There’s a new self-help guru at the heart of modern conservatism. He’s a rousing speaker, encouraging his listeners to take control of their own destinies, like a wiry Tony Robbins who sounds like a Muppet and believes there are only two genders.
His name is Dr. Jordan B. Peterson, a Canadian professor who’s become the spiritual father of an online tribe of alienated, disaffected and resentful young men. In the past few months, Peterson’s rapidly gone from a little-known clinical psychologist to a veritable megachurch preacher of anti-communism and personal responsibility. His popularity is meteoric, and if progressives want to understand the ideological future of the conservative movement, they may want to pay notice.
Peterson’s been described as “the stupid man’s smart person,” which is a good enough euphemism for saying “effective public intellectual.” Peterson’s YouTube channel has more than 700,000 subscribers, and he has a podcast in which he gives long addresses on classical philosophy. At his well-attended college talks, his adoring, largely male fanbase regularly approach him afterward to say that his advice has given them meaning and purpose.
Peterson first earned international notoriety in November 2017 as the University of Toronto professor who refused to use gender-neutral pronouns after the introduction of a Canadian bill that would prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity. Peterson railed against the bill as a totalitarian crackdown on free speech. He threatened a hunger strike if he were jailed for not using someone’s preferred pronouns, although a letter from the Canadian Bar Association found that interpreting the law as Peterson did is “a misunderstanding of human rights and hate crimes legislation.”
When former Google engineer James Damore was fired after writing his now-infamous internal memo about gender in the workplace, he did two interviews on YouTube before speaking with anyone in the mainstream press. One interview was with far-right talking head Stefan Molyneux. The other was with Peterson.
But no single event did more to launch Peterson than his mid-January appearance on the British Channel 4 News, where he was confronted about his gender essentialism by veteran newscaster Cathy Newman.
The interview was a disaster for Newman. For a half-hour, Newman peppered Peterson with assertions about his beliefs, misquoting Peterson back to himself. In a discussion about the gender pay gap, she continually tried to catch him in his sexism, employing the phrase “so what you’re really saying is...” followed by bold mischaracterizations of his comments as he lucidly recited statistics and anecdotes from his work as a clinical psychologist.
The interview went viral with right wingers, who held it up as exemplary of one of their favorite tropes: the man of science employing logic against a radical feminist in media hell-bent on calling him a sexist.
In the days that followed, conservative columnists rushed to his defense in the Guardian, the Atlantic and the Wall Street Journal. The New York Times announced that the “Jordan Peterson Moment” had arrived. Soon after, Peterson’s latest book, 12 Rules for Life, shot to the top of the Amazon bestseller list. In the Atlantic, resident conservative Conor Friedersdorf asked, “Why can’t people hear what Jordan Peterson is saying?”
Good question. So what, exactly, is Jordan Peterson saying?
Consider the lobster
Jordan Peterson is obsessed with lobsters. Several early pages in 12 Rules for Life are dedicated to lobsters and their behavior, how they fight, how they mate, their dominance hierarchies and their serotonin levels.
“Look for your inspiration to the victorious lobster, with its 350 million years of practical wisdom,” Peterson wrote. “Stand up straight, with your shoulders back.”
This is the first piece of advice he dispenses in his book and his lectures, aimed largely at the alienated and purposeless young men. Peterson’s work mixes psychology with basic self-help pablum, Joseph Campbell’s idea of the “Hero’s Journey,” motivational speaking, evolutionary biology, Disney movies like Pinocchio and Christianity. His advice is simple: Stand up straight. Make your bed. Only use speech that makes you feel strong. Pick up the heaviest burden you can find, and make yourself stronger by bearing it. Slay the dragon. Defend the West.
Jordan Peterson is concerned for the young men of the world. They’ve become weak, resentful and bitter. Peterson worries that young men are scolded into believing their own confidence is a symptom of “toxic masculinity,” and given no words of encouragement. It’s a problem that regularly brings him to tears in talks and interviews.
When Peterson speaks, he looks out into the crowd and sees the eyes of his mostly male audience light up at the mention of personal responsibility. But it never takes long before Peterson simmers over from lucid, effective advice and into tirades against feminists and social justice warriors. Even the lobsters are evidence that biology is biology, and that gender hierarchy must not be interrupted.
“Do male crustaceans oppress female crustaceans?” Peterson asks in 12 Rules for Life. “Should their hierarchies be upended?”
So what is this force Peterson says is bearing down on young men, bludgeoning their self-esteem with unfair accusations and reducing their capacity for personal responsibility? “Postmodernism.”
To understand Peterson’s use of the word “postmodernism,” you need to become familiar with one of the most popular and implausible fantasies in modern conservatism: “cultural marxism.” Cultural marxism is an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory developed in the 1980s largely in response to affirmative action, championed by everyone from far-right terrorists like Anders Behring Breivik to members of President Trump’s National Security Council.
The conspiracy theory goes like this: A group of academics in the 1970s realized that Marxism had failed. So instead of class war between workers and owners, they developed a new idea as a revenge plot to unravel Western civilization: cultural warfare. Then, the story goes, this Marxist plot against white men and the nuclear family spread among universities and throughout the country. Diversity training? Black superheroes? Transgender rights? That’s all cultural Marxism.
