Category Archives: Judaism

Peterson and Shapiro: On the Proper Balance Between Individual and Collective Identity

Picking up the venerable tradition of the long form interview format which was the norm in decades past, Dave Rubin has claimed a prominent position in the so-called “intellectual dark web”. A term coined by Eric Weinstein which describes a collection of independent content creators, podcasters and dissident intellectuals who are actively cultivating a space for the discussion of big ideas and philosophical principles that drive culture and politics. In a recent episode of the Rubin Report, Rubin moderated a vibrant exchange between Dr. Jordan Peterson and conservative commentator, Ben Shapiro. Since there was a lot of mutual respect and a shared passion for both the expansion of public discourse and the preservation of Western ideals, Rubin was able to guide the discussion with a very light touch. Though both Peterson and Shapiro share many complementary views, the exchange was illuminating in that it provided insight into the different pathways of thought they traversed in order to arrive at their respective conclusions.

The discussion touched on familiar themes that all three men have devoted considerable mental bandwidth in recent months including free speech, identity politics, postmodernism as well as Peterson’s now legendary exchange with Cathy Newman. The latter half of the interview was the most illuminating because it contrasted the differences between the Judaic and Christian tradition and the ways each informed their respective worldview. Specifically, they discussed what they regard as the proper relationship of the individual to the collective.

Though Shapiro identifies as a conservative and Peterson claims the mantle of classical liberal, each is an ardent defender of the primacy of the individual over a collective identity. Both men, Peterson in particular, have built their reputations by being outspoken combatants on the forefront of the cultural war against identity politics. However, this doesn’t mean that either rejects a group identity. Though I’ve been following their work very closely, this is the first time of which I’m aware that they’ve discussed a contrasting view to collective identity which stands in opposition to neo-Marxist postmodernism.

All three agreed that intersectional social justice is sowing the seeds of a reactionary identitarian movement on the political Right, and all three agree that identity politics should be abandoned outright. All three subscribe to the secular liberal idea that religious belief is not required either for the acquisition of moral values or for meaning and purpose in life. Further, each concedes that you need to have an underlying bedrock of commonality on which to build a society. Given that all three men are at war against the degeneration of Western thought, it is curious that they would mount a defense of the Western tradition starting from the very propositions that formed the basis of post-Enlightenment modernity. In other words, the very consensus that has lead us to this point. This raises one profoundly important question. If ethno-nationalism is not the solution for America and the West, what set of ideas are being proffered for building a stable national identity and social order? Will these ideas be durable enough to stand up to the various ideologies competing for global dominance? How will conservatives, libertarians, and classical liberals address the issues of collective identity, social cohesion, and a sense of shared responsibility in a world dominated by a largely progressive, multicultural consensus? Can the classical liberal framework be conserved at all without devolving into neo-Marxist postmodernism?

Anyone familiar with Dr. Peterson knows that he is a model of precision when he speaks. Very few people are able to articulate the depth of knowledge that he possesses with the same level of clarity and consistency. This is why it was surprising to hear what appeared to be two competing claims around group identity. Peterson was adamant in his opposition to either multicultural neo-Marxism or white nationalist identitarianism. Shortly after making this statement, he concedes that there is “utility” in having a homogeneous society.

You could think about that psychologically as an attempt to both manage the preservation of group identity so that would be culture, a cultural identity, which has some utility and also to be able coexist with others who are doing things in a different way. – Jordan Peterson

This is a solidly conservative proposition and one that has ethno-nationalist overtones. Yet at every other juncture when ethno-nationalist identity politics are brought up, they avoid it like the plague. If ethno-nationalism is a third rail, what about religious nationalism as YouTubers like The Distributist suggest? Peterson hints at the Catholic Church’s role in the conservation of culture, but since Vatican II, the Church has taken an increasingly secular and politicized tone. Peterson himself concedes that Protestantism fares no better in that it’s rabid individualism coincided largely with the ascendancy of liberalism.

Furthermore, if neither religion or race will be the binding principles that define nationhood, then it appears as though we return merely to the prospect of the restoration of the post-Enlightenment conception of modernity. In other words, neutrality on faith, no prioritization of hereditary culture and a reliance on the conservation of a loose consensus of a nation of ideas.

