Jordan B. Peterson has well played the piñata recently for the Alt Right, and though I see no purpose in flailing the tattered remains of this argument, I don’t mind snatching a few of the candies that have fallen out. In particular, I would like to more closely address a favored fable of those who argue against identitarian politics, or against the identitarian worldview more generally—a fable which Peterson expresses very clearly in his fence-sitting essay “On the so-called ‘Jewish Question,’” as follows:
Once you determine to play [the identity game] … you benefit in a number of ways. You can claim responsibility for the accomplishments of your group you feel racially/ethnically akin to without actually having to accomplish anything yourself. [The abundant italics here are entirely Peterson’s.]
This notion is not, of course, limited to Peterson. It runs through a certain strain of libertarianism today, and emerges it would seem spontaneously from the viewpoint of people such as “Sargon of Akkad” and the rest of the so-called “skeptics” (who do not merit, incidentally, the dignity of the epithet they have taken upon themselves). It is a distinctly contemporary position; no one could ever have even dreamed such a view in any time but our fragmented and debased (excuse me—liberal) modern day.
Incidentally, this last observation alone is sufficient disproof of the idea: historically speaking, practically all of the great achievements of the West in terms of art, literature, politics, architecture, engineering, discovery, etc. etc., arose during historical periods in which men were accustomed to thinking in an “identitarian” way—not perhaps with respect to their race, but certainly with respect to their families, their nations, their peoples. Evidently, holding oneself to be part of a larger familial group is not so prejudicial to personal achievement as the Petersons of the world would have us believe.
But objections can surely be found to this logic, and it is not our business to go sludging through historical disputes. Let us concentrate on the more general question, as it applies to us today. The idea submitted by these “individualists” is that anyone who takes pride in the achievements of some group to which he organically belongs (his race, his people, his nation, his family, etc.) will for that very reason tend to rest on their laurels, foregoing all personal effort. We are evidently supposed to believe, for example, that because Beethoven, Alexander, Leonardo da Vinci, Magellan, Kant, Virgil, Newton, Swift, etc., were all White Westerners, anyone who is proud of being himself a White Westerner will never see any reason to achieve anything in the fields relevant to these individuals, because he can simply piggyback on their attainments. By implication, we are supposed to believe that this same individual, if he simply up and decided to think of himself as some kind of raceless individualistic human monad, would all at once regenerate his ambition and set himself immediately to all sorts of “achieving.”
I confess, this strikes me as preposterous; and as so often happens with this kind of “psychological” argument, I am honestly tempted to wonder if the people who present it are simply exteriorizing their own psychological peculiarities. But faux psychology aside—both mine and theirs—let us address the matter straightforwardly.
Begin with an individual. Suppose this individual has accomplished something great in his lifetime—say, for instance, that Caesar has conquered the Gauls, or Michelangelo has carved the Pietà, or Shakespeare penned Romeo and Juliet. Or on a different level, suppose a man starts up a small business, or another takes a college degree, or another yet buys himself a piece of land to farm. Surely even the likes of Peterson or “Sargon” would agree that these individuals have every right to feel proud of their achievements, since these achievements are “all theirs”? Now, does that pride somehow obstruct them from future activity? Are any of these individuals somehow suddenly likely to stop up, saying, “Well, I’ve already accomplished this, I have no reason to do anything else now”? Is not the contrary entirely more probable—are they not likely, in general, to strive higher yet, on account of the height they have already attained?
But of course none of the “individualists” would ever make their “individualist” argument as regards particular human beings. Then it would seem that the question somehow morphs its aspect when a human being’s pride refers, not to his own deeds, but to those of a group to which he belongs. Yet the very same argument we have just presented applies to that case as well: for surely, all things being equal, a man is held naturally to higher, and not lower standards, who is the child of great or successful parents than that man who does not even know who his parents were?
Or how else is one to explain the Vikings, who sought ever to commit great acts, so as to be worthy of entering into Valhalla, where the spirits of their fathers resided? How else explain the will which brought men to found empires—not those individual marvels of egotism who wished to play it at emperor, but the commoner soldiers who fought and died for the glory of their people? Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome were surely two of the most identitarian cultures ever to exist; they even had a word which meant “everyone who is not us”: barbarian. Did their love of their people, their pride in their people, ever do anything but render them stronger and more ambitious? And is it not generally true that a man who feels himself to be the representative of his folk, his nation, his empire, his faith or his gods, expends a proportionately greater effort in the service of these proportionately greater things?
