More than a decade ago, when he reviewed Harvard curmudgeon Harvey Mansfield’s book, Manliness, Walter Kirn asked: “In just which far-off galaxy has Mansfield set up his telescope to scrutinize the doings of us earthlings?”
Mansfield’s book, whose port-and-pipesmoke fantasy of masculinity was itself at least four decades out of date, was hopelessly wrong for an era defined by Truck Nutz and George W. Bush declaring “Mission Accomplished” to an audience of hooting cable news hosts. Challenged in an interview with the New York Times' Deborah Solomon to name a manly physical pursuit, Mansfield cited opening jars and moving furniture for his wife. How often did he really move furniture, Solomon pressed. “Not every night,” he replied, “but routinely.”
Mansfield was by no means the first fusty old professor to grouse about female troubles—men like him have been grumbling since before women’s studies made a beachhead at San Diego State in the early '70s. But Manliness was written for a popular audience, and it was one of the earliest salvos in a cottage industry dedicated to saving young males from the ravishments of a culture that had either abandoned genders or created too many, depending on whom you ask. The decade or so since has seen the emergence of a self-proclaimed counterrevolution to the conjoined scourges of gay rights, feminism and preferred pronouns. It includes elbow-patched academics, self-proclaimed men’s rights activists, and the vitamin scammers of the so-called alt-right.
It includes Jordan Peterson.
I thought of Kirn’s question when I took a tentative dip into Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. The first rule is “stand up straight with your shoulders back,” which Peterson’s voluminous videography suggests he obeys only intermittently. The chapter on this first rule begins in a J. Alfred Prufrock mood by comparing humans to lobsters—the manifest complexity of our societies and power politics reduced to the scuttling instincts of arthropods.
Devotees of the pseudoscience of evolutionary psychology are fond of this particular maneuver: locate some behavior in the more ancient branches of the tree of life and project it forward across eons to explain little Johnny pulling little Susie’s pigtails, or the collapse of Lehman Brothers, or the Holocaust, or whatever. In any case, I like to imagine the diaphanous, energy-based extraterrestrials in their invisible starships, so unutterably alien that they gaze upon man and lobster and can’t tell them apart.
A professor of no particular scholarly distinction—his previous book was a mashup of Gladwellian pop-neuroscience and Joseph Campbell’s pop-anthropology—Peterson rose to fame by getting angry about pronouns, and he now gives lectures on manly self-sufficiency to roomfuls of barely post-adolescent boys still smarting from the Sadie Hawkins dance. (Because what is more manly than prissy grammatical prescriptivism?) Imagine if Richard Spencer were ghoulishly spliced with Suzie Orman, and you'll get the idea. Or you could watch one of the dozens of lectures he's posted to YouTube for his frustrated young acolytes.
Peterson’s shtick—as with most vaguely right-wing intellectual output—is to wander the winding garden path before arriving, quite miraculously, at the very point from which he set out. Your prejudices, it appears, are quite correct, and always have been. Men are from Mars, women are from Venus. Stand up straight, breakfast is the most important meal of the day, I cannot tell a lie. The vanguard of the counterrevolution is finally mired in the muck of mere platitude. Groucho Marx said it best: “Well, Art is Art, isn't it? Still, on the other hand, water is water. And east is east and west is west and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does. Now you tell me what you know.”
The media evince an unsurprising willingness, though, to treat Peterson as the firebrand he imagines himself to be—surely he is at least taking a stand against the stultifying conventions of university speech, the excesses of a feminism that turns a cri de coeur like “not all men!” into a pitiable joke about male complicity, the fact that boys are no longer just being boys when they fondle a drunken and unconsenting coed in a dorm room. Their willingness to play along is of a piece with their habit of naming our dumpy president an alpha male, despite the fact that his personal style resembles nothing so much as a particularly trashy episode of Sally Jesse Raphael. Manliness is not a stolid stoicism, but a garrulous foppishness.
Here is a story from my own personal life. The realization that I might be somewhat masculine occurred to me as a sort of torpid eureka while hitting a bong on the spongy couch of the big frame house on North Main Street where I lived with three friends my senior year in college. I will not claim that I had considered myself particularly femme before that, but I would never be confused for an alpha male. I’d been a musical theater kid in high school; I'd done drag, although only once, badly, at a themed party. I hadn’t played a sport since junior high; I did not go to the gym; I was whip-thin and had an arch affect that I’d picked up from movies and plays about an older generation of gay men. But here I was in sweatpants, smoking weed, watching a football game, and getting ready to head across the street to the lot beside the Boys & Girls Club, where we’d play ugly games of pickup basketball.
Because I’d thought of myself as a political radical—a queer political radical—discovering in myself some theretofore unrealized butch-ness felt like it traduced an important principle of my being. (Or, as Peterson would put it, dumbly aping Heidegger, my Being.) It was only exacerbated when, a few years out of school, I bought a cheap house and discovered an affinity for home improvement. It turned out that I could replace the belts on a dryer, solder a pipe joint and replace a ceiling fan. Worse, I rather enjoyed it all. But I still cry at the opera.
I’d happily pit myself in a contest of generic manliness against these exemplars of our particular chromosomal proclivity. I don’t suspect that Jordan Peterson or Harvey Mansfield or our louche and zaftig president could beat me at a foot race or more efficiently install a new shower head, but good god, who cares? Can people not simply like what they like, do what they do? The effortless universal competency our manliest men propose was always a fiction, but let us grant it to them as their ideal. Well, is there anything more effortful, more striving than an itemized list of attitudes, a dreary list of affirmations and affections through which a man can achieve a personal transformation straight out of a coming-of-age high-school movie? It is, far more than any of the attitude policing of the SJWs they claim to combat and despise, the elevation of affect over substance, the superstitious belief that all our hurts will be mended if only we use the right words.
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