Category Archives: Freedom

The Left Conservatism of John Dutton

Someone using the house we rented in Arizona had recorded some episodes of the latest season of Yellowstone.  They were interesting. I could not watch the entire series because it is no longer offered on our TV. Unlike some of my friends, I am not a huge fan of the TV series Yellowstone, but I do like parts of the shows. It has some diverse and interesting characters.

In Arizona I think most people identify with the patriarch of the Dutton family, John Dutton. He is very conservative and around here that is a very popular ideology. I don’t agree with all of his philosophy either, but I have some sympathy for some of his philosophy which I have called left conservatism, after the philosophy of the novelist Norman Mailer.

At the end of Season 4 of the series Yellowstone, John Dutton decided to run for Governor in Montana and got elected.  His opening statement to the people was interesting and revealed his essential conservatism that is very different from the conservatism of most of the current American right: “I am the opposite of progress. I am the wall it bashes against, and I will not be the one who breaks.

This is much more closely aligned to what Norman Mailer called “Left Conservatism” than modern Republicanism. Mailer said he wanted to “think in the style of Marx to achieve the values of Burke.” That was the essence of his philosophy.  Burke was the leading conservative thinker in England during the time of the French Revolution. I remember first hearing that expression from Mailer 50 years ago and always thought it was a remarkable political philosophy. I found much attractive in it then, and I still find much attractive in it today.

In season 5 of Yellowstone, in his victory speech, Dutton told his supporters,

“We have a lot of work to do, and a lot to undo.  The question we all have to ask ourselves and one that I will look to everyday, is what will Montana look like in 100 years? Much of that is dictated by the way the world sees us today. Right now, we are seen as the rich man’s playground. We are New York’s novelty and California’s toy. Not anymore. You have elected me to be a steward of the state, and the land, and its people, and that is exactly what I will do. You know environmentalists just love to debate what’s Montana’s most valuable resource. Is it the water? Is it the wolves? Is it the trees? The answer is actually pretty simple.  It’s you! The farmers and the ranchers who live with the land not on it. When protecting you now is how Montana still looks like Montana when none of us here tonight are here to see it.”


That’s a real conservative attitude, but no one with which I entirely agree. He wants to protect the land and the people as they are now. He wants to conserve that. That is what conservatism is all about. But we must remember that we don’t just conserve what rich men like. The rich are happy and contented. With their wealth they can buy privileges. They can buy the government that acts in their interests and not in the interests of ordinary people who can’t afford to buy their political leaders. That should not be preserved.

 In the TV series Dutton wanted to conserve the largest ranch in the state. It was worth millions. It was his ranch. Who would not want to conserve that?  But how does that help the single mom on social assistance? How does that help the Uber driver? Or the bar tender at the local bar? Ordinary people are important too. Most conservatives don’t understand that at all. They just think soon they will be one of the rich people.

For a man like Donald Trump the only people that count are his rich buddies and the people who support him in power and then only as long as they continue to support him no matter what he does?  He appreciates only absolute loyalty to himself. Many conservatives are exactly like that. Those  are not my kind of conservatives.

Conservatives also claim to stand for freedom. At least for the freedom to do as they please. They are not as concerned about the freedom of working-class people to get the health care they need. Or schools. Somehow often that does not count. John Dutton said freedom was important to him. This is what he said:

“Freedom. I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately. The word. What it means. The dictionary thinks that it means “the right or power to think, act or speak as one wants without hindrance or restraint.” As governor of the state, I’m sworn to protect that right. Building a city in the middle of the most pristine wilderness strips you of that freedom. It eliminates your freedom to breath clean air and drink clear water. It strains this ability. It strains the ability of our hospitals and our schools and our police. It requires an increase in our taxes which in turn strains our families, forcing you to decide if you can afford to live in a place that you call home. That’s no progress in my mind. It’s an invasion. And today the invasion is over. Today I’m signing an executive order that ceases funding for the paradise Valley development and the Paradise Valley Ski resort.”