Peterson’s “postmodernism” and “neo-Marxism” is essentially the same as “cultural Marxism,” but with some of the names changed. Peterson not only sees Marxism everywhere, but sees its influence as the most pervasive threat to modern civilization. He often recommends the book The Gulag Archipelago, a 1973 history of Soviet labor camps, as the essential text for understanding “the central issue in our culture at the moment.” This is largely his issue with the pronoun debate: If we cede ground to the radical leftists, it’s not just pronouns, but our entire culture that’s at stake.
“I believe that the reason this has caused so much noise — tremendous amount of noise, tremendous amount of attention on YouTube — is because there are things that are at stake in this discussion, despite its surface nature, that strike at the very heart of our civilization,” Peterson said during a Canadian broadcast interview.
So how can the young men of the West defend themselves from a Marxist plot to tear apart the culture and the nuclear family? A rightly ordered soul.
“What I’ve been telling young men is that there’s an actual reason why they need to grow up, which is that they have something to offer,” Peterson said in the Channel 4 interview. “That people have within them this capacity to set the world straight, and that’s necessary to manifest in the world.”
Chicken Soup for the Capitalist Soul
Self-help programs naturally lend themselves to a conservative worldview. Empowerment gurus often teach their adherents to give up on blame and focus on pulling themselves up by their spiritual bootstraps. In The New Prophets of Capital, Nicole Aschoff writes about how even liberal heros like Oprah can divert our attention away from the systems that produce poverty and anxiety, and instead focus our attention inward.
“Oprah is appealing precisely because her stories hide the role of political, economic, and social structures,” Aschoff wrote. “In doing so, they make the American Dream seem attainable. If we just fix ourselves, we can achieve our goals.”
In other words: Don’t worry about changing the world, focus on changing yourself. It doesn’t matter, for example, that one of the top indicators of income is where you were born, and not the structure of your family. The only thing that matters is what you’re going to do to prevail.
Peterson has identified that nascent ingredient of conservative politics within self-help, and pulled its flavor straight to the surface.
Where creating social progress requires collective action, Peterson says attempting to fix society at large is an arrogant project, akin to a monkey trying to repair a military helicopter by banging it with a wrench. He invokes the Sermon on the Mount — “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” — as evidence that anyone who calls into question the world without having perfectly ordered their own soul is a hypocrite.
“The dominance hierarchy is not capitalism,” Peterson writes in his book. “It’s not communism, either, for that matter. It’s not the military-industrial complex. It’s not the patriarchy — that disposable, malleable, arbitrary cultural artifact.”
No, he says. Those who want to fix the world are whiners, uninterested in doing the real work of taking responsibility for themselves.
It’s no surprise that the mess of ideologies associated with the alt-right revere Peterson, a great defender of the “West.” For white nationalists, his writing about evolutionary biology supports their belief in a Darwinist contest for resources. For so-called “men’s rights” misogynists, Peterson reinforces the idea that feminism has turned modern men feeble. Peterson is a philosophical sage for radical anti-communists, and a demigod of YouTube debate pedantry.
But Peterson rejects the far-right. Instead, he sees his work as a path away from all that, from the resentment and violence of fringe nihilists.
“I’ve had many, many people write me from the right, or from the fringes of the radical right, saying precisely that listening to my lectures stopped them from going all of the way,” Peterson said in an interview on YouTube.
And this is why modern conservatism is so enamored of Peterson.
Since Trump’s election, there’s been a simmering fear that the future of the GOP would look less like the party of Reagan and will instead be led by disaffected white racists raised on a media diet of 4chan and provocateurs like Milo Yiannopoulos. Peterson promises to rescue the Lost Boys. He goes into the corners of the internet to rally the frightened fledgelings of the conservative movement yet to come, and raises them up to be good Republicans.
Now, Peterson doesn’t himself identify as conservative, but mainstream conservative politics are the natural conclusion of nearly all of his teachings and beliefs.
In one speech, delivered at Harvard and uploaded with the title “The Greatest Speech Every Student Should Hear,” he addressed the idea that the wealthiest 1% of society are hoarding wealth, calling it “absolute rubbish.” The wealthy accumulated what they have through lives of greatness, Peterson said, and if students would only become deserving through rigorous discipline and self-improvement, the 1% would find no greater delight than to hand out opportunities.
“There are few things which are more intrinsically meaningful, if you’re an accomplished person, then to find young people who have the possibility of being accomplished and say, ‘Hey look, here’s an opportunity for you.’”
Peterson believes Christianity is the foundation of societal greatness, that same-sex marriage is a potential Leftist assault on traditional family structures, and that “white privilege” is a destructive concept that will engender a suicidal level of guilt in the West. Self-help is all well and good for getting one’s life in shape, but when extrapolated to the level of national politics, the rhetoric of “personal responsibility” is a handy weapon for those who oppose single-payer health care.
Peterson demands that his adherents not challenge the rules their forefathers set out for them, to “set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.” It was the French philosopher Michel Foucault who observed that everyday fascism can arise in the programs of self-discipline that make docile, obedient workers of us all. Then again, Peterson thinks Foucault is a treacherous, bitter and resentful charlatan at the center of the “neo-Marxist” plot against the West. So that’s that.
But if the true cause of young men’s alienation isn’t the radical feminists, but the stagnation of wages relative to productivity, rapid decline in income equality, reduced opportunities and the decimation of fields once dominated by men? If the crisis of the West continues unchallenged by Peterson’s proteges, crumbling around them as they bear the burden of that pain and close their ears to collective demands for change?
Well, then Peterson will only have that many more alienated young men whom he can teach to perpetuate the society that made them.
The real problem is those god damn Marxists, anyway.