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Jordan Peterson: Putin's Useless Idiot
In the contorted logic of this anti-woke warrior, destroying Ukraine for the sake of the culture war is "not wrong"
Gage Skidmore, Wikipedia Commons
The Russian campaign of invasion, conquest and genocide in Ukraine has presented us with horrifying images and inspiring responses but also with astonishing examples of contorted logic as various people attempt to blame anyone but Putin for the invasion(s) of Ukraine.
Consider this question: What “provoked” Russia to invade? When framed causally in this fashion, the question seems to suggest that no matter who was at the helm, he or she would react in the exact same fashion under the circumstances. In other words, a dictator like Vladimir Putin didn’t choose to invade, he’s impelled by external forces to do so. And what are these forces? According to University of Chicago’s John Mearsheimer’s piece in the Economist a few weeks after the invasion, it was Ukraine’s ambition to join NATO and not any imperialistic ambitions on Putin’s part. (In other words, a neighbor’s desire to be able to defend itself if he were to attack is provocative for Putin.)
To be fair, Mearsheimer acknowledges at the outset in this essay, “Vladimir Putin started the war and is responsible for how it is being waged.” But in the next breath he declares, “The West, and especially America, is principally responsible for the crisis.” In other words, Putin is responsible for “how” the war is being waged, but “that” it is being waged at all is the West and America’s fault. In 2014, when Putin annexed Crimea, Mearsheimer was more categorical, declaring bluntly: “The Ukraine Crisis is the West’s Fault.” At the time, he claimed Putin invaded because he felt threatened. And to shield this claim from critical scrutiny, he made the irrebuttable stipulation, “And it is the Russians, not the West, who ultimately get to decide what counts as a threat to them.” No evidence was needed that there was any plan, intention or threat to attack Russia. Just saying it felt threatened sufficed.
Mearsheimer seems never to distinguish between “Russia” and “Putin,” as if they denote the same entity. Yet it’s hard to imagine how Russian territory or lives were threatened by Ukraine. An independent and democratic Ukraine, on the other hand, is certainly a threat to Putin’s rule. But in the Mearsheimer World such considerations don’t enter because he is a “realist.” And a realist, he declares, “does not distinguish between ‘good’ states and ‘bad’ states, but essentially treats them like billiard balls of varying size.” Under this analytical framework, all states are forced to seek the same goal: maximum relative security—and there is no room for a dictator hazarding the end of his state itself in order to cement, not the “maximum relative power” of his state, but his own personal power. It’s a terribly naïve view, but it’s not unhinged.
Unhinged is a good word to describe Silvio Berlusconi’s take. He agrees that Putin was “pushed” to invade, not by Ukraine’s desire to join a defensive alliance, but “by the Russian population, by his party, by his ministers, to invent this special operation.” Moreover, according to Berlusconi, the plan was merely to “replace the Zelenskyy government with good people and in another week go back.” The democratic government of Ukraine, elected in free and fair elections, needed “replacing” by “good people” who no doubt served as Russian puppets.
But there is a much deeper level of weirdness. Yes, deeper even than Berlusconi’s. It turns out that there are people who believe that Putin was forced to invade Ukraine because Russia is a part of the West and therefore has a stake in its culture war whose Ground Zero is somehow Ukraine. That is the view that University of Toronto psychology professor and popular lecturer Jordan Peterson expressed in a recent 51-minute video monologue. In fact, he believes that Russia’s invasion has something to do with the controversies about gender and gender identity in the West.
(If that sounds far fetched that is because it is. So bear with me as I try and unpack Peterson’s logic, such as it is.)
Peterson rose to fame because of his unsparing slams on wokeness and its crusade over gender identity, pronouns and so on. But in this monologue, he focuses his ire on the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Kentanji Brown Jackson. Peterson was particularly miffed that Brown dodged Tennessee Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn’s “gotcha question”—as Peterson himself puts it—in which Brown was asked to “provide a definition for the word ‘woman.’” Jackson declined, noting that she was “not a biologist.” As far as Peterson is concerned, Jackson’s refusal to answer Sen. Blackburn’s simple question is proof of a “deranged,” “degenerate” and “insane” West.
