Prophet Booms and Busts, From Rajineeshee to Peterson
Every age produced prophets who tell us to trust our dreams, promise salvation, the meaning of life, and the purpose of existence. Jonah, Amos and Hosea in Israel, Joel, Isaiah, Micah, and Habakkuk in Judah along with other biblical prophets like Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel wrote their prophecies.
In modern times, L. Ronald Hubbard wrote a book titled Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health and went on to found Scientology. Hubbard followed an ancient tradition. Kahlil Gibran went straight to the point in his book titled The Prophet. If you go to Goodreads, you will find a list of writer/prophets from Rabindranath Tagore to Thich Nhat Hanh. In the 1960s and 1970s proselytizing prophets included big names like Alan Watts, Terrance McKenna, and Timothy Leary. The point is there has never been a shortage of prophets writing books about their vision of existence, suffering and death and offering a pathway to salvation. In the 1980s Bhagwan Rajneeshee’s sermons were recorded and shared among the faithful. We should check the daily chart of prophets like we check the weather or stock market. A prophets’ fate fluctuates, with booms and busts, ups and downs, and roller coaster rides that aren’t for the faint of heart.
We are living through a prophet boom period. Reports like “The Intellectual Dark Web,” explained: what Jordan Peterson has in common with the alt-right by Henry Farrell place Jordan Peterson alongside of Sam Harris and Dave Rubin. These dark prophets are making a very good living as cultural contrarians. Like most inflated markets, this one will also go bust. If you could short this kind of prophet market, you make a pretty penny. Let’s have a closer look at the prophet who currently occupies the number one slot on the Dark Prophet Market (DPM).
He is University of Toronto psychology professor, Jordan Peterson. He is in the tradition of prophets who appear to have distilled the truth about the meaning of life from psychology, history, literature, philosophy, and social biology. His prophecies have capitalized on the alienation of young western white males and the community building capacity of the Internet and social media.
Prophets share a number of common characteristics and one of the central ones is their unwavering, absolute belief that they have discovered and are revealing the truth. Not an approximation of the truth. But the absolute truth. Doubt or uncertainty isn’t part of the prophet’s toolkit. The irony is Peterson’s conflating the entire left as a monolithic hive mind intent on establishing a totalitarian state. Nathan J. Robinson makes this very point in his Current Affairs “Two Way of Responding to Conservatives,” (2018).
To Peterson, there is no possibility that the left (like the right) is a wide spectrum of political positions and beliefs. Concentrating on the extremes or fringes of the left or right is cherry picking of the most dishonest kind. A genuine analysis and inquiry requires a nuance of thinking to nagivate often contradictory ideas and positions. And Peterson did acquire his number one rank on the DPM for engaging in such subtlety. Inside this self-selected manufactured world, the conflict—life and death of course as nothing else is dark enough—is a secular death match between two absolutist positions on political, economic and social life. They can’t be both right. With Peterson you feel his passion. He really believes the left is the cause of the problem that is on principle wrong, dangerous and like any infection must be stopped. Peterson has the blueprint for its replacement. In his worldview, you stick with this binary choice: Peterson’s way or the way of gulag with the leftist gatekeepers who are currently disguised as academics. It is this vile fifth force that must be defeated. Enough people (mainly young white males) have signed on to Peterson’s battle wagon.
There has been criticism that Peterson has been a lightning rod for disaffected youth. He winds them up into an adoring mob who protect him like the Queen bee who is the only purpose for all other bees in the life of the hive. Every writer wishes for such a devoted, fanatical and loyal audience. Peterson has gathered his fold into something not unlike Scientology. Let’s call it the Peterson’s Movement—which echoes science, sound secular, and promises sexual access. The promise, the ambition is to ‘liberate’ the oppressed male from the cultural slavery of the Left. Like Moses, Peterson, is parting the red sea of left-wing ideology and offering them a safe haven. All a disciple is required to do is to follow his 12 rules like stand up straight, shoulders back. Be precise in your speech. Tell the truth. Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world. Here is a prophet who believes in and preaches ‘perfect order’ as an attainable goal. Keep that idea in mind and ask yourself what kind of mind believes that is even remotely possible? His philosophy has a structural precondition much like a Soviet Refrigerator Factory. You report to the big boss anything less than perfect order. For someone who rails against the left, he has a couple of things to put in order himself. Prophets are often bundles of contradiction and their believers and the faithful don’t let minor details bother them.
