An Interview on The Great Divide

Just ran a cross this interview with London Ontario journalist, Mary Lou Ambrogio, which I neglected to post when my latest book, The Great Divide, was first published.

(Flagrant self-promotion: Visitors to this website could help to stimulate awareness of this book by forwarding this interview to their friends and associates, for which, I give thanks in advance …

The Interview is in the form of nine questions from Mary Lou, as follows:

1) That subtitle, “Why Liberals and Conservatives Will Never, Ever Agree”, concerns me. I always thought left and right could at least agree on what the problems were but diverged in their solutions?

A: It is indeed a provocative sub-title. This book was produced by an American publisher, and down there, the two words – liberal and conservative – are taken to indicate underlying political and moral disposition rather than party affiliations (as you know, if we speak only of policy and legislation, there are many liberal republicans, and conservative democrats). So from the first page of The Great Divide I tried to make it clear that this is not a book about politics or parties.

It’s focus is on the underlying and (in my view) incompatible world-views that these two terms designate. In the field of policy, it is true that in the long tradition of so-called liberal democracy, the objective has always been to find compromises that make their way into law. A good thing, needless to say. You are correct that there is often agreement as to ends, but strong differences as to means. There is a means divide. I try to point out why that is so, and why, even though compromises are often found, liberals and conservatives nevertheless can never agree because their disagreements are rooted in mutually-exclusive philosophical and moral propositions, versions of human nature, and so on.

2) What was the impetus for writing a book about the division between right and left? Are there recent events in politics that have you pondering this great divide?

A: I got tired of being at social events where I might try to strike up a conversation with someone by mentioning something I was prepared to defend as a fact, or an irrefutable proposition, only to hear this person look me in the eye, and say, “Well, it may be true for you, but it’s not true for me.” At that moment, I say, “Well, it can’t be true and false at the same time, one of us must be wrong,” and I am excited that it may generate an interesting conversation or debate in which we find out which one of is right or wrong. But the fellow slips away to drink with someone else. Game over. So I became convinced that serious opinion on a host of important topics was becoming increasingly relativized, and responses increasingly characterized by emotion (“I’m outraged by what you’ve been saying!”). Or worse, by silence and avoidance of all those whom we fear may disagree with us. I felt civil society was closing down, so something had to be done to counteract this trend.

3) Character vilification and name calling seems to be a big part of political discourse these days. Has it always been this way or is this new and if so, why do you think that is?

A: Yes, as mentioned above, emotion has moved to centre stage and shunted intelligent debate to the sidelines. Often, when I am giving a speech, someone will stand up in the Q & A segment and say, “Mr. Gairdner, I am outraged by what you have been saying!”

The room falls very quiet.

Then I say, “Well, you couldn’t be more outraged than I am, now what’s your point?”

If the person is half-intelligent they realize that we can’t debate each other’s emotions, and they try to come up with a statement or a fact or a proposition that we can begin to debate.

My purpose in this book is to explain as clearly as I can what the foundational beliefs of each side are, because they are hard to see at first.

The metaphor I like to use is of a man standing on a road on a sunny day. Suddenly, a huge gash opens in the middle of the road, and building start to crumble. He says, “Oh ,my gosh, it’s an earthquake!”

But what he is seeing is really the consequences of the earthquake, not the earthquake itself, which is happening way out of sight beneath the surface due to the tension of geological forces. A good seismologist can explain those forces, and help us understand the earthquake, and the rubble it generates.

It is the same with political and moral life. The rubble and confusion we see at the surface is caused by underlying and ideological forces. My objective in writing The Great Divide was to make those forces visible.

4) I see differences between the “new Left” and the “old Left”. (By old I don’t mean their age but rather, the kind of leftism practiced by people like Christopher Hitchens, Camille Paglia, Terry Glavin, etc.) These people seem more interested in and capable of actual debate, believe in free speech and seem more intellectually honest. Conversations with them can be productive and constructive. Could the intolerance exhibited by the new left be what accounts for the greater division we see now?

A: I agree with you on the old-new left difference. Another insightful leftist was Christopher Lasch, who managed to remain a leftist all his life but never shied from acute analyses of its faults. I think a lot of the intolerance on all sides is possibly sourced in the loss of a common ground that once enabled the civilized expression of differences. Canadians and Americans came to North America as Christian settlers who spoke a common moral language and therefore enjoyed a shared conception of the common good. But over time, the spread of materialism and secularism has eroded that common ground. We have been depleting the moral surplus of that age, so to speak, and so our weapon of last resort is ideological differences, which in the absence of any common resting place, leads to polarization of attitudes, demonization of opponents, and so on.

5) Something that really struck me from “The Trouble With Canada Still”, was your description of Western Democracies becoming what you call “Tripartite States”, where “1/3 of all taxpayers are employed by government at some level, 1/3 are crucially dependent on government support in some way, and 1/3 produce the income that pays for all of the support for the other two-thirds”. This inevitably leads to 2/3’s gang up on the 1/3 by voting for parties that will facilitate the theft from the productive third. Are we there yet?

