Advice from the Enlightenment: In the face of crude bullying and humorless lies, try wit and a passion for justice.
We are living through a climate change in politics. Bigotry, bullying, mendacity, vulgarity — everything emitted by the tweets of President Trump and amplified by his followers has damaged the atmosphere of public life. The protective layer of civility, which makes political discourse possible, is disappearing like the ozone around Earth.
How can we restore a healthy climate? There is no easy answer, but some historic figures offer edifying examples. The one I propose may seem unlikely, but he transformed the climate of opinion in his era: Voltaire, the French philosopher who mobilized the power of Enlightenment principles in 18th-century Europe.
.. To those encountering him for the first time, Voltaire can look like a historical curiosity. His archaic wig and libertine wit seem to belong to a forgotten corner of the past. Moreover, he can be considered a conservative. He curried favor with the high and mighty, especially Louis XV. He was so deeply committed to the cultural system developed under France’s previous ruler, Louis XIV, that he would fail any test of political correctness today. And Voltaire opposed education for the masses because, he said, someone had to tend the fields.
.. So, forget the wig. But reconsider the wit. Nothing works better than ridicule in cutting bigots down to size. “I have never made but one prayer to God,” Voltaire wrote, “a very short one: ‘O Lord, make my enemies ridiculous.’ And God granted it.” The first of the two most powerful weapons in his arsenal was laughter: “We must get the laughter on our side,” he instructed his auxiliary troops in the salons of Paris.
.. Ridicule works outside salons. We in America have Stephen Colbert on television. We had H.L. Mencken in the newspapers and Mark Twain in books. Yet wit can sound elitist, and Voltaire cultivated the elite, especially in his youth, when he celebrated wealth, pleasure and the good things of life. His poem “Le Mondain,” written in 1736, is an apology for worldly luxury — “the superfluous, a very necessary thing,” he wrote, in opposition to Christian asceticism.
That was Voltaire the young libertine. But now, in our contemporary crisis, I propose that we look also to Voltaire the angry old man. It was in his old age, during the 1760s and 1770s, that he wielded his second and most powerful weapon, moral passion.
In 1762 Voltaire learned about a case of judicial murder. The Parlement (high court) of Toulouse had condemned a Protestant merchant, Jean Calas, to be tortured and executed for supposedly killing his son, who supposedly had intended to convert to Catholicism. Not only were the suppositions wrong, but strong evidence pointed to Calas’s innocence.
Voltaire seized his pen. He composed the “Treatise on Tolerance,” one of the greatest defenses of religious liberty and civil rights ever written. He also wrote letters, hundreds of them, to all his contacts in the power elite — ministers, courtiers, salon leaders and fellow philosophers, working from the top down and manipulating the media of his day so skillfully that he created a tidal wave of public opinion, which would ultimately lead to the recognition of rights for Protestants in 1787, nine years after he died.
Voltaire ended many of those letters with a rallying cry, “Écrasez l’infâme” — “Crush the vile thing.” For him, the meaning of “l’infâme” could be extended from intolerance to superstition and injustices of all kinds. The opposing notion of tolerance shaded off into broader values, including civility — the virtue that we need so much today and that Voltaire identified with civilization. Voltaire saw the triumph of civilization over barbarity as the ultimate good inscribed in the historical process. He made the message clear in his most ambitious work, “Essai sur les moeurs et l’esprit des nations”— “Essay on the Manners and Spirit of Nations” — a survey of world history that he first published in 1756 and revised and expanded until his death in 1778.
What more can we aspire to in the age of Trump? The opposition to bigotry and the defense of civil rights once again call for a commitment to the cause of civilization. They require moral passion seasoned with wit.
.. Peterson, formerly an obscure professor, is now one of the most influential—and polarizing—public intellectuals in the English-speaking world.
.. His central message is a thoroughgoing critique of modern liberal culture, which he views as suicidal in its eagerness to upend age-old verities
.. he has learned to distill his wide-ranging theories into pithy sentences, including one that has become his de facto catchphrase, a possibly spurious quote that nevertheless captures his style and his substance: “Sort yourself out, bucko.”
.. For a few years, in the nineteen-nineties, he taught psychology at Harvard;
.. His fame grew in 2016, during the debate over a Canadian bill known as C-16.
.. Peterson resented the idea that the government might force him to use what he called neologisms of politically correct “authoritarians.”
.. “I am not going to be a mouthpiece for language that I detest.” Then he folded his arms, adding, “And that’s that!”
.. To many people disturbed by reports of intolerant radicals on campus, Peterson was a rallying figure: a fearsomely self-assured debater, unintimidated by liberal condemnation.
.. Last fall, a teaching assistant at Wilfrid Laurier University, in Waterloo, Ontario, was reprimanded by professors for showing her class a clip of one of Peterson’s debates.
.. Cathy Newman, asked what gave him the right to offend transgender people. He asked, cheerfully, what gave her the right to risk offending him.
.. David Brooks, in the Times, said that Peterson reminded him of “a young William F. Buckley.”
.. Peterson’s goal is less to help his readers change the world than to help them find a stable place within it.
.. “You should do what other people do, unless you have a very good reason not to.”
.. he is famous today precisely because he has determined that, in a range of circumstances, there are good reasons to buck the popular tide.
