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Clean Rooms and Dirtbags

REVIEW ESSAY

Twelve Rules for Life:
An Antidote for Chaos
by Jordan B. Peterson
Random House, 2018, 448 pages

The Chapo Guide to Revolution:
A Manifesto Against Logic, Facts, and Reason
by Chapo Trap House
(Felix Biederman, Matt Christman, Brendan James, Will Menaker, and Virgil Texas)
Touchstone, 2018, 320 pages

Conservative Canadian professor Jordan Peterson and socialist Brooklynite podcast Chapo Trap House have a lot in common. They each make around a hundred thousand dollars a month from Patreon donations. They each inspire both adoration and revulsion, while rejecting, in different ways, forms of political correctness. And they share an audience—what Angela Nagle, writing in the Atlantic, called “lost boys” and what the Chapo guys call “failsons”—fans in their mid-20s, very frequently white, overwhelmingly male, with little direction in life but an aching need for purpose and meaning. A very negative profile of Peterson in the New York Times quoted him as saying that “no one cares about the men who fail—those with few job opportunities, scant romantic prospects, and no social capital. Peterson asks, ventriloquizing them, “Why not sit in your mother’s basement and eat Cheetos and play video games and watch pornography?” But the Guardian thinks Peterson’s fanbase is far more privileged: “young white men who feel alienated by the jargon of social-justice discourse.”

If Peterson provides these men with a sometimes warm and sometimes strict father figure, as was suggested in National Review last June, Chapo gives them a bunch of older brothers, knowledgeable and cool in a way younger brothers like myself can never be. The classic Petersonian advice to “clean your room” contrasts elegantly with the “dirtbag Left” title taken up by Chapo and their comrades.

Both the cleanliness and the dirt come across in these two books. The first is simplified to the point of emptiness; the second high-context and gesturally complex enough to be incomprehensible to those not cool enough to already know what it says. Peterson’s book is almost awkwardly earnest, while Chapo’s “offer[s] a fully ironic ideology.” The clean/dirty dichotomy thus reiterates an older debate, from the art and culture of the eighties and nineties, about the omnipresence of irony and the possibility of a “new sincerity.”

Yet if these lost boys are looking for guidance, they’ll get it from neither of these sources. Peterson’s putatively inspirational moral direction bottoms out in an assurance that the reader actually already knows what to do: “Here’s something to try: Start to stop doing what you know to be wrong. Start stopping today. Don’t waste time questioning how you know that what you’re doing is wrong . . . You can use your own standards of judgment. You can rely on yourself for guidance.” Peterson, who frequently refers to the horrors of twentieth-century totalitarianism in attacks on his opponents, apparently has never bothered to ask whether some of those horrors may have occurred because someone didn’t “waste time questioning.”

Chapo also takes for granted that its audience possesses sufficient knowledge to be in on every joke. Their book begins, “We are Chapo, a podcast that loves life, coffee, doggos, bourbon, and intelligent debate.” It’s a joke, of course: Chapo loves none of those things. And if you’ve listened to them enough, or if you have the right feel for online culture, you’ll know that this description actually fits the people Chapo hate. But what if you don’t? What if you’re new, or if you don’t understand references like “NoFap November” or “Chapo Mindset”? The idea is, apparently, screw you if you don’t already get it; you’re not cool.

We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live

Peterson and Chapo nevertheless agree that their lost-boy listeners need to believe their lives are grounded in stories that stretch back before they were born. The former explicates the subconscious, mythopoeic dimensions of fables, fairy tales, and world religions, connecting them with a novel fusion of evolutionary and Jungian psychologies. Peterson’s ability to see his pat truths everywhere verges at times on the schizotypal. He writes, for example: “Nature is not simply dynamic, either. Some things change quickly, but they are nested within other things that change less quickly (music frequently models this, too).” It has been a long time since the age of the musica universalis, but evidently the temptation remains. When it comes to the stories themselves, the choices Peterson makes in presenting and dissecting them can cast doubt on his overall message. In a book ostensibly concerned with the reintroduction of ancient wisdom, Peterson spends significant amounts of time offering strained interpretations of a Disney movie. Indeed, Peterson’s simplistic, often cliched interpretations are themselves symptoms of modernity. What his analysis lacks is any of the complexity of, or appreciation for, the grotesque narrative symbology associated with antiquity.

