Friday, February 2, 2018

David Brooks versus Jordan Peterson (1)

A week or so ago now, David Brooks confronted "The Jordan Peterson Moment". [NB: That's a New York Times link.] That headline tells you a lot. The person who writes a story is typically not around when a headline is written so, although it is conceivable that Brooks gets headline approval, we shouldn't hold him responsible for this headline. That said, it reflects something we find in the column. For Brooks and his audience, Jordan Peterson is a weird and unexpected thing, something foreign and threatening.

Brooks' discomfort is evident right from the opening line. He acknowledges a claim made by Tyler Cowen that Peterson "is the most influential public intellectual in the Western world right now." The thing you need to know to grasp what is happening here is that Brooks would love to be a public intellectual but is not. He got close with his first book but he is mostly a newspaper columnist. His books are well-received and reviewed inside a certain narrow social sphere but he will never reach the audience Peterson is reaching. Another way of putting this would be to say that Brooks is an establishment figure. No other kind gets to write for the New York Times.

As an establishment figure, Brooks spends a lot of time papering over the cracks in conventional thinking. This column is interesting because he is confronted with the biggest crack, the San Andreas fault that underlies modern progressive thought that all good progressives try not to think about in the hopes that it won't cause any problems in their lifetimes at least. It can be stated this way: every liberal society in the world has decidedly non-liberal foundations. You can make an authoritarian society into a liberal one but what you can't do is take a situation where no society exists and make a liberal society out of chaos. Brooks wants to deny that. He wants to believe that you can start out with love.
Much of Peterson’s advice sounds to me like vague exhortatory banality. Like Hobbes and Nietzsche before him, he seems to imagine an overly brutalistic universe, nearly without benevolence, beauty, attachment and love. His recipe for self-improvement is solitary, nonrelational, unemotional. I’d say the lives of young men can be improved more through loving attachment than through Peterson’s joyless and graceless calls to self-sacrifice.
 Brooks admits more than he realizes when he writes "sounds to me". He is admitting that he can't prove his side of the argument. Ultimately, progressivism rests on something like religious faith.

If you grew up in the west, you might share that faith. Alternatively, you may think as Peterson does. Want to find out what you really believe? Open your eyes and look around, do you see a universe full of  "benevolence, beauty, attachment and love"? I'm sure you see some of that, especially if you live in the west. But do you think that is the natural state of things or do you think it's something that was created at the cost of sacrifice and self-denial? Those aren't rhetorical questions.

They aren't rhetorical because I know that some readers, perhaps most, are going to want to answer that order is the natural state of things. Others, like me, are going to want to answer that chaos is. That isn't just Brooks fundamental dispute with Peterson, it's a fundamental question that has driven western political thought since at least Thomas Hobbes.

All I'll say for now is that it's a lot easier to believe that the world is full of benevolence, beauty and love from inside a functioning liberal society. Go outside and watch a little animal predation—watch an eagle kill and eat a really cute puppy, for example—and your confidence will be shaken. I would say rightly shaken.

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