Unfortunately, people often act in spite of their conscience—even if they know it— and hell tends to arrive step by step, one betrayal after another. And it should be remembered that it is rare for people to stand up against what they know to be wrong even when the consequences for doing so are comparatively slight. And this is something to deeply consider, if you are concerned with leading a moral and careful life: if you do not object when the transgressions against your conscience are minor, why presume that you will not willfully participate when the transgressions get truly out of hand?
— Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life
The Lady of the House was recently stunned when a longtime friend of hers, whom I will call Rubashov, talked about a recent incident in which his favorite podcaster from Slate was “indefinitely suspended” over a Slack conversation in which he used that word, the N-word, the Slur Which Shall Not be Named, in the context of a quotation, while debating what he naïvely thought to be the open question of whether or not there were any contexts in which it was appropriate. She wasn’t stunned by the incident, which is all too typical of the infantile moral panic possessing the media-academia complex these days; it was the fact that Rubashov, rather than offer some mild dissent in defense of his favorite podcaster, was supportive of his canceling. He didn’t actually quote the old line about breaking eggs to make an omelette, but he might as well have.
What appalled her the most was how quickly Rubashov had internalized the Orwellian imperative to judge even the recent past by the shifting political standards of the present. When did this rule about not being allowed to speak or write certain words, regardless of context, come into effect? Five minutes ago? Isn’t it a bit harsh to ruin someone’s career over that? Doesn’t matter. The Committee of Public Safety has decreed it to be an offense at this moment, so it is. (Until ten minutes from now, when the new head of the CPS, having taken power in a coup, reverses the directive and orders everyone fired for supporting the former head, who stands revealed as a sexist saboteur, racist wrecker, transphobic Trumpskyist, and on and on.) Many people, forgivably or not, might be cowards in public, or in their place of employment. But it takes a special level of invertebracy to echo the party line even among friends, even when there is no risk. One wonders whether our Rubashov will go willingly to his own cancellation, secure in the knowledge that it’s all for the best that he become one more egg in the Social Justice Omelette.
As millions of Americans escape home quarantine to the great outdoors this summer, they’ll venture into parks, campgrounds and forest lands that remain stubborn bastions of self-segregation.@devindwyer reports. https://t.co/Xzmouf4bwM pic.twitter.com/e8PckJcVqn
— ABC News Live (@ABCNewsLive) July 1, 2020
I don’t have any special prophetic powers, but I would suggest taking note of that term, “self-segregation.” It may sound like a weaponized strain of parody that escaped from a lab, but as the demand for racism continues to dramatically exceed the supply, I’d be willing to bet that we’ll soon be hearing a lot more of it in earnest. Anyway, I sure don’t want to be a racist hiker, so it sounds to me like the logical conclusion here is to round up some blacks, Hispanics and Asians, load them up with camping supplies, and march them off into the wilderness to decolonize the outdoors. Sorry, what? Well, no. Why would I ask them if they want to do it? Who cares what individuals want to do? The point is to make the demographics fit on this Procrustean bed of ours. Numbers! Numbers are what we care about, not subjective experience!
Speaking of which:
The great Thomas Sowell, whose books should be on every intelligent adult’s bedside table, just celebrated his 90th birthday on June 30th. If you’re unfamiliar with his work, and you’d like to hop on the bandwagon while he’s still around, and if you had to pick one book relevant to our current topic, I’d recommend Discrimination and Disparities, in which he labors heroically to dispel precisely this fallacy, that all disparities in outcome are the result of malicious discrimination. That thread, if tugged upon, really does unravel the whole progressive ball of yarn. We’ve all heard conservatives claim to be in favor of equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome. Progressives see this as a strawman, claiming that, if anything, they’re in favor of true equality of opportunity, which can’t exist as long as privilege, systemic discrimination, etc. exist. In practice, this amounts to being in favor of equality of outcome, because anything less is assumed to be illegitimate. Individual black people may claim to simply not be interested in hiking through national parks, but what if they’re only saying that because they’ve been imperfectly shaped by their history, both personal and collective? What would they choose if we could redo the past?
Is it fate?
