“I compare Peterson with Ayn Rand because—as I read this book—her name constantly came to my mind (she is mentioned only once in the book).”
The Left has long had intellectual gurus with cult-like followings: from Derrida to Foucault to Sartre to Žižek. This is a less frequent occurrence on the Right, so there are fewer intellectual gurus to be found there. Perhaps the last such figure was Ayn Rand, and, even though she has been dead for more than three decades, her views remain quite influential for some young people. So, the time is ripe for a new right-wing intellectual guru, and it seems Jordan Peterson is playing that role.
If you are a male college student, you might not mind watching Peterson’s long lectures on Solzhenitsyn—or reading his technical articles on the psychology of alcoholism. However, the rest of us would prefer to have a ready-made concise CliffNotes version of his ideas, chiefly to judge whether this Peterson fellow is actually worth all of the fuss that accompanies him. Jim Proser provides such a guide in Savage Messiah: How Dr. Jordan Peterson Is Saving Western Civilization. It is a nice intellectual biography, written in a very engaging style; it is never dumbed-down yet full of anecdotes. It also quotes extensively from Peterson’s own books, lectures, and interviews.
I compare Peterson with Ayn Rand because—as I read this book—her name constantly came to my mind (she is mentioned only once in the book). In Atlas Shrugged, the boogeyman is socialism, and the dominant theme of that very long book is individuals rejecting herd-mentality and taking responsibility for their own actions; Atlas is the mythological hero, who embraces this ideal by taking the world on his shoulders. In Proser’s portrayal, Peterson is similarly fascinated with Atlas, as this excerpt from one of his lectures demonstrates: “This is an old representation, right? Atlas with the world. Well, it’s a representation that says that that’s the proper way to live, right?… [It] is to pick up a load that’s heavy enough so that if you carry it you have some self-respect.”
Points along these lines may sound more like self-help motivational coaching than insightful scholarship. And indeed, throughout Proser’s book, one may sympathize with Peterson, but I still wonder what all the hand-wringing surrounding him is all about. Don’t misunderstand me, Peterson is a legitimate scholar, but I can think of many, many contemporary intellectuals that have far more interesting things to say.
Now, maybe Peterson’s singularity is that he struck a chord in the right place at the right time. Political correctness and identity politics have gone too far, and free speech does appear to be under siege at many North American universities. As Proser tells the story, Peterson courageously has taken a stand against of all this. Kudos to him for that. However, I worry that there is something darker lurking underneath Peterson’s crusade.
Apart from Ayn Rand, the other author that constantly came to mind as I read the book was Nietzsche. Proser paints Peterson as some sort of Übermensch, a figure who in his youth lifted weights, “a roughneck, a frontier cowboy from the lonely Alberta oilfields… he grew up fighting for his place in a wolf pack of tough guys.” And, now, Peterson has become this savage intellectual, who exists beyond the mediocrity of the rest—and thrives by killing the dragons of chaos, fighting hard to reestablish order.
Now, of course, Nietzsche was not guilty of the way his philosophy was abused by the Nazis. But, I do give credence to the thesis that his ideas did sow the seeds of totalitarianism. If you worry so much about being a Superman, then ultimately it is not so hard to conclude that weaklings must simply disappear from the face of the Earth. Likewise, I worry that—underneath all the talk about responsibility, order, and anti-political correctness—there may be something more sinister going on with Peterson.
Proser presents Peterson as a champion of the Enlightenment, who prioritizes science over ideology, and calls a spade a spade by reminding liberals that gender differences are real. That may very well be, but I doubt Peterson is really committed to the Enlightenment and its true liberal spirit. Actually, I think Matt McManus hits it on the head when he claims that Peterson is much closer aligned with postmodernism and the counter-Enlightenment than he would be willing to admit. The Enlightenment turned its back on faith and Christianity as a whole; Peterson says he does not believe in God, but he, very confusingly, seems to think religion will always be necessary—and that atheism inevitably leads to many depravities. The Enlightenment was cosmopolitan and had little patience for nationalism; by contrast, the counter-Enlightenment provided the intellectual rationale for modern nationalism, and Peterson is similarly unhappy about what he calls “globalism.” The Enlightenment had little patience for pseudoscientific mumbo jumbo; by contrast, Peterson seems to think that people who painted snakes in antiquity already knew about DNA
But, perhaps the more worrying aspect of Peterson is his obsession with what he calls “neo-Marxism” and its alleged pernicious infiltration of our civilization. This is the dominant theme of Proser’s book. Yes, there are some fools in North American universities, and Peterson does a public service by confronting them. But, to believe that these clueless college students are actually a threat to Western civilization (and that Peterson is a kind of Medieval knight who must slew the terrifying monsters) is hyperbole. If History is any guide, totalitarianism begins with hyperbole about the dangers of particular people, whether it is Jews, the bourgeoisie, or the Kafir. Of course, Communism killed millions of people, but to obsess over it may actually pave the way for new forms of totalitarianism. Those youngsters who are fascinated with Peterson should know that Stalinism and McCarthyism are cut from the same cloth—and, unfortunately, Peterson’s obsession with “neo-Marxism” (whatever that means) is dangerously close to the kind of intellectual cleansing that infamous Senator from Wisconsin senator aspired towards.
