The Canadian philosopher talks to Prospect about religion, multiculturalism and the future of the leftby Ben Rogers / February 29, 2008 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2008 issue of Prospect Magazine
1. BACKGROUND/EARLY LIFE
BEN ROGERS What drew you to philosophy?
CHARLES TAYLOR I guess I just got angry. I studied history at McGill University, in Montreal, and then I came to Balliol, Oxford, to do PPE and I thought it was going to be mainly politics. But it was the fag end of a kind of post-positivist era in which—unluckily for me—there were two very tired dons who were fed up with the subject, and who gave lectures sub-sub-sub-Hume in a bored tone of voice. I thought: this can’t be what it’s all about, so I began to move around and get into other reading. I read Merleau-Ponty, and I took off from there. It was kind of reactive.
BR Did you come from a family of intellectuals?
CT My family was very involved in politics but there was nobody who would have thought of themselves as an intellectual. Even when I was very small, people around me were always talking politics. Of course, in the 1930s [Taylor was born in 1931] politics was Europe, Munich; and my family was fiercely anti-appeasement. But there were deep divisions across the francophone side of the family. My grandfather was, unlike most Quebec francophones, tremendously pro-French and therefore pro-involvement in the war and pro-conscription. But others disagreed and so there was tension.
CATHERINE FIESCHI It’s interesting that your grandfather was pro-French.
CT It was a rare thing for a Quebecois to have this complete love affair with France. For him, Paris was the centre of the universe. This was an axiom of my childhood. I thought everybody believed this. Even now, I’m surprised when others disagree. Is there anywhere else? (laughter)
2. FAITH AND RELIGION
DAVID GOODHART How did religion come into your life? Was it always there?
CT No, it wasn’t always there. At a certain moment, I got interested in God. My background is very varied: my mother’s family was Catholic, so we went to mass; my father was Anglican; and my grandfather was kind of Voltairian, anti-clerical and so on. So there was no single model to cleave to. Our parish was St Viateur d’Outremont—a very special parish. I was very impressed by the tremendous oratorical quotes of the sermons. So I learned my rhetoric from that. But no, I didn’t have a faith that came from the Bible.
I think the really decisive thing in my religious development was that around 1950-52, a great deal of new French-written theology—which eventually inspired Vatican II—was circulating through the media in Quebec, Cité Libre and so on. I read all this stuff: it gave me a sense of what I felt, what I wanted to believe. At that point, it was a hopeless minority theology. Later, to my astonishment, it became the official story of Vatican II.
AC GRAYLING Your acceptance of those views must have been prepared by some sort of antecedent mindset. It was surprising that you didn’t choose the Voltairian.
CT I don’t understand it now; I certainly didn’t understand it then. I guess I have a more coherent story now—that there is some very profound level of human life and human potential transformation which the Voltairians had no clue about. When I read Hume or Gibbon now, I’m very beguiled by the style and so on, but then I think: how can you so totally miss the point of what you’re discussing? Take Hume on miracles: he really seems to think that the human approach to the world is that of a detached observer counting up the likelihood of the evidence—which, of course, is true of his epistemology too.
AG But isn’t it possible that when you are planting a garden, so to speak, you have to do some clearance work first? To deploy a good argument against the rationality of faith or belief in miracles might be part of the clearing. Then there comes the planting, and the very rich tradition of what you might call realistic thought since antiquity has been more or less ignored because it hasn’t been the majority position in history. That’s a much less discussed resort for thinking about the sources of the good and about ethics, and you’re dismissing it. But thinking that Gibbon and Hume are giving us the whole story and not just part of it misses the big point.
CT You see them as ground-clearers. Who are the planters?
AG Well, we could begin with Aristotle and we could trudge on through Stoic ethics. There’s a very profound tradition of humanistic ethics. Why doesn’t that catch your imagination?
