Pankaj Mishra: Informed Critic or Sanctimonious Racist?

PankajMishraAccording to Jordan Peterson’s so called “friend” Bernard Schiff, Pankaj Mishra’s critique of “12 Rules For Life”, which was given the click-bait title Jordan Peterson & Fascist Mysticism, is an informed and thoughtful critique. Peterson called Mishra a “sanctimonious prick” and a racist. Which is closer to the truth?

“Men have to toughen up,” Jordan B. Peterson writes in 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos, “Men demand it, and women want it.” So, the first rule is, “Stand up straight with your shoulders back” and don’t forget to “clean your room.”

Very traditionally conservative, but I don’t disagree.

By the way, “consciousness is symbolically masculine and has been since the beginning of time.”

The idea that consciousness is male and the subconscious female goes back at least as far a Taoism, which dates from roughly five thousand years ago.

Oh, and “the soul of the individual eternally hungers for the heroism of genuine Being.” Many such pronouncements—didactic as well as metaphysical, ranging from the absurdity of political correctness to the “burden of Being”—have turned Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, into a YouTube sensation and a bestselling author in several Western countries.

People want to have meaningful lives (i.e. genuine Being), and that is what Peterson offers.

12 Rules for Life is only Peterson’s second book in twenty years. Packaged for people brought up on BuzzFeed listicles, Peterson’s brand of intellectual populism has risen with stunning velocity.

Smearing Peterson’s readers as BuzzFeed readers is rich. Peterson clearly made an effort to write for a general audience. The popularity of the book shows that he’s succeeded.

It is boosted, like the political populisms of our time, by predominantly male and frenzied followers, who seem ever-ready to pummel his critics on social media.

Smearing Peterson’s followers as frenzied doesn’t seem thoughtful. Sanctimonious, yes.

It is imperative to ask why and how this obscure Canadian academic, who insists that gender and class hierarchies are ordained by nature and validated by science, has suddenly come to be hailed as the West’s most influential public intellectual.

Perhaps because he’s willing to talk about problems that are denied by the orthodox thinkers of the mainstream, and offers meaning to those who have none.

For his apotheosis speaks of a crisis that is at least as deep as the one signified by Donald Trump’s unexpected leadership of the free world.

A crisis of faith in the establishment.

Following Carl Jung, Peterson identifies “archetypes” in myths, dreams, and religions, which have apparently defined truths of the human condition since the beginning of time. “Culture,” one of his typical arguments goes, “is symbolically, archetypally, mythically male”—and this is why resistance to male dominance is unnatural. Men represent order, and “Chaos—the unknown—is symbolically associated with the feminine.” In other words, men resisting the perennially fixed archetypes of male and female, and failing to toughen up, are pathetic losers.

The association of men with yang (order) and women with yin (chaos) is thousands of years old. Men and women who deny the existence of the subconscious roles (archetypes) that we have evolved over millions of years are denying reality. If you attempt to change reality without understanding it, you are likely to fail.

Such evidently eternal truths are not on offer anymore at a modern university; Jung’s speculations have been largely discredited. But Peterson, armed with his “maps of meaning” (the title of his previous book), has only contempt for his fellow academics who tend to emphasize the socially constructed and provisional nature of our perceptions. As with Jung, he presents some idiosyncratic quasi-religious opinions as empirical science, frequently appealing to evolutionary psychology to support his ancient wisdom.

Why not study Jung? Joseph Campbell, another self taught student of humanity, found wisdom in Jung and in mythological archetypes. Jung himself was a great student of the ancient art of alchemy. Not all of his ideas hold merit, but he continues to influence modern thought. Many of Freud’s speculations seem even more ludicrous than Jung’s. This doesn’t make them worthless.

Peterson himself credits his intellectual awakening to the Cold War, when he began to ponder deeply such “evils associated with belief” as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, and became a close reader of Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. This is a common intellectual trajectory among Western right-wingers who swear by Solzhenitsyn and tend to imply that belief in egalitarianism leads straight to the guillotine or the Gulag.

Bullshit. Egalitarianism, the idea of equal rights and equal opportunity, is the essence of western culture. It is Marxism, the idea of forced equity and equal outcomes, that leads to the gulag or the killing fields. Look at Venezuela and you will see that the path leads through socialism along the way.

A recent example is the English polemicist Douglas Murray who deplores the attraction of the young to Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and wishes that the idea of equality was “tainted by an ideological ordure equivalent to that heaped on the concept of borders.” Peterson confirms his membership of this far-right sect by never identifying the evils caused by belief in profit, or Mammon: slavery, genocide, and imperialism.

One can profit honestly by one’s own efforts. Belief that the profit motive can only lead to slavery, genocide, and imperialism is evil. Marxism and national socialism, not capitalism, led to the great genocides and imperialist movements of the twentieth century.

Reactionary white men will surely be thrilled by Peterson’s loathing for “social justice warriors” and his claim that divorce laws should not have been liberalized in the 1960s.

And here is the source of Peterson’s claim of racism against Mishra. Denouncing “white men” is both sexist and racist. Peterson is not wrong in pointing the finger at no fault divorce as the major cause of the dissolution of the family. As for social justice warriors, some are truly loathsome.

Those embattled against political correctness on university campuses will heartily endorse Peterson’s claim that “there are whole disciplines in universities forthrightly hostile towards men.”

And he is correct.

Islamophobes will take heart from his speculation that “feminists avoid criticizing Islam because they unconsciously long for masculine dominance.”

Well, you must admit that feminists do avoid criticizing Islam, despite the fact that Islamic states are far more sexist than Western states. I believe its down to intersectionalism. Intersectional feminists can’t attack Islam without attacking their own belief system. It’s a great irony.

