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Tribute to a True North TeacherTribute to a True North Teacher

Tribute to a True North Teacher

A single course taken years ago with McMaster University’s Janet Ajzenstat turned Travis Smith into a life-long lover of liberal democracy

Travis D. Smith
13 minute read

For 2014's annual meeting of the Canadian Political Science Association, University of Calgary political scientist Rainer Knopff organized a round table in honour of Janet Ajzenstat, professor emeritus of political science at McMaster University, celebrating her distinguished career and the publication of her latest, largely autobiographical, book Discovering Confederation: A Canadian's Story. As a former student of Janet's, I was invited to participate on the panel, for which I prepared the following remarks as a testament to her as a teacher not only of undergraduates but also of Canadians generally. Janet has dedicated herself to the study of Canada's constitutional history

In diligently returning to the original documents that articulated the forms of our regime so as to re-articulate their beginnings and their ends, you might say that Janet is Canada's premier reformer, precisely speaking, even though she usually counsels against what is commonly called reform. She teaches Canadians to love Canada well, against those who would belittle or misrepresent its past or exaggerate its imperfections.

Janet's brand of political science defies stereotypes regarding political theorists and empirical scholarship regarding law, institutions and public policy. She bases her analyses on a recognition of the rootedness of our practices in ideas. You cannot be a good student of Canadian politics without being a student of the history of Western political philosophy and the other ideational sources out of which our way of living together has emerged and flourished. Political theorists, in turn, ought to situate their thinking within the context that surrounds and concerns them, and learn to speak to it.

One may infer by the way she practises political science that you cannot carve the scholarly sub-fields and academic disciplines off from one another — or perhaps you can, but you shouldn't. They must be considered and analyzed in conjunction in order to understand them and sensibly recommend (or discourage) political change.

As readers of the ancients understand, every regime is undermined when its own principal principles and proclivities are extended indiscriminately throughout society and take on extreme properties. Thus, the friend of any regime must argue on behalf of societal features in tension with the forces that most drive it to preserve it against its own tendency to burn itself out. And so, in a society that nowadays too much draws inspiration from and judges itself in accordance with an imaginary standard, a fanciful fantasy about the future, Janet corrects us by drawing us back to our past through a respectful yet critical engagement with our actual, documented history.

Janet's emphasis on historical groundedness should not be mistaken as a defence of the way things are or have been simply because they are old or because they are ours. Rather, it represents a retrieval of the reasons and arguments for why they are good, or at least relatively good under the circumstances, given human propensities and possibilities and given observation and experience, because the defence of what is admirable about Canada on conventional bases alone will falter.

To be sure, Janet's philosophy is political: it's about politics; she has her political preferences; she endeavours to persuade; she has both friends and adversaries and is not afraid to pick a fight; plus, she is strategic about how she proceeds. Her method and style embody an appreciation of the opportunity that living in Canada affords — that political discourse may be advanced in one's own name in broad daylight. Conscious of the extraordinary blessing this represents, she strives to keep alive the possibility of dissent. She has been a courageous spokesperson for freedom of speech in the Canadian Political Science Association itself — one place where you would hope that freedom of inquiry would prevail, yet where it is nevertheless under threat by those who would stifle it supposedly out of respect for difference.

Of course, a student of the classics in political thought should not be surprised to discover the temptation to tyrannize among those who fancy themselves just and wise. But Janet is not only critical of her opponents; her research issues an accusation against those who are, as it were, on her side but who are ignorant of what is needful in order to best articulate and defend the values and institutions they cherish. People who know better ought to know better! So, she works not only to expose the disingenuous or the misinformed but also to educate her allies so they may better stand on guard.

One thing that should not go unmentioned is the way Janet conveys her arguments in a highly accessible, readable style, unburdened by sophisticated jargon. Some political theorists treat their readers with contempt, rendering their arguments difficult to follow, but Janet regards her readers as participants in a conversation and as potential friends. Her writing exhibits a dialogical quality, as if she could facilitate a conversation with you by enacting a conversation with herself. She supplies her own Glaucon to complement her inner Socrates, as it were.

Janet has been a teacher, mentor and friend of mine for 20 years now. Formally, I took only one undergraduate class with her, a survey course on the essentials: you know, the Republic and the Ethics, the Prince, Leviathan and the Second Treatise, ending with the first two Discourses of Rousseau's, that great villain in Janet's account of modernity. However, she also offered me critical feedback on work I submitted in other courses. I remember when she gave me what for for not giving the feminists what for in my feminist theory course. (Here, I thought I was being prudent.) Janet graciously served as second reader on my Honours thesis, too, on Nietzsche's ethics and his doctrine of "perspectivism."

I had taken to Nietzsche at the age of 16. Nietzschephilia is a dreadful disease, and I credit Janet for helping me to purge and cure myself of it by 22. By the time I graduated, I remember her asking me, "Would you encourage another 16-year-old boy to read Nietzsche?" I replied, "Only if I really didn't like him." I had been a stereotypically angry young man in high school and during my college days. Unfortunately, many professors believe that their mission is to fix the world — a task that implies much destruction, which they euphemize as transformation (a rather metaphysical word for this-worldly sorts to use) — and to that end they need passionate, ambitious and gullible youth ready to wield an axe in whatever direction they're pointed. If only more angry youths had professors like Janet to temper their anger rather than foster it.

