Two Solitudes

Two Solitudes

By David Warren - October 14, 2008

In Canada, the expression "two solitudes" was traditionally used to describe relations between the English and French, two founding "nations" (in the French sense of the word) "warring within the bosom" of our one "nation" (in the English sense). This has become somewhat dated, for under our official state policy of "multiculturalism," today it would be more accurate to refer to "innumerable solitudes."

The idea of "two solitudes" itself we lifted from Benjamin Disraeli (our invisible Father of Confederation, in so many ways), who applied it to the "two nations" he thought had formed within early Victorian Britain, as fallout from the Industrial Revolution. Disraeli referred to the immense cultural distance between the "working class," and the "landed" classes -- so great, they might as well inhabit different countries. This most ingenious of British prime ministers put his thesis forward in a political novel, Sybil, published in 1845 -- the very same year as The Condition of the Working Class in England, by a certain Friedrich Engels.

The phenomenon we call "Red Toryism" -- that is, the strange combination of snooty, upper-class paternalism with whacky socialist proposals for "reform" -- is ultimately a product of that distant age and of that early Victorian reality, largely misrepresented at the time, and now at least a century-and-a-half beyond its stale-date. To my mind, as a source of intellectual debilitation it ranks with the communism to which it was presented as an alternative.

"Red Toryism" is our Canadian term; there are parallels in every other Western country. The creation of the modern welfare or Nanny State was not achieved by communists, but by men who feared communism so much that they would not directly confront its assumptions. (Don't forget that long before the Russian Revolution, communism in Marxist and several other forms was a living force in European politics and society, and widely accepted as a threat to the established civil order.)

"Tory" is an English word; there are many Continental variants, and the actual policy prescriptions that led to Big Government were pioneered mostly in the Kaiser's Germany before the First World War. My historical brush already sweeps too wide, but I want to add that the phenomena described today in, for instance, Jonah Goldberg's excellent book, Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning -- are themselves of older provenance.

Over a very long time, the "liberal" mind has been captured by dreams of "equality," by mechanical notions of "human rights" and "social justice" and has gradually abandoned hard thinking on individual liberty. (Here again a parenthesis is required, for my reader must remember that "liberalism," in the old, libertarian sense, is the common property of both Whig and Tory traditions, both Liberal and Conservative, both Democrat and Republican, in the English-speaking world.)

It is questionable whether the notion of "two solitudes" was ever of any value, anywhere, at any time, for any purpose beyond spreading mischief through the body politic. And it is with this hesitation that I mention something I've observed about current American politics that would equally apply to Canada except that our political divisions are slurred through many parties, all of them unthinkingly committed to the preservation and expansion of the Nanny State.

But in the United States, especially in the present election, we get glimpses of two political solitudes that have been created not by any plausible socio-economic division within society, nor by any deep division between different ethnic tribes, but tautologically by the notion of "two solitudes" itself. The nation is divided, roughly half-and-half, between people who instinctively resent the Nanny State, and those who instinctively long for its ministrations. And every kind of specious racial, economic, cultural and class division has been thrown into the mix to add to its toxicity.

McCain/Palin briefly stole ahead in the polls after the Republican convention, Obama/Biden have since recovered their ground, and various epiphenomena of the present banking crisis may yet swing the race this way or that. The two sides are, typically, in fundamental disagreement about the very cause of that banking crisis, now gripping not only America, but the world.

To one side, it goes without saying that the crisis was caused by greed and conspiracy, in the absence of sufficient government regulation. To the other, it is self-evidently the accomplishment of a U.S. government that set the accounting rules and created the subprime monsters (Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae) to deliver mortgages to people who would never qualify under common-sense rules of banking.

The latter are right and the former are wrong on the history, but that is beside the point for the time being. The issue has instead found its way to the front line between two basically irreconcilable views of reality. Only in America are they so equally balanced. Elsewhere in the West, the true believers in the Nanny State have long since prevailed.

Democrats and Republicans have become two solitudes, and so, the result of the election will be ugly, no matter which side wins.

© Ottawa Citizen

David Warren

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