CT It does, but I see it as a very different universe from Hume. For instance, Aristotle has an understanding of us as embodied minds, embodied agencies that Hume has been “Cartesianised” away from. In other words, the Humean idea that I could object to faith with my understanding, with some inner intensive mentoring, is un-Aristotelian and un-Stoic.
AG I’m glad you’ve come back to the epistemology point because it’s an important theme in your work. But to stick with the idea of the rationality of faith. Consider a sort of minimal account of rationality, an evidence-based account that says if you’ve got wet in the past it’s rational to take an umbrella with you next time. How do people who have a religious commitment of some kind stop themselves from believing anything for which there is no empirical evidence: fairies, for example, or goblins?
CT What do you mean by empirical evidence? What always astonishes me when I hear people talk like you is that the term “empirical evidence” seems to you to have as obvious an extension as the term “glass.” I challenge that. For Hume there is no empirical evidence for the reality of God. That can only work out if you have a highly improbable and constructive notion of empirical evidence; as one writer once put it, this appallingly contemplative view of the world. What if the real point of us, as Aristotle thought, as Merleau-Ponty thought, is that we are embodied minds, that things impact us? Then it’s a very different notion from empiricism. What if we’re also beings with an understanding of a moral world and the deeper significance of things?
AG I’ll explain what I mean by empirical evidence. If I was to make an inventory of the things on the surface of this table and I included in it things that no scientific instrument could detect, let alone what my body senses, then my empirical evidence for their presence on the table would be incomplete whereas my faith in the butter and cups of tea and so on would be very well grounded.
AG The point is that this constrains the sort of things one says one believes in. So if somebody believes in angels, archangels, because of a commitment to a traditional religious outlook, what stops them there? What controls their disbelief in fairies, pixies and gnomes? It’s a serious point.
CT Now here we are dealing with a very important issue where a certain kind of evidence is always going to be lacking. But there is a bad kind of epistemology, which is to decide, before you see what the issues are that interest you, that only certain kinds of evidence, like the kinds of evidence and the considered questions on what’s on this table, are going to count. In that kind of case you’re just never going to be able to resolve these kinds of issues I’m talking about. We’re going to start cheating and resolve them on very bad grounds like the following: all views other than mine involve taking account of bits of evidence that are other than the things on this table; therefore, they are all alone.
AG These are very subjective bits of evidence, but you think we should hold on to them. They are rather subjective in character, or emotional maybe, non-rational anyway.
CT Wow! These three words don’t mean the same as each other and don’t mean one single thing. Take emotions. There are certain kinds of things that you can perceive only if you are also perceiving with your emotional reactions. If you then align that with “non-rational,” you’ve made a huge leap—the leap being that whatever involves emotional perception is irrational.
AG I didn’t say irrational, but non-rational.
AG You’ve never written as a philosopher of religion. Yet you have written about the philosophy of religion and you are very religious in your philosophy. Why is that?
CT Well, have I not? At Oxford in the 1970s I was an examiner for the DPhil in the philosophy of religion—it was so jejune and uninteresting. It was questions like: what are the proofs of the existence of God and do they work and does God have many meanings? It was dried-out analytic philosophy, pointless in operation. The kinds of things we are talking about now—the nature of reasoning and so on—get right into issues that are central to the philosophy of religion. I’ve been absent from, let’s say, the “Oxford DPhil syllabus philosophy of religion,” because nobody who has any interest in anything would buy that.
DG What about your new book? Can you tell us a little bit about that?
CT This is my take on the rise of secular civilisation in the west. What exactly has been going on? How can we understand the different notions of secular by tracing it back? The idea here is one that I flog in lots of domains: the idea that we have big differences between different civilisations, traditions, writings, so that words like “modernity,” “secular” and so on do not always mean the same thing.
So you have the secular Gandhi, who was drawn on a certain level of salvation to side with Hindu traditions, which were open to giving space to people with different views. That was the ground of his secularism, but he was a very pragmatic politician. So in India you had a certain kind of secularism which is not French laïcité, which is not separation of church and state, but that has reformed the Hindu family code. This is not “rulebook” secularism. But I would argue that it was appropriate for the Indian case.