John Dutton’s philosophy of what I would call left conservatism is far from perfect. It contains in my view many grave inconsistencies, but it does contain some important insights into things that are worth preserving. Like freedom for everyone not just freedom for the wealthy to do whatever they choose whether that is good for most people or not. Left conservatism is an anti-dote to the shallow modernism of so much contemporary thinking. That sort of “freedom” is not worth preserving.

The Land of the Free because of the brave

Hans wants to be brave

The sign out front of the house we rented in Arizona said: “Land of the Free because of the brave.”  I actually agree with this sentiment, but this is not just because of the military. I admit a brave military is important. We all need a military to defend us in case of attack. This year Russia under Putin proved that there are still predatory countries out there willing to take astonishingly aggressive measures to exploit other countries. It is naive not to have any defence.

However, I believe domestic enemies actually pose a larger threat than foreign enemies to countries such as the USA and Canada. Many of those domestic enemies falsely claim to be inspired by the ideal of freedom, but actually they actively work against freedom. To them freedom means the freedom to do anything they want. That is not freedom; that is anarchy. It takes even more courage to confront domestic enemies. For example, it takes a great deal of courage to speak up against our neighbours when they are speaking nonsense. Our domestic enemies must be resisted. The domestic mob is as dangerous as any foreign enemy  and is often even more difficult to oppose. These domestic mobs typically demand conformity to their tarnished and narrow views. We must dissent from the views of those around us when they are based on fear and ignorance rather than critical thinking. Such oppression is every bit as bad as anything our foreign enemies could impose on us.

As the patriots say, “Freedom isn’t free.”  I agree with that too.

Women Talking (the Movie)



I have already blogged about the book. I loved the book. Now I want to blog about the film. I loved the film too. I know this sounds like I am a homer. But I like Cactus Jack Wells a Winnipeg Blue Bomber football announcer always said, “this is a true and unbiased report.” This is like that. Biased in other words.

I admit it, I am proud that woman from Steinbach, who I know a little bit, wrote a novel that was the basis of a movie nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. As I would have said in my lawyerly days, “I am not in a conflict of interest.”

We also must remember that the film is not the book. It doesn’t have to be. It is an independent nation.  But, of course, they are closely related. They are different interpretations of the same thing. This time I will just talk about the film.

The film is about oppression and what to do about it. If that is not a universal theme there are no universal themes. And it is a big and important theme.  It is worth our attention. Not because it deals with Mennonites.  That is irrelevant. It could have dealt with the Taliban. Or Roman Catholics. Or your place of employment. Or your home.

The film involves discussion among the Mennonite women in a South America where they have discovered that they have been sexually assaulted by the men of the colony. the men accomplish this by drugging the women so they don’t realized what was happening. After it is discovered the women must decided if they should leave the colony, stay and submit, or leave. Each choice involves terrible risks.

One of the women in the film says:

“Boys have learned from their father how to oppress.

And women have learned from their mother how to submit.

Both have learned well.”



There is another element I can’t resist talking about. The religious element. After all the central characters are Mennonites in a strict conservative Mennonite colony. As a result, here is a conversation between Ona and Scarface:

ONA Are we asking ourselves what our priority is? To protect our children or to enter the kingdom of heaven?

SCARFACE JANZ  Does entering the kingdom of heaven mean nothing to any of you? After all we have suffered? ANNA Are you really willing to give up what we have always lived for?

ONA Surely there is something in this life worth living for, not only in the next.


That is an issue worth wrestling. Is it more important to save your child’s life than it is to save your immortal soul?

The women are told by the men of the colony that they are mistaken about their allegations of sexual abuse. The allegations are the product of the wild imaginations of women or of Satan. They can’t be true.

Later there is another interesting conversation (there are many):

SALOME … The only certainty we’ll know is uncertainty, no matter where we are.

ONA Other than the certainty of the power of love.

Yup, but is that enough to save the conundrum at the heart of the film?


Ona also asks an incredible question: “How would you feel if in your entire lifetime it had never mattered what you thought?”  This is the ultimate question. The women want to think! And that is not permitted.  

