“In his superb memoir, Experience (2000), Martin Amis almost casually expends a terrific line in a minor footnote. Batting away a critic he describes as “humorless,” he adds, “And by calling him humorless I mean to impugn his seriousness, categorically: such a man must rig up his probity ex nihilo.”
— Christopher Hitchens
— Lightness at Midnight
It’s one thing to be ignorant and know it and thus open oneself to the possibility of learning, and another thing entirely to be so stupid that you don’t know you’re stupid and to go on behaving as if you’re the smartest guy in the room. A variation on this, a kind of close neighbor to profound and deliberate (militant) ignorance, is the humorless but morally certain naif who believes jokes are always better when you take the time to explain them.
This brings us to the dilatant wing of the stupid person’s intellectual, Jordan Peterson. Filling the void left by the death of Christopher Hitchens (after his road to Damascus phase) but doing it for the intellectually bereft and barren paleo conservatives who inhabit the parallel upside down universe of Fox, Peterson is a perfect tool. He’s got an academic background and he says things that sound almost true until you actually examine them. Of course Fox may be moronic and even fanatical in its ignorance but it’s smart enough to know that in order to be useful propaganda is best left unexamined and facts should never be allowed to get in the way of a good rant. For Peterson’s small but significant cadre of youtube and internet cyber pseudo-brownshirts slogans are always welcome as are name-calling, invective, and threats backed up by arguments that tend to run the gamut from I know you are but what am I to the slightly more sophisticated claim that climate change is a “leftard” hoax perpetrated by elites, the Chinese and Jews or elite Chinese Jews who have some mysterious if undefined connection to Sodom/Hollywood.
In particular we take note of Peterson’s fire and brimstone preaching about what he assures us is the threat posed to something he calls civilization by a gang of dead French intellectuals and their militant followers. About one bad day away from screaming that Marx and Michel Foucault are hiding under his bed, Peterson’s preferred tactic is to denounce Derrida and Foucault and the “postmodernists” and something he calls the “Postmodern-Marxists” all without ever actually offering any examples in the form of quotes, texts, essays, critiques, or peer reviewed papers.
The extreme absence of any actual evidence and the militant use of statements in place of any facts all have a kind of neo-McCarthyite (I have a list!) and near ayatollah fervor to them. This of course appeals to the Fox cadres and the youtube fanboys and it’s easy to understand why. Neo-fascists don’t like reason. It takes too much effort. And consistently going on Fox with its abhorrent, Pyongyang-esque Orwellian Sean Hannity distortion of the facts in support of Trump make it clear that Peterson should at this point be identified as both a collaborator with and apologist for the regime.
Amid all this though we would like to zero in on one area of particular interest. While there are an abundance of examples that illustrate both Peterson’s pointy-headed lack of intellectual rigor and his moral malfeasance, we don’t want to dwell on them as it becomes too much of a chore (sic!) to delve into how he is wrong about Postmodernism, wrong about his hero and Jew-hating Putin supporter Solzhenitsyn, wrong about feminism, wrong about Marx and Marxism, wrong about gender, wrong about the disparity in gender based pay, wrong about the environment, wrong about capitalism, liberalism, conservatism, science, philosophy, literature, historiography and any number of other things.
For our purposes here we wish to discuss briefly, the nature of the context of post war France and the schisms of the French left and how Peterson’s freshman level lack of knowledge combined with his Cotton Mather confidence that he’s got god on speed dial pose a not insignificant threat.
As we have said elsewhere there is a troubling hint of Holocaust denial to Peterson’s rhetoric and not, we hasten to add, because he actually denies that the Holocaust occurred. Rather because he denies the context in which it occurred and denies the resulting political, social and cultural blowback in response to it having occurred. Which, in the hands of his supporters amounts to the same thing.
What he does attempt, in place of context, is to engage in demagoguery 101 and offer a raging insistence that since, he assures us, Marx leads inevitably to the gulags and Mao, no one who isn’t a monster could be a Marxist or a leftist. He parses this shabby bit of syllogism by then asserting that anyone who says there are forms of Marxism existing on a spectrum and that Stalin was not a Marxist qua Marxism, are liars and fools and dangerous. That Peterson’s argument (such as it is) amounts to little more than a variation on liar liar pants on fire we shall for the moment ignore it.
