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The religious hunger that drives Jordan Peterson’s fandom

Jordan Peterson, the alt-right, and the reactionary allure of mythology.

Christina Animashaun/Vox

Few self-professed public intellectuals have captured the spirit of the moment like Jordan Peterson, the Canadian clinical pop philosopher whose atavistic advocacy of masculinist revivalism has made him the de facto guru of the right.

Peterson’s philosophy — enumerated in TED talks, YouTube videos for his 1.2 million subscribers, and self-help books (his latest venture, 12 Rules for Life, topped several best-seller charts) — is deceptively simple. Culture, he says, has historically been a battle between order (traditionally conceived of as masculine) and chaos (traditionally feminine).

The great myths and legends of history, to say nothing of religious narratives, are supposedly rooted in this dichotomy: a dichotomy that humans crave. Our postmodern, post-Marxist (left-wing, liberal, politically correct) era has lost touch with this duality. We’ve become collectively feminized. In an era in which, in Peterson’s account, boys can “decide to be” girls, women abandon their natural and biological identity as caregivers, and men no longer stand up straight to “be men,” identities and contrast lose their meaning. The clear borders of culture have been dissolved.

But if men (and, by and large, Peterson’s advice is geared to men) stand tall, if they clean their rooms, if they embrace order and the kind of performative dominance so ubiquitous in the animal kingdom (Peterson’s philosophy is spiked with a heady dose of evolutionary psychology), they can somehow get back to this longed-for primordial state. In so doing, the narrative goes, they will rediscover a sense of meaning and purpose the West has lost.

“In the West,” Peterson writes in 12 Rules, “we have been withdrawing from our tradition-, religion- and even nation-centred cultures.”

Peterson’s overarching narrative is one of renewal: make the West great again

There is nothing particularly novel or controversial about Peterson’s theories, which read like a Wikipedia summary of the philosophy of Nietzsche. The Birth of Tragedy traced the cultural tension between the “Apollonian” forces of order and the “Dionysian” ethos of chaos a good century and a half before Peterson.

But Peterson’s public persona has made him far more controversial than his relatively anodyne theories might suggest. After all, he first came to prominence for publicly refusing to use the preferred pronouns of his transgender students. Increasingly, he’s been associated with his fan base, which includes many on the alt-right, men’s rights activists, incels, and other reactionary corners of the internet landscape — though it should be noted that Peterson has often criticized the alt-right, and sees his message of personal responsibility as a path out of it.

What’s fascinating about Peterson is not the novelty of his ideas, but their power, and the quasi-religious influence he exerts on his followers. In a New York Times profile of Peterson, Nellie Bowles interviews a devotee who sees in Peterson’s philosophy a kind of grand unifying theory that made him rediscover religion. In Peterson’s interpretation of biblical stories, he says, he found the truth of his sexual frustration.

“It made sense in a primordial way when he breaks down Adam and Eve, the snake and chaos,” Bowles quotes her source as saying. “Eve made Adam self-conscious. Women make men self-conscious because they’re the ultimate judge. I was like, ‘Wow this is really true.’”

It’s easy enough to dismiss Peterson, as some of his critics have done, as catering to the sexual frustrations and perceived loss of status of (usually) straight (usually) white (usually) men. But to do so is dangerous because it overlooks the degree to which Peterson has tapped into something very real, very necessary, and very strong: a legitimate spiritual hunger for meaning that, combined with the eroticized trappings of “countercultural” transgression, alchemize into a heady intellectual cocktail. (Peterson declined through a representative to be interviewed for this article.)

The idea of the “rebellious traditionalist” — someone who at once hungers for an idealized past and is somehow considered thoroughly punk rock for doing so — is a perennial one, particularly in reactionary and far-right circles.

