As ‘wokeness’ and ‘cancel culture’ have taken root in the West, an increasing number of voices have been shut out of ‘mainstream’ discourse. Questioning the orthodoxy of the day has become anathema to the ‘logic’ of political correctness that currently prevails in politics, media, and the academy, among other institutions.
What can be done about this? Dr. Alex Pattakos proposes we break free from being a prisoner of others’ thoughts—and our own thoughts as well. Having been mentored by world-renowned psychiatrist Dr. Viktor Frankel, Dr. Pattakos is a Vietnam veteran, has worked under three U.S. presidential administrations (including that of Ronald Reagan), has taught and lectured at several academic institutions, and founded the Global Meaning Institute. Drawing upon his background in psychology and psychiatry, public policy and public administration, and ancient Greek philosophy, Dr. Pattakos has authored several best-selling books, including Prisoners of Our Thoughts and The OPA! Way: Finding Joy & Meaning in Everyday Life & Work, both of which he co-authored with Elaine Dundon. In August, he spoke with The European Conservative about his background and writings, experiences serving under three U.S. presidents, where ‘wokeness’ and ‘cancel culture’ is taking society, the dangers of technocracy, and how we can locate meaning in postmodern society.
To begin, share with us a few words about your winding path working in serving in the military and serving in several U.S. presidential administrations, as well as your winding intellectual path. How did you end up doing what you’re doing today?
Well, first of all, thank you, Michael, for interviewing me. The European Conservative is definitely aligned with how I’ve been thinking most of my adult life. When I was younger and getting out of the military, I was on the other side of the political spectrum. At that time, I was part of the counterculture. I never would have thought that at this stage of my life, that I would once again be part of the counterculture but as a conservative. It’s been a zigzag path getting here.
My family originates from the island of Crete, in Greece, and my initial interest in politics evolved from my interest in mental health services and the ‘politics’ of mental health. Most likely this stemmed from living near a state mental institution as a young man. I was always wondering what was going on behind the fence and what are some of the things that would make people behave in certain ways. And, importantly, I had read a book when I was still in high school by someone who turned out to be one of my mentors, Dr. Viktor E. Frankl, the Viennese psychiatrist who wrote the classic bestseller, Man’s Search for Meaning. As a result, I was drawn to the notion of pursuing meaning in my life and in whatever I did. So that became a common thread that kept me going as part of my moral compass.
I began working in the mental health field. Even when I was in the U.S. Army, I was very fortunate to train and work with some really well-known specialists in the field of psychiatry and psychology. Later, when I got out of the military, I eventually returned to work in mental health. At the time my country was going through the “deinstitutionalization” of mental health services. Some of the people with whom I had worked were in-patients committed to psychiatric institutions where they were put away, out of sight from society, frequently in what can best be described as ‘warehouse’ conditions.
Good intentions notwithstanding, all of a sudden we had this revolving door and many of the services at that time that I was looking to ensure patients had—not just in the facilities, but also when they were discharged into the community—didn’t exist. At this stage I became deeply involved with the politics of mental health, which included studying not just political science, but also political psychology, organizational psychology, and philosophy. And it is really at the intersection of these three threads—politics, psychology, and philosophy—where my life has found guidance, a source of both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, and, most importantly, deep meaning.
So that’s basically how I got to where I am in terms of my passion and enthusiasm for what is essentially an ongoing process of (self) discovery and what I like to call my “ministry of meaning.” This life mission did not come about as a result of deliberate strategic planning; rather, it was and is being created along the way in real time. In this regard, when I was younger, I had no idea that I would someday be in the presence of Viktor Frankl at his home in Vienna, Austria. I first read Man’s Search for Meaning as a teenager and have re-read this classic book many times over the years. As I became familiar with Dr. Frankl’s body of work, I was able to compare it to the specialists in psychiatry and psychology with whom I had trained and worked in the Army, who were generally Freudians. I was much more interested in what Dr. Frankl called “logotherapy,” and have been applying his meaning-centric principles as a way to advance his life and wisdom. I’ve committed to do so not just to improve people’s personal lives, but also to transform the public and nonprofit sectors in a way that is more meaning-focused. That’s basically my passion and it has been a mission of mine for quite a number of years now. A lot of my writing is grounded in that mission.
You mentioned being part of the counterculture again after so long, and you talked about pursuing meaning. You used to work in academia. What is your take on what academia has become today, especially your field of psychology?
My teaching is interdisciplinary: it draws from the disciplines of political science, psychology, and philosophy, among others. My view of academia can be traced to Plato’s Academy and the Socratic Method which, at its foundation, values the challenging of assumptions, the debating of ideas, and the process of authentic dialogue. Only in this way, in my view, can students really learn about and build their capacity in problem-solving, decision-making, and conflict resolution. Put differently, by focusing on how to think rather than what to think, they were able to be more prudent, a little wiser about how to pursue their objective, whatever it may be.
