a living. But I also write books out of a burning desire to explain things. So unfortunately it’s become a habit that’s a bit difficult to turn off.

In any case, Saul has exactly the opposite problem. At the end of the book, which is all about “the comeback” of Aboriginal peoples in Canada, I ultimately don’t know what he’s talking about. Most importantly, I don’t know what this supposed aboriginal “comeback” consists in. Population increase? Cultural renewal? Economic development? Intellectual renaissance? All of the above? He mentions each, but doesn’t really connect them in any way, or present any data, save for population levels. But is the high birth rate a good thing? Often it is a symptom of marginalization and economic underdevelopment. So what is the comeback? I still don’t know – because at no point does Saul ever explain clearly what it consists in.

Reading his book often feels like walking in during the middle of a dinner party, somewhere deep in the Toronto Annex, where a gentleman at the head of the table is holding forth on some topic and gathering up a head of steam. What he produces is a series of declarations, like this:

Imagine! We have imposed on Aboriginal people a method of calculation that defines their rights and place in society. And that calculation is based on the worst form of European racism, which assumes there is virtue in the purity of blood lineage. This method was formalized in the second half of the nineteenth century, when the empires were busy justifying their growing power on the basis of Darwinian racial superiority. This required a measurement of race. Blood was a pseudo-scientific characteristic useful in the creation of a racial pecking order. And it could be applied to all peoples with the certainty that science – being European – would put the Europeans on top. What was absolutely clear in this Darwinesque theory was that interracial marriages produced a dilution of blood. A watering down of purity, and therefore of such things as nobility of character and intelligence. How fortunate that modern science could be invoked in support of the British, French, German, American and Italian empires. Better still, progress and a racial pecking order and blood purity could be linked. Imperial officials, succeeded by Canadian officials, could apply all this to the administration of Indian affairs. Science comforting power! A wonderful coincidence. No! No! There is no lucky accident here. It is destiny. Wonderful, disinterested, Darwinian destiny!

But it doesn’t stop there. This is grand theory. Global. All-inclusive. It encompasses the natural superiority of men over women. Long after 1982, when equal rights for women were given constitutional status in the Charter of Rights and specifically for Aboriginal women in the amended constitution itself, the patriarchal truth of the Indian Act is still being picked away at. The status of men versus the status of women is only one part of this. Rights on- and off-reserve. Marrying non-Aboriginals and losing status because of watered-down blood. And on and on. (48-49)

Reading The Comeback is sort of like listening to a Rick Mercer rant that goes on for several hours. The writing style doesn’t help. Saul has picked up a slight tick – which previously I had associated only with text-messaging – of using sentence fragments interspersed with gratuitous periods to convey emphasis. Like. This. Of course people are free to write however they like. The problem with this style, however, is that it accentuates the sense that the book is a collection of assertions rather than of arguments.

Notice also how mysterious Saul can be. Consider the second paragraph quoted above. He is obviously thinking something – something to do with gender – but he simply doesn’t tell us what it is. Whatever is in his mind just doesn’t make it out onto the paper. And so we are left having to guess. Part of the problem is that 5 of the 10 ‘sentences’ that make up the paragraph are actually sentence fragments, and so do not succeed in expressing a thought. But he also assumes a great deal of knowledge on the part of the reader. For example, I’m guessing that when he says “Marrying non-Aboriginals and losing status because of watered-down blood” he is referring to a provision of the Indian Act in Canada that prevailed until the 1985 amendments (although that is not entirely clear, since he doesn’t say anything about that provision applying only to women). In any case, 1985 may seem like only yesterday to Saul, but 1985 was actually 30 years ago. This means that most people under the age of 40, who are not intensely preoccupied with Aboriginal affairs, will have no memory of the events and no idea what he is talking about. Normally a writer would try to explain a bit what happened, in order to make the point (whatever that point is).

Finally, and this has to do with the “phase-shifted” issue again, Saul sometimes writes things that on first pass you think you must have mis-read, or mis-understood. For example, when I got to the end of the following paragraph I simply could not believe that it said what it appeared to say, so I had to go back and re-read it. He is lodging the usual complaints about the right-wing view that “corporate taxes are bad. Debt is bad. Public initiatives are costly and fail. The market must be left to its own devices,” etc. He then comes up with the following:

The core of this ideology is the marginalization of the public good in favour of Hobbesian self-interest: fear the other, look after yourself. More punishment, more prison, more individualism without rules to ensure fairness. Canadians have never really bought into this elite consensus. We have stubbornly held on to the main institutions of the public good, even as the elites chip away at them. They can only chip and try to bury time bombs in vast pieces of legislation, because they know we will vote against anything overt (156-157).

