A larger impulse to remake humanity according to various ideals

Monday, April 2nd, 2018

Jordan Peterson reminded Russ Roberts that civilization is fragile:

He reminded me that it’s easy to think that everything is going to keep going the way it always has, getting slightly better and better, not just for a small slice of the population as is often claimed, but across a wide range of the population — more income, less poverty, more access to incredible technology. I’ve been an optimist for a long time based on my understanding of innovation and competition and the way they spread prosperity throughout the world as freedom has grown.

Peterson is not an optimist. I wouldn’t call him a pessimist, but he has adopted the persona of a prophet as Scott Alexander points out. He is sounding a bell exhorting us to remember that human beings have a very dark side, that the veneer of civilization is thinner than we like to think, and that humankind’s worst excesses are often justified by the noblest of motives.


I was recently at a panel discussion of the state of political and cultural life in America. All of the panelists were from what I would call the gentle left — good people to the left of center with a different world view from my own but full of compassion and good intentions. It was something of a smugfest — how sad it is that misguided people found Trump appealing. How sad it is that the right has no interest in the left while the left has been reaching out to understand how Trump voters could possibly exist. They chalked up the stupidity of Trump voters to global capitalism that had hollowed out the middle class and driven so many sheep into the arms of the Republican wolf who would only shear them and make a lovely blanket for himself.

Despite their best efforts at anthropology, the panelists were like fish in water unable to imagine what water is. The reason the right is less interested in the left than the left is in the right, is that the left is everywhere. You don’t have to take a trip to Kentucky or to a church to understand the left. The left dominates our culture — Hollywood, the music scene, the universities. And the left can’t seem to imagine that anything they are pushing for might be problematic. In particular, the radical egalitarian project is not everyone’s cup of tea. By radical egalitarian agenda, I mean equality of outcomes rather than equality of opportunity. Or that gender is a social construct.

And this brings me back to Peterson. Peterson stands athwart that radical egalitarian agenda. He’s not an elitist, particularly. But he refuses to say that 2+2 = 5. He refuses to say that gender is a choice divorced from biology, for example. But he goes further — he argues that the radical egalitarian impulse is part of a larger impulse to remake humanity according to various ideals. And he goes further still. He recognizes that this urge isn’t just unnatural. It’s dangerous.


  1. Graham says:

    I think it was John Derbyshire, in a review of the works of Kipling, who years ago described Kipling’s worldview as something like “civilization is hard won and never held onto by more than ones fingernails” and he “wanted the ramparts fully manned” and he hated the liberals [Liberals?] because they wouldn’t.

    Leave aside Kipling’s idea of civilization. I know he viewed the Germans as industrially-equipped barbarians genuinely akin to the Huns, on some level, and while I am sympathetic to him on that I don’t wish to travel that far down the anti-teutonic road.

    There’s something in Kipling’s worldview on that. Somewhere in my office I have “The Gods of the Copybook Headings” lying around. Which I first discovered in one of Jerry Pournelle’s anthologies in the 1980s, as it happens. He did me a lifelong service with his editorial choices.

  2. Graham says:

    Various sequential rather than random reactions:

    1. One argument long beloved among segments of the trad and liberal right was that the Nazis and Communists were the same- revolutionary utopians out to remake the world according to their ideals. The Nazis were the more radical and the less pragmatic. I suppose they were more like the Trotskyites than like the Stalinists in the scale of their ambition.

    This gets the back up of people like the Spectator columnist a few months back who did critique communism but practically screeched on the page that ‘the fascists chose evil’ while the communists were trying to do good. This represents a preemptive assumption about the motives of both and a bias for the goals of the latter as “good”. The worst of both camps chose to create a new society and a new humanity from a selective rootstock, and the devil take the rest. All other distinctions are operational or preferential.

    I am less sympathetic to this model of history than I used to be. But leave aside- even that is preferential. As an observation of the two ideologies, I have seen no better conclusion.

    I am also reminded of Hugh Trevor-Roper. Who asked anyone claiming Hitler was a conservative to demonstrate one thing he wanted to conserve. A witticism, sure, but not without merit.

  3. Graham says:

    2. The gentle left has its charms.

    Sadly, they won’t recognize the comparison I made above when the subject of antifa comes up. That would be destructive to their operating systems.

    They criticize the right, in the US of the past 25 years often with cause, for crudity, strawmen, baiting, etc. They will not recognize the same in themselves, nor that we have all bathed in their versions of it for over a generation.

    Once you’ve heard basically anything right of centre called racist and neoconfederate, and in some cases struggled to see the connection being drawn to race, it’s hard to take it seriously. When you’ve heard boomer cons or neocons or W Bush assessed as racists, it’s hard to take anything else seriously. It’s harder yet when the critique throws those terms at some vaguely capitalist-ish, libertarian-y spending policy that might be appalling but can’t reasonably be called “fascist” or racist.

    When you notice how far the balls have moved, or how much academic Marxist [Critical/Structural/Poststructural] analysis has escaped into the wild and begun to be treated as a branch of the natural sciences on the left, it’s hard to identify even the most moderate American progressive today with “liberalism”, JFK or even LBJ. More like an ever so slightly refracted Woodrow Wilson.

    I don’t know what to make of it. I recognize the confusions I have seem to exist on their side of the line. That’s why I don’t understand why they don’t understand they are seeming to make no attempt to understand anything, or words to that effect.

    Most of Trump’s base would be satisfied with things that would have seemed bipartisan in the 1990s.

    I sort of understand why the left might not consider itself omnipresent and ascendant. They mostly see “capitalism” when they look at tech and media, without as much regard to the content those sectors are framing. They see many things as normal, normative, and natural that the right sees as them pushing a point of view. They can still criticize “McCarthyism” [slapping an ism on things is still a magic power] and the blacklist without irony because it’s just different. And so on.

    As to the last para or so, remember when the left “loved science” and materialism and ‘reality-based’ policy?

    I sometimes figure I would be willing to let them sweep away my civilization if I could but get a commitment to terminological exactitude.

  4. “Civilization has been described as ‘a thin crust over a volcano.’ The anointed are constantly picking at that crust.” — Thomas Sowell, The Vision of the Anointed

  5. DNA says:

    “The left dominates our culture — Hollywood, the music scene, the universities.”

    No. The left dominates the outward facing parts of our culture. The left controls the inculcation of what passes for ‘culture’ for every new generation.

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