The North American Telos

Tracks and Traffic” by J.E.H. MacDonald / Public Domain

I don’t normally like to write about the news. It bores me to death, and I find that the piece tends to get forgotten along with the story. However, sometimes an event comes around that so perfectly illustrates a particular concept that you can’t not write about it, and I think this week’s storming of the capitol is one worth making an exception for.

I find that English-speaking Canadians often have a better understanding of America than Americans do. This is because Canada is just outside enough to feel the effects of Americanism but just inside enough to experience it as Americans do. Enter the man who I think has the best understanding of our Southern neighbours, George Grant. His Technology and Empire is something of a mediation on North American life, and following his argument describes quite well how we got to January 6.

North American Beginnings

I think the most important insight Grant offers us for understanding America is also the shortest. It’s almost an aphorism really: “the U.S. is the only society which has no history (truly its own) from before the age of progress” (TE 6). Britain has its Merrie England and the Magna Carta; France has Jean d’Arc and Roi Louis; even Canada can appeal to Hooker or Champlain. The Revolution severed that cord for the Americans. As Grant notes in Lament for a Nation, this means that American Conservatives “only have right to that title in a particular sense” (LN 63). Americans have only their own, modern tradition to appeal to, and American conservatism is built around conserving precisely that.

What is that tradition? Well, Grant tells us, Weber and Marx were wise to point to the nation’s Calvinist origins. What they miss, however, was what in Puritanism made them as unwelcome as they were:

More fundamental than the practical connections between capitalism, the parliamentary party, and Protestantism, lies the fact that the refugee Protestant theologians from the continent espoused so immediately the Baconian account of science and worked to make it influential in England…there was in the theology of the Calvinist Protestants a positive element which made it immensely open to the empiricism and utilitarianism in the English tradition of the new sciences (TE 10–11).

From this Baconian Calvinism proceeded American Lockianism as well as the “worldly modernity” of Ben Franklin — wisely placed at the centre of Weber’s account of American Protestantism, according to Grant (TE 12). All of this forms what he calls the North American ‘primal,’ essentially a final cause. An “unappeasable responsibility” which gave a sense of “the self”; “radical freedom” earned from technological conquest of nature (TE 13).

The disciplined among us drive to an unlimited technological future, in which technical reason has become so universal that it has closed down on oppenness and awe, questioning and listening; when Protestant subjectivity remains authentic only where it is least appropriate, in the moodiness of our art and sexuality, and where public religion has become an unimportant litany of objectified self-righteousness necessary for the more anal of our managers… (TE 13).

Now I’ve been overusing Voegelin recently (I can’t help it really; he’s too memeable) but I can’t help reading that and recognizing that North American Civilization is merely an attempt to eradicate sin (read: immanentize the eschaton) through technological domination of nature. Technological society is a “comprehended promised land which we have discovered by use of calculating reason and which we can ever more completely inherit by the continued use of calculation” (TE 17). In short — America is an exercise in Gnosticism.

The Protest

I can already hear you asking what the hell any of this has to do with what I was talking about, and don’t worry, I’m getting there. North Americans are quite fond of our diversity, but it doesn’t take a genius to point out that the diversity is surface level (I’ve seen a lot of very clueless people do that, in fact). Grant recognizes this a lot clearer than most of us in the 21st century do, however:

As for pluralism, differences in the technological state are able to exist only in private activities: how we eat; how we mate; how we practice ceremonies. Some like pizza, some like steaks; some like girls, some like boys; some like synagogues, some like the Mass. But we all do it in churches, motels, restaurants indistinguishable from the Atlantic to the Pacific (TE 15).

The Medium is the Message. This goes for differences in opinion too: they effectively don’t exist except for on the fringes of the North American polis. As I touched on earlier, while the American ‘right’ does have some concerns about modernity, but they “do not doubt the central fact of the North American dream — progress through technological advance” (TE 19). They even take credit for it — c.f. how many conservatives are convinced that the dot com boom was a consequence of Bush/Reagan. The ‘left,’ on the other hand, condemns our social arrangements all day, they always think “within the control of nature achieved by modern techniques” (TE 19). A fun experiment you can make with any ‘left-winger’ is asking whether they would trade access to artificial birth control for all of the economic priorities they claim they want and watching them recoil in horror. ‘Leftism’ is entirely contingent on the technological status quo, which is why every ‘left-winger’ will inevitably fall in line and act as a liberal in practice (unless they’re an out-and-out orthodox Marxist).

The young equally condemn the system, but they assume “opportunities for widespread instant satisfaction which are only possible in terms of modern achievements” (TE 20). A youth movement in North America is impossible for the same reasons that a left-wing movement is: how many young people would be willing to give up Amazon? Modern thought is a “unified fate for us” — dispute about the technique is impossible among those who have accepted the North American telos (TE 21).

We come finally to the events of last Wednesday. Both parties believe they represent the American Constitution. Both are correct — their politics are identical. The Declaration of Independence says both that the state exists to protect life, liberty, and property and that Americans have a right to revolt if they wish. Cardinal Manning was vindicated; it was a theological, not a political dispute. More specifically; it was a question of soteriology. The internet has driven us all insane for four years, and both Trump and Biden present differing salvific visions. What may surprise you is that Biden’s is reactionary and Trump’s is revolutionary. Biden represents a return to the paradisal state of “normalcy” pre-Trump, and never having to hear from the Orange Man again is his solution for the problems caused by the internet. Trump, meanwhile, presents himself as the conquering king who will destroy the enemies of the people (the media, pedophiles, &c). If you ask Trump or Biden, or 90% of their supporters, their opinion about the American telos, they will assent (just not managed by the Antichrist, of course).

A Way Out?

Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect. (Rom. 12:2).

Grant doesn’t reinvent the wheel in his solution: his advice is virtually identical to St. Paul’s. Our only living connection to the pre-modern world is Christianity and the retreating remnants of Christendom in the culture. All that exists apart from the spirit of the age, and the only means by which a criticism of it can be sustained, is Christ. While Grant ends his essay on a pessimistic note, (he always does, which is why I always agree with him until his conclusion) I think this week ought to be a reminder to Christians that we are sojourners here. Improving the world is a good thing, but our first and foremost priority in politics should be facilitating the good life and helping our countrymen find salvation (the real kind, not the fake one offered by politicians). We must be outside the North American primal, and that of course means being outside any transhumanism brought about by either a blue or a red cult. Real freedom is retaining your soul; settle for no less.

For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.