Peterson had been noodling some ideas about this question: How do we know when the Left goes too far? He made the point that on the right, everyone knows Nazis are evil. They’re something bad and something we don’t want to be and this moral judgment was clearly illustrated at the Nuremberg Trials, but that there is no such limit on the Left.
It was one of those rare instances of serendipity. On June 25th, 2015, I read an essay by George Santayana, “Josiah Royce,” in which he wrote:
Yet that is what romantic philosophy would condemn us to; we must all strut and roar. We must lend ourselves to the partisan earnestness of persons and nations calling their rivals villains and themselves heroes; but this earnestness will be of the histrionic German sort, made to order and transferable at short notice from one object to another, since what truly matters is not that we should achieve our ostensible aim (which Hegel contemptuously called ideal) but that we should carry on perpetually, if possible with a crescendo, the strenuous experience of living in a gloriously bad world, and always working to reform it, with the comforting speculative assurance that we never can succeed. We never can succeed, I mean, in rendering reform less necessary or life happier; but of course in any specific reform we may succeed half the time, thereby sowing the seeds of new and higher evils, to keep the edge of virtue keen. And in reality we, or the Absolute in us, are succeeding all the time; the play is always going on, and the play’s the thing.
Suddenly, I understood. I saw, vividly, what I had only understood abstractly before: that the crusading would never stop. There was no limiting principle to left-wing political efforts, nothing that would serve as a reasonable goal or endpoint. Today’s vanguard will be denounced as tomorrow’s reactionaries by a new group of radicals demanding more, faster, better.
The very next day was when the Obergefell ruling was handed down. And Freddie deBoer, whom I had previously held in high esteem as an intelligent alternative to orthodox leftists, immediately tweeted, “Now on to polygamy. (And no, I ain’t kidding.)” He followed that up with, “Y’know, fellow left types who say today’s not a good day to start talking polygamy, ‘slow down’ is a derided stance for a reason.”
I have no problem with gay marriage. And I don’t think that poly-anything will ever be more than a fringe fad. In other words, my road-to-Damascus moment wasn’t motivated by any visceral fear or loathing of the newest phases of the sexual revolution. Like Roger Scruton as a student in Paris in 1968, watching the rioting of the soixante-huitards, I simply realized that regardless of the merits of any particular culture-war crusade, in the grand scheme I was watching “a kind of adolescent insouciance, a throwing away of all customs, institutions, and achievements, for the sake of a momentary exultation which could have no lasting sense save anarchy.” Nothing would ever be good enough. Nothing will ever satisfy people whose anger and misery is existential, not situational. Like Scruton, I realized that these people would eagerly tear down many of the imperfect things I loved about the world in pursuit of unattainable perfection, and that I was tired of being associated in any way with their endless complaints and histrionics.
Ever since Bacon and Descartes, we’ve been increasingly accustomed to shaping the world to our preferences. As our technical mastery increases, we find it harder to accept the existence of anything which impedes “progress,” whether personal or political. How do we know when the Left goes too far? To answer that, we’d have to be capable of envisioning a world of “good enough,” and I’m not sure if human nature even allows for that. What sort of epochal revolution would have to occur in order for humanity to envision an alternative to progress that didn’t involve some romanticized past? Individuals will continue to have private epiphanies where they make peace with an imperfect world and resign from the crusades, but the species as a whole will continue to be what Nietzsche called “the unfinished animal,” endlessly striving to bring more of life under its control, forever dissatisfied with what actually exists.