DG You have written a lot about multiculturalism. Is there a sense in which modern liberalism and secularism lead inevitably to a quite strong multiculturalist belief—the view that says all the modern citizen has to do is obey the law and pay taxes, and society can demand nothing more? That is a very commonly held belief on the left, particularly, I think, the ethnic minority or “multicultural” left in Britain. But that’s kind of a closed-door approach to integration. There’s been this tacit alliance in European countries between the secular establishments and multiculturalists.
CT Of course, voluntary and successful integration is the ideal. People who learn the language and get the jobs. But if that fails to happen, then a certain kind of discourse sometimes follows that doesn’t help; heavy sermons which give newcomers the impression that they’re being told: “Look, we really don’t want to have you guys here at all.” So sometimes, instead of speaking softly and carrying a big moneybag—Teddy Roosevelt didn’t quite say that—we carry few pennies and we give them huge sermons about integration: “We’ve let you guys in here and we let you do what you want to do, now look what’s happening.”
AG On the one hand, among the norms that we would all like to sign up to for a decent society are welcome and toleration. On the other hand, we also want to accommodate difference. So the idea is respect difference and let people have their space in the sun in your society. But it looks as though the concrete experience on the ground in France or Britain in the last half century has been that there are sources of tension between these two aspirations. That’s the difficult one to try and overcome because if you want a peaceful, inclusive, collegial kind of society where differences are respected, the risk is that some of the differences turn out to be potential sources of conflict.
CT To what degree is this due to desired but failed integration? I think it’s a very interesting situation and I would like to know more about the British case. A clear extreme case is the French banlieus—I think those kids would love to integrate, but they think they are discriminated against—something I happen to agree with. This comes out in a terribly self-destructive tendency, as seen in aggressive acts like burning down the neighbour’s garbage; but that is really a response to the fact that these kids aren’t getting something they would like to get. I think that a lot of that is also true of Kreuzberg in Berlin.
I note that unemployment is much higher in these countries, and I wonder how much of what we are talking about resides in that rather than in some supposed mechanism of multiculturalism. There is this idea that newcomers are being told: be just like you are back in the village in Bangladesh; we don’t care, just pay your taxes. As though people would listen to that! You know, these people probably want things to be very different in France—but don’t get what they want. How much of this has to do with this “mechanism of multiculturalism”? To have a discourse which is entirely focused on blaming multiculturalist statements of society is both immensely overblowing the importance about such statements in the first place, and totally ignoring other things that have been blocking integration.
ERIC KAUFMANN One view of multiculturalism is that it’s about enabling ethnic groups to maintain their ethnic boundaries over generations. For example, do you encourage groups to mix or to practice some kind of endogamy? I mean, obviously, multiculturalism has a number of strengths, one of which could be support for parallel institutions, faith schools, perhaps some kind of funding for social activities. You may have seen Rogers Brubaker’s article saying there’s been a change since the late 1990s towards assimilation and away from some of those ideas. Are you encouraged by that shift or would you like to see us return to more traditional multiculturalism?
CT Canadian multiculturalism was always strongly integrative. The famous white paper of 1969 had four aims: one was to break down cultural barriers, another was to make sure newcomers learned one of the two languages. Canadian multiculturalism took place in the context of a very strong notion of liberal integration—to become part of society, to get a job and work along with the communities and so on. But it was also a break with the idea that you have to become as much as possible like the old ladies drinking tea in Victoria [British Columbia] if you want to be a real Canadian. But that was entirely in the context of assumption of immigrant integration into the mainstream culture.
Now you take this same word “multiculturalism” and apply it to Germany or Holland, and you find a totally different background! The Germans didn’t know anything about an immigrant society. They saw their immigrants as guest workers, they didn’t know the difference. What’s more, the guest workers thought they were guest workers. But then they suddenly woke up to the fact that they were members of society. We have no idea what is involved in making these multicultural statements in a society that doesn’t understand them. So the word means something different to everyone. That’s what’s interesting.
