Trinkets from the Vatican Gift Shop

Vatican gift shop

On a 2015 trip to Florence and Rome (my first visit to both cities), I had the opportunity to take in some of the more popular sites, such as the Pitti Palace and the Roman Forum, along with several museums and basilicas that are as plentiful in those parts of Italy as Walmart and waffle houses are in the U.S. Both cities were flooded with tourists, which made popular attractions like Michelangelo’s David a challenge to see without advanced booking and marked virtually every experience as one that was shared with camera-totting strangers. At some of these sites, this meant being herded through an enclosed space by stern security guards, as I encountered at the Sistine Chapel:

Silence, silencio, no photos.

The sheer abundance of it all — from people to works of art to the rich and flavorful cuisine — was overwhelming at times, offset by more tangible realities on the ground, such as Nigerian merchants of black market leather purses and the many Indian migrants who traded in sunglasses, scarfs, and colorful tennis ball sized toys that would be tossed down on a wooden plank, splatter, and re-form in a matter of seconds … pick up and repeat. In Rome, unlike in Florence, they even made a noise — “whaaah” — that could be heard at uneven intervals on popular streets throughout the city. Continue reading “Trinkets from the Vatican Gift Shop”

IT’S A CHINESE VIRUS!!!!! Or, Yes, Words Have Meaning(s)

Most by now are familiar with Donald Trump’s insistence that COVID-19 be referred to as the ‘Chinese‘ or ‘Wuhan virus.’

In one sense, pointing out gaps in Trump’s logic is, in effect, to gaslight one’s self. After all, he tweeted that COVID-19 was less harmful than the flu as late as March 9th, then swiftly moved to accept its growing impact on March 11th. By March 16th, he had switched from calling it coronavirus to the ‘Chinese virus.’ More recently, Trump declared that the economy must be back on track by Easter, despite warnings from experts that COVID-19 will likely be peaking in much of the US at that time. On March 29th, that date was pushed back from Easter until April 30th. I could go on …

If we view Trump as a strategic actor who is utterly shameless in defending his interests, then his ‘logic’ does indeed make sense. Consistency and accuracy regarding the science of COVID-19 (or any topic, for that matter) are tools to be used or discarded as it suits his advantage. Considered in this light, the term ‘Chinese virus’ can be seen as a rhetorical device that aims to divert attention from the Trump administration’s many failings throughout this affair by reducing culpability for the spread of COVID-19 to one main variable — China. Continue reading “IT’S A CHINESE VIRUS!!!!! Or, Yes, Words Have Meaning(s)”

Abortions for some, miniature Canadian flags for others!*

A man waving a gay pride flag in Canada

Last week, Canada’s two most dominant political parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives, released their campaign slogans for the 2019 federal election, to be held on October 21. The incumbent Liberals, led by Justin Trudeau, have opted for a stay-the-course sentiment, “Choose Forward,” while the insurgent Conservatives, led by Andrew Sheer, are telling voters “It’s time for you to get ahead.”

The Conservative’s slogan is consistent with their standard platform of low taxes and small government, and plays into the party’s past attempts to brand Trudeau as a privileged pretty boy who is “not as advertised.” On-going scandals, including a conflict of interest violation, and a family vacation to a private island owned by the Aga Khan (on the taxpayers dime), are among the more common jabs trotted out to drive their slogan home. Continue reading “Abortions for some, miniature Canadian flags for others!*”

