New Book



$21.95 hardcover · 224 pages
9978-1594037641-January 2015


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.    


Good Reading
Essays (37)

Response to a Comment

In his Feb 16 comment on my post, Matt objected that contracts exist when there is a “meeting of the minds,” and that the classic French maxim for contractual interpretation is “autonomy of the will,” and he believes these two notions weaken my argument that modern no-fault divorce undermines marriage.

I am no lawyer, but I think the standard of “meeting of the minds” is indeed the proper basis for evaluating whether or not a true contract was formed, because if the parties to a contract have different understandings, as when it can be proved that one party was attempting to deceive the other, then there is no contract.

But once a contract is fairly formed by a meeting of the minds, one of those minds cannot simply say “I no longer like this deal. Our minds are not meeting, and so the contract is ended,” and if this is attempted there is usually provision for a stipulated penalty. Which is to say that if it takes a meeting of the minds to form a contract, it also takes a meeting of the minds to end it. That is why I say that no-fault divorce undermines the very basis of contract.

As for the concept of “autonomy of the will” - I suggest that this concept is brought to bear on contracts to ensure there was no force used to gain consent. As far as I can tell it was never meant and does not mean to imply that just because human wills are autonomous (surely that is the very definition of a “will”) they can restructure their contracts as they please. Actually, it implies the reverse: because they formed their contract as free agents, they ought to stick to it unless they mutually agree to dissolve or change it.

With marriage things ought to be tougher to dissolve because the State, as I argue, is the third marriage partner and has a special interest in marriage due to the need for procreation to ensure its own survival. Off the top, I would argue that where children are born of, or are part of a marriage, divorce ought to be much more difficult to obtain than if there are no children.

Track and Field

I’ll be back at this blog on Monday. I am off for the weekend coaching my small York Flyers track and field club. We have a half-dozen kids competing in the Ontario Juvenile Indoor Track and Field Championships at York University all weekend. A few of them should be in the medals. So Monday I will tell you what happened, and also offer some thoughts on the Olympic Games.


Medical Mediocrity

It is a shocker to realize that Canadian patients and their physicians are still the only citizens on the planet who face a possible jail term for agreeing to freely exchange their own money, as they wish, for the basic medical services they want.

Last year Canada’s Supreme Court scolded the province of Quebec for “letting patients die on waiting lists” (National Post, today). And yet this shocking statement about a more shocking truth that is the inevitable consequence of all socialized medical systems passed without remark into the nation’s public unconsciousness. At the risk of flagrant self-promotion I cannot resist mentioning that when I said such things in The Trouble With Canada in 1990 I was accused of “right-wing alarmism.” But today, fully 16 years later, our judges are saying this very thing as if dying on a wait list in Canada is ho-hum common knowledge!

Here is what I wrote in Chapter 11, Medical Mediocrity: Canada’s Sick Health-Care System, in a section entitled “Do the State’s Policies Impose Premature Death?”

“This is a hard one for most people to swallow – at least it was for me when I first heard of it. But upon further thought, it seemed dead right, so to speak. In a country where all medical relief and cures are controlled by the State, and where individuals are forbidden by law to purchase medical care beyond what the State is able to provide, we indeed are able to trace the premature deaths of hundreds of individuals – at least of those who cannot afford to travel outside the country – directly to the State’s restrictive medical policies. In other words, death is often imposed (on the poor, not the rich) as a direct result of the State’s medical laws.”  The chapter went on to explain that “because the level of medical resources available will always be lower than the level of demand in a public system that tells everyone they have a “right” to the best, scarcity is inherent in our delivery of medical services.”