The women have been taught that they have a religious duty to always forgive. So they must forgive the men, they think, or risk going to hell. But as Agata said, “Perhaps forgiveness can, in some instances, be confused with permission…”

There is much worth talking about in this film. Watch and participate in the conversation. That’s what we all should do.

I am giving a true and unbiased report here. Therefore I say, this is the best film of the year and it will win the Academy Award for Best Picture because the academy will do the right think. But perhaps like the women in the film, I am just a dreamer. But sometimes a dream is all you get.

Confronting Truth and finding spiritual freedom


Authorities have known for a long time, at least since the time of Plato, that the rebellion of poets and artists is dangerous to established authority and power. Their alternative reality is also one that is deviant and defiant. The members of the Republic of the Imagination are always prepared to dissent. That makes them uncompliant to power that wants to dominate. That makes them subversive and hostile to arbitrary authority. Not all authority.


One can only belong to such a subversive group if one has not only the courage of one’s convictions, but as Nietzsche said, “the courage to attack one’s convictions.” No truths are too sacred to be attacked or challenged. Even those we hold most dear. There should be no barriers to pursuing truth. One should be free to challenge all conventional wisdom. Even the truths of patriots are open to question. The country cannot demand absolute obedience or obeisance. Great literature is always ready, willing, and able to attack any sacred cows. That is why, as Nafisi said, “If we need fiction today, it is not because we need to escape from reality; it is because we need to return to it with eyes that are refreshed, or as Tolstoy would have it, “clean-washed.

We must recognize that there are more freedoms than one. Nowadays the idea of freedom has been besmirched. In Canada we recently had the freedom convoy in our nation’s capital. The members of that convoy basically demanded the freedom to do whatever they wanted. They really recognized no limits on freedom, which of course, means they advocated for anarchy which is not freedom at all. It is an illusory freedom that they urge upon us. It is not the freedom to light out for the territory of Huck Finn.

Once again, Azar Nafisi made this point eloquently:

But of course, there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious, you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of wanting and achieving and displaying.  The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty, unsexy little ways, every day.  That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

 This is the freedom of Huck Finn. He was willing to sacrifice not just his life, but put himself in peril of eternal damnation, to save his friend, a black slave. That was the freedom he wanted. And he would do anything to achieve it. It was not a selfish freedom; it was real freedom. It was not the freedom of the convoy for whom freedom was all about me.

In its essence this is the freedom to think. Even if it’s a “long think.” The freedom to think for oneself, not chained to the conventional wisdom. It takes courage to be free. And no one had more courage than Huck Finn. After, all he was willing to risk eternal damnation. This is the freedom of Huck Finn!

 That is what a spiritual declaration of independence is all about.

We need a Spiritual Declaration of Independence


The original American dream was a dream of freedom. Sadly, that dream is often for sale or forsaken.  Many Americans have given up on that dream. They are willing to turn their lives over to a strongman, no matter how foul. They have traded their freedom for the perceived belief that only a strong man can save them from the carnage. Instead of freedom these paltry Americans (just like their equally paltry Canadian cousins) want security or wealth or fame or grimy tax breaks.


The members of the fictional world, epitomized by Huck Finn who would not give up his freedom for anything, are the real heroes of the American and Canadian dreams. As Azar Nafisi said,

“We must remember that, despite the prevailing attitude today that arrogantly defines success as money, the real heroes of this nation’s fictional landscape are vagrants, marginal, and subversive, from Melville’s Bartleby, the scrivener whose mantra is “I would prefer not to,” the heroines of Henry James and Edith Wharton, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Zora Neal Hurston’s Janie, Bellows Herzog, Philip Roth’s Sabbath   or Omar Little of The Wire, who reminds us of the importance of a code of honor. All seek integrity and listen to their hearts’ dictates, cautioning us against our willingness to betray the American dream when it is, as Fitzgerald put it, besmirched with the “foul dust that floats in the wake” of our dreams.”


That is why Nafisi said “we must make a new declaration of independence, a spiritual rather than a political one this time.


