THE LAST DITCH An Englishman returned after twenty years abroad blogs about liberty in Britain

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Of truth, reason and persuasion

I have left instructions that Paul Simon’s song “the Boxer” should be played at my funeral. Apart from the bit about “the whores on Seventh Avenue” I think it’s a good broad brush account of how my life has felt to me. It contains remarkable wisdom in the line;

A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest. 

That a 16 year old Jewish kid from Queens was wise enough to know that still surprises me. I first heard the line when I was about that age myself and it should have been a helpful gift, but I was never able to internalise it usefully. I only ever remembered it too late; when my desire to believe something had led me astray.

One of my daughters once told someone “People have Dad wrong. He’s not a cynic. He’s a disappointed idealist.”  Time after time I have trusted when I shouldn’t and ventured where angels fear to tread because I was not as wise as young Mr. Simon. The will-o-the-wisps of my hopes and dreams led me through Life's swamp. I’ve been lucky and have no complaints. My regrets, such as they are. are actually about my more cautious moments. Inspirational hopes and dreams lead men where dry calculation never would and – up to a point – that may be a good thing.

in my brief career in student politics, I heard wise old sorts in the Conservative Party say things like “the facts of life are Tory” and “Tory at 20, you have no heart. Labour at 30, you have no brain.” Slightly advanced by Ricky Tomlinson*, my own trajectory confirmed the latter at least. My career as a business lawyer certainly confirmed the former — at least when the Tory Party was still Conservative and based its policies on the facts of economic life. 

So it’s not surprising that wave after wave of youngsters falls naively for the puffery of the snake oil salesmen of the left. Why, however, are there mature individuals who can’t see what poison Socialism is?

Partly it can be accounted for by the wisdom of the young Paul Simon. No-one wants to hear that the "facts of life are Tory" – especially if life is not going well for them personally. If the market values your labour less than you do yourself, it's obviously easier to believe that the market is wrong than to do something about improving your value to it. If you've trained for a dead industry, it's easier to demand that the state keeps it moving – zombie like – than to accept your mistake and retrain. Yet there is so much evidence that Socialism doesn't work. More than half of mankind lived under Socialist planned economies in the 20th Century. The empirical results of this monstrous experiment were uniformly terrible. Tens of millions died. Billions were impoverished economically, morally and in terms of liberty. 

This is recent history. Many of the people who lived through it are still alive. As this article shows, (behind a pay-wall but you can still read a couple of articles a month for free) young people who listened to their family's experiences learned the ideological lessons. They did so even when they belonged to identity groups courted by the left in its attempt to foment divisions and hatreds to be "resolved" by their panacea;  state violence to constrain free choice and free expression.

My childhood was awash with my family’s forlorn recollections about the hardships they endured under communism in Poland: the chronic scarcity of food, medicine and other basic necessities; outright hostility to basic liberties. And if we didn’t like it, too bad: they killed anyone who tried to leave.

Yet there are leftists in Poland today. Indeed there are statist authoritarians of both right and left who believe (though their grandparents are there to tell them otherwise) that an inexplicably virtuous state directing the masses will make them more moral, more patriotic and more productive than they would choose to be themselves. It would be funny if it were not so damned tragic. I lived in Poland from 1992 to 2003 and delighted in the fact that I met no-one, ever, who was inclined to believe such nonsense. In what is, perhaps, another example of my "hearing what I wanted to hear and disregarding the rest", I told myself the Polish nation was inoculated forever against the virus of statism. I was wrong. The ideological hog cycle may be even shorter than the economic one

Confirmation bias is another explanation of people's ability to ignore evidence. We are seeing it daily in the never-ending national shouting match over Brexit. Every twist and turn just leads each side to exclaim "See! I told you so!!" It is all (even for someone so enthusiastically anti-EU that his late wife once demanded he make a New Year's resolution to shut up about it for 12 months) so damned boring that I have stopped watching the news or reading my daily newspaper.

Not too long ago, we saw the British Left praise Hugo Chavez's socialist experiment in Venezuela as an example to us all. Now it has ended, as all previous experiments did, in shortages, hardship and oppression, the very same people "hear what they want to hear and disregard the rest". It wasn't socialism after all. Mistakes were made. There was external interference by agents of capitalism. There was sabotage. All the excuses, in fact, that the Stalinists used to explain the stubborn divergence of tractor production statistics from reality. 

