Jordan Peterson’s Dangerous Projections on Ukraine and the Perils of Campism

Recently Jordan Peterson wrote an opinion piece for the Daily Wire that has sparked some controversy. Peterson argued that Vladimir Putin was forced into the war with Ukraine in order to prevent ‘degenerate’ US culture from breaching the borders of Russia. ‘The culture war is now truly part of why we have a war [in Ukraine],’ Peterson said. ‘It is certainly the case that we do not, therefore, have all the moral high ground…. In fact, how much of it we have at all is something rightly subject to the most serious debate.’

Why must so many Ukrainians die, according to Peterson? Because Putin fears the West’s culture wars will reach the Russian steppe, penetrating as far as Siberia, but further into the young minds of Russian youth. Is Peterson claiming that Putin is mobilizing his nuclear machinery and threatening world conflagration because of what his friend, Patriarch Kirill, head of the Orthodox Church, fears – gay pride parades? Apparently so. But Peterson is more specific than Kirill – it’s more than just gay parades; it’s also trans rights and gender-neutral pronouns! One can easily see how an independent and democratic Ukraine threatens Putin, but it’s a huge stretch to believe pronouns are the cause of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, even if we consider gender pronouns as representative of Western cultural decline, as does Peterson. It’s more likely that Peterson is batshit crazy when it comes to understanding the war in Ukraine. And that goes for his buddy, Patriarch Kirill, Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church, or the Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia:

Patriarch Kirill said the war is about ‘which side of God humanity will be on’ in the divide between supporters of gay pride events – or the Western governments that allow them – and their opponents in Russian-backed eastern Ukraine. ‘Pride parades are designed to demonstrate that sin is one variation of human behaviour. That’s why in order to join the club of those countries, you have to have a gay pride parade,’ he said in his Forgiveness Sunday sermon. The Russian church leader characterized gay pride parades as a ‘loyalty test’ to Western governments, which Ukraine’s breakaway republics have ‘fundamentally rejected.’ ‘For eight years, there have been attempts to destroy what exists in Donbas,’ Patriarch Kirill said, referring to the region where Kyiv has been at war with the separatist republics since 2014. ‘And, in Donbas, there is a rejection, a fundamental rejection of the so-called values that are offered today by those who claim world power,’ he said. ‘We know that if people or countries reject these demands, they are not part of that world. They become strangers to it.’ Patriarch Kirill painted the Russian invasion of Ukraine in more apocalyptic colours as a conflict ‘far more important than politics.’ ‘If humanity accepts that sin is not a violation of God’s law, if humanity accepts that sin is a variation of human behaviour, then human civilization will end there….’

Clearly, the good Patriarch would not appreciate Bob Dylan’s rendition of ‘With God on Our Side.’ I suppose that would be considered part of the West’s degenerate culture as well.

If Putin is really risking world war over gender pronouns and gay parades, I can imagine that, to assuage his panic, he has directed his armed forces to make sure Studio 54 and the Andy Warhol Museum are his first prime targets, sparing no megatonnage, although he might not realize that Andy Warhol died three and a half decades ago and Studio 54 is a Broadway theatre and no longer a disco nightclub. Perhaps those particular warheads will be personally blessed by the grand Patriarch himself to the tune of the Village People. ‘Little Boy and Fat Man send their greetings, yours truly, Vlad Kirill.’

Perhaps Peterson believes the Maidan Revolution was really orchestrated out of the gay bars in San Francisco’s Castro district. But one thing is certain: Peterson blames ‘degenerate’ US culture for the lives being lost in the war in Ukraine. Never mind the civilian women, children and men maimed and tortured and dumped into a ravine by the Russian army. Never mind the children blown apart in hospitals and schools. The war in Ukraine makes sense, according to Peterson, because Putin’s greatest fear is gay bars coming to Moscow, and he only wants to protect his people. The war, in other words, is all about Peterson’s personal phobias. It’s all about his pet peeves – gender pronouns – proving once again that the narcissistic obsession this toxic transphobe has with gender knows no rational bounds. The moment when Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson was unable to answer, ‘What is a woman,’ when asked during her confirmation hearing in March, was, for Peterson, emblematic of the unyielding reach of the culture wars. In an era when it’s apparently okay for the Supreme Court to eviscerate women’s control over their bodies in overturning Roe vs. Wade, it doesn’t surprise me that the J. Edgar Hoover of the Canadian gender police identifies the first Black female Supreme Justice as initiating a historical moment equivalent to that of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie being shot to death by a Bosnian Serb nationalist in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, thereby starting a chain of events that led to World War 1. What an early accomplishment for Justice Brown! She is the flashpoint for what could end up becoming World War III. Thank you for pointing that out, Professor Peterson. But, for some reason, I don’t think this is going to pass muster with the historians, at least the good ones who are reluctant to replace the temporal narratives of our political unconscious with the tyranny of the sign. You would think that Peterson, a psychology professor, would know enough about the theory of projection to do a little self-diagnosis. One would think that being the first Black female Supreme Court Justice would have given Justice Brown enough to deal with. Now she is having to take responsibility for the possible end of the world.

