Jordan Peterson’s Pro-Putin Punditry
Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist and “anti-woke” crusader who has stirred controversy and garnered praise, opprobrium, and ridicule for his pronouncements on postmodernism, “neo-Marxism,” gender, morality, and the rules of successful living, has donned a new pundit hat to opine on Russia, Ukraine, the war, and the West. The maverick professor lays out his thoughts on the subject in a 50-minute video that garnered over 1.4 million views in the week since it was posted; the transcript can be found on the Daily Wire, where Peterson is now a regular contributor. Unfortunately, the main conclusion one can derive from the video is that creeping pro-Kremlin sentiment is a real problem in certain social conservative quarters—and it’s an ugly thing.
Peterson starts with the obligatory “I think what Putin has done is unconscionable” disclaimer, and he even throws in a denunciation of “the collusion of the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church.” But it doesn’t take long to reach the inevitable “but”: There’s a need, Peterson says, “to deeply understand the motive forces for this war” in order to end it and prevent similar future conflicts.
Fair enough. Peterson mentions his March 4 interview with foreign policy scholar Frederick Kagan, who “put forward the thesis that Vladimir Putin is a prototypical authoritarian”—or even “a thug in the Hitlerian mold”—and that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the result of Putin’s personal desire for empire and power as well as “an expression of the imperial expansionism that typified the Soviet Union.” But that explanation apparently isn’t good enough for Peterson, so he turns to University of Chicago “realist” John Mearsheimer’s 2015 lecture, “Why Ukraine is the West’s Fault,” for an alternative perspective more sympathetic to Russia’s concerns.
Peterson gravely notes that he was “concerned that Mearsheimer might be a Russian apologist,” but thankfully “that does not seem to be the case.” Then he moves on to the apologetics: “NATO and EU expansionism into Ukraine . . . has already and will continue to pose an intolerable threat to the Russians, who view Ukraine both as an integral part of the broader Russian sphere of interest and as a necessary buffer between the Europe that has invaded Russia to terrible effect in 1812 and 1941.” (By the way: It wasn’t “Europe” that invaded Russia on either of those occasions; it was Napoleon and Hitler, who also invaded numerous countries in Western Europe. If every country that repeatedly got invaded over the course of its history is entitled to an obedient “buffer” country on its borders, it’s going to be buffers all around.)
The “blame NATO” defense of Russia’s actions is, as I’ve written before, bogus. But one part of Peterson’s elaboration on this argument is so striking that it deserves to be quoted in full:
Mearsheimer states, starkly (and this explains a fair bit of Putin’s potential motivation) that Russia would rather see Ukraine destroyed, razed to the ground, than comfortably ensconced in the Western sphere of influence.
If true, I would say that this doesn’t exactly contradict the “authoritarian with a bent for imperial expansionism” (or even “thug in the Hitlerian mold”) take on Putin’s actions. Neither does a third point Peterson then brings up: that Russia sees Ukraine as a threat to its “primarily petro-funded economy, particularly in relation to the European market.” Sorry, but if you invade another country and slaughter people to protect your oil and gas trade, it might not make you “Hitlerian,” but it definitely makes you the baddies.
But even these explanations don’t suffice for Peterson, who wants to find the “wokeness” angle in order to tie all this to his hobbyhorse. Here, according to Peterson, is the real story:
Putin regards the current West as decadent to the point of absolute untrustworthiness, particularly on the cultural and religious front. . . . And whether he believes this or not—and I believe he does—he is certainly able and willing to use the story of our degeneration to make his people wary of us and to convince them of the necessity of his leadership and to unite them in supporting his actions in Ukraine. . . .
And are we degenerate, in a profoundly threatening manner? I think the answer to that may well be yes. The idea that we are ensconced in a culture war has become a rhetorical commonplace. How serious is that war? Is it serious enough to increase the probability that Russia, say, will be motivated to invade and potentially incapacitate Ukraine merely to keep the pathological West out of that country, which is a key part of the historically Russian sphere of influence?
Peterson’s example of Western degeneracy is Ketanji Brown Jackson’s elevation to the Supreme Court—not only because she was picked on the basis of her race and sex (since Biden had explicitly narrowed the pool to black women), but because, during her confirmation hearings, she punted on the question “What is a woman?” by answering, “I’m not a biologist.” Peterson concedes that it was a “gotcha” question, but then concludes that it doesn’t matter: The fact that “woke” ideology simultaneously makes being a woman one of two key criteria for a Supreme Court seat and muddies the meaning of “woman” means that it violates “the principle of non-contradiction” and makes our culture “irredeemably irrational.”
What does this have to do with Russia and Ukraine? In Peterson’s view, the Russians see “woke” ideology as a new version of the Communist quest to remake human nature and tell themselves something like this:
Those Westerners are so out of their mind—possessed by the very same ideas that destroyed us for a century (and didn’t they?)—that we simply cannot trust them. Those Westerners are so out of their mind that a devastated but neutral Ukraine is preferable to a functional bordering state aligned with the US and Europe. Those Westerners are so out of their mind that we’ll push the world to the brink of a nuclear war and potentially beyond to keep them off our doorstep. Because we’ve been there before and we’re not going back.
