Wednesday, August 14, 2019

The Most Dangerous Man in America?

Is it possible that the most dangerous man in America is a Canadian college professor?

Please allow me to try and explain why that is a question worth asking.

In "Theses on Feuerbach" (1845), Karl Marx wrote, "The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it."

As the old saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

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Before I get to the Canadian, who seems to be a philosopher very interested in changing the world, I need to provide some background.

The potentially most dangerous man in America, likes to talk about Marxism and something he calls cultural-marxism, if he has the right audience.

Cultural marxism, as near as I can tell is a pointer to something evil.  It seems to identify some one, some group, or some idea that non-cultural marxists don't like, maybe hate and are definitely afraid of. Based on my spins around the internet I'd say "cultural marxism" is a phrase used in a lot of speech intended to "other" some group of human beings.

Marx was an important philosopher who was reacting to the changes happening to society as a result of industrialization. Based on my limited reading of his works I'd say he had some insightful things to say about industrialized society and capitalism. The BBC special Masters of Money provides a high-level overview of Marx's thinking. The Essential Writings of Karl Marx edited by David Caute is a concise look at Marx and Engles major ideas that I found educational.

Reading "The Communist Manifesto" isn't a good place to start learning about Marx. The manifesto is deliberately written as a short polemic and doesn't have nearly the nuance, insight and depth of other writings of Marx and Engles.

I'd guess very few people have read the three volumes of Marx and Engles foundational work "Das Kapital" given that each volume is over 1000 pages of challenging material. Even though most people have never read any of Marx and Engles works, many people use the words marxism, socialism, communism with little or no understanding of the philosophy underpinning them.

Taking the name of some thing and saying the name is the thing is a fools errand. Here's what I mean - saying North Korea is a democracy because it's named "The Democratic Peoples Republic of North Korea" doesn't make it so. Saying Communist China is Communism (the political theory derived from Marx) makes about as much sense. How much Marx's ideas, and how much inherent human evil, greed and a will to power contributed to the terrible things that happened in China or the USSR - is complicated.

In the United States with a democratic form of government we saw genocide of native people and enslavement of hundreds of thousands of human beings but we don't say that happened because of democracy. It's complicated.

When the working class is ready to take over the means of production here in the USA you'll know socialism has arrived. I expect that to happen - never, but maybe I'm wrong.

I think it's not impossible that we will slide into some sort of totalitarian fascist state. When the economy tanks or some localized Antifa vs. Proud Boys or other violence escalates - we could be in for a bit of tight spot.

As dire as the prediction may sound I'm not worried. We are a strong people who've been though a lot and I am 100% confident that whatever comes along we'll ride it out. We all are able to choose our own response to whatever comes our way - so have fun, hug your friends and family and make the most of your one singular beautiful life.

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Which brings me to Jordan Peterson, a super smart guy and philosopher (or something) who seems to be popular on the internet. I haven't looked at everything he has on the web (there's a lot) but I've looked at enough to say he's found something. The video that made me think he may be inciting people to violence, perhaps unwittingly, has been viewed by over 2 million people.

What he's found is a group of people unsatisfied with their lives and looking for answers, or at least someone or some group to blame.

What he's found is not completely unlike the "something" Donald Trump found that propelled him to the presidency.

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Before considering my concern with Jordan Peterson please watch this short video discussing identity politics. Olly the young philosophy teacher in the video isn't talking about what some in the popular media, and professors like Jordan Peterson, refer to as "identity politics" so you might learn something you didn't know.

I'd also suggest viewing Olly's video discussing the only true fan of Jordan Peterson in the entire world. Spoiler alert - it involves what appear to be live snakes crawling on Olly's semi-naked body ;-)

Listening to Jordan Peterson preach about philosophers and philosophical ideas I wondered where he was getting his ideas from, because many of them seem misguided. It appeared that he had not read the works of many of the philosophers he characterizes. Cuck Philosophy has a video explaining the book that Jordan Peterson recommends his disciples read to understand some thing he calls post-modernism. You'll understand why Jordan and his devotees are so confused about some things after watching the video.