The first three sentences are fine, but then suddenly one gets the disorienting sensation of being in the parallel universe again, where Saul is part of the “we” who have been valiantly resisting “the elites” who have been chipping away at the public good. This confuses me. Saul and I both live in Toronto, and were both writing books sometime in 2013, during the mayoralty of Rob Ford, which was governed by the imperative to cut public services in order to finance tax cuts. And yet when Saul looked out his window, apparently what he saw was (1) an “elite consensus” in favour of these tax cuts, (2) being stolidly opposed by ordinary Canadians, a group that (3) counts him among its members. The world that I live in is rather different. First of all, it is one in which John Ralston Saul is definitely a member of the “elite” (cv here – note the part about how he is both a Companion of the Order of Canada and a Chevalier in the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres of France). Second, the entire “elite,” including not just the latte-sipping set but the Toronto Board of Trade and the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, were calling for tax increases. And third, it was the Tim Hortons crowd – or better yet, the Steak Queen crowd – who were supporting Ford and clamouring for tax cuts.

When someone offers such a wild misreading of ordinary Canadian politics (suggesting that there is an “elite consensus” in favour of “more punishment, more prison, more individualism without rules”) it is difficult to have much confidence in the claims that he makes about Aboriginal affairs. At very least one would want more robust documentation than this book provides.

As for the specifics of Aboriginal issues, there are so many points on which I disagree with Saul that I wouldn’t know where to start. The central disagreement, however, can be easily expressed. When I look at the situation of Aboriginal peoples in Canada, I see a set of extremely complex issues, involving very difficult tradeoffs, in pretty much every policy area: economic development, culture & language, education, even criminal justice. Saul, by contrast, sees simple problems, with simple solutions and no tradeoffs (indeed, he even has a chapter called “Easy Things To Do,” leading one to expect an offsetting chapter called “Hard Things To Do,” except the latter never comes) . This sangfroid arises out of his core philosophical conviction, which one can find expressed as far back as Voltaire’s Bastards.

Fundamentally, Saul remains a proponent of the view, which gained widespread currency in the 1960s, that all of the major pathologies of Western civilization can be traced back to a specifically Western form of rationality. These pathologies can therefore be eliminated, all in one shot, just by getting rid of this Western form of rationality and replacing it with some other (one that is more holistic, attuned to nature, feminine, or whatever). Early articulation of this idea, in the wake of the Second World War, set off a hunt for the “other” of Western reason, which various people at various times have claimed to find in different places: in aesthetics rather than science, in the body rather than the mind, in women rather than men, and above all, in non-Western cultures rather than the West. Saul, rolling along in this well-worn rut, claims to find this “other” in Aboriginal cultures. To get the general flavour of this, consider these passages from Leroy Little Bear, which Saul cites with approval:

All of the above leads one to articulate Aboriginal philosophy as being holistic and cyclical or repetitive, generalist, process-oriented, and firmly grounded in a particular place… In contrast to Aboriginal value systems, one can summarize the value system of Western Europeans as being linear and singular, static and objective. The Western European concept of time is a good example of linearity… The linearity manifests itself in terms of social organization that is hierarchical in terms of both structure and power… Singularity manifests itself in the thinking process of Western Europeans in concepts such as one true god, one true answer, and one right way. This singularity results in a social structure consisting of specialists… (227-8)

For anyone who has followed the trajectory of critical theory post-Second World War, this all sounds depressingly familiar (and not distinctively Aboriginal). I’ve spent a lot of time arguing against this whole way of thinking (in The Rebel Sell and Enlightenment 2.0), so I’m not going to get into the details here. I would however like to point out that, once the problem is framed in these terms, it basically closes down any possibility of critical discussion or debate. From this perspective, anyone who criticizes, or even raises any doubts, is simply manifesting his or her residual adherence to Western ways of thinking (insisting on arguments becomes “being linear,” pointing out contradictions becomes looking for “one right answer,” and so on). Of course, there’s nothing anyone can do to stop people from framing things this way. To me, the real question is just whether it is productive. After all, people on the left have been playing exactly this same card for over 50 years, and seriously, where has it gotten us?