Team AOC or Team Pelosi? Also, #Trump’s-a-Racist

A side by side picture of Nancy Pelosi and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Last week saw yet another round of attacks against 4 recently elected congresspersons, all women of color. While these members of the so-called “squad” — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley — have all been attacked by Donald Trump before (e.g., on Twitter, at rallies, in press interviews, etc.), this most recent incident has been widely condemned as “racist” in no uncertain terms by much of the mainstream media (see Trump’s tweets below). This marks a shift of sorts from previous media coverage of “the squad,” especially AOC and Ilhan Omar, where similar allegations of race baiting, misogyny, and xenophobia at the hands of the President were overshadowed by semantic arguments on the meaning of language that they had used–e.g.,  Omar’s critique of AIPAC  (American Israeli Public Affairs Committee) , and AOC’s characterization of detention centers on the south border as “concentration camps.” Despite Trump’s more overt and strategic use of bigoted language, however, attacks against these two congresspersons have come just as frequently from within the Democratic Party, as younger, racialized, “progressive” representatives are routinely pitted against older, mainstream, “establishment” figures such as Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. Continue reading “Team AOC or Team Pelosi? Also, #Trump’s-a-Racist”

On the Spot with Matt Sheedy

“On the Spot” backs members of Culture on the Edge into a corner to talk about their backgrounds, their ongoing work, and what might be gained by an alternative understanding of how identity works.

An image of Matt Sheedy1. When people ask what you study, what do you tell them?

My current elevator pitch is that I study religion, culture, and politics in the Euro-West, with an emphasis on North America. When I expand on this description, I typically say that my work centers on questions of religion in the public sphere. On the meta-level this means paying attention to how dominant ideologies, such as multiculturalism, liberalism, and secularism, construct how ‘religion’ is mediated or understood and thus how it functions to regulate group identities in particular ways. As for methodology, I tend to rely on ideology critique, along with discourse and narrative analysis (including theories of affect and rhetoric)  to examine the various ways that religion and culture are represented — in news media, film, and popular culture. While my data is, in theory, open to any groups that make these sort of claims, I tend to focus on insiders and outsiders representations of Islam, (North American) Indigenous traditions, atheism, and Christianity.

2. How do questions of identity manifest in your research?

Questions of identity are often central to kind of work that I do. For example, I’ll look at popular examples of how religion (or secularism) is narrated (e.g., by pundits, politicians, or in pop culture) as instances of identity formation. Here the focus is on how actors attempt to draw lines around what, e.g., ‘Islam’ or ‘Christianity’ is, while at the same time failing to reflect upon the ways in which these normative statement function to shore-up their own identities (e.g., as superior, better, more rational, ethical, etc.). In short, this line of inquiry forces us to ask where (and why) people are ‘hiding the ball’? Continue reading “On the Spot with Matt Sheedy”

On Jewish Studies and the Study of Islam

An image of the book

The following excerpt is from Sarah Imhoff’s contribution to the newly released volume Identity, Politics, and the Study of Islam: Current Dilemmas in the Study of Religionswith Culture on the Edge Books Series (Equinox Publishing).

The field of Jewish studies is full of Jews. This is obvious. It is also surprising, for two reasons. First, the diversity of Jewish studies scholars compares unfavourably with other religion-related fields. Islamic studies currently has a sufficient mix of Muslim and non-Muslim scholars to create a heated debate about epistemology, apology and the study of Islam. Jewish studies still has relatively few non-Jewish scholars of Judaism, although the number is growing. … While Islamic studies in American traces much of its history through Orientalism — non-Muslims studying Muslims and Islamic civilizations–the dominant narrative of Jewish studies begins with Jews studying Judaism. Although Jewish studies is my primary field, I have found that reflecting on Islamic studies has made me think more clearly about Jewish studies. I hope the reverse also proves true — that reflecting on Jewish studies will offer fruitful parallels with, as well as distinctions from, many of the larger issues at play in Islamic studies (121-122).

– Sarah Imhoff, “Jews, Jewish Studies and the Study of Islam”

Identity, Politics, and the Study of Islam: An Interview with Matt Sheedy

An image of This interview is part of a series of interviews on new books from the Culture on the Edge book series with Equinox publishing. 

This edited volume began in response to a debate between two scholars who study Islam, Omid Safi and Aaron Hughes. Can you introduce the main issues of that debate?

