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The theme of The Great Divide is that the populations of the democratic world, from Boston to Berlin, Vancouver to Venice, are becoming increasingly divided from within, due to a growing ideological incompatibility between modern liberalism and conservatism. This is partly due to a complex mutation in the concept of liberal democracy itself, and the resulting divide is now so wide that those holding to either philosophy on a whole range of topics: on democracy, on reason, on abortion, on human nature, on homosexuality and gay marriage, on freedom, on the role of courts … and much more, can barely speak with each other without outrage (the favorite emotional response from all sides). Clearly, civil conversation at the surface has been failing -- and that could mean democracy is failing.

This book is an effort to deepen the conversation. It is written for the non-specialist, and aims to reveal the less obvious underlying ideological forces and misconceptions that cause the conflict and outrage at the surface -- not with any expectation the clash of values will evaporate, but rather that a deeper understanding will generate a more intelligent and civil conversation.

As an aid to understanding, the book contains a handful of Tables directly comparing modern liberal and conservative views across a range of fundamental moral and political “issues” so that curious readers can answer the book’s main question: “Where Do You Stand?” An interesting result in testing this exercise has been the number of people who find they “think” one way, but “live” another.    

 

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Essays (37)
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Monday
May082006

Civitas, Harper, and Free Speech

This past weekend my wife and I attended the tenth-anniversary conference of Civitas, in Ottawa. Civitas is the name of a society founded by yours truly in 1996 “to promote and deepen understanding through the exchange of a wide range of political, economic, social, religious, cultural and philosophical ideas concerning the principles and traditions of a free and ordered society.” It has grown a lot since.

There were about 250 members of Civitas there from all across Canada drawn from a membership that constitutes a kind of lonely platoon of conservative/libertarian thinkers, journalists, professors and policy wonks who are pretty excited to find one of their own as Prime Minister of Canada. At the Friday night reception The Honourable Stephen Harper suddenly and unexpectedly appeared and galvanized the meeting. Security blokes stayed very close to him, their eyes darting relentlessly here and there as flash-cameras created a strobe-light effect in the room and members crowded around hoping to meet him.

For a cool and seemingly unemotional man he is surprisingly very good at this business of showing genuine concern for those with whom he happens to be speaking. Famous people have a terrible and egotistical habit of speaking to one person and feigning interest, while looking over their shoulder to see who the next, and maybe more important person may be who wants to meet them. Not Stephen Harper. I watched him closely. He was there for an hour an fifteen minutes and met and engaged personally with perhaps forty different people. He never took his eyes of the person he was speaking with at a particular moment, even for one second. And he somehow managed to ask them all direct questions about themselves and their personal lives. I couldn’t believe the discipline and absence of ego this required. If he manages to continue in this manner, and with this level of personal discipline, which I believe requires an admirable modesty, restraint, and wisdom, he will likely have a long career in government. At the conference itself a fascinating political spin-doctor showed us ample polling evidence that what voters want more than even a politician who supports their policies, is someone who is genuine and walks his own talk. Insofar as he is permitted, our PM is doing just that.

There was an interesting speech at the conference in which one speaker was complaining profusely and quite justly about Canada’s various “gag laws.” These are laws introduced by various Prime Ministers, both liberal (Chretien did this twice) and Conservative (Mulroney did this once) to muzzle ordinary citizens (and organizations) who want to spend their own money to critique or promote political parties.

At one point, the speaker implored the audience to resist all such gag laws in the name of “democracy,” which he believed guarantees “free speech,” and this got me thinking again about the history of democracy and how it is today considered a philosophy, whereas in fact I have come to see more and more that it is not a philosophy (although it may become easily confused with, or mated with one), but rather it is a methodology for deciding who shall rule. As George Jonas reminded us during a wonderful dinner speech that night, it was democracy that brought us Hitler, and has recently brought us Hamas. So we must be careful about confusing our affection for political methods with philosophies.