One of the complaints that I’ve heard about my own book is that it unfairly targets conservatives, painting them as anti-rationalist. My response has been to say that, if I had published the book in 1968, it would have been absolutely clear that the Left was more anti-rationalist than the Right, and so I would have been more critical of the Left. However, with the rise of “common sense” conservatism, it is clear that the ideological polarity of anti-rationalism has shifted to the Right, and so my book, being published in 2014, winds up being more critical of conservatives. Anyhow, if anyone happens not to believe me, about what things were like in 1968, all they need to do is read Saul’s work, to get a taste of genuinely old-school left-wing anti-rationalism.


John Ralston Saul: The Comeback — 7 Comments

  1. Thankyouthankyouthankyou.

    For about 20 years, I had a 95% unread copy of “Voltaire’s Bastards” on my shelf until I gave it away to a charity sale. I’d bought it after hearing his Massey Lectures, which I’d found interesting at the time. (But please, no quiz on what they were about.) So it was very disappointing to get, after a couple of attempts, such a short ways into the thicket of VB. I recall feeling a bit inadequate, because he seemed to be a pretty smart guy who’d read a lot of pretty important books. I also re-read the printed version of the Massey Lectures, and found them much less of a slog. So I just figured that he needed a really ruthless editor, and in lieu of that, the discipline of a broadcast lecture format kept him reined in.

    Thanks again for brightening my day. And I wonder who bought my copy of VB, and how far they got.

  2. This is an amusing and enlightening commentary on Saul, and it makes me wonder if part of the problem that you refer to early on re: Saul’s highly assertoric mode of writing lead me to wonder – purely speculatively – whether this might not be partly a consequence of the fact that Saul’s career hasn’t ever really been based on having any one “real job”. So he’s never had to be rigorous about any one thing – just b.s. his way through many things, and then impress other dabblers or dilettantes with the stylish manner in which he’s done so.

    Of course, if my (admittedly speculative) theory is right at all, this would only serve to underline how truly preposterous Saul’s posture of being somehow apart from, and opposed to, the “elites” is. Saul is not only part of the elite in the generic sense of holding an “elite job” of some sort – he’s an elite in the even fuller sense of basing on his entire existence on his ability to insinuate himself into, and shape-shift between, different corners of the Canadian elite. (Although I don’t mean to suggest that Saul is a particularly nefarious fellow by using this kind of language.)

    And that brings us around to the issue raised at the end of the post, about Saul’s 60s-style “anti-rationalism”. For the reasons that you give, a guy like Saul will see himself – contrary to all appearances – as “anti-elite” because he thinks he’s on the side of the “other” of “Western reason” (for which purpose just about any other will do, as you nicely point out – aboriginals in this case).

    So this raises two questions: first of all, why is the right-wing “elitist anti-elitism” more politically successful than the left-wing version? In other words, right wing “elitist anti-elitists” have their Rob Ford, so why doesn’t Saul have an equivalent?

    But to me understanding left-wing “elitist anti-elitism” is actually a more important and interesting task, because this posture is way more influential in certain powerful sectors of society than you admit. For instance, it’s possible to see the entire “privilege” discourse in contemporary academia as a version of this (a way for left-wing elites to claim to anti-elitist) – and that whole posture is being rapidly mainstreamed (see this story about “diversity consultants” at tony NYC private schools:

    Even more revealing, see the recent editorial in The Globe and Mail by our last left-of-centre Prime Minster, Paul Martin (it’s been prominently featured on the G&M’s comment page for over a week now). Martin writes:

    “[W]e cannot ignore the need for indigenous thought… [U]nlike Western teaching, which compartmentalizes much knowledge, the indigenous approach, which is grounded in the links between all of existence, is more holistic. Or to come at it another way: Western thought often implies that we are above nature. Indigenous thought states that we are unequivocally a part of nature, which is one of the reasons indigenous thinkers have had trouble making themselves heard in so many debates, such as those focused on the environment… [I]t is important that our institutions of higher learning recognize the argument of many indigenous scholars to the effect that indigenous thought is not a subset of Eurocentric thought, but a body of knowledge with very different origins that are every bit as rich and profound.”

    Now, I wouldn’t want to deny that there may well be rich traditions of indigenous thought, and we might all benefit from greater exposure to them. But the general thrust of Martin’s argument here is nothing but the “60s-style” anti-rationalist romanticism applied to a vaguely specified claims about aboriginal ideas that are purely “Saulian”.

    And this is our most recent left-of-centre PM. (But he was a “business liberal”, you say? Well, that’s only all the more evidence of how deeply “60s-style” modish anti-rationalism has penetrated the left and even the centre…it’s so much part of the elite “superstructure” that fellows like Paul Martin and John Ralston Saul can hobnob on this kind of gibberish, and imagine themselves to be “anti-elitists” in the process.)

