It seems that there has been a revolt at Penguin Press over the publication of a new book by Jordan Peterson. Staff members apparently cried. This is, I think, indicative of some really deep problems in how progressives approach politics.
The first thing that I think when I hear about people freaking out about publishing a new Jordan Peterson book is, why allow that guy – that guy – to disturb you in this way? The man is a grifter; he is one of the most shameless and obvious con men in the conservative sphere today, and that’s really saying something. I am not afraid of Jordan Peterson or his army of losers following his collection of deepities. I am especially not scared of him because Peterson wants to be feared. It is his brand to inspire fear in the hearts of progressives. So why give that to him? I fear Donald Trump because Trump marries destructive thinking to immense material power. I fear Mitch McConnel because he is the apotheosis of a certain vision of obstructionist resistance to the healthy functioning of government. I don’t fear Jordan Peterson, and I ask: what is the strategic political purpose of treating Peterson as dangerous in exactly the way that he wants you to?
Now of course the immediate and inevitable response is : you don’t fear him because you are a white man and are secure in the protections of your privilege. If you were black or a woman or trans you would have reason to fear him. Well, of course members of these marginalized groups have special vulnerabilities and reasons for concern, and all decent people have a duty to protect them. But my question is, why is this always the strategy? Why is the reflexive practice of progressives always to emphasize the weakness and vulnerability of marginalized groups, rather than their strength? It’s a nearly universal practice and I have never seen a single compelling argument for why always highlighting vulnerability rather than strength is the way to go. What is the strategic political purpose of treating members of marginalized groups as existentially vulnerable?
When I was growing up the tactic was always to emphasize the strength of marginalized groups. Now, to assert that strength is seen as a betrayal of the progressive cause, as if acknowledging strength is somehow to undermine the cause for equality and justice. In the case of Jordan Peterson vs the marginalized peoples of the world, I cannot fathom the argument that asserting his utter dominance over them is somehow going to work out in their favor.
Someone once wrote that the basic strategy of progressives, in the 21st century, is to work the refs – that is, to make an appeal to authority about the fundamental fairness or unfairness of a given situation and expect authority to correct the problem. You can see this clearly in the constant focus on identifying inequalities or disparities. Progressives endlessly point out how things are unequal along racial or gender lines, usually correctly. But they often have nowhere to go after that; they seem to think that just identifying disparity is somehow a way to change it. They work the refs; they appeal to some nameless authority who, they seem to believe, will establish justice just for having been asked.
The progressive takeover of (ostensibly) neutral institutions is bound up with this broad strategy. The undeniable evolution of the New York Times from an officially politically neutral institution to one that is frankly and unapologetically a progressive advocacy organization clearly reflects this manner of thinking. The Times is precisely the kind of organization a naïve liberal might see as an authority that should be appealed to for justice. And so too with Penguin employees seeing their employer as the kind of benevolent authority that might fight their battles for them. So much of what left-leaning people ask for today is, at heart, a nurturing mother who might congeal out of the morning dew and take their problems away from them.
There are two problems and two questions that we might identify. The first is the clear sense in which this serves Peterson’s interests. Peterson has made his money by presenting himself as a dangerous thinker, to the kinds of people who are not moved by the disapproval of the media, the publishing industry, or the people who make them up. It seems very likely to me that this mini-controversy is precisely the sort of thing that Peterson has dined out on for years. Somebody’s going to buy this book because “it’s the book liberals don’t want you to see!” Someone is going to publish this book; maybe ignoring it will be more damaging to its sales than attacking it? I see absolutely no awareness among contemporary progressives that they live in an oppositional system where their resistance to specific members of the opposition strengthens their hand. Indeed a key part of the conservative grift is precisely the ability to attract the enmity of progressives.
The second problem is this: what if there is no authority to which you can appeal to make Jordan Peterson go away? What if Jordan Peterson is a fact of life? Let’s set aside God for a moment. What is the authority that could shut Peterson up? A Canadian citizen with tenure, a large network of conservative admirers, the ability to broadcast directly to his fans, and a talent for encoding reactionary ideas without the out-and-out hateful trappings of many of his contemporaries, he simply does not strike me as someone you can silence even if you wanted to. The alternative might be boring and, I’m afraid, quite old school: you make the case for a vision of politics and of life that is antithetical to Jordan Peterson’s vision, and you make it so well that more people agree with you than with Peterson. I get that this is more complicated, and less emotionally fulfilling, than running to the teacher to get him in trouble. But what’s the alternative? Investing all of your political hopes in the likes of Penguin Press? That does not seem like a formula for an effective long term political strategy to me. There is no authority which will simply remove Jordan Peterson from public life for you.
Sometimes when you tell the universe, “this isn’t fair,” the universe opens wide and says, “so what?”