In free societies, there is indeed “rationing by price” and governments in such systems (like we once had) have a moral obligation to ensure that the poor are covered by various government insurance plans, while the rest of the people are free to insure themselves privately. But in a closed, or unfree society such as ours, where jail is a real consequence of resisting such medical laws, we instead are forced to live with “rationing by the queue.” For instead of relating to each patient as income to the system, as would be the case in a free society, State-controlled medical systems see each patient as a cost to the system, and under this latter method it is easy to control costs, not by supply and demand, but by limiting global medical budgets. Canadians now experience this “triage” everywhere. This French term comes from the military practice of dividing the wounded into three groups: those who can be saved, those whose lives are in question, and those who are likely to die. In Canada if you present at a hospital emergency room and are in the first group, you will probably get first-rate service. It is important to the system to perform well and visibly when it can. But ask any ambulance driver and you will probably be told that lots of patients have died en route in the ambulance because they were refused at one hospital after the other until it was too late.

There are real moral hazards to finding yourself in either of the other two groups. Let me close with two real-life examples. First is a Toronto friend whose mother had a very serious heart problem at age 61. She was hospitalized immediately. But he learned right away that although there was an operation for her condition it was not available to a person over 60 years of age. There were lots of open beds, nurses, and surgeons in her hospital and empty operating rooms available. He walked right by them. But there was no budget for this operation if you were “too old.” Desperate, my friend offered to pay from his own pocket and was ready to mortgage his home for the $15,000 cost (I am estimating the cost). But the hospital bureaucrats looked at him as if he were crazy. Then things happened fast, and his mother died within two weeks. In some considerable bitterness my friend learned afterward that if he and his Mom had been foreigners visiting Canada who were not participants in Canada’s socialized medical system, the operation would have been made available immediately at double the cost (for non-canadians), but no questions asked.

Finally, all Canadians live under a persistent “moral hazard” of socialized medicine. I mean to say that a Canadian doctor may be aware of a treatment available elsewhere that for budgetary or policy reasons cannot provide here. So the doctor is likely to say nothing. You will be kept in the dark. Last spring my neighbour got a fright over a blood condition and was sent home after being told he would likely die with it, but not of it. But after considerable hours of research on the Net he found out two things: he could well be in the 50% high-risk bracket for this disease and be facing a very early death; the Mayo Clinic provides a unique test that would tell him which group he was in. When asked, his Toronto doctor said the test was not available in Canada.  So he flew to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester Minnesota and paid $2000 US to find out with considerable relief that he was in the 50% of cases at low risk. We cannot fault a bad system for failing to provide him a test. But we should fault it for the decision to keep him in the dark about where and how to get it. When it comes to restricted treatments, Canadians will increasingly experience a "don't tell if they don't ask" medical  system.

Take heed! 


Modern University Life

It is just beginning to dawn on taxpayers that when they draw on their savings to send Johnny and Suzie off to one of those tax-subsidized communities known as the modern university for four years of learning, things are not exactly what they seem, or as they used to be.

University life has always been pretty wild, of course. But in my university days – starting at McGill in 1959 - it was never as wild as I wished, and as compared to later generations my friends and I were clearly deprived. Boys and girls had separate residences, and if you wanted to date a girl you had to check in with some surly concierge (who inevitably had a whisker curling from a mole on her chin) at a kind of barred entrance. She would ring the girl’s room to announce your arrival, and as you left the residence, perhaps lucky enough to be holding hands, you both knew that “have her back by 11 p.m.” was a standard requirement or the girl would be “grounded.”

Universities then operated on the basis of in loco parentis or in place of the parents, and the standard of institutional care and surveillance, especially of young girls, was expected to be that of a reasonable parent. Taxpayers had at least some standard of comfort. I do remember some pretty insane toga parties, and how fraternity houses always smelled of beer and cigarettes, even in broad daylight. And of course we all knew who the sallow-eyed rakes, and the “loose” girls on campus were. But we lived in the real presence of a kind of cosmic background radiation called “pregnancy,” the mere thought of which was worse than the Black Death. But the pill, women’s lib, abortion on demand, and moral relativism have changed all that.

A few months ago some freshmen at the University of Western Ontario figured that instead of calling in a few strippers for their Saturday night of beer-drinking in residence they would save themselves the money and call up some freshettes from downstairs. Within minutes a half-dozen drunk co-eds were parading down the residence halls in their undies, some already topless, to their room. The girls didn’t seem to care that one of the guys was filming their random sexual activity on his cell-phone and within the hour their breasts and fannies would be all over the World Wide Web. And it is impossible to know how either the university, or the pretty young girl who walked down the residence hall stark-naked to that room and threw herself legs akimbo over the face of one of the smiling boys would explain this to her father.

