Friday, May 15, 2015

"The Great Divide" (William Gairdner): why liberals and conservative talk past one another (and this book is similar to my own DADT series)

Author: William D. Gairdner

Title: “The Great Divide: Why Liberals and Conservatives will Never, Ever Agree

Publication: Encounter, ISBN 978-1-59403-764-1, 264 pages, hardcover (also paper), 264 pages, indexed, 4 parts, 17 chapters.
Amazon link is here. The publisher is characterized as a “conservative book publisher” belonging to the non-profit Encounter for Culture and Education.  The author's own site is here
I bought this book in a physical store, at a Barnes and Noble, this week, when I visited to ponder placing my own third “Do Ask, Do Tell” book in physical stores (rather than depend just online). The book is one of the closest I have ever come to articulating my own concerns with the way progressive causes are argued by the “liberal establishment” and the author’s material, while organized differently, comes quite close to my own territory (especially the non-fiction Epilogue in my own DADT-III book).  

The author, curiously, is Canadian and prospers in a “blue-state” society.  
Right off, the author depicts modern western liberal society as a mixture of private libertarianism and public socialism.  He never seems to take the “obvious course” of Cato, Richard Sincere, David Boaz and others – why not be “socially liberal” and “fiscally conservative” at the same time – the idea behind the Nolan Chart (Is that “Nolan” from “Revenge”?), or “The World’s Smallest Political Quiz”.  In fact, he refers us to another quiz, “YourMorals”, which the visitor can join and take the quiz, here
Gairdner also expresses the conviction that liberty and equality are essentially incompatible, or at least in tension with one another.  (There goes the French Revolution!)  To me, this sounds a bit like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle of quantum physics.  
At this point, I have to note that this is rather a book in epistemology.  I reminds me of a young man on the Metro a few months ago, a college undergraduate (GWU?) built like a MLB baseball pitcher reading “A History of Philosophy”, or perhaps of a friend in Minnesota almost two decades ago who help set up my talk on my own first book at Hamline University in St. Paul, himself a graduating philosophy major, with another friend there now a prominent writer at Vox Media.  I fact, I now recall Professor Schlagel at GW back around 1964 in my own Philosophy 101 course, his essay exams (I got a “B”), his constantly asking, “how do we really know what is right?”  
The book lays out, in many charts (one in each chapter) the differences between liberal (socially libertarian but bureaucratically authoritarian) and conservative (mainly socially conservative) positions on many issues.  Many times, the positions seem to talk at one another. This also reminds me of the “Opposing Viewpoints” series of books I have discussed here before.  What’s missing from the charts is the more Cato-like libertarian view.  I found myself on the conservative side maybe on two-thirds of his points. 
The two most notable ideas at issue is the way “liberals” over-depend on “reason”, and the nature of freedom itself.  And Gairdner, having already admitted early on, that he has tended to migrate toward conservatism, seems to spend his greatest attention to the conservative arguments.  Since English doesn’t conjugate verbs in a subjunctive mood the way French does, it’s a little hard to be sure if these are his own personal beliefs, or just assertions. (Taking foreign languages in high school is very good for critical thinking skills.) 
Gairdner goes through Jesus (perhaps Moses and Mohammed as well as “The Golden Rule”), then Bentham (utilitarianism), Mill (“do no harm”) and Hume, examining how we know what is good and right.  The discussions sounds like one in theoretical cosmology or physics.  Ultimately, he seems to side with the conservative and religious view that right or wrong is something inherent in nature and is created for us, and is beyond reason.  What?  “Morality without thinking?”  (p. 149). But it isn’t hard to see that reason alone can lead us to what seems “evil”.  For example, one can “rationalize” not letting the disabled live (like Nazi Germany), or something like Mao’s Cultural Revolution. So some things seem intrinsically wrong.  Of course, murder and robbery.  But these have victims.  Chattel slavery. That has victims (which radical Islam doesn’t seem to care about). Gairdner talks about consuming pornography, but let’s focus in child pornography for a moment.  You can’t consume that unless it was produced by abusing an underage person.  So reason will prove that wrong (without any deeper postulate). But then it gets harder.  How about homosexual acts, or even indulging in fantasy, or expressions?  Gairdner questions whether experience and reason, even together, can guide us on matter like this one. Social conservatives used to say this attacked a traditional underpinning of morality and decency (“universal principles and religious commands”, p. 155) without giving anything more specific (OK, procreation).  We’ll come back to this. 

