I am greatly distressed that one’s friends are now limited (for many of us) to those who hold the same political and religious views. At our semi-annual family gatherings politics is verboten as a conversation topic: my children span the political spectrum from Alinskyite organizer through NY Times left/liberal to Tea Party right. I have lost one Catholic college friend and colleague who supported Obama and all the Democrats despite their pro-abortion policies (and this was before Trump!)
As I engaged in one of my periodic escapes from the real world—rereading multi-volume chronicles of heroes, villains and families: most recently, C.P. Snow’s “Strangers and Brothers“—a longing for older times hit me, a time before the student and black riots of the 1960’s, when you could engage in civil discourse with those on the other side of the political fence.
The divide began in the 1960’s. It was then when I began my conversion from a NY Times liberal–a student campaigner for Adlai Stevenson–to a conservative: when the mob of students at SUNY/AB marched through my quantum mechanics class, when I went through the burnt remains of the Faculty Club building, when I listened to radical faculty talking nonsense and evil at meetings held to resolve the student protests. And it was before the 1960’s and the Viet Nam war that C.P. Snow’s novels of politics, science and human relations were set.
ABOUT C.P. SNOW AND HIS SAGA
Here’s some background for those of you unfamiliar with C.P. Snow and his works. He was a British author and political figure, converted from science, who gave us these two phrases headlining our times: “Corridors of Power,” the title of a novel that told of the intermingled worlds of politics and science; and “The Two Cultures,” a phrase describing the gulf between the humanistic and technological cultures. Here’s a relevant quote:
A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is about the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?
—C.P. Snow, “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution”
The series recounts the journey of a talented English lad, Lewis Eliot, from his lower middle-class origins to a position of power and influence in British politics and academic affairs. The story parallels Snow’s own career, from science into government and thence writing. In his journey Eliot encounters a full spectrum of British society, from the snobbish Lord Boscastle—he dismisses the newly entitled (those with titles less that 400 years old) with “I don’t really know that fellow”—to an unbelieving Anglo-Catholic priest—he ministers to the poor and fallen from grace while trying to find evidence for the existence of God.
The characters in Snow’s chronicle have political beliefs covering the full range from left to right. Their religious beliefs, which correlated with the political, also run the gamut, from evangelical atheism through polite non-belief to devout faith. The friendships of Lewis Eliot (C.P. Snow’s alter-ego?) span political and religious divides: proto-Communists, radicals, aristocrats, pillars of the Anglican Church and Conservative party. And such cross-party friendships and relations were not unique to Eliot. In the novels they were the rule, rather than the exception. And I think one can assume the novels mirrored the times accurately.
SO, WHY CAN’T WE BE FRIENDS WITH ATHEISTS AND LEFTISTS?
The question remains, why can’t we now have friendly exchanges of views with those on the other side of the political divide? Why does correct thinking in politics have to be essential for friendly relations? There is a Fox TV show, “The Five,” with four conservative (of various degrees) panelists and one token conservative, Juan Williams. The exchanges between Williams and his fellow panelists have occoasionally become heated, but they have always been civil, and one can see that the panelists respect each other, despite political differences.
In other times a hard conservative, William Buckley, Jr., and a flaming socialist, Michael Harrington, could meet over a glass of wine and haute cuisine and discuss the logic of conservatism or the compassion of socialism. That couldn’t happen now. Should we wish that it could? I think so.