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Neil Cameron

Neil Cameron is a Montreal writer and historian. He served as a member of Quebec's National Assembly from 1989 to 1994.

Lilliput and Brobdingnang

Tip O'Neill, the Boston Irish Democrat five times elected Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, regularly clashed with Ronald Reagan on U. S. national and international policies, but his most famous remark was “All politics is local politics.” This is one of those generalizations which sounds persuasive, but with its negation doing so as well. Political leaders and movements of the smallest and largest scale get regularly entangled. Furthermore, their relative and absolute scale also influences their real impact and their media depiction. But it is still constantly forgotten that, as Alfred North Whitehead once observed, we can be provincial in time as well as space. It is too little recognized that the preoccupations of the moment often resemble those of the huge and tiny folk portrayed in Gulliver's Travels. Consider the world's amazement at the phenomenon of Donald Trump. We are compelled to take half-seriously this most grotesque product of democracy: a giant of wealth, of entertainment, of fatuous utterance and bad taste, and now of political and military power. This June, adding another spectacle for Swiftian analogy, the Premier of Quebec has decided to renew a cry from Lilliput. While myself having once participated in our earlier Lilliputian endeavours, I had hoped they were ending. I once hoped this might also be true of Philippe Couillard, but alas, he has just announced his intention of trying to relaunch a Canada-wide discussion on "the five minimal constitutional demands" of Robert Bourassa, over three decades ago. Brian Mulroney's 1987 Meech Lake Accord, intended to meet those demands, failed to achieve the all-province ratification it required in three years, and that was followed by five more years of dreary federal and provincial alarms and excursions, to no useful consequence. Premier Couillard and his advisers can scarcely have expected this rehash… Read More

Truth, trust, trend, and Trump

Time magazine has lost most of the influence it once had, but not its flair for striking covers. A spring one asked, in bold red lettering on a black background, "Is Truth Dead?". They used the same cover format as they had once in 1966, then asking "Is God Dead?". But that had been a late popular reflection on Nietzsche's philosophical assertion that this was the case. The cover and content this time were current and narrow, and better replaced by "Has Trump Killed Truth?". Either choice recalls G. K. Chesterton's wise priest, Father Brown, explaining we should worry less about wrong answers, more whether we are asking the right question. Perhaps Nietzsche was doing so, as was the cooler but epistemologically similar David Hume, but maybe should not have published their obituaries. Both of them were revolutionary philosopher-theologians and historians of ideas, ever afterwards misunderstood and misapplied as destructive gravediggers. All "searches for Truth with a capital T" can be defined as "searches for God with a capital G,” including those made by atheists, despite some insisting otherwise. It has been, and likely will continue to be, an eternal and worldwide search. For Western European civilization, it can be traced back to ancient Greek philosophers, Jewish prophets, Roman statesmen, and Christian synthesizers; then only partially recast by Enlightenment philosophers. Later philosophers, in the English-speaking world, after Bertrand Russell, have largely scaled down Truth-seeking to analyses of the language we use when turning to “ultimate questions.” For most people most of the time, decisions about what to think and what to do are not made with conscious use of, say, epistemology, ethics, or logic.   University courses in philosophy, if well-taught, may give practical benefits. They can aid thinking to purpose in anything from particle physics research to grocery shopping,… Read More