Peterson goes on in his long diatribe to denounce the abandonment of traditional views of sex and gender in the West: “In our society, all sexual proclivities and desires, no matter how rare, dangerous, or socially disruptive, are not to be merely tolerated, but must be celebrated. Pride Month. Outright, or else! And regarded as hedonically desirable and absolutely harmless!”
(Bear with me. This really does lead to the Kremlin’s genocidal war on Ukraine.)
Peterson has gained a huge internet following by sometimes saying—in very profound sounding tones—things that seem pretty sensible, such as, “If you want to change the world, you start with yourself and work outward because you build your competence that way. I don’t know how you can go out and protest the structure of the entire economic system if you can’t keep your room organized.” That seems to me like reasonable advice to a young person. His books and his talks offer a lot more advice like that, such as “pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.” I’m fond of cats so that’s fine with me—but he lost me in his “12 Rules for Life” book at “step forward to take your place in the dominance hierarchy.” Mmmm ... no, thanks.
(Sorry, I digressed. Back to how the West’s culture war forced Putin’s hand in invading Ukraine. The plot is about to thicken.)
Peterson finds Putin’s critique of the West and the alleged danger it poses to piety and traditional virtues deeply compelling. But what exactly is this critique? Here is Putin in his own words in a 2013 “interview” on state propaganda outlet RT:
To date, we don’t have any significant ideological differences, but we have fundamental cultural differences. Individualism lies at the core of the American identity, while Russia has been a country of collectivism. One student of Pushkin’s legacy has formulated this difference very aptly. Take Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind, for instance. She says, “I’ll never be hungry again.” This is the most important thing for her. Russians have different, far loftier, ambitions, more of a spiritual kind. It’s more about your relationship with God. We have different visions of life.
I imagine one could be quite spiritual, indeed, aboard the $325 million, 348-foot Amadea or one of the numerous other super yachts owned by Putin’s cronies. Be that as it may, any apostle of collectivism, one would think, would not be qualified to be a member of the “Western” club.
Not for Peterson. Russia is a part of the West, he asserts, and “Russians believe that they have the highest moral duty to oppose the degenerate ideas, philosophy, theology of the West.” More strikingly, that belief, Peterson insists, is “not wrong”: “And there’s something about that, that is not wrong. And that is why the incursion of Russia into Ukraine is, more truly, a civil war in the West.”
“Not wrong” is a rather cowardly way of saying that it’s right.
It is highly debatable that Russians in fact believe they have any moral duty to do any such thing. But even if they did believe that, would it justify going so far as to: flatten the city of Mariupol, destroy some 90% of its buildings, kill thousands of people and drive out three-quarters of its population under heavy bombardment? How does Peterson justify the horrors visited on the Ukrainian people?
If Mearsheimer believes that Putin is acting out of understandable security concerns, Peterson believes that Putin and the Russian people are acting out of understandable cultural concerns. They are waging war on Ukrainians because they are “part of the West” and the West is in the midst of a “culture war” in which “the culture is losing.” Got that? Ukraine is part of Russia (it’s “sphere of influence”) and Russia is part of the West; the West is in a culture war; and the culture is losing in this war and therefore Russia has to step in militarily and rescue “the culture.” Q.E.D.
Listen to Peterson describe what he thinks “the Russians think”:
[T]hose Westerners are so out of their mind that a devastated but neutral Ukraine is preferable to a functional bordering state aligned with the U.S. and Europe. Those Westerners are so out of their mind that we’ll push the world to the brink of nuclear war, and potentially beyond, to keep them off our doorstep, because we’ve been there before, and we’re not going back.
Thus, a request to “provide a definition for the word ‘woman’” shows that the West is so “deranged,” “degenerate” and “insane” that Russia must defend itself from it by leveling neighboring Ukraine and massacring its people.
Whatever one thinks of the culture wars in the West (and I have my own strong views, which tend toward “live and let live” as a basis for peace), there are no mass graves filled with the victims of the culture wars. No bombed kindergartens. No white phosphorous rained on civilians.
All I can say is that characterizing Peterson’s claims as “deranged,” “degenerate” and “insane” is…not wrong.
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