Archive for December, 2009

Reading Charles Taylor Again

Grant Havers writes to say logic is not Charles Taylor’s long suit. It bothers Havers that Taylor argues for the superiority of Christianity while clinging to the idea that other cultures/beliefs are equally worthy of “recognition” and worthy of the political rights and privileges that go with recognition. It leaves us without means to defend ourselves against the intolerant. I agree. Taylor’s soft tolerance detracts “intolerably” from the sense of right and wrong.

We find a similar indifference to logic in Modern Social Imaginaries (Duke University, 2004). Taylor argues persons living in an “imaginary” (a “culture,” perhaps – he speaks of the European Enlightenment as an “imaginary”) are more or less unable to comprehend other “imaginaries,” especially previous ones. Thus he argues that we in the modern age cannot enter fully into the pre-modern, and indeed are now seeing the “modern” slip away. Locke and the Enlightenment are becoming incomprehensible.

But – here’s the contradiction: to make this assertion, he must describe past “imaginaries.” If he is to convince us that we are losing the Enlightenment he must show it to us. Thus we learn that the past is not entirely closed to him. Why may we not conclude that insofar as we understand Taylor, the past is not entirely closed to us?

Now I’m re-reading Taylor’s “Shared and Divergent Values.” It’s one of the selections in Peter Russell’s Essential Readings in Canadian Government and Politics (forthcoming from Emond Montgomery Publications).  Here’s how I once put the argument in this famous essay: “Taylor supports the building of a Québécois way of life to distinguish the citizens of Quebec from other populations on the North American continent but hopes at the same time that Quebec will not differ from other jurisdictions in its adherence to broad principles of liberal-democratic justice. In all his writings on Quebec, Taylor is looking for the half way house” (The Once and Future Canadian Democracy).


The Woman’s Caucus Unsubscribes

The women are falling over themselves in a rush to get off the CPSA Women’s Caucus email list. It’s a bit of a mystery. Shannon Sampert, Tina Beaudry-Mellor, Koula Mellos, Manon Tremblay, Hélèn Pellerin, Dana Christina Cadeschi, Ailish Johnson: I don’t know these political scientists and I don’t know why they are stampeding for the exit.

No unsubscriber gives her reasons. It’s hush hush. But if you think Frances Widdowson figures somewhere in the story you are probably right.

These days Widdowson is complaining that the peer-review process in Aboriginal Studies is dominated by a “postmodern sisterhood,” which, she says, overwhelmingly favours scholars who argue that native people, because of their ancestry, have “a different way of knowing” not accessible to others.

She’s riding high on the huge success of Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry (co-authored with Albert Howard), but the paper she submitted for panel presentation at the CPSA this spring has been rejected. It criticizes Kiera Ladner’s contention that scholarly research must respect the “different ways of knowing” and aboriginal methods of inquiry. Ladner is the head of the section of the program committee that reviewed Widdowson’s proposal.

Widdowson argues: “If the CPSA were really interested in open and vigorous debate, as it claims, it would organize a debate on aboriginal epistemologies in political science between Kiera Ladner and myself.”

I agree.

See Widdowson’s blog.  http;//

p.s. I can’t figure out why I’m receiving the Women’s Caucus communications. I unsubscribed years ago. Suddenly: I’m back! Someone signed me up. Another mystery.

Climate Change and the Social Sciences

The experiments with Siberian pines are going nowhere. Dendroclimatologists have sliced and diced and entered the numbers. The results are not conclusive. The research is not going well. We need a more reliable source of information on the climate of the first millennium.

I’m not talking about ice cores, or rock formations. We need a human source. We need to hear from men and women. And why shouldn’t we? The period of greatest interest for the climate-change scientists is 750-1450 of the Common Era; it’s sometimes called the Medieval Warming Period (MWP). That’s not so long ago. (I won’t go into reasons for the interest in the MWP. Or as I should say, the so-called MWP. You probably know it. It’s long been supposed that there was a rise in temperature years ago followed by a brief “ice age.” Global warming prophets would be pleased to find the supposition false. A rise in temperature in the first millennium cannot easily be attributed to industrialization.)

But think about it. We don’t need to crunch trees. The human race has masses of records from the relevant years: no graphs and statistics, of course. No temperatures. What we have are words and pictures; poems, sculptures, histories, diaries, letters, annals, laws.

We know what people wore in the first millennium and where they lived; we know their seasonal occupations; we know when lands came under the plough; we know whether farmlands were abandoned, and when and why. We know what people planted and when. We know when they harvested. We know what they were hunting, what the edible plants were, when garden plants bloomed. We know road conditions, storms, tides. I’ll come up with a longer list at some point.

We could draw up a weather chart for 750-1450. Of course. Decade by decade? We could probably do it year by year if necessary. We’ll need historians of all kinds; political scientists, students of language and literature. Let’s do it. We’ll describe the change – or lack of change – in all the currently populated areas of the northern hemisphere. We needn’t confine ourselves to the MWP. We’ll examine the centuries before and after to put things in perspective. There will be issues about interpretation. But one thing’s certain; the “raw data” will never be dumped. It’s all in the public sphere, in published form or on the Internet, or in carefully guarded archives, museums, universities, and special collections.

It will be a huge job, of course. It will cost millions. And now perhaps you see the point of this note. Why shouldn’t the social sciences and arts side of the campus get some of the millions in grant money presently going to the tree crunchers?

Think of the book titles! What Shakespeare Can Tell Us about Climate Change. When the Greeks Bundled Up; Costume and Global Warming. Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  Let’s think first about the grant applications. And international cooperation. And conferencing. And new organizations and academic specialties. We are going to have fun.

Flanagan; The Great Escape

I’m jumping the gun here. Tom Flanagan’s forthcoming book, Beyond the Indian Act: Restoring Aboriginal Property Rights, will be out next spring (McGill-Queen’s). His co-authors are Christopher Alcantara, and André LeDressay.

It makes the case for developing and extending the First Nations Land Title Recognition Act, a measure already in effect in some jurisdictions, which gives First Nations access to modern, effective property rights while enabling them to retain their autonomy and institutions of self-government.

It not only proposes means to enable Indians to get beyond the Indian Act – and out from under the burden of what Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard call the “Aboriginal Industry” – it shows that schemes for the escape are originating with bold thinkers in the First Nations and credibly locates the crucial decision-making powers  – including the choice whether to escape – at the level of the First Nations governments.

In brief it shows what can be done, and what is being done, to alleviate poverty and the wretched housing conditions on Indian reservations. It might be the most important book on Aboriginal Affairs in Canadian history.

Constitutional Crisis Revisited

A year ago Canada was in the throes of a constitutional crisis. There’s been surprisingly little discussion of it in the weekend news. But the collection of essays edited by Peter Russell and Lorne Sossin (Parliamentary Democracy in Crisis; University of Toronto Press) remains a bestseller. is bombarding me with notices.

Marcos asks for comments on the chapter by Jean Leclair and Jean-François Gaudreault-DesBiens. A glance at the footnotes turns up references to Tocqueville, Judith Sklar, Jeremy Waldron, James Madison, Alan Cairns. My interest is piqued.

But unfortunately, like other contributors to this volume, they conclude that Canadians should take last winter’s crisis as proof that constitutional reform is needed. Canada is suffering from a “democratic deficit.” It may be the old story. If you’re losing the political game, if the votes aren’t tumbling your way, demand an overhaul of the rulebook. But given more time, these authors, Leclair and Gaudreault-DesBiens, could probably do better.

Two observations: On page 112 they argue that, “The House of Commons is … no longer the place where regional issues will be debated.” But the House of Commons is not meant to be a place for debating regional issues. It was never meant to be such a place. As George Brown and George-Etienne Cartier envisaged it, the Commons was to be – exactly – an arena where regional issues were not tolerated. Brown says: “The questions that used to excite the most hostile feelings among us have been taken away from the general legislature and placed under the control of the local bodies [i.e., the provincial legislatures]” (Brown, Canadian Legislative Assembly, February 8, 1865).

Leclair and Gaudreault-DesBiens make the same complaint of the Senate; it does not fulfill its function “as a house of the regions.” But if the Commons was not meant to legislate on regional and particular issues, a fortiori, the Senate. Cartier wanted a solid and effective body of French speakers in both chambers. Securing an adequate number of Senate seats was a priority. But French-speaking Senators would not debate issues of particular concern to French Canadians as French Canadians. No, Cartier as much as Brown wanted to keep French Canadian matters out of the national legislature. He saw in federal union the prospect of introducing the degree of autonomy for French Canadians once hoped for from the Constitution of 1791. To repeat: French speakers in the Commons and Senate were not there to bring the affairs of French Canada to the attention of Parliament. They were there to keep the English from bringing in French matters. They would also, of course in company with representatives from every province, participate in the determination of the federation’s general affairs. (I say more on this matter in my Introduction to G.P. Browne’s Documents on the Confederation of British North America.)