Book Review as Character Assassination: The Unpacking of Pankaj Mishra’s Critique of Jordan Peterson
The essayist and novelist Pankaj Mishra publishes in The New York Review of Books a book review of 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Dr. Jordan Peterson, a clinical and teaching psychologist at the University of Toronto in Canada. Mishra titles his book review, “Jordan Peterson & Fascist Mysticism”. The title hints at how divisive the public figure of Jordan Peterson has become. During the course of the last two years, the far Left has vilified Peterson as a bigot and racist, while the far Right has raised him to an almost messianic figure. In any event, Peterson is an intellectual celebrity of both social media and mainstream media. The book review certainly rallies the social justice intellectuals and wannabes into a frenzied delight that finally someone has given Peterson a taste of his own medicine. Mishra name-drops the often-heard names of intellectual giants from the past whose works just as often remain unread by the public. Peterson’s fans rise to his defense in equal if not more frenzied passion of righteousness when their messiah becomes so enraged that he offers to slap Pankaj Mishra on the face if they were to meet.
I think it worth the time and effort to review the book review of Pankaj Mishra and examine how it is in fact a character assassination of the beloved and just as equally hated Jordan Peterson.
A kindly karate instructor once told me that the best sparring contestant he once saw was a low-level karate white-belt who mastered two basic moves: a downward front block and counter-punch. The young man, I was told, won every match in a tournament with just these two basic moves. This was not that this kid got lucky but that he has thoroughly mastered the basics and the acquired skill paid huge dividends in him winning his tournament. Mastery of the fundamentals before proceeding with the showy stuff is key to anything, I believe, was the moral of the story.
In his critique of Jordan Peterson’s recent bestseller, Mishra likewise uses a very simple three-prong move repeatedly with devastating effect in painting Peterson as a Fascist Mystic. Although Mishra does not explicitly call Peterson a Fascist Mystic, his skillful gathering and presentation of historical personalities as the inspiration of Peterson’s alleged ideology of fascist mysticism leaves little doubt in the reader’s mind that Peterson must be a Fascist Mystic but only if the premises of Mishra’s allegations are not challenged.
Mishra uses a simple rhetorical device, the false syllogism, repeatedly throughout his essay on Peterson. Nothing boring about it as Mishra is indeed more than competent in his handling of the English language, especially with a wink and a nod to his fan base, left leaning progressives, while at the same time poke fun at Peterson’s fans, many alleged to be white supremacists or misogynists, even neo-Nazis.
The false syllogism goes something like this in three steps.
Fascists eat food.
Johnny eats food.
Johnny is a fascist.
You may replace “Johnny” with any name of someone in the world and eventually you will find someone who is not a fascist but who eats. Obviously, the ability to eat is not a necessary and sufficient condition for being a fascist. Such sleight of hand proliferates Pankaj Mishra’s personal attack on Jordan Peterson under the guise of a book review of Peterson’s new book 12 Rules for Life.
Let us look at how Mishra make Peterson appear as a fascist. Mishra’s first move is to recall from the past a historical figure who at best seem partial to fascist ideology. Next move is to show Peterson behaves in a manner like that of the historical figure. Mishra then plants these two images in the reader’s head by mere juxtaposition. The reader, by virtue of just reading Mishra’s juxtaposed texts in some prestigious newspaper, comes to his own conclusion that this proximity–dead historical fascist and Peterson–suggests Peterson is also a fascist. Mishra uses this same rhetorical sleight of hand to accuse Peterson of being a quack or intellectual charlatan too.
For example, Mishra presents Carl G. Jung as both a quack and a fascist. Mishra merely insinuates this as fact. To the gullible reader, Mishra is taken at face value on his insinuations about Jung’s use of myth as a substitute for empirical science. Next, the image of Jung as a fascist, or at best a lover of fascism obsessed with the study of myths, is then juxtaposed with the well known teachings of Peterson that reveals his admiration of Jung and the use of myth as a teaching motif. Readers are then left to conclude one of three things. Some will conclude that Peterson must be also a fascist. (That is, the conclusion of a false syllogism.) Others will conclude that Peterson is definitely not a fascist but may be bewildered with all the “evidence” Mishra has flashed in front of the reader. Of course, there is a third group of readers who simply do not know whether Peterson is a fascist or not, because they do not have sufficient evidence to come to any conclusion.