Sitting beside me was a dear friend who is also a Professor of British history, to whom I wrote a brief note during this otherwise excellent presentation in favour of democracy and free speech. I wrote: “It seems to me we have to be careful when promoting “democracy” as a guarantor of free speech. For there is no reason (no democratic reason) why 51% of the people cannot have a gag law if they want one. Seems to me that free speech is an inheritance, not of the democratic tradition, but of a far older classical liberal tradition.”

He wrote back: “Yes, 18th Century England was not democratic in the sense we mean today. Only one sixth of British citizens had a vote back then. However – there was complete free speech (except for sedition and libel) and cartoons and caricatures were far more extreme and irreverent than they are today. When Voltaire visited England back then he hailed it as the most free country in the world.” He then asked me if I was criticizing how democracy has been made a modern fetish, and did I think that free speech was more important than democracy?

I responded yes to the first remark, and added that I was worried lately that making a fetish of democracy, which as I say is only a method, was causing us to forget how to protect and promote the philosophies, beliefs, traditions, and rights which are a separate matter - a whole complex of values - that preceded by many centuries the rise of modern democracy in the Western world. The fact that most Western democracies no longer allow “free speech” even to the degree we enjoyed a half century ago (let alone many centuroies ago) and that all now have human rights tribunals and re-education programs of Orwellian dimensions, and that The Western Standard magazine is presently being sued by such a tribunal for printing the Danish cartoons – cartoons that pale in comparison to the scurrilous and cheeky weekly cartoons available in any 18th century newspaper – all this suggests to me that although we now have more democracy, we are less free. Free speech is generally found in democracies, in varying degrees, but our own experience now suggests that a democracy does not necessarily guarantee free speech.

Reader Comments (6)

Your comments offer proof of how easy it is for words to change meaning. In politics words are constantly being co-opted to suit the purposes of those who seek to persuade.

“Democracy” has a long and noble tradition. In the minds of many it represents open dialog and freedom. It is all to easy to pervert the meaning of these words. The current US policy of incarcerating people in Guantanamo Bay without recourse to reasonable legal rights is being done under the guise of “freedom” and the “war on terror.” Now, when we hear these words, they are tinged with irony. The word democracy too, is starting to loose its Greek noblesse.

In a fundamental way doesn’t this call into question the concept of absolutes that you believe in so strongly? The fact that these words, when used broadly, are changing meaning argues against the possibility of generalized laws and concepts that ride above the details of politics and culture.

Tom
May 8, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterTom Beakbane
More democracy and less freedom....how true!

Canadians, (most of who got their education from public institutions which has produced a generation who cannot name the provincial capitols), have been indoctrinated to believe Democracy is a cure-all for tyranny. In reality (an absolute practical paradigm)....Democracy is nothing more than 2 wolves and chicken voting on what to have for dinner. Democracy has been served by the vote and mandate and the Chicken's hideous demise is deemed to be "just" under democratic doctrine. Democarcy is orderly mob rule.....and the "just" outcome from a majority mandate is what ever the manipulators of the mob desire.

As Mr. Gairdner alludes to, freedom of speech is a mutually exclusive function to the process of democracy......it is the cornerstone of free society....the right to criticize, express new ideas, dissent from philosophies and majority fetishes deemed errant by an individual or a free association of individuals... a vehicle for expression that moves a open society forward through public discourse and concensus.

Free speech, along with the other core civil freedoms, was not a direct product of the democratic process, but of eras of armed conflict and spilled blood by our ancestors who fought the tyranny of an autocratic ruling class to secure commoner rights (or more precisely, civil liberty)....a ruling class which claimed authority either by divine commission or patrician mandate....which had to be threatened or deposed to wrest the civil freedoms non patrician classes enjoy.