It seems that every fact is Janus-faced to those informed by ideology or faith. The closest the left has come to acknowledging this was in developing the doctrine of post-modernism, This denies the very existence of truth and argues that all "facts" are mere social "constructs" shaped by the class, ethnic or other identity of the people positing them. How that can be true, when there is no "truth" is a question for longer-lived humans than I expect to be. I need time to have some more fun before I die, thank you very much.

Jeremy Bentham, perhaps the most pragmatic of all English philosophers, is said to have died regretting the great error of his life. which was to assume that it was only necessary to show Man what was right in order for him to embrace it. We who aspire to be rational must learn not to despair when Man cleaves to the irrational. In winning people over to the cause of Reason we must work with, and not merely scorn, their foibles. Were any religious people persuaded to renounce their faith by the late, great Christopher Hitchens' (probably correct) characterisation of their views as the product of "wishful thinking" for example? I have a close friend who is religious and, when I fear he is making a mistake, I rack my brain for the teachings of my long-ago Sunday school to construct a theological argument for him to act differently. Sometimes it works – at least a little better than telling him his faith is "wishful thinking" would! I care about him enough to shape my arguments to his beliefs when I want to help him. Perhaps I should extend that courtesy to others? How far though can I extend a courtesy that costs little when dealing with a kind and (mostly) rational man before I am respecting the monstrous views of barbarians?

If there is no Truth, life is just a pointless frolic. Yet, as Professor Peterson tells us convincingly in his books and videos, all the research suggests that the search for meaning is what makes us happy, not (pace the Founding Fathers) "the pursuit of happiness" per se. We don't need there to be Truth or Meaning to be happy, but we do need to be looking for both. Post-modernism is quite literally a counsel of despair and I suspect is only meant to dispirit most of us into inactivity while its hypocritical proponents get on with their quest to rule the world. 

Where, gentle reader, do you stand? Is there truth? Should it be sought? Can it be found? To the extent that it requires others to accept it in order to improve the world, how best can one persuade them?

*In the linked post, I said I couldn't be sure that it was Tomlinson. My father has since read that post and confirmed that it was.

 


Book reviews: 12 Rules for Life / Man's Search for Meaning

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos,  by Dr. Jordan B. Peterson

This is a global best-seller because (thank all gods there may be) the Leftist intelligentsia does not grok the Streisand effect. They denounce the author furiously in every available medium as "Alt-Right", "White supremacist", "Sexist" etc. All this tells you is that he doesn't conform to the orthodoxy of their Cult of Political Correctness. Even as they fulminate about him in their lecture theatres, their students are surreptitiously buying the book on their smartphones, which means that for the first time in a couple of generations, "Social Science" students are being directed to useful reading.

Of course he is none of those things, as few accused of them ever are. That will be clear if you read his book. In fact, I don't think he's political at all though his ideas have political implications. I have followed his career closely since he first came to prominence and could not tell you how he would vote in Canada, where he comes from, or in America or Britain had he a vote there. What he is professionally is a clinical psychologist and a life-changing university lecturer. What he is above anything else is an ethicist. His ethics (though he does not preach but cites Bible stories only as part of the history of our culture's development) are those of the Christian West since the Enlightenment. To the discomfiture of anti-Western academics (which is to say, thanks to the success of the Long March through the Institutions, most of them in the "Social Sciences") he is terrifyingly well-versed. This man has read everything you guiltily feel you should have.

A fair summary of his rise to fame can be found here and perhaps his most famous TV appearance can be found (to the shame of Cathy Newman, whose obituary will one day recall her only as the fool he bested) here. My review of his recent talk at the Hammersmith Apollo can be found here.

He mostly tells us things that those of us not brainwashed by the Cult have always known, at some level, but he underpins them with ferocious academic rigour. In a sense he tells us who we are and why. For me, who has been feebly grappling with the Postmodernist assault on Reason for years, it is a powerful resource but I am not its target audience; my children are. I wept as I read some passages, thinking of my beloved daughters and realising in just how many ways  I have failed them as a father.

That Dr. Peterson is becoming a father figure to a generation is no coincidence, trust me. We baby-boomers have been many things but good parents, for the most part, we were not.

12 Rules for Life is a highbrow "self-help" book. Although at my age, it's perhaps too late for major transformative effects, even I must thank him for improving my life. His rules inspired me to confront a relationship issue I had fearfully and destructively avoided since my late wife died. He says happiness is not a proper objective but, at best, a mere by-product of seeking a meaningful life. That may be so but I am a happier man because of him.