The idea for this book came out of a “debate” between Omid Safi and Aaron Hughes back in early 2014. The initial salvo came when Safi published an essay on Jadaliyya, “Reflections on the State of Islamic Studies,” where he characterized Hughes’s work as “grossly polemical and simplistic,” though without providing any specific evidence for this claim. Hughes replied on the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog (where I was then editor), challenging Safi to “do what the Western tradition of scholarly discourse demands and respond to my ideas in print as opposed to engaging in innuendo and identity politics.” After some preliminary discussion on Facebook, where we considered the possibility of a more substantive exchange on the Bulletin blog, Safi decided not to engage further on this forum.

In the interest of expanding the conversation I asked a number of scholars of religion to comment on some of the issues raised in these two blog posts, with an emphasis on the following tension: whereas Safi’s reflections on Islamic Studies stress the role of feminist, post-colonial, and anthropological approaches, and laud scholars who work between the academy and the community for political ends (e.g., see Safi’s edited book Progressive Muslims), Hughes argues that the emphasis on identity politics in much of Islamic Studies contributes to the persistence of apologetics and inhibits the kind of critical scholarship that religious studies ought be striving for. Subsequent to this, more responses were published in a special issue of the Bulletin’s journal, which became the starting point for this book. In this volume a few of the same contributors expand their original pieces, along with five new essays, including an afterword from Russell McCutcheon. Continue reading “Identity, Politics, and the Study of Islam: An Interview with Matt Sheedy”

On the Tyranny of Individualism: MAGA boy, Media, and the Drum

An image of an older man

In the immortal words of Ron Burgundy, “boy, that escalated quickly.”

I began writing this blog post the day after a video featuring Covington high school students taunting a Native American man went viral. When I returned to the piece a few days later, the story had blown up like few that I can recall in recent memory. The initial narrative, which was clipped from a 2-hour video, posted on Twitter, and seized upon by the press, created the perception that the high school boys had surrounded Nathan Philips (e.g., see this NYT piece), an Omaha elder and activist, sparking outrage across the media spectrum. At the center of all this was the image of a young man in a MAGA hat (pictured below) starring smugly at Philips as he played a drum song (see Leonard Peltier’s explanation of the song here) . Continue reading “On the Tyranny of Individualism: MAGA boy, Media, and the Drum”

3 Things I Learned from Attending a Jordan Peterson Rally, Part 3

An image of Jordan Peterson

The following three-part series provides a first-hand account of one stop on Jordan Peterson’s recent 45-city  tour promoting his bestselling book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, with popular political commentator Dave Rubin. In part one I provide some background on the Peterson phenomenon,  followed by a detailed account of one of his rallies in part two. Here in part three I offer some thoughts on how we might situate this phenomenon within broader cultural trends, with a tidbit on my own experience sitting in on a few of Peterson’s classes during my undergraduate years at the University of Toronto.  

Are there 3 things that I leaned from attending a Jordan Peterson rally, as my title suggests? Perhaps, but in the world of YouTube algorithms it’s all about what gets clipped and what gets clicked. [1] I’ll leave up to others to determine who “changed” whose life, who got “destroyed,” or whether anything was “calmly dismantled” here–be it feminism, the “radical left,” or Peterson himself. Continue reading “3 Things I Learned from Attending a Jordan Peterson Rally, Part 3”

3 Things I Learned from Attending a Jordan Peterson Rally, Part 2

An image of By Matt Sheedy

The following three-part series provides a first-hand account of one stop on Jordan Peterson’s recent 45-city  tour promoting his bestselling book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, with popular political commentator Dave Rubin. In part one I provide some background on the Peterson phenomenon, followed by a detailed account of one of his rallies here in part two. Part three will offer some thoughts on how we might situate this phenomenon within broader cultural trends, with a tidbit on my own experience sitting in on a few of Peterson’s classes during my undergraduate years at the University of Toronto.  


