Author: Matt Johnson

Whither Léon Blum?—Paul Berman’s Misplaced Faith in Bernie Sanders

Just before the Second World War, the father of philosopher Emmanuel Levinas told him why it was necessary to make France their home: “A country capable of splitting itself in two over the honor of a little Jewish captain is a country where we have to go as soon as possible.” Levinas was a Lithuanian Jew who became a French citizen in 1939, after which he joined the military as a translator and ended up as a prisoner of war in Germany. Many of his family members died in the Holocaust, but he survived the war and returned to France where he lived the rest of his life. The Dreyfus Affair divided France just a few decades before the Second World War, and Levinas’s father saw in the controversy the soul of a society that values truth and justice over the ancient hatreds and violent dogmas that were consuming so much of Europe. But the pardon and vindication of the “little Jewish captain” Alfred Dreyfus—who had been falsely accused of treason—was the result of a …

Why the American Left Should Embrace Effective Altruism over Provincial Populism

I After the global financial crisis, the Right seemed to know something the Left didn’t: how to channel post-recession outrage into political action. As Francis Fukuyama observed in a 2012 article: “Despite widespread anger at Wall Street bailouts, there has been no great upsurge of left-wing American populism in response.” The Occupy Wall Street movement sputtered while the Tea Party fueled one of the most sweeping Republican midterm victories in history, including the election of many insurgent hard-Right candidates. Little did Fukuyama know that an upsurge of left-wing American populism was well on its way. Seven years ago, who could’ve imagined that Bernie Sanders would pose a serious primary challenge to the Clinton machine? Who could’ve predicted that the chairman of the DNC would describe Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—a 29-year-old democratic socialist who was working at a bar a little over a year ago—as the “future of our party”? It’s no surprise that left-wing populism is ascendant in the United States. Beyond the fact that Donald Trump has a special talent for enraging and energizing the activist …

Is Religious Belief in Decline?

On January 8, 1697, 20-year-old Thomas Aikenhead was hanged for blasphemy on the Gallowlee execution ground in Edinburgh. Two weeks earlier, he had been convicted of such grave crimes as questioning the historicity of Jesus Christ and the logic of the Trinity, and the authorities wanted his death to serve as a warning to other would-be dissidents. In The Blasphemies of Thomas Aikenhead: Boundaries of Belief on the Eve of the Enlightenment, Michael F. Graham explains why his subject was taken to an “execution site reserved for those guilty of the most heinous crimes”: For common thieves, murderers and even many witches, the Grassmarket below Edinburgh Castle would do. But this execution was far from typical. On the contrary, it was a smokeless auto-da-fé aimed at placating an obviously angry God, invoking new laws against blasphemy that would never be used with such force again. Aikenhead was the last person executed for blasphemy in Britain, and in the century that followed his death, Edinburgh would become one of the most important intellectual centers of the …

Orwell and the Anti-Totalitarian Left in the Age of Trump

I In his review of Pascal Bruckner’s new book, An Imaginary Racism: Islamophobia and Guilt, Nick Cohen begins with a denunciation of the contemporary Left’s obsession with identity politics and “willingness to excuse antisemitism, misogyny, tyranny, and obscurantism, as long as the antisemitic, misogynistic, tyrannical obscurantists are anti-Western.” Cohen acknowledges that Bruckner has been among the most penetrating analysts of the Left’s moral and intellectual decline in the twenty-first century, recalling that he described Bruckner’s The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism as a “brilliant defence of liberalism and a deservedly contemptuous assault on all those intellectuals who have betrayed its best values.” However, Cohen now thinks Bruckner’s animus toward the Left has propelled him to the Right, arguing that he fails to “extend his opposition to Islamism to cover the purveyors of anti-Muslim bigotry,” uses the “language of demagogues and civil war,” and displays the “ethnic favouritism and intellectual double-standards of the counter-Enlightenment.” Cohen also laments Bruckner’s sparse commentary on right-wing populist and nationalist movements in Europe and the United States: At …

The Peculiar Opacity of Jordan Peterson’s Religious Views

During a recent conversation in Vancouver—the first night of a massive four-part event sponsored by Pangburn Philosophy—Sam Harris asked Jordan Peterson a question that he can never quite answer: “What do you mean by God?” If you’ve ever heard Peterson discuss the subject or read either of his books, the answers he provided in Vancouver will not surprise you. God is “how we imaginatively and collectively represent the existence and action of consciousness across time.” God is “that which eternally dies and is reborn in the pursuit of higher being and truth.” God is “the highest value in the hierarchy of values.” God is the “voice of conscience.” God is the “source of judgment and mercy and guilt.” God is the “future to which we make sacrifices and something akin to the trascendental repository of reputation.” God is “that which selects among men in the eternal hierarchy of men.” It went on like this for awhile, but you get the idea. Or do you? Peterson’s definition of God is a sprawling, book-length collection of abstractions, …