A Philip Roth quote that received wide currency last week was about Ronald Reagan, prescience and idiocy. “Any satirist writing a futuristic novel who had imagined a President Reagan during the Eisenhower years would have been accused of perpetrating a piece of crude, contemptible, adolescent, anti-American wickedness,” the author said, “when, in fact, he would have succeeded, as prophetic sentry.” The fact he said this in 1984 was itself treated as a foreshadowing of Trump, and the “Western farce of media stupidity and cynical commercialism – American-style philistinism run amok” that we experience now. It reminded me of another unexpected development: right now the foremost conservative intellectual in America is a Jungian self-help book author fixated on crustaceans, who can’t say whether Jesus existed or not. Who had that in the sweepstakes? But we must believe: Jordan Peterson is for real, and he was definitely not foretold in prophecy.
For the uninitiated, Peterson is a Canadian psychology professor who combines criticism of “social justice” with studies of atavistic myth and biological dominance hierarchies, finished with a patina of truisms: stand up straight, clean your room, etc. Not all of him is unfamiliar. Peterson is heir to a tradition of centre-right commentators who take aim at campus leftists, the radicals who are shitting (sometimes literally) on Western culture. First came William F. Buckley Jr, then Allan Bloom, then Harold Bloom, then Peterson. In style, Peterson is reminiscent of his tweedy, chat-show-friendly forebears. In substance, he’s such a radical departure that it borders on the bizarre.
Imagine telling William F. Buckley that faith in Christ is an evolutionary adaptation on par with big testicles, as well as harmonious with Jungian archetypes, and that this, not revelation, is what makes Christianity “true”. He would have socked you. Many constituencies can bond over right-on students being annoying – they are, after all, very annoying – but for conservatives, libertarians and assorted internet idiots to look to mystical psychoanalysis for a defence of rationality and science, something major must have changed. Specifically, something major must be missing.
Faith is part of the answer, but more fundamental is deep educational failure. As schools and colleges become dedicated to “workplace preparation”, it’s possible for educated people, even university-educated people, to encounter almost no philosophy or difficult literature at all, not even by osmosis. It wasn’t Peterson’s writings that made him famous – he released Maps of Meaning to near anonymity – it was his refusal to be compelled to use transgender pronouns. The “anti-PC” types that flocked just had so little other cultural ballast that they signed on for the lot. Come for the transphobia, stay for the Jung. I’m no expert, but I believe psychologists refer to this kind of wholesale purchase of ideas as “commitment and consistency”: the tendency to take on beliefs not incrementally, but as a box set.
It’s clear Peterson isn’t much of an expert either. Many philosophers and thinkers have taken issue with postmodernism, lots of them on the left. Few have called on Nietzsche, Heidegger and William James (all proto-postmodernists) to do so. The professor and his followers are especially exercised by the idea that truth is built on a shifting ideological foundation – “cultural Marxism”, they call it – but there is nothing inherently Marxist or even radical about this idea. Instead it is a mainstay of the “classical liberal tradition” they claim to represent. It was Hayek, not Foucault, who said “without a theory the facts are silent”, but the two had enough in common that the French critical theorist could recommend the Austrian economist to his students.
There is a lot that is benign and even beneficial about Peterson – at heart he is really a kind of Alain de Botton for incels – but pity any professional philosopher he or his acolytes encounter. Where do you start with the “idea” that Foucault (one of history’s gayest men) invented postmodernism because he couldn’t get a girlfriend? Or that Christopher Hitchens (one of the few people who really could be called a “cultural Marxist”) would have been all aboard this weird mythomaniacal bandwagon? Partly because it is so diffuse, Peterson’s thinking invites all kinds of strange comparisons, running all the way to Nazism. But it reminds me of something quite different: if Peterson’s fans ever want to know what they sound like to a humanities graduate, they only have to speak to a Scientologist about psychology or psychiatry.
Scientology considers the contingent and complex disciplines of psychology and psychiatry, and sees not tentative answers to difficult questions, but a vast conspiracy. This conspiracy, they say, has broad social consequences. Most importantly, it impedes the real expression of an authentic self, a self that can be authored through fancy to-do lists, bootstrapping, and a Manichean framework based in fantasy. To save civilisation, first you have to save yourself. This is not unfamiliar.
Perhaps it’s no accident that a psychologist is making such a spirited defence of reason, logic, data and fact at the precise moment that psychology and psychiatry hit such deep trouble on those fronts. It’s no exaggeration to say that the last decade has been a disaster for these fields: we now know that up to half of all psychology experiments have had non-reproducible results. A survey of 2000 psychologists found that “the percentage of respondents who have engaged in questionable practices was surprisingly high” – almost half. In psychiatry, the controversies over the specialty’s “bible”, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, hit existential levels, with even the book’s former author questioning the premise of a glovebox manual for mental illness. But hey, Peterson seems to say, at least they weren’t the humanities.
Collectively, often painfully, psychiatry and psychology have had to recognise the huge influence of cultural expectations and institutional norms on their work. Too often reward and status, not data, determined the “reality” that experiments unveiled. The DSM V turned out to be not exhaustive but exhausted, the product more of bureaucratic, legal, medical and political processes than of science. These disciplines had to admit the bitter lesson that inquiry is not a static process, but a volatile one, where subject and object change each other during the act of inquiry. In other words, postmodernism had its revenge.
What those on the political right have missed about postmodernists (mainly because they haven’t read them) is that these writers are more often describing something than endorsing it. When Guy Debord looks at the sunless horizon of alienation left behind by the eclipse of meaning, he’s not in a deckchair drinking a cocktail. He is saying this is just how things are now, so we’d better get on with it. “The reigning economic system is a vicious circle of isolation,” he wrote in The Society of the Spectacle. “Its technologies are based on isolation, and they contribute to that same isolation. From automobiles to television, the goods that the spectacular system chooses to produce also serve it as weapons for constantly reinforcing the conditions that engender ‘lonely crowds’.” Peterson’s fans identify with the lone hero not because they are heroes, but because they are alone.
Right now the most powerful man in the world is a former reality-TV star. The reality TV show he starred in was not really real at all, but selectively edited, often to make sense of the star’s whims: firing someone because they had a moustache, say, or just didn’t look like someone who shouldn’t be fired. The most powerful influence on this man is a television show (Fox & Friends) that is both a reflection and instigator of his whims. When the man wants to understand what is real, he will stage his own, unaired TV show, having his staff perform the role of talking heads, sometimes arguing from positions they may themselves disagree with. Just for the show. Pastiche, simulation – these are not arid philosophical concepts, but our world. When someone says there are multiple versions of truth, they are Trump’s press secretary, not a French egghead. And this – all of this – will still be here, whether we “tidy our room” or not. We’d better get on with it.
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A Philip Roth quote that received wide currency last week was about Ronald Reagan, prescience and idiocy. “Any satirist writing a futuristic novel who had imagined a President Reagan during the Eisenhower years would have been accused of perpetrating a piece of crude, contemptible, adolescent, anti-American wickedness,” the author said, “when, in fact, he would have succeeded, as prophetic sentry.” The fact he said this in 1984 was itself treated as a foreshadowing of Trump, and the “Western farce of media stupidity and cynical commercialism –...