“The Republic is worth saving!” Jordan Peterson assured me last month in an elegant ballroom at Palm Beach’s storied Breakers Hotel when I told him that the organization I lead, the Palm Beach Freedom Institute, was committed to that ever more difficult goal. The occasion of our conversation was the Palm Beach debut of the Common Sense Society (CSS), an independent educational non-profit organization founded in Budapest in 2009 to promote liberty, prosperity, and beauty—“proven ideas that foster human happiness and flourishing.” All three concepts are under brutal assault today and deserve saving every bit as much as the great American republic and, we should now add, Peterson’s native Canada, where applications of “emergency powers” by a parliamentary government with minority electoral support may become a permanent feature of a surprisingly new authoritarian neoliberal political landscape.
Ably led by Marion Smith, former executive director of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, the CSS has branches active in the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, France, Hungary, and now Canada, with plans to expand. Unlike the standard American think tanks, which litter the Washington swamp with unread white papers, useless pamphlets, and empty cant, the CSS is a refreshingly hands-on organization that actively seeks public engagement and mobilizes a committed membership. It offers fellowships, curricular resources, cultural programs, public events, and digital media campaigns to combat the decay of the modern West through direct action. It is particularly sensitive to ominous “signs that socialist ideas are taking root” in American civic life and seeks to resist them and a culture of apathy that infects our politics. Its added emphasis on beauty—along with the more familiar “liberty” and “prosperity” tropes—introduces a cultural dimension that for decades has been lamentably absent from the conservative movement, which in the American context long ago ceded cultural politics to the sparing mercies of the progressive left.
The Common Sense Society’s headquarters are in Washington D.C., but as South Florida rises as a national center of political, financial, and cultural power, holding its nearly sold out gala and conference in Palm Beach was a wise decision. In addition to its proximity to leading political and philanthropic figures of the American Right, including former President Donald J. Trump who resides here, the locale also offers a welcome respite for beleaguered northern conservatives who must drearily exist in environments so far out of sympathy with their ideas that they are often mistreated and forced into a kind of underground existence. In this, Common Sense follows the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), which now holds conferences in Orlando, Florida, and other groups on the Right who favor more hospitable southern or western U.S. locations for their gatherings. In any case, disputed public health measures effectively precluded large events in Washington D.C., almost all of which were cancelled or postponed, while Florida’s more rational and scientific approach has allowed for regular events. And naturally, the weather is much better.
The highlight of the CSS event was the presentation of its inaugural Sir Roger Scruton Award, a high-profile prize granted in honor of the late British philosopher who encountered enormous adversity in academia and public life due to his conservative views but never lost a memorable ease of manner or commitment to reasoned discussion. It was these principles that made him “the patron saint of common sense,” as the Society’s 2022 prospectus aptly describes him. The inaugural recipient was Jordan Peterson, who has similarly suffered much in his recently arisen career as a public intellectual. Just days before, he had written of his decision to leave his professorial post at the University of Toronto, lamenting that he had become “academic persona non grata, because of my unacceptable philosophical positions,” and fearing that his students would suffer by association with him; this, in addition to all the usual obstacles to a successful and rewarding academic career, particularly, in this day of “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” for those who happen to be white and male.
Peterson spoke briefly as the keynote speaker at the sumptuous gala dinner, where the award was presented, but offered more philosophical remarks earlier in the day in conversation with the loquacious Russian-American conductor, Ignat Solzhenitsyn, son of the Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Lamenting the role of ideology in modern society, Peterson traced awareness of the phenomenon—which is naturally antithetical to Common Sense goals—to the ancient world, reminding us that the “idol” worshipped by the Israelites in the desert after their liberation from bondage in Egypt has the same linguistic root. A totalizing view of humanity, in other words, caused great harm then, just as it causes great harm now. As Smith writes in Common Sense’s prospectus, “we need less ideology and more thoughtful, free exchange of ideas.”
The sentiment was well on display throughout the conference and discussion, where a range of opinions on pressing issues emerged over the course of the event. For example, Niall Ferguson, the contrarian historian, made a strong point arguing that “critical race theory,” however objectionable, should not be subject to legal bans, which some American states and local governments have imposed. Notably, Ferguson’s wife Ayaan Hirsi Ali made substantively the same points at a lecture at Palm Beach’s Society for the Four Arts a few days later. These sentiments sat poorly with some segments of both audiences, who might observe to them that the so-called “bans” do not, in fact, prohibit the teaching or espousal of critical race theory, but rather forbid public school students from being required to learn that they are inherently oppressors, racists, or, indeed, victims, based on their heritage, race, social status, or skin color. These nuances in law can lead to significantly different conclusions, but identifying their logical premises rather than the emotional content is fully consistent with Common Sense’s mission. This encouraging sensibility also came out in two morning conference panels, one of which Ferguson moderated, about the role of ‘wokeism’ in business and education. A spirited discussion arose around new projects, such as the newly established University of Austin, whose president, Panayiotis Kanelos, presented as a counterbalance to ‘woke’ academia that promises to valorize a “fearless pursuit of the truth.”
Restricting liberty struck another powerful theme here in Florida. Common Sense availed itself of the occasion to inaugurate another prize, its Courage Award, which was movingly granted to Cuban democracy and human rights activist Rosa María Payá Acevedo. The daughter of Cuban dissident Oswaldo Payá, who was assassinated in 2012, she is founder of Cuba Decide, a grassroots forum to foster democracy in Cuba, and Executive Director of the Foundation for Panamerican Democracy.
Since this is South Florida, American national politics did inevitably come up. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis delivered a rousing speech about the achievements of his administration during the Covid-19 pandemic and in areas of concern to Common Sense, including recently implemented prohibitions on racialist teaching in Florida’s rising system of public education. Common Sense’s Chairman Thomas Peterffy introduced DeSantis as a “future president of the United States,” deftly sidestepping the burning question on the American Right of who will be the next American president, should Republicans triumph in 2024. Discussion was muted, but DeSantis is not alone in the hopes of many for a transition that could also install a certain former president who lives in Palm Beach.