Jordan Peterson and the Web of Fame

Jordan Peterson appeared on a program hosted by Piers Morgan to discuss Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. He insisted, among other things, that (a) Putin is in no significant way similar to Hitler or Stalin, i.e., not really a tyrant of global expansionist intentions at all, (b) there is no possible way that Ukraine can win the war, (c) even if Putin decides to walk away from Ukraine, he will have left it in ruins, which is already a victory, (d) Putin will use tactical nuclear weapons “if necessary,” but that’s no big deal and the West would and could do nothing about it, (e) there would be “nothing in it” for the West to respond to Putin’s use of nuclear weapons, and (f) if he were Putin, he would wait until winter and then turn off the water supply.

Furthermore, when Morgan mentioned that Volodymyr Zelensky told him personally that there is a great deal of resolve among Ukrainians to refuse to cede any territory to Russia, Peterson replied, dismissively, “Yeah, well, I can’t speak to that, because I don’t know what the preconditions for peace might be” — in other words, he doesn’t know whether Putin would accept those terms, since, “I do know that naïve notions that the Russians are going to lose somehow, or that we’re going to win, I just don’t understand that. I mean, what do you mean we’re going to win? What are we going to win here exactly?”

When the host replies to that presumably rhetorical question by noting that victory would mean Russia retreating from Ukraine, Peterson answers, “With Ukraine in ruins.” When Morgan attempts to qualify that assessment by saying “Well, large parts of it,” Peterson talks over him sarcastically, “Well, that’s a hell of a victory!”

First of all, Russia retreating with much of Ukraine’s landscape and infrastructure in ruins, but with its territorial integrity restored, its political sovereignty upheld, and most of its population still alive and free of Putin’s tyranny would indeed constitute “a hell of a victory,” would it not? Of course it would — to anyone who wasn’t overtly or covertly cheering for Putin and angry at the West for resisting him. When in world history did anyone think victory in a war of national defense could only be declared if nothing significant had been lost in the process? Obviously an invading army with far greater resources and a leader utterly without conscience or compunction will cause tremendous damage. The question of victory is all about withstanding the damage and finally turning the tyrant back. (Where, I must ask, is the psychologist of personal responsibility who used to preach about the importance of overcoming pain and hardship?) And by the way, if Peterson could take off his Russia Today lenses for a moment and look at the situation like the semi-rational intellectual he used to be, rather than the cheap fame whore he has become, he might notice that in the aftermath of this war, regardless of its immediate outcome, Putin’s military will have been thoroughly exposed and emaciated, significantly depleting his capacity to attempt further expansion in the near future. That is to say, Pyrrhic victory works both ways, dummy. 

Peterson has traveled an intriguing path over the past five years, living out a perfect object lesson in the dangers of sudden fame and adulation. He tripped into global attention out of the blue, fell entirely under the dangerous, soul-destroying spell of feeling important and loved by the crowd, lost his marbles on near-fatal addiction to drugs and attention, and is now, as a broken and intellectually degraded shell of his former self, living for clicks, desperate to save his subscriber numbers and revive his public speaking career. For fame and wealth, he will do anything, say anything, sell out anything. He now knows that his primary audience, or rather fan club, is made up of young men who might be identified as right-wing populists, which is to say the Trump cult and Tucker Carlson viewers, the kind of people who believe Putin is their friend and even a spiritual leader. So he has to walk what he must think is a clever line between outright condoning tyrannical aggression and mass murder on the one hand, and appeasing an audience which is convinced Ukraine’s war of self-defense is just a Biden administration scheme to distract from the U.S. economy, and that Ukraine would be better off under Russian control anyway, on the other. 

Jordan Peterson has sacrificed all of his credibility as a thinking man, all his hard-earned reputation for sober analysis, and all of his career and his legitimate skill as a classroom teacher of young adults, in exchange for dragging out his fifteen minutes of fame for reasons of pure self-aggrandizement and material self-seeking, without any concern for what that fame requires or where the adulation is coming from. 

“That’s a hell of a victory!” we might say.

A final thought: Peterson is a bestselling author with an international audience. He apparently made the calculation that his Russian readership outnumbers his Ukrainian one, along with the typical alt-right assumption of convenience that Putin is the true and legitimate representative of Russia and the interests of the Russian people. But I can’t help thinking of what his words on Morgan’s program will mean to his Ukrainian readers and admirers, including, as I imagine, some young man sitting in a tank or lying wounded in a hospital, who has found Peterson’s ideas inspirational during these past seven months of terrible trial. And here is that young man’s admired spiritual guru telling him he can’t win, that there is nothing in it for the West to help him, even against a nuclear attack, and that the price of victory in fighting for his country amounts, in Peterson’s view, to nothing but a worthless and ignominious defeat. From broken and pathetic pseudo-intellectual to revolting piece of crap in one simple image.

I do not believe Peterson is particularly a fan of Putin per se, although I’m sure he admires him (as he does Donald Trump) as a slightly less manly version of himself — you know, the preening, image-conscious “alpha male” popularity-hound, weeping hysteric, and drug addict who almost killed himself because he needed non-stop attention so badly. He is spouting this alt-right garbage, playing to the scum, presumably more because he is scared to death of becoming less popular — of being left alone with himself, which clearly terrifies him above all else — than because he deeply believes anything he is saying. He is simply lost, following his perceived audience blindly wherever they roam, begging them not to leave him. And when a man follows his lust for attention that desperately, what does he care if he runs over some innocent children on the way? That is what occurred to me when I thought of that hypothetical Ukrainian soldier. How do you feel when someone you have admired as an inspiration tells you that he doesn’t care if you live or die, whether you are free or enslaved, and that you should just give up everything to a tyrant rather than waste everyone’s time and money resisting? Jordan Peterson’s time as a man, such as it was, has run out. He now exists only as a filmy residue, as a public image, no different in the end than Kim Kardashian or any one of a thousand YouTube “influencers.” He is fake. His “followers” are his leaders. He is their poor replica, rather than they his. That neither he nor they understand this is merely another episode in the long and sorry history of piddling fame lust and its fallout. 

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