Updated: Jul 28
My old bête noir Jordan Peterson has resurfaced in the ranks of the "Yes, Russia is wrong to invade Ukraine, but…" faction. As David French notes, "And what follows the 'but' is invariably an avalanche of excuse-making and false moral equivalence. NATO provoked Russia, Ukraine provoked Russia, or—and this is my favorite—Western wokeism provoked Russia" (Jordan Peterson Is Terribly Wrong About Russia, and the West, The Atlantic, July 15, 2022).
The Canadian pop psychologist, self-help guru, intellectual dark webster, and scourge of evil collectivists, tyrannical social justice warriors, gender identitarians, berserk feminists, postmodernist and neo-Marxist academics, and for all I know the Bavarian Illuminati enjoyed a brief moment in 2018 when he was taken seriously as a public intellectual. Bari Weiss featured Peterson in a controversial NY Times article about the intellectual dark web, a loosely knit group of fringe intellectuals of sorts who consider themselves, marginalized, silenced victims of liberal elites. He made PBS Firing Line with Margaret Hoover and was proclaimed in some quarters to be the most influential public intellectual in the Western world (David Brooks says this is the Jordan Peterson moment, Axios, May 2, 2018)
I was sufficiently curious to devote a good portion of the summer of 2018 to a deep dive into Jordan Peterson thought and mythology and wrote two lengthy essays on the topic:
From the start I experienced profound disagreement with Peterson on many points and an instinctive antipathy that may not be entirely fair.
Peterson is a strange fellow who to my mind comes off at once tormented and arrogant, magisterial and insecure, the kind of person who relishes the perceived destruction of adversaries while prickly about criticism directed his way. He cites the size of his audiences, book sales, and online hits as if popularity and commercial success constitute evidence of the rightness of his ideas.
He is not a captivating speaker, nor is he a profound thinker. (Strange and Curious Case, Part I)
That opinion has not changed. My essays could do with a stylistic upgrade. I winced at clunky passages when I reviewed them earlier this week. But my critique holds up, to my mind, at any rate.
Peterson's take on the Russian invasion of Ukraine came to my attention by way of David French's article cited above and Jordan Peterson’s Pro-Putin Punditry by Cathy Young (The Bulwark, July 18, 2022). I went a step further and subjected myself to a 51-minute Youtube video of Peterson expounding on the subject (Russia Vs. Ukraine Or Civil War In The West?, July 10, 2022). The video confirmed my opinion that French and Young are reliable sources for an account of his views.
Pro forma admissions that Putin's thuggery and grand Russian imperial ambitions may have something to do with the decision to wage war are accompanied by the realist school's article of faith that NATO encroachment on Russia's sphere of influence and the threat this poses to Russian strategic interests is the proximate cause, Peterson having at some point been directed to John Mearsheimer's 2015 lecture on the causes and consequences of the Ukraine crisis, which he found convincing. To this is added an element characteristically Petersonian: The West is degenerate in a profoundly threatening manner. For Peterson, this is at the heart of the conflict.
Western degeneracy is the product of radical ideas of Marxist inheritance manifest in identity politics, gender issues, and generally speaking the excesses of the wokescenti. Peterson sees this phenomenon as a resurgence of Soviet ideas, Stalism, etc., which Russia has rejected. Justin Trudeau, Jacinda Arden, and Kamala Harris are singled out as Western leaders in the vanguard of this resurgence, contrasting them to Putin and Hungary's Viktor Orban who are resisting it. The Canadian Peterson really does not like the Canadian prime minister, dropping his name on multiple occasions with disdain.
The nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court, "idiot environmental policies," and the "idiot and invasive authoritarian covid lockdown," which Peterson maintains prevented sit-down meetings with Putin that could have defused tensions, are other burrs under his evidently rather insubstantial saddle. Reasonable people can debate whether Biden should have declared that if elected he would nominate a black woman to replace Justice Breyer. Peterson goes beyond that to imply, indeed, all but out and out assert, that Biden's declaration ensured that the nominee would not be the best, the most qualified, person to fill the position, as if there were a single, indisputably best candidate and it were possible to ascertain who that is.
Cathy Young's analysis of Peterson's invocation Dostoevsky's A Writer's Diary and Alexander Dugin, a crank Peterson appears to take seriously as a philosopher, is spot on.
Leaving aside the repellent passages on “the Jewish Question” in that work, there is no doubt whatsoever that Dostoyevsky loathed and feared “degenerate” Western influence at a time when Western liberalism was about 150 years away from going “woke.”
As the cherry on top, Peterson mentions the neofascist crank Aleksandr Dugin as a "genuine philosopher" whose influence on Putin supposedly shows the Russian leader’s authentic interest in "philosophical and theological" matters. (Peterson had previously discussed Dugin’s alleged status as Putin’s adviser, and his hostility to Western liberalism as a driver of "materialistic hyper-individuality," in a 2015 lecture.) I’m not even sure what’s more important to point out here: that Dugin’s “philosophy” is virulently hostile to even the least "woke" varieties of Western liberalism, or that Dugin is either a kooky, occultism-obsessed prophet of Russian imperialism or a mega-troll whose public persona is a kind of performance art. (Of course, in truly postmodern fashion, it is possible that he is some combination of both.) The bottom line is that if you take Dugin seriously as a “philosopher,” you’ve well and truly jumped the shark.
The reality is that, for all the West’s culture-war problems, the defense of Ukraine is both the most genuinely liberal cause (in the classic sense of the word) and the most genuinely moral cause that exists in our public and political space right now. And, be it reflexive contrarianism, pandering to his fan base, or genuine conviction, Peterson now finds himself on the wrong side of that cause—which arguably reduces all his talk of defending of Western civilization and upholding strict moral standards of good and evil to, yes, “shallow posturing.” The worrying question, given his large fan base and his status as a conservative celebrity, is how many people will follow him there. (Jordan Peterson's Pro-Putin Punditry)
Readers who come to this space regularly may have noticed that I have my own differences with much that is fashionable in progressive circles. Those differences and my criticism, however, do not take me anywhere near the terrain Peterson occupies. He is, as Kinky Friedman put it, out where the buses don't run. Yet his Russia vs. Ukraine Or Civil War In The West? paper has generated more than a million and a half views and 31,000 comments on Youtube since July 10. Noam Chomsky, Katrina Vanden Heuvel, Mearsheimer, Marjorie Taylor Greene, JD Vance, and others in the let Russia have Ukraine camp also have a lot of followers. Even with a renegade Supreme Court, the ongoing effort to overthrow the government, and the rest, closing word goes to Cathy Young: "The reality is that, for all the West’s culture-war problems, the defense of Ukraine is both the most genuinely liberal cause (in the classic sense of the word) and the most genuinely moral cause that exists in our public and political space right now."