Bring Back the Times of Civil Discourse;
C.P. Snow Revisited

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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.


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.


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.


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  1. Perhaps, tolerance came more naturally in a country with a long and stable tradition of manners and of morals.

    One recalls an anecdote of the Austrian philosopher, Wittgenstein. He was having a drink with friends in a Cambridge pub (C P Snow was a fellow of Christ’s), when a man at the bar remarked, rather loudly, that he really wasn’t interested in politics. “Imagine the luxury of living in a country where this is possible,” exclaimed Wittgenstein.

  2. Well, it is kind of difficult to have a civil discussion when one side sees 1984 as a warning, and the other as a blueprint.

  3. We recently received on our Facebook feed yet another meme from a partisan Democrat in our social circle. The man in question is retired, having spent the bulk of his work life as a salaried employee in higher education. He has two post-baccalaureate degrees. He’s a small town ethnic from New England from a busted up wage-earner family. He did well enough in school (50-odd years ago) that he was able to attend one of those private colleges which have cachet – the sort of school fairly common in New York and New England and quite odd just about anywhere else. He’s lived about 85% of his life in burgs no larger than Burlington, Vt. He’s an introverted man and has no personal friends on his own account; he has friends in his capacity as a husband, as his wife is quite personable. They only ever had one child, a girl who has been his life project.

    The man has a number of problems in living right now, some of them self-generated. You’d think they’d consume his attention, but he has, the last three years grown rather overinvested in public affairs. The man isn’t unintelligent (as you can see), and, up until a year or so ago, I’d tell you he’d not in his life ever done something particularly injurious to another person. Up until about three years ago, I’d have told you he didn’t manifest the stupidity that intelligent people are prone to either. He’s 69, so you’d figure he’d be carrying with him the detachment of a man who has some perspective about the public and private world and whose years are finite.

    Well, we’re getting about 10 memes a week from him or from his wife. The latest was a ten-point list purporting to demonstrate Donald Trump is the equivalent of Adolf Hitler, ca. 1930. It wasn’t intended as a humor piece. You and I might know the times we live in are grossly familiar, so many tapes running on continuous loop – everything from brobdingnagian federal borrowing to yet another disco princess in the Royal Family – with a few glaring novelties thrown in (the Irish vote, Tommy Robinson, and the odious Bp. Bergoglio). They’re at DefCon3. We really don’t have anything to say to each other anymore.

  4. There was a saint I do not remember his name who conversed civilly with the devil. Jesus did at the temptation. Jesus allowed the Legion to enter the herd of swine. The devil damned himself. Our Lady, Exterminatrix of Heresies pray for us. “a graceful exchange of ideas” author unknown. I tell atheists and doubters to ask God for Faith. If God gives the devil what the devil asks for, certainly God will give mankind all we need to return to Him.

  5. I am not sure who is more irritable, the emails of your quasi-intelligent Democrat or the recent one I received from a fellow deploring some mildly satirical conservative political cartoons I had forwarded. “So devisive! Can’t we just get along?, etc.”. Each is destined for slavery.

  6. Perhaps, Bl John Henry Newman’s description of the gentleman could be reflected on with profit:
    “Hence it is that it is almost a definition of a gentleman to say he is one who never inflicts pain. This description is both refined and, as far as it goes, accurate. He is mainly occupied in merely removing the obstacles which hinder the free and unembarrassed action of those about him; and he concurs with their movements rather than takes the initiative himself. His benefits may be considered as parallel to what are called comforts or conveniences in arrangements of a personal nature: like an easy chair or a good fire, which do their part in dispelling cold and fatigue, though nature provides both means of rest and animal heat without them. The true gentleman in like manner carefully avoids whatever may cause a jar or a jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast;—all clashing of opinion, or collision of feeling, all restraint, or suspicion, or gloom, or resentment; his great concern being to make every one at their ease and at home. He has his eyes on all his company; he is tender towards the bashful, gentle towards the distant, and merciful towards the absurd; he can recollect to whom he is speaking; he guards against unseasonable allusions, or topics which may irritate; he is seldom prominent in conversation, and never wearisome. He makes light of favours while he does them, and seems to be receiving when he is conferring. He never speaks of himself except when compelled, never defends himself by a mere retort, he has no ears for slander or gossip, is scrupulous in imputing motives to those who interfere with him, and interprets every thing for the best. He is never mean or little in his disputes, never takes unfair advantage, never mistakes personalities or sharp sayings for arguments, or insinuates evil which he dare not say out. From a long-sighted prudence, he observes the maxim of the ancient sage, that we should ever conduct ourselves towards our enemy as if he were one day to be our friend. He has too much good sense to be affronted at insults, he is too well employed to remember injuries, and too indolent to bear malice. He is patient, forbearing, and resigned, on philosophical principles; he submits to pain, because it is inevitable, to bereavement, because it is irreparable, and to death, because it is his destiny.”

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