Peterson does stress once again that Putin himself may or may not believe this and that, regardless of his sincerity, he is weaponizing the War on Wokeness to promote his imperial and self-aggrandizing goals. However, he still maintains that the real key to solving the Russia/Ukraine problem lies in winning the “civil war in the West” by defeating “the radical ideas of Marxist inheritance that are currently destabilizing our societies”—and that, as long as those ideas dominate, American and Western support for freedom in Ukraine is nothing but “shallow moral posturing.”
Where to begin?
The notion that the West’s moral standing vis-à-vis Russia in 2022 is undercut by some uniquely terrible moral “degeneracy” and irrationality does not pass the laugh test. For instance, as David French points out, for a good part of the Cold War the United States tolerated not only racial segregation but the often-violent oppression and disenfranchisement of black Americans in the Southern states. I daresay this was in drastic contradiction with the principles of freedom and democracy we were upholding in opposition to Soviet Communism. Does Peterson really think that putting Justice Jackson on the Supreme Court after a selection process limited to black women is more reprehensible than excluding blacks (and, in many cases, women) from a wide range of high-level public positions?
(Incidentally, Putin has also invoked the history of racial injustice in the United States as proof of American hypocrisy on human rights, continuing the Soviet-era tradition of such whataboutism. Authoritarians will weaponize whatever they can!)
One could also point out that Putin’s obsession with keeping Ukraine out the West’s clutches goes back to circa 2004—which is to say, it started about a decade before what liberal pundit Matt Yglesias dubbed “the Great Awokening”: the shift to the new progressive focus and framework on race, gender, and other identities.
What’s more, if we want to talk about contradiction and non-contradiction, Peterson’s own plea for Western civilizational renewal—and his claim that such a renewal will ensure a more friendly disposition from the Russian political establishment—is profoundly incoherent. He asserts, for instance, that the “radical ideas” he finds so corrosive must be defeated not only by adherents of traditional religious values but by “classic liberals [and] small-c conservatives” defending the heritage of the Enlightenment. But he also argues that Russia sees itself as championing a religiously ordered society built on Russian Orthodox values; he even cites Dostoyevsky’s A Writer’s Diary, a collection of political newsletters, as an expression of this philosophy. Leaving aside the repellent passages on “the Jewish Question” in that work, there is no doubt whatsoever that Dostoyevsky loathed and feared “degenerate” Western influence at a time when Western liberalism was about 150 years away from going “woke.”
As the cherry on top, Peterson mentions the neofascist crank Aleksandr Dugin as a “genuine philosopher” whose influence on Putin supposedly shows the Russian leader’s authentic interest in “philosophical and theological” matters. (Peterson had previously discussed Dugin’s alleged status as Putin’s adviser, and his hostility to Western liberalism as a driver of “materialistic hyper-individuality,” in a 2015 lecture.) I’m not even sure what’s more important to point out here: that Dugin’s “philosophy” is virulently hostile to even to the least “woke” varieties of Western liberalism, or that Dugin is either a kooky, occultism-obsessed prophet of Russian imperialism or a mega-troll whose public persona is a kind of performance art. (Of course, in truly postmodern fashion, it is possible that he is some combination of both.) The bottom line is that if you take Dugin seriously as a “philosopher,” you’ve well and truly jumped the shark.
Whether or not Western liberalism should return to its more classical roots is a topic for another day. In any case, such a pivot cannot be the answer to the current crisis in Ukraine if only because of how long it would take to happen. But Peterson has some short-term proposals, too:
Perhaps the declaration of Ukraine as a neutral state for a minimum period of twenty years.
Perhaps a new election in Ukraine subject to ratification by joint Russian-Western observers.
Perhaps a pledge on the part of the West to not offer to Ukraine any membership in NATO or the EU that is either not simultaneously offered to Russia or moving forward on terms acceptable to Russia.
Peterson concedes that his suggestions might be wrong and even “dreadfully naïve,” which is probably the most accurate thing he says in this entire piece. Consider their substance: His first proposal would directly reward Russia for its naked aggression.
The second is an arrangement Russia would only accept if it were facing imminent, ignominious defeat and desperately needed a deal to save face. (Any election in Ukraine today would hand a resounding victory to pro-NATO, anti-Russia candidates even in those parts of the country where pro-Russia sentiment and skepticism toward NATO were widespread before the war.)
As for the third proposal, it too amounts to a reward for Russia’s invasion, granting the country a veto on Ukrainian membership not only in NATO but in the European Union. What’s more, by Peterson’s logic, an offer of NATO or EU membership to Russia should be seen as a menace to the country, not a friendly overture: Didn’t he just tell us that Russia is going to war in Ukraine partly to keep the scourge of Western liberal decadence from its door?
The reality is that, for all the West’s culture-war problems, the defense of Ukraine is both the most genuinely liberal cause (in the classic sense of the word) and the most genuinely moral cause that exists in our public and political space right now. And, be it reflexive contrarianism, pandering to his fan base, or genuine conviction, Peterson now finds himself on the wrong side of that cause—which arguably reduces all his talk of defending of Western civilization and upholding strict moral standards of good and evil to, yes, “shallow posturing.” The worrying question, given his large fan base and his status as a conservative celebrity, is how many people will follow him there.