When I was a full-time academic, the world was very different than it is today. I could say things, I could do things I know probably would not be acceptable today. The cultural shift that’s been happening in academic institutions is so dramatic. As a case in point, not long ago I was refused the opportunity to teach a part-time seminar at one university because, I was informed by email, I would upset the students and they would upset me! The institution’s representatives, I should point out, didn’t know me personally and never communicated with me directly. Who knows, maybe they learned something about me on social media that ‘triggered’ them. If they had read anything I’ve written, they would, or at least should, have realized that I view diversity of thought and freedom of expression as fundamental to the academic enterprise. Still, I was told without explanation or discussion that I would not only upset the students but probably would be upset by them as well! This kind of ‘cancel culture’ experience only underscores that the academy I once cherished and called home desperately needs to rediscover its roots and purpose. Sadly, it is losing its way!
I remember being on a panel in 2016 with Jordan Peterson and a far-Left group. I acted as the intermediary between Jordan’s viewpoint and a panelist who was on the ‘other’ side, the author of The Politics of Meaning. I was trying to reconcile the panelists’ widely divergent opinions or positions and, ideally, find common ground between them. That was the beginning of my realization of the divisive politics, the identity politics, that we have created for years now. Obviously, it has accelerated in these last few years. It has made it so difficult to get people to see that there are other sides of every issue. And it’s not just the politics per se: it’s a cultural, civilizational shift in the way we’re looking at society. So basically, academia is really going downhill as far as I’m concerned.
If we get philosophical for a moment, what is the meaning of politics and liberty in your view?
I think that’s probably one of the most fundamental questions, and it is one that I have been trying to address for years now. The purpose of politics (in the ideal sense) is to resolve conflict. That necessitates recognizing that conflict exists. It’s part of human nature that we are going to have diversity. Indeed, we hear a lot about how ‘diversity is our strength’ these days. But one of the things that we’re not hearing in this era is that diversity of thought should also be considered a strength or, more fundamentally, should be valued, even cherished, especially in jurisdictions that presumably are founded on democratic principles. The prevailing narrative is that we want to have ‘diversity’ in identifiable, tangible things like race, ethnicity, religion, gender, you name it. In my view, rather than bringing people together, the obsession with these identities is divisive and, more often than not, intensifies the separation between people. Against this backdrop, the true purpose of politics should be to resolve conflict, not to create or exacerbate it!
Unfortunately, we’re living in a time right now where we’re doing just that: we’re making more problems out of things that don’t need to be, problems that we’re creating, things that, in my view, are destructive to humanity and civilization, particularly Western civilization. And so politics, the ideal form of politics, should be looking for how we can resolve conflicts and encourage unity as a complement of diversity. How do we encourage people to engage in things like Socratic dialogue so that they can go to a higher ground where they can start to seek a common ground? That’s really the goal; or at least it should be. The best political leaders I’ve seen have an ability to bring people together, demonstrate that they work for the people and not the other way around, and build trust and confidence in people that they and their input and feedback will be respected. And so, the kind of political system that I would like to see—it doesn’t even have to be ‘democratic’ in the classical sense—is the idea that people feel that they can be heard, that they are respected, and that their quality of life is dependent upon a political and societal structure that allows them to thrive as much as possible.
You’re speaking to us right now from Canada, where there have been, of course, a lot of interesting political developments in recent months. What is life like right now in Canada, beginning with those who are unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated, and being that Canada has had among the strictest restrictions in the world pertaining to COVID-19 and to vaccination?
I’m very proud to say, and I have no problem saying this, that I am a proud member of the so-called “small fringe minority with unacceptable views,” as described by the current Prime Minister of Canada. I have my views and I must admit that I don’t have much respect for the current government. Actually, I’m ashamed of the Canadian government as it exists today! And again, I’m not afraid to say that. I think that to see the erosion of individual personal freedoms go the route that they’ve gone over these last two years, is outrageous. It’s very odd for somebody whose family roots are deeply embedded in the soil and soul of the Sfakian region of Crete, Greece, where the motto ‘freedom or death’”’ actually means—or at least should mean—something. Moreover, to have served in the U.S. military during the Vietnam era and know that I have brothers and sisters who paid the ultimate price for freedom, it really disturbs me that most of the people in government who are making these decisions have no idea what it’s like. They have not lived in some of these systems, they have not been to places with some of these idealized, utopian, socialist-communist approaches, to see what it really looks like and means under those regimes.
