In The Atlantic on Thursday, contributing editor Caitlin Flanagan wrote of her liberal son and peers’ fascination with Canadian psychologist and auditorium-packing internet sensation Jordan Peterson.
They “began listening to more and more podcasts and lectures by this man, Jordan Peterson,” she writes. “The young men voted for Hillary, they called home in shock when Trump won, they talked about flipping the House, and they followed Peterson to other podcasts — to Sam Harris and Dave Rubin and Joe Rogan. What they were getting from these lectures and discussions, often lengthy and often on arcane subjects, was perhaps the only sustained argument against identity politics they had heard in their lives.”
In this insightful counter-narrative essay attempting to explain “Why the Left Is So Afraid of Jordan Peterson,” she notes Peterson’s listeners are not largely the “alt-right” types often held up to him during hostile media interviews: “the audience is made up of people who are busy with their lives — folding laundry, driving commercial trucks on long hauls, sitting in traffic from cubicle to home, exercising.” Flanagan also memorably writes that these listeners are “pursuing a parallel curriculum.”
“A parallel culture of ideas has emerged to replace a corrupted system,” she writes later. What’s the corrupted system? The political and cultural left that “currently seems ascendant in our houses of culture and art, has in fact entered its decadent late phase, and it is deeply vulnerable.” Identity politics, she says, are one evidence and cause of this corruption.
Flanagan does not delve into why identity politics is a cause and result of corruption, but I have a suggestion. It’s because identity politics, and so much else of what passes for politics and culture today, is largely an elaborate system of virtue signaling. Indeed, scholar William Voegeli has shown in great detail that the left’s entire political program is wasteful, utterly ineffective virtue signaling.
Virtue signaling, of course, is essentially to present the appearance of virtue without its substance. It’s a dressy lie, a form of self-corruption. Its polar opposite is “dangerous” competence, and it is this that Peterson preaches. It’s deadly to the left because the left is anti-comptetence, and pro-corruption. Identity politics is merely the most visible proof of this reality.
Our Self-Appointed Leaders Are Bankrupt
In Aaron Renn’s email newsletter The Masculinist, he writes: “Populism is not our problem today. Our problem is that the American elite, of which many of us could be considered members at some level, is corrupt and inept. There are many good individuals and leaders in this group, but collectively our elite is bankrupt and has failed.” Here’s more from his insightful observations, which he aims specifically at Christians but are applicable outside that sphere as well:
[T]he elite have broken faith with the people they are supposed to be leading … We have a divergent society in which the leadership classes have prospered like never before at the same time much of society has fallen into ruin. At the same time our elite congratulate themselves for being morally superior to the benighted masses …
Rather than beating back populism, the problem facing America is fundamentally one of institutional and cultural renewal among the elite.
At precisely the most credentialed moment in world history, we have a competency crisis, due to running things according to politically convenient lies rather than accuracy, competence, and efficiency. The evidence for this is plentiful and within nearly everyone’s common experience. Old dishwashers are more efficient and effective than new ones. So are old showerheads and toilets. Public infrastructure is degrading to shameful conditions despite our historic peak of technical power because, among other things, all the maintenance money has been spent on inflated pensions and pork.
Western education institutions now generally and self-evidently serve not as robust developers of young minds and souls, but of a ridiculously expensive, careerist version of virtue signaling. Schools and colleges routinely graduate people who can hardly read or do math at even an eighth grade level. Large percentages of would-be teachers, all of whom graduated high school and college, cannot pass licensing exams typically set at approximately a fifth- to eighth-grade level that completely ignore key competencies such as knowledge of how to teach reading.
I regularly field articles from people with advanced humanities degrees who ought to have flunked fifth-grade writing. Just about every professor at a non-elite institution can tell similar stories, and even at elite institutions can clearly tell the marked differences in students admitted due to affirmative action, which can be the equivalent of an artificial 400-point SAT score boost.
We the people are well aware that we have to pay for a fat layer of incompetents to pretend to serve us atop the costs of doing things right ourselves. Renn lists many other evidences of the prevalence and heights of corruption among Americans in high levels of responsibility. Consider the revitalized wave of sex scandals among Catholic and evangelical megachurch leaders, and the federal officials refusing to carry out the policies of a duly elected president, to the point of using opposition research as the apparent basis to start a bottomless witch hunt.