What troubles here about this and about Peterson’s rhetoric and its relative success is that it relies on and thrives on the total rejection of facts. It is, in effect, history as alternative facts.
The first intellectual offense that arises from this is that by way of analogy one could point out that if we posit an inevitable linear progression from Marx to the gulag archipelago and thus tautologically state that post hoc ergo propter hoc Marx is evil because Stalin was and no form of Marxism can be good then what do we say about Christianity? Keeping in mind that Peterson is at pains to embrace the rhetoric of Christianity and admonishes his followers to believe in objective and absolute evil and goodness and all the usual suspects in the liturgy. The obvious dilemma in logic of course being that both ML King and the Klan are examples of Christianity as are the Quakers and The Inquisition; fascist priests and assorted martyrs. As Christopher Hitchens put it in his magisterial exegesis of his friend Martin Amis’ not quite rigorous enough look into the abyss of Stalinism, one can ignore the facts but the facts won’t ignore us and the truth is that (to take one example) the Kronstadt sailors were leftists and fought against Bolshevism. Or as Victor Serge put it:
“Have you forgotten the other bankruptcies? What was Christianity doing in the various catastrophes of society? What became of Liberalism? What has Conservatism produced, in either its enlightened or its reactionary form? … If we are indeed honestly to weigh out the bankruptcies of ideology, we shall have a long task ahead of us.”
A long task indeed. And what one does not want to do, is precisely what Peterson does and that is to engage in a macabre comparison of numbers as if to say that Stalin was right when he quipped that: “One death is a tragedy a million is a statistic.”
But, this is exactly the methodology (to injure the idea of true methodology) that Peterson employs as he rages about what he calls a lack of gratitude on the part of leftist punks for the glories of the West.Which are glorious if flawed, he adds, but so morally and materially superior to the East (i.e. Marxism/Postmodernism) that any attempt to celebrate Marx and or denigrate the West is the work of the devil. Or French intellectuals which of course amounts to the same thing.
This of course relies on the absence of facts as in an examination of imperialism, slavery, assorted genocides, as well as contemporary examples of realpolitik put into action by noted Beatnik Henry Kissinger. One assumes that Peterson’s exhortations on behalf of the west somehow find millions of dead via the industrial scale slow-motion genocides in Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Central America to be not sad examples of failure but (to paraphrase Aldous Huxley in his introduction to Brave New world) hilarious examples of success – the success of democracy, of industrial capitalism, of liberalism and of the human spirit. Things like Tuskegee, My Lai, The Trail of Tears, Operation Condor, Cointelpro, assorted murders, coups, renditions, support for romantic poet warlords like Pinochet and Franco, and death squads in Vietnam (Operation Phoenix) or the Philippines (hey hey Imelda Marcos how many shoes did you wear today?) are all either irrelevant, or akin to a rash confined to a limb rather than examples of a systemic failure of morality. In other words human all too human is not in Peterson’s vocabulary
And here is the key issue and the second moral and intellectual offense. Peterson is clearly offering not just an elided version of the facts but is standing on the razor’s edge of Holocaust denial (again) not by denying it occurred but by obfuscating not only the facts of how it occurred and the effects of it having occurred but by reducing its significance to the point of eliminating it from the narrative.
By declaring x to be worse than y and focusing his rage on x being worse he removes y from the debate and then sticks the landing by claiming that anyone who argues for the morally relative culpability of the circular firing squad to be at best a deluded sophist and crank and at worst, evil and a degenerate.
Such denunciations and tactics are the stuff of fascists and paleo conservatives who sound like Bill Buckley telling James Baldwin he better shut his mouth and then flirt with tyranny while claiming to only have eyes for democracy.
