Background To Our Divided World

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.

For reasons professional historians are better equipped to explain than I, however, these two visions — today they are called liberalism and conservatism — emerged with extreme revolutionary violence in eighteenth-century Europe, and have been either simmering in peacetime or boiling over in various wars and revolutions ever since. During the 1960s, due to a growing Post-War loss of confidence in the once-unifying bonds of western civilization, the tension between these warring ideologies surfaced again as a moral, political, and theological divide that has continued to separate us from each other over what used to be our dearest shared conceptions of truth. This divide is now everywhere felt (the fear on both sides to speak honestly is a sure sign of it), if not everywhere clearly understood, and it has more to do with disagreement about means than ends.

Common Ends but Different Means  

The main hope for this book is that by bringing the underlying differences lurking in the silence of the Great Divide to the surface, readers will be more prepared to engage over the real differences in their philosophies of life, rather than choosing to go silent and then slipping back into the Divide. Surely it is better to hear two people debating and exploring the deeper differences in their conceptions of democracy, say, or of human nature, or the role of the family in society, and how and why these necessarily give rise to a different politics, than to watch them working up personal attacks on each other or angrily shutting down the entire discussion. After all, a rather curious fact is that that both sides of the Great Divide seem often to have the same ends in mind, but argue frustratingly over very different notions of the best means. It is as if they are using different languages neither understands to explain something important to them both. Here are just a couple of examples.

Modern liberals and conservatives both agree that children need moral influence. But they cannot agree on whether it is better that the main influences should be parents, family, and religion (the conservative view), or the secular state and its schools, agencies, counselors, and sex-ed programs (the liberal view). On this question I once heard a serious liberal politician argue with passion that the children of the nation do not belong to their parents or families; they belong to the nation, and they are “a resource, just like our oil, or coal.” Hilary Clinton mouthed this same sentiment when she said “There’s no such thing as other people’s children.” For many liberals (so this line of thinking goes) it is the State and its professional educators and psychologists (as “change agents”) who ought to lead the way in child and social development, and not parents, who are amateurs and should be licensed before being allowed to reproduce. There has been a long and continuing struggle in the West between such opposing assumptions. (The War Against the Family (BPS Books, 2007) is a full examination of this struggle).

Or again, both sides will agree we all want less crime. But because modern liberals and conservatives have irreconcilable conceptions of human nature (as we shall see), the liberal will advocate spending more money to fix up bad public housing, while the conservative will say this is to miss the point: the real cause of crime is not the house, it’s the home. It is the badly-weakened moral fabric of the community and of the people living in the house that make it not a good home. Between the standard liberal and conservative conceptions of those two words — house and home — lies a yawning divide.

Many such underlying liberal/conservative disparities and divisions will be examined as I attempt to show that no matter what surface arguments a person defends, we can usually tease out their underlying philosophy of life and show how it always obliges the taking of specific moral and political positions at the surface, to prevent their underlying belief system from crumbling. Most defenders of their own arguments sense this threat intuitively, signaled by some thought such as, “What did I just say? My whole case is going to collapse!”

In the example above, the liberal who insists on more public funding to repair public housing is forced by his own logic to adopt this “solution” because a commitment has already been made to the belief that as all human beings are fundamentally good and equal by nature, whatever is wrong or bad in individuals or their communities must have an external cause. So it follows as the night the day he will be obliged to call for better laws and more government funding (external cures for what are perceived as externally-caused problems). These means-ends differences do not come about just because there is “a shift” in perspective, or for any other lightweight reason. They have a deep ideological root that is worming away beneath surface perceptions. Nothing “shifts” without an underlying reason. Let us dig a little and find the reasons.




This Post Has One Comment

  1. Peter

    Loved the book Dr. Gairdner. Excellent.


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