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Articles / Canada's History / 2001 - 2004

Canada's History

(first published in The Beaver, April/May 2004)

There is a moment in Conrad Black's immense biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt when the author considers President Roosevelt's situation early in 1939. President Roosevelt, he says, knew there would be war. He knew he would ensure the United States was drawn into that war (all the while promising to keep it out). He knew Germany and Japan would be defeated in the war, and he knew how the United States would shape the international order afterwards. "He cannot have failed to have glimpsed this destiny," write Black.

How can Black be so sure the president foresaw the future so precisely? "Roosevelt must have known all this is because there is no other plausible explanation of his conduct."

Frankly, I resist this kind of argument. No one's knowledge of the world's fate, or of his own future choices, is ever so certain. Human events are endlessly contingent, their consequences always uncertain. Extraordinary clairvoyance may seem the only explanation for Roosevelt's conduct, but his choices might have had twenty other potential explanations, if we could only discern them all.

Still, much of the power of Conrad Black's extraordinary book comes from the author's conviction that what made Roosevelt "the most important person of the twentieth century" was precisely his almost superhuman ability to see what had to be done and how to do it. Black's 1200 small-print pages are devoted to building a case for Roosevelt's "unfailing intuition," his "acute intuition," his "political legerdemain," his "intuitive political genius," his "singular political genius," his "immense political dexterity," his "almost preternatural insight and finesse."

Roosevelt's long tenure in the White House spanned two great epochs: the Great Depression and the Second World War. On the Depression, Black demonstrates just how bad things were in 1932 and how far the US had recovered by 1940, and he is good on the way Roosevelt co-opted allies and marginalized opponents without ever getting a step beyond public opinion. But amid descriptions of an alphabet soup of agencies and programs, it remains mysterious just how they produced economic recovery, or how Roosevelt the until-then rather lightweight political adventurer developed his strategies to bring the nation back from economic collapse.

Life really surges into Black's prose some 500 pages into his story, as he approaches the Second World War. The grand strategy of the war may now be a familiar story to anyone interested, but Black explores it with an unwearying attention to detail, and he offers many vigorous and well-supported interpretations. Among his provocative contentions is the case that Roosevelt was a winner in planning the postwar situation. Black savages the traditional conservative critique that the naïvely liberal American President was gulled at the 1945 Yalta Conference by the ruthless Stalin.

Many commentators have observed how it odd it is that the conservative Black has made such a case for the glories of liberalism in both economic policy and international diplomacy. Indeed, he demolishes many shibboleths of conservatism. Of course Ronald Reagan's entire program was essentially tax reduction -- but who would have expected Conrad Black to say so?

Black's real news, however, is not that Roosevelt was a great liberal. It's that he was one tough SOB. When Black is done, there's no more Mr. President Nice Guy. Beneath all Roosevelt's idealistic platforms and great personal charm (meeting him was "like opening one's first bottle of champagne," said Churchill memorably), Black convincingly depicts an absolutely solitary soul, a man who never had or needed friendship, cared for no one, and was unceasingly manipulative and calculating as he exploited that intuitive command of events he always seemed to have.

Black dismisses the crackpot theory that Roosevelt connived at the attack on Pearl Harbour, but goes very far in his argument that Roosevelt very deliberately pursued policies that would provoke Germany and Japan into attacking the United States, so he could take his reluctant country to war as the injured innocent. "His techniques, while bloodless, were not always much less ruthless, devious, and cynical than Hitler's or Stalin's," Black concludes. At this level, evidently, good work is too precious to be entrusted to good people.

That so many Canadian millionaires flare out as rapidly as they rose may have inoculated us against the notion that the acquisition of wealth must be proof of brilliance. By writing books like this one, however, Conrad Black gives us a much better way to gauge his knowledge and his judgment (and his allegedly baroque prose style. I found his writing consistently serious, but always clear and sometimes forceful. I did reach for my dictionary at page 925 when he described Marshal Tito in an "exiguous" bathing suit. But it's no weakness in a book that you find one new word in 1200 pages.)

A big book should change its subject, and Black changes Roosevelt by revealing with new force and clarity the cold political operator within Roosevelt and how that made it possible for the president to do whatever was required to become the "champion of liberty" on a national and then global scale.

Will this book also change Conrad Black? Perhaps it will, if it persuades him that he truly is a writer able to handle the big book and the big subject. Amid mostly very good reviews, one American critic sneered at Black's Roosevelt as a "vanity press" effort. We should rather - a crucial distinction - understand it as a labour of love. It's far too long, way too detailed, and too much at odds with his image and his interests, to have been written simply in the service of the ego or the self-promotion of a public figure. It seems, early in 2004, that there may not have been much of lasting value in Conrad Black's business career or his political maneuvres. But has he a future as a writer of history if he wants one? Yes, he does.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom by Conrad Black is published by PublicAffairs in 2003 and is distributed in Canada by HarperCollins.

"Exiguous" means "scanty."

©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd, 2004

(first published in The Beaver, August-September 2004)

Reading Stephen Gould or Richard Dawkins often makes me wish that historical journalism had some of the richness of scope and ambition that today's best science writing displays. (You can make the same discovery in television. Consider History Television in relation to Discovery Channel, and despair.)