I suppose that, in Peterson’s imagination, he believes that Putin is shuddering, coiled beneath his white-topped oval table made from a single 20-foot-long sheet of beech wood (all the better to protect himself from a parade of ‘otters’ that might make it past the Kremlin’s ceremonial guards watching over the long golden doors of the Grand Kremlin Palace), obsessing that a Russian version of transgender star Elliot Page might appear any moment as a newscaster on Channel One Russia, fomenting a tidal wave of degenerate Western ideology, perhaps spurring on the gayification of Russian culture, even transforming state-controlled media into a Russian variant of the ‘woke’ regime media such as MSNBC. Can you believe how threatening a Russian version of ‘Morning Joe’ would be to public morality? Please!

I suppose that for Peterson, all this paranoia on the part of Putin justifies Putin’s unleashing hell and fury against Ukraine, friend of Babylon. ‘Ivor, start targeting those ICBMs immediately over West Hollywood!’ David French puts it this way:

A clash over whether to use the word woman or a person with the capacity for pregnancy is a moral and philosophical dispute that can be mediated through the instruments of liberal democracy. A Russian cruise missile launched into an apartment building, by contrast, represents a truly different order of depravity. A nation or culture does not have to be perfect to be right, and make no mistake – in the clash between the war criminal in the Kremlin and Ukraine and its NATO allies – the true moral high ground could not be more clear.

This, of course, does not absolve the US and NATO in its shift to the East. I am fully aware of how Putin and his administration worry about US attempts to weaken Russia further. But it is striking and disturbing what excuses North Americans, including scholars and activists on the left, offer up in the cause of justifying Putin’s war. Americans, for example, are joining the Russian Orthodox Church precisely because they agree with Putin’s attacks on democracy and his anti-LGBTQ laws and his strongman persona.

And speaking of strongmen at war with democracy, let’s not forget that white evangelical Christians have thrown their lot in with a former fist-pumping POTUS who ‘publicly admires despots, tyrants and other authoritarian leaders who kill their enemies and take away the rights of anyone who oppose them.’ In this way, they have shown their true face. What can we say about a frenetic allegiance to a man whom ‘[m]ental health professionals have repeatedly warned … is likely a sociopath with an erotic attraction to violence and mayhem.’ This is a man who is touted by none other than Tucker Carlson, who has created ‘the most racist show in the history of cable news’ that is gleefully watched by millions of Americans. Holding the country’s progressive democracy in contempt, a form of governance preserved since the days of its blood-soaked independence from England, its far-right custodians are shamelessly ripping the scabs from festering old wounds in the hope of stirring up a race war, taking it down the same road to perdition it has yearned to escape since the days of slavery. Trump and his fawning, infantilized sycophants, his glad-handing, back-slapping buffoons, are behaving not unlike Hitler’s top brass circle of Borman, Goring, Himmler, Goebbels, and Speer at their apogee of obsequiousness in the late 1930s, as these goose-stepping lickspittles sought to curry favour with their leader, trying to upstage the other with extravagant gestures to prove who was the most loyal servant (Ted Cruz certainly comes to mind as the most cartoonishly servile). That they refuse to denounce Trump’s many clarion calls for violenceand his brutish extolment of racism means that they are ‘all in’ for white rule and its fraught political calculations. It has been the dream of white people on the far right for generations to roll back taxes on the rich and to control the Supreme Court. Thanks in part to Trump, they have achieved their goal of reversing the civil rights victories of the 20th and 21st centuries won by Black and brown people, women, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities and other marginalized groups. Evangelical Christianity and the cult of Trump have certainly been complicitous in such a catastrophic victory. I left my evangelical Christian church in Toronto, Canada, at age seventeen, the day my pastor gave a sermon proclaiming that Adolf Hitler would have gone to heaven had he sincerely repented for his crimes and accepted Jesus Christ as his personal lord and saviour. Yet the millions of Jews and others that he had enslaved and executed, he declared, were suffering in hell for eternity unless, of course, they also had accepted Jesus as their personal saviour.