 

a line of people waiting to get into a theater

I arrived 30 minutes before the show in order to survey the scene outside the Burton Cummings theatre in downtown Winnipeg, and lingered for about 20 minutes after the crowds had been released. By my estimate, around 75% of those in attendance were men, while the vast majority of women were accompanied by a male partner. Between 5-10% were people of color, while no more than 10% were over the age of 30. A noticeable percentage of the men were nicely dressed (e.g., blazers and pressed and/or collared shirts), which may reflect, in part, the influence of Peterson’s own 3-piece suit persona, which he endorses in Rule 26 (see his expanded 40 Rules on Twitter), “Dress like the person you want to be.” One young man I encountered was wearing a “Proud Boys” shirt, which is a controversial men’s group (founded by Gavin McInnes) promoting traditional ideals of masculinity and an unapologetic affirmation of “Western chauvinism.”

A person walking on a sidewalk holding a sign that says

There was some backlash to Peterson’s appearance at a prominent downtown venue (e.g., see comments in this sub-Reddit), including a small rally held outside the Manitoba provincial legislature, dubbed “anti-fascist picnic.” The only visible protest outside of the venue, however, came from a trans-woman who stood at the entrance holding a sign that read:

The social obligation to fit in is to fit in regardless because it’s so threatening not to. – Jordan Peterson, conformist, enemy of freedom.

In speaking with this lone protester I was informed that only a few people had asked them questions about their sign, and that all were generally polite and non-confrontational (perhaps due in part to the presence of police).

There was no merchandise being sold inside the theatre (full disclosure: I was hoping for a lobster t-shirt) save for two small posters, $20 and $30 respectively—featuring images illustrating the 12 Rules for Life. There was also a VIP meet and greet with Peterson afterwards, which could be purchased for $100.

An image of a crowded theater before a play

Dave Rubin opened the show with a 5-minute comedy routine to a packed theatre (capacity = 1638), which included jokes about Peterson wrestling a lobster backstage and playfully asking if everyone had cleaned their room—a reference to one of Peterson’s 12 rules that some critics have latched on to as an example of the over-simplified “self-help” nature of his message (e.g., see Nathan Robinson’s critique). In fairness to Peterson, each of the 12 rules is embedded in a chapter that draws on elements of mythology, ontology, neuroscience, and personal experience (e.g., growing up, as a father, etc.), which aims to locate these rules within a larger narrative of universal truths (or archetypes), buttressed by empirical claims about human cognition and anecdotes from his experience as a psycho-therapist. Rubin also noted how Peterson continues to be attacked by media outlets like The New York Times, and expressed their excitement about being a part of the “intellectual dark web.” Here he mentioned Peterson’s now infamous line about “enforced monogamy” in response to the “incel” attack in Toronto last April, coyly brushing it off as “basically marriage,” while stating that they might as well own the term if the media was going to use it.

Peterson began his talk by musing about art and how it epitomizes creativity in “chaotic” form (the relationship between ‘chaos’ and ‘order,’ represented by the feminine and masculine principles, is central to his worldview) that can be moulded into something productive. In this vein, he structured his narrative around two poems: one by Shakespeare and the other by the young Marx. Beginning with Shakespeare, Peterson quoted the opening lines of “All the world’s a stage”:

All the world’s a stage/And all the men and women merely players/They have their exits and their entrances/And one man in his time plays many parts 

While I may have misheard him, I’m fairly certain that Peterson read the last line quoted above as “and one man in his time plays his part.” Creative licence or not, his gloss was that it is the individual (and not the collective) that makes up society, and that each person must therefore take responsibility and play their part. This, above all else, is the ultimate antidote to chaos, which we are currently experiencing on a global scale. Peterson was careful to stress that our current state of chaos is not the result of capitalism or broader social structures, and certainly not the fault of the ‘West’ or ‘Western values,’ which he claims have created the best systems that the world has ever known (e.g., free markets, innovation, private property, etc.) and lead to more progress and prosperity than during any time in human history (here he mentioned www.humanprogress.org as a prime example of such trends).