Take Julius Evola, the right-wing Italian philosopher active in the middle of the 20th century and who has been influential to modern right-wing figures, including Steve Bannon. He popularized the capital-T version of Traditionalism as an occult phenomenon: an attempt to recapture what he believed to be a primordial spiritual truth that all world religions had somehow fallen away from. Evola made his reactionary tendencies radical, describing his goals in highly sexualized and countercultural terms (his most famous book title was the aptly named Revolt Against the Modern World).

We can see this ethos, too, in a number of reactionary and right-leaning movements today. It’s inherent, of course, in the very promise of “Make America Great Again,” and those who gleefully pepper the rhetoric of renewal with self-aggrandizing references to being “deplorable.” But it also finds expression in a number of other reactionary movements. The rise of Trad Catholicism (not to mention Weird Catholic Twitter) is one example — one that, for many, is a positive one: an opportunity to find identity through meaningful faith.

Yet we see it, too, in the rise of the alt-right, the “manosphere,” and the myriad intersecting — and at times intellectually contradictory — internet sub-movements that, for many of their members, operate as quasi-religions.

When I was interviewing a relatively well-known member of an alt-right Twitter group for an unrelated project a few months ago, he said that his excitement around the community was, in fact, something akin to a religious hunger. Referring to the concept of “meme magic,” the idea that various internet forums “memed” Trump into the presidency, he told me, “It was like the whole world was enchanted.”

It is that hunger for enchantment that Peterson capitalizes on so successfully.

Peterson’s appeal lies in his ability to speak to a fundamental human need

To dismiss Jordan Peterson’s appeal as just misogyny, or just “straight white male victimhood” (even as these elements play a major part in his popularity), is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of his success. What Peterson understands, and is able to capitalize on, is that people need stories. He understands that the cultural potency of images and myths, and the human need for them, are two of the strongest forces in the world. It is impossible to understand the appeal of any traditionalist or nostalgic movement without recognizing that, for better or for worse, they fulfill a legitimate emotional, aesthetic, and spiritual need.

That does not mean that Peterson is right (the actual content of his self-help book is sufficiently vague and ill-defined that it’s really impossible to say he’s right or wrong); nor that we should all become traditional Catholics; nor (of course!) that the racism, sexism, and outright Nazism that defines so much of the alt-right is excusable.

However, understanding why these kinds of movements are attractive to a wide variety of people who consider themselves, accurately or not, to be disenfranchised demands a serious engagement with the aesthetic and emotional appeal of what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call traditionalism: largely but not exclusively right-wing movements loosely defined by the rejection of modernity and promise of return to a better time. (I’m distinguishing lowercase traditionalism from capital-T Traditionalism, Evola’s more technically conceived occult movement.)

This form of traditionalism is what Peterson talks about when he writes in 12 Rules that “we have been withdrawing from our tradition-, religion- and even nation-centred cultures” and that we must “find sufficient meaning in individual consciousness and experience” by revisiting “the great myths ... of the past.”

What traditionalist movements do, in their various ways, is provide adherents with two sensations. The first is the sense of the mythic. To be a believer is to live in a world of gods and monsters, good and evil, chaos and order. The world has an inherently meaningful and exciting structure.

The second is the opportunity to participate in that movement: a participation that blends the security of belonging to a cohesive group with the thrill of cultural transgression. To be a traditionalist is, increasingly, to be countercultural.

Without understanding that particular aesthetic appeal of contemporary traditionalism — that highly specific blend of rigidity and transgression — it is impossible to fully understand why so many people are drawn to it, and subsequently, all too often, to its handmaidens: sexism, racism, violence.

Let me declare a few biases here. I’m a religious Episcopalian Christian, one who instinctively feels an aesthetic connection to what is known as “high church,” “smells and bells” liturgy, and to traditional forms of Catholicism, even as my political views on some social issues put me at odds with elements of Catholic doctrine. As a result, I understand, and empathize with, some of the broader yearnings of traditionalism, even as I reject their right-wing political manifestations. In writing this essay, I neither wish to condemn those who in good faith hunger for meaningfulness nor to condone the far-right political stances into which men like Peterson steer their followers.