.. He is, by turns, a defender of conformity and a critic of it, and he thinks that if readers pay close attention, they, too, can learn when to be which... “Religion was for the ignorant, weak, and superstitious,”.. To ward off mental breakdown, he resolved not to say anything unless he was sure he believed it; this practice calmed the inner voice, and in time it shaped his rhetorical style, which is forceful but careful... a client diagnosed with paranoia. He says that such patients are “almost uncanny in their ability to detect mixed motives, judgment, and falsehood,”.. “You have to listen very carefully and tell the truth if you are going to get a paranoid person to open up to you,”
.. Peterson sometimes assumes the role of a strident anti-feminist, intent on ending the oppression of males by destroying the myth of male oppression.
.. much of the advice he offers unobjectionable, if old-fashioned: he wants young men to be better fathers, better husbands, better community members.
.. Peterson is an heir, too, to the professional pickup artists who proliferated in the aughts
.. “The highly functional infrastructure that surrounds us, particularly in the West,” he writes, “is a gift from our ancestors: the comparatively uncorrupt political and economic systems, the technology, the wealth, the lifespan, the freedom, the luxury, and the opportunity.”
.. Prime Minister is Justin Trudeau, who seems to strike Peterson as the embodiment of wimpy and fraudulent liberalism.
.. Peterson seems to view Trump, by contrast, as a symptom of modern problems, rather than a cause of them.
.. Peterson seems to view Trump, by contrast, as a symptom of modern problems, rather than a cause of them.
.. Peterson sometimes asks audiences to view him as an alternative to political excesses on both sides.
.. “I’ve had thousands of letters from people who were tempted by the blandishments of the radical right, who’ve moved towards the reasonable center as a consequence of watching my videos.”
.. he typically sees liberals, or leftists, or “postmodernists,” as aggressors—which leads him, rather ironically, to frame some of those on the “radical right” as victims.
.. Postmodernists, he says, are obsessed with the idea of oppression, and, by waging war on oppressors real and imagined, they become oppressors themselves.
.. When he lampoons “made-up pronouns,” he sometimes seems to be lampooning the people who use them, encouraging his fans to view transgender or gender-nonbinary people as confused, or deluded.
Once, after a lecture, he was approached on campus by a critic who wanted to know why he would not use nonbinary pronouns. “I don’t believe that using your pronouns will do you any good, in the long run,” he replied.
.. “If our society comes to some sort of consensus over the next while about how we’ll solve the pronoun problem,” he said, “and that becomes part of popular parlance, and it seems to solve the problem properly, without sacrificing the distinction between singular and plural, and without requiring me to memorize an impossible list of an indefinite number of pronouns, then I would be willing to reconsider my position.”
.. In the case of gender identity, Peterson’s judgment is that “our society” has not yet agreed to adopt nontraditional pronouns, which isn’t quite an argument that we shouldn’t.
.. He reveres the Bible for its stories, reasoning that any stories that we have been telling ourselves for so long must be, in some important sense, true.
.. a conviction that good and evil exist, and that we can discern them without recourse to any particular religious authority
For such critics, the only possible explanation for evangelicals’ continuing faith in Trump is some combination of ignorance and hypocrisy... These voters — and almost all of them voted — see Trump’s flaws but perceive him as a fellow sinner willing to fight the forces of the establishment on their behalf... The barrage of negative press hardly rattled him or most of his colleagues, who see the mainstream media as anything but friendly to their opinions and their faith... “He has to fight all of them,” said the preacher, referring to the Democrats and the media.Another minister told me he appreciates that Trump has no hesitation taking on “the reprobate left” that considers the president “an enemy of their established power system.”
.. Part of the decision by many evangelicals to support Trump for president was attributable to long-standing differences with liberal candidates over social issues. Evangelicals tend to share conservative positions on abortion, gun rights, border security and the fight against “radical Islamic terrorism,” as they usually make sure to phrase it. But more than anything, Trump’s specific pledges to the religious right got their attention.
.. So far, they think Trump has kept those promises. He has followed up with invitations to the White House, sought input on court appointments, stood firmly with Israel and signed an executive order expanding religious freedom in regard to political speech... when Trump refuses to fully adopt the conclusion that climate change is due to man-made influences, he demonstrates an affinity with evangelical Christians who do not blindly accept every scientific theory... They also know they are considered by many to be superstitious or ignorant for adhering to their beliefs... Probably half the people in churches across the country defined as “evangelicals” were converted from lives that were even more unprincipled than the life Trump has led. Some experienced divorces, others used foul language, and many were addicted to drugs or alcohol... In most cases, no immediate miracle happened with regard to their behavior at the moment of their confessions of faith or their emergence from the baptismal waters. The only miracle they were promised was the application of the grace of Jesus Christ, which, under New Testament doctrine, washed away their sins.
A women confessed that she was not a witch but was poor and that, even if set free, no one would give her food.
Sir George estimated that 2/3 of the accusations were false and that many of the victims were poor and that the confessions were through torture (1:30)
Woman who forgives her persecutors (1:27) but the prosecutor believes she is still guilty.
Test whether witches float via ordeal. (1:30)
King James exports witchcraft persecution from Scotland (1:31)
Floating Test, Reciting Lord’s Prayer (1:38)
Weigh more than the Bible (1:39)
Man who is paid per witch caught. Threatens not to come (1:40)
People feel no one is safe from his reproach. Mob accuses him of being a witch (1:42)
Educated people stop believing in modern witchcraft ~1650 (1:45)
Not 1/100 witches would be convicted if a normal trial would be given (2:11)
Duke has woman accuse Jesuits of Sorcery (2:35) Frederick S, Schondbrun, Duke of Brunswick (~1650)
- condemned torture, swimming of witches
Man couldn’t account for headache (2:43)
Native Americans think Salem settlers an inferior species because he Great Sprit sent no witches(2:50)