“I was surprised at the depth of their depravity in attacking this innocent academic. He also provoked quite a bit of outrage by refusing to be silenced by them—and thank God for that.”
im Proser is the author of Savage Messiah: How Dr. Jordan Peterson Is Saving Western Civilization, which was published in January of 2020. Prior to authoring his recent book on Jordan Peterson, Proser published a biography of General James Mattis, No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy: The Life of General James Mattis, in 2018, as well as I’m Staying with My Boys: The Heroic Life of Sgt. John Basilone, USMC in 2010. I’m Staying with My Boys partly inspired the 2010 HBO miniseries The Pacific. In this interview, Proser joins Merion West and Kambiz Tavana to discuss his most recent book, how he came to write it, and to comment on the general state of discourse around Jordan Peterson, the simultaneously beloved and controversial Canadian psychologist and author.
Mr. Proser, thank you for your time today. Could you begin by describing how you came to write Savage Messiah?
I was just impressed by the fact that Jordan Peterson has voluntarily taken on the argument for traditionalism in our society—and how he defends Western civilization. I found that so appealing and timely that I felt I had to write this story. I also wanted to understand what drove him to be such a staunch defender of the values that many of us hold as dear.
How did you research your book? Many books seemingly similar to yours are more of a semi-biography, where the author just follows the person’s life—or is more like an interview. Your book is a bit different. It’s more like detective work because you follow Peterson’s path and slowly put the pieces together. As such, what was your method of research for this book?
I worked with two professional researchers, and they have their methods. I worked with [Peterson’s] family briefly to get some introductions to critical people and in his life, but, essentially, I found the themes of certain elements in his life. For instance, in his early life, his flirtation with madness and nihilism directed me towards particular persons at that period in his life story. I generally try to find what his motivations are at different points in his life by reading public accounts, and then I find the people that knew him at the time and try to reach them. Or, at the very least, I capture their writings, research, and their public statements about him.
Have you ever had the chance to talk to Peterson himself about the book?
Yes, when I showed him the cover, which I had designed myself—and when I showed him the first section of the book, which I gave him to read against my publisher’s direct instructions. But I gave it to [Peterson] anyway because I felt that if he did not approve of my approach to the material, then I would not be very successful with the book. However, he did read it and tacitly approved of the part that I gave him, which was on the most revealing and dangerous moment of his life—where he was contemplating a physical attack on a student. I felt that if he thought that that was acceptable, the rest of the book would be tame in comparison.
What was the dynamic like between you and Peterson while writing the book?
Well, Jordan’s wife became very ill shortly after I began the book, and contact with him was then diverted to his daughter, Mikhaila, whom I spoke with at length, as well as his mother and brother to a lesser extent.
So you had a holistic approach towards studying Peterson?
You bring up the idea of Peterson’s teaching material at Harvard, a book called Gods of War, and it comes up throughout the book. What was the motivation behind that?
That was his first work and became Maps of Meaning.
So you followed that piece of work throughout Peterson’s entire life?
I don’t know if I followed it throughout his entire life because he subsequently wrote other works like 12 Rules for Life. He sort of formulated the themes and directions of his research in that first book and then popularized them in later works. Maps of Meaning was written in rather scientific language and was not easily accessible to non-academics. He then went on to popularize his writings with the follow-up: 12 Rules for Life.
There are some parts of your book that also remind me of 12 Rules for Life, including the part about Peterson’s friend—I believe his name was Chris, who was living with Peterson’s family and eventually became a problem. Did you mean to put in parallels between your book and Peterson’s narrative in 12 Rules for Life?
I took that story about Chris from Jordan’s own writings and his subsequent interviews that I found on YouTube. I pieced together this story true to Jordan’s own writings and interviews.
Jordan Peterson is a person who has put his life’s work into his books and teaching to help people have a better, more meaningful life. Do you find the backlash against him from different sides surprising?
Yes, I find it very informative, and it’s been much to [Peterson’s own] detriment; it has been a real trial for him and his family. I don’t mean to make light of it in anyway, but it was very illustrative to me of the depth of hatred that is directed at Dr. Peterson—and people of his [ideological] persuasion. The people who agree with him, who are of a conservative state of mind, are targeted by some very vicious and very powerful people. I was surprised at the depth of their depravity in attacking this innocent academic. He also provoked quite a bit of outrage by refusing to be silenced by them—and thank God for that. As I came to know about the extent of viciousness of those on the Left towards Peterson, I became very much more supportive of him personally. I feel personally compelled to support him whenever I see him attacked online or in any publication.
Why is there this animosity towards him?
Because there are people who gain power by providing meaning in people’s lives, particularly to young people who are searching for meaning. There are people dedicated to providing these young people with meaning, such as the fight for gender equality and postmodern values. But Jordan finds that it is vital for these young people to come to that on their own, for their own personal interest. That provides foundation of creating meaning in a person’s life. He is taking the power directly away from the postmodern activist and is essentially exposing them as the frauds that he and I believe they are.
Can you talk about Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris’ difference of opinion on the role of religion in our society?
I think it comes back to this rejection by Sam Harris and other atheists—this rejection of religion as a practice for finding meaning in life. They believe that it is an empty practice and unworthy of serious consideration. I believe they missed the lessons that Jordan has revealed in the practice of religion: that it provides deep and important meaning for people in their lives. For instance, the meaning of suffering can be found in the story of Jesus. Jesus has this voluntary acceptance of suffering. Now, atheists would very likely miss that lesson and path to meaning, whereas Jordan has made it very clear that the Christian religion provides a very clear example of the value and of the central importance of finding meaning to personal suffering.
