Amicus Plato, sed magis amica veritas, was how Roger Bacon paraphrased Aristotle (… but truth is a bigger friend). It’s in that spirit that I’ll comment on Jordan Peterson, for whom I have that warm feeling I reserve for people who say the same things I could have said.
In fact, I did say most of them, and long before Prof. Peterson became a household name (as any reader of my book How the West Was Lost, written 25 years ago, will confirm).
Hence, when he did become a household name, I watched a few of his lectures, with the joy of recognising a kindred spirit. I instantly developed boundless respect for Prof. Peterson. But I never really trusted him.
Call it petty snobbery, but I can’t fully trust a man who wears any jewellery other than a watch and cufflinks – and, almost as bad, brown shoes with dark suits. Le style, after all, c’est l’homme même.
His delivery, ranging from histrionic to hysterical, was another factor, for Prof. Peterson made me uncomfortable. He seemed to be all a single pulsating nerve ready to snap at any moment. His oratory could be described in musical terms, what with its constant modulations, crescendos, diminuendos and dynamic shifts.
Or perhaps the terms borrowed from his core discipline, clinical psychology, are more appropriate. For I sensed something was wrong with Prof. Peterson even before he revealed his struggle against clinical depression.
This disease calls for much sympathy, but the treatment he prescribed for himself was bizarre. He started to eat nothing but beef, claiming a curative effect for that diet. My psychiatrist friend whirled his finger at his temple when I told him about it.
Long story short, I stopped watching Prof. Peterson’s lectures, quoting to myself the apocryphal saying attributed to Caliph Umar who supposedly burned the Great Library of Alexandria: “If those books say all the same things as the Koran, they are redundant.”
That self-imposed moratorium ended yesterday, when the New York host of the podcast on which I appear every Tuesday mentioned that Prof. Peterson is one of Putin’s useful idiots. Now useful he may be, but Prof Peterson is as far from an idiot as it’s possible to be without being, well, Aristotle.
That’s why I made a point of viewing his lecture of three months ago, only to have my confirmation bias richly rewarded. For Prof. Peterson has finally gone off the rails.
He seems to be hellbent on vindicating Laurence J. Peter’s famous principle: everyone rises to the level of his incompetence. If that was his aim, he succeeded.
His whole argument rests on the flimsy foundation of a non sequitur: the West is decadent to the point of being degenerate. Therefore, Putin is richly justified in his manifest intention to reduce the Ukraine to rubble.
About half of the hour-long lecture is devoted to supporting his premise of the West’s cultural catastrophe. There Prof. Peterson is his usual brilliant self, diagnosing precisely, arguing convincingly, concluding irrefutably.
However, when he gets to the ‘therefore’ part, his compatriot Laurence J. Peter must be smiling from his grave. For Prof. Peterson demonstrably knows next to nothing about Russia and understands even less.
Unfortunately, his well-deserved fame must have gone to his head and he began to believe his press notices. That sort of thing has happened to even better men than Prof. Peterson, so no surprises there. He must see himself as an oracle whose pronouncements elucidate any subject, including those outside his expertise.
In this case, his pronouncements aren’t even his own. For Prof. Peterson regurgitates – self-admittedly and proudly – the lies spread by Putin’s propagandists and Putin himself.
He feels Putin’s and Russia’s pain caused by the Ukraine edging towards Europe. After all, “Europe” twice tried to conquer Russia in the past, in 1812 and 1941.
That’s adding inanity to ignorance. It wasn’t “Europe” that attacked Russia, but Napoleon’s France and Hitler’s Germany. While they were at it, the same countries occupied most of Europe, and both were at war with the very same dastardly Anglo-Saxons who personify the West for Putin.
In fact, Peterson could have expanded his argument without, however, strengthening it. He could have mentioned, for example, the 16th-century Livonian War, when “Europe”, then represented by Norway, Sweden, Poland and Lithuania fought Ivan the Terrible tooth and nail. Or the Northern War of the next century, when Peter I defeated Sweden’s Charles XII, who was undeniably European. And don’t get me started on the 19th-century Crimean War.
Hence, when the Ukraine gained her independence by ousting Russia’s stooge Yanukovych, explains the Putinversteher, the images of European, in this case Nato, invaders flashed through Putin’s mind.
He simply had to do something about it, to thwart the Nato invasion by proxy. And you know what? While the West desperately wants to “humiliate” Putin, it really “doesn’t give a damn about Ukraine. It never did” – not even during “the Holomodor”.
It took me a few seconds to realise that Prof. Peterson was referring to the Holodomor, the mass murder by artificial famine the Ukraine suffered at Russia’s hands in the early 1930s. He obviously never studied Russian history, for the term is common currency.
Yet the neophyte oracle he seems to feel he has become won’t be held back by such incidentals. Russia isn’t fighting the Ukraine as such, explains Prof. Peterson. She is waging culture war on the West, with Putin seeking to protect his country from Western degeneracy.