Last year, at the same university, my son reported heading home one evening and walking by a student house on university property outside of which there was quite a commotion, including huge trucks, spotlights, and camera crews, as if for a movie in the making. Turns out a first-year boy and a girl provided for him by an American xxx porn company had signed a contract to make a film and they were going at it inside the house. The university scrambled to discipline the culprits, and hush it up. But I am certain they failed to see the connection – however seemingly remote - between such random sexual actions and the fact that Western last year gave its highest honorary degree to Canada’s most notorious abortionist, Henry Morgentaler.

Now at McGill University explicit sex photos of undergraduates undressing each other “have sent school officials scrambling to reassure the more overprotective parents and members of the public that such lewdness is not condoned behaviour on campus” (National Post, p.A3, today). Overprotective? How about no protection whatsoever, and no intent to protect? Not condoned? How about exposing the ways in which the modern university has withdrawn completely from any moral oversight of student behaviour? The real wonder is that the news is taking so long to get out.  Okay, there are still a lot of very serious students at our universities. And yes, youth is a time for excitement.

But the full story of how modern university campuses have in a few decades been transformed into tax-funded, drug and alcohol-infested havens of orgy and bacchanalia for our children has yet to be written.


No Fault = No Responsibility

Most “married” people in the Western world are shocked when told they are no longer married in the way they imagined. A close friend who was a very observant husband and is still a caring father of four children discovered this with something close to paralytic disbelief when his wife came home one evening and told him she was dumping him for a handsome young teacher.

The husband had no recourse. But he realized with terrible bitterness and a sudden sense of betrayal that what he thought was a marriage contract was in fact defined purely and solely by her will, and by that alone (and that it might have been his will alone, if he had been the cheater).

Prior to so-called “no-fault” divorce (and in the absence of adultery or criminal violence), one spouse could not divorce another without mutual consent. Marriage was considered, among other things, a contract. Two agree to make it? Then two must agree when and how to break it. Readers may enjoy the article “Society: The Third Marriage Partner” in the Essay collection on this site, which deals with this theme in more detail. But the plain fact is that most married people today think they have a contract of some kind, and that is not true any longer.

Why have most Western nations disposed of the idea of contract in marriage in favour of a unilateral right to divorce? One answer is that it is a predictable consequence of failing societies as they slowly move from a basis of faith in themselves as a whole community, through a process of social “atomization” to a new basis of faith only in individuals. In other words, they change from a conservative type of nation in which society is considered prior in importance to the individual, to a radical one in which the individual is considered prior in importance to society.

This process of atomization is part and parcel – a predictable outcome, so to speak – of the emergence of massive social-democratic welfare states that feed themselves on tax dollars by means of which they finance their long-term campaign to replace the myriad local community functions of the people with state services and benefits. I say “state,” but this process occurs at all levels, from municipal, to provincial to federal. It is also observable between these levels as the federal level repeats this process of replacing provincial functions, and the provincial powers steal influence from local communities. Just ask your Mayor!

The most thorough treatment of this reality was first published in 1953 by the late Robert Nisbet, The Quest for Community (San Francisco: ICS Press, 1990), and it is highly recommended. Nisbet shows how this has been the sad story of state encroachments on community and family life from ancient times to the present. At one point in the long decline of Ancient Rome, official were so eager to control and manipulate all social function that they provided over 150 feast days per year of “bread and circuses” for the rootless, community-less masses the city had itself created.

In more recent times, this process has been central to Western democratization. Its radical form was part of the anti-family political platform of the radical democrats of the French Revolution, and that process is clearly set out in another great book,  by J. L. Talmon, The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy (London: Secker and Warburg, 1955). And what an eye-opener and insight into the workings of messianic democracy that is! There is a summary of Talmon’s ideas in my own The Trouble with Democracy (Toronto: Stoddart Publishing, 2001), but that book can only be found now in libraries or used-book outlets.