Or is it just a cold heart?
Did I win the race?
Or was it just a false start?
— The Obsessed, “Touch of Everything“
Many of us can recall discussions of free will in philosophy class. We probably all discussed the possibility of what it means to “choose” under coercion. If a criminal holds a gun to your head and commands you to do something appalling and/or illegal in order to save your life, is it truly a choice? Can you reasonably be faulted or blamed for not choosing death?
For progressives, history is that gun held to our heads. The circumstances into which we were born, the limitations placed upon us by genetics and upbringing, the imperfect choices we make with limited information throughout our lives — all of these infringements upon our ability to truly, freely choose from all possible options are seen as coercion. Like all virtues, liberalism can be taken too far and turned into a vice. It’s not enough to remove as many overt obstacles as possible in order to allow individuals as many options as possible; we have to imagine what the world would look like had none of those obstacles ever existed, and then work to realize that utopian vision here and now. Until all past injustices have been negated through enlightened policies, no one can ever be truly said to be free to choose. Had transatlantic slavery never existed, then…black Americans would constitute 13% of outdoors enthusiasts, in keeping with their proportion of the general population. Something like that. I know, I know, there are so many fallacious assumptions and counterfactual fantasies at work here that it doesn’t even bear taking seriously. Crudden’s one tweet could spawn a thousand questions attempting in vain to clarify all its implications. But while you may not be interested in philosophical incoherence, this virulent strain of philosophical incoherence is very interested in you and the many ways you’re oppressing people simply by existing.
Speaking of Jordan Peterson, as Ms. “Hard Scientist” was earlier, he wondered about an interesting question some time ago: What is the limiting principle of the left? We all have a clear idea of what it looks like when the far-right goes too far, but why have their mirror images on the left failed to equally serve as cautionary tales? Why isn’t it a cliché on the right to say that “real fascism has never been tried,” the way it is among apologists for communism? With the events of the past month fresh in my mind, my provisional answer to his question would be “disaster.” Disaster is the limiting principle of the left. Nothing else ever stops them from pushing in the direction of what they imagine to be “progress.” No matter how many times their ideas lead to the same predictable blood-soaked cul-de-sacs, they will only rest, regroup, and try again. The best we can hope for is that most of those ideas die before reaching adulthood. I fear that “disparities=discrimination” has already become an obnoxious adolescent, though.
Me, 21.39, 15.02.20: Wow, we need more kindness on social media. End the culture of cruelty.
Me, 21.40, 15.02.20: Look at this obscure idiot. Complete loser with bad tweets and probably no life.
— Ben Sixsmith (@BDSixsmith) February 15, 2020
On that note, two recent articles I noticed but refused to click on:
From a video that his daughter posted, I already knew that Peterson’s wife had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and that the medications he was taking for his depression had caused him to suffer through physical dependence and withdrawal. What point is there in an article that adds nothing to this sad story but disgust at the spectacle of people behaving horribly on social media in reaction to it? If a writer simply wanted to express sympathy for Peterson, it would have been fairly easy to do. But that would lack spice. It wouldn’t have the necessary frisson of righteous anger. For that, we need to add, “And look at all these horrible people gloating over his suffering. Look at this tasteless comment in particular. Remember, these people are on the Other Side. That’s the sort of degenerate character they have over there.” That’s what gets the clicks, and that’s what guarantees a steady supply of more of the same. Rush Limbaugh’s recent lung cancer diagnosis brought more of the same gloating, which was amplified and magnified even more by people who were appalled by it. It’s ironic to see people on social media worrying about the slim possibility of contracting coronavirus while not thinking twice before passing along intellectual bacteria like this. Another, even better, irony is that if social media were to be “saved,” it would have to find a way to incentivize not antisocial but asocial behavior — people who couldn’t care less about site stats, follower counts, clicks, likes, and retweets. Writing for money, performing for attention — these are the livestock chutes which funnel the content-providing cattle toward the inevitable lowest common denominator.