This then brings us to the third offense. The specifics of the post war landscape in France. For some context we quote at length from the introduction to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Humanism and Terror: An Essay on the Communist Problem, written in part as a response to Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (Emphasis added):
“The (post war) intellectual French Left was in an impossible situation which no combination of Marxism or existentialism seemed capable of remedying. French capitalism was bad, but American capitalism was even more anathema to the left, if only because it was in the rudest of health internationally, though perhaps not at home. At the same time, French socialism was anything but independent and its chances looked no better with Communist help. In such a situation it was impossible to be an anti-Communist if this meant being pro-American, witnessing the Americanization of Europe, and forswearing the Communists who had fought bravely in the Resistance. On the other hand, it was not possible to be a Communist if this meant being blind to the hardening of the Soviet regime and becoming a witness to the Communist brand of imperialism which broke so many Marxist minds. It is not surprising that many on the Left as well as the Right were unable to bear such ambiguity and therefore welcomed any sign to show clearly which side to support, even if it meant a “conversion” to the most extreme left and right positions. The attention drawn to those whose god had failed them is thus understandable The attention drawn to those whose god had failed them is thus understandable. Koestler’s Darkness at Noon reveals in its very title the gift of antithesis which generates a bad conversion for the lack of a genuine synthesis, which might have been achieved if Koestler had known how to grasp the lived relation between the senses and ideology in a man’s character…But ultimately it fails to come to grips with its central problem: to create characters who inhabit their own history and live through choices within it rather than to present characters who operate by means of simplistic moral alternatives, decided upon before their story begins”
Of course this is not even a dot on Peterson’s narrow horizon. He operates with the strident certainty of the typical reactionary who walks in the path cleared by the fascist or conversely clears the brush for the fascist who follows behind him.There is in this method only the binary system of right and wrong both absolute and certain in the manner of the religious fanatic or the religious Stalinist and Maoist (or capitalist) with their cults of personality.
As Hitchens puts it in his dressing down of Amis:
“Stalin’s two most memorable utterances are “Death solves all problems. No man, no problem” and (he was advising his interrogators on how best to elicit a particular confession) “Beat, beat and beat again.”
Both come in slightly different versions. “There is a man, there is a problem. No man, no problem.” This is less epigrammatic, and more catechistic—more typical of Stalin’s seminarian style (one thinks of his oration at Lenin’s funeral and its liturgical back-and-forth).
The variant on number two is: “Beat, beat, and, once again, beat.” Another clear improvement, if we want a sense of Stalin’s rhythms of thought.
This reader has endured none of them; and I will proceed with caution and unease. It feels necessary because torture, among its other applications, was part of Stalin’s war against the truth. He tortured, not to force you to reveal a fact, but to force you to collude in a fiction.”
Needless to say it is Stalin the ex-seminarian who proceeded to institute a fusion of disparate impulses – absolute neo-czarism, the cult of personality, the religious certainty, and the hall of mirrors of the psychopath who is not interested in the truth because it does not exist or is always mutable but is interested in forcing the lapsed and the threatening subversives to repeat the lies. What goes missing of course are the facts.This is gas lighting but on an industrial scale.
For the French in 1945 the dilemmas were acute if not potentially or decidedly terminal. To reject the communists was to flirt with if not embrace either the collaborationists and thus the occupation or to deny the occupation which turns history into an unperson. Either way the resistance and the liberation are elided, distorted, whored to the mad pimps of fascism. Given that Winston Churchill was (with the assistance of the US) arming the Greek fascists and spawning a civil war and subverting the vote in Italy and warming up to Franco and backing the reestablishment of the French empire, one might forgive the average French leftist for having a bad case of the jitter and shakes.The spectre of civil war in France was genuine and no thoughtful person could be unmindful of it. Further, as the introduction to Ponty states there was genuine unease about the implications of The Marshall Plan. It would be decades until the truth of Gladio was revealed and it turned out that many of the fears about Europe’s satellite status within the American (imperial) orbit were justified. Operation Paperclip could be justified (not morally but spuriously) but that does not and cannot justify the murder of civilians at the Bologna Railway Station or the use of ex-Nazis or the use of Baader Meinhof and Red Brigade psychopaths as agent provocateurs. What is revealed is nothing more or less than a policy based on: we had to subvert (European) democracy in order to save it. Vietnam was not an anomaly. It appears to be an anomaly if there is no context but with context it is of a whole – a world view, an industrial religious commitment to a bipolar and often ruthless murderous political Tourette’s syndrome.
But to examine this context requires not only honesty and rigor but actually doing the hard work of an academic and an intellectual.Two things that most certainly require more effort than screaming into a camera and posting yourself to youtube.What irritates here of course is that Peterson is claiming to be an academic; a clinical psychologist who should be taken seriously because he is (he claims or at least infers) an intellectual. And yet, he is not so very far removed from cranks who say Auschwitz had no crematoria. He is not so very far removed from a thug who uses whataboutery to deflect from the complexities of the truth.