Democracy (a populist system of chosing a ruler) is only a useful method for a free and vigilant people to ensure that freedom-friendly governments are elected....this breaks down when the voting mob have lost their passion and vigilence to remain free or have been manipulated into surrendering their freedoms to a more statist governing ideal....as they did in soviet Russia and national socialist Germany....or the single party state envisioned by Canada's partisan utopians...all of which by the way have democratic elections.
May 16, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterW.Lyon Mackenzie
I think that is interesting how talk of free speech always boils down to two different options.

1. People are ignorant and easily swayed by jargon and therefore the state needs to intervene and cencor speech and material to protect the population (parental state) or

2. People are rational beings and there should be a free space of thought and speech in which the good ideas will surface and the bad ones will dissappear because people are rational and can decide for themselves what is true and right (Millian).

I also think it's interesting how many ideas are deamed false because they threaten or undermine 'democracy.' I get very nervous when an argument is presented that something is wrong because it is 'undemocratic.'

Democracy is built on the assumption that people are rational and can think for themselves... but like we've seen, Hilter came out of democracy. Perhaps we're not as rational as we'd like to think... but then what of democracy?
April 7, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth Glasbergen
"Walk his own talk" ? We can see now, in 2008, that Mr. Harper doesn't even write his own talk. He reads what his plagiarist speech writers feed him. He has lied (soon to be proven in court) about his awareness of the $1,000,000,00 bribe. &
We are so lucky to have another minority ! I predict that Harper will join Dion on the sidelines before the next election. I'm giving 3 to 1 odds, any takers ?
October 21, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterTerry Conspiracy
It is obvious that "Democracy" is a process (or methodology).

The philosophy is "Liberalism".

That is why it is called "liberal democracy" as opposed to other forms of democracy (Islamic democracy anyone?)

The interesting issue is the relationship of capitalism to liberal democracy which is not well understood by the general public.
April 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBrom
Excellent point, Brom, and one that Phillip Blond and RESPUBLICA (RESPUBLICA.org.uk), for one Social Conservative Red Tory example (inspired by Canada's very own George Grant! And his "Lament For a Nation") seem devoted to answering as regards Liberalism being a two headed Hydra; having an statist-socialist (Obamaian-Trudeauian 'post-nationalist'), on the one hand, and a globalist-monopolist 'capitalist' head, on the other. This monopolist neo-liberalism (which Canada's other great-hearted social conservative Red Tory and humourist, Stephen Leacock (like CS Lewis), lambasted after his doctoral thesis exposure to and of it's early pre-Hayek, Chicago-school version ) is equally 'post-nationalist'. This post-ethical Nietzchean neo-liberalismn (of say, an Ayn Rand) has, ultimately, no truly free market for small and mid-sized enterprises (SME's, the vast majority employers of Candians), which are forced to pay the tax these mega transnational corporations too often never pay, beyond maybe 1%, IF that after all their off-shore inversions, etc. are accomplished) This exponential capture of wealth by a post-ethical, neo-liberal, globalist, post-national ruling class, untouched by the great anti-trust legislation kept dormant/behind bars by armies of Microsoft, Google, Monsanto, many major banks, hedge funds and financial corporations and their infernal army of lawyers and lobbyists besieging their curious liberalist cronies (the Hysdra's other head, you see) in international socialism's central banks and centrist governments ( Brussels, Trudeau ( senior and Jr.), post-'Sates' rights Obama, China, Russia's 'new' national-socialism / 'Stabilnost') which centrist banks and governments keep cutting deals and bailouts for these major corporations at the expense of.many future generations of taxpayers the world over.

Hence the need for brutal Brexits ( strong - but life-saving - necessary medicine ) and a return to common-law, the commons, actual free markets, 18th century style free press and speech, parliamentary democracy, and the vision of her Majesty's Commonwealth, over against the UN/internationalist Rousseauian hydra described and now nearly established, above. It is all in Leacock and Grant, for heavens sake and Chesterton and CS Lewis.
September 19, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJeremy Smyth

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