on February 22, 2009
William D. Gairdner, Ph. D., is usually described as a "best-selling Canadian conservative author". The phrase is arresting: of the possible partial combinations of these four words, most are so improbable that the complete catena almost defies belief. It is rare enough to be a best-selling writer in Canada (especially of non-fiction); no less rare to be a Canadian writer of conservative opinion; rarest of all to be a Canadian writer of conservative opinion whose books consistently make the best-seller lists.
But Gairdner is all of these things, and more. As the author of ten major works and counting (including The Trouble with Canada, The War Against the Family, and The Trouble with Democracy), he has almost single-handedly laid the philosophical and theoretical foundation that this country's tenuous conservative political movement has hitherto so conspicuously lacked. Even so, such is his erudition and amplitude of mind, that to think of Gairdner as merely a political philosopher is on the order of thinking of Milton as a pamphleteer, or Plutarch a biographer.
With Oh, Oh, Canada and The Book of Absolutes, Gairdner now adds two more tomes to an already impressive opus.
In The Book of Absolutes, Gairdner trains his sights on the philosophy of relativism, the intellectual (more accurately, anti-intellectual) matrix out of which many of the most odorous orthodoxies of the day have arisen. The palaver of relativism (epistemological, moral, or cultural) can now be heard practically everywhere, from the public square to the private cocktail party. Everyone knows that truth and right, like beauty, exist "only in the eye of the beholder". (That there is no absolute truth is the only truth we dare to affirm with absolute certitude.)
Such views are now worn as badges of their proponents' tolerance and open-mindedness. Today, it is just plain impolite to challenge another person's or culture's beliefs, regardless of their merits. Moreover, any acknowledgment of absolutes of right and wrong, or of innate and immutable factors within our universal human nature, all too inconveniently limits our choices and desires. It is not surprising, then, that relativism has been given such a free ride.
Gairdner provides his readers with an admirably objective survey of relativist thought from Protagoras to Post-modernism, whose arguments, in such diverse disciplines as philosophy, anthropology, linguistics, biology, physics, and quantum theory, he nonetheless manages to make broadly accessible. (That he has been able to render coherent the prose of the deconstructionsists Foucault and Derrida is something for which he will earn the undying gratitude of the multitudes.)
Along the way, Gairdner exposes the grossly political motivation behind the research of such pioneers of the new "science" of anthropology as Franz Boas, and the risible myths of primitive innocence confabulated by the likes of Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead. And we learn that Einstein, though popularly supposed to have proven that "everything in the universe is relative", was, on his own part, persuaded that he had only demonstrated the universal and objectively knowable constants of nature. It is a little known irony that Einstein came to bitterly resent the misappropriation of his work by the demagogues of moral and cultural relativism.
Gairdner is at his best in bringing such ironies to gestation, especially as they emerge from the self-refuting logic of relativist theory itself. How would the relativist respond, one wonders, to Gairdner's point that the very declaration that all assertions of truth are relative can only mean that this assertion too is relative, and valid only for those who assert it? Or that just because differing perspectives produce conflicting "narratives" of reality (of the proverbial crime scene, for example) doesn't negate the fact that something definite and real has happened, and that its truth is ultimately unitary, however difficult to discover.
The most tragic irony is that relativism condemns us all to muteness and quietism in the face of evil. The anthropologists whose theories arose from a high-minded aversion to imperialist European illusions of racial and cultural superiority, were ultimately disqualified from criticizing those very illusions by their own insistence that all cultural practices are equal and equally valid from the internal viewpoint of the culture itself (the only viewpoint permissible). For what can one say about Nazism, for instance, save that it was subjectively "valid" for the German people who believed in its truth at the time? The inevitable logic of relativism is to declare all cultural practices, from head-hunting and cannibalism to slavery and tyranny, "morally infallible" and "beyond criticism". What's more, by denying the validity of universal moral norms of freedom and right, relativism at the same time leaves the individual defenceless against the depredations of the totalitarian state.
The main burden of Gairdner's book is, more happily, to show that there exist, in fact, any number of demonstrable universal and abiding patterns, ideas, and truths that transcend and unify all historical epochs and cultures across the world: in mathematics, theology, myth, morality, and law; and that current studies in biology, psychology, and theoretical physics are uncovering new constants of human and physical nature every day.
The Book of Absolutes is probably Gairdner's most important work to date, not that this former Olympic decathlete shows any signs of slowing down. Not since Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind has a book come along that furnishes so many insights into the morbid mentality of a civilization that has lost confidence in its certainties and itself, or that more clearly points the way up from despair. For conservative resistors, at any rate, it's nice to see tradition and truth in the role of accuser, rather than accused, for a change.