Peterson of course is not running a gulag nor is he directly advocating that one be opened and filled with subversives. (though he has advocated turning humanities departments into economic thunderdomes and finding ways to establish committees that will decide who is legitimate and who isn’t), On the other hand he is running a kind of show trial where he finds the “subversives” guilty without producing any evidence and he is in this sense not any different than Trump egging on his supporters to take care of business because any criticism against dear leader is by definition fake news.
Our earlier assessments of Peterson gave too much credit to him for his stance on free speech in the same sense that one might appreciate the populism of a Huey Long but only at the risk of ignoring the dangers of the crowds he was ginning up and the stench of corruption that clearly posed a threat to the institutions of the republic. Conversely we came to the conclusion of his true reactionary neo-fascism too late and with too little emphasis on how very close he is to the standard right wing goon.
Peterson’s insistence that the evils of Stalin and Mao hold the truth hostage and in permanent stasis is a variation of the bankrupt end of history argument which itself of course was an attempt to steal the dialectic and put it to use plowing the fields of the Hoover Institute and the back catalogue of The National Review. In the end of course it was too clever by half but even then it was and remains twice as clever as the whoopee cushion intellectualism and bazooka Joe rhetoric of Peterson. However it is because of that one fears Peterson more than Francis Fukuyama. Fukuyama was despite his relative popularity speaking to a narrow group of people and was doing so in the foggy afterglow of 1989. Morning and Putin arrived and even Francis had to sober up.
Peterson in contrast is, via youtube reaching a far larger and far more volatile audience. Like any other demagogic rabble rouser his total absence of facts and the overabundance of heat with a sort of empty caloric sugar rush straight to the amygdala of the disenfranchised white Trump supremacists Steve Bannon fox news cohort is part of the large scale threat we face as liberalism and the doddering remnants of the left teeter on the brink of collapse. Having to rely on Nancy (we’re capitalists get used to it) Pelosi and Chuck (has anyone seen my spine) Schumer is cause for concern to say the least.
What needs to be said, loudly and consistently, is that Peterson is not only a fraud, engaging in the most banal of sophistries and cons, that he is engaged in the very cheap rhetorical stunts of which he accuses genuine academics like Foucault but that by setting up the immoral strawman of Stalin/Mao are evil therefore Marx and the left are evil and taken together they prove that the west is morally superior he is on the brink of Holocaust denial and that must be confronted.
Hitler, Mussolini and Franco were put in place by the liberals and the conservatives of the west for the express purpose of stopping the left from gaining power. Again turning to Hitchens contra Amis we are reminded that part of the universal revulsion towards the Nazis that has a more immediate spasmodic reaction versus the yes but response from the left towards 1917 rests on the fact that the Germans, the Spanish and the Italians were at the heart of the Western narrative – from the Renaissance to Cervantes to Beethoven and Goethe to the Spanish Modernists the fabric of the west is woven in large part by the extraordinary contributions of three extraordinary cultures. Whereas the Slavic Russians with their traditions of autocracy and sado-masochistic religious decadence suggest something both depressed and frightening. One need not point to the parallels between sclerotic catholic Spain and the perversities of the Medici and Borgias to refute the idea but the fact remains what has always troubled about the Nazis is that they forced the west to either confront the truth of its inherent latent barbarism (no different than the barbarism of the Slavs) or to deny its insidious reality and cast it as an anomaly. Hence the question: How did it (the Holocaust) happen? Vs Marxism and Stalin which is parsed as: How could it not happen.
Notice that Peterson and others far more sophisticated all insist that the barbarism they claim is inherent in Marx finds its truest expression in the ripe soil of Russia but that as a result of that “fact” Hitler is a freak; an accident and aberration. The question – how did it happen and the corollary never again (as if history can be arrested) contain in their form a hidden truism. That these calamities are not representative of who we are. They have no antecedents in imperialism or industrial capitalism, in slavery and colonization with its attachments to the rhetoric and “science” of superiority and racism. Hitler in this formulation might as well be an alien from another galaxy
In the case of Peterson we have both forms of the argument. The Holocaust is evil, he readily concedes, but is less evil by weight of corpses than others tragedies and also excluded from the roll call of honor that proves the morally superiority of the west.