The proper response to the Mishra book review is to call out Mishra on his choice of who is rightfully considered a fascist or quack from the past. Look into the story behind each of those historical figures he presumes to have something similar with Peterson’s alleged ideology of hate and bigotry. The historical figure that Mishra wishes to insinuate as a fascist or a quack in order to highlight a connection to Peterson as also being a fascist or a quack may turn out to be neither. Sometimes his chosen historical figure is simply a complex man lending himself to controversy. Limiting his selection of historical persons who had delved deeply into myth or mysticism to the late 19th or 20th century, there is a good probability these persons may have crossed paths with a fascist movement such as Nazism. It is easy for us today to play armchair quarterbacks and recognize a movement such as Nazism for the evil that it is. As a European living in the early 20th century, a young man may see the Nationalist Socialist party as just another political party offering a way out of the social and economic decay after the first Great War. Most of those historical figures that Mishra discusses eventually became disillusioned with fascist movements and renounced them. Others may simply had no factual basis in the first place to support Mishra’s accusation of them being either a fascist or a quack. Take the example of Jung again. Was he indeed a fascist and a quack?
Carl Jung as with other geniuses in the vein of Leonardo da Vinci or Sir Isaac Newton was a renaissance man. Their genius was not limited to their own field of expertise. Often their interest of study ranged far and wide. Da Vinci was a scientist, artist and inventor. Newton gave us the modern world of physics and mathematics but also wrote something like 20 volumes on theology. “His [Jung’s] work has been influential not only in psychiatry but also in anthropology, archaeology, literature, philosophy, and religious studies.”
The reader must be extra careful in reading the works of such geniuses or their biographies. An eye must be kept open for fine nuances in their words and ideas. Some of their ideas are indeed speculative. Most speculations end in dead ends. As the atomic scientist, Linus Pauling once said that he might come up with a thousand bad ideas before encountering an idea that works. Mishra is disingenuous when he suggests that just because Jung’s speculations have been mostly rejected in our time means that all his work can be dismissed.
Confusion surrounds much of Jung’s public persona as much as that about his work. Sonu Shamdasani, professor of the history of psychology, writes in Jung and the Making of Modern Psychology:
Occultist, Scientist, Prophet, Charlatan, Philosopher, Racist, Guru, Anti-Semite, Liberator of Women, Misogynist, Freudian Apostate, Gnostic, Post-Modernist, Polygamist, Healer, Poet, Con-Artist, Psychiatrist and Anti-Psychiatrist — what has C.G. Jung not been called? Mention him to someone, and you are likely to receive one of these images. For Jung is someone that people — informed or not – have opinions about. The swift reaction time indicates that people respond to Jung’s life and work as if they are sufficiently known. Yet the very proliferation of ‘Jungs’ leads one to question whether everyone could possibly be talking about the same figure.
Disingenuously, Mishra declares triumphantly, “Jung’s speculations have been largely discredited.” Mishra then skewers Peterson as a follower of Jung’s speculations on “eternal truths”. Speculations are just that, speculations, until they are empirically shown to be true or false. Although he studied and speculated on the fantastical element of myths and religion, Jung was at heart an empirical scientist. He did delve into Eastern thought and religion, but with a scientific eye. Howard Coward writes in Jung and Eastern Thought, “Jung admits that he has been influenced by Eastern thought…. But as one who follows modern Western scientific method, Jung finds it necessary to draw the line before accepting many of the yoga claims.”
Jung’s own words contradict Mishra’s accusation that Jung merely obsessed with speculations on eternal truths:
My point of view is naturally a psychological one, and moreover that of a practising psychologist whose task it is to find the quickest road through the chaotic muddle of complicated states. This view must needs be very different from that of the psychologist who can study an isolated psychic process at his leisure, in the quiet of his laboratory. The difference is roughly that between a surgeon and an histologist. I also differ from the metaphysician, who feels he has to say how things are ‘in themselves,’ and whether they are absolute or not. My subject lies wholly within the bounds of experience. (The Portable Jung, 1971)
Jung clearly had set up a firewall between his speculations on “eternal truths” and his empirical findings. Mishra is clearly the one who muddles speculative “eternal truths” and empirical facts, and ascribes the muddle-headedness to Jung, one of the greatest psychiatrists in the twentieth century, second perhaps only to Sigmund Freud.