To be in Canada right now, it’s embarrassing for me being that I’m now a dual citizen, Canadian and American. I came here with that freedom-loving spirit. I still have it. They’re not going to take it away from me. And I’m unvaccinated, and so, I’ve had many of my freedoms taken away in terms of being able to travel, etc. I couldn’t go into a restaurant or coffee shop for the longest time. I had to wear a mask and so forth. I look at alternative viewpoints and I do have a lot of colleagues and friends who represent an alternative viewpoint when it comes to the pandemic. I’m not denying that there’s a virus. I’m not denying that people get ill. But I don’t like the way that this entire policy program apparatus has been operating for the last two-plus years in terms of shutting down an entire nation, entire society, for it basically was, in my view, unnecessary based on the data that I see. Unfortunately, the mainstream media and all the other sources of government news and so forth will not allow some of those views, and some of my colleagues have been not just unfairly shunned, debunked, and ridiculed, but they’ve been canceled. You’ve got to go to alternative media just to find them, and then, if you go to the alternative media, you’re obviously a ‘conspiracy theorist.’ Well, so many of the things that are ‘conspiracy theories’ are turning out to be true.
I’m also angry at—and disappointed in—Greece, my country of ancestry, to be honest with you. At least in the U.S., there’s a countermovement that’s happening, potentially there are enough laboratories of democracy, if you will, to allow some places, even if they’re being criticized, in Florida, South Dakota, and so forth, to change this very dangerous direction. They get criticized for their approach. But at the same time, at least they are able to decide on their own ways of dealing with the situation. It’s much harder in Canada and Greece to have that diversity of thought, diversity of response. Ironically, wouldn’t you expect Greece to be a laboratory of democracy? I mean, after all, it is recognized as the birthplace of democracy. Why don’t they have it? Canada, meanwhile, is not the place to practice this kind of democratic process. To be sure, it’s not the Canada that I envisioned being in. Fortunately, I do live in a place in Canada that is the closest to what I had envisioned which, at least for the time being, makes it easier to tolerate what I view as an incompetent government with absurd, tyrannical tendencies.
You just mentioned Greece and your Greek descent. I’m actually located in Greece, as you know. And of course, this is the European Conservative, so it’s only appropriate to bring Greece into the discussion. The country right now is being governed by a supposedly conservative government, but really its politics resemble those of Canada, for instance, or the current administration in the U.S. or the governments of France or the Netherlands. And even if we go back further prior to the current government, the governments before it, again, were much the same thing. We really haven’t seen a conservative party gain a foothold in Greece in the same sense that it has, let’s say, in Hungary, for instance, or in some other places. So based on your perspective and your own knowledge of Greece, and I know at least up to prior to COVID you were visiting the country regularly, why hasn’t a viable conservative party been able to gain a foothold and develop in Greek society? What do you think is missing?
Greece is an interesting place because, as you know, Michael, getting Greeks to do things together is like herding cats. It’s not the easiest thing in the world. We have the same issue here in Canada with Trudeau, being that he’s basically prime minister only because of his last name, his father’s name. We’ve got such situations in the U.S. in the same way, similar oligarchies, and the Greeks are known for that as well. It’s an issue of breaking through the ‘glass ceiling’, if you will, and I’m not talking about it for women. I’m talking about just for people who aren’t actually part of the old guard, almost like it’s an aristocracy. I think that’s an issue that I see in Greece as well. And the idea is that there are other influences happening in Greece, Canada, the U.S., around the world that to some extent obviously can be traced to the people who are been trained through the WEF and entities like that; there’s this globalist agenda, there’s this wanting to be in the club. I mean, we’re creating a Hunger Games type of scenario where we’re dividing people—and not just to divide and conquer, but to transform—hence, think ‘Great Reset.’ It’s to divide people in such a way that they’re weaker and that you’ve got the certain so-called ‘elites’ who are driven by whatever forces are coming out of Davos or any place else where they’re in the castle.
I’m disappointed in the NDP [New Democracy Party] in Greece and the NDP [New Democracy Party] in Canada. They are different parties—here it was supposed to be the working person’s Labor Party, and in Greece it is supposed to be a center-Right conservative party, but in both cases they’re merging into a leftist ‘uniparty.’ And it’s almost like if we get into one way of thinking about political parties, then eventually we can get rid of them and just have them run by unelected technocrats who basically are telling us how to live our lives. That is not freedom. That is not healthy and certainly is not ‘good’ government by any stretch of the imagination.
