Disclaimer: The following remarks aren’t meant as an exhaustive commentary on the plenitude of issues broached by either the review or the book in question. These are but brief observations on the generally negative response Jordan Peterson has drawn from certain expected corners, of which Pankaj Mishra’s is but one, albeit highly illustrative, example. The article in question appeared on the “NY Review of Books”, on March 19th, 2018, and is available online at http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2018/03/19/jordan-peterson-and-fascist-mysticism/
A telling feature of much of the criticism directed at Jordan Peterson has been the conjuring up of toxic associations, before any of the man’s words and deeds are mentioned, if they are mentioned at all, save by way of highly selective quotations. It is remarkable how this classic hallmark of intellectual dishonesty finds its way so early on in Pankaj Mishra’s review; from the outset there is an attempt to poison the well by the liberal use of the “populist” pejorative, whereby a predictable thread of infamy is weaved between Peterson’s allegedly “intellectual populism” and the Trump phenomenon. At no point of course, any explanation is given as to how these discrete events are commensurable, or necessarily ominous- this is but the beginning of a protracted character assassination.
It must be understood that to the cosmopolitan circles which form the readership of the NY Review of Books, this is dog whistle terminology employed to politely caution the prospective reader to beware- Jordan Peterson’s output merits no serious consideration because a) it is popular with “deplorables” and b) it proves too iconoclastic of cherished beliefs the audience is assumed to share. The first element of this censure is a recurring concern for Pankaj, who is keen to stress the demographic ‘problem’ of Peterson’s audience – as “white”, “male” and “frenzied” or otherwise untrustworthy as a result (one wonders whether the author is aware of the irony involved in this kind of blatant prejudice)
Nevertheless, an analogy can be drawn between Peterson’s rise to prominence and the Trump phenomenon, only it’s not for the reasons Pankaj assumes it to be. Rather, it is the almost comical way hysteria and lack of tact on the part of many voices of the liberal establishment, especially in the Anglosphere, in response to any perceived heresy tends to produce precisely the outcome they feared the most. As was the case with Trump, these critics can’t help revealing themselves as out of touch with certain segments of population, but then rather than taking this as an opportunity for self-examination, they go on the offensive- doubling down on reassuring, albeit hackneyed, clichés all the while demonizing the ‘unenlightened’. Naturally, this then creates martyrs and heroes of political incorrectness, and precludes an objective assessment of the merits and lack thereof of their arguments, further isolating individuals in their own ideological bubbles.
It is regrettable that at times Mishra seems determined to appeal to a facile reduction ad absurdum as a rhetorical gimmick, to the detriment of any point he might otherwise have. Jordan Peterson can at times sound grandiose and provocative in his unflinching diagnosis of the societal ills of the West, and his prescriptions do indeed go against contemporary mores, hence the enthusiastic reception they encounter in various places. But rather than be genuinely curious as to why this is the case, Pankaj would rather assume these people have been bamboozled by an obscurantist charlatan- misled into forgetting they’ve been in utopia all along, until it was too late, and fascists started coming out of the woodwork, galvanized by the incantations of the Canadian professor.
There is a valid point buried amid the snaky innuendo Mishra enjoys engaging in, in any case, regarding a certain selectiveness as to where Peterson tends to direct his indignation. The bitter fruits of the idolatry of greed, blood, and soil, which have historically animated right-wing movements, identified in the review as being “slavery, genocide, and imperialism” remain outside, on the periphery of Peterson’s concerns. Given the professor’s exaltation of willpower, assertiveness, and dominance hierarchies, buttressed by evolutionary psychology- it is easy to see how otherwise life-affirming and pragmatic advice can, in the wrong hands, be taken as justification for some revamped form of social Darwinism, ultimately.
Furthermore, going by the occasional surreal tweet/FB post singing the praises of capitalism, at a time of rising inequality and conspicuous corporate malfeasance it seems Jordan Peterson can be somewhat surprisingly naïve when it comes to lending support for dubious causes. Although, on this point, charity compels us to consider to what degree this kind of cheerleading is a necessary reaction to the virtue-signaling of the resurgent radical Left.
Whatever failings Jordan Peterson might have however, pale into insignificance compared to the logical fallacies, guilt by association and sheer dishonesty that define Pankaj Mishra’s style, at least as displayed in this review of his.
For instance, at one point he muses that “Reactionary white men will surely be thrilled by Peterson’s […] claim that divorce laws should not have been liberalized in the 1960s”, which begs several questions- what is to celebrate about divorce, and the ease with which a litigation industry has emerged to facilitate family breakdown? And why is this uniquely offensive to “white men” more than any other demographic?
