You will forgive me if today I am not quite up to writing a particularly detailed blog post. Everyone in my household has come down with a cold, and I feel terrible. The cold has merged seamlessly into my spring allergies, and I am basically using all of my remaining energy staying awake and getting work done. It has not been the nicest of weekends. While I am starting to feel better today, I am looking forward to finally getting over the congestion, sneezing, coughing, and general crummy feeling.
It’s a truism that when a cultural extremist starts ranting long enough, eventually he will reveal a belief in some bizarre fringe history claim. It was no different with Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist who masquerades as a culture critic and philosopher. Peterson rose to prominence over the past few years as a darling of the alt-right, the men’s rights movement, disaffected white men in general, and conservatives. (Peterson claims that while he is against the “radical left,” his is a classical liberal rather than a conservative, though the distinction is slight. Classical liberalism is basically conservatism with even less concern for social justice, or libertarianism with less concern for equality. It’s individualism raised to all-encompassing ideology.) Anyway, Peterson is famous for his masculinist opinions, mouthing alt-right bromides about the evils of diversity, why women should be happy to be housewives, and currently trendy views about providing men with wives by reinforcing a culture of normative monogamy to prevent men from becoming sex-crazed and lashing out with violence. Society, it seems, is strong enough to shape the values of its members when it comes to sex, but not strong enough to shape their views of violence. If it weren’t for the fact that Peterson is Canadian, I’d have said that it was a quintessentially American view of the social contract. He is the kind of person who decorates his house with violent Soviet propaganda to keep himself in a constant state of rage.
Peterson holds a number of unconventional views that go beyond the standard conservative / alt-right set of ideas. He, for example, imagines that myths and legends are rooted in sexual frustration, adopting a Freudian reading that went out of fashion fifty years ago, even if he frames it in terms of his preferred Jungian archetypes—themselves a relic of the past century.
“It makes sense that a witch lives in a swamp. Yeah,” [Peterson] says. “Why?”
He’s trying to say that witches are evil women who live in nasty, swampy, wet vaginas, while impotent old kings live in shriveled penises. Let’s leave aside the fact that in myth witches are not associated exclusively with swamps nor kings with towers—his knowledge of myth rarely goes beyond a modern encyclopedia overview. When he says witches are “real” he means that the myths symbolize dark cultural fears that have power. He just places all that power in an utter panic about not getting enough sex. No wonder disempowered men and misogynists are drawn to his interpretation of myth. His mind must do contortions to explain away Hermaphrodite, Tiersias, Iphis, and other gender-fluid figures. It’s probably also worth noting that Greek mythology and Greek culture were also fairly lax on the idea that men should rely only on women for sex.
The reason for his love of myth is in his biography, as such ideas often are. Peterson began life as a devout Christian and claims to have been driven to the brink of suicide when he lost his faith. He turned therefore to Carl Jung, whose dumbest ideas seized Peterson’s adolescent mind, and which he has never outgrown. He became obsessed with myths and legends, as Jung had been, and tried to discover the path to enlightenment through comparative mythology. Needless to say, he is a fan of Joseph Campbell. But unlike Jung and Campbell, who at least respected the humanity behind the stories, Peterson sought magic not in the meaning of myth but in the social values fossilized in them. Thus, for him, the fear of dragons and of witches is more important than the hero’s quest, because they speak to imagined social values that threaten the (performatively male) protagonist and which must be overcome. Comparative mythologists from the middle twentieth century were rightists because they wanted to find a new grounding for tradition in a world where old certainties had been undermined by science. Peterson debases them still further by purposely looking for the most negative parts of myth and foregrounding them as justification for conservative, reactionary, or regressive social policies. But myth is neither liberal nor conservative and does not map neatly onto contemporary political positions.
Peterson shares a lot with the fringe. He likes to cite out of date research from fifty, sixty, or seventy years ago—the heyday of bad ideas. He communicates mostly through YouTube videos and media appearances, and he has a rabid fan-base of true believers. And it turns out that he also believes that ancient people had secret knowledge of the DNA double helix, which they encoded in myths of entwined serpents. “I really do believe this, although it’s very complicated to explain why. I really believe that’s a representation of DNA. That representation, that entwined double-helix—that’s everywhere,” Peterson said in a lecture.
It’s not that hard to believe. He got it out of the crappy books of fake mythology born from Carl Jung’s efforts to rehabilitate mythology for the age of science. [Update: The hazards of writing while sick; I missed his reference to getting the claim from Jeremy Narby's The Cosmic Serpent, about which, the less said the better.] Dozens of fringe authors, many referencing Jung, have compared entwined serpents to the DNA double helix, as did Ancient Aliens on more than one occasion. Offhand, Ancient Aliens and its In Search of Aliens spinoff are the most prominent places I can think of where this claim has appeared, though a literature search suggests that it was briefly mentioned in some fringe books and books about Jung. None of these people have apparently ever studied snakes, who actually do entwine. When the ancients depicted lovers as having entwined serpent tails, they were referencing the reality of snake behavior, not the shape of DNA.
But this raises a disturbing question: What does this guru of the regressive part of North American culture actually think happened in the wonderful past when men were men, and every man’s kitchen had a woman to stock it with sandwiches? How does he think ancient humans understood the DNA double helix? There are only a few possibilities—aliens, Atlantis, time travel, suppressed history. Which does he believe in, and why do conservatives think that fringe history can somehow unlock a key to marrying science and traditional social hierarchies by fantasizing a “great” civilization that had high technology, a relationship with the gods, and inflexible social hierarchies?
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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