The thing about the high fliers on DPM isn’t so much their ‘intellectual’ or ‘philosophical’ positions which often sounds vaguely at the NRA level of response to the latest American school mass murder event; it is their audience. Not enough attention is being paid to understanding what is going on in a culture that has allowed the DPM bubble to inflate to this level. Remember those fixed-income instruments that carried credit ratings of BB or lower but everyone said they were safe and the real estate value would never drop but continue onward and upward with no end in sight? In the case of our prophets we entered what is the late 2007 stage, that window of time before the DPM crashes. A time when it appears nothing can touch the unstoppable upward trend. Cultural gravity works like ordinary gravity. Toss the ball or idea in the air and sooner or later it comes back to earth.
If you want to understand the message of a prophet examine the beliefs instilled in his investors or, if you like, his followers. Prophets, like bond salesman, seduce their customers. It is an art. Peterson’s is a seducer of youth on a grand scale. Long before Peterson came along, another serial seducer of youth was Socrates. But there is a big difference between Peterson and Socrates. The youth of Athens flocked to hear Socrates. Same hold for Peterson. Fans line up for hours to hear him speak. In ancient Greece, the youth didn’t need tickets and probably had no reason to queue in order to hear Socrates speak. That’s the only way the youth could receive Socrates ideas—listen to his oratory and ask him questions. Socrates told them he was ignorant of the world and that’s why he asked questions. The more he asked, the more ignorant he felt, and he didn’t understand how others could be so sure of what they knew. Socrates shrugged his shoulders at this state of affairs. He wrote no books. He made no YouTube videos. He didn’t appear on any high profile TV shows, newspapers and magazines, and blogs.
There is one other difference—Socrates taught the youth of Athens the importance of doubt, the role of uncertainty, the nature of ambiguity and complexity. The leadership of Athens were threatened by such a radical idea that they or their policies could be flawed, incomplete or in error. Socratic empowerment was to disembowel the absolutists by planting the worm of doubt into the minds of youth. He believed in a basic equality of ignorance. Those who felt they knew were the most dangerous of the lot. As ignorance causes more suffering and harm than those under the delusion they have discovered the secret, lost knowledge. Peterson believes he has discovered that secret and he wants to share it with you. That resolute, determined need to convince you, persuade you, makes him an activist. Socrates made inquiries as to whether something was true or false. He didn’t pursue an agenda. Peterson is from a long-line of absolutists advancing an alternative set of core values and norms for everyone, believers and non-believers. His purpose to annihilate the existing leftist, totalitarian value and normative structure that suffocates the true nature of men. In this struggle between the forces of good and evil, Peterson is growing a large international army of volunteers.
A number of articles have been written to say Peterson is dangerous. Socrates was thought to be dangerous, too. I believe too much weight is placed on the Prophet Peterson and not enough on the circumstances that has allowed for such a meteoric rise. The same mistake is made with Trump. Both men are taking advantage of an untapped market to sell their ideas like shares. Junk shares like junk ideas don’t deter buyers who are looking for a deal.
Trump and Peterson are not so much dangerous as we think of that word but more of a distraction for why there is such a high market demand for an idea product based on a series of assumption that holds like the cartoon character Wile E. Coyote who keeps on going beyond the edge of a cliff. It’s only when he looks down that gravity takes over. Socrates, on the other hand, s path. We live in a dynamic world of interconnected problems—war, famine, diseases, scarce resources, inequalities, climate change, and rapidly evolving technology. This is a hard world to comprehend. We try to fit the pieces of the puzzle together with what basic information that is available to non-experts. Along comes Jordon Peterson who confidently tells anyone who listens that he’s found the solution.
Peterson has figured out how all those moving parts are connected, how they work, where there are problems, and he sums it up: it is the radical left who are making a mess of things. That all anyone needs to do is to follow his path. This kind of absolutist thinking promoted by Peterson has a political counterpart in the elected leaders from the United States to Russia, Turkey, the Philippines, Hungary, Poland among others. Peterson is a spiritual populist. The new orthodox church of disaffected males looking for guidance, demanding answers, and searching for a prophet.