EK But the policy tools of multiculturalism—such as affirmative action or fixed representation in a legislature—can be applied in any setting.
CT In the Canadian case, the reason why multiculturalism made a difference as a rhetoric independently of all those particular policies is that it had a double theme. One, it was a necessary move to articulate this break with the idea that there was a kind of normative Anglo-Canadian. The second thing was—and this is what people are always hammering at the nationalists in Quebec—to go against the idea of two cultures in Canada. Trudeau, prime minister at the time of the white paper, was saying “no” to the idea of two main cultures. We had a royal commission on bilingualism and biculturalism. Trudeau said we’ll take the bilingualism, because we want to establish the idea that you can work in the federal government whether you come from Quebec or English Canada. So the federal structures were “bilingualised,” which was quite remarkable, really. But biculturalism, the idea of two distinct societies, no.
DG But that’s just to deny a reality. There are two dominant cultures in Canada.
CT I know. But Trudeau had a real problem. He was a great intellectual. I loved the guy. He was a great friend of mine. But he was just totally blind, he had such animosity against the Quebec nationalists that he couldn’t see that a kind of moderate nationalism was possible.
CF Where do you think we’re at in terms of the rest of Canada outside of Quebec? I recently did some work in Toronto with representatives of various minority associations. Lots of them, specifically Muslims, have this sense that there is a plot against them; that Canadian multiculturalism was just a strategic decision that was taken with respect to Quebec—and that now mainstream Canada is saying: “Well, we’ve had thin multiculturalism, but now that we are asking for thick multiculturalism, this is where the wheels are starting to really come off.” Do you see a real questioning of this model and where it’s at now in Canadian politics?
CT It’s lived differently within different communities, but within most of them there is this tension, because you will get people who want to recreate their homeland as far as possible. The great majority of Muslims don’t agree with this. Take Hispanics in the US. A lot of people want to hang on to a lot of Hispanic things. We all know that over time, this is a losing battle.
DG You say it’s a losing battle, but that may just be judging from an earlier stage of immigration when you didn’t have huge critical masses of minority populations. Now, arguably, we’re into a new game in North America and even here to some extent. When you have a 10 or 15 per cent Hispanic population, you can have your own institutions, you can maintain your own lifestyle much more and resist integration.
CT I just don’t see it. They’re falling away all of the time. People grow up and have friends and intermarry.
AG What about the big east Asian immigrant communities of British Columbia and northern California, and indeed in Europe? It’s striking that although they are very cohesive as communities, they are also wonderfully adaptive to the host community. There’s a sharp contrast between east Asian immigrants and Muslim immigrants.
DG They are like Hasidic Jews in Stamford Hill on a larger scale. No one complains about them.
CT They’re not like Hasidic Jews at all. They don’t hang on to Chinese and Japanese after the third generation; their idea of success is to get a degree from Berkeley or Harvard. They speak English.
AG They’re model immigrants, aren’t they?
CT Model immigrants and very successful.
EK But there is a difference with the Muslims in Europe; I’ve done some research on this. Whereas, say, the Afro-Caribbeans have a high intermarriage rate and other groups lose their religion in the second generation, Muslims have almost perfect religious retention to the second generation, and very few—less, I think, than 4 per cent of Bangladesh and Pakistani Muslims—intermarry going into the second generation. The trajectory for them looks very different.
CT Remember that Canada has a totally different Muslim population than you. In Canada, we have a selective immigration population. Canadian Muslims are more highly educated than the general population. In Germany, France and Britain, it’s the other way around. For instance, in Germany and in some parts of France, you have a pattern of sending back for a spouse to the home village in Anatolia, which completely…
DG …undermines integration.
CT Yes. In other words, the integrative mechanisms that I’m talking about are ones that are working for Canadian Muslims. A lot of Canadians go around and say: we have the answers; well, we don’t. We don’t have the answer to the European problem because it’s a completely different population. The only bit of advice is that programmes helping economic and social integration are needed even more urgently in Europe.