A: Pretty close. I think countries like Sweden (often a 60% tax rate) have been there for a long time now. Economists speak of the “churning” of resources in this kind of state. One economist described it this way: “in Sweden, a great number of women are paid to look after the children of those women who are employed in the public sector caring for the parents of the women who are watching over their children!” That is rather perverse and unnatural. But once a state becomes tripartite, there is no way out I can foresee because it is like two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner. The only way out would be a wholesale moral and cultural re-awakening of the people, a people prepared to self-deny – that is, to decline a lot of democratically available options for the sake of the truth and of the next generation. Getting rid of one of the wolves is tough if you are yourself that wolf.

6) One of the main differences between left and right is their respective views about the proper role of government – how big and how intrusive it should be, etc. Is either side capable of convincing the other to see things their way or are we destined to be divided forever on this question?

A: I argue that there is a difference between a strong government, which may be quite small, and big government – to which there is no limit. Thoreau famously said the best government is the least. I support that. For a long time, Switzerland was my model for a strong but small government. They have five languages, over 20 Cantons, like our provinces, and run the whole show with only seven federal ministries, compared to our more than thirty (plus sub-ministries).

I always ask people: Can you name any President of Switzerland of the last 100 years? No one ever does, or could. The reason is that the Swiss do not believe in what I call the Hollywood-ization of politics. They run their federal government with a management committee of the seven ministers, who rotate the Presidency. So there is never a popularity contest such as we (and the Americans) have every four or five years. They also employ certain tools of direct democracy such as recall, referendums, and citizen initiatives. I used to argue for those were the tools necessary to get the Western democracies back on the right track.

It is less certain now that these tools would be of much help, mainly because no majority vote can make something good, or right, that is wrong or evil. We have to recognize the good first, as a people, and then vote for it, not the other way around. Also, many of the things voters would have used the tools of direct democracy to reject thirty years ago (such as gay marriage, and unlimited abortion on demand) they would likely vote for today. So direct democracy is no guarantee of a good polity

7) I’m convinced we don’t have leaders anymore and instead have “cheerleaders” who follow where the votes lead. Politics seems to be conducted at a very shallow level where it isn’t about principle but rather popularity. Instead of doing what’s right, politicians will do what’s politically fruitful, and voters will vote for their own interest rather than for the general interest. If you agree, what would have to happen to fix this?

A: It has been said that the difference between a politician and a statesman is that a politician worries about the next election, whereas a statesman worries about the next generation. All political systems tend to attract character types that suit the system. In a totalitarian system we get the absolute authoritarian figure. In an aristocratic system we get the more cultured figure auguring for the obligations of the rich to advance the nobility of civilization, to help the needy, and to decide what is good for the people whether they like it or not. But all democratic systems attract popularity- seekers (the cheerleaders you have described) who have a nose for what will please the people, whether or not it is good for them. This kind of system (our own) tends toward what I call “prostitution politics” where the politician will promise to provide whatever is asked, in exchange for the most votes paid.

8) Some would suggest that there’s an inherent leftward tilt in all governments since the big government model is more conducive to its own desire to survive, thrive and grow. Do you think this is true and if so, is there any hope for those of us who want smaller, less intrusive government?

A: I think many modern analysts of government have come to the conclusion that one of the main reasons civilizations rise, sustain for a while, and then reliably decline, is complexity. They become too burdensome and therefore too costly to manage effectively. Why is this so? I think because while humans probably love freedom and security with an equal passion, what they really love more than both of these things, is control. Control over others, over their relationships, over voters, neighbours, you name it. This means they love to make laws and legislate. As any law can be easily divided into two or more, and so on, ad infinitum, states become burdened with masses of legislation that accumulate over time and must be managed and policed. In addition, careerists in government have a vested interest in growth of government, just as a capitalist has a vested interest in profit. Both want to grow their enterprises. Never in all recorded history have we ever heard an ordinary government worker appeal to his boss for a lower budget, and a smaller department for next year. It’s against human nature.

9) The Great Divide contains an aid to help people figure out where they stand on various issues and you note that an interesting outcome of providing this aid has been that people discover that they “think” one way but “live” another. Can you give a few examples of what you mean by this?

A: For sure. The “Where Do You Stand Tables,” that follow each chapter, kind of force readers to decide where they stand on every issue the book explores. And that’s a sword that cuts both ways. I have a good friend who told me after reading the book that he now thinks he is more left than he thought. His wife says: “See, I knew it all along!” She is far more conservative than he is. But to my satisfaction they are now having richer and more informed debates over their opposing positions. So I would say The Great Divide is in large measure about self-discovery, because it is helping people articulate mixed feelings, and so, to leave a lot of the excess emotion behind in their search for a truth they feel they can better defend.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. James Small

    I am currently (very slowly as I find the time to do so) reading “The Great Divide” and it is, of course, typical of your excellent work. This small article here, however, is a great companion to the book itself. Perhaps in future printings, this article could be put as a kind of epilogue. Or maybe even an introduction!

    Fantastic work as always Bill! My favourite books ar your two Trouble With Canada books and the absolute must-read (The War Against The Family”. I just wish I had the ability to memorize everything in those. They explain practically everything one needs to know about the workings of society and why things work and how they must. Almost every question I ever had were answered in those books.

    1. William Gairdner

      It feel very good to have your support and to know that my work is helping people understand what is going on, and to arm them to right the ship, so to speak.

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