The term ‘legacy Americans’ used by Tucker Carlson is telling. It’s a deeply racist catchphrase or buzzword in his discussion of race that attempts to make white supremacy seem more respectable, a term that is meant to signify the inverse of ethnopluralism, or what the Proud Boys gleefully champion as ‘the Spirit of Western Chauvinism.’ What sounds like an Ivy League term to some is nothing more than a toe rag Barnumesque idea resplendently reserved for a deeply racist hellhound pursuing white America. For White MAGA Christians, ultracrepidarians when it comes to racism, Christianity is the sole preserve of ‘legacy Americans,’ whose DNA can be found in the primeval issue of their Anglo-European forebears, including all of their descendants and offspring whose spawn has been deposited in the swamp of settler colonialism that white Christianity is trying to transform into a cesspool of historical amnesia. It doesn’t want ‘we the people’ to be taught the truth: that legacy Americans settled the land which they stole from first nations peoples, whom they came close to exterminating, and then forcibly brought Africans across the Atlantic as slaves to work their cotton plantations. Which is why the creation of a legacy White God whose symbolism makes clear who is at the top of the racial hierarchy is so important for evangelical white Christians. This truth can be found in the words proclaimed by Trump’s MAGA crowd: ‘We may be poor and hungry, but at least we’re White’! Seems like this is the side of the US culture wars that Putin hopes will emerge victorious. And I am sure Patriarch Kirill is all smiles each time a Lauren Boebert or Margorie Taylor Greene sounds off.

While I support Ukraine against Russian colonial domination, since the national question should always be front and centre, I do not support US/NATO efforts to participate in intra-imperialist rivalry by weakening Russia. Nor do I support the neoliberal Ukrainian government, propped up by oligarchs. Rather, my support lies with the self-determination and struggle for national independence of the people of Ukraine. Marxist humanists rightly point out that the practice of campism – the notion that leftists should support any state power or force opposed to the US or NATO – is now dangerously afoot but must be rejected. The right of peoples to their national self-determination must be protected by all forces on the left. For this reason, I stand with the people of Ukraine against the Russian behemoth’s punitive irruption into history, a nationalist regime that supports far-right organizations all over Europe and beyond. I stand with the people of Ukraine and especially those who are trying to foster new, non-alienating human relations in the struggle for socialism.

Peterson’s attack on US culture points to the moral wreckage wrought by campism, by condemning anything that could, however remotely and unproven, be associated with American and Western imperialism or culture. And we should recognize those ‘campist’ journalists for their moral complicity with Russian aggression. And I am saying this as someone who has fiercely criticized Western imperialism for over thirty years. As Schulman and La Botz maintain in their important article against campism in Socialist Forum, socialists that include Karl Marx, Eugene Debs, Rosa Luxemburg and C.L.R. James had always foregrounded that workers in each country should support those in another in their struggles for democracy and social justice. Support for Ukraine in the spirit of international working class solidarity and democratic socialist internationalism roundly rejects the inverted nationalism of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend.’

Putin may well abhor ‘woke’ American culture for the same reasons Margorie Taylor Greene (who advocates a blood-and-soil Christian nationalism) despises it. Or Jordan Peterson. Peterson may resent Elliot Page for showing off his abs, and Putin might be jealous, but believing that Ukraine deserves to be destroyed for its own good and the good of Russia over this IS both wrong-headed and a dangerous form of lexical opportunism masked as profound and complicated thought.

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Full Citation Information:
McLaren, P. (2022). Jordan Peterson’s Dangerous Projections on Ukraine and the Perils of Campism. PESA Agora.

Peter McLaren

Peter McLaren is Emeritus Professor at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles. From 2013-2023 he served as Distinguished Professor in Critical Studies, Co-Director and International Ambassador for Global Ethics and Social Justice, The Paulo Freire Democratic Project, Attallah College of Educational Studies, Chapman University, USA.