"IF YOU THINK tough men are dangerous," University of Toronto psychologist and overnight YouTube superstar Jordan Peterson writes in his new book, "wait until you see what weak men are capable of." It's a warning shot for would-be social engineers trying to defang maleness and for Peterson's startlingly large audience of young dudes teetering on the edge of nihilism. Perhaps it is also a subconscious caution to the author himself.
January 2018 was the month Jordan Peterson went from unknown to inescapable. The two reasons for that were a Channel 4 News (U.K.) exchange that went viral after an increasingly hostile and flustered female interviewer failed to hang an unflappable Peterson as a misogynist, and then the appearance one week later of his 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Random House Canada), which immediately shot up bestseller lists throughout the English-speaking world. "He has skyrocketed from relative obscurity to international celebrity in a couple of weeks," Psychology Today noted with wonder.
As befits a lecturer fixated on the "tightrope" between chaos and order, good and evil, yin and yang, "the Jordan Peterson moment" (so christened by New York Times columnist David Brooks) has produced an almost perfectly polarized response. Celeb psychologist Jonathan Haidt called Peterson "one of the few fearless professors"; Houman Barekat in the L.A. Review of Books deemed him a peddler of "toxic masculinity" and "reactionary chauvinism." He is "the most important and influential Canadian thinker since Marshall McLuhan" (Camille Paglia), or an "an intellectual fraud who uses a lot of words to say almost nothing" (Nathan J. Robinson).
What is indisputable--and what makes the Peterson pop phenomenon more interesting than the quality of his work--is the way it has galvanized a generation of wayward young men, including many who have clustered around the "alt-right." The numbers are staggering, and vaulting upward by the minute: As of early April, there were 49 million views of his YouTube videos, 1,008,000 subscribers to his channel (plus 584,000 Twitter and 256,000 Facebook followers), and, most impressively, an estimated $90,000 a month donated to his account on the crowdfunding site Patreon. By Peterson's own reckoning, the solid majority of his sold-out audiences on the lecture circuit are males between the ages of 20 and 35; their gratitude for his "grow the hell up" message has moved the man to tears on several public occasions.
Peterson self-identifies as a classical liberal, frequently retweets content from the Cato Institute, and forthrightly criticizes the alt-right for playing the "collectivist game" of identity politics. Yet he's a lightning rod among libertarians too. I first became aware of the psychologist last fall when his name came up serially at a private gathering of libertarian activists anxious about the real and perceived overlap between their world and the reactionary right. One participant counseled keeping Peterson at arm's length, lest "we end up with another cult-leader libertarian." Taking the opposite view at the website Being Libertarian was Adam Barsouk, who argued that "Peterson is able to do something no libertarian commentator before him could: he can argue that a freer, less coddled way of life is not just ethical, but also adaptive, better for humanity as a whole."
Peterson's popularity has demonstrated the happy fact that you can reach illiberal ears with a message that contains some classical liberal content. But he has gotten there not via persuasive argument about intellectual ideas but through the top-down, teacher-student, authoritarian exhortations of self-help. Playing Pied Piper for a lost generation of leftybaiting edgelords has...