What in the world has happened to Jordan Peterson? There was a time not so long ago when the Canadian psychologist seemed like, if not the most talked-about man on social media (see: Donald Trump), then at least among the top five, and perhaps the most significant for anyone invested in reading the tea leaves of the broader culture. For his enemies, Peterson was a dark avatar of proto-fascist reaction, a sinister guru weaponizing “white male anxiety” to tear down feminism, racial justice, and other pillars of enlightened social progress. For his legions of fans, he was a surrogate father-figure shepherding the lost young men of the West into maturity: erudite but not pompous, stern but not cruel, strong but not bullying, religious but not preachy, willing and able to resist the worst of left-wing Jacobinism without falling into the opposite traps of misogyny, nihilism and fascism.
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Indeed, for a while, Peterson was a walking example of the good things that could happen to men when they chose to ignore the hysterics of a Western cultural establishment no longer capable of distinguishing between masculine self-respect and actual National Socialism. His teachings were simple, even if they came drenched in a heavy Jungian-existentialist vocabulary: work hard, take responsibility, and tell the truth, especially when it’s inconvenient. And they struck a chord. Denounced as a dangerous reactionary, Peterson was able to ride the ensuing waves of controversy to celebrity and modest wealth—over $1 million a year on Patreon, five million books sold, repeat appearances on the Joe Rogan Experience, and a highly publicized debate with Slavoj Zizek (which he lost, but no matter). For a brief moment, he was, as the economist Tyler Cowen put it in 2018, “the most influential public intellectual in the Western world.”
Fast forward to the present, however, and Peterson is a limp caricature of his former self. Admittedly, he’s had a rough couple of years: a severe benzodiazepine addiction led to suicidality, a schizophrenia diagnosis, and a trip to Moscow for emergency detox under the guidance of his daughter and her Russian then-husband. There the doctors put Peterson in a medically induced coma, which partially wiped his memory and, for a period, eliminated his ability to walk, talk, or type (he told one interviewer he’d been in a “state of derealization” ever since becoming famous).
Anyone in such a position could be forgiven for taking a few years out of the limelight. Peterson, though, proclaims himself fully recovered and has returned to the public sphere, signing a major deal with Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire streaming service last June. So far, the results have been disappointing. Watch his Daily Wire videos or his recent Joe Rogan appearances, and the man sounds loopy and crankish; more commonly, he can be seen on Twitter simping for Elon Musk and sending dozens of bizarre, grumpy tweets a day. Most of all, he seems lame, cringey, and out of touch.
That’s a shame, because the world is more in need of the old Jordan Peterson than ever. His status as a Trump-era culture warrior was the product of an odd moment in time: Although the old media monoculture had long since been hollowed out by the Internet, Trump, by bending the discourse around himself, had a way of forcing everybody into the same conversation at once. Peterson’s bootstrapping, small-c conservative self-help could therefore become a culture-wide Rorschach test, onto which everyone projected their feelings about everything from Black Lives Matter to the girlboss feminism of Disney’s Frozen.
Today, the illusion of a singular “discourse” has vanished. The establishment media in the US, which once appeared not only hegemonic but proto-totalitarian, is now but one information subculture among many, a boutique reality for aging professionals in America’s more expensive zip codes. For the rudderless young men who once flocked to Peterson, there’s now a whole universe of unscrupulous “manosphere” influencers hawking supplements, workout and diet regimens, predatory dating and seduction tips, lifestyle coaching, red-pill politics, and get-rich-quick pyramid schemes. Prior to getting chucked in a Romanian gulag, Andrew Tate could have served as a representative figure, providing all the emotional catharsis of Peterson schooling the “SJWs,” but in the service of selling an aspirational lifestyle that could best be described as that of a glorified pimp.
At his best, Peterson taught that whatever the errors of the liberal mainstream, solutions like Tate’s were also fool’s gold, and that the keys to self-respect and a life well-lived were the same “lame” old virtues as ever: hard work, honesty, humility, courage, compassion, being a man of your word. Today, that side of Peterson is buried under Peterson the culture-war blowhard, refighting yesterday’s battles in the hopes that Elon Musk will notice him.
But while “wokeness” might not be dead yet, endlessly caviling about it has become a dead end. The question of the moment is what should replace it. That’s where Jordan Peterson could be of help, if only he’d get off Twitter and get back to thinking.
Park MacDougald is Deputy Literary Editor at Tablet. Follow him on Twitter @hpmacd.
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