On the same paragraph, Pankaj summons the phantasm of “Islamophobia”, and subsequently takes a relatively prosaic remark from Peterson, on personal responsibility (““Maybe it’s not the world that’s at fault. Maybe it’s you. You’ve failed to make the mark.”), to suggest the man is more generally guilty of that other mortal sin of “Victim-blaming”. These are but a few examples of the dubious leaps in logic, sprinkled throughout the article, that demonstrate a calculated attempt to frame Peterson, more than anything else.
It becomes apparent that Pankaj has pigeon-holed Peterson as the latest in a long line of gurus, which can be traced back to 19th century pseudo-scientific occultists. A bold, and harsh, assumption to make of a hitherto respectable academic that is predicated on a superficial stylistic comparison- namely that Jordan, along with virulent anti-Semites like Ludwig Klages, partake in “collages of part-occultist, part-psychological, part-biological notions”. At this point, where one awaits the substance of what is a serious accusation to make, Mishra goes further into borderline slander, making mention of the morbid excesses of Theosophy and the likes of Julius Evola.
Finally, having reminded the reader of these unsavory movements and ideologues, Mishra lets the associations do their job, taking the focus of the reader away from Peterson’s actual work, sparingly and selectively quoted, and into a kaleidoscope of cranks, frauds and proto-Nazis. The desired rhetorical effect is as obvious as it is dishonest. At no point throughout the entire “review” is there an attempt to determine whether Peterson’s diagnosis of our contemporary culture is true. Neither is there any interest as to whether his prescriptions are apt in relation to objectively existing circumstances. Mishra’s entire shtick is to juxtapose fragments of Peterson’s work, with statements from questionable figures of an extremist bent, arriving at the fantastical implication that the clinical psychologist’s prominence is a symptom of an intellectual malaise redolent of the one that led to WWII and the rise of totalitarian regimes.
Of course, even the most basic degree of acquaintance with Peterson’s work, would preclude the suggestion that he could contribute to anything resembling 20th century monstrosities. Indeed, his observations on the perils of Communism, particularly in his reflections on Solzhenitsyn, would preclude this assumption, seeing as they reveal a deeply reflective thinker, of generally liberal persuasion and ultimately concerned with the value of the individual- over and above ideological abstractions.
Here it must be added that as with the now infamous interview with Cathy Newman, on Channel 4, which has proven a source of inspiration for many a meme, Jordan Peterson’s critics’ main failure has been to reduce him to a caricature of their own making- a strawman furnished by their own worst conceptions of what opposition consists of. With Cathy Newman it had already been pre-determined that he was somehow a proponent of unjust subordination of women, the unstated assumption being that to not be a feminist, is necessarily to subscribe to such an opinion. With Mishra, likewise, it’s been pre-determined that to oppose certain faddish notions of progress, is to be necessarily a fascist.
Personally, I would venture to say that this frenzied reaction is revealing of a certain insecurity as to how robust the edifice of modern cosmopolitan liberalism is. What seems to disturb the voices of conventional opinion is the way the Canadian academic can see through cherished and heavily propagandized novelties, such as the elevation of transgenderism into a modern equivalent of the civil rights struggle- without the compulsion to be apologetic for it.
The muted grumbling of a few country bumpkins is easily dismissed, but the open dissent of a University professor is intolerable- it might after all imply that the inescapable Hegelian movement of history which propels social liberalism might not be so certain after all. Worse, the very incapacity of otherwise bien pensant proponents of tolerance to accommodate open dissent, might look like proof that indeed, there is a totalitarian mindset at work in their midst.
It is the prima facie reasonableness of Jordan Peterson that ultimately is a threat to a certain current of thought that has currently gained wide currency in academia, and political circles. Flamboyant provocateurs like a Milo Yiannopoulos, with a more obvious careerist or partisan alignment, could be denigrated and dismissed despite say, raising similar complaints as to the deficiencies of feminism, political correctness or other holy cows in the public discourse.
What distinguishes Peterson from these is that his interventions in the skirmishes of the culture wars don’t suffer from the habitual superficiality and histrionics that characterize most of its participants. Rather, they are suggestive of a broader and more reflective perspective on this period in history, with its prospects and perils. What eludes Mishra, and other critics who might share his fears and concerns, is the degree to which the “desperation of meaninglessness” which preoccupies the Canadian clinical psychologist might in fact be a true feature of modernity with dire consequences indeed. In so far as the professor is clear-eyed about this, and genuinely interested in pursuing alternatives to the abyss of nihilism that resides at the center of modern ideologies he is to be commended.