Johanna Thomas-Corr’s review of Jordan Peterson’s Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life (The Critics, 12 March) struck a chord in its description of friends’ and relatives’ experiences with men who are aggressively evangelical about Peterson. I have lost good friends to “red-pilling”, with Peterson, Sam Harris, Douglas Murray et al being a gateway drug to the far right. I think Peterson is aware of this role he plays, and attempts to distance himself by loudly providing a “better narrative” of self-improvement, purportedly to dissuade young men from becoming extremists. But telling people to clean their room and to conform to social hierarchies is in reality a side-gig. His published works are often in stark contrast to what he extols online, and the veneer of self-improvement succumbs to late-night tweets and attacks on critics. It is a mystifying experience losing friends to the far right. You feel guilt, you mourn for the friend lost and you question whether the person you knew ever really existed.
[see also: Jordan Peterson: Agent of chaos]
Roberto Unger’s inspiring article (“The system cannot hold”, 19 March) describes how heroic work during the pandemic has concealed an underlying incapacity for innovation within the NHS. He does not recognise that the energy and flexibility required to establish vaccination centres throughout the UK shows the power of NHS innovation unleashed. This capacity will be suppressed again unless it is allowed to flourish in normal times – feasible if there is the political will.
After 40 years in academic medicine, I’m astonished by the speed with which NHS research collaborations self-assemble to develop and evaluate novel approaches in the current era, in partnership with universities and industry. I’m equally impressed by the willingness of NHS patients to get involved in research. Unless the proposed NHS reforms include innovation as a central pillar, a golden opportunity to step up a level will be lost.
Emeritus Professor of Clinical Oncology
The Institute of Cancer Research, London
Roberto Unger’s interesting and engaging views on the need for the UK to renew its systems were weakened in his second sentence on reforming education: “The national curriculum shackles British youth.” I don’t disagree, but British youth are not educated under one system or curriculum: education is a devolved issue and looks increasingly different in the four nations. If he were to look at the curriculum for Wales that will begin in September 2022 then he might find the answers to the problems he correctly identifies.
A solution to this complex issue seems very difficult to achieve in England due to the sheer diversity of education on offer as well as a lack of political will. In Wales we will have a purpose-led curriculum for three- to 16-year-olds that aims to produce ambitious, capable, enterprising, creative, ethical, informed, healthy and confident individuals ready to learn throughout their lives.
Through a culture of subsidiarity, the state is trusting teachers and school leaders and providing a vision that can achieve the innovation and creativity that Unger promotes. This is indeed radical and will take time, but it is already happening in the UK. Perhaps Unger should come and have a look, Wales is not too far.
From Roberto Unger’s stimulating essay I took away the word “imagination”, which recurs throughout. This appears to be one key component to producing a transformational economy. I am not optimistic about the presence of this necessary quality in our political leadership, many of whom have been educated in crammer-style public schools and are emotionally tethered to the past: creative and analytical thinking could be in short supply.
John Gray’s review of Peter Salmon’s new biography of Jacques Derrida (The Critics, 19 March) is a classic piece of fence-sitting about Derrida as a philosopher. One can never be sure whether Gray endorses what he paraphrases, but he is not very critical of the so-called master thinker.
What is a conceptual structure as opposed to a concept’s use? In what way are the concepts presence and absence not “fixed”? I know when the waiter is absent. In short, I apply them unambiguously. What is “the endemic instability of meaning”? Surely Nietzsche’s idea of nihilism as a crisis of values supervening on the abandonment of a belief in God is both truer and more profound than Derrida’s idea that nihilism is just a crisis in semantics?
Although I find John Gray’s articles fascinating, I am perplexed by some of his critiques of atheists/rationalists. In his otherwise very good article on Derrida, Gray derides Daniel Dennett for using the word “evil”, questioning what this word can mean “for those who claim to have exorcised all traces of the supernatural in their thinking”.
I think it’s perhaps fairer to suggest that evil is commonly used as a synonym for “very bad”, stripped of any supernatural connotations. And in what way does “eternal optimist” (Dennett’s description of himself) mean someone who believes that “unadulterated malevolence can be banished from the world”? Is it not just someone who has a vague belief that things can get better?
Not every statement made by atheists needs to be an objective fact in order for them to be consistent.
It was Derrida who came up with the word “hauntology”, the idea that the ghosts of ideas by thinkers from the past can make their presence felt in the present in all kinds of unexpected and sometimes uncanny ways. A pandemic inevitably ushers such a concept out of the shadows.
The New Statesman should consider marking the departure of today’s turmoil with a special Derrida “Hauntology” edition.
[see also: Deconstructing Jackie]
As I contemplated this week’s New Statesman cover, I was struck by the unintended effect of the stylised union flag imposed on the UK. My beloved Cartmel peninsula has disappeared altogether. We are part of the only constituency in Cumbria that has rejected the false and inane promise of northern Toryism, and we were also one of the few deeply rural areas to oppose Brexit: the New Statesman needs us.
I am not sure if this letter belongs in your correspondence pages or is an entry for This England.
Jeremy Cliffe makes a good case for rejecting the direction of travel in the Integrated Review of security, defence, development and foreign policy (World View, 19 March). However, he omits an important consideration that those promoting an “Indo-Pacific tilt” ought to have known: “tilt” means game over.
The omission of the Critic at Large article about Yaa Gyasi (The Critics, 19 March) from the table of contents was an unfortunate oversight. Had it not been for the photo on page five, the actual article would have been a complete surprise, making the point about the unexpectedness of a black woman in publishing.
One sentence leapt out of the page. Describing the experience of the main character in her new book, Gyasi refers to “the isolation of being hyper-visible without having any careful attention or affection reflected back to you”. I wonder if this rang bells for other readers as a description of the lockdown experience and inflated role of video calling in our lives?
I read the opening paragraph of Howard Jacobson’s Diary (19 March) with a mixture of agreement, sympathy and frustration. Like many others, I have been angered by the behaviour of some people I encounter on my morning walk who seem oblivious to the basic courtesy of keeping a reasonable distance. Often, it is two people together who refuse to pass others in single file. This is impolite at the best of times, and even more so now. Is it too much to ask to keep a reasonable distance from others instead of staking territorial claims to the full width of a path?
The three Cheadles
Chris Copp of Stone, Staffordshire, is, in his own words, getting his Cheadles confused (Correspondence, 19 March). Cheadle Hulme (near Manchester) will not receive Towns Fund money. Cheadle will. There is Cheadle, Cheadle Hulme and Cheadle Heath – the Cheadle area historically having been split between three sisters. They are very different places, just neighbours. And Cheadle is the poshest and most well-off.
Kathryn Price (formerly of Cheadle Hulme)
Romiley, Greater Manchester
Peter Wilby’s report on Eton’s firing of Will Knowland (First Thoughts, 19 March) brought me a powerful “light bulb” moment. Oxbridge and the Ivy League may have “gone co-ed” decades ago, but Henry VI’s minor foundation is still urinal-only when the call of nature comes. How long, oh Lord, how long?
In his recent column Nicholas Lezard says that he is not a journalist, he is a “columnist and critic” (Down and Out, 12 March). I think that he is a Puer Aeternus figure who strings out his strange life to entertain us. Or is that the case? Maybe it is a facade – one cannot but feel that Lezard has a more mature aspect. And maybe it is this very tension that holds us reading his column! I would like to hear more of the grown-up side of Lezard, please.
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This article appears in the 24 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special