Burried as I am in books and journal articles, and abjuring the more mass apeal social networks as I do, much in popular culture passes me by. I don’t confess this with any sorrow, nor even much pride, it is just the case, to adopt that hideous phrase: ‘it is what it is.’
As a rule, I find that which is menaingul tends to endure, and generally adopt a wait and see attitude to modern culture. Generally preferring to look forward to hearing the latest music and reading the trendy books in about fifty years once Clio has cast her inevitable judgement.
But one piece of the popular and on trend loomed into my consciousness from the vernacular: a Canadian Academic is providing inspiration for a supervillain in the Captain America comic series.
I was initially surprised, ensconsed in academia as I am, that any academic had risen to a level whereby they had been heard of beyond the ivy clad tower of their ivy league. But on reading further, it ceased to amaze because the academic in question was Dr Jordan Peterson.
A pin up man of a certain type and a target of pure, unadulterated hatred aomong a certain other type. I have never really understood the hatred of Dr Peterson. But then, his critics may retort, that is only because you have not read 12 Rules for Life.
That I have not read the book is true. This is mainly becase I heard about it long before I had a chance to read it and, abjuring popular philosophy, dismissed it out of hand as not something likely to appeal to my more esoteric tastes.
I also thought, perhaps unfairly, that Dr Peterson had sold out to mass market publishing. I first came across his work some twenty years ago, back when the average person didn’t give pronouns much thought, when I read Maps of Meaning. I would highly recommend it but, if you hated 12 Rules, then you will REALLY hate Maps of Meaning.
But for me, it is wonderful literature, engage as it does with some of my favorite authors in history. People whose works, unlike the modern trash that adorns so many book shelves, either has lasted or will last the centuries. To give Maps of Meaning a Washington read,* is to find: Dante Alighieri, Hannah Arendt, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Northrop Frye, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the Brothers Grimm, Stephen Hawking, Laozi, Konrad Lorenz, Alexander Luria, John Milton, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean Piaget, B. F. Skinner, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Voltaire, and Ludwig Wittgenstein.
*For those unfamiliar with the term, a ‘Washington read’ is when you turn straight to the index to see who is listed.
But I am nesting into sub-articles here… where was I. Ahh yes, Dr Peterson as Red Skull.
Back out of my reverie and I muse on what is at stake in aligning an academic, particularly one with as large, and growing, fanbase as this, with a character who is clearly a Nazi. TL;DR: it is to play a paradigm changing PR game.
Throughout my life I have delved into some of the darkest chapters in human history. In part to understand the why and the how, but also to preserve the memory of those who suffered in a way most of us will never comprehend, let alone experience.
Because of such a close reading of evil, I not only understand that words such as evil, fascist or Nazi are not only terms that should not be used lightly, perhaps most importantly they should NEVER be used as a catch cry to bully someone into retreat or recantation from their views. The reason is simple: to do this is to cheapen the power of language and memory.
When I was younger and there were no eReaders, to read on public transport was to make ones reading predellictins known. Thus I received many a side glance, one person even left the carriage, when Mein Kampf, Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung, or Das Kapital was held open and my nose buried in the pages.
There were also certain dress codes which were deemed ill considered. Generally anything black with SS markings. The sort of tailoring Hugo Boss turned out in the 1930s and 1940s.
While this may seem to be stating the obvious, it is a social more that, unless you are an Antifa foot soldier or fellow traveller, is beginning to loose its taboo. Not least because to parry the ludicrous suggestion that Dr Peterson is a card carrying Nazi, his media and marketing teams have embraced the parody and issued a slew of clothing and merchandise which in turn parodies Red Skull’s ‘Hail, Hydra!’ with their own ‘Hail, Lobster!’
As an exercise in social ostracisation or taboo shaming someone into silence, it is not only failing spectacularly, but also bringing back into popular culture the imperialism of Rome, in which ‘Hail, Caesar!’ would reverberate after each triumph.
As a philosopher of history, there is one thing about the future of which I am absolutely certain. That we have little to no clue what it will bring. Thus I always try and avoid making predictions. But if I were to break a habit, it would be to do this. I have no idea what the next 50 years will bring, but if I am still shuffling along on this mortal coil, I would not be surprised if the previous 75 year trend of socialism and liberalism reversed.
And the turning point? The moment when left leaning popular culture overreached itself and instead of fascist shaming a once obscure academic into silence, brought back into popular use what had long been taboo and empowered the very thing they thought they were destroying.
Goodnight and good luck.