Thursday, 15 March 2018

A Liberal's Selective Memory

As I type this, Areo is the single best news and opinion blog on the internet. Describing itself as "an opinion and analysis digital magazine focused on current affairs — in particular: Humanism, Culture, Politics, Human Rights, Science, and, most importantly, Free Expression" Areo should be on the subscription list of every liberal minded alt-leftist. Senior editor Malhar Mali and assistant editors Helen Pluckrose and Oliver Traldi never fail to deliver top notch material. 

The recent article, "A liberal Who Remembers" by Traldi reads as a laundry list of my own grievances against the present state of left of center politics. Among the things Traldi remembers about being a liberal in the George W. Bush years was a respect for science, human decency, the search for objective truth, a respect for due process, opposition to war and a general disdain for neo-con linguistic chicanery, authoritarianism, hawkishness and puritanism. The article laments the recent decline of the once proud liberal tradition in America into the fever swamps of SJW hysteria and regressive left hypocrisy.

He will get no argument from me on any of that. I suspect Mr. Traldi and myself would agree on way more than we'd disagree on, and the internet definitely needs more voices such as his.

They've Always Been This
What I will say by way of difference of opinion, however, is that my own memory of the progressivism of the Bush years is not quite so fond. I've noticed a tendency among alternative leftists to look with fondness on some mythical past golden age of the left, a time when we got our activism right. While the alt-left was originally called "The Left Wing of the Alt-Right," I'd suggest we'd be better described as the reactionaries of the left. These damn SJWs with their dyed hair and made up gender pronouns can get off my union household's lawn.

While there are certainly many aspects of previous iterations of progressive politics that are preferable to today's, we should be careful not to romanticize our own past too much. The left has a rather long and sorry history of its own brands of smugness, self serving doublethink and ideologically driven denial of reality. 

Perhaps it was the old left, that of the early to mid 20th century, with its corrupt unions and municipal party machines. While these institutions did do much good, they're far from beyond reproach. What of the old left's dogmatic and sectarian socialist and communist parties, some of whom took orders from Moscow, and whose internal quarrels in places like Wiemar Germany actually helped right wing authoritarian regimes come to power? Soviet apologists both in and out of the Kremlin used a lot of the same kinds of whataboutism that we now see from SJWs. It was the mystical proletariat and their revolutionary vanguard party rather than feminist and critical race theorists who claimed carte blanche to act entirely as they wished, but their rationalizations were remarkably similar. No rules apply to the self described marginalized revolutionary. It was the old left of Great Britain as much as the totalitarianism of Stalin's Russia that George Orwell satirized in his classic 1984. It would be well into the postwar years that these types would catch on to the fact that the USSR was not the worker's paradise that they'd been hoping for, to put it mildly.

Was the new left of the turbulent 1960s any better? College students would gradually supplant organized labor, the deeper cultural analysis of the Frankfurt School would likewise supplant stale Marxist-Leninist economic reductionism, and impoverished minorities and women at home and abroad would succeed where the blue collar proletariat had failed and usher in an era of non hierarchical participatory democracy that would bring liberation from both capitalism and stale bureaucratic socialism alike. Or so they hoped.

The results in actuality would plant the seeds of what we're seeing on college campuses now. Radical groups like the Students for a Democratic Society would idealize despots such as Mao Zedong and Fidel Castro, whom one could argue were not significant improvements on Stalin or even Khrushchev''s USSR. Their own groups were rife with the kinds of purity spiraling, virtue signaling and eventually violent protest that we're now seeing. The Weather Underground of the late 1960s make today's antifa groups look tame. 

While the radical "spirit of '68" would gradually taper off over the course of the 70s, the feminist migration into the universities was well underway. The ideological foundations of all of the regressivism we're now seeing: postmodernism's denial of a common reality and the resulting ascendance of authoritarian and opportunistic "Standpoint theories", the view that speech offensive to "marginalized peoples" - or their self appointed representative vanguard - constitutes a kind of oppression that warrants censorship, the erosion of the boundary between activism and scholarship and the self serving denial of the possibility of being racist towards whites (try telling that to a white South African farmer) or sexist towards men (try telling that to a divorced father) were all securely in place on university campuses across the western world by the late 1980s. 

Thus, I do not remember the left of the Bush era being quite so liberal as Traldi recollects. What I do remember is the emergence among progressives of the new Atheism - the popularity of authors such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, and YouTubers such as TJ Kirk, then called the Amazing Atheist. The problem, as far as they were concerned, was too much church attendance in red state America. All of the problems of the Bush White House were simply reducible to uneducated bumpkins who believed in an invisible man in the sky.