To be sure, I can go on and on because I see this happening with our perception of and relationship with Russia. I have a friend and colleague who just published a book on Russophobia (actual title). Moreover, I have an honorary professorship at the Moscow Institute of Psychoanalysis, one of the leading institutions of higher learning in the country. I have many friends and colleagues in Russia. They’re not monsters. Maybe many of them have a nationalistic, patriotic viewpoint about what their country is about. Maybe they don’t want to experience what we did during the Cuban Missile Crisis; namely, other countries investing in military installations, biolabs, and so forth on their border. Well, what would happen if we did that here today? What if Canada allowed China to build a whole slew of military installations across the Canadian-American border? Would either Canada or the U.S. sit back and let that happen?
There’s no real semblance of diplomacy either. When the Freedom Convoy of truckers ‘occupied’ Ottawa, where was the prime minister? Did he come out to meet and listen to the truckers? No, he did not; in fact, he went into hiding! I mean, you can’t engage meaningfully with others in the process of dialogue if you’re not willing to extend beyond yourself. I don’t even think he’s willing to entertain the possibility that people do think differently. And the way he’s treated the people who are unvaccinated is not only horrible but also a slap in the face of freedom and democratic values. By creating a federal Liberal Party in Canada that has effectively usurped the NDP, we see the saying “politics makes strange bedfellows” in action! It is as if Canada’s political leaders want to have their own January 6 ‘insurrection’—and I’m using the term very loosely, because I hope that the truth comes out eventually about what really happened on January 6 in the U.S.—by creating the conditions for it to happen; a self-fulfilling prophecy. But the idea is they want to replicate models that have been used elsewhere, e.g., the Netherlands, France, Greece, in very puppet-like fashion. They don’t seem to have a brain of their own. They don’t have a thought of their own. And one doesn’t have to be Sherlock Holmes or Sigmund Freud to see that President Biden is in cognitive decline. The only reason he’s probably still in office is that the options for the Democratic Party right now are pretty slim. And as they move towards the midterms, you’re going to see more and more attempts by the Left to accuse people of ‘revolution’, or that they don’t trust the ‘science’ in order to sustain fear with the hope of gaining voter support. It’s mind-boggling to think about how and why society has come to this point. Personally, I feel like I’m living in the Twilight Zone!
You have an upcoming book. When can we expect it to be ready, and where can our audience find out more about all of your work?
The best way to find out more would be to go to our website. My upcoming book is about the search for meaning in government and politics, and it is entitled Public Administration and the Search for Meaning: Rediscovering the Soul of Government. Writing it has been a long, complex process as well because of all the dynamics, the political dynamics, public policy, the geopolitical implications, so many things that have been influencing my thinking and it’s changed so much of what I want to incorporate and still make the book not just relevant for today, but something that has legs so that it can be relevant and used well into the future. I don’t want it to be time-bound, but at the same time I want it to be relevant for what’s happening today. The basic thesis is that we are in a crisis of meaning. The crisis of meaning is in society; it manifests itself in various ways, including what now appears to be the decline of Western civilization. I see this as an important and very dangerous thing. It’s not just government that is suffering from a crisis of confidence, it is something that has infected many societal institutions.
But I feel that a ‘Great Awakening’ is happening: one that not only can counter the ‘wokeism’ disease that plagues society, but also can help regain the deeper meaning that is fundamental to all humanity. We desperately need to use meaning as the fuel that drives us, and not rely primarily on power, greed, and money as our motivation. I know that what I’m proposing is idealistic. Like Viktor Frankl, I’m a true optimist. Moreover, I believe in elevating the human spirit. I also believe that people naturally can be and do good. Obviously, there will always be those who deviate from the ‘norm.’ For whatever its worth, I studied abnormal psychology. I don’t even know what’s abnormal anymore. Nowadays, I think if you’re a conservative, you’re viewed as ‘abnormal.’ That’s the irony of the whole thing, and it’s kind of bizarre that the conservatives in this day and age are fighting for freedom and it’s the so-called tolerant left liberals and progressives that want to shut things down and accept more external controls over their lives. It is mind boggling. It is as if we have entered and are now living in the Twilight Zone!
Returning to your original question, I would go to our website and get more information and updates from there. I’m also back on LinkedIn after being suspended for supposedly violating ‘community standards.’ I have some presence on Facebook, as well as some presence on Twitter. It fluctuates depending on if I post anything deemed provocative and then they ban me. I just started to use some social media alternatives, like Parler, Truth Social, and Telegram, but am not really active on them. In fact, I try to stay away as much as possible from social media while I’m finishing this book so that I can stay focused as much as possible. To be sure, it’s very difficult to stay away because the technology these days is very seductive. At the same time, I don’t like the information overload that comes with these new media platforms—it’s not wisdom, it’s not knowledge, it’s basically information that is often not just biased, but is outright misinformation—disinformation. It comes from all sides. So I try to stay away from it as much as possible.