The hunger for meaning, for surety, for “order” — to use Peterson’s well-loved term — is a legitimate one. So, too, is the aesthetic appeal of perceived counterculturalism: the idealized rebel who defies bourgeois social norms. The irony, of course, is that many of the young straight white men who see themselves as “countercultural” because of their “political incorrectness” are doing little more than reinforcing the status quo.

But how is it that right-wing movements capitalize so effectively on both?

The “aesthetic” mode has long been associated with right-wing movements

So what am I talking about when I talk about the “aesthetic” appeal of right-wing movements? German culture critic Walter Benjamin, in his in 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” writes that right-wing movements, which reach their zenith in fascism, represent “the introduction of aesthetics into political life.” While Benjamin is writing about fascism specifically here, his argument encompasses reactionary and right-wing movements more broadly.

While left-wing movements, he writes, work by advocating for “affecting the property structure” of capitalism, right-wing movements offer the masses a chance to “express themselves” while keeping the social order largely intact.

The ideal of traditionalist right-wing movements — which include, but are not limited to, fascist movements — is a kind of transformation of a person’s individual life into a mythic story. The narrative of return, the primordial “going back” that defines, say, “make America Great Again” (or “make Catholicism weird again”), is fundamentally an aesthetic one: galvanizing the human desire to live a meaningful story. The imagined past is a place of structure, of significance.

We find this taken to extremes in, for example, explicitly fascist movements, which very much operate on this principle. Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, in his 1932 manifesto on fascism, makes his movement sound almost like a religion — a way for ordinary people to conceive of themselves as belonging to a world of mythic heroes. “Fascism,” he writes, “respects the God of ascetics, saints, and heroes, and it also respects God as conceived by the ingenuous and primitive heart of the people, the God to whom their prayers are raised.” Aestheticism, in this context, is the process by which individual political grievances are elevated to the level of myth.

Of course, this sense of nostalgia is totally ahistoric. History is very rarely as binary as myth, and human beings have been subverting the kind of grand dualistic categories (masculine versus feminine, chaos versus order) that Peterson idealizes for exactly as long as they’ve been around. Peterson devotes a whole section of his book to analyzing the creation narrative in the first chapter of Genesis in the Bible as the triumph of rational order, the divine word, over the symbolic “formless deep” of feminine chaos. After an extended discussion of the masculine nature of order and the feminine nature of chaos, Peterson comes to the conclusion that Genesis 1 recounts the “emergence of order from chaos.”

It’s not a wrong reading of Genesis 1, exactly, but it’s seriously incomplete. The idea of the formation of the world as a result of a battle between order and chaos is, Peterson rightly notes, a common trope.

It’s an idea known to biblical scholars as chaoskampf (chaos struggle), and it has analogues in other ancient Near Eastern creation myths, like the Babylonian Enuma Elish, in which the god Marduk defeats the water goddess Tiamat in order to create the world. Interestingly, Peterson does not cite these. (Peterson has written about the Enuma Elish elsewhere, although it is absent from his account of Genesis 1, in 12 Rules, which does not feature historical textual criticism.)

It’s also a dated (and some scholars would say discredited) academic idea. For many more contemporary biblical scholars, such as John Day, the authors of Genesis 1 were actively responding to, and rejecting, that chaoskampf tradition as expressed in other ancient Near Eastern creation myths: presenting a God who does not battle against chaos but encompasses it. Day writes frequently on how the writer of Genesis 1 “demythologized” earlier creation narratives (including the ancient Near Eastern corpus, Psalm 104, and the Egyptian Hymn to the Aten).

In other words, the very beginning of the Bible represents a literary subversion of the binary trope Peterson insists has defined human culture.