Religious belief systems are not beyond criticism, of course. I'm an agnostic myself. But what was truly odious about the religious right was not that they believed in God per-se. It was that they so flagrantly used religion in such self aggrandizing ways. They bear much more resemblance to the kinds of people whom Christ actually contended with in the gospels - money changers in the temples and self righteous pharisees who, thinking themselves without sin, were more than happy to cast the first stone, than with Christ himself. 

None of this exonerate religious belief from the very real problems presented by a reading of the bible, of course. But it also represented a troubling shift towards preoccupation with people's private beliefs among outspoken progressives. The left of the Bush years was much more worried that rural Mississippians were praying in conservative churches than they were about the hawkish foreign policies and regressive economic policies of the Bush White House and its largely captive congress. An air of smug superiority over the common people, as opposed to solidarity with the common people, increasingly became a trait of the Bush era left. 

What I remember about Bush era liberals is how unwilling they were to discuss comparable problems with the theology of Islam, or the glaring racism and authoritarianism of the nations in the middle east we were at war with. I even remember UK author Nick Cohen writing a book denouncing Islamist apologism on the left in 2007, while still remaining critical of neo-con hawkishness. Very much while Bush was still in office.

To these noble and intrepid Bush era liberals, this came across as being a tad bit victim-blaming, if not outrightly racist. I distinctly remember Bush era liberals reacting with similar anger to observations that college feminists could be no less sexually puritan and censorious than the True Love Waits and Purity Balls crowd that they so loved to make fun of, were. Clerical celibacy and waiting until marriage to have sex were so repressive and unhealthy, but crying sexist over men complimenting women and hosannas of praise sung to lesbian separatists were as much a staple of "progressives" in 2006 as they are of progressives in 2017. They just didn't yet have tumblr and twitter to further extend their reach. 

At the end of the day, what most offended Bush era liberals about all the odious things that the Bush White House was engaged in: middle east wars, erosion of civil liberties, science denial, sexual repression, a black-and-white world view, religious fundamentalism, censorship and the circumvention of due process was that whites, males, Christians, conservatives and Republicans were the ones doing them. And they were no less obnoxious, arrogant and condescending in their tone towards anyone who disagreed with them. Argue with the Bush era progressive about anything, no matter what your actual beliefs, and expect to be lumped in with Pat Robertson, Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. The basket of deplorables of not so long ago.

 And even then, none of it was new. While there have always been principled liberal and egalitarian voices and causes on the left, and I do count the authors and editors at Areo among these, regressive hyper-partisanship and bigotry turned against the self have always been a part of the left in the western world, and likely always will be.

And I should know. I too am a liberal who remembers.

Read The Regressive Left: Theory, History and Methodology beginning with part 1, Recent Regressions

Friday, 9 March 2018

The False Promise of a Return to Tradition and Religion

Jordan Peterson is against political correctness, opposed to the hegemony of feminist standpoint theories on university campuses and favors free speech generally. For that reason and that reason alone he is an ally and should be supported. It's well past time for a reckoning with the pseudo-academic left, the feminist and critical race theorists especially. They simply must accede to demands for ideological pluralism on college campuses and in society in general. Play nice or get out of the sandbox. Simple as that.

That said, he has an appeal to the neoreactionary crowd and there are reasons for this that go beyond their shared dislike of the dogmatic intersectional left, that are embedded in his outlook and the things he chooses to emphasize in his lectures. Ideas that, if left unchecked, can and in the not so distant past certainly have rivaled the current regressive left in the danger they pose to the very ideologically pluralistic social order that Peterson otherwise so loudly professes to uphold.

In particular, his approach to the writings of Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, and their apparent warnings that the philosophical "death of God" would eventually lead to nihilism and/or the seduction of some or another kind of totalitarianism. The idea that "a man who loses his people and his national roots also loses the faith of his fathers and his God" as Dostoevsky puts it. Such a man then becomes a sitting duck either for existential angst and nihilistic despair, or the the appeal of a surrogate religion, in the form of a dogmatic ideology. In any event, the death of God narrative describes a concomitant decline in public morality, the dissolution of the family, falling birth rates necessitating mass immigration that drives still further levels of social disintegration until eventually, society is irrevocably changed and not for the better. This is the central narrative of much neoreactionary thought, the "theonomist" branch especially.

While not something that can be proven absolutely, the idea that a decline in religiosity coincides with a rise in nihilism and/or ideological dogmatism does strike me as being highly plausible. The similarities of fascism and communism with religions has been remarked upon repeatedly. More recently, I've been directly privy to the rise in popularity of the "new atheism" online, and the resultant decline in religiosity among millennials. That this generation subsequently embraced tumblr SJW feminism with the fervency that it has did not, therefore, come as a surprise to me. Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and company successfully debunked Christian dogmas in the minds of many, but did not address the underlying need for transcendent belief systems that some people, at least, seem to have. Jordan Peterson would seem to be following in Carl Jung's footsteps - quite intentionally - in pointing this out. And good on him for doing so. 