AG Given that fact, what would you say to the European situation? In the light, for example, of something that Amartya Sen says about identity: about trying to persuade people who have come to Europe to accept the idea of multiple identities. They can sign up to the stuff we were talking about earlier, those norms of a decent society.
CT Amartya’s idea is absolutely key. My only gloss is to say that if things work out the way immigrants want—becoming successful, getting into a professional organisation, getting into a big firm where you’re working with all sorts of other people—you automatically produce a sense of “I’m Muslim but I’m British,” or “I’m Muslim of Pakistani origin, but I’m British as well.” That comes with the territory. The whole North American hyphenated language expresses that, like the Italian-American, Polish-American community: the sense of, “I have a complex identity and I’m happy with it.”
CF What would be your take on what Tariq Ramadan says about the potential emergence of a European version of Islam?
CT Take the Catholic church in the US, which started off with totally ethnic parishes and which imposed Polish parish agendas and so on. They only got beyond that when they had Catholic parishes with people of every ethnicity. Now, in France, you have Moroccans and Afghans in the same mosques. You get a level of self-confidence that can even lead to a desire to change some of the theoretical underpinnings of the religion. Could this become an important phenomenon? Yes, if the integration succeeds. If it doesn’t, then we’re all in trouble.
AG One implication of current demographics is that in so many generations’ time, Europe will have a majority population descended from today’s Muslim immigrants. People in 200 years’ time are going to be saying how odd it was that women were allowed in our time to have an education and wear bikinis and so on. If that is a worrying thought, if we want to entrench what we think of as what Muslims term “western values,” I suppose now would be the time to be discussing it.
CT That seems to me the subject of wild speculation, because when you look at actual Muslim populations, you see the changes. You have tremendous variety in the Muslim population: some are turned off religion altogether, some are occasional Muslims; this is totally masked by the incredible stupidity of our media.
AG There are 62 different Islamic sects.
CT Exactly. The people of these various kinds of orientations are miles away from Salafist or Wahhabist ideas—”We’re going to purge all the pagan elements,” that sort of thing—or even people calling for the application of Sharia. This is not on the agenda of the big arc of Sufi-dominated Islam.
AG Last year there was a mullah in Islamabad with a big following who said that unless the Pakistani government allowed him to establish Sharia in Islamabad, he would unleash suicide bombers. What it suggests is that quite small but very determined tails can wag the dog in situations like the Pakistani one. Even if one takes your rather more optimistic view about matters, we’re still in for a bumpy ride.
CT Pakistan is very worrying because there is a case of unresolved national identity. In one sense it was meant to be a Muslim state, of course, but Jinnah was a complete secularist, drinking whiskey on top of a hill in Bombay. You still have this kind of secular leadership: people like Musharraf are still in that secular, British army tradition, but they are being threatened, by plural sources. One of the most worrying is this totally denationalised Islam, which was given a tremendous boost by the war in Afghanistan. That is, an Islam which doesn’t feel that it’s Pakistani Islam or, to be more exact, Baluchi Islam or Sindhi Islam; it’s just really boundaryless, the Umma. They infiltrated, as you know, the army and intelligence service. I don’t think about Pakistan too much or I won’t sleep. It really is absolutely terrifying. There is a hope that the battle will be resolved without the bad guys being totally in control.
6. ETHNICITY AND NATIONALISM
DG You’ve written more sympathetically than most liberals about tradition and ethnicity, and you’re a kind of liberal nationalist. In some ways, these ideas are coming back into fashion after a long period when to be liberal was to be against any sort of collective apart from class. Nonetheless, there has been such a de-legitimisation of the national idea, certainly on the liberal side of politics. It’s hard to see how the idea can sort of gain a foothold again.