The connection with radical democratic theory is this: once the will of the people becomes Holy, then equality and individual Will becomes the only rational basis for resistance to all forms of authority, whether of government, class, church, or family. Marriage is soon seen as an authoritarian religious and social manacle left over from a less liberated time that must be cast off in the interests of “true marriage.”

What is “true marriage” in this radical democratic sense? It is a marriage, the reality of which is defined by, and which only exists as long as, the will to be married exists. In essence, under radical democracy and the individuation of society it engenders, a marriage is not a union of bodies and souls, or a contract between two parties that is also a pledge to the community: it is a pure creation of the human Will and it cannot be said to exist when the either of the two wills that created it is absent. Rousseau promoted this will-based concept of marriage; so did his admirers Marx and Engels.

The concept of a solely will-based marriage can even be found in the American poet Walt Whitman’s arresting essay, “Democratic Vistas” (1871), where he speaks of “perfect individualism,” of the “fusing” of citizens in democratic unity, and even of something he imagined as “cosmic democracy”! But the tip-off to this kind of thinking comes when he defines democracy and human independence as “freedom from all laws or bonds except those of one’s own being.” That is exactly what my friend’s wife wanted.

Anyone who studies this historical process will soon realize that until the inevitable dissolution of the very states that bring about this process – due mostly to the loss of true community that sustained them in the first place – this transformation of marriage from its former basis in spiritual, social, and legal contract to its present transitory reality as an expression of the mere wills of the parties, is a key enabling factor in the growth of all modern welfare states, which then stand eagerly by to minister materially unto the brokenness of all the lives that result.


There Can Be no "Sex" in Homosexual

Has anyone noticed that our endless public wrangling over political and legal rights has mostly to do with the human body? Surely this indicates that something very deep has changed.

The central moral preoccupations and concerns of robust civilizations have always been about the great mysteries of human existence such as knowing the will of God, the nature of destiny and fate, the ultimate meaning of the cosmos, the quality of the common good, how to imbue children with virtue, prudence, courage, and temperance, and so on.

But today we simply assume all that minor stuff has been squared away forever, and so now, as enlightened and liberated folk we are free to argue over our personal appetites and desires. But whether speaking of marriage, homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia, pornography, swinging, or divorce – we are basically fighting in a confused way about the body and its functions, and it all started with confusions of language.

Orwell said that words are like harpoons: once you get them in, it’s hard to get them out. And for sure, those who wish to dissolve traditional society have been very good at getting the rest of us to use their words. For example, we all use the term “pro-choice” rather than “pro-abortion,” which is the truer description of that position. And we speak of “helping” a sick person die, instead of “making” them die.

In the lead National Post editorial (‘Equalize the age of consent” Feb. 11) we had to endure a lecture about “sexual” equality for gays and lesbians and “the nature of their sexual relationship.” If the editors of the Post are going to invoke the word “nature,” then maybe they ought to follow through naturally.

I mean to say, if this discussion is to proceed beyond the infantile clamouring for equality of rights by which it is now characterized; if we want to properly discuss such things in full possession of the proper terms of debate, then we have to examine more precisely the words we use.

So here is my opening try.

“Sex” is a biological term, and biologists and life-scientists all over the world use the words “sex,” or “sexual” only with reference to plant or animal behaviour that has reproductive potential. To use such words in connection with the behaviour of entities for whom or for which reproduction together is impossible, is either a dumb, sloppy, or is an intentionally political usage (or all of these at once).

There are lots of animals and humans, and maybe some plants that indulge in mock sexual behaviour, or play sex, or pretend sex. Children do that. Puppies do that. But real sex, the only kind of sex that we should call sex, is always behaviour that has in principle and by natural design a reproductive potential and capacity, no matter how that intent, capacity,  or consequence may be avoided, postponed, or foiled. To use the word for anything else is to obscure the underlying reality, and hence the debate.