Like young but brave Huck Finn, all must be able to enjoy “a freedom to turn their back on society and what is expected of them, and to forge their own lonely path.

Like Huck we must be free to abandon conventional wisdom or morality and “light out for the territory.” If Huck can do it, we can do it. The American dream, which really is also the Canadian dream, may be besmirched but it is not dead—yet.

 I would go so far as to say that is a religious quest in the modern age.

Books Matter in the Republic of the Imagination:


Perhaps people living under totalitarian regimes know better than the rest of us that books matter. In such countries people are not allowed to read any book they desire to read. They can only read the approved books. Those are the books that align well with the interests of those in power. If they want to read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn they may not be able to do so. Even in Canada and the United States some people want to control the books that the rest of us read. Such people don’t believe in freedom of expression or the freedom to read. They usually have a “good cause” to justify their intrusions into our reading lives.  I am not saying all restrictions are unjustified intrusions. I am only saying we must be vigilant to ensure that only the very rare books justify such an intrusion.

That is why we learn that books really do matter. As Azar Nafisi said,


“…books matter, that they open up a window into a more meaningful life, that they enable us to tolerate complexity and nuance and to empathize with people whose lives and conditions are utterly different form our own.”


In unfree states, or in states on the road to unfreedom, such as perhaps the United States is headed, some people want to prevent others from reading anything contrary to the truths they hold dear. In Iran that means no deviance from the form of Islam the regime has approved. In the southern US that means no deviance from the approved belief among the powerful that the US is not a racist country. In some parts of the US, like Florida, among conservatives, that means no books that foster a view of gender and sexuality that fails to conform to the conventional wisdom of evangelical Christians. At least the children should not be allowed to read such books. They do not want others to have fellow feeling for those living lives different from their own.

Huck Finn refused to give obeisance to the conventional wisdom about race. He was the consummate rebel from the conventional wisdom. Nafisi put it well:

Huckleberry Finn is perhaps the most memorable of those humble citizens of the imaginary America who stand up to forces great and terrible, but Huck refuses to return home, thus foreshadowing the destinies and shaping the choices of so many other fictional American characters who either leave home, never return, or long to do so. Those homeless protagonists of American fiction become the true guardians of what is best in American individualism, never identifying happiness with wealth or power. Perhaps in no other fiction, in fact, is materialism so frowned upon, or defined as the root of so many evils—an ironic but salutary reminder for a country so blatantly devoted to the pursuit of wealth and power.


Only brave rebels like Huck Finn can resist the lure of that materialism. They make the mistake Bob Dylan warned about namely, “don’t go mistaking paradise for that home across the road.” Like Huck Finn who preferred the freedom of life on a raft to the comfortable but “smothery” home.

The members of the Republic of the Imagination are the writers, musicians and artists that are rebels who say no to the smothering ideology of the conventional wisdom. As Azar Nafisi said,

“All writers are strangers, or pariahs, as Hannah Arendt put it. They look at the world through the eyes of the outsider” but only the American writers turn this attribute into a national characteristic…we need to reflect on this constant restlessness, this unending questioning, this battle between the desire for prosperity and success and the urge to walk away from it all, to be wary of complacency—in short to perform the miracle of the small vagabond Huck, who followed his heart as he floated on a raft down the Mississippi.


That was why Huck decide to “light out for the territory” rather than be smothered in comfort. That is why Huck is a charter member of the Republic of the Imagination. But we can all join.

 Books matter in the republic of the Imagination; none more so than the classics like Huckleberry Finn.

Thinking not dying


Can great literature lead to great societies?

There is no obvious and direct link between democratic societies and great literature. As Joseph Brodsky correctly pointed out, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao were all very literate men. That did not help societies in the countries they led. But that does not mean there is no connection.