CT No, nationalism is still alive. I don’t know if I’m a nationalist. I’m always aware of its limits. On the one hand, it takes very dangerous exclusionary forms; on the other hand, any democratic society needs some sense of why we cohere. Without it you can’t have even the minimum politics of redistribution, a sense of why you’re giving to that fellow x, y, z. We get these rich provinces in Canada, like British Columbia and Alberta, giving to Quebec and they don’t always like it, but the idea is that, “Well, we’re Canadians.” If you take that out of the picture it’s all over. Democracies don’t work well without some kind of strong cohesion, which is usually some kind of cocktail of ideas around certain powerful democratic principles, as well as some sense that we the people are attempting to realise a particular historical project. In other words, we are all proud of our constitution—”thin nationalism”—but we’re not just Kantians attached to these principles; we have a particular feeling of: wow, we’re proud of this project!
This is part of the problem faced by my Quebec commission on “reasonable accommodation” of minorities. What the objections to reasonable accommodation show is that the ethnic Quebecois majority worry that they are losing their identity. It’s like Norman Tebbit and the cricket test. Our version is the Muslims and cabane à sucre—”sugar shacks” that serve up a traditional dish of pea soup and pork. Some Muslims asked for the pea soup without the pork, and a lot of people got very incensed. It is crazy and trivial. But what it translates to is what I call identity fright—the ethnic majority starts to think: a change here, a change there; what’s going to remain? As terrifying as it probably is, you have to be able to find a way of speaking to these people while at the same time firmly maintaining your basic liberal principles. You can’t simply lecture these people and say, “It says here in Habermas…!”
DG This is the thin line between an ethnic politician and an ethnicist politician.
CT An ethnicist politician does not say that…
DG …we’re the best.
CT Or that we are taking these practices because they are ethnic practices. I’m saying that this is part of a historic project which intends to realise to the full these liberating universal principles for everybody in our society. But we recognise that this is a particular project with a particular history, and that there’s nothing wrong with teaching everybody that fact. As against, people would say “Talk only about the principles. As soon as you start talking about the history there are problems.” That is going to create a gulf which we are going to be incapable of bridging.
EK Your work on the politics of recognition is very much about minorities. But when the majority is shrinking demographically and the nation that is supposed to represent them is becoming more abstract because it has to include everybody, where does the shrinking majority see itself reflected? Isn’t that going to be a big question: how the majority see themselves reflected in the multiculturalist state and the civic nation?
CT If you put it in those terms—”the majority”—you’re lost. Where this kind of process of the larger historical identity to include “us” works is when there’s a sense that they have made it somewhat different, that this is still continuity and we’ve been enriched by it. So after a bumpy ride, the mainstream American attitude towards most immigrant groups—though not of course of African-Americans—has become, “Fine, we’ve been through this, you’ve been included.” As soon as you respond to identity fright by saying, “Hey, we’re the majority here,” you get a zero-sum conception which makes things impossible. That’s why the German notion of leitkultur is very dangerous: it amounts to “Give us our thing because there is a German culture, there is a Turkish culture” and so on.
DG This is what we’ve been taught by multiculturalism, partly. I mean, so much of this does seem to be, in Eric’s phrase, “asymmetrical multiculturalism,” and we’ve forgotten about the majorities. They are now coming along and saying, “Hello, we are being told that we don’t come from anywhere, and it hurts.” We’ve rubbed out dominant ethnicities.
CT I haven’t got the answer. Come back in a year and we’ll have written a brilliant report… or we’ll have left the report and emigrated to Brazil under assumed names. (laughter)
AG One view might be that the rise of the nation state may in part be responsible for the rise of ethnic identities. One has to remember that the Germans who fought in the second world war were only the third generation since the unification of Germany. What had existed prior to German nationalism was a German cultural identity, split up over many different states, to which people could sign up with a certain kind of pride. We’ve grafted on this new idea, the idea of the nation state, which has complicated matters. The people who find themselves neglected majorities look for something, and find an ethnic identity. People who find themselves discriminated against look for the same thing. What do we get? We start getting identity politics and the inevitable result, which is conflict.
DG That’s why we have to try and recreate the notion of national citizenship.