This appears to be the shared consensus between both men. While Shapiro is biologically Jewish and believes in Judaism, he argues a distinction between biological Judaism versus a Judaism of ideas.

I care very little about biological Judaism. – Ben Shapiro

If Shapiro is only interested in a collective identity of ideas and biological heritage is of no consequence in the construction of culture, how does this square with the racial and ethnic composition of the state of Israel? Would Judaism be Judaism without people who were, in fact, biologically Jewish? As Shapiro himself concedes, the number of converts to the faith suggest that the bar of entry remains very high. Would Shapiro be comfortable with the idea of a minority Jewish population within the state of Israel? Call me presumptuous, but I have a hunch he’d object.

Is a national identity of ideas viable over the long term in a multicultural social order? How does this differ from the American Republic? And if that’s what he’s offering, doesn’t that suggest that a national identity of ideas in a secular, multicultural social order is an untenable proposition? Can we just hit the reset button on the classical liberal consensus and conserve it for posterity?

Given that neo-Marxist postmodernism has been so successful in mobilizing identitarian factions while plunging whites into an ever accelerating downward spiral of self-loathing, isn’t this confirmation that there is a deeply embedded psychological mechanism that has been turned in on itself? If being branded a racist is considered the height of moral depravity in our Age of #SocialJustice, can we really chalk it up to the effectiveness of progressive conditioning or is it something unique to the moral psychology of whites which makes them especially susceptible to pathological guilt tripping?

If secular multicultural civic nationalism is such a fantastic alternative to both the globalist Left and Islamic theocracy, why do Western democracies bear such a disproportionate burden for maintaining this idea?

If evolutionary psychology is true and the substrate of being is comprised of stories of your own forebears mixed with archetypal symbolism, is it unreasonable to suggest that the conservation of racial and ethnic distinction is perfectly harmonious with the conservation of national identity and cultural tradition?

If seasoned academics like Peterson are using evolutionary biology and psychology as rebukes to the claims of the postmodern Left, then why would race be excluded from the overall calculus?

Many people agree that the West is facing a deep crisis over the erosion of the cornerstones of community, faith and family and the corrosive effect wrought by its politicized substitutes. What’s less clear is how to restore a healthy balance between individual liberty, collective identity, and civic pride. The alt-right has a vision that continues to be vilified and stigmatized as the second coming of fascism. The globalist Left shows no signs of reversing their embrace of intersectional social justice thereby justifying their mutual existence. Two forces destined for a collision course. I’d like to think there is hope for the conservation of the classical liberal framework. As much as I admire Peterson and Shapiro, I just hope they aren’t whistling past the graveyard.


Voltaire: Candide

François-Marie Arouet, better known to the world as Voltaire, was an author, philosopher, and provocateur extraordinaire. Rooted in a fervent belief in freedom of thought, he repeatedly broached subjects deemed forbidden by authority, and became the living embodiment of secular Enlightenment values. Candide was the novella that earned him his eternal infamy. The scorn he directed at the Catholic Church would scarcely raise an eyebrow today, but other aspects of the novel would arguably be just as, if not more scandalous now if he attempted to publish it today.  In addition to its brutal depictions of rape and violence, Candide is a vicious satire of Leibniz’ philosophy of optimism. It’s filled to the brim with barbed criticisms of religious leaders, military culture and government officials, but delivered under the breezy veneer of a simple romantic adventure.

With Candide, Voltaire set out to skewer what he perceived to be the false piety and facile moralizing of the institutions and authorities of his day. He was one of the original trolls of Western civilization who canonized a spirit of irreverence that’s found throughout the ages in the works of Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, Lenny Bruce, and presently, Milo Yiannopolous.  Though Milo is routinely compared to Voltaire, I believe this comparison to be only partially true. Voltaire’s provocations are analogous to Milo’s in the sense that he offended prevailing sensitivities, but the targets of his ridicule, specifically his barbs directed at Jesuits and Christianity, feel like Maheresque precursors of the now shopworn clichés of atheists and the Left.