Even though new research may have superseded Jungian ideas or theories. That alone does not qualify him as a quack or charlatan. The scientific method demands change or revision of an idea, whenever new evidence contradicts it. When Galileo Galilei showed by experiment that all objects fall at the same speed regardless of their weights, it does not make Aristotle a quack or charlatan just because Aristotle erroneously thought that the heavier object falls faster the lighter one. Einstein’s special and general theories of relativity has supplanted Newtonian physics, but that does not diminish the usefulness of Newton’s theory. On a practical level, Newtonian physics is still applicable in most matters, including the launch of satellites. The same may be true of Jung whose concepts such as extraversion and introversion, psychological complexes, or individuation are still useful concepts.
Jordan Peterson use Jungian ideas in explaining the workings of psychology to today’s students or audience. Does this make Peterson an intellectual quack? Mishra appears to think so. The breadth of Jung’s studies and research is so vast that one cannot accurately make all encompassing statements such as Mishra’s: “Jung’s speculations have been largely discredited.” I suspect many of the speculations of Jung indeed are discredited, but a number of his ideas also continue to make an impact on modern psychology. As with Newton, Jung is continued to be taught in universities to this very day despite newer and more accurate theories having replaced his original theories. They still have value in presenting a foundation for subsequent theories. Einstein’s theories of special and general relativity have replaced Newton’s physics but budding physicists are still taught Newtonian physics as a starting point to Einstein’s theories. Jung’s ideas of extroversion/introversion and individuation are also still taught despite the advancement of modern psychology. Jung maybe labelled a quack by some, but his contributions to modern psychology are enormous and rightly acknowledged.
Mishra pushes hard to make a connection between Peterson and earlier quacks. He names three alleged to be such intellectual quacks, the German philosopher Ludwig Klages, the Russian painter Nicholas Roerich and Indian activist Aurobindo Ghosh. He makes this connection by claiming they assembled similar collages that matches Peterson’s aesthetics.
Quacks assemble collages.
Peterson assembles collages.
Therefore, according to Mishra’s false syllogism, Peterson is an intellectual quack. Taken to its logical conclusion, every artist who employs collages are also quacks. That is pure nonsense. How many readers, mesmerized with the elite status of the New York Review of Books and with Mishra’s literary credentials, ignore this sleight of hand?
A closer examination of the background of these men would show they were not quacks at all. Ludwig Klages was nominated twice for the Nobel Prize in Literature. In 1936, the year of his first nomination for the Nobel Prize, Nazi authorities attacked him for his lack of support for the Nazis. During World War II, German newspapers denounced him in 1942. I would say it is a good thing that Peterson share the same aesthetics of an anti-Nazi intellectual. The other two men whom Mishra calls quacks were also nominees for the Nobel Prize. Roerich was nominated four times for the Nobel Peace Prize. Aurobindo Ghosh was not only an activist but also a literary figure who was nominated for the Nobel Prize in two different fields. The Nobel Prize Committee nominated him for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1943 and for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950. Sure, these three men might be neo-Romantics as Mishra suggests, but they were not quacks any more than Aristotle was a quack when Galileo Galilei’s experiments supplanted Aristotle’s theories of motion.
Just because Peterson shares the same aesthetics in collages as these three Nobel Prize nominees, whom Mishra accuses as being neo-Romantics, that does not make Peterson a neo-Romantic. We see Peterson’s disdain for the neo-Romantic in his lectures. There is nothing in nature that shows the Noble Savage can be better than civilized man as far as Peterson is concerned. He refutes the ideal of the Nobel Savage in his Tweets where he references an essay written by William Buckner entitled “Romanticizing the Hunter-Gatherer” which makes the case that the life of the “Noble Savage” is not so noble as the Romantics claim. In his lectures, Peterson refutes the founder of the Romantic Movement Jean Jacque Rousseau’s notion of the Noble Savage. Yet in his book review, Mishra accuses “Peterson may seem the latest in a long line of eggheads pretentiously but harmlessly romancing the noble savage.” Mishra clearly misrepresents Peterson as being enamoured with the ideal of the Noble Savage. On his web site, Peterson presented a meticulous critique of J.J. Rousseau and the ideal of the Noble Savage in which he trashes both the foundation of the Romantics and the ideal of the Noble Savage.