AG Why not just citizenship? Why national?
DG Because it’s got to be somewhere. It’s got to be attached to a tradition. It can be an open one; it can even be an open ethnicity. English is a pretty open ethnicity.
CT Hence my idea of a historically realised project of basic principles. You see it when people say things like “the mother of parliaments,” there is pride. They understand that they have a special place and a way of carrying on, which is constantly being redefined—a sense that identity has evolved in the past and has a future of evolving.
If somebody proved that there is an original English “ethnie” which is now a tiny minority, who cares? It’s evolved in this way and we’re living in this tradition. We’re ashamed of some things and we’re proud of others. The thing is, we have to be equally aware that this marks us, and we are able to talk about it, and have a sense that it’s worth continuing. That’s what healthy nationalism today is. You belong to this project and in some ways it’s very exciting. Look at me—I’m an atypical Quebecois; half and half. It’s fantastic. We’ve maintained this tiny minority language in this sea of Anglo-Saxons. We’re still alive, we’re still afloat, we’re still speaking it, we’re still creating in it.
EK But aren’t you asking the people from the majority to give up their ethnicity and become part of a non-ethnic nation?
CT No no, once you say that you are cooked.
EK I mean long-term.
CT No, because what is it? I mean, ethnicity evolves even in the absence of newcomers.
EK It can be based on myths of genealogical origin, in Canada, to the settlers of the 17th century, let’s say.
CT Does our sense of the ethnie have to rely on us all being descendants of those few people that were on the shores of the St Lawrence river in 1759 [the battle of the Heights of Abraham, when French troops were defeated by the British, leading to Quebec falling into Britain's hands]?
EK Well, that’s the definition of ethnicity.
AG It’s a linguistic component.
EK It’s one marker but it doesn’t have to be language.
CT Exactly, it’s a Wittgensteinian, many-stranded thing.
DG It’s shared ancestry.
AG And a shared physical geography.
CT Shared ancestry, shared language, shared culture, sometimes shared religion, whatever these elements are, right?
AG But does the phrase “The heights of Abraham” have the same resonance for a Canadian or Quebecois as Glencoe does for a Scotsman, for example?
CT Well, hearts don’t throb exactly, but yes. The phrase one uses is “La Conquête.” The answer to your question is this: if you walk into some other part of the world, and said, in English, “the Conquest,” people would say, “Which conquest do you mean?” In Quebec French, “La Conquête,” nobody is going to ask you. So you’re right, the resonance is going to be eternally there.
DG How about the future of the left? One could argue that with the failure of socialist economics, the left has gone into multiculturalism, possibly rather damagingly both for itself and for numerous societies. Do you see it that way? Should the left extract itself now from multiculturalism? What is the project of the left; is there one?
CT No. While these two questions are overlapping, multiculturalism understood in the right way is obviously still essential, but it has to have this integrative element to it. As to where the left in general is going, I think that my views on this are very heretical, almost shocking.
DG Go on, shock us.
CT I think we’re still crippled by many of our policies. We are crippled with the idea that there is such a thing as socialism, a totally coherent solution to all political problems, and that if you think differently you’re on the other side; either you’re going further into socialism or you’re betraying it. I think the way to conceive our situation is that we are living through a set of extremely painful dilemmas, and are going to go on doing so. In other words, capitalism is, if you like, the source of a number of terrible dilemmas. We can’t live with it; we can’t live without it. We can’t live without it because it’s tied to certain kinds of growth and so on.
DG We want to be rich.
CT At the same time, Karl Marx was right in a way. Not that it’s all going to break down, but that capitalism creates pushes towards ecological ruin, inequality, higher Gini coefficients. The world intelligently understood is a world humanely understood; that we try to manage these tremendous tensions and get as many of these threatened values saved while not killing the goose that’s laying the somewhat half-done eggs. Even the Blairite talk of the third way is an attempt to blind ourselves to the fact that we are dealing with a set of dilemmas all the time, pushing a bit forward, a bit backward.