As her student, I started, in time, paying attention not only to what Janet taught but how she taught. From her, I learned a little about cultivating a more cultured personality. When I first enrolled in her class, I was rough and green — straight out of leaving a chemical engineering degree halfway finished. Having been a math and science kid in school until then, I was mostly self-taught in philosophy, religion and political history — which is to say, mostly bumbling. Janet encouraged me to become better educated.

Janet was patient, too. In retrospect, I can only imagine how trying I must have been, considering the many things I have said in her presence with disproportionate confidence and excessive irreverence over the years. Philosophically and politically, Janet convinced me to identify as a liberal and a patriot. Our society doesn't do enough to raise young Canadians to be proud of the Canada that was and is, rousing them instead to pledge allegiance to the Canada that someday might be and the global community to which it shall belong. I had never really thought of myself as a liberal until Janet called me one. She probably detected that I was insufficiently liberal and needed to be commended for being more liberal than I was in order for me to gather that I ought to become more liberal: a liberal in the sense of a friend of democratic liberty, that is, not a proponent of Machiavellian liberality.

A good teacher also has to be a tactical critic, and Janet mixes vinegar with honey in her teaching. Students in an era of empathy and entitlement don't like being made to feel uncomfortable — nowadays they want "trigger warnings" on their syllabi — but the fact remains that discomfort is a sine qua non of learning. No matter how bright or well-intentioned, young people need to know that they aren't that smart and they aren't that good — while being given a slight nudge in the direction of self-improvement, as the motivation to improve must be internal if it is to find success. Moreover, there's nothing wrong with including a modicum of shame in that criticism. Janet will usually tell you plainly and directly (quite bluntly, actually) how your arguments and evidence fall short, but she also has a chilly way of expressing disappointment through silence — causing one to muse, "Hmmm. Apparently I've messed up again... What did I say wrong this time?" She won't alleviate you of the responsibility to re-evaluate yourself, discover your flaws and make amends.

In addition to changing my mind on a number of subjects, Janet also has shrewd personal advice to offer her friends. When I indicated my interest in pursuing political philosophy as a career, Janet suggested that it wouldn't hurt to start taking my lunch at the med school cafeteria. After all, I might happen to meet someone nice there. But as Grand Pabbie the Troll King tells us, "the head can be persuaded" but "the heart is not so easily changed." So, I married a musician instead of a doctor. I did follow one piece of advice that was decisive for my career path. Early on in my senior year, she asked, "Have you ever read the philosophy of Harvey Mansfield? No? I thought not. It's not a theory that Canadian political scientists would teach you." I followed her advice and submitted an application to Harvard's doctoral program. My best hunch remains that it was Janet's letter of recommendation that gained me admission, making of me a somewhat unlikely advisee of Harvey's.

Throughout her career, Janet's nemeses have been those who have misled Canadians regarding their own history — not maliciously, she will assure you — in order to steer us towards the future they crave, misdirecting for the sake of redirecting, making it seem as if socialism were our fate (and that what's fated is also good). In The Once and Future Canadian Democracy, Janet psychologically profiles modern political thinkers and actors, placing them into two main camps: romantics or liberals. It's a distinction that reminds me of the outset of her survey course, when she told students that they'd discover that they're either a Plato and Rousseau sort of person or of the Aristotle and Locke variety. (She is fond of observing that, traditionally, in the visual arts, Plato is always depicted as a young person whereas Aristotle always appears old, despite being Plato's student.) A prominent theme in Janet's writing is how the romantics' account of Canadian history became ascendant in the '60s, and how that meant distorting and suppressing our collective memory regarding our political history.

Romantics are idealistic. They believe in progress and moral evolution, and they pretend to know the inexorable direction of history. They are sure that we would have reached our destination already if only everyone else had got with the program. Until then, not only is nothing good enough, nothing is really any good. Romantics claim to be proponents of unfettered freedom, moral agency, purity of heart, authenticity and self-realization, and yet they also adore a strong sense of community, mutuality and consensus, and they are not averse to using the coercive mechanisms of the State to manufacture these bonds. They presume to represent the masses, the many in need of being governed as they would want to be governed if only they understood better what they should want. They also like to place their hope and faith in audacious, attractive, charismatic leaders. They perceive the rule of law, institutions of government and other political formalities primarily as obstacles that may be dispensed with as need be. They may be used cynically to check their unreconstructed opponents, but they must not be allowed to constrain the will of those who would impose what their sentimental conception of justice, which they like to call rational, necessitates.

Their collectivist designs inspire totalitarian measures. (I would make some remarks about the Quebec Charter of Values to illustrate what I mean, but fortunately, Bill 60 has gone the way of tuition hikes.) Indeed, in some provinces, romanticism has a nationalistic dimension, wedding a longing for a community that never shall be to nostalgia for a society that never was. But to all those who are tempted or seduced by romantic idealism and its revolutionary ethos, Janet would tell them "the cake is a lie" — if she were conversant in gamers' memes, that is. The dreams of the romantic could only be possible if everybody were a romantic. (And even then...) Hence, John Lennon hoping that "someday you'll join us / And the world will live as one." On their account, everyone must be a joiner.