I was musing if it might be worthwhile to request that Jordan submit a paper for peer review outlining his theory of "post-modernism" or "cultural-marxists" or Derrida or Foucalt's ideas. I suppose not since in the radical right view - academia is corrupted. The idea that higher education is corrupt, going to hell in a hand basket or being taken over by radical feminists, social justice warriors or leftists isn't a new one in the United States. William F. Buckley was making noises like that back in the 1950's. The aristocrats fear that providing an education to the common man would make him ungovernable, goes back much further than the 1950's.

Another video that is a good corrective to some of Jordan Peterson's philosophical confusion is Derrida - The Father of Deconstruction. It's an interview with Paul Patton a professor of philosophy at the University of New South Wales from the Australian Broadcasting Company. I listened to him explain deconstruction about five times and couldn't make it out but it's an interesting video nonetheless.

Rick Roderick talks about deconstruction here in a lecture about Heidegger. He says that Heidegger introduced the term "the deconstruction of philosophy." Roderick equates deconstruction to - clearing away a pile of junk, to get to what might be called it's archaeological roots, to see if there's anything there that will help us in this project of understanding what it means to be in the world.

Wesley Cecil  has a lecture on Derrida here. Early on in his lecture he says, Derrida wrote over 50 books in his lifetime - none of which are readable.

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To understand why I think Jordan Peterson is dangerous you'll need to look closely at the video of a talk he gave to a group of young people in Vancouver B.C. The video has a nice clickbaity and rather nonsensical title "Identity Politics and the Marxist Lie of White Privilege". It's over 2 1/2 hours long, but you only have to look at a couple of spots where young men are asking questions to understand what I'm getting at.

Jordan Peterson has an aura of authority and legitimacy because he is a professor. Many people assume he knows what he's talking about because of his status and because what he says sounds credible. He has some advice for young people that I agree with but the value of what he's saying doesn't in any way make up for the violence he may incite in impressionable people.

The thing that makes him most dangerous may be that he's identifying things in our society that many people see as problematic. He's got some points, but he's mixing it all up in a toxic stew which seems to incite rather than calm the passions of impressionable students and others. He has a trait you see in some politicians where what he is doing is precisely the bad thing he accuses "them" of doing. He preaches a gospel opposed to identity politics while practicing the most extreme forms of identity politics himself.

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He rails on a lot about "post-modernism", "cultural marxism", Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucalt. The fact that neither he nor most regular people have the slightest clue what the phrases "post-modernism" or "cultural marxism", might mean in an intellectual sense, if they mean anything at all, never really enters into the picture. Those terms do seem to have an emotional meaning that resonates with some people. 

A similar situation exists when he refers to the French philosophers Foucalt and Derrida. At least they were real people, but who knows what they were talking about? People a lot smarter than I am will tell you that the writing of Derrida and Foucalt is difficult, sometimes deliberately obscure, at times enlightening, and very challenging to understand. That's why some philosophers and thinkers like reading and discussing their works.

Jordan Peterson preaches about "post-modernism", "cultural marxism", "Derrida" and "Foucalt". He can interpret these concepts and thinkers, because most likely you won't have any frame of reference with which to judge the accuracy of what he's saying. His spiel basically boils down to - you should be angry at, and afraid of, a group of people....in fact so afraid that you might think they are going to kill you as you will see in the video.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”
LEWIS CARROLL (Charles L. Dodgson), Through the Looking-Glass, chapter 6, p. 205 (1934). First published in 1872.

The first part of the video that is concerning is at 2:06:37 where the young man asks a question about ideologies that students may be attracted to that "in the end will get them killed will get them hurt." Jordan Peterson gives an answer about the horrors of the Soviet Union.

The problem is, if you listened to the 2 plus hours of his talk up to that point he had been conflating the horrors of the Soviet Union, Communist China and Nazi Germany with some group of people in the United States and Canada. The group is a bit hard to define but seems to include college professors, "leftists", "cultural marxists", maybe "liberals" and "post-modernists?"

The conclusion the student can draw is that since these ideologies may get "them" killed, may get them hurt, then whatever means he chooses to resist "them" are justified by the ends (saving lives).

Jordan Peterson has some valid points but he (at least in this video) mixes those valid points up with rhetoric appealing to desires and prejudices like any demagogue.