But all of this is so evident as to be obvious, and in truth it has nothing to do with the real tendency of the “individualistic” premise we are discussing. In reality, as happens often enough these days, this “individualist” argument is actually not an argument at all, so much as a slur masked in a claim. Upon analysis, it quickly reduces to this idea: the identitarian worldview in our day acts as a kind of sanctuary to those idle, lazy types who do not want to do anything, giving them the justification for their inactivity. The Alt Right, for instance, is nothing but fly paper for the complacent, who willingly attach themselves to it so that they can use this sweet, sticky “pride in the past” as an excuse to cease moving altogether.
But this is patently absurd. White identitarians are no less active and productive—are in many cases quite more so—than the average “individualist.” Indeed, to look at them with an impartial gaze (something which is evidently impossible for almost every one of their critics, no matter what political point of view these last tend to favor), one even has the impression that they are much more keenly goaded to works, to acts, and to attempts, than are the better part of human beings now living. The explanation for this fact, which is mysterious to no one but the “individualists,” is not hard to find: we, unlike the man who (somehow) eschews all moral identification with all human groups, impose upon ourselves the same standards that carried our forefathers to their greatness; and these standards are far higher than those reigning in our present decadent and befuddled and essentially mediocre day.
Moreover, all those who argue the “individualistic” conception forget a fundamental premise, not surely of psychoanalytic mumbo-jumbo, but of classical human psychology: that where there can be no pride, there can be no shame. Not only are we White identitarians held to sterner standards than the general run of men today, but we are also given keen incentive to avoid the degeneracy and the squalor into which so many today plummet, and in which it is much easier to descend and wallow when one believes oneself to be a totally isolated and unprecedented phenomenon, held to no expectations other than those which one might invent for oneself.
Standing in the shadow of the past, this magnificence of our White West which rises so high behind us that now and then it even takes the place of the sun, who among us is liable to rest indolent? Does the very grandness of our inheritance not spur us to act as finely, as loftily, as nobly as possible? Would it not be our unending great shame if we, as the sons of such fathers, did not rise, or at least attempt to rise, to some fragment of the dignity and excellence which they have exemplified?
Indeed, I will go further yet: The very opposite of what these “individualists” claim is in fact nearer the truth. The atomized individualism proposed by libertarians and anti-collectivists and all their ilk is often enough a refuge for those who despise all great standards, and who would like to forget that the past in innumerable ways is mightier than the present. It affords a welcome excuse to those men who would like to reduce their horizons to such a point that they can reach out and touch them, in which midget-world they, though doing wretchedly little, can still succeed in becoming protagonists and celebrities of the day. Complacency is theirs, not ours; they rest content with the limits of their worldview only because they have exempted themselves from the obligation of all higher perspective. And this, far from being a precept of some kind of “psychologizing,” is in fact the fruit of simple observation of the world as it stands today: for most men living today in our clearly individualistic time mark their success or failure by the size of their houses, the number of cars they own, and the cost of their cellular telephones. They have no ambition greater than passing their lives in the pettiest and timidest kind of hedonism, debasing themselves day by day without even showing some degree of fire or audacity in it, such as might at least render their self-destruction the more brilliant, if not the more justifiable.
In the end, of course, neither the “individualist” position nor the identitarian is utterly incompatible with human striving. As always in human things, much depends on the individual. But this much at least can safely be affirmed: in general, in an overall vision of human life and human societies, identitarianism is more conducive to the human heights than a disintegrated individualism, in which each human being is thrust back wholly onto his own small powers. We are inoculated against the moral disease of modernity by the shame and contempt that our forebears would feel for it, and we are pressed to greater honor and nobility by the very pride we take in the lofty places which their passage has revealed to our eyes. For in truth, past achievement, be it individual or collective, is a spur to greater future achievement, and the superb excellence of our ancestors is as a summons to our better blood. Insofar as we truly stand under the gaze of our fathers, we stand the more upright for it.