I realize that I will probably be accused of breaking a butterfly on a wheel here. Admiral McRaven doubtless means well in a tough-talking sitcom high-school assistant principal sort of way. If he were working in a vacuum, I would say live and let live. But Make Your Bed is only one example of a flourishing genre of pseudo-hardass commentary that is exercising a massive influence over young men in the English-speaking world. Like McRaven, the Canadian academic psychologist-turned-YouTube superstar Jordan Peterson seems to be under the impression that rote performance of mundane tasks (“Clean your room” in the professor’s case) coupled with a kind of vague meta-obsession with purpose for its own sake is a catch-all solution for any number of postmodern afflictions. Joe Rogan, the tattooed podcaster whose stock-in-trade is telling his followers what they should think about whiskey and the keto diet, is another.
I have no doubt that the Petersonists are responding to a real need felt by their audience. The question is whether their answers are the right ones. I am not at all convinced that what lonely disaffected male millennials need to hear most is that performative masculinity will make them feel happy or fulfilled. As I write this, there are hundreds of thousands of American men who, under the influence of these no-BS masculinist gurus, have learned to confuse selecting the perfect razor and using it correctly with a sense of vocation. It is all of a piece with the alt-right; indeed as far as its political ramifications go, it might as well be considered the same phenomenon — a retooled social conservatism in which the issues at stake are not abortion or same-sex marriage but complaints about whining SJWs and “political correctness.” The average Petersonist is teaching himself how to use tools and getting really into evolutionary biology and lifting and will tell you all about it over a cigar or a glass of bourbon in his backyard (assuming that he has one).
One of the most tiresome things about the age of “hot takes” is what I think of as “performative quibbling” — making the most of trivial disagreements in order to distinguish oneself. As far as I can tell, the only thing that truly unites these, uh, “Petersonists” is that they put too much emphasis on the necessity and benefits of personal discipline for Walther’s taste (though they also have large audiences, which naturally stirs envy, especially among hack writers for online political tabloids). If that makes them “alt-right” — a term which has clearly become utterly worthless due to rhetorical hyperinflation — then I fear a lot of us will find ourselves classified as Nazi-adjacent before long. At any rate, Walther goes on to assure us that he does have concerns about the robustness and capability of young men today, but if he has a better answer for them than the, uh, Petersonists, he couldn’t squeeze it in under his word count. Milquetoasts to the left of him, meatheads to the right; in between, in the “reasonable middle ground,” stands our hero, thoughtfully stroking his chin, gazing off into the middle distance, sighing over the sheer complexity of it all. I’m reminded of an old XKCD punchline: “Well, the important thing is that you’ve found a way to feel superior to both.”
As long as so much of what we see is unnecessary suffering, we cannot be content with the world as we find it. Of course we should keep Gray’s cautions well in mind. The catastrophic revolutionary ideologies of the past were ersatz religions. Scientific utopias and promises to transform the human condition deserve the deepest suspicion. Moral and political progress are always subject to reversal. Humans are animals; human nature is riven with conflicts; reason is a frail reed. But even if we can’t set the cosmos right, we can’t leave our corner of it the way it is. Whatever else may be an illusion, other people’s suffering is not.
I read Scialabba’s book What Are Intellectuals Good For? early last year. I only remembered the title because I looked it up in my Goodreads history. I had totally forgotten it was still on my shelf until I just went and checked a moment ago. Glancing through it, I don’t see any of my telltale marks in red pen for calling attention to thought-provoking passages. In other words, the book didn’t leave much of a lasting impression on me. Lionel Trilling once famously described mid-20th-century conservatism as a collection of “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas;” my vague memory is that Scialabba’s essays were full of potentially interesting ideas which were offset by the irritating rhetorical gestures toward a left-wing sensibility.
Granted, that may well say more about me than him, but I felt the same way again after reading this review of John Gray’s latest book, Seven Types of Atheism. After a fair and respectful consideration of Gray’s argument, the concluding paragraph above just feels perfunctory. Having acknowledged Gray’s point that much of left-wing politics is just crusading Christianity in disguise for people who pride themselves on feeling superior to religious believers, Scialabba simply turns around and reasserts the same perspective as a moral imperative, as if the ongoing metaphysical earthquake which undermined much of the confidence in the old Christian worldview never happened. I’m sure that’s good enough for the choir, but why are the rest of us supposed to be convinced? This is just a refusal to even face the challenge squarely, preferring the comfort of platitudes.