Have you had the time to read any reviews on Savage Messiah since its publication?
Yes, I’ve read some reviews online.
Do you find them authentic and truthful to your work? I’ve seen reviews where authors use the reviews simply as a platform to take reflexively anti-Jordan Peterson stances masquerading as legitimate reviews of your work.
I find the positive reviews are even-handed and from people who generally don’t have a bias. They come to this topic with a genuine interest in finding out about Jordan Peterson. The people who don’t like the book are previously biased against Peterson. That’s what I gather from them because they don’t assign any value at all and just insult me and the book. I don’t feel that they have a genuine interest in learning anything or discovering Peterson. They’re looking to discredit Peterson and his supporters.
I have conversations with people who follow Jordan Peterson, and they describe gaining much self-reflection from engaging with his work. Have you had that same experience?
I think I just came to a deeper understanding of the suffering that I’ve gone through personally. I was in a very deep period of personal suffering, having lost my wife to cancer just prior to beginning the writing of the book. So, I was very deep into my own personal suffering, and I appreciated the advice to accept suffering as a gateway to finding a deeper meaning in my life, rather than just re-living the mindless and random catastrophes of the past. Rather than accepting it as just a random lot in existence, I actually found a deeper meaning to it that would propel me to a life of greater understanding and greater compassion.
Another thing I encounter when talking to people, who have read Jordan Peterson’s work, is how they describe how he breaks down everything they had in their mind already—and finding how wrong they were is so hurtful that it takes time for people to put themselves back together. I think that’s one of the reasons that some people just reject Peterson immediately.
I think that is right. The fundamental worldview that we are a member of a collective and postmodern nihilist society that has no individual soul is in direct conflict with the worldview of Peterson, who asserts over and over the primacy of the individual soul. In fact, the interest of a human in finding their own path through life comes from the examination of their particular type of affliction and suffering. The people who reject that are essentially striking out against the assertion that they have control over their reactions in life, so they are victims. They are victims of a stunted life, and they have identified with their victimhood, rather than with the traditional wisdom that Jordan provides. Wisdom to become an active participant in and pursuant of a better life. They identify as victims, and they resent anyone who claims that they have agency over their own life.
Kind of like an addiction?
I think that’s very accurate. They become addicted to their own suffering as a justification for a stunted life that they accept. Whereas people who will not accept that are relieved to find a way past the difficult, voluntary acceptance of their suffering. As they say, “bare their cross and carry on.” There are two different states of being, and I think Jordan directly refutes one in favor of the other.
There’s a part that you eloquently put in the book about a Russian KGB spy, who defected and later described how you can poison a generation. He started by describing academia and on-campuses life. I think that’s the part that hits the nerve of many academics who read your book. Is the trajectory that this defected spy describes still present in American academia?
Yes, very much so. I believe that not only Russia—but other enemies of the United States, such as China—are actively promoting disinformation and propaganda to agitate and divide Americans. I think they’ve been largely successful when we see the division of the Democratic Party into now a Democratic Socialist Party. I think that was their intent, and I think that weakens America—and is very much the goal of Russia, China, and probably others.
You wrote the book No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy: The Life of General James Mattis, who is a revered military leader. While working on Savage Messiah, did you notice any parallels between Mattis and Peterson?
Well, no, I think that was a very different domain: military vs. academic. However, they do overlap in their dedication and devotion to the written word—and to the canon of Western civilization. They’re both academics in that fashion, but I did not really consciously reference my work on Mattis in the Peterson book—other than the fact that I personally consider them both heroes, whom I chose to write about. In that sense, they share certain qualities. That’s the only internal reference I have between the two works.
I have had conversations about Jordan Peterson with many people who are not from the West, including people from Asia, like myself. They generally agree that Peterson’s advice is as applicable to people from Eastern backgrounds as to people Western from ones. Do you agree with that assessment?
Yes, I do—because we can see a common enemy between Western civilization and certain current Eastern states such as China, North Korea, and Vietnam. The collective is communist and postmodernist. Postmodernism is what I believe is a derivative of Marxism and its various manifestations in socialism and communism. Postmodernism has attacked and destroyed large portions of not only Western civilization but the Eastern civilizations as well. So, I think that, yes, identification of Marxism, which Peterson refers to as “Postmodern Neo-Marxism” is an affliction around the world.
What is your next project?
I have a biography and a history that I’ve written on my father who created the Copacabana nightclub in New York City and was the involuntary partner of a gentleman named Frank Costello, who was the prime minister of the Mafia. So, I’ve already written the book, and we’re producing a documentary film and television series now, so that’s going to be my next project.
Is there anything else you would like to say about the book?
I’d like to say that I think it’s an important book because it examines one of the most important thinkers of our time, and I would encourage people not only to read Jordan’s books but also to read this book as an example of what the cost is of being Jordan Peterson. I think people don’t realize the enormous cost and suffering that Jordan has gone through and continues to go through to this day that informs his work. I think if people appreciated what Jordan has had to go through to become Jordan Peterson, that they would have a greater appreciation for his work and the value of it in their lives.