Saturday, March 10, 2018

Jordan Peterson as a conservative cat's paw--responses to his work from the left as a kind of bad reviews of his audience that tends to skip past whatever he actually says

Western Civilization is in crisis. Our faith in the Enlightenment—that bosom of our cherished values—has been shaken. Nefarious forces and groups are turning us against the very foundations of our society. So claims Jordan Peterson, who has recently capitalized on his internet celebrity by releasing a self-help book interlaced with these themes. Peterson went from being a relatively unknown psychology professor to being the leader of a burgeoning movement manned by adoring fans. All of a sudden, Peterson is everywhere: the BBC interviewed him, columnists weigh his potential social benefits, social media feeds are roiled by Peterson-mania. And he’s decided to cash in. His book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, is at the time of this writing the number one bestseller on Amazon. Peterson is being cheered on by both David Brooks and Mike Cernovich. James Damore, the disgraced former Google employee and reactionary matinee idol, also considers himself a fan.

Whether The Baffler or the Los Angeles Review of Books, the condescending splenetic mode of review is easy to pick up on.  I've had my doubts about Peterson's pertinence to average male existence since I read Alastair Roberts' praise of the guy.  But to read leftist condemnation of Peterson is to be reminded that I basically don't trust a lot of what has to be said about what sounds like the work of a more high end self-help guru.  The problem isn't the self help guru role since we could argue that the book of Proverbs within the Bible itself is a kind of self help manual.  There's always a legitimate need for self-help literature, really, but what makes the genre inevitably controversial is that self help literature always, since I tipped my hat to the Bible here for what I trust would be obvious reasons to anyone who reads this blog, emerge from within a canonical context.

Some writers on Peterson are aware that the self help genre isn't going away and that some books in the idiom can be genuinely more helpful than others.  Stephen Bush's concern about Peterson is that compared to the sea of other self help books this book by Peterson might actually be helpful to readers but that the readers who have become fans of Peterson endorse political views and social behaviors that cast Peterson in a bad light to progressives, more or less regardless of Peterson's own stated views on any number of topics.  There's a highbrow variation of this anxiety, such as finding fans of the filmmaker Stanley Kubrick insufferable snobs. Yeah, okay, so I enjoyed Dr. Strangelove and thought 2001 was more than just a tedious slog when I finally got to see the uncut film. That doesn't mean I'm going to embrace auteur theory and pretend that I think Kubrick exponentially improved everything he touched by dint of adapting material he didn't write in a way that proved he transcended whatever he adapted.  The Shining is still a tedious slog independent of my affection for the music of Bartok and earlier Penderecki. Right, back to the commentary by Stephen Bush, whose observation about Peterson's book could be summed up by saying it's the kind of pedestrian but genuinely useful advice about what liberals and progressives might recognize as self-care that's presented as iconoclastic countercultural insight for those sorts of men who would never call themselves progressive.  The branding makes the observations seem more revolutionary than they are.

Back to The Baffler, John Glanz and Steven Klein come together to articulate the following:
According to Peterson, men and women can’t really talk or debate, because when men talk they are really implicitly fighting: “when men are talking to the each other in any serious manner, that underlying threat of physicality is always there, especially if it’s a real conversation, and it keeps the thing civilized to some degree.” Men are at a disadvantage when talking to women; they are disarmed, presumably like a lobster with its pincers tied up with rubber bands. And, as we learn when we dip into Peterson’s higher-brow work Maps of Meaning, women are agents of chaos, constantly threatening male principles of order (which, for their part, risk becoming rigid). Sometimes this is creative chaos—as in women’s ability to create through birth—but often it is threatening, dangerous chaos—as in women’s ability to abandon their children.

Peterson’s view that the “idea of the individual” is the particular achievement of the Western Enlightenment is, to say the least, paradoxical, or contradictory if you are inclined to be more hard-headed. “Your group identity is not your cardinal feature. That’s the great discovery of the west. That’s why the west is right. And I mean that unconditionally. The west is the only place in the world that ever figured out that the individual is sovereign.” There seems to be some confusion about the meaning of the word “unconditionally” here. If the West has indeed figured out that only individuals matter, then presumably it can no longer feel any great pride about this collective achievement, since collective achievements aren’t as important as the lives and accomplishments of individuals. Here, as elsewhere, Peterson wants to somehow keep the Enlightenment intact as a positive value, without realizing its actual stakes or costs. Peterson, in effect, tells his audience, “You can pat yourself on the back as a sovereign individual and a Western man, just like the guy next to you.” His logic recalls the scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, when the main character declares to the adoring crowd outside his window, “You’ve got to think for yourselves! You’re all individuals” and they echo back, as one, “Yes. We are all individuals!”