Though superficially a bildungsroman, the ultimate object of Voltaire’s ridicule was Leibniz’ Theodicy which was expressed through Candide’s mentor, Pangloss. “This is the best of all possible worlds,” Pangloss tells Candide from the luxurious confines of Castle Thunder-ten-tronckh in the kingdom of Westphalia. After being banished from the castle for getting a little too hot and heavy with the Duke’s niece, Cunégonde, Candide is beset by one misfortune after another as he traverses through Europe and the New World. Candide finds the naïvete of his wordview repeatedly challenged as he tries to reconcile the message of his mentor with the cruel reality of life outside castle walls. 

Though he was a professed deist, the religious dogma, fanaticism, and hypocrisy of Christianity, Judaism and Islam are all sent to Voltaire’s literary guillotine throughout the book. Candide leaves no religious cow un-slaughtered.

Candide translates to “optimism”, and above all else, Voltaire sought to poke Leibniz’ vision of optimism squarely in the eye.  Voltaire saw this philosophy as hopelessly naïve and an inadequate lens through which to view the horror and depravity of the world. One can certainly appreciate that this work was deeply transgressive in its day, but Voltaire’s critique feels like little more than a petty gripe rooted in a failure to grasp the essence of Leibniz’ message. Of course the world is filled with depravity, suffering and hardship. These phenomena exist because they test the faithful. Rather than being an excuse to engage in self-deception through recitations of vacant aphorisms, I suspect Leibniz promoted this philosophy as a way of embracing the totality of life, good and bad. It’s far more challenging to find reasons to be hopeful about humanity when you’ve seen it at its worst. Can you find a reason to be hopeful after your home has been devastated by an earthquake?  Can you find forgiveness and happiness after you’ve been brutally violated? Voltaire eventually resolves this conflict with a very modest aphorism of his own, but he seems to view this philosophy as something shallow, enervating and mind numbing rather than being a lens through which to view even the worst human suffering.

Voltaire is particularly scathing in his treatment of the Jesuits. Upon arrival in South America, Candide and his manservant, Cacambo, avoid being served as the main course in a tribal cannibal feast after calmly explaining to them that neither was, in fact, a Jesuit and that he had just impaled his Jesuit brother.  On these grounds alone, Candide and Cacambo are spared this gruesome fate.  It’s droll gallows humor, and he’s obviously having a bit of rude fun at the expense of the numerous Jesuit missionaries who ventured to South America in the 17th and 18th centuries, but he also appears to hold that appeals to reason are universal regardless of cultural or language differences. This strikes me as proto-SJW Kumbaya fantasy.

Voltaire’s view of Islam was largely negative, and the one aspect of the story that would most assuredly arouse a shitstorm of scandal to this day would be his portrayal of the Muslims. Candide is eventually reunited with Cunégonde only to discover that she was raped and maimed at the hands of the Bulgars. But just when you think it can’t get any worse, their new companion, the illegitimate daughter The Princess of Palestrina and Pope Urban X, tells her tale of woe. Known only as the old woman, she recounts a blood curdling tale of her rape by a “loathsome Negro”, and her mother’s brutal murder at the hands of the Muslims. Since Islam and the effects of Muslim immigration remain a political third rail, this aspect of the book would easily arouse controversy today if anyone in any academic setting were actually reading it.

But that’s not the only thing that would draw the ire of the contemporary Thought Police. His treatment of Don Isaachar has drawn accusations of antisemitism and that most ghastly of contemporary ThoughtCrimes: RACISM. Don Isaachar is one of Cunégonde’s early captors, and is portrayed as greedy and immoral.  I don’t find it particularly antisemitic since it’s not out of the question that Jews like Don Isaachar existed. Voltaire is an equal opportunity offender and he is just as harsh on the Catholic Inquisitor and the Muslims. Besides, like every other manufactured outrage, it doesn’t make sense to judge yesterday’s art against today’s warped standards of Social Justice propriety.

Candide’s arrival in the fabled land of Eldorado certainly suggests that Voltaire was sympathetic towards socialist thought and had utopian notions of his own around how society could look if Enlightenment ideals could be expressed in his ideal monarchy. The citizens of Eldorado have an advanced economy with a dedicated scientific class, public institutions, housing, and art. They have access to precious stones and metals, but they are unmotivated by the accumulation of wealth and give them freely to Candide.  In this respect, one detects the unmistakable seeds of proto-progressive economics, scientism and other related doctrines of social reform.