    • It’s odd and certainly not funny that erudite talkers can barely conceptualize another’s thought. Mr Sauls induction was to offer a ‘holistic’ relationship to the land, the wind,& the sky, which the indigenous relate to in their core. Adjust your intelligence up or down as your able. Please don’t tell me you weren’t aware of this; entertain the idea of the proposition being true when is neither true nor false. Once again smarten up; it ain’t the books you read but how your read them lol. Take this or not. How clearly do you understand math as a system the fixes relationships where functions because they work are presumed as empirical. I won’y give you anymore than this link by which all I’ve said could be known. As John Ralston Saul causes you to stretch or crumble in frustration (said here a lot, to much) he exemplifies what a philosopher dwelling in the real world can do. The natives are the same as us and very different at the same time.

  3. Dear Joseph: Reading your review was like listening to someone tell you–precisely, and in detail–why the music you loved at sixteen sucks. You kinda know they’re right, but it’s still sorta painful. Truth be told, I’ve always had a soft spot for John Ralston Saul. I read him when I was young and impressionable, and, as such, my love for his books is not unlike the stubborn attachment so many of us have to the music that happened to be playing on the radio when we were kissed for the first time. But it’s getting harder and harder to love his books, in part because he seems to have forgotten where the line between poetry and philosophy is. To my mind, his best writing playfully dances around the mythological boundaries between poetry and philosophy, without ever forgetting that they’re necessarily distinct. For example, if we’re talking about Aboriginal birth rates or the Toronto sewage system or the pros and cons of progressive taxation, please don’t give me poetry! But if we’re talking about the way it feels to live in a cold climate such as ours, where Mother Nature tries to kill you half the year, please, feel free, bring on the poetry, John Ralston Saul! He would of course say, I imagine, in his defense, that his critics (people like you) who demand clear arguments and hard data are just high-functioning autistic males: you know, Spock-like stuffed shirts, reason-worshiping robots with MBAs in Being Boring. As you say, this is a well-worn cliche which dates back to 1960s. Alas, at this point, in 2015, it sounds downright funny–like enthusiastically saying “far out” at the next dinner party you go to (without the slightest tinge of irony). Regardless, Canadian intellectual life just isn’t as polarized as Saul seems to think it is: between Enlightenment lovers and Enlightenment haters. And I wonder if it ever was, even in the Age of Aquarius.

  4. I am so glad that you do take the time to ‘mansplain’ things Mr Heath. As a long time non-Canadian reader of your books & blog, I find you to be a source of inspiration for clear and careful thinking. After reading Richard Feynman(who was called the “great explainer”) in school, I never got to relive those experiences; those “aha moments” that come when you finally understand something about world in a profound yet deeply simple way. But when I started reading “Filthy Lucre” 4 years back, it all came back; the small intellectual ‘highs’ that I have been missing so much . So thanks a bunch and keep explaining away. It is never boring nor all that obvious, trust me!

  5. I have always thought of JRS as writing in the Canadian ‘third option’ of Western thought, carrying on the tradition of Grant, McLuhan, Innes, Lonergan and Frye. Neither ulititarian/pragmatic, which cannot accept transcendence, nor Marxist, which only sees hierarchies of power (and in a postmodern sense the cultural basis for language and “différence”), JRS attempts to bring us not just reinterpretations of dualisms and how they can be reconciled (or even worse, disambiguated), to say that fundamental ontological western problems of oppression and imbalance of power are merely impediments to transcendence. In other words, our problems are ontological illusions that don’t exist in Canada’s founding cultures.

    To say that he is successful at doing this is another matter, and I tend to agree his is a bit of a dilletante. But we should be paying more attention to the Canadian third option (as Kantian as it may seem superficially) and perhaps be open to alternatives to the pragmatism that pervades North American discourse (and the hey pay attention to the post-Marxist progressives). To say it is “rationalism” is rather naive of him and he should know better. Yeah kind of like what you wrote… some know-it-all reads Innes and Grant and not quite getting the gist, goes to a dinner party in the Annex and shoots his superior mouth off…

  6. Home→aboriginal affairs
    then you say
    I feel like that with Saul, like he is out of phase with our world. Like he inhabits a world that contains all the same books as the world that we live in (Hobbes, Rousseau, etc.) but in his phase-shifted state they say something completely different from what they say in our world.
    ab original. You have the chutzpah to say John is out of phase when indigenous or original peoples is in phase. Your as in phase as your audience is, my assumption. Will that word indiscretion, open me up for a trouncing? Good luck