Book Review: The Opinionated Middle Ground: Consensus is Possible and Polarization is Curable

By: Raymond S. Pfeiffer

Volume 19, Issue 1, January 2024

Perhaps the most important public question of our time is how to resolve the opposing persuasions so famously dividing our Western societies. To this end, John Cowan, a lifelong navigator of the Thousand Islands, has a significant contribution to make in this articulate book of his well-informed essays and reflections. His goal throughout is to promote a more accurate grasp of a myriad of broad concerns to those of us striving to understand and engage in the public discussions of our day.

By John Scott Cowan, Sutherland House, Toronto, ON, 2023, 324 pages.

The book develops a context for over two dozen of Cowan’s guest commentaries that were published mostly in major Ontario magazines and newspapers over the past five years, and more. Many readers will be keenly interested by the timely discussions of Canadian public policies, and clarification of their broader implications.

The COVID pandemic is central to a variety of different sections and viewed from different angles. Cowan’s expertise in health systems shines brightly in the second chapter, where he compares the Canadian and US responses early in the pandemic, and the shortcomings of official communications. It seems unlikely that readers will be surprised much by Cowan’s moderate critiques of these responses, or the lockdowns and re-openings.

There is a well-developed examination of Canadian health care policy, and strong advocacy of the need to plan for future disasters. Cowan argues for a moderate but convincing and specific revision of the Canadian capital gains tax, and that the need for a carbon tax stands solidly on middle ground that has been poorly explained to the public.

A moderate view of climate change reveals the need for non-polluting sources of electricity in the future. There is an illuminating section on nuclear power generation based on an explanation of the broad significance of the unique, differentiating nature of Canadian nuclear power in comparison with that of other nations.

The book is interesting reading due, in part, to Cowan’s broad experience and widely recognized and distinguished careers in medical research, higher education, the military, public commissions, and labor relations. He makes insightful comments on education today, informed by his own experience and his leadership of the Royal Military College.  Surprisingly, there is an interesting foray into Canadian identity. It culminates in a fascinating discussion of how Canada’s unique cultural heritage was instrumental in achieving nationhood in a symbolic, political, yet tragic way as a result of its central participation in World War One, and specifically in its taking of Hill 70 in August of 1917.

Cowan discusses and returns several times to questions of the limits of our freedoms and rights, and their implications for the lives of others. The Truckers Convoy of Ottawa in the winter of 2022 serves as a focal point for some of these commentaries.

Far afield of most of Cowan’s attention is a serious treatment of questions about how to address radical Islam. He points out that some people are misled to think there are two extremes when, in fact, one position is extreme and the other is not. Groups such as Al-Qaeda, Taliban, ISIS, Hamas, and the like are extremist groups espousing anti-democratic, totalitarian principles and the widespread use of lethal force to accomplish revenge, ethnic cleansing, and even genocide. A middle-ground position maintains that they should not be tolerated by democratic societies.

There is an overall positive and optimistic bent to most of the discussions, yet also a frank acknowledgement, early on, of the need to recognize the gravity and errors of the current, anti-democratic attack on the achievements of civilization by the use of “alternate facts” to make calls to “drain the swamp” and “root out the elites” while, at the same time, without recognition, favoring the interests of the rich, powerful, and famous. Cowan sharpens the outlines of today’s extremists in the anti-vaccine movement and takes middle ground in the view that broadly confirmed scientific results constitute the important relevant knowledge.

Cowan is under no illusion that the middle ground is always easy to parse. In this, he is in the tradition of Aristotle’s famous theory of the “Golden Mean,” and of Immanuel Kant’s efforts to identify antinomies and find a way out of them through analysis of the conditions, making alternate positions possible.

Treatment of the good and bad results of the tech revolution culminates in a frank acknowledgement of abuses of the internet by scammers, perverts, and foreign governments.  There is careful clarification of the paradox of privacy: that we have too much in some ways, and too little in others.

Throughout these illuminating discussions, Cowan writes in a straight-forward manner, avoiding euphemisms and obfuscation, drawing distinctions, and explaining in detail the facts that one must know to be able to seek middle ground in some of the major issues of the complex, confusing world that is ours, today.

By Raymond S. Pfeiffer

Raymond S. Pfeiffer, Ph.D., is Professor of Philosophy Emeritus, from Delta College in Michigan, and a widely published author, who grew up on Hickory Island in the summers, now enjoys writing for Thousand Islands Life, and spends time on The Punts Island in the Lake Fleet Group with his partner, JBJ, and avian friends.

About the Book

ISBN: 978-1-990823-53-4, 324 pages

Published Date: Release Date: November 21, 2023 (U.S. & Canada) | January 4, 2024 (U.K. & Australia)

Available at Sutherland House Press, Toronto, ON. or

About the Author: Dr. John Cowan is a physiologist, professor, and university administrator who also has worked extensively in labour relations and written widely on society, public policy, defence and international tensions. VP at University of Ottawa, and later at Queen's University, he was Principal at Royal Military College from 1999-2008. He currently resides in Kingston, Ontario.

See Book Review: "From Bad to Verse . . .plus . . . Something in the Air," by John Scott Cowan, October 2021

[Note: The Review author is American, therefore US spelling is prevails in the review. The information about the book and the author is from the publisher, and therefore is Canadian/British spelling.]

Posted in: Volume 19, Issue 1, January 2024, Book review

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