By contrast, instead of interpreting myths, Chapo provides a kind of history of the world, a standard debunking along the lines of “here’s why what you learned in class was wrong.” Of course, many readers will have, in their progressive college environments, heard a history much like the one Chapo presents. Chapo even acknowledges this, writing, “Much of the American history you learned in your ACLU-funded madrassa would have you believe that America was founded by a mix of religious zealots, genocidal frontiersmen, and slave owners.” Clever as this may be, it feels less like one’s mind is being blown and more like one is listening to a seminar participant who really loves the sound of his own voice.

I’m not qualified to comment on Chapo’s histories of the Soviet Union and North Korea, which have been criticized in Politico, but their recent American history is bad enough. For instance, they seem to think that John McCain picked Sarah Palin to be his running mate in 2008 because his stances on immigration and torture made him unpopular among Republicans, and he needed to shore up the base. Actually, McCain, the “maverick,” had intentionally picked another “maverick.” At that point, Palin’s popular image was that of a battler against corruption and Alaska’s “bridge to nowhere,” and it was clear that a genuine game-changer, in demographic and temperamental rather than policy terms, was going to be required if McCain wanted to compete with the excitement surrounding Barack Obama’s candidacy. McCain’s other favored choice was Joe Lieberman, who had been Al Gore’s running mate. Lieberman was no leftist, but he wasn’t going to turn out the Republican base, either.

Chapo also says that, in 2004, “Howard Dean . . . emerged as the radical leftist candidate, because that’s how awful things were.” Dean shared primary debate stages with Dennis Kucinich and Al Sharpton, both obviously to his left. Dick Gephardt also may have been to Dean’s left by 2004 on most issues outside of Iraq. What Chapo forgets is how new Dean’s campaign felt in its use of the internet and its appeal to grassroots activists; the Obama, Ron Paul, and Bernie Sanders campaigns all followed Dean’s in this way.

Inventing the Other

A central but confusing trope in Twelve Rules for Life is that of the woman, or the “feminine,” which Peterson equates with “Chaos.” I opened the book expecting to be able to summarily dismiss claims about its alleged misogyny, but the situation is actually quite complicated. At some points Peterson seems to be trying to say that Order and Chaos (and hence the masculine and the feminine) need each other, that they’re interwoven and interdependent—yin and yang. He’ll write, “Order is not enough. You can’t just be stable, and secure, and unchanging, because there are still vital and important new things to be learned.” At other times, he says, “When the ice you’re skating on is solid, that’s order. When the bottom drops out, and things fall apart, and you plunge through the ice, that’s chaos.” But I don’t need any falling through the ice to complement my skating. Any chaos of that kind is bad.

This exemplifies a contradiction that I think gives Peterson some of his rhetorical power: he is thoroughly New Age on one page and comprehensively Manichaean on the next. He recognizes this contradiction, but valorizes it—writing, for example, that “chaos and order are interchangeable, as well as eternally juxtaposed.” But what, exactly, is this supposed to tell us? Of what use is it? Legions of Peterson followers now spout such lines on Twitter, yet it’s difficult to imagine koans like these turning their lives around, if lost boys and failsons are really what they are. Particularly odd is the difference in tone that Peterson takes when he turns to the harsh realities of natural selection and sexual selection: “Chaos, the eternal feminine, is also the crushing force of sexual selection.”

Meanwhile, the yin and yang of The Chapo Guide to Revolution are not man and woman but the figures of the “lib[eral]” and the “con[servative].” Instead of Peterson’s half-hearted “you need both” approach, Chapo stays true to form, going with “they both suck.” But here too it’s hard to discern just what the logic is. Are the libs feckless, “deeply fearful of being smeared,” unable to contend with the enemy (the Right, or capitalism, or whatever)? It seems so: “Even though the standard American lib might desire many of the same ‘good’ things as you and I, their politics have a congenital defect that makes them easy marks for capital and empire. Their problem is not only their beliefs but their lack of conviction.” Or are they evil, “manag[ing] capitalism in a way that would reduce material injustice or want just enough to drain everyone’s energy to build an alternative”? And if the libs are so cowardly and feckless, how is it that they’re able to consistently beat the Left, instead of being forced to, in Chapo’s words, “bend the knee”? Chapo says that “the values liberals think they own were always historically borrowed from the Left.” But what does it mean to “borrow” or “own” a value? How could it be bad for the Left if liberals share their values?