As it happens, I think Scialabba is actually correct, even if the sentiment is shallow. I agree with Anthony Kronman that the tragedy of the human condition is our self-contradictory nature, our inability to ever stop trying to usurp God’s throne and bring every aspect of human existence under our conscious, willed control. The apple cannot be uneaten. Pandora’s jar cannot be resealed. Westerners as a rule cannot stop seeking to abolish the entire painful spectrum between discomfort and agony, even if we understand on a cerebral level that a life without pain would actually be undesirable, not to mention impossible. But Jordan Peterson, to name one contemporary example, also names suffering as the undeniable fact about human experience, the inescapable truth he salvaged from his own period of extreme Cartesian doubt, and yet he has derived a much different (and more interesting) stance toward politics and values than the generic democratic-socialist outlook that Scialabba seems to take as a given. The entire point of Gray’s book is that there is more than one way to disbelieve in God. Likewise, there is more than one coherent perspective to take on the brute facts of existence.
There are plenty of reasons for individual readers to dislike Jordan Peterson. He’s a Jungian and that isn’t your cup of tea; he is, by his own admission, a very serious person and you think he should lighten up now and then; you find him boring; you’re not interested in either identity politics or in the arguments against it. There are many legitimate reasons to disagree with him on a number of subjects, and many people of good will do. But there is no coherent reason for the left’s obliterating and irrational hatred of Jordan Peterson. What, then, accounts for it?
It is because the left, while it currently seems ascendant in our houses of culture and art, has in fact entered its decadent late phase, and it is deeply vulnerable. The left is afraid not of Peterson, but of the ideas he promotes, which are completely inconsistent with identity politics of any kind.
It’s a very interesting article about the rise of podcasts and vloggers and the threat they present to the media status quo, especially by appealing to ordinary people who aren’t interested in the Twitter wars or other cerebral junk food. By temperament, I’m not optimistic that the Peterson phenomenon, for example, is heralding a bright new cultural dawn in which citizens gather around the smartphone to listen to in-depth, respectful, three-hour discussions of philosophy and history while blithely ignoring the increasingly hysterical diktats from the cultural clerisy about how there are fifty-seven genders but politics is binary, and if you’re not with us, you’re against us. But I agree that there is indeed something happening here, and what it is ain’t exactly clear, so I am slightly hopeful. I myself am not really one for podcasts, but I’ve said before how enthralling I found Peterson’s interviews with Joe Rogan, and I’m starting to enjoy listening to more of Glenn Loury’s interviews while working, so who knows, maybe I’ll get there eventually.
As for the identity-politics left being on its deathbed, well, we’ll see, but that is surely an obituary I would read with great pleasure. Given that it was largely coterminous with the baby-boom generation, and given how gracelessly that cohort has resisted the natural progression toward senescence and death, I think we can assume that identity politics will likewise jettison every last shred of dignity in an attempt to cling to life indefinitely. A pillow over its face would be more merciful than it deserves, really.
• Lance Morrow, “Return of the Notman”
• Derek Robertson, “Why the ‘Classical Liberal’ Is Making a Comeback”
• Vladislav Davidzon, “In Memory of Isaiah Berlin”
• Joseph Heath, “Social Constructivism: The Basics”
• Wesley Yang, “The Shocking Truth About Jordan Peterson”
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.
• Frank Brownlow, “Thank You, Auden!”
• Troy Senik, “Civilization, If You Can Keep It” and related, John Davidson, “The West Isn’t Committing Suicide, It’s Dying of Natural Causes”
• David French, “Critics Miss the Point of the ‘Intellectual Dark Web’”
• Pedro Blas González, “Hoffer and the True Believers”
• Allen Guelzo, “Nuanced Patriotism”
• Christian Gonzalez, “Inequality and the Intellectual Dark Web”
• Jonah Cohen, “The Shameful, Unethical Smearing of Jordan Peterson”