Whenever I visit the home of a friend or acquaintance, I make a point of looking at two things. One of them is their library.
One can learn a great deal about someone simply by checking out the books on their shelves, I’ve found. Are they filled with books on how to make money or sci-fi? Are the crime thrillers written by John Grisham and James Patterson or Capote or Mailer?
Sometimes patterns emerge. Biographies of inspirational figures tend to be accompanied by literature on self-improvement. If you find an Ayn Rand novel, almost invariably you’ll find something written by Hayek or on Ronald Reagan. Sometimes it’s the randomness that’s striking. “Say, what are these romances doing next to Kierkegard? And why is Bukowski with Chesterton and C.S. Lewis?”
And what if there are no books? Well, maybe that tells a story, too.
Some may think of this as snooping, but books are on display for a reason. They say things about us. Which leads me to the second thing I observe when I visit someone’s home: artwork.
Like the books on our shelves, the art in homes can say a lot about us. That’s, again, why people display it—and have been known to pay extraordinary amounts of money to do so.
Art Lionizing ‘the Soviet Revolutionary Spirit’
I’ve been in homes that have displayed unusual artwork, including one house decorated in African-themed pieces that many would consider pornographic. But I don’t believe I’ve ever seen anything quite as unusual and unique as the art in Jordan Peterson’s home.
To be clear, I’ve never actually visited Peterson’s house. But his home and its artwork are described in some detail by Norman Doidge, who wrote the foreword to Peterson’s best-selling book “12 Rules for Life.”
Doidge met Peterson in 2004 at a gathering hosted by mutual friends, a pair of Polish emigres who came of age during the days of the Soviet empire. At the time, Peterson was a professor at the University of Toronto, and he and Doidge—a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst—soon became friends. (Apart from their scientific interests, it seems the men shared a passion for the great books, particularly “soulful Russian novels.”)
Doidge visited Peterson on more than one occasion, and he describes the Peterson house as “the most fascinating and shocking middle-class home I had seen.” Among the fascinations was an impressive collection of unusual artwork.
“They had art, some carved masks, and abstract portraits, but they were overwhelmed by a huge collection of original Socialist Realist paintings of Lenin and the early Communists commissioned by the USSR,” writes Doidge. “Paintings lionizing the Soviet revolutionary spirit completely filled every single wall, the ceilings, even the bathrooms.”
Books and art can tell you a great deal about people, as I said, but one must be careful to not draw the wrong conclusions. Which invites an important question: Why was Peterson’s home covered in Soviet era artwork?
One might assume that Peterson was a socialist. Yet, this isn’t the case. Or maybe, one might guess, Peterson began gobbling up Soviet propaganda pieces following the fall of the Soviet Union simply as investment. (I wish I had possessed the foresight to buy up a bunch of vintage Soviet art following the fall of the Soviet empire; alas, I was only 12.) Perhaps, but this wouldn’t explain why it’s displayed throughout his home.
Fortunately, Doidge offers us an answer.
“The paintings were not there because Jordan had any totalitarian sympathies, but because he wanted to remind himself of something he knew he and everyone else would rather forget: that over a hundred million people were murdered in the name of utopia,” Doidge writes.
The Horrors of Collective Power
It’s easy to forget that people like Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, and Mao weren’t actually monsters. They were simply people who did monstrous things in their quest to build utopias.
“Our policy was to provide an affluent life for the people,” Pol Pot once explained in a famous 1979 interview with The Guardian. “There were mistakes made in carrying it out.”
It was the great lie that bewitched so many in the 20th century—the idea that a more perfect world could be built through collectivism and coercion. And it was one that consumed many people, not just the devils of history.
“I have seen the future and it works,” the American investigative journalist Lincoln Steffens once observed after visiting Stalin’s Soviet Union.
It seems absurd to think anyone could possibly forget that 100 million people were murdered in the name of utopia—until you realize many of us have. The horrors of collective power seem mostly a distant memory, especially among intellectuals. There was a time when many intellectual giants—Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, and J.R.R. Tolkien, among them—saw concentrated government power as perhaps the greatest threat to humanity.
“It’s probable that all the world’s governments will be more or less completely totalitarian even before the harnessing of atomic energy; that they will be totalitarian during and after the harnessing seems almost certain,” Huxley observed not long after the conclusion of World War II. “Only a large-scale popular movement toward decentralization and self-help can arrest the present tendency toward statism.”
Huxley was no crank. He was one of the most brilliant minds of the 20th century. But any intellectual offering such a warning today would likely be dismissed by fellow scholars as just that, a crank.
Many seem happy to forget the great lesson of the 20th century: Those who seek to create heaven on earth through coercion almost invariably create hell. (To paraphrase the French author and psychiatrist François Lelord.)
Jordan Peterson is determined to not forget.
And we’d all do well to remember that a healthy and prosperous society is built through peace, trade, and freedom—not government force.
Jonathan Miltimore is the managing editor of FEE.org. His writing/reporting has been the subject of articles in TIME magazine, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, Forbes, Fox News, and the Star Tribune. Bylines: Newsweek, The Washington Times, MSN.com, The Washington Examiner, The Daily Caller, The Federalist, and The Epoch Times. This article was originally published on FEE.org