Lately some science writers seem intent on discovering history for themselves. Consider the work of the American field biologist Robert M. Sapolsky, who in his book A Primate's Memoir evokes the half a lifetime he has spent in close observation of a troop of Kenyan baboons. ("I had never planned to become a savanna baboon when I grew up," he writes. "I had always assumed I would become a mountain gorilla.") Sapolsky loved "his" baboons, and they taught him much about baboon behaviour and physiology. On the whole, though, the troop behaved about the way we might expect. All its members were caught in fiercely-maintained dominance hierarchies. The males were particularly violent and competitive. The toughest, most aggressive ruled as top baboon - for as long as he could hold on. Everyone beat up on those below them, and all were permanently stressed in unhealthful ways.

Then a new source of meat became available to Sapolsky's baboon troop, at a garbage dump. Only the most aggressive males could successfully fight their way to a share of the meat. And since the dumped meat came from tubercular cattle, all the aggressive males got TB and died. Sapolsky watched his baboon family of twenty years being destroyed by plague. Devastated by the deaths of his research subjects (and friends), he abandoned his observations in the mid-1980s.

Except the TB proved not very contagious. The baboons who had been insufficiently aggressive to get diseased meat survived. And more than a decade later, the unaggressive survivors maintained a new, more harmonious way of being baboons. Even adolescent male recruits who transfer into the troop have taken on the new style, and so it endures. Today the alpha males, newcomers since the plague years, are less aggressive and more "affiliative" than baboon society is supposed to permit. The TB epidemic is long passed and forgotten, but Sapolsky's troop remains the least aggressive, least competitive, least dominance-obsessed gang of baboons anyone has ever observed. These baboons, reports Sapolsky, have built a new culture.

Even in the technical language of a scientific journal, his amazement rings out: "Somewhat uniquely in nonhuman primate studies, these findings concern the intergenerational transfer of social, rather than material culture."

What Sapolsky has discovered, though he doesn't quite say so, is that baboons have history. The only way to understand the behaviour of this baboon troop is by its history. Baboons may not have the range of cultural choices human societies do, but this troop exists as it does because of the way it responded to particular events in its now remote past.

It seems to follow that the same assumption will have to be applied to other primates. Biologists can no longer assume what they observe in a community of chimps or baboons (or hyenas?) is "biology." They will have to become historians too. To know their subjects, they will have to know where they have come from.

This story reminds me of an ambitious coterie of historians in Europe, particularly in France, some fifty years ago, who wanted to unite history and the sciences and the social sciences into one vast integrated form of human study.

These historians were eager to learn from sociology and biology and statistical mathematics and any other field of promise, but they did not simply want to improve history by applying to it the (presumably superior) methods from other disciplines. In the great unification of scholarship that they dreamed of, they saw history, not as a borrower, but as the linchpin. History, they insisted, was "the federative discipline." No human subject is adequately understood, they said, unless one has grasped where in the past it has come from. History may find techniques from sociology useful, that is, but sociology is meaningless without a historical sense.

That kind of missionary zeal seems to have gone out of history today. Historians certainly borrow eagerly from other disciplines. These days, the fashion is for borrowing from literary and cultural theory more than from the harder sciences or social sciences. Few historians, however, seem much inclined to push history's insights upon other disciplines. What historian would have dared to suggest to Professor Sapolsky that biology needs history? The biologist had to grope his own way toward that discovery in the field.

All of this is a way of bringing myself around to a short, conversational essay on Canadian political thought I was reading recently: The Once and Future Canadian Democracy by Janet Ajzenstat.

In it, Ajzenstat observes that Canadian political thought about constitutions, good government, and the democratic deficit, whether the scholarly kind or in more public forums, tends to lack time depth. In Canadian political discussion, nothing about where we came from or what we built up over decades or centuries seems to be of any value in deciding where we should be going. "Canadians don't think in a large and generous way, in a philosophical way, about what it is to live in a liberal democracy," she writes.

She also suggest why not. Canadians think romantically about politics, she argues. The romantic style is the reigning tradition in Canadian political history, philosophy, and public commentary.

Ajzenstat has an agenda here. She advocates the tradition of political liberalism that descends from philosophers such as John Locke, which she sees at work in Canadian parliamentary government for 150 years and which she thinks still has much to offer. But she finds the romantic style of thinking impatient with institutions and traditions. It prefers purer emotions and the untrammeled will. It refuses to take seriously anything from our long Canadian experiment in liberal democracy, because by definition the past is what stands in the way of grand new beginnings. Democracy is for the future.

There's much in Ajzenstat's essay that's worth reading and arguing with. But she is on to something here. It's not just a lack of knowledge that constrains our political debates. Their ahistorical style isn't to be remedied just by teaching more history to more people, not if there is a willed intention not to take history seriously. We still need to make the case that our society came from somewhere, and that how it evolved matters.

Hell, it even matters for baboons.

Robert M. Sapolsky's A Primate's Memoir was published by Scribner in 2000. His article with Lisa J. Share, "A Pacific Culture among Wild Baboons: Its Emergence and Transmission," is published in PLOS Biology ( The Once and Future Canadian Democracy by Janet Ajzenstat was published by McGill-Queen's University Press in 2003.

©Christopher Moore Editorial Ltd, 2004

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