Yesterday’s Heroes

The battle of Vimy Ridge in France, long commemorated in Canada as a defining moment of national identity, has special poignancy this month, now 100 years since it unfolded on April 9th, 1917. Many older Canadians still recall its courage and bloodshed through their own fathers: my own was there, along with his two brothers. But it is little remembered in other countries, completely overshadowed by two larger events in the week before and the week afterward. On April 9th, Woodrow Wilson declared war on Imperial Germany and its allies, transforming the war, and all future relations between the U. S. and the world. On April 16th, Vladimir Illich Lenin returned to Russia from his years of Swiss exile; the Germans sent him back on a sealed train, correctly anticipating he might end the Russian war effort. The latter was still being maintained by the fragile post-Tsarist liberal democracy that had come to power through revolution a month earlier. Wilson, a somewhat priggish warlord and peacemaker, became famous as the apostle of "universalized" parliamentary democracy and "national self-determination." This very American re-ordering of the world began with problems right from the Versailles peace treaties, and Wilson soon faded from the popular imagination, but much of his vision has been retained in American foreign policy ever since. The more single-minded Lenin, while his different dream of worldwide proletarian revolution not only failed, but produced terrible consequences, no longer receives the cult adoration he held for the worldwide left for seven decades after his 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. He and Wilson both suffered strokes and then death in the 1920s. But Lenin, who also had epilepsy, spent his last year, 1924, in wheelchair-bound total helplessness, dying at only 53. By then he had been forced to abandon, at least temporarily, many of his… Read More

From elite Prometheanism to free research

"Our time and energy are being sapped by bureaucrats and politicians. The SSC is becoming a victim of the revenge of the C students." - Dr. Roy Schwitters, Head of the Superconducting Supercollider Project, in 1993. "The open science movement is gaining momentum...But the Neuro is bringing open science to a new level by making a commitment to share everything from brain imaging to tissue samples to the data associated with its experiments." - McGill Principal Suzanne Fortier, McGill News, Winter 2016/17. The early 1990s may now be recalled mainly for large political developments. In Canada, they were the climactic years of a decade of constitutional conflict, ending in negative outcomes of two referendums; in the U.S., the victory of Bill Clinton. But two other events would cast long shadows over the quarter century that followed. One was the large popular vote won in the 1992 presidential election by the unconventional third-party candidate, Ross Perot, a major factor in denying George H. W. Bush a second term. It was an early portent of the growing current of cultural and economic nationalism that has now culminated in the victory of Donald Trump, with signs of a similar direction arriving in Europe. The other, less-recalled but highly significant in its own way, was the 1993 cancellation by the U.S. Congress of the funding necessary to complete the building of the Superconducting Supercollider (SSC) project in Waxahachie, Texas. The SSC was spearheaded by the Harvard physicist Roy Schwitters, co-winner of a 1976 Nobel Prize, experienced both in past large projects and lobbying in Washington. His 1,900 scientists and construction workers were building the SSC to learn more about the fundamental properties of matter, with what would have been the largest and most expensive scientific apparatus ever built. Everything about it was gargantuan. It… Read More

Men of power and their God-fearing appointees

The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason. - Thomas Becket, in T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral. 1945-65 was a good time for theatre. Two of the most memorable plays opened in 1960, Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons in London, and Jean Anouilh's Becket, or the Honour of God, in New York. Both were also soon made into successful films. I saw the Anouilh play in New York, with Anthony Quinn playing King Henry II, Laurence Olivier playing Becket, and later saw the movie, with Richard Burton playing Henry, Peter O'Toole as Becket. The Bolt work I know only as a film, with Paul Scofield as an unforgettable Thomas More, clashing with Henry VIII (Robert Shaw) and his Machiavellian courtier, Thomas Cromwell (Leo McKern). I imagine I am one of many people who found both works a transforming personal experience. In both, the theatrical account strays far from what historians have learned about either of the English Kings or their sainted opponents. Anouilh even created much of the dramatic tension by making Becket a voice of the defeated English Saxons, Henry of the triumphant Normans, while the real Becket was actually another Norman. Both plays and films had many other examples of dramatic license, also true of other retellings of the two stories, like T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral, first appearing in 1935, but frequently revived since. Like Shakespearean dramas, these 20th century works offered recastings of myths, above all of the clash between worldly rulers and uncompromising idealists, although the concluding murders were historically real, however raised in meaning by theatre. Stories of powerful men with plans they are determined to execute running afoul of their own chosen priests, or magistrates, even when these latter were… Read More
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