In my last piece, I took the Left to task for relying on esoteric approaches to social problems and institutions. Meanwhile, tradition, the family and the sacred – foundations for a classical liberal culture – are seriously challenged, but not by the forces usually identified as the threat. North American advocates of tradition and by extension an idea of something called the “West,” on the one hand, maybe the only ones who can redeem a coherent social view out of the current mess of bad ideas now in circulation. On the other hand, the crew of thinkers and writers that form the classical liberal caucus needlessly carry around dead weight; amidst them are arrogant weak links that undermine the appeal of tradition and freedom in the larger discourse.
The Captains of Culture
Progressives today are committed to laying bare the supposed latent meaning of things. Social institutions, according to this worldview, are not what they claim to be, but perpetrators of inequality. For example, if our education system claims to edify in a plain and relatively objective way, progressives might argue that education actually obscures and serves the interests of a particular class or group of people at the expense of most. In other words, progressives argue we are not who we claim to be and there is merit to this view.
Meanwhile, folks that defend tradition and freedom insist that our values should be taken at face value and that those values are good; there is a certain literalism to this take. And notice I am not referring to conservatives per se, but the popular band of classical liberals who inveigh against the decline of culture: Jordan Peterson, Bret Weinstein, Ben Shapiro and the like. Though these thinkers are very different, they have in common epistemological assumptions and most importantly, enemies.
The first value they share is that contemporary western values are good and they should be treated according to their manifest purpose, not some latent purpose; the latter approach to values – that they represent the interests of only a particular group of people, while claiming otherwise, for example – is often foundational to the Left. Secondly, these thinkers value culture as a wisdom tradition, inimitable in guiding us and endowing us with purpose, goals and roles. In other words, culture is fulfilling and life without a coherent culture – of enduring resonance – leaves the individual bewildered and depressed.
Ben Shapiro is an ideologue, openly and unapologetically committed to Judaism and perhaps the larger Judeo-Christian or should I say “Western” canon. I refer to Shapiro as an ideologue, not to disparage but to highlight that this is a perfectly reasonable position to take. He values some things on the basis of reason and other things on the basis of faith, and he feels these things are good for humanity. But you cannot, I doubt, change Shapiro’s mind on Judaism nor should one try. Naturally I do not agree with Shapiro on all things and politically we would be at odds, but that does not make his worldview unreasonable.
Bret Weinstein brings a bio-evolutionary analytical frame to his take on culture. As such, he sees culture as having inherent value; culture is not arbitrary or necessarily oppressive, but evolves according to its utility to us, human beings. The irony of Weinstein’s view is that he values culture as having innate value due to its origins and impetus, but the fact that culture changes actually increases the value of the original source materials from which these changes emerged. If you want to change the world for the better, you do not do it by throwing out the baby with the bath water; it is ineffective to tear down culture whole cloth, while ostensibly and failingly trying to articulate new cultural values sui generis.
Jordan Peterson’s greatest appeal is his indefatigable and relentless defense of the concept of the sacred, at least in my mind. And the sacred is passed on and expounded upon by and through culture. But in addition to their varied defenses of culture, these thinkers also value freedom, at least now and in so far as they may invoke freedom as an almost transcendental western norm, against the rising tide of politically correct authoritarianism that threatens to trample critical thinking. And on this point, I agree with them.
We need culture, the meta-institution that guides our behavior and more importantly allows us to inhabit a common world. The decline of culture today is directly proportionate to the break down of discourse and the inability to agree to a common reality. I have never seen a people more divided, in peacetime, than Americans. If you supported Trump, Biden stole the election. If you supported Biden, Trump stole the election four years before with the help of Russia, even though there is no evidence for either proposition. So, in effect, disagreeing on reality leaves all parties delusional.
The captains of culture rely on a certain faith in the perpetual purpose of institutions that we inherited from our past and in this case those institutions happen to be of “Western” provenance. But what I have found is that the over emphasis on the “Western,” unnecessarily and illogically, quite frankly alienates many people who might otherwise sympathize with their views. The sacred, tradition, the family are not only “Western” concepts.
The insistence on the “Western” nature of enlightened tradition is even more problematic when one admits that the world is getting smaller through technology and globalization. Capitalism, the global free-market is a driving force of a shrinking world of more concentrated diversity. One might add that the “immigration” scare so often invoked by the larger Right is driven by the demands of capital as well, not neo-Marxism. These seeming contradictions are always unaddressed by conservatives.
There is nothing inherent in the thinking of the three men that I listed, which makes me feel as if their projects are inherently racist or ethno-centric (yes, I say this even of Shapiro, as an Arab man, regardless of some of his now-apologized-for comments in the past). In their respective defenses of tradition, the family unit or the sacred, one would think they could accommodate, quite comfortably, a diverse world wherein peoples of Asia, Africa and South America also, by and large, value tradition, the family and the sacred. But for some inexplicable reason there seems to be impermeability to the classical liberal caucus. They evangelize the virtues of freedom and tradition outward, but cannot integrate the diverse world inward; a dead weight of unnecessary western-centrism surrounds them insulating them into a self-referential and dead-end discourse.
No one exemplifies this dead weight more than ‘Ayaan Husri ‘Ali and Sam Harris, famous “members” of the crew. ‘Ali and Harris offer absolutely nothing to the greater discussion of culture, the sacred and the shared values of all humanity. Further, their worldviews are internally and demonstrably incoherent. Harris is no Christopher Hitchens; he lacks the intellect, wit and knowledge of his late predecessor. And ‘Ali is simply ill equipped: She is not trained as an academic or scholar. She cannot even maintain a coherent conversation. Her analysis is always anecdotal and I cannot think of any reason why Peterson or others would seek her expertise on Islam, when she is no such expert by any standard measure.