Accordingly, we ought to begin by agreeing that homosexuals by definition cannot “have sex,” any more than an individual can “have sex” with himself, or herself, or a bull can “have sex” with another bull. It’s impossible. Homosexuals can have lots of other things, like self-administered or mutual sensual pleasure. No problem. But don’t call it sex, when it can only be mock, or pretend sex.

What’s this got to do with age of consent laws? All past societies yet to imbibe the egalitarian solvent recognized at once that in the interests of self-preservation the laws of society ought to encourage reproductive behaviour between consenting adults of an appropriate age, and discourage unfruitful or non-reproductive behaviour. The law, in this respect – at least until we began to confuse sex with the merely sensual – has always been a teacher, nudging citizens in the most desirable direction and blocking intentionally dead-end, sexually-sterile behaviour. In short, age-of-consent laws have always been on record to make the distinction – along with other things such as child exploitation - between sexual and non-sexual behaviour. In short – oh, just say it, Bill - they were set up to discourage sexually-sterile relationships, or homosexuality. So perhaps instead of continuing the puerile psychological game of pretending there is no pretending here, and if we really do want to encourage and protect sexually-sterile behaviour in the young by lowering age-of-consent laws for homosexuals, then let’s have the honesty to say that is why we are doing it.

Perhaps also it is time to recall that all good policies and laws are intended to make morally or socially useful discriminations between human actions and classes of citizens, and if they don’t, they are of no force and effect. They are either feel-good legal or motherhood statements (like including respect for God and the rule of law in our Charter), or general money handouts (like cutting the GST for all). But a true policy or a specific law is otherwise. It is intended by the specifically stated force and effect of its discriminatory powers to move society in one direction rather than another.

So it is no argument against a law or a policy to say it discriminates, when that is its purpose and vindication.


The Mirror of Islam

Face it. The sword of Islam cuts both ways. They look ridiculous when reflected in our mirror as they trample each other in their stampedes to kill the infidel, especially over a few distasteful cartoons.

But if we are truthful we will agree that Islam also constitutes a very present and damning mirror held up to the West in which we often look pretty ridiculous, too. It reflects us as we are now, and in contrast to the people we once were.

The riot in Jarkata over the impending publication of Playboy was such a mirror. As far as I can tell, these people live like Puritans, as we lived only a couple of centuries ago. And let’s admit it, some of that is very appealing. They pray daily and are extremely respectful of their God; they do not smoke or use any drugs; do not use alcohol; do not use religious swear words; do not allow their women (or men) to walk around half-naked; they forbid cheeky or rude conduct from children and students; demand respect for parents and elders; abhor homosexuality for the perversion it is; do not (as far as I know) kill 25% of their unborn children in the womb every year; do not allow public gambling; and do not permit even a hint of pornography. Well, all that sounds like North America in the Christian era, which slipped under the waves only about fifty to a hundred years ago. At any rate, I believe there are many Westerners who wouldn’t mind seeing the return of a little self-control and public decency a la Islam, minus the frothing-at-the-mouth fanaticism.

This is indirectly close to home for me, as I have taken an interest lately in a man I think must have been related to my family. His name was William Henry Temple Gairdner (born at Ardrossan, Ayrshire, 1873, died 1928). He went up to Oxford in 1892, there to become involved in the Missionary Society. Later, he was sent, unwillingly, to Cairo, the cradle of Islam, at the end of the 19th century to make converts. Within months he was preaching sermons in Arabic, and writing essays about Arabic language and music. There was much joy and reflection in the man, and much religious devotion, too. In that respect, he was like a Muslim, and he felt their genuine piety deeply. His personal secretary, Constance Padwick, wrote a charming book about him after his death called Temple Gairdner of Cairo (1929), for by then he cut so large an intellectual and moral figure in Egypt he had become a bit of a legend to his many admirers, so personally selfless and devout he was considered almost a Holy Man.

