I picked a fine time to become an American. It was a grey, overcast morning in Oakland, California. The finest England football team for a generation had just been beaten by the dastardly Croats. And Hurricane Donald Trump was making landfall in London.
Theresa May v Trump had one thing in common with England v Croatia. If in doubt, the other side played the man, not the ball — or, in the case of the prime minister, the woman. “I would have done it [Brexit] much differently,” Trump told The Sun. “I actually told Theresa May how to do it, but she didn’t agree, she didn’t listen to me.”
(Sound of breaking glass in Downing Street)
“The deal she is striking is a much different deal than the one the people voted on. It was not the deal that was in the referendum.”
(Alarm bells start ringing)
“If they do a deal like that, we would be dealing with the European Union instead of dealing with the UK, so it will probably kill the . . . trade deal with the US.”
And what did Trump think of his Old Etonian doppelganger, Boris Johnson, until last Monday the foreign secretary? “I am just saying I think he would be a great prime minister. I think he’s got what it takes.”
Yes, I picked a fine time to become an American, as a 20ft Trump “baby” balloon floated over London, hideously symbolising a new nadir in Anglo-American ties.
Or perhaps not. Down on the ground, slack-jawed Tories studied the government’s Brexit white paper, a substantial number of them thinking pretty much what Trump had so bluntly told The Sun. So when May had said “Brexit means Brexit”, what she actually meant was Britain would become an unhappy cross between Switzerland and Ukraine. Common rule book? Consultation of the European Court of Justice on disputed points of European law? Brexit shmexit.
And this is just the prime minister’s opening pitch. It has taken two years to thrash out within the government and was finalised only at the cost of two cabinet-level resignations. Heaven only knows how many further concessions the EU’s formidable divorce lawyer Monsieur Michel Barnier will demand. And when she brings the further-mutilated compromise back to Westminster, these are the lousy options MPs will have to choose between: swallow fake Brexit (which everyone despises), risk a no-deal hard Brexit (for which no one has prepared) or call another referendum (which no one wants).
Come to think of it, I picked a fine time to become an American.
I was one of 1,094 people of every colour and creed, from 85 nations, beginning with Afghanistan and ending with Yemen. We had gathered, anxiously clutching the requisite documents, outside the rather antique Paramount cinema. I was not the only new citizen of European origin, but we were a distinct minority. Rather to my surprise, the Chinese were the most numerous group, accounting for close to a fifth of the new Americans (how many Americans became Chinese citizens last week?). Next were the Mexicans (more than 150 of them), then the Filipinos, closely followed by the Indians.
Yet it was the sheer range of countries represented that was most marvellous. The young man to my right, immaculately dressed in white, was from Eritrea. He had studied computer science in Swansea and had initially come to California to work for Nasa. Others among us were plainly less well educated. Observing those who had failed to follow the simple instructions to tick the boxes on one last form, I wondered how on earth they had passed the citizenship test, with its occasionally tricky questions on American history and geography.
I approach any encounter with US bureaucracy weighed down by dread. Would this be like the Department of Motor Vehicles, famed for its Soviet-style antagonism to the public? Or would it be more like the implacable, pitiless Internal Revenue Service? In fact the officials of the US Citizenship and Immigration Services could hardly have been more affable. The master of ceremonies was a genial, balding, bespectacled chap who won his audience over with a virtuoso display of multilingualism, chatting to us in what sounded like pretty fluent Spanish, Chinese, French, Hindi and Filipino.
Yet this was very far from a multicultural occasion. Quite the reverse. To get us in the mood for our impending Americanisation, a choir sang a patriotic medley, including a rather baroque setting of the preamble to the constitution, Yankee Doodle and Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land.
That did it. The way that song conjures up vast American landscapes (“From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters”) always gets me by the throat because, glimpsed in films, such vistas were what first drew me to the United States.
Then came the information about our rights and obligations — specifically our right to vote, our option to obtain a passport and our inextricable link to the social security system. (Nothing — rather disappointingly — about the right to bear arms. And not a word about the spiralling federal debt we were all now on the hook for.)
The ceremony then became more stirring. A “Faces of America” video had a distinctly martial soundtrack. We raised our right hands to swear the oath of allegiance, absolutely and entirely renouncing and abjuring “all allegiance to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty” and swearing to “bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law”. Then we placed our right hands on our hearts to recite the pledge of allegiance to the national flag “and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”.