The Weak Links of Popular Classical Liberalism
The Harris/‘Ali problem is not one of simple disagreement, their inclusion into the defenders of tradition or the “intellectual dark web,” as Weiss referred to them, in a somewhat self-congratulatory manner, threatens to undermine the whole project. One cannot value freedom and yet scoff at non-westerners exercising freedom in western society. ‘Ali, in her new book, basically advocates for the authoritarian state in relation to western Muslims; she argues they should be surveilled and compelled to believe things by the state. She clearly never read Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration, but I find that unsurprising, since when I listen to her speak it becomes difficult to believe she has ever read anything at all.
Harris is an even more insidious writer, with a PhD in neuroscience, he is simply obsessed with Islam, regardless of what he claims, as he speaks out of both sides of his mouth all the time. If I were to pile up the contradictory statements, bad faith arguments and double standards that Harris spews, the Tower of Babel would be envious of its height. He is simply full of shit, to address him otherwise would be an insult to the dozens or hundreds of experts in the fields of history, anthropology, religious studies or even political science who actually know things about Islam and the Muslim world.
Strangely, actual experts are also rarely invited to the stage. I recently came across a talk featuring Harris, Peterson and Weinstein; they discussed Islam at length and though Peterson and Weinstein were more cautious, Harris opined, unchallenged on the uniquely problematic nature of Islam. Neither Peterson nor Weinstein objected by saying “hey, what a minute, as academics it sure would be nice to have an actual expert on Islam or Islamic history here to discuss this.” (Weinstein recently hosted Irshad Manji on a welcomed discussion, so credit is due, but again Manji is not an expert.)
I can think of no other field where novices, frauds and amateurs can pontificate on the nature of something and be celebrated for it by actual academics and experts in other fields. These frauds are celebrated, of course, because their highly racialized, politicized views on Islam are useful; they are useful to war, to the security state and to the politics of Judeo-Christian fundamentalists. It is no coincidence that Harris’ real fame was directly aligned with the invasion of Iraq, where the image of a ubiquitous Muslim boogeyman – sustained by the likes of Harris – was strategically deployed to convince America to go to war with a Muslim country that had nothing to do with 9/11. It is difficult to decipher what Harris’ position on the war was, because he always talks out of both sides of his mouth, just like when he says we might need to preemptively nuke Muslim countries.
Harris and ‘Ali offer these highly pseudo-structural approaches to Muslims, where they concentrate heavily on doctrines in Islam, taken out of context. They then impose those doctrines on Muslims in ways that Muslims rarely do themselves. Or, Harris and ‘Ali focus exclusively on outliers that prove their point of view. The Islam they argue with is one made up in their own minds (the same with the concept of God in Harris’ case) and they need this imaginary Islam, otherwise they would have no significance at all. When these guys speak, they speak as if Edward Said never existed; these are not blind spots, they are blinds. When Harris and ‘Ali present their views, they want you in the dark on the issue of Islam, otherwise they are exposed. And they offer nothing to the larger discussion of family, the sacred and tradition.
These dispositions for sophistry bleed into conversations on race in America as well; an issue of central importance, yet most middle class blacks that might sympathize with classical liberalism turn away because Harris and some associates are more obsessed with questions of race and IQ. I am not saying Harris is the cause of our current race crisis, obviously, but the disposition he exemplifies is one reason why Democrats can claim a near monopoly on black votes in America, which is not good for anyone, especially American blacks. Though Harris opposed Trump and is probably a liberal, his views are typical amongst Republicans.
Personally I do not get the appeal of the race/IQ question, but Harris insists, in useless positivist fashion, that if we know the facts on the issue that will somehow yield greater knowledge. How exactly? Are we to discover that African-Americans score lower on IQ tests than White-Americans? And then we can finally conclude, “Hey, maybe American history has something to do with it!” Well Sam, most of us already know that because we apply a humanistic frame, whereas you, like the Left I criticized in my last article, engage in esotericism presented as social science.
‘Ayaan Husri ‘Ali and Sam Harris’ association with the Petersons, Weinsteins and Shapiros of the world is not innocuous. It undermines the appeal otherwise decent ideas might have – in terms of more common grounds than imagined – amongst minorities, immigrants and others we interact with more frequently amidst our shrinking, diverse world. Jordan Peterson recently lamented criticisms directed at ‘Ali as simply reactions to her break with the progressive “orthodoxy.” It is so ironic to hear someone like Peterson, a white man who defends tradition and the sacred in the west, complain about the orthodox media. Brother, if you think you have stories about media orthodoxies and causes de jour, I look forward to telling you mine. Try being a man who also happens to be an Arab/Muslim in the United States in the years 2001-2003; I saw Harris all over the place, those of us who opposed the war were systematically shut out, regardless of our expertise. I am sure African-Americans have similar stories.
But, again, I prefer to see commonality rather than exclusivity. I currently believe that mainstream media in the west is too quickly and recklessly characterizing white conservatives as potential domestic terrorists. I recognize the pattern, it is the same pattern that Harris and ‘Ali apply to Muslims, focus narrowly on anecdotal cases that support your point and zealously edit out every thing else. This is why Harris, ‘Ali and their likes must be dropped from the circle of classical liberals, their methods have come back to haunt them, the chickens have come home to roost. The world is shrinking and diversity is a fundamental fact of life, fearing the other is an asset to no one. And the litigious nature of Harris and ‘Ali, who are determined to “win” debates is useless and increasingly boring. There needs to be more true conversation between different human beings and less debate between positions, if you want more of the latter, go on Twitter. In my next piece I will offer solutions to this problem we now all face, by placing more emphasis on the personal, the local and conversation, as opposed to debate. Humanism opposed to social science.
The views expressed are those held by the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Chicago Monitor.