Even when the message is clear, it doesn’t seem to comport with reality. For instance, Ezra Klein, a Vox co-founder, is presented as a too-friendly centrist. His 2008 JournoList was a conglomeration of reporters brainstorming about how to skew their coverage in favor of Obama. On it, Spencer Ackerman wrote, “What is necessary is to raise the cost on the right of going after the left. In other words, find a rightwinger’s [sic] and smash it through a plate-glass window. Take a snapshot of the bleeding mess and send it out in a Christmas card to let the right know that it needs to live in a state of constant fear. Obviously I mean this rhetorically.” What “tepid” and “bloodless” rhetoric!

What about the cons? It’s not clear what’s going on there either. On the one hand, it’s clearly liberals’ fault that anyone is conservative: “Hit a profit squeeze like we did in the 1970s and liberalism will . . . dump the working class. . . . The predictable result is a disillusioned and depoliticized populace plucking through the wreckage—people who either check out of electoral politics completely or turn toward the siren call of thuggish reaction.” “Thuggish reaction,” here, is a perfectly understandable though false temptation arising from neoliberal policies. On the other hand, it’s “the maintenance of racial, religious, and gender hierarchies [that] does, in fact, deliver the goods to the roughly one-third of this country that identifies as conservative.” So the story goes like this: Liberalism dumps the working class, and as a result the working class becomes invested in “the maintenance of racial, religious, and gender hierarchies,” which hierarchies, apparently, then start “delivering the goods.” (As Boon says in Animal House upon hearing a Chapo-style history, “Forget it, he’s rolling.”)  Another page repeats the phrase “Are you triggered?” over and over again, meant to sound like a nagging conservative voice. But how can Chapo mock the “triggering” Right when their own premise is, according to their most eloquent member (the sole female host conspicuously absent from the book project), “the necessity of political vulgarity”? After all it was Chapo, not any rightwing provocateur, who made headlines last year for posing with Bill Cosby’s Walk of Fame star and posting a satirical message about it on Twitter.

More dirt shakes out when Chapo turns their hysterical attention to the details of online social dynamics. Both the “lib” and the “con” sections include lists of the sorts of personalities you’re likely to encounter online: “Epic-Rant Dad,” “Celebrity Dumbass,” “Liberal Hawk,” “App-Hole,” “Corporate Feminist,” “Bow-Tie Dipshit,” “YouTube Logic Guy,” “Neocon Cuck,” “Liberty Babe,” “Citizen Kek,” and “TradCath Weirdo” are some of the classifications that have earned Chapo’s ire. Although the list might seem gratuitously comprehensive, “Rose Emoji Guy” and “Podcast Guy” are strangely absent. The entire effort is reminiscent of high school, or of Holden Caulfield: how one thinks everyone else is phony or cliquish, but one’s own circles and one’s own pretenses are somehow exempt from all that. In this sense, Chapo’s “irony” seems more like a tool used to paper over their own inconsistencies and hypocrisies with (alleged) humor.

For Peterson, on the other hand, the all-encompassing scheme of Chaos and Order, and their fusion into Being, elides all distinctions: “Lawyer is a good game. So is plumber, physician, carpenter, or schoolteacher. The world allows for many ways of Being. If you don’t succeed at one, you can try another.” If Chapo’s thinking is too dirty, Peterson’s thinking is too clean—enormous interwoven lists of enemies for the former, one master concept for the latter. Peterson’s argumentative style is of the same type: short, simplistic statements that have no clear relationship are roped together, as though Picasso were painting syllogisms.

Postmodern Liberals versus Cultural Marxists

Largely because his surprising, meteoric ascent to public-intellectual stardom began with his opposition to the compulsory use of transgender pronouns, Peterson is sometimes lumped in with the “classical liberal” grouping arrayed against identity politics and campus activism. But Peterson is no classical liberal. His views on truth are of a piece with the postmodern subjectivists he seems to rail against: “Your truth is something only you can tell. . . . Apprehend your personal truth. . . . What was the objective truth? There was no way of knowing.” We end up discovering that Peterson’s “meta-goal” of “liv[ing] in truth” means to “[a]ct diligently towards some well-articulated, defined and temporary end,” which turns out to be “both pragmatic ambition and the most courageous of faiths.” Truth, for Peterson, is a mode of action rather than a property of hypotheses whose contents correspond with the world. This isn’t the Enlightenment talking.