Russia, he vouchsafes to his audience in the weighty manner of a recent autodidact, is neither Catholic nor Protestant. She is Orthodox, and deeply devout. Putin himself is “a practising Christian”, so he doesn’t care how many children he’ll have to kill to protect his country’s spiritual purity.
Prof. Peterson knows even less about Russian religious history than about her history in general. I could recommend a small library of books by Russian religious thinkers, such as Solovyov, Merezkovsky and Rozanov, who treated the beliefs of most Russians as being closer to superstition than religion.
This the Russians proved after the revolution, when they started murdering priests and their parishioners with unquenchable bloodlust. The murders were spearheaded by the typological predecessor to Putin’s own KGB, an organisation to which he has pledged undying loyalty.
When he decided to vindicate his criminal regime by an appeal to the traditional values of Mother Russia, Putin began to profess faith. However, it took him quite some time to realise that the Orthodox don’t cross themselves the way he saw actors do in Hollywood films. As for Putin’s actions both before and after his Damascene experience, they don’t seem to have been mainly informed by the Sermon on the Mount.
But Prof. Peterson doesn’t refer to Solovyov and Merezkovsky. He refers to Alexander Dugin, whom he describes as a “genuine philosopher” and a major influence on Putin. This shows Prof. Peterson’s grasp of philosophy is as uncertain as his knowledge of history.
(If rhetoric is part of philosophy, he is on shaky grounds there as well: he misuses “beg the question”. Any rhetorician knows this doesn’t mean “raise the question”, which is what Prof. Peterson was trying to say. He ought to look up petitio principii.)
Dugin is a rabid Russian jingoist with strong fascist tendencies. That’s all he is, as anyone who has ever opened a single book of real philosophy would know. If we put this in the German context, Dugin is much closer to Julius Streicher than to Immanuel Kant.
Dostoyevsky and Solzhenitsyn also merit a mention, both Russian chauvinists by the way. I don’t know how much Dostoyevsky Prof. Peterson has read, but he mentions only Crime and Punishment, The Possessed and Brothers Karamazov.
If he looks for cultural influences on Putin, he’d be better off focusing on A Writer’s Diary, which Dostoyevsky himself rated higher than his great novels. Every volume of that tract is jampacked with rants spewing hatred of the West and the glorification of the saintly Russian peasant. Hatred of Jews also drips from most pages, and this is the only vice Putin so far hasn’t exhibited.
Everything Prof. Peterson says comes right out of the Kremlin’s press briefings, as do Putin’s apocalyptic threats Prof. Peterson is happy to share with us. Russia is an energy superpower that can destroy our economy. She’s also a nuclear superpower that can destroy us, full stop. “One Russian Sarmat missile,” intones Prof. Peterson in a stage half-whisper, “can annihilate Britain once and for all”.
He then parrots Putin’s oft-repeated anecdote of a cornered rat that lashed out at young Vova when he tried to prod it with a stick. Putin, explains Prof. Peterson hastily, is no rat. But that’s exactly what he’ll do if cornered.
Somehow Prof. Peterson uses this possibility as proof that Putin’s regime is neither authoritarian nor aggressive. Putin is a cultural warrior, who is prepared to level all Ukrainian cities and kill millions of Ukrainians (and Westerners, if it comes to that) in defence of Russia’s matchless spirituality. And the Russian language, let’s not forget that:
“Zelensky, the current president and supporter of all things Western, was and is supported by the Ukrainian speakers who live in the northeast. Add to that as well the fact that the Ukrainian speaking supported government has placed increasingly draconian restrictions on the language rights of the Russian speakers in the northwest… All this to say that Putin and the Russians have their reasons for concern over the situation in Ukraine.”
Every word in that diatribe is a lie, including, to quote Mary McCarthy, “and” and “the”. Prof. Peterson should get a copy of the Ukraine’s language atlas and put it next to the country’s map. He’ll find out where Ukrainian and Russian are mostly spoken, so next time he might desist from ignoring most of the country altogether.
He should also study the “draconian restrictions” and how they were applied. He may find that Zelensky and most members of his government are native Russian speakers, whose “language rights” were in no way impinged. All the Ukrainian spokesmen I follow speak a Russian that’s not only grammatical, but also accentless.
Putin’s “reasons for concern” are clear enough, and they have nothing to do with matters cultural or linguistic. Prof. Peterson’s reasons for repeating Kremlin propaganda word for word are less obvious, and my podcast host suggested he is in Putin’s pay. I doubt it.
Prof. Peterson understands better than most the cultural abyss into which the West is falling. And hard as he tries, he can’t find a home-made safety net that could arrest the plunge. Hence he, in common with many other Right-leaning Western intellectuals, is looking for an external saviour who could lead the West out of the wilderness.
Thus Putin’s rhetoric appeals to him. Prof. Peterson hears all the right noises, and he doesn’t bother to study the subject deeply enough to understand their source — and the evil lurking behind.
At least, I’d rather ascribe his drivel to a lapse of understanding than to bad faith. But that’s me, always looking for the good side of any man.