An image that says

It is worth noting that humanprogress.org is a conservative website that champions free market capitalism and is a project of The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank founded by the Koch brothers. [1] Rubin himself is sponsored by Learn Liberty, which was launched by the Institute for Humane Studies, largely funded by Charles Koch. Rubin is also affiliated with Prager University, a media organization considered by some to be the intellectual wing of conservative politics in the United States, with videos racking up over 1 billion views to date. While it is not clear whether Peterson receives money directly from these or other groups, his association with Rubin reveals some rather clear affinities with powerful social actors who have a vested interest in supporting public intellectuals that espouse some version of libertarian ideology as a way to counter the perception that ‘leftist’ ideology (e.g., ‘post-modern, Neo-Marxism’) is on the rise. Peterson has presented two videos for Prager University to this effect (see here and here).

An image of Jordan Peterson sitting in a chair looking away from the camera

Throughout the performance Peterson leaned heavily on the idea that ideology was the most dangerous force in the 20th century, from the Nazis to the Soviets to Mao’s China and up to the present day (Peterson often styles himself an expert on the psychology of authoritarian movements, and has even adorned his home with Soviet propaganda [2]).  He sought to make it clear, however, that his own views, and those of his fellow travellers, are not ideological since their professed goal is to promote a “free exchange of ideas.”  Here the link with Marx and the “radical left” became apparent, as he read from the young Marx’s poem, “Invocation of One in Despair,” with an emphasis on the following lines: “So a god has snatched from me my all/Nothing but revenge is left to me/If he bring my walls and towers down/Eternity shall raise them up, defiant.”

Peterson interpreted this poem (written in 1836-37 when Marx was 18-19 years old) as evidence of a young man seeking bloodthirsty revenge, whose ideas would latter wreak havoc in the form of over 100 million deaths. This interpretative style is common with Peterson, where he’ll state that he’s thought about something for a long time (often for over a decade) and has finally “figured it out.” Such certainty is curiously balanced with an emphasis on the complexity of human understanding, at least when it comes to solving problems like climate change, public policy, poverty, and the like. Indeed, the rhetorical back and forth between acknowledging complexity in some cases (e.g., see his statement on Islam here) and claiming absolute certainty in others is a common move that Peterson uses in his books and lectures, as when (to give an example of the latter tendency) he interprets the Garden of Eden narrative in the Book of Genesis as an allegory for taking individual responsibility amidst the chaos of the world.

Much of Peterson’s talk revolved around the errors of collectivism (which for him ultimately leads to communism) and the virtues of the individual, which translates on the political stage as free speech, capitalism, free markets, and individual responsibility. This, he claims, is an essential truism to grasp, especially since the spectre of Marx is being taken up once again by the “radical left,” which, if left unchecked, can lead to authoritarianism and, eventually, the gulag. Peterson’s antidote of taking personal responsibility is given priority over equal rights (or better phrased, is seen as an a priori first step) since responsibility is what empowers the individual to challenge them self through increasing returns (e.g., through micro-improvements of the self over time), and to create new innovations that will make the world a better place. This line of argument parallels Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker’s Panglosian idealism (who Peterson tips his hat to), along with the work of Bjorn Lomborg, a climate change sceptic that Peterson admires, especially his book The Skeptical Environmentalist, which he urged the audience to check out.

As Business Insider describes Lomborg:

Bjorn Lomborg is a Danish-based scientist, famous for his book The Skeptical Environmentalist. Like Dyson, he’s not an outright denier, but rather he thinks the current approach to global warming is misguided and that the costs of drastic, short-term action are too high. Instead, he thinks we should focus on becoming more adaptable, while putting more effort into such real-world tragedies as AIDS and malaria.