Peterson doesn’t even seem to consistently believe in free speech. He writes: “‘After Auschwitz,’ said Theodor Adorno, student of authoritarianism, ‘there should be no poetry.’ He was wrong. But the poetry should be about Auschwitz.” Classical liberals motivated by issues of free expression don’t think they should limit poets to one topic. In his (altogether weird) discussion of corporal punishment, Peterson even echoes an argument widely made against free speech: Because both speech and action can result in roughly similar harms, neurologically speaking, there is no real difference between physical violence and potentially harmful speech. “[W]e should note that almost all those sanctions involve punishment in its many psychological and more directly physical forms,” he writes. “Deprivation of liberty causes pain in a manner essentially similar to that of physical trauma. The same can be said of the use of social isolation (including time out). We know this neurobiologically. The same brain areas mediate response to all three, and all are ameliorated by the same class of drugs, opiates.” When this sort of stuff appeared in the New York Times last summer, free-speech advocates mocked it. So why is it so appealing to their champion?

Similarly, the Chapo boys, associated with the groundswell of support for the Democratic Socialists of America and their candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, are no more Marxist than Peterson is a classical liberal. They try to broadcast some kind of academic sophistication by pitting “this bastardized version of Marx” against “the For Dummies version of Antonio Gramsci.” The implication, of course, is that they could, if pressed, give much more detailed accounts of these thinkers. They do not do that, but they do choose a side: “[B]etween half-assed Marx and half-assed Gramsci, it’s better to go with the former: of course being in control of what is ‘cool’ in our culture is a kind of power, but it’s one that liberals increasingly rely on in lieu of actual power, to the detriment of politics—and culture, and cool people.”

Despite this exhortation, the authors themselves never really talk about real-world economic circumstances. Instead, all of their political diagnoses have to do with the power of ideas and media to shape people’s perceptions and actions. “Everything shitty about libs,” they say, “is arguably [Aaron] Sorkin’s fault.” Well, what does that have to do with Marxian materialism? Why do they verge into talking about what’s “corrosive to our souls” rather than economic conditions? Why do they say “Woodward and Bernstein unleashed a brain bug into the skulls of American liberals,” whatever that means? And their discussion of the “inherent and irreconcilable contradictions of liberal society” sounds more Hegelian, or even traditionalist, than Marxist. One could argue that it is closer to Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed than to Marx. The major pressures on liberalism and capitalism that Chapo identifies obtain in cultural and ideological space, the space of “superstructure.”

If Chapo’s book is not especially Marxist, it is also not very funny. It’s not even ironic. After an apocalyptic section on global warming, they write, “Sorry to bum you out. The rest of this book is kind of funny, though.” But the “lolz,” as one blurb put it, of Chapo’s podcast mostly come from hearing them insult each other. Here there’s no back-and-forth and little sign of any capacity for self-deprecation, at least none that’s recognizable as such. Statements like “The highest tier of the Celebrity Dumbass officer corps is, of course, the Political Comedian” may be intended as self-mocking—or at least they should be. One of Chapo’s rabid fans would know better; without that context, it’s difficult to say. Their description of a career in academia, however, seems too on the nose to be anything but self-deprecatory: “If you think you have it in you to talk and write endlessly about subjects you barely know anything about for a bunch of slack-jawed early-twenties layabouts with no prospects, give it a shot, but we can’t imagine living our lives that way.” (It’s also one of the book’s few genuinely funny moments.)

Just as Chapo isn’t really funny, Peterson’s stories don’t really show much moral rectitude. Of Elmo (!) he writes: “I always hated that creepy, whiny puppet.” He takes as exemplary an instance in which he obligingly purchased makeshift electronics from his drunken landlord for a while, then stopped doing so. The landlord is at first startled, maybe displeased, but once morning comes, their working relationship is better. And so? This comes in a section on “telling the truth,” the eighth rule. But when the truth is as quotidian as “I no longer wish to purchase your makeshift electronics,” how groundbreaking can this really be?