I will be buying a copy for every young person I love because it's not only, as advertised, "an antidote to chaos" but also (and this is why the Cult hates it) a manual for resisting their attempted destruction of Western Civilisation. I would pay it the high compliment of ranking it alongside Marcus Aurelius's The Meditations and Lord Chesterfield's Letters to His Son. A young person who has read those three books, Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, Karl Marx's Das Kapital, Friedrich Hayek's Road to Serfdom, some Shakespeare, some Dickens, some Eliot and some Austen is well on the way to being educated. Throw in the original and best Tom Paine's Rights of Man and the next book I am going to review and he or she will be ready to go to university and face the Cult without fear of lasting damage.

Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl

Dr. Peterson references Viktor Frankl as "the psychiatrist and Nazi concentration camp survivor who wrote the classic Man's Search for Meaning" and reports his "social-psychological conclusion" that 

"...deceitful inauthentic individual existence is the precursor to social totalitarianism..."

This led me to take Frankl's book next from my reading pile. It was already waiting in that reproachful heap because recommended by a new friend; a trainee psychotherapist who sits next to me at my weekly Weight Watchers meeting. I have been teasing her about her new career – calling Psychology "the science of excuses" and mocking her that in switching from reflexology she's only moving from "massaging feet to massaging minds." She is a fun, mischievous person and takes it all in good part. She apparently enjoys winding up her tutors by quoting me.

Her recommendation was not at all mischievous though. Indeed, I am ashamed never to have heard of this book before. I could not have had the benefit of reading Dr. Peterson in my youth, but could have done far better in life had I read Frankl.

It's a modest work; only 155 pages long and divided into two parts. The first is an account of the author's experiences as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps but

...is not concerned with the great horrors, which have already been described often enough (though less often believed), but with the multitude of small torments. In other words, it will try to answer this question: How was everyday life in the a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?

This part is moving and incredibly open-minded. Few survivors of the Shoah could write this for example;

The mere knowledge that a man was either a camp guard or a prisoner tells us almost nothing. Human kindness can be found in all groups, even those which as a whole it would be easy to condemn. The boundaries between groups overlapped and  we must not try to simplify matters by saying that these men were angels and those were devils. Certainly, it was a considerable achievement for a guard or foreman to be kind to the prisoners in spite of all the camp's influences, and, on the other hand, the baseness of a prisoner who treated his own companions badly was exceptionally contemptible. 

This book too is "self-help" because of his account of how he and his comrades coped with the horrors of camp life. Frankl also offers direct advice that is often echoed in Dr. Peterson's book;

Don't aim at success – the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one's dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself

The second part explains his "therapeutic doctrine" called "logotherapy", which he describes as "meaning-centred psychotherapy." It is less introspective and retrospective than traditional psychoanalysis and more focussed on the future – or rather the patient's future search for meaning in life. He speaks of a "will to meaning" in contrast to the "pleasure principle" or "will to pleasure" on which Freudian psychoanalysis is based.

Frankl makes an interesting point in the postscript to the book about the concept of collective guilt which underlies, damagingly, such postmodern concepts as "white privilege".

Since the end of World War II I have not become weary of publicly arguing against the collective guilt concept. Sometimes, however, it takes a lot of didactic tricks to detach people from their superstitions. An American woman once confronted me with the reproach, "How can you still write some of your books in German, Adolf Hitler's language?" In response, I asked her if she had knives in her kitchen, and when she answered that she did, I acted dismayed and shocked, exclaiming, "How can you still use knives after so many killers have used them to stab and murder their victims?" She stopped objecting to my writing books in German.

Both Peterson and Frankl quote Nietzsche as saying;

He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how

In a sense that's the message of both books, though Frankl's horrific experiences illustrate it more tellingly than Peterson's contemporary examples and incidentally make a clearer mockery of Post-Modernist trouble-makers who convince young people living privileged comfortable 21st Century lives that they are either oppressed or oppressors.

These are both books that will make you not just better informed, but a better person. I recommend them both. 

 


Live at the Apollo with Dr Jordan Peterson

I attended Dr Peterson's event at the Apollo last night. I say "event" because I don't know what else to call it. It was actually a lecture on philosophy but "lecture" seems the wrong word for an address to five thousand excited (and mostly young) people who gave him a rockstar reception. If it were still the 1960s, I might call it a "happening".