It’s heady stuff, even in Oakland on a Thursday morning. And then there he was — eliciting disapproving intakes of breath from some — the Potus himself, much larger than life on the big screen. “This country is now your country,” Trump told us sternly. “Our history is now your history. And our traditions are now your traditions.”
And that wasn’t all: “You now share the obligation to teach our values to others, to help newcomers assimilate to our way of life.” Compare and contrast with the Barack Obama version: “Together, we are a nation united not by any one culture, or ethnicity, or ideology . . .”
The grand finale was God bless the USA, a bombastic country anthem by Lee Greenwood. It too was a call to arms. “And I’m proud to be an American / Where at least I know I’m free / And I won’t forget the men who died / Who gave that right to me / And I’d gladly stand up next to you / And defend her still today.”
More than half a century of being British has made it hard for me not to cringe at this kind of thing. But this hokum is now my hokum. And this president is now my president, until such times as we, the people, vote in another one. Yes, I picked a fine time to become an American — because there is no other kind of time.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
If Germany’s footballers have been the biggest losers of the year to date, then the Canadian psychology professor Jordan Peterson has been among the biggest winners. His book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos — only the second he has ever published— has sold more than a million copies. His YouTube channel has 1.26m followers.
The cerebral Spider-Man at the heart of the so-called intellectual dark web (an informal network of academics who have resisted the current campus cultural revolution), Peterson began his rise to fame by opposing a 2016 Canadian bill that proposed to make “gender identity or expression” a prohibited basis for discrimination.
“I will never use words I hate,” Peterson declared, “like the trendy and artificially constructed [gender-neutral pronouns] ‘zhe’ and ‘zher’. These words are at the vanguard of a postmodern, radical leftist ideology that I detest, and which is . . . frighteningly similar to the Marxist doctrines that killed at least 100m people in the 20th century.”
You can imagine how that went down with the diversity police at Toronto University. But Peterson bravely refused to kowtow. “Under the guise of postmodernism,” he lamented, “we’ve seen the rapid expansion of identity politics throughout the universities . . . We’ve been publicly funding extremely radical, postmodern leftist thinkers who are hellbent on demolishing the fundamental substructure of western civilisation.”
Amen to all that. Amen squared.
Peterson is fearless. His 12 Rules for Life begins by contrasting order and chaos as ideal types to be found in both western and oriental philosophical traditions. Order, he notes, “is typically portrayed, symbolically — imaginatively — as masculine”, whereas chaos “as the antithesis of symbolically masculine order [is] presented imaginatively as feminine . . . Order is the white, masculine serpent; chaos, its black, feminine counterpart.”
This was too much for the media feminists. The New York Times published a crude hit piece that dubbed Peterson the “custodian of the patriarchy” and a proponent of “enforced monogamy”. Cathy Newman’s interview on Channel 4 News was intended to deliver the coup de grace by grotesquely caricaturing Peterson’s views. (“So you’re saying like the lobsters, we’re hardwired as men and women to do certain things, to sort of run along tramlines and there’s nothing we can do about it?”)
Yet, as Nietzsche observed, that which does not kill us makes us stronger. These botched attacks only accelerated Peterson’s rise to fame. British viewers marvelled at his saintly calm in the face of Newman’s tendentious questioning. New Yorkers, who generally act as if Canada doesn’t exist, for the first time took notice of the solemn, brown-suited “prairie populist” whom their local rag had tried and failed to take down.
As if to drive the politically correct into apoplexy, Peterson recently revealed he is an honorary member of the extended family of Charles Joseph, a Kwakwaka’wakw artist who has given him the name Alestalagie (“Great Seeker”). The Kwakwaka’wakw are an indigenous people of British Columbia. In today’s culture war, having them on your team is quite simply a grandmaster move.
In 12 Rules, Peterson’s central message is that we must “accept the terrible responsibility of life”. Rule No 1 is “Stand up straight with your shoulders back.” Number two is “Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.” Yes, it’s self-help as only North America does it, but it’s old school, manly, “grow-the-hell-up” self-help. “Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world.” “Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient).” “Tell the truth — or, at least, don’t lie.”
“Suffering,” Peterson says, “is built into the structure of being.” Don’t make yourself miserable by pursuing happiness because, he rightly argues, “happiness is a great side effect. When it comes, accept it gratefully. But it’s fleeting and unpredictable. It’s not something to aim at.”
These are wise words. But there’s some whimsy too. Rule 11 is “Do not bother children when they are skateboarding.” Rule 12 is “Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.” And central to Peterson’s defence of hierarchy (shock horror) is that analogy between humans and lobsters which gave Cathy Newman so much trouble.