Peterson’s moral exhortations are marked by the extremism of his faith in symbology. Everything important takes place in a shadow realm, haunted by Jungian anima and our evolutionary forebears, from cavemen all the way back to lobsters.  Morality is to be determined not by the complex and dirty process of serious moral or philosophic inquiry, but by clean deductive reasoning from symbolic structures to appropriate states of mind. He writes, “Make that an axiom: to the best of my ability I will act in a manner that leads to the alleviation of unnecessary pain and suffering. You have now placed at the pinnacle of your moral hierarchy a set of presuppositions and actions aimed at the betterment of Being. Why? Because we know the alternative. The alternative was the twentieth century. The alternative was so close to Hell that the difference is not worth discussing. And the opposite of Hell is Heaven.” For Peterson, when you’ve fallen into Chaos, you’ve fallen into Chaos—whether that manifests itself in genocide or a transaction with a drunken landlord.

Peterson’s book includes a number of ideas that are either tautological or nonsense: “If you say no . . . when it needs to be said, then you transform yourself into someone who can say no when it needs to be said. If you say yes when no needs to be said, however, you transform yourself into someone who can only say yes, even when it is very clearly time to say no.” Here the word “transform” has been added to a truism to make it sound dynamic and interesting. But there’s really nothing more going on here than the fact that if you said no, you said no, and if you said yes, you didn’t say no. Or consider, “To think, you have to be at least two people at the same time. Then you have to let those people disagree. Thinking is an internal dialogue between two or more different views of the world.” In addition to being a poor definition, this description contradicts itself by a kind of infinite regress. For if neither of the two people in the “thinking” person’s head are, by Peterson’s definition, thinking, then how can a disagreement between two non-thinking people be a kind of thinking?

Chapo, by contrast, just uses a lot of words wrong, usually in an attempt to sound sophisticated, much in the manner of an overeager seminar participant. They write, “For a Straussian, endless and aimless struggle against evil is just what the doctor ordered for our hyperindividualized and alienated culture, not to mention a great way to keep military budgets and their pleated trousers swole.” I don’t see what this has to do with Leo Strauss. And “Climate change . . . is the Splash Mountain of teleologies.” That simply isn’t what “teleology” means. They call “We Should Celebrate Tax Day” author Cass Sunstein a “libertarian dipshit.” Perhaps most incomprehensibly, they define “neoliberalism” thusly: “The neo half of the neoliberal idea insists that one can’t interfere with the economy. As in, it’s not possible; science has proven it. It’s a thing outside of human control.” This, of course, is just gibberish.

Lost Boys and False Idols

My best guess about what distinguishes a Peterson lost boy fan from a Chapo failson fan is that the two will tend to have different capacities. Peterson’s cleanliness emphasizes broad, shallow learning, aprioristic thinking, simplicity, symbolism, and sincerity. Chapo’s dirt emphasizes obsessive knowledge of various elements of modern culture (message boards, left-wing politics, film, anime, etc.), social reasoning, clever witticisms, complexity, the concrete, and irony. But Peterson’s logic does not really cohere in Twelve Rules for Life. And The Chapo Guide to Revolution isn’t a remotely clever book.

So what’s the attraction? What explains the intensity of their fans?

I think both groups are looking for an escape from certain strictures on self-expression that seem to constrain them. For both this has to do with what’s considered polite in mainstream liberal circles. Vulgarity, pronouns, certain views, certain tactics—beneath the differences there’s the same longing to be free of choking, false pieties—what Chapo calls the “largely symbolic (and almost always negotiable) progressive cultural agenda” of the Democratic Party. (Though it’s not clear why Chapo cares that it’s negotiable, unless they share the Democrats’ commitment to it.) But behind these pieties the two groups see quite different things. Petersonians tend to see the “chaos” and dynamism of human contact, the up-in-the-air quality of social interactions, which is crushingly difficult to manage without a guiding set of rules. The Chapo types, on the other hand, think it’s precisely “logic, facts, and reason,” the things against which Chapo wrote their manifesto, that underlie this constricting force.

I share their sense of constraint, and their desire to break free. I myself had a brief period a few years ago when I was reading a lot of Jacobin and watching a lot of Ben Shapiro, and I didn’t—and still don’t—see those activities as in any important tension with each other. But these two books have not made their respective cases. If you’re lost, and you get up and start walking, you’re still lost; you’re just at a distance from the place where you were lost before. The forgotten fans of Peterson and Chapo are still forgotten, and, if these books are any measure, their idols soon will be as well.

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