What follows is drawn from the very first part of The Great Divide: Why Liberals And Conservatives Will Never, Ever Agree (Encounter 2015), and is an attempt to contrast the way we are today, with how we began.
Seems like almost every news item today is an echo of these underlying contrasts and themes.
Not so long ago it was common at a dinner party with family and friends to find ourselves drawn into discussion and debate over the political and moral topics of the day. There was usually a lot of strong feeling, praise for good arguments, some good-natured ridicule for bad ones, and of course heated support of one’s own ideas. But I cannot remember any violent personal attacks, tears, or “outrage” over someone else’s point of view, however wacky it may have seemed, and that was because no one interpreted disagreement as offensive. Most striking of all, I think most people then were unafraid to state their own views, even happy to volunteer them. There wasn’t the slightest hint of “political correctness” in the air. We assumed that was a moral disease of the Red Chinese, a million of whom I remember seeing displayed on a center-fold of Life magazine in Tiananmen Square, all in black communist uniforms, all waving Chairman Mao’s Red Book fanatically in the air. The mere notion of “Human Rights Tribunals” (such as we have now in most Western nations) set up by governments to “re-educate” and to control or punish thought and speech in a free country, was simply unthinkable. We were quite aware that many post-war immigrants fled from the disease of totalitarianism to the “free” world to escape that very thing. But the disease followed them.
A similar dinner party today is a very different story, almost certain to illustrate The Great Divide that is the topic of this book. The elephant in the room, as the saying goes, will almost certainly be an unspoken awareness that there are a lot of political, social, and moral “issues” that most are afraid to mention. The silence – who has not felt it? — tells everyone to keep their true thoughts to themselves. Share only unimportant, or even insincere thoughts. This may be typical in the company of complete strangers, about whom we may care nothing. But to find it true among family, friends, and in our own close communities is very new and very sad, for it tells us that civil society, if not quite at an end, is comatose; that we are becoming strangers to each other. This book is one man’s effort to change this situation; to help people become unafraid once again.
I hasten to add that it is not a book about politics or political parties — fickle things at the best of times. For I believe that the political history of the West (which we assume is being decided by all the party, policy, and election language with which we get bombarded), is in fact an outcome of a much deeper and less obvious ideological warfare. Volcanoes and earthquakes are a surface sign of invisible geological forces, just as shifts in the political, social, and moral world are surface signs of invisible ideological forces.
The Clash within Western Civilization
In his bestselling book The Clash of Civilizations (1996) Samuel Huntington warned us about the clashes to come between the West and other, incompatible civilizations. The attacks by puritanical Islamists on our deeply-secularized, overly-sexualized, highly-materialistic culture on “9/11” and since, have borne out his predictions.
This book, however, is more concerned about a much less obvious, but more pervasive war of moral and political ideals within Western civilization itself, because from Pittsburgh to Paris, Buenos Aires to Buffalo, Vancouver to Venice, we have been engaged in a civil war of values and principles for a very long time. At bottom, it is a war between two incompatible political cultures, or enemy ideologies concerning the best way to live that I suspect with a little effort may be found simmering beneath the surface of all civilizations, waxing or waning as historical circumstances allow.