Reuben drove six hours to see Jordan Peterson. He brought his mother. It's his birthday present.
Reuben, "like the sandwich"—"or the patriarch," I say, prompting a laugh of agreement—just finished his freshman year at a small Christian college. He's maybe a bit above average height, thin, with an open, intelligent face. He has a mop of curly hair and is wearing a sensible plaid shirt. He's studying something combining bits of business and engineering.
They are, his mother tells me, farmers, the kind of farmers who—mom, dad, Reuben, and a sibling—are looking forward this summer to a TransAmerica trail ride from North Carolina to Oregon (or to "or-eh-GONE," as Reuben's mother keeps saying with too much charm to be corrected). That's motorcycles, mostly off road, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Reuben's mother is also in reserved plaid, with her hair up; but she's wearing a girlish choker necklace and has a ready and winning smile, so perhaps I shouldn't be so surprised.
They are cheerful and talkative and excited to hear Peterson. Reuben's been a fan for a couple years. He's dedicated, working his way through Peterson's first, much less accessible book, Maps of Meaning. That's the almost 600 page Jungian block from which the breezy 12 Rules For Life (read my review here) was carved. This lecture is part of what's ostensibly Peterson's book tour for 12 Rules, but Peterson, not his books, is the product on promotion. As he makes clear at the beginning of his remarks—these ones and every recorded talk of his I've heard—these public appearances are an opportunity to think on his feet with a live audience, to see where his own ideas take him.
Reuben and his mother are not, probably, your idea of the Jordan Peterson audience. Sure, Reuben is the right age, and white, and male, and found Peterson through right-wing YouTube (the channel of British e-pundit Carl Benjamin, who inexplicably goes by the nom de culture guerre Sargon of Akkad). But he's an obviously motivated and bright young man with parents who clearly love him and every indication of a happy homelife—he chose his college so he could stay close.
It is, looking from the balcony above the lobby before finding my seat, a very caucasian crowd spilling into downtown D.C.'s Warner Theater the Friday evening of June 8. But, less accordant to the Professor Peterson's incel army narrative, the sexes are almost at parity (yes, slightly leaning male), and the socio-economic demographics, though already constrained by $55-plus-processing nosebleed tickets, include plenty wading through to the Warner's bars. "Power of Myth" (vodka, peach schnapps, oj, cranberry) is going for $13 and the vodka, soda, grenadine, "Forever Jung" is $10—high rollers can get a slightly less petite beer and shot combo for $15. These are not basement dwelling perpetual adolescents. Much of the audience appears to be here on dates or with family. I think I recognize a few people, another journalist here, an academic there, a Hill staffer.
The age range is more surprising, though. There are adults here who are approaching, in, and past middle age. Some like Reuben's mother are with a younger companion, but many seem to be fans themselves. Even the settled and comfortable, the Glenn Beck listeners, of D.C.'s conservative functionary class find something sexy and exciting in the phenomenon that is Dr. Jordan Peterson. For Reuben, Peterson is a way to spice up his inherited cultural dispositions—rural conservative, Protestant—and integrate them with his Generation Z life online. For these established professionals, men and women, Peterson is someone who makes them feel that what they already believed is actually fresh and provocative and inspiring. Because, at the end of the day, Peterson's project is a strikingly original presentation of strikingly unoriginal ideas. He'd hardly contest that.
In fact, after a somewhat shy and starting acknowledgment of the (cliché, but it's true) rockstar welcome he's given upon walking on stage—that it is so good, man, to have so many people appreciate what you're doing—Peterson says his audience has mainly two responses to what it is he's doing: first, that he articulates what they knew but could not say, and, second, that he gives them the tools and motivation to change their lives for the better. He says, soon after, "I don't think what I'm doing is political." I think I believe him. It's not that it isn't political: It is. But Peterson really doesn't think what he's doing is political.
Peterson's thing is typological and symbolic readings of everything: from the great stories of history and world religion to his wife's dreams and Disney movies. You don't know everything that can be read into The Lion King until you see Peterson live. I certainly didn't and I doubt the 28 people IMDB gives some sort of writing credit for that movie do either. But what is curious about all this close reading is that, despite all the flirting with the Bible or the Buddha, the conclusions sound an awful lot like whatever a psychologist who voted for Barry Goldwater in 1964 might think, Freud and all.