There is only one problem with 12 Rules for Life, and that is that it deals only with normal life. It offers no guidance for the most difficult time in all our lives, namely the summer holidays. What follows, by way of a tribute to Peterson, are therefore my own 12 Rules for Summer, the product of more than half a century of immersion in the entirety of human culture:
1 Stand up straight with your shoulders back, unless you are the one carrying all the luggage, including the baby gear.
2 Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping get some sleep.
3 Make friends with people who want the best wine for you.
4 Compare your holiday destination with the one you went to last year, and not with the one where someone else is this year.
5 Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them. Send them to camp instead.
6 Do not bother setting your house in perfect order: one of your older kids will probably throw a party in it while you’re away.
7 Pursue what is edible (not what is recommended on TripAdvisor).
8 Do not tell the truth about how much your holiday cost.
9 Assume that the person you are listening to knows something you don’t, such as the local language.
10 Be precise in your speech. Don’t order 12 beers when you mean two.
11 Bother children when they are on their phones. In fact, take their damned phones away.
12 If abroad, kick a cat when you see one on the street. Only the English really like cats.
“We have to rediscover the eternal values,” Peterson has said, “and then live them out.” Yes, and never more so than during the summer holidays. So here, be my guest, have 12 more rules:
1 Plan your journey to minimise stress. Perhaps order and chaos should fly separately this year.
2 Get off social media. And stay off.
3 Don’t carry your phone around.
4 Learn something new. (I recommend paddleboarding.)
5 Do two hours of work in the morning. It’ll stop you worrying. But otherwise switch off.
6 Read a great novel. (My choice this month is Stendhal’s Charterhouse of Parma.)
7 Take very long walks, the kind of exercise you seldom have time for.
8 Play a musical instrument, even if it is only a tin whistle.
9 Eat and drink less, not more, than usual.
10 Watch no TV (except the World Cup).
11 Take no more than five photographs and one video. That’s plenty.
12 Above all, stop making lists of rules.
Enjoy the summer, dear readers. By this time next year, the diversity police will have decided that the whole concept of a holiday is politically incorrect. Thankfully, we can count on Jordan Peterson to tell them where to go . . . on vacation.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
My uncle Ian enjoyed asking his younger brother, my late father, when that wastrel Niall would leave college and get a real job. The implication was that, by becoming an academic, I had essentially failed to grow up. I sometimes think Uncle Ian was right.
One of the attractions of university life to me was precisely that academic jobs were not like real jobs. At Oxford my tutors inhabited large, wood-panelled studies with towering bookcases and mullioned windows. They wore not suits but old tweed jackets with leather patches on the elbows.
For roughly half the year the dons had to put up with undergraduates knocking on their doors with hastily written essays to be discussed. During the vacations, however, they were free to do as they pleased, as long as they occasionally published books. I resolved to join these happy eggheads.
In those distant days of the 1980s academic historians came in different flavours. There were fierce Marxists. There were brilliant liberals. There were polemical radicals. And there were acerbic Tories. This was part of the joy of the Oxbridge experience. In Michaelmas term you boned up on the rising gentry and falling bourgeoisie. In Hilary term, having been sent to a conservative tutor, you learnt that this was all drivel.
On the whole I found the Tory dons more fun. We Oxford Thatcherites were, to be sure, a minority, but we had our mentors and they egged us on. A highlight of my time at Oxford was my election to the Canning Club, a conservative discussion group run by undergraduates but presided over by the Oriel College medievalist Jeremy Catto.
Fast-forward more than 30 years and I find myself at Stanford. My don’s life has not been exactly as I imagined it, but near enough. Books? Fifteen at the last count. Scruffy jackets? A wardrobe-ful. A level of freedom unknown in any other profession? No question.
But there is one huge difference that has crept up on me almost imperceptibly. Today scarcely any conservatives are to be found among academic historians. In American history departments, according to a 2016 study of 40 leading institutions, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by a ratio of 33.5 to one. Compare this with the ratios for law (8.6:1) and economics (4.5:1). The ratios are higher if you exclude older faculty members, so the trend is clearly the progressives’ friend.
This helps explain why, shortly after taking up a post at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, I was approached by a succession of students. Some were self-professed conservatives, others registered Republicans, but most were libertarians, classical liberals or undecideds. Their common complaint was that the campus was dominated by progressives, and that it was hard even to get a conservative as an outside speaker. Their common goal was intellectual diversity.