Now, Day is far from the only Old Testament scholar out there, and, certainly, biblical scholarship contains differing critical views. But by failing to engage with any of them, Peterson reduces what’s a very complex matter of biblical interpretation — one that involves Genesis 1, as a text, in dialogue and opposition to other ancient Near Eastern creation myths — to a vague mythic archetype.

It’s just one example of the many ways Peterson has flattened history to fit mythic categories, rather than recognizing that these categories have, historically, always been in flux.

But just because these ideas aren’t historic, or linked to any genuine earlier time, doesn’t negate the fact that they incredibly powerful. The mythic quality of “order versus chaos,” as a narrative, transcends any place or time. If Peterson, and those like him, are successful at anything, they are successful at realizing just how vital symbolic, mythic categories are to the human experience.

Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor and writer, famously came to the conclusion that a hunger for meaningfulness is at the heart of the human experience. In his best-selling 1946 account of his Holocaust experience, Man’s Search for Meaning, he posits that his ability to find structure even in the most horrific circumstances allowed him to survive psychologically.

Insofar as traditionalist ideas can provide a sense of order and meaning, they’re incredibly effective.

The idea of “counterculturalism” is central to the traditionalist narrative

There’s another element to understanding the attraction of contemporary traditionalist movements: sex appeal.

From Jordan Peterson’s fanboys to the wider alt-right, the idea that traditionalism is inherently countercultural is inextricably bound up with the idea that it’s somehow sexy, exciting, or a little bit punk. (As I’ve previously written, the eroticization of the right wing is a longstanding cultural trope.)

Peterson makes this dynamic explicit. One of his YouTube lectures is even called “Growing Up and Being Useful is The New Counterculture.”

Traditionalist movements often sell themselves as countercultural. The modern world (or so the right-wing narrative often goes) is corrupt, morally decrepit, decadent, and decayed. Standards have slipped. But by adopting a kind of moral or physical rigidity — something Peterson frequently demands of his followers, encouraging them to stand up straight or work out more or clear their rooms or take their meds — the adherent can somehow reject the temptations and vagaries of the modern world. It’s a curious fusion of orthodoxy and punk: an embrace of older values as a means of putting up the middle finger to contemporary ones.

That aesthetic, and the idea of traditionalism as a transgressive, countercultural identity, continues to dominate. Peterson characterizes himself as a warrior, a brave soldier willing to risk life and limb (or at least career) in order to (to use a common right-wing phrase) “own the libs” and stand up to political correctness. To follow Peterson is thus to be able to participate in the thrill of being transgressive without, well, having to do anything particularly transgressive.

Demanding a return to patriarchy — as many in the alt-right, incel, and men’s rights activists communities have done, and as Peterson himself has done — aren’t particularly transgressive behaviors. Indeed, one might say they remain explicitly culturally sanctioned. But the Petersonian narrative is one that allows adherents to identify themselves as dangerous (even sexy) transgressive figures without making actual demands on them.

The alt-right aesthetic isn’t limited to Peterson

The conflation of traditionalism and counterculturalism in its current form became particularly prominent in the late 19th and early 20th century. This was a time when secularism, urbanization, industrialization, and the rise of the urban middle class all served to make nostalgic “traditionalism” more appealing to those who felt themselves to be left behind by these developments.

In Europe, England, and America, at least, Catholicism was one of the major canvases on which these tensions played out. The works of writers like Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, and (the Anglican, but very much aesthetically Catholic) T.S. Eliot all embody these tropes.

Writing for the progressive Catholic magazine Commonweal, Patrick Baumann notes the abiding popularity among Catholics of the 1945 novel Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh. In that novel’s denouement, the protagonist Charles’s love interest, Julia, renounces him, because she, in accordance with Catholic teaching, cannot bring herself to remarry after a divorce. Although faith has not been a huge part of her life to this point, and although Julia and Charles would suffer little to no social recourse for doing so, Julia cannot bring herself to ignore the “twitch on the thread”: a deep sense of conscience and sin.