Democratic societies, it has often been observed, need good citizens. Citizens who have not forgotten how important freedom is and know that to protect a fragile democracy—and all democracies are fragile—an alert and informed citizenry is essential. Azar Nafisi explained how books like the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn were important as a consequence:

For this they need to know, to pause, to think, to question. It is this quality that we find in so many of America’s fictional heroes, from Huckleberry Finn to Mick Kelly in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. How can we protect ourselves from a country of manipulation, where tastes and flavors are re-created chemically in laboratories and given to us as natural food, where religion is packaged, televised, and tweeted and commercials influence us to such an extent that they dictate not only what we eat, wear, read, and want but what we know and dream. We need the pristine beauty of truth as revealed to us in fiction, poetry, music and the arts: we need to retrieve the third eye of the imagination.

Democracies can benefit from its citizens engaging in what Huck called “a long think.” Nothing is better for purpose than literature or art, or other works of the imagination. This is what Nafisi called “The Republic of the Imagination.” This is what allows us to live and avoid a smothery death.

In totalitarian societies people risk their lives to achieve this. The risks are clear and present. But even in democratic societies lives are at risk to, for smothered lives are not worth living.

People in totalitarian societies often appreciate the freedom to read much more acutely than citizens of democratic societies. But they are not the only ones. As Scout said in that wonderful book To Kill a Mockingbird, another classic, “Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read.  One does not love breathing.”

In the Republic of the Imagination, as Nafisi says, “We must read, and we must continue to read the great subversive books, our own and others.”

And in my opinion there is no more subversive book than The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. That is why it is a great book. Perhaps the best novel of all time. That is a possibility.  It is my favourite novel.  That is a certainty.

Tom Sawyer, who appears in this book at the beginning and then returns to wreak havoc near the end of the book, is completely befuddled by what he has “learned” from reading books. It gets Tom into trouble and more importantly endangers the lives of others, such as the slave Jim. He keeps insisting how they must conform to the books no matter how absurd and no matter how little he understands of what those books actually say. Sawyer is continually barking up the wrong reality tree.


Tom asks Huck, “Do you want to go doing something different from what’s in the books and get things all muddled up?” Huck agreed, saying: “all kings is mostly rapscallions…You couldn’t tell them from the real kind.” Huck’s conclusion was a sound one: “Sometimes I wish we could hear  of a country that’s out of kings.” Huck would appreciate the wisdom of John Lennon.

We can think or we can die. That is the  choice.

Avoiding a Smothery Death


I know I have been going too long about the wonderful book, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But it is a classic and classics are worth it. At least in my opinion they are worth the extra time. I promise to bring these posts to a close soon. But I think there is so much to learn from that novel.

It is obvious that totalitarian societies impose horrendous encroachments on freedom.  Democratic societies are more subtle.

Of course, in a democratic society the arts of the imagination don’t usually threaten the state, but they help seduce us into what Nafisi e called “a paralysis of consciousness” and what she also referred to as “an intellectual indolence.” Both of those were  recognized by Huck Finn, though he expressed it in other words such as “smothery.” Huck Finn demonstrated that in order to avoid the “smothery” embrace of a conformist society it was absolutely necessary to rebel and “light out for the territories.” Nothing else will suffice.

Nazar Nafisi put the issue this way:

“Every state, including a totalitarian one, has its lures and seductions. The price we pay for succumbing is conformity, a surrender of one’s self to the dictates of the group. Fiction is an antidote, a reminder of the power of individual choice. Every novel has at its core a choice by at least one of its protagonists, reminding the reader that she can choose to be her own person, to go against what her parents or society or the state tell her to do and follow the faint but essential beat of her own heart.”


No one better exemplifies this awful choice more than Huck Finn who is willing to go to hell for doing the “wrong thing” so that he can save his friend Jim. Who is a better emblem of freedom and dissent from conformity that that?

Huck knows that to give in to “sivilization” and the Sunday school marms like Miss Watson, is to accept a “smothery” death and he won’t accept that. Instead, he will “light out for the territory” because  “there warn’t no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don’t. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.” Huck would not give up freedom for a comfortable home.