Remembering Jeremy Catto, I offered encouragement. I suggested setting up a visiting speaker series dedicated to free speech. I opposed those who argued that only conservatives should be invited. As the president and provost also wished to promote free speech at Stanford, we joined forces. Seeking a bipartisan basis for the initiative, we brought in a Democrat colleague, Mike McFaul, and involved all the student publications, left and right-leaning alike. We organised five such “Cardinal Conversations”, ranging from technology and politics to populism and inequality.
There was (as I had expected) opposition from the outset. In particular, our invitation of Charles Murray provoked outrage from the campus left. Ever since the publication in 1994 of Murray’s book The Bell Curve
(co-authored with Richard Herrnstein), there has been controversy about their (brief) discussion of race as a factor in differences in IQ and their claim that socioeconomic outcomes reflect genetic and not just environmental influences. Yet the sheer scale of the discussion that Murray’s work has generated would seem to argue for its importance, regardless of whether one ends up agreeing with him.
The campus left took a different view. Eight student groups joined forces to write to the president, calling for Murray’s invitation to be rescinded. “Murray’s work is not an academic undertaking,” they wrote. “It is a foundation for white supremacy.” When the event nevertheless went ahead, they organised a noisy protest.
So far, so predictable — though I had never expected to hear students chant: “F*** Steve Bannon / F*** the western canon.” What I had not foreseen was that the protest leaders might attempt to take over the student steering committee we had established.
I had met representatives of the various aggrieved student groups. I had heard their charge that I was “weaponising free speech”. I had satisfied myself that their antipathy to Murray was not based on any reading of his work.
I had no objection to these groups’ views being heard, but began to fear they were seeking an effective veto over future events. The existing committee was not unrepresentative: only half its members were white, and half were women. By contrast, the groups represented by the “coalition of concerned students” seemed to constitute a rather small proportion of the overall student body. When I heard an emergency meeting had been called by their leader to change the structure of the committee, I decided to mobilise the college Republicans.
Now the emails we exchanged have been published, I stand condemned for my intemperate language. Fair enough. As soon as it became clear that these emails had been inadvertently forwarded to unintended recipients, I resigned from Cardinal Conversations.
Re-reading my emails now, I am struck by their juvenile, jocular tone. “A famous victory,” I wrote the morning after the Murray event. “Now we turn to the more subtle game of grinding them down on the committee. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” Then I added: “Some opposition research on Mr O might also be worthwhile” — a reference to the leader of the protests.
None of this happened. The meetings of the student committee were repeatedly postponed. No one ever did any digging on “Mr O”. The spring vacation arrived. The only thing that came of the emails was that their circulation led to my stepping down.
From all of this I draw two conclusions. First, it might have been avoided if conservatives at universities did not feel so beleaguered. There is a debate about whether free speech has been restricted on American campuses in recent years. I have no doubt it has. Middle-of-the-road students live in fear that a casual remark will be deemed “offensive” or “triggering” and that social media will be unleashed to shame them. Conservative students have to keep quiet or fight a culture war in which they are hopelessly outnumbered.
The other lesson I have learnt is that Uncle Ian was right: I do need to grow up. Student politics is best left to students. So I am putting my tweed jacket back on and retreating to my beloved study. It is time to write another book.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
I am not prone to anxiety. I inherited from my parents a relatively robust mental constitution. My skin has been thickened by vicious ad hominem criticism of my books and TV shows. I don’t dwell on setbacks, any more than on successes. I am rarely introspective and have never sought psychological or psychiatric help. Last week, however, for the first time since I went through the emotional trauma of divorce, I experienced an uncontrollable panic attack.
If you’re an anxious person, you’ll know the symptoms all too well. You’re tired, and yet you can’t sleep. It’s cold, and yet you’re sweating. You’re lying in bed, and yet your heart is racing as if you’ve just run the 100-metre sprint. You try to read, and yet your mind can’t escape the doom-loop of whatever is worrying you. I slept not a wink. The following day I was a zombie propelled by caffeine. And without the help of a sleeping pill it would have been the same story the next night.
The trigger for the attack was a few intemperate emails, inadvertently forwarded to unintended recipients. My wife, who is made of sterner stuff, read them and laughed. Why was I hyperventilating over such silliness? But my reaction was so extreme that I was forced to reflect on its deeper causes.