What he says sounds like a rational argument mixed in at times with emotional pleading which I imagine is quite appealing to some young (and not so young) people.

What young person doesn't want to save the world? Here's a guy who's telling you the leftists and cultural marxists want to ruin the world - better do something and whatever you do it will be justified...since you are saving the world.

The second part of the video that is concerning is at 2:20:08. The student says "the left has pushed for total control of our society for twenty years...", "the mass red pilling of the conservative movement", "this is the answer to defeat the leftist stranglehold on our society"..etc.

At this point Jordan Peterson seems to realize that something is dangerous about how the student interpreted what he has been preaching for the previous 2 1/2 hours. He gives an answer calling for non-violence and suggests not thinking one side has to "win".

We can only hope his followers will listen.

Saying there's no need to "win" seems sort of disingenuous considering he'd been preaching that there are groups of people afoot wanting to take away all you hold dear in this world...again not unlike Trump.

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Miscellaneous critiques..

Being somewhat interested in theology I was confused by Professor Peterson's interpretation of the old testament story of Cain and Abel starting at 38:36. Jordan tells us that God tells us in that myth that, "sin  crouches at your door like a sexually aroused cat...that's basically the metaphor God uses." An unusual interpretation and somewhat bizarre statement but myths can have many meanings.

He goes on to preach that Cain killed Abel because Cain was resentful (like the "cultural marxists" etc. are resentful today). It's a strange and potentially dangerous sermon Jordan is preaching. If I wanted advice on how to interpret the story of Cain and Abel I'd consult a Jewish scholar, a priest or a minister; not a psychology professor.

Jordan Peterson makes a mistake I make all the time. He thinks because he's smart, and knows a lot about something, he knows a lot about everything. I don't really have a problem with that provided it's localized, but when you have a pretty big pulpit and people think you know what you are talking about - it becomes problematic.

Jordan Peterson preaches against making straw man arguments while creating a city of straw men to battle. A good example of this is when he says something like postmodernists or Derrida or some one holds the belief that "any idea is as good as any other."

As one actual professor of Philosophy said, not only did Derrida never make such a claim, but "no one ever said this."

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One of the challenges of understanding if Jordan Peterson is stoking a dangerous level of polarization is that it depends on which of his videos you watch. I watched most of three long videos of him and Sam Harris (a liberal of some sort) talking and it was like a different guy showed up - he didn't say anything about cultural marxists, post-modernists, college professors, or liberals.

Finally I'm going to make a supposition about what I think drives the freak out you get from "conservative" or the "right" figureheads when they talk about post-modernism, Derrida or Foucalt. It's the concept of "deconstruction" which may be a way of saying lets look closely at the text to trace where a particular idea, norm or "fact" originated. Once you start asking those sorts of questions you are quite threatening to some people who have power. It's in a way, an argument of whether to accept authority of those with power to define acceptable ideas, or to question that authority.

Not all authority is bad and not all hierarchies are bad - it's hard to see how humans could accomplish much without them in some form. The flip side to that is that unquestioned obedience to those in power has led to some very bad things in the history of humanity.

The preacher Jordan Peterson is, to use a phrase from the late West Texan philosophy professor Rick Roderick, the Pharaoh's enabler whether he realizes it or not. Hopefully he has the insight, self-awareness and a moral compass that will allow him to see that although some of what he is doing may be valuable, some of what he is doing is morally reprehensible and potentially dangerous.

Eric Hoffer wrote about mass movements. He tells us that in any mass movement the intellectuals play a key role in inciting the true believers. Intellectuals cannot move their ideology into the world directly. Implementing the ideology is done by men of action - through local mob violence and eventually by the iron boot of the state. Unlike Donald Trump who has lots of visible warts - Peterson is smooth, sounds credible and is charged with emotion. He's also a chameleon who changes his color depending on his surroundings. He's admired by the alt-right proto fascists and that is a bit worrisome.

Disclaimer: To be honest I don't really care about any of this other than in an abstract sort of way. I like to think and make notes to myself. It's not my reality. I'm happy, healthy and thankful for the life I have. I have truly been blessed with my life, my family and friends. I hope whatever reality you live in is equally as good.