Libertarians will cheer Peterson’s glorification of the individual striver, and his stern message to the left-behinds (“Maybe it’s not the world that’s at fault. Maybe it’s you. You’ve failed to make the mark.”).

As a libertarian, I do appreciate Peterson’s message of individualism and the ownership of one’s problems.

The demagogues of our age don’t read much; but, as they ruthlessly crack down on refugees and immigrants, they can derive much philosophical backup from Peterson’s sub-chapter headings: “Compassion as a vice” and “Toughen up, you weasel.”

Compassion can be a vice, for example when virtue signalling but doing nothing to help solve problems.

A range of intellectual entrepreneurs, from Theosophists and vendors of Asian spirituality like Vivekananda and D.T. Suzuki to scholars of Asia like Arthur Waley and fascist ideologues like Julius Evola (Steve Bannon’s guru) set up stalls in the new marketplace of ideas. W.B. Yeats, adjusting Indian philosophy to the needs of the Celtic Revival, pontificated on the “Ancient Self”; Jung spun his own variations on this evidently ancestral unconscious. Such conceptually foggy categories as “spirit” and “intuition” acquired broad currency.

Suzuki’s work on Zen is a fantastic introduction to the subject. The spiritual traditions are well worth exploring.

Peterson’s favorite words, being and chaos, started to appear in capital letters. Peterson’s own lineage among these healers of modern man’s soul can be traced through his repeatedly invoked influences: not only Carl Jung, but also Mircea Eliade, the Romanian scholar of religion, and Joseph Campbell, a professor at Sarah Lawrence College, who, like Peterson, combined a conventional academic career with mass-market musings on heroic individuals.

Campbell’s books are amazing, offering a clear picture of how the stories told across time and space reveal deep truths about humanity.

Campbell’s 1988 television interviews with Bill Moyers provoked a particularly extraordinary response. As with Peterson, this popularizer of archaic myths, who believed that “Marxist philosophy had overtaken the university in America,” was remarkably in tune with contemporary prejudices. “Follow your own bliss,” he urged an audience that, during an era of neoconservative upsurge, was ready to be reassured that some profound ancient wisdom lay behind Ayn Rand’s paeans to unfettered individualism.

“Follow your own bliss” is excellent advice. Rand’s utilitarianism is nothing like this.

Peterson, however, seems to have modelled his public persona on Jung rather than Campbell. The Swiss sage sported a ring ornamented with the effigy of a snake—the symbol of light in a pre-Christian Gnostic cult. Peterson claims that he has been inducted into “the coastal Pacific Kwakwaka’wakw tribe”; he is clearly proud of the Native American longhouse he has built in his Toronto home.

Gnosticism is fascinating. On the one hand, gnostic cosmologies, each stranger than the last, explained the physical dimension as a cosmic accident in which human souls, sparks of the divine, were trapped. On the other hand, the path to spiritual redemption is via self knowledge, rather than faith.

Peterson may seem the latest in a long line of eggheads pretentiously but harmlessly romancing the noble savage. But it is worth remembering that Jung recklessly generalized about the superior “Aryan soul” and the inferior “Jewish psyche” and was initially sympathetic to the Nazis. Mircea Eliade was a devotee of Romania’s fascistic Iron Guard. Campbell’s loathing of “Marxist” academics at his college concealed a virulent loathing of Jews and blacks. Solzhenitsyn, Peterson’s revered mentor, was a zealous Russian expansionist, who denounced Ukraine’s independence and hailed Vladimir Putin as the right man to lead Russia’s overdue regeneration.

As I’ve said before, no one is right about everything. This doesn’t change the fact that Jung, Campbell, and Solzhenitsyn made major contributions to our culture.

Nowhere in his published writings does Peterson reckon with the moral fiascos of his gurus and their political ramifications.

And nor should he. You take what is good, and leave what is not.

He seems unbothered by the fact that thinking of human relations in such terms as dominance and hierarchy connects too easily with such nascent viciousness such as misogyny, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

Dominance hierarchies are innate natural structures. Anti-Semitism and anti-Islamism stem from tribalism. The tribal instinct is also hard wired, as are gender roles. Peterson understands that to overcome these behaviors, you first have to admit their reality.

He might argue that his maps of meaning aim at helping lost individuals rather than racists, ultra-nationalists, or imperialists.

Peterson is all about helping individuals.

But he can’t plausibly claim, given his oft-expressed hostility to the “murderous equity doctrine” of feminists, and other progressive ideas, that he is above the fray of our ideological and culture wars.

One would hope not. Clearly, he’s in the thick of it.

Peterson rails today against “softness,” arguing that men have been “pushed too hard to feminize.” In his bestselling book Degeneration (1892), the Zionist critic Max Nordau amplified, more than a century before Peterson, the fear that the empires and nations of the West are populated by the weak-willed, the effeminate, and the degenerate. The French philosopher Georges Sorel identified myth as the necessary antidote to decadence and spur to rejuvenation. An intellectual inspiration to fascists across Europe, Sorel was particularly nostalgic about the patriarchal systems of ancient Israel and Greece.

Great empires throughout history have failed after becoming decadent, so I can understand their concern. The fact that facists were inspired by these ideas doesn’t make them any more or less valid.

One the whole, I have to agree with Peterson that Mishra is sanctimonious and racist. I did not find his critique particularly thoughtful, though he did provide some interesting information. In all of the attacks on Peterson’s work, I’ve yet to see anyone come at him head on, with the exception of Karen Straughn, who took apart his misguided comments on the MGTOW movement.

About jimbelton

I'm a software developer, and a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and I blog about movies, books, and philosophy. My interest in religious philosophy and the search for the truth inspires much of my writing.
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