A Nice Pair

Jonah Goldberg. Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy. Random House.

Jordan Peterson. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote for Chaos.  Random House Canada.

It’s gratifying when a book you’ve been looking forward to reading lives up to lofty expectations. It’s even more gratifying when a book you read on spec turns out to be better than the hype.

Jonah Goldberg has been one of my favorite political columnists for nearly two decades, and I share most of his political sensibilities. His Liberal Fascism was particularly on point. It was a surprisingly thorough work of scholarship, and Suicide of the West perhaps surpasses it.

As someone who tries to avoid social media, I wasn’t as familiar with Jordan Peterson. He evidently caused a stir because he prefers to use pronouns correctly, which I guess in 2018 is a matter of some controversy. A friend of mine recommended the book, and, wonder of the modern world, the book was on my Kindle the next day.

Though Goldberg’s book is a decidedly political book and Peterson’s is more of a clinical self-help book, they are both important reads in their own way. Their subject matters are not exactly the same, but they are complementary, and taken together offer a clear-headed approach towards tackling the modern world.

I’ll discuss the books in the reverse order I read them. First, I will link to this very thorough review of Peterson’s book and commend it to your attention. I’ll add a few observations of my own. What took me by surprise was the openly religious nature of Peterson’s work. When Peterson first quoted scripture I assumed it would be to make a literary point, but Peterson treats scripture seriously. It is not simply a gloss used to further his points. Indeed Peterson seems to be someone who has thought respectfully and seriously on theological matters, and while his interpretations of the Bible may not be wholly in accord with orthodox Catholicism, his religiosity is more in accord with true Judeo-Christian ethics than a few religious I could name but won’t coughJamesMartin cough.

Several positive reviews have made the same observation I will make here – the recommendations are in many ways obvious. His rules can be summarized thusly: stand up for yourself, be truthful with yourself and with your spouse, discipline your kids when they’re young but also allow them the freedom to discover themselves and make mistakes along the way to that self-discovery. And yet it seems like a lovely breath of fresh air. That any of what he has written is controversial is a condemnation not of Peterson but of modern culture.

The penultimate chapter – Do not bother children when they are skateboarding – is perhaps the most challenging. There’s a lot to unpack in it, and I can’t possibly do the subject matter justice. What it boils down to is he believes the way we’ve treated the rearing of boys is destructively counter-productive. In many circumstances they have been, for lack of a better term, feminized. We’ve softened boys, but this has led to a state in society where a warped version of “manliness” has taken hold. As he writes:

 When softness and harmlessness becomes the only consciously acceptable virtues, then hardness and dominance will start to exert and unconscious fascination. Partly what this means for the future is that if men are pushed hard to feminize, they will become more and more interested in harsh, fascist ideology. Fight Club, perhaps the most fascist popular film made in recent years by Hollywood, with the possible exception of the Iron Man series, provides a perfect example of such inevitable attraction. The populist groundswell of support for Donald Trump in the US is part of the same process, as is (in far more sinister form) the recent rise of the far-right political parties in such moderate and liberal places as Holland, Sweden and Norway.

In other words, when you strip away what makes a boy a boy, the reaction will be adulation of what is essentially a caricature of the ideal of manliness.

As I said, the book is not consciously political. To the extent Jordan Peterson’s political ideology can be teased out from this book and his social media postings he seems to be something of a moderate conservative. But he drips with clear disdain for the social justice warrior left, and has no patience for political correctness.

I think he despises political correctness because it runs afoul of several of the rules he lays down, because these rules essentially boil down to one clear message: be honest. He spends much of a chapter talking about a hypothetical wife whose husband has cheated on her. He then details all the ways both husband and wife lie – but lie through silence. They never speak of their displeasure with each other. They never correct the other. They grin and smile through mutual frustration, and instead of honestly addressing their problems, the problems fester until the husband caves into eventuality and cheats. This is not “victim blaming,” but rather a brutal assessment of the ways spouses destroy their marriage by refusing to be honest.

Peterson also brutally dissects the myriad ways we lie to ourselves. Humans fail to assess their situations honestly, which leads to a continuous spiraling out of control reinforced by worse and worse decisions. Therefore I think Peterson’s condemnation of pc culture is due to its inherit dishonesty. Political correctness is a lie, and it’s a lie that distorts who we are as people. It causes us to ignore reality – like the reality of communism for example (Peterson quotes extensively from Alexander Solzhenitsyn).

If “to thine own self be true” is the core message of Peterson’s book, in some ways it runs in opposition to Goldberg’s, which might be something “to thine own nature’s be not true.” Jonah’s thesis is that it is only when humans went against their own nature that society suddenly flourished. Contra Rousseau, man in a state of nature isn’t such a benevolent being. We are a naturally tribalistic and vicious people, but we’ve overcome these tendencies and society has flourished because of it.

Goldberg’s book is self consciously non-religious. In fact he makes a point of stating in the beginning that he will avoid making religious points. Thus it is the social conservative Goldberg who has written the less religious book of the two. Nonetheless, Goldberg’s other big point is to talk of the “miracle.” The miracle is the development of a (classicly) liberal political order udergirded by capitalism. For thousands and thousands of years humanity barely sustained itself. Then, almost out of nowhere, capitalism took a hold and our standard of living exploded beyond our comprehension. Everyone is better off than they were even a century ago. We live in a far less violent world surrounded by far more luxuries and significantly more access to the necessities of life. A point, by the way, captured brilliantly by this bit of satire from Babylon Bee.

But this is all being threatened by people who want to deny the reality of the miracle. Progressives want to undo this because they – whether they know it or not – are in the thrall of a Rousseauian romantic bent. They think we built this amazing society through exploitation and subterfuge, and so they work to undo our massive accomplishments.

The greatest threat comes from a return to tribalism. Initially this came through the progressive left and the various special interest groups. Goldberg also writes though of the tribalism of the right, evidenced by a dangerous form of nationalism (which he distinguishes, accurately in my view, from patriotism). Whether it is of the right or left, this tribalism is undoing the miracle, and unless we reverse course, the miracle will be vanquished.

As I said, this is a tremendous bit of scholarship. If there’s any fault with Goldberg’s book is that he seems intent on discussing every book he’s read to research for the book, and the narrative flow is sometimes interrupted by citing something else he’s come across. This is a minor criticism, because the book is otherwise excellence.

So how do these two books relate? Ultimately, I think both writers fear that civilization is on the brink, and it’s on the brink because we are in denial. We’re in denial of the great gift we’ve been afforded, and so we distort our reality and fight against the inheritance we have received. As Goldberg might say, we’ve denied the gift of our liberal order. And as Peterson would add, we play a great game of pretend and so exacerbate the underlying tensions.

As is obvious who has read Goldberg he is no fan of the current president, and it would seem neither is Peterson. But that’s not really the point. I think both would see Trump as merely the symptom rather than the cause. Trump is the manifestation of – for Goldberg, tribalism, and for Peterson, the feminization of boys. The problems run much deeper than Trump, and unless we get a handle on things, they will only get worse.

At any rate, both books are excellent correctives to the ails of modern civilization. I can only hope they will be heeded.

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