Two things struck me. First, since the publication in October of The Square and the Tower — my book on networks in history — I have been almost incessantly on a book tour and therefore in the public eye. I have given umpteen interviews. Every other day, I have to stand up in front of an audience, summarise the book’s argument and then take questions.
I have been through this before, of course, more than a dozen times. But when I began publishing books (more than 20 years ago), there was no Amazon, no Facebook, no Twitter, no YouTube. Book publicity mainly consisted of appearing on Start the Week, and then traipsing from one bookshop to another, signing books, until the Hay festival heralded the summer holidays. Today, by contrast, an author is expected to hype himself through every available social media channel.
In the old days you had to deal with a finite number of reviews of the book, of which perhaps five really mattered. Today the feedback is incessant. Has your Amazon ranking slid from three digits to four? Has your number of followers or subscribers gone up? How many “likes” did your latest utterance elicit?
This would be bad enough in itself. But the worst feature of the Online Age is not the frequency and precision of the ratings. It’s the vicious atmosphere that pervades every online forum.
A central theme of my book is that the internet, especially since the advent of social media, has exacerbated political polarisation. This is partly because of human nature: even in quite small social networks we human beings tend to self-segregate into like-minded clusters (a phenomenon known as homophily). But it is also because the algorithms that drive the networks incentivise the posting of fake news and extreme views. On Twitter, for example, political tweets are 20% more likely to be retweeted for each moral and emotive word they use.
Having written about all this, I am now living it. And the effect is best described as frazzling. You become involuntarily addicted to the accursed apps on your phone and laptop, not (as is commonly claimed) because you seek the validation of popular approval, but because you live in mortal dread of public humiliation. And abasement can come at the drop of a single brick. One faux pas — one off-the-cuff comment deemed by some group of militant victims to be “offensive” — and the digital mob is on your case, moral and emotive words at the ready.
The second reason my nerves are in shreds is that I have been on the book publicity circuit at a time when the reputations of a succession of eminent men have been destroyed with stunning speed. I am not thinking only of the celebrities brought low by accusations of sexual harassment — more than 70 in the US alone. I’m referring to a more general tendency. The average British chief executive now spends just 4.8 years in the top job; the average football manager — even if you count Arsène “22 seasons” Wenger — just 1.2 years.
There’s also something unnerving about the remarkable brevity of political careers these days. The Trump administration is just 15 months old, and there have already been more than 40 resignations and firings. Anthony Scaramucci was appointed communications director on July 21 last year and fired a mere 10 days later, destroyed by a reckless phone call to a journalist he considered a friend.
In the immortal words of the Aussie rockers AC/DC, “It’s a long way to the top if you want to rock’n’roll.” But it’s now a very short way to the bottom.
You may say that these are all signs of a greater accountability. Yet justice has not been done in at least some cases I can think of. Some careers have been terminated for transgressions that were committed long ago and violated no law. Other cases seem to be investigated according to the principle of “guilty until proven innocent”. As for the Trump administration, turnover is now higher than in The Apprentice, the reality-TV show the president used to host, which would lose 17 people each series.
In the course of my sleepless night I found myself wondering whether I any longer trusted that my world was just. Growing up in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s, I had unthinkingly accepted the system described (critically) in Michael Young’s 1958 book The Rise of the Meritocracy. My assumption, based on the Calvinist culture and Enlightenment ideals of middle-class Scotland, was that if I studied hard, worked long hours and behaved with honesty and integrity, I would prosper.
It was not until I visited what was then Soviet-controlled eastern Europe that I encountered societies where arbitrary acts of injustice were routinely perpetrated against the likes of me. But only recently have I fully grasped that injustice can also occur in the West, and it can befall not only its traditional victims at the bottom of the social heap, but also smug meritocrats.
Ancient Roman and medieval writers, not least Chaucer, understood fate was random. “Thus kan Fortune hir wheel governe and gye,” writes Chaucer in The Monk’s Tale, “And out of joye brynge men to sorwe.” The Rota Fortunae — Wheel of Fortune — was so overused an image that, by Shakespeare’s time, it furnished material for comedy (Pistol and Fluellen discuss it in Henry V).
From the Renaissance onwards, men grew increasingly confident they could determine their own fates. No more. The lesson I have learnt this year is that the Rota Fortunae is back. The blind goddess now resides on the internet. And that funny revolving beach ball that Mac users see shortly before their computer crashes — what Apple calls the “spinning wait cursor” — is actually Fortune’s new wheel. Beware, for it is not only computers she causes to crash.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford