Thursday, July 01, 2010

Dominion Day & Canada Day

Today we celebrate Canada Day, known until the progressivism of the 1960s took hold as Dominion Day (the name was legally changed in 1982). Now I have no beef against progress, serious ethical progress. But as we often whine at this blog, our culture is wracked by a false Gnostic cult of progressivism in which our "progressive" "prophets" actually think they have special elect knowledge, an intellectual key that opens all or many doors to some Utopian technocratic future. The appeal to some of us of the original name - the Dominion of Canada - given to this country by the Fathers of Confederation lies rather in the connotations of the religious and ethical tradition from which the name was chosen. "Dominion" was taken from the eighth line of the seventy-second Psalm, which is a prayer in respect of King Solomon. Before reminding ourselves of the psalm, we might attend to the words of the Commonwealth's Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, regarding the nature of prophecy (just so we don't confuse the hopeful humility of prayer with prophecy):
[W]hat is the Hebrew word for tragedy? Exactly! Tragedia! They couldn't find a word for it. There is no Jewish word for tragedy because Judaism is the principled rejection of tragedy in the name of hope. And I find this extraordinary, that despite the many tragedies of Jewish history, there is no word. There are words for catastrophe. There's a word like asson. There's a word like churban. We have even borrowed a word from sacrificial stuff and use the word shoah. But not one of those words means what the Greek tragedy is about, namely bad things that happen because of the innate structure of reality which is fundamentally blind and deaf to human hopes and aspirations. There cannot be a Jewish tragedy. You can't write it. It doesn't translate.

And, incidentally, of course, that explains the difference between a prophet and - what would be the Greek equivalent of a prophet? An oracle. Yes. What is the difference between a prophet and an oracle? Listen to this. If an oracle predicts that something is going to happen and it doesn't happen - that is a failure. If a prophet tells you something is going to happen and it doesn't happen - that is a success. And that is what Jonah didn't understand. You understand one of the great phenomena that's hit me in the last ten years which I'm sure has struck you: that converting non-Jews is easy. The hard thing is converting the Jews!
In other words, the principle (if not only) purpose of prophecy is to warn us that bad stuff is going to happen, so that we can work to avoid it from happening. In contrast, as I see it, the "progresssivist" actually wants his Utopian prophecy to happen; he wants us to defer to his special semi-secret expert knowledge that alone can save us from our rotten selves.

The true prophet realizes that real progress is what happens when we stop that which is truly foreseeable - violent things - from happening. Real progress, as Psalm 72 has it, is merely the victory of justice and industry and a rejection of the sacrificial violence inherent in the falsely progressive desire to make some special Utopian "prophecy" happen (like the regime of Chaiman Mao killing millions in order to "let a hundred flowers bloom"). Prayer, I imagine, evolved as a substitute for sacrificial acts. Real progress is just what happens, unpredictably, when people are free and well governed, so that we may find progress in the freedom of mediating our conflicts and deferring the bad stuff the prophet warns about. This, at least, is how I read the King James version of Psalm 72:
1 A Psalm for Solomon. Give the king thy judgments, O God, and thy righteousness unto the king's son.

2He shall judge thy people with righteousness, and thy poor with judgment.

3The mountains shall bring peace to the people, and the little hills, by righteousness.

4He shall judge the poor of the people, he shall save the children of the needy, and shall break in pieces the oppressor.

5They shall fear thee as long as the sun and moon endure, throughout all generations.

6He shall come down like rain upon the mown grass: as showers that water the earth.

7In his days shall the righteous flourish; and abundance of peace so long as the moon endureth.

8He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth.

9They that dwell in the wilderness shall bow before him; and his enemies shall lick the dust.

10The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall bring presents: the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts.

11Yea, all kings shall fall down before him: all nations shall serve him.

12For he shall deliver the needy when he crieth; the poor also, and him that hath no helper.

13He shall spare the poor and needy, and shall save the souls of the needy.

14He shall redeem their soul from deceit and violence: and precious shall their blood be in his sight.

15And he shall live, and to him shall be given of the gold of Sheba: prayer also shall be made for him continually; and daily shall he be praised.

16There shall be an handful of corn in the earth upon the top of the mountains; the fruit thereof shall shake like Lebanon: and they of the city shall flourish like grass of the earth.

17His name shall endure for ever: his name shall be continued as long as the sun: and men shall be blessed in him: all nations shall call him blessed.

18Blessed be the LORD God, the God of Israel, who only doeth wondrous things.

19And blessed be his glorious name for ever: and let the whole earth be filled with his glory; Amen, and Amen.

20The prayers of David the son of Jesse are ended.
One might well wonder if it is not the evident and all too particular Jewishness of the Psalm that had inspired our country's original name, that was in part the reason for the "progressive" legislative substitution of "Canada Day" for Dominion Day in the year when Canada cut the last of our Constitutional ties to the British Parliament at Westminster. But on this day of celebration it is not really worth griping about the name change. The proof is in the pudding. And so follows a collection of my snapshots from the last couple of months of weekend day trips in and around Vancouver.

What do I like to photograph? People, yes, but my family and friends will not be of interest to readers here and besides they deserve privacy. Just as much I like landscapes - not usually photos of raw nature, but pictures of nature transformed by human industry. And by "transformed" I don't mean radically changed; I mean added to, layer upon layer, with things that make the Creation more beneficial to humankind. I like the mixing of natural and human beauty and good. I particularly like how lines of transportation and communications do not so much transform as create what is to my mind the quintessentially Canadian vision of "nature". However, I am not a serious photographer and you get what you get below (click on the photos for better resolution). Yet, the point of this little collection is to demonstrate the true applicability to Canadian life of the "Dominion" words of Psalm 72 above. I'll also add another illuminating passage from Jonathan Sacks' talk, on the Jewish concept of time, in among the photos.

Time, as linear time, is not time in which we say ma shehaya hu sheyiheyeh - what happened is what will happen. This is time in which tomorrow can be radically unlike today. Today has to be radically unlike yesterday. In which, unlike the time on a clock, each day is unique because each day is a particular stage in the journey; a particular chapter in the story. And that concept of time generates a whole set of concepts that literally could not have been imaginable otherwise. Concepts like new, like adventure, like surprise, like originality, creativity. Like revolution. Concepts like the key word of the modern age. I mean, from the 17th century onwards, what was the key word of enlightenment? Progress. Exactly.

And another word which I think is much, much more profound, which is for me the key word of Judaism and not by accident did it give its name to the national anthem of the reborn State of Israel, Hatikvah: the concept of hope which I think is far more subtle and powerful than the concept of progress. In fact, all the key words of Judaism - emunah: faith; bitachon: trust; even the concept of brit, of covenant itself - are essentially linked to the idea of linear time.

Let me give you a very small example of how contemporary historians measure the impact of linear time. There is a wonderful book - I don't know if you've seen it; it came out a couple of years ago - by the Harvard economic historian David Landes. David Landes published a book called "The Wealth and Poverty of Nations". A fascinating book about why some nations become rich; why some stay poor. And he said in this book, he asked a good kashe. He asked the following: We know that in the 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th centuries the Chinese had made many, many inventions long before the West - printing, gunpowder, paper, porcelain, even spinning machines - and yet China did not have an industrial revolution. Europe did. Why was it, asked Landes, that China so advanced in these many technical ways and never had an industrial revolution. And one of his answers - it is only one of them - is that the West had what China did not have, namely a concept of linear time.

His argument, in other words, is that before you can have a revolution you have to be able to think revolution. Or you have to be able to think "revolution - good" instead of "revolution - disaster". And that, in other words, in order to be able to make progress you have to have a word that means progress. At any rate that is Landes, and certainly Thomas Cahill - who as I say isn't Jewish. He's very ecstatic in terms of his evaluation of the significance of linear time, and here are his words - I think they end the book.

"The Jews gave us the outside and the inside, our outlook and our inner life. We can hardly get up in the morning or cross the street without being Jewish. (We ought to make him Jewish, don't you think?!) We dream Jewish dreams and hope Jewish hopes. Most of our best words are the gifts of the Jews."

Now, the question is: Why? What was it about Judaism that allowed Jews to come up with or to hear or to respond to this radically new concept of time according to which the future does not endlessly recapitulate the past? And the answer, I think, is simple. Here it is. Until Judaism, God had been seen in nature. With Judaism, for the first time, God is seen as above, or beyond, nature. If God is above nature, then God is not bound by nature. In other words, God is free. In other words, what is interesting about God and important about Him, is His choice, His will, His creativity. God chooses - asher bochar bonu micol ho'amim etc. etc. - God wills. Veyomer elokim yehi - God said, "Let there be". God creates. Bereishit barah. Those are the key things about Judaism and you cannot find them in the universe of myth because choice, creativity and will are aspects of a Being that is somehow above nature, not determined by natural laws.

It therefore follows that if human beings are betzelem elokim - they share the image and the nature of God - then we too, for the first time, were able to see ourselves as beings with the capacity to choose, to will and to create. And that remains the single most striking - and I think most controversial, even to this day - of Judaism's assertions. It is denied by Adam who, when God blames him for eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge says, "Don't blame me! It's my wife. It's your fault. You introduced me to her!" Etc. etc. Cain, when God says to him, Lepetach chatat rovetz - sin is crouching at the door - ve'elecha teshukato - and it desires to have you - ve'ato timsho bo - but you can master it. When he says to Cain: You are free. And Cain rejects that as well.

And that proposition has been rejected by determinists of all kinds, ancient and modern, be they astrological, sociological, Marxist, Spinozist, Skinnerian, genetic, psychological, neuro-physiological, socio-biological or any other kind of determinist you care to mention. They are all alive and well and all of them - no, at least some of them actually were beautifully lampooned to music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim in that wonderful song from 'West Side Story', "Gee, Officer Krupke". You know that song? - 'It wasn't my fault.' 'You're suffering from a social disease.' - You know the kind of thing!

Anyway, every attempt to reduce human behaviour to science or to pseudo-science is a failure to understand the nature of human freedom, of human agency, of human responsibility. A failure to understand that what makes us human is that we have will, we have choice, we have creativity. Every single attempt - socio-biological, genetic etc., and they are published by the hundred every single year - represents the failure to distinguish between a cause and an intention. Between phenomena whose causes lie in the past: those are scientific phenomena - and human behaviour, which is oriented towards the future. A future which only exists because I can imagine it and because I can imagine it I can choose to bring it about. That is in principle not subject to scientific causal analysis. And that is the root of human freedom. Because human beings are free - therefore we are not condemned to eternal recurrence. We can act differently today from the way we did yesterday - in small ways individually, in very big ways collectively. Because we can change ourselves, we can change the world.

And in that capacity, to change the world, cyclical time is transcended by linear time which says that because I can change, the world can change, and therefore I can move from where I am now to where I would like to be ultimately. That is where linear time is born. That is where hope is born and that is the incredible concept, the Jewish drama of redemption.


Anonymous said...

Good sentiment, bad history. The change to Canada Day was NOT done legally.

See this great op/ed in the Montreal Gazette.

truepeers said...


You send us to an article by Greg Felton. Is this the infamous Greg Felton who has interpreted modern American history as one big conspiracy of the "Israel Lobby"? If so, why should i take his historical account of anything seriously? History is not a conspiracy.

But then it seems pretty likely you are Greg Felton as this name was the search term you used to reach this blog, from New Westminster.

Anyway, on this issue you may well be right that the change was not done legally. However, your argument in the article that we should dump "Canada Day" as illegal, but not simply go back to Dominion Day but rather invent a new term "Confederation Day" so as not to offend those who are offended by the particularly Judeo-Christian history that infuses Canada's Constitutional origins seems to me just another bad idea. YOu want to remember Confederation, but you don't want to remember how it was the creation of people thinking within a particular historical (religious) tradition. And you don't seem to recognize that this desire to escape from the particular on behalf of some vapid "inclusiveness", to some "universal" abstraction is itself the product of a certain tradition within Western thinking, and not the more profound of our intellectual instincts.

We need to recognize and celebrate how the constitutionalism of Anglo-Saxon countries owes a great debt to Jewish covenantal thinking. Accordingly, let's celebrate that the way our nations generally operate is about as far from a conspiracy or a victim machine as humans have ever yet been.

Roz said...

btw... the author is partly right.. but Hebrew has 2 words for tragedy... tragedia and HASSON which is strictly hebrew.

truepeers said...


Perhaps you could give us a clearer sense of how "Hasson" is used. Note again what Sacks writes: "There are words for catastrophe. There's a word like asson. There's a word like churban. We have even borrowed a word from sacrificial stuff and use the word shoah. But not one of those words means what the Greek tragedy is about, namely bad things that happen because of the innate structure of reality which is fundamentally blind and deaf to human hopes and aspirations. There cannot be a Jewish tragedy."

truepeers said...

I think where Sacks might be criticized is in his understanding of the meaning of Greek tragedy. It is surely a concept that has a wider revelatory potential than he seems to acknowledge. It's worth noting, for starters, that Greek tragedy evolved in a domain of art that was separated from the realm of religious ritual proper. That meant there was a conversation between art and society and this in turn means that tragedy was part of an evolving historical consciousness that we cannot simply assimilate to the cyclical, as Sacks seems to do. In modern times, we still have tragedies but they are not exactly the same as Greek tragedies - it is a literary form that has evolved and this evolution of differences allows us new ways to distinguish what is historical - evolutionary - and what is truly the kernel of what is humanly universal or "cyclical".