Janet contrasts romantics with liberals, who irritate romantics because they will not go away or convert en masse. Liberals, too, have their conceptions of and debates regarding the best, the good, the true, the beautiful and the virtuous, but they do not trust in the power of political engineering to attain them through social justice and solidarity so as to realize our perfectibility. Those who are liberals for extra-liberal reasons arguably make the best liberals. They are aware of liberalism's limits and deficiencies. A proper liberal knows that politics is not the most important thing in life, that we are equals in fundamental ways but not unqualifiedly equal and that's fine, that justice is not the highest virtue, that we should not long for governments that presume to practise the higher virtues, and that the government cannot save us from misery, let alone make us happy. Furthermore, prudent liberals know and accept that some people are hopelessly romantic, and they find ways to make that something we can work with and even benefit from, especially aesthetically.

Janet has laboured to demonstrate that liberal ideas were central to the Canadian founding. When discussing the mantra of "peace, order and good government" that Canadians are said to prefer over the American formula of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," Janet challenges the collectivist interpretation of this distinction by discussing how government isn't good unless it's responsible, based on popular consent and protective of individual rights and liberties. Otherwise, it is not clear why "peace, order and good government" shouldn't be construed as conducive to what Tocqueville called "soft despotism," or what we might call bureaucratic oligarchy, effectuating a kind of tyranny of the majority — of the majority that has been raised to prize peace, order and equality at the expense of liberty. Against the romantics' desire for some deep, affective sense of national identity that would bring all Canadians together to share the same values and commitments, Janet's main claim is that Parliament is good enough to unite us. We Canadians share (in her own words, from a forthcoming publication) "a federal regime governed by parliamentary institutions" that is "rooted in the European Enlightenment and Locke's philosophy of liberty," amounting to a "precious heritage of equal liberty and consent." Precisely because we have gotten so used to it and take it for granted, we don't often see how astounding this is. Have some historical breadth and theoretical depth, people! Reason, experience and observation ought to teach us how grateful we should be for it and how jealous we ought to be of it. While part of its glory is the freedom to argue, criticize and disagree, we should be smart enough to be wary of risking it by looking to unravel it.

On reflection, I would observe that the reason that the romantics don't go away is because their yearnings do speak to something permanent in the human condition, though intensified and exaggerated, in no small measure thanks to liberalism's own partialities. Simply put, we are not self-sufficient animals. We only live well in decent communities with others. This basic truth is something that the more ideological variants of liberalism like to neglect or downplay when they proceed from and work only with reference to abstract individuals psychologically and sociologically less complex than real human beings. We are not rocks or islands, as Paul Simon reminded us, nor are we solitary Snow Queens. That said, the communities we may live well in need not be cities or states. They can be subpolitical or suprapolitical. Modern liberalism was invented in good part to protect these communities. Admittedly, this expectation may be a semi-romantic element within liberal doctrine. Unfortunately, an overly principled version of democratic liberalism has the tendency in practice to be corrosive of these communities, making us capable of imagining that we could and should do without them. It falls to individuals working together to preserve and fortify those communities precisely because their withering away does not cause the human need for what they provide to go away. No wonder people start desperately looking to the State to manufacture identity and community for us after these other sources of meaning and forms of association have decayed, asking the government to assume collective responsibility for us all when we no longer take interpersonal responsibility for each other.

To conclude, let me relate a tidbit from my conversation with Janet in 1995 or so — several years before the publication of Canada's Founding Debates, the monumental book that Janet edited with Paul Romney, Ian Gentles and William Gairdner, collecting and commenting on an abundance of longneglected primary source texts from the Canadian founding. Janet then expressed some resignation that whatever else she accomplished in her career, she would probably be remembered most as someone listed in the acknowledgements section of Allan Bloom's translation of Rousseau's Emile. And it's true. When I was a graduate student in the States, if I mentioned Janet Ajzenstat to a hardcore Straussian, he'd be sure to say, "Yes! Bloom thanked her in Emile!" If anything, the Straussians are fastidious about keeping track of their extended family, however distant. But now her book The Canadian Founding: John Locke and Parliament has won prestigious awards. Janet is also a recipient of the Queen's Golden and Diamond Jubilee Medals. Just a few months ago, when certain events triggered another round of debate over the form and role of the Senate, I sat across from a University of Ottawa law professor on the train from Ottawa to Quebec City. He was on his way to a meeting with Quebec's political elites with a well-worn copy of the Founding Debates in hand and piles of Janet's other publications covered in yellow highlighter. He was furiously jotting down notes. To be certain, it is the case that you cannot be a serious scholar of Canadian politics, history and constitutional law without engaging Janet's painstakingly researched positions — or without a copy of that big red book on your shelf.

Travis D. Smith

Travis D. Smith is Associate Professor of Political Science at Concordia University in Montreal. He is the author of Superhero Ethics (Templeton Press) and co-editor of Flattering the Demos (Lexington Books).

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