Cue up some passing references to Edmund Burke against the French Revolution since this is a piece in The Baffler.  I have had my doubts that we should trust contemporary left or right depictions of Burke's work because, yes, he did write that he was against the French Revolution but this shouldn't be construed as being "against democracy".  He was accurate to have anticipated American revolution, for instance, and made a case for tolerance toward Jews and Catholics.  Burke's objections to the specifics of the French situation were that movements to abolish stabilizing institutions that society relied upon to retain order and custom weren't worth the supposed freedoms being promised by the self-styled revolutionaries.  To translate this polemic into more contemporary terms, there's no clear good reason to abolish the social welfare system in the United States merely because a bunch of Randroids insist that if we just liberate the market and give everyone a chance to stand proud on their own two feet in finances that the elderly and retired have the savings or social safety network around to fairly literally keep them alive.  I would suggest that if Anglo-American progressives and conservatives stopped reading Burke through the hugely distorting prism of Cold War and post-Cold War polemics they might find that what they think Burke wrote isn't necessarily the same as what Burke wrote, or that what they use Burke's writings for isn't the same as what Burke was writing about.  And despite being an American, I wouldn't put automatic stock in anything Thomas Paine said against Burke against the French revolution since American revolutionaries had their own tics. 

Progressives can be said to have a sustained critique of the Enlightenment that its advocates failed to deliver on the promise of universal brotherhood for all of humanity.  Conservatives tend to see the way the French Revolution devolved and point out that if that's how it ended we shouldn't want to pursue that.  There's a different way to put it, though, which is to suggest that the contemporary consumer-driven variant of that Anglo-American imperial beneficiary individualism can't be sustained across the entire global ecosphere.  Making a case that, in drawing upon Jung, Jordan Peterson has drawn upon someone ultimately indebted to counter-Enlightenment thought rather than Enlightenment thought is one of the more interesting progressive arguments against the long-term viability of a Petersonian gambit.  That the polemic shifts back into the usual concerns isn't too big a surprise, but since it's The Baffler rather than Jacobin there's a few things to be taken seriously amid some left bromides, which is more than I can say for another review of Peterson I'll be getting to.

Conveniently enough, another Baffler writer (senior editor of The Baffler, Jonathon Sturgeon no less) highlights that one of the historic gambits against literature in general and any literary work in particular is straight up ad hominem against the author, whoever the author is.

While I have had my doubts that Jordan Peterson appeals to more than a subset of social and religious conservatives, there's nothing like a sneeringly contemptuous review so typical of a writer based in London to serve as a reminder that there are some reasons people like Peterson can retain an audience when the self-selecting and self-offering alternatives can read as follows:

It might be said in Peterson’s defense that he is not a political scientist by trade: he is a psychologist dabbling in politics. But it’s hard to disentangle the substance of his psychological “advice” from the political ideology that drives him. “Before you help someone,” he counsels, “you should find out why that person is in trouble. You shouldn’t merely assume that he or she is a noble victim of unjust circumstances and exploitation.” He goes on: “It is far more likely that a given individual has just decided to reject the path upward, because of its difficulty.” It stands to reason that someone espousing this kind of radical individualist credo would have little truck with advocates of social justice, who tend to think in structural, big-picture terms. What he’s advocating here isn’t just that his reader adopt a philosophy of radical resilience in relation to his or her own life, but that all compassion toward others be renounced; the reader ought to see other people’s struggles as their just deserts — the culmination of their moral shortcomings — and treat them accordingly. It is an ugly, mean-spirited treatise against human kindness.

Quite apart from anything else, this is particularly galling for the implicit insult it blithely dishes out to the many thousands of young people who have flocked to Peterson for precisely the kind of succor he supposedly finds it beneath himself to give. Peterson even makes a point of warning his readers that people who hold themselves out as saviors are often creepy narcissists. Coming from a man who very deliberately positions himself as a prancing messiah-cum-surrogate-dad for gormless dimwits everywhere — peddling “Rules for Life,” no less! — this is staggeringly disingenuous.

No one who describes the fans of Peterson as gormless dimwits is worth taking seriously.  Whatever my skepticism about Peterson as a new Jungian popularizer; whatever my concerns that since the last mainstream popularizer of Jung worth writing about as a popular cultural influence was Joseph Campbell whose literary catalyst about the hero with a thousand faces has meant that the Force is with us, always; the kind of left dissent about Peterson that confines itself largely to a handful of pull quotes and damning the author by way of the fan club is tiresome.  That I find Stanley Kubrick fans insufferable doesn't mean I have to condemn Kubrick's filmography as a whole. That I find fans of Mozart insufferable in their veneration of someone whose music I consider less fun than the music of Haydn or even Clementi doesn't mean I'm going to stop liking the last three symphonies or have nothing positive to say about the string quartets. 