Roughly: Life is suffering, for reference see Siddhārtha Gautama and Genesis 3; you can and should live each day according to the best that is in you, viz. Marcus Aurelius and the Stoics; the cosmos is divided by Chaos and Order, e.g. Tao or Gnostic or Babylonian thought; so you must build order as you accept chaos, i.e. "clean your room" and "straighten yourself out, bucko"; you're an animal, descended of animals, like other animals, source, Charles Darwin (1809-82); this means your biology matters, is real, as is and does hierarchy, see figure a. Lobsters; there are two sexes, c.f. the postmodernist feminist et ceteras, and they're basically for sex, which means babies, which means children need a mother and a father and men and women are different; you are an individual and a social contract preserves you from a state of nature, ref. Locke, Hobbes, et. al.; central planning will kill you, namely Marxists, for more see 1) history, 2) Hayek.
Basically, Jordan Peterson is a mid-century classical liberal a couple decades late. He likes religion (the idea of it) but doesn't go to church. He should be boring. He is not supposed to be a prophet. Boiled down to the content nothing he is doing should result in what has happened. The Art of Manliness website has been reconstructing an idealized 20th century masculinity and helping young men become functioning adults, along with frequent forays into psychology, philosophy, science, mythology, and theology, for a decade. They're doing well, but they're not doing global-notoriety, prompt-a-thousand-takes well. Why would 1,800 people come out to listen to Peterson on a Friday night in the most powerful city in the world?
Another Canadian, Marshall McLuhan said, "the medium is the message." Jordan Peterson's message is conventional. But Jordan Peterson the medium is a man who goes, in seconds, from stammering to silent thought to speaking with the certainty of the dead returned. To watch him lecture is to think at first that he is frailer than expected, leaning into an invisible wind. And then he Says Something. He says you must take responsibility or things will fall apart, but you hear that You must take Responsibility, or Things, the most important ones, Will. Fall. Apart. You can't help but hear capital letters; he speaks with such conviction.
It's not political, in the modern sense of the word. It has nothing to do with elections or parties or institutional power. An absolutist zeal for freedom of speech and the sensibility summed up by Goldwater's "A government that is big enough to give you all you want is big enough to take it all away," is about as political as Peterson gets. Till 2016 Jordan Peterson was just a peculiarly authoritative academic with an eccentric preoccupation with integrating mythologies, like Casaubon in George Eliot's Middlemarch. But the sexual revolution has come a ways since Woodstock, and to be a deliberate square today—no ze or zir from me please—makes Peterson a radical. He's been eager to embrace that role, and to be embraced.
On Friday night at the Warner theater I saw a man who knows what he has is fragile, a stroke of lightning that can't be bottled and won't come twice. He's trying to make what he can of it while he has it. Yes, there's the entrepreneurial spirit animating Peterson Inc., with his tour and books and Patreon and "self authoring" suite and plans for an online university and more. But the real Peterson phenomenon is either a martyrdom or some Great Awakening.
Peterson behaves, speaks, stands, like a man who sees death coming and accepts it. Maybe it will, in some form; maybe things are as bad, the enemy as powerful, he as likely to fall as he seems to fear. Or maybe Peterson will be Charles Finney for a Third Great Awakening. America is a great burned-over district, ripe for some kind of religious revival, and Peterson's self-help anti-ideology is a religious proposition. Finney's Second was less orthodox than the First of Edwards and Whitefield. A Peterson Third would be a poetic and Darwinian syncretism, a perfectionist liberalism.
Whether because of time constraint or weariness, Peterson does not even pretend to get through all 12 of his rules for life. He stops with rule nine, deflated after exhorting his listeners to take responsibility for themselves with all the surprising force his froggy voice can summon. Dave Rubin, online talk show host and fellow member of the "Intellectual Dark Web," moderates a few superficial questions. But the show is over. When Peterson stands for his last applause the audience streams out quickly, spilling back into the city, looking like so many other after-theater crowds. Reuben and his mother say goodbye.