Huck was like the great artists mentioned by Nafisi when she said,

“What made Brodsky, Nabokov, Czeslaw Milosz and Hannah Arendt—all of whom took refuge in America (Einstein too for that matter)—resist the totalitarian states of their home countries and reject the empty temptations of Western democracies was essentially one and the same thing: they knew that to negate and betray that inner self was not just a surrender to the tyrant’s will but a sort of self-inflicted death. You become a cog in a vast and invisible wheel over which you have no control—Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, only without the comedy.”

Not for them a “smothery” death. Not for me either.

A Hit List or a reading list


Azar Nafisi is a professor of literature now living in America, who originally taught literature in Iran.  In fact she taught American novels including The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  She taught this amazing book, whose theme is freedom, to Iranians students in Tehran. Eventually Nafisi left Iran for freedom in America. She loves literature and the works of the imagination as I do. She is just much more eloquent than I am.  She said,

“The way we view fiction is a reflection of how we define ourselves a nation. Works of the imagination are canaries in the coal mine, the measure by which we can evaluate the health of the rest of society.”


She learned this, she says. She taught in the midst of a totalitarian society. In the novel Huck had an awful choice to make. He could choose to follow what he called his “conscience.” By that he really meant conventional morality. This is what he had been taught by his family, and his society around him. These were the authorities. If he followed them, he would bring the slave Jim back to his “rightful owner’ the good Christian Miss Watson. Or he could choose to follow what he had learned in his life with Jim—i.e. that Jim was the best of all the people he knew and he was his true friend and he should help him to freedom so Jim could reunite with his family. Huck chose to do what he thought was the wrong thing, the thing that would lead him to hell, but would save his friend. Could anyone ever have a better friend? He literally risked it all to save his friend.

The poet Joseph Brodsky, like Azar Nafisi, had been brought up in a totalitarian society. He in Russia; she in Iran. Both came to appreciate the revolutionary power of the imagination and works of the imagination. Not that they are a panacea. After all, Brodsky pointed out, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao were all literate people who read lots of books. Brodsky said, the problem is “their hit lists were longer than their reading lists.

That is why totalitarian states, and authoritarian leaders are so quick to attack books and the liberal arts. They know that these works are dangerous to the authoritarians.  Both, whether, from the left or the right, want to remove them at all costs. As Nafisi said, “They know the dangers of genuine free inquiry.” Some of these authoritarians even in the west, have tried to ban The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Why? They are doing it for the same reason the dictators did—i.e. to control the readers. They don’t want the readers to think.


Freeing the master and the slave and the victim


Azar Nafisi, the literature critic who wrote that wonderful book The Republic of the Imagination, points out how the slave Jim is the first person who encountered Huck after Huck staged his death in order to escape from his “smothery” world. Huck depends on Jim to show him how to survive on their raft. Nafisi said Jim “resurrects him.” He certainly frees Huck in more than one sense.

Later, when the white mob is after Jim, Huck literally saves or resurrects Jim from a watery grave. They save each other. They help each other to freedom. This is the central relationship in the novel.

This relationship in my mind proves that Mark Twain was right when he said, “Lincoln’s proclamation [when Abe Lincoln proclaimed slavery was abolished]…not only set the slaves free, but set the white man free also. White men were enslaved by a false and wicked ideology—white supremacy—from which they desperately needed freeing. Some have still not been freed.

According to Nafisi, later Huck realizes that “he needs to feel, to empathize with others in order to become more fully himself. All through their adventures Huck finds his own moral compass with the help of Jim. As soon as they meet under new circumstances, Jim is transformed from “Miss Watson’s nigger” to his best mate as they go from “he and I” to “we.”

This is how Huck and Jim free each other. That is a racist and non-racist can free each other. The Adventurers of Huckleberry Finn is a novel about freedom. This is its essential theme. It is a complex book in a simple form. I think it is the greatest American novel and might even be the greatest novel ever written.

In Canada Canadian non-indigenous people urgently need to be saved from their ideology of white supremacy. Allowing indigenous people to liberate themselves would lead to the liberation of non-indigenous people. This is an essential insight we can gain from reading a novel like the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.