If I were to suggest a more interesting line of discussion I would not impute to Jordan Peterson any alt-right anything.  Instead, what progressives seem to have been trying to do is position Jordan Peterson as the cat's paw for evangelicals, social conservatives and others who they fear will get any intellectual credibility at all by dint of association with Peterson's self-help brand.

Peterson's appeal to evangelicals can be explained by all sorts of things but the cat's paw explanation, the cat who is used by the monkey to get what the monkey wants, might be one potential explanation.  Evangelicals like Peterson's self help franchise for as long as it legitimizes that their own social and gender goals are not explicable within the public sphere solely based on the presumption of reactionary sexual politics and socio-economic caste defenses.  That Peterson himself is not any conventionally identifiably orthodox Christian doesn't really matter. 

I've said point blank that having seen the rise and fall of Mark Driscoll this tell the young men to man up shtick has some value but that it's a cottage industry within evangelicalism in particular and social conservatism more generally.  It has an appeal to those men who would regard themselves as the future establishment figures who need to get their ducks in a row.  I get that.  I was at Mars Hill for a decade so I can get why it is important, and why it is not merely something that seems important.  The idea of the present and future establishment being populated by white guys who are all Randroids does not really inspire me. 

There's a line from Justice and the Social Order where Emil Brunner proposed that a temptation in the West would be, in the face of totalitarian regimes, to espouse a mode of governance that is nothing more than a minimal police force, court systems, and minimal government.  A way to translate that would be to say that Brunner anticipated the appeal of what would be considered libertarianism and a taxation-as-theft ideology about government.  Brunner's warning was that this ideal of government and society would mainly appeal to the sorts of men who would least of all need any government interference in their daily routines, to put it this another way, it's the kind of ideology about the nature and role of an ideal government that would mainly appeal to those who have never been part of demographics or castes at the bottom of things. 

There's a sense in which left/liberal reaction to Jordan Peterson can be analogous to a meta-critical or cultural something from eight years ago. Linda Holmes wrote a piece called ... "`Scott Pilgrim' vs the Unfortunate Tendency to Review the Audience."

It's possible that liberal and left criticism of Peterson has as much or more to do with the perceived audience for his work than the actual substance of Peterson's work itself. Peterson can be seen as a cat's paw the for the monkey of social conservatives and libertarian types whose young would-be alpha male populace isn't alpha enough by dint of having failed to clean up their rooms and Peterson is the new messianic figure whose bootstrap messaging with slightly repackaged Jungianism is expected to catalyze the young white men who would in earlier eras be expected to be the leaders of what leftists, feminists and other strata of liberals in the more contemporary sense of the term would regard as precisely those patriarchal entitled frat boys who need to stop having the reins of power so as to open up the possibility of a better and more just and egalitarian Western world.

There is room, of course, to object to the actual substance of stuff Peterson has written, but as media reactions go I'm starting to think that Peterson is the cat's paw and the reactions of the left are in some sense looking past the cat's paw toward the monkeys they are sure are calling the shots, to which Peterson may or may not be a knowing instrument.  Evangelicals and social conservatives can let Peterson take the fall for articulating some variant of what progressives would regard as an anti-trans ideology without this stance having to be automatically reducible to a stereotype about the Religious Right.  That stereotype isn't going away because the kinds of people who read Slate, let alone Jacobin, are committed to those stereotypes even if it means reflexive condescension toward someone who might speak up against sexual abuse but who by dint of having the wrong beliefs can't be regarded as a serious human being in comments sections.  

Peterson's appeal is probably far more niche than his critics from the left seem to have realized just yet. Mark Driscoll's appeal to young men was implicitly and explicitly formulated in terms of attempting to reach those young men who would be considered the culture-makers, the establishment of the future.  Peterson's spiel is in that sense just a new variation of an old formula.  The thing is the left has its own variants of this kind of bid.  The kinds of people who make their livings as writers in London writing snarky reviews about Peterson for LARB or contributing to Jacobin is not really a net improvement.  If you're making a living as a writer you're already not really immersed in what might be considered the workaday world. 