The fallout from Peterson’s interview with Cathy Newman has been widely reported. Peterson’s followers, not unlike the cult in Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country mobilized in a hate campaign launched against Newman. Though Peterson appears to fill out his dance card more like Ma Anand Sheela than Bhagwan Rajneeshee. Newman’s interview couldn’t have gone better for Peterson who appeared calm, centered, and reasonable while the wheels came off Newman’s wagon as she flew off the cliff into a low-grade hysteria. If you are a prophet, your best hope is for a Newman-type interview to validate you as a truth seeker, a truth finder, a truth guarantor patiently as a series of wild punches fail to do any damage. Newman paid a price for her questioning which Peterson handled with a detached sense of rationality. She underestimated him, and that was exactly the wrong way to handle Peterson. But it was too late, and rather than adjusting course, she continued to blast away with Peterson playing the part of Superman let every verbal bullet bounced off his chest.
You can see her interview with Peterson here.
Cathy Newman was vilified and threatened with physical harm by members of Peterson’s tight pack of followers. They seem to have the equivalent of their Ma Anand Sheela personalities. She took on a small town in Oregon. They are taking on millions worldwide. That’s a globalization of prophecy that took most religions centuries to match. The emotional level reached lynch mob proportions until Peterson intervened and called the prophet equivalent of an emergency AGM of his shareholders and asked them to back off with their threats. The Prophet had spoken and the congregation ended. The threats wound down. Though Newman apparently maintains a security detail finding herself like a Russian who got on the wrong side of Putin. The incident indicates that a kind of religious faith had infected the young men in Peterson’s flock. Peterson had given them an identity and in the time of identity politics and change, the challenge to identity ignites calls for violence against someone testing the materials from which that identity is formed. The Newman lesson for posterity: never underestimate a prophet especially if he’s leading a global prophecy movement.
Like Dr. Frankenstein, Peterson discovered it was hard to control the monster once it has life and walks the streets. The first rule of a prophet is to seduce followers with an identity that appears to give them hope, dignity, and community. The second rule is the prophet must seduce himself. The faith he teaches must be the faith he believes in and is willing to die on a cross for. Peterson may fare out before he finds that cross. I once saw a video where Peterson said the international exposure and fame had caught him by surprise. He saw himself riding a 100-foot wave and that sooner or later that wave would crash. Meanwhile, he planned to hang ten toes and ride it as far as he could. Afterwards he didn’t know what would happen. Perhaps his most valuable prophecy is to understand that no prophet rides the big wave forever.
I also know that other peoples’ prophets are conman, charlatans, and game show hosts on the 24-hour meaning of life game show channel.
They plea, they bargain, they offer solace, hope and meaning. If you have suffered the usual whiplash of life, this is what the doctor called for. All you’ve got to do to join the church is believe in the gospel. In the case of other peoples’ prophets, we see through them, view them with contempt and make fun of the gullibility of his followers. We feel sorry for them and write them off as delusional fools beyond reach. That rejection only adds to their resentment. A community finds coherence in the attacks by non-members. It rarely causes any soul-searching of their prophet’s commands or rules. Much of what we want in life is beyond our control. Peterson succeeds by tapping into the resentment of white young males. The reality is the world has become more challenging for white young males. Sharing privileges is not something any group is happy to do.
In the West we live in a manufactured reality that promises that if you stand up straight, get your act together, follow the rules, you will get the seat at the table you deserve. Otherwise, you stand outside in the rain and look through the window as others are invited inside. Peterson isn’t responsible for that lie. But he believes his truth will deliver his believers. That’s sad. Because it only compounds the lie. It kicks the can down the road. No one tells the young white men that they were born to stand in a queue that stretches to the horizon. They believed they were entitled to a place in the big show called life. Like casting in a film. The reality is the queue is longer for women and always has been. The same for blacks, gays, and other minority groups bunched together at the back of the queue.
Young white men believe they’d been promised a part, if not a talking part, at least they’d get called to be an extra