The Place to Start Is With Ourselves
Because every society must have leaders, Renn is on a mission to revitalize American leadership, starting with where he and we all must: taking responsibility for his own character. “To make fundamental change in the church and broader society, the educated leadership class must collectively and individually become worthy. That starts with taking responsibility for ourselves and being above reproach and competent in our undertakings.”
This is also Peterson’s attraction, audience, and message. Whatever you think of Peterson, he is clearly competent. His command of general and expertise-specific knowledge is instantly evident, and earns him credibility and authority. The people he’s talking to, who aspire to this themselves, may not be our leaders now, but if they likewise dedicate themselves to the difficult work of excellence, they will be worthy of leadership in the future.
To be fully human and fully worthy of responsibility is to fight your entire life to bring order to chaos, to make an imprint upon the world in some meaningful way, Peterson says. It derives from committing oneself for life to another person and the children you create, sustain, and pass your culture’s accumulated wisdom on to together. And it derives from seeking the ultimate and transcendent truth of life and speaking about it, even if doing so produces pain. You learn to suffer for truth, because that is good. And life is worth nothing if it does not center upon a pursuit of the good, the true, and even the beautiful.
These are old and timeless ideas blessedly familiar to anyone who has had the good fortune to have family, a religious tradition, and teachers willing to pass it on. But clearly many in the West have not been introduced to their own inheritance. Many are orphans with no knowledge or only faint knowledge of their own intellectual and spiritual ancestors and homes. This is a source of the alienation, the hunger, and the loneliness that mark our age.
The ‘Parallel Curriculum’ Is the Real Curriculum
It is not that there is no home to go to, either. Western history is rich with sustenance for mind and soul. Its longevity, richness, and vibrance are proof enough of that. It is that the people who consider themselves our leaders now deliberately strip America’s young of their roots.
Peterson and many others note rightly that most of our universities, and the other cultural institutions they gatekeep such as media and public schools, are anti-education, anti-culture, and anti-American. They gain power by separating people, by not only refusing to cultivate the capacity for self-government, but also actively cultivating intellectual, economic, and spiritual dependency.
This is why, as Flanagan has noticed, a worthy curriculum, an apprenticeship in the deepest wisdom of our heritage, is typically no longer delivered through the West’s “leading” institutions. To gain any real competence, most people must self-educate through a growing “parallel culture of ideas.” Where have we heard this parallelism language before? Among the anti-Communists of Eastern Europe, for one.
The associate of Czech leader Vaclav Havel, Vaclav Benda, wrote of anti-totalitarian dissidents consciously developing a “parallel polis” specifically focused on self-education and friendship in another society in which the formal institutions had been corrupted beyond repair. (Polis is an ancient Greek word roughly translated as “a tight-knit, familial local community dedicated to the common good.”) Rod Dreher explored this concept in an interview with Benda scholar Flagg Taylor:
Benda thought that people needed to be reminded of what they had lost with communism, that [the dissident statement Charter 77] could help foster the rediscovery of meaningful social life. This is what he called the parallel polis. The Charter community ought to dedicate itself to developing parallel social structures to the official ones. This would reactivate people’s social natures. They could rediscover the deep rewards of friendship and devotion. [emphasis added]
Flanagan’s observations of Peterson listeners mirror Taylor’s description: “These are people who aren’t looking for an ideology; they are looking for ideas. And many of them are getting much better at discerning the good from the bad. The Democratic Party reviles them at its peril; the Republican Party takes them for granted in folly.”
Since he cannot really be in relationship to the hundreds of thousands, even millions of people considering the ideas he’s introducing them to, Peterson can only be a gateway to an American archipelago of parallel polises. A true apprenticeship requires the accountability of sustained personal interaction.
The phenomenon he’s sparked cannot live upon YouTube videos alone, but requires those ideas incarnating into thousands, even millions of people consciously choosing a lifetime challenging themselves with the rigors of true service to and friendship with wives, husbands, children, neighbors, and God himself. This is what it means to be human, to be fully alive.
That aliveness is a challenge to the deadness of political correctness and the mentally enslaved habits it demands and enforces. The PC zombie shock troops take it as a declaration of intellectual war, and it is.