When Candide finally meets the one man who allegedly “has it all”, Signor Pococurante, Voltaire uses it as another opportunity to make fun of another coddled elitist, but it also betrays a certain cynicism towards the philosophical and cultural legacy of the West which now pervades the modern Left. Candide is dumbstruck as Signor Pococurante dispenses one blistering criticism after another towards every art form and philosophical work of importance. Voltaire wants to tear away at what he perceived as a false veil of deference towards these allegedly Great Works, but like his treatment of Leibniz, it feels slightly misplaced. Signor Pococurante sounds like a jaded hipster or academic progressive who listens to NPR, acquired a liberal arts degree, and has very specific, and mostly negative opinions about everything in the cultural sphere. One could take all of Signor Pococurante’s snide remarks, drop in a couple references to bell hooks, Howard Zinn and Judith Butler, and he’d sound just like a garden variety, Tumblr ready, Social Justice Warrior preparing for a career writing for Vox. This cynicism towards the cultural legacy of the West is now the norm. Within the cloistered halls of academia, so-called “educators” openly cultivate an active hostility towards Western thought as the font of all human opression.

Just like the numerous contemporary atheist critics of Christianity who’ve fancied themselves the torchbearers of Voltaire’s flame, Voltaire was a moralist at heart and his literary jabs were designed to expose the hypocrisy of those who claimed to be arbiters of morality. Whether taking shots at the sexual indiscretions of Catholic clergy, the brutality of the Inquisitors or the Jesuits who do not practice the teachings of Christ they preach, Candide rightfully inferred that the ordained guardians of morality should live by the standards they imposed on the laity.

Society needs people like Voltaire in order to shock people out of complacent obedience and expose social taboos to sunlight. Ayaan Hirsi Ali says the Islamic world needs its own Voltaire in order to ignite a reformation within the Islamic faith. Institutional power, whether state, religious or academic, rarely lives up to its responsibility to uphold the truth or live by the standards it imposes on the public.  Yet, people crave the truth, and above all else, crave both a sense of moral certitude and to see hypocrisy exposed.  Since the truth often dies within the walls of power, the responsibility to stand up for the truth always redounds to the individual. Humorists and satirists like Voltaire have often been the catalysts of change that puncture the seal of propriety that the self-appointed arbiters of morality have so assiduously tightened.

Voltaire was the court jester of his time who sought to answer ancient moral conundrums by poking fun at what he perceived to be the strictures and limitations of prevailing orthodoxy. Some of Candide still would arouse controversy today, but his overall posture of enlightened contempt towards the conservative attitudes and institutions of his time has become its own orthodoxy of progressive chic. The poles of entrenched thinking have reversed, and what was controversial in its day is blasé today. There’s nothing even remotely transgressive or edgy about ridiculing Christian morality, institutions or the broader legacy of Western philosophy in 2017. Milo draws comparisons to Voltaire today because today’s elites are, in many ways, the intellectual progeny of Voltaire himself. Whatever validity there was in Voltaire’s quest for a secular moral order in its day has devolved into the smug wisecracking of Bill Maher, the proto-neurofascism of Sam Harris, and a postmodern academic hegemony of absolutist relativism.  All of whom are eagerly marching towards Gomorrah, but still doggedly cling to the delusion that Eldorado is the final destination.

While Candide may be showing its age, Voltaire’s spirit is evergreen because Puritanism knows no ideology, and people know who the busybodies are. Candide’s message of “tending one’s own garden” is a sufficiently universal ethical and moral principle, but the modern progressive intelligentsia have very specific ideas about what you can plant, how big it can be, and what pronouns you can use while tending it. Russell Brand, Bill Maher and John Oliver may imagine themselves to be the secular dragonslayers of hypocrisy who descend directly from Voltaire’s sacred order, but they’re actually the effete royalists who tacitly defend the new priesthood. Voltaire’s flame burns most brightly in the shitposting of Milo, the trolling of Steven Crowder, the savagery of Bearing and the meme magic of 4Chan.  Candide is both of its time and timeless because there will always be priests, politicians, academics and self-appointed behavior cops and thought police who deserve to be exposed, and there’s no better weapon than satire and ridicule.