If the ivory tower pundits of the left and the right think Peterson is worth arguing about that may almost in itself moot the question of whether anything he writes, in the long run, matters all that much.  The people who are willing to argue about his work as if it matters tend to come from the would-be leadership classes.  More condescending voices would say the chattering classes but the chattering classes are the would-be leadership classes and such a condemnation would be a self-implicating one, really.  Give a persona decent paying job that has some dignity to it and the prospect of "changing everything" in the realm of some Hollywood script is absurd.  Most people want to live quiet lives of normality.  This is, pretty much, what those advocating for LGBTQ rights say they want and some of them even mean it.  Some of them, over at places like Slate, are saying they won't accept mere tolerance and that what they really want is celebration but to celebrate marriages as public events is not necessarily the domain of ordinary workaday people, it's the aspiration of those who wish to be and expect to be the public figures whose power, prestige and influence guide public life ... i.e. what a whole lot of socialists and Marxists would regard as a ruling caste/bourgeois concern.  Strip away the formal labels of left, right, center, socialist, capitalist and whatnot and the debates about Peterson are arguably an intra-bourgeois tempest in a teapot undertaken by those people with the luxury of reading his work or reading about him.  If Jordan B. Peterson is going to be praised or damned as some would be messianic figure he's not going to be the figure for working class white trash, even if maybe some partisans to the left might want to cast him in the role of an alt-right figure. 


Cal of Chelcice said...

I take issue with Brunner's conceptualization of the classical liberals of his day. I hear the same kind of snark from other intellectuals, using a kind of identitarian well-poisoning. Sometimes regular people are right, sometimes people who put the intellectual heavy-lifting are right, the only way is to hash out the arguments and facts sequentially. Many libertarians are ignorant of reality when it comes to their free-trade fundamentalism, but I don't want to sweep them away as Randroids because they're "young white guys" and that's what folks like them would expect. Brunner's conceit is a rhetorical trick that is just as exhausting as the ideologue crackpots.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

fair concern about the libertarians. What libertarians can be good at pointing out is how wildly unfree the current market actually is and how dominated it is by crony capitalism. I think their view of the human condition is often too optimistic but their criticism of highlighting how cronyism and the state prevent the free market from actually being free does have merit.

But I'm thinking of pages 203-207 from Justice and the Social Order as to which specific passage from the Brunner I was alluding to but didn't actually quote. Brunner was writing in Zurich in the middle of WW2 and not addressing the American situation as such. But he wrote something I'll actually quote here:

page 204
"... But we must not forget that this principle of state abstinence works out greatly to the disadvantage of the economically weak and of the community as a whole. The weak individual becomes the prey of asocial economic force. Social life and social interests completely lack state support. ... "

page 205

While totalitarianism regulates everything by its law and directs everything by its hand, the individualistic state neglects its duty of creating justice by its law, where justice is not done spontaneously by the moral force of individuals. That is why the individualistic, liberal state must be the ideal of a replete bourgeoisie, just as the communistic totalitarian state must be the great temptation for hungry masses of workers.

Where the mean of the true state lies between these extremes cannot be pronounced once for all. On the contrary, it depends entirely on the moral force of individuals and free social groups. The more forcefully state-free justice, the social ethos, has developed, and the more thoroughly it shapes society according to the laws of justice by its own strength without state compulsion, the more state help can be dispensed with."

I.e. were all the world Christians and Christians did what they are instructed to do in Scripture the force of the state would be largely superfluous.

Since you mentioned the regular people, there's another part of the passage I was thinking of where Brunner mentions the regular people and a trend in European legal thought that was bothering him:

(page 207) "The plain man is of the opinion that there is right even where there is no law of the state, right prior to and beyond the state. ... The majority of jurists of our day, however, unlike those of almost all previous centuries, are of the opinion that there is no law but the law of the state, that it is impossible, confusing and fallacious to speak of a right prior to and beyond the state."

So Brunner's context was in the middle of WW2 addressing a period of legal thought in Europe where jurists were rejecting the legitimacy of the idea that natural rights existed and that any legal rights meaningfully existed independent of a state to grant them. He wasn't exactly taking on the classical liberals of his day, he was charting what he considered the path via income inequality that led to the embrace of totalitarianism and making what he believed was a necessary case that merely appealing to abstract democracy would not fend off totalitarianism, and that reducing the conception of the state to enforcing the rights of individuals in individualistic terms would exacerbate rather than ameliorate income inequality that inspired people to embrace more totalitarian solutions to the inequality. Or at least that's my reading of Brunner there.

chris e said...

Going back to the review in the NS - the point he doesn't dwell on is that the specific set of self-improvement steps are therefore largely divorced from Peterson's ideology as they of a generic and general nature.

Yet the conservative embrace of him is because they have sympathies with his ideologies and critiques. e.g admonishments to pull ones pants up are explained as connected with a particular set of critiques of what he believes to be the ideology of current culture. Yet you don't have to dig too far to see that his observations and analysis of that culture are at best fairly jejune:

There's plenty more - if you look at the videos of his lectures (rather than his own published monologues - which start at the level of critique rather than analysis). I picked that one out as I assumed it relevant given the other topics you cover.