He believed that the Christian religion had very early showed signs of failing to fulfill its historic role in civilization, and thus had called down upon its own head the need for a more devout alternative (though for him Islam was distinctly not a more true one). Thus, Islam sprang up to fill the vacuum of Christian weakness and to him it constituted an historical rebuke to Christianity. So in 1909 he published a very interesting book about this entitled The Reproach of Islam. The book sold over 20,000 copies and was brought out in a fifth edition in 1920, now re-titled The Rebuke of Islam – a somewhat stronger insinuation of his thesis. At bottom, he saw Islam as a religion of strict rule and duty meant to regulate behaviour, whereas Christianity, in stark contrast was for him a religion meant to change the inner spirit. He continued to write extensively about many Christian and Islamic themes and in order to help bring these two worlds together he and a friend started a journal in 1905 called “Orient and Occident” that was to continue in publication for almost 75 years!

At any rate, it is no surprise that the threat of Western pornography upsets the Muslim world. It should be upsetting us, too. But it doesn’t. For we are all children of John Stuart Mill, whose teaching replaced ordinary civic morality long ago, to the effect that we are all free to do whatever we like as long as it doesn’t harm someone else or impede their freedom. This is now called “the harm principle” and most Westerners simply assume it constitutes a full and adequate social and moral code. Indeed, Canada’s Supreme Court adopted it just a couple of months ago as our new legal standard of morality. But it is far from an adequate ideal, for as Mill’s sharpest critic of the time, James Stephen put it in a terrific book Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (Liberty Fund, 1993). Humanity is like a pack of hounds all tied together but wanting to go different ways. It cannot travel as one without some common morality, and alas, Mr. Mill would like us each to take his own way. As for the word “tolerance” that is so much today in vogue? Stephen wrote wisely that “complete moral tolerance is possible only when men have become completely indifferent to each other – that is to say, when society is at an end.”

The problem with pornography is that it is so powerful. Aside from the fact, as a close friend says, that its ubiquitous presence “demeans us all” there is no escaping the fact that if you could excise the conscience or sense of shame from the human brain, most red-blooded men (women are only rarely users of pornography) who stumbled alone and by surprise upon an explicit pornographic TV show, say, would not turn off the television and go do their laundry. Muslims are more publicly aware than we now are of the power of such human passions to alter society for the worse.

For this is not simply a matter of free expression or private interest, as Mill would have argued, and a moment’s reflection tells us why. Pornography is commercial to the root, an enormous industry with tentacles that extend into a huge range of shady social, financial, and criminal sectors that net billions of dollars annually. So to start with, porn presents what is false and commercial as something real. It is also intensely masturbatory. It does not encourage us as sexual beings to relate intimately and with dignity to another person; rather, it tempts us away from such human contact into self-pleasuring and sexual fantasy that specifically rejects real relations with real persons. There is something deeply disturbing about a society in which virile young men who ought to be honing the subtleties and graces of courtship in preparation for family duties, instead either alone or in groups closet themselves away with a 24-pack of beer on Saturday night to watch explicit porn. This is indeed free speech. But it is also anti-human and anti-social in its very essence.

And that is just the start. But if it is enough for Muslims to complain of it as a real threat to their world, as it clearly is, why can’t we see it as a threat to ours? Twenty-five years ago pornography in the West could only be found in the sleaziest places. Now it is main-stream and on offer in even the finest hotels of the Western world. Ten years ago my wife and I were staying at Toronto’s Park Plaza hotel for an international medical meeting. She watched the evening news while I brushed my teeth. Then I heard the sudden alarm in her voice: “Look,” she said, “there is pornography on the TV!” Sure enough, there before us were stark-naked men and women in the full thrust and parry of sexual abandon. “You must have selected the wrong button,” I said, “try CBC.” No she said, this is CTV, but she switched anyway, to find that hard-core porn was showing on every channel! Well, some of our guests at the hotel had teen-aged children. I called the front desk in embarrassed alarm to learn that they had had “a computer glitch” and porn was showing on thirteen floors of the hotel on every channel.

In the morning I asked to see the manager and complained vigorously. She apologized very sincerely, but not, I realized, for the porn.

She was just apologizing for the computer glitch.