Dave Rubin of The Rubin Report introduced him and observed that "tonight it feels like we are winning". It was certainly inspiring to me, having tried my humble best for years to defend the values of the West, to be in a room with so many like-minded people listening raptly to a man doing an oh-so-much better job of it.  The dominance by the Leftist establishment of the public arena from the media through politics to the comedy for which the Apollo's stage is most famous has made me feel at times as though my few gallant readers and I were hiding in a forlorn, shrinking ghetto of ideas. Last night my adrenaline surged as I realised Western civilisation is alive, kicking and beloved. So I don't envy Dr Peterson his success where I have failed. Rather I am relieved by it - in every sense. I am relieved that we are not doomed and as a sentry on the borders of Western thought, I feel that I and my intellectual popgun have been relieved of duty by a Rambo armed to the teeth. I am happy to be to him one of the true friends he advises people to seek out. I delight in his success and I hope he has much more.

I am reading his book at present. I am both loving it and finding it hard going. He lays out twelve rules for life and justifies them with essays that cover prehistory, mythology, biology (human and other), religion, the ideas of the great philosophers and the wisdom of the great psychologists. It draws upon his extensive personal study, his experience as a clinical psychologist and his background in academia, where he has laboured long in obscurity among the cultural Marxists and malevolent identarians. 

His talk last night was hard going too. In introducing the Q&A Dave Rubin commented that each talk so far on the tour has been different. This is no scripted, rehearsed event to promote a best-selling book. Peterson is an experienced educator who simply thinks aloud in the presence of his students, drawing upon his extensive learning. He does so at a intellectual level rarely attempted today in dumbed-down Britain. He makes no concessions to his audience. None. And they react as if they had been dying of thirst in the desert and he had happened by with a glass of water. 

Rubin asked him about this week's article by Bari Weiss in the New York Times in which Weiss coined the phrase the "Intellectual Dark Web" and listed him as a member. He thought it amusing and said he was waiting to see how that idea developed. He had given some thought to what the IDW members had in common, however, and concluded that, in contrast to the condescension of the Left,  it was "assuming the intelligence of their audience". He certainly did that last night. The audience stayed with him for an hour and a half as he wrestled with the great truths of being human; nodding and murmuring and sometimes cheering their approval and laughing at his occasional highbrow jokes. Gentle reader, though we have doubted ourselves in the teeth of our enemies' sneers, we are not the fools they take us for. There are millions of us longing – not for sound bites or dog whistles crafted by the likes of Alistair Campbell, nor for the kind of "Leftism Lite" offered by Conservatives in name only – but for a higher level of principled discussion based on an intelligent appreciation of our civilisation's core ethic; the "sovereignty of the individual".

I spent a lot of money to be in Dr Peterson's presence (£55 for a ticket plus an £8.50 "booking fee") but, given all the many hours of his lectures that are available for free at his YouTube channel, no-one needs to feel unlucky if they can't afford to do the same. Rising rapidly from obscurity because of the stand he took on Canada's "compelled speech" law making "misgendering" a trans person a "hate crime", he has become the most important public intellectual of our age. He says that, though of course there is a political dimension to the subjects he's discussing, his objectives are not political.

He says his career has been about talking to and educating people one by one to help them live better lives. That's how he set out to give his life meaning and it is still the rộle in which he is most comfortable. Besides, as he joked, "I don't think five thousand of you would have come out tonight to listen to Justin Trudeau." He is a brilliant, humble man who says (and I believe him) that he is both astonished and grateful that in the last eighteen months he has been able to help people on a scale he had never imagined. Asked how he was coping with his sudden fame his response was cool and telling. "I have always been a careful man," he said, "but I have learned to be even more careful now that there are people waiting to pounce on any error". 

The enemies of the West who have marched through and seized control of our academic institutions hate and fear him. They will defame him at every turn. Rubin asked the audience last night to make a video to post on their Twitter and Instagram feeds using the hashtag #12rules of Peterson's answer to his question about that defamation. There will be dozens of technically-superior versions out there, but you can find my video here. I hope it will encourage you to watch many more over at his site. 

Dr Peterson's message is that we should all seek to find meaning in our own lives, for our own good and for that of our loved ones and our community. It's tautology to speak of false idols because all idols are false. He declines to be our political leader but he is a wise teacher to whom we can all look for guidance. I commend him to you wholeheartedly.