I should also reiterate the fact that Jordan Peterson does not advocate any branch of neoreactionary or far right thought, near as I can tell. He has delivered scathing attacks on fundamentalist and ultra-nationalist thought that should make clear that his views are more nuanced than his leftist detractors make them out to be.

But his efforts should come with a warning label of their own. Attributing nihilism or the emergence of murderous totalitarianism ultimately to atheism has enormous potential to imply a "solution" that actually exacerbates the core problem. If "killing" God had (and continues to have) unforeseen and potentially disastrous consequences, so too might resurrecting and re-enthroning him. Specifically, the lure of a return to political religion, ultra-nationalism or some kind of traditionalism. This is the notion that underwrites neoreaction, and it's false and highly dangerous, since it ends up simply being another version of the murderous totalitarianisms that Dostoevsky fears will replace religion. The "God" chosen by whichever movement manages to do this (and which religion is chosen and how it prevails over its rivals never seems to get discussed) thus becomes, with no shortage of irony, just one more of the "demons" that names Dostoevsky's work that tackles precisely this issue.

Getting back to the religion and tradition of the past has been tried. Many times, and its rate of success is equivalent to that of the communism that it is touted as an antidote to. It was tried in Iran in 1979 and Afghanistan in 1996, to name two examples. The men who brought down the World Trade Center towers were motivated by precisely those kinds of ideals. So too have been numerous abortion clinic bombings and similar acts of domestic terrorism. There's been an ongoing push to bring religion back into public life in red state America since the inauguration of Ronald Reagan. Hasn't been much of "an antidote to chaos" if you ask me. By all appearances, it's made things worse, not better. 

The Antidote to Chaos?
The counterpart to Dostoevsky in predicting where the "resurrection of God" could well take us would be Canadian author Margaret Atwood. Her vision doesn't look terribly appealing to me.  Historically, the Crusades, the European Wars of Religion in the 1600s, the bloodbath that was the Chinese Taiping Rebellion, clerical fascism in Europe, the religious right in America, and ongoing Islamic Jihadist terrorism should dispel us of any notion that religion confers any special immunity to widespread social chaos, oppression and tyranny. The religious identity that lies at the heart of sacred forms of nationalist identity is never anything timeless and eternal, but decided at some point in the past by affairs that were - for their time - no less bloody and chaotic than the great wars of the 20th century. 

Don't misunderstand me, dear reader. If you find solace in a church or mosque, don't let me dissuade you from any of that. Plus, in the interests of fairness, the assertions made by atheists that religion is actually the root of the problem are likewise wrong and dangerous, as the persecution of religious groups in the USSR and its satellites and copy-cats exemplifies. God is neither the problem nor the solution here. The human propensity towards solving problems of identity, meaning and purpose with fanaticism and dogmatism in belief systems is the problem, and this tendency applies with equally deadly results to religious, identitarian or ideological systems of thought.

My quarrel is not with religion per-se, but with the proposal that a universal return to religion as the core of public life and a concomitant social order of serene small towns and suburbs filled with simple, moralistic nuclear families with traditional gender role churchgoing folk will be good for what ails us. It's the right wing counterpart to the romantic infatuation with communal and egalitarian living that has haunted the left for centuries. The core problem is that the entirety of society will not do either voluntarily. So the tried-and-true building blocks of tyranny: dependency on leaders and dogmas, demonization of outsiders and dissidents, erosion of privacy and civil liberties and good old fashioned brute force will end up having to be trotted out should either of these options be attempted in earnest. 

And that's the real reason why the decline of religion led to the problems that Nietzsche and Dostoevsky predicted that it would. It's not religion specifically and exclusively that confers identity and purpose, and keeps the social order intact, it's collectively held belief systems more generally. When these change dramatically or collapse all together, private angst and social chaos accompany the greater personal liberty that also emerges as a result.  The implosion of communism in the east bloc countries was similarly devastating to at least certain portions of their populations, which doubtlessly explains why authoritarianism is making a comeback in nearly all of them. 

While the SJW movement in the west does need to be stopped, and social alienation is a real problem, we'd do well to think long and hard before putting our efforts behind a revival of public, political religion as a means of solving our social ills. It's easy to forget that the regressive left of our time began in large part as a reaction against the religious right. Better to get rid of both than to make a preference of one over the other.

View "The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements" by Eric Hoffer on Samizdat Broadcasts!

Egolitarianism - the Core Disease of the Left

But we did, Nathan. And that's precisely the problem. In the unlikely event that Nathan J. Robinson of Current Affairs magazine and...