Peterson makes clear in 12 Rules for Life that he disagrees with Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his ideal of the Noble Savage. Peterson criticizes Rousseau when he writes on pages 119-120:
The belief that children have an intrinsically unsullied spirit, damaged only by culture and society, is derived in no small part from the eighteenth-century Genevan French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau was a fervent believer in the corrupting influence of human society and private ownership alike. He claimed that nothing was so gentle and wonderful as man in his pre-civilized state. At precisely the same time, noting his inability as a father, he abandoned five of his children to the tender and fatal mercies of the orphanages of the time.
Peterson explains that he sees reality in much harsher tones than the fantasy that is portrayed in the ideal of the Noble Savage:
The noble savage Rousseau described, however, was an ideal–an abstraction, archetypal and religious–and not the flesh-and-blood reality he supposed…. But human beings are evil, as well as good, and the darkness that dwells forever in our souls is also there in no small part in our younger selves. (12 Rules for Life, 120)
Has Mishra even read 12 Rules for Life and read what it says about the Noble Savage? Is his essay in the New Yorker Book Review, even a book review? Or is it a thinly veiled character assassination? Mishra denigrating Peterson’s personal friendship with a Canadian First Nations person as romancing the Noble Savage is nothing short of vile.
Except for biblical references, there is little discussion in Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life on myth even though, elsewhere, Peterson does discuss at length myth and archetypes in his many lectures, interviews and his previously published book Maps of Meaning. In the book being reviewed by Mishra, Peterson uses myth/archetypes only as a teaching aid in explaining other concepts. Then, the mythological sources are from classical Greek or even Chinese literature and the Vedic texts of Hinduism, and nothing from fascist mythologies of the late 19th or 20th centuries Europe. Again, I question whether or not Mishra gave a careful reading of Peterson’s book itself, but instead, he appears to have gathered the usual biased memes and tidbits found all over the Internet posted by the far Left and self-described progressives who have mostly mislabelled Peterson with labels such as “Alt Right” or “neo-Nazi”. For whatever reason, Mishra needs to make a big splash in alleging the study of myth as an obsession of fascists of the 19th and 20th centuries. Here, Mishra goes off in a tangent and passionately tries to connect Peterson with fascism and Nazism by way of mutual interests in myth. Mishra applies the false syllogism here:
Fascists (Nazis) love to study myth.
Jordan Peterson loves to study myth.
Peterson is a Fascist.
Mishra points out correctly that Peterson has a deep interest with the idea of myth, which proliferates throughout his many lectures. Mishra strays into innuendo when he implies that a preoccupation with myth is unhealthy and not good. Two reasons he gives that this is so. First, the study of myth is unsuitable for the modern man. Myths have well passed their shelf life in the modern age. They are fine for our tribal ancestors but modern man has outgrown the use of myths. The second reason why a preoccupation with myths is bad is its dire consequences for a modern person to be consumed with the study of myths. He suggests an unhealthy preoccupation with myth is a symptom of a person becoming a fascist.
It seems Mishra does not have a problem with a study of ancient myths per se, I suppose, as in a study of religion or ancient histories. It is the modern preoccupation with myth, which disturbs Mishra. He suggests it ought to disturb his readers. A deep interest in myth during modern times is a symptom of far right sensibilities in Mishra’s opinion. Mishra makes this clear early on in the sixth paragraph: “Closer examination, however, reveals Peterson’s ageless insights as a typical, if not archetypal, product of our own times: right-wing pieties seductively mythologized for our current lost generations.” Modern interpreters of myth in the late 19th and early 20th centuries are folks who have white supremacist or fascist tendencies, Mishra insinuates. It is clear that Mishra has only skimmed Peterson’s enormous output of material, including many videos of Peterson’s lectures. Had he only looked deeper, he would find Peterson’s preoccupation with the study of myth goes much further back than the 19th century. Peterson has an entire lecture series on the Bible alone. In his 12 Rules for Life, there is no evidence of an obsession with fascist myth making. There, he references occasionally classical Greek mythology as well as the Vedic texts of Hinduism and ancient Chinese texts in addition to frequent biblical references.