She turns her back on Charles (and on a permissive society). Charles later converts to Catholicism himself. It’s a hideous, difficult, and upsetting ending — from a secular perspective, Julia has made two people miserable for no reason. But it’s also an intensely powerful one: Julia’s abnegation is a willful rejection of bourgeois social norms in favor of a higher, harder calling. (It’s a thoroughly punk move.)

Something of that aesthetic permeates the modern crop of traditionalist Catholics today. The Brideshead argument may have reached its zenith this year when a priest writing for the Catholic magazine First Things defended the 1858 Edgardo Mortara kidnapping — in which an illicitly baptized Jewish child was removed from his parents under Catholic law — as an example of the triumph of Catholic doctrine over morality.

Perhaps nowhere is the Petersonian aesthetic of transgressive traditionalism more apparent than in certain corners of the reactionary internet. Under the wider umbrella of the “alt-right”, a number of reactionary groups — some explicitly white nationalist or white supremacist, some less clearly defined — have sprung up, taking the Petersonian ethos to its extreme.

Among culturally telling permutations of the wider alt-right Twitter is an internet personality known as Bronze Age Pervert.

Who is Bronze Age Pervert?

That’s not altogether clear. His profile photograph is of an impossibly buff man facing away from the camera. His bio identifies him as an “Aspiring Nudist Bodybuilder. Free speech and anti-xenoestrogen activist.” He’s been cited to me by a number of sources familiar with the cultural landscape of something of a leadership figure among devotees of Pepe the Frog. He frequently condemns other alt-right figures, such as Richard Spencer, at times suggesting they might be in league with the FBI.

His posts veer between retweeting MRA rhetoric about “roasties” (slang for women with multiple sexual partners), claiming that Jordan Peterson plagiarized his suggestion of “enforced monogamy” from him (in an earlier forum post, he claimed women should be reduced to breeding stock), and celebrating on #HandsomeThursdays the physiques of chiseled, muscular Aryan and Slavic men. It’s not clear, in his internet-slang-laced posts, where performative trolling ends and authentic far-right views begin, nor does it necessarily matter.

Nobody knows who Bronze Age Pervert is. But among a subset of internet denizens, he’s something of a demigod: a Jordan Peterson in miniature. He was well-known enough for the neoreactionary and proto-alt-right thinker Curtis Yarvin (better known by his pseudonym, Mencius Moldbug) to name-check him in a recent interview with an Atlantic journalist, telling Rosie Gray that Bronze Age Pervert was his contact inside the White House. While this seems to have been an attempt to troll Gray, it speaks to Bronze Age Pervert’s relative notoriety within this tight community.

An anonymous follower of his on another neoreactionary blog declared him the leader of the alt-right in language that, though comically over the top, nevertheless speaks to the fundamental mythic tendency of these movements:

Bursting away the built up rust of the last centuries so new myths may be sung. He frees us from the constrictions of historicism and geographism- placing the race question in the light of the Faustian imperial infinity. By having us all take up barbarism the Right is spared from the civcuck middling elements having too much a say ... new culture will be anti-fragile to the attaqs against it, it will soon give us victory. Long live our liege lord.

It’s, of course, ridiculous. But it’s also illustrative. What Peterson makes implicit, Bronge Age Pervert and his followers make explicit: the intersection of trolling (complete with language taken straight from Internet memes) and traditionalism. The traditionalist aesthetic allows for both an embrace of an imagined past — in which order is triumphant over chaos — and a thoroughly contemporary assumption of transgression.

Bronze Age Pervert is an embodiment of the strange and effective tension between nostalgia and transgression that makes men like Peterson so popular. His blend of say-anything internet irony, highly eroticized valorization of splendid “warrior” bodies, and atavistic appeals to return to an era when men were real men is as close as you can get to a distillation of the Petersonian essence.