Precisely because Peterson has this illiberal bone, nasty people can become very fond of him. The Alt-right is a case in point. Of course, one ought never be charged with a crime on the basis of association (again, one cannot entirely blame Auschwitz on Nietzsche). But in the case of Peterson, it should at least give pause that his ideas are being used to push for some eyebrow-raising agendas. While he still has a chance to escape such guilt by associations, Peterson must try harder to disavow some of the tendentious readings that people make of his words.
Proser has written a nice book, but he also makes for an example of someone who wants to use Peterson for his own agenda of ultraconservatism and American triumphalism. Take, for instance, his views on American imperialism. In the book, there is constant mention of the Soviet Evil Empire but no mention whatsoever of any American Empire. Proser scolds Noam Chomsky for saying that, “the United States also wiped out communist uprisings in Latin America with ‘the methods of Heinrich Himmler’s extermination squads.’” Well, like it or not, Chomsky is right this time. The United States’ illegal involvement in Nicaragua (and other countries south of Rio Grande) was intended to wipe out communist uprisings. Proser—in dismissing offhandedly this comparison—ignores that the School of the Americas run by the CIA taught Latin American dictatorships how to torture in order to suppress communist movements.
Proser is so far to the right, that he thinks that Obama was, “the de facto leader of the left since his election in 2008.” Proser even claims that, “Jordan [Peterson] recognized the election of Barack Obama and explosion of Occupy Wall Street as clear demonstrations that a radical Marxist storm had surged and was aiming to collapse Western traditions as it had before.” I do not know if Peterson actually thought this; however, if he did, then there is something wrong with him. To think that Barack Obama, who bailed out banks and Wall Street belongs in the same category with Occupy Wall Street is nothing more than unhealthy conspiratorial thinking.
One can easily guess Proser’s political views by looking at which thinkers he invokes and approves of. When speaking of the Intellectual Dark Web, he mentions respectable names such as Sam Harris, Joe Rogan, and Ben Shapiro. But then, he includes Glenn Beck. Seriously? The same guy who rants about George Soros and toys with conspiracy theories over and over again? Someone who not only toys with—but rather fully embraces—all sorts of conspiracy theories is Alex Jones. And Proser does seem to have a soft spot for him, too: “Alex Jones would fall to de-platforming as social media monopolies Facebook, Google, and Twitter revealed themselves to be in the progressive camp by using the new standard ‘hate speech is not free speech’ to throttle conservative, or as Jordan [Peterson] described himself, traditionalist voices.”
It is nice to have someone to give young adults advice about discipline, order, and responsibility. It is also nice to have a professor on television telling “woke” crusaders that the State has no right to force people to use specific pronouns—and that not everything is about race. But, if by talking so much about the Gulag, you forget about Guantanamo, we have a problem. No, I do not claim moral equivalency; the Gulag was certainly worse. But, I cannot emphasize enough that obsession with Stalinism can lead to McCarthyism—or the Patriot Act—and Peterson needs to think harder about how to prevent this.
He still has time to avoid going down the path of Ayn Rand. In her case, one can understand how closely witnessing the horrors of the Russian Revolution led to her extremist views. By contrast, Peterson has had the privilege of living in democratic nations his entire life. Sure, he has reason to strongly object to Communism, but his own unchecked views may be promoting a world that few sensible people would want. I worry that—in the end—this famous quotation by John Rogers may also apply to Peterson’s work: “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs”.
Dr. Gabriel Andrade is a university professor. He has previously contributed to Areo Magazine and DePauw University’s The Prindle Post. His twitter is @gandrade80