Nevertheless, Mishra continues to hoodwink the reader by linking Peterson with anti-Semitic or fascist academics of more recent times. Most notable is Joseph Campbell, a professor who died in the 1980s shortly after completing a TV series for PBS with Bill Moyers. The series was an instant success. Campbell’s object of study was myth as with Peterson’s. Mishra in all likelihood chose Campbell because of a posthumous controversy that involved a friend and colleague who hinted that private and personal conversations with Campbell revealed an anti-Semitic streak in Campbell. Other than that, it is not conclusive how deep Campbell’s anti-Semitism ran, if there was any at all. Even if a person is a racist or bigot, does that automatically nullify everything he has written or said in academia? If a mathematician is anti-Semitic, does that nullify everything he has written or spoke of in mathematics? One plus one still equals two, regardless of who speaks the equation.
Should we trash the usefulness of an idea or a teaching if its proponent turns out to be a racist or anti-Semitic bigot? Certainly, the creator of the popular movie series Star Wars, George Lucas admits that he has been inspired by Campbell’s teachings on archetypes of the hero. So, are we to dismiss George Lucas for adopting the teachings of an alleged anti-Semitic professor? Should we denounce George Lucas for being a fascist mystic too?
Perhaps, the best testimony that Peterson is not an anti-Semite is that of Dr. Norman Doidge, a Jewish psychiatrist and a direct descendent of Holocaust survivors. He is best known for his writings on neuroplasticity of the human brain. Here is an excerpt in Dr. Doidge’s own words from the foreword in 12 Rules for Life:
To understand ideology, Jordan read extensively about not only the Soviet gulag, but also the Holocaust and the rise of Nazism. I had never before met a person, born Christian and of my generation, who was so utterly tormented by what happened in Europe to the Jews, and who had worked so hard to understand how it could have occurred. I too had studied this in depth. My own father survived Auschwitz. My grandmother was middle-aged when she stood face to face with Dr. Josef Mengele, the Nazi physician who conducted unspeakably cruel experiments on his victims, and she survived Auschwitz by disobeying his order to join the line with the elderly, the grey and the weak, and instead slipping into a line with younger people. She avoided the gas chambers a second time by trading food for hair dye so she wouldn’t be murdered for looking too old. My grandfather, her husband, survived the Mauthausen concentration camp, but choked to death on the first piece of solid food he was given just before liberation day. I relate this, because years after we became friends, when Jordan would take a classical liberal stand for free speech, he would be accused by left-wing extremists as being a right-wing bigot.
Let me say, with all the moderation I can summon: at best, those accusers have simply not done their due diligence. I have; with a family history such as mine, one develops not only radar, but underwater sonar for right-wing bigotry; but even more important, one learns to recognize the kind of person with the comprehension, tools, good will and courage to combat it, and Jordan Peterson is that person. (12 Rules for Life, xv)
Perhaps Mishra can be forgiven for not reading the foreword in 12 Rules for Life for his book review. Most folks, I suspect, do not read the foreword in a book.
A tactic of Christians used in their petty arguments among themselves is to discredit the preacher when attempting to discredit his teachings on matters of theology or Church government. Very early in Church history, a group later came to be known as Donatists rejected following priests who lapsed in their faith during the Diocletian persecution. Mishra in his book review does something similar with Peterson and his allies. Like a good Marxist, Mishra accuses them of being intellectual entrepreneurs, a slight twist on “capitalism bad, socialism good” mantra. It is here where Mishra makes the strongest link with between Jordan Peterson and the late Joseph Campbell’s ability to cash in mass media merchandizing. Mishra alleges that both Peterson and Campbell were in it—their interest in myth and psychology—for the money. Their lectures and broadcasts are purely attempts at making a big buck, Mishra alleges. To the social justice crowd, this is the closest thing to evil—making big money.