In one tweet, Bronze Age Pervert posts a painting of a naked wood nymph with a thoroughly Nietzschean caption: “return of the maenads ...... imagine being torn limb from limb by crazed bacchant-gril as irregular drums beat and very thin, circular demented melody plays on two flutes handled by goat-men ... I want such death.”

In a Twitter DM interview, Bronze Age Pervert told me that he did not call himself a traditionalist “because there’s no tradition I can think of that I’m trying to preserve.” He looks, he said, to Homeric and Classical Greek thought, as well as to Tibetan Buddhism, but isn’t trying to “adopt or revive” them.

“Most traditions are hostile to beauty and excellence,” he said, although he believes in a “biological hierarchy” that privileges some traditions over others (he’s a fan of the French, the Greeks, the Japanese; he dislikes Ashkenazi Jews).

He believes in the “purgation of the corruption of the world and its rejuvenation through an age of barbarism,” and promised to send me his manifesto.

He sent me a quote from a tweetbot posting quotes from controversial scholar Camille Paglia about how the “great modernists” — Joyce, Proust, Woolf, and others — had “absorbed the great classical tradition,” and thus, “their gestures of rebellion make sense and have power. The power of rebellion comes from the power of tradition.” (I was unable to substantiate this quote in Paglia’s work, although it echoes a number of themes common in her writing.) He denies that he and the rest of the community he calls #FrogTwitter advocate for any particular political project, like, say, a white ethnostate.

Rather, he says, they share a “dissatisfaction with modern life in many ways for the same reasons liberals were dissatisfied before. ... It’s a world that’s tightly controlled, repressive, ugly, extremely polluted.” The modern world is an “open-air prison.”

The very act of saying absurd or politically correct things, he says, is a form of transgression. “There’s this completely failed and boring sclerotic establishment, and they deserve to be mocked.”

Yet Bronze Age Pervert’s lack of interest in historical tradition only intensifies the mythic nature of the ideology he promotes. It’s traditionalism without a tradition — a valorization of warrior imagery and mythic heroes in the absence of any historic anchor. When his fans see the images he posts, he says, “Many feel as if they’ve escaped the gravity of this trash world and returned to a time when the natural beauty of man could be displayed.”

Let me be clear: I’m not citing Bronze Age Pervert here because I believe his ideology deserves a platform. However, understanding the popularity of figures like Peterson more generally requires understanding what it looks like when the subtext of these highly aesthetic ideologies is made text. Peterson’s implicit rhetoric of order and chaos, once distilled, leads us inexorably to #HandsomeThursdays.

One of the best books ever written about the appeal of right-wing movements is one that is not explicitly political. It is Muriel Spark’s 1961 The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Ostensibly the story of several school girls and their charismatic teacher, the book explores how the titular Miss Brodie — a canonical fascist and Nazi sympathizer — corrupts her young charges by making them feel special and clever.

Her chosen “set” is set apart from ordinary girls. Echoing fascist rhetoric of Mussolini (whom she admires as a “man ... of action”), Miss Brodie promises her students “Goodness, Truth and Beauty” over safety, filling their heads with beautiful and appealing stories of history and art and promising them that they, one day, will ascend into the number of the glorious. In reality, she pushes them into toxic and inappropriate sexual relationships and indirectly causes the death of one of them.

What makes the book so powerful is that it understands the fundamental draw of right-wing traditionalist ideology. It fulfills authentic needs — for meaningfulness, for a sense of structure — by providing adherents with a sense of their own “specialness” in a mythic narrative created for them, a specialness further intensified by the highly eroticized thrill of transgression.

It is easy, and necessary, to condemn the racism, sexism, and classism that make ideologies like Peterson’s so popular. But it’s vital to understand their effectiveness in order to counter it. What Peterson and even Bronze Age Pervert understand is that people fundamentally need stories of meaning, and that in an increasingly secular age, those stories are not necessarily culturally present.

It’s just a shame we don’t have better storytellers.


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