Thus, it is distorted to the point of its reality being denied. It happened but it is not as important as these other things and the formula is put in place. The leftist argument that the first camps were established to exterminate leftists is erased and declared evil. The leftist argument that fascism is the logical extension of capitalism is erased and declared evil. The leftist argument that being a sober minded European intellectual in the wreckage of post war Europe and finding it an impossible existential dilemma to choose between the west which installed Hitler and embraced Mussolini and Franco on the one hand and the extravagant apocalyptic genocidal opera of Stalin on the other is erased and declared evil.
What Peterson eliminates is both ambiguity (the place where psychological stable humans reside) and paradoxically, certainty but of a kind. Peterson’s certainty is intellectually shallow as it is more about his insecurities and thus is more strident than the certainty of a man comfortable with his faith. Such a man is content to follow the path he feels at ease with whereas the fire and brimstone convertor, is consumed with a fear that he is a secret (or not so secret) scoundrel and thus must stamp out any and all resistance.
Consider here Ponty’s examination of the dilemmas faced by individuals caught up in impossible circumstances (whether it’s post 1917 Russia or post 1945 Europe).
“For we too have lived through one of those moments where history is suspended and institutions that are threatened with extinction demand fundamental decisions from men where the risk is total because their final outcome depends upon a conjuncture not entirely foreseeable. When the collaborator made his decision in 1940 in terms of what he believed to be the inevitable future (we assume he was disinterested) he conflicted with those who did not believe in this future nor want it and thereafter between them and him it was a matter of force. When one is living in what Peguy called an historical period, in which political man is content to administer a regime or an established law, one can hope for a history without violence. When one has the misfortune or the luck to live in an epoch, or one of those moments where the traditional ground of a nation or society crumbles and where, for better or worse, man himself must reconstruct human relations, then the liberty of each man is a mortal threat to the others and violence reappears.”
This of course may be wrong or may contain references to facts that upon examination establish contradictions. (and Ponty is smart enough to say that Bukharin was both victim and ideological criminal) But of course that is partially the point. Contradictions exist, are inevitable but in the historical moment when the SS and the Gestapo and the NKVD really are kicking in the door the question is: What then must we do?
Peterson is engaged in what amounts to the denial of history. A causality of that is the historical fact of the Holocaust – the event itself as well as that which made it possible and the devastating psychological hangover after it occurred. After Auschwitz said Adorno, poetry is banal. We disagree but it is not a point easily dismissed or dismissed out of hand.
Arbeit Macht Frei is not only an example of Germany’s inability to appreciate humor or irony. It is, unmistakably a signpost for capitalism with its fusions of religiosity (it was Martin Luther who first called for the Jews to be locked up, labeled with yellow stars, and let out to perform manual labor as away to cleanse their souls of deicide) and terror; its industrial scale sadism has its antecedents in the American plantation (the gulag cotton or tobacco gulag) which combined all of the same elements – religion-industry-sadism-sex-degradation-murder.
For Peterson et al the comparison is by definition illegitimate factually but also therefore illegitimate morally. For Peterson History qua History is a linear progression from bad to better.
The past has been resolved and the only retrograde threat comes from the left.
The irony here being that this is the intellectually bankrupt methodology of a good or devout Stalinist except left and right trade places.
It is also the textbook example of a third rate (but dangerous) con man selling snake oil as a cure for everything.
All that remains are the certainties of Jordan Peterson.
Where, of course, every historical event is equal, it’s just that some are more equal than others.
For a look at Operation Gladio see the following:
Regarding ambiguity and the rational mind or psychological stability. It was Jonathon Keats who contradicted Aristotle when he said: The mark of a sound mind is the ability to hold two mutually exclusive ideas in your mind at the same time and continue to function.
Aristotle, of course held the opposite view. The assertion of the mind being sound because it has one idea at a time while long since superseded by the intervening 2,000 years of history, is worth considering in the sense that it attaches Aristotle to the proto-fascism of his mentor, Plato. Plato of course advocated (Book X of the Republic) that in the ideal city state, artists would be banished. It is no accident that Peterson’s rhetoric has the eerie familiarity of the jackboot to it as it relies on an insistence that mental health is a question of knowing one thing with absolute certainty to the exclusion of anything that might suggest ambiguity. The persistence of these arguments in human experience is a fascinating topic but for another time and place.