George Marlin is the author of Christian Persecutions in the Middle East: A 21st Century Tragedy published by St Augustine’s Press. George also served two terms as Executive Director and CEO of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and he is chairman of Aid to the Church in Need. In our discussion I mentioned the Haska Meyna wedding party airstrike and a claim (unconnected with George) that 100,000 Christians are murdered for their faith each year, which was debunked extensively by a BBC investigation.
I don’t normally talk about certain figures; I’ve mentioned not mentioning the T-word, or at least not mentioning it too often before. There are a few other highly polarizing figures such as Jordan Peterson and Milo Yiannopoulos that I tend to stay away from. One reason is because they are so polarizing.
As far as I can see there are some things that both of them say that are obviously correct, there are things that they say that are obvious nonsense, but they have such strong hold over their followers, not to mention over their detractors that everything they every say is parsed and analyzed to death, so there’s not much more for me left to say about it.
But recently I heard a clip of a speech by Jordan Peterson where, I think, he made a point that he hasn’t made before, at least not quite so often as the handful of points that he normally makes, and I think it’s a good point, it’s something that hadn’t occurred to me in this form before.
Leaving aside Peterson’s love of asking himself questions and then answering them as though he were a genius, and his style of shouting out statements as though someone was trying to interrupt him, this is a good point.
There are people at all points on the political spectrum. Half of them, by definition, are more right-wing than average. Only the dumbest left-winger would dispute the point that there are perfectly reasonable and intelligent people who take a conservative position; and only the dumbest right-winger would dispute the point that, at some point on the spectrum, there is a line beyond which it’s not possible to debate with people in the normal democratic way.
That doesn’t mean you can’t talk to racists or Nazis – I may have done that myself – but you can’t discuss the benefits of this or that economic policy, in the same tone that you can discuss whether all human beings are entitled to be treated on an equal basis. You can discuss the merits of single-payer healthcare in a way that you just can’t discuss whether anti-Semitism is justified because the Jews killed Jesus.
And if you think you can, well then …
Peterson is correct that that provides a clear, sharp line beyond which people on the right cannot go if they want to be accepted in polite society. And he’s correct that there is no such widely-accepted dividing line as you go leftwards on the political spectrum.
You can say that publicly-funded schools are a good thing for society; that’s about the mildest form of advocating socializing a cost. Or you can defend the murderous policies of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot. It’s clear that at some point you can get so far left that your views cannot be taken seriously in a democratic society, but it’s not really clear where that point is, as it is as you go towards the extreme right.
And Peterson is right that that is a problem in that it means that we don’t have a litmus test for whether someone is a democrat or not. But Peterson, not for the first time, is blind to a whole series of problems in his own idea.
First of all, how clear is that litmus test on the right? People on the far right are hardly unaware of this shibboleth, they know that if they go in overtly racist or anti-Semitic territory, they are, as Peterson himself said, out of the conversation. But that doesn’t stop them from winking at people who they think secretly share their secret-ish racist views.
I mentioned Milo Yiannopoulos earlier. He insists that he’s not a racist, but a leaked set of his emails shows that he didn’t write much of the stuff that was published under his name, he had a ghost writer do it. And he didn’t come up with many of the ideas either. When he was writing for Breitbart, he was in daily contact with explicitly racist and neo-nazi figures, they would feed him with ideas, he would forward the emails to his ghost writer with instructions on exactly how far to go when pushing their ideas.
It’s clear from their exchanges that they pulled back from some lines, particularly anti-Semitic ones, not because they disagreed with them, but because they wanted to stay on the right side of Peterson’s line.
That said, Peterson isn’t responsible for policing that line, and it remains true that this line exists, and is useful, even if people are deceptive about what side of it they fall on.
But hang on, Peterson says that there are some extremes of leftism that are unacceptable in a democracy, and those extremes are unacceptable, even if they are poorly demarcated. And this is where we come to Peterson’s total lack of self-awareness. He’s critical of the left for not recognizing their undemocratic fellow-travelers, but day after day, in speech after speech, in YouTube video after YouTube video, Peterson classifies everyone to the left of himself as a Marxist.
He sees every problem in society, every moral failing, every broken home, every life wasted in idleness, every slight real or imagined as being caused by his absurdly broad catastrophist definition of Marxism.
He’s right to point out that some on the left are morally blind to the undemocratic fringe of their movement; they refuse to see fly in the ointment. And, for sure, there must be some who are equivalent of Milo Yiannopoulos , who agree with the extremists more in private than in public. But Peterson’s observation that there must be a division between democracy and despotism makes all the more astounding his unshakable belief that there is no ointment, only fly. In his world people who don’t happen to agree with Jordan Peterson are all actively plotting the downfall of western civilization, and those who deny it just prove the conspiracy even more by lying about it.