First, Peterson did not set out to become a media sensation and turn his academic training into a profit generator to satisfy ego and greed. In the preface (Overture) to 12 Rules for Life, he describes his first postings on the Quora web site beginning in 2012 and later YouTube uploads of videos of his lectures beginning in 2013. The YouTube video lectures reached a million views by April 2016. It reached exponential proportions over the next two years, hitting up to eighteen million views, in part because of the controversy thrust upon him by the far Left. A literary agent later tracked him down after listening to a 2012 CBC interview of him, and saw the need for a guidebook on how to live life well. The result is the book 12 Rules for Life. Peterson’s rise to intellectual celebrity status is serendipitous, not the execution of a well thought out plan of an egotistical and greedy university professor as Mishra insinuates.
Mishra begs to differ where it concerns Peterson’s motives, and chants a litany of similar scholars or artists whom he deems to have been sellout intellectuals for comparison: Vivekananda, D.T. Suzuki, Arthur Waley, W.B. Yeats and C.G. Jung. He even threw in Julius Evola for good measure, proclaiming that Evola is a favorite philosopher of ultra conservative Steve Bannon, former advisor to U.S. President Donald Trump. Peterson does share some overlaps in philosophy with Evola. Both believe that there is chaos in Western societies and belief in the healing powers of knowing and rekindling a love of things traditional. However, Peterson would not claim rape as a privilege of men in contrast to Evola who advocated men’s right to rape women. It is simply vile to insinuate that Peterson advocates rape merely because he shares a value for traditionalism with Evola. The other names in Mishra’s litany of the intellectual entrepreneurs were scholars and poet foremost. That they stumbled onto a huge following because their work spoke to the masses did not make them greedy capitalists. Why W.B. Yeats ended up on Mishra’s hit list is a bit of a puzzle, I must admit. The Irish Nobel Prize winner for Literature, Yeats gained a huge following in the English-speaking world and had an interest in Indian philosophy, but that did not make him a profit hungry entrepreneur. If so, we can dismiss the Beatles as frauds too.
When we follow up and look closely into Mishra’s references to fascists or quacks, we discover most of them are not fascists or quacks. Mishra’s book review relies on the reader being ignorant of the historical facts or being too lazy to look into the sources of his allegations of Peterson being a fascist or quack. Such readers are then mesmerized by names that they have likely heard of but whose works they have never read. Mishra’s literary tool kit appeals to ignorant / lazy readers to become enthralled in falsehoods:
Carl G. Jung is a mystic and fascist.
Jordan B. Peterson loves to study Jung.
Jordan Peterson is a mystic and fascist.
The above false syllogism is at the heart of Mishra’s insinuations of Jordan Peterson being a fascist mystic. Although Mishra has never even dealt with the topic of mysticism in his book review, he leaves it to the reader to make the leap that all the talk about myth is enough to make the label “mysticism” stick to Peterson. Mysticism has to do with apprehending, accessing or absorption into the Deity or the divine through non-rational means. Myth has to do with the collective narratives of a people rooted mostly in their early history when miracles and the supernatural seem possible. These are two different topics, although there are overlaps. Here it seems Mishra merely wants a catchy title after he finished juxtaposing Peterson with the biographies of alleged quacks and fascists.
Mishra’s allegations are “straw men”. Jung had an interest in myth as far as it is a study in psychology, and even if he is proven a mystic at heart, that alone does not make him bad or evil. An in depth study of the biographies of Jung reveals nothing to condemn him as a fascist or a sympathizer to Nazism, although he did find the Nationalist Socialist movement attractive at first but later became disenchanted with it. Richard Noll did such a study in The Aryan Christ: The Secret Life of Carl Jung.
An interest in the study of Jung or even of Nazism itself does not make one a Nazi. The main reason why Peterson takes an enormous interest in studying Nazism is to understand how totalitarian societies arise. Remember that age-old admonishment? We must understand the past in order not to repeat its evils.
Despite Pankaj Mishra’s literary prowess, he deserves an F for his book review of Jordan Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life, because the book review is less a review of the book but more of a character assassination of the author.