Peterson lauds this approach since we can’t know what will lie ahead and thus can’t predict where the science will take us. Here he shared a personal anecdote about working as a consultant with the UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel for Sustainable Development (leading some on Reddit to call him a ‘globalist‘) and how, for him, this amounted to a useless competition to get 150 ideas listed on a platform. Peterson’s preferred solution to this ‘chaos’ was to start with two ideas, or at least to prioritize the top contenders. No directives were given for how this would be decided, though the point was clear. As with his 12 Rules for Life, political projects should only take on what can “reasonably” be accomplished. This is why, for Peterson (as for Lomborg) we should be working to deliver practical projects like heath care and education to poor countries, as modelled by Bill Gates, instead of spending $75 billion on risky and uncertain outcomes like projects to tackle climate change. The free market gave us Gates’s innovations along with his philanthropy, which Peterson upholds as the most responsible way forward since it will lead to the development of more creative minds that can help humanity solve its toughest problems.

Suffering was a constant theme throughout Peterson’s talk–acknowledging that we suffer (with no hat-tip to the Buddha, I might add), with a decidedly conservative twist, urging that we can lessen our suffering by taking personal responsibility. In this way, Peterson zeroed-in on reconciling people to the chaos of life by encouraging them to maximize their inherent potential through small acts of self-ownership that can be built upon, piece-by-piece, over time toward ever increasing returns.


Two people doing an interview on stage with a spot light on them

During the Q&A, Peterson and Rubin sat together on stage in plush leather chairs, as Peterson was asked a number of pre-selected questions, read by Rubin from JP’s own laptop. Some of the questions included: would he run for Prime Minister of Canada?; what he wanted to be as a young child?; and who his heroes were? After a moment’s pause to the latter question, Peterson singled out Islam critic and popular atheist Ayaan Hirsi Ali for her defense of free speech, British writer Douglas Murray, known for his defence of the West and ruthless critique of Islam, and Lindsay Shepherd, a former Master’s student at Wilfred Laurier University who became a brief cause célèbre for defenders of free speech when she sued her university after being reprimanded for playing a video clip of Peterson during a class that she lead as a TA. Peterson himself has filed a lawsuit against Wilfred Laurier for defamation, directly related to this controversy. 

The topic of marriage also came up during the Q&A, where Peterson stressed the importance of working through conflict in order to learn from past mistakes, which aligns with his ethos of taking personal responsibility as the fundamental building block of society (i.e., the individual and not the collective).

An image of Jordon B Peterson doing a news interview about

When asked what the biggest problem in politics is today, and what he would work toward solving if given the chance, Peterson quipped, “well it’s not the gender pay gap” to loud applause. He did not elaborate on what he meant by this statement, though it’s consistent with earlier statements that he’s made along these lines. [3]

Peterson also talked about starting his own on-line university at a very low cost, to which he received yet another round of applause. This aspiration has parallels with Peterson’s earlier claim to want to start his own church, which was alleged in a piece by Bernard Schiff, a colleague of his at the University of Toronto who helped to get him hired, and who now thinks that he is “dangerous.”

Peterson ended the Q&A by noting that he had just finished writing an introduction to a new edition of Solschenizyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, and how he is currently working to turn his debate with ‘new atheist” and neuroscientist Sam Harris into a book that focuses on their dispute over the role of rationality in human behaviour.

Stay turned for part three in this three-part series, where I’ll offer some thoughts on how we might situate the Peterson phenomenon as a continuation and innovation upon certain cultural and political trends.


[1] Photo credit: https://www.mobomo.com/2013/10/unveiling-humanprogress-org-with-the-cato-institute/

[2] Photo credit: https://frieze.com/article/whos-real-ideologue-jordan-petersons-communist-art-collection

[3] Photo credit: https://eblnews.com/video/jordan-peterson-debate-gender-pay-gap-campus-protests-and-postmodernism-305243

  • All additional photos are the author’s.