The Atlantic’s Caitlin Flanagan generally captured the appeal of Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson in a recent piece titled, “Why the Left Is So Afraid of Jordan Peterson. But she fell short of understanding why the left fears him. Understanding both will matter a great deal to the success of Peterson and his fellow travelers in the “Intellectual Dark Web.”
My personal experience confirms what Flanagan observed about why so many people, including her Clinton-voting sons, are attracted to Peterson and podcasters like Sam Harris, Dave Rubin and Joe Rogan. Their lectures and discussions make up “perhaps the only sustained argument against identity politics they had heard in their lives,” she wrote. “With identity politics off the table, it was possible to talk about all kinds of things — religion, philosophy, history, myth — in a different way,” she adds, dubbing this a “parallel curriculum” to that of their college classes.
Flanagan, however, seemingly missed why the left fears this phenomenon. “It is because the left, while it currently seems ascendant in our houses of culture and art, has in fact entered its decadent late phase, and it is deeply vulnerable,” she wrote. But her examples provide weak and ambiguous support for that claim.
Is it a sign of weakness that The New York Times attacks President Trump as divisive, while hiring an editorial board member with a history of hating white people? Or is it a sign of confidence, not only in leftist identitarianism (i.e., the idea that it is impossible to be racist regarding whites), but also in the lack of cost to them for living by double-standards?
After all, Flanagan works for an outlet that for years hyped the entirely racialized polemics of Ta-Nehisi Coates, while defenestrating Kevin Williamson at the behest of her social justice-minded co-workers. The Atlantic suffered no serious consequences, contributing to an environment in which The New York Times believed it could act with impunity.
Flanagan noted that former President Obama recently criticized identity politics. But wasn’t that a recognition that identitarianism is where the energy is on the left? Notably, Flanagan had to hyperlink to the transcript of Obama’s speech because The Atlantic story she referenced ignored his comments on identity politics.
Flanagan may view such episodes as demonstrating the left’s intellectual insecurities, but they could also display the left’s confidence in its exercise of raw cultural power. The left cares far more about power, which is why many on the right still view themselves as playing defense.
Moreover, even assuming Flanagan is correct, the right cannot help but notice the long-term damage done by short-term eruptions from the far left. For example, the changes imposed upon colleges and universities by the New Left in the late ’60s and early ’70s presaged the withering of classical liberalism at these institutions and eventually in society at large.
Indeed, the intense interest in people like Peterson — especially among the young — is perhaps the most obvious piece of evidence that the left still has a stifling grip on virtually all of the cultural and institutional levers in academia, journalism, and mass entertainment.
This continued dominance further explains Joy Pullmann’s comparison in The Federalist of the Intellectual Dark Web’s “parallel curriculum” to the Czech dissident Victor Benda’s concept of the “parallel polis.” We don’t live in a totalitarian society, but institutions that accept identity politics ultimately obey a totalitarian logic. “The personal is political” is essentially a totalitarian idea, even if it sounds nicer when the left calls it “holistic.”
We are in the current cultural and political moment because the New Left’s march through the institutions was mostly successful. Having largely driven out dissenters from our cultural institutions, it follows that the anti-totalitarian response must spring up from thinkers outside those institutions. And in the tradition of the Czech dissidents’ Charter 77, it follows that the response would not take the form of a formal political or ideological organization.
The counter-institutions built by the American right (e.g., think tanks, media) operate from an essentially political or policy orientation, and fairly obviously so. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that — the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation were set up to counter RAND and Brookings, not Harvard or Hollywood.
Right-leaning institutions, academics, pundits, and politicians may have identified and mourned the decline of civil society during the long march. But for the most part, it was not their function to present a popular alternative in the way that Peterson and some of the Intellectual Dark Web does.
Flanagan almost reached this point, but not quite. Someone like Peterson is much harder for the left to tackle than a Jerry Falwell, Bill Bennett or Newt Gingrich, because he is not working in a traditional political paradigm.
But as Flanagan suggests, leftists who see everything as political know what Peterson is doing has a political dimension. The Intellectual Dark Web types reach people where they live, both in their earbuds and in their sense of enriching their lives outside “politics,” which paradoxically is the essence of successful politics. But the left fears the Intellectual Dark Web because they have no game plan (yet) for someone who isn’t a traditional political figure doing politics that isn’t “politics.”
This paradox has implications for Peterson and the Intellectual Dark Web. The recent New York Times profile of the Intellectual Dark Web — and Rubin’s appearance on the Federalist Radio Hour — raised the question of whether the Intellectual Dark Web becomes a political movement.
Becoming a political movement in the sense the question is asked would probably be the Intellectual Dark Web’s downfall at this juncture. The only political idea that should be central to the Intellectual Dark Web is the rejection of identity politics and its implicit totalitarianism. Simply re-popularizing the idea that not everything is “politics” is political enough for them for now. They will be far more effective making “politics” only one topic of conversation, thereby demonstrating that not everything is “politics.”
Flanagan concluded her analysis by asserting “the most dangerous piece of ‘common sense’ in Peterson’s new book comes at the very beginning, when he imparts the essential piece of wisdom for anyone interested in fighting a powerful, existing order. ‘Stand up straight,’ begins Rule No. 1, ‘with your shoulders back.'” Better advice for the Intellectual Dark Web in dealing with the left might be found in the movie “WarGames”: Learn their game, but don’t play it.