I do agree that "reason" doesn't give us all our moral values.  We takes as a "postulate" (like the Axiom of Choice in mathematics) that human life is sacred -- which can sometimes call for sacrifices from people outside of choice.  Should everyone be expected to be able and open to sharing body resources (blood, organs for transplants) to save the lives of others?  That is more pertinent today (with medical advances) than maybe it once was, but reason alone won't answer it.  Do we all have a moral obligation to future generations, not just the unborn but the as yet unconceived?  (Can people who don't yet exist make moral claims on us?)  Should everyone stand ready with the skills to raise kids, even they don't have their own?  Again, that's a judgment of society. But it does accept the idea there can be obligations as well as rights.  Should "non-human" people (like dolphins and whales) have the same rights as us?  Would extraterrestrials?  Some day we could have to answer questions like that. 
Gairdner also talks about freedom or liberty, in the conservative world, as “social freedom”.  On p. 117, he defines it as “the freedom of civil society to carry out its social and moral functions of teaching, restraining and permitting certain behaviors” (in a chart).  He presents the view that society itself has rights (something my father used to say).  It’s probably more accurate to say that social subsets, acting as groups, have some rights.  That sounds like you want when you’re talking about “The Natural Family” of Carlson and Mero (Sept. 18, 2009).  But I can see how it can be “twisted”, pretzel-like, into, say, justifying reparations for African-Americans “as a group”.  On p. 59, Gairdner gives an effective discussion of “social bonding” as requiring sacrifice (or readiness for it), subordination, commitment, and (finally) privilege. The implication is that some benefits, or even compensation, in a properly free society should come through immediate social groups, which places an onus on the individual to “fit in”, somewhere.  Examples of this idea were the “family wage” of the past, and the debate over paid parental leave today.  It can mean that the childless and/or unmarried are sometimes called upon to make personal sacrifices to benefit those with more “responsibility” (from marital sexual intercourse) – but then eldercare comes into play.  "Social freedom" does encourage individuals to build more resilience, and make their social groups (and larger society) more capable of dealing with external challenges, from nature (like climate change) or from enemies. 

“Social freedom” might apply to stages of history.  The American Revolution was based on a variation of this concept (freedom of the colonists as a group from British rule) but then went through another stage with the Civil War and then Civil Rights.  

The idea of social bonding makes "logical" sense in that no individual's own personal accomplishments, even achieved alone, are meaningful until other people "consume" them.  And outcome inequality is inevitable (as it is in nature), so, yes, there has to be some kind of social order, and heeding of leadership.  
I am somewhat uncomfortable, however, with the concept. It pretty obvious that it can hide authoritarian abuse (consider Vladimir Putin’s behavior).  I think we can represent a “social right” as a more nuanced construct from individual rights (again, almost thinking like a physicist), and tie the definition of "social right" to the basic source of morality in terms of both postulates and then reason.. Go back to Mill’s “Do no harm”.  That becomes more useful if we fully consider “indirect” or “downstream” harm. (including the “setting of examples” when a partially appealing but evasive behavior is viewed publicly as OK).   For example, some “self-serving” behaviors, if allowed to be OK, send a message to the less fortunate that the rules of civilized behavior, even in an individualistic culture, cannot give them a fair shake.  So while some of the inevitable inequality that comes with individualism may help with innovation (and “trickle down”), it can also lead to instability, through indignation and resentment, which can result eventually in “revolutionary” violence or expropriation (as has happened in history).  Or it might mutate into malignant doctrines exploiting religious beliefs.
In the last section, Gairdner lays out in some detail the sides on homosexuality, abortion, and euthanasia.  I can see the “indirect harm” idea if euthanasia is accepted, because gradually the vulnerable elderly could be pressured into it.  That confers some positive obligation on all of us to learn to care for others, regardless of our own private choices – and that does seem to be a part of “social freedom”.  As a gay man myself, I’ve never felt very affected by the abortion debate – I can feel smug, and that isn’t such a good thing.  As an only child, did I have a responsibility to procreate anyway?  
On the debate on homosexuality, I must say that for most of my life, the debate has been more about being “left alone”, not about wanting equal benefits that I am very unlikely to need or use.  (I can certainly have an important relationship that does not need to be called or have the benefits of “marriage” and I have never expected these benefits.)  Gairdner’s charts (“Where do you stand?”) tend to conflate the two parts of the debate (look at  “sexual privacy” and “harm” on pp 216, 217).  Gardner says that socially conservative arguments "are not aimed at particular individuals" but "are aimed at exposing the liberal case for homosexuality." Still, lack of equality can cause someone to come knocking.  Sometimes we have to take on responsibility we didn’t choose (eldercare, or raising a sibling’s child) and the lack of equality results in sacrifice anyway. There have been times in my life when I was definitely not “left alone”, like with my 1961 college expulsion from William and Mary for admitting “latent homosexuality” when pressured by the Dean of Men.  Some of the feedback that I got during those difficult years was the idea that straight men felt like I would “scope” them and make them feel uneasy about their own future ability to procreate.  Is this real, or a bit of a stretch?  Plausibly, it’s a kind of “indirect harm” which to some people seems very real, given their upbringing. Or, this is something that others have “gotten over” with more modern society.  I personally found the debate over gays in the military (which motivated my first book) more relevant than gay marriage. The author briefly mentions the public health concerns from the 1980s with STDS, particularly HIV. 
The author argues away most of the common defenses of gay equality, including immutability and altruism; he also feels it is fine for traditional heterosexual marriage to be privileged (which the unmarried pay for) even when sterile, because it sets the "right" example for youth. In my own DADT book, I had suggested a "compromise": give marriage privileges only when there are actual dependents (pregnancy can count).  That is, use results as qualification, not just symbols.  
I would like to see his comments on eugenics, contraception, bullying, and even the historical male-only military draft. 
What I think really matters is not so much “social freedom”, but more a question, how should the individual who is “a little different” really be expected to behave?  Because these ideas have real consequences in real individual lives.

Note: The book should not be confused with Joseph E. Stiglitz, "The Great Divide: Unequal Societies and What We Can Do About